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A commotion of coots

Outdoor Living

FIGHTING FIT The ordinarily mild-mannered coot turns hot-headed and spiritedly competitive come the spring.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Although the hour after dawn was rather cold we were able to find shelter from the damp breeze, doing so beneath the pines that struggle to live along the waters edge. We stood among straggling, knee-high birch where we had a good view of the lake and the wildfowl that had gathered inside the arc of reeds, where the wind couldn’t reach them.
They had woken me repeatedly through the night, making such a commotion that I wondered what might be going on, so at first light I called James and together we made the short trek through the woods at Kiltoom to see for ourselves.
A raft of duck, mostly tufties, I thought, together with a few goldeneye and gadwall, sidled away at our approach. The male tufted duck are coming into their prime, crisply coloured black and white, with that purple-blue metallic sheen of spring. This is just their winter home; in another week or two they will disperse, some to other parts of Carra to find refuge among breeding gulls, others to new waters nearby or even in far-off lands.
The ducks certainly weren’t the culprits. No, I knew that even before I sat down to breakfast. It was coots, those feisty, warrior birds that even now are laying claim to various territories.
Through the autumn and early winter these strange-looking water birds congregate peacefully, sometimes in large numbers. To watch them then, as they dive for scraps of weed and various other water life, is interesting enough. They commune gracefully, giving way to each other, a little aloof perhaps, but in no way confrontational – until the slightly longer days begin to inflame their passions and put a little heat in their blood.
They also disappeared into the reeds to hide. I knew they wouldn’t stay there many minutes, and as long as we kept still they would soon forget about us and get back to the important business of seeing who was boss.
The fighting started somewhere out of sight, as a noisy eruption of shrill calls together with a thrashing of wings on water. Another pair joined battle slightly closer, and their actions brought them into open water and into clear view. Suddenly emboldened, more and more birds came from all around to join the squabble, half flying and half running across the surface of the lake to pitch into the melee. What were there – twenty birds? It was impossible to tell.
This free-for-all gradually assumed a less chaotic order as twos and threes fell away to settle personal grievances, and as we stood motionless they slowly worked their way toward us, as if we weren’t there at all, and for the first time ever I was able to watch them do battle in close up.
When two of the flock came face to face they raised their wings above their backs in tent-like fashion, perhaps to accentuate their size and intimidate their opponent. Manoeuvring with their feet, they shuffled for position with heads up and white beaks agape. A sudden and instantaneous movement of the wings lifted each bird clear of the water and the long, green legs of each reached out to grapple with the thighs of the other. Wings clapped, broad feet thrashed and clawed, sending feathers flying, and angry cries filled the air.
One bird gained the ascendancy, grasping the thigh of its opponent with one foot and the chest with the other, forcing it onto its back and beneath the surface, at which point the sharp bill was brought into action and it seemed that a fatal blow might be struck.
A third coot came to the rescue and charged in violently to bring the initial dispute to a finish, at which the underwater bird righted itself with a shake and rejoined the battle, its red eyes positively flaming.
Suddenly there were fights all around. Birds moved from quarrel to quarrel, seemingly at random. Nobody knew who was fighting who, nor did they care. It was an angry, all-out war, one that had been building for a week, that had continued all night, and that looked set to last the day.
Although the small bay was littered with torn feathers not one of the birds appeared to be hurt in the slightest. Rather, they continued to engage in fresh combat with vigorous zeal until we tired of watching.
I hear them even now, from my kitchen window. The best place to see them? Cushlough, Lough Mask, where you can park by the waters edge. Is it worth the trouble? Most definitely, yes.