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Spring is already in the air

Outdoor Living

WINTER ARDOUR Mallard drakes are in their prime, and frisky, in December.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

I had taken James to Cong, where we watched Lough Corrib brown trout chasing about the spawning gravels and took note of shoals of salmon waiting their turn at the redds. A night or two of sub-zero temperatures will get them in the mood and if we are lucky we shall see some of the bigger fish in action. For the time being we walked around the village, taking time to stare into every suitable stretch of water until we were satisfied as to what lay within.
At the bottom of the village ducks hold sway, and as always the males outnumber the females by more than two to one. December sees the mallard drakes in their prime, with pristine plumage and plenty of activity as they seek to assert dominance over each other. There seems to be no real pecking order, with chasing and confrontation completely random and every one of the assembly keen to stake his claim.
The females have little say in the matter. They feign disinterest and busy themselves with upending for waterweed and invertebrates. When one of the more amorous males approaches they paddle away. If one should make his intentions too clear, which is already beginning to happen at this early season, the reluctant duck sets up a clamour, flaps her wings and flees the scene, though taking care not to move too far lest she should lose her suitor to one of her girlfriends.
On a windy, rain-filled day the ardour of the drakes will be somewhat cooled. Bring that breeze back from the south, however, and they’ll be swinging into action once more, and  with renewed zeal. And so it is that even as the year draws to its conclusion seeds are being sown for new beginnings, both with salmon and trout beneath the surface and the mallard above it, or in it, or alongside on the path or in the bushes. They aren’t fussy.
The semi-domesticated ducks that decorate the river in Cong are barely distinguishable from their wild cousins that we see on the lake. The main difference is in temperament. While those that are used to being fed with handfuls of bread and porridge oats are more than tolerant of people, the truly wild mallard is a different creature, one that, should we approach within a hundred paces or so, takes to the air immediately and quickly puts himself beyond the range of any prospective shotgun blast. Not that I like to shoot them – but I know a man, or men, that would, given half a chance and the notion that no one was watching.
The wind had gathered most of the ducks on the lake and brought them to drift up and down the shallows in the shelter of our small bay while waiting for better weather. Here, 90 percent of the mallard appear to be male, which perhaps demonstrates a difference in behaviour between those habituated and tolerant of people and these wildlings, among whom there is little inclination toward courtship at present.
I tried to count them, and became so engrossed that I took little note of the large number of snipe that took to the air until most of these had dispersed. Only a few made a short half circle as if to return to their place in the sedge-filled fen. Even these changed their mind, and at the same moment they turned away most of the ducks took to the air together.
The snipe uttered their short, sharp cries and the mallard trailed their own wild calls behind them as a Hen harrier swept swift and low on broad wings, keeping just land side of the water’s edge.
On reaching the trees it performed an upward arc and turned back as if to continue coursing, but changed its mind and disappeared to the north and east, where many acres of marshy ground might provide good hunting.
Several times I had caught a glimpse of this bird, if it is the same one, without knowing for sure what it was. Now there was no mistaking it; ginger-brown and darkly barred, with that tell-tale, bright white rump that belongs to no other raptor, this is one of the rarest of our birds. Hen harrier numbers are following a downward trend, for reasons that are not entirely clear.
But we have one, at least. We hardly know where to look next, for fear something should be missed.