Free spirits and frog spawn

Outdoor Living

AMPHIBIAN ANTICS One of the inquisitive but jumpy frogs in John Shelley’s small pond. Pic: John Shelley

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

I was woken before dawn by the weighty laughter of a pair of ravens at play, and watched them, black shapes in grey light, from the window while waiting for coffee to brew. They were a pair; that much was obvious.
We don’t often see the fun-loving free spirit that fires these fine birds. They have a grim reputation as the stealers of eyes and tongues of mountain sheep when these find their fleece entangled in briars or barbed wire, or even by the thorns of the hedge which had promised shelter through another stormy night. Ravens even followed armies onto the battlefields of history to glut upon the slain. They grimly reap where they do not sow.
Yet how could we describe the joy evident in the aerial dance of this pair? I can only tell it as it was. Both birds were low to the ground when I saw them first, flying in tight circles and uttering soft croaks, each of which calls seemed to hang in the air until another pushed its predecessor aside.
The birds spiralled upward, managing to do so with only an occasional thrust of powerful wings, and as they rose the distance between them grew greater. When they reached such a height they were no longer visible I went out into a surprisingly warm dawn to find them again, and when I did they were performing graceful figure-of-eights, swooping toward each other at speed and turning aside a split second before a collision appeared inevitable.
I knew what must follow and stayed to watch, and sure enough, when I thought they must inevitably disappear into the high cloud, first one and then the other came hurtling to the ground. I have seen this before, though only at a distance. Now I could hear feathers ripping the wind and the dramatic whoosh as each bird pulled out of its dive with only a few feet to spare. And they laughed, and did the same again, finding delight in their courtship and their sport.
As the light increased they took themselves away over the woods, leaving me suddenly aware of other birds, thrushes, finches and tits, all trying out their voices for the busy weeks ahead. It seemed right to take my coffee outside.
A series of dark lines appeared from the west, shimmering and rippling with a glimmer of early sun behind, and in a moment a hundred gulls came to the lake, all of them screaming celebration at their return to what will be their summer home. Common gulls, these; more than have been here for several years. Perhaps they will spread over the whole of Carra and onto Mask as well. This morning they descended on our local bay and swarmed at banks of reeds to find an early insect feast. Black-headed gulls will follow in the days ahead and soon every island will have its full complement of these noisy characters.
Frogs have filled our small pond with spawn. I heard the rumble of low voices and crept over the grass in order to see them. There is nothing insensible about these amusing creatures though, and before I was anywhere near they submerged to leave nothing but ripples and gallons of frogspawn to show where they had been. Positioning my chair so that I might see them as they popped back to the top, I settled with more coffee to wait.
Ten minutes passed, then ten more. I was growing cold and on the point of giving up when a pair of gold-rimmed eyes appeared, then another. They watched me for long moments. Every time I glanced in a new direction another pair of tiny neon lights appeared. When I lifted the camera they all went out as if a switch had been thrown and I had to wait once more.
Frogs continue to disappear from much of their European range, so much so that the Irish population is considered internationally important. Draining of wetlands, a busy road network that is almost impossible for small amphibians to safely negotiate, the use of chemicals in agriculture, intercellular micro-plastics and other threats abound, so that the wonder becomes that we have any frogs left at all.
There is hope, though, and mornings such as this bolster optimism that one day, in the not so distant future, things will surely come right.