A wealth of wonders within 2k

Outdoor Living

LIFE GOES ON A frog (Rana temporaria) shelters among some pretty wild violets on a bed of fallen leaves. Pic: John Shelley

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

While we struggle with our lockdown the rest of the world carries on as normal.
Yesterday a full complement of gulls returned to the lake, screaming with delight and wheeling silver-grey in the spring sunshine, descending to the water in large numbers to feed on hatching flies.
Black-headed gulls make up the majority, while Common gulls, with their plumage of purest white, are also present. In recent years, almost all the gulls that used to nest on the rocky islets of Lough Carra have left and moved to join the larger colonies on Lough Mask, some of which are thousands strong.
The sight of so many gulls in one place is an uplifting experience. When I went with National Parks and Wildlife ranger Eoin McGreal to check on the health of the gulls on Mask, we were met with a crescendo of noise as the sky above Annagh Island all but darkened with agitated birds.
Annagh, a small island comprised almost entirely of bare shingle, is home to almost all of Mask’s Black-headed gull population. Our visit, which took place a full year ago, left me wondering what the lake might have been like before our industrial age, when all our birds were present in much greater numbers. And what will things be like 200 years from now?
At home, I conscientiously measured out 2km on my map and sketched a rough circle. Under present guidelines, that is as far as I can go. It leaves me considerable latitude – there are few houses close by and a good deal of wild land, woodland and water. I think of those many people confined in blocks of flats or densely packed housing estates with little room to move and know I must count my blessings.
I find myself paying more than the usual attention to things closer to home, where the forest floor has become a shower of flowers. Wood anenomes throng one wooded corner, with these delicate ‘wind flowers’ serving as sunbeds for spring hoverflies. Nearby, wild violets produce pretty patches of pale blue over a bed of fallen leaves.
Primroses appear as a thousand suns. Each plant bears either thrum-eyed or pin-eyed flowers. In thrum-eyed flowers the stamen is hidden amid a cluster of anthers while in those that are pin-eyed, the stamen is prominent. In this way the primrose ensures its flowers are fertilised only by pollen garnered from another plant, generally by the variety of beetles and bumblebees that depend on the nectar of this so-called ‘First Rose’.
If the clever design of the flower wasn’t impressive enough, the tiny, black seeds are also specially put together. Each one of these has at one end something called an Eliasome, a fleshy part rich in protein and relished by ants. Ants carry the seeds back to their nest where they feed the Eliasome to their developing larvae.
Once the seeds are stripped, they are removed to a special waste-disposal area apart from the main living quarters of the ant’s nest, where ant droppings, the bodies of deceased ants and other detritus make the ground fertile. And it is here, in this prepared soil, that some of these primrose seeds will germinate and produce the next generation of plants.
A red squirrel appeared in the front garden. It sat at the end of a cut-off branch and stared in through the kitchen window while I stared back out. It was unusually coloured, with a dark chocolate head, back and tail and an orange underside. We saw dark squirrels before, in the Partry area. It is quite conceivable that this one swam the narrow channel that separates one side of Carra from the other and made its way through almost continuous woodland to visit us.
For a week I have been smearing peanut butter on the same branch, hoping to keep the squirrel interested. Each morning the peanut butter has been consumed so that I reckoned my ruse effective. This morning I discovered the culprits. A pair of Coal tits, not content with their generous allowance of dried fruit and peanuts, have discovered this tasty treat and have been freely helping themselves.
A little innovation is needed. There is currently no shortage of time. If my squirrel is still around I shall have him half-tamed within a week. Along with our new gulls and so much growing underfoot, our period of quarantine will prove only too short.