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Wings spread in clearing skies

Outdoor Living

WILD AWAKE This watchful grey heron is such a regular visitor upstream to the south mall on the Carrowbeg river Westport that locals refer to it as ‘The Mall Heron’.  Pic: Conor McKeown

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

A peregrine falcon flew over our end of the lake, causing the local pigeon population to scatter. I wonder how they know when the peregrine is hungry? At other times they aren’t nearly as fearful but carry on as if their nemesis, with his piercing talons and phenomenal speed, wasn’t there at all.
The falcon flew over the heron’s nest, at which the inhabitants set up an incredible racket, clapping bills and croaking loudly as if it were a brood of pterodactyls within.
I wanted to know how many the herons were and paddled as far as the small island where they live at the top of a tall pine. The adults chose their home well and the nest is inaccessible, of course.
The foot of the tree they chose to build in is surrounded by fallen sticks, these either deemed unsuitable for building and discarded, or accidentally dropped during the construction phase. There are enough for another nest and more besides. I feel a bit sorry for the male of the pair. It is he who brings building materials to the female and she who decides what goes where, either into the nest or to the floor below.
Between them they got the job done, and now it holds a growing family. As I looked up from below, an inquisitive head poked over the rim of the nest to get a brief glimpse of this intruder and breacher of the peace. It was the effort of a real child, with the long beak protruding slowly until the eye appeared, then being suddenly retracted in case I should have seen it.
We often hear the heron referred to as the crane (the Irish name for the Common crane being Corr, while the Grey heron is Corr reisc), and at first glance there would appear to be some similarities between the two. They are completely different birds, however, with the grey heron equally at home hunting frogs in the fetid marsh or waiting patiently for mullet at the edge of the incoming tide – while the delicate crane, if only it would settle in this country as in times past, would be found on agricultural land, where it could find the wide variety of food with which it likes to satisfy its appetite.
Everything from acorns to insects will find its way into the crop of the crane, which would happily exist on a diet of fruit and grain alone, while the heron demands only meat of one kind or another and would rather starve than descend to the level of vegetarianism.
But the heron. I would imagine that a bird so fond of fresh fish would make good eating. It appears that in medieval times they were highly esteemed for the table, and especially so by the French, which should hardly surprise us. After a repast of frogs and snails, these broiled with not a little garlic, a roasted heron must have seemed a delíce gastronomic.
Today they enjoy the full protection of the law, which is only right. Besides, they would appear to have no more than a scrap of meat on their bones. Everything about the heron looks poor. That ill-fitting plumage, all tatter and rag, and the long, hard bones that are its legs make a thin bird that would, in turn, likely make but a thin soup. The huge bill is almost always empty and even the bird’s lonely cry carries an echo of dereliction and abandonment. Chicken dinners will do for now.
Shortly before we pitched into our current crisis I found a heron hunting fishes along the river in the middle of Westport while the world and all that were in it passed blindly by. It was, if not especially friendly, a tolerant beast, though not inclined to pose well for a photograph. It would stand hock-deep at the edge of the river, peering expectantly into the water until I had the camera leveled, at which it would spread its wings and fly just 50 yards or so and wait patiently for me to make another approach. I am sure it is still there, and it would make an interesting early-morning study for those within 2km of its haunt.
I never knew the world as quiet; the sky is clearing, even here, to show the hills in sharp relief anew. Perhaps, when we find ourselves beyond the present trouble, we shall pause before re-polluting our own air. And who knows, a cleaner world might bring back such lost treasure as Corr, our Common crane. We certainly have the room.