LUCKY SAVES A hedgehog in a bind, a goldcrest in a tangle and a moorehen chick being plucked to safety.
Country Sights and Sounds
It has been a week of rescues.
On day one I was woken by a resonant wailing from somewhere in the half dark. My initial thoughts were that another hare had fallen victim to one of the many predators that make the lakeshore their home, a notion that was reinforced as those terrible screams tapered away to nothing.
About mid morning they started up again. I went to find the author, although I doubted there was much that could be done. When a hare (or a rabbit) is stoat-struck they become transfixed with such fear that they rarely survive. But I went anyway.
Beyond the beech wood lie 100 acres of fen, and it was somewhere out there amid yard-high sedge that something was in terrible trouble. The problem was that as soon as I got within 20 paces of whatever it was, the creature would hear me moving and fall silent. I had to stand still for ten minutes at a time before I finally homed in on the noise and found a hedgehog with one of its back feet entwined in low-growing ivy.
Now it was discovered it really made a racket, squealing like a pig as it tried in vain to extricate itself. It only took a moment for me to get the job done, although I did delay setting the poor creature free while I took a sound recording. I wanted a photograph as well, but my hedgehog remained rolled into a spiny ball until I turned my back, at which it vanished in a moment.
The second rescue was rather charming. A fledgling goldcrest flapped feebly into our rural office and perched on a high shelf looking very sorry for itself. When I stood on a chair to see what the problem might be I saw it was wrapped about with cobwebs. Its feet were manacled, and it had little more than half of its wing function available. It was an easy matter to catch the tiny bird and disentangle it. In fact it seemed to know that help was available and didn’t appear in the least bit put out at being taken in hand.
The goldcrest is the smallest of all Irish birds. This little one was barely the size of the end of my thumb, made in miniature perfection. After removing the offending cobweb I opened my hand to set the little creature free. It just sat there for a few moments, looking at me with dark, round eyes, before fluttering away into the thorn hedge. Goldcrests eat a lot of spiders. I just hope this one takes better care when looking for its next meal.
The best was saved until last. A couple of evenings later I was walking by the lake and heard a pair of moorhens making distress calls. There was something else as well – a constant soft and musical ‘whit-whit-whit’ sound.
I crept through the trees until the adult birds came into view. They were swimming back and forth at the side of an angler’s boat, jerking their heads and flicking their tails like a pair of mechanical toys. And if I wasn’t mistaken, those other calls were coming from inside the boat itself...
There was a high chainlink wire fence, which was negotiated with a little difficulty (I’m afraid it was less high by the time I made my way over). In the boat were eight baby moorhens not long out of their eggs. Each of them still had its egg tooth, that tiny bump of a chisel that develops on the bills of birds prior to hatching, and that falls off within a couple of days after they emerge from the egg.
My appearance sent the adults scurrying for the safety of the reeds and caused the babies to cram together at one end of the boat. When I went to that end they all ran to the other in a mad scramble. To make matters more difficult, the boat had floorboards floating in half a foot of water and the hatchlings thought that underneath these would be a great place to hide.
It took many minutes, but eventually all eight were given their freedom and plopped into the lake. The parent birds were still calling from the cover of the reedbed, and each of the little ones scurried off in the right direction, some instinctively making half the journey underwater. How happy it was to see the family reunited!
I fished after, and merrily killed a trout. What is it all about, really? Life for some; a grim alternative for others.
Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.