SPRING SIGHTS White wood anemones push their way through leaf litter on a forest floor.
Country Sights and Sounds
Some days simply aren’t long enough.
From the dappled shade of ancient wood a carpet of white anemones calls me across. The flowers invite me to sit and rest awhile. I find the ground damp, though not uncomfortably so. A broad and mossy root and century of oak make a comfortable chair amid last year’s dead leaves. The sun is warm upon my cheek, the breeze soft and calming and filled with the pleasant scent of woodland musk. It is well that the days are long.
Hoverflies come to join me, each one choosing a favourite sun-bed seat among the myriad white blooms. They lift and land, swapping places at random and hoping for that extra glimmer of sun.
Bumblebees make short flights and crawl among the leaf litter. These are still over-wintered, pregnant queens that need somewhere to start their new home. An abandoned mouse hole would suit just fine. I have time to lean on my elbows to closely study one of these industrious matriarchs as she bumbles about her business.
Banded black and gold with a white bottom, with large, liquid eyes, cleverly angled knees and surprisingly small wings, she emits a gentle, patient thrum. The apple trees need pruning. I would damage the flowers. Our little queen will enjoy them.
I can work outside, which is pleasant. The radio is off, together with the daily barrage of bad news. Rising prices, shortage of this and nothing of that, strange war in a strange land, all are washed away by our tide of spring birdsong. The sound merges into the background but is there when I need it.
The vixen interrupts my thoughts and I walk the short distance to check her den. There, clearly marked on the sandy ground, is her way in and out. She uses the same path each evening, when she comes out to quietly steal away the food I leave.
Her way can be clearly seen; a narrow, almost straight path leads from the entrance of her home to the fen beyond the trees, where she hunts for beetles and a mouse.
The entrance to the den smells foxy alright, but not overpoweringly so.
There are no feathers or bones scattered about; she is fastidious, unlike her mate, who doesn’t seem to care if we know where he lives but leaves the remains of his lunch scattered far and wide. The slender stick I had leaned against the vixen’s doorpost has been pushed aside once more, so I know she stills goes in and out. She is probably in there now, somewhere safe beneath my feet, wrapped around her babies.
All seems right and well. I wonder what she makes of my heavy step thumping above?
Earlier, as part of a long journey, I found time to walk the towpath of a canal with a friend, where we saw a pair of great-crested grebes engaged in their very charming courtship. The ones we see at home are rather wild and hard to approach. These canal birds get to see people every day of their lives and have become habituated, as have the many ducks and other water birds along that same waterway.
Three mallard, two drakes and a single female, were up-ending below the far bank. The males still had their minds on family things, but the duck was having none of it. She escaped their rushing advances with a series of deft dives until they calmed down just a little, then went back to feeding alongside them. It seems that in expressing their intentions they had drawn attention to themselves.
One of the drakes did his upside down thing, and then disappeared with a sudden splash. We waited for him to bob back to the surface but saw nothing more than three small feathers float up to where he had been. Apart from that, there was no indication he had been there at all.
There is only one answer. He must have been taken by a pike – but what size of a pike would snatch and swallow a whole duck?
The incident has got me thinking. At home on Carra the breeding success of various water birds has plummeted, doing so as the trout population has fallen away. The lake holds far more pike than it used to do. Are these greedy predators responsible for more than we know? I must sit awhile and think it through. Today is perfect.
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.