Far from silent nights at the lake

Outdoor Living

MAGNIFICENT BIRDS Osprey, fish-eating eagles once widespread throughout Ireland, have been seen in Mayo.


Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

Nightfall. A hundred geese rose to face the wind, a great, musical gaggle of greylags intent on making the opposite shore. Their voices continued far into darkness, suggesting that something left them unable to settle.
I had just rowed a mile across the lake, battling against the breeze to where the car had been left. With the boat pulled up and my trout slipped into the boot I had time to stop and rest awhile, and admire the near-full roundness of the moon in its brief appearance through broken cloud. Beyond that, the Milky Way stretched almost north to south. A shooting star gave a chance to wish. The moment passed too soon. Besides, what wish could I make but one?
Whimbrel are arriving, moving south for a while. It seems just a brief moment since we saw them fly in the opposite direction. Now their lonely calls must be heard by the young fox, whose own hungry cries pierce the growing dark.
There came a flurry of wings, then a resounding splash. A large bird climbed from the water just yards away and flew to the west with a distinctive, rhythmic wingbeat. What could it be? An osprey? I saw one here before, but that was years ago. It is the right time of year – they are on passage and fairly vagrant in their movement. Yet they rarely, if ever, hunt in darkness.
The night was a comfort, the air warm. Bats were hunting the air above, appearing only as a flickering shadow against the wide expanse. When I shone my torch skyward a cloud of flies came crowding into the beam, and into this came their terror on leather wings. I heard the click of tiny teeth as the bat tribe made repeated incursions into the swarm of insects. They brushed against my hand. I felt the movement of air on my cheek. Three, four appeared together, snatching their hapless prey at will and quenching life after life.
I switched off the torch and let the insects disperse while I tried to count the stars. The universe, as far as we can tell, is silent. The earth is not. In fact, the more silent the night the more it fills with sound. The rippling water forms a perfect backdrop, threatening to overwhelm more gentle things. Yet the hum of insect hordes remains audible. A flying beetle drones through the night. A fish breaks water far away, then the leaves of the trees whisper and murmur in response to the shifting breeze.
An airplane, filled no doubt with weary travelers, flashes red overhead and offers a different sound. Distant traffic, a screech of tyre on tarmac and a revving engine: how obtrusive the works of man! It grows late and I turn for home.
This morning arrived suddenly – I opened my eyes and there it was, bright and clear yet cool as autumn. I immediately went back to the lake to look for feathers. Surely an osprey would leave me just one, as a reminder of the night?
There were egrets in the shallows and a family of duck brimming at the reeds. Shoals of small fish chased shoals of smaller still, intent on making a good breakfast. I found feathers a-plenty, but not the one I sought.
The osprey, a fish-eating eagle, was once widespread throughout Ireland but was shot out in the late 18th century. A hundred years later they were also hunted out of Scotland, but in 1954 began to colonise that country once more.
In order to facilitate the resettlement of these magnificent birds a number of artificial nesting platforms were erected on many Scottish lochs. These proved popular with an increasing osprey population, so much so that suitable territory in much of Scotland is now in short supply. Young birds of Scottish origin are beginning to explore parts of this country. Some are even spending their summers here. It seems only a matter of time before we have our own breeding population of osprey once more.
The website irishbirding.ie lists only a handful of sightings from Mayo, but many more from the rest of Ireland. These birds have only been travelling through, but surely they must see something here that they like.The National Parks and Wildlife Service is working with the Irish Wildbird Conservancy and the Golden Eagle Trust to provide suitable nesting facilities. Already, golden eagle, white tailed sea eagle and buzzard are becoming more firmly established, and after years of resistance we welcome them home.

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.