Thursday, July 14, 2011

Wild wars

I happen to be living now in the rural west of Ireland where I grew up. My work desk looks out on a wooded area where wild birds dart down from the trees to pluck insects from the leafy earth.

I see wild dramas played out in this little theatre, especially now with summer. In June a male chaffinch dominated the clearing: all puffed up and aggressive, this macho little guy posed and sang in the sunlight before fleeing back into the shade.

More recently a fat little juvenile robin has been hopping about, still being fed by a parent robin barely larger than he. I'm amused to see this healthy and plump youngster still squeaking for food every time his parents fly by.

With my vantage point inside the window I saw an odd thing in spring, a blue tit landing into a conspicuous sunlit patch on the ground, bowing foward and spreading out its tail and wings as if in worship of the sun. Astonished, I searched online and found it described as a female mating display. Just yesterday I saw this:

Probably a female blackbird, crouched down onto a sunlit patch and fanning its tail and wings out. I presume that once more I'm seeing the brief signal this bird is making to watching males, too terrified of predators to linger in the sunlight longer than necessary. I've lived in the countryside for the bulk of my life, yet never saw such behaviour before.

Days ago I saw another odd avian among the trees, a ruffled bird of some kind that kept hopping vertically up tree trunks:

That picture is a little unclear, but it looks plausibly like a juveline treecreeper. To match its name, this little bird did indeed keep creeping vertically up trees to peck at insects.

I saw rather different behaviour a week earlier, when I startled some bird of prey from a bush by the road. I'm not sure what bird this was, but the curved sweep of its wings and its rapid ascent was typical of a raptor. Immediately this hunter was surrounded by swallows, who swooped down on all sides and drove it away, protective perhaps of a vulnerable nest nearby.

I found broken egg shells among the conifer trees behind the house, though whether from some successfully hatched bird or the victim of a cat or magpie I can't say. Cutting back some overgrown Lawson Cypress outside my workplace window I found the broken sections of this nest, line lines of grass and roots woven into mud like a natural wattle and daub:

Invertebrates have surprised me too. Several times lately I have seen some small black insect devouring the corpses of earthworms squashed on the road, possibly a devil's coach horse beetle. I certainly saw one of those characters last summer, since it flicked its tail upwards like a scorpion in a warning as I passed.

Weeks ago, during a warm and humid spell, I was disgusted by a huge greenish earthworm squirming grotesquely on the road, what I now guess is the earthworm species allolobophora chlorotica, which 'very rarely come to the surface'.

Some invertebrates have ignored the boundary of the house walls. This little grasshopper (a common green grasshopper, I think, to be geeky about it) hopped up onto the kitchen table a few days ago. I brought it outside where it sat patiently wiping its antennae until I got tired of waiting and dropped it into the grass.

And yesterday I spotted this little moth on a window, possibly a mottled beauty moth which the Collins Irish Wildlife book says has 'superb camouflage on tree bark'. That advantage clearly lost when sitting conspicuously on a grubby pane of glass.

Last summer I discovered a small group of common lizards squashed on the road in the midlands of Ireland. Fond of sunbathing, these lizards had probably been warming on the black tarmac when a car came. Foreign friends may be unsuprised by lizards but Ireland has only two native reptiles and I have never seen a lizard here before.

It's past midsummer now and things are beginning to ripen.

Already the conifer wood is bubbling with weird fungi decaying the damp litter of needles.

And later the frosts will kill off the insects and send small mammals into hibernation. Last winter brought snow and cold so fierce that a local fox lost its usual caution and came creeping around our house.

I've sometimes heard the argument that one should know one place well rather than travel and know lots of places poorly. I like to travel, it's a kick being abroad and constantly surprised. But in the most familiar place I know I still find odd things. There are surprises right here under my nose, whole worlds of wild conflict I barely notice.


  1. It's great to read a "back to basics" piece like this in the middle of my day. The vivid pink of the solitary raspberry, the mustiness of the mushrooms in the undergrowth... lovely. Thanks.


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