Life & Death
The last few weeks brought home the faster life and death nature of wildlife. Not that all of us don’t have to go through the same things, but generally we seem to have a more intense and drawn out experience to death. I was watching a TV documentary on elephants where they seem to mourn and dwell over dead friends and relatives a bit more like us – something I had read about before – and there are the elephant graveyard stories. However smaller animals and birds ‘appear’ to treat death as a sharp shock before getting on with their lives.
Alternately, it might be the frequency of death, rather than the size of the animal, that lessens its effect on others. Years ago our company used to train technical staff from an African country.
They came on a series of courses and we got quite fond of some that had been to Ireland on a few occasions.
Asking casually about one such that was not on the course being taught at that time, we were told, fairly matter-of-factly that he was ‘gone’. We had to pursue this to understand that he had died (of aids which kills so many in Africa).
These morbid thoughts are brought on by a few sightings during last month.
1) We had a Song thrush nest in a partial wild hedge in our back garden. The young seemed very healthy and not disturbed by the sound of the lawn-mower going past very close – admittedly not as often as it would do in a tidy garden. I was late in discovering them and reckoned by their size and activity, that they were close to fledging. The parents continued to bring them food and to rest in the nest overnight, keeping them warm. Two days later, when I looked, they were gone but not just the chicks, all trace of the nest was gone! There had been some wind but not as much as previously, so either they flew and demolished the nest in their leaving or, probably more likely, a cat got them.
2) Relations of ours have a Blue Tit camera nest-box similar to ours, that this year finally produced a nest, eggs and eventually young.
Their joy at the constant feeding and attention shown by the parents was brought to a shuddering halt by their sudden disappearence.
The babies continued to call for food but as time went by, it became clear that the parents were not coming back and that the chicks would not survive.
Cats are the main suspects although it is strange that both parents ‘disappeared’.
3) While walking in the rain along the river in Tomnafinnoge Wood near Tinahely (this is a very special woods and features Oak trees and Woodpeckers and the River Derry, a tributary of the Slaney), I heard a commotion from behind.
It sounded like a bird in a panic flying towards me but as I looked around with the camera un-ready!, it turned out to be an Irish Stoat (often called a Weasel here but actually there are no real Weasels in Ireland) running towards me. While still trying to get the camera settings into appropriate action, I realised it had something in its mouth. I thought it was a bird but on later review of the poor pictures, decided it was a Wood Mouse.
Aware that I would dearly want to get a good picture of this startling scene, the Stoat turned and jumped into the undergrowth!
The animal is gorgeous – very small and beautifully coloured – a kind of fawn / beige brown – and with a white belly and a black tip to its tail.
However the bird in its mouth broke the thought of innocent beauty and brought home the lethal nature of nature.
4) This week I walked along the Grand Canal in Dublin, thronged by lunch-time walkers and those eating food from the vendors along the banks. As usual, I was looking for birds in the margins and eventually found a Moorhen amongst the reeds. Going to the bridge I could see that it was building a nest and as I got closer again, a chick appeared from under the parent’s wing! In fact there were 3 chicks and at least one unhatched egg. Moorhens often have 8 eggs so there may have been more.
The other parent regularly brought leaves that (s)he knitted into the nest. This was necessary as the nest was a floating one and required constant attention to keep it above water. Both Moorhen sexes incubate the eggs and they are indistinguishable without examination. However the male is understood to do most of the nest sitting.
On the far side of the canal, a young Heron stood patiently by the water’s edge unconcerned by people behind him, much closer than normally consider comfortable.
In the nest, little Johhnie – there’s always one – climbed out and swam about on its own. He may have done this before but the parent on the nest did not seem too pleased while the other parent was pre-occupied with leaf gathering.
While I watched the Moorhen’s knitting abilities, someone behind me was feeding pigeons. They wanted to peck at the large bread crumbs thrown and constantly pitched the crumbs up in the air as they tried to break them. This led the crumbs and them to get very close to me. So close that I nearly missed the drama.
A Lesser Black-backed Gull, which presumably had been watching the crumb throwing, also had his eye on the Moorhen Nest and suddenly flew down. The parent jumped up to attack it and defend the nest but as the Moorhen pecked at its neck, the Gull, in one movement, reached down, grabbed a chick in its beak and disengaged from the fight, flying to the other side of the canal with the unfortunate chick in its bill.
This was not little Johnie, the mischievious roamer but one of the goodie-goodies that stayed in the nest – it’s the same the world over!
This all took about a second or two. Too quick for yours truly, unprofessional, unprepared and a bit stunned, to get a picture of the scrap.
On the far bank, the Lesser Black-backed Gull manoeuvred the chick a couple of times and then swallowed it, as a few people and the Moorhens looked on disbelievingly.
After a few minutes, the Moorhen sat back on the nest with little movement. It seemed to be detrermined to shield and protect the remaining brood & egg(s). I was left wondering if (s)he continued to dwell on the incident, to be sad or to mourn.
A couple of days later, the nest was gone. Only floating leaves remained. It may be that the remaining eggs hatched and the young went off with the parents. On the other hand, the nest was close to the bank, in a place frequented by people and the Canal in its city stretches, features many predators including dogs, foxes and of course little (and big) brats!
Looking forward to more on the ‘Life’ side in the next few weeks.