Wednesday 13 December 2017

Birdlife bedlam in the shivery May weather

The charismatic hen harrier
The charismatic hen harrier

Fiona O'Connell: Lay of the Land

It may be May but the weather is still awry, with hail and even snow instead of sunshine frequently falling on our hard-done-by heads. So maybe it's synchronicity that there's bedlam amongst the bird life in my backyard.

For while only a few swallows are swooping and soaring over the river just beyond it, there is no shortage of action in this outdoor aviary. I seem to be reaping the benefits of providing year-round food specifically designed for songbirds, as there is a constant flutter of wings and warbling.

The parental pair of blackbirds are at the food stations so much that it's almost a surprise not to see them, the male cramming as much food as he can in his beak before darting back to his riverside residence. Recently, I was rewarded by seeing the feathery fruits of his labour - albeit once in a shocking way.

The barrier between my yard and next door is covered with ivy, so at first glance I thought a crow was pulling at the leaves for his nest, until I realised that he was actually attacking the blackbird chick.

He stopped as soon as this featherless female came hollering out of the door at him. The bruised babe hopped frantically about, hiding behind plants until daddy blackbird collected him.

Crows can be cruel, for they have their own young to feed, and the fight for food is desperate. Especially when you're a huge black bird with a bad reputation that can't even sing for his supper. Some say life has got harder for crows since the wheelie bins came into operation, making it nearly impossible for them to loot our leftovers.

At least the ducks have got the message to duck off, though one female still regularly visits, upending herself to reach the bird food under a wire dome. Her beak splays wide when I approach, as if she's saying "oh duck!"

She has the same fawn colouring as the colony of sparrows that I hear even when I don't see them, an energetic buzz emanating from a bush beyond the divide where they congregate. These tiny beige birds dine alongside the blackbird, despite the latter being at least twice their size.

But they should beware - because not all big brothers are so benign. More sinister creatures than the much-maligned crow are in the skies - as I was reminded one recent sunset.

I was outside catching a few rare rays, when a rustle alerted me to a bird landing on top of the yard divide. At first I thought it was a thrush, because of its colouring. But I quickly realised that I was looking into the charismatic yet chilling golden gaze of a hen harrier.

He stared back at me - not so much 'high noon' as 'dagger-eyes at dusk.' This persecuted bird of prey is in decline, so it was a privilege to see one up close. Before he sliced low across the yard and was gone.

Leaving this big bird bewitched.

Sunday Independent

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