Pine marten may have threatened the local heronry

Ron the heron (minding the car) has been missing from the Courtmacsherry area for more than 10 days raising the concerns of our columnist and villagers alike

It seems our ‘domestic’, but still wild, heron, Ron, has ‘gone west’ and we find we miss him, scanning skies, balconies, rooftops and canopies of trees in our local wood (those still standing after the multiple storms) for his familiar, elegant profile cut out of the heavenly blue.

I say ‘gone west’ in the vernacular sense. We’d hoped he might simply have taken a day or two off from his labours collecting half bucketfuls of defrosted sprat from our backyard four times a day, and digesting and regurgitating them for the delectation of his nestlings in their tree-top quarters down the road — or perhaps because bank holiday activity in our quiet village was just too much for him

It is now 10 days since we last saw him. His young will be fledged but unable to fly (and gawky as he was himself when we found him on the forest floor in April 2011 in imminent danger of dogs or foxes).

They will be entirely dependent on him and his mate for another month. While in December, he’d once disappeared for eight days, his long absence now was worrying. He’d hardly desert his young. He’d faithfully fed and raised seven clutches, back and forth, back and forth to the nest all day. He’d first bred in his second year.

Each morning, we’d pull the bedroom curtains and not find him immediately knocking at the window and daily becoming more demanding as his fledglings grew. But now, morning to night, no sign of him. Gauged by the quantities he took and the frequency of his visits, there’d be perhaps three or four young in the nest, each almost as big as an adult. He’d hardly desert them.

We were concerned.

I mentioned his absence in the pub. Half the village seemed to know him; he often perched on this one’s fence, this one’s garden statue, on a favourite branch of this one’s tree. He’d been seen on Saturday, April 20 — the last day we’d seen him — but not since. It was unusual, even ominous. And others seemed a bit anxious, too.

File photo of pine Marten
File photo of pine Marten

He was beautiful for adults and a joy for children. Had ill fate befallen him? How? He was a fine strong bird, possibly strongest of all the 20 or 30 herons on the bay — no wonder, given his dependable diet. Herons can live to be 32 years old: he was only eight, so it was unlikely he had a seizure and dropped out of the sky.

The owner of the Courtmacsherry Hotel told me that he’d heard a right barney in the nests behind his home one morning at dawn, a barney higher in volume and more prolonged than the usual barneys at this season (for herons are compulsive raiders of one another’s nests and bickering and heron cursing-and-swearing regularly ensues). But this ruckus was exceptional. It occurred to me there must have been some exceptional event.

Neighbours commented that they’d seen no herons at all in the previous week, not the bird who fishes at low tide off the beach or the one that poses regently on ancient, seaweed-wreathed Tanner’s Pier most evenings. Not a heron in the water, no noise from the nests. Why?

Nobody would have shot them. There are no koi ponds or sheep farmers with lambs living locally. Could it have been a peregrine swooping like an Exocet from 2,000 ft at 200mph to kill simply by impact? Unlikely. Peregrine were used to hawk herons in the Middle Ages. But a peregrine couldn’t wipe out a heronry of a dozen birds.

Then, by sheer chance, I met a man whose knowledge of all things natural history was extensive. His name was John, an Englishman. I met him perched high above the sea at the Old Head of Kinsale, watching for basking sharks, dolphins, whales, choughs, ravens, fulmar, razorbills, observing every wild creature that passed. He does this for two hours most days.

I told him the story of Ron gone. He thought about it. ‘Might a pine marten be the culprit?’ he asked. The arrival of a pine marten at the tree-top heronry would explain the barney and the abandonment of the nests. If it had newly moved into the wood and taken Ron, the strongest bird in the heronry, it wasn’t surprising the others should move elsewhere.

I’d never considered a pine marten. I know something of the recovery of red squirrels since martens had been taken off the shoot-on-sight list, but John told me about reports of a marten confronting an osprey. Martens are big animals, ospreys are as big as herons. But I’ll leave this story until next week.

Meanwhile, might Ron come back? Hope springs eternal. One day, he may return...

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