THE birds are back in the garden, not that they were ever gone.
They were simply keeping a low profile while that annual hazardous, uncomfortable but necessary process of moulting old feathers and acquiring new ones were in train.
During August, there was no sign of the robin hopping in front of the garden spade. Somewhere in the undergrowth or briar patch it was shedding and replacing feathers day by day rather than all at once. A naked, flightless robin would be like a plucked chicken in a supermarket for a marauding cat.
While the moulting bird is enervated, its energy levels are low and its vitality is channelled into growing new plumage, shedding the wing feathers one at a time means that flight still remains possible.
Feathers wear out from use, just as our clothes wear out – but we can replace them in the shops while the birds have to replace them themselves.
Young bird shed their adolescent outfits and assume adult dress. The spotty young robins of June – their colours distinctly muted so that they do not invite challenge from adults (robins are extremely aggressive in the demarcation of territory) – emerge in September with rust-red breasts.
They look like adults and are treated by other robins as a threat: they will be in competing in the mating stakes next spring and no established robin wants its bit of garden invaded. It has already seen its own fledglings off the premises, another reason why there is a sudden dearth of garden birds.
At the weekend, we picked blackberries and damsons. The blackberries were fat and luscious, full of juice and shining as if
varnished in the sun. The damson were purple, with a grey haze on the skin, their sweetness mingled with sharpness in the taste.
Boiled, they go well with porridge and thick runny cream (which surely cannot kill one if indulged in only occasionally).
The birds will be after the fruit too: apples in the garden are stabbed by gourmet beaks as soon as they are ripe. But there are red haws galore, ripening in the late summer-early autumn sun, and sloes as big as grapes.
Garden crops have burgeoned in this glorious summer, now passing into a lovely autumn – the sea is warm for swimming and one can enjoy it for half an hour at a time.
Karen Austin who, with her husband, Con McLoughlin, ran the widely esteemed, but now closed, Lettercollum House restaurant in Timoleague, Co Cork, tells me she has never seen such a harvest before.
The author, Pete McCarthy, sadly now deceased, so loved Lettercollum that he wanted to keep it a secret and refers to it as ‘the convent’ in his bestselling book, McCarthy’s Bar.
An email from Karen tells me: “We picked so many buckets of courgettes that at one point they seemed to be everywhere, on the kitchen counter, in buckets, thrust into friends’ arms and barrowed back to the compost heap.
After closing the restaurant, it was impossible for the McLoughlins not to have a continuing dedication to good food, organic production and expert cooking.
They regularly run cookery classes at Lettercollum and are enrolling for the autumn schedule. They can be found via the Lettercollum Kitchen Project in Clonakilty – see phonebook – where they sell, among other things, the produce from their huge walled, organic garden which they run with the help of WWOOF volunteers.
The philosophy and self-help ethos behind WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – seems excellent and it offers opportunities for study and travel to gap-year students and aspirant organic growers.
Its numbers 100,000 volunteers committed to helping grow food without artificial fertilisers. WWOOF organisations – they exist in 50 countries worldwide but not yet in Ireland – publish lists of organic farms, smallholdings and gardeners that welcome volunteer help at certain times.
The volunteers make direct contact with the hosts and usually live as part of the family. They do not pay for their stay and are not paid for their help. www. WWOOF.orgHOME is the site.
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