How our baby has grown

These cold, bright days, full of sun and fresh air, lift the spirits immeasurably.

Everything outdoors sparkles. The sun catches the ivy leaves on the trees and turns them into silver coins; when the north wind stirs the holly, it glistens like gold.

The water in our garden pond is a mirror reflecting the sky, a blue infinity without a cloud, and our ‘domestic’ heron, dipping its head to drink, surely cannot but admire itself in its new feathers.

In our three short weeks of absence, this bird has transformed. Still dowdy in the last stages of the moult when we left, it is now more beautiful than we have ever seen it in the 20 months since we rescued it as an ugly fledgling fallen from its nest and doomed to death by starvation or predation.

It is still wild, spending its nights in the tall trees where it was hatched but arriving back most days to spend hours around the garden. It is now coming into breeding colours for the first time: beautiful it may be, but it will be still more beautiful come January when it will be wooing a mate.

Whether it is male or female, we don’t know. Up to now, appearances have given no clue and the only way to tell would have been to catch it (easy enough to do, as it will wander into the house sometimes) and examine it. We didn’t want to do this; and, besides, our rule was never to handle it.

When it was very young, we had to carry it on a few occasions, moving it from the safety of a closed shed to the open spaces of a balcony made cat- and fox-proof. But from the time it fledged, we ensured that it had no physical contact with humans, wanting it to return to the wild.

Now, as the breeding season approaches, will it find a mate, and leave us or come less frequently? Will we discover where it sets up a nest? Will it bring its mate to our garden, knowing that a breakfast of bycatch from the local fishing boats will be available?

Would a mate trust it, and come so close to human beings? If there are fledglings, will it visit us with alarming frequency seeking food for its family? Will it, in time, bring the youngsters too?

Parents naturally teach offspring where to find sustenance; it is surely the most important knowledge that a parent can impart. So, will we have a family of herons, elegant parents and gawky fledglings, arriving at the pond daily and hanging about, so that our courtyard becomes an aviary without cage-wire, open to the fields and to the sky?

In this morning’s sunlight, the same courtyard could be indeed be described in Wordsworth’s lines, paraphrased above — “Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air”.

And there, by the pond, stands the heron, its beak pinkish underneath, its throat and head gleaming white, the white continuing over the forehead onto the crown in the shape of a broad, white arrow set in jet black feathers ending in a point already lengthening and soon to become two single ‘egrets’, long, shining feathers falling like a lacquered pigtail behind the head.

Meanwhile, the grey plumage of the back and wings, relieved by a coal-black half circle on the shoulders, is beautifully textured, hardly like feathers at all but patterned grey silk laid in layers over the body. And on the breast, the feathers fall like a cascade, so light that they are lifted by the breeze, white feathers streaked with black, impeccable, airy and elegant. No human costume could equal the supreme good taste chosen by nature for the courting costume of this mere bird.

These days of sun and north wind do indeed transport us, and while the brown, crisp leaves still fall, the heron’s new clothes herald the coming spring.

Such days are every bit as enjoyable outdoors as the sunny landscapes of the Canary Islands. As it happened, it was raining heavily in La Gomera when we left, and the parched terraces of summer were as green as the fields of the Golden Vale.


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