Our grey heron weathers the storms, but then he is much better equipped to do so than we are, writes Damien Enright
A version of himself flew in primeval jungles millions of years before we evolved sufficiently to stand upright, and no doubt storms then were even more vicious than now as Ice Ages came and went, continents cleaved apart, rivers and seas opened, and the occasional meteor hit the earth with such force as to knock it off kilter and render entire species extinct.
He stands there, on the balcony, shoulders hunched in a posture of forbearance, patience, tolerance of discomforts which cannot be remedied. Whether it is Storm Desmond, Eva or Frank raging, he appears nonplussed. Were he ‘plussed’ he would surely seek shelter: but no, he perches on the first-floor height, or even on the pergola 10m above ground level. He faces aerodynamically into the gale. He stands on one leg silhouetted against the wild sky. When buffeted, he puts down the other leg momentarily, but only when the gusts are fast and furious, with no calms between, does he deign to support himself on both.
Meanwhile, in the woods below our home, his seasonal companions (joined in the mating season, when he finds a partner and nests with the community) stand firm 26m above the forest floor, clawed toes gripping the topmost branches of beeches as they sway and toss. Their leaves are gone and, while less susceptible to wind-break than the nearby pines, they afford no shelter.
Ron — as he was dubbed by my son’s English fiancé, now his wife, when we first found him as a flightless, vulnerable, bizarre-looking fledgling fallen from his nest and sure to fall prey to starvation or foxes — soldiers on, regardless.
He is fortunate in that, in recent weeks, he has often dined on salmon — well, salmon skin with a sub-sushi-thin layer of pink flesh beneath, compliments of Ballycotton Seafoods at the English Market in Cork, where my son’s wife went begging for fish scraps after the storms stopped the local boats from going out.
My wife went to them just before Christmas, and the Ballycotton fishmongers were again very generous; besides the salmon tails, there were slices of left-over cod, hake and flatfish in the supermarket bag-full they supplied.
Ron will present his usual fine figure in the mating season, which will begin very shortly, and will entice a fine female, while his peers may well look bony and bedraggled after the rigours of this winter of storms. Happily, for fishing purposes, herons’ eyesight can overcome refraction in the water when the wind stipples the surface or ripples it in small waves.
And, of course, their feet exude an oil which attracts small fish, while their legs have a heat-exchange system from naked toes to feathered thighs. Altogether, they are much better equipped to withstand the rigours of weather and the Poor Mouth than us naked apes.
Eels were always, of course, a staple of heron’s diet. Alas, no longer. I could guarantee my older grandchildren a bootlace eel under almost every rock when we waded barefoot in the stream that reaches the beach below our house. The last time I searched it — this September past — not a single elver did I find, nor indeed were there small dabs flurrying across the sand from cover to cover. The grandchildren of today are disappointed.
It is lamentably the same situation with so much wildlife in Ireland and all over the world. I have to ask myself if the dozens of birds’ nests my friends and I found when we were children is a ‘false memory’, if the mind’s eye imprint of wrens darting across the road in front of us, and disappearing into the ditch where we were sure to find their mossy ball of a nest, an illusion.
If the waterhen and coot nests perched on every second alder branch suspended a foot or two above the brown waters of the Suir, and the snipe and curlew nests almost trodden upon as we stalked the marshes around Lough Mask, Co Mayo, were imagined rather than real, and if the skylark nests in the dunes, so easy to find by watching the birds flying into the fathomless blue and raining down song upon us as we lay beneath, soaking up the sun of those endless summers, were real.
I believe they were, and I grieve for my grandchildren’s’ impoverished portions of the wildlife rich world we had in Ireland then.
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