Ron’s rapping at the window, summer must be here

IT’S SUMMER again, whatever Met Éireann may say about it beginning in June. 

The calendar of events in the natural history of west Cork indicates a sudden surge, lift or flight into summer on the first days of May.

The heron which adopted us as a result of us adopting him when he fell from a nest 70 feet above the forest floor as a child, is knocking at my window four times a day for food. In winter, he can be absent for days at a time, but now there’s a family to feed, and he is voracious.

Presently, he is a plague (albeit a beautiful one, and full of interest in his acrobatic preening, cooling off in the heat, visiting neighbours and so on) and gives great pleasure to visitors to the house who, not having been told, turn to us in great excitement and say, “Shhh, come and look, there’s a heron in your garden!” (or “...on your balcony”, or “...in your front hall!”)

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He is a plague because, as happened last year and the year before, the weather has made it impossible for the O’Donovan or McCarthy fishing boats to go out, and so we have no supply of by-catch. We had laid in a store, filling half the freezer, but the bird is getting through a bucket-full a day and, inevitably, we have run out again, as happened at this time last year. So, it’s beef hearts, split in two, or the cheapest cuts of liver. Even as I write this, we live in hope that the weather will calm and the boats can go to sea.

The fledgling herons will, by now, be almost full grown, and have more than adult appetites. The hen, their mother, may be also still being supplemented by our ‘Ron’, a name given him by my son’s English fiancée who participated in his rescue when he was a wild, demented-looking creature, with spiky feathers and hirsute head, lost and terrified on the floor of the woods below our house.

That was on March 26, 2011; he raised his first family in 2013, so this is the third clutch. There may be as many as five offspring — which would explain the bucket-full of fish — and the mother is probably feeding them too, although she would have a harder time, standing belly-deep on the bay shores, trying to grab, stab or snatch small gobies, mullet or dabs from the agitated water.

The fact is, Ron is a lazy bird. He knows well how to fish; as I said, he soars off for days at a time in winter and in the January courting season, and must, during these excursions, feed himself. But, returning to the theme, we know that Ron’s beak knocking on the window or the shadow of his broad wings over the yard announces summer in this household. We put up with him; mercifully, the young will leave (or be expelled) roughly seven weeks after incubation. And then, Ron will have only himself to feed (unless he and his paramour decide upon a second clutch!)

A rare sight anywhere in Ireland, even in west Cork, is an egret and grey heron hatchery. In the woods just beyond the bridge that connects Timoleague to the bay-side Courtmacsherry road, one may see in the evening (or early morning) the trees festooned with snow-white little egrets, their nests and young, with the occasional capacious nest of a grey heron amongst them. The birds stand upright for the most part, and they appear almost like candles against the dark canopy of the great, green sweet chestnut trees and beeches, as the light goes

On the cliffs at the Seven Heads, three young ravens are perched on crags and outcrops around their nascent home, now well white-washed with droppings, and all but abandoned. The parents are still feeding them, but they glide or flap from inch and rock, practicing flight.

On this day last week, at nearby Coolbawn Slip, I listened to an interesting 100th anniversary talk on the sinking of the Lusitania, while foraging terns flitted past with powerful wing-beats, their black-capped heads inclined so as to scan the sea into which they sometimes plummeted, spinning as they dived. Beyond them, three gleaming-white gannets with cruciform black-tipped wings, toured the blue sky and, spotting prey, rocketed into the water, throwing up a spurts of spray.

My unfortunate pate got sun burnt, something that hadn’t happened when I was in Cyprus a few weeks ago. Summer had certainly arrived in west Cork!

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