Wild Life

People often look to nature for calm, balance or for lessons in life. Unfortunately no-one seems to have told wildlife it’s their job to provide this. 

The ones round my way have no desire to be cosy and inspirational. In fact I suspect them guilty of pre-meditated mischief.

For a start, there are the otters. My son saw one on the January day when I took a photo of a man staring down the river, camera at the ready, waiting for an otter to appear. I took a photograph of the photographer at exactly the moment that my son yelled ‘beaver!’ Somewhat startled (since they haven’t reintroduced beavers in Dorset yet as far as I’m aware) I asked my son what he meant and established that he – clearly zoologically challenged –  had just seen an otter pop up from the river a few yards behind the photographer, smirk and then dive back under the surface.

There are the sparrows. We started with two pairs who made nests under the eaves of our house a few years ago. They raised a sweet little brood and we took great delight watching them sit in a row on the edge of the guttering waiting for their parents to feed them in the early evening until it was apparently bedtime and they were ushered back under the tiles. We saw them take their first flights across the garden. It was lovely. The following year, we realised the babies had grown up and were setting up home in our eaves too. Several years later it seems at least one of the families is trying to peck its way into the attic from outside. They seem determined to do it. One day I heard something drop on the decking. I couldn’t see anything, but then after watching for a while, I saw something that looked like a nail land in front of me to join several others, looked up and realised the little so-and-sos were pulling tile nails out of the roof. We’ve lost count of how many sparrows there are now, but I can tell you that they bicker from first light to night-fall. They’re worse than children.

Then there are the wood pigeons. They’re the last birds to wake up and somehow sound as if they’re trying to say something that we can’t quite make out, but we suspect might be very insulting. They have a tendency to sit directly outside our bedroom and coo at high volume through the open window. Coo-COO-coo, Coo-COO-coo sounds You’re-UG-ly You’re-UG-ly (or worse). At 5am one recent morning one of the pigeons was so loud I was afraid to open my eyes in case it was actually sitting on the end of the bed. 

I’m sure they all do this sort of thing on purpose just to annoy.

The other evening, we went for a walk and as usual crossed a bridge and looked down on the river. You can’t tell in the photograph below, because I was afraid if I leaned over the bridge I’d drop my phone in the river, but just below us is the weir and below that, the swans were showing off their large brood of cygnets. 

At the top of the weir, two mother ducks were shrieking at three ducklings messing about on the weir itself. Occasionally the ducklings would fall to the next level. They seemed to be enjoying winding their mothers up.

You could imagine one mother duck yelling ‘Kevin! Stop right there! Don’t get any closer to the edge— Kevin! Why won’t you listen? Nigel – now you’re at the bottom, you’ll never get back up – wait till I tell your dad.’ 

And the other mother duck yelling ‘Muriel – I’m just so ashamed. Look at the cygnets – why can’t you behave like that, all serene, instead of jumping about like a hooligan?’ 

While of course Kevin, Nigel and Muriel were shrieking ‘wheee! Here we go again! See you at the bottom! Sucks boo to you cygnets – you don’t know how to have fun!’ 

Ignoring all this, a little egret was walking very slowly and deliberately just inside the top of the weir, wiggling a yellow foot in the water from time to time as it waded, before stabbing down into the weed and coming up with a minnow in triumph.

Slightly to the side, apparently oblivious, a solitary black-headed gull sat in the water doing nothing and minding its own business.

It was all quite delightful. And then everything kicked off. A littler little egret appeared. It landed a few feet away from the first one who took great dudgeon and rushed to chase it off, booting the mother ducks off the edge of the weir in the process. The two egrets then chased each other up and down trying to get control of the feeding ground.

Back on top of the weir, one of the mother ducks spotted the black-headed gull and took out her indignation on it. Gulls of course, snack on ducklings although I’m not sure if black-headed gulls do and certainly the Kevin, Nigel and Muriel are too big to be picked off now, but mother duck didn’t care. She jumped on top of the gull and started beating it up. No – she wasn’t doing anything else, she was whacking it with her wings, smacking it round the head with her bill and kicking it with her feet.

Spotting that the ducklings had made their way back to the top of the weir ready to start ‘falling’ down again, she gave the gull one last biff and went back to her normal motherly duties. The gull moved sideways one step and settled back into melancholy.

Then the larger little egret, having banished the potential usurper down river, spotted the gull too. His approach was less gentle. He went up to the gull and stabbed its head repeatedly with his beak. 

The gull moved sideways again. 

It was clear now that it was injured in some way and could barely walk. It made no effort to fly either. Its whole body language suggested it just wanted to be left alone. 

The little egret didn’t care what the gull wanted. He just went in for another attack. After watching this for a couple of minutes, we couldn’t bear it any longer and went home. 

‘This is precisely the reason I’ve gone off wildlife shows,’ said my husband. ‘It’s like watching the horrible things humans do to each other on the news only with more arty photography.’

I have to admit I sort of understand.

The following day we went for the same walk. The river was peaceful, all visible creatures co-existing in apparent friendly calm.

But a tiny bit of my brain wondered if tucked under the reeds wasn’t the body of a small black-headed gull done to death by the other birds. 

Murder, in fact, most fowl.

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

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