Monday, January 26, 2009

Sparrowhawks, lizards, and hawk moths

20/05/2008 Extracts from our diary

I came across a common lizard today at the back of the cottage. He must have been basking and fled across my path when he heard me approaching, wriggling his body rapidly from side to side so that he “swam” like a miniature snake through the long moor grass in front of me. I was thrilled to see him, especially in February, though it was a warm, sunny day. On average we see one about once a year here at River cottage.

I believe they are quite well distributed and common throughout Ireland, yet I know people here, native to Achill, who have never seen one.

The common lizard, lacerta viviparta,

It has been a wet winter though we are aware many places have had worse than ourselves, here on Achill island. The garden has stood up to it very well, and the shrubs we planted eighteen months ago have established successfully; as they are mostly evergreens, (holly, New Zealand flax, daisy bushes, griselinia, hebes) they have provided valuable cover for birds during both rain and storm.

The local sparrow-hawk has made our bird-feeding area, (where there are usually greenfinch, chaffinch, and various members of the titmouse family queing up for a peanut), his regular eaterie. We have seen him glide silenty along the course of the river under cover of bushes and trees, skimming over our cattle-gate, wings spread wide, then performing a perfect slow-motion circle round the willow where the feeder hangs; one time in every three he is successful. His flying is an art form. He has the grace of a ballerina. One cannot help but admire him.

Our time last year was mostly taken up with the new chalet, (Fuchsia Chalet) being built in our land where the ruins of the old house were. The chalet will prove very useful – Eileen is keen to devote more time to oil-painting again and I shall use it as a writing retreat for writing/revising/editing. Of course it will be excellent also for guests/visitors, it being self-contained and independent. Our son, Andrew, and grandson, Michael, may be the first to stay in it this summer.

It was a good year for frogs here; our frogspawn hatched very successfully into dozens of froglets which, with a little help from ourselves, hopped off to our drains in July/August. We have to make that pond this year!

We came across a few elephant hawk moth caterpillars in the summer; we haven’t seen any for a few years. We have let some Rosebay willow-herb establish in one part of the garden and there is also fuchsia; they are both preferred food plants. This entry is taken from my writing journal:

…….the elephant hawk moth caterpillar who I pick gently from the rosebay willowherb, rears up between my finger and thumb. He wags his head alarmingly from side- to- side like an angry, brown, cigar butt, puffing up his eye markings to look more fearsome in case I, as a bird undoubtedly would, intend making him my next snack. He sees me; is aware of me. Perceiving no threat now he stops. I carefully place him back on his food plant, happy to have made his acquaintance. I know what a beautiful adult velvety moth in pinks and warm browns he hatches into; but first he must pupate and sleep in the plant litter through the coming cold season. Maybe I shall see him in his hovering flight feeding from the wild woodbine blooms one evening next June. I hope so. The world is big enough for all of us if we look out for one another.

May, 2008

Just now the island is particularly lovely. There is a riot of colour from wild shrubs fowering. Saffron-coloured coconut-scented gorse is in full bloom and the rhododendron ponticum is opening its blooms in shades of purple.

The cuckoo has arrived back. Eileen first heard one on the 5th; last evening we saw a slate-blue male calling among our local trees; (of course it is only the male that makes the cuckoo call, the female has a warbling song as well as guttural coughs they both make.) Last night we lost sleep through him. Telegraph poles are a favourite perch of theirs. Their visits are always timed perfectly – their target host here are mostly the numerous meadow pipits who will be incubating eggs just now.

“He’s back”, Eileen said conspiratorially the other evening at dusk, hardly able to hide her excitement. Puzzled, I crept outside and strained to hear. I confessed I could not hear him, nor was I sure which bird she meant – the sedge warbler whom the poet Seamus Heaney rightly points out in his poem “Serenades”, describing it as ..”a little bird with a big voice/ kicking up a racket all night”, I could make out its rather lovely short bursts of warbles. But this was not the bird she wanted me to listen for. It was another summer visitor very familiar to us – a summer visitor from Africa like the swallow and cuckoo and willow warbler. “There he is!” she exclaimed, and I could just make out his high continuous song, like a fishing reel, or a grasshopper, above the distant barks of skittish dogs and the low drone of moving traffic. The grasshopper warbler was back again. Another piece of the early summer jigsaw was in place. We stood a while listening, his song a mantra running through our all our May’s here on Achill, connecting present with past, conjuring memories of quiet evenings looking up at starlit heavens while he serenaded us in the background, fittingly strange and mysterious.

The frogspawn was again this year rescued from the drains in early March before our ducks could slurp it and transferred to the patio ponds – now thousands of tadpoles grow among the pondweed and lily-pads. They’ll “hop-off” one night in July.

Over the years we have let some willows that seeded in naturally develop into small trees. In addition we have planted some and pollarded them. Each spring in March/April we have a great show of “pussy-willow”, the large flowers so well known to every school-child. We have also let mountain-ash grow and planted alder seedlings, gorse, gorse, bulrush and flag-iris.

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