Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Emptied Nests

GROWING UP ON a very small island some six hundred miles from any mainland, I was not raised with many creatures that were native, or even naturally resident, on our little coral outcrop in the Atlantic.

In fact, I think it would be true to say that no animal or plant developed exclusively in Bermuda over the millennia. At best, a few Rock Skinks and an odd bird called the Cahow (named for the sound it made) have been specially attached to Bermuda. Those two are rare now. I have never seen a cahow, for the few dozen remaining nesting pairs on the Island (and that means in the world!) are in a protected area. Millions had been eaten, you see. Tasted like chicken, I suppose.

I saw a Bermuda skink on a cliff face at the back of a beach once, forty-five years ago. So unusual to see one, even then, I recall it exactly. A dark brown lizard with a paler underbelly, this particular variety, remnant, is now endemic.

Everything else flew in, or arrived on a boat. Sometimes these critters made their own way; a few birds like the Longtail spend the summer in the more northern Atlantic. Most came in boxes, crates and cages, and on the decks of ships. Cats come under airline seats. My Aleks, a miniature dappled dachshund, came in the cargo hold of a British Airways jumbo jet.

Some household pets leave Bermuda when their people do, the lucky ones fly First Class.

The whistling frogs and toads that were a big part of my childhood have simply been decimated by traffic, overpopulation and building, and poisons. You might see toads with more than four legs each now, which is not a good evolutionary development. And where can the birds nest? Where are there bugs for lunch?

THE WILDLIFE IN Great Britain will have changed, of course, but it is still far richer than what I am used to. With this Global Warming going on, the habitats of animals and plants are changing. Spring comes earlier; the north is warmer than it was.

I have been paying particular attention to the birds as they pretty much come to me. I don't have to walk far, or take a bus, to see a dozen different types of bird in an hour; as the months go by, the birds that visit my courtyard, or the meadows below, change regularly.

It does not seem long since I watched skeins of geese heading north for Iceland, Scandinavia and even Canada from a friend's conservatory one Sunday afternoon. They will be returning about now.

The River Coquet is presently home to quite a number of swans, herons and smaller gulls. The black-headed gulls that I fed in early summer have gone, I rather liked them. Large seagulls come here for the winter months, to perch on our chimney pots to keep from freezing. We have had a sudden influx of large crows in the last fortnight, timely as the crops are just being harvested and there are things to eat. My friends, the jackdaws, have been gathering on the rooftops above the courtyard, the youngsters out of the nests. They must be making travel plans.

This summer—and I use that word loosely—I had three families of swallows in a collapsed garage behind the flat. The first nesting pair arrived very early in the summer. At that time, Cailean was a small puppy and the birds were anxious as we walked past their garage many times a day in the process of house-training. The swallows would dive-bomb us, coming within a few feet, swinging around us. Cailean ignored them, birds don't much interest him, he's into bunnies. After a week of trying to see us off, the birds realised we were no threat and became remarkably tame.

We'd see the swallows flying at incredible speed, inches from the ground, over the meadow, looking for insects. They seemed to be flying as much for the joy of it, as for getting lunch for their chicks.

Happened, the day the youngsters in that first nest fledged, we were sat outside and watched the very event. A good deal of flapping and chirping, the parents full of encouragement, and, apparently, communicating that the man and his dog were okay. Three new swallows took wing, the five stayed nearby only for a day, and then the garage was silent.

Several weeks later, two more pairs of swallows moved into the garage, not far from each other. Like the earlier tenants, they soon came to ignore Cailean and me. I missed the moment that the chicks left their nests, but both families took wing on the same day, this past Monday. On Monday evening, a small group of swallows was doing aerobatics around the courtyard; yesterday they were far overhead, doing widening circles. Today they have all gone.

The jackdaws are looking down. I can see them from my kitchen window. I have half a loaf of stale bread, and I believe they expect it.


suz said...

i saw a cahow at the NASA beach when i was a kid but i don't believe i've ever seen a bermuda skink!
i envy you your swans. we have an occasional breathtaking blue heron, and lots of incredible vultures. i LOVE vultures!

sarah corbett morgan said...

One of the things I love about Costa Rica is the sheer exuberance of birds. We now live here full-time, as you know, and to watch the resident birds as well as the travelers passing through is a full time job. Most often there is not a moment when a bird is not in sight, and when that rare moment does occur, it usually means a hawk is lurking about.

I was surprised by how few birds I encountered while in Japan. I saw my favorite ravens in the rice fields, of course, gorging themselves and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

The Japanese make wonderfully authentic looking scarecrows that look just like rice farmers bent over working in the fields. I tried to get a picture of one or two but usually we were speeding by in a car and I was never able to capture one.

But the ravens were about it. I saw a few swallows. They are so lovely to watch in flight, aren't they?

Yesterday we drove to the county seat and on the way back drove through miles of swallows feeding off some hatch in the roadway. They swooped and dive-bombed us, clearing the windshield by inches, it seemed. When I looked behind in the rear view mirror they were at it again in our wake.

I will miss the birds when we go, and must look for them wherever we go next. I'm not sure I could live without them anymore.

Suz- You'd love it here. The buzzard is almost the national bird and I believe it is in Honduras. I love their helmeted heads and fierce nature.

All the best


Ruth L.~ said...

I already see a difference at my back yard feeders. The hummingbirds left without saying goodbye. The goldfinch vanished. Geese are honking south in the night. I have swallows, will always have swallows. I'm glad.