20 February 2010
During these warm interludes the seesaw song of the great tits can be heard most loudly; the rugged bark of the willows seems almost to expand in gratitude. Fraction by fraction the puddles on the towpath are shrinking. The river is no longer so full. The wind is being given a chance to do its work, and, on balance, the countryside is beginning to dry out. Winter, with all its rigours and privations, is nearly over at last.
There have been many casualties among the small and weak, and especially among those animals which are deprived of their food by ice. Quite early on in the snowy weather the kingfishers went elsewhere. Some have perished. The water rails also fared badly, but their larger relatives, the moorhens, for the most part stayed and stuck it out.
Even in one horizontal blizzard, when the sheer density of driving snow obscured the wood on the hill, the moorhens were to be seen among the stubbles, searching for whatever they could find to keep themselves alive. They endured night after night of freezing fog, sleet, granite-hard frost. They survived the attentions of foxes which were themselves driven to desperation by hunger and cold. Each morning the moorhens’ tracks – large, backwards-pointing arrows in the snow – could be seen crossing and recrossing the riverbank and the towpath and the lawns adjoining the water.
Now all that is forgotten. What lies ahead is spring, summer, the breeding season, the time of plenty. In April and May there will be the satisfaction and damp warmth of a deep nest filled with eggs, hidden somewhere safe and silent among the flags. Afterwards there will be the chicks, like small black powder puffs with beaks, frantically swimming behind their parents and trying to keep up.
There is one moorhen, though, which, if you are not careful, will not even live to see tomorrow, still less the breeding season. It is caught up in the middle of a thorn bush beside the towpath. Had a slight fluttering of dark feathers not attracted your attention you would have gone breezing past.
The thorns are sharp and tear at your wrist where it is not protected by the glove. The moorhen thinks you are going to kill it. Terrified, it tries in vain to burrow more deeply into the tangle of branches, but its movements are hampered anyway; a few moments more and you make contact. Holding the bird as gently as you can, and moving branches aside with your free hand, you slowly and carefully begin to bring it out.
Your fears are confirmed as the moorhen comes free of the thorns and you are able to examine it more closely. The wings and legs have been snared by several yards of discarded fishing line. The bird’s struggling attempts to get free have made matters worse: the thin, translucent filament is wound into an inextricable maze of knots and tight loops, some so tight that the flesh on the upper legs has been deeply cut. Each movement of the bird tends to widen the wounds.
The moorhen makes no sound. Its beak is slightly open and its small, button-like eye seems no longer to register fear, but resignation. It is waiting to be dispatched, in accordance with the law. Big eats small. That it understands. But it cannot understand why or how it became ensnared. Nothing in its ancestry or experience has prepared it for nylon line.
Using fingernails alone, you would never be able to get the knots undone. They are simply too tight, too small, and too complicated. A penknife would not help; even a fine pair of scissors would be too clumsy. Luckily, since having seen a dead thrush trussed in this stuff and dangling from a tree, you now always carry a very thin, sickle-shaped scalpel blade. It is brand new, and gleams through a smear of grease as you take it from its cardboard sleeve.
Sharp as the blade is, the job is difficult and takes a long time. The moorhen slowly becomes more placid, sensing perhaps that it is not to be killed after all. One wing comes free, and then the other. Being especially careful, cutting one strand at a time, you free the legs. At last the final bit of filament is removed.
Unnoticed, the sun has gone in again. None the less there can be no doubt about it: spring is on the way, and for the moorhen now as well.
Its wounds will heal quite quickly. Birds are hardy and resistant; there are no fears on that score. It is already able to walk unaided. As you stand clear, it slightly stretches its wings. After a moment’s further trial, the moorhen launches itself and takes off and, legs dangling, flies across the ditch, beyond the nettles, and disappears from view.