The Seapie’s Apprentice

The seapie's apprentice
A well grown chick

When the tractor came to plough up all that remained of last winter’s rape, it seemed almost sacrilegious to disturb the turfs which had been allowed to gather a halo of buttercups and docks. Hares frisked through the plantains, and geese flopped up from the loch to land and browse through the fresh growth. The field had become a perfect slice of spring freshness, skimmed periodically by swallows and sandmartins. Linnets and redstarts lurked around the margins, while a monstrous and ever-expanding tribe of rabbits slowly foamed up and spilled over from their sanctuary under the sheep shed.

A pair of seapies usually nests somewhere in the vicinity, and in 2012 they fledged three young despite incessant weeks of wet weather. Last year it seemed like all five had returned together, and there was no attempt to breed in the mossy banks below the house. However, since the start of March it has been obvious that something was afoot. I can lie in bed at night and hear them squeaking under the moon, and the fever pitch of shrill trilling in April gave every indication that a new nest was underway. It was impossible to tell while the growth was still on the rape remains, and the only indication we had of progress was when kites, buzzards and even a passing osprey were flogged and flailed by noisy, furious black and white shapes. They were obviously protecting something down amongst the cow parsley.

So when the field was turned over into a corrugated plain of roots and soil, everything became clear. A single seapie chick sat fatly in the middle of the furrows while its parents taxied wiggling cylinders of protein back and forth over the mud for its delectation. The chick is well grown with wings which are a close approximation of an adult, but it makes absolutely no effort to fend for itself, and spends its time fastidiously tidying up the white feathers which have grown on its breast and down to its flanks. Its head and shoulders are still grey, speckled and downy and the beak is short, but not so short as to preclude riddling up a leatherjacket or two of its own from the bountiful clods. I don’t consider that a valid excuse for such wholesale inactivity.

During the brief periods when it stands up and walks around, the chick wags its tail like a sandpiper with the hiccups, performing elaborate origami movements to unpack those strange, unfamiliar wings. I watched it flutter a few inches into the air before deciding that flight was altogether too demanding and returning to squat in its grotty form in the mud. Its camouflage is surprisingly effective when it sits down, and the parents sometimes lose track of it when they return from longer forays. They peep in confusion, and the sound is strangely uninhibited by having a beakful of earthworm. And what earthworms they find; some of them are six or seven inches long, writhing like furious adders in a careful chopstick pinch.

The whole exchange takes place within fifty yards of my office window, so I have been keeping a fairly constant eye on their progress since we discovered them on Saturday. I am delighted to have these “front row seats”, but although the plough has made the whole charade visible, I wonder if it also explains why there is only one chick still remaining.

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