MATERNAL INSTINCT A female newt tenderly wraps each of her young in the folds of an aquatic leaf. Pic: John Shelley
Country Sights and Sounds
If only I had paid better attention I would have found, not one, nor two, but three herons’ nests on my little islet. It was the copious amount of guano expelled over the brim of each by the occupants that gave them away, for despite their large and bulky nature they are hard to see.
The youngsters within are growing fast, and it won’t be long before they make their way onto the branches that support their homes. When they do, one or more will come crashing prematurely to the floor where they must take their chances.
There was, in fact, already something creeping among the undergrowth, and I fancied it must likely be an adventurous fledgling. I tried to find it, just to see, but by then the adults were flying above and around the trees in an agitated manner.
There was a fourth nest as well, possibly the home of the pair of greyback crows that were dive-bombing the herons. The crows were relentless in their assault and, though by far the smaller birds, succeeded in preventing the larger from returning to the heronry. Peace was eventually restored once I retreated from the scene.
Three pairs of herons, so close to home! That explains why the fish I put in the pond had all disappeared. I took the opportunity and drained it dry, then spent the best part of one day clearing a thick layer of decomposing leaves from the bottom, and found within a small population of newts in their breeding livery.
All Irish newts are Lissotriton vulgaris, Smooth newts. A mere three- to four-inches long, dull in colour and given to hiding away in damp meadows, wet woodland and close to the edges of water bodies, these oft-overlooked mini-beasts are fascinating creatures in their own right, and it is during the breeding season, which may begin in February should spring arrive early or be extended to May if things are delayed, newts are at their most interesting.
While the reproductive mechanisms of most things are familiar to us, those of the newt are rather unique, certainly among Irish animals.
As the female grows fat with eggs the male brightens considerably, developing bold black spots over an orange belly. He often grows a wavy fringe, or crest, along his back, a sort of new hairstyle in preparation for his new date.
When the time is right and he finds a likely mate, he gets to business as males of different species do – he does his best to impress by beginning to dance. With his date entranced by his moves he deposits a packet of sperm, properly called a spermatophore, in front of her. She maneuvers herself over it and picks it up with her genital opening, or cloaca, and her eggs are fertilised within her body.
If that sounds rather bizarre, so is the rest of the story. With his part in the drama complete the male wanders back to his corner of the woods to live beneath a stone or fallen branch, leaving the female to care for her very large family. She does her best.
Unlike other Irish amphibians, which lay their eggs en masse, our newt produces them one at a time. Nor does she abandon them entirely, in the manner of frogs and toads, but takes each one and wraps it carefully in the folds of an aquatic leaf. Thus swaddled, the embryos within develop and grow unattended.
While many perish along the way, a good number survive and hatch. A baby newt is called an eft, and is as strange a beast as any to be found. While superficially resembling a tadpole, a closer look at our eft reveals external gills, long, feathery fringes used to extract oxygen from water, which disappear as the creature develops proper lungs.
It is a little dragon as well, purely carnivorous and ever on the prowl. Anything that swims and is small enough to eat is in peril. Even its own brothers and sisters will be eaten, and until the eft is a few weeks old a chance meeting with either parent is unlikely to end well. Even the mother, that so tenderly wrapped her newborn in the fold of a leaf, would swallow him down as soon as he could move.
So would the heron. With the pond being refilled and an ample supply of waterweed installed, the newts shall be returned to their place. Now, how to keep the herons away?