‘The Fledglings Are Out!’

“Peering in, I see that last week’s eggs are now chicks. Tiny bright-yellow beaks, mouths opening and closing silently. This is the magic.”

Dara McAnulty | Diary of a Young Naturalist | May 2021 | 1,979 words (7 minutes)

***

Prologue
This diary chronicles the turning of my world, from spring to winter, at home, in the wild, in my head. It travels from the west of Northern Ireland in County Fermanagh to the east in County Down. It records the uprooting of a home, a change of county and landscape, and at times the de-rooting of my senses and my mind. I’m Dara, a boy, an acorn. Mum used to call me lon dubh (which is Irish for blackbird) when I was baby, and sometimes she still does. I have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world. The outpourings on these pages express my connection to wildlife, try to explain the way I see the world, and describe how we weather the storms as a family.

***

Tuesday, 5 June
The garden has blossomed in the warmth of these late spring days. So much light and sunshine, compensating for the heaving tiredness and exasperation that comes, for me, at the end of the school year. Friendship has always eluded me – what is it anyway? A collection of actions and words between two people or more, people who grow and change anyway. It’s a good thing, apparently. That’s what some people say. I don’t have any experience, though. I mean, I play board games with a group at my school. We play, we deconstruct the game. We don’t ‘talk’. What is there to say? Sometimes, I feel that if I start, I might not shut up. That has happened, lots of times. It doesn’t end well. Kids in my class, they walk around town together, they might play football together or whatever other sport takes their fancy. They don’t talk, though. They smirk and snigger at anyone who is different. Unfortunately, for me, I’m different. Different from everyone in my class. Different from most people in my school. But at breaktime today I watched the pied wagtails fly in and out of the nest. How could I feel lonely when there are such things? Wildlife is my refuge. When I’m sitting and watching, grown-ups usually ask if I’m okay. Like it’s not okay just to sit and process the world, to figure things out and watch other species go about their day. Wildlife never disappoints like people can. Nature has a purity to me, unaffected. I watch the wagtail fly out and in again, then step a little closer. Peering in, I see that last week’s eggs are now chicks. Tiny bright-yellow beaks, mouths opening and closing silently. This is the magic. This bird, which dances and hops at everyone’s feet in the playground, unnoticed by most. Its liveliness and clockwork tail, ticking constantly, never touching the ground. It appears again, and the squawking starts in earnest. I giggle inside, in case someone sees. I have to hold so much in, phase so much out. It’s exhausting.

At home, I mooch around the garden and notice the first herb robert flowers, pink wild bloom amongst the verdant. I note it down on my list of firsts in the garden and feel good. I hear Dad come back from work, and with him an injured bat. She’s the first of the year and we tend to it – females only have one pup a year, such precious cargo. We feed it mealworms and put water in a milk-bottle lid. The bat’s mouth is so small I use one of Bláthnaid’s paintbrushes to put droplets on its tongue, hoping it will be something like lapping dewdrops from a leaf or puddle. Dehydration is the main killer of an injured bat, so it’s important to get it to drink. But as they’re getting better they’ll chew up a mealworm like a piece of spaghetti.

They’re such innocuous and timid creatures, not worthy of the silly hype that surrounds the movies and Hallowe’en. They’re insect-controllers: a single pipistrelle eats 3,000 midges a night. Can you imagine the swarms really ruining your camping holiday if we didn’t have healthy numbers of bat populations? It’s unimaginable.

The bat sleeps in my room. They always do because it’s quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the McAnulty family. I always sleep so soundly when I have a bat staying in my room. I hear it scratching about in the night and am never afraid, I am comforted.

Friday, 8 June
I trudge to school with a leaden heart: the bat didn’t make it through the night, and we didn’t lose just one bat, we’ve lost every generation that could have followed. Her injuries, caused by a cat, were too much and she died, Dad thinks, from infection. I feel so heartbroken. I’ve finished all my exams but that isn’t enough to lighten my spirits.

After school, Lorcan and I arrive home to squeals of delight from Mum and Bláthnaid. ‘The fledglings are out! The fledglings are out!’ Mum roars with all the childish delight that many of the kids I know have lost before they’re eight or nine. The excitement is intoxicating, and it spreads into me and I feel a little airy. We watch through the window as a just-emerged coal tit, blue tit and sparrow rest on the branches of the pine trees, open-mouthed, noisy and boisterous and splendiferous.

Watching the discordant gang, I realise that I won’t see them when they’re fully grown. Not if we move house. I’ve been in complete denial about moving house. Tomorrow, though, we’re going house-hunting in County Down, in Castlewellan – a small town six miles from our new school in Newcastle (which Mum and Dad say is too expensive for us to live in). I’m not sure if I feel really annoyed about the whole thing, or whether that tickle I sometimes get thinking about it is a sign of the excitement there might be in starting over again. The opportunity to reinvent myself.

Mum notices my mood shifting. I give her my best broad grin and a hug. It’s not easy for any of us, but she and Dad will do most of the work – and the worrying.
Every day, ever since I can remember, Mum has sat me down, sat us all down, and explained every situation we’ve ever had to deal with. Whether it was going to the park, to the cinema, to someone’s house, to a café. Every time, all manner of things were delicately instructed. Social cues, meanings of gestures, some handy answers if we didn’t know what to say. Pictures, social stories, diagrams, cartoons. Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort. What’s a lot more effort, though, is the work Mum did and does still, so light-heartedly. She tells us it’s because she knows. She knows the confusion. That’s why she and Dad will be doing the worrying about moving, and why Mum will be doing all the planning and mind- mapping, and will somehow know how everything fits together. I’m lucky, very lucky.

Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings.

Saturday, 9 June
The day is glorious. It’s summer weather, I have a new Undertones T-shirt (the ‘My Perfect Cousin’ one) and I feel good wearing it. I don’t know why I love T-shirts with some part of me brandished on them. Maybe it’s because it will either scare people away or start a conversation without me having to do anything. Well, either way, that hasn’t happened yet!

We arrive at the first house for viewing and Mum hates it, I can tell. I don’t like it either. Everything about it is squashed, though we can see the Mourne Mountains from upstairs. The second house is much better but needs a lot of work – the views are extraordinary. Neither of them lights a fire in anyone’s belly, though, so that’s it for today, thankfully. And because it’s still morning we’re going to explore the Castlewellan Forest Park, a government-owned forest with native woods, conifer plantation and red kites. It even has a lake and a mountain path. Lorcan and Bláthnaid have already been but it’s a first for me. It’s so beautiful. I feel a swell of anticipation – if we move here we could live beside a forest. We could be near trees! We might not be crammed in by suburbia anymore. I could ride my bike without worrying about cars.

You see, this is a big deal for us kids. We can’t access nature the way my parents’ generation could. Our exposure to wildlife and wild places has been robbed by modernity and ‘progress’. Our pathways for exploration have been severed by development and roads and pollution. Seriously, you take your life into your own hands if you choose to cycle anywhere in Enniskillen. The roads are congested, busy and unfriendly, especially if, like me, you want to stop and stare. We always have to travel to forest parks or nature reserves for our dose, returning to the starkness of concrete and manicured lawns. To think we could live beside a forest!

The thought keeps echoing and I feel euphoric, almost delirious. We all feel it in the glow of the sun with swallows, house martins and swifts above us, dancing everywhere. So many. I’ve never seen so many all at once. Not all three together. It’s heady and intense. We’re all springing, bouncing off one another with sideway glances and controlled smiles. Hoping and holding it all in.

We find a peace maze in the park, created after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It has 6,000 yew trees and was planted by 5,000 school children and others from the nearby community. We rage through it until we come to a rope bridge. I stop and get out my binoculars: red kites, three of them, wheeling and soaring, ascending, dropping right over our heads. It’s staggering. We gawp at the sky and you can feel our family agreement travelling through us, silently: this might be a good place to live.

Exhausted after the long drive and the day’s events, we head back to Granny’s house in Warrenpoint, where we’re staying tonight. My Granny Elsie has amazing views from her back garden. We can see Carlingford Lough and the Mournes and the Cooley Mountains. Every day looks different there, with subtle changes of colour or the way the clouds sit then disperse on the mountains. Today, the sparrows are chattering and the sun is still high. We decide we need another walk along the beach before we get dinner.

We do a beach clean as we go, but not too much today, which gives us plenty of time for exploring. Lorcan has the best find of the day: a cuttlefish bone smoothed by the sea, silk-soft. The bones, which are not really bones at all but a shell, are usually from the females who die a few weeks after breeding, and the dead cephalopods’ skeletons are later washed up on the beach. Lorcan’s find has the kind of piddock holes that we normally see in soft rocks and clays, and there still seems to be life inside them so we carry it back to the sea before it dries out. We find another, bone-dry, which we bring back to Granny Elsie’s.

Later that night, in the darkness, sharing a room with Lorcan, we talk about the move in hushed tones and excitement, until we both sink like stones into sleep.

Excerpted from Diary of a Young Naturalist. Published by Milkweed Editions.

***

Dara McAnulty is the author Diary of a Young Naturalist, forthcoming in Spring 2021. He is the recipient of the Wainwright Prize for nature writing. Dara lives with his mum, dad, brother Lorcan, sister Bláthnaid and rescue greyhound Rosie in County Down, Northern Ireland. Dara’s love for nature, his activism and his honesty about autism, has earned him a huge social media following from across the world and many accolades: in 2017 he was awarded BBC Springwatch ‘Unsprung Hero’ Award and Birdwatch magazine ‘Local Hero’; in 2018 he was awarded ‘Animal Hero’ of the year by the Daily Mirror and became ambassador for RSPCA and the iWill campaign; in 2019 he became a Young Ambassador for the Jane Goodall Institute and became the youngest ever recipient of the RSPB Medal for conservation.