Nature Notes from the Boat (June 2020)

Cumnor Parish News, June 2020

These lockdown days have mostly been warm and sunny. Sometimes they seem extraordinarily long as time ceases to have the same significance as it did before. Whilst we fall into the same repeated metres of routine, and as the days roll into one, it’s reassuring to have spring cast its changes. We might not know our Tuesday from our Sunday, but we can still measure time’s passage by the firsts we observe:

We’ve seen the first bats come out of hibernation and return to our skies. It’s a nightly ritual, when the weather is favourable, to sit on the boat roof as the sun sets and wait for them to take to the wing. They scoot low over the Thames intercepting insects and are at their most active in the gloaming. It’s still chilly enough at night to light our stove, but the days are sufficiently warm for a plentiful supply of insects to hatch for them. River life is never a quiet affair, but it seems at its most peaceful as the day fades, and the boat roof is a perfect place from which to observe it.

Bats are not the only aviators to return to our skies. Two weeks ago we saw our first pair of swifts as we walked along the riverbank, and a week later, to a great fanfare of chirruping and flashing of wings, our moorings were awash with swallows, swifts and house martins. In fifteen years of river life, I’ve never seen anything quite as spectacular as them flittering between the boats and darting above our heads. They are so agile in flight that a quick flick of their tail can help change direction to prevent a collision. All three species are built for manoeuvrability, but it’s the deep fork of the swallow’s tail that makes them recognisable. To tell your house martin from your swift look for a white rump and underbelly. The swift is a consistent sooty brown save for a pale chin.

This is also the month of the first cuckoo call. I record the date every year as though it’s something prophetic; a herald of change. Seed grows and meadows bloom/ And the wood springs forth anew/ Sing, cuccu! It’s the male who makes that distinctive cuckoo call, and the sound draws me into the fields beside the river in pursuit of him. I’ve only seen him twice, but I’ll never tire of the search. Cuckoo numbers are declining – according to the British Trust of Ornithology, numbers have dropped by 65% since the 1980s.

In June the cuckoo’s call is incessant, waking me with the dawn, and a constant companion throughout the day, but by late July or early August when this year’s offspring have departed, I’m left bereft by its absence and long for spring and their return once more.

This is not just the month of returning birds, but of newly hatched ones too. We’ve seen our first ducklings of the year. There are three mallard hens who make this stretch of the Thames their home. Last month I introduced you to Nibbles, but we also have two of her offspring, Argy Bargy Margie (Margie for short), and Margie Too. Margie and Margie Too are practically identical and distinguishable only by the company they keep. Margie has two drakes who follow her everywhere, whereas Margie Too is solitary and prefers a life less complicated.

Margie Too and Nibbles both have ducklings, but it’s a dangerous world out there, and bringing up young isn’t easy on a river full of predators such as pike, mink, otters, herons, gulls, and other birds of prey. One of the most difficult aspects of living on the river is coming to terms with the food chain.

That brings me onto our moorhens, Harold and Andie. Last month their nest was raided by both coots and rats. No eggs survived. We witnessed a fight between Harold and one of the rats. Harold prevailed, but it was too late for their nest and we feared we wouldn’t see an early brood. Moorhens are resilient birds though, and only this morning we spied seven moorhen chicks being fed by their parents in the reeds. After all they have been through, Harold and Andie prevailed, and the first moorhen fledglings of the year have made it onto our part of the Thames.

Nature Notes from the Boat (May 2020)

Cumnor Parish News, May 2020

20180711_183128

It is currently a strange and uncertain time for us humans, but for the wildlife on the Thames spring is unfurling as it normally does and we observe the usual soap operas of their existence in little vignettes as we peer through our window. Last month I wrote about how our moorhens, Harold and Andie, nest high in the pyracantha beside our galley window out of the way of the coots. Well, this year we were surprised to discover a second nest just above the level of the river. We were not the only ones to spot it. The coots did too and raided it. The moorhens defended, but it was to no avail. The coots destroyed the nest and turfed one egg into the water, and swam away with another.

It is easy to describe how cruel and horrific these actions were to witness – and they were – we often refer to the coots as little hooligans, but this views them, and nature through too narrow a lens. Territorial struggles are taking place all along the river by all manner of creatures but it would not be fair to describe nature as cruel. As someone who gives names to all the local birds, I realise how easy it is to anthropomorphize them (the coots are called Gavin and Stacey, by the way). Quite often I have to remind myself that nature just… is.

All is not lost for our moorhens, though. As I sit here typing I can hear clucking coming from deep within the pyracantha. This means there are surviving eggs and the moorhens are teaching the chicks inside to recognise their call. The female moorhen can lay up to twelve eggs, one a day, and they will take approximately twenty-two days to hatch. Soon we will see black fluffy chicks with over-sized feet and tonsured heads.

Whilst this is a tense time on the river for its inhabitants, there is one thing I look forward to every year: the return of Nibbles our mallard hen. Like all the birds on the river, she is wild – I cannot really claim that she is ours – but for a few months of every year, she makes herself at home by stealing the ship’s cat’s food and by resting away from the amorous advances of the mallard drakes. Nibbles has visited us for the past three years. She taps on the cat flap or, if our boat doors are open, hops in and helps herself to Lolly’s biscuits. She will sit on the boat roof waiting for us and run down the pontoon to greet us if we have been away. She becomes an extra member of our family at this time of year, and when she has chicks… Well, last year we were able to observe nine of her ducklings grow into adults. A record year for her! It became a bit crowded on our back deck at times and we had ducks peering through our open hatches and windows. In truth, it can get a little chaotic, but I would not want it any other way. As far as self-isolating goes, this is a pretty good place to be forced to stay at home.

20180324_153411-1

nibbles2-1

20180324_151013-1

Book Review: The Familiars: A Novel by Stacey Halls

It is 1612 and King James I and VI considers Lancashire a wild and unlawful place in need of taming. Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth of Gawthorpe Hall is with child and needs to produce a male heir to secure her position. The discovery of a letter written by a doctor to her husband Richard reveals that, after previous miscarriages, she will not survive another birth. Her pregnancy is already making her ill, but during a chance meeting in the woods with Alice Grey, a local midwife, she is given the chance of life. Alice promises Fleetwood she can safely deliver her and her baby, but this is a time when religious fervour comes into conflict with rural life, and one man’s thirst for power can ruin it all. Alice is soon accused of witchcraft and Fleetwood must risk everything to save them both.

Set against the backdrop of the Pendle Hill Witch Trials, Stacey Halls’ gothic mystery examines the limits of class and justice for seventeenth-century women. Using real-life historical figures and events Hall asks us to question the motives behind the witch hunts. Her characterisation of those accused is respectful – giving power and a sense of defiance to those no longer in control of their own destiny.

Hall delicately builds the level of suspense as the novel progresses and gives the reader just enough elements of the supernatural for them to question and second guess themselves. Is the fox with the amber eyes Alice’s familiar? Is it Alice herself? What is it about Jennet Device that is so unnerving? Hall makes us examine our own superstitions and, ultimately, whether those accused of witchcraft were guilty of such crimes or victims of the complexities of power politics in post-Reformation Europe.

Hall writes beautifully and her similes have the power to bewitch, drawing you in and not letting you go:

‘She’s dead! She’s dead! She’s dead!’

The words flew out like crows from a forest, echoing around the walls with nowhere to land.

Essentially this is a tale about friendship, courage and hope; a story that entrances you until you are fully submerged into a world of mystery, power and injustice.

4/5 Would definitely recommend.

The Familiars: A Novel by Stacey Hall

Genre: Historical fiction, gothic mystery.

Paperback: 384 pages

Publisher: MIRA; Original edition (October 1, 2019)

ISBN-10: 0778309010

ISBN-13: 978-0778309017

Nature Notes from the Boat (April 2020)

Cumnor Parish News, April 2020

Great crested grebes penguin weed dance

The Thames is still in spate. The flow is strong and swift and heavy with sediment. The threat of flooding remains but whilst it’s been a very wet season, it hasn’t been our worst. In 2014 we were flooded for so long that we practically lived in wellie boots and waders from December until February. This year storm Dennis left us flooded for five days, but not enough to impact too much on our everyday lives. As the floodwater receded it revealed new growth of marsh marigolds and flag irises indicating that spring had officially arrived.

One of the most beautiful sights at this time of year on the Thames is the courtship display of great crested grebes. They’re beautiful birds, with their chestnut ruffs and black ear tippets, and bodies held low in the water. It’s worth a visit to your nearest river, lake or gravel pit to see them and their elaborate and delicate courtship dance.

It starts with a call, quite a loud rumbling bawl for such a little bird – enough to wake us on a morning – and it’s returned by a potential mate. When the two birds meet their dance begins. They face each other in the water and shake their heads from side to side. It can be a lengthy process with breaks every so often as one bird turns its head away to flick the feathers on its back with its beak. It reminds me of a curtsey or a bow during a Regency era dance, before the music starts again and carries them forward.

They flirt like this for a while before reaching the crescendo of their performance; the penguin or weed dance. Both birds dive and when they resurface rush towards each other carrying reeds in their beaks. They meet, finally, breast to breast, and rear out of the water shaking their heads and their collected weeds. They have agreed to mate, and the business of nest-building can begin.

Our resident grebes constructed a nest within the branches of a willow tree opposite us where it meets the water, thus anchoring it in place against the movement of the river. But river life is never easy or uncomplicated and there are other waterfowl vying for territory. Every year we watch the soap opera unfold; the grebes build a nest and the coots dismantle it until no reed or twig remains. The grebes will build two or three nests in this manner before the coots finally relent and are distracted by their own nest-building urges.

Our moorhen family have a tried and tested means of avoiding the coots’ destructive behaviour. They climb the pyracantha outside our galley window with their large yellow-green feet, using the thorns as ladder rungs, and safely build their nest above the water.

Their courtship display doesn’t hold the extravagance of the grebes’, but in its own way, it’s sweet to watch. We thought our resident moorhens might have mated for life, or at least it seemed that way after their first few years together. But two years ago a juvenile from their first brood didn’t leave to find new territory as the others did. It stayed close and last spring we noticed the adult female had disappeared and the younger moorhen replaced her. Their lives are quite secretive by the water’s edge so it’s difficult to know what happened to her. Moorhens are generally unassuming birds with their dark plumage, white under-tail, and yellow-tipped red beaks, but even they, it seems, have their own domestic challenges.

Their courtship ritual is as quiet and modest as they are. The male, Harold in our case (of course we named them), swims towards Andie with his beak low in the water and when they meet they preen and fuss each other, and cluck happily. They’ve already spent the year together so they’ve no need for flashy courtship displays or ostentatious head ruffs and tippets.

Great crested grebes

Great crested grebe curtsey

Moorhens Harold and Andie

A PDF version of this article can be found here: CPN

Press Release: ‘The Country Tales with Rodderick & Mabel Rat and their Allotment Friends’ by Lynn Carter

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Title: The Country Tales with Rodderick & Mabel Rat and their Allotment Friends

Lynn Carter

Published by Michael Terence Publishing

Available Amazon, Kindle and local bookshops.

It’s a challenging time for our wildlife and none more so than for the animal and bird friends who live secretly amongst the allotment plots on the edge of a once-sleepy town. Rodderick and Mabel Rat have made their home under the shed of plot 59 but their world is about to turn upside down when they discover gravel quarrying and the building of a new housing estate next door have displaced their badger friends the Bodgers, and Ruby, a lonely deer. Neighbouring wildlife is already moving in from across the river as the diggers move in, but where is Ruby, and how will the animals and birds on the allotment band together to save her?

This charming and beautifully comedic tale shows the importance of friendship during difficult times – how regardless of species, kindness really does matter, and it teaches us to tread gently on this world.

Experience the fun of the fair at the annual Harvest Mouse Festival and join Rodderick, Mabel, the Bodgers, Digger the mole, and rabbits Clever Trever and Bunny Bonkers as they race against time to bring Ruby back to the safety of the allotments.

‘How perfect is this book for young children? Introducing fantastic characters that you can truly believe in and get swept away in their adventures. Story writing at its finest…..’

-Amazon Customer Review

About the Author: Lynn Carter is most at home in the Oxfordshire countryside where she lived on her family farm in Cumnor. She trained in pharmacy at the Royal Infirmary and later moved to Abingdon-on-Thames where she finds peace amongst the local allotments. Her plot, no. 59, really is where Rodderick and Mabel live, secretly under the floorboards of her shed, and Ruby the deer visits to nibble the gooseberries. Lynn, a causal allotment holder (or ‘lottie’ for short) gardens with wildlife in mind. The plots and beehives in the wood are neighboured by expanding gravel quarries and now a new housing estate. This is Lynn’s first book in a series of ‘The Country Tales’ to feature Rodderick and Mabel, and their allotment friends.

Media enquiries: please contact Lynn at u2latte@yahoo.co.uk

 

20200311_082835-1

 

###

Nature Notes from the Boat (March 2020)

Published in Cumnor Parish News, March 2020.

Winter felt particularly long on the Thames with flooding and strong stream warnings in place since November, so we were eager to welcome spring and the lengthening daylight hours. We hoped life on our little corner of the river would settle down, but that wasn’t to be. Storm Ciara came clattering in creating waves where there usually aren’t any, and tearing the frame from our solar hot-water heat exchanger from the roof. I spent a little while hanging from the gunwale fishing it from the water, and I’ve not been the only one fishing during these times of higher than usual water levels. Lolly, our ‘ship’s cat’, has developed the art of sitting patiently on the bank at the water’s edge and scooping fish from the river with her paws. She brings her catches in to show us and we reward her by releasing them back into the Thames.

Whilst the weather has been unsettled, it hasn’t slowed down the onset of spring. Subtle changes are afoot in the behaviour of the wildlife about us. Our local mute swan family raised eight cygnets last year, and now, as the cygnets are maturing and losing their grey/brown juvenile plumage, the adults are chasing them away in readiness for the new mating season. Only one cygnet remains, and the parents have already started their courtship dance; a synchronised choreography of reflected moves that culminate in their heads and necks meeting to form a heart after mating. Like most mating habits of waterfowl, there is an element of jeopardy for the female when her head is below the water. It’s disquieting to witness and always a relief to know she’s fine. Next month the swans will nest and we expect to see this year’s cygnets in early May. It might not be wise to name the wildlife around us as personal involvement makes it difficult to deal with life’s tragedies, but we know from researching the cob’s leg tag that he hatched at Marlow in 2003 and moved here in 2011. It’s difficult to remain unattached to a neighbour who calls in every day – literally. He’s learned to knock on the side of our boat under the galley window when he wants food, and each year he teaches his cygnets to do the same. It was inevitable really that we would name him. So, our local swan family have become known as the Chekhovs. I would like to claim that it was literary related, but it was mainly Star Trek. The pair of swans you often see at St. Helen’s Wharf in Abingdon chasing the geese and rival swans away – that’s the Chekhovs. On their website, the RSPB list the oldest living ringed wild mute swan as fifteen, so I think Mr. Chekhov is doing well all things considered.

Aside from the Chekhovs’ sometimes raucous behaviour, the river is usually still quiet before the boating season begins, and it allows time for a more elusive resident of the river to shine. The coldest and stillest of February days brings an otter or two out from the shadows. At their cheekiest, we see them use the hulls of moored boats as springboards to propel themselves around the water, but mostly it’s just the evidence of their visits that we find; spraint marks, fish remains, and muscle shells left under our apple tree. Nature surveys have recorded at least one holt nearby and the local population seems to be in fine fettle. Otters are pretty shy creatures, but when they don’t realise they’re being observed they’re quite boisterous. They huff and chitter to each other as they rollick and roll through the water. We spent months visiting local streams and rivers in search of otters only to discover, one Christmas Eve a couple of years ago, that the strange chattering coming from outside our back door, was a mother and her cub fishing. We’ve seen otters every winter since. To witness them is to know that it’s they who own the river, and it’s a privilege to see.

IMG_20191108_152436

IMG-20200229-WA0001-1

Osprey Stopover

Over the years we have heard rumours that we are on the osprey migration path as the birds travel from their breeding sites in Scotland and the north of England down through mainland Europe to Africa. The reported sightings are only brief: an osprey spotted upstream, above the lock or glimpsed over the lake in a neighbouring village before flying onwards and away. We have been here eleven years and only had maybes to add to that list. Maybe it was… It could have been…

img_20160917_113635
Until, that is, the afternoon of 15th September when my attention was drawn upwards by a squabble of gulls as they mobbed a buzzard above our moorings. I stood and watched with A and R beside me. We realised pretty quickly that the colouring was wrong for a buzzard, the wing shape and primaries not quite right, it rode the thermals a little differently, and I’ve never seen a buzzard fishing… Could it really be?

img_20160915_171016
The gulls moved off, and the red kites came in. Red kites, so gentle in their flight, bullied by gull and crow and tern became the aggressors; a sight new to us. How the tables turned with the advent of this interloper.

img_20160917_113113img_20160915_232706

The osprey flew away over the neighbouring lakes to the south, unfazed by gull or kite, and an hour or so later she returned. She rode the breeze above us, directly overhead, and watched us watching her. I found myself caught in her amber gaze as she adjusted tail feathers and wing to the fluctuations of the breeze. She held me there a while, keeping herself steady, her eyes on mine, and then she was gone. She collected a thermal and lifted away leaving me to find my breath and marvel at what we had just seen.

img_20160917_004522

Lambourn Downs – Autumn Equinox – Ebbings – a Toast – Friendship

 

We didn’t have any plans so followed the Ickleton Road, a grey scar carved out amongst corn-stub fields, and we chased the sun into the west. Sometimes the road rose in a causeway, at others it sank, hunkered against field and hedgerow. Now and again we drove past a tractor etching lines of umber into the sun-tarnished landscape, the gold of summer warmed grass flashing bronze like a coin in the evening light before disappearing beneath the plough; John Barleycorn borne back into the loam.

As the light levels dropped we stole onto a chalk byway, pearlescent in the gloom. Chalk roads forever draw us in and we followed the track perpendicular to the flight of a tawny owl, and crawled to a halt beside a copse of beech; a familiar spot of comfort . This, I thought, was where we were supposed to be, amongst the low rolling hills of the Downs. We sat in near darkness as the Milky Way became a clear bridge across the night sky directly above. Our attention drawn away by the coo and cluck of a badger cub we met last month. Back then we had rested on a beech log beside his trail and he had come, a flash of white under a canopy of beech-darkness, and was surprised to find us here. He retreated at first, but eventually found the courage to come closer, his snorts telling us that he was fearsome, bigger than his size belied, and his coos to his mother exposing his young age. We became a game to him, it seemed, as he bounced and chirped his way past to continue his foraging. His mother followed after. He had grown since that encounter, four weeks had made a big difference, and we sat on the edge of the van and watched them as they chittered and crossed the track ahead of us.

It was a strange night out there on the Downs. We came to escape news at home, but it travelled with us. Day and night of equal length, normally marked with a toast, but that night we raised our tankards to our friend. We didn’t know whether he would be alive come morning and we had tried to outrun the unknown. He is of this land, our friend, strong like the scrub covered ridge that rose before us, seemingly indestructible, but as soft as the Cretaceous chalk beneath our feet, compacted into hard layers and yielding to the weather, the ebb and flow of life; rain worn rivulets carved out like miniature riverbeds running away from us like his life. Rob drank Loose Cannon beer, our friend’s favourite, and I sipped home-made ginger beer. He would’ve wrinkled his nose at that, and reminded me that I am a lightweight. I am indeed a lightweight. So we drank to him, 290 miles away in a hospital bed, and we thought he was with us momentarily, in the hills of his home-county, the landscape he knows so well, that we promised him we’d walk.

The flicker of bats above roused us from our sentimentality and we followed the call of tawny owls out into a meadow, towards a spinney that stood stark, a ghost shadow in the night. Headlights blazed and followed trails in the distance and we were reminded that somewhere, out there in the darkness, human life carried on. We didn’t see the owls that led us and eventually we turned tail and wound our way back to camp. I don’t recall that there was a breeze, just the damp coldness of dew on grass and leaf and mud, and the scent of summer dying. Sometime in the night I was woken by the scream of a barn owl swooping low like a banshee at our camp’s threshold, and as dawn made shapes distinguishable again I was roused by the tinker of beech husks bouncing off our van’s roof as a squirrel breakfasted in the beech above.

Daylight came and brought with it news that our friend still lived.

imag4837

 

Piggy Feet: 15.08.76 – 05.10.16  ❤

 

Lammas

Lammas and Weodmonað (Weed-month; the month of tall grasses) is one of my favourite times of year. I confess to a long standing love affair with both autumn and winter, and Lammas nudges me ever-so-closer to autumn’s embrace. We have been harvesting herbs and vegetables for a little while now. The boat holds the subtle scent of lavender, chamomile, catnip and mugwort as they hang to dry. Mugwort reminds me of summer meadows and long hazy nights of low moons over late harvests. It brings memories of the fields of my Yorkshire childhood and I am often reminded of it still as I watch the tractors work the midnight grass harvest across the river from us.

The Old English poem, the Menologium, describes Lammas Day and the turning of the summer beautifully:

And þæs symle scriþ
ymb seofon niht þæs sumere gebrihted
Weodmonað on tun, welhwær bringeð
Agustus yrmenþeodum
hlafmæssan dæg. Swa þæs hærfest cymð
ymbe oðer swylc butan anre wanan,
wlitig, wæstmum hladen; wela byð geywed
fægere on foldan.

And after seven nights
of summer’s brightness Weed-month slips
into the dwellings, everywhere August brings
to all peoples Lammas Day; so the harvest comes,
after that number of nights but one,
bright, laden with fruits. Plenty is revealed,
beautiful upon the earth.

(Translation by The Clerk of Oxford)

And so as we leave the height of summer sun and July heat we turn our faces towards August and mark the occasion with a feast of our first harvest produce and bread that we share with our neighbours. For us it is Lammas that is celebrated and for them it is Lughnasadh.

I think bread is a wonderful medium for the telling of short tales or the working of magic. A loaf baked here is never without decoration of some kind whether runes, declarations of love, a joke, or the tales of the season and John Barleycorn (although in our very own personal mythology he is Barry Wheatycorn). With R working I was in charge of this year’s feast.

A simple bread design with the initials of all those who were present (including the ship’s cat). For our main I cooked salmon with a selection of vegetables and herbs grown on our boat. After a couple of days of rain the runner beans and courgettes were plump, and under clouds that threatened more rain we sat on the front deck and watched Lammas Day fold into the belly of night.

 

Untitled

 

Shop Stock and Ship’s Cat

I have been busy of late making items for my Etsy shop and I appear to have taken a turn into the colourful. R has claimed the large Book of Kells wood burning so that now hangs from a bulkhead in the boat.

DSCN5898

And Lolly offered her assistance as I was trying to photograph individual items to list for sale. I guess there is always a risk when using sprigs of catnip as a prop. She does like to stay abreast of shop activity and I do try and keep her informed, even if it is just to encourage her not to foray onto my work desk. But who can resist the call of the catnip?

DSCN5837

_DSC0489

Updated shop listings include:

  • Anglo Saxon Runes with hag stone pouch
  • Rowan, blackthorn and hag stone witch ladder: sold
  • ALU-ULA runic protection charm: sold
  • Vegvisir keyring: sold
  • Round Book of Kells Celtic knot wood burning: sold (30/07/16)