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.



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