Nature Notes from the Boat (May 2020)

Cumnor Parish News, May 2020

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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.

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Published by Suzanne

Suzanne lives with her Morris dancing husband and cat-who-thinks-she's-human on a narrowboat on the Thames. She makes boating look difficult and constantly proves that gravity favours the unco-ordinated. She loves her allotment, and likes to blog about her (mis)adventures.

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