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.

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