Nature Notes from the Boat (July & August 2020)

Cumnor Parish News, July & August 2020.

People are beginning to return to the Thames, and what a beautiful river they are coming back to. Flag irises are in bloom along the margins causing gold reflections to skit across the water’s surface like damselflies, and the water is so clear that you can watch carp spawning amongst the reeds.

When was the last time the Thames had such respite from human activity? It has thrived whilst we have mostly been absent, and I hope it continues to do so now that we are returning.

The ducklings I wrote about over the past two months are nearly adults now. They sit out the hot days snoozing in the shadows on the island beside our mooring. There have been many times I have wished to join them to escape the midday sun.

The moorhen chicks, who looked like tonsured little monks only a month ago, are already beginning to resemble their parents. They perch in the pyracantha outside our galley window waiting for us to throw seed for them.

Last year’s first brood made a game of running up and down our gunwales and tapping on our windows – the boat makes an excellent wildlife hide, but sometimes I think we are the ones being watched.

There are new chicks on the river too. Remember our cantankerous coots who dismantled the moorhens’ and grebes’ nests? They are currently too preoccupied rearing their own brood to be causing too much trouble.

Their chicks are curious-looking birds: monkish like baby moorhens, but sporting fiery manes the colour of tropical sunsets. It can be easy to mistake the two when they are both young and sometimes they too muddle themselves up and attempt to join the wrong family. It doesn’t always end well for the young chick when this happens but happily, so far this year, everyone is respecting social distancing rules.

Free from coot interruptions, the great crested grebes were finally able to nest and hatch a brood of four. They are my favourite looking of all the waterfowl young. Grebe chicks are striped liked tiny zebras, and have a little triangular red patch on their forehead thought to assist the parents with feeding.

According to Gary L. Nuechterlein, an animal behaviour researcher at North Dakota State University, the more the chick begs for food the brighter the red spot becomes. Once the bird is sated the mark fades to pink.

Grebe chicks take to the water not long after hatching, and quite often you will see them hitching a ride on a parent’s back.

They are not the only piggybackers we have here. Our swans, the Checkhovs, hatched seven cygnets in May, and it was a tight squeeze for the young to fit on the pen’s back.

Life in the wild is difficult, and every year we lose a number of cygnets to predation, illness or injury. The charity Swan Support often comes to assist with swan and cygnet rescues and we collect charity donations for them in return.

In a normal year, we get to see Swan Support under happier circumstances when they accompany the annual Swan Upping on the Thames. During the third week of July, The Queen’s Swan Marker and Swan Uppers take a census of the numbers and health of cygnets from Sunbury Lock to Abingdon.

It is usually the most excitement our little stretch of water sees, but this year it has been cancelled due to Coronavirus. Next year, if you get chance, look out for the flotilla of traditional skiffs and support vessels in all their pageantry as they make their way up the Thames.

Our swans are creatures of habit and so the Swan Uppers always know where to find them. They corral them with their skiffs to the call of “All up!” and gently lift them from the water. The cygnets are weighed and measured – last year our heaviest cygnet was affectionately referred to as “a whale”, proof that they are well fed by locals – before being tagged and released back into the river.

The swans don’t seem to mind too much, there is only a little wagging of tail feathers over the indignity of it all, and whilst the Swan Uppers row their way upstream to Abingdon Bridge where they toast The Queen with sherry, our little bit of the river returns to its normal quiet flow.

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