Nature Notes from the Boat (September 2020)

Cumnor Parish News, September 2020

September is a time of change on the Thames when the scent of cut grass from the floodplain meadows across the river hint at summer’s fading. The reedmace (or bulrushes as they’re often called) are nearing the end of their cycle and the tops of their brown sausage-shaped seed heads are just beginning to turn to fluff. If I reach out far enough from my galley window I can pick the plump blackberries growing on the bank. Everything looks a little tarnished now, even the purple loosestrife that flowers into October isn’t as lustrous as it once was.

It’s not just the flora that’s hinting at summer’s passing. There’s no need for birds to fiercely defend their territories at this time of year so those still singing do so without the urgency of spring and early summer. The cuckoos have long gone, and like the swifts have headed for warmer climes. The river still wends its way as it always does, but there are differences in the behaviour of the creatures we share these waters with. Autumn is creeping in.

Nibbles and the two Margies, our mallard hens, are becoming timid again and no longer try to enter our home. They follow us still, but keep their distance and give out little warning huffs if we venture too close. Soon they won’t even visit us at all, and there’ll be no more knocking on the cat flap until next year. The start of autumn is my favourite time on the river when the days are cool and slow-moving and the nights only just beginning to muster strength, but I miss the company of our wild ducks.

The cygnets too have changed. They’re more independent now and venture further away from their parents. They’re gaining in confidence and open to exploration. Their grey down is giving way to white after the July moult and September is the time to watch them strengthening and testing their wings. They clatter across the water with wings threshing and I wonder at the sheer amount of energy it takes to conquer flight. They’re clumsy to begin with, but eventually, and with a rhythmical hum, they take to the sky. If takeoff is ungainly, well, you should see their landings! They’ll have another five months to perfect their technique before it’s time to leave and find a territory of their own.

The majority of our juvenile waterfowl, however, have already left to forge their own way. Andrew Jnr, our moorhen chick popped his head into the office one day, and that was it. It was the last time he came to see us. If I was a sentimental kind of person I would suggest that he was saying goodbye, but I know that’s wishful thinking… Plus I’ve seen him hanging out with the ducks on the riverbank across the way, so I know he hasn’t ventured too far. Like Nibbles and the Margies, he’s developed a sensible wariness of humans.

There are still some young around at this time of year. Juvenile chiffchaffs are very active and flit amongst the willows on the riverbank. They’re tiny yellowish-brown birds and are so very delicate that sometimes we see them sitting on boat rails entwined in strands of cobweb.

September on the Thames is the perfect time to watch for ospreys as they migrate south for winter. You’ll be used to seeing red kites and buzzards in our skies, but take extra care if you’re near the river, or lakes such as at Thrupp, because there’s a chance there’s an osprey overhead. We’ve been lucky enough to have one spend a couple of days here, fishing beside us, and completely unflustered by the kites and crows trying to move it on. You may have even seen one before and mistaken it for a buzzard. The osprey has paler underparts, a distinct eye stripe, and soars with a crook in its wings.

Ospreys aren’t the only migrants in our skies. Now is the time that swallows and house martins are preparing to leave. It’s the sign we all recognise that summer is coming to a close. It will take them approximately six weeks to reach their wintering sites. It’s a long old trek for birds so small, and I always wish them well when I see them gathering on telegraph lines near the river.

Whilst it’s sad to see our summer visitors leave, I must confess that I find joy in the knowledge that soon starling murmurations will begin in earnest. September is a month that hints at what is to come as autumn falls into winter and flock numbers grow. There are few to start with, but there’s still a show to be seen as starlings arrive from Scandinavia to join our own. The intricate, mesmerising aerial display that pulses and beats across the sky before the birds come in to roost in the rushes and reeds is always worth pausing for. There’s nothing that says the year is turning quite like the departure of swallows and the gathering of starlings.

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