Nature Notes from the Boat (October 2020)

Cumnor Parish News, October 2020

October is my favourite month on the Thames, especially the days when early morning mists give way to sunshine, and autumnal hues of the riverbank are reflected in the water. October is all about warm colours and cosiness as we finish gathering fuel in preparation for winter and it’s the month we acquire the soft scent of woodsmoke as we light our stove each evening.

We’re not the only ones preparing our home for the months to come. This is also an active time for kingfishers. They start disputing territory in mid-September, but as the leaves start to fall from the waterside trees and bushes it gets easier to spot them. Listen out for the high-pitched cheee cheee cheee call they issue as they whizz past in a flash of cobalt blue and orange.

The willow opposite us is a hotly contested location, with its branches arching over the shallows. Two kingfishers regularly sit within and offer shrit-it-it, shrit-it-it threats to each other, the kingfisher equivalent to “Get off my land!” We’ve never witnessed kingfishers fighting, and for this, I’m thankful. They often fight to the death, and they have such short lives as it is that I don’t think I could bear to watch. Life on the river is filled with jeopardy for these small birds. A cold winter or flooding can affect their survival, but they’re a key indicator species and their presence shows us that the river is in good health.

Kingfishers are just part of a rowdy autumnal morning on the Thames. October is also the time when we see Canada and greylag geese arriving for the winter, bolstering the numbers already here. I know that not everyone likes geese because they’re noisy and messy, but the v-shaped formations and honking as they come in to land on our river basin or the lakes behind us is a quintessential part of the turning of the year. Plus, they make lovely walking companions in winter when there’s no one else around; each goose has a distinct personality and the little inter-gaggle power struggles remind me very much of humans.

According to nature historian Stephen Moss in Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, geese migrations played an important part in our prehistoric understanding of our environment, and the greylag goose was one of the earliest bird species we domesticated nearly 5,000 years ago. That’s an awful lot of history we share with geese, and our name for them has altered very little over time. Our lives are entwined with theirs and I look forward to, and welcome their return each year, following the pattern of millennia.

However, if you prefer your geese quieter, look out for Abingdon’s Egyptian geese. There’s a pair that have made the Thames in south Abingdon their home. They arrived a couple of years ago and announced their presence by landing on our roof and nibbling our plants. They’ve stayed in the local area ever since. They’re smaller than greylag and Canada geese, more like over-sized ducks – in fact, they’re related to the shelduck – and they have very distinctive brown “kohl” eyepatches. They’re also pretty good at perching on posts and poles and have been seen sitting on boat rails.

One other bird species plays a special part in our autumn on the Thames, and more often than not they arrive in October. I’ve been keeping a record of tufted ducks’ seasonal return since 2009 and jokingly claim they’re harbingers of winter. They’re not, of course, their migration is determined by the weather in Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia, or wherever they kept their summer. The UK has year-round residents, but their numbers swell in winter and this is the time we start to see them on the Thames or in the old gravel pits nearby. They’re shy birds, but the males are the easiest to distinguish: glossy black heads and bodies with white flanks, golden eyes and a blue beak. The distinctive black ponytailed tuft on the male’s head is where they get their name.

October is a good time for wildlife spotting on the Thames. The summer boating season is coming to a close and as human activity on the river quietens it gives way to our wilder neighbours. So, next time you’re walking beside the river look for the blue flash of a kingfisher or check to see whether the two-tone tufted ducks have arrived. But, most importantly, if you see a gaggle of geese on your wanders, stop to say hello. They like a good natter and have probably come an awful long way to be here. If only we could understand the stories they have to tell!

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