Nature Notes from the Boat (November 2020)

Cumnor Parish News, November 2020.

It has been an unusual year and as Coronavirus restrictions and the slowing of the boating season leaves us quieter than normal we find that we are spending more time with our wild kin than with humans. Our ducks, Nibbles and Margie, who retreated as the breeding season ended and who we did not expect to see until next year have tentatively returned. Margie still keeps her distance, but Nibbles is back to knocking on the cat flap demanding breakfast, and sitting on our roof hatch guarding our boat when we are out.

As the daylight levels drop and the reeds by the water’s edge are sheared by colder weather we find that the numbers of our breakfast companions swell. Tim, a wild Duclair mallard mix, also known as a “mucky mallard”, has recently joined us. He has a wing injury and so is unlikely to be able to fly. We do not know what his future holds, but he seems happy and every morning as we check our wildlife camera he runs to greet us. I confess that this is my happiest time of day. There is something utterly joyful about having a duck run without fear to greet you and we will offer him safe harbour for as long as he needs it.

He is joined at breakfast by a family of crows. They nest in the park beside us and first came to our attention one November morning three years ago when the adults (who we named Marie and Pierre after the Curies) decided they also wanted to be in on the breakfast action. We were initially concerned they would predate ducklings or moorhen chicks if we fed them with the ducks so we encouraged them to feed at the edge of our moorings instead and we have never had any problems. In fact, the feeding situation worked so well that the crows now come when called. We do not want to encroach too much on their lives or make them dependent on us for food, so we will always keep our distance and avoid any chance of imprinting with their young. Last year Marie and Pierre had one fledgling, Irene, and this year two more. We are yet to name them, but they are a boisterous family full of fun and cheeky beyond their measure!

This means November, whilst quiet of human activity is actually a wildly loud month. The humming and murmur of boat engines are replaced by the honking of early morning geese committee meetings, kingfishers chittering, ducks chattering and our crows misbehaving. We have clear disc vent covers on the roof of our boat. The discs allow daylight to filter inside making winter days brighter, but every morning as the sun starts to rise the crows land on our roof and one of this year’s brood has learned how to remove the vent over our bedroom in order to poke its head in and caw at us. Who needs an alarm clock?

It is not just incursions by crows that we have to deal with, sometimes we experience squirrel break-ins and food raids. November’s cooler weather means we can use the gas locker on our back deck as an overspill larder and we often leave a heavy casserole pot out overnight ready to bring in the following morning – and we are regularly met with squirrels from the park chancing their luck and gambling on a prized feast. More than once, we have discovered a squirrel in the galley that has needed shooing out. We affixed a squirrel feeder to our garden fence once to encourage them to leave our food and the bird feeders alone, but only one squirrel figured out how to use it, and he loved to nap in the feeder after particularly nut-heavy lunches! As most people know, squirrels can be quite destructive so the ones that could not work out how to open the nut box chewed their way in. It was a short-lived feeder, but we think it brought happiness to that one postprandial squirrel.

November then, for those of us who live on or beside the water is about hunkering down, gathering together and checking our food provisions; making sure we have enough to see us through the winter. For us, it is evenings curled in front of the stove and mornings heralded in by the cacophony of our wild neighbours. It is about sharing our space and our resources and for fattening ourselves up ready for leaner times. As Tove Jansson wrote, the quiet transition from autumn to winter is not a bad time at all. It’s a time for protecting and securing things and for making sure you’ve got in as many supplies as you can…

Winter is coming and we all want to be prepared.

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