Nature Notes from the Boat (February 2021)

Cumnor Parish News, February 2021

It has become a tradition to flood in December and January, and this season was no different. As Rat says in The Willows in Winter, ‘You can never tell with the river how high it will come, or quite where,’ and this is certainly true as the Thames still has the propensity to catch us unawares, even after sixteen years of living afloat.

On Christmas Day we knew the water was rising and we started to prepare, but by Boxing Day we were still left pushing cars out of the floodwater and wading to get bags of coal when the water shot up overnight. In total it rose just over three feet, and once it had run through, it left us with the aroma of mudflats and had dressed all that it had passed over in wrack; our very own tideline.

Just as January can leave us with wet feet, February can close us in with ice and snow. It is usually the coldest month on the water, and when we experience consecutive days of temperatures below zero our mooring basin begins to freeze. The ice creaks and scrapes an eerie strain as it rubs against our boat’s steel hull, and any movement upon the ice reverberates and echoes through the water like whale song and sonar. It is both alien and beautiful.

It is at times like these when our elusive water rail comes out of hiding in search of food; skirting the reeds and tapping at the ice. It is slimmer than a moorhen and carries the colours of a dunnock, and its call sounds like it is being murdered. I probably have not sold it well, but it is a beautiful bird and a welcome sight when the ducks and swans cannot reach us for ice. It reminds us that there is still life out there at the seemingly desolate edges where little ice shelves form and weave a delicate pattern as the river levels rise and fall.

Snow can be an inconvenience when living on a boat, but it is a bewitching inconvenience. All external sound is dampened, and real-life seems to recede. A new world opens up to us but Lolly, our ship’s cat, prefers to experience it from inside the boat where she is warm and dry. For us humans though, it is a great time to venture out and see the Thames in its new raiment and to look for animal tracks along the riverbank: fox, deer, otter, rat, water vole, squirrel, mink, and an assortment of birds. If you are up early enough you will see the evidence of those we share our riverside life with. Sometimes, when our gangplank freezes overnight we capture the tracks of moorhens contemplating a visit, or Lolly’s paw prints indicating she has been guarding our home whilst we sleep.

February is another popular time for squirrels from the park next door to raid us. With food stashes lost beneath the snow and ice, they are eager to find a new supply. Last year, one particularly brazen squirrel ran off with a fully stocked bird feeder. We never did find it. We usually hang fat balls from our apple tree for the legions of long-tailed tits who roost in the hawthorn of our lane, and we leave seed scattered around the park for the robins, tits, wrens and other shier birds that hide in the trees and hedgerows waiting for us to leave before foraging the seed.

Our crow family, the Curies, are particularly active at this time of year. They follow, along with Lolly, as I clear and grit the pontoons, hoping for biscuits which they hoard under boat canopies for later feasting. It is a tough time of year for wildlife and they need all the help they can get. This includes ducks and swans. Swan Support, the charity in Datchet that cares for injured waterfowl, ask that people continue to feed the birds in their local rivers and parks to give them a fighting chance to make it through winter, especially when their natural food sources are in short supply.

This February, under lockdown, it seems more important than ever to look out for each other and our wild kin. The cold and snow will soon be gone and we will once again start to feel the warmth of the sun. We know one thing for certain at this time of year: change is coming.

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