Nature Notes from the Boat (April 2021)

Cumnor Parish News, April 2021

It is such a bustling time on the river. Spring is in full swing and not only does April signify the start of the boating season with people returning to their boats as lockdown eases, but it is also one of the busiest times of the year for our local wildlife.

Our vista is no longer the weary browns of mud, flood, dead reeds and bare trees, or the grey of dull, cold skies, now the flora along the river bank is bursting with life and leaf and bud, and it is hard to even remember how stark it looked in winter. Blackthorn flowers in the hedgerows and the hawthorn is full of leaf. Our cherry and apple trees blossom with the promise of a rich harvest later in the year and the willows and alders are already fully green. Life is bursting at the seams.

Life seems crowded for our neighbouring waterfowl too. Territory disputes have been ongoing since February and, whilst the moorhens, coots and great crested grebes usually shy away from contact with each other, they are quick to react when one makes claims on another’s domain. We suspect coots are the most fearless birds on the water and it is usually them who can be found trying to evict the grebes and moorhens from their nests – and the resulting fracas is not a quiet affair, nor is it solely restricted to the daytime. We have often been woken in the night by the moorhens’ alarm calls as they defend their territories.


This year we might have a new family moving into our neighbourhood. Our swans, the Chekhovs, have successfully nested upstream at the local sailing club for as long as I can remember. This year, however, they are making tentative attempts to build a nest in our little mooring basin. We assume it is because families going for their daily walks in the park next door bring a constant supply of food for them, but we worry the change might disrupt their usual cycle and the laying of eggs and rearing of young. 

The Chekhov’s old nest

A swan’s nest would certainly be a first for us, and April is our month of firsts; my wildlife almanac is crammed with nature notes I have recorded over the years. It is the month we usually experience our first thunderstorm of the year. We like to sit on our boat roof and watch the storm move in from the south, only running to take cover at the very last minute as the rain begins to fall. 

April is also the month we see the first bats come out of hibernation and swoop low over the water just after sunset in search of insects. Sand martins, house martins and swallows are now returning from their winter in warmer climes. Last year they swept in like a wave across our mooring basin, whooshing about our heads and between the boats, and we took to the pontoons to sit and watch in awe. It was such a welcoming and uplifting sight during lockdown, and it reassured me that even if the human world is forced to slow to a stutter nature will flourish and thrive in the gaps we leave. To quote Shunryu Suzuki, ‘the world is its own magic.’

Swallows, house martins and sand martins are not the only returning visitors in April. From the middle of the month start listening for the cuckoo. The earliest I have recorded its call is the 16th of April. Keep an eye on the skies for the cuckoo’s distinctive silhouette in flight. They are dove sized, but their slender pointed wings give them an air of sparrowhawk or kestrel. The decline in cuckoo populations make them a red-listed bird, and I have never seen or heard them anywhere else that I have lived in the UK. For them to be an annual part of our life on the Thames makes this little corner of Oxfordshire even more special. 

Finally, April is the month of first broods, and for us, this means ducklings, coot and moorhen chicks. It is a nervous and exciting time watching the new chicks learn the ways of the river, but there are threats that lie in wait in the deeper waters, or with feather and beak at the river’s edge. So, whilst April brings such joy, we also look forward to the relative safety of May when the young are large enough to survive.

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