Nature Notes from the Boat (June 2021)

Cumnor Parish News, 2021

After such a slow and cold start to spring, June is the perfect month to be out on the Thames and its tributaries as the days lengthen to a peak. Kayaking, and being closer to the water, offers a new perspective towards the wildlife and flora of our local rivers and streams. Flag iris flowers at head height appear more like a jungle species and catching glimpses of the wildfowl sneaking between the leaves and into the cover of reeds as you slowly pass by adds to the sense of adventure. Swift Ditch is a particularly beautiful stream to navigate when it is not too overgrown. At this time of year geese and their goslings lounge by the water’s edge, and swathes of lily pads reach out across the stream where dragonflies and damselflies alight and sway with the currents.

Here, hidden from view are secretive reed warblers whose sling nests are woven around reed stems. The birds are difficult to glimpse with their unassuming light brown and buff feathers that blend so well with the undergrowth. You may, however, briefly spot the pale white of their throats as they flit amongst the reeds. Listen out for their churring call. Less shy are the sedge warblers who summer in abundance along this part of the Thames and its streams. They are very similar to the reed warblers but have dark streaks across their backs and a distinctive white supercilium. Unlike the reed warbler’s rhythmic call, the sedge warbler offers up a more rambling drum and bass beat, unusual enough to stop you in your tracks.

Back on our little corner of the Thames, this is our first year having Olga and Anton Checkhov, our local swans, nest with us. During the last lockdown they relocated to our basin, and one pair of coots, ever the sneaky opportunists, have built their nest right alongside using material stolen from the swans! At the time of writing, we have six freshly hatched and beautifully downy cygnets.

Our swans are not the only ones with neighbour issues. Our adult moorhen pair, Harold and Andie, who nest in the pyracantha outside our galley window have an ongoing squabble with a pair of song thrushes and long-tailed tits. Most evenings, whilst washing up, I watch Harold climb the pyracantha in an attempt to chase them away. He has, as of yet, been unsuccessful and the posturing and loud calling by all parties always ends in a standoff just before roosting. I guess sometimes we just have to learn to live alongside our neighbours.

We are in a unique position to observe these interspecies conflicts, but we are also lucky enough to witness familial bonds. For the last few years, the first brood of moorhens have stayed to help rear the second, and, on very quiet mornings we have heard the gentle patterings of footsteps along our gunwales and tappings at our windows, where a juvenile moorhen has engaged us in a game of peek-a-boo! We do have to remind ourselves that we should not get too involved or interfere too much with nature, but who can resist playing peek-a-boo with a moorhen!?

There are, of course, certain circumstances when we will always intervene, especially if a bird or animal is in distress. June is one of our most active months for rescues as chicks are often becoming separated from their parents. Our longest mission involved collecting several goslings who were under attack from a swan after they strayed too close to the swan’s cygnets. It took hours to round up all the lost goslings and distract the swan, but the adult geese waited patiently out of the swan’s reach until we were able to reunite them with their young.

These types of rescues are always rewarding, but sometimes our missions are more fraught. Last year, the charity Swan Support assisted after someone shot one of our cygnets with an air gun. The cygnet survived, but due to the treatment it required was unable to rejoin its own family, and instead was raised on Swan Support’s nursery lake in Datchet. This incident aside, we know that most people are inherently benevolent towards their local wildlife and as Paul Oxton, the founder of the Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation says, ‘a simple act of kindness and compassion towards a single animal may not mean anything to all creatures, but will mean everything to one’. Like most people, If we can help, we always will.

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