Nature Notes from the Boat (March 2021)

Cumnor Parish News, March 2021

Winter season on the Thames is slowly coming to a close, but it has not given up entirely. Days on the water are still mainly experienced in the hues of grey and the browns of mud and flood, but where the waters have receded signs of life are beginning to appear; the delicate green of the kingcup leaf as it unfurls on the bank, iris leaves and new-growth reeds reaching from the water, willow leaves tapping a beat of ripples upon the river’s surface as the branches bob in the breeze.

Spring is slow to show herself on our little stretch of the river, but March is the time when there are brief moments of warmth where we can take to the boat roof in the sunshine and sit and read or watch the world go by. It promises us that there is a warmth to come; that there will be lazy days when we solar charge as the Thames slips languidly past.

For now, though, that is mainly something hinted at, and there is much to be done before then, especially if you have a boat garden. March is the time when we sow, plant and tend, and I often have a little helper at hand in the form of our ship’s cat, Lolly.

I feel overcome with the need for bright colours when I garden at this time of year, and so I hang our flower baskets filled with blazing primulas along the side of the boat. They will be a mess by the end of the month because Marie and Pierre Curie, our two adult crow neighbours, love to raid the fibrous baskets to line their nest, and we are happy to let them.

As Marie and Pierre show, March is a busy time for our wild kin on the Thames. The sounds of the river and those that inhabit the land adjoining it has changed. We now experience the dawn chorus after the silence of winter, and the clucking of the moorhens as they become broody and nest in the pyracantha beside us. Coots are busy defining their territory, and the crested grebes, disrobed of their muted black and white stripes of winter are now adorned in their rusty coloured ruffs of summer and put on the most dramatic of mating dances.

Our two adult swans, Olga and Mr. Chekhov, are also busy nesting after having finally chased away last year’s young. The annual cycle of attracting or keeping a mate and rearing young is beginning all over again, and the river is bustling. We are often woken early on a March morning by the tapping of green woodpeckers in the park beside us as they show off their skills to a potential partner. The stillness of winter will soon be a memory.

What I most look forward to about March is the return of Nibbles and Margie, our two wild mallard hens. As soon as we leave our back doors open so the warmth of the March sunshine can percolate through the boat, Nibbles will be in our kitchen, stealing Lolly’s food. This is the time for us and Lolly to reacquaint ourselves with old feathered friends. During a time of lockdown, there is nothing more welcoming than seeing those you have missed, and knowing they have made it through the winter unscathed.

March then, signals the decline of winter for most of us river dwellers. We see the welcoming signs of spring and the return of old friends. It holds so much promise and the yearning to throw wide all the doors and let the cold dark months that have weighed on us so heavily be banished from our rooms in favour of burgeoning daylight, warm sunshine, and the myriad hues of life awakening along the riverbank. Kenneth Grahame’s Mole knows very much how it feels: Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. Just remember, unlike Mole, to take your coat when you drop everything and rush out to meet spring because there still could be a nip in the air.

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