Nature Notes from the Boat (July & August 2021)

Cumnor Parish News, July & August 2021

Summer on the Thames is unhurried and lethargic, like the river’s flow. We spend our days trying to slip the claustrophobic weight of the heat in an attempt to stay cool. Waterfowl hide in the shade of the reeds at the water’s edge or sleep in the shadows of the island waiting for the evening cool to descend. In waking moments, we watch the damselflies, like the beautiful banded demoiselle, flit across the river’s surface. Summer, it seems, is mainly a time to persist; spring’s hectic rush to bring life into the world is drawing to a close, and now we must accept our part in the river’s existence and roll through the seasons as they change.

As a result, July and August often finds us with a surfeit of ducks – not that I will ever complain – but the numbers are bolstered now that second broods have hatched and are maturing. We regularly interrupt duck congregations on our back deck. Last year we taught them how to play catch with cat biscuits. Lockdown, it seems, got to us all!

The highlight of July for me is Marie and Pierre Curie, our resident crows, introducing us to their fledglings. They have hatched two this year. One left the nest today, so it won’t be long before the other follows, and we find them on the boat roof peering through our mushroom vents, or we catch them stealing strawberries from our planters.

This year Marie and Pierre have new neighbours after nesting in a tree only a stone’s throw away from an already established red kite nesting site. So far we have seen one fuzzy, bed-headed kite chick poking its head above the parapet, and we wait to see whether there are more. There have been relatively few spats between the kites and crows considering their proximity and their propensity to battle.

Closer to home and back on the river, our swan family, the Chekhovs, have four remaining cygnets. They are still in their soft grey down, but they resemble their parents more now, and soon they will start to grow in their white feathers. The Royal Swan Upping, the annual count and swan health check between Sunbury-on-Thames and Abingdon-on-Thames, is due to commence (covid restrictions allowing) on the 20th of July. It will reach Abingdon on the afternoon of the 24th. Swan wrangling is a sight to behold and, two years ago, when the Uppers caught and weighed our cygnets, it was noted, aloud, that ours were the heaviest they had ever weighed. The adjective ‘whale’ may have been uttered, and we did our best to look as though we had played no part in that.

The Burford Bridge section of Abingdon Bridge is a great viewing point if you wish to watch the Swan Uppers close their count with a formal toast to the Queen, or if you would prefer to see the indignant look in our swans’ eyes as they are trussed like turkeys, and our embarrassment at comments about their weight, then the slipway at Abingdon Marina is the place to be.

Lolly, the ship’s cat

Finally, I would like to tell you a little about Lolly, our ship’s cat. I thought I would have more time to write about our adventures-yet-to-come and to share with you just how remarkable a ship’s cat she was, but unfortunately, after sixteen years of life afloat, we had to say goodbye to her after a short and sudden illness.

Her story with us began by chance on a summer’s evening as we strolled along a lane by some old quarrying pits. She had been abandoned near these lakes, and when she spotted us she hurled herself into our path. She was all fur and bone and wailing like a banshee. She followed us home and, happily for us, refused to move out. We called her Lolly, which she agreed with, and thus began her life on the water.

In her sixteen years with us, she has kayaked, fished and swam in the Thames. She warned us of potential flooding and kept us company through all of our boating adventures, including a trip to Fairport’s Cropredy Convention. She came to work with me in the little on-site office and acted as our official meeter and greeter. She helped me shovel snow from the pontoons in winter and lounged on the warm wooden boards in summer, playing with the Curies. She was the gentlest of souls and had friends all over the world, receiving mail and treats from visiting boaters. She was an integral part of our life, and now that she is gone we have to learn to navigate this journey without her. She was my shadow, and she is missed. I know I might be slightly biased when I say this, but Lolly was the best boat cat there ever was, and this little corner of the Thames will always belong to her.

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