Nature Notes from the Boat (September 2021)

Cumnor Parish News, September 2021

Summer has been busy on the river and mercifully, aside from that week-long heatwave earlier in the season, it has been relatively cool. Nibbles, who you may recall knocks on our cat flap every spring and raises her chicks nearby, has not been to visit us of late, but other old friends have returned after a period of absence.

Tim, our mallard drake with a lopsided wing who used to run to greet me every morning when I opened the gates and checked our wildlife camera disappeared in October last year. We thought wanderlust or the floods over Christmas and into the new year had carried him to places new, so imagine my surprise when I saw a mallard with a wonky wing running towards me across the car park. Tim had returned! Every day since he has greeted me and word has gotten out that I carry duck food in my pockets because now I have a whole host of new waterfowl friends to entertain. I confess that Tim, full name Tiny Tim with the Gippy Wing, is not our first Tiny Tim. A Canada goose who visited us one Christmas was the first to take this title. Well, turns out our original Tim has also returned! So now I get to feed two Tims and face the realisation that I should perhaps think of more original names.

We also have a pair of mallard drakes who have taken a liking to our back deck. We think they are from a brood earlier in the year and I have named them the Back Deck Ducks (seriously, who left me in charge of naming?). A few weeks ago we turned our boat around for some maintenance work and it took the Back Deck Ducks five days to find our back deck again! If this was not bad enough for them, imagine their confusion when they discovered our boat missing when we took it out of the water for hull work. Whilst our boat was dry docked we relocated to a friend’s boat on the other side of the site and on day six, the Back Deck Ducks finally found us. I feel guilty that we moved back into our boat the following day and we are still waiting for the ducks to make their way back to us!

It is not just displaced ducks and boats that have been causing a stir in these parts. We awoke one morning to the loud distress calls of the moorhen family who live in the pyracantha on the bank outside our galley window. I rushed outside and discovered a mink hunting them. There have been reports of mink in this area for several years. BBOWT used to monitor the numbers locally as part of their water vole recovery project, but I had never seen one in the wild. Showing absolutely no fear, this one climbed across our kayak, onto the pontoon and ran onto our deck towards me. I may have involuntarily screamed, but it was Rob’s arrival that scared it away. Later, we discovered a family of three of them roaming the bank and shallows, and our moorhens made themselves scarce for several days.

This is the time of year when much of the wildlife along our streams and rivers are seeking out or strengthening already won territories. Our moorhens have thankfully returned, but September is also the perfect time to watch for birds such as kingfishers as they fight off rivals to claim a stretch of water. Kingfishers, for all their beauty, are such short-lived birds. Only half the fledglings survive to adulthood each year and of these only a quarter survive to breed the following spring. It sounds dismal, but the survival of a quarter of the species is enough to maintain population numbers. According to the RSPB, there are 3,800 – 6,400 breeding pairs, but they are sensitive to environmental conditions. Cold, flooding, lack of food and severe weather all affect their population numbers. Happily, there is still a healthy population of them on the Thames.

Ospreys are another species to keep an eye out for as summer wanes. Radley, Abingdon and Cumnor are on their migration path from the northwest of Britain to their wintering sites in Africa, and they have been seen resting and feeding around local lakes. We were fortunate enough to have one spend the day at our mooring a few years ago. They are a gem of a spot, so keep your eyes to the skies and look out for them along with the gathering of swallows, swifts and house martins as they prepare for their journeys to warmer climes. They will be particularly abundant in areas with reed beds where they feed on insects ready for their long-haul flights to locations south of the Sahara.

These changing bird habits are a sign that the season is changing and it is time that we too prepare for the colder months to come. There are logs to chop, fuel to buy and warmer clothes to think about unpacking from storage. It is not just our wild kin that feels the subtle shift of summer passing, we all inherently sense autumn’s approach.

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