Unexpected birds of the waterways

From flycatchers sweeping through canalside woodlands to goldfinches singing from alders that dip their roots in the water – Fergus Collins introduces us to the unexpected birdlife thriving beside our canals and rivers

Goosander

Fergus Collins

Posted on 27/09/2019

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“Kingfisher!” A zip-zip call and a dart of brilliant blue whirring low along the water and then it’s gone leaving delight among the blessed onlookers at having seen the royalty of the waterway. Even hardened birders stop, involuntarily point and then try to suppress an unprofessional goofy grin when they see one. A kingfisher day is a very good day.

But kingfisher sightings are hard to come by for many. I have a naturalist friend who, until this year, had never seen one in many years of looking along local canals and rivers. Yet while we have been searching for her elusive, missing bird, we have stumbled across a whole cast of other species. There were little warblers singing like clockwork toys from reedbeds; grey wagtails flashing yellow as they flitted under canal bridges, nesting in mini canyons in the stonework; fish hunters such as sinister cormorants and regal goosanders diving after roach and perch in the deeper water; flycatchers along the canal as it sweeps through ancient oak woodlands; and small birds with unusual calls who we’ve had to record and look up later. The trick, we discovered was to relax and accept that while we never saw a kingfisher, we were being treated to a whole raft of new and unusual bird experiences.

I’ve begun to see canals as acting like linear nature reserves, especially in more urban areas. Tree-lined and sometimes with delightfully tumbling wildflower verges along the towpath, they offer shelter, nesting sites and abundant food for many woodland species. Along with the robins, song thrushes and blackbirds, you’ll hear chaffinches and goldfinches singing from alders and hawthorns that dip their roots in the water. But look out also for the nuthatch, agilely climbing down tree trunks in search of beetle larvae. Its dapper blue plumage and direct flight have led to it being nicknamed the ‘kingfisher of the wood’. Another canalside tree explorer is the treecreeper – a mouse-like bird that shuffles up tree trunks, probing crevices for spiders with its downward curved bill.

Quite often you’ll find rough pasture and meadow alongside a canal that is seldom sprayed or fertilised and this vole and insect paradise naturally attracts the predators – kestrels giving way to a night shift of barn owls. Many a boater has reported seeing these silent, ghostly killers flying super slowly along a grassy towpath or canalside field. High summer sees swallows and house martins skimming between boats right down to the water surface and canalside grass seed heads catching flies, moths and other insects while twittering and buzzing all the while.

And what of the true waterbirds? Almost every canalside walk will have its mallards – and late spring you might spot a flotilla of ducklings behind a proud mother. Moorhens are ubiquitous to canals, nesting on small islets in marinas and often straying surprising distances into waterside gardens and fields on feeding missions. But look beyond the obvious and you might spot a tiny waterbird, the size and shape of a bath duck toy – but with plumage a subtle blend of browns and golds. This is the little grebe, our most aquatic bird species. I know lifelong birders who have never seen it on land. When hunting or disturbed, it performs an elegant dive with an audible ‘plop’. I like to try to predict where it will pop up – it’s always under for far longer than I could hold my breath. And when skulking in the reeds it emits a slightly blood curdling cry like a comedy villain’s maniacal laugh. It’s amazing what you can see and hear when you’re not spotting that kingfisher.

North East

Unexpected birds of the Pocklington Canal

Pocklington’s wild credentials are boosted by its having been derelict or partially derelict until the last decade. Running from the Vale of York into the Yorkshire Wolds, it is flanked by meadows, home to hares and skylarks and you can even hear the fluting and bubbling calls of curlews from the towpath in April and May. But the star species here is the barn owl, which hunts along the waterside at dusk and is commonly seen by boaters, as well as evening walkers and runners. If you stand absolutely still when you spot a barn owl in the distance, there’s a good chance it will fly – moth-like and soundlessly – extremely close, so fixated does it get on its hunting. There are also good numbers of kingfishers and grebes here as well as mute swans and mallards. In spring listen for the mechanical whirring and buzzing of sedge warblers – and the slightly more tuneful reed warbler among the reedmace and rushes.

North West

Unexpected birds of the Llangollen Canal

Fed by the cool clear waters of the River Dee, this canal can feel more like a river, with a discernibly strong flow. In winter, this is a great place to find the stately goosander – a bird that breeds on fast flowing upland rivers. The drake is an elegant white frigate of a bird with green head and thin red bill. The equally handsome female has a russet head and brown plumage – both hunt fish by pursuing them underwater. Like the Dee, the canal also attracts dippers to its feeder streams. Like a huge brown robin but with a white bib instead of red breast, the dipper somehow manages to walk underwater to find insect larvae and little fish. In summer sand martins hunt over the canal – these small brown cousins of the swallow nest dig tunnels in the sandy soil of old quarries-turned-nature reserves near the canal.

East Midlands

Unexpected birds of the River Trent

One of Britain’s great rivers but perhaps attracts less attention than the Severn, Thames or Tweed. Wildlife, however, does not ignore this great meandering waterway, especially in autumn and winter. The Trent is flanked by numerous nature reserves along its navigable length, especially wetlands such as the Attenborough Nature Reserve near Nottingham. Here you can find a miniature heron – the little egret, pure white but with a black needle of a bill and yellow feet. A larger and dumpier relative, the bittern uses its buff colouring to hunt hidden in the reeds; both species catch little roach and dace. The sluggish river is a magnet for wildfowl. Beyond the ubiquitous mallards, look out for gadwall (a neatly tailored duck, desuited in smart grey cavalry twill), shovelers (a striking combination of green head and chestnut and white body with a spade of a bill) and tufted ducks, who dive endlessly for food.

West Midlands

Unexpected birds of the Ashby Canal

This 31-mile waterway is one of Britain’s gentlest and prettiest canals – winding through meadows and historic villages in the heart of England. In many places, Ashby lacks the hard edge protection seen on most other canals and this allows rushes, reeds and other aquatic vegetation to grow out into the canal. It often feels more like a linear pond than a waterway. As well as herons, moorhens and kingfishers, look out for little grebes in any backwaters. There are also populations of mango-coloured mandarin ducks, though despite the drake’s orange and white patterns it can be hard to see when light flickers through bankside willows and reeds. An eastern Asian native, it has escaped from wildfowl collections and is now considered a British resident. Listen also for the three-note zithering call of the reed bunting – a finch-like bird with a smart black hood and lovely variegated brown plumage.

South East

Unexpected birds of the Kennet & Avon

A gentle lowland canal that wanders through deeply wooded valleys east of Bath and then more open chalklands of Wiltshire. In the former you might get a chance to meet an overlooked member of the tit family: the marsh tit. Like a large coal tit but with peachy colouring and sleek black crown it’s best known for its call – a sort of polite sneeze: “pt-chou!” It loves ash, beech and oak woods and may even approach bird feeders deployed by live-aboard boaters in the area. Little grebes are common here and, at every weir and lock, you’ll undoubtedly spot fidgety grey wagtails, fishing for flies clouding above the water surface. Once in the more open areas past Trowbridge you’re in swallow and skylark country. While the latter showers its unstoppable melodies from its sky-high vantage point, the former swoops low over the canal to find food for its youngster hidden in nests within old canalside barns.

South West

Unexpected birds of the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal

Is the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal the wildest in southern Britain? With few locks and fewer towns along its 35-mile length between Newport and Brecon, there is ample opportunity for it to drift through quiet meadows and old woodland. One stretch with the perfect blend (including a café and pub) is between Goytre and Llanfoist, just south of Abergavenny. From April to June, if you’re lucky, you might get to see or at least hear the holy trinity of woodland migrants: redstart, pied flycatcher and wood warbler. These birds love oak woodlands and the canal is not shy about winding into stands of ancient trees – all three have been regularly spotted from the towpath. Another overlooked bird found here is the rapidly declining spotted flycatcher. Rather drab in colour, it makes acrobatic sorties from tree branches out over the canal to catch flies on the wing. Listen for its insistent high-pitched song.

London

Unexpected birds of the Regent’s Canal and Lee Navigation

A wildlife corridor through east London – and very obviously so. Common terns use the waterway to find their way to nesting sites in London parks but also for fishing. They have a buoyant, effortless flight but suddenly plunge arrow-like into the water to catch small fish. East London’s canals are also a stronghold for herons and there are breeding colonies in the nature reserves of the Lee Valley. Herons like to wait in the shallow margins around the outflow of locks, looking to speak unwary bream and roach. Several times I’ve found dead fish on the bank with heron spear wounds. I’ve also seen herons trying to devour rats that they’ve caught. It’s not pretty. These canals often offer the scruffy corners beloved by sparrows and a few colonies cling on here around Victoria Park in Hackney.

Hamish Irvine