Your own waterside theatre

SPEND TIME REGULARLY BESIDE A STRETCH OF WATER and you’ll soon witness the wildlife dramas unfolding around you, from scuffles over territory to courtship and new arrivals

Mike Bodnar

Posted on 11/10/2019

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Two swans, downstream from the footbridge, decide to relocate. They taxi to the runway, then slowly beat their wings, paddling furiously. Picking up speed they don’t actually take off so much as plane above the water, their wings slapping the surface in loud claps. As they approach, the clapping gets louder, and I decide there and then on a new collective noun: an applause of swans.

They come to a splash landing a short distance upstream, and the in-flight drama is over, but on the backwater there is still plenty of interest. From where I sit I can see Duane, Emily and Scooter out for a swim. They’re a family of coots, originally a larger brood but either something lurks below with a taste for young cootlings (chicks actually; cootlings is my word for them), or the foxes had a springtime midnight feast. Or, more disturbingly, the parents have ‘tousled’ some of their weaker young and favoured the fittest. Such is life, and death, on a waterway.

All of this plays out on the stage of the backwater at the bottom of our garden, a daily performance of drama, laughter, shock and yes, sometimes horror – especially when the coots fight viciously over their territory and try to drown each other.

I realise we’re lucky to live right beside the water; obviously not everyone can have a royal box (and anyway it comes at a cost: we call our property ‘Mortgage-on-Thames’) but in reality almost anyone can benefit from some form of waterside theatre: all you need is access to a canal, river or lake, and something to sit on. If there are no benches a folding chair is ideal. But what I’ve learned from our own vantage spot is that you get to know the local wildlife population and its habits in some detail, so returning to one particular spot time after time can be very rewarding.

At its most basic level, water brings benefits anyway, whether it’s the calming influence of gentle eddies and currents or the mesmerising reflections of sunlight playing on bridges and tree trunks. But add local wildlife into the mix and the water becomes a stage on which actors – big and small, jolly or fierce – play their roles. It becomes a performance.

As with a stage play, our characters have names. The coots Emily and Duane were christened by our neighbours – we named the sole surviving offspring Scooter ourselves.

Asbo the swan, who – as his name suggests, is somewhat anti-social – seems to be without a partner, and is all the more grumpy for it. He (and I can only assume the gender) is the local backwater bully, harassing almost all the other wildlife whenever he feels like it, though he’s all sweetness and light if he sees us with sandwiches.

There’s a family of Egyptian geese too, thankfully more passive than Asbo. Last spring the parents successfully raised all three of their hatchlings, and now they swim together as a family unit, all wearing the same shade of eye shadow. We haven’t named them yet – they’re just ‘the Egyptians’.

At a more micro level, under the overhanging tree south of our spot, water boatmen scuttle across the top of the surface like tiny Oxford rowing teams, while high above on the far side of the river we occasionally spot Cyril the squirrel, a young grey who delights in using the electricity cable as a tightrope. If there are pigeons on the wire they politely fly up until Cyril has flicked past.

The local ducks and Canada geese are too numerous to name, though a pair of moorhens has recently moved into the neighbourhood, seemingly with the blessing of Duane and Emily. Moorhens are related to the coot family so maybe these are distant cousins.

Greta the grebe (note: alliteration isn’t compulsory) is on her own and seems to have a really small territory, basically no wider than our 32-foot mooring. She is our most local local. Last year I captured her swimming underwater using our sports video camera, and delighted in seeing her do a sort of breaststroke but, of course, with only her legs.

It seems that the more you observe a particular stretch of water the more of a community you see, and the more you appreciate the interaction. For me it’s therapeutic to watch the wildlife go about its business – we celebrate new arrivals and mourn their losses; we watch their courtship and their fights and, as you can tell, we have affectionate names – and indeed affection – for them. So grab a folding chair and head out to a piece of water near you and ‘adopt a spot’. Get to know your waterway wildlife community, and become a part of it. The swans might applaud you.

Mike Bodnar