Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Lonely's nest and abandoned eggs attract attention

Golden Eye decides to take over Lonely's nest and eggs

Since Lonely disappeared (presumed dead) over a week ago, Golden Eye and Beaky have both shown an interest in her nest and eggs. Unfortunately, they aren't the only ones. A strong breeze lifted the duck down and straw covering the eggs and a huge crow spotted them and has been raiding the nest regularly. We've tried to chase it away . . . . unsuccessfully.

Meanwhile, Beaky and Golden Eye vied with each other for the nest and Golden Eye eventually won and laid an egg in the nest. Sadly, the crow, has cleaned the nest out now but it dropped an egg on the far side of the deck and we were amazed to see Golden Eye wander over to it and start eating the yolk.

Today Golden Eye abandoned Lonely's now empty nest and has taken over a plant pot and laid a fresh egg in that. She left it exposed so I did my best to cover it and, so far, the crow hasn't spotted it.

A camera shy duckling

The sole surviving duckling of a brood of seven, pictured above, explores the rockery and cascade with its mum. It's beginning to show signs of independence even though it's still tiny.

Bidou in the early morning sunshine

Time is passing and Bidou's eggs haven't yet hatched. Perhaps they're infertile and it will all have been a waste of time? We shall have to wait and see.

A parakeet at the window

Our window bird feeders were meant for the smaller garden bird but have attracted some unusual visitors. This parakeet shows no fear, even when I'm washing up at the kitchen sink, less than two feet from it. Even the jay stops to grab a sunflower heart or half peanut if I remain still, and the greater spotted woodpecker has also become used to me. Unfortunately, the wood pigeons also think they're entitled to raid the feeders and regularly empty them.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Cygnets & goslings

Four of the five cygnets that visit each day

A proud parent mute swan

How could they be described as ugly ducklings?

As you can see, the cygnets are beautiful and not like the 'ugly duckling' of the Hans Christian Andersen tale and subsequent children's song by Danny Kaye. They visit two or three times a day and are popular with all the islanders. At this stage there's a good chance the five will survive. They will usually remain with their parents until they are almost fully grown and most of their plumage has changed to white. When the time is right they will be driven off by their parents.

One of many goslings

Canada geese are exceptionally good parents. Unfortunately they successfully rear large numbers of goslings and protect their young by forming crĂȘches. Flotillas of as many as 60 or more young will be escorted by 3 or 4 adults. The goslings pictured above were part of a smaller crĂȘche of 35.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

What is it about the pond?

'Golden Eye' in the pond

We have a pump which pumps water from the river and returns it to the river . . . a mere 4 ft! We've measured the temperature difference and there's nothing in it, but the ducks come straight from the river to spend time in the pond and we wonder why? They drink the water, run up and down the cascade, drink copiously and treat the pond like their private swimming pool. The duck we call Golden Eye (pictured above) because she has a blonde streak through her eye, rather than a dark one, has spent most of the last two days in the pond. She nests with us every year but in the last two years it seems that she is infertile. She used to hatch ducklings (Lonely was one of them from several years ago) but twice now she has failed to incubate the eggs and sits for more than six weeks, getting more and more desperate.

At first we thought it might be her partner that was "firing blanks" but he "attacks" any other duck that nests on our deck and some of their ducklings appear to have his genes!

Golden Eye has already been unsuccessful once this year at nesting on our deck and is, at present, taking time out between attempts. She seems to love the new pond and spends much of her time there. Eventually, she'll probably start nesting upstairs again and will go through the same sad scenario of incubating sterile eggs. Meanwhile, she attacks my pond plants and her partner chases off most of the other ducks that come to feed by the pond.

If you want to find out more about wildlife on the Thames, close to Hampton Court Palace, you can click on "Subscribe" (there's no charge) and it will let you know when there's more news

Monday, 21 May 2007

More sad news

It's hard to know where to start as the behaviour of Beaky and the nesting duck, Lonely, has been most odd. Beaky has definitely lost all her ducklings. She has been chased by the drakes so often; her ducklings never really stood a chance. It seems such a waste of life although there has to be some attrition or there would be too many ducks on the river. She invested six weeks in laying eggs and sitting on them permanently, only to lose them all in 48 hours.

What's strange is that she has returned to the deck a number of times now, when she is being chased. It's as if she knows that if we're around we'll see off her attackers. On Saturday evening she returned to sit next to where her nest had been and if a duck can express human emotions she certainly looked like a duck with depression, as you can see from the picture above.

After some time she went over and sat just below Lonely, the duck nesting among my salad greens. During the early evening Beaky's partner joined her and they both sat beneath Lonely's nest. While I was preparing supper I heard the sounds of a female duck in distress and rushed upstairs to discover that Lonely had been driven off her nest but I don't think Beaky and partner were to blame. When I went to check on her later she was back but was sitting next to the nest rather than on it and she look very stressed as if something was wrong. Beaky and partner were still sitting close by. Shortly afterwards I heard her squawking again and saw that she was being attacked on the far side of the river. She hasn't been back to her nest since and we fear the worst; that she drowned under the attack. She has eight eggs and they've been abandoned for nearly three days so it doesn't look good. We still hope against hope that she may be recovering somewhere and that she might reappear but it's unlikely she'll return to the nest. We've left it, though, just in case.

Lonely on her nest in the middle of the salad bed

A hungry nesting duck landing by the pond for a quick meal of wheat and mixed bird seed

On the positive side, the swans still have four cygnets, the coot's nest is progressing well, and the greater spotted woodpeckers are feeding regularly from the peanut and window feeders.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

No sign of ducklings

An old male Mandarin duck that hangs around on his own. He walks with a limp which makes it easy to identify him

The coots' nest is now occupied and contains rather too much greenery from my pond plants for my liking! I noticed this afternoon that the beautiful lily had three more leaves stripped away. It has only four leaves left so I may have to remove it and place it in a 'nursery' pond for a while!

Yesterday evening a lone duckling appeared and hung around the feeding area for a while until it was scared off. There was no sign of a mother though I hoped one might turn up. A little later the duckling reappeared and again swam off. I've seen no ducklings today. I think it may have been one of Beaky's, and we think that they've all been taken now. A duck resembling her came to the pond today and allowed me to stand next to her. She later flew up to the garden deck and settled close to the nesting duck, Lonely, as if to keep her company, before tucking her beak under her wing and having a kip.

Beaky enjoying the pond

A friend on the island called this afternoon to say she had twelve ducklings and no sign of a mother. We discussed the options and she promised to call back if she saw the mother and ducklings reunited. Four hours have elapsed and I've heard nothing but it's possible that the ducklings moved on and the mother rejoined them somewhere else. We both agreed that it's a magical time of year but it has its moments.

It's time to sign off . . . until tomorrow.

Friday, 18 May 2007

The missing ducklings

I haven't seen any ducklings today so I hope they're o.k. If Beaky has any sense she'll keep them away as too many randy male ducks hang around here waiting to ambush the females when they come to feed.

If the weather stays fine we'll go out in our motor boat and look for Beaky and the kids. We'd also like to check on a pretty white duck with 5 ducklings at the last count. She's been here for breakfast and lunch on her own but she may have decided to leave the ducklings somewhere safe. Perhaps the mothers are aware of the pike's presence as the water is quite shallow close to the houseboats?

Below is a picture of one of Beaky's babies. Young grebes and cygnets climb on the backs of their parents for warmth and to hitch a ride but I've not seen a duckling do it. Perhaps it's just curious about the plastic decoy.

I couldn't resist including the picture below, of a vertically challenged duckling (one of Beaky's) getting it's first taste of freedom. How they don't harm themselves is a mystery, especially when you see how far they fall and hear the thud as they hit the deck.

As I sit here typing I'm watching one of the male Mandarin ducks sunbathing on a neighbour's deck. Just beyond are two coots, building a nest. A floating plank with nails has been attached to the boat and the pair are weaving twigs and greenery around the nails to hold the foundation in place. Much as I admire their nest building skills I do wish they wouldn't keep stealing my water irises!

Manadarin Duck on the bird table

I often wonder how the Mandarin ducks discovered our garden. They spend most of their time in the nearby woodland gardens of Bushey Park which form part of the Hampton Court Palace estate. I used to have a stone birdbath in the garden (in the days before the pond and cascade) and one day I was astonished to see a magnificent Mandarin duck making itself at home. The bath had a raised central section, on which I placed a bowl of wheat, and all manner of birds frequented it for a nosh, wash and brush up. It was so popular, in fact, that I had to refill it regularly, especially after a mob or raucous starlings came for a communal bath.

The Mandarin became a regular visitor and I remember thinking how wonderful it would be if he brought his mate. The very next day he did. Soon word got out and we had seven males and three females visiting the garden three or four times a day. Some years they bring their ducklings which are similar in size and colour to Mallard ducklings.

Bidou the Black Swan

Bidou rarely leaves the nest these days and when she does she wolfs down her food and rarely stops to preen her feathers. We're so curious as to whether her eggs have been fertilized and if so, who's the father? It can only be a matter of 8 to 10 days now, that's if they hatch.

The breeze has piped up and it's unlikely I'll have time to get out in the boat after all so we'll have to wait till tomorrow to go looking for the ducklings. Until then . . .

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Day 1, one gone

Yesterday in the early evening one of the ducklings was lagging behind and Beaky kept calling and waiting, but it took a wrong turn. I watched it head out towards the main river through the narrow gap between our boats. Just as it turned the corner there was a sudden swirl and a large shape emerged from the water and grabbed it. It was all over in seconds and I was more aware of a large head above the water and a long shape underwater than of the duckling actually being taken. I was quite shocked even though I've seen quite a few ducklings and young coots disappear suddenly this way. However, I've never been so close and also looking down on the action. Beaky took the other nine out the same way and I was holding my breath but they all made it this time.

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This morning Beaky arrived with all 9 ducklings and I breathed a sigh of relief but I've been out for most of the day and haven't seen them since. Meanwhile, the duck we call Lonely, because she was the sole survivor of a brood and was virtually ignored by her parents, is now sitting permanently on a nest amongst my lettuces and strawberry plants on the garden deck.

We've recently had our garden redesigned to include a pond and small cascade into the river and it has proved highly popular with the ducks. Perhaps because the garden is more open, it is also attracting an enormous crow and a pair of jays. It's interesting to watch the pecking order in the garden. The mandarin ducks, though smaller than the mallards, are obviously more fierce and get first crack at the wheat I put out, originally for the swans, and only then do the mallards get to eat. This morning, however, the crow came down and took precedence over everything. I've never seen it eat wheat before, but I'm not surprised the ducks were wary of it. It's large and quite fearsome looking.


Bidou the black swan has just been for her supper and a quick wash and brush up before returning to her nest. The mandarin ducks are also arriving and I've just noticed that one of the males has alopecia and is looking far less resplendent than the rest. The parakeets are also lining up in the trees for a final feed on the peanuts. One of them is so tame that my husband was able to touch him yesterday.

I'm learning to reappraise my beliefs around bird behaviour. Recently I saw a blackbird feeding from the hanging peanut feeder and a jay eating from the window feeder while I was standing inside, less than 3 feet from the window. We were also amazed to see the greater spotted woodpecker feeding from the window feeder.

I'm around more tomorrow so there should be more photographs and more wildlife news. Fingers crossed for Beaky and family.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Afternoon update

It's now 14.00hrs and there are 10 healthy ducklings exploring the river with their beleaguered mother. She had two tranquil hours with them but is now being attacked by a gang of male ducks with no mates. Regrettably there are far to many drakes around so the females are sexually harassed and, not to put too fine a point on it, gang raped. As this usually occurs on the water, a female with more than one male on top of her, and sometimes there are as many as four or five, will drown if she can't escape. Even if she manages to escape her feathers may be waterlogged and she will need to dry off and oil her feathers before returning to the water. Sometimes a duck gets chased back in to the water before it is able to recover, with fatal consequences.

After an anxious few minutes Beaky has just flown back to our top deck to dry off and we're chasing off any males. I can hear her ducklings "pip pip pipping" to her from the middle of the river and she's squawking distress calls to them to let them know she's around. It's hard not to be a little protective towards a duck that's shared our garden with us for nearly six weeks but we try not to intervene too much.

In the early days we used to get so upset at the attrition rate of ducklings. We'd watch mothers with up to 18 ducklings launch their young on one day, return with only 12 later after several hours and gradually lose them all, sometimes in a matter of days. Pike, herons and crows are all looking to feed their own young at this time of year and I've also seen Canada geese attack ducklings. Some ducks, however, manage to raise all their young every year, more of which another time.

That's all for now . . . more news tomorrow

The ducklings make their first trip

Here are the ducklings on their 12 foot drop to the river

This is them as they landed on the deck below
Safely in the river with mumOne mistakes a decoy duck as his dad

Thames wildlife near Hampton Court

My name is Suellen Raven and I live on a houseboat, surrounded by wildlife, in a beautiful area on the river Thames, 15 miles from central London. As I look downstream I can see Hampton Court Bridge, just beyond which lies the fabulous palace that Henry VIII appropriated from Cardinal Wolsey in the year 1525.

I've lived here with my husband Dave for the past 12 years and have had the daily delight of watching the local wildlife (and some exotic imports) run through our garden, sit on the various decks, nest on our upstairs garden deck and generally come and go as if we didn't exist. It's amazing how quickly wildlife becomes habituated to humans.

One of my reasons for photographing and writing about the local environment and wildlife is from a desire to share my passion for the beauty of my surroundings with anyone who might appreciate it. The other is in the hope of raising people's awareness of the natural world by displaying photographs and recording the day to day existence of some of the wildlife that is an integral part of my life. If some of you enjoy reading about the ducks, coots, swans, grebes and other bird life surrounding me then you might look with greater curiosity and interest at the feathered occupants you can see on and around your local ponds, canals, gravel pits, streams and rivers.

When children become interested in school projects their parents, willingly or otherwise, tend to get involved as well, so I'm hoping that some teachers may introduce my local wildlife into their classrooms eventually. As well as the stories and images I'm hoping to post short video clips as well, so that people can identify the different calls made by the various creatures.
Not all the stories will have a happy ending and some of the images may give you pause for thought but if this raises even one extra person's awareness of our imprint on our surroundings then that individual, too, can pass on the message.

I realize that while some people find he natural world to be an alien environment for many it is a source of enjoyment and pleasure. I just have to look at the towpath opposite to see how many people come to the water's edge to feed the waterfowl and watch the wildlife. I care a great deal about the need to protect our wildlife and green spaces and believe that if there were a greater awareness amongst the general public there would be less litter, less vandalism and considerably less harm done to wildlife and the environment through lack of understanding as to what constitutes a hazard to the natural world. That's the end of the mission statement . . . or sermon . . . now for news of the ducklings about to have their first experience of water.

We are sometimes asked how we ever manage to get any work done from home as there can be so many delightful distractions and the reality is that there are times when we just have to stop and observe both the beauty, and sometimes the dramas that unfold before us. At the moment we're both on "standby" waiting for the mallard sitting in one of my plant pots on our upstairs garden deck to escort her ducklings from the nest to the river for the first time. This would be a lot easier if they were at ground level but there's a 12' drop and many of them land awkwardly on our lower deck before making it to the water. In addition, they don't all want to leave the nest at the same time so some of them have to be "encouraged". Often, over the years, we've heard the frantic quacks of a desperate mother duck with half her brood in the water and the rest running around upstairs calling in high pitched tones but refusing to take the plunge.

Beaky, the name we've given this particular mallard, has already made two attempts at encouraging them to jump out of the pot. It won't be long now. . . I can see at least 10 ducklings moving around and occasionally peering over the top like a line of meercats with necks outstretched.

In addition to the garden birds and the nesting ducks we are visited by coots, great crested grebes, little grebes, cormorants, moorhens, canada geese, egyptian geese, mandarin ducks, tufted ducks, mute swans and a black swan. Yesterday the mute swans brought their 5 cygnets to see us but the black swan is something of an enigma in that there's no other black swan in the area and yet this one is sitting on a nest on an island just upstream from us and we're wondering who the father can be. Could it be a mute swan or even, heaven forbid, a canada goose? We should know in another week to 10 days as the eggs, if fertile, should have hatched by then.

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