Saturday, 12 July 2008

Winners, losers and the return of the prodigal swan

Mouthwatering fruit & vegetables

It's that time of year again - the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show week. Set in the wonderful venue of Home Park and in view of Cardinal Wolsey's (and subsequently Henry VIII's) magnificent palace, the show is a visual feast. This year in particular the word feast springs to mind, with the emphasis on growing and cooking an array of fruit and vegetables.

Joe Swift chats with a delighted award- winning garden designer

Dorset Cereals Edible Playground garden is an inspiration to those thinking of starting vegetable plots in schools, inspiring children to grow their own fruit and vegetables. It also gets them thinking about where their food comes from . I believe it won best of show. It is full of edible plants offering colour, texture and taste and incorporating many environmental features.

The Thai floating market stand

This colourful spectacle, on the banks of the Long Water, is proving very popular with the public, who are able to buy a selection of Thai goods such as fans and hand-painted umbrellas.

The Spirits' Garden

This vibrant garden contains spiritual and symbolic elements, using reflective mirrors to reverse the world as we see it. The plants have been selected for their texture or their fragrance, and many have been handed down through generations. It is intended primarily for solitary contemplation, meditation and relaxation.

Bidou's back!

We may never discover where Bidou disappeared to for the breeding season but she's back, minus any cygnets, if she did manage to breed successfully. Our family of mute swans aren't best pleased at her reappearance and even the cob drives her off. Earlier in the year it seemed like he was a little partial to her flattering attention but, now that he has a family, he's taking his responsibilities seriously! As they are the only 'relatives' in the area she tags along behind them and calls mournfully when she is driven away.

One of this year's winners

The attrition rate for ducklings, baby coots and young grebes this year is dreadful once again. The Herring Gulls pick them off at leisure and what they don't grab the pike, herons and crows take. This is one clever mallard to have managed to keep four for this long but then she's incredibly wary and constantly alert. The ducklings have taken to climbing up our swimming ladder onto the deck in order to be fed and then they curl up together on a coir mat for a kip. It's so lovely to at least see one set of survivors.

A gentle sunset looking towards Hampton Church on the main river

We haven't had too many good evenings this year so when we do we try to get out in the boat for an evening meander round the islands. It's mid July and quite cold for the time of year, which means that the river probably won't warm up enough for swimming by the autumn.

Golden Eye with her last surviving duckling

When we came back from the Mijas Blues Festival our two nesting mallards had already hatched their young. The one we call "snake duck" had nine ducklings but lost them all within two days, and Golden Eye hatched seven. There were no signs of either ducks nor ducklings when we arrived home, but to my amazement Golden Eye was sitting in the lower deck nesting box with two ducklings. She'd obviously decided that it would do nicely as a nursery! We were thrilled to see that she still had two ducklings but after three days one of them disappeared and the other only lasted four more days. We were just beginning to hope that it might make it to adulthood. It was most amusing to watch her rounding them up at night and marching them up the plank to bed. Frequently she made at least four attempts before they would follow her to bed. Never one to give up Golden Eye has now decided to try for a third brood this year and has adopted the riverside nesting box with ramp as her preferred accommodation. "Snake duck" meanwhile has littered the patio deck with earth again having returned to her 'chimney pot' on the top deck. They are both currently sitting on at least six eggs each.

What happened to the seven baby coots?

The coots have had a hard time of it this year. Their nest was partially washed way with some of the eggs but they still managed to hatch 7 youngsters. They look so comical with their punk hair styles. The seven survived for about a week and then four disappeared one day, two the next and the last one the following day. I know that a pike lurks close to where they were nesting and presume that it was probably the main culprit.

One of the rare colourful sunsets of the summer season

Where's the fourth?

Three cygnets hang around while a fourth undergoes the indignity of being handled by humans. Their parents reared out of the water at us, which is quite threatening when you're holding one of their young and it's calling out plaintively to its mum and dad. When the family came for a spot of breakfast I spotted a large float twisted round it's wing and leg. I managed to grab the young swan from the river before being attacked and, while Dave held it I freed the line. Unfortunately it had swallowed the hook and it was too far down its throat for me to deal with so I called the local experts, Peter and Addie, and they popped down armed with the right equipment.

Addie holding the cygnet while Peter prepares to cut the line

Fortunately it was a very fine hook and although it was too far down the cygnet's throat to do anything without damaging the tissue Peter decided that it was probably safe to cut the line. I promised to keep an eye on the cygnet over the following days in case it showed signs of losing its appetite, but there appeared to be no ill effects. The cob made several attempts to attack first us and then Peter and Addie, but soon settled down once the cygnet was put back in the river. The four are thriving so it obviously coped with the tiny hook but the line would have been fatal had it not been cut away and disposed of.

Dad tries to impress us with his size and strength

Once the cygnet was released the cob 'attacked' Peter and Addie several more times and then followed them upstream with his wings flared in warning. Fortunately memories are short and the cygnets visit 6 or 7 times a day, with Bidou hovering in the background. In fact, they've just visited and to my amazement Bidou thought her luck had changed when the cob appeared to attempt to mount her. Unfortunately (or not) depending on viewpoint, he gave her a few sharp nips on the neck and when she realised that this was more of an attack than an amorous approach she 'shrieked' and made a bid for freedom! After chasing her off for a few moments they both started preening and the cob returned to his family.