Monday, 14 December 2009

Nature notes from the Caribbean

Osprey returning to feed his young

We've swapped the Thames Riviera, as Taggs Island and environs is called, for a more exotic location with the wildlife to match. Instead of swans and ducks we're surrounded by pelicans, egrets and magnificent frigate birds. The temperature's a little different too - it's in the high 80s here while back home Jack Frost is biting.

Little blue heron joins us for a fish lunch!

It's a different world here in Belize, where time obligingly expands to optimise recreation and relaxation. We've lived in the country twice, some twenty years ago, and revisited in '98, and it is probably our favourite place to be. They say you can never go back, and we had some concerns as to whether we'd still like it here, but little's changed, even in Belize city, and the people here are just as friendly as ever.

Pelican checks out a fisherman cleaning a yellowfin jack

For the last five days we've been unwinding on Caye Caulker, an unspoiled, laid back island of Belize. It's so good to slow down to the local pace, a gentle amble with nowhere to go in a hurry. A pace set by the pelicans and frigate birds that cruise by on the breeze, just like the locals and tourists alike who drift down main street checking out what's hot and what's not!

This magnificent frigate bird stole a sardine head from a gull

We've found an ideal place to pass the time, a bar on the bay called The Lazy Lizard. It has the best of almost everything - clear turquoise water, sunshine, shade, happy people and, best of all, an osprey nest close by. I've been in seventh heaven, watching the osprey bring fish for its partner and offspring while fending off frigate birds, the flying pirates of the Caribbean. It's not often you can sit at a bar, swim in crystal clear water, have fun with the local people, drink rum punch AND take photographs of ospreys on their nest!

Aquabatics are just part of the backdrop

Between relaxing at the bar, swimming, chatting to locals and tourists, and taking photographs, there's always plenty to take in. People watching, something my father loved to do, is great fun here - a few days would provide enough material for a book. As well as the passing boats, canoes, kite surfers and the like, yesterday's high spot was a sailing boat that hit the sand bar before it reached our bar. The poor guys tried really hard to push it into deeper water, hampered by a strong onshore breeze, and after various locals and a small craft tried to rescue them a boat with a serious engine came to their aid and towed them off the sand bar.

Mandingo performs his party trick

Mandingo, a guy with a flare for entertaining tourists, put on an unusual show, too. He took some fresh sardines from a local fisherman (who was busy gutting a huge yellowfin jack) and hand-fed the frigate birds. It was an impressive sight, especially when he placed a sardine in his mouth and one of the frigate birds swooped down and snatched it from his lips. When that party trick was over, Mandingo lured a moray eel from under the dock and enticed an array of colourful fish into the shallow water by the jetty. The price . . . a beer at the bar!

After the moray eel had eaten the smaller fish headed for the fish head

The lazy lizard

Now we know why the bar is called The Lazy Lizard. This little iguana couldn't be bothered to move out of my way and I had to step over him while he just blinked in the sunlight.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Global wetting

A sunny day during a week of rain

For a few brief hours today we enjoyed bright skies and brilliant sunshine. We took advantage of a break in the intermittent yet persistent downpours we've been enduring for several weeks,
to deliver Christmas cards to several friends upstream who live on the next island. Some may question claims about global warming, others question whether climate change is 'man made', but few can deny that the south east of England is getting, wetter, warmer and windier . . . and the rain is more like monsoon rain these days!


This furry felon raids the bird table every day, feasting on the sunflower hearts meant for the finches and tits. Magpies and pigeons also sneak on to the bird table to grab what they can, and that leaves little for the smaller garden birds. Fortunately, I have a window feeder by the kitchen and that helps feed the 'little' birds. No one has told the parakeets that they're not supposed to use the window feeder,though, and one in particular enjoys a leisurely breakfast there most mornings.

Another rainy day in paradise!

Believe it or not this was a colour image! More rain is forecast and the river is flowing faster but is not in spate yet. In fact the river is being well managed at the moment, almost too well as islanders found the levels too low for safety several weeks ago. Some couldn't get off their houseboats! Apparently a sensor failed and river levels dropped too low for most of us.

A new kit on the block

A newcomer to the island, this friendly young moggy spends a little too much time in our garden but he's very sweet. The birds aren't so keen, though. I love cats but am more concerned about the safety of the birds I feed. We seem to have an influx of new cats at the moment, all lovely and all in my garden! I 'm so tempted to stroke them but I do my best to resist the temptation and shoo them away.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Blustery days

Good days for sailing

We've had very squally weather over the last couple of weeks with quieter periods in between. The strength of the gusts last night was impressive - fortunately all is safe and in one piece this morning. The local sailing clubs have had some ideal weather conditions for their Sunday races. The above are Hampton dinghies, making the most of the brisk ,breezy weather.

Male mandarin duck

Only one pair of mandarin ducks visits us regularly at the moment. They always wait to be fed on the front deck rather than at the back of the house for the first feed of the day. The female is so much daintier than a female mallard but she can usually keep her place in the pecking order.
The male isn't so bold and flies off the deck when I put out food but his partner stands at the patio doors and stares in at me when she wants more wheat.

Dangerous territory

Territorial battles between mute swans have been less frequent this winter but occasionally the dominant pair takes exception to any intruder that strays into their territory. When they've driven off potential rivals they continue to flare their wings and flex their necks until they're sure there's no longer a threat.

After an absence of months the squirrel is back, raiding the bird table for sunflower hearts every morning. I had bought a bird table that was designed to foil large birds and squirrels but magpies, pigeons and the squirrel refuse to be deterred by the extra bars. Today I've delayed putting out food until the squirrel gets bored and goes elsewhere!

It's months away from the nesting season but Lonely inspects the two duck nesting boxes every day. Perhaps it's her way of laying claim to at least one of them. A hybrid male duck (one of the brown and white ones like Gobi) also spends a fair amount of time on the ramp of the nest box last used by Goldeneye.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Stormy nights and misty mornings

Leisurely preen

On colder mornings the swans spend at least an hour at the feeding station hoping for extra hand-outs. When they finally accept that feeding time is over, they relax mid-stream for a serious preen. This one caught my eye when it was backlit by the early morning sun for a moment. It's warm breath laced the cold air in wisp of vapour.

The mandarin ducks are back

Four days ago I noticed that the mandarin ducks were back after disappearing for several months from the scene. They're quite bold and the female stands right up close to the sliding doors and pecks on the glass for attention.

A typical misty scene for this time of year

It's time for the kids to leave

Every morning I'm greeted by the parent swans, three cygnets, the black swan, fifteen to twenty ducks, the two fat ladies and an assortment of tufted ducks and coots. Feeding them all is quite a challenge as they fight each other instead of getting stuck in! The two fat ladies eat what they can from the communal platform and then swim over to me to be hand fed. If I'm not careful, I nearly trip over a drake every time I move as he follows me like a dog and stands right by my feet hoping for his own private supply of wheat. If I feed him separately he is immediately driven off by other ducks and returns to my side. One day, if I'm not careful, I'll trip over him! Meanwhile Bidou, the black swan, expects to be fed in her usual spot but the swans and cygnets are wise to this and chase her off. After 10 minutes, things quieten down a bit (apart from the swans) and then some of the more shy ducks, like Lonely, turn up for their turn.

Battered by rain

During last night's storms winds gusted to 75mph and are still brisk this morning with a threat of more squalls to come. Yesterday this rose looked lovely but it's taken a fair battering overnight.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The end of an Indian summer

The lovely Indian summer is gradually coming to an end. We've started getting heavy rain at times and the temperatures have dropped significantly. I still haven't had to wrap my citrus trees in fleece yet, but it's handy for when the first frost is forecast. This morning is bright and sunny so I was able to take this picture of Bidou (below) stretching her wings after having chased one of the cygnets away from the food supply. It's almost a game with her. She picks on one of the cygnets and chases it round and round the boat until she gets bored. Apart from grabbing it by the neck or tail feathers occasionally, she does nothing else to harm it.

Bidou enjoying a leisurely stretch

A stream in Bushy Park

When the weather forecast predicted the end of the warm, sunny days, I grabbed the opportunity to take a walk in the park late one afternoon. The sun disappears from the woodland gardens all too early, but I still enjoyed the more muted light that lent a softer hue to the autumm colours. I had hoped to see some deer on my walk but not one showed as much as its antlers.

Tufted duck enjoying the early morning sunshine

The tufted ducks are so tame these days, having become habituated to humans. Dozens of them spend the day under the overhang of our walkway, taking advantage of any food that I put out for the swans and ducks. They love wheat and dive for the grains that are spilled by the careless ducks. At the moment the water is really clear, so we can watch them swimming underwater as they search for the wheat. Some of them now use our main plank to 'haul out' and preen, which is great, because one doesn't normally see tufties on dry land. The coots chase them off if they want the plank for themselves but, occasionally, the tufties have a chance to clean up and have a quiet kip without being disturbed.

The pond in late autumn

The leaves on our Acer have turned a magnificent rusty red and the pond plants, instead of dying off, seem to be growing again. There are gorgeous new flowers on the marsh marigold and one of the other plants is putting out new shoots. Even the watercress is doing well.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Indian summer continues

We were surprised to see a coot carry a small fish to the floating platform outside our foredeck yesterday and attempt to swallow it. We've never seen a coot with a fish before and this one tried to swallow the fish whole. Before I could grab my camera, a gull swept down and grabbed the fish from the coot, before being mobbed by a dozen gulls.

A few minutes later we watched a tufted duck settle on the platform to preen and then it stood and flapped its wings for several minutes as if attempting a vertical take-off.

Last week, when I was on the phone to a friend, I saw a large fish leap clear from the river twice. What was strange was that the fish appeared to have a bright red band around its middle, like a sash. It seemed to twist as it flew through the air and I wondered whether it were trying to free itself from some jetsam that had become wrapped around it.

Two elegant 'old ladies'

This stretch of river between Molesey Lock and Sunbury Lock is not only beautiful but steeped in history. On Sunday, as we watched TheYarmouth Belle (built 1892) pass the houseboat Astoria (1911), we were impressed by the classical elegance of boat design in former years.

Parakeets are as devious as magpies

Parakeets are clever at accessing food and over time we've seen them prize off lids from peanut feeders and dump them in the river in order to snack on whole peanuts. In this picture you can see a fat ball lodged in the tree that a parakeet has dragged from the container for a more comfortable and leisurely meal!

Down the hatch!

As we approached this cormorant we noticed it was showing signs of indigestion! It lifted most of its body from the water, arched its neck and swallowed, before taking a final drink to wash the catch down.

Dinghy racing

These colourful craft added to the glorious autumnal glow on the river. There was a brisk breeze, accompanied by bright, warm sunshine on Sunday, and the competitors made the most of the perfect conditions.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Winter time, it's official, but no one told the wildlife!

Another stunning evening in Hampton

We may, officially, have entered Winter time with the clocks going back an hour last night, but the weather belies this. At present it's sunny and an amazing 24.1 C on our deck and we've been watching a red admiral butterfly take advantage of the warm sunshine. Meanwhile, I'm still harvesting tomatoes from the garden deck and the baby aubergines are thriving.

Sunning themselves before bed time

The two fat ladies love to warm themselves in the dying rays of the late autumn sunshine. After an early supper they head for Duck Ait where they preen and then sit and face the evening sun. They give us a wake up call each morning, making such a racket that it's impossible to ignore them. Neither of us can get back to sleep once they come calling for their breakfast! Unusually, for ducks, they are happy to share their food and never peck each other, taking it in turn to hand feed. They're gentle ducks . . . but very noisy!

Another regular at Duck Ait

Most evenings we see this heron preen and settle on Duck Ait. Watching the ducks, geese and herons gather here at sundown reminds us of Key West in Florida, where sunset attracts a huge crowd of locals and visitors alike. We've been fortunate enough to have some stunning sunsets this autumn.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Not in our back river!

Resident swans chase rival cygnet

A cygnet from the upstream family of swans was foolish enough to stray into our swan family's territory and was seriously attacked. It managed to escape but didn't learn a lesson and was soon cornered by dad, mum and the three cygnets. It kept trying to climb out onto the bank but was dragged under by the attacking swans. It didn't stand a chance and, in the end, Dave went across in the boat to hold off the attackers long enough for the cygnet to escape.

A cygnet chases off one of its own family

The cygnets are learning to defend their territory and are quite happy to attack each other. Meanwhile Bidou, the black swan, takes great delight in chasing all the cygnets. Perhaps she sees it as payback time for all her humiliations throughout the year at the hands of the parent mute swans.
Early morning sun catches the autumn foliage

There was the most glorious light on the trees one morning this week. The river took on a golden hue as it reflected the lovely autumn colour in the trees on the opposite bank.

Evening sun on the bank opposite

We've had a lovely autumn and have managed to get out in the boat regularly, if only for a half hour trip upstream, round the islands and back again. The evening light looks so restful as the sun's low rays slant through the trees but the scene was far from peaceful on Monday night at around 10.30pm. The silence was broken by the sound of many police sirens. Then I heard what sounded like a mini bike racing along the towpath from the Hurst Park direction before stopping close by. A minute later a number of policemen/women ran along the towpath from the Molesey direction and there were flashlights and people shouting for a while. Finally, a helicopter was sent up to scour the area so presumably the fugitive wasn't found. Later I saw more police searching with flashlights among the trees and shrubs. If anyone reading this knows what happened, please put us out of our suspense!

A garden on the riverbank en route to Sunbury weir stream

Whenever it's sunny we try to make the most of the river by taking our day boat up or down stream. The air is getting chillier in the late afternoon but the light is quite lovely when the sky is so clear. It's interesting to see how far some of our local wildlife travels. The two fat ladies have completely recovered now from the loss of their male partner and use Duck Ait as their base. They swim around some of the island and into the lagoon but don't circumnavigate the island. Bidou travels as far as Platts Eyot, however, and I've also seen some of the ducks that come to feed daily in the Platts Eyot area later in the day.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Party in the park

Red sky at night

This delightful sunset melted into a chill, still night, perfect conditions for a party in the park - a stag party, that is. As the night progressed testosterone charged stags got rowdy, fighting ensued and the deep-throated bellowing of rutting red deer woke us at 3.00am.

Hungover the next day?

The following day I wandered over to the park to see some action but most of the deer were either hunkered down nurturing 'antler ache' or keeping a watchful eye on the hinds (female deer) they'd 'won over'. Several lone stags did their best to impress any hind in two minds about their choice of partner, but there were no attempts to 'steal' peripheral members of the harem from inattentive rivals.

If at first you don't succeed . . .

. . . try and try again

A stag, previously hidden by bracken, sauntered past me and stood close to some grazing hinds in an attempt to proclaim his prowess. They ignored him! His heart wasn't in it and he soon ambled off to look for action elsewhere.

Time for a little lunch

Leaving the stag to nurse his dented pride I noticed a heron heading for a stretch of water where gulls were skimming the surface for food. The heron had lunch on its mind but the gulls had no intention of sharing, and several dive-bombed it.

What the devil . . .

I'll get those gulls

Hunting in pairs

Cormorants have been fishing in twos and threes over the last few weeks and are doing very nicely, thank you! The river is teaming with fish, providing a plentiful supply.

This one was successful at almost every attempt

One final fish for breakfast

Two neighbours fish from their decks and the cormorants target their boats when they arrive for breakfast and lunch. Presumably there are more fish nearby because of the bait used to attract fish by the fishermen - an example of a healthy symbiotic relationship between humans and wildlife. Sadly not all fishermen have such a laissez-faire attitude to wildlife and we witnessed a cormorant, hooked by fishermen trolling from their boat, being dragged through the water, desperately trying to free itself. What sickened us was the fact that the fishermen maintained their speed and only slowed to a near stand-still when we called to them to slow down and headed towards them in our boat. They managed to free the cormorant and raced away before we reached them, and we stayed to check on the cormorant. In spite of its ordeal, it seemed fine and continued to dive and surface without showing signs of distress. There were no tell tale signs of fishing line to concern us.

Greenfinch with little fear

A rather scruffy greenfinch frequents our window feeder and spends ages sitting in the dish. It feasts on sunflower hearts, spitting out the bits it doesn't want. These fall to the ground and are eaten by the pigeons or ducks, depending on which species gets to them first.

Time for a drink

After a hearty meal the bird heads for the pond, first for a drink, and afterwards for a bath. It has learnt to balance on one of the waterlily leaves or on my watercress and bathe safely from there.

The two fat ladies

Following the death of Grey Job the two fat ladies have been noticeably subdued and off their food. For over a week they hung around Patrick's garden instead of spending the night on Duck Ait, a much safer venue. Unfortunately for Patrick, they liked the shelter of his porch and the comfort of his doormat. The mess on his mat the following day had to be seen to be believed! We tried to discourage them by obscuring the walkway with plant pots but they found their way around them and continued to 'bed down' on his doorstep. His garden looked like the contents of a feather pillow had been scattered over it, while the ground was pebble-dashed with massive amounts of excrement, so Patrick was relieved when their period of mourning was over and they made Duck Ait their home once more.

A splash of autumn colour

A hollow tree trunk

There are plenty of trees like this in Bushy Park. It's such a bonus to have the park on our doorstep with its wilderness areas and its beautiful woodland gardens. Yesterday, while out photographing the deer, I was fortunate enough to come across a huge number of deer, gently grazing and enjoying the warm sunshine. Most of the stags were resting, so there was very little happening until a dog started chasing the deer, rushing at them and startling them all. If the owner had been anywhere in view they would have been in trouble for allowing their dog to attack the deer.