Sunday, 18 July 2010

The mystery of the duck eggs

We've had a number of surprises in the last few weeks, not the least being the appearance of a grass snake in the river. We saw unusual movement in the water while we were having lunch and spotted a grass snake swimming away from the direction of the coots' nest. We're unsure as to whether or not it took one of the eggs but the coots' eggs seem to have disappeared. The snake was later spotted by another islander who followed it in his boat until it disappeared behind the hull of Riverdream.

We are also intrigued as to which species of duck is the phantom egg layer in one of our riverside nesting boxes. There has been one egg in one of the boxes for a few weeks now and then one appeared in the other box. Meanwhile the young mandarin ducks were using the second box as a night time resting place. Last week there was a second egg in the box and then a third. We were away on Friday but returned to find a fourth egg in the box on Saturday morning. Meanwhile, the lone egg in the other box has disappeared. We still don't know which duck is nesting there. We've seen a tufted duck hanging around and occasionally wandering up into the box but there are also a number of mallards in the vicinity at present. The coot also uses the ramp to the box regularly and I've seen it climb up into the nest box. As the coot was responsible for removing all the straw bedding from both boxes to line its own nest, the box is now empty apart from a few dark downy feathers. To complicate matters further the crow has been showing interest in the boxes, too, and may have raided the box of its one egg. Alternatively, perhaps the grass snake took it?

Young tufted duck

A young tufted duck has been hanging around for the last few days. Yesterday it spent several hours sleeping on our plank and, though it is a little nervous, it seems to know that it will be safe on the plank. The coots, mallards and mandarin ducks keep chasing it away but it just dives out of harms way before they can peck it and then resurfaces and comes back when things have quietened down.

We had another surprise this week when Lonely turned up with three sizeable ducklings. She'd been coming for supper every day and I thought she might be nesting again but she's been smarter than that. She has obviously decided to keep her ducklings away from this part of the river until they are big enough to stand a chance against the many predators. Other ducks are also turning up with two and three week old ducklings. I've noticed at least three sets of mothers hanging around Garrick's Ait which is obviously a much safer environment for the young. We saw some young tufted ducks there recently and think that the youngster pictured above may be one of her brood. There was also a mallard with five babies who, now that her young are too large for the average predator, brings the kids down here for snacks.

Great crested grebe

The grebes are still around but most of the territorial fighting has stopped. It's amazing to see the size of some of the fish they manage to swallow - they must have huge necks and throats. On the subject of huge we saw an enormous carp leap clear of the water right in front of us the other day and I saw a repeat performance a couple of days ago. It isn't often that we see such large fish leap clean out of the water on the Thames but, when we lived in Belize, we often saw tarpon leaping and manta rays flying through the air.

Waterlily in my pond

My first flower of the season opened for a few days during the hot weather last week. There's another one on the way but, in the meantime, the watercress is taking over most of the pond and I shall have to harvest it today or there'll be no flow over the cascade. It's delicious in salads so we'll enjoy it for lunch.

Young mandarins with mum

This is a shot of the young mandarins several weeks ago. They are now almost indistinguishable from their mum and one of them is showing signs of independence. They are a little bit more wary of us now, which is probably a good thing as they are, after all, wild birds. Several other mandarin ducks turn up at the same time as the family but are driven off by mum and the youngsters. I can't tell whether either are males mandarins in moult or other females. There's no doubt as to the pecking order - mum and the kids rule the roost!