Sunday, 21 April 2013

Hyperactive duck

Magnolia in a friend's garden

We were at a lovely party yesterday, just upstream from Taggs Island, and no-one could resist the lure of our host's wonderful garden. The magnificent light showcased the beauty of one of his glorious magnolias trees.  It's Springtime at last!

Mandarin duck in the pond

A pair of mandarin ducks are regular visitors to our pond now Spring is here.  If you look carefully you can see a reflection of the male in the water.  The female spends a lot of time grubbing around in our bog garden, too, but has also found where I throw mealworms for the garden birds and helps herself to a few.

Today the mandies were again standing on the ramp of the nest box where our mallard is 'sitting' and the female mandarin spent ages gazing into the nest box at the mallard but our girl didn't seem at all bothered.  She started sitting on her (10) eggs full time yesterday so we can expect the ducklings to hatch in a month's time. Dave wanted to see when she came off the nest so that he could put in place a safety barrier, without disturbing her, to deter the fox from helping himself to a 'take-away' so we had the camera switched on all day. It meant that we were also able to keep an eye on her and we only saw the rival drake attack her once.   This morning the drake managed to drive her from the nest again and it took her some time before she returned but she's had an undisturbed afternoon.  I was about to write 'relaxing' rather than 'undisturbed' but that is far from the truth.  I had no idea just how hyper mums on nests are.  She spends much of the time rearranging the straw and rolling her eggs.  When she gets bored she stretches her neck so that she can lean out from the box to watch the world go by and enjoy the fresh air!  Her relaxation periods are incredibly brief.

Lovely evening light on the river

The sunsets have been impressive the last couple of days and it's a joy to have sunshine all day after such a grey and overcast winter.  This is the view looking upstream from our living room and part of the kitchen and, on an evening like this, with no river traffic, it's so tranquil.  I hope our mallard enjoys the view, too, as she is facing this way.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Seven eggs and counting

What a difference some sunshine makes.  It's as though Nature is making up for lost time by going into overdrive.  The magnolia tree, which was still in bud five days ago is almost in full bloom today and my garden is suddenly filled with colour.  In April last year temperatures soared and most of Britain was officially in drought.  The following day the heavens opened and soon we were on flood alert. After a very long, bleak, cold winter it is so wonderful to enjoy some warmth and sunshine again and to watch the garden being dramatically transformed by colourful, scented plants. Judging by the number of visiting bumble bees and butterflies I'm not the only one to be grateful for the late arrival of Spring.

 A burst of spring colour in the garden

The female mallard nesting in our duck box now has seven eggs, possibly eight after this morning's visit to the nest.  She is being attacked every day inside the box by a rival drake and it's hard to believe that no eggs have been broken.  The drake takes advantage of the fact that she is, literally, a sitting duck and mates with her inside the box.  I've been doing my best to drive him off if I catch him and yesterday I managed to get hold of him and that dampened his ardour for a couple of hours but her returned later on and attacked her again.

Between attacks yesterday a pair of mandarins flew over to her nest box and stood on the plank as if guarding her from the drake.  Of course it was probably just a coincidence but they did prevent the drake from approaching the mallard for about an hour.

Later on, following a further attempt by the drake to mate with our mallard, she fled the nest and he returned with his own partner. I was amazed to watch as she went inside the nest and starting covering up her rival's eggs.  Perhaps it's instinctive?  She's been checking out both nest boxes for several weeks now which is probably one reason as to why her drake is attacking our mallard, other than the obvious one!  We're surprised our girl hasn't given up on her nest but she returns after each attack, sits for a while and then covers up the eggs.

Mandarin ducks on guard!

Monday, 15 April 2013

Some sunshine at last

At last we have had some sunshine over the weekend. When the sun did shine it was pleasantly warm and it has worked its magic on the trees and flowers.  The magnolia tree in our island's communal garden would normally have finished flowering by now but its buds are just opening now.  Two days ago the marsh marigold in my pond had tightly closed buds but in two days has flowered.  There were bees and butterflies enjoying the nectar from tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and the divinely scented daphne odora in my garden.  What a difference sunshine makes.

 Marsh marigold in my pond

The spring weather has brought islanders out from a long hibernation.  Gardening has been on the minds of some.  Unfortunately, rather than work with nature they choose April to aggressively cut back tons of foliage and hedging, inevitably disturbing nesting birds in their desire to tidy everything up.  At our end of the island there will be one less brood of songbirds and probably a number of smaller nesting birds made homeless.  How apposite!

Thin sunshine on the river this morning

Our  nesting duck is being attacked in the nestbox every morning by a randy drake.  So far the eggs haven't been broken, which is amazing considering the struggle she puts up.  Today she's been driven off twice but has returned a third time and I just hope she is left in peace this time.  I spoke too soon - she has just been driven off again.  Perhaps she will have to abandon the nest which is sad but, now that the drake has discovered her lair he will attack her every day and there's nothing we can do to protect her. 

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Hidden camera shows duck in her nest box

We have a camera in the nest box which links with our television so that we are able to watch what is going on inside the nest.  This morning when I turned on 'duck TV' madam was already in the box and resting comfortably. Today she wasn't attacked by a rival male mallard so she had time to make herself comfortable although there was a fair amount of shifting around and rolling of the eggs.

Our mallard viewed through the TV 

Over the years we have seen quite a few ducks nest in our boxes and helped them, when necessary, to launch their ducklings when they nest on the garden deck.  Normally we only see what goes on from the outside looking in so it is fascinating to watch the duck from the inside of the nest.  I was surprised at how restless she was for the hour that I watched her this morning, stretching her neck outside the box on a regular basis.

One of the eggs is exposed for a while

The girl prepares to leave the box 

After carefully covering all 5 eggs our girl starts to head out of the box.  She came round to the plank for a quick breakfast of wheat and then was joined by her drake.

Today was partly sunny in the morning but has clouded over now and the breeze is picking up.  Apparently gale force winds are forecast for tonight and possibly part of tomorrow in the south.  Fortunately, though, it has only drizzled a little and we haven't had the monsoon like downpours of yesterday.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Four eggs

Because the weather has been so grey and drab for much of the year, which means that the light is not ideal for well lit, attractive images of wildlife, it has meant that I have updated my blog infrequently.  By trying to maintain a 'photo led' blog, however, I am restricting myself from recording what has been happening on the Thames more regularly and so I have decided to write more often and add images when I have suitable ones.

It's another wet and grey morning here and it has rained very heavily during the night. The river is so much quieter at the moment, no doubt because most female water birds are nest building or laying eggs first thing. There aren't even many male partners hanging around which is unusual.  No doubt, as the season progresses, things will change.

Another egg laid today

This morning, when I turned on 'duck TV' our female mallard was sitting quietly in the nestbox and seemed quite relaxed.  When I next glanced at the screen I noticed that her breathing had changed and that her muscles were contracting and relaxing rather rapidly.  After a couple of minutes she seemed to relax fully again but her rest was soon disturbed by a rival drake.  He climbed into the box and attacked her and she was forced to fly off, exposing four eggs.  She hasn't been back but he has twice inspected the box and seems to be trying to persuade his own female mallard, a much paler duck, to use one of the two nest boxes.  We shall have to see what happens tomorrow morning and, if possible, I shall keep  watch but, in the end, Nature has to take its course and the current female will be attacked on a regular basis I fear.

A sunset in early April

We have been lucky enough to see some sunshine recently but once again the skies are overcast and today it has been raining hard with a few periods of dry but overcast skies.  The April showers seem to be less of the showers and more of persistent rain.  Will the weather ever improve?

Thursday, 11 April 2013

A Never Ending Winter

 Little Grebe

It has been one of the coldest Spring seasons on record and Easter Sunday was, over most of the UK, the coldest for many years with snow falling across much of Britain.  The sun seems to have deserted these shores so Spring plants and flowers are reluctant to brighten up the landscape.  One of the few benefits is that I have seen more of the secretive water bird, the little grebe.  Because of all the rain that has fallen since May last year, the river has been in spate for many months and has only recently returned to normal flow.  River traffic has been limited to essential journeys only and the water birds, including the more powerful swans, have struggled against the flow to swim upstream.  Consequently, a little grebe (pictured above) took refuge from the flow in front of our home and spent several hours fishing and then grooming.  It was a pleasure to watch such a beautiful, delicate, duckling size bird at such close quarters.

 Cormorant on the hunt

Fewer cormorants have been about over the winter period, perhaps because it is more difficult for them to fish when there is such a strong current? No doubt they have found less turbulent parts of the river to dive for fish.

The "exotics" fight

In spite of the persistently cold weather the ducks know that Spring is in the air.  Every morning we have had up to ten pairs of mandarin ducks and one pair of wood ducks turn up for breakfast.  In the evening the same exotic birds put on an amazing performance before finally dining on the wheat they seem to love.  For about an hour they show off and posture, displaying their feathers to advantage and trying to impress the rather indifferent females.  This behaviour continued for several weeks but then it all changed when many of the female mandarins had chosen their partners and there was just one female being courted by at least seven mandarins and the wood duck.  Because the female wood duck looks so similar to a female mandarin duck I have been unable to tell whether the mandarins were after the female wood duck or whether the wood duck just fancied his chances with a female mandarin.  My instinct is that the mandarins were after the only female wood duck. The aerial displays were amazing and the ducks were more focused on flirting than on food but it has all suddenly stopped and since the weekend only a few pairs of mandarins are regular visitors.

Wood duck warns off a determined mandarin

The wood duck was less swift on the wing than the mandarins but he was more than a match when it came to seeing off his rivals on water.  His strange vocal call, which sounds a little like static electricity, could be heard above all the burping and whistling sounds made by the male mandarins.

 Mandarin displaying his fine feathers

Most of the displaying and flirting was performed on a neighbour's boat with up to 11 exotics lined up along the rim of the boat while most of the females ignored them.  The one above was wiser and used our plank to show off to his 'intended'.

 Poor old boy

For months we have watched this once proud mandarin deteriorate in health and mobility and we think he may have died during the most recent cold spell.  He became so tame in his need for food that he would stand on the table and wait for me to put food out for him without flying off when I approached.  He chose not to go too far away from the source of regular food and spent a lot of time resting on the boat next door.  He found it difficult to walk because he would stand on one of his own feet and then stumble and he was bullied and chased off by other mandarins but I like to think that we looked after him as much as possible.

 Long-tailed tit on feeder

There have been long-tailed tits on the island for some years though they have rarely visited our garden before now but at last we have at least five turning up regularly to enjoy the fatballs and peanuts.  During December and January we also enjoyed the company of a grey wagtail which spent hours in the garden each day, especially once it discovered the mealworms we were putting down for the blackbirds, robins and dunnocks.  The wagtail would eat its fill and then stand by the stash of mealworms as if to guard them from other birds.  Now, all of a sudden, some starlings have discovered them too and, as they are greedy birds, not many mealworms are left for the wagtail and the other ground feeding birds.

 Nest hunt

Two eggs were laid in one of our duck nest boxes in February and then there was no more activity for two months but, in the last week the ducks are searching for nest sites and one box in particular, the one with the eggs,  has been visited by various female (and male) mallards, several pairs of mandarins, a moorhen and some tufted ducks.  The other box is also checked out but this one seems to appeal to the ducks more.  Dave put a camera inside yesterday and this morning we were amazed to see a female mallard sitting quietly inside the box with two eggs until she was chased off by a rival's drake.  'Duck TV' should be fun if a female is able to make the nest her own without being attacked by rival drakes.