A glorious day on the river

It’s a lovely sunny weekend and a friend has rung to say he has a new boat “Body and Soul” and it is cruising down to Richmond and would I like to join him at Isleworth? Fifteen minutes later I am sitting in Norman’s pride and joy as we head off around the islands opposite the Richmond steps, right up close to the overhanging willow trees. I can see a Great crested grebe sitting on its nest, which has been thoughtfully tethered by rope to a post, on closer inspection, the nest is actually sitting on a worn car tyre. (An old name for this grebe was Crested arse-foot, in days of old, arse wasn’t considered a swear word, think of the Wheatear, a corruption of white arse Why arse-foot? Because the legs are so far back on the body, they appear to come out from its back side, unlike ducks or geese which have legs almost in the middle of the body and can waddle along quite easily, being so far back the grebe is unable to walk but slides onto its nest.)

This bird is now very common, but over 100 years ago it was another story, brought to the edge of extinction by the fashion trade due to the stomach feathers being used as muffs in the Victorian era. So densely were the feathers packed that they were known as grebe fur and were used for the beautiful chestnut ear tufts in the millinery trade to adorn fashionable hats. The RSPB was formed in 1889 to stop this trade and the slaughter of birds just for their decorative feathers.

Photographs above: Common tern; Wel’s catfish; Common tern

Alien invaders

A few yards on and the Heronry has pterodactyl looking juveniles balancing on the outer branches forsaking the collection of filthy twigs that had been home for several weeks. Herons are early nesters; in fact, the nests are occupied as early as February and you can easily see the adults sitting on the nest from the towpath as the trees are devoid of leaves.

In recent years, Canada geese have been joined by a lone Bar headed goose and the ever-increasing numbers of Egyptian geese – all of these are introduced birds. Bar headed geese having the distinction of holding the record for the world’s highest-flying bird, they have been recorded at 1200ft flying over the Himalayan mountains, Canada geese were introduced in the 18th century to grand country estates. Our latest arrival, the Egyptian goose, could only been seen thirty years ago in Norfolk, mainly around Sandringham park, now they are to be found in the parks on the river and the Wetland Centre. Surprisingly they nest in large holes, high up in old trees.

Heading up to Teddington I am amazed at the number of Mandarin ducks on the river, far outnumbering our native Mallard. This bird is yet another newcomer and has increased enormously in the last few years. Once again this is a bird considered to be the world’s most beautiful duck, it nests in holes in trees but can be enticed to nest in specially designed boxes. A pair of Grey wagtails flash past us and land on the muddy shore, often identified as yellow wagtails because of the gorgeous yellow under parts, but these birds have grey backs unlike the all-yellow, Yellow Wagtail.

Ahead of us on a rusty buoy are a pair of Common tern and being on a boat they take little notice of us as we drift slowly to within ten feet. A sea bird sometimes called a Sea swallow because of its elegant swooping flight, it is becoming more and more common. WWT in Barnes has positioned several carved wooden decoy terns onto the shingle, this is to attract them to nest on the reserve. We are within five feet now and they continue to display to each other, allowing us to take close- up photos.

We are now passing Eel Pie Island and we all miss Trevor Bayliss the inventor who would always wave and greet us from his garden. Sadly, he passed away last year- a real local character! Seals are becoming a common sight along this stretch of water and yesterday my Captain saw one feeding on a large carp near Ham House. Two male coots are violently fighting, their legs thrashing at each other in an attempt to submerge the opponent; a nearby female rushes in and stabs at the interloper with her bill, which sends it scurrying to the bankside defeated in claiming a partner.

Images below: sketch of Common tern; drawing of fighting Coots; sketch of Zander fish by Les McMullum

To our surprise a huge dead fish floats by at least 5’6 ‘long, we couldn’t identify this species but were advised by the Natural History Museum that it was a Wel’s catfish that had been released into the river and is now causing a problem by eating ducklings and small mammals [ I took a photo as it drifted past a row- boat to give it scale]. Norman tells me he often sees large fish leap out of the water, spin like a Dolphin and drop back into the river, a Zander – a predatory fish that I have never heard of and yet another introduced species which, if caught, is illegal to be returned to the river. Not forgetting the Red signal crayfish, introduced by the government in the 1970s and the Chinese mitten crab that came in among ships ballast, both species causing much damage to the riverbanks.

Osprey, Kittiwake, Goosander and Great auk are spotted – but don’t get too excited- these are only the names of the boats that we pass! One name does catch my eye though, it’s the “Thamesa”, a small brass plate on the side is engraved with the words Dunkirk 1940, a lovely and rather elegant motor yacht built in 1936 with a polished mahogany wooden cabin and a boatload of history behind it. Nearing Teddington studios (or what is left of it) I spot a Heron on a post; seconds later it drops into the river with wings spread wide and grasps a fish. 60 years of birdwatching and I have never seen a Heron plunge dive, spread eagle into deep water – it is an exciting moment for me. With enormous effort the Heron manages to lift itself from the surface with a huge fish struggling in its bill, it is a salmon and surely, it’s far too big to be swallowed. For ten minutes I watched the fish being manoeuvred this way and that, by then I would have bet ten pounds that it was never going to swallow it. Wrong! Twelve minutes have passed, and it has slipped down the Heron’s throat showing a rather large, uncomfortable looking bump, I would imagine that it needn’t feed again for several days after that meal.

The end of a short river trip and what excitement, it’s good to know that the river is in such good shape even with all the new and introduced species that are thriving along this wonderful stretch of the river. Just as I am about to get off the boat, the screech of another now familiar bird, the Ring necked parakeet, yet another introduced species and NO it didn’t escape from the Worton Road, Isleworth studios in 1951when they were filming the African Queen but that’s another story……