Coot Watch at Chiswick House

By James Yates

One of the few positives to emerge from the multiple lockdowns of the past year is an increasing appreciation for local nature and wildlife.

Whether it has been watching small birds visiting a garden feeder, finding a new local green or taking up a new nature-themed hobby; lockdown has broadened our love for the outdoors as well as all the flora and fauna that inhabit it.

As a local resident, one place I became familiar with over the past year was Chiswick House and Gardens. Chiswick House gardens is home to a wealth of wildlife occupants, making it the perfect local spot for a budding nature photographer such as myself. I feel lucky to have such a space right on my doorstep, especially here in London, and I have become very amicable with the animals that call it home.

The garden’s resident pair of mute swans, who are apparently both male (which is a story for another day), or the numerous grey herons are probably the most recognisable of all the animals found here. However, I would argue, close behind are the Eurasian coot couple who have nested just below the Classic Bridge on the lake.

The iconic, steep sided stone bridge traverses the lake and offers a unique aerial perspective of the coot nest found just below. The Eurasian coot, as the name suggests, is a wide ranging bird that can be found in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australasia.

Here in Britain they are year round residents and Chiswick House has a healthy population, of a number of breeding pairs. Eurasian coot nests are sizeable structures built on the bottom of shallow water and assembled upwards. Both the male and the female coot aid the construction but, typically, the male collects material (plant stems, reeds, leaves and sticks) and the female incorporates this into the structure.

Nests are usually built amongst vegetation at the water’s edge but the coots at Chiswick House seem to enjoy setting up their breeding sites in the open water. The view from the bridge highlights just how vast, and well-built, these nests are.

I, along with many other local residents, have been on ‘coot watch’ for the past few weeks, ever since eggs were first spotted in the bridge-based nest at the beginning of April.

The end of the month finally saw the first chicks emerge and I have been thoroughly enjoying watching the youngsters explore their new surroundings. Most coot clutches contain somewhere between six and ten eggs with youngsters being born precocial, meaning they are fairly mature and mobile from the moment of hatching.

The chicks are brooded by the female for the first few days after hatching, during which time food is collected and brought to the nest by the male. I managed to capture a few images of the young coot’s first forays into the big wide world. Some of the chicks were off the nest and swimming on their own less than a week after hatching whilst a few of the others preferred the warmth of being tucked up under mother.

Eurasian coots commonly only have a single clutch of eggs each year and often nest in exactly the same location but last year, this pair, laid eggs twice. On both occasions only one chick survived and so I am hoping for a more successful outcome for the group of youngsters that have emerged this time around.

I used a long-range zoom lens when photographing this coot family in order not to disturb them. It is always important when photographing, or being around wild animals, that you do not seek their attention. Allowing animals to go about their daily business, taking special care during the breeding season, is usually when I get to experience the best interactions and something that I would guide everyone to follow.

James’s photographic work, including prints and blog posts about the history of Chiswick House can be found at: jamesyatesphotography.co.uk

For more information on Chiswick House & Gardens, along with a map highlighting where to find the Classic Bridge, visit: chiswickhouseandgardens.org.uk

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Keeping an eye out for Chiswick’s hedgehogs

See also: Chiswick House Events

Support The Chiswick Calendar

The Chiswick Calendar CIC is a community resource. Please support us by buying us the equivalent of a monthly cup of coffee (or more, if you insist). Click here to support us.

We publish a weekly newsletter and update the website with local news and information daily. We are editorially independent.

To subscribe to the weekly newsletter, go here.