Plop! “What was that?” Woosh! “Did you see that?” “What’s that strange smell?” “That footprint is a strange shape.” Close your eyes and think back to the last time you were out by the water… The sun on your face, perhaps a fresh breeze blowing through the trees... Did you ask yourself any of those questions whilst out on your peaceful journey along the waterway? If you did, then you’re primed and ready to join in with the Trust’s Great Nature Watch - become a nature detective!
Springtime, a time of year when most British wildlife begin thinking about finding a mate and passing along their genes to the next generation. Importantly, the weather begins to warm up, which is particularly critical for newborn baby mammals and birds.
They are born with damp, and often sparse fur and feathers, which will take a few days to turn into a dry thick padded jacket. This is why many birds and mammals build cosy nests, lined with their own fur and feathers or use fluff, like sheep's wool or badgers hairs, collected from wire fences and snagged on trees.
Increasing temperatures also encourage insects out of their winter dormancy, making food readily available for the brand new hungry broods.
Blackbirds (turdus merula), often one of the first songbirds (or passerines) to set up home in early to mid-February, build their well hidden nests from moss and twigs, often amongst the brambles (rubus fruticosus) or climbing flora such as honeysuckle (lonicera periclymenum). If you happen to unwittingly paddle close to its nest, an adult bird may burst out from the undergrowth, shrieking their distinctive “chink, chink, chink” alarm call.
Another of our waterway birds, with a distinctive alarm call, is the bright blue lightning strike of a kingfisher (alcedo atthis). Once you have heard them whistle past a few times, only catching a glimpse in the distance as they disappear out of sight, you will begin to recognise the characteristic high pitched shriek.
Kingfishers build their nests in burrows, which the pair jointly excavate into soft sandy soil using their beaks. Nests are normally located about a half a metre from the top of the bank. Kingfishers like to perch before returning into their nest, so look for well-placed branches, which offer a good lookout.
Nesting banks usually have characteristic white staining splashed across the mud, caused by their droppings. If you’re really lucky, you may even see an adult male trying to woo his female with gifts of fresh fish, which he will spin around in his beak so that he can feed it to her, head-first (which makes it go down much easier!).
One of the plants often seen growing alongside canals and rivers are the tall, thin reeds like common reed (phragmites australis) , which “whoosh” and rattle as they sway in the breeze, ideal habitat for the aptly named reed warblers (acrocephalus scirpaceus) and their close relatives the sedge warblers (acrocephalus schoenobaenus).
These birds are what some bird watchers refer to as LBJ’s… Little Brown Jobbies! A fleeting glimpse of one of these chaps and it could have been any small brown bird! But with a little bit of detective work we can determine if it is likely to be one of the sedge or reed warblers. They are dependent upon tall reeds to build their nests and will arrive from their over wintering grounds in faraway Africa around April time, ready to breed in summer.
These warblers weave carefully constructed ovoid shaped ball baskets between the reeds with a small entrance hole near to the top. You can often hear them long before you spot them, as they are very good at hiding, so listen out for their repetitive, rhythmical ‘chirr, chirr, chirr’ from within the reeds.
As wildlife begins to emerge from their secretive winter hiding, it can be much easier to see many animals before the vegetation bursts into life. If we’re lucky, we may catch a rare glimpse of the nationally declining water vole (arvicola amphibius) or, more affectionately known as ‘Ratty’ from Wind in the Willows. These dumpy looking burrowing mammals look a lot like the brown rat (rattus norvegicus), but have more of a snub shaped nose, with ears hidden by fluff and a shorter tail.
Water vole burrows are excavated into the river and canal banks, using their large, orange, front teeth to scrape out chunks of mud. The entrances are similar in size and shape to a tennis ball, have neatly kept ‘lawns’, where they have popped their heads out for a quick munch, and you will not find the ‘fan’ of excavated material that you get from rats. Even if you don’t manage to spot a water vole, the burrows and other signs such as their browny-green, tic-tac shaped droppings and stacks of chomped vegetation, saved for a rainy day, or of course that characteristic ‘plop’ as they drop into the water, are sure signs that they are around.
Soon that empty sounding ‘clinking’ and ‘clunking’ of leafless trees bashing against one another in the wind will cease as their buds burst into life. The striking colours from the bright pollen filled catkins of the yellow hazel (corylus avellana) and purple alder (alnus glutinosa) trees will break out of the monotonous browns of winter.
Spring flowers such as cowslips (primula veris) and primroses (primula vulgaris) will begin to bloom and before long will form a yellow carpet often seen along woodland fringed waterways (or perhaps on route to your favoured waterway!). Many trees have flowers (catkins are actually flowers) that often go unnoticed, but when you take the time to stop and observe them you will find that the blooms of the horse chestnut tree (aesculus hippocastanum), for example, are quite beautiful.
Once you’ve spotted the wildlife, you will surely want to tell someone that it is there? We have developed a handy mobile phone app that is really easy to use, as it uses GPS to locate your exact position, so you can log wildlife as you spot it. The app also has a spotter’s guide, with photos, to help with your identification skills. The mobile app is free to download from your smartphone’s app store (search Canal & River eNatureWatch). Your help, in mapping the precious wildlife of the waterways, ensures that we maintain and look after the natural beauty of our historic waterways.
The Canal & River Trust has top team of committed experts and enthusiasts, who help to protect our waterway environment and improve it for both people and nature. Follow this blog to find out more about the hugely varied work they carry out.See more blogs from The environment team