Monday, 17 August 2015

A week on the canals

This year, our holiday consisted of spending a week on a narrow boat on the canals around Wolverhampton and Birmingham. They might not have the best water quality in the world, but they can prove quite fruitful for wildlife that you may not usually see by foot. We began our journey at Kings Bromley Marina, starting on the Trent and Mersey Canal, turning onto the Staffordshire and Worcestershire, then finally the Shropshire Union, before turning around and heading back. We were lucky to have fantastic weather for all but the last day. Here are a few of our wildlife encounters whilst we were en route.

The first wildlife I noticed at the marina was the sheer number of housemartins and swallows swooping and diving , picking up water and flying insects. They were a constant presence throughout our canal journey, gathering on overhead cables, flying alongside us, crossing our paths, burbling and chattering to each other overhead. I completely agree with my Collins Bird Guide that their "song sounds rather sweet and 'eager'." I have never seen so many together or in such a short space of time.

Unlike the house martins, the kingfishers of the canals took a few days to discover. We saw two in our week on the boat, far fewer than a similar journey two years ago. They were equally charismatic and pleasing though. One delighted us with staying close to our boat for 10 minutes or more, waiting for us to draw level with it before taking a direct flight in front of the boat, diving in an attempt to fish and landing the other side again. It is very rare for us to get such a close up view of these electric blue birds, so having close encounters at roughly head height were a real treat.

Another treat, and very unexpected it was too, was a flock of lapwings passing overhead. We could hear their "bubbling, wheezy 'song'", peewitting to each other, showing off their apparently disproportionately long black and white wings.

Grey herons tend to be the comedians of the canals. They wait on the bank until the front of the boat begins to close on them, then they will side step and shuffle before taking off in a lazy, but agitated, flight to land only meters ahead. As the boat begins to close on them again, they look more and more irritated the greater the number of times they must repeat this performance. Eventually, they realise this can be solved by flying around and behind the boat, or by disappearing for a time into a nearby field. The canals also seem to be the only place that I ever see herons sitting in trees, surveying the surrounding habitat with their piercing yellow eyes.

Mallards, moorhens and coots are often seen either skulking in the reeds or begging for food at the boat windows. We occasionally had a following of mallards and swans, despite not feeding them, for five minutes or more. Many of them had young, who would call heartbreakingly if they were separated from their parents by the boat. They were always soon reunited, but watching their agitation is always unpleasant. On one occasion, we saw a Muscovy duck on the bank in addition to our usual crew of mallards.

When moored, the chinking chorus of blackbirds and wrens could often be heard. Robins would also sing at strange hours, sometimes bursting into full song at 9:00 pm, despite the darkness.

We saw few dragonflies and butterflies. The bankside vegetation was often choked with Himalayan balsam, but there were the occasional stretches of native wildflowers. My favourites of which were the fragrant meadowsweet and majestic fox gloves.

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