LET’S bid a warm welcome to British Summer Time and hope that the signal for the clocks to go forward is also a signal for the warmer weather we enjoyed over the weekend to continue.
This time of year is a frantic one for all kinds of animals with breeding a major preoccupation for everything from fish to mammals to birds – but it’s also a joyous time for Riverwatchers like me to watch new families emerging along the river.
Ever since my mum used to take me down to the riverbank in Twickenham where I grew up to feed the ducks, I’ve loved watching mallard families taking to the water.
Mallards nest in all kinds of interesting places – from old boats to garden sheds to riverside trees.
I’ve watched, fascinated as a female duck has literally pushed her ducklings from the nest several feet up in a tree and seen the little ones bounce on the ground below the tree and expected the worst. Only to see them shake themselves and stand around waiting for the rest of the brood to join them before setting off in a straggling line towards the water.
Having built her nest, the female lays her eggs and starts to sit on them. She rarely leaves the nest apart for brief periods when she feeds and has a stretch.
Roughly four weeks after laying, the eggs start to hatch and normally the whole brood is hatched within 24 hours or so.
The ducklings stay in the nest for at least 10 hours while they dry and get used to using their legs. Then, usually in the early morning, the female leads them to water.
I’m sure everyone who lives or works by the river will have chuckled at the proud mums leading their small flotillas of ducklings around as the little ones struggle to keep up.
Ducklings don’t stand a chance of survival without their mothers and it’s normally seven or eight weeks from birth before they fledge and head off to make lives of their own.
While it’s quite usual to see broods of eight or 10 ducklings it’s surprising how many don’t make it to maturity. If the female is panicked and flies off shortly after her eggs hatch, she may well not return – in which case the newly hatched ducklings have no chance. Their down is not waterproof and without mum to show them what’s good to eat and what to avoid, many will starve.
Add to that predation from things like mink and pike and the outlook is less than encouraging.
Of course mallards are just one of the many different types of water bird to be starting families at this time of year – coots, moorhens, swans, seagulls, kingfishers, cormorants, herons and grebes will also be busily producing the next generation – but that’s part of the beauty of living close to the river – there are always so many wonderful aspects of nature to enjoy.
If you’ve taken photos of any of these beautiful birds with their new families, do email them to me and I’ll gladly include them with future Riverwatch columns.