Birds love water, the sound of it and the benefits it brings. If you have a bird bath or feature in your garden, you’ll know it can be one of the most prized places around, especially if you have one with moving water; the sound of trickling or splashing water is an incredibly effective attractant for all birds.
Not in my backyard
Waterways can be so varied: rivers, canals, lakes, streams, marshes, ponds, leats, even your seemingly dank and mud-choked ditch can offer up a tantalising diversity. I saw an article being discussed online recently about an “upmarket” housing estate where the developers included a community area with a pond.
A few years on, a handful of residents had become disenchanted with this gift and said it was untidy and overgrown and a “risk” for children, and that someone should come and “tidy it up”.
The accompanying photograph featured a typically stern-faced crossed-arm person in the foreground but the rest of the picture showed a landscaped area with gravel walkways, benches, a lifebelt on a pole, and in the middle, a lovely pond, about 4m across.
A shallow pebbled shore was at one end and a thicket of reeds and other tall grasses opposite, and all around the edge and across the surface was a stratum of plants including bulrush, water soldier, violet, and lilies, frogbit, forget-me-not, arrowhead, yellow and purple iris, and marsh marigold.
There were four ducks and a coot just hanging out, and too small to be captured by the lens, doubtless among the reeds a warbler or two, definitely a wren, as well as the attendant dragon- and damselflies, water boatmen and teeming arthropods that made this a thriving ecosystem.
It was exceptionally hard to see what the problem was. Thankfully not all residents thought this but to some, this “eyesore” was an affront to their expected order of things and to them it was rotting and dirty.
Birds love water, the sound of it and the benefits it brings.
I know it was just a typical page 8 filler piece in a local paper, but it did upset me at first that these lucky people didn’t know what they had. Then I understood that they simply didn’t know how to look, but if they were shown and things explained to them perhaps their perception would shift. Perhaps.
No water, no life.
This pond, an isolated example, held an abundance of species – that’s what water can do. Everything needs water to survive, and all of that life attracts other life. There are fewer fine examples of the cross-section of existence than a waterway.
Most of us are familiar with the “standard” occupants of such habitats – ducks, usually mallards, moorhens (also known as river chickens), coots, swans, geese. These are not to be sniffed at, the colours of a mallard are spectacular and the feisty territorial claims of coots are legendary.
A still summer’s day of blue skies and calm waters are perfectly reflected in the serene glide of the swan, the occasional faraway honk of a goose. But you may be surprised to know that give it enough time, and sometimes even instantly, you can see some extraordinary and beautiful birds that won’t come closer to the clamour of the suburbs, too unsuited to the deep dark of the woods, and too used to drifting among weeds to consider pecking the stubble of the fields.
Streams and rivers through woodlands offer a wealth of treasures.
One of the star attractions people love to see is the kingfisher, that superfast shimmering spear of a bird. Too few of us get lucky, but your patience can pay off if you know what to look for. Overhanging branches are a favourite perch, especially in a slight turn or bay of the water, when the flow slows down and the bottom can be seen, and are excellent places to huddle up and surveil.
If you can position yourself so that you have the branch in your foresight and the approach receding away from you, there’s every chance you can also watch them coming, zipping low over the water through the middle of the open channel.
In spring time, find high muddy banks, a perfect nesting place, and watch for movement to and from any holes you see. They may even be accompanied or preceded by a dipper, zig-zagging to a small cluster of half-submerged rocks at the edge, or returning to their nest beneath a bridge.
A river runs through
Streams and rivers through woodlands offer a wealth of treasures for many birds: shade, food, bathing on hot days. I once watched a female sparrowhawk for twenty minutes, standing in about an inch of clear cool water throwing crystal water droplets all over her back and wings, shaking it all off and then doing it again, oblivious to my presence.
With open skies and all this fauna to choose from, don’t forget to look up.
Water rails and purple swamphens will stalk, long and wide toes flattening grasses and dispersing weight over slipping mud, bent-kneed, slow and quiet, colours flashing and tails flicking before disappearing among the rushes.
Robins, thrushes, wrens, tits, finches, jays, wagtails, cardinals, chickadees, flycatchers, all will come by. Alder, birch and willow trees love the water’s edge, and their seeds and fruits are a valuable source of protein and fat for birds, as are the aphids, lacewings and caterpillars that munch on the leaves.
The exposed roots of the alder provide perfect hiding places for small fish and crustaceans, so that kingfisher may well be along in a minute.
The water roads
Along the canals, riverbanks and across the marshes you will still get many of these smaller birds, including a large number of warblers: reed, sedge, whitethroat, marsh, all tch-tchi-tchepping as they hop up and down the tall stems at the edge.
However, out into the open the size scale will go up a notch, too. Not wanting to diss the mallard but there are other ducks to look out for: goldeneye, tufted duck, pintail duck, shoveler; mergansers, a type of saw-billed duck, often come far along a watercourse, diving down below the surface to catch small fish, crayfish and aquatic insects.
Here you will also see the long-legged birds of the world; the grey, blue, green or black heron, the great, snowy, little or cattle egret; cormorants often come inland and swoop down onto a creaking skiff pontoon, or you may even be rewarded by a glimpse of a bittern, before it blends back in with the buff, ochre and gold of the reeds.
With open skies and all this fauna to choose from, don’t forget to look up – marsh harriers, buzzards, kites, kestrels, hobbies, merlin, and the odd osprey or fish-eagle could pass over your head, silent and watching. Don’t be worried about missing a squadron of Canada geese pass over, though – they always announce their departure and often their journey onward to the fields on the other side.
I have barely scratched the surface of the vast array of species you can see, and yet have already listed some 45 birds: do some research on your part of the world and spend a few hours surprising yourself with their actual existence. There is so much to see along a waterway; just allow yourself the time to rest and breathe slowly, keep as quiet as you can and wait. Everyone needs water: if it flows, they will come.