Mission: Otter and Water Vole on the River Thames


Failure of this  mission was almost certain because otters, although increasing in numbers, are still extraordinarily elusive (and mainly nocturnal), and water voles are now very rare thanks to predation by Mink, and also shy and difficult to observe.

The key to success, I felt, was an early start. I set my alarm for no particular reason for 0410, but was already half way through my first cup of tea by then courtesy of a dawn duet by a Song Thrush and a Cuckoo which had started twenty minutes earlier.

It was surprisingly cold on the water as I paddled through the mist and my fingers went numb. Hard to believe it was early June.

Thames dawn
June dawn on the Thames



The appallingly early start was worth it for the birdsong alone. The dense waterside vegetation was full of reeling Reed and Sedge warblers. This one is so excited about the appearance of the sun it can’t help interrupting its preening with bursts of song:



It then really got going when it had spruced itself up.



It was great to hear a few cuckoos. They undoubtedly had their eyes on the nests of the Reed Warblers, one of their favourite places to lay their egg(s). We just don’t here them in West Devon anymore, apart from on the moors.



It was still well before six o’clock when I saw the flat profile of  a water vole swimming across the river ten yards ahead of me. It had disappeared into the reeds long before I had scrambled my camera out of its drybag, fumbling with chilly fingers. So no photo but a thrill nonetheless. As I paddled up the river in complete silence I heard several more water voles….they make an absolutely characteristic ‘plop’ as they dive into the water when you pass.

These quiet upper reaches of the Thames, with no disturbance from boats with engines, must be perfect for the voles.

Upper Thames
Upper Thames

I knew that seeing an otter was going to be highly improbable, and as the day brightened it was more likely to be impossible. Never mind, there was plenty to maintain the attention. Mallard ducklings:

Mallard duckling



And this extraordinarily brightly-coloured Coot chick just out of the egg.

coot chick 2
Coot chick

Surprise of the morning was this Red-crested Pochard, probably escaped from a collection.

Red-crested Pochard
Red-crested Pochard

So no otters when I reached my turnaround point, but I found the remains of their supper. A couple of crayfish claws left on the foot of a bridge:

Crayfish claws.

On the way back the sun really got to work and I started to get a bit humid in my drysuit. Huge numbers of insects awoke and buzzed, bumbled, flapped and hummed. Most obvious were the Banded Demoiselle damselflies, thousands of them.



There are few other pastimes with more feelgood factor than sitting on a clear-running river drifting along watching the natural world being busy around you, skylarks and yellowhammers singing, and warm sun on your back. Bees on the comfrey;

bee on comfrey
Busy bee

And a late Orange Tip, looking a tad tatty. Most Orange Tip butterflies are ‘finished’ by the beginning of June:



The family of swans I had passed in the mist earlier put on a bit of a show for me on the way back. Initially only one cygnet took a ride on Mum’s back, then the others clearly thought it was a great idea so they tried to climb aboard as well.






The Sedge Warbler was in a bit of a strop when I passed for a second time, probably because I was drifting too close to its nest. You can clearly hear the irritation in its voice.



After lunch I took a leisurely paddle down the more typical section of Thames downstream from Lechlade, with chugging canal boats and beautifully maintained lock-keepers houses.

Buscot Lock
lock 2
Buscot Lock


Paddling downstream as I was making my way back up, was seventy-one year old Philip Sowden, He was within a day of completing the 862 mile Bliss Canoe trail, a route around the country following inland waterways. He told tales of hundreds of portages, camping en route, and a capsize on the River Severn. It had taken him two years on and off, and he is one of the few ever to complete it. Wow. Good effort!

Philip Sowden
Philip Sowden

Late May/early June is the perfect time to visit the rivers. There is an explosion of life, a cacophony of birdsong and the foliage on the trees is still a vibrant yellowy-green. It’s not too busy with other river users,either.

Incidentally, if you want to know why paddling along silently in a kayak is better than any craft with an engine, take a look at this clip.



Time to go home, farewell to the Thames for the time-being.

Thames early




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