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.
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.
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:
And this extraordinarily brightly-coloured Coot chick just out of the egg.
Surprise of the morning was this Red-crested Pochard, probably escaped from a collection.
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:
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;
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.
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!
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.
There’s more to being a recently hatched waterbird than sitting about with your siblings looking fluffy. Just keeping up with the gang can be a problem.
Weather conditions in blazing June can be challenging. Not good if you have no waterproof coat, or feathers.
The nearest shelter is underneath Mum’s tum:
For an impressively large brood of eight cygnets, the broad wing of mother’s wing is about the only umbrella large enough, but it’s still a bit of a squeeze.
It would appear that there’s only room for seven. Lucky it was only a passing shower.
Goslings are insatiable lawnmowers and are so intent on their task that they run the risk of being trampled underfoot by fellow pasture-grazers:
Cygnets have bold and protective mothers who make it absolutely clear how they would deal with thelonekayaker if he should venture too close. I get the impression it would be more than just stealing his ham sandwiches and eating his custard creams.
Not all parents stand their ground, however. In fact this newly hatched Moorhen’s parents were absolutely nowhere to be seen, leaving junior stranded on the bank like a…er…sitting duck (or more like a miniature penguin). It looked a bit unsure about things.
The Lone Kayaker has always loved the River Thames. On a hot June day it is buzzing with wildlife and paddling along the smooth backwaters around Oxford is effortless because there is so much to look at and take in.
Everything , apart from earwigs and pale creatures with no eyes that live in caves, seems to love the sun. Mother and offspring Mallard relax on a sun-drenched bank:
and the strong light brings out the colours on the beak of a Moorhen. Although it’s a common bird its attractive colour scheme is often overlooked as it creeps about in dense riverside vegetation. Its beak is complemented by a pair of bright green legs and feet.
Even the centre of oxford was looking smart today.
Red Kites floated overhead, right in the middle of Town.
Godstow meadow was a melee of Greylag geese which are feral, and noisy, and messy, but likeable nonetheless. Of course everyone loves a tiny gosling.
At a muddy shore there were a load of Housemartins zipping about collecting mud for their nests. I used to very much take these birds for granted but not any more. Virtually all avian insect-eating summer visitors have crashed in numbers over the last couple of decades so to hear the cheerful ‘dreep’ of a Housemartin, the classic sound of a summers day in a town, is something to be savoured.
The best wildlife action of the day was saved till I was nearly back at the car. I saw a stooped grey bundle of feathers near the bank and a concerned couple on the other side of the river asked me to investigate. They thought that it was a Heron that was caught up in some fishing line or suchlike.
Fortunately it turned out to be a perfectly healthy Heron building up the energy to have a bit of a bath, with some major ruffling of feathers. It was also very tame so I could get some good pics, although I looked away politely every so often when it gave me a bit of a glare.
I’m not sure why I like the Thames so much, when my favourite sort of paddling is the open sea. It’s probably because I spent quite a lot of time messing about on the river at Sonning in craft ranging from canvas canoes to tippy marathon racers, in days when I had hair and used to go trainspotting.
Paddling the Thames is about as relaxed as you are going to get in a kayak. The water is flat and the flow is barely perceptible.The only slightly turbulent water is when you are sitting in the locks. Everyone is very friendly because life on the water is a great leveller. And there’s loads of Kingfishers.
I was dropped off at Donnington Bridge in Oxford and had soon inflated Puffing Pig II, my Gumotex Seawave kayak, which was to be my transport for the sixty-five miles down to Cookham. The Seawave is a pretty large craft but I wanted to take all my provisions with me as I have found before that there are not as many convenience shops along the river as you might think. This is actually seems to be true for most of the places I go kayaking.
So I was laden with food, and although I love camping I’m not that hard-core so take along a good thick self-inflating mattress, which also takes up a lot of space. Plus a load of spare clothes in case of disaster. And a fat book….Lord of the Rings (again) in fact, so you can see why I needed a big boat.
Up until Iffley Lock the river was chaos with a rowing race, but below the lock it was pretty much deserted. Just a handful of hire boats (with everyone on board, without exception, clutching a bottle), and a few big River Cruisers which announced their approach with the thump of a bassline from an eighties disco classic long before they came into view. Party goers lurched about on their deck (also clutching bottles). They were pretty pleased when I twirled my paddled in time with ‘Tragedy’ but I nearly dislocated my wrist when the blade snagged the water. Fortunately it happened at exactly at the same moment as Barry Gibb was doing his warbly bit when the whole song grinds to a halt before before the final triumphant (tragic) chorus, and I just about managed to make it look like it was all part of the routine.
Mid September is about as late as I enjoy wild camping in the UK as it is starting to get cold and it is pretty dark by seven. It is also frequently wet and my first day was no exception. I found a decent place to camp before Culham cut but as I was setting up my tent, while simultaneously trying to shoo away a herd of Aberdeen Angus bullocks which were slavering over my bag of pegs, the heavens opened. I dived into the tent and was pretty soon in my sleeping bag as there was really nothing else to do. Except have supper. I unwrapped my (limited edition) Ginsters Beef and Tribute Ale pasty but was horrified to find it was still frozen even though I had taken it out of the freezer at home twelve hours previously.
Was I going to extract myself from my cosy bag and venture out across the stair-rod rain to get a packet of biscuits instead? No way. So I ate the frozen pasty. I just imagined I was eating some type of novelty pastry and meat ice cream and sort of enjoyed it. Actually I didn’t, it was disgusting. Luckily I found a Double Decker tucked away in my lifejacket to have for afters.
I had the Jetboil on for a cup of tea the next morning at the first whiff of light at six, and was on the water long before anyone else, having to operate the first couple of locks myself before the lockkeepers came on duty. The rest of Day 2 was uneventful and very pleasant and peaceful, if a bit cool and cloudy. I had a good view of a Muntjac deer which was grazing beneath the bushes close to the bank. Nice to see because we don’t get them as far down as West Devon.
I camped at my ‘favourite’ spot beside a little sandy beach just beyond Goring lock. At midnight I was awoken by a lot of splashing and chattering noises with quite a few high pitched squeaks. Otters! I shone my pathetic torch out across the river but the snivelling beam never illuminated them, although the noises continued for an hour. I think there were at least two cubs because the squeaks came from two places fifty yards apart. A perfect location for otters with several islands covered in a tangle of bushes and trees. In the morning I found ottery footprints on the beach yards from my tent. Although it was a pity I didn’t see them it is absolutely excellent to know otters are thriving on the Thames.
On Day 3 I paddled through Reading and through a familiar Sonning, although everything looked a lot smaller than when I was ten. I took a prolonged diversion off the main river down the St Patrick’s Stream, which bypasses Shiplake lock, and then the Hennerton Backwater.
Henley was fairly busy with rowing sculls as usual, and drunken fools in zigzagging hire boats, but my attention was suddenly captured by a tussle between a Great-crested Grebe and a whopping fish. The fish was so large that initially it wasn’t entirely clear who was trying to eat who.
The drama which then unfolded over the next ten minutes is the sort of extraordinary wildlife encounter that makes me pick up my paddle time and time (and time and time) again. It was absolutely gripping stuff, and all the more remarkable that it was played out within a stone’s throw from Henley bridge, with nobody else in any of the boats or the buzzing Angel’s Arms having the vaguest notion of what was going on. They were far too busy looking at screens and discussing Bake Off.
The Grebe held a twelve inch Pike in its beak. I would have thought it would have been a bit risky to mess with a Pike half that size, but to tangle with a top predator of that proportion is surely asking for trouble.
The bird kept changing its grasp on the fish and then tried to line it up to get the pike’s head in its mouth. This was initially unsuccessful and I assumed there was no way that the fish would fit down that neck. Wrong. Many minutes later all that was sticking out of the grebe’s beak was the tip of a tail fin, and soon that too disappeared. Absolutely amazing.
Even the local Cormorants were impressed.
I camped at the end of the regatta course and didn’t put up my tent till it started to get dark to avoid detection. Alas, as I was in my sleeping bag, reading about Bilbo’s eleventy- first birthday party, an official-looking launch pulled up and told me I couldn’t camp there. When I groaned in dismay he conceded to let me camp but pay the £10 mooring fee. I’m not sure that this was a good deal but it would have been a drag to move.
Next morning was stunning. No wind and a mist hanging over the water. The rowers were out early and I was scorned by a sculler in a GB team t-shirt who muttered that I was paddling on the wrong side of the river. As I switched sides I was nearly bisected by a coxless four who suddenly appeared out of the mist.
I had a relaxed run through Marlow and was approaching my destination at Cookham when I saw a small lithe black beast scampering along a pontoon. A mink, in the middle of Bourne End! It had a fish in its mouth and scurried into a bush. I stopped and waited and it soon reappeared and stared me out, with those beady black eyes. I have been scrutinised by quite a few mink before and they have such evil intent that it makes you feel a bit uneasy and want to cover up your jugulars.
In wildlife terms they are public enemy number one and it is mink that have exterminated the endearing little Water Vole that used to be so common along the Thames when I was growing up. The characteristic ‘plop’ of a vole jumping into the water was a familiar sound. On this trip I didn’t see a single vole.
I watched the mink for fifteen minutes as it scurried about, eventually emerging out of the bushes with the tattered fish in its mouth. I got the impression it (the Mink) was a youngster as it acted in a sort of teenagery manner.
I hadn’t been expecting that much wildlife action in the tail end of the year, so the grebe and the Mink were an unexpected surprise.
After four days on the water, the sight of a Red Kite floaing over the river hardly made me look up. There were absolutely loads of them and the rather weedy mewing call from this years offspring could be heard more or less continuously during my trip down the river.. I still can’t believe they can all find enough to eat. A major success story as a few decades ago there were none in this area.
Thames trip over.
p.s. A couple of my Grebe-eating-the-pike pics were printed in The Sunday People newspaper, with a suitably over-the-top headline: