Yesterday, we saw our fiftieth bird of the trip. To commemorate this, here’s our FHM-style rundown of the ten prettiest and most alluring chicks, from our man with the binoculars.
10. Lapwing: makes the cut as the fiftieth species we’ve seen, with its lovely, looping flight and striking black and white markings.
9. Peacock: the Madonna of the avian community. Gaudy, brash, ear-splitting call. But you still get excited when you see one, even thought it’s a bit eighties. Several roam wild, and sit on the roof, of the marvelous Camp House pub on the Severn near Worcester.
8. Chaffinch: under-rated songstress. There seems to be one singing in almost every tree: a charming descending song with a lovely trill at the end. A cheerful, common little bird with light pink plumage; seeing or hearing the chaffinch can’t fail to lift the mood.
7. Sand martin: these happy little poppets flit across the water like bats and dig sandy burrows in the river bank. Like the swallow, the sand martin migrates here in the spring, so its presence is a sure sign that summer is coming. We saw many on the River Severn.
6. Kingfisher: perhaps the prettiest water bird. Her shiny bright blue feathers, orange breast and long beak are impressive enough when she’s perched on a branch. But when she flies off, flitting just inches above the water ahead of the boat, sun glinting on plumage, it’s magical.
And the kingfisher is a classy bird: only showing up every now and then to wow the captivated boater.
5. Grey wagtail: just as Kate Moss hangs around with unsavoury types in dingy Camden bedsits, the pretty grey wagtail is attracted to the muddy, algae-clad nooks and crannies of lock gates, where she feeds on aquatic invertebrates. A joy to see hopping from gate to gate, as your boat descends into the gloomy lock chamber.
4. Tufted duck: Ducks, eh? Those mallards are two-a-penny; strident and aggressive, pecking the boat, walking on Felucca’s roof, making a hell of a racket, and drinking Bacardi Breezers in the high street on a Friday night. The tufted duck is an altogether more private, modest type. We have seen very few of these, except on a two-mile stretch of the Upper Avon, where we saw dozens, always in pairs, curiously to the exclusion of the mallard and indeed almost all other birds. Intriguing and lovely.
3. Skylark: as we walked up Bredon Hill near Pershore, the occasional distant cuckoo and the haughty song thrush couldn’t compete with the splendour of the skylark. This bird sings at a great height in flight, so its song is rather disembodied and twinkles down onto the hillside like snowflakes. Beautiful!
And here’s a poem: http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/Classic%20Poems/Shelley/ode_to_a_skylark.htm
2. Blackbird: in his classic book “Narrow Boat,” legendary canal campaigner L.T.C. Rolt wrote thus: “I have often listened to nightingales in Hampshire coverts, yet I still consider the thrush and blackbird better songsters. Beside theirs, the nightingale’s song lacks depth and feeling, so that I doubt if it would have won such renown did it not sing when other birds are silent.”
Good call, Rolty! Just because there’s a blackbird singing on every tree, hedge, post and chimney pot, does not lessen the wonderful joy and intricacy of its song. All day long, on the water and off it, the blackbird (in duet with the chaffinch) has been the soundtrack of the summer: the Beyonce and Jay-Z of the British waterways network.
1. Heron: oh, the elegance! Oh, the panache! Motionless by the side of the water, the heron stands so still that each time you’re convinced that it’s a plastic model some joker has stuck in the reeds. Yet each time, as the boat chugs nearer, the heron lifts into flight like a dandelion seed drifting in the breeze, and soars lazily away into some nearby field. Comparing it to a swan’s take-off (more akin to a 747 than a bird), merely underline’s the heron’s great serenity. Happily, warmer winters mean the heron is becoming more common, as more of its young survive the winter months – good news for canal boat birdwatchers, bad news for fish pond owners.
Didn’t quite make the cut: here (in rough order of appearance) are the other 41 species we’ve seen on our travels but which didn’t quite make the top ten…
Blue tit, robin, starling, collard dove, magpie, pheasant, moorhen, buzzard, kestrel, great tit, swan, meadow pipit, mallard duck, wood pigeon, Canada goose, coot, greylag goose, swallow, chiffchaff, greenfinch, song thrush, wren, mandarin duck, pied wagtail, herring gull, cuckoo, great crested grebe, cormorant, house sparrow, hedge sparrow, curlew, reed bunting, grey partridge, black-headed gull, goldfinch, green woodpecker, crow, raven, black cap, bullfinch, willow warbler.