Monday Writing Motivation: Bird-watching on the River Great Ouse

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

Spring seems at last to have broken out in the United Kingdom. The last few days have seen hours of uninterrupted sunlight for what seems like the first time in months. As the weather improved, so we have taken to the river again in our pillar-box red kayak.

Trish and I are developing a routine. I brew a pot of coffee, fill two thermos flasks with it – cream with mine, hot milk with hers – while Trish lowers the kayak into the water from the deck at our front door. (This is one important reason we chose to live in a houseboat.) Then we slip into the vessel, take our paddles – Trish’s is blue, mine red – and dig in.

Our aim in summers past was to poodle up to the Town Lock, or downstream to Cardington Lock, have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine beneath the richly blossomed boughs of a horse chestnut, (depending on the time of day and the season), and poodle back.

Now our goal is both to enjoy the many delights of being on the water – and get a little cardiac exercise. So we either start off with a 500m sprint (top speed so far has been 7.2k kilometres per hour) or end with a sprint. We rely on Trish’s clever Garmin watch to make these calculations, and alert us to starts and finishes.

This morning we decided to paddle downstream. It was – and remains – a glorious day, sunny and warm. On the river we passed an endless procession of birds. I noted their demeanour as we passed, attributing to them human qualities in the best traditions of anthropomorphisation.

And I realised that what I was doing is precisely what I’ve done in various locations around the world: I was people-watching. But the people, in this case, were birds.

Just outside the marina, on the River Great Ouse, we passed a posse of mallards. Mallards are generally either complacent, paddling along, minding their own business, satisfied that all is well in their world – or, when alarmed by an aggressive member of their tribe, or by one of the larger species, in full panic mode. Then they abandon their sedate progress through the water, give a couple of startled quacks, and accelerate away. When circumstances call for more desperate measure, they leap into the air and take off with a rapid whirring of wings.

Next up: our family of geese. Mum leads the way, followed obediently by her four chicks. In the vanguard, his head held high, is pa, keeping a vigilant eye on his progeny. This is the first time we’ve seen the family out on the river.

“It’s been nearly a week now,” Trish says, “and there are still four of them.”

It’s reason to celebrate. In our experience, these broods – whether they’re coots, geese, ducks or swans – fall rapidly to the predators that prey on them. We’ve seen a clutch of twelve newly-hatched mallard chicks be reduced by half by sunset. If the loss of each chick were to cause the adults too much grief, life would be intolerable. But in fact, they seem not to notice as twelve become eleven become ten become nine…

Our geese – we really should give them names – sail past us, beaming.

Ahead of us three swans glide regally. I know they have no right to be regarded with more esteem than the most humble moorhen, but there’s no gainsaying the fact that they are the most extraordinarily beautiful birds – and, moreover, seem to be aware of it. These three are, we would guess, all males – three or four years old. They’re too young to have romanced a female and settled down with her for a lifetime of marital bliss.

And beyond them, just where the river describes a sharp turn to the left, a flash of metallic blue. “Kingfisher!” I cry. It dives into the water, emerges a second later with its silver catch, perches deep in the foliage of a willow, and swallows its breakfast.

Above us, a diving, swooping squabble of black-headed gulls. They swerve, lunge and swing through the air, oblivious to us passing beneath them. It’s breakfast-time for them, too. They’re catching insects in mid-flight.

And in the woods to our left, a cuckoo calls. Trish heard it an evening or two ago. There it is again, fresh from its migratory flight from the rain forests of the Congo or Gabon.

A solitary heron stands on a dry branch just above the river, intent on the water at its feet. It’s a young one. It probably hatched a couple of months ago among what are called the Finger Lakes, a short walk from our marina, where herons nest high in the trees in colonies called heronries, and bring up their young.

And all about us, the call of a dozen different species: the grating kraak of a crow, the cheerful twitter of tits, the melodious song of blackbirds, the chuckle of jackdaws. The dawn chorus, of course, is long over – but the endless interwoven melody continues.

It’s time to return. We swing the kayak around and prepare for the sprint home.

So much of writing is no more than a matter of observation – and then finding the right word to describe the very particular detail that has caught your eye, or your ear.

Happy writing,


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