You can tell that I took this photograph in an area popular with walkers because the coots have incorporated a walking pole into their nesting platform, here by the dam head at Newmillerdam Country Park.
The juvenile coot in the foreground hasn’t yet developed the bulging forehead of its parents, nor has the colour in its legs begun to show.
But its flanged feet match the adults in size; ideal for trotting over mud and floating vegetation and almost as useful for swimming.
IT’S GOOD to be back at Newmillerdam and on a morning like this I can’t resist at least trying to paint a lightning watercolour (below) when we stop for coffee and, as we set off back along the lakeshore, I’m tempted to try to photograph a couple of families of waterbirds.
Much as I like my Olympus Tough, it does struggle with anything animate as several seconds can pass between pressing the button and the photograph actually being taken, so there’s always an element of luck involved.
A few weeks ago we saw one of the mute swan cygnets tucked between the wings of one of the parents as it swam along, a wise precaution as some of the pike in Newmillerdam are enormous and would be capable of pulling a young cygnet below the surface. The other cygnet followed closely in it’s lake with the other parent bringing up the rear and keeping a watchful eye on the family.
I notice in this morning’s photograph that the male, the cob, is leading. He’s got that projection above his bill.
I squat down to see if the coots near the boathouse will feed their young on freshwater mussels again, as they did last month. One of the parents dives down a couple of times but in the short time that I’m watching catches nothing. As I’m kneeling there a toddler, who has just picked up a feather, and his mum come and stand alongside us.
‘Can you tell me how many baby birds there are?’ she asks him.
‘One, two, three, four . . . and two mummy birds.’
‘They could be a mummy and a daddy?’ suggests his grandad.
‘Are you allowed to say that nowadays?’ I ask.
‘It’s not P.C.’ says grandad, ‘but I think with coots we can be fairly sure.’
‘Even a coot is entitled to life choices.’ I suggest.
‘We’re not doing mummies and daddies yet,’ explains mum, ‘just the babies.’
It’s good to hear parents and grandparents encouraging young children to explore the world of nature and not to put them off with too much health and safety.
This brood of coot youngsters have lost their ginger top-knots and the hint of red on their beaks that they had a month ago and they’re now in the sober plumage of adolescent chicks.
Further up the lake we see a single great-crested grebe. We’ve previously seen a pair here and I hope that some day we’ll see them with their stripy young again.
Newmillerdam, edge of lake near the boathouse, early June:
A PARENT COOT is introducing its brood to a new food; fresh shellfish. It dives and comes up with a small nutlike object which I soon realise is a freshwater mussel.
The young chicks are ‘tween-age’, no longer fluffy little infants with bright markings on their head and not yet in the sober black and grey ‘school uniform’ of older chicks. They’ve still got a sparse punkish ginger top knot while their bills, once bright red, have now faded to a fleshy pink, like lean bacon.
The parent turns the small shell in its beak before presenting the morsel to a youngster then dives again and in seconds pops back up with another bite-sized mussel.
After turning it around in in its beak it presents this reluctant to open mollusc to one of the chicks. The chick fumbles with it and soon drops it and another chick picks it up but also struggles with it.
The parent takes it back and gives it a few more turns in its beak, returning it to the youngster which makes an extra effort and, with some difficulty, swallows it whole.
It reminds me of the sort of scene you might get in a restaurant where a parent is trying to show their children the way to tackle some unfamiliar food. I still remember the steaming tureen of mussels, some of them still flapping their valves that was brought to the table when we were on a family holiday in an old-fashioned seaside resort in France. We were equally clueless about how we should tackle them.