It may only be February, but in the bird world the urge to set up territory and foster a new generation is already strong. I’ve spent time at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen over the years watching the various water birds on the Broad go about their business of staking a claim to a slice of this wetland oasis, and they certainly engage in making a splash.
Grey lag Geese are generally present in good numbers, already paired and ready to breed. Most are content to idle about, but some more keen to exert their dominance over any of their kind that venture too close. The gander will approach any trespasser with neck stretched out and held low, honking away for all his worth. Both on the water and on the land the threatening performance is enacted mostly without issue, however on a few occasions birds will decide to square up and have a tussle, and then the feathers will fly and the water broil. Shoveler too, are engaged in a spell of ‘You looking at my bird?’ kind of aggression. Again, it is just the drakes that bluster and bluff their way around the shallows; the females are content to just sit there and watch. They let the men fight it out, shrug once the skirmish is over, and fly off with their mate; victor or otherwise it doesn’t seem to matter much. Gadwall join in the act with drake birds doing their best to give their antagonist a good ducking (sorry). Shelduck, on the other hand, do tend to get a touch more feisty, and often engage in a pretty good set to. But all of this is tame compared to the real fighting enacted by the Coots.
Yes, the Coots are the ones that mean business. Their temperament at this season is akin to an ardent football fan that has just seen his team get a right stuffing ‘Look at me again mate and I’ll have you’ they seem to say. Just outside Reception two pairs of these black balls of fury are often disputing the boundary of this year’s breeding zone. A line across the water has been delineated, one that is naturally invisible to us, but means everything to these touchy creatures. Whereas the other water birds will leave the sparring to the men folk, in the world of the Coot there is no sexual preferences. Here we have true equality, with all partners ready and able to wade in. I watch one bully, possibly male, possibly not, take exception to a pair of Moorhens and an unassuming Gadwall that in its opinion venture too close. It shoots towards this perceived enemy, creating an impressive bow wave as it frantically attempts to maim the intruder. Threatened with this undeserved burst of anger, the poor victim will scuttle or fly away in alarm. Being sorted out by one of your own species is all well and good, but a Coot? Really!
However, these black bombshells reserve their deepest vitriol for members of their own kind. Pairs will face each other beak to beak, wings raised much in the manner of an annoyed swan. They will tentatively prod forward attempting to push the boundary, but such cheek is always met with a determined rebuff. A lot of the time these disputes end peacefully with one pair turning their puffed up backs to the other pair and swimming back to their side of the broad, but sometimes something happens to cause a fight to break out. Watch out, this could get nasty! With the naked eye all that can really be seen is a violent splashing and flurry of feet and wings. With the aid of a camera and a fast shutter speed the true nature of these bouts can be appreciated. The birds really do get down to some serious rucking, either trying to drown or rake the other with their fearsome claws. And the hen birds get stuck in too, coming to the aid of their partners and whacking the intruder with the avian equivalent of a rolling pin. It makes for dynamic viewing, with some of the contortions of the individuals quite startling. Amazingly, there seem to be few injuries, even when up to eight birds become involved in a mass brawl. It will all settle down once these initial bouts are over. The birds will build a nest in a territory they consider suitable and large enough to provide for their offspring. But for now in this pre-spring period, it doesn’t half provide some good entertainment.