WATER­SIDE WILDLIFE

Spring fever is in the air with mad hares and queer coots, says Pip Web­ster, who tells us what to look out for around the cut

Canal Boat - - This Month -

Spring fever is in the air and it’s time for a bit of mad­ness for some species along the cut

Spring fever is in the air – birds are singing in their bright breed­ing plumage as all the water­side wildlife cel­e­brates sur­viv­ing an­other win­ter.

Some of the cra­zi­est be­hav­iour can be seen in the open fields along­side the tow­path where hares are leap­ing around hav­ing box­ing matches. It isn’t just males fight­ing – the fe­males are fend­ing off over-amorous ad­vances of spurned lovers.

It is the start of the breed­ing sea­son and the nor­mally shy, reclu­sive hares are eas­ier to ob­serve be­fore the grass has started grow­ing. Cousins of the more fa­mil­iar rab­bit, hares are al­to­gether big­ger, tawnier and rang­ier with longer legs and dis­tinc­tive black tips to their long ears. They are Bri­tain’s fastest land mam­mal and can out­run most pur­suers, swerv­ing and zig-zag­ging to out­wit them.

The word hare de­rives from the An­glo-Saxon “hara” which means to jump and be­ing ‘hop­ping mad’ in March just en­hanced the sin­is­ter im­pres­sion made by this soli­tary an­i­mal. Often seen to be ac­tive by moon­light, hares have long been in­vested with con­no­ta­tions of dev­ilry and witchcraft and cred­ited with magic pow­ers. At sea, no­body must men­tion the crea­ture’s name – I trust it’s safe to do so on a canal.

Long ears, very long hind legs and short tails are just some of the pe­cu­liar­i­ties that char­ac­terise the Lago­morph (from the Greek ‘hare-shaped’) or­der of mam­mals.

Both hares and rab­bits have a split up­per lip, or hare-lip, al­though it is only in the hare that the gums are vis­i­ble. They have an ex­tra pair of teeth, known as the peg-teeth, be­hind their front two up­per in­cisors; and they can open and close their slit-like nostrils by mov­ing a fold of skin. They also eat their own drop­pings, an adap­ta­tion to a her­biv­o­rous diet that gives their di­ges­tive sys­tem a sec­ond chance to break down the food as it again passes through.

Hares live en­tirely above ground, crouch­ing by day in hol­lows (known as forms) in grass or shal­low scoops in the earth, and feed­ing mostly at night on grass, young ce­real crops and other plants. The doe gives birth to her three or four lev­erets in these forms, where they are left to lie low on their own all day, the mother re­turn­ing just once ev­ery 24 hours, gen­er­ally just af­ter dark, to feed them. Fully-furred and able to run from birth, they are still very vul­ner­a­ble to fox and stoat preda­tors com­pared to the less fully de­vel­oped rab­bit kits that are born in a bur­row.

You may be “as mad as a March hare” on land, but on the wa­ter you would be “as queer as a coot”. Out­side the breed­ing sea­son coots form large flocks on stretches of open wa­ter, but come March, nest­ing pairs have to es­tab­lish a ter­ri­tory large enough for their breed­ing and feed­ing needs.

Fre­quent bound­ary dis­putes give the birds a de­served rep­u­ta­tion for ag­gres­sive quar­relling. The white frontal shield plays a prom­i­nent part in the threat dis­play as the bird stretches its neck low over the wa­ter then fluffs up its char­coal plumage and slightly raises its wings.

If it comes to a fight the birds will face one an­other and al­most lie back on the wa­ter as they flail out with feet and wings. There is much splashing of wa­ter and a clat­ter of loud metal­lic calls (“kwok, kwok” – from which the bird gets its name).

Nests are built of dead leaves and the stems of rushes and other wa­ter plants. They are often placed in shal­low wa­ter among con­ceal­ing veg­e­ta­tion, ei­ther an­chored to the bot­tom or just float­ing.

Coots usu­ally have just one brood: you shouldn’t look for the rather un­ap­peal­ing coot chicks, with their bare claret and blue fa­cial skin and a tatty ruff of gin­gery down around the neck, un­til the end of April or May.

Join the spring cel­e­bra­tions, but don’t go too mad.

Coots get very ter­ri­to­rial in the breed­ing sea­son

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