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Watch out for waterway wildlife

From beautiful dragonflies to tiny voles, a diverse range of wildlife lives near the UK’s waterways. You may be fortunate enough to spot some of these creatures as you spend time near the water, but there is no question that biodiversity across the UK is in decline. A staggering 15% of species are facing extinction and this trend shows no sign of slowing1. In fact, three species included in this guide – otters, water voles and red squirrels – are counted on the UK 2022 endangered species list2

These losses can often be linked to rising pollution levels and natural habitat destruction. It is therefore essential to monitor the abundance and diversity of water-based wildlife to increase understanding of pollution in an area. You can use this helpful guide to learn to identify them.

Dragonflies & Damselflies

Distinguishing features:

Some red; some blue, there are many different species of dragonflies and damselflies. But whatever their colour or size, these insects have distinctively rapid movements. 

Damselflies are smaller than dragonflies and always have their wings closed at rest. In flight, they exhibit more fluttering motions than dragonflies. In comparison, dragonflies are larger and always have their wings open at rest. They also appear much stronger than damselflies in the air and move with less fluttering. 

When and where?: 

Depending on the specific species, dragonflies and damselflies come out from early to late summer. As well as wetlands, you can also find them around moorlands and woodland glades. They thrive in areas where water is good quality so if you spot numerous dragonflies and damselflies, it is a good sign of a healthy ecosystem. 

Behaviours:

Both dragonflies and damselflies are fast and agile. You will observe them performing huge aerial manoeuvres as they hunt for their prey and can reach speeds of 36kmp/h.

At other times, they can sit perfectly still. Whether it is a damselfly with closed wings or a dragonfly with open wings, they are relatively easy to spot. 

Fun fact:

Dragonflies pre-date the dinosaurs! They first appeared on earth around 300 million years ago.

Kingfishers

Distinguishing features:

The most striking feature of the Kingfisher are its vibrant, blue feathers. These small, fast-moving birds often whizz past in a flash of bright blue – you blink and you miss it!

If you are lucky enough to see a stationary kingfisher, you will observe a small, stout bird with short wings and tail. Somewhat out-of-proportion, they have large heads and long bills shaped like a dagger. It’s this bill that distinguishes the males from the females – for a male it is all black, whereas a female has a flash of red on the lower half of her beak.

When and where?:

Although Kingfishers live throughout the UK, they are most common in the Midlands, South of England and increasingly, Scotland. You can usually spot them near slow flowing water such as lakes, canals and rivers in lowland areas. They occasionally even venture out to garden ponds. While they are active all year, you are most likely to see a Kingfisher in Spring or Summer.

Behaviours:

Kingfishers are notoriously hard to spot. They perch on a branch and then, in a flash, they zoom across a waterway in search of fish. If you listen closely, you may even hear a distinctive ‘peep-peep’ sound as they fly.

Fun fact:

Kingfishers close their eyes as they dive into the water to catch a fish.

Grey Herons 

Distinguishing features:

The defining feature of a Grey Heron is its long legs and wide wingspan. These tall birds have long beaks and a collection of black, white and grey feathers. They either stand with their necks stretched out, or they huddle down, bending their necks over their chest.

When and where?:

Grey Herons are never far from water. Be it a garden pond, lake, river or canal, you are likely to come across a Heron. These birds are not confined to the countryside and can even venture to urban areas.You are in with a chance of spotting a Grey Heron at any time of year as they do not migrate in the Winter. 

Behaviours:

As quite solitary birds, Grey Herons spend a lot of time alone. They are often seen standing still in shallow waters of ponds and lakes. However, they nest in noisy colonies, frequently coming down to hunt for fish, rodents and frogs.

Fun fact:

The Grey Heron’s nesting site is called a ‘Heronary’. These breeding grounds are used by many generations!

Moorhens

Distinguishing features:

Moorhen feathers tend to be dark brown on their backs and wings but more blue toned on their bellies. Unless you observe them closely, they appear to be black. However, the rest of their features are more striking. With a red and yellow beak and long, green legs, Moorhens are pretty easy to spot.

When and where?:

Moorhens usually live around water so you will almost certainly find them at ponds, lakes, streams, rivers or even settled in city parks. However, they are less common in Northern Scotland, Northern England and the uplands of Wales. 

Behaviours:

Moorhens tend to forage close to the water’s edge. They also duck beneath the surface to feed on water plants and small fish. They build nests in dense vegetation or on branches overhanging the water. Both parents are present to feed and raise the chicks.

Fun fact:

The “moor” refers to “meres”, or small lakes, and the name moorhen simply means “bird of the marshes”.

Coots

Distinguishing features:

You could be forgiven for confusing a Coot with a Moorhen. Coots too have predominantly black and grey feathers and yellowy-green legs. But don’t give up, there are a few significant differences between the two. Unlike moorhens, Coots have strangely knobbly, grey feet.They have stand-out, white faces, red eyes and a pale pink bill. 

When and where?:

Coots are widespread and can seen all year round across the UK, except in the North and West of Scotland. They tend to live on freshwater lakes, reservoirs and rivers, as well as in deeper park lakes. They are sometimes found offshore when inland water freezes in winter.

Behaviours:

Coots tend to spend most of their time away from the banks of waterways, usually diving for food. They can be heard pattering around noisily with their big feet before taking off on the water. Coots are not amenable- they tend to be aggressive towards other creatures.

Fun fact: 

Male coots defend their nesting sites by attacking rivals with their feet.

Water Voles

Distinguishing features:

The water vole is the largest of the vole family. It has brown fur, a rounded nose, small ears, and a furry tail. Scotland’s water voles often appear darker, occasionally even showing a black coat.

When and where?:

Water voles tend to live…you guessed it, near water! Making their homes by rivers, streams, ponds, marshes and reedbeds they are certainly not fussy. It is easiest to spot them in springtime because vegetation is shorter. However, the water vole is in decline and you are by no means guaranteed to see these small mammals. 

Behaviour:

Water voles tend to sit still and eat, leaving behind evidence that you can identify. Some tell-tale signs of voles include piles of chewed grass and stems by the water’s edge. You may also spot their rounded, cylindrical droppings.

Fun fact:

In ideal conditions, a female water can give birth to a second litter just 22 days after her first.

Otters

Distinguishing features:

Otters tend to be slender and long-bodied with short legs. They have thick brown fur that is often pale underneath. You’ll notice they have small ears on a broad head, with a long thick tail and webbed feet. They swim very low in the water, with their head and back partially hidden.

When and where?:

Although otters dwell in diverse locations across the UK, they are still considered rare. You are most likely to see one in Scotland, the west coast of Wales, East Anglia and South West England.

Although some otters live in saltwater, we focus here on freshwater otters. If you are lucky enough to see one, it is likely to be around dawn or dusk. They prefer clean water and overgrown riverbanks which provide shelter for raising their young.

Behaviours:

Ever-elusive, it is perhaps more likely that you will spot evidence of an otter than the animal itself. They slide down riverbanks on their bellies, leaving behind distinctive ‘slipways’. They also leave droppings near tree roots, riverside rocks and under bridges. 

The behaviour of other wildlife can help to indicate the presence of otters. For example, ducks swimming rapidly away from a certain area may mean there is an otter hunting nearby. 

Fun fact:

The collective noun for a group of otters is a romp!

Foxes

Distinguishing features:

The fox has reddy-brown fur with a white blaze on its chest. They are most famous for their thick, white-tipped tails – often known as a brush.

When and where?:

Foxes are versatile creatures. Widespread across the UK, they can adapt to most habitats. As such, you can find them in both rural and urban areas. Although foxes prefer to come out at dawn or dusk, urban foxes in particular are becoming increasingly brazen! It would not be at all unusual to see an urban fox in the daytime.

Behaviours:

Where there is food, there may well be a fox! In the countryside, you are most likely to find them in woodlands or wetlands closeby to farms. In urban areas, they are most visible in gardens or around waste bins.

Fun fact:

Foxes have whiskers on their legs and face that help them to navigate and can even sense the earth’s magnetic field!

Grey & Red Squirrels 

Distinguishing features:

There are two types of squirrel in the UK: the grey and the red. While red squirrels are native, the invasive grey squirrel is far more common. Grey squirrels are larger and have seriously out-competed red squirrels since they were introduced.

In spite of their name, grey squirrels also have brown fur, especially on their flanks and back. Young squirrels are a darker grey than adults.

When and where?:

While grey squirrels are prevalent in most areas of the UK, you are unlikely to see a red squirrel outside of Scotland or selected nature reserves.

Grey squirrels are often found in woods, gardens and parks across both urban and rural areas. They also frequent gardens with bird tables and feeders. They tend to be more active during the earliest and latest hours of the day, often avoiding the heat in the middle of the summer. Although they do not hibernate, they sometimes disappear to sleep at different times during the day in colder months.

Behaviours:

Squirrels are active, often leaping between branches as they forage for food. You may also see squirrels making nests, known as dreys. in trees. These dreys are mainly made of dry leaves and twigs. In urban areas, they can also nest in attics, but this is problematic and can cause serious damage to a building.

Fun fact: 

Squirrels are rodents, meaning that their front teeth never stop growing.

Rabbits & Hares

Distinguishing features:

While most of us would think we could recognise a rabbit, distinguishing them from hares can be challenging. Both have long ears and long hind legs but rabbits tend to have a sand-coloured coat as opposed to that of the hare which is more reddish. Rabbits are also much smaller than hares. 

When and where?:

Wild rabbits are extremely common and can be found almost anywhere where they can dig a burrow. This includes unexpected places such as sand dunes, railway verges and even urban areas. Hares like to live close to farmland and are not seen as frequently.

Behaviours:

Rabbits  move quickly with bobbing hops. Hares, on the other hand, have a wider, lolloping gait.

If you don’t spot these animals in person, you might see evidence of their activity. Footprints are a clear indication of their presence and you may also find their rounded droppings in grassland habitats and field edges. Droppings tend to exist in dense clusters and suggest that a burrow could be nearby.

Fun fact:

In a single leap, rabbits can jump up to 90cm!


1 https://www.newscientist.com/article/2218235-thousands-of-uk-wildlife-and-plant-species-are-in-decline/ 

https://www.ecologybydesign.co.uk/ecology-resources/most-endangered-animals-in-uk 

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