October gave a party;
The leaves by hundreds came -
The Chestnuts, Oaks, and Maples,
And leaves of every name.
The Sunshine spread a carpet,
And everything was grand,
~George Cooper ‘October’s Party~
October was here and associated with autumn which often meant the leaves were changing colours and transforming the landscape into an array of autumnal colours. The days were flushed with falling leaves, chilling weather, and growing anticipation for the holiday season. The Old English name for October was Winterfylleth which was said to refer to the Winter full moon and to the Anglo-Saxons, the fullness of winter. In Wales, ‘Hydref’ was both the name for October and the Welsh word for autumn.
October was also the month when the rutting or deer mating season reached its climax. We were spending most of the weekends at Bradgate Park checking what the natives were up to. The male deer were preparing for this sexual extravaganza by urinating in their wallows, coating themselves in mud and thrashing their antlers in vegetation to embellish them with bracken. Roars and bellows sounded as Red stags established territories and challenged rivals whilst Fallow bucks grunts to win the attention and the chance to mate with the females, known as hinds and does.
Dominant stags were usually between 10-12 years of age. They often appeared very dark from wallowing in their own urine. Each gathered a harem of hinds in the middle of the rut which must be constantly monitored from wandering, defended from rivals, tested for readiness and finally mated. Smaller stags on the edge of the harem will try to mate with the hinds when the dominant stag was in battle or exhausted following a fight. Stags became territorial and it was dangerous to approach them closely as they were pumped full of testosterone and highly aggressive. Rival stags roared then parallel walk to assess their opponent’s size and strength. It was amazing to watch the stag walk, strutting about, with that regal sort of walk.
Red deer stags had large, highly branched antlers and the number of branches increased with age. Stags returned to the hind’s home range and competed for them by engaging in elaborate displays of dominance including roaring, parallel walks and fighting. Serious injury and death resulted from fighting which only occurred between stags of similar size that can’t assess dominance by any of the other means. The winner ensured exclusive mating with the hinds.
The impressive antlers crowning the heads, and the lion-like mane that grew around the necks were very prominent. They trashed the ground so that vegetation caught up in their antlers made them looked larger. Fights were a shoving match, with each stag trying to gain the advantage by being uphill. I was pleased to see photographers keeping far back from them and providing the animals the space they needed to behave as naturally as possible.
The adult Fallow deer bucks spend most of the year in separate all male bachelor parties away from the female herds. Their rutting physique developed with the velvet on the antler dying back and rubbed off with the bone hardening, ready for the battles ahead. Adam’s apples began to bulge, bulk increased especially around the neck and shoulders and the development of rutting odours. There were play fights, intermittent rutting postures, vegetation thrashed, antlers burnished and scrapes and wallows made in which bucks churned the ground, urinated in the quagmire and rolled in the reluctant mess which apparently made them more attractive to the ladies. They came together during the autumn breeding season when the bucks moved into the traditional rutting areas and attract and held a group of females does in an area known as a ‘rutting stand’ and fight to keep off would be contenders while pursuing oestrous does.
Throughout the rut, thrashing of branches continued, and so does stamping and parading. In quieter moments, bucks stretched up their bulky necks, reaching high to caress the tattered branches and in the process deposited scent from a gland below the eye, marking their territories to warn others that it was occupied. Fallow deer formed harem with many does or there may be several bucks with a few does as in a lek which was a gathering of males engaging in competitive display to attract potential mates. During the rut bucks groaned tremendously and does with fawns gave short barks when alarmed.
Groaning which was the fallow buck’s mating call was best described as a cross between a loud belch, a groan, a snore, a snort and a growl. It was used to attract the does for, unlike red deer stags, fallow bucks don’t actively round-up and maintain a harem. They depended for courtship success upon the attractions of their groan!!! With head held not much above the horizontal lips curled back and pursued, the primeval sounds seemed to vibrate from deep within the buck’s very being.
Noise and posturing was often enough to settle disputes, but when rival bucks were evenly matched and equally belligerent, battle occurred. The forest reverberated to the sound of bone striking bone as fights commenced. But they don’t just stand head-to-head trading blows. These contests were really battles of strength as, heads down, antlers locked, they pushed and shoved, using every straining muscle to gain advantage, Eventually, the vanquished buck broke off, turned and ran, pursued by the victor, keen to drive home his advantage. Unfortunately, we’d not seen this spectacle for ages.
Yearling bucks were often tolerated, provided that they stayed at the edge where often they fed, skirmished among themselves or simply lie up. Any that moved in too closely was noisily chased away. Fallow does ignored the fighters, or looked on before getting sick and tired of the whole noisy process and quietly wander off.
For these bucks and stags, the rut was an incredibly exhausting time. By the end of the season, they’d lost almost a third of their body weight and weakened, slipping into the forest where they camouflaged well with the bracken whilst trying to regain their breath before the onset of winter. Then, it was time for the bachelor parties to form and the annual cycle began again.
Piercing spikes penetrate the forest dawn
the Stag rises, crackles and ruts,
~Rutting by Maria StrawCinar~
When we were stalking the deer, we stumbled across a family of Green Woodpeckers having a party, feeding on the ants in the field. We were so well camouflaged that they didn’t notice us literally standing beside them. They were soo busy feeding. A specialist at raiding the nests of ants, they made good use of their deadly, prehensile tongues, which darted out ten centimetres and coated with sticky slime.
Thomas Bewick, one of England’s most famous natural history artists, wrote of the woodpecker’s tongue.
‘It has the appearance of a silver ribbon, or rather, from its transparency, a stream of molten glass, and the rapidity with which it is protruded and withdrawn is so great that the eye is dazzled in following the motions: it is flexible in the highest degree.’
When they flew off with their undulating flights, their loud ringing laughs trailed behind them. The laughing calls lead them being given the local name of ‘yaffle’ which they used to demarcate their territory. They then flew off to a nearby tree where the yellowish green rump was very visible. On the tree, their stiff tail feathers were used as a prop when they were clinging to the trunk and their toes specially arranged with two pointing forwards and two backwards.
We were so focused on the Green Woodpeckers that we got a shock of our live when something ran for its life from beneath our feet. We saw it bounding across the field in a zig-zag pattern with its powerful hind legs propelling it forward. Then it disappeared among the tall grasses. Babe looked through his powerful lens and shouted, a hare. Whoop…whoop our first ever sighting here.
We crept slowly to where it was sheltering known as a ‘form’ which was simply a shallow depression in the ground or grasses. I could see the large eyes set on the side of its head which gave an almost 360 degree vision and the ability to see behind itself. The large ears enabled it to detect the slightest sound of approaching danger and off it went as soon as it heard me approaching. The grace and beauty of the brown hare had became symbolic of the British countryside and I was chuffed to come face to face with one.
shades in summer grass
~T J Hatton~
Then we headed to Lady Jane’s ruins which was unfortunately closed. But we were delighted to have spotted the resident Peacock family making themselves presence by flying on to the stone wall that surrounded the ruins. They were a delight to watch as one by one started popping up and climbing. If I’m not mistaken, this family had 5 peachicks still in their ‘dirty white’ ivory colours and all of them lined up the wall before disappearing into the grounds.
“Be like a peacock and dance with all your beauty.’
We were about to leave when I heard mewing cries raining down on us. When I looked up, I saw a pair of Buzzards soaring on the thermals, wings outstretched before performing spectacular aerobatics in the air. They seemed to dance as they soared, tumbled and looped in the sky. They also vertically head dived and then immediately flew up again and only to vertically head dived again. As they flew near each other, they wing-touched and showed each other their open talons while making loud ‘pee-uu-pee-uu-pee-uu’ calls. Then they flew off and disappeared into the woodlands.
Then it was time to head home when we came a family of mute swan also heading home. It was the most delightful sight to see Daddy swan in the front with 5 adorable cygnets in the middle and Mum watching from the back. Unfortunately, the sighting caused a bit of excitement among the visitors where a few started taking selfies as the family was walking. This resulted in one of the cygnet being disoriented and left the group to head back to the river.
Babe followed the cygnet and slowly ushered it back to the family. It wouldn’t survive the night if it was on its own and separated from its parents. It was hilarious to see Babe shepherding it as it was hissing and grunting when Babe plodded to move with his walking pole. As soon as it spotted its family, it waddled towards them. By this time, Mum had spotted its missing cygnet and the whole family stopped and waited for junior to join them. Then they walked again in a line towards the ruins where they would roost for the night.
A few days later,we continued our party to Slimbridge when we found out that a flock of Cattle Egrets were roosting there. These birds were native to some parts of Asia, Africa and Southern Europe and were rare visitors to the UK, although sightings were increasing. They got their name from their habit of following livestock and happily rooting among the legs, snapping up worms and insects disturbed by the feet of the animal.
We kept an eye on the fields as we neared the reserve and stopped when we saw a couple of twitchers and photographers near a fence. Bingo…a couple of Cattle Egrets were feeding alongside the cattle. All you could hear were our cameras rattling away. They were almost completely white with yellow beaks and greyish yellow legs. They’d a hunched, short necked appearance and moved by walking in a steady strut and stabbing quickly with the bill to catch the preys. They disappeared from our view as they followed the cattle further down the field.
We continued our journey to the reserve and wasn’t surprised to find the place buzzing. The LEGO hunt was still on and there were quite a few families with small children taking part in searching for the eleven individually designed 1.5 metre giant LEGO brick animals. We finally found Bruce, the red-breasted goose which took the longest time to make at 120 hours. When you get closer to the models, you really appreciated the number of bricks and the hundreds of hours that went into each one.
We left the LEGO animals and went in search of their real-life cousins. Rushy Hide was looking a bit bare after all the trees outlining the lake were pollarded and the bushes trimmed off. But, the natives seemed not to be affected by the changes. Petite Teals were dabbling along the shallow waters while the plump, compact Pochards were diving at the deeper end. Tufted ducks were diving deeper than the Pochards, sieving food from the bottom mud. Elegant Pintails were also busy dabbling and upending in the shallow water with the quarrelsome Shelducks bleating and gabbling away.
We left the very noisy Rushy Pen and headed to the much quieter hide, the Martin Smith hide. The tack field was empty as the waders were feeding along the estuary. But we spent quite a few hours here when we heard the pig-like squeals and snorting noises, traditionally known as ‘sharming’ coming from the reed-beds. We didn’t have to wait long when one of the highly secretive inhabitant of freshwater wetlands skittered across the duckweed-covered water and disappeared into the sanctuary of the reed-beds.
Water rails had chestnut-brown and black-and-white barred flanks, and long red bills. Their slender legs and toes were adapted for walking on floating plants, enabling them to slip quickly through the marshy vegetation without being seen. They rarely emerged from the dense reed-beds and marshes with a thick vegetation cover, and tended to be shy and skulking. But this pair was seen foraging along the fringes of the reed-beds for a variety of invertebrates and plant matter. We were so lucky to have seen these very secretive birds, more often heard than seen, going quietly about their business.
“Long shadows loping to the reed-bed where
water-rail grunt and squeal like stuck piglets”
We were so engrossed in watching the water rails that we nearly missed this soaked Buzzard sunbathing with its wings spread out in a horaltic pose on the fence post just in front of the hide. Duh…. luckily Babe was very observant and spotted it. This behaviour was most likely done to increase their body temperature after the cold and wet night. It was quite a sight because when not airborne, this bird of prey was only seen perching on poles and posts to spot preys. It also looked as though its head was hunched into its shoulders.
The plumage was a rich brown, with bars and streaks on the paler underside. In flight, the wings had a ragged, moth-like appearance as it glided towards the nearby stone post where another Buzzard was also sun-bathing. According to the grape-vine, it was a mother and a juvenile. Then, they flew off towards the Rushy, spooking the residence with the gulls and crows mobbing them away.
‘If I were reincarnated, I’d want to come back a Buzzard. Nothing hated him or envies him or wants him or needs him. he is never bothered or in danger, and he can eat anything.’
We then went back into the grounds and had a quick walkabout. We spotted more LEGO birds as we walked towards Zeiss Hide. We’d a pit stop because the place was dead. We checked a few of the areas to say hello to familiar faces. A Mute Swan was chasing off the juveniles, probably its own, with flapping wings being used as a threat, and a threat display, known as busking, in which it swam with strong pushes of both feet together towards the intruder, the secondary wing feathers kept high, neck arched and neck feathers ruffled. We left when it swam around the perimeter of the lake as the mist was coming in.
I ended this posting with another party for a colleague, WFP, who was leaving us for greener pastures. Actually, we’d two parties for him. One was lunch with team members from Data Services and WRAP at Ego in Kenilworth and the other was a farewell gathering with the rest of the library staff. As usual, we enjoyed a very, very long lunch at the newly refurbished Mediterranean restaurant.
We were immediately ushered to a very long table in the stunning setting with pebbled floors, rattan chairs, glass pendant lightings and tile mosaics. For starters, I had the gooey grilled goat’s cheese on toasted brioche with aged balsamic vinegar, caramelised red onions, orange and apricot chutney. For the main course, I chose the pan roasted cod loin served on wilted spinach with white tarragon cream and skin-on fries. The portions was humongous. I ended the meal with a yummy warm chocolate brownie with vanilla ice-cream. The three courses sans drinks was £15.95. Would I come again? Oh yesss. It would be a pleasure to try out the other dishes.
Then it was the farewell party in the seminar room. My colleagues and I went up early to set the room with banners and buntings. Generous colleagues brought in goodies adding to the already groaning table. I contributed my usual vegetable spring rolls and added Tesco’s finest carrot cake and a few bottles of soft drinks. It was lovely seeing the huge turnout saying their good-byes and good lucks to a wonderful colleague.
“May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been
the foresight to know where you’re going
and the insight to know when you’re going too far.”