Christmas is forever, not for just one day,
for loving, sharing, giving, are not to put away
like bells and lights and tinsel, in some box upon a shelf.
The good you do for others is good you do yourself.
Peace on Earth, good will to men,
kind thoughts and words of cheer,
are things we should use often
and not just once a year.
Norman Wesley Brooks
U.S. design engineer
1923 – 2002
Oh what a Christmas the whole country had. The weather was most definitely on the naughty list after we came across some really nasty conditions. Britain was battered by a freak weather system that brought 100mph winds and blizzards. A so-called Storm Emily wreaked havoc toppling trees and tearing off roof tiles. Weather forecasters named the storm after the Wuthering Heights author Emily Bronte, who died this month 165 years ago. The unsettled weather was being caused by several low pressure systems from the jet stream which were air currents that act as a barrier between warm and cold weather, sweeping across the north Atlantic, between the British Isles and Iceland.
The nightmares began before Christmas as the getaway was crippled by storms, with thousands blacked out and flood-risk families fleeing homes. Millions of travellers abandoned their journeys home for Christmas as torrential rain and hurricane winds tore across the country. The transport network was crippled on one of its busiest days of the year, with trains cancelled and roads closed. Thousands faced misery over the festive period, with hundreds of flood alerts and power cuts leaving homes in darkness and wrecked the festive holidays. My thoughts and prayers were with those affected.
I counted my blessings that the Midlands were spared from all these. We heard things crashed and clattered outside as the gale force howled around the casa. We experienced minor mishaps around the garden including the shed being blown to bits and the fences biting the dust. We spent Xmas morning dismantling the shed, clearing the mess and covering whatever that was left of the shed and its contents under a huge waterproof tarpaulin and weighed it down with bricks to stop from being blown away. Really not the best start to the day.
Indoors, the Xmas CD was blaring away. The 15 year old tree looked stunning with decorations that I remembered where they came from. This year, due to the weather and time constraints, we haven’t been able to make our annual pilgrimage to Solihull. I felt like there was a black hole on the Xmas tree because I wasn’t able to hang a bauble from John Lewis. That was one of the main reasons I go there, apart from admiring the shoes at Schuh, purchasing bits and bobs from Lakeland and coming home with something from M & Co. On Xmas eve, I called my mother-in-law to wish her a very Merry Christmas.
The perfect Christmas tree? All Christmas trees are perfect!
~Charles N. Barnard
I spent the afternoon preparing the main meal. We’d roasted turkey crown based on Delia’s recipe. I steamed sliced carrots and Savoy cabbage together. Brussels sprouts were steamed separately because Babe couldn’t stand them. I loved them but will only have them during Xmas. I roasted a huge tray of cubed potatoes, carrots, parsnips, courgettes and aubergines. We’d our roast with fluffy Yorkshire puddings and lashings of onion gravy. Yum… yum. Even though there was only the two of us, the table was still dressed up to the nines. A festive occasion was a special occasion after all! We’d a very zingy non-alcoholic ginger beer with the meal and finished off with our favourite dessert, an almondy Daim torte
“It is tenderness for the past,
courage for the present,
hope for the future.
It is a fervent wish that every cup may overflow
with blessings rich and eternal,
and that every path may lead to peace.
~Agnes M. Pahro “What is Christmas”~
I was off work from the 21/12 until the the 6th of January. Woo…hoo 16 days of me time and time with Babe. No freezing mornings at the bus-stop, no deadlines to meet, no chores to complete and no lists to double-checked. Mornings were spent lounging in the comfort of colourful onesies and warm woolly socks, gazing out of the patio doors with a huge mug of coffee, watching the birds having a party at the bird-feeder. A day for snuggling on the sofa surrounded by piles of cushy cushions, blankets and a hot-water bottle somewhere by my feet. A tower of books waiting to be read. A very, very nice day.
Every few days, we checked out what the natives were up to at our favourite playground, no matter what the weather was like. By the visitor centre, we saw flocks of Redwings feeding on the berries and some swirling around in the sky. These Scandinavian winter migrants were UK’s smallest true thrush. The creamy strip above the eyes and orange-red flank patches and underwing were very distinctive. We stood silently watching them stripping the berries, moving from bush to bush. When they spotted us, a whistling flight call trailed behind them as they flew off. We managed to photograph this song thrush feeding on the berries.
A few times, we were stopped in our tracks. The footpaths were flooded. But that didn’t stop us and we checked out the other hide, the Wright Hide. We could hear the high-pitched rapid ‘deed-lit’ tweets from the Goldfinches as we walked under the trees. The large island in front of the hide was nearly submerged. Lapwings. Wigeons, Cormorants, Shovelers and Gulls shoved each other on the mud-banks. We were delighted when a Little Grebe and a female Golden Eye swam leisurely in front of us.
But the highlight for us were the stars of the season, the starlings. Around the UK, throughout the autumn and winter months, hundreds of thousands of starlings turned the sky black. These birds came together in huge clouds, wheeling, turning and swooping in unison. We were lucky to have seen them in Aberystwyth, Gretna Green and now in our own backyard. A jaw-dropping and one of the UK's most incredible wildlife spectacle. We have watched, photographed and videoed them from Carlton Hide, the screen and near the Newlands.
Early evening, just before dusk, was the best time to see them as they performed their aerial dance and chose their communal night-time shelter which happened to be the reed-beds. Small flocks began flying in and wheeling together to form moots or smaller congregations. A starling flock like this was called a murmuration, a word that perfectly described the rustle of thousands of pairs of wings. One of the most dazzling displays in the natural world, as the flock changed shape, one minute like a colossal wisp of smoke, the next a tornado, the next a thundercloud blocking the light. These extremely synchronized manoeuvres, seemed to occur spontaneously, or in response to an approaching threat. We spotted at least 2 pairs of Sparrow-hawks hoping to catch their supper.
Starlings in Winter
Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theatre of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
- Mary Oliver, from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays (2003)~
We also checked out another famous startling murmuration display at the Otmoor RSPB, a 22 hectare nature reserve of wet meadows and reed-beds. It was a little off the beaten track and only a car wide. We were quite surprised to see the gravel car-park full and thankfully, we just managed to squeeze in. We wrapped up warm and followed the signs. It was a totally open site and we’d to walk along a kilometre visitor trail before we arrived at the reed-beds. It was a very muddy walk with plenty of ice patches.
It was nearly dark when we arrived at the site. A dozen or so photographers, twitchers and visitors were already taking positions. A few raptors were continually flushing the flocks of Lapwings, Golden Plovers, Wigeons and Teals. From time to time one of them would head out causing mass panic among the other birds and creating the stunning spectacle of the Lapwings and Goldies wheeling in the sunshine set against an inky darkening sky. We’d coffee and a Cornish pasty to ward off the cold. We saw small moots flying in but headed elsewhere. It was getting cold and dark and we’d a long drive home. We decided to walk back to the car and when we were on the visitor trail, we saw a large murmuration flying back to the site. £$%&*!!! We watched quite a short but amazing display before they rained down into the reeds. Then it was time to head home.
We also made a few trips to Draycote Waters. Some days were just perfect for a stroll in the countryside, with patches of winter sunshine. As soon as we parked the car, I noticed a few Redwings and Goldfinches in the trees at the far end of the car park. But they were too flighty to pose. We climbed up the Farborough bank trying not to get run down by the masses of shiny, new bikes, tricycles and skateboards. Aah…it was the day to test their Xmas pressies. There was a yacht competition going on and it was another photo opportunity for us.
It was a lovely day for a competition. The sun was out and the wind was really whipping up by this time. I’m glad that we were heavily layered against the winds and the cold. We could see the sailors really relishing the challenge as they struggled to keep their yachts upright. Along the path too, we’d to dodge the runners, walkers, cyclists, doggies and buggies. By the fishing pontoon, we spotted the adorable Little Grebes congregating among the feisty coots. Grey wagtails were playing hide-and-seek among the rocks.
I met my colleague with her partner who were also taking advantage of the window of relative calm and bright sunshine between the downpours and the gales. We’d a little natter before continuing our adventures. As we approached the Spit, Babe asked a fellow photographer whether they’d seen anything. They’d spotted a few rarities but all of them were feeding in the middle of the lake. Sigh … We continued walking and then this Great Northern Diver popped up right by the rocks below us. We were so stunned and all you could hear were our cameras rattling away. How lucky was that.
We stood there watching this very handsome solitary diver coasting along the lake. It seemed to be unconcerned by our presence and cameras. GND was one of the largest diving birds seen around Britain. It was in its winter colours with a grey head and back, with a white neck and underside. It was also known as the Common Loon in America due to its eerie, haunting cry. Like other divers, they were powerful underwater swimmers, catching fish with their thick, dagger-like bills by sight.
We were so engrossed by this handsome beauty that we nearly missed this female Red-breasted Merganser, another diving duck that belong to the sawbill family. This was due to the long, serrated bills which was used for gripping fish. Check out the rusty head and a greyish body. We felt so blessed to have seen these 2 handsome birds.
Along the grassy banks too, we were entertained by by a flock of meadow pipits, a common bird of open country. We watched their undulating flights with their ‘tseep’ calls and tinkling songs as they glide down to the grassy slopes. A small, brown, streaky bird, it was the commonest songbird in upland areas. In winter, they were quite gregarious and gather in small flocks. When we got closer, they suddenly flew into the air with typical jerky flight.
Irish legend has it that if a meadow pipit host climbs into a cuckoo’s mouth, which it often appears to be trying to, the end of the world will come. I hoped that it wasn’t stupid enough to do that because it will definitely mean its end, never mind the world. According to the RSPB, their numbers had been declining since the mid-1970’s, resulting them being included on the amber list of conservation concern. I’m pleased that they were doing well here.
We noticed black clouds over Draycote village and dashed towards the hide just missing a very heavy wintry shower hit! Hailstones crashed around us. Phew !!! The hide began to get a bit crowded as more people rushed in for cover. But thankfully, not for long. We took the opportunity to warm our cockles with Cornish pasties, washed down with hot coffee. When we could see through the windows, we spotted a few Golden Eyes and some were even displaying. A drake Smew was also in sight at the further end.
And then the piece de resistant, the famous albino squirrel came over and started feeding on the bird-feeder. I was hyper-ventilating with excitement. We must be one of the last to see this beauty and it was worth it. According to wildlife experts the odds against a pure white squirrel being born were one in 100k. With a grey squirrel population of over 2.5 million in the UK, this meant that there were only 25 white ones out there at any one time. And how very blessed we were, that one of them happened to live here.
Albinos don't have very good eyesight and hearing. These and the fact that they stood out from the crowd like a beacon, made them a very easy target for any predators, as they don’t have the natural benefits of camouflage. This bushy-tailed critter lacked melanin and was pure white with no markings and with un-pigmented pink eyes. How he managed to survive here was truly remarkable. When it became startled, it would make itself as still and as flat as possible against the feeder, thinking that it blended in perfectly, just like the common squirrels behaved.
And now, when comes the calm mild day, as still such days will come,
To call the squirrel and the bee from out their winter home;
When the sound of dropping nuts is heard, though all the trees are still,
And twinkle in the smoky light the waters of the rill,
The south wind searches for the flowers whose fragrance late he bore,
And sighs to find them in the wood and by the stream no more.
~William Cullen Bryant (American Writer, 1794-1878)~
It had been a wonderful Christmas break. And whether you believe this was the night of the birth of Christ or a pagan festival or just a date in the calendar, we took this opportunity to wish you
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR
May you have the gladness of Christmas which is hope;
The spirit of Christmas which is peace;
The heart of Christmas which is love.
~Ada V. Hendricks~