Pulsatilla Vulgaris was blooming beautifully just in time for Easter. It was also known as Easter flower and Pasquesflower or Passover flower. It was a herbaceous perennial with finely dissected leaves and solitary, hairy bell-shaped flowers followed by silky-plumed fluffy seed-heads. A lovely plant covered in long, silvery, silky hairs that looked iridescent when the sunlight caught it just so. The flowers were cloaked in myth. One legend was that these flowers sprang up in places that had been soaked by the blood of Romans or Danes because they often appeared on old barrows and boundary banks. They were the county flower of Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. The Royal Horticultural Society had given it their prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM) in recognition of its outstanding excellence.
Around the casa and the office, fluffy yellow chicks appeared everywhere. Bunnies, eggs, and fluffy, yellow chicks all stemmed from pagan roots. The origin of the Easter Bunny probably goes back to the festival's connection with the pagan goddess Eostre (sometimes spelt Oestre). She was the goddess of spring and fertility from whom we derived the word "oestrogen", and feasts were held in her honour on the Vernal Equinox. Her symbol was the rabbit because of the animal’s high reproduction and she was closely associated with fertility symbols such as eggs. The origin of the celebration — and the Easter bunny — can be traced back to 13th century, pre-Christian Germany, when people worshiped several gods and goddesses. Spring symbolized new life and rebirth; eggs were an ancient symbol of fertility.
“Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter. They lived with their mother in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a very big fir tree”.
~From the Tales of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter~
I’ve taken a week off to recharge my batteries. We made so many plans depending on Babe’s health and it was fun ticking them off. We welcomed Good Friday with a trip to our favourite place in our life, Aberystwyth. It was 12C when we left the casa. On the M42, traffic slowed down due to a white van that’d broken down and then the usual congestion at Wednesbury. Then miles of bank holiday traffic as we came to the Shrewsbury’s roundabout and there were 6 of them to get across before we got stuck again in a long queue in Newtown. We were an hour late than we expected. Thankfully, the stunning countryside kept me busy.
First stop was Gilfach reserve on the confluence of the Marteg River with the River Wye in the Cambrian Mountains. It looked promising as we came across a few cars driving out of the single lane road. We parked at Otter Hide and strained our necks and eyes hoping to spot the Dipper. Unfortunately, not today but we were greeted by lots of Chaffinches. We drove up to the farmhouse and scanned the area. There were a few visitors and I parked myself opposite the bird-feeder. All you could hear was my camera rattling hundreds of shots. There were dozens of Siskins, Redpolls, Goldfinches and Tits taking turns to feed.
Babe was scanning the courtyard. According to the volunteer, a pair of flycatcher was nesting in one of the oak trees. We heard a woodpecker drumming from deep in the forest. Red Kites and Buzzards were riding on the waves, their mewing cries echoing around us. A pair of Swallows were busy gossiping on the electric lines. And then the first glimpse of the Redstart before it flew back into the woods. I wished we could stay longer but Babe didn’t want to miss the kite-feeding session.
Unfortunately, the holiday traffic slowed us down. From the road, we could see Bwlch Nant yr Arian packed and cars were parked right up on the hillside. It was a relief when we managed to find a parking space. As we walked down, we passed these beautiful carved wooden sculptures. There were squirrels, otters, foxes and the various birds that can be found at this beautiful reserve. I would love to have one in the garden. We made a pit stop at the bird-feeder and the usual Siskins and Chaffinches were there.
We slowly trotted down the Barcud trail to the lakeside and tried to squeeze among the spectators. The Red Kites were beginning to gather, slowly circling above us. As soon as the warden deposited the meat on the open space opposite the lake, they furled their wings and swooped in, skimming the ground to snatch any scraps. Unfortunately not many came down to feed. We noticed quite a few spectators with dogs which were busy barking at each other and these spooked the birds. They began flying after those who had flown down and tried to steal the food. After everything had calmed down, we made our way back to the visitor centre where I bought a kite fridge magnet for my collection.
Bird of Prey
Bird of Prey
Since I didn’t packed any lunch, we drove down to Aberystwyth and bought lunch at Morisson. Then we drove along the stunning sea-front trying to find a parking space. The promenade was buzzing. Everyone was out and about enjoying the sunshine. Signs of the damage from the winter storms had disappeared. We parked at the end of the pier and enjoyed our al-fresco picnic. There were people paddling in the sea which I think was a bit nippy.
Then a pit stop at Borth to check out the petrified forest of Cantre’r Gwaleod, the mythical kingdom believed to have disappeared beneath the waves thousands of years ago. The January storms that battered the west coast of Wales, near Borth had stripped away sand to reveal an ancient forest dating to the Bronze Age, 6,000 years ago. Stumps of hundreds of tree trunks, composed mostly of oak and pine rose out of the sand, like broken teeth. Buried under a peat bog, then inundated by rising sea levels until this winter's violent storms stripped away the covering of peat and sand. The high level of alkaline and lack of oxygen in the peat has preserved the wood in an almost pristine state.
This myth of Cantre'r Gwaelod had captured people's imaginations. Also known as the Lowland Hundred, the kingdom was first mentioned in the Black Book of Carmarthen the earliest surviving manuscript written in Welsh, created around 1250 A.D. The kingdom was believed to have been flooded when a maiden named Mererid allowed a well in her care to overflow. We were so lucky to have arrived during the low tide. The sands moved around and occasionally much of it got covered up. At the moment, there were some very large lumps of it visible. It was quite exciting to be walking around Wales’s very own Atlantis. After having our fill with photographs, we then drove to Dyfi Osprey Centre but unfortunately it was closed. Never mind. Then a long 3 hour drive home.
On Saturday, while Babe recuperated after yesterday’s adventure, I took the bus to the city-centre. At Broadgate, I was greeted by Christ in the City gospel singers. They were belting out some amazing tunes to celebrate Easter. I left after the crowd started getting bigger and it was quite difficult to get good photographs. A pit stop at a very busy Primark and I parted with my hard-earned cash for a lovely summery dress dotted with butterflies, a pair of red tights and brown leggings. Then I dashed off to my favourite market stall for a pot of multi-coloured Lupins, tomatoes and sweet corn seedlings. I couldn’t wait to plant them in the garden. As I walked back to the bus station, I cast a quick glance to the top of the Holy Trinity to see if the peregrine was about. Nada, zilch, non…
Our next adventure was to RSPB Middleton Lakes, about half an hour way. It was 17C in the car and as usual, when we were on the M42, we were hoping that we won’t be using the M6 tol road. It was a great relief when we exited at Junction 9. In the beautiful Lower Tame Valley, the RSPB had transformed 400 acres of old quarrel quarry into a natural oasis. Unsurprisingly, the car-park was quite full. After paying for admission and armed with a guide, we made our way to the reserve. Overhead, the skies was alive with screaming Swallows before skimming low across the reed-beds.
We walked along the boardwalk across the reed-beds. Coot chicks were seen begging for food. A Heronry which held more than 25 nests could be seen from here. It was a real hive of activity as the herons flew in and out. We observed one of the reserve’s bird feeders where we spotted the usual culprits. We walked along a 700m woodland trail which laid alongside a farm where we saw the swallows flying in and out of the eaves of the roof. Cute lambs were busy feeding from their mum. A guard geese came over to check us out while a very handsome cockerel strutted about.
We followed the trail gently through the beautiful ancient woodlands accompanied by bird-songs. The peace was interrupted midway as we came across a large rookery that filled the woods with their cawing calls. We meandered along the bridleway and was greeted by the hues and scent of the bluebells. Lesser Celandines and Dogs mercury were also carpeting the floor of the woodland, especially by the stream. The banks of the Langley Brook, were thick with ramsons or wild garlic, still without flower stems but their distinctive aroma permeating in the air.
We crossed Fisher’s Mill Bridge over the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal which linked the Coventry Canal and Birmingham and thereby connected the later to London via the Oxford Canal. We surveyed Fisher’s Miller Pools where most of the natives were having a siesta. An electric fence surrounded the scrape to protect the nesting sites from predators. A pair of Oystercatchers flew in with their loud repeated ‘kileep’ calls, disrupting the peace. Lapwings were tumbling through their courtship flight. A few Black-headed gulls were mating and some were already sitting on eggs. In the midst of all these, a Mute Swan and a few Tufted ducks were safely tucked under their wings, fast asleep.
We continued on and stopped across a wheat field where a flock of Canada Geese were grazing among the young plants. A very familiar long-lasting trills and whistles greeted us and we strained our eyes, looking up in the sky. There we saw a Skylark soaring skywards on ladders of songs and it kept on higher and higher until it disappeared from our sight.
“And still the singing skylark soared
And silent sank and soared to sing”
Finally, we arrived at the newly-built hide. Prolonged sunshine had dried most of the site out. At the Lookout facing the North Pond, dozens of cormorants were perching with their wings spread out. A Great Crested Grebe cruised in front of the hide followed by a Mallard with 2 adorable ducklings. Another pair of Black Headed Gull mated in the nearby island. A Buzzard was riding the waves above us which quickly dispersed the gulls. A pair of Mute Swans swam closer to check us out but the highlight for me was when a pair of Common Terns flew in and started preening. But this pair of Black headed gulls obstructed my view.
While waiting for things to happen, we ate our lunch. Since there was nothing new, we left and trekked along the beautiful East Scrape where we were greeted by hundreds of butterflies and a good number of Bumble-bees feeding on these yellow-flowering shrubs. How I wished I know its name? Everywhere we turned these colourful confetti were around us. We spent quite sometime under the sun, photographing Orange-tip, Green-veined white, Peacocks and Tortoise-shell.
I've watched you now a full half-hour;
Self-poised upon that yellow flower
And, little Butterfly! Indeed
~William Wordsworth, "To a Butterfly"
Back at the meadow-level, we walked around the perimeter next to the River Tame. Hundreds of Black-headed Gulls were squabbling among themselves on the rocky outcrops of the Dosthill Lake. A Pied wagtail was seen feeding along the mudbanks of the river. As I was busy photographing it, one of the photographers told me that the Glossy Ibis was spotted at the lookout near Jubilee wetlands. Whoop…whoop
We rushed to the lookout and there its was, feeding along the mudbanks, a wading bird which was usually seen in warmer climates. They don’t breed in the UK but after the sighting of more than 100 Glossy Ibises here in five years, the British Birds Rarities Committee had decided to remove it from its list of “national rarities” in January 2013. Anyway, it was still rare to us. The Glossy Ibis or plegadis falcinellus was dark-coloured, and known for its distinctive long down-curved bill. It was foraging along the mudbanks and came closer and closer to where we were standing. All you could hear was our cameras rattling away. The sun came out lighting up the plumage, iridescent bronze and shiny bottle-green wings. Small snails seemed to be its intended morsels.
It was mobbed as it got closer to a flock of Black-headed gulls. According to legend, the !bis was the last animal to take refuge in a hurricane and the first to reappear afterwards. We watched the silhouette and flight of this bird as it flew off. It looked so prehistoric Pterodactyl-line. In flight, it held its neck extended straight and fly with faster wing-beats. When flying in groups, they often fly in a straight line which would be amazing to watch.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
After that excitement, we made our way back to the car. I wanted to check out the Southern Meadow but Babe was too exhausted to continue. He sat down on a bench for a rest while I checked out a wheezy ‘eechp’ call deep from a hawthorn bush. At first, I thought it was a Chaffinch but as it emerged from the thick undergrowth, a darker patterned head and tortoiseshell shoulders appeared. Hang on… it was a Brambling, my first sighting ever. After Babe had fully rested, we made our way home.
It was a cloudy day with spits of rain when we arrived at our favourite playground. We were greeted by 3 Buzzards and watched their slow graceful gliding on the thermals with their cat-like mewing echoing around us. At the courtyard, a Pied wagtail with nesting materials in its beak was waiting for a group of people to move. But they were busy watching. After rattling a few shots, we trotted towards the hide. I knew the birds were nesting underneath the solar panels because I’d seen them flying in and out. Swallows too were flying in and out from underneath the visitor centre’s roof.
As we walked along the path, we were serenaded by Cetti warblers, Chiffchaff and Blackcaps, heard but not seen. Pockets of Bluebells were flowering where the Primroses used to be. At Baldwin Hide, a Canada Goose was still nesting under the window. I could see an egg when she got up to change her sitting position. Another Goose was nesting on the pontoon. It will be quite difficult to get the cygnets into the lake after it hatched. A coot was also nesting at the tip of Willow island. This Chiffchaff finally appeared for an encore.
From East Marsh Hide, we heard a Cuckoo calling. I held my breath and listened for I cannot afford to miss a single note. Cuckoos were in decline and I dreaded the day, he no longer calls. We saw Sand-martins flying in and out of the sand-castle. A Little Ring Plover and a Redshank had flew in and started feeding. We continued to a nearly full Carlton Hide and managed to squeeze in. Long tail tits and Reed buntings were seen flitting among the reed beds. A Canada Goose was nesting on the island. I think a Coot too was nesting somewhere in the reeds because it was chasing everything that came close. An Oystercatcher flew in and started scavenging.
On St. George’s Day, we made the long drive to Pensthorpe. It was 15C in the car. The drive was made longer when we came across trucks overtaking trucks, resulting in very slow traffic. We drove through miles and miles of rapeseed fields as we drove through Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire. But in Norfolk, we came across orchards covered in blossoms. It was also farming country and we’d to put the roof up as the countryside aroma was a bit overpowering. The farmers were fertilising their fields.
This was our 2nd trip to this park and we managed to find the location at once. Set in the heart of the Norfolk countryside, in the beautiful and tranquil Wensum Valley, Pensthorpe was an award-winning mix of meandering nature trails and beguiling woodland walks, and a showcase for British wildlife and nature conservation. We parked opposite the new WildRootz adventure play area, where children ran free. This 2 acre outdoor play area contained over 30 individual items of adventure play equipment designed to reconnect children with the natural world. Lucky kids … A Mistle Thrush greeted us with a worm wriggling in its beak.
House sparrows were chirping above us as we made our way into the visitor centre. We’d to give the Wensum Discovery Tour a miss because we arrived too late. First, was the walk-through Wader Aviary, sited within an old brick and flint walled garden where we spent nearly an hour getting close and personal to the Bearded Tits or Bearded reedlings, Avocets, Ruffs, Redshanks, Black-winged stilt and Turtle doves in very authentic surroundings.
Evocative purring “turr turr” from the Turtle doves filled the air around us. The Bearded tits were happy ‘pinging’ and showing well, coming onto the bottom of the reeds for a drink. We saw a few females sitting on eggs. The breeding Ruff were looking spectacular in his splendid long-feathered ruff and the two long ear tuffs. Avocets too were nesting and uttered loud yelping cries when visitors got too close. A pair was busy mating nearby. Redshanks with their bright-orange red legs were busy feeding in the shallow water and gave a clear-noted cry when felt threatened. The long-legged Black-winged Stilt from time to time performed high-leaping displays with a “floating” descent was a joy to watch.
He. Where thou dwellest, in what grove,
Tell me Fair One, tell me Love;
Where thou thy charming nest dost build,
O thou pride of every field!
The Birds by William Blake
We walked to the Ibis enclosure to check them out but unfortunately they were closed due to renovations. Aargh … why wasn’t it stated on their website? We went straight to the other side, to the red squirrel enclosures. Pensthorpe Conservation Trust was committed to habitat and species conservation and worked alongside partner organisations on long-term projects to conserve and reintroduce key species such as Red Squirrels and Corncrake. When we here previously, the Corncrake was under quarantine and the Red squirrels weren’t that active. But we were very lucky this time.
A Red squirrel had made news and was hailed as a super-mum after giving birth to her 48th kitten in 7 years. The kitten was named Tortoiseshell. Along with her former partner Tweedledum, she was one of the UK’s most successful breeding red squirrels pairs. I think I saw the little kitten venturing out from the drey and scampered above us along the wire tunnels in the tree tops. The Trust and the East Anglian Red Squirrel Group were actively working at protecting them with a captive breeding programme.
We squinted our eyes in search of the very elusive corncrake. It was lovely to see these adorable wee birds scumpering about inside the squirrel enclosures. The crexing call of the males was an unforgettable though sadly seldom heard sound. These farmland birds had suffered a steep decline closely associated with changes in agricultural practices. The corncrake was a bizarre bird of the rail family, related to the coot and moorhen, but favouring dry land. The poet John Clare, writing in the early 19th Century, wrote a famous poem about the corncrake, which he called by its traditional name, the land rail, describing it as "a summer noise, among the meadow hay…".
Pensthorpe was also known for its fine collection of waterfowl, including endangered exotic from around the world. As soon as you enter the compound, hundreds of ducks will be running towards you hoping for a free meal. We have to be careful where we walk in case we stepped on something. Among them were the adorable Nenes, the colourful Mandarin, Smew, Mergansers, Red crested Pochards, Pintails, White headed ducks, Ruddy Shelducks, Eiders, Baikal teals, Falcated ducks, Buffleheads, etc…etc..phew. It had been nice weather for ducks and we found them enjoying the sunshine and blue skies. These eclectic mix dabbled, dived, quacked and posed all day long. Before we left, we were in time to watch the daily 4 pm commentated feed around Mill Pond.
Between the cliff-rise and the beach
A slip of emerald I own;
With fig and olive, almond, peach,
cherry and plum-tree overgrown;
So luminous with living wings,
So musical with feathered joy . . .
Not for all pleasure fortune brings,
Would I such ecstasy destroy.
A thousand birds are in my grove,
Melodious from morn to night;
My fruit trees are their treasure trove,
Their happiness is my delight.
And through the sweet and shining days
They know their lover and their friend;
So I will shield in peace and praise
My innocents unto the end.
~Robert Service, Bird Sanctuary~
After the long trip, the next day, we went for a slow stroll to Ashlawn Cuttings to check for any new developments of the tadpoles. All the frogs had gone by now and the tadpoles are in various stages of development but none had sprouted any arms yet. They were still feeding on their remaining yolk sacks. Some held themselves to floating weeds and others were swimming around. The later fed on algae. At this stage, they remained very vulnerable and camouflaged themselves by blending into their surroundings. We hoped to come again in a fortnight to see how far they’d metamorphosed.
Five little tadpoles swimming near the shore.
The first one said, “Let’s swim some more.”
The second one said, “Let’s rest awhile.”
The third one said, “Swimming makes me smile.”
The fourth one said, “My legs are growing long.”
The fifth one said, “I’m getting very strong.”
Five little tadpoles will soon be frogs.
They’ll jump from the water and sit on logs.
Then we nipped over to Draycote Water where a lovely driver gave us her pay and display ticket. Thanks a million. As we were about to walk along Farborough Bank, we spotted a crowd near the jetty. Hmm…what was going on? Then we noticed a huge tank parked nearby and found out that the fishery was restocking their supplies. Draycote was also home to a renowned fly fishery set and stocking fish was important in managing a fishery to increase angler’s catches. A bit cheating, I think. We were quite surprised to see the fish to be quite big. Some of them were gasping for air as they adjusted to thermal shock and trying to find their bearings. We left because it was quite depressing to watch.
We tagged along the hundreds of people who were walking, running and cycling. It was quiet in the birding front except for a few Pied wagtails. They were dashing in and out of the rocks with their undulating flights and brisk cheerful double note ‘chissik chissik’. Dozens of Coots were clustering peacefully on the lake. We went straight to the bird hide to see if the albino squirrel turned up. While waiting, we counted more than a hundred Great Crested Grebes gathering in Toft Shallows. They were using this site as their nesting ground. We could hear the repertoire of guttural clucks and growls from the hide.
Since the squirrel didn’t turn up, we made our way towards the Boardwalk keeping an eye along the bushes. We spotted a few squirrels and there were plenty of Chaffinches, Robins, Tits and Blackbirds keeping us company with their twitterings and tweetings. We saw Grey squirrels vivaciously chasing each other and spiralling up-and-down a tree. And then a familiar head popped out of the bushes. The albino squirrel was checking out the ruckus. And then he disappeared deep into the undergrowth. It was quite remarkable that it camouflaged well considering that it stood out like a furry Belisha beacon.
After saying goodbye to our favourite squirrel, we made our way slowly to the car-park. But we were distracted by a farmer who was spraying his fields just below where we were walking. It was a very impressive piece of machinery. Pesticides were applied by a sprayer mounted on the back of a tractor driven through the field using tramlines to ensure accurate application. In applying the herbicide the farmer adjusted the application rate so that the weeds were checked while the crop continued to grow. Hopefully, in a few weeks time, the crops will start to dominate the weeds which will eventually be smothered and die off. Not a fan of pesticide, but for large scale farming they were essential.
We also made another trip to the city centre to check the peregrines. This time we used the parking meter along Queen Victoria road and walked through the arcade. The city centre was buzzing and we headed straight to the Holy Trinity Church. We walked around it several times with our eyes trained on the church spire. We continued towards the Old Cathedral ruins but still quiet. We also trotted to the sports centre but we didn’t see anything at all. As we walked back through the ruins, I spotted a pigeon’s feet on the floor. It might have been blown down from the ledges. I guess the peregrines must be out hunting in the countryside. On the way back to the car, I stopped at my favourite market stall for 2 pots of courgettes and tomatoes seedlings.
Finally, to end the Easter weekend, another trip to our favourite playground again. It was wet, gloomy and spitting. But the sight of a pair of Pied wagtails in the courtyard brighten our day. They were quick and alert in their movements, running this way and that as they hunt for food, stopping every so often to peer, head tilted, when spotted something. And their long tail constantly dipping up and down. After it flew off, we made our way towards the hide, stopping at Primrose Bank to listen to a male Reed bunting in breeding plumage singing in his small staccato song but with several call notes.
At Baldwin Hide, a pair of non-breeding Great Crested Grebe sailed past us. The Canada Geese had abandoned the nest. I wonder why? A Little Ring Plover was feeding along the mudbanks of Willow Island. Since there was nothing much going on, we headed to East Marsh Hide. A Mallard with 9 adorable ducklings was busy feeding along the banks. She was going to be very busy looking after her large brood. A Redshank flew in with its beautiful clear-noted cry. Amidst all these, a pair of Shelducks were getting amorous.
We nipped over to Teal pool and saw another Redshank feeding at the far end of the bank. There were three Grey herons standing motionless at different locations of the water’s edge. They were either standing with their neck stretched out, looking for food, or hunched down with their neck bent over their chest. One of them were looking intently across the pool where a Mallard with two ducklings were dabbling in the water. Suddenly it flew straight to the ducklings and we held our breath. It was amazing to see the Mallard squawked and flapped her wings to scare off the heron who was prancing around and making the harsh ‘frarnk’ call. But the Mallard was very tenacious and stood her ground and finally the heron flew off with its tail between its legs. Phew …
“The old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps his melancholy wings”
After the thrilling match, we we went straight to the freezing Carlton Hide. As soon as we sat down, we could hear the Cuckoo calling but it was still quite a distance away. An Oyster Catcher flew in and started feeding near where a Canada Goose was nesting. I was expecting it to be hissed at but somehow the goose wasn’t disturbed by this. The reed-bed was alive with chirpings but we couldn’t see anything. A Kestrel was hovering over the reed-beds for a few minutes before flying off. House-martins were whizzing across the sky. We could hear a Cetti warbler calling from the undergrowth. We saw a pair of Buzzards perched on a tree near the golf course. We left before the hide turned us into a block of ice.
“Awake, thou wintry earth
Fling off thy sadness!
Fair vernal flowers,
Laugh forth Your ancient gladness”