There was a roaring in the wind all night;
The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
But now the sun is rising calm and bright;
The birds are singing in the distant woods;
Over his own sweet voice the Stock - dove broods;
The Jay makes answer as the Magpie chatters;
And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.
All things that love the sun are out of doors;
The sky rejoices in the morning`s birth;
The grass is bright with rain - drops; - on the moors
The hare is running races in her mirth;
And with her feet she from the plashy earth
Raises a mist, that, glittering in the sun,
Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.
~William Woodsworth ‘Resolutions and Independence’~
The June solstice was known as the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere and the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. The day had the longest hours of daylight and marked the first day of the summer season. The word solstice was from the Latin word “solstitium”, which literally meant stopping or standing still of the sun. It was used as the name for the longest day of the year when the sun was at its highest point in the northern hemisphere. A solstice occurred when the sun's zenith was at its furthest point from the equator.
Britain was hotter than the holiday destinations like Ibiza and Tenerife. We basked in glorious sunshine as warm air swept in from the continent pushed the temperature to 24C. We marked the first day of summer on the longest day of the year by walking on the wild side at Trentham Monkey Forest. We didn’t go abroad. If you looked hard enough, there were little wildlife sanctuaries dotted around the country. I happened to glance at the touristy stuff while waiting in the queue to use the facilities at Telford Services when I spotted the brochure. Set within 60 acres of the beautiful Staffordshire woodland, Monkey Forest was home to 140 free-roaming Barbary macaques. These species were upgraded from vulnerable to endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature & Natural Resources) Red List of Threatened Species.
Opened in July 2005, it was the 4th park owned by the de Turckheim family. The other 3 parks were 2 in France and 1 in Germany. One of the aims of the parks was to raise public awareness on the plight of these macaques by creating and preserving an invaluable genetic pool with the population from these parks and strengthening the wild population by re-introducing entire groups of monkeys. Over 600 Barbary macaques (from the other three sister parks) had already been successfully re-introduced into their natural habitat in the Atlas mountains of Algeria and Morocco.
We weren’t surprised that the car-park was full. It was a lovely day to be out and about. After paying the entrance fees, we made our way through the turnstiles and then joined the queue to get into the fenced compound. Here we were given a short briefing of do’s and dont’s. Food and plastic bags weren’t allowed in and there were lockers where you can store them. As we entered the park, it felt like we were walking in the Atlas mountains of Algeria and Morocco, the setting where these macaques were familiar with, thick forests with pine, oak and cedar trees. But, the sight of a Great Spotted woodpecker hammering on a tree and a Ringlet fluttering among the Himalayan Balsam reminded us that we were still in the UK.
We adjusted our eyes to get used to the shady path, looking around us hoping to catch a glimpse. We didn’t have to wait long because once you know what you’re looking for, they were everywhere. We followed the 3/4 mile winding forest path that took us through the woodlands where the monkeys lived. We came across an open field and there were monkeys roaming freely around us. We just don’t know where to point our cameras. They were swinging from the trees, lounging on the grass and combing the grass for food. Information boards, video documentaries and pure observation gave us a fascinating insight into these amazing primates. Guides were situated along the path to explain the monkeys' behaviour happening before the visitors eyes.
Then, the piece de resistance, a mum with a very tiny bundle clinging to its tummy came into view. So far 4 babies had been born. The first arrival this year was born to an experienced 17 year old mum, who gave birth to a baby boy on the 3rd of May. Not only was he a brother to his other 3 siblings he was already an uncle to his sisters baby born last year. The new arrivals drew lots of attention from all the other monkeys who were just as eager to have a peek at the new members of the group. The younger monkeys were extremely curious about the new additions were often told off if they get too close to the newborns. It was very funny to watch as they scampered off with a look of disappointment, as they only wanted to play with the new kid on the block.
The babies spent a great deal of their first few weeks with their mother before slowly taking tentative first steps at 2 to 3 weeks. Until then they tended to bounce around, a lot like frogs which were incredibly cute. As they started to discover their new woodland home, the monkeys and staff alike kept a watchful eye over their progress. Females mate with many males within their group, therefore paternity was not known with the males caring and protecting all of the youngsters in the group. At 600 grams, these babies have lots of growing to do over the summer before they were fully weaned at 6 months and ready to face their first winter. I spent a lot of time watching this little one practicing his bare-back riding.
There were also plenty of guides about keeping an eye on the visitors if they get too close to these monkeys. Any contacts made them more aggressive and also stopped them engaging in grooming which were essential behaviours for making bonds and alliances. Worse still, when visitors tried to interact or touch them, it really stressed them. No matter how close they were to us, we kept our distance. The monkeys were provisioned each morning with a mixture of fruit, vegetables, wheat, sunflower seeds and primate pellets. From time to time, buckets of seeds were scattered so that the monkeys come out into the open and made it easier for the visitors to see them. This also brought the ducks, pigeons and squirrels out for a slice of the action.
The macaques were all identified with a unique tattoo on the inner thigh and all demographics of each individual was known. In order to control the population size, a number of females received contraceptive implants so that a limited number of babies were born annually (5-15 at each site). It would be interesting to know how many babies will be born this year. We continued walking where a second group were in residence. The woodland trail allowed visitors to walk amongst these monkeys and immersed in their everyday antics. We then came across a juvenile heron looking a bit dazed by a stream. According to the guide, there was a heronry in the Estate and it might had just lost its bearing. It was a golden opportunity to get so close to a wild bird.!
monkeys, monkeys everywhere
monkeys hang onto the sun
monkeys have lots of fun
Before the above exciting adventure, we went to check out what the natives have been up to at Slimbridge WWT. We were gutted to find out that both the Great Crane chicks had been predated. It was 22C in the car and our journey was slowed down by the various road-works which just happened to pop up everywhere and stranded cars on the M5. Outside the visitor centre, House sparrows were taking a breather under the cow parsleys. We then encountered problems when our membership cards were declined. Thankfully, Babe kept the receipt. We weren’t happy about that all. The sight of orchids scattered along the path helped to brighten the day.
We walked along the bridge across the swan pond where dozens of mute swans were having a splash trying to keep cool. But, we were more interested in the House-martins, ‘this guest of summer’ as Shakespeare put it, nesting on the outer walls of the visitor centre under the eaves. They built the nests by collecting pellets of mud or clay and then working it into a cup-shape adding bits of plant fibres to strengthen the structure forming a sealed cup apart from a small oval entrance hole which they skilfully fly in and out during their occupation. We slowly walked under the nests and when we looked up all we could see were these little birdies side by side looking all fluffy and cute, peering out of their half built cup of a best. The parents were whizzing in and out with a beak full of food for their chicks.
We made our way to the Caribbean flamingos to see if they were sitting on eggs but not today. Most of them were sitting under the shade. Even the birds think that the weather was too hot for them. We checked out the Rushy Hide and there was so much activities on the lagoon. The Avocets were still sitting on eggs. There were at least 2 dozens Shelducklings paddling in the water. This is because in their natural environment, the parents often deserted their ducklings at a young age, leaving them in creches with just one or two adults looking after them.
A very vocal high-pitched continuous cry erupted from a bush in the middle of the island. A Black-headed gull flew down and out came a fluffy chick with its still-mottled back and head. We thoroughly enjoyed watching the begging behaviour following its parent and screaming its head off. But, the parent just ignored it and flew off leaving the chick to get back into the bushes again. We continued towards the Martin Smith Hide which was void both of visitors and natives, unlike our previous visit where it was standing room only. Perhaps the presence of a very low flying Buzzard circling above the Tack piece was the reason.
We continued our adventure towards the Wader Pool. We passed more Shelducklings paddling and dabbling near the middle pool. The Eiders were looking a bit vulnerable because they were moulting. During the moult, when they shed and re-grow new flight feathers, they were unable to fly for 3-4 weeks. In Wader pool, the Avocet chicks were already out and about but still been closely guarded by their parents as they learnt how to feed in the shallow water. The Ruff was still in its spectacular breeding colours strutting off its colourful head and neck feathers. We watched the elaborate displays that included wing fluttering, jumping, standing upright, crouching with ruff erect and even lunging.
Then off to the South Lake hide walking through a path flanked with tall flowering Ox-eye daisies. A pity it was too hot for pollinating insects, especially butterflies to feed. The South Lake was like a creche. Cute baby chicks were everywhere. A pair of Great crested Grebe flanked its striped head and neck juvenile while trying to feed it with quite a huge fish. There were an explosion of Black Headed Gulls chicks in various stages of growth and the noise they make was out of this world. Oystercatcher chicks too were in various stages of growth. There were more Shelducklings feeding on the mudbanks. The Common Terns were still nesting on the pontoon. And we counted about 25 Black-tailed Godwits with their russet summer plumage probing along the sandbanks.
Ever feel like a baby bird in a tree?
Eyes newly opened he can barely see.
With his mother away to fetch a worm,
He’s scared to move, wiggle or squirm.
He can sense there is a big world out there,
But all he know is it’s quite a scare.
He stays huddled up in the nest,
Trusting his mother wants only the best.
When he closes his eyes he begins his dreams,
Of souring over mountains and wide-open streams.
Of the clouds he will pass as he sours so high,
And the beauty of the earth from up in the sky.
He travels the land resting on trees,
And conquers all, even the seas.
He dreams of a life in a loving state,
And longs for the beauty of his mate.
He anticipates the day of chirpers of his own,
What they will look like and longs for a clone.
The freedom expressed from flying away,
Oh he dreams of that day.
But right now his wings are so weak,
As he looks over the nest to take a peak.
Too scared to try and give them a test,
So he’d better stay in the nest.
He seems so weak and timid right now,
He wonders when he will fly and how.
He still needs mother to care for him,
And all those dreams seem so dim.
This baby bird is still full of fear,
His dreams seem distance, but still so near.
This is how I feel without you here,
To encourage me and lend your ear.
~Baby Bird by Gary R. Ferris~
Last but not least, we nipped over to the Flamingo Lagoon and were completely bowled over. It was flamingo breeding weather and a mass of grey, fluffy chicks were putting on a lovely display of creching right at the front of the enclosure offering fantastic views to the visitors. There were 30 or so chicks at different stages of growth and were currently prancing around, getting under the feet of long-suffering parents. The chicks gathered together under the watchful eyes of the adults. Wild behaviour patterns still prevailed even in the safe environment of the enclosed grounds. We enjoyed the intimate moment when a mother dribbled crop milk down its curved beak and into the open bill of its chick. We stayed here for half an hour before slowly making our way home.
Oh! tell me have you ever seen a red, long-leg'd Flamingo?
Oh! tell me have you ever yet seen him the water in go?
Oh! yes at Bowling-Green I've seen a red long-leg'd Flamingo,
Oh! yes at Bowling-Green I've there seen him the water in go.
Oh! tell me did you ever see a bird so funny stand-o
When forth he from the water comes and gets upon the land-o?
No! in my life I ne'er did see a bird so funny stand-o
When forth he from the water comes and gets upon the land-o.
He has a leg some three feet long, or near it, so they say, Sir.
Stiff upon one alone he stands, t'other he stows away, Sir.
And what an ugly head he's got! I wonder that he'd wear it.
But rather more I wonder that his long, thin neck can bear it.
And think, this length of neck and legs (no doubt they have their uses)
Are members of a little frame, much smaller than a goose's!
Oh! isn't he a curious bird, that red, long-leg'd Flamingo?
A water bird, a gawky bird, a sing'lar bird, by jingo!
~Lewis Gaylord Clark~
We can’t leave the weekend without checking out the natives at our favourite playground. We went straight to Carlton Hide because sightings of the Kingfisher was reported from there. Along the path, we were distracted by hundreds of Peacock caterpillars feeding on the stinging nettles, protected by a web of silk. They will be feeding vivaciously before dispersing to pupate, hanging underneath vegetation. The adults emerged about 2 weeks later, in late July. They then gathered together at sources of nectar, building up reserves to see them through hibernation, which usually began in September.
We were quite surprised that Carlton Hide was empty. Not a good sign because it meant that the Kingfisher wasn’t around. We watched the Mallards dabbling in the water and Coots having a wash. The weeds were beginning to take over the pool again. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew in and perched on the dead tree to the right of the hide. The pool was rippling with fish and there must be a pike hunting because from time to time a few fishes were seen leaping into the air trying to escape. Suddenly, we heard a high-pitched ‘ticht’ and on the perching pole was the kingfisher. We didn’t even noticed it flying in. His azure back and wings glittered in the sun as it watched intently the water below. It didn’t stay long and flew back through the channels.
We checked out the screen to see if the Hobby was about but not today. We made our way back to East Marsh Hide and underneath the canopy, we came across an extended party of Long Tail Tits wandering through the woods like flying teaspoons with their extraordinary tails as handles. We were surrounded by their excited contact calls which they communicated to each other when they moved. Thankfully, one adorable bird managed to pose long enough for a photograph.
At East Marsh Hide, the noisy Oyster Catchers were making their presence heard. The juveniles were flying after their parents, their insistant, piping trills trailing behind them. We made a pit stop at Baldwin Hide and saw some of the natives still sitting on eggs. The Common Terns were still on the pontoon and a few were seen on the main island. A pair of Coots were busy repairing their nest. We could see more Oystercatchers with juveniles busy feeding on the middle of the island. It seemed to be a bumper year for the these loud birds.
Mid-June was also the start of the 20th FIFA World Cup which took place at several venues across Brazil. For the first time, goal line technology and vanishing foams for free kicks were used. England was in group D with Costa Rica, Uruguay and Italy. I’d the buntings and the flags out and was wearing an old England t-shirt everytime they played but unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough. England was bottom of the group losing 2:1 to Italy, the same score against Uruguay and 0:0 with Costa Rica. The title holders, Spain, too were eliminated at the group stage. Although England came home with its tail between its legs, I left the decorations until the tournament was over. I’d spent too much time putting them up and I intend to enjoy it. At the group stage, I was impressed with the teams from the Netherlands, Germany and Columbia. CC and I started the celebration early by having ice-cream at a newly opened ice-cream parlour called Lickety Lick. Then settling down for the first game between Brazil and Croatia where the host won 3:1.
Remember the pair of Blue Tits nesting at the bottom of the garden? The chicks had been pre-dated :-( :-( :-(. I was at work when Babe heard very distressed calls. He looked outside the window and spotted this!!! We were hoping that the cat got away with nothing. But when we walked around the nest box, there was silence. Not the usual chirping, begging for food noises. We thought that the birds had fledged. We took the box down and found inside, three dead chicks!!! It was soo upsetting. We left the chicks at the end of the garden and cleaned the box. The next time we put the box up, we were going to put chicken wire around it and the branch to stop this happening again. I’m going to kill that cat …
We were in the garden looking for moths when we heard a rustling under the bird-feeder. We checked it out and there he was, Mr. Prickly having a meal. Whoop…whoop. Long time no see … Unfortunately, it was too dark for a good photograph. We were very pleased to see him again. Now, where were the foxes??? We haven’t seen them for quite some time although a friend told us that they were having cubs in her garden. AAAh…. soo jealous. Our favourite Jay too have been turning up regularly. It seemed that everytime I looked out the window, he was there feeding quietly.
Prayers and thoughts for my eldest nephew, Eriq, who was recovering from a very nasty motorbike accident. Get well soon.