“November always seemed to me the Norway of the year”
November was an in-between month. Neither was it exactly autumn anymore nor can we say that it was winter. It was often described as devoid of character and drab. But, despite its apparent insipidity, this epoch of the year was far from being dreadfully uninteresting or desperately morose. If you open your eyes and look around, there was something delightful beautiful as well as totally romantic about the late fall season.
Jack Frost was back. Plummeting overnight temperatures caused a bitterly cold start with layers of frost creating spectacular scenes. Beautiful dawn scenes were captured as the rising sun melted layers of overnight frost. Misty landscapes were captured where dramatic haze of overnight fog had settled. Earlier in the week, strong winds and heavy rain brought a weekend of wet weather misery triggered by massive snowstorms in the US. A meandering jet stream resulted in an Arctic blast that battered the country.
To brighten up the dark, cold, wet autumnal evenings, the Arts Centre set up an arts installation called The Pool to celebrate its 40th birthday. Created by the US-based artist, Jen Lewin, it took up residence outside the building for 2 weeks. It was an experience not to be missed because of its good reviews from audiences around the world that had been painting and splashing light in unison. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the opening day due to other commitments but I made up a few days later.
The actions started at 4 pm where everyone gathered at the arena. Formed from interactive circular pads, The Pool was an environment of giant, concentric circles. The audience then stepped on these circles into a playful world where everyone collaborated to generate mesmerising patterns of shifting and fading colours. It transformed into a giant fun game where everyone was running, jumping, adding , bouncing and mixing the lights together. It was fun, fun, fun. What a lovely way to wind down in the dark, cold evening.
“Transforms casual observers into animated and engaged revellers, causing grownups and kids alike to jump, stomp, run and cheer”
I also attended a UKSG forum in London. I only knew about it when I replied to a tweet regarding a paper on “…OPAC is dead” by S. Kortekaas. I’d participated in this webinar before and UKSG commented that they were organising a forum where such topic was on the agenda. Although the date was already closed, they managed to squeeze me in. Thanks a million. Then it was a rush to fill in the application form to attend, asking permission from my manager, the finance department and then for the PA to purchase the train tickets. All accomplished within 3 days. Phew…
I was on the 7.30 am train to London and walked for half an hour to the destination. It was lovely seeing my old manager again. We managed to have a little chat before we were engrossed in the very packed schedule. The forum was divided into 2 parts where in the first part 3 presenters discussed their papers for 8 minutes each and Q&A squeezed in 5 minutes before everyone rushing to different rooms to attend the lightning talks. The organisers didn’t anticipate the number of people attending the talks resulting in a few of us (moi included) had to sit on the floor :-(.
Lunch was interesting. Tiny bowls of food were served and I thought at first that they were amuse bouche. But then the next courses were still in the same style. The problem was that we were all queuing and those in front were not moving at all from the table which left those at the back very frustrated. In the end, a few of us left and bought sandwiches from the many eateries outside the building. What a letdown. Then it was back to the forum again. I didn’t stay for the drinks at the end of the day because I’d a train to catch. And as soon as I arrived in Euston, the heavens opened. Phew …
Then it was our long-awaited trip to Donna Nook. And we weren’t alone. Thousands of people were there. The farmer had put the parking price up to £2 but we didn’t mind because he provided toilet facilities for everyone. We walked across the sand dunes and from the top we came across this amazing view of the sea, mudflats, birds and hundreds upon hundreds of seals in various sizes, colours and ages. They hauled to these sites to rest, mate, moult and give birth. I couldn’t wait to join the hundreds already lining up along the chestnut-paling fence that ran the entire length of the beach.
It was a pleasure to be back. We checked out the board and there were 1220 pups born to date. It was cute overload. Grey seal pups were born with shaggy white fur, called lanugo, which after 2-4 weeks moulted away. When they had shed the white baby fur and developed the dense waterproof pelt, they began to have the markings of an adult, the male being an overall colour of dark-grey, brown or black, with sometimes a lighter patch around the neck or flanks. The females were lighter with a background colour of cream or grey, paler on the belly with dark blotches or spotting and every seal had a uniquely different pattern. Because the white baby fur wasn’t waterproof, pups can’t swim until they had shed it.
Mums were encouraging the pups to feed by scratching their face. Pups suckled for 3 weeks during which time their weight tripled and gradually lost their pale coat. In the meantime, the mums could loose half of their body fat during lactation as they don’t feed themselves. The pups were weaned after losing their baby coat. The pups remained in the area until they were driven by hunger and had to make its way to the sea to find their first solid food. If they survived into adulthood, the males will be ready to breed at about 8 years and the females at five years.
Males (Bulls) were rolling, snoozing, slumbering and scratching in the mudbanks, bidding time, waiting for the pups to be weaned and the females (cows) to be in season and ready to mate. At the moment, the males were quite content to be together. But not for long. At the onset of the breeding season, the hormone levels changed and became aggressive . Soon they will be fighting to keep other males and stake their territory. Fights were often vicious and bloody. There were open mouth threatening displays, hisses and vocalisations.
We think the pupping season had peaked because there were numerous weaned pups spreading out along the fence. They were quite round and having an easy life resting and living off fat reserves. But, as we walked further down the beach, we were very fortunate to see the birth of a pup. We just happened to be standing at the right place at the right time. As soon as the yellow-tinged pup was born, the proud mum spun around to sniff and call to it. Within a few minutes of the birth, the pup and mum bonded by learning each other’s smell and voices. Aaah….
We also saw hundreds of Shelducks but they were feeding on the seashore which was too far to photograph. Flocks of starlings were enjoying the sea-buckthorn berries that dotted the sand dunes. It was unbelievable that nearly a year ago, these beaches were devastated by the storms. The meteorological-induced surge combined with the already high spring tide of 5th Dec had caused widespread damage and disruption to both seals and site infrastructure. It was incredible to see how Mother Nature bounced back. Meadow pipits and Pied wagtails were foraging along the mud-banks. Turnstones were feeding on the after-births which were littered every where.
After thousands of shots, we walked back to the car to warm our cockles with corned beef sandwiches and washed down with mugs of hot coffee from a thermos. We watched cars queuing to get into the very muddy field and also cars trying to get out. We contemplated whether to go back to the seals. By this time, the car-park was nearly full and hundreds of more people were pouring to the beach. It was also beginning to rain and the freezing North Sea winds were whipping furiously. We still have 3 hours on the road and it was getting dark soon. So we decided to head home instead. But before that, I bought home-grown cauliflowers and cabbages from the farmer’s vegetable stalls for only £2.We bid this lovely gem goodbye and promised to be back same time next year, Insyaallah.
FLOURISH greener, as ye clamber,
Oh ye leaves, to seek my chamber,
Up the trellis'd vine on high!
May ye swell, twin-berries tender,
Juicier far,--and with more splendour
Ripen, and more speedily!
O'er ye broods the sun at even
As he sinks to rest, and heaven
Softly breathes into your ear
All its fertilising fullness,
While the moon's refreshing coolness,
Magic-laden, hovers near;
And, alas! ye're watered ever
By a stream of tears that rill
From mine eyes--tears ceasing never,
Tears of love that nought can still!
~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ‘Autumn Feelings~
We also made another trip to Slimbridge Wetlands and Wildlife Trust because the Bewick’s swans had arrived back to the reserve. And we weren’t alone because on such a gloomy, cold day the car-park was nearly full. A huge flock of jackdaws greeted us from the tree tops their all black plumage glistening and their short, harsh calls, echoing around us. It was quite sad that none of the visitors even bothered to stop and looked up at them.
“There is a bird who, by his coat
And by the hoarseness of his note,
Might be supposed a crow,
A great frequenter of the church,
Where bishop like, he finds a perch
And dormitory too”
We walked straight to Rushy Hide and it was buzzing both in the hide and on the mudflats. 55 Bewick’s swans were cruising the water, taking a breather after their long flight from the Siberian breeding grounds. Apart from the variable yellow/orange bill colour and size, they were shorter-necked and shorter-bodied than other swans, and their bills were smaller than those of the Whoopers. It was quite discerning to see only one juvenile among these wintering pairs. Hopefully, more will arrive in the coming months as the weather got colder in the continent. It was lovely to hear the different family groups making yodelling calls.
The elegant Pintails were all snoozing away along the banks. Among the most handsome of all ducks, they were easily recognised by their slender built, long, elegant neck and elongated spiky, central tail feathers, a feature that gave rise to their common name. A few woke up and started walking with a slight waddle which was rather cute. These ducks were graceful and acrobatic in flight which earned them the nickname ‘greyhound of the air”. According to the sighting boards, there were 100 in the area.
The plump compact Pochards were quite numerous too. There were 170 of them. The males with brown head, black breast and patterned grey backs and sides were handsome ducks. The females were nondescript brown but the amount of grey among the brown, and the grey-banded bill made her recognisable. Although an expert diver, they were also dabblers and upenders, and their mixed feeding methods had led to the name, with the old French ‘poacher’ meaning to poke about.
We checked out the Martin Smith hide which was surprisingly empty. On the tack field, large flocks of birds and waders were busy feeding and grazing but too far for a good photograph. We quickly nipped to the Robert Garnet Hide and it was buzzing with birdwatchers and photographers. We managed to find a seat and had good views of 2 Peregrines causing absolute havoc amongst the thousands of wildfowl and waders. Babe spotted one with a damaged leg which according to the warden was a female and had been there for 6 years.
Then 7 Common cranes from the Great Crane Projects flew in. In flight, the neck was extended with legs trailing well beyond their tails. There were plenty of interactions and displays where they leapt up with raised wings, their tail plumes fluffed which happened to be the most beautiful part of the plumage. After acknowledging each other, trumpeting and pirouetting, they started feeding on the marshland. They eat a range of items from suitably sized small rodents, fish, amphibians, and insects to grain, berries and plants.
From the sighting board, we knew that there were 200 Black-tailed Godwits, 80 Curlews, 200 Dunlins, 800 Lapwings, 800 whistling Wigeons, 300 dabblingTeals, 90 Greylags, 250 Canada Geese 250, 16 Redshanks, 15 Ruff and Bewick’s swans. The Black-tailed Godwits were in their uniform grey winter colours and we were very excited when a few got closer to the hide, probing the banks for worms. These large, graceful waders were very distinctive when flying, with their bold white wing bar, large white area of rump and tail-base and black terminal tail-band that gave them their name.
We’d never seen so many Curlews before. It was usually heard before seen. The bubbling, rippling call with rich whistling ‘corlee corlee corlee’ pierced through the reserve These were delivered in an undulating display flight which was a sight to behold. Curlews were Europe’s largest waders with long, decurved bill and speckled brown plumage. They were feeding on the damp soil by inserting their distinctive beaks to extract invertebrates.
At the far end of the tack field by the pond, a pair of Bewick’s Swans flew in to join another group. But they weren’t welcome and a huge fight resulted with plenty of honkings. There was a lot of wing flapping and wing-beats. These aggressive encounters were common in wintering flocks to determine the establishment of a dominance hierarchy. We watched one lunged at the other and the two birds, male I presumed, grappled together, pecking at the base of the neck and flapping each other with their wings. It only stopped when one of them retreated.
We could have stayed here the whole day but our tummies were rumbling and it was bitterly cold in the hide. We decided to head back to the car for something to warm our cockles. We checked out the Willow Hide to see if anything was about. A few Chaffinches and Goldfinches were feeding on the bird-feeder and below it was a Moorhen picking up any seeds that fallen down. Suddenly, the not very secretive Water Rail was seen at the edge of the reed-bed, stalking closer and closer towards the hide. It was an attractive bird with the long, red bill, impressively barred flanks and an actively jerking tail. When it spotted us, it fluttered off into the reeds, with its legs trailing behind.
On the way out, we stopped at the tunnel before the fox fence to see if the vole was about. I noticed that there were now 2 different entrances by the bank. I put some tiny broken chocolate wafers by the entrance and waited patiently. And there it was, sniffing out and having a bite. Unfortunately, a few people walked past and it dashed back into the hole carrying the wafer with it. It was lovely to see this adorable guy again. We hoped he enjoyed his treat. We walked straight to the car and had something to eat and drink before coming back to see the rest of the reserve.
We headed straight for Wader Shore but most of the inhabitants were being anti-social and refused to stand still for a photograph. We left them alone and checked out the South Lake Hide. We were very surprised to see the place void of birds. I think this was because the water level was very high. We walked back through the Amphibian room and checked out a few amazing toads. They were colourful specimens from all over the world but don’t be fooled. Most of them were very poisonous.
The it was time for the swan feed. Rushy Hide was standing room only that we’d to join the crowd at the very warm and cosy Peng Observatory. The only downside was that you can’t get a good photograph because we were sitting behind glass walls. We could see the wildfowl started gathering and flying in. The warden gave a very good commentary of what was going on. He pushed a barrow full of seeds from one side of the lake to the other and the birds were all following after him. We’d a good laugh when a few of the Greylags started pecking on his legs when he wasn’t fast enough to distribute the food. Some were impatient too and started helping themselves straight into the barrow. More wildfowl were flying in as this was taking place.
We left as soon as the feed was over because it was getting darker and we could see the fog coming down. We don’t want to be caught in the M5 in the fog. But we still kept on driving through pockets of them. Thankfully, the Highway Agency was aware of this and lowered down the speed limit. Unfortunately, not many drivers adhered to them.
The wild duck startles like a sudden thought,
And heron slow as if it might be caught
The flopping crows on weary wings go by
And grey beard jackdaws noising as they fly.
The larks like thunder rise and suthy round,
Then drop and nestle in the stubble ground.
The weary rooks to distant woods are gone.
With lengths of tail the magpie winnows on
To neighbouring tree, and leaves the distant crow
While small birds nestle in the edge below.
~John Clare ‘Autumn birds’~
“These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake lose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come and the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture world. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy –this lovely world, these precious days.”
~E.B. White ~