The eleventh twelfth of weariness
~Ambrose Bierce (1842-c.1914)~
Last year, we’d hedgehogs feeding in the garden since October. But they were nowhere to be seen this year. I think the main reason was that a small clearing behind our cul-de-sac had being cleared. I was furious because a huge tree had been chopped down where the birds and bats roost and foxes prowled. At first, the plan was to build 10 houses!!!, but thankfully permission was denied. The last time I heard, the developer had submitted a new planning permission to build 4 houses instead. We have to wait and see.
I was in the garden one evening putting kitchen scraps into the compost bin when I heard a familiar snuffling and scuffling under the bird-feeder. It was a hedgehog vacuuming the seeds that had fallen on the ground. Whoop…whoop. I called Babe and rushed in to get mashed dog-food with dried mealworms for my adorable friend. After taking a few photographs, we left Mr. Pricky crunching his meal in peace.
At work, the dreaded lurgy was making its rounds. Although I’d my flu-jab done, I succumbed to the lurgy. I was sneezing my head off when I met CC for dinner at our favourite Noodle Bar. I ‘d my usual fried soba noodles with seafood and Chinese vegetables plus a little drizzle of the fiery chilli oil. I hoped to blow away the lurgy but unfortunately it didn’t work. I was up the night coughing with a temperature and very reluctantly, had to cancel attending a CIG workshop on MarcEdit and OpenRefine in Birmingham.
I thought I was hallucinating when I looked out the window and saw the back garden covered in SNOW!!! I’d to look twice to make sure I’m not dreaming. But it didn’t last long and it melted as soon as the sun came out. Boo… Arctic maritime airmass spread had marked a big change after the start of November was the second mildest on record. Sudden cold snap came in the wake of Storm Barney, when high winds caused travel chaos and severe damage to homes. A yellow ‘be aware’ weather warning was in place. This sudden change from mild weather to very cold conditions was known as an ‘Arctic plunge’ making it the coldest night of the season so far. The Midlands got off pretty lightly. It was certainly lively but not enough to be damaging although the side fence bit the dust again.
We made another trip to Brandon to see if any migrants had arrived during the storm. Unfortunately, only the usual culprits were about. The main island had nearly disappeared under the rising waters and only the brave ones were about. The gulls and the Lapwings were having a good time splashing in the water. Since there was nothing much to point our cameras at, we made our way to Carlton Hide.
As we walked, trees loomed out of the gloom; ghostly with their branches like witches fingers clawing into the murk. They were slowly turning bare, loosing their leaves and covering the very muddy footpath. The dying back of the trees revealed startling silhouettes in the skyline. There was also a quietness as the birds have gone leaving a stillness in the air.
Have you ever noticed a tree standing naked
against the sky,
How beautiful it is?
All its branches are outlined, and in its nakedness
There is a poem, there is a song.
Every leaf is gone and it is waiting for the spring.
When the spring comes, it again fills the tree with
The music of many leaves,
Which in due season fall and are blown away.
And this is the way of life.
~Jiddu Krishnamurti (1859-1986)~
Unfortunately we were late arriving and our favourite seat was taken. But, thankfully there were plenty of seats left. While waiting for the show to start, I photographed the reed beds, bathed in the golden glow. As usual. as soon as the Gulls began to leave the reserve, a small flock of Starlings appeared high in the sky, joined moments later by a second and a third... As these arrivals merged into a single entity, the sense of anticipation grew amongst us.
Before long, a steady flow of birds began streaming in and once more the sky above us was filled with a swirling mass of natural wonder. And this time, at least 3 Sparrowhwks were waiting, attacking them from different sides. The aerial display from this monolithic mass was incredible as they tried to escape from their attackers. It was a dramatic performance and I wasn’t sure whether the attackers was successful.
We’d heard the fens were dying seas
pinned into their beds by reeds;
the sedges crowded out our path
through the washed out winter marsh.
They came in ragged lines that fell
into the budding chirping swell
of bodies caught up in a flow
that stretched itself like kneaded dough
until the churning shoal was black
and hemmed within a living sack
that smashed itself across the dusk
but could not break the thread of trust
that held each bird beside another,
and pulled the molten flock together
until they turned and plunging down
were hooked into the weedy ground.
We both stood locked inside our coats
and in the dark we neither spoke
in case our clumsy blundering
upset the other’s new-found wings.
Then it was a slow walk back to the car. One of Brandon regulars stayed back because he was hoping to see if the Barn Owl or otters would make an appearance. I would love to wait too but I’ve got to go to work the next day. We made a pit stop at Teal pool to check the sunset which was beginning to disappear quick. It was stunning.
We also finally used the voucher that I’d won during a charity raffle ‘Lunch for Education of Syrian children’. We chose hand-battered fish, chips and mushy peas which was upgraded to the beer-battered cod fillets. All washed down with tall glasses of orange juice. While waiting for our meals to arrive, we spent the time watching people arriving and also the surroundings. The pub had been beautifully decorated in Christmas tinsels and baubles in November!!!
We ended November by making our final trip to Donna Nook for 2015. It was a miserable day although the sun was trying its very best to shine. There were also quite a lot of traffic on the road. We’d a wonderful surprise when we spotted a Short-eared Owl hunting along the A1031 near the village of Yarburgh. We parked safely by the road and Babe managed to rattle a few shots. I sat in the car watching this memorable sight at very close quarters.
Short-eared owls were largely nocturnal and crepuscular but still one of the most active British owls during daylight. They were specialists of open country, posessing streaked plumage that blended perfectly in the short vegetation. We watched it flew close to the ground with its characteristic floppy flight. It then flew so close to our car that I could see the perfectly circular face with its yellow eyes surrounded by broad black circles.
It was a joy to watch this bird in action quartering the fields. Gliding and turning so gracefully, the large pale wings steering the course. It was a hypnotic bird to watch and there was something so primal about it. Short-eared owls were often presented as birds of magic and this one had weaved its spell on me.
“In air it exemplifies the poetry of motion. Its opinion press softly on the resistant element and waft the bird gently about over its favorite moors as lightly as a night moth.”
~Edward Howe Forbush~
When we arrived at Donna Nook, the car-park at Stonebridge was already full. We joined the hundreds that were parking in the very muddy farmer’s field. After paying the £2 we queued to use the facilities before marching up to the sand-dunes and walked to the viewing path. It was going to be challenge because there were hundreds of people, all jostling for space.
Grey seals were born with shaggy white fur called laguno, which melted away after 2-4 weeks. When this happened, the white baby fur developed a dense waterproof pelt and began to have the markings of an adult. The males with an overall colour of dark grey, brown or black, with a lighter patch around the neck or flans while the females were lighter with a background colour of cream or grey, paler on the belly with dark blotches or spotting.
We noticed there were quite a lot older pups from the viewing path. The pupping season had peaked because these weaned pups were spreading out along the chestnut-paling fences looking so cute, adorable and very curious. They were very rotund and having an easy life of just resting, sleeping, rolling and living off their fat reserves. They remained here until they were driven by hunger and had to make their way to the sea to hunt for their first solid food.
We didn’t see any birth but there must be few earlier because there quite a few afterbirths laying around with pups still stained from the yellow amniotic fluid. Turnstones were having a feast with the afterbirths. Mums were encouraging the pups to feed by scratching their faces. Pups suckled for 3 weeks during which their weight tripled and gradually lost their pale coat. In the meantime, the mums loose half of their body fat during lactation as they don’t feed themselves.
Males (Bulls) were now turning very aggressive. It was the height of the mating/breeding season and the hormone levels had changed. Some of the pups were already weaned and the females were in season and ready to mate. There were fights to stake their territory and keep other males away. These fights were vicious and bloody. There were plenty of open mouth threatening displays, hisses and vocalisations.
When the cows were receptive, the bulls moved in, aiming to mate as many as possible. Copulation lasted for about 45 minutes. The male laid to one side of the cow with a flipper draped across her and sometimes held her neck with his teeth. It looked a bit brutal. There was evidence that the cows had a greater degree of choice in their partners. After mating, they dispersed and wandered off, separately.
We walked towards the information board to check out the statistics for the week. There were 650 bulls, 1542 cows and 1754 pups in the reserve. I think this might be the mximum number of pups for this year. We asked the warden about Ropeneck, a very well-known female seal that was found with a rope tightly around her neck. She always arrived at the same place on the same date every year. We said hello to her but she was soundly asleep, half-submerged with a fluffy baby by her side.
We walked back to the car, stopping along the way to rattle a few hundreds more shots. We’d lunch, eating Cornish pasties all washed down with mugs of steaming hot coffee from a thermos. Then as the sun went down over Donna Nook, we joined the crowd on their way home leaving the grey seals to bask in the last rays of sunshine. Goodbye my little ones, have a safe journey and insyallah, we will meet again in 2016.
Oh! hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, o'er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
Where billow meets billow, there soft be thy pillow;
Ah, weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas.
You mustn't swim till you're six weeks old,
Or your head will be sunk by your heels;
And summer gales and Killer Whales
Are bad for baby seals.
Are bad for baby seals, dear rat,
As bad as bad can be.
But splash and grow strong,
And you can't be wrong,
Child of the Open Sea!
In the garden, I was so happy to see the female Great Spotted Woodpecker again. She was always popping over hanging on the fat-ball feeder and tucking into the suet-balls. She was a very colourful bird with her black and white plumage, white shoulder patches and bright red patch under the tail. Unfortunately, she scared off the rest of the bird population. The house sparrows, tits, robins and dunnocks were peering over waiting for her to fly away so that they can come and feed.
“The month of November makes me feelthat life is passsing more quickly. In an effort to slow down, I try to fill the hours more meaningfully.”