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.
~Norams Wesley Beooks ’Let everyday be Christmas’~
My Xmas holidays started on the 19th and I was to be back at work on the 4th of January 2016!!! Woo…hoo 16 days away from the desk. I ‘d a list of things I wanted to do but unfortunately the weather didn’t get the memo. It had been a very wild couple of days here in the Midlands but not as bad as Yorkshire. Down here, it rained and rained and rained somemore. Very, very wet, muddy and puddly.
Every morning, as soon as we got up, we checked the weather forecast first and then planned the day accordingly. Thankfully, most of the places we enjoyed going were nature reserves and country parks. Rain doesn’t stop play but we can’t venture far because we don’t want to be stranded due to flooding or icy roads. If we can’t go out, I was enjoying loafing around, chilling, reading and redoing the Xmas decorations. It was bliss…
I started my decorations quite late, about a week into December. But once I started, I seemed to have trouble knowing where to stop. I smothered the casa in tinsels, baubles, ribbons, candles, wreaths, buntings, knick-knacks etc. It looked like a bomb went off in a glitter factory. And the tree didn’t escaped either. I hung as much baubles and trinkets its poor branches could managed and then switched on the fairy lights. Every evening, it was switched on for an hour and it was lovely basking on the Xmassy glow.
“The Christmas tree is a symbol of love, not money. There’s a kind of glory to them when they’re all lit up that exceeds anything all the money in the world could buy.”
Our first outing for the holiday was a visit to our favourite playground, Brandon Marsh. It was a challenge trying to walk along the very muddy path and everywhere was a sea of slippery mud and greyness. Babe showed me the bank where the Primroses were flowering!!! Mother Nature was in a mess. We made a pit stop at the freezing Baldwin Hide. The island was nearly submerged and only the brave was there. A Shelduck was upending and head-dipping, foraging for aquatic invertebrates. A Golden Eye with its greenish-black head and bright oval white patch swam leisurely passed the hide.
Then we slowly made our way to East Marsh Hide. Flocks of Redpolls were flying in and out of the Alder trees but they were too high in the trees to photograph. Only their twitterings could be heard. We were lucky to arrive just in time before the heavens opened. Flocks of Greylags were huddling close together to shelter from the rain. The long staying Pintails were feeding by upending, dabbling and head-dipping. When they upending, the long tail was angled down. During winter, they fed mainly on seeds of aquatic plants with only 10% of the diet consisting of animal matter.
As soon as the rain stopped, a pair of Goosander suddenly emerged from the reeds. We observed them pursuing their prey underwater, propelling themselves only with their webbed feet. They dived from the surface after looking underwater with submerged head. Thanks to their sharply serrated bills, they had good grip on their slippery preys with the cutting edges. As the light began to fade, we reluctantly left. It was a beautiful and serene end to the windy, soggy day.
The next day, we then checked out Draycote Waters and made a pit stop at the village of Dunchurch overlooking the reservoir. Every year, a group pf pranksters dressed the statue of Lord John Scott a makeover and their efforts for 2015 had resulted in a giant Star wars Stormtrooper, standing proud in the centre of the village. It coincided with the release of the eagerly-awaited 7th film in the sci-fi franchise, The Force Awakens. Each Xmas, pranksters dressed up the statute in the dead of the night, a tradition which went back to the 1970s. Over the years, it had been transformed into Spiderman, Smurf, Teletubby, Pingu, an Olympian, The Queen, even Prince George and last year, a Minion.
It began to drizzle when we arrived at Draycote. It was quite windy and there were a few hardy sailors honing their craft in the water. The low sun glinted off the choppy ripples that the chilly breeze had whipped up. Brr… Thankfully, we wrapped up warm. I’m glad that the fishing season was over as hundreds of Coots, Little grebes, Great Crested Grebes and Gulls were bobbing very close to the shore. I was quite chuffed to see this Shag sunbathing on the pontoon.
Pied wagtails with their looping flight and descending glides were indulging in aerial flycatching, darting quickly after insects. Their repeated high-pitched ‘chissick’ were echoing around us. Meadow pipits with their tinkling songs were also busy chasing after the insects that lived among the rocks. They were so well camoflaged and quite invisible that we often missed them.
We also spotted quite a few Golden Eyes among the Tufted Ducks. This very lucky handsome male was surrounded by the females. The drake was black and white, with a shiny green head, oval white face patch between its bright yellow eye and bill. The females were mainly grey, with brown heads and yellow-tipped bills.
These dumpy ducks with their distinctive head shape dived for their food, hunting mostly aquatic invertebrates and fish. They often synchronized their dives with each other. When flying, they were dubbed the ‘whistler’ because of their distinctive whistling sounds of their wings in flight due to their rapiid wing-beats.
But the highlight of the day was when we spotted the piece de resistance, the Great Northern Diver. It was busy chasing off the Great Crested Grebes from the area because they tend to feed on the same food. This magnificent diver had various regional names which reflected its loud, wailing call. I found it hillarious that once it crossed the Atlantic to North America, it was known as the Common Loon!!! I think it should stay here permanently.
We sat on the defence wall and watched it fishing. This streamlined diving bird sat low in the water and dived for quite a long distance with consummate ease. These large waterbirds had long, slender bodies, moderately long necks and dagger-shaped bills with long but narrow wings. It was a challenge to photograph because we were facing the sun and soon it disappeared further into the middle of the lake.
We waited for a while to catch a glimpse of the sunset bathing the reservoir with its golden light. Despite December’s unseasonal warm weather, the Winter Solstice was truly upon us as the day became the shortest day of the year. It occured when the North Pole reached its furthermost tilt away from the Sun - 23.5 degrees. The day marked the lowest possible maximum elevation of the sun, resulting in the shortest day and longest night of the year.
However it doesn't yet mean that the lighter mornings will be coming in. Until the 31st December it was still be very dark in the mornings with the sun only rising at 8.06am. Sadly, January and February were often recorded as the UK’s coldest months, so we still have the chilliest days ahead of us.
Wild the weather, dark the sky,
The snow returns, the year is by;
Your fire for warmth, your lamp for light
To keep you safe this winter night.
~Blessing for a winter solstice~
My mother in law gave us some money as our Xmas presents. Thanks Mum. We used it to renew our membership with the Slimbridge Wetlands and Wildlife Trust and it was a good excuse to be reacquainted with this place again. The traffic was horrendous on the way down as more people were making their Xmas getaways to somewhere. I hoped they arrived at their destinations safely because we came across some crazy drivers.
Slimbridge was buzzing as there was a meet and greet with Father Xmas. We renewed our membership and I was a bit miffed not to be given a free book about birds. They were only given to those who paid by direct debit!!! I was conned. We went straight to Rushy Pen because the first winter female Greater Scaup was reported. We scanned the waters but didn’t see her. I guess she was hidden among the 140 Pochards, 250 Tufted ducks, Pintails and Shelducks.
We then checked the first hide overlooking the tack piece. It looked very busy. According to the sighting board, there were 5 Greenland White-Fronted Geese, 105 European White-Fronted Geese, 8 Ruff, 217 Black-tailed Godwit, 150 Curlews, 12 Redshanks with hundreds of Wigeon and Teals, Shoveler and Pintails. A few families of Bewick’s Swan were feeding adjacent to the hide.
We then walked towards the other hides and stopped to check if the vole was about. I think they must have abandoned the holes because they were covered with leaves. We checked Willow Hide and was very surprised to see that they had cleared a lot of the undergrowth where the Water-rail tend to feed and the logs where the rats made their home. But thankfully, a roving flock of the adorable Long-tailed tits brought a smile.
We moved on to Martin Smith hide. It was quite noisy as more visitors started coming in. There were some raptors hunting over the reserve because the Dunlins, Golden Plovers and Lapwing flocks were very jumpy and mobile. We looked up into the air when this happened but we couldn’t see any. According to the board, Peregrines, Buzzards and a Marsh Harrier were around.
A pair of Great Cranes flew in and caused the waders to be in the air again. In flight, their necks were extended and the legs trailed well beyond their tails. I loved watching them walking slowly in an elegant way as soon as they landed on the tack piece. Their slate-grey plumage, enhanced with bluish-black fairly long feathers that fell on the short tail, and ‘dance’ while they were moving. They spent sometime foraging on the tack piece, probing around with their bills for any edible organism, before flying off.
We then walked back into the reserve and straight to the Southern Discovery Hide. The waters had risen and flooded the banks resulting in the absence of waders. We took the opportunity to check out the various habitats again. We were pleasantly surprised to see that they had moved the no-entry signs from the gates and made the walk much more easier. At first we planned to check out the feeding session at about 4 pm. But changed our mind when the weather began to turn and we went home.
We chilled at home on Xmas eve. The weather was rubbish again. With a westerly airflow, and further wind and rain, the day got off to an unseasonable start. The mild weather was the result of warm Atlantic winds coming up from the Azores, thanks in part to a strong El Nino, a warm phase in the Pacific Ocean that tracked back and forth between South America and Australia. We walked to Sainsbury’s to pick a few bits and pieces. When we left the casa, it was sunny and 15 minutes into the walk we were pelted with hailstones. Ouch…ouch. We were soaked when we arrived at the supermarket. The place was buzzing with last minutes shoppers. We picked what we came for and arrived home just in time before the heavens opened again. We spent the day watching Storm Eve battering the North East and North West. What an awful Xmas they were having.
It was also a very "happy coincidence" that Christmas Eve had fallen on prophet Muhammad's (SAW) birthday. The Muslim celebration of the life of the Prophet, Eid Milad ul-Nabi, or more commonly known as Mawlid, had this year fallen on December 24. It was commemorated by Muslims during the month of Rabi' al-awwal, the third month of the Muslim calendar.
It was hillarious when I read somewhere that Muslims decided to celebrate the birth of the Prophet Mohammed on 24 December (Christmas Eve) in order to preempt Christmas. Duh…And here's a fun little thought: next year, the birthday of the Prophet (SAW) will fall even closer to ... the birth of Christ. But, whatever brought you closer to God, Christmas and Mawlid, may it be blessed.
“Christmas Eve was a night of song that wrapped itself about you like a shawl. But it warmed more than your body. It warmed your heart…filled it, too, with a melody that would last forever”
Dreams of a white Xmas were dashed by the unreasonably mild weather. Many parts of Britain enjoyed warm weather as temperatures continued to soar to 16C - 10C above average for this time of year. The Met Office said it was the fourth mildest start to December across the UK since 1960. Outside, it was raining cats and dogs with howling winds. It was the first time that we didn’t venture out for a Xmas stroll.
Indoors, the Xmas CD was blaring away while I busied myself in the kitchen. Usually we have a very late Xmas lunch (dinner?) around 8 pm but this year I was in the kitchen at 12 pm. We’d roast lamb with all the trimmings. There were platters of roast potatoes, crispy yorkshire puddings, roasted honeyed parsnips, steamed carrots and Brussel sprouts, onion rings, garlic mushrooms and onion stuffing. We piled our plates with lashings of onion gravy and washed them down with red grape juice. Yum—yum. Even though there was only two of us, the table was dressed up to the nines.
“The best of all gifts around Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family wrapped up in each other”
In view of the current weather patterns, a sunny Boxing Day was certainly something to write about. We’d our first significant spell of sunshine and it was lovely to be able to be outdoors. We checked out our favourite playground to see how the natives were doing. We were expecting to be only the one there but we were wrong. I guess after being cooped up indoors for days, everyone just want to be out and about in the fresh air. The rays from the sun was a bonus.
Along the very muddy paths, there were plenty of Robins singing their hearts out. There were more of them as the continental birds had arrived. Some followed us hoping for for some mealworms but unfortunately I’d forgotten to bring with me. Roving parties of Long Tailed Tits roamed through the winter woods, communicating with excited contact calls.
We stopped at Baldwin Hide. Nothing much expect for a large flock of Tufted ducks. These small, compact diving ducks with delicate crests trailing down the back of their heads had spectacular dives. They dived deeper than Pochards and ate more animal food, some being seived from bottom mud and some like molluscs, were picked off underwater vegetation.
We continued on towards East Marsh Hide trying to avoid the very slippery path. It was a miracle that this wasn’t flooded as the River Avon was flowing nearby. There were hundreds of Wigeon grazing on Wigeon bank and then dabbling at the water’s edge, whistling contentedley. A pair of Shelducks were upending and dabbling whilst foraging in the shallow waters. The 2 male and a female Pintail were crusing around the islands.These long-necked and small headed ducks with long, narrow wings were nicknamed ‘greyhound of the air’ were among the first ducks to migrate south in the autumn and north in the spring.
A female Goosander too appeared from the reeds. She was hiding from the winds at the inlet between East Marsh Hide and Carlton Hide. I wonder where was the male? Asleep somewhere I guess. She was a streamlined duck that floated gracefully in the lake with her rich, cinnamon head and a short crest.
But the highlight was a pair of Golden Eyes mating, in winter!!! The weather was so mild that got Mother Nature confused. But then, winter was the season when many ducks picked their mate for the year. First, the male performed some serious head-throw-kick displays. The female then showed her interest by lowering her neck. just grazing the surface of the water. The mating session was quite intense as it looked like the male was trying to drown her
“Or sadly listen to the tuneless cry
Of fishing gull or clanging golden eye
After such a performance, it was time to leave the pair to their own devices and headed back to the car. But first, we checked out the alder trees by the visitor centre. Goldfinches were swinging acrobatically from the trees using their slender, tweezer like bills for extracting seeds from the cones. It was lovely listening to their delightful liquid twittering songs and calls. A pity, it was getting quite dark to get good photographs.
I also gave myself a treat by having a hair-cut in the new walk-in saloon in Tesco Arena Park. It took me half an hour to walk in the rain. An hour later with a much lighter head and £30 poorer, I took the opportunity to browse the sales. Thankfully, nothing caught my attention. The place was buzzing with sport fans as there was a premiership rugby fixture between Wasps and Saracens. A pity Wasps lost 16:26
“It’s good to have money and the things that money can buy, but it’s good, too, to check up once in a while and make sure that you haven’t lost the things that money can’t buy”
~George Horace Lorimer~
We also made a trip to Coombe Abbey to take advantage of the free parking during the Xmas season. If not, you have to pay £3.50 for the day. And we weren’t alone. The car park was nearly full when we arrived and we’d to park right at the end. We headed straight for the pond and scanned the waters. A pair of Egyptian geese was fast asleep admist the screeching gulls, quacking ducks and majestic Mute Swans. There was a freeding frenzy as visitors brought bread and seeds for them.
We continued our walk trying to dodge the dogs and children trying out their new shiny Xmas toys like bicycles, scooters and hoverboards. We noticed that a lot of work had been done along the footpath. I hoped they weren’t too overzealous with the clearing up because it was still winter and most animals were still hibernating. We saw hundreds of Tufted ducks, Wigeons, a few Great Crested Grebes and territorial Mute Swans. Herons were hunched by the banks, waiting to strike their victims.
The bird hide was very noisy and that kept the birds away. We sat opposite the heronry, one of the largest in Warwickshire. Only a few handful of Cormorants and Herons about. It was still too early to think of breeding. We left as the hide began to fill up. Outside, three Buzzards were circling above our heads, the wingtips noticeably upturned when soaring.
We headed back to the car and as we walked past the pond, noticed that the Egyptian geese were in the waters. I was thrilled when they swam closer to where I was standing, so close that I couldn’t take any photographs. Related to the Shelduck, their attraction was their apricot breast, white wing patch and the dark brown patches over their eyes that made them look as if they were wearing glasses.
These birds were introduced as ornamental wildfowl species for the lakes of country gentlemen and had escaped into the wild, successfully breeding in a feral state. They weren’t happy when I pointed my camera at them. The male gave me a hoarse hissing call whereas from the female a harsh, trumpeting quack. Thankfully, Babe was nearby and was snapping happily.
Our final adventure to end the year was to Bradgate Park. We were there quite early and yet the car-park was full. As soon as we drove in the rangers closed the gates. Even so, we couldn’t find any parking and drove out. The overflow car-park wasn’t opened because the grounds was too soggy and muddy. We drove to Hallgates and there were plenty of parking there.
As we were about to walk through the kising gates, a bird flew over our head and perched on the branches of the holly tree. It was a lone Fieldfare. We were quiye surprised to see it on its own because they were usually seen in large flocks. We watched it feeding on the berries, hopping fron one branch to another.
Fieldfares had grey heads and rumps and dark tails with chestnut back and wings. In flight, showed contrast between black tail, light grey rump and white lower wing coverts. Being large and bold and constantly noisy with their ‘chack chack chacking’ they were part of many winter country walks. The flight could be described as ‘noticeably loose and leisurely with bursts of wing beats alternating with brief glides on extended wings’.
After getting our fill, we made our journey into the park. Last year when we were here, Bradgate was a winter wonderland. What a difference to what was here today. It was like a spring day. We scanned the horizon for the natives but it was empty. There was so many people and dogs that the deer had disappeared deeper into the forest. We walked to the clearing near the visitor centre where a small herd of fallow deer were having siesta. Then we headed back to the car and made our way home.
As predicted, Galloway and our old haunting ground, Dumfries, borned the brunt of Storm Frank. River Nith had burst its bank. It always does when there was heavy rain but this time there was devastation across the town. People were evacuated , roads were flooded and impassable, homes and business flooded. Devastation in other parts of the country too like Yorkshire which had been battered by Storm Desmond earlier in the month. It was heartbreaking and there was more coming. My heart goes to all those affected.
Peace on earth will come to stay
When we live Christmas everyday
~Helen Steiner Rice~