Where did Spring go? Forget April showers … it was spring snow!!! It was the month for April showers but instead, we saw flurries of snow as the unseasonably chilly weather front swept in. Temperatures plummeted as Arctic plume blasted the country. The cold air pushed across as the temperatures plunged with overnight frosts. The incoming ‘big chill’ was linked to a system called Sudden Stratospheric Warming which brought high pressure, resulting in the chilly northerly air flow.
Just when the Cherry trees were about to flower and the Hawthorn in full bloom, Mother Nature played a joke by sending a dramatic temperature drop with yellow weather warnings for snow and ice. April was such a fickle month. She lured us with the promise of new growth and rebirth as the flowers emerged out of the hardened soil, Red-breasted Robins were singing, busy gardeners out and about, and then the weather took a definite turn for the worse, with very windy, very cold days and night-time temperatures hovering around zero. Brrrrr
In this sort of weather, we needed something warm in our bellies. HR and I went to Bar Fusion to try out their new menus. We’d been going here for lunch at least once a month and had always chosen the same food. For me, it was either the vegetarian udon noodles or the prawn dishes. We’d made several suggestions and was very pleased when they added new dishes to the menu. I was excited when I found out that they served Thalii which was a meal made up of a selection of various dishes
I chose the vegetable thali which comprised of tempura battered courgettes, sweet potato and chickpea curry, sweet sour tofu with rice and accompanied with Khobez bread and poppadum. It was a weird combination because Thali was supposed to be an authentic Indian meal. But I think they mixed it up to live up to the theme of the establishment, a fusion bar. It was delicious and so right up my street that I might end ordering this again and again.
Babe and I started the week with a trip to our favourite playground to check out how the inhabitants were faring in this unseasonable weather. For them, life goes on and in Spring, breeding was in their minds. From Baldwin Hide, a Canada Goose which Babe named Heidi was nesting at her usual place right under the window. A Greylag was nesting on the pontoon and a Coot was carrying sticks to build its nest. A Great Crested Grebe swam past while a Little Grebe was fishing near the banks.
We headed towards East Marsh Hide. Shovelers were feeding along the mud-banks but the highlight was a lone Black-tailed Godwit feeding near the reed-beds. This large, long-legged, long-billed majestic wader was in breeding plumage with its russet summer neck and breast. When it flew closer to the hide, the broad white bar on the wings was very visible.
We watched it probed the mud-banks and shallow pools for earthworms and aquatic insects. It should be flying back to Iceland to breed, and in an amazing act of fidelity and timing, it would pair up with its partner after over-wintering up to 600 miles apart!!!. We didn’t stay long as the weather began to turn and we didn’t want to get caught in another weather fiasco.
The unseasonable weather had played havoc with my immune system. It wasn’t cold enough to kill the germs and it was still warm for them to multiply. At work, one by one of my colleagues succumbed to the dreaded lurgy. One was coughing to the right and one was sniffling on the left. In the next room, there was a sneezing competition. And finally, it was my turn. Oh boy, it was the monster of all virus. I was flat out for a whole week. It was so bad that Babe who never caught anything from me got it too. Poor guy, he was suffering on top of what he was having. We were such a sorry pair
After a week in bed, I needed to get out and get some fresh air. It was the feast day of St. George, the Patron Saint of England. St. George’s name was invoked to his soldiers by Henry V in his speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and after the tremendous victory against all odds, St. George’s Day was elevated to become a feast day. It was also the anniversary of both the birth and death of William Shakespeare. In celebration of both England’s patron saint’s day and her greatest playwright, these were the stirring words written by Shakespeare and spoken by Henry V during the Battle of Agincourt.
“Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England and St. George’
I took the bus into town as I knew that there were some activities going on to celebrate the day in the city-centre. I headed straight to Broadgate Square and under the watchful eyes of Lady Godiva, the Coventry Morris dancers were just about to perform. Perfect timing. I’d seen this group a couple of times and had always enjoyed their performances.
The group was formed in 1933 and was a men’s Cotswold Morris and sword dance side. The dancing was very lively and was only accompanied by an accordion player. The dancers had bell-pads tied at their knees, which made a loud and cheery rhythm as they danced. The six dancers were either in two lines or in a circle facing each other waving their white handkerchiefs or banging short sticks against each other as they danced.
I left when it was the turn for the Punch and Judy show and headed to the Grade 1-listed medieval St John the Baptist Church. I sat down in this beautiful 14th century church to enjoy some medieval music recitals. As I listened, I glanced around in awe to the stained glass, carvings, altarpiece, Greenmen and grotesques that filled this building. I was itching to photograph them but I think it was not appropriate. Maybe, when it was opened for the Heritage days in September.
I left when the congregation stood up to sing some hymns and headed back to Broadgate. The Brandywine Bridge Medieval Musicians was vowing the crowd with their distinct style of ‘happy music’ and belting out songs and tunes from the 14 century. The trio had the crowd singing along to the songs which created such a lovely atmosphere. Then it was time for St George and his dragon final walkabout which was a disappointment. The procession was so pitiful that it dampened such an amazing afternoon.
To lift my spirits, we checked out Brandon Marsh again and I’m so glad we came. The reserve was alive, full of bird-songs and green renewal. Along Primrose bank, the Primroses were looking their best with their pale yellow flowers among rosette of wrinkled leaves. When I looked up, this adorable female Blackcap was checking me out.
This distinctive greyish warbler with its chestnut cap for the female and a black one for the male, was primarily a summer visitor bird from Germany and north-east Europe. Their delightful fluting songs had earned them the name ‘northern nightingale’. But not today. She was busy picking insects, such as caterpillars, flies and spiders from among the shrubs and trees.
We continued on walking which stopped abruptly when we spotted this Great tit tearing off the barks from the Bulrush reeds. Like the Blackcap, it was picking off the many invertebrates that lived in the barks. The flowers were catkins, which gradually turned brown, releasing downy seeds that got wafted away on the breeze.
On the path towards Baldwin Hide, the rare mining bees were beginning to nests. I wished the Trust would put signs up to prevent people from trampling on them. Babe continued into the hide while I was trying to photograph an elusive Chiffchaff. But, I got the resident Tree-creeper instead which was a bonus. This pair had been nesting on the dried reed-fence for some years now.
I watched this tiny bird with long, distinctively decurved bill and speckly brown plumage creeping spirally up the tree trunk. Mouse-like in appearance and movement, it used its lengthy stiff graduated tail as support. It had a high-pitched call as it climbed in a steady spiral before flying down to the base of an adjacent branch and starting again. After its bill was full of insect food and seeds extracted from the crevices of tree bark, it flew to the wall and quickly disappeared behind it.
They live another planet’s life,
Their world a maze of creviced wood ,
And flakes of bark and spider’s webs.
They seek the scent of insect’s paths.
And up they spiral, ever up –
Their probing, prizing spikes of beaks
Are thrust into the rotten reek –
They never reach the canopy.
We headed to East Marsh Hide which was very quiet and walked straight to Ted Jury Hide. A Kestrel was on the oak tree at the far end of the reserve. I didn’t stay long because the paint fumes was still too overpowering. Outside, the onomatopoeic calls of the Chiffchaff lured me to its presence.
The reserve was dripping with these summer visitors with their monotonous and regular repetitions of two notes ‘chiff-chaff’. In between singing, this dowdy plumage bird was foraging for insects, such as midges and other flies, and caterpillars and moths in the tree canopies and undersides of leaves where the aphids congregate.
The weather began to turn as we were walking out. We quickly dashed into Baldwin Hides just in time before the heavens opened. We saw the air alive with hirundines as they zoomed about in the rain. Above the water, Sand-martins and Swallows hawked after the stunned insects. Enjoying their aerobatics, I marvelled at their ability to fly all the way to Africa, across the Sahara, during winter.
‘Sister, my sister, O fleet, sweet Swallow
Thy way is long to the sun and the south’
One Swallow famously don’t make a summer, but the sightings of the Sand-martins meant spring was well and truly on the way. One of the first migrants to make it back from Africa, they made a beeline for lakes and reservoirs to feast on the first gnats and flies of the year. The return of these gregarious birds meant that the migration had started.
As I watched them wheeling and criss-crossing each other in flight, it looked like a collision was inevitable. But they were masters of their flight. The air was alive with their constant twitterings. I was delighted when they decided to have a rest along the fence on the pontoon. Swallows were easily recognised by their slender bodies, long pointed wings and forked tail. Sand-martins tended to have much less deeply forked tail with a distinctive dark band across the chest. After a short rest and the rain had stopped, they were off flying again with their forked tails helping their manoeuverability in pursuing aerial insects. It was also time for us to head home.
‘Make nuanced, meticulous flips
above the shallows
on whose shimmer reflection of willows
sprawl from the ait
I was hyperventilating when I found out from Twitter that Monty and Sedge, the Common Cranes from Slimbridge, had produced an egg in front of Rushy Hide. Whoop…whoop. I took Friday off for a long Spring bank holiday weekend when we made the journey to Slimbridge. The parking was quite full. The word was out and all the photographers and twitchers from all over the country were here. But first, we were greeted by this adorable Moorhen chick waiting to be fed from under the boardwalk.
Then we made our way to Rushy Hide. Cameras were all lined up from the window ledge towards the nest which was about 50 metres away. We managed to squeeze in and staked our place. Sedge was standing on the platform nest which looked like a pile of sticks. She was redecorating the nest with its precious egg in the middle of it. Monty was nearby on guard duty and he kept on ducking down as he was being bombed by the Black-headed gulls that was nesting at the opposite end of the island.
When they spotted another pair of Great Cranes flying above them, they stood tall and threw their heads back with beaks pointing upwards and trumpeted unison-calls which indicated either fear or aggression to drive away these intruders. The unison calls meant ‘Stay away! This piece of marsh property is ours’. Well-coordinated, frequent Unison-calling signalled that the pair had properly bonded.
When they felt safe, Sedge laid down slowly on to her nest to incubate her egg. The clutch of the Common Crane usually contained two eggs so here’s hoping for another one soon. If a clutch was lost early in incubation, they might lay another one within a couple of weeks. The incubation period was around 30 days and was done primarily by the female but occasionally by both sexes. I’m keeping my eye on the Slimbridge Twitter feed for any updates.
We thought they were gulls at first,
while they were distant-
The two cranes flying out of a natural morning,
They circled twice about our house and sank,
Their long legs drooping, down over the wood.
We saw their wings flash white,
Frayed at the black tip,
And heard their harsh cry, like a rusty screw.
Down in the next field, shy and angular,
They darted their long necks in the grass for fish.
They would not have us close, but shambled coyly,
Ridiculous, caught on the ground. Yet our fields
Under their feet became a fen: the sky
That was blue July became watery November,
And echoing with the cries of foreign birds.
~Anne Barbara Ridle~
The Great Cranes weren’t the only one nesting here. As I mentioned above, a pair of Black-headed Gulls were nesting at the opposite end of the Crane’s and they weren’t happy at all and they showed it. These noisy, quarrelsome birds nest was a shallow scrape lined with pieces of vegetation.Their harsh and scolding calls were very dominant.
Last year, the island was also a breeding site for the Avocets. Since it was taken over by the Cranes, they’d had nested at the back on the bare, low mud banks and also on the nearby short grass. The nest, built by both sexes, was a shallow scrape and was composed of short pieces of stems, roots, and leaves of marsh vegetation. When one pair was sitting on eggs, the other pair was busy feeding on the shallow waters, sweeping the long, upcurved bill from side to side.
The elegant Avocet
Tows a line of silk
Holds her pose like a ballerina,
One foot trailing in the blue mist
Of the estuary
In the middle of the main island, among the sparse vegetation, the unmistaken orange-red bill of the Oyster-catcher could be seen. The nest was also a scrape on the ground, well-hidden among the grasses. Both sexes shared the duty of incubation, which took place 24-27 days. The partner who was not on duty flew quite close to where we were standing and had a jolly good time splashing in the water.
A family of Greylags with 5 fluffy goslings were out and about, enjoying the weather. While we were busy checking them out, a photographer rushed in to ask if anyone had seen the Glossy Ibis. He’d seen it flying towards the Rushy. That woke everyone up and then Babe spotted it flying in. Unfortunately, the Black-headed gulls spotted it too and chased it off. Spoilsport!!!
After all that excitement and Sedge still asleep on her nest while Monty was wandering at the further end of the pool, we made our way to Martin Smith Hide. On the tack piece, the Shelducks were in a very bad mood. It was the height of the breeding session and they were being territorial and quarrelsome. Their aggressive behaviour was not only towards each other but also to the Tufted ducks, Moorhens and Gulls.
Then another pair of Great Cranes flew in and landed ungracefully in front of the hide. We watched it performed a ritualized display walk with the bill slowly bobbing up and down in time with exaggerated steps. They strutted elegantly towards the hide and jumped across the fence. Then they started foraging in the reed-beds.
We were distracted when the Glossy Ibis made an appearance again. I was hoping that it might land here but unfortunately the Black headed gulls and Crows spotted it and chased it away. It flew towards the Rushy but we could see the gulls flying after it again. I really felt sorry for this wader. It was circling around the reserve trying to find a quiet place to feed.
We nipped to Willow Hide and saw the ugliest but adorable fluffy Moorhen chicks being fed near the bird-feeder. On the feeders, Sparrows, Chaffinches and Blue tits were taking turns to feed. Dunnocks, Wrens and Robins were skulking in the undergrowth. We walked back into the reserve and walked through the duck decoy boardwalk and saw this Jackdaw gathering nesting materials. We pretended not to look and from the corner of our eyes, saw it flying into a hole in a nearby pollarded tree.
Then we headed back to Rushy Hide. It was still buzzing. We noticed that all the photographers were squashed into a corner. Hmm…I followed their trained cameras and it was zoomed on to the Glossy Ibis feeding quietly in the shady and shallow part of the pool. Woo..hooo. Finally, it managed to land and feed.
When it caught the sunlight, the metallic iridescent sheen on its wings was clearly visible. It was wading in the muddy pool probing for food with its sickle-shaped bills. Unfortunately, the Black headed gulls spotted it and off it flew again, looking oddly prehistoric in flight with its long neck and legs.
While everyone was packing away their stuff, there was a commotion near the Cranes. Another Great Crane had flew in and landed on the nest. A huge fight ensured with their own version of martial art, unleashing kung-fu skills to rival Bruce Lee as Sedge reared her head and wings and launched a perfect kick. It was quite dramatic with their 1.8 metre wings all spread out. Monty came flying in and both of them managed to chase the intruder away which happened to be Bluebell. Phew…
After all the excitement, we’d enough for one day and made our way back to the car. It had been a wonderful day seeing Monty and Sedge and their precious egg, the Avocets and Oyster-catchers. But seeing the Glossy Ibis was the cherry on the cake. We will be keeping an eye on the Cranes and will definitely come again as soon as we heard more news.
Our next adventure was another trip to Farmoor Reservoir. It was the usual spring weather, unsettled, showers, hail and heavy rain and when the sun was out, it was a bit warmer. The parking was quite full as there was a sailing competition on. We walked straight towards the causeway where we were greeted by chirpy Pied wagtails with their undulating flights and rapid twitterings. Great Crested Grebes with their striking and neck feathers were cruising along the bank. But the highlight was the sighting of my first Common Tern of the year.
It was whizzing so close to where I was standing that I could see the bright red bill with black tip. These delightful silvery-grey and white streamlined birds had long tails that earned them the nickname ‘sea-swallow’. They had a buoyant, graceful flight and was frequently seen hovering over the reservoir before plunging down for a fish.
We walked past a dozen fishermen along the embankment fly fishing on lake 1. At the end of the causeway, Cowslips were dotted along the grassy embankment. Their scientific name, meant ‘the first little one of spring’. referring to its early flowering times and its colloquial name referred to a set of keys. This was probably based on the appearance of the inflorescence which resembled a medieval bunch of keys.
Shakespeare used some of his most evocative language to describe this plant. Ariel in The Tempest sang of laying in a cowslip’s bell, and from the scene in which Puck of the A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy who encountered him conjured up an image when she said that she was off to hang pearly dewdrops as earrings in the cowslips.
And I serve the fairy queen
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
In their gold coats spots you see.
Those be rubies, fairy favors.
In those freckles live their savors.
I must go seek some dewdrops here
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
We saw the sign for Pinkhill Meadow Hide and decided to check it out. Babe chatted to a couple who was after the Cuckoo. We could hear it cuckooing from deep in the woods. I also heard the very distinctive, rather explosive, loud and abrupt calls of a Cetti’s Warbler and started stalking it. I spotted this skulking bird diving for cover but it might be a Chiffchaff.
We walked through the dense marshy undergrowth along the Thames towpath towards the hide. Pinkhill was a set of ponds sandwiched between the Thames and Farmoor Reservoir and the reserve was developed in 1992 by Thames Water and the national Rivers Authority. We enjoyed watching the interactions between a pair of nesting Mute Swans on the island and a pair of Canada Geese on the right side of the hide. They were trying their best to tolerate each other.
A pair of Reed Buntings flew in and I think they had a nest in the reeds about a few metres in front of the hide. From time to time, the male with his black cap, bib and white collar, flew up to the sallow bush like a sentinel and uttering a wheezy jingle of alarm notes. The female had a brown head, buff throat and buff-coloured lines above and below the eye.
After about an hour, we began to freeze. It was time to leave and as we walked towards the causeway, sleet began to fall. We scanned the reservoir and a Dunlin was seen whizzing past. We followed it but it quickly disappeared into the end of the reservoir. We headed back to the car and had an indoor picnic before we headed home.
“Long stormy spring-time, wet contentious April, winter chilling the lap of very May; but at length the season of summer does come.”
I ended the month with this beautiful photograph of my eldest nephew, Eriq, solemnising his marriage to the adorable Farrah. It was held at Farrah’s home in Malacca. In Malaysia, the celebrations were held at both sides. My family will be having another party welcoming Farrah to the clan in December. Insyallah, I will be there.
As two lives become one
May each day of your married life bloom with the warmth of your love
Wishing you joy all the happiness today & always
*RIP Prince (1958-2016) who died on the 21st of April.