The first of August was the ancient festival of ‘Lammas Tide’ which was traditionally the start of the harvest calendar. This was a time of giving thanks to Mother Nature for all her fruits and reaping what had been sown. But for Shakespeare-lovers, Lammas Eve was significant because it was the day of Juliet’s birth. She was one of the few Shakespearean characters whose age and date of birth was known.
On Lammas-Eve at night shall she be fourteen;
That shall she, marry; I remember it well.
‘Tis since the earthquake now eleven years;
And she was wean’d,—I never shall forget it,—
Of all the days of the year, upon that day:
For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
Sitting in the sun under the dove-house wall;
My lord and you were then at Mantua:—
Nay, I do bear a brain:—but, as I said,
When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!
Shake quoth the dove-house: ’twas no need, I trow,
To bid me trudge:
And since that time it is eleven years;
For then she could stand alone; nay, by the rood,
She could have run and waddled all about.
~Act 1 scene 3 of Romeo and Juliet~
[Flowers from our garden]
My colleagues and I celebrated the month of August with 2 send-offs for RC. First, we’d the obligatory lunch at one of our favourite pub, the Queen and Castle, which nestled on the outskirts of Kenilworth underneath the breath-taking views of Kenilworth Castle. We invited the repository team along and left the office at 12.15 pm for what I knew was going to be a very, long leisurely lunch. And I was right!!!
The pub was slowly filling up when we were shown to our familiar long table by our own hipster waiter. After perusing the menu, I chose the salt and Szechuan pepper squid with aioli for starters. It was really very flavoursome. For the main, I’d the home-made smoked haddock and horseradish fishcakes with poached egg, spinach and hollandaise sauce. Then, I realised that I’d picked the same food as when I was here for SH’s do about 2 years ago. Again, I’d creme brule for desserts. Not much choice as I don’t want any that contained gelatine or alcohol.
We’d to wait for quite a while for our desserts to arrive which was strange. The pub was very popular with diners and it was nearly full. We spent the time shouting at each other over the long table. There were 11 of us trying to talk at the same time but it was fun. I did ask the waiter to take a few photographs but he was so nervous handling the camera that all he got were our heads!!! Then it was time to waddle back to the office and I was surprised (not) to see the time. It was nearly 3 pm. Whoops…
A few days later, we invited everyone to our department to say their good-byes to RC. She didn’t want a big-do so we’d a small but intimate one in the office. Each of us contributed something and I brought my usual fried vegetarian spring rolls and as an extra-special treat, the Broken Glass Jello. Around 10 am, my colleagues gathered around RC’s table to present her with a bunch of flowers, an Amazon voucher and a card. We hang a Xmas bauble over her and I tied a helium balloon on her chair. Then, more colleagues from other departments started trickling in. Good-bye and good luck to a wonderful colleague. Please stay in touch.
After a week of good food, it was time to get out and get some fresh air. Babe and I went to Bempton Cliffs to say our goodbyes to the sea-birds which will be heading back to the North Sea. It was a nice, sunny morning with 22C when we left the casa. Along the route, the fields that were golden yellow with rapeseed flowers in early summer had turned into golden fields of grain swaying in the breeze. I loved watching the fields changing colours as the seasons rolled in.
When we arrived at Bempton, it felt quite strange. Something was missing??? Then we realised that the familiar smells, sounds and sight was very subdued. Seabird colonies during the breeding season were full-blown, multi sensual impression of movement, noise and smell but not today. We could still see a few seabirds shuttling to and fro but the noise and the smells was very mild.
But first, we said hello to the ubiquitous Tree Sparrows which were lounging and chirping happily around the bird-feeders and the hedges. The young had grown and was quite difficult to tell the difference with the adults. They were gossiping with their hard and piercing ‘tek’ calls and their chirpings were quite deafening at times.
We headed straight to the Grandstand view-point. Below, the Gannets were now in all different stages of growth. There were the fluffy white cotton wool balls, white powder puff, mottled older chicks, slate-plumed juveniles right through to chicks that were ready to leave. The last Gannet to fledge will be around mid-October and then all the Gannets will leave this seabird city at the end of October.
We watched a young Gannet chick being fed. It kept on pecking its parent’s beak and then the parent stretched its neck and regurgitated semi-digested fish that it had ingested earlier and fed directly into the chick’s mouth. At times, it looked like the chick had been swallowed. Older chicks received a whole fish. Unlike the chicks of other species, Gannet chicks don’t move about the nest or flap their wings for food and this reduced the likelihood of them falling down, a long way down.
Westward a gannet dived in a fire-white streak
Straight to the waters, and so was gone like a stone
Babe was delighted when his favourite doe-eyed Fulmars were still around. Gull-like but stockier with thicker head and necks, they were gliding on stiffly held wings with occasional wing-beats. The whiteness of bodies and relative thickness of their heads earned them the nickname ‘flying milk bottle’. The bills and tubenoses were notable characteristic that distinguished them from the other birds breeding here.
By the cove, we spotted the neat silver-grey and white Kittiwake chicks with their black-neck collars and dark zig-zag patterns on the upper wings. These young birds were always facing the cliff walls, keeping them safe on their precipitous nests. As they were always on the nests, there was no special parental food calls and the parents recognised the nests but not the chicks. We really missed the spring chorus of the distinctive ‘kitti-wayke’ from thousands of these birds echoing from the cliff face. After the breeding was over, they will fly out into the Atlantic where they spent the winter.
A pair of Linnet flew in with their undulating flight and twittered happily as they landed on a bare patch of ground. They fed on the ground, and low down in bushes, feeding on the seeds from the arable weeds. The male had an attractively marked crimson forehead and breast while the female was much browner. I’m glad to see them thriving here as they were listed by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as a priority species. Their decline was due to changes in farming practice.
We walked to Bartlett Nab viewpoint and were very surprised to see a lone Bridled Guillemot with a chick safely tucked under its wing and backed against the cliff. Often known as the ‘Penguins of the North’, they were one of the most numerous birds in this great ‘seabird city’ and it should be wintering southwards and seawards. Their neighbours, the Razorbills had already gone, spending their time out to sea, swimming in ‘rafts’ bobbing up and down the swell.
By New Roll-up viewpoint, we watched the juvenile Gannets in varying stages of plumage with their mix of dark and light markings on the wings, flying past in groups. But we didn’t stay long because we were literally covered by very tiny flying ants. They were everywhere. As we were about to walk off, a stunning butterfly flew in and landed on the thistle. It was, hang on, a Painted Lady, the butterfly that I was always looking forward to see.
The Painted Lady was an amazing butterfly that migrated in stages from Africa by laying eggs in different countries. The eggs then hatched, the caterpillar pupated into a butterfly and flew to the next country, where the process was repeated again and again until eventually they reached the UK, when they turned round and repeat the whole thing again in reverse. Amazing and only recently discovered too.
We then walked to the southernmost viewing platform, the Staple Newk, for a grandstand view down to Scale Nab, an outcrop of a huge colony of nesting Gannets. It was absolutely packed and again with the different stages of growth throughout their 12 weeks on the nest. We watched the parents hovered above the rocks before making a perfect landing on their square metre of real estate nesting. From time to time, their cackling calls could be heard. After the breeding season, they dispersed and fly southwards for the winter.
Then it was a long, slow walk back to the visitor centre. It was so warm and we were soaked as there was hardly any breeze. We made quite a few stop along the way for Babe to photograph the Gannets that were flying close while I was distracted by the fluttering butterflies. including this stunning Tortoiseshell.
We made a pit stop at the Grandstand view-point again, to say au-revoir to this amazing sea-bird colony. Then it was a slow track back to the visitor-centre and headed back to the car. We’d a picnic under the shade before making our way home with a promise to return again next year, Insya’allah.
After the long drive, the next day, we went for a long walk at RSPB Middletton Lakes to stretch our legs. We’d not been here for ages and was surprised to see that the entrance and the car-park had been tarmacked. When did that happen? After paying £2 entrance fee, we made our way into the reserve. The reed-beds were overgrown and had literally swamped the bird-feeder. We saw this handsome blue and green male migrant hawker patrolling, making staccato, ziggy zaggy flights around the plants, presumably attracted by the flying ants that lived under the leaves.
It was very dark as we walked along the path into the reserve. The forest seemed to experience a period of wild growth. Hardwoods aimed for the sky while others spread out, trying to take up as much room as possible. The woodland was fairly quiet with just the robins and chaffinches. We dropped a tub of mealworms for our feathered friends at Pooh Stick Bridge and later stopped at the viewpoint near the West Scrape. We’d a very nice surprise when we spotted the 6 Konick ponies munching their way around the wetlands. They had been moved from the Southern Meadow.
Then we walked on the seasonal trail along the Jubilee Wetlands South. A heron was stalking slowly through the reed-beds, hunching its long neck before striking with lightning speed. We spotted a Lapwing harassing an odd looking bird and realised that it was a Turnstone. What on earth was a coastal bird doing here? It was spending most of its time creeping and fluttering over the rocks, picking out food from under the stones.
We noticed at least a dozen Little Egrets flying in and out of the wetlands. It had been a very successful year for the reserve as they had been breeding here for the first time. There were 40 roosting in the heronry and this year 3 chicks had successfully fledged. Once a very rare visitor from the Mediterranean, they were now a common sight around the country as they expanded their range, possibly due to climate change.
We continued walking towards the East Scrape and crossed the new footbridge over the River Thames which joined the reserve with Dosthill Lakes. About 2 dozens Canada Geese were cooling in the river. When we looked down, we spotted the beautiful banded demoiselle damselflies mating on the aquatic plants. So named for the distinctive ‘fingerprint’ mark on the males’ wings, they were very territorial, performing fluttering display flights to win over females.
We wanted to continue on but we knew the further we walked, the longer it was going to be for us to walk back. We decided to come again and explore this part of the reserve properly. I noticed that there were a lot of flowering Buddleia bushes in the vicinity and they were smothered by butterflies in a feeding frenzy. I was pleased to see this Comma with its scalloped wing edges. It had been on a severe decline in the 20th century and thankfully made a comeback.
Then it was a slow walk back. We followed a new route, behind the Fisher’s Mill Reedbed which was much shorter and cooler. This walkway was part of the flood defence bund system through the Tame Valley. We were so well camouflaged that we flushed a few Green Woodpeckers that were feeding along the path. We made a pit stop near the Rookery when we spotted a vole feeding by the Langley Brook. Unfortunately, it was too dark to get a good photograph.
We carried on before stopping at Reedbed Pool where I heard the familiar high-pitched calls. I followed the calls, looked up at this huge tree and spotted a Tree Creeper foraging on the tree trunk. It was quite easy to spot as it moved up the trunk. It hopped to the next branch, starting at the bottom before climbing in a spiral fashion searching for small invertebrates. Then it flew off, deeper into the woodland.
By the car-park, we were entertained by the Swallows hunting for insects on the wing. Their slender, streamlined bodies and long pointed wings allowed great manoeuvring and endurance as they glided through the air. Their flight was fast and involved a rapid succession of turns and twists as they actively chase the fast moving preys and sometimes each other. Soon they will be gathering on the wires, waiting for the time to return to South Africa for the winter, a journey of 6K miles. Have a safe trip.
Later, during the week, we made another trip to Slimbridge WWT. It was a cloudy, breezy 20.5C mid-morning when we left the casa. As members, we intended to make full use of our membership and I think we’d already recoup the costs. It was only 1.5 hours drive away which made it a ‘cheapish’ day out. And today we were welcomed by a new Celebrity Dusty Duck Trail to celebrate the WWT’s 70th anniversary.
Dusty along with 14 giant celebrity designed models, were on an exciting adventure, exploring and trying new things around the reserve. The 6-foot-tall Dusty, were made with the assistance of the famous Aardman studio, and included Steve Backshall’s Explorer Dusty, Smarked Tiger Dusty of the CBBC’s Sam and Mark, Joanna Lumley’s Absolutely Fabulous Patsy Dusty, Chris Packham’s Ziggy Stardusty, and Kate Humble’s Camo Dusty. Visitors picked trail maps from the admission desk and ticked off these fantastic Dustys dotted around the stunning grounds amongst the real-life ducks.
We headed straight to Rushy Hide which was quite empty, both in the hide and on the pen. Apart from the Lapwings, a large flock of Black-tailed Godwits were busy feeding, probing the mud vigorously with their bills for invertebrates and aquatic plants. On land, they used their long and almost straight bill to probe into the soft, wet ground and picked prey items from the surface. We also spotted at least 2 Green Sandpipers but they feeding at the back of the pool.
We also checked the rest of the hides but they too, were empty. It was that time of year again when most of the waders were feeding on the mudflats. Thankfully, there were still butterflies feeding on the flowering Buddleias. A strikingly beautiful, red butterfly, the Peacock, named for the large blue and yellow ‘eyes’ on each upper-wing which were their primary means of defence. On the next flower stalk, a Large White female distinguished by the presence of 2 black spots and a black dash, on the forewing upper-side was also busy feeding.
“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”
We headed back into the grounds and spotted a few more Dusty Ducks. They were quite hard to miss being 6-foot tall and colourful but the children were enjoying hunting for them. We also walked past the very sorry looking moulting Eider ducks which were feeling quite vulnerable without their feathers. We also came across a leucistic Greylag feeding nearby.
The highlight of our walk was when we spotted these Magpie Goose chicks. Magpie geese were unmistakable with their black and white plumage and yellowish legs but their goslings were orange and brown in colour. They were natives of the coastal areas of Northern Australia and Savannah in Southern New Guinea. They differed from the other waterfowls as they had unwebbed long toes so that they could perch in trees.
We nipped into the Tropical House again. We only do this in summer when the cameras won’t steam up in the house. We didn’t stay long because it was very warm and moist and as more visitors came in, the humidity rose higher and higher. But it was still lovely to see the inhabitants such as the African Pygmy ducks, White-backed ducks, Lesser-whistling ducks, Black-winged stilts and some tropical birds too.
High from the earth I heard a bird;
He trod upon the trees
As he esteemed them trifles,
And then he spied a breeze,
And situated softly
Upon a pile of wind
Which in a perturbation
Nature had left behind.
A joyous-going fellow
I gathered from his talk,
Which both of benediction
And badinage partook,
Without apparent burden,
I learned, in leafy wood
He was the faithful father
Of a dependent brood;
And this untoward transport
His remedy for care,—
A contrast to our respites.
How different we are!
The last hide we visited was Hogarth overlooking the far end of South Lake. We stayed for nearly an hour here watching about 100 Black-tailed Godwits feeding and some came so close to the hide. They were so busy feeding, probing the mud vigorously with their bills for invertebrates and aquatic plant, often with their heads completely submerged.
More flew in to join the feeding frenzy. 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. They were sleek, elongated birds in flight, their long legs protruding well beyond the tail and counterbalancing their long necks and bills. During flight, a soft kik or kik-kik could be heard.
These Icelandic waders presence had been increasing in numbers probably due to the milder weather, a possible result of global warming. Another possible reason was that they were protected by law here unlike in southern Europe and in France where they more likely to be shot by hunters. But, in the 17th century, they were hunted here in the UK. According to Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682),
“[Godwits] were accounted the daintiest dish in England and I think, for the bigness, of the biggest price”.
We also saw a few Ruff and Sandpipers feeding at the further end of the lake. A pair of Common Cranes flew in from their feeding grounds to roost and that was a sign for us to pack up and call it a day. Along the way out, we walked past a few more Dusty Ducks. We’d a picnic in the car, before joining the queue of traffic, to leave the reserve.
The next day, we made our final trip to Draycote Meadows for the year but unfortunately, the meadow had been mown and the air was scented with the heavy sweet scent of new hay. So we decided to check the nearby footpath which was once the Rugby-Leamington railway line. The railway line was opened in March 1851 as a single track line to provide both passenger and quarried materials transport services. In 1959, the line was closed to passenger services, and finally closed to commercial services in 1985, after 134 years of service.
Since the line closed, vegetation had taken over. The trees and shrubs were naturally generated hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, ash and birch. In places, wild dog roses and blackberries pushed their way through the shrubbery.As we walked along the path that was constructed by Sustrans, we noticed a thriving ecosystem of mammals, birds and insects but it was just too dark under the trees to photograph anything.
Gatekeepers, sometimes called the hedge brown, were the dominant butterflies in the pasture, basking along the hedgerows and woodland rides. The males with scent glands striking visible on their wings, and being very aggressive when other flutterers approach their perch. They provided a welcome sight in the middle of summer, when the fresh adults emerged.
We didn’t walk far as we were distracted by the sound of a tractor on the hill opposite to where we were walking.The continuous, unexpected sunshine had ripened the crops in the fields and there was nothing more beautiful than a field of golden crops waving in the breeze. The farmers had been busy working to get the crops and hay gathered before the weather turn.
Heavy farm machines had been working earlier during the day, cutting and threshing with grain belching out from funnels into the wagons trundling behind them. Then, baling machines gathered up hay and straw into huge bales. We watched the tractor trundled up and down the field, collecting these great hay and stray bales and arranging them on the truck before moving off. The harvest was completed for another year. And it was also time for us to head home.
You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we walk in fields of gold
So she took her love
For to gaze awhile
Upon the fields of barley
In his arms she fell as her hair came down
Among the fields of gold
Will you stay with me, will you be my love
Among the fields of barley
We'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we lie in fields of gold
Sting ‘Fields of Gold’
At home, I enjoyed standing quietly in the garden and listening to the buzzing drone of the engine of fertility. The honey bees, bumble bees, hover flies and other insects were tumbling in and out of the flowers and pollinating them. Honey bees are the ‘glue that holds our agricultural system together’ as the journalist Hannah Nordhaus penned in her 2011 book ‘The Bee-keeper’s Lament’. But that glue was failing because bee hives were dying off or disappearing due to the unsolved malady known as colony collapse disorder (CCD).
How doth the little busy bee Improve each shining hour, And gather honey all the day From every opening flower!
How skilfully she builds her cell! How neat she spreads the wax! And labors hard to store it well With the sweet food she makes.
In works of labor or of skill, I would be busy too; For Satan finds some mischief still For idle hands to do.
As farms became monocultures of commodity crops like wheat and corn, which provided little pollen for foraging bees resulting in them literally starving to death. Then, there might not be enough honeybees to meet the pollination demands of these crops. We were losing these extraordinary creatures in huge numbers and if the decline continued unchecked, we faced an ecological disaster that we may never recover from. I made a deliberate effort to plant bee-friendly shrubs and perennials and it had been a huge rewarding success.
“In August, the large masses of berries, which, when in flower, had attracted many wild bees, gradually assumed their bright velvety crimson hue, and by their weight again bent down and broke their tender limbs.”
~Henry David Thoreau~