February was the soul’s month, the month of whispered hopes where we turned our expectant faces towards the promises of the warmer months to come. But first, we welcomed the month with a yellow warning from the Met Office of 70 mph winds over Warwickshire. The icy conditions of January had made way for strong winds and heavy downpours. Then flurries of snow arrived as temperatures began to plunged. Still, no snowman as the white stuff refused to settle in Coventry.
But whatever the weather, we zipped up warm and ventured out. First on our list, was renewing our membership with the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust. We waited for a break in the weather to check out what the natives were up to and whether they still remembered us. We’d a lovely surprise when we saw this handsome fella sunbathing on Goose Island.
The male Goosander was striking with a clean white body, dark green head and a slender, serrated red bill. We looked around for the elegant grey-bodied female with rich, cinnamon head and a short, crest but she was nowhere to be seen. They were known as Merganser in North America and foraged by diving and swimming underwater, propelled by their feet, stroking with both feed in unison.
Nearby we watched a pair of Moorhen’s courting behaviour. Contrary to most birds, females competed for males, engaged in female-female fighting and initiated courtship. The heaviest female vie for the smallest male that meant female weight and male size were negatively correlated. Courtship behaviours included bowing and open-wing displays with harsh ‘ticket-ticket-ticket’ calls. The female solicited copulation by performing an arch-bow display.
We didn’t stay long because the weather had turned windy and we didn’t want to be caught out in the reserve. As we walked out, we saw this adorable Long-tailed tit waving us goodbye. Were it not for the long tail and the puffed-out plumage, this diminutive bird could claim from the Goldcrest the distinction of being Britain’s smallest bird. Then it flew off to join its family party roaming happily through the woods.
This month too we began checking out a field near Coombe Abbey in Brinklow for hares. One of Brandon regulars, Greenman, had given us a vague description of the place. We parked our car by a farmer’s gate and scanned the huge fields. Babe spotted 3 brown hares feeding on the grass but they were too far away to photograph. We were hoping to see some courtship ritual taking place but they just kept on nibbling on the young shoots. We walked along the road hoping to get closer but the hedges were in the way. Loud calls from this Great Spotted Woodpecker kept us company.
I was also looking for sightings of Waxwings around Coventry. There were sightings all over the UK but not here. Waxwings were small startling-sized birds with prominent cress and colourful markings. They only flew here from Siberia and northern Scandinavia when they experienced a harsh winter or if there was food shortage. So many had been spotted that the RSPB described the month as a ‘Waxwing Winter’.
They were traditionally said to herald the onset of icy weather, so the arrival of unusually high numbers suggested a cold spell ahead. They had appeared all along the east coast of Scotland and England, and had been moving steadily south and west in search of food. Their arrival had been classed as an ‘irruption’ to signify a large-scale arrival of a bird not normally found here.
These plump, shaggy-crested birds, named because their red wing markings resembled wax seals, fed on berries. They had a distinctive appearance, with a mix of soft pinks and buffs, and splashes of bright yellow and red, topped off with a black ‘robber’s mask’ and a punk-like crest. Each bird was capable of devouring 390 berries, roughly their own weight, in two and half hours.
Irruptions, or ‘invasions’ were prompted by failures of berry trees in Scandinavia. Typically, Waxwings arrived in eastern Britain, stripped trees and bushes such as rowan, hawthorn and elder of their berries, then moved on in search of more berries. On the continent, these mysterious irruptions used to prompt superstition and fear. They were named ‘plague birds’ because their visits were said to coincide with epidemics. Here, large numbers had traditionally been linked to a cold, hard winter.
Although Coventry and Warwickshire didn’t experience any cold, hard winter, there were plenty of sightings of these enigmatic birds. I kept an eye on Twitter for local sightings and we checked out the location as soon as it saw it. The first place we went was at the village of Wolson near Rugby. Unfortunately, when we arrived about 2 hours later, they’d already stripped the berries in the area. But, they did return back in the evening.
The 2nd time was at our local haunt. I was at work and asked Babe to get me during my lunch break and we drove straight to Brandon Marsh. Again, we missed them. To overcome my frustration, we treated ourselves to hot chocolate and sat by the window of the cafe. A handsome Nuthatch entertained us with his feeding antics while I drowned my sorrows.
In the nearby bushes, flocks of streaky-brown Reed Buntings were flying in and out to feed. The males had black heads and black throats, with a white collar and white moustache. They were some of the most ’adulterous’ birds on record. Over half the chicks in a nest might not been fathered by the female’s mate!!! After finishing our delicious drink, Babe drove me back to work.
On the weekend, there was another sighting again at Brandon. It was now or never. As soon as we drove through the gate, I kept my eyes peeled on the trees that lined the road. And there they were, flying in and out of the bushes. We immediately parked the car and Babe went out with camera blazing. I stayed in the car grinning like a Cheshire cat. All you could hear were our cameras rattling away. They were busy stripping the last of the elder berries and wasn’t at all concern about the cameras.
When I looked behind our car, there were at least a dozen cars parked behind us. Everyone was out with their cameras and binoculars. What a treat. It was like Xmas all over again. I think we were there for nearly an hour photographing about half a dozen of the most long-awaited birds. After feeding, they perched regally on top of the trees looking down at their loyal subjects. It was simply fabulous.
I was quite reluctant to leave but we’d our fill and must let others to have a chance. It was quite misty in the reserve. More than a dozen Cormorants were basking on the main island outside Baldwin Hide. They were large and conspicuous water-birds with an almost primitive appearance with their long necks making them almost reptilian. A pair swam towards the hide. There was a hint of dinosaur about the cormorants with wing feathers like scales, startling emerald eyes, agitated head movements, and the confident demeanour of a consummate predator.
Then we trooped over to East Marsh Hide. The lone drake Goosander was low in the water, bobbing away on small waves. I do hope that this spectacular, shy, tree-hole nesting duck finds a partner to keep him company. Suddenly, with an arch of his long neck, he dived and was gone. A Buzzard flew in and landed on a branch on the opposite bank and kept us company.
Buzzards used 3 main hunting techniques. They might locate prey from a perch and then flew directly to it. They soared over open terrain, hanging in the wind before dropping on to the prey and continued the attack on the ground. Alternatively, like this handsome bird, walked and stood on the ground looking for invertebrates. Then he flew back to the perch and started the same procedure. I think this must be its hunting perch which would be defended from other birds.
We didn’t stay long because we wanted to check out our new playground for the hares. We parked the car at the usual place and scanned the fields. Unfortunately, the mist was coming down and we couldn’t see anything. Nearby, Babe spotted a pair of Red-legged partridge feeding among the stumps of the sugar beets. Although visibility was very bad, we could see the distinctive barred flanks, red legs and rufous chest. These handsome birds were sometimes known as the French partridge as they were introduced to Britain from the French.
February was also the month for love. The poet Chaucer in the middle ages was the first person to link St Valentine with romantic love. This was the beginning of the tradition of courtly love, a ritual of expressing love and admiration, usually in secret. Now, Valentine’s Day was associated with romantic love, and a marketing dream where millions of soppy cards were exchanged. Gifts of flowers, especially red roses, were sent with romantic messages and couples spent special time together over very expensive candle-lit dinners. Don’t forget the chocolates, teddy bears, perfumes and jewellery. It must be hard on someone who was still single.
I took the day off to spend the day with Babe. After exchanging soppy cards and gifts, we made our way to our favourite place to spend the days with our favourite birds. The cafe had a special Valentine meal on and I dared not check on how much it was going to cost. But it was popular because it was fully booked. At first we’d the Baldwin Hide to ourselves and watched a heron fishing.
Then, it began to fill up and was a bit noisy that none of the waders swam closer to the hide. We just sat at our favourite corner and scanned the surroundings. The Buzzard was back at its perch and hunting on the ground. A solitary Muntjac feeding contently on the opposite bank, before disappearing back into the undergrowth.
After about an hour, everyone began to leave and the hide was quiet again. The Great Crested Grebe, Tufted ducks, Golden eye, Cormorants, Goosander and Pochards started swimming closer to the hide. A lightning flash of azure and a shrill call from the Kingfisher zoomed past before it disappeared into the undergrowth. All you could hear were our cameras rattling away. We just don’t know where to point because so many things happened at once.
The piece de resistance was when a Little Egret flew in and landed on Goose Island. We held our breadth and watched it feeding. It fed by walking through the water, stabbing left and right for small fishes, frogs and aquatic insects. Sometimes, it ran and agitated the shallow water with its feet to disturb the prey. It was highly dependant on visual cues when hunting and its feeding was highly affected if the water wasn’t clear.
The Little Egret stood out well with its pure white plumage, elongated, sinuous long neck, attractive plumes on crest, back and chest. The legs and bill were dark but the feet was bright yellow. They were usually solitary except when roosting in trees or flying to roost. They were also known as the Lesser Egret.
Trust not too much in whiteness as a symbol
for who can tell when foulness frames the bridal gown
or when smirched mind hides behind laundered wimple?
As for th' untrammelled snows, so beautiful,
likely they're scheming how they might remove your toes,
perhaps even peck off your precious nose.
Consider now the Egret how pure and innocent she seems,
dropping on angel wings from a heavenly sky
to stab to death every last thing that moves beneath her bright eye
~Wayland Wordsmith ‘Consider now the Egret’~
On the way back to the car, we took a different route through the forest. keeping our eyes on the fallen wood. And there it was flushing in clusters on the moss-covered tree trunks. These crimson, red goblet shaped fungi was the Scarlet Elf Cup which were fairly common in humus, rich damp deciduous wood. It was one of a handful of mushroom to be found during the coldest time of the year.
It was also time to check Ashlawn Cutting to see if the boys were back. The Conservation work parties had done so much for this nature reserve. The zig-zag path down to the reserve had been improved and the place had been tidied of shrubs and brambles with hedging along the way. Unfortunately, this place was littered with dogs poo that we’d to keep our eyes peeled on the ground to avoid stepping on them. Grr…..
Along the way, clumps of snowdrops popped under the tangled brambles. One of their country names was ‘Fair Maids of February’ and they were also known as ‘Candlemas Bells.’ They were out in time for Imbolc and for Candlemas. Imbolc was the Celtic pagan cross-quarter day, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Seeing these little white flowers, heralded the approach of spring, bringing hope to the heart and consolation at the end of a cold, grey winter.
We continued on down the steep sided disused railway cutting with its very, wet and muddy path. The reserve was awashed with bird songs from Goldfinches, Robins, Blackbirds, Great, Blue and Long-tailed tits. Under Ashlawn bridge, we found only one clump of frog spawn. We searched high and low for the boys but no body was home, We met a few of the volunteers and had a nice long chat. We hoped to come here every week to see the boys again.
February ended with a visit from Storm Doris that moved across the UK bringing gusts of up to 94 mph accompanied by heavy snowfall across Scotland. The Met Office issued yellow and amber warnings for wind, snow and rain. Overnight and into the morning, the Storm underwent explosive cyclogenesis labelling it a weather bomb.
We checked out our favourite playground after the storm was over. We heard that the storm had caused a number of issues with several trees coming down in the gale. One in particular, was our favourite tree at Carlton Hide. It was an ancient Field Maple, reputedly to be one of the oldest in Warwickshire. Half of the tree had split and collapsed. The conservation team had done a good job of clearing the path.
We also stopped at Baldwin Hide to check on our feathered friends. They didn’t seemed too bothered with what was happening after the storm was over. The Pochard, Tufted ducks, Cormorant and the Golden Eye swam quite close to the hide. Againl, a lightning flash of azure whizzed past us before it disappeared into the undergrowth. Earlier this week, Babe managed to photograph it perched on its favourite stump.
On Goose island, a Great Crested Grebe was surveying the area for potential nesting site. I hoped it wouldn’t choose the island because it was in a very vulnerable location. Usually, the nest was either a hidden mound of reeds and other vegetation or a floating platform anchored to vegetation. Compared with other waders, they were limited in their choice of nesting sites, largely because of their physical specialisation as a highly efficient diver.
On land, it lost its grandeur, walking clumsy because its feet were placed so far back on its body. The feet was very poorly adapted for walking on land. It waddled with great difficulty and seemed to drag itself around on its belly. This was because for maximum efficiency and thrust in the water, the legs and feet were positioned as far back on its body as could be. After about 15 minutes, it made its way into the water to join its partner.
We were hoping for a water ballet performance but not today. They were content to be swimming around the lake and if they were separated calls could be heard. For such elegant birds, they possessed the most inelegant repertoire of sounds ranging from guttural grunts, to loud squawks and honks like a goose, to rolling growling noises. Fingers-crossed, they will be able to find a favourable nesting site to start a family.
‘Grebes run on the lake
love has its playful moments
pleasure with winged feet’
~David De la Croes~
We then made a pit stop at East Marsh Hide. On the main island, Wigeons were having a snooze after a full day grazing on the grass banks. A pair of Oystercatcher flew in with their distinctive and shrill, piping ‘kleep, kleep calls. We watched them performing piping displays, running together side by side, calling loudly. Then the female adopted a stiff, stationary posture, bending forward with legs straight, neck drawn in, bill horizontal, and tail elevated. The male mount, briefly waving wings, calling and pecking at female’s head, then lowered himself onto tarsi. It only lasted a few seconds.
After that x-rated display, we left them and walked through the forest to cool down. We spotted more Scarlet Elf Cups along the way. We made a pit stop at Steely Hide but nobody was home. We spotted a Buzzard but it was too far away to photograph. Since everything was winding down for another cold night, we said bonne nuit to our feathered friends and made our way home.
And lastly came cold February, sitting
In an old wagon, for he could not ride,
~Edmund Spenser, ‘The Faerie Queen~