Even for those who observed its religious context, Easter had became a holiday with multiple meanings. In Christianity, it marked the resurrection of Jesus, but for others, including moi, it signified the beginning of spring. In early April, birds were chirping, flowers were staring to pop up from the ground and trees were getting green buds. The world was coming alive again after it felt like a long winter. These were all represented in the secular symbols of Easter: eggs, baby chicks, fertile rabbits and plenty of blossoms.
The earth laughs in flowers
It was heaven to be wandering around the campus grounds with the trees drooping with cherry blossoms. It was a sight to behold especially when in full riotous blooms. Clouds of these ornamental blossoms were at their absolute peak thanks to the combination of sunny days and cold nights. Eventually these white or pink, lacy blossoms fluttered down and carpeting the ground. Due to their very short flowering time, the blossoms were often seen as a metaphor for life itself, luminous and beautiful, yet fleeting and ephemeral. As the Japanese poet Otomo no Kuronushi wrote in the 9th century,
‘Every-one feels grief when cherry blossoms scatter’.
We welcomed April Fool’s day with another trip to Slimbridge WWT. It was 11.3C when we left the casa with sunshine and showers. It was also very windy driving through the pockets of rain. We were met by Dusty Duck, WWT’s latest children’s character, for the annual GIANT duck hunt in a week’s time. He will be helping children using their finely honed detective kills to track down elusive GIANT yellow ducks that were hidden high and low around the stunning grounds in return for a delicious chocolate treat. That should be fun.
We made a pit stop at Rushy Hide and it was empty except for the usual Canada Geese, Mute Swans, Tufted ducks, Mallards, Shelducks and Gulls. We headed to Martin Smith Hide and was delighted to see not one but three Little Egrets foraging. It was quite surprised to see them together because they were usually solitary except when roosting or flying to roost.
They came quite close to the hide that I could see their attractive white fluffy snowy plumes on crests, backs and chests, black legs and bills and yellow feet. The liveliest hunters among the herons, they fed chiefly by walking through the shallow water and snapping at prey, or by running and agitating the water with their feet to disturb prey such as small fishes, aquatic insects, amphibians and crustaceans.
Every time but one the little fish and the green
and spotted frogs know
the egret’s bamboo legs from the thin
and polished reeds at the edge
of the silky world of water.
~Mary Oliver ‘The Egret’
On the tack piece, we saw a pair of Common Cranes feeding. They fed on largely plant matter and insects, probing around with their bills. They started trumpeting when another pair flew across and bounded over to greet them. When running fast, they had a bouncing gait, and occasionally extended their wings and flapped them. Then another pair flew in and the same pattern was repeated. But when a singleton flew in to join them, one of the pair took a dislike and started chasing it away by running forward and flapping its wings. It was quite disturbing to watch but I am sure there must a reason behind it.
Common Cranes were aggressive birds. When fighting, they leapt into the air to rake opponents with their sharp claws or stabbed at an opponent with their bill. This continued until one bird ran or flew away, sometimes closely pursued by the victorious bird. Fighting was dangerous to both participants, so they used a complex system of threatening behaviours allowing rivals to avoid fighting. Communication included both physical postures and vocalizations. Ruffle, drop-wing, and crouch threats indicated low-, mid-, and high-intensity aggression levels respectively, so many aggressive encounters were often resolved before fighting became necessary.
Nesting pairs could be very aggressive and often displaced others that landed within their established territories. Most territorial defence was directed at sub-adults or adults that didn’t had established territories. Pairs defended their territories with displays that included unison calling and directed walk threats.
“Magic birds were dancing in the mystic marsh. The grass swayed with them, and the shallow waters, and the earth fluttered under them. The earth was dancing with the cranes, and the low sun, and the wind and the sky.”
~Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings~
We checked the rest of the hides but there was nothing going on. But a true sign of spring arriving was seeing the dancing flight of an Orange-tip butterfly. It was one of the first species seen that had not over-wintered as an adult. The male was unmistakeable. It was a white butterfly with half of the forewing a bold orange with light grey wingtips. It was flying along the hedgerows and woodland margins looking for a female, nectar sources or food-plants. I was delighted when it landed on a White-dead nettle.
As we walked through the boardwalk, we were serenaded by a Chiffchaff, singing its name out loud chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff. These two vibrant notes were among the most welcome sounds of spring. These birds were the first of all our warblers to dare the chilly winds after wintering in North Africa. The sound of his song was likened to two tiny taps of a hammer on an anvil. Monotonous it may be, but there was no doubt of the singing vigour as he sang from his heart.
After labour, rest I have
On the grounds, we spotted this Jackdaw with its beak full of feathers. It was walking around the path by Swan Lake picking up soft fluffy feathers of the Mute Swans, Bewick Swans, Canada Geese or even from the rare Nenes. It was spoilt for choice. Since they were colonial cavity nesters, imagine the holes in the trees lined with these. It would be so cosy for the eggs and later the chicks. I hoped he would collect some pink feathers from the Flamingos. That would make the Mrs proud!!!
We headed straight to the very busy South Lake Discovery Hide. The air was filled with cries from the the very vocal Black-headed gulls and piping Shelducks flying about. The elegant black and white Avocets with long, upturned bills and bluish legs were busy feeding. Their splendid bills were used to catch invertebrates by sideway sweeps, with the curved parts, slightly open, passing through mud or water.
The sudden sight of a newly-hatched brood of Mallard ducklings in the water melted my heart. I tried counting them. There must at least be a dozen of these downy, bright-eyed brood. The mother was a devoted parent, unlike her missing raffish mate, and was beating the water with her wings and quacking like mad to take them to safety. When the last young hatched, they left the nest at once, running, scampering and swimming like tiny clockwork toys. As soon as they crossed the lake, they quickly disappeared into the undergrowth.
In the middle of the lake, Black-tailed Godwits looked stunning in their russet summer plumage. They fed mainly on earthworms, which they found by probing the mudflats with their long bills. Something spooked them and off they were in the air. These large, graceful waders were very distinctive when flying, with their bold white wing bars, large white area of the rump and tail base and black terminal tail-band that gave them their name.
After they had settled down and returned back to feeding, we made our way to Hogarth Hide. The mudflats were littered with nesting Avocets. Some were still courting. These were highly social birds with impressive displays as males circle females, getting closer and closer. These was followed by a lot of dipping and shaking of the bills in the water. Pair-bonds were maintained only for the duration of breeding season.
Then it was time to walked back to the car. We stopped at the Swan Lake when we spotted this pair of loved-up mute swans. We thought the male was a bit young to be courting but I guess you can’t stop those raging testosterones, eh!!! But still, it was still lovely to see the courtship rituals, where they face each other, and with a ruffle of feathers and lifted wings, bowed gracefully.
“Oft have you seen a swan superbly frowning
And with proud breast his own white shadow crowning…
The next week we checked out Slimbridge again. This time because there were sightings of a Spoonbill and Cattle Egrets. We left at about 10 am on the hottest day of the year so far. It was 15C when we got in the car. When we arrived, the place was buzzing as words got out about these birds. It wasalso the start of the Easter duck hunt and everyone wanted to be out in the sunshine!!!
We took our usual route and headed straight to Rushy Hide walking past the Caribbean Flamingos looking stunning basking in the sun. At Rushy, the ground was littered with fluffy Greylags goslings. There were 6 of them under the watchful eyes of their very protective parents. Unlike many species of waterfowl, the male goose or gander stayed with the family group.
Black-headed Gulls had quietened down a bit as they were sitting on eggs. The nests were either scrapes in the ground or a pile of dead plant materials. They were the most quarrelsome and noisy birds with their raucous screams. We spotted a few pairs mating. Mating behaviour was complex with the head postures playing a crucial role.
A pair of of the usually noisy Oystercatchers were quiet as they enjoyed a siesta in the sunshine. Colourful Shelducks were upending in the shallow water, feeding on small invertebrates. At the further end of the pen, a dozen Avocets were either feeding or nesting. In clear water, they fed by sight by picking prey from the surface of water or mud. In poor visibility and when locating prey from within the sediments, they foraged by touch, sweeping the long, up-curved bill from side to side through water or loose sediments to locate hidden prey.
We only had a pit-stop at Martin Smith Hide because the tack-piece was quite empty. Most of the Shovelers, Teals and Wigeons were having a siesta. As we were leaving, we spotted this pair of loved –up pigeon outside the hide. They were busy billing where the female puts her beak inside the male’s beak. He was feeding her by regurgitating food. They then briefly preened the feathers on each others back or wings before returning to more billing. We left them to continue their courtship in private.
Then it was a long walk to Kingfisher hide. We were surprised to find the windows locked!!! We read a notice that the windows had been closed to reduce noise, movement and potential disturbance. This allowed the nesting pair to settle and gave them the best chance of success. According to the volunteer, the pair were very active with food passes, periods in the nest hole and lots of mating which suggested that they were laying their first clutch. We didn’t see anything and left because the hide was beginning to fill up.
Our final stop was at Hogarth Hide. Black-tailed Godwits in their stunning breeding colours were busy feeding in the shallow water. We saw Canada Geese, Greylags, Black-headed Gulls, Oyster- catchers and Lapwings sitting on eggs well-hidden among the grassy islands. Some of the Avocets were parading around, nest –building and sitting on eggs in the traditional sites at the end of the lagoon. Avocets nest together in colonies. The nest was a shallow hollow in the ground, lined with a few pebbles or pieces of shell.
A pair of Common Cranes were seen circling in the sky, with their out-stretched necks and long wings, and those characteristics black flight feathers. They then landed at the end of the lake. It was lovely watching these large and impressive water-birds with their long necks, beaks and legs parading about. The plumage was mainly slate grey, with black flight feathers, the innermost of which were greatly elongated, forming a drooping, bushy cloak over the tail, dancing as they walked.
The Common Cranes foraged during the day, probing with their beaks or picking food from both land and water. Their diet included a wide range of plant and animal matter. This pair looked like they were checking out the area. Were they searching for potential nesting sites??? We kept our fingers-crossed. Cranes made nests in open water, often in emergent vegetation. I hoped they find this site suitable. It was a lovely thought to end a lovely day.
On Good Friday, we checked out a new playground, Napton Reservoir. It was a deep water reservoir constructed in 1814 to feed the Warwick and Napton Canal system. The reservoir was renowned for its tench fishing and combined with the crucian carp, roach and specimen carp had created a very popular fishery. But you have to be a member of the Leamington Anglian Association.
We parked in a tiny car-park and walked up a bund-wall where the reservoir was located. Swallows with their long wings and long tail streamers were circling gracefully overhead. Their long tail feathers gave them exceptional manoeuvrability. They were feeding on the wing by catching insects in their large gapes.
A dozen fishermen were dotted along the reservoir minding their own business. We surveyed the area and spotted the usual collection of Mallards, Tufted ducks, Coots and Moorhens. We heard Green Woodpeckers loud laughing calls from the nearby woods with the occasional explosive songs from the Cetti warblers. More Swallows were swooping low over the waters to catch insects that were flitting about and snatching a quick drink as they skimmed across the surface of the water.
We walked along the canal path admiring the brightly-painted narrow- boats moored there. The canal was authorised by an Act of March 1794 as the Warwick & Braunston Canal. The line was later changed to join the Oxford Canal at Napton . Now it was part of the Grand Union Canal which ran 14 miles through 25 locks from Napton Junction to Budbrooke Junction.
Then we walked on the causeway that cuts the two reservoir. To our upmost delight, a Grey wagtail decided to join us and led the way. It was an energetic little bird and always on the move; frantically bobbing, ducking and dashing about. Despite its dull name, it was very colourful with a vivid lemon underneath that contrasted against the slate grey feathers above.
We headed towards a large reed-bed at the back of the reservoir. At least a dozen nesting Coots and Moorhens were littered along the bank, well-hidden by the reeds. A Little Grebe was whirring deep in the reed-beds. Great Crested Grebes were cruising close-by. A male Reed bunting was perched high on the reeds, voicing its simple 3-note territorial call. We headed back to the car when we felt the first rain-drop.
On Holy Saturday, we made our pilgrimage to Santa Pod Raceway for the Festival of Power. It was 9.5C, clear but chilly when we left the casa at 9.40 am. In the car, we brought our winter coats, gloves and woollen scarves, just in case the weather turned chilly. As soon as we reached the junction, we joined the very long queue. Aargh…We spent the whole day there among the Jet cars, top fuel dragsters, heavily modified muscle cars, superbikes and monster trucks with thousands of other people. Due to the sheer amount of photographs, it will have its own posting.
After the high octane, supercharged Saturday, we spent Easter Sunday with a gentle stroll at Brandon Marsh. We were greeted by a Blackbird nesting under the eaves of the visitor centre. The pair nested in the same nest last year and they had successfully bred 4 chicks. I wonder how many they will have this year.
We continued on and walked past Primrose bank which was stunning, carpeted with blooming Primroses . These pale-yellow flowers with a deep yellow centres were growing abundantly on these shady banks and under hedgerows tucked away from the sun. They were delicately-scented with a rosette of basal leaves that were heavily wrinkled and crinkly. It was lovely to be surrounded with these native British flowers.
Primroses epitomised spring and their name ‘prima rosa’ was derived from first rose of the year, primarole. In the language of flowers, they symbolised early youth, fears, a sense of being forsaken, inconstancy, innocence and lover’ doubt. These were why these fresh-faced flowers quickly became associated with young girls in their first flowering and Chaucer’s wife in The Miller’s Tale (circa 1380) was a primerole “blisful on to see”.
“And in the wood, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose-beds were won’t die…”
~Shakespeare ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream~
We checked out Baldwin Hide and it was wonderful having the hide to ourselves. Sand-martins were busy flying in and out of their nesting castle. Then a three-note ‘swee-wee-we’ call alerted us to the presence of a Common Sandpiper flying with its distinctive flight with stiff bowed wings to Willow Island. It habitually bobbed and down, known as teetering’ as it foraged for insects, worms and crustaceans.
This small, short-legged wader with a long, straight beak was relatively drab in colour. The head, upper breast and upperparts were greenish-brown with delicate dark streaking, contrasting with the white underparts and greenish-grey legs. It was so close that we could see the white eye-ring. Then it flew off with the striking white wingbar clearly visible.
A few minutes later, another wader flew in and it was a Redshank. Wow… this island was like an airport runaway. As its name suggested, the bright orange-red legs were its most distinctive feature. It was busy feeding on small invertebrates in the shallow water around the island. When it flew off, the white triangular wedge up the back and white triangle on the rear was clearly visible.
Then we walked to the next hide and sat at our favourite place. On the island, we saw an Oystercatcher sitting on nest, beautifully hidden under the shrubs with only its orange beak peeping out. Nearby, a tiny Little Ringed Plover was foraging for insects and worms along the gravel banks. The poor thing was being chased by the Lapwings from one island to another. When it flew off, it had only a very thin, pale wing bar with a ‘pee-u’ call.
A summer visitor, it was a small, rotund wading bird with a bright, yellow ring around the eye. It mainly wintered in North Africa. Unlike other waders, Little Ringed-Plover don’t form flocks, travelling singly or in a small group of a few birds. When they arrived, they could be noisy and obvious but on their own they were hard to locate and as they often stood motionless.
I heard the familiar trillings ‘weet-weet-weet’, which sounded like a horse whinnying. I quickly scanned the reed-beds, and skulking underneath it was my favourite wader, the Little Grebe or dabchick. It looked stunning in its breeding colours, predominantly dark above with its rich, rufous colour neck, cheeks and flanks, and bright yellow gape. Then it dived without any surface disturbance, a signal for us to go home.
We ended our Easter break with a nice long walk along Draycote Waters. The sighting of a Slavonian Grebe also tempted us there. As usual, the place was buzzing with visitors and also midges. Aargh… they were everywhere. We’d to have our hoods up and walking with our heads down to stop it getting into our eyes, nose and mouth. Quite a challenge when you’re trying to photograph something.
The surrounding countryside looked stunning with fields and fields of yellow flowering rapeseed. The British rolling countryside was steadily turning yellow as record number of farmers were cashing in on the soaring price of the oil from them.The vibrant colours were coming to dominate the green and pleasant land into a cheerful shade of yellow. The future was definitely bright
On the reservoir, we were distracted by this cormorant trying to swallow a huge fish. The fish was trashing away like crazy and the bird wasn’t letting go. After 5 minutes, the fish won. I don’t think the cormorant would be able to swallow it anyway. I bet the fishermen nearby who were envious of the catch were secretly please that the fish got away. Cormorants were the fishermen worst enemy.
As we walked along the bank, trying to dodge the midges, Pied wagtails were flying in front of us with their looping flight and descending glide. With so much food, it was lovely watching them indulged in aerial fly-catching , quickly darting after the insects. In flight, they uttered a high-pitched ‘chissick’ sound. Sprightly and skittish, they were constantly in motion, from their jerky walk to their constantly wagging tail.
We took a bit of respite from the clouds of midges and hid in the bird hide. Thousands were caught in the spider webs that were attached to the flaps. We heard plenty of grunting, growling and barking because a large numbers of Great Crested Grebes were gathering in the shallow water. Some were having a siesta and some were performing their elaborate courtship display, including the spectacular weed dance.
If the dance was successful, they formed a lasting bond. They then mated on land and began to build their nest platform made up of waterweed. The nest was either a hidden mound of weeds and vegetation or a floating platform anchored to vegetation. This area was full of wetland plants and reeds with overhanging trees making it quite safe from predators.
Then it was a slow walk back to the car. We decided to walk on the road which was below the reservoir to get away from the clouds of midges. But here, we have to be aware of the speeding cyclists and cars. We spotted more wagtails both of Pied and Grey ones. We didn’t see the Slavonian Grebe or the Wheatears which used to nest in the abandoned rabbit burrows.
Some old-fashioned things like fresh air and sunshine are hard to beat.
~Laura Ingalls Wilder~