“Then you should say what you mean, ‘the March Hare went on. ‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”
March was almost at the end and what a very busy month it had been especially towards the end. There was an abundant of activities that we managed to cramp in. Mother nature had truly woken up from her winter slumber and I felt a bit of spring energy enthusing me at the moment. Life was flowing.
We checked out Ashlawn Cutting to see if the boys were back. As we walked down the very muddy zig-zag path, we noticed that the snowdrops had just finished flowering and the leaves were dying back. Soon they will disappear into the ground into a dormant phase, waiting for the autumn rains and the lowering soil temperatures in order to commence growing again. They were now being replaced by primroses and budding bluebells.
We walked towards the pond under Ashlawn Bridge and saw more clumps of frog spawn. Whoop…whoop. We were mesmerised by these clumps of jelly when we heard soft purrings and felt as if we were being watched. We looked carefully and among the pondweed, several pairs of eyes popped out. It was quite dark under the bridge. The boys were back. Double whoop…whoop.
We’d missed the breeding season, again. Frogs bred between 2-3 years old. They returned to the pond where they were spawned, and males attract the females by croaking. There was heavy competition amongst males for females, involving much croaking and wrestling. Breeding involved the male attaching himself on the back of the female by grasping her under the forelegs, where he stayed until she laid her eggs. As she spawned, the males fertilised them by spraying over them. It was possible that more than one male can fertilise a female’s spawn.
During the breeding season, the throats of the males became brighter and more luminant, a sign to other males to stay away from male-male mating. The more males there were, the more aggression, and the greater the likelihood of amplexus interruptus. If females were in short supply several males attached themselves to one female, drowning her. Thankfully, we didn’t see any but there were quite a few males on males.
Females laid their spawn in well-vegetated, shaded, shallow ponds. As the eggs matured, the clusters of spawn swelled and floated to the water surface. Around 2 weeks, the embryos inside each egg developed a head and a tail. Once the gills were formed, the tadpoles hatched out from the jelly surrounding it. It uses its gills to get oxygen from the water.
It was a tough life for a tadpole. They had a number of natural predators and were susceptible to various amphibian diseases, Because of this, females laid thousands of egg each year and only a tiny fraction of them survived to adulthood. Fingers-crossed, this pond will contain a big mass of writhing tadpoles.
I wanted to go to Aberystwyth on my birthday. Unfortunately, the weather had been rubbish and so we had been regularly looking at the forecast for the weekends. Finally, towards the end of the month, the sun came out and we were on our way. It was 12C when we left the casa. We came across road-works on the M6 for 7 miles. Then it was miles upon miles of yellow flowering gorse, intercepted with white flowering hawthorn and fields of yellow rapeseed.
Our first destination was Bwlch Nant yr Arian and the place was buzzing. We managed to find a parking space and carried our cameras to the visitor centre. After using the facilities and freshened up, we treated ourselves to the famous Mary Farmhouse ice-cream. We made ourselves comfortable on the veranda by the bird-feeder. It was teeming with Sparrows, Siskins and Chaffinches. I was hoping to see the Redpolls but they were AWOL.
From time to time, the birds made a sudden dash for the undergrowth. There was a raptor around and we spotted a Sparrow-hawk disappearing into the bushes. It was so quick. When the coast was clear, they returned back to feed and amongst the first were the Siskins, which were small, greenish yellow finches with dark wings and yellow wing bars.
They were messy eaters with very sharp narrow beaks, adapted for feeding on conifers, extracting tiny food items from tight spaces. They were aggressive too, chasing away the larger Chaffinches from the feeder. We were so close that we could hear their sweet twitterings and trillings, a pleasant sight and sound.
Then we made our way down Barcud Trail walking past a magnificent sculpture of a Red Kite. We weren’t too sure why it was fenced off. We joined the hundreds of people getting ready for the feeding session while the main attraction was soaring above us. It was amazing to watch them circling the skies and yet never collided. While waiting for the party to started, we scanned the waters and saw 4 males and 2 females Goosanders.
Goosanders were streamlined long-bodied ducks with thin pointed wings. They floated gracefully across the lake and often dived underwater to catch fish. The males were striking with clean white bodies, dark green heads, and a slender, serrated red bill. The elegant grey-bodied females had rich, cinnamon heads with short shaggy crests on the backs of their heads. I think they were waiting to join the party.
At 2 pm, the warden walked in with a wheel barrow onto the grassy patch across the lake. He pulled out a bag of chicken pieces and started scattering them on to the grass. And then the party began as these magnificent birds came sweeping down with talons out to snatch a piece of morsel. They quickly flew away for a clear airspace where they felt secure to feed. With their 1.8 metre wings spread out for stability, their heads turned down to meet their forward lifted legs, Then only they started feeding but still keeping an eye for other marauding kites.
We had never seen so many Kites before. They were literally filling up the airspace above our heads. There were a few airborne squabbles as a few were flying low, waiting to snatch food from unsuspecting birds. High-pitched prolonged excited screeches accompanied their aerial prowess and combat.
A few flew quite close to where we were sitting that we could see the pale grey head and striking almost translucent white underwings patches and black tips on the primaries contrasting with arm orange or russet coloured feathers on the body and upper tail which appeared to glow like red embers giving them an ethereal appearance. With twisting deeply forked swallow-like tail and long slightly angled wings, they turned this way and that soaring and spiralling skyward catching the unseen breath of wind or an uplifting warm air thermal. We watched their golden orbed eyes surveying below for food.
A few pieces of meat had fallen into the water. I loved watching them swooping down with their legs outstretched, and taking the meat in their needle-sharp talons in a fast, sweeping dive. It was a beautiful sight when the water sprayed as they flew off. You can see how powerful the outstretched wings were as they maintained their balance and stability.
Forward on my way,
No wish for noisy streets
or bitter crying
Stride without delay
~Adrian Williams ‘Red Kite Flying’~
Then we made our way back to the car to continue the drive down to Aberystwyth. The promenade was buzzing as the seaside town bathed in the sunshine. We drove straight to the South side near the harbour trying to find a parking space. But it was too far away from our favourite chippy shop. Having fish and chips seemed to be a tradition for us. We drove up to Penparcau and bought fish and chips from there. Since we got an all-day parking ticket from Nant yr Arian, we drove back and had our lunch overlooking the lakes. We decided that it was the best fish and chips we ever had. Then it was a 3 hour long drive home.
The next day, we needed to stretch our legs and headed to our favourite playground. It was a good place to be to celebrate the British summer time which meant the clocks went forward an hour and it was also Mother’s Day. I hoped everyone had a lovely day with their Mum, their children and their grandchildren. My mother would have been 78. Sadly she died just 2 years ago. Love and missed you so much. Al-fatehah…
As we walked through the visitor centre, we saw a stuffed hare (first photograph) on a table surrounded by brochures encouraging visitors to join the Wildlife Trust. Not a good advert, I think!!! We continued into reserve and spotted this Reed bunting pulling the fluff from the Bullrush reeds. We weren’t sure whether he was collecting it for nesting materials or pulling them out to feed on the seeds.
We stopped on the bridge to check for the Tree creepers but they weren’t around. Fingers-crossed, one of them was sitting on the nest. We were pleased that we’d Baldwin Hide to ourselves. A pair of Oystercatcher flew in showing their wide white wing-stripes, black tails and white rumps that extended as a ‘V’ between the wings with their loud ‘peeping’ calls. I think they wanted a quiet place for some togetherness.
Earlier during the week, Babe had spotted one of them prospecting for nesting site. The nest was usually a depression or scrapes in the ground which may be lined, and in a spot with good visibility. A single nesting attempt was made per breeding season, which was timed over the summer months. Fingers-crossed, they will be able to breed successfully.
Above us, the air was filled with screaming hirundines wheeling and criss-crossing each other in flight. With their swept back wings and aerial manoeuvers, it was a challenge to identify the Swallows, Sand and House Martins. These were the first migrants of the year for me, which was always a moving sight no matter what the species. Enjoying their acrobatics, I marvelled at their abilities to fly all the way from Africa, across the Sahara to overwinter. All hirundines migrated south in winter to maintain access to their diet of flying insects.
Traditionally viewed as a herald of spring, these birds had returned to their birth areas and nesting sites. They were also checking out the artificial nesting sites that was specially constructed for them. A new earthwork structure was put in place to replace the old crumbling site. Hopefully, they would be impressed. After viewing their homes, they flew out en-masse, hawking low after insects above the water.
A pair of Great Crested Grebes swam past. I waited in anticipation if they were in the mood. But, they kept on swimming and diving close together. I’d missed their mating dance again. In Spring, they put on a spectacular display. Both sexes grew black and orange facial ruffs and black ear-tufts known as tippets, which they used to establish their bonds in the breeding season. Babe was very lucky to have witnessed it when he was here. I’d seen the dance a hundred times but I would love to see it again and again.
The proceedings began with one bird sending out its braying advertising call and looking around for an answer. It received a reply in kind from not far across the lake. They started floating inexorably towards each other, but giving the impression of doing nothing special at all, like spy-movie protagonists heading for a clandestine meeting. Then, one broke cover and dive, a ripple dive – not a deep, fish-chasing dive, but a way of approaching almost unseen, its advance given away only by the merest ruffle on the glassy water.
When the grebe resurfaced, it was within the personal space of the other bird and its intent was now clear. The grebe reared up out of the water almost to its belly, yet with its neck arched down, holding this posture – known as the ghostly penguin display – for a few moments. It had declared itself.
The reaction of the other grebe was crucial. If it performed the cat display by half-opening its wings and ruffling its feathers, extending the frills on its cheeks, much of the tension was defused. Now, at last, the male and female had established a partnership. They were ready to dance.
Next was the famous water ballet. First, the grebes faced each other, shaking their heads from side to side (a human ‘no’ is a grebe’s definitive ‘yes’). One bird’s head went up, bopped and the second mirrored the steps. This happened several times. With utter elegance, they occasionally turned around to flick their back feathers with their bills. This was called bob-preening, yet had the grace of the best curtsey. The head-shaking ceremony that followed was the birds’ tango – all intimate and sultry – which led to the climax of the show: the weed or penguin dance.
The grebes dived deep, resurfacing with water-reeds in their bills. They rushed towards each other and met breast-to-breast, rearing high up out of the water as they did, paddling wildly with their feet to keep their balance. They remained thus ‘embraced’ for some time, showing off their waterweed with sideways shakes of the head. Though the water was frothing below them during the ‘weed dance’ they remained remarkably poised.
If the dance was successful, they formed a lasting bond. They mated on land and began building a raft out of reeds, weeds and other vegetation to support the nest. Between 1-9 eggs were laid, which took 27-29 days to incubate and both parents were involved. After hatching, the stripy chicks were carried around on the backs of their parents. Looking forward to that.
Out of water, I am the Arsefoot; I waddle
Worse than a duck, flopping
Haphazardly across the mud
Like a geriatric in outsized slippers,
Tripping over obstacles.
Let me convey you to the river,
My lover; there we shall dance.
We shall be cheek to cheek, my love,
First this side, then the other;
It is the only way I can gaze into your eyes –
One at a time. I shall smooch you sideways,
My crest shall rise to say, “I love you.”
Shall I raise my white breast for you,
To prove my amorous intent?
We were meant for each other;
Our necks twine well together.
Will you dance with me? The foreplay
Is much longer than the consummation –
Be patient. I am wooing you.
We are graceful, you and I. I give you
Waterweed. I shall feed it to you
With my own bill.
And only a carp, a chub,
A perch or pike,
Shall see the flurry
Of arse feet below.
Above, we shall be
~Giles Watson ‘Great Crested Grebe~
Then we headed to East Marsh Hide. A Common Sandpiper with contrasting brown upperparts and white underparts was feeding near the bank. It habitually bobbed up and down, known as ‘teetering’ while foraging for insects, molluscs, crustaceans and annelid worms. It retrieved them by meticulously pecking and probing with their short bills.
On Willow Island, male Lapwings were constant calling as they performed the crazed tumbling display flight in the air with twists, turns and somersaults. These displays were accompanied by loud swishing of their wings and noisy calls. They made wheezy ‘pee-wit, wit, wit, eeze wit’ cries which was why they were also known as the peewit in imitation of their display calls. In reality, their proper name described their wavering flight. Their rounded wings making the lazy wing beats.
The common name ‘lapwing’ was thought to come from the Old English word ‘hleapewince’ which meant leaping with a wink in it. They made an impressive sight with their iridescent green and purple plumage shimmering in the sunlight. Males and females were similar, except the males crests were longer and they had blacker breasts and whiter faces.
Then it was time to head back to the car. We walked through the woods and kept our eyes peeled to the ground. This time we spotted Morel, our first ever sighting. This distinctive mushroom had a pitted honey-comb-like fruit body, due to the network of ridges with pits composing their cap. It was hollow inside with a creamy white stem and a conical cap. Although Morels were prized by gourmet cooks, particularly in French cuisine, we left them alone.
This month I attended my first AMARC Spring meeting at the University of Leeds. I took the 7.30 am train from Coventry. Although I’d reservations, the train was packed and since it was only a 20 minute train ride, I preferred to stand. Then it was a rush to get to my next train to Leeds. It was pouring in Leeds and I took a taxi to the university.
The meeting was held in the impressive Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery. The Gallery was opened in February 2016 as a showcase for Leeds University Library’s Special Collections. The registration desk was empty when I arrived and I joined a few lost-looking delegates. We were chatting when a Porter came over and told us the meeting was held in Parkinson Court. We went there and introduced ourselves and was immediately ushered for coffee.
Fifteen minutes later, we were seated in the seminar room. There was about 40 delegates in the room and we introduced ourselves to those sitting next to us. We were welcomed by the Chairman of AMARC and the Head of Special Collections from the University gave an introduction about the agenda of the day which was on opportunities for public engagement with research collection. Then it was straight to the agenda.
The Collections and Engagement Manager for Rare Books and Maps from the University gave us an insight on how the collection from Lord Brotherton came into place. He was the Library’s greatest benefactor. Then the archivist from the West Yorkshire Archive Service gave a hilarious account of moving their archives to the new building which was just a mile away.
Next was the one I was looking forward to by the Leeds Russian archivist. The Leeds Russian Archive consisted partly of papers of Russian emigres to the West since the Revolution and partly of papers relating to British people living and working in Russia before the revolution. Unfortunately, he just listed the items that was curated for an exhibition which we would be visiting later.
After a networking lunch, there was a show and tell about the use and abuse of early printed books. I didn’t handle any because the binding was from pig’s skin. There was a tour of the Gallery which included a rare copy of the first folio containing Shakespeare’s plays, original materials written by the Brontes, a Tudor cookery book printed during the rule of Elizabeth, unique medieval illuminated manuscripts and the artistry of beautiful books from the Kelmscott Press of William Morris.
The manuscript library at Holkham Hall was next. The collection was among the most significant private collections in the world. They included manuscripts made in Italy in the Middle Ages and the age of humanism. 127 Italian manuscripts which included biblical and liturgical codices (notably a lavish illuminated Book of Hours made for Lorenzo de’ Medici), patristic texts, and exceptional collection of Latin classical authors collected by Thomas Cook (1697-1759. Unfortunately, due to successive settlements of death duties, some of the collection was acquired by the state and kept at the Bodleian Library and the British Museum.
A talk on R.E.Hart Collection highlighted the value of hiring a professional cataloguer, Dr. Ed Potten, to process the diverse nature of the collection. Then only did the Blackburn Museum knew exactly what was in the collection and where they’d them. He also traced the complete line of ownership of Hart’s copy of Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales, [London]: Richard Pynson, [between June 1491band 13 November 1492] from its original buyer, Roger Rathbon, all the way to Robert Edward Hart and hence to Blackburn Museum.
We ended the day on student engagement with the archival collections in the University. It had been full-on day and after saying our goodbyes, it was a mad rush for taxis to get to the train station. It was still raining when I left the city. On the train, I contemplated on the day. My first bug-bear was that wi-fi wasn’t provided to delegates which was a big no-no. The meeting wasn’t about public engagement. It was mostly about showing what they’d in their collections. I wanted to know how the public can get involved and how to demonstrate why the collection was important to them. Hopefully, it would be answered in the next meeting.
After such a long, hectic trip, I needed to stretch my legs and gather my thoughts. What better way than a long walk at Middleton nature reserve. I was also hoping to see the Great Egret which had been sighted for a couple of days. We weren’t surprised to see the car-park full when word got out. The Heronry was very quiet although a few herons were seeing flying in and out. We stopped by the farm where a flock of chicken kept us entertained.
As we meandered along the bridleway, Orange tips, Whites and Brimstones fluttered past. They didn’t settled for photographs. Along the ancient woodland, Bluebells were beginning to peep from the undergrowth and Lesser Celadines brightened up the floors. The air had a heady garlic aroma as Ramsons or Wild garlic were in abundant especially by the tiny stream. A tree-creeper caught my attention as it scurried up a trunk.
While I was busy following the Tree-creeper, Babe was eyeing a Great Spotted Woodpecker. The striking black-and-white bird was clinging to the branch with its stiff tail feathers used as a prop and its toes were specially arranged with two pointing forwards and two backwards. It then flew off with an undulating flight as it completely folded its wings against the body between each series of several flaps.
We stopped by Pooh Stick bridge where visitors put seeds and mealworms for the birds. Chaffinches, Robins, Great and Blue tits were taking turns to feed. I was hoping to see a Nuthatch but not today. A Pheasant came running, A gentleman gave me some seeds and asked me tostretch out my hand. Guess what? I’d hand-fed Robins before but never a Pheasant!!! Thank you, kind sir. I think the Pheasant was very familiar with this guy
We stopped by the Fisher’s Mill bridge to watch a canal boat cruising slowly on the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. Then we walked towards the first screen with a pit-stop at Fisher’s Mill Pool which was full of screaming Black Headed Gulls. Some were on nest and some were mating. We then had a rest at West Scrape viewpoint but, apart from a pair of Great Crested Grebe, it was empty.
We walked towards Jubilee Wetlands North and was entertained by a Chiffchaff, singing its name out loud in a simple ‘chiff chaff chiff chaff’. A small olive-brown warbler, it actively flits through the trees with a distinctive tail-wagging movement. From time to time, it flew out to snap insects in flight. They were summer visitors and were among the first migrant songbirds to arrive after wintering in the Mediterranean and western Africa.
We were hoping to see the Konik ponies that were often seen feeding around here but they must have been moved to another part of the reserve. We headed for The Lookout hide and cooled down for about half an hour. There was nothing much on the mudflats. We then walked back following the River Thames. We noticed new hides on Dosthill Nature Reserve and we planned to check them out later. We stopped at East Scrape when we saw a pair of Avocets feeding.
Then it was a long walk back to the car. I stopped at the stream to pick a handful or two of the young Ramson leaves. My hands smelled of garlic for days. When we were in the car-park, a Heron waved us good-bye as it made its way back to the heronry. At home, I snipped the Ramsons tender leaves into a wok of egg fried rice. It was a wonderful meal to welcome Spring and a lovely end to a crazy March.