“The world’s favourite season is the spring
All things seem possible in May”
~Edwin Way Teale~
We made so many plans for the May Bank Holiday but unfortunately due to health reasons, we didn’t make it. I spent the holiday working in the garden. In fact, I spent all my time in the garden. There was always something that needed doing. There were plenty of digging, cutting back, planting, weeding, sowing, watering, racing inside for the camera to photograph a Common Blue, a Mistle thrush chasing after a Buzzard, while listening to swifts screaming, swereee, swereee high overhead. I’d aches and pains at the end of the day but they were worth it.
Clumps of Lily of the Valley, Lilac, Violet, Cowslips were flowering, scattered all around the garden emanating the smell of May which was heavenly. Roses were beginning to flower, covering the arch with their pink and white blooms. The Lavender, Clematis, Iris and Lupins were attracting bees. The air was filled with the fragrances of spring and buzzing of bees.
Your life is your garden
Your thoughts are the seeds
If your life isn’t awesome,
You’ve been watering weeds
“A good garden may have some weeds”
“In Spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
We also made a trip to our favourite playground,Brandon Marsh, to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. We parked the car near the wall when we spotted a Swallow taking a rest on overhead cable line after a long northerly journey from Africa. More will arrive and after resting and feeding, will think of starting a family.
When we were walking out of the visitor centre into the reserve, we felt that we were being watched. When we looked up, we saw 3 pair of eyes looking down. They were Blackbird chicks waiting [im]patiently for their parents to bring food. The pair had nested under the eaves last year and they were using the nest again, We spotted one of the parent nearby and quickly walked away. As soon as we were out of sight, it quickly flew to feed the chicks,
We continued on when we heard nasal call sounds like we-wed or woid-woid with a long-pulled warning cry. We looked up and saw this handsome male Common Whitethroat belting out its fast and scratchy songs. This migratory passerine bird had returned after wintering in tropical Africa, Arabia and Pakistan. They normally skulked in bushes and hedges, but when it was sunny, was perched at the top of the bush and singing with gusto.
We stopped at Baldwin Hide and spotted a Common Sandpiper feeding among the stones and in the shallow water for insects, worms and crustaceans. It habitually bobbed up and down, known as teetering, as it foraged by sight by circling the island. Then it flew off with its distinctive flight with stiff, bowed wings and a three-note call.
A Great Crested Grebe swam past carrying a stick in its beak. We followed it and spotted a floating nest platform. It was adding the stick to the nest to make it more stable. Its partner took the stick and tried to arrange the very flimsy looking nest of water-weeds and sticks. This must be their second attempt at breeding and we wished them all the best.
In front of the hide, the Common Tern had starting nesting on the pontoon, specially erected for them to breed. Nesting rafts were great for helping them with safe nesting sites, protected from flooding, disturbance and predation. In the wild, their nests were often nothing more than ‘scrapes’ on gravel beaches and although their eggs and chicks were so well camouflaged, they were extremely vulnerable to disturbance. That was why, these pontoons were excellent conservation aid which helped ensure their continuing survival.
These delightful silvery-grey and white birds with long tails and earned them the nickname ‘sea-swallow’. They’d a buoyant, graceful flight and frequently hovered over the lake before plunging down for a fish. Their immense stamina enabled them to perform elaborate aerial displays and to migrate back to West Africa from August onwards. They were noisy birds, too, with their harsh rolling ‘kee-urr’.
Above us, screaming cries revealed the presence of parties of Swifts showing off what superb fliers they were, criss-crossing the skies. They were actually plain sooty brown, but against the blue, they appeared black. They’d long, scythe-like wings and short, forked tails. These summer visitors had also returned from their wintering grounds in Africa to breed. They were one of the last summer migrants to arrive and will be the first to leave.
On the way to the next hide, we came across a Peacock basking on the foot-path.The spectacular pattern of eyespots, was evolved to startle or confuse predators, making it one of the most easily recognised and best known species. It was from these wings markings that the butterfly gained its common name. Its strong flight and nomadic instincts led it to preferred habitats in the shelter of woodland clearings, rides and edges.
Then, we played the game on how many Little-Ringed Plovers can we see. These tiny waders were foraging for insects and worms along the gravel banks. They were quite difficult to locate as they often stood motionless and blended very well with the grey, stony surroundings. When they flew off, with ‘pee-u’ calls, their very thin, pale wing bar was very visible.
On the main island, a family of Oystercatchers were busy tending their chicks.They were so well-camouflaged among the vegetation that we don’t know how many there were. Rather than building a nest, Oystercatchers laid their eggs in a scrape in the ground and both the male and female took turns incubating them. When the chicks hatched, they were always fed by their parents and the main food was earthworms.
A Buzzard flew in and perched at its usual branch. Ooh…oh. one of the Oystercatcher took wing, darted at and chased the bird from the danger zone followed by loud piping ‘pic-pic-pic’ and high ‘peeps’ calls and nearly dislodged the raptor. It went for the bird rapidly, calling continuously that the Buzzard had to fly off. Oystercatchers defended their young with angry trills.
Then we walked to the next hide. Carlton Hide was deserted except for a Heron lurking in the reeds, hunting for food and a couple of Coots. In February or March, Coots switched behaviour from their winter flocking to become aggressively territorial as the breeding season approached. They usually rear one brood, but might have multiple nesting attempts until they were successful, so the breeding season extended from March to July.
We made a pit stop at Ted Jury Hide and had distant views of a Buzzard surveying its kingdom. On the way back, we stopped on the path to check out a tree where Babe had seen a Great Spotted Woodpecker flying in and out. Unfortunately, it was quiet. I guess the chicks had fledged by now.
I was also hoping to photograph dragonflies and damselflies but they were AWOL. Babe photograph these earlier during the week where they were abundant. It seemed I’d missed a lot of the natives activities
We made another trip to Slimbridge because there were sightings of the Cattle Egret. It was 13.2C and it was raining. Before we drove off, we observed this Blackbird digging up the front lawn for worms. There must be a nest with chicks nearby. We drove to our destination when about 5 km from the reserve, found out that the main route was closed due to a burst water pipe. Thankfully, a guide was there to direct us to a very tiny and tight alternative lane in between farmers’ fields. It was exciting but a bit scary, still keeping my eyes on the fields for the Egrets.
By the entrance, the squabs had grown into a pair of adorable Pigeons. They were now resting to the side of the deterrent spikes. Squabs grew at a rapid rate and had prodigious appetite, and depended on their parents to provide nourishment in the form of ‘crop milk’ which was stimulated by the hormone prolactin. When they were about 3 weeks old, they would be getting ready to fly and then the parents would start another brood all over again.
As soon as we got into the grounds, I checked out the family of Oystercatchers that had nested on the gravel island on Swan Lake. They had nested here last year and 2 chicks had successfully fledged. At first, we could only see one of the adults, asleep by the rocks. When the other adult flew in, the ‘rocks’ woke up and started running towards its parents. They were so well camouflaged among the stones that I couldn’t see them.Their first line of defence was to stay very still and hoped not to be notice.
The chicks were always fed by their parents and their main food at this time was earthworms. Because the chicks don’t feed themselves, usually only two chicks survived to grow to adult size. It would take another 35-40 days before the chicks could fly. Even after they could fly, they stayed with their parents for another 2-4 months while they learnt to feed efficiently.
We continued on, taking the normal route. We walked past the usually noisy Caribbean Flamingos but today they were a bit subdued. We looked closely and found that they were sitting on eggs, right at the end of the enclosure. After the recent weeks of being kept indoors, they were out and about and enjoying the sunshine. Large piles of high-quality sand was provided for them and they’d mould them into perfect nesting mounds.
Rushy Hide was very quiet except for a few Avocets, Shelducks and Black-Headed gulls. A few Avocet chicks were seen feeding right at the back of the lake. We then made a pit stop at the also empty Martin Smith Hide. The waders must be feeding on the River Severn mudflats. The next hide was Robbie Garnett Hide where a sole Black-tailed Godwit was feeding very close to the hide. It also spent a lot of time preening.
We were then distracted by 6 Common Cranes circling the sky, with their out-stretched necks, long wings and long legs extending beyond the tail, with those characteristically black, flight feathers. They were one of Europe’s largest birds with a wingspan of between 1.8 to 2.2 metres and the second highest flying bird in the world. For such a large bird, it was incredible to see them flying. A pity they didn’t land.
We then walked through the boardwalk being serenaded by a flock of Goldfinches. On the muddy water, we came across adorable Moorhen and Mallards chicks. We headed straight to Wader Shore where the male Ruff were displaying during the breeding season. Ruffs got their name from their attractive neck ruffle that females found irresistible. The males were parading and strutting their ruffles to the drab females around a small breeding area known as a lek. It was quite funny to watch them trying to outdo each other.
When we were outside, we walked past the Andean Flamingos enclosure and these pink beauties were performing their synchronised tango. We’d been to Slimbridge so many times and this was the first time we saw it. The Andeans were one of the rarest flamingo in the world. The dance was a courtship display and they performed it together. The marching enabled each bird to see who they liked, who they don’t like, and who was also thinking about nesting. Unfortunately, their performance didn’t last long.
Our final stop was Hogarth Hide where we’d the biggest surprise. A Common Crane on nest about 15-20 metres from the hide. Woo…hoo. They kept that quiet. There was no mention of it at all on their website and social media. I was fuming at the silence but really pleased to have seen it ourselves. I will investigate later but for the time being, all you could hear were our cameras clicking away.
We don’t know how long it had been sitting on the nest which was made up of sticks and stones. In the wild, they bred in wooded swamps, bogs and wetlands in quiet, peaceful environments with minimal human interference. The nest was also very exposed to the elements but being large birds, it was able to protect the egg/s. After about half an hour of us observing, it stood up and did a few stretching exercises, straightening the kinks and we zoomed to the precious nest.
On it were 2 eggs, which was the usual clutch. They rarely laid one egg or more than 2. The incubation period was around 30 days and was primarily done by the female. Male and female each incubated in shifts of about 2-4 hours during daylight hours then ‘exchange’ the nest. At night, females do the incubating while the male watched for predators. I think they will be quite safe here as they were in the secured part of the reserve.
Then it went for a walkabout, leaving the eggs unattended. As the banks were full of nesting Avocets, Lapwings, Black-headed Gulls and Oystercatchers, it was frequently bombarded by them. The aggressive behaviour from these birds made it ran for cover into the reeds. An Avocet was seen checking the unattended nest. It did come over to check what the Avocet was up to and then went back into the reed-beds. We were quite worried because, the eggs was left for about 20 minutes.
Thankfully, another Common Crane flew in. It must be the other half returning to take over the nesting duties. They seemed pleased to see each other and could be seen performing a dancing display, leaping with wings uplifted. Breeding pairs were monogamous, reinforcing the pair bond with ‘unison calling’ a complex series of coordinated calls given with the head thrown back and the beak pointed skywards.
The returning Crane then carefully walked towards the nest, dodging the bombing Avocets, Lapwings, Black-headed Gulls and Oystercatchers. It was very nervous and kept going back into the reed-beds. Finally, it did go to the nest but took a circuitous route, checking out the area to make sure that there were no predators about. When it finally arrived at the nest, it made a purring noise to the eggs. It gently rolled the eggs, insuring proper embryo development, before settling down. Finally, we could all breathe
After it had settled, we finally managed to tear our eyes away and looked around the lakes. At the back, hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits were resting and feeding in the shallow water. They looked amazing in their russet summer colours. They were feeding on earthworms, which they found by probing the mudflats with their long bills. Another flock flew in 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.
The scrape was like an Avocet creche. It had been a good breeding year for them. There were at least 2 dozen fluffy chicks of different ages and sizes scattered on the mudflats with their protective parents nearby, keeping watch. The young chicks could run about and fed themselves within a few hours of hatching. There were a few aggressive encounters when the Black-tailed Godwits got too close.
The young chicks fledged at around 35-42 days, but often remained dependent on their parents for some time afterwards. Chick survival were poor, and was determined largely by the weather and food supply. But I think the flock here were doing fine. The average lifespan of those that reached adulthood was thought to be around 7 years. They normally bred for the 1st time when they were 2 years old, often at a different location from where they themselves were reared.
I think more will be on the way as I spotted a few pairs mating. Avocets were single brooded, but will lay again if the first clutch was lost before hatching. Pair bonds were maintained only for the duration of the breeding season and broke up by the time winter flocks gather. The female laid her clutch of 3-4 pale buff eggs with black markings as 1-2 day intervals on a nest which was a shallow scrape of bare mud or in sparse vegetation. It was composed of short pieces of stems,roots and leaves of marsh vegetation. Both sexes incubated the eggs for 23-25 days.
Although the Black-headed Gulls had calmed down as they were sitting on eggs, we spotted one picking up sticks for nest-building. The nest were either scrapes in the ground or a pile of dead plant materials. Both birds shared the duty of incubating the eggs and feeding the precocial nestlings.
We were about to leave when we saw a flock of white birds flying in opposite the Discovery Hide. At first, we thought that they were Little Egrets but when we looked again, they were Cattle Egrets flying in to roost. Whoop…whoop. We said goodbye to the nesting Crane with promises to come again and skipped over to Discovery Hide. We’d the hide to ourselves and had a fantastic time checking out these rare migrants.
Originally native to Africa and Asia, Cattle Egrets had expanded their range around the world. They tend to follow grazing cattle because they fed on the insects, head bobbing, that the cattle stirred up as they moved about the fields. Their hunched, short-necked appearance looked very different from the slim and elegant Little Egrets.
Then, it was back to the car. A Swallow was at its favourite place, on top of the drinks dispenser, checking out the departing visitors. Soon, it would be nesting under the eaves of the toilet roof. This pair had been nesting here for a couple of years.
“Among the changing months, May stands confest
The sweetest, and in fairest colors dressed.”
~James Thomson, On May~