The weather continued to get colder in late November when autumn was morphing into winter. The month was characterised by falling temperatures, with daily highs decreasing from 13C on the beginning of the month down to 10C by the end of the month. It started with a fairly changeable, mild westerly airflow in which a succession of fronts spread rain eastwards across the country. Thankfully, there were no named storms. But whatever the weather, the household chores still needed to be done and we still ventured out into the countryside.
I was hanging out the laundry when I heard very high-pitched ‘sree-sree-sree-sree’ calls coming from the Leylandii hedges that screened our garden. I crept slowly and was chuffed to bits to see a couple of Goldcrests flitting among the foliage, foraging for food. I rushed into the house to grab my camera and rattled a few shots. They were UK’s smallest bird, and were characterised by their yellow-orange crest. They were feeding at the end of the branches, fluttering almost hummingbird-like. It was quite hard to photograph as they scurried around.
Since I’d camera, I checked one of bird-feeders and saw this Coal tit again. It was lovely to see him on his own because this feeder was usually teeming with the House sparrows which roost in this bush. Smallest European Tit, with a large head, white cheeks and large white patch on the back of its neck, contrasting with the black crown. The narrower, more slender bill was an adaptation to feeding in conifers. It was once called by Linneaus in his famous work of classification, Systema Naturae, when translated meant ‘black-headed titmouse with white nape, ash-grey back, white breast’. What a mouthful for a tiny tit. It tended to dash in, grab a beakful and dash off again.
On the feeding station, a Dunnock was having the place to himself. Quiet and unobtrusive, it was often seen on its own, creeping along the edge of a flower bed or near to a bush, moving with a rather nervous, shuffling gait, often flicking its wings as it goes. At first glance the bird, also known as Hedge Sparrow or Hedge Accentor, looked like a dull sleek sparrow. On closer inspection it was quite attractive with its blue-grey head and breast, light and dark brown streaky back, brown streaked flanks and pink legs. The Dunnock's song was an unhurried sweet warble.
We made another trip to our favourite playground to stretch our legs. By the dipping pond, we spotted a flock of Siskins, clinging to the top branches chipping away at the alder cones for the ripe seeds. Suddenly, they were startled by someone walking past, taking to the air in unison and circling high above us, their thin flight calls quite distinct as they dropped down again to continue feeding. The songs were a pleasant mix of twitters and trills. Siskins were small, lively finches with distinctly forked tails and long narrow bills. The males had a streaky yellow-green body and a black crown and bib. There were yellow patches in the wings and tail.
We made a pit stop at Baldwin Hide which was very quiet. We left and headed for East Marsh Hide and was chuffed to see a Common Snipe feeding on the mudflat right below the hide. It was so close that we could clearly see its short greenish-grey leg and a very long straight dark bill. The body was mottled brown with straw-yellow stripes on top and pale underneath. It had a dark stripe through the eye, with light stripes above and below it. The wings were pointed. It was a well camouflaged bird, shy and concealed itself close to ground vegetation It was busy foraging in soft mud, probing or picking up food by sight. It mainly ate insects and earthworms, also some plant material. Food on the surface was located by sight and picked up, but prey under the ground was located using the touch-sensitive sensory pits at the tip of the flexible bill.
Their old folk names include "mire snipe", "horse gowk", "heather bleat", and the variant spelling "snite. A group of snipes has many collective nouns, including a "leash", "walk", "whisper", "winnowing", and "volley" of snipes. The Common snipe typically feeds at dawn and dusk, often in small groups, on land or in shallow water, but usually does not stray far from cover. When it was flushed, it uttered a sharp note that sounded like scape, scape and flew off in a series of aerial zig-zags to confuse predators.
It was being flushed by a Water rail which was out and about along the reed-beds. These birds rarely emerged from dense reed-beds and marshes with a thick vegetation cover, and tended to be shy and skulking. They were much more often heard than seen. The calls of a Water Rail was extremely un-bird-like, and produced a wide range of loud squealing and snorting noises, traditionally known as ‘sharming’, which sounded like an alarmed piglet. As sudden as it appeared, it quickly dashed back into the safety of the reed-beds and all we could see was its tiny cocked tail trailing behind it.
A Little Egret flew in and landed on Wigeon Island waking up the snoozing Wigeons . The liveliest hunters among the herons, they fed by walking through water and snapping at prey, or by running and agitating the water with their feet to disturb prey, flushing them into the open where the sharp-eyed bird could strike at them. It was thought that their yellow feet aided this process, being more obvious to potential preys than all dark feet would be in the sediment-filled water. They were highly dependent on visual cues when hunting and their feeding was highly affected if the water was not clear. They fed primarily on small fish, but bivalves, crustaceans, and other invertebrates were also consumed.
We left when the hide started filling up. On the way to Carlton Hide, a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew in and was using the tree as its look-out. In flight, five or six flapping wingbeats alternated with closure of the wings giving the typically undulating performance, which showed off the pied pattern of the wings. On the tree, it was less chequered but equally black and white, with black crown and upper parts and bold white ovals on the scapulars. It was a female since it lacked the small red nape patch. It flew off while uttering a sharp flight call. We didn’t stay long at Carlton Hide and headed straight home.
On Black Friday, we made our final trip to Donna Nook for this year. Instead of spending our hard-earned cash, we spent the day with our favourite hobbies. We left very early at 6.10 am so that we could get a parking space at the Stonebridge car-park. It was 5C and the sun was slowly rising. We came across beautiful sunrises as we criss-crossed the country but there was no place to stop and take photographs. We stopped at Wragby for a comfort break and was pleasantly surprised that wi-fi was freely available. We’d coffee to warm up because it was freezing. As we got closer to our destination, we saw a Chinook hovering over the reserve. Whoop…whoop.
When we arrived at the car-park, the helicopter was still circling in the vicinity. We couldn’t get out of the car fast enough and thankfully, there was ample parking space since it was only 9 am. We stood there in the car-park and all you could hear were our cameras rattling away. The pilot was very obliging too and flew quite close to where we were standing. The thump-thump-thump of the helicopter got louder and louder until we could feel it vibrating through our bodies. It was amazing. We only gathered our stuff when it flew over the sea to continue its mission and we knew that it was going to come back again.
The Boeing Chinook was a tandem rotor helicopter operated by the RAF which was based at RAF Odiham. The aircraft was used for trooping, resupply and battlefield Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC), and for carrying internal and/or underslung loads. They could carry up to 55 troops and/or up to 10 tonnes of freight. A secondary role also included Search and Rescue (SAR). They had seen extensive service including fighting in the 1982 Falklands War, peace-keeping commitments in the Balkans, Northern Ireland and action in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
After parking and wrapping up very warm, we finally waddled our way to the viewing point. It was freezing and the high winds didn’t helped either. We thought we saw Ropeneck with her pup by the entrance but this wasn’t her usual birthing ground. I asked the warden and she told me that there was a discussion among them that Ropeneck hadn’t arrived yet, which seemed quite late. Ropeneck, a well-known seal, was named by wardens who found her in 2000 entangled in discarded netting and was clearly in distressed. The netting had cut a very deep wound in her neck which was still visible even today. It seemed that a lot of seals had encountered the same predicament judging by the numbers we came across with scars around their necks.
As we trekked along the chestnut-paling fence that ran the entire length of the viewing area, pups of different stages of growth with their protective mothers were scattered along the beach, among the sand-dunes and reed-beds. Their whimpering cries were echoing around us. We checked out the board and there were now 724 bulls, 1596 cows and 1692 pups. This meant that some pups were left on their own relying on their body fat when their mothers was forced to return to the sea to feed. During this period of intensive care, mothers lost 65 kg of their own body weight. Pups remained at the breeding ground for another 2 weeks living off its blubber reserves before hunger forced them to head out to sea to feed.
There were plenty of heart warming scenes where mothers were nursing their pups. Females were the sole providers of care for their pups while the males provided no parental care. It was lovely watching the intimate interactions between them. A bond was formed between mother and pup at birth, and she could recognised her pup from its call and smell. Pups with their mournful cries were often heard calling to their mothers. Mothers were encouraging the pups to feed by scratching their faces. Pups suckled for 3 weeks during which their weight tripled and gradually lost their pale coat. In the meantime, the mothers lost half of their body fat during lactation as they weren’t feeding.
Each pup I encountered was cuter than the one before, looking at me with their glossy black eyes like coal, lolling on the tussocky sand. Appearing in shining white colour when born, called languno, kept them warm until they developed an insulating layer of blubber from their mother’s milk. They kept this distinct white coat for two weeks + when the fur darkened and began to shed as they matured. After 16+ days, at the weaning stage, the pups lost their white coat and had the unique grey/dark grey pelage and patterning that remained the same through adulthood. These adorable pups were very close to the fence, checking out the visitors who were busy checking them out, under the watchful eyes of their possessive mothers. If anyone got too close, the warning hisses, growls and waving flippers were issued.
We had missed out on the bulls fighting as most of the territories had been staked out by now. The males tended to be darker than females and had the noticeably arched ‘Roman‘ nose and thickset shoulders, wrinkled appearances and very dark, finely mottled coats. When the females were ready, their uterus developed a fluid-filled sack containing an egg and hormonal changes made her receptive to the advances made by the males. Grey seals were ‘capital breeders’. This was a term which meant that not only do they spent a short time with their offspring before weaning, but also that during their stay on the colony, both males and females fasted, obtaining all their energetic requirements from the metabolism of fat reserves or blubber. Their fast could be more than 20 days for females and over 50 days for males.
At the onset of the breeding season, the hormone levels of male changed. When they arrived on the colony, they competed for space nearest to the cows. It was one, long continuous battle to keep the other males away. There were a few scraps when another male tress-passed their territory. There were plenty of body slapping on the mud. A bull can’t risk going to feed, because if he does, he might not be able to re-establish himself again. During mating, a bull laid to one side of the cow with a flipper draped across her. It would last less than 45 minutes. After mating, they dispersed. This bull was having some crazy wet dreams
We didn’t see any births but there must had been a few earlier because there were plenty of afterbirths laying around with pups still stained from the yellow amniotic fluid. They were relatively helpless and shrivelled, and relied totally on their mother’s milk for 16-21 days. The milk was more than 50% fat, and the pups grew very quickly into little barrel shapes, depositing a thick layer of blubber to protect them from the cold. During this period of intensive care, the mother lost 65 kg of her own body weight. When she was forced to return to the sea to feed, the pup remained at the breeding ground for another 2 weeks before hunger forced them to head out to sea to feed.
We noticed chaos out on the mudflats by the sea, as waders and wildfowls were being flushed by raptors such as Merlins, Marsh Harriers and Kestrels . On the mudflats, among the dunes, slacks and inter-tidal areas characterised by sedges and rushes, there were large flocks of Golden Plovers, Shelducks Lapwings, Knots and Dunlins feeding. Unfortunately, their presence attracted these raptors regularly flushing them into several full air displays, swirling around before settling down again to feed. Closer to the seal colony, Turnstones and Starlings as well as large Gulls were happy to grab a bit of protein from the discarded afterbirth.
Starlings were roaming about, wheeling through the sky before mobbing the grassy areas in noisy flocks. We could hear s their non-stop chattering and bickering as they foraged on the mud-flats. They were working their way, moving in a slight zig-zag line and seeming to hurry as they stabbed their bills into the ground every step or two. If one found something interesting, the others would fly in and started squabbling. Although they were resented for their abundance and aggressiveness, Starlings were dazzling birds. Covered in white spots during winter, they turned dark and glossy in summer. The sky was quite clear allowing the sunlight to display all the amazing oil slick colours of their plumage. Suddenly, something spooked them and whoosh they dispersed.
We heard the thrumming of the Chinook again although the crews called the sound of the twin rotor as wokka-wokka. I think this must have caused the Starlings to fly off. The sound was predominantly low frequency dominated by the sound of the two rotors. The aircraft had an unmistakeable sound which you could hear well before you spot it. I found it interesting that all the American Army helicopters were named either Indian Tribe names, or Indian Tribe Chief’s names. What a fantastic way to honour the natives who fought bravely for what they thought was right. After doing its practice run, it disappeared back to RAF Odiham.
The radio scanner cackled and we heard some very loud rumblings overhead. A flawless grey machine appeared in the horizon and zoomed across the sea. It was an Airbus A400 Atlas, a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft. It was designed as a tactical airlifter with strategic capabilities to replace older transport aircraft. Along with the transport role, the aircraft performed aerial refuelling and medical evacuation when fitted with appropriate equipment. Operated by 2 pilots and a Weapon Systems Operator, it had the ability to carry a 25-tonne payload over 2,000nmto established and remote civilian and military airfields, or by landing on short, unprepared or semi-prepared strips.
We were chuffed to see the lasers from the aircraft. The beach had multiple targets on it and markers denoting the range and distance and between targets,. The aim of the pilot was to fly at a designated height and speed fire their laser to the target, then pulled up and bank off, over the sea. The practice went on for quite some time. I wished the aircraft demonstrated its air-to-air refuelling capability which would be amazing to watch. A few visitors stopped to have a chat when they saw that Babe had the scanner. We’d some interesting conversations.
The wildlife were unfazed by the planes and the flares. They were used to it as Donna Nook was an active military range since WWW1 and was established as a protection point from Zeppelins trying to enter the Humber area. The seals didn’t even bat an eyelid. A flock of Brent Geese were flying were flying around when the practice was taking place. Redshanks and Meadow pipits were foraging on the mudflats among the sleeping seals, picking up flies, sandhoppers and other small creatures hidden amongst the tangle of seaweed, pebble and driftwood. Large charm of Goldfinches were feeding on the teasels while Pied wagtails were strutting about. Acres of scrub on the dunes glowed with orange sea buckthorn, food to the migratory birds.
We continued walking towards the end of the viewing area. We saw a crowd and checked out what they were looking at. It was a black seal pup, our first sighting ever. Black seal pups were uncommon but not unusual. According to the wardens, a few were born every year but they were not seen by visitors because they weren’t close to the fence. Black pups were born with the same white ‘lanugo’ coat as all the other pups. The black colouration became visible at the first moult when the pup was 2-3 weeks old. The cause was most likely to be genetic, similar to the black rabbits.
Then it was a slow walk back to the car. We stopped and took hundreds more photographs which was a challenge because more people were pouring in. I couldn’t imagine the numbers on the weekend when the narrow lanes, car park and viewing area became very congested. We said our good-byes to the seals as this was our last trip for 2017. By January, the viewing area will be empty as all the seal pups had returned to the sea. We wished them a safe journey and hoped to see them again, same time next year, insyallah.
After the long drive, the next day we went for an easy stroll at Middleton Lakes to stretch our legs. We stopped on the boardwalk overlooking the heronry. At the moment, it was very quiet and will be a real hive of activity from January to July as the herons began nesting on the 33 nests. But the bird-feeder was buzzing. There were three feeders full of peanuts and sunflower hearts and they were taking turns to feed on it. The Great Spotted Woodpecker monopolised the ones with peanuts while the others squabble among themselves. There were Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Great and Blue tits. Under the feeders, Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Robins and Wood pigeons were feasting on the seeds that had fallen onto the ground.
Then, we walked along the bridleway that wound gently through the ancient woodlands. At the moment the Bluebells and Wild garlic were still sleeping. The forest was alive with bird-songs but they were hidden deep in the woods. We stopped at Pooh Stick Bridge and on the tree-stump, there were a pile of pellets, seeds and mealworms that had been left by visitors. Robins, Blue and Great tits were flying in and out to feed. We waited patiently and a Nuthatch appeared.
Nuthatches were often seen descending head-first and hanging upside down beneath twigs and branches, perched up on their feet with bodies and tails held well clear. They foraged for insects hidden in or under bark by climbing along tree trunks and branches. Their habit of wedging a large food item in a crevice and then hacking at it with their strong bills gave them their name. This Nuthatch displayed considerable aggression when other birds flew in to feed, chasing them away. With its sinister-looking black stripe around its head, it was the most Zorro-esque bird in existence
One of the birds that flew in to feed was a Coal tit. with its distinctive grey back, black cap and white patch at the back of its neck with pinkie/orange underparts. The flight was fast and flitting, zipping in to snatch a seed and flying off to feed in the nearby bushes. When food was plentiful, they hoarded it by hiding all over the place so that they could feed when times were harder. Unfortunately, they don’t remember all the locations in which they hid the food, often resulting in seeds germinating in the most unlikely places.
We left the birds to their party and continued on. On Fisher’s Mill Pool, Greylags, Mute swans, Canada Geese, Wigeons, Mallards and Gulls were enjoying the sunshine. A few Great Crested Grebes were in their winter colours. We stopped at the first viewpoint overlooking the Jubilee Wetlands. It was very quiet except for a couple of Coots foraging. A herd of Konik ponies feeding on the West Scrape were busy munching helping to keep the habitat just right for the wildlife. They helped create and maintained a diverse landscape, encouraging biodiversity as they closely cropped some areas of grassland leaving other areas untouched.
We walked along the very muddy seasonal trail on the lookout for Stonechats which used to hang out on the fences. But they were nowhere to be seen. We walked on and crossed the footbridge over the River Tame that was opened in summer 2014 towards Dosthill Park nature reserve. This Park was originally part of a country estate and was declared a nature reserve in 2010. We took a break at one of the viewing screens overlooking the lake. A large flock of Greylags had just flew in. A Little Egret was feeding on one of the islands but too far to photograph. The views of the hillside were spectacular. The oak trees shone like burnished copper and all the various shades of yellow and amber and red in the woods and hedgerows were lit where the low beams of sunlight touched them.
We planned to walk round the 12 hectares park one day when we have the energy or when we could find the entrance to the park. It was quite a long walk if you park at Middleton Lake. We slowly made our way back to the car-park following the wetland trail. A white bird was seen flying over the Jubilee Wetlands and at first we thought it was a Mute Swan, then a Little Egret but it was too big. We thought it might be a Great Egret, a bird that I wanted to see for ages. I would love to check it out but Babe was getting tired. There had been numerous sightings here and we will definitely come again.
When we walked over Fisher’s Mill Bridge that spanned over the tranquil Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, we heard the familiar high-pitched call ‘sree-sree-sree-sree’. A flock of Goldcrest was flitting amongst the foliage foraging for tiny morsels like spiders and moth eggs. They fed towards the tip of the branches or in tree crowns, often hovering in front of spiders’ web. Their beaks had evolved to be thin and pointed, a tough and able instrument with which to pick out insects from among dense pine needles. Once known as the golden-crested wren, they were not only Britain’s smallest bird, but the smallest in the western Palearctic.
As we walked past the Rookery, a large flock of Rooks were beginning to arrive, some gliding, some tumbling, all of them cawing loudly as they got ready for the night, The air smelt of wood-smoke from the nearby farm. There was the ‘chink, chink’ of Blackbirds loudly announcing their intention for the night. I stopped by the feeder and a few birds were still having their dinner, including two Great Spotted Woodpeckers. I waited to see if any Little Egret would fly in to roost at the heronry but nobody turned up except for 2 herons. Babe saw 2 Little Egrets flying past the opposite direction. I guess there must be another roosting place somewhere. We left the reserve when there was a lurid, violet glow and the odd slash of crimson in the sky.
We made another trip to our favourite playground to end the month. We spent quite sometime at Baldwin Hide because it had been a hive of activity especially the corner by the island. We scanned the trees overhanging the water and spotted a Kingfisher perched on a branch, looking intently into the lake. It perched patiently, on the lookout for any tell-tale movements in the water below. When it spotted a fish, it made a split-second assessment of its depth and precise location and dived in, bill-first, into the water, With eyes closed and beak half-open,it seized the slippery prey and carried it back to the perch.
Once the fish was caught, it was stunned before swallowing it head first. Though fish formed a main part of a Kingfisher’s diet, they also ate aquatic insects, ranging from dragonfly nymphs to water beetle. After several successful attempts, it flew off into the channel, a flash of blue in flight, with its distinctive flight call, a shrill whistle trailing behind it. They flew at only one pace, fast and straight but could hover when fishing.
A male Pochard swam past with its distinctive bright-reddish brown head, a black breast and tail and a pale grey body. The females were easily confused with other species as they were brown with a greyish body and pale cheeks. These ducks were migratory, leaving their summer territories in Russia and Scandinavia, where they bred in marshes and lakes with a metre or more water depth. They fed by diving or dabbling, eating aquatic plants with mollusks, aquatic insects and small fishes.
A pair of Golden Eyes was also in the vicinity. The handsome male was striking with a greenish black domed head and a circular white patch in front of the yellow eye. The female was smaller, and was mottled grey with a chocolate brown head. They were a medium-sized diving duck with a compact, chunky appearance due to their short neck, round body, and a short, grey-black bill. They foraged mostly underwater, rarely by dabbling or up-ending. They fed on small fishes, crustaceans, aquatic insects and plants. They were busy diving for food and in such calm waters, their splashing gave them away.
It was still early for them to think of mating when the male would display by stretching the head backward against the back and then popping it forward. They were quite ducks, only occasionally emitting a faint ’krr’ or a loud ‘zee-zee’. In flight, their wings produced a whistling or rattling sound, giving rise to the species alternative name ‘whistler’. A large area of white on the inner wing was visible during flight.
A flock of Cormorants joined in the party when 5 of them turned up together. It was quite eerie to see them, an almost primitive appearance with their long necks making them appeared reptilian. There was a hint of dinosaur about them with their wing feathers like scales, startling emerald eyes, agitated head movements and the confident demeanour of a consummate predator. They swam quite low with their bills raised.I could see why they were regarded as black, sinister and greedy because they were supreme fishers which brought them into conflict with anglers and had been persecuted in the past. Known to anglers as the Black Death, they were killing machines, swimming underwater for 2 minutes and diving 80 feet to hunt for fish.
The icing on the cake was when a pair of Little Egrets flew onto the island. This tiny island looked like the airport terminal with birds, ducks and waders flying past. We were quite surprised to see them together because they don’t tolerate others coming to close to their chosen feeding site. They were seen in flocks when roosting in trees or flying to roost. The liveliest hunters among the herons, they fed by walking through water and snapping at prey, or by running and agitating the water with their feet to disturb prey, flushing them into the open where the sharp-eyed bird could strike at them. They were highly dependent on visual cues when hunting and their feeding was highly affected if the water was not clear. They fed primarily on small fish, but bivalves, crustaceans, and other invertebrates were also consumed.
These silent waders first arrived in the UK in the 1950s and first bred in Dorset in 1996. Colonisation of Norfolk began during the 1990s and the species was now a well established and increasing breeding resident. They were easy to identify with their white bodies and fluffy snowy plumes on their crest and back. Their flight was slow with intermittent gliding on rounded wings, head and long neck retracted, feet extending beyond the tail. Although silent, they made various croaking and bubbling calls at their breeding colonies and produced a harsh alarm call when disturbed.
After rattling off hundreds of photographs, we left the hide to check out East Marsh. A single Common Snipe was feeding on the mudflat right below the hide. It was so close that we could clearly see its short greenish-grey leg and a very long straight dark bill. The body was mottled brown with straw-yellow stripes on top and pale underneath. It had a dark stripe through the eye, with light stripes above and below it. The wings were pointed. It was a well camouflaged bird, shy and concealed itself close to ground vegetation It was busy foraging in soft mud, probing or picking up food by sight. It mainly ate insects and earthworms, also some plant material. We didn’t check the other hides and decided to head home. It had been a long day.
I ended the month by checking out a new restaurant in Earlsdon with my colleague, LJ. Street was opened in 2015, breathing new life into the vacant HSBC building specialising in Asian street food. We went there after work on a balmy Friday evening and we were their first customer, but not for long. We were seated in a fixed canteen style table. Mood lighting added ambience to the surroundings. Our waitress arrived promptly and I ordered the yaki udon with seafood and a pot of steaming Chinese green tea. I was impressed that the tea was loose-leaf which was a good sign. The food arrived quickly and it was delicious. It was also a nice touch to supply the sauces in test tubes with rubber bungs. Free chocolates arrived with the bill which was always a crowd pleaser. I would come again although the menu was quite limited. I didn’t take any photograph because I’d forgotten to bring my camera which wasn’t the norm Instead here’s a handsome Great tit demolishing the fat-balls from our garden.
*Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73