Sunday, 22 September 2019

Moving house

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Thursday, 11 July 2019

December's wintery breath is already clouding the pond, frosting the pane, obscuring summer's memory...*

December started with the after effects of Storm Diana which had brought with it freezing fog and 80mph gales. The Met Office had issued several severe weather warnings for areas including the North West and South West of England as well as West Midlands and Scotland. Diana was not on the list of the Met Office's official storm names for this winter, and was given its title by the Portuguese authorities. Although the storm had quite an impact on the islands in the Atlantic, thankfully it weakened as it travelled towards the UK.

As usual, we were out and about regardless of the weather. We checked out our favourite playground and came across a carcass on the bank of Grebe Pool. We thought it might be a Mute Swan. We always report any sightings to the Trust and in turn hopefully report it to Defra. As winter approaches, there was going to be an increasing risk from avian flu from migrating birds. Thankfully, the Robins looked very healthy and was demanding to be fed. They trained us so well...

The female Golden Eye was still around when we stopped at Baldwin Hide. We continued on to East Marsh Hide and was chuffed to see a very handsome male Goosander swimming past the hide. We scanned the water for the females but they were fast asleep behind the reed-beds. The streamlined duck was a great fisher using its long, serrated bill to catch and hold its prey. It dived and went to join its harem, hidden behind the reed-beds.

We spotted a Buzzard on the ground near Wigeon bank. It kept on flying to and fro from the ground to its favourite perching branch. At first, we thought it was foraging for worms  but later realised that it was feeding on a carcass. Oh god, not another dead bird. 2 in one day. Something needed to be done and we hoped that someone had reported it and the Trust was aware of it. And we reported it before we left.

We were about to leave when somone shouted 'ghost birds flying in'. We quickly looked out the window and saw 7 white birds flying onto the lake and as soon as they landed, formed into 2 separate groups. They consisted of 4 Whooper Swans and 3 Bewick Swans. Whoop...whoop. All you could hear were the cameras rattling away. They must have been feeding on the fields that surrounded the reserve and flew in to chill out and roost.

These wild swans were winter visitors, with Whoopers present mainly from late September to April and Bewick’s from October to March. Small numbers of Whoopers stayed all year and sometimes bred in northern Scotland. Bewick’s was the smallest of our swans and, at about four feet in length, it was about four-fifths the size of Whooper. Bewick’s was also only about two-thirds the weight of Whooper.

Bewick’s being smaller, was slighter, shorter-necked, rounder-headed, more manoeuvrable and rather more goose-like. Meanwhile, the Whooper was more more majestic, long-necked with a longer, more wedge-shaped head and bill profile and a more prominently bulging breast. Whooper had a long, pointed wedge of yellow extending about three-quarters of the way onto the bill tip so that, at any distance, the majority of the bill looks yellow. Bewick’s had a shorter bill with a more rounded or squarer patch of yellow that covers just the basal half of the bill and also  faster wingbeats.

It was strange to see them flying  in together but became 2 separate groups when they landed . The Bewicks continued paddling around the lake, splashing about and having a drink. The Whoppers waddled to the main island among the gulls and started preening. There was no interaction at all between the two species. When we left, both families had gone to sleep.

We also popped into the city centre to get my Xmas present. I had chosen a rose gold finish bangle with Swarovski crystals from Warren James. Babe had a camouflaged jacket from Decathlon for his. The city-centre was buzzing with Xmas shoppers and every corner we turned, there were music blaring adding a very carnival atmosphere to the festive season. There were buskers, choir groups and this fabulous steel band. I couldn't help swaying to them. We didn't stay long as it was getting too crowded.

Back home, I spent the whole day in the kitchen using the pumpkins that we'd bought during Halloween which was 2 months ago. Even then, I only used 2 and still had 2 left. Properly stored, pumpkins were 'long keepers".  I made a huge pot of spicy Thai soup, a pie and 2 loaves of bread. I froze half of the soup and one loaf. That was my lunch sorted for the week.

Spicy Thai pumpkin soup

1½ kg pumpkin peeled and roughly chopped
     4 tsp sunflower oil
     1 onion, sliced
     1 tbsp grated ginger
     1 lemongrass, bashed a little
     3-4 tbsp Thai red curry paste
     400ml can coconut milk
     850ml vegetable stock
     lime juice and sugar, for seasoning

Heat oven to 180C. Toss the pumpkin or squash in a roasting tin with half the oil and seasoning, then roast for 30 mins until golden and tender. Meanwhile, put the remaining oil in a pan with the onion, ginger and lemongrass.

Gently cook for 8-10 mins until softened. Stir in the curry paste for 1 min, followed by the roasted pumpkin, all but 3 tbsp of the coconut milk and the stock. Bring to a simmer, cook for 5 mins, then fish out the lemongrass.

Cool for a few mins, then whizz until smooth with a hand blender, or in a large blender in batches. Return to the pan to heat through, seasoning with salt, pepper, lime juice and sugar, if it needs it. Serve drizzled with the remaining coconut milk.

  Pumpkin pie
     750g pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and cut into chunks
     350g sweet shortcrust pastry
     plain flour, for dusting
     140g caster sugar
     ½ tsp salt
     ½ tsp fresh nutmeg, grated
     1 tsp cinnamon
     2 eggs, beaten
     25g butter, melted
     175ml milk
     1 tbsp icing sugar

Place the pumpkin in a large saucepan, cover with water and bring to the boil. Cover with a lid and simmer for 15 mins or until tender. Drain pumpkin; let cool. Heat oven to 180C.

Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface and use it to line a 22cm loose-bottomed tart tin. Chill for 15 mins. Line the pastry with baking parchment and baking beans, then bake for 15 mins. Remove the beans and paper, and cook for a further 10 mins until the base is pale golden and biscuity.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Increase oven to 220C. Push the cooled pumpkin through a sieve into a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the sugar, salt, nutmeg and half the cinnamon. Mix in the beaten eggs, melted butter and milk, then add to the pumpkin purée and stir to combine.

Pour into the tart shell and cook for 10 mins, then reduce the temperature to 180C. Continue to bake for 35-40 mins until the filling has just set. Leave to cool, then remove the pie from the tin. Mix the remaining cinnamon with the icing sugar and dust over the pie. Serve chilled

Pumpkin bread
     2 cups all-purpose flour, spooned into measuring cup and leveled-off
     1/2 teaspoon salt
     1 teaspoon baking soda
     1/2 teaspoon baking powder
     1 teaspoon ground cloves
     1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
     1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
     1-1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
     2 cups sugar
     2 large eggs
2 cups solid pack pumpkin puree

Preheat the oven to 325°F and set an oven rack in the middle position. Generously grease two 8 x 4-inch loaf pans with butter and dust with flour. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Whisk until well combined; set aside.

In a large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until just blended. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Continue beating until very light and fluffy, a few minutes. Beat in the pumpkin. The mixture might look grainy and curdled.

Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until combined. Turn the batter into the prepared pans, dividing evenly, and bake for 65 – 75 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the centre comes out cleanly. Let the loaves cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

The festive season started early at work. First was the infamous office Secret Santa.  Each year, my colleagues and I pulled a name out of a hat, saddling ourselves with the anxiety-inducing task of buying a Xmas present for a co-worker we (in all likelihood) barely knew. Each department had their own and as usual ours was amongst those who worked on the ground floor. Early during the month, each of us had picked a name, bought the £5 gift and deposited it in Santa’s bag. Then it was time for Santa’s Elf to distribute the gift and we watched the public reaction of the receiver to the gift. Off course, all were received graciously. Then we’d nibbles which all of us contributed and quizzes. Secret Santa was always a great idea when you were high on festive cheer. We also contributed £5 each to a homeless charity.

Next was the Xmas lunch which was held at Scarman and we trekked there in our fineries on a bright, sunny afternoon. After being seated with a glass of fresh orange juice for moi and bubbly for others, we pulled the crackers, donned the party hats and cracked at the silly jokes. It was hilarious. The hall began to fill up as colleagues from other department turned up.
Then we joined the long queue for the starters. As usual, I headed for the seafood which luckily for me wasn’t busy. For the main course, I’d another fish course, baked sole with a lemon sauce and the trimmings with new potatoes, carrots and peas. At the table, we checked each other’s loaded plates. Conversations and laughters flowed easily. Dessert was limited for me because I don’t want anything with gelatine or alcohol. That left me with creme brulee which was yummy. After the long lunch, we headed to the sitting room for coffee and mince pies. I’d hot chocolate and cookies. Then it was a slow dawdle back to the office where we sat quietly to digest our food.

We also attended a University Xmas spread at The Slate conference centre, overlooking the ‘nursery’ lake. When we arrived, the party was in full swing with an orchestra playing in the background. There were plenty of mince pies and finger-food to keep us going. The drinks corner was very popular but I stuck to non-alcoholic mulled wine. What a pity there was no sing-along session which we'd last year. It really brought everyone together. Instead everyone just huddled together in their own departmental groups making small talk.

I ended my working week before the long Xmas break (11 days off..whoop...whoop) by checking out two installation billboards outside the Warwick Arts Centre. It was a poignant poem, Paper Peace, by Robert Montgomery, which was created by Emergency Exit Arts and supported by Arts Council England and the National Lottery. The 14ft illuminated peace poem was for the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In its first major campaign since the Coventry 2021 title win, the City of Culture Trust had launched #HumansOfCov as world nations commemorated the anniversary of the declaration, which was signed on December 10, 1948, and honoured around the world. The campaign both highlighted the everyday heroes in Coventry’s communities and the grassroots activism of the city, as well as opening a conversation about human rights and what they meant for a modern and diverse city in the 21st century. The mobile had toured to different parts of the city and I was so glad that it made a pit stop here in the university.
*John Geddes 'A familiar rain'

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Now in November nearer comes the sun down the abandoned heaven*

I popped into the city centre for a few bits and pieces. When I walked through Broadgate, the place was getting ready for the Xmas light switch-on which took place the following Wednesday. As the festive season approached, the city centre came to life with twinkling  lights and decorations adorning shops and buildings. At the flick of a switch, a magical winter wonderland appeared.  Late-night shopping  began shortly after the lights were switched on, where shoppers enjoyed a glass of mulled wine and something delicious to eat before buying their Christmas gifts. There were plenty of festive cheer, including music, street theatre, fairground rides plus a busy food and gift market. I am sure everyone embraced the Christmas spirit on the night.

Although we looked forward to the festive season, it was a bit early for us to think of Xmas. We chilled out at our favourite playground to see what the natives were up to. Earlier in the week, Babe was here when he photographed a Peregrine Falcon hunting over the reserve. TO BE UPDATED

Thankfully, the Black Swan was still hanging around with the juvenile Mute swans. I was at work earlier in the week, when Babe called me to say that he'd seen this beauty feeding in the reserve and I hoped that it would stay until the weekend. Black Swans were native to Australia and were the state bird of Western Australia. They were brought to the UK as ornamental birds and like many other captive birds , they occasionally found their way into the wild. They were similar in size to their closely related Mute Swans. They appeared all black when swimming but  had white primary wing feathers, which could be seen in flight. The bill was red with a broad white band on the tip, while the legs and feet were greyish black. They'd the longest neck among the swans and curved in an S shape. When swimming, they held their necks arched or erect and often carried their feathers or wings raised in an aggressive display. We watched this beauty upending in the deeper part of the lake for aquatic and marshland plants.

We were suddenly interrupted by a twitcher who said that he'd spotted a Jack Snipe at Teal Pool. We followed him and scanned the reed-beds at the further end of the pond, nearer to River Pool hide. We sighted a Snipe skulking in the reeds at the top end but unfortunately, it wasn't a Jack Snipe. One of the main characteristic of a Jack Snipe was it had a much shorter bill than a Common Snipe. We'd been trying to find one for ages but so far, we'd never seen one. One day....

We returned back to our seat and the black beauty had swam right to the end of the lake. The long staying Whooper Swans had woken up and started preening and then went back to sleep again. After flying all the way from Iceland to escape the harsh winters, they needed all the sleep they could get. From what we found out, they flew off immediately after sunrise to feed. Nobody knows where but there were plenty of wheat and potato fields in the surrounding area. The crops had already been harvested and they fed on the leftover grains and potatoes left in the fields. After grazing for a couple of hours, they flew back here to rest and roost.

There were also hundreds of Greylags present on the lake. Some were having a leisure swim, others were splashing about in the water, a few preening but a majority were grazing on Wigeon Bank. Mainly vegetarian, they fed on various plant items such as grasses, leaves, roots, stems, fruits and sprouts of numerous plants’ species. I bet the Widgeons weren't happy. Greylags were listed in Schedule 2 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, meaning they could be killed or taken outside of the close season. They uttered flight-calls such as loud, honking series of notes with repeated deep “aahng-ahng-ung”. When in flocks, the noise was audible at some distance. They foraged by grazing on the ground or in water where they performed “upending” like the ducks.

In the water, a Pintail was dabbling for plant food. There was a discussion whether it was a male or female and Babe pointed out that it was an eclipsed male. Pintails were easily distinguished by their long, pointed tail feathers and long, graceful necks. Males had a chestnut-coloured head, white neck and grey body, while females were mottled brown with smaller, pointed tails. After breeding, they moulted, replacing the old, worn-out feathers with new ones. Eclipse plumage was temporary or transition plumage. For about a month, they couldn't fly and were vulnerable to predators. To provide protection, the bright body feathers were replaced by dowdy brown ones, making them look much like the  females. Once the flight feathers had regrown, they moulted again, and the full colours were back and easily recognisable once more.

We then waited for the sun to set before we left the reserve. As the days grew shorter, the skies at sunset glowed with the most spectacular hues, blooming with pinks, reds and oranges. And as the nights drew in and the sun was setting earlier, it was the perfect opportunity to see these beautiful colours lighting up the evening sky. Throughout the month we had been treated to some spectacular scenes and with the nights pulling in, the sun had been drifting out of sight as early as 4 pm.

The sun seemed to personify a Dylan Thomas poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night ...
   Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

We parked by the roadside and watched this spectacular sight. By the time we saw the sunset, the sun had actually already gone. This was because a true sunset occurred a minute or so before the sun disappeared. What was seen was a kind of mirage as the light was getting bent around the horizon by the effect of refraction. It was also magical that we only noticed the silhouette of the birds when Babe loaded the photographs onto the computer.

We also made our final trip to Donna Nook. We'd been keeping an eye on the seal counts to decide on which day to go. We left at 8.04 am on a cold, dark gloomy morning with the mercury reaching 3.5C. We timed the traffic perfectly and managed to avoid the morning queues. Unfortunately, at Ingsy Lane, the road was closed and we followed the diversions on very tight country lanes. We arrived a bit later than expected but thankfully, still managed to find a parking space at the Stonebridge car-park. It was nearly 11 am and the place was already buzzing.

After parking and wrapping up very warm, we waddled our way to the viewing point. It was freezing and the high winds didn’t helped either. The seals were now well spread out and there were at least a dozen on the sandy beaches by the entrance. We walked along the chestnut-paling fence that ran the entire length of the viewing area, and more fluffy pups of different stages of growth with their protective mothers scattered along the beach, among the sand-dunes and reed-beds. Their whimpering cries were echoing around us.

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 increased as much as 30kg in 2 weeks. In the meantime, the mothers lost up to 65 kg 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 fluffy, white fur 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. A few 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. At the onset of the breeding season, the male hormone levels changed. When they arrived on the colony, they competed for space nearest to the cows.  It was a long continuous battle to keep the other males away. There were scraps when another male trespassed 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.

We continued walking on 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. Black seal pups were uncommon but not unusual. A few were born every year but they were not seen by visitors because they weren’t seen nearer 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.

We checked out the board and there were now 334 bulls, 1058 cows and 943 pups. Then it was a slow walk back to the car. We were chuffed when we spotted our favourite  Ropeneck with her new born. A well-known seal, she 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.

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

~William Wordsworth~

We stopped and took hundreds more photographs which was a challenge because more people were pouring into the reserve. I couldn’t imagine how busy it was in 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 2018. By January, the viewing area will be empty as all the seal pups had returned to the North Sea.  We wished them a safe journey and hoped to see them again, same time next year, insyallah.

We then stretched our legs with a trip to Slimbridge WWT. We must be loco but it was something we enjoyed doing. We left the casa quite late at 11 am on a gloomy, cloudy and rainy day. There was quite a lot of traffic on the road, especially on the exit roads to Birmingham which was most probably heading for the German Xmas market. My colleagues and I also planned to pay a visit to the market  in mid-December.

There was a long queue into the Slimbridge reception as there were plenty of families bringing their children to take advantage of the many Christmas activities that was laid out. We often found it ridiculous that as members we still had to queue among the paying visitors. We took the usual route and was greeted by this adorable Grey wagtail feeding in the Caribbean flamingo enclosure. The long tail gave it an elegant profile and it was continually active, pumping its tail up and down. It kept on wagging its tail whilst walking or running briskly, foraging for aquatic insects and invertebrates.

The first hide we stopped was the Rushy Hide where we were greeted by this Bewick Swan feeding near the drains. It was surrounded by Coots, Pochards and Tufted Ducks who were waiting to feed on whatever that had been stirred up. It used its strong webbed feet to dig  into submerged mud and tipped up, plunging the head and neck underwater, exposing and feeding on roots, shoots and tubers. This then stirred up invertebrates and aquatic vegetation which were quickly snapped up by the ducks and Coots.

A family of Bewick’s Swan flew in to join their family members on the water. Loud excited high-pitched honking calls echoed around us as those in the water greeted them. They had  finished  feeding on the nearby fields before flying in to roost on the open water. They had a slow, steady flight with their legs dangling as they were about to land, dropping onto the water at steeper angles as if bracing themselves for a mighty crash. They were honking away as they were about to land, a warning sign to those in the water to give them space. They then sailed down and water skied to a halt that ended with a belly-flop.
They were greeted warmly by the family group members. The communicative behaviour increased with density which included head-bobs, vocalizations and displays.  It was noisy, with constant low babbling in the water and indulging in greeting displays, reminiscent of excited dogs. Pairs and families formed particularly coherent units during aggressive encounters involving displays such as bugling and neck-stretching. There were families with yearlings and cygnets, pairs and singles. They then flapped their wings with more musical yapping.  After calming down, they began either preening or feeding.

Each year these extraordinary birds battled their way over thousands of kilometres of desolate tundra, wooded wilderness and vast lakes and seas to escape the icy grip of the Arctic winter after spending the summer on the Russian tundra to feed and breed. These birds were magnificent visitors to our skies. Some had returned to Slimbridge for 28 years,  totalling over 140,000 miles over their lifetimes. But each year fewer and fewer were returning, and it was the same across Europe. It was suspected that they were being affected by habitat and climate changes on their breeding grounds. Other known causes included the presence of wind turbines and power pylons in their flight  path, lead poisoning and illegal hunting.

Bewick’s swans cared for their offspring for a relatively long time. Cygnets remained with their parents throughout their first winter, staying within calling distance as they were guided along their first migration. They arrived in the UK from mid-October, wintering here until the following March before migrating once again to their breeding grounds on the Russian tundra. The arrival of the Bewicks causes much debate because folklore suggested that it could predict whether we were set to face a cold winter. If they arrived early then it could meant a harsh winter – or even a white Christmas - but later touchdowns indicated a milder few months.

The first Bewick's, named Indri, had arrived here in Slimbridge on 30th October. With each bird having a unique bill pattern, experts could identify and record the individual birds from their beaks. Indri had surfed the first blast of winter winds from the Arctic which heralded the arrival of winter.  Up to 200 Bewick's  overwinter from late October to Early March, and her appearance was the 3rd visit to the reserve after arriving as a cygnet in 2016.

Then we headed to Martin Smith hide to see if the Jack Snipe was out and about.  There were several sightings but not today. Thankfully, a large flock of Wigeon grazing very close to the hide kept us occupied. It appeared that a large arrival had arrived overnight and they were feeding in their distinctive carpet formation. They ate primarily plants, both aquatic and terrestrial. They grazed on the plants and seeds using their short bills. These ducks were once known as 'Baldplate' because of their white crown.

We continued on and checked out Willow Hide to see if the Water rail was around. We don’t have to wait long when the star attraction turned up. Water-rail was supposed to be secretive and shy, often heard than seen with their loud squealing and snorting noises emerging from the dense reed-beds. But not this bird with its chestnut-brown and black upperparts, grey face and underparts and black-and white barred flacks, a long red bill and tiny cocked tail. It came strutting out probing with its bill on the seeds that had fallen from the bird-feeder.

We then made a very brief visit to the rest of the hides as there was nothing much about. On the way back,  we made another stop at Rushy Hide where the Pintails had woken up and were wandering around in pairs. Drake pintails were stunning. They were sleek and slender, with long protruding tail feathers which gave them their common name. They appeared pale grey overall, but sported a lovely chocolate-coloured head with a white stripe extending up from breast to behind each eye. Under their tails, they were black and cream, and in flight a white, black and rufous bar was revealed on each wing. The females were mottled tan overall, but still appeared to be sleeker and more pointed than other female ducks. In flight, they showed a brown wing bar edged with white. Both had blue-grey bills.

We ended the month with a visit to our favourite playground again. As usual when we walked past the SAGA sign, we were bombarded by the Robins. I always carried a small container of mealworms and started hand feeding them. At first, they glowered at me from their perch, trying to make up their mind before swooping down to accept my offerings. They were very quick, snatching a juicy mealworm before flying back into the undergrowth to feed. There was something very special about the impossibly light bundle of energy that stood a few seconds on my hand. It was definitely a grin-inducing moment of wildlife connection.

We stopped at Baldwin Hide where a female Golden Eye was swimming quite close to the hide. Unlike the male which was black and white with a greenish black head and a circular white patch in front of the yellow eye, she was smaller and  mottled grey with a chocolate brown head. Goldeneyes were diving ducks with streamlined bodies and short tails. They foraged mostly under water for small aquatic animals such as crabs, crayfish, snails, clams,  insects, small fishes and bits of vegetation. They dived for these and ate them while underwater.

The pontoon was full of resting Cormorants. These large, black, long-necked swimmers and divers were easily recognised by their crucifix- like stance. The  bodies upright, wings held partly outstretched. They struck an eerie pose as they spread their wings to enable their plumage to dry and retained the natural oils. Cormorants lacked the water resistant properties that many other aquatic birds possessed, and must dry their wings. It required large amounts of energy for a Cormorant to regulate its body temperature in order to dry its wings and had used nature’s hand-drier – the wind.

The hide was getting busier and from Baldwin Hide we saw that East Marsh Hide was also packed. We decided not to go further and headed home. November had often been written off as the holding month between Halloween and Christmas when very little happened but not for us. Autumn was at its best, before the rain or snow fell, the skies were bright blue and the leaves were still orange and totally kickable. The promise of Xmas was more exciting in November as it was tantalising close but no one was stressed out yet.

#D. H. Lawrence

Saturday, 23 February 2019

The month of November makes me feel

“The month of November makes me feel that life is passing more quickly. In an effort to slow it down, I try to fill the hours more meaningfully.”
~Henry Rollins~

My colleagues and I attended a brief introduction to an Information security, records management and data protection workshop during our lunch break. I found it ridiculous that such an important issue was slotted for only an hour and not made compulsory for all staff to attend. I wished that they had given us links to the websites to be read first before we attended. This was because they showed us the links, gave a very brief introduction and asked us if there were any questions????? when we weren’t given any chance to read. Most of us highlighted that in the feedback form.

On the weekend, it was my annual trip to London to catch up with a bit of urban busyness, culture and off course friends. HI, SP and I had been planning this trip since June (?) but we just couldn’t confirmed the date where we could make it. It was a huge relief when we finally agreed on this date. We had an early start from Coventry with a huge mug of hot tea and cookies for HI and hot chocolate for me. We were so busy yakking that we didn’t realise that we’d arrived in London. SP was already there and after the obligatory hugging, we started our adventure.

We walked past the British Museum where a large crowd was gathering for the demo and rally for public libraries. As the crisis in our public library service deepened and central Government slashed local council budgets, UNISON called a National Demonstration in support of Libraries, Museums and Culture. Several hundred people, from library workers to users, readers to writers, from young to old, had gathered and they marched to Parliament Square, to protest against the crippling underfunding of the country’s arts and culture. Since 2010, more than 500 public libraries have been closed across England, Scotland and Wales and, despite the Chancellor’s claimed that austerity had ended, they continued to be hit by crippling budget cuts. I would love to join them but unfortunately, we’d other plans. We wished them all the best.

“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”
~Walter Cronkite~

We continued our adventure and took the bus to Oxford Circus. From here, we’d a leisurely stroll along the pedestrianised Regent Street which was closed for traffic for the annual Regent Street Motor show. Rather excitingly, the theme of this year’s showcase was centred on America’s high profile Route 66. Route 66 began in Illinois and the Motor Show was paying homage to one of the world’s best-loved roads. Elements of Route 66 – such as the globally recognised signs and vintage cars – could be spotted along the Regent Street’s curve.
“Highway 1 could be today’s Route 66 with a view”
~Diana Hollingsworth-Gessler~

There was 125 years of motoring prowess with a fantastic display of vintage, veteran, classic and modern cars. Among the displays was more than 100 horseless carriages from the turn of the 20th century which took part in the annual Veteran Car Concours d’Elegance. They were very popular with the spectators especially when the drivers and passengers were in period dress. All my photographs were photo-bombed. There was interactive displays, hourly performances of automotive-themed songs from the West End Kids and a chance to try the Top Gear Experience. When compared to Coventry MotorFest, I think Coventry was thousand times better.

An hour later, we arrived at SP’s library and we were given our own personal library tour. The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), was founded in 1820, for the encouragement and promotion of  the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. From its earliest days the Society had started to accumulate books, manuscripts, instruments and other memorabilia, and these formed the basis of the Library and Archives, which were maintained today. The current Library collection included about 35,000 bound items, including about 14,000 open-shelf books published after 1850, about 3,500 before that date, and the remainder bound journals, together with a large collection of unbound pamphlets. Entering the 21st century the Society continued to carry out its three main functions of maintaining a Library, organizing scientific meetings, and publishing journals, and other functions in pursuit of its goals of the encouragement and promotion of astronomy and geophysics.

We later freshened up and got ready to check out ‘Oceania’ an exhibition that explored the art past and present of the Pacific Islands at the Royal Academy which was just next door. We were so grateful that SP managed to get a pair of complimentary tickets for us. The exhibition  marked 250 years since the British explorer Captain James Cook first journeyed to the region and it coincided with the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy. Oceania was the first ever major survey of Oceanic art held in the UK.
The Royal Academy’s exhibition Oceania presented the region’s distinctive landscape as a vital and deeply interconnected highway that linked Pacific peoples together in a network of dynamic exchange and encounter. It included an astonishing array of some 200 artworks, ranging from 14th-century carving to 21st-century painting. The show was structured around three key themes that guided the visitor and reinforced the close conceptual underpinnings that connected what appeared to be radically distinct art traditions. “Voyaging” evoked the extraordinary story of navigation across this vast landscape, presenting the arts associated with ocean travel: decorated paddles and immaculately executed fishhooks were accorded ritual, as well as practical, purpose; exquisitely carved canoe sterns and highly embellished prow figures from the Solomon Islands were inlaid with sections of shell designed to catch the light.

A second theme – “Making Place” – explored the extraordinarily innovative ways in which Islanders created and inhabited homelands in these vastly distinctive geographies, establishing dwellings on sacred sites where they might interact with their gods in the strip of existence afforded them between ocean and sky. The artworks in this section told a multitude of stories relating to origins, ancestral power, performance, secrecy and initiation. They included some of the great masterpieces of Oceanic art, such as carved and elaborately painted façades of ceremonial houses, crocodile reliquaries from the Sepik region of New Guinea and spectacular turtle shell masks from the Torres Strait Islands.

The final theme – “Encounter” – explored a range of defining moments grounded in early indigenous encounters that consumed rival clans in inter-island warfare and localised raids that sought to settle disputes and restore cosmological balance. The Enlightenment era of scientific exploration, which began in earnest with Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific region in 1768– the year in which the Royal Academy of Arts was founded by Royal Charter – launched a dramatic new epoch of encounter between the Oceanic cultures now long-established in the region and the emerging European nations whose tall-masted ships now ventured into the maritime theatre of the Pacific. This colonial encounter was seismic in scale, and its reeling effects are still being processed by indigenous peoples today – it kick-started an era marked as much by misunderstanding, violence and tragedy as by the sharing and mutual curiosity of “discovery”.

Pacific artworks remained a vital cultural resource for both sides of this extraordinary and entangled era of encounter. Expansive in its vision, Oceania gave visitors a strong sense of the range of values that have been imposed over time upon these singularly impressive objects. Those brought back to England by early explorers such as Cook lined the shelves of 18th-century cabinets, as specimens of intellectual curiosity. Other works on view became salvaged trophies that gauged the successes of English evangelicals from the London Missionary Society, who were active in the region from 1797 onwards.

Customary traditions and protocol remained alive in the Pacific region. Many of the major loans for Oceania were accompanied by tribal elders who had been overseeing appropriate cultural protocols for these ancestral treasures when they were installed. These treasured heirlooms were not valued simply because they survive from an earlier era; they were understood as vectors of spiritual power, or mana. As remnants of the past, they bore the traces of the ancestral hands that fashioned them. Yet they were understood as not just made by ancestors – they were ancestors. Ritual protocols included the rhythmic and steady recitation of chants by elders skilled in the arts of oratory, and served to animate and activate ongoing relationships between the living and the dead, with those who have gone before but who were recognised as continuously present in the cultural heirlooms and artworks on display. Pacific artworks was understood as having agency; bridging the past with the present, they actively engaged the community with its past, channelling and invigorating ancestral relations at appropriate times.

It was a huge exhibition and there was so much to absorb. It was also the first exhibition I attended that photography was encouraged. Unfortunately due to poor lighting and the large number of people, I wasn’t able to take as many photographs as I liked. This was especially so when you needed to be quite a distance away from the objects and there were people photobombing. Another thing which I found lacking was  was that was no one around to answer any questions. You have to rely on the notes that accompanied each object. All in all it was a wonderful experience.

After about 2 hours, our tummies were rumbling and it was time for a late lunch. As we walked out of the neoclassic building into the Annenberg Courtyard, we were greeted by an eerie surprise. Cornelia Parker’s Psycho Barn was inspired by the quaint, yet deeply unsettling homestead from Alfred’s Hitchcock classic Psycho  and Edward Hopper’s 1925 painting, House by the Railroad. The 30-foot tall installation wasn’t a real house. It was a scaled-down facade, made from repurposed strips of wood from an American Red Barn. According to the artist, it confronted the polarities of good and evil. The installation first appeared on top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC in 2016.

We found it surprisingly hard to find a place to eat which wasn’t a fast-food restaurant and within our pocket range. Some were either full and some had ran out of food. Finally, we found a quirky, hipster, vegan cafe tucked in a corner. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name and what I ate. I think it was a quesadilla washed down with a hot lemon grass tea. We didn’t stay long because we’d a train to catch. On the way to Euston, we walked past Liberty and we just had to stop and had a quick browse. The place was packed and beautifully decorated for Christmas. I bought a very expensive Xmas bauble as a momento to be added to our tree. Then it was a brisk walk to the station. We’d a lovely time in London with SP and made promises to do it again next year.
When I was away in London, Babe was at our favourite playground where he photographed this handsome fox on Wigeon bank. The natives in the reserve used this bank as a highway to move from one end to another. As it walked across, it stopped to survey the ground. Foxes ate virtually everything, from rodents to amphibians, insects, earthworms, fruits, berries to leftovers scavenged from humans. They played an important role in our ecosystem, primarily through the control of rodent and rabbit population which could decimate our crops and plantations.

He was looking magnificent with his reddish-brown fur, a white chest and a bushy, white-tipped tail called a brush. Foxes were primarily crepuscular, meaning  usually active at dusk and during the night, searching alone for food. We were very lucky to have foxes visiting our semi-rural garden. We also often put dog food out and the bones from our roast for them, if the neighbourhood cats don’t get them first. From time to time,during the cold winter nights, an eerie screeching sound echoed around us. A vixen was signalling to the males that she was ready to mate.

Babe had also photographed a Little Grebe swimming past the Baldwin hide. Also known as Dabchick, it was UK smallest grebe. It was now in  its dull brown winter colour with a pale and fluffy rear. The lack of a tail made it buoyant and usually swam with the undertail feathers fluffed up. A great diver and readily dived when disturbed, surfacing unseen some distance away. Little Grebes were solitary feeders but formed small groups when foraging for food in the winter. Their diet was mainly small fishes, insects, crustaceans, frogs and shellfish. I was pleased to see them again as I’ve not seen them in the reserve for some time.

We made our first trip to Donna Nook this year. We’d been diligently checking the weather forecasts, the seal count board and the RAF planes scheduled for their target practice. It was a 3 hour drive and we wanted to make maximum use of it. The first pup was born on 22nd October and from the Twitter feed, more had been born and more people had been visiting them. I took Friday off to avoid the weekend congestion at the site. We left early at 7 am so that we could get a parking space at the Stonebridge car-park. It was 8.4C and the sun was slowly rising. We saw skeins of Canada geese flying over us at Newark. We hit the 8.30am rush hour traffic at Lincoln and drove past Lincoln Cathedral shrouded in the haze. We stopped at Wragby for a comfort break and had coffee to warm up because it was freezing.

We arrived at the car-park at 9.45am and it was nearly full!!! 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. Babe was very lucky to have spotted and photographed this cute Gold Crest flitting among the foliage, foraging for food when we walked past the bramble bushes. It was UK’s smallest bird, and was characterised by its yellow-orange crest. It was hunting for tiny morsels like spiders, moth eggs and other smaller insects.

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 415 pups born so far, along with 652 cows and 284 bulls. It was still early in the season and the number changes every day with new cows and pups arriving.

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 we encountered was cuter than the one before, looking at us 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.

From time to time, skeins of Pink-footed geese flew overhead in their characteristic V-formation. As they flew in and out of the mud-flats, we could hear their loud, honking calls.These geese were winter visitors to the UK, feeding on the nearby farmland, selecting stubbles, managed grasslands, cereals and root crops. They then flew back to the sheltered coastal bays to roost. They flew here from Greenland and Iceland in October to spend the winter, and returning back in April for their breeding season.

The radio scanner crackled and we could hear some loud rumblings high up in the sky. We scanned the sky above us but we couldn’t see any aircraft. Whatever military craft was flying was doing its practice run in the sea. The wildlife were unfazed by the planes. 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 bat an eyelid. The waders and wildfowls were much more aware of raptors such as Merlins, Marsh Harriers and Kestrels flushing them up into the air. Large charm of colourful Goldfinches were busy feeding on the teasels and orange sea buckthorn on the dunes.

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. As we walked past the bushes, we spotted this Red Admiral enjoying the late autumn sunshine. We’d a picnic in the car before heading home. When we drove past the farmer’s land which was used as a car-park, the parking charge had risen to £4!!!. What. That will be a nightmare for the Trust as visitors would start parking on the very narrow lanes, blocking exits and entrances.

The next day, we stretched our legs with a visit to Slimbridge WWT. We must be loco after yesterday’s long distance drive.  We left the casa at 9 am and the mercury was at 8.5C. It was bright and sunny, a lovely day to be out and about. We headed straight to Rushy Hide where hundreds of Northern Pintails greeted us. The Pintail was nicknamed “the Greyhound of the Air” due to their swift & elegant appearance in flight. Male ducks, known as drakes, were due to their long tapering  tails, which have central feathers. Drakes had beautiful breeding plumage, with chocolate brown heads and white stripes draping each side of their neck extending into a white patch on their breast. Their backs and sides were grey, with black stripes on their wings and shoulders. Their bills and legs were bluish grey in colour. Females had  a brownish colour and a uniformly grey head, and their tail feathers were significantly shorter.

It was unthinkable that Pintails were a 'quarry' species, meaning that they could be legally shot in winter. They were not very vocal most of the time, but when they were the females vocalization was a hoarse “quack”, while the males was a whistle-like “kwee” sound. They were usually among the first birds to begin migrating in the fall and spring. Northern Pintails were enduring fliers and were known to make trans-Atlantic flights, as birds tagged on the east coast of North America had been found days later in Europe. They were dabbling ducks, primarily feeding on grasses, aquatic plants, and plant seeds, and also eat invertebrates, crustaceans, insects, frogs, and small fish.. The long neck allowed it to dabble for food that may be up to 1 foot under water, which is beyond the range of several other dabbling ducks, like the Mallards and the Pochards.

I was so pleased to see about half a dozen Pochards foraging nearby. We’d not seen them for ages. Most of the birds in the UK came from northern and eastern Europe for the winter, with just a few pairs staying to nest. The males were very distinctive with  bright reddish-brown head, a black breast and tail and a pale grey body. Females were more easily confused with other species; they were brown with a greyish body and pale cheeks.Females gave hoarse growls. Males had whistles cut off by a final nasal note aaoo-oo-haa. They fed mainly by diving or dabbling for aquatic plants with molluscs, aquatic insects and small fishes.

We then checked the rest of the hides but there was nothing much about on the tack field except for the usual Lapwings, Pintails, Canada Geese, Teals and Tufted ducks. The tide must be out and most of the natives were feeding on the mudflats. We checked Willow Hide and wasn’t disappointed when the usually secretive and shy Water rail turned up. At first, it was extremely hard to see, preferring to stay hidden in thick vegetation. It foraged for food by wading through shallows in and among tall reeds, occasionally appearing at the edge.  The long, red bill probed the soft ground or shallow water for insects and seeds from the bird-feeder. Suddenly, it disappeared once more into the sanctuary of the reed-bed, showing off the white flash beneath the cocked tail, before the bird disappeared once more into the sanctuary of the reed-bed.

We headed back to Rushy Hide to see if anything turned up. The Pintails, Shelducks, Pochards, Teals and Gulls were having a siesta. A Redhank was busy foraging along the water’s sedge, hunting for insects, earthworms, molluscs and crustaceans by probing its bill into the soil and mud. As its name suggested, Redshanks' most distinctive features were their bright orange-red legs. They had a medium-length bill with an orange base to match, brown speckled back and wings and paler belly. Large numbers of Redshank fly here from Iceland to spend the winter around our coasts.

After a picnic in the car-park, we made our way home. As soon as we drove across the Patch Bridge that crossed over the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, we came across a very long, line of cars parked on both sides of the road. We crawled slowly and suddenly nearing the village, there was a massive gridlock. No one was moving. After about 20 minutes, we began to move very s-l-o-w-l-y. As we drove past the St John the Evangelist Church, I noticed "Ghostlike" sculptures in the churchyard. Since the traffic was stalled, I quickly ran out with my camera and snapped a sculpture standing silently, outside the village hall.

How I wished I’d seen these sculptures on the drive up but I guess, it hadn’t been installed yet. They were sculptures of life-size figures of 11 soldiers who died in World War One. Sculptor Jackie Lantelli had created them out of chicken wire, looking like ghosts and were positioned at the foot of graves of the fallen. The art installation had caught the public's imagination with its simple power, and people had flocked to the village church to see it. What a poignant tribute to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the war for the Armistice Commemoration. There were 11 soldiers for the 11th month of the 11th day of the 11th hour.

We also attended Coventry Lord Mayor's Annual Peace Lecture given by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown at the 14th century St. Mary’s Guildhall. Located in the city's historic Cathedral Quarter, the magnificent medieval interiors and fine artworks offered a window into Coventry's glorious past, where we joined Mary, Queen of Scots, and Shakespeare on the long list of visitors to have passed through its doors. But we weren’t here to admire the surroundings. We were entertained by the Worldsong Choir as the audience took their seats. It was nearly 8 pm when the lecture started. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a renowned journalist and author and a well-known commentator on immigration, diversity, and multiculturalism issues. She gave a good lecture and also was marketing her latest book. We didn’t stay for coffee because it had been a long day for me.

The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.