Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Those Last Warm Days in October

After a summer heatwave, the UK was hammered by torrential rainfall from Storms Ali and Bronagh. Next, the British Isles experienced a very warm and settled autumn, a phenomenon known as an Indian Summer. An Indian Summer was defined as a warm, calm spell of weather occurring after the first frost in Autumn, especially in October and November. A large area of high pressure had brought plenty of dry and fine weather with sizzling temperatures. What a sunny, warm welcome for the students to the start of the new academic year.

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Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to enjoy the fine weather. I started October being off work for 3 days. I even had to re-schedule my flu jab appointment. I was furious with some of my colleagues who came to work spluttering, coughing and sneezing their heads off. Why oh why??? For the sake of their own health and everyone in the office, it was best if they called in sick and just stayed home. I followed my own advice and stayed at home armed with cough syrup, Paracetamol and vapour rub. I’d a Great Spotted Woodpecker drilling in my head. It was that bad. I spent the whole day in Babe’s reclining chair with the patio door open to let in some fresh air. Even the birds weren’t at the feeder cos they don’t want to catch anything from meSad smile

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Once I got my mojo back, we went for a very long walk at Bradgate Park, just in time for the rutting season. October was always the most exciting time of the year to watch the deer as they engaged in fierce mating battles. As the foliage changed colour into the russets, oranges and yellows of autumn, the sounds of amorous males could be heard. It was interesting to watch them because their behaviour changes as the rut progressed. With testosterone coursing through every vein, the male deer jostled for position and display their virility to set about bagging themselves a harem.

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The male Fallow deer was known as a buck, the female was a doe, and the young a fawn. Starting in early October, the Fallow deer rut lasted for 3-4 weeks, although bucks’ rutting physique started to develop earlier when velvet, the layer of initially soft, hairy skin that covered the growing antlers, died back and was rubbed off as the bone hardened ready for the battles ahead. Their Adam’s apples began to bulge and bulk increased, particularly around the neck and shoulders with rutting odours developing..

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In early September, Fallow bucks re-appeared in traditional rutting areas, having spent the preceding months in bachelor parties, separate from the does. The bucks remained for a while in each others company, but increasingly prepared for action. Play fights developed; rutting postures were intermittently assumed; vegetation was thrashed; antlers became burnished; and scrapes and wallows were made in which the bucks churned the ground, urinated in the quagmire and rolled in the resultant mess. It apparently made them more attractive to the ladies!!!

Bradgate Park - October

Outside the rut, bucks lived in small bachelor herds, separately from the does and fawns. Only bucks have antlers, which were broad and shovel-shaped. In the first two years, the antler was a single spike. The Fallow was the only British deer with palmate antlers. These increased in size with age reaching up to 70cm long when the adult was 3 - 4 years old. It was found that males with larger antlers had higher mating success, while asymmetrical antlers did not. Large bucks may stop feeding completely during the rut and lose condition as a result, whereas younger bucks hanging around on the fringes continued to eat as normal.

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Groaning - the Fallow buck’s mating call – was best described as a cross between a loud belch, a groan, a snore, a snort and a growl. It was used to attract the does for, unlike Red deer stags, Fallow bucks generally do not actively round-up and maintain a harem. They depended for courtship success upon the attractions of their groan! With head held not much above the horizontal, lips curled back and pursed, the primeval sound seemed to come from deep within the animal's very being.

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Noise and posturing was often enough to settle disputes, but when rival bucks were evenly matched and equally belligerent, battle royals occurred. Then the woods reverberated to the sound of bone striking bone as fights commenced. But combatants don’t just stand head-to-head, trading blows – these contests were really battles of strength as, heads down, antlers locked, the deer pushed and shoved, using every straining muscle to gain advantage. It would be lovely to see this but not today.

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Rutting activity generally quietened by mid-morning. Then the resident buck sat down in the midst of the stand, whilst does and younger bucks settled around the edge, or feeding nearby. For the bucks, the rut was an incredibly tiring time. By the end of the process, they had lost weight and exhausted, ready to slip into the background where they blended well with the leaves and bracken whilst trying to regain back their health before the onset of winter.

Bradgate Park - October

Red deer were usually content to stand and stare whilst visitors walked by, before casually wandering away. But early on autumnal mornings, during the annual rut, testosterone charged stags with thickened manes made a fearsome sight as, muscles rippling, flanks caked in mud, breath billowing white against the darker heather, they were a sight to behold. The biggest stags had the finest antlers, or heads, as they were often known, with as many as 20 sharp, burnished points. Each was a potential weapon in the fight for supremacy, the battle for mating with the hinds. Fights between stags were infrequently witnessed. More often sound, display, posture and chase were sufficient to settle disputes.

Bradgate Park - October

We were walking  to one of our favourite corner of the park, when we heard the familiar roars and grunts that sounded like ‘a cross between a chainsaw and a burp’ and something thrashing the branches. We walked slowly and quietly towards the noise. We hid behind a tree and watched this handsome stag  having a go at the branches. We stood there watching him doing his neck exercises, full of testosterones coursing through every vein. Although a small stream divided, we kept a very safe distance, still behind a tree watching this spectacular behaviour. We’d to be extra careful as stags were aggressive during the rutting season.

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Then it crossed the river and trotted off towards the hills. It stopped in the middle of the field and threw back its head to roar and showed off the thick neck and manes to its best advantage. The main vocalisation was bellowing, often several times a minute, combined with low grunts. These deep, guttural bellowing weren’t war cries but were seduction calls to the hinds. The sounds was suppose to bring the viable hinds into heat in readiness for mating. In the world of the Red deer, the most attractive stags were the ones that roared the loudest and the most often.

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He kept on calling and calling, while marking his territory, creating rutting stand and thrashing the grass, before making his way up the hills. We also watched another stag thrashing the ground so that the vegetation was caught up in his antlers and made them looked larger. He seemed content to do  his work sitting down, allowing his heavy bellows to announce his presence. After more bellowing, he went off to sleep. What an anti-climax.

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Unlike Fallow bucks that try to attract females to a rutting stand, Red deer stags had less allegiance to a piece of ground, much preferring to try to control the movements of a chosen group of hinds. When engaged in this high energy task, the stags were rarely still, sometimes running, sometimes walking, often slowly, deliberately pacing, but always with obvious intent – to bring wandering hinds back into the fold, and drive off competitors.

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Yearling stags, those with single spikes for antlers, often hang around the edge of the group, jousting amongst themselves, preparing for the day when they too will hold a group of hinds. Providing that they do not get too close, their presence was often tolerated, but encroaching animals were chased away, only to return a little later when the resident, mature stag’s back was turned. By mid to late-morning, rutting activity quietened, and the deer settled in the field content to lie-up for the remainder of the day. On the way back, we spotted these ladies having a quiet moment in the sun.

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There was also wedding celebration being held at Lady Jane’s Grey chapel. Bradgate Park wasn’t licensed for weddings but The Trust worked with a celebrant company that could write and conduct a ceremony. The well-dressed guests walked for about 20 minutes towards the Chapel while the beautiful bride was cycled in a well-decorated rickshaw. This was the first time we saw a wedding being held here. The 16th century Bradgate House was a ruin but the chapel was still intact, containing a tomb effigy to Henry Grey, 1st Earl of Stamford and his wife.  We wished the couple a lifetime of love and happiness.

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I took a day off work to go fungi hunting. Autumn was the season to be amazed by the myriad of fungal fruiting bodies that were on show. We were lucky that our favourite playground had erupted and came alive with these fantastic fungi and I do not want to miss any sightings of them. No matter what the season, dry conditions were not good times for fruiting fungus. Most mushrooms appeared soon after rain. The moist condition quickly triggered the fruiting process and that was why so many seemed to ‘pop up’ overnight. The reserve was buzzing when someone had found Earthstar in the grounds.

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Babe went looking for it and called me to find out where it was located. Via the Twitter feed, I was able to assist him to the exact location. Whoop…whoop. When he showed me the photograph that he’d taken, I really wanted to see it before the news got around. It was quite hard to spot because it was well camouflaged among the fallen leaves. But once seen, it was easy to see the distinct, star-like appearance. It was an interesting fungus that sat on a platform consisting of four to ten plump, pointed plants that gave them the star-shaped features. The central puffball or sac, was smooth, while the pointy arms had a crackled appearance.

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While searching for fungi, Babe had spotted a whole field of my favourite fungi, the Fly Agaric, popping along the damp banks of the ditches. Even Babe was impressed at the stunning display as either side of the mossy bank was sploshed with scarlet. We’d never seen so many Fly Agarics in one place. It was more magical of the sight of them, nestling amid the dead leaves, caught in the shaft of autumnal sunshine, smouldering in all its scarlet beauty.They were the quintessential fairy tale toadstool, a home for woodland sprites and we were surrounded by them. It was indeed, magical.

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There were many fully formed caps with the bright red and white spots in variable size and forms. Some picture-book perfect hemispheres, others were ranging from golf balls to dinner plates, a few inverted into bowls. The scarlet caps were speckled with flakes of popcorn, the remnants of the universal veil, a membrane that covered the fruiting body as it emerged from the ground looking like white eggs. As it grew, the red colour appeared through the broken skin and the warts became less prominent. They do not change in size, but were reduced relative to the expanding skin area. The cap changed from globose to hemispherical, and finally to plate-like and flat in mature specimens. Fully grown, the bright red cap was usually around 8–20 cm in diameter. The red colour faded after rain and in older mushrooms.

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It had been a glorious autumn for fungi hunting as we went round in search for more. A hot summer, followed by a mild, moist autumn had helped to usher in a bumper crop. The forest had played host to a diverse fungal flora because they needed  moist and shady environments due to their simple vasculature system. It smelled deliciously damp and decaying that you could hear everything recycling itself. Nutrients returning to the soil, bacterial activity busy at work. There was a substantial body of evidence that fungi were fruiting earlier as a result of climate change. Various reasons had been suggested, including one that mycorrhizal fungi which formed symbiotic links with tree roots were receiving more nutrients from the host trees that had a longer growing season. Another was that decay rates in forest soils were increasing as the average temperature rose.

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The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants -
At Evening, it is not
At Morning, in a Truffled Hut
It stop opon a Spot

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As if it tarried always
And yet it's whole Career
Is shorter than a Snake's Delay -
And fleeter than a Tare -

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'Tis Vegetation's Juggler -
The Germ of Alibi -
Doth like a Bubble antedate
And like a Bubble, hie -

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I feel as if the Grass was pleased
To have it intermit -
This surreptitious Scion
Of Summer's circumspect.

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Had Nature any supple Face
Or could she one contemn -
Had Nature an Apostate -
That Mushroom - it is Him!

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~Emily Dickinson ‘The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants’~

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We also checked out the hides to see what the natives were up to. At Baldwin Hide, we noticed this pair of Mute Swan was displaying the classic image of devotion, with their curved necks entwined in a perfect love heart. This was part of a courtship ritual, in which pairs faced each other and, with a ruffle of feathers and lifted wings, bow gracefully. Their courtship "dance" was accompanied by a range of hissing and grunting sounds. Once courtship was completed, the pair were bonded for life.

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We also watched a swim of Cormorant fishing together in the corner of the lake. They looked a bit eerie as they adopted a communal feeding strategy. They herded shoals of fishes, forming a broad front to drive them into the corner,  catching them by diving from the surface, chasing their prey underwater and seizing them with their hooked bills. After diving for food, they flew back to the posts and island to dry their plumage. The Cormorant’s feather had absorbed the water and they all adopted an outstretched wings posture.

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Then we headed to the very busy East Marsh Hide. As soon as we sat down, a Water rail was dashing across the reed-bed. The chestnut brown and black upperparts with black-and-white barred flanks were visible as it whizzed past on its long powerful legs.  They were highly secretive inhabitants of freshwater wetlands, more often heard than seen with their wide range of loud and snorting calls, traditionally known as ‘sharming’. They were omnivorous, mainly feeding on small fishes, snails and insects.

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In the water, a single female pintail was busy dabbling and upending to feed on the seeds and nutlets of moist-soil and aquatic plants along the shallower edges of the lake. Unlike the male with a signature white stripe down their chocolate-coloured necks, she was intricately patterned and pale-faced with a dark-brown upper body with a buff head and lower body. The bill was blue-gray blotched with black, and the legs and feet were slate-grey.

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Then a Muntjac walked along Wigeon bank. This path was the super highway for these animals as they moved from one end of the reserve to another. The Muntjac was the smallest deer found in Britain but it wasn’t a native species as it originated from China and India. Active by day or night, they were mostly seen at dusk, but we often see them using this path at any time of the day. They were notorious browsers, munching on the grass as they walked past as well as eating the shoots from shrubs, saplings and Brambles.

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Muntjac were generally solitary or found in pairs (doe with kid or buck with doe) although pair-bonding does not occur. Bucks defend small exclusive territories against other bucks whereas does' territories overlap with each other and with several bucks. Bucks had short (10 cm) antlers growing from long pedicles. Antlers were usually unbranched but a very short brow tine was occasionally found in old bucks. They had visible upper canines (tusks) suggesting that they were primitive species. Muntjac had two pairs of large glands on the face. The upper pair were the frontal glands, whilst the lower glands, below the eyes, were called sub-orbitals. Both glands were used to mark territories and boundaries. They had a ginger forehead with pronounced black lines running up the pedicles in bucks, and a dark diamond shape on does.

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Babe had photographed a Hobby dashing across the sky chasing after grasshoppers and other large insects, earlier in the week. It looked like a giant swift with its long swept back, scythe-like wings and square tipped tail. It was capable of high speed manoeuvres and accelerating rapidly in flight. The Hobby had a dark eye ring and moustache stretching below the beak and a white throat leading down to bold dark streaks on the breast, the back was dark grey. On closer inspection the adults could be seen to have brick red ‘trousers’ and undertail (vent) – a feature that was missing on the juveniles.

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Preys were caught in their talons and ate in flight, passing the food from the talons to their beak while still in the air. Soon these summer visitors will be flying off for its autumn migration, as it was the only British falcon that spent the winter months south of the Sahara Desert. Their main prey here were the flying termites. Hobbies were listed as a Schedule 1 bird on The Wildlife and Countryside Act. I kept on scanning the skies but I guess, they’d already flown back to their wintering grounds.

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We also made a trip to Slimbridge WWT to celebrate Babe’s birthday and also to see what the natives were up to. The place was buzzing with the opening of a new attraction, a giant Bionic bug trail. The trail offered visitors to get up close to a host of 6 gigantic bugs that included a 6-foot long dragonfly, 4-foot buzzing bee, 6-foot wingspan butterfly and a 6-foot long hopping grasshopper. They were brought to life with state-of-the-art animatronics and incredible sound effects which was a hit with the kids. There were also themed activities such as pond-dipping, minibeast hunts and making a mini bug house.

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Clutching their free bug book, the young and not-so-young went hunting for these bugs which they couldn’t miss because they were huge and then received a sticker for each one they found. They explored The Spinney and North American zone to see what was hiding, peered under branches, through leaves and down murky holes to see these creatures up close.  It was a n interesting way for the visitors to find out fascinating facts about the minibeasts that inhabited our wetland world. Meanwhile, we preferred keeping our eyes peeled to the ground and snapping the real-life bugs as we did our usual walkabout.

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Out first pit-stop was Rushy Hide which was very quiet. The highly gregarious Northern Pintail were fast asleep by the shore of the lake. They were all winter visitors, flying from the more northern and eastern breeding areas in Scandinavia and countries bordering the North Sea. They must be resting after the long journey or had just been feeding. Their winter diet was mainly plant material including seeds and rhizomes of aquatic plants. I found it ridiculous that these elegant masters of the air were ‘quarry’ species which meant that they could be legally shot in winter.

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On the water, the handsome males were happily dabbling away, feeding at the water’s surface. They looked stunning with a chocolate brown coloured head and a thin white stripe running down from the back of its head to its neck. They had black stripes on their backs, a blue-grey bill, grey legs and feet. Another striking feature was the long tapering tail. The females were more subtle and subdued with drab mottled light brown feathers. The males call had been described as a tooting two-toned whistle while the females had a Mallard-like nasal quack.

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From here we checked out the next hides but didn’t stay long as there was nothing much about. Even the water-rail didn’t make an appearance at Willow Hide. It was that quiet. Thankfully, these family of White-fronted goose kept us occupied at Robbie Garnett Hide. These Geese that winter in Britain were from the Baltic/North Sea population which bred in European Arctic Russia and northwest Siberia, and winter predominately in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Britain was on the very western edge of the population’s wintering range hence only small numbers were seen. The adults had a large white patch at the front of the head around the beak and bold black bars on the belly. The legs were orange and Siberian birds had pink bills, while Greenland birds had orange bills.

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We walked back into the grounds and headed straight to Hogarth Hide which was surprisingly busy. We waited for a few minutes to get an empty seat. Out in the dried mudflat, a pair of Common Crane was busy preening. The slate-grey plumage, enhanced with black or bluish-black on primary and secondary flight feathers, gave to them a proud pace. The fairly long feathers fell on the short tail, and “dance” while the birds were moving. Later, we found out that they were 5 year old Oakie and 4 year old Sherbert. In May this year, they’d successfully raised a chick together.  Fingers-crossed, they do the same next year because the Common Crane were monogamous and pair bonds lasted for life.

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While the Common Cranes continued on with their preening, Babe and I played counting the Common Snipes. They were skulking in the reed-beds, well camouflaged among the sleeping Teals. Both sexes were cryptically patterned mottled brown above, with paler buff stripes on the back, dark streaks on the chest and pale under part. They had a dark stripe through the eye, with light stripes above and below. They were usually shy and concealed themselves close to ground vegetation and flushed only when approached closely. When flushed, they uttered a sharp note that sounded like scape, scape and flew off in a series of aerial zig-zags to confuse predators. They foraged in the soft mud, probing or picking up food by sight, using their greatly elongated bills. We left when the Common Cranes flew off.

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I ended the month by taking part in a Halloween Scavenger hunt organised by Warwick Sports with my colleagues. It was a campus-wide hunt for about 10 pumpkins including a golden one that was hidden in different locations in the university grounds. We collected the map of where they might be hidden, with a unique challenge card. We walked for nearly 2 kilometres around the campus searching for the pumpkins and was chuffed that we managed to find all. We took turns to have a selfie with the pumpkins as proof that we have found them. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the main prize but we got loads of chocolates and sweets, instead.

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When black cats prowl, and pumpkins gleam, may luck be yours on Halloween

~- ~Author Unknown ~

Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people light bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. The day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. But, over the centuries, Halloween had transitioned from a pagan ritual to a day of parties, costumes, jack-o-lanterns and trick-or-treating for kids and adults.

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In the United States, pumpkins go hand in hand with the fall holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving.  Pumpkin was used to make soups, desserts and breads, and many Americans included pumpkin pie in their Thanksgiving meals. Carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns was a popular Halloween tradition that originated hundreds of years ago in Ireland. Back then, they were made out of turnips or potatoes. It wasn’t until the Irish immigrants arrived in America and discovered the pumpkin that a new Halloween ritual was born. We bought a lot of pumpkins because they were so cheap but not for carving. I have made soups, pie, bread, cupcakes and had them roasted. And there was still loads left. Thankfully, if stored properly, they lasted ages. Bon appetit.

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"When witches go riding, and black cats are seen, the moon laughs and whispers, ‘tis near Halloween."
- ~Author Unknown