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