The last days of May were shattered with the bombing of the Manchester Arena, following a concert by Ariana Grande. 23 adults and children were killed, and 250 people were injured. A suicide bomber, who was also killed, had detonated a shrapnel-laden homemade bomb in the foyer area of the Arena. Many exiting concert-goers and waiting parents were in the foyer at the time of the explosion.
We stayed up the night when we heard the news. Our hearts was in our mouths when bits of news started flashing on the screen. Social media was awashed with information. How could someone murdered innocent children who were out enjoying themselves? What kind of beast was this? We don’t understand the mentality or inhumanity of such callous act. We said prayers for the victims and dreaded reading the news when we got up in the morning.
These flowering blue Clematis were for all the children, adults and their families who were killed or injured in this horrendous attack. The title of the blog was the last song Ariana sang along with her audience and it contained the lyrics
“So one last time
I need to be the the one who takes you home”
And they never came home.
To clear our minds and our hearts, we drove to Slimbridge to check on the nesting Common Cranes. We now knew the pair as Bart and Ruby, graduates of the Great Crane Project and were both hatched in 2010. They’d been pairs for a number of years and had made several breeding attempts, all of which failed at the egg stage.
Bart was quite a high ranking male with a very inquisitive and occasionally aggressive nature, always causing trouble. That was how he got his name. He’d a leg-mounted satellite transmitter and was one of the birds that was monitored remotely, with information being sent every third day to a satellite and beamed back to a computer. His leg ring colour was red, blue, red.
Ruby was a bully when she was younger and spent most of her time fighting. This pair was quite something!!! She could be easily identified at a distance as she’d a large white patch on her primaries, which looked like a white patch on her side when at rest and foraging in the fields. In 2013, she was caught whilst in moult and was fitted with a radio tag. Her leg ring colour was white, black, red.
In early March 2014, Bart and Ruby became a well defined pair of birds. In mid-April, they made their first nesting attempt and began incubation which continued well into mid-May. The eggs didn’t hatched. They tried again in May and June 2015 which both failed and the nest was abandoned. Last year, they began incubation on a former Oystercatcher nest on the South Lake area, but abandoned it after 4 days. A second attempt was made in the same area but that too failed.
Perhaps, because of these failed attempts, the latest nesting endeavour wasn’t broadcasted. We found out that the first egg was was laid on the 11th of May on the duck marsh which was just 15-20 metres from the Hogarth Hide. The nest now which was wet mounds of vegetation was set higher on a bed of pebbles to protect it from rising water. The incubation was for 28-31 days and we kept a beady eye on the sighting pages for the latest news. We wished them all the best.
Nearby, fluffy Avocet chicks already had the distinctive long, slender bills with their upward curvature. They were feeding independently. Their protective parents were scuttling quickly along the ground and if any other waders get too close, they flew swift and low. They were highly territorial birds, chasing away any unwelcome visitors, lunging towards them with a lowered head and neck.
The chicks were nidifugous, leaving the scrape or nest shortly after hatching to wander, still downy and on disproportionately long legs, on the mudflats.Their diet was primarily composed of aquatic invertebrates, such as insects, crustaceans, worms and molluscs, as well as small fish and plants. They took food from exposed mud or from water. When there was danger, the parents made alarm calls and the chicks quickly ran into the bushes for safety.
Nearby, a pair of the most adorable ball of fluff with mottled pattern of brown spots was out and about. Black-headed Gull chicks remained near their nest which was a scrape in the mound with a rough construction of twigs, grass and weeds. They fledged after 24-35 days. Both parents were nearby looking after them. Earthworms were the main food for these nestlings.
We headed straight to Wader Shore where the male Ruff were displaying during the breeding season. Ruffs got their name from their attractive neck ruffle that females found irresistible. The males were parading and strutting their ruffles to the drab females around a small breeding area known as a lek. It was quite funny to watch them trying to outdo each other.
We stopped near the gravel island on Swan Lake to check on the family of Oystercatchers. The chicks had grown into mini version of the adults but looking a bit scruffier, still with their fluffy downy feathers. Because the chicks don’t feed themselves, they followed their parents around and were taught on how to forage for earthworms and insect larvae. We watched them walked slowly forward, pecking at the ground in random fashion. Pecks were made directly in front and from side to side.
It would take another 35-40 days before they could fly. Even after they’d learnt to fly, they still stayed with their parents for 2-4 months while they learnt to feed efficiently. At the moment, these juveniles had brownish-black upperparts, grey legs and a dark tip to the bill. Soon, they will turn into a combination of black and white plumage, long, bright orange-red bill and pink legs.
We then took our normal route around the reserve. The Chiloe X Eurasian Wigeon hybrid was still around with his mate. It was quite close that the green blue iridescent cap was very visible. In a couple of months, it would have company. The Eurasian wigeon flock, which he used to hang out with, would be flying back from their breeding grounds in Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia to overwinter here.
Along the path, we spotted clumps of Common Spotted Orchids brightening the walk with their delicate, pale pink spikes. They got their name from the leaves which were green with abundant purplish oval spots. They formed a rosette at ground level before the flower spike appeared; narrower leaves sheath the stem.
We checked out Martin Smith Hide but the tack piece was empty. We didn’t check the rest of the hides as they too, overlooked the tack piece. We walked into the reserve through the boardwalk. At the end of the walk, we were entertained by this Sedge Warbler belting out its noisy, rambling warble. Their song was one of the most complex known to science because no two Sedge Warbler songs were ever the same.
Then it was the long walk to Kingfisher Hide. On the way, we saw a herd of English Longhorn cattle grazing on the field opposite the Van de Bovenkamp hide. This was conservation grazing, assisting in management by grazing, discouraging growth of scrub by browsing and encouraging biodiversity. Returning to natural grazing also enhanced the diversity of plants and bird life. We were delighted to see these adorable calves galloping across the field, chasing one another.
Kingfisher Hide was buzzing as usual. All the seats were taken and the windows were still locked. A Kingfisher was sitting outside its nesting hole and according to the volunteers were still feeding their chicks every ten minutes or so. Each chick ate 12-18 fish a day, and they were fed in rotation once a chick was fed, it moved to the back of the nest to digest its meal, causing the others to move forward. It would have been lovely if we’d seen this.
Our final stop was the Flamingo Lagoon and I was tickled pink when I spotted in the circle between the long legs were these adorable fluffy grey chicks. After the wet winters, the first flock to re-emerge into their enclosure were these Greater flamingo flock on the 4th of April. These handsome birds truly enjoyed the beautiful weather, and within a few hours of being reacquainted with their outdoor space were building a whole heap of nests right at the front of their island.
I watched this parent feeding its chick a secretion of the upper digestive tract referred to as ‘milk.’ ‘Milk’ secretion was caused by the hormone prolactin, which both the male and female flamingo produced. Parents were able to recognise their own chick by sight and vocalisation. They won’t feed other chicks. Then it was time for us to head home.
We also made another trip to Aberystwyth. We left the casa at 9 am on a hot, bright sunny day. The mercury was 19.6C. We found out that drivers tended to drive a bit erratic when the sun was out. Congestion on the M6 added to the frustration. We then took the B rural road to Montgomeryshire.
It was a winding road and we prayed hard that we didn’t come across any oncoming farming vehicles or stuck behind one. We stopped at the top overlooking Newtown. Known in Welsh as 'Y Drenewydd', it was the largest town in Powys and was situated on the banks of the River Severn. Newtown was in the old county of Montgomeryshire and with a population of about 13,000, was a pretty market town with a rich industrial heritage, surrounded by beautiful countryside.
From here, we drove straight for Gilfach Farm. We’d to park by the roadside because there was no space by River Marteg. Babe walked straight to Otter Hide while I was distracted by high piping calls. It was a Meadow Pipit, a small, brown, streaky bird, and a common songbird in the upland areas. In flight it showed white outer tail feathers and in the breeding season it had a fluttering 'parachute' display flight.
Meadow pipit numbers in the UK had been declining since the mid-1970s, resulting it being included on the amber list of conservation concern.
I joined Babe and a dozen other photographers on the bridge for the piece de resistance. Redstarts were immediately identifiable by their bright orange-red tails, which they often quiver. Breeding males look smart, with slate grey upper parts, black faces and wings, and an orange rump and chest. Females and young are duller. Redstarts 'bobbed' in a very robin-like manner, but spent little time at ground level. With fewer than 100 breeding pairs in the UK, the Redstart was on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. It was a privileged to have seen them.
A flash of black and white landed on one of the branches and it was a Pied Flycatcher. The male was mostly black on the underparts and white underneath, with a bold white patch on the folded wings. The females were browner. They were summer visitors, returning to breed after spending the winter in the sub-Saharan Western Africa, in wooded areas on the edge of the savannah and climax forest.
We scanned the river for the Dipper but there was nothing. We then drove slowly up the steep winding road, praying that no car was coming down. After using the facilities, we checked out the buzzing courtyard. The volunteers were setting up for a family day weekend. We commented about the lack of bird-feeders where flocks of Redpolls and Siskins were feeding to the volunteer. But the response we got back was disappointing. It seemed that RSPB Radnorshire don’t want photographers in their reserves. The reason was that we tended to clog up the area with our tripods!!! I knew a few photographers can be a pain but …
We were fuming and drove straight to Bwlch Nant yr Arian where we were always welcomed. Thankfully, this was our last trip to Gilfach Farm and we night rethink about coming here in the future. After using the facilities, we made our way to the feeding station to see what was about. It was buzzing with Chaffinches, Tree sparrows and Siskins, all waiting (im)patiently for their turn. Below, Dunnocks, Blackbirds and Robins were busy feeding on the dropped seeds.
A quarter to 3 pm, we walked down Barcud Way towards the viewing platform. We heard a Little Grebe whirring away but it was well-hidden in the reed-beds. The long-staying Goosanders were still around, cruising around the lake waiting to take part in the action. Above our heads, hundreds of Red Kites were circling and at 3 pm, the party started. I’d seen this hundreds of time and it still made my heart beat.
Restricted as it was to the wilds of central Wales, for the past hundred years or so the Red Kite had been symbolic of the mystical and mysterious culture of the Celts and the Celtic lands of the western fringes of the British Isles. Driven out from everywhere else, here it remained as a scarce and flitting shadow, shrouded in secrecy and yet majestic in its appearance and mastery of the air.
Chaucer referred to it in his Knight's Tale (c1390):
`We stryve as did the houndes for the boon,
They foughte al day, and yet hir part was noon;
There cam a kyte, whyl that they were wrothe,
And bar away the boon betwixe them bothe.'
Shakespeare (A Winter's Tale, c1610) was clearly aware of the Red Kite's habit of adorning its nest with frilly material (including underwear!):
`When a kite builds, look to lesser linen.'
Another name for the kite, often used by Shakespeare, was the `paddock' (or `puttock'), and the greatest nature poet, John Clare (c1820), used this to create the beautiful imagery of the Red Kite in flight.
`Ah, could I see a spinney nigh,
A paddock riding in the sky,
Above the oaks, in easy sail,
On stilly wings and forked tail.'
Then, we headed to Aberystwyth for our piece de resistance, fish and chips. We went to our favourite chippy and got 2 portions and a container of curry sauce. Having chips with curry sauce seemed to be a Welsh thing because the English liked theirs with either salt, vinegar, ketchup, mayonnaise, brown sauce or gravy. Since we were in Wales…
We drove to Borth, a coastal village 7 miles north of Aberystwyth, to have our meal. The smell in the car made our mouths water. We managed to find a parking space right by the beach in this very popular resort. Because of its shallow waters and fabulous three mile expanse of golden sand, Borth's Blue Flag and Seaside Award winning beach was particularly popular with surfers, kite surfers and families with young children.
After finishing our meal. we made our way home. We had another pit stop near the railway tracks when we spotted a herd of Highland cattle grazing in a nearby field. I loved these Scottish cattle breed with their long horns and long wavy coats that were coloured black, brindle, red, yellow, white, silver (looks white but with a black nose) or dun. They were a hardy breed due to their native environment, the Highlands of Scotland and it was strange to see this herd in the middle of Wales.
The next day, we’d a relaxing day and attended a re-enactment day at the Charterhouse Priory. I was looking forward to visit this medieval Charterhouse, one of the city's oldest buildings, which was all that survived of the old Carthusian Monastery of Saint Anne. The Grade I listed building off London Road included the monastery's priory and refectory. Build of red sandstone in the late 1300s, it also had, below ground, remains of the grand cloister, monks’ cells, church, chapter house, laymen’s accommodation and guest rooms, plus a school. There were also 16th and 18th century and Victorian extensions.
The Charterhouse was of national importance because it was one of the only two Carthusian Monasteries with significant remains in the UK and had intact wall paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries considered some of Britain's finest examples of medieval art. After the Dissolution the monastery was stripped of materials, with the church and most of the buildings demolished. I was looking forward to check out the wall paintings but unfortunately, they weren’t open to the public.
Then we proceeded into the back garden where the Sir William Stanley’s Household, a living history re-enactment group, was setting up camp. The group focused on the War of the Roses period. They took an active part in battles, as well as living history displays, demonstrations and talks. Their interests, crafts and activities were wide ranging and included foot soldiers combat, archery, spinning, natural dyeing, braid work, leather work, 15th century medical practices and preparations, medieval cooking and 15th century clothing.
The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles fought in medieval England from 1455 to 1485 between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. The name Wars of the Roses was based on the badges used by the two sides, the red rose for the Lancastrians and the white rose for the Yorkists. Major causes of the conflict included both houses were direct descendants of King Edward III; the ruling Lancastrian king, Henry VI, surrounded himself with unpopular nobles; the civil unrest of much of the population; the availability of many powerful lords with their own private armies; and the untimely episodes of mental illness by Henry VI. The wars ended when Richard III, the last Yorkist king, was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 by Henry Tudor founder of the house of Tudor.
We ended the month with another trip to Bempton Cliffs. It was 17.7C when we left the casa on another bright, sunny day. We drove through miles of road-works on the M1 between Derby and Nottingham. As it was the weekend, we were not surprised to see the place heaving. From the top of the hill, we could see the overflow car-park full. Thankfully, there was a warden directing the traffic and we managed to get a spot right by the visitor centre. After freshening up, we made our way towards the action.
As soon as we step on the paved path, we were assaulted by the very familiar smells, sounds and sight of thousands of sea-birds. Seabird colonies during the breeding season were full-blown, multi sensual impression of movement, noise and smell. My eyes took everything at once, birds swarming the sky around the colony like bees and clinging to the chalk cliffs everywhere. From April to October, the RSPB hosted this annual spectacle of thousands squawking rabble of Gannets, Razorbills, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Puffins. I could spend hours just watching them. It was good to be back again.
We have been here so many times but the spectacular views never failed to vow us. The cliffs were a seething mass of activity. Thousands of Arctic birds swooped onto tiny ledges no more than a few inches wide to nest away from the harsh Arctic winds, hundreds of feet in the air. They were absolutely everywhere, skimming above our heads, spiralling through the air and dive-bombing into the choppy sea. As we walked towards our favourite cove, Skylarks were singing high up in the sky, the beautiful song radiating through the air as the bird itself hung suspended overhead.
We headed straight to Staple Newk because Babe wanted to video the action on Scale Nab, an outcrop that was home to many nesting Gannets. From the grandstand, we stood on a superb, extended viewpoint overlooking the main gannetry.
We walked on the path where the trailside flora was dominated by a vast expanse of Red campion, Black knapweed,and various thistles. Red campion was a native plant and an ancient woodland indicator which gave clue to the history of a wood. The flowers were important for various pollinating insects and I was chuffed to have seen a white day flying moth, an Angle Shades moth. Nearby, there were miles and miles of flowering rapeseed oil fields hugging the hillside.
A few Gannets appeared gracefully as they glided past by with outstretched wings occasionally maneuvering with their tails and exhibiting precision timing flapping as they approached the cliff to land. Through the thick cliff top summer flowers and grasses, I saw them collecting beakfuls of vegetation to take back to their nests to keep things looking ship-shape for Mrs Gannet. We’d been here sooo many times but we really appreciated these stunning birds.
Bempton Cliffs was home to the only mainland breeding colony of Gannets in England. They arrived here from January and left in August/September. These thousands of impressive and majestic birds were the stars of the show with their incessant sound of ‘cackling’ calls and graceful swift flight. They were either constantly flying in formation just like the Dawn Patrol or criss-crossing the sky. These soaring white geese with ink tipped wings that spanned reaching up to 2 metres (taller than me!) and piercing blue eyes exaggerated with eyeliner which gave them the name Spectacled Goose.
Gannets were silent except during breeding, when the head and neck were brushed in a delicate yellow. From time to time, their rough throaty hard cacklings could be heard. They paired for life and occupy the same nest each year. We enjoyed watching their bonding displays like bowing, sky-pointing and mutual ‘fencing’ of the bills. The males built the nests out of seaweed, feathers, grass, earth and sometimes strings and nets, all kept together with their droppings.
The Gannets put on their usual spectacular show. They patrolled up and down the cliffs, like they owned the place, giving the old sideways glance then stalling, gliding and riding the wind every so often. They went about their business, collecting nesting materials, flying out to sea and cosying up to their partners.
We were deafened by the Kittiwakes with their eerie onomatopoeic serenades ‘kitti-wake’ or ‘kala-week’ making the colonies very noisy places indeed. They bred in colonies on narrow ledges of the vertiginous cliffs. It was only during courtship and nesting time that the birds ‘kittiwake’. For the rest of the year they were mostly silently except for an occasional ‘kit’. True gulls of the open sea, they spent half the year out in the middle of North Sea and North Atlantic, only returning inland to breed. They will leave the summer breeding grounds earlier if they failed to breed and headed 1,800 miles to over-winter in Canada. The highlight was when we saw one with 2 eggs.
When we walked further down, more Kittiwakes were gathering nesting materials along the hill side. Then, they danced past on buoyant wings towards their nesting site, and the cliffs resounded to their name constantly being called, as returning birds greeted their mates. 10% of the UK population lived here on the cliffs at Bempton. They were the gentlest in appearance of all gulls, and it may be this, combined with their plaintive calling that lies behind a belief that the souls of dead children go into Kittiwakes.
Standing upright on the rocky ledges and doing their chalk cliff inspection in action were the dark brown Guillemots. They stood upright and lined every ledge and cranny and crammed together shoulder to shoulder on the narrow rock ledges. They were usually silent but growled a loud whirring sound when on the nests, with their white underparts showing and paddle-like feet sticking out in front. We were excited when we spotted a blue speckled egg. Whoop…whoop!!! Guillemots laid their eggs directly onto a rocky edge. As the eggs were pear-shaped, if they were knocked they rolled round in a circle and don’t fall off.
Babe was delighted when his favourite bird, the doe-eyed Fulmars, were everywhere. Gull-like but stockier with thicker head and neck, they were sky diving and gliding, skirting the cliffs on stiffly held wings with occasional wing-beats. The whiteness of their bodies and relative thickness of their head earned them the nickname ‘flying milk bottle’. They were also likened to a mini albatross because they seemed to enjoy flying in stronger winds. Their long narrow wings enabled them to fly great distances and were one of the best birds at gliding on air currents.
Suddenly, everyone on the viewpoint were getting excited when everyone’s favourite bird, the Puffin, flew in and rested on a rocky ledge quite close to where we were standing. The curious appearance of these birds, with their large colourful bills, striking piebald plumage and sad eyes, had given rise to nicknames such as ‘clown of the ocean’ and ‘sea rooster’. With their bright orange splayed feet, colourful bills and comical walk, it was hard not to be cheered by the sights of these birds.
Nearby, Jet black razorbills tucked themselves away in crevices and cracks. I thought they were the clean-freaks of the seabird world. They always looked smart and dapper as they sat on the edges.They had broader, blunter bills, picked out by a smart coachline along the top and tip. The edges of their hooked upper beaks were very sharp, enabling them to grasp fish and defend themselves against predators. It was thought that they earned their name from their bill which resembled an old fashioned cut throat razor. They weren’t particularly vocal but deep creaking ‘urr’ were produced by breeding individuals.
While everyone else was looking down the chalk cliffs, I glanced to the old RAF Rotor bunker which was closed in 1972. Nearby, a shadowy bird was quartering slowly the hillside. I rattled a hundred shots and realised that it was a Barn owl. Unfortunately, I was facing the sun. With a wavering silent flight, beautiful flecked plumage and pure white underparts, a sighting of this bird of prey was always a memorable experience. It was an unexpected exhilarating moment, leaving me with that natural high.
Then it was time to slowly ambled back to the car. The view was stunning from here as the rugged limestone cliffs rose 400 feet from the North Sea with unrivalled views of the beautiful Yorkshire coastline with Flamborough Head, Filey Brigg and Scarborough all jostling for attention within a breath-taking panorama. Unfortunately, the silence was punctuated by a fleet of water-skiers racing through the water. But they kept quite a distance away from the cliffs.
We also welcomed Ramadan the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It was observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). This annual observance was one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The month lasted 29–30 days based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon, according to numerous biographical accounts compiled. in the hadiths. Fasting included the increased offering of solat (prayers), recitation of the Quran and an increase of doing good deeds and charity. For the world's 1.6bn Muslims, including Britain's 2.8 million-strong Muslim community, the annual event represented a time to fast and devote to prayer, purification and charitable acts. Overall Ramadan was a time for Muslims to exercise self-discipline and restraint both spiritually and physically, as well as empathising with the plight of the poor.
“O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you. so that you may learn self restraint.”