Ouse Fen

First things first, a very happy new year to you all. I hope 2016 brings you peace and prosperity. Heading back into the depths of last year I spent a very cold morning at the end of November exploring Ouse Fen which is a great place for songbirds and water birds.

RSPB Ouse Fen is another collection of exhausted gravel  pits which have created a series of lakes and been turned into a nature reserve. It’s part of ongoing extraction so new habitat is being created all the time and will all eventually become nature reserve, creating an enormous network of varied habitat. It’s located between Needingworth and Bluntisham near St Ives in Cambridgeshire.

The entrance onto the reserve is via a pathway across a bleak field leading to a sheltered path that’s lined with established hedges, and the hedges are always full of songbirds. On this trip it was as busy as ever and within a few metres I spotted a goldcrest just a few feet away and within a few seconds there were four of them. In my experience goldcrest are devilish difficult to get good photographs of, because like wrens, they are tiny and they flit around at high speed in the undergrowth. But this time I ramped up the ISO to 1000 which allowed a reasonable shutter speed of 1/320 s and got lucky:

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus, Dansk: fuglekonge)

The Danish name translates as ‘bird king‘ I guess from his splendid golden crown, and it’s the smallest breeding bird in the UK, weighing in at 5-6g.

Despite its diminutive stature it’s conservation status is green and more than half a million territories were recorded in the UK in 2009. Hopefully it isn’t suffering too badly with climate change…

Another bird which was in good numbers on this trip was the bullfinch. When I was a kid it wasn’t too unusual to see bullfinch on the feeders in the garden. But after the 1970’s their numbers plummeted such that it was years before I saw one at all. But nowadays I see them fairly frequently in the countryside (never in the garden though) and they had 190,000 territories in 2009 in the UK, so they can’t be doing too badly and their conservation status is amber.

The female is striking but has fairly drab colours in the winter:

Bullfinch female (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Dansk: dompap)

And the male is splendid even in winter with his peachy orange breast, black cap, grey back and white rump:

The bullfinch is a chunky finch with a beak to match which they use for cracking the seeds or stones from small fruit like cherries. They also eat shoots and consequently part of the reason for their downfall in the 1980’s was a result of falling foul of the fruit farmers. I love to see them and because of the relative scarcity of sightings and their skittish nature I’ve been waiting a long time to get a half decent photograph of one. And on this occasion I managed to get pictures of the male and the female. So I felt particularly smug on the way home!

Goldfinches harvesting seeds from teasel heads (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits)

Ouse Fen is known for the prevalence of finches including redpoll, linnet and goldfinch all of which I’ve seen there before but this time it was only goldfinch that were on parade so I’ll try to get some redpoll and linnet pictures next time.

The ultimate songbird

In the springtime this year I took a trip to Paxton Pits nature reserve which is a cluster of lakes on the edge of St Neots near Bedford created by gravel extraction. They cover a sizable area and are interspersed with woodland and scrub and incorporates a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).  One of the reasons for going there in springtime is to hear the song of the nightingale for which the Pits are a recognised site.

Early signs weren’t hopeful as the skies were grey and it was cold and raining. So not the best conditions for seeing or hearing songbirds in full voice. And first off, there was very little of anything, and then a great spotted woodpecker put in an appearance low down on a tree trunk.

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major, Dansk: stor flagspætte)

This one is a female, the main difference between her and the male is the lack of a red patch on the nape of her neck. I was pleased to get so close to a great spot as they’re normally higher up and not so easy to photograph. They feed on insects which they dig out from crevices in tree bark, but will also take birds eggs and I’ve heard they take chicks too which they can find when they enlarge the holes in bird boxes to get to the nest – which is one of the reasons why the entrance to bird boxes for small birds now have metal surrounds.

The sound of a woodpecker drumming carries for a very long distance, not because of the volume but because the frequency of the drumming has a strike rate of 10-40 per second which causes the tree to resonate.

Shortly after the encounter with the woodpecker the clouds cleared and it turned into a warm sunny day, much more suitable for songbird encounters, and the first one was a whitethroat:

Common whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger)

The whitethroat is one of our non-resident warblers which were just arriving in the UK from their annual migration back from sub Saharan Africa. When they’re attracting a mate they do a mad little jerky flight heading roughly straight up from the top of a bush and dropping straight back down again, and while they do it they have a distinctive song. But as distinctive as it is, it’s not in the same league as the ultimate songbird:

Nightingale (Lucinia megarhynchos, Dansk: sydlig nattergal)

The nightingale is a fairly drab little bird to look at, but the song is incredible. And when it has returned here in the spring after migration, also from tropical Africa it starts to sing… and people will flock from miles around to hear it. Alas, as with many bird species the nightingale is red listed in the UK and in desperate need of protection, consequently this was the first time I managed to photograph one.

There are ponds and shallow pools on the site of the Pits too, and these are being nurtured to encourage dragonflies and amphibians such as this great crested newt:

Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus, Dansk: stor vandsalamander)

Great crested newts are also endangered in the UK due to habitat destruction and are therefore heavily protected. It was good to see an adult male in his full breeding regalia, he’s a spectacular beast.

COP21 – is 2015 the start of something big?

This is the first time I’ve posted about a news story, but I’m really happy about this one:


The agreement which has just been reached at the COP21 climate conference in  Paris, to curb carbon emissions and head off the more dangerous ramifications of climate change, is the most important one so far this century. It’s not comprehensive, it’s not perfect. But it puts us in a good place to push on and make it work.

It’s the start of a very long and difficult process but the consequences of failure are unthinkable. But now 195 countries have agreed a framework to try to achieve some level of climate stability as a result of human activities, so the initial steps have been made.  Hats off to the French for driving it and all the other negotiators for working to reach such a vital agreement.


I hope 2015 is the start of something big and that the Paris Agreement will ultimately help to ensure the survival of lots of species like this one!

The indomitable wren

Even though my regular finches had been conspicuous by their absence in the garden one of my favourite birds, and one of the tiniest, was often flitting around the flower pots hunting insects:

The wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

The word ‘troglodyte‘ has derogatory connotations so I wondered why the taxonomic name for the wren uses it twice, and apparently it originates from the Greek for ‘cave dweller’. Even though the BTO website lists its habitat as woodland and undergrowth as it’s an insectivore I guess that could make sense in some countries, so I guess it may depend on the nationality of the scientist who named it.

Wrens are tiny, weighing on average 10g and with a 15cm wingspan. They’re resident in the UK and I think it’s remarkable that such a tiny creature can survive a long cold British winter. A real testament to the effectiveness of feathers as insulators. And another amazing thing about wrens is their voices, they have incredibly loud song for such a tiny bird, if you’d like to hear it click here: Eurasian wren song.

Yet another remarkable fact about the humble wren is that it’s the most numerous songbird in the UK with 7.7 million territories. And as they’re not always easy to see as they flit around the undergrowth I was surprised by that statistic until I learnt to recognise the song. After that I realised they are everywhere!

This little chap appeared one day in February this year on a bug hunt in the flower pots, he posed right outside the window and let me snap a series of portraits. Wrens have been regular visitors through this year and I’ve deliberately avoided tidying the garden hoping they continue to treat it as home.

Where did all the finches go?

Until a couple of years ago my garden bird feeders were always visited by lots of finches: chaffinch, goldfinch, greenfinch, even the occasional siskin. But then the goldfinch disappeared from the feeders, I didn’t see a single one for around 18 months, and then, even more bizarrely, the chaffinch stopped visiting. Greenfinch were always occasional visitors even though I could hear them in the nearby trees, but they seldom came in to feed.

I don’t know what caused the finches to change their habits but it made my garden rather less colourful.

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) – a rare visit to the niger seed

In the last year or so I’ve seen goldfinch on my TV aerial and regularly in the front garden around the pond, but they still tend to avoid the back garden even though there is always a feeder full of niger seed for them. I often see and hear both chaffinch and goldfinch in the nearby fields when I walk the dog, so they are still in the area, and chaffinch seemed just as common as ever… except in my garden. But goldfinch sightings increased over spring this year as did those of chaffinch:

An erstwhile unusual visit from a male chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke)

And along with chaffinch and goldfinch, greenfinch have also been visiting more frequently, and in springtime this year there were a family with a couple of young:

Adult male greenfinch fuelling up (Chloris chloris, Dansk: grønirisk)

And one of his fledged brood:

The male and a fledgling feeding together:

It’s a mystery why they moved away, maybe sparrowhawk visits became to frequent, or maybe because of recent warmer winters there is enough easily accessible food in the countryside. I stopped feeding the birds later in the spring because the seed was left uneaten and it began to go mouldy, but now the weather is getting cold I’m going to clean the feeders and refill them for the winter. And keep my fingers crossed the birds find them to their liking.

The mating season

In my last post I said I was catching up, and this one is from a year ago, but I reckon if I can delay for 12 months then it will be back in season again. These green woodpeckers were in the same field as the goldfinch in the previous post and they demonstrated the brutal efficiency of natures processes one sunny Saturday morning late in March.

Before I get on to the mating season though, there have been a few firsts this week, the winter migrants are nearly all back from their winter sojourn in Africa. On an outing last weekend I saw (and/or heard) common whitethroat, lesser whitethroat, willow warbler, sedge warbler, blackcap and, best of all, nightingale, but more of that in a later post. Swallows have been in the skies over Histon since April 12th (at least that the first time I saw one, and I expect the swifts anytime from now onwards.

Some movement in the grass caught my eye around 60-70m away but I couldn’t see what it was until I peered through the binoculars and there was a lone green woodpecker rooting around for ants. As I watched a second woodpecker dropped to the ground just a few feet away, and I think you can tell from the determined look on his face what’s on his mind:

A pair of green woodpeckers – (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) the male is on the left and he’s eyeing the lady with single-minded intent

In this instance courtship lasted for no more than a few seconds:

He sized her up, leapt on board, and in a few more seconds it was mission accomplished and she was inseminated,

At which point he spun on his heel and headed for the exit with indecent speed but maximum efficiency:

The whole event was over in not more than a minute or two and not a single joule of unnecessary energy was required.

I don’t know whether green woodpeckers pair off or if they’re promiscuous, may be the courtship rituals had been observed previously, but the mating process (at least in this instance) was entirely to the point. But it seems to work pretty well and produces successive families of green woodpeckers in this particular field year on year. And I love it when the chicks have first fledged as there can be two  or three youngsters with a parent in attendance on a tree trunk or a telegraph pole, and four greenies together is a very colourful sight.

Winter fieldlife

This post’s a tad unseasonal now, but I’m on a mission to try to catch up with myself,  so this is the first edition of the my race to the present! For the last couple of years the bird species that frequent my garden seem to have been changing. Greenfinch all but disappeared for over a year, even the ubiquitous chaffinch completely vacated for many months. There is always a niger seed feeder for the goldfinch and siskin, and even though siskin seldom visit, goldfinch were there every day. And then they weren’t. if I see one in a week these days that’s as many as it is. The strange thing is that all three of these finch species haven’t disappeared from the village so maybe, hopefully, they’ll return soon.

A goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) in a field on the edge of the village

During a stroll with the dog across the local fields at the end of December the goldfinches, and lots of other birds, were enjoying a glorious sunny winter morning. A grey heron flapped lazily across the tops of the trees:

Grey heron (Ardea cinerea,Dansk: fiskehejre)

Grey herons aren’t an unusual occurrence in this location, but what was unusual was that it alighted in the top of a tree:

To the general annoyance of the local corvid population. I think this is a carrion crow, it took exception to the presence of the heron and proceeded to dive bomb it and then landed in the same tree and squawked at it. To which the heron voiced its own displeasure:

All this bickering led to the departure of the crow followed shortly by the heron. And while I was trying to unobtrusively find a spot to get closer to the tree, a wren, one of my very favourite little birds, appeared in the hedgerow close by, so I had to spend a minute or two snapping a portrait of it, so I missed the departure of the heron. But it was worth it to get this little chap:

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

The wren is one of our smallest birds and has an incredibly loud and varied song for such a small bird. It’s the most numerous bird in the UK, it weighs around 10g and is resident in the UK throughout the year. It’s a brave little chap and is one of the species that appears reasonably regularly in my garden where it’s always welcome.

Another bird which appears in the fields when the weather gets cold is the black headed gull:

Black headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk: hættemåge)

It feeds in the fields in sizable flocks, sometimes hundreds strong, alongside other gulls such as the herring gull, common gull and lesser and greater black backed gulls, but they all disappear as soon as the weather warms up. This one was already starting to develop the black head summer plumage even though it was still only December. I guess the mild winter weather made its thoughts turn to mating early in the season…

A once in a lifetime opportunity

This post is a diversion from my regular posts about the biological side of nature and this time I’m delving into the more fundamental aspects of physical nature.

Peter Higgs is a colossus of modern theoretical physics who was awarded the Nobel proze for physics in 2013 for his prediction of the presence of the ‘Higgs boson‘ – the so called ‘God particle‘ which is accredited with conferring mass on other sub-atomic particles. In my professional life I’m a  mass spectrometrist so experiments to determine the nature of mass itself are of immense interest. In order to prove Higgs’ theory, one of the biggest and most expensive scientific experiments ever devised was built at the ‘Conseil européen pour la Recherche nucléaire‘ or CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s called the ‘Large Hadron Collider‘ or LHC. The idea of a collider is that sub atomic particles (hadrons) can be crashed together at incomprehensibly huge energies to smash them into their constituent parts which can then be analysed. At the moment the theory of these elementary particles, which are the building blocks of all the matter in the known Universe, is described by the ‘Standard Model, but there are holes in the Model such as ‘what is dark matter?’ or ‘why is there more matter than antimatter in the Universe?’. So it’s hoped that high energy colliders such as the LHC will enable us to probe deeper into the fundamental building blocks of everything and fill the holes in the Standard Model.

In August last year I attended a conference in Geneva and one of the social events was a trip to the LHC at CERN, and that’s one of those opportunities that can’t be ignored. So, even though this isn’t ‘nature‘ as such, I hope I can justify sharing it here!

A status pannel for the LHC indicating what it’s actually doing

Everything about the LHC is mind boggling. It’s a circular tunnel 27km in circumference under Geneva and the Jura mountains on the Swiss/French border. It’s designed to accelerate small beams of protons in opposite directions to as close to the speed of light as possible, before colliding them inside one of four detectors around the ring. The protons are generated by stripping the electron away from hydrogen atoms leaving the free hydrogen nucleus (consisting of a single proton) to be fed into the accelerator. The collided protons eliminate each other and in the process give off collosal amounts of energy in the form of X-rays and gamma rays and sub atomic particles.

Access to the ring is only possible when the beam is turned off because of the intense radiation generated by the colliding particles. Until now the ring has only been operating at 50% power (but even at half power definitive evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson was found) and it was shutdown for an upgrade to enable it to operate at full power. After the upgrade, which was scheduled for completion at the end of 2014, there will be no access for several years whilst further experiments are underway, so I consider myself extremely fortunate to have got in to have a look. Even at half power the protons approached close to the speed of light but higher speed will give higher energy collisions and more information about the fundamental structure of matter.

The end of one of the sections of the ring on the test rig prior to installation in the LHC

To accelerate the protons to near light speed takes a lot of circuits around the ring and I think we were told that that takes around 40 minutes. The ring itself is made up of sections approximately 30m long containing superconducting electromagnets which carry the beam line and a tube for liquid helium which cools the ring down to approximately 1-2oC above absolute zero (-273oC). At this unbelievably cold temperature (colder than outer space according to CERN) the magnets become superconducting and can accelerate and guide the contra-rotating proton beams up to collision speed. To collide the two beams, which are only a few μm in diameter, has been likened to firing two needles at each other from 10km apart with sufficient accuracy that they meet in the middle – quite a technological challenge!

The other consequence of cooling the ring down to such a low temperature is thermal contraction, and at the operating temperature of -271.3oC the 27km ring decreases in circumference by approximately 0.003% – which may not sound like much but is in reality around 80m!

There are four main detectors on the LHC called CMS, Atlas, ALICE and LHCb and the one that I was privileged enough to visit was the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid – I can’t help but wonder if this is the compact version what a full size one would look like):

The CMS detector of the LHC. The spike in the middle carries the proton beam line

Here, the two ends of the CMS detector – which has been likened by some to the Rose Window in the Notre Dame cathedral – had been moved apart during the upgrade so all this wouldn’t normally be visible. This vast machine is approximately 21m long, 15m in diameter and weighs 12,500 tonnes. Truly gigantic – the tinyest natural phenomena are being probed by the most enormous machines!

Some more brain-frying facts and figures aabout the LHC!

It can be seen from the diagram that each proton beam contains:

110,000,000,000 protons. At 99.9998% of the speed of light the energy of one proton is:

450,000,000,000eV. And at 99.9999991% the speed of light the energy is:


So an increase in velocity of 0.0001991% gives a vast increase in energy of nearly 16 fold. But 7TeV is only half power and the plan is ultimately to run the LHC at 15TeV… and the plan after that is to build another collider 100km in circumference!

It can be argued that spending the colossal amounts of money required to conduct this type of science could be better spent on for example developing solutions to climate change. But being a scientist I’m a firm believer in conducting fundamental blue sky research and CERN was concieved by one of the greatest theoretical physicists of them all, Louis de Broglie, after WW2 as a means of fostering international cooperation in fundamental physics. So as well as immense scientific and technological developments which includes the world wide web (invented by Tim Berners Lee whilst he was a scientist at CERN) I think CERN has played a key role in enabling many countries to engage with each other in an ostensibly apolitical fashion, and that could ultimately help to foster the spirit of international cooperation required to solve the other big problems.

If this interests you and you want to read more have a look at the CERN website. As you might expect it’s brim full of fascinating stuff!

Celtic Damsels

This will be the last post from my trip to Scotland in 2014 during which we made an early morning visit to the osprey nest at RSPB Loch Garten to hopefully catch a glimpse of one of these magnificent predators. There was an adult on the nest but without more magnification than I had I couldn’t get up close (but it looked spectacular through binoculars!):

An adult osprey , Pandion haliaetus, Dansk: fiskeørn, perched on the nest

The ospreys overwinter in sub Saharan West Africa and are another great conservation success story. Despite that they’re conservation status is still amber with only 200 pairs in the UK. They can cover up to 275 miles a day on migration and they stop off on the way south for a couple of weeks to feed up, they also stop on the way north, but only for a few days,to ensure they arrive at the breeding grounds as early as possible to maximise the length of available time for the actual breeding.

Whilst at RSPB Loch Garten we got an excellent steer from one of the RSPB girls on a couple of pools in the forest where we could find dragonflies. It had been a grey morning, but as we arrived at one of the pools the sun emerged, and with it, the dragons. I’ve already posted dragon pictures from these sites in an earlier post, and here are some more images of mating damsels:

Northern damselfy pair, Coenagrion hastelatum

The northern damsels are in tandem, the blue male is clasping the female prior to escorting her around the pool to find suitable egg laying sites. Large red damsels were also mating over the pool at the same time:

Large red damsels, Pyrrhosoma nymphula, in the process of egg laying under the water

I think this picture of the large red damsels is the best insect photo I’ve ever taken. I like it because they’re in motion and in the process of doing something, and the shadows are cool! The large red can only really be confused with the small red, but the small red has red legs and doesn’t have the yellow bands which can be seen on the female in this picture.

I also like this floating spider:

I don’t know what species the spider is, I’ve never seen one like it anywhwere else. The markings are distinctive and it may be the same species as the one in the previous post, but I was assured by the experts at the British Arachnological Society that it could only be unambiguously identified by microscopic examination after dissection.

The majestic Scots pine trees of the Abernethy Forest

The two dragonfly pools were in the Abernethy Forest. I think it’s difficult to convey the atmosphere of a forest in photographs because the temperature and humidity, the sounds and the smells, all contribute to the feeling of a forest, and none of these can be captured in a photograph. Even the light is difficult to capture because the camera settings required to give a good quality image don’t necessarily recapitulate what it actually looked and felt like.  So the picture above of the Scots pines of the Abernethy Forest is the best I could do, but having said all that stuff, in the absence of all the other sensory inputs it does convey a little bit of my memories of the forest. I hope you know what I mean and I hope you like it!

As I mentioned at the top of this post, this is the last installment of my ‘Cairngorm Chronicles‘. It was a fabulous trip and we saw some breathtakingly beautiful places and lots of wildlife. I can’t wait to go back and see more creatures peculiar to that part of the world such as grouse, ptarmigan, capercaillie and red deer, as well as the ones I missed on this trip such as crested tit and crossbill. So much to see and so little time…

A less welcome guest

In my last post I showed you some pictures of some minibeasts I was cohabiting with in the summer last year. As the post title indicated, I don’t mind providing board and lodging for those little guys.

But every winter, and often through the summer too, I put seed and nuts out to feed the birds, and I always put some in a tray feeder and also on the ground so the smaller ground feeders don’t get bullied off the food by flocks of noisy squabbling starlings like this one:

Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, Dansk: stær, availing itself of the seed platter

I welcome all creatures to stop by for a nibble in the depths of winter because I think how miserable I’d be if it was me out there in the freezing cold with no food. And until a couple of weeks ago the only non-avian guests I’d entertained were the occasional mouse and the even more occasional squirrel.

But then last week I spotted this little chap poking his head out from under the bush adjacent to the bird feeder:

Brown rat, Rattus norvegicus,

I know that rats can be a problem when there are too many of them in the wrong place, but I have a lot of respect for a creature which seems to me to be the ultimate survivor, I reckon ratty will be around long after humans have killed themselves off! Consequently, even though he is less welcome than my invertebrate visitors, I’m not going to panic and call for the rat catcher or put traps and poison out to try and kill him.

In the blink of an eye he was up the pole and tucking in to the bird food

As I watched, he scurried out from under the  bush and shinned up the metal pole with the bird feeders on and helped himself to a nibble at the fat balls. Now I reckon any creature that has the brains and the balls to do that deserves a little sustenance as reward for his skill and ingenuity. So fair play to him.

I know there are no rats living in the immediate vicinity of my house, and I only ever see them occasionally and one at a time, so unless he moves in and brings his family I’m content to let him scavenge the occasional nut or seed.