Loch Mallachie

Loch Garten is mainly associated with the osprey and is the home of the flagship RSPB reserve set up to protect and provide access to this most remarkable of birds.

But the osprey isn’t the only bird to be seen in this part of the world, and as I’d never been here before I was really hoping to see crested tit and Scottish crossbill in the coniferous forest around the lake. Suffice to say, despite looking long and hard I saw neither. But far from being despondent I see it as an excellent reason to go back there and try again!

Common sandpiper – Actitis hypoleucos, Dansk: mudderklire

In the same part of Abernethy Forest and a short distance from Loch Garten is Loch Malachie, so myself and my companion decided to explore there after drawing a blank on tits and crossbills at Garten.  But instead of them, we found common sandpipers and in my book that’s a fair exchange:

The sandpipers are very neat little waders and there were several of them patrolling the large boulders on the shore of the lake. They weren’t overly impressed with our presence and to show their disquiet made several low looping flights along the shore and around behind us through the woods, which felt like an unusual place to see a sandpiper in flight. So we collected a few photographs and retreated to leave them in peace.

Goldeneye – Bucephala clangula, Dansk: hvinand

On the same piece of shore line as the sandpipers was this female goldeneye with a pair of chicks. The goldeneye overwinters over much of the UK but has a very small breeding population of only a couple of hundred pairs, largely due to a program of nestboxes on Speyside – the goldeneye is unusual amongst ducks in that it nests in holes in trees. There was no male accompanying this family which is pity because they’re spectacular!

It  was a grey, damp, overcast morning in the Abernethy Forest around Loch Malachie and may be because of that it was eerily quiet. There were very few songbirds and the ones we saw most of were wren and chaffinch, which are also common visitors to my garden. But then we saw a spotted flycatcher which is definitely not a visitor to my garden:

Spotted flycatcher – Muscacapa striata, Dansk: fluesnapper

The spotted flycatcher is a migrant breeder to the UK, it overwinters in Africa and is red listed due to overall decline as a result of decreasing prey species caused by pollution and insecticide use (>30% over 10 years). Despite that, the European population is estimated to be 42-66 million individual birds (according to Birdlife International).

Apart from the beautiful wildlife, what I really noticed in the forest was the complete absence of human noise polution (it was silent apart from the wind and the birds), and the smell of the pine forest, and there are few natural aromas as delicious as the fresh smell of pine mixed in with the leaf mould underfoot. But the best thing was the silence!

Late autumn migrant

The autumn and the spring are the best times to be keeping a look out for migrants which, in the case of Cambridge, are often passing through on their way to a destination further north. The summer visitors such as swallow and swift are usually on their way to Africa by mid autumn, as the winter migrants such as fieldfare and redwing are beginning to arrive here to escape the freezing winters of Scandinavia.

A couple of years ago I saw a black redstart on Cambridge Science Park, which is a very rare sighting in this part of the world, at least for me. It was here for less than 24hr before heading further north and west. And this autumn my unusual sighting was a female wheatear:

Female wheatear (Oenenthe oenanthe, Dansk: stenpikker)

Wheatear are handsome birds and this one was the first one I’ve seen in the fields in Histon. I only had the one sighting, and as it was in the third week in October she wouldn’t have tarried as she wended her way back to overwinter in Africa.

Last year I saw a small group of wheatear in a field near Wicken Fen, this time it was in springtime so they were on their way north, including this beautiful male:

I think that as we head into December all the winter visitors that are coming this way may already be here, and I’ll hopefully be able to share pictures of other wanderers in the near future.

Winter’s on the way

I can tell when winter is on the way because the bird population in my garden changes to reflect the season. A coupe of weeks ago a flock of long tailed tits passed through, the first one this side of the summer, then this weekend the garden was so full of birds I had to refill the seed feeders.

The one species which, when I first see it, confirms the imminent descent into winter chiiliness is the coal tit (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse):


Coal tits can be tricky to photograph because they don’t stay still in the open for very long at all. And on top of that, the weather last weekend was foul: cold, grey mist, murky and damp with very little natural light. So I wound up the ISO to 3200 in order to allow me to get a suitable shutter speed and crossed my fingers that it would work. And I was pleasantly surprised by some of the results:

The coal tits flit rapidly and cautiously onto the feeder, grab a seed and immediately make a beeline for the adjacent buddleia bush to shell it and consume the contents under cover. It’s a small bird, about the size of a blue tit, but it has a black head with a white stripe up the nape and is pale rufous brown underneath, so it’s immediately distinguishable from it’s more prevalent cousin.

It’s not unusual to see blue tits all year round but the coal tit feeds mainly on conifers, so as there are no conifers in or around my garden, it only ventures in when the harsher weather of the approaching winter necessitates it.

And of course, the blue tits were here too:

Blue tit  – Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmejse

My resident dunnock was on parade, present and correct, I like the pose in this image and even in the shabby light conditions the colours stand out. I think the dunnock is the archetypal ‘LBJ’ or ‘little brown job’, but you can see here that it’s much more than that!

My resident dunnock – Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv

The Danish name for the dunnock is ‘jernspurv‘ which tranlates as ‘iron sparrow‘ which I think is a very apt name.

The third member of the tit family that visited on Saturday was the great tit which is our largest. It’s probably the most frequent garden visitor too, at least in my garden, or maybe just the most visible one:

Great tit – Parus major, Dansk: musvit

This great tit is female, the black stripe on her underside is narrow and short compared to that of the male which is longer and stretches from one leg to the other at the bottom of the abdomen. I think the one below is a male but I didn’t get a good enough view of its nethers to be sure. He has what looks like a parasite on his face next to his eye and I wondered how that was affecting him. He seemed to be feeding and flying OK, but the next day he was back and he was wobbly in flight and actually flew into the wall of my shed, so it appears to be affecting his vision or balance, or both. So I reckon he could become a meal for the local sparrowhawk before too long. Nature is beautiful but brutal!

Whilst all the tit activity was going on on the feeders a wood pigeon alighted on the shed awaiting an opportinity to grab some seed from the tray feeder. Last week the hanging feeder was emptied in a couple of days, which is unheard of, and when I watched I saw the wood pigeon was standing on the tray feeder from where it emptied the hanging one in record time. One wood pigeon can hold a phenomenal amount of seed and it also means the small birds get less of a look in, so I rearranged the hanging one so the pigeon can  no longer reach it. (I also scatter nuts and seeds on the ground for the pigeons so they don’t starve).

Wood pigeon – Columba palumbus, Dansk: ringdue

And the last bird I managed to get a picture of was the ever present robin. I love this little chap, it’s always there raising Cain with the dunnocks and brightening up even the greyest day.

Robin – Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals

Chaffinch, blackbird and wren all put in appearances as well, but I didn’t manage to get pictures of them and I’m looking forward to seeing which other species pay me a visit over the cold winter months.

Spiders, dragons, damsels and reptiles

During my trip to Scotland earlier in the year with my friend we stayed at Boat of Garten in Speyside which is close by Loch Garten in the Abernethy Forest, the primary location in the UK for seeing ospreys. So, as well as the ospreys, one of the iconic ‘must-see’ creatures on my wish list was the pine marten (Martes martes), but we had fairly low expectation of seeing one so we booked an evening with Speyside Wildlife in a purpose built pine marten viewing hide. We spent the evening there with half a dozen other folk and a knowledgeable guide who told us all about the local wildlife. We saw a deer and a badger and then a couple of hours later, well after dark, a pine marten appeared and spent several minutes feeding right in front of us, just a few feet away. So it was well worth the wait! It fed from a branch right outside the window and it was a truly beautiful animal, and what struck me most was its size, it was much bigger than I’d anticipated. Because it was night time and I didn’t want to disturb teh marten there are no photographs, but if you want to see one there are images on Speyside Wildlife’s website if you follow the link above and browse to the Gallery. It was an evening well spent!

An unidentified, but spectacular, floating spider

The morning after the marten hide we set off into Abernethy Forest, stopping off at RSPB Loch Garten to see the resident osprey which duly obliged and perched on the nest. There were lots of other small birds, in particular siskin, mobbing the feeders around the visitor centre, but after the osprey we headed off into the forest on a dragon hunt.

We found a small pool in the forest but the weather was grey and cool so the dragons were still under cover, but a magnificent spider was hunting on the surface. There are tiny dents in the water at the end of its legs where the surface tension is being tested but is still holding firm and supporting the weight of the spider. My knowledge of arachnidis is miniscule so I sent this photograph to the British Arachnological Society in the hope that they could identify it, but they said without dissecting it they couldn’t unambiguously name it.

In the absence of dragons we decamped to another much bigger pool a couple of miles away, and as we arrived there the sun emerged and brought the dragons out. It got very warm very quickly and they appeared in their hundreds:

Four spot chaser – Libellula quadrimaculataNorthern damselfly – Coenagrion hastulatum

The four spotted chaser is common all over the UK and can be seen in my neck of the woods too, but the northern damsel is only found in a few small lochs – or ‘lochans‘ – in Scotland. Consequently I’d never seen this one before. It can be identified by the bottom half of the eye which is green, and segment 2 of the thorax has a black marking resembling the ace of spades.

And while squadrons of dragons patrolled the air, the suns warmth had also enticed out a modern day dinosaur who was patrolling the marsh around the edge of the lake:

Common lizard – Zootoca vivipara

And now the sun was out we headed back to the original pool with increased hopes of finding a white faced darter and lo and behold we found a newly emerged one:

A very newly emerged white faced darter – Leuchorrhinia dubia

This species is limited to just a few sites in England and Scotland, it has declined in recent decades due to habitat destruction, pollution, etc, etc – all the usual reasons why human activity is causing species loss. This was the only one we saw here and I couldn’t get into position to photograph its white face, but I was very pleased to see such a pristine example of a species I hadn’t seen before.

Loch Ruthven

This year marked the occasion of the start of my 51st orbit around the sun, and to celebrate the event myself and my friend, who also reached the same milestone, took a trip in June to the Cairngorms in Scotland. It was a terrific excursion, the sun shone for most of the trip, and we spent the whole time out in the wilds. Before we went we convened in the pub several times to ‘plan‘ our campaign and one of our plans was to compile a short priority list of species we’d like to see. My list consisted of osprey, crested tit, crossbill and pine marten. And my friends list also included pine marten along with various dragonflies including white faced darter and northern damselfly – neither of which can be found in Cambridgeshire.

As we were intent on packing in as much Celtic wildlife watching as we could in three days it was a busy trip. So our first stop after arriving at Inverness and picking up a hire car was at Loch Ruthven. Truth be told, there wasn’t a huge amount going on here, but it was a lovely spot to burn an hour relaxing after the hassle of travel, flights etc.


Little grebe, or dabchick, (Tachybaptus ruficollis, Dansk: lille lappedykker)

Like other grebes, this one is a diver, reaching a depth of a metre to feed on molluscs, small fish and insects. Shakespeare referred to it as the ‘dive-dapper’ and according tho the British trust for ornithology it is the only bird to have the first three letters of the alphabet consecutively…  and I bet you’re glad you know that!

The little grebe is a resident and migrant breeder in the UK as well as being a winter visitor and covers a large part of the globe across Eurasia as far east as New Guinea and sub-Saharan Africa.

A pair of teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand)

Teal, like most ducks, are striking, handsome birds and their markings make them easily identifiable. They are passage and winter visitors here as well as being resident breeders. They frequent shallow water, and like the little grebe their conservation status in the UK is amber, with 2100 breeding pairs here.

So even though Loch Ruthven wasn’t bristling with rare and previously unseen wildlife (for myself, at least) it was a very pleasant start to our exploration of that corner of the UK. We speculated at the time that next time we visit we may need a passport and visa, but I’m pleased that our neighbours didn’t vote to secede from the UK in the September referendum!

The glimmer got a little brighter

Following on from my post from yesterday, in todays news on the BBC News website:

UN climate summit: China pledges emissions action

These are the two countries which really need to take big action on emissions and it looks as though they may be serious.

Let us all hope so!

A glimmer of hope

Yesterday on the BBC News website there was an article entitled:

‘Rockefellers to switch investments to ‘clean energy”

I think this one of the best pieces of news I’ve heard for a very long time and that it may signify that people who’s opinions and actions can influence government policy are finally taking steps to curb what has the potential to be the greatest global disaster in modern times.

The Rockefeller family, who made their vast fortune from trading in fossil fuels, have announced, on the eve of the next climate summit, that they are to divest themselves of all their investments in fossil fuels and reinvest them renewable energy!

If this is as true as it appears then huge respect to them and I hope that many other businesses, banks, investment houses etc. follow suit and send a very powerful message to the UK, US and all other governments who are in thrall to the fossil fuel industry that there are other ways to fuel the world that don’t need to involve wrecking it.

I don’t really have any appropriate images to illustrate this post so I thought a singing whitethroat was as good as anything.

Isle of Wight Part 2

The IoW avians:

We took our annual holiday two years running at Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, and one thing I noticed during the first visit was that there were ravens on the cliff face behind the beach at Shanklin. As I didn’t manage to take any close-up photographs of them on the first visit I resolved to try a bit harder the second time around.

Then one afternoon I found myself on the seafront with the kids and the usual gulls were wheeling and squawking in the air:

Herring gull – Larus argentatus (Dansk: Sølvmåge)

I like herring gulls, their shrieking call is reminiscent of fun-filled childhood trips to the seaside. And it makes me laugh how easily they overcome their natural fear of humans and come right up close to try to scrounge a chip.

And another gull which frequents the coasts of the UK, but which I see more of on the fields inland is the black headed gull:

Black headed gull, Chroicocephalus ridibundus (Dansk: hættemåge) - undercarriage down for a landing on the beach

Having touched down a quick pause for a pre-prandial scratch before poking around in the silt for something to eat

And while the gulls were doing their thing I noticed a big black shape on the cliffs a few hundred metres away which I thought could be a raven. So I chivvied the kids along the beach to get closer and sure enough it was indeed a raven. It flew down from the cliffs onto the beach and landed around 30-40m away but as I was of the opinion that ravens would be like the other crows, not terribly comfortable being in close proximity to humans, I gathered the children close and told them to be calm. But as we stood and watched it strolled down the beach towards us and didn’t appear to be remotely fazed by our presence, or for that matter, anyone elses:

Close encounter with a raven (Corvus corax, Dansk: ravn)

He strolled on past with a purposeful gait and what struck me was the size of him. Ravens are huge! I’d read before that they are the size of buzzards and seeing one this close it’s easy to see they really are.

So for comparison, an obliging rook posed in the background, and even though the rook is 5-10m further away the size difference is stark. There’s no confusing this chap for any other type of corvid!

And the reason the raven was behaving as bold as brass was that it was on a mission to examine the contants of a litter bin for a late afternoon snack:

First it made a small incision with its powerful beak – one of natures tools that’s magnificently fit for purpose. Once access was gained, it proceeded to extract the contents through this hole and snaffle up all the pieces of food jettisoned by that afternoons beach goers:

When I left it was still emptying the bin and was only distracted once when a large group of noisy folk walked right past, but he just hopped away a few metres and waited for them to pass before burying his head inside the bin once more to continue the meal.

I really like this series of shots because it shows a spectacular and enigmatic bird being incredibly resourceful, and it’s the first time I manage to get really close to a raven.

Some years ago I went kayaking in the Johnson Strait between British Columbia and the Canadian mainland to see orcas, and while I was there I learnt a bit about the indigenous people of that region, the Haida indians. As with many indigenous folk, they had a conservation minded and mystical relationship with their environment because their very survival depended entirely on the forests and oceans and the inhabitants thereof.

And one of the creatures they held in particular reverence was the raven. A modern day Haida called Bill Reid has written a book consisting of a series of short stories based around the orca, the eagle, the bear and of course, the raven, all from Haida legend going back centuries to a time before Europeans intervened and ruined everything. If you ever stumble across a copy buy it and enjoy it, it’s called ‘The Raven Steals the Light’ (ISBN 1-55054-481-0).

Histon Harvest

All the posts from my home patch have focussed on the wildlife and the impact of humans on the wildlife without much focus on the human activities per se. So as it’s harvest time now, or it would be in  a normal year, and the harvest is such an important event in human interaction with the countryside, I want to devote this post to it.

The harvest was nearly all done and dusted by the last week in July here this year, which is a good 2-3 weeks earlier than in a climatically normal year. These pictures are from last year when the bulk of the harvest took place in the second and third weeks of August. The crops vary in my local fields, and wheat, barley and oil seed rape are commonly planted.

Leviathan of the Fens –  the combine harvester – gathering the crop

Last year it was either wheat or barley so when harvest time began it heralded the arrival of some seriously big machinery. The speed with which these gigantic beasts gathered the grain and separated it from the straw and depatched the produce was breathtaking.

Dancing a duet with the tractor – it was all perfectly choreographed

The grain was unloaded into a trailer drawn by a tractor and the straw was jettisoned out the back to be simultaneously baled by a second tractor towing a baling machine :

And a quick change of partner for a waltz with the baler

The whole operation lasted just a few hours and was done with military precision and at the end all that was left was neatly arranged piles of bales amidst acres of stubble. A few years ago I was talking to a farmer in a pub near Cambridge and he told me that the harvesters have onboard computers which record how much grain is harvested from every part of the individual fields, and where yields drop it is all mapped via GPS so when fertiliser is applied prior to the next sowing operation, more will be applied in the areas of the fields which delivered the lower yields during the previous harvest. And of course, with that degree of efficiency applied to the whole process there is nothing left over for the wildlife as there was in the years pre-agro-intensification, and that’s a major reason why species such as tree sparrow, turtle dove, yellowhammer etc, are struggling. I’ve noticed in these fields that after the harvest nearly all the birdlife including yellowhammer, skylark, corn bunting, linnet and reed bunting all drastically decrease in numbers until the next springtime.

And whilst all that was ongoing there was another baler tidying up an adjacent field which is managed by a different farmer:

These monstrous bales aren’t the type that can be thrown around by a couple of farmhands and manually stacked on a flatbed trailer, they are around my height in diameter and require more big machinery to move them:

Another homeless (and endangered) farmland bird wondering what’s happened to his shelter and his meals:

A bewildered looking grey partidge (Perdix perdix) forced to the margins after the harvest

And of course, at this time of year, the grain isn’t the only harvest:

Juicy ripe plums hanging in the hedgerow

Another ramification of intensive farming is the destruction of the hedgerows. It’s something we wised up to in this country some years ago, with regard to grubbing them out, but nowadays farmers insist on attacking the ones that remain with flails (if anyone knows why they spend money and time doing this please let me know), including the one where these plums were growing. Not only does this thin the hedge right down so it provides less cover for overwintering birds, rodents, insects etc, the trees and bushes which grow there and provide food for the wildlife are producing less of these gorgeous fruit. So the wildlife is getting squeezed into a smaller and smaller fraction of the countryside and their shelter is under constant attack and their food source is constantly depleted. I think it’s not a good way to manage the countryside.

At harvest time with all the dust in the air it makes for some glorious sunsets

But on the optimistic side, I reckon it is possible for farmland to be managed to produce sufficient food for humans and still sustain our wildlife. I just hope that as a species we wise up before it’s too late. And at the risk of stirring up controversy… maybe we should simply learn not to waste so much.

Isle of Wight 2013

Part 1 – Lepidoptera

I’ve already grumbled in earlier posts about how the weather over the last three years leading up to 2014 was cold and unpredictable here in the UK, and how it had a very bad effect on our wildlife. In particular, overall numbers, and numbers of species, of butterflies, which are very sensitive to environmental change, seem to have been dramatically affected over those three years here in Cambridge at least.

But last year whilst on holiday on the Isle of Wight I took a walk from Shanklin up to the old WW2 radar station which is the highest point on the island, and apart from a flypast by a peregrine falcon, the most eyectaching natural phenomena were the butterflies, which seemed to be in direct contrast to the previous three years.

Comma – Polygonia c-album

The first part of my route took me through a wooded area bound by sea cliffs on one side and farmland on the other. A huge buddleia bush overhung the pathway which was hosting numerous species of butterfly, including the comma, above, and a painted lady, of which I’d seen plenty in 2010 but virtually none in the intervening years when the weather had turned bleak.

Painted lady – Vanessa cardui

The comma is resident to the UK and in recent years its numbers and range have actually increased and this has puzzled the entomologists as it is bucking a general trend amongst all butterflies here in the UK. in contrast, the painted lady is a handsome migrant which, according to my field guide, may or may not show up in the UK, consequently the entire population depends on immigration from Africa. But that raises the question what happens to the adults that are born here?

But since my guide was published, some research has been published where populations were tracked in and out of the UK on their migration routes by radar, and it revealed that painted ladies leave the country at high altitude – 500-1000m – where they can’t be seen by eye. The application of technology is revealing many hitherto unknown phenomena about many species and it’s interesting that up until now it was thought the whole UK population of painted ladies died out each year simply because they fly back just out of visual range.  And even more amazingly, it has now been discovered that this species takes up to six generations to make a circular 14000km (9000 miles) round trip from the Arctic Circle to Sub-Saharan Africa!

Which raises another mind boggling question: how is it hard wired into this tiny creature to make successive steps of this awesome migratory feat, covering half the globe, all in the same direction, at any one time? Unbelievable! But on the other hand, if populations on a previous leg of the journey take a hit for whatever reason it may be the explanation of why population size can vary so much from year to year in the UK.

Common blue male  – Polyommatus icarus

After emerging from the woods I climbed a steep incline, crossing the main Shanklin to Ventnor road and up the chalk downland of Boniface Down towards the WW2 radar station. Consequently, the terrain and the vegetation changed and so did the butterflies. The common blue is another species which I sighted frequently before the three year cold snap of 2011-14, but this male was the first one I’d spotted for a while.

Silver Y moth – Autographa gamma

The silver Y – it’s easy to see how it got its name – is a migrant moth which isn’t peculiar to chalk downlands and can be seen in most habitats, including the farmlands here around Cambridge, and this one was soaking up the sunshine on the down.

Marbled white  – Melanargia galathea

But the real gem of this trip was the marbled white, of which there were numerous examples fluttering around the down, and this one was sipping nectar from a greater knapweed flower. The marbled white is a UK resident and its favoured habitat is chalk downland.

Emerging on the top of the downland the vegetation changed to primarily low scrub consisting of acres of thistles which were home to more gatekeepers than I’ve ever seen before in one spot, I’m not exaggerating when I say there were literally hundreds of them. The information board at the entrance said that small coppers were also in residence but I only saw one and unfortunately it didn’t settle, which was a pity because they’re beautiful little brown and orange chaps and I wanted to get a photograph of one to share. Oh well, next time.

Gatekeeper – Pyronia tythonus – this one is a male, identifiable by the brown patches on the forewings, the ‘sex brands’

During the winter of 2013-14 and so far through this year the weather has warmed up, the cold, the rain and the high winds have all abated allowing many species to start to recover. It’s been a good year so far for butterflies and dragonflies, and hopefully lots more insects and the other creatures that predate them. The resilience of the natural world is astonishing, but I’m hoping we get another couple of mild years so the recovering wildlife can consolidate its numbers before the next big change in the weather.

The views from the top of Boniface Down were lovely. The cliffs on the southern edge of the island falling away to the English Channel were to the left, and when I looked north I could see mainland England. It’s not discernible in this photograph but the Solent and the south coast of the mainland are in the distance:

The only bird I managed to photograph up there was this little fellow who I think is a meadow pippit:

The pippits were very busy feeding youngsters, toing and froing across the scrub with beaks full of insects.

And the other reason I hiked up the hill was to see the old radar station at RAF Ventnor at the top of Boniface Down. This was one of the original installations set up before WW2 and was instrumental in detecting and reporting the massed attacks on southern England by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

The remaining pair of radar towers at RAF Ventnor – there were originally six

The station was twice bombed by the Luftwaffe and I believe it holds the dubious distinction of being the only radar station to be destroyed by the enemy!