Monthly Archives: November 2010

Guns Lane

As I mentioned in my previous post, Guns Lane links the north of Histon with Willingham and Ely, and provided the raw materials for my winter warmer, sloe gin. Due to the profusion of heavily laden trees and bushes – hawthorn, dog rose etc., providing food and cover for the resident wildlife, it is a great place to go birdspotting too.

My first stroll up there this winter was three weekends ago, 13th November 2010) and the profusion of birdlife on display was spectacular. Shortly after entering Guns Lane from Cottenham Road under a copse of tall trees several chaffinch were flitting around at the top. Closer inspection revealed the sumptuous pink breast and black cap of a cock bullfinch who exited the tree accompanied by three others. That was only the second time I’ve seen more than one bullfinch since I was at school. And the first time was the weekend before in Girton. Bullfinch feed on the buds of fruit trees in springtime and have been accredited with decimating fruit crops and I believe it is still legal to trap them in some parts of the UK. Consequently, their numbers dropped dramatically in recent decades so it’s great to see them in threes and fours.

Further on a wren appeared at around eye height craning on a tall grass stem to see me. It didn’t appear overly perturbed by my presence and followed me along the path for 30-40m. Simultaneously, several goldfinch were patrolling the top of the hawthorn trees on the other side of the lane until a visit by a kestrel frightened all the smaller birds away.

N.b. You can find full list of my sightings by clicking on this link to my wildlife diary.

All along the walk numerous small birds such as blue tit, great tit, a flock of long tailed tits, chaffinch and goldfinch appeared and redwing and large flocks of fieldfare are now regular fixtures.

Looking north along Guns Lane on the edge of Histon. These bushes are a hotspot for blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit and magpie

On another walk there had been very little birdlife to see until approaching a bend a little further on from the spot in the photo above, there was a commotion going on which I thought was due to my presence. As I approached blue tit, chaffinch, blackbird and even a green woodpecker took to the air all alarm calling and as I rounded the bend a buzzard emerged from a bush close by and glided up the lane away from me for 50-60m before turning off into a field. That all happened within 30 feet of where I stood and I don’t often get to see a buzzard that close – all very exciting!

Blue tit feeding in a bush on Guns Lane
Fieldfare – this one was difficult to photograph due to the position in the top of a tree and the bright white sky behind – I aim to get some better pictures as soon as possible!

Adjoining the lane at the Histon end of the lane is a field of scrub, which I call Church Field, and is always full of birds, with regular sightings of green woodpecker, chaffinch, greenfinch, latterly bullfinch, kestrel and the occasional sparrowhawk, among various others.

Looking north east across Church Field – it’s a good mixture of old established trees, young scrub and grass

The weather this weekend past (27th and 28th November 2010) was freezing:

and during an early morning foray into Church Field last Sunday (28th November 2010) a kestrel was perched on the uppermost branch of a tree with his feathers ruffled as protection against the cold:

Male kestrel trying to stay warm on a fiercely cold morning

It’s unusual to be able to get close and take photographs of most birds including birds of prey, so I was very grateful to this one for sitting tight for so long. He kept a watchful eye on me as I slowly sidled round the bottom of his tree which gave me time to capture a few decent shots. I particularly like this one looking down the lens with his feathers all ruffled up. On my way back through the field a couple of hours later a cock bullfinch flew right over my head, his colours against the bright blue sky were vibrant.

The section of the lane approaching the Oakington to Cottenham road is different habitat consisting of old, thick hedgerows which are frequented by big flocks of fieldfare and flat open fields which this weekend were hosting small flocks of lapwing (~20) and larger flocks of golden plover (at least 40) in the midst of which a heron landed and sat catching its breath until after I was out of sight. The hedges bordering the fields here are also home to many small birds such as chaffinch, goldfinch and dunnock.

Part of a small flock of 22 lapwing in a field off Guns Lane

And part of a larger flock of golden plover

The end of a walk on Gun Lane can also be the best part and I usually linger right by the Cottenham Road end where trees overhang the lane on both sides. These trees and bushes are usually full of birds including blackbird, chaffinch, blue tit, great tit, coal tit, house sparrow, dunnock, goldfinch and sometimes they’re all on parade at the same time.

House sparrow male in a hawthorn tree at the Cottenham Road end of the lane

And this brave squirrel sat watching me as I was photographing the birds

As you can hopefully see, this is a really good place to go for a stroll and see lots of really good wildlife. All the pictures and observations in this post were collected in just three walks. I’ll post again soon to tell you about my next outings on Guns Lane.



Natures harvest – sloe gin

Guns Lane is an ancient right of way linking Histon with Willingham and then Ely. It has survived the centuries without being turned into a road or the hedgerows being ripped out and ploughed over. Consequently it is lined for much of its length, at least stretches of the part between Histon and Westwick, with numerous species of trees and bushes.

One bush to be found in good numbers is the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) which at this time of year is festooned with sloe berries. Three weekends ago I interrupted my walk on Guns Lane to collect a box full of sloes and when I got home I made a bottle of sloe gin, which should be ready just in time for Christmas. To the uninitiated imbiber I can heartily recommend sloe gin. The fruit are free and readily available in a hedgerow near you, it’s very easy to make, and the end result is delicious.

Guns Lane Histon – the yellow leaved bush on the right is blackthorn

If anyone has tasted a sloe berry, inadvertently or otherwise, you’ll know that sloes are totally unfit for human consumption. They have an astringency in my experience unrivalled – apart from perhaps a quince. I don’t know if any other creatures can eat them but no one I’ve asked has heard of any animals feasting on them. Which may explain why there are so many in the hedgerows deep into winter.

Sloe berries in late summer…

… and in winter.

In some parts local wisdom suggests picking the sloes after the first frost. I think the reason for that is so the skins are split, or at least permeable, and the gin can soak in and dissolve the good stuff from the berries. It can be made with berries harvested before the first frost but then you simply need to prick them with a knife or put them in the freezer for a day or two prior to use.

Actually making the sloe gin is very straightforward. You need a 75cl bottle of gin (it doesn’t have to be good quality – any cheap and cheerful gin will suffice). Clean a teacup full of sloes and prick them or freeze them if required, empty the gin bottle and place the sloes and a teacup full of sugar  into it. Top it up with gin, put the cap on, lay it down, leave it for 6 weeks remembering to turn it to give it a gentle mix once a day. And that’s it. Six weeks later you’ll have a deliciously fruity and splendidly alcoholic winter warmer, perfect for a frosty walk in the countryside or standing on the terraces watching a match.

The finished product… what a gorgeous colour!
And it tastes lovely too.

This year I was going to experiment and flavour my gin with a little vanilla but I didn’t have a vanilla pod to hand when I made it so I stuck to tradition. After six weeks strain the gin through a clean muslin and it’s ready to drink as a digestif, just because it’s delicious.  If you have a really cheap and nasty bottle of red wine of the kind someone who doesn’t like you very much may have left behind after a party, steep the used sloe berries in the wine for 1-2 days then enjoy with a slab of mature stilton.

Happy days!

Natural (pre)history

I’m stretching a point here, but if you can cut me some slack I hope you’ll think it’s worth it.

A couple of years ago my brother in law was turning over the topsoil in his garden in Daventry whilst talking to my Dad, when the old man spotted an interestingly shaped stone in a spade full of soil. They retrieved the stone and this is what they had found:

Acheulian hand axe

We originally thought it was an axe head, but the size and shape and the way it fits so neatly into the palm of my hand made me think it may be a hand axe. My Dad took it to the local council finds department to find out its true identity and the lady there told him she thought it was an axe head dating back around 10,000 years, which is right at the end of the Stone Age, but she would send it to the relevant experts and get it properly identified.

Some weeks later a report arrived from the experts and it turned out to be even more amazing than we first thought. It transpires it is what is known as an ‘Acheulian’ hand axe, so called because the first known example was discovered in the town of Saint-Acheul near Amiens in  northern France. It was knapped from a piece of flint using a deer antler during the middle palaeolithic period, between 250-400,000 years ago. The marks created by working the stone are clearly visible in the photographs above and have been beautifully depicted by a scientific illustrator in the report.

It has been crafted so one side is fairly flat compared to the other and all the weight is at the fat end which fits into the palm of the hand making an exquisitely fit-for-purpose handle with cutting edges running along both sides to the tip. It shows signs of having been reworked so I imagine it must have been a good one, and the edges are still sharp – after many millenia.

The cutting edges of both sides are still sharp

The use of these axes dates back 1.5-2 million years, to the overlap of Homo erectus species with archaic Homo sapiens, so it is possible this tool was made by a member of a pre-human species, and they have been used to trace the spread of hominids away from the birthplace of humanity in Africa. The design of this one dates it to the later part of the palaeolithic period at a time when Homo heidelbergensis was evolving divergently into H.neanderthalensis and H.sapiens – us.

H.sapiens dates back  approximately 100-200,000 years and H.heidelbergensis approximately 400-600,000 years. So the dating of our hand axe suggests it was probably made by H.heidelbergensis.

How many woolly mammoth were skinned and butchered by this?

The axe is made of flint, a sedimentary rock found in limestone formations and is a cryptocrystalline form of quartz, formed by compression at relatively low temperatures and pressures. Flint is normally a dark glassy colour but the colour of our axe is yellowy brown because it was discarded into water in Northamptonshire, where the underlying rock strata are formed predominantly of ironstone. The acid conditions in a bog rich in iron has thus caused the stone to absorb iron onto the surface giving it its unusual colour. Interestingly, the flat end where the tip has been broken off is not yellow, suggesting the tip was broken off more recently when it was no longer exposed to iron.

The next person to handle this amazing tool since a member of the Homo heidelbergensis species was my Dad. Which I think is an incredible notion!

So even though this is not contemporary natural history I think there is a place for it in a blog about nature. I hope you agree!




Did anyone see the article about ‘murmuration on the BBC news website yesterday?

This is the technical term for the aerial swarms of starlings that occur immediately prior to settling into their roost site in the evening.

It’s phenomenon I’ve seen before but not for many years. I was an undergraduate in Liverpool in the mid 1980’s and I recall on winter evenings there were frequently murmuratons of starlings going on over St Johns Garden behind St Georges Hall in the centre of the city.

This is a great name for one of natures truly spectacular, and mesmerising, events. I don’t know how many birds were involved in the murmurations I saw but I believe it can be up to tens of thousands. The overhead spectacle is awesome, and in a rather different respect so is the effect it has on the pavements beneath… and the resultant stench!

The BBC article refers to some new research from two Italian biologists who studied the flocks of starlings over Rome, and using clever camera work they divined how the birds maintain the shape of the flock. There was also speculation about why they murmurate. I think it must be down to evasion of predators such as peregrine falcons.

I can’t resist the temptation to gratuitously insert one of my starling photographs here, because on an individual level aswell as in enormous swarms they are beautiful creatures. They have sumptuously iridescent plumage particularly when they catch sunlight at the right angle:

Sturnus vulgaris

Alas, I don’t have any of my own photographs of murmurations but I intend to rectify that situation in the future, at which time I will post again about these endearing creatures.

Winter garden visitors

Redwing and fieldfare have now made the journey south from Scandinavia to overwinter in the fields and hedgerows of the UK and the first frosts have happened over alot of the country. The weather has turned generally pretty cold so it’s time to spare a thought for the struggling wild creatures. I’ve now cleaned and replenished my feeders to help the birds survive the winter months. For example, a blue tit weighs between 10-12 grams so a night spent asleep in sub-zero conditions is an extremely challenging time and they need regular food supplies to keep warm. You’ll notice the photographs in this post weren’t all shot in the cold winter months but all the species shown are regular winter visitors to my garden.

Greenfinch waiting for a vacant space on the seed feeder

I hang bird feeders from the trees in my front garden with peanuts, mixed seed and fat balls in along with a ground station with peanuts, seed and sultanas. There are some good online suppliers out there including the RSPB, Soar Mill Seeds and the one I’ve now been using for a few years is Vine House Farm. This combination of feeds attracts a wide range of birds including starling, blackbird, blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit, robin, greenfinch, chaffinch, rook, jackdaw, carrion crow, collared dove and wood pigeon.

Wood pigeon perched in the cherry tree in my front garden

One of the Churchyard rooks sitting on a neighbours’ TV aerial contemplating a raid on the ground feeder


One of the blue tit pair in my crab apple tree checking for danger before disappearing into the nest box

 There are also infrequent visits from great spotted woodpecker, song thrush, wren, sparrowhawk and even a yellowhammer put in an appearance on one occasion.

In my back garden I also hang peanut and mixed seed feeders and a niger seed feeder for goldfinch. I have two suspended seed feeders above ground out of the way of marauding cats and squirrels which work well for ground feeders such as chaffinch and dunnock. A similar range of small birds appear in the back garden but the crows, woodpecker and sparrowhawk  don’t seem to venture in there, but dunnock and goldfinch are regular visitors all through the year.

Goldfinch – one of this years offspring. It still doesn’t have the black head markings and the face is pale orange rather than the deep red of the adults.

Adult goldfinch


Living on the edge of countryside surrounded by gardens with big old trees and an orchard is obviously a good place to be to see birds (and bats in the summer), but being in the middle of the village or even in the middle of a city like Cambridge, well away from countryside, doesn’t preclude seeing interesting birdlife. A friend in Histon has seen siskin and redpoll in his garden, neither of which are common garden birds, and another friend in the centre of Cambridge has regular visits from sparrowhawk and jay. So simply hanging up a couple of birdfeeders with nuts and mixed seed can turn an urban garden into a mini nature reserve, and you can sit in the warm with a cup of coffee and watch it all out the window. I’ve been amazed to see what has turned up in my garden in the last few years!

North Histon field walk

Most of my meanderings are across fields adjoining Histon on the northen edge of Cambridge, UK. Farmland here stretches almost unbroken, with the exception of the Cottenham to Landbeach road, and a few minor lanes, for 6-7 miles to the Wilburton to Streatham Road and is interspersed with scrub and plenty of mature trees offering shelter and food for the local wildlife. I’ve been keeping a wildlife diary since the middle of 2009. The 2010 edition is here and I’ve drawn a map of the Histon north fields area which is a little bit ‘Lord of the Rings’ style but it shows where all the locations mentioned in the diary are in relation to each other. Of course, all the location names are figments of my imagination from two years ago, so none of them would be found on an official map!

The photographs below will hopefully help you visualise the places and habitats I’m describing.  I have lots of pictures of the landscape features taken at various times of year, but all the pictures below were taken late in the afternoon, 3-4.30pm, last Sunday  (7th November, 2010) and I’m using these because the sun was low in the southwestern sky making the colours wonderfully vivid. There are no animals or birds in these shots, unless you’ve zoomed in and have spotted some that I haven’t. So if you wanted to see animals I apologise, and if you find any please let me know! The pictures start and finish with my favourite poplar tree and get progressively darker, and the light more blue, as the sun dipped below the western horizon:

Linnet Hedge heading towards the Poplar with South Bean Field on the left

Entering the fields from the B1049 I walk along the Linnet Hedge where in the summer numerous linnet appear most days perching on the power lines and feeding in the fields immediately adjacent to it. Not just linnet though, there are dunnock, house sparrow, blue tit, great tit, chaffinch, greenfinch, goldfinch, blackbird, wren, whitethroat, yellowhammer, blackcap and kestrel regularly sighted in or around it.

Heading east-south-east towards the Poplar Tree I turn left and head towards the sycamore tree at Hedge End along West Ditch  to the Merlin Hedge.

Poplar Hedge on the left leading to the small sycamore at Hedge End where it becomes the West Ditch, Middle and North Bean Fields on the right, Merlin Hedge at the end of the track. Lone dog walker in the distance.

West Ditch is a great place to see all kinds of wildlife. Apart from being full of many wild flowers from Spring through to Winter, it is full of birds too, such as wren, linnet, goldfinch, reed bunting and corn bunting.  One evening this summer at the far end of the West Ditch I was distracted by the buzzing of an insect which turned out to be a privet hawk moth. Alas, it was too dark for a photo, but they are black and pink and up to 12cm wingspan, so an impressive sight. Common darter dragonflies also patrol up and down here.

Ditch running northwest to southeast between the sycamore tree at Hedge End and the farm

The Merlin Hedge is so called because not long after I started walking there I was half way along it when a merlin approached at quite incredible speed flying 2m off the ground and as it crossed the hedge, 10m in front of where I stood, it dived to catch a swallow which proved too elusive so it veered back on course and went on its way. All that lasted just 15-20 seconds or so but it was immensely exciting to watch.

Merlin Hedge running southeast towards the Bonfire and a machine store

At the end of the  Merlin Hedge I usually double back round the wooden post down the other side of the West Ditch towards the sycamore tree, turning right down the southern edge of the Beet Field:

Southern edge of Beet Field looking west to the back of the gardens of the B1049

At the end of this track a left turn takes me along the back of the gardens, allotments and horse paddocks to the South Fallow Field at the far end of which  I cross the B1049 and head for home. But I can’t finish without including this picture of the Poplar Tree across the PX Field:

Poplar tree in the late afternoon sun. I love the colours in the sky!