Daily Archives: April 2, 2011

Guns Lane bird walk 2nd April 2011

I acquired a voice recorder last week. It’s tiny – not much bigger than a  cigarette lighter – and it means I can record what I see alot more accurately as I don’t need to rely on memory. Which is a good thing as my memory is not brilliant. The weather was glorious on Saturday and Sunday morning so the timing of my acquisition was pretty good because there was an awful lot to record when I was out and about.  The birds are very busy right now building nests and in the last couple of weeks blackbirds have been collecting strands of hay ejected from the rabbit hutch in my garden and I’ve seen various other species with beaks full of grass, twigs and moss.

Apart from enjoying the sunshine I saw two species of bird for the first time this year – blackcap and linnet. A pair of linnet appeared to be in residence in a bramble at the southeastern end of Rowleys Meadow, Histon. (On the map, Rowleys Meadow is the area of green scrub in the middle.)

Linnet perched on top of a bramble

The blackcap were in the northwestern hedge row at the opposite end of the field to the linnet and perched, tantalisingly, directly over my head, so my photographs are all of the underside. I saw one pair together and two individuals on this walk which is almost as many as I’ve seen in Histon in total in the last three years.

Also in the same hedge along the northwest periphery were several yellowhammer and in the bright sunshine the colours were amazing:


Yellowhammer male sitting atop a branch beautifully lit by the early morning sun

Yellowhammer are a species of bunting that are resident in the UK so can be seen all year round and breed here. They feed predominantly on seeds but also on insects which they harvest from the ground. I often see them perched on top of hedgerows and they fly to the ground when flushed where, despite their colour, are often next to impossible to see. The female has similar markings to the male but  is much less yellow.

Pair of yellowhammer, male  on the left and female to the right – I was very pleased to get this picture as they’re normally so difficult to see on the ground

Yellowhammer are currently on the red list due to the decline in numbers over recent years, although there seem to be good numbers in my locality and I’ve even had one feeding in my garden!

Many species of birds were busy this weekend, including a buzzard, a pair of sparrowhawk wheeling around way up high, and a pair of kestrel. Closer to the ground, blacdbird, chaffinch, greenfinch, long tailed tit and songthrush were all very much in evidence.


The unmistakably speckled underside of a songthrush

Butterflies are also starting to emerge in the warm weather and a couple of red admirals and two others which I couldn’t see close enough to identify were floating along the brambles.

A good photograaph of a blackcap eluded me this weekend as I only managed to shoot it from directly underneath so the cap wasn’t visible, but I shall have another look this weekend and hopefully post a ;picture next time.

Toad migration

It’s the time of year when our resident amphibians are mating and heading for the nearest stretch of water to spawn. I find it a particularly stressful phenomenon due to the number of frogs and toads that need to cross roads and don’t make it. In my vicinity the completion of the guided busway running into the north of Cambridge has imposed an impassable barrier to thousands of common toads, Bufo bufo, which hibernate in the woods and hedgerows along the northern edge of the busway.


Pair of toads, the lady is the larger one underneath doing the legwork

It’s clear from the picture that the toads stand little or no chance of negotiating the sheer walls at the side of the busway – and even if they did they would have a further three to climb on the way to the lake and all four again on the way back. All this whilst numerous pedestrians and cyclists are making their way to school in Histon and work on Cambridge Science Park. It’s an extremely hazardous operation.


A pair that made it on their way to the water

When they make it to the water toads lay strings of eggs, as opposed to the gelatinous mass of eggs laid by frogs, and their tadpoles are slightly shorter and fatter than frogs. They feed on vegetable matter and absorb oxygen through their skin. As they grow they develop lungs and come to the surface to breathe. Eventually the tadpoles metamorphose into adult toads and the tail shrinks away at which point they leave the water as immature adults and will only return to the water to breed.

Adult toads differ from frogs in that they don’t hop, they walk. The colour of toads is also rather different, they have light ot dark brown warty skin with darker spots and frogs have more homogeneous green and smooth skin. And the eye colours of the toad is gorgeous – a lovely deep reddish gold. I like toads, they eat garden pests including slugs and are consequently good things to have around.

As with alot of creatures with the word ‘common‘ in their name, this is something of a misnomer, because of habitat destruction and the best attempts of predators including domestic cats they are no longer common. They secrete a toxic irritant through the skin but some predators are immune to this so they still get eaten.

It’s a real struggle being an amphibian in modern Britain so if you see one heading for the water – or on the return trip – please rescue it and help it on its way by placing it out of the way of humans, cars, cats etc.

Norsey Wood

Last weekend my wanderings took me to Norsey Wood on the  eastern edge of Billericay in Essex. The weather was sunny and warm so a stroll through this chunk of ancient woodland was compulsory. The wood is a lovely place and has a history dating back 4000 years. It is now a mixed coppice bluebell wood and in a month or so the floor will be completely blue. At the moment, the bluebell leaves are sprouting but no flowers are out but there are wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa):

Wood anemone flowers pointing at the sun

And lesser celandines (Ranunculus ficaria):

Wood anemones are interesting plants. They’re toxic and contain chemicals which have been used medicinally but which can cause some pretty unpleasant effects if ingested such as vomiting, diarrhoea and gastric bleeding. Best avoided. Despite that, a wood floor covered in them is a wonderful sight to behold. Lesser celandine are rather lovely too, with similarly interesting properties. According to its Wikipedia entry it has warty nodules which resemble haemarrhoids, so ancient law dictated it must therefore possess anti-haemorrhoidal properties. Bizarre logic, but you never know, maybe there was a grain of truth in it. It doesn’t mention how the active ingredient was applied though!

I saw a group of four jays squabbling in a tree but the woods were generally fairly quiet for birds on that day. The animal which was present in enormous abundance was the woodant, Formica rufa,


Wood ant worker – these are around 1cm long

The workers are all female and if attacked they have a ferocious bite and can spray formic acid from the rear of the abdomen. A loner wouldn’t trouble a human but disturbing a nest which may contain several hundred thousand would be ill advised.


Thousands of woodants all busy around the entrance to the nest

They’re amazing creatures and build nests from plant material such as leaves and pine needles which can be a metre deep. As they act as an incubator and creche the temperature has to be very carefully controlled which is achieved by opening and closing vents to regulate airflow through the nest. So they’re fearsome warriors, highly competent parents and civil engineers too.

The organisation and division of labour amongst woodants is also remarkable. They have territories covering large areas and I’ve tracked them from a nest to a foraging site and the distance is many tens if not hundreds of meters which they negotiate in straight lines where possible and will clear away any debris which  blocks the way. Amazing creatures.

I’m hoping to make a trip to Norsey Wood in May when the bluebells are in bloom so I’ll hopefully post from there again later in the year.