Daily Archives: April 22, 2011

Wandering warblers

In the last two to three weeks I’ve seen several of our migrant bird species which have been returning from Africa and Eastern Europe for the breeding season in the UK. And in the sunny weather we’re experiencing this month lots of bird species, migrant and resident, can be seen during an early morning walk.

Last Sunday the weather was glorious, there was very little wind so there was no traffic noise so the only sound in the air was the buzzing of insects and the singing of birds. And there were plenty.

I set off with my friend from work, Dave, who is very knowledgeable about wildlife and a very good photographer too (check out his website here for some stunning images). Dave had come over so I could show him the local Histon wildlife and it didn’t disappoint. Within a couple of hundred metres of leaving my house we were watching a group of five blackcap chasing each other through the trees.


Male blackcap perched in an ash tree

Male blackcap are very aptly named, they have a very prominent black cap which stops just above the eye, the female and juveniles less so, theirs are a lovely rufous brown colour and also very distinctive. The blackcap is a short distance migrant in western and southern Europe and I’ve heard that there is now a population in eastern Europe which migrates to Western Europe and the UK instead of heading south. Maybe that’s down to global warming causing increased spring temperatures here.

Other migrants which we saw in good numbers, and which I’ve seen around north Cambridge for the last three weeks or so, are chiffchaff, willow warbler and whitethroat. The chiffchaff heads south to the Mediterranean for winter and some individuals carry on to sub-Saharan Africa.

The willow warbler heads further south to tropical sub-Saharan Africa for the winter:


Willow warbler sitting in the top of a hawthorn tree

Chiffchaff and willow warbler are very difficult to tell apart visually, but they can easily be distinguished by their song. The chiffchaff is named after it’s call which is a single note sung with alternating pitch, the willow warblers song is more musical and easily distinguished from the chiffchaff.

Whitethroat of which there are two species – common and lesser – over-winter in sub-Saharan and northeast Africa respectively.

Common whitethroat male singing from his perch on a bramble

It’s good to see the migrants returning from Africa, I don’t know what percentage of individuals that start what must be an extremely hazardous journey make it back to the UK, but the willow warbler in particular is a very common bird so good numbers must make it.

The other migrant which I’ve seen in the last week, which is the real harbinger of summer, is the swallow. I only saw a single one first time on the 16th April, which was busy hoovering up flies over a field of oil seed rape, but yesterday I counted 7 sightings over the same field, so I think the numbers are increasing. And since then we’ve had real summer weather!

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April in bloom

A walk along a hedgerow can be a particulalry rewarding experience just now. The trees are all in leaf and horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) trees are in bloom and hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is puntuating the hedgerows with gorgeous stretches of white flowers,


Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) beautifully fremed by hawthorn blossom on a sunny day in April

Wildflowers are also in bloom, and lining my walk routes this month are  cowslips (Primula veris):

…and white deadnettle (Lamium album)

The cowslip, a member of the Primula family which includes primrose and oxlip, are not as common as they used to be but occasionally a roadside verge or a bank or edge of a ditch will be swathed in yellow from their flowers. The cowslip could be confused with the similar oxlip but the flowers of the oxlip are more pale and more open, like those of a primrose. Until recent times it was used  to make wine and the garlands on Maypoles, and has been used medicinally to treat headaches, whooping cough and as a diuretic and expectorant.

Conversely, white deadnettle is much more common and can be found lining field edges, road verges and hedgerows. It flowers from March to December and the nectar is at the back of the flower so can only be fed on by larger insects such as bumble bees which can open up the flower to get to the nectar. It is known as a ‘deadnettle’ because its leaves resemble the stinging nettle but it can’t sting because it doesn’t have the stinging hairs. It is easily distinguished from the stinger by its flowers which are white or pink compared to the stinging nettle flowers which are small and green. It has historically been used in herbal remedies for catarrh and the young leaves and flowers can be eaten as a vegetable.

Many other flowers are blooming now such as the common-or-garden buttercup (Ranunclus acris), daisy (Bellis perennis) and dandelion (Taraxacum offficinale):


Dandelion flower, named from the French for ‘lions tooth’ – Dent de lion

Dandelion flowers heads are made up of many smaller florets and are open in the daytime but close up at night. The leaves have been used in salads in many countries either raw or blanched in boiling water to remove any bitter flavour, and the roots can be roasted and ground into a coffee-type drink. It has been used as a traditional remedy for urinary tract infections and as a diuretic.


A dandelion seedhead – a masterpice of natural architecture!

Cow parsley mallow and other wild flowers will all b e in full bloom on the near future and the flies and butterflies that depend on them will also be out and about.