Monthly Archives: May 2011

A quick stroll round the meadow

Yesterday evening I accompanied the dog on a very quick circuit around Rowleys Meadow. I didn’t take my camera because I didn’t expect to be gone for very long, but fortunately I did pick up my binoculars.

Venturing along Guns Lane to the gap in the hedge which serves as the entrance to the Meadow I could hear a blackcap uttering its call in the undergrowth. As I was about to go through the gap it flew past me just in front and alighted in the bramble a few feet away and continued calling. It then circled around me for a minute or so as I entered the Meadow and sat singing in the trees and brambles while I stood in the hedge and watched. I didn’t linger for long as I guessed it was probably guarding a nearby nest. If only I’d had my camera with me!


Blackcap male  – from a previous foray into the meadow

I’ve never spent so long so close to a blackcap, and it was lovely to see. There are a good number of them in the Meadow, and at least one nest, and they’re present in the hedgerows around the more open fields to the east of here too.

Moving on around the Meadow, chiffchaff were on parade in their customary locations and common whitethroat were singing on top of the brambles and in the low scrub.


Common whitethroat male proclaiming his territory

There are numerous common whitethroat in and around the Meadow which can be heard singing all through the day and many of the bramble thickets are home to their nests.


This female common whitethroat was waiting for me to move on before heading for the nest. I crouched down and hid in the long grass just long enough to get these photographs

When seen close up the female whitethroat is quite different to the male both in demeanour and plumage. She isn’t as bold in proclaiming her presence and her colours are more subdued, she doesn’t have the blue grey head of the male.

A kestrel was hovering over the Meadow at various heights for the duration of our walk, diving down into the undergrowth in pursuit of unwary rodents, but he didn’t seem to catch any. But next to the path there was evidence of another predator kill – the empty carcass from a sparrowhawk meal. The brown feathers remaining suggested it was a starling chick but it could also have been a blackbird or song thrush. There was insufficient forensic left to allow an unambiguous identification. Nature at its most brutal, but sparrowhawks have chicks to feed too. On the subject of our local birds of prey, a young buzzard was learning to fly over the Meadow today, it’s plumage was ragged and it was a less than competent aeronaut, and it’s great that they’re breeding in the area.

The other highlight of my quick stroll last night was the number of green woodpeckers. I counted seven, including two sightings of two together, one pair of which were squabbling on the ground. It’s quite possible, even likely, that I counted at least one of them twice, but I think there must have been at least 4-5 individuals.


A green woodpecker that I flushed out the grass

There’s lots of birdlife around at the moment and they all seem to be breeding successfully, including the local starling population.

And before I finish, I want to share this wild flower with you:

How gorgeous is that?!

It’s the flowerhead of hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) which has just started blossoming in the hedgerows along Guns Lane in Histon. It contains an antiseptic oil which was utilised in days of yore in wound dressings, hence the name. Absolutely exquisite.

Dragon hunt

Not the fire-breathing type but Anisoptera. I spotted the first dragon this year over Easter during a picnic at Grantchester Meadows, south of Cambridge. It wasn’t, technically speaking a dragonfly, but a damselfly, specifically, a large red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula), which is one of the first to emerge after the Winter. Due to the weather this year many things have happened earlier than usual and the large red was out and about in late April. And they are magnificently red:


Large red damselfly male. There are three colour forms of the female all of which have more dark banding on the abdomen than the male

Milton Country Park on the northern edge of Cambridge is a great place to see numerous species of dragonfly and damselfly, and on a foray there on Saturday with my friend, David, we counted 10 species. Dragonflies – I’m using this generic term interchangeably to cover dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera) – are remarkable creatures, there are few more accomplished aeronauts in the animal kingdom, and the various life cycles are amazing.

The life cycles involve an aqautic larval stage, the larvae hatching from eggs laid either underwater or inside plant material close to the waters surface. The duration of the larval stage is affected by various factors including temperature, and for species such as the blue tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans), this results in the difference in duration of the larval stadium (developmental stage) of 1 year in warmer parts and 2 years where it’s colder.


Blue tailed damselfly, immature male

After the larval stage, metamorphosis, switched on by warmer temperatures and extended day length, occurs over a few weeks and concludes with the emergence of the adult from the larval cuticle when it will dry out and take to the air. The drying out process is hazardous as it renders the new adults susceptible to predation by birds, consequently they time their emergence to occur at night or in the early morning. New adult dragonflies then disperse from water for approximately a few days to a few weeks, until they are sexually mature, when they return to the water for the serious business of finding a mate and starting the whole process over again.

This is a very incomplete and generic description of the dragonfly lifecycle, but if you want to discover more I recommend a book called ‘Field guide to the dragonflies and damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland’ written by Steve Brooks and illustrated by Richard Lewington (ISBN 978 0 9531399 0 3). It’s a very well written book with lots of easy to read information and high quality illustrations. And because there are only around 40 or so species of dragon and damselfy in GB and Ireland it won’t take you all year to read!

On our walk we saw hairy and emperor dragonflies (Brachytron pratense and Anax imperator respectively), both species of hawker, which I couldn’t get good photographs of as they were whizzing around over the water at high speed and never seemed to settle within range. Similarly with the four-spotted chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata), but then as we positioned ourselves in a very good viewing location on one of the smaller lakes a scarce chaser (Libellula fulva) appeared on a nearby seedhead and with occasional forays stayed there all the time we were there, giving some great photo opportunities:


Scarce chaser male, the female has a yellow abdomen with a thin black spine and doesn’t have the three black end segments

There were lots of damselflies too, apart from the large red and blue tailed already mentioned. Variable damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum):

Azure damselfly (Coenagrion puella):

And common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum)

This pair of common blues are in ‘tandem’ with the green eyed female underneath. This position is adopted by non-territorial damselflies where the male grips the female behind the head and in this way ensures that no other male can mate with her before his eggs have been laid – a process called ‘ovipositing’. The eggs hatch out after 2-5 weeks and the larvae begin their development underwater where they are ambush predators, feeding on a variety of prey from other insect larvae to tadpoles and even small fish!

They are amazing creatures, and more species will be emerging over the next weeks and month so hopefully I can gather some more images of other species for subsequent posts before the Summer ends.

The birds and the bees (and the flowers)

As our warmest and driest Spring on record turns into what is shaping up to be a warm and dry Summer, nature’s great events are occurring apace to exploit the prevailing climatic conditions.

The first swifts were seen over Histon 3 weeks ago (by me at least) after their heroic journey back to their breeding sites from overwintering in Africa. To celebrate this event I’ve spent several hours sitting in the garden of the Castle pub on Castle Hill in Cambridge enjoying a few convivial sharpeners and watching the swifts shrieking through the sky like an avian aerobatic team. I can heartily recommend both activities!

Wild flowers, including one of my favourites, white campion, are now in bloom:

White campion, Silene latifolia, decorating ditches and hedgerows

White campion is a dioecious plant which means the male and female reproductive machinery are on separate flowers. It grows in well drained earth and flowers from Spring to Autumn and is now delineating my walks across the open countryside. Another one of my favourite wild flowers is red clover (Trifolium pratense) which is a gorgeous colour and provides nourishment for bumble bees:


Red clover flower being harvested for pollen and nectar by a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum). This is the national flower of Denmark.

And of course the local birdlife has been very busy breeding and raising chicks. Alot of species started this process earlier this year due to the unusually warm weather in Spring. I have a pair of blue tits raising a brood in the nestbox in my crab apple tree and my friend told me of a family of song thrushes which fledged from his garden a month ago. Which is very early.

A pair of great tit have been feeding their chicks on crushed peanuts which I put out on my bird feeder over the last month and last week they fledged and the whole family were feeding in my garden for just a day or two before they ventured further afield. (If you put nuts out for the birds during the breeding season please make sure you use crushed nuts as inexperienced parents can try to feed whole nuts to chicks and this can have fatal consequences). Great tits have over 70 different vocalisations which I think is remarkable, almost simple language! And on my explorations along the fields and hedgerows around Histon last weekend (21st May, 2011) I saw more great tit, blackcap and whitethroat all feeding gangs of fledglings:


Common whitethroat male, Sylvia communis

There are two species of whitethroat to be found locally, the common and the lesser (Sylvia curruca). They are distinguished by their song, which I won’t try to describe because I’ve never yet read a book which gives the remotest idea of what birdsong actually sounds like by a written description! But if you want to compare them try here for the common whitethroat, and here for the lesser whitethroat.


And another male whitethroat, this chap was singing long and loud, punctuated with characteristic jerky flights straight up in the air and back to the same spot

There are a good number of common whitethroat in the hedgerows north of Cambridge, lesser whitethroat are also here but are not so numerous. There are other distinguishing features between the two species, the lesser, as the name suggests is smaller (~11cm long compared to ~13 for the common), and is generally more grey with a pale grey head and noticeably darker grey ‘ear’ patches. It also has dark grey legs. Both species overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa, the common in central Africa and the lesser in eastern Africa.

Linnet can be regularly seen flying around the bramble thickets on the edges of the village and perching and singing on top of them. On Saturday early in the morning a fracas was going on in an elderbery tree in Rowleys Meadow in Histon which ended when a jay was chased out of the tree by a family of linnet and a family of whitethroat. The jay alighted on an adjacent shed to suss out the lie of the land and contemplate another raid whilst the indignant songbirds dispersed into some scrub to hide. Eventually the jay decided to keep his powder dry and disappeared into a nearby wood. Jays, like other members of the crow family, will raid nests of smaller birds for eggs and chicks, so it’s a perilous business being a small bird with a family to rear.


A linnet male perching on a bramble. When they’re not protecting a nest I’ve managed to sneak within 15 feet of linnet perched like this.

Linnet, Carduelis cannabina, are abundant resident and migrant breeders, although their numbers, as with many of our songbirds, are declining, and they are also passage and winter visitors. Due to their declining numbers over the past 40 years or so their conservation status is red, indicating they are globally threatened. They are finches which live in open country and farmland and feed on seeds.

Many species of moths, butterflies, bees, flowers and a plethora of other creatures are all appearing as trhe seasons are progressing and there’s something new to see every week!

Orange tip

I am of course referring to the butterfly, not an unsightly medical condition. I’ve spent plenty of time chasing them along hedgerows waiting for one to settle on a flower, but in vain, and you may recall that in a previous post I said that the orange tip was extremely difficult to photograph because they rarely settled.

That was until last weekend when, the weather was sunny, warm and calm so I went for a walk on Guns Lane to the north of Histon. I was rewarded fairly soon into my walk by a male orange tip settling on a plant on the edge of the pathway and allowing me to encroach within just a few inches:


Male orange tip. I think his underwings are exquisite, and it’s perfect camouflage when he’s perched on a cow parsley flower head.

This fellow was a good omen. Several hundred metres further along the path where the dense hedgerow thinned out into more open territory lined with cow parsley there were many male and female orange tips and they were all intent on mating on this particular morning.



Another male orange tip, this time with his wings open. And the colours on top are gorgeous too.

The female of the species doesn’t have the orange tips but is still distinctive from the other white butterflies:

Female orange tip. She is aware of the presence of males and is pointing her tail in the air in preparation for mating…

…and a few seconds later a male flew within a few centimetres and her reproductive organs are clearly visible opening up here in response to his presence.

The female above didn’t mate in this instance, but:

This pair were mating on the ground close by

And another female sits on a leaf as the male beats a post-coital retreat top right

I promised some pictures a few weeks ago of orange tips in the post ‘Local Lepidoptera’ so I was very pleased to capture this series of the mating behaviour so soon after.

Nocturnal newts

I was in the pub last Friday with a good friend of mine enjoying a few pints but despite what you might be thinking this post is about amphibians. Mostly. We were talking about butterflies and other wildlife when he mentioned that he knows of a pond which is good for newts. So on our way back from the pub at around midnight we picked up torches and my camera and made for the pond.

We weren’t disappointed. As we shone the torch in the water we could fairly soon see two of the three species of British newt: the great crested, Triturus cristatus and the smooth or common Lissotriton vulgaris – which looks a bit like a small great crested. The third species is the palmate newt, Lissotriton helveticus, which in the breeding season is fairly distinct from the other two species but is apparently uncommon in the east of England.


This great crested newt headed for the cover of some pondweed in response to our torchlight


And shortly after made for deeper cover with a flick of his tail. The ‘great crest’ can clearly be seen here

Great crested newts spend most of their time on dry land where they rest up under rocks or logs during the day and emerge at night when they feed on land or in water for worms, tadpoles, snails and insects. They return to the water to breed where the female will lay several hundred eggs over the course of 3-4 months. The juveniles and non-breeding adults live a predominantly terrestial existence where they hide up during the day in undergrowth or other cover and emerge to feed at night. They reach breeding age at 2-3 years old when they begin the cycle of aquatic and terrestrial life.

The smooth newts were not dissimilar in appearance to the great crested newts but are only up to 10cm long – considerably more diminutive than their great crested cousins. Both male and female great crested and smooth newts become rather more distinctive during the breeding season when the colours, spot patterns and crests are at their most flamboyant.


A pair of male smooth newts

I originally thought these were a pair in the throes of courtship, but I’ve since been informed by a reader, see Duncan’s comment below, that they are two males.

The palmate newt is approximately the same size as the smooth newt but the colouration of the palmate is rather more subdued. All three species of newt in the UK live a terrestrial lifestyle outside the breeding season, but at this time of year they all head to the water to breed.


Female palmate newt – the male has a smooth crest along his tail with a distinctive filament on the end. He also has webbed feet which this one doesn’t.

All newt species are protected in Europe, including the UK, with varying levels of protection. The great crested newt is considered to be the most in danger and therefore has the highest level of protection such that disturbing them or habitat where they are known to be, killing, possessing and selling live or even dead specimens, is illegal.

I’d never seen a newt of any species until this so it was great to see them and be able to get a few photographs too, after spending the evening prior in the pub in pursuit of the obvious topical simile!