Monthly Archives: July 2011

A bit of a tern

In my last post I talked about the highlights of my trip south to  Hampshire, but I didn’t mention our excursion to the beach at Lee on Solent. On a warm but very cloudy day but we took a punt on the weather so the children could go for a swim in the sea. The tide was out and revealed an extremely colourful shoreline festooned with different seaweeds, snails, limpets and sundry other shore dwellers.


The diverse array of life forms revealed by the receding tide

Pecking around the rocks was a lone oystercatcher who seemed to be largely unconcerned by the whooping and hollering of the kids splashing around in the shallows:

The statuesque oystercatcher.
People rave about the avocet , but I think oytercatchers are just as impressive!

But the real stars of the show were  the arctic terns which were fishing in a small lagoon left in a dip in the beach when the tide went out. The precision aerial acrobatics of these amazing birds makes the Red Arrows look like amateurs! They are also expert at long haul, spending their summers in Europe and overwintering in southern Africa or even further afield. According to the BTO one individual was ringed in the Farne Islands in June 1982 and was next recorded in Melbourne, Australia, in October of the same year. Arctic terns return to their place of birth to breed so by the time this one saw the UK again it would have covered approximately 27500 miles over the sea!


Looking for a fish,

Manouevering into position for the dive,


Making fine adjustments…


And into the dive,


Mission accomplished.


Bandits at 6 o’clock

The terns were diving down through numerous other seabirds including black headed gulls, great black backed gulls and herring gulls, so they didn’t have it all their own way. Every time a tern made off with a fish a black headed gull would be in hot pursuit, both birds squawking and shrieking. The terns seemed to invariably escape with their spoils, but the gulls never seemed to tire of harrassing them.

All that, and the children got to go for a swim, so we all went home satisfied with our afternoons achievements.

A trip to the coast

Last weekend I found myself poking into the nooks and crannies of Fareham in Hampshire. My only previous visits to Fareham had been when I was playing rugby against them some years ago. So it was fun to go back and explore it in a more leisurely fashion and find out what flora and fauna are there. And I was very pleasantly surprised. (A bit of a digression, but as I’m sitting writing this, back in Histon, I can hear a muntjac deer barking somewhere along our road).

Our friends who we were staying with live a short 10 minute walk from the town centre, a route which took me across a piece of ‘managed wasteland’ called the Gillies. This is a mixture of scrubby woodland and is thick with flowers and an abundance of insects and birds.


A common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum perched on a grass stem

I was hoping to see some species which I don’t see in Cambridgeshire, but alas this was not the case. But I guess that’s a tad churlish as I saw lots of great wildlife. The approach to the Gillies took me under a bridge which I think carries a railway line and glancing up as I passed under it early on the Saturday morning a pair of fallow deer sauntered across. I can’t think of any other town in the UK where I’ve seen that! Alas. I’d left my camera behind.


A somewhat tatterdemalion gatekeeper sipping nectar from yarrow flowers

A glance skyward in the midst of a butterfly hunt with the children, with several blackcaps singing in the bushes, revealed this buzzard circling lazily in the scorching sunshine over Fareham town centre:

…and then a few minutes later:

Shortly after the buzzard had disappeared we had ventured into some adjacent woodland where the quiet was shattered when a pair of fairly big birds chased each other into the top of a big old oak tree screeching as they went. They continued their slanging match for a couple of minutes and it turned out to be two sparrowhawks, and this one appeared in this gap for just long enough to snap a photograph. It’s not the best shot ever of a sparrowhawk but I really like it as it was in the midst of a fight and it sat still for just long enough for a single shot.

One creature I didn’t see but which my host told me she saw during a run through here earlier in the afternoon was a slow worm which slithered across the path infront of her. I haven’t seen one for many years but there are rare reptiles frequenting this place too. It’s a truly remarkable location.

So if you ever find yourself in Fareham feeling a tad disappointed by the 1950’s town planners’ attempts to rectify the damage done by the Luftwaffe, ask a local for directions to the Gillies and go and marvel at all the local wildlife.

LBJ’s

I recently finished reading Simon Barnes book (he being the sports writer in The Times and nature writer) ‘How to be a bad birdwatcher’. In his book, which, if you love nature and wildlife and birds in particular, is well worth a read, he talks about the difficulties of getting to grips with all the species of small songbirds which flit through daily life largely unnoticed. He describes them as those ‘little brown jobs’ or ‘LBJ’s‘. I think that’s a good description, because until I made the effort to have a good look with binoculars they are simply little brown things which are largely unidentifiable.

However, a little time and effort spent getting to grips with them can be extremely rewarding. I mentioned in a previous post that there are alot of fledglings to be seen just now and a walk along my local hedgerows has provided lots of avian family entertainment:


A family of house sparrows. The male is on the left with the black bib and the female and three youngsters above and to the right.

House sparrows are getting more scarce although in total there are still large numbers of them, apparently there are 13.4 million at the last count according to the BTO. They have suffered from changes in farming practices but I’ve encountered reasonable numbers of them at various places around Histon this year. They’re highly gregarious and garrulous and I often hear them before I see them.

The family in the photograph are in a bramble thicket close to a substantial old hedge which every year plays host to various species of small birds, most notably linnet, blackcap, whitethroat, great tit, goldfinch and long tailed tit. A field close to here (approximately 150m away) has a good size fallow area which has various wild flowers including oats and this has provided alot of food and cover for families of whitethroat, yellowhammer and linnet this year and just this morning a small flock of 10-20 house sparrow were in that area. A fellow dog walker also told me there was a grey partridge nest there this year which had been abandoned and the eggs eaten, probably by crows. I’ve seen grey partridge in that area in previous years and they also have Red conservation status. It goes to show that even a small area of mixed vegetation can be highly beneficial for insects and birds.

And on the subject of linnet, they are also in plentiful supply this summer. They are less visible now the harvest is underway and the rape seed they were feeding on until a couple of weeks ago has now disappeared, so they have dispersed to find other food supplies.

A pair of linnet younsgters perched atop a bramble bush


Another linnet youngster with a common whitethroat. This is a frequent sight at the moment, common whitethroat are abundant and often appear alongside other species in the hedgerows such as corn bunting, reed bunting and linnet


… and another one sorting it’s plumage out


Whitehroat family with a male reed bunting…


…and the reed bunting fledgling who was just around the corner of the bush from the male above.

These pictures were taken in the evening when the sun was low in the western sky, which is why the colours are quite red, and a corn bunting was singing away just out of shot. More LBJ’s than I could shake a stick at!


Male yellowhammer feeding chicks on the nest

It’s also the time of year when alot of species are rearing second broods and I watched this yellowhammer with a beak full of bugs waiting for me to move on before he dropped down into the nest.

Milvus milvus

If you haven’t seen a red kite, Milvus milvus, hopefully you will soon. They are truly magnificent birds and are a remarkable success story in the annals of UK wildlife conservation. Several stages of reintroduction of Swedish and Spanish birds into northern Scotland and the Chilterns in 1989 were followed by subsequent reintroductions into other release sites in the East Midlands, Derwent Valley, Yorkshire, Dumfries and Galloway, central Scotland, Aberdeen and Ulster. The later reintroductions have used chicks from UK breeding pairs which is, I think, a good indication of the success of the longer term success of the original program.

The latest numbers I have heard for our UK population is 1700 breeding pairs, and growing. The reason I’m writing about red kites now is because 3 weeks ago I had an email from a colleague to tell me to look out the window because a red kite was flying past! I only saw the email an hour after the event so I missed that one, but another appeared a week later which I did see.

And then on Saturday as I was wandering along the road I live on, this magnificent creature was slowly quatering the gardens looking for worms, small mammals, or carrion:

The red plumage of the underside of the red kite is clearly visible. The pale patches on this one suggest it’s a juvenile

And red kites are big birds, they have a wingspan of 185cm. They weigh between 2 and 3 pounds (1 and 1.3kg), so for such a big bird they’re not heavy and are consequently not particularly strong. They feed primarily on carrion but they are unable to open the carcasses of bigger animals such as sheep so they rely on other carrion feeders such as corvids (crows) to do the initial butchering before they can feed. They don’t take live prey bigger than small mammals such as mice or voles or bird chicks, so don’t be concerned about your cat… or your children!

Whilst cycling into work yesterday morning (25th July) along the cycle path beside our new guided busway a red kite was quartering a field adjacent to that, so with 4 sightings in the last 3 weeks within a 2 mile radius, I think a juvenile may have moved into the area and is finding sufficient food to keep it here. I hope so.

Red kites are often wing tagged on the leading edges of both wings, on the left the tag reveals the location of the birds origin and on the right the year it hatched. The tags are big enough to be seen from a distance with binoculars or a scope and each location and year have a different colour. If you see a tagged bird and you want to discover its origin take a look here at RedKite.net where the tag colours are decoded.

I’ll hopefully be able to report again soon on local red kites.

The Butterfly Summer

Two weekends ago whilst walking through a meadow of long grass and wild flowers such as scabius, ragwort and bramble it was immediately noticeable that butterflies are now out in force. On several outings around Histon since then many species are frequenting the hedgerows and grasslands. The species which I think heralds the onset of the butterfly summer is the gatekeeper. It always seems to be the the one I see first in June/July and is rapidly followed by the other summer species:


The Gatekeeper – harbinger of sunny summer days


Holly blues were around in the spring months but have now disappeared in favour of species more associated with summer such as the common blue:

Common blue male. I think this is one of the best photographs I’ve ever taken – it’s a beautiful creature!

…and

A comma soaking up some intermittent morning sunshine perched on a cluster of oak leaves

I particularly like commas with their ragged edges and the rich colours of a young one are exquisitely juxtaposed against the green foliage of the oak leaves.

Small tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral regularly abound on the flowers of a huge buddleia in my garden. And whilst I’m not averse to getting up really close to snap pictures there, it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, it’s a tad more challenging to get good pictures out in the countryside on some of our indigenous wild flowers:


Small tortoioseshell feeding on nectar from field scabius flower, and

A red admiral

I spent 20 minutes lurking in the undergrowth waiting for this red admiral to open it’s wings and when I looked down amongt the nettles I was standing in it was festooned with caterpillars:


Peacocks before pupation – the ‘ugly duckling’

And after pupation – a spectacular metamorphosis (this one is on the buddleia in my garden, but I love the colours)

A notable absentee from the rollcall of butterflies is the painted lady which was here in good numbers last summer but I haven’t a single one yet. Despite that, lots of other species are out there too, such as speckled wood, brown argus, large and small white and small skipper. But more of those next time I post about butterflies.

Blog plug

I just found these two blogs which I think are really good and well worth a look:

http://cerisnaturalworld.blogspot.com

This one caught my attention because of the adders, a creature I’ve never seen in the wild yet but I’m on a mission to find them.

And this one has lots of high quality photographs of British moths:

http://weedworld.blogspot.com

Roesels bush cricket

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at my dining table gazing out the window when I spotted this silhouette throught the blind:

So I snapped a picture and I really like the detail through the blind. It’s clearly a cricket, and a male (it lacks the long pointed ovipositor of the female which would be protruding from the back end) and its very long, very fine antennae are visible too.

So I popped around the other side of the blind to take a proper photograph, which unfortunately had to be through the window:


The markings on this creature suggest he’s a Roesels Bush Cricket

I went on to do some research on the Roesels bush cricket, Metrioptera roeseli, and it turns out it’s quite an interesting creature. It is a European species, named after the German artist and entomologist August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof, which found its way to England in the late 19th century where it established a toe hold in the far south east, in Kent and Sussex, where it remained for several decades. In the last few decades, possibly assisted by climate change, it has spread over much of south east England and the Midlands.

The migration of this species may have been assisted by the road network which could provide conduits for travelling further afield. There are two forms of this insect, the macropterous or long winged form, and a short winged form. It is reasonable to imagine that the long winged cricket would migrate further and faster, but even though Cambridgeshire appears to be towards the northern periphery of their range this short winged individual has arrived here too.

Roesels bush cricket is distinguished from all other bush crickets by the yellow/green edge to the hard cover of the thorax – the ‘pronotum‘ – and the light spots immediately behind the pronotum. One other similar species, the bog bush cricket, also has a light edge to its pronotum but it doesn’t extend all the way round as it does with Roesels bush cricket.

I’d never heard of Roesels bush cricket before I started trying to identify this individual, and then a few days later I was rooting around in the undergrowth of a field of scrub, also here in Histon, and I spotted a creature which I thought was a very green grasshopper. I managed to fire off a couple of photographs and when I uploaded the images it turned out to be a cricket not a grasshopper:


The macropterous form of Roesels bush cricket

And it was another male Roesels bush cricket but he clearly has the long wings of the macropterous form which extend well beyond his abdomen. So it appears I’ve found both forms of this colourful creature within a week. It’s amazing what can be found by poking around in the long grass!

Summer songbirds mainly, especially linnet

The summer solstice was a couple of weeks ago, the weather is warm and sunny and the evenings are light until after 10pm. For the last week I’ve been heading out across the fields in all hours of daylight and the wildlife has changed significantly. Until a few weeks ago there was alot of bird activity around the nests and I could watch whitethroat and blackcap in the same place for several weeks before that.


Common whitethroat about to head for the nest

The birds are still around but they have dispersed and a tad more legwork is required to see the same species I was seeing 2-3 weeks ago. But now, the first broods of the next generation have all fledged and while my garden has played host to families of starling, great tit, and goldfinch – the fledglings easily distinguished from the adults by their lack of a crimson face – further afield, the hedgerows are thronged with linnet, whitethroat, reed bunting, corn bunting and yellowhammer.


An adult goldfinch and two fledglings on the niger seed feeder in my garden. The speckled brown and lack of a red face makes the youngsters easy to identify.

Another finch of which there are many adults and fledglings in the countryside are linnet. Linnet are one of my favourite birds for several reasons: they are delightful to look at with their cerise breast patches, they have a lovely song as they fly overhead and as long as I don’t do anything daft they will often sit tight and let me get really close to photograph them.


A cock linnet, underlit by the late evening sun, showing several diagnostic freatures including the cerise breast, grey head and pale grey grey cheekspot and the crimson spot on the forehead

Rather interestingly the taxonomic nomenclature is Carduelis cannabina, which approximately translates from the Latin as the ‘cannabis finch’! The linnets diet consists of small seeds so I imagine the name derives from the days when hemp was grown to make rope and they were seen in numbers feeding on the seeds.

There is a field of oil seed rape on the edge of Histon which I had always imagined to be devoid of wildlife but in the last few weeks families of linnet, reed bunting, greenfinch and whitethroat are regularly perched on top of the rape plants.


Greenfinch male in the middle of the rape field

The rape seed pods are full of small black seeds and if you squeeze one seed between your fingers there’s enough oil in it to make the ends of your thumb and forefinger really greasy, so it’s easy to see why rape is a lucrative crop and why it is a good energy source for songbirds.


Female linnet perched on top of a hawthorn tree at the edge of the rape field, she doesn’t have the cerise breast patches of the male, but lovely colours none the less

Linnet are migrant and resident breeders and passage and winter visitors. In the winter they can be seen in flocks of several hundred over farmland and often mingle with other finches. There conservation status is red due to population decline over the last forty years even though the European population numbers between 10 and 30 million pairs! Despite the overall numbers, along with a multitude of other bird species they are the victims of habitat destruction and the systemic use of herbicides which kill off their food supplies.


Cock linnet perched on top of an apple tree also on the edge of the rape field…

… and another one sitting on power lines. Look at the colour of that breast – they’re beautiful birds!

So if you can’t think of anything else to do this weekend and you feel like some gentle excercise and peace and quiet take a walk in the countryside and keep your eyes open for all the songbirds.

Many species of butterfly including large and small white, red admiral, small tortoiseshell, ringlet and small skippers were flapping lazily around the hedges on Guns Lane this morning, basking in the warm sunshine and I saw the first gatekeepers of the year today too:

A gatekeeper probing for nectar in ragwort flowers

All in all, it’s well worth a trip to the countryside armed with a pair of binoculars!