Monthly Archives: January 2012

Wonderful Wildlife of Wicken Fen

Around 10 years ago I used to do voluntary work at Wicken Fen which lies in the flat emptiness between Cambridge and Ely. Wicken Fen is one of the last and the largest piece of remaining fenland in East Anglia and is home to a plethora of wildlife. It’s owned and managed by the National Trust in such a way that diverse habitats favouring different species are established and maintained. When I worked there we were engaged in various activities such as repairing boardwalks, fences and hides, scrub clearance, which was a good activity for freezing winter days because it involved a huge fire to burn the felled scrub, but my favourite job was building raised ponds with wheelchair access so disabled children could safely do some pond dipping. Which is an activity that everyone should be able to do, child or not. All you need is a net, a jar, a magnifying glass and a pond and a sunny day is turned into a fantastic voyage of biological discovery.

My re-exploration last weekend started from Upware at the back end of the Fen where we parked and joined Wicken Lode. We had counted over 30 species of birds within the first half hour of our walk. If it had been solely down to my good self the number would have been rather less because my skills when it comes to recognising birdsong are a tad limited. Fortunately I was with my friend, David, who’s aural acuity is considerably better honed than mine, and I’m highly envious of his ability to detect the song of distant bird species and identify them. One of the first birds to greet us in the car park was this mistle thrush perched on top of a telegraph pole:

Mistle thrush – Turdus viscivorus (Dansk: misteldrossel)

… and a great spotted woodpecker, also finding a handy perch at the top of a telegraph pole:


Great spotted woodpecker – Dendrocops major (Dansk: Stor flagspætte)

Great spotted woodpeckers make a characteristic drumming sound by doing what their name suggests and it is the frequency of the drumming, of around 40 beats per second, which generates the resonant sound. Anatomical examination of their skulls has revealed the presence of built in shock absorbers which prevent them damaging their brains when they drum. They feed on tree seeds such as acorns and insects which they dig out from under the bark of trees and they can also take birds eggs and chicks which they have been known to steal from birdboxes by drilling holes through the walls and plucking them out.

We eventually managed to tear ourselves away from Upware and head out along Wicken Lode on to the Fen where a Cetti’s warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger) gave away his location by singing in a way that only Cetti’s can. It’s an amazing sound and I can highly recommend having a listen here. These recordings don’t quite do it justice, but you get a feel for it. Also on the Lode were a family of three mute swans; male, female and one cygnet. Mute swans are always photogenic but I felt particularly blessed when the male spread hs wings and shook himself down:


Mute swans (Cygnus olor,  Dansk: knopsvane)

We turned off the Lode and headed along Harrisons Drove where we came across a field of very impressive bovines. In  order to manage the fen (and at the same time draw in more visitors, no doubt) cattle and horses are used to trim the vegetation back naturally. I’d never seen the cattle before and they are magnificent animals – looking more like a cross between a highlander and a bison than traditional farm cattle:


They must be hardy beasts indeed to survive on the meagre nourishment offered by the fen

Also along the drove I spotted a hen harrier (Circus cyaneus, Dansk: Blå kærhøg) quartering the field, either a female or a juvenile, identifiable by the pale band around the rump just infront of the tail feathers. In my opinion, spotting a harrier, even a fleeting glimpse, justifies an expedition into the fens early on a freezing morning. Alas it was too far away to photograph, but when after another couple of hundred metres we entered a hide overlooking a lake, there were plenty of subjects for photography…

This lake was home to hundreds of ducks – we estimated around 800 from 5 species that we could see… as well as coot and mute swan. Watched over by the longhorns.

I don’t think this lake is there in the summer because looking at the area on Google Maps there is no water, and David pointed out that their were no diving ducks such as pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland – which tranlates as ‘table duck’ which shows what the Danes think of them!) tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) or goldeneye (Bucephala clangula, Dansk: hvinand), suggesting the water was too shallow. But there were large numbers of shallow feeders such as gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), shoveller (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand), pintail (Anas acuta, Dansk: spidsand), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, Dansk: gråand) and wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand). We had seen three flocks of wigeon (and heard them too, they make a great sound) fly over and land on the water just before we got to the hide.  Some of them were on the lake above and lots more were on an adjacent one:


Wigeon. Lots of them! I counted around 60 in this group.

And in between the two lakes were numerous reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv) flitting between the hedgerow and the path and pausing to pluck seeds from the seedheads of the reeds, hence their name…

Male reed bunting – one of my better reed bunting shots

And the female:
We saw 44 species of birds that we could identify on our way around Upware and the Fen. And as well as all the birds Wicken is home to a phenomenal diversity of insects, large mammals including roe deer and otter, small mammals including shrews, voles, mice and the predators that hunt them, and reptiles including lizards which can be seen basking in the sun on the boardwalks and fenceposts early on summer mornings. Now I’ve been back and rediscovered the Fen I’ll make sure I get back later in the year and post about the changing wildlife in what is a unique collection of ecosystems.

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The curse of the cabbage patch – and other beauties

The last post on this blog, ‘The Frozen Fen‘, had a decidedly wintry feel, and because of that, combined with the fact that I didn’t manage to get out and about and get any interesting pictures last weekend, I feel like brightening things up with some colourful butterfly pictures which I didn’t get a chance to publish in 2011 because of the dire shortage of butterflies.

I mentioned in a post last year that 2011 was a very bad year for butterflies, and that was a result of the mild Spring and very hot April which kick started the proceative processes. But after April the rest of the Summer was dreadful – cold and wet – and that resulted in catastrophic depletion of butterfly numbers. This winter has been mild so far (which is why I have had almost no birds in my garden compared to other years) and I’m hoping it stays that way and our Lepidopterans have a chance to recover their numbers this year.

So here are a few of the butterflies which I hope will put in appearances in and around the village this summer:


A comma (Polygonia c-album) soaking up some rays from a cluster of oak leaves

The comma is a member of the Nymphalidae family and is primarily a woodland butterfly which gets its name from its only white marking which is on the underside of the wings and is shaped like a comma. Bizarre that such a distinctive butterfly is named after such a tiny part of it’s anatomy, a bit like calling a tiger a ‘full stop’ because of the black spot behind its ear!  They are also seen in gardens (including mine) in the late summer where they stock up on nectar to replenish their body fat reserves prior to hibernation. Until fairly recently they were restricted to the west of England but have now spread to cover virtually all of England and Wales with sightings in Scotland and Ireland too.

Large skipper (Ochlodes faunus)

I like the large skipper, it is a butterfly of open grassland and I often see them feeding on field scabius flowers, as this one is, and the colour combination is sumptuous, set against the green and brown of the grass stems. I like the geometry too – it reminds of a hornet (as in the McDonnel Douglas F18 hornet – the American navy fighter plane) – but I’d rather have the skipper flying around Histon!

Small copper (Lycaena phlaeas)

The small copper is a handsome little butterfly who frequents open grassland, heathland, wasteland, verges and woodland rides and is distributed throughout Great Britain. I see it here because it likes to feed on ragwort, yarrow, thistles and red clover which are all abundant in the fields close to Histon. They also feed on daisy, dandelion and buttercups which are common throughout the UK too. Despite their dietary promiscuity I don’t see them very often so I was pleased to get this picture.


Large white (Pieris brassicae)

The curse of the cabbage patch! The large and small white are collectively known as ‘cabbage whites’ due to the devastation their caterpillars can wreak on the fruits of the labours of hapless allotment owners. The one pictured here is a male and he is easily distinguished from the female because she has two black spots on her forewings and another small black streak where the wings join and the male has no spots or streaks. As a species they are easily distinguished from other whites because they are noticeably bigger. The cabbage whites are also two of our most common butterflies which renders them additionally unpopular amongst the vegetable growing fraternity. Which is a pity really, because a field full of whites on a hot summer day mixed in with browns, blues and all the other butterflies is a spectacular sight.

The frozen Fen

The winter frost finally arrived in my corner of Cambridgeshire in the last week and it left the landscape with a thick coating of pure crystalline whiteness. So I was able to indulge my recently discovered fascination with more abstract nature photography:

Ice needles formed on horse hair snagged on barbed wire scattering the sunshine

My trip out to Burwell Fen, east of Cambridge, early last Saturday morning was spectacular as a result of the frosty weather. I set off with my friend, David, around 8am with a view to catching some more sightings of short eared owls, and at that time the temperature was well below freezing. But it was one of those beautiful misty mornings where the mist is thin and lets through lots of light but the density waxed and waned, creating constantly changing, ghostly conditions. Which is lovely to look at but not so good for finding wildlife.

As we approached the Fen, driving out the back of Reach through Tubney Fen (which, incidentally, has had nesting avocet in previous years), roe deer and red-legged partridge were in abundance (no exaggeration!) . I like partridge and I see them quite often around Histon, but I usually flush them before I can get close enough to photograph them, but on this instance the car made a great hide.

Three of a small flock of red-legged partridge absorbing the heat from a huge pile of dung. Splendid birds,  bizarre that people want to shoot them rather than just look at them.

Red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa, Dansk: rødhøne) were introduced to England from Europe and alas for them they are a game bird.

Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) were also much in evidence, we counted 43, and at one point on the Fen they were flushed and moved en masse and we counted 31. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many in one go and it was a terrific sight. We think the four below were part of a family of five, the fifth just out of shot. The big one on the right is the female, the horned one in the middle is the male and the other two are youngsters, the third youngster is the one out of shot.


Four of a family of five roe deerRoe deer tracks with a 2p coin to show the size. They were mixed with muntjac tracks, but could be distinguished by the larger size:

Muntjac deer tracks

Roe deer are native to the UK but muntjac, also known as the barking deer, were introduced from China to Woburn in Befordshire where escapes and releases, and their obvious liking for the Home Counties led to a rapid expansion of their population. I regularly see and hear them in Histon, and the barking sound they make is quite unlike anything likely to be heard in the English countryside.

Whilst scanning for owl, I spotted a stonechat in the grass (Saxicola torquatus, Dansk: Sortstrubet bynkefugl):


Male stonechat

The stonechat is a resident breeder and a migrant to the UK and frequents the kind of scrubby countryside found on Burwell Fen.

Then when the mist lifted and the morning developed into a very cold but very sunny one, the owls appeared, and we had lots of sightings. We chatted to a BBC camera man in the car park who had come to film the short eared owls and he must have captured some good footage by the time he went home.

They are great to watch, they hunt low over the scrub for rodents and regularly get chased up in the air by crows and on one occasion, a kestrel.


Short eared owl

Short eard owls (Asio flammeus, Dansk: mosehornugle) have a small breeding population in the UK, but also migrate here in the winter from northern Europe. I’ve heard that they are here in larger numbers than normal this year due to last year being a good lemming year in Scandinavia. Whatever the reason I’ve heard a number of reports of sizeable groups in Essex, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. They are diurnal and therefore easier to see than most owls and they are very distinctive. The underside is largely white, the winspan is around a metre and the pale brown spot toward the end of the top of the wing is also easy to see and differentiate them. They also have bright yellow eyes which I’ve heard is characteristic of owls which hunt in daylight – but I’ve not found any hard evidence for that.

Lastly, we had several encounters with this group of nine grey partridge, also known as the English partridge (Perdix perdix, Dansk: agerhøne). The numbers of our own partridge have plummeted catastrophically in recent decades, by up to 90%. I see the occasional one around Histon, but it was good to see this group on the Fen.


Six of a group of nine grey partridge

The red/brown head and lack of white face, black eye stripe and white wing markings clearly distinguish the grey from the red-legged partridge. The difference in demeanour was remarkable, the red-legs seemed relatively unfazed by our presence and were easy to see and photograph, but the greys sat tight, very low to the ground, and flew away at the slightest disturbance.

In one trip we saw all the UK partridge species, and lots of short eared owls, and more roe deer than I’ve ever seen before in one go. Well worth the early start on a freezing morning!

Bullfinch revival?

Anyone who has followed some of my recent posts may well have picked up that I love the bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Dansk: dompap). Both the male and female of the species have beautiful plumage and because of their scarcity I consider it a real bonus to see one. Apart from the very occasional sighting, i.e. one every 5 years or so, I simply didn’t encounter them between childhood and around 2 years ago.

Since then I’ve seen them on numerous occasions out and about on my wanderings around Cambridgeshire, both around Histon and at nature reserves such as RSPB Fowlmere and Fen Drayton, and to my immense pleasure a group has been resident in a patch of scrub close to where I live for the past 2-3 weeks. On one occasion over Christmas I saw eight in one go, and I can’t ever remember seeing that before.

A group flew over my head, too fast to photograph, but this lone male alighted on a bramble around 30m from me and let me edge to within 20m, shutter whirring all the way:


Male bullfinch – the tailend charlie perched on the brambles

He was very busy gorging on the brambles pausing to look at me when he was aware of my movements and when I stopped he carried on feeding. Many bullfinch pictures are of the male, resplendent in his sumptuous orange/pink waistcoat and I don’t mind that, but I was pleased to get the picture below as he flipped through 180 degrees to get to his bramble shoots:


Upside down bullfinch showing his dark grey back and tail, jet black primary flight feathers and white rump. No other bird could be mistaken for him.

The song of the bullfinch is also very distinctive. They make a fairly inobtrusive ‘cheep cheep‘ call which is unmistakeable when a group fly overhead.

My lone male replete after his feast sizing me up immediately prior to his departure

Flocks of bullfinch can decimate fruit crops by eating the shoots from the trees and were therefore heavily persecuted in tis country which led to a catastrophic decline in the numbers through the 1970’s and 80’s but I read in a recent report that they fared well as a result of the mild year we experienced in 2011, so I’m hoping there has been a general increase in their numbers and my small local flock will stay on and possibly expand. Fingers crossed.

If that comes to pass I should be able to post more shots of both the male and female bullfinch in the near future. At the moment I only have one photograph of a female as they seem to be generally more wary than the males. I’m also saving up to invest in more powerful optics so I should be able to bring you some better close up portrait shots of bullfinch, and lots of other species in the not too distant future. Watch this space.