Monthly Archives: April 2012

Carduelis (or Chloris) chloris

A sound I hear frequently at the moment when I open a door or a window which stands out from all other birdcalls is the call of the male greenfinch. It’s quite variable in tone from fairly high pitched, as in the recording here, to lower pitched where it almost sounds like a whirring mechanical toy.

The bird in these pictures has a reddish hue to it because it was being lit by the evening sun as it was getting lower in the sky, and also from the reflected light of the rusty ironwork and insulators of the electricity supply cables:


Greenfinch male calling from the top of a telegraph pole

The female greenfinch is similar to the male but her colours are much more drab, she is darker grey/brown without the vibrant green of the male.

The greenfinch is a resident breeder in the UK and can be found in gardens and parks at all times of the year feeding on bigger seeds and sometimes insects when rearing youngsters. It has a chunky beak which is typical of finches and is custom built for cracking open seeds.

The taxonomic name for the greenfinch is listed in some references as ‘Carduelis chloris‘, as in my RSPB ‘Complete Birds of Britain and Europe’ by Rob Hume published in 2002, (RSPB – Royal Society for the protection of Birds) ISBN 0751373540, and also in the RSPB Bird Identifier website. But in the BTO BirdFacts website (BTO – British Trust for Ornithology) and in my Collins Bird Guide 2nd edition from 2010, ISBN 978 0 00 726726 2, it is listed as ‘Chloris chloris‘ (Dansk: grønirisk). Somewhat confusingly the BTO entry goes on to explain that the name derives from ‘carduelis‘ meaning ‘goldfinch’ and the Greek ‘khloros‘ meaning ‘green’. So it appears that the two names may be interchangeable. Incidentally, the chemical element chlorine also derives its name from khloros as it exists as a green gas.

He’s turned round to keep on eye on me – his seed-cracking beak clearly visible

The poor old greenfinch has taken a bit of a battering in the last few years since 2005 from the trichomonad parasite which causes a disease called trichomonosis. This microscopic parasite lives in the upper digestive tracts of several birds species including other finches, house sparrows (Passer domesticus, Dansk:  gråspurv) and pigeons and doves. I’ve heard that feeders may become contaminated by pigeons from where it infects the smaller birds. It’s particularly unpleasant (as are most parasitic infestations!) because it causes the throat to swell to the point where the birds can’t swallow so they eventually die of starvation.

Fortunately I’ve never seen any evidence of infected birds but if you think you may have a problem you can click here for the RSPB advice sheet which has details on how to identify the problem and how best to deal with it.

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Animal Rescue – Newsflash 28/04/2012

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a fox cub my mother rescued after we found out the vixen had been killed. I promised you an update on her progress and I spoke to the lady who took her in last week so here’s the latest.

At first she weighed between 300-400g and was a little dehydrated but put on 100g in 3 days after becoming fully hydrated and taking immediately to a diet of fresh meat.

Hard to believe this little sweetie will turn into our apex predator!

She had a couple of tics and was infested with worms and fleas, which she generously passed on to her carers (just the fleas!), but was otherwise in good health. After a course of parasite treatment she came on in leaps and bounds and began to show signs of hunting behaviour by fighting with an old sock.

After a week and a half with her original benefactors she was passed on to a rescue centre near Kings Lynn in Norfolk where she was introduced to another orphaned cub. They had a good old scrap during which the pecking order was established and after that they knew their respective places and got along well. So everything is now being put in place for a release date in August, which is when a wild fox cub would be venturing out on its own.

So everything is looking good for a return to the wild for this little lady and I’ll hopefully get another progress report in about a months time.  I’ll try to find out if it will be possible to photograph her eventual release and I’ll share updates and photographs as and when.

Misplaced mallard

This pair of mallard weren’t misplaced at all, they were on a lake at Milton Country Park doing exactly what you’d expect mallard to do,

But this pair were very misplaced:

Romeo and Juliet

They appeared in my garden, relaxing under the crab apple tree, a couple of days ago, they disappear early in the morning and return in the afternoon. They’ve repeated this for the last three days now and they were here at dusk today sitting on the grass under the tree.

They seem completely unfazed by most interruptions including cats, humans and me flying past on my bike when I didn’t realise they were in situ. There is no water within half a mile so I don’t know why they are here, but it’s the first time we’ve had ducks in the garden and the children are very excited by their presence, so they’re welcome to stay as long as they want.

Returning migrants and lots more besides

Occasionally, but fairly infrequently, it’s a struggle to find enough interesting nature to put together a post, and then every now and again so much happens that it’s difficult to fit it all in. Last weekend was one of the latter.

It started to get interesting as I was cycling to work on Friday morning, a bird caught my eye in a hedge outside work and first off I thought it was a bullfinch, which I’ve never seen on Cambridge Science Park before. But then I got a better look at it and it was immediately apparent it wasn’t a bullfinch, it had similar colours but in a different pattern, so I did a quick U-turn to get a better look. It turned out to be a black redstart male in full breeding regalia (Phoenicurus ochruros, Dansk: husrødstjert). He was magnificent but alas, because I was heading to work I was camera-less, so if you’ve never seen one, dig out a bird reference book and check him out, it’s worth the effort.

I went back to work on Saturday morning with my camera to see if he was still there but there was no sign of him so I carried on to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge. It was a bright sunny morning and I arrived there just after 8.30 and it was already warm. And it augured well because it turned into a real bird fest. I was hoping to see some returning migrants and as I got out the car I could hear chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) calling in the trees around the carpark. The first migrant I actually saw was completely unexpected and turned out to be a pair of sand martins (Riparia riparia, Dansk: digesvale) which I haven’t seen for years. There were also swallows (Hirundo rustica, Dansk:  land svale) flying low over a lake and this is roughly the same time I saw the first swallow last year. Like swallows, sand martins also over winter in South Africa, but unlike swallows they nest in burrows which they excavate in sandy banks. There are some man made burrows for the sand martins at the country park but so far they’ve been ignored by the martins, but the occassional kingfisher pair have availed themselves of the opportunity.

Close to where the swallow was hunting is a small island with a tree on it where cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo, Dansk: skarv) can often be seen perched. This time there was a carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) sat on top and a pair of common terns (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne) were taking exception to its presence and were working as a team to dive bomb it:

A singleton…


… and in tandem

I almost felt a little sorry for the crow, but I’ve watched them terrorise so many birds, especially buzzards and other birds of prey, in a similar fashion that the sympathy was a tad less enthusiastic than it may otherwise have been.

A migrant which was present all over the country park was the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk), in one bush there were a minimum of four and possibly six or even more. They were squabbling away in the  bush presumably in the midst of a territorial dispute. I saw the first blackcap of 2012 a few weeks ago at Danbury Common in Essex during my unsuccessful mission to look for adders.


Blackcap male, the female is similar but easily distinguished because her cap is a rusty brown colour.

As well as the migrants the trees and bushes were full of the song of more familiar resident species such as the robin, blue tit, great tit, blackbird and wren. All were energetically vociferous, filling the air with a wonderful cacophany. And amongst these I caught a tantalising glimpse of a much less common species, the treecreeper (Certhia familiaris, Dansk:  træløber). Treecreepers are very aptly named and are fun to watch as they hunt insects in the crevices of tree trunks, spiralling upwards in a corkscrew pattern. A pair of sparrowhawk and a pair of buzzard were also busy performing their aerial courtship routines.

There were none of the winter ducks such as tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand), pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland), gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand) or widgeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand) on the water, they had all headed off north to their breeding grounds. But several birds including coot (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne) and greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås) had chicks on the water:


Greylag geese with six chicks

I paused to try to get a shot of a great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker), all now in full brown breeding plumage:

And as I stretched over the water, trying hard to get a clean shot of the grebe, and even harder not to pitch headlong into the lake, a grey heron (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) flew low overhead:

It was so low I thought it must have pitched up very close to where I was but on an adjacent lake, and a quick scan revealed it sat in the top of a tree being pestered by the common tern that had earlier been harrassing the carrion crow:

The terns were deeply unhappy with any potential predator, although they were less keen to buzz a pair of sparrowhawks which were in the air above the same stretch of water!

Animal Rescue

It was Easter last weekend and my parents were visiting. On Saturday I had walked the dog in the fields north of Histon and shortly after entering the field another dog walker told me there was a fox cub (Vulpes vulpes, Dansk: rød ræv) in the undergrowth I had just walked past. So I retraced my steps and sure enough there was this adorable little creature exploring the parapet of the ditch:

It’s body was only 6-7 inches long and I guessed it was the boldest of a litter which had taken the opportunity to wander whilst the mother was out hunting. So I took a few photographs and left it to it’s own devices, and when I completed my loop it was no longer there so I assumed it had returned to the den.

The following day my mother accompanied us for a walk in the hope it was still there, and indeed there it was in exactly the same place, but this time it seemed considerably emboldened and I was extremely concerned that a pet dog may kill it as this was right on a very popular dog walking route. My mother decided that my father should see it and she was going to return and fetch him, so I carried on to walk the dog.

When I got back my mother had been told by someone who lives close by that the vixen had been killed and the cub was orphaned so she rescued it and when I got back it was in a box on top of the piano. Which left me with a dilemma: what does one do with an orphaned fox cub at 4pm on Easter Sunday? It proved to be tricky to find somewhere that took wild animals, so in the end I rang up Wood Green Animal Shelter at Godmanchester, which is only about 12  miles from here, in the hope they would know somewhere that would take the little orphan. And luck was with us, they made some enquiries and gave me the phone number of a lady who lived fairly close by who had reared orphaned fox cubs in the past and was prepared to take ours. So self, mother, the children and the boxed up fox cub were bundled into the car and off we went, and an hour later our little cub was in the hands of someone who was skilled in the art of looking after wild foxes. Result!

It turned out to be a 3-4 week old vixen, who apart from being dehydrated seemed to be in reasonably good shape. She was expected not only to survive but was to be passed on to a wildlife sanctuary for eventual release into the wild. My fingers are crossed that this happens and she has at least one litter of her own cubs. I’m going to try to find out how she does and if I can get an update I’ll let you know.

Aesculus hippocastanum…

…is the Latin name for the horse chestnut tree. I always think of the horse chestnut as being a quintessential feature of the English countryside which I’ve loved since I was a kid when I’d climb them and hurl sticks up into them in September to harvest the conkers. Continuing on the spring theme I found this exploded cluster of leaf and flower shoots over a path in the middle of Histon and it seemed to sum up the excitement of heading into the summer sunshine months.

A strange thing happened on the way to work

Last Tuesday the kids were on school holiday and I was at home so we decided to go to the park to while away an hour playing on the swings. On the way back I just happened to glance upwards as a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) passed overhead. It then wheeled around and came back, circling, and we stood and watched it hunting for several minutes whilst I took a few photographs of it.

When we got home a few minutes later I had to dive into work for a short while so I set off in the car and as I turned the corner out of our road a dead blackbird was lying in the middle of the road. And just a few metres beyond it, also by the white lines in the middle of the road, was a male sparrowhawk, very probably the same one I had photographed just a few minutes earlier, it being only 2-300m away as the hawk flies. But unlike the blackbird he was very much alive.

When sparrowhawks catch a bird they kill it by kneading the body with long talons on the ground and while they’re doing that they spread their wings out to conceal the prey underneath, and that’s what this sparrowhawk looked to be doing. But it was a very strange place for that kind of activity, so I wondered if he had caught the blackbird, which is toward the top end of the size range for a male sparrowhawk, by the side of the road, and had struggled to gain height when he took off with it and had been struck a glancing blow by a passing car, causing him to drop his prey. The female sparrowhawk could easily take a blackbird as they are 25% bigger than the male, but the male is built for speed and agility and generally takes much smaller prey such as great tits

I fretted all the way into work that he may well have got run over, but when I got back from work the blackbird carcass had been placed on the verge at the side of the road but there was no sign of the hawk. So it looks like he didn’t get hit by another car and survived to hunt again. Much to my relief.

Turn of the century

After 20 months of posting this is the 100th episode of The Naturephile. The original plan was to post once a week wherever possible and I’ve averaged around five a month, so that stayed roughly on track. I thought I may struggle to find enough subject material and to acquire sufficient photographs of the necessary quality to post as often as I wanted too, but that hasn’t been a problem, so far.

When I started off writing The Naturephile, the idea I may reach a hundred posts never entered my mind, so to mark the moment I’ve trawled back through the archive to find my favourite posts to give them another airing. I’d anticipated it would be a straightforward venture but of course I’d rather underestimated the amount of subjects/species and photographs I’ve written about. But the number of posts was eventually whittled  down to 14.

1) At the end of September 2010 one of natures more brutal rituals was played out right outside my back door involving garden spider courtship. Like other spiders this can easily end up in the death of the male as it did in this case. ‘Araneus diadematus‘ posted on 2nd October 2010:


I really love you… . Male on the left, Shelob on the right

2) A little farther afield are dragon flies, the most common species I encounter are common darters and migrant hawkers. This Common darter appeared in a post on 19th October 2010. I like the symmetry of the fly and the seedhead and the red colour of this male darter against the brown grass.

3) A few years ago when my sister lived in a house (she lives in a kennel now. Only joking, she lives on a narrow boat ;-)) they were digging the garden and this piece of rock turned up. It’s an Acheulian hand axe made from flint and the marks on it are where it was worked with a deer antler. It dates from around 400,000 years ago which means it could have been made by a pre Homo sapiens hominid! It fits beautifully into the palm of my hand and after that many years the edges are still sharp. Even if I was blogging about topiary or book binding I’d have to find a way to slot this in.

4) The winter of 2010/11 was known as a ‘waxwing winter‘. Every winter a  few waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus, Dansk: silkehale) migrate to our shores from Scandinavia to overwinter. But occasionally the weather up there is fearsome so the waxwing migrate in large numbers and we then have a ‘waxwing winter’. And I hope you’ll agree the waxwing is a beatiful  bird:

A group of waxwing perched at the top of a rowan tree in north Cambridge

5) Another consequence of the bitterly cold winter of 2010/11 was that most stretches  of open water were frozen over and our herons (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) were starving because they couldn’t access their normal food supplies. During this winter  a hungry heron appeared in my friends garden and taking pity on its plight he fed it some fish. And of course one fish supper turned into rather more than one so the heron came to expect it, and if dinner was late it came and tapped on the window to complain to the management.

6) Sea mammals of any description are always a delight to see and photograph and one of my favourite places on the planet for doing that is the Farne Isles situated just off the Northumberland coast.


Atlantic grey seal in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast

Our holiday last year was to Northumberland and I can’t go there without taking in a boat trip to the Farnes where hundreds of Atlantic grey seal were basking on the rocks and generally taking life easy in the water.

7) Closer to home, April last year was hot and sunny and a great time to see songbirds in the countryside. One of my favourite birds is the yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv) and they’re regulars in the hedgerows around Cambridge.


Yellowhammer male  – what a gorgeous colour!

8) A creature I’d never encountered before last year was the great crested newt. My friend told me of a place where they could be found so we ensconced ourselves in the nearest pub in preparation for a nocturnal newt hunt after closing time.

It was a very successful trip, a few pints followed by finding  not only the great crested newt but the other two species of UK newt, palmate and smooth newts.

9) As the year rushes headlong into summer and the butterfly season really gets underway I can spend many an hour chasing our Lepidopterans round the fields trying to get that perfect picture. One of my favourites is the common blue and this is about the closest I got to that perfect picture:

Common blue male sipping nectar – one of the best photographs I’ve ever taken

10) As well as being a top location for marine mammals the Northumberland coast is also home to huge numbers of seabirds so it’s a very happy hunting ground for me!

Just poking your head over the seawall at Seahouses can reveal lots of seabirds including oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade), knot (Calidris canutus, Dansk: islandsk ryle), eider (Somateria mollissima, Dansk: ederfugl), turnstone (Arenaria interpres, Dansk: stenvender) and this  redshank (Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben).

11) RSPB Fowlmere, to the west of Cambridge is famous for its water rail. On a trip there in December 2011 I was tipped off by a local that a particular hide was good for water rail (Rallus aquaticus, Dansk: vandrikse) and one had been seen there that morning, so off I went to try and see it.


My informant was correct. There was just the one bird there, but it scoured the mudflats in front of us for a whole hour before disappearing into the reeds, giving me plenty of good photo opportunities. I was very pleased with the primeval feel of this image with the bird face on infront of the horsetails.

12) In January this year the weather was absolutely freezing causing a small group of red-legged partridge at Tubney Fen, east of Cambridge, to seek the warmth generated by a mountain of dung:


13) My favourite bird of prey is the kestrel (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) and they are always to be seen hovering in the skies over the fields around Histon. I love watching the highly specialised hunting techniques all birds of prey in action, but the kestrel beats them all in my opinion:


A male kestrel showing off all his hunting hardware: talons, flight feathers, eyes and aquiline beak

14) And lastly, I couldn’t write a post like this without including my battling blackbirds. Of all the bird species that visit my garden these are the ones that provide the most entertainment:

My garden gladiators locked in aerial combat

These were a few of my favourite posts, favourite for various reasons: the stories attached, the rarity of the sighting or simply the exquisite natural beauty of the subjects. I hope you like them!

And lastly, I’ve been stunned by the numbers of people from all round the world who read The Naturephile and like it enough to follow it or click the ‘Like’ button. Thanks to everyone for stopping by and enjoying a read, I love sharing the nature from my corner of Cambridgeshire with you!

Birds and bee(flie)s

The day after the cold weather put paid to my snake hunting exploits I decided to take the dog for a quick run in the afternoon. He had just had a small tumour removed from his back leg and so he had a lampshade on his head to stop him chewing his stitches and consequently this walk was only meant to be a short one, and I wasn’t even going to take my camera. But on the way out the door I decided because it was very sunny and very warm I would take my camera. And I’m glad I did because there was wildlife in abundance.

Peacock butterfly, Inachis io, sunning itself on the path

The air was abuzz with insects including butterflies. I really like photographing butterflies and peacocks are good because they present a medium sized challenge. If you approach with stealth and don’t cast a shadow on them they let you get to within a few feet. The peacock is a species that can be seen at any time through the winter as it can wake in response to warmer weather, but they emerge in spring around the end of March/beginning of April, so the timing for this one was spot on.  As I was photographing the peacock a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) flew past at high speed, much too fast to enable a usable photograph, it’s always good to see a bird of prey because I think it suggests the prey species are in good order too.


Long tailed tit, Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemejse

The field where I found the peacock butterfly has a corner which faces south west and it was sheltered from the wind and bathed in spring sunshine. It was really warm when I arrived there, so I stood still and watched and listened while the dog went off to explore, and the trees around were full of birds including the long tailed tit, above, and a song thrush, below.

Songthrush, Turdus philomelos, Dansk: sangdrossel

While the birds were capturing my attention in the trees, butterflies weren’t the only insects there. In my corner there were also beeflies buzzing around. I was keen to try to photograph them in flight which is a tad more challenging as they would hover for a few seconds before darting off at very high speed in zig zag lines. But they were making the most of the shelter from any breeze that prevailed in this sheltered spot and I spent a good hour trying to photograph them.


Beefly, Bombylius major

The beefly, as the name suggests is a bee mimic. It has a very prominent proboscis which is used to extract nectar, and the fur is part of the bee disguise. It is a very good pollinator but is detrimental to other pollinators.

It is detrimental because it parasitises other bees and beetles. And the way it achieves that is another of those bizarre evolutionary adaptations that even the most imaginative science fiction writer wouldn’t dream of. It mimics bees in order to get close to their burrows where using its legs the female will flick her eggs into the hole where it hatches and attaches itself to the host. Then the gruesome bit: it lies dormant until the host commences pupation and then becomes an ‘ectoparasite‘ which means it remains on the outside of its host but extracts the body fluids to fuel its own growth. After draining its host dry it reaches the pupal stage which can vary hugely in length and they have been known to overwinter before emerging as an adult the following year.

Beeflies have appeared in several blogs in the last week or so and there are some more very fine images here:

http://www.leavesnbloom.com/2012/04/bombylius-major-bee-fly-aerodynamics.html

Rosie from ‘leavesnbloom’ has a wonderful collection of images of Bombylius major and Harlan from ‘The Roused Bear’ has also captured one in Iowa in the U.S.:

http://therousedbear.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/a-fuzzy-bee-fly/

They can be found across the whole planet except Australasia.

More birds which appeared in the trees around while I was chasing beefly were the common or garden greenfinch and chaffinch:


Greenfinch male pecking at a twig
Chaffinch male just taking it easy

Both greenfinch (Carduelis chloris, Dansk: grønirisk) and chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke) are common or garden, but are both beautiful birds, and they can be seen here in the U.K. all year round. But a species that isn’t here all year round and returns after its winter migration to north Africa is the chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger):

The chiffchaff, named after its characteristic song, is a warbler and despite being a small bird they are tough. Their migration takes them south across mainland Europe, across the Mediterranean Sea and into north Africa, to retrace their flight four or five months later in the spring. And despite the hardships associated with such a gruelling endeavour, according to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), there are around three quarters of a million territories in the UK. They are one of the first migrants to arrive back in the U.K. and can be heard singing as early as late February. But this my first one in Cambridge on the first weekend in April.

Blakes Wood

In my last post I visited Danbury Common in Essex. After getting over the disappointment of not seeeing snakes we headed to Blakes Wood which is another National Trust site situated on the opposite side of Danbury to the Common. It’s an area of ancient woodland, predominantly hornbeam and sweet chestnut under which the ground was covered in withered chestnut husks emptied of their contents long ago by squirrels or mice, and in the springtime wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) and bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) carpet the forest floor.

Bluebells have been voted Britains favourite flower and they normally reach their flowering peak in mid May.


Bluebells are delightful flowers when there is only one plant, but when they stretch across a forest floor as far as the eye can see they’re absolutely magical. I didn’t expect to see any at the weekend, it still being March, but they are starting to flower already.

The Natural History Museum is conducting a survey of bluebell flowering times as a means of monitoring climate change. A quick glance at the data is starting to get alarming, the earliest flowering time seems to be getting earlier, from first flowerings in Essex in May in 2010, moving to the middle of March in 2012, in just three years since the study commenced. I don’t know what the long term ramifications of climate change will be for our native flora and fauna, we’ll have to wait and see but I hope the bluebell woods survive.


A single wood anemone protruding through the bluebell leaves

The wood anemones are as beautiful as the bluebells even if they don’t have the same level of ‘Wow‘ factor. The forest at Blakes Wood was liberally bespattered with carpets of wood anemones and I got down in the undergrowth to try to fill the frame with flowers:

I was keen to capture a shot with both anemones and bluebells in the same frame and that turned out to be tricky because of the sparsity of the bluebells, but I eventually found this one:


Spanish bluebell bulbs have been sold in garden centres but they are a different species, Hyacinthoides hispanica, to our UK bluebells. Flytipping of garden waste has resulted in the Spanish variety getting into our woods and cross breeding with the native species. This is a real problem because it is anticipated the hybrids may eventually take over from the natives, but I console myself that the invaders and hybrids are lovely to look at too. I can’t wait to visit the woods again in May when the bluebells are in full bloom, and when I do I’ll share the results with you.