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!

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20 responses to “Returning migrants and lots more besides

  1. Thanks for letting me camp out in your blog today. I had a great time and tried to leave my campsite as clean as when I arrived.

  2. Spectacular photographs, Finn. I’ve fallen behind in my visits, and see I have lots to explore here. I plan to return later and stay a while.

  3. My idea of a perfect day too, one of those you’ll always remember and having the images brings it all back in detail each time you look at them doesn’t it?

  4. Wow–busy, busy, busy! What a wonderfully productive morning, and your fast reactions got you a tremendous heron portrait.

  5. What a menagerie of bird-life for one morning…. 🙂

  6. A pleasure to read this, Finn, thank you. On the subject of harrying behaviour, a few days ago I watched two American Crows see off a raven. The latter flew steadily across an open field with the pair dive-bombing and darting in pursuit. Because they flew by close to me, I was able to appreciate the contrast in size of these Corvidae and the true magnificence of the raven. Equally memorable was his acrobatic ability. For he met the crows’ attacks by blithely rolling over onto his back, baring his claws, and then completing his 360-degree roll, all while maintaining a steady flight path. During the short time I watched them, he must have made a continuous twenty such rolls — all as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

    • Thanks for sharing that story Robert, it must have been highly entertaining watching the crows. We don’t see ravens in my neck of the woods, but when I was at college in Liverpool they lived on the tower of the Protestant cathedral (along with the occasional peregrine). They were great to watch there too, and you’re right, they’re huge!

  7. I love the little black cap, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. There are tree creepers up this way though, and I always enjoy watching them circle up trees. Your heron shot is fantastic, it looks like such a prehistoric creature.

    • The herons do have the look of a dinosaur about them. Did you follow the link to the heron video from the ‘Turn of the Century’ post? I was chatting to my friend who was feeding the bird in that video and he reckons the same one turned up in his garden this winter when the local lakes froze over. How cool is that?

  8. I love the various encounters. I’ve never seen a great crested grebe before – such interesting wildlife around you. Nature gives us so many reasons to pause and enjoy it, doesn’t it? Even better when you can capture it!

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