Monthly Archives: September 2012

Histon wildlife

I’ve been meandering around the country over the summer so my local flora and fauna have been a tad neglected here. So here are a few of my favourite photographs from Histon.

Wild flowers and grasses shot up to shoulder height in no time at all through the spring and into the summer and everywhere was lush and verdant, watered by the seemingly endless rain that started a few days after the hosepipe ban at the beginning of April, and carried on until early July. The rains were good for the greenery but not good for butterflies and other insects, so it was good to see the large skippers emerge at the end of June.


Large skipper  – Ochlodes faunus

The large skipper ususally emerges in June and July, so the earlier stages in its life cycle must be particularly well water-proofed to have survived the spring! The caterpillars feed on orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) which is common in meadows and hedgerows, and the adults seek nectar from a range of flowers including birdsfoot trefoil, dandelion, yarrow and field scabius. All of these are common in my local fields which explains their annual presence around here.


Small skipper – Thymelicus sylvestris

Both the skippers here appear to be females, the genders are differentiated by the presence of ‘androconica‘ on the forewings of the males. These are lines of dark, specialised pheromone producing cells which appear to be absent on both these butterflies.


Field poppies – Papaver rhoeas

A journey through the countryside in July and August was a gorgeous sight this year due to the abundance of poppies. The red field poppy, also called the ‘Flanders poppy’ is, of course, the symbol of remembrance in the UK for the slain of the two World Wars. They seemed to be everywhere, and fields which would normally be plain green were a sea of red, and my local fields were no different. It transpired that this was also a consequence of the rains but not for the reason you may think. As well as watering the earth and creating good conditions for alot of plants the rain also washed away the herbicides used by the farmers to protect the monocultures we’re accustomed to seeing in the fields. Which shows how rapidly nature can regain lost territory when the opportunity arises.


Corn bunting – Emberiza calandra

Another of my local fields was planted up with rape this year. I’ve previously disliked rape because it has a completely unnatural colour, and the smell is not too pleasant either. But since I’ve been getting close to it and seeing the variety of birdlife it supports I’m changing my mind. Not least because it plays host to corn bunting which are becoming increasingly uncommon due to loss of habitat. This rape field regularly had linnet, reed bunting and corn bunting feeding on the seedpods which are extremely rich in oil and therefore a good energy source for small songbirds.

Reed bunting male – Emberiza schoeniclus – perched on top of the mature rape plants resplendent with his black head and white collar

Skylark numbers have been dropping across the UK due to modern farming methods but I hope that my local patch is bucking the trend because year on year there always appear to be good numbers of them. The combined song of a multitude of skylarks as they slowly climb and then drop like a stone is one of natures wonders in my opinion, so it’s good to see them in the skies here.

Skylark – Alauda arvensis

Looking through my photographs for this year there has been alot to see but it seems it many species were scarce until July. Maybe that’s because the dreadful weather meant that I wasn’t looking quite so hard, but I think many natural phenomena were late this year due to climatic extremes. But many species eventually appeared so they are still out there. I’m hoping we now have a year of relatively normal weather from here on so the wildlife has a chance to recover.

Titchwell waders

RSPB Titchwell consists of fresh and salt water lakes, mudflats, reedbeds and woodland, consequently it’s home to alot of bird species. One of the rreasons I like visiting places like Titchwell is to see waders, especially when there arfe large flocks of them. And on this visit a mixed flock of hundreds of knot (Calidris canutus, Dansk: islandsk ryle) and bar tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica, Dansk: lille kobbersneppe) would rise from a small island in one of the lakes every few minutes and provide a wonderful display of team aerobatics before settling down on the same island.

A flock of knot and bar tailed godwit taking to the air

The knot remained resolutely in situ on the island so I was unable to snap a picture of one close up, but a bar tailed godwit was a little more accommodating:

A handsome bar tailed godwit showing it’s magnificent beak

Both the knot and the godwit are winter and passage visitors to the UK so it was nice to see  numbers of them here in June. Both birds breed in the north and head to the southern hemisphere in the winter. Alsakan godwits overwinter in New Zealand, which is an 11,000km which they accomplish in a single hop and it takes them around 7 days! I’m easily impressed by natural phenomena but I think the migration of the Alaskan godwit is a truly awesome achievement.

An agitated redshank repelling intruders

The redshank (Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben)above was in a highly vocal mood and kept alarm calling and flying down and around from it’s vantage point before returning to call again.  I watched it doing this for several minutes and then the source of its ire became apparent:


Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis)

This chinese water deer was foraging in the undergrowth and I guess the redshank was stressed because the deer was close to its nest. These deer were introduced to London Zoo in the 19th century and subsequent escapes from Whipsnade Zoo led to the establishment of a population in Bedfordshire, the Fens of Cambridgeshire and into Norfolk. The tusks are clearly visible on this adult and indicate the species is a primitive one, as tusks evolved in deer before antlers. The tusks are used for defence and for fighting during the rut. According to the British Deer Society the UK population of these deer constitute 10% of the world population. So I guess there can’t be that many left in China.


The lovely lapwing

One of my favourite birds, which I used to see huge flocks of when I wasa kid in the 1970’s, is the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe). We aslo used to call it the ‘plover’ or the ‘peewit’ after its distinctive call. They are handsome black and white in the air with broad angled wings, but close up on the ground they have a lovely iridescent green and a long thin crest.

Geddington swallows

A couple of months ago I was at my sisters place in Geddington, a small village in the Northamptonshire countryside which is right next door to one of the original release sites for the reintroduction of red kites into the UK. Consequently, one doesn’t have to look too hard to see red kites there, but on this particular trip it was swallows that were the stars of the show.

Geddington is a very old village and the cottages in the middle, one of which is occupied by my sister, are built from Northamptonshire ironstone, which is a gorgeous building material. Not only is her house built with it but so is her very substantial shed. She leaves the door to the shed open all the time because there are bats roosting there, and in the summer swallows use nests built in the eaves there.


A brood of swallows on the verge of fledging

Swallows (Hirundo rustica, Dansk: landsvale) migrate here from South Africa in the Spring and they generally arrive back around the second weekend in May. They return to the same place every year and often refurbish an old nest which can be used year after year, and there are records of the same nest being used for decades.

I usually get an excited phone call from my sister in the middle of May to tell me her swallows have returned. They come back again and again and she comes over all maternal when the first one arrives.


A pair of very recent fledglings which haven’t yet plucked up the courage to venture outside

They have now done all their breeding and feeding up and are congregating on roof tops and power lines and contemplating the enormous feat of flying down through Europe, across the Mediterranean and the Sahara desert before crossing the rest of sub-Saharan Africa to South Africa. Where they will spend the next 6 months before doing the whole thing again in reverse. Awesome!

Back yard safari

A couple of posts ago I described my Fenland safari and since then I just happened to have had my own ‘back garden safari’! Lots of colourful creatures have been stopping by to refuel.

I’ve previously expressed concern for the depleted populations of insects, in particular butterflies and dragonflies, due to the mad weather we’ve experienced in the UK this year, but in the last couple of weeks there have been some great sightings outside my back door.


Common darter (Sympetrium striolatum) female perched on the clothes line

The dragons have been late to appear but since the last week in August there have been common darters regularly alighting and migrant hawkers hunting overhead.

And of course it’s that time of year when the arachnids are most in evidence, and my garden is festooned with garden spiders, there are webs attached to every surface: walls, plants, windows… everywhere.

Garden spider female, Araneus diadematus, despatching her prey, a small fly

The female garden spider has a bulbous abdomen which is adorned with the fabulous diadem that gives the species its name. The male is smaller than the female and has a flatter, kite shaped, abdomen, but he also carries the diagnostic markings. A couple of years ago I posted about the perilous love life of the garden spider, suffice to say the sex life of the male can be dramatically and terminally curtailed if he fails to show the lady sufficient respect!


This garden spider male set up home inside the bedroom window – until  the resident arachnophobre found him and relocated him

As well as the spiders, the occasional cricket strolls by, and this little chap was taking shelter under a sunshade from the unseasonally hot weather last weekend:


Oak bush cricket – Meconema thalassinum – the male of the species. The female has a long, upturned ovipositor protruding from her rear

The oak bush cricket is quite a small example of the genre, they are 13-17mm long and are carnivorous, feeding on small insects. They live on the edge of woods and in gardens and appear from July into the Autumn.

Also putting in a welcome appearance was a common buzzard, Buteo buteo:

The buzzard has been one of the birds which has really bounced back since the more stringent controls on of agricultural pesticide use were introduced in the 1980’s. I’d never seen a buzzard until I was in my 20’s and even then it was the occasional sighting in the wilds of west Wales or down in Cornwall. But they can now be seen over all of England – even from my garden.

Hoverfly – Volucella inanis

Hoverfies rarely have common names, they’re simply known under the generic name ‘hoverfly’. And V. inanis is no exception, at least as far as my research reveals. There was great excitement when it first buzzed into the garden because at first glance we thought it was a hornet due to it’s size and its yellow and red colouration. And it was a whopper! They can grow up to 15mm long and this one was one of the bigger ones. It eventually settled and posed rather obligingly on the edge of the rabbit run while I snapped a portrait, and it is a very handsome fly. It has an interesting breeding tactic too laying its eggs in the nests of other social wasps, including hornets – which probably explains its size and colour scheme – where they hatch and feed on the larvae of the host.

Comma – Polygonia c-album

I waited expectantly for this comma to open its wings and show the gorgeously ragged orange symmetry, but it didn’t. So I had to content myself with this silhouette of it perched on a cooking apple.

Titchwell ducks

I like ducks. A couple of hours spent by the side of a lake gazing at and identifying numerous duck species is time well spent in my opinion. (N.b. as I write this I’m sipping a glass of a very tasty Chilean Cabernet and listening to The Lyre of Orpheus by Nick Cave. How much better can life get?)

Anyway, back to the ducks. Inbetween chasing swifts with my camera and snapping marsh harriers and avocets there were several species of duck availing themselves of the bounty supplied by the fresh and salt water mudflats at Titchwell.


Shoveler male

Shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk – skeand) can be seen on the lakes close to Cambridge but it’s rare to see them close up. At Titchwell there are so many birds there that if I wait long enough it’s very likely I’ll get close up, and so it proved with several species of duck. The shoveler is immediately recognisable by his enormous beak which he uses to filter crustaceans, molluscs and other small creatures from the water. The pale blue patch just visible on the upper forewing is just visible on this one and is diagnostic for the shoveler. The blue-winged teal also has a blue patch here but the teal is smaller and doesn’t have the distinctive beak of the shoveler.


Teal female (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand)

The teal is the smallest duck and the male plumage is handsome. Like the mallard, the female is predominantly brown but she has the lovely green patch on the lower forewing, visible on the lady above as she stretches her wings. Teal can form big flocks on coastal wetlands out of the breeding season. They are named after their call.


Pochard female (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland)

Another species which kept flitting into view was the pochard. Pochard are not regular breeders in the UK, but in the winter there can be around 40,000 here which have migrated in from Eastern Europe and Russia and they can be seen on lakes, gravel pits and estuaries.


A pair of shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand) on final approach

I think one of the  most majestic ducks is the shelduck. The red beak, black head, and brown, white and black body make it very distinctive. Shelduck are big too, almost, but not quite, the size of a small goose. They were persecuted in some sandy areas of the UK in the 19th century apparently because they competed with rabbits for burrows. Which sounds to me like any excuse, because why would anyone worry about a few homeless rabbits! Despite that there are now around 60,000 individuals overwintering in the UK and around 11,000 breeding pairs. The conservation status is amber in the UK but it is a species of least concern in Europe as a whole.

Fenland safari

Wicken Fen is the largest remaining area of true fen in England and has survived because it has been conserved by encasing it in what is effectively a gigantic plastic bag. The earth on the Fen is waterlogged and if the bag weren’t there the water would simply drain away leaving very rich agricultural soils but none of the wildlife associated with fenland habitats. Another result of the water retention is that the Fen is 6-8 feet above the surrounding farmland and the earth literally shakes if you jump hard on the ground as it’s like a saturated sponge.

Because of the water the predominant habitats are reedbeds and waterways which is reflected in the wildlife. The Fen is so rich in wildlife that a hike around there is like a mini safari! I was there on a hot and sunny Sunday morning in June and wildlife of all sorts abounded. In particular the insects were very busy. This dragonfly had recently emerged from the larval stage as an adult and was sitting in the grass drying out before taking to the air.


Black tailed skimmer youngster preparing for it’s first flights

The young skimmer was on the edge of a path which ran alongside one of the lodes (man made water courses) and on the water opposite the skimmer were lily pads and sitting on one of them was a damselfly, warming itself up in the morning sunshine.


Red eyed damselfly (Erythromma najas) in beautiful repose on a lily pad, surrounded by reflections of the clouds

And of course, that time of year is the season for lurv for many creatures, including this pair of variable damseflies (Coenagrion pulchellum) which are in the process of mating. The male is the blue one and he is clasping the female by gripping the back of her head – the pronotum – whilst she has pressed her genitalia against his abdomen to receive the sperm.

As well the inscect diversity the unique habitat of the Fen is home to lots of beautiful plants and flowers, including this common spotted orchid. This orchid is indeed common and can be found in fens, marshes and other wetlands all over England, but is rare in Scotland. Common, or not, I think all orchids are spectacular flowers and it was really good to see them in such numbers on the Fen.

Common spotted orchid – Dactylorhiza fuchsi

Whilst I was busying myself trying to get photogrpahs of the dragons and orchids a kestrel (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) was busy overhead. But even better than that a hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk) was on the hunt for dragonflies and small birds.

The hobby is a small falcon which can be seen in these parts in the summer and hunts low over farmland and reedbeds at phenomenal speed. It’s one of very few predators that can hunt swallows and swifts in flight. This one was doing exactly that and in the distance, a few hundred metres away were at least another two. So I guess it was a family and the chicks had recently fledged and the adults were showing them the ropes. So I whiled away a good half an hour watching their breathtaking aerobatic exploits!


Brimstone butterfly sipping nectar from a thistle flower

I did volutary work at Wicken for 3 years or so back around the turn of the Millenium. It was incredibly rewarding and a good opportunity for a lab-based sedentary person such as myself to get outside and do some donkey work under the sky. One of the projects I worked on back then was scrub clearance to create an area suitable for butterflies to breed. I went and had a look at it on this walk for the first time since I helped to create it and it was very different. The scrub we cleared had been replaced by less scrubby, more proper woodland, trees, and there was small open glades with grasses and wild flowers. Whilst I was in there I flushed a leveret, which is about the closest I’ve ever been to a wild hare, it had been sitting tight but made a run for it when I got just a tad too close – about 5m!

So I didn’t manage a picture of the hare but I did manage a shot of the brimstone butterfly above (Gonepteryx rhamni), which I thought was absolutely lovely, sitting on the purple flower and framed by the two grass stems. It was terribly obliging and let me move all round it to get the best angle for a portrait. So this is about the best shot and one I’m very pleased with. I hope you like it too!

The magnificent marsh harrier

During a day spent at RSPB Titchwell on the north Norfolk coast in June the bird sightings were many and varied but one of the undoubted highlights for me was a marsh harrier which made regular appearances throughout the day.


Here’s looking at you…
A marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk – rørhøg) doing as the name suggest – harrying the marshes

The marsh harrier is one of our least numerous birds with around 400 females in the UK. According to the British trust for Ornithology it almost became extinct in the UK but has made a small recovery. It lives and breeds in reedbeds but during it’s recovery it has learnt to frequent farmland too. With the destruction of its normal habitat that adaptation may prove to be its saviour.

Marsh harriers hunt small mammals and birds and can be seen gliding over marshland and reedbeds with their wings in a characteristic shallow ‘V’ shape. It is restricted to East Anglia in the UK and its conservation status is Amber due to the declines seen in the past.

Despite its amber staus in the UK it is a species of least concern in the rest of Europe, which is good news. Hopefully a few more will find their way here to swell the UK population. They can mostly be seen here in nature reserves and the small number of locations where reedbeds and wetlands have not been drained.

One of the best reserves for harriers is Wicken Fen lying between Cambridge and Ely, and this is the only place where I’ve seen marsh harriers and hen harriers in the air at the same time. Wicken is owned by the National Trust and has a hundred year expansion plan which involves buying up the surrounding farmland as the soils becomes progressively downgraded and ultimately exhausted. So in around 100 years time it should be an enormous area of fen and home to large numbers of rare birds such as the harriers. So they may not be so rare then. Fingers crossed!

At long last

After a summer of fixing and painting and holidaying I can now sit down and devote the time to pick up where I left off with blog posting. I’ve collected lots of photographs and I’m about 20 posts behind, so here goes…

Since I acquired my new camera earlier on in the summer I’ve been crawling around in the undergrowth taking pictures of wild flowers and here are a few of them.

Wimpole Hall Farm is a stately home to the west of Cambridge which is owned by the National Trust and is set in extensive park and farmland. A stroll round the park there earlier in the summer was as rewarding as ever with a buzzard and a couple of great spotted woodpeckers putting in appearances, but I didn’t have my zoom lens with me so I was restricted to photographing things which were close by and didn’t move too quickly.

Growing in the shade of a line of trees were bugle flowers…


Bugle – Ajuga reptans

Bugle is related to self heal (Prunella vulgaris), they are both members of the family Lamiaceae and both have medicinal properties.

According to Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century English botanist and renowned herbalist:

Self-Heal whereby when you are hurt, you may heal yourself, it is an especial herb for inward or outward wounds. Take it inwardly in syrups for inward wounds, outwardly in unguents and plasters for outward. As Self-Heal is like Bugle in form, so also in the qualities and virtues, serving for all purposes, whereunto Bugle is applied with good success either inwardly or outwardly, for inward wounds or ulcers in the body, for bruises or falls and hurts. If it be combined with Bugle, Sanicle and other like wound herbs, it will be more effectual to wash and inject into ulcers in the parts outwardly…. It is an especial remedy for all green wounds to close the lips of them and to keep the place from further inconveniences. The juice used with oil of roses to annoint the temples and forehead is very effectual to remove the headache, and the same mixed with honey of roses cleaneth and healeth ulcers in the mouth and throat.’

I’m not sure what Culpeper means by ‘green wounds‘ but it makes me glad I live in the penicillin age. Indeed he died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 37. No herbs could cure that.


Purple self-heal

This picture is an attempt to give a feel for what an English meadow looks like in summer, two of my favourite flowers – self-heal and white clover (Trifolium repens) set in the long grass against a blue ‘Simpsons sky‘.

Another name for bugle is ‘carpenters herb’ due to its ability to stem bleeding, although it appears it does this not by catalysing the clotting process but by lowering blood pressure and heart rate in a similar way to digitalis, the active pharmaceutical compound which gives foxgloves their toxicity:

Foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea, growing next to the path to the cafe at Wimpole

On another foray into the countryside in June, this time to RSPB Fen Drayton, I was specifically looking for oxeye daisy and in amongst the daisies were these lovely dames violets (Hesperis matronalis). Dames violet originates in the Mediterranean but has colonised the UK after escaping from gardens. It has been used as an ‘antiscorbutic’, i.e. to treat scurvy.

Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and dames violet growing slongside the Cambridge Guided Busway at RSPB Fen Drayton
Dames violet flowers

Also growing alongside the busway were lesser knapweed (Centaurea nigra), which I think is rather lovely and not ‘lesser‘ or a ‘weed‘! I’d be happy for it to grow in my garden…

Lesser knapweed – I couldn’t find any reference to medicinal or herbal uses of lesser knapweed

…and ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi):

I couldn’t find any reference to medicinal uses of ragged robin either but it’s also rather beautiful and small clusters of it punctuated tracts of grass mixed with other flowers.

There’ll be more flowers to come, and butterflies… birds… mammals etc. etc.