Daily Archives: December 31, 2013

The owl and the woodpecker

As I started to write this post there was some interesting robin behaviour going on in the garden. Robins (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) are fiercely territorial and will kill each other to defend their patch and I often see them chasing off not just other robins but any bird smaller than a blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort)! But just now there was a pair being relatively nice to each other and even sharing the same feeder. So I’m wondering if these two were a pair beginning to contemplate the imminent breeding season, as early as January the 12th. The weather has been much warmer than the previous three winters so maybe they are already thinking of making up for lost time.

But I began with a digression, so now to get back on message. I’ve been dithering about writing this post for a few days but I was finally inspired to start when I saw some recent posts on the blog of a good blogging friend, Gary, from ‘Krikitarts‘ (if you haven’t seen Krikarts yet make sure you check it out, it’s very, very, good!). Gary’s posts included pictures of skies and rainbows which were digitally reproduced form the original slides. And seeing these spectacular images spurred me on to get this post written to show you some evening skies from Cambridgshire in summertime.

But before I get on to the sky, on this particular evening from July 2013, green woodpeckers, which breed successfully close by, had their most recent brood of fledglings and were out and about learning how to dig up termites:

A pair of green woodpeckers flying away from me, they’re skittish creatures (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte )

Whilst many bird species have been on the decline, the green woodpecker seems to be thriving, at least in my part of the world. I see them around the village, in the trees and on the ground around work, and on the way to work too, and I’ve heard they are generally doing OK. They’re handsone, colourful, creatures and it’s good to see them coping well with all the insults humans throw at them.

A greenie keeping an eye on me and the dog

This particular evening was a very warm and sunny one and as I meandered across the fields the sun got lower and lower, and bigger and bigger, in the sky:


And as the sun got lower and plunged us into the crepuscular phase twixt day and night, a barn owl (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) was quartering the fields looking for rodents. Barn owls were hit really hard by the previous three bitterly cold winters and then by the brutal wet and cold weather last spring. But we had at least two breeding pairs in Histon and this individual was half of one of those pairs. Bearing in mind the precipitous decline in barn owl numbers in the UK and beyond, I think that makes Histon an important place for them. I don’t know how many chicks were fledged but I’m hoping some survive the cold weather holds off this year and we get more breeding pairs in 2014.

Barn owls are great to watch. I know the routes they take in the fields local to here and when I see them coming I can crouch down and often, but not always, they fly slowly right over my head, around 10-15 feet up, and sometimes we eyeball each other and I wonder what they’re thnking. Of which more in another post in the near future.

And as I meandered home from watching the owl, the sun disappeared below the horizon leaving these magnificent colours hanging in the sky which slowly turned into dark blue-grey and then the black of night

Not a bad way to spend an evening!

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Down on the farm in July

Summer was late arriving in  2013. The weather was cold and wintry up until June and that had a profound effect on the wildlife. Breeding seasons were knocked out of kilter by it, and the numbers of many species have suffered as a result. But it seemed that once summer did arrive the wildlife got very busy very quickly to make up for lost time.

The skyline on my regular dog walking route is dominated by a magnificent poplar tree which makes a wonderful sound when the wind blows. It’s right on the pathway where many walkers pass every day and there is a bench underneath it which folk sit on occasionally. But despite all the human activity in such close proximity a pair of kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) were brave enough to build a nest in it about 20-25 feet up.

Kestrel fledgling taking it easy and apparently unfazed by me pointing a telephoto lens at it

I posted about the adults taking up residence in the poplar in August last year. Their decision to nest in this exposed location paid off in spades as the kestrel pair fledged three youngsters who could be seen in around the poplar into the later months of 2013.

And a pair of the fledglings sheltering in the poplar

I made a point of not lingering too long around the poplar to avoid disturbing the birds, but because of the constant human presence there I think they were relaxed about me taking pictures as long as I didn’t try to stay too close for too long.

All the pictures in this post were taken on one summers evening stroll in July, and as well as the kestrels there was lots of other wildlife.

Also breeding in the field adjacent to the poplar tree were numerous skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke). I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get photographs of skylarks for a long time but on this particular evening this one perched on top of a low bush and sang for England. I called the dog to heel and using an adjacent bramble as a shield I crawled as close as I could, which was less than 10m in the end, and poking my lens though the bramble I finally got some pictures:

A singing skylark lit by the low, late evening sun

The resident corn buntings (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke ) usually vacate the fields around Histon with the harvest at the beginning of August, but in 2013 they stayed much later. I don’t know if that was coincidence, because there was still cover in one of the fields, or if it was a result of the enforced delay in the breeding cycle due to the cold spring weather. But they were here in much greater numbers and much later in the year than normal. According to the British Trust for Ornithology the corn bunting is so sedentary that individulas only 30km apart sing in different dialects, but I’d love to know how that was discovered.

Corn bunting on a regular perch in the late evening sunshine

Corn bunting are red listed in the UK due to rapid decline in numbers as a result of habitat destruction for agriculture. Despite that, and decreasing numbers in Central Europe for the same reason, it’s not considered under threat as a species in mainland Europe… yet.

Another songbird which is also red listed in the UK, also as result of rapidly declining numbers, is the yellowhammer (emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv).

Male yellowhammer with his striking yellow head plumage

The yellowhammer has suffered catastrophic decline in numbers over the last few decades and over the last 2-3 years I’ve noticed the numbers in my locality seem to be on the wane too. I think it hasn’t been helped here by the farmer who recently took a flail to all the hedgerows and a lot of the drainage ditches and stripped most of the winter cover and food away. I just don’t see the sense it that – it wasn’t impinging on the crops or impeding access to farm machinery. Seems completely pointless to me.

Yellowhammer and corn bunting are both species of bunting and prefer arable farmland, but due to the intensive nature of arable agriculture and the resulting lack of seed, either natural or crop, both species are under dire threat in the UK. I’ve seen evidence to show that rates of decline can be slowed by changes in farmland management such as set aside or organic cropping, but I think attempts to conserve need to be applied in more holistic fashion to ensure survival of the wildlife.

One species which appeared to be abundant last summer was the hare. They’ve been ever present on any summers evening stroll across the fields in 2013. And I’m still seeing them through the winter too.

And as I headed home there was a spectacular sunset:

…one of many through the summer of last year.

Life in the kiln

After a lengthy absence from the blogosphere I’m rushing to squeeze a last post in in 2013. It won’t be topical so I’m harping back to a visit to the Lime Kiln in Cherry Hinton, on the southern edge of Cambridge, from back in July. I posted from here earlier in the year about the resident peregrine falcons.

The main reason for this visit to the Lime Kiln was to see if the peregrines were still in residence. One of them appeared overhead and gave chase to a pigeon, but it was in level flight not in  a stoop so the pigeon made good its escape. It was more like a juvenile practice run than a serious attempt to make a kill. It seemed that the family group had dissipated and were no longer spending the whole day at the Lime Kiln.

A single peregrine falcon – Falco peregrinus – quatering the Lime Kiln

The peregrine is the worlds fastest bird, but only in a stoop, which is gravity assisted and more a controlled fall than real flying. In level flight it is comparatively cumbersome and not the fastest, that accolade goes to a species of swift called the ‘white throated needletail‘ (Hirundapus caudacutus) with recorded level flight speeds of around 70mph (112km/h).

Black tailed skimmer – Orthetrum cancellatum

The black tailed skimmer dragonfly was perched on the chalky ground and this is characteristic behaviour of the species. As the temperature rises above the mid 20’s Celsius he will perch on low vegetation instead. This one is an adult male, his blue abdomen is diagnostic and can only be confused with the male scarce chaser, but he lacks the dark patches at the proximal end of the wings which distinguish the scarce chaser.

The female and the immature skimmer have yellow bodies instead of the blue of the male:

Black tailed skimmer female

I’m not entirely certain whether this skimmer is a female or a juvenile, the juvenile has pale green eyes and the female has darker grey/brown eyes so I think this one is a female. Interestingly, this species is associated with water and males will fiercely defend a bankside territory against other competing males. But as far as I know there is no water in the Lime Kiln so the male above may be a non-territory holding male, and females do spend time away fom water. The black tailed skimmer feeds on a variety of prey and can show a preference for bigger prey species such as butterflies and grasshoppers. They’re ferocious, albeit short lived,  predators!

A pair of jackdaws, Corvus monedula

There were very few birds to be seen on this trip, it was at lunchtime on a very hot day (mid to high 20’s Celsius) so I think they may have been hunkering down in the shade, but I could hear a male whitethroat singing and a family of jackdaws were playing around on the white chalk cliff face.

Because of the relatively young age of the Lime Kiln, and possibly as a result of the unusual nature of the terrain, large areas of the floor are bare chalk and there are less plant species than there may be in a more conventional habitat.

Either a small skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris) or an Essex skipper (Thymelicus lineola) sipping nectar from a self heal flower

One of the wild flowers growing there is self heal (Prunella vulgaris). This skipper butterfly was perched on a self heal flower head but I’m not sure if it’s an Essex skipper or a small skipper, they are very similar in size, shape and colour, and alas I’m not sufficiently expert to unambiguously identify them.

I didn’t manage to publish this post in 2013 so it’s now my first post of 2014. So Happy New Year to everyone, may the next 12 months bring you health and happiness!