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.

29 responses to “Down on the farm in July

  1. I love todays post and your beautiful birds. We had a visit from the white sea eagle the other day whose nest is just around the corner from Serendipity Farm. It is a HUGE nest, about 6ft across and it gets used every year and is actually a “point of interest” on a boat tour that heads up and down the river on a daily basis. We know they are coming, we can hear the loudspeaker ;). You called your dog to heel? If I let Earl off his lead I would never see him again. Maybe next time I need to get the right kind of dog? ;). Corn buntings look a whole lot like sparrows to my uneducated eyes. Your little yellow hammer is perched in an English maple tree. We have a specimen that we are about to plant out on the property. I doubt we will ever get a yellow hammer perched on our illustrious trunk but at least the native birds will have someplace to sit and sing their endemic melodies.

    • Wow Fran – one of my ambitions is to see a white tailed sea eagle in the wild in the UK. But that would involve heading up the islands on the west coast of Scotland. One of these days I’ll get up there. Will you be posting any bird pictures from your maple tree? I’d love to see them.

      Copper (the dog) was really well trained when we got him, we were very lucky, and he’s good to take out because I can stop him from spooking the wildlife (if you haven’t seen him there’s a picture of him on the ‘Concept‘ page of TheNaturephile)

  2. Wonderful images of the birds – especially the skylark which is delightful.

    I remember the cold from last year. I think we kept our heating on until some point in May. I wonder whether the freezing, snowy weather will arrive here from the US. There was certainly a bitter wind this morning.

    • Thanks Meanderer,

      You’re dead right, last spring was brutal and I’m hoping the jetstream stays north and we don’t get the freezing N.American weather heading this way. It’s bad enough as it is, and I hope it’s not flooding down where you are!

      • We are having flooding problems down this way. Our village has lots of lying water in crop fields – some of which is perilously close to homes. There are flood warnings on parts of the Avon nearby, also. It’s not quite as bad as last year, however, but there doesn’t seem to be much let up in the rain.

      • I’ve heard it’s meant to ease off through this week. Fingers crossed for you!

  3. How lovely to be transported to summer on a frosty January morning as I read this. That photo of the skylark is superb, I’ve never seen them close up before, only as specs in the sky. It’s always interesting to me to see what’s abundant and what’s scarce in your part of the world, and I think it’s wonderful about the hares although a great pity about the yellowhammers. However, I saw more of them last year up this way than I think I’ve ever seen before, so they seem to be doing quite well in some areas. I hope that continues this year. I would love to see some baby kestrels, too.

    • Nice comment Lorna, thank you. I was troubled by publishing summer posts in the winter and I umm’d and aah’d as to whether to mix it with current posts, but then I decided to try to get up to date and clear all my backlog.

      That’s good news about your yellowhammers, one of the studies I alluded to in the post was carried out in your part of the world and showed how the decline in numbers could be decelerated by sympathetic practices. I’ll be visiting the Highlands in June with a good friend of mine for a long weeekend of wildlife watching. I’ve never beeen up there beofre and I’m really looking forward to it!

      • How exciting! Do you know which bit of the highlands you’ll be visiting yet? June is often a lovely month in Scotland, I hope that in 2014 it’s a real corker for you.

      • Thanks Lorna, I’ll prepare for rain but hope for sunshine! It is exciting, I’m really lloking forward to it. We’re flying to Inverness and staying close to Loch Garten – pole position for ospreys and pine martens.

      • A beautiful area, indeed. I hope the ospreys and pine martens make an appearance (and perhaps even a capercaillie).

      • Thanls Lorna, we’re going to try to find capercaillie. But as well as the trophy species I’m excited about seeing the little guys like crossbill and crested tit too. But whatever we do or don’t see I’m really looking forward to exploring that part of the world for the first time.

        BTW Can you see the Aurora from where you are this evening?

      • Quite right, the lbjs (although not only the brown ones) are just as interesting. I’ve only ever heard capercaillie but live in hope of seeing one some day. I imagine the aurora might have been visible here were it not for the street lights. Dashed light pollution, although there are little spots about the town I live in where you can see a good number of stars on a clear night. I expect if I drove out into the countryside just a bit I’d see a lot more in the night sky. Did you see the aurora?

      • Apparently it wasn’t even visible in Scotland. Boo hiss. So no sign of it down here, but even though the aurora failed to put in an appearance the sky was spectacular!

  4. What a lovely lovely post, Finn – and wonderful pictures… you are so clever to get all those favourites so perfectly…you must be very patient too!

    Re my book – publishers are only interested in world war one at the moment, so it’s on the back burner !!!!

    • Hello Valerie, I don’t think it’s cleverness or even patience, just good old fashioned serendipity. But I think I make some of my own luck by being roughly in the right place at the right time. That’s the key to what I do because I very seldom sit and wait, I just stroll along and see what turns up.

      I guess the timing this year is very much about the WW1 centenary, but I’m looking forward to reading your next book when you can publish. Good luck with that!

  5. Vicki (from Victoria A Photography)

    Great photos.
    Those 2 kestrels are nicely highlighted by the sun. It makes such a difference with that kind of light in a tree. I’ve taken some nice flower images that way, but don’t think I’ve ever captured a bird in the late evening sunshine.

    • Hello Vicki, as I said below in the reply to Charlie, the light was really challenging because of where the sun was, but I just about pulled it off I think. Because it’s very flat and open where I live we get some awesome sunsets and the evening illumination can be photographically challenging but very rewarding when I can make it work for me.

  6. That skylark picture is exquisite!

  7. A great flashback to summer to warm the heart and the imagination on a cold winter’s day, Finn. Your patience surely paid off with that gorgeous photo of the skylark!

    • There was lots of unexpected skylark behaviour last summer, they usually hide in the grass until I get too close then fly off at speed before I’ve seen them. But on several occasions one was perched on top of a bush proclaiming his availability and let me get quite close, within around 30 feet before heading for safety. With this guy I had to get down on the ground around 60 feet from the bramble, using it as a screen, and then crawl behind it to get so close. If anyone saw me they would have thought I was mad! But suffice to say I was pleased with the result.

  8. What a lovely walk, and the photography was exceptional. The kestrel photos were really special.

    • Thanks Charlie, I really liked the kestrel pictures, especially the single one. It was difficult to capture them too because the sun was low in the sky and coming from directly behind them. But they were patient with me and let me take lots of shots from several different angles.

  9. I always enjoy your birding photos, Finn…so nice. And that was a very pleasant sunset, as well.

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