Category Archives: Ornithology

Springtime Fenland birdlife

After my last post, my long time blogging friend, Scott, mentioned in a comment that he was reading a book set in my part of the world, viz the fenland of East Anglia. And that reminded me that during the Covid lockdown we’ve beeen allowed to drive a few miles to exercise outdoors, and back in April I ventured over to a local fen for a walk with my camera.

The Fens are a unique ecosystem characterised by lakes, reed beds and low scrub which create habitat for a wide range of wildlife and they’re a great place to see flowers, birds, mammals and reptiles. It was a glorious sunny day when I was there and the wildlife was abundant, including this male reed bunting who posed beautifully for his portrait:

Reed bunting Ouse Fen 18 Apr 2020_3015Reed bunting (Dansk – Rørspurv, Latin – Emberiza schoeniclus)

Cuckoos (Dansk – gøg, Latin – Cuculus canorus) were cuckoo’ing all around the Fen – it’s apparently a good year for cuckoos here in the UK, and I heard one for the first time ever in the village a few weeks ago – and bittern (Dansk – rørdrum, Latin – Botaurus stellaris) were booming. The bittern is a smallish brown heron which lives and breeds in reedbeds and is extremely rare in the UK, only 191 males were recorded in the UK by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in 2017. Their booming call is an amazing sound and it can carry for over a kilometre. It’s difficult to find a recording that really does it justice but if you click on the link this one hopefully gives you a good idea of what they sound like. Even though when they boom they’re very disticntive and easy to hear, they’re not easy to see unless in flight as they blend in perfectly with the background of the reedbeds. But one of these days I hope I can post one of my own pictures of a bittern to show you.

However, one bird that is easy to see is the marsh harrier:

Marsh harrier Ouse Fen 18 Apr 2020_3040Marsh harrier (Dansk – Rørhøg , Latin – Circus aeruginosus)

The marsh harrier is another one of the British birds of prey whose numbers have recovered significantly since the 1960’s presumably after the pesticide DDT was banned, and this one is a male hunting small mammals or birds over the low scrub of the fen.

The marsh harrier is a constant on the Fen, and it seems the bittern may be coming one too, which is fantastic. But the cuckoo isn’t, they’ve laid their eggs for the host species to rear and will soon be heading back on the perilous journey to the rainforests of sub-Saharan west Africa, hopefully to return to the UK next year to fill the spring air with their wonderfully distinctive call.

Avian relaxation

Following on from my last post when I mentioned the changes in behaviour of the local wildlife, since then there have been more birds relaxing in the garden. There have always been wood pigeons (Columba palumbus) round and about, and for several years they’ve nested in my plum tree in the front garden, but this year, in the absence of most of the normal human intrusion, they’ve been omnipresent. There are often at least two sitting atop the garden wall just relaxing,

49871188083_5601f155bd_cPreening wood pigeon on the garden wall

Growing on the garden wall is a wisteria, and you can see the purple flowers here. But what you can’t do is smell the flowers.

49871189203_d73b7ff92f_c

On a hot sunny day, for a couple of weeks in early May, the bracts of flowers, which are up to a metre long, fill the garden with the most intense and heavenly aroma. Interestingly though, the bees don’t seem to be that bothered by it, but I love it!

What I think are a pair of males have adopted a branch in the apple tree which they fight over – I assume they’re males, if they’re females I imagine they’d probably just take it easy and have a chat, but I guess it’s that time of year.

49872029342_e55e4a4386_cWoody wood pigeon perched on the ‘fighting branch’ – I can see why they like that particular spot

But a few days ago this one dropped down out the apple tree onto the grass and after lazily mooching about for a few minutes just hunkered down and did nothing for 20-30 minutes or so:

49930145537_6c4790cfeb_bCooling off on the ground, and obviously not afraid of the local cats

He wasn’t sufficiently relaxed to doze off like the dove in my last post and he stayed alert, but even so, I’ve never seen one do this before.

 

The fragile nature of Green Belt

Over the last year and a half or so I’ve been working with a group of people from my village to try to limit the development of our Green Belt land. ‘Green Belt‘ is undeveloped green space encircling built up areas which has legal protection from development in order to limit urban sprawl and provide places where people from towns and cities can go for relaxation.

One of our areas slated for development is Buxhall Farm, which is around 300m from where I live. It’s in the Green Belt and I’ve posted about it’s wildlife on numerous occasions. On the face of it it’s a flat and boring piece of arable farmland with little value for wildlife. Or so you might think. Closer inspection shows that it’s home to many species of birds as well as wildflowers, butterflies moths, mammals etc. All you have to do is look…

Linnet (Linaria cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk)

All the picures here were taken on Buxhall Farm over the Easter weekend from 19th to the 22nd April and at the end of this post is a full list of my sightings there from that weekend.

The linnet is a ‘red listed’ bird in the UK which means it’s of maximum conservation concern. This listing is usually due to falling numbers which is often the result of habitat destruction. Linnet are present at Buxhall all year round and breed there.

Dunnock  (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv)

The dunnock isn’t red listed… yet. It’s a common sight round here and it has a rather lovely song, and some interesting mating habits.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke)

The skylark is red listed due to declining numbers, largely due to intensive farming methods. I spoke to the farmer earlier in the week and he told me that he leaves wide field margins to encourage the wildlife and farms his land accordingly. So hats off to him, it shows that it’s possible to make a living from the land without destroying all the wildlife.

Female reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv)

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv)

Over the last three winters there have been flocks of around 50 yellowhammers (also red listed) at Buxhall Farm and this is an important number of these lovely birds. They are one of those iconic farmland/hedgerow species whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades, also due to intensive farming methods, but we still have a healthy population in my neck of the woods.

Peacock butterfly (Inachis io)

All in all I saw at least 7 species of butterfly. There were many whites, but only one species that I could identify as it flew close and slow, but there were probably large whites and green veined whites too, both of which I see there every year. Butterflies are a very good indicator of the health of a habitat so to see so many species so early in the season was wonderful.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse)

Long tailed tits are normally fliting from tree to tree in small flocks but this time there were only two and they seemed local to a particular tree, suggesting they’re a breeding pair using it as a nest site.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae)

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits)

Land designated ‘Green Belt’ has historically not been developed to retain those green areas for local people to get away from the city. But under current planning legislation an authority can simply take land out of Green Belt and develop it as it pleases. Combined with the massive curtailment of funding from central government to local authorities there’s now intense financial pressure for those authorities to try to develop an income stream from the land they own. It’s perfectly understandable that cash strapped councils need to raise funds but I don’t think this is a good way to do it, but it’s what’s happening around my village and what we are trying to minimise.

The full list of sightings on Buxhall Farm between 19th-22nd April 2019:

Species                 Number

Great tit                    1
Blackbird                 5
Greenfinch               1
Skylark                     17
Wren                         4
Dunnock                   4
Yellowhammer        4
Long tailed tit          2
Carrion crow            3
Goldfinch                  8
Rook                         21
Starling                     2
Reed bunting           8
Corn bunting           2
Whitethroat             2
Swallow                    2
Magpie                      2
Blackcap                   1
Linnet                       1
Blue tit                     2
House sparrow       3
Buzzard                    1
Robin                        1
Wood pigeon           3
Collared dove          1
Songthrush              1
Green woodpecker 1
Kestrel                      1
Chaffinch                 1
Butterflies:
Peacock                    2
Small white              1
Holly blue                 1
Orange tip                1
Brimstone                 1
Speckled wood         1
Small tortoiseshell  1

It’s a really great place for wildlife and I hope we can help to ensure it remains as very well managed farmland and doesn’t get destroyed by developers building houses.

Mad Marketing and Migratory Birds – the next instalment

Following on from my little rant about crap marketing by a well known purveyor of sports equipment at the end of December last year, I thought I’d check and see if the same gloves were still on sale and if so, whether the sales pitch had changed.

Imagine my disappointment to find that the offending text was still in situ in an unabridged form:

Designed for standing at post on big game drives in cold weather. Also suitable for hunting migratory birds.

Either they didn’t actually pass on my comments to the relevant people within their organisation, in which case they fibbed to me. Or they did, and it got lost in the ether – in which case they’re incompetent, or they did and then decided not to change it, and in that case they’re scumbags.

Suffice to say I shall be voting with my feet and my credit card and source my sports kit elsewhere. Bastards.

But that’s enough of that and I hope a picture of a spring butterfly will lighten the mood a tad…

This is a holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) which is usually the first butterfly I see in springtime when it emerges in March/April; after which it disappears for a while. But it has a second emergence in June – August (the technical term  is ‘bivoltine‘), and this image was taken in the summer in my garden. And it makes me smile when idiot marketing people conspire to ruin my day!

Mad Marketing and Migratory Birds

I try to avoid too much political comment and opining in this blog, but just occasionally I stumble across a piece of corporate loopiness which makes me spit feathers and has to be commented on… . So apologies in advance, but here goes.

I’ve never had much respect for marketing, it seems to me it’s simply a way to convince gullible people to part with their hard earned cash for something they don’t need and may not even want. And today whilst looking for some gloves I came across this description for a pair of convertible mittens on the website of an internationally well known purveyor of sports equipment:

Designed for standing at post on big game drives in cold weather. Also suitable for hunting migratory birds.

Also suitable for hunting migratory birds. Really?! I’m sure I won’t be alone in finding this piece of marketing nonsense completely bonkers. Will someone really read that and think to themself “I must buy those because if I don’t I’ll be less well equipped to shoot a willow warbler”?

And to illustrate my point, here is a small selection of our migratory birds:

Migratory bird 1 – waxwing

Migratory bird 2 – fieldfare

Migratory bird 3 – short eared owl

Frankly, I’d rather have cold hands.

But in the interest of fairness I must point out that I contacted the company to voice my disquiet and they came straight back to me to say they had passed on my concerns to the relevant people within the organisation. So now I’m waiting see if anything changes… . I’ll let you know what transpires.

The courtship of the great crested grebe

Last year I went to Rutland Water to see osprey, but the real stars of that day were this pair of great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) performing their courtship ritual.

Many birds have sophisticated courtship displays and the grebe is one of them. They paddled away from each other then turned about and paddled rapidly together:

And when they met they reared up and neck sparred after they had both reached down into the water and plucked a beak full of weed to offer as a gift to their partner.

I’d never seen this display before and paddling furiously to stay high in the water this pair put on a terrific display of mutual weed waggling.

And it seemed to pay off as they were still paired up after all the frenetic courting activity…

The ospreys were magnificent but this humble pair of grebes stole the show!

A northern hemisphere bird of paradise?

Driving around the countrside at this time of year the hedgerows are full of red haw berries and rose hips, which in turn means that they’re full of our Scandinavian visitors, redwing and fieldfare. But every now and again, when the winter weather’s particularly brutal  in Norway we get a visit from the most spectacular visitor from that part of the world, the waxwing…

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus, Dansk: silkehale)

Last year, they were here making the most of a long hedgrow full of rosehips, at least it was full of rosehips when they arrived, but after a couple of weeks the hips were somewhat diminished.

A pair of waxwing harvesting rosehips on the Cambridge Science Park


I think of these birds, with their prominent crests and beautiful colours  as being our birds of paradise and there are few that I enjoy photographing quite as much, and not least because they also have a distinctive song, particularly when they are singing together in flocks.

And the inevitable consequence of a diet consisting solely of bright red rose hips

The mighty osprey

As well as the ducks in the previous post, other water birds were in abundance at Rutland including the coot (Fulica atra, Dansk – blishøne):

A coot returning to the nest to incubate its single egg

And the great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk – toppet lappedykker):

But the one Rutland migrant I really wanted to see was the osprey (Pandion haliaetus, Dansk – fiskeørn). The osprey makes the monumental migration from sub-Saharan west Africa every year to breed in the UK and one of the locations it regularly breeds at is Rutland Water. And I wasn’t disapointed:

The osprey takes 3 weeks or so of flying time to get from west Africa to the UK and according tho the BTO can cover up to 430km in one day. It stops off en route for a couple of weeks to refuel on its way south, but only for a few days when heading north to try to arrive early at the breeding grounds. It’s a fishing eagle which plucks fish out of the water of lakes, rivers or coastal seas, but alas I wasn’t lucky enough to see one hunting. Despite the lack of hunting activity, as this was the first one I’d seen in England (I’d only ever previously seen one at Loch Garten in Scotland) this was very special indeed!

The most understated of ducks

I like ducks because they’re often easy to find, often colourful, and therefore also relatively straightforward to identify. And I always prefer it when I know what I’m looking at.

Last April (2017 that is) I spent a really gorgeous spring day at Rutland Water which is about 45 minutes north west of Cambridge and is an enormous U shaped reservoir and nature reserve. There was lots of wildlife to see including ospreys(!) of which more in a later post. But first off I wanted to post this picture of the humble gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk – knarand). At a distance on a dull grey winters day they can appear drab – understated even – the duck equivalent of an ‘LBJ‘. But on a bright sunny day when they reveal themselves in all their finery I think they’re really handsome birds:

A pair of gadwall – the male on the left and the female on the right

Being springtime the birds were also feeling fruity and this blackheaded gull was being a tad over ambitious when he tried to surprise his lady while she was perched on top of a narrow post:

Amorous, but ultimately unsuccessful, black headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk – hættemåge) on final approach

Not surprisingly all he ended up with was somewhere to perch

A pair of tufted duck (Aythya fulligula, Dansk – troldand)

Tufted ducks are a species of diving duck which are resident here throughout the year and are relatively unfussy about their habitat, so consequently they’re fairly ubiquitous in this part of the world. They also have a prominent crest which unfortunately neither of this pair were displaying. But as with a lot of ducks, easy to see and easy to identify.

The great grey shrike

Back in January there was a report of a great grey shrike at Wicken Fen and I’d never seen one before so I decided to go and have a look.

A distant tree across the reedbeds through the thick early morning mist

It was a very grey morning and not really one of those that gives me high hopes of seeing much wildlife, but the shrike put in the very briefest of appearances, probably less than 2 seconds, so short I couldn’t photograph it, but it was a striking bird! It was bigger and paler than I thought, and with its piratical black eye stripe it was completely unmistakeable. And despite my initial pessimism there was lots of birdlife around that morning.

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger)

The Tower Hide at Wicken Fen is usually a good place to survey the area and see the local birdlife, and as the shrike had appeared very close to it I climbed the stairs to see if it would reappear and pose for a portrait. Unfortunately it didn’t, but all the following pictures are from the top of the Tower Hide:

Redwing (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel)

The redwing and the fieldfare are winter visitors in the UK, making the flight here from Scandinavia as the weather turns cold there for the winter.

A pale male bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Dansk: dompap)

This male bullfinch may have appeared a little more washed out than he actually was. Or he may have been a youngster or waiting for some warmer weather to change into his sumptuous breeding regalia.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse)

And finally…

A kestrel (Falco tinnunculus,Dansk: tårnfalk)

The drops of condensate clinging to the twigs around the kestrel give a fair indication of the prevailing weather – it was very cold… and very damp!