Category Archives: Birds of prey

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!

Rainham shorties

This is the last post from my trip to Rainham Marshes, and as I promised in the last one, here are a selection of the best short eared owl shots from that day. The shorties are winter visitors to the UK from Scandinavia so the east coast is a good place to look for them, and it was a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours, as numerous owls were flying past at very close range, making it pretty easy to get some good pictures as they quartered the reedbeds and the beach:

These are my favourite images from that trip to the marshes of estuary Essex and it was a tremendous way to spend a day, all rounded off with the best display of owls owls I’ve ever seen. Hope you like them too! And as this is my first post of 2017, a belated happy new year to you all too

More Rainham wildlife

The terrain at Rainham Marshes is fairly varied with beach, river, lakes, reedbeds, scrub and grassland amidst the industrial conurbation of the Thames Estuary.  And with varied terrain comes varied birdlife including wader, ducks, birds of prey and passerines:

A lone black tailed godwit (Limosa limosa, Dansk: stor kobber-sneppe) amongst a group of teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand) at the lakeside with reedbeds in the background

As well as godwit a small flock of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) would occasionally lift of the ground as an alarm was raised over some perceived threat, circle around for a minute or two before returning to where they were flushed from. I’ve seen that kind of behaviour before in response to the sighting of a predator such as a peregrine falcon, but I didn’t see any predators of that ilk so maybe an unseen ground predator such as a fox was in the vicinity.

And across another section of reedbed was the raised Eurostar train track and a transport depot full of trucks just beyond

And I love this image of another stonechat craning from the top of a bulrush to keep a wary eye on what we were up to:


We had heard a report that at the far end of the reserve toward the landfill hill there were short eared owls in the area, and later on in the afternoon we decided to wander down that way to see if we could find them. And it didn’t take long…

Short eared owl (Asio flammeus, Dansk: mosehornugle) patrolling the reedbeds

And that heralded the start of probably the best display of owl activity of any species that I’ve ever seen. And I’ll post some more shorty pictures next time. But isn’t this guy a beauty?!

Rainham Marshes

Normally when I head out into the wilds I like to get to somewhere where there is little or no evidence of humans, my benchmark for a good place is  the complete absence of human noise. And that’s not usually easy to do. But on this trip back in December I found myself in a place that was everything I’d normally avoid!

A view across the marshes to the hill in the background which is an enormous landfill site, full of Londan’s waste

I was at the RSPB reserve at Rainham Marshes which is in that part of estuary Essex I’d only normally visit if I had to, but apart from that it was bordered by industry on one side, landfill on another, a motorway and the Eurostar trainline on the third side and the River Thames providing the boundary on the fourth, southern, edge. But despite my original prejudice it turned out to be a brilliant place to see some great wildlife and bizarrely it was actually enhanced by the hubbub going on all around.

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola, Dansk: sortstrubet bynkefugl)

On entering the reserve, just beyond the visitor centre a male stonechat was perched on a twig close by, and I like stonechats – they’re very smart birds – so I took it as a good omen that I would see lots more wildlife. And the little guy was indeed a harbinger of things to come. Despite its green conservation status and being a resident in the UK, I don’t see stonechats very often, so I was pleased to see this one so close by.

The terrain at Rainham is interesting. It’s a combination of marshy reedbeds, small lakes, grassy scrub and in the middle is a disused military shooting range which I think dates back to the world wars. But altogether it’s a little oasis of wilderness in the midst of the industrial devastation that dominates this part of the Thames estuary to the east of London.

Reeds, wigeon, lake, lapwing and in the distance a marsh harrier perched on a fence with an oil storage facility in the background

The marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg) is a magnificent bird of prey which I see fairly frequently as they quarter the low lying fenland that prevails to the north and east of Cambridge and the occasional one drifts through over the fields where I live, and here was a female showing her prominent golden crown, hunting over the marshes at Rainham. This species of harrier is another bird of prey which was virtually driven to extinction in the UK but has recovered in the last 40 years, presumably as the use of DDT ceased. And in the foreground on the island in the lake were wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand), lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk vibe) an unidentified gull and what I think may be starlings.

The lapwing take flight in  front of a pair of huge wind turbines

May be there were so many species and numbers here because they were hemmed in to a small area of suitable habitat, but further east along the estuary, deeper into Essex, there are huge areas of tidal mudflats on the Thames and other river estuaries, so this could be the western extremes of that expanse of habitat. Either way, the diversity of the birdlife here on the marshes was remarkable.

A male shoveller looking resplendent and with that enormous beak to the fore

I said further back up this post that the southern boundary of the reserve is the river Thames, and to make the point, beyond the dyke which provided protection from the coastal tides of the river, a ship headed out to sea…


It really is a diverse and fascinating place! And somewhere I’m hoping to visit again before the winter is over.

Fenland falcon

A few Saturdays ago in January I made a trip to Burwell Fen, which is separated from Wicken Fen by the Burwell Lode. The whole area is a great place to see birds of prey in winter, and it’s not unusual to see buzzard, marsh harrier, short eared owl, barn owl, sparrowhawk, peregrine falcon, occasionally hen harrier and in the summer hobby. And it’s also not unusual to see 4 or 5 species in one visit. On this trip I saw marsh harrier, buzzard, short eared owl and sparrowhawk. And there were kestrels hovering over the fenland the whole time I was there.

A male kestrel (Falco tinnuculus, Dansk: tårnfalk)

Kestrels are renowned for their ability to seemingly hover. In fact they’re flying into the wind at the same speed as the wind is moving, so I guess it’s not technically a hover, but either way it’s impressive to watch. Incidentally, there were strong winds in my part of the world last weekend and I saw a buzzard which looked to be doing a reasonable impersonation of a kestrel… which gives you a good idea of how strong the wind was!

I’ve seen kestrels described as the ‘motorway falcon‘ because many sightings are of them hovering above roadside verges. This has created the impression that kestrels are very common and that the countryside between the roads must be full of them. But alas, as with most things, that’s not so. It’s not the presence of other raptors which has forced them to the roadside but the large swathes of agricultural devastation which has depleted habitat and rendered the farmland barren as a source of food for them. Consequently, they’re nowhere near as common as they may seem.


This male kestrel was perched on top of a telegraph pole and I’d been keeping an eye on him for several minutes to see what he might do. It was a beautiful sunny morning with good light for some photograsphs if I could get myself, the sun and the subject all in the right place relative to each other.


And after a few minutes the kestrel took off from his post, looped around and did a low altitude, high speed fly past. At his closest he was no more than  ten metres or so away and less than a metre above the ground, like he was posing for his picture! He executed his fly past and then swooped up higher and zoomed off over the fen on a hunting trip.


It was a remarkable twenty seconds and I don’t know why he looped past so close to where I was. It almost looked as though he was checking me out, and in the last picture he was definitely looking in my direction. It made my morning too, kestrels are spectacular and beautiful highly specialised predators, and it’s rare to see one in the air so close.

Celtic Damsels

This will be the last post from my trip to Scotland in 2014 during which we made an early morning visit to the osprey nest at RSPB Loch Garten to hopefully catch a glimpse of one of these magnificent predators. There was an adult on the nest but without more magnification than I had I couldn’t get up close (but it looked spectacular through binoculars!):

An adult osprey , Pandion haliaetus, Dansk: fiskeørn, perched on the nest

The ospreys overwinter in sub Saharan West Africa and are another great conservation success story. Despite that they’re conservation status is still amber with only 200 pairs in the UK. They can cover up to 275 miles a day on migration and they stop off on the way south for a couple of weeks to feed up, they also stop on the way north, but only for a few days,to ensure they arrive at the breeding grounds as early as possible to maximise the length of available time for the actual breeding.

Whilst at RSPB Loch Garten we got an excellent steer from one of the RSPB girls on a couple of pools in the forest where we could find dragonflies. It had been a grey morning, but as we arrived at one of the pools the sun emerged, and with it, the dragons. I’ve already posted dragon pictures from these sites in an earlier post, and here are some more images of mating damsels:

Northern damselfy pair, Coenagrion hastelatum

The northern damsels are in tandem, the blue male is clasping the female prior to escorting her around the pool to find suitable egg laying sites. Large red damsels were also mating over the pool at the same time:

Large red damsels, Pyrrhosoma nymphula, in the process of egg laying under the water

I think this picture of the large red damsels is the best insect photo I’ve ever taken. I like it because they’re in motion and in the process of doing something, and the shadows are cool! The large red can only really be confused with the small red, but the small red has red legs and doesn’t have the yellow bands which can be seen on the female in this picture.

I also like this floating spider:

I don’t know what species the spider is, I’ve never seen one like it anywhwere else. The markings are distinctive and it may be the same species as the one in the previous post, but I was assured by the experts at the British Arachnological Society that it could only be unambiguously identified by microscopic examination after dissection.

The majestic Scots pine trees of the Abernethy Forest

The two dragonfly pools were in the Abernethy Forest. I think it’s difficult to convey the atmosphere of a forest in photographs because the temperature and humidity, the sounds and the smells, all contribute to the feeling of a forest, and none of these can be captured in a photograph. Even the light is difficult to capture because the camera settings required to give a good quality image don’t necessarily recapitulate what it actually looked and felt like.  So the picture above of the Scots pines of the Abernethy Forest is the best I could do, but having said all that stuff, in the absence of all the other sensory inputs it does convey a little bit of my memories of the forest. I hope you know what I mean and I hope you like it!

As I mentioned at the top of this post, this is the last installment of my ‘Cairngorm Chronicles‘. It was a fabulous trip and we saw some breathtakingly beautiful places and lots of wildlife. I can’t wait to go back and see more creatures peculiar to that part of the world such as grouse, ptarmigan, capercaillie and red deer, as well as the ones I missed on this trip such as crested tit and crossbill. So much to see and so little time…

Tyto alba

A few posts ago in ‘The Owl and the Woodpecker‘ I mentioned that a pair of robins may have started getting fruity in my garden as early as the begining of January. And then last Friday I saw another robin feeding a fledgling on the grass outside work, so it looks as though the avian breeding cycle may have been able to start early this year. I hope it has, and that it allows other species to recover some of their numbers too.

Also in that post, I talked about our local barn owls, of which we had two breeding pairs in and around the village last year. And one gloriously sunny evening in July myself and my daughter, Sophie, set off across the fields with a portable hide, binoculars and a camera to try to see the owls and take some photographs. I know where the owls nest so we tried to get in position to see them heading to and from the nest site via a circuitous route to avoid disturbing them.

A barn owl, Tyto alba, heading out on a hunting mission

We eventually found a spot at the top of a drainage ditch between two fields around 150m from the shed where the owls had built the nest, and we didn’t have to wait long for them to appear. Truth be told I’ve always had a thing about all owls, but especially barn owls. I think they’re beautiful and iconic creatures, and very reminiscent of warm summers evenings in the English countryside. It’s always an exciting moment when I catch sight of one.

And the other thing that struck me as we sat and watched these was how they are incredibly efficient predators:

…and heading back again clutching the booty

We sat and watched them coming and going for about an hour and in that time they arrived 6 times with prey. So on average every 10 minutes one of the parents returned with a meal for a youngster, this one was carrying a rodent in its talons which it delivered to the nest, spent a couple of minutes with the youngsters, then departed on the next foray.

And another meal being delivered

And they carried on hunting into the dusk at which point we upped sticks and headed for home. I don’t know how long the owls carried on hunting but the parents seemed to be so successful that they may not have needed to carry on for much longer, after which they would have spent the night at a roost site separate from the nest with the youngsters in.

It was a glorious evening and Sophie was beside herself as one of the owls flew right overhead and looked straight at her, as barn owls are wont to do, as she looked straight at it. A memory that will stay with me, and her I hope, for a very long time!

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!

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!