Category Archives: Hawks

Minsmere raptors

Whilst I was at RSPB Minsmere, which I described in my last post, I was expecting to see birds of prey because I know that marsh harriers (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg) nest in the reedbeds there and it wouldn’t be totally unexpected to see a hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk) or a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus, Dansk: vandrefalk).

Avocet were nesting on the mudflats along with plenty of other birds including the black headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk: hættemåge):

Black headed gull in full summer plumage guarding its nest

I was engrossed peering into the distance with my new spotting scope, and I found a spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia, Dansk: skestork). The Danish name translates as ‘spoon stork‘ which just about sums it up really. I didn’t get a photograph because it was too far away, but it looks exactly like a white stork with a long beak shaped like a spoon. The conservation status of the spoonbill is amber and it is extremely rare in the UK and not terribly common on mainland Europe either. According to the British Trust for Ornithology there are 75 individuals in the UK and between 1998 and 2002 there were only 4 breeding pairs.

But I digress. As I was gazing into the disatnce the air raid warning was sounded: “There’s a peregrine… there are two!”

A peregrine falcon swooping down onto the nesting gulls

The falcons, I found out subsequently, were nesting on Sizewell B, the nuclear power station adjacent to the reserve. They arrived from that direction and when attacking they appeared to be working in tandem. The speed of their forays was absolutely breathtaking and caused total chaos on the ground:

The nesting gulls trying to distract the pair of peregrines

I tried to capture the falcons in the middle of their attack which was not easy, but I managed to catch one just above the left hand point of the mudflat behind. It wasn’t until I looked at the image at home that I realised the second falcon was in shot on the right too. So even though this photograph won’t win any awards I really like the drama going on here!

A common tern giving chase to deter the peregrine

The falcons raid lasted for several minutes and I didn’t see them catch any prey, thanks in no small part to the bravery of the common tern (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne).

After the excitement of the falcons I ended up in a hide on the edge of the woods overlooking the reedbeds and sure enough the marsh harriers were much in evidence:

The female marsh harrier with her brown plumage and golden yellow crown

… and the male:

Whilst photographing the male marsh harrier a brown shape lifted out of the reeds and someone in the hide identified it as a bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: rørdrum). It was too fast for me to identify it by myself as I was focussed on the harrier, but that means I heard one booming at Lakenheath in the morning and saw one at Minsmere in the afternoon. Not a bad day out.

Juvenile marsh harrier with ragged brown plumage and no yellow crown

I didn’t see a hobby but it would be churlish to dwell on that after the excitement of the peregrines, the family of marsh harriers, and the bittern and spoonbill neither of which I’d previously encountered.

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Wicken wheatears.. and some other creatures

The blogging Muse left me in the Spring and I switched to acquisition mode, since when I’ve been out and about taking a lot of photographs. I’ve now got enough images to keep me posting until the end of the year  so I’ve reverted to posting mode and at the same time I’ll be catching up with all my fellow bloggers who I’ve been neglecting for too long!

At the end of April the sunny weather prompted me to take an early morning walk around Wicken Fen. At that time of year fairly large areas of flat pasture immediately adjacent to the fen are flooded and provide habitat for overwintering waterfowl, along with all the other winter visitors and early spring migrants to be found on the Fen. So in good weather at that time of year there’s usually plenty of wildlife. The pasture which isn’t flooded is managed by grazing it with Highland cattle:

The Wicken Highland bull

I’m no expert on cattle so I don’t know for sure, but because this old guy was on his own and also because of the sheer size of him, I think that he’s a bull (and he didn’t stand up to allow unambiguous gender assignment by an amateur observer). He was absolutely enormous, even laying down I estimate the top of his head was around 5 feet off the ground, he was the size of a car!

Back to the birds though, one which I’ve only seen at reserves on the coast before is the bearded tit (Panurus biarmicus, Dansk: skægmejse), but on this particular morning there was at least two of them flitting around the reed beds between The Mere and Adventurers Fen.

Female bearded tit

I’m yet to get a really good photograph of a bearded tit and this one continues the tradition. It would have been OK but it is too blue because I didn’t have my glasses on when I set the white balance, so I mistook the ‘sun’ setting for the ‘incandescent light’ setting. Alas, an unavoidable consequence of hurtling into middle age! I tried to post process the image but alas I couldn’t get it to look quite right so I decided to leave it as it is and own up to my incompetence!

The bearded tit is a resident breeder and passage/winter visitor and there are only around 600 breeding pairs in the UK, so it’s good to know they are just up the road from where I live. Their conservation status is amber in the UK due to a recent decline in their breeding range but they are not a species of concern in Europe as a whole. They live and breed in reedbeds and feed on invertebrates in the summer and seed in winter.

Another iconic inhabitant of the Wicken reedbeds is the marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg). The colour of the sky reveals the weather on this glorious April morning as a male marsh harrier thermalled overhead. He was in the company of eight others, and that’s an amazing sight.

A marsh harrier gaining height as the earth warmed up in the early morning sunshine

The marsh harrier frequents reedbeds and marshland and feeds on frogs, insects, reptiles and small vertebrates. Its conservation status is amber in the UK due to its small non-breeding population and a localised breeding population, but as with the bearded tit its not a species of concern in Europe. It almost died out in the UK in the 1960’s but has recovered since then and has changed its behaviour by starting to also nest on farmland, and many individuals now overwinter here too. Those that migrate head down to central and southern Africa for the winter. Another recent raptor success story along with sparrowhawks and red kites, but still a work in porogress to secure the UK population.

Male reed bunting

Small songbirds such as the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv) were busy proclaiming their availability from the tops of the hedgerows, but the highlight of the trip was a small group of around half a dozen wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe, Dansk: stenpikker) feeding in a field adjacent to the Fen as I arrived:

Male wheatear – rear view

The name ‘wheatear’ may derive from the archaic ‘white arse’ which is a local name for it in some parts of England. It’s a migrant breeder in the UK and overwinters in Africa. After the last ice age its range extended northwards with the retreating ice, but they still all migrate back to Africa in the winter, even those individuals that breed in Alaska!

… and from the front

The female is also a striking bird even though she doesn’t have the same slate grey back and black eye stripe that the male does.

The female wheatear

I watched the wheatears for 20 minutes or so before heading on to the Fen and when I returned around 3 hours later they had all gone. So it appears it was an overnight rest and refuelling stop for them before heading further north and west to their summer breeding grounds.

An unusual but entertaining day at work

Earlier this week I was learning about a technique called ‘dynamic light scattering’ (DLS) which is used to determine the size of very small particles, even those as small as protein molecules. My teacher was a scientist called Ken who designs and builds DLS machines. It came up in conversation that he lives close to the southern end of the M40 corridor where I’ve seen lots of red kites and read stories of them stealing food from people, so I asked if he sees them in his neighbourhood.

Red kite (Milvus milvus, Dansk: rød glente), this one was at Hamerton in Cambridgeshire

Red kites are big, distinctive, birds of prey and they’re a conservation success story in the UK, having been almost driven to extinction but then reintroduced in the 1990’s since when their numbers have rocketed. And as it happens they are very common indeed in that part of the world and Ken kindly agreed to upload this video clip to You Tube so I could post a link to it here. This all happened in Ken’s garden and I think it’s highly entertaining stuff,  I think I’d struggle every morning to get out the front door to go to work if I had this kind of show going on in my garden!

Later on, at the end of the same day, a big flock of a few thousand starlings were murmurating over the Cambridge Science Park as I left work to come home. I was keeping one eye on the starlings and one eye on the road when I stopped at a red traffic light on the edge of the Science Park and the starlings were swirling and wheeling around the sky just in front of me. Then a sparrowhawk drifted by but the starlings carried on murmurating until the hawk suddenly accelerated up towards them. Then all of the flocks shrunk down into very tight groups and focussed on taking evasive action. It was a piece of natural theatre going on in the sky which was spectacular to watch. Then the traffic lights went green and I had to move on so I didn’t get to see the culmination of the chase, but it was a captivating end to the day.

Flowers and foliage

The greatest thing about a sodden Springtime was the abundance of bloom that resulted. So I spent alot of time this year recording the wild flowers and foliage that flourished in the wake of the deluge.

Some years ago I attended a lecture in which the speaker said that due to modern farming methods which involve the use of mechanisation and toxic chemicals to create a sterile monoculture,  verges and drainage ditches have now become an invaluable seed bank where many of our wild flowers can still prevail. Without these unpolluted conduits criss-crossing the countryside the flora seeking refuge there would be even more threatened. This idea seems to be born out in my local area as the drainage ditches are indeed full of wild flowers year on year.

Hedge woundwort – Stachys sylvatica

Hedge woundwort has lined the field margins and ditches in greater abundance this year than in previous years, its delicate purple flowerheads, growing up to around a metre tall, poking  over the top of the ditches. It’s a lovely flower and it gets its name from its preference for hedgerows and because the crushed leaves were traditionally applied to wounds to stem bleeding.

Hawthorn flowers lined all the hedgerows ealier in the year and heralded a glut of berries which are currently providing rich pickings for the birds, and will continue to do so well into the colder months.

Hawthorn blossom – Crataegus monogyna

The October 2012 edition of British Trust for Ornithology’s BirdTrack reveals that the migrant redwings (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel) should be arriving here from Scandinavia any day now and will be followed closely by the fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger), and the hedges fulls of haws will help to replenish their fat reserves after the migration across the North Sea. I think I saw my first redwing over Histon on Sunday, they have a characteristically undulating flight during which they fold back their wings and form a teardrop shape, which is what my sighting today was doing. So the fieldfare should be along soon too, according to the BTO.


Oxeye daisy – Leucanthemum vulgare

Oxeye daisies are my Mother’s favourite flower and she has been pestering me to publish a picture of one. This year they lined my cycle route to work alongside the Cambridge Guided Busway in their thousands so I’m finally able to complete my commission. So, Ma, this one’s yours!

The wild flowers have been spectacular but the leaves and some of the trees have also been contributing their own splash of colour to the countryside such as the cluster of oak leaves below.

(Dramatic interlude: Wow, the first goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis Dansk: stillits) arrived on my niger seed feeder a couple of days ago after being absent through the summer and until a minute ago there was an adult and a late fledgling feeding there. I just caught a blurr out the corner of my eye as I was writing this post and looked up just in time to see a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: Spurvehøg) swoop through a gap in the buddleia bush next to the feeders, the goldfinches fled but it all happened too fast to see if the hawk was successful. It was all over in less than a second!)

Back to the oak leaves though, they were lovely colours, almost autumnal. Oak trees are amazing organisms, in fact they are substantially more than organisms, they are ecosystems in their own right. They live to be several centuries old and when coppiced or pollarded (pollarding is pruning back a tree to the top of the trunk to promote new branch growth, compared to coppicing which is pruning it back to ground level), but there are numerous examples of oaks living for 1000-1500 years. And they become home to hundreds of other species of fungi, lichens, insects, birds and mammals.


Oak leaf cluster – Quercus robur – the English oak

And right next to the oak was this gorgeous, delicate field rose. The field rose, Rosa arvensis, grows in hedges and has white to cream coloured flowers and lovely golden yellow anthers. It flowers later than the dog rose (Rosa canina) which has pink flowers and the leaves are smaller. Later in the autumn the flowers turn into bright red hips which provide food for birds as well as humans. When I was a kid we used to have rosehip syrup which was sweet and delicious and I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to make some. If I succeed in creating something pleasant I’ll post the recipe here.

Without doubt my favourite wild flower is the field scabius (Knautia arvensis). I think they’re utterly beautiful and if I have a camera to hand I struggle to walk past one! Fortunately for me the field margins around here are replete with them so I’m rarely short of photographic opportunities.

The glorious flower of the field scabius

And from side on:

The hue of the flowers can vary from a pale pastel shade to quite dark purple. Each flower contains male stamens which can be seen protruding from this flower from between the female florets. The stamen consists of the filament (the stalk) and the anther (the pollen bearing part at the end of the filament). The stamens die back before the female florets mature in order to prevent self-fertilisation. Field scabius is named afer the German botanist Dr Knaut and has historically been used to treat skin ailments such as scabies and eczema.

Returning migrants and lots more besides

Occasionally, but fairly infrequently, it’s a struggle to find enough interesting nature to put together a post, and then every now and again so much happens that it’s difficult to fit it all in. Last weekend was one of the latter.

It started to get interesting as I was cycling to work on Friday morning, a bird caught my eye in a hedge outside work and first off I thought it was a bullfinch, which I’ve never seen on Cambridge Science Park before. But then I got a better look at it and it was immediately apparent it wasn’t a bullfinch, it had similar colours but in a different pattern, so I did a quick U-turn to get a better look. It turned out to be a black redstart male in full breeding regalia (Phoenicurus ochruros, Dansk: husrødstjert). He was magnificent but alas, because I was heading to work I was camera-less, so if you’ve never seen one, dig out a bird reference book and check him out, it’s worth the effort.

I went back to work on Saturday morning with my camera to see if he was still there but there was no sign of him so I carried on to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge. It was a bright sunny morning and I arrived there just after 8.30 and it was already warm. And it augured well because it turned into a real bird fest. I was hoping to see some returning migrants and as I got out the car I could hear chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) calling in the trees around the carpark. The first migrant I actually saw was completely unexpected and turned out to be a pair of sand martins (Riparia riparia, Dansk: digesvale) which I haven’t seen for years. There were also swallows (Hirundo rustica, Dansk:  land svale) flying low over a lake and this is roughly the same time I saw the first swallow last year. Like swallows, sand martins also over winter in South Africa, but unlike swallows they nest in burrows which they excavate in sandy banks. There are some man made burrows for the sand martins at the country park but so far they’ve been ignored by the martins, but the occassional kingfisher pair have availed themselves of the opportunity.

Close to where the swallow was hunting is a small island with a tree on it where cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo, Dansk: skarv) can often be seen perched. This time there was a carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) sat on top and a pair of common terns (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne) were taking exception to its presence and were working as a team to dive bomb it:

A singleton…


… and in tandem

I almost felt a little sorry for the crow, but I’ve watched them terrorise so many birds, especially buzzards and other birds of prey, in a similar fashion that the sympathy was a tad less enthusiastic than it may otherwise have been.

A migrant which was present all over the country park was the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk), in one bush there were a minimum of four and possibly six or even more. They were squabbling away in the  bush presumably in the midst of a territorial dispute. I saw the first blackcap of 2012 a few weeks ago at Danbury Common in Essex during my unsuccessful mission to look for adders.


Blackcap male, the female is similar but easily distinguished because her cap is a rusty brown colour.

As well as the migrants the trees and bushes were full of the song of more familiar resident species such as the robin, blue tit, great tit, blackbird and wren. All were energetically vociferous, filling the air with a wonderful cacophany. And amongst these I caught a tantalising glimpse of a much less common species, the treecreeper (Certhia familiaris, Dansk:  træløber). Treecreepers are very aptly named and are fun to watch as they hunt insects in the crevices of tree trunks, spiralling upwards in a corkscrew pattern. A pair of sparrowhawk and a pair of buzzard were also busy performing their aerial courtship routines.

There were none of the winter ducks such as tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand), pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland), gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand) or widgeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand) on the water, they had all headed off north to their breeding grounds. But several birds including coot (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne) and greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås) had chicks on the water:


Greylag geese with six chicks

I paused to try to get a shot of a great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker), all now in full brown breeding plumage:

And as I stretched over the water, trying hard to get a clean shot of the grebe, and even harder not to pitch headlong into the lake, a grey heron (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) flew low overhead:

It was so low I thought it must have pitched up very close to where I was but on an adjacent lake, and a quick scan revealed it sat in the top of a tree being pestered by the common tern that had earlier been harrassing the carrion crow:

The terns were deeply unhappy with any potential predator, although they were less keen to buzz a pair of sparrowhawks which were in the air above the same stretch of water!

A strange thing happened on the way to work

Last Tuesday the kids were on school holiday and I was at home so we decided to go to the park to while away an hour playing on the swings. On the way back I just happened to glance upwards as a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) passed overhead. It then wheeled around and came back, circling, and we stood and watched it hunting for several minutes whilst I took a few photographs of it.

When we got home a few minutes later I had to dive into work for a short while so I set off in the car and as I turned the corner out of our road a dead blackbird was lying in the middle of the road. And just a few metres beyond it, also by the white lines in the middle of the road, was a male sparrowhawk, very probably the same one I had photographed just a few minutes earlier, it being only 2-300m away as the hawk flies. But unlike the blackbird he was very much alive.

When sparrowhawks catch a bird they kill it by kneading the body with long talons on the ground and while they’re doing that they spread their wings out to conceal the prey underneath, and that’s what this sparrowhawk looked to be doing. But it was a very strange place for that kind of activity, so I wondered if he had caught the blackbird, which is toward the top end of the size range for a male sparrowhawk, by the side of the road, and had struggled to gain height when he took off with it and had been struck a glancing blow by a passing car, causing him to drop his prey. The female sparrowhawk could easily take a blackbird as they are 25% bigger than the male, but the male is built for speed and agility and generally takes much smaller prey such as great tits

I fretted all the way into work that he may well have got run over, but when I got back from work the blackbird carcass had been placed on the verge at the side of the road but there was no sign of the hawk. So it looks like he didn’t get hit by another car and survived to hunt again. Much to my relief.