Category Archives: Birds of prey

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!

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When the sun stood still

The plane through the centre of the earth and the sun is called the ‘ecliptic‘ and it describes the apparent path of the sun around the earth. And the plane through the centre of the earth – on the earth’s equator – is called the ‘celestial equator‘. There is an angle between these two planes of 23.4o and this angle is known as the ‘obliquity of the ecliptic‘.

It is the obliquity of the ecliptic which gives rise to our seasons, because as the earth moves around the sun a point on the surface will be closer to the sun in summer and further away in winter. The mid winter and mid summer solstices are the midpoints of those two seasons and at the  midsummer solstice the perceived height of the sun in the sky is at its maximum ‘declination‘ – the angle between the ecliptic and the orbital plane. So whereas the solstices occur when the angle is at its maximum  23.4o, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes occur when the angle between the two planes is at its minimum, i.e. 0o, or when the celestial equator intersects with the ecliptic.

The summer solstice occurs in the northern hemisphere on June 21st and on this years solstice I found myself walking in the countryside late into the evening. It was a proper midusmmer day; sunny, warm and sultry, and the fields were full of wild flowers.

Field poppy – papaver rhoeas -my all time favourite wild flower. There’s nothing quite so spectacular as a field full of red poppies!

The field poppy is also known as the ‘Flanders poppy’ from the battle fields of WW1 – which seems wholely appropriate as I’m writing this on Remembrance Sunday. I find it difficult to photograph poppies and get the colours just right, but I really like these flowers against the green background. They were snapped in the field below, which was a riot of floral colour throughout the summer:

Looking along the drainage ditch which divides two arable fields

The old oak tree in this picture was home to a barn owl nest this year and I spent several evenings sitting in the undergrowth watching the toing and froing of the adults bringing prey to the nest. I didn’t get to see the fledglings but I’m hoping they were successful and return next year. And it was along this stretch of ditch where I photographed the yellowhammer, linnet and whitethroat I posted recently.

Not quite sunset, but the colours were breathtaking

And of course at that time of year, late in the day when the sun is getting low in the sky, the skyscapes can be magnificent .

Another flower which was sprouting in the hedgerows was woody nightshade, Solanum dulcamara, which is closely related to deadly nightshade, and the potato which is rather less toxic than it’s relatives – unless the potatos are green when they contain the same toxin. So don’t eat the green ones (or nightshade berries)!

Woody nightshade flowers with a dog rose in the background

Toward the end of my stroll it was getting darker and in the midst of a line of imposing horse chestnut trees is this dead one silhouetted against the crepuscular blueness of the western sky after sunset.


On another dead tree stump adjacent to this one was a kestrel eating its prey and it let me stand close by and watch it for several minutes which was remarkable in itself, but to give you an idea of how close I was I could actually hear it tearing the flesh off the bone! He must have been very hungry.

The moon emerging from behind a horse chestnut tree

And right at the end of the walk it was night time proper, and on midsummers day this year there was also a full moon.

The word ‘solstice‘ is derived from the Latin for ‘the sun stands still’ because the sun has stopped rising in the sky and begins it’s journey back across the ecliptic to bring summer to the southern hemisphere, leaving winter for us in the north. But I wasn’t thinking about that as I soaked up the summer warmth on midsummers day.

The fastest falcon

In fact, not just the fastest falcon, the fastest creature on the planet. Under its own steam, with a little assistance from gravity, the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus, Dansk: vandrefalk) can reach up to 150mph (240km/hr) in a stoop. And that is a staggering number!

Cherry Hinton lies on the southern edge of Cambridge, and on the southern edge of Cherry Hinton is an ancient chalk pit known as the ‘Lime Kiln’. The Lime Kiln is a very interesting place, it’s a very large hole in the ground where the chalk has been quarried for millenia and converted to lime for building and agriculture. It’s lined with white chalk cliffs and it’s now a nature reserve managed by the local Wildlife Trust, and there’s nothing quite like it within a radius of many miles of Cambridge.


In June I had heard a rumour that a pair of peregrine falcons were nesting in the Lime Kiln. This was big news because until very recently I only saw them on the more wild and woolly parts of the UK coast where they hunt pigeons and seabirds. But in the last few years I’ve seen them fairly regularly, if infrequently, over the fields and fens of Cambridgeshire. I think the Lime Kiln must be the only rock face resembling the peregrine’s natural habitat within a 50 mile radius, which makes it even more remarkable that they found it and nested there.


To have a pair actually nesting on the edge of Cambridge was very exciting, so I paid a visit to the Lime Kiln to see if I could see them for myself. I’d been advised by a friend of the approximate location so it was fairly easy to find them sitting on the chalk face in full view, making occasional sorties into the air.

The peregrine is the fastest creature when it stoops on its prey, but it is not the fastest bird in level flight. That accolade goes to the wonderfully named ‘white throated needletail’ (Hirundapus caudacutus), which is a species of swift and can reach speeds of up to around 70mph (112km/hr) on the flat.


The peregrine’s wingspan is around 1m and the female weighs up to 1.1kg. So a bird colliding with a 1.1kg attacker travelling at 150mph is invariably going to come off second best. These awesome predators have other adaptations to protect themselves during high speed descents onto prey including a membrane which covers the eyes and baffles in the nostrils to prevent very high speed air flow from damaging their lungs.


The pair at the Lime Kiln have apparently nested there for the last three years and I believe that in their first year they raised one chick, the second year they got three away and this year they only managed one due to the dreadful weather through the springtime. But five chicks in three years is a fine tally.


I saw them over the Lime Kiln on several visits and watched them scaring the bejeezus out of the local pigeons, not during a a serious hunt, just a high speed chase on the flat, but the pigeons took it seriously and showed a surprising turn of speed too. I also saw a falcon in a stoop and another with prey in its talons which it passed to its beak whilst on the wing, which is behaviour more normally associated with the hobby.


These birds are magnificent and I’m hoping they return again to breed next year, and if they do I won’t be able to stop myself sharing some more pictures with you!

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.

A day out at Minsmere

RSPB Minsmere is nestled on the North Sea coast in Suffolk sandwiched between the heather and gorse of Dunwich Heath and the nuclear power station at Sizewell. I spent a day there at the end of June and the plan had been to make a 5 a.m. start and get there for the sunrise. But the weather on that morning was foul so I started later and stopped off on the way there at RSPB Lakenheath Fen, on the west side of Suffolk, to wait for the rain to abate. Lakenheath Fen was previously owned by the Bryant and May match makers so the woodland there is primarily poplar which is apparently the wood of choice to make match sticks. Consequently the air is filled with that wonderful noise that poplars make when the wind blows.

Despite the pouring rain, which precluded photoghraphy on the Fen, the omens were good. There were reports of a red footed falcon which I didn’t see, but I did see a wild otter, the first time I’ve ever seen one. And I heard a bittern booming, and it was the first time I’d heard that too. So that was two new encounters even before I’d reached the coast.

The bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: rørdrum) is a small brown heron which lives in reed beds and hunts fish so stealthily that it’s next to impossible to see until it moves. The booming is an amazing sound and the recording can’t really do it justice, it can be heard for more than a kilometer and the only thing I can liken it to is a distant foghorn. Coming through the reedbeds early on a quiet rain sodden morning gave it a ghostly quality which is difficult to describe. Bittern are rare and to give you an idea of how unusual it is to see, or hear, one, there were only 600 individuals in the whole of the UK in 2010/2011 and only the males boom. East Anglia is a good place to look though because they migrate here across the North Sea from Holland, and the first breeding record was in Norfolk in 1911, having been extinct in the UK in 1868.

From the Fen I headed off in my rainsoaked state to Minsmere. But the gods were with me as the sun came out on the way and stayed out for the rest of the day. It turned into a scorcher.

Common whitethroat male guarding his bushes

On the way into the reserve from the carpark the habitat is woodland which opens out onto grassland before arriving at the fresh water and salt water lagoons. There were reports of stone curlew on the heath and an old twitcher with a telescope claimed to have spotted them, but I couldn’t find them and remained sceptical. But in an adjacent bush was a male whitethroat patrolling the apex, even though it was the end of June he was one of the first I’d seen this year. Pausing momentarily to snap the whitethroat I then wended my way to a hide overlooking the salt water lagoons.

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis, Dansk: splitterne) snapped from the comfort of the hide

The main hide overlooking the lagoon is, in my opinion, pretty much perfect. It’s a modern and substantial affair and it made me chuckle listening to the twitchers grumbling about how they preferred sitting in a draughty cold shed with limited views and no comfort whatsoever. I’ve got no problem doing it the old fashioned way when it’s the only option, but when the facilities are to hand I much prefer to sit in warmth and comfort with panoramic views through huge glazed windows which can be opened if so desired. And on this occasion the facilities were available, so that’s what I did, and I hope you like the results…

A pair of common terns – “Where’ve you been? I’ve been worried sick. You treat this place like a hotel!”

The common tern (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne) on the left had been sitting there for many minutes, then the one on the right arrived to be scolded mercilessly by it’s companion, and this happened each time the second one came back after a brief fishing trip. The common tern could easily be mistaken for the arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea, Dansk: havterne) but is easily distinguished at a glance by the black tip to its beak which is absent in the arctic tern. Both species are consummate aeronauts and fishermen, and they both breed in Europe before migrating south to Africa and beyond.

There were big numbers of all kinds of seabirds on the lagoon including the terns. Gulls, black tailed godwits, a spoonbill (another first ever sighting for me), and numerous ducks including shoveller and shelduck, none of which I got really good photographs of. But this pair of gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk knarand) were feeding close by and did allow me to photograph them:

Male gadwall behind nesting black headed gulls…and the female of the species

Gadwall can often be seen on lakes inland in the winter when they appear drab and uninteresting compared to say a shoveller or a goldeneye, but in bright light in their finest breeding plumage I think they’re quite splendid.

The star of the show at Minsmere is often the avocet. I’ve seen them and photographed them here before but this time they were nesting on a mudflat close by:

The iconic avocet (Recurvirostra avoseta , Dansk: klyde)

Avocet parent-to-be looking after the nest

The other avocet parent was sitting on the nest and occasionally stood up to turn the eggs. It did this every few minutes giving nice views of the eggs which would be extremely well camouflaged when exposed to potential predators such as the great black backed gull.

At one point a pair of peregrine falcons appeared and proceeded to launch multiple waves of tandem attacks on the ground nesting birds. It reminded me of the scene at the start of the film ‘Battle of Britain’ when the Luftwaffe fighters swoop down and shoot up a British airfield. Suffice to say all hell broke loose, it was highly entertaining to watch, and I’ll write more about that in my next post.

It’s not just the birdlife which marks Minsmere out as a special place for wildlife. I knew there were red deer (Cervus elaphus) in this part of Suffolk but I’d only ever seen occasional individuals and one or two small groups in the past. But on the way off the reserve in the early evening there was a big field in which there were several hundred of them.

Grazing red deer

On first spotting these I thought they were livestock on a farm, but then I realised there were no fences that they wouldn’t be able to simply step over so they must be wild. I’d never seen so many of these in one place before.

On an unrelated note (the trip to Minsmere was in June and I’m writing this in August), so far this year in Cambridgeshire there has been a dearth of butterflies especially small tortoiseshell. But the day before yesterday there was one flitting around the entrance to work when I came home and when I got here there were five more on my buddleia bush. And yesterday there were more in the garden. So I hope they’re making a late recovery, along with other hard hit species, from the Lepidopteran devastation inflicted on them by the cold weather in previous three years.

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.

Falco tinnunculus

It’s always good to see birds of prey and even better when they are nesting. This year has been particularly good around Histon with a kestrel nest, at least two barn owl (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) nests – of which more in a later post – and at least two little owl (Athene noctua, Dansk: kirkeugle) nests. And that’s just the ones I know of, I’m fairly sure there’ll be sparrowhawks nesting in reasonably close proximity too.

Back to the kestrels though. In previous posts I’ve mentioned my favourite tree which is a really big old poplar on my (and lots of other folks) regular dog walking route. This year it played host to a family of kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk). Initially I was concerned that being so close to a well-used public footpath the disturbance would be too great. Also, the nest was 7-8m up the tree and directly above a bench where the local kids sometimes hang out in the evenings, so on the face of it not the best spot for a pair of falcons to raise a brood.

The adult male kestrel standing guard over his nest site

The male and the female were in constant attendance around the nest site and on this occasion both were present. As I watched the male he flew off so I walked on past to avoid causing too much disturbance. As I departed the female flew a second diversionary line out the tree in another direction, alighting on the ground around 50m from the tree, on top of a furrow which had been ploughed to take potato plants which had not yet sprouted. So she was very conspicuous but keeping an eagle eye (kestrel eye?) on myself and the dog:

In general though the kestrels adults seemed fairly relaxed about all the activity going on around their chosen nursery.

At this point in time, at the end of April, the nest would have had eggs in which are incubated for approximately 4 weeks before hatching. They produced three youngsters which I’ll update you on in a later post.

Getting more up to date, I just got back from exploring the coast on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England, and the birds of prey there were numerous. Buzzards were plentiful and on the cliff tops peregrine falcons were much in evidence, with four separate sightings on different days and different locations, one of them chasing a raven which was highly vocal in proclaiming its disapproval. I didn’t get any pictures of the peregrines but I’ll post some raven shots in the near future.

Cowslips and corn buntings

When spring sprung this year it sprung in style and it was quite glorious. At that time of year the migrants return from distant lands and recolonise the countryside.

One bird that also returns to the farmland around Histon, but from closer to home, is the corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke). The corn bunting is a resident breeder in the UK, but as with most other species local to me it disappears from the fields round here as soon as the harvest begins, usually during the first week in August, not to return until March or April.

Male corn bunting taking flight from the top of the hawthorn blossom

The corn bunting is a lovely creature which is very distinctive when you know it. From a disatnce it looks like another random little brown bird, but it sits atop the wheat stems and the hedgerows calling and the call can be heard from many metres away. And like most little brown guys, when you see them close up they don’t appear quite so uninteresting.

A few months ago I got involved with a group of local people here who were working to prevent the development of this farmland for housing by our local council. The council said they had done an environmental survey and they provided us with a copy. It was an interesting insight into how these people work. The survey was commisioned by the agent the council had employed to manage the development (conflict of interest?), and it was undertaken the week after the harvest. The  conclusion in the survey was that there would be little or no damage to the local environment and no red listed or BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) species would be affected. But I know from my recordings over the last five years that virtually all the wildlife – birds, mammals and insects – disappears as soon as the harvest starts. But my records, which I made available to the council,  also show that I have recorded 74 bird species there of which no less than 13 are red listed! Including the humble corn bunting.

The plan to develop the land was subsequently rejected and I hope my data played a part in the decision making process.

All the pictures in this post were taken on a sunny Sunday aftenoon at the end of April and another handsome bunting which frequents the drainage ditches and the hedgerows and was much in evidence was the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv).

Male reed bunting resplendent in his black cap and moustaches

Whilst the buntings, finches and other small passerines were announcing their availability from the top of the undergrowth a buzzard patrolled the skies above looking for prey:

Buzzard, Buteo buteo, (Dansk: musvåge)

And one of my favourite harbingers of fair weather to come is the cowslip:

Cowslip, Primula veris

Cowslip flowers were picked in the not too distant past to make wine with, but as it is no longer common this practise has waned. Despite that, the seed is now included in commercial wild seed mix and the cowslip can be seen in large numbers on seeded motorway verges. This one is not one of those though, it is one of thousands lining a drainage ditch on a farm in Histon.

A carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) was perched precariously on top of the hedge along the cowslip ditch and a hare was also close by and watching intently to make sure the dog kept a safe distance! The local hares seem fairly relaxed about the dog even though he’s a lurcher and can still move pretty rapidly. May be they can see that he’s too old to pose a real threat.

European or brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

This year seems to have been good for hares and I see them in many of the local fields in good numbers almost every time I venture there. There are also plenty of rabbits, but the hares are easily distinguished by their size, they are much bigger than rabbits, and the hares have very long ears with distinctive black tips which the rabbits don’t.

This was my first real sunny warm outing of the year and it gave me a good feeling that this year may turn out to be a good one for wildlife. And generally it’s living up to its billing. So far…

The way it should be

My last post showed some random weather at the end of March and in this one all the photographs were taken during the following weekend when the weather was rather more in keeping with the season, the way it should be.

Another of the great British bird of prey success stories over the last two decades has been the resurgence of the buzzard (Buteo buteo, Dansk: musvåge). Up until the mid 1990’s I’d only seen buzzards on summer holidays in Denmark and the occasional sighting on the western periphery of the UK, in south Wales or in Cornwall. But then I noticed they were creeping further eastwards up the M5, year by year, and now they can be seen all over England, and it’s not at all surprising to see them over my garden. I think a major contributory factor to the increase in raptor populations has been the ban on the use of DDT.


A buzzard soaring over the farmland on the edge of Histon.

DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane…

…was originally extremely effective in the control of insects but is very persistent in the biosphere, and because of its chemical properties it accumulates in the fatty tissues of apex predators such as raptors. The toxic effect was to cause thinning of the eggshells which would break before the chicks were ready to emerge. The consequences were devastating for many species inclusing sparrowhawks in the UK as well as peregrine falcons and bald eagles in the USA. The systematic use of DDT has been outlawed for many years  now, although restricted localised use for the control of malaria is still sanctioned, but here in the UK the long term benefit of the ban has been dramatic with these magnificent birds once again a relatively common site in our skies.

Other birds species were making the most of the change in the weather at the start of April too, including this female reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv):

Reed buntings have been a common site in the fields to the north of Histon since the weather has warmed up and the males with their black and white heads cling to the top of wheat stems proclaiming their availability. The females are more reclusive but can often be seen perched in bushes

A less common visitor to the fields is the golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria, Dansk, hjejle). I love to see the plovers, because when they do arrive they come mob handed, and on this occasion there was a flock of approximately 500 birds which looped round at high speed in extended skeins which was great to watch!


Skeins of golden plovers

Golden plovers are amber listed in the UK but not of concern in Europe so I hope that means that the overall population is stable and we continue to see them over the UK. An amusing little factoid about the golden plover which I’ve unashamedly borrowed from the British Trust for Ornithology is that a question about the flight speed of the golden plover raised by a member of a shoot in Wexford, Ireland, prompted Sir Hugh Beaver to found the Guinness Book of Records in 1955.  And if you’re keen to know, the speed of the golden plover is around 60mph (100kmph).

The rook, Corvus frugilegus, Dansk: sibirisk allike

All the photographs in this post were taken during a walk in the fields adjacent to my home the weekend after the snow, except the rook. This miscreant had lifted the fatball feeder from the branch in the crab apple tree and dropped it to the floor where it commenced to single handedly empty it. But as it posed for several portraits in the process I reasoned that it earned it’s fill. I like crows and especially the rooks, they seem to have a sense of devilment akin to a childs… if not even a tad more sophisticated. Through history though, alas not everyone had such a benign attitude to the rook (and just about every other creature!), which you can read about here.

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.