Category Archives: UK wildlife

The indomitable wren

Even though my regular finches had been conspicuous by their absence in the garden one of my favourite birds, and one of the tiniest, was often flitting around the flower pots hunting insects:

The wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

The word ‘troglodyte‘ has derogatory connotations so I wondered why the taxonomic name for the wren uses it twice, and apparently it originates from the Greek for ‘cave dweller’. Even though the BTO website lists its habitat as woodland and undergrowth as it’s an insectivore I guess that could make sense in some countries, so I guess it may depend on the nationality of the scientist who named it.

Wrens are tiny, weighing on average 10g and with a 15cm wingspan. They’re resident in the UK and I think it’s remarkable that such a tiny creature can survive a long cold British winter. A real testament to the effectiveness of feathers as insulators. And another amazing thing about wrens is their voices, they have incredibly loud song for such a tiny bird, if you’d like to hear it click here: Eurasian wren song.

Yet another remarkable fact about the humble wren is that it’s the most numerous songbird in the UK with 7.7 million territories. And as they’re not always easy to see as they flit around the undergrowth I was surprised by that statistic until I learnt to recognise the song. After that I realised they are everywhere!

This little chap appeared one day in February this year on a bug hunt in the flower pots, he posed right outside the window and let me snap a series of portraits. Wrens have been regular visitors through this year and I’ve deliberately avoided tidying the garden hoping they continue to treat it as home.

Where did all the finches go?

Until a couple of years ago my garden bird feeders were always visited by lots of finches: chaffinch, goldfinch, greenfinch, even the occasional siskin. But then the goldfinch disappeared from the feeders, I didn’t see a single one for around 18 months, and then, even more bizarrely, the chaffinch stopped visiting. Greenfinch were always occasional visitors even though I could hear them in the nearby trees, but they seldom came in to feed.

I don’t know what caused the finches to change their habits but it made my garden rather less colourful.

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) – a rare visit to the niger seed

In the last year or so I’ve seen goldfinch on my TV aerial and regularly in the front garden around the pond, but they still tend to avoid the back garden even though there is always a feeder full of niger seed for them. I often see and hear both chaffinch and goldfinch in the nearby fields when I walk the dog, so they are still in the area, and chaffinch seemed just as common as ever… except in my garden. But goldfinch sightings increased over spring this year as did those of chaffinch:

An erstwhile unusual visit from a male chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke)

And along with chaffinch and goldfinch, greenfinch have also been visiting more frequently, and in springtime this year there were a family with a couple of young:

Adult male greenfinch fuelling up (Chloris chloris, Dansk: grønirisk)

And one of his fledged brood:

The male and a fledgling feeding together:

It’s a mystery why they moved away, maybe sparrowhawk visits became to frequent, or maybe because of recent warmer winters there is enough easily accessible food in the countryside. I stopped feeding the birds later in the spring because the seed was left uneaten and it began to go mouldy, but now the weather is getting cold I’m going to clean the feeders and refill them for the winter. And keep my fingers crossed the birds find them to their liking.

The mating season

In my last post I said I was catching up, and this one is from a year ago, but I reckon if I can delay for 12 months then it will be back in season again. These green woodpeckers were in the same field as the goldfinch in the previous post and they demonstrated the brutal efficiency of natures processes one sunny Saturday morning late in March.

Before I get on to the mating season though, there have been a few firsts this week, the winter migrants are nearly all back from their winter sojourn in Africa. On an outing last weekend I saw (and/or heard) common whitethroat, lesser whitethroat, willow warbler, sedge warbler, blackcap and, best of all, nightingale, but more of that in a later post. Swallows have been in the skies over Histon since April 12th (at least that the first time I saw one, and I expect the swifts anytime from now onwards.

Some movement in the grass caught my eye around 60-70m away but I couldn’t see what it was until I peered through the binoculars and there was a lone green woodpecker rooting around for ants. As I watched a second woodpecker dropped to the ground just a few feet away, and I think you can tell from the determined look on his face what’s on his mind:

A pair of green woodpeckers – (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) the male is on the left and he’s eyeing the lady with single-minded intent

In this instance courtship lasted for no more than a few seconds:

He sized her up, leapt on board, and in a few more seconds it was mission accomplished and she was inseminated,

At which point he spun on his heel and headed for the exit with indecent speed but maximum efficiency:

The whole event was over in not more than a minute or two and not a single joule of unnecessary energy was required.

I don’t know whether green woodpeckers pair off or if they’re promiscuous, may be the courtship rituals had been observed previously, but the mating process (at least in this instance) was entirely to the point. But it seems to work pretty well and produces successive families of green woodpeckers in this particular field year on year. And I love it when the chicks have first fledged as there can be two  or three youngsters with a parent in attendance on a tree trunk or a telegraph pole, and four greenies together is a very colourful sight.

Winter fieldlife

This post’s a tad unseasonal now, but I’m on a mission to try to catch up with myself,  so this is the first edition of the my race to the present! For the last couple of years the bird species that frequent my garden seem to have been changing. Greenfinch all but disappeared for over a year, even the ubiquitous chaffinch completely vacated for many months. There is always a niger seed feeder for the goldfinch and siskin, and even though siskin seldom visit, goldfinch were there every day. And then they weren’t. if I see one in a week these days that’s as many as it is. The strange thing is that all three of these finch species haven’t disappeared from the village so maybe, hopefully, they’ll return soon.

A goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) in a field on the edge of the village

During a stroll with the dog across the local fields at the end of December the goldfinches, and lots of other birds, were enjoying a glorious sunny winter morning. A grey heron flapped lazily across the tops of the trees:

Grey heron (Ardea cinerea,Dansk: fiskehejre)

Grey herons aren’t an unusual occurrence in this location, but what was unusual was that it alighted in the top of a tree:

To the general annoyance of the local corvid population. I think this is a carrion crow, it took exception to the presence of the heron and proceeded to dive bomb it and then landed in the same tree and squawked at it. To which the heron voiced its own displeasure:

All this bickering led to the departure of the crow followed shortly by the heron. And while I was trying to unobtrusively find a spot to get closer to the tree, a wren, one of my very favourite little birds, appeared in the hedgerow close by, so I had to spend a minute or two snapping a portrait of it, so I missed the departure of the heron. But it was worth it to get this little chap:

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

The wren is one of our smallest birds and has an incredibly loud and varied song for such a small bird. It’s the most numerous bird in the UK, it weighs around 10g and is resident in the UK throughout the year. It’s a brave little chap and is one of the species that appears reasonably regularly in my garden where it’s always welcome.

Another bird which appears in the fields when the weather gets cold is the black headed gull:

Black headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk: hættemåge)

It feeds in the fields in sizable flocks, sometimes hundreds strong, alongside other gulls such as the herring gull, common gull and lesser and greater black backed gulls, but they all disappear as soon as the weather warms up. This one was already starting to develop the black head summer plumage even though it was still only December. I guess the mild winter weather made its thoughts turn to mating early in the season…

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…

A less welcome guest

In my last post I showed you some pictures of some minibeasts I was cohabiting with in the summer last year. As the post title indicated, I don’t mind providing board and lodging for those little guys.

But every winter, and often through the summer too, I put seed and nuts out to feed the birds, and I always put some in a tray feeder and also on the ground so the smaller ground feeders don’t get bullied off the food by flocks of noisy squabbling starlings like this one:

Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, Dansk: stær, availing itself of the seed platter

I welcome all creatures to stop by for a nibble in the depths of winter because I think how miserable I’d be if it was me out there in the freezing cold with no food. And until a couple of weeks ago the only non-avian guests I’d entertained were the occasional mouse and the even more occasional squirrel.

But then last week I spotted this little chap poking his head out from under the bush adjacent to the bird feeder:

Brown rat, Rattus norvegicus,

I know that rats can be a problem when there are too many of them in the wrong place, but I have a lot of respect for a creature which seems to me to be the ultimate survivor, I reckon ratty will be around long after humans have killed themselves off! Consequently, even though he is less welcome than my invertebrate visitors, I’m not going to panic and call for the rat catcher or put traps and poison out to try and kill him.

In the blink of an eye he was up the pole and tucking in to the bird food

As I watched, he scurried out from under the  bush and shinned up the metal pole with the bird feeders on and helped himself to a nibble at the fat balls. Now I reckon any creature that has the brains and the balls to do that deserves a little sustenance as reward for his skill and ingenuity. So fair play to him.

I know there are no rats living in the immediate vicinity of my house, and I only ever see them occasionally and one at a time, so unless he moves in and brings his family I’m content to let him scavenge the occasional nut or seed.

Glorious Glen Affric

During my excursion to the Highlands in June 2014 we  took a trip from Garten up to Inverness and down the north shore of Loch Ness before heading up to one the wildest places I’ve been to in the UK, Glen Affric.

It seems that Glen Affric is right in the  midst of the back of beyond and I can imagine it’s a harsh place to live in the depths of winter. But often with remoteness comes undistrurbed natural beauty, and so it was here. On arrival we parked up at a car park on the bank of River Affric, and after fastidious application of insect repellent to deter the midges we ate lunch at a picnic table . And as we sat and watched the river a dipper was busy skimming to and fro. A closer look after lunch revealed that it had built a nest on the underside of a bridge and it was bringing insects back to feed the chicks.

Dipper – Cinclus cinclus, Dansk: vandstær – contemplating the next foray upriver…

This was too good a photo opportunity to miss and I hopped from stone to stone into the river and eventually perched on a rock a couple of inches above the water that was just about stable enough to keep me out the river. I wanted to get a picture of a dipper as it skimmed past low over the water and I managed to capture this series of shots as it took care of the crucial business of feeding the hungry youngsters:

… setting off

… passing through at high speed…

… and heading back with a beak full of grubs. A successful mission.

I’ve never had the chance to photograph dippers like this before so I’m very happy with this series of pictures. I rarely see them because they’re birds of fast moving rivers like the ones found in the hills and mountains and consequently they’re not to be found in my part of the world. Despite the fact I see it very infrequently, the dipper is a resident breeder in the UK and is green listed and therefore not of concern. And unlike most waterbirds which hunt by swimming or diving, the dipper hunts by running along the bottom of the riverbed. Some years ago I watched one do this in a mountain stream in Betws y Coed in Snowdonia, it’s a fascinating thing to watch and it made me wonder how they diminish their bouyancy in order to avoid floating off the river bed.

The reason we went to Glen Affric was to see rare dragonflies, specifically, the northern emerald which is very local to the Highlands of Scotland and absent from England, and the downy emerald which can also be seen in some parts of England but is uncommon. For the record, we saw a lot of downy emeralds over Coire Loch at Glen Affric but no northern emeralds. As we were dragon hunting I only took my long telephoto lens and I didn’t take any landscape shots of the terrain (or none which I’m happy to share), but to get an idea of the place follow the link above and the two pictures on the first page labelled ‘River Affric‘ and ‘Looking down over Coire Loch‘ best reflect my memories of it.

I didn’t get any dragon pictures here either because I couldn’t really get close enough to them, so as it was a gloriously sunny afternoon I just enjoyed the silence and the views and the whole atmosphere of the place, which was utter tranquility.

Grey wagtail, Motacilla cinerea, Dansk: bjergvipstjert

Like the dipper, grey wagtail were also darting up and down the river.  They are resident breeders and passage visitors with amber conservation status in the UK, but their numbers are not of concern in Europe as a whole and they are beautiful little birds to be seen hunting insects over fast running streams. I think the name ‘grey wagtail‘ suggests something a tad dull and uninteresting, which does them a huge disservice, something like ‘saffron wagtail‘ would be more appropriate!

The best sighting of all at Glen Affric was one I didn’t get a photograph of because I was driving at the time. And it was also the most unexpected. We had just left the parking place at Glen Affric to return to Garten at around 6.30pm when a dark brown/black creature approximately the size of a cat bounded across the road and ran along in front of the car for four or five seconds, and it was a pine marten (Martes martes). We had paid to sit in a hide two nights previously to guarantee a sighting of this most elusive creature, and here was one running down the road in front of us. It’s funny how a whole four day trip can be made by a four second sighting of an incredibly rare and charismatic creature.

Loch Mallachie

Loch Garten is mainly associated with the osprey and is the home of the flagship RSPB reserve set up to protect and provide access to this most remarkable of birds.

But the osprey isn’t the only bird to be seen in this part of the world, and as I’d never been here before I was really hoping to see crested tit and Scottish crossbill in the coniferous forest around the lake. Suffice to say, despite looking long and hard I saw neither. But far from being despondent I see it as an excellent reason to go back there and try again!

Common sandpiper – Actitis hypoleucos, Dansk: mudderklire

In the same part of Abernethy Forest and a short distance from Loch Garten is Loch Malachie, so myself and my companion decided to explore there after drawing a blank on tits and crossbills at Garten.  But instead of them, we found common sandpipers and in my book that’s a fair exchange:

The sandpipers are very neat little waders and there were several of them patrolling the large boulders on the shore of the lake. They weren’t overly impressed with our presence and to show their disquiet made several low looping flights along the shore and around behind us through the woods, which felt like an unusual place to see a sandpiper in flight. So we collected a few photographs and retreated to leave them in peace.

Goldeneye – Bucephala clangula, Dansk: hvinand

On the same piece of shore line as the sandpipers was this female goldeneye with a pair of chicks. The goldeneye overwinters over much of the UK but has a very small breeding population of only a couple of hundred pairs, largely due to a program of nestboxes on Speyside – the goldeneye is unusual amongst ducks in that it nests in holes in trees. There was no male accompanying this family which is pity because they’re spectacular!

It  was a grey, damp, overcast morning in the Abernethy Forest around Loch Malachie and may be because of that it was eerily quiet. There were very few songbirds and the ones we saw most of were wren and chaffinch, which are also common visitors to my garden. But then we saw a spotted flycatcher which is definitely not a visitor to my garden:

Spotted flycatcher – Muscacapa striata, Dansk: fluesnapper

The spotted flycatcher is a migrant breeder to the UK, it overwinters in Africa and is red listed due to overall decline as a result of decreasing prey species caused by pollution and insecticide use (>30% over 10 years). Despite that, the European population is estimated to be 42-66 million individual birds (according to Birdlife International).

Apart from the beautiful wildlife, what I really noticed in the forest was the complete absence of human noise polution (it was silent apart from the wind and the birds), and the smell of the pine forest, and there are few natural aromas as delicious as the fresh smell of pine mixed in with the leaf mould underfoot. But the best thing was the silence!

Late autumn migrant

The autumn and the spring are the best times to be keeping a look out for migrants which, in the case of Cambridge, are often passing through on their way to a destination further north. The summer visitors such as swallow and swift are usually on their way to Africa by mid autumn, as the winter migrants such as fieldfare and redwing are beginning to arrive here to escape the freezing winters of Scandinavia.

A couple of years ago I saw a black redstart on Cambridge Science Park, which is a very rare sighting in this part of the world, at least for me. It was here for less than 24hr before heading further north and west. And this autumn my unusual sighting was a female wheatear:

Female wheatear (Oenenthe oenanthe, Dansk: stenpikker)

Wheatear are handsome birds and this one was the first one I’ve seen in the fields in Histon. I only had the one sighting, and as it was in the third week in October she wouldn’t have tarried as she wended her way back to overwinter in Africa.

Last year I saw a small group of wheatear in a field near Wicken Fen, this time it was in springtime so they were on their way north, including this beautiful male:

I think that as we head into December all the winter visitors that are coming this way may already be here, and I’ll hopefully be able to share pictures of other wanderers in the near future.

Spiders, dragons, damsels and reptiles

During my trip to Scotland earlier in the year with my friend we stayed at Boat of Garten in Speyside which is close by Loch Garten in the Abernethy Forest, the primary location in the UK for seeing ospreys. So, as well as the ospreys, one of the iconic ‘must-see’ creatures on my wish list was the pine marten (Martes martes), but we had fairly low expectation of seeing one so we booked an evening with Speyside Wildlife in a purpose built pine marten viewing hide. We spent the evening there with half a dozen other folk and a knowledgeable guide who told us all about the local wildlife. We saw a deer and a badger and then a couple of hours later, well after dark, a pine marten appeared and spent several minutes feeding right in front of us, just a few feet away. So it was well worth the wait! It fed from a branch right outside the window and it was a truly beautiful animal, and what struck me most was its size, it was much bigger than I’d anticipated. Because it was night time and I didn’t want to disturb teh marten there are no photographs, but if you want to see one there are images on Speyside Wildlife’s website if you follow the link above and browse to the Gallery. It was an evening well spent!

An unidentified, but spectacular, floating spider

The morning after the marten hide we set off into Abernethy Forest, stopping off at RSPB Loch Garten to see the resident osprey which duly obliged and perched on the nest. There were lots of other small birds, in particular siskin, mobbing the feeders around the visitor centre, but after the osprey we headed off into the forest on a dragon hunt.

We found a small pool in the forest but the weather was grey and cool so the dragons were still under cover, but a magnificent spider was hunting on the surface. There are tiny dents in the water at the end of its legs where the surface tension is being tested but is still holding firm and supporting the weight of the spider. My knowledge of arachnidis is miniscule so I sent this photograph to the British Arachnological Society in the hope that they could identify it, but they said without dissecting it they couldn’t unambiguously name it.

In the absence of dragons we decamped to another much bigger pool a couple of miles away, and as we arrived there the sun emerged and brought the dragons out. It got very warm very quickly and they appeared in their hundreds:

Four spot chaser – Libellula quadrimaculataNorthern damselfly – Coenagrion hastulatum

The four spotted chaser is common all over the UK and can be seen in my neck of the woods too, but the northern damsel is only found in a few small lochs – or ‘lochans‘ – in Scotland. Consequently I’d never seen this one before. It can be identified by the bottom half of the eye which is green, and segment 2 of the thorax has a black marking resembling the ace of spades.

And while squadrons of dragons patrolled the air, the suns warmth had also enticed out a modern day dinosaur who was patrolling the marsh around the edge of the lake:

Common lizard – Zootoca vivipara

And now the sun was out we headed back to the original pool with increased hopes of finding a white faced darter and lo and behold we found a newly emerged one:

A very newly emerged white faced darter – Leuchorrhinia dubia

This species is limited to just a few sites in England and Scotland, it has declined in recent decades due to habitat destruction, pollution, etc, etc – all the usual reasons why human activity is causing species loss. This was the only one we saw here and I couldn’t get into position to photograph its white face, but I was very pleased to see such a pristine example of a species I hadn’t seen before.