Category Archives: Wildlife favourites

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!

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Pyrrhula pyrrhula

Without wishing to appear melodramatic, I’ve been waiting for decades to get a photo of a bullfinch, Pyrrhula pyrrhula (in Danish, ‘dompap‘). My parents have been feeding the garden birds since I was a kid and I can remember seeing bullfinch in the garden back in the 1970’s. But then over a few short years they seemed to all but disappear. They were legally persecuted by farmers because of their ability to strip fruit trees of all their fresh shoots in record time, and were therefore blamed for financial misfortune in the market garden sector and condemned to slaughter.

I think extermination is far too high a price to pay, but destruction of these magnificent birds is, alas, what ensued. So in the intervening years, twixt the 70’s and very recently, my sightings of bullfinch were restricted to an occasional glimpse, and that seemed to occur on average once every 5-10 years.

Maybe I just didn’t go looking in the right place, but since I’ve been exploring around Histon over the last 3 years or so the number of sightings has increased significantly. There is a good supply of scrub round here which is providing cover and sustenance so they are now a fairly frequent occurrence. Despite that, I still feel a deep flush of excitement and satisfaction when I see the flash of black and pinky/orange pass overhead, especially if it’s set against a deep blue sky. It’s a beautiful sight.

Even though I see them reasonably often now, I hadn’t managed to get a photograph of one until last weekend when I was at Fen Drayton nature reserve near St Ives in Cambridgeshire. I’d seen a pair together and heard several more calling in the hedgerows and then whilst leaning on a gate this chap appeared on the ground and hopped along for just long enough to get a picture:


A male bullfinch on the ground. Alas he always seemed to be behind a tuft of grass

I saw and heard at least a dozen during my walk but this was the best shot I got so I resolved not to leave until I had got a better one. As I approached the car park I saw another male fly into a hole in a bush so I waited for a few minutes but he didn’t reappear. So I went through the hedge to have a look on the other side, disturbing an elderly couple enjoying a glass of wine (now there’s an angle to nature watching I feel I should explore in more detail!). And then after a few seconds he appeared on a frond and began stripping seeds from it:


…and he stayed for long enough for me to fire off two shots of which this is one

And that, my friends, of the tens of thousands of nature photographs I’ve ever taken, is my favourite!

The Butterfly Summer

Two weekends ago whilst walking through a meadow of long grass and wild flowers such as scabius, ragwort and bramble it was immediately noticeable that butterflies are now out in force. On several outings around Histon since then many species are frequenting the hedgerows and grasslands. The species which I think heralds the onset of the butterfly summer is the gatekeeper. It always seems to be the the one I see first in June/July and is rapidly followed by the other summer species:


The Gatekeeper – harbinger of sunny summer days


Holly blues were around in the spring months but have now disappeared in favour of species more associated with summer such as the common blue:

Common blue male. I think this is one of the best photographs I’ve ever taken – it’s a beautiful creature!

…and

A comma soaking up some intermittent morning sunshine perched on a cluster of oak leaves

I particularly like commas with their ragged edges and the rich colours of a young one are exquisitely juxtaposed against the green foliage of the oak leaves.

Small tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral regularly abound on the flowers of a huge buddleia in my garden. And whilst I’m not averse to getting up really close to snap pictures there, it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, it’s a tad more challenging to get good pictures out in the countryside on some of our indigenous wild flowers:


Small tortoioseshell feeding on nectar from field scabius flower, and

A red admiral

I spent 20 minutes lurking in the undergrowth waiting for this red admiral to open it’s wings and when I looked down amongt the nettles I was standing in it was festooned with caterpillars:


Peacocks before pupation – the ‘ugly duckling’

And after pupation – a spectacular metamorphosis (this one is on the buddleia in my garden, but I love the colours)

A notable absentee from the rollcall of butterflies is the painted lady which was here in good numbers last summer but I haven’t a single one yet. Despite that, lots of other species are out there too, such as speckled wood, brown argus, large and small white and small skipper. But more of those next time I post about butterflies.

Orange tip

I am of course referring to the butterfly, not an unsightly medical condition. I’ve spent plenty of time chasing them along hedgerows waiting for one to settle on a flower, but in vain, and you may recall that in a previous post I said that the orange tip was extremely difficult to photograph because they rarely settled.

That was until last weekend when, the weather was sunny, warm and calm so I went for a walk on Guns Lane to the north of Histon. I was rewarded fairly soon into my walk by a male orange tip settling on a plant on the edge of the pathway and allowing me to encroach within just a few inches:


Male orange tip. I think his underwings are exquisite, and it’s perfect camouflage when he’s perched on a cow parsley flower head.

This fellow was a good omen. Several hundred metres further along the path where the dense hedgerow thinned out into more open territory lined with cow parsley there were many male and female orange tips and they were all intent on mating on this particular morning.



Another male orange tip, this time with his wings open. And the colours on top are gorgeous too.

The female of the species doesn’t have the orange tips but is still distinctive from the other white butterflies:

Female orange tip. She is aware of the presence of males and is pointing her tail in the air in preparation for mating…

…and a few seconds later a male flew within a few centimetres and her reproductive organs are clearly visible opening up here in response to his presence.

The female above didn’t mate in this instance, but:

This pair were mating on the ground close by

And another female sits on a leaf as the male beats a post-coital retreat top right

I promised some pictures a few weeks ago of orange tips in the post ‘Local Lepidoptera’ so I was very pleased to capture this series of the mating behaviour so soon after.

Nocturnal newts

I was in the pub last Friday with a good friend of mine enjoying a few pints but despite what you might be thinking this post is about amphibians. Mostly. We were talking about butterflies and other wildlife when he mentioned that he knows of a pond which is good for newts. So on our way back from the pub at around midnight we picked up torches and my camera and made for the pond.

We weren’t disappointed. As we shone the torch in the water we could fairly soon see two of the three species of British newt: the great crested, Triturus cristatus and the smooth or common Lissotriton vulgaris – which looks a bit like a small great crested. The third species is the palmate newt, Lissotriton helveticus, which in the breeding season is fairly distinct from the other two species but is apparently uncommon in the east of England.


This great crested newt headed for the cover of some pondweed in response to our torchlight


And shortly after made for deeper cover with a flick of his tail. The ‘great crest’ can clearly be seen here

Great crested newts spend most of their time on dry land where they rest up under rocks or logs during the day and emerge at night when they feed on land or in water for worms, tadpoles, snails and insects. They return to the water to breed where the female will lay several hundred eggs over the course of 3-4 months. The juveniles and non-breeding adults live a predominantly terrestial existence where they hide up during the day in undergrowth or other cover and emerge to feed at night. They reach breeding age at 2-3 years old when they begin the cycle of aquatic and terrestrial life.

The smooth newts were not dissimilar in appearance to the great crested newts but are only up to 10cm long – considerably more diminutive than their great crested cousins. Both male and female great crested and smooth newts become rather more distinctive during the breeding season when the colours, spot patterns and crests are at their most flamboyant.


A pair of male smooth newts

I originally thought these were a pair in the throes of courtship, but I’ve since been informed by a reader, see Duncan’s comment below, that they are two males.

The palmate newt is approximately the same size as the smooth newt but the colouration of the palmate is rather more subdued. All three species of newt in the UK live a terrestrial lifestyle outside the breeding season, but at this time of year they all head to the water to breed.


Female palmate newt – the male has a smooth crest along his tail with a distinctive filament on the end. He also has webbed feet which this one doesn’t.

All newt species are protected in Europe, including the UK, with varying levels of protection. The great crested newt is considered to be the most in danger and therefore has the highest level of protection such that disturbing them or habitat where they are known to be, killing, possessing and selling live or even dead specimens, is illegal.

I’d never seen a newt of any species until this so it was great to see them and be able to get a few photographs too, after spending the evening prior in the pub in pursuit of the obvious topical simile!

Favourite wildlife moments of 2010

As we rush pell mell towards 2011 I thought I’d compile a list of my top 10 wildlife moments of 2010. I decided a little over a year ago that I was going to start a blog but it took until September of this year to actually get on the case and do it. But now it is up and running I’ve realised it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve always derived a huge amount of pleasure from watching wildlife wherever I’ve travelled, in the UK and to more exotic locations. From snorkelling with green turtles over the coral reefs of the Seychelles to kayaking with orcas in the Canadian Pacific Ocean… and sitting in my dining room in Histon watching numerous species of small songbird frequenting my garden in the freezing winter weather.

But in 2010 these have been my favourite wildlife events (mostly within around 2 miles of where I live!):

10. Starting ‘The Naturephile’ and realising there are people out there who want to read it.

9. Garden spider: my garden was full of these little predators in September and October, filling my garden with webs such that negotiating the gauntlet to put the bins out became my job. Non-negotiable. I posted on them in October (post entitled ‘Araneus diadematus‘) when I got a great series of pictures of Shelob consuming a much smaller male just outside my back door:

That’s him wrapped up in the parcel of silk. Lunch.

8. Swifts in Histon: My photographic skills aren’t up to capturing good photographs of swifts but there were numerous individuals in the air all over the village in 2010. They were screeching up Station Road in Impington as I cycled home from work and 20-30 were regularly hunting insects over the fields north of Histon. There was a period in mid summer when every time a window or door was opened at home they could be heard overhead.  I hope they return here in the same numbers next year when I’ll try harder to get some pictures to share with you.

7. Marsh harrier in Histon: It’s very exciting to see big, rare birds of prey, particularly when they’re not expected. After the harvest this year there was a spell of several weeks where virtually all the birds seemed to have disappeared from my normal walking route. And one morning whilst mooching across the field lamenting the fact, a BIG bird hoved into view, low and approximately a quarter of a mile away. So calling the dog to heel, we sat down and waited. It flew to the opposite side of the field and quartered the long grass the full length of the field right in front of me – around 150-200m away – it was an immature male marsh harrier:

Marsh harrier hunting on the edge of Histon


After failing to find prey he ascended to approximately treetop height and disappeared over Histon to the south heading towards Cambridge.

6. Bullfinch: unlike fruit farmers I love bullfinch – they’re exquisite. When I was a child at home they were regular winter visitors but since then they have become exceedingly uncommon. I saw two in a tree near Girton a couple of months ago whilst walking with my ornithologist friend, David, and since then have seen them in and around Guns Lane in Histon several times. On one ocasion there were four, so I’ve gone from seeing on average one every 3-4 years to seeing 3-4 individuals at one time. A cock bullfinch flying over low against a royal blue sky is a sight to behold! Alas, I’ve no photographs yet, but hopefully this time next year…

5. Waxwing: My encounter with waxwing was described in a recent post simply entitled ‘The Waxwing‘. Myself and my friend Joe spent a freezing cold hour lurking under rowan trees on Brimley Road in north Cambridge and were very adequately rewarded with the presence of seven waxwing, which as well as being wonderfully photogenic were also highly amenable to being photographed. Consequently I managed to get a few nice pictures despite the filthy weather and low light:


Waxwing – Bombycilla garrulus – what a beauty!

There have since seen reports that there are waxwing in Histon. And this week I saw two starling-sized birds with crests amongst a flock of 20 redwing which were flying around near Cottenham Road which could have been waxwing. So far unconfirmed, but will keep looking.

4. Dragonflies: Dragonflies are amazing creatures, and this year I have discovered that a fallow field on the edge of Histon is alive with them from May through to September/October and they offer excellent photographic opportunities. If at rest they seem to be relatively fearless unless I make any sudden or threatening movements:


The blue body of the male broad bodied chaser (Libellula depressa) in my garden, above and the yellow body of the female in a hedgerow, below:


On a sunny day in the countryside, especially near a river or lake, it’s difficult to avoid dragonflies and damselflies. And they’re very entertaining to watch.


Common blue damselfly at Milton Country Park, Cambridge

My Dad told me he was once sitting in the sun in my Grandmothers fruit garden in Denmark when a dragonfly landed on his thumb. He managed not to flinch as it landed so it remained in situ for a couple of minutes before flying off. It returned a short time later carrying a fly and sat on the Old Mans’ thumb and completely devoured its meal.

3. Histon Heron: The shenanigans with the heron were described in my post from last week – ‘Hungry Heron‘ so you can read the story and see the photographs there,  or follow the link to the video clip from here.

The Histon heron – a finely honed fishing machine

The story has moved on a tad since I posted. My friend Chris, whose garden is hosting the heron, emailed to say he had a second bird visiting which managed to negotiate the intricate system of wires comprising the anti-heron device around the pond and steal some fish. And more alarmingly was caught fighting with heron number one who is obviously keen to protect his interest in the supply of fresh fish available in Chris’s garden. I shall report developments as they occur.

2. Butterflies in Histon: this one came about after reading about the Big Butterfly Count in August. There were numerous butterfly species in and around Histon so my daughter, Sophie, and myself went into the fields and counted numbers of species for the requisite 15 minutes. The number of species and the number of individuals was amazing. We saw peacock, red admiral, painted lady, gatekeeper, large white, small white, green veined white, small copper, brown argus, common blue, and ringlet!

Brown argus

Common blue

Gatekeeper

There were also small heath, comma, speckled wood and holly blue in the vicinity which we didn’t count during our 15 minute slot. We’ll continue to do the survey in future years and report the findings here.

1. Seeing a wild badger with Sophie: no photographs from this trip, alas, but it was a great moment. We ventured into Knapwell Wood in Cambridgeshire with my friend, Woody, late in the evening, just before dusk, and staying downwind and as quiet as possible all the way, we managed to get very close to the badger set. We then waited… and waited, and we heard the badgers crashing around in the undergrowth. No animals appeared in view so Sophie crouched down and fell asleep squatting on her haunches…, to be woken up after 20 minutes or so as a young badger ambled up the path towards us. He must have caught our smell as he suddenly stopped 6-7m away and sniffed the air for a minute or two before turning tail and disappearing back down the track. Sophie was very excited but managed to keep quiet until we had emerged from the wood. Listening to an ancient wood prepare for the night with some creatures bedding down whilst others are waking up is a magical way to spend an evening. And Sophie seeing wild badgers for the first time in the middle of the wood made this my favourite moment of 2010.

Have a great Christmas and I’m really looking forward to sharing my posts with you in 2011.

Best wishes

Finn