Category Archives: Wildlife locations

The courtship of the great crested grebe

Last year I went to Rutland Water to see osprey, but the real stars of that day were this pair of great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) performing their courtship ritual.

Many birds have sophisticated courtship displays and the grebe is one of them. They paddled away from each other then turned about and paddled rapidly together:

And when they met they reared up and neck sparred after they had both reached down into the water and plucked a beak full of weed to offer as a gift to their partner.

I’d never seen this display before and paddling furiously to stay high in the water this pair put on a terrific display of mutual weed waggling.

And it seemed to pay off as they were still paired up after all the frenetic courting activity…

The ospreys were magnificent but this humble pair of grebes stole the show!

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A northern hemisphere bird of paradise?

Driving around the countrside at this time of year the hedgerows are full of red haw berries and rose hips, which in turn means that they’re full of our Scandinavian visitors, redwing and fieldfare. But every now and again, when the winter weather’s particularly brutal  in Norway we get a visit from the most spectacular visitor from that part of the world, the waxwing…

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus, Dansk: silkehale)

Last year, they were here making the most of a long hedgrow full of rosehips, at least it was full of rosehips when they arrived, but after a couple of weeks the hips were somewhat diminished.

A pair of waxwing harvesting rosehips on the Cambridge Science Park


I think of these birds, with their prominent crests and beautiful colours  as being our birds of paradise and there are few that I enjoy photographing quite as much, and not least because they also have a distinctive song, particularly when they are singing together in flocks.

And the inevitable consequence of a diet consisting solely of bright red rose hips

The Common Crane

A couple of weeks a go I was on an early morning train heading out across the Fens near March in Cambridgeshire where I saw a group of 30-40 cranes in a field next to the train line. I’ve only ever had one fleeting glimpse of a common crane in the UK before so it was properly exciting to see such a large group of these statuesque birds. So much so that two days later I drove to the vicinity of the first sighting to see if I could find them again. And after a little driving around this is what happened…

14 common cranes (Grus grus, Dansk: trane)

These 14 birds were part of a group of 19 that flew right overhead and it was a quite incredible sight! According to the BTO the common crane is amber listed after being hunted to extinction four centuries ago. It has recolonised East Anglia naturally since 1979 and according to the Weekly News from BirdGuides a record 54 pairs of an estimated 180 birds were counted this year in the UK.


After this sighting I headed on to the Ouse Washes where this group formed part of a larger group of 40-45 birds, so I saw approximately a quarter of the UK population. They were too far away to get a photograph but captivating to watch in the distance through binoculars. They were a mile or so off to the left and straight in front, several miles away, was Ely Cathedral:

Which even though it was made by humans is also a majestic site on a sunny morning across the flat expanse of the Fens.

The mighty osprey

As well as the ducks in the previous post, other water birds were in abundance at Rutland including the coot (Fulica atra, Dansk – blishøne):

A coot returning to the nest to incubate its single egg

And the great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk – toppet lappedykker):

But the one Rutland migrant I really wanted to see was the osprey (Pandion haliaetus, Dansk – fiskeørn). The osprey makes the monumental migration from sub-Saharan west Africa every year to breed in the UK and one of the locations it regularly breeds at is Rutland Water. And I wasn’t disapointed:

The osprey takes 3 weeks or so of flying time to get from west Africa to the UK and according tho the BTO can cover up to 430km in one day. It stops off en route for a couple of weeks to refuel on its way south, but only for a few days when heading north to try to arrive early at the breeding grounds. It’s a fishing eagle which plucks fish out of the water of lakes, rivers or coastal seas, but alas I wasn’t lucky enough to see one hunting. Despite the lack of hunting activity, as this was the first one I’d seen in England (I’d only ever previously seen one at Loch Garten in Scotland) this was very special indeed!

The most understated of ducks

I like ducks because they’re often easy to find, often colourful, and therefore also relatively straightforward to identify. And I always prefer it when I know what I’m looking at.

Last April (2017 that is) I spent a really gorgeous spring day at Rutland Water which is about 45 minutes north west of Cambridge and is an enormous U shaped reservoir and nature reserve. There was lots of wildlife to see including ospreys(!) of which more in a later post. But first off I wanted to post this picture of the humble gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk – knarand). At a distance on a dull grey winters day they can appear drab – understated even – the duck equivalent of an ‘LBJ‘. But on a bright sunny day when they reveal themselves in all their finery I think they’re really handsome birds:

A pair of gadwall – the male on the left and the female on the right

Being springtime the birds were also feeling fruity and this blackheaded gull was being a tad over ambitious when he tried to surprise his lady while she was perched on top of a narrow post:

Amorous, but ultimately unsuccessful, black headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk – hættemåge) on final approach

Not surprisingly all he ended up with was somewhere to perch

A pair of tufted duck (Aythya fulligula, Dansk – troldand)

Tufted ducks are a species of diving duck which are resident here throughout the year and are relatively unfussy about their habitat, so consequently they’re fairly ubiquitous in this part of the world. They also have a prominent crest which unfortunately neither of this pair were displaying. But as with a lot of ducks, easy to see and easy to identify.

The great grey shrike

Back in January there was a report of a great grey shrike at Wicken Fen and I’d never seen one before so I decided to go and have a look.

A distant tree across the reedbeds through the thick early morning mist

It was a very grey morning and not really one of those that gives me high hopes of seeing much wildlife, but the shrike put in the very briefest of appearances, probably less than 2 seconds, so short I couldn’t photograph it, but it was a striking bird! It was bigger and paler than I thought, and with its piratical black eye stripe it was completely unmistakeable. And despite my initial pessimism there was lots of birdlife around that morning.

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger)

The Tower Hide at Wicken Fen is usually a good place to survey the area and see the local birdlife, and as the shrike had appeared very close to it I climbed the stairs to see if it would reappear and pose for a portrait. Unfortunately it didn’t, but all the following pictures are from the top of the Tower Hide:

Redwing (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel)

The redwing and the fieldfare are winter visitors in the UK, making the flight here from Scandinavia as the weather turns cold there for the winter.

A pale male bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Dansk: dompap)

This male bullfinch may have appeared a little more washed out than he actually was. Or he may have been a youngster or waiting for some warmer weather to change into his sumptuous breeding regalia.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse)

And finally…

A kestrel (Falco tinnunculus,Dansk: tårnfalk)

The drops of condensate clinging to the twigs around the kestrel give a fair indication of the prevailing weather – it was very cold… and very damp!

Rainham shorties

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

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

More Rainham wildlife

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Rainham Marshes

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

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

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

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola, Dansk: sortstrubet bynkefugl)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The amazing potential of phone photography

A few weeks ago, in August, I was in Toronto and on a glorious sunny day I took a boat trip out to Centre Island, which, in the unlikely event you ever find yourself in Toronto wondering what to do, I can heartily recommend. There were many huge and colourful butterflies including monarchs and swallowtails fluttering around the island, and some others I didn’t recognise. It was a work trip so I hadn’t taken my DSLR with me and the only way to get a photograph was with my phone camera. And then I discovered that monarchs are skittish and it’s not easy to get close to them, which I needed to do as I only had a phone to take pictures with, but after chasing several and failing to get within range I managed to sneak up on this one:

monarch-toronto-aug-2016-ppMonarch butterfly – Danaus plexippus

I stooped down on the opposite side of the plant to the butterfly and reached around to point my phone and take this picture. I must confess, I was a little gobsmacked at how well it worked. The light conditions were challenging as it was late morning and the sunlight was intense, so there was lots of contrast between the shade and the light. But after minimal post processing to darken the sunny bits I think is a pretty good image! I changed my phone earlier this year for an iPhone 6S plus and I was impressed with the quality of the camera from the start, but after this shot I’m really impressed with it.

I hope it’s not a global phenomenon, but this year, due to climatic aberrations, many butterfly species have been hit really hard and their numbers have plummeted. The results of the ‘Big Butterfly Count‘, an annual survey of our Lepidoptera here in the UK, was reported today, and the news was bleak. Many erstwhile common species have really suffered and this is a phenomenon which I’ve noticed and commented on several times since the Spring this year. And now it’s official. Sir David Attenborough (the worlds greatest living human being), and president of the charity Butterfly Conservation, said that butterflies are a good barometer of the state of nature in general. I’m inclined to agree with him and I think it’s a very bad sign that the plight of our butterflies in the UK is so dire. It doesn’t augur well.

small-copper-wandlebury-roman-road-sep2016-ppSmall copper – Lycaena phlaeas

But one of my absolute favourite butterflies, and one that I only see very infrequently, even in a good year, is the small copper. I think they’re gorgeous. I haven’t seen one for about three years and then, randomly, a friend of mine showed me this picture a couple of weeks ago which he took with his phone, also an iPhone 6S, on the Roman road between Cambridge and Linton.

So there are still some lovely butterflies out there, but please think of them and, if you can spare it, leave a little bit of your garden to grow wild with no chemicals to help them recover. And if you don’t have a camera handy to take a portrait give it a go with your phone instead, you might be surprised!