Category Archives: Cambridgeshire

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

Advertisements

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 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!

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.

Winter’s on the way

I can tell when winter is on the way because the bird population in my garden changes to reflect the season. A coupe of weeks ago a flock of long tailed tits passed through, the first one this side of the summer, then this weekend the garden was so full of birds I had to refill the seed feeders.

The one species which, when I first see it, confirms the imminent descent into winter chiiliness is the coal tit (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse):


Coal tits can be tricky to photograph because they don’t stay still in the open for very long at all. And on top of that, the weather last weekend was foul: cold, grey mist, murky and damp with very little natural light. So I wound up the ISO to 3200 in order to allow me to get a suitable shutter speed and crossed my fingers that it would work. And I was pleasantly surprised by some of the results:

The coal tits flit rapidly and cautiously onto the feeder, grab a seed and immediately make a beeline for the adjacent buddleia bush to shell it and consume the contents under cover. It’s a small bird, about the size of a blue tit, but it has a black head with a white stripe up the nape and is pale rufous brown underneath, so it’s immediately distinguishable from it’s more prevalent cousin.

It’s not unusual to see blue tits all year round but the coal tit feeds mainly on conifers, so as there are no conifers in or around my garden, it only ventures in when the harsher weather of the approaching winter necessitates it.

And of course, the blue tits were here too:

Blue tit  – Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmejse

My resident dunnock was on parade, present and correct, I like the pose in this image and even in the shabby light conditions the colours stand out. I think the dunnock is the archetypal ‘LBJ’ or ‘little brown job’, but you can see here that it’s much more than that!

My resident dunnock – Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv

The Danish name for the dunnock is ‘jernspurv‘ which tranlates as ‘iron sparrow‘ which I think is a very apt name.

The third member of the tit family that visited on Saturday was the great tit which is our largest. It’s probably the most frequent garden visitor too, at least in my garden, or maybe just the most visible one:

Great tit – Parus major, Dansk: musvit

This great tit is female, the black stripe on her underside is narrow and short compared to that of the male which is longer and stretches from one leg to the other at the bottom of the abdomen. I think the one below is a male but I didn’t get a good enough view of its nethers to be sure. He has what looks like a parasite on his face next to his eye and I wondered how that was affecting him. He seemed to be feeding and flying OK, but the next day he was back and he was wobbly in flight and actually flew into the wall of my shed, so it appears to be affecting his vision or balance, or both. So I reckon he could become a meal for the local sparrowhawk before too long. Nature is beautiful but brutal!

Whilst all the tit activity was going on on the feeders a wood pigeon alighted on the shed awaiting an opportinity to grab some seed from the tray feeder. Last week the hanging feeder was emptied in a couple of days, which is unheard of, and when I watched I saw the wood pigeon was standing on the tray feeder from where it emptied the hanging one in record time. One wood pigeon can hold a phenomenal amount of seed and it also means the small birds get less of a look in, so I rearranged the hanging one so the pigeon can  no longer reach it. (I also scatter nuts and seeds on the ground for the pigeons so they don’t starve).

Wood pigeon – Columba palumbus, Dansk: ringdue

And the last bird I managed to get a picture of was the ever present robin. I love this little chap, it’s always there raising Cain with the dunnocks and brightening up even the greyest day.

Robin – Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals

Chaffinch, blackbird and wren all put in appearances as well, but I didn’t manage to get pictures of them and I’m looking forward to seeing which other species pay me a visit over the cold winter months.

Histon Harvest

All the posts from my home patch have focussed on the wildlife and the impact of humans on the wildlife without much focus on the human activities per se. So as it’s harvest time now, or it would be in  a normal year, and the harvest is such an important event in human interaction with the countryside, I want to devote this post to it.

The harvest was nearly all done and dusted by the last week in July here this year, which is a good 2-3 weeks earlier than in a climatically normal year. These pictures are from last year when the bulk of the harvest took place in the second and third weeks of August. The crops vary in my local fields, and wheat, barley and oil seed rape are commonly planted.

Leviathan of the Fens –  the combine harvester – gathering the crop

Last year it was either wheat or barley so when harvest time began it heralded the arrival of some seriously big machinery. The speed with which these gigantic beasts gathered the grain and separated it from the straw and depatched the produce was breathtaking.

Dancing a duet with the tractor – it was all perfectly choreographed

The grain was unloaded into a trailer drawn by a tractor and the straw was jettisoned out the back to be simultaneously baled by a second tractor towing a baling machine :

And a quick change of partner for a waltz with the baler

The whole operation lasted just a few hours and was done with military precision and at the end all that was left was neatly arranged piles of bales amidst acres of stubble. A few years ago I was talking to a farmer in a pub near Cambridge and he told me that the harvesters have onboard computers which record how much grain is harvested from every part of the individual fields, and where yields drop it is all mapped via GPS so when fertiliser is applied prior to the next sowing operation, more will be applied in the areas of the fields which delivered the lower yields during the previous harvest. And of course, with that degree of efficiency applied to the whole process there is nothing left over for the wildlife as there was in the years pre-agro-intensification, and that’s a major reason why species such as tree sparrow, turtle dove, yellowhammer etc, are struggling. I’ve noticed in these fields that after the harvest nearly all the birdlife including yellowhammer, skylark, corn bunting, linnet and reed bunting all drastically decrease in numbers until the next springtime.

And whilst all that was ongoing there was another baler tidying up an adjacent field which is managed by a different farmer:

These monstrous bales aren’t the type that can be thrown around by a couple of farmhands and manually stacked on a flatbed trailer, they are around my height in diameter and require more big machinery to move them:

Another homeless (and endangered) farmland bird wondering what’s happened to his shelter and his meals:

A bewildered looking grey partidge (Perdix perdix) forced to the margins after the harvest

And of course, at this time of year, the grain isn’t the only harvest:

Juicy ripe plums hanging in the hedgerow

Another ramification of intensive farming is the destruction of the hedgerows. It’s something we wised up to in this country some years ago, with regard to grubbing them out, but nowadays farmers insist on attacking the ones that remain with flails (if anyone knows why they spend money and time doing this please let me know), including the one where these plums were growing. Not only does this thin the hedge right down so it provides less cover for overwintering birds, rodents, insects etc, the trees and bushes which grow there and provide food for the wildlife are producing less of these gorgeous fruit. So the wildlife is getting squeezed into a smaller and smaller fraction of the countryside and their shelter is under constant attack and their food source is constantly depleted. I think it’s not a good way to manage the countryside.

At harvest time with all the dust in the air it makes for some glorious sunsets

But on the optimistic side, I reckon it is possible for farmland to be managed to produce sufficient food for humans and still sustain our wildlife. I just hope that as a species we wise up before it’s too late. And at the risk of stirring up controversy… maybe we should simply learn not to waste so much.

Tyto alba

A few posts ago in ‘The Owl and the Woodpecker‘ I mentioned that a pair of robins may have started getting fruity in my garden as early as the begining of January. And then last Friday I saw another robin feeding a fledgling on the grass outside work, so it looks as though the avian breeding cycle may have been able to start early this year. I hope it has, and that it allows other species to recover some of their numbers too.

Also in that post, I talked about our local barn owls, of which we had two breeding pairs in and around the village last year. And one gloriously sunny evening in July myself and my daughter, Sophie, set off across the fields with a portable hide, binoculars and a camera to try to see the owls and take some photographs. I know where the owls nest so we tried to get in position to see them heading to and from the nest site via a circuitous route to avoid disturbing them.

A barn owl, Tyto alba, heading out on a hunting mission

We eventually found a spot at the top of a drainage ditch between two fields around 150m from the shed where the owls had built the nest, and we didn’t have to wait long for them to appear. Truth be told I’ve always had a thing about all owls, but especially barn owls. I think they’re beautiful and iconic creatures, and very reminiscent of warm summers evenings in the English countryside. It’s always an exciting moment when I catch sight of one.

And the other thing that struck me as we sat and watched these was how they are incredibly efficient predators:

…and heading back again clutching the booty

We sat and watched them coming and going for about an hour and in that time they arrived 6 times with prey. So on average every 10 minutes one of the parents returned with a meal for a youngster, this one was carrying a rodent in its talons which it delivered to the nest, spent a couple of minutes with the youngsters, then departed on the next foray.

And another meal being delivered

And they carried on hunting into the dusk at which point we upped sticks and headed for home. I don’t know how long the owls carried on hunting but the parents seemed to be so successful that they may not have needed to carry on for much longer, after which they would have spent the night at a roost site separate from the nest with the youngsters in.

It was a glorious evening and Sophie was beside herself as one of the owls flew right overhead and looked straight at her, as barn owls are wont to do, as she looked straight at it. A memory that will stay with me, and her I hope, for a very long time!

Brampton Wood

Again, harping back to last July, I took a stroll around a piece of woodland called Brampton Wood with a good friend of mine who is a bit of an expert on butterflies. Which is why we went to Brampton, which is ancient woodland made up primarily of oak, ash and maple and is famed for it’s exotic and scarce Lepidopterans such as black hairstreak, white admiral and silver washed fritillary.

Large skipper – Ochlodes sylvanus

We didn’t see any of the rare species, mainly because the weather was generally unsuitable, but probably also because we were talking too much and not paying sufficient attention, but the species we did see gave some lovely photographs.

The large skipper is part of a big family of butterflies called the Hesperiidae or the ‘skippers‘, so called because they dash around from flower to flower in a skipping motion. They are also easily distinguished as a skipper because of the way they fold there wings at different angles when they are perched (for those of you with an aeronautical interest they remind me of the US Navy plane the F18 Hornet).

Gatekeeper, Pyronia tithonus, patrolling a leafy ride

The gatekeeper is a common hedgerow butterfly, but as with all the other wildlife in this part of the world, it suffers at the hands of intensive agriculture particularly when that involves grubbing out hedgerows. In 2010 my daighter and I did the annual ‘Big Butterfly Count’ in a scrubby field at the end of our road and we counted 11 species in the allotted 15 minute window, including the gatekeeper. A few weeks ago the tenant farmer, obviously a public spirited soul, grubbed out all the scrub and brambles which were home to all the butteflies, so I suspect numbers of all Lepidoptera, and the resident dragonflies, will be severely depleted this year. Which is a real shame as the field is fallow and not doused with chemicals so was a particularly good site for insects. The dark patches adjacent to the black spots on the forewings of the butterfly here are called the ‘sex brand‘ and mark this one out as a male, the same markings being absent in the female. The gatekeeper is also known as the ‘hedge brown’ which gives you a clue as to its preferred habitat.

The splendid creatrure below isn’t a butterfly, it’s a six spot burnet moth:

Six spot burnet – Zygaena filipendulae – adding some additional colour to a thistle head

The burnet moths consist of the burnets and forester families, they are day flying creatures and all have club shaped antennae. The six spot burnet is found in grassland feeding on thistles, scabius and and knapweeds, and its flight season is from late June to August. Apparently the red spots can sometimes be yellow, but I’ve never seen a yellow one.