Category Archives: Fen Drayton nature reserve

At long last

After a summer of fixing and painting and holidaying I can now sit down and devote the time to pick up where I left off with blog posting. I’ve collected lots of photographs and I’m about 20 posts behind, so here goes…

Since I acquired my new camera earlier on in the summer I’ve been crawling around in the undergrowth taking pictures of wild flowers and here are a few of them.

Wimpole Hall Farm is a stately home to the west of Cambridge which is owned by the National Trust and is set in extensive park and farmland. A stroll round the park there earlier in the summer was as rewarding as ever with a buzzard and a couple of great spotted woodpeckers putting in appearances, but I didn’t have my zoom lens with me so I was restricted to photographing things which were close by and didn’t move too quickly.

Growing in the shade of a line of trees were bugle flowers…


Bugle – Ajuga reptans

Bugle is related to self heal (Prunella vulgaris), they are both members of the family Lamiaceae and both have medicinal properties.

According to Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century English botanist and renowned herbalist:

Self-Heal whereby when you are hurt, you may heal yourself, it is an especial herb for inward or outward wounds. Take it inwardly in syrups for inward wounds, outwardly in unguents and plasters for outward. As Self-Heal is like Bugle in form, so also in the qualities and virtues, serving for all purposes, whereunto Bugle is applied with good success either inwardly or outwardly, for inward wounds or ulcers in the body, for bruises or falls and hurts. If it be combined with Bugle, Sanicle and other like wound herbs, it will be more effectual to wash and inject into ulcers in the parts outwardly…. It is an especial remedy for all green wounds to close the lips of them and to keep the place from further inconveniences. The juice used with oil of roses to annoint the temples and forehead is very effectual to remove the headache, and the same mixed with honey of roses cleaneth and healeth ulcers in the mouth and throat.’

I’m not sure what Culpeper means by ‘green wounds‘ but it makes me glad I live in the penicillin age. Indeed he died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 37. No herbs could cure that.


Purple self-heal

This picture is an attempt to give a feel for what an English meadow looks like in summer, two of my favourite flowers – self-heal and white clover (Trifolium repens) set in the long grass against a blue ‘Simpsons sky‘.

Another name for bugle is ‘carpenters herb’ due to its ability to stem bleeding, although it appears it does this not by catalysing the clotting process but by lowering blood pressure and heart rate in a similar way to digitalis, the active pharmaceutical compound which gives foxgloves their toxicity:

Foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea, growing next to the path to the cafe at Wimpole

On another foray into the countryside in June, this time to RSPB Fen Drayton, I was specifically looking for oxeye daisy and in amongst the daisies were these lovely dames violets (Hesperis matronalis). Dames violet originates in the Mediterranean but has colonised the UK after escaping from gardens. It has been used as an ‘antiscorbutic’, i.e. to treat scurvy.

Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and dames violet growing slongside the Cambridge Guided Busway at RSPB Fen Drayton
Dames violet flowers

Also growing alongside the busway were lesser knapweed (Centaurea nigra), which I think is rather lovely and not ‘lesser‘ or a ‘weed‘! I’d be happy for it to grow in my garden…

Lesser knapweed – I couldn’t find any reference to medicinal or herbal uses of lesser knapweed

…and ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi):

I couldn’t find any reference to medicinal uses of ragged robin either but it’s also rather beautiful and small clusters of it punctuated tracts of grass mixed with other flowers.

There’ll be more flowers to come, and butterflies… birds… mammals etc. etc.

Damsels of Fen Drayton

One of the reasons for my trip to Fen Drayton a few weeks ago was to have a look to see which of our dragonflies were out and about. I went in early June and that time of year is a little early for the true dragons to have emerged, although it’s not impossible. But despite the shortage of the true dragons, the hedgerows and lake sides were abuzz with damselflies.


Male red-eyed damselfly – Erythromma najas

Dragonflies and damselfies are the two members of the taxonomic order ‘Odanata‘ or Odanates. There are two sub-orders within the Odanata: the Anisoptera – the true dragonflies, and Zygoptera – damselflies.

Azure damselfly – Coenagrion puella – the blue form of the immature female

Damselflies in the UK are approximately 4-5cm (1.5-2 inches) long and have thin abdomens and are all smaller and more delicate than the chunkier dragonflies. Having said that, the biggest living Odanate is currently a damselfly who resides in the rainforests of Central America, it has a wingspan of 19cm (7.5 inches) and the abdomen is 10cm (4 inches) long. A real whopper!

Blue tailed damselfly – Ischnura elegans – immature femaleBlue tailed damselfly – immature male – Ischnura elegans

Male and female Odanates, and immature and mature individuals, can often be distinguished by colour. The common blue female below is conspicuously brown so the species gets its name from the electric blue colour of the male. The common blue can easily be confused with the variable damselfly which is the same blue colour, but they are distinguished by the black markings on segment 2 of the abdomen which is shaped like a goblet on the variable and a club on the common blue. Also, the antehumoral stripes (on the side of the thorax) are complete on the common blue and broken on the variable. Although, as the name suggests, the variable is indeed variable and it can make distinguishing the two species a little tricky.


Common blue damselfly female – Enallagma cyathigerum – the only common blue we saw on this trip, perched on my friends finger

The black goblet on segment 2 is visible under the front of the wings on the variable damselfly below. But confusingly, it’s living up to its name because the antehumoral stripes are unbroken.

Male damselflies have two sets of paired claspers at the end of the abdomen which it uses to clasp the female on her pronotum, which is the protrusion in the middle of the back of the head. The claspers have tiny hooks on them which match grooves in the female pronotum and in order to avoid procreational mismatches the hooks and grooves are species specific.

Variable damselfly – Coenagrion pulchellum

In the picture above a variable male has clasped his lady by the pronotum. Male damselflies have primary genitalia at the end of the abdomen on the 8th segment, but in order for fertilisation to take place he needs to transfer a ‘spermatophore’ from the primary genitalia to the secondary genitalia on the second segment at the thoracic end of the abdomen. The female then curls round in to the ‘wheel’ position to transfer the sperm to her genitalia which are underneath her 8th abdominal segment.

A pair of variable damsels in the wheel position

All the Odanates are carnivores, and the larvae which hatch from eggs layed under water are ferocious carnivores, the larger ones will even take small fish! On one occasion last year while I was photographing large red damselflies (Pyrrhosoma  nymphula), a large hawker dragonfly (I think it was a migrant hawker, Aeshna mixta) which had been buzzing around higher up for several minutes suddenly dived down and caught one of my large red damsels. In a few seconds the migrant butchered it and ate it on the wing and the inedible bits of wing and leg were discarded and rained down around me.

Scarce chaser – an immature male

A lone Anisopteran, or ‘true’ dragon was spotted on this trip and it was an immature scarce chaser, Libellula fulva. He was a lovely mustard colour and he can be differentiated from the female by the colour of the thorax which is dark grey in the female, and from the male adult who is electric blue. He undergoes quite a transformation in transitioning from immature to adult.

The Magnificent Mute

Mute swans are beautiful birds. There are few sights as impressive as a male mute, wings cocked, protecting his youngsters. The family below were on a very small lake at RSPB Fen Drayton and just before I took the pictures below, the male had launched a pre-emptive strike against a perceived threat at the other side of the lake, around 40m away. I couldn’t see who the interloper was but the sight and the sound of the big male as he raced across the lake, wings outstretched and beating on the water, must have been extremely intimidating. It was unnerving from where I was standing!


The male on the left is back with his brood after nullifying the threat. But he’s still got his wings cocked.

The mute (Cygnus olor, Dansk: knopsvane) is one of the biggest flying birds with a wingspan greater than two metres and an average weight for the male of approximately 11kg, it is a very impressive bird indeed and a group in the air flying close by is a real jaw dropper.

In the UK mute swans belong to the monarch and no one else is allowed to take them. They are marked every year, a practice that was originally identifying them  for the monarchs table, but I think Her Maj’s palate has evolved since then and eating swans is, fortunately, no longer fashionable.

It is native to the UK and a resident breeder but when things get too cold on mainland Europe winter migrants can show up here too. They tend to remain in their home territory all year round but can also form groups in the winter and move to a winter feeding ground, presumably this behaviour is driven by the temperature, availability of food and safety in numbers.

The ‘mute‘ in ‘mute swan’ is apparently derived from the fact that the mute swan is not as noisy as other swans. I’ve strayed too close to a nest before though, and at that moment mute was probably the last adjective to spring to mind as they voiced their discontent by making a violent hissing sound to warn me off. I took the hint and retreated as swiftly as possible.

Poison Parsley

Poison parsley is another name for hemlock. Hemlock originally attained notoriety around 2500 years ago when it was used to poison the Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. He was executed because his teachings were highly critical of the Athenian state and he was a thorn in the side of various high ranking Athenians. And in those days that tended to limit ones life expectancy.

Hemlock – Conium maculatum

I hadn’t knowingly encountered hemlock until a couple of weekends ago when I was strolling around the RSPB reserve at Fen Drayton, where it was lining the hedgrows in some profusion. It is an imposing plant that was growing taller than me, up to around 2m, it has dark green feathery leaves and white flowers that resemble the hogweeds.


This plant was growing amongst hogweed and cow parsley, and it can appear fairly similar to both, to the uneducated eye.

A variable damselfy (Coenagrium pulchellum) warming itself in the early morning sunshine perched on a hemlock frond

The hogweeds used to provide fodder for pigs, hence the name, but giant hogweed is toxic to humans due to its sap which contains a type of chemical called a ‘furanocoumarin‘ that causes the skin to become sensitive to ultraviolet light. That can result in extremely unpleasant blistering of the skin and blindness if it gets in the eyes. Derivatives of furanocoumarins have been developed as drugs for the treatment of psoriasis.

But the hemlock toxin works in a different way. It is called ‘coniine‘ and the chemical name is 2-propylpiperidine:

I think this compound is remarkable because it is very small for a molecule which has such a specific and catastrophic effect. It exerts its effect by blocking a receptor for a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which resides on the membrane on the far side of nerve synapses. This results in a condition called ‘flaccid paralysis‘. Basically, the nerves which facilitate muscle contraction get blocked and stop firing. It starts in the feet and travels upwards, the muscles go floppy and that’s ultimately fatal when the effect reaches the heart and lungs. Socrates’ death was described by Plato and his last words were to his friend, Crito:

“Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

The smooth stem of the hemlock plant

The purple spots on the stem of the hemlock are diagnostic, other similar plants don’t have this, so if you see it, admire it, but don’t touch it! All parts of the plant are toxic and it doesn’t take much to have an effect.

The flower head just before the white flowers emerge

Hemlock has a number of names according the the Royal Horticultural Society: California fern, cashes, herb bennet, Nebraska fern, poison hemlock, St Benedict’s herb, snakeweed, spotted hemlock, spotted parsley and winter fern. Also according to the RHS, its range is Europe only, but it has been introduced to the United States, hence the two names which include U.S. states.

Hemlock grows in damp poorly drained soils and is fed on by various insects including caterpillars and occurs in field borders and roadside verges aswell as along the lakes and ditches where I found it at Fen Drayton.

Insects and molluscs

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been out and about photographing wild flowers, and of course the raison d’etre of flowers is to produce the reproductive cells of the plant in order to ensure survival. And as plants are immobile they rely on other vectors to connect the male and female parts, that can be the wind and the rain but many flowers are exquisitely evolved to attract one or more species of insect to carry the pollen to the ovum and effect fertilisation.

So in the course of photographing the flowers some of them were hosting a pollinator or two:

Tree bumble bee – Bombus hypnorum

This tree bumle bee was sipping nectar from the flower of the white deadnettle. It’s one of the insects that is strong enough to get to the back of the flower and take the nectar. Flowers have evolved in this way such that the insects have to pass the stamen, which is where the pollen, or plant sperm, is produced. The stamen is made up of the filament and the anther, and foraging insects brush against the anther picking up pollen which they carry to the next flower where it is deposited on the female part of the plant – the ‘carpel’, and fertilisation ensues.

There are various species of bees in the UK but only around half a dozen common ones. Bees are in trouble in this country and no one seems to know why, both honey bees, which live in colonies, and solitary bumble bees are dying out at an alarming rate.

Buff tailed bumble bee – Bombus terrestris

The buff tail above was in a particularly poorly condition and had tiny mites crawling on it’s body so I imagine it didn’t do much more pollinating.

Soldier beetle – Cantharis rustica

The soldier beetles are related to the fireflies and they get their common generic name from one species which is bright red and is therefore named after the ‘redcoats‘ – English soldiers from days of yore. The larvae and the adults are carnivorous, the larvae feeding on insect eggs and caterpillars and the adults on aphids. They also feed on nectar and can therefore pollinate too.


Black slug – Arion ater

Alot of people have an aversion to slugs because of the damage they can do to fruit and vegetables, but this chap was out in the field making a meal out of a couple of dandelion seedheads. I don’t think they contribute much to pollination and they are predated by frogs and toads and also hedgehogs. Although I’ve heard that if too much of a hedgehog’s diet consists of slugs, parasitic worms living in the slugs can get into the lungs of the hedghog and kill it because its lungs fill up with fluid. Which sounds pretty unpleasant but I guess it’s not the fault of the poor old slug!


Brimstone moth – Opisthograptis luteolata

The brimstone moth is a splendid creature with a wingspan of 32-37 mm. It’s common and widespread across the UK. In the warmer climes of  the southern UK there can be three generations in a year but in the north there is only one brood per annum, and adults can be seen on the wing between April and October. The caterpillars feed on various trees and bushes including hawthorn and blackthorn.

A couple of weeks ago after days of rainfall which had moistened everything I found a 50m stretch of verge which was crawling, literally, with hundreds of yellow and brown snails.


Brown lipped snails – Ceppaea nemoralis. Just a few of the hundreds that were making the most of the damp conditions

The ‘lip‘ of the snails in their name is the front edge of the shell which can be seen in the next two pictures and is lighter brown on the yellow one and a much darker brown on the brown one:

Snails are predated by songthrushes. They pick up the snail by the fleshy part and crack the shell on a handy stone. Some years ago I was sitting at home on my own reading a book and everything was very quiet. I heard ‘tap tap tap’ on the front door, but when I went to answer it their was no one there. So I went back to my book. A few mintes later I heard the same tapping and again there was no one there, so I opened the door to have a look up the street and rather than a visitor there was a collection of broken snail shells on my front doorstep. It transpires the tapping I’d heard was a songthrush using my front doorstep as an anvil to swing the snails against and hammer open the shells!

2011 – That was the year that was

Every month of the year has different conditions which create environmental niches that favour different flora, fauna and stages of life cycles. So as 2011 rushes headlong to its wintry conclusion, for my last post of the year I was going to select a single photograph to represent the month to month changes in our wildlife throughout the year. And that was of course impossible for a number of reasons, mainly because it was impossible to represent any one month with a single image, and also because I have lots of images that I like and I want to share. I eventually managed to whittle the number down to an average of two per month which include a wide range of our native creatures in the UK including birds (migrants and natives), butterflies, moths, flowers, amphibians and fungi. I hope you like them!

January

Every autumn  lots of bird species vacate our shores to head to warmer parts of the world while we endure the cold of winter, and they’re replaced by other species which come from the north to the relative warmth of the UK in winter. Last year the autumn and winter weather in Scandinavia was ferocious and consequently many birds arrived here in larger numbers than usual, including the gorgeous waxwing. Along with the waxwing, redwing and fieldfare came too, as they do every year, and remained until the spring, providing some welcome colour.

On a bright cold January day a lone fieldfare perched in a tree

February

February was cold and the middle of the month saw us taking the children to the coast for our annual spring half term excursion, and this year we headed to the Suffolk coast at Dunwich. Dunwich is a really interesting place for lots of reasons, not least because the wildlife there is rich and varied. One of the harbingers of springtime which I look forward to every year is the flowering of snowdrops, and the woods on the edge of Dunwich were covered in them:


A carpet of snowdrops in the woods at Dunwich Greyfriars

March

By March many flowers were blooming and the fauna was turning it’s thoughts to matters procreational. And this dunnock was no exception:


A dunnock serenading the ladies from a bramble stem on Cambridge Science Park

Dunnocks have a rather to-the-point approach to the art of regeneration. They don’t get together in pairs as most birds do, they form small groups and mate with multiple partners and the males go as far as to remove packets of sperm from the cloaca of females who have been inseminated by rivals prior to passing on their own DNA. No nonsense!


A robin singing for a mate in an alder tree, also on Cambridge Science Park

And of course the birds aren’t the only creatures to get the urge in March. For the past 2-3 years a guided busway has been built between St Ives and Cambridge and as it approaches Cambridge Science Park it passes alongside a lake that is a spawning ground for thousands of toads which live in the adjacent woods and fields. The busway has therefore cut off the toads from the lake and, driven by the unstoppable instinct to reproduce, this pair were trying unsuccessfully to negotiate the sheer walls of the track. For a week in March I would get off my bike every morning on the way to work to help as many of them across as I could find.


The male toad is hitching a lift on the back of the much larger female on the way to the water to spawn

The male toad locks onto the back of the female with his front claws around her chest and he’s not at all keen to relinquish his grip until they’ve reached the water and he’s fertilised her eggs. After which armies of lone toads can be seen heading back the other way.

Fortunately for the toads Cambridge City Council funded the installation of toad tunnels under the busway so next year they should be able to negotitate the track and avoid the carnage which would otherwise have ensued. Hats off to the Council!

April

This month was a real wildlife fest and many types of creature allowed me to take some great photographs. The trees now have shooting leaves so everywhere has that lovely green colour from all the fresh growth.


Windswept male yellowhammer in the top of a hawthorn tree

The yellowhammer is a species which has become less and less common in recent decades as a result of hedgerow destruction and other modern farming methods, but we’re lucky to have plenty of hedgerows still in situ on the outskirts of Histon, and consequently, good numbers of these lovely yellow buntings. The hedgerow this one is on is mature and has old oak and ash trees in so it plays host to alot of bird species including blackcap, chiffchaff, dunnock, common whitethroat and green woodpecker, to name but a few.

Whilst sitting watching TV late one evening in March, what I initially thought was a bat emerged from behind the sofa I was sitting on with my wife. There had been no prior warning of its presence and myself and my wife both levitated off the sofa uttering something along the lines of “What the heck was that!?”. It fluttered into a lampshade where it staid long enough to get a photograph, and it turned out to be an emperor moth:


Our emperor moth inside a lamp. I though creatures like that only lived in tropical rainforests!

Unfortunately, a couple of days later I found her dead (she was the female of the species) still inside the lampshade. I extricated her and measured her and she was 7cm wingtip to wingtip. A magnificent beast.


A willow warbler beautifully framed by new leaves and blossom of the blackthorn tree

These little warblers which weigh on average around 9g have just arrived from southern Africa. I think bird migration is one of the most amazing natural phemonena – how does such a tiny creature navigate and survive a flight across the Sahara and then the Mediterranean? It’s absolutely incredible.


A pair of great crested newts getting ready to mate in a shallow pond – male on the left, more slender female to the right

The great crested newt was probably the highlight of my year. I’d never seen a newt before and in this pond there were great crested, palmate and smooth newts. I turned the flash power down and used an 18-55mm lens and got some reasonably good photographs of the newts underwater. And that at 1am after a few hours in the pub!

May

I’ve spent many a fruitless hour chasing orange spot butterflies up and down the hedgerows of Cambridgeshire, but they never seemed to settle for long enough to get a photograph. But one morning in May I must have timed it just right, they were in the mating mood.


Female orange spot announcing her availability in somewhat unambiguous fashion to a passing male who was just out of shot


Common whitethroat – these warblers also migrate to the UK from sub-Saharan Africa

The common whitethroat breeds in my local fields in good numbers. It’s easy to identify by its song and the way it perches on brambles and low scrub and then flits almost vertically up into the air to alight a few seconds later close to where it took off from and continue singing. This one is a male, he has a blue/grey head whereas the female has a brown head. As well as avian migrants from warmer climes, at this time of year many species of dragonfly are emerging:


Scarce chaser dragonfly at Milton Country Park

I like dragonflies. In the days of the dinosaurs there were dragonflies with a 75cm wingspan! They are fun to photograph (and often, not too difficult) they look awesome, and they have very interesting life cycles. My scarce chaser sat on a seed head for several minutes whilst I stood a few feet away photographing other dragons and damsels, occassionally he took off to circle the pond before returning to the same spot where he let me get to within around 50cm to capture his portrait.

June

In a normal year the weather will be warming up  nicely by June and flowers and insects and birds should be in abundance. But 2011 wasn’t a normal year, April was unseasonally warm which kick started everything, but the rest of spring and summer were cold and this had dire consequences for many butterflies and other species. One of the few that I did see in reasonable  numbers this year, although not as many as last year, was the large skipper.


Large skipper feasting on the nectar of a thistle

The marsh woundwort is so called because it has been applied to wounds to assist the healing process. I don’t know what the medical basis for that is, maybe it has antispetic properties. It  has a beautiful flowerhead and is one a good number of wild flowers growing in the drainage dikes on the local farmland around Cambridge.

Marsh woundwort poking it’s lovely head out of a drainage ditch which is full of various wild flowers every year

July

I found this splendid looking cricket lurking in the grass in a field on the edge of Histon. I first thought it was a very green grasshopper until I looked more closely at the photograph, and it turned out to be a Roesels bush cricket. It is an introduced species from mainland Europe which until recently was only found in the most southerly parts of England. There are two varieties and this is the long winged one which can colonise further afield faster than its short winged cousin, and is now as far north as Cambridgeshire and beyond.


Long winged Roesels bush cricket

This was the first of its kind that I’d seen and a few days later another one appeared on a blind in my house, so I guess thay can’t be that uncommon in this region now.

A pair of juvenile linnets

Before I got out walking in my local countryside around Histon I can’t remember the last time I saw a linnet, but they breed here in good numbers and in the winter flocks of many tens to hundreds can be seen on farmland around and about Histon. Linnet are finches which feed on seeds and the adult males are splendid with a cerise breast and a crimson spot on their foreheads.

August

When I was at school, many years ago, my Dad would feed the birds in the garden and it wasn’t particularly unusual to see the occasional bullfinch.  But mainly as a result of persecution their numbers declined dramatically through the 1970’s and 80’s and I didn’t see one for years. The males are beautiful birds and I’ve been after a good photograph of one for a long time. And finally…


A male bullfinch crunching seeds at RSPB Fen Drayton

I love this picture – so far it’s the first and only half decent one I’ve managed. Hopefully I’ll get a few more to share with you in 2012.

Later in August, we were on holiday in Northumberland, and amongst the many gulls and other seabirds on the beach at Seahouses was this redshank. I think it’s nature at it’s aesthetic best!


A lone redshank looking for nourishment in the rockpools at Seahouses

September

The biggest garden spider I’ve ever seen – she was around 4cm across

Another of natures harbingers, this time of autumn. My garden fills up with these polyocular purveyors of terror in September, and this lady was huge. She was 4cm across and was big enough to distract my son from a telling off. ‘Dad, there’s a big spider in my window‘ was an imaginative and very effective way to divert my attention from the misdemeanour of the moment. I ran to get my camera and I had to lay horizontally out of the bedroom window to take this photograph, as a result of which I couldn’t stay still for more than a few seconds!

October

After the coldest summer for 18 years we then had a mild autumn which meant that many creatures could be found out and about long after they have normally  migrated or hibernated, or died off. Swallows and swifts were still being seen into October and a bumblebee flew past my lab window one day last week. During a visit to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge, on 28th October, to see what winter wildfowl had arrived, there were some winter visitors including tufted duck, gadwall and widgeon. But the pontoon I was stood on had around half a dozen common darter dragonflies on it along with several species of damselfly in the surrounding reedbed and a lone migrant hawker patrolling the air which took a common darter and butchered it on the wing right over my head. Dragonflies can be seen late in the year when the weather permits, but even so I was surprised to see so many at the end of October.

A pair of common darters mating in the late autumn sunshine

November

One of my November excursions took me to RSPB Fowlmere, between Cambridge and Royston, which is renowned for its water rails. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before but I was tipped off by a fellow naturalist that there was one in front of a particular hide, so I headed off there and there it was, busy foraging in the pond for the whole hour I sat there. It was very murky so the photographic conditions were difficult, but I managed to get a couple of decent pictures and I particularly like this one:

A water rail in the primeval swamps of Cambridgeshire!

And another of my trips in November was to Norsey Wood in Essex which is a very different ecosystem to Fowlmere, consisting of ancient oak, beech and birch wood. So in autumn the forest floor is a really good location for fungi and this fly agaric was one of a large group growing out of the leaf litter.


Fly agaric mushroom amongst the fallen beech leaves of Norsey Wood

December

And finally, a wildlife success story is the long tailed tit. Until the last 10-15 years I only saw these occasionally but they now seem to be common, in direct contrast to so many other species of bird whose numbers are declining. I regularly see flocks of long tailed tits on the feeders in my garden and in the hedgerows and woods around Histon. They’re gorgeous little birds and I love watching a flock of them follow each other one after the other along a hedgerow before bunching together when they have found a food  source and then heading off again in line astern.

A long tailed tit in the hedges along Guns Lane in Histon

I stood quietly for several minutes watching the flock of around 15 birds that this one belonged to and they didn’t seem at all bothered by me as they picked insects from the trees.

So there you have it. 2011 in pictures. If you had the stamina to get this far, thankyou and I hope you enjoyed it.

Best wishes for a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and successful New Year from The Naturephile!

Subbuteo

Falco subbuteo, (lærkefalk in Danish), after which the table football game is named (it was the games creators favourite bird apparently), is a summer visitor to our shores. It is a migrant breeder and passage visitor, spending the winter in Africa and despite being widespread throughout Europe, there are only around 2000 pairs in the UK which are predominantly confined to the south and east below a line from the Severn to the Humber estuaries.

They breed in nests abandoned by other birds, often those of crows, and they feed on insects and birds which they take out the air in flight. To do that they need to be fast, and they are extremely fast, taking dragonflies and small birds by utilising their amazing speed either in level flight or in a stoop. They have a slate grey back and are white with black speckles underneath with dark, grey/black head, eye patches and moustaches similar to a small peregrine falcon (vandrefalk), and I find the easiest visual differentiator is the red thighs and underside of the tail.

Whilst I was at Fen Drayton nature reserve last weekend I watched one hunting and I managed to get some pictures, which aren’t the best quality, but I hope convey some of the drama of their high velocity hunting technique:

Beginning the approach:

…homing on the target:

…and pulling up with empty talons:

The red thighs are visible in the second and third photographs above, and are diagnostic for the hobby.

It’s exhilarating watching a wild predator hunting, especially at the speed these guys do it. And it presents an interesting photographic challenge too, one which I’m yet to perfect as the high speed flight of the hobby requires high speed panning. I’m looking forward to the next chance I get to practice.

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!