Category Archives: Histon

The indomitable wren

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

The wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

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

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

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

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

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Where did all the finches go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one of his fledged brood:

The male and a fledgling feeding together:

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

The mating season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter fieldlife

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

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

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

Grey heron (Ardea cinerea,Dansk: fiskehejre)

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

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

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

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

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

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

Black headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk: hættemåge)

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

A less welcome guest

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

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

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

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

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

Brown rat, Rattus norvegicus,

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

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

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

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

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.

Birds and bees…

…and butterflies.

A male large white butterfly (Pieris brassicae, aka the ‘cabbage white’) zeroing in on a potential mate…

I normally try to avoid taking photographs of UK wildlife on imported garden plants, in this case buddleia, species of which grow endemically on several continents, and I believe our UK variety arrived here from the Himalayas.

No longer anything ‘potential’ about her!

But in this instance the drama was so compelling (and I was testing out my new macro zoom that I introduced in the last post) so I decided to share this sequence.

Several mating events ensued after which the male settled on a lower flowerhead to sip nectar and replenish his energy reserves:

The large white, along with the small white (Pieris rapae), are known as the ‘cabbage whites‘ because they lay their eggs on members of the cabbage family and the caterpillars can do a lot of damage to cultivated cabbages. But I’m quite happy to share my cabbage allowance with them and I love to see them fluttering through my garden and along the hedgerows.

The busiest burdock

In my last post I wrote about the wildlife to the north of Histon. This post is about the wildlife to the west of the village. The two areas are divided by a main road and they are quite different in character. The north is very open with big open fields lined with ditches and hedgerows and the west has more trees and scrub.

In mid June I ventured there to compare the birdlife with that to the north, because I normally see less farmland birds like skylark, corn bunting and yellowhammer here, but more finches and migrant warblers like chiffchaff, willow warbler and whitethroat.

Dog rose (Rosa canina) bejewelled with raindrops

There had been a refreshing shower shortly before I set out which had left the flowers on a rose bush bejewelled with raindrops. It was a good time of year for the wild flowers as the ground had not dried out and there was plenty of sunshine. And of course, if the wild flowers are in good shape, there’s plenty of food for insects and therefore abundant sustenance for birds too.

(And on the subject of insects there was a news report from the BBC today regarding the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) which became extinct in the UK in 2000, but was reintroduced to an RSPB reserve at Dungeness in Kent and is now successfully breeding. Great news!)

But I digress. The dog rose flower was in the local meadow, but passing through there to the farmland beyond there is a field which is lined with drainage ditches, hedgerows and wide unmown borders which support a wealth of wildlife including wild flowers, bumble bees, dragon flies and birds. One of the wild flowers there is the burdock, Arctium minus, which has enormous spiky leaves and big burs which get stuck to your clothes, and on this walk there was a burdock patch that was full of songbirds:

A cock linnet resplendent in his sumptuous breeding regalia: the crimson bindi and rosy breast

The linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk) were omnipresent here throughout the summer, and occasionally a yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv) appeared too. It’s easy to find yellowhammers if they’re in residence because of their characteristic song (a-little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheese).

The striking colour of the male yellowhammer

And the yellowhammer song carries on the wind for hundreds of metres and because they are so colourful they’re easy to spot with a pair of binoculars.

A male whitethroat watching an adult linnet feeding a fledgling

At least one pair of whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger) were nesting on the edge of this field too. The whitethroat are amber listed and the conservation status of the linnet and the yellowhammer is red list due to decline in their numbers. And in a very old oak tree just a few metres from here was a pair of barn owls (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) nesting, and their status is also amber, but more about those in a later post.

Red clover – Trifolium pratense – the national flower of Denmark

The birds were twittering, and so am I

When the summer eventually arrived this year it arrived with a bang and three months of glorious sunshine ensued which finally came to an end last weekend (but I’m still hoping we have an Indian summer). In early to mid June I spent a lot of time catching up with the local migrants, and all the other wild creatures around the village. I saw more swifts, swallows and house martins over Histon than I’ve ever seen and migrant numbers seemed healthy. This maybe because I was out and about and able to see them, or, hopefully, because more of them arrived and bred successfully this year.

The pictures here were taken one weekend in early June when I ventured across the farmland to the north of my village. Because of the wet spring followed by proper sunshine the verges, hedgerows and meadows were verdant and laden with fruit and flowers.

Cow parsley in the meadow against a summer sky

Many of my walks in these fields included lots of sightings of brown hare. I see occasional hares here so it’s no surprise, but what was surprising this year was the sheer numbers.

Brown hares (Lepus europaeus) – males chasing off rivals for the attentions of the ladies

There are four hares in shot here but there were more in the field to the left and more in the same field to the right. It wasn’t unusual to see ten or more on one of these excursions; they also seemed to be enjoying the hot summer. Fingers crossed they had a successful breeding season too.

One of the migrants I’ve been hoping to see for the last three years, and which hadn’t put in an appearance was the yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava, Dansk: gul vipstjert). These little birds are spectacular and completely unmistakeable, and despite being a species of least concern in mainland Europe it is red listed here with only 15000 territories recorded in the UK in 2009.

Yellow wagtail perched on an old farm machine

This handsome chap was my only sighting of a yellow wagtail this year. They are one of those amazing small creatures, like the swallow, which spend the summer here in the UK but overwinter in South Africa. When they’re here they tend to frequent fields with livestock where they feed on the accompanying insects. Whilst there are no adjacent cattle or sheep here there is an enormous pile of manure which also attracts clouds of insects. I’ve seen wagtails here before but not for a several years, so it was good to see one again.

Cock linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk)

And another red listed bird, which I’ve also posted about recently, is the linnet. Unlike the yellow wagtail, despite their red listing, I see linnet in the fields every year, and the occasional flock of several hundred in the winter. They get their specific name from their like of cannabis. Not for it’s pharmaceutical properties (at least as far as I’m aware) but because in the old days when hemp was grown to make rope they fed on the seeds.

The wildlife on this weekend was abundant with a few rarities, so very high quality, but from a photographic point of view it was rather less auspicious. But I hope this skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke) makes up for that:

Skylark singing in the sky above my head

Skylark are not easy to capture because they’re ususally too high in the sky, or  moving too fast, or in a sky which is just too bright for good photography. But on this occasion the lark was very accomodating and there is just enough light to give the plumage a diaphanous quality which I really like, without overexposing it. The skylark is also red listed due to collapse in its numbers as a result of intensive arable agriculture, but there is a healthy population of them round here and there are often too many to count on a warm sunny morning!

By the way, I’ve just linked my blog to a Twitter account which you can have a look at here: @Thenaturephile. There’s not much in it yet as I only set it up at the weekend, but if you fancy taking a look please let me know what you think.

Meadow warblers

Our migrant warblers were all back from Africa and nesting by the beginning of June. There are four species which normally frequent my local countryside, the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk), chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger), willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus, Dansk: løvsanger) and the whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger).

The blackcap have been conspicuous by their absence this summer. The central European winter population, of which a pair took up residence in the garden last winter, disappeared in the spring and that was the last time I saw one. Chiffchaff were, as always, the first winter visitor I noticed returning because of their characteristic song calling out from the trees. There are several other birds singing in the background here but the call of the chiffchaff is clear above the others, and it’s easy to see where it gets its name from.

Chiffchaff male declaring his availability in early spring

It’s now at the start of September and I haven’t seen a chiffchaff for a while, but through the summer I regularly saw willow warblers which were nesting in a bramble thicket that I passed when I was out walking the dog. Willow warblers are very easy to mistake for chiffchaff by sight but willow warbler song is quite different.

Willow warbler parent with a beak full of insects heading for the nest

The song isn’t the only diagnostic differentiator between these two species, there are a couple of others but they are more subtle. The most noticeable is the colour of the legs, chiffchaff have dark, almost black, legs and the willow warblers are red brown. Differences in plumage of the willow warbler are the brighter stripe over the eye (the ‘supercilium‘), a more promounced dark eyestripe and the patch under the eye (the ‘ear covert’) is olive grey with a pale patch immediately below the eye, compared to the more uniform dark grey colour of the chiffchaff. So if you get a good look through binoculars it’s not too difficult to tell them apart, but the song is the easiest way.

Another foray to collect flies for the chicks

Pausing to check up on me before heading into the nest

For a couple of weeks there was a spot in the field where I could stand close to the nest and watch the comings and goings of the adult willow warblers bringing food for the youngsters, and they seemed cautious but otherwise content for me to be there if I stood still.

Whitethroat male – my best ever bird portrait!

My favourite warbler is the whitethroat. They are easy to tell at a distance, even without optical assistance, and this is my favourite picture of one. The male whitethroat has a jingly jangly song and when he’s advertising for ladies he perches on top of a bush and flies repeatedly in a jerky motion straight up and then flutters back down to the same spot.

And while I was busy photographing the warblers I was being serenaded night after night by this chap:

A male songthrush (Turdus philomelos, Dansk: sangdrossel) filling the meadow with song

A tad incongruous in a post about warblers, I grant you, but he was there all the time and his songwas magnificent! As with the chiffchaff there are several other birds calling too, but the thrush is easily distinguishable from the noise. This is the first time I’ve posted a link to my own (amateurish!) sound recording, but I think it’s OK. Let me know what you think.