Category Archives: Milton Country Park

The disappearing dove

Every year millions of migrating songbirds heading from Africa to Europe get blown out of the sky by weird people with shotguns. That combined with the policy in the UK of destroying habitat at an alarming rate is making life impossibly possibly difficult for some of our iconic bird species, one of which is the turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur, Dansk: turteldue).

But last summer I was exploring one of my regular haunts, Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge, on a warm Saturday morning and the air was buzzing with insects including this handome hoverfly known as the ‘footballer‘ due to its rather fetching black and yellow striped thorax. This species is common in England reaching a peak in July which is when I snapped this individual.

The footballer hoverfly – Helophilus pendulus

And hoverflies aren’t the only abundant insects to be found in July. Milton Country Park is also home to mumerous species of Odonata, the dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera).

Common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum – perched on a seedhead

The Park has 4 big lakes:

MCP map

…and a few other streams and pools, and despite the abundant human presence it remains a haven for some properly exotic wildlife including a bittern that appeared for a week or so last year, and the occasional osprey stopping off on migration from sub-Saharan Africa to breeding sites further north in the UK.

The great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) isn’t an exotic migrant but it’s a beautiful bird and can always be found here:

The grebe was almost hunted to extinction because its dense feathers were coveted as a substitute for fur. But it has recovered and can now be found on lakes over most of the UK. The one above is an adult and the one below still has the striped head markings of a juvenile.


But getting back to the point, the undoubted star of the show on this trip was the turtle dove:

The turtle dove is in very serious decline, I believe we have lost around 97% of our breeding population and it is anticipated it will become extinct in the UK by 2020 as it’s also under increasing pressure in Europe. The reason for its catastrophic decline is that it feeds on seeds from cereals and other plants and both of these are a scarce commodity in the fields of the UK at the time the doves need them.

So the birds arrive here in the UK exhausted after a heroic migration across the Sahara and the Mediterranean. And those that avoid the gun-toting imbeciles in southern Europe arrive here to find there’s not enough food. So as it takes them a long time to rest and feed and get back into breeding condition, they only have time for a maximum of one brood per season before they have to head all the way back. And this enforced curtailment of there breeding window means they just can’t sustain their numbers.

They arrive back in the UK from around mid April so I’ll try to capture some more photographs before they finally stop coming here all together.

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Ever the optimist

The font of all wisdom in my area for what birdlife is around is the Cambridge Bird Club ‘What’s About‘ blog. A short while ago there was a report of a sighting of a bittern at one of my regular nature walks, Milton Country Park. This was an exciting development because I’ve never seen a bittern before, so on the following Saturday morning I set off before dawn to be in situ at sun up to try and see it. The bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: Rørdrum) is a small brown heron which lives in reedbeds and is so perfectly camouflaged it is almost impossible to find until it breaks cover. It’s famous for the ‘booming‘ call of the male which can be heard up to 1km away, so I set off hopeful of not only seeing one but maybe hearing it boom too. Ever the optimist!

The conservation status of the bittern in the UK is red, meaning it is scarce and under threat. Alas, the chap I was hoping to catch a glimpse of was very scarce indeed, to the point of being completely absent. Oh well, next time maybe. But every cloud and all that, even though the bittern had absconded there was other birdlife in abundance.

And not only birds, snowdrops were blossoming on the forest floor

The Country Park is made up of old gravel or quarry pits surrounded by a mixture of grassy scrub and mature woodland. Up in the treetops great spottted woodpeckers were hammering holes…

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocops major, Dansk: stor flagspætte)

I think this one is a female – the male has a red patch on the back of his neck which I think was absent on this one. The woodpeckers drumming sound results from the frequency of drilling rather than the power. They have energy absorbing tissues in the head to prevent brain damage and they strike at a frequency of 10-40 times a second which makes the tree trunk resonate, and that’s how they create their unique sound. Treecreepers were spiralling up these trees too, but they were just too quick to get a photograph.

But on the lakes there were hundreds and hundreds of water birds of all types:

Courting great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker)

The full mating ritual of the great crested grebe is a wonderful sight. I’ve only ever seen it a couple of times and it involves swimming away from each other to a distance of 20-30m or so, then turning and swimming rapidly towards each other and when they meet they rise up in a vigorous display of necking before settling back into the water facing each other and creating a heart shape with their heads and necks. This is repeated mofre tha once and is utterly absorbing and delightful to watch. I was fervently hoping that my pair here were going to perform but they were content to simply preen, commune and doze. Still lovely though.

Another male great crested grebe with a pair of male pochard in hot pursuit (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland)

Two male tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) eyeing a lady with bad intent. Love, or something, was in the air!

Both pochard and tufted duck are divers and the rapid spread of the tufted duck in the UK in the 19th century is though to be the result of colonisation of UK waterways by the zebra mussel which originates in southern Russia.

A male gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand)

On a grey murky day the gadwall looks like a dull grey/brown duck but when the sun shines on them they are quite handsome birds, easily recognised on the water by the black rump, general brown plumage and the grey/black beak.

Coot and moorhen (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne and Gallinula chloropus, Dansk: grønbenet rørhøne, respectively) are both members of the family Rallidae along with water rail (which I saw on a previous recent visit to the Country Park, but not this one, even though I spent 10-15 minutes quietly looking where I saw one before) and crakes, which aren’t to be found in these parts.

The coot…

…and the moorhen

The male coots were in the mood for love and fighting out on the water on all the lakes, and were too numerous to count, and the occasional, more secretive and less aggressive, moorhen ventured into view from the reeds at the lake edges.


The brown heads are male wigeon, the black and white ones are male tufted duck, the two brown ones in the foreground are a pair of gadwall and out of focus at the back is another gadwall and a coot

As the sun came up the birds on the water semed to spring into life and large groups of various species busy feeding. All the pictures in this post were taken in a couple of hours or so from dawn until 10-11am and within a 300m radius. But as the sun arose and the light changed the colour of the water changed dramatically and gave some wonderfully varied backgrounds.

I stopped at a gap in the undergrowth to photograph the various species above and as I stood snapping the robin hopped into view between me and the water pecking at the seeds on the ground left by a benevolent walker for the ducks:

I think the most colourful, and therefore my favourite duck of that morning was the wigeon:

A pair of wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand), the male behind, the lady in front

The male on his own – resplendent in his psychedelic finery

The wigeon is a resident breeder in the UK and it’s conservation status is amber, which surprised me because I see plenty of them on the lakes around Cambridgeshire. They are vegetarians feeding on leaves and shoots and rhizomes, and in my view they are one of our prettiest ducks.

So no bittern on this trip but lots of other wildlife on the water and in the trees!

Mating Mutes

The sun is shining a lot now and the snow has totally disappeared. Unlike two weekends ago which was bitterly cold and the lakes at Milton Country Park were partially iced over. It’s not always easy to see all the water birds but they had been coralled into smaller areas by the ice. Ducks abounded at the park with teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand), gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand) and tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) in numbers, as well as the customary mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, Dansk: gråand). There were two highlights of the trip, a goldcrest was busy hunting in a bush just a few feet away and seemed undisturbed by our presence. Goldcrest (Regulus regulus, Dansk: fuglekonge) are beautiful little birds, they are our smallest breeding species, weighing 4-7 grams, and the northern populations migrate south in winter with Scandinavian individuals crossing the North Sea to overwinter in the UK.

Mute swan pair with a male tufted duck in the background

I didn’t manage to get pictures of the goldcrest, which is a pity, but I did manage to get pictures of the second highlight, which was a pair of mute swans (Cygnus olor, Dansk: knopsvane). And if the goldcrest is our smallest breeder, the mute swan is one of the biggest (if  not thee biggest), weighing in at a hefty 10.5-12kg, and breeding is what this pair had in mind.

Mute swans pair for life and the courtship dance is delightful to watch, they gracefully circled each other, repeatedly intertwining their necks:

And the dance culminated in mating. The male climbed on board the female and grasped the back of her neck with his beak, the whole thing lasted just a few seconds, which was just as well for the lady as her head was held underwater and she actually disappeared from view.

And after mating they rose up, breast to breast out of the water and continued the necking dance:

Finally, they relaxed back into the water and finished the ritual by bobbing their heads towards each other, and apart from the mating moments the whole thing was very calm and sedate. I think mutes are simply regal, they are very big, powerful, animals and I can’t hink of any creature which is quite so pristine.

And shortly after mating the male climbed out of the water onto the ice for a post-coital stretch up to his full height and opened his wings, surrounded by a retinue of coot (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne) and gadwall. A fitting finale to this series of captivating natural events.

New Year Ducks

For the last 14 months or so I’ve been saving my spare pennies in order to upgrade my photographic hardware and the plan was to put the money towards the Canon 100-400mm telephoto zoom lens which I mentioned in my last post.

(I’ve bought several items in the last 7 or 8 months or so from an online second hand camera shop and I’m going to give these guys a free plug because they have been very good indeed. They are called ‘MPB Photographic‘ and are based in Brighton, UK. I got a cheap Canon 18-55mm lens, a Manfrotto tripod, several filters and the battery grip for my Canon DSLR. All were good prices and the quality has been excellent and exactly as described on the website, so I’ve saved between £5-600 so far! Apparently, the pictures of items on the website are always of the item you are actually buying, not a new one, and the images are zoomable so you can get a good look at it too. So after buying my lens there and it being in mint condition I’ve decided that I’ll buy second hand if they have what I’m after).

The good lady wife gave me the lens for Christmas and I was very excited about getting out and about with it between Christmas and New Year, and then on Christmas Day I came down with the lurg and was incapacitated for a week. But on New Years Day I was feeling a little more human, and the sun came out, so I was determined to get to a lake and try to take photographs of distant water birds.

Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula) – the male of the species, with his reflection and his piercing yellow eye

I drove the short distance to Milton Country Park on the north side of Cambridge, which was full to overflowing with folk walking off their New Years Eve hangovers. I’ve been on a mission to get a good photograph of a tufted duck because they’re handsome birds and I’ve taken many sub standard pictures which simply don’t cut the mustard, so I was pleased to get these pictures in lighting conditions that were challenging. It was a very cold but sunny day and by the time I got there in the mid afternoon the sun was already behind the trees, so the light was starting to fail and I needed high ISO to get a picture. But despite that the quality of the images is pretty good I reckon!

The male tufties were grouped together, there were around half a dozen of them, and a way distant was a female, paddling around on her own and she seemed to be avoiding the males.

The female tufted duck and a black headed gull in winter plumage

The lady of the species is dark brown on top with mottled brown flanks and is rather less noticeable than the male. Bit I really like this picture of her because of the colour of the water. She was 60-70m beyond the group of males in the pictures above and I really liked the difference in the colour of the water due to the sun shining on the trees behind her and reflecting on the water, but where the males were the water was the colour of the reflected sky.

So I’m very satisfied with the performance of my new zoom lens and I’ll be posting lots more pictures to show you in the very near future.

(P.S. I’ve been really struggling to keep up with all your blogs and it’s been a source of major irritation, but I’m now going to try to catch up with you all over the next week or so. See you soon. F)

Flowers and frogs at Milton Country Park

Not long after my lunchtime spin around Cambridge Science Park I paid a visit to Milton Country Park which is about a mile from where I work, as the crow flies. Wild flowers were everywhere, the sun was out, and there was lots to see including a family of treecreepers (Certhia familiaris, Dansk: træløber). Prior to this I’ve only seen treecreepers individually but this time a whole family of at least five birds was flitting around a tree trunk before flying to an adjacent tree. Treecreepers are fun to watch, they begin hunting low down on a tree trunk and climb up it in a spiral pattern to ensure they don’t miss any insects lurking in the crevices of the bark, they are very aptly named. I didn’t have my long lens with me so I couldn’t get any photographs of the treecreepers, but I did capture some gorgeous flowers on this outing:


Scarlet pimpernel flowers

I’ve never noticed scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) growing around Cambridge before but I’ll be happy if it spreads. The flowers, which were less than a centimetre across, open in the morning and close mid afternoon and were shooting from amongst the short grass. It’s common in England but less so in Scotland.

The purple and yellow flowers of the woody nightshade flowers (Solanum dulcamara) were illuminating the undergrowth:


Woody nightshade

The flowers of the woody nightshade are beautiful and eventually give way to berries which are green before they ripen into a lovely deep red colour. As the colour may suggest they are toxic, the main ingredient being an alkaloid called ‘solanine‘ (an alkaloid is a plant-derived nitrogen containing compound which can exert a physiological effect on humans. More infamous members of this category include opium, cocaine and marijuana).

The glycoalkaloid ‘solanine’ found in members of the Solanaceae family including the nightshades and potatoes

Solanine is also the active ingredient in deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, and is the compound which makes green potatoes toxic! The green pigmentation is due to chlorophyll which is produced when potato tubers become exposed to light and is not therefore toxic, but it is produced along with solanine. Solanine isn’t degraded by cooking so eating lots of green spuds is a bad idea.

As you might expect, solanine has physiological properties which make it a useful compound. Ancient Greeks would take it before consulting the priestess Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, to utillise its halucinogenic properties. And Italian ladies used the sap of the deadly nightshade in days of yore to dilate their pupils as they believed this made them more beautiful. Hence the specific name of the deadly nightshade ‘belladonna‘ (‘beautiful lady‘ in Italian). It was also used by torturers as a medieval truth drug to extract confessions. In more recent and enlightened times therapeutic doses have been used to treat a range of conditions incuding inflammatory eye diseases such as uveitis, and it has also shown inhibitory properties when applied to melanoma (skin cancer) cells. It’s amazing stuff!


Common frog – Rana temporaria

A frog hopped across the path in front of me and hunkered down in the undergrowth to avoid being spotted and/or predated, so I got up close to capture some portraits. I was within 8-12 inches and it didn’t flinch, so I took half a dozen pictures before it hopped off deeper into the bush.

Rosebay willowherb – Chamerion angustifolium

At the edge of a lake a stand of rosebay willowherb was just coming into flower. The flower spikes and leaves of willowherb have been used to treat grumbly bowels and apparently it makes a good mouthwash too. The willowherb was interspersed with spears of aarons rod:

Aarons rod – Verbascum thapsus

This aarons rod was a very fresh example and was only just coming into flower but when in full bloom the spear is full of yellow flowers from the leaves to the apex. They have been lining my route to work since June and there are still some hardy individuals lingering on into the autumn. Aarons rod has been used medicinally as an expectorant to treat coughs and for numerous other conditions including colic, eczema, boils and warts. It’s a very versatile plant.

Tufted vetch – Vicia cracca

Many shrubs and bushes were festooned with the flowers of tufted vetch which is a European native and has also been introduced to the Americas where it is a weed. The flower heads were several inches long and a rather fetching blue/purple colour. It grows over other plants by shooting out tendrils which grasp stems and provide an anchor for further encroachment. It can grow up to 2m tall and can strangle smaller plants. But the flowers are lovely

Wild Geese

At the same time I was experimenting with ISO and coots at Milton Country Park there were geese in the vicinity too. A small flock of greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås) were grazing in a field  immediately adjacent to the park.

There is another flock of greylags I encounter every day on my way to and from work. There are around 20-30 that have taken up residence in a field that is on my cycle route. The field is adjacent to a lake and the cycle path passes between them and every morning I pass by there are numerous heads poking up above the crop. I’m surprised the farmer puts up with this because the field now has a number of large threadbare patches as a result of the goose activity. But the geese have been there for a couple of months now and so far he hasn’t shot them so I imagine he probably doesn’t plan to. Which I’m rather pleased about.


Five of a small group of greylags ensconced in a field immediately adjacent to Milton Country Park

The RSPB website tells us that the greylag is the ancestor of domestic geese and is one of the largest and bulkiest geese native to the UK. It also describes it as ‘uninspiring‘. However, a few weeks ago on my way to work the flock of greylags were spooked and flushed up into the air. They headed for the safety of the lake which was only around 75m away so they didn’t need to gain height and one of them veered around and was heading straight for me at headheight. We simultaneously computed that if we continued on our current trajectories the end result would be an ugly collision twixt self and goose! So I braked and the goose wheeled, and it duly arrived at the lake unscathed, passing a few metres in front of me. My adrenaline levels were significantly elevated for the remainder of my journey to work and I can attest to the fact that this particular greylag was indeed very large and very bulky. And anything but uninspiring.

A lone canada goose – I like the symmetry of the reflection

The canada goose (Branta canadensis, Dansk: canadagås) was introduced to the UK and is now a resident breeder here and can be seen all over the UK apart from northern Scotland, and like the greylag it feeds on vegetation. I think it’s a handsome bird.

Returning migrants and lots more besides

Occasionally, but fairly infrequently, it’s a struggle to find enough interesting nature to put together a post, and then every now and again so much happens that it’s difficult to fit it all in. Last weekend was one of the latter.

It started to get interesting as I was cycling to work on Friday morning, a bird caught my eye in a hedge outside work and first off I thought it was a bullfinch, which I’ve never seen on Cambridge Science Park before. But then I got a better look at it and it was immediately apparent it wasn’t a bullfinch, it had similar colours but in a different pattern, so I did a quick U-turn to get a better look. It turned out to be a black redstart male in full breeding regalia (Phoenicurus ochruros, Dansk: husrødstjert). He was magnificent but alas, because I was heading to work I was camera-less, so if you’ve never seen one, dig out a bird reference book and check him out, it’s worth the effort.

I went back to work on Saturday morning with my camera to see if he was still there but there was no sign of him so I carried on to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge. It was a bright sunny morning and I arrived there just after 8.30 and it was already warm. And it augured well because it turned into a real bird fest. I was hoping to see some returning migrants and as I got out the car I could hear chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) calling in the trees around the carpark. The first migrant I actually saw was completely unexpected and turned out to be a pair of sand martins (Riparia riparia, Dansk: digesvale) which I haven’t seen for years. There were also swallows (Hirundo rustica, Dansk:  land svale) flying low over a lake and this is roughly the same time I saw the first swallow last year. Like swallows, sand martins also over winter in South Africa, but unlike swallows they nest in burrows which they excavate in sandy banks. There are some man made burrows for the sand martins at the country park but so far they’ve been ignored by the martins, but the occassional kingfisher pair have availed themselves of the opportunity.

Close to where the swallow was hunting is a small island with a tree on it where cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo, Dansk: skarv) can often be seen perched. This time there was a carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) sat on top and a pair of common terns (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne) were taking exception to its presence and were working as a team to dive bomb it:

A singleton…


… and in tandem

I almost felt a little sorry for the crow, but I’ve watched them terrorise so many birds, especially buzzards and other birds of prey, in a similar fashion that the sympathy was a tad less enthusiastic than it may otherwise have been.

A migrant which was present all over the country park was the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk), in one bush there were a minimum of four and possibly six or even more. They were squabbling away in the  bush presumably in the midst of a territorial dispute. I saw the first blackcap of 2012 a few weeks ago at Danbury Common in Essex during my unsuccessful mission to look for adders.


Blackcap male, the female is similar but easily distinguished because her cap is a rusty brown colour.

As well as the migrants the trees and bushes were full of the song of more familiar resident species such as the robin, blue tit, great tit, blackbird and wren. All were energetically vociferous, filling the air with a wonderful cacophany. And amongst these I caught a tantalising glimpse of a much less common species, the treecreeper (Certhia familiaris, Dansk:  træløber). Treecreepers are very aptly named and are fun to watch as they hunt insects in the crevices of tree trunks, spiralling upwards in a corkscrew pattern. A pair of sparrowhawk and a pair of buzzard were also busy performing their aerial courtship routines.

There were none of the winter ducks such as tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand), pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland), gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand) or widgeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand) on the water, they had all headed off north to their breeding grounds. But several birds including coot (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne) and greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås) had chicks on the water:


Greylag geese with six chicks

I paused to try to get a shot of a great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker), all now in full brown breeding plumage:

And as I stretched over the water, trying hard to get a clean shot of the grebe, and even harder not to pitch headlong into the lake, a grey heron (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) flew low overhead:

It was so low I thought it must have pitched up very close to where I was but on an adjacent lake, and a quick scan revealed it sat in the top of a tree being pestered by the common tern that had earlier been harrassing the carrion crow:

The terns were deeply unhappy with any potential predator, although they were less keen to buzz a pair of sparrowhawks which were in the air above the same stretch of water!

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!

Autumnal Anisopterans

Yesterday, 28th October, was one of those glorious sunny autumnal days where the air was fresh but the temperature was raised by bright sunshine, and I’d heard that the winter migrants were arriving on the lakes at Milton Country Park on the northern edge of Cambridge. So I took my camera to work and headed there for a stroll at lunchtime in the hope of snapping a teal or wigeon or perhaps a more unusual visitor. Several waterbirds were on parade including these cormorants:

Several migrant duck species were there too, including wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand), the duck with the chestnut head in the background of the cormorant picture is a male wigeon, tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand):


A male tufted duck resplendent in his pied plumage and bright yellow eye

…and gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand).

What I didn’t expect to see though, certainly not in the kind of numbers present, were dragonflies. It’s  nearly November and the weather has started to get more autumnal but the warm weather up to now must have suited these airborne predators. In particular common darters (Sympetrium striolatum) were conspicuous, six at one time including two mating pairs. It’s always a treat to watch dragonflies but especially on a sunny day at the end of October, living uo to their name and darting about making a loud low frequency buzzzing noise .

Stunning symmetry of a pair of mating common darters

The darters were sunning themselves on the fence lining a viewing jetty on the edge of a lake and while they were busy warming and copulating a migrant hawker (Aeshna mixta) was patrolling the adjacent reedbeds. All the dragons were pretty much oblivious to my presence unless I ventured too close then they would rise into the air, the copulating couple in tandem, only to return to pretty much the same spot with 30 seconds or so.


Migrant hawker

Every so often one or more of the common darters would chase the hawker away until it lived to its name and plucked one of them out of the air and butchered it whilst flying around our heads, scattering the inedible parts around us. After its aerial snack it headed up into the treetops and disappeared.


The hawker missed a trick. It went to alot of effort catching its darter on the wing when it could have had twice as much protein if it had spotted this pair. But I’m glad it didn’t!

Water birds at Milton Country Park

As I mentioned in my previous post, when I was at Milton country Park on a dragonfly hunt there were lots of birds about too, So between photographing the darters and hawkers I managed to capture some water birds:

Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus, preening on a log in a lake
Moorhen chick

Moorhens are common water birds seen on rivers and lakes, they can be secretive but are often seen out of the water on grassland. They are resident breeders and winter visitors in the UK with approximately a quarter of a million individuals. They are omnivores and are one of the few British birds which practice cooperative breeding where youngsters will assist in rearing subsequent broods. Their red beak and very long yellow legs and toes are distinctive and peculiar to the moorhen. The taxonomic name ‘Gallinula chloropus‘ translates as ‘little green footed hen’. For my international readership, the Danish name is ‘Grønbenet rørhøne‘ – according to the BTO. (If you actually call it something different or have a local name please let me know).


This coot (Fulica atra) was one of a group of moorhens and coots, including the moorhen above

I find coots amusing to watch as they have splendidly bad attitude and defend their patch against all comers, even members of their own species, and will aggressively charge other birds. They inhabit the same territories as moorhens and are also resident breeders and winter visitors. (In Danish – blishøne).

Great crested grebe with youngster

My favourite water bird (apart from the kingfisher, of course) is the great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus). They can regularly be seen on open lakes and have been persecuted in the past because of their dense plumage which was used in place of fur. They have distinctive crested head plumage and an amazing courtship display. During the foot and mouth crisis in 2001 I watched a pair for a long time performing on a lake in Leicestershire – one of the few pieces of countryside where access wasn’t forbidden at the time. They would swim away from each other in a straight line for 20m or so and then turn and with beaks low on the water swim towards each other at high speed, raising up when they reached each other forming their necks into a heart shape. All terribly romantic! It’s a beautiful display and one of these days I’ll hopefully see it when I’ve got my camera handy. (By the way, in Danish these are ‘toppet lappedykker‘). Great crested grebe are also resident breeders and winter visitors but the numbers are much less than moorhen or coot, with 8000 adults here in the summer. Despite the lesser abundance their conservation status is green.