Tag Archives: Aegithalos caudatus

Bad birdwatching

The title of this post is unashamedly borrowed from the book “How to be a bad birdwatcher” by Simon Barnes (The Times sports writer and RSPB columnist), which I started reading today while I was waiting for my son to finish his swimming lesson. Having discovered what was meant by ‘bad birdwatching’ I can’t think of a better way to describe my fascination with birds and wildlife:

“…the first aim of being a bad birdwatcher: the calm delight of the utterly normal, and the rare and sudden delight of the utterly unexpected”. Genius.

I’ll write a review of the book when I’ve finished it, but please don’t hold your breath, reading a book is a fragmented and necessarily slow process these days.

Please forgive my rambling but there is a point to this. This morning I was planning to head to the lake beside the A14 between Histon and the northern edge of Cambridge to look for grebes, geese, ducks and cormorants. However, in the course of the last week I’ve seen green woodpecker on several occasions in and around the carpark at work on Cambridge Science Park. As I still don’t have a good photograph of a green woodpecker I reasoned an early morning stroll around work may enable me to put that straight. So that is where I headed.

Initially there were no woodpeckers to be seen but on a dull grey morning the trees and bushes were alive with birdsong:


Robin singing his heart out in an alder tree. He wasn’t alone, plentiful dunnock and wrens were doing the same

…as were numerous greenfinch, but this one clammed up as soon as I tried to photograph him. (Whilst taking this picture I was approached by a security man who said my camera looked like a shotgun. With the lens hood on at full zoom maybe a blunderbuss… but not a shotgun, surely!)

Cambridge Science Park is located on the northern edge of Cambridge bordered by the A14 to the north and the A10 to the east, it is around 1km in diameter and in keeping with the rest of this part of Cambridgeshire is as flat as a pancake. It was created in 1970 and some of the old trees and scrub remain between the buildings and the landscaping. These, along with small lakes and streams in drainage ditches form a good variety of habitat which is generally undisturbed.

I’ve worked on Cambridge Science Park for 15 years but I had no idea this  WWII pillbox was tucked away in the undergrowth until yesterday. (The pole in front of the dog has bat boxes at the top so I was very pleased to see the proactive approach to conservation).

Consequently there is alot of birdlife, from kestrels and sparrowhawks to water birds – ducks, coot, moorhen – and songbirds – greenfinch, goldfinch, great tit and I’ve seen goldcrest and lapwing on rare occasions. There are plentiful rabbit too and as a result it’s not uncommon to see foxes out the window hunting for a meal.

The Science Park was vibrant with birdsong during my walk and as time progressed the sun came out and it got warmer. I didn’t see any unusual species but the sheer numbers and volume of sound made for a very enjoyable walk.


One of numerous dunnock livening up the Science Park with their Springtime singing…

…and one of a flock of long tailed tit

A male great tit feeding on one of several bird feeding stations

… a magpie

…and a moorhen

Lots of birdlife to be seen, and all within a 500m radius of where I work. But I still hadn’t seen a green woodpecker. So I decided to head over to the lake within 500m of the Science Park where I know there are waterfowl including greylag geese… and green woodpeckers.

The lake didn’t disappoint. There were moorhen, mallard, greylag geese, great crested grebes – and even a single green woodpecker which was flushed up from the ground and disapperad into some distant and inaccessible trees.


Male, left, and female mallard

Greylag goose

The greylag goose is the bulkiest of the Anser goose genus and is the species (Anser anser) from which domesticated geese originate. Studies of greylag geese led the zoologist Konrad Lorenz to rediscover the theory of imprinting – the phenomenon you are probably familiar with, of baby nidifugous birds (those which leave the nest at a very early age) imprinting on their parents, which can be a human being if that is the first creature they encounter after hatching.

Konrad Lorenz was an interesting man and a glance at his Wikipedia entry reveals he was an Austrian biological scientist, born in 1903. He graduated from Vienna University as a medic in 1928 and received his zoological doctorate in 1933. He joined the Nazi Party and indicated his support for their ‘racial hygeine‘ theories (one of the worst obscenities of the 20th century in my opinion), accepted a chair at the University of Konigsberg in 1940, joined the Wehrmacht as a medic and was shortly after captured by the Russians and eventually repatriated to Germany in 1948. He went on to study aspects of animal behaviour, later extrapolating these to apply to humans, and in 1973 he received the Nobel Prize for medicine for studies on social behaviour patterns.

Returning to natural history, there was a pair of great crested grebe on the lake which I were hoping were going to display:

But this time I was unlucky. When displaying, they swim away from each other then turn simultaneously and swim rapidly toward each other and when they meet they rear up in a necking dance before repeating the whole process. I haven’t yet been able to get photographs of this beautiful courtship ritual, but I’ll keep looking.

I said at the top of this post that there was a point to the ‘bad birdwatching’ reference. I set out yesterday specifically to try to photograph green woodpeckers which I think are spectacular. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of a woodpecker, and no pictures, but I had a lovely time looking and seeing all the other wildlife.

So I guess by Simon Barnes definition I’m a fairly shabby example of the birdwatching fraternity! But I’ll live with that.

 

 

 

 

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Rotten borough, wonderful wildlife

I spent the last two days in Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. Dunwich and its surrounding countryside is a very interesting place from a political and natural history viewpoint. A paragraph about the political history first:

Until the Great Reform Act of 1832 Dunwich was classed as a ‘rotten borough‘, this was a parliamentary constituency with a very small number of voters for which the parliamentary seat could be bought and sold by wealthy patrons. Prior to 1286 Dunwich was the capital of East Anglia and a thriving sea port but in that year the first of several great tidal surges destroyed a large part of the town, sweeping it into the sea, reducing it to a small number of houses and therefore residents and voters. As a result of its earlier preeminence Dunwich had two parliamentary seats and despite it’s sudden demise retained these seats, with a very small number of voters, until the Great Reform Act was passed, (interestingly, it was his opposition to parliamentary reform which ended the premiership of the Duke of Wellington after he lost a vote of no confidence in November 1830). In the early 18th century the seat was held by Sir George Downing, 3rd baronet, whose grandfather (1st baronet) had built Downing Street in London. He was succeeded by his cousin, Sir Jacob Downing, who died childless and whose fortune was used to found Downing College, Cambridge, in 1800. An awful lot of history for a tiny village on the Suffolk coast.

Moving on to current natural history, the weather on the first day there was horrendous, rendering nature watching pretty much impossible. But on the second day the weather changed completely and was warm and sunny. The woods around the ruined friary were looking delightfully spring-like with snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) covering the ground.


Snowdrops growing in profusion amongst moss covered dead wood from fallen branches around Greyfriars at Dunwich.

A pair of goldcrests were very busy feeding in a bush at the edge of the wood which was good to see as they are not a common sight during my regular walks around Cambridge. Heading to the beach to the north of the Friary a pied wagtail (Motacilla alba)  was bathing in a puddle:

And a flight of four mute swans (Cygnus olor) flew by, heading south towards the lakes at Minsmere RSPB reserve:

Later in the morning a walk in Dunwich Forest was eerie. It started in a pine plantation which was all but silent, no birds were singing and there were few other signs of wildlife. Leaving the plantation behind I entered mixed woodland which was still quiet but  more diverse, with a mixture of predominantly pine and silver birch trees (Betula pendula). Birds were singing here but not in the profusion I’d hope for. Many of the pines were exuding aromatic sap:


Sap oozing from a wound in the bark of a pine tree. This stuff was extremely sticky but had a gorgeously delicate scent of pine resin.

The exudate was running down the trunks for several feet and in some cases from multiple places on their trunks, the aroma on a warm spring morning was lovely. A mixture of the earthy smell of well rotted compost and pine trees. Gorse bushes (Ulex europaea) were in flower here too, adding the scent of mild coconut into the mix.

Gorse bush in flower

The ground under the trees was littered with dead wood and moss and numerous fungi including puffballs, parasitic birch brackets growing on live trees and other brackets growing on dead branches, most of which defy identification by anyone who doesn’t possess the requisite expert knowledge. Which, alas,  includes myself.

After the forest I ventured to Dunwich Heath, parking by the lighthouse at the top of the cliff where gangs of black headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) were wheeling around the carpark and magpies (Pica pica) were bouncing along the ground around the cars scavenging scraps discarded by picnicers making the most of the glorious spring weather.


Black headed gull looking for leftover crumbs in the carpark at Dunwich Heath lighthouse…

… and a magpie using a signpost as a vantage point.

Leaving the carpark I headed down towards the reedbeds which I skirted for several hundred metres. The habitat here is varied with the reedbeds, scrub woodland, heath and waterways.


Looking east over reedbeds at the sourthern edge of Dunwich Heath between the heath and RSPB Minsmere, the sea is a thin grey line in the distance.

Consequently I was hoping to see a diverse range of wildlife. There was evidence that otters are in residence and sheets of corrugated iron had been placed on cropped bracken presumably to provide shelter for reptiles such as adders, grass snakes and lizards. The sun was shining and I was  sheltered from the wind so the conditions for a stroll were nigh on perfect for a February afternoon and plenty of birdlife was to be seen. Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) were hopping around the undergrowth and a flock of around 40 lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) passed overhead whilst numerous blue tits (Cyanistes caerulius), great tits (Parus major) and chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) were busy in the trees lining the path.


Cock chaffinch sitting high in a tree singing for a mate.

A single long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) also flew by and landed very close allowing me to take some photographs:


Long tailed tit providing a rare opportunity to take some close-up pictures.

The area around Dunwich is a great place to see all kinds of wildlife, the Dingle reedbeds running north to Walberswick are the largest in England and there are large areas of heath and woodland and the salt water lagoons at Minsmere to the south all providing a huge area of diverse habitat. It is also ideally located for migrants from mainland Europe in the winter.

And right in the middle is The Ship Inn where you can get a pint of Adnams  beer to slake the thirst after a days walking. Dunwich is very high on my list of favourite places to explore.

 

Fen Drayton nature reserve

Before I tell you about my outing to Fen Drayton here’s a short update on the forest sell off. After denying they are backtracking, the Government has said they may reduce the amount of forest they are getting rid of. Plans to lose 15% of the 258,000 hectares of publicly owned forest are on hold whilst the government ‘re-examine the criteria‘ for the sale. I’m hoping this is government style smoke-and-mirror speak for ‘we’re deciding whether we should proceed at all‘. Time will tell. I think any reexamination is good news and maybe a sufficiently loud public outcry will force the powers that be to sit up and take notice of the vox populi on this issue, and maybe a few others too.

I didn’t manage a wildlife post last week, other events overtook me including the weather, which was blowing a gale at the weekend so I was struggling to see anything through binoculars and photography was completely out the question! So apologies for the omission. There were a few highlights from last weekend though: in a tree in the middle of a field behind Abbey Farm north of Histon I saw a pair of kestrels copulating – which is a fairly unusual sight but it’s good to know the local kestrel population should be increasing this year. Further round towards the Girton road was a big mixed flock of around 50 starling, a similar number of redwing and around 200 fieldfare feeding on the ground and as I was counting these a little egret passed over. I’d been told by a dog walker a couple of weeks ago there was one in that area but this was the first time I’d seen it for myself. Egrets are a comparatively recent addition to the fauna in the UK and they are slowly finding their way northwards in England. The first time I saw them was in the fish market in the middle of Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, so they have very exotic associations for me and it’s great to see them so close to home.

I set off fairly early in the morning yesterday with my friend to head for Fen Drayton nature reserve which lies between Cambridge and St Ives. It’s a former gravel pit consisting of twelve lakes and ponds which is currently managed by the RSPB. There is a big area of water here interspersed with grassland, scrub woodland, some older more established trees and plenty of reedbeds. So it has a diverse range of habitats that are managed for wildlife and is therefore a good place to see birds.


Far Fen lake showing the varies habitat at Fen Drayton

Despite raining on the way up the A14, by the time we got to the reserve the rain had stopped, leaving complete cloud cover, so the light was very grey as you can see from the landscape shot above. Otherwise the conditions were good: mild, gentle breeze and the occasional, albeit brief, moment of sunshine.

The omens were good too when on the way to Fen Drayton we saw a hare running across a field, and on the approach to the reserve three bullfinch including at least two males were flitting along the hedge just in front of the car. When we were getting out of the car in the car park we could here a cetti’s warbler singing and three green woodpeckers rose up off the ground in quick succession just in front of us.

As we stopped to look at a group of tufted duck on the small pond north of Holywell Lake a jay which we had watched fly across the field appeared in some dead trees on an island in the pond and started stripping big chunks of bark from the tree, possibly looking for food it had stashed there previously. Jays are amazingly good at stashing and are aware that their fellow jays do the same and so will keep a look out to see if they are being watched. If they see another jay paying attention to their activities they will pretend to stashe and then fly off and hide the swag somewhere else.


Four tufted duck – one female and three males on the pond north of Holywell Lake. Note the piercing yellow eyes and the crest

Tufted duck are resident on lakes and we also get migrants visiting in the winter when they stop over on rivers and estuaries too. They’re omnivores and feed by diving to the bottom to sift food from the mud. I think they’re handsome birds especially when they turn their yellow eye to look at you.

Constant companions throughout our walk were chaffinch and great tit. They were present in numbers in almost every tree or bush I looked in.


Chaffinch male in a tree singing for a mate

There were a plethora of other small birds including blue tit, wren, dunnock, robin, goldfinch and long tailed tit. On a bright day it’s now a good time of year to look for and photograph birds because they are actively seeking mates and there are no leaves on the trees to conceal them.


One of a flock of around 7 long tailed tits whizzing through the trees – they’re fiendishly difficult to photograph like that so this is as good as it got!

There was almost a full house of the five common crows – jay, carrion crow, rook – but no jackdaw. There were quite a few magpies though:


This chap was bouncing around the car park

Coot abounded on all the lakes but the stars of the day were the ducks of which there were many species including our common or garden mallard, shoveller, tufted duck, gadwall and wigeon…


A single male wigeon on Oxholme Lake

… but the real star of the show was the goldeneye. There were displaying male goldeneye on Far Fen Lake but alas they were much too far away to get a photograph. They are also resident breeders with migrants arriving in the winter months too.

Mute swan were present on several of the lakes and a couple came over in flight too:


The A380 of the avian world…

And as with all good nature reserves the wildlife wasn’t solely ornithological. This beautiful little fungus was on a stem next to the path.


Dacrymyces chrysospermum – unfortunately I couldn’t find a common name for this resupinate fungus but its sumptuous colour against the green lichen on the tree stem is striking.

All in all Fen Drayton was a great venue for a Saturday morning wildlife adventure and I’ll be posting from here again before too long.

Larus ridibundus – 23rd October 2010

There were several ornithological highlights to be enjoyed in the Histon fields this weekend. It looks as though autumn is here properly as the weather has turned more chilly, so for the last week or two I’ve been hoping to see some of our winter visitors arriving from the north and the east. It was an exciting day today because the first flock of the year of several hundred fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) duly appeared, flying low and fast from east to west. Alas, they didn’t stop, but it was great to see them arriving safely in numbers. I’m anxious to get some photographs of fieldfare so now I have my new 300mm zoom lens I’m hoping this winter will provide some opportunities to capture them on pixels. If I manage to get some good shots I’ll post them here as and when.

For the record, I’m an amateur wildlife photographer and I use all my own pictures to illustrate my posts. I use a Nikon D40x and a combination of lenses: Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens that came with my camera which I use for flowers, insects and landscapes, Nikkor 55-200mm zoom which I used as my default general purpose lens until a month ago when I acquired a Nikkor 70-300mm zoom lens which gives me that extra bit of reach. I don’t often sit in hides or wait for wildlife to come to me, I walk around and photograph anything I encounter which I think is interesting and photogenic. Which covers just about everything!

Back to ornithology, other good sightings this weekend have included corn bunting (Emberiza calandra) which is a real favourite of mine as they have a wonderfully distinctive call and they often sit proud  on top of hedges and let me take photographs from a distance of less than around 20 feet, and they’ll sit tight as long as I don’t make any sharp movements – even the dog running past doesn’t faze them.


Corn bunting

Other regulars this week have included yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus), long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus), goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), and skylark (Alauda arvensis). The latter are great to watch at the moment, on a sunny day they whizz around low and high chasing each other at incredibly high speed in groups of up to 5 or 6. Lone larks sing the characteristic skylark song up high, and plenty more can be seen on the ground feeding in ploughed fields, and disappearing into the scrub of unploughed fields where they don’t seem to stay for long before joining in another game of aerial tag.


Skylark

However, I’m digressing from my main theme of this weekend which is ‘Larus ridibundus’, or the black headed gull. Both yesterday and today (23rd and 24th October 2010) there have been a flock of 35-50 black headed gulls on the ground in two different, but adjacent, ploughed fields. I think it’s easy to dismiss gulls as not being very interesting but a closer inspection of a flock of gulls is a real treat. They are consummate aeronauts with beautiful plumage and are highly gregarious in winter. Consequently I’ve spent a sizeable chunk of this weekend enjoying watching them and trying to photograph them:


Adult black headed gull with brown face (this one was taken last summer at Seahouses in Northumberland – not Histon)

Adult black head in winter plumage – note the dark spot behind the eye and the red beak and legs (this and the rest of the gull pictures in this post were taken in Histon)


Note the white tail and forewing and the black tips of the first five primaries

Black headed gulls are fairly small as gulls go, around 35cm long and 100-110cm wingspan. They build nests on the ground on coastal and inland reedbeds and marshes, lay one clutch of 2-3 eggs per year and live on average for around 10-15 years. It is not an endangered species with approximately 1.5million pairs in Europe. (For a full set of facts and figures check out the BTO BirdFacts website (http://www.bto.org/birdfacts/), this site is excellent for comprehensive metrics datasets on all common UK birds). Black headed gulls are rather inaccurately named as they don’t have a black head at all. It is dark brown and only covers the front part of the face and is only present in summer when it serves as a form of aggression between rival males. They stand face to face to maximise the visible area of the dark mask to each other, but within a breeding pair aggression is minimised by displays involving turning the head to show the white nape to the partner. The dark hood recedes in winter to a small dark spot just behind the eye. Adults have a deep red bill and legs and pale grey back with a white tail and white outer edge of upper and lower wings formed by 4-5 primaries with black tips.


Juvenile diving in on an insect or worm. It has the dark tip to the tail, pale brown mottled upper wings and pale buff legs characteristic of an immature individual

Juveniles have mottled brown plumage with a dark tail tip and orangey-buff legs. They feed on worms, insects, seeds, waste and carrion, and can be seen on inland water, grassland and farmland aswell as on the coast during the winter.

I think they’re amazing to watch so next time you see a flock of gulls have a good look and appreciate the beauty of these creatures – you wont be disappointed!