Tag Archives: blackcap

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.

Advertisements

That time of year

Spring appears to have now definitely sprung, but before that the weather was very cold and many songbirds were coming to the garden to feed. One of the regular species was the blackcap pair which arrived during the fierce weather after Christmas and left around three or four weeks ago when the weather started to warm up.

The female blackcap – easily identified by her brown cap

There are two types of blackcap in the UK: those that migrate to sub-Saharan Africa to overwinter and those which migrate here from central Europe to overwinter. So I guess my pair, which oddly I rarely ever saw in the garden at the same time, were European visitors sampling our balmy winter weather.

Even though the female was the first blackcap I saw in the garden she visited nowhere near as often as the male and it took me a while to get a good portrait of her, but I managed to get these just before they disappeared to enjoy their springtime and rear their chicks in Germany or Poland.

Constant visitors all the way through the winter and still resident are my pair of chaffinch which are always welcome to brighten up a dull day.

Cock chaffinch resplendent in full courtship plumage

…and the charmed lady

The chaffinch pair probably have a nest nearby with chicks in, but before eggs and chicks the delicate matter of mating needs to be taken care of:

A pair of collared dove demonstrating that the act of lurv is not always so delicate

Spring has indeed sprung!

Sylvia – another unusual visitor

Like a lot of other folk I gave up making new year resolutions a long time ago because the resolve would normally last until the 2nd or 3rd of January before slipping quietly unnoticed into the flotsam and jetsam of recent history, never to be seen again. But for 2013 I made two resolutions – the first was to get current with my wildlife diaries which have been appallingly neglected for far too long – and the second resolution was not to condemn the first one to the black hole into which it would normally be swallowed. And so far so good, hence I’m feeling rather pleased with myself.

This years listings can be found here at ‘Histon Wildlife Diaries 2013‘ and if you notice gaps of more than a couple of weeks opening up please feel free to leave a pointed reminder that I need to get my finger out and get up to date!

As a consequence of my girded up loins and renewed efforts I’ve been spending more time peering into the garden to see which creatures are in residence. Just before Christmas I saw the first blackcap in the garden, it was a male with his coal-black cap, like a judge about to hand down the ultimate sentence, and he stayed for all of 2-3 seconds before zooming off into the sanctuary of our neighbours orchard. And of course I was very pleased with this visitation because it’s always good to welcome a newcomer.

Then a couple of weeks ago when the winter weather was at its filthiest here in Cambridge a female appeared and spent some time refuelling on my fatball feeder:


A female blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) on the birdcam fatball feeder

The birdcam used to be around 6m away from where it is now but there were very few takers for the lardy delights on offer.  But since I moved it to its current location it has been busy every day with numerous bird species. The reason for the change is the lack of cover in the original location which left the birds exposed to the possibility of predation by the local sparrowhawk. But now they have cover within a metre or so and and I can sit and watch them all in close up on the TV. And one of the first to arrive after I moved it was my lady blackcap, who you’ll have immediately noticed has a rufous brown cap, not the blackcap of the male. The specific name ‘atricapilla‘ means ‘blackcap‘ and the Danish name ‘munk‘ means ‘monk‘. I wonder which godly habits gave him that name, or is it simply his ecclesiastical bonnet?

She arrived early on a murky morning, fed quickly and left, and that was the last I’ve seen of her. But a couple of days later a male blackcap arrived and he’s been visiting several times a day every day ever since then:


The male blackcap feeding on an old apple

I’m puzzled as to why the female has been so conspicuous by her continued absence, I guess that now the weather is considerably more pleasant she is more comfortable feeding out in the countryside.

The male doesn’t restrict himself to ground feeding on fruit but is a more regular visitor to the fatballs.

And he tops up with water too. In the picture below he is wary of the goldfinch nibbling niger seed on the adjacent feeder. He was also aware of my presence behind a glass door around 8m away and when the goldfinch disappeared he threw numerous glances in my direction, but so long as I remained still he wasn’t too bothered.

Until recently it was thought that the blackcap was a migrant breeder here in the UK and that they spent their winters in Africa, apart from a sub population that remained here in the winter. But it is now thought that all of ours overwinter south of the Mediterranean and our winter visitors are a separate population from central Europe which migrate here to overwinter. In which case my visitors will be heading back east in the near future. After that I’ll hopefully see and hear our migrant breeders out in the hedgerows where they make a distinctive call which I think sounds like someone flint-knapping.

The British Trust for Ornithology have published a factsheet about blackcaps and their migration behaviour which is worth a read. We also have passage visitors as Scandinavian birds head south and it appears that garden bird feeders are having a major impact on the behaviour of blackcaps and other species too, such as nuthatch, which are now spreading into Scotland, assisted by garden feeding and climate change.

Tits, tits, tits!

Coal, long tailed and great, that is, in case you were thinking the News of the World had reinvented itself in blog format! The reason I’ve dedicated a post to the tits is because they have been the most regular visitors to my feeders and on many days I’ve seen these four species there at the same time: blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus, Dansk: blåmejse), great tit (Parus major, Dansk musvit), coal tit (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse) and long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemejse).

Two factors combined to make photographing the songbirds in my garden considerably more challenging than is customary. Long periods of murky wet weather meant that the light was rarely optimal, and secondly, very few birds came to the garden at all up until November, and even then not in the numbers that have visited in previous years. I think the reason for that may have been the relative abundance of food in the countryside due to the mild and wet conditions that prevailed in the summer and autumn which gave rise to an abundance of blackberries, haws, sloes, hips and other berries. Then after November the birds started to reappear but the light didn’t improve so I took photographs at ISO settings of 1000-2000 to get the requisite shutter speeds, which is higher than I would normally use because of the higher background noise. Despite that I got some nice images:

Coal tit looking for a meal on a murky morningCoal tit looking for breakfast on a cold foggy morning

The coal tit is distinguishable at a glance by the prominent white stripe on the nape of its neck. They’ve been regular but infrequent visitors to my garden in other years but in the last couple of months they’ve been coming in ones and twos every day. The tits are not always easy to capture because they usually feed by grabbing a seed or nut and then flying into the cover of an adjacent bush to eat it. But just occasionally they linger for long enough, as this coal tit did. They prefer coniferous woodland in the breeding season where they feed on spiders and insects and in wintertime they are also prevalent in towns when they will also feed on seeds. Their conservation status is green, they’re resident breeders in the UK and can be found across Europe and Asia and in Africa too.

Long tailed tits disobeying the cardiologist!Two of a small flock of long tailed tits

As with coal tits, the long tailed tit is also immediately recognisable. Seeing one almost invariably means there are more close by. They fly from A to B one at a time, each following the previous one by half a second or so and are usually in small flocks of 10 or a dozen. I often hear them before I see them as they chatter to each other as they’re on the move. They like to feed on the fat balls I hang out, as do the other tits, and there can be 3 or 4 there at the same time with several more in the adjacent bushes, waiting their turn. They’re very charming little birds and I’m looking forward to them visiting on a bright sunny day so I can get some better images. Like coal tits they are also woodland birds, found across Eurasia they are resident breeders in the UK and their conservation status is green.

Great tit preparing himself to launch onto the seed tray

Great tits are probably the most regular partakers of the fare provided by my feeders, and that’s no bad thing, they’re handsome birds. There are a pair, male and female, feeding on seeds as I write, and they’ve just been joined by a pair of blue tits. The great tit is one of the birds that put the ‘song‘ in songbird, my Collins guide describes them as having a ‘rich repertoire’ and I’ve read they have around 70 different vocalisations, which suggests highly complex vocal communication for a small bird.

The male above has a chunk of peanut between his toes which he is pecking from. He is distinguishable from the female by the width of his black breast stripe which reaches as far as his legs, and the female below who has a very thin stripe which tapers downwards, is nibbling at a fat ball. In the depths of winter small birds need to spend most of the day feeding because the majority of their energy intake is used to maintain body temperature. Birds as small as a coal tit, which weighs 8-10g, therefore spend virtually all day feeding just to stay warm and they can die of hypothermia very quickly on a wintry morning if they don’t find food within a short time of waking up. So as us humans have destroyed so much natural habitat, our gardens and feeding stations are an essential lifeline for many species of birds.

Great tits also have green conservation status, numbering 2 million in summer 2000 according to the British Trust for Ornithology. Other species which have put in an appearance are the wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdesmutte), blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort), dunnock (Prunella modularis, Dansk jernspurv) and a lone male blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) flew through on one occasion – one of our eastern European overwintering blackcaps. Early one dark foggy morning as I was replenishing the feeders I caught a small movement out the corner of my eye so I glanced round without moving my head and a wren sat around 3 feet away watching me. When I finished I stood and watched him and he just waited for me to leave before grabbing some breakfast. I found out recently that wrens are our commonest bird, which really surprised me, but then they are adaptable and aren’t restricted to one particular habitat. It’s nice to see them flitting around the garden in their perpetual search for insects to see them through the winter.

(N.b. I source my bird feed from Vine House Farm. I wouldn’t normally do a free plug but I really like what these people do. They work together with the Wildlife Trusts and they farm the land to produce bird feed in the most wildlife-friendly way they can, and they publish a free newsletter to update on progress and news from the farm. Their feed is not always the cheapest but I’ve always found it to be very high quality.)

Wee brown birdies

In the brief intervals between howling gales and torrential rain in these parts we’ve had the occasional glimpse of sunshine, and in those moments I’ve managed to grab a few pictures of some small birds; those little ones that look small and brown at a distance and can defy attempts at identification.

I’ve been a little concerned at the small numbers of certain migrants which have returned to my local patch, in particular blackcap, yellow wagtail and whitethroat.


Common whitethroat – Sylvia communis, one of the few to return to the Meadow in 2012

Last year at this time I would expect to see 5-10 whitethroat during a circumnavigation of the Meadow but this year I hadn’t seen any until I spotted this one and his mate, last week, bringing food to the nest. I also found another pair which I think are nesting in a tree on the other side of the track to this pair, but I’m yet to confirm that. And I still haven’t seen a single blackcap or yellow wagtail in 2012. Hopefully they made a successful migration back here and are just elsewhere, but I do miss ’em, they liven up my walks with the dog.


Chiffchaff – Phylloscopus collybita

A wandering warbler which has returned in numbers is the chiffchaff, and I hear them singing almost everywhere I go. This one was in a field here in Histon, and let me get close enough to take this picture, which is my favourite chiffchaff shot.

The rest of the birds in this posts are not migrants in the UK and I see them all year round. The yellowhammer is a bunting that has a very distinctive song, described in numerous field guides as ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheese‘. Which is a very good example of the pitfalls of trying to over-interpret birdsong! I was with my daughter when we saw (and heard) this one calling, and after telling her about the ‘little-bit-of-bread…’ thing we spent the rest of the walk thinking up alternatives. My favourite was ‘I’m-going-down-the-pub-for-a-beer‘.

Yellowhammers – Emberiza citrinella

I was particularly pleased with the second yellowhammer picture because I like the out-of-focus foliage surrounding the focussed bird. I recently upgraded my DSLR to one with more sophisticated focussing capabilities than my ageing Nikon D40x, which all my pictures up to now have been taken with. And one of the main reasons was so I could focus more quickly on small birds in bushes, such as this one, where the foliage was moving around in the breeze causing the camera to struggle to find focus. This picture was taken with my D40x and I was surprised by how well it turned out, so maybe I’d have delayed upgrading if I’d captured this image first!


Reed bunting – Emberiza schoeniclus

Reed buntings are present in the local fields and hedgerows all year round and this little chap, for he is indeed a male, was singing long and loud perched on the top of the rape flowers. A circuit around this field is an ornothological treat, on one lap I’d expect to see several reed buntings, at least one or two corn bunting, lots of skylark and occasionally linnet and goldfinch. And on Saturday (9th June) there were two bullfinch, an adult male, resplendent in his black cap and peach breast, and a male youngster, the same colours but a tad smaller and with more muted colours, perched in a tree together on the edge of the field.


Dunnock – Prunella modularis

And my favourite little brown bird is the dunnock, which are also here all year round, and in the winter are regular visitors to my garden. These two were transporting food to the youngsters in the nest in the midst of a bramble thicket. Fortunately, despite the low numbers of migrants in my locality there are still enough birds around to liven up a walk in the countryside.

Returning songbirds

There’s a particular spot in my local meadow where there are some large clumps of brambles which are home to numerous species of bird including songthrush, blackbird, linnet and house sparrow. And in the summer chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap and common whitethroat are all there too. Chiffchaff have been here for a couple of months now, and willow warbler almost as long but I hadn’t yet seen a whitethroat, so I set off last Monday in the hope of seeing the first one of the year.

A cock robin singing to the ladies

There were many species of songbird in the meadow including the robin (Erithacus rubecula: Dansk: rødhals) and the house sparrow (Passer domesticus, Dansk: gråspurv) and the air was alive with the song of all these species.


House sparrow female

Robin and house sparrow are resident species in the meadow and I see them all year round there, but not the chiffchaff:

The chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita Dansk: gransanger), which is a warbler, and willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus, Dansk: løvsanger) can be very difficult to tell apart if only seen at a glance, but they can be distinguished by their song, of which more in the next post. This chiffchaff was one of a pair which were calling to each other and flitting around the bushes passing within a few feet of me on several occasions and seemingly unfazed by my presence.

Cock linnet

Resident in the UK is the linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk), they disappear from the fields around Histon in the Autumn, presumably to congregate at a winter feeding ground, and they reappear in the Spring. And they have recently turned up in the meadow. Also resident, and present all year round, is the dunnock…


Dunnock, Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv

… and the chaffinch:

Cock chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke

There were no whitethroat back in the meadow last Monday but as you can see there were plenty of other birds. In the last week I’ve also seen kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard, blackcap, green woodpecker, jay and magpie.

I recce’d the meadow again this weekend and the whitethroat are now back from wintering in Africa. They are very distinctive and both sexes are easily identified by their strikingly white throat, and the males display by singing from the top of a bramble thicket or a sapling and flit 4-5m vertically into the air and then descend to land in the same spot. They’re lovely little birds, with a very distinctive song, and I’ll hopefully have some pictures to show you in the near future.

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!

Essex adder challenge

Danbury Common near Chelmsford in Essex is a National Trust site that is a mixture of woodland and heathland and is renowned for reptiles, in particular teh European adder (Vipera berus). The weather for the last 2-3 weeks has been ideal for resurrecting hibernating reptiles so myself and my friend, Dave, who is a very accomplished nature photographer, went along to try to get some pictures of adders. They are the only venomous reptile native to the UK and their preferred habitat is heathland. Dave originates from Essex and is familiar with Danbury Common and assured me that we would definitely see adders, so I was rather excited as I’ve never seen a wild one before.


The heathland terrain was perfect reptile territory, there are substantial areas of gorse and heather intermingled with bracken

Unfortunately two events conspired against us: the weather on Saturday morning was the coldest it has been for weeks and with 100% cloud cover there was little warmth to entice the adders out of their burrows, and secondly there had been an accidental fire right over the main hibernaculum, all of which resulted in the total absence of adders and any other reptiles!

Despite that, the Common is a great place for wildlife so we wandered around to see what else was in residence and were rewarded by the first blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) and chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) sightings of the year for me.


A male blackcap, one of a pair

Until recently blackcap were considered to be summer migrants to the UK, spending there winters in sub Saharan Africa and as far down as South Africa.  More recently they have been winter residents too and it is thought this is the result of westward migration of birds from eastern Europe and also from the Low Countries, not our summer residents staying put. They disappear from my regular haunts around Histon in the winter, but my friend who lives on the other side of the village, just half a mile away, has been hearing them sporadically through the winter.

I heard several chiffchaff and saw a couple too, but they didn’t come close enough to photograph, but the woods were full of great tit (Parus major, Dansk: sortemejse) which were more amenable to pose for a portrait:


Male great tit feeding on pussy willow. The tree was busy with at least four great tit, a pair of blue tit and a long tailed tit

Backwarden nature reserve and Danbury Common are bisected by a road and Backwarden is an area of woodland containing sycamore, oak, birch and willow similar to that on the Common. Many of the trees were hosting various fungi including moulds and these brackets growing out of the stumps of felled trees:


…and this amazing mass of gelatinous psychedelic slime mould which I thought resembled candle wax:


I’ve never seen anything quite like this before but it appeared the sap had welled up out of the felled tree and the sugar rich solution was providing a glut of nourishment to opportunistic fungi.

The highlight of the trip, in the absence of snakes, was a weasel (Mustela nivalis) which bounded across the path and stopped to scrutinise us for long enough to take a couple of photographs. It’s years since I’ve seen weasel and we had to zoom in on the pictures to decide whether it was a weasel or a stoat (Mustela erminea). The stoat is around 30cm long so is bigger than the weasel which is around 20cm, and the stoat has a black tip to its tail which our little creature didn’t. Stoats go completely white in the winter except for the black tip of their tails and it is the pelts of the winter stoat which are used to make the ermine gowns of members of the UK House of lords.


Momentarily distracted by our presence

Then probably a potential prey item. Ready…

Set…

Go!

And he was off, like a brown furry exocet, at quite phenomenal speed. The pictures aren’t very good quality, but you can clearly see what he is and it may be a good few years before I get to photograph another! I’ll try to get to Danbury again over the summer and if I manage to take some pictures of an adder I’ll post them here.

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!

A trip to the coast

Last weekend I found myself poking into the nooks and crannies of Fareham in Hampshire. My only previous visits to Fareham had been when I was playing rugby against them some years ago. So it was fun to go back and explore it in a more leisurely fashion and find out what flora and fauna are there. And I was very pleasantly surprised. (A bit of a digression, but as I’m sitting writing this, back in Histon, I can hear a muntjac deer barking somewhere along our road).

Our friends who we were staying with live a short 10 minute walk from the town centre, a route which took me across a piece of ‘managed wasteland’ called the Gillies. This is a mixture of scrubby woodland and is thick with flowers and an abundance of insects and birds.


A common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum perched on a grass stem

I was hoping to see some species which I don’t see in Cambridgeshire, but alas this was not the case. But I guess that’s a tad churlish as I saw lots of great wildlife. The approach to the Gillies took me under a bridge which I think carries a railway line and glancing up as I passed under it early on the Saturday morning a pair of fallow deer sauntered across. I can’t think of any other town in the UK where I’ve seen that! Alas. I’d left my camera behind.


A somewhat tatterdemalion gatekeeper sipping nectar from yarrow flowers

A glance skyward in the midst of a butterfly hunt with the children, with several blackcaps singing in the bushes, revealed this buzzard circling lazily in the scorching sunshine over Fareham town centre:

…and then a few minutes later:

Shortly after the buzzard had disappeared we had ventured into some adjacent woodland where the quiet was shattered when a pair of fairly big birds chased each other into the top of a big old oak tree screeching as they went. They continued their slanging match for a couple of minutes and it turned out to be two sparrowhawks, and this one appeared in this gap for just long enough to snap a photograph. It’s not the best shot ever of a sparrowhawk but I really like it as it was in the midst of a fight and it sat still for just long enough for a single shot.

One creature I didn’t see but which my host told me she saw during a run through here earlier in the afternoon was a slow worm which slithered across the path infront of her. I haven’t seen one for many years but there are rare reptiles frequenting this place too. It’s a truly remarkable location.

So if you ever find yourself in Fareham feeling a tad disappointed by the 1950’s town planners’ attempts to rectify the damage done by the Luftwaffe, ask a local for directions to the Gillies and go and marvel at all the local wildlife.