Tag Archives: Buxhall Farm

The mating season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winter fieldlife

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

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

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

Grey heron (Ardea cinerea,Dansk: fiskehejre)

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

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

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

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

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

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

Black headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk: hættemåge)

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

Late autumn migrant

The autumn and the spring are the best times to be keeping a look out for migrants which, in the case of Cambridge, are often passing through on their way to a destination further north. The summer visitors such as swallow and swift are usually on their way to Africa by mid autumn, as the winter migrants such as fieldfare and redwing are beginning to arrive here to escape the freezing winters of Scandinavia.

A couple of years ago I saw a black redstart on Cambridge Science Park, which is a very rare sighting in this part of the world, at least for me. It was here for less than 24hr before heading further north and west. And this autumn my unusual sighting was a female wheatear:

Female wheatear (Oenenthe oenanthe, Dansk: stenpikker)

Wheatear are handsome birds and this one was the first one I’ve seen in the fields in Histon. I only had the one sighting, and as it was in the third week in October she wouldn’t have tarried as she wended her way back to overwinter in Africa.

Last year I saw a small group of wheatear in a field near Wicken Fen, this time it was in springtime so they were on their way north, including this beautiful male:

I think that as we head into December all the winter visitors that are coming this way may already be here, and I’ll hopefully be able to share pictures of other wanderers in the near future.

Tyto alba

A few posts ago in ‘The Owl and the Woodpecker‘ I mentioned that a pair of robins may have started getting fruity in my garden as early as the begining of January. And then last Friday I saw another robin feeding a fledgling on the grass outside work, so it looks as though the avian breeding cycle may have been able to start early this year. I hope it has, and that it allows other species to recover some of their numbers too.

Also in that post, I talked about our local barn owls, of which we had two breeding pairs in and around the village last year. And one gloriously sunny evening in July myself and my daughter, Sophie, set off across the fields with a portable hide, binoculars and a camera to try to see the owls and take some photographs. I know where the owls nest so we tried to get in position to see them heading to and from the nest site via a circuitous route to avoid disturbing them.

A barn owl, Tyto alba, heading out on a hunting mission

We eventually found a spot at the top of a drainage ditch between two fields around 150m from the shed where the owls had built the nest, and we didn’t have to wait long for them to appear. Truth be told I’ve always had a thing about all owls, but especially barn owls. I think they’re beautiful and iconic creatures, and very reminiscent of warm summers evenings in the English countryside. It’s always an exciting moment when I catch sight of one.

And the other thing that struck me as we sat and watched these was how they are incredibly efficient predators:

…and heading back again clutching the booty

We sat and watched them coming and going for about an hour and in that time they arrived 6 times with prey. So on average every 10 minutes one of the parents returned with a meal for a youngster, this one was carrying a rodent in its talons which it delivered to the nest, spent a couple of minutes with the youngsters, then departed on the next foray.

And another meal being delivered

And they carried on hunting into the dusk at which point we upped sticks and headed for home. I don’t know how long the owls carried on hunting but the parents seemed to be so successful that they may not have needed to carry on for much longer, after which they would have spent the night at a roost site separate from the nest with the youngsters in.

It was a glorious evening and Sophie was beside herself as one of the owls flew right overhead and looked straight at her, as barn owls are wont to do, as she looked straight at it. A memory that will stay with me, and her I hope, for a very long time!

The owl and the woodpecker

As I started to write this post there was some interesting robin behaviour going on in the garden. Robins (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) are fiercely territorial and will kill each other to defend their patch and I often see them chasing off not just other robins but any bird smaller than a blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort)! But just now there was a pair being relatively nice to each other and even sharing the same feeder. So I’m wondering if these two were a pair beginning to contemplate the imminent breeding season, as early as January the 12th. The weather has been much warmer than the previous three winters so maybe they are already thinking of making up for lost time.

But I began with a digression, so now to get back on message. I’ve been dithering about writing this post for a few days but I was finally inspired to start when I saw some recent posts on the blog of a good blogging friend, Gary, from ‘Krikitarts‘ (if you haven’t seen Krikarts yet make sure you check it out, it’s very, very, good!). Gary’s posts included pictures of skies and rainbows which were digitally reproduced form the original slides. And seeing these spectacular images spurred me on to get this post written to show you some evening skies from Cambridgshire in summertime.

But before I get on to the sky, on this particular evening from July 2013, green woodpeckers, which breed successfully close by, had their most recent brood of fledglings and were out and about learning how to dig up termites:

A pair of green woodpeckers flying away from me, they’re skittish creatures (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte )

Whilst many bird species have been on the decline, the green woodpecker seems to be thriving, at least in my part of the world. I see them around the village, in the trees and on the ground around work, and on the way to work too, and I’ve heard they are generally doing OK. They’re handsone, colourful, creatures and it’s good to see them coping well with all the insults humans throw at them.

A greenie keeping an eye on me and the dog

This particular evening was a very warm and sunny one and as I meandered across the fields the sun got lower and lower, and bigger and bigger, in the sky:


And as the sun got lower and plunged us into the crepuscular phase twixt day and night, a barn owl (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) was quartering the fields looking for rodents. Barn owls were hit really hard by the previous three bitterly cold winters and then by the brutal wet and cold weather last spring. But we had at least two breeding pairs in Histon and this individual was half of one of those pairs. Bearing in mind the precipitous decline in barn owl numbers in the UK and beyond, I think that makes Histon an important place for them. I don’t know how many chicks were fledged but I’m hoping some survive the cold weather holds off this year and we get more breeding pairs in 2014.

Barn owls are great to watch. I know the routes they take in the fields local to here and when I see them coming I can crouch down and often, but not always, they fly slowly right over my head, around 10-15 feet up, and sometimes we eyeball each other and I wonder what they’re thnking. Of which more in another post in the near future.

And as I meandered home from watching the owl, the sun disappeared below the horizon leaving these magnificent colours hanging in the sky which slowly turned into dark blue-grey and then the black of night

Not a bad way to spend an evening!

Down on the farm in July

Summer was late arriving in  2013. The weather was cold and wintry up until June and that had a profound effect on the wildlife. Breeding seasons were knocked out of kilter by it, and the numbers of many species have suffered as a result. But it seemed that once summer did arrive the wildlife got very busy very quickly to make up for lost time.

The skyline on my regular dog walking route is dominated by a magnificent poplar tree which makes a wonderful sound when the wind blows. It’s right on the pathway where many walkers pass every day and there is a bench underneath it which folk sit on occasionally. But despite all the human activity in such close proximity a pair of kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) were brave enough to build a nest in it about 20-25 feet up.

Kestrel fledgling taking it easy and apparently unfazed by me pointing a telephoto lens at it

I posted about the adults taking up residence in the poplar in August last year. Their decision to nest in this exposed location paid off in spades as the kestrel pair fledged three youngsters who could be seen in around the poplar into the later months of 2013.

And a pair of the fledglings sheltering in the poplar

I made a point of not lingering too long around the poplar to avoid disturbing the birds, but because of the constant human presence there I think they were relaxed about me taking pictures as long as I didn’t try to stay too close for too long.

All the pictures in this post were taken on one summers evening stroll in July, and as well as the kestrels there was lots of other wildlife.

Also breeding in the field adjacent to the poplar tree were numerous skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke). I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get photographs of skylarks for a long time but on this particular evening this one perched on top of a low bush and sang for England. I called the dog to heel and using an adjacent bramble as a shield I crawled as close as I could, which was less than 10m in the end, and poking my lens though the bramble I finally got some pictures:

A singing skylark lit by the low, late evening sun

The resident corn buntings (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke ) usually vacate the fields around Histon with the harvest at the beginning of August, but in 2013 they stayed much later. I don’t know if that was coincidence, because there was still cover in one of the fields, or if it was a result of the enforced delay in the breeding cycle due to the cold spring weather. But they were here in much greater numbers and much later in the year than normal. According to the British Trust for Ornithology the corn bunting is so sedentary that individulas only 30km apart sing in different dialects, but I’d love to know how that was discovered.

Corn bunting on a regular perch in the late evening sunshine

Corn bunting are red listed in the UK due to rapid decline in numbers as a result of habitat destruction for agriculture. Despite that, and decreasing numbers in Central Europe for the same reason, it’s not considered under threat as a species in mainland Europe… yet.

Another songbird which is also red listed in the UK, also as result of rapidly declining numbers, is the yellowhammer (emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv).

Male yellowhammer with his striking yellow head plumage

The yellowhammer has suffered catastrophic decline in numbers over the last few decades and over the last 2-3 years I’ve noticed the numbers in my locality seem to be on the wane too. I think it hasn’t been helped here by the farmer who recently took a flail to all the hedgerows and a lot of the drainage ditches and stripped most of the winter cover and food away. I just don’t see the sense it that – it wasn’t impinging on the crops or impeding access to farm machinery. Seems completely pointless to me.

Yellowhammer and corn bunting are both species of bunting and prefer arable farmland, but due to the intensive nature of arable agriculture and the resulting lack of seed, either natural or crop, both species are under dire threat in the UK. I’ve seen evidence to show that rates of decline can be slowed by changes in farmland management such as set aside or organic cropping, but I think attempts to conserve need to be applied in more holistic fashion to ensure survival of the wildlife.

One species which appeared to be abundant last summer was the hare. They’ve been ever present on any summers evening stroll across the fields in 2013. And I’m still seeing them through the winter too.

And as I headed home there was a spectacular sunset:

…one of many through the summer of last year.

The birds were twittering, and so am I

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

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

Cow parsley in the meadow against a summer sky

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

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

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

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

Yellow wagtail perched on an old farm machine

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

Cock linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk)

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

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

Skylark singing in the sky above my head

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

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

A pair of local red list birds

In a recent post I talked about the plans by the local council to develop our greenbelt land and our campaign to prevent it. I provided species lists of my sightings on the land to counter their claims that the proposed development would pose no danger to any of our red listed wildlife.

Here are a pair of those red list birds that I photographed this year to prove to the powers that be that they are actually there! Despite the council’s environmetal survey concluding that there are no red list species to be found, these two species nest here every summer.

The first is the corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke):

This year has been a good one for corn bunting around Histon, several times I’ve counted flocks of 20+ individuals and they have been present every time I walk around the fields since they arrived in the spring. The corn bunting is red listed due to historical and more recent population declines, most likely as a result of modern farming methods. Numbers dropped by 89% between 1970 and 2003.

They live on arable farmland and feed primarily on seed and invertebrates during the summer. They also nest on the ground so overall their lifestyle is really not compatible with modern mechanised, chemical intense, farming methods. Which, as a result of the numbers I see here, makes my neighbourhood an important place for them. In the year 2000 there were 8500-12000 ‘territories’ (individuals or breeding pairs) in the UK so the several tens of my local birds are a small but important fraction of the total.

And the other red list species which I see regularly throughout the summer is the linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk). The linnet is a finch which also feeds on seed and insects and is also red listed due to big decreases in its population, 57% between 1970 and 2008. But the good news for linnets is that although their numbers are decreasing in England and Wales they are increasing in Scotland and Northen Ireland.

A cock linnet is a handsome bird with a crimson spot on his forehead and cerise chest plates, neither of which are, alas, particularly prominent on this one:

Cock linnet

The linnet has a grey head and the pale grey spot on its cheek, which is prominent on this one, is diagnostic of the species. The linnet can be seen here in the winter in large flocks unlike the corn bunting which disappears from the Histon fields to wherever they go to in the winter after the harvest. The harvest was started here, and finished I think, last week, so I probably won’t see another corn bunting until next spring.

The linnet was immortalised in a 1920’s music hall song called ‘My old man (said foller the van)’. This song is about a family having to do a moonlight flit because they can’t pay the rent, and after they’ve filled the removal van there’s no room for the wife so she has to follow behind on foot:

My old man said “Foller the van,
And don’t dilly dallyon the way”.
Off went the van wiv me ‘ome packed in it,
I followed on wiv me old cock linnet.
But I dillied and dallied, dallied and I dillied
Lost me way and don’t know where to roam.
Well you can’t trust a special like the old time coppers
When you can’t find your way ‘ome.

Back in those days cock linnets were commonly kept as caged domestic pets because of their pleasant song, hence the mention in this ditty. Fortunately for the linnet though they are no longer held captive.

(In case you’re wondering, the ‘dillying and dallying‘ involved the poor girl stopping off in the pub, getting drunk, and then, not knowing where she was going, she got impossibly lost.)

Falco tinnunculus

It’s always good to see birds of prey and even better when they are nesting. This year has been particularly good around Histon with a kestrel nest, at least two barn owl (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) nests – of which more in a later post – and at least two little owl (Athene noctua, Dansk: kirkeugle) nests. And that’s just the ones I know of, I’m fairly sure there’ll be sparrowhawks nesting in reasonably close proximity too.

Back to the kestrels though. In previous posts I’ve mentioned my favourite tree which is a really big old poplar on my (and lots of other folks) regular dog walking route. This year it played host to a family of kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk). Initially I was concerned that being so close to a well-used public footpath the disturbance would be too great. Also, the nest was 7-8m up the tree and directly above a bench where the local kids sometimes hang out in the evenings, so on the face of it not the best spot for a pair of falcons to raise a brood.

The adult male kestrel standing guard over his nest site

The male and the female were in constant attendance around the nest site and on this occasion both were present. As I watched the male he flew off so I walked on past to avoid causing too much disturbance. As I departed the female flew a second diversionary line out the tree in another direction, alighting on the ground around 50m from the tree, on top of a furrow which had been ploughed to take potato plants which had not yet sprouted. So she was very conspicuous but keeping an eagle eye (kestrel eye?) on myself and the dog:

In general though the kestrels adults seemed fairly relaxed about all the activity going on around their chosen nursery.

At this point in time, at the end of April, the nest would have had eggs in which are incubated for approximately 4 weeks before hatching. They produced three youngsters which I’ll update you on in a later post.

Getting more up to date, I just got back from exploring the coast on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England, and the birds of prey there were numerous. Buzzards were plentiful and on the cliff tops peregrine falcons were much in evidence, with four separate sightings on different days and different locations, one of them chasing a raven which was highly vocal in proclaiming its disapproval. I didn’t get any pictures of the peregrines but I’ll post some raven shots in the near future.

Cowslips and corn buntings

When spring sprung this year it sprung in style and it was quite glorious. At that time of year the migrants return from distant lands and recolonise the countryside.

One bird that also returns to the farmland around Histon, but from closer to home, is the corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke). The corn bunting is a resident breeder in the UK, but as with most other species local to me it disappears from the fields round here as soon as the harvest begins, usually during the first week in August, not to return until March or April.

Male corn bunting taking flight from the top of the hawthorn blossom

The corn bunting is a lovely creature which is very distinctive when you know it. From a disatnce it looks like another random little brown bird, but it sits atop the wheat stems and the hedgerows calling and the call can be heard from many metres away. And like most little brown guys, when you see them close up they don’t appear quite so uninteresting.

A few months ago I got involved with a group of local people here who were working to prevent the development of this farmland for housing by our local council. The council said they had done an environmental survey and they provided us with a copy. It was an interesting insight into how these people work. The survey was commisioned by the agent the council had employed to manage the development (conflict of interest?), and it was undertaken the week after the harvest. The  conclusion in the survey was that there would be little or no damage to the local environment and no red listed or BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) species would be affected. But I know from my recordings over the last five years that virtually all the wildlife – birds, mammals and insects – disappears as soon as the harvest starts. But my records, which I made available to the council,  also show that I have recorded 74 bird species there of which no less than 13 are red listed! Including the humble corn bunting.

The plan to develop the land was subsequently rejected and I hope my data played a part in the decision making process.

All the pictures in this post were taken on a sunny Sunday aftenoon at the end of April and another handsome bunting which frequents the drainage ditches and the hedgerows and was much in evidence was the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv).

Male reed bunting resplendent in his black cap and moustaches

Whilst the buntings, finches and other small passerines were announcing their availability from the top of the undergrowth a buzzard patrolled the skies above looking for prey:

Buzzard, Buteo buteo, (Dansk: musvåge)

And one of my favourite harbingers of fair weather to come is the cowslip:

Cowslip, Primula veris

Cowslip flowers were picked in the not too distant past to make wine with, but as it is no longer common this practise has waned. Despite that, the seed is now included in commercial wild seed mix and the cowslip can be seen in large numbers on seeded motorway verges. This one is not one of those though, it is one of thousands lining a drainage ditch on a farm in Histon.

A carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) was perched precariously on top of the hedge along the cowslip ditch and a hare was also close by and watching intently to make sure the dog kept a safe distance! The local hares seem fairly relaxed about the dog even though he’s a lurcher and can still move pretty rapidly. May be they can see that he’s too old to pose a real threat.

European or brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

This year seems to have been good for hares and I see them in many of the local fields in good numbers almost every time I venture there. There are also plenty of rabbits, but the hares are easily distinguished by their size, they are much bigger than rabbits, and the hares have very long ears with distinctive black tips which the rabbits don’t.

This was my first real sunny warm outing of the year and it gave me a good feeling that this year may turn out to be a good one for wildlife. And generally it’s living up to its billing. So far…