Tag Archives: Cambridge Science Park

Alas, no bullfinch, but…

The weekend before last I went for a walk around the lakes of RSPB Fen Drayton. It was a customarily grey and cold morning and there was a lot of water standing where there wouldn’t normally be. But the lakes were full of ducks, waders and other water birds and the trees and hedgerows were thronged with other birds, but alas no bullfinch. To explain, the approach road to the car park is lined with hawthorn and other trees and they are home to many bird species including bullfinch, so I was hoping to see one or two and get photographs. But on this occasion alas, they were conspicuous by their absence.

No bullfinch, but hey ho, woodpeckers there were:

Green woodpecker (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) mining ants next to the car park at Fen Drayton lakes and fastidiously refusing to look up

And the green woodpecker wasn’t the only woodpecker hanging around the lakes:

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

There was also great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker), a large flock of mixed waders including bar tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica, Dansk: lille kobbersneppe) and several flocks of greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås). And lots and lots of lapwing:

A small fraction of a much bigger flock of lapwing, I make it 84 in this group

In the 1970’s lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) were a common sight in the English countryside. Huge flocks consisting of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals weren’t particularly unusual. My Dad used to call them plovers, or ‘peewits’, a name they acquired because of their distinctive call. But like many species, they have suffered hugely from habitat destruction as a result of modern farming methods. On this particular morning at Fen Drayton there was at least one flock and possibly two, at opposite ends of the lakes, there were a heck of a lot of them and they were frequently rising into the air en masse. And since the snow arrived this week there has also been a small flock of 30-40 birds close to Cambridge Science Park which I spotted on my way to work, and a small group of them alighted on the field right outside my lab.

A blue tit deftly plucking seeds from a swaying reed seedhead

On the last part of my outing round the lakes I headed for a hide overlooking an expanse of water where I was hoping to see water birds. A flight of four goosander containing a male and three females flew over on the way there and seemed to be a good omen! Outside the hids this blue tit (Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmejse) was busy hopping from stem to stem in the reeds outside acrobatically harvesting the seeds.

And on the water there were A LOT of birds. The flock of lapwing higher up this post were on the ground at the far side of this lake, and the water was hosting gulls, ducks, swans and a lone heron. One of the loveliest ducks, easily identified by it’s triangular black head, white cheek spot and his regal black and white plumage is the goldeneye.

Goldeneye drake – elegance personified

There were a pair of goldeneye here, (Bucephala clangula (great name too!), Dansk: hvinand) and as with other duck species the lady is drab in comparison with the resplendent males. I spent half an hour waiting for them to paddle into the gap in the reeds just infront of this one for a clear shot. But they never did, so this is the best picture I could get. But isn’t he a beauty!

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Flowers and frogs at Milton Country Park

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


Scarlet pimpernel flowers

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

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


Woody nightshade

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

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

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

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


Common frog – Rana temporaria

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

Rosebay willowherb – Chamerion angustifolium

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

Aarons rod – Verbascum thapsus

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

Tufted vetch – Vicia cracca

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

Lunchtime nature walk

Several years ago I took a lunchtime walk around the lakes on the Science Park in Cambridge and the banks of one of the lakes to a depth of 5-10m was absolutely jumping with froglets. These little guys must have just emerged from the shallows en masse, there were literally 10’s of thousands of them and when I stood still it looked as though the grass was moving. It was an amazing sight.

I took another walk around the same lake this summer and the frogs were there again, not in anything like the numbers the first time I saw them, but big numbers nonetheless. They were the young of the common frog, Rana temporaria. Fortunately, this time I had a camera with me and I managed to get a picture of this little chap. As you can see, he was tiny, smaller than a clover leaf which was approximately 1cm across.


A tiny froglet seeking cover under a clover leaf


Scarce chaser in flight, reflected in the lake

The timing of my foray was just as the rains were subsiding and several species of darter, hawker and chaser dragonflies were busy hunting over the lakes, including this adult male scarce chaser, Libellula fulva. I’ve decided to try to photograph dragonflies in the act of doing soemthing other than sitting still and this the first shot I have of one flying. Not brilliant, but OK for a first attempt!

Because the Science Park is all neatly kempt and the grass cut regularly it’s not the best place to see wild flowers. So it was a pleasant surprise to see an orchid lurking in the undergrowth close to the lake where the blades of the grass cutters can’t reach.

Common spotted orchid – Dactylorhiza fuchsii

I think of all orchids as being terribly exotic, but this little beauty is relatively common, as its name suggests. It’s found over nearly all of the UK and thrives on a wide range of habitats including marshy wetland, chalk downland and also colonises wasteland. It’s a favourite food source for day flying moths and gets its name from the purple spotted leaves which are clearly visible on this flower.

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!

The Songbirds Return

Up until February we’ve had an unusually mild winter and it was noticed across the country that songbirds were not frequenting gardens simply because there was abundant food in the countryside so they didn’t need to avail themselves of our feeders. The RSPB were advising people to clean their feeders and place a small amount of feed in so that passing birds would recognise it as a source of nourishment if times got tough. So a couple of weeks ago I topped my feeders up in anticipation of some cold weather and saw nothing apart from my resident cock blackbird who likes to dig worms out of my lawn.

And then the times did indeed get tough. The snow came last Saturday, lots of it, and on Sunday morning the transformation in my garden was immediate and the place came alive with hungry squabbling birds. Hen and cock chaffinch brought welcome splashes of colour:

Chaffinch are normally ground feeders so I’m not sure if this lady was confused by the contraption or the snow covering the hole.

(There’s a fungus there too on the branch of my plum tree which I must put some effort into identifying).

The sky was completely white and murky with total low cloud cover after the snow, so all the colours of the birds were muted and photography was challenging. Even the colours of this cock chaffinch, which was looking for seeds on the ground (more customary chaffinch behaviour), proved difficult to capture:


As well as chaffinch, dunnock, robin, blue tit, long tailed tit, collared dove, wood pigeon and blackbirds were all availing themselves of the platter. All the birds are welcome but the collared dove and particularly the wood pigeon can completely clean up in a matter of minutes, leaving very little for the other birds, so this time I put enough food out for all the visitors. A pair of great tit were gorging on some chopped peanuts, they are cautious birds and would visit the seed tray, pick up a piece of nut or seed:


Parus major – great tit, the male of the species

…and carry it off to the adjacent buddleia where it clamped the nut between it’s claws and pecked at it until it was gone, and then fetched another. If they’re not disturbed they can carry on flitting to and fro many times.


Female great tit demonstrating classic great tit feeding behaviour

I was shown how to easily differentiate between the male and female great tit by some bird ringers at Wicken Fen. They had caught a male in their net and the way to tell is by the width of the black stripe down the breast. The female has a thin stripe and that of the male is much thicker and can broaden as it descends widening to fill the gap between the legs. The broader the stripe the more attractive he is to the ladies.


Greenfinch – the first one I’ve seen in my garden since last winter

I often see, and hear, greenfinch in the trees where I walk and also the ones around where I work on Cambridge Science Park, but unless the weather is particularly inclement they don’t often venture into my garden, so this one was a welcome visitor.

Male house sparrow looking for a top up

None of my garden visitors were particularly unusual but it was lovely to see so many at once and to discover they were still out there. So I shall keep feeding them until the weather warms up and they move back to countryside.

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!

Where have all the birds gone?

There are virtually no birds in my garden at the moment, and they have been conspicuous by their absence all through the autumn. This appears to be a more widely observed phenomenon as reported on BBC’s Countryfile, and the RSPB have been seeking to reassure people who are concerned by the apparent dearth of birdlife visiting their gardens that it’s simply due to the abundance of suitable food still accessible in the countryside, and whenever possible that’s where the birds prefer to be.

I can vouch for the disappearance of the small birds from gardens. Apart from the occasional blackbird and blue tit  (and a jay last week – the first one I’ve ever seen in my garden!) very few birds are availing themselves of my feeders. If this is happening in your garden the best thing to do is to keep your feeders clean and put a small amount of feed in so any passing birds recognise your garden as a source of food and can stop to refill if they need to. But it looks as thought the cold weather is starting to arrive here in Cambridgeshire so garden bird numbers may well increase in the near future.

So last weekend I ventured to the fields on the edge of Histon to see if they are still in residence. The hedges and fields were well populated with goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) and chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke), great tit (Parus major, Dansk: musvit) and long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemejse) and green woodpeckers were abundant too. I don’t know if the numbers of green woodpecker (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) I see are representative of national trends but they seem to be numerous here in Histon, also where I work on Cambridge Science Park and today I was at the RSPB reserve at Fen Drayton near St Ives and there were good numbers there too. Two birds that I haven’t seen recently in the numbers I’d expect are dunnock and greenfinch – I hope that’s because they’re out in the countryside and it doesn’t reflect a decline in overall numbers.

I talked in my post a couple of weeks ago, Forests and Fungi, about how I’ve been inspired to look for other ways of photographing nature rather than simply taking traditional portrait shots. Rowleys Meadow which is on the edge of Histon, has mature ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) on the periphery which are laden with ash keys and as a result there are thousands of young ash saplings:


Brown grass stems merge with the taller, thicker, silver stems of the ash saplings

And this presented a good opportunity to capture some abstract nature images. I like the way the low, bright sunlight creates a vertical pattern of silver and shadow as it illuminates hundreds of young ash trees

Back to birds, as well as our regular winter residents migrants from Scandinavia are much in evidence, redwing (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel), and fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger):


A lone fieldfare perched in a tree after gorging on a blackthorn bush laden with sloe berries

Small flocks of fieldfare can be seen and heard making there distinctive and diagnostic call, and the flocks will get bigger if the weather does turn wintry. Last winter, which was brutally cold here and in Scandinavia, huge numbers of waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus, Dansk: silkehale) arrived in the UK from Norway, but due to the much warmer weather I don’t think we’ll see them here in quite such abundance this year, which is a real shame because they are indeed spectacular:


Waxwing – it’s around the size of a starling and the colours are amazing

Histon has a resident rook colony (Corvus frugilegus, Dansk: sibirisk allike) who have their rookery in the tall trees adjacent to the church and are a constant source of aerial entertainment. They were feeding in a field along Guns Lane, which runs from Histon to Ely, as I wandered along it and this one took exception to my presence and flew over squawking at me as it went,

I took the hint and moved on, heading home. But a little further along Guns Lane I paused when I heard the quiet and delicate song of a flock of long tailed tits. So I stood still and they went about their routine in trees about 10m away. I really like these diminutive, gregarious, birds and I love trying to photograph them, which can be challenging as they are very small and they never settle in any one place for very long. But I managed to get this series of shots which I’m rather pleased with:

Even though the weather is pleasantly mild at the moment, I prefer winter when it’s cold, so I’m hoping it will start to behave as it should and these delightful little birds come back to feed in my garden!

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.