Tag Archives: Cambridgeshire

Insects and molluscs

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been out and about photographing wild flowers, and of course the raison d’etre of flowers is to produce the reproductive cells of the plant in order to ensure survival. And as plants are immobile they rely on other vectors to connect the male and female parts, that can be the wind and the rain but many flowers are exquisitely evolved to attract one or more species of insect to carry the pollen to the ovum and effect fertilisation.

So in the course of photographing the flowers some of them were hosting a pollinator or two:

Tree bumble bee – Bombus hypnorum

This tree bumle bee was sipping nectar from the flower of the white deadnettle. It’s one of the insects that is strong enough to get to the back of the flower and take the nectar. Flowers have evolved in this way such that the insects have to pass the stamen, which is where the pollen, or plant sperm, is produced. The stamen is made up of the filament and the anther, and foraging insects brush against the anther picking up pollen which they carry to the next flower where it is deposited on the female part of the plant – the ‘carpel’, and fertilisation ensues.

There are various species of bees in the UK but only around half a dozen common ones. Bees are in trouble in this country and no one seems to know why, both honey bees, which live in colonies, and solitary bumble bees are dying out at an alarming rate.

Buff tailed bumble bee – Bombus terrestris

The buff tail above was in a particularly poorly condition and had tiny mites crawling on it’s body so I imagine it didn’t do much more pollinating.

Soldier beetle – Cantharis rustica

The soldier beetles are related to the fireflies and they get their common generic name from one species which is bright red and is therefore named after the ‘redcoats‘ – English soldiers from days of yore. The larvae and the adults are carnivorous, the larvae feeding on insect eggs and caterpillars and the adults on aphids. They also feed on nectar and can therefore pollinate too.


Black slug – Arion ater

Alot of people have an aversion to slugs because of the damage they can do to fruit and vegetables, but this chap was out in the field making a meal out of a couple of dandelion seedheads. I don’t think they contribute much to pollination and they are predated by frogs and toads and also hedgehogs. Although I’ve heard that if too much of a hedgehog’s diet consists of slugs, parasitic worms living in the slugs can get into the lungs of the hedghog and kill it because its lungs fill up with fluid. Which sounds pretty unpleasant but I guess it’s not the fault of the poor old slug!


Brimstone moth – Opisthograptis luteolata

The brimstone moth is a splendid creature with a wingspan of 32-37 mm. It’s common and widespread across the UK. In the warmer climes of  the southern UK there can be three generations in a year but in the north there is only one brood per annum, and adults can be seen on the wing between April and October. The caterpillars feed on various trees and bushes including hawthorn and blackthorn.

A couple of weeks ago after days of rainfall which had moistened everything I found a 50m stretch of verge which was crawling, literally, with hundreds of yellow and brown snails.


Brown lipped snails – Ceppaea nemoralis. Just a few of the hundreds that were making the most of the damp conditions

The ‘lip‘ of the snails in their name is the front edge of the shell which can be seen in the next two pictures and is lighter brown on the yellow one and a much darker brown on the brown one:

Snails are predated by songthrushes. They pick up the snail by the fleshy part and crack the shell on a handy stone. Some years ago I was sitting at home on my own reading a book and everything was very quiet. I heard ‘tap tap tap’ on the front door, but when I went to answer it their was no one there. So I went back to my book. A few mintes later I heard the same tapping and again there was no one there, so I opened the door to have a look up the street and rather than a visitor there was a collection of broken snail shells on my front doorstep. It transpires the tapping I’d heard was a songthrush using my front doorstep as an anvil to swing the snails against and hammer open the shells!

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Serendipity I – The Short Eared Owl

Serendipity struck on Sunday a couple of weeks ago. I’d fixed up to go for a stroll with an old friend who I hadn’t seen for a few years to Wicken Fen. That was on the 20th May, but he got his Sundays confused and we ended up going on the 13th.

It was serendipitous because the weather had been grim leading up to that weekend but on the evening of the 13th it was perfect: sunny, warm, calm and we couldn’t have wished for better conditions. And on top of that there was wildlife in abundance. As we got out the car the air was full of swifts screeching overhead – lots and lots of them – along with swallows and house martins. Various species of geese and ducks and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) were on the lakes, and we were serenaded by cettis warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger), grasshopper warbler (Locustella naevia, Dansk: græshoppesanger) and other songbirds in the undergrowth, and a snipe drummed in the reed bed. Snipe (Gallinago gallinago, Dansk: dobbeltbekkasin) make this sound by spreading their tail feathers and the wind generates the piping sound by making them vibrate.

Wicken fen is a really good place to see birds of prey too: marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg), hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk), kestrel (Falco tinunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk), sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) and assorted owls can all be seen there. We had been commenting how the birds of prey were conspicuous by their absence and a few minutes later we spotted a hobby perched on a fence post. As we wallowed in our good fortune I spotted an owl behind a tree which emerged right in front of us and it turned out to be a short eared owl:


Short eared owl, Asio flammeus (Dansk: mosehornugle)

I thought our short eared owls were winter visitors, migrating to the relative warmth of the UK from the frozen icefields of Scandinavia and returning in the Spring. But it transpires they are also resident breeders in the east and north of England and the east of Scotland so can be seen here all year round.

This one treated us to several minutes worth of hunting, flying to and fro and diving down into the reeds in search of rodents.

I last saw short eared owls at Burwell Fen, east of Cambridge, several months ago when there was a large number of Scandinavian visitors in residence. While we were there we chatted to a BBC camerman who was there to film them for a TV nature series. I think he would have got some good footage on that day but I’m sure he would have been pleased to get this close to one!

Like all owls, it’s a hunter which is supremely evolved for its particular function.

And then on the journey home, continuing the owl theme, there was a barn owl taking the lazy approach to rodent hunting:

Barn owl numbers have been on the decline for a long time and the exceptionally cold winters of 2009 and 2010 badly affected them. We didn’t see one at Wicken which surprised me because I usually see at least one when I’m there at that time of the evening, so it was good to find this one perched on an advertising hoarding alongside the road home.

I’m a firm believer in serendipity playing her part in human endeavour and she adequately rewarded us on this excursion!

My tame wood pigeon

Several posts ago I mentioned the wood pigeons that were frequenting my garden. For the last 2-3 weeks there has just been one, but he has been very regular, dropping in and mooching around the back lawn and vacuuming up the spilled from the feeders, even though he’s fairly adept at balancing on there and helping himself. I’m calling him a he because I’m imaging it is the same one and that if he were a female he’d be busy incubating eggs and rearing chicks.


Tidying up the garden with one of the local blackbirds

This particular pigeon seemed very relaxed in the garden, he would fly in and spend alot of time just wandering around and feeding on seeds and a couple of weeks ago I happened to glance out the window and he was still on the ground. I watched him for a couple of minutes and he didn’t move so I went off to get my camera but by the time I got back he had disappeared.


Enjoying the sunshine

Then several hours later he was back and doing the same thing again. He was hunkered down on the ground with his wings extended. I’ve never seen wood pigeons do this before but I can only assume that he felt sufficiently secure to relax and enjoy the sunshine! He was there for several minutes before he was disturbed by another bird and then he wandered around for a few more minutes before flying away.


Columba palumbus (Dansk: ringdue)

And in my humble opinion he is a very handsome bird. This evening as I write this there are three wood pigeons sitting on my garden fence, so maybe he’s told the wife and kids about it too. I’ll have to put out more seed and nuts than usual tomorrow.

The wild flowers are blooming

A combination of the recent rains and the rising temperatures we’re getting now is creating ideal conditions for wild flowers. Any piece of uncultivated land is starting to bursting forth with flora which in turn is providing food and cover for flies, bees, beetles, butteflies and a plethora of other insect life. Which is also good for the birds, small mammals and other predators, and so on up the food chain. And on top of that it’s lovely to look at. So here’s a selection of flora currently blossoming in my patch of East Anglia:


Ground ivy – Glechoma hederacea

I like ground ivy because it occurs early in the year, first appearing in March, but like many other phenological phenomena it may now be happening earlier. It creeps across the ground, like ivy, forming carpets of blue flowers and with the green and red leaves it adds lots of colour to the undergrowth. It has numerous names and here are a few from the Royal Horticultural Society website: Devils candlestick, creeping charlie, crows guts, wild snakeroot, hens and chickens, gill-go-by-the- street, and my favourite: ale gill.

Another creeper which grows across the ground and in hedgerows and which has lovely blue flowers is the periwinkle. There are two types of periwinkle, the lesser (Vinca minor) which may have been introduced to the UK and the greater (Vinca major), which was introduced (both according to my wild flower guide).


The greater periwinkle

I’m a tad confused by this flower because they are meant to have 5 petals but this one only has 4. It is also known as creeping myrtle, cut-finger, flower of death (!), grave myrtle, and sorcerer’s violet, among others.

Sprouting next to this periwinkle flower was a nascent white deadnettle, Lamium album. It normally has white flowers which haven’t yet arrived, but the closed buds are visible below the crown. Everything is very green at the moment because of all the rain and looks beautiful against the red wing cases of the ladybird .


White deadnettle about to burst into bloom


Greater celandine, Chelidonium majus

It is thought the greater celandine is named after the swallow (‘khelidon’ is Greek for swallow) and it’s a member of the poppy family. When the stems are broken they ooze a latex sap which is as yellow as the flowers, and the colour can be as deep as orange. It contains a host of alkaloids which confer therapeutic properties but it can also be toxic. It is also known as cocks foot, sight wort and wart wort as the sap has been applied as a treatment for warts. I’m not sure where ‘sight wort‘ comes from, but if it burns off warts I wouldn’t want it anywhere near my eyes!


Cow parsley – Anthriscus sylvestris

As far as I know cow parsley doesn’t have medicinal properties and according to Wiki it’s not pleasant to eat. But I think the flowers are lovely and they bring back childhood memories of running through the woods in springtime when the cow parsley or ‘keck‘, as it was referred to by my Dad, was as tall as me. There’s nothing quite like a forest floor which is full of cow parsley, in it’s own way it’s as iconic as blue bells. It’s also known as wild chervil and Queen Anne’s Lace.


Beefly – Bombylius major

At the end of my flower finding mission I was looking for a ground ivy flower head and I found this little beauty, and just as I was just about to open the shutter a beefly zoomed in to sip the nectar. Flower pictures can benefit from some insect action and I like beeflies, so this was a highly serendipitous encounter!

Erratum: Maggie from http://www.intouchwithnature.co.uk‘ has pointed out that the last flower with the beefly on is in fact red deadnettle  – not ground ivy. So a big thankyou to Maggie for keeping me honest with my plant identification 🙂

The North Fields

If you’ve been reading my recent posts you’ll know they’ve mainly been from the part of my village (Histon, Cambridgeshire) called Rowleys Meadow. I have two routes out of the village, the Meadow and what I call the North Fields, and the terrain is very different. The Meadow isn’t farmed and has many hedges, thickets and trees and is therefore better for birds in the Winter because it has a much higher density of numbers and species. But now it’s officially Spring, after the Equinox on March 20th/21st, I decided to visit the North Fields which are all under the plough. I’ve been over there on a few evenings at dusk and after dark in the last few weeks and heard golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria, Dansk: hjejle) and skylark on the ground but I haven’t been over there in daytime for a while.

The main reason I headed over there was because I wanted to find out if the large numbers of linnet and corn bunting which disappear from the fields every year at harvest time had returned. My first impression on entering the fields was that I should have gone to the Meadow, there was virtually no movement of any kind, but I stuck to my guns and that turned out to be a good decision. I didn’t expect to see corn bunting, which are becoming increasingly scarce on our farms, yet, but I had only gone half a mile or so before I heard the unmistakeable sound of a male calling. I heard him long before I saw him but I knew where he would be perched from where his song was coming from, it is a favourite perch all the time they are in residence:

Corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke) sitting in a favourite place and singing loud

It’s not the best picture of a corn bunting because the sun was still low in the sky directly behind with a thin layer of high white cloud inbetween. Consequently it was impossible to get anything other than a silhouettte without overexposing the shot, so that’s what I did so his colors can be seen. He wasn’t the only one I saw, there were three altogether, so I hope there’ll be a good few more in the next few weeks.

Another bunting which put in an appearance was a male reed bunting. There were several of these too, and just along the ditch from here was a flock of between 10-20 yellowhammers alternating between a hedgerow and the ground where they were feeding.


Reed bunting male (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv)

I didn’t go close enough to photograph the yellowhammers because I didn’t want to disturb them. Well, partly that, but also because I’d been distracted by a pair of hares (Lepus europaeus) chasing each other around in the long grass:

I couldn’t get close enough to get a picture of the whole hare, they were too wary of me and the dog, who’s a lurcher, so their timidity was well justified! But I like the way their ears poked up above the grass with the characteristic black tips.


Skylark waiting on the ground between high speed aerial duels with other larks

The other bird which was present in large numbers was the skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke). I stopped counting when I got to 30, and I wasn’t yet half way around my walk. They were on the ground, up high singing the amazing song that is is so much part of a British summer, and chasing each other around just above the ground at high speed in groups of up to around half a dozen.

I saw a TV show some years ago in which skylark song had been hugely slowed down and deconstructed, and they claimed the music of some classical composers (including I think, Beethoven) was based on the same structure. I was left sceptical, not least because Ludwig V was deaf and may therefore have struggled to analyse skylark song. But even so, it was fascinating!


Low level dogfight


High level chase

And singing his heart out

One of my other fascinations is etymology. I think that may originate from speaking two languages, and the first one I spoke, Danish, is one of the precursors of the current one, English, so a large number of English words have their derivation in Danish thanks to our Viking invaders all those centuries ago. The expression ‘larking about’ (and ‘lark’ may well be from the Danish ‘lærke’) originates from falconry. In days of yore, the men would go hunting with their peregrine falcons and the ladies would only be allowed to use the much smaller merlin which couldn’t catch birds bigger than larks. Hence ‘larking about’ became a term of derision based on the size of your falcon.

But I digress. The corn bunting are back, the sky was full of larks and the hares were getting frisky. I’ll keep you posted when the linnet and other summer visitors arrive.

More signs of Spring

The weekend before last, the 3rd/4th of March, was generally pretty murky and grey and generally not very pleasant, but a stroll around the fields and meadows of Histon showed up some encouraging signs of Springtime. To start with, several birds including blackbirds and house sparrows were plucking nesting material out of the shrubbery in my garden.

And in the meadow the buds of the willow, ‘pussy willow‘, were bursting out

…and amongst the buds was this little dunnock singing his head off. Dunnock (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv) make a big sound for such a small bird. You can here the song here.

And other birds which are all adding to the avian orchestra around here at the moment are the green woodpecker (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) whose striking call I posted a link to a short while ago:


Not just one green woodpecker, but a pair. There are lots of these in the meadow but it’s seldom I see two together, and even more seldom they let me photograph them!

And this delightful wren who sat high and sung loud

I was very pleased with my wren picture because I rarely see them in a suitable place and they’re usually flitting in and out the undergrowth and don’t stay still for long enough to photograph. And even though it was very murky that morning and I had to use ISO 400, I like this shot. Like dunnock, wrens also make an amazing sound for such a small bird. And wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdesmutte) really are tiny, they are 4-5cm long and weigh approximately 10g but they make a huge sound which is easily recognisable as it’s punctuated by short stretches of ‘whirring’ which differentiates it from other small bird song.

And the last thing to catch my eye on this trip was this tree bark. I couldn’t tell what type of tree it is so I’m waiting for the leaves to open so I can give it it’s proper name, but it has some wonderfully textured bark which is covered in a white mould:


I had to get down and crawl through the leaf litter to get to the base of the tree

Lots of early Springtime phenomena were going on, from pairs of green woodpeckers to singing wrens and blackbirds collecting nesting material. More Springtime firsts next post.

A stroll through the Meadow

Last Sunday I spent a glorious couple of hours in the piece of scrub near my house where me and the dog while away significant chunks of our time. He chases rabbits, cats, pheasants and generally enjoys doing what dogs do, and I marvel at all the wildlife to be found in my local bit of wilderness. It’s probably about 300m x 150m and it’s called ‘Rowleys Meadow’ even though it’s not a meadow, and it lies on the northern edge of the village with houses lining it’s southern periphery. On the east, west and north side are old hedgerows and some wonderful old trees and in the middle are stands of young ash trees, grassy areas and large clumps of brambles.

It plays host to an astonishing variety of wildlife which in the winter and early spring is mainly birds, although a peacock butterfly fluttered by last Sunday and on several warmer days since Christmas I’ve seen bumble bees flying around there . But on this particular day it was the birds that stole the show (click here for a full list of all my sightings on this outing on February 26th).

There are very healthy numbers of green woodpecker here due to the trees and the grassland where they can find there favourite food of ant and termites. They’re tricky to photograph in the Meadow because they’re hidden in the grass and they’re very skittish, so it’s difficult to get close enough when they’re on the ground or in the trees.

Green woodpecker with his black eyepatch and scarlet military policemans cap. This one did let me get close enough… just

There are regularly 5-10 green woodpeckers (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) to be found as I circumnavigate the Meadow. It’s easy to spot them, both the colours and the low bouncing flight, often no more than 15 feet from the ground, are very distinctive. And of course it’s call is like no other creature, if you’ve never heard it listen here. Scroll down to the entry from Lars Krogh from Lindet Skov in Denmark dated 19/04/2011 where there is a very good recording of a male greenie yaffling and drumming.

Another bird which I almost always see in the Meadow is the long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse). But for the tail, they’re tiny: the adults weigh 7-8g with a wingspan of 18cm. The long tailed tit is one of those creatures that make we wonder how such tiny ones can survive a long freezing winter. They can also be very difficult to photograph as they never stay still for more than a few seconds.


On final approach…

But when you are lucky enough to capture them they make delightful pictures!


Touchdown!

You may have noticed the lichens on the branches, I’ll share some photographs of those in the next post. In another tree adjacent to the one with the long tailed tits was a pair of great tits (Parus major, Dansk: sortemejse), among others. I like great tits, they’re handsome birds and they’re entertaining to watch feeding in my garden, especially when there is a family of them. The pair here are a male and a female:

Male great tit, his black stripe stretches all the way across his chest from toe to toe, making him very desirable indeed. I think the ‘A’ indicates he is the alpha male

The stripe of the female is much narrower:


Great tit female

And very shortly after I took the pictures of the great tits, a female sparrowhawk circled slowly overhead. The trees and hedges suddenly went very quiet as all the small birds concealed themselves from this fearsome predator. I’m not sure if she was hunting as I spotted a second, possibly a male, sparrowhawk circling much higher up. She was probably not more than a hundred feet up, but the male was several hundred feet up. I watched a pair of sparrowhawks do this over my garden once before, where the male was much higher, and I think it may be part of the courtship routine. (If anyone can confirm or refute that please drop me a line and let me know).


A female sparrowhawk circling over the hedges at the north end of the Meadow

All in all it was a very enjoyable and rewarding trip in bright warm sunshine and the  birdlife was there in spades.

Guns Lane Raptors

Last Saturday before the snow came I went for a hike along Guns Lane heading north from Histon up to Rampton. It was an unusual walk because there was very little wildlife of any sort, and apart from small numbers of the usual birds such as chaffinch, blackbird and blue tit, and a small flock of 19 lapwing which flew over, there were also very few birds.

Two birds that were around were several kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk tårnfalk) and a lone buzzard (Buteo buteo, Dansk: musvåge). Kestrels are one of my favourite birds, I never tire of watching them. They are compact birds, 34cm long with a 76cm wingspan, and their plumage is very attractive, which can be seen in the pictures below, and their flying skills combined with their UV vision and agile talons make them a superbly well designed weapons platform. So of course, as well as watching them, I try to photograph them.

This handsome male bird sat in the top of a tree carefully watching me as I got closer:

And decided I was too close as I got to the bottom of his tree:


Kestrel exiting the top of an ash tree showing of his talons and array of flight feathers

A bird that I never saw in this country until I was at least post-grad age was the buzzard. I saw them when I was on holiday in Denmark as a kid, but not here until I started holidaying in the south west and I’d see the occasional one in Cornwall, Devon and Pembrokeshire.


Like the kestrel, this buzzard was keeping a keen eye on my activities

But from the early 1990’s buzzards have spread to recolonise most of the rest of the country and are regularly seen them gliding overhead around home and perched on fence posts and telegraph poles by the side of the roads. The buzzard is a resident breeder in the UK and is a bird of open heath and farmland, its preferred prey is small mammals but will also take birds and reptiles, and when times are hard insects and earthworms can find their way onto the menu.

Buzzards are big birds with wingspan around 1.2 m and are unmistakeable when either down low like this one:


Also like the kestrel, exiting its perch when my unwanted attentions were deemed too intrusive…

…and gliding away to another less public location

…or when thermalling up high, minimising the effort required to stay aloft.

Meandering away on a non raptor related tangent, as I’m writing this post I’m looking out my window and there are blue tit, great tit, robin, dunnock, chaffinch, blackbird, long tailed tit and starling in my back garden. And goldfinch, and they’re the first ones to visit since last summer. As I posted about last time, the birds are being driven into gardens by the bitterly cold weather. It was -12C first thing this morning and it is now bright and sunny at 1pm, but the temperature is still only -3C. By the way, if you feed the birds try to put some food out the night before if you can, because the smaller songbirds such as blue tit and wren can die very quickly if they don’t find food soon after dawn when the weather is so cold.

Wonderful Wildlife of Wicken Fen

Around 10 years ago I used to do voluntary work at Wicken Fen which lies in the flat emptiness between Cambridge and Ely. Wicken Fen is one of the last and the largest piece of remaining fenland in East Anglia and is home to a plethora of wildlife. It’s owned and managed by the National Trust in such a way that diverse habitats favouring different species are established and maintained. When I worked there we were engaged in various activities such as repairing boardwalks, fences and hides, scrub clearance, which was a good activity for freezing winter days because it involved a huge fire to burn the felled scrub, but my favourite job was building raised ponds with wheelchair access so disabled children could safely do some pond dipping. Which is an activity that everyone should be able to do, child or not. All you need is a net, a jar, a magnifying glass and a pond and a sunny day is turned into a fantastic voyage of biological discovery.

My re-exploration last weekend started from Upware at the back end of the Fen where we parked and joined Wicken Lode. We had counted over 30 species of birds within the first half hour of our walk. If it had been solely down to my good self the number would have been rather less because my skills when it comes to recognising birdsong are a tad limited. Fortunately I was with my friend, David, who’s aural acuity is considerably better honed than mine, and I’m highly envious of his ability to detect the song of distant bird species and identify them. One of the first birds to greet us in the car park was this mistle thrush perched on top of a telegraph pole:

Mistle thrush – Turdus viscivorus (Dansk: misteldrossel)

… and a great spotted woodpecker, also finding a handy perch at the top of a telegraph pole:


Great spotted woodpecker – Dendrocops major (Dansk: Stor flagspætte)

Great spotted woodpeckers make a characteristic drumming sound by doing what their name suggests and it is the frequency of the drumming, of around 40 beats per second, which generates the resonant sound. Anatomical examination of their skulls has revealed the presence of built in shock absorbers which prevent them damaging their brains when they drum. They feed on tree seeds such as acorns and insects which they dig out from under the bark of trees and they can also take birds eggs and chicks which they have been known to steal from birdboxes by drilling holes through the walls and plucking them out.

We eventually managed to tear ourselves away from Upware and head out along Wicken Lode on to the Fen where a Cetti’s warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger) gave away his location by singing in a way that only Cetti’s can. It’s an amazing sound and I can highly recommend having a listen here. These recordings don’t quite do it justice, but you get a feel for it. Also on the Lode were a family of three mute swans; male, female and one cygnet. Mute swans are always photogenic but I felt particularly blessed when the male spread hs wings and shook himself down:


Mute swans (Cygnus olor,  Dansk: knopsvane)

We turned off the Lode and headed along Harrisons Drove where we came across a field of very impressive bovines. In  order to manage the fen (and at the same time draw in more visitors, no doubt) cattle and horses are used to trim the vegetation back naturally. I’d never seen the cattle before and they are magnificent animals – looking more like a cross between a highlander and a bison than traditional farm cattle:


They must be hardy beasts indeed to survive on the meagre nourishment offered by the fen

Also along the drove I spotted a hen harrier (Circus cyaneus, Dansk: Blå kærhøg) quartering the field, either a female or a juvenile, identifiable by the pale band around the rump just infront of the tail feathers. In my opinion, spotting a harrier, even a fleeting glimpse, justifies an expedition into the fens early on a freezing morning. Alas it was too far away to photograph, but when after another couple of hundred metres we entered a hide overlooking a lake, there were plenty of subjects for photography…

This lake was home to hundreds of ducks – we estimated around 800 from 5 species that we could see… as well as coot and mute swan. Watched over by the longhorns.

I don’t think this lake is there in the summer because looking at the area on Google Maps there is no water, and David pointed out that their were no diving ducks such as pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland – which tranlates as ‘table duck’ which shows what the Danes think of them!) tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) or goldeneye (Bucephala clangula, Dansk: hvinand), suggesting the water was too shallow. But there were large numbers of shallow feeders such as gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), shoveller (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand), pintail (Anas acuta, Dansk: spidsand), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, Dansk: gråand) and wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand). We had seen three flocks of wigeon (and heard them too, they make a great sound) fly over and land on the water just before we got to the hide.  Some of them were on the lake above and lots more were on an adjacent one:


Wigeon. Lots of them! I counted around 60 in this group.

And in between the two lakes were numerous reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv) flitting between the hedgerow and the path and pausing to pluck seeds from the seedheads of the reeds, hence their name…

Male reed bunting – one of my better reed bunting shots

And the female:
We saw 44 species of birds that we could identify on our way around Upware and the Fen. And as well as all the birds Wicken is home to a phenomenal diversity of insects, large mammals including roe deer and otter, small mammals including shrews, voles, mice and the predators that hunt them, and reptiles including lizards which can be seen basking in the sun on the boardwalks and fenceposts early on summer mornings. Now I’ve been back and rediscovered the Fen I’ll make sure I get back later in the year and post about the changing wildlife in what is a unique collection of ecosystems.

The curse of the cabbage patch – and other beauties

The last post on this blog, ‘The Frozen Fen‘, had a decidedly wintry feel, and because of that, combined with the fact that I didn’t manage to get out and about and get any interesting pictures last weekend, I feel like brightening things up with some colourful butterfly pictures which I didn’t get a chance to publish in 2011 because of the dire shortage of butterflies.

I mentioned in a post last year that 2011 was a very bad year for butterflies, and that was a result of the mild Spring and very hot April which kick started the proceative processes. But after April the rest of the Summer was dreadful – cold and wet – and that resulted in catastrophic depletion of butterfly numbers. This winter has been mild so far (which is why I have had almost no birds in my garden compared to other years) and I’m hoping it stays that way and our Lepidopterans have a chance to recover their numbers this year.

So here are a few of the butterflies which I hope will put in appearances in and around the village this summer:


A comma (Polygonia c-album) soaking up some rays from a cluster of oak leaves

The comma is a member of the Nymphalidae family and is primarily a woodland butterfly which gets its name from its only white marking which is on the underside of the wings and is shaped like a comma. Bizarre that such a distinctive butterfly is named after such a tiny part of it’s anatomy, a bit like calling a tiger a ‘full stop’ because of the black spot behind its ear!  They are also seen in gardens (including mine) in the late summer where they stock up on nectar to replenish their body fat reserves prior to hibernation. Until fairly recently they were restricted to the west of England but have now spread to cover virtually all of England and Wales with sightings in Scotland and Ireland too.

Large skipper (Ochlodes faunus)

I like the large skipper, it is a butterfly of open grassland and I often see them feeding on field scabius flowers, as this one is, and the colour combination is sumptuous, set against the green and brown of the grass stems. I like the geometry too – it reminds of a hornet (as in the McDonnel Douglas F18 hornet – the American navy fighter plane) – but I’d rather have the skipper flying around Histon!

Small copper (Lycaena phlaeas)

The small copper is a handsome little butterfly who frequents open grassland, heathland, wasteland, verges and woodland rides and is distributed throughout Great Britain. I see it here because it likes to feed on ragwort, yarrow, thistles and red clover which are all abundant in the fields close to Histon. They also feed on daisy, dandelion and buttercups which are common throughout the UK too. Despite their dietary promiscuity I don’t see them very often so I was pleased to get this picture.


Large white (Pieris brassicae)

The curse of the cabbage patch! The large and small white are collectively known as ‘cabbage whites’ due to the devastation their caterpillars can wreak on the fruits of the labours of hapless allotment owners. The one pictured here is a male and he is easily distinguished from the female because she has two black spots on her forewings and another small black streak where the wings join and the male has no spots or streaks. As a species they are easily distinguished from other whites because they are noticeably bigger. The cabbage whites are also two of our most common butterflies which renders them additionally unpopular amongst the vegetable growing fraternity. Which is a pity really, because a field full of whites on a hot summer day mixed in with browns, blues and all the other butterflies is a spectacular sight.