Tag Archives: dunnock

Garden Gladiators

For the last three mornings my garden has been frequented by numerous blackbirds (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort), at least four; two males, two females and possibly others. I couldn’t tell the females apart because they looked very similar but the males were identifiable. One was a typical black blackbird with a striking yellow beak and the other was very slightly smaller, slightly more brown and had a dark tinge to the end of his beak so he has been named ‘Blacktip’.


Blacktip

The second male blackbird, henceforth referred to as ‘The Arch Rival’


And one of the ladies

The initial skirmishes of the Histon Blackbird Wars started in my garden on Friday but I didn’t have a chance to study it what with getting the children to school and myself to work. The real gladiatorial action took place yesterday morning and commenced with the males and the two females chasing each other around at high speed on the ground and in the air. I’ve never noticed before but when blackbirds compete on the ground they actually run rather than hop, which from the human perspective lends the whole drama a comic angle. I imagine they can move alot faster when running and are therefore more intimidating to any rivals.

The Arch Rival perched threateningly atop the rabbit run

The females departed fairly early on in the proceedings leaving the two boys to battle it out, and it turned into an amazing spectacle which was very entertaining to watch. The Arch Rival occupied a battle station on top of the rabbit run from where he would walk round the edge and look down at Blacktip on the ground, and from where he would launch the occasional strike and chase Blacktip  around for a minute or two before resuming his vantage point on the rabbit run. This behaviour led me to think the The Arch Rival was possibly the dominant male as he seemed to hold the advantage all along and it went on for probably half an hour or so before the real battle commenced:

Aerial hostilities break out
The dogfight slowly gains more and more altitude, toe to toe and beak to beak
Higher still, now around 4-5m off the ground
And then they separated and descended to draw breath in the wisteria.

This was followed by The Arch Rival resuming his place on the rabbit run which he circled around for several minutes before dropping to the ground and walking and running around the same route for a further few minutes whilst Blacktip remained on the ground. this cycle of events was repeated several times over the next hour.


The Arch Rival back on the rabbit run, Blacktip was lurking on the ground

This activity eventually petered out and Blacktip was left on his own to recuperate under cover of the buddleia bush. Leaving me to think that he was the apparent victor…


Blacktip in the cover of the buddleia foliage

…Or was he?

This morning Blacktip appeared with a lady and seemed to be performing a courtship ritual where he was running around on the ground calling and she was following. That went on for around half an hour and they seemed to be getting along famously. And then The Arch Rival arrived back on the scene and 20 minutes or so of aerial combat ensued. the dynamic was different this time though. The female and Blacktip seemed to be chasing The Arch Rival, not Blacktip on his own.

As I go to press the action has ceased and all the blackbirds have disappeared although both the males have made short forays back into the garden looking for some breakfast, but the female hasn’t returned. Incidentally while this was taking place, all the other birds: goldfinch, dunnock, house sparrow, blue tit, great tit, starling, collared dove and wood pigeon were using the feeders as normal, completely unperturbed by the battle taking place. My back window is like a 75 inch 3D HD TV showing nature documentaries all day, to which I can add my own commentary. As I write a pair of fieldfare are flying over and the blackbirds have been replaced by three dunnock.

And now… all three blackbirds are back and fighting again, so I’m going to sign off and watch them and I’ll report back with further developments.

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More hungry garden birds

When the snows arrived a couple of weeks ago my garden immediately became host to all the species of garden birds that normally feed there and which had been absent for the whole of this winter. So I couldn’t resist taking some photographs, a few of which appeared a couple of posts ago, and the rest are here…


A hen blackbird was one of several trying to prise worms from the icy ground


A female great tit taking peanuts from the seed tray


Cock chaffinch eyeing up the seed scattered on the ground under the frosty buddleia

One of my resident robins perched on the seed tray after a feast


A blue tit waiting in the buddleia bush for a chance to get on the feeders

The sun came out early which made photography considerably easier, but it was tricky to ge the exposure right when a bird was stood on snow reflecting sunlight:


A dunnock pecking seed from the grass. They have gorgeous colours when illuminated by the sun


This starling was distracted by me and stared straight at the camera

And finally a goldfinch perched in the buddleia before the sun broke through the clouds hence the high ISO and grainy look.

A dearth of information in this post but I hope you like the pictures as much as I enjoyed taking them!

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!

Heading south

Last Friday I found myself on the M40 heading south to Windsor. I wasn’t anticipating a particularly eventful trip from a wildlife perspective, but it turned out to be quite remarkable.

My first port of call was my parents house in Northampton, where a great spotted woodwecker and her chicks were feeding on a hanging peanut feeder:


Female great spotted woodpecker eating fatballs in my folks garden. She is easily distinguished from the male due to the lack of a red patch on the nape of the neck. Juveniles also lack the red nape but she was feeding two juveniles so it was obvious she was an adult female

My folks back garden has been a real haven for birdlife in the last few weeks and is currently home to families of great tit, goldfinch and carrion crow too. My Dad places a couple of flower pot stands full of fresh water on his garage roof every day and the carrion crows and rooks then rock up with beaks full of dry bread they have scavenged in the locality and dunk it in the water until it is completely sodden from where they carry it off to feed their chicks.


Carrion crow fledgling, it’s not immediately obvious from this shot but it has very short stumpy tail feathers – diagnostic of a fresh-faced youngster

My folks garden is around only 50m away from a long spinney of old trees and consequently they get a great variety of birds and are currently playing host to a jay, a pair of nuthatch, numerous goldfinch, dunnock, blackbirds etc, etc…


A pair of goldfinch settling a dispute on the garage roof

After a brief stop off in Northampton I headed off south to Maidenhead. One of the original release sites where attempts were made to establish new red kite populations was on the M40 corridor, and not long after passing Oxford I spotted the first one. Shortly after that there was another… and another… and another. From then on down to Windsor there were groups of up to five over the motorway or the adjacent fields every couple of minutes, and I counted 30-40 individuals in that short distance. (Alas I didn’t have my camera with me from here on, so this post is a bit thin on pictures, but I hope the words are sufficient to hold your interest!)

Later on, in the evening, I took a walk along the Thames at Maidenhead where a pair of geat crested grebe were performing a courtship dance. This involved necking followed by diving to collect weed from the riverbed which they presented to the partner when they reached the surface. Overhead, red kite, swallows, swifts and house martins were all wheeling around at various heights hoovering up flies, and the martins were flying to and fro from nests built under the eaves of the houses on the riverside, feeding their young. And an arctic tern was patrolling up and down along the river making the occcasional dive after an unfortunate fish. I love watching terns hunt, they’re amazing fliers, so it was great to see one here.

Heading back north again on Saturday evening there weren’t the numbers of kites I’d seen on Friday, but there were still a few to be seen. All in all, the red kite conservation story is an amazingly successful one and it’s good to see that human intervention can sometimes correct an egregious wrong perpetrated in the past!

April birdwatch

The activities of the birds in my garden have changed significantly in the last 2-3 weeks. Until then I was seeing multiple blackbird, robin, starling, goldfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, collared dove and house sparrow with less frequent visits by long tailed tit. Since then a pair of wood pigeon have virtually taken up residence in my back garden and hoover up all the bird food before the smaller species get a look in. There is still the occasional dunnock and blackbird on the ground and much less frequent visits by blue tit, robin, starling and chaffinch but the goldfinch have all but vacated. This is interesting because when I’m outside I regularly see and hear groups of goldfinch in the trees around the garden but something seems to be keeping them away from my feeder.

My friend Chris told me he had a songthrush rearing chicks in a nest in a tree in his garden and she fledged four youngsters last week, which is very early in the year, so hopefully she’ll fit in another brood this year. But his garden has been subject to the attentions of a sparrowhawk in recent months so he was worried it would catch the fledglings, but clever use of carefully placed hanging bamboo canes has successfully deterred the hawk and all four fledglings seem to have successfully flown the coop. Songthrush 4, sparrowhawk nil.

Continuing with garden birds, last week it occurred to me that the fat balls hanging in my front garden were requiring replenishment rather more frequently than usual so I guessed the nesting birds were feeding more often. The reason turned out to be rather more amusing:


One of the local rooks has worked out that these are edible…

…and that it can reach them. And it takes alot of fat ball to fill a hungry rook!

Slightly further afield in the hedgrows and scrub bordering the farmland around Histon it’s a very good time to survey the local wildlife. As I mentioned in a previous post many species of wild flower now including forget-me-not, yellow archangel…


Forget-me-not

Yellow archangel – Lamiastrum galeobdolon, this variegated version is an invading subspecies ‘argentatum’

…herb robert, cow parsley and periwinkle are all in bloom and lining the paths through the countryside filling them with a palette of colour.

And in the fields, trees and bushes there is an abundance of birdlife:


Corn bunting perched in the midst of a field of oil seed rape

The countryside is ablaze with the yellow of rape flowers right now and just occasionally a photographic opportunity such as this one arises. I’m not particularly keen on the vast swathes of rape but it created a lovely backdrop for this corn bunting which are becoming increasingly uncommon.

It’s not unusual to see and hear bullfinch in one patch of scrub near the church in Histon, which is a regular destination for my birdwatching outings. That makes me very happy because I used to see them all the time when I was a kid in the 1970’s but since the 80’s they seem to have been persecuted to near extinction in alot of the UK because of their fondness for the green shoots of commercial fruit trees. They are still fairly elusive but I managed to get this photograph of a male (just!):


Male bullfinch – the female has similar markings but they are not pink she is more pale grey/brown

And in the same field as the bullfinch linnet are in residence, as are willow warbler, chiffchaff and blackcap which have now returned from over wintering in Africa:


Blackcap male

Chiffchaff

…as are whitethroat:


A female whitehroat, one of a pair patrolling a patch of brambles in the middle of the field

This field is an amazing place, I reckon it’s approximately 10-12 acres and it comprises several habitats including open-ish grass, it’s sorrounded by some old established trees: oak, ash and horse chestnut with hedgerow joining up the old trees consisting mainly of hawthorn and in the field itself there are alot of ash and other saplings and some large patches of bramble. Consequently it provides good supplies of food and cover for nesting for a number of different species. Green woodpeckers can be constantly heard yaffling to each other:

…and birds of prey including kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard are regularly in the skies above. The green woodpecker are there all year round and are usually hidden in the grass so I’ll flush one off the ground only for it to disappear into a tree too distant to allow a photograph. So this is about the best image I have of one. Most of the common or garden birds are regulars here too, house sparrow, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit:

…and chaffinch

…blackbird, songthrush, rook, crow and magpie are all present every day. So a small area of mixed scrub an the edge of the village supports a wonderful number of our birds.

There’s lots to see by simply look up in the village too. On the way back from the playground in Impington with my kids today we cycled along a road under a tree as a jay emerged from a silver birch on the other side of the road and landed in the tree a few metres over our heads. We all stopped to look at it and marvel at it’s amazing colours, and it looked at us for a minute or two before flapping off higher up the tree.

Springtime song

The weather this  Saturday was glorious – no wind, blue sky and warm sunshine. Perfect for a stroll around the countryside. So I set off around 8am and apart from the warmth, the first thing I noticed was the air laden with the  fragrances of spring blossom.

In the last week the spring weather has caused trees and flowers including the willow to blossom…


Pussy willow – the furry catkin of the willow tree against a gorgeous blue sky, and a lone honeybee

Butterflies are waking up after hibernation. A red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) flew through my garden last week and a friend told me he saw a brimstone in his garden and another wended its way gently past a window at work today.

Red admiral on a bindweed flower
Red admiral feeding on a convulvulus flower

Red admiral are resident and can be seen all year round when weather permits. Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) are also resident and hibernate over the winter but they are now out and about aroused by the warm weather. Bumble bees have also become more abundant in the last few weeks and I now see them on most days.

The birds are all singing and a walk through parks and fields is accompanied by the song of greenfinch, blue tit, great tit, dunnock and robin, most noticeably. And on my hike across the fields abundant yellowhammer, reed bunting and corn bunting, three Emberiza species, were all in full voice:


E.citrinella – one of many yellowhammer, this one is a male, patrolling the hedgerows

E.schoeniclus – reed bunting male

E.calandra – corn bunting making its very distinctive call

Yellowhammer, reed bunting and corn bunting perch in hedgerows and  make feeding forays to the ground in the neighbouring fields where they feast on seeds and during the breeding season and  summer will eat invertebrates. I pass one location where there has been a mixed group of 20-30 reed bunting and yellowhammer present regularly over the last month. Corn bunting have made a recent comeback to the fields around Histon, they disappear at harvest time, middle to end of August, and reappear in the Spring when they can be seen perched on top of brambles, bushes and short trees making their very characteristic song.

Skylark were also singing constantly. Farmland species such as these have seen their habitat severely depleted in recent times, consequently their numbers are reduced as a result.

A red fox and a small group of roe deer put in appearances, the fox was heading a cross the fields to Landbeach heading away from a place I photographed cubs last year, so I hope they are breeding here again this year.


Roe deer – Capreolus capreolus – the leader on the right is sporting native antlers

A pair of crows chased off a buzzard which thermalled over the fields before disappearing into the haze towards Waterbeach and a flock of several hundred black headed gulls squawked noisily over the fields. I observed them for several minutes with binoculars and I think they were all black heads, but there could have been a few individuals of other species mixed in. A sparrowhawk flew at very high speed from the Linnet Hedge across South Bean Field before rising up and passing through a gap in the treeline, causing mayhem with the birdlife in the gardens beyond and a female kestrel was looking for rodents in the South Fallow Field. It was the first time I’d seen birds of prey here for several months so it was great to see three species on one walk.

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.

 

 

 

 

Histon forays, weekend 5th – 6th March 2011

This weekend I’ve been out and about on my regular walks north of Histon. (Click here for a sketch map of the locality). Yesterday I was out around the fields to the north between Histon and Cottenham. It was a cold grey morning and it was noteworthy for several reasons.

The birdlife was plentiful. (Click here for my wildlife diary where I’ve listed all sightings). Just a few minutes after telling my friend, David, that I hadn’t seen a corn bunting for around 6 months but that they frequent that area in numbers during the summer and disappear very quickly after the harvest, we saw one sitting in a bramble:

It was the first one this year and the first of several we spotted yesterday. It was a good morning for buntings in general. Last time I was here, around three weeks ago a mixed flock of reed bunting and yellowhammer were  in the east end of the Owl Shed Hedge (see post from 29th Jan entitled “Buntings abound: 29th and 30th January 2011). They were there again on Saturday and reed bunting were present in most of the hedges and ditches we peered into. Skylark were present in large numbers too, singing up high and darting around low. A look  on the floor of the Old Water Pump, which has a platform for barn owls to roost and breed, revealed numerous owl pellets most of which were very old, but some of them looked fresher, possibly from within the last 6 months.

One of the ‘Pump House’ barn owls from three years ago

This is a very good thing as barn owls haven’t bred there since 2008 and I haven’t seen one in the vicinity since last year, and then only a couple of sightings all year.

Other appearances which livened up the walk were a muntjac deer, Muntiacus reevesi, introduced from China to the UK in the first half of the 20th century, which was rooting around at the back of the gardens of the houses on Cottenham Road, and a stock dove was sitting in the trees in the same area. I may have seen these before and mistaken them for wood pigeon, but David’s expert knowledge put me straight on the differences. They don’t have the white neck and wing bands of the wood pigeon and they have a dark eye which is diagnostic – that of the wood pigeon is lighter.

I set off in the other direction this morning to head out of Histon north west towards Oakington along Guns Lane and into Rowleys Meadow. I took a slow walk and was very adequately rewarded. Right at the start of the Lane where it joins Cottenham Road blue tit, great tit, greenfinch, chaffinch, starling and song thrush were present and finches were singing constantly,


Greenfinch male singing for a mate in the top of a tree on Guns Lane

…and a chaffinch male displaying his gorgeous black and white tail in a fan. I’ve posted a few photographs of chaffinch lately, even though they’re common I think they’re spectacular!

A couple of surprises today, firstly the number of bullfinch; I saw a single male in Rowleys Meadow which may have had a female with it but I couldn’t see it well enough to confirm, and another pair of males flew along Guns Lane hopping from hedge to hedge infront of me for 50-100m. And secondly, the number of dunnock. They were present in every bush and bramble in the Meadow and on the Lane singing constantly – if you haven’t heard dunnock song, have a listen here, it’s lovely.


Dunnock sitting on a bramble singing

Dunnock have a rather interesting approach to breeding. They don’t pair off as most birds do, a female will be mated by at least two males who will stimulate the females to eject a rivals sperm from the cloaca with their beak. DNA analysis has shown young in the same clutch can have more than one father. I like dunnock, they look boringly grey/brown when seen flitting around the undergrowth, but when they catch the light they are certainly not drab. And their song and their antics at breeding time are anything but boring!

Just as I was about to leave the countryside and head home I noticed a pair of starling sitting on top of a hedge checking out me and the dog. As I turned to point my camera at them they didn’t fly away but simply kept an eye on me so I could get this picture:

The glorious plumage of the starling!

Spring is well underway now and the activities of the wildlife are reflecting that. It’s a great time to be poking around in the woods and hedgerows.

Fen Drayton nature reserve

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

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

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


Far Fen lake showing the varies habitat at Fen Drayton

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

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

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


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

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

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


Chaffinch male in a tree singing for a mate

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


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

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


This chap was bouncing around the car park

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


A single male wigeon on Oxholme Lake

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

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


The A380 of the avian world…

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


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

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