Tag Archives: Fen Drayton

At long last

After a summer of fixing and painting and holidaying I can now sit down and devote the time to pick up where I left off with blog posting. I’ve collected lots of photographs and I’m about 20 posts behind, so here goes…

Since I acquired my new camera earlier on in the summer I’ve been crawling around in the undergrowth taking pictures of wild flowers and here are a few of them.

Wimpole Hall Farm is a stately home to the west of Cambridge which is owned by the National Trust and is set in extensive park and farmland. A stroll round the park there earlier in the summer was as rewarding as ever with a buzzard and a couple of great spotted woodpeckers putting in appearances, but I didn’t have my zoom lens with me so I was restricted to photographing things which were close by and didn’t move too quickly.

Growing in the shade of a line of trees were bugle flowers…


Bugle – Ajuga reptans

Bugle is related to self heal (Prunella vulgaris), they are both members of the family Lamiaceae and both have medicinal properties.

According to Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century English botanist and renowned herbalist:

Self-Heal whereby when you are hurt, you may heal yourself, it is an especial herb for inward or outward wounds. Take it inwardly in syrups for inward wounds, outwardly in unguents and plasters for outward. As Self-Heal is like Bugle in form, so also in the qualities and virtues, serving for all purposes, whereunto Bugle is applied with good success either inwardly or outwardly, for inward wounds or ulcers in the body, for bruises or falls and hurts. If it be combined with Bugle, Sanicle and other like wound herbs, it will be more effectual to wash and inject into ulcers in the parts outwardly…. It is an especial remedy for all green wounds to close the lips of them and to keep the place from further inconveniences. The juice used with oil of roses to annoint the temples and forehead is very effectual to remove the headache, and the same mixed with honey of roses cleaneth and healeth ulcers in the mouth and throat.’

I’m not sure what Culpeper means by ‘green wounds‘ but it makes me glad I live in the penicillin age. Indeed he died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 37. No herbs could cure that.


Purple self-heal

This picture is an attempt to give a feel for what an English meadow looks like in summer, two of my favourite flowers – self-heal and white clover (Trifolium repens) set in the long grass against a blue ‘Simpsons sky‘.

Another name for bugle is ‘carpenters herb’ due to its ability to stem bleeding, although it appears it does this not by catalysing the clotting process but by lowering blood pressure and heart rate in a similar way to digitalis, the active pharmaceutical compound which gives foxgloves their toxicity:

Foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea, growing next to the path to the cafe at Wimpole

On another foray into the countryside in June, this time to RSPB Fen Drayton, I was specifically looking for oxeye daisy and in amongst the daisies were these lovely dames violets (Hesperis matronalis). Dames violet originates in the Mediterranean but has colonised the UK after escaping from gardens. It has been used as an ‘antiscorbutic’, i.e. to treat scurvy.

Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and dames violet growing slongside the Cambridge Guided Busway at RSPB Fen Drayton
Dames violet flowers

Also growing alongside the busway were lesser knapweed (Centaurea nigra), which I think is rather lovely and not ‘lesser‘ or a ‘weed‘! I’d be happy for it to grow in my garden…

Lesser knapweed – I couldn’t find any reference to medicinal or herbal uses of lesser knapweed

…and ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi):

I couldn’t find any reference to medicinal uses of ragged robin either but it’s also rather beautiful and small clusters of it punctuated tracts of grass mixed with other flowers.

There’ll be more flowers to come, and butterflies… birds… mammals etc. etc.

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Damsels of Fen Drayton

One of the reasons for my trip to Fen Drayton a few weeks ago was to have a look to see which of our dragonflies were out and about. I went in early June and that time of year is a little early for the true dragons to have emerged, although it’s not impossible. But despite the shortage of the true dragons, the hedgerows and lake sides were abuzz with damselflies.


Male red-eyed damselfly – Erythromma najas

Dragonflies and damselfies are the two members of the taxonomic order ‘Odanata‘ or Odanates. There are two sub-orders within the Odanata: the Anisoptera – the true dragonflies, and Zygoptera – damselflies.

Azure damselfly – Coenagrion puella – the blue form of the immature female

Damselflies in the UK are approximately 4-5cm (1.5-2 inches) long and have thin abdomens and are all smaller and more delicate than the chunkier dragonflies. Having said that, the biggest living Odanate is currently a damselfly who resides in the rainforests of Central America, it has a wingspan of 19cm (7.5 inches) and the abdomen is 10cm (4 inches) long. A real whopper!

Blue tailed damselfly – Ischnura elegans – immature femaleBlue tailed damselfly – immature male – Ischnura elegans

Male and female Odanates, and immature and mature individuals, can often be distinguished by colour. The common blue female below is conspicuously brown so the species gets its name from the electric blue colour of the male. The common blue can easily be confused with the variable damselfly which is the same blue colour, but they are distinguished by the black markings on segment 2 of the abdomen which is shaped like a goblet on the variable and a club on the common blue. Also, the antehumoral stripes (on the side of the thorax) are complete on the common blue and broken on the variable. Although, as the name suggests, the variable is indeed variable and it can make distinguishing the two species a little tricky.


Common blue damselfly female – Enallagma cyathigerum – the only common blue we saw on this trip, perched on my friends finger

The black goblet on segment 2 is visible under the front of the wings on the variable damselfly below. But confusingly, it’s living up to its name because the antehumoral stripes are unbroken.

Male damselflies have two sets of paired claspers at the end of the abdomen which it uses to clasp the female on her pronotum, which is the protrusion in the middle of the back of the head. The claspers have tiny hooks on them which match grooves in the female pronotum and in order to avoid procreational mismatches the hooks and grooves are species specific.

Variable damselfly – Coenagrion pulchellum

In the picture above a variable male has clasped his lady by the pronotum. Male damselflies have primary genitalia at the end of the abdomen on the 8th segment, but in order for fertilisation to take place he needs to transfer a ‘spermatophore’ from the primary genitalia to the secondary genitalia on the second segment at the thoracic end of the abdomen. The female then curls round in to the ‘wheel’ position to transfer the sperm to her genitalia which are underneath her 8th abdominal segment.

A pair of variable damsels in the wheel position

All the Odanates are carnivores, and the larvae which hatch from eggs layed under water are ferocious carnivores, the larger ones will even take small fish! On one occasion last year while I was photographing large red damselflies (Pyrrhosoma  nymphula), a large hawker dragonfly (I think it was a migrant hawker, Aeshna mixta) which had been buzzing around higher up for several minutes suddenly dived down and caught one of my large red damsels. In a few seconds the migrant butchered it and ate it on the wing and the inedible bits of wing and leg were discarded and rained down around me.

Scarce chaser – an immature male

A lone Anisopteran, or ‘true’ dragon was spotted on this trip and it was an immature scarce chaser, Libellula fulva. He was a lovely mustard colour and he can be differentiated from the female by the colour of the thorax which is dark grey in the female, and from the male adult who is electric blue. He undergoes quite a transformation in transitioning from immature to adult.

Poison Parsley

Poison parsley is another name for hemlock. Hemlock originally attained notoriety around 2500 years ago when it was used to poison the Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. He was executed because his teachings were highly critical of the Athenian state and he was a thorn in the side of various high ranking Athenians. And in those days that tended to limit ones life expectancy.

Hemlock – Conium maculatum

I hadn’t knowingly encountered hemlock until a couple of weekends ago when I was strolling around the RSPB reserve at Fen Drayton, where it was lining the hedgrows in some profusion. It is an imposing plant that was growing taller than me, up to around 2m, it has dark green feathery leaves and white flowers that resemble the hogweeds.


This plant was growing amongst hogweed and cow parsley, and it can appear fairly similar to both, to the uneducated eye.

A variable damselfy (Coenagrium pulchellum) warming itself in the early morning sunshine perched on a hemlock frond

The hogweeds used to provide fodder for pigs, hence the name, but giant hogweed is toxic to humans due to its sap which contains a type of chemical called a ‘furanocoumarin‘ that causes the skin to become sensitive to ultraviolet light. That can result in extremely unpleasant blistering of the skin and blindness if it gets in the eyes. Derivatives of furanocoumarins have been developed as drugs for the treatment of psoriasis.

But the hemlock toxin works in a different way. It is called ‘coniine‘ and the chemical name is 2-propylpiperidine:

I think this compound is remarkable because it is very small for a molecule which has such a specific and catastrophic effect. It exerts its effect by blocking a receptor for a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which resides on the membrane on the far side of nerve synapses. This results in a condition called ‘flaccid paralysis‘. Basically, the nerves which facilitate muscle contraction get blocked and stop firing. It starts in the feet and travels upwards, the muscles go floppy and that’s ultimately fatal when the effect reaches the heart and lungs. Socrates’ death was described by Plato and his last words were to his friend, Crito:

“Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

The smooth stem of the hemlock plant

The purple spots on the stem of the hemlock are diagnostic, other similar plants don’t have this, so if you see it, admire it, but don’t touch it! All parts of the plant are toxic and it doesn’t take much to have an effect.

The flower head just before the white flowers emerge

Hemlock has a number of names according the the Royal Horticultural Society: California fern, cashes, herb bennet, Nebraska fern, poison hemlock, St Benedict’s herb, snakeweed, spotted hemlock, spotted parsley and winter fern. Also according to the RHS, its range is Europe only, but it has been introduced to the United States, hence the two names which include U.S. states.

Hemlock grows in damp poorly drained soils and is fed on by various insects including caterpillars and occurs in field borders and roadside verges aswell as along the lakes and ditches where I found it at Fen Drayton.

Bullfinch revival?

Anyone who has followed some of my recent posts may well have picked up that I love the bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Dansk: dompap). Both the male and female of the species have beautiful plumage and because of their scarcity I consider it a real bonus to see one. Apart from the very occasional sighting, i.e. one every 5 years or so, I simply didn’t encounter them between childhood and around 2 years ago.

Since then I’ve seen them on numerous occasions out and about on my wanderings around Cambridgeshire, both around Histon and at nature reserves such as RSPB Fowlmere and Fen Drayton, and to my immense pleasure a group has been resident in a patch of scrub close to where I live for the past 2-3 weeks. On one occasion over Christmas I saw eight in one go, and I can’t ever remember seeing that before.

A group flew over my head, too fast to photograph, but this lone male alighted on a bramble around 30m from me and let me edge to within 20m, shutter whirring all the way:


Male bullfinch – the tailend charlie perched on the brambles

He was very busy gorging on the brambles pausing to look at me when he was aware of my movements and when I stopped he carried on feeding. Many bullfinch pictures are of the male, resplendent in his sumptuous orange/pink waistcoat and I don’t mind that, but I was pleased to get the picture below as he flipped through 180 degrees to get to his bramble shoots:


Upside down bullfinch showing his dark grey back and tail, jet black primary flight feathers and white rump. No other bird could be mistaken for him.

The song of the bullfinch is also very distinctive. They make a fairly inobtrusive ‘cheep cheep‘ call which is unmistakeable when a group fly overhead.

My lone male replete after his feast sizing me up immediately prior to his departure

Flocks of bullfinch can decimate fruit crops by eating the shoots from the trees and were therefore heavily persecuted in tis country which led to a catastrophic decline in the numbers through the 1970’s and 80’s but I read in a recent report that they fared well as a result of the mild year we experienced in 2011, so I’m hoping there has been a general increase in their numbers and my small local flock will stay on and possibly expand. Fingers crossed.

If that comes to pass I should be able to post more shots of both the male and female bullfinch in the near future. At the moment I only have one photograph of a female as they seem to be generally more wary than the males. I’m also saving up to invest in more powerful optics so I should be able to bring you some better close up portrait shots of bullfinch, and lots of other species in the not too distant future. Watch this space.

Subbuteo

Falco subbuteo, (lærkefalk in Danish), after which the table football game is named (it was the games creators favourite bird apparently), is a summer visitor to our shores. It is a migrant breeder and passage visitor, spending the winter in Africa and despite being widespread throughout Europe, there are only around 2000 pairs in the UK which are predominantly confined to the south and east below a line from the Severn to the Humber estuaries.

They breed in nests abandoned by other birds, often those of crows, and they feed on insects and birds which they take out the air in flight. To do that they need to be fast, and they are extremely fast, taking dragonflies and small birds by utilising their amazing speed either in level flight or in a stoop. They have a slate grey back and are white with black speckles underneath with dark, grey/black head, eye patches and moustaches similar to a small peregrine falcon (vandrefalk), and I find the easiest visual differentiator is the red thighs and underside of the tail.

Whilst I was at Fen Drayton nature reserve last weekend I watched one hunting and I managed to get some pictures, which aren’t the best quality, but I hope convey some of the drama of their high velocity hunting technique:

Beginning the approach:

…homing on the target:

…and pulling up with empty talons:

The red thighs are visible in the second and third photographs above, and are diagnostic for the hobby.

It’s exhilarating watching a wild predator hunting, especially at the speed these guys do it. And it presents an interesting photographic challenge too, one which I’m yet to perfect as the high speed flight of the hobby requires high speed panning. I’m looking forward to the next chance I get to practice.

Pyrrhula pyrrhula

Without wishing to appear melodramatic, I’ve been waiting for decades to get a photo of a bullfinch, Pyrrhula pyrrhula (in Danish, ‘dompap‘). My parents have been feeding the garden birds since I was a kid and I can remember seeing bullfinch in the garden back in the 1970’s. But then over a few short years they seemed to all but disappear. They were legally persecuted by farmers because of their ability to strip fruit trees of all their fresh shoots in record time, and were therefore blamed for financial misfortune in the market garden sector and condemned to slaughter.

I think extermination is far too high a price to pay, but destruction of these magnificent birds is, alas, what ensued. So in the intervening years, twixt the 70’s and very recently, my sightings of bullfinch were restricted to an occasional glimpse, and that seemed to occur on average once every 5-10 years.

Maybe I just didn’t go looking in the right place, but since I’ve been exploring around Histon over the last 3 years or so the number of sightings has increased significantly. There is a good supply of scrub round here which is providing cover and sustenance so they are now a fairly frequent occurrence. Despite that, I still feel a deep flush of excitement and satisfaction when I see the flash of black and pinky/orange pass overhead, especially if it’s set against a deep blue sky. It’s a beautiful sight.

Even though I see them reasonably often now, I hadn’t managed to get a photograph of one until last weekend when I was at Fen Drayton nature reserve near St Ives in Cambridgeshire. I’d seen a pair together and heard several more calling in the hedgerows and then whilst leaning on a gate this chap appeared on the ground and hopped along for just long enough to get a picture:


A male bullfinch on the ground. Alas he always seemed to be behind a tuft of grass

I saw and heard at least a dozen during my walk but this was the best shot I got so I resolved not to leave until I had got a better one. As I approached the car park I saw another male fly into a hole in a bush so I waited for a few minutes but he didn’t reappear. So I went through the hedge to have a look on the other side, disturbing an elderly couple enjoying a glass of wine (now there’s an angle to nature watching I feel I should explore in more detail!). And then after a few seconds he appeared on a frond and began stripping seeds from it:


…and he stayed for long enough for me to fire off two shots of which this is one

And that, my friends, of the tens of thousands of nature photographs I’ve ever taken, is my favourite!

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.