Tag Archives: green woodpecker

The mating season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The owl and the woodpecker

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

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

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

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

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

A greenie keeping an eye on me and the dog

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


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

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

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

Not a bad way to spend an evening!

Alas, no bullfinch, but…

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

No bullfinch, but hey ho, woodpeckers there were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A blue tit deftly plucking seeds from a swaying reed seedhead

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

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

Goldeneye drake – elegance personified

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

Returning songbirds

There’s a particular spot in my local meadow where there are some large clumps of brambles which are home to numerous species of bird including songthrush, blackbird, linnet and house sparrow. And in the summer chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap and common whitethroat are all there too. Chiffchaff have been here for a couple of months now, and willow warbler almost as long but I hadn’t yet seen a whitethroat, so I set off last Monday in the hope of seeing the first one of the year.

A cock robin singing to the ladies

There were many species of songbird in the meadow including the robin (Erithacus rubecula: Dansk: rødhals) and the house sparrow (Passer domesticus, Dansk: gråspurv) and the air was alive with the song of all these species.


House sparrow female

Robin and house sparrow are resident species in the meadow and I see them all year round there, but not the chiffchaff:

The chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita Dansk: gransanger), which is a warbler, and willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus, Dansk: løvsanger) can be very difficult to tell apart if only seen at a glance, but they can be distinguished by their song, of which more in the next post. This chiffchaff was one of a pair which were calling to each other and flitting around the bushes passing within a few feet of me on several occasions and seemingly unfazed by my presence.

Cock linnet

Resident in the UK is the linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk), they disappear from the fields around Histon in the Autumn, presumably to congregate at a winter feeding ground, and they reappear in the Spring. And they have recently turned up in the meadow. Also resident, and present all year round, is the dunnock…


Dunnock, Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv

… and the chaffinch:

Cock chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke

There were no whitethroat back in the meadow last Monday but as you can see there were plenty of other birds. In the last week I’ve also seen kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard, blackcap, green woodpecker, jay and magpie.

I recce’d the meadow again this weekend and the whitethroat are now back from wintering in Africa. They are very distinctive and both sexes are easily identified by their strikingly white throat, and the males display by singing from the top of a bramble thicket or a sapling and flit 4-5m vertically into the air and then descend to land in the same spot. They’re lovely little birds, with a very distinctive song, and I’ll hopefully have some pictures to show you in the near future.

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.

2011 – That was the year that was

Every month of the year has different conditions which create environmental niches that favour different flora, fauna and stages of life cycles. So as 2011 rushes headlong to its wintry conclusion, for my last post of the year I was going to select a single photograph to represent the month to month changes in our wildlife throughout the year. And that was of course impossible for a number of reasons, mainly because it was impossible to represent any one month with a single image, and also because I have lots of images that I like and I want to share. I eventually managed to whittle the number down to an average of two per month which include a wide range of our native creatures in the UK including birds (migrants and natives), butterflies, moths, flowers, amphibians and fungi. I hope you like them!

January

Every autumn  lots of bird species vacate our shores to head to warmer parts of the world while we endure the cold of winter, and they’re replaced by other species which come from the north to the relative warmth of the UK in winter. Last year the autumn and winter weather in Scandinavia was ferocious and consequently many birds arrived here in larger numbers than usual, including the gorgeous waxwing. Along with the waxwing, redwing and fieldfare came too, as they do every year, and remained until the spring, providing some welcome colour.

On a bright cold January day a lone fieldfare perched in a tree

February

February was cold and the middle of the month saw us taking the children to the coast for our annual spring half term excursion, and this year we headed to the Suffolk coast at Dunwich. Dunwich is a really interesting place for lots of reasons, not least because the wildlife there is rich and varied. One of the harbingers of springtime which I look forward to every year is the flowering of snowdrops, and the woods on the edge of Dunwich were covered in them:


A carpet of snowdrops in the woods at Dunwich Greyfriars

March

By March many flowers were blooming and the fauna was turning it’s thoughts to matters procreational. And this dunnock was no exception:


A dunnock serenading the ladies from a bramble stem on Cambridge Science Park

Dunnocks have a rather to-the-point approach to the art of regeneration. They don’t get together in pairs as most birds do, they form small groups and mate with multiple partners and the males go as far as to remove packets of sperm from the cloaca of females who have been inseminated by rivals prior to passing on their own DNA. No nonsense!


A robin singing for a mate in an alder tree, also on Cambridge Science Park

And of course the birds aren’t the only creatures to get the urge in March. For the past 2-3 years a guided busway has been built between St Ives and Cambridge and as it approaches Cambridge Science Park it passes alongside a lake that is a spawning ground for thousands of toads which live in the adjacent woods and fields. The busway has therefore cut off the toads from the lake and, driven by the unstoppable instinct to reproduce, this pair were trying unsuccessfully to negotiate the sheer walls of the track. For a week in March I would get off my bike every morning on the way to work to help as many of them across as I could find.


The male toad is hitching a lift on the back of the much larger female on the way to the water to spawn

The male toad locks onto the back of the female with his front claws around her chest and he’s not at all keen to relinquish his grip until they’ve reached the water and he’s fertilised her eggs. After which armies of lone toads can be seen heading back the other way.

Fortunately for the toads Cambridge City Council funded the installation of toad tunnels under the busway so next year they should be able to negotitate the track and avoid the carnage which would otherwise have ensued. Hats off to the Council!

April

This month was a real wildlife fest and many types of creature allowed me to take some great photographs. The trees now have shooting leaves so everywhere has that lovely green colour from all the fresh growth.


Windswept male yellowhammer in the top of a hawthorn tree

The yellowhammer is a species which has become less and less common in recent decades as a result of hedgerow destruction and other modern farming methods, but we’re lucky to have plenty of hedgerows still in situ on the outskirts of Histon, and consequently, good numbers of these lovely yellow buntings. The hedgerow this one is on is mature and has old oak and ash trees in so it plays host to alot of bird species including blackcap, chiffchaff, dunnock, common whitethroat and green woodpecker, to name but a few.

Whilst sitting watching TV late one evening in March, what I initially thought was a bat emerged from behind the sofa I was sitting on with my wife. There had been no prior warning of its presence and myself and my wife both levitated off the sofa uttering something along the lines of “What the heck was that!?”. It fluttered into a lampshade where it staid long enough to get a photograph, and it turned out to be an emperor moth:


Our emperor moth inside a lamp. I though creatures like that only lived in tropical rainforests!

Unfortunately, a couple of days later I found her dead (she was the female of the species) still inside the lampshade. I extricated her and measured her and she was 7cm wingtip to wingtip. A magnificent beast.


A willow warbler beautifully framed by new leaves and blossom of the blackthorn tree

These little warblers which weigh on average around 9g have just arrived from southern Africa. I think bird migration is one of the most amazing natural phemonena – how does such a tiny creature navigate and survive a flight across the Sahara and then the Mediterranean? It’s absolutely incredible.


A pair of great crested newts getting ready to mate in a shallow pond – male on the left, more slender female to the right

The great crested newt was probably the highlight of my year. I’d never seen a newt before and in this pond there were great crested, palmate and smooth newts. I turned the flash power down and used an 18-55mm lens and got some reasonably good photographs of the newts underwater. And that at 1am after a few hours in the pub!

May

I’ve spent many a fruitless hour chasing orange spot butterflies up and down the hedgerows of Cambridgeshire, but they never seemed to settle for long enough to get a photograph. But one morning in May I must have timed it just right, they were in the mating mood.


Female orange spot announcing her availability in somewhat unambiguous fashion to a passing male who was just out of shot


Common whitethroat – these warblers also migrate to the UK from sub-Saharan Africa

The common whitethroat breeds in my local fields in good numbers. It’s easy to identify by its song and the way it perches on brambles and low scrub and then flits almost vertically up into the air to alight a few seconds later close to where it took off from and continue singing. This one is a male, he has a blue/grey head whereas the female has a brown head. As well as avian migrants from warmer climes, at this time of year many species of dragonfly are emerging:


Scarce chaser dragonfly at Milton Country Park

I like dragonflies. In the days of the dinosaurs there were dragonflies with a 75cm wingspan! They are fun to photograph (and often, not too difficult) they look awesome, and they have very interesting life cycles. My scarce chaser sat on a seed head for several minutes whilst I stood a few feet away photographing other dragons and damsels, occassionally he took off to circle the pond before returning to the same spot where he let me get to within around 50cm to capture his portrait.

June

In a normal year the weather will be warming up  nicely by June and flowers and insects and birds should be in abundance. But 2011 wasn’t a normal year, April was unseasonally warm which kick started everything, but the rest of spring and summer were cold and this had dire consequences for many butterflies and other species. One of the few that I did see in reasonable  numbers this year, although not as many as last year, was the large skipper.


Large skipper feasting on the nectar of a thistle

The marsh woundwort is so called because it has been applied to wounds to assist the healing process. I don’t know what the medical basis for that is, maybe it has antispetic properties. It  has a beautiful flowerhead and is one a good number of wild flowers growing in the drainage dikes on the local farmland around Cambridge.

Marsh woundwort poking it’s lovely head out of a drainage ditch which is full of various wild flowers every year

July

I found this splendid looking cricket lurking in the grass in a field on the edge of Histon. I first thought it was a very green grasshopper until I looked more closely at the photograph, and it turned out to be a Roesels bush cricket. It is an introduced species from mainland Europe which until recently was only found in the most southerly parts of England. There are two varieties and this is the long winged one which can colonise further afield faster than its short winged cousin, and is now as far north as Cambridgeshire and beyond.


Long winged Roesels bush cricket

This was the first of its kind that I’d seen and a few days later another one appeared on a blind in my house, so I guess thay can’t be that uncommon in this region now.

A pair of juvenile linnets

Before I got out walking in my local countryside around Histon I can’t remember the last time I saw a linnet, but they breed here in good numbers and in the winter flocks of many tens to hundreds can be seen on farmland around and about Histon. Linnet are finches which feed on seeds and the adult males are splendid with a cerise breast and a crimson spot on their foreheads.

August

When I was at school, many years ago, my Dad would feed the birds in the garden and it wasn’t particularly unusual to see the occasional bullfinch.  But mainly as a result of persecution their numbers declined dramatically through the 1970’s and 80’s and I didn’t see one for years. The males are beautiful birds and I’ve been after a good photograph of one for a long time. And finally…


A male bullfinch crunching seeds at RSPB Fen Drayton

I love this picture – so far it’s the first and only half decent one I’ve managed. Hopefully I’ll get a few more to share with you in 2012.

Later in August, we were on holiday in Northumberland, and amongst the many gulls and other seabirds on the beach at Seahouses was this redshank. I think it’s nature at it’s aesthetic best!


A lone redshank looking for nourishment in the rockpools at Seahouses

September

The biggest garden spider I’ve ever seen – she was around 4cm across

Another of natures harbingers, this time of autumn. My garden fills up with these polyocular purveyors of terror in September, and this lady was huge. She was 4cm across and was big enough to distract my son from a telling off. ‘Dad, there’s a big spider in my window‘ was an imaginative and very effective way to divert my attention from the misdemeanour of the moment. I ran to get my camera and I had to lay horizontally out of the bedroom window to take this photograph, as a result of which I couldn’t stay still for more than a few seconds!

October

After the coldest summer for 18 years we then had a mild autumn which meant that many creatures could be found out and about long after they have normally  migrated or hibernated, or died off. Swallows and swifts were still being seen into October and a bumblebee flew past my lab window one day last week. During a visit to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge, on 28th October, to see what winter wildfowl had arrived, there were some winter visitors including tufted duck, gadwall and widgeon. But the pontoon I was stood on had around half a dozen common darter dragonflies on it along with several species of damselfly in the surrounding reedbed and a lone migrant hawker patrolling the air which took a common darter and butchered it on the wing right over my head. Dragonflies can be seen late in the year when the weather permits, but even so I was surprised to see so many at the end of October.

A pair of common darters mating in the late autumn sunshine

November

One of my November excursions took me to RSPB Fowlmere, between Cambridge and Royston, which is renowned for its water rails. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before but I was tipped off by a fellow naturalist that there was one in front of a particular hide, so I headed off there and there it was, busy foraging in the pond for the whole hour I sat there. It was very murky so the photographic conditions were difficult, but I managed to get a couple of decent pictures and I particularly like this one:

A water rail in the primeval swamps of Cambridgeshire!

And another of my trips in November was to Norsey Wood in Essex which is a very different ecosystem to Fowlmere, consisting of ancient oak, beech and birch wood. So in autumn the forest floor is a really good location for fungi and this fly agaric was one of a large group growing out of the leaf litter.


Fly agaric mushroom amongst the fallen beech leaves of Norsey Wood

December

And finally, a wildlife success story is the long tailed tit. Until the last 10-15 years I only saw these occasionally but they now seem to be common, in direct contrast to so many other species of bird whose numbers are declining. I regularly see flocks of long tailed tits on the feeders in my garden and in the hedgerows and woods around Histon. They’re gorgeous little birds and I love watching a flock of them follow each other one after the other along a hedgerow before bunching together when they have found a food  source and then heading off again in line astern.

A long tailed tit in the hedges along Guns Lane in Histon

I stood quietly for several minutes watching the flock of around 15 birds that this one belonged to and they didn’t seem at all bothered by me as they picked insects from the trees.

So there you have it. 2011 in pictures. If you had the stamina to get this far, thankyou and I hope you enjoyed it.

Best wishes for a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and successful New Year from The Naturephile!

Where have all the birds gone?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Colourful Corvids

Rooks, crows and jackdaws are the most commonly seen and easily identified ‘crows’. They’re all black and they are widespread across the UK. But they’re not the only members of the crow or ‘Corvid‘ family. Ravens and choughs are also black members of the crow family, although the chough has bright red beak and legs, but both these species are fairly uncommon and seen mostly at or near the coast. There are two common and more colourful crows, the magpie (Pica pica, Dansk: husskade) and the jay (Garrulus glandarius, Dansk: skovskade).


Magpies can be seen everywhere, this one was in a tree opposite my garden

Magpies have an unfortunate reputation on two counts. They are considered to be inveterate thieves, having a particular fondness for shiny objects and they are generally reviled for their feeding habits during nesting of raiding other birds nests and predating the chicks. Of which more in another post. It seems to me they are handsome birds which are much maligned, they simply do what all wild creatures do, i.e. whatever is required to survive and propagate the species. While I watched this one I could hear several green woodpeckers (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) yaffling around the field and eventually one chased this magpie away from the top of the tree:


The woodpecker, bottom left, was extremely unhappy with the presence of the magpie and voiced it’s discontent with lots of shrieking as it flew aggressively into the tree

Jays are less frequently observed than magpies, predominantly dwelling in wooded areas in the countryside, but they are also seen in towns and villages where there are wooded areas. I’ve seen them along the Backs in Cambridge, and my friend who lives in a less wooded part of Cambridge has photographed them in his back garden. I encounter the occasional jay brightening up the day when I’m out walking around Histon, but last Sunday I had eight sightings, which is completely unprecedented. There were at least five individuals, one pair appeared together in the fields followed by a separate one a few seconds later, and another pair were busy burying acorns in the orchard opposite my garden. And they are spectacularly colourful, not at all what one might expect from a crow:


The splendid plumage of the jay!

Several jays and magpies came and went from this spot at the top of the tree in the space of a few minutes.


And when in flight the electric blue flash on the wing-bend opens up into a fan


As well as having an eye for sparkly trinkets jays are accomplished stashers and hoarders, and I’ve heard that a single jay can stash as many as 5000 acorns. They also show higher levels of intelligence whilst stashing, if they become aware they are being watched they will pretend to stash and then move away and hide their acorn somewhere else. I think that’s remarkable behaviour; moving away and hiding food elsewhere is one thing, but awareness of what another creatures intentions may be, and reacting to that by subterfuge suggests  a level of underdstanding and reasoning not commonly associated with creatures other than humans.


On the ground with an acorn in its beak looking for a suitable burial site, and checking its handywork :

As I watched this pair of jays at work, one of them put it’s acorn down and picked up a short stick, probably around 10cm long, and used it to make holes to bury the acorns in. So as well as the other tricks this jay used a tool to make bigger holes in the ground than it could manage with it’s beak in order to secrete its winter food supplies.

They’re remarkable birds, the Corvid family, and half an hour spent watching any crow species is entertaining and more than a little thought provoking.

A quick stroll round the meadow

Yesterday evening I accompanied the dog on a very quick circuit around Rowleys Meadow. I didn’t take my camera because I didn’t expect to be gone for very long, but fortunately I did pick up my binoculars.

Venturing along Guns Lane to the gap in the hedge which serves as the entrance to the Meadow I could hear a blackcap uttering its call in the undergrowth. As I was about to go through the gap it flew past me just in front and alighted in the bramble a few feet away and continued calling. It then circled around me for a minute or so as I entered the Meadow and sat singing in the trees and brambles while I stood in the hedge and watched. I didn’t linger for long as I guessed it was probably guarding a nearby nest. If only I’d had my camera with me!


Blackcap male  – from a previous foray into the meadow

I’ve never spent so long so close to a blackcap, and it was lovely to see. There are a good number of them in the Meadow, and at least one nest, and they’re present in the hedgerows around the more open fields to the east of here too.

Moving on around the Meadow, chiffchaff were on parade in their customary locations and common whitethroat were singing on top of the brambles and in the low scrub.


Common whitethroat male proclaiming his territory

There are numerous common whitethroat in and around the Meadow which can be heard singing all through the day and many of the bramble thickets are home to their nests.


This female common whitethroat was waiting for me to move on before heading for the nest. I crouched down and hid in the long grass just long enough to get these photographs

When seen close up the female whitethroat is quite different to the male both in demeanour and plumage. She isn’t as bold in proclaiming her presence and her colours are more subdued, she doesn’t have the blue grey head of the male.

A kestrel was hovering over the Meadow at various heights for the duration of our walk, diving down into the undergrowth in pursuit of unwary rodents, but he didn’t seem to catch any. But next to the path there was evidence of another predator kill – the empty carcass from a sparrowhawk meal. The brown feathers remaining suggested it was a starling chick but it could also have been a blackbird or song thrush. There was insufficient forensic left to allow an unambiguous identification. Nature at its most brutal, but sparrowhawks have chicks to feed too. On the subject of our local birds of prey, a young buzzard was learning to fly over the Meadow today, it’s plumage was ragged and it was a less than competent aeronaut, and it’s great that they’re breeding in the area.

The other highlight of my quick stroll last night was the number of green woodpeckers. I counted seven, including two sightings of two together, one pair of which were squabbling on the ground. It’s quite possible, even likely, that I counted at least one of them twice, but I think there must have been at least 4-5 individuals.


A green woodpecker that I flushed out the grass

There’s lots of birdlife around at the moment and they all seem to be breeding successfully, including the local starling population.

And before I finish, I want to share this wild flower with you:

How gorgeous is that?!

It’s the flowerhead of hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) which has just started blossoming in the hedgerows along Guns Lane in Histon. It contains an antiseptic oil which was utilised in days of yore in wound dressings, hence the name. Absolutely exquisite.