Tag Archives: Guns Lane

Guns Lane Raptors

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

…and gliding away to another less public location

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

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

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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!

Insectivora

The hedgerows and the edges of country paths are home to an immense variety of small creatures, especially those which aren’t in the firing line for agricultural chemical spraying, and it can be easy to overlook them.

Last weekend I spent a morning chasing insects around and I followed a red admiral butterfly into a thicket of nettles where it sat tight with it’s wings closed. Over the next twenty minutes it very briefly opened its wings, but only partially, but enough to enable me to see that its colours were pristine:

And then it opened them fully, and the colours really were sumptuous:


…well worth half an hour stood in a nettle bed!

But I thought the half hour definitely wasn’t wasted when I looked down at my feet and saw this cluster of peacock caterpillars eating nettle leaves:

I moved to one side to get some pictures of the caterpillars, and fortunately after I’d spent some time doing that the red admiral was still in situ.

Peacocks are hardy butterflies which can be found over most of the UK including the Shetland Isles and can be found hibernating in garden sheds. They emerge from hibernation at any time of year if the weather is warm enough, they mate in March and lay eggs then the caterpillars can be seen from the middle of May into July.

Not only are they hardy, they are quit beautiful too. A close look at their wings reveals a fabulous array of brightly coloured detail:

Male peacocks hold fort in their territory and wait for passing females to pass by when they fly up to greet them and attempt to mate. Male and female peacocks are very difficult to tell apart and watching the males performing this courtship behaviour is one way to differentiate the genders.

And close to the same spot I was looking at the flowers and I spotted this hoverfly cleaning his eyes:

…and this beetle wandering over a convulvulus flower, I don’t know what it is but it has gorgeous colours:

The brambles in the hedgerows were also full of bees in the sunshine, many species of honey bees and bumble bees were harvesting nectar from the flowers:


White tailed bumble bee flying from flower to flower feeding on bramble nectar

And than this marvellous creature was hunting in my kitchen last week:


Violet ground beetle, isn’t he magnificent!

Violet ground beetles are carnivorous, as are their larvae. They hunt at night and hide up during the day under log piles or other cool dark places. They eat a variety of insects, including a number of species that gardeners would be glad to be rid of. They’re big beetles, around 3cm long, and they have irridescent blue or violet edges to the thorax and wing cases. So don’t use chemicals in your garden – let these guys get rid of your pests!

And now I’m looking forward to some warm sunny July days when the surrounding fields are full of butterflies. I’ll share some more insect photographs with you then.

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.

Orange tip

I am of course referring to the butterfly, not an unsightly medical condition. I’ve spent plenty of time chasing them along hedgerows waiting for one to settle on a flower, but in vain, and you may recall that in a previous post I said that the orange tip was extremely difficult to photograph because they rarely settled.

That was until last weekend when, the weather was sunny, warm and calm so I went for a walk on Guns Lane to the north of Histon. I was rewarded fairly soon into my walk by a male orange tip settling on a plant on the edge of the pathway and allowing me to encroach within just a few inches:


Male orange tip. I think his underwings are exquisite, and it’s perfect camouflage when he’s perched on a cow parsley flower head.

This fellow was a good omen. Several hundred metres further along the path where the dense hedgerow thinned out into more open territory lined with cow parsley there were many male and female orange tips and they were all intent on mating on this particular morning.



Another male orange tip, this time with his wings open. And the colours on top are gorgeous too.

The female of the species doesn’t have the orange tips but is still distinctive from the other white butterflies:

Female orange tip. She is aware of the presence of males and is pointing her tail in the air in preparation for mating…

…and a few seconds later a male flew within a few centimetres and her reproductive organs are clearly visible opening up here in response to his presence.

The female above didn’t mate in this instance, but:

This pair were mating on the ground close by

And another female sits on a leaf as the male beats a post-coital retreat top right

I promised some pictures a few weeks ago of orange tips in the post ‘Local Lepidoptera’ so I was very pleased to capture this series of the mating behaviour so soon after.

Guns Lane

As I mentioned in my previous post, Guns Lane links the north of Histon with Willingham and Ely, and provided the raw materials for my winter warmer, sloe gin. Due to the profusion of heavily laden trees and bushes – hawthorn, dog rose etc., providing food and cover for the resident wildlife, it is a great place to go birdspotting too.

My first stroll up there this winter was three weekends ago, 13th November 2010) and the profusion of birdlife on display was spectacular. Shortly after entering Guns Lane from Cottenham Road under a copse of tall trees several chaffinch were flitting around at the top. Closer inspection revealed the sumptuous pink breast and black cap of a cock bullfinch who exited the tree accompanied by three others. That was only the second time I’ve seen more than one bullfinch since I was at school. And the first time was the weekend before in Girton. Bullfinch feed on the buds of fruit trees in springtime and have been accredited with decimating fruit crops and I believe it is still legal to trap them in some parts of the UK. Consequently, their numbers dropped dramatically in recent decades so it’s great to see them in threes and fours.

Further on a wren appeared at around eye height craning on a tall grass stem to see me. It didn’t appear overly perturbed by my presence and followed me along the path for 30-40m. Simultaneously, several goldfinch were patrolling the top of the hawthorn trees on the other side of the lane until a visit by a kestrel frightened all the smaller birds away.

N.b. You can find full list of my sightings by clicking on this link to my wildlife diary.

All along the walk numerous small birds such as blue tit, great tit, a flock of long tailed tits, chaffinch and goldfinch appeared and redwing and large flocks of fieldfare are now regular fixtures.


Looking north along Guns Lane on the edge of Histon. These bushes are a hotspot for blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit and magpie

On another walk there had been very little birdlife to see until approaching a bend a little further on from the spot in the photo above, there was a commotion going on which I thought was due to my presence. As I approached blue tit, chaffinch, blackbird and even a green woodpecker took to the air all alarm calling and as I rounded the bend a buzzard emerged from a bush close by and glided up the lane away from me for 50-60m before turning off into a field. That all happened within 30 feet of where I stood and I don’t often get to see a buzzard that close – all very exciting!

Blue tit feeding in a bush on Guns Lane
Fieldfare – this one was difficult to photograph due to the position in the top of a tree and the bright white sky behind – I aim to get some better pictures as soon as possible!

Adjoining the lane at the Histon end of the lane is a field of scrub, which I call Church Field, and is always full of birds, with regular sightings of green woodpecker, chaffinch, greenfinch, latterly bullfinch, kestrel and the occasional sparrowhawk, among various others.


Looking north east across Church Field – it’s a good mixture of old established trees, young scrub and grass

The weather this weekend past (27th and 28th November 2010) was freezing:

and during an early morning foray into Church Field last Sunday (28th November 2010) a kestrel was perched on the uppermost branch of a tree with his feathers ruffled as protection against the cold:

Male kestrel trying to stay warm on a fiercely cold morning

It’s unusual to be able to get close and take photographs of most birds including birds of prey, so I was very grateful to this one for sitting tight for so long. He kept a watchful eye on me as I slowly sidled round the bottom of his tree which gave me time to capture a few decent shots. I particularly like this one looking down the lens with his feathers all ruffled up. On my way back through the field a couple of hours later a cock bullfinch flew right over my head, his colours against the bright blue sky were vibrant.

The section of the lane approaching the Oakington to Cottenham road is different habitat consisting of old, thick hedgerows which are frequented by big flocks of fieldfare and flat open fields which this weekend were hosting small flocks of lapwing (~20) and larger flocks of golden plover (at least 40) in the midst of which a heron landed and sat catching its breath until after I was out of sight. The hedges bordering the fields here are also home to many small birds such as chaffinch, goldfinch and dunnock.


Part of a small flock of 22 lapwing in a field off Guns Lane

And part of a larger flock of golden plover

The end of a walk on Gun Lane can also be the best part and I usually linger right by the Cottenham Road end where trees overhang the lane on both sides. These trees and bushes are usually full of birds including blackbird, chaffinch, blue tit, great tit, coal tit, house sparrow, dunnock, goldfinch and sometimes they’re all on parade at the same time.


House sparrow male in a hawthorn tree at the Cottenham Road end of the lane

And this brave squirrel sat watching me as I was photographing the birds

As you can hopefully see, this is a really good place to go for a stroll and see lots of really good wildlife. All the pictures and observations in this post were collected in just three walks. I’ll post again soon to tell you about my next outings on Guns Lane.