Tag Archives: heron

Serendipity II – The charismatic cuckoo

I don’t recall having seen a cuckoo before, even though I’ve heard their unique call many times. But on my sojourn over to Wicken Fen a couple of weeks ago there were lots of them. ‘Lots‘ is a relative term because cuckoos are becoming increasingly scarce, their conservation status is red due to recent declines in the breeding population and in 2000 there were 9.6-19000 breeding pairs in the UK. But on this trip we heard and saw at least 5 and possibly several  more.

Just before I spotted the first cuckoo I glanced across the lake and this was the view:


A pair of shoveler in the foreground, a little egret behind and a roe deer just beyond the reeds

I really like this picture because of the colours of the reeds and the water in the evening sunshine, but also because it contains three interesting species. Apart from rabbits, any wild mammal is exciting to see in this country, so the roe deer was a pleasing encounter. The little egret (Egretta garzetta, Dansk: silkehejre) is a member of the heron family which is now resident in the UK, presumably as a result of climate change. I associate them with warmer places because that’s where I saw them before 2000, but nowadays they’re not particularly uncommon here. And in the forefround are two shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand) which are migrant visitors to the UK, but this pair obviously liked it enough to linger and are still here in the middle of May, long after they would normally have left.

And then there were the cuckoos:


A pair of cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, Dansk: gøg

The cuckoo is an incredible bird and until very recently it was poorly understood. Last year the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) managed to tag five male cuckoos with tiny satellite tracking devices and found out that they headed to the tropical sub-Saharan rainforests of Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cuckoo arrives back in England from Africa in late March or April and departs in July or August. It leaves earlier than other species because its parasitic breeding strategy removes the need for chick rearing. That means the cuckoo spends a minimum of 8 months a year in Africa so to call it a British bird is, I suppose, less than accurate, even though it breeds here.


The classic hanging wings pose which I always associate with the cuckoo

The tagged birds were all fitted with solar powered devices which transmit location data once every 48hr. The tracking data revealed that all five birds headed south over France and across the Mediterranean before heading down across Africa to Cameroon and DRC. All five made it. One of the birds died in Cameroon and two more died on the way back, but two of the five made it back to East Anglia this year. I believe the BTO plan to tag more birds including females and I’m very keen to see the results of that experiment.

The cuckoo is an iconic bird in the UK and it’s call is very distinctive. The call is generally recognised as a signal that Spring has arrived and there are local traditions around the UK based on the cuckoo. It is said in Worcestershire that the cuckoo is never heard before Tenbury Fair on April 21st or after Pershore Fair on June 26th. The song actually changes in June from the characteristic ‘cuck-coo‘ song to a shortened ‘cuck‘, and there is a rhyme about this:

In April I open my bill
In May I sing night and day
In June I change my tune
In July far far I fly
In August away I must

My Dad remembers a similar rhyme he used to sing when he was a kid in the 1940’s which was essentially the same but with some local Northamptonshire words substituted in.

I’m not quite sure what these two were doing but they were acting as a pair, and every minute or two one of them would dive off into the adjacent reedbeds to return a minute or so later. As I mentioned above, cuckoos are parasites and they could have been looking for nests to parasitise. There breeding strategy is unique, at least as far as I know. They lay their eggs in the nests of one of three other small songbird species: the reed warbler, the meadow pippit and the dunnock. All of these are the size of a sparrow (ish) so are much smaller than the cuckoo which is dove-sized, which I guess guarantees that the cuckoo chick will be much bigger than its ‘siblings’ and it won’t be threatened. The cuckoo chick then ejects the other chicks from the nest to die and the parents assume it is one of their own and feed it until it fledges. I’ve seen film of a cuckoo chick turfing out the other chicks and it’s a remarkable process, and not particularly pleasant to watch!

Despite their unsavoury procreation habits they are spectacular and charismatic birds and I hope the BTO research can find ways to guarantee their continued return here to brighten up the Spring and Summer.

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Turn of the century

After 20 months of posting this is the 100th episode of The Naturephile. The original plan was to post once a week wherever possible and I’ve averaged around five a month, so that stayed roughly on track. I thought I may struggle to find enough subject material and to acquire sufficient photographs of the necessary quality to post as often as I wanted too, but that hasn’t been a problem, so far.

When I started off writing The Naturephile, the idea I may reach a hundred posts never entered my mind, so to mark the moment I’ve trawled back through the archive to find my favourite posts to give them another airing. I’d anticipated it would be a straightforward venture but of course I’d rather underestimated the amount of subjects/species and photographs I’ve written about. But the number of posts was eventually whittled  down to 14.

1) At the end of September 2010 one of natures more brutal rituals was played out right outside my back door involving garden spider courtship. Like other spiders this can easily end up in the death of the male as it did in this case. ‘Araneus diadematus‘ posted on 2nd October 2010:


I really love you… . Male on the left, Shelob on the right

2) A little farther afield are dragon flies, the most common species I encounter are common darters and migrant hawkers. This Common darter appeared in a post on 19th October 2010. I like the symmetry of the fly and the seedhead and the red colour of this male darter against the brown grass.

3) A few years ago when my sister lived in a house (she lives in a kennel now. Only joking, she lives on a narrow boat ;-)) they were digging the garden and this piece of rock turned up. It’s an Acheulian hand axe made from flint and the marks on it are where it was worked with a deer antler. It dates from around 400,000 years ago which means it could have been made by a pre Homo sapiens hominid! It fits beautifully into the palm of my hand and after that many years the edges are still sharp. Even if I was blogging about topiary or book binding I’d have to find a way to slot this in.

4) The winter of 2010/11 was known as a ‘waxwing winter‘. Every winter a  few waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus, Dansk: silkehale) migrate to our shores from Scandinavia to overwinter. But occasionally the weather up there is fearsome so the waxwing migrate in large numbers and we then have a ‘waxwing winter’. And I hope you’ll agree the waxwing is a beatiful  bird:

A group of waxwing perched at the top of a rowan tree in north Cambridge

5) Another consequence of the bitterly cold winter of 2010/11 was that most stretches  of open water were frozen over and our herons (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) were starving because they couldn’t access their normal food supplies. During this winter  a hungry heron appeared in my friends garden and taking pity on its plight he fed it some fish. And of course one fish supper turned into rather more than one so the heron came to expect it, and if dinner was late it came and tapped on the window to complain to the management.

6) Sea mammals of any description are always a delight to see and photograph and one of my favourite places on the planet for doing that is the Farne Isles situated just off the Northumberland coast.


Atlantic grey seal in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast

Our holiday last year was to Northumberland and I can’t go there without taking in a boat trip to the Farnes where hundreds of Atlantic grey seal were basking on the rocks and generally taking life easy in the water.

7) Closer to home, April last year was hot and sunny and a great time to see songbirds in the countryside. One of my favourite birds is the yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv) and they’re regulars in the hedgerows around Cambridge.


Yellowhammer male  – what a gorgeous colour!

8) A creature I’d never encountered before last year was the great crested newt. My friend told me of a place where they could be found so we ensconced ourselves in the nearest pub in preparation for a nocturnal newt hunt after closing time.

It was a very successful trip, a few pints followed by finding  not only the great crested newt but the other two species of UK newt, palmate and smooth newts.

9) As the year rushes headlong into summer and the butterfly season really gets underway I can spend many an hour chasing our Lepidopterans round the fields trying to get that perfect picture. One of my favourites is the common blue and this is about the closest I got to that perfect picture:

Common blue male sipping nectar – one of the best photographs I’ve ever taken

10) As well as being a top location for marine mammals the Northumberland coast is also home to huge numbers of seabirds so it’s a very happy hunting ground for me!

Just poking your head over the seawall at Seahouses can reveal lots of seabirds including oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade), knot (Calidris canutus, Dansk: islandsk ryle), eider (Somateria mollissima, Dansk: ederfugl), turnstone (Arenaria interpres, Dansk: stenvender) and this  redshank (Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben).

11) RSPB Fowlmere, to the west of Cambridge is famous for its water rail. On a trip there in December 2011 I was tipped off by a local that a particular hide was good for water rail (Rallus aquaticus, Dansk: vandrikse) and one had been seen there that morning, so off I went to try and see it.


My informant was correct. There was just the one bird there, but it scoured the mudflats in front of us for a whole hour before disappearing into the reeds, giving me plenty of good photo opportunities. I was very pleased with the primeval feel of this image with the bird face on infront of the horsetails.

12) In January this year the weather was absolutely freezing causing a small group of red-legged partridge at Tubney Fen, east of Cambridge, to seek the warmth generated by a mountain of dung:


13) My favourite bird of prey is the kestrel (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) and they are always to be seen hovering in the skies over the fields around Histon. I love watching the highly specialised hunting techniques all birds of prey in action, but the kestrel beats them all in my opinion:


A male kestrel showing off all his hunting hardware: talons, flight feathers, eyes and aquiline beak

14) And lastly, I couldn’t write a post like this without including my battling blackbirds. Of all the bird species that visit my garden these are the ones that provide the most entertainment:

My garden gladiators locked in aerial combat

These were a few of my favourite posts, favourite for various reasons: the stories attached, the rarity of the sighting or simply the exquisite natural beauty of the subjects. I hope you like them!

And lastly, I’ve been stunned by the numbers of people from all round the world who read The Naturephile and like it enough to follow it or click the ‘Like’ button. Thanks to everyone for stopping by and enjoying a read, I love sharing the nature from my corner of Cambridgeshire with you!

Robins and rails

I headed down to the RSPB reserve at Fowlmere south west of Cambridge early yesterday morning (Saturday 5th November, 2011) with my friend and fellow wildlife enthusiast, David, where I was hoping to catch sight of a merlin or a kingfisher or another water bird which I don’t see in my regular haunts. It was a murky, grey morning and the air was holding so much moisture it felt damp. Consequently, conditions for photography were challenging,

Looking across the reedbeds at Fowlmere, distant trees looming out of the mist

Probably due to the weather it wasn’t easy to see the resident birdlife. We heard a great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major, Dansk: stor flagspætte) from the car park but once we entered the reserve it was really quiet, apart from the faint roar of the traffic on the A10 and the occasional jet heading into Stansted airport. But of birds, there was not too much evidence. We heard some redwing (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel) and fieldfare (Turdus pilarus, Dansk: sjagger) as they passed overhead unseen, and as we got close to the Reedbed hide a robin (Dansk: rødhals) and a songthrush (Turdus philomelos, Dansk: sangdrossel) were lurking in the bushes near the entrance and a stoat scampered across the bottom of the steps into the hide. From inside the hide we could see 15-20 mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, Dansk: gråand) on the water, and perched on a fencepost on the opposite side of the water was a kingfisher (Alcedo atthis, Dansk: isfugl).

I like the segmentation in this picture and the physical delineation by the fence of the cut and uncut reedbeds. And of course, the tiny spark of blue and orange of the kingfisher sitting in the middle.

Also on the lake was a heron (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) fishing in the shallows and half a dozen teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand), and a muntjac deer wandered by. The kingfisher subsequently vacated and no further avian visitors appeared so we vacated too and made our way to the Drewer hide where we’d been told a water rail (Rallus aquaticus, Dansk: vandrikse) was busy feeding. And it didn’t let us down.

The water rail is from the same family as coots, gallinules (moorhens) and crakes and lives and feeds in and around shallow water predominantly on animals but also some plant material.


Water rail emerging from the reeds…


…looking for invertebrates in the mud


And whilst this charming waterbird was busy captivating my attention a robin was flitting between a nearby hawthorn bush and the reeds:

The robin seemed a tad out of place in the reeds, but a lovely dash of colour on a grey morning with its reflection in the pond


From the front it’s apparent that the water rail is a very slim bird facilitating easy movement between the stems in the reedbeds. I can’t remember the last time I saw one so it was a treat to see this one so close and it loitered for getting on for an hour, until after we left.

Favourite wildlife moments of 2010

As we rush pell mell towards 2011 I thought I’d compile a list of my top 10 wildlife moments of 2010. I decided a little over a year ago that I was going to start a blog but it took until September of this year to actually get on the case and do it. But now it is up and running I’ve realised it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve always derived a huge amount of pleasure from watching wildlife wherever I’ve travelled, in the UK and to more exotic locations. From snorkelling with green turtles over the coral reefs of the Seychelles to kayaking with orcas in the Canadian Pacific Ocean… and sitting in my dining room in Histon watching numerous species of small songbird frequenting my garden in the freezing winter weather.

But in 2010 these have been my favourite wildlife events (mostly within around 2 miles of where I live!):

10. Starting ‘The Naturephile’ and realising there are people out there who want to read it.

9. Garden spider: my garden was full of these little predators in September and October, filling my garden with webs such that negotiating the gauntlet to put the bins out became my job. Non-negotiable. I posted on them in October (post entitled ‘Araneus diadematus‘) when I got a great series of pictures of Shelob consuming a much smaller male just outside my back door:

That’s him wrapped up in the parcel of silk. Lunch.

8. Swifts in Histon: My photographic skills aren’t up to capturing good photographs of swifts but there were numerous individuals in the air all over the village in 2010. They were screeching up Station Road in Impington as I cycled home from work and 20-30 were regularly hunting insects over the fields north of Histon. There was a period in mid summer when every time a window or door was opened at home they could be heard overhead.  I hope they return here in the same numbers next year when I’ll try harder to get some pictures to share with you.

7. Marsh harrier in Histon: It’s very exciting to see big, rare birds of prey, particularly when they’re not expected. After the harvest this year there was a spell of several weeks where virtually all the birds seemed to have disappeared from my normal walking route. And one morning whilst mooching across the field lamenting the fact, a BIG bird hoved into view, low and approximately a quarter of a mile away. So calling the dog to heel, we sat down and waited. It flew to the opposite side of the field and quartered the long grass the full length of the field right in front of me – around 150-200m away – it was an immature male marsh harrier:

Marsh harrier hunting on the edge of Histon


After failing to find prey he ascended to approximately treetop height and disappeared over Histon to the south heading towards Cambridge.

6. Bullfinch: unlike fruit farmers I love bullfinch – they’re exquisite. When I was a child at home they were regular winter visitors but since then they have become exceedingly uncommon. I saw two in a tree near Girton a couple of months ago whilst walking with my ornithologist friend, David, and since then have seen them in and around Guns Lane in Histon several times. On one ocasion there were four, so I’ve gone from seeing on average one every 3-4 years to seeing 3-4 individuals at one time. A cock bullfinch flying over low against a royal blue sky is a sight to behold! Alas, I’ve no photographs yet, but hopefully this time next year…

5. Waxwing: My encounter with waxwing was described in a recent post simply entitled ‘The Waxwing‘. Myself and my friend Joe spent a freezing cold hour lurking under rowan trees on Brimley Road in north Cambridge and were very adequately rewarded with the presence of seven waxwing, which as well as being wonderfully photogenic were also highly amenable to being photographed. Consequently I managed to get a few nice pictures despite the filthy weather and low light:


Waxwing – Bombycilla garrulus – what a beauty!

There have since seen reports that there are waxwing in Histon. And this week I saw two starling-sized birds with crests amongst a flock of 20 redwing which were flying around near Cottenham Road which could have been waxwing. So far unconfirmed, but will keep looking.

4. Dragonflies: Dragonflies are amazing creatures, and this year I have discovered that a fallow field on the edge of Histon is alive with them from May through to September/October and they offer excellent photographic opportunities. If at rest they seem to be relatively fearless unless I make any sudden or threatening movements:


The blue body of the male broad bodied chaser (Libellula depressa) in my garden, above and the yellow body of the female in a hedgerow, below:


On a sunny day in the countryside, especially near a river or lake, it’s difficult to avoid dragonflies and damselflies. And they’re very entertaining to watch.


Common blue damselfly at Milton Country Park, Cambridge

My Dad told me he was once sitting in the sun in my Grandmothers fruit garden in Denmark when a dragonfly landed on his thumb. He managed not to flinch as it landed so it remained in situ for a couple of minutes before flying off. It returned a short time later carrying a fly and sat on the Old Mans’ thumb and completely devoured its meal.

3. Histon Heron: The shenanigans with the heron were described in my post from last week – ‘Hungry Heron‘ so you can read the story and see the photographs there,  or follow the link to the video clip from here.

The Histon heron – a finely honed fishing machine

The story has moved on a tad since I posted. My friend Chris, whose garden is hosting the heron, emailed to say he had a second bird visiting which managed to negotiate the intricate system of wires comprising the anti-heron device around the pond and steal some fish. And more alarmingly was caught fighting with heron number one who is obviously keen to protect his interest in the supply of fresh fish available in Chris’s garden. I shall report developments as they occur.

2. Butterflies in Histon: this one came about after reading about the Big Butterfly Count in August. There were numerous butterfly species in and around Histon so my daughter, Sophie, and myself went into the fields and counted numbers of species for the requisite 15 minutes. The number of species and the number of individuals was amazing. We saw peacock, red admiral, painted lady, gatekeeper, large white, small white, green veined white, small copper, brown argus, common blue, and ringlet!

Brown argus

Common blue

Gatekeeper

There were also small heath, comma, speckled wood and holly blue in the vicinity which we didn’t count during our 15 minute slot. We’ll continue to do the survey in future years and report the findings here.

1. Seeing a wild badger with Sophie: no photographs from this trip, alas, but it was a great moment. We ventured into Knapwell Wood in Cambridgeshire with my friend, Woody, late in the evening, just before dusk, and staying downwind and as quiet as possible all the way, we managed to get very close to the badger set. We then waited… and waited, and we heard the badgers crashing around in the undergrowth. No animals appeared in view so Sophie crouched down and fell asleep squatting on her haunches…, to be woken up after 20 minutes or so as a young badger ambled up the path towards us. He must have caught our smell as he suddenly stopped 6-7m away and sniffed the air for a minute or two before turning tail and disappearing back down the track. Sophie was very excited but managed to keep quiet until we had emerged from the wood. Listening to an ancient wood prepare for the night with some creatures bedding down whilst others are waking up is a magical way to spend an evening. And Sophie seeing wild badgers for the first time in the middle of the wood made this my favourite moment of 2010.

Have a great Christmas and I’m really looking forward to sharing my posts with you in 2011.

Best wishes

Finn

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.