Tag Archives: histon

The three flocks of Christmas

I love watching flocks of birds in the air. There’s a drama about them and it’s also an opportunity to see big numbers of wild creatures at the same time. Last winter (2015-16) a flock of 30-50 yellowhammers appeared in a hedgerow close by where I live, I think they were attracted by the cover provided by the hedgerow and the presence all around of low vegetation which offered ground cover and feeding opportunities. They were in a place where I hadn’t seen yellowhammers for three years or so, so it was really good to have then back.

yellowhammer-female-261216-0057A female yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv)

The yellowhammer is red listed in the UK due to declining numbers as a result of habitat destruction (the number of times I have to write that is becoming increasingly worrying), but this year, after an initial estimate of 40-60 birds, I saw the whole flock in the air on Christmas Eve morning as I was walking the dog, and there were approximately 100 of them. (I spent several mornings trying to get a good yellowhammer picture to illustrate this post but they were never quite so amenable again, so the one above will have to suffice; lovely bird, the image less so, but you get the picture, as it were).

Later on Christmas Eve we drove to Northampton for the evening and on the way there, over the A14 near Huntingdon, a large flock of hundreds of lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk: vibe) took to the air from an adjacent field, and I think it’s the largest inland flock I’ve seen for many years. I’ve seen big flocks around the coast more recently, but not inland. And then, just as I thought, ornithological speaking, that things couldn’t really be bettered, a starling murmuration (Sturnus vulgaris, Dansk: stær) swirled over the western end of Stanwick in Northamptonshire and I estimated there must have been thousands and thousands of birds in it. And that’s one of natures truly amazing sights. Three spectacular flocks of increasingly endangered bird species was a wonderful way to start Christmas!


The indomitable wren

Even though my regular finches had been conspicuous by their absence in the garden one of my favourite birds, and one of the tiniest, was often flitting around the flower pots hunting insects:

The wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

The word ‘troglodyte‘ has derogatory connotations so I wondered why the taxonomic name for the wren uses it twice, and apparently it originates from the Greek for ‘cave dweller’. Even though the BTO website lists its habitat as woodland and undergrowth as it’s an insectivore I guess that could make sense in some countries, so I guess it may depend on the nationality of the scientist who named it.

Wrens are tiny, weighing on average 10g and with a 15cm wingspan. They’re resident in the UK and I think it’s remarkable that such a tiny creature can survive a long cold British winter. A real testament to the effectiveness of feathers as insulators. And another amazing thing about wrens is their voices, they have incredibly loud song for such a tiny bird, if you’d like to hear it click here: Eurasian wren song.

Yet another remarkable fact about the humble wren is that it’s the most numerous songbird in the UK with 7.7 million territories. And as they’re not always easy to see as they flit around the undergrowth I was surprised by that statistic until I learnt to recognise the song. After that I realised they are everywhere!

This little chap appeared one day in February this year on a bug hunt in the flower pots, he posed right outside the window and let me snap a series of portraits. Wrens have been regular visitors through this year and I’ve deliberately avoided tidying the garden hoping they continue to treat it as home.

Where did all the finches go?

Until a couple of years ago my garden bird feeders were always visited by lots of finches: chaffinch, goldfinch, greenfinch, even the occasional siskin. But then the goldfinch disappeared from the feeders, I didn’t see a single one for around 18 months, and then, even more bizarrely, the chaffinch stopped visiting. Greenfinch were always occasional visitors even though I could hear them in the nearby trees, but they seldom came in to feed.

I don’t know what caused the finches to change their habits but it made my garden rather less colourful.

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) – a rare visit to the niger seed

In the last year or so I’ve seen goldfinch on my TV aerial and regularly in the front garden around the pond, but they still tend to avoid the back garden even though there is always a feeder full of niger seed for them. I often see and hear both chaffinch and goldfinch in the nearby fields when I walk the dog, so they are still in the area, and chaffinch seemed just as common as ever… except in my garden. But goldfinch sightings increased over spring this year as did those of chaffinch:

An erstwhile unusual visit from a male chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke)

And along with chaffinch and goldfinch, greenfinch have also been visiting more frequently, and in springtime this year there were a family with a couple of young:

Adult male greenfinch fuelling up (Chloris chloris, Dansk: grønirisk)

And one of his fledged brood:

The male and a fledgling feeding together:

It’s a mystery why they moved away, maybe sparrowhawk visits became to frequent, or maybe because of recent warmer winters there is enough easily accessible food in the countryside. I stopped feeding the birds later in the spring because the seed was left uneaten and it began to go mouldy, but now the weather is getting cold I’m going to clean the feeders and refill them for the winter. And keep my fingers crossed the birds find them to their liking.

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.

Winter fieldlife

This post’s a tad unseasonal now, but I’m on a mission to try to catch up with myself,  so this is the first edition of the my race to the present! For the last couple of years the bird species that frequent my garden seem to have been changing. Greenfinch all but disappeared for over a year, even the ubiquitous chaffinch completely vacated for many months. There is always a niger seed feeder for the goldfinch and siskin, and even though siskin seldom visit, goldfinch were there every day. And then they weren’t. if I see one in a week these days that’s as many as it is. The strange thing is that all three of these finch species haven’t disappeared from the village so maybe, hopefully, they’ll return soon.

A goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) in a field on the edge of the village

During a stroll with the dog across the local fields at the end of December the goldfinches, and lots of other birds, were enjoying a glorious sunny winter morning. A grey heron flapped lazily across the tops of the trees:

Grey heron (Ardea cinerea,Dansk: fiskehejre)

Grey herons aren’t an unusual occurrence in this location, but what was unusual was that it alighted in the top of a tree:

To the general annoyance of the local corvid population. I think this is a carrion crow, it took exception to the presence of the heron and proceeded to dive bomb it and then landed in the same tree and squawked at it. To which the heron voiced its own displeasure:

All this bickering led to the departure of the crow followed shortly by the heron. And while I was trying to unobtrusively find a spot to get closer to the tree, a wren, one of my very favourite little birds, appeared in the hedgerow close by, so I had to spend a minute or two snapping a portrait of it, so I missed the departure of the heron. But it was worth it to get this little chap:

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

The wren is one of our smallest birds and has an incredibly loud and varied song for such a small bird. It’s the most numerous bird in the UK, it weighs around 10g and is resident in the UK throughout the year. It’s a brave little chap and is one of the species that appears reasonably regularly in my garden where it’s always welcome.

Another bird which appears in the fields when the weather gets cold is the black headed gull:

Black headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk: hættemåge)

It feeds in the fields in sizable flocks, sometimes hundreds strong, alongside other gulls such as the herring gull, common gull and lesser and greater black backed gulls, but they all disappear as soon as the weather warms up. This one was already starting to develop the black head summer plumage even though it was still only December. I guess the mild winter weather made its thoughts turn to mating early in the season…

Late autumn migrant

The autumn and the spring are the best times to be keeping a look out for migrants which, in the case of Cambridge, are often passing through on their way to a destination further north. The summer visitors such as swallow and swift are usually on their way to Africa by mid autumn, as the winter migrants such as fieldfare and redwing are beginning to arrive here to escape the freezing winters of Scandinavia.

A couple of years ago I saw a black redstart on Cambridge Science Park, which is a very rare sighting in this part of the world, at least for me. It was here for less than 24hr before heading further north and west. And this autumn my unusual sighting was a female wheatear:

Female wheatear (Oenenthe oenanthe, Dansk: stenpikker)

Wheatear are handsome birds and this one was the first one I’ve seen in the fields in Histon. I only had the one sighting, and as it was in the third week in October she wouldn’t have tarried as she wended her way back to overwinter in Africa.

Last year I saw a small group of wheatear in a field near Wicken Fen, this time it was in springtime so they were on their way north, including this beautiful male:

I think that as we head into December all the winter visitors that are coming this way may already be here, and I’ll hopefully be able to share pictures of other wanderers in the near future.

Tyto alba

A few posts ago in ‘The Owl and the Woodpecker‘ I mentioned that a pair of robins may have started getting fruity in my garden as early as the begining of January. And then last Friday I saw another robin feeding a fledgling on the grass outside work, so it looks as though the avian breeding cycle may have been able to start early this year. I hope it has, and that it allows other species to recover some of their numbers too.

Also in that post, I talked about our local barn owls, of which we had two breeding pairs in and around the village last year. And one gloriously sunny evening in July myself and my daughter, Sophie, set off across the fields with a portable hide, binoculars and a camera to try to see the owls and take some photographs. I know where the owls nest so we tried to get in position to see them heading to and from the nest site via a circuitous route to avoid disturbing them.

A barn owl, Tyto alba, heading out on a hunting mission

We eventually found a spot at the top of a drainage ditch between two fields around 150m from the shed where the owls had built the nest, and we didn’t have to wait long for them to appear. Truth be told I’ve always had a thing about all owls, but especially barn owls. I think they’re beautiful and iconic creatures, and very reminiscent of warm summers evenings in the English countryside. It’s always an exciting moment when I catch sight of one.

And the other thing that struck me as we sat and watched these was how they are incredibly efficient predators:

…and heading back again clutching the booty

We sat and watched them coming and going for about an hour and in that time they arrived 6 times with prey. So on average every 10 minutes one of the parents returned with a meal for a youngster, this one was carrying a rodent in its talons which it delivered to the nest, spent a couple of minutes with the youngsters, then departed on the next foray.

And another meal being delivered

And they carried on hunting into the dusk at which point we upped sticks and headed for home. I don’t know how long the owls carried on hunting but the parents seemed to be so successful that they may not have needed to carry on for much longer, after which they would have spent the night at a roost site separate from the nest with the youngsters in.

It was a glorious evening and Sophie was beside herself as one of the owls flew right overhead and looked straight at her, as barn owls are wont to do, as she looked straight at it. A memory that will stay with me, and her I hope, for a very long time!

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!

Down on the farm in July

Summer was late arriving in  2013. The weather was cold and wintry up until June and that had a profound effect on the wildlife. Breeding seasons were knocked out of kilter by it, and the numbers of many species have suffered as a result. But it seemed that once summer did arrive the wildlife got very busy very quickly to make up for lost time.

The skyline on my regular dog walking route is dominated by a magnificent poplar tree which makes a wonderful sound when the wind blows. It’s right on the pathway where many walkers pass every day and there is a bench underneath it which folk sit on occasionally. But despite all the human activity in such close proximity a pair of kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) were brave enough to build a nest in it about 20-25 feet up.

Kestrel fledgling taking it easy and apparently unfazed by me pointing a telephoto lens at it

I posted about the adults taking up residence in the poplar in August last year. Their decision to nest in this exposed location paid off in spades as the kestrel pair fledged three youngsters who could be seen in around the poplar into the later months of 2013.

And a pair of the fledglings sheltering in the poplar

I made a point of not lingering too long around the poplar to avoid disturbing the birds, but because of the constant human presence there I think they were relaxed about me taking pictures as long as I didn’t try to stay too close for too long.

All the pictures in this post were taken on one summers evening stroll in July, and as well as the kestrels there was lots of other wildlife.

Also breeding in the field adjacent to the poplar tree were numerous skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke). I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get photographs of skylarks for a long time but on this particular evening this one perched on top of a low bush and sang for England. I called the dog to heel and using an adjacent bramble as a shield I crawled as close as I could, which was less than 10m in the end, and poking my lens though the bramble I finally got some pictures:

A singing skylark lit by the low, late evening sun

The resident corn buntings (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke ) usually vacate the fields around Histon with the harvest at the beginning of August, but in 2013 they stayed much later. I don’t know if that was coincidence, because there was still cover in one of the fields, or if it was a result of the enforced delay in the breeding cycle due to the cold spring weather. But they were here in much greater numbers and much later in the year than normal. According to the British Trust for Ornithology the corn bunting is so sedentary that individulas only 30km apart sing in different dialects, but I’d love to know how that was discovered.

Corn bunting on a regular perch in the late evening sunshine

Corn bunting are red listed in the UK due to rapid decline in numbers as a result of habitat destruction for agriculture. Despite that, and decreasing numbers in Central Europe for the same reason, it’s not considered under threat as a species in mainland Europe… yet.

Another songbird which is also red listed in the UK, also as result of rapidly declining numbers, is the yellowhammer (emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv).

Male yellowhammer with his striking yellow head plumage

The yellowhammer has suffered catastrophic decline in numbers over the last few decades and over the last 2-3 years I’ve noticed the numbers in my locality seem to be on the wane too. I think it hasn’t been helped here by the farmer who recently took a flail to all the hedgerows and a lot of the drainage ditches and stripped most of the winter cover and food away. I just don’t see the sense it that – it wasn’t impinging on the crops or impeding access to farm machinery. Seems completely pointless to me.

Yellowhammer and corn bunting are both species of bunting and prefer arable farmland, but due to the intensive nature of arable agriculture and the resulting lack of seed, either natural or crop, both species are under dire threat in the UK. I’ve seen evidence to show that rates of decline can be slowed by changes in farmland management such as set aside or organic cropping, but I think attempts to conserve need to be applied in more holistic fashion to ensure survival of the wildlife.

One species which appeared to be abundant last summer was the hare. They’ve been ever present on any summers evening stroll across the fields in 2013. And I’m still seeing them through the winter too.

And as I headed home there was a spectacular sunset:

…one of many through the summer of last year.

Impington Lane

In the summer I posted about the desire of our local council to build houses on the green spaces around our village. One of those green spaces is a small area on Impington Lane which is between 5-6 acres in area, and a friend of mine who lives adjacent to this unassuming piece of scrub told me there were reptiles on the site which would be evicted if the proposed construction took place.

So with my campaigning hat on I set off very early one Sunday morning to try to capture some photographs of the resident reptilia to promote the argument that this diminutive fragment of green belt should remain unmolested.

Hedge woundwort – Stachys sylvatica

The reptiles were staying under cover but there were wild flowers in abundance along with the accompanying insects. Hedge woundwort, as the name suggests, has medicinal properties and was used to staunch bleeding.

At 6am the sun was rising and it was already warm so damselfies were basking in the early morning sunshine to warm their bodies to enable them to go hunting. I found two species of damselfly:

Common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum

Variable damselfly – Coenagrium pulchellum

(I’m not totally confident of my damselfy identifications so if you spot a mistake please let me know).  The undergrowth in the field was waist high in most of it and it was full of these particular flowers:

Carder bumble bee landing to feed

It’s very similar in size and shape to another wild flower called jack-go-to-bed-at-noon which is yellow (Tragopogon pratensis). But all these flowers varied from pale pastel purple to rich dark purple. I don’t know what species these flowers are, or if they’re related to jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, or whether they are wild or escapees from gardens, but they are very pretty and the bees like them.

Fluttering amongst the stems of all the wild flowers were numerous examples of this handsome creature, which I first thought was a butterfly:

Subsequent research revealed that it’s not a butterfly at all, it’s a latticed heath moth, Chiasmia clathrata, and is one the moth species that is active by day in May and June in this part of the UK. They were fiendishly difficult to photograph as they were skittish and hunkered down close to the ground on the stems of the flowers, and any slight gust of wind rendered any photography impossible. But fortunately the wind abated for long enough to get one half decent portrait.

Herb bennet – Geum urbanum

Herb bennet, also known as wood avens, is a very pretty flower which prefers to grow in the shade and was lurking at the edge of the field out of direct sunlight.

Despite all the flora and insectivora, no reptilia put in an appearance on this outing. But in the weeks after my exploration my friend told me of two separate occasions where reptiles ventured into houses which are on the edge of this field, and as luck would have it both times someone managed to photograph the intrepid creatures and were good enough to send copies to me:

Common lizard – Zootoca vivipara

Despite the fact I very rarely see a common lizard they’re the UK’s most common reptile and can be found in most habitats including heathland, woodland,  grassland and gardens, from March to October. At my last house a quince bush grew around my front door and I found common lizards in there on a couple of occasions, showing that they can coexist with humans where suitable habitat and a lack of interference prevail.

Grass snake – Natrix natrix – rescued in a sandwich box and restored to the wild

It’s not common to find reptiles in the UK and it’s extremely rare to find them in ones house! So the second invader, which I’m told caused much consternation, was a grass snake.  Grass snakes like to frequent damp recesses, they are proficient swimmers and feed mainly on amphibians.

My favourite grass snake story occurred some years ago when another friend of mine lived in Kent and had an enormous back garden with two small lakes in it. On a visit there I was helping declutter the edge of a lake by removing the offending undergrowth with a grass rake. And on shaking the rake to remove a big clump of weed a sizeable bright yellow snake fell off the bottom. I jumped out my skin and may even have uttered an involuntary yell (in fact it was probably more of a squeal), because I reasoned we don’t have big yellow snakes in the UK, and if it’s a foreigner it may well be less benign than Natrix natrix, and be unhappy at this unwanted intrusion. But a somewhat digruntled grass snake uncoiled itself, flipped the right way up and, glided into the lake and swam across to the opposite bank to take cover where the undergrowth was still undisturbed! I’m not sure who was most taken aback, me or the serpent.

Both the reptile species here are listed as priority species by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP). So I hope this will be taken into consideration when decisions are being made whether or not to destroy the green lungs of our village!