Tag Archives: histon

The birds were twittering, and so am I

When the summer eventually arrived this year it arrived with a bang and three months of glorious sunshine ensued which finally came to an end last weekend (but I’m still hoping we have an Indian summer). In early to mid June I spent a lot of time catching up with the local migrants, and all the other wild creatures around the village. I saw more swifts, swallows and house martins over Histon than I’ve ever seen and migrant numbers seemed healthy. This maybe because I was out and about and able to see them, or, hopefully, because more of them arrived and bred successfully this year.

The pictures here were taken one weekend in early June when I ventured across the farmland to the north of my village. Because of the wet spring followed by proper sunshine the verges, hedgerows and meadows were verdant and laden with fruit and flowers.

Cow parsley in the meadow against a summer sky

Many of my walks in these fields included lots of sightings of brown hare. I see occasional hares here so it’s no surprise, but what was surprising this year was the sheer numbers.

Brown hares (Lepus europaeus) – males chasing off rivals for the attentions of the ladies

There are four hares in shot here but there were more in the field to the left and more in the same field to the right. It wasn’t unusual to see ten or more on one of these excursions; they also seemed to be enjoying the hot summer. Fingers crossed they had a successful breeding season too.

One of the migrants I’ve been hoping to see for the last three years, and which hadn’t put in an appearance was the yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava, Dansk: gul vipstjert). These little birds are spectacular and completely unmistakeable, and despite being a species of least concern in mainland Europe it is red listed here with only 15000 territories recorded in the UK in 2009.

Yellow wagtail perched on an old farm machine

This handsome chap was my only sighting of a yellow wagtail this year. They are one of those amazing small creatures, like the swallow, which spend the summer here in the UK but overwinter in South Africa. When they’re here they tend to frequent fields with livestock where they feed on the accompanying insects. Whilst there are no adjacent cattle or sheep here there is an enormous pile of manure which also attracts clouds of insects. I’ve seen wagtails here before but not for a several years, so it was good to see one again.

Cock linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk)

And another red listed bird, which I’ve also posted about recently, is the linnet. Unlike the yellow wagtail, despite their red listing, I see linnet in the fields every year, and the occasional flock of several hundred in the winter. They get their specific name from their like of cannabis. Not for it’s pharmaceutical properties (at least as far as I’m aware) but because in the old days when hemp was grown to make rope they fed on the seeds.

The wildlife on this weekend was abundant with a few rarities, so very high quality, but from a photographic point of view it was rather less auspicious. But I hope this skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke) makes up for that:

Skylark singing in the sky above my head

Skylark are not easy to capture because they’re ususally too high in the sky, or  moving too fast, or in a sky which is just too bright for good photography. But on this occasion the lark was very accomodating and there is just enough light to give the plumage a diaphanous quality which I really like, without overexposing it. The skylark is also red listed due to collapse in its numbers as a result of intensive arable agriculture, but there is a healthy population of them round here and there are often too many to count on a warm sunny morning!

By the way, I’ve just linked my blog to a Twitter account which you can have a look at here: @Thenaturephile. There’s not much in it yet as I only set it up at the weekend, but if you fancy taking a look please let me know what you think.

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A pair of local red list birds

In a recent post I talked about the plans by the local council to develop our greenbelt land and our campaign to prevent it. I provided species lists of my sightings on the land to counter their claims that the proposed development would pose no danger to any of our red listed wildlife.

Here are a pair of those red list birds that I photographed this year to prove to the powers that be that they are actually there! Despite the council’s environmetal survey concluding that there are no red list species to be found, these two species nest here every summer.

The first is the corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke):

This year has been a good one for corn bunting around Histon, several times I’ve counted flocks of 20+ individuals and they have been present every time I walk around the fields since they arrived in the spring. The corn bunting is red listed due to historical and more recent population declines, most likely as a result of modern farming methods. Numbers dropped by 89% between 1970 and 2003.

They live on arable farmland and feed primarily on seed and invertebrates during the summer. They also nest on the ground so overall their lifestyle is really not compatible with modern mechanised, chemical intense, farming methods. Which, as a result of the numbers I see here, makes my neighbourhood an important place for them. In the year 2000 there were 8500-12000 ‘territories’ (individuals or breeding pairs) in the UK so the several tens of my local birds are a small but important fraction of the total.

And the other red list species which I see regularly throughout the summer is the linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk). The linnet is a finch which also feeds on seed and insects and is also red listed due to big decreases in its population, 57% between 1970 and 2008. But the good news for linnets is that although their numbers are decreasing in England and Wales they are increasing in Scotland and Northen Ireland.

A cock linnet is a handsome bird with a crimson spot on his forehead and cerise chest plates, neither of which are, alas, particularly prominent on this one:

Cock linnet

The linnet has a grey head and the pale grey spot on its cheek, which is prominent on this one, is diagnostic of the species. The linnet can be seen here in the winter in large flocks unlike the corn bunting which disappears from the Histon fields to wherever they go to in the winter after the harvest. The harvest was started here, and finished I think, last week, so I probably won’t see another corn bunting until next spring.

The linnet was immortalised in a 1920’s music hall song called ‘My old man (said foller the van)’. This song is about a family having to do a moonlight flit because they can’t pay the rent, and after they’ve filled the removal van there’s no room for the wife so she has to follow behind on foot:

My old man said “Foller the van,
And don’t dilly dallyon the way”.
Off went the van wiv me ‘ome packed in it,
I followed on wiv me old cock linnet.
But I dillied and dallied, dallied and I dillied
Lost me way and don’t know where to roam.
Well you can’t trust a special like the old time coppers
When you can’t find your way ‘ome.

Back in those days cock linnets were commonly kept as caged domestic pets because of their pleasant song, hence the mention in this ditty. Fortunately for the linnet though they are no longer held captive.

(In case you’re wondering, the ‘dillying and dallying‘ involved the poor girl stopping off in the pub, getting drunk, and then, not knowing where she was going, she got impossibly lost.)

Falco tinnunculus

It’s always good to see birds of prey and even better when they are nesting. This year has been particularly good around Histon with a kestrel nest, at least two barn owl (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) nests – of which more in a later post – and at least two little owl (Athene noctua, Dansk: kirkeugle) nests. And that’s just the ones I know of, I’m fairly sure there’ll be sparrowhawks nesting in reasonably close proximity too.

Back to the kestrels though. In previous posts I’ve mentioned my favourite tree which is a really big old poplar on my (and lots of other folks) regular dog walking route. This year it played host to a family of kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk). Initially I was concerned that being so close to a well-used public footpath the disturbance would be too great. Also, the nest was 7-8m up the tree and directly above a bench where the local kids sometimes hang out in the evenings, so on the face of it not the best spot for a pair of falcons to raise a brood.

The adult male kestrel standing guard over his nest site

The male and the female were in constant attendance around the nest site and on this occasion both were present. As I watched the male he flew off so I walked on past to avoid causing too much disturbance. As I departed the female flew a second diversionary line out the tree in another direction, alighting on the ground around 50m from the tree, on top of a furrow which had been ploughed to take potato plants which had not yet sprouted. So she was very conspicuous but keeping an eagle eye (kestrel eye?) on myself and the dog:

In general though the kestrels adults seemed fairly relaxed about all the activity going on around their chosen nursery.

At this point in time, at the end of April, the nest would have had eggs in which are incubated for approximately 4 weeks before hatching. They produced three youngsters which I’ll update you on in a later post.

Getting more up to date, I just got back from exploring the coast on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England, and the birds of prey there were numerous. Buzzards were plentiful and on the cliff tops peregrine falcons were much in evidence, with four separate sightings on different days and different locations, one of them chasing a raven which was highly vocal in proclaiming its disapproval. I didn’t get any pictures of the peregrines but I’ll post some raven shots in the near future.

Cowslips and corn buntings

When spring sprung this year it sprung in style and it was quite glorious. At that time of year the migrants return from distant lands and recolonise the countryside.

One bird that also returns to the farmland around Histon, but from closer to home, is the corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke). The corn bunting is a resident breeder in the UK, but as with most other species local to me it disappears from the fields round here as soon as the harvest begins, usually during the first week in August, not to return until March or April.

Male corn bunting taking flight from the top of the hawthorn blossom

The corn bunting is a lovely creature which is very distinctive when you know it. From a disatnce it looks like another random little brown bird, but it sits atop the wheat stems and the hedgerows calling and the call can be heard from many metres away. And like most little brown guys, when you see them close up they don’t appear quite so uninteresting.

A few months ago I got involved with a group of local people here who were working to prevent the development of this farmland for housing by our local council. The council said they had done an environmental survey and they provided us with a copy. It was an interesting insight into how these people work. The survey was commisioned by the agent the council had employed to manage the development (conflict of interest?), and it was undertaken the week after the harvest. The  conclusion in the survey was that there would be little or no damage to the local environment and no red listed or BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) species would be affected. But I know from my recordings over the last five years that virtually all the wildlife – birds, mammals and insects – disappears as soon as the harvest starts. But my records, which I made available to the council,  also show that I have recorded 74 bird species there of which no less than 13 are red listed! Including the humble corn bunting.

The plan to develop the land was subsequently rejected and I hope my data played a part in the decision making process.

All the pictures in this post were taken on a sunny Sunday aftenoon at the end of April and another handsome bunting which frequents the drainage ditches and the hedgerows and was much in evidence was the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv).

Male reed bunting resplendent in his black cap and moustaches

Whilst the buntings, finches and other small passerines were announcing their availability from the top of the undergrowth a buzzard patrolled the skies above looking for prey:

Buzzard, Buteo buteo, (Dansk: musvåge)

And one of my favourite harbingers of fair weather to come is the cowslip:

Cowslip, Primula veris

Cowslip flowers were picked in the not too distant past to make wine with, but as it is no longer common this practise has waned. Despite that, the seed is now included in commercial wild seed mix and the cowslip can be seen in large numbers on seeded motorway verges. This one is not one of those though, it is one of thousands lining a drainage ditch on a farm in Histon.

A carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) was perched precariously on top of the hedge along the cowslip ditch and a hare was also close by and watching intently to make sure the dog kept a safe distance! The local hares seem fairly relaxed about the dog even though he’s a lurcher and can still move pretty rapidly. May be they can see that he’s too old to pose a real threat.

European or brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

This year seems to have been good for hares and I see them in many of the local fields in good numbers almost every time I venture there. There are also plenty of rabbits, but the hares are easily distinguished by their size, they are much bigger than rabbits, and the hares have very long ears with distinctive black tips which the rabbits don’t.

This was my first real sunny warm outing of the year and it gave me a good feeling that this year may turn out to be a good one for wildlife. And generally it’s living up to its billing. So far…

The way it should be

My last post showed some random weather at the end of March and in this one all the photographs were taken during the following weekend when the weather was rather more in keeping with the season, the way it should be.

Another of the great British bird of prey success stories over the last two decades has been the resurgence of the buzzard (Buteo buteo, Dansk: musvåge). Up until the mid 1990’s I’d only seen buzzards on summer holidays in Denmark and the occasional sighting on the western periphery of the UK, in south Wales or in Cornwall. But then I noticed they were creeping further eastwards up the M5, year by year, and now they can be seen all over England, and it’s not at all surprising to see them over my garden. I think a major contributory factor to the increase in raptor populations has been the ban on the use of DDT.


A buzzard soaring over the farmland on the edge of Histon.

DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane…

…was originally extremely effective in the control of insects but is very persistent in the biosphere, and because of its chemical properties it accumulates in the fatty tissues of apex predators such as raptors. The toxic effect was to cause thinning of the eggshells which would break before the chicks were ready to emerge. The consequences were devastating for many species inclusing sparrowhawks in the UK as well as peregrine falcons and bald eagles in the USA. The systematic use of DDT has been outlawed for many years  now, although restricted localised use for the control of malaria is still sanctioned, but here in the UK the long term benefit of the ban has been dramatic with these magnificent birds once again a relatively common site in our skies.

Other birds species were making the most of the change in the weather at the start of April too, including this female reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv):

Reed buntings have been a common site in the fields to the north of Histon since the weather has warmed up and the males with their black and white heads cling to the top of wheat stems proclaiming their availability. The females are more reclusive but can often be seen perched in bushes

A less common visitor to the fields is the golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria, Dansk, hjejle). I love to see the plovers, because when they do arrive they come mob handed, and on this occasion there was a flock of approximately 500 birds which looped round at high speed in extended skeins which was great to watch!


Skeins of golden plovers

Golden plovers are amber listed in the UK but not of concern in Europe so I hope that means that the overall population is stable and we continue to see them over the UK. An amusing little factoid about the golden plover which I’ve unashamedly borrowed from the British Trust for Ornithology is that a question about the flight speed of the golden plover raised by a member of a shoot in Wexford, Ireland, prompted Sir Hugh Beaver to found the Guinness Book of Records in 1955.  And if you’re keen to know, the speed of the golden plover is around 60mph (100kmph).

The rook, Corvus frugilegus, Dansk: sibirisk allike

All the photographs in this post were taken during a walk in the fields adjacent to my home the weekend after the snow, except the rook. This miscreant had lifted the fatball feeder from the branch in the crab apple tree and dropped it to the floor where it commenced to single handedly empty it. But as it posed for several portraits in the process I reasoned that it earned it’s fill. I like crows and especially the rooks, they seem to have a sense of devilment akin to a childs… if not even a tad more sophisticated. Through history though, alas not everyone had such a benign attitude to the rook (and just about every other creature!), which you can read about here.

The birds and the bees

Insects have been hit hard by climatic aberrations in recent years and on my meanderings around the Cambridgeshire countryside this year numbers of bees and butterflies sightings have been down compared to previous years. It’s now the middle of June and I saw the first dragons of the year today; two damselflies. I also read this week in ‘The Guardian‘ newspaper that a third of managed honeybee colonies in the USA were wiped out in 2012. This article makes very sobering reading. And it’s a similar story in Europe, but in Europe neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been implicated in colony collapse disorder, have been banned for two years to evaluate their effect on honeybees. My concern is that the onslaught on the bees is complicated and removing one variable may not show a significant effect in the limited two year duration of the ban. But I hope it does!

Early last month the sun finally broke through and gave us some insect friendly weather and it was remarkable how quickly the microfauna emerged.

Beefly – Bombylius major

Beeflies are found over large parts of the globe and can be seen hovering in sunny glades from the springtime. The narwhal of the Dipteran world, the spike looks fearsome but is only used to probe flowers for nectar, there is  no sting. Beeflies procreate by flicking their eggs into the entrance to the burrows of wasps and bees where the larvae feed on the grubs of the occupants.

A pair of hoverflies doing their best to rectify the decline in the insect population

I think these hoverflies are ‘Eristalis pertinax’ but I’m not certain. It was good to see them though, especially as they were taking their biological responsibilities so seriously.
Addendum: on the subject of climatic aberration mentioned at the top of this post I just found and read with increasing concern this link:

http://robertscribbler.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/human-climate-change-is-wrecking-the-jet-stream-uk-met-office-calls-emergency-meeting/

which my blogging buddy Sam posted on her excellent WP blog ‘Science on the Land‘. This provides a chilling insight (in every sense) into why the weather in the northern hemisphere is behaving the way it is. And it doesn’t look as though it’s going to get any better folks.

Flowers for all seasons

Last year in springtime the weather was dreadful and I didn’t many chances to take photographs for weeks. So I trawled back through my archive and found these old pictures of wild flowers which I thought I would post to brighten things up a tad. But by the time I got round to posting it was too late in the year so the post got parked until this year.

And the flowers are now blooming again, so two years after I took the pictures now seems like a good time to share them! I won’t bore you botanical minutiae this time, but I hope you enjoy the pictures!

Greater periwinkle

(Vinca Major)

Greater celandine

(Chelidonium majus)

Common vetch

(Vicia sativa)

White campion

(Silene alba)

Jack By The Hedge

(Alliara petiolata)

Herb bennet

(Geum urbanum)

At long last

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

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

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

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


Bugle – Ajuga reptans

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

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

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

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


Purple self-heal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi):

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

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

My tame wood pigeon

Several posts ago I mentioned the wood pigeons that were frequenting my garden. For the last 2-3 weeks there has just been one, but he has been very regular, dropping in and mooching around the back lawn and vacuuming up the spilled from the feeders, even though he’s fairly adept at balancing on there and helping himself. I’m calling him a he because I’m imaging it is the same one and that if he were a female he’d be busy incubating eggs and rearing chicks.


Tidying up the garden with one of the local blackbirds

This particular pigeon seemed very relaxed in the garden, he would fly in and spend alot of time just wandering around and feeding on seeds and a couple of weeks ago I happened to glance out the window and he was still on the ground. I watched him for a couple of minutes and he didn’t move so I went off to get my camera but by the time I got back he had disappeared.


Enjoying the sunshine

Then several hours later he was back and doing the same thing again. He was hunkered down on the ground with his wings extended. I’ve never seen wood pigeons do this before but I can only assume that he felt sufficiently secure to relax and enjoy the sunshine! He was there for several minutes before he was disturbed by another bird and then he wandered around for a few more minutes before flying away.


Columba palumbus (Dansk: ringdue)

And in my humble opinion he is a very handsome bird. This evening as I write this there are three wood pigeons sitting on my garden fence, so maybe he’s told the wife and kids about it too. I’ll have to put out more seed and nuts than usual tomorrow.

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.