Tag Archives: linnet

The busiest burdock

In my last post I wrote about the wildlife to the north of Histon. This post is about the wildlife to the west of the village. The two areas are divided by a main road and they are quite different in character. The north is very open with big open fields lined with ditches and hedgerows and the west has more trees and scrub.

In mid June I ventured there to compare the birdlife with that to the north, because I normally see less farmland birds like skylark, corn bunting and yellowhammer here, but more finches and migrant warblers like chiffchaff, willow warbler and whitethroat.

Dog rose (Rosa canina) bejewelled with raindrops

There had been a refreshing shower shortly before I set out which had left the flowers on a rose bush bejewelled with raindrops. It was a good time of year for the wild flowers as the ground had not dried out and there was plenty of sunshine. And of course, if the wild flowers are in good shape, there’s plenty of food for insects and therefore abundant sustenance for birds too.

(And on the subject of insects there was a news report from the BBC today regarding the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) which became extinct in the UK in 2000, but was reintroduced to an RSPB reserve at Dungeness in Kent and is now successfully breeding. Great news!)

But I digress. The dog rose flower was in the local meadow, but passing through there to the farmland beyond there is a field which is lined with drainage ditches, hedgerows and wide unmown borders which support a wealth of wildlife including wild flowers, bumble bees, dragon flies and birds. One of the wild flowers there is the burdock, Arctium minus, which has enormous spiky leaves and big burs which get stuck to your clothes, and on this walk there was a burdock patch that was full of songbirds:

A cock linnet resplendent in his sumptuous breeding regalia: the crimson bindi and rosy breast

The linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk) were omnipresent here throughout the summer, and occasionally a yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv) appeared too. It’s easy to find yellowhammers if they’re in residence because of their characteristic song (a-little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheese).

The striking colour of the male yellowhammer

And the yellowhammer song carries on the wind for hundreds of metres and because they are so colourful they’re easy to spot with a pair of binoculars.

A male whitethroat watching an adult linnet feeding a fledgling

At least one pair of whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger) were nesting on the edge of this field too. The whitethroat are amber listed and the conservation status of the linnet and the yellowhammer is red list due to decline in their numbers. And in a very old oak tree just a few metres from here was a pair of barn owls (Tyto alba, Dansk: slørugle) nesting, and their status is also amber, but more about those in a later post.

Red clover – Trifolium pratense – the national flower of Denmark

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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.

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.)

Histon wildlife

I’ve been meandering around the country over the summer so my local flora and fauna have been a tad neglected here. So here are a few of my favourite photographs from Histon.

Wild flowers and grasses shot up to shoulder height in no time at all through the spring and into the summer and everywhere was lush and verdant, watered by the seemingly endless rain that started a few days after the hosepipe ban at the beginning of April, and carried on until early July. The rains were good for the greenery but not good for butterflies and other insects, so it was good to see the large skippers emerge at the end of June.


Large skipper  – Ochlodes faunus

The large skipper ususally emerges in June and July, so the earlier stages in its life cycle must be particularly well water-proofed to have survived the spring! The caterpillars feed on orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) which is common in meadows and hedgerows, and the adults seek nectar from a range of flowers including birdsfoot trefoil, dandelion, yarrow and field scabius. All of these are common in my local fields which explains their annual presence around here.


Small skipper – Thymelicus sylvestris

Both the skippers here appear to be females, the genders are differentiated by the presence of ‘androconica‘ on the forewings of the males. These are lines of dark, specialised pheromone producing cells which appear to be absent on both these butterflies.


Field poppies – Papaver rhoeas

A journey through the countryside in July and August was a gorgeous sight this year due to the abundance of poppies. The red field poppy, also called the ‘Flanders poppy’ is, of course, the symbol of remembrance in the UK for the slain of the two World Wars. They seemed to be everywhere, and fields which would normally be plain green were a sea of red, and my local fields were no different. It transpired that this was also a consequence of the rains but not for the reason you may think. As well as watering the earth and creating good conditions for alot of plants the rain also washed away the herbicides used by the farmers to protect the monocultures we’re accustomed to seeing in the fields. Which shows how rapidly nature can regain lost territory when the opportunity arises.


Corn bunting – Emberiza calandra

Another of my local fields was planted up with rape this year. I’ve previously disliked rape because it has a completely unnatural colour, and the smell is not too pleasant either. But since I’ve been getting close to it and seeing the variety of birdlife it supports I’m changing my mind. Not least because it plays host to corn bunting which are becoming increasingly uncommon due to loss of habitat. This rape field regularly had linnet, reed bunting and corn bunting feeding on the seedpods which are extremely rich in oil and therefore a good energy source for small songbirds.

Reed bunting male – Emberiza schoeniclus – perched on top of the mature rape plants resplendent with his black head and white collar

Skylark numbers have been dropping across the UK due to modern farming methods but I hope that my local patch is bucking the trend because year on year there always appear to be good numbers of them. The combined song of a multitude of skylarks as they slowly climb and then drop like a stone is one of natures wonders in my opinion, so it’s good to see them in the skies here.

Skylark – Alauda arvensis

Looking through my photographs for this year there has been alot to see but it seems it many species were scarce until July. Maybe that’s because the dreadful weather meant that I wasn’t looking quite so hard, but I think many natural phenomena were late this year due to climatic extremes. But many species eventually appeared so they are still out there. I’m hoping we now have a year of relatively normal weather from here on so the wildlife has a chance to recover.

Wee brown birdies

In the brief intervals between howling gales and torrential rain in these parts we’ve had the occasional glimpse of sunshine, and in those moments I’ve managed to grab a few pictures of some small birds; those little ones that look small and brown at a distance and can defy attempts at identification.

I’ve been a little concerned at the small numbers of certain migrants which have returned to my local patch, in particular blackcap, yellow wagtail and whitethroat.


Common whitethroat – Sylvia communis, one of the few to return to the Meadow in 2012

Last year at this time I would expect to see 5-10 whitethroat during a circumnavigation of the Meadow but this year I hadn’t seen any until I spotted this one and his mate, last week, bringing food to the nest. I also found another pair which I think are nesting in a tree on the other side of the track to this pair, but I’m yet to confirm that. And I still haven’t seen a single blackcap or yellow wagtail in 2012. Hopefully they made a successful migration back here and are just elsewhere, but I do miss ’em, they liven up my walks with the dog.


Chiffchaff – Phylloscopus collybita

A wandering warbler which has returned in numbers is the chiffchaff, and I hear them singing almost everywhere I go. This one was in a field here in Histon, and let me get close enough to take this picture, which is my favourite chiffchaff shot.

The rest of the birds in this posts are not migrants in the UK and I see them all year round. The yellowhammer is a bunting that has a very distinctive song, described in numerous field guides as ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheese‘. Which is a very good example of the pitfalls of trying to over-interpret birdsong! I was with my daughter when we saw (and heard) this one calling, and after telling her about the ‘little-bit-of-bread…’ thing we spent the rest of the walk thinking up alternatives. My favourite was ‘I’m-going-down-the-pub-for-a-beer‘.

Yellowhammers – Emberiza citrinella

I was particularly pleased with the second yellowhammer picture because I like the out-of-focus foliage surrounding the focussed bird. I recently upgraded my DSLR to one with more sophisticated focussing capabilities than my ageing Nikon D40x, which all my pictures up to now have been taken with. And one of the main reasons was so I could focus more quickly on small birds in bushes, such as this one, where the foliage was moving around in the breeze causing the camera to struggle to find focus. This picture was taken with my D40x and I was surprised by how well it turned out, so maybe I’d have delayed upgrading if I’d captured this image first!


Reed bunting – Emberiza schoeniclus

Reed buntings are present in the local fields and hedgerows all year round and this little chap, for he is indeed a male, was singing long and loud perched on the top of the rape flowers. A circuit around this field is an ornothological treat, on one lap I’d expect to see several reed buntings, at least one or two corn bunting, lots of skylark and occasionally linnet and goldfinch. And on Saturday (9th June) there were two bullfinch, an adult male, resplendent in his black cap and peach breast, and a male youngster, the same colours but a tad smaller and with more muted colours, perched in a tree together on the edge of the field.


Dunnock – Prunella modularis

And my favourite little brown bird is the dunnock, which are also here all year round, and in the winter are regular visitors to my garden. These two were transporting food to the youngsters in the nest in the midst of a bramble thicket. Fortunately, despite the low numbers of migrants in my locality there are still enough birds around to liven up a walk in the countryside.

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.

The North Fields

If you’ve been reading my recent posts you’ll know they’ve mainly been from the part of my village (Histon, Cambridgeshire) called Rowleys Meadow. I have two routes out of the village, the Meadow and what I call the North Fields, and the terrain is very different. The Meadow isn’t farmed and has many hedges, thickets and trees and is therefore better for birds in the Winter because it has a much higher density of numbers and species. But now it’s officially Spring, after the Equinox on March 20th/21st, I decided to visit the North Fields which are all under the plough. I’ve been over there on a few evenings at dusk and after dark in the last few weeks and heard golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria, Dansk: hjejle) and skylark on the ground but I haven’t been over there in daytime for a while.

The main reason I headed over there was because I wanted to find out if the large numbers of linnet and corn bunting which disappear from the fields every year at harvest time had returned. My first impression on entering the fields was that I should have gone to the Meadow, there was virtually no movement of any kind, but I stuck to my guns and that turned out to be a good decision. I didn’t expect to see corn bunting, which are becoming increasingly scarce on our farms, yet, but I had only gone half a mile or so before I heard the unmistakeable sound of a male calling. I heard him long before I saw him but I knew where he would be perched from where his song was coming from, it is a favourite perch all the time they are in residence:

Corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke) sitting in a favourite place and singing loud

It’s not the best picture of a corn bunting because the sun was still low in the sky directly behind with a thin layer of high white cloud inbetween. Consequently it was impossible to get anything other than a silhouettte without overexposing the shot, so that’s what I did so his colors can be seen. He wasn’t the only one I saw, there were three altogether, so I hope there’ll be a good few more in the next few weeks.

Another bunting which put in an appearance was a male reed bunting. There were several of these too, and just along the ditch from here was a flock of between 10-20 yellowhammers alternating between a hedgerow and the ground where they were feeding.


Reed bunting male (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv)

I didn’t go close enough to photograph the yellowhammers because I didn’t want to disturb them. Well, partly that, but also because I’d been distracted by a pair of hares (Lepus europaeus) chasing each other around in the long grass:

I couldn’t get close enough to get a picture of the whole hare, they were too wary of me and the dog, who’s a lurcher, so their timidity was well justified! But I like the way their ears poked up above the grass with the characteristic black tips.


Skylark waiting on the ground between high speed aerial duels with other larks

The other bird which was present in large numbers was the skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke). I stopped counting when I got to 30, and I wasn’t yet half way around my walk. They were on the ground, up high singing the amazing song that is is so much part of a British summer, and chasing each other around just above the ground at high speed in groups of up to around half a dozen.

I saw a TV show some years ago in which skylark song had been hugely slowed down and deconstructed, and they claimed the music of some classical composers (including I think, Beethoven) was based on the same structure. I was left sceptical, not least because Ludwig V was deaf and may therefore have struggled to analyse skylark song. But even so, it was fascinating!


Low level dogfight


High level chase

And singing his heart out

One of my other fascinations is etymology. I think that may originate from speaking two languages, and the first one I spoke, Danish, is one of the precursors of the current one, English, so a large number of English words have their derivation in Danish thanks to our Viking invaders all those centuries ago. The expression ‘larking about’ (and ‘lark’ may well be from the Danish ‘lærke’) originates from falconry. In days of yore, the men would go hunting with their peregrine falcons and the ladies would only be allowed to use the much smaller merlin which couldn’t catch birds bigger than larks. Hence ‘larking about’ became a term of derision based on the size of your falcon.

But I digress. The corn bunting are back, the sky was full of larks and the hares were getting frisky. I’ll keep you posted when the linnet and other summer visitors arrive.

2011 – That was the year that was

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

January

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

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

February

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


A carpet of snowdrops in the woods at Dunwich Greyfriars

March

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

April

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


Windswept male yellowhammer in the top of a hawthorn tree

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

May

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


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


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

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


Scarce chaser dragonfly at Milton Country Park

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

June

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


Large skipper feasting on the nectar of a thistle

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

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

July

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


Long winged Roesels bush cricket

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

A pair of juvenile linnets

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

August

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


A male bullfinch crunching seeds at RSPB Fen Drayton

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

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


A lone redshank looking for nourishment in the rockpools at Seahouses

September

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

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

October

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

A pair of common darters mating in the late autumn sunshine

November

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

A water rail in the primeval swamps of Cambridgeshire!

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


Fly agaric mushroom amongst the fallen beech leaves of Norsey Wood

December

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

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

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

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

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

Bamburgh birdlife

I spent the last week of August on holiday in Northumberland. I like it up there for a number of reasons, the main one being the great variety of wildlife. I was based in Bamburgh, which apart from having a spectacular castle, is right on the coast with miles of huge beaches which are thronged with birdlife.

A young knot, one of a mixed flock of knot (Dansk: Islandsk ryle) and turnstone on the beach at Bamburgh. The peachy brown colour on its breast gives it away as a youngster.


…and a turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

These two species were numerous on all the beaches and flew low over our heads in small flocks as we were bodysurfing the waves. The Danish name for a turnstone is a ‘stenvender‘ which translates directly as ‘turnstone‘, so it’s tempting to think that our Nordic ancestors brought the name with them when they arrived here over a millenium ago!

The turnstone is exclusively coastal and is very aptly named as it flips stones of all sizes in its search for insects and other invertebrates lurking beneath. It is also a scavenger and its entry in the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Birdfacts reveals it has been known to feed on corpses! It breeds in the high Arctic and is a passage and winter visitor to UK shores and is one the worlds longest migrators, turning up as far south as South Africa. Consequently it can be seen in many parts of the world as it overwinters in Africa, South America, southern Asia and Australia.

Knot, Calidris canutus, are also coastal passage or winter visitors in the UK. They breed in Greenland and Siberia where there habitat is wide open tundra. They feed on insects and plants in the summer and in wintertime on molluscs from the intertidal area of beaches, from which it’s specific taxonomic name ‘canutus‘ is derived from the name of the Norse king Canute, so this species has a definite Viking link (Danish ‘Islandsk ryle‘). Outside the breeding season they can flock together in enormous numbers, 100,000+ (I’m not quite sure how they’re counted though!)


This pair of knot are living up to their name, running through the surf

The beaches were home to lots of waders in Bamburgh but the rest of the village was also home to non-marine species, most notably swallow, house martin, pied wagtail and linnet.


A swallow stretching its wings on the garden fence. A couple of weeks later it will be heading south and then on to South Africa

Our garden played host to flocks of swallow and house martin who were busy hunting insects over the adjacent meadow, and pied wagtail (Dansk: hvid vipstjert) which are resident in the UK and are ubiquitous in parks and gardens picking invertebrates from the grass.


A pied wagtail youngster, above, and an adult…
The adult has a white face and black cap and breast which the youngster hasn’t yet acquired

A walk around Bamburgh Castle and the playing field at the foot of the castle was accompanied by lots of linnet. Linnet are resident in the UK but their conservation status is red due to decline in the breeding population so it was good to see them in such numbers:


Linnet male looking for grass seeds on the cricket pitch under Bamburgh Castle

There was a family of linnet on top of the castle walls with the adults feeding the fledglings and on the playing field beneath this imposing superstructure was a mixture of numerous wagtails and linnet.

I think the chap in the photograph has some unusual colouration. He has the fading pink breast and red forehead spot of a cock linnet approaching Autumn, but the greater covert feathers on the wings (the ones at the top of the black primary flight feathers) are dark brown. I’d expect them to be the same lighter brown colour as higher up the wing and back. Maybe that happens at this time of year too.

Other highlights around Bamburgh were a flock of approximately 100 lapwing over the fields between bamburgh and Seahouses and on another day a flock of around 50 curlew (Danish ‘storspove‘). And to the north of Bamburgh lies Budle Bay which when the tide is out plays host to large nubers of waders, gulls and other seabirds.


A curlew (Numenius arquata) on the tidal mudflats of Budle Bay

As well as curlew there were oystercatcher, black headed gull, redshank, knot, turnstone and mute swan all visible from the side of the road. I was guilty of one of my more scatterbrained moments on this trip as I forgot to pack my binoculars. I’m fairly sure that with some ocular assistance I’d have found alot more species out there.


A pair of mute swans on Budle Bay after the tide has come in

LBJ’s

I recently finished reading Simon Barnes book (he being the sports writer in The Times and nature writer) ‘How to be a bad birdwatcher’. In his book, which, if you love nature and wildlife and birds in particular, is well worth a read, he talks about the difficulties of getting to grips with all the species of small songbirds which flit through daily life largely unnoticed. He describes them as those ‘little brown jobs’ or ‘LBJ’s‘. I think that’s a good description, because until I made the effort to have a good look with binoculars they are simply little brown things which are largely unidentifiable.

However, a little time and effort spent getting to grips with them can be extremely rewarding. I mentioned in a previous post that there are alot of fledglings to be seen just now and a walk along my local hedgerows has provided lots of avian family entertainment:


A family of house sparrows. The male is on the left with the black bib and the female and three youngsters above and to the right.

House sparrows are getting more scarce although in total there are still large numbers of them, apparently there are 13.4 million at the last count according to the BTO. They have suffered from changes in farming practices but I’ve encountered reasonable numbers of them at various places around Histon this year. They’re highly gregarious and garrulous and I often hear them before I see them.

The family in the photograph are in a bramble thicket close to a substantial old hedge which every year plays host to various species of small birds, most notably linnet, blackcap, whitethroat, great tit, goldfinch and long tailed tit. A field close to here (approximately 150m away) has a good size fallow area which has various wild flowers including oats and this has provided alot of food and cover for families of whitethroat, yellowhammer and linnet this year and just this morning a small flock of 10-20 house sparrow were in that area. A fellow dog walker also told me there was a grey partridge nest there this year which had been abandoned and the eggs eaten, probably by crows. I’ve seen grey partridge in that area in previous years and they also have Red conservation status. It goes to show that even a small area of mixed vegetation can be highly beneficial for insects and birds.

And on the subject of linnet, they are also in plentiful supply this summer. They are less visible now the harvest is underway and the rape seed they were feeding on until a couple of weeks ago has now disappeared, so they have dispersed to find other food supplies.

A pair of linnet younsgters perched atop a bramble bush


Another linnet youngster with a common whitethroat. This is a frequent sight at the moment, common whitethroat are abundant and often appear alongside other species in the hedgerows such as corn bunting, reed bunting and linnet


… and another one sorting it’s plumage out


Whitehroat family with a male reed bunting…


…and the reed bunting fledgling who was just around the corner of the bush from the male above.

These pictures were taken in the evening when the sun was low in the western sky, which is why the colours are quite red, and a corn bunting was singing away just out of shot. More LBJ’s than I could shake a stick at!


Male yellowhammer feeding chicks on the nest

It’s also the time of year when alot of species are rearing second broods and I watched this yellowhammer with a beak full of bugs waiting for me to move on before he dropped down into the nest.