Tag Archives: Muntiacus reevesi

The frozen Fen

The winter frost finally arrived in my corner of Cambridgeshire in the last week and it left the landscape with a thick coating of pure crystalline whiteness. So I was able to indulge my recently discovered fascination with more abstract nature photography:

Ice needles formed on horse hair snagged on barbed wire scattering the sunshine

My trip out to Burwell Fen, east of Cambridge, early last Saturday morning was spectacular as a result of the frosty weather. I set off with my friend, David, around 8am with a view to catching some more sightings of short eared owls, and at that time the temperature was well below freezing. But it was one of those beautiful misty mornings where the mist is thin and lets through lots of light but the density waxed and waned, creating constantly changing, ghostly conditions. Which is lovely to look at but not so good for finding wildlife.

As we approached the Fen, driving out the back of Reach through Tubney Fen (which, incidentally, has had nesting avocet in previous years), roe deer and red-legged partridge were in abundance (no exaggeration!) . I like partridge and I see them quite often around Histon, but I usually flush them before I can get close enough to photograph them, but on this instance the car made a great hide.

Three of a small flock of red-legged partridge absorbing the heat from a huge pile of dung. Splendid birds,  bizarre that people want to shoot them rather than just look at them.

Red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa, Dansk: rødhøne) were introduced to England from Europe and alas for them they are a game bird.

Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) were also much in evidence, we counted 43, and at one point on the Fen they were flushed and moved en masse and we counted 31. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many in one go and it was a terrific sight. We think the four below were part of a family of five, the fifth just out of shot. The big one on the right is the female, the horned one in the middle is the male and the other two are youngsters, the third youngster is the one out of shot.


Four of a family of five roe deerRoe deer tracks with a 2p coin to show the size. They were mixed with muntjac tracks, but could be distinguished by the larger size:

Muntjac deer tracks

Roe deer are native to the UK but muntjac, also known as the barking deer, were introduced from China to Woburn in Befordshire where escapes and releases, and their obvious liking for the Home Counties led to a rapid expansion of their population. I regularly see and hear them in Histon, and the barking sound they make is quite unlike anything likely to be heard in the English countryside.

Whilst scanning for owl, I spotted a stonechat in the grass (Saxicola torquatus, Dansk: Sortstrubet bynkefugl):


Male stonechat

The stonechat is a resident breeder and a migrant to the UK and frequents the kind of scrubby countryside found on Burwell Fen.

Then when the mist lifted and the morning developed into a very cold but very sunny one, the owls appeared, and we had lots of sightings. We chatted to a BBC camera man in the car park who had come to film the short eared owls and he must have captured some good footage by the time he went home.

They are great to watch, they hunt low over the scrub for rodents and regularly get chased up in the air by crows and on one occasion, a kestrel.


Short eared owl

Short eard owls (Asio flammeus, Dansk: mosehornugle) have a small breeding population in the UK, but also migrate here in the winter from northern Europe. I’ve heard that they are here in larger numbers than normal this year due to last year being a good lemming year in Scandinavia. Whatever the reason I’ve heard a number of reports of sizeable groups in Essex, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. They are diurnal and therefore easier to see than most owls and they are very distinctive. The underside is largely white, the winspan is around a metre and the pale brown spot toward the end of the top of the wing is also easy to see and differentiate them. They also have bright yellow eyes which I’ve heard is characteristic of owls which hunt in daylight – but I’ve not found any hard evidence for that.

Lastly, we had several encounters with this group of nine grey partridge, also known as the English partridge (Perdix perdix, Dansk: agerhøne). The numbers of our own partridge have plummeted catastrophically in recent decades, by up to 90%. I see the occasional one around Histon, but it was good to see this group on the Fen.


Six of a group of nine grey partridge

The red/brown head and lack of white face, black eye stripe and white wing markings clearly distinguish the grey from the red-legged partridge. The difference in demeanour was remarkable, the red-legs seemed relatively unfazed by our presence and were easy to see and photograph, but the greys sat tight, very low to the ground, and flew away at the slightest disturbance.

In one trip we saw all the UK partridge species, and lots of short eared owls, and more roe deer than I’ve ever seen before in one go. Well worth the early start on a freezing morning!

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Histon forays, weekend 5th – 6th March 2011

This weekend I’ve been out and about on my regular walks north of Histon. (Click here for a sketch map of the locality). Yesterday I was out around the fields to the north between Histon and Cottenham. It was a cold grey morning and it was noteworthy for several reasons.

The birdlife was plentiful. (Click here for my wildlife diary where I’ve listed all sightings). Just a few minutes after telling my friend, David, that I hadn’t seen a corn bunting for around 6 months but that they frequent that area in numbers during the summer and disappear very quickly after the harvest, we saw one sitting in a bramble:

It was the first one this year and the first of several we spotted yesterday. It was a good morning for buntings in general. Last time I was here, around three weeks ago a mixed flock of reed bunting and yellowhammer were  in the east end of the Owl Shed Hedge (see post from 29th Jan entitled “Buntings abound: 29th and 30th January 2011). They were there again on Saturday and reed bunting were present in most of the hedges and ditches we peered into. Skylark were present in large numbers too, singing up high and darting around low. A look  on the floor of the Old Water Pump, which has a platform for barn owls to roost and breed, revealed numerous owl pellets most of which were very old, but some of them looked fresher, possibly from within the last 6 months.

One of the ‘Pump House’ barn owls from three years ago

This is a very good thing as barn owls haven’t bred there since 2008 and I haven’t seen one in the vicinity since last year, and then only a couple of sightings all year.

Other appearances which livened up the walk were a muntjac deer, Muntiacus reevesi, introduced from China to the UK in the first half of the 20th century, which was rooting around at the back of the gardens of the houses on Cottenham Road, and a stock dove was sitting in the trees in the same area. I may have seen these before and mistaken them for wood pigeon, but David’s expert knowledge put me straight on the differences. They don’t have the white neck and wing bands of the wood pigeon and they have a dark eye which is diagnostic – that of the wood pigeon is lighter.

I set off in the other direction this morning to head out of Histon north west towards Oakington along Guns Lane and into Rowleys Meadow. I took a slow walk and was very adequately rewarded. Right at the start of the Lane where it joins Cottenham Road blue tit, great tit, greenfinch, chaffinch, starling and song thrush were present and finches were singing constantly,


Greenfinch male singing for a mate in the top of a tree on Guns Lane

…and a chaffinch male displaying his gorgeous black and white tail in a fan. I’ve posted a few photographs of chaffinch lately, even though they’re common I think they’re spectacular!

A couple of surprises today, firstly the number of bullfinch; I saw a single male in Rowleys Meadow which may have had a female with it but I couldn’t see it well enough to confirm, and another pair of males flew along Guns Lane hopping from hedge to hedge infront of me for 50-100m. And secondly, the number of dunnock. They were present in every bush and bramble in the Meadow and on the Lane singing constantly – if you haven’t heard dunnock song, have a listen here, it’s lovely.


Dunnock sitting on a bramble singing

Dunnock have a rather interesting approach to breeding. They don’t pair off as most birds do, a female will be mated by at least two males who will stimulate the females to eject a rivals sperm from the cloaca with their beak. DNA analysis has shown young in the same clutch can have more than one father. I like dunnock, they look boringly grey/brown when seen flitting around the undergrowth, but when they catch the light they are certainly not drab. And their song and their antics at breeding time are anything but boring!

Just as I was about to leave the countryside and head home I noticed a pair of starling sitting on top of a hedge checking out me and the dog. As I turned to point my camera at them they didn’t fly away but simply kept an eye on me so I could get this picture:

The glorious plumage of the starling!

Spring is well underway now and the activities of the wildlife are reflecting that. It’s a great time to be poking around in the woods and hedgerows.