Tag Archives: Parus major

The Songbirds Return

Up until February we’ve had an unusually mild winter and it was noticed across the country that songbirds were not frequenting gardens simply because there was abundant food in the countryside so they didn’t need to avail themselves of our feeders. The RSPB were advising people to clean their feeders and place a small amount of feed in so that passing birds would recognise it as a source of nourishment if times got tough. So a couple of weeks ago I topped my feeders up in anticipation of some cold weather and saw nothing apart from my resident cock blackbird who likes to dig worms out of my lawn.

And then the times did indeed get tough. The snow came last Saturday, lots of it, and on Sunday morning the transformation in my garden was immediate and the place came alive with hungry squabbling birds. Hen and cock chaffinch brought welcome splashes of colour:

Chaffinch are normally ground feeders so I’m not sure if this lady was confused by the contraption or the snow covering the hole.

(There’s a fungus there too on the branch of my plum tree which I must put some effort into identifying).

The sky was completely white and murky with total low cloud cover after the snow, so all the colours of the birds were muted and photography was challenging. Even the colours of this cock chaffinch, which was looking for seeds on the ground (more customary chaffinch behaviour), proved difficult to capture:


As well as chaffinch, dunnock, robin, blue tit, long tailed tit, collared dove, wood pigeon and blackbirds were all availing themselves of the platter. All the birds are welcome but the collared dove and particularly the wood pigeon can completely clean up in a matter of minutes, leaving very little for the other birds, so this time I put enough food out for all the visitors. A pair of great tit were gorging on some chopped peanuts, they are cautious birds and would visit the seed tray, pick up a piece of nut or seed:


Parus major – great tit, the male of the species

…and carry it off to the adjacent buddleia where it clamped the nut between it’s claws and pecked at it until it was gone, and then fetched another. If they’re not disturbed they can carry on flitting to and fro many times.


Female great tit demonstrating classic great tit feeding behaviour

I was shown how to easily differentiate between the male and female great tit by some bird ringers at Wicken Fen. They had caught a male in their net and the way to tell is by the width of the black stripe down the breast. The female has a thin stripe and that of the male is much thicker and can broaden as it descends widening to fill the gap between the legs. The broader the stripe the more attractive he is to the ladies.


Greenfinch – the first one I’ve seen in my garden since last winter

I often see, and hear, greenfinch in the trees where I walk and also the ones around where I work on Cambridge Science Park, but unless the weather is particularly inclement they don’t often venture into my garden, so this one was a welcome visitor.

Male house sparrow looking for a top up

None of my garden visitors were particularly unusual but it was lovely to see so many at once and to discover they were still out there. So I shall keep feeding them until the weather warms up and they move back to countryside.

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Where have all the birds gone?

There are virtually no birds in my garden at the moment, and they have been conspicuous by their absence all through the autumn. This appears to be a more widely observed phenomenon as reported on BBC’s Countryfile, and the RSPB have been seeking to reassure people who are concerned by the apparent dearth of birdlife visiting their gardens that it’s simply due to the abundance of suitable food still accessible in the countryside, and whenever possible that’s where the birds prefer to be.

I can vouch for the disappearance of the small birds from gardens. Apart from the occasional blackbird and blue tit  (and a jay last week – the first one I’ve ever seen in my garden!) very few birds are availing themselves of my feeders. If this is happening in your garden the best thing to do is to keep your feeders clean and put a small amount of feed in so any passing birds recognise your garden as a source of food and can stop to refill if they need to. But it looks as thought the cold weather is starting to arrive here in Cambridgeshire so garden bird numbers may well increase in the near future.

So last weekend I ventured to the fields on the edge of Histon to see if they are still in residence. The hedges and fields were well populated with goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) and chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke), great tit (Parus major, Dansk: musvit) and long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemejse) and green woodpeckers were abundant too. I don’t know if the numbers of green woodpecker (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) I see are representative of national trends but they seem to be numerous here in Histon, also where I work on Cambridge Science Park and today I was at the RSPB reserve at Fen Drayton near St Ives and there were good numbers there too. Two birds that I haven’t seen recently in the numbers I’d expect are dunnock and greenfinch – I hope that’s because they’re out in the countryside and it doesn’t reflect a decline in overall numbers.

I talked in my post a couple of weeks ago, Forests and Fungi, about how I’ve been inspired to look for other ways of photographing nature rather than simply taking traditional portrait shots. Rowleys Meadow which is on the edge of Histon, has mature ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) on the periphery which are laden with ash keys and as a result there are thousands of young ash saplings:


Brown grass stems merge with the taller, thicker, silver stems of the ash saplings

And this presented a good opportunity to capture some abstract nature images. I like the way the low, bright sunlight creates a vertical pattern of silver and shadow as it illuminates hundreds of young ash trees

Back to birds, as well as our regular winter residents migrants from Scandinavia are much in evidence, redwing (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel), and fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger):


A lone fieldfare perched in a tree after gorging on a blackthorn bush laden with sloe berries

Small flocks of fieldfare can be seen and heard making there distinctive and diagnostic call, and the flocks will get bigger if the weather does turn wintry. Last winter, which was brutally cold here and in Scandinavia, huge numbers of waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus, Dansk: silkehale) arrived in the UK from Norway, but due to the much warmer weather I don’t think we’ll see them here in quite such abundance this year, which is a real shame because they are indeed spectacular:


Waxwing – it’s around the size of a starling and the colours are amazing

Histon has a resident rook colony (Corvus frugilegus, Dansk: sibirisk allike) who have their rookery in the tall trees adjacent to the church and are a constant source of aerial entertainment. They were feeding in a field along Guns Lane, which runs from Histon to Ely, as I wandered along it and this one took exception to my presence and flew over squawking at me as it went,

I took the hint and moved on, heading home. But a little further along Guns Lane I paused when I heard the quiet and delicate song of a flock of long tailed tits. So I stood still and they went about their routine in trees about 10m away. I really like these diminutive, gregarious, birds and I love trying to photograph them, which can be challenging as they are very small and they never settle in any one place for very long. But I managed to get this series of shots which I’m rather pleased with:

Even though the weather is pleasantly mild at the moment, I prefer winter when it’s cold, so I’m hoping it will start to behave as it should and these delightful little birds come back to feed in my garden!

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.

Heading south

Last Friday I found myself on the M40 heading south to Windsor. I wasn’t anticipating a particularly eventful trip from a wildlife perspective, but it turned out to be quite remarkable.

My first port of call was my parents house in Northampton, where a great spotted woodwecker and her chicks were feeding on a hanging peanut feeder:


Female great spotted woodpecker eating fatballs in my folks garden. She is easily distinguished from the male due to the lack of a red patch on the nape of the neck. Juveniles also lack the red nape but she was feeding two juveniles so it was obvious she was an adult female

My folks back garden has been a real haven for birdlife in the last few weeks and is currently home to families of great tit, goldfinch and carrion crow too. My Dad places a couple of flower pot stands full of fresh water on his garage roof every day and the carrion crows and rooks then rock up with beaks full of dry bread they have scavenged in the locality and dunk it in the water until it is completely sodden from where they carry it off to feed their chicks.


Carrion crow fledgling, it’s not immediately obvious from this shot but it has very short stumpy tail feathers – diagnostic of a fresh-faced youngster

My folks garden is around only 50m away from a long spinney of old trees and consequently they get a great variety of birds and are currently playing host to a jay, a pair of nuthatch, numerous goldfinch, dunnock, blackbirds etc, etc…


A pair of goldfinch settling a dispute on the garage roof

After a brief stop off in Northampton I headed off south to Maidenhead. One of the original release sites where attempts were made to establish new red kite populations was on the M40 corridor, and not long after passing Oxford I spotted the first one. Shortly after that there was another… and another… and another. From then on down to Windsor there were groups of up to five over the motorway or the adjacent fields every couple of minutes, and I counted 30-40 individuals in that short distance. (Alas I didn’t have my camera with me from here on, so this post is a bit thin on pictures, but I hope the words are sufficient to hold your interest!)

Later on, in the evening, I took a walk along the Thames at Maidenhead where a pair of geat crested grebe were performing a courtship dance. This involved necking followed by diving to collect weed from the riverbed which they presented to the partner when they reached the surface. Overhead, red kite, swallows, swifts and house martins were all wheeling around at various heights hoovering up flies, and the martins were flying to and fro from nests built under the eaves of the houses on the riverside, feeding their young. And an arctic tern was patrolling up and down along the river making the occcasional dive after an unfortunate fish. I love watching terns hunt, they’re amazing fliers, so it was great to see one here.

Heading back north again on Saturday evening there weren’t the numbers of kites I’d seen on Friday, but there were still a few to be seen. All in all, the red kite conservation story is an amazingly successful one and it’s good to see that human intervention can sometimes correct an egregious wrong perpetrated in the past!

The birds and the bees (and the flowers)

As our warmest and driest Spring on record turns into what is shaping up to be a warm and dry Summer, nature’s great events are occurring apace to exploit the prevailing climatic conditions.

The first swifts were seen over Histon 3 weeks ago (by me at least) after their heroic journey back to their breeding sites from overwintering in Africa. To celebrate this event I’ve spent several hours sitting in the garden of the Castle pub on Castle Hill in Cambridge enjoying a few convivial sharpeners and watching the swifts shrieking through the sky like an avian aerobatic team. I can heartily recommend both activities!

Wild flowers, including one of my favourites, white campion, are now in bloom:

White campion, Silene latifolia, decorating ditches and hedgerows

White campion is a dioecious plant which means the male and female reproductive machinery are on separate flowers. It grows in well drained earth and flowers from Spring to Autumn and is now delineating my walks across the open countryside. Another one of my favourite wild flowers is red clover (Trifolium pratense) which is a gorgeous colour and provides nourishment for bumble bees:


Red clover flower being harvested for pollen and nectar by a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum). This is the national flower of Denmark.

And of course the local birdlife has been very busy breeding and raising chicks. Alot of species started this process earlier this year due to the unusually warm weather in Spring. I have a pair of blue tits raising a brood in the nestbox in my crab apple tree and my friend told me of a family of song thrushes which fledged from his garden a month ago. Which is very early.

A pair of great tit have been feeding their chicks on crushed peanuts which I put out on my bird feeder over the last month and last week they fledged and the whole family were feeding in my garden for just a day or two before they ventured further afield. (If you put nuts out for the birds during the breeding season please make sure you use crushed nuts as inexperienced parents can try to feed whole nuts to chicks and this can have fatal consequences). Great tits have over 70 different vocalisations which I think is remarkable, almost simple language! And on my explorations along the fields and hedgerows around Histon last weekend (21st May, 2011) I saw more great tit, blackcap and whitethroat all feeding gangs of fledglings:


Common whitethroat male, Sylvia communis

There are two species of whitethroat to be found locally, the common and the lesser (Sylvia curruca). They are distinguished by their song, which I won’t try to describe because I’ve never yet read a book which gives the remotest idea of what birdsong actually sounds like by a written description! But if you want to compare them try here for the common whitethroat, and here for the lesser whitethroat.


And another male whitethroat, this chap was singing long and loud, punctuated with characteristic jerky flights straight up in the air and back to the same spot

There are a good number of common whitethroat in the hedgerows north of Cambridge, lesser whitethroat are also here but are not so numerous. There are other distinguishing features between the two species, the lesser, as the name suggests is smaller (~11cm long compared to ~13 for the common), and is generally more grey with a pale grey head and noticeably darker grey ‘ear’ patches. It also has dark grey legs. Both species overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa, the common in central Africa and the lesser in eastern Africa.

Linnet can be regularly seen flying around the bramble thickets on the edges of the village and perching and singing on top of them. On Saturday early in the morning a fracas was going on in an elderbery tree in Rowleys Meadow in Histon which ended when a jay was chased out of the tree by a family of linnet and a family of whitethroat. The jay alighted on an adjacent shed to suss out the lie of the land and contemplate another raid whilst the indignant songbirds dispersed into some scrub to hide. Eventually the jay decided to keep his powder dry and disappeared into a nearby wood. Jays, like other members of the crow family, will raid nests of smaller birds for eggs and chicks, so it’s a perilous business being a small bird with a family to rear.


A linnet male perching on a bramble. When they’re not protecting a nest I’ve managed to sneak within 15 feet of linnet perched like this.

Linnet, Carduelis cannabina, are abundant resident and migrant breeders, although their numbers, as with many of our songbirds, are declining, and they are also passage and winter visitors. Due to their declining numbers over the past 40 years or so their conservation status is red, indicating they are globally threatened. They are finches which live in open country and farmland and feed on seeds.

Many species of moths, butterflies, bees, flowers and a plethora of other creatures are all appearing as trhe seasons are progressing and there’s something new to see every week!

April birdwatch

The activities of the birds in my garden have changed significantly in the last 2-3 weeks. Until then I was seeing multiple blackbird, robin, starling, goldfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, collared dove and house sparrow with less frequent visits by long tailed tit. Since then a pair of wood pigeon have virtually taken up residence in my back garden and hoover up all the bird food before the smaller species get a look in. There is still the occasional dunnock and blackbird on the ground and much less frequent visits by blue tit, robin, starling and chaffinch but the goldfinch have all but vacated. This is interesting because when I’m outside I regularly see and hear groups of goldfinch in the trees around the garden but something seems to be keeping them away from my feeder.

My friend Chris told me he had a songthrush rearing chicks in a nest in a tree in his garden and she fledged four youngsters last week, which is very early in the year, so hopefully she’ll fit in another brood this year. But his garden has been subject to the attentions of a sparrowhawk in recent months so he was worried it would catch the fledglings, but clever use of carefully placed hanging bamboo canes has successfully deterred the hawk and all four fledglings seem to have successfully flown the coop. Songthrush 4, sparrowhawk nil.

Continuing with garden birds, last week it occurred to me that the fat balls hanging in my front garden were requiring replenishment rather more frequently than usual so I guessed the nesting birds were feeding more often. The reason turned out to be rather more amusing:


One of the local rooks has worked out that these are edible…

…and that it can reach them. And it takes alot of fat ball to fill a hungry rook!

Slightly further afield in the hedgrows and scrub bordering the farmland around Histon it’s a very good time to survey the local wildlife. As I mentioned in a previous post many species of wild flower now including forget-me-not, yellow archangel…


Forget-me-not

Yellow archangel – Lamiastrum galeobdolon, this variegated version is an invading subspecies ‘argentatum’

…herb robert, cow parsley and periwinkle are all in bloom and lining the paths through the countryside filling them with a palette of colour.

And in the fields, trees and bushes there is an abundance of birdlife:


Corn bunting perched in the midst of a field of oil seed rape

The countryside is ablaze with the yellow of rape flowers right now and just occasionally a photographic opportunity such as this one arises. I’m not particularly keen on the vast swathes of rape but it created a lovely backdrop for this corn bunting which are becoming increasingly uncommon.

It’s not unusual to see and hear bullfinch in one patch of scrub near the church in Histon, which is a regular destination for my birdwatching outings. That makes me very happy because I used to see them all the time when I was a kid in the 1970’s but since the 80’s they seem to have been persecuted to near extinction in alot of the UK because of their fondness for the green shoots of commercial fruit trees. They are still fairly elusive but I managed to get this photograph of a male (just!):


Male bullfinch – the female has similar markings but they are not pink she is more pale grey/brown

And in the same field as the bullfinch linnet are in residence, as are willow warbler, chiffchaff and blackcap which have now returned from over wintering in Africa:


Blackcap male

Chiffchaff

…as are whitethroat:


A female whitehroat, one of a pair patrolling a patch of brambles in the middle of the field

This field is an amazing place, I reckon it’s approximately 10-12 acres and it comprises several habitats including open-ish grass, it’s sorrounded by some old established trees: oak, ash and horse chestnut with hedgerow joining up the old trees consisting mainly of hawthorn and in the field itself there are alot of ash and other saplings and some large patches of bramble. Consequently it provides good supplies of food and cover for nesting for a number of different species. Green woodpeckers can be constantly heard yaffling to each other:

…and birds of prey including kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard are regularly in the skies above. The green woodpecker are there all year round and are usually hidden in the grass so I’ll flush one off the ground only for it to disappear into a tree too distant to allow a photograph. So this is about the best image I have of one. Most of the common or garden birds are regulars here too, house sparrow, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit:

…and chaffinch

…blackbird, songthrush, rook, crow and magpie are all present every day. So a small area of mixed scrub an the edge of the village supports a wonderful number of our birds.

There’s lots to see by simply look up in the village too. On the way back from the playground in Impington with my kids today we cycled along a road under a tree as a jay emerged from a silver birch on the other side of the road and landed in the tree a few metres over our heads. We all stopped to look at it and marvel at it’s amazing colours, and it looked at us for a minute or two before flapping off higher up the tree.

Springtime song

The weather this  Saturday was glorious – no wind, blue sky and warm sunshine. Perfect for a stroll around the countryside. So I set off around 8am and apart from the warmth, the first thing I noticed was the air laden with the  fragrances of spring blossom.

In the last week the spring weather has caused trees and flowers including the willow to blossom…


Pussy willow – the furry catkin of the willow tree against a gorgeous blue sky, and a lone honeybee

Butterflies are waking up after hibernation. A red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) flew through my garden last week and a friend told me he saw a brimstone in his garden and another wended its way gently past a window at work today.

Red admiral on a bindweed flower
Red admiral feeding on a convulvulus flower

Red admiral are resident and can be seen all year round when weather permits. Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) are also resident and hibernate over the winter but they are now out and about aroused by the warm weather. Bumble bees have also become more abundant in the last few weeks and I now see them on most days.

The birds are all singing and a walk through parks and fields is accompanied by the song of greenfinch, blue tit, great tit, dunnock and robin, most noticeably. And on my hike across the fields abundant yellowhammer, reed bunting and corn bunting, three Emberiza species, were all in full voice:


E.citrinella – one of many yellowhammer, this one is a male, patrolling the hedgerows

E.schoeniclus – reed bunting male

E.calandra – corn bunting making its very distinctive call

Yellowhammer, reed bunting and corn bunting perch in hedgerows and  make feeding forays to the ground in the neighbouring fields where they feast on seeds and during the breeding season and  summer will eat invertebrates. I pass one location where there has been a mixed group of 20-30 reed bunting and yellowhammer present regularly over the last month. Corn bunting have made a recent comeback to the fields around Histon, they disappear at harvest time, middle to end of August, and reappear in the Spring when they can be seen perched on top of brambles, bushes and short trees making their very characteristic song.

Skylark were also singing constantly. Farmland species such as these have seen their habitat severely depleted in recent times, consequently their numbers are reduced as a result.

A red fox and a small group of roe deer put in appearances, the fox was heading a cross the fields to Landbeach heading away from a place I photographed cubs last year, so I hope they are breeding here again this year.


Roe deer – Capreolus capreolus – the leader on the right is sporting native antlers

A pair of crows chased off a buzzard which thermalled over the fields before disappearing into the haze towards Waterbeach and a flock of several hundred black headed gulls squawked noisily over the fields. I observed them for several minutes with binoculars and I think they were all black heads, but there could have been a few individuals of other species mixed in. A sparrowhawk flew at very high speed from the Linnet Hedge across South Bean Field before rising up and passing through a gap in the treeline, causing mayhem with the birdlife in the gardens beyond and a female kestrel was looking for rodents in the South Fallow Field. It was the first time I’d seen birds of prey here for several months so it was great to see three species on one walk.

Bad birdwatching

The title of this post is unashamedly borrowed from the book “How to be a bad birdwatcher” by Simon Barnes (The Times sports writer and RSPB columnist), which I started reading today while I was waiting for my son to finish his swimming lesson. Having discovered what was meant by ‘bad birdwatching’ I can’t think of a better way to describe my fascination with birds and wildlife:

“…the first aim of being a bad birdwatcher: the calm delight of the utterly normal, and the rare and sudden delight of the utterly unexpected”. Genius.

I’ll write a review of the book when I’ve finished it, but please don’t hold your breath, reading a book is a fragmented and necessarily slow process these days.

Please forgive my rambling but there is a point to this. This morning I was planning to head to the lake beside the A14 between Histon and the northern edge of Cambridge to look for grebes, geese, ducks and cormorants. However, in the course of the last week I’ve seen green woodpecker on several occasions in and around the carpark at work on Cambridge Science Park. As I still don’t have a good photograph of a green woodpecker I reasoned an early morning stroll around work may enable me to put that straight. So that is where I headed.

Initially there were no woodpeckers to be seen but on a dull grey morning the trees and bushes were alive with birdsong:


Robin singing his heart out in an alder tree. He wasn’t alone, plentiful dunnock and wrens were doing the same

…as were numerous greenfinch, but this one clammed up as soon as I tried to photograph him. (Whilst taking this picture I was approached by a security man who said my camera looked like a shotgun. With the lens hood on at full zoom maybe a blunderbuss… but not a shotgun, surely!)

Cambridge Science Park is located on the northern edge of Cambridge bordered by the A14 to the north and the A10 to the east, it is around 1km in diameter and in keeping with the rest of this part of Cambridgeshire is as flat as a pancake. It was created in 1970 and some of the old trees and scrub remain between the buildings and the landscaping. These, along with small lakes and streams in drainage ditches form a good variety of habitat which is generally undisturbed.

I’ve worked on Cambridge Science Park for 15 years but I had no idea this  WWII pillbox was tucked away in the undergrowth until yesterday. (The pole in front of the dog has bat boxes at the top so I was very pleased to see the proactive approach to conservation).

Consequently there is alot of birdlife, from kestrels and sparrowhawks to water birds – ducks, coot, moorhen – and songbirds – greenfinch, goldfinch, great tit and I’ve seen goldcrest and lapwing on rare occasions. There are plentiful rabbit too and as a result it’s not uncommon to see foxes out the window hunting for a meal.

The Science Park was vibrant with birdsong during my walk and as time progressed the sun came out and it got warmer. I didn’t see any unusual species but the sheer numbers and volume of sound made for a very enjoyable walk.


One of numerous dunnock livening up the Science Park with their Springtime singing…

…and one of a flock of long tailed tit

A male great tit feeding on one of several bird feeding stations

… a magpie

…and a moorhen

Lots of birdlife to be seen, and all within a 500m radius of where I work. But I still hadn’t seen a green woodpecker. So I decided to head over to the lake within 500m of the Science Park where I know there are waterfowl including greylag geese… and green woodpeckers.

The lake didn’t disappoint. There were moorhen, mallard, greylag geese, great crested grebes – and even a single green woodpecker which was flushed up from the ground and disapperad into some distant and inaccessible trees.


Male, left, and female mallard

Greylag goose

The greylag goose is the bulkiest of the Anser goose genus and is the species (Anser anser) from which domesticated geese originate. Studies of greylag geese led the zoologist Konrad Lorenz to rediscover the theory of imprinting – the phenomenon you are probably familiar with, of baby nidifugous birds (those which leave the nest at a very early age) imprinting on their parents, which can be a human being if that is the first creature they encounter after hatching.

Konrad Lorenz was an interesting man and a glance at his Wikipedia entry reveals he was an Austrian biological scientist, born in 1903. He graduated from Vienna University as a medic in 1928 and received his zoological doctorate in 1933. He joined the Nazi Party and indicated his support for their ‘racial hygeine‘ theories (one of the worst obscenities of the 20th century in my opinion), accepted a chair at the University of Konigsberg in 1940, joined the Wehrmacht as a medic and was shortly after captured by the Russians and eventually repatriated to Germany in 1948. He went on to study aspects of animal behaviour, later extrapolating these to apply to humans, and in 1973 he received the Nobel Prize for medicine for studies on social behaviour patterns.

Returning to natural history, there was a pair of great crested grebe on the lake which I were hoping were going to display:

But this time I was unlucky. When displaying, they swim away from each other then turn simultaneously and swim rapidly toward each other and when they meet they rear up in a necking dance before repeating the whole process. I haven’t yet been able to get photographs of this beautiful courtship ritual, but I’ll keep looking.

I said at the top of this post that there was a point to the ‘bad birdwatching’ reference. I set out yesterday specifically to try to photograph green woodpeckers which I think are spectacular. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of a woodpecker, and no pictures, but I had a lovely time looking and seeing all the other wildlife.

So I guess by Simon Barnes definition I’m a fairly shabby example of the birdwatching fraternity! But I’ll live with that.

 

 

 

 

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.

Rotten borough, wonderful wildlife

I spent the last two days in Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. Dunwich and its surrounding countryside is a very interesting place from a political and natural history viewpoint. A paragraph about the political history first:

Until the Great Reform Act of 1832 Dunwich was classed as a ‘rotten borough‘, this was a parliamentary constituency with a very small number of voters for which the parliamentary seat could be bought and sold by wealthy patrons. Prior to 1286 Dunwich was the capital of East Anglia and a thriving sea port but in that year the first of several great tidal surges destroyed a large part of the town, sweeping it into the sea, reducing it to a small number of houses and therefore residents and voters. As a result of its earlier preeminence Dunwich had two parliamentary seats and despite it’s sudden demise retained these seats, with a very small number of voters, until the Great Reform Act was passed, (interestingly, it was his opposition to parliamentary reform which ended the premiership of the Duke of Wellington after he lost a vote of no confidence in November 1830). In the early 18th century the seat was held by Sir George Downing, 3rd baronet, whose grandfather (1st baronet) had built Downing Street in London. He was succeeded by his cousin, Sir Jacob Downing, who died childless and whose fortune was used to found Downing College, Cambridge, in 1800. An awful lot of history for a tiny village on the Suffolk coast.

Moving on to current natural history, the weather on the first day there was horrendous, rendering nature watching pretty much impossible. But on the second day the weather changed completely and was warm and sunny. The woods around the ruined friary were looking delightfully spring-like with snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) covering the ground.


Snowdrops growing in profusion amongst moss covered dead wood from fallen branches around Greyfriars at Dunwich.

A pair of goldcrests were very busy feeding in a bush at the edge of the wood which was good to see as they are not a common sight during my regular walks around Cambridge. Heading to the beach to the north of the Friary a pied wagtail (Motacilla alba)  was bathing in a puddle:

And a flight of four mute swans (Cygnus olor) flew by, heading south towards the lakes at Minsmere RSPB reserve:

Later in the morning a walk in Dunwich Forest was eerie. It started in a pine plantation which was all but silent, no birds were singing and there were few other signs of wildlife. Leaving the plantation behind I entered mixed woodland which was still quiet but  more diverse, with a mixture of predominantly pine and silver birch trees (Betula pendula). Birds were singing here but not in the profusion I’d hope for. Many of the pines were exuding aromatic sap:


Sap oozing from a wound in the bark of a pine tree. This stuff was extremely sticky but had a gorgeously delicate scent of pine resin.

The exudate was running down the trunks for several feet and in some cases from multiple places on their trunks, the aroma on a warm spring morning was lovely. A mixture of the earthy smell of well rotted compost and pine trees. Gorse bushes (Ulex europaea) were in flower here too, adding the scent of mild coconut into the mix.

Gorse bush in flower

The ground under the trees was littered with dead wood and moss and numerous fungi including puffballs, parasitic birch brackets growing on live trees and other brackets growing on dead branches, most of which defy identification by anyone who doesn’t possess the requisite expert knowledge. Which, alas,  includes myself.

After the forest I ventured to Dunwich Heath, parking by the lighthouse at the top of the cliff where gangs of black headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) were wheeling around the carpark and magpies (Pica pica) were bouncing along the ground around the cars scavenging scraps discarded by picnicers making the most of the glorious spring weather.


Black headed gull looking for leftover crumbs in the carpark at Dunwich Heath lighthouse…

… and a magpie using a signpost as a vantage point.

Leaving the carpark I headed down towards the reedbeds which I skirted for several hundred metres. The habitat here is varied with the reedbeds, scrub woodland, heath and waterways.


Looking east over reedbeds at the sourthern edge of Dunwich Heath between the heath and RSPB Minsmere, the sea is a thin grey line in the distance.

Consequently I was hoping to see a diverse range of wildlife. There was evidence that otters are in residence and sheets of corrugated iron had been placed on cropped bracken presumably to provide shelter for reptiles such as adders, grass snakes and lizards. The sun was shining and I was  sheltered from the wind so the conditions for a stroll were nigh on perfect for a February afternoon and plenty of birdlife was to be seen. Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) were hopping around the undergrowth and a flock of around 40 lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) passed overhead whilst numerous blue tits (Cyanistes caerulius), great tits (Parus major) and chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) were busy in the trees lining the path.


Cock chaffinch sitting high in a tree singing for a mate.

A single long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) also flew by and landed very close allowing me to take some photographs:


Long tailed tit providing a rare opportunity to take some close-up pictures.

The area around Dunwich is a great place to see all kinds of wildlife, the Dingle reedbeds running north to Walberswick are the largest in England and there are large areas of heath and woodland and the salt water lagoons at Minsmere to the south all providing a huge area of diverse habitat. It is also ideally located for migrants from mainland Europe in the winter.

And right in the middle is The Ship Inn where you can get a pint of Adnams  beer to slake the thirst after a days walking. Dunwich is very high on my list of favourite places to explore.