Tag Archives: Pica pica

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.

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The balance of nature

At the end of May this year the BBC screened an episode of Countryfile in which John Craven interviewed a member of the scientific staff at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT). Taking things literally I’d assumed the this was a trust who’s aim was the conservation of game and wildlife. However, as the interview progressed I began to question this assumption as the discussion centred around a study to be carried out by the GWCT in which magpies were to be eradicated from a specified test area to assess the local effect on songbird populations. I don’t think that removal of a native species such as the magpie by trapping and killing them is an ethical way to study predator/prey relationships. But is it scientific?

The magpie – villain of the piece – apparently

The interviewee from the GWCT, Dr Jeremy Stoate, justified the cull on scientific grounds suggesting that increased predator numbers result in significant reductions of prey populations and the species they identified as being largely responsible was the magpie.

Magpies are bold, brassy, ubiquitous, and are generally percieved as being a tad raffish. They undoubtedly predate songbird nests, but I struggled to understand how this could justify slaughtering them. Numerous other species of bird and mammal such as sparrowhawk, kestrel, owls, great spotted woodpeckers, rats, stoats and probably the biggest killer of small birds, domestic cats, all predate songbirds and some raid nests to poach eggs and chicks.

So why was it only magpies that were to be exterminated?

The action was being justified on a scientific basis, and whilst I’m no ecologist, I am a scientist, and the whole thing seemed unscientific, so I decided to do a little research of my own on the subject. Interestingly, since I did my initial research in June, it appears that references to the study on the GWCT website have been taken down. At least, I couldn’t find any.

However, what I did find out was that the study was commissioned and financed by another ‘conservation’ organisation called Songbird Survival. Whilst I believe that GWCT do have a genuine interest in the countryside as a whole, the same cannot be said for Songbird Survival. It is a registered UK charity whose statement of activities on UK Charity Commission website is this:

THE PRINCIPAL OBJECTIVE OF THE CHARITY IS TO IMPROVE, PROTECT AND PRESERVE FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE PUBLIC THE POPULATION OF SONG AND OTHER SMALL BIRDS BY THE CONSERVATION AND RECREATION OF HABITATS, BY SUITABLE EDUCATION OF THE PUBLIC AND LOBBYING MP’S AND THE HOUSE OF LORDS, TO EFFECT CHANGES IN THE LAW WHERE WE FEEL IT IS NECESSARY.

However, the details on the Charity Commission website also list the trustees, and that makes interesting reading too…

LORD COKE, MR CLIVE PATRICK SHERWOOD, MR FRED VALENTINE INGRAMS, MR JOHN RICHARD PUGH, LORD MICHAEL RICHARD RANKEILLOUR, MR ROBERT JOHN MIDDLEDITCH, MR DAVID GRIFFITH, MR NICK FORDE, LORD JOHN HADDINGTON, MR HUGH VAN CUTSEM, MR COLIN STRANG STEEL

All of these trustees are big landowners, or relatives of landowners, some with shooting estates, and they all support hunting and shooting. Lord Coke is the owner of Holkham Hall in Norfolk and he and several of his gamekeepers have been prosecuted for killing birds of prey by shooting and poisoning. So I’m struggling to believe that these people really have the best interests of songbirds at heart when they are funding ‘scientific’ destruction of a single predator species which has been implicated in taking gamebirds. And via the titled gentlemen listed as trustees they would be ideally placed to carry out their stated aim of ‘lobbying MP’s and the House of Lords‘.

Back to the science though. I recently attended a lecture in which Dr Mike Toms of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) talked about garden birds and how gardens are becoming an increasingly important sanctuary for increasing numbers of songbirds, and therefore predators, such as magpies, great spotted woodpeckers and sparrowhawks. In the course of his lecture Dr Toms talked about the decrease in songbird numbers and how magpies were being blamed but said that magpie predation was not the cause of the decline in numbers but habitat destruction and current agricultural practices were the primary reasons. I emailed Dr Toms and he was kind enough to send me several links to published work by the BTO into bird predation. This list included this publication: ‘Population changes of avian predators and grey squirrels in England: is there evidence for an impact on avian prey populations? Journal of Applied Ecology 47: 244- 252‘ describing a collaborative study between the BTO, GWCT and the University of St Andrews in which the impact of 2 groups of predators, those which predate adult birds and fledglings and those which predate nests (including the magpie) were analysed for 29 prey populations. Quoting directly from this paper:

For 22 avian prey species, there is no evidence that increases in common avian predators and grey squirrels are associated with large-scale depression of prey abundance or population declines‘.

Then:

Unexpected was a large number of positive (my italics) associations between predators and prey, particularly for native avian nest predators, which largely exonerates these predators as driving declines in passerine numbers

And:

Analyses of large-scale and extensive national monitoring data provide little underlying evidence for large-scale impacts of widespread avian predators and grey squirrels on avian prey populations…

The paper also describes negative correlations between the remaining seven prey species and predator numbers, and accepts that some of these may be causally related. Although e.g. the relationship between sparrowhawk and tree sparrow is probably significant, that between buzzard and goldfinch almost certainly isn’t. However, in an email from Dr Toms to me he indicates that the GWCT study showed negative causal relations on  a local level but, crucially, not at a population level.

This last point is key to the argument. In a study of population dynamics, if conclusions are to be drawn about overall depletion of numbers in response to a specific influence small local studies cannot be extrapolated to enable conclusions for the population as a whole, and to do so is erroneous at best, misleading at worst.

Incidentally, I also found a publication on the website of Songbird Survival entitled ‘Detecting an impact of predation on bird populations depends on the methods used to assess the predators’, (Methods in Ecology and Evolution (2010),1,300-310, Nicoll M., Norris K.). This is an interesting paper because rather than analysing actual population data it investigates the methods used to analyse the data. And in the summary the last point recommends: ‘…the findings for studies which use opportunistic data, for a limited number of predator species, should be treated with caution and that future studies employ bespoke census techniques to monitor predator abundance for an appropriate suite of predators.’

This is interesting because it argues that the methods used to analyse opportunistic, observational data must be carefully optimised to ensure that conclusions drawn from the data adequately reflect the observations.

None of the publications suggest that slaughtering the predators is a rational scientific way to assess the negative impact on prey species. And I’m inclined to think that culling is poor science, particularly as the latest evidence suggests predator numbers don’t reflect negatively on songbird populations and in some instances there is actually a positive correlation between predator and prey, presumably because the predators remove the sick and the slow before they can add their DNA to the genepool.

I think the notion that predators destroy prey populations is bizarre because I was taught, and importantly, I believe it to be the case, that prey abundance determines predator numbers, not vice versa. If prey numbers decline then shortly afterwards so do predator numbers. Taking the reverse of this theory to it’s logical conclusion, if predator numbers determine prey numbers, all prey species would eventually become extinct and then the predators would also become extinct and the balance of nature which has prevailed for the last few billion years would be turned on its head. Which is absurd.

So population studies which are centred around the slaughter of predators seem to me to fly in the face of all current theory and are therefore morally indefensible aswell as being scientifically unsound, especially when commissioned and financed by such obvious vested interests as Songbird Survival.

Colourful Corvids

Rooks, crows and jackdaws are the most commonly seen and easily identified ‘crows’. They’re all black and they are widespread across the UK. But they’re not the only members of the crow or ‘Corvid‘ family. Ravens and choughs are also black members of the crow family, although the chough has bright red beak and legs, but both these species are fairly uncommon and seen mostly at or near the coast. There are two common and more colourful crows, the magpie (Pica pica, Dansk: husskade) and the jay (Garrulus glandarius, Dansk: skovskade).


Magpies can be seen everywhere, this one was in a tree opposite my garden

Magpies have an unfortunate reputation on two counts. They are considered to be inveterate thieves, having a particular fondness for shiny objects and they are generally reviled for their feeding habits during nesting of raiding other birds nests and predating the chicks. Of which more in another post. It seems to me they are handsome birds which are much maligned, they simply do what all wild creatures do, i.e. whatever is required to survive and propagate the species. While I watched this one I could hear several green woodpeckers (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) yaffling around the field and eventually one chased this magpie away from the top of the tree:


The woodpecker, bottom left, was extremely unhappy with the presence of the magpie and voiced it’s discontent with lots of shrieking as it flew aggressively into the tree

Jays are less frequently observed than magpies, predominantly dwelling in wooded areas in the countryside, but they are also seen in towns and villages where there are wooded areas. I’ve seen them along the Backs in Cambridge, and my friend who lives in a less wooded part of Cambridge has photographed them in his back garden. I encounter the occasional jay brightening up the day when I’m out walking around Histon, but last Sunday I had eight sightings, which is completely unprecedented. There were at least five individuals, one pair appeared together in the fields followed by a separate one a few seconds later, and another pair were busy burying acorns in the orchard opposite my garden. And they are spectacularly colourful, not at all what one might expect from a crow:


The splendid plumage of the jay!

Several jays and magpies came and went from this spot at the top of the tree in the space of a few minutes.


And when in flight the electric blue flash on the wing-bend opens up into a fan


As well as having an eye for sparkly trinkets jays are accomplished stashers and hoarders, and I’ve heard that a single jay can stash as many as 5000 acorns. They also show higher levels of intelligence whilst stashing, if they become aware they are being watched they will pretend to stash and then move away and hide their acorn somewhere else. I think that’s remarkable behaviour; moving away and hiding food elsewhere is one thing, but awareness of what another creatures intentions may be, and reacting to that by subterfuge suggests  a level of underdstanding and reasoning not commonly associated with creatures other than humans.


On the ground with an acorn in its beak looking for a suitable burial site, and checking its handywork :

As I watched this pair of jays at work, one of them put it’s acorn down and picked up a short stick, probably around 10cm long, and used it to make holes to bury the acorns in. So as well as the other tricks this jay used a tool to make bigger holes in the ground than it could manage with it’s beak in order to secrete its winter food supplies.

They’re remarkable birds, the Corvid family, and half an hour spent watching any crow species is entertaining and more than a little thought provoking.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Fen Drayton nature reserve

Before I tell you about my outing to Fen Drayton here’s a short update on the forest sell off. After denying they are backtracking, the Government has said they may reduce the amount of forest they are getting rid of. Plans to lose 15% of the 258,000 hectares of publicly owned forest are on hold whilst the government ‘re-examine the criteria‘ for the sale. I’m hoping this is government style smoke-and-mirror speak for ‘we’re deciding whether we should proceed at all‘. Time will tell. I think any reexamination is good news and maybe a sufficiently loud public outcry will force the powers that be to sit up and take notice of the vox populi on this issue, and maybe a few others too.

I didn’t manage a wildlife post last week, other events overtook me including the weather, which was blowing a gale at the weekend so I was struggling to see anything through binoculars and photography was completely out the question! So apologies for the omission. There were a few highlights from last weekend though: in a tree in the middle of a field behind Abbey Farm north of Histon I saw a pair of kestrels copulating – which is a fairly unusual sight but it’s good to know the local kestrel population should be increasing this year. Further round towards the Girton road was a big mixed flock of around 50 starling, a similar number of redwing and around 200 fieldfare feeding on the ground and as I was counting these a little egret passed over. I’d been told by a dog walker a couple of weeks ago there was one in that area but this was the first time I’d seen it for myself. Egrets are a comparatively recent addition to the fauna in the UK and they are slowly finding their way northwards in England. The first time I saw them was in the fish market in the middle of Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, so they have very exotic associations for me and it’s great to see them so close to home.

I set off fairly early in the morning yesterday with my friend to head for Fen Drayton nature reserve which lies between Cambridge and St Ives. It’s a former gravel pit consisting of twelve lakes and ponds which is currently managed by the RSPB. There is a big area of water here interspersed with grassland, scrub woodland, some older more established trees and plenty of reedbeds. So it has a diverse range of habitats that are managed for wildlife and is therefore a good place to see birds.


Far Fen lake showing the varies habitat at Fen Drayton

Despite raining on the way up the A14, by the time we got to the reserve the rain had stopped, leaving complete cloud cover, so the light was very grey as you can see from the landscape shot above. Otherwise the conditions were good: mild, gentle breeze and the occasional, albeit brief, moment of sunshine.

The omens were good too when on the way to Fen Drayton we saw a hare running across a field, and on the approach to the reserve three bullfinch including at least two males were flitting along the hedge just in front of the car. When we were getting out of the car in the car park we could here a cetti’s warbler singing and three green woodpeckers rose up off the ground in quick succession just in front of us.

As we stopped to look at a group of tufted duck on the small pond north of Holywell Lake a jay which we had watched fly across the field appeared in some dead trees on an island in the pond and started stripping big chunks of bark from the tree, possibly looking for food it had stashed there previously. Jays are amazingly good at stashing and are aware that their fellow jays do the same and so will keep a look out to see if they are being watched. If they see another jay paying attention to their activities they will pretend to stashe and then fly off and hide the swag somewhere else.


Four tufted duck – one female and three males on the pond north of Holywell Lake. Note the piercing yellow eyes and the crest

Tufted duck are resident on lakes and we also get migrants visiting in the winter when they stop over on rivers and estuaries too. They’re omnivores and feed by diving to the bottom to sift food from the mud. I think they’re handsome birds especially when they turn their yellow eye to look at you.

Constant companions throughout our walk were chaffinch and great tit. They were present in numbers in almost every tree or bush I looked in.


Chaffinch male in a tree singing for a mate

There were a plethora of other small birds including blue tit, wren, dunnock, robin, goldfinch and long tailed tit. On a bright day it’s now a good time of year to look for and photograph birds because they are actively seeking mates and there are no leaves on the trees to conceal them.


One of a flock of around 7 long tailed tits whizzing through the trees – they’re fiendishly difficult to photograph like that so this is as good as it got!

There was almost a full house of the five common crows – jay, carrion crow, rook – but no jackdaw. There were quite a few magpies though:


This chap was bouncing around the car park

Coot abounded on all the lakes but the stars of the day were the ducks of which there were many species including our common or garden mallard, shoveller, tufted duck, gadwall and wigeon…


A single male wigeon on Oxholme Lake

… but the real star of the show was the goldeneye. There were displaying male goldeneye on Far Fen Lake but alas they were much too far away to get a photograph. They are also resident breeders with migrants arriving in the winter months too.

Mute swan were present on several of the lakes and a couple came over in flight too:


The A380 of the avian world…

And as with all good nature reserves the wildlife wasn’t solely ornithological. This beautiful little fungus was on a stem next to the path.


Dacrymyces chrysospermum – unfortunately I couldn’t find a common name for this resupinate fungus but its sumptuous colour against the green lichen on the tree stem is striking.

All in all Fen Drayton was a great venue for a Saturday morning wildlife adventure and I’ll be posting from here again before too long.

9th January birdwalk

The weather on the 9th was dominated by two features: bright warm sunshine and a biting northerly wind. They were combining to make some brisk but very pleasant walking weather so I spent the morning exploring Guns Lane and fields north of Histon. Rowleys Meadow was very quiet, apart from the occasional blue tit (Cyanistes caerulius) or wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) and numerous unidentified gulls gliding over. Unusually, the only interesting sightings were a song thrush (Turdus philomelus), a pair of magpie (Pica pica) and a flock of hundreds of fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) which drifted over the field east of the Meadow – none of which were close enough to photograph.

Not long after emerging from the Meadow and turning  north up Guns Lane the situation changed dramatically and the hedges were full of birdlife.  Blue tit and great tit (Parus major) were busy looking for food and a pair of bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) emerged from the hedge heading northward just as a small flock of approximately 15 fieldfare descended into a tree  in front of me, remaining in situ until I was directly underneath, in pole position for some photographs:

A pair of fieldfare, and…

…a single one

Shortly after taking these pictures and moving on, a second pair of bullfinch rose  out of the hedge. They may have been the same ones as earlier, but I’ve seen bullfinch here on numerous occasions lately so I’m hoping there are more than one pair in residence.

Having turned off the Lane and walked along the south side of a mature hedge containing some big old oak (Quercus robur) and ash (Fraxinus excelsior)  trees, I was admiring the perfect symmetry of a woodpecker hole around 5m up an oak tree when I noticed an insect emerge from it. It turned out to be a honeybee (Apis mellifera):


A lone honeybee entering a woodpecker hole casting its shadow on the threshold

And several more toing and froing in the sunshine. I love the texture and colours of this gnarled old oak tree

I was surprised to see so much honeybee activity on a freezing cold January morning. The south facing hedgerow was sheltered from the wind and  I think the bright sunshine had warmed up the tree sufficiently to waken the bees from their winter slumber. I was hoping they had sufficient stocks of honey to fuel them through their brief awakening before the cold forced them back into hibernation.

I carried on around the field looping back to Cottenham Road in Histon. The terrain on this route included alot of grassy scrub with patches of brambles and other low arboreal scrub consisting predominantly of hawthorn. A green woodpecker (Picus viridis) rose out the grass and dipped over the field to take cover in a tree and a group of five yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), which had been feeding on the ground, rose up and headed into another old oak tree which I’d passed by a couple of hundred metres back.  As I about-turned to try to get a photo they upped sticks and returned to their original location on the ground where, where their amazing camouflage rendered them completely invisible even from a distance of about 5m, As I approached so close they again flew into the same old tree and as their place on the ground and the tree were a fair distance apart I  decided not to disturb them again.

The landscape here looked as though it will be rich with birdlife in the Spring and Autumn so I’ll hopefully report more sightings as the year progresses