Tag Archives: reed bunting

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.

Buntings abound: 29th and 30th January 2011

This weekend my meanderings took me to the open fields Histon and Cottenham, an area I haven’t properly explored for quite a long time. As I set off early on Saturday morning the weather was murky and very cold and consequently I was feeling pessimistic about encountering the local wild creatures.

Fortunately I was mistaken. The wild creatures were there aplenty. Flocks of mixed gulls, rooks, Corvus frugilegus, (N.b. I’m planning to make a taxonomic index of Latin names for the species on an adjacent page so I can avoid writing them here), and in particular, wood pigeon, Columba palumbus. Wood pigeon can often be seen in flocks but on this occasion there were many flocks, the  largest containing thousands of individuals. They are a farmers curse as they can devastate fields of new shoots, hence the sound of shotgun fire punctuating my progress. My father told me stories of my grandmother being given wood pigeon during World War II – a valuable source of free meat – and when opened up the crops liteally exploded as they were stuffed completely full of fresh green shoots. Multiply that up by several thousand birds and the damage they can do to crops is obvious. Still, they’re impressive to watch in those kind of numbers.

My aforementioned pessimism was tempered by the sight of hazel trees, Corylus avellana, covered in catkins, the first suggestion of approaching Spring time.
Hazel saplings festooned with the first catkins of 2011 – Spring is imminent!

And indeed, a friend told me on Monday morning she had seen daffodils shooting in the village. So I reckon that makes it official. In the same hedgerow as the catkins – the Merlin Hedge – (click here for a sketch map of my walk route), were a flock of greenfinch, Carduelis chloris, and a small group of fieldfare, Turdus pilaris, feeding on the ground. The greenfinch were manic, chasing each other as a flock around the fields either side of the hedgerow.

Turning right at the end of the hedge heading past the Yellowhammer Hedge – which didn’t contain any yellowhammers, or indeed any other birdlife – a big fox, Vulpes vulpes, was standing in the middle of the field beyond watching me and the dog:


A fox taking a keen interest in what me and the dog were doing

The fox was around 300m away and the quality of the image gives a good idea of the murky grey weather condiitions. Doesn’t convey how cold it was though! This one has a distinctly grey coat and I’ve seen foxes in this area before with similar coloration, so it could be the same one or one of his offspring. He’s close to where foxes reared a litter of cubs last year so he could be one of that family.  After the excitement of seeing the fox, I was scanning the adjacent field for any other signs of life and spotted a second fox – it could have been the same one but he’d have had to move very fast to get to the second location. And as it disappeared through a hedge a group of three roe deer, Capreolus capreolus, entered the same field.


Roe deer bounding across a field – and a bird taking to the air somewhere between me and them

The dog spotted the deer as soon as I did and immediately pricked his ears up, he was around 25m away from me and in order to avoid any dog/deer interaction I called him and the deer instantly turned to look even though they were around 300m away. They have incredibly acute hearing.

Between us and the deer were a flock of skylark, Alauda arvensis, on the ground (it could be one of them taking off in the photograph). It was impossible to count them accurately as they were whizzing around at very high speed close to the ground where their camouflage rendered them almost invisible, but I estimate there were between 10 and 20.

I’d been hoping to see yellowhammer, Emberiza citrinella, and I’d spent some time peering at the Yellowhammer Hedge and the surrounding fields but without seeing many birds at all. Then as I approached the end of the hedgerow leading to the Owl Shed I could see a flock of small birds flitting between the hedge and the Fallow Field and they turned out to be a mixture of reed bunting, Emberiza schoeniclus, and yellowhammer:


Mixed group of reed bunting and yellowhammer


Female yellowhammer
…and a male of the species. What a glorious colour!

Both species were numerous and could be seen flying around the hedge all the way along to the Owl Shed and dropping down onto the ground to look for food and to hide from me.


Reed bunting male

Young male reed bunting

The remainder of my Saturday morning sojourn was not quite so lively but numerous fieldfare, redwing (Turdus iliaca), chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) and a kestrel (Falco tinunculus) were busy around the pig farm.

On Sunday 30th January the weather was brighter and more mild so I set off again towards the Owl Shed to try to get some more photographs. Despite the improved weather there was nowhere near the amount of wildlife around I’d seen the day before, although a hare (Lepus europaeus) appeared in the field where I first saw the fox. And fortunately the reed bunting and yellowhammer were still in the end of the hedgerow where I’d left them on Saturday, although not in the same numbers. So I got my pictures and then had to rush home to get off to my nephews 18th birthday party.

A very enjoyable weekend all round, and in particular the Emberiza species congregated in the Owl Shed Hedge.

Larus ridibundus – 23rd October 2010

There were several ornithological highlights to be enjoyed in the Histon fields this weekend. It looks as though autumn is here properly as the weather has turned more chilly, so for the last week or two I’ve been hoping to see some of our winter visitors arriving from the north and the east. It was an exciting day today because the first flock of the year of several hundred fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) duly appeared, flying low and fast from east to west. Alas, they didn’t stop, but it was great to see them arriving safely in numbers. I’m anxious to get some photographs of fieldfare so now I have my new 300mm zoom lens I’m hoping this winter will provide some opportunities to capture them on pixels. If I manage to get some good shots I’ll post them here as and when.

For the record, I’m an amateur wildlife photographer and I use all my own pictures to illustrate my posts. I use a Nikon D40x and a combination of lenses: Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens that came with my camera which I use for flowers, insects and landscapes, Nikkor 55-200mm zoom which I used as my default general purpose lens until a month ago when I acquired a Nikkor 70-300mm zoom lens which gives me that extra bit of reach. I don’t often sit in hides or wait for wildlife to come to me, I walk around and photograph anything I encounter which I think is interesting and photogenic. Which covers just about everything!

Back to ornithology, other good sightings this weekend have included corn bunting (Emberiza calandra) which is a real favourite of mine as they have a wonderfully distinctive call and they often sit proud  on top of hedges and let me take photographs from a distance of less than around 20 feet, and they’ll sit tight as long as I don’t make any sharp movements – even the dog running past doesn’t faze them.


Corn bunting

Other regulars this week have included yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus), long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus), goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), and skylark (Alauda arvensis). The latter are great to watch at the moment, on a sunny day they whizz around low and high chasing each other at incredibly high speed in groups of up to 5 or 6. Lone larks sing the characteristic skylark song up high, and plenty more can be seen on the ground feeding in ploughed fields, and disappearing into the scrub of unploughed fields where they don’t seem to stay for long before joining in another game of aerial tag.


Skylark

However, I’m digressing from my main theme of this weekend which is ‘Larus ridibundus’, or the black headed gull. Both yesterday and today (23rd and 24th October 2010) there have been a flock of 35-50 black headed gulls on the ground in two different, but adjacent, ploughed fields. I think it’s easy to dismiss gulls as not being very interesting but a closer inspection of a flock of gulls is a real treat. They are consummate aeronauts with beautiful plumage and are highly gregarious in winter. Consequently I’ve spent a sizeable chunk of this weekend enjoying watching them and trying to photograph them:


Adult black headed gull with brown face (this one was taken last summer at Seahouses in Northumberland – not Histon)

Adult black head in winter plumage – note the dark spot behind the eye and the red beak and legs (this and the rest of the gull pictures in this post were taken in Histon)


Note the white tail and forewing and the black tips of the first five primaries

Black headed gulls are fairly small as gulls go, around 35cm long and 100-110cm wingspan. They build nests on the ground on coastal and inland reedbeds and marshes, lay one clutch of 2-3 eggs per year and live on average for around 10-15 years. It is not an endangered species with approximately 1.5million pairs in Europe. (For a full set of facts and figures check out the BTO BirdFacts website (http://www.bto.org/birdfacts/), this site is excellent for comprehensive metrics datasets on all common UK birds). Black headed gulls are rather inaccurately named as they don’t have a black head at all. It is dark brown and only covers the front part of the face and is only present in summer when it serves as a form of aggression between rival males. They stand face to face to maximise the visible area of the dark mask to each other, but within a breeding pair aggression is minimised by displays involving turning the head to show the white nape to the partner. The dark hood recedes in winter to a small dark spot just behind the eye. Adults have a deep red bill and legs and pale grey back with a white tail and white outer edge of upper and lower wings formed by 4-5 primaries with black tips.


Juvenile diving in on an insect or worm. It has the dark tip to the tail, pale brown mottled upper wings and pale buff legs characteristic of an immature individual

Juveniles have mottled brown plumage with a dark tail tip and orangey-buff legs. They feed on worms, insects, seeds, waste and carrion, and can be seen on inland water, grassland and farmland aswell as on the coast during the winter.

I think they’re amazing to watch so next time you see a flock of gulls have a good look and appreciate the beauty of these creatures – you wont be disappointed!

Weekend field walks 9th and 10th October 2010

This Saturday (9th October,2010) I was lucky enough to be accompanied by my friend David on a long walk around the Histon countryside. David is a zoologist and knows considerably more about the wildlife than myself, consequently it was a terrific walk and something of an education.

We set off around 8.15am and the weather was mild but very grey with 100% low cloud cover. Very soon after entering the fields we heard a jay making alot of noise in some trees bordering gardens at the back of the main road.  As we passed a small sycamore tree a possible meadow pipit passed overhead and we heard a second flying past later on in our walk. Shortly after that a large flock of golden plover flew over at high speed and several groups varying in size from approximately 5-10 up to 70-80 were spotted in the air and on the ground in several other fields. Many evenings whilst walking at night last winter I heard birds on the ground making a short whistle consisting of a single  note and had no idea which species was responsible. Our golden plovers in the air were making exactly the same noise so the mystery of the night time whistlers was solved too. A kestrel and a sparrowhawk made solitary appearances and a peer into an old tumbledown barn revealed a little owl – a good day for birds of prey.

The mild damp conditions of late have been ideal for fungi. Gorgeous bright yellow heads of the yellow fieldcap mushroom (Bolbitius vitellinus) lined the walk, all at various stages of growth from recently sprouted, just a couple of centimeteres tall with very rounded unopened caps, to old and nibbled specimens around 10cm tall and the caps more dull in colour and 4-5cm in diameter:


Recently emerged yellow fieldcap mushrooms


Older yellow fieldcap


A cluster of four mature yellow fieldcaps

We also found a ‘substance’ which preliminary inspection suggested the most likely identity was dog vomit! It occurred every few paces for several hundered metres wrapped around grass stems – suggesting a very poorly dog. When it was gently disturbed at the edge it had a powdery consistency and blew away in the breeze like dry Ready Brek. It varied in colour from grey/white to pale buttery yellow, so we concluded it must have been some kind of mould:


Mucilago crustacea – a slime mould. This stuff can move slowly to new food. Only at a snails pace, but don’t stand still for too long!

Toward the end of our outing as we headed back to the village a small flock of gulls consisting of a lone herring gull, a black headed gull and around 30 lesser black backed gull were beautifully contrasted against the dark ground in a ploughed field. Despite the grey weather it was a great day for wildlife.

After the nature fest on Saturday followed by just one or two small drinks with some good friends in the evening, I contemplated a shorter stroll this morning to blow away the cobwebs. But the weather was absolutely glorious and the profusion of birdlife resulted in another whole morning spent in the countryside. I heard six green woodpecker, one of which was exiting an old oak tree at high speed having been flushed out by a buzzard. A second buzzard appeared over the farmhouse with a sparrowhawk shadowing it right overhead but at much greater height. The buzzard quartered the fields and then headed off south west over Histon:


The unmistakeable shape of a buzzard. I love watching
big birds of prey so seeing two buzzards in one walk
was very special

Despite the weather no swallows were around today, I saw small numbers (less than 10) on Saturday and Sunday last weekend but we’re now heading towards mid-October so the last stragglers must be heading for Africa.

Many songbirds put in an appearance today which has been an unusual event since the harvest got underway at the beginning of August. Two yellowhammer, two corn bunting, numerous reed bunting, dunnock, blue tit, robin and a pied wagtail were all spotted today.


A corn bunting on the right and a male reed bunting sitting together and as I watched a female reed bunting arrived. Marvellous!

Yellowhammer

I was particularly pleased to see the wagtail, it’s the first one I’ve seen in the fields this year, whereas last year they were on display almost every day. I hope that’s not a nationwide phenomenon.

A lone kestrel and two sparrowhawks were up and about today so another good day for birds of prey. Also as yesterday, many skylark were extremely active playing tag and because of the lovely weather they were singing up high. I managed to go one better with the pipits of yesterday as I watched one fly up out of a small bush when disturbed by me landing in another one about 30m away in full view. The local churchyard rooks were omnipresent, digging out invertebrates in most of the fields accompanied by countless wood pigeon and carrion crows.

It was difficult to choose a highlight from this weekend, but as I sat on a tractor trailer in the sunshine making some notes a common darter dragonfly buzzed past and settled on an old plough to sun itself. It’s late in the year for dragonflies so that was good to see.


Mature male common darter warming up in the morning sunshine sat on an old plough

I shall post again soon about our local birds and hopefully next time I shall have seen the first winter immigrants such as fieldfare and redwing. Fingers crossed.

Two wild walks at the end of September

This weekend of 25th-26th September was one of two halves – Saturday was mostly sunny, warm and bright if a little breezy, and Sunday was foul. Cold northerly wind, 100% low cloud cover and plenty of rain were the order of the day, so my two outings to the countryside were rather different. 

On Saturday I spent a couple of hours wandering around Milton Country Park which is a great place to see wildlife of all types. There were lots of mushroom species on open grassy areas and others in the leaf litter and some splendid brackets sprouting out of fallen trees. Many trees and bushes were providing support for enormous growths of old mans beard and brambles with tons of blackberries, so my fingers were purple when I got back to the car. 

 
Trees at Milton Country Park covered in old mans beard

My main aim this weekend was to photograph birds such as mute swans, coots, moorhen, mallard, canada geese and great crested grebe. All these were present in numbers this weekend so I got a chance to take lots of photo’s.  

Male mute swans are fiercely protective where cygnets are involved and this magnificent chap was reacting with alot of aggression toward another swan which got too close to his offspring. He chased it off at high speed, paddling so hard I could hear him moving through the water.

There were lots of people in the park so woodland birds were staying in the tops of the trees. Consequently I caught plenty of fleeting glimpses of small brown things flitting around up high but they were impossible to identify. At least by me!

 In direct contrast there were darter dragonflies everywhere, hunting low to the ground round the bottom of bushes. They were all keen not to land so I gave up trying to photograph them. 

Due to the foul weather on Sunday it wasn’t a particularly good day to see birds, but in the fields north of Histon the flock of around 200 rooks rooks which I call the Churchyard Posse were on the ground feeding and indulging in the kind of devilment that members of the crow family are famous for:  


Rooks – the Churchyard Posse – around 10% of it

 A small flock of around 25 lesser black backed gulls were mingling with the rooks along with hundreds of wood pigeon which seem to have had a good breeding season this year. Most of the fields have now been ploughed but in those with cover skylarks have returned after the harvest. In one small corner I counted ten rising out the scrub, chasing and wheeling at low level. Others were constantly rising up in small groups of two, three and four, apparently playing tag before disappearing rapidly into the grass again. The hedgerows were mostly silent and the only songbirds to be seen were reed bunting. Because of the poor light they were extremely difficult to photograph, so this picture is one I shot a couple of days before, she sat proud on top of the hedge and allowed me to approach to within 30 feet and capture a reasonable shot:    


Reed bunting in Histon

It’s now getting dark before I can get out walking in the countryside so until about March 2011 my meanderings will be mainly in the morning, but I’m looking forward to seeing our winter visitors such as redwing and fieldfare arriving in the next month or so.