Tag Archives: rook

The way it should be

My last post showed some random weather at the end of March and in this one all the photographs were taken during the following weekend when the weather was rather more in keeping with the season, the way it should be.

Another of the great British bird of prey success stories over the last two decades has been the resurgence of the buzzard (Buteo buteo, Dansk: musvåge). Up until the mid 1990’s I’d only seen buzzards on summer holidays in Denmark and the occasional sighting on the western periphery of the UK, in south Wales or in Cornwall. But then I noticed they were creeping further eastwards up the M5, year by year, and now they can be seen all over England, and it’s not at all surprising to see them over my garden. I think a major contributory factor to the increase in raptor populations has been the ban on the use of DDT.


A buzzard soaring over the farmland on the edge of Histon.

DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane…

…was originally extremely effective in the control of insects but is very persistent in the biosphere, and because of its chemical properties it accumulates in the fatty tissues of apex predators such as raptors. The toxic effect was to cause thinning of the eggshells which would break before the chicks were ready to emerge. The consequences were devastating for many species inclusing sparrowhawks in the UK as well as peregrine falcons and bald eagles in the USA. The systematic use of DDT has been outlawed for many years  now, although restricted localised use for the control of malaria is still sanctioned, but here in the UK the long term benefit of the ban has been dramatic with these magnificent birds once again a relatively common site in our skies.

Other birds species were making the most of the change in the weather at the start of April too, including this female reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv):

Reed buntings have been a common site in the fields to the north of Histon since the weather has warmed up and the males with their black and white heads cling to the top of wheat stems proclaiming their availability. The females are more reclusive but can often be seen perched in bushes

A less common visitor to the fields is the golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria, Dansk, hjejle). I love to see the plovers, because when they do arrive they come mob handed, and on this occasion there was a flock of approximately 500 birds which looped round at high speed in extended skeins which was great to watch!


Skeins of golden plovers

Golden plovers are amber listed in the UK but not of concern in Europe so I hope that means that the overall population is stable and we continue to see them over the UK. An amusing little factoid about the golden plover which I’ve unashamedly borrowed from the British Trust for Ornithology is that a question about the flight speed of the golden plover raised by a member of a shoot in Wexford, Ireland, prompted Sir Hugh Beaver to found the Guinness Book of Records in 1955.  And if you’re keen to know, the speed of the golden plover is around 60mph (100kmph).

The rook, Corvus frugilegus, Dansk: sibirisk allike

All the photographs in this post were taken during a walk in the fields adjacent to my home the weekend after the snow, except the rook. This miscreant had lifted the fatball feeder from the branch in the crab apple tree and dropped it to the floor where it commenced to single handedly empty it. But as it posed for several portraits in the process I reasoned that it earned it’s fill. I like crows and especially the rooks, they seem to have a sense of devilment akin to a childs… if not even a tad more sophisticated. Through history though, alas not everyone had such a benign attitude to the rook (and just about every other creature!), which you can read about here.

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!

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.

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.

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 sika deer, Cervus nippon, entered the same field.


Sika 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. Sika deer are not native but were introduced into the UK from Japan, as their Latin name suggests, in the 19th century.

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.

Winter garden birds

The prevailing weather conditions have made me ponder what this post should be about, but a glance out the window made it immediately obvious that the numerous bird species in and around my garden would be a perfect subject. As I’ve mentioned previously, I feed the birds through the winter and as this one has been particularly prolonged and cold, and it’s still only Christmas time, my hanging and ground feeders have been kept topped up with mixed seed, niger seed, peanuts, sultanas and fat balls. There are numerous wild bird food suppliers out there and the one I prefer to use is Vine House Farm in Lincolnshire. The quality of the feed is always good and they take a proactive approach to managing their farm to encourage wildlife. Consequently the food isn’t always the cheapest but I’m happy to pay a little extra to support them.

The variety and numbers of birds visiting the gardens in my vicinity has been remarkable. Within the last week there have been numerous tits – blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), great tit (Parus major), coal tit (Periparus ater) and long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus).


Great tit male eyeing up a meal of seed on a bitterly cold morning

Long tailed tits usually appear over the space of 30 seconds or so, gorge on the fat balls and as rapidly disappear into a nearby tree. Coal tits appear on their own, take a seed and sit in the buddleia bush whilst they shell the seed and eat the contents and then usually fly away.  They occasionally stay for more than one seed, but not often. Blue tit and great tit behave quite differently, they are omnipresent and there can be up to 3 or 4 visiting  at any one time. Great tits are usually fairly nervous, they take a seed and sit at the back of the buddleia making maximum possible use of the available cover. Blue tits are much less neurotic and whereas they will take a seed and fly off to eat it, they sit in much more exposed locations. They are also happy to take on the resident robin (Erithacus rubecula). He’s a feisty little chap and he takes up position on a plant pot on the edge of the undergrowth and chases off all the other snall birds from his patch, particularly dunnock.

The resident robin guarding his territory on the flat feeder

The robin also stands on the flat feeder repelling all comers, but the blue tits have devised a technique to deal with this. They hang upside down on the edge of the feeder while the robin is on top and then flip over the top, grab a seed, and vacate quick-sharp to the buddleia bush giving the robin no time to attack.

Finches have also been conspicuous, up to half a dozen chaffinch are omnipresent in both front and rear gardens feeding on the ground. Before replenishing the flat feeder I sprinkle the remaining seed on the grass and under adjacent shrubs for chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), dunnock (Prunella modularis), robin, wood pigeon (Columba palombus) and collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto) to graze on. There are always several chaffinch of both genders brightening things up:

Cock chaffinch resplendent in the freezing rime

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) show up every day to feed on niger seed and in the last couple of days an immature greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) has appeared. Other regular visitors include blackbird (Turdus merula), dunnock, collared dove and wood pigeon which feed either on the ground or on the flat feeder and starling (Sturnus vulgaris) which gorge on the fat balls along with blue tit and long tailed tit. Less frequent visitors include wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), rook (Corvis frugilegus), carrion crow (Corvus corone), magpie (Pica pica) and pied wagtail (Motacilla alba).


Pied wagtail visiting during the coldest, snowiest, part of the recent cold snap

On several days over Christmas a flock of gulls consisting predominantly of black headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) has been swooping low over my front garden and the lawns on the other side of the road. I don’t know what’s attracting them but they’re a welcome addition to the roll of birds visiting my garden.


Black headed gull in winter plumage perched on a telegraph pole on Cottenham Road

As well as our resident birds there are lots of Scandin-avian visitors too. Opposite my house is an orchard-garden with lots of fruit trees and taller trees immediately adjacent. Since Christmas Day have been full of redwing (Turdus iliacus) and fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). It’s entertaining to watch when the fieldfare flock are feeding on fruit on the ground and someone walks along the pavement, within a couple of seconds the whole place comes alive with hundreds of birds heading for the perceived security of the taller trees.


Fieldfare heading to the orchard floor for a fruit feast

Redwing are feeding on the bright red berries of an enormous bush whose identity is unknown to me. There are many tens of them and they have been in situ for the last three days in such numbers. The pale face stripes and red patch around the leading edge of the wing are very pronounced and distinguish them from the songthrush which is similarly sized but lacks the stripes and the red patch:


Redwing – one of the sizeable flock surviving the winter in the garden opposite mine

And the other Scandinavian visitor which has descended on the UK in large numbers this winter due to the particularly dreadful weather in Norway is the waxwing. I posted on waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) a few weeks ago after seeing them for the first time in Brimley Road, Cambridge. There have been several reports of waxwing sightings in Histon on the Cambridge Bird Club ‘What’s about’ blog in the last couple of weeks but despite keeping a look out I hadn’t seen any  myself… until yesterday. I took a walk to Narrow Close in Histon with my daughter, Sophie, where we found three waxwing in the top of a tree which were feeding on haw berries. We positioned ourselves behind a road sign and watched them for half an hour flitting between the top of the tree on one side of the road and a hawthorn hedge on the other:


Waxwing sitting in a hawthorn hedge

I think waxwing are absolutely exquisite and I’m immensely pleased they have descended on Histon, within a couple of hundred meters of my house. I planted a rowan tree in my garden three years ago to try to attract winter visitors such as waxwing but after a year or two of weak flowering and fruiting it keeled over and died. I don’t know why it failed but after a succession of very cold winters culminating in a ‘waxwing winter‘ the thought they could potentially visit is making me think I should try again. I took another walk to Narrow Close early this morning where there were 8 waxwing feeding on haw berries in adjacent hedgerows.


Another waxwing harvesting haw berries

A green woodpecker (Picus viridis), sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and grey heron (Ardea cinerea) have also passed overhead in the last two weeks. The best thing about the wintry weather is the abundance of wildlife that can be seen by simply putting food out on a regular basis. Most of the photographs in this post were taken in my back garden, and all of them are within 200m of home.

Rookes, Crowes and Choughes

‘If men had wings and black feathers, few of them would ever be clever enough to be crows’

Henry Ward Beecher
Clergyman, wit and abolitionist

I’m incarcerated at home at the moment, having been laid low with a seasonal Yuletide dose of coughing and spluttering so I haven’t been out observing, photographing and recording. Consequently, this is an ‘armchair post’ using old photographs, and constructed in the warmth of my dining room.

It has been inspired by the superb book ‘Corvus‘ by Esther Woolfson which describes living with many different birds including a rook and a magpie. If you haven’t yet read ‘Corvus‘, insist on a copy as a stocking filler this Christmas. It’s a beautiful book and is beautifully observed and written, one of the best nature books I’ve ever read. It’s very informative, funny and thought provoking and has led me to ponder the enduring relationship between humans and our wild creatures.

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) sitting on a fence at the top of one of Bempton Cliffs in East Yorkshire

The title of this post ‘Rookes, Crowes and Choughes‘ uses archaic (Tudor) names for three of the Corvids (crow family), ‘choughs’ at that time also included jackdaws, as used in one of the most unpleasant pieces of legislation this country ever promulgated, viz, ‘Destruction of Crows, etc. Act 1532’. This act was passed under Henry VIII and was extended under the reign of Elizabeth I with promulgation of the ‘Preservation of grain Act, 1566’. Together known as the ‘Vermin Acts’, they established a legal framework for the destruction of animals and birds of all descriptions which were deemed a threat to food supplies:

‘…to doo and cause to be don as moche as hym or theym reasonably shall or may be to kill and utterly destroye all manner of Choughs, Crowes and Rookes comyng, abyding, bedying or hauntying (their property) upon peyne of grevous amerciaments to be levied by distress of the goodes and catalles of the Offendours.’

Landowners and workers were thereby legally compelled to actively destroy corvids and communities could be fined up to 20 shillings for failing to meet every year with the court appointed functionary to agree methods to achieve this goal. Along with corvids; kingfisher (believe it or not!) dipper, woodpecker, shag, hedgehog, mole, polecat, fox, rat, badger, weasel, stoat, otter, wild cat and pine marten were all slated for destruction. Kites and ravens fetched remuneration of one penny, a badger or fox, 1 shilling, on presentation of a head as proof of its demise. There was therefore a real financial gain to be made by killing these creatures. (It’s interesting to note how many of the proscribed species are currently the subject of protection legislation and conservation programs.)

Henry VIII didn’t stop there, he also passed the ‘Sumptuary Law’ of 1510, to be updated several times under Elizabeth I and known collectively as ‘The Statutes of Apparel’, which governed what could be worn by which social strata thus establishing a dress code regarding furs. Royalty could wear ermine and substrata of nobility could wear fox, otter etc… . Open season was thus declared on all furry animals.

However, and it is a big however, it is very easy to sit in the comfort of our centrally heated houses with our cars and our convenience stores, and pass glib judgement on people of those times. In the 16th century many harvests failed, early death from disease was a ubiquitous presence in the lives of all people, rich and poor, and one way to stave off such a fate was to eat healthily. Anything which threatened the food supply was therefore deemed vermin to be exterminated.

Religious factors also played a part, e.g. the otter’s diet was predominantly fish so their flesh was deemed by the church to be sufficiently fishy to be eaten for religious reasons instead of fish. God help the otter.

Carrion crow (Corvus corone) foraging for insects

The Vermin Acts were repealed in the mid 18th century but the practices they enforced only started to abate in the early to mid 20th century. That reflects a blood lust in humans which is anachronistic and indicative of a deeply unpleasant side of human nature that in our more enlightened times one may hope would find an outlet in other, more civilised, pursuits. So it is infinitely less problematic to pass judgement on the contemporary activities of hare coursers, badger baiters, egg collectors and misguided land stewards who still trap, poison and shoot red kites… or hen harriers etc., etc..

Back to crows, I have never subscribed to the point of view that members of the crow family are malevolent, wantonly destructive, or the harbingers of doom, as popular culture has historically portrayed them.  And they certainly didn’t merit the attempts at wholesale extermination decreed for them in Tudor times.

I have often watched a couple of hundred rooks assemble in the mornings over Histon church amidst much cawing and general hubbub prior to disappearing en masse either as one, or in several smaller groups to feed in the local fields. I’ve also watched them wheeling in the air, playing tag, and indulging in what can best be described as pure devilment with their fellows and with other species of birds. They seem to possess a keen intelligence probably essential for a creature which lives socially in very close proximity to hundreds of others. The habit of all members of the corvid clan of caching food items, and then re-caching an item if they know they were watched first time round, indicates they have self awareness, awareness of others and coherent notions of the intent of others, and the ability to plan accordingly. And of course a very impressive memory.


Some of the Histon churchyard rooks (Corvus fruglilegus) taking to the air over a field to the north of Histon…
…and a single member of the mob on the ground looking for leatherjackets

It has also been demonstrated from a neuroanatomical standpoint that corvids have a high ‘encephalisation quotient’ – ratio of brain to body size – which renders them capable of higher levels of brain activity and I think that is adequately demonstrated by just watching them for a short time – 10 minutes observation has been enough to convince me on some occasions. ‘Bird brains’ they certainly aren’t!

The key point, it seems to me, is that scientific elucidation of relative intelligence levels between species is a somewhat redundant enterprise in many ways except than as part of an effort to change human perception, and hopefully educate people that random massacre of wild animals is not acceptable. I find it bizarre and shameful that it has ever been considered a reasonable occupation by humans to slaughter billions of animals for no particularly good reason. It is incumbent on all species to share our surroundings with each other in order to maintain a functioning and healthy place which we can justly claim to have managed in a sustainable way.

Blimey, there we are. Nothing like a dose of flu to catalyse a bit of pre-Christmas moralising. But I think if everyone were to read Esther Woolfsons ‘Corvus‘ it may impart a deeper understanding and respect for our fellow creatures in many more people. I think attitudes to other creatures are changing as the enormous amount of available information is accessed by people all over the world, but preserving wildlife will be a perpetual process as wildlife is squeezed into smaller and smaller pockets of true wilderness. I hope we can find a working balance.

 

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.