Tag Archives: rørspurv

Wicken wheatears.. and some other creatures

The blogging Muse left me in the Spring and I switched to acquisition mode, since when I’ve been out and about taking a lot of photographs. I’ve now got enough images to keep me posting until the end of the year  so I’ve reverted to posting mode and at the same time I’ll be catching up with all my fellow bloggers who I’ve been neglecting for too long!

At the end of April the sunny weather prompted me to take an early morning walk around Wicken Fen. At that time of year fairly large areas of flat pasture immediately adjacent to the fen are flooded and provide habitat for overwintering waterfowl, along with all the other winter visitors and early spring migrants to be found on the Fen. So in good weather at that time of year there’s usually plenty of wildlife. The pasture which isn’t flooded is managed by grazing it with Highland cattle:

The Wicken Highland bull

I’m no expert on cattle so I don’t know for sure, but because this old guy was on his own and also because of the sheer size of him, I think that he’s a bull (and he didn’t stand up to allow unambiguous gender assignment by an amateur observer). He was absolutely enormous, even laying down I estimate the top of his head was around 5 feet off the ground, he was the size of a car!

Back to the birds though, one which I’ve only seen at reserves on the coast before is the bearded tit (Panurus biarmicus, Dansk: skægmejse), but on this particular morning there was at least two of them flitting around the reed beds between The Mere and Adventurers Fen.

Female bearded tit

I’m yet to get a really good photograph of a bearded tit and this one continues the tradition. It would have been OK but it is too blue because I didn’t have my glasses on when I set the white balance, so I mistook the ‘sun’ setting for the ‘incandescent light’ setting. Alas, an unavoidable consequence of hurtling into middle age! I tried to post process the image but alas I couldn’t get it to look quite right so I decided to leave it as it is and own up to my incompetence!

The bearded tit is a resident breeder and passage/winter visitor and there are only around 600 breeding pairs in the UK, so it’s good to know they are just up the road from where I live. Their conservation status is amber in the UK due to a recent decline in their breeding range but they are not a species of concern in Europe as a whole. They live and breed in reedbeds and feed on invertebrates in the summer and seed in winter.

Another iconic inhabitant of the Wicken reedbeds is the marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg). The colour of the sky reveals the weather on this glorious April morning as a male marsh harrier thermalled overhead. He was in the company of eight others, and that’s an amazing sight.

A marsh harrier gaining height as the earth warmed up in the early morning sunshine

The marsh harrier frequents reedbeds and marshland and feeds on frogs, insects, reptiles and small vertebrates. Its conservation status is amber in the UK due to its small non-breeding population and a localised breeding population, but as with the bearded tit its not a species of concern in Europe. It almost died out in the UK in the 1960’s but has recovered since then and has changed its behaviour by starting to also nest on farmland, and many individuals now overwinter here too. Those that migrate head down to central and southern Africa for the winter. Another recent raptor success story along with sparrowhawks and red kites, but still a work in porogress to secure the UK population.

Male reed bunting

Small songbirds such as the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv) were busy proclaiming their availability from the tops of the hedgerows, but the highlight of the trip was a small group of around half a dozen wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe, Dansk: stenpikker) feeding in a field adjacent to the Fen as I arrived:

Male wheatear – rear view

The name ‘wheatear’ may derive from the archaic ‘white arse’ which is a local name for it in some parts of England. It’s a migrant breeder in the UK and overwinters in Africa. After the last ice age its range extended northwards with the retreating ice, but they still all migrate back to Africa in the winter, even those individuals that breed in Alaska!

… and from the front

The female is also a striking bird even though she doesn’t have the same slate grey back and black eye stripe that the male does.

The female wheatear

I watched the wheatears for 20 minutes or so before heading on to the Fen and when I returned around 3 hours later they had all gone. So it appears it was an overnight rest and refuelling stop for them before heading further north and west to their summer breeding grounds.

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Cowslips and corn buntings

When spring sprung this year it sprung in style and it was quite glorious. At that time of year the migrants return from distant lands and recolonise the countryside.

One bird that also returns to the farmland around Histon, but from closer to home, is the corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke). The corn bunting is a resident breeder in the UK, but as with most other species local to me it disappears from the fields round here as soon as the harvest begins, usually during the first week in August, not to return until March or April.

Male corn bunting taking flight from the top of the hawthorn blossom

The corn bunting is a lovely creature which is very distinctive when you know it. From a disatnce it looks like another random little brown bird, but it sits atop the wheat stems and the hedgerows calling and the call can be heard from many metres away. And like most little brown guys, when you see them close up they don’t appear quite so uninteresting.

A few months ago I got involved with a group of local people here who were working to prevent the development of this farmland for housing by our local council. The council said they had done an environmental survey and they provided us with a copy. It was an interesting insight into how these people work. The survey was commisioned by the agent the council had employed to manage the development (conflict of interest?), and it was undertaken the week after the harvest. The  conclusion in the survey was that there would be little or no damage to the local environment and no red listed or BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) species would be affected. But I know from my recordings over the last five years that virtually all the wildlife – birds, mammals and insects – disappears as soon as the harvest starts. But my records, which I made available to the council,  also show that I have recorded 74 bird species there of which no less than 13 are red listed! Including the humble corn bunting.

The plan to develop the land was subsequently rejected and I hope my data played a part in the decision making process.

All the pictures in this post were taken on a sunny Sunday aftenoon at the end of April and another handsome bunting which frequents the drainage ditches and the hedgerows and was much in evidence was the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv).

Male reed bunting resplendent in his black cap and moustaches

Whilst the buntings, finches and other small passerines were announcing their availability from the top of the undergrowth a buzzard patrolled the skies above looking for prey:

Buzzard, Buteo buteo, (Dansk: musvåge)

And one of my favourite harbingers of fair weather to come is the cowslip:

Cowslip, Primula veris

Cowslip flowers were picked in the not too distant past to make wine with, but as it is no longer common this practise has waned. Despite that, the seed is now included in commercial wild seed mix and the cowslip can be seen in large numbers on seeded motorway verges. This one is not one of those though, it is one of thousands lining a drainage ditch on a farm in Histon.

A carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) was perched precariously on top of the hedge along the cowslip ditch and a hare was also close by and watching intently to make sure the dog kept a safe distance! The local hares seem fairly relaxed about the dog even though he’s a lurcher and can still move pretty rapidly. May be they can see that he’s too old to pose a real threat.

European or brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

This year seems to have been good for hares and I see them in many of the local fields in good numbers almost every time I venture there. There are also plenty of rabbits, but the hares are easily distinguished by their size, they are much bigger than rabbits, and the hares have very long ears with distinctive black tips which the rabbits don’t.

This was my first real sunny warm outing of the year and it gave me a good feeling that this year may turn out to be a good one for wildlife. And generally it’s living up to its billing. So far…

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.

Wee brown birdies

In the brief intervals between howling gales and torrential rain in these parts we’ve had the occasional glimpse of sunshine, and in those moments I’ve managed to grab a few pictures of some small birds; those little ones that look small and brown at a distance and can defy attempts at identification.

I’ve been a little concerned at the small numbers of certain migrants which have returned to my local patch, in particular blackcap, yellow wagtail and whitethroat.


Common whitethroat – Sylvia communis, one of the few to return to the Meadow in 2012

Last year at this time I would expect to see 5-10 whitethroat during a circumnavigation of the Meadow but this year I hadn’t seen any until I spotted this one and his mate, last week, bringing food to the nest. I also found another pair which I think are nesting in a tree on the other side of the track to this pair, but I’m yet to confirm that. And I still haven’t seen a single blackcap or yellow wagtail in 2012. Hopefully they made a successful migration back here and are just elsewhere, but I do miss ’em, they liven up my walks with the dog.


Chiffchaff – Phylloscopus collybita

A wandering warbler which has returned in numbers is the chiffchaff, and I hear them singing almost everywhere I go. This one was in a field here in Histon, and let me get close enough to take this picture, which is my favourite chiffchaff shot.

The rest of the birds in this posts are not migrants in the UK and I see them all year round. The yellowhammer is a bunting that has a very distinctive song, described in numerous field guides as ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheese‘. Which is a very good example of the pitfalls of trying to over-interpret birdsong! I was with my daughter when we saw (and heard) this one calling, and after telling her about the ‘little-bit-of-bread…’ thing we spent the rest of the walk thinking up alternatives. My favourite was ‘I’m-going-down-the-pub-for-a-beer‘.

Yellowhammers – Emberiza citrinella

I was particularly pleased with the second yellowhammer picture because I like the out-of-focus foliage surrounding the focussed bird. I recently upgraded my DSLR to one with more sophisticated focussing capabilities than my ageing Nikon D40x, which all my pictures up to now have been taken with. And one of the main reasons was so I could focus more quickly on small birds in bushes, such as this one, where the foliage was moving around in the breeze causing the camera to struggle to find focus. This picture was taken with my D40x and I was surprised by how well it turned out, so maybe I’d have delayed upgrading if I’d captured this image first!


Reed bunting – Emberiza schoeniclus

Reed buntings are present in the local fields and hedgerows all year round and this little chap, for he is indeed a male, was singing long and loud perched on the top of the rape flowers. A circuit around this field is an ornothological treat, on one lap I’d expect to see several reed buntings, at least one or two corn bunting, lots of skylark and occasionally linnet and goldfinch. And on Saturday (9th June) there were two bullfinch, an adult male, resplendent in his black cap and peach breast, and a male youngster, the same colours but a tad smaller and with more muted colours, perched in a tree together on the edge of the field.


Dunnock – Prunella modularis

And my favourite little brown bird is the dunnock, which are also here all year round, and in the winter are regular visitors to my garden. These two were transporting food to the youngsters in the nest in the midst of a bramble thicket. Fortunately, despite the low numbers of migrants in my locality there are still enough birds around to liven up a walk in the countryside.

The North Fields

If you’ve been reading my recent posts you’ll know they’ve mainly been from the part of my village (Histon, Cambridgeshire) called Rowleys Meadow. I have two routes out of the village, the Meadow and what I call the North Fields, and the terrain is very different. The Meadow isn’t farmed and has many hedges, thickets and trees and is therefore better for birds in the Winter because it has a much higher density of numbers and species. But now it’s officially Spring, after the Equinox on March 20th/21st, I decided to visit the North Fields which are all under the plough. I’ve been over there on a few evenings at dusk and after dark in the last few weeks and heard golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria, Dansk: hjejle) and skylark on the ground but I haven’t been over there in daytime for a while.

The main reason I headed over there was because I wanted to find out if the large numbers of linnet and corn bunting which disappear from the fields every year at harvest time had returned. My first impression on entering the fields was that I should have gone to the Meadow, there was virtually no movement of any kind, but I stuck to my guns and that turned out to be a good decision. I didn’t expect to see corn bunting, which are becoming increasingly scarce on our farms, yet, but I had only gone half a mile or so before I heard the unmistakeable sound of a male calling. I heard him long before I saw him but I knew where he would be perched from where his song was coming from, it is a favourite perch all the time they are in residence:

Corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke) sitting in a favourite place and singing loud

It’s not the best picture of a corn bunting because the sun was still low in the sky directly behind with a thin layer of high white cloud inbetween. Consequently it was impossible to get anything other than a silhouettte without overexposing the shot, so that’s what I did so his colors can be seen. He wasn’t the only one I saw, there were three altogether, so I hope there’ll be a good few more in the next few weeks.

Another bunting which put in an appearance was a male reed bunting. There were several of these too, and just along the ditch from here was a flock of between 10-20 yellowhammers alternating between a hedgerow and the ground where they were feeding.


Reed bunting male (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv)

I didn’t go close enough to photograph the yellowhammers because I didn’t want to disturb them. Well, partly that, but also because I’d been distracted by a pair of hares (Lepus europaeus) chasing each other around in the long grass:

I couldn’t get close enough to get a picture of the whole hare, they were too wary of me and the dog, who’s a lurcher, so their timidity was well justified! But I like the way their ears poked up above the grass with the characteristic black tips.


Skylark waiting on the ground between high speed aerial duels with other larks

The other bird which was present in large numbers was the skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke). I stopped counting when I got to 30, and I wasn’t yet half way around my walk. They were on the ground, up high singing the amazing song that is is so much part of a British summer, and chasing each other around just above the ground at high speed in groups of up to around half a dozen.

I saw a TV show some years ago in which skylark song had been hugely slowed down and deconstructed, and they claimed the music of some classical composers (including I think, Beethoven) was based on the same structure. I was left sceptical, not least because Ludwig V was deaf and may therefore have struggled to analyse skylark song. But even so, it was fascinating!


Low level dogfight


High level chase

And singing his heart out

One of my other fascinations is etymology. I think that may originate from speaking two languages, and the first one I spoke, Danish, is one of the precursors of the current one, English, so a large number of English words have their derivation in Danish thanks to our Viking invaders all those centuries ago. The expression ‘larking about’ (and ‘lark’ may well be from the Danish ‘lærke’) originates from falconry. In days of yore, the men would go hunting with their peregrine falcons and the ladies would only be allowed to use the much smaller merlin which couldn’t catch birds bigger than larks. Hence ‘larking about’ became a term of derision based on the size of your falcon.

But I digress. The corn bunting are back, the sky was full of larks and the hares were getting frisky. I’ll keep you posted when the linnet and other summer visitors arrive.

Wonderful Wildlife of Wicken Fen

Around 10 years ago I used to do voluntary work at Wicken Fen which lies in the flat emptiness between Cambridge and Ely. Wicken Fen is one of the last and the largest piece of remaining fenland in East Anglia and is home to a plethora of wildlife. It’s owned and managed by the National Trust in such a way that diverse habitats favouring different species are established and maintained. When I worked there we were engaged in various activities such as repairing boardwalks, fences and hides, scrub clearance, which was a good activity for freezing winter days because it involved a huge fire to burn the felled scrub, but my favourite job was building raised ponds with wheelchair access so disabled children could safely do some pond dipping. Which is an activity that everyone should be able to do, child or not. All you need is a net, a jar, a magnifying glass and a pond and a sunny day is turned into a fantastic voyage of biological discovery.

My re-exploration last weekend started from Upware at the back end of the Fen where we parked and joined Wicken Lode. We had counted over 30 species of birds within the first half hour of our walk. If it had been solely down to my good self the number would have been rather less because my skills when it comes to recognising birdsong are a tad limited. Fortunately I was with my friend, David, who’s aural acuity is considerably better honed than mine, and I’m highly envious of his ability to detect the song of distant bird species and identify them. One of the first birds to greet us in the car park was this mistle thrush perched on top of a telegraph pole:

Mistle thrush – Turdus viscivorus (Dansk: misteldrossel)

… and a great spotted woodpecker, also finding a handy perch at the top of a telegraph pole:


Great spotted woodpecker – Dendrocops major (Dansk: Stor flagspætte)

Great spotted woodpeckers make a characteristic drumming sound by doing what their name suggests and it is the frequency of the drumming, of around 40 beats per second, which generates the resonant sound. Anatomical examination of their skulls has revealed the presence of built in shock absorbers which prevent them damaging their brains when they drum. They feed on tree seeds such as acorns and insects which they dig out from under the bark of trees and they can also take birds eggs and chicks which they have been known to steal from birdboxes by drilling holes through the walls and plucking them out.

We eventually managed to tear ourselves away from Upware and head out along Wicken Lode on to the Fen where a Cetti’s warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger) gave away his location by singing in a way that only Cetti’s can. It’s an amazing sound and I can highly recommend having a listen here. These recordings don’t quite do it justice, but you get a feel for it. Also on the Lode were a family of three mute swans; male, female and one cygnet. Mute swans are always photogenic but I felt particularly blessed when the male spread hs wings and shook himself down:


Mute swans (Cygnus olor,  Dansk: knopsvane)

We turned off the Lode and headed along Harrisons Drove where we came across a field of very impressive bovines. In  order to manage the fen (and at the same time draw in more visitors, no doubt) cattle and horses are used to trim the vegetation back naturally. I’d never seen the cattle before and they are magnificent animals – looking more like a cross between a highlander and a bison than traditional farm cattle:


They must be hardy beasts indeed to survive on the meagre nourishment offered by the fen

Also along the drove I spotted a hen harrier (Circus cyaneus, Dansk: Blå kærhøg) quartering the field, either a female or a juvenile, identifiable by the pale band around the rump just infront of the tail feathers. In my opinion, spotting a harrier, even a fleeting glimpse, justifies an expedition into the fens early on a freezing morning. Alas it was too far away to photograph, but when after another couple of hundred metres we entered a hide overlooking a lake, there were plenty of subjects for photography…

This lake was home to hundreds of ducks – we estimated around 800 from 5 species that we could see… as well as coot and mute swan. Watched over by the longhorns.

I don’t think this lake is there in the summer because looking at the area on Google Maps there is no water, and David pointed out that their were no diving ducks such as pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland – which tranlates as ‘table duck’ which shows what the Danes think of them!) tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) or goldeneye (Bucephala clangula, Dansk: hvinand), suggesting the water was too shallow. But there were large numbers of shallow feeders such as gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), shoveller (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand), pintail (Anas acuta, Dansk: spidsand), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, Dansk: gråand) and wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand). We had seen three flocks of wigeon (and heard them too, they make a great sound) fly over and land on the water just before we got to the hide.  Some of them were on the lake above and lots more were on an adjacent one:


Wigeon. Lots of them! I counted around 60 in this group.

And in between the two lakes were numerous reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv) flitting between the hedgerow and the path and pausing to pluck seeds from the seedheads of the reeds, hence their name…

Male reed bunting – one of my better reed bunting shots

And the female:
We saw 44 species of birds that we could identify on our way around Upware and the Fen. And as well as all the birds Wicken is home to a phenomenal diversity of insects, large mammals including roe deer and otter, small mammals including shrews, voles, mice and the predators that hunt them, and reptiles including lizards which can be seen basking in the sun on the boardwalks and fenceposts early on summer mornings. Now I’ve been back and rediscovered the Fen I’ll make sure I get back later in the year and post about the changing wildlife in what is a unique collection of ecosystems.