Tag Archives: skylark

Down on the farm in July

Summer was late arriving in  2013. The weather was cold and wintry up until June and that had a profound effect on the wildlife. Breeding seasons were knocked out of kilter by it, and the numbers of many species have suffered as a result. But it seemed that once summer did arrive the wildlife got very busy very quickly to make up for lost time.

The skyline on my regular dog walking route is dominated by a magnificent poplar tree which makes a wonderful sound when the wind blows. It’s right on the pathway where many walkers pass every day and there is a bench underneath it which folk sit on occasionally. But despite all the human activity in such close proximity a pair of kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) were brave enough to build a nest in it about 20-25 feet up.

Kestrel fledgling taking it easy and apparently unfazed by me pointing a telephoto lens at it

I posted about the adults taking up residence in the poplar in August last year. Their decision to nest in this exposed location paid off in spades as the kestrel pair fledged three youngsters who could be seen in around the poplar into the later months of 2013.

And a pair of the fledglings sheltering in the poplar

I made a point of not lingering too long around the poplar to avoid disturbing the birds, but because of the constant human presence there I think they were relaxed about me taking pictures as long as I didn’t try to stay too close for too long.

All the pictures in this post were taken on one summers evening stroll in July, and as well as the kestrels there was lots of other wildlife.

Also breeding in the field adjacent to the poplar tree were numerous skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke). I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get photographs of skylarks for a long time but on this particular evening this one perched on top of a low bush and sang for England. I called the dog to heel and using an adjacent bramble as a shield I crawled as close as I could, which was less than 10m in the end, and poking my lens though the bramble I finally got some pictures:

A singing skylark lit by the low, late evening sun

The resident corn buntings (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke ) usually vacate the fields around Histon with the harvest at the beginning of August, but in 2013 they stayed much later. I don’t know if that was coincidence, because there was still cover in one of the fields, or if it was a result of the enforced delay in the breeding cycle due to the cold spring weather. But they were here in much greater numbers and much later in the year than normal. According to the British Trust for Ornithology the corn bunting is so sedentary that individulas only 30km apart sing in different dialects, but I’d love to know how that was discovered.

Corn bunting on a regular perch in the late evening sunshine

Corn bunting are red listed in the UK due to rapid decline in numbers as a result of habitat destruction for agriculture. Despite that, and decreasing numbers in Central Europe for the same reason, it’s not considered under threat as a species in mainland Europe… yet.

Another songbird which is also red listed in the UK, also as result of rapidly declining numbers, is the yellowhammer (emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv).

Male yellowhammer with his striking yellow head plumage

The yellowhammer has suffered catastrophic decline in numbers over the last few decades and over the last 2-3 years I’ve noticed the numbers in my locality seem to be on the wane too. I think it hasn’t been helped here by the farmer who recently took a flail to all the hedgerows and a lot of the drainage ditches and stripped most of the winter cover and food away. I just don’t see the sense it that – it wasn’t impinging on the crops or impeding access to farm machinery. Seems completely pointless to me.

Yellowhammer and corn bunting are both species of bunting and prefer arable farmland, but due to the intensive nature of arable agriculture and the resulting lack of seed, either natural or crop, both species are under dire threat in the UK. I’ve seen evidence to show that rates of decline can be slowed by changes in farmland management such as set aside or organic cropping, but I think attempts to conserve need to be applied in more holistic fashion to ensure survival of the wildlife.

One species which appeared to be abundant last summer was the hare. They’ve been ever present on any summers evening stroll across the fields in 2013. And I’m still seeing them through the winter too.

And as I headed home there was a spectacular sunset:

…one of many through the summer of last year.

The birds were twittering, and so am I

When the summer eventually arrived this year it arrived with a bang and three months of glorious sunshine ensued which finally came to an end last weekend (but I’m still hoping we have an Indian summer). In early to mid June I spent a lot of time catching up with the local migrants, and all the other wild creatures around the village. I saw more swifts, swallows and house martins over Histon than I’ve ever seen and migrant numbers seemed healthy. This maybe because I was out and about and able to see them, or, hopefully, because more of them arrived and bred successfully this year.

The pictures here were taken one weekend in early June when I ventured across the farmland to the north of my village. Because of the wet spring followed by proper sunshine the verges, hedgerows and meadows were verdant and laden with fruit and flowers.

Cow parsley in the meadow against a summer sky

Many of my walks in these fields included lots of sightings of brown hare. I see occasional hares here so it’s no surprise, but what was surprising this year was the sheer numbers.

Brown hares (Lepus europaeus) – males chasing off rivals for the attentions of the ladies

There are four hares in shot here but there were more in the field to the left and more in the same field to the right. It wasn’t unusual to see ten or more on one of these excursions; they also seemed to be enjoying the hot summer. Fingers crossed they had a successful breeding season too.

One of the migrants I’ve been hoping to see for the last three years, and which hadn’t put in an appearance was the yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava, Dansk: gul vipstjert). These little birds are spectacular and completely unmistakeable, and despite being a species of least concern in mainland Europe it is red listed here with only 15000 territories recorded in the UK in 2009.

Yellow wagtail perched on an old farm machine

This handsome chap was my only sighting of a yellow wagtail this year. They are one of those amazing small creatures, like the swallow, which spend the summer here in the UK but overwinter in South Africa. When they’re here they tend to frequent fields with livestock where they feed on the accompanying insects. Whilst there are no adjacent cattle or sheep here there is an enormous pile of manure which also attracts clouds of insects. I’ve seen wagtails here before but not for a several years, so it was good to see one again.

Cock linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk)

And another red listed bird, which I’ve also posted about recently, is the linnet. Unlike the yellow wagtail, despite their red listing, I see linnet in the fields every year, and the occasional flock of several hundred in the winter. They get their specific name from their like of cannabis. Not for it’s pharmaceutical properties (at least as far as I’m aware) but because in the old days when hemp was grown to make rope they fed on the seeds.

The wildlife on this weekend was abundant with a few rarities, so very high quality, but from a photographic point of view it was rather less auspicious. But I hope this skylark (Alauda arvensis, Dansk: sanglærke) makes up for that:

Skylark singing in the sky above my head

Skylark are not easy to capture because they’re ususally too high in the sky, or  moving too fast, or in a sky which is just too bright for good photography. But on this occasion the lark was very accomodating and there is just enough light to give the plumage a diaphanous quality which I really like, without overexposing it. The skylark is also red listed due to collapse in its numbers as a result of intensive arable agriculture, but there is a healthy population of them round here and there are often too many to count on a warm sunny morning!

By the way, I’ve just linked my blog to a Twitter account which you can have a look at here: @Thenaturephile. There’s not much in it yet as I only set it up at the weekend, but if you fancy taking a look please let me know what you think.

Histon wildlife

I’ve been meandering around the country over the summer so my local flora and fauna have been a tad neglected here. So here are a few of my favourite photographs from Histon.

Wild flowers and grasses shot up to shoulder height in no time at all through the spring and into the summer and everywhere was lush and verdant, watered by the seemingly endless rain that started a few days after the hosepipe ban at the beginning of April, and carried on until early July. The rains were good for the greenery but not good for butterflies and other insects, so it was good to see the large skippers emerge at the end of June.


Large skipper  – Ochlodes faunus

The large skipper ususally emerges in June and July, so the earlier stages in its life cycle must be particularly well water-proofed to have survived the spring! The caterpillars feed on orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) which is common in meadows and hedgerows, and the adults seek nectar from a range of flowers including birdsfoot trefoil, dandelion, yarrow and field scabius. All of these are common in my local fields which explains their annual presence around here.


Small skipper – Thymelicus sylvestris

Both the skippers here appear to be females, the genders are differentiated by the presence of ‘androconica‘ on the forewings of the males. These are lines of dark, specialised pheromone producing cells which appear to be absent on both these butterflies.


Field poppies – Papaver rhoeas

A journey through the countryside in July and August was a gorgeous sight this year due to the abundance of poppies. The red field poppy, also called the ‘Flanders poppy’ is, of course, the symbol of remembrance in the UK for the slain of the two World Wars. They seemed to be everywhere, and fields which would normally be plain green were a sea of red, and my local fields were no different. It transpired that this was also a consequence of the rains but not for the reason you may think. As well as watering the earth and creating good conditions for alot of plants the rain also washed away the herbicides used by the farmers to protect the monocultures we’re accustomed to seeing in the fields. Which shows how rapidly nature can regain lost territory when the opportunity arises.


Corn bunting – Emberiza calandra

Another of my local fields was planted up with rape this year. I’ve previously disliked rape because it has a completely unnatural colour, and the smell is not too pleasant either. But since I’ve been getting close to it and seeing the variety of birdlife it supports I’m changing my mind. Not least because it plays host to corn bunting which are becoming increasingly uncommon due to loss of habitat. This rape field regularly had linnet, reed bunting and corn bunting feeding on the seedpods which are extremely rich in oil and therefore a good energy source for small songbirds.

Reed bunting male – Emberiza schoeniclus – perched on top of the mature rape plants resplendent with his black head and white collar

Skylark numbers have been dropping across the UK due to modern farming methods but I hope that my local patch is bucking the trend because year on year there always appear to be good numbers of them. The combined song of a multitude of skylarks as they slowly climb and then drop like a stone is one of natures wonders in my opinion, so it’s good to see them in the skies here.

Skylark – Alauda arvensis

Looking through my photographs for this year there has been alot to see but it seems it many species were scarce until July. Maybe that’s because the dreadful weather meant that I wasn’t looking quite so hard, but I think many natural phenomena were late this year due to climatic extremes. But many species eventually appeared so they are still out there. I’m hoping we now have a year of relatively normal weather from here on so the wildlife has a chance to recover.

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.

Springtime song

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

E.schoeniclus – reed bunting male

E.calandra – corn bunting making its very distinctive call

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

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

A red fox and a small group of fallow deer put in appearances, the fox was heading a cross the fields to Landbeach heading away from a place I photographed cubs last year, so I hope they are breeding here again this year. The deer look like a group I photographed in the same location a couple of months ago and posted about thinking they were sika deer. They can be very similar so I’m not sure what species these are, if anyone recognises them please post a comment to let me know.


Fallow deer – Dama dama – the leader on the right is sporting native antlers

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

 

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.

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.