Tag Archives: song thrush

The birds and the bees (and the flowers)

As our warmest and driest Spring on record turns into what is shaping up to be a warm and dry Summer, nature’s great events are occurring apace to exploit the prevailing climatic conditions.

The first swifts were seen over Histon 3 weeks ago (by me at least) after their heroic journey back to their breeding sites from overwintering in Africa. To celebrate this event I’ve spent several hours sitting in the garden of the Castle pub on Castle Hill in Cambridge enjoying a few convivial sharpeners and watching the swifts shrieking through the sky like an avian aerobatic team. I can heartily recommend both activities!

Wild flowers, including one of my favourites, white campion, are now in bloom:

White campion, Silene latifolia, decorating ditches and hedgerows

White campion is a dioecious plant which means the male and female reproductive machinery are on separate flowers. It grows in well drained earth and flowers from Spring to Autumn and is now delineating my walks across the open countryside. Another one of my favourite wild flowers is red clover (Trifolium pratense) which is a gorgeous colour and provides nourishment for bumble bees:


Red clover flower being harvested for pollen and nectar by a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum). This is the national flower of Denmark.

And of course the local birdlife has been very busy breeding and raising chicks. Alot of species started this process earlier this year due to the unusually warm weather in Spring. I have a pair of blue tits raising a brood in the nestbox in my crab apple tree and my friend told me of a family of song thrushes which fledged from his garden a month ago. Which is very early.

A pair of great tit have been feeding their chicks on crushed peanuts which I put out on my bird feeder over the last month and last week they fledged and the whole family were feeding in my garden for just a day or two before they ventured further afield. (If you put nuts out for the birds during the breeding season please make sure you use crushed nuts as inexperienced parents can try to feed whole nuts to chicks and this can have fatal consequences). Great tits have over 70 different vocalisations which I think is remarkable, almost simple language! And on my explorations along the fields and hedgerows around Histon last weekend (21st May, 2011) I saw more great tit, blackcap and whitethroat all feeding gangs of fledglings:


Common whitethroat male, Sylvia communis

There are two species of whitethroat to be found locally, the common and the lesser (Sylvia curruca). They are distinguished by their song, which I won’t try to describe because I’ve never yet read a book which gives the remotest idea of what birdsong actually sounds like by a written description! But if you want to compare them try here for the common whitethroat, and here for the lesser whitethroat.


And another male whitethroat, this chap was singing long and loud, punctuated with characteristic jerky flights straight up in the air and back to the same spot

There are a good number of common whitethroat in the hedgerows north of Cambridge, lesser whitethroat are also here but are not so numerous. There are other distinguishing features between the two species, the lesser, as the name suggests is smaller (~11cm long compared to ~13 for the common), and is generally more grey with a pale grey head and noticeably darker grey ‘ear’ patches. It also has dark grey legs. Both species overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa, the common in central Africa and the lesser in eastern Africa.

Linnet can be regularly seen flying around the bramble thickets on the edges of the village and perching and singing on top of them. On Saturday early in the morning a fracas was going on in an elderbery tree in Rowleys Meadow in Histon which ended when a jay was chased out of the tree by a family of linnet and a family of whitethroat. The jay alighted on an adjacent shed to suss out the lie of the land and contemplate another raid whilst the indignant songbirds dispersed into some scrub to hide. Eventually the jay decided to keep his powder dry and disappeared into a nearby wood. Jays, like other members of the crow family, will raid nests of smaller birds for eggs and chicks, so it’s a perilous business being a small bird with a family to rear.


A linnet male perching on a bramble. When they’re not protecting a nest I’ve managed to sneak within 15 feet of linnet perched like this.

Linnet, Carduelis cannabina, are abundant resident and migrant breeders, although their numbers, as with many of our songbirds, are declining, and they are also passage and winter visitors. Due to their declining numbers over the past 40 years or so their conservation status is red, indicating they are globally threatened. They are finches which live in open country and farmland and feed on seeds.

Many species of moths, butterflies, bees, flowers and a plethora of other creatures are all appearing as trhe seasons are progressing and there’s something new to see every week!

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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.

9th January birdwalk

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

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

A pair of fieldfare, and…

…a single one

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

 

 

New Year Nature

The most spectacular natural phenomenon to occur over the New Year period was, in my opinion, the partial eclipse on the morning of Tuesday 4th January. It commenced before daybreak in the orient and by the time the sun rose in the UK it was well underway. A very early-morning glance through the curtains in Histon suggested the cloud cover would scupper any attempts to view it from here. The eclipse was due to complete around 9.30am and with an immense stroke of good fortune the clouds parted to reveal a blazing sun low in the eastern sky at 9.05 so I ran around the house trying to find a suitable eye shield to view it through. Grabbing the chance of a breakfast time chocolate feast my daughter suggested cellophane wrappers peeled from some leftover Christmas confectionery, a stroke of genius on two levels. Alas, by the time there were sufficient to enable safe viewing, the image was so blurred as to be useless. So I rapidly retrieved some old photographic negatives from the attic and several  layers of these provided an excellent filter for the purpose. We saw the partially occluded sun and I even managed to fire off a couple of photographs, so here’s the best one:


Partial solar eclipse at 9.15am on Tuesday 4th
January 2011
from Cambridge UK.

In terms of wildlife there have been a few highlights in the last week. I spent most of my walking time around Guns Lane and Abbey Farm north of Histon and the field to the west of the Lane, lying between it and Abbey Farm, known locally as ‘Rowleys Meadow’, is turning out to be a real treasure trove. A pair of kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) are in residence, usually found in the top of a tree which appeared in my ‘Guns Lane‘ post from the end of November last year.

Kestrel pair are regularly seen at the top of this particular
tree. The top one is a male and the lower individual a female.

A buzzard (Buteo buteo) has also been in the vicinity at least since New Years Day when it flew low over the meadow heading east and was spotted again on the 3rd perched in a tree further north along the Lane. I spent several minutes slowly working my way along the hedge to get into position for a photograph when a pair of  mountain bikes coming the other way flushed it out. I’ll have to wait for my shot of a perching buzzard.

…so here it is making its exit with a fieldfare lurking in the bush bottom right

The most exciting encounter with a bird prey occurred on New Years Day whilst heading back from walking the dog in the Histon Fields. An orchard opposite my house has been home to flocks of redwing (Turdus iliacus) and fieldfare (Turdus  pilaris) for most of the Christmas holiday. Approaching home at the end of our walk  a female sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) approached at very high speed around 8 feet from the ground entering the orchard like a feathery Exocet! To be followed a split second later by a chorus of alarm calls as what seemed like hundreds of redwing scattered in all directions. I couldn’t see if she was rewarded with a meal.

Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) continue to maintain a presence on the lane, three individuals consisting of two males and a female provided a splash of colour in the tree tops on a grey day last week, and I flushed out a pair low down from a hedge further along the Lane. Flocks of long tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) are often chasing each other along the hedge and several days ago were accompanied by either a goldcrest (Regulus regulus) or firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla).  It was most likely a goldcrest as firecrest are considerably more scarce and goldcrest are often found amongst flocks of tits. It was too close to focus binoculars on and the light was too murky to see the colours properly, so I couldn’t confirm the identity, but I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled in the hope of seeing it again.

Other species I see on most of my trips along the lane include a pair of green woodpecker (Picus viridis) , song thrush (Turdus philomelus), mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus), redwing, fielfare and blackbird (Turdus merula)- five Turdus species which on several occasions have all been in the meadow at the same time.

Fieldfare in the top of a tree on Guns Lane

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) continue to grace us with there presence. I’ve had a report from a colleague of a flock feeding on rowan berries on Kings Hedges Road, Cambridge, and my sister told me of a ‘treefull’ she’d spotted in a supermarket carpark in Kettering. Although a quick look in Garden Walk in Histon, where I saw them last week, suggested they may have moved on as there were none around and the trees and bushes had been virtually stripped clean of berries.

The heron (Ardea cinerea) is spotted around the north of Histon on a frequent basis, flying over and perched on numerous rooves including one behind my house which just happens to have a fishpond in the garden:

Grey heron sizing up a fishpond for an early morning raid in Normanton Way, Histon

It has some primary flight feathers missing on its left wing identifying it as the same one I posted about previously, feeding on pollock in my friends garden, then tapping on his window to ask for more.

Another friend of mine has reported sightings of blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) and redpoll (Carduelis cabaret) in his garden in the last couple of weeks too. So there is a splendid variety of birdlife of all shapes and sizes to be seen now in a garden near you.