Tag Archives: Turdus pilaris

The great grey shrike

Back in January there was a report of a great grey shrike at Wicken Fen and I’d never seen one before so I decided to go and have a look.

A distant tree across the reedbeds through the thick early morning mist

It was a very grey morning and not really one of those that gives me high hopes of seeing much wildlife, but the shrike put in the very briefest of appearances, probably less than 2 seconds, so short I couldn’t photograph it, but it was a striking bird! It was bigger and paler than I thought, and with its piratical black eye stripe it was completely unmistakeable. And despite my initial pessimism there was lots of birdlife around that morning.

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger)

The Tower Hide at Wicken Fen is usually a good place to survey the area and see the local birdlife, and as the shrike had appeared very close to it I climbed the stairs to see if it would reappear and pose for a portrait. Unfortunately it didn’t, but all the following pictures are from the top of the Tower Hide:

Redwing (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel)

The redwing and the fieldfare are winter visitors in the UK, making the flight here from Scandinavia as the weather turns cold there for the winter.

A pale male bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Dansk: dompap)

This male bullfinch may have appeared a little more washed out than he actually was. Or he may have been a youngster or waiting for some warmer weather to change into his sumptuous breeding regalia.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse)

And finally…

A kestrel (Falco tinnunculus,Dansk: tårnfalk)

The drops of condensate clinging to the twigs around the kestrel give a fair indication of the prevailing weather – it was very cold… and very damp!

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A special winter visitor

When the snows came a few weekends ago an influx of birds came to my garden to feed up on the seeds and fatballs I put out for them. I also threw out some squidgy grapes which had been getting overripe at the bottom of the punnet. And as well as all the usual species a winter visitor from Scandinavia also appeared.

Fieldfare – Turdus pilaris (Dansk: sjagger)

The fieldfare is a species of thrush from Scandinavia which migrates to overwinter in the UK. They’re hardy, feisty birds and utterly resplendent in their psychedelic finery! I’ve seen large flocks of them flying above the countryside around Histon but rarely within the village itself. And then this handsome bird arrived in my garden to feed on the squidgy grapes.

Dismembering a grape

It finished the grapes and then took up residence under a bush in the garden and repelled all comers. Whenever another bird came within striking distance it would emerge from its refuge at speed and chase it off. Which sufficed for everything smaller than a blackbird.

After the grapes had gone I augmented its diet with some apple, which coinidentally is also a favourite food of blackbirds. And within minutes there was competition for the fruit. The fieldfare adopted a very distinctive stance when the blackbird, or anything bigger, like a collared dove or a wood pigeon came within range and several fights ensued. And the fieldfare wasn’t always the winner because blackbirds are also accomplished pugilists when they need to be. So it all worked out evens, they both got some apple and a good scrap would keep them fit too:

The’repel all boarders’ stance, wings down, tail in the air. If that didn’t suffice then all out assault ensued

The fieldfare, I assume it was the same one, appeared in the garden after first light every morning until the rain washed away all the snow and it hasn’t been seen since. At the same time the trees and bushes in the village were also frequented by the fieldfares during the snow but they all disappeared with the snow too.

Flowers and foliage

The greatest thing about a sodden Springtime was the abundance of bloom that resulted. So I spent alot of time this year recording the wild flowers and foliage that flourished in the wake of the deluge.

Some years ago I attended a lecture in which the speaker said that due to modern farming methods which involve the use of mechanisation and toxic chemicals to create a sterile monoculture,  verges and drainage ditches have now become an invaluable seed bank where many of our wild flowers can still prevail. Without these unpolluted conduits criss-crossing the countryside the flora seeking refuge there would be even more threatened. This idea seems to be born out in my local area as the drainage ditches are indeed full of wild flowers year on year.

Hedge woundwort – Stachys sylvatica

Hedge woundwort has lined the field margins and ditches in greater abundance this year than in previous years, its delicate purple flowerheads, growing up to around a metre tall, poking  over the top of the ditches. It’s a lovely flower and it gets its name from its preference for hedgerows and because the crushed leaves were traditionally applied to wounds to stem bleeding.

Hawthorn flowers lined all the hedgerows ealier in the year and heralded a glut of berries which are currently providing rich pickings for the birds, and will continue to do so well into the colder months.

Hawthorn blossom – Crataegus monogyna

The October 2012 edition of British Trust for Ornithology’s BirdTrack reveals that the migrant redwings (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel) should be arriving here from Scandinavia any day now and will be followed closely by the fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger), and the hedges fulls of haws will help to replenish their fat reserves after the migration across the North Sea. I think I saw my first redwing over Histon on Sunday, they have a characteristically undulating flight during which they fold back their wings and form a teardrop shape, which is what my sighting today was doing. So the fieldfare should be along soon too, according to the BTO.


Oxeye daisy – Leucanthemum vulgare

Oxeye daisies are my Mother’s favourite flower and she has been pestering me to publish a picture of one. This year they lined my cycle route to work alongside the Cambridge Guided Busway in their thousands so I’m finally able to complete my commission. So, Ma, this one’s yours!

The wild flowers have been spectacular but the leaves and some of the trees have also been contributing their own splash of colour to the countryside such as the cluster of oak leaves below.

(Dramatic interlude: Wow, the first goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis Dansk: stillits) arrived on my niger seed feeder a couple of days ago after being absent through the summer and until a minute ago there was an adult and a late fledgling feeding there. I just caught a blurr out the corner of my eye as I was writing this post and looked up just in time to see a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: Spurvehøg) swoop through a gap in the buddleia bush next to the feeders, the goldfinches fled but it all happened too fast to see if the hawk was successful. It was all over in less than a second!)

Back to the oak leaves though, they were lovely colours, almost autumnal. Oak trees are amazing organisms, in fact they are substantially more than organisms, they are ecosystems in their own right. They live to be several centuries old and when coppiced or pollarded (pollarding is pruning back a tree to the top of the trunk to promote new branch growth, compared to coppicing which is pruning it back to ground level), but there are numerous examples of oaks living for 1000-1500 years. And they become home to hundreds of other species of fungi, lichens, insects, birds and mammals.


Oak leaf cluster – Quercus robur – the English oak

And right next to the oak was this gorgeous, delicate field rose. The field rose, Rosa arvensis, grows in hedges and has white to cream coloured flowers and lovely golden yellow anthers. It flowers later than the dog rose (Rosa canina) which has pink flowers and the leaves are smaller. Later in the autumn the flowers turn into bright red hips which provide food for birds as well as humans. When I was a kid we used to have rosehip syrup which was sweet and delicious and I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to make some. If I succeed in creating something pleasant I’ll post the recipe here.

Without doubt my favourite wild flower is the field scabius (Knautia arvensis). I think they’re utterly beautiful and if I have a camera to hand I struggle to walk past one! Fortunately for me the field margins around here are replete with them so I’m rarely short of photographic opportunities.

The glorious flower of the field scabius

And from side on:

The hue of the flowers can vary from a pale pastel shade to quite dark purple. Each flower contains male stamens which can be seen protruding from this flower from between the female florets. The stamen consists of the filament (the stalk) and the anther (the pollen bearing part at the end of the filament). The stamens die back before the female florets mature in order to prevent self-fertilisation. Field scabius is named afer the German botanist Dr Knaut and has historically been used to treat skin ailments such as scabies and eczema.

Garden Gladiators

For the last three mornings my garden has been frequented by numerous blackbirds (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort), at least four; two males, two females and possibly others. I couldn’t tell the females apart because they looked very similar but the males were identifiable. One was a typical black blackbird with a striking yellow beak and the other was very slightly smaller, slightly more brown and had a dark tinge to the end of his beak so he has been named ‘Blacktip’.


Blacktip

The second male blackbird, henceforth referred to as ‘The Arch Rival’


And one of the ladies

The initial skirmishes of the Histon Blackbird Wars started in my garden on Friday but I didn’t have a chance to study it what with getting the children to school and myself to work. The real gladiatorial action took place yesterday morning and commenced with the males and the two females chasing each other around at high speed on the ground and in the air. I’ve never noticed before but when blackbirds compete on the ground they actually run rather than hop, which from the human perspective lends the whole drama a comic angle. I imagine they can move alot faster when running and are therefore more intimidating to any rivals.

The Arch Rival perched threateningly atop the rabbit run

The females departed fairly early on in the proceedings leaving the two boys to battle it out, and it turned into an amazing spectacle which was very entertaining to watch. The Arch Rival occupied a battle station on top of the rabbit run from where he would walk round the edge and look down at Blacktip on the ground, and from where he would launch the occasional strike and chase Blacktip  around for a minute or two before resuming his vantage point on the rabbit run. This behaviour led me to think the The Arch Rival was possibly the dominant male as he seemed to hold the advantage all along and it went on for probably half an hour or so before the real battle commenced:

Aerial hostilities break out
The dogfight slowly gains more and more altitude, toe to toe and beak to beak
Higher still, now around 4-5m off the ground
And then they separated and descended to draw breath in the wisteria.

This was followed by The Arch Rival resuming his place on the rabbit run which he circled around for several minutes before dropping to the ground and walking and running around the same route for a further few minutes whilst Blacktip remained on the ground. this cycle of events was repeated several times over the next hour.


The Arch Rival back on the rabbit run, Blacktip was lurking on the ground

This activity eventually petered out and Blacktip was left on his own to recuperate under cover of the buddleia bush. Leaving me to think that he was the apparent victor…


Blacktip in the cover of the buddleia foliage

…Or was he?

This morning Blacktip appeared with a lady and seemed to be performing a courtship ritual where he was running around on the ground calling and she was following. That went on for around half an hour and they seemed to be getting along famously. And then The Arch Rival arrived back on the scene and 20 minutes or so of aerial combat ensued. the dynamic was different this time though. The female and Blacktip seemed to be chasing The Arch Rival, not Blacktip on his own.

As I go to press the action has ceased and all the blackbirds have disappeared although both the males have made short forays back into the garden looking for some breakfast, but the female hasn’t returned. Incidentally while this was taking place, all the other birds: goldfinch, dunnock, house sparrow, blue tit, great tit, starling, collared dove and wood pigeon were using the feeders as normal, completely unperturbed by the battle taking place. My back window is like a 75 inch 3D HD TV showing nature documentaries all day, to which I can add my own commentary. As I write a pair of fieldfare are flying over and the blackbirds have been replaced by three dunnock.

And now… all three blackbirds are back and fighting again, so I’m going to sign off and watch them and I’ll report back with further developments.

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!

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.

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.

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!