Tag Archives: wildlife

Damsels of Fen Drayton

One of the reasons for my trip to Fen Drayton a few weeks ago was to have a look to see which of our dragonflies were out and about. I went in early June and that time of year is a little early for the true dragons to have emerged, although it’s not impossible. But despite the shortage of the true dragons, the hedgerows and lake sides were abuzz with damselflies.


Male red-eyed damselfly – Erythromma najas

Dragonflies and damselfies are the two members of the taxonomic order ‘Odanata‘ or Odanates. There are two sub-orders within the Odanata: the Anisoptera – the true dragonflies, and Zygoptera – damselflies.

Azure damselfly – Coenagrion puella – the blue form of the immature female

Damselflies in the UK are approximately 4-5cm (1.5-2 inches) long and have thin abdomens and are all smaller and more delicate than the chunkier dragonflies. Having said that, the biggest living Odanate is currently a damselfly who resides in the rainforests of Central America, it has a wingspan of 19cm (7.5 inches) and the abdomen is 10cm (4 inches) long. A real whopper!

Blue tailed damselfly – Ischnura elegans – immature femaleBlue tailed damselfly – immature male – Ischnura elegans

Male and female Odanates, and immature and mature individuals, can often be distinguished by colour. The common blue female below is conspicuously brown so the species gets its name from the electric blue colour of the male. The common blue can easily be confused with the variable damselfly which is the same blue colour, but they are distinguished by the black markings on segment 2 of the abdomen which is shaped like a goblet on the variable and a club on the common blue. Also, the antehumoral stripes (on the side of the thorax) are complete on the common blue and broken on the variable. Although, as the name suggests, the variable is indeed variable and it can make distinguishing the two species a little tricky.


Common blue damselfly female – Enallagma cyathigerum – the only common blue we saw on this trip, perched on my friends finger

The black goblet on segment 2 is visible under the front of the wings on the variable damselfly below. But confusingly, it’s living up to its name because the antehumoral stripes are unbroken.

Male damselflies have two sets of paired claspers at the end of the abdomen which it uses to clasp the female on her pronotum, which is the protrusion in the middle of the back of the head. The claspers have tiny hooks on them which match grooves in the female pronotum and in order to avoid procreational mismatches the hooks and grooves are species specific.

Variable damselfly – Coenagrion pulchellum

In the picture above a variable male has clasped his lady by the pronotum. Male damselflies have primary genitalia at the end of the abdomen on the 8th segment, but in order for fertilisation to take place he needs to transfer a ‘spermatophore’ from the primary genitalia to the secondary genitalia on the second segment at the thoracic end of the abdomen. The female then curls round in to the ‘wheel’ position to transfer the sperm to her genitalia which are underneath her 8th abdominal segment.

A pair of variable damsels in the wheel position

All the Odanates are carnivores, and the larvae which hatch from eggs layed under water are ferocious carnivores, the larger ones will even take small fish! On one occasion last year while I was photographing large red damselflies (Pyrrhosoma  nymphula), a large hawker dragonfly (I think it was a migrant hawker, Aeshna mixta) which had been buzzing around higher up for several minutes suddenly dived down and caught one of my large red damsels. In a few seconds the migrant butchered it and ate it on the wing and the inedible bits of wing and leg were discarded and rained down around me.

Scarce chaser – an immature male

A lone Anisopteran, or ‘true’ dragon was spotted on this trip and it was an immature scarce chaser, Libellula fulva. He was a lovely mustard colour and he can be differentiated from the female by the colour of the thorax which is dark grey in the female, and from the male adult who is electric blue. He undergoes quite a transformation in transitioning from immature to adult.

Serendipity I – The Short Eared Owl

Serendipity struck on Sunday a couple of weeks ago. I’d fixed up to go for a stroll with an old friend who I hadn’t seen for a few years to Wicken Fen. That was on the 20th May, but he got his Sundays confused and we ended up going on the 13th.

It was serendipitous because the weather had been grim leading up to that weekend but on the evening of the 13th it was perfect: sunny, warm, calm and we couldn’t have wished for better conditions. And on top of that there was wildlife in abundance. As we got out the car the air was full of swifts screeching overhead – lots and lots of them – along with swallows and house martins. Various species of geese and ducks and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) were on the lakes, and we were serenaded by cettis warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger), grasshopper warbler (Locustella naevia, Dansk: græshoppesanger) and other songbirds in the undergrowth, and a snipe drummed in the reed bed. Snipe (Gallinago gallinago, Dansk: dobbeltbekkasin) make this sound by spreading their tail feathers and the wind generates the piping sound by making them vibrate.

Wicken fen is a really good place to see birds of prey too: marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg), hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk), kestrel (Falco tinunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk), sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) and assorted owls can all be seen there. We had been commenting how the birds of prey were conspicuous by their absence and a few minutes later we spotted a hobby perched on a fence post. As we wallowed in our good fortune I spotted an owl behind a tree which emerged right in front of us and it turned out to be a short eared owl:


Short eared owl, Asio flammeus (Dansk: mosehornugle)

I thought our short eared owls were winter visitors, migrating to the relative warmth of the UK from the frozen icefields of Scandinavia and returning in the Spring. But it transpires they are also resident breeders in the east and north of England and the east of Scotland so can be seen here all year round.

This one treated us to several minutes worth of hunting, flying to and fro and diving down into the reeds in search of rodents.

I last saw short eared owls at Burwell Fen, east of Cambridge, several months ago when there was a large number of Scandinavian visitors in residence. While we were there we chatted to a BBC camerman who was there to film them for a TV nature series. I think he would have got some good footage on that day but I’m sure he would have been pleased to get this close to one!

Like all owls, it’s a hunter which is supremely evolved for its particular function.

And then on the journey home, continuing the owl theme, there was a barn owl taking the lazy approach to rodent hunting:

Barn owl numbers have been on the decline for a long time and the exceptionally cold winters of 2009 and 2010 badly affected them. We didn’t see one at Wicken which surprised me because I usually see at least one when I’m there at that time of the evening, so it was good to find this one perched on an advertising hoarding alongside the road home.

I’m a firm believer in serendipity playing her part in human endeavour and she adequately rewarded us on this excursion!

The chiffchaff and the willow warbler

The chiffchaff and the willow warbler both members of the warbler or ‘Sylviidae‘ family. There are 63 members of the Sylviidae of which 14 species breed in the UK. They’re very similar to look at and can be pretty tricky to tell apart. Last week in my local meadow I came across both species in photographable locations so I  thought I’d try to show the differences. Both species are summer migrants to the UK having overwintered in Africa, the chiffchaff goes to the Mediterranean and some head south of the Sahara, and the willow warblers all  go down to tropical sub-Saharan Africa.

This publication from Birdlife International tells us that the global population of willow warblers is estimated to be between 300 million and 1.2 billion individuals, and a fact that blew my socks off was that the northern Siberian population overwinters in southern Africa, which is a journey of over 7000 miles or 11000 km… and back! And they’re only 19cm long and weigh 10g, so they may be tiny, but they’re incredibly tough. The chiffchaff is also a scarce winter visitor to the UK.

Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus, Dansk: løvsanger) collecting nesting materialWillow warbler showing off her pink legs, bright supercilium and pale ear coverts

The willow warbler has longer primaries and the light stripe over the eye, the ‘supercilium‘ is brighter and more pronounced than that of the chiffchaff, and the ear coverts of the willow warbler (the patch under the eye) are a pale olive colour. The other visual diagnostic feature which is probably easiest to see at a glance is the leg colour, the willow warbler has pinkish brown legs whilst those of the chiffchaff are much darker, almost black.

Chiffchaff showing off its more subdued facial markings and overall colour scheme and the dark coloured legs

In the absence of a clear sighting the easiest way to differentiate between these two species is by their song: click here to hear the chiffchaff song, and here for the willow warbler song.

The conservation status of the chiffchaff is green and in 2000 there were around three quarters of a million territories in the UK, but the willow warbler is amber due to a decline in the breeding population, but despite that there were still two milion territories in 2000.

Carduelis (or Chloris) chloris

A sound I hear frequently at the moment when I open a door or a window which stands out from all other birdcalls is the call of the male greenfinch. It’s quite variable in tone from fairly high pitched, as in the recording here, to lower pitched where it almost sounds like a whirring mechanical toy.

The bird in these pictures has a reddish hue to it because it was being lit by the evening sun as it was getting lower in the sky, and also from the reflected light of the rusty ironwork and insulators of the electricity supply cables:


Greenfinch male calling from the top of a telegraph pole

The female greenfinch is similar to the male but her colours are much more drab, she is darker grey/brown without the vibrant green of the male.

The greenfinch is a resident breeder in the UK and can be found in gardens and parks at all times of the year feeding on bigger seeds and sometimes insects when rearing youngsters. It has a chunky beak which is typical of finches and is custom built for cracking open seeds.

The taxonomic name for the greenfinch is listed in some references as ‘Carduelis chloris‘, as in my RSPB ‘Complete Birds of Britain and Europe’ by Rob Hume published in 2002, (RSPB – Royal Society for the protection of Birds) ISBN 0751373540, and also in the RSPB Bird Identifier website. But in the BTO BirdFacts website (BTO – British Trust for Ornithology) and in my Collins Bird Guide 2nd edition from 2010, ISBN 978 0 00 726726 2, it is listed as ‘Chloris chloris‘ (Dansk: grønirisk). Somewhat confusingly the BTO entry goes on to explain that the name derives from ‘carduelis‘ meaning ‘goldfinch’ and the Greek ‘khloros‘ meaning ‘green’. So it appears that the two names may be interchangeable. Incidentally, the chemical element chlorine also derives its name from khloros as it exists as a green gas.

He’s turned round to keep on eye on me – his seed-cracking beak clearly visible

The poor old greenfinch has taken a bit of a battering in the last few years since 2005 from the trichomonad parasite which causes a disease called trichomonosis. This microscopic parasite lives in the upper digestive tracts of several birds species including other finches, house sparrows (Passer domesticus, Dansk:  gråspurv) and pigeons and doves. I’ve heard that feeders may become contaminated by pigeons from where it infects the smaller birds. It’s particularly unpleasant (as are most parasitic infestations!) because it causes the throat to swell to the point where the birds can’t swallow so they eventually die of starvation.

Fortunately I’ve never seen any evidence of infected birds but if you think you may have a problem you can click here for the RSPB advice sheet which has details on how to identify the problem and how best to deal with it.

Animal Rescue – Newsflash 28/04/2012

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a fox cub my mother rescued after we found out the vixen had been killed. I promised you an update on her progress and I spoke to the lady who took her in last week so here’s the latest.

At first she weighed between 300-400g and was a little dehydrated but put on 100g in 3 days after becoming fully hydrated and taking immediately to a diet of fresh meat.

Hard to believe this little sweetie will turn into our apex predator!

She had a couple of tics and was infested with worms and fleas, which she generously passed on to her carers (just the fleas!), but was otherwise in good health. After a course of parasite treatment she came on in leaps and bounds and began to show signs of hunting behaviour by fighting with an old sock.

After a week and a half with her original benefactors she was passed on to a rescue centre near Kings Lynn in Norfolk where she was introduced to another orphaned cub. They had a good old scrap during which the pecking order was established and after that they knew their respective places and got along well. So everything is now being put in place for a release date in August, which is when a wild fox cub would be venturing out on its own.

So everything is looking good for a return to the wild for this little lady and I’ll hopefully get another progress report in about a months time.  I’ll try to find out if it will be possible to photograph her eventual release and I’ll share updates and photographs as and when.

Misplaced mallard

This pair of mallard weren’t misplaced at all, they were on a lake at Milton Country Park doing exactly what you’d expect mallard to do,

But this pair were very misplaced:

Romeo and Juliet

They appeared in my garden, relaxing under the crab apple tree, a couple of days ago, they disappear early in the morning and return in the afternoon. They’ve repeated this for the last three days now and they were here at dusk today sitting on the grass under the tree.

They seem completely unfazed by most interruptions including cats, humans and me flying past on my bike when I didn’t realise they were in situ. There is no water within half a mile so I don’t know why they are here, but it’s the first time we’ve had ducks in the garden and the children are very excited by their presence, so they’re welcome to stay as long as they want.

Insectivora

The hedgerows and the edges of country paths are home to an immense variety of small creatures, especially those which aren’t in the firing line for agricultural chemical spraying, and it can be easy to overlook them.

Last weekend I spent a morning chasing insects around and I followed a red admiral butterfly into a thicket of nettles where it sat tight with it’s wings closed. Over the next twenty minutes it very briefly opened its wings, but only partially, but enough to enable me to see that its colours were pristine:

And then it opened them fully, and the colours really were sumptuous:


…well worth half an hour stood in a nettle bed!

But I thought the half hour definitely wasn’t wasted when I looked down at my feet and saw this cluster of peacock caterpillars eating nettle leaves:

I moved to one side to get some pictures of the caterpillars, and fortunately after I’d spent some time doing that the red admiral was still in situ.

Peacocks are hardy butterflies which can be found over most of the UK including the Shetland Isles and can be found hibernating in garden sheds. They emerge from hibernation at any time of year if the weather is warm enough, they mate in March and lay eggs then the caterpillars can be seen from the middle of May into July.

Not only are they hardy, they are quit beautiful too. A close look at their wings reveals a fabulous array of brightly coloured detail:

Male peacocks hold fort in their territory and wait for passing females to pass by when they fly up to greet them and attempt to mate. Male and female peacocks are very difficult to tell apart and watching the males performing this courtship behaviour is one way to differentiate the genders.

And close to the same spot I was looking at the flowers and I spotted this hoverfly cleaning his eyes:

…and this beetle wandering over a convulvulus flower, I don’t know what it is but it has gorgeous colours:

The brambles in the hedgerows were also full of bees in the sunshine, many species of honey bees and bumble bees were harvesting nectar from the flowers:


White tailed bumble bee flying from flower to flower feeding on bramble nectar

And than this marvellous creature was hunting in my kitchen last week:


Violet ground beetle, isn’t he magnificent!

Violet ground beetles are carnivorous, as are their larvae. They hunt at night and hide up during the day under log piles or other cool dark places. They eat a variety of insects, including a number of species that gardeners would be glad to be rid of. They’re big beetles, around 3cm long, and they have irridescent blue or violet edges to the thorax and wing cases. So don’t use chemicals in your garden – let these guys get rid of your pests!

And now I’m looking forward to some warm sunny July days when the surrounding fields are full of butterflies. I’ll share some more insect photographs with you then.

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!

Orange tip

I am of course referring to the butterfly, not an unsightly medical condition. I’ve spent plenty of time chasing them along hedgerows waiting for one to settle on a flower, but in vain, and you may recall that in a previous post I said that the orange tip was extremely difficult to photograph because they rarely settled.

That was until last weekend when, the weather was sunny, warm and calm so I went for a walk on Guns Lane to the north of Histon. I was rewarded fairly soon into my walk by a male orange tip settling on a plant on the edge of the pathway and allowing me to encroach within just a few inches:


Male orange tip. I think his underwings are exquisite, and it’s perfect camouflage when he’s perched on a cow parsley flower head.

This fellow was a good omen. Several hundred metres further along the path where the dense hedgerow thinned out into more open territory lined with cow parsley there were many male and female orange tips and they were all intent on mating on this particular morning.



Another male orange tip, this time with his wings open. And the colours on top are gorgeous too.

The female of the species doesn’t have the orange tips but is still distinctive from the other white butterflies:

Female orange tip. She is aware of the presence of males and is pointing her tail in the air in preparation for mating…

…and a few seconds later a male flew within a few centimetres and her reproductive organs are clearly visible opening up here in response to his presence.

The female above didn’t mate in this instance, but:

This pair were mating on the ground close by

And another female sits on a leaf as the male beats a post-coital retreat top right

I promised some pictures a few weeks ago of orange tips in the post ‘Local Lepidoptera’ so I was very pleased to capture this series of the mating behaviour so soon after.

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 roe deer, Capreolus capreolus, entered the same field.


Roe 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.

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.