All posts by Bob Jarman

The Flora of Cambridgeshire – Alan Leslie

Alan has written, probably, the best county flora yet that is intensely detailed with observations, meticulous records and is beautifully illustrated. The latest edition of British Wildlife magazine includes a “flyer” promoting Alan’s book: “This beautifully produced book is a model for what a modern county Flora should be”. It’s is an outstanding achievement from one of the Country’s most dedicated naturalists.

It is an ideal complement to our study looking at the natural history of Cambridge City.

Bob Jarman 24th May 2020

Bobjarman99@btinternet.com

Flaming June 2020 and a mention on Spring Watch 2020!

The weather changed – Locked-down, locked-up, locked-in, locked-away all applied to the effects of the weather at the beginning of the month and the abilities to get out into the wider world from our homes. The 2nd June was the hottest day of the year but from then on, the weather disintegrated into rain and lots of it. Then, more hottest days at the end of the month.

A press release sent out publicising our NatHistCam project and Paul Rule’s remarkable total of 573 species identified in his Cambridge garden received airplay on Radio Cambridgeshire, then on the BBC’s web site and then a two-minute mention on Spring Watch on 4th June. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-52840241

The latest Cambridgeshire Bird Club (CBC) monthly (May) bulletin continues with a list of nocturnal migrants sound recorded and identified in May. The species list includes: Little-ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper (7), Whimbrel (7), Bar-tailed Godwit, Tree Pipit (2) and adds to the remarkable story of night time migration over our City.

On 1st June two male Yellowhammers were singing in Trumpington Meadows, Small Blue butterflies were about and the clump of gorse near the bridge over the M11 had finally stopped flowering – more about this below! Also, on 1st June a Whitethroat was singing in my small Chesterton garden – I suspect it was the Logan’s Meadow bird I saw in May – but it soon headed off towards the recreation ground. On 2nd June a young Peregrine – with down on the top of its head – perched on the parapet near the nest site surveying the city life below while the male bird kept a noisy watch above. Two fledged birds were seen on 11th June.

The Cambridge Independent (June 17-23, 2020) had an article describing how two of the three chicks had fallen from the nest site and were recovered and cared for by the Raptor Foundation, based near St Ives, and were then reunited with the parents. The second site in the City had three youngsters.

On 3rd June a Hobby was reported over the Chesterton allotments. The Common Terns have been in evidence along Riverside this year, one was near Victoria Road bridge on 5th and a bird was fishing at Riverside on 19th and there were more regular sightings to the end of the month. On 10th and 15th June up to four Corn Bunting were singing at Hobson’s Park and a flock of 40+ Stock Doves were in the area set aside for allotments. The Great-crested Grebe’s nest looked as though it had been predated by the patient Lesser-black backed Gull seen close-by in May and lots of juvenile Black-headed Gulls were about and all appeared as competently aggressive as the parent birds! A Little Egret was stalking the pond next to Long Road bridge.

Stonechats are a conundrum! They are often present in apparently suitable nesting sites such as Hobson’s Park and Trumpington Meadows up to the end of March but then they disappear. I think the key to nesting Stonechats is Gorse. There are at least two small areas of Gorse in our project area, next to the M11 bridge at Trumpington Meadows and at Hobson’s Park but both are probably too small to sustain nesting Stonechats. This gorse was possibly brought in as seeds in builders’ sand. Visit the Suffolk coastal gorse heaths and there are the breeding Stonechats – find the Stonechats and close by there are often Dartford Warblers.

On 11th June 62 Carrion Crows were hanging around not-so-isolating groups of picnickers on Parker’s Piece.

No-mow-May has resulted in Pyramidal Orchids in a front garden lawn in Huntingdon Road and Pyramidals and Bee Orchids in a small wayside verge at Addenbrooke’s and has encouraged the City Council to leave a weedy headland round Chesterton Recreation ground – thank you! At Hobson’s Park on 15th June a Black-headed Gull was perched in a tree! and two parent birds were tragically protecting their drowned chick from the mayhem of the colony and voracious lunging adult gulls after carrion.

Lots of Skylarks are still singing at Trumpington Meadows, Hobson’s Park and the development areas round the periphery of Darwin Green and Eddington. Nearby on 20th June at a farm site in the north of our project area three pairs of Yellowhammers were active, a pair of Yellow Wagtails were probably breeding and the new kestrel box had been taken over by a roosting Barn Owl.

A fantastic record of a Bee-eater, heard (only) over Nuttings Road on 21st June (Iain Webb, www.cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com). At Logan’s Meadow on 25th June four Blackcaps, three Whitethroats and a Chiffchaff were still singing, +/- six pairs of Swifts were nesting in the Tower and Jon Heath recorded a Siskin over his garden (cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com) on 26th June.

Woodpigeons are part of our avian background that are rarely noted unless in huge flocks. I usually end up checking distant lone Woodpigeons in flight for a raptor at least 10-12 times a day when out birdwatching – usually for a possible Sparrowhawk (I often keep a count!). Birds have no problem – I do! From the late 1970’s when growing winter sown Oil Seed Rape (OSR) expanded as part of winter farm crop rotations the population of Woodies exploded – c150% increase between late 1970’s – 2010. OSR was a food source that guaranteed pigeons’ winter survival. As a result, Woodpigeons moved into our towns and cities to breed where lawns, parks and gardens offer them a food supply during the breeding season as OSR crops grew too tall on which to feed. There is a nest in my neighbour’s eucalyptus tree (the first was blitzed by Magpies).

Woodpigeon in the bird bath

Then came the crunch. Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle (CSFB) became a devastating pest of OSR seedlings due to repeated planting in winter crop rotations, destroying germinating seedlings and forcing a reduction of 10% in winter drilled OSR in autumn 2019.

It was the widespread use of systemic neonicotinamide insecticides (“neonics”) to kill CSFB that many blame for the dramatic decline in our insect biodiversity.

As I left home early on the 9th June to do a bird survey in the Great Fen Project south of Yaxley, near Peterborough there were 12 Woodies sitting in the middle of my road – true townies! My survey took two and a half hours in deep countryside – real Woodpigeon country and I only saw three Woodies! They do migrate. My oldest bird book by David Seth-Smith – Birds of our Country and Empire – says: “The Wood-pigeon remains here all year round but swarms of foreign specimens come from the north in the autumn.” A paper in a recent Holme Bird Observatory’s annual report described autumn/early winter influxes of Woodpigeons from the continent. Perhaps we should observe Wood Pigeons more closely.

Last record for the month: a Silver-washed Fritillary found in Huntingdon Road on 30th June was probably brought in on the strong winds.

Bob Jarman 30th June 2020.

bobjarman99@btinternet.com

Birds May 2020

The weather in May has followed April – a prolonged period of high pressure with diminishing northerly winds over southern England, days with temperatures of 25C+ and the lowest May rainfall on record – just a ten-minute heavy shower on May 23rd. I suppose that’s good during this period of lock-down then partial lock-down, but we do need some rain. My garden is desperate for rain.

The April Cambridgeshire Bird Club (CBC) monthly bulletin has lists of nocturnal migrants recorded and identified by Simon Gillings and Jon Heath. The species list is remarkable including Bittern, a variety of waders including Bar-tailed Godwits, Avocet, Stone Curlews; Common Scoters, Tree Pipits …! The overland Scoter migration from the west coast eastwards on their return passage to their Arctic breeding grounds has been widely tracked this year. Join the CBC even if it’s just to read about “nocmig”! Astonishing!

Dawn Chorus Day – Sunday 3rd May: my urban list is rather feeble: Blackbird (started at 04:10), Robin, Great Tit, Blackcap (distant), Woodpigeon, Collared Dove!

Blackcaps are abundant this year and still singing across the City including the gardens in the roundabout underpass at the junction of East Rd/Newmarket Rd/Elizabeth Way. I used to think that you could distinguish Garden Warbler from Blackcap by habitat – Garden Warblers like open scrub and hedgerows and Blackcaps prefer woodier habitats. Not so! I A Blackcap was singing in the neat hedge around Marshall’s airfield well away from any trees. If in doubt it’s a Blackcap singing!

A Garden Warbler was singing in Cherry Hinton Chalk Pits on 1st May and along the Coton footpath on 7th May but I have not heard any around the shrubby margins of Coldham’s Common this year (60+! Garden Warblers were counted at RSPB Fen Drayton on 9th May – Hugh Venables www.cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com). Three Buzzards were over Chesterton, a Yellow Wagtail was singing on the northern edge of our project area and a Whimbrel flew over Chesterton at 18:25 all on 2nd May.

Lesser Whitethroats have been singing since mid-April but there was a mob arrival of Common Whitethroats in the first week of May and the ratio changed from 1:1 to 4:1 in favour of Commons. A Common Whitethroat singing in Logan’s Meadow on 18th is, I think, the first I have recorded there. I did not see the usual Common Terns feeding along the river in early April and feared their non-arrival but three flew high over Chesterton towards the City on 3rd and one was feeding opposite the pump station on 18th May. I think Martin (Walters) is right that they breed on the TA Pit at the end of Coldham’s Lane; there are no terns breeding this year at Hobson’s Park.

On 4th May the male Peregrine brought in a kill to the female at the city centre nest site who seized it and flew to the church to eat it. Despite the presence of these two predators there are always plenty of feral pigeons on and around the tower, unfazed (or unaware?) of the deadly raptors’ presence. On 22nd May the Peregrines at the second nest site had at least three young. On 5th May a pair of Grey Partridges were in a spring barley field close to the Newmarket Rd.

Swifts appeared in ones and twos but there was a big arrival overnight on 6th May; I think numbers are down on previous years. Eachard Road is the best road in the City for House Sparrows! Goldcrests were singing from the isolated Leylandiis in Histon Road and dense ivy in the willows on Coe Fen (not a conifer in sight) during the month.

Common Wheatears have been seen at Trumpington Meadows and Hobson’s Park on 2nd and 12th May respectively (Jill Aldred/Andrew Dobson www.cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com). These later passage birds are often of the Greenland race which make a trans-Atlantic flight to arctic Greenland and northern Canada – one of the longest migrations of any passerine.

During the applause for NHS workers at 8pm on 14th May a Little Egret flew over Chesterton, two over Barnwell East LNR on 17th May, one at the Mill Pond on 22nd May and one flew over the roundabout at East Rd/Newmarket Rd/Elizabeth Way junction on 23rd May – all possibly failed breeders from the nearest nesting colony, probably along the Ouse Washes or Wicken.

A Cetti’s Warbler was singing along the brook behind Coldham’s Lane, Sainsbury’s on 17th May and the same bird or another at the Cherry Hinton end of the Snakey Path on 22nd May; a Tawny Owl was hooting, probably from Murray Edwards on the 18th and again in Benson Street gardens on 29th and a Mistle Thrush was singing (still!) and several flyover Sparrowhawks were seen across the City on 18th May.

A Cuckoo was heard at Trumpington Meadows on 19th and King’s Hedges on 21st May (Mark Jackson www.cbcwhats about.blogspot.com). A Kingfisher flew fast past King’s College on 20th May and another Buzzard passed low over St Andrew’s Church, Chesterton on 21st.

The Hobson’s Park Black-headed Gull colony has calmed down since the hullabaloo in April. Then I overestimated its size and now reckon c35-40 nests all on the wooden platform islands; the first young were visible on 21st May. A male Pochard was unusual on 22nd May and around the edge of the lake and the periphery of the park five Reed Warblers and a Sedge Warbler (not many of them about this year?) were singing in mid-May. Corn Buntings are present at Hobson’s but far less prominently than last year.

A pair of Lesser black-backed Gulls were hanging around Jesus Lock during mid-May. Why? One was floating close to a Great-crested Grebes nest at Hobson’s Park hoping, I think, to predate the eggs the moment the incubating grebes left the nest unattended. I wonder if they breed on rooftops in the City centre, I have never confirmed this but birds are around most springs/summers. I have seen them migrating north over the Atlantic in a fierce westerly gale and they are as competent, confident and graceful as any Shearwater. I once saw one walk up to a feeding feral pigeon stab it to death with its bill then eviscerate it and swallow the entrails!

On 27th May a Red Kite flew low over Halifax Road (Lisa’s Dad – he has often seen them in the Cotswolds) and on 31st a territorial male Yellowhammer was singing in farmland near our project boundary close to the A14.

Bob Jarman 31st May 2020. bobjarman99@btinternet.com

Let’s keep going! April 2020

I can just about do it in my hour bicycle exercise: fifteen minutes to get there, half an hour round Hobson’s Park and a fifteen-minute cycle ride back home. I can cycle to most parts of the City and our NatHistCam project area and back within my allotted one-hour exercise with the exception of one day when I fell in the river, with my bike, at Newnham. That’s another story; my camera and binoculars survived but my mobile phone did not!

Blackcaps are singing across the City including Harding Way where I lived as a boy! I have never heard so many. They even made it onto the BBC Radio 4 national news at 7:00 on 25th April – Frank Gardner, their Security Correspondent, is a twitcher and he commented how widespread they are this spring. In Chesterton my ranking order of dawn chorus songsters is: Great Tit, Blackcap, Blackbird, Wood Pigeon then Collared Dove and Robin, often a Green Woodpecker in the background. Chiffchaffs have followed close to Blackcaps in abundance across the City this spring. This has been the sunniest April on record with an unusual sequence of north-easterly winds.

In 2019 Duncan McKay encouraged members of CNHS to send in Dawn Chorus recordings on their mobile phones to identify songsters. The ranking order was Blackbird, Robin, Wren and Blackcap. This year Dawn Chorus Day is Sunday May 3rd – let’s do the same again! The Wildlife Trusts have information on their web site. The Cambridgeshire Bird Club is also asking everyone and anyone to keep a weekly log of their garden birds – see their web site and download the record sheet!

The lock-down and the traffic silence has encouraged me to listen to urban bird song closely. Coal Tits breed just across to road to me but rarely venture onto my feeders – they have two songs. Blue Tits also have at least two songs and one that is only occasionally heard – a hoarse “cheeva..cheeva..cheeva”. I think this is a territorial statement from the male bird of an established pair and the familiar song is to attract a mate. In Germany, Blue Tits have been found with a deadly contagious disease rather like Trichomoniasis in Greenfinches. So far, this infection has not appeared in UK Blue Tits.

Despite trichomoniasis, Greenfinches appear to be having a good breeding season across the City and must have made a recovery from their contagion.

At 4:00am on 2nd April Redwings were passing over in numbers. Buzzards and Red Kites have been seen widely including over the junction of Histon Road with Castle Hill, a Red Kite over Tenison Road (Martin Walters) on 4th and my first Buzzard seen from my house on 5th and another on 26th; a Red Kite over Hobsons Park on 17th April.

A Willow Warbler was singing at Barnwell East LNR on 6th April (Iain Webb, cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com) and one at Coe Fen the next day. Also, on 7th April a pair of Oystercatchers and a pair of Lapwings were at Hobson’s Park and on 15th April an Oystercatcher over Chesterton early morning. On the 9th a Swallow flew low over my Chesterton garden; on the 10th the breeding pair of Swallows were back along the river under the A14 bridge and another Willow Warbler was singing in Milton Country Park.

On 14th April I heard a Grey Wagtail singing by the river at the Doubletree Hotel – I probably have heard them before but this was the first time I have registered and listened carefully to Grey Wagtail song; the bird had been ringed. The song was a tuneful rattle interspersed with call notes. Very different from the woeful “slurp. ..slurp …slurp” song of Yellow Wagtails. (The worst bird song!)

The Chiffchaff and the Greenfinch

On 18th April the first Corn Bunting was singing at Hobsons Park and on the same day a Chiffchaff and a Greenfinch arrived together in my garden. Both are unusual in my small garden but they arrived together, hung around the feeders together and left together. Maybe we will have a Chiffinch before the season is out!!

At 22:30 on 18th April two male Tawny Owls were challenging each other with quiet alternating hoots; they were close by and were probably more audible because of the much-reduced traffic noise in the lock-down.

On 19th April Rob Pople reported an Osprey (cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com) and at Eddington I heard my first Lesser Whitethroat of the year – but still no Whitethroats (but … first one heard at Baitsbite on 26th)! A pair of Sparrowhawks were displaying over Castle Hill when they appeared to be intercepted by a second displaying pair. The real sensation of the month was on the 22nd April – a White-tailed Sea Eagle reported over Bolton’s Pit, Newnham (James Cadbury: cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com). It was probably one of the released birds from the Isle of Wight reintroduction scheme. They have been seen over Greater London and a bird was tracked up the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts during March.

A Mistle Thrush was still singing in Huntingdon Road (they have been singing since November 2019) and a Yellow Wagtail and a pair of displaying Sparrowhawks were over my house in Chesterton. Skylarks were in full song throughout the month at Hobson’s Park and in arable land behind St Giles, Cemetery off Huntingdon Road. The male Peregrine was reliably in attendance on his lookout perch in the City centre throughout April. On 26th April 4 Swifts were seen high over Histon Road.

Male Kestrel at Clay Farm

Two Common Sandpipers were at Hobson’s Park on 24th April (Martin Walters). I have tried to count the Black-headed Gulls at Hobson’s Park but each time I do the number increases; I think there are 100 breeding pairs, a number of non-breeding adults and 12-15 birds in their second calendar year i.e. they were fledged juveniles last year. These birds act as colony guards and look-outs ready to mob the passing Heron or Lesser black-backed Gull but also ready to sneak a crafty copulation with a lone female; no further sighting of the 2nd year Mediterranean Gull there with nest material. Two Common Terns were at Milton CP on 25th just outside our project area. On 28th April Swallows, House Martins, Sand Martins and two Reed Warblers were at Hobson’s Park. On 29th April, along the Coton footpath, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat and Willow Warbler were singing.

On the 30th a Common Tern over the Mill Pond and three Corn Buntings singing on the ground – which I have not seen before – about 50 House Martins plus Swallows, 3 Sand Martins and a high over Common Tern were all at Hobson’s Park and Nuthatches were calling from a back garden in Chaucer Road (a new Cambridge locality for me). Also on 30th a Red Kite over Castle Hill and a Wheatear, Cuckoo and Cetti’s Warbler at Trumpington Meadows (Jill Aldred: cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com).

Local House Spug

I finished my March blog with a comment about House Sparrows. A lone male bird now makes regular visits to my feeders (picture below). House “Spugs” get little press but they are barometers of the health of our urban bird life. During the lock-down more people than ever, especially children home from school, are taking an interest in the wild life around us. In Cambridgeshire, House Sparrows have become almost extinct in the wider countryside because of intensive farming and the loss of over-winter stubbles to feed. They have adapted to western urban environments and rural villages. In eastern Europe to central Asia, Tree Sparrows are the birds of human habitations and House Sparrows are birds of the open countryside.

I’m not finished just yet! March 2020

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time! Being compelled to stay at home because of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) right at the start of spring and the arrival of our breeding birds is a blow. From March 24th, it’s birding from home neighbourhoods or gardens or what can be seen or heard on fitness excursions by foot or bicycle or on a visit to local food stores. On 25th a pair of Common Cranes were seen over a garden in Ely, Jon Heath saw five over his garden in north Cambridge last year and they are examples of what can be seen from an urban home neighbourhood. It’s a good time to see Common Cranes from the fenland breeding population as wandering young birds from last year are ejected from family groups and try to establish their own breeding territories.

Fortunately, our 3-years project to study the wildlife of the City has just ended. The Cambridgeshire Bird Club has an ongoing garden bird survey – see their website for details: www.cambridgebirdclub.org.uk A birder in the north of the City has recorded 105 species in and over his neighbourhood (plus 18 heard – not seen – from night-time audio recordings). That’s a challenge!

The spring passage is underway; Chiffchaffs are singing across the City: Tenison Road (Martin), Logan’s Meadow (2), Eddington, Huntingdon Rd/Histon Rd footpath and Huntingdon Road, Canterbury St, Hobson’s Park, Long Road (2) and along the river (4). Overwintering Blackcaps are singing a peculiar sub-song before they leave and before the breeding population arrives; a pair on 29th and 30th off Huntingdon Road. Buzzards are over the City and a pair appears to have a breeding territory in the remaining trees at the Milton/A10 roundabout despite the A14 workings nearby – they are just outside our project area.

The City centre Peregrines have been displaying noisily and the male can been seen above the nest site. A Peregrine was seen over Lovell Road on 23rd (Jon). The Newnham Nuthatch, seen on a garden feeder over winter, is still about so is probably breeding nearby (Stella).

Logan’s Meadow has had a tree tragedy. A major willow suffered a terminal split in its trunk and has been felled. I hope it was checked for roosting bats before it was felled. This is a good site for Pipistrelles and Daubentons. The immediate effect is shocking but perhaps some benefit can be had by planting understorey shrubs and allowing the ground flora to recover. Sadly, the two pairs of displaying Great-spotted Woodpeckers and the Tree Creepers have gone. Logan’s Meadow is one of the few, probably the only “wild” woodland site in north Cambridge. I did see a Water Vole in Logan’s Meadow on 19th, that’s new to me there – maybe not to the mammal experts– but some compensation for the wreckage in the wood. Also in Logan’s Meadow, Marsh Marigold and Coltsfoot are in full flower. A Badger sett was found at Eddington.

The rookeries on Hills Road and at Girton College seem to have made complete recoveries from the effects of the February storms Ciara and Dennis. The Hills Road rookery was wiped out but now has 14, possibly 15 apparently active nests (AAN’s) – 10 last year and the Girton College rookery has 38 possibly 40 AANs – 34 last year. It’s difficult to count the Girton College site because of the dense evergreen crowns of the pines and the Sequoia.

My first Brimstone butterfly was on 24th – lock-down day – and by 27th Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and Commas had emerged from their winter torpor. Rhona has photographed a strange-plumaged Wren at Jesus College. Is it part melanism, is it a strange moult or discolouration for some physical reason? Between the bus station at Addenbrookes and the Outpatients Dept. is a shaded grass verge that has a number of Bee Orchid rosettes.

Through this winter I have seen been aware of an evening flight of Jackdaws going due north over my Chesterton home. They must be off to roost but where that is I do not know. I suspect it might be in Histon in the trees around the Church. At dusk one evening I counted 95 flying over.

House Sparrows are part of the background bird life that are never mentioned in any birding websites. But they are a barometer for urban biodiversity. They have recently returned to feed in my garden which means the colony in nearby St Andrews Road has been re-established. In the mid-1970’s, when the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) was in Trumpington so many House Sparrows descended on the ripening cereals trials to feed it was feared the yield results would be compromised. They had a dedicated sparrow killer who chased the birds into a funnel trap and dispatched them. In the early 1980’s the population collapsed and the first House Sparrows recorded at Trumpington Meadows, on the site of the (PBI), was two years ago. I may have told this before!

Cycling along the towpath on 25th and a Common Lizard scurried across the track; I haven’t seen one of these in Cambridgeshire for very many years.

On a lone, fitness, cycle ride to Hobsons Park on 26th there were 5 Little Gulls, the world’s smallest Gull, amongst the 300+ Black-headed Gulls in the colony – they had probably been brought in by the easterly winds. By 30th the colony had consolidated to about 130 birds; a passing Common Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull were seen off aggressively. On another cycle ride on 28th a 2nd year Mediterranean Gull was at a site in our project area, this bird was seen with nest material; three had been reported earlier including a pair displaying. I failed to locate it/them a few days later.

There are Lesser Black-backed Gulls over the City centre – will they/are they nesting on a rooftop?

I’m a great fan of Ivy! I dispute the theory it “strangles” trees when it grows up stems and trunks. What it does is add to wind resistance increasing the likelihood of tree fall during exceptional storms. It provides nesting habitats and a berry harvest that lasts through the winter and is important for House Sparrows and other species. I have seen more dead trees caused by a heavy parasitic load of mistletoe than ivy growth.

Best wishes to all during this very difficult time; please stay safe.

Bob Jarman 29th March 2020.

bobjarman99@btinternet.com

It’s not the last one …… just yet! February 2020

Sitting in the café in Chesterton Road on 3rd February a female Sparrowhawk swept across busy Chesterton Road at knee height, through a front gate and over a wall. Perhaps it spotted a gap in the traffic, perhaps it just took a chance but it looked to me like reckless predation!

In Windsor Road, there is an apple tree that is completely infested with Mistletoe. It is a Bramley and now fails to produce any fruit. This seems to be reckless parasitism as the host appears to be dying. The houses at the Histon Road end of Windsor Road were built in 1937 on an established orchard owned by St John’s College and this tree is at least 100 years old.

Dying Bramley apple tree with a lethal load of Mistletoe

The female Goosander was seen again at Milton Country Park on 8th February; it often swam close to the vegetation on the island at the north end of Dickerson Pit. A Blackcap was calling loudly from Logan’s Meadow on 6th and another was heard in gardens on Huntingdon Road on 7th February and a female Blackcap (“browncap”) in Lovell Road on 21st.

Sunday 9th was storm Ciara – one of the worst days for weather by far this year (followed by storm Dennis on 15th/16th). Still, a Song Thrush was singing in Chesterton during the day and off Huntingdon Road a “browncap”, Chaffinch, Dunnock and four species of tits were using a bird bath at the same time. Coal Tits are actively singing. A phone-in to Christopher South on Radio Cambridgeshire reported a Blue Tit nest with chicks. But the storm destroyed all the Rooks nests in Long Road although 31 Rooks, presumably the birds from the colony, were feeding on Hobson’s Park on 12th February.

I checked the state of most other rookeries on 13th February after storm Ciara but before storm Dennis. I counted the following intact nests (spring 2019 count of active nests in brackets):

  • Cherry Hinton Hall, 4 (10) and nearby Walpole Road, 5 (12).
  • Teversham Drift and close-by Church End, 18 (32).
  • Teversham Church and close-by Airport Way, 22 (26).
  • Girton College and nearby Huntingdon Road checked on 18th February after Ciara and Dennis, 14 (34)

All sites appear to have lost remnant nests from last year. How much of this is down to normal losses and how much is due to storm Ciara (and storm Dennis in the case of Girton College) I don’t know. The Walpole Road, Airport Way and Long Road sites are particularly exposed. Rooks were active at all the sites except the Girton College site. On 25th February five nests had been reconstructed in Long Road.

Rooks feeding in Hobson’s Park – February 2020

Three Bewick’s Swans circled over Jesus College on 12th before heading north-east (Rob).

Sunny mornings in February and March are good months to record House Sparrow nest sites and colonies. The males call loudly usually by the nest entrance. One of the best colonies in Cambridge is in Richmond Road with a colony of 4-5 nests in the dense Ivy on a west facing front wall of a terraced house.

Two Little Egrets were at Hobson’s Park on 12th February and three Little Egrets were in the horse paddock next to the A14 Bridge at the end of Fen Road; on 20th February, two were there and one in Ditton Meadows. Lapwings have taken up residence at Hobson’s Park and a male Peregrine was on the URC Church on the same day.

At our NatHistCam Committee meeting Duncan McKay reported there are six active Badger sets within a mile radius of the City centre; the largest in college grounds off Grange Road has 21 entrances! At this meeting, a map of Mistletoe distribution was circulated. In the east of the City – Romsey Town and Cherry Hinton – Mistletoe is scarce but is present in Wenvoe Close, Cherry Hinton and Seymour Street, Romsey. Strangely, none in Cherry Hinton Hall despite Mistle Thrush singing there on 13th February and a Blackcap calling in nearby Mill End Road also on 13th February – the two principal bird vectors of the parasite. Greenfinches were singing across Cherry Hinton on 13th February.

Cycle north along the Cam and you will see Cormorants, all are of the European race that develops a grey “shawl” of feathers over head and neck in adult breeding plumage. I reckon average dive time is 25 seconds with a range of 23-29 seconds; whether this is escape/avoidance dive-time or feeding dive-time I don’t know!

On 14th February, a Kingfisher was on Riverside and a pair in a display chase at Milton Country Park on 22nd February; the latest UK Kingfisher population is 3850 – 6400 pairs which is lower than I expected (British Birds, February 2020).

Wicken Fen is not in the NatHistCam area but the Hen Harrier roost is worth mentioning; Marsh Harriers are present too. I think it is one of the best birding sites in the County. At dusk on 14th of February five males and three ring-tails (female/1st y) were seen. It’s worth the National Trust entrance fee (and car park fee!); the best views can often be seen just outside the reserve centre or from the top of the scaffolding tower. Week days are best; weekends can get crowded! Barn Owls are an almost certainty too.

Goldcrests and Coal Tits are singing wherever there is a well-established stand of conifers and my first city flowering Blackthorn was on the 14th.

The south edge of Dickerson Pit at Milton Country Park on the 18th had a pair of displaying Great-crested Grebes, five Shovelers and five Wigeon on 22nd February; the commonest ducks were Gadwell and Tufted Duck – feeding dive time was 19-23 seconds!

“Are you looking for the Peregrines?” said a Civil Enforcement Officer (Traffic Warden) to me on 21st February. “I saw one earlier this morning” he said “Got a picture of it on my phone, have a look and last week I saw a Red Kite over Coe Fen”. The pair were displaying noisily at roof-top height on 22nd February and the size difference between the male (smaller) and the female (larger) was obvious. A Woodcock was off Huntingdon Road on 21st (Sean Rouse, www.cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com).

The Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust encouraged land owners to complete the 30-minute Big Farm Bird Count during February. I completed one on the NIAB’s Trials ground that falls within our study area – 15 species in the half hour including Yellowhammer, singing Skylarks and a flyover Grey Wagtail!

The Hobsons Park Stonechat pair were feeding along the busway on 25th and 176 Black-headed Gulls were around the lake – 9 (5.1%) were first years. This matches a guestimate of first year birds along Jesus Lock to Riverside in winter 2018/2019 of 6%.

A flock of Long-tailed-Tits were arguing with their reflections in a garden mirror off Perne Road on 29th (Paul).

Bob Jarman 29th February 2020. – bobjarman99@btinternet.com

This could be the last! January 2020

A hint of spring sunshine and breeding behaviour begins. Great Tits are often first with their ringing song, Blue Tits too, but their song is often a coarse version of their call and they never sing for long. Great Tits keep going! Blackbirds are at it and Song Thrushes just revving up. Mistle Thrushes have been patiently singing since last November.

It happens every year – I hear a call, often associated with a tit flock, and ignore it until I remember what it is – of course it’s a Tree Creeper. I’m relieved that I can still hear it at my age. “Sibilant” is the word – it’s a word I have only read describing bird song but that’s what a Tree Creeper’s call and song sounds like: sibilant! One was singing in Logan’s Meadow in mid-January. Wrens are singing – they never seem to stop. They are our commonest bird with 11 million pairs out of the estimated 84 million breeding pairs of birds in the UK (British Birds, February 2020 Vol 113).

Four Great-spotted Woodpeckers were chasing each other through and around Logan’s Meadow. At least two were males with a red patch on the back of their heads. I like them. They are noisy, full of enthusiasm, careless and indiscreet in their nuptial display chases. Rhona Watson has photographed a female (without the red spot) in Jesus College grounds with a chafer grub. I think it was a gift and part of the rituals of a breeding pair bond.

There were still plenty of Redwings and Fieldfares about in January. Fewer seem to have ventured into the City this winter which has been mild. I think there is still plenty of food to be found in the countryside and on farmland although Logan’s Meadow has a regular roost of Redwings. Eighty-Five Fieldfares were in a flock on farmland in the north of our project area in early January. The Newnham Nuthatch was a regular visitor to a garden feeder during the month.

A female Goosander has been present on the Dickerson Pit at Milton Country Park during most of January. I have seen it in almost exactly the same place on several occasions – in the north end of Dickerson pit which is just outside our NatHistCam project area. The front cover of the latest Cambridgeshire Bird Club Annual Report (no 92, 2019) for observations logged in 2018 has an illustration of a female Goosander with chicks. Goosanders bred successfully for the first time in Cambridgeshire in 2018 at two sites; one site was on the River Cam at Little Shelford. Typically, it is a breeding bird of faster moving upland rivers and streams.

In 2014, I found a female Goosander with seven chicks in May on the River Great Ouse near Milton Keynes. They were amusing to watch. From a distance, they were like yobs on a day out diving, swimming and clambering over each other in the water until they saw me on the water’s edge when they lined up politely and immaculately behind their mother and swam past in a line. It’s a breeding bird we should now look for on lowland rivers.

Peregrine(s) have been seen regularly on the united Reform Church in Trumpington Street. On a cold wet morning, I saw the female perched on the very top of the spire looking huddled and damp.

I had not been to Kingfishers Bridge Reserve near Wicken Fen for many years but in the last two weeks I have been there twice! It’s just off the road from Stretham to Wicken opposite the road to Upware. Its free to visit and well worth it. James Moss, the warden, and Stephen Tomkins gave excellent talks about the reserve to the Natural History Society on 30th January. It has a visitors’ centre and encourages families and has hides, picnic tables and the “Bittern Hump” where you can sit and watch and wait for Marsh Harriers and Bitterns. There is a white-board where you can add your own sightings; someone had seen a” fezunt” which continues to amuse me!

In the month the regular pair of Stonechats, three Little Egrets and Kestrel were at Hobson’s Park and a Kestrel over the Market Square and Logan’s Meadow. The Kestrel is the common European lowland raptor and its range extends into North Africa and the middle-East.

Over the New Year I visited The Lebanon. The weather was terrible! Heavy rain every day often most of the day. I visited Mleeta in the south of Lebanon which can be described as the Hezbollah theme park! Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organisation but is an integral part of the sectarian peace and government in Lebanon. The park is on hills overlooking the lowlands of south Lebanon and was the resistance headquarters against the Israeli occupation in the 1990’s. It is a memorial to the deaths of the Hezbollah “martyrs” and shows captured Israeli munitions, a gift shop, lecture hall and a 200m tunnel through the hill to the Hezbollah observation post. The “sparrowhawk” is depicted as the bird of resistance because it “hovers, all seeing, over the valleys below and is bitter to the taste”. The Hezbollah guides were not impressed when I pointed out the bird described and in their propaganda film was a Kestrel.

Bob Jarman 31st January 2020.

bobjarman99@btinternet.com

This could be the last! December 2019

This could be the last bird blog as our NatHistCam project comes to an end. It had been a fascinating three-year study – not just local patch birding but an attempt to record the changes in the City’s bird life and habitats. It’s difficult to understand just how big these changes are. Have all similar cities experienced the changes that Cambridge has? In a historical context, there have been major changes in the bird life of the City – some probably due to climate change, others to habitat loss due to building developments, and other changes, especially the increase in raptors, due to protective legislation. Perhaps the most interesting development has been recording of nocturnal passage over the City and identifying species and numbers of birds by their flight contact calls.

The Pallas’s Warbler was re-found on December 2nd at Paradise Local Nature Reserve. The other December highlight was the Western Siberian subspecies of Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita tristis) found in Logan’s Meadow Local Nature Reserve by Simon Gillings on December 11th and subsequently by Nigel Lister. I’ve had a couple of goes looking for it – the second time on 23rd December I found a Chiffchaff but it was always too mobile and too distant to clinch an identification; I didn’t hear it call – perhaps it didn’t.

Three Blackcaps – two males and a female – have frequented a garden off Huntingdon Road feeding on Mahonia nectaries and Honeysuckle berries; they have been seen most days during December including Christmas Day! Up to seven Cormorants have frequented the roost at Logan’s Meadow and a pre-roost gathering of at least 16 Magpies assemble there most evenings (down from 26 last year).

Little Egrets have been seen in and over the City in our project area at Sheep’s Green and Granchester Meadows on December 14th, over the junction of Histon Road with Huntingdon Road on December 13th, and over the Sir Isaac Newton pub on Castle Hill on December 21st. Twenty years ago, sightings like these would have been unthinkable; thirty years ago, would have required a full written description to the UK Rarities Committee.

Pairs of Stonechats have been seen behind the Cambridge Rugby Club near the Tennis Club and at Hobson’s Park on 21st December and 24th December respectively. Perhaps one year a pair will stay and breed in our project area but every year pairs appear settled but by March they have gone. Also at Hobsons Park on 24th December 17 Linnets, a Water Rail (heard only) and 21 Rooks. Were these the same 21 Rooks I saw on Nightingale Avenue recreation ground on 23rd December and were they from the Long Road colony or the Cherry Hinton Hall/Walpole Road rookery? On the very edge of our project area a flock of c220 Linnets were seen on a field of Maize stubble and potato haulms together with 26 Pied Wagtails,1 Grey Wagtail and 20+ Meadow Pipits. This highlights just how important over-winter weedy stubbles are!

Up to five Little Grebes are regular along the Cam from the Long Reach adjacent to Ditton Meadows to the bridge over the A14.

Late news from Hobson’s Park: Lapwings bred there this years and chicks were seen (Dusty Miller).

Bob Jarman 26th December 2019

bobjarman99@btinternet.com

One of the best Novembers yet! November 2019

On 22nd November, a Pallas’s Warbler was found in Paradise Nature Reserve. It was a sensational find of this tiny rare migrant warbler inland and a fantastic discovery (Mike Crosby, cbcwhatsabout.com). It’s the second County record. Local naturalists say that it could have been there some days before it was identified. The first County record was a moribund bird found in Peterborough outside the Natural England offices in 1998; it had struck a window. Over the weekend of the 23rd/24th November it attracted about 100 birders. I caught up with it on 25th and 26th November but it was difficult to locate and it moved with speed through the foliage loosely associating with a Long-tailed Tit flock and Goldcrests. The most recent national annual total of this rarity is just 27 in 2017. Inland locations are very rare; overwintering birds are even rarer. This bird ought to be in south-east China by now!

Also seen in the nature reserve were two Chiffchaffs, a Nuthatch (a good find – this bird is rare in our project area), 1/2 Treecreepers, a well-watched Kingfisher fishing and a Woodcock.

The October monthly bulletin of the Cambridgeshire Bird Club has an item by Simon Gillings about his analysis of October night-time bird calls over his Chesterton home. His findings are remarkable and the practice of analysing overhead nocturnal bird calls adds a new dimension to ornithology – I nearly said bird watching – but it is not “watching”! If I’m reading his tabular summary correctly he has recorded the following October monthly totals (highlights only): Whooper Swan 4; Little Grebe 9 (I don’t think I have ever seen Little Grebe fly more than a foot above the water but migrate and colonise they must and they do!); Turnstone 4; Knot 4; Common Sandpiper 4; Ring Ousel 17 (I have never seen Ring Ousel in Cambs and as I live about ½ a mile from Simon they probably flew over my house!); Redwing 3417; Song Thrush 980; Tree Pipit 9. The numbers and species recorded are …… astonishing and add a new story to the intrigue of bird migration – remarkable! Less vocal species may also pass over such as Corncrakes on their way to the Hebrides and maybe it will unravel the secret westerly migration of Aquatic Warblers too.

During the month, a Common Gull on The Pond at Eddington had a white Darvic leg ring on its right tarsus plus an aluminium? ring on its left. From a number of photos, the ring identification was “JK81”. I contacted the Euroring internet site and received the following details: ringed at the Stavanger ringing centre, Ostfold, Norway on 21 May 2016 as an adult – possibly three years old; seen at Ostfold, Norway in August 2016 and then Eddington on 7th November 2019 – so it’s at least six years old.

A probable Rose-ringed Parakeet (Ring-necked) was seen in Jesus College on 4th November. This non-native escapee is an uncommon bird in Cambs. Bramblings have been present in the Beech Woods since the beginning of the month and Kingfishers can be seen in the small sector of Milton Country Park in our project area (Jon Heath saw 4 there on 6th November).

Eddington is the best place to see Common Buzzards in our project area and nearby in the grounds of Girton College on 10th November one, possibly two Nuthatches and two Tree Creepers amongst the roving tit flock. On 11th November, a Peregrine was over the Market Square and on 15th November, the female and male Peregrines were “jousting” in flight together over the Market Square. I have never seen male and female birds together as well before. The female is larger, bulkier and deeper chested than the male and after aerial spats they often sat together on the corner spires of King’s College. Take a seat for coffee at Don Pasquale’s and wait for the action!

Also seen on the 11th November, at Hobson’s Park, a Water Rail, four Common Snipe and a female Stonechat and on 14th November at Hobson’s 12 Common Snipe (in a wet sector of the area set aside for allotments) and a flyover Peregrine; on 24th November, there was a pair of Stonechats at Hobson’s Park and a Little Egret.

On 16th of November I watched angler Alan Stebbings (he works at Ridgeon’s) land a 10 lb pike near the Mill Pond whilst a nearby Grey Heron waited for him to throw it the disgorged fish bait. Panic amongst pigeons in the Market Square on 22nd November was not caused by a Peregrine but a flyover Kestrel!

A Mistle Thrush was singing in Chesterton on 13th November, another was heard near Storeys Way on 19th and Paradise Nature Reserve on 26th; one was defending a Mistletoe clump with berries in Chesterton on 26th November. On 16th November, a male Blackcap was in my Chesterton garden – mid-November is a typical arrival date for overwintering Blackcaps from central Europe. This matches ringing records from Holme Bird Observatory on the Norfolk coast. A female Blackcap, a “browncap”, was seen in a garden in Benson Street on 23- 26rd November feeding on Mahonia nectaries and a male in Tenison Road feeding on the shrivelled remains of grapes on a vine.

A nocturnal Peregrine strike is suspected of killing the Long-tailed Skua that was found in October; perhaps the Skua was too bulky to carry off or the falcon failed to “get-a grip”! Records of Red Kite over Mill Road cemetery in May, June and September this year (Andrew Dobson). This is in the very centre of our NatHistCam project area.

Bob Jarman 30th November 2019

bobjarman99@btinternet.com

The remarkable remarkable! – the autumn passage 2019 continues

On 16th October Shaun Mayes of the St John’s college staff found the fresh corpse of a bird outside Merton House at the junction of Queens Road and Madingley Road. Shaun and his birdwatching colleague David Brown contacted David’s brother-in-law Jonathan Bustard (a good name for a birder)! and the identification was confirmed as a juvenile Long-tailed Skua.

This is a remarkable inland record for this rare migratory sea bird. I think it is the first for our project area and possibly only the 12th record for the County. Previous records have come from Foul Anchor in the north of Cambridgeshire, beyond Wisbech, on the banks of the River Nene five miles south of The Wash. It adds further evidence to the idea that migratory sea birds travel overland to short-cut migration routes. In the 1970’s and 1980’s Graham Easy saw flocks of skuas (Arctic and Great Skuas) passing south west overhead, at great height, in autumn over Milton. He speculated that there were major overland migration routes for skuas and Kittiwakes following the north east/south west trajectories of the Ouse/Cam, Nene and Welland river valleys exiting in the Bristol Channel. Remarkably, these seabirds appear to take an overland short cut on their way to wintering grounds off the coast of Senegal.


The Long-tailed Skua found dead in Cambridge on 16th October
The Long-tailed Skua found dead in Cambridge on 16th October

We know that some skuas on their northerly spring passage fly through the Great Glen from the North Atlantic to exit in the Moray Firth and the North Sea on their way to their breeding grounds in the northern Isles and the sub-Arctic tundras. Watching Skua movements on the North Norfolk coast this time of year and all the skuas appear to be flying west i.e. into the Wash not east which, as you would expect, would take them around the East Anglian coast and then south eventually into the English Channel.

This is a brilliant record – thanks to Shaun and David.

On 6th October, there was a big night time passage of Song Thrushes and Redwings and daylight passage of Redwings over the City. I haven’t seen a Fieldfare yet! On 10th October, there was a Yellow-legged Gull at Hobson’s Park and two there on 15th October. Also at Hobson’s Park on 15th October were 60+ Redwings (over), a Water Rail, 2 Snipe, 4+ Corn Buntings and outside Trumpington a huge flock of 500+ Golden Plovers. The influx of Jays into the country – apparently due to a failure of the acorn crop in Europe – seems to have stopped but they have filtered inland and are common throughout our project area.

The common wagtail in our project area seems to be Grey Wagtails not Pied Wagtails. I see or hear them most days. There is a regular pair on or over the Radio Cambridgeshire building, a male was singing in Regents Street on 16th October and they are often flying over the Market Square and where I live in Chesterton. Also on 16th October was a late Swallow over Mill Road Cemetery.

I discovered a new habitat! Behind the West Cambridge university building there is a balancing pond – a large lake of at least one hectare; it is hidden from view behind the hedges along the Coton/west Cambridge footpath. According to a local angler it’s been there for about 5 years and is full of huge Common Carp – ideal for a passing Osprey.

On 18th October, a Chiffchaff was calling in a large garden in Huntingdon Road and there were three Buzzards over Thornton Way. On 19th October, there were eight Common Buzzards over the rough land at Eddington, 12 Linnets and 12 Meadow Pipits. Buzzards are now, probably, our commonest raptor. Twenty years ago, in 1999, they nested for the first time, in great secrecy, in west Cambridgeshire. It is a remarkable turn-round and is likely due to legal protection (thanks to EU law!) and the subsequent lack of persecution.

On 29th October one of the Peregrines was roosting at its regular site in the city centre and on 30th October Gadwell were the commonest duck on the slice of Milton Country Park in our project area; the regular wintering Widgeon had also returned.

Dr Simon Gillings of the BTO has collected the night-time recording device from my garden. It recorded night time calls of birds passing over head from 6pm to 6am and he had placed a number of them across the City. Martin Walters has written a very good “Nature Notes” in the Cambridge Independent (23rd October 2019) about Simon’s project. Simon now plans to download the recordings to survey nocturnal migration (“noc-mig”) over Cambridge.

Bob Jarman 31st October 2019

bobjarman99@btinternet.com