All posts by Bob Jarman

I told you so! – October 2020

Easterly winds from across in the first and second weeks of the month brought in an exceptional number of far-eastern vagrants to the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts. Many more must have filtered inland, a Radde’s Warbler was a brilliant find in north Cambs (see below) but many more probably passed unnoticed and some even through our project area.

The 3rd October was the wettest day in the country since records began in 1891 with an average of 1.24” or 31.7 mm nationwide. It was ideal rare bird migration weather with a low pressure over eastern England and a high pressure on the continent. Sure enough exceptional numbers of Radde’s Warblers arrived (I did catch up with the one in the overgrown corner of Southwold’s campsite) and Dusky Warblers followed. A first for the County, Radde’s was found at Peakirk on 4th October. Then – perhaps the most sought-after autumn rarity showed – Red-flanked Bluetails along coastal Norfolk and the remarkable occurrence of the Rufous Bush Chat (Robin) (eastern race syriaca) that was mob-twitched* at Stiffkey.

These arrivals followed a period of NE winds from central Europe. Perhaps just as remarkable was the influx of Goldcrests that arrived overnight on 14th/15th October: 400+ were at Holme Bird Observatory (HBO) and I saw 100+ around Southwold town. A further arrival was recorded at HBO on 26th October. They were not just in the conifers; every Sycamore – with or without leaves – was alive with Goldcrests feeding desperately. I rarely see them in my garden but hear them daily in the Leylandii just 50 m away where they stay put; even isolated conifers in the city – Coldham’s Lane, Roseford Road, St Andrew’s cemetery in Chesterton – have their own “endemic” Goldcrests. At Southwold they were feeding almost exclusively in the Sycamores and occasionally on the ground for insects after their North Sea migration flight. They will filter inland. How this tiny bird – weighing just five to six grams – makes this migration over the North Sea and at night is quite remarkable.

Migration is not without fatalities. I saw a Starling pitch into the sea just 75 m from land and was swallowed whole, alive and flapping by a Great Black-backed Gull. An exhausted Fieldfare landed on the beach to be instantly chased as prey by a mob of gulls; it made it to safety.

There is an excellent article on the latest Bird Guides web site by Simon Gillings of the BTO about “noc-mig” – the night time recording of overflying migrants and the identification of species by their calls. Simon cites the Tree Pipit which is a county rarity but he has recorded it 29 times over Chesterton in the last three years. On 23rd October Simon recorded Hawfinch, Brambling and Lesser Redpoll over his Chesterton home (cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com). (There is a very good web site – Xeno-Canto – with recording of bird calls and songs).

On 5th October Simon Gillings had a Gannet over Newmarket Road heading towards the City centre! and 12 Crossbills over Chesterton (cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com). On 7th October a late Swallow was over Huntingdon Road and on 10th October Jon Heath photographed a fine male Hen Harrier over his house in north Cambridge.

I told you so! I expected that Great (White) Egret would be the next new bird (tick!) in our project area (blog September 2020) – sure enough Jon Heath recorded one flying over his north Cambridge garden on 15th October. Little Egrets** were seen at Hobson’s Park and Coe Fen during the month and one flew over Elizabeth Way on 29th heading towards the city centre.

Great White Egret

On 7th October the first few overwintering Black-headed Gulls were around Jesus Lock and by 22nd October numbers has increased to about 55; on the same day there were 100+ at Hobson’s Park. These appeared to have had a poor breeding season with only 2-3% first-year birds but the Black-headed Gulls at Milton Country Park numbered 55 with 9 first calendar year birds.

During the month Nuthatches were seen/heard in the Botanic Gardens, along “The Backs” and in Chaucer Road.

Water Voles were seen regularly at Logan’s Meadow and a Hedgehog is now regular into my small garden after I cut a gap in the base of my garden gate (for the cat!). The City Council have a project “Hedgehog Highway” that offers to cut access points for hedgehogs in enclosed gardens. On 23rd October about 20 Siskins were feeding in the Alders on Newnham Recreation Ground.

Coal Tits, like the Goldcrests stick to the nearby Leylandii and rarely make it into my garden; when they do its always single birds, a quick snatch of a sunflower seed then up and away back to the cover of the Leylandii. Two Red Kites were on the northern edge of our project area near Histon on 25th October and a Grey Heron was standing on the chimney pot of a three stores house on Mitcham’s Corner on 26th October! Two to three Buzzards were seen at Eddington throughout the month, one to two over the Milton/A14 roundabout and the Cormorants’ roost in Logan’s Meadow is active.

A red-head Goosander was at Milton Country Park on 28th October (Jon Heath).

*Twitching/to twitch/a twitch – travelling distance to see a new/rare bird – was a late 1960’s humorous turn-of-phrase. It originated in Norfolk from a birder called Dave? who exhibited a tweak/twitch in his cheek when told of a rare bird he had not seen! **In those days Little Egrets were twitched as exceptional rarities! Two London birders travelled to South Wales overnight from Cley, Norfolk on a Lambretta 175 scooter to “twitch” a Little Egret.

Grey Herons are becoming very confiding along the river.
(picture from a punt by Seun Oratokhai)

Bob Jarman 31st October 2020
bobjarman99@btinternet.com

Big migration time – September 2020

I never seem to get enough spare days to visit the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts during the autumn migration. This year is the same. On special days with northerly winds sweeping down the North Sea the skua migrations peak – I’ve missed the Long-tailed Skuas, (again!) caught the fringes of the Arctic and Great Skua (Bonxie) movements and may still catch the Pomarine Skua passage in October.

Big numbers of Arctic and Bonxies were seen heading south-west inland over Lynn Point/King’s Lynn on 25th September probably following the River Cam/Ouse valleys over the south of England at great height to eventually exit in the Bristol Channel. It’s a short cut route on their southerly autumn migration. In spring they have been seen flying north-east overland through the Great Glen short-cutting between the Atlantic and the North Sea on their way to their northern breeding grounds. Autumn skuas on the North Norfolk coast always seem to be flying west into the Wash not east to round East Anglia.

The dead Long-tailed Skua found last year along “The Backs” (probably brought down by a night-time Peregrine strike) is an example of this unseen overland sea-bird passage.

For me the second highlight are the autumn warblers especially seeing/finding Yellow-browed Warblers. They have become so frequent that they were unclassified as scarce migrants in 2017. With the Yellow-broweds will come other northern vagrants. Yellow-broweds have now become regular inland finds – two have been recorded in Cambrideshire already this autumn and one/two have been seen in our project area in autumn in the last few years. They seem to like sycamores and can be picked out by their penetrating distinctive call, a drawn-out “sooeeet“.

The third autumn passage highlight is new! It’s the overhead passage recorded on tape by Simon Gillings and Jon Heath in our project area of overflying night calls that are then identified to species and numbers of birds. Species recorded in August that are only rarely seen in our project area “on the ground” include Whimbrel and Grey Plover, Tree Pipit, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers.

The next night-time call we should all be hearing soon is the arrival of Redwings (the first in the County were recorded on the 27th).

Two groups of six plus eleven Common Buzzards were flying high in the thermals over the City on 6th Sept, on the same day at least two Chiffchaffs were in the Long-tailed Tit flock in Logan’s Meadow and two Water Voles were seen nearby. On 8th September at Hobson’s Park a Sedge Warbler was seen plus a singing Chiff and a Water Rail was heard and another seen. Chiffs were widespread across the City throughout the month. On 15th September a Whinchat was seen at Hobson’s (Ali Cooper, cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com). Another singing Chiff was heard near Fen Ditton on 17th September and four House Martins were high over Eddington on 17th plus two confiding Buzzards.

Eddington is the best local site to see Buzzards, remarkable, considering they first returned to breed in Cambridgeshire in 1999 and are now common residents – probably our commonest raptor (good article by Brett Westwood on Buzzards in the August 2020 edition of British Wildlife magazine).

Water Voles at Logan’s Meadow (above)

The Bioblitz at the Botanic Garden on 19th produced 25 species of birds including a Nuthatch, two Grey Wagtails – one on the lily pond, the other a flyover – two Chiffs, a Sparrowhawk and a Jay peeling an apple! plus a late Swift on 17th during the bat search (Rhona Watson). Late September Swifts are rare. No Song Thrushes were recorded, where have they gone?

A Peregrine flew over Victoria Road Bridge on 25th and one was also seen over Castle Hill/Histon Road junction on the 26th. A Tawny Owl was hooting in trees near the doctors’ surgery at no1 Huntingdon Road throughout the month.

Two Crossbills flew over Trumpington Meadows on 22nd (Iain Webb, cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com) and a Greenfinch was in my bird bath on 27th. Where have the Greenfinches and Song Thrushes gone? They were widespread in spring, located by singing territorial males but since then I have seen or heard very few of either species. I think it is predation of nests – eggs and chicks – by Grey Squirrels.

In contrast Long-tailed Tits are common and generate interesting multi-species bird activity in their roving feeding flocks. In Logan’s Meadow during the month I have seen Chiffs, (a Willow Warbler in August), Treecreeper, Great, Coal and Blue Tits, the occasional Goldcrest and even a Great-spotted Woodpecker swept along in the frenzy of the flock. It’s always worth looking through a flock of Long-tailed Tits. Last year at Paradise there was a Pallas’s Warbler in such a flock. Long-tailed Tits seem to have become commoner this year probably assisted by a mild winter and spring which helped over-winter survival.

At least 12 Meadow Pipits were at Hobson’s Park on 30th September and two Snipe were disturbed by the overhead air ambulance helicopter. Meadow Pipits have become Red Listed; they used to breed regularly on the NIAB’s Trials Ground, part of which is in our project area, but did not do so in 2019 and 2020.

There have been many reports across East Anglia this autumn of Great (White) Egrets in 1’s,2’s, 3’s and 4’s. It’s a bird of big open marshes and reedbeds and as big as a Grey Heron with a whopping long, often kinked, neck! Ten years ago, it was a rarity with occasional breeding in the Somerset Levels. It might show up soon at one of our open water sites: Trumpington Meadows/Hobson’s Park/Eddington/Cherry Hinton pits. Grey Herons along the City’s river banks have become very confiding. One catches fish at the end of a moored “Lets-go-Punting” punt by Jesus Green.

Bob Jarman 30th September 2020

bobjarman99@btinternet.com

Mostly birds – August 2020

I’m late with this blog. August is the peak of the wader migration and I have been waiting for the Cambridge Bird Club’s monthly report for August to see what has been recorded from nocturnal migration (“nocmig”) over the City in August. I’ll summarise records next month.

It’s been a good year …..for Swifts! I think it’s been a successful breeding season which means a good food supply for adults and young and access to nest sites. It was probably the many hot summer days that supported high flying insects, especially disbursing spiders. The 13th August was the sixth consecutive day with local temperatures over 34C. Perhaps it was me opening my green bin regularly and wafting the myriads of fruit flies skywards! Drosophila melanogaster – I remember those tortuous days at school mating various phenotypes of fruit flies and examining the progeny to build a genetic map of dominant and recessive traits. Thank goodness genetics can now be analysed by extracting DNA!

I think there were two main departure dates of Swifts from the City: the first on 27/28th July and a second on 4/5th August. But several remained over East and West Chesterton until the end of the month. The latest date was two over Victoria Avenue on 28th. In typical years August Swifts are uncommon. I suspect there was a late arrival of first year Swifts at the end of June; 17,500 were counted over the harbour at Southwold, Suffolk on 29th June. I think some of these birds returned to their natal site, ousting established incubating pairs and successfully rearing late broods that fledged in August.

A first year Marsh Harrier was over Oxford/Windsor Roads on 8th August. And a Barn Owl was roosting in a newly erected raptor nest box on the NIAB’s trials ground in our project area. A Little Egret was around Coe Fen throughout the month.

On 15th August there was a widespread arrival of Pied Flycatchers along the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts with 152 reported in Suffolk including 30 in the Southwold area. Few were recorded inland and the only local record was one at the Cambridge Research Park near Landbeach (Jon and David Heath) on 28th August outside our project area.

On August 24th a Chiffchaff was singing in a large garden in Huntingdon Road and in Logan’s Meadow on 24th August 3-4 Blackcaps were eating elder berries and a tit flock had 2-3 Chiffchaffs, 1 Willow Warbler, 1 Treecreeper; nearby 2 Whitethroats and a Reed Warbler were in bushes around the stream. A tit flock hit my garden on 27th with at least one Chiff and a female Blackcap was eating my Honeysuckle berries on 28th. Chiffs were widespread across the City. It’s always worth looking through a Long-tailed Tit flock for other species carried along in the hullabaloo! A second? brood of Blackbirds were feeding on Rose hips and a flock of adult and juvenile Starlings were stripping a blackberry bush in Logan’s Meadow in late August.

On several late afternoons I’ve seen Water Voles along the edges of the pools in Logan’s Meadow. Each time they seem to become more confiding. Early one evening an adult Fox ducked back into the long grass – I was surprised to see a fox here during the day because of the number of off–the-lead dogs being walked. A young fox ran down Longworth Avenue into St Andrews Road in the (very!) early hours on 31st as a Tawny Owl was calling near the riverside boat houses.

The 1851 census (year of the Great Exhibition) was the first census to record that urban populations outnumbered rural populations. Towns and cities have become vital in our conservation of wildlife as draft papers to our project are demonstrating and our NatHistCam story will tell.

Bob Jarman 9th September 2020

bobjarman99@btinternet.com

Mainly birds – July 2020

Many birders reported a poor arrival of Swallows this year. I have seen very few in our project area – an early bird over my house on 10th April, the pair that regularly breeds under the A14 bridge near Horningsea arrived, a family group were feeding over Hobson’s Park on 21st July, and about 20 birds including young were seen over the horse paddocks at the Vet School off Madingley Road on 29th July; hopefully they bred in the stables.

Until last year I made an annual July visit to Athy, a small agricultural town in Eire and there all three species of hirundines were abundant. The theory is they have moved north and west away from intensive agriculture in southern England where our insect bio-fauna is much diminished by agrochemicals.

Lesser-black backed Gulls are regular flyovers to roost at the Cambridge Research Park off the A10, I suspect. They are regular over the riverside commons – they have either finished breeding and are on a return migration or non-breeding adults looking for easy pickings! An early returning Common Gull was over the A14 on 4th July.

The river has been remarkably clear and free of the mud/silt brought up by punting? – punting recommenced on 4th July. A Common Buzzard regularly watches the traffic from the street lamps at the A14 roundabout near Milton, Nuthatches were reported from King’s Fellows Garden on 7th July and there have been widespread reports of flyover Siskins and Crossbills from the beginning of the month across the county including two Crossbills and a Siskin over north Chesterton on 18th July (Jon Heath www.cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com). A Whimbrel was over Chesterton on 8th July (Simon Gillings www.cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com), Jays have been seen commonly all month and likewise Peregrines, which can often be seen on King’s College chapel spires. I’m sorry Don Pasquale’s on the Market Square has closed as it was an ideal coffee stop and Peregrine watch point. An adult Peregrine with accompanying juvenile were over Castle Hill/Histon Road on 26th.

I noticed a hay field near the Schlumberger building on the 12th July, which had been cut – I don’t recall a hay field in our project area before! Silver-washed Fritillaries were in a garden in Chesterton Road on 12th July and a pair of Muntjac were feeding on windfall apples in a large garden in Huntingdon Road on the 13th.

St Regis House in Chesterton Road which was demolished in 2018/2019 and had a significant colony of nesting Swifts has been rebuilt, the Swift nest holes have been reinstated and a splendid motif of Swifts decorates the front of the building – well played Clare College!

Common Terns have been were seen irregularly from Riverside to Magdalene Bridge during the month. At least two Reed Warblers were still singing at Eddington on 15th July (what are the contractors doing to the lake at Eddington?); two male Blackcaps seemed to be feeding the same brood on 21st July at Paradise Nature Reserve and across the river one of the fledged Kestrels appeared to fall out of the nest but managed to scramble onto a perch! On the same day an adult Little Egret, in full breeding plumage, was feeding on Coe Fen.

The City Council and Countryside Properties have enhanced the nature reserve at Hobson’s Park with two excellent display boards describing the wildlife that can be seen at the site. Breeding Corn Buntings have been disappointing at Hobson’s Park this year; I suspect dogs have disturbed this ground nesting species.

Three to four Blackcaps and a Chiff have been singing in Logan’s Meadow and copse all month and on 21st June a Spotted Flycatcher was reported along Hobson’s Brook just beyond the Empty Common allotments. On 21st June the Black-headed Gull colony at Hobson’s Park had almost gone with about 20 adults and still some downy chicks remaining; a Little Egret was also present; ditto on 23rd July. On the evenings of the 22nd to 25th July there were spectacular displays of screaming flocks of Swifts over the city. I think half the City’s population left on 26th to 27th and I think there was another major departure on the 31st July but good numbers remained into August.

I’m intrigued by the Bracken that grows in the corner of St Andrew’s Church cemetery in Chesterton. It’s the only plot of Bracken I know in our project area but there is a small front garden in Montague Road about 400m away that is full of Bracken. Is there a sub-terranean seam of acidic soil that breaks the surface at these two points?

In my June blog I mentioned the abundance of Woodpigeons in the City. Stock Doves (Stock Pigeons) are also an under recognised and appreciated species in the bird landscape of cities. All of our large church cemeteries and heavily wooded gardens have nesting pairs. They are a hole nesting species. It too has benefited from Winter Oilseed Rape as an autumn and early winter food source. They are mostly seen in pairs or small groups but I have seen a flock of 100+ on farmland in the north of our project area and 40+ at Hobson’s Park.

A Water Vole was seen at Logan’s Meadow on 30th and two on 31st. Duncan McKay reports a Southern Migrant Hawker dragonfly for the second year running at Ditton Meadows. This species is expanding its range since its discovery in Essex in the early 2000’s. On 31st July the UK recorded its third highest recorded temperatures of 37ºC on the day when the Met Office confirmed 2019 as the hottest year on record and that climate change is driving these record temperatures.

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

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