All posts by Monica Frisch

December 2018 – more astonishing night-time flyovers

Simon Gillings has more astonishing night time recordings of fly-over bird calls from over his Chesterton garden including a Bittern just after midnight on 16th November. I have heard the birds’ peculiar and distinctive “grunty” bark flight call at Lakenheath RSPB reserve on a summer daytime feeding flight. On the night of the 17th November he recorded at least 33 Dunlins flying over and on the 18th, his busiest thrush night so far: over 800 Redwings, 79 Blackbirds, 5 more Dunlins and a Water Rail. @simon_gillings Astonishing! Simon’s and Jon Heath’s “nocmig” recordings have added a new dimension to birding.

Are these birds moving on a broad front over the county and Simon catches just a part of this, are the birds attracted to the City lights or are these birds following a flyway/highway on a NE/SW trajectory following the river Cam valley?

On 11th November a Yellow-legged Gull and a late House Martin at Hobson’s Park (Rob Pople) and on 15th November a single Bearded Tit around the lake at Trumpington Meadows (Iain Webb):

Ten to 15+ Bramblings were in the Beechwoods throughout most of November (Mike Foley, John Raven). I saw only 3-4 on 19th near the entrance but found them difficult to see and managed a poor photograph. On the 19th November, a dead and partially eaten (by Magpies) Woodcock was found in Jesus college grounds (Rhona Watson) and Rhona told me of a male Blackcap in the City and one in Huntingdon Rd on 3rd December. These are the first Blackcap records, this winter; I suspect the weather has not been cold enough to force birds into urban gardens and seek food security from garden feeders.

Brambling – Beechwoods

While having a cup of (Mario’s) excellent coffee at Don’s (Don Pasquale’s) on the Market Square, a Peregrine was seen on roof tops, on 23rd November. I estimate the chances of seeing a Peregrine near/around/over the Market Square about 30%;    astonishing considering the only reliable location to see Peregrines, when I started birdwatching, was a quarry behind Aviemore in the Highlands.

The building of the new cycle way over the river next to the Chesterton railway bridge has, sadly, forced the removal of a mixed species hedge which had breeding Common Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats this year. The majority of UK breeding Lesser Whitethroats nest in hedge-rows.

St Regis, the apartment complex in Chesterton Road which has the biggest breeding Swift colony in the City, is being demolished. Hopefully returning birds next May will move to the Swift Tower on Logan’s Meadow.

Three hundred Golden Plovers flew over the north edge of our project area on 24th November and 4-500 were over the A14/M11 junction on the same day with about 50 Lapwings.

Cormorant, RiversideLapwings, Riverside (left)                                               Cormorant roost (right)

A Green Sandpiper was feeding on the edge of a farm reservoir on the northern edge of our project area on 25th November. Goldcrests rarely make the 75m journey from a neighbouring mature Lellandii to my small Chesterton garden but they did during the coldest day so far this winter on 26th November. On 30th November, a Mistle Thrush was singing outside Murray Edwards College on Huntingdon Road and on 1st December a Common Buzzard over Benson St/Priory Road was mobbed by corvids at roof-top height.

Peregrine from Don Pasquale’s Jesus Lock (left)  Black-headed Gulls – 1st yr. bird 2nd from bottom (right)

Black-headed Gulls are assembling from Jesus Lock to Riverside and Parker’s Piece; the maximum count so far is 98 (270 last year) – of these about 10% are 1st winter birds – i.e. reared from eggs this calendar year. Their main food is earthworms on our riverside greens and water meadows; amongst them have been about a dozen Common Gulls.

On 4th December, a Tawny Owl was heard briefly in Magdalene Street behind St Clement’s Church; the Riverside Cormorants roost was 6 birds; just opposite the Darwin Green development, on sugar beet stubble, a flock of about 200 Linnets and on 5th a Barn Owl over Coldham’s Common c19:15 (Simon Gillings).

Duncan McKay says that six Badger sets are located within a mile radius of the City centre. Polecats have been moving east following the corridors of our major roads; there is a well-established group at Camborne and apparently a pair reared kits in Chesterton 2-3 years ago!

Bob Jarman
10th December 2018

November 2018 – bird migration north and south in autumn

At the recent Cambridgeshire Bird Club conference on Migration, Simon Gillings described his astonishing night time recordings of birds passing over his Chesterton garden: Little Grebes, including display calls, Barn Owl, Ring Ouzel, Common Scoter, Sandwich Terns – adult and juvenile and on several nights big numbers of thrushes. Overnight on Sunday 4th – Monday 5th November he recorded his “busiest” thrush night ever with at least 850 Redwings, a minimum of 79 Blackbirds, plus five Dunlins and a Water Rail and Fieldfares. @simon_gillings. Astonishing!

As well as providing new insights his records also complement some daytime observations. I have very rarely seen Little Grebes fly – only scurry across open water in a panic – but they have colonised the new lakes at Trumpington Meadows, Hobson’s Park and Eddington so they must arrive on night time migrations. I have seen an adult Sandwich Tern being trailed by a begging juvenile over Vinery Road many years ago. On 31st October Simon recorded a big night time passage of Redwings, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Fieldfares; the following morning I saw many Redwings feeding on hawthorn berries along the river to Baitsbite Lock.

It’s not just night time recording that adds to our understanding of bird movements. At the same conference, Dick Newell described a Common Swift, satellite tagged in one of his nest boxes in Landbeach, which was tracked to Mozambique the following winter. This bird almost certainly fed over Cambridge and our project area.

Three wintering Blackcaps caught in the UK and with fitted with geo-locators were found to have come from: 1, Eastern France; 2, Central Germany/N Italy; 3, Western France. Bird No3 must have migrated due north to winter in the UK.

So, where do birds live? Do they live where they breed, where they spend their winter or in the migration locations in between? Bird distribution is governed by food supply. The current thinking is that many species originated in (sub-Saharan?) Africa and moved out to follow seasonal sources of food when their African food supply became limiting; 2.1 billion birds migrate between Europe and Africa.

A species of Willow Warbler weighing less than 10gms (the weight of a 50p piece) has been tracked migrating from far Eastern Siberia, where it breeds, to over-winter in Tanzania/Mozambique. This one-way migration of 12-13,000km is the longest recorded amongst songbirds; the following spring it returns over the same distance. This truly is survival of the fittest!

Yellow-legged Gull Hobson’s Park (left)

The pair of Yellow-legged Gulls, one with a red leg ring (below)


Most winters there an influx of an unusual species. Last winter it was Hawfinches, this winter early signs suggested Couses’s (Arctic) Redpolls, Waxwings and/or Rough-legged Buzzards. The few Redpolls that have been found are mainly coastal but a carefully look amongst Lesser Redpoll flocks – in the Alder trees by the guided Busway near the Regional College – is worthwhile, Waxwings in Helsinki is a good early sign they will appear in the UK, but few have turned up. A good spot for Rough-legged Buzzard (R-LB) could be on the rough fallow north of Eddington. There are two R-LBs in the north of the County at the Great Fen project. If Short-eared Owls and a Hen Harrier can occur on the fallow before the construction of nearby Darwin Green, then so could a R-LB turn up here.

A new species for me in our project area was two Yellow-legged Gulls (Larus michahellis) at Hobson’s park on 6th November. Rob Pople saw them there on 20th October and the same species was there on 26th November 2017, plus one on Emmanuel College Sports pitches (off Wilberforce Road) in July 2015. Other recent records: Coldham’s Common, June 2016 (Carlos Davies); over Cambridge Science Park in July 2018 (Jon Heath); and Hobson’s Park on Sept 19th this year. This species was first recorded in Cambridgeshire in 1987 when it was then considered a sub-species of Herring Gull (Larus argentatus michahellis). One of the recent birds has a red leg ring. The birds were adults, at least 4 years old; the leg ring should have a visible identification number but it was probably put on as a newly fledged chick and the number has faded. It was probably ringed in southern Europe, where they breed and where it is the common summer sea-side gull replacing the Herring Gull. Wintering north of their breeding range is unusual but now regular!

Kestrel at Eddington

Black-headed Gull and Great-crested Grebe Eddington (below right)

Hobson’s Park Reserve (below left)






At Hobson’s Park a relationship between Great-crested Grebes and Black-headed Gulls can be seen: the gulls pick off edible material disturbed by the diving grebes; the same can be seen at Milton Country Park between Coots and Gadwall ducks.

A Common Buzzard over the Market Square on 27th October sent the pigeons scattering; 2 Grey Wagtails over Eddington and two Kestrels were hunting over fallow land to the north of the development on 5th November; a pair of Tree Creepers in Logan’s Meadow on 6th November; a flyover Green Sandpiper was heard near Fen Ditton on 8th November. Hobson’s Park attracts other species: on 9th November 9-11 Snipe around the lake margins is the biggest number of this species I have seen in our project area since they bred, with Redshank, in the wet meadows along the Fen Road up to the mid 1980’s; plus, a Stonechat and a Kingfisher. On 12th November 15+ Bramblings were recorded in the Beechwoods (Mike Foley) and a Bearded Tit at Trumpington Meadows on 15th November (Iain Webb)

Bob Jarman

17th November 2018

October: best month for birding – watch out for Warblers and Raptors

Six hundred and thirty Golden Plovers over Trumpington on 2nd October was a good record (Steve Cooper,; Hobson’s Park is a good place to see overwintering birds. A Chiffchaff was singing in Long Road on 7th October and another bird calling in Logan’s Meadow on the same day. It’s worth keeping ears and eyes alert for rare migrant warblers especially Yellow-browed Warblers that are being found increasingly inland and not just along the east coast in autumn. A probable was heard by Nick Littlewood on 19th October in trees off the Fen Causeway but was not seen or relocated – they like Sycamores. In previous years, they have been seen and heard near Maids Causeway, Castle Hill (photographed) and last year in the trees bordering Stourbridge Common.

Trumpington Meadows on the 9th October had three hunting Kestrels; five Little Grebes on the pond and a confusing first year female Tufted Duck without any sign of a tuft. Trumpington Meadows and Hobson’s Park have been buzzed by drones which certainly disturb wildlife. If you see drones there contact the Wildlife Trust and Cambridge City Council (Guy Belcher) respectively. Disturbance especially during the breeding season could be an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981).

My Robin has stopped attacking its reflection in my windows but Richard Price, whose house overlooks Hobson’s Park, sent me a picture of a stunned Meadow Pipit that had flown into his window; the bird recovered and flew off.



Stunned Meadow Pipit – Hobson’s Park (left)  Male Peregrine – Cambridge (right)

The night time recording of flyover migration by Simon Gillings (@simon_gillings) continues to produce fascinating records: overnight on 1st – 2nd October Pink-footed Geese; 7th-8th October, Common Scoter, Snipe, Redwing; 10th – 11th October, 352 Redwings and 101 Song Thrushes – the last date also saw big numbers of thrushes arrive along the east coast at Holme Bird Observatory. Goldcrests have either arrived from the continent or have disbursed from local coniferous nest sites: two were in the only trees in Thompsons Lane on 13th October – potted Olive Trees – by Jesus Ditch and Beche Road

The more we know about bird migration the more remarkable it becomes – not less! The recording of night time migration at inland locations and the identification of species killed by Peregrines at their inland nest sites has added new dimensions to our understanding as well as satellite tagging and geo-locators, which require catching the birds and attaching these devices to them. The Cambridgeshire Bird Club has a conference on Bird Migration on Saturday 2nd November at Cottenham Village College – all are welcome – details on the Bird Club’s web site.

At Wakefield Cathedral, beneath the Peregrine nest and roost site, the severed head of a Leach’s Petrel has been found! This pelagic species was either an inland vagrant brought in on strong winds (there is some evidence for this) or a strategic overland migration from the North Sea to the Irish Sea and then onwards to the south Atlantic where this species spends our winter. In spring, it returns to breed on the northern isles such as Foula. This bird never made it and was probably killed by a Peregrine at night.

The Cambridge Peregrines can still be seen regularly in the city centre and have been seen along Madingley Road (Robin Cox) and over the junction of Histon Road with Gilbert Road. The photograph shows the male, taken on 18th October – the female is about a third larger with bigger moustaches!

Crowing over the flag!

Pre-roost gathering of Carrion Crows

Kestrel over Trumpington Meadows

Black-headed Gulls began to arrive along the river, in small numbers, from Riverside to Jesus Green in the second week of October; last winter numbers built up to about 275 birds. Grey Wagtails, typically birds of waterside can be seen and heard over any part of the City but two were around Jesus lock on 13th October. A Red Kite was seen over farmland in the north of our project area on 19th October. On the same date a pre-roost gathering of 35+ Carrion Crows assembled in Whytford Close, Chesterton, making an absolute din – a cacophony of crows! This number is probably half the City’s population. I have no idea why or whence they departed. I couldn’t resist photographing one Carrion Crow standing on the top of the flagpole above the Guildhall.

The photograph of the Roe Deer was taken on 15 October at the Stump, just east of the Fen Ditton/Horningsea Road on the edge of our project area; a good place to see Roe Deer in our project area.

Roe Deer at the Stump Spider season (left)  Garden Orb spider (right)

Bob Jarman 25th October 2018

Cambridge Moths – end of season

During the autumnal months of September and October the moth trapping season begins to wind down. The number of moths caught and diversity of species generally decrease with each recording session. Lower night time temperatures, including the first frosts of the season, as well as the increasing likelihood of rain and stormy conditions mean there are fewer opportunities to run the trap. This October there has been an exceptional spell of mild weather. The temperature in Cambridge on the night of 12/13th reached 18 ºC – perfect conditions for some late season moth trapping and over 50 moths graced the trap the next morning; exceptional for this time of year.

One particular species tends to dominate my garden trap in north Cambridge in autumn – the Large Yellow Underwing. Late August to early September is the peak of the flight season for this big and clumsy moth. At this time, it is not uncommon for over 100 individuals to be filling the trap in a single night’s catch. Accompanying the Large Yellow Underwings are other routine species for early autumn. These include Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing, Vine’s Rustic, Square-spot Rustic (which comes in an incredible variety of forms) and the oddly named Setaceous Hebrew Character. As we move later into September one of my favourite groups of moth start to appear – the Sallows. These striking moths are generally woodland species, which have evolved a yellow, orange and brown colour mix to their forewings to camouflage against the autumnal senescing leaves. This autumn has been good for this group, with Barred Sallows and Sallows trapped in decent numbers. Dusky-lemon Sallow has so far eluded me this year but I managed to record my first Orange Sallow – a stunner!

A plague of Large Yellow Underwings and Sallows: (Clockwise from top left) Barred Sallow, Sallow, Orange Sallow and Dusky-lemon Sallow

Moving into October and the real autumn specialists start to appear. Generally, moths emerging at this time of year are darker with more brown tones compared with those typical of the summer months. Some of the more regular October species coming to my garden include Black Rustic, Blair’s Shoulder Knot and Lunar Underwing. There is always the chance of something more interesting, and though not too rare, I was pleased to catch Mallow, Feathered Thorn and Yellow-line Quaker in recent nights. White-point is a moth that tends to do very well in the Cambridge area and, despite being marked as Nationally Scare B, turns up in most trapping sessions at this time.





Top to Bottom: Feathered Thorn, Yellow-line Quaker, White-point

Micro moths are much less numerous in autumn compared with the summer months, with only a handful of species recorded in most trapping sessions. There is however always the potential for a few interesting species turning up, especially if there is a mild night. A new micro moth for me this year was the Box-tree Moth. On finding this invasive species in the trap I was amazed to see how big it was; far larger than most micros and even some macro species! These invaders first appeared in the UK in the London area in 2007, and have subsequently spread northwards. There is now a large population in the Trumpington area – much to the dismay of local gardeners. Other interesting micros from my garden in the last 2 months have included: Epiblema foenella, Agonopterix nervosa and Acleris sparsana.

From top to bottom: Box-tree Moth (left), Epiblema foenella & Agonopterix nervosa






Jon Heath 15th October 2018

I got it wrong ….. moving swiftly on to some September records!

The ducks on the edge of Hobson’s Park were not Garganey but Teal; I got it wrong – several birders contacted me …. moving swiftly on!
(left) Teal! Hobson’s Park – 7th September

Cattle Egret – Mare Fen (left)


Confrontational Robin (right)

A Peregrine on St Luke’s Church on 12th September (Ben Greig) was a good find. Disbursed birds from the City’s breeding pairs could be hanging around any of our tall building and, in the past, have been seen on the Catholic Church, St Giles Church, St Andrews and St George’s churches in Chesterton and the Riverside chimney. A female Marsh Harrier over the NIAB’s Trials Ground in the north of our project area on 13th September was unusual and a new bird for the site and probably our project area. It fits the pattern of most adult birds leaving local breeding sites over winter and returning the following spring. A brown juvenile Hobby was also seen there on the same day.

There are still Chiffchaffs about; 13th September was a beautiful day and three were singing along the river between Chesterton and Fen Ditton and one, possibly two, feeding in the tit flock in the rear gardens of the Doctors’ surgery in Fisher’s Lane, Cherry Hinton on 24th September. A Blackcap was in Logan Meadow willows on September 29th.

Simon Gillings tweeted recording night time passage of Tree Pipit, Golden Plover and Robins on September 13th. (@simon_gillings).

The Swallows that bred under the A14 bridge near Horningsea were still feeding over the river on 13th September but had gone a week later on 20th September. Six were over Fen Ditton meadows on October 1st. The first Siskin paid a fleeting visit to the garden feeders on 14th September but I have not seen it since. The confrontational Robin, far from being at ease with him?self, continued to attack his reflected image in the second and third floor bedroom windows. He has given that up and now chases away any other songbird that appears near the garden feeders up to Blackbird size.

A Meadow Pipit, low over Hawthorn Way on 19th September, was unusual. A skein of about 120 Greylag Geese and 25 Canada Geese flew over Fen Ditton towards Milton County Park on 20th September. It’s always worth a look into geese flocks for Barnacle Geese (probably from the feral population that breeds freely on the Suffolk coast) and Pink-footed Geese. Pink-feet have been seen in the north of our project area in the past and will be wanderers from North Norfolk. Olwen saw a distant ring-tailed harrier opposite the Beechwoods on 19th September; it was probably a Hen Harrier but two ring-tailed Pallid Harriers have turned up not far away: one at the Wildfowl and Wetlands reserve at Welney and one in nearby Herts around Therfield Heath and Greys (Cambridgeshire Bird Club Autumn Bulletin 2018).

The Herons feeding along the river at Riverside can be very confiding if not intimidating! I have seen an adult walking on the concrete embankment just meters from pedestrians and cyclists. On 29th September, I saw a Carrion Crow killing and eating a Woodpigeon on Midsummer Common. I have never seen predation by a crow like this before; it grimly stabbed it to death with its bill. Perhaps the pigeon was sick or injured or had been stolen by the crow from a Sparrowhawk but there was no sign of one.

A raptor survey on the edge of our project area on 22nd September produced no visible bird of prey passage but a strong southerly movement of about 100 House Martins in the allocated one-hour watch.

On 23rd September Chris Brown saw a flock of 19 Spoonbills flying over Stetchworth Ley heading west towards our project area ( At some point, they changed direction and turned south and were next recorded in Greater London in the Beddington area (! Six Cattle Egrets have been present on the Wildlife Trust reserve at Mare Fen, between Swavesey and Over, for much of the month and are probably part on the recent influx into southern England. They seem to have disbursed and are quite likely to turn up around the cattle on our riverside commons; the bird found by Jon Heath in April 2016 with cattle off the Fen Road was probably the wandering long staying bird from a site in Suffolk.

Simon Gillings recorded overflying night migration of Sandwich Terns on five occasions during the month including at 21:33 on 22nd September and 04:51 the following morning (@simon_gillings).

Redwings are now arriving from Scandinavia and their nocturnal flight call were heard on September 26th. There is an excellent website – – that has recordings of bird songs and calls.

A recent report from the RSPB proves that persecution of raptors continues and is widespread; we know this – one of our local Peregrines was shot and injured last year but was taken into care at the Raptor Foundation near St Ives and recovered and was released. If you want an excellent a day out with the children/ grandchildren/by yourself/with another visit the Raptor Foundation.

The BTO wants Tawny Owl hooting records – I have records from five probable breeding sites in our project area and plan to submit these. The popular “toowit toowoo” rendition – is, I think, an amalgamation of the female “keewick” and the male hooting “towooo” calls.

Small Copper  (left)


Migrant Hawker (below)


Honey Bee? (below) feeding on Ivy flowers

I’m a great fan of Ivy – except growing up my house walls! There is a fine tree in Ainsworth Street shrouded in ivy – the City Council claims the tree is unstable and must come down. Ivy certainly does increase wind resistance during storms but is a wonderful late pollen and berry source for insects and birds especially city House Sparrows. It would be better to trim the ivy rather than fell the tree. There is a full wall of ivy behind the Cherry Hinton Doctors surgery that was full of bees during mid-September. The best House Sparrow nest colony in the City was in the ivy covering the front of a house in Radegund Road but it was removed and the sparrows were forced to move on.

The fine weather also brought out Small Copper butterflies in our project area which, it seems, have had a bad year and Migrant Hawker dragonflies in our sector of Milton Country Park.

Bob Jarman

1st October 2018

New Bird Species for Cambridgeshire over our Project Area

Sound recording night time migration over the City has produced sensational results (see August Blog: NocMig). Jon Heath set up his recording equipment in his garden in north Cambridge on the night of 28th August. The next day when he played back the recording, there appeared to be the call of an Ortolan Bunting at 02:57am. He set it up again the next night and, incredibly, recorded another set of Ortolan Bunting calls. He checked with other experienced bird call recordists and all agreed: Ortolan Bunting. This is likely the second and third records of Ortolan Bunting for Cambridgeshire and our project area after Simon Gillings, of the British Trust for Ornithology, recorded the first from his east Cambridge garden last year. These records add to the theory that Cambridgeshire and the skies above our project area may be an important migratory flyway highway for birds.

Ortolan Buntings breed in central Europe and Scandinavia and are rare east coast migrants, mostly in autumn. They have never been seen in Cambridgeshire; these are the very first records. Ortolan Bunting is known to be a nocturnal migrant and an autumn flight path over southern England was suspected after a sequence of recordings over Dorset in 2016. Both Simon’s and Jon’s records have yet to be ratified by the Rarities Committee of the Cambridgeshire Bird Club.

Whitehall contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit has been named after another bunting – Operation Yellowhammer.
Yellowhammers have become one of our most threatened farmland birds; I assume the names of the Whitehall operation and the status of Yellowhammers are intended! There are three breeding territories of Yellowhammers near the Histon Road/Huntingdon Road footpath close to the Darwin Green Development.




Garganeys – Hobson’s Park 7th Sept 2018 (above)

Local patch birding is a new enthusiasm amongst bird watchers …. as well as chasing rarities on the Norfolk coast! If I lived nearer to Hobson’s Park that would become my local patch. It’s a brilliant park in our NatHistCam study area, with a nature reserve established by the Cambridge City Council. It’s the best place I know for Corn Buntings and nearby, on 7th Sept, in small ponds by Long Road Bridge, there were two Garganeys; an unusual species for an urban location.

There were also two Yellow Wagtails, House and Sand Martins, the House Martins presumably from the Addenbrookes colony. What I like about Hobson’s Park is the “big sky”: Addenbrooke’s in the distance looks like a nuclear power station and the new low-rise development of Great Kneighton is on the opposite horizon!

I have a new and very territorial Robin (left) in my garden. It spent two days attacking its own image in the kitchen window and eventually flew into the kitchen to sort out this competitor. He (probably not a “she” as the sexes cannot be separated easily) flew out of the kitchen in terror and now lives at ease with his own image …. very male!

Ortolan Bunting in Greece – Jon Heath (left); Corn Bunting – Hobson’s Park Spring 2018 (right)

I often wonder what lives on Elder (Sambucus nigra). The larvae of some moths do but I never see any evidence of eaten leaves. Text books say it’s especially frequent near rabbit burrows and badger sets because both species find elder distasteful. The berries often go uneaten but I saw a bush behind the Grafton Centre completely stripped of berries by a mob of Starlings, which I have never seen before. Maybe that accounts for its distribution as seedling and saplings appear everywhere presumably from flyover bird droppings.

During this (hottest on record) summer I often heard crickets. On a mid-August evening, I heard one on Castle Hill and then another outside my house in Chesterton, which I recorded. I matched the recording with an excellent free app called: iRecord Grasshoppers and related insects. They were non-native House Crickets (Acheta domesticus) and have been heard in Cherry Hinton, Trumpington and Grantchester. I have heard them before at Addenbrooke’s by the heating systems. I understand they are escaped food for pet reptiles and this hot summer has brought them out from torpor.

Watch flocking Long-tailed-Tits. The frenzy of the flock often attracts other bird species and its always worth a look to see what else has been drawn in. Flocks usually have a lead species – in the UK it’s often Long-tailed Tits and flocks may circulate around a feeding territory as a “bird wave”. In the tropics and semi-tropics these flocks draw in both aerial feeding species and ground feeders.

The Common Lizard colony at Orchard Park has a stay of execution. Development of the site may not now take place until spring 2019 and hopefully a translocation site will be found.

Bob Jarman

10th September 2018

Flyway Highway

The more we learn about bird migration from satellite tracking and the night time recording of over-flying birds the more remarkable the story becomes; as if it wasn’t remarkable enough anyway!

Guy Belcher recorded 43 Whimbrels over Little Shelford on 20th August – they were likely Siberian birds moving south and they probably passed over our project area. The north westerly winds today (25th August) will probably produce a show of Arctic and Great Skuas (Bonxies) on the north Norfolk Coast. The curious thing about these birds is they appear to fly west and into the Wash rather than follow the coast east then south on their southerly migration. Observations suggest they exit the Wash at the mouths of the rivers that flow into it – the Great Ouse and the Nene – and continue a south-westerly overland migration following these river valleys. They continue south-west to join the Severn estuary and so “short-cut” the route round south-east England and arrive into the Atlantic much quicker.

The Whimbrels were possibly following the same track. A comparable spring migration has been observed with skuas following the Great Glen north-east from the Atlantic to the North Sea avoiding the route around the north of Scotland. I once saw an unseasonal immature Arctic Skua fly out of the mist in mid-January 1985 at a farm reservoir in our project area.

Whimbrel – wintering on Teneriffe October 2017

Skylark – Garth Peacock

Our project area could be a major flyway highway! In the 1960/1970’s Graham Easy observed Skuas over Milton but at a great height moving south west over the City. The trouble is that skuas usually fly too high to be seen and do not call so cannot be picked up by night-time sound recording (“noc-mig”). Migration height is another puzzle with some recent evidence that songbirds fly at altitudes of 5-6 km. This comes as no surprise. It was once assumed that Siberian migrants flew round the Himalayas to avoid flying at extreme altitude over the mountains and then filtered east and west to over-winter in the Indian sub-continent. In the 1970’s local birders camped in the Himalayas above the tree line noticed large early morning flocks of thrushes making land fall from the north. They had clearly come straight over nearby 6-7 km high Himalayan peaks.

It makes sense for the Whimbrels, Guy recorded, to follow the Ouse/Cam valley over our project area. Many winter in west Africa and on the Canary Islands and this is a much more direct route from Scandinavia than following the coast of England to the Atlantic. However, some do just that and I recently saw two groups of 10 and 15 flying south past Southwold.

Recent finds below the feeding perches of the City centre Peregrines include the severed head of a Moorhen and Black-tailed Godwit feathers! How the severed Moorhen’s head got there is anyone’s guess – an overhead migrant perhaps!? I don’t think I have ever seen a Moorhen fly any higher than 5 m! I suspect our City centre Peregrines hunt over the Ouse Wash. I have seen Peregrines heading north-east over Castle Hill/Huntingdon Road and between Girton and Impington and sitting in the aerial tower at Over. The general trajectory of travel seems to be towards the Washes and I have seen birds hunting at Chain Corner between Earith and Sutton Gault.

A recent article in The Observer (RSPB chief warns: we’ve got to protect our rare birds. 19.08.18) talks about the loss of 420 million birds in western Europe. The article specifically mentions Cirl Buntings which were occasionally recorded in our study area in the 1940’s and 1950’s (Bircham 1989). They are now only found in south Devon and Cornwall and were the subject of a successful RSPB recovery programme. Farmers there have combined to grow successions of spring crops leaving weedy over-winter stubbles on which the birds feed. Turtle Doves have declined by 90% which might be due, in part, to the loss of habitat in their African wintering grounds. This is the first year (in my birdwatching life-time) I have not seen a Turtle Dove.

The development at Darwin Green pushes our farmland birds: Skylarks, Yellow Wagtails, Yellowhammers, Linnets and Grey Partridges further to the edge of our project area whilst species like the Tree Sparrow have been lost. The devastation of adjacent landscapes and habitats due to the A14 widening might mean these species may require specific recovery programmes in the future like the Cirl Bunting.

Turtle Dove – Garth Peacock

Tree Sparrow

Watch for unexpected autumn migrants in back gardens. An easterly wind followed by rain could bring new birds to your local patch and garden. Two autumns ago, a mixed flock of tits included Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, a Lesser Whitethroat and a Reed Warbler in my very small Chesterton garden. Later in October, and if you are lucky, listen for the high pitched, rising “suwheet” call of Yellow-browed Warblers – they like Sycamores. Not to be confused with the contact calls of overflying Redwings, especially at night, that begin to arrive in numbers from the end of September – that’s a thin, high, flat “zeep”!

Bircham, P.M.M. (1985) The Birds of Cambridgeshire. Cambridge University Press.

Bob Jarman

27th August 2018

Dragonflies in spring and summer

Female Emperor egg laying at Great Kneighton

With all the hot weather that we have had this year, the Dragonflies and Damselflies have been spectacular. I started the season watching Large Red Damselflies in late April this year, as they appeared in my garden, which is over 150 yards from Cherry Hinton Brook and lakes. I went on to look at Hobson’s Conduit as it flows across Empty Common and in front of the Botanical Gardens which is the perfect place to watch Damselflies and Dragonflies going about their short adult existence.

Late May and early June is the time when the number of species steadily climbs as more adults emerge from their aquatic larval forms to dance above the waters. Most adult dragons and damsels are relatively short lived and many only live for a few days. The larvae climb up onto a piece of emergent vegetation and then can be seen climbing out of their old skin to emerge in all their adult glory. They leave their old skin still attached to the vegetation and this exuvium can be collected and identified to species.  After emergence they have to disperse and mate, although since many emerge together, mating must often occur quite quickly. In June, there were so many Azure and Blue-tailed Damselflies mating and egg laying on the Conduit, I sometimes had numerous pairs in the frame of my camera.

Brown Hawker on a bulrush in the Science Park

The section of Hobson’s Conduit by the Botanical Gardens really is superb and sometimes Emperor, Four-spot Chaser or Brown Hawker Dragonflies will pass within just a few feet. Emperors are easy to identify, as they are the largest British dragonfly and have a green thorax (the bit between the wings). Brown Hawkers don’t come out until July and are identified by their brown bodies and orangey wing colour.

A Southern Hawker on Cherry Hinton Brook

A little later in July Southern Hawkers emerge, with their blue and yellow abdomen and broad yellow stripes on the thorax. These three are the biggest of our native species and are all magnificent as they hunt up and down the water course.

The Chasers and Skimmers are also present and early in the spring and summer the most common species is the Four-spot Chaser. The striking medium-sized beast has a brown body, much shorter than any of the Hawkers. It also has 4 black spots across the fore wings and another four across the hind wings, So I am not sure why it wasn’t called the eight-spot chaser.

Four-spot Chaser on Hobsons Conduit

The Broad-bodied Chaser seems a more elegant creature altogether with a  pale blue abdomen with little yellow spots down the side. The thorax is essentially brown with paler markings.

Male Broad-bodied Chaser on Hobson’s Conduit

In Grantchester Meadows and also in the ditch around the new bird ponds at Great Kneighton, one can find the Black-tailed Skimmer. The male looks a bit like the Broad-bodied Chaser but with a striking black end to its abdomen and lacking the yellow spots. The female is yellow in colour with two lines of black markings down the abdomen.

Female Black tailed skimmer on Grantchester meadows

In July and August, Southern Hawkers, Migrant Hawkers, Ruddy and Common Darters all make their appearance. So the summer is constantly interesting with new species to observe.

Common Darter: The insert shows the yellow stripe on the foreleg that does not occur in the very similar Ruddy Darter

One of the most spectacular dragonfly events takes place in Cherry Hinton chalk pits in August. Many Migrant Hawkers and Southern Hawkers can be found hunting in the bushes in the pit on sunny days. Then as the sun begins to go down, a shadow sweeps across the bottom of the pit and the dragonflies move to keep in the sun, so slowly the numbers flying just ahead of the shadow can be very great and hundreds of Dragonflies are amassed together following the setting sun.

There are some other really good sites to see Dragons and Damselflies in Cambridge, the list includes: The ditch across Coe Fen, The complex of ditches in Ditton Meadows, Banks of the River Cam just north of Fen Ditton, Logan’s Meadow, Science Park lakes, Barnwell Pit, Botanical Gardens ponds, Skaters Meadow and Sheep’s Green. Some of the smaller Cambridge nature reserves also have ponds which have good potential, but in the 2018 heat,  these have tended to dry up due to lack of water supply.

I will write more about Damselflies in my next blog.

Duncan Mackay

NocMig (Nocturnal Migration) the new Birding and the wader passage

Most of my birding is done by sound not by sight, but it depends where you are. In the City, gardens and woodlands it can account for 90% of records, which can then be checked out visually: flyover Peregrines, Common Terns along the river, singing/calling warblers, thrushes passing overhead at night when they arrive from the end of September onwards, even when sea watching – passing waders and the distinctive flight call of some gulls, especially Mediterranean Gulls.

The New Birding is to set up sound recording equipment at night, in a quiet spot away from peripheral noise and capture the flight calls of night-time migrants. Records can be confirmed from listening to play-backs or converting sounds to sonograms and comparing these to standard samples for comparisons; it’s called NocMig! I have heard Whimbrels and Green Sandpipers over Cambridge on clear dark nights in August, but this new technique is more systematic. Highlights this July have included a Whimbrel, Quail and, remarkably, a Bittern over our project area. Now is the time for active wader migrations and, with or without recording equipment, it’s worth listening on clear dark nights (especially if the wind is from the north or east).

A day-time Whimbrel was recorded over Trumpington Meadows on 27th July (Iain Webb). It also confirms that  urban Peregrines hunt at night and the remains of over 100 species of birds have been found in their pellets, many of which must be on overnight migration e.g. Quail, Nightjar, Water Rails. 

Wimbrels – Donegal 2017

Until the late 1960’s the Cambridge Sewage Farm was THE local hotspot for wader watching – especially during the autumn and spring passages. I remember seeing and hearing my first Temminck’s Stint and Wood Sandpipers there. One rarity recorded was the Red-necked Phalarope. The latest edition of British Birds describes its migration, which must be one of the most remarkable. After breeding on Fetlar, Shetland, male phalaropes fly north and west to Greenland, then south along the east coast of North America to the Caribbean, cross central America to winter off the coasts of Ecuador and Peru …. and then back again the following spring! WHY? Did they start to do this before the continents moved apart, or because food and therefore breeding conditions were so much better in Shetland?!

Most of our Swifts have gone; a few remained over Chesterton on 6th August. Swallows are still feeding young in Ditton Meadows (right) and Horningsea. Rooks may be having a tough time. They are birds of damp north–west Europe where they can probe soft earth for grubs and insects.

The baked soils due to the hot weather must have cut off much of their accessible food supplies. The Rookery count next spring will be a measure of how many Rooks survived this exceptionally hot summer.


Rook probing solid ground baked hard by the sun

A specific search for Meadow Pipits on agricultural land in the north of our project area found none. This is the first time in 30 years that no breeding pairs have been found. Meadow Pipits are Red Listed (50% population decline without any signs of recovery). I have no explanation other than loss of an insect food supply – in winter there is often a flock of 20+ birds.

Accompanying the Meadow Pipits in winter are Pied Wagtails (right). From now on they begin to assemble in overnight roosts. There used to be a roost of about 150 birds in the trees outside Carlucci’s Café by the Grand Arcade (Lion Yard!).

 Left: You are being watched! Roe Deer in the north of our project area

Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps are still calling in the heat of the mid-day sun.

I hope this exceptional summer has been good for butterflies. The following photographs were taken in Chesterton at the end of July. The Butterflies of Cambridgeshire (Field, Perrin, Bacon and Greatorix-Davies) features the Grizzled Skipper on the back cover. This butterfly is now a County rarity but in the 1960’s and early 1970’s it was common on brownfield sites in the north of the City: Arbury and Chesterton.

Below: Battered migrant – Painted Lady

Right: Peacock


Right: Speckled Wood


Bob Jarman

6th August 2018 

Mid-July 2018 – I was wrong! …… about the Common Terns

I was wrong about the Common Terns not appearing this year. Two pairs were feeding along The Reach at Fen Ditton on 11th July and one pair headed off high due south with food, as if to feed young. I have never worked out where they breed, but this pair were heading towards Cherry Hinton Pits or even Hobson’s Park.

Common Tern on The Reach 1st July                       Reed Warblers were still feeding young on Ditton Meadows on 1st July, but where are the Sedge Warblers this year? Perhaps the “Beast from the East” stalled their north-wards migration this year. Some years ago, I photographed a Sedge Warbler at Little Wilbraham and only noticed on the photo, it was ringed; closer examination showed it had a French ring. Perhaps that’s where their migration north stopped this year.

I guestimate there are 10 pairs of Kestrels in our project area and perhaps the same number of Sparrowhawks. Jon Heath has a wonderful film on Twitter of Sparrowhawk chicks in a nest in the north of the City; Barry Sims has photographs of a nest in Romsey town (below). Sparrowhawks became extinct in Cambs in the early 1960’s due to toxic agrochemicals. They were extinct in the County for about 25 years but returned in 1985.

Peregrine at the second City site  Common Buzzard over Ditton Fields  Female Sparrow-hawk with chicks Romsey

One Peregrine fledged at the second breeding site in the City (photo Richard Johnson). I guestimate five pairs of breeding Buzzards in our project area; in July, whilst watching the City Centre Peregrines, a pair of Buzzards were circling over the city in the same binocular view. Just five years ago I would not have thought this possible!

We have had no rain since the 29th May; in Queen Edith’s Way Goldcrests come to drink at a garden pond and “skitter” across the lily pads. A Garden Warbler is still singing in the Orchard in Milton Country Park, on the very northern edge of our project area and Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Song Thrushes were still in song in mid-July. Two territorial male Yellow Wagtails were located at a farm site also on the northern edge of our project area.

Yellow Wagtail Song Thrush by The Rush

A Quail heard at night over the City is, I suspect, a first for the City and hints at the nocturnal movement and migration of birds that goes unnoticed.





Himalayan Balsam (above), an aggressive coloniser of river and stream banks, is well established in the south-west corner of Ditton Meadows. Eighty-Five Ivy Broomrapes were counted in the central reservation in Longworth Avenue and lots in St Giles (Ascension) Cemetery in deep shade, but none in Newnham College grounds this year.

Lots of Swifts are screaming over their nest territories. Interesting data from Clarke Brunt’s Swift nest boxes in Milton:

  • Birds return from 5th May to 7th May; first eggs are laid from May 14th to May 25th
  • They lay two or three eggs (2 or 3 days apart); hatching is approximately 19 days from the last laid eggs; from hatching to fledging is approx. 42 days. Fledging is from July 19th to August 2nd.
  • If an adult is lost and the remaining bird attracts a new mate and lays a new clutch, fledging can take place from August 16th to 18th but one exceptionally late pair fledged young on September 9th. In the field, a September Swift sighting is unusual.

Thank you Clarke – I hope I have those figures correct! See –

The excellent photograph of the fledged Peregrine is by Richard Johnson – his Facebook page is: https:/

The photo of the Romsey Sparrowhawk with chicks is by Barry Sims. Thank you, Richard and Barry,

Bob Jarman 17th July 2018