All posts by Olwen W

May 2022 Sightings

First of all, my thanks to everybody who has supported this project over the last 5 years and especially to regular contributors. After two years of Covid restrictions, we have more or less emerged back to normal activities. The eminent early naturalist Gilbert White (1720-93) said, “Men that only undertake one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with.”  I suspect that many of us became very acquainted with our own little areas and if I have at times overemphasised the joys of Newnham, I make no apology – this is where I live.

Whose eyes are these?

I also make no apology for this picture : one of very many supplied by Paul over the years.  But whose eyes are these?  Try and find out before learning the answer at the end.

Last month, I asked everyone for a round-up of their local wildlife gains and losses over the last 5 years.  Several people mentioned the positive impact the NatHistCam project has had on the City Council and on the University.  Contact with all the College gardeners has encouraged a wild-life friendly approach, at a time when student allotments, bee hives and vegetable gardens were becoming popular and student societies were demanding a greener approach.  King’s Wildflower Meadow is the most prominent example of this, but the other initiatives include a regular Moth Survey in the Botanic Garden which recently produced this fine Figure of Eighty Moth

Figure of Eighty Moth Duncan Mackay

On the other hand, University and College building projects continue to multiply.  Ionathan says Eddington’s brown-field areas are much richer in wildlife than the designated parkland, but are threatened with development. In Barton Rd, King’s cut down mature trees in Millington Wood, while in Owlstone Croft, Queens’ are proposing to build 4 blocks of new 3-storey houses on the lawn, right against the Paradise Reserve. 

The City Council are at last beginning to commit to becoming herbicide-free. This is an ongoing battle, but Lammas Land can now boast longer grass verges, uncut hedges, areas of Wildflower planting and a magnificent giant log pile for invertebrates.  Maybe next year, the message will get through to the Operatives that we do not want our street fences and kerbs sprayed with poison.  Two Painted Lady butterflies on the Valerian by Pam’s front wall show what can happen when the wild flowers are not killed by spraying! There is so much more that could be done by the City Council : Jonathan asks why mown grass  cannot be used to produce power via an anaerobic digester.  And another disaster for the already over-built N Cambridge: a tower block built on St Alban’s recreation ground – one of the few open spaces/sports fields in the area.

Painted Lady on Valerian Pam Gatrell

Nature reserves have also been improved (alongside the massive house building programmes however : Hobson’s park was thought responsible for the the Box Moth, introduced with ornamental hedging and now infesting most parts of the City.) However, at Trumpington Meadows, Hobson’s Park and Logan’s Meadows, new habitats have given scope for species like water birds, orchids, butterflies and other invertebrates. Water Voles have returned to Logan’s Meadow, as well as the Sheep’s Green area. A new Tern raft at Milton Country Park was immediately occupied by a pair of breeding Common Terns.

There has been diligent work in many corners! Ben is very happy to have renovated the New Chesterton Allotment Society pond,  with Common Newts successfully colonising and this year’s adult Damselflies emerging in numbers. But in Paradise, the magnificent Chicken of the Woods fungus is now ruthlessly removed piecemeal by foragers and its attendant Fungus Beetles are gone.  We have so far failed to rewild the Skaters’ Meadow Footpath, due to the pressure of the car parking lobby on local politicians. Borders have been trampled by cars and saplings deliberately cut down.

Another failure is the disgraceful pollution of the Cam from sewage overflow.  (On this subject, Ofwat promises that “by 2040, 40% will have been eliminated”.  Really!?!)  Long-term fishermen say that catches have greatly reduced over the years. Certainly the number of people fishing has reduced.  I have not seen a Kingfisher this year, though they are still reported from the chalk streams like Hobson’s Brook. 

In Newnham, the gains include the return of Water Voles and Otters to Paradise and Sheep’s Green and the more regular appearance of Cuckoos and Grass Snakes there. A Cuckoo has stayed for 10 days this spring.  While Pam reports the regular occupation and breeding success of her Newnham Swift boxes, they have not returned to the boxes in Warkworth St this year (Suki). At St Regis House in Chesterton Road the Swift nest sites have been reinstated so let’s hope these colonies spread. Addenbrooke’s Hospital continues to host 60+ House Martin nests, but Swallows are few and far between. In Histon, (just outside our area) there was a report of the regular appearance of a Turtle Dove (though sadly not the higher numbers of previous years).  

Raptors continue to do well. Ionathan reports a Marsh Harrier over the Grafton Centre on 2nd and the city centre Peregrines have three well fledged young.  Buzzards and Red Kites are now too common to mention, with Kites breeding in the study area. Sparrow Hawks and Kestrels are seen regularly, the latter mainly towards the edges of the city.  Breeding Barn Owls are a credit to the private wetland area across the river from Grantchester Meadows (Gleb) and Newnham also has Tawny Owls.  An Osprey was sighted over Chesterton on 13th May (Simon Gillings).

Another major bird advance has been the NocMig recording and identifying the calls of fly-over night time migrants. This has revealed birds that are rarely seen including Bitterns, Common Scoters, Tree Pipits, Spotted Flycatchers and many more.

A Reed Warbler in St John’s College, together with Little Egrets, Grey Wagtails, Nuthatch and Treecreeper make an impressive collection there (David).  Simon wonders if Wood Pigeons have moved in to become garden birds, possibly at the expense of Collared Doves : several others mentioned a fall in Collared Dove populations (Rachel, Liza). Other vanishing birds include Finches (Chaffinch (Ionathan, Mo, Simon), Greenfinch (Olwen), Goldfinch (Liza) and typical woodland birds such as Woodpeckers (Sam), Willow Warblers, (Ben) breeding Spotted Flycatchers, Lesser Redpoll and Lesser-spotted Woodpecker (Bob). In Grange Road, Rachel has lost  Blue Tits, Great Tits, Dunnocks, with Blackbirds and Robins in single figures.  Trumpington Meadows has lost its Corn Buntings this year (Becky). But two reports of House Sparrows returning (Trumpington, Mo and Newnham, Pam) were better news.

Coleophora amethystinella Paul Rule

On the other hand, many Invertebrates are doing better. A combination of habitat improvements and climatic warming has produced records of previously unrecorded arthropods – insects and spiders.  At Trumpington Meadows and Magog Downs, Small Blue Butterflies have returned and are seen in numbers, with at least 40 on one day!  Over the months, I have mentioned many insects apparently moving north and Paul’s latest is a micro-moth (above) with orange eyes and eyelashes Coleophora amethystinella. This moth was previously confined to a couple of Essex coastal sites and this was the first record within the city.

Suburban Hedgehog numbers have suffered badly, probably because of the relentless arrival of Badgers. In central Cambridge, Dorothea’s Hedgehogs continue to romp through her garden, flattening the pinks with their amorous/avoidance procedures, but the Badgers (and Foxes) get ever nearer, Coleridge College being the latest site to report them and a total of known 12 setts in the city (Duncan).

Orchids have been variable, but there were spectacular displays of White Helleborine during Covid.  A Bee Orchid appeared out of nowhere on Simon’s neglected ‘lawn’ but have been hard to find in the usual places this year (Gleb).  

Rhona (Jesus College) has been a regular contributor and her latest sightings include a visiting Roe Deer, 6 Fox Cubs and a couple of Honeybee swarms. Jonathan found Phanacis hypochoeridis, a gall wasp that causes a gall on Common Cat’s-ear, at the British Antarctic Survey – there were no previous NBN records for Cambridgeshire. 

Roe Deer Jesus College Rhona Watson

This account would not be complete without the latest of Paul’s findings.  At the time of writing his section of our book, the overall garden species count stood at 744 but the 1000 mark was reached in June and the latest count is 1050 including 757 invertebrates. Ornithomya avicularia was found clinging to the trunk of a Sycamore tree. It is one of the larger louse flies (Hipposideridae) and more likely to be found on their hosts (pigeons and thrushes) than flying free. They are strange flies in that instead of laying eggs, the females give birth to a single offspring at a time.
https://entomologytoday.org/2015/05/18/hippoboscidae-flies-live-birth/ 

He also took the picture of the male Mayfly, whose eyes were at the beginning of this blog.  This is an insect which spends up to 2 years underwater as a larva, then emerges, moults, mates and flies for only a couple of hours before dying.  Why would it need such elaborate vision, with 2 pairs of compound eyes as well as central simple eyes? Perhaps to spot the overhead females? Well done if you could identify it.

One final thing to mention that has come out of the NatHistCam Project: Duncan is busy propagating resistant Elms, experimenting with hardwood and softwood cuttings to try and create some new trees from the 6 resistant elms we found in Cambridge. He reports good success with hardwood cuttings, and hopes to produce hundreds of these trees to re-establish resistant elms in the city. 

Resistant Elm Cuttings Duncan Mackay

There will be one more blog in June, so please send me your best observations this month. If you have not yet ordered your copy of the Book Nature in Cambridge, there may still be time to get it at the reduced pre-publication price as it is still advertised at https://www.naturebureau.co.uk/the-nature-of-cambridge

Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com

April 2022 Sightings

A visit to Clare College recently turned up 7 different ladybird species on a couple of pine trees. They were 7-spot, 10-spot, 14-spot, Cream-streaked, Eyed, Harlequin and Pine Ladybirds (not even Harlequin – that invasive alien). The older college gardens can be very rich in wildlife, having been (relatively) undisturbed for centuries. (Jonathan  and Rhona.)

At the Chesterton community college Dip Nature Reserve, Amy found a Mourning Bee – so called from its drab costume with white spots down the sides of the abdomen.  They are cleptoparasites (thieves) which will invade the pre-stocked nests of their host, the Hairy-footed Flower Bees and lay their own eggs.  

Meanwhile, Paul has been fishing about in Paradise pond for various species of Caddis Fly, whose larvae make the most amazing cases – examples above.

He also found 2 small species associated with Oxeye Daisy in his garden: a Fruit Fly Tephritis neesii and a Weevil Microplontus campestris.  Next was a Balloon Fly (Hilaria sp), whose males gift-wrap a present in silk for the female. While she is pre-occupied with unwrapping her present, the male takes the opportunity to mate. (Mary adds “There is another species that presents the female with a similar but empty silk parcel. By the time she has discovered the deception, it’s too late…”)

The reason for Paul’s obsession with small invertebrates is that his Garden Species list had reached 975. (By May it has already topped 1000. Definitely calls for celebrations.)  One species which I managed to find before him was an Emperor Moth: this one a female.  Duncan found a Poplar Hawk Moth in the Botanic Garden a full 3 weeks before it usually emerges.

Poplar Hawkmoth Duncan Mackay

Mikel was lucky enough to spot a  Grass Snake on Coe Fen.  Mark comments there are quite a lot in Coe Fen, frequently seen swimming in the river, but they are absent from Grantchester Meadows, presumably because of a lack of prey items. Ben recorded a pair of Pike sunning themselves on the Backs.

Mike, visiting the heronry at Paradise Island comments “The juvenile Herons sound and look prehistoric with their wispy throat and head feathers and partially developed wing feathers.  Other than the clacking when they utter some unearthly sounds, they do it when spreading their wings and jumping around.”  I am glad the 14 herons I saw earlier in the spring have got down to business!

Pike enjoying the sun Ben Greig

David spotted a white bird walking on the Coton footpath near the west Cambridge site. It was the same size and shape as a male Pheasant with very long tail, so presumably an albino.  Anyone else seen this bird? Lesley enjoyed watching a Carrion Crow bringing a big lump of dry bread to the bird bath to soak it before eating.  Most things are dry after this 2-3 month drought!  Val has increased the amount of water in the garden to a litre-plus each morning. Plenty of bird splashing, drinking and enjoyment.

Peter comments on a pair of Stock Doves (Columba oenas)  among the mature limes at Petersfield Green. Wood pigeons are always about and occasionally Feral Pigeon but he had not previously seen Stock Doves.

Bob reports Grey Wagtails displaying at Riverside, first Swift on 28th and first Swallows on 8th April. A Wheatear and 3 singing Corn Buntings were at Hobson’s Park on 30th and a pair of Common Terns occupying the new raft at Milton CP. Excitingly, a Nightingale was singing at Coldham’s Common and the first recorded sighting of a Raven in the NatHistCam territory over Eddington.

The very invasive Few-flowered Leek Allium paradoxum is taking over most Newnham College and private gardens, plus the Paradise reserve (Jean). It is native to Iran,  Caucasus, Turkmenistan and invasive in Europe.  It produces bulbils at the top of the stalk along with the flowers so is capable of multiplying exponentially. It can be eaten when cooked, with a garlicky flavour. I do wish the people who remove all the Chicken of the Woods fungus from the Willow trees in Paradise would also take some of the Allium!

Olwen Williams                                              olwenw@gmail.com

March sightings 2022

Don’t forget to pre-order your copy of The Nature of Cambridge – the book which is the result of our NatHistCam collaboration over the last 5 years.

March has been really interesting month!

After years of decline, Frogs are having something of a come-back. Logan’s Meadow was a hot spot, as reported last month (Bob says, “Never seen frogs like that before!”).

Christine in Wordsworth Grove was disappointed by the small frog turn out (possibly due to a grass snake having taken up residence on the small garden pond). However, she noted one clump of spawn was white, thought to be from an albino female.  

The white eggs were very much slower than their black cousins to develop and hatch, even though laid on the same night. Most of them eventually hatched and had no black skin melanophores, but they had pigmented eyes, so it is likely the male was normally pigmented, Many were abnormal and had kinks in their tails.  No sign of the white female – perhaps the grass snake got her!

The next special was Rhona’s Dotted Bee-fly, Bombylius discolor from the Botanic Garden. It had not been recorded in Cambridge for 120 years.  It is similar to the much commoner Dark-edged Bee-fly, but the wings have black dots all over. The UK distribution shows it to be an insect of South and Central England, possibly creeping north now.

Paul reports a Cuckoo Bumblebee Bombus vestalis in the Botanic Garden – a parasite of Buff-tailed Bumblebees, hence the close mimicry.  Also Tawny Mining Bee Andrena fulva and Chocolate Mining Bee Andrena scotica, which was a new garden record, bringing his total species number to 938. (We have some Champagne on order for when it reaches 1,000.) Rhona found Grey-patched Mining Bee Andrena nitida and Common Mourning Bee Melecta albifrons and lots of Hairy-footed Flower Bees Anthophora plumipes.

Lots of Butterflies and Moths are also emerging.  Paul finally managed to attract a male Emperor Moth to a lure, but it refused to settle, so no photo! A lovely Brindled Beauty was added to the garden list. Aglaostigma aucupariae Sawflies, whose larvae feed on bedstraws, were noted at Jesus and in Paradise. 

Paul also found a cute Owl Midge Boreoclytocerus ocellaris, along with a Black Snail Beetle Silpha atrata, a tiny Moss Chrysalis Snail Pupilla muscoru and another previously overlooked micro-snail, the 2.5mm Ribbed Glass Snail Vallonia costata.  Finally, he turned up Pogonognathellus longicornis, our largest springtail whose antennae are longer than the head and body combined (and even longer than its name!).  Amazing what you find when you start turning over logs.

Paradise has larger species too – a Stoat emerged briefly (Anita) and Water Voles continue to spread along the river bank. Rhona spotted four Bank Voles at Jesus.

There is the general impression (Bob, Olwen, Ionathan) that Great Spotted Woodpecker numbers are down.  However, Newnham’s small nature reserve of Paradise has made up for that with a Chiffchaff on Mar 3rd, a Blackbird in full song on Mar 2nd, a Treecreeper, a Mistle Thrush in song, and both Blackcap and Garden Warbler song.  Pam was delighted by a return of House Sparrows to Owlstone Rd – in the garden for the first time for over 20 years. Sue saw a Bullfinch in the Cenacle. Being on the edge of the city, Newnham has garden, field and river species. A Reed Bunting cock was seen in Skaters’ Meadow, along with a couple of Snipe and Barn Owls are occasionally sighted there. The Herons have returned to the tall trees by the river, the Rooks having departed to their rookeries. Cormorants and Kingfishers regularly use the river as a flyway. A weekly survey done over breakfast through Feb and March produced an average of 14 species and a total of 22 (Olwen).  

Danish Scurvy Grass Paul Rule

A Tawny Owlet was seen in Jesus (Rhona) and a Bramling at Logan’s Meadow (Bob). There was a big influx of Chiffchaffs to the Science Park on 24th March (Duncan).

I leave you with a picture of Danish Scurvy Grass, which is in flower on many road verges. Enjoy the spring!

Olwen Williams      olwenw@gmail.com

February Sightings 2022

The Botanic Garden turned up some spectacular orange fungus – either Orange Peel (Aleuria aurantia ) or Orange Cup Fungus (Melastiza cornubiensis) by the brook (Rhona). The latter was thought more likely at this time of year (Jonathan).

Orange Fungus Rhona Watson

Lots of bird reports!  On 7th Feb, in the late afternoon, I watched 14 Herons circling the field opposite Paradise, near to the Heronry which they had still not occupied. Now, how on earth did these birds all know this was the time and place to gather to find a mate and grab a nest site?  Since then, from 14th they have returned in ones and twos and are busy patching up the nests. The Rooks have gone, as have most of the jackdaws. The following day, in a rather adolescent squeaky voice, a male Tawny Owl sat high over the back path of Paradise, calling frequently.

Becky reports at least one pair of Stonechats overwintering at Trumpington Meadows and a female Pochard had been hanging around the pond all winter. 4 Mistle Thrushes were seen there recently, as well as Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Song Thrush all singing.  In Paradise, Siskins have enjoyed the alder catkins and Treecreepers were seen. A couple of Nuthatches were spotted on a large Lime tree at Clare College, hopefully a breeding pair (Kate).

Female Pochard Paul Wyer

More exotic, 5th February about 10 am Martin saw a juvenile Gannet flying over the city, heading west and guessed the stormy weather must have pushed it inland.  A White Tailed Eagle appeared around 13/14th in Harston, again possibly derailed by the weather and was then seen being mobbed in the city near Victoria Rd (Clare).  Then a pair of Ravens appeared by the entrance to the Cambridge Crematorium – how appropriate! (Bob) (Apparently 44 were counted near a deer corpse in the south of the county, so it’s good to see them returning to our area.)

Blackbird on Crab Apples Pam Gatrell

Jesus still had ~40 Redwings well into February (Rhona), but other species were getting on with spring business: Buzzards displaying (Bob),  a Sparrow Hawk plucking a Chaffinch from the roof (Ionathan).  The Big Farm Bird Count (BFBC) between Huntingdon Rd/Histon Rd footpath and Girton on 17/2 produced 40 Skylarks, 20 Yellowhammers; 4 Grey Partridges and a male Stonechat. There was a Brambling in Logan’s Meadow (Ionathan).

At Hobson’s Park, many thanks to Guy Belcher and his teams, who have cleared the Tern nest rafts of overgrown vegetation. This hopefully will encourage Common Terns to return and breed.

Several people sent pictures of the FrogFest opposite Vie flats near Logan’s Meadow. Ionathan witnessed the spawning of about 60 Frogs with considerable croaking noises to match.

By mid-February, the trees were beginning to come into leaf and the Cherry Plum flowering well. The Coltsfoot along Snakey Path was just about to come into flower, though the individual stems were quite hard to spot until they did (Monica).  Insect life was also beginning to appear: an Early Bumble Bee on Aconite flowers (Pam), a Buff Tailed Bumble Bee on a Plane tree at Churchill College (John), a first Tortoiseshell Butterfly (Eve), several Butterflies and a first Hairy-footed Flower Bee of the year at Jesus (Rhona).

Rhona also found larvae of the Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner, the moth Cameraria ohridella. The adult moths are tiny (4-5mm in length), a rich brown colour with bright white chevrons edged with black. In early summer, the adult female lays up to 180 eggs on newly opened leaves. Larvae then burrow into the leaves, causing premature browning and leaf fall. In order to restrict re-infestation, all dead leaves should be gathered up and burned, to get rid of the hibernating larvae.

Finally, the good news of fresh Otter spraint often found along the river bank and near the pond at Trumpington Meadow (Becky).

Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com

P.S. The publication of our Nature in Cambridge book is due about May and I will make sure you are informed when and where to get it.

January 2022 Sightings

Another month of mixed weather: 17degC on 1st ( shirtsleeves in the allotment), but then a return to frosty nights.  Intermittently, Robin, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Starling, Wren and Blackbird have all been in spring song. At Logan’s Meadow Nature Reserve, Bob reports 250 trees have been planted by 160 volunteers on two sides of the playing field.

Hobson’s Park has become a very successful reserve. Rhona clocked up 27 different bird species, including Corn Bunting, Stonechat and about 20 Common Snipe and we saw a Common Gull among the many Black Headed Gulls. Ionathan noted a Jack Snipe and a Kingfisher there, as well as the more usual Lapwing, Snipe, Little Egrets and Teal. He was concerned that some dog owners allowed two dogs to run onto the islands, disturbing about 300 birds in the process. They said it was not their fault and that birdwatchers should ‘Put a fence around the lake’. In the breeding season, these dogs would be illegal and if you witness it, you should ring 101 (non-emergency police number). The City Ecologist says that the ditch will be deepened, so that there is always a moat there.

Lots of people mentioned Blackcaps (Jeff, Eve, Dorothea, Pat, Pam, Holly). It seems that many more are over-wintering here. I was delighted to see a flock of about 20 Goldfinches in Newnham, though still neither Chaffinch nor Greenfinch.  Val says there are suddenly plenty of Blackbirds and asks where have they been for months and months? Jesus College sightings included mating Stock Doves, Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Treecreeper, Redwing and Jay . Pat reports a pair of Mistle Thrushes in trees by the Cam near the Green Dragon bridge in Chesterton. 

In the outskirts of the city, Jeff noted 20 Lapwing over fields near M11 and 46 Golden Plover near the rugby club. He says Grey Wagtails are regularly seen, but Kingfisher has become much scarcer over the last two years.  The Herons are coming closer! David noted one only 4 feet from many passers-by on Garret Hostel Lane.

Ann’s neighbour in Luard Rd found a Tawny Owl on the doorstep! Clare spotted two Buzzards circling low over the farmers’ fields near Trumpington Rd, while Bob saw one hunting just half a mile from city centre. He also reported displaying Sparrowhawks over Adams Road plus two juvenile birds hunting, and the female Peregrine near city centre nest site, despite nearby building works and crane. Lesley and Jean also reported Sparrowhawks in the garden (Victoria Rd and Grange Rd). Ann spotted 2 Red Kites flying over Fendon Road.  It seems that our raptors are doing well, even if not all the small birds.

Bob’s sighting of 13 Magpies, on early morning roof tops in Longworth Avenue, brought to mind an extended version of a familiar rhyme.

A few insects are turning up. Rhona had a Red Admiral on 14th  and on sunny days the Marmalade Hoverfly. Paul saw his first butterfly of the year – a  Peacock and the first moth of the year, an Oak Beauty.  Mo had Buff-tailed Bumble Bees on Hellebore flowers.  Ionathan, busy as ever, found a Dragonfly larva in his new pond.

Oak Beauty Moth Paul Rule

Foxes! Jenny’s ultra-tame crew have taken to basking on top of the ten foot high garden hedge and when disturbed, strolling along the top to the potting shed. Lesley found them hanging out on the fence in Histon Road Cemetery and Rhona reports a panting male fox running after the  resident female.  Like the Herons mentioned earlier, they seem unconcerned about human presence, one strolling around David’s garden close to the family.

Jonathan report that 92 plant species were seen in flower on New Year’s Day, out of a total of 278 species recorded during the month. 

Ionathan worries about sewage in the Cam, as he has seen several dead fish below the N. Cambridge treatment plant.  Mike Foley and Cam Valley Forum have been doing sterling work, taking samples for faecal bacteria and found there were peaks below all the sewage works, including Cambridge, but with Haslingfield the main offender – see https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0?ui=2&ik=df44efff8d&attid=0.1&permmsgid=msg-f:1723305378478333028&th=17ea691c7bb89c64&view=att&disp=safe

When will we have safe bathing water? Not this year, yet again.

Olwen Williams                      olwenw@gmail.com

December 2021 sightings

On 30th December 2021, Cambridge recorded a daytime temperature of 16oC – the highest December reading since records began. This unseasonable warmth has generated considerable insect flight, including a Bumblebee at breakfast on the last day of the year. Ionathan found a Peacock butterfly and Mo’s compost heap exposed a lot of flying and crawling insects (also a giant Rat!). Paul’s pond cleaning produced a Newt and Val reports 6 red Raspberries ripening in the garden.

In St Matthew’s St, Val found a dead squashed Hedgehog which should have been hibernating, while Dorothea’s hedgehog was more happily still visiting the feeding station in the mild spells. This has now become a foodbank for other creatures, including a Wren, which disappeared inside for several minutes.  Ionathan comments “I think the birds are confused – I have heard Blackbirds, Blue tits, and Robins singing their spring song. I have never heard them this early before.”  Bob reports a Pipistrelle bat flying near Victoria Bridge on 11th and an early? (or late?) singing Corn Bunting at Hobson’s Park on the 12th.  All very mixed up.

More traditionally for autumn and winter, Monica found some magnificent fungi, on a tree stump along Snakey Path.  I think they are Oyster Mushrooms, together with Turkey Tail (others may know better). Lottie’s Blue Roundhead, on a pile of woodchip and a Field Blewit in the Newnham College orchard were equally spectacular. Rhona found a purple jelly fungus which I think may be Tripe Fungus.  Waiting in the Newnham queue for the fish van, my eye fell on a curious double-headed Puffball Fungus, which turned out to have a substantial “rooting structure” buried in the pile of dead leaves – I am unable to identify it further. 

Liza asks, “Where are all the garden birds?  I have one Robin in residence.  Usually Blackbirds would be around pairing up and squabbling over territories. This is the worst winter yet.”  I would entirely agree with this. Rachel speculates that it is the lack of insects in the spring – no caterpillars means no fledglings.  Others are not so pessimistic: Pam, Dorothea, Val all comment on their garden birds and Lesley notes a pair of Coal Tits on the feeder. However, Finches, Blackbirds and Thrushes seem particularly rare and even Collared Doves and Woodpigeons are unusual, while I have not heard a Stock Dove for months.  House Sparrows have also gone from my area of Newnham, but Suki reports lots of noisy sparrows pairing up near the Grafton Centre.

Pied Wagtails were mentioned by several (Val, Mary, Suki). Bob noted 25 Siskins and some Chiffchaff at Milton CP, and Blackcaps throughout the month at Logan’s Meadow, where there was also a large (16+) flock of Greenfinches (Ionathan). Other birds seen in gardens were a pair of Jays visiting a bird feeder (Sam); at Jesus College a pair of Goldcrests; Starlings singing on 10th December; a Mistle Thrush; 4 Redwings and Blackbrds enjoying winter berries (Rhona).

Several Red Kite sightings (Rose, Jean, Ann, Suki) indicate that these birds are now becoming common. Less usual were a Merlin (first-winter male hunting over Grantchester Road fields, Jeff) and a Woodcock in the garden (Ionathan). However, the rarity of the month was a Yellow-Browed Warbler found by Jon Heath at Milton Country Park on 21st: it should have been wintering in India or south-east Asia!

Yellow-Browed Warbler Jon Heath

The Cormorant roost at Riverside has risen to 11 (Bob).  Kingfishers were seen along Brookside (Bob) and on Christmas Day at Cherry Hinton (Holly). There were up to 9 species of duck at Milton Country Park, including male Goldeneye and male Goosander (Bob). A Little Grebe was seen using the flooded Paradise pond (Jeff).  

December Moth Paul Rule

Paul has been looking out for the December Moth for the last 4 winters and finally had this nice female in the trap along with another winter moth, the Mottled Umber. Some Sepsis flies, a red Weevil and a 16-Spot Ladybird all turned up on a December walk across Grantchester Meadows (Paul). The Sepsis flies are ant-mimics, often associated with animal dung. Rhona found a Euopedes species of Hoverfly, also 7-Spots and Harlequins out in the warm weather. Suki’s Spider (Tegenaria gigantea) (below) had chosen to avoid the weather altogether.

Monica reports the first Violet flowers – probably a naturalised form of an early-flowering garden cultivar and a precocious Primrose at Barnwell East LNR. Richard found plenty of male catkins and female flowers on the Hazel at Magog Down.

November to February is prime time for Bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) and the Weds Naturalists group co-opted Chris Preston to lead us round the Botanic Garden. Cushions and crawlers (Acrocarps and Pleurocarps) divided the mosses.  Here are a few of Paul’s pix – we were surprised by the variety of forms when viewed with a handlens. (Chris’s final comment on our identification attempts is best summed up by, “The one labelled Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus is Calliergonella cuspidata.”) 

Happy New Year and many thanks to all my faithful contributors over the last 5 years. Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com

November 2021 sightings

Up to storm Arwen (“worst storm in last 20 years”) at the end of the month, November 2021 was the driest November on record. The first frost was on 2nd  but the rest of the month was very warm.

A few invertebrates linger on. Several people reported Darters (both Common and Ruddy) (Mo, Jeff, Ben) and there were also butterflies – a Red Admiral at Trumpington Meadows (Rose) and several species at Jesus College (Rhona).

Monica had a bee land on her leg on 17th November when sitting in the conservatory. It was identified as a Drone Honey Bee, thought to have been evicted from the hive by the workers and unable to mate. Lesley asked what this spider might be – Spotted in Norfolk Street among dead autumn leaves.  It’s one of the few I can recognise instantly from the white cross on its back:- a Garden Spider, Araneus diadematusIt looks a rather healthier specimen than the one in my October blog (http://www.nathistcam.org.uk/october-2021-sightings/). 

I have seen hardly any birds around the house, except for the large flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws, and some Starlings. In Grange Rd, the only birds Jean had seen frequently this year were Jackdaws and Magpies, rarely a Robin and once a Blackbird.  There had been no Tits (Great, Coal, Blue, Long-tailed), Finches (Gold, Chaffinch, Green), Pigeons or Dunnocks. This seems a catastrophic decline in Newnham, no idea why.  I keep hoping that the warm weather has kept them in the countryside and that they will reappear. Cathy reports both a female and a male Blackcap on the Callicarpa berries in the garden and Bob found more off Huntingdon Rd on Honeysuckle berries and Mistletoe, with one in Mill Rd Cemetery.

The bird of the month was the Great Grey Shrike which turned up at Comberton (out of our area) – to Gleb’s great excitement.   Two Mistle Thrushes were seen in trees over Chesterton Road gardens (Pat) and several people reported Jays (Val, Eve) while three fledged from Jesus College this year (Rhona). Jeff reports up to 35 Pied Wagtails in horse paddocks near Grantchester Church.

Stonechat Bob Jarman

We have an overlap of summer visitors, not yet departed (Chiffchaff up to 18th) (Jeff) and winter visitors, with a big influx of Winter Thrushes especially Redwings over the City on 5th (Bob).  Jeff also reports 11 Siskin perched above the Paradise pond – they love the Alder catkins in this reserve. A Green Sandpiper was seen at Eddington and a Woodcock noted over Huntingdon Rd on 17th. (Bob says to look out for these in gardens during cold weather). Stonechats were seen throughout the month at Hobson’s Park and a pair at Eddington. On 14th  Nov, there was a covey of 11 Grey Partridges near the Histon Rd/Huntingdon Rd footpath (Bob).

Lots of water birds are around. The Botanic Gardens hosts Little Grebes, very much at home and feeding successfully on what appear to be very small fish (Vicky). Grey Wagtails (Rhona), Kingfisher (Mo), Little Egrets (Holly), Heron (Rose) were reported from various parts of our area. In Paradise, Janet spotted a female Goosander on the pond and Bob confirms there have been several other sightings. Up to nine Cormorants collect at the Riverside daytime roost and are often seen flying over. A first winter male Goldeneye was seen at Milton Country Park.

Holly has been amused to witness a pair of Swans on the Brook near Cherry Hinton Hall, trying to get rid of their juvenile who is still hanging around. The pair breed on the chalk pit lakes and use the Brook to go up and down to the ponds in Cherry Hinton Hall.

Chesterton Nature Explorers did Barn Owl pellet dissection with Peter Pilbeam from the Cambridgeshire Mammal Society. Amongst the voles and mice bones he identified a mysterious ‘hand’…. that of a Mole! He’d never seen a mole in an owl pellet before. The photo shows the forearm, with the extra digit, looking like a big canine tooth (Ben).  Judging by the number of mole hills, they are very active just now.

There were lots of reports of foxes this month (Mary, Rhona, Gleb, Jean) and also Grey Squirrels (Jean, Monica). One very tame fox is now to be seen regularly at the Botanic Garden, appearing to be totally unconcerned about the proximity of people (Vicky).

Peeling Oysterling or Soft Slipper Toadstool Lottie Collis

Finally, a Peeling Oysterling or Soft Slipper Toadstool,  Crepidotus mollis on dead wood at Newnham College.  Nature Spot describes Crepidotus mollis as a fan-shaped fungus, with a cap cuticle (skin) that readily peels away from the flesh. The skin is rubbery and transparent and can be stretched to at least double its length before it tears. Thanks Lottie for that one – quite new to me.

Olwen Williams                                  olwenw@gmail.com

October 2021 Sightings

Ionathan reports a Heron trying to eat a large, adult Eel, on the bank of the Cam near the Boathouses.  Bob reminisces that in his young teens, the stream that ran through what is now the Science Park used to teem with Elvers. There were so many, they formed a dense thick rope making their way downstream into the Cam. He remembers catching a mass in a Kilner jar and surprising his mother with the squirming mass, whereupon she fled in horror!  Sadly this local eel reproduction no longer occurs.

Early in the month, Val noticed Bats flying in Edward St and Dorothea’s Hedgehogs are still up and about, happy in the mild weather it seems and eating well. Pat reports sightings of Water Vole in Jesus Ditch – they seem to be spreading well in the upper Cam now.  Ionathan saw some Ferrets with ‘masks’ over their eyes and asks if there are feral ferrets in Cambridge? Anyone else seen these?

While small birds are noticeable by their absence, there have been some spectacular mass gatherings. Newnham’s Corvid roost has built up to about 200 birds – a mixed flock of Jackdaws and Rooks. Val also comments on, “The most remarkable din from dozens of Rooks/Crows (with the odd Magpie interloper) all sitting on the roofline of the buildings on the south side of Burleigh St. The Seagulls looked completely discombobulated.” Jill reports immense Starling murmurations over the lake at Bolton’s Pit (off Barton Rd) – several thousand birds, settling on the island at dusk.  https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0?ui=2&ik=df44efff8d&attid=0.1&permmsgid=msg-f:1714978858259013058&th=17ccd42f6bd55dc2&view=att&disp=safe Video by Lynn Hieatt

Ionathan makes the case for more Oak trees!  He spotted a Nuthatch in Eddington (where there are many oaks) and another one in an old oak tree in Arbury. Bob comments that they are known to breed in Girton College where there are mature oaks. (If anyone can offer a home to an oak tree, please let me know, as I still have a few young trees.)  Jesus college turned up a Treecreeper (Rhona).

Lots of birds move about in the autumn and Val heard (and then saw) two Swans flying at a height going NW to SE, but nowhere near the river. Assuming they were Mute Swans, perhaps a young couple looking for an unoccupied site to breed next year?  Alec saw an unknown bird in Petersfield cemetery: his excellent written description “Bird. blackbird size +, white base of its tail. beige grey body, green flashes by wings near tail. Very fearless.” tracked it down to a Jay. Holly comments on a number of Jays caching nuts – this is the time of year to see them.

Cormorants Jenny Bastable

Kingfishers were noted by Burnside allotments (Holly, Monica) and a pair of Grey Wagtails on around the weir at Jesus Lock (Pat). Jenny was surprised to see Cormorants on Grantchester Meadows. These inland Cormorants are now well established in Cambridge – disliked by fishermen!

Although Harlequins Ladybirds were slow to appear this year, there were several end of season reports. The tombstones in Haslingfield (out of our area) were dotted with them, in their various outfits, suggesting a mass hatch had taken place there. Monica found one indoors, looking to hibernate. 

Paul (exotic as ever) found the larval case of one of the Case-bearing Moths on a Birch tree, possibly the Pistol Case-bearer (Coleophora anatipennella) or Birch Case-bearer (C.  betulella). These ‘Pistol Case-bearers’ are so named from the resemblance of their larval cases to an old flintlock pistol.  Rhona (equally exotic) found a Luffia species of bagworm/case-bearing moth on a wooden seat. There seem to be lots of different species of these micro-moths. A Jesus student found about 30 hibernating butterflies in the top of the tower (Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells) – every species needs a strategy to survive the harsher weather.

Araneus diadematus, after laying eggs Rhona Watson

Rhona sent a picture of an exhausted looking spider! Pregnant female Garden Spiders Araneus diadematus are particularly noticeable because of their large body, swollen with eggs. However this one was thought to have laid her eggs and, job done, would soon die. Eventually the spiderlings will hatch in the following May. It is an unusual reddish colour, but there can be considerable variation in this genus. The related A. quatratus can actively change colour, taking about three days to take on colours that accurately match their resting surface.

A couple of interesting Beetles: Rhona reports a Pleasing Fungus Beetles (Erotylidae) in the Triplax genus. I was interested to know in what way it was “Pleasing”, but the nearest I came was the comment, “Most Pleasing Fungus Beetles are inoffensive animals of little significance to humans”.  Then Liza produced “The most stunning royal-blue beetle which turns out to be a Blue Mint Beetle (Chrysolina coerulans)”. It came to this country in 2011 and was found on Apple Mint, at Empty Common allotments.

A good selection of Fungi was found on the CNHS outings – see the CNHS web page for the Trumpington Meadows account. Notable were several species of Waxcap including Blackening Waxcap, also a good array of Shaggy Inkcaps (Mo). The Botanic Garden had the usual suspects, including Bird’s Nest Fungus under the new raised walkway, Birch Polypore on Birch logs, Magpie Mushroom and Plantpot Dapperling. Finds new to the garden were Parrot Waxcap and a Bolete growing under Oak, which therefore had to be Xerocomus cisalpinus (Jonathan).

As leaves fall from the trees, Rhona contributed these Oak Galls. What sort of a winter will we have, I wonder?

Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com

September 2021 Sightings

A Quiz!  Here are 4 caterpillars – whose are they?  (Here is one of many helpful Ids to caterpillars: https://www.naturespot.org.uk/gallery/moth-caterpillars).  Answers at the end.

Beginning with plants for a change, a visit to Mill Rd cemetery turned up some Ivy Broomrape – a parasitic plant which lacks its own chlorophyll.  We also found Wild Clary there. One notable botanical record :  Alan Leslie found a single plant of Chenopodium glaucum (Oak-leaved Goosefoot) on disturbed ground created by the construction of the new cycle path across Coldham’s Common.  This plant is rare in the county.  The forced absence of volunteers during the Covid pandemic has led to an unwelcome resurgence of Himalayan Balsam along the main drain at the north of the Common.

Ivy Broomrape Paul Rule

Bird news is very scanty this month. The last Swift was reported on 11th and Swallows not at all. Chiffchaffs have been widespread and singing across the City up to the middle of the month (Bob). Holly reports small birds in feeding flocks in Cherry Hinton: Long-tailed, Blue and Great Tits, Goldcrests, House Sparrows and Goldfinches. Rose spotted a Barn Owl flying over Trumpington Meadows and I have seen one over Skaters’ Meadows in Newnham, quartering the meadow in late afternoon sunshine.  Rooks and Jackdaws have returned to Paradise Island winter roost, but numbers are well down on a few years ago.

Richard reports a single Swan Goose on the lake in Hobson Park swimming along among the (numerous) Greylag Geese. According to Wiki (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_goose), this bird is native to the Far East, but escapes are not unusual amongst feral flocks of other geese and goose hybrids are also common.

Odds and ends: Simon reports a Pipistrelle Bat (around 50kHz) flitting back and forth at head height for several minutes by the house and managed to photograph it: a lovely “x-ray” against the night sky.  A Badger in Peterhouse might explain why the College’s Hedgehogs seem to have disappeared (Justin). Peter saw a Grass Snake swimming at Byron’s Pool – there have been an unusual number of sightings this year. John found a lovely specimen of Chicken of the Woods Fungus, growing on Hazel at Churchill College.

Ben sends pix of Heriades truncorum or Large-headed Resin bee, which was using holes drilled into an old post. It collects resin from pines to seal the cell partitions, combined with grit/bits for the final plug.

Several references to Ladybirds: Monica found a 22-Spot sitting on a water butt – apparently it is unusual in being a mildew-eater.  Val had a plague of Harlequins and was single-handedly trying to eliminate them from the UK by squashing each one. Our trip to Mill Rd Cemetery turned up a Harlequin and also a 10-Spot – both highly variable species.

Some late butterflies in Logan’s Meadow included Painted Lady and Speckled Wood (Bob). Mo found Common Blue, Red Admiral, Comma and Peacock butterflies at Trumpington meadows. There are still Dragonflies on the wing (Rhona) and Paul got excited about an Ornate Shieldbug, possibly a first record for Cambs. This is yet another species fairly new to the UK. It is expanding its range northwards and most records are from coastal areas.

Ionathan’s moth trap continues to turn up surprises.  A Dewick’s Plusia and a Clifden Nonpareil (Blue Underwing) were this month’s specials. The latter became extinct in UK in 1960s, but appears to be creeping back again. Its larvae feed on aspen and poplar.

Answers to the Quiz: 1  Grey Dagger Moth (Eve); 2  Knot Grass Moth (Mark); 3  Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar (Mo); 4  Pale Tussock Moth (Sam).   The Knot Grass moth caterpillar was on Spurge, apparently not affected by its toxins.

Olwen Williams    olwenw@gmail.com

August sightings 2021

Several friends have asked “Where have all the birds gone?”  Well, it is a quiet time of year generally, after the autumn moult.  There is plenty of food in the fields for seed and insect eaters, so they have abandoned our garden feeders.  Then the summer visitors have mostly departed and winter visitors not yet arrived. Paul spotted a juvenile Cuckoo hunting insects at Trumpington Meadows, stocking up for the journey ahead.

Juvenile Cuckoo Paul Rule

Through the month, there have been drifts of hirundines (Swallows and House Martins) going south. Many Swifts had departed by the beginning of August (Bob, Pam), up to 70 were seen over Grantchester Meadows on 13th, with late fledglings persisting up to 29th in Milton (Clarke). The Milton colony had a very successful year, all boxes occupied and competition between Swifts and Starlings for space.

This season, Eddington Lake has successfully reared young Swans, Little Grebes, Mallards, and Coots (David).  Dorothea reports a remarkable influx of Gulls over the Chesterton area this month, very noisy and arguing with crows. Vicky  sighted a Little Grebe in Botanic Garden’s Lake and Hugh spotted a Glossy Ibis flying over Cambridge. At the winter roost in Newnham, both Jackdaws and Rooks are beginning to appear.  I love these noisy birds!  In town, Val reports a birdfeeders succession of a ‘teenagerish’, slightly scruffy/skinny young Magpie, swiftly followed by an equivalent Jay and then multiple equivalent Jackdaws.  “A bit like the ‘wrong’ sort of street corner being frequented by Boys From The ‘Hood…”

Three mammalian excitements: Alec’s first sighting ever of a Grey Squirrel in his tiny garden had  an egg in its mouth, cream-coloured and about an inch long. I would guess this would be a Wood Pigeon, who seem to go in for continuous breeding! Then Kevin was excited to see a chocolate brown Water Vole on its own well-grazed grass patch on Coe Fen.   Finally, an Otter was spotted passing through Cherry Hinton (Holly) in broad daylight.

Jonathan reports finding Potamogeton friesii (Flat-stalked Pondweed) in the Cam at Ditton Meadows; the first record for the NHC area for a long time (possibly 120 years).   Hornet-mimic Hoverflies are in season (Paul, Kevin, Eve).  Lots of crickets are also around.

Dragonflies reported this month: Willow Emerald (Jeff), Common Darter (David), male Lesser Emperor (Guy), Migrant Hawker (Ionathan, Rhona). 

Butterflies are on the wane now, but at the Ascension Burial Ground, on 2 visits in August, Richard recorded 10 different butterfly species. 35 Meadow Brown, 31 Gatekeeper, 4 Large White, 6 Small White, 2 Peacock, 7 Red Admiral, 1 Holly Blue, 1 Painted Lady, 2 Speckled Wood and 2 Green Veined White. This site is a small suburban wildlife oasis – anyone interested in helping survey here please contact Alison Taylor.

Moth trappers seem to find new species with each season. Ionathan discovered a colony of Raspberry Clearwings in the Raspberry patch. It is a relatively new species to the UK, first found in 2007 on the Cambs / Herts border, but now seems well established.  Ben’s moth trap in Arbury turned up Palpita vitrealis (Olive Tree Pearl moth).  However, Moths are not always welcome! Lesley found her poor little Guelder Rose decimated by a huge Privet Hawk-moth caterpillar, while Jean has given up on box topiary, because of the devastation from the Box Moth. On shredding the bushes, there was just one caterpillar, dark green with black markings, a perfect camouflage.

Other invertebrate exotics – Glow worms at Cherry Hinton Chalk Pit and Roesel’s Bush Cricket at Jesus (Rhona). Dinocampus coccinellae, a parasitic wasp, was found recently emerged from its cocoon. This is held by a 7-spot ladybird,  inside which the wasp larva developed, while eating the ladybird’s non-essential parts. The ladybird remains alive but paralysed by a virus released by the wasp (thanks for that one, Ben).

It’s also spider season and the spectacular Wasp Spiders have re-emerged at Hobson’s Park (Guy, Ionathan). How about an unusual place for Honey Bees to set up home: inside a marble statue at Anglesey Abbey? (Toby). Certainly safe from badgers.

Shaggy Bracket Lottie Collis

Fungus season soon.  June reports large numbers of Puff Balls in her orchard at Chesterton, while pictures of the bracket fungus Inontus hispidus (Shaggy Bracket) on old Apple trees came from both Lottie and Rhona.

Finally, there has been some recent negative comment about Bird Feeders.  They can “Fuel the spread of avian diseases, alter migratory behaviour, help invasive species outcompete natives and give predators, including free-roaming neighbourhood cats, easy access to birds and their nestlings”. On the other hand, both the RSPB and BTO recommend year-round feeding, provided care is taken with hygiene and the type of food.  Out go those rancid fat balls and last year’s peanuts! The main avian declines are of farmland birds, e.g. Corn Buntings, Tree Sparrows, which will be more influenced by farming methods than by garden feeders.

Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com