Category Archives: Project Blog

This blog will record the progress of the project as we go along.

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

July Sightings 2021

This month, I have a collection of weird objects. Take a guess – answers are at the end.

It has been a good month for moth trappers.  Adams Road Sanctuary July8/9th turned up Lime, Poplar and Elephant Hawkmoths (David). King’s College continues to monitor the new wildflower meadow invertebrates, with some wonderful moth catches. Observers were greeted each morning by Peregrines on the chapel (picture by Duncan Mackay).  The reed beds added to Logan’s Meadow a few years ago have worked their magic and moths found there included several fen specialists and rarities. As well as a thriving colony of Fen Wainscot, there were Garden Dart, once common but now rarely recorded and two rare micromoths: Willow Marble and Willow Knot-horn,  a relatively recent UK colonist, which is established in Kent but with very few Cambridge records (Ben). Ionathan’s trap turned up 2 Swallowtail Moths and a Scorched Carpet Moth.

Jesus college hosted some Buff-tip Moth caterpillars on oak (Rhona) and Lottie found Social Pear Sawfly larvae at Newnham. Though they are Hymenoptera and related to ants and bees, Sawflies are a less well-known group, partly because of their considerable diversity. They differ from the bees, wasps and ants in not having a ‘waist’ but may be mistaken for flies or other insects. Most female sawflies possess ‘saw-like’ genitalia with which they cut through plant tissue to lay their eggs. In Britain there are about 500 species (https://www.naturespot.org.uk/gallery/sawflies).

Justin reported a couple of under-recorded insects: Hollyhock Weevil and Fig Psyllid Bug. The fig bugs vanished as quickly as they appeared and were gone in a week. It makes one wonder what they eat the rest of the year. The Red Longhorn beetle Stictoleptura rubra and a Pellucid Hoverfly turned up at Jesus (Rhona) and lots of people sent butterfly records (Suki, Mo, Jeff). Jeff’s Essex Skipper and Ringlet were less usual finds.

Passion flower being visited by a Buff-Tailed Bumble Bee (Sue) and a Volucella zonaria hoverfly (Duncan) provided lovely pictures.

Hedghogs still seem to be more abundant in the city than the suburbs. However, besides a large guy spotted at Matthews Piece (Sandra), Pam reported a youngster in Newnham – but sadly run over by a car. 2-3 years ago, I stopped re-homing hedgehogs here, because of the invasion of Badgers, so it is slight encouragement that this young one was found. Meanwhile, badgers have gone on to invade the nearby Newnham Croft School grounds for the first time (Veronica). It is possible that King’s building work done in Barton Rd, cutting down a large number of trees in Millington Wood, has disturbed that colony, causing it to disperse locally. In Trumpington, Mo had regular visits from badgers, but no recent sightings of hedgehog. 

Pam found a dead Brown Long-Eared Bat  – a second one for Owlstone Rd. Water Voles had disappeared at Logan’s Meadow, but recently were seen again (Bob). An update on Jesus foxes suggests 7 fox cubs this year.

Swifts are last to arrive and the first to go – there was a major exodus at the end of July.  Pam’s Newnham colony reached a record 20, while Jeff recorded about 60 over Grantchester Meadows, also about 100 House Martins.  Darwin Green (Eddington) has about 40 pairs of breeding Skylarks, 20 pairs of Reed Buntings and 3 pairs of Grey Partridges (Ionathan). 

Holly’s birding highlight was a very loud Reed Warbler along Snakey Path at Cherry Hinton. Bob records a Reed Warbler singing Logan’s Meadow, a Greenshank at Eddington, a Corn Bunting singing north of the City (unusual) and a single Garden Warbler singing at Logan’s Meadow.  June had a Sparrow Hawk’s nest in a tree in the  orchard in Chesterton, while Jonathan’s small central garden was the scene of a Sparrow Hawk kill.

Juvenile Green Woodpecker Bob Jarman

Val’s most recent back garden drama: “Two Frogs dislodged when we started shifting a heap of rubble and a ’temporary’ wooden shed (erected 20 years ago). The latter was essentially dissolving and collapsing in on itself, the roof having plainly been held up principally by the compacted strata of miscellaneous boxes inside. Prompted by the horror of our totally outraged grand-daughter – aghast at our slum-clearance project – we kept some of the rubble and constructed what we hope will become an adequate Froggery in the opposite corner of the garden, having first ensured the displaced amphibians were over on that side during the Removals.”  Thanks, Val – I seem to remember a previous frog found its way into your house?

Mystery Objects

Number 1 is the rust Gymnomitrium confusum found in the Botanic Garden on the fruits of the Hawthorn Crataegus pentagyna (Sam Buckton and Chris Preston).  Paul Rule had found it on the leaves of common Hawthorn earlier in the month, the first confirmed record for the county.  Number 2 is Pseudoinonotus dryadeus fungus on an oak tree (Rhona). When mature, the oak bracket is broad, thick and lumpy with an orangey-brown colour.  When young, an amber-coloured liquid oozes from the surface, as in this picture. It is generally bad news for the tree.  Number 3 is a ‘new to UK’ plant gall Aceria brachytarsus in Downing College, on  walnut leaves (Sam).

Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com

June 2021 sightings

One sad sighting this month was a council employee with a backpack of poison, spraying Herbicide on to the base of the fences and the gutters through Newnham. I imagine the rest of the city had similar treatment. Among other plants, he sprayed a Feverfew plant by my gatepost which was hosting a Pine Ladybird. I have written to my councillors urging them to stop this practice. If you agree with this, can you write to your councillors too and copy it to Joel.Carre@cambridge.gov.uk? He is head of environmental services but still needs to be convinced that this is unnecessary and undesirable!  In Newnham, we have persuaded them to stop the practice of spraying herbicide around the base of park trees and to leave a 2m margin at the edge of Lammas Land unmown.

I recommend “Rebirding” – a recent book by Ben Macdonald – which describes the stark state of our countryside (especially the national parks) and makes suggestions for recovery.  He condemns “Excessive Tidiness Disorder” – a good description of this waste of our money.

Ionathan is concerned for the area around Eddington, where there were masses of Brown Arguses in Storey’s Field – however this brownfield site is due to be concreted over in a few years time.  In Newnham, re-wilding of the Skaters’ Meadow area produced the first Small Copper Butterfly seen there and several sightings of Weasels. However, the saplings and newly sown wildflower verges have been trashed by motorists determined to park their cars. All these battles are time-consuming, but worthwhile and we fight on.

We have learned over the last 3 years how rich Cambridge is for invertebrates. In the Scented Garden of the Botanic Garden, Paul found a Wool Carder Bee.  Several people reported Scarlet Tiger Moths (Callimorpha dominula) (Lottie, Jonathan, Jeff): black with white or yellow spots and bright red underwing. Rhona found a scarce Horehound Long-Horn Moth Nemophora fasciella at Jesus.

At Trumpington Meadows, Becky reports Marbled White Butterflies in good numbers and also Large Skippers. Small Blue Butterflies were present again on the Meadows the other side of the M11 (Paul, Rhona). Then at the lake area, a White Legged Damselfly was found on a CNHS field trip (David, Jonathan).  In Grantchester Meadows, Paul spotted a web of Small Eggar Moth caterpillars (which several of us had passed without noticing!). Once a common species, they have severely declined through loss of habitat (hedgerows) and have not been reported within the city limits before.

Paul’s garden continues to produce new species (see his post). He spent 15 mins watching a Ruby-Tailed Wasp ovipositing on aphids. Based on that behaviour, he speculated that the species was probably Pseudomalus auratus, which parasitises Crabronid wasps. It depends on those species feeding on the aphids which contain its eggs.  Jeff’s survey of the lake in Paradise produced Banded Demoiselle,  Large Red, Azure, Blue-tailed and Red-eyed Damselflies, Hairy and Emperor Dragonflies, and Four-spotted Chaser, Black-tailed Skimmer, Common Darter and Ruddy Darter.  This is a very good haul for a large pond which was only created a few years ago.

A pair of observations from the NHC committee. Duncan’s Banded Demoiselle is consuming a Mayfly and both are in danger from the lurking Enoplognatha Spider below. Paul’s orb web spider is often found near water.

It has been a really special year for Orchids.  Gleb reports an absolute swarm of Bee Orchids on the roadside verge at Addenbrooke’s (also noted elsewhere by Monica, Becky, Jonathan, David, Ben) and a large colony of flowering Common Spotted Orchids at Barnwell East.  Pyramidal Orchids were in abundance at Coldham’s Common.  Monica spotted a fine crop of Broomrape among the Ivy at Ravensworth Gardens.

Christine comments on the fact that the Frogs in her Wordsworth Grove pond had mysteriously disappeared and then found she had a resident Grass Snake. Not one, but three! A second much smaller snake (about 8 inches long) was lying on top of the big ‘mother’ snake, with its tail curled around it! When ‘she’ slid off, the little snake stayed riding on her back with its little tail curled about her. They were then joined by another small snake, about 12 inches long. Asking our resident expert (Steve Allain), I gathered that both of the smaller snakes were likely to be young from last year (or the year before) which had overwintered and only just managed to have their first meal this spring/summer. It was far too early to be seeing young from this year. Grass snakes lay their eggs and leave them to their own devices, but do tend to bask communally.

Pam’s Newnham Swifts are doing well – a new young pair have found themselves an empty box and may breed next year. One of her established pairs had 3 chicks this year.  Helen put up a box in 2018, overlooking Mill Rd cemetery and was thrilled to have her first occupants this year. Jeff reports young swift pairs prospecting in Gwydir St, Queen’s and Newnham Mill Pond, so it seems as if they are now well established and spreading.

A male Hobby was spotted flying past the Addenbrooke’s House Martin colony (Jeff), while David noted a Kestrel nest with two chicks in box on the West Cambridge site. Grey Wagtails, possibly nesting, were seen in the 3rd floor courtyard of the David Attenborough Building (outside Monica’s  office). At the end of June, 2 Cuckoos were hanging around feeding in Trumpington Meadows (Becky) and Russ saw a family of Whitethroats there.  

There is a newly reported Badger Sett in the wild area of Chesterton school. The City does host a surprising number of badgers.  Dorothea has a regular Hedgehog population and was surprised by the sight of a Magpie harassing a Hedgehog in the garden. When approached, they rushed off in opposite directions and nightly visits by the hedgehog have fortunately continued. 

Finally (and not quite in June) Sarah met an Otter on the river bank at the Newnham swimming club at 11am on 1st July – another known resident which is rarely seen and most unexpected in the middle of the morning. But there are lots of Fish in the Cam. Time to head off there for my evening swim.

Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com

Paul’s garden project

As part of the NHC project, I have been recording every species of invertebrate found in our Cambridge garden (at least the ones I have been able to identify) and at the time of writing the number found is 633. In order to maximise the numbers, we have been taking steps to encourage more by planting more native species. 3 years ago we ripped out a non-native hedge, replacing it with one composed of only native species. This has been a rich source of species not recorded before, especially Hemiptera (true bugs).

This year we gave over 5m2 of our lawn to creating a mini wild meadow by removing the existing turf and replacing it with wild meadow turf which was laid down in late March. By early June it had produced a healthy crop of flowers and grasses.

The Mini Meadow , early June

We have already had several new species, including a number of meadow specialist bugs such as the Bishop’s Mitre Shieldbug, Stenodema laevigata, Javesella dubia and Dicranotropis hamata.

Bishop’s Mitre Shieldbug (left), Stenodema laevigata (right)
Javesella dubia (Left), Dicranotropis hamata (Right).

Some of the wild meadow flowers contained in the mix are foodplants for specific species. Oxeye Daisies provide a home for a number of species such as the leaf mining moth Bucculatrix nigricomella and the rather attractive fruit fly Tephritis neesii, which lay their eggs in the flower head. Campion Moth caterpillars feed internally in the seed capsules of various Campions.

Tephritis neesii (left), Campion Moth (Right).

Two of the latest interesting finds from the meadow are the Longhorn Beetle Grammoptera ruficornis and an Ornate Tailed Digger Wasp.

Grammoptera ruficornis (left), Ornate Tailed Digger Wasp (Right).

I am expecting many more finds over the summer and autumn and will post the highlights here.

May Sightings 2021

Much of this month’s bird news is about Swifts, which started arriving around 3rd (Pam, Clarke, Becky) and by the end of the month, were sitting on eggs. Rosemary was delighted by a big flock of Swallows at Trumpington Meadows.  A Cuckoo stayed in Paradise for a few days (Guy) and a Whinchat visited the reserve at Trumpington Meadows – the first record there (Becky).

Watching the Swifts Pam Gatrell

Meanwhile Grey Wagtails are nesting at Byron’s Pool (Mo, Paul) and a Ring-necked Parakeet was spotted at Wandlebury (Ionathan): out of our area but this is the second local report.  At Eddington, a pair of Little-Ringed Plovers were seen and a first summer male Black Redstart at Hobson’s Park (Bob). Jeff reports the rare sight of a Goshawk on 24th – a sub-adult male displaying over St Cat’s playing field, which then gained height before diving into cover on Grantchester Meadows.

Curiosities of the month were Jill’s Semi-Free Morel FungusMitrophora semilibera in Grange Road, on rough bare ground where spruce had been removed : damp, with a thick surface layer of fallen spruce foliage. Then at Bolton’s Pit Lake, Melissa and Ed found a tube of Eggs on a drifting twig: but whose were they?? (Answer at the end.) Meanwhile in the Botanic Garden lake, Rhona saw a Great Diving Beetle with 2 juvenile Freshwater Limpets attached to its wingcase.

It has been a good year for Woundword Shieldbug with large hatches and mating pairs (Paul). In the Sanctuary reserve, was a Cream-Streaked Ladybird – one of our more unusual ladybirds: Ionathan also reported one.

Here also an Iris Sawfly was resting on sedge, but next door to its food plant (Yellow Flag). One recent addition to the fauna of Cambridge is the Elm Zig-zag Sawfly (Aproceros leucopoda). This species arrived in Europe from Asia in 2003 and reached Britain in 2017. It is now fairly widespread in south-east England and East Anglia and is considered a significant threat to our native elm trees. The larvae make a distinctive zig-zag feeding pattern on Elm leaves (Rhona).

Dragonflies and Damselflies are beginning to emerge and Lottie snapped a female Broad-bodied Chaser at Newnham College.  Mayflies are also appearing – I watched one rising from the surface of the Cam, only to be immediately snatched by a Mallard

The City Council manage the nature reserves in Newnham and organised Electrofishing of Vicar’s Brook: a small stream connecting Hobson’s Conduit to the Cam. It is a chalk stream and the plan is to improve it for Fish, so this was a base-line survey. Ten species were found: Minnow, Stickleback, Gudgeon, Dace, Roach, Stoneloach, Pike Trout, Chubb and Bullhead. They were mainly juveniles, so it is a nursery area in spring. However, 2 small mature Brown Trout and a Jack Pike (small pike) were also found (Guy).

For me, it has been an excellent month – Paradise turned up my first Grass Snake sightings for many a year.  An metre-long adult spent about 20 minutes hiding in the bank to avoid the attentions of a Moorhen and 2 half-grown chicks. When it finally slipped out, it was pursued by them, the parent bird actively pecking until it disappeared downstream. The next day, another smaller grass snake was sunbathing on a willow trunk.

Fulbourn Fen is always a hot-spot for Orchids. Early Marsh Orchids were just starting to flower (Gleb, Paul) as well as Common Twayblades and Southern Marsh Orchid. June should be a good month for a visit.  White Helleborines were also in flower at Beechwood Reserve and Nightingale Recreation Ground, while in a verge near Addenbrookes were Bee Orchid rosettes (Gleb). Jonathan reports Marsh Thistle and Common Valerian on the Accordia site during the Cambridgeshire Flora Group visit: possibly escapes from the Botanic Garden.

Chesterton Community College, Gilbert Rd have a Nature Explorers club held in an area of the school grounds called ‘The Dip’ – an inaccessible wild area beyond the tennis courts (Ben). A new pond has been created in the sunny area. The trail cam has shown that a Badger, two Foxes and a Hedgehog are among the Dip’s mammalian visitors. Common Frog and Smooth Newt have been seen and it’s rumoured that Slowworms may be around, so a pile of woodchips has been made to encourage them. If confirmed, this would be exciting news, as they have not been reported from any other sites in the City.

Many thanks for all other sighting and pictures. Ed and Melissa’s eggs belonged to the Great Pond Snail.

Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com

Project Update

The NatHistCam project is now reaching completion. Conceived in autumn 2014, work started in earnest at the beginning of 2016 and a team of volunteers began gathering data on the flora and fauna of the city. Over four years they collected data on the existence and distribution of plants and animals in the city, carrying out surveys of gardens, collating records from existing databases of plants and birds, and using their expertise to build up information on the great diversity of flora and fauna found in the 64 square kilometres of the NatHistCam study area.

Since the end of 2019 they have been collating this data, writing up accounts of the different species, preparing diagrams and maps, and taking many photos. Now in mid-2021 work is nearing completion. The information – over 125,000 words – is being structured as follows:

  • Introduction to the project; geology and climate; and the development of the city.
  • Flora As well as an overview of significant aspects of the flora, there are accounts of studies of plant distribution, domestic gardens, urban and suburban roadsides and walls.
  • Bryophytes, lichens and fungi The characteristics of the bryophyte flora of Cambridge are analysed and described. Separate sections provide an overview of macro fungi, rusts, smuts and mildews, while there is a detailed report of the lichens found in the area.
  • Invertebrates found in the area: detailed accounts of butterflies and moths, damselflies and dragonflies, as well as ants, bees and wasps, beetles, bugs, caddis flies, chafers, sawflies, molluscs and spiders.
  • Vertebrates: Accounts of fish, amphibians and reptiles; birds with a comprehensive species list; and mammals, large and small.
  • Interesting sites includes a report of the study of college gardens and sections on Cambridge University Botanic Garden, cemeteries and churchyards and Hobson’s Brook
  • A chapter on nature conservation contains brief accounts of wildlife sites and nature reserves in the city, the role of conser-vation volunteers; and pieces about the challenges of floating pennywort and mink.
  • The final chapter puts the NatHistCam project into a national context, describing some of the work that has been done on urban natural history. It reflects on the complexity of habitats in cities, the dynamics of urban expansion and species change and pulls together some thoughts on wildlife in urban areas and how it is changing in response to alien species, climate change and development.

As well as working on the content, contact has been made with a publisher who has agreed to publish the book. They are Pisces Publications, who also published Mark Hill and Chris Preston’s book Cambridgeshire’s Mosses & Liverworts: a dynamic flora in 2019, as well as Shotover: The Life of an Oxfordshire Hill and various other titles on the flora and fauna of different parts of the British Isles. They say our book will be published at the end of this year: 2021.

April Sightings 2021

April has been colder than normal and very dry – almost no rain for about six weeks.  The last reported winter visitors were 3 Fieldfare seen on 4th (Jeff), while the first Swift arrived extremely early on 24th (Dick, Clarke, Jeff).  Other notable arrivals were a Willow Warbler in Paradise on 25th (Olwen), several reports of calling Cuckoos from 23rd (Becky, Jenny), 4 Swallows on 6th, 2 Terns at Fulbrook allotments (Jill), a Lesser Whitethroat at Eddington 28th April and a Cetti’s Warbler at Fen Ditton 29th (Bob). There have been an abundance of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps (Lesley, Becky, Jo, Rhona). 

A second-hand report of a  Ring-necked Parakeet in Grantchester St has not been confirmed. However, I gather they have reached Northhampton and also are around St Ives/Hemingfords, so are getting nearer.  I am not sure how welcome they are, as they are noisy and occupy other species’ nest holes. Other less usual sightings included a pair of Mistle Thrushes in Newnham, a pair of Mandarin Duck at Grantchester Meadows, a Wheatear  and a Ring Ouzel (Jeff), a Green Sandpiper, a Black-tailed Godwit and a pair of Little Ringed Plovers at Eddington (Bob). The Science Park turned up a Firecrest (Pat) and there was a Goldcrest in Paradise. 

A Nuthatch was singing at Girton College and a displaying male Yellow Wagtail at the farm site in north Cambridge (Bob). Fifteen Golden Plover were seen near the M11 (Jeff) and a Lapwing at Eddington (David). Ionathan spotted two Common Cranes flying over about 10.30 at night – these too are getting nearer.   

Nine Heron’s nests are ‘occupied’ at Paradise Island : Mike reports lots of “clacking” of hungry juveniles on 29th.  In Ionathan’s garden, out of 3 eggs laid, two “extremely cute” juvenile Robins have fledged.  His mealworm feeders are very popular with Starlings who queue up, each bird spending up to 30 seconds on the feeder before moving to the back of the queue. Eve says a male Wren checked out a nest site in the shed but went off again. I think they commonly make 2-3 nests and invite the female to choose! And they still find time to sing constantly.

Butterflies have been slow to appear, but towards the end of the month, Speckled Woods (Lesley, Jeff, Rhona),  Green-Veined Whites and Orange-Tips have all been reported (Becky, Jeff).  Rhona was particularly pleased to find Orange-Tips laying orange eggs.

Rhona saw the first Large Red Damselfly of the season on 23rd April in the Botanic Garden. She also reported various bees: Ashy Mining Bee, Grey-patched Mining Bee, Mourning Bee and Paul added Gooden’s Nomad Bee (a nest parasite of other bees), Buffish Mining Bee and Lathbury’s Nomad Bee. The last is uncommon here, being more associated with gorse-clad hillsides, sandy heathland paths and vertical faces of sandpits – it turned up in the Trumpington Community Orchard. From a Churchill College student came a query of an unknown insect, which was identified as yet another bee, a member of the Coelioxzys Sharp-Tailed Bees.

Rhona found masses of Hairy Shieldbugs and also 5 Crucifer Shieldbugs, 1 red form and 4 white form – uncommon in Cambridge. Paul sent a picture of my favourite fly, the Yellow Dung Fly –the male golden yellow and the female greenish.  Any decent fresh dung pat will host up to 100 males, waiting in hope of the female arriving to lay her eggs. However, Paul’s April special were 2 nymphs of the Planthopper Issus coleoptratus in some ivy.   Like all planthopper nymphs, they have a small, gear-like structure on the base of each of their hind legs. These have teeth which intermesh, keeping the legs synchronized when the insect jumps, thus preventing it from spiralling. The insects shed this gear before moulting into adults.  He comments, “It also has strange fibres projecting out of its bottom which are a waxy excretion, but no one seems to know what function they serve.”  I would suggest that like all gears, some lubrication is required and wax might do very nicely.

Purple Toothwort is a non-native parasitic plant which grows on the roots of various other plants and has spread from the Botanic Garden along Hobson’s Conduit in both directions. This patch was growing at head height on a willow branch (or perhaps on the roots of the ivy there) on Coe Fen  (Ben, Paul). 

Magog Down  has been a wonderful place to visit this spring. Richard and Vanessa found a coppiced Willow which had a large number of Crown Galls on its many branches. The bacterium which causes these galls is Agrobacterium tumefaciens.  It apparently has an important role in genetic modification of certain crops, in order to improve resistance to diseases or improve yields – especially useful and important in countries in Africa.

The interconnected Newnham Nature Reserves (Paradise, Sheep’s Green and Coe Fen) have become home to Water Voles, working their way up from Snob’s Brook and along the main River Cam.  Water voles are a priority species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework, and one of the key reasons for their decline was the non-native North American Mink. In East Anglia, a mink eradication programme which started on the Bourn Brook in the winter of 2010/11 has largely cleared the Cam catchment area, so the remnant population had chance to breed safely in the absence of the predator. Since then, there have been eight breeding seasons when the brook has been free of mink, and being prodigious breeders like most rodents, they have rapidly spread along the entire length of the brook and are now colonising elsewhere.

Susanne witnessed a Heron which had just caught a Water Vole at Logan’s Meadow. David reported a Swan and a Coot incubating eggs on the Lake at Eddington, watched closely by a nearby Heron.  I was happily watching a vole, when my eye was caught by movement on the opposite bank: a Stoat and a Moorhen were in fierce argument over the contents of the Moorhen’s nest by the bank. The stoat even swam in the river briefly and eventually departed with dinner.  Nature, red in tooth and claw maybe, but predators must provide for their youngsters too.

Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com

March Sighting s 2021

As we begin to emerge from a year in lockdown due to the Covid19 pandemic and creep slowly into spring, March 2nd seems to have been a significant turning point. On that day, Ralph reports, “A tiny but indubitable Cowslip, out, in Trumpington Meadows”; Paul says, “Despite the drop in temperatures, the first Frogspawn was laid in the pond”; Ben saw his first Hairy-footed Flower Bee of the year in Arbury; Jeff heard a Blackcap in sub-song in Paradise and I heard a Chiffchaff on Grantchester Meadows.

With the gradual exodus of Fieldfare (last reported on 5th Jeff) and Redwing (reported 13th Sheila and last seen 22nd Rhona) come the summer exchanges: abundant Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps (Clarke, Eve, Holly), Wheatear (a passage migrant) (Bob, Jeff), the first Hobby  and three Sand Martins at Washpit Lake in Eddington (Bob). Martin noted 2/3 Cetti’s Warblers singing at Wilbraham Fen.

Redwing Rhona Watson

LARGE BIRDS

Mary reported a Red Kite quartering Parker’s Piece and Anna saw two Buzzards mobbing another in Chesterton, so, as predicted, they are becoming a common sight in the city.  Larger and more spectacular were a pair of circling Cranes on 17th (Martin). The Peregrines are continuing their City residency (Jeff, Gleb). Tawny owls were reported from Cherry Hinton (Ralph) and Logan’s Meadow (Gleb). A pair of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were noisily displaying in Mill Rd (Jeff) while David had a Jay outside the study window – an added attraction of working from home, he says! Martin noted 2 Marsh Harriers. Holly reports a brief visit from two Common Scoters at Cherry Hinton as well as the Egyptian Geese there.

LESS USUAL SMALLER BIRDS

There seems to be an abundance of Skylarks this year (Ben, Jenny, Jeff). Grey Wagtails are also doing well (Vicky, Paul).  Ionathan reports that the Black Redstart has found a mate and is now courting her. Ralph comments on the now unusual sound of a singing Chaffinch in Cherry Hinton. At the beginning of the month, Jill saw a pair of Serin on alder trees in Paradise. A singing Mistle Thrush near Paradise pond, about 20 Linnets gleaning in a fallow field (Jeff) and Siskin reported from Paradise (Jeff, Bob) confirm Newnham as a splendid bird watching area. To my delight, Greenfinches and Goldfinches have returned here too. However, Jean warns of the dangers of Trichomonas gallinae, which is fatal for so many birds in the UK, and the need to disinfect bird feeders regularly. (If you were to plot the amount of bird food bought for wild birds in the UK against the numbers of native birds, you could be forgiven for wondering whether bird food was actually responsible for the decline…)

But for pure enjoyment, birds are hard to beat. Kingfishers along the Cam between the Elizabeth and Green Dragon Bridges (June), Red-legged Partridge and a Hen Pheasant in a Blinco garden (Jane), five happy young Sparrows having a whale of a time splashing and bathing together (Alec) and 8 Peacocks flying round Jesus College (Rhona). (But did she actually mean butterflies?)

INVERTEBRATES

A couple of nice fat caterpillars were reported: a bright green one overwintering in a greenhouse belonged to an Angle Shade Moth (DavidR) and Tom found another very large one under old bark in Paradise – a Leopard Moth.

Rhona’s Ladybird tally was increased by a Cream-spot and two 10-spot ladybirds.  She also found a variety of bees: Andrena bicolor (Gwynne’s mining bee), Mellecta albifrons (Common Mourning bee) Osmia bicornis and a Bombus lapidarius queen.  Brimstone and Peacock Butterflies are now abundant (Suki, Jeff) and also the first Small Tortoiseshells were seen (Jeff).

Bill Mansfield (County Moth Recorder) found two of the micromoth Pamme giganteana in Jesus on oak. This is a moth formally considered scarce, but now that a pheromone lure has been released, it is evidently not so uncommon.  

Ionathan garden bioblitz turned up a Damsel bug in the garden. See https://www.britishbugs.org.uk/heteroptera/Nabidae/himacerus_mirmicoides.html a Polydesmid millipede and also a tiny Ladybird: the Four-spotted Nephus, Nephus quadrimaculatus. 

HERPTILES

Eve’s Frogs have been and gone (fewer than last year) leaving several floating batches of spawn. She was then visited by a heron who had a frog-fest. Tanya writes, “ Here’s a grass snake enjoying a warm day at the Botanic Gardens on 31 March 2021”.

Grass snake Tanya Procyshyn

PLANTS

Ionathan cleared a small patch of ground in the summer to see what would colonise it. Along with the Dead Nettles, Violets, Daisies and Dandelions, he found a small Pansy – possibly a cultivar, possibly wild.  Jo reports “Violets!  Viola odora  everywhere in everyone’s lawn and on banks and under trees everywhere in all colours.”

Both Butterbur and its cousin, Coltsfoot are in flower this month (Paul).

MAMMALS

Lesley comments on the Black Squirrel population in north Cambridge. A good number of Brown Hares are active between Newnham and Grantchester (Jeff, Jill). Rhona noted a Bank Vole in February and Water Voles are also becoming active, with sightings in Snob’s Brook (Lammas Land) (Paul), Botanic Garden (Stuart) and in the Cam below the city (Anna). All good news: hibernation is over for them (and us?) this year.

Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com

February 2021 Sightings

An icy spell near the beginning of the month briefly set back the onset of spring. Chris found a spectacular icicle swarm around The Waterman on Mitchams Corner: presumably due a combination of freezing cold, burst pipe, an automatic watering system and an empty building during Covid. The cold evening sunset was at the Riverbank Bathing Place in Newnham.

Invertebrates

By the middle of the month, butterflies were being seen : Comma (David), Peacock (Mo, Paul), Brimstone (Ann, David, Becky, Paul) with lots of Bumblebees and Honey Bees becoming active.  A queen Red-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus lapidarius was reported by Jean.  There were 3 reports of Pine Ladybirds (Mo, Mary, Paul).  Paul found at least 50 crawling over the trunk of a large Ash tree in St. Andrew’s church yard Cherry Hinton. Ionathan reported the winter-flying Ichneumon Wasp Ophion Obscuratus.

Clear skies and a bright moon are not good for moth trapping, but on a mild and overcast night, Paul caught the first Common Quaker, Hebrew Character and Satellite moths of the year.

Paul’s other find was in the bath : “The most exciting thing I have seen this year”. A Spitting Spider (Scytodes thoracica) (3–6 mm) is an indoor specialist, preferring to make its home in heated buildings, but seldom recorded. It catches prey by spitting a fluid which congeals on contact into a venomous and sticky mass. It is produced by glands in the chelicerae and contains both venom and spider silk in liquid form. The carapace is unusual in sloping upwards towards its rear end, whereas the abdomen slopes downwards. It has six eyes instead of the usual eight.

Jonathan also had some excitement, in the shape of a Woodlouse on the kitchen floor. Clearly a pill woodlouse, he used the FSC “Woodlouse Name Trail”  key and arrived at the Southern Pill Woodlouse (Armadillidium depressum).  This was described as being locally abundant in the SW and rare elsewhere,  with no NBN records from anywhere near Cambridge.  However, it was confirmed by experts and apparently one had been found at the Botanic Garden in 2012. The rear of the woodlouse flares out a bit, unlike the Common Pill Woodlouse.  Next time you find a pill woodlouse have a close look!

Birds

Spring moving on : Peregrine copulation observed on the church opposite Pembroke College (Jeff), Dunnocks collecting nesting material in Cherry Hinton (Holly), Blackcap (Jean, Bob), Chaffinch (Jeff) and Blackbird (Gleb) in full song, Long-tailed Tits pairing up (Paul), Grey Partridge – feisty behaviour, with much calling & pair forming between at least 12 birds (Jeff), hooting Tawny Owls (daytime) St Giles Cemetery, Huntingdon Rd (Bob) and Cherry Hinton (Duncan).  On the other hand, Redwings and Fieldfares were still about, with a flock of about 12 Redwings in St Andrews Road giving communal pre-migration sub-song (Bob). 

Finches seem to be very variable – I am seeing hardly any just now, but Lesley reports a flock of 50+ Greenfinches in the trees in Histon Road Cemetery, with about a dozen in Mill Rd Cemetery (Jeff). (Apparently they are recovering after having crashed because of trichomonosis, but it may now be affecting chaffinches.) Jeff noted about 4 Bullfinches near Pembroke allotments. There were 45+ Lesser Redpolls at Cambridge Science Park (Jon) while David saw around 100 Goldfinches on the West Cambridge site. Perhaps some of these will return to Newnham for nesting.

Less usual birds this month include a Pochard at Hobson’s Park (Gleb), Treecreeper and Goldcrest along Cherry Hinton Brook (Holly), a pair of Mistle Thrushes on mistletoe in Grange Rd (Jean), 2 pairs of Teal Grantchester Meadows (Jeff), a Green Sandpiper near Girton (Bob), 11 Siskins in alders at Lammas Land (Bob), a mixed flock of Golden Plover and Lapwings on the arable fields next to the Trumpington Meadows (Becky), a Woodcock at Storey’s Field (Bob), a Pink-footed Goose and 4 Barnacle Geese at Hobson’s Park (Gleb).

My latest contributor is Ionathan, aged 12, who tells me that he first became interested in nature when he was about four years old. Then a Year 4 teacher, who liked birds and moths, inspired him and he began to be really fascinated. He has visited many nature reserve in the area but  has particularly focused on Storey’s Field and his own garden. So far, he has identified about 700 species in the garden and 900 in Storey’s Field. He wondered if the Little Egrets were nesting near Stourbridge Common, as he had seen up to 12 birds in the area at one time. (However, Bob thinks it more likely that they come from the Cambridge Research Park Heronry at Landbeach  and had probably dispersed from the large breeding colony on the Ouse Washes (37 pairs in 2019).)

Scrapping Starlings Ionathan

He sent me pictures of creatures found while conducting a pond life survey in his pond and Paul was able to help identify some of them. He also regularly runs a moth trap and sometimes stands for up to 5 hours in front of flowers to watch for pollinators.

Ionathan also sent the hazel flowers and Paul contributed some fungi – some cheerful colour at a bleak time.

Amphibia: Gleb has been on a one-man mission, finding 55 Newts in the ponds at Bramblefields LNR and 39 Toads at Regatta Court.  At Logan’s Meadow there were 72 Frogs and 10 Smooth Newts. He also found first frogspawn at Hobson’s Park. In Paul’s pond, Frogs and Smooth Newts (100+) have returned, amid huge numbers of Daphnia.

Pam Gatrell

Finally, a February rainbow of hope from Pam. A month of very mixed weather.

January Sightings 2021

Well, the Water Meadows certainly came into their own this month! Upstream of the city, there has been widespread and repeated flooding : Paradise, Coe Fen and Sheep’s Green, Skaters Meadows and Grantchester Meadows all turned into lakes. (So far, there has not been enough of an overnight frost to turn them into skating rinks.)  Fulbrooke Wood and allotments suffered from a blocked drain adjacent to the woodland.  The water level in the lake in Hobson Park and in Hobson Brook was also very high. Along with the rain came mud, in large quantities! The riverbank path in Paradise has been closed and most footpaths are uncomfortably muddy.  Cold water and high water levels did not deter a couple of swimmers, however.  Furthermore, all this rain must be good news for the chalk streams and aquifers.


Some decided to stay indoors: David sent this picture of a Christmas present Grow Box for Yellow Oyster mushrooms. Grown in the kitchen indoors, they were from a self-contained kit, and all that was needed was to spray with water – too easy, he says. I hope they tasted good.

Quite a lot of Raptor reports: a Buzzard sitting on top of flagstaff on The Job Centre opposite the Jesus Green footbridge (Liza).  Jesus’ female Kestrel is still around (Rhona).  Peregrines were mentioned by Jeff and by Gleb, who also encountered a Sparrowhawk sitting on the pavement, eating a pigeon. Pam was entranced by the sight of a Red Kite, low over Paradise and heard Tawny Owls calling in Newnham.

Water birds

From being an occasional and notable rarity, Little Egrets are now about as common as Herons. I spotted 4 together on Skaters Meadow and several others also sent reports (Mo, Richard, Rosemary, Jeff, Bob). They seem to be everywhere (but where do they nest? A NatHistCam prize for the first answer to this question.)  However, in addition to the Little Egret, Grantchester has been visited by a Cattle Egret (Gleb) and Bob says there had been about 6 in the Earith/Fen Drayton area. Perhaps they are moving in too?

At Hobson’s Park, the island in the lake has been drastically reduced by the rise in water level. Squashed into this area were at least 100 Snipe, a dozen Lapwings, a pair of Teal, a male Shoveler, Tufted Ducks and several Pochard, a pair of Great Crested Grebes, an occasional Cormorant, Egret and Grey Heron.  And then there were the Geese! Up to 100 Greylags plus plenty of Canada Geese : the roosting birds were unable to practice social distancing on the island, the snipe being forced to roost along the tops of the tree trunks.  (Richard comments that Countryside, the main developer here, failed to cut back the vegetation last year on the eight rafts on the lake, which deprives the birds of roosting space now and of nesting sites later on.)

A female Goosander was seen sleeping with the Mallards in the flooded field opposite Paradise (Pam, Bob, Gleb). There was also an Egyptian Goose in the same place – chased by the local Domestic Geese, who then in turn were charged by a Swan (Gleb). It’s all getting territorial as spring approaches.  Jeff reports about 30 Teal and 3 Shoveler (2 drakes and a duck) in Grantchester Meadows. The Glossy Ibis is also still around, caught here with a rather disgruntled Heron.

The unmistakable  first overhead  honk of a Heron was around 20th January – a week earlier than 2020 (Pam). In Newnham, this signals the end of winter – the change-over from large gatherings of Rooks and Jackdaws as the herons reclaim their nesting territory in the tall trees of Paradise Island. Ionathan comments on a Black-Headed Gull with a pink breast in Logan’s Meadow. (I have never noticed, but apparently it is not uncommon.) Bob saw a Water Rail at Logan’s Meadow.

Plants

With typical under-statement, Jonathan had ‘nothing of real significance’ to report on the botanical front for January and had seen only 314 species in the NHC area during the month, with 111 of them in flower, the most frequent being Common Fieldspeedwell. Monica’s perambulations  turned up a few Sweet Violets in flower along Snakey Path and Aconites at Cherry Hinton Hall. Meanwhile, Bob has been further afield, finding Daphne laureola (Spurge-laurel) flowering in woods between Girton and Madingley.

Bee Orchid rosettes are appearing: at West Pit Cherry Hinton, near Addenbrooke’s hospital and at Nightingale Recreation Grounds. This last site was the scene of spectacular Helleborines last spring – one benefit of lock-down, when children were excluded. Hopefully it will not be repeated this spring.

Countryside birds

The distinction between ‘garden’ and ‘countryside’ tends to blur in the winter, as hungry Fieldfare (Jeff) and Redwings (Stella) invade our gardens. Ionathan (aged 12) says, “You may be interested to know that during the Big Garden Birdwatch I saw a Black Redstart in our garden. It was unmistakable and amazing.”  Certainly unusual!  Stonechats have been reported from 3 sites (Richard, Jeff, Bob) – are they getting more common?  The hedgerows and meadows around Grantchester Rd turned up about 400 Lapwings, 9 Grey Partridges, around 80 Skylarks, 8 Meadow Pipits, 32 Pied Wagtails and 6 Corn Buntings (Jeff), while Bob noted  about 1000 Linnets on crop/trash and stubbles between Impington and Huntingdon Road and 40 Meadow Pipits behind Huntingdon Road.  David reports a flock of 25 Goldfinches near the Coton Footpath.

Garden birds

Lots of reports of Blackcaps visiting feeders (Pam, Liza, Clarke). Less usual were 2 Greenfinches (Clarke), not seen or heard here for a long time: indeed Goldfinches and Chaffinches have also virtually disappeared from Newnham. However, I did see a Bullfinch at the Pembroke allotments and Jeff reports 3 from Fulbrooke area. Then there were 2 Siskin in Paradise, doubtless enjoying the Alder catkins (Jeff). Bob heard a Nuthatch calling around Chaucer Rd – nice to have additional records, away from the Backs. Lots of comments about Great-Spotted Woodpeckers, both sightings and drumming. Jo reports up to 8 Magpies together in Mill Road cemetery. Do we have a magpie boom just now?

7-spot Ladybirds Peter Woodsford

Invertebrates

On Jan 26th, Liza says, “The sun is not shining and the air temperature is 3 degrees C, but I have just seen a queen Bombus terrestris visiting flowers of Clematis cirrhosa.” Rhona also reports  Buff-tailed bumblebee on Hellebore.  In Madingley Hall grounds, Peter found a statue with a beautiful ‘tiara’ of hibernating 7-Spot Ladybirds. A small number of early moths – Chestnut & Pale Brindled Beauty – are starting to turn up in moth traps (Paul). Finally, I found a perfect, though dormant, Peacock Butterfly on the kitchen carpet.

Vertebrates

Water Voles have been active at Cherry Hinton Brook (Monica) and Logan’s Meadow (Bob) during the month. (Apparently, they do not hibernate over-winter, but do spend more time in their burrows.)  Jill reports a Fox abroad at night, while Jeff saw a Stoat crossing Grantchester Rd with prey and a couple of Brown Hares in the same area.

Clarke reports 3 Frogs and a Newt in small garden and comments, “Plenty of fodder for the Grass Snake (September sightings) if it reappears in 2021!”  However, I imagine they have disappeared again during our current cold snap.

I leave you with Val: “What I’ve seen is birds (magpies, robins) rushing about with stuff in their beaks like they are building nests. And the birdsong is getting louder, more frantic and more beautiful.  Is the sap rising?  Snowdrops are coming out – and I saw a daffodil yesterday. 

Oh Wind, if winter comes, can Spring be far behind?  (PBS)”