Category Archives: Project Blog

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

March 2019 – “The Ravens have left the Tower”

Thirty-four Rooks nests were under construction in Girton College – it’s difficult to get an exact count as many are concealed in the canopy of a Scots Pine. Rooks used to be abundant in college grounds in West Cambridge and the “Backs” but this is the only college rookery in the City. “It’s as if the Ravens have left the Tower” said a friend who knew the area well in childhood. The Long Road rookery has 10 nests – the other rookeries in our study area have yet to be checked.

Rooks at Girton College

There is a rather dubious alleyway between Oasis and Gap that opens onto the Market Square – if unlocked it’s an excellent place to see Grey Wagtails! A pair was displaying there on 5thMarch and I suspect they nest on the roof of MnS.

On 6th March, at least 70 Lesser Black-backed Gulls were resting on the gravel exposures at Darwin Green. If left undeveloped this looks an opportunity for breeding Little-ringed Plovers. The area is secure so birding is difficult.

An early House Martin was over Trumpington Meadows on 10thMarch (Jill Aldred – and a Chiffchaff was singing in the orchard at Milton Country Park on 10th March; a few Widgeon were still there on 28thMarch and Great-crested Grebeswere displaying. Three or four Chiffs and Treecreeper were singing at Byrons Pool on 17thMarch and four Buzzards were overhead.

A ‘clasp’ of frogs in a garden pond – 18th March
Great Crested Grebes, Milton Country Park

Trumpington Meadows had 60+ Golden Plovers on the nearby arable and two Grey Wagtails also on 17th March with lots of Coltsfoot and Cowslips in flower and flowering Gorse (probably introduced) near the bridge over the M11. Iain Webb gave an excellent talk to the Wildlife Trust members about Trumpington Meadows as it develops as a Trust reserve on the edge of an urban development. He said that 105 bird species had been recorded so far – a notable exception was House Sparrow. In the mid-1970’s when this area was part of the trials ground of the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) flocks of hundreds (possible a thousand) of, mostly juvenile, House Sparrows would descend on the ripening winter wheat trials compromising the yield results. There was a dedicated sparrow killer who would chase flocks into a funnel trap and …. kill them! It seemed to make no difference to numbers. It was probably the change to winter arable sowings – winter wheat, winter barley and winter oilseed rape – and the loss of over-winter weedy stubbles that caused the extinction of countryside House Sparrows in our project area.

On the 18th March 5 Buzzards were over the A14 at the Histon interchange plus another single bird nearby.

Peter Bircham counted 100+ Snipe at Hobson’s Park on 19thMarch, two Corn Buntings were singing, Skylarks were very active, 50+ Grey-lag Geese were present and Black-headed Gulls were displaying – the islands have been strimmed (thanks, Guy Belcher), making ideal nest sites for the gulls and hopefully returning Common Terns. On the same day three Buzzards were over Homerton College and on 21stMarch two Buzzards were over Storeys Way.

The Riverside to Jesus Lock Black-headed Gulls had mostly left by 21st and night flying Redwings were heard on the 21stand 22ndMarch over Castle Hill and Mitcham’s Corner.

Skylark– Hobson’s Park
Buzzard over Chesterton

On 23rd March a concerted search for Nuthatches in the “Backs” found none despite the conditions looking ideal especially in St John’s College gardens; the day before four territories were located in Gamlingay wood by calls and sightings. The timing and conditions look right in the “Backs” but the birds are just not there. Also on 23rd March the female Peregrine was back at the City centre site. On 24th March 2 Blackcaps were singing in Robinson College, a Water Vole in the ditch behind King’s College and a pair of Mandarin Ducks near Byron’s Pool (Richard Palmer – These may have been birds disbursed from the colony at Wimpole.

On 28thMarch ten Chiffchaffs, and two Blackcaps were singing between Riverside and the A14 bridge at Horningsea including one Chiff behind Newmarket Road Tesco’s. Blackcap and a Chiff were heard in Huntingdon Road on 29thMarch.

My first of the year Holly Blue butterfly in Cherry Hinton on 29th March and a Buzzard was disturbed by crows from a tree at the end of Union Lane near the junction with Chesterton High Street.

Two Buzzard flew high over Elizabeth Way on 29th March and Chiffs were singing in Logan’s Meadow and Gough Way; three Buzzard were seen over Girton College on 31stand a Blackcap and Treecreeper were heard singing in the college grounds. A Blackcap was singing along Newnham Road in the tree where the burger van parks in the evening!

It has been a month of singing Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps and possibly 17 different Buzzards over our project area. The number of Buzzards is remarkable considering the first confirmed breeding, for many years,in the County occurred just 20 years ago in 1999. – 31st March 2019

March Sightings 2019


The first Frogspawn was recorded in Girton on Feb 27th (Ben) and then there were a slew of sightings between Mar 2ndand 4th (Pam, Simon, Guy, Simon, Val). Simon’s happy couple were spotted on 2nd while Pam’s March 4th spawn had become Tadpoles by 23rd.

Mating frogs    Simon Mentha
Frog guarding frogspawn    Pam Gatrell

Veronica reports activity at Newnham Croft School: 100 saplings have been planted in the wild area and the children have under-planted there with snowdrops and aconites.  The school maintenance team have cut back dead branches and cleared ivy and brambles, to open it up until the canopy recovers.  Sadly, a Muntjac deer population have moved in and are munching their way through the vegetable plot and flower beds. The children have witnessed Deer, Moles, a Fox that has its route along the back of the school grounds and a Pheasant that has taken a liking to the wheat bed. There are many more crows and magpies this year.


Richard has a grandstand view of the new nature reserve and lake at Great Kneighton. He comments on the activities of Black Headed Gulls, pestering Little Grebes and forcing them to dive repeatedly until they finally give up their catch. Sometimes the gull sat on the water waiting for the grebe to surface, but on occasion flew around, perhaps able to see the grebe under the water. Having watched this, he was then astonished to observe a Cormorant getting the same treatment from the much smaller gull!  Also, Black Headed Gulls mobbed and evicted a Lesser Black-backed Gull that had settled on ‘their’ pontoon.  Aggression certainly pays.

Newnham’s Heronry is again occupied. Mike reports 2 nests, each with at least one juvenile by 26th (begging calls) and on 18th a pair were spotted mating at 6 am. Birdsong begins about 5.15 am and a Blackbird in Owlstone Rd seems to be singing virtually round the clock. Newnham also has masses of Song Thrushes and Chiffchaff  were heard in Paradise March 23rd .


Jonathan noted Holly Leaf-miner Phytomyza ilicis, while working at West Pit.  He thinks it will be present elsewhere in the city, though doesn’t recall seeing it before. Have you seen any? Liza reports a non-native plant on Empty Common, called Nonea lutea, belonging  to the borage family.  It looks like a primrose-yellow lungwort and has most likely seeded over from the Botanic Garden. Jonathan confirms it is “wild” there, with a couple of records from Cambridge and nine in the county as a whole.  Has anyone else seen it growing wild?  

Nonea lutea    Liza Steel


At last, some of the blossom may have coincided with the emergence of pollinators.  There have been lots of bees and Trevor records “Watching a very large Bumble Bee [no white rump] with my 5 year old grandson. It was making very slow progress across the staging in my greenhouse. Twice it fell over on its back and after righting it, it fell over again, then delighted my grandson by sending out a stream of presumably urine, at least ten inches into the air.  I was most impressed by the volume, probably the result of a whole winter sleep.” Wow!

Other invertebrates include a Hawthorn Shield Bug Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale,

Hawthorn Shield Bug     Pam Gatrell

Queen Wasps coming out of hibernation, a Yedoensis prunus alive with dozens of bees, including Buff Tails and Solitary Bees (Pam). Several people have noted that it is a bumper year for 7-Spot Ladybirds.  I have not seen any Harlequins yet.

Muslin Moth   Paul Rule
Oak Beauty   Paul Rule 

On 15th the most attractive of winter moths finally turned up in Paul’s garden, the Oak Beauty. Then, the first Muslin Moth seen this year, which despite appearances, was only playing dead.

Butterflies in March

Brimstone (June, Val, Suki, Rhona, Paul), Holly Blue (June, Paul, Rhona), Peacock (Rhona, Suki, Paul, Ben), Small Tortoiseshell (Paul, Ben), Comma (Paul), Large White (Suki), Red Admiral (Suki), and Speckled Wood (Rhona) add up to a good tally for the month.

Speckled Wood     Rhona Watson

On 21st March, Ben’s hibernating Hedgehog emerged bang on time for the solstice.  On 29th, Paul found this one sniffing around the moth trap. March is the month when they emerge from hibernation and I am waiting for another one to re-home.

Emerging Hedgehog     Paul Rule

Finally, I am not sure what to make of: “Just to report a very dizzy small groundswell in my garden (CB4)”. A bad case of Google Auto-Confuse or tiny earthquake in North Cambridge?

Garden Birding

My garden lies on the northern boundary of Cambridge. The garden is a decent size; containing a pond, mature shrubs/trees, with also a fair amount of visible sky. It is surrounded by further residential areas to the south and the rapidly developing Cambridge Science Park to the north. Over the past 20 years I have watched and documented the birds coming into and flying over the garden. Recently this has also included monitoring migrating birds flying over at night in the spring and autumn (‘nocmig’). To date (March 2019) my garden list stands at 105 species, with an additional 18 species ‘sound-recorded only’.

Waxwing – Feb 2010
Reed Warbler – May 2016
Ring-necked Parakeet – Sep 2013

The key to garden bird listing is to learn which time of year / weather conditions are best and then to concentrate observation effort at these important points. Autumn is generally the most the productive time of the year. Late August and early September sees the best chance of finding unusual garden warblers; including Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher. Late September through to early November is the key time to observe visible-migration (‘vismig’). On days with preferable conditions (overcast with light northerly or easterly winds) hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of Redwing and Fieldfare can pass over. Common migrants moving with the thrushes will often include Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Reed Bunting, Pied Wagtail, Lesser Redpoll and Siskin. There is, however, always the chance of something a bit rarer passing over, and at this time in the past few years Hawfinch and Merlin have been seen over.

Merlin – Oct 2017
Short-eared Owl – Mar 2017
Great Crested Grebe – Feb 2016

Winter generally provides a more standard set of garden birds. There is often little change, though regular watching of feeders can turn up Redpoll or Siskin, or better yet a Brambling. Blackcaps are now fairly common winter visitors to Cambridge gardens, and are frequently attracted to cut apples. Harsh winter weather can produce unusual species such as Fieldfare turning up in the garden, while it’s also a good time to look for weather-displaced birds flying over such as Lapwing and Golden Plover, or even Woodcock.

Migration kicks in again with the onset of Spring, with it now the time to listen out for singing migrants including Chiffchaff and Blackcap and then Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat later in the season. Last year I was lucky enough to hear my first Cuckoo singing in the distance. Warm, sunny spring days are often the best time to ‘sky-watch’ for soaring raptors. Buzzards are now very regular, with Red Kites becoming increasingly common and Marsh Harriers nearly annually seen. One spring sky watching session miraculously provided a high-flying Short-eared Owl and warm conditions in the past week produced another new garden addition – 4 soaring Common Cranes!

Osprey – Aug 2014
Mediterranean Gull – July 2013
Marsh Harrier – Oct 2013
Common Crane – Feb 2019

Jon Heath March 2019

February Sightings 2019

An unusually hot month has meant an early season for many things – even reports of Swallows and House Martins arriving along the SW coast, a good month earlier than usual.  Here in Cambridge, Frogspawn was seen in Newnham on Feb 17th (Pam has a tiny pond with between 30 and 40 frogs, including four mating pairs) and towards the end of the month at Mayfield School. 

HAVE YOU SEEN ANY?  Please let us know where and when. You can email me or submit a sighting via the website.

Another query, this time from Chris Preston, who is undertaking a survey of Smuts and Rusts. There is a smut fungus, Antherospora hortensis,  which infects the anthers of Grape Hyacinths (Muscari), so you have to look into the flowers to see masses of brown spores, rather than normal pale yellow pollen grains spilling out of the anthers. Although it is widespread in W. Wales and in Richmond (Surrey), he failed to find it in Cambridge last year,so needs help!  A similar smut occurs on Scilla species. This one (Antherospora scillae) on Scilla forbesii was an exciting find in St Giles churchyard.  Please let him ( or me know if you see any more.

Antherospora scillae
Chris Preston
Antherospora hortensis
Arthur Chater

Mammal reports – a dead Badger on Barton Rd was spotted by several people.  In the fields by Grantchester Rd, seven Hares were seen crouched against the grass. The first Water Vole of the year appeared at lunchtime on 14th, in Jesus Ditch. Rhona reckoned it still looked rather groggy, as if it needed a strong coffee after over-wintering underground. Still at Jesus College, a Fox has been sauntering around and seems to have taken up residence.

Water vole   Rhona Watson
Jesus’ Fox       Rhona Watson

At Mayfield School, Amy reports one Rat, one Mouse and a Vixen with 4 cubs.  I have been intrigued by the Moles at Pembroke sports ground. Molehills abound all around the playing fields, but never encroach.  I wonder if this is because there are no worms or grubs to be found there?  There  are no worm casts either.

On this theme, Duncan comments: “One interesting thing that is causing the College head gardeners a lot of pain at the moment is the Crows attacking their lawns and eating Cockchafer grubs. This also happens on Parker’s Piece. I counted on Parker’s piece – there were 60 Carrion Crows and 20 Herring Gulls and  I think  both species were after the cockchafers.” He speculates how they locate the grubs, which are generally feeding on grass roots below the ground and wonders if they make ultrasound noises as they eat and the birds are able to hear in this frequency. He intends to take a bat detector to investigate!


Susanne reports Redwing in Chesterton at the beginning of the month and while winter migrants have not yet departed, the weather has encouraged lots of birds to start singing.  On 9th, I was delighted to hear Greenfinch and on 19th Goldfinch. After last summer, they had both disappeared altogether.  On 11th I heard a Song Thrush in full song and also a still- subdued Blackbird. In Paradise, Wren, Blue Tit, Great Tit and Robin are all competing for air space. The large winter flock of Rooks and Jackdaws has now dispersed, with just a few of each remaining. Meanwhile, the Herons have moved back in and are noisily restoring their nests.

Walking back from Grantchester along the headland path parallel to Grantchester Rd, we saw a male Yellowhammer on the hedge, then 2 Grey Partridges.  

Yellowhammer Paul Rule
Little Grebes   Paul Rule

These are a red list species, so nice to see in Cambridge. There were also Skylarks singing over the fields. On the river, 3 Little Grebes were diving but (not yet) displaying.  On 17th, Duncan noted a Blackcap singing along Cherry Hinton Brook, also a Little Egret and fighting Moorhens. Then a Water Rail was spotted in the brook, adjacent to the reed beds at the end of the lakes – not a common sight in the city. These allotments have two branches of the brook beside them. One goes underground at Birdwood Rd and the other passes beside the lakes and on past Sainsbury’s. Charles Turner has pointed out that this area used to be Cherry Hinton Moor and once had a very acidic plant community growing on it. So this very curious split drainage system may have been the way of draining it, to allow all the houses to be built.

On 17th, Pam heard Tawny Owls are calling in Newnham.  On 22nd Mistle Thrushes were noted on the top of a plane tree in Jesus College.  Liza spotted a Peregrine flying over Alpha Road. She also has male Blackcap feeding regularly, along with a beautiful pair of Song Thrushes which love grapes and pears! Then the lucky children at Mayfield School were able to see a Heron eating a frog and to film a Sparrowhawk catching and demolishing a Wood Pigeon.

Sparrowhawk with pigeon    Amy Ellis


My first Brimstone butterfly was in Newnham on Feb 17th. Lots of Bees have been reported: Mahonia blossom seems to be a good nectar source.

Buff-Tailed Bumble Bee  
Paul Rule

Early Honey Bees  (Amy, Paul), Buff-Tailed Bumblebee (Paul, Guy on 6th Feb, Duncan on 17th), and on 26th Feb, Rhona reports Barbut’s Cuckoo Bee (Bombus barbutellus)a social parasite of the Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortensis). She says, “It is locally widespread, but ‘There are indications of a significant decline in many areas’ (Falk & Lewington,2015). Females don’t usually emerge until late April! Nice to see a NFS bumblebee in Jesus.”
Barbut’s Cuckoo Bee   Rhona Watson
Epissyphus balteatus     Paul Rule

She also spotted several Hairy-Footed Flower Bees since 21st Feb.  Occasional Queen Wasps have been seen and also a couple of common hoverflies, Eristalis tenax (drone fly) and Epissyphus balteatus. Both are rather dark specimens, possibly due to the time of year they have emerged.

Drone Fly       Paul Rule

Adult moths can be found throughout the winter months, but the warm spell at the end of the month has seen an unusually high number attracted to light traps at various locations across the city. Over 10 species seen in all, with Common Quakers appearing in the largest numbers. Good numbers of Hebrew Characters, March Moths and Clouded Drabs have also been captured. Star moth of the month has to be the Oak Beauty captured in Annette’s Girton garden.

Oak Beauty       Annette Shelford

Finally, an oddity.  A collection of fluffy twigs on a large Willow appear to be the remnants of last year’s Mossy Willow Catkin Gall.  “This gall is actually an abnormally distorted catkin, and is probably caused by a virus or phytomplasma, but the precise causer has not yet been identified.”

Mossy Willow Catkin Gall    Paul Rule

Olwen Williams

Late February 2019 – the Heat is ON!

Eighty plus Redwings on Newnham recreation ground, on 12th February, is a typical pre-migration gathering. At this time, they often associate in a tree or dense scrub and engage in a peculiar muted sub-song. Dave the groundsman at the CURUFC (Rugby Club) says there is a regular Barn Owl hunting over the training ground and rough pasture behind the Grange Road pitch. I had a look at this area which is hard farmed arable – good hedges but few headlands – the crops have been drilled right up to the hedges and footpath But, there was a pair of Kestrels and over towards the M11 a pair of Buzzards. A pair of Kestrels opposite Paradise also.

I carry out a regular bird survey for a farm in the north of our project area close to the A14. The most productive hedge is the one illustrated below. I does not look much – a drainage ditch that has become over grown, mostly, with bramble and some hawthorn but it is the 8m field margins on both sides of the hedge that gives it added bird value. It always has several pairs of Yellowhammers, Linnets, Meadow Pipits, occasionally Stonechat and Grey Partridge nearby.

Nuthatch – Lower Wood; Duncan MacKay

I have been looking and listening for Nuthatches! The 1994 Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Cambridge says the “Backs” hold a small population, the most recent Atlas – 2007-2011 – show no confirmed breeding records for Cambridge and our NathistCam project area. I have one recent record from Girton (Stuart Rosell) and that’s it! The habitat around the “Backs” looks ideal, as good any wood such as Buff and Gamlingay, in west Cambridgeshire, but I’ve found none. I have also looked and listened in the Botanic gardens but none there too, just a pair of Muntjacs! Nor can I understand why there are none! Records please!

Brambling in the Beechwoods
February 2018

On the 18th February about 15 Bramblings at the Beechwoods, including a male going into striking summer plumage. I find then difficult to see rummaging in the beech leaf litter – they are always with the Chaffinches.

Brambling Paxton Pits late April 2018

See a Chaffinch and you see the Bramblings even if it’s just their striking white rumps as they fly into the trees. They are serious rummagers and throw the beech leaves about in their search for seeds. The best views were immediately on entering the wood, near and just beyond the cycle rack but here they are most prone to disturbance from dog walkers. They often stay well into April.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is GreenSandpiper-1.jpg
Green Sandpiper at farm reservoir in project area

Sparrowhawks have been displaying over Histon Road, Grange Road and Logan’s Meadow. A Green Sandpiper on a small farm reservoir on 20th February could have been the same overwintering individual I saw in a near by ditch last October. Rhona Watson has recorded active breeding behaviour of Mistle Thrushes in Jesus College grounds and Peregrines have been reported over the out-of-city nesting site.

On 22nd February one singing Corn Bunting at Hobson’s Park and a Jack Snipe. It was only the second time I have seen Jack Snipe on the ground feeding – they have a peculiar “bouncing” gait that presumably agitates worms and grubs nearer the surface. There were also about 200 Black-headed Gulls,some were displaying nesting behaviour.

Credible reports of a Mink running along Greystoke Road and into gardens in Queen Edith’s Way and a dead adult Badger along Barton Road. Roy has seen a Muntjac in the gardens of Gresham Road and a Red Fox walking across the University cricket pitch.

Brian Eversham introduced the recent Monitoring and Research Conference for the Wildlife Trust (Beds, Cambs, Northants). He predicts that Great-spotted Cuckoo would be one of the next new species to colonise due to climate change – they parasitise Magpies (not a bad thing!). He also described a new flora by Sell and Murrell (2018) that treats 62 recognisable forms of Elms as new named species. He described a copse near Cambourne with 12 species of Elms– this is more than the whole of France with just 8 species! I thought/assumed that all elms were dead because of Dutch Elm disease. Not at all; Duncan MacKay has located elms in the College gardens,some of which are the tallest trees in the City. Brian Eversham also mentioned Nathusius’ Pipistrelle, also influenced by climate change, which is a migratory bat; it’s a summer visitor to the UK and returns to the continent to hibernate over winter.

Iain Webb described that transition of Trumpington Meadows from the Plant Breeding Institute (with picture of Dr Francis Lupton next to winter wheat trial plots) to recreational grassland and nature reserve. He also described the Dung Beetle Monitoring Project (DUMP!) which searches for dung beetles in cow pats. John Showers described the Diptera (flies) – there are 7,100 species in the UK alone; the larva of one is vividly called the Rat-tailed Maggot. A summary of the Wetland Bird Surveys (WeBS) by Neil Calbrade showed Gadwall ducks increasing but Mallards declining.

It was only a matter of time before Common Craneswere seen over Cambridge from the expanding Cambridgeshire breeding population – four flying north on 24thFebruary ( 

The first flowering Blackthorn I saw was on 18thFebruary and a Brimstone on the 23rdFebruary. The remarkable hot weather produced a UK “hottest” February temperature of 20.6C on 25thFebruary at Trawscoed in Wales. I used to visit Trawscoed in the late1960’s and early 1970’s to see the Red Kites. 

Red Kite over Orchard Park

This relic population was hanging on after year of persecution and before the reintroduction of Red Kites in the Chilterns in the mid1970’s. To see Red Kites now, in and over Cambridge, is astonishing; one over the A14/Orchard Park on 18thFebruary and one near Darwin Green on 20thFebruary. Years later using DNA technology it was discovered the Welsh population was suffering inbreeding-depression and all shared the DNA of a single female bird of German heritage!

Blackcaps have been heard singing a quiet sub-song before the breeding season get underway off Huntingdon Road and next to the railway bridge over the river in Chesterton. The birch coppice opposite Cambridge North Station that had singing, and probably breeding, Willow Warblers in 2018 is being grubbed out for a prestige office development.

Radio 4 last Sunday On Your Farm: 6:35am– listen to it on catch-up/iPlayer “Farming for Wildlife”:Cambridgeshire (St Neots) farmer Martin Lines describes the Nature Friendly Farming Network and how he actively encourages birdlife and other wildlife and runs a profitable commercial farm.

 BobJarman 1st March 2019

Hobson’s choice or Hobson’s Park!

If I have a choice where to go its Hobson’s Park ………at the moment!. It used to be called Clay Farm. Countryside Properties who,I think, are the agents/builders of Great Kneighton (the “e” before the “i”!) have created a recreational area and nature reserve between the new village and the railway line. The nature reserve will eventually be handed over to the City Council, as will, I expect, the area set aside for allotments. From Chesterton to Hobson’s Park on the southern edge of our NatHistCam project area is an easy cycle ride for me mostly along the guided bus routes out into “big-sky-country” and also to the nearby chalky arable escarpment of Nine Wells.

John Meed has been studying Nine Wells for several years as it is threatened by the expansion of Addenbrookes. He has counted: 33 pairs of Skylarks, 17 pairs of Linnets, 15 pairs of Grey Partridges (73 birds there in November 2017 – Cambridgeshire Bird Club Annual Report No 91, 2017), 14 pairs of Yellowhammers, 6-7 pairs of Corn Buntings and 1-2 pairs of Yellow Wagtails – all Red Listed bird species. It is a remarkable list of threatened farmland birds on the edge of our City.

Corn Bunting Hobson’s Park 
Linnet at Hobson’s Park 

Hobson’s Park looks as though it might extend the habitats at Nine Wells with the addition of a wetland nature reserve. Corn Buntings are already singing there on sunny days so too are Skylarks; 12 Linnets seem to be resident and a pair of Stonechats can be seen on most visits (see December 2018 blog). On/around the wetland site are +/- 60 Common Snipe, 4-5 Jack Snipe (several observers), a male Bearded Tit (since mid-November) which gives the best views of this species you could wish for (but it can be elusive and often feeds on the ground at the base of the reeds), 3 Little Egrets, Kingfisher,Water Rail, Kestrel and an assortment of ducks. A Jack Snipe was also seen at Eddington on 24thJanuary (Boris Delahaie,

Water Rail – taken at Welney

Bramblings are uncommon winter visitors to Cambs. According to Iolo Williams on Winter Watch there has been a Brambling invasion into the UK this winter due to a shortage of beech mast in Europe. Beech mast is their staple winter food. The Brecklands around Brandon have big flocks most winters and reported numbers in Cambs, this winter, have been about average – the flock of 40+ in the Beechwoods is unusual but not exceptional. In January 2018, I spent the New Year in 2017/2018 in Israel and saw large flocks of Bramblings on the very southern limit of their winter range in the Golan Heights and along the eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee – a bird I did not expect to see there – and not a Beech tree in sight!

The cold weather in the last week of January and the first few days of February has brought winter thrushes – Fieldfares and especially Redwings – into the city to feed on berries. On the 1st February, there was a flock of 150+ over the Elizabeth Way roundabout at the junction with Newmarket and East Roads – I could not work out where they had been feeding. Large numbers of Redwings were also“casing” Orchard Park for berry bearing street trees and bushes on Saturday 2ndFebruary. Signs of a Hedgehog around my garden were good but also bad because it should have been hibernating.

Song Thrush at Orchard Park 
Redwing at Orchard Park

A male Blackcap was in Tenison Road on 1stFebruary (Martin Walters), 60+ Skylarks on part of the Darwin Green development that is still mown pasture and waiting for the JCB’s, and a Red Fox behind the gardens in Tavistock Road.

Shoveller at Eddington

Bob Jarman 4th February 2019

January 2019 Sightings

I returned from a tropical holiday, thinking that there would not be many observations for a cold January, but was wrong!  Anita tells me that Paradise pond froze over for the first time this winter (having dried out completely in the summer) and looked lovely. She comments on the beautiful Turkey Tail fungus on some of the cut bits of tree in Paradise.  

Several people have noted Dab Chicks (Little Grebe),which seem to be flourishing in Fen Ditton (Trevor), Newnham (Anita) and Byron’s Pool (Ann L). More exotic was Holly’s sighting on 21st January of a Water Rail on the brook up by Blacklands allotments – a brief glimpse as it skulked in the margins. First sighting for several years here. 

 Winter thrushes are still about, with Fieldfares in Grantchester meadows (Jill)and lots of reports of Redwings, about 30-40 in Jesus woods (Rhona) and flocks near Lime Kiln Hill, also the Beechwoods and in Cherry Hinton Hall (Duncan).                                                  

Redwing        Duncan McKay

At Clay Farm lake (Hobson’s Park) a number of ‘Birders’ with telescopes were sighted!  Assuming that this meant something interesting had flown in, Richard went out and was shown a Jack Snipe along with about 40 Common Snipe.  (A useful guide to the difference can be seen here:  Little Egrets seem to be expanding their range generally and a pair was noted at Clay Farm (Vanessa) as well as on Sheep’s  Green in Newnham (Anita), who also saw Kingfisher,  and commented on the young incompetent Heron, begging fish from the fishermen! A Pied Wagtail plied the pavement outside the Co-op on Perne Road (Monica).

Guy noted the Peregrine, regularly seen perched on the United Reform Church, was feeding on feral pigeon on 21st Jan.  Tawny Owls have been calling in Newnham.  Both Green Woodpeckers (Ann G in Arbury) and Great Spotted Woodpeckers have been around, the latter starting to drum, though only occasionally (Pam, Sandra, June).

There are lots of reports of smaller birds, in particular flocks of Long Tailed Tits, mixed with Blue and Great Tits,Goldcrest, Coal Tits. Reports too of Blackcaps at feeders and the return of some finches, which have been very scarce recently.  June reports Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Chaffinch, Val had a Greenfinch on the feeders and Ann G saw a Chaffinch after none for some time. Then, in the Beechwood Reserve, lots of Bramblings were seen (Duncan, Paul).                  

Female blackcap on Crab Apples     Pam Gatrell

Jonathan led the New Year’s Day Plant Hunt and found 58 species in flower. Several unusual/overlooked ones were noted, including Butcher’s Broom and Persian Ironwood. The former shrub has tiny flowers in the middle of what look like leaves. These develop into red berries.  The Persian Ironwood (a tree) has small red flowers that appear like shrivelled berries.

After the drought of last summer and the mild winter, the autumn-germinating annuals are doing very well on Cambridge’s roadside verges, and in places there are dense swards of Geranium molle and G. pusillum. These support at least three species of parasitic fungi and fungoids including Ramularia geranii, shown as white colonies on the leaves which are discoloured and upturned at the edges. Another fungus which is currently very conspicuous on Cambridge’s roadside verges is the mildew Blumeria graminis, which parasitises grasses, photographed here on New Year’s Day by Chris.

Blumeria graminis             Chris Preston
Ramularia geranii           Chris Preston

Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) was flowering on the road verge in Cherry Hinton Road towards the end of the month and the Snowdrops and Aconites are earlier than ever. This is a good time of year to look for Bee Orchid rosettes- there are quite a few city centre monads without sightings, but the plants are quite likely to be there. Please let us know if they are in your lawn and avoid mowing them down! We still have no sightings of Mistletoe in Cherry Hinton or Grantchester.

Muntjac Deer are abundant in Newnham, both by the river and in many larger gardens (Jill, Anita). A Fox was seen in Brooklands Avenue (Ann L) and a couple of Hares in the Fulbrooke Rd allotments (Jill).  Val comments on a grateful Grey Squirrel who loves the bird food.

Finally, Paul found an abundance of 7-spot Ladybirds adorning the buds of trees and even the barbed wire fencing in Beechwoods. Good to see we have not been taken over entirely by Harlequins!  

7-Spot Ladybirds            Paul Rule

Olwen Williams       

NatHistCam and the Dead Sea connection

Jon Heath’s discovery of the Siberian sub-species of  Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita tristis) near the Orchard at Milton Country Park (MCP) was a brilliant find and just falls into the north of our NatHistCam project area. Cryptic grey plumage and its distinctive “peep” call, not the usual Chiffchaff “hooeet”, were the clinching identification features. The bird was found on 10thDecember 2018 and last recorded on 2nd January 2019 (Nigel Butcher, I tried looking for it on 6th January in a tit flock but had no luck. Up to four Chiffs (Phylloscopuscollybita collybita) have also been seen.

I spent the New Year in Jordan on the Dead Sea coast. Chiffchaffs were common in the hotel gardens and I think they were all this Siberian subspecies; single birds called with a plaintive “peep” as if they had been grabbed by their rear body and squeezed! Birds feeding in loose groups of 3-4 birds never called; only isolated individuals. At first, I thought individuals might be Caucasian Chiffs (Phylloscopus lorenzii) but they lacked a clear white supercillum and brown plumage. Future DNA analysis might confer species status to this Siberian race. None of the Dead Sea birds looked as grey as Jon’s bird but all called with a “peep”. Illustrations in two field guides suggest this subspecies is polymorphic but with distinct vocalisation.

Siberian Chiffchaff –
photo by Jon Heath


Chiffchaffs seen in
the Dead Sea hotel gardens

“Why no tweety birds in my garden anymore, just Magpies and the occasional Crow?” said Kate of Sturton Street, as her bruiser of a cat surveyed the garden from her shed roof and another thuggish mog erupted through the cat-flap!

On 10th December, a Merlin was seen over the A14 at Girton (Guy Belcher; This fierce falcon is seen most winters in this area. I once saw a female Merlin near the Huntingdon Rd/Histon Rd footpath sitting on a lump of mud, as a Skylark flew over the falcon launched itself turned upside down and snatched the Skylark in mid-air and returned to the same lump of soil with its prey. Two hundred+ Linnets and a mixed flock of 25 Yellowhammers and 15+ Reed Buntings were feeding on sugar beet stubble north of the Huntingdon Road/Histon Road footpath, nearby was a covey of five Grey Partridges on 5thDecember and seven on  14th December and 56 Stock Doves on the latter date. I was shocked to see preliminary building excavations on this land under a planning consent by South Cambs District Council. I thought this land, north of the footpath and immediately south of the A14, was Green Belt. This area is breeding habitat to eight species of Red-Listed farmland birds and a colony of Common Lizards.

On 18th December, a single Pink-footed Goose was amongst the Greylags at MCP (CBC e-Bulletin No. 66 Dec 2018). 

Blackcapshave been appearing: a male and female in a garden off Huntingdon Road and the male in the birdbath on Christmas day. A male also appeared early morning in my Chesterton garden on 6thJanuary soon after a Red Fox made a run round the garden heading, I think, for sanctuary in the churchyard before the dog walkers appeared.

One to two Bramblings have been seen in a garden in Windsor Road (Chris Akhurst) and up to 40+ birds are still present in the Beechwoods (Paul Rule –

I am still/always astonished I can watch Peregrines in the City while having a coffee sitting at Don Pasquale’s in the Market Square. They are now birds of the lowlands as well as specialities of the Highlands; from rarities to new colonists of stunning presence.

Hobson’s Park on 6thJanuary: male and female Stonechats and about 24 Snipe feeding around the lake margins; Teal on the ponds next to Long Road bridge. This time of year, tits start singing. On sunny days, Great Tits ring out with the sunshine; on overcast days, Blue Tits scratch out their repetitive stanzas. Is it me or is it the birds? – Blue Tit song is nothing like the repeated exuberance of Great Tits but a perfunctory effort that’s repeated once or twice and that’s it!

The latest Cambridgeshire Bird Club’s Annual Report for 2017 is now published – if you would like to purchase a copy please contact me and I will arrange delivery, for a fee (not sure how much it is to non-Bird Club members but will let you know). It gets bigger every year with stunning photographs and is full of interest. Two facts from a speed read about our NatHistCam area: Carrion Crow max. count on Parker’s Piece was 86 birds (I had originally put the City population at about 66!); a Black-headed Gull ringed as a first-year in Zuiderhogeweg, Drachten, The Netherlands on 5th January 2004 had its ring read on Parker’s Piece on 6th March 2017 – a distance of 415 Km and aged 13y 2m 1d!

The Annual Report also contains an excellent paper from staff at the RSPB’s Hope Farm at Knapwell on how to manage a profitable conventional arable farm, increase bird abundance and diversify habitats. Winter bird seed mixes are sown and mixed seed food is spread in areas where finches and buntings regularly feed to cover the “hunger gap” from January to April.

Male Teal near Hobson’s Park
Male Stonechat Hobson’s Park

Bob Jarman 10th January 2019

December 2018 Sightings

A very mild December has allowed both late retreats and early arrivals.  On Dec 9th, a Buff-tailed Bumble Bee queen was investigating cyclamen in my window box and on Dec 31st, a Garden Spider was hanging in a web with plenty of small flies still to harvest. Meanwhile, by the end of the month, both Primroses and Snowdrops were already flowering. On Christmas Day, Monica found more than 10 plants in flower.

Mammals: in Baldock Way allotments, a Fox made off with one of Jane’s son’s shoes!  He gave chase and managed to retrieve it. Foxes are always around in Newnham too, scenting in Paradise and scrounging in the back gardens, while Monica encountered one by Cherry Hinton Brook. Ann had delivery of a turkey leg, on Dec 30th, presumed by courtesy of a fox!

Ann Laskey

In the Clay Farm country park, Vanesssa saw a pair of Hares – both ‘hared off’ in the direction of Long Road. Dorothea noted her Hedgehogs were restless, with the mild weather interrupting hibernation. Muntjac droppings in Owlstone Road and sightings at the allotments confirm these strange deer are becoming more plentiful. There is a growing Grey Squirrel colony in Newnham College’s grounds some of which are migrating into the gardens across the road. Their presence is marked by small holes drilled at a 1′ spacing across the lawns.

Birds: the Cambridgeshire Bee Keepers Association (CBKA) were subject to a Green Woodpecker attack on a storage shed of their apiary. Although the bird got inside, nothing was attacked there and it presumably exited where it entered! Thanks Bill!                                                                   

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Dec-Green-woodpecker-attack-2-763x1024.jpg
Bill Block

Paul caught another felon in the act – one Sparrowhawk, one less woodpigeon.

Sparrowhawk Paul Rule

Little Egrets were reported from the Botanic Gardens (Mary), Fen Ditton (Trevor) and Grantchester (Ian) – they seem to be well established now, though we still don’t know where they are nesting. Great Spotted Woodpeckers were seen in Highsett (Mary), Newnham (Pam), Grantchester (Ian) and Trumpington Rd (Ann), while Lesley reports a Green Woodpecker calling in Histon Road Cemetery.  Tawny Owls were heard, looking for partners in Queen Edith’s (Karsten). Kingfishers are back again on Cherry Hinton Brook (Monica) and also seen in Newnham and near Fen Ditton and Elizabeth Bridge (Val).

 My garden Robin has been singing continuously though December. Several people have heard Song Thrush in song, too. In Chesterton, a Blackcap was feeding on berries (Susanne) and another in Newnham on honeysuckle (Anita). Val reports half a dozen Cormorants up in a high tree on the side of the river away from the Museum of Technology. Five were the normal skinny black ones, but one was “bigger, greyer and had a big white tummy”. Dabchick (Lesser Grebe) have been around the Grantchester Meadows for some time and Anita reports one swimming underwater, looked very mammalian.

Fungi: at the Beechwood Reserve, I found Jews Ear (now renamed Jelly Ear), Common White Helvella (Helvella crispa), Funnelcap and Candle-snuff Fungus. In Fen Ditton, Trevor reports Pluteus romellii, a rare fungi for these parts, on wood chippings right beside the front door. Then, on wood chippings at the entrance to Midsummer Common Community Orchard, was a Wood Cauliflower (Sparassis crispa). This was probably imported into the City with the chippings. Thanks Guy for this one!

Wood Cauliflower fungus   Rob Murrison

Moths: There are a number of moths on the wing during December, including Mottled Umber and Pale Brindled Beauty. Paul found one of the latter in the light trap on Dec 28th. This was a freshly emerged male (as with many winter emerging moths, the females are flightless). Adults can be seen from late December through to March and the eggs will lie dormant until hatching in late spring.

Pale Brindled Beauty    Paul Rule

Many thanks to all who sent sightings of smaller / commoner garden birds (Ian, Pam, Jill, Jean, Ann, Vicky.) These are all valuable and indicate what is around – equally what we are not seeing. Several people have confirmed my feeling that finches are genuinely rare at the moment – Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Greenfinches used to be ubiquitous – now not so (though there were several reports of chaffinches). After such a difficult year, it is not surprising that there will have been winners and losers.

Best wishes for 2019 and please keep them coming!

Blackbirds on Crab Apples    Pam Gatrell

Swans at Byron’s Pool   Jill Newcombe

December 2018 – more astonishing night-time flyovers

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

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

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

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

Brambling – Beechwoods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Jarman
10th December 2018