Category Archives: Project Blog

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

February Sightings 2020

This month’s highlight: read on!

I am told the best month for Mosses and Liverworts is February.  So it was no surprise when Chris Preston spotted two plants of the liverwort Sphaerocarpos on trampled soil at Mitcham’s Corner. It’s a very distinctive plant because of its balloon-like perianths (but with a small hole in the top).  This is the first record from the NatHistCam area since it was reported at Barnwell Gravel Pit in 1802 and there are fewer than 400 UK records altogether. So here is a challenge!  Where else can we find it in the city?  Please let me or Chris (cdpr@ceh.ac.uk) know, including location and photo if possible.

In spite of the weather (gales, inexorable rain, some frost, on 27th large snowflakes at breakfast, sun by noon) signs of spring are everywhere. There was no shortage of Daffodils on St David’s Day!  Violets are out, Early Dog Violet as well as Sweet Violet, and Cowslips are coming into flower too. Coltsfoot along Snakey Path and in Hobson Park is flowering, Cherry Plum is covered in blossom (you can tell it is not hawthorn or blackthorn because the youngest shoots are green). At Cherry Hinton Hall, Marsh Marigold planted last year is in full flower (Monica).

Our raptors seem to be doing well.  Guy spotted male and female Peregrine noisily mating on United Reform Church and Liza saw one over Alpha Rd. Jonathan enjoyed the sight of a Sparrowhawk eating its breakfast in the garden whilst he ate his and John also saw one kill a pigeon in King’s Hedges. On 23rd Feb, I had wonderful views of a Red Kite – my first sighting in Newnham.  Vicky spotted a large bird of prey, almost certainly a Buzzard, sitting on top of one of the new office buildings along Station Road, resisting the efforts of a couple of crows to move him on.  Jill reports regular Tawny Owl hooting at Pinehurst and a Barn Owl flying across the traffic on Barton Road, landing on the verge and staring at them (this was just outside the NHC target area however). Kestrels were seen in Hobson Park and Newnham.

Lots of water bird reports too: a pair of Tufted Duck on the lake at the Botanic Garden (Vicky) and more on the chalk pits at Cherry Hinton (Holly).  Little Egrets were seen in Coldham’s Brook by the Football Stadium (Guy) and fishing on Hobson’s Brook (Holly). Graylag Geese fly over between The Sanctuary and Bolton’s Pit Lakes honking at dawn and dusk (Jill). At Hobson’s Park, Richard has a bird’s eye view of the lake, where 100 Greylags are present. They nested last year on the floating rafts and Lesser Black Back Gulls have already gathered in anticipation of the coming goose egg bonanza. He also reports a single Great Crested Grebe (no Little Grebes), Mallard, Pochard, Shoveler, Tufted Ducks, Coots and Moorhens and a few Canada Geese. There have also been up to 20 Lapwings – wonderful group aerial displays but quite aggressive to each other on the ground. Kingfishers are frequently found along the Cherry Hinton brook and the Cam, always a delight to see.

Hobson’s Park also turned up a pair of Stonechats and flocks of Corn Buntings. Other less usual birds were this fluffy Coal Tit on a cold day at Jesus College (Rhona), Skylarks singing over the arable fields by Grantchester Rd and Little Grebes near Fen Ditton, on several occasions (Val). The Rooks and Jackdaws have mostly gone from Newnham (I am assuming the few remaining are youngsters who will not breed this year). Holly says they have arrived in Cherry Hinton, Jackdaws often on chimney pots along the far end of Mill Road and Rooks sunbathing on the treetops along Burnside, but no nesting activity yet.  Meanwhile the Heronry in Newnham is active with birds carrying sticks.

Loic reports the Blue Tits started nest building in the bird box on 3rd Feb and there is plenty of other chasing and bird song going on.  Along Burnside, Sparrows were claiming the Swift boxes (Holly) – this seems rather unfair!  Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Green Woodpeckers are vocal, with song from Greenfinches, Robins,  Dunnocks, Wrens, Song Thrushes, Great, Blue and Long Tailed Tits. However, Blackbirds, Blackcaps and Chaffinches are around but not singing yet. Several people have reported Jays, which seem now quite common in the City (Mary, Olwen).

Rhona reports a Fox enjoying the sunshine and a Bank Vole seen several times during daylight in Jesus Woods.  It had eaten all the Cow Parsley near its hole, was munching  its way through the Few-flowered Garlic, but (sensibly) had not touched the Nettles.  A Grey Squirrel, meanwhile, was enjoying the Crocus petals.  Holly noted the first sighting this year of a Water Vole  on Cherry Hinton Brook and Richard saw a pair of Brown Hares ‘boxing’ and chasing – behaviour usually associated with March.

Pam’s Frogs have been emerging from hibernation and swimming slowly in the pond. (She comments, “ This time last year it was 16C and I saw Brimstones!”). No frogs yet in Trumpington, however! (Mo). Paul’s Smooth Newts have already returned to the pond.

Several people have mentioned Bombus terrestris (Buff-tailed Bumblebee), but Honeybees are also up and about.  Rhona found 7 Pine Ladybirds on 6th Feb (along with some 7-spots) all on the same Sarcococca bush. But the most remarkable February sighting was the Violet Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa violacea) near Girton College.  Stephen Tomkins writes: “It was first seen locally nearly two years ago and I have now seen a male on a hot sunny February day.” Yet another species which is moving north and overwintering, breeding in the wood of old rotten fruit trees. First UK record was 2007 (I have only ever seen it in Sicily).

Finally, Paul captured a Rayed Earthstar Geastrum quadrifidum, which he found under lime trees in the Botanic Garden. A good specimen for the next wildlife quiz.

Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com

It’s not the last one …… just yet! February 2020

Sitting in the café in Chesterton Road on 3rd February a female Sparrowhawk swept across busy Chesterton Road at knee height, through a front gate and over a wall. Perhaps it spotted a gap in the traffic, perhaps it just took a chance but it looked to me like reckless predation!

In Windsor Road, there is an apple tree that is completely infested with Mistletoe. It is a Bramley and now fails to produce any fruit. This seems to be reckless parasitism as the host appears to be dying. The houses at the Histon Road end of Windsor Road were built in 1937 on an established orchard owned by St John’s College and this tree is at least 100 years old.

Dying Bramley apple tree with a lethal load of Mistletoe

The female Goosander was seen again at Milton Country Park on 8th February; it often swam close to the vegetation on the island at the north end of Dickerson Pit. A Blackcap was calling loudly from Logan’s Meadow on 6th and another was heard in gardens on Huntingdon Road on 7th February and a female Blackcap (“browncap”) in Lovell Road on 21st.

Sunday 9th was storm Ciara – one of the worst days for weather by far this year (followed by storm Dennis on 15th/16th). Still, a Song Thrush was singing in Chesterton during the day and off Huntingdon Road a “browncap”, Chaffinch, Dunnock and four species of tits were using a bird bath at the same time. Coal Tits are actively singing. A phone-in to Christopher South on Radio Cambridgeshire reported a Blue Tit nest with chicks. But the storm destroyed all the Rooks nests in Long Road although 31 Rooks, presumably the birds from the colony, were feeding on Hobson’s Park on 12th February.

I checked the state of most other rookeries on 13th February after storm Ciara but before storm Dennis. I counted the following intact nests (spring 2019 count of active nests in brackets):

  • Cherry Hinton Hall, 4 (10) and nearby Walpole Road, 5 (12).
  • Teversham Drift and close-by Church End, 18 (32).
  • Teversham Church and close-by Airport Way, 22 (26).
  • Girton College and nearby Huntingdon Road checked on 18th February after Ciara and Dennis, 14 (34)

All sites appear to have lost remnant nests from last year. How much of this is down to normal losses and how much is due to storm Ciara (and storm Dennis in the case of Girton College) I don’t know. The Walpole Road, Airport Way and Long Road sites are particularly exposed. Rooks were active at all the sites except the Girton College site. On 25th February five nests had been reconstructed in Long Road.

Rooks feeding in Hobson’s Park – February 2020

Three Bewick’s Swans circled over Jesus College on 12th before heading north-east (Rob).

Sunny mornings in February and March are good months to record House Sparrow nest sites and colonies. The males call loudly usually by the nest entrance. One of the best colonies in Cambridge is in Richmond Road with a colony of 4-5 nests in the dense Ivy on a west facing front wall of a terraced house.

Two Little Egrets were at Hobson’s Park on 12th February and three Little Egrets were in the horse paddock next to the A14 Bridge at the end of Fen Road; on 20th February, two were there and one in Ditton Meadows. Lapwings have taken up residence at Hobson’s Park and a male Peregrine was on the URC Church on the same day.

At our NatHistCam Committee meeting Duncan McKay reported there are six active Badger sets within a mile radius of the City centre; the largest in college grounds off Grange Road has 21 entrances! At this meeting, a map of Mistletoe distribution was circulated. In the east of the City – Romsey Town and Cherry Hinton – Mistletoe is scarce but is present in Wenvoe Close, Cherry Hinton and Seymour Street, Romsey. Strangely, none in Cherry Hinton Hall despite Mistle Thrush singing there on 13th February and a Blackcap calling in nearby Mill End Road also on 13th February – the two principal bird vectors of the parasite. Greenfinches were singing across Cherry Hinton on 13th February.

Cycle north along the Cam and you will see Cormorants, all are of the European race that develops a grey “shawl” of feathers over head and neck in adult breeding plumage. I reckon average dive time is 25 seconds with a range of 23-29 seconds; whether this is escape/avoidance dive-time or feeding dive-time I don’t know!

On 14th February, a Kingfisher was on Riverside and a pair in a display chase at Milton Country Park on 22nd February; the latest UK Kingfisher population is 3850 – 6400 pairs which is lower than I expected (British Birds, February 2020).

Wicken Fen is not in the NatHistCam area but the Hen Harrier roost is worth mentioning; Marsh Harriers are present too. I think it is one of the best birding sites in the County. At dusk on 14th of February five males and three ring-tails (female/1st y) were seen. It’s worth the National Trust entrance fee (and car park fee!); the best views can often be seen just outside the reserve centre or from the top of the scaffolding tower. Week days are best; weekends can get crowded! Barn Owls are an almost certainty too.

Goldcrests and Coal Tits are singing wherever there is a well-established stand of conifers and my first city flowering Blackthorn was on the 14th.

The south edge of Dickerson Pit at Milton Country Park on the 18th had a pair of displaying Great-crested Grebes, five Shovelers and five Wigeon on 22nd February; the commonest ducks were Gadwell and Tufted Duck – feeding dive time was 19-23 seconds!

“Are you looking for the Peregrines?” said a Civil Enforcement Officer (Traffic Warden) to me on 21st February. “I saw one earlier this morning” he said “Got a picture of it on my phone, have a look and last week I saw a Red Kite over Coe Fen”. The pair were displaying noisily at roof-top height on 22nd February and the size difference between the male (smaller) and the female (larger) was obvious. A Woodcock was off Huntingdon Road on 21st (Sean Rouse, www.cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com).

The Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust encouraged land owners to complete the 30-minute Big Farm Bird Count during February. I completed one on the NIAB’s Trials ground that falls within our study area – 15 species in the half hour including Yellowhammer, singing Skylarks and a flyover Grey Wagtail!

The Hobsons Park Stonechat pair were feeding along the busway on 25th and 176 Black-headed Gulls were around the lake – 9 (5.1%) were first years. This matches a guestimate of first year birds along Jesus Lock to Riverside in winter 2018/2019 of 6%.

A flock of Long-tailed-Tits were arguing with their reflections in a garden mirror off Perne Road on 29th (Paul).

Bob Jarman 29th February 2020. – bobjarman99@btinternet.com

This could be the last! January 2020

A hint of spring sunshine and breeding behaviour begins. Great Tits are often first with their ringing song, Blue Tits too, but their song is often a coarse version of their call and they never sing for long. Great Tits keep going! Blackbirds are at it and Song Thrushes just revving up. Mistle Thrushes have been patiently singing since last November.

It happens every year – I hear a call, often associated with a tit flock, and ignore it until I remember what it is – of course it’s a Tree Creeper. I’m relieved that I can still hear it at my age. “Sibilant” is the word – it’s a word I have only read describing bird song but that’s what a Tree Creeper’s call and song sounds like: sibilant! One was singing in Logan’s Meadow in mid-January. Wrens are singing – they never seem to stop. They are our commonest bird with 11 million pairs out of the estimated 84 million breeding pairs of birds in the UK (British Birds, February 2020 Vol 113).

Four Great-spotted Woodpeckers were chasing each other through and around Logan’s Meadow. At least two were males with a red patch on the back of their heads. I like them. They are noisy, full of enthusiasm, careless and indiscreet in their nuptial display chases. Rhona Watson has photographed a female (without the red spot) in Jesus College grounds with a chafer grub. I think it was a gift and part of the rituals of a breeding pair bond.

There were still plenty of Redwings and Fieldfares about in January. Fewer seem to have ventured into the City this winter which has been mild. I think there is still plenty of food to be found in the countryside and on farmland although Logan’s Meadow has a regular roost of Redwings. Eighty-Five Fieldfares were in a flock on farmland in the north of our project area in early January. The Newnham Nuthatch was a regular visitor to a garden feeder during the month.

A female Goosander has been present on the Dickerson Pit at Milton Country Park during most of January. I have seen it in almost exactly the same place on several occasions – in the north end of Dickerson pit which is just outside our NatHistCam project area. The front cover of the latest Cambridgeshire Bird Club Annual Report (no 92, 2019) for observations logged in 2018 has an illustration of a female Goosander with chicks. Goosanders bred successfully for the first time in Cambridgeshire in 2018 at two sites; one site was on the River Cam at Little Shelford. Typically, it is a breeding bird of faster moving upland rivers and streams.

In 2014, I found a female Goosander with seven chicks in May on the River Great Ouse near Milton Keynes. They were amusing to watch. From a distance, they were like yobs on a day out diving, swimming and clambering over each other in the water until they saw me on the water’s edge when they lined up politely and immaculately behind their mother and swam past in a line. It’s a breeding bird we should now look for on lowland rivers.

Peregrine(s) have been seen regularly on the united Reform Church in Trumpington Street. On a cold wet morning, I saw the female perched on the very top of the spire looking huddled and damp.

I had not been to Kingfishers Bridge Reserve near Wicken Fen for many years but in the last two weeks I have been there twice! It’s just off the road from Stretham to Wicken opposite the road to Upware. Its free to visit and well worth it. James Moss, the warden, and Stephen Tomkins gave excellent talks about the reserve to the Natural History Society on 30th January. It has a visitors’ centre and encourages families and has hides, picnic tables and the “Bittern Hump” where you can sit and watch and wait for Marsh Harriers and Bitterns. There is a white-board where you can add your own sightings; someone had seen a” fezunt” which continues to amuse me!

In the month the regular pair of Stonechats, three Little Egrets and Kestrel were at Hobson’s Park and a Kestrel over the Market Square and Logan’s Meadow. The Kestrel is the common European lowland raptor and its range extends into North Africa and the middle-East.

Over the New Year I visited The Lebanon. The weather was terrible! Heavy rain every day often most of the day. I visited Mleeta in the south of Lebanon which can be described as the Hezbollah theme park! Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organisation but is an integral part of the sectarian peace and government in Lebanon. The park is on hills overlooking the lowlands of south Lebanon and was the resistance headquarters against the Israeli occupation in the 1990’s. It is a memorial to the deaths of the Hezbollah “martyrs” and shows captured Israeli munitions, a gift shop, lecture hall and a 200m tunnel through the hill to the Hezbollah observation post. The “sparrowhawk” is depicted as the bird of resistance because it “hovers, all seeing, over the valleys below and is bitter to the taste”. The Hezbollah guides were not impressed when I pointed out the bird described and in their propaganda film was a Kestrel.

Bob Jarman 31st January 2020.

bobjarman99@btinternet.com

January Sightings 2020

As I cycled through Grantchester Meadows after dark on 8th Jan, I was accompanied by Bats, which were chasing the Moths circling in my bike light.  Everywhere, everything is early. There were several reports of Buff-tailed Bumble Bees before 29th Jan (they are always the earliest to emerge) (Pam, Olwen, Paul, Rhona). Rhona also sent pix of an Angle Shades Moth caterpillar, which pupated on 20th Jan.

An Episyrphus balteatus Marmalade Hoverfly on Winter Aconite, a Common Green Sheildbug in its winter ‘brown’ colour and an Irish Yellow Slug (aka Green Cellar Slug) complete Rhona’s invertebrate haul.  She recommends the slug survey and identification guide https://www.rhs.org.uk/slugssurvey.

A very mild January has seen a return of Grey Herons to the heronry in Paradise Island, the first visitor on 8th.  By the end of the month, there were several sightings each day of birds returning with sticks to patch up the nests, a month earlier than 2019. The Rooks and Jackdaws are still around, but in smaller numbers and soon they will return to their nesting sites. Bird song has ramped up through the month: Green Woodpecker, Dunnock, Stock Dove, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Goldfinch, a solitary Greenfinch, a rather tentative Blackbird, Robin, Collared Dove and numerous Song Thrushes locally in Newnham. Add into this the drumming of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and you could be forgiven for thinking it was March!

Treecreepers were seen in Jesus College (Rhona) and also a pair along the Grantchester Meadows path (Penelope).  At the Newnham Riverbank Club, Ted and John saw 3 Snipe and a Woodcock rise on the opposite bank during a pheasant shoot. This land has become a wetland and Lapwing are seen there in the spring.  In the field above the Meadows on Jan 29th, 4 Skylarks were seen, one singing and two others having an aerial scrap.  Cormorants are seen frequently on this stretch of the river.

Val reports Long Tailed Tits at the feeder, a Jay and also a large Brown Rat which had somehow squeezed its enormous bulk inside the domed cage over the seeds. In CB1, Sandra had a couple of Jays feeding on mealworms and in Highsett more Long Tailed Tits were reported by Mary.  There was a Mistle Thrush in Jesus and another in Newnham in December (Ted) – they are not common, so it is nice to get these reports. Jesus College also hosted a flock of about 20 Redwings recently.  Rhona found a Coral Fungus (Ramaria species) and at Murray Edwards College, an Earth Star caused excitement (Jo).

Sarah send this picture of a Muntjac strolling along the King’s Backs on Jan 14th , while Rachel’s newly planted plants were systematically demolished by one in a Grange Road garden.  These guys are a real menace, both to gardeners and particularly to woodland.  They are so immune to danger that they no longer bother to be nocturnal. Breeding is currently unchecked by colder winters, they can breed year round and numbers have rocketed in the last decade. Venison, anyone?

On Jan 11th at 4pm, I listened to a Song Thrush singing in an ash tree above a field of cabbages by Grantchester Meadows for at least 20-30 minutes, into almost darkness.  I was reminded of Hardy’s Poem, written at the end of the 19th century and I echo its final hope for 2020.  Perhaps we can turn those cabbages into woodland for him.

The Darkling Thrush By Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate when Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate the weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be the Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy, the wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among the bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, in blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through his happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew and I was unaware.

Olwen Williams                               olwenw@gmail.com

December Sightings 2019

Jonathan Shanklin, who has been the botanical recorder locally since 2004, says, “I can report 2326 records of Vascular Plants, Liverworts and Ladybirds logged on my database during 2019 for the NatHistCam area.  (This is roughly the median number, ranging from 7022 in 2005 to 1157 in 2004.) Overall there were reports of 746 different species/subspecies/variants.”  The most exciting were Potentilla argentea (Hoary Cinquefoil) that Jonathan found at the Observatories and Cuscuta epithymum (Dodder) found by Alan Leslie at Hobson’s Park.

Dodder is a very strange plant, consisting of multiple stems, almost leafless and without roots. It is parasitic on other plants, over which it forms a mat.  C. Epithymum has no chlorophyll and is pinkish in colour. Related to the Convolvulus family, it is parasitic mainly on legumes (gorse, clover) and also on heather. Other names include Hellweed and Strangle-tare! It likes rocky, stony and grassy habitats, favouring limestone. There have been no previous NBN records for Cambridge.

December so far has not been too cold and mammals are still being reported.  Fiona spotted a Hare on Grantchester Meadows on Dec 1stFox sightings seem to have increased in the Gilbert Road area: two sightings in Bill’s garden, both close to the house. One  was a rather lean looking dog fox, which chased two Grey Squirrels across the lawn but when they sought refuge up a larch tree, he then attempted to eat the fat ball on the bird table!  Even though it was not in our study area, I can’t resist adding in the Mermaid seen on the Ouse by Mike Foley. Not long before the sea reaches us here?

Jo was excited to see an Egret at Sainsburys.  (She doesn’t say what it was shopping for, however.)  Holly has heard Song Thrush and Robin both singing, with occasional drumming from Great Spotted Woodpecker. She also reports a flotilla of Tufted Duck on the Cherry Hinton chalk pits. Sandie snapped a Heron on the bank in Newnham, so motionless she mistook it for a tree stump at first.  Blackcaps were reported from Chesterton (Pat) and Petersfield (Val). Pam’s sharp-eyed granddaughter spotted Pied Wagtails in Chedworth St, a Grey Wagtail near the Mill Pool and a Grey Heron on Coe Fen. On Boxing Day, Pam took her four grandchildren at dusk with torches through Paradise, good floods to paddle in, blackbirds chinking, a rook flyover overhead.  

Mentioning Paradise, the Pallas’s Warbler sighted in November was still there on December 2nd, but not seen since. The congregation of Twitchers also flushed a Woodcock there, which apparently was poor compensation for not seeing the warbler. At St. Johns college, Nuthatches were seen again and also a Little Egret near the Bin Brook (David).

On 4th December, U3A naturalists had an excursion to the Botanic Garden, mainly to look at Bryophytes. We were delighted to find the “Lower Plant” glasshouse behind the main ones, as it has been greatly improved. There are many more “Lower Plants” than I had dreamed of. As a bonus Paul stumbled across a couple of (rather battered) Earthstars on the  way out.  At Byron’s Pool, another group came on some Stump Puffball at the foot of an Oak tree and in Paradise, Oyster Mushrooms were growing on dead Willow (thanks Bernie).

Paul sent a few more bug records: “Synophropsis lauri” is a Leaf Hopper and another species that has recently established itself on these shores (first UK record 2007). Females are believed to over-winter as adults. Sitona lineatus (Pea Leaf Weevil) was found hibernating in the seed pod of Love-in-the-Mist. Finally a very unseasonable moth record from 19th December: a Silver-Y Moth. These are common migrants, normally seen in large numbers from late summer into autumn.

Lesley reports a Bee in Highsett on 27th, also an Earthworm on the pavement and was delighted to assist it by putting it on grass. Winter proper has yet to come, evidently.

Finally, I copy you Alec’s commentary on his garden birdbath verbatim: ”I have the usual population of blackbirds and sparrows flitting about amongst the bare branches of my Forsythia. Yesterday, 31st December 2019, a sparrow was happily enjoying a lively bath in my birdbath (a pottery basin) on the ground when a blackbird suddenly jumped in and trumpeted, “You! Out!”. The sparrow reluctantly stepped out, but hopped around the bath watching the splashing blackbird indignantly. Then it hopped right back into the bath and exclaimed indignantly, “No! You, out!” and flapped around in the water as belligerently as it could. “Blimey!” quoth the blackbird. “All right, all right!” thinking, these little squirts can certainly lose their tempers, can’t they? And it got out and decided to wait its turn. Which shows how important a cold bath is to birds in midwinter… doesn’t it?”

Happy New Year and thanks to all contributors

Olwen Williams                                              olwenw@gmail.com

This could be the last! December 2019

This could be the last bird blog as our NatHistCam project comes to an end. It had been a fascinating three-year study – not just local patch birding but an attempt to record the changes in the City’s bird life and habitats. It’s difficult to understand just how big these changes are. Have all similar cities experienced the changes that Cambridge has? In a historical context, there have been major changes in the bird life of the City – some probably due to climate change, others to habitat loss due to building developments, and other changes, especially the increase in raptors, due to protective legislation. Perhaps the most interesting development has been recording of nocturnal passage over the City and identifying species and numbers of birds by their flight contact calls.

The Pallas’s Warbler was re-found on December 2nd at Paradise Local Nature Reserve. The other December highlight was the Western Siberian subspecies of Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita tristis) found in Logan’s Meadow Local Nature Reserve by Simon Gillings on December 11th and subsequently by Nigel Lister. I’ve had a couple of goes looking for it – the second time on 23rd December I found a Chiffchaff but it was always too mobile and too distant to clinch an identification; I didn’t hear it call – perhaps it didn’t.

Three Blackcaps – two males and a female – have frequented a garden off Huntingdon Road feeding on Mahonia nectaries and Honeysuckle berries; they have been seen most days during December including Christmas Day! Up to seven Cormorants have frequented the roost at Logan’s Meadow and a pre-roost gathering of at least 16 Magpies assemble there most evenings (down from 26 last year).

Little Egrets have been seen in and over the City in our project area at Sheep’s Green and Granchester Meadows on December 14th, over the junction of Histon Road with Huntingdon Road on December 13th, and over the Sir Isaac Newton pub on Castle Hill on December 21st. Twenty years ago, sightings like these would have been unthinkable; thirty years ago, would have required a full written description to the UK Rarities Committee.

Pairs of Stonechats have been seen behind the Cambridge Rugby Club near the Tennis Club and at Hobson’s Park on 21st December and 24th December respectively. Perhaps one year a pair will stay and breed in our project area but every year pairs appear settled but by March they have gone. Also at Hobsons Park on 24th December 17 Linnets, a Water Rail (heard only) and 21 Rooks. Were these the same 21 Rooks I saw on Nightingale Avenue recreation ground on 23rd December and were they from the Long Road colony or the Cherry Hinton Hall/Walpole Road rookery? On the very edge of our project area a flock of c220 Linnets were seen on a field of Maize stubble and potato haulms together with 26 Pied Wagtails,1 Grey Wagtail and 20+ Meadow Pipits. This highlights just how important over-winter weedy stubbles are!

Up to five Little Grebes are regular along the Cam from the Long Reach adjacent to Ditton Meadows to the bridge over the A14.

Late news from Hobson’s Park: Lapwings bred there this years and chicks were seen (Dusty Miller).

Bob Jarman 26th December 2019

bobjarman99@btinternet.com

November Sightings 2019

November has been mild, although generally rather wet and dreary.  Bats (probably Pipistrelles) were flying on Nov 2nd over the New Bit of Coe Fen and still on the wing in Paradise on Nov 25th (Paul). A Red Admiral Butterfly was seen on Viburnum in the sun on 10th (Olwen) and an Ivy Bee in early November (Pam). 

This month’s specials: read on!

Birds  It has been another exciting month for birds (see Bob’s blog for fuller details). A Peregrine was seen flying over Arbury November 3rd (Ben) and on Nov 14th in Gilbert Rd, May was alerted by the clatter of Magpies and then startled to see a Peregrine kill a woodpigeon in the garden. Ben spotted a Woodcock flying over Arbury. Guy had a lovely view of swimming Water Rail by St Bedes along Cherry Hinton Brook on 13th and on 18th, Alan saw another at Logan’s Meadow Nature Reserve in Chesterton. (I had always imagined they were summer visitors, but I gather that while northern and eastern populations are migratory, they are a permanent residents in the warmer parts of their breeding range and the UK may also have immigrants from Europe.)

Another Nuthatch sighting from the Backs, this time on a lime tree at Clare College, in the Fellows Garden – down the “Tunnel of Gloom” (Kate). Guy spotted a pair of Bullfinches by Byron’s Pool car park, along with a Kingfisher and Brown Rat doing its best impression of a water vole. (It must be hard being the City Ecologist!) Vicky reports a very fine Jay just outside her window in Highsett and Pam has a Great Spotted Woodpecker visiting feeders regularly with Gold Finches and Long Tailed Tits. Val’s small central back garden saw the first Starlings in ages, a male Blackcap and a glimpse of a Woodpecker. U3A naturalists spotted a Treecreeper in Cherry Hinton Hall, on a visit to follow the excellent tree trail there.

Holly’s regular update on Cherry Hinton Brook : Usual passerines along the brook (Tits, Blackbirds, Robins, Wren,) and waterbirds (Moorhen and Mallard), with Kingfisher and Little Egret,  but no Winter Thrushes, Brambling or Siskin yet. However, Penny reports a probable Redwing stripping the neighbour’s holly tree of its berries. In Tenison Road, Martin has male and female Blackcaps feeding on ripe grapes. In Fen Ditton, Trevor had a Jay visiting the nut feeder (but soon altered the mesh to exclude him).  He identified Coal Tits visiting for the first time.

The star attraction this month was the Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, which turned up on Nov 21st in Paradise, in company of tits, Goldcrests and a Chiffchaff. These tiny, strongly migratory birds are about the size of a goldcrest and weigh only slightly more than a table tennis ball. Although they are an East Asian species (N. China, migrating to S. China and Indonesia in the winter) they are nevertheless found regularly in Europe and UK and this  may be an alternative migration route. This rare sighting then resulted in a secondary sighting: an invasion of Twitchers with Long Lenses and Large Binoculars, generally arrayed along the river path, sighing heavily.

Fungi  The CNHS fungus foray in the Botanic Garden turned up a good number of species. The highlight for me was the Bird’s Nest Fungus which has arrived with the wood chippings under the new raised ramp. Louise sent these pix, from the West Cambridge Site and as each contain a drop of water, you can see the reflection of sky and trees in the cup.

Orange Peel Fungus was found in the car park area at Cherry Hinton Hall.  Paul spotted Arrenhia rickenii growing in moss on the top of a concrete gate post. They are so tiny, they are probably mostly overlooked! Another tiny, on a twig in Beechwoods reserve, was one of the Crepidotus family (Paul), while bigger and bolder were the Wrinkled Peach fungus, Rhodotus palmatus and Oyster mushrooms Pleurotus ostreatus, both found in Newnham on decaying wood.

Orange Peel Fungus Jonathan Shanklin

Mammals    Foxes become ever bolder – one was spotted Kingston Street at about 10pm (Jonathan) and another in broad daylight in the grounds of Churchill College (John).  A pair of Muntjac appear to be living in Histon Road Cemetery: this photo was taken from an upstairs window on Bermuda Row. Lesley comments on increasing numbers of Black Squirrels there and also one was reported from Fen Ditton (Trevor).

Invertebrates  Paul reports a couple of November Moths: Blair’s Shoulder Knot (on the wing from Oct to Nov) and Mottled Umber (males on the wing from Oct to Dec, females are flightless). This Harvestman, Dicranopalpus ramosis was basking on a wall at Jesus (Rhona).

Blair’s Shoulder Knot        Mottled Umber                      Harvestman
              Paul Rule                             Paul Rule                           Rhona Watson

Plants In the now wooded chalk pit at Limekiln Close, Sharon found a small patch of the beautiful Common Tamarisk-moss Thuidium tamariscinum. This is indeed a common woodland moss in the west of Britain, but has become increasingly rare in Cambridgeshire’s ancient woods.  Maybe is now starting to spread again, as it was found in 2017 in Barnwell East LNR and near Fen Ditton earlier this year.   

For a couple of years, Charles had admired the annual Claytonia perfoliata, Springbeauty, growing between house wall and pavement in Milford Street, only to find that, although very little grows in these rather barren streets, anything green had been sprayed with weedkiller. Happily, a few fresh seedlings of Claytonia have now reappeared.

Olwen Williams                                     olwenw@gmail.com

One of the best Novembers yet! November 2019

On 22nd November, a Pallas’s Warbler was found in Paradise Nature Reserve. It was a sensational find of this tiny rare migrant warbler inland and a fantastic discovery (Mike Crosby, cbcwhatsabout.com). It’s the second County record. Local naturalists say that it could have been there some days before it was identified. The first County record was a moribund bird found in Peterborough outside the Natural England offices in 1998; it had struck a window. Over the weekend of the 23rd/24th November it attracted about 100 birders. I caught up with it on 25th and 26th November but it was difficult to locate and it moved with speed through the foliage loosely associating with a Long-tailed Tit flock and Goldcrests. The most recent national annual total of this rarity is just 27 in 2017. Inland locations are very rare; overwintering birds are even rarer. This bird ought to be in south-east China by now!

Also seen in the nature reserve were two Chiffchaffs, a Nuthatch (a good find – this bird is rare in our project area), 1/2 Treecreepers, a well-watched Kingfisher fishing and a Woodcock.

The October monthly bulletin of the Cambridgeshire Bird Club has an item by Simon Gillings about his analysis of October night-time bird calls over his Chesterton home. His findings are remarkable and the practice of analysing overhead nocturnal bird calls adds a new dimension to ornithology – I nearly said bird watching – but it is not “watching”! If I’m reading his tabular summary correctly he has recorded the following October monthly totals (highlights only): Whooper Swan 4; Little Grebe 9 (I don’t think I have ever seen Little Grebe fly more than a foot above the water but migrate and colonise they must and they do!); Turnstone 4; Knot 4; Common Sandpiper 4; Ring Ousel 17 (I have never seen Ring Ousel in Cambs and as I live about ½ a mile from Simon they probably flew over my house!); Redwing 3417; Song Thrush 980; Tree Pipit 9. The numbers and species recorded are …… astonishing and add a new story to the intrigue of bird migration – remarkable! Less vocal species may also pass over such as Corncrakes on their way to the Hebrides and maybe it will unravel the secret westerly migration of Aquatic Warblers too.

During the month, a Common Gull on The Pond at Eddington had a white Darvic leg ring on its right tarsus plus an aluminium? ring on its left. From a number of photos, the ring identification was “JK81”. I contacted the Euroring internet site and received the following details: ringed at the Stavanger ringing centre, Ostfold, Norway on 21 May 2016 as an adult – possibly three years old; seen at Ostfold, Norway in August 2016 and then Eddington on 7th November 2019 – so it’s at least six years old.

A probable Rose-ringed Parakeet (Ring-necked) was seen in Jesus College on 4th November. This non-native escapee is an uncommon bird in Cambs. Bramblings have been present in the Beech Woods since the beginning of the month and Kingfishers can be seen in the small sector of Milton Country Park in our project area (Jon Heath saw 4 there on 6th November).

Eddington is the best place to see Common Buzzards in our project area and nearby in the grounds of Girton College on 10th November one, possibly two Nuthatches and two Tree Creepers amongst the roving tit flock. On 11th November, a Peregrine was over the Market Square and on 15th November, the female and male Peregrines were “jousting” in flight together over the Market Square. I have never seen male and female birds together as well before. The female is larger, bulkier and deeper chested than the male and after aerial spats they often sat together on the corner spires of King’s College. Take a seat for coffee at Don Pasquale’s and wait for the action!

Also seen on the 11th November, at Hobson’s Park, a Water Rail, four Common Snipe and a female Stonechat and on 14th November at Hobson’s 12 Common Snipe (in a wet sector of the area set aside for allotments) and a flyover Peregrine; on 24th November, there was a pair of Stonechats at Hobson’s Park and a Little Egret.

On 16th of November I watched angler Alan Stebbings (he works at Ridgeon’s) land a 10 lb pike near the Mill Pond whilst a nearby Grey Heron waited for him to throw it the disgorged fish bait. Panic amongst pigeons in the Market Square on 22nd November was not caused by a Peregrine but a flyover Kestrel!

A Mistle Thrush was singing in Chesterton on 13th November, another was heard near Storeys Way on 19th and Paradise Nature Reserve on 26th; one was defending a Mistletoe clump with berries in Chesterton on 26th November. On 16th November, a male Blackcap was in my Chesterton garden – mid-November is a typical arrival date for overwintering Blackcaps from central Europe. This matches ringing records from Holme Bird Observatory on the Norfolk coast. A female Blackcap, a “browncap”, was seen in a garden in Benson Street on 23- 26rd November feeding on Mahonia nectaries and a male in Tenison Road feeding on the shrivelled remains of grapes on a vine.

A nocturnal Peregrine strike is suspected of killing the Long-tailed Skua that was found in October; perhaps the Skua was too bulky to carry off or the falcon failed to “get-a grip”! Records of Red Kite over Mill Road cemetery in May, June and September this year (Andrew Dobson). This is in the very centre of our NatHistCam project area.

Bob Jarman 30th November 2019

bobjarman99@btinternet.com

The remarkable remarkable! – the autumn passage 2019 continues

On 16th October Shaun Mayes of the St John’s college staff found the fresh corpse of a bird outside Merton House at the junction of Queens Road and Madingley Road. Shaun and his birdwatching colleague David Brown contacted David’s brother-in-law Jonathan Bustard (a good name for a birder)! and the identification was confirmed as a juvenile Long-tailed Skua.

This is a remarkable inland record for this rare migratory sea bird. I think it is the first for our project area and possibly only the 12th record for the County. Previous records have come from Foul Anchor in the north of Cambridgeshire, beyond Wisbech, on the banks of the River Nene five miles south of The Wash. It adds further evidence to the idea that migratory sea birds travel overland to short-cut migration routes. In the 1970’s and 1980’s Graham Easy saw flocks of skuas (Arctic and Great Skuas) passing south west overhead, at great height, in autumn over Milton. He speculated that there were major overland migration routes for skuas and Kittiwakes following the north east/south west trajectories of the Ouse/Cam, Nene and Welland river valleys exiting in the Bristol Channel. Remarkably, these seabirds appear to take an overland short cut on their way to wintering grounds off the coast of Senegal.


The Long-tailed Skua found dead in Cambridge on 16th October
The Long-tailed Skua found dead in Cambridge on 16th October

We know that some skuas on their northerly spring passage fly through the Great Glen from the North Atlantic to exit in the Moray Firth and the North Sea on their way to their breeding grounds in the northern Isles and the sub-Arctic tundras. Watching Skua movements on the North Norfolk coast this time of year and all the skuas appear to be flying west i.e. into the Wash not east which, as you would expect, would take them around the East Anglian coast and then south eventually into the English Channel.

This is a brilliant record – thanks to Shaun and David.

On 6th October, there was a big night time passage of Song Thrushes and Redwings and daylight passage of Redwings over the City. I haven’t seen a Fieldfare yet! On 10th October, there was a Yellow-legged Gull at Hobson’s Park and two there on 15th October. Also at Hobson’s Park on 15th October were 60+ Redwings (over), a Water Rail, 2 Snipe, 4+ Corn Buntings and outside Trumpington a huge flock of 500+ Golden Plovers. The influx of Jays into the country – apparently due to a failure of the acorn crop in Europe – seems to have stopped but they have filtered inland and are common throughout our project area.

The common wagtail in our project area seems to be Grey Wagtails not Pied Wagtails. I see or hear them most days. There is a regular pair on or over the Radio Cambridgeshire building, a male was singing in Regents Street on 16th October and they are often flying over the Market Square and where I live in Chesterton. Also on 16th October was a late Swallow over Mill Road Cemetery.

I discovered a new habitat! Behind the West Cambridge university building there is a balancing pond – a large lake of at least one hectare; it is hidden from view behind the hedges along the Coton/west Cambridge footpath. According to a local angler it’s been there for about 5 years and is full of huge Common Carp – ideal for a passing Osprey.

On 18th October, a Chiffchaff was calling in a large garden in Huntingdon Road and there were three Buzzards over Thornton Way. On 19th October, there were eight Common Buzzards over the rough land at Eddington, 12 Linnets and 12 Meadow Pipits. Buzzards are now, probably, our commonest raptor. Twenty years ago, in 1999, they nested for the first time, in great secrecy, in west Cambridgeshire. It is a remarkable turn-round and is likely due to legal protection (thanks to EU law!) and the subsequent lack of persecution.

On 29th October one of the Peregrines was roosting at its regular site in the city centre and on 30th October Gadwell were the commonest duck on the slice of Milton Country Park in our project area; the regular wintering Widgeon had also returned.

Dr Simon Gillings of the BTO has collected the night-time recording device from my garden. It recorded night time calls of birds passing over head from 6pm to 6am and he had placed a number of them across the City. Martin Walters has written a very good “Nature Notes” in the Cambridge Independent (23rd October 2019) about Simon’s project. Simon now plans to download the recordings to survey nocturnal migration (“noc-mig”) over Cambridge.

Bob Jarman 31st October 2019

bobjarman99@btinternet.com

October sightings 2019

The David Attenborough Building’s “Green Roofs” were planted with Sedum and other species and in order to increase habitat, there are wood piles and sandy areas.  Recently two species of Fungi were found there – not part of the original planting scheme (Monica)! From photos, they have been provisionally identified by Helene Davies as Melanoleuca melaleuca and Clitocybe dealbata or C. rivulosa.

Checking on M. melaleuca, I found, “It is difficult to distinguish from other related species firstly because it is variable, secondly because the taxonomic criteria are often based on characteristics which have later been found to be variable and thirdly because there is much disagreement between authorities as to exactly how the species should be defined.” This seems to sum up fungus identification very neatly.

However, it has been an excellent year for them. In East Pit, were Meadow Coral, an Earthtongue, Parrot Waxcap, Blackening Waxcap and Lawyers Wig (Jonathan). David spotted Inkcaps and some others in Coe Fen. Jean reports two large clumps of Stropharia aeruginosa, a vivid blue-green on the wood chipping path. Check out any rotting wood, compost piles and other slimy places!

While clearing up the remains of Woodpigeon wings, Ann was puzzled to see many sprouting Bean Seeds on the same patch of lawn. This is a regular fox run and presumably the beans must have come out of a pigeon’s crop. Wiki says a woodpigeon’s crop can hold “As many as 200 beans, 1,000 wheat grains and 15 acorns”. (I’m not sure if this is all at once??) 

Beans from Woodpigeon Crop Ann Laskey

Thanks to everyone who sent in invertebrate sightings. Ben saw a large Hawker Dragonfly (?Migrant Hawker) at Adams Rd bird Sanctuary on Oct 5th and Karsten spotted a Devil’s Coach-horse Beetle (Ocypus olens) in Queen Edith’s. She says, “Looking like a mixture of a giant ant, short-legged locust and black beetle, it’s one of the most awesome looking beetles, especially when it turns its head around and looks up at you”.  Steve sent a picture of a large Wasp (Queen German wasp Vespula germanica?) which had just eaten another wasp, leaving only the head. Queen wasps do have a varied diet including insects, but it’s an interesting observation of wasp eating wasp.

Ocypus olens
Wasp eating wasp!
Steve Elstub

Buff-tailed Bumble Bees continued foraging on Pam’s purple salvias every day, even in light rain. Justin’s Peterhouse biodiversity survey turned up a Pseudoscorpion Roncus lubricus (the Reddish Two-eyed Pseudoscorpion). These tiny arachnids are inconspicuous, favouring dry leaf litter and moss in woodland. This species is restricted to the southern half of England, parts of Wales and Northern Ireland. A contributor (who preferred to remain anonymous) found 2mm Cigarette Beetles Lasioderma serricorne infesting food in his cupboard.

Two interesting moth caterpillars were reported : a Pale Tussock Moth Calliteara pudibunda at Churchill College and a Double Striped Pug Gymnoscelis rufifasciata at Jesus College.

The Newnham winter flock of Rooks and Jackdaws has now grown to about 400. For a while, they were separate flocks, the jackdaws arriving and departing earlier than the rooks, but now there is one big mixed bunch at 6.30am and 4.30pm, dispersing to feed in the day and collecting up to return to Madingley in the evening. The murmuration of Starlings over Bolton’s Pit also has precise timing, the  birds settling to roost on the island 12 minutes before sunset. Then several people reported feeding flocks of small birds, tits and others including Goldfinch, Chaffinch, Song Thrush and Blackbird (Mo, Pam, Lesley M-B, Jean).   There was even a flock of Goldcrests finding insects in ivy (Anita).

Individual birds of interest include a Little Egret on Sheep‘s Green (Mary G), Tawny Owls in Histon Road Cemetery – “very Hammer Horror!” – both twitting and twooing (male and female), (Lesley D), Jays and Tawny Owl calls at Pinehurst (Jill), a Buzzard over the garden which was seen off by rooks (Pam), regular visits to feeder from a female Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dorothea), another Gt Spotted in the garden and also Little Grebes and Heron on the river (Val).  Gerd reports a Tree Creeper on the birch in her garden.  Anita noted a Green Woodpecker and Herons in Paradise and has seen and heard migrating Redwings

Long Tailed Skua David Brown

Last of the notable birds, a juvenile Long Tailed Skua was found dead – a passage migrant to the UK, breeding in the high Arctic.  In transit down the east coast, it somehow ended up in central Cambridge.  I expect Bob will say more about this one.

Badgers are still active in Newnham, one trying to dig into a back garden under the gate. In Fulbrooke wood, a night camera picked up two Muntjac, some Pheasants and a Fox (Jill).  Dorothea’s Hedgehogs are still feeding every night, but while there has been the odd frost, we have had no really cold weather yet. Squirrels are on the increase in Newnham, stripping hazel and walnuts before ripening, now removing peony seeds from Jean’s pots.

It’s a great year for the female Ginkgo tree at Pinehurst, a problem to residents as the fruits smell foul and are slippery under foot. However, it is a joy to a Japanese lady who harvests the fruits. Apparently, the toxic and irritating flesh must be carefully removed, before she roasts the nuts. Reputedly, as well as being delicious, they enhance libido.

Ginkgo Fruit Jill Newcombe

And finally, Ben Greig says, “We have just set up a new group called On The Verge Cambridge (a sister group to the original On The Verge started in Stirling 10 years ago). Our aim is to sow and plant up for pollinators in and around Cambridge. Our first project is underway – we are reseeding the wildflower meadows in the council parks around the city. Your readers will probably have ideas about potential sites that could be planted up – we need project ideas!  Our details: www.onthevergecambridge.org.uk”. Please get in touch with him if you have ideas or would like to help.

Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com