Category Archives: Olwen Williams’ monthly reports

August Sightings 2019

Paradise (my local nature reserve) on a sunny afternoon – ripe Blackberries and Elderberries, Gypsywort in flower and a huge Willow has shed a large branch across the river.  Chicken of the Woods Fungus, previously on this tree, has now sprouted on the picnic logs. (I am always saddened by the litter here, but for every one person abusing this site, I hope 50 are enjoying it.) See  An unusual fungus in the Cenacle (Sue) was an Earth Ball Scleroderma verrucosum.  Related to Puff Balls, they are more solid and tend to be partially underground.

Earth Ball

Scleroderma verrucosum

Olwen Williams


Olwen Williams

Birds. Lots of reports of successful fledgings.  The Newnham Heronry is estimated to have 18 youngsters this year, from about a dozen nests (Mike).  Holly reports from Cherry Hinton : Great Tits, Blue Tits and Robins in the trees, Reed Warblers seen and heard in rushes by Backland allotments and young broods of Moorhen all along the brook. The last of Pam’s 8 Swift chicks fledged and flew on Aug 3rd but a few stragglers could still be seen flying south on 24th. In Pinehurst, there were crowds of very young Blue Tits in the trees and a Tawny Owl calling (Jill). I saw a Treecreeper on the riverbank in Newnham and another was spotted at Murray Edwards College (Jo).

Two exciting raptors!  On Aug 12th, Val was enjoying the relatively traffic-free calm of the Romsey side of Mill Road and a delicious Limoncello raspberry sorbet, when she spotted a bird of prey, clearly hunting. This was identified as a Sparrowhawk and the party had the distinctly eerie feeling that the bird was checking them out for snackability too! 

Then in Great Kneighton, Richard asks, “I wonder how likely I am to have seen an Osprey here today (26th)?   It circled the lake, occasionally splashing into and out of the water feet first. It had a large raptor’s hooked beak, distinct white cap to the head and pale underparts. The top of the wings in flight were dark with a slightly paler patch about two thirds of the way towards the tips.” An excellent description and the right time of year for a bird returning south, so seems extremely probable.


Mammals. Hedgehogs are doing well in various parts of the city, reported this month from Leys Rd. This spring, I have released three in Newnham from the Shepreth Hedgehog Hospital, on the understanding that there were no Badgers in the immediate vicinity and our small back gardens would provide an ideal habitat.  Alas!  Diggings under the gate of one garden and a sighting in the road led me to set a night camera which caught both Badger and Fox in the snicket between the gardens.  Foxes remain as brazen as ever, lounging on the cricket pitch at Jesus College (Rhona) and 2m from the house in Holbrook Rd (Ann). Badgers are known to be in Millington Wood and Newnham College grounds, but are spreading like Muntjac! I encountered two of these little deer in Paradise reserve and was greeted with prolonged and loud barking.

Jill reports many young Hares south of Fulbrooke Road, on the fields. Holly noted several dark Water Voles on the brook near St Bede’s playing field. 

Invertebrates.  Dragonflies and Damselflies On Aug 5th, Duncan reports that, following on from the rediscovery of the White Legged Damselfly in Grantchester Meadows, another new Cambridge species has just appeared in Ditton Meadows – the Southern Migrant Hawker. That takes Cambridge’s total Odonata to 23, so it is starting to be a dragonfly hotspot.  Mo found the Willow Emerald damselfly in a typical pose, with wings held away from the body.  On 12th a Southern Hawker appeared in my garden.

Jill found a Southern Oak Bush Cricket in her third floor flat and wondered how this wingless insect came to be there. Described as carnivorous, arboreal and nocturnal, it is a predator of the Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner – splendid, we have lots of that and it is welcome. A recent British colonist, with well-documented expansion from southern Europe over the past few decades, it was first recorded from Surrey and Berkshire in 2001. Paul found this Asparagus Beetle on Empty Common.

I noted a Hornet’s nest in a willow tree on Grantchester Meadows and a Vapourer Moth caterpillar was chomping Meg’s basil plants in Fen Road. Liza found a pretty Cranefly Nephrotoma flavipalpis in the bedroom, which managed to get caught in a cobweb, even though the windows were wide open all night. Sue’s house was invaded by a Speckled Wood butterfly: I discovered that individuals in the north are dark brown with white spots, whilst those in more southerly locations are dark brown with orange spots.

A Canary-Shouldered Thorn Moth Ennomos alniaria appeared at Jesus on 8th Aug and on 22nd, a Southern Green Shieldbug Nezara viridula nymph (Rhona). There seem to be very few East Anglian records of the latter, as this species was first recorded in the UK in 2003 and is slowly spreading out from London. 

Spiders. A couple of fantastic spiders. The Wasp Spider Argiope bruennichi, was found beside the lake on Trumpington Meadows. Yet another continental European immigrant, they arrived in Britain in 20thC.  The female has a very striking appearance, with a body up to 18mm in length, characterized by bold yellow and black horizontal bands on its abdomen.  In contrast, the male is tiny, with a pale brown body only about 5mm in length. The web has a characteristic area of zigzag weaving.  Then this male Giant House Spider was wandering Mo’s house. With a leg span around 7cm, they are an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare.  They are particularly prevalent in the autumn when seeking females and stay with them for some weeks, mating numerous times until eventually they die, at which point they are eaten by their female.

Olwen Williams

June Sightings 2019

Birds.  It has been an excellent year for warblers!  Duncan’s request for Dawn Chorus recordings from mobile phones provided 24 contributions and the outstanding result was that 11 had Blackcaps singing in them. Blackbirds were found on 17 and Wrens on 16. One had a Garden Warbler – fairly unusual, but another one, heard in Paradise, made it onto Radio 4 with Tony Jupiter praising the green spaces of Cambridge. A Willow Warbler was around between 3-7th June on the edge of Trumpington Park & Ride car park (Hugo) and Chiffchaffs are also abundant.

In spite of problems with the male, a city Peregrine was seen carrying feral pigeon prey over Market square (Guy). The out-of-town pair have also done well: by 18th, all 3 chicks were fledged and had left the nest.  They will probably be around for the next few weeks before being driven off by the parents (Norman).  A Barn Owl was seen hunting over Grantchester Meadows on Friday 29 June (Hugo). Also, a Cuckoo was noisily making his presence known on 10th to the South of Trumpington Meadows (Mo).

Grey Wagtail Norman De’Ath

Earlier in the year, a pair of French Partridges turned up in Newnham and recently reappeared with 3 young in tow. At Byron’s Pool was great to see a male Grey Wagtail on the lily pads.

Val’s early morning rowing turned up lots of new arrivals on the river: Herons of various vintages, Swans with Cygnets (3 different clutches of 1, 2 and 5 near Stourbridge Common), Moorhen with 2 teeny babies near The Plough in Fen Ditton, a set of Ducklings (6, newly hatched, 5 brown and 1 yellow) and House Martins hunting over the water. For further entertainment, there was a Bullock in the river, being patiently retrieved by Council workers. She comments that there were far fewer Swifts than before and it does seem to be a bad year for them, though the Owlstone Rd pair are feeding 2 chicks (Pam). 

Mammals On 11th, a nocturnal trip through Paradise produced recordings of 6 species of Bat (Paul). These were Common Pipistrelle, Soprano Pipistrelle (lots), Daubenton’s, Brown Long-eared, Noctule, Serotine.  Other mammal records were the 2 Hedgehogs which returned to Maggie after a 10 month absence and the Muntjac which leapt over Ron’s deer fence yet again!

June N asks, “Does the sighting of a Grass Snake among some ivy near a pond in Chesterton deserve a mention (about the diameter of a good sized thumb)?”  It certainly does – I reckon to see one every 10 years if I am lucky. I did recently disturb a black Toad under the dustbins, though.

Wool Carder Bee Rhona Watson

Mediterranean Spotted Chafer Oxythyrea funesta Rhona Watson

Invertebrates.  Rhona sent a picture of a Wool Carder bee on Lamb’s Ear  – more evidence of Jesus College’s rich diversity. Then a new record for Cambridge, the Mediterranean Spotted Chafer Oxythyrea funestaa small chafer probably imported to Jesus College on a rootball. They are common on Continental Europe, but with few UK records (Rhona). A Hummingbird Hawk-moth appeared on my honeysuckle for a few minutes.

Lesser Stag Beetle Annette Shelford

Urophora cardui, a thistle gall fly

Simon Mentha

A Lesser Stag Beetle arrived in a moth trap in Chesterton (Nets) and a fly was snapped in Cheney Way (Simon).  This was identified as Urophora cardui, a thistle gall fly. The female lays her eggs in thistle flower heads, usually Creeping Thistle, causing damage to the seeds. They are sometimes used in thistle weed control.

Dragonflies. In early June, Bill had Broad-bodied Chasers mating over the garden pond. Scarce Chasers were found at Fen Ditton and a colony of Variable Damselfly on Ditton meadows. Eddington lake has now got a good population of Damselflies and Dragonflies while Byrons pool has masses of Banded Demoiselles.

Emperor Dragonfly Duncan Mackay

Butterflies   Trumpington Meadows is a huge success story. The wildflower meadows are superb and besides the recent appearance of Small Blue butterflies, Mo sent the following list:   Large Skipper, Small Tortoiseshell, Meadow Brown, Small Heath, Painted Lady, Common BlueMarbled White butterflies were reported from Coldham’s Common.

Marbled White Paul Rule

Large Skipper Mo Sibbons

Moths  Some recent finds illustrated below (Paul).

Spectacle moth Abrostola tripartita Paul Rule

Glyphotaelius pellucidus Paul Rule

Cherry bark Tortrix Limnephilus lunatus Paul Rule

Fungus From sublime to ridiculous in Paradise?  The mildew Podosphaera filipendulae on Meadowsweet (Chris) and the gigantic Chicken of the Woods on a Willow tree were both observed on the riverside path in May Week, as punters enjoyed the post-exam sunshine.

Chicken of the Woods

David Williams

Podosphaera filipendulae Chris Preston

And finally, a really nice bee orchid on Trumpington Meadows (Norman) and others reported at Nuttings Road (Guy).

Olwen Williams

May sightings

The early UK spring foliage and flowers cannot be beaten – returning from a trip to the tropics, I found Cambridge spring in full flood. Elderflower is now adding to the heady scent of the May blossom and cow parsley. Lots of migrant warblers are here now, but it was a great delight to hear a Cuckoo from my back doorstep on May 2nd.

“The cuckoo comes in April,                                                                                           He sings his song in May.                                                                                               In June, he changes his tune                                                                                      And in July he flies away.”

Then on May 10th, the first screams of airborne Swifts, returning for their summer holidays. The UK must be the only place they ever touch down, as they nest and rear young here, but otherwise live their lives on the wing. I expect Bob will tell us where in Cambridge they are nesting.

Mayflies have hatched in Paradise, Newnham’s local nature reserve. The new pond there provides quiet water and lots of emergent vegetation, while excluding large predatory fish. For a few days each spring, evening swarms can be seen as the males search for a female before ending their brief adult lives.

Above the gate and near the chapel in Trinity Great Court, House Martins are busy flying in and out from their nests. By the river in Newnham, a Grey Wagtail investigated the waterside vegetation.

A massive effort was made to clear the invasive Floating Pennywort from the upper river last autumn. At one point, it had spread right across the river. Happily, there is no sign of it at the moment.

My spider of the month is Araneus diadematus.  This well known Garden Spider is generally associated with autumn, but at breakfast on May 18th, I found a newly hatched mass of spiderlings in a communal web.  Yellow and black, there must have been about one hundred of them, clustered together. When disturbed, they fell away on individual threads like golden raindrops and then gradually reassembled. Within a few hours, they had climbed up into the tree and disappeared.

On 31st May, while swimming in the river, I saw a barn owl crossing the river to the Skaters Field nature reserve in Newnham. It was early evening and the owl was moth-like and white in the sunshine. I had been told that they were about, but this was the first time I had seen one.

Olwen Williams

April sightings

April sightings

Spring seems to be advancing in fits and starts. We have had a series of night frosts and cold winds, with one magnificent hail storm. However, at the same time, sunny days mean that the spring is well advanced and most of the May blossom is out before May has even arrived. Cow parsley blooms at the same time, the two together providing a double layer of white and a sensational scent.

Cow parsley

My local Song Thrush is putting in overtime!  I hear him throughout the day – maybe a minute’s pause as he moves from one tree to another, to establish territory – but a continuous flow of small repeated phrases in a fluty whistle. He is still going at dusk! Last year was very good for slugs and snails, so hopefully he will be mopping up a few of these.

A family of Hedgehogs has been spotted in Arbury Rd and in Chesterton, there are reports of Toads in the garden.  All good news.

Olwen Williams




March Sightings

March Sightings

Working on the allotment, I became aware of the clacking noise of Fieldfares, which I thought had gone for the year. Shortly afterwards, a flock of 25-30 flew in ragged formation towards their summer home in Northern Europe.  A Little Egret flew lazily over – a smaller white version of the herons who continue their noisy nest-building. Then a pair of Sparrow Hawks wheeled overhead, temporarily silencing the songbirds. Song thrush, blackbird, robin, wren, great and blue tits were all competing for airspace, while rooks, jackdaws and great spotted woodpecker drumming provided the accompaniment. Then, a week after the fieldfare departed, I heard my first spring migrant, a Chiffchaff calling on March 13th.

Suddenly the slugs and snails are active.  My Iris unguicularis (the lovely purple spring ones) were savagely mauled overnight and a replete Brown-lipped Banded Snail (Cepaea nemoralis) could be seen retreating for the day after a busy night!

A bumblebee queen appeared at breakfast in the back garden – still too dark to see which species and she did not stop.  Also found this week was an Ichneumon Wasp, Amblyteles armatorius, in shiny black and yellow livery.  These are fairly common, especially on flower heads in summer.  Spring is upon us!

Spider of the month is Salticus scenicus, which have just emerged from winter hibernation. Otherwise known as Zebra or Jumping Spiders, these tiny spiders love to hunt on the sun-warmed brick wall in my back garden.  They can be very tame, jumping onto clothing or hand to investigate, but are impossible to catch. They have superb vision with four enormous eyes in a front row, two small ones a little further back and another two large ones behind these.  All round vision enables them to stalk and hunt prey without becoming the prey of something larger.

Frogs are active too, though sadly none in my pond for the last couple of years.  Have they deserted West Cambridge?  I have common newts and occasional toads in the garden.   Do you have anything to report?  Let us know!

Olwen Williams

February sightings

Valentine’s Day (Feb 14th) is traditionally when birds start their courtship. Bang on cue, I was greeted at breakfast by the local Herons, wheeling in pairs over their nesting site in Newnham and   vocalising. Let us not call it song! Squeals, yelps, grunts, squawks, honks, barks, growls, clucks, squeaks and hisses are interspersed with vigorous bill clattering – quite the noisiest courtship ever. The heronry appeared in Newnham a few years ago and seems to be doing fairly well. In the summer of 2015, I counted a crèche of 14 juveniles standing around in the field waiting for the adults to reappear with food.

A few years ago, the churchyard of Little St Mary’s Church was rescued from a totally over-grown state and is now a shaded and secluded garden. I found Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), in bloom and fragrant. This has been the site of a place of worship since around the twelfth century and it is tempting to wonder if some of its plants may have existed on this spot for many generations. Its cousin, butterbur, is not yet in flower, but there is a large patch in the Paradise Nature Reserve, known to exist there since the 1600s. Meanwhile, on a Sarcococcus bush in the churchyard, early Honeybees were enjoying the fragrant flowers.

Winter heliotrope

As winter progresses, my log pile gets ever smaller and I am careful to brush off any animals which live there. This month’s spider is the Lace-weaver Spider, Amaurobius similis. They are about 10mm long, mainly brown with a patterned abdomen and very common in houses and gardens. They lurk between the logs, weaving a wispy, blueish web, extending from a hole between the logs. In this retreat, eggs are laid in a silken sac and on hatching, their first meal might well be the mother who has not survived them!




Amaurobius similis and web

Olwen Williams

January sightings

This month’s highlight has been the flock of 24 Waxwings which have been devouring the berries in the front gardens of Cherry Hinton. These beautiful birds are winter visitors from Scandinavia, coming to find a new source of winter food when weather conditions are bad there. They are generally in small flocks, moving from one tree to another. This one was enjoying the rowan berries, in the company of the occasional mistle thrush.

I am always intrigued by Rooks and Jackdaws. The tall trees near the river in Newnham may contain as many as 300-400, in a mixed flock. I know that there is a very large roost at Madingley, described in detail in 1931 and probably there for very much longer. Outside the breeding season, several thousand birds (of both species) congregate there each night from far and wide – even as far as Manea in Fenland. In the mornings, they disperse and sometimes only a few come my way. Other mornings, between dawn and sunrise, there is a massive noisy flock, wheeling and turning in the sky. They settle briefly and then go about the day’s business. Later, at tea time, they reassemble before returning to Madingley – a trip of about 4 miles and taking just a few minutes. (I imagine they are much quicker than the car-bound commuters on the same journey!)

However, Newnham does not appear to be a rookery – there are no nests there – simply a stop-off place. So where do they spend the day and where are all the rookeries? If you know of any rooks’ nests within the city, please get in touch with us. Also, if you also see large flocks, that would be good to know too.

My spider of the month is the Daddy-Long-Legs Spider, Pholcus phalangioides. This is not to be confused with the other “Daddy-Long-Legs”: the Harvestmen (also arachnids but not spiders) and Crane Flies (long-legged insects with wings). Pholcus is a widespread species, but intolerant of cold. It survives as an indoor inhabitant of houses throughout Europe. You may find them in cupboards and cellars, high up and upside down, in a wispy web. When disturbed, they vibrate rapidly on their very long legs – probably a defence mechanism. Like most spiders, they have eight eyes, but in a very unusual distribution. There are two groups of three and then two tiny ones in the centre. They catch and eat other spiders, small flies such as mosquitoes and even woodlice – so entirely harmless and welcome house guests. Any in your cupboards?

Olwen Williams

December records

snailshellDid you know that spiders sometimes eat snails? Hanging from spider silk attached to the eaves above the back door, I found this empty shell of an immature garden snail. Wondering how on earth it could have got there, I consulted the
Oracle and found several records of spiders attacking and eating snails, including a video clip.

It was at the site of a garden spider web (Araneus diadematus).

The garden is generally quiet at this time of year, but after some unseasonably warm days, I have heard wood pigeon, green woodpecker, song thrush and wren all calling as if it were spring. A great spotted woodpecker sat at the top of a large tree, calling persistently, but I have not yet heard him drumming. By the river, siskins are investigating the alder trees – they love the seeds. My front garden has been adopted by a robin, keeping guard over the feeding station from a perch in the quince tree.

Cambridge is generally surrounded by green belt – fields and agricultural land. Some of their hedge boundaries are ancient. Oliver Rackham, an eminent Cambridge woodland ecologist, described the application of Hooper’s Rule here. Hooper maintained that the average number of woody species in a 30 yard stretch of hedge was roughly equivalent to the number of centuries the hedge had been there. By this rule, there are many hedges between Cambridge and Grantchester which must be 500-600 years old! I wonder how many there are which are threatened by the proposed development of West Fields for a busway? If you know of hedges in Cambridge which may be interesting and ancient, we would be very happy to come and survey them – please get in touch.

Olwen Williams

November records

At this time of year, autumn colours are always a race between frosty nights and high wind.  Well, the frosty nights have come and the colours deepened, but now many leaves have blown off in the wind, so walking has become a childhood pleasure, through drifted piles of green, yellow, pink, red, plum and brown, to match the November fireworks.



Some insects are still active.  Ivy flowers provide a valuable food source in November and a late wasp was seen on these (above). A common darter was spotted on a stone wall (right).  Under a rough web, on a fallen leaf, a 3mm bright green spider lurked – Nigma walckenaeri (below).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It is always a surprise to visitors that cattle graze the meadows along the Cam, even in the middle of the city.  Over the last few weeks, they have mostly been housed for the winter, no longer depositing their dung pats across the water meadows.  However, under the pats it is far from dead!  The larvae of dung beetles and dung flies survive over-winter as chrysalises, to emerge as adults in the spring.  Fungi break down the dung, worms and plants invade it, rain and frost contribute to decay and soon the nutrients are returned to the soil.

There are still lots of other fungi around.  In Paradise Local Nature Reserve, a huge willow tree was felled about three years ago, after it became dangerously decayed in the middle.  The logs were piled beside the path and now host various bracket and other fungi.  Altogether, I found 15-20 different species in the wood, including oyster mushrooms.

Olwen Williams, 11 November 2016

October update

After a long and mostly hot summer, temperatures are now dropping, especially at night and we can anticipate some autumn colours in the trees.

Walking through the Paradise Local Nature Reserve, I came upon a kingfisher moving ahead of me. Several times, he perched and then splashed down into the water in search of dinner. Kingfishers are the ultimate specialists, in terms of both diet (fish) and nesting place (a hole excavated in a steep bank, out of reach of rats and other predators). I remember that one year, there was a nest in an old drainpipe in the river wall of Clare College, right in the centre of Cambridge.

My cat brings me a variety of ‘presents’! On one occasion a live kingfisher was handed over unharmed and I was able to take it back to the river, where it flew off with an indignant squawk. This week, I found a Convolvulus Hawk-moth on the mat. A night flyer, I would probably never have seen it resting during the day, its grey speckled wings and pink and black abdomen blending perfectly with tree bark. These large moths are autumn migrants from Africa.

This year has been a spectacular year for snails and slugs. Under a pot in the garden, I found several large Black Slugs, Arion ater (which can be brown, yellow or even white) busy with their autumn egg- laying, after which they will die. Between August and October, each individual may lay multiple batches of up to 150 eggs, so if, as a gardener, you want to reduce next year’s population, clear as many eggs as possible! Otherwise leave slugs as part of the ecosystem, as they clear detritus and even dog mess and provide food for hedgehogs and others. I notice my slugs are parasitised by slug mites, Riccardoella limacum, tiny white creatures which run around the outside of the slug and into the lungs via the pneumostome. It reminds one of the rhyme, “Big fleas have little fleas, upon their backs to bite ’em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so on, ad infinitum.”


11th October

Even the most urban parts of our city can hold wildlife.  October 10th was warm and sunny. Whilst walking through the underpass and the centre of the roundabout connecting Newmarket Road and Elizabeth Way, I noticed how alive with insects the rosemary was. Although I only definitely identified Honey Bee and Common Wasp, the sheltered nectar was clearly very popular with wildlife, providing a food resource in a somewhat concrete part of town.

Louise Bacon