Category Archives: Olwen Williams’ monthly reports

September Sightings 2020

The best sighting of the month was undoubtedly Vic’s battered Swallowtail in Cherry Hinton, which nearly caused her to crash the van! (She assumed it was a migrant from a European population, though it might have been raised locally: Wicken Fen has tried to re-introduce them.)  I gather: “The British race is the subspecies Papilio machaon britannicus, which is confined to the fens of the Norfolk Broads. This is partly due to the distribution of the sole larval food plant, Milk-parsley. In some years, there are reports of the P.m. gorganus subspecies arriving from the continent. This is less fussy and will use many kinds of Umbellifer as the larval food plant.”

Other butterflies include Jeff’s Small Copper, Brimstone and Common Blue; Mary’s Speckled Wood, Guy’s Small Copper, Small Heath and probable Small Blue and best of all, Paul’s Clouded Yellow, the last few all being at Trumpington Meadows.

Dragons and Damsels are still around: Jeff reports a Brown Hawker and at least 3 Willow Emerald Damselflies at Paradise pond (also present along Jesus ditch). The Botanic Garden is a hotspot for Odonata and the pond is full of nymphs of different species. The most interesting find here was an Emperor Dragonfly nymph, with its black and white banding (Duncan).

The BioBlitz at the Botanic Gardens was a great success. Dr Lynn Dicks, a visiting researcher from UEA Department of Zoology, pointed out all the different bees and wasps to be found there.  Colletes hederae, the Ivy bee, were in the Systematic Beds, the females burrowing into the bare soil around the plants.  Though solitary nesters, they aggregate, nesting close together.  These bees first turned up in 2001 in the South of the UK and are now widespread.

A Grange Rd garden turned up a splendid but unwelcome Scarlet Lily Beetle and a splendid and most welcome Cream-spot Ladybird (Paul); also, a small Soldier fly – the Dull Four-Spined Legionnaire.  Sam reports  a Silver-Y Moth and there are increasing sightings of the dreaded Boxmoth: beautiful but deadly!  Better news was a Humming-bird Hawkmoth in Newnham (Pam).

Rhona (Jesus  College) is always on the lookout for something new: this month a very rare medium-sized Ground Bug Raglius acuminatus with striking red-brown and white markings on the forewings and rear third of the pronotum.  A couple of other bugs turned up: a Brassica Shiedbug Eurydema oleracea (nymph) and this bright coloured Cinnamon Bug which startled its host (Andrew).  Finally, Paul warns of the dangers of long grass, sending a picture of a Deer Tick before  a feed. Although tiny (2-3mm) they may transmit Lyme’s Disease. (This one was (out of our area) at Fulbourn Fen.)

Hirundines gradually reduced in numbers over the first half of the month. Swifts, always the first to go, were last seen on 4th, a few House Martins lingered until 10th and Swallows until 24th (Jeff).  Guy reports a Cetti’s Warbler in song and I heard Chiffchaff calling. This seems to happen in the autumn – are they looking for company for the voyage or (someone suggested) is it more to do with the day length being the same as spring? Jeff reports other migrants: 2 Whinchat, 10 Blackcaps, juvenile Lesser Whitethroats along Barton Rd and a couple of Willow Warblers.

Grantchester Rd fields seem to be a good place for Grey Partridges (20) and Jeff saw 80 Linnets there too. Guy noted 5 Gadwall, Great Crested Grebes and Tufted Ducks at Cherry Hinton Lakes.  There has been a gradual build-up of Rooks and Jackdaws in the tall trees of Paradise Island – always a sign of autumn for me.  St Luke’s Church has been a good spot for Peregrine watching: one harried a flock of pigeons for 5 minutes before effortlessly snatching one mid-air (Ben).  Holly’s list of 21 species in Cherry Hinton includes Greenfinches (returning after an absence of several years) and 6 out of 7 surviving Cygnets.  My local Swans (new parents) had only one, which has survived and lives with Mum, Dad seemingly bored with parental duties. At Jesus Lock, Rufus saw a young male Swan apparently deliberately slide down the weir! 

A few mammal reports: a Water Vole in the brook along “Snakey Path” (Holly), 3 Hares and a Stoat at Nine Wells LNR, a Weasel at Barnwell West and a Field Vole at Hobson’s Park (Guy). Jenny says, “Not an exotic visitor, but I now know who is ripping the heads off the sunflowers I leave to go to seed in the garden for the birds”.

Jonathan says, “Probably the most exciting Botanical find this month was in the River Cam along Stourbridge Common.”  There are two species of Water-milfoil that are commonly seen in Cambridgeshire.  The Whorled one, Myriophyllum verticillatum produces “turions”, vegetative growths that allow the plant to survive over winter, whilst the other does not.  Both are threatened species in Cambridgeshire.  Using a small fallen branch as an improvised fishing rod, he fished some out, finding some Water-milfoil with two large turions.  Why the excitement? – this plant hasn’t been reported in the NatHistCam area for over 100 years. 

Other Botanical highlights included Fox and Cubs Pilosella aurantiaca (Monica), the Small Teasel Dipsacus pilosus, and an alien Goosefoot Chenopodium gigantium on Empty Common (Liza).

Guy reports 3 Grass Snakes in the contractors yard at Hobson’s Park. Meanwhile, in Milton, Clarke has been adopted by one. At the end of July, he found it inside the ‘barn’ – it put on a ‘threatening’ display and hissed at him! A week later, a kerfuffle just outside the back door found the Snake on the patio chasing a Frog, which it caught and proceeded to eat over a period of 11 minutes. Later in September, he found it swimming in the small pond. At some points, there were almost daily sightings, though none now since 15th September 2020. He hopes it will return.

Another enchanting story: Gleb was visited by a Frog, which availed itself of the invitation of an open door, hopped inside and began climbing the staircase! Although escorted outdoors, it stayed put on the grass. A week or two later, it was again in the porch – looking rather menacing, with glowing white eyes.  (I told him he had missed the opportunity – he should have kissed the frog in order to turn him back into a handsome Prince.)

Olwen Williams

August sightings 2020

This month’s specials

August – a month of comings and (mostly) goings: the city has been full of migrants going south. Aggregations of Swifts, House Martins and Swallows have been reported, with swifts even up to the end of the month.  On two occasions, Jeff noted a single Noctule Bat feeding with the flock of swifts and martins.  He also reported a Common Redstart female along Barton Road, a Spotted Flycatcher and a Whinchat in Newnham.

Tawny Owls have begun calling again in Newnham (Pam), Jesus College (Rhona) and around Histon Road Cemetery (Lesley). Corvids have been coming together in Newnham as well, about 30 Jackdaws and a few Rooks in the evening. The mass arrival of these wonderful birds always signals the end of summer for me. Peregrines (Ben) and Sparrowhawks (Eve) have also been reported. Rhona sent a picture of a baby Stock Dove – one of Jesus’s many residents.

Trumpington Meadows continues to excel. As well as the Small Blue and Small Heath Butterflies, there have been several Clouded Yellow Butterflies there (Mo). Also carried on the warm southerly winds were day-flying Jersey Tiger Moths (Paul).  Gypsy Moths which had been extinct in East Anglia since the early 1900s, are turning up again in small numbers (Paul).

Duncan reports the transition from summer Odonata species to the start of the autumn ones. For the most part, Emperors and Black Tailed Skimmers have gone and Ruddy and Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers have arrived, together with Willow Emeralds. At the start of August there was a huge influx of Lesser Emperors and Southern Migrant Hawkers. Jeff also had a good number of sightings of damselflies and dragonflies, including a few Small Red-eyed Damselflies at Thompsons Park, together with a Black Tailed Skimmer.

 Rhona reports a Seed Beetle Bruchidius siliquastri which is fairly new to Britain. Another probable Cambridge first is the Hot Bed Bug Xylocoris galactinus (!) found in a (very hot) compost bin (Paul) (above). These are tiny predatory plant bugs that like compost.  Other contributions from Paul are a ménage à trois : mating Speckled Bush Crickets with a second male who tried to butt in, but was a bit too late. Then a stunning and quite scarce Gall Fly Merzomyia westermanni found on its food plant, ragwort, at East Barnwell NR and a Blue Shieldbug at Byron’s Pool. He also reports a couple of Spiders from his now famous garden: a Comb-footed Cellar Spider Nesticus cellulanus and a small orb web spider Gibbaranea gibbosa. While neither are particularly rare, these are new records for Cambridge, which is under-recorded for spiders (anyone want a project?!)

Maria saw what she thought was a ladybird pupa, until it walked away! 5mm and very spiky, it was on a thistle in Worts Causeway and turned out to be the larva of a Tortoise Beetle (Cassida sp, probably Cassida viridis). These larvae have twin tail spikes (the anal fork) at the end of the abdomen which they use to carry a faecal shield on their back. This is composed of its frass and bits of old exoskeleton. It is thought it may be used as camouflage or possibly for defence, as it can be raised and lowered and even swung.  (Superb pix Maria – better than anything on line!)

Otters have been travelling up Cherry Hinton brook and fishing in the Cherry Hinton fishing lakes (Duncan). Some large Carp have been taken. This probably explains why Otters have not been seen in the middle of Cambridge this year – they have found a better food source. Also in Cherry Hinton was a Rat near the children’s sandpit by the stream (Val).

Pam and Mary have both found it a good year for Frogs and I’ve also had lots of baby frogs in the garden. Is the tide turning here?  Hopefully they will be feeding the Grass Snakes such as those seen in Storeys Way and Fulbrooke Road (Jill).

And finally, Pam recounts the argument between a couple of foragers, who were busy attacking Paradise’s latest large Chicken of the Woods Fungus and a passer-by who felt they were spoiling its beauty for others.  She angrily defended her right to wild food!

Olwen Williams

July Sightings 2020

This Month’s Specials:

Another terrific month! As the blackberries ripen in the hedges, young birds fledge  and dragonflies make merry, it’s difficult to know where to start. There were lots of invertebrates, so….

…for a change, I will start with them. Trevor sent a pic of mating Poplar Hawkmoths (above). A White-Letter Hairstreak was seen at Jesus (Rhona) and there have been lots of Clouded Yellow Butterflies in Trumpington Meadows, migrants on a southerly wind. A Purple Hairstreak was spotted at Empty Common (Martin), another at Trumpington Meadows not far away, and a third in Grantchester (Jeff). There were Glow Worms at Cherry Hinton East Pit (Monica) and also near Teversham Fen (Guy).  A Hornet Moth was sighted in Coe Fen (Jonathan) and a Large Rose Sawfly in Harvey Goodwin Avenue (Ben). Rhona noted a Speckled Wood Butterfly trying to interest a female in mating.  Although he spent some time wafting pheromones over her, she played dead and he was unsuccessful! Another new observation was a Six -Belted Clearwing in Trumpington Meadows (above – Becky).

Jean comments that her Salvia, with hundreds of flowers, all had a hole on the left-hand side of the flower calyx caused by bees robbing the flower of nectar (and avoiding the pollen). Visiting bees were mainly Buff-tailed Bumblebees but also Honeybees. She wonders if other people have observed the same phenomena, and whether bees always attack the flower from the same side, i.e. the left. Any observations?

Jeff reports two Willow Emerald Damselflies at Paradise, and also a couple of Southern Migrant Hawkers, one defending territory there (photographed by Paul). Duncan also noted one of these relatively new arrivals at Ditton Meadows.

There have been a good lot of bird records too. It has been an excellent year for Swifts, especially in Southwest Cambridge. At one point, there were about 60 heading south, but they have now all disappeared. Martin reports three active House Martin nests in Covent Garden. Jeff spotted a female Hobby, a pair of Kestrels, with a fledged female youngster, two Red Kites, four Buzzards, a female Sparrowhawk and a male Peregrine, all in the same week. He also noted a Grey Partridge in Grantchester fields along with a Yellow Wagtail, and a family of Lesser Whitethroat. Colin spotted a Great Crested Grebe on the river at Fen Ditton and a Common Tern was again fishing the river by Grantchester Meadows (Jill).

Hedgehogs have been reported from Chesterton (June), where there seems to be a flourishing population, and also from Highsett (Mary). In Trumpington Mo sent me night camera pictures of both Hedgehog and Badger in her garden. Alas, one of her neighbours found three dead hedgehogs a few days later. This confirms our suspicions that these two species cannot coexist in the city. As always, badgers seem to be extending their range, the latest sighting being in Jesus College.  There were several reports of Foxes, with a family of five playing in a garden every night in Chesterton (Peter).

Moving on, Gleb sent pictures of the fungus Xerocomos subtomentosus near Jesus lock. Although these Suede Boletus are edible, he decided against harvesting it, because of potential pollution from the road.

A large Grass Snake was spotted in a back garden on Grange Road (Rachel).

It has been a good month for Botanical records. Lindsay found spikes of Broad-Leaved Helleborine  had suddenly appeared in her flower bed, only the second Cambridge record of this species since 1770.  (photographed by Paul)

Richard commented on dense patches of  Dittander (Lepidium latifolium) along the busway verge near Hobsons Park.  Monica, exploring the East Pit at Cherry Hinton, located Basil Thyme, and also the rare Moon Carrot. Jonathan reports a bird-sown Crimson-glory-vine (Vitis coignetiae) , which is new for the county.

Olwen Williams

June Sightings 2020

This month’s special

Southwest Cambridge is becoming a hotspot for Swifts! Pam reports four nesting pairs, with chicks in at least one of the nests, and up to 20 birds in the evenings, some sleeping on the wing. Meanwhile, Jeff reports about 200 feeding over the rape fields. As well as Newnham, nesting boxes in Trumpington Meadows are also occupied. This comeback is a testimony to the people who have made an effort to replace lost nesting sites. Also flourishing are the Peregrines, with five chicks fledged between the two nests.

Mo reports a Jay, an exciting garden visitor.  Robinson College has a resident Mistle Thrush (Guy). On June 22, a Great White Egret came to  the lake at Great Kneighton, however, it was driven away by Black Headed Gulls (Richard). Great Crested Grebes have bred successfully on the Cherry Hinton lakes (Duncan). Barn Owls continue to haunt the Grantchester Meadow Fields (Anita), both parents hunting together at times, while Tawny Owls have bred successfully at Jesus College (Rhona). Holly reports the successful families of water birds, Mallard, Swans, and Moorhen. Jeff confirmed his previous sighting of a Corn Bunting near to Grantchester Road, also a Red Kite there, and a male Tufted Duck in Paradise. Many thanks for all the other observations.

Tawny Owl Chick Rhona Watson

Jill watched a Kestrel’s nest on Stourbridge Common, where the two youngsters were on the point of fledging.  Val’s back garden (urban, tiny and chaotic) has been “Positively throbbing with birds at the well-stocked bird restaurant”. House sparrows are thought to be nesting here. Activity is such that the plant pots below are filling up with a forest of seedlings. “Were birds actually the first to practice agriculture?” she asks.

Anita has noticed Water Vole burrowings in the bank along the river edge in Paradise. Although Hedgehogs are uncommon in the city, Jonathan saw one around 11pm in Parsonage Street. Meanwhile a Badger was seen in Blinco Grove at 4am.

Signal Crayfish Becky Green
Bullhead Fish Becky Green

Becky, a Wildlife Trust Ranger, sent pictures of a Signal Crayfish and Bullhead Fish from the Cam. Several people mentioned Frogs, but I’ve had no recent reports of Grass Snakes.

Several reports of early fungi: Shaggy Ink Cap (Paul), Volvariella bombycina and the Cow Pat Fungus Bolbitius vitellinus both in Paradise growing on wood-chippings (Olwen).

Richard found ripe Blackberries in June (!) along the busway at Foster Road. At Murray Edwards, Jo noted Common Broomrape, while Knapweed Broomrape turned up in Trumpington Meadows. These parasitic plants are brown because they do not need to make their own chlorophyll.  Tree Mallow was found in a wooded belt along leading the Madingley road – unusual and possibly a garden escape. Bog Stichwort, a scarce plant in Cambridgeshire, turned up in the Rush on Sheep’s Green, last seen there 70 years ago. Finally, Jonathan reports Yellow Vetchling in the Coton Reserve, and hopes it may reappear along the Coton footpath.

Several excellent moths – a Scarlet Tiger Moth (sitting on a broadband box on Queens Road (Jill)) an Old Lady Moth, a Privet Hawk Moss (Jane) and a Beautiful Hooktip (Paul).  Then, at 5 minutes to midnight on the last day of June, Paul reached the grand total of 502 species, (mainly from his back garden in 101 days of pandemic lockdown) with a Swallowtail Moth.

The star Butterfly of the month was the Small Blue seen, as last year, in Trumpington Meadows (Mo). Other butterflies identified included Marbled White (Jeff), Ringlets (Becky), Speckled Wood (Pam), and both Small and Large Skippers on Coldham’s Common (Mo). Jeff completed this trio with the Essex Skipper along Bourn Brook. He also reports White-letter Hairstreak in the Elm hedge over M11 footbridge to Bourn Brook.

Dragonflies have also been prolific. A Brown Hawker appeared in Pam’s garden, while others reported Emperor Dragonfly, Banded Demoiselles, 4-Spotted Chaser and Scarce Chaser.

Ann and Rhona both found the larvae of Solomon’s Seal Sawfly. Though not uncommon, it had  not previously been reported from the city. Guy was surprised to find 11 illuminated Glow-worms near the A14 at Teversham Fen. They were also reported from Cherry Hinton chalk pit. A Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee was seen in the Beechwoods Reserve. (At first glance, I took this to be a Buff Tailed Bumblebee, which this species mimics in order to gain entrance to its nest).

Thanks to others for invertebrate photos:

Finally, Simon, relaxing in the garden with a glass in hand, sent a picture of – well look for yourself!

May 2020 Sightings

This month’s specials

On May 4th at 5.45am (Pam was watching!) the first of her Swifts returned to its internal nest box  and appeared on CCTV.  It had 4 days to wait before its mate appeared and an excited reunion was witnessed. All very astonishing, as they fly back separately from Africa.  A few weeks later, she reports a total of 8 nesting swifts, two eggs in the first nest; the drama of a fierce fight with a male intruder lasting 6 hours and one grounded swift, which misjudged the box entrance, hit a window, landed on the door mat and took off from the ground. (Apparently young strong swifts can do this – it’s the older, weaker ones that need re-launching.) Newnham’s skies are now filled with the screams of hunting swifts.  These early arrivals were picked up by Jeff on 4th, who later noted  about 100 swifts (with  ~10 House Martins) feeding in high winds over the oilseed rape fields along Grantchester Rd on 23rd.

Also in Newnham, there have been frequent daytime sightings of Barn Owls along the Meadows, including one sitting on the “Private No Mooring” sign post (Jill). Last month, I mentioned a scarcity of Collared Doves and others have agreed with this (Mary, Sue). However, they are present elsewhere (Lesley). On the other hand, it has been a bumper year for Cuckoos, which started at the end of March, went on through April and continued in May (15th in Skaters Meadow (Sandie), 20th and 27th in Newnham (Bob) and at 21st in Grantchester (Jeff)).

In Highsett, Leslie reports a Jay, and both Song Thrush and Mistle Thrush, thriving on the many snails in her garden.  Perhaps the same Mistle Thrush was seen by Sam the other side of the railway tracks. Jean witnessed her local female Blackbird smashing Banded Snails Cepaea hortensis, on the stone path. This thrush-like behaviour may perhaps have been provoked by the extreme drought through April and May, making earthworms inaccessible.

The hedges above Grantchester Meadows are alive with small birds and on 4th a Corn Bunting was singing, as well as the Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats heard earlier. Common Terns returned to the river from 1st May,  and Grey Wagtails were seen, along with Nuthatch and Tree Creeper at St John’s college (Sue, David). However, their most notable record was on 6th May when a Common Sandpiper was sighted by the river (David). A Cormorant (Jill) and Kingfishers were reported flying along the river.  Also there was an unconfirmed report of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker earlier in the year at the Riverbank Club in Newnham – exciting if so, as they have become very rare (Ted).

The city Peregrines have at least one chick (Alan) and the second pair probably 3. One adult landed outside the kitchen window near Barton Rd (Veronica)!  Many thanks to all who reported their regular garden and wayside birds: tits and finches, thrushes and woodpeckers, corvids, swans and mallards, sparrows and dunnocks, warblers including Reed Warblers and Cetti’s Warbler along the Cherry Hinton brook. It is a tremendous year for Chiffchaff and Blackcaps! (Holly, Suki, Val, Maria, Bernie, Alec).

Lesley’s comment (April sightings) that there were fewer Moorhens around Jesus Ditch than usual led to a considerable discussion about chemical pollution, litter, predation, poor water flow, overgrowth of pond weed until….. 6-7 very young moorhen babies were spotted emerging from a nest (Alison). Hopefully, all is well after all.


Maria report “Kissing flies” : the Signal Flies Platystoma seminationis (Platystoma means big mouth). A mating pair kept turning a complete 360 degrees on the spot, the female rhythmically moving her mouth parts up and down : they may also push their large mouthparts together (kiss!) as part of the mating behaviour. These flies feed on nectar and pollen and breed in decaying matter.

Ann discovered  Mullein Moth, Cucullia verbasci, caterpillars  munching the Verbascum. Veronica records large infestations of Brown Tail Moth caterpillars on a hawthorn hedge.  These caterpillars strip the young bushes bare and the webs cover the trees. Cockchafers are spectacular insects – David found one on the allotment in Trumpington.

Meanwhile, the ‘mothers’ have also been busy. Paul’s spectacular Puss Moth was followed by a Privet Hawk Moth, the largest native species. At the other end of the scale was Annette’s tiny (8mm) Tortrix Moth which came to the light trap in a Chesterton garden on 19th May. This is the first VC29 record of Phtheochroa schreibersana since 1920, and likely to be the first ever record of the species for the city. Also, lots of butterflies now: Holly Blues (David, Alec), Small Heath (16th), Brown Argus (21st) Common Blue (25th).

Odonata are now emerging by the day: a Four-spotted Chaser was first seen on 8th and the Banded Demoiselle (Jeff) are a constant delight through the summer at the Riverbank Club. Here are a selection of Duncan’s pictures.

Thanks for all the other pictures of invertebrates.


Veronica says a young Grass Snake turned up in the pond and there were plenty of tadpoles, so it was presumably after the Frogs there.  This Riverside Toad seems to be surveying the traffic with some indignation, after a month of virtually none.

Veronica reports a Fox’s den at the bottom of the garden in Barton Close.  A litter of four young cubs play in the garden in the early morning until about 8am (presumably home schooling starts after that!)  For the second year in a row, they have dug up a bumble bee nest, but they do seem to have kept the Muntjac at bay, with more of the vegetables surviving. Colin saw Cat and Fox in a stand-off! – neither looks ready to back down. Mo was not so thrilled to have a Badger visiting her Trumpington garden.  Jill saw a very small Human child in the river edge, up to his waist, playing with and covered with squelchy mud.  Mother was relaxing and enjoying the scene – she, possibly the most impressive sighting of all!


In Hobson Park it is hard to know what survives from the original flora before the park was created and what has been introduced in the “wild flower” mixes and other plantings when the park was created. The area was intensively farmed before the park was created, so perhaps not much survived the annual herbicide applications.  This year looks good for Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus minor) whose job is to suppress the grasses, allowing other plants to thrive.

In one of the ditches and along the W. boundary of the lake, Brookweed (Samolus valerandi) is in flower, along with a surprise – Common Cotton-grass (sedge) (Eriophorum angustifolium). It is considered to have been planted here, but interestingly, it is flourishing in presumably alkaline waters. Although a sedge, the stem is not triangular along the whole length. Swathes of Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) are everywhere and there is plenty of Hemlock (Conium maculatum) in flower.

The botanists have been out and about. Chris found Whorl-grass Catabrosia aquatica on Ditton Meadows, Jonathan noted Common Valerian Valeriana officinalis on a wall in Brooklands Avenue (apparently last seen in the city in 1860) and Corn Spurrey Spergula arvensis by Queen Edith’s Way roundabout (last seen here in 2004). The first NatHistCam record (and the first for TL45 since 1997), Bristly Stonewort Chara hispida was found in one of the Adams Rd Sanctuary ponds.  The older pond has Chara virgata, so it is quite a good site.   

It has been a superb year for White Helleborine! Nearly mown down by the gardener at Murray Edwards College (Jo); in both the old and newer parts of the Beechwood Reserve and flourishing by the hundreds in Nightingale Recreation Ground (Maria).  They have been recorded there before, but as the pandemic has put the playground out of action, have not been trampled this year.

Last month mystery object was a germinating Mistletoe seed. The (virtual) prize was shared between Chris Preston, Janet Bayliss and Clarke Brunt. Clarke tells us, “The Blackcaps don’t usually carry them far before coming back for another one – sticking them to the same mistletoe plant as the seed came from is common”.  I hope for lots of suggestions for this month’s mystery object.

Mystery object

Olwen Williams

April Sightings 2020

April Sightings 2020

This month’s specials!

Although (or possibly because) we are still in pandemic lock-down, I have had a huge response to my request for sightings again. Who needs walks into the countryside when so much turns up on your doorstep?!  Highlights were reports of Grass Snakes (one at the Sanctuary Reserve (Paul), one in Paradise (Vic) and one swimming in the brook near the Burnside allotments (Holly)), a rare Snail and a Weasel.


In the spring warmth, bats are out of hibernation : Richard’s detector picked up six species flying around the house at Hobson’s Park: Pipistrelle, Soprano Pipistrelle, Nathusius’ Pipistrelle, Noctule, Lesser Noctule and Serotine. My sighting of the month was a couple of views of a Weasel playing around the hedge near Skaters’ Meadows. Jill reports Water Vole in Hobson’s Brook at Empty Common and also noted a Hare crossing Grantchester Road.  Muntjac are ubiquitous as ever: one was spotted in a garden off Newmarket Road (Sarah). Rhona’s Jesus College Foxes are perhaps suffering marital discord with the lock-down.  The Vixen was seen carrying cubs, (at least 4) one by one, across College and out along Jesus Lane and Manor Street.  It seems she has taken them to a new den in Christ’s College gardens.  Meanwhile, the Dog Fox is still seen in Jesus grounds most days.  Vanessa sent a lovely video of a young Rabbit family in Hobson’s Park, greatly enhanced by the background of a Lark singing and a contribution from a Cuckoo.


Besides this Cuckoo heard in Hobson’s Park on 4th Apr, several others have been around this month. In Newnham, they were calling between Apr 28th to May 2nd (Jill, Penny, Olwen), in Highsett on 3rd May (Vicky), Cherry Hinton on several mornings (Holly) and in Trumpington Meadows on 19th April (Mo). Mo also spotted a migrating Wheatear in Trumpington Meadows on 22nd and  Maria reports an Oystercatcher on the lake in Hobson Park – this is turning out to be a magnificent place for birds.

Barn Owls are back in Newnham, flying low over the meadows both morning and evening, in broad daylight (Sandie, Dorothea).  Red Kites are becoming more regular (Vicky) and Martin noted numerous Buzzards over the city, including three above Fenner’s cricket ground recently.

Lots of folk mentioned their garden birds: using nest boxes, coming to feeders or just being around (Bernie, Jane, Loic, Maria, Jean, Holly). Thanks for all these. Bird song has been deafening this year, perhaps because of the lack of traffic noise. I found myself wondering whether they had increased their volume over the years and would sing more quietly if all the cars went for ever – sadly this hypothesis will not be tested. Val notes “The 8pm Thursday NHS clapping startles all the birds, who fly off in alarm”.

Spring migrants continue to arrive. Martin saw his first Swift on 28th April, earlier than usual.  Common Terns have been seen in Newnham (Olwen) and Hobson’s Park (Richard). Swallows arrived by 9th April (Jeff) and on 29th a cloud of House Martins joined them over the Hobson’s Park lake feasting on insects (Richard). Reed Warblers were heard in Trumpington Meadows on 19th (Mo). Jeff reports Sedge Warblers (2 on 15th) by the Cam in Grantchester Meadows and 3 Whitethroat and a Lesser Whitethroat on 19th, all singing along Grantchester Road. There are large numbers of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps almost everywhere and last year’s Cetti’s Warbler have returned to Cherry Hinton lakes (Holly).

What else?!  Grey wagtails in Grantchester and Newnham, (Loic, David): a Nuthatch in a Newnham garden (David), Jackdaws sitting on the Cardoon seed heads, scavenging fluff for their nests (Jane), Reed Buntings in Trumpington Meadows (Mo), Tree Creeper in Byron’s Pool woods (Vanessa), Buzzards circling over the city (Jean), Peregrine on URC in the city (Vicky), a pair of Partridges exploring an abandoned building-site at Homerton College (Sam), a male Tawny Owl in Histon Road Cemetery (Lesley), Jays (Colin, Holly), Little Grebes nesting on Trumpington Meadows pond (Duncan) and Jeff’s list which included Marsh Harrier (1st summer female), Red Kite, Yellow Wagtail, Wheatear female in Grantchester Road.  A spectacular haul.

I have been struck by the scarcity of Collared Doves and Jane also says theirs seem to have disappeared.  Another non-sighting – a troubling lack of Moorhens on Jesus Green, where previously there used to routinely be ten or a dozen, but recently barely any (Lesley). Then a complaint from Richard! Canada Geese invaders are breeding at Hobson’s Park. I remember the Colleges had this problem on the Backs and invested in a mock Coyote – effective apparently.

So much for the birds – what about the bugs?

Maria send a pic of a Rosemary Beetle (Chrysolina americana). Originating from south Europe, it has become established in Britain since the late 1990s. Paul’s garden continues to produce an amazing array of invertebrates: first 14-spot Ladybird of the year and the bug Mocydia crocea. The harvestman Platybunus triangularis was in the Sanctuary Reserve and Shieldbugs Dock Bug, Hairy Shieldbug and Juniper Shieldbug all turned up in Trumpington (Mo).

Large Red Damselflies appeared through the month and Duncan has been waiting to see the first Hairy Hawker dragonfly. More and more butterfly reports (Brimstone (Alec), Speckled Wood (Karsten), Orange Tip (David), Red Admiral (Jeff), Holly Blue (Val)) – thanks to all who sent these.

Ben’s highlight for April was finding Hairy-footed Flower Bees in the garden.  Bill’s experience was not so good – while some of his Honey Bees were flourishing, he had a nasty attack of Wax Moth (Galleria sp.) pupae in a bee hive.  Pam has been carrying “Bee Saviour” Cards, with which she was able to rescue a damp and bedraggled Queen Bumble Bee.  After probing the sweet spot, it warmed up, did a buzz and a short flight, then zoomed off!  Wasps are also emerging: Paul snapped a Common Wasp queen, who after drinking in the pond flew to the greenhouse to preen herself and have her portrait taken. He also found Marsham’s Nomad Bee, a new species for his garden list. All nomad bees are wasp mimics and kleptoparasitic, entering the nests of a host and laying eggs there, stealing resources the host has collected.  John asked about another “Bee”- actually a fly pretending to be a bee –the Bee Fly Bombylius major.  Another parasite of bees and wasps, its eggs are laid in the nest and the larvae eat the host larvae. 

Lesley sent a picture of my favourite snail, Cepaea nemoralis, the banded snail, This extremely variable snail is much studied by geneticists. The pattern of banding and the underlying colour are all quantifiable genetic characters. This one was “yellow” (there are also “pink” and “brown” ones) and of the potential 5 rows of bands, it seems to have 2 and would be scored as 1-0-3-0-0. Even better, this guy does not attack your plants, living mainly on detritus – so don’t squish him!

Paul also had a snail adventure. On Worts Causeway on the way up to the Roman Rd, he found several small (~15mm) snails. His initial identification was Kentish Snails Monacha cantina , but an expert identified it as the much smaller and far rarer species Monarcha cartusiana Cartusian Snail. (In 1999, this was only known from a total of  fifteen 10-km grid squares in coastal areas of South Eastern England. It was probably introduced to Britain from Southern Europe as a “weed” of cultivation by prehistoric farmers (Susan Hewitt).)


We mustn’t let the animals have all the attention – the plant hunters have had fun too.

Paul found large clumps of White Ramping Fumitory in flower in Coleridge recreation ground, Chris noted a very pale Green alkanet Pentaglottis sempervirens on River Cam opposite Jesus Green. Jill came across a ditch full of Water Crowfoot behind the rugby club. Although recently dredged, this is stagnant water.  Vanessa found Three-cornered Garlic, Allium triquetrum on the guided busway in Trumpington – an introduced plant from the W. Mediterranean.

More complaints from Richard! Hoary Cress or Curse-of-Kent Lepidium draba, an aggressively rhizomatous species thought to have been introduced to the British Isles with fodder or straw, is spreading ominously into Hobson Park. Green Alkanet Pentaglottis sempervirens is forming ‘extensive monocultures’ with a ‘strong negative impact on most of the native species’ that it replaces on banks and beneath hedges. A garden escape, comparatively rare as recently as the 1960s, it is now naturalised and spreading widely. I am certainly aware of this taking over my allotment and other places locally. Himalayan Balsam (Policeman’s Helmet) Impatiens glandulifera seedlings are emerging near the entrance to Byron’s Pool LNR. It forms high dense stands probably restricting the growth of native species. This has been fought by the Wildlife Trust up and down the region’s minor waterways and clearly the battle is not yet won.

On brighter notes, Jo found Nonea lutea, a rare weed, growing at Murray Edwards College, probably introduced with top soil. Simon likewise found Musk Storksbill Erodium moschatum,  a long way from its designated habitat! Horse Chestnut ‘candles’ have been magnificent. I learned that the centre of each flower changes from yellow to red after it has been pollinated. Apparently all flowers will eventually turn red, but pollination speeds up that process by a day, giving a traffic light signal that directs pollinators to fresher, unpollinated flowers. (Thanks Paul).  Cowslips have also been magnificent everywhere this year.

Last month’s mystery (above) was a Hoverfly pupa, Epistrophe eligans.  Louise Bacon (the only contender!) came very close. This month’s puzzle picture was taken in Churchill College – below. Who will be the first this time?

March Sightings 2020

March draft

This spring has coincided with pandemic lockdown and I have had a huge number of responses this month (hence the lateness of this report).  Thanks to all contributors. We really do have time to stop and stare!

Quiz for this month – what is this? Read on…………


In Chesterton frogspawn appeared on Mar 1st and this was followed by a slew of other sightings. Jenny says, “We have been hoping for Frogs for the last 4 years since we put in a small wildlife pond.. we saw four extremely active large frogs busy doing what frogs do at this time of the year! (More reports from Peter, Heather, Paul, Pam, Jonathan.)  Smooth Newts also put in an appearance (Ben, Olwen, Jill) while Heather saw mating Toads at Clay Farm.


Butterbur flowers appeared in Paradise on Mar 2nd (and my first Asparagus spear on 17th).  At Jesus, Rhona found Yellow Figwort Scrophularia vernalis – Alan Leslie notes it as a weed of Cambridge College gardens, with a long, if discontinuous history in Cambridge.  First described 1830, he found it by Wesley House in 2013 and also in Jesus Lane.  Mo describes how she ordered some Creeping Comfrey Symphytum grandiflorum, having seen how attractive it was to bees.  With the plants still in their wrappers on the doorstep, a large bumblebee immediately headed for the flowers.

Jonathan reports spring annual plants – Cerastium semidecandrum Little Mouse-ear, Myosotis ramosissima Early Forget-me-not, Poa infima Early Meadow-grass, Saxifraga tridactylites Rue-leaved Saxifrage and Stellaria pallida Lesser Chickweed – on the gravel of the W. Cambridge car-parks, several new to this site. (I suspect we mostly ignore these as the LBJs of the plant world!) Also Luzula campestris Field Wood-rush in Cherry Hinton churchyard and Ranunculus auricomus Goldilocks Buttercup just starting to come into flower.

Vanessa describes Dog’s Mercury Mercuralis perennis in the woods near Byron’s Pool with clumps of Wood anemone Anemone nemorosa. In Coton, Lesley admired Cornelian Cherry Cornus mas in flower, with great drifts of Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara.  Monica’s daily exercise is now a survey of street weeds within about a kilometre of home. White Ramping Fumitory Fumaria capreolata was just inside Coleridge Recreation Ground (previously recorded there by Alan Leslie in 2008).  Near Rustat Avenue were masses of Early Forget-me-not Myosotis ramosissima, with tiny deep blue flowers, hardly bigger than pinheads.

Mo queried one flower and learned it was a Campion hybrid. Apparently, Red Campion Silene dioica flowers during the day and its most important pollinators are butterflies, bees, and flies with long proboscises. Its close relative White Campion S. latifolia opens its flowers at night, so is pollinated by night flyers. Occasional shared pollinators allow cross-breeding.


My first Yellow Brimstone butterfly was Mar 17th but there were many more butterfly reports from Mar 11th onwards (Rhona, Pam, Judith, Bernie, Sue, Miles). Also Commas, Small Tortoiseshell, and a “Tiny Blue” (Judith).


Penny’s permitted daily walk along Grange road passes the Cherry trees outside Selwyn. At their flowering best, there was the most amazing ‘hum’ of Honey Bees visiting the flowers.

There are Buff-Tailed Bumblebees reports galore, but also a Tree Bumblebee Bombus hypnorum seen in Jesus on 10th and a Mining bee Andrena bicolor male, a thin bee with a black face tuft, on 9th March (Rhona). Mo found a Red Mason Bee Osmia bicornis  while Garret reported an Osmia cornuta by Jesus Lock: a first for Cambridgeshire. It has distinctive facial horns and black and red pattern.


Rhona, 6th March, noted the first mating 7-spots Ladybirds of the season. Pine Ladybirds were spotted in St. Andrews church yard in Cherry Hinton by Paul, at least a dozen scurrying about  the trunk of an ash tree. Jonathan also found large number of these on trees in the West Cambridge site car-parks.

Eyed Ladybird Paul Rule

Sanctuary Reserve turned up an Eyed Ladybird. There are few records of our largest ladybird from Cambridge city, but they may be under-recorded, as they are mostly hidden away in conifers.


Hedgehogs are beginning to stir:  Ben and Dorothea both have active hogs. Dorothea says, “The dish has been licked clean the last few nights and their poo trails criss-cross in all directions”. However, on 13th Jenny, found a sleeping hedgehog under a pile of leaves and covered it back up again quickly. Was it still hibernating or just taking a regular daytime nap? 

At Jesus, Rhona reports a Squirrel with a white tail. Anita says Water Voles are active in the mill ditch by Lammas land. Two Woodmice and a Stoat were spotted on the Coton reserve, just outside our area.


I had a huge number of bird reports, all valuable for our records but not possible to include them all. Thanks for sending them.  Notable findings were the first Chiffchaff song, arriving exactly on time (Mar 17th) and  I had a close encounter with Barn Owl near Skaters’ Meadows, in broad daylight about 4m away at eye level. A Red Legged Partridge joined Jane on her allotment  and Heather rather casually mentioned a couple Bearded Tits at Clay Farm – a most unusual bird within the City boundary and a credit to the new Reserve there. Bob suggests they may be breeding there.

An update from Mike Foley Count on the Paradise Heronry. This year, there seem to be only 5 occupied nests, in comparison with 12 last year. There was also a beautiful Cormorant in full breeding plumage there and two Buzzards over the wood (he thinks they breed elsewhere).

It is good to get sightings of finches, Goldfinches, Greenfinches and Chaffinches, recently in short supply (Holly, Pam) and 14 Yellowhammers at Coton Reserve (Lesley). She also mentions Stock Doves there – I hear these every day in Paradise, but never see them.  Little Egrets have returned to Newnham (Anita) but I still don’t know where they nest. Harlton (again out of our area) has acquired a Peacock: so far not calling or displaying.  Jill says there are many Skylarks above the fields in Newnham and Stella has a Nuthatch visiting  her Newnham garden. 


Paul found this tiny Mollisia melaleuca fungus (1mm across) on rotten wood in the garden. It is less common than the similar Common Grey Disco (Mollisia cinerea) but that species has dark centres with pale edges and this is the other way round.

Other invertebrates

Lots of other insects are emerging just now.  Paul spotted Epistrophe eligans – an early hoverfly and points out the males are not to be trusted, as their eyes are too close together…. The Bee Fly Bombylius major was sighted by several people.  In Hobson Park, Vanessa reports signs of emerging caterpillars of the Brown-tailed Moth Euproctis chrysorrhoea from their overwintering strongholds. This white moth was originally coastal but seems to be spreading. The caterpillars live in white cocoons resembling strong opaque polythene. Beware! These caterpillars shed toxic hairs which can cause intense irritation and a rash. They infest various species of deciduous trees and can cause defoliation. Mo saw a Hairy Shieldbug Dolycoris baccarum and Paul snapped tiny Owl Midges (aka owl flies or drain flies) flitting around the Marsh Marigold leaves.

Aquatic fauna

Mo’s pond turned up some 1 – 2mm translucent balls, looking somewhat like tiny clam shells. Jean suggested it was a fresh-water clam, one of the Sphaerium species and to keep them under observation in the house.  Mo’s last words were, “I am not holding out any hope of pasta alle vongole sourced from my pond”.

Finally, something to investigate: What is This?  It was 7mm long and under the lid of Paul’s dustbin.  (The first thing is to decide which end is which and go from there. ) With all the time in the world on your hands, have a go…. The first correct entry will be acknowledged in April.

Olwen Williams                          

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 ( 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

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

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                     

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