February Sightings 2019

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

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

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

Antherospora scillae
Chris Preston
Antherospora hortensis
Arthur Chater

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

Water vole   Rhona Watson
Jesus’ Fox       Rhona Watson

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

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


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

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

Yellowhammer Paul Rule
Little Grebes   Paul Rule

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

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

Sparrowhawk with pigeon    Amy Ellis


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

Buff-Tailed Bumble Bee  
Paul Rule

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

Barbut’s Cuckoo Bee   Rhona Watson
Epissyphus balteatus     Paul Rule

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

Drone Fly       Paul Rule

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

Oak Beauty       Annette Shelford

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

Mossy Willow Catkin Gall    Paul Rule

Olwen Williams     olwenw@gmail.com