February Sightings 2020

This month’s highlight: read on!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olwen Williams olwenw@gmail.com