May 2022 Sightings

First of all, my thanks to everybody who has supported this project over the last 5 years and especially to regular contributors. After two years of Covid restrictions, we have more or less emerged back to normal activities. The eminent early naturalist Gilbert White (1720-93) said, “Men that only undertake one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with.”  I suspect that many of us became very acquainted with our own little areas and if I have at times overemphasised the joys of Newnham, I make no apology – this is where I live.

Whose eyes are these?

I also make no apology for this picture : one of very many supplied by Paul over the years.  But whose eyes are these?  Try and find out before learning the answer at the end.

Last month, I asked everyone for a round-up of their local wildlife gains and losses over the last 5 years.  Several people mentioned the positive impact the NatHistCam project has had on the City Council and on the University.  Contact with all the College gardeners has encouraged a wild-life friendly approach, at a time when student allotments, bee hives and vegetable gardens were becoming popular and student societies were demanding a greener approach.  King’s Wildflower Meadow is the most prominent example of this, but the other initiatives include a regular Moth Survey in the Botanic Garden which recently produced this fine Figure of Eighty Moth

Figure of Eighty Moth Duncan Mackay

On the other hand, University and College building projects continue to multiply.  Ionathan says Eddington’s brown-field areas are much richer in wildlife than the designated parkland, but are threatened with development. In Barton Rd, King’s cut down mature trees in Millington Wood, while in Owlstone Croft, Queens’ are proposing to build 4 blocks of new 3-storey houses on the lawn, right against the Paradise Reserve. 

The City Council are at last beginning to commit to becoming herbicide-free. This is an ongoing battle, but Lammas Land can now boast longer grass verges, uncut hedges, areas of Wildflower planting and a magnificent giant log pile for invertebrates.  Maybe next year, the message will get through to the Operatives that we do not want our street fences and kerbs sprayed with poison.  Two Painted Lady butterflies on the Valerian by Pam’s front wall show what can happen when the wild flowers are not killed by spraying! There is so much more that could be done by the City Council : Jonathan asks why mown grass  cannot be used to produce power via an anaerobic digester.  And another disaster for the already over-built N Cambridge: a tower block built on St Alban’s recreation ground – one of the few open spaces/sports fields in the area.

Painted Lady on Valerian Pam Gatrell

Nature reserves have also been improved (alongside the massive house building programmes however : Hobson’s park was thought responsible for the the Box Moth, introduced with ornamental hedging and now infesting most parts of the City.) However, at Trumpington Meadows, Hobson’s Park and Logan’s Meadows, new habitats have given scope for species like water birds, orchids, butterflies and other invertebrates. Water Voles have returned to Logan’s Meadow, as well as the Sheep’s Green area. A new Tern raft at Milton Country Park was immediately occupied by a pair of breeding Common Terns.

There has been diligent work in many corners! Ben is very happy to have renovated the New Chesterton Allotment Society pond,  with Common Newts successfully colonising and this year’s adult Damselflies emerging in numbers. But in Paradise, the magnificent Chicken of the Woods fungus is now ruthlessly removed piecemeal by foragers and its attendant Fungus Beetles are gone.  We have so far failed to rewild the Skaters’ Meadow Footpath, due to the pressure of the car parking lobby on local politicians. Borders have been trampled by cars and saplings deliberately cut down.

Another failure is the disgraceful pollution of the Cam from sewage overflow.  (On this subject, Ofwat promises that “by 2040, 40% will have been eliminated”.  Really!?!)  Long-term fishermen say that catches have greatly reduced over the years. Certainly the number of people fishing has reduced.  I have not seen a Kingfisher this year, though they are still reported from the chalk streams like Hobson’s Brook. 

In Newnham, the gains include the return of Water Voles and Otters to Paradise and Sheep’s Green and the more regular appearance of Cuckoos and Grass Snakes there. A Cuckoo has stayed for 10 days this spring.  While Pam reports the regular occupation and breeding success of her Newnham Swift boxes, they have not returned to the boxes in Warkworth St this year (Suki). At St Regis House in Chesterton Road the Swift nest sites have been reinstated so let’s hope these colonies spread. Addenbrooke’s Hospital continues to host 60+ House Martin nests, but Swallows are few and far between. In Histon, (just outside our area) there was a report of the regular appearance of a Turtle Dove (though sadly not the higher numbers of previous years).  

Raptors continue to do well. Ionathan reports a Marsh Harrier over the Grafton Centre on 2nd and the city centre Peregrines have three well fledged young.  Buzzards and Red Kites are now too common to mention, with Kites breeding in the study area. Sparrow Hawks and Kestrels are seen regularly, the latter mainly towards the edges of the city.  Breeding Barn Owls are a credit to the private wetland area across the river from Grantchester Meadows (Gleb) and Newnham also has Tawny Owls.  An Osprey was sighted over Chesterton on 13th May (Simon Gillings).

Another major bird advance has been the NocMig recording and identifying the calls of fly-over night time migrants. This has revealed birds that are rarely seen including Bitterns, Common Scoters, Tree Pipits, Spotted Flycatchers and many more.

A Reed Warbler in St John’s College, together with Little Egrets, Grey Wagtails, Nuthatch and Treecreeper make an impressive collection there (David).  Simon wonders if Wood Pigeons have moved in to become garden birds, possibly at the expense of Collared Doves : several others mentioned a fall in Collared Dove populations (Rachel, Liza). Other vanishing birds include Finches (Chaffinch (Ionathan, Mo, Simon), Greenfinch (Olwen), Goldfinch (Liza) and typical woodland birds such as Woodpeckers (Sam), Willow Warblers, (Ben) breeding Spotted Flycatchers, Lesser Redpoll and Lesser-spotted Woodpecker (Bob). In Grange Road, Rachel has lost  Blue Tits, Great Tits, Dunnocks, with Blackbirds and Robins in single figures.  Trumpington Meadows has lost its Corn Buntings this year (Becky). But two reports of House Sparrows returning (Trumpington, Mo and Newnham, Pam) were better news.

Coleophora amethystinella Paul Rule

On the other hand, many Invertebrates are doing better. A combination of habitat improvements and climatic warming has produced records of previously unrecorded arthropods – insects and spiders.  At Trumpington Meadows and Magog Downs, Small Blue Butterflies have returned and are seen in numbers, with at least 40 on one day!  Over the months, I have mentioned many insects apparently moving north and Paul’s latest is a micro-moth (above) with orange eyes and eyelashes Coleophora amethystinella. This moth was previously confined to a couple of Essex coastal sites and this was the first record within the city.

Suburban Hedgehog numbers have suffered badly, probably because of the relentless arrival of Badgers. In central Cambridge, Dorothea’s Hedgehogs continue to romp through her garden, flattening the pinks with their amorous/avoidance procedures, but the Badgers (and Foxes) get ever nearer, Coleridge College being the latest site to report them and a total of known 12 setts in the city (Duncan).

Orchids have been variable, but there were spectacular displays of White Helleborine during Covid.  A Bee Orchid appeared out of nowhere on Simon’s neglected ‘lawn’ but have been hard to find in the usual places this year (Gleb).  

Rhona (Jesus College) has been a regular contributor and her latest sightings include a visiting Roe Deer, 6 Fox Cubs and a couple of Honeybee swarms. Jonathan found Phanacis hypochoeridis, a gall wasp that causes a gall on Common Cat’s-ear, at the British Antarctic Survey – there were no previous NBN records for Cambridgeshire. 

Roe Deer Jesus College Rhona Watson

This account would not be complete without the latest of Paul’s findings.  At the time of writing his section of our book, the overall garden species count stood at 744 but the 1000 mark was reached in June and the latest count is 1050 including 757 invertebrates. Ornithomya avicularia was found clinging to the trunk of a Sycamore tree. It is one of the larger louse flies (Hipposideridae) and more likely to be found on their hosts (pigeons and thrushes) than flying free. They are strange flies in that instead of laying eggs, the females give birth to a single offspring at a time. 

He also took the picture of the male Mayfly, whose eyes were at the beginning of this blog.  This is an insect which spends up to 2 years underwater as a larva, then emerges, moults, mates and flies for only a couple of hours before dying.  Why would it need such elaborate vision, with 2 pairs of compound eyes as well as central simple eyes? Perhaps to spot the overhead females? Well done if you could identify it.

One final thing to mention that has come out of the NatHistCam Project: Duncan is busy propagating resistant Elms, experimenting with hardwood and softwood cuttings to try and create some new trees from the 6 resistant elms we found in Cambridge. He reports good success with hardwood cuttings, and hopes to produce hundreds of these trees to re-establish resistant elms in the city. 

Resistant Elm Cuttings Duncan Mackay

There will be one more blog in June, so please send me your best observations this month. If you have not yet ordered your copy of the Book Nature in Cambridge, there may still be time to get it at the reduced pre-publication price as it is still advertised at

Olwen Williams