The recent planting of the new wood out on the Oakington road set me thinking about the Histon wood (the one on the Girton footpath next to the guided busway) that we helped to plant way back in 1993.
It was a bitter December day, one of those cold, grey days when the horizontal sleet cuts right through you. The field was ploughed bare and muddy, and the trees were short bare-rooted sticks that, quite frankly, looked decidedly unpromising. As we stuck them into the mud it required something of a leap of faith to imagine that one day the field would be a ‘real’ wood!
As spring came round we watched excitedly as our sticks grew leaves. The following summer was dry, and we worried that the saplings would succumb to drought, but they survived and grew (in retrospect we decided that the lack of water actually made the tiny trees stronger, as they put down deep roots in search of water).
Over the years we’ve watched ‘our’ wood grow and flourish. The trees are a mixture of species: oak, ash, alder, field maple, wild cherry, birch and hawthorn, with wild roses and guelder rose mixed in. The wood is particularly beautiful in spring and early summer, resplendent with blossom and fresh green leaves, but it’s worth a visit any time of year.
In the winter the wood is visited by roving flocks of tits and finches, and jays searching for acorns to eat, while the oak trees and rose bushes bear the signs of insect life in the shape of marble and spangle galls, and Robin’s Pincushion galls (all formed as a result of the activities of various species of gall wasp). Spring brings migrant warblers to the wood: chiffchaffs, willow warblers, blackcaps, and whitethroats, filling the wood with song, while the froth of hawthorn blossom attracts insects galore. Summer is a lush and lazy time, sleepy and green, when the trees cast welcome shade, and early visitors may spot a fox or muntjac deer. In the autumn the wood displays bright colours – maple leaves in all shades of yellows, oranges and reds, oaks in browns, coppers and russets, and hawthorn and guelder rose berries and rose hips in a variety of startling bright reds. At any time of year you may spot a black squirrel, a kestrel or a sparrowhawk.
Walking through the wood today, the trees meet over my head. It feels like a ‘real’ wood now that I can walk through it rather than being able to look over it, and it seems all the more special and beautiful to me because I can remember how it started.
Some day very soon I’m going to take a walk out to the new wood on the Impington road, stand in the middle of it, and let my imagination wander forwards to the day that it, too, will be tall and green and full of wildlife.
Red, grey – and now black. Just exactly what is going on with our squirrels?
I’m sure that many people are aware that here in Cambridgeshire our native red squirrel was replaced long ago by the grey squirrel, an American species (grey squirrels were introduced from America in 1892 and quickly spread; by 1958 there were no longer any red squirrels in Cambridgeshire). However, in the woods and gardens around Histon and Impington there is another shade of squirrel to be seen: black. And they may be taking over.
You may be forgiven for thinking that the black squirrel is a new species – it certainly looks strikingly different from our ‘normal’ squirrels. However, that is not the case: the black squirrels are actually a colour variant of the grey. The normal grey colour is a result of a balance between two versions of the pigment melanin, a darker one and a lighter one. In the black squirrels, a genetic mutation causes overproduction of the darker pigment, resulting in the black coat colour. This mutation is dominant, which means that any squirrel that inherits a copy of the mutated gene from either parent will be black, with squirrels inheriting a copy from both parents being a particularly deep, glossy black.
There has been some speculation about the origin of the black squirrels here in the UK. The first black squirrels were spotted on the outskirts of Letchworth as long ago as 1912, and since then they have spread northwards and eastwards, reaching Cambridge in the 1990s. Initially scientists thought that the black mutation had occurred here in the UK; however, more recently, examination of the gene involved has shown that the mutation matches that found in black squirrels in the United States. This suggests that the black mutation was introduced into the UK population by American black squirrels that escaped from zoos.
Whatever the origin of the colouring, the black squirrel is here to stay, and it’s spreading. Again, it’s somewhat unclear why this is so. It’s hard to see how the black colour gives any survival advantage over being grey, unless perhaps their dark colour allows them to absorb more sunlight in winter and therefore stay warmer and thus need less food. There are also many reports of black squirrels being more aggressive than grey ones, perhaps because their genetic mutation also means that they produce more testosterone than greys, and are therefore able to out-compete them for resources such as food.
Perhaps one day all our squirrels will be black, but until then, keep an eye out for them (Girton is a hotspot, and I’ve seen them many times in Histon wood and the Coppice) – they are, after all, an interesting local speciality!
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Imagine a bright afternoon in early Spring. Outside my garden gate, parents are gathering to collect their children from school. Cars are pulling up. Younger brothers and sisters are racing around and yelling loudly. I’m in my kitchen, pottering around whilst waiting for my own children to come in from school, when I suddenly hear a loud ‘thump’ at my kitchen window. Rushing to look out, I see the most amazing and surprising sight: a female sparrowhawk, plump blackbird in her talons, looking up at me from the patio just outside the window. For a few breathtaking seconds she stares at me, fierce yellow eye glaring, and then she’s off across the lawn, fast and low, carrying her prey. She settles under the bushes by the barbeque and starts tearing into her meal, seemingly oblivious to the shrieking children just the other side of the garden wall. When my children come chattering up the drive she picks up the blackbird and slips away over the garden wall to continue her dinner somewhere more peaceful.
Imagine another scene, a few years ago, in Saffron Road. It’s about 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning and broad daylight, with a thin layer of snow on the ground, and two men working under the bonnet of a car in the British Legion car park. Glancing out of the window I spot a big dog fox emerging from under a garden fence. He trots nonchalantly round the front of the Legion, ignoring the two mechanics completely, slips through a gap in the hedge, and saunters up the garden. He’s clearly on his way somewhere but is in no particular hurry. When I follow his tracks later I see that he stopped for a sniff around the pond edge before continuing on his leisurely way through into our neighbour’s garden.
These were two truly wild encounters in the very heart of the village, and two reminders that this isn’t just our place. We share our village with some amazing wild creatures who make their way alongside us, fitting themselves into the spaces we leave around us, and carrying on their daily business at the edges of our lives. Often they go unnoticed - these were two occasions when I had the good fortune to be in the right place, looking the right way, at the right moment, but how often had these things happened when I wasn’t looking? The fox was clearly on familiar and comfortable ground, and mine isn’t the only garden with a good supply of plump and tasty blackbirds attractive to a sparrowhawk, so it’s unlikely that the two events I witnessed were in any way unique or even particularly unusual.
It’s all too easy to sit and watch wildlife programmes on the television that have been made in exotic locations, and to forget that this stuff is happening right here, too, in our own neighbourhood, on our own streets and in our own gardens. If you stay alert, be aware, and keep looking, then who knows what you might spot on your own front doorstep?
My mother-in-law and I do this thing where we count how many species of wildflower we see when we go on walks throughout the year. Yesterday's total was two - speedwell and dandelion - and I had to search pretty hard for those. However there are catkins now - both alder and hazel - and the pussy willow is starting to break out, so things are starting to move.
Interesting to note that the blackthorn blossom-to-be is still tiny hard buds. Looking back at my photos from previous years, I see that on the 8th March two years ago the blackthorn by the 'new' wood was a riot of blossom, whereas this year the same bushes still look almost like bare twigs at the moment.
One of the best things about travelling is getting a glimpse of somebody else's neighbourhood nature. We spent the last week in Val Thorens, in the French Alps, and these guys were daily visitors to our balcony (encouraged by a few kitchen scraps). They're Alpine Choughs, talkative characters who are master aeronauts, and some of my favourite birds. Over the past few years I've spent literally hours watching them while the rest of the family ski, and they still amaze and entertain me. Well worth the journey.
Beautiful as a snow-covered Histon and Impington might be, I'm sure I'm not the only one who's had enough of the white stuff for the time being - the snow has certainly had a big effect on all our lives. But what effect has the snow had on our local wildlife?
One of the most noticeable - and notable - effects of the hard weather has been to bring some interesting new visitors into our gardens here in the village, in the shape of fieldfares and redwings. These two species, relatives of our blackbirds and thrushes, are winter visitors to the UK, flying in from the north at the same time as our summer visitors take their leave and head south to warmer countries. Although these are not uncommon birds - an estimated 680 000 fieldfares and 650 000 redwings visit the UK every winter - they rarely visit gardens, preferring to forage in woodland or in farmland fields and hedgerows.
However, this winter has been different. Figures from the ongoing British Trust for Ornithology Garden Birdwatch project show that, compared with the previous four winters, January 2010 saw a substantial increase in the occurrence of these birds in the gardens surveyed. Difficulties in finding food under the snow and ice drove the birds to seek food in places they would normally avoid, and as a result fieldfares and redwings were recorded in about one third of gardens instead of the more usual one in ten. The hard weather brought them into closer proximity than normal with human beings, giving us a chance to see these beautiful birds in our own backyards.
So have you spotted them? The fieldfare is a large and striking bird, about the size of a mistle thrush, with a bright yellow bill, boldly spotted breast, and a slate-gray head and back. They've been particularly noticeable this winter in crab apple trees around the village, where they've even been holding territories and seeing off the blackbirds who more usually exploit this food source. Windfall apples have also been a popular fieldfare food source in gardens.
The redwing is a smaller bird, about the size of a song thrush, with a spotted breast, a marked eye-stripe, and bright red patches visible under the wings. I personally saw them throughout the village during the snowy weather, and enjoyed some particularly good views of a small group feeding in the rowan trees outside the Histon library one morning - a reminder that you never know what you'll see when you head out of the door on even the most mundane shopping trip.
These are birds that spend their summers in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, who travel south to us to escape the harsh, cold conditions of winter in their breeding areas. One has to wonder what they make of the snowy and icy conditions we've been experiencing here!
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When I went looking for signs of life in the woods last week it seems I was looking in totally the wrong place. I should have been looking in my own back garden, in our pond where the marsh marigold has pushed its first green arrows up through the ice.
We put the pond in in 2007. It was always intended to be a wildlife pond, but our choice of location was governed by the need to put it somewhere where it wouldn't continually swallow footballs. Hence it ended up in the vegetable garden, restricted to quite a small diameter by the space available.
We really weren't sure what it would attract, given its site and size, but received wisdom is that any pond is good for wildlife, so we gave it a go. We planted it with native pond plants - marsh marigold, water mint, spearwort, veronica, yellow flag and some oxygenators - and a non-wild water lily that is too big for the pond but was bought from a garden gate plant stall for 50p by my son on his way home from the swimming pool one day. Then we waited to see what happened.
The pond has been truly amazing. It has attracted a wide variety of invertebrate life, including a crazy number of breeding damselflies, and we've had frogs and even toadpoles in it. In the summer it's a major distraction - always something interesting to look at. A fantastic addition to the garden.
The photos below show the progress of the pond from when we started to dig it in 2007 to last year when it really began to need a good clearout - a job for this Spring, I think.
Out to the 'new' Histon wood this morning, on a day of flat light, white sky, and almost no breeze. I was looking for some green shoots of Spring, but they were conspicuous in their absence. Everything seemed dead or dormant, so I turned my attention to signs of past life on the oak trees in the wood.
The variation between the oak trees is amazing. They were all planted at the same time, all as 12-inch bare-rooted sticks. Now they not only differ widely in both height and shape, but also in their foliage. Some have lost all their leaves, while others are still clothed in an almost full complement of dried leaves. The leaves differ between trees, too. Some trees bear small leaves, and some large. On some the leaves are narrow, on others broad. Even the colours differ, ranging from pale fawn to a rich russet.
On each tree, if you look closely, there are signs of life.
Many of the trees bear these galls - I've always called them oak apples, but apparently they're Marble Galls, product of the gall wasp Andricus kollari.
These galls - the Common Spangle Gall (top photo) and the Silk Button Spangle Gall (lower photo) are caused by two species of Cynipid wasp which have complicated two-stage life cycles. Males and females hatch from Currant Galls formed on oak flowers. The females lay their eggs on oak leaves, and the grubs cause the creation of the galls shown here. When the grubs mature and become adult, the whole generation consists of females who lay their eggs on oak flowers to start the cycle all over again.
Many of the oak trees carry these galls (seen here with bonus ladybirds!) which look just like the Robin's Pincushion galls on the neighbouring wild roses. I haven't been able to find any reference in the literature to oaks bearing Bedeguar galls, but that's what these appear to be.
A few of the leaves show leaf miner activity.
Some of the leaves have obviously served as a home for something - see the turned-over edge of the leaf here, stuck down with silk. They're empty now, but they probably held a larva of some sort once upon a time.
This week has been very frustrating indeed - when the weather has been reasonable, I've been working, and when I've been free to go wandering, it's been too wet to take the camera along.
I read in the local paper yesterday that the recent cold weather means that the snowdrops are about 2 weeks behind this year. I can well believe that. I have noticed that the birds are starting to sing, though, and it's lovely to hear.
Staying indoors out of the rain means that I spend more time surfing the net and looking at other people's blogs. I particularly enjoyed this post from the lovely Suse in Melbourne, Australia - a glimpse of someone else's backyard birds, with a bonus recording of what the birdsong in her back yard sounds like (scroll down her post to find it). It sounds very exotic to me, and I'm quite jealous.
Now that Christmas has come and gone, it’s time to start thinking about working off some of those Christmas excesses. What better way than with a walk in the countryside, offering fresh air, exercise, and the chance to spot some interesting wildlife along the way?
A favourite local walk of mine is across the fields to Girton and back, starting and ending where the Girton footpath crosses the Guided Busway. These days we have a choice of route, but my favourite is the left-hand path: the one that goes from the Histon wood through the Girton wood and up the side of the fields to the back of Girton Rec. I often see muntjac deer here, and foxes. Birds to watch out for in the woods include sparrowhawks, kestrels, and large mixed flocks of tits and finches, while winter-visiting redwings feed on the fields and fieldfares love the crab apples on the tree in Girton churchyard. If you return via the original Girton footpath, you may see pheasants and even a black squirrel near to the farm at the Girton end of the path, and rabbits in the pony fields at the Histon end. The total distance is 2 – 3 miles, depending on how much you wander en route.
Looking further afield, Milton Country Park offers a good winter walk, with the added bonus of an adventure playground for the children. The Country Park is a good place to see muntjac, while the gravel pits hold a variety of wintering wildfowl, such as gadwall and grebes, with always the chance of a kingfisher or something more unusual. The tall trees near the playground often hold a woodpecker or two, while the crab apple trees near the visitors centre attract thrushes and blackbirds. A trip up to the viewing deck behind the centre affords good views of tits, finches and squirrels visiting the bird feeding station. The park contains over 2 miles of paths, and longer walks are possible if you leave the park by the back entrance and walking down to Baits Bite lock on the River Cam. Park in the Country Park car park (access from the roundabout by Tesco) for a cost of £2, or go green and cycle over via Butt Lane and the footbridge over the A10 by the Park and Ride.
For a longer walk, I recommend a trip to Thetford Forest, parking at Brandon Country Park (entrance on the B1106 just south of Brandon). A number of colour-coded walks of varying lengths (1.25, 3.5 and 6 miles) start and finish from the car park, passing through pine forest, mixed woodland and Breckland heath areas. Take time before or after your walk to watch the busy bird feeders outside the visitor’s centre, which attract woodland species such as coal tits and nuthatches. The visitor’s centre also houses a tearoom offering drinks, light meals and snacks – very welcome after a bracing winter walk.
These are just three of my favourite winter walks. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
Although it was cold and snowy in North Wales when we were there at New Year, there was evidence of the milder maritime climate normally experienced by the Lleyn Peninsula. Most notable were the daffodil shoots coming up - not so much as a tip showing here in Cambridge, but good 5 or 6 cm showing up there.
These shots are from a walk on the 2nd of January along an old oak-lined trackway called Lôn Goed, which runs from inland to the coast near Criccieth. Best feature of the walk was the amount of gorse flowering along the trackway - even brighter than usual against the snow.