Sunday, 24 January 2010

Signs of life

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.

Friday, 22 January 2010


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.

Roll on Spring, I say!

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Article for village newspaper, January 2010

Winter Wildlife Walks

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!

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Lôn Goed

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.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Llanbedrog beach

One of the things I regret about living here in Cambridge is being so far from the sea. I love the sea, I love the sound and the smell of it, and I love walking along a beach and never quite knowing what I'll find.

For my birthday at the end of December we visited one of my favourite beaches, at Llanbedrog, near Pwllhelli on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales. It's not the most beautiful beach from a picture-postcard perspective, but it has mermaid's purses, oversized whelk shells, and a technicolour range of pebbles derived from a wide variety of rocks. This year it also had oystercatchers, some very confiding turnstones, and a magnificent view of a snow-covered Snowdon.

We picnicked in the sunshine and pottered along the beach. A pretty good way to spend a birthday (even if it was a cold one!).