Girton Birdwatch - March 2006
A few weeks ago my wife and I took a trip into the Northamptonshire countryside to visit the Red Kite roost in Rockingham Forest near Corby. If you haven't undertaken this trip yourselves then I can't urge you too strongly to do so. It's an experience you won't forget. I was aware that there was a Kite re-introduction programme in this area but did not know just how hugely successful it had been. Alan Rodger told us exactly where to go and what we might expect to see. (Take the A427 from Oundle to Lower and then Upper Benefield. Turn left after Upper Benefield towards Deenethorpe. There's a bridle path on the right to park, then walk up a slight incline on the main road to - I kid you not - Bum Coppice - and take the footpath on the left. You'll be seeing birds by now!) We visited the site on a crisp Sunday afternoon at about 3.30 pm and were amazed to observe 20 to 30 of the birds either cruising the skies or resting in trees, 4 or 5 to a tree, waiting to enter the nearby woods to roost for the night. We were unfortunate to see 'only' 30 as it is possible to see 50, 60, 70+ at a time. Before this I had counted myself lucky to encounter single birds in the wilds of Wales or the remote French and Spanish countryside.
It will be a long time before any of these birds start over-flying Girton - although Buzzards are now frequent sightings between University Farm and Madingley Ridge - but we can regularly see a more prosaic bird, which we watched the same day and at the same site as the Kites in a flock of over 20 (an increasingly rare occurrence), and that is the Yellowhammer. This is a member of the bunting family, all of them seed-eating birds with short sharp-pointed beaks, which can be seen about the village all-year round. In the breeding season the male is a bright canary-yellow and its song, supposedly meant to resemble 'a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese', is probably, after 'cuckoo', the best-known mnemonic for a British bird song. You can see several of these birds at a time in the hedgerows surrounding the Rec and 10 acre field, but are unlikely to see them in your garden - they are not particularly shy of people but do tend to avoid areas of human habitation. In the past they were perhaps wise to do so as they were sometimes called 'yellow devils' and, in a strange piece of symbolism, associated with evil. They were supposed to have a drop of the Devil's blood on their tongue and their beautifully marked eggs (which led to one old name 'scribble lark') were thought to carry an arcane, possibly demonic, message. Consequently, they were often persecuted. However, what superstition failed to achieve has been more easily accomplished by changes in farm practice and habitat loss, and they have suffered the loss of numbers experienced by other grain-eaters. But at least we have a few left around Girton.
We are also fortunate to harbour limited numbers of another threatened member of the family: the Corn Bunting. A small flock inhabits the fields between here and Histon (where Skylarks may also be found) and, during the recent RSPB survey, one was recorded in the Hiley's garden down Fairway. Indeed, our area - and I'm using the term very loosely - has been relatively kind to the Corn Bunting which has been described as 'the miner's canary of our agricultural environment'. There is quite a large roost at Fowlmere and Paul Donald, in 2004, wrote: 'The patch of country between Potton … and Eltisley still has corn buntings. One of the paradoxes of this species is that although numbers have undoubtedly declined because of agricultural intensification, it still survives in greatest numbers in the tractor-battered Fens'. Not too far down the road from here, of course, is the Hertfordshire town of Buntingford - literally a ford haunted by buntings. The term Bunting was initially used to refer to a plump or thickset person, a term which survives in the nursery rhyme, 'Bye, Baby Bunting' and which captures well the bird's fat, untidy appearance. It is one of our more undistinguished brown birds, a bit like a sparrow but with streaked dull brown plumage. Identification is aided by its unmistakeable 'key-jangling' song. Its lack of glamour in the eyes of many birders may help explain why it was not until the 1930's that one of its main distinguishing characteristics - its polygamy - came to be appreciated. The male can mate and breed with up to 18 females (servicing 6 nests at a time) over the course of a summer, so if it is under threat it's not for want of trying.
Another local bunting is the Reed Bunting; a bird which can also be found on the walk across the fields to Histon. The black-capped male is one of the most striking and easily recognisable birds of British wetlands. It, too, has been known to run a string of nests, each with its own female and brood. It was once confined to reedbeds, wet meadows, the margins of freshwater bodies of almost any size, but is now to be found in a range of settings well away from water, and may sometimes be seen feeding with chaffinches and sparrows at suburban bird-tables. At the end of January (24th-26th) Judith Croasdell had 14 Blackbirds in her garden at once. Any ideas where they all came from? We had one!
Ken Sheard, Ken.sheard2 at ntlworld.com