Girton Birdwatch - April 2007
Probably the most exciting bird to be seen in and around the village in the last couple of weeks (two or three times) was a Peregrine falcon. The Peregrine is a favourite of wild-life programmes, but many people will not have been lucky enough to see it in the wild. It is a powerful, crow-sized falcon which, whether chasing, soaring or just flying by, is appreciated by almost everyone except, perhaps, racing pigeon fanciers. It was the Peregrine's liking for pigeon flesh which was responsible for one period of major decline in their population, during the Second World War. Large numbers were shot because they were believed to pose a threat to the carrier pigeons then being used to inform the British authorities of German submarine movements at a time when radio silence was imposed on spotter planes. The birds were just recovering from this setback when they were hit by an even worse one which I dealt with some time ago i.e. the accumulation in their bodies of the pesticides sprayed on crops and which either killed them outright or made them infertile. By 1962 they were down to about 62 pairs and were extinct over much of their former range, but now they are back up to over 1500 pairs and have returned to many of their traditional and new cliff-top haunts while, and luckily for us, also being attracted to inner city buildings such as office blocks, bridges and churches for nest sites. The Peregrine is claimed to be the fastest creature on earth, reaching over 180 mph when diving, or 'stooping' on its prey.
I have now seen my Hawfinch thanks to Dave Heath and his son, although not, unfortunately, around the village! On Saturday 17th February we left Girton at 7.15 am for Lynford Arboretum, which is just beyond Brandon on the A1065, and by 8am were watching a small flock of 5-6 of the birds feeding in the tops of a Hornbeam tree. Towards the end of our visit we enjoyed a fine view of a single bird, illuminated by bright sunshine, perching at the very top of a pine tree. The arboretum is a lovely place to visit even if you are not interested in birds as it offers many woodland and lake side walks, but is most notable for the birds it attracts. In the space of a few hundred yards we also saw Siskin, Tree Creeper, Goldcrest, Redwing, Longtailed tit, Jay, Bullfinch, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Canada Geese, Little Grebe (dabchick) and Egyptian Goose. The latter - a pinkish-brown bird with large, dark eye patches and huge white wing-flashes - is now accepted (after a wait of over 300 years) as a legitimate member of the 'British List', although previously designated an 'escapee'. It is an ornamental waterfowl from Africa, brought in to embellish land-owners' estates or as part of waterfowl collections. At one point its population was very much East Anglian based but nowadays it has bred on a variety of scattered sites in England and even on Anglesey, Wales. All it needs is a gravel pit or similar stretch of water, short grass for the goslings, and an appropriate nest site. This - like the Shelduck to which it is closely related - may be a hole in a tree, often as much as 80 feet (24m) above the ground, or if such is not available, an old crow or buzzard's nest may be commandeered.
The arboretum is also home to Crossbills, although their numbers are apparently, and mysteriously, declining, as well as the occasional Goshawk. However, the day we were there, the bird attracting all the attention (and all the birders) was the Firecrest. The Firecrest is the same size and shape as the Goldcrest, which may be found around the village, but with slightly brighter plumage, a striped head with white eye-stripe, and a bronze shoulder patch. They are difficult to find as they flit amongst the branches (they are less committed to conifers than Goldcrests and may favour oak, beech and holly; in the arboretum they were to be found (allegedly) in the holly near the 'folly' - although not by us!) often in the company of Goldcrests or Tits. If you want to spot breeding birds then it's essential that you are able to recognise their persistent high-pitched song - my poor hearing means that this is always going to be a problem. The birders that we teamed up with were 'cheating' and playing a tape-recording of the bird hoping to attract a female or angry male; although it was probably a little early for territory defending. Anyway it didn't work! I couldn't even hear the tape-recording!
April will be a time for comings and goings although the world, of course, has gone mad. Increasing numbers of Chiff Chaff and Blackcap have been over-wintering here while the Redwings and Fieldfares have been 'staying at home' and not visiting the village in their usual large numbers. The last Redwing to leave the village, as far as I was aware last year, was 1st April. Swallows were arriving by the middle of the month (they have already been seen in Cambridgeshire: 14th March). A Cuckoo would be welcome and I, for one, would be disappointed if May didn't produce 'our' Spotted Flycatchers.
Ken Sheard, Ken.sheard2 at ntlworld.com