Girton Birdwatch - August 2012
I couldn't believe my eyes when a report on the Cambridge Bird Club web-site for 9th June seemed to indicate that a Storm Petrel had been present at the RSPB's Fen Drayton Lakes Reserve. Surely not, I thought, this being a bird I'd only come across once, in July 1982, when bobbing about in a small boat a long way off the Isles of Scilly. The Western Approaches to the English Channel or the Irish Sea are where one expects to find this little sea bird at this time of year and not in land-locked Cambridgeshire, if one manages to find it at all. Although the storm petrel is one of the commoner birds breeding in Britain and Ireland it is also one of the least known, least observed species. The last population estimate of 160,000 pairs must be considered inspired guess-work as the whereabouts of nesting colonies are little understood, the known sites are mainly on small, often inaccessible, off-shore islands, while the breeding birds themselves are nocturnal and consequently extremely difficult to count. We are probably more familiar nowadays, because of recent television programmes, with the burrow- nesting shearwater, but less acquainted with the petrel which will often attempt to share the shearwater's burrows or those of puffins and rabbits, sometimes with dire consequences for this small bird. And it is small, not much larger than a house martin, which some people think it resembles as it flutters above the sea picking up small morsels of food (it's a very dark bird with a distinct white rump, pale wing bar and a square-ended tail). It's able to nest in tiny underground cavities, with entrances barely two inches in diameter. The harsh purring underground song it can afford to make - punctuated by an abrupt 'chikka' note - has been likened by one authority to 'a fairy being sick'.
The way in which the storm petrel seeks its food, hovering just above the sea surface with legs dangling, apparently walking on water, has been suggested to explain its family name and to indicate an association with St. Peter, who allegedly also walked on water. However, W.B.Lockwood, an expert on British bird names, believes petrel is a corruption of 'pitteral', itself an echo of the pitter-patter of its feet upon the sea surface, with the link with St Peter being a later invention.
The name that I associate with the storm petrel - and one I always hope will come up in a pub quiz - is 'Mother Cary's chicken'. This strange name was supposed to have been used by a 19th century boat crew in 'honour' of a particularly evil old woman or witch with the same name (interestingly the name 'witch' is another old name for the bird). Other people have suggested that it is a corruption of Mater cara, 'Dear Mother', a name for the blessed Virgin, into whose care sailors' lives were thought to be entrusted. Lockwood rejects both explanations in favour of another theory that there was a traditional unrecorded name for the bird, 'Mother Mary's chicken', and that superstitious sailors, afraid of the bird's status as a harbinger of doom, deliberately modified this to Mother Cary's chicken.
It is appropriate that the storm petrel should turn up in Cambridgeshire, given the atrocious weather conditions we have been experiencing. The superstitions that once surrounded the bird had a basis in reality because petrels were and are genuinely associated with rough sea conditions and they came to be accepted as signs that bad weather was on its way or, more widely, that they were bringers of general misfortune. No doubt the gales that have raged in the West and battered those shores played a significant part in blowing the bird overland to us.
Cambridgeshire also seems to have played host to more than its fair share of crossbills in recent months. This is a dumpy and rather large-headed finch with a short, forked tail and crossed mandibles which it uses to ease the seeds out of pine cones. They are notable for showing one of the most marked sexual dimorphisms in that the male is a rusty red while the female is greenish yellow. Their favourite habitat is coniferous woodland, especially spruce forests or plantations, and a visit to Thetford Forest is sure to yield a few, unless you're me that is, for a trip a few years ago to view goshawks and crossbills ended in abject failure. June saw a flock of c20 passing over north Cambridge and sightings have been coming in throughout July of birds at Grafham Water, Paxton Pits and Fen Drayton, to name but a few relatively local sites.
I was pleased to see a single wild orchid growing in Girton Wood in June - a Common Spotted I think - and shall be looking for it in seasons to come.