Girton Birdwatch - October 2012
Things are starting to warm up on the bird front in Girton - or should I say cool down. Probably the most obvious sign of approaching autumn is that the skies over the Rec are filled with migrating swallows and house martins, the swifts are long gone. At a time of year when most birds are relatively quiet the excited twittering of the hirundines as they stock up on insects makes a refreshing change. The combine harvesters were out on the fields behind the High Street and as a consequence villagers were able to view as many as ten common buzzards circling high over their houses as the raptors searched for the squashed mammals, insects and birds disturbed by the farmer's seasonal activity. It was gratifying to learn that tawny owls had been regularly heard calling to one another at this end of the village (the distinctive 'tu whit tu woo' is always two birds). We always used to hear them when we lived in Thornton Road but, since the residents of the church tower were evicted, we seldom hear them in this area now. Villagers will no doubt remember the tawny owl which was always to be found roosting in the large holm oak fronting what used to be the Leakey's house.
Back on the Rec the approaching autumn brought a pair of spotted flycatchers which stayed for a few days before continuing their journey south. I've written about this bird before; it's one of my favourites. It is a muted-coloured - some might say 'dull' - bird, but one which is unmistakable, even from a distance, in its insect-catching activities: back and forth, back and forth. I don't think it has bred in Girton for over five years now (I hope I'm wrong) for it is one of our long-distance migrants exposed to multiple dangers: pesticides, desertification, climate-change, habitat loss etc. Over the last 25 years it has suffered at least a 75% drop in numbers where once almost every churchyard played host to a pair. Mark Cocker, the famous birder who lives near Claxton, Norfolk, was recently moved to write: 'If it goes completely no human life will end, no human enterprise will fail, and many will not even notice, but when this little pagan deity is gone one irreplaceable shade of colour will pass from our register'.
A little further afield - but still 'local' - on the Ouse Washes, there has been an interesting range of comings and goings. We have been visited by glossy ibis, spoonbills, purple heron, large flocks of the now ubiquitous little egrets (and a great white egret), plus large numbers of gadwall. We seem to be attracting more than our fair share of glossy ibis. It is a bird largely confined to southern Mediterranean and Balkan wetlands but even there is suffering badly from habitat loss. It's an extremely beautiful bird, a bit like a long-legged, all-dark curlew which, in the spring, has a deep rich burgundy upper body and wings glossed with iridescent green and purple. It's still a rare bird in this area, as is the spoonbill. The spoonbill used to be a scarce spring visitor to Britain, with an occasional wintering bird to be found in the South West. However, following a five-fold increase in the Dutch population in the 1980's and '90's, increasing numbers have started to spend the summer here. In 1996 there was a flock of 19 at Minsmere and there have been one or two breeding successes, at undisclosed locations, somewhere in this country. The presence in the Netherlands of formerly thriving colonies of purple heron also seems to be part of the explanation for the small numbers which visit here in the spring and summer. However, they have always been reluctant to cross the Channel and remain rare, if regular, visitors to East Anglia. The purple heron is smaller than the grey but more attractively plumaged, sporting a chestnut and cream neck streaked with narrow vertical black lines. Its slate upper parts are glossed with purple, while its under wings are a dark vinous colour, while its lower mantle is an attractive cinnamon chestnut. Its longer, thinner, neck which, in flight, is held in a snake-like curve gives it, on the ground, a distinctly primitive reptilian appearance.
Finally, and back again to the Rec, autumn is also associated with the late-flowering ivy which provides a plentiful source of nectar for the last of the butterflies and bees, and is therefore also a boon for insect-eating birds. However, it has been the insects which have attracted my attention (the ivy, in autumn, 'can roar with bees as loudly as a lime-tree in July'). Turning the corner from the tennis courts and new cricket nets the other day I was assailed by a cloud of red admiral butterflies which I'd disturbed at their feast. This brilliantly coloured - and large - red, white and black-winged butterfly must surely be one of our most unmistakable and most attractive butterflies. It was once associated primarily with sultry late-summer days and perhaps with orchards littered with rotting wind-fallen apples; a true end-of season phenomenon. It was then almost exclusively a migrant which rarely survived the British winter and was more common some years than others, although there were always some about to brighten the days of declining light and increasing cold. Nowadays, however, and especially over the last ten years with milder winters, it has become a resident and there are few months when it doesn't appear. Its food plant is the stinging nettle so try to leave a few plants in your garden - difficult I know, it's such a brute. I'm off now to tidy up my allotment!