End of the year at RSPB Ouse Fen

We got wind of Bramblings and Smews in Needingworth, so took a 5-6 mile stroll around RSPB Ouse Fen (Needingworth side and across to the Ouse and back to the car park via the outskirts of Hanson) to see what we could see. No Bramblings nor any Smews.

But, quite a few other bird species evident approximately 42 and we heard (but didn’t see) Green Woodpecker, Wren, Robin, and Jay too.

Fairly common birds you can see in many places across the UK:
Mute Swan
Collared Dove
Stock Dove
Greylag Goose
Black-headed Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Long-tailed Tit
Meadow Pipit

Other birds found or near water:

Black-tailed Godwit
Tufted Duck
Little Egret
Great White Egret
Grey Heron
Shoveler Duck
Great Crested Grebe
Little Grebe
Egyptian Goose
Reed Bunting

Cormorants, Shovelers, and Mallards

Marsh Harrier

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon, seems to be in a location I wouldn’t expected to have seen it over open countryside and water-filled lagoons.

Winter thrushes:

Black-tailed Godwit – White wing bars, far away from saltwater (so not Bar-tailed)
Flock of Lapwing, several thousand seen over the course of the day at RSPB Ouse Fen
Great White Egret coming into land


Wavy clouds

Not seen this type of cloud for a while. They’re called Kelvin-Helmholtz wave clouds and are named for two of the godfathers of nineteenth century science.

This form of cloud appears between two layers of air of different densities, travelling at different speeds. If a warm, less dense layer lies above a layer of colder, denser air, and the wind shear across the two layers is strong enough, eddies will develop along the boundary. This gives the cloud an obvious rolling waves appearance, hence their other name “shear-gravity waves”.

Street buskers

Some people love Christmas shopping. The noise, the trip hazards, the bustle of the streets, the jostling of the crowds. The vague hope of grabbing some old tat to wrap up before the shops knock the Xmas price down in the New Year Sales in the desperate hope of offloading Yule gifts that are way past their sell-by-date come late Christmas Eve.

Well, as perhaps gather from the tone of that introduction, I’m not particularly keen on shopping, Christmas or otherwise…I did venture into town yesterday and made a few desultory purchases under the contractual obligations of the festive season. However, one thing that makes any shopping trip far more bearable is a chance encounter with people with whom you might well not otherwise encounter.

Yesterday, for instance, I chatted with sitar-playing busker Paul who takes his Saker Peregrine with him everywhere he goes around town and as charming and engaging a chap you are unlikely to meet. Read my blog story about that hybrid raptor, which goes by the name of Daffy, because she makes a peculiar quacking noise.

Having chatted at length with Paul about his former employ as a pest-bird-controller on a rubbish dump in partnership with Daffy, I turned a few corners, did a smidgeon more Christmas shopping, and ended up wandering up King’s Parade on the off-chance that the Cambridge wild Peregrines were about. As I’ve discussed previously, the city has a pair that nest on one of the taller buildings in town. They also shuttle their time between King’s College Chapel and the university library, caching their kills on the towers, turrets and rooftops.

As luck would have it, as I arrived, the local pigeon population was in a frenzy, whirling in flocks around the rooftops and for good reason, both Peregrines were about. I didn’t see either stoop on any of the pigeons but they did eventually alight on a chapel turret momentarily before a vigorous altercation saw them flap away and head for their nest site further south.

Intriguingly, from the blogging point of view, I usually see several hundred visitors, if not thousands, to the more popular posts within a day or so of posting. This tale of Paul and his Peregrine, of the wild Cambridge Peregrine pair, and other aspects of the shopping trip seem not to have attracted quite as much attention, just 300 or so readers so far. I wonder why. Maybe everyone else was out shopping too…

I did bump into at least one friend, she and the friends she was with were impressed to see the Peregrines, but they wouldn’t have bumped the visitor numbers significantly either. Nor would the Jehovah’s Witnesses Tanya and James who were touting for godly business in front of King’s Chapel while I attempted to photograph the birds. Interestingly, they recognised the birds as Peregrines and were interested to hear more about them. The students and tourists who waltzed past and were taken in by the punt touts didn’t seem to ever even look to the skies. Strange world where shopping is more interesting than nature, maybe it’s just me…

Bohemian Like You Waxwings

UPDATE: I still don’t know if the influx is considered an irruption, but I am yet to see any BWs this season. There are new reports of some lovely scenic places as always with berry-eating birds around: Xercise4less/Sainsbury’s – Wakefield (W Yorks), McDonalds/Shaw Lane Ind Est – Doncaster, Neil Lane Estate – Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Boat club at Pennington Flash, Leuchars Railway Signal Box North, Aldi car park, Hessle, Flitwick Baptist Church, Wilko, Mansfield, Sainsburys, Halifax. There has even been one seen on a nature reserve! The Plens NR in Northamptonshire.

Incidentally, the reason they’re known as “Bohemian” is purportedly with an allusion to their being nomadic, like the Romani. Of course, the word Bohemian was meant to be the place of origin of the Romani, but that is not the case.

The list grows…are we in the middle of a Waxwing irruption? Whether we are or not the three places I’ve tried to see them in as many days (Cambridge Road (the A10), Stretham, Cambridge Science Park, and at two old hawthorn trees at the junction of Rosemary and Dellwood Avenue in Felixstowe have not come up trumps.

Recent sightings in those most boho of places, the MacDonald’s car park in Blaydon, Sainsbury’s Middlesbrough, Grinkle Lane (Easington), Stockbridge Market in Edinburgh, Clifford’s Tower, York.

First time I saw Bohemian Waxwings  (Bombycilla garrulus), a flock of 80 or so were in trees at the parking area on the Cambridge Science Park. I heard their unmistakable tweeting first but didn’t catch a photo before they flocked off down Milton Road. After that, I kept my ear to the air (well the UK Waxwings twitter feed) in the hope of more sightings as the winter went on. Never did see them again to photograph…

…until we were visiting Newcastle and I heard that there were apparently a dozen or so in berry-rich trees opposite St Bartholomew’s Church in Long Benton. The trees are in the gardens of the houses opposite the church…at the bus stop.


What is it with Waxwings, other birds you hear about and fancy twitching tend to be on nature reserves, remote hillsides, far-off stretches of coast? But, the Waxwings, which head South from Scandinavia, Iceland, and Scotland seem to congregate in the most mundane of environments: an Aldi car park, a bus stop, the perimeter of a business park, a closed campsite, a B&Q car park, a Lidl car park, a Tesco car park…you get the picture.

Well, escapes the colder climes when the going gets tough up north, and seeks our berry-laden trees. High concentrations of such trees are often to be found in the islands between parking spaces and decorating the periphery of garden centres, and such, so that’s where the birds congregate. It makes twitching them so much easier, as long as you’re willing to hang around with a long lens or bins at Morrison’s or Sainsbury’s while everyone else carries on with their shopping oblivious to the charming aves in their midst.


Case in point are the recent winter 2018/2019 sightings that have begun to be mentioned on the UK Waxwings twitter feed:

Dundee Street, Edinburgh, rowan trees just west of Fountain Park

Wrens Kitchens/Asda at the Chester Greyhound Retail Park

Tesco Roundabout, Calder Road by the junction with Westerhailes Road, Edinburgh

Home Bargains car park, Nelson, Lancashire

Kingsway East/Cutty Sark Pub/Asda, Dundee


Incidentally, although we saw one last winter, haven’t seen any this far south yet, and it may not happen. There are suggestions from some experts that we are actually overdue an irruption, however, so fingers crossed.

A Peregrine for a King

UPDATE: Katie, known as bogbumper on social media asked me for more information about the ringed Peregrine in my photos. Unfortunately, I had none. But, she investigated further and discovered that the ringed bird I snapped over King’s College Chapel had come to Cambridge from Belgium, where it was originally ringed at a nesting site in May 2017. Details can be found on the BTO site, this isn’t the only Belgian Peregrine to reach our shores, as you can see. My photo will now be assimilated into the BTO database for the entry on this bird. #CitizenScience.

When (if) you ever stop to chat with the people on a city’s streets, the homeless, the buskers, you will often hear sorry tales of woe, but also great joy. Give someone the time of day and they will tell their tale and you will feel the richer for having listened and for having heard it.

Paul is one such character walking the streets of Cambridge in his brown leather porkpie hat, waterproof jacket, Xmas jumper, and baggy grey pantaloons. He pulls along behind his bicycle a metal trailer the contents of which you might be surprised to learn are a sitar, a music stand, and a perch for his Saker Peregrine falcon hybrid, Daffy. So named because she makes a quacking sound, the facially hirsute Paul told me.

Mrs Sciencebase had spotted Paul with his Peregrine on a previous visit to Cambridge, but it was just by chance that I saw him in between my loafing around outside shop doorways while Christmas shopping was being done. I spoke to Paul and inquired about the raptor. Apparently, the bird is 20 years old, is well trained and jessed up, and Paul used to use Daffy in his job in pest-bird control on a waste dump for 22 years. Until redundancy made him and Daffy…well…redundant. He presumably had another bird before that or was just confused about the chronology. Never mind.

He was very much into his music and took to busking with Daffy alongside to try and pay his way. I don’t imagine there was much of a golden handshake from the dump when he was laid-off. He seemed not in the slightest bit bitter, although when I asked him whether the police ever bothered him, he was quick to point out that they’re simply a corporate entity beholden to the state. They apparently have no real power over him or anyone and the individual officers themselves are also entirely unaware of the smoke and mirrors by which our nation operates without its populace ever understanding.

At this point, a chill wind had picked up around the Monsoon shop corner and Paul was worried that Daffy’s feathers would be somewhat rustled by the breeze. So, I never did get to hear the end of his conspiracy theory nor hear him play his homage to Ravi Shankar.

So, as Paul trundled away up Market Street to find a more sheltered spot, I myself headed up Sidney Street and then back along St John’s Street to King’s Parade on the off-chance that the wild pair of Cambridge Peregrines were at one of their favourite haunts: King’s College Chapel.

Peering skyward as I reached the corner at Great St Mary’s Church, I could see that something was spooking the local stock doves and feral pigeons, they were swooping around the rooftops. A high-pitched squeal, not a quack, could be heard, there was a raptor around. Quickly spotted a female ducking and diving among the Chapel spires and scattering the pigeons and then a second raptor also in and out the turrets until both came to rest, argumentatively on one tower.

They departed heading south to their nearby nesting site and leaving a Magpie who had been hiding in the tall tree in front of the Chapel to nip in and out to the tower and nick scraps from the food cache the Peregrines had presumably made there. I alluded to how all birds had evolved from dinosaurs to Tanya and James who witnessed this and were selling Jehovah to passersby, they were interested to know more about the birds, and admitted to a belief of sorts in evolution…an intriguing nature documentary on the city streets and then back to the Christmas shopping.

Counting Starlings

Watching the Starlings murmurate over Broad Lane balancing pond, I estimated that there were 3-4 large flocks of about 1000 birds each and then maybe a dozen smaller flocks of 50-100. But, then I found an interesting image analysis tool called Dot-Count into which you feed a photo with objects you wish to count that you have made monochrome and boosted the contrast. I used a cropped version of the above photo:

You set a threshold for the smallest object and the largest object (dot) and a threshold for contrast and ask it to “Count Dots”. It reckons there were 1291 “dots” in this image, but a quick look showed it had missed a few overlapping birds. So, let’s just guesstimate there are 1300, so my 1000 guess wasn’t too far off.

Three or four similarly sized flocks were wheeling around the sky at the time as well as those smaller ones. I reckon the Broad Lane reedbed roost is host to a staggering 4000-5000 Starlings each night.

Interestingly, the Dot-Count page at the Reuter Laboratory at MIT, uses Starlings as one of its examples. The first photo they show has roughly the density of my flock and a count of 800, so same ballpark figure. They reckon you can count lots of other types of object in a photo as long as they’re non-contiguous and you can increase the contrast sufficiently to allow the software to do its job: windows on a skyscraper, eggs in a basket, nanoparticles and neurons, freckles on a face etc. Presumably, you could even use it for counting crows…

In case you missed it, you can watch my documentary about the Cottenham Murmurations narrated by Sir David Attenbradley here.

Sun rise, sun set

Although we in the Northern hemisphere are fast approaching the Winter Solstice and the feeling of the nights drawing out again. There is a seeming paradox that for a few days more sunrise will continue to get later in the day although sunset will be nudged back ever so slightly.

Indeed, as I write this, there is light in the South-eastern sky, it’s 07h40 but sunrise does not occur until 08h04. Sunset will happen at 15h47 with those starling murmurations taking place hopefully during the 30 minutes or so around that time.

The Solstice occurs on the 21st December at22h22. On that day, sunrise will be two minutes later than today, and sunset will be at 15h48. Giving us the shortest day. However, sunrise will continue to get later for several days after. On New Year’s Eve, it will be 08h08, but sunset will also be a little later at 15h56 and the daytime consequently ever so slightly longer.

Across the Northern Hemisphere, the earliest sunset always occurs a few days before the Winter Solstice and the latest sunrise several days after. This seeming paradox is simply an artefact of the way we set the calendar and our time-keeping methods and the fact that the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is an ellipse not a circle, so time measured by watching a sundial varies throughout the year when compared to the time set by your mobile phone. The solar day near the Winter Solstice is in fact more than 24 hours. Whereas our clocks keep it as close to 24.00.00 as possible…


Christmas Songs

Christmas songs, you say? Well, not quite, but I have written and recorded a few seasonally inspired songs over the years, just not the usual jingle bells stock though.

Seasons of Love, Christmas Present, It’s Never Too Cold to Snow, Golden Light, Winter Warmer, – on Bandcamp. I sang a few of these at a festive event on Sunday, not entirely sure they were what the audience was hoping for…


The Cumulus Dynasty



from the BBC, the British Bradcasting Corporation


On the southern edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens.

As the sun dips below the horizon, voluptuous clouds skud with the wind across what at first glance appears to be a live action Turner painting, but lacking the bridges and the ships.

Clouds at higher altitude seem static and yet we know they too are moving gently as the wind picks up their fluffy forms and buffets them across the sky.

As the clouds darken and others catch the last glow of the sun’s burning ember we begin to wonder. Why has the British Bradcasting Corporation hired a narrator for this particular sequence. It is one of nature’s great mysteries. Unlocking those mysteries is my forte and yet sitting in this sound both with the apparently endless video stream of those clouds one struggles to find a key.

There are no Great White Sharks here, no Orca waking a seal from its lullaby, nor Cleesiastical herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the Serengeti. This is no secret life of plants, not Blue Planet, although admittedly there were a few patches of blue in the sky earlier in the day.

But, now, as the sun dips below the horizon once again, we begin to nod off, dreaming of an end to this episode or perhaps something startling to appear on that very horizon. A Gold Eagle, or even just a Kestrel would do. Perhaps a great flock CGI pterodactyls, but no, it’s just clouds. Cloud after cloud after blinking cloud.

And then just as we begin to nod off, another bloody cloud. When will it end? When will they finally let me retire? Maybe this is purgatory, maybe I’ve actually died and am now trapped in some kind of televisual limbo awaiting the eternal fate of my immortal soul. But, as I told you on Desert Island Discs, I don’t believe in any of that claptrap. Give me oblivion any day. Anything but these bloody clouds…


EPISODE 1: I Heard a Murmur
EPISODE 2: Goldfinch Dynasty
EPISODE 3: Young People’s Beat Combo
EPISODE 4: The Cumulus Dynasty