Springwatch in your back garden

UPDATE: Mid-January 2019, we’d been away and the house next door was temporarily empty. We got out of the car, there’s a Goldcrest tweeting away from a bush adjacent to the front garden fence. A first for our garden.

It’s like SpringWatch in our garden sometimes…seen over the years in the garden or overhead: Blackbird, Blackcap, Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Coal Tit, Collared Dove, Dunnock, Fieldfare, Goldcrest, Goldfinch, Great Tit, Green Woodpecker, Greenfinch, Heron, House Sparrow, Jackdaw, Jay, Magpie, Mistle Thrush, Pheasant, Pied Wagtail, Prize Pigeon, Redpoll, Redwing, Robin, Rook, Song Thrush, Sparrowhawk, Starling, Wood Pigeon. Above the garden Black-headed Gull, Buzzard, Great Black-backed Gull, Hobby, House Martin (attempted to nest on house), Kestrel, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Swallow, Swift.

Non-avian vertebrates: Common frog, squirrel (grey and black), hedgehog, “pipistrelle” bat, cat, dog.

Apologies if I didn’t tag everyone…

Bird photos here: https://imagingstorm.co.uk/british-birds

What wildlife do you get in your garden? Leave a comment on the Facebook post.

A vagrant in our midst – Great Reed Warbler

UPDATE: Lee Evans (not that one) told me via the UK Bird ID Facebook group that it is likely this is the same GRW that has been sighted a few times over the last few years. According to CamBirds blog there was one at Paxton Pits in 2016, one at Eldernell (RSPB Nene Washes) in 2014. Life expectancy for this species is 1-5 years. So it could be the same male.

If you’re a birder in or around Cambridge, you will know via CamBirds, social media, word-of-mouth and other information routes that there is a vagrant in our midst. He’s been here since about the 15th June and is still posturing and shouting just outside the village of Fen Drayton. We have to assume he’s lost, as he is usually only to be found on mainland Europe and Asia and spends his winters swanning around sub-Saharan Africa. That said, climate change, changes in farming practices, and other environmental concerns are already disrupting bird behaviour, so who knows?

He is a Great Reed Warbler and has been showing well on the southern edge reed beds of Elney Lake at RSPB Fen Drayton.

Acrocephalus arundinaceus to give him his scientific name is the biggest of the diffuse group of birds we call the European warblers. His calling and posturing for a mate are most likely to be entirely in vain as it is very unlikely that a female will have accidentally ended up here too. Anyway, his presence is cause for celebration among local birders who have been out in force since mid-June to catch a glimpse of him and to hear his syrinx in action.

I got some distant shots of him through the summer haze, but it was too warm for that kind of zoom photography. Still, it’s a record shot. Much better is the shot I got of a few of the birders standing patiently gazing through scopes and bins.

Mother bitterns dance chick to chick

I ended up wending my way to the Reedbed Trail at RSPB Ouse Fen again (Over side, as opposed to Needingworth). There were several birders there, monitoring Bittern behaviour and while I was speaking to fellow Geordie ex-pat Dave we saw four taking flight briefly from the reeds. He’d seen at least 7 already in the four hours he’d been watching. His dedication to the cause was echoed in his car registration which (almost) spelt out Bittern. Apparently, they were watching for females dancing chick-to-chick in the reeds as their offspring wander off and the mother attends to each one.

I, on the other hand, had a dog to walk, cattle to avoid and Marsh Harriers to photograph. There were Bearded Tits around making their unmistakable “pew pew” sound in one patch of reeds, but I didn’t see them, sadly. Still, lots of Marsh Harrier around, a couple of Kestrel and Buzzard, Goldfinch, Black-headed Gull, no Common Tern on this visit, Reed Warbler calling and darting about the reeds. A few Reed Bunt and an occasional Whitethroat. A flock of four Little Egret, and the usual Jackdaws, Rooks, Pigeons, Greylag Geese etc.

The Bittern photos didn’t come out well, the one above I snapped at RSPB Minsmere, so here’s a Kestrel instead.

What is diamorphine?

Diamorphine is another name for heroin.

Chemical structure of heroin

(5a,6a)-7,8-didehydro-4,5-epoxy-17-methylmorphinan-3,6-diol diacetate.

Other synonyms diacetylmorphine, morphine diacetate, street names: H, smack, junk, horse, and brown.

Diamorphine is made by the chemical acetylation of morphine, which is derived from natural opium sources. The word morphine was coined by German apothecary Friedrich Sertürner around 1816 alluding to Morpheus Ovid’s name for the god of dreams (origin Greek “morphe” meaning form, shape, beauty. The word heroin was also coined in Germany, in 1898, as trademark for the morphine substitute invented by Friedrich Bayer & Co.

From Fen Bridge Farm to Archie’s Way

There are lots of Common Whitethroat (Sylvia communis) on the margins of farmland around Cottenham. I walked the dog along Broad Lane from Fen Bridge Farm to Archie’s Way and a little beyond (hoping to see or hear something rare). But, there was an abundance of Whitethroat, I had only seen one or two so far this year, but today at least a dozen, also Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer, Corn Bunting, Linnet. Also, lots of Reed Warblers in our local reed bed.

If you’re wondering what this warbler sounds like, have a listen to it on Xeno-Canto. What’s a warbler anyway?

As they pointed out on BBC Springwatch, the Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) used to be seen only on or close to reed beds, but it has now spread its wings, taken a flight of fancy and is now quite common on farmland and even in country gardens. Walk along the Cottenham Lode or anywhere out on the Fen Edge Patch and beyond, where there are drainage ditches and listen out for its trilly call and you might spot one perched on a tall weed in a field of wheat or on the reeds.

Lots of Linnet (Linaria cannabina) around the farmland surrounding Cottenham right now too. Mentioned them last year in a blog post about RSPB North Warren. Here’s a female out on the fen today with a mouthful of berries. Female pictured below, but you can listen to the sound of the male here.

As well as the Reed Bunts, Linnets, and Whitethroats, mentioned earlier, there are also lots of Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) and Corn Bunting (E. calandra) around the Cottenham Fen Edge at the moment.

A couple of Corn Buntings perched on overhead wires allowed me to get fairly close to photograph them before flying off into the wheat fields.

Slightly overexposed poppies along Broad Lane, Cottenham

Cow parlsey along Broad Lane, Cottenham.

Photographing Saturn’s rings

I love the late light of midsummer, the long, drawn out sunsets, the dying embers as our star ducks below the horizon, the afterglow, the gradual emergence of the stars and planets. Jupiter and Venus in opposite skies last night. Venus lamenting the Sun’s demise and hugging the sun North Western sky as we approach the solstice. Jupiter higher and dominant in the South. The asterisms we know as the Northern Cross and The Plough way above.

I was pondering life, the universe, and everything when it occurred to me that there was no moon last night. So, I grabbed my Canon dSLR and Sigma 150-600mm zoom lens in the hopes of snatching a glimpse of Jupiter’s moons, the four Galilean moons to be specific.  I’ve tried before with this camera setup and got something bearable, but although I could see Jupiter was very much not simply a stellar pinprick in the frame, the moons did not show up in this frame.

Perhaps, they’re eclipsed right now, hiding behind their giant gaseous parent, or maybe it was more about camera settings. It was too late in the evening after a day with a heavy workload to hunker down with tripod and remote shutter to get a longer exposure. Anyway, here’s a crop of the best of a handful of Jovial shots.

In the above shot, you can just about see the striations that band Jupiter, although you obviously cannot discern its Red Spot (which apparently has shrunk in size since I first read a stars and planets book as a child in the early 1970s). Settings were: Handheld with two-stop image stabilisation, full-frame camera, 600mm zoom, f/5.6, t 1/1500s, ISO 12800.

The shot was good enough to inspire me to turn my attention to Saturn, but I needed to find it in the night sky first. A quick look at a sky map revealed it was above the horizon in the Southern sky some way East of Jupiter and much lower. Spotted from “down the street”, a fairly orangey, diffuse-looking star. I didn’t feel like setting up the tripod (moreover the street lamps were going to spoil the view with their brightness, anyway. I didn’t have high hopes. I used the same camera settings, and was really surprised with what came out of the camera. Obviously, the photo is cropped, but you can clearly see Saturn’s rings in this shot.

I posted this photo to some acclaim on Facebook a few moments after snapping it and one commenter suggested they might buy a similar 600mm lens. I should point out that there’s a Tamron equivalent of the Sigma I use. Reviews say it is marginally better. That said, if you calibrate the Sigma to your specific camera you can adjust back/foreward focusing and improve clarity somewhat, I discussed this on the blog last year; you should calibrate all your lenses to your camera(s). If you don’t want to go to the expense of a full-blown astro kit (telescope and dSLR adapter), I reckon it would be worth buying the associated 1.4x multiplier for the Sigma or Tamron.

Dippers in the Brecon Beacons

If you live in the South East you are very unlikely to stumble across a Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) unless you venture further afield, heading north, west or into Wales. This bird spends its time on the rocks that litter clear mountain streams and broad rocky rivers rather than any of the deep and cloudy, fast-moving waterways of East Anglia and the counties that surround London. These shots are on the River Usk some way west of the town of Aberhonddu (Brecon), Powys, Wales,

Having not snapped any in Teesdale on another trip, where the upper Tees fits the Dipper’s requirements perfectly, I was pleased to at last photograph this bird, which bobs up and down on its perch, usually with its mouth full of insects, on the River Usk in the shadow of the Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales.

The Dipper has a white throat and breast which contrasts with dark body plumage and a ruddy belt.

On a recent trip, our hosts counted perhaps 35 bird species that I had seen; none of them except the Dipper, a lifer .Birds seen on two-day trip: Red Kite, Buzzard, Kestrel, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Starling, Magpie, Rook, Jackdaw, Blue Tit, Wren, Robin, Treecreeper, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting, Stonechat, Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Goldfinch, Linnet, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove, Heron, Lesser Black-backed Gull, House Martin, Barn Swallow, Swift, Dunnock, House Sparrow, Dipper. A couple of others as yet identified from photos. Tawny Owl heard several times, long before dark.

A bolt from the blue

We all do it: Counting the delay between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunderclap (seeing the light is almost instantaneous, but sound only travels at 700 miles per hour) The gap in five-second chunks amounts to the bolt being a mile away. If you get to ten seconds, it’s two miles, you’re probably thinking you’re safe.


You can hear thunder up to 25 miles away, that would be quite a big delay, nevertheless, lightning from the centre of the storm can traverse a distance of, you guessed it, 25 miles. So, even if you count to 125 seconds, you could still be hit. Safest place to be is in a Faraday cage…most of us have one, they’re called cars. A building is relatively safe too. Although think on, the Empire State Building gets struck by lightning around 25 times a year.

More information about lightning storms here.

Revenge of the Giant Hogweed

If the day of the triffids were ever to come, then Heracleum mantegazzianum, would be the henchmen. The giant hogweed, also known as the cartwheel-flower, the giant cow parsnip, hogsbane, or giant cow parsley, is a nasty plant. It is called hogweed because the flowers smell of pigs. But, that is not the worst thing about it. You may have read in the news recently of the crippling effects it had on an unwitting Welsh gardener. His bare legs brushing against the plant developed nasty and deep blisters in the coming days and awful pain. He is apparently still unable to walk because of the damage done by the plant.

The plant, of which Peter Gabriel once sang in the Genesis song “Return of the Giant Hogweed” on the band’s 1971 Nursery Cryme album, is native to the Caucasus region and Central Asia. Victorian botanists brought it to Great Britain as an ornamental plant and it has since spread across Europe, North America, and elsewhere. It is the plant’s sap that causes problems for animals that come into contact with it. The sap contains chemicals known as furocoumarin derivatives. These are present in the leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds of the plant.

Furocoumarins are natural products, organic compounds produced by the plant for various reasons, including self-defense against herbivores that would eat it. Unfortunately, they cause phytophotodermatitis in people, leading to itching, burning, painful blisters within a day or two, and long-lasting, often-pigmented, scars that can last for many years.

The parent compound of the furocoumarins is psoralen. It is present in the common fig, celery, parsley, and all citrus fruits at concentrations that are perfectly safe to eat (although celery packers can develop skin photosensitivity). It is used to sensitize a patient’s skin for PUVA (psoralen + UVA) treatment for psoriasis, eczema, vitiligo, and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. However, it is the linear derivatives of the parent compound that are the problem when someone comes into contact with giant hogweed.

The entirely natural chemicals enter the nucleus of skin cells where they bond with DNA killing the cells. The chemical structure of the compounds also makes them act like an anti-sunscreen, absorbing sunlight and transferring energy to the skin causing dam. The body’s defence to this process is to produce the brown “tanning” pigment melanin at high levels in the skin cells around the damage leading to dark coloured scars.

It’s best not to come into contact with giant hogweed, but if you do, then it is advisable to wash the affected area as soon as possible with soap and water and then to cover it up and avoid sun exposure for several days. If the itching becomes a serious problem and blistering begins to occur, seek the advice of your doctor urgently.

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