Empty Rooms – A song

Gradually building my After the Lockdown EP into an album. 10 tracks at the moment, 8 originals, plus a horny remix of one of those and an instrumental version of an older song.

The latest song was inspired by a throwaway line from my musical and spiritual guru – Clive-upon-Sea whose album Fragments I recorded and produced and played on (electric guitar, bass, percs, and BVs). Oh, the line:

He makes friends in an empty room

I pulled together some random thoughts on that line, made the he a she and then built the song from a basic acoustic chord progression, rearranged it from a folky singer-songwriter version, and then settled on something not unlike the early days of The Police, but with a Rushesque edge and plenty of harmonies as usual.

Empty Rooms

You hear her talking in the afternoon
But, come the evening, well it’s all doom and gloom
She’d make friends in an empty room
They’re gone by morning, not a moment too soon

Though she finds it hard to understand
The callous feeling of your open hands
She’ll come to you when she needs a friend
Won’t give up hope until the bitter end

Knowing only that the pain will grow
She’s praying harder for the light to show

She hides her feelings in plain sight
Fearless moments in the still of the night
Time will come when she gives up the fight
Sees the day when there will be no morning light

You see her heading for her velvet cocoon
In the evening, well she sings another tune
She’s got no friends in that pale empty room
She dreams of stardust and the rising of a crescent moon

She’s gone walking in the afternoon
Come the evening dances to a different tune
Found no message in that empty womb
All done by morning, to her feelings she’s immune

Heal this moment in the heat of the night
Seize the day

My cautionary article about the dangers of mixing cleaning fluids caught the attention of TV doctor

About a year ago, just as everyone was thinking about making their own sanitisation handwash and scrubbing groceries with bleach and soapy water at the start of the pandemic, I wrote a feature article for Chemistry World to warn people not to mix bleach and other cleaning fluids. There are serious risks of generating toxic fumes, chlorine gas, and such. The article was fairly well received, I believe.

Interesting that an episode of the BBC’s Call the Midwife (S10E05), which is set in the 1960s,  has a sub-plot where a character foolishly mixes some cleaning products…and Doctor Turner, played by the dashing Steve McGann, dashes in to warn of the dangers as the fumes billow from the bucket. I asked him on Twitter if my article had been the inspiration…this was his reply and I quote:

Ha! David, you are our primary source for all things! :-)

Thanks Steve

Swift action in Cottenham

Swift boxes designed and built by Dick Newell have now been installed by firefighters from Cottenham Fire Station on the new Village Hall and the sports pavilion with plans to install additional units.

Swift in flight, Apus apus
Dick Newell with one of the multistorey Swift boxes now installed in Cottenham’s sports pavilion

The wooden boxes blend in well with the buildings offering executive homes for our summer visitors and augmenting the swift bricks that already form part of the fabric of the new Village Hall. The boxes have a smooth slot through which these slick and speedy birds can fly to build their nests.

Retained firefighters from Cottenham Community Fire a Rescue Station

Within each box is a ‘nest form’, Newell told me. Essentially the nest form is a square of plywood with a hole cut in it. He and his colleagues tested various designs, such as smooth cup-shaped nest forms against this simpler approach and found that the swifts showed no preference, so new boxes are built with the simpler design.

The large box installed in the gable end above the pavilion clock also has an electronic that plays back a recording of swifts calling in flight to encourage new arrivals to approach the boxes and ultimately build their nests within. Newell told me that the birds usually use spit and feathers to construct their nests and once they’ve raised chicks and flown back to Africa for the winter, the remains of the nest will be degraded by insects and mould.

Unfortunately, he adds in recent years, swifts have been found to use fragments of plastic they catch or collect and these fragments simply accumulate in the nest box as with no way for them to be broken down naturally before the next year’s summer visitors arrive.

The first swifts of 2021 arrived on the Cottenham fen edge patch in the latter half of April and more turned up over subsequent weeks with some locals reporting that the birds have taken up residence in nest boxes installed on their houses. It remains to be seen whether the visitors are inclined to nest in the new boxes this year, but the village has now offered new housing for the birds. It is their turn to take action.

You can find out more about Dick Newell and Action for Swifts here.

Last Dance – a song

My “After the Lockdown” EP/LP was meant to hum a positive note as we seemed to be emerging from the covid pandemic, not that that will really be a thing, this disease is with us forever now, it will become endemic with its endless variants (there are more than 10000 of those by now) like influenza…

…so, my latest song didn’t end up quite as positive as the allusions of ones written and recorded earlier in the year. Once again featuring Taylor acoustic six-string guitar, Fender Telecaster electric guitar (always on the neck pickup), Yamaha electric bass guitar, percussion and synths played on an AKAI MPK-mini keyboard and pads, and my usual Geordie & Western vocals. Free to download as part of the After the Lockdown 8-track

Last Dance

There is no mystery to the grander scheme of things
Just simple truth revealed and the love that it will bring
We take the warmth from wherever it may spring
Don’t let the cold in. To the memories, you must cling

It’s not the time and place for absolving those who sin
There is no season in which we cannot begin
To find the rhyme and reason to take it on the chin
Just let me know and I’ll inform the next of kin

Here we go, last drink before the show
Down in one and then it’s on you go
Here we go! Last dance, for all you know
Spin around, you’ve got to go with the flow

The tide is turning against the treachery of kings
Beyond the waves deceptive traces on the wing
We find the truth in the strangest places, that’s for sure
We’re so much older than we admit to, don’t you know?

Here we go, another fix for the show
Shoot it up and then it’s on you go
Here we go. Last chance for you to show
your aching heart in the afterglow

Accidental allusions to Adele’s Skyfall, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and Terent Trent D’Arby’s Sign Your Name, Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing.

Chords: Bm7/Bm(add4) GM7/GM13/Em(add9) F#7s4/F# E7s4/E/Es4

Birding on the Wild Fen Edge

UPDATE: 14 July 2021 – Simon Gillings spotted two cranes briefly at the Smithy Fen flooded field. Others have noted sandpipers and Ringed Plover raising chicks.

When it comes to local places to spot new and interesting birds, the first place you might try in this neck of the woods (as it were) are the various nature reserves we have within a few clicks. There are the RSPB reserves – Ouse Fen, Berry Fen, Fen Drayton, Fowlmere, Ouse Washes most of which I’ve mentioned on this site at least once in the last few years. Then there are the National Trust places like Anglesey Abbey and Wimpole Hall as well the likes of Wicken, Tubney, and Burwell Fen. Further afield there’s the Wetland Trust site at Welney and other fairly nearby RSPB reserves such as Lakenheath.

Turtle doves have arrived in Cottenham again for 2021

But, we also have a couple of very interesting birding sites in our village of Cottenham – Long Drove and Smithy Fen.

Long Drove stretches from the entrance at Beach Road all the way past the various farms, the back of the landfill site, several ponds, and on to the gravel works and then the Cambridge Gun Club. The drove itself is a public highway and most of those various spots are only observable from the road itself, nevertheless, there is often something to see in the fields, in the skies, and babbling about on the ponds.


Watch out for Common Buzzards and other raptors, including Kestrel and even Peregrine, small birds such as Linnets and Goldfinch, and plenty of gulls. For the gull aficionado (never seagull, by the way) there are often great flocks of mixed birds: Black-headed Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Common Gulls (which are quite rare). Most winters and into the spring there are often some slightly less common gulls, such as Iceland, Caspian, and Yellow-legged gulls, which might even draw birders from wider afield. A couple of winters back there was a Hooded Crow (common in Scotland, but a rarity this far south).


Turning to Smithy Fen, however, the recent flooding of the paddocks at the bridge and the farmland adjacent to the Lode but beyond the travellers’ site has turned up a veritable mega list for local birdwatchers. None of the sightings are strictly ‘megas’, which is usually a term reserved for an incredibly rare bird. Nevertheless, several locals who send me sightings for my newsletter report have put together a list of birds one might not usually expect to see, but for those flooded paddocks and fields.


Among them: Yellow Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, White Wagtail (European version of the British Pied Wagtail), Water Pipit, Meadow Pipit, Sedge Warbler, Stonechat, Wheatear, Wigeon, Shelduck, Garganey, Green Sandpiper, Golden Plover, Snipe, Jack Snipe, Dunlin, Redshank, Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Avocet, Ruff, and Common Tern. In the Fen Reeves Wood a Nightingale was reportedly heard recently, but it apparently stayed only a day or two. And, another for the gull aficionados, Kumlein’s Gull, which brought in quite a few birders from off the patch to see this rarity.

UPDATE: 2021-05-15 – Two Temminck’s Stints on the flooded field seen by local birder Brendan today. RSPB website describes this as a formerly breeding species with just 100 or so seen each year on migratory passage.

UPDATE: 2021-05-17 – Glossy Ibis has now been seen on that flooded field.

UPDATE: 20121-05-20 – Little Stint joins the one remaining Temminck’s

Yet to be noted are Common Sandpiper, Curlew, Turnstone, Spotted Redshank, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper…and then the rarities.

A Nuthatch (possibly the first in modern birding memory) turned up for a few days in the trees around All Saints Church and the gardens thereabouts. A couple of Turtle Doves are back as are Whitethroats, and Lesser Whitethroats along Church Lane.

Nuthatch – a first for Cottenham in modern birding memory

Speaking of Turtle Doves…

A community conservation officer for the Wildlife Trust for Cambridgeshire recently set-up a small project, following guidance from the RSPB Operation Turtle Dove project to provide supplementary feeding for Turtle Doves in South Cambridgeshire.

He contacted me in December 2020 having got wind of the half a dozen or so turtle doves we’d had in Cottenham in the summer.

Anyway, he was hoping to speak to local landowners on the patches where TDs had been seen, so I spoke to a couple of those I know. And, one of them was happy to discuss further. He met up a few weeks ago and seed has been scattered at the margin of the field and extra bags left with local residents to dispense. The idea as I understand it is actually to encourage pigeons to feed in places where TDs have been sighted and so give the TDs the confidence to feed there too and hopefully then to feel safe and so breed.

One TD was heard and seen in our village two weeks ago, a second one has joined it and both were seen feeding on the margin. I saw them on the wires today but they flew off towards the church after I’d done the initial photoshoot before I got closeups. This shot was taken from about 200 metres away.

Incidentally, if you’re a local and would like to be in on the local sightings as they happen I have a Google Group – Wild Fen Edge – which might be of interest, drop me a line on the sciencebase email address ([email protected]) and we can discuss getting you in the Group.

Grasshopper Warbler, Locustella naevia

I’m fairly sure I’d heard this relatively rare bird at RSPB Fowlmere several years ago but as a very, very amateur birder, I’d not seen one and certainly not seen one calling until this week. We took a trip to RSPB Titchwell on 2nd May 2021 and could hear one in the reed bed adjacent to the main footpath from the visitor centre, but didn’t catch a glimpse of the bird. A second visit in the week (5th May) and we could definitely hear the insect-like call of the bird and finally pinned it down to a patch of gorse and hawthorn not far from Patsy’s reedbed.

The Common Grasshopper Warbler is one of the grass warblers. (See What’s a Warbler, Anyway?). Given the name, one might assume that this bird dines on grasshoppers. But, that’s not the allusion of its name. Far from it. Rather the bird is so-called because its call is a constant monotonous trilling that sounds very much like the sound of a grasshopper. Here, have a listen to hear what I mean

The bird finds a safe perch, opens its bill and lets rip with its tuneless but rather delightful call. It’s quite difficult to pinpoint from exactly where the sound emanates, as is often the case with high-pitched bird calls. It’s almost as if the bird has some kind of ventriloquial skill. Nevertheless, we were lucky today and caught sight of it following an outburst as it weaved its way through spiny bushes to find its next perch.

There an estimated 16000 pairs in The British Isles and the bird is in the conservation red list as endangered. For comparison, there are 260,000 Sedge Warbler “territories”. The species can be seen across Europe from the west to Russia and Ukraine. It spends the northern winter in West Africa. The Locustella of the scientific name is the genus of which this species is the “type” naevia “translates” as spotted.