Girton Birdwatch - May 2009
Regular readers of this column will know how indebted I am to Dave Heath for information about local birds and some of the best places to find them. Indeed, unkind 'friends' have even suggested that Dave writes this! Recently Dave has temporarily forsaken one of his favourite local 'patches' - Cottenham Long Drove - in favour of the Cam Washes and, enthused by his glowing reports of the birds to be found there, I decided it was time I went to see for myself. I was left kicking myself for not having visited this superb area sooner, especially as it is reached so easily. Take the A10 towards Ely and turn right at the traffic lights beyond the 'Slap Up' café and towards Waterbeach barracks, turn down Bannold Road and just before Bottisham Lock turn left. This is where one enters a different world as the road runs for about 3 miles into the fen, passing Bank Farm, Heron Farm, Joist Fen and Joist Farm. Just beyond Joist Farm is a 2nd World War pill-box, where you can park, and here a bridle path runs off to the right. Keep your eyes open as you head down here as you'll probably see hares in the fields on either side and the possibility of Wheatears, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Buzzard, Marsh and Hen Harrier, Yellow Hammer, Reed Bunting and many more. At the end is a tall bank: scramble up this and peek over the top. I went especially to see the Avocets that had gathered here in large numbers. The day I went it was easy to count at least 30, although as many as 54 had been reported earlier. The numbers are rapidly dropping now and only 17 were left by 10th April but, as Dave observed a couple mating, it is possible a few may stay to breed, although they prefer the Suffolk coast. There is, perhaps, no need to describe the Avocet as it is probably the most readily recognised and wide-spread bird symbol in Britain since being adopted by the RSPB as its logo. Its popularity and familiarity epitomises the growing interest in birds and conservation which has become so prevalent in Britain since the Second World War. The Avocet's striking black and white plumage and delicate, curved, up-turned bill (which, in search of small invertebrates, it sweeps from side to side in the often saline waters of the saltmarshes, coastal lagoons, mudflats and estuaries where it is usually to be found) lent itself perfectly to the simplicity required for ideal 'logo formation'. Moreover, it was its return from near extinction as a breeding bird which imbued it with so much symbolic weight. Two hundred years ago Avocets were plentiful but fen drainage drastically reduced their numbers, and those that remained could not survive the depredations of humans who shot them in order to use their feathers for fishing flies and/or stole their eggs to make puddings. The last breeding colony, at Salthouse in Norfolk, was wiped out by 1825. Then, after the Second World War a few pairs, most likely dislodged from their Dutch breeding grounds by the wartime flooding of the polders (those sections of land lying below water level and kept clear by a system of dykes and drainage channels) began to nest on Minsmere and Havergate Island in Suffolk. The RSPB, amidst great secrecy, secured both sites as reserves. The Havergate colony rose to nearly 100 pairs by 1957 but it was those which colonised Minsmere which most captured the imagination of the RSPB and and led to Minsmere becoming arguably its premier reserve, while entrancing a public bent on putting right the 'sins of the fathers'.
The Cam Washes, themselves, are ideal for ducks and wading birds, providing a habitat of shallow lakes, the river itself, and muddy, watery scrapes. When I went there were a number of Ruff, just starting to acquire their dramatic breeding plumage, several Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Oyster catcher, Green Sandpiper, Garganey, Shelduck, Greylag geese, and Wigeon. Dave, himself, was approached by a farmer's wife on one visit, who knew he was a 'regular' and who asked him about a very large raptor which, apparently, had cast a dark shadow and was like nothing she'd seen before. Prior to this, there had been a report on the Cambridgeshire Bird Club web-site of an unidentified member of the 'aquila species (eagles) over Fen Drayton so it is possible that the Cam Washes area has also had a visit. More mundanely, but equally welcome, Swallows, Swifts and Sand Martins are now arriving in increasing numbers.