Friday, 27 July 2018

Paxton Pits Won a Green Flag Award!

(From a Huntingdonshire District Council Press Release.) 


Where better to spend your summer holidays than one of Huntingdonshire’s
award winning Parks? Hinchingbrooke Country Park, Huntingdon and
Paxton Pits Nature Reserve at Little Paxton join Priory Park, St Neots, in being
awarded the prestigious Green Flag Award® (the parks equivalent of the Blue
 awarded to beaches).  This national award celebrates Huntingdonshire District
Council’s commitment to deliver high quality green open spaces for recreation and
health, where we choose to live.  The award assesses accessibility, community
involvement and cleanliness as well as safety and security.
 Councillor John Palmer, Executive Councillor for Partnerships and Well-being, said:
“We are absolutely delighted to receive the prestigious Green Flag Award again,
as this justifiably rewards the huge efforts by our Operations Team in recent months,
and clearly demonstrates the extremely high standards we are striving to achieve
across all our Green Spaces throughout the District.” 
The award is also a recognition of all the Friends and community groups that he Council
partners with.  They have succeeded in raising and applying for funding to make
improvements, as well as undertaking work planting trees, wood-chipping paths and
putting up bird and bat boxes. .
International Green Flag Award scheme manager, Paul Todd, said: It has been a
record-breaking year for Green Flag Awards, and it’s fantastic to see such a diverse
range of locations have been recognised. We are proud to have so many wonderful
green spaces in the UK for people to experience, and encourage the public to
head outdoors, explore their local area and find even more unexpected green spaces
they can enjoy.”
This week is Love Parks Week and residents and visitors are invited to keep healthy
and active, enjoying the outdoors in Huntingdonshire, a reason so many people choose
to move to the area.  Activities and events are run in the Council’s parks and open spaces, including a programme developed by its Active Lifestyles Team.  Visit for details.  


Monday, 2 July 2018

What are dragonflies for?

A young lady had just seen an emperor dragonfly.  While impressed with its size she wasn't really sure how to react. "What are they for?" she asked.

That is a huge question for me to answer.  I'm used to people asking the same question about wasps, ants and mosquitos that people regard as pests.  "Why do we have to put up with them? They are useless!" That makes sense. To most of us, they are just a nuisance.

A creationist might argue that these creatures were created from the mind of God for some particular purpose. Perhaps all of creation, including humans, was put on earth as part of some great purpose that we can't comprehend? I don't think so.

A Darwinist would tell you that life evolves due to natural selection, so that all of the vacant niches in an ecosystem are filled by a diversity of animals and plants. And we are just one of those animals! What is our niche then? Certainly a very complex one and a dominant one, but that may not last for long. In fact, it hasn't lasted long.

Dragonflies have been here for 300 million years while we have only just arrived. So a dragonfly might well ask, "Humans? What are they for?"

On another level, I could paraphrase the question in other ways. "What do dragonflies do? How do they contribute? Why should I care?"

My first reaction is that dragonflies are stunningly beautiful. The intricacy of their biology and the amazing colours and patterns that they have are justification enough for caring about their conservation. You won't find anything that beautiful in Top Shop or Jack Wills and you don't have to pay a licence fee to enjoy them in a visual sense.

I was only a little surprised to find that this young lady had no idea about the life cycle of a dragonfly.  Like the earliest naturalists such as Gilbert White, she found it amazing that they don't come from caterpillars. The adults lay their eggs in water where they live for several years as nymphs. That sounds rather poetic and sweet but those nymphs are major aquatic predators that eat anything from mosquito larvae to sticklebacks. Like the monsters in the Alien films, their face mask shoots out to grab prey and haul it back into their inexpressive jaws. Dragonfly nymphs are truly amazing and totally alien to us. They have subtle and cryptic camouflage, they breathe underwater and they have jet propulsion.

After a couple of years spent eating everything that they can catch in the pond, they get an urge to metamorphosize.  That's not something that us humans can even contemplate. Imagine that you have another being, alive beneath your skin, and that it will burst out from your back, sprout wings and fly away like an angel, even like a god.

That new creature has so many alien features. Most of its head is composed of spherical, compound eyes that can see all around. It has four wings that are synchronised to make it fly like a helicopter or a drone, jinxing sideways, forwards and backwards at high speed. And why? So that it can catch smaller insects, so violently and efficiently that you might hear the click of its cerotein jaws as it snaps up a midge.

Dragonflies are predators, but they are also prey, most spectacularly for hobby falcons that snatch them up on the wing, but also for humble sparrows and rare bitterns that pick them off as they emerge.

So, in utilitarian terms, what are they for?  They have a part to play in the ecosystem that keeps us all alive. They are predators and also prey, eating the insects that we call pests and feeding other animals like birds and fish that we might also consume. But chiefly they are simply inspiring. Without them our world would simply be less inspiring and infinitely poorer. How can I explain any of that to a contemporary young lady who has absolutely no connection the natural world?

Friday, 18 May 2018

Celebrating Yorkshire Day at Paxton Pits.

I’m always amazed by the number of ex-pat Yorkshire-folk I meet at Little Paxton. Why do the most devout Yorkshire-men not live in Yorkshire? The answer is marriage. Finding a partner outside of Yorkshire is more or less mandatory so that we increase the gene pool and expand the Yorkshire Empire. 

Trevor Gunton came up to me last winter and said: “Now then. Dus't tha the knaw it’s Yorkshire Day on August t' first?”

“ I know nowt about that” I replied, “but it sounds like a reet good idea.”
Yorkshire flag.
And so a plan was hatched. We would celebrate Yorkshire Day at Paxton Pits. Well, when I say “hatched” it was "nobbut-just a notion” at that point, and it still is really.  

Yorkshire Day isn’t new but it's getting bigger. It started back in Viking Days. The top men in York would go out through the North, East and West gates of the walls and read out a “Declaration of Integrity” to the people of the three ridings. It was basically an oath of allegiance. The ritual was revived in the early 90s as a protest against the local government reorganisation that created South Yorkshire. (We see the word South as an insult. Southerners are reet soft.)

So why celebrate it? I’ll tell thee why. 

If you drive North up t' Great North Road from Little Paxton, there isn’t much to see until you get to Yorkshire. There are no roundabouts after Buckden all the way to Scotland so it is a much quicker journey than in’t old days. You cross the Trent and see nowt but great cooling towers at the power stations, but soon you become aware of the Pennines off to your left and then the North York Moors and the Cleveland Hill's off to your right. Proper scenery. That's the Yorkshire I love: dry stone walls, curlews, market towns, abbeys, castles, parkin and Theakston’s Old Peculiar ale. There are other Yorkshire’s though; the cliff-and-bay coast from Scarborough through to Whitby and Staithes with seabird cliffs and the best fish and chips in the UK (officially); the great cities of York, Leeds and Sheffield and the old mill and mining towns that huddle along the Don, Aire and the Calder rivers. 

That diversity of topography and industry has produced not one culture or dialect but a huge diversity of them, making it feel more like another country than an English county. Yorkshire-folk still have a strong regional identity that most English counties can only envy. We even have our own international football squad. We have our own iconic foods, such as Wensleydale cheese, curd tarts and of course Yorkshire puddings. There are treats like black-bullet sweets and Pontefract liquorice cakes and Yorkshire tea. I can’t help picturing those Sri Lankan ladies dressed in anoraks and scarves while leaning into the wind to pick tea on the Pennines above Harrogate. It must be a tough life, akin to the shepherds who tend black-faced Swaledale sheep on the high tops. Perhaps they will intermarry over time and grow rhubarb and liquorice together.

Whalebone arch at Whitby
Our celebration at Paxton will not overdo the cloth-capped, wise-cracking stereotype, but we will pay homage to the humorous side of the Yorkshire character with a few anecdotes. There will be some tasty treats too, if we can get them through customs. 
Swaledale, near Gunnerside
The heart of the event will be two illustrated talks that focus on Yorkshire’s natural history. Trevor Gunton will talk about the Eastern bit of the county including the great seabird city at Bempton Cliffs. Then Jim Stevenson will talk about the flora and fauna of the northern Dales around Swaledale and Wensleydale where he grew up.

We look forward to seeing you theer, wherivver tha's from. 


Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Cormorant: The Dark Fisherman at Paxton Pits Nature Reserve

By Trevor Gunton

Cormorants are related to pelicans but they lack that big beak and “shopping bag” that the true pelicans have. Instead of scooping up fish, they dive for them and grasp them with the sharp nail on the end of their bills. They can stay under water for a long time because they have feathers that soak up water instead of repelling it, making them less buoyant. This explains why you so often see them standing about with arms outstretched to dry their wings.

Non breeding cormorants.
Note the absence of white patches.
Here in the UK we have traditionally looked upon cormorants as sea birds, but this is not typical in Europe.  Norway has cormorants breeding on sea cliffs up to the Arctic Circle, but elsewhere they share the same tree nesting habitat as Paxton Pits.  Large colonies exist from the Danube Delta in the East to The Netherlands in the West, where colonies can reach over 1,000 pairs.

The first inland tree nesting in England occurred in 1981 when 9 pairs nested at Abberton Reservoir in Essex.  This eventually rose to c500 nests before dropping back to less than 250 pairs in 2016.  Our first nest at Paxton was noted in 1988 and the following year 9 pairs nested, of which some were successful.  Our colony peaked at 218 nests in 1996, only to drop to 180 nests in 2005, to just 50/60 nests in the last 2 years.  The number of young raised per nest has averaged two and a half.  How do you count half a cormorant ?

Winter roosts are also of great interest, with our roosts containing birds from many parts of Britain and even from the continent.  Once, in hard-freezing conditions across East Anglia, we recorded a high of 1,153 on January 4th.  This was an amazing sight !  Recent Winter roosts have averaged between 100 and 180 birds.  So what is happening ?

Our birds are moving away to form new smaller colonies – there is some evidence for this in Cambridgeshire.  Grafham is now being stocked with larger fish, making it more difficult for cormorants to feed there. It must be impossible to fly back to the nest with a three pound trout on board.  Are cormorants being shot or otherwise destroyed locally?  We see no injured birds, so probably not. 

We are clearly in an age of considerable change in the status of many of our local breeding species.  We have some winners like egrets, large and small, red kite, buzzard and common tern but many more are in real trouble and are showing dramatic declines.  Let us hope that the dark fishermen of Paxton Pits will remain an important feature of our visits to the Reserve for many years to come.

The world's greatest songster.

Trevor Gunton sent me this text and I thought this would be a good time to share it. We seem to have 8 to ten singing males on the whole site; half on the Reserve and the others up in the quarry near Stirtloe. That is better than last year. I have just heard that we have some real competition from Castor Hanglands (near Stamford) where they have 17! 

The world’s greatest songster to perform at Paxton Pits this Spring…

No, it’s not Katherine Jenkins or Alfie Bow, but the iconic nightingale direct from its wintering grounds in West Africa.  Having spent almost three quarters of its year in the humid riverine forests and dry scrublands of Senegal and The Gambia, the nightingales’ urge to breed begins to dominate and by early March the 4,000 mile migration north begins – and what a journey it is!  Crossing the Sahara, then the Straits of Gibraltar, over the daunting Pyrenees, across France, and over the English Channel, our nightingales make landfall in Sussex and Kent.  Other nightingales which winter in Central Africa will enter Europe via the dangerous route through Malta, Italy or Greece.

Many nightingales will stop to nest in Southern Europe. For our birds, breeding at the northerly limit of their range, the trek can take three to four weeks, depending upon weather conditions and wind direction.

Usually, the first Paxton Pits nightingales are recorded around the first week of April – the earliest being the 4th of the month.  We understand that the males arrive first and establish a territory, and the females normally arrive some 10 days later.  This is the best time to enjoy the famous song as the males will sing all day and night to attract a female.

Once paired, the nest of mainly dried leaves is constructed quickly, usually within a week.  The nest is usually on, or very near to the ground, which makes it very vulnerable to predation from cats mink, stoats and weasels.  Once the female is sitting, the male is much quieter, to avoid advertising the location of the nest.

The song is the nightingales’ greatest glory. The plumage, identical in both sexes, is a dull brown with a red flashing tail in flight.  The size is just about one third larger than the robin.  Traditionally a bird of light coppiced woodland and tangled overgrown hedgerows in the South East of England, here in Cambridgeshire where such habitat is rare, the bird has adapted to take over damp scrublands around gravel pits – Paxton Pits being typical.  Ideal habitat is close to water, with open glades where nightingales hunt out insects, small worms and spiders.  Later in the season they also feed on hedgerow fruits.

It is a short season in the North, and by mid June, most song is over, and the nightingale becomes a bird of mystery once again.  The southerly migration is less understood than Spring arrivals – but migrating birds are recorded from late July on our South Coast.

The decline in numbers remains a matter of great concern, and even at Paxton Pits numbers have fallen from 28 to just a handful of singing males in the last few years.  Local issues include habitat destruction by deer and rabbits, and internationally, drought, hunting, change of land use and loss of insect life are all cited as reasons for the decline of nightingales.  Numbers seem more stable in some areas of Southern Europe.

So, come and visit Paxton Pits in late April or early May to enjoy this glorious songster at its best.  Please support your local nature reserve to ensure that the nightingale – and about 60 other breeding birds will always have a place to call home.

Trevor Gunton.

Remember, admission to our reserve is free – as is car parking – and you can look forward to a warm welcome at our Visitor Centre, where a selection of light refreshments can be purchased.  See you there !

Friday, 20 April 2018

Ground-nesting birds.

Where do birds nest? In trees, obviously: everybody knows that! Except, it’s wrong.

Low down---in dense cover.
Rooks' nests are really conspicuous because they are built in groups in the very early spring in the tops of bare trees. It’s the same for the big stick-ball nests of magpies, carrion crows, herons and cormorants. You just can’t miss them. Some birds definitely and undisputedly nest in trees.

By the end of April the trees are clothed in greenery and it is no longer easy to count the big nests of those common birds. In hedges and bushes, our most familiar garden birds such as robins, thrushes and blackbirds will have nested unseen, low down, in dense cover. At the same time, every available hole and crevice will have been occupied by starlings, blue-tits and great tits.

Chiffchaff. Sings in the trees....nests on the ground.
Leaving our leafy gardens for a drive into the largely treeless and hedge-less East Anglian countryside we might still find birds. Skylarks, pipits, lapwings, and partridges all nest on the ground. If we visit a lake to see ducks, geese, swans, moorhens, coots, gulls, terns, snipe and oystercatchers; that whole wetland tribe of birds will nest on the ground.

Even in the oak and ash-woods with their carpet of bluebells, many birds nest on the ground. Chiffchaffs and willow warblers, black caps and nightingales will be singing up there in the boughs, but they will nest with the woodcocks and pheasants among the ferns, sedges, nettles, dog’s mercury and brambles. 

Almost all of our birds in the UK and across Europe are in steep decline, especially the ground nesters that are most prone to disturbance and predation as well as having to face the gauntlet of migration.  On nature reserves like Paxton Pits, our job is to produce a surplus of birds and other wildlife to repopulate the largely deserted countryside around us.

That’s why we ask dog owners to keep dogs on leads in those areas where we know we have ground nesting birds in summer. Your dog is your friend but also your responsibility and even the most friendly, well behaved dog will disturb wildlife.  Imagine that your dog is snuffling around the shore of a pond and a moorhen flies out, leaving it's nest unprotected. The dog won’t steal the eggs, but a crow may have been waiting for this very opportunity.

Please help us to increase our breeding bird population by keeping to the paths and having your dog on a lead where the signs request it.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Book Week

World Book Day 2018 didn't go too well in the UK. Roads and schools were closed and the country came to a halt as temperatures plummeted and strong winds blew the dry, powdery snow off the fields onto our roads and railways. Almost no-one turned up to buy books. That's why many schools renamed the event as Book Week, and so did we.

World Book Day was aimed at giving children a taste of the magic, so I thought it might be appropriate to examine what got me started.

It is often said that the magic of books starts with the pictures. If you couple that with your mother's voice reading to you, then you have the best start of all. But is that really correct? My Mum told us stories without the books, always starting with "Once upon a time......"  so it was the stories that came first for us, then the pictures and the books.

As I learned to read I remember that I always read things that I was not totally ready for, so I often missed the point. One day, after reading several Rupert Annuals, I finally realised that the captions under the pictures were always written in rhyme. Of course, Rupert was a cartoon strip, but you had a choice to read the captions under each cell, or the longer version at the foot of the page. From Rupert I progressed to Toby Twirl, Sam Pig and Beatrix Potter. In Primary school, the teachers would read to us and the Enid Blyton Adventure books were a big hit.

I spent a huge amount of time with my Grandmother in the Yorkshire Dales. Her cottage had no electricity so we listened to a huge, wooden, battery-powered radio that glowed, whistled and hummed in the corner whiled we played dominoes. She had some magnificent books on natural history that she had collected in serial form and then had bound. I have them now. On rainy days, I copied the pictures and read about the creatures that fascinated me.

My Gran read a lot and we would sit up in adjacent beds late into the night. The books came from a library-van that somehow made it up the rough rocky track to her house. At first I just picked up one of her books and read it, then she gave me a ticket and I could chose four books of my own. We binged on crime and science fiction.

Half a crown would be the equivalent of 25p today but it was a decent amount of pocket money in the late 1950s. It would buy you an Airfix kit and some paint, or a Dinky car, or a book.  I soon had quite a collection of a plastic aircraft hanging on fishing line from the bedroom ceiling. My brother and I would target them in our flashlight beams, wailing like sirens and shooting them down, "Ak-ak-ak-ak-ak!"

The Observer's Book of Birds was a sort of bible for me, but I don't remember buying it myself, so I guess it was from my Dad. They cost 5 shillings each at the time so I needed to forgo the kits and the Dinky cars to start collecting Observer's Books. I won't list them all, but if you know them yourself you will appreciate how it felt to have a collection of books with matching spines on your own shelf; your own, personal library. Some of them made very dull reading and I probably never finished reading half of them, but I learned a lot along the way. My entire knowledge of aeroplanes comes from the 1968 "Observer's Book of Aircraft."

Around 1960 in Southampton, my weekly ritual became a walk down to Portswood to the Saturday morning cinema club (the ABC Minors), then a visit to Woolworths or WH Smiths and finally the Library. I chose big books, some of which I would renew over and over again. One was "Tidelines" by Keith Shackleton about life on an estuary. I don't think I ever read the whole thing but it had full-page paintings of mud, water, birds and huge skies. Another book was about Native Americans and a third was about a whaling ship on which a crew member carved a seagull from whalebone; an ivory gull in fact.

Reading and writing go together and the books I read inspired me to write. As a schoolboy I would send letters to the Southern Evening Echo and a team of us produced our own school fishing magazine. I wrote dozens of stories about the Yorkshire Dales but they are all lost now due to the ritual burning of exercise books when we left our primary school.  The highlight of my writing career was to win the BBC Wildlife Magazine "Nature Writer of the Year" award  for a story about bullheads and sticklebacks. To be any good at writing you have to be a good reader too.

Second-hand bookshops were a happy hunting ground. I bought a few classic children's books like Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, Kidnapped, Coral Island and Uncle Tom's Cabin. One of my treasures is the "1984 Empire Youth Annual" which contains stories of travel and adventure across the world to Africa, India and beyond. I wonder if that drove me towards the wander-lust that developed later.

On the day of my interview for the RSPB warden's job at Kinross, I spent the evening in St Andrews where I found a wonderful second-hand bookshop, but it was closed. In the window was a book that I just had to have, but I didn't know when I would be back that way so I wrote a note and put it through the letterbox. By the time I had driven back to Sussex the book was waiting for me. I still treasure it because it was a compendium of all the best nature writing at the time, from both sides of the Atlantic. The editor was Roger Tory Peterson, it was published in 1957 and it was called "The Birdwatcher's Anthology."

There's another book that I often show to people. "The Birds of the West Indies" is way out of date now, but it is special for one reason and that is the author's name on the spine. When Ian Fleming was in Jamaica he was trying to find a good name for the hero of his first spy novel. He looked along the bookshelves in his bungalow and one name jumped out at him, Bond. James Bond.

After I left teaching, I worked for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the RSPB and BirdLife International all of which gave me a discount on buying books. I had yards of expensive bird and wildlife books that I spent a fortune on, most of them signed by the authors and illustrators. I can now buy the same books for a couple of pounds from Paxton Pits Nature Reserve. It's all very tempting but I've had to make a rule that no book comes into my house without another going out. There's a good reason for this......

I have a friend called Iain who recently retired from the Foreign Office. His hobby is writing encyclopaedias and he is almost never seen without a carrier bag full of old books.  One evening his family was gathered on sofas around the living-room fire while entertaining Iain's head of department when they heard an ominous deep rumbling sound followed by an avalanche of books. The attic floor had collapsed under the weight of all the books in there. I really worry that this might happen to me too.