Thursday, 11 April 2019

Little gull? Or is just a long way away?

Tufted duck, common tern, black headed gull
and little gull.
Spring migration is definitely hotting up, despite the cold north-east wind. Groups of swallows and martins have been passing through the reserve and there has been a smattering of more unusual passage birds. You just have to be out there to catch a glimpse of them before they move on.

Little gull

On  Wednesday evening I took a walk to the Kingfisher Hide hoping to see a little gull that had been reported earlier. They don't usually stay for long so I thought I would have missed it but, sure enough there it was dancing over the water as it arced, turned and swooped in a bid to catch the hatching midges.  It stayed a long way off amid a group of black-headed gulls and four common terns that had just arrived.

My photos are terrible. Is it a little gull, or is it just very far away? Despite the range, you can see the plain white upper side, rounded wings, jet-black face and the clincher; dark underwings.

Little gull and black-headed gull.
Little gulls behave more like stubby terns than the more butch black-headed gulls and they tend to sit among terns when they are on the ground.

I saw my first one in Christchurch Harbour in the 70s and it was swimming like a little paper boat. They are buoyant in the air and in the water, giving the impression of being almost weightless.

There is no other small gull that we see frequently in the UK but on the other side of the Atlantic there are replaced by Bonaparte's gulls which have black wingtips and red feet. They are sometimes, but rarely, seen off the UK coast.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019


Blackthorn blossom time is almost past it's peak at the end of March, now it's the turn of the cherry trees. Blackthorn was the main tree that landowners planted to make hedgerows during the Georgian land-grab by which a lot of open or common land was made into fields in the name of agricultural efficiency. In my lifetime we have lost most of our hedgerows due to the same goal but, thankfully, hedgerows are back in fashion, which will be of great benefit to wildlife. Classic hedgerow birds include dunnocks, yellowhammers, whitethroats, blackbirds, song-thrushes, goldfinches and long-tailed tits but many more creatures live in the hedge, under it or close by.

Blackthorn hedge at Paxton Pits
The Parliamentary Enclosures created a huge demand for blackthorn whips because the plant grows quickly and makes a thick tangle of thorns that, after a few years, is a strong enough barrier to contain cattle and sheep. Quickset is another name for blackthorn, which is also called sloe after its bitter fruit that is used to flavour gin.

The Brampton area became the main producer of quickset for hedging in the East Midlands with the centre of production (I think) being around River Lane and the south side of the High Street. In those days the hedges contained only blackthorn but other trees gradually added themselves to the mature hedges as birds and animals dispersed the seeds.

In the 1960s Dr. Max Hooper discovered that he could date a hedge by the number of woody species in a 30 yard stretch, so a length of hedge containing blackthorn, hawthorn, ash and elm, for example, would be 400 years old. However, hedges planted today are grown from a hedgerow mix that may also contain spindle, hazel, dogwood, wayfaring tree, guelder rose and field maple, so don't be fooled.

Blackthorn blossom
Where I live, the first blossom each year is on bullace plum trees but the blackthorn is never far behind and they even hybridise. They both blossom before their leaves sprout whereas hawthorn produces its leaves first and does not flower for a another month. It's a risky business flowering so early in the year as there may be late frosts and no pollinating insects about. Strong winds in early March often blow a lot of the blossom off the trees, in fact a "blackthorn winter" is the name given to a late cold or stormy spell in March. I like to think the name might refer to the snowy drifts of blossom along woodland edges and old trackways.

The tough wood of blackthorn makes excellent walking sticks, especially if a bulging warty knot is used for the handle. The spines that are so good for deterring livestock make pruning quite tricky and even a small prick always seems to become infected. No gloves are thick enough, in my experience.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Spring comes to Hinchingbrooke Country Park.

The causeway in Hinchingbrooke Country Park.
In Brampton this week there are signs of spring everywhere: laundry hung outside in the morning, queues at Frosts Garden Centre all day and the burning-fat smell of barbecues in the evening.

This is Spring's second attempt here. I put the washing line up in February when we had a few days of Mediterranean weather.  Blossom burst out along the verges, blackbirds and thrushes sang in the dawn of each lengthening day and frogs returned to garden ponds. We even had some early frogspawn. Then March "came in like a lion" with a succession of gales and we had a brief "blackthorn winter" that destroyed a lot of the early blossom.
Frogspawn and toadspawn together.
Yesterday the sun shone on us all day and I had time for a walk, but where to go? In the hope of finding some spring migrants I decided on Hinchingbrooke Country Park.

The omens were good as I crossed the road near Samuel Pepys' cottage where a red kite and a buzzard flew low overhead, just as they would have in his day too. Entering the meadow through the roadside kissing gate I spooked half a dozen rabbits, a green woodpecker and a crow but a scan of the close-cropped turf and the tops of fence-posts produced no wagtails or passing wheatears. They will come in the next week I'm sure. Badgers had worked the field during the night, turning over dried cowpats to root for worms beneath.
Great-crested grebe
The narrow causeway between the lakes is often under water at this time of year but a dry winter has permitted a lot of work to be done on it recently so the path is in good shape and the freshly coppiced willows are doing their job of holding off wave erosion. Great crested grebes were calling on both lakes but I missed seeing their extraordinary courtship dance, probably I was too late in the day.

Lesser celandine.
Yellow king-cups are also known as marsh marigolds. They only grow where it is relatively wet while the smaller and more common lesser celandines grow among the violets in the shade beneath trees and hedges. Curiously, most of the violets in the park are white rather than purple.

The reeds and rushes around the lakes are still straw-coloured but fresh green shoots will appear through the mats of dead stems any day now. I listened for the trip-trap jingle of a reed bunting or the chatter of the first sedge warbler but, as so often happens, I'm anticipating the season by a week or so. The only chatter I heard from the reeds was a wren, which is possibly the most common bird in the park this year; hard to see but easy to hear.

Black-headed gulls.
There is one spring migrant that is almost always the first to arrive. Some chiffchaffs actually stay with us for the winter but most go south to Iberia. I heard their onomatopoeic song from the tops of the trees as I fringed the woods. Chiffchaffs like to sing from tall trees but they will nest in the nettles on the ground beneath. The other two-note songster that dominates the woods in March is the great tit. They have a much more varied repertoire than the chiffchaff's but usually sound like a bicycle pump "tee-taw".

There is a small bird-watching hide that overlooks a pond that is popular with waterfowl. A small raft has been anchored off-shore for terns to nest on. At the moment it is occupied by a pair of black-headed gulls. When the terns come back from Ghana they might well see the gulls off, or they might share the platform with them. We shall see.
Frog (with toad in foreground)

A second shallow pond provides perfect habitat for frogs and toads. The shore was littered with scattered and torn-up remains of them and, at first, I thought this might be the work of some very unpleasant people. The animals had been pulled to pieces, but they had also been chewed about, so I think herons, crows and perhaps a fox or even an otter were involved in this bonanza of easy prey in the shallows. Even after all that predation I expected to see no frogs at all but among the reeds there were globs of fresh frogspawn entangled with long strings of toad-spawn and dozens of adult amphibians, both smooth frogs and warty golden-eyed toads.

The tallest trees in the park host a thriving rookery. Before the leaves come the nests are easy to count and observe and the noisy rooks are hard to miss. A rookery is an exciting place to be, with all kinds of social interaction taking place. The birds are in pairs but they are probably related to all their neighbours and they seem to be very social birds, although they do indulge in antisocial behaviour too, such as stealing each other's sticks. Sometimes a domestic squabble will spread to the whole colony.

The densest part of the wood is criss-crossed by the trails of muntjac deer and badgers. I have read that some of our oldest and most winding country lanes followed badger trails through the thickets and briars and slowly became wider through heavy use.  Where the sunlight hit the path I found peacock butterflies and other insects sunning. One of my favourite springtime insects is the bee-fly, which is furry like a lot of early emergers for obvious reasons. It hovers over the holes of miner bees and fires its eggs down the chute so that its offspring can live off the eggs and larvae of the bees. The long snout is for sucking nectar from tubular flowers like primroses and cowslips. They don't sting or bite.
Muntjac "slots".

Bee-fly sunning itself.
In the dense shade the liver-spotted leaves of wild arum are unfolding. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this plant is the long list of folk-names it has, including lords and ladies, cuckoo pint and Jack-in-the-pulpit.

Wild arum leaves.
Off the path the ground is littered with fallen logs and branches that are deliberately left to be recycled by nature into more trees. Fungi, beetles, woodlice, worms and millipedes help in the process of decomposition. The galleries made beneath the bark by elm beetle larvae are particularly attractive, like the fossils of ancient creatures that once lived on the sea bed.

Elm beetle galleries.
I have a favourite spot where I look for grass-snakes, which are very commonly seen swimming in the lakes in summer. When they first emerge in spring they need to warm up and also to mate. I found a tangle of six of them on the sunny side of a pile of brashings.  That was my best find of the morning. Sadly the photos were disappointing.

A tangle of 6 grass snakes.
I strolled back towards home down the Chestnut Avenue accompanied by yellow brimstone butterflies. These are the original "butter-flies." They are quite hard to capture for a photo because they seldom seem to settle for long.

Chestnut Avenue.
If I can find all of these things and more in just two hours in March, just think of all the wonders to come in April or May. We are so lucky to have a place like Hinchingbrooke Country Park on our doorsteps. It's a place to cherish and enjoy.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Photographic Competition Results

Friends of Paxton Pits Photographic Competition 2018/2019 Award Winners

All winners and highly commended entries receive a certificate.

Best Unusual Picture

Highly Commended   
Great White Egret Preening by Carol Leather a member of
                                                 the Friends of Paxton Pits

Can I Get In ? by Margaret Gates a member of the Friends
of Paxton Pits and St Neots U3A Photography Group
£25 gift voucher

Best Picture Featuring a Tern
Highly Commended
Lunch on the Fly by Roger Willoughby a member of the Friends of
Paxton Pits

Common Tern by Carol Leather a member of the Friends of Paxton Pits
Membership of the Kingfisher Lottery

Best Flower Picture
Early Blooms by Carlos Santino a member of Sandy Photography Group
£25 gift voucher

Best Fungi Picture
Chicken of the Woods by Trevor Warrs a member of the Friends of Paxton Pits
£25 gift voucher

Best Tree Picture
Highly Commended
Little Acorns by Gina Isaac a member of Sandy Photography Group

Cormorant Roost by John McDonough a member of the Friends of Paxton Pits
               and St Neots U3A Photography Group
£25 gift voucher

Best Water Picture
Highly Commended
Reflections by Jenny Smyth a member of Sandy Photography Group

River View Sunrise by Roger Blows a member of the Friends of Paxton Pits,
                St Neots & District Camera Club and St Neots U3A Photography Group
£25 gift voucher

Best Living Creature (excluding Birds)
Highly Commended
Common Toads by Carol Leather a member of the Friends of
                                   Paxton Pits

Dragonfly (banded demoiselle) by Christopher Kennedy member of the
                Friend of Paxton Pits
£25 gift voucher

Best Bird Picture
Highly Commended
Can I Get In? by Margaret Gates a member of the Friends of
                                   Paxton Pits and St Neots U3A Photography Group

Goldcrest by Jaqueline Hill a member of the Friends of Paxton Pits and
                      St Neots U3A Photography Group
£25 gift voucher

Best Landscape Picture
Highly Commended
Up Early by Den Yaxley a member of the Friends of Paxton
                                    Pits and St Neots U3A Photography Group

Frost & Ice by David Hyde a member of the Friends of Paxton Pits
£25 gift voucher

Best Picture by a Member of the Friends of Paxton Pits
Goldcrest by Jaqueline Hill a member of the Friends of Paxton Pits and
                St Neots U3A Photography Group
£25 gift voucher

Best Picture by young person under 16 at 31st December 2018
Thistles (teasels) by Ethan Barrett
A day out with Head Ranger Jim Stevenson

Best Picture Chosen by B Inspired Magazine
Paxton Highland Cattle by John Greig a member of the St Neots & District
               Camera Club and St Neots U3A Photography Group

A selection of the winners images will be published in B Inspired Magazine

Best Overall Picture
Highly Commended Frost & Ice by David Hyde

Winner Goldcrest by Jaqueline Hill
One year’s membership of the St Neots & District Camera Club

Thursday, 7 March 2019

In Like a Lion

March 2019

Winter ended on a high note with the warmest February week that I can remember.  The grass grew, the blossom bloomed and the bees hummed.  We saw five different kinds of butterfly that week, mostly the ones that hibernate such as brimstones, red admirals and peacocks, but I was surprised to see my first comma of the year and we even had a report of holly blue butterflies from the village. Ladybirds emerged too, but my top sighting was of a strange small bird flying in erratic circles over our farmyard. It turned out to be a medium sized bat. Other unusual sightings, such as swallows seen in Kent, were even reported on the national news while the tills rang out at garden centres and street cafes across southern England.

Of course it couldn’t last. Although temperatures remained moderate enough, March came in as it often does, with gale-force winds.  Who knows what will happen to those swallows, the bats or the butterflies?

At Paxton Pits we had a brilliant week for visitors, particularly over the half term holiday when we were caught out by children wanting to buy ice-creams… February! Then came the wind and after that the rain. March came in like a lion, as they say. Even so spring carried on marching ahead of itself. A little lonely chiffchaff sang its high pitched, onomatopoeic, two syllable song from by the trail entrance.  These little warblers always arrive in March, but this was a very early record. Those swallows would have flown all the way from South Africa to us but chiffchaffs mostly winter in Spain and around the Mediterranean Sea, so they have not got so far to come, but it is still a gamble for an insectivorous bird to set up home so early in the year.

The first chiffchaffs announced their arrival in Cambridgeshire at the same time as several small parties of sand martins. These little brown swallows are thought to winter in the Sahel, just south of the Sahara, but like their cousins the house martins, they probably wander much further south. When I worked in Tanzania I was shown clouds of swallows, swifts and martins feeding ahead of a huge dramatic thunderstorm around Arusha. 

Frogs emerged during that warm week but, once committed they can’t seem to shake that urge and spawn appeared around March 2nd.  Newts hung on for a few days until the rain came and then the great-crested newts were in our pond again on the 5th.

Smooth newt.
Talking of newts, the County Council started work on a new footpath between the village and the Reserve only to find a mass of great crested newts living in a British Telecom junction box that was buried below a telegraph pole. A bulky Irishman in day-glow Hi-Viz and a hard-hat came in to report that work would have to stop until the newt people came down from Peterborough to advise.  As no newts were found anywhere except at the box, it was reburied and work resumed on the 6th.

As we move on through the spring it becomes increasingly useful to have your sightings of the earliest arrivals, and everything you see on or near the Reserve.  For the second consecutive year our team of wildlife watchers and counters have produced a detailed and bulky report that contains all the sightings that we have records of for 2018.  This is really useful to us for steering our management of habitats on the reserve and the records are added to a county database that in turn contributes to a national one.  That means we can tell if the phenomena that we encounter are just local or part of a bigger pattern.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Happy Birthday, Paxton Pits.

Founder member Trevor Gunton has written a brief account of how the Reserve started thirty years ago.
Logo by Nicholas Stevenson. 

2019 marks the 30th Anniversary of the establishment by Huntingdon District Council of our favourite nature reserve and I have been looking back at my bird records for 1989.
At this time no group existed but local naturalists and staff from the RSPB at Sandy were already active organising events on the new reserve.

Opening speeches, summer 1989
On New Year’s Day we staged a wildlife walk – just for our local villagers and we were amazed when 80 people arrived !  Another event that day was a roost count of cormorants at dusk - and the assembly numbered 300 birds – quite a sight for the local visitors from the village.
1989 was the first year that cormorants had nested successfully and, in due course, 11 nests produced young birds.  Just 5 years later, during a period of very cold weather, our cormorant roost peaked at 860 birds, and during the day a very similar count was recorded at Grafham Water.  Grey herons, another feature bird, had nested locally for many years and in 1989 nests numbered 25, a figure never reached since.

Winter wildlife included large flocks of lapwings, golden plovers and the now scarce skylarks out on the A1 fields.  Brown hares were commonplace, but the now numerous muntjac deer did not feature at all in these early records.  Around the hedgerows, it seemed that both yellowhammers and corn buntings were seen on most visits to The Pits.  How things have changed !
Colour a Kingfisher with the RSPB.
No wonder people are surprised how small a real one is!
Around the Heronry Lakes we had gatherings of up to 400 coot, and pochard ducks were also very common Winter visitors, all those years ago.  Of course, there were no birdwatching hides and few footpaths 30 years ago, so Winter birdwatching was a rather cold experience for the few observers.
The habitat for some iconic breeding birds had not developed, but I recorded 6 singing nightingales which had managed to reach us from Africa by 16th May.  Paxton Pits would eventually develop into one of East Anglia’s most important sites for the world’s most famous songbird, and our nightingales soon provided wonderful opportunities for people from all over England to enjoy these birds. 
On Sunday, 18th June 1989, we assisted HDC organise a Grand Opening of the Reserve by Patricia Shakesby, a popular actress from the well-known TV programme “Howard’s Way”.  This event attracted over 700 people, and paved the way for the great success the Reserve is today.  We now welcome on average over 100,000 visitors each year, demonstrating what an important place this is for the local community.

It’s not all good news.  Turtle doves used to breed commonly in late Summer.  I could record flocks of 20 birds – they are very rare today.  However, we now have breeding terns and many egrets – both little and great – and one of these years they might breed here at Paxton Pits.

Lots more to tell, but I should record that the principal person responsible for encouraging the establishment of the Reserve was Dr Ray Matthews, who has now moved out the area.  My wife and I are still active supporting the Reserve as we have from the very beginning.

So, what will happen in the next 30 years ?  Who can say – but I forecast that we shall have breeding marsh harriers, avocets, bearded tits and egrets all breeding on our much extended nature reserve.
Why not be part of it all – call at our Visitor Centre and watch this space !
Trevor Gunton, January 2019

Friday, 23 November 2018


On Wednesday 21st November, we had a brilliant talk about bees from Brian Eversham. I learned an awful lot, including some gruesome stuff about parasites and parasitoids, particularly mean old bee- wolves that paralyse bees before laying their eggs on them. It gets even more gruesome after that. I had planned to ask him about the strange, tough, spongy material that had been found in one of our nest boxes but I didn't need too as Brian included it in his talk. It was a mass of silken tubes made by the larvae of the wax moth. These beasties eat bees wax and just about everything else in a bees' nest.
Great yellow bumblebee.

Did you know:

  • Cuckoo bees lay their eggs in other bees' nests?
  • Bee-flies are not bees but they are furry like bees and also lay their eggs in bees' nests.
  • Bee-flies rub dust on their eggs to make them darker and heavier.
  • Ivy bees are just about the last bees of the season to emerge. They sleep for most of the year.
  • Violet carpenter bees are coming to our area. They are huge.
  • The rarest and biggest bee in the UK is the great yellow bumble bee but it is only found near Cape Wrath. 
  • Worker bees sting but don't mate. That's because their sting is actually their modified sex organ.
  • Look out for tree bees next year. After colonising the UK in 2001 they are coming to Paxton. They often nest in bird boxes.
  • If you look at comfrey flowers you can often see a hole in the petals where a short tongued bee has bitten a hole to suck nectar through. 

Violet carpenter bee. 

Our thanks to Brian for another brilliant talk on insects. On the other hand........

While the audience of fifty plus was assembling, I looked out the window to see a kingfisher perched on the edge of Weedy Pit. Migrant blackbirds and redwings were feeding on berries in the car park and I was tempted to sneak out for a better look. I didn't tell anyone as the there would have been a mad rush for the doors.

While I wasn't looking out of the window, the following happened:

"Just after arriving this afternoon I spotted the Great White Egret landing at the back of Weedy Pit. This seemed to drive out a Bittern which led to a “Face Off” for a minute or two. I took several pictures and have attached one for you."

Derek Hale (A birder from the IOW)
Thanks Derek. Nice one!

Photo by Derek Hale.