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.

Friday, 7 September 2018


Have you noticed the shift in the light? Have you spotted the yellows and oranges of autumn beginning to show in the trees? There's a change in the air.

September can be one of the best months to be out and about as early autumn is usually still warm enough to be without a coat. The light shifts towards the red (long wavelength) end of the spectrum making it seem warmer than it actually is.

This month, the Reserve is just recovering from a summer that was so dry and hot that some places looked like they had been sprayed with herbicide. It looked like we would have autumn in August, but that didn't happen. The grass turned green and most trees held onto their leaves. Now we even have as show of late summer flowers such as blue cornflowers and evening primroses.

The cornflowers grow in our arable fields among this year's crops of millet and Facillia that were planted for the birds in winter and insects in summer. You may spot other wildflowers there too, such as corn marigold and corn chamomile, though these are largely over now. There is some yellow fleabane showing still.
Corn flowers.

The evening primroses are out in profusion near the dragonfly pond. It looks like an American  prairie pond right now. That's because evening primroses are American plants that came here by ship and then spread along the railway lines from the ports. In return we sent them purple loosestrife which has gone berserk there.

Evening primrose

Down by the River Viewpoint there is a huge area of nettles growing an a damp area we call Dodder Fen. My predecessor, Ron Elloway, discovered great dodder growing there and we have been managing the area for this plant ever since. Great dodder has no leaves; instead it captures the nutrients it needs from its host plant, which is usually a nettle. The seeds are spread by animals such as marsh grazing livestock or deer, or by fishermen who push through the nettles to reach an un-fished stretch of water. We have two crops of dodder each summer. Right now the second crop has finished flowering and the seeds are swelling.

Great dodder.

For a lot of us, September is the time to raid the hedgerows for edible berries and there seems to be a lot of fruit about this year. Look out for blackberries, elderberries, sloes, buckthorns and damsons. The birds are particularly fond of the elderberries so they are are disappearing fast. If we get some rain, this should be a good autumn for fungi too.


Finally, there are the birds. The low water on all our lakes has revealed a muddy shoreline and a host of little islands that are attracting masses of wildfowl and other birds. The stars of the show are four great white egrets that stand out from the crowd of little egrets because of their size and their bill, which is yellow instead of black. If you have sharp eyes you might also spot some green sandpipers on the shoreline. These waders look almost black and white in flight when they reveal a white rump, like a house martin.

LATEST NEWS! Willow emerald damselflies have been seen near the beach on Cloudy Pit. This photo is by Ian Dawson who has been trying to spot one here for years. The black and white one is by me.

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.