Sunday, 14 July 2019

Guided Walks

I think a lot of us have had bad experiences with guided walks, both as a customer and as a leader. The very worst I have been on was led by a student in a French Chateau, after an hour we tried running away but she caught us up! The worst I have had as a provider was in Scotland when I was supposed to be training some club leaders in how to give a good guided walk. I thought it would be fun to start by doing all the bad things and ask them to tell me what they were. I set off with no introductions and just started walking, leaving half of them behind, then spoke too fast, mumbled with my back to the group, made up facts and got us lost. It was supposed to be hilarious but the group missed the point and some of them were quite cross!
This week-end I led two very pleasant walks around Paxton Pits and I really enjoyed myself. Perhaps it is wrong to say that I led the walks and more correct to say that I played host to two local groups. In both cases we all joined in the search for insects and plants and then helped each other identify them.
Small skipper.
On Friday night I hosted a walk for Huntingdon History Festival and on Saturday morning our guests came on a similar walk, organised by the local Wildlife Trust. In both cases we agreed to avoid the main Heron Trail, which is best known for its bird-life, and concentrate on the life to be found in the Meadow Trail where the hay had just been cut and gathered into bales.
I was hoping that we would find some wasp spiders and squadrons of dragonflies but the weather had turned cool and, though insect life was abundant among the herbs and brambles, it was too cold for most of them to be on the move. The good thing about that was that we all had a good chance to look at gatekeepers, ringlets, small skippers and hover flies before they woke up to our presence.
The end of the road for a damselfly.
(Could this be a male wasp spider?)

The top sightings were a grass snake (briefly), a singing whitethroat and a reed warbler, and a pyramidal orchid, but the real star was a willow emerald damselfly at the beach. It was getting dark when we found it and it looked like it had emerged recently. The strange thing was that it landed on a mat of weed and then pushed itself under water! Or was it pulled under by a predator? We couldn't really tell.
Britain's largest hoverfly.
It's larvae predate on wasps.  

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Life in the Meadow

Hay is an important crop to us: we use it to feed our cattle in winter and we sell some as well.

Male common blue butterfly.
If you think it's just a matter of cutting the grass and then bailing it, think again. Hay must not contain nasty plants that are harmful to livestock so we have to be sure that no plants like ragwort go into the bales. That means weeding the meadow every year before the cut. If the hay crop is trampled by visitors or flattened by hail, it can be a dead loss. If we cut it and then have a week of rain, the hay will be too wet to use and will go mouldy even if we bail it. Then there are mechanical problems to deal with as the machinery sits idle for most of the year and has a habit of breaking down on it's first outing. Finally there is the problem of staffing. Making hay takes several days and gathering it in needs at least two people, preferably more to drive the tractors and load the trailers, then unload them at the barn. Backbreaking work, I can tell you.
Knapweed and lady's bedstraw.
"Make hay while the sun shines" is the old proverb. So when is the best time to make hay? While the grass is often at its best in June, we like to go late with our hay making in order to give our insect life a good chance to get airborne and to let the later flowering plants set seed. However, if we wait too long, the grasses turn to brown and lose most of the nutrition we want.

Black-tailed skimmer female.
In early July we look for all the signs that tell us our crop is ripe. The grasses are going to seed and just turning from green to brown; the pods of the yellow rattle flowers have dried out and rattle pleasingly when we shake them; the seeds of the buttercups have turned black. And that is where we are now. It's hay-time.

Female hover-fly.

Two views of a spectacular large pied hover-fly.
We should love them as their larvae prey on wasps.
Today I took a last look at our meadow before the cut takes place. It is full of life and there are more flowers than I ever remember before. That's because making hay in the old fashioned way mixes up the seeds of all the plants in the meadow and spreads them around, so that plants that grow only in the edges of the field start to appear in the middle, and vice-verse.

Large skipper
Every year seems to benefit a different group of flowers. This year all of the vegetation is exceptionally tall but the plants I notice most at the bedstraws. As I entered the meadow near the visitor centre I could not help but notice a sweet, honeyed scent on the wind. I tracked it down to a dense belt of tall, yellow lady's bedstraw that was not there last year.  In farm and cottage kitchens it used to be used to help set jams and jellies, but all the bedstraws were used, when dried, as bedding to fill pillows and mattresses. When they are dried, the scent really come out. My favourite bedstraw to hang in the airing cupboard and put into drawers of clothes is woodruff. It hardly has any scent until you dry it. I also tried mixing it with tobacco and smoking it in a pipe, but I was young and foolish then. The other common bedstraw is hedge bedstraw, which is white and dominates much of the roadside this year, especially around the M25.

All of these wonderful plants are about to be cut down and made into hay, which seems like vandalism of a sort. To minimise the effect, we cut from the centre outwards so that wildlife refugees like voles, hares and even insects can escape to the margins, rather than be herded into the centre of the field where the final cut will kill them all. We also leave a boundary of tall vegetation for them to hide in and a bigger uncut swathe to act as a sanctuary. This tallest vegetation will be left to be grazed down by cows in the winter.

Speckled wood butterfly.
In today's meadow safari I was particularly searching for wasp spiders, dragonflies and butterflies. I have trouble hearing crickets and grasshoppers at my age (thank-you Jimi Hendrix!) but every footfall scattered dozens of them. It was a hot, still afternoon so not the best time to look but here is what I saw.

Stubby common darter dragonflies are all over the site at the moment, often well away from water. The big bullies of the dragonfly world are the most mobile, audibly snapping up hover-flies and even taking butterflies on the wing. The one with brown wings is a brown hawker and the big, bright blue one is appropriately named "The Emperor." Blue damselflies outnumber the dragonflies 1000:1 but they are much harder to spot and identify.

Meadows and butterflies go together like they were made for each other, which they are in a way. As we humans cleared large areas of forest to make pastures and fields, the sun-loving butterflies proliferated. Our meadow at Paxton has common blue, brown argus, small copper, small skipper, Essex skipper, large skipper, meadow brown and ringlet butterflies in it at the moment. Around the edges, on bramble and rose, we can find red admirals, commas, gatekeepers, speckled woods and at least two kinds of white butterfly. This week we have an influx of spectacular, but often well-worn, painted lady butterflies from the south. 
Painted lady.

If you would like to know more about all of these creatures, join us on July 18th for a talk and walk titled  Horse Stingers and Soul Bearers of Paxton Pits with John McDonough. The details are on our new website

Friday, 31 May 2019

Dragonfly Season

Paxton Pits Nature Reserve is one of Britain’s top places to see dragonflies.This is partly due to our location in East Anglia which is generally a good region for them, but also due to the range of wetlands on the Reserve that includes large and small still-water lakes and running water along the Great Ouse. It’s no wonder that photographers and naturalists come from all over the UK to see us. One of the most enthusiastic is Peter Wood who kindly contributed these photos. 
Four-spotted chaser (Peter Wood)
At the start of June we are already into the peak season and the list of species seen to date is remarkable. Of the big, glamorous species, we have seem emperors, hairy dragonflies, Norfolk hawkers, four-spotted chasers, scarce chasers, broad bodied chasers and black-tailed skimmers. Brown hawkers, southern hawkers, ruddy darters and common darters are yet to come, as well as the migrant hawkers which arrive in July plus any surprise visits by rarer migrants. Our regular annual list contains over 12 species, and that's not counting damselflies.
Emperor (Peter Wood)
Damselflies are smaller than dragonflies, but they are every bit as beautiful. They hold their wings folded along the body when resting while dragonflies hold their wings out at flat to either side. This year we have seen at least eight species of damselfly with more to come in late summer. 
Norfolk hawker (Peter Wood)
Almost every year brings us a new species, the most recent being willow emerald damselflies and our star attraction, the Norfolk hawker. 
The willow emerald holds its wings half way out
unlike most other damsels. (Peter Wood)
With British insect life generally in steep decline, the value of nature reserves like Paxton Pits that provide a chemical-free haven for them can’t be overestimated. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Scots Pine.

The king of our garden is a cock blackbird. There he is now, making a royal proclamation from the top of our Scots pine. Perched up on high, he can look out for cats and magpies or his rivals trying to muscle-in from the surrounding gardens. He's a bravado songster and his rich, flutey song bounces back from the brickwork of our house. He is the bee's knees of blackbirds and he seems to know it.

We planted the pine tree over twenty years ago when it was waist high and now it is as high as the roof of our house. Why a Scot's pine? Like most of our plantings it's all about associations. We removed a Eucalyptus that had no association for us because neither of us had been to Australia, but pine trees remind us of walks among the "granny-pines" in Scotland, or the coastal woods of Maine, Washington State, North Norfolk and many other places. The smell is part of the magic, and there's the crunchy carpet of fallen leaves and cones that drop to the ground every year. In my mind's eye I can see a pine marten, a raccoon, or even a bear up my tree but, being a native tree in its own land, my tree only attracts native wildlife including some birds and many insects that did not visit us before the tree arrived.

Holly blue visiting the male flowers.
Badger-striped coal tits dash in and out to glean insects and the seeds of cones while gold-crests and long-tailed tits hunt for spiders among the needles where a sparrow-hawk sometimes sits to pluck his prey. The list of new insects to the garden is impressive, including bugs, flies and moths that, through sheer ignorance, I can't put a name to.

My blackbird has moved his perch to the tv arial on our chimney and I have a chance to look at the tree more closely. It is May and the lower branches are decked with two-inch yellow "candles" that are the male flowers. When a wood-pigeon clumps down on a branch a cloud of yellow pollen floats up. Pines evolved early in time before most flowering plants and many insects had appeared so, like ferns, they rely on the wind for pollination. There is so much of it this year that the puddles on my patio are encircled by a tide-line of greenish yellow dust. The female flowers are on the ends of the branches, the reddish tips looking like something from a coral reef, waving small tentacles to catch plankton, only in this case the target is pollen.

Those female flowers will become next year's green cones. Last year's crop is still green, clasping tightly to the branches between the needles. Older cones are brown. Some completed their role and  shed they seed last year while others are still closed. As the sun warms them, around noon, I can hear ticks and crackles as some of the cones open out, sending a miniature shower of small spinning seeds earthwards, each one landing in a different spot due to the angle of their single wing.

Male flowers.
I have spent a spellbinding hour with my pine-tree and I know I will spend many more with this tree and others, perhaps stroking the rust coloured bark or looking among the roots for fungi or perhaps a giant wood-ants nest.

The male flower.
At Paxton Pits Nature Reserve there are only two straggly Scots pines hiding away among poplars. The "Christmas Trees" at Wray House are a mixture of fir and spruce trees. They still manage to attract goldcrests and lots of insects but we have planted three Scots pines to replace them when the inevitable happens. Perhaps one day those pines will be home to a family of buzzards, hobbies or just a familiar singing blackbird.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Yorkshire Fog

What in bloody hell dost tha think tha’s doing! Get thesen out ot' fog!” shouted Arnold Alderson.

For those of you who are not from The Dale, this loosely translates as “What are you doing in my hay-crop young Jimmy? I would like you to leave, please”.

Up until that moment grass was just, well, grass, and grass was for playing in. Arnold taught me that grass grown for hay is a crop, and a vital one too. Come the winter, Arnold and all the other sheep farmers rely on hay to feed their flocks. Up in the hills it is essential to insure that you have a good stock of hay in case spring comes late because there may be no fresh grass until well into lambing time or beyond.

If the supply of hay is short it can become a very expensive commodity... a long summer drought makes for a poor crop but too much rain can be a problem too, especially if it makes it impossible to cut and dry the hay before it loses all it’s nutrition.
After the hay cut, grazing with sheep.

There’s another good reason to make hay while the sun shines. It’s a slow process taking two to three days of turning and shaking before it can be gathered in. In Arnold’s time the work was done by hand using scythes, pitchforks and rakes and a horse was used to pull the sled that carried hay to the barn. Later he had and his brother bought a little Ferguson tractor to replace Robin the horse. Today’s hill farmers work in teams using quad bikes to race between three or four fields that are cut on the same day.

A hedgehog in the hay meadow.
During the process of making hay the seeds of grasses and flowers are scattered back into the field to grow again next year. A good hay meadow will contain masses of wildflowers so long as the farmer doesn’t cut the grass too early for the seeds to be ripe. It is a good idea to leave some corners or strips left uncut for late flowering plants like knapweeds and to leave some shelter for insects and animals that have been disturbed during the process.

The Sailing Club meadow at Paxton Pits.
So, how does a farmer know when it’s time to cut? Apart from consulting the weather forecast, he will look at the plants themselves.

The seeds of buttercups turn from soft green to hard black when they are ripe but another good indicator plant is yellow rattle. In May the bladder-like pods that contain the seeds will be soft and silent but, when the time is right, they dry and harden to become little rattles. That’s how we know when to cut the hay.

The meadow at Paxton Pits in May.
Arnold is long gone but his meadow still has clumps of purple cranesbills and a hundred other plants. Tiny eyebrights and crossworts grow where rabbits have been, yellow bedstraws and blue forget-me-nots, the very colour of Peter Rabbit’s waistcoat, grow on ant hills and there are waist-high stinging nettles, giant bellflowers, figworts and sweet cicely plants leaning against the drystone walls. Those flowers and herbs give each hay bale a unique aroma and taste that goes on to flavour milk and cheese and possibly meat too. But it is the grasses that are the heart of the crop; grasses like cocksfoot, fescue, foxtail, timothy, quaking grass and good old Yorkshire fog.

Bird Count

The team of voluntary counters assembles in the car park at 7 am on a spring Sunday. A huddle of 20 figures in shades of green or khaki huddle at the back of a car to collect their data sheets before setting off in pairs along their assigned routes.

This session is one of three or four breeding bird surveys that we make every summer. The results will tell us which birds are doing well and which ones are not, leaving us to try and work out if the changes are due to our work, changes in the habitat, or could it be changing weather patterns here or perhaps in Africa?
The weather is very important.
'Looks like rain coming.

The weather on the day makes a lot of difference. If it is cold, windy or wet then birds will be harder to find than on a warm sunny day. The first survey in April will have a lot less migrants around than the one in May, and by June the reserve is full of bird families making a confusing amount of hisses clucks ad whistles but not singing.

From my bedroom window, this morning looked like being ideal. Yesterday’s rain, hail and wind had gone but when I reached my car the windows were coated with a thick film of ice and the breeze felt much colder than I expected.

The sight of seven newly arrived summer swallow on the wires near our visitor centre were a welcome site and led us to think there would be more surprises in store. A cuckoo called from across the meadow and chiffchaffs, black-caps and garden warblers seemed to be in every bush.

Our modus operandi is quite simple, we record every bird that we see or hear on a base map. Exactly the same routes are employed every time and we try to spend about the same time on each survey so we can compare on year with another. It sounds easy but birds can be very unpredictable, skulking silently in the undergrowth or all singing at once to make it hard to tell who is who and how many there are.

Reed warblers clamour away in the reeds in a rhythmic buzz of whistles and clicks that surely must come from two birds? Or is it three? No it’s one. Or is it a sedge warbler? Is that a blackcap singing? It sounds a bit too melodic. Maybe it’s a garden warbler. Yes, it’s a garden warbler, there it is. Oh no, it’s got a black cap!

Sedge warbler
Even when a bird reveals itself it is not always easy to put a name to it. Chiffchaffs and willow warblers look identical except for their leg colour and the bramble bushes are full of little brown jobs (LBJs) that could be sparrows, dunnocks, finches, robins, warblers or even something extremely rare, which of course they never are.

Today’s count produced a few surprises. I was startled by a sudden very loud outburst of Chip Cherrup Cherrupupup coming from a little clump of brambles in the meadow. Cetti’s warblers are almost never seen but you can’t miss their call. Why do they have to be so loud though? Perhaps their territories are very large? I’m quite deaf these days but Cetti’s warblers still make me jump. On the other hand I struggle even hear the high-pitched reeling buzz of a grasshopper warbler.

Always look for surprises like the gull
on the right in this photo.
A  male cuckoo gave us a fly-past, its long tail and shallow wing beats make it's silhouette unique but it was calling as it flew so no-one could mistake it for a hawk or a falcon.  It perched high on a tree above me and i managed to get a sound recording of it.

The bird everyone wanted to hear this year was a nightingale. After almost losing them last year we were hoping for a better turn-out this summer. The northern team, working near Stirtloe heard at least five and we heard at least two at the southern end, although they were not in full song. I suppose the biggest surprise was to hear the purring of three turtle doves across the site. Let's hope they stay.

As final proof that summer is nearly here we saw our first swift of the year.

Like almost every enterprise on the reserve, this project would be impossible without a dedicated army of volunteers. Thank you all very much.

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.