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.

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.