Monday, 6 June 2011

April showers arrive late; in June!

Stop Press: Our new Environmental Education Centre has just won an award from Huntingdonshire District Council for it's green credentials. The building is managed by our partners, the Wildlife Trust, to give people of all ages a taste of the wonders that Paxton Pits has on offer. In the design plan, we wanted to get as "green" a building as we could afford within the budget. We still don't have solar panels but I'm so pleased that we won this. I'm sure will win other awards when the plantings have matured and the landscaping comes into its own.

The showers we had this week were the only significant precipitation since the winter. The birds showed their appreciation by having a good bath and then singing their hearts out. There also seems to be a surge in nest building this week. This first rain started our annual swarm of baby toads around the Hayling Pit, particularly near the allotments. Please watch where you put your feet if it rains again!

The drought has been really tough on our snails. You can find thousands of shells in the shrivelled turf behind the Lefarge Plant. Even so, a few survivors like this banded grove snail popped out to enjoy the rain.

On Sunday we fielded our team of bird-counters for the second breeding bird survey of the year. Most of the birds were mapped in dense vegetation so the observers needed to be good at recognising bird-song. Even so, it was impossible to sort out all the calls, squeaks and ticks coming from hidden baby birds. It was a relief to hear a few turtle doves singing after a long silence. People were starting to complain that these uncommon birds had become extinct here. Apparently this is quite normal as the males take a big share in raising the young and don't have time for 'choir practice' until the nest is empty. If you would like to help with next year's counts, please get in touch with me.
Our bird ringing programme is run by RSPB staff in their time off, usually starting very early on a week-end morning. The ringing site is behind our yard at Ray House Farm, near the moorings. The scheme produces all sorts of useful data and often we get reports of birds that we didn't even know we had on the site, or we get definite proof that birds have bred. Recent captures include a Cettis Warbler (pictured) which we were not aware of there, although we have them on the Meadow Trail. They are incredibly noisy, letting out a scolding, explosive chain of expletives from dense cover, so its surprising we missed this one.

Of course, the main point in putting rings on birds is to catch them again. That way we might find out how long they live or where they go. Ringer Ian Dillon told me, "We also caught one Nightingale, which brought the biggest smile of the day from our visiting ringers Vic & Helen Inzani. This was an adult male first caught in June 2008 and re-trapped twice in 2010, but not trapped in 2009. A Garden Warbler plus 2 Great Tits from 2008 were also notable re-traps. The Garden Warbler is quite interesting having been trapped at least once each May since 2008 but never in any other month. Where does it go during June, July and August before it migrates south again?"

Only today I learned that a male lesser whitethroat caught by a cat in St Neots was ringed here on May 15th. They are supposed to stay here and nest, not go to town!

We seem to have more squirrels around than ever. Once in a while we see a black one. This one, which seems to be a young one, was on the bird table at the visitors' centre. Although they generally supposed to be more dominant than their grey siblings, this little chap was constantly being chased off by the resident greys.

Out in the arable fields I'm amazed to see anything growing as we don't have the ability to irrigate the crops. In fact we didn't even bother to plant our wild-bird cover mix until a week ago, but we don't expect much of a crop. Fortunately the wheat that we planted last autumn was well established and deeply rooted before the drought struck. There will be a lot of grain, but it will be a bit small. In amongst the crop on Peter's Field you can see red poppies, blue cornflowers and a few mauve corn-cockles. The daisy-like plants along the margin are corn chamomiles.

Our meadow would normally be waist high in grasses, rushes and wild flowers at this time. It looks like a brown playing field now except in the lusher margins near the trees. This where you can see some very fine examples of spotted orchids, especially at the foot of the steps that lead up to the Hayling Pit. Please don't trample them when you take photos. The rangers were horrified to find that someone had picked a hand full of them last week, then left them on a nearby bench!