Friday, 16 September 2011

End of summer?

Female common darter

It's been a good week to be out and about. The sun is still shining, but it isn't as warm as it was. If you like to photograph insects, then this is a good time because they need to sit about in sunny glades to heat themselves up. Dragonflies are particularly photogenic just now and there are at least four kinds of hawker and both darters to be seen sunning themselves or darting around after hover-flies. Most damselflies are finished now but you should look out for the metallic-green Willow Emerald. It seems to be turning up all over East Anglia this year.

Lizard at Barford Road Pocket Park
Reptiles too are cold blooded, of course, so they need to sun themselves just like the dragonflies. A cool reptile is a slow reptile, so now is a good chance to spot one. At Paxton, look for grass-snakes but, if you go to Barford Road Pocket Park, you have every chance of seeing a lizard. I wish we saw them at Paxton too but, if you find one under a log rather than on top, it will almost certainly be a newt, not a lizard. Even so, there are old records from near Diddington, so if you find one, let me know.

Fox-and cubs Hawkweed
There are still colourful flowers to be seen everywhere. Yellow seems to dominate in September but the first signs of reddening vegetation are starting to show in the stems of willowherb and evening primrose. Once we get a frost, the reserve will transform to its full autumn palette, but let's not rush things. Already, fungi are popping up in unexpected places; often right in the middle of the path. I found a few field mushrooms and puff-balls in the meadow near the visitors centre and some large toadstools along the Ouse Valley Way this week. These fungi attract flies, some of which are attractive in their own right.

To be honest, if you stand in one place and really look, you will find something interesting to photograph at this time of year. I have photographed a jungle of teasles, a shoal of fish, two flies, a toadstool, a lizard, some sunflowers, a dragonfly and an oak tree within an hour, all beautifully lit by the autumn sun. When not taking photographs, I just look. If the day ever comes when I walk past a comma butterfly or a buzzard without giving it the courtesy of a good keek (Scottish/Dutch word; look it up) please shoot me!

Acorns and galls
You must have noticed the huge number of berries this year, and the large number of people picking them. This week's high winds loosened many berries that fell to the ground where flocks of small birds are busily munching them up. Nothing gets wasted here; this applies to acorns too. Our oaks are covered in them and so is the ground beneath. You may also have spotted thousands of deformed, brown acorns on the ground. These are knopper galls, caused by a tiny wasp that lays its eggs in the oak flowers in spring. The adult wasp will emerge from the fallen galls next year. It seems probable that the wasp was introduced to this country when we imported Turkey oaks for timber production in Victorian times. Oak-marbles and oak-apples are also galls, made in a similar way, but the insects emerge in summer and the galls stay on the tree.

Our new, blue plough in action.
I took a walk along the edge of the arable on Wednesday. Our dominant crop these days is a mix of plants designed to provide seed and cover for birds in winter. The sunflowers are not the dominant ingredient by any means but they stand out because they are so big, confident and cheerful. They just ask to be photographed. Quinoa is also a very colourful plant and together the two make a delicious combination. Imagine a hundred yellowhammers and one or two bramblings sitting on top of them and you have a vision of what we are after. It's not unreasonable, is it? I was pleased to see a few real arable "weeds" such as cornflowers and corn chamomiles among the crop.

The Friends of Paxton Pits recently donated a generator to us so that we could use power tools in our yard. I'm pleased to say that it has already paid its way by allowing us to salvage an old reversible plough and use it to cultivate our fields. Ranger Matt Johnson rescued what was left of the machine from the nettle-covered corner of a farm and volunteer Davy Jones stripped it down to all its parts and rebuilt it from scratch. It works a treat. Our winter thatching-wheat will be sown this weekend.

Lafarge plant
Talking of stripping down machinery; this is the last week you will be able to see the old tar-mac plant at the Lafarge site next door. It is being demolished and removed. There is absolutely no news about the future of the site and we also have not heard when Bardon Aggregates will resume work at their quarry. 'Hard times indeed.

You can cheer yourself up with a walk round the reserve or join us for one of our events. This month, on September 28th at 7.45, the Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve have taken over the Village Hall in order to accommodate a big audience for one of our showcase talks. The subject is "Polar Bears, Penguins and the White Continent" and the speaker is our own Trevor Gunton.

Veronica and Trevor Gunton
search unsuccessfully,
for penguins at Paxton Pits.
Trevor is of Viking stock (which explains a lot). No church hall is safe from him; he has spoken in almost every one in the country. His ancestors came from the Arctic to grow liquorice in Pontefract and Yorkshire Tea in the Pennines above Harrogate. Apparently these two staple crops fare badly in Norway but thrive here in the UK. After making his fortune in the family pillaging business he had a long and productive career at the RSPB where (at sword point) he recruited a million members. In retirement he has set himself the task of tracing his ancestors (best left alone in my view) by making many voyages to the Arctic. On these trips he has become a popular speaker and tour leader (there isn't a lot else to do), so much so that that he was approached to lead trips to the Antarctic as well. Although Trevor found no Guntons south of the Equator, he did find a lot of other creatures to beguile and amuse us. Don't miss this talk. Tickets are £5 from the visitors' centre.