Thursday, 6 October 2011


Sightings and soundings: We are into October already, and the first week feels like August again, with drought and record temperatures for the time of year.  Most of our lake levels are below the bottom of the gauges, but we still have enough water here. We all have nice tans too, but I'm told we will pay for it later and there may be snow on the way!

Ragwort flowering yet again.
Meanwhile, throughout the UK we have a bumper crop of berries and acorns, which should mean a good autumn for migrant thrushes such as redwings and blackbirds. Apparently the berry crop in Scandinavia isn't so good as here, so we might have another waxwing year. Jays are already moving in on the acorns which they bury all over the place, often a long way from the parent tree. This explains the random, lone turkey oaks that pop up in strange places on the reserve.

The last of our summer migrants are still being seen: I saw both a swallow and a hobby on Monday of this week. On the same day a very rare, young Pallid Harrier flew up the valley and was seen by several people. Sadly, I wasn't one of them.

Already we have high numbers of migrant waterfowl, particularly over 300 wigeon from Iceland. Why so early? The answer seems to be twofold: The Ouse Washes are very dry and so these birds are coming to us instead, and the weather up north hasn't been nearly so kind as it has here.

Sheaves of thatching wheat.
The "Indian Summer" was great for butterflies and dragonflies and I'm seeing plants that are flowering for the third time this year. Some of these, such as ragwort, crown vetch and Himalayan balsam, are not the ones we would like to see on the reserve, but it's great to see great dodder flowering again.

Visitor Figures: September was a good month for us in the Visitor's Centre with 2156 visitors. We always get a lot of customers who take their holidays after the schools have gone back. Many come from the Camping and Caravan Club site at St Neots.

Most of the groups that came were walkers of one sort or another. 7 groups brought 131 people.

In the Environmental Education Centre, Debbie and her team have started the autumn term well with visits from both primary schools and 6th forms as well as the WexWatch club, GreenWatch and Little Bugs. 8 groups brought 150 children. In addition, Castle School and Samuel Pepys have been bringing small groups of children each week on a self help basis and the "Green Team" from the Regional College comes at least twice a week.

Volunteers: Our Voluntary Wardens, who manned the visitors centre every day of the month, put in almost 60 man-days.

New calf gets it's ear-tags.
We gave our midweek volunteers a month off in August but they returned to work in September and numbers have slowly built up through the month to total 42 man-days.

Tasks: The main tasks have been repairs to fences, improving access and sprucing up the garden, although we have also done a good deal of weeding. We pulled all the ragwort on St Neots Common for the second time this year. On two occasions we took our volunteers to Barford Road Pocket Park to remove old signs and clear up grass cuttings. The Rangers have been dashing around cutting all the grass that has to be cut, hopefully for the last time this year.
Old plough, made new.

Agriculture: Our wheat harvest from Peter's Field went for thatching and subsequently we sowed more wheat for next year on a different field. This was achieved using an old plough that our volunteer Davy Jones renovated for us, using a generator bought for us by the Friends. Our wild bird cover mix is looking very attractive with big, yellow sunflowers and red and orange quinoa plants among the crop. Hopefully this will provide enough seed for wintering finches in the first part of 2012. The next task is to sow a field with clover to fix nitrogen in the soil.

We have a small guest herd of very polite, French cattle in the meadows this year, as well as our own Sussex-Angus crosses that we keep near the river. Presently, Ranger Matt Johnson has a flock of Wiltshire horned sheep in the paddock where he hopes they will clean out the ragwort rosettes that remain. These sheep are unusual in that they don't need to be sheared; they just shed their wool. They will later be moved to a railway embankment in Huntingdon which HDC is managing for butterflies.

Bird cover/seed mix.
The Friends of Paxton Pits have been as busy as  ever. Trevor and Veronica Gunton gave a really fascinating talk on their travels to the Arctic and Antarctic, pulling in over 70 people at the Village Hall. Meanwhile, a lot of time has been spent preparing for our big Autumn-Watch event on Sunday, October 9th.

At Barford Road Pocket Park we have been cutting the larger areas of grass after most of the plants have set seed. The objective was to take away the swarf and so strip away the nutrients to encourage a more varied flora next year. We even hoped to get some hay from it, but the growth was so coarse and dense our equipment couldn't handle it. We used a contractor to finish the job, but there is still some tidying up to be done.

There are some bright-new signs in place at Barford Road, and more to come. There are also some litter bins to be placed near the play area and benches.

It's often a pleasure for us to go to Barford Road because we see things there that we don't see at Paxton. It's a great place to see lizards sunning themselves on the log piles that were specially made for them, and the park often attracts a few good birds. I saw a redstart there last month. The down-side is that we have to pick up litter and there is always tons of it; at least there was. The creation of the new foot-bridge over the river and the causeway that accesses it seems to have diverted a lot of "litter-louts" away from the Park. Now almost all of the litter at Barford Road is to be found around the entrance near Tescos and around the children's play area there. Hopefully the addition of more bins will help to reduce the amounts even here and the "six-bag pick-up" will be no more!.