Sunday, 6 November 2011

October News

Sightings: I was getting really irritable last month: If another person saw an otter and told me about it, I could have screamed! But last Friday it was my turn.

As I walked back down the Heronry Trail, past Peter's Field by the row of conifers at Wray House Garden, I could hear the urgent whistles of nervous wigeon just beyond the trees; so despite being in a bit of a hurry, I popped over the little wooden bridge for a look. On the right of the path there is a fallen tree that lies in the water. Very close to the shore, there was my otter busily fishing among the submerged branches. It soon caught a small pike and settled down on a branch to eat it, tail first. I could still hear it munching away as I left. So now that I have seen one it's your turn, and I won't be jealous.

Piglet taken with a mobile phone.
We also have a new mammal on the reserve, though I'm not sure that it's one we want. If you stand on the River Viewpoint and look across the river towards Great Paxton, you are actually looking at a substantial, wooded island that is part of the reserve. Last week, staff from the Environment Agency were there to clear debris from the river and startled a spotty piglet, then a second one. They didn't hang around to see the sow that they suspected was there as well.

If the year was a day, this would be tea-time! November is traditionally a good time for berries and fungi, and there are plenty of both, but who would have expected wild flowers? This week there are still some colourful surprises to be found, especially in Peter's Field where you can still see white campion and deep blue cornflowers.

Purple toadflax
Tasks: Along the side of the Haul Road, near the Sailing Lake, you can see chicory, fennel and stork's bill still flowering, but it's a notorious spot for fly-tipping and we had a fine show of exotic poppies there earlier. I found a couple of spikes of purple toadflax, which is a garden escape, but I think it's rather attractive and not invasive. However, there is (or was) another plant there that we definitely don't want on the Reserve.

Crown vetch is a creeping member of the pea family that has pinkish purple flowers. It scrambles over the ground forming a dense mat of vegetation, almost a foot thick, that obliterates all competition. Having formed a monocultural colony in a glade, it then starts to spread to the neighbouring bushes and small trees, scrambling up through the densest bramble and even reaching up into willow trees. It just has to go.

Crown vetch before.....
 We have tried spraying it, but that only kills off it's competitors and gives it more space. This week we cut it all down and burned it, but I'm sure it will be back. Perhaps our best hope for next year is repeated mowing of the colony and then hand weeding to pick out any strays near-by.

.......and after.
On the arable land we have increased our area of seedy, bird-food plants in the hope that there will be enough to last the whole winter without us having to put out grain. When we first started growing crops we attracted a large flock of yellowhammers, but we haven't seen them for a few years now. Neighbouring farmers are going into stewardship schemes, so we may have a joint effect by all trying to attract the missing farmland birds. Of course, if they simply aren't around, you can't attract them.

You may spot some brass tags on some of our trees. This means that we are monitoring them, usually because they might become a safety hazard. Ranger Matt Johnson led on this and is now worrying about how to find money to get the most urgent tree surgery done.

In every winter month, the waterbirds on all our lakes are counted as part of the national WeBS count which is coordinated by the BTO. Due to the low water levels, we have been able to access some tricky bank-sides in order to trim the willows to facilitate counting from viewpoints.

Shaggy Ink-caps
Visitor Figures. The highlight of the month was Family Autumn Watch which was a joint effort between the Rangers, The Friends and the Wildlife Trust. We used the Education Centre as a base for a wide range of activities and attracted 475 people on the day. Over the whole month we had 2252 visitors in the Visitors Centre and Debbie was visited by 96 children at the Education Centre as well as the Autumn Watch families. Over 30 people attended a talk on Fungi by Peter Walker.

Volunteers: Over 150 man days of volunteer effort contributed to the running of the centre, the reserve and the Autumn Watch event.

Coming Up:  As well as hosting events on the site, The Friends of Paxton Pits sometimes goes on the road to reach people in the wider community around St Neots. On November 19th at 7.30 in the United Reformed Methodist Church we have An Evening of Song. Huntingdon Male Voice Choir will be supported by Take Three Folk. Tickets are going fast at £8.00. (From Paxton Pits or the St Neots Museum).

Volunteer Gerry Senior trying to look busy while
 we clear bramble from an orchid patch.
On December 1st at 2.00pm, photographer Barrie Mason will be giving us an armchair tour around the Wildlife and Landscapes of East Anglia. There's no need to book for this, just turn up in good time at the Visitors' Centre.

In November our wildfowl numbers should increase, even though we already have more ducks than usual . I'm hoping for smew and goosanders before too long. We have water-rails on the site now and can expect more. Because it has been a lemming year in the far north, we might expect to see a short-eared owl or even a rough legged buzzard. They are being seen in the county already. Will we see bramblings on the bird tables this year? There's always something to look forward to, even if the weather (and the economic) forecast is gloomy.