Saturday, 3 December 2011

December? Really?

Green grass and sunny skies.
The rose-hips tell us it's autumn, but which month?
If you took a photo almost anywhere on the reserve last week and then asked people what month it was taken in, they would probably say "September". There was so much greenery about and people were still having lunch at the picnic tables outside. It's still like that now, despite a couple of easily morning frosts.

I was made very much aware of the mild weather when I found a photo taken at the end of November last year. It shows frozen lakes and acres of snow. However, at this time last year, our lakes were pretty full. This year we have had a drought that the Environment Agency says will still be causing problems next year.

Having low water levels at Paxton Pits is not a bad thing in itself. The dabbling ducks and geese can now reach weed-beds that only swans could get to before. You can see them congregating over the deeper parts of the Heronry Lakes.

Next time you are in the hide, watch the feeding ducks closely. A typical flock will be centred on either a couple of swans or Canada geese that do the hard work of pulling up the weed. Coots will follow to get any green scraps and wigeon and gadwall ducks will grab any small items and seeds that float out. Shovelers and teal rake the surface film for what's left (although these vacuum-cleaner ducks are more likely to be asleep in the day as they can eat in the dark, using touch rather than eyesight.)

Rafts of wildfowl on the Heronry Lakes
That's the dabblers catered for; but what about the diving ducks? To be honest, we don't have many at the moment, probably because the water is too shallow and they have too much competition from the dabblers, but you may see tufted ducks joining in the feast. They are particularly fond of snails and other small invertebrates that the feeding frenzy has disturbed. Pochards are pretty much vegetarian and they will join in to grab roots and corms. Goldeneyes have arrived recently and they act in a much more free-wheeling style, chasing active invertebrates like shrimps, beetles and water-boatmen. The bigger fish-eating ducks like goosanders stay away, probably because all the activity will have scattered their prey.

If you have been really looking, you will have seen that each clump of birds also contains on black-headed gull. The gull's job is to act as look-out, but as a reward he gets to mug any ducks that catch a tasty item that he fancies. He's a klepto-parasite!