Friday, 13 January 2012

Island Life

Our false spring continues apace. Cormorants are well into nesting, herons and swans are courting and song-birds, especially thrushes, are singing. Our two nest-box wardens, David and David, started their annual clean out and repair service, only to discover that some blue tits, great tits and robins have even started nest building.

Ladybirds and bumble-bees have been seen on the wing, so I wonder who will see the first butterfly?

Fortunately there's no sign of nesting activity among our black-headed gulls which are still all in their white-headed winter plumage. I say this because we like to give their nesting colony a good spring-clean before they arrive. Most of the black-headed gulls you see in the area in summer have their HQ on the islands in the Sailing Lake, though a few now nest in the workings near Diddington.

Although the Sailing Lake is not part of the Nature Reserve, we are permitted to manage the islands as well as the paths around it. Our objective is to keep the islands clear of vegetation as this is just what the ground-nesting birds want. Their eggs are camouflaged to look like gravel and pebbles and we think they prefer to be able to see all around so that predators cannot sneak up on them. Of course the sailing club members also like the islands to be bare so they get plenty of wind for sailing.

Every year at about this time, the Friends of Paxton Pits run a Sunday work party on the islands. The Rangers bring their metal boat and the Sailing Club provides a safety boat and crew. It's always an interesting event, but it's also a struggle to finish the work in one session, so this year we made a second trip to the islands on Wednesday with our mid-week volunteers. Bramble seems to be on the increase, making it really hard to get it all cut as it forms a network of runners along the ground.  It's a problem because we have heard that young birds get tangled in it. As well as cutting it down and burning it, we plan to spray an area with herbicide. However, to be effective, this has to be done when the bramble is greening up; just about when the birds come back. Worryingly, there was a gull prospecting one of the islands this morning!

On Sunday we saw a common sandpiper on one of the islands and on Wednesday there were smews on the lake, but during the breeding season, the Sailing Lake is alive with birds; not just the gulls, but also common terns, oystercatchers, lapwings and geese, all nesting in a small area where they are safe from foxes.

There are mammals there too. Sometimes we find harvest mouse nests and we always see wood mice and voles. In the breeding season rats were seen, probably attracted by all the dead chicks on the islands. All that activity would also attract mink, but we have seen no evidence of them there so far.