Thursday, 7 March 2013

Spring? Not yet!

Alder cones and catkins.

This column is a version of one sent to the Parish Newsletter that will appear by the end of March.

Is there one day when you can really define the arrival of spring? When does it start for you? Is it when the clocks go forward or when you see the first snowdrop; the first daffodil or the first butterfly? Or do you wait to see the first swallow or hear the first cuckoo?

Dead hedges help to prevent disturbance.
On the Reserve we see the first signs of spring from around Christmas when the cormorants start to nest and the leaves of wild arum start to show. By the end of February we have seen the first flowers and often the first butterflies, but we carry on doing winter habitat management until the end of March. By then the newts and frogs are in our ponds, blackbirds and thrushes are nesting and the path-side vegetation is starting to sprout. The first spring migrant birds will have been singing for a couple of weeks but, in a normal year, the big arrival is in the first week of April.  We expect to hear the nightingales, black-caps and garden warblers singing and we watch the sky for swallows.
Poplar catkins

As for cuckoos; there are so few of them about these days, but we still have them at Paxton every year. The boardwalk in the Meadow Trail is the place to put yourself and listen for them calling. That's because our cuckoos lay most of their eggs in the nests of reed warblers around Rudd, Hayling and Cloudy Pits. Those reed-beds are important for lots of other wildlife too, so you might hear sedge warblers rattling or the screaming, pig-like calls of water rails. For the last few years we have had up to three singing Cetti's warblers around the Meadow Trail. They look like big, chocolate wrens, but you never see them amid the brambles and reeds; only their loud "Chidit-chedit-dit-dit" call tells you they are there.

Still flooded in March.
On the nature trails, all those "untidy" scrubby patches of bramble with nettles or reeds poking through them are absolutely vital to summer migrant birds that come here from Africa. The thorns provide cover to prevent predators from finding their nests. Predators come from all sides; magpies and crows from above and cats, rats, squirrels, weasels, stoats and foxes from the ground. That's why we spend a lot of the winter trying to increase the amount of scrub near the ground. Then, in summer, we try to prevent disturbance of the nesting areas by bird watchers, photographers and dogs. We put up barriers and signs, but in the end we rely on word of mouth and the good will of our visitors. Last year most visitors got the message but, despite our best efforts, our star birds are in decline. Ground nesting birds like skylarks, pipits, chiff-chaffs, willow warblers, partridges and nightingales are particularly vulnerable to disturbance and predation. 

All year round we ask all our visitors to please keep to the paths at all times, but during the main part of the nesting season in April, May, June and July this becomes doubly critical, especially where there are concentrations of nightingales and other vulnerable species. However, we are only asking for dogs on leads on two short sections of path.

Dogs on leads please:
  • On the Meadow Trail section across the two hay meadows between Rudd and Cloudy Pits.
  • On the Heron Trail from the main gate (by the Environmental Education Centre) to the dog-bin on the Ouse Valley Way near the River Viewpoint.
Please help us to produce more wildlife by reducing disturbance. If you have any questions, sightings or points to raise, please contact me via e-mail 


Jim Stevenson, Senior Ranger