Friday, 27 May 2016

Ranger Patrol in May

Today I had the honour of being the last ranger on duty before the Bank Holiday. That means that I had to clean the loos, empty the bins (including the overflowing dog bins) and do the patrols. I simply loved it!

The Cobham Hide
The best email of the day was a notice that we had again won a certificate of excellence from Trip Advisor, which is a real pat on the back for all the volunteers and staff that make Paxton Pits the special place that it is. A lot of the credit has top go to the Voluntary Wardens who man the Visitor Centre every day and give everyone, including me, such a warm welcome. (If you would like to become a voluntary warden, please contact me at the office.)

There is always so much to do in the office that I am made to feel guilty about going out on the Reserve at all.  Fortunately for me, Health and Safety trumps all, which means that I have to do the site checks at Paxton and at Barford Road Pocket Park in St Neots. On a day like today, that's no chore at all.

Cormorants having a break.
As I parked my car and walked into the visitor centre, a cuckoo flew low over my head. Then I noticed that the visitors at the picnic tables were looking up to where a pair of hobbies was soaring high in the blue sky while being mobbed by black headed gulls. Hobbies pose no threat to the gulls, but they look like miniature peregrines which is enough to bring them some respect.  They were probably catching freshly emerged damselflies that were dispersing above the lakes.

My first job was to attach a new cable to our bird-cam which has been focussed on our niger seed feeder. As that feeder was getting no action at all I pointed the camera at the fat balls and peanut feeders that are regularly visited by great spotted woodpeckers. Our nest-box camera was turned off after the blue tits lost their chicks.

Ash die-back.
While volunteers Edwin and Susan covered the Meadow Trail, I set off to cover the Heron Trail backwards, by going up the Haul Road towards the quarry. As well as checking safety features like signage and lifebelts, I like to check on what's going on with the wildlife, and exchange news with our visitors. It's always useful to have a few fresh photos too.

For some time I have been trying to get a picture of our new hide, which is now named after David Cobham. It would be nice to have a view of it from across the lake, but the summer vegetation is just too dense. It will take a week or so for all of my cuts and scratches to heal and the resulting picture is not very good.  I had a good look at the cormorant colony while I was there, hoping to see some sign of breeding egrets, but I haven't even seen one lately. The cormorants were very relaxed; mostly sitting around, bathing or drying off.

Great Reed Warbler by Martin Davies.
Across the road is Rory's Wood which has become a real gem since we removed all of the Turkey oaks there. The invasive oaks have been replaced by ash trees that have seeded themselves. I walked along the ride looking for nettle-leaved bell flowers. The leaves were up but they have not flowered yet. These are proper woodland plants, illustrating that the parish boundary wood is very old. While I was poking about I noticed that some of the the young ash trees were dying or dead. Not liking the look of that, I widened my search and found that about 10% of the ash saplings were dead. This has to be ash die-back disease which travels near the ground and particularly attacks the young trees. It's arrival is very bad news, but was probably inevitable.

I met a lot a steady stream of birders coming towards me, some with cameras, others with telescopes, and some with both. The Great Reed Warbler that arrived two weeks ago is still singing at Washout Pit. I believe it is the only one in the UK and has almost no chance of finding a mate but you cant accuse him of not trying. He just never stops singing for more than a few minutes. Hearing him is not a challenge but getting a photograph is. A few people are lucky enough to get a view without having to wait but others have devoted a couple of hours and still not had a good view. Those birders come from all over the UK. They usually exchange notes and have a cup of tea at the visitor centre, and they spend money in the locality when they stock up on food and fuel. Some even stay the night locally. I think that this solo singing warbler must have earned thousands of pounds over the last two weeks.

Turning south along the Ouse Valley Way I could not help taking more pictures of the Chicken-of-the-Woods fungus that is growing on a willow near the moorings. It is just starting to fade now, but it still looks spectacular.

All along the way I kept hearing cuckoos and occasionally saw one fly past, but at the River Viewpoint I found at least two of them feeding on ermine moth caterpillars. On the island in the river, most of the trees are bird cherries. These trees are attacked by the caterpillars every year. They eat all the leaves and cover the branches in cobwebs. Cuckoos are specialists in picking off the hairy caterpillars that other birds don't like. I watched them crash into the trees and tumble about snatching caterpillars and then more or less falling back out of the trees. I suppose that their legs are too short for them to walk about on the branches with any agility. My photos are terrible but you might have more luck like Phil Smith did. (See Photo).
Four spotted chaser.
A lot of the visitors that I met were looking for nightingales, which is tricky at this time of year because they do not sing as much as they did a few weeks ago. The lush vegetation also makes them hard to see. However, I heard one singing beautifully in the big ash tree opposite the brass plaque in Peter's Field.

One of our most successful projects in recent years has been the construction of two tern rafts that are viewable from the Kingfisher Hide. Last year we had a pair of terns on each raft but this time we probably have over a dozen pairs. I hope we will add another raft next spring, perhaps closer to the hide. The Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve also hope to replace the Kingfisher hide itself.

I bumped into one or two oif our regulars who were photographing dragonflies. The best photo I saw was of a fopur spotted chaser, which has two spots on each wing. Also look out for scarce chasers that have small spots at the end of the wings. Both dragonflies are on the wing this week.

Scarce chaser.
Finally, I returned to the Visitor Centre to fill in my log and clean the loos before setting off to Barford Road where I emptied the bins before having a stroll around. If you have not been there, it is worth a walk. The place is stuffed with lizards and grass snakes and you can quite often see Cetti's warblers from the boardwalk.

Please contact the rangers if you would like to donate to the Friends' Kingfisher Hide Project or if you would like to become a Voluntary Warden.