Sunday, 3 September 2017

Every year is different......

Common darters by Petter Hagger
Have you noticed that every year is different? My computer tracks all my photos by date so I can see what the place looked like at the same time each year. In dry summers the trees and grasses look burned off by August yet this year they are still lush and green. The horrible spring weather had its benefits after all; at least it did for the flowers and the butterflies. For the birds, the results were more mixed.

Some birds only raise one brood of chicks a year and so, if they nest too early, or too late, or are just unlucky with the weather, it’s a catastrophe. The blue tits in our camera nest box failed to brood the eggs properly, presumably because one parent died. It was a late spring, causing many migrants to arrive late and in smaller numbers than usual. This was a terrible year for nightingales, with just a handful of singing males arriving here, and they didn’t all find mates. Only one pair of turtle doves showed up. As Donald Trump would say, “Sad”. Im really worried for the future of these particular birds as, if they produced no young this year, we might not get them back at all. Until recently we bucked the trend and held on to our nightingales while the Uk population as a whole steadily declined. So much for complacency.
Wild flowers in Peter's Field

However, those birds that nested later or have made repeated attempts produced quite a few chicks. We have two pairs of nesting barn owls this year (plus one in the quarry) and our buzzards nested again. For butterflies and dragonflies, this was a brilliant year and the wildflowers still look good in September.

We have had a few interesting migrants in recent weeks including a wheatear, an osprey, sandwich terns, ravens and hobbies, but my star bird was the great white egret that stayed and stayed. Now the first winter wildfowl are arriving from Iceland. Watch the numbers of widgeon, teal and shovelers build up over the coming weeks.  

Rose hips
This autumn, I forecast a bumper crop of berries and fungi and, because our water levels are low, perhaps some interesting waders to watch.

If you want to keep up with the changing seasons, why not join Martin Runchman on his Third Thursday Walk each month?

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Quarry Extension News.

Paxton Pits Nature Reserve.

The new sorting plant.
In August, planning permission expired for the 2002 extension plan that was delayed due to the recession when the site was closed. Now the quarry is up and working again so Aggregate Industries has  submitted a revised proposal to the County Council  that will take them up to 2029. Here are the basic points as I see them:

·         Much of the land in the scheme belongs to Oxford University, the rest belongs to the estate at Diddington.

·         The plan is very similar to the original one, by which Heronry North Lake, Island Pit, Pumphouse East Pit and Diddington Pit will become part of the nature reserve.  

·         The current excavation between the A1 and Boughton Lodge is expected to continue for 5 years. The arable fields to the west of the processing plant will be dug out over the subsequent two years to create large reed beds.

·         There is a period of landscaping and after care that will continue after extraction has ceased, hence the 12 year plan.

·         There are some amendments to the original plan. The biggest one is that Diddington Pit is to stay as one lake that will not be divided by a bund. The entire lake will come into the Reserve. A couple of short sections of path and cycle way have been slightly diverted around Diddington and the extent of reedbed creation has been slightly cut.

·         As part of a revised plan for the process of extraction, the company has asked to use modern diesel pumps, not electric ones, as they are more mobile. Each pump sits in a tray that catches any leaking oil.

·         Material is currently brought to the plant by conveyor but Aggregate Industries have asked to transport quantities in bulk within the site by lorry.
The Parish Council and the Friends have been consulted about the proposal. Of course the Rangers are really pleased to see our dream of a bigger reserve with more access for the public  draw nearer to being a  reality. Our main concern is to get access to the extension a bit at a time, rather than having to wait until all of the quarrying is over. 2029 is a long time away and we can’t see why the lakes that are away from the quarrying process shouldn’t be handed over now so that we can put in paths, signage and hides. The Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve feel the same and this point has been supported by Natural England.

This is an extract from a statement by Aggregate Industries:

"The Company is proud to say the site reopened during 2016 and we are committed to completing mineral extraction which will help achieve the full aims of the restoration scheme. 
The quarry has three remaining extraction areas B, C and D which will be worked over the next 7 years. The remaining restoration includes agriculture along the western boundary, wetland / reedbeds adjacent to the sailing lakes, conservation grassland and woodland which in part will be incorporated into Paxton Pit Reserve.  The restoration scheme also sees improved footpath, cycle ways and bridleways." 

Mike Thomas, who is the chair of the Friends of Paxton Pits sums it all up by saying:

"The extension to the Nature Reserve would not only bring significant benefit to the wildlife in the area but would also expand what is now a valuable local resource to a significant countryside recreation area in south west Cambridgeshire."

Map showing restoration proposals.
Access map.

Friday, 25 August 2017

A group visit.


I went into work today to lead a small group from Market Deeping U3A (University of the Third Age.) Nine of them turned out and I enjoyed their visit so much I stayed an extra hour. We saw so much! 
If birds are your thing, then a wheatear in the former Lafarge site should float your boat. Then we picked up a lesser whitethroat but lost it while we were distracted by a hobby. There was a kingfisher and a buzzard at the river viewpoint, plus all the usual birds on the Heronry Lakes. 
Brown argus.
For me the wasp spider, brown argus, small heath and common blue butterflies were a delight and the plants were excellent too. We poked around and found cornflower, corn chamomile, poppy and wild carrot as well as my set pieces like great dodder and blue fleabane, which is everywhere at Paxton. We found yellow-wort (a gentian related to centaury) in an area we didnt expect it. It usually grows on chalk.
Mating damsels.

And finally there were dragonflies and damsels. We all saw migrant hawkers, southern hawkers, brown hawkers and ruddy darters. 

Wasp spider
Don't ever tell me there's nothing to see at Paxton in August!

If you would like to bring a group for a guided tour, please book well in advance. You will find a booking form on our website at

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Bullying butterflies.

Hunting for butterflies sounds like a bit of a joke. You might imagine and old clergyman out with a net and a killing jar, or a man wearing shorts like a boy scout, but with a beard and thick spectacles, waist deep in meadow grasses. In fact, butterfly collecting is still big business. I remember going to a forest on top of the Uluguru mountains in Tanzania to find quite a sophisticated trapping operation in progress, and this happens across the tropics. The collectors who buy these butterflies are mostly in wealthy countries like ours and the victims end up in glass cases.

Needless to say, when I go butterfly hunting it is with a camera, not a net and it is quite a challenging sport. Having said that there is the lazy way, which is to find a thistle flower, some lavender flowers or a buddleia bush and just wait. If it's not too windy and there are butterflies about they will come to you. I've had great success with this method but mostly with the big common  garden butterflies such as tortoiseshells, red admirals, peacocks and brimstones. The rarer butterflies tend to be a bit more picky about where to live and which plants to visit.

In a flower-rich meadow you would expect butterflies to flit from flower to flower like bees do, but there's much more going on than that. A solo migratory butterfly, such as a clouded yellow, never seems to stop flying. They may just be migrating through or they may be looking for a mate, neither of which involves landing on a flower.  Other species don't travel far at all, but they still don't spend all day feeding. These butterflies are quite territorial and so, although they might start the day sunning themselves to warm up, they need to find a spot to show off and attract a mate, just like birds do, except that butterflies don't sing (at least I've never heard one.) They need to perform a dance, and perhaps use an attractive perfume too.

Along a shaded path there might be dappled sunlight. Each golden-green sunny glade is a stage for a street- performing woodland butterfly who will breakdance himself dizzy to attract a mate. He will defend his pitch against other butterflies and even other insects such as bees and hover-flies.

Green-veined white
You and I might think that one bit of a meadow is much like any other, but butterflies don't see the world in the way that we do. The flowers in the meadow glow for them like starbursts and a flowery patch is to be desired and fought over. Yes, butterflies are selfish, stroppy, competitive, bullying and aggressive!

This week I was the old man in shorts who was wading through the long grasses of our Great Meadow. I had gone there with pupils from Spring Common Academy to read the meter on our water pump but was soon distracted by the thousands of butterflies we saw there. Not for the first time, I was frustrated in my attempts to get a sharp photograph of a butterfly because there was always a blade of grass in the way, or the insect moved. I soon realised that, every time a meadow brown or a ringlet landed, it got bumped off its perch by another butterfly.
Small skipper

It seemed to me that the small blues and skippers were not so competitive, but there were fewer of these and more flowers to go around.

The butterflies I was chasing were mostly engaged in mating and territorial behaviour so they didn't stay still for long. Later they would move on to laying eggs on the food plants that their caterpillars need, just a few eggs here and there, not stopping for long at all.

Marbled white with hitch-hiking fly.
When it comes to feeding, some plants are much more attractive than others, but butterflies are also attracted by smell. Purple emperors patrol the woodland rides at Fermyn Woods and come down to feed on......(you wont like this) droppings and urine. Many butterflies are attracted by spilled beer of fruit juice. They even gather on the corpses of dead animals and lick away at the gooey moisture they find.

My star find this week was a single marbled white butterfly, which did eventually settle. When I photographed it, I found that it had a fly sitting on it. I guess photo-bombing is another reason not to hang about.

You can listen to a podcast about butterflies at Paxton Pits at 

Friday, 5 May 2017

Willow chiff??

Today I bumped into a chap called Tony Fulford from the zoology department at Cambridge. He had got wind of the fact that we have a lot of willow warblers and chiffchaffs at Paxton Pits, and they don't all sing from the same hymn-sheet! Working here and in the Gambia, he has discovered that willow warblers react to chiffchaff calls by repeating them. Basically, they are bilingual. So are they hybrids? It doesnt look like it to me, but the two species are very similar.

Chiffchaffs sing from tall trees while willow warblers use lower bushes, but both nest on the ground and look very similar. Our willow warblers generally winter in West Africa while chiff chaffs winter around the Mediterranean, but they overlap in all respects. We tell them apart by leg colour, wing length and of course, song. But it's not that simple.

As part of his study, he has ringed one of our birds and measured it up. It's pure willow warbler but it's bilingual.

"Attached are photos of the wiffwaff. Note the emargination to the 5th primary. The 2nd primary was noted to be approximately as long as the 6th. So typical WILWA wing. The wing chord was 68mm and weight 9.4g - typical for male WILWA but way off for a CHIFF. Curiously the bill has a slight hooked overgrowth."
"This was a rather tentative bird compared with some I've encountered. As usual in response to both WILWA and CHIFF playback it stop singing while it searched for the source but once the playback had stopped it resumed with a rather quiet chiff-chaffing. After a minute or two it was back in full swing with its usual half-half song."
Ypu can hear our willow warbler here:
His new ring number is EJE 495. 

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Podcast Number One.

Over the last few months I've been a regular guest on BBC Radio Cambridge and Huntingdon Community Radio. I enjoyed those sessions so much that I decided to have a go at making my own podcasts. You can call it a vanity project if you like, but the objective that I have always had is to share my enthusiasm for the natural world. I love being outside and alone, face to face with wildlife, but I enjoy it much more if I can share it. The sharing gives it a purpose.

I came up with a name, "What Comes Naturally," which allows me a lot of latitude to talk about whatever comes to mind. A lot of the broadcasts will be made at Paxton Pits or other places in Cambridgeshire but I also hope to go a bit further afield. You can hear my first attempt at

Many years ago, I cut my teeth on making outside broadcasts for BBC Radio Solent. In those days I was working for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Arundel where I had a nice little studio in the projection room to the theatre. More importantly I had the guidance of our publicity officer, Fletch. I owe him a huge amount of gratitude. He really wanted me to go into broadcasting full time, but I lacked the single mindedness, or maybe the hunger or the ambition to do it. It's a very competitive field.

In those days we recorded programmes on a beautiful, leather-clad, Uher portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. To aid with recording background sounds (ambience) or wildlife sounds (actuality) we used a parabolic dish to focus the sound. Editing was done on a heavy-duty, wooden cased, four-track desktop tape recorder using a razor blade and sticky tape!  You have to remember that analogue recordings degrade every time you copy them, so we liked to work with the original recordings to get the best quality for broadcast. The problem was that the joins in the tape could come undone during the actual broadcast. This was the same kind of system that the Beatles used in Abbey Road. The editing room was full of precious. dangly lengths of brown tape that were Sellotaped to shelves and windows in some kind of order before being stuck together to make a programme.

Uher 4000 Report like the one I used.
We didn't have access to stereo recording and anyway, the BBC was only broadcast in mono at the time. Today the technology has really moved on and we need to make high fidelity, digital, stereo recordings. The most important bit of field kit is the microphone. You can make perfectly good recordings on an iPhone but you need a good stereo microphone. I haven't got one. What I do have is a digital camera with a stereo microphone and a programme that allows me to make sound recordings without recording video. The resulting recording is on an SD card that I can plug into my computer.

I don't need a recording studio or a big tape-deck; it's all done in the computer using a virtual music studio. It amuses me that my live recordings now appear on the screen, just like those long strips of tape and  I can cut and splice them together, just like the old days. I still use the equivalent of four tracks; left and right for my voice and left and right for the background sound. I could have loads more tracks but I like to keep it simple. In the final process I just have to set the sound levels and effects such as fade out, merge them into a stereo master track and upload it to the web. It is still time consuming, but much easier than the old days and I still have my original uncut recordings at the end of the process. The quality is as good enough for broadcast every time. Better still, there is no risk of the tape coming apart while we are on air.

Podcasts are just radio programmes, except you can listen to them any time on your computer, tablet or phone. The BBC uses and makes podcasts as a way to reach a larger audience and to use material made by freelancers. There are commercial broadcasters out there producing podcasts that pull in millions of listeners while generating cash through advertising. Wouldn't that be nice?

If you like my podcast please subscribe (it's free). I hope to find time to make many more.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017


The old music hall joke goes:
I used attract women like flies, but then, who needs women like flies?

Black headed gulls midge-fishing at Paxton Pits.
We are just about to enter our busiest period in terms of wildlife and visitors too. The warmer weather brings out the crowds and also the midges!

The big swarms of midges that gather near the lakes are almost all non-biters. The larvae live in the mud at the bottom of the lake but they swim upwards to the surface to hatch, which is when the gulls and terns pick them off the water. On a spring evening the Heronry Lakes form the stage for a twilight ballet performed by hundreds of white birds turning, dipping and rising, as if to a flowing melody that we can’t hear.
Mating flight of midges
As the swarms gather above the trees, swallows, swifts and martins swoop through them. Even hobbies, whose main diet is dragonflies, join in, catching midges with their feet. In the nearby trees, warblers and other small birds glean the flies from the leaves. As it gets dark the local bats will take their turn too.

As the wind drops the crowds of midges form into columns that can look like plumes of rising smoke. Each column uses a reference point to keep station, like aircraft gathering over a beacon. They may use a branch on a tree, a signpost, telegraph pole or fence post. They may even gather over your hat.

The swarm is composed mostly of females who are dancing to attract a partner. The males have feather-like antennae that detect female hormones from down-wind and they fly in to grab a mate in their big hairy arms.  But they are not the only flies to be attracted to female midges.

St. Mark's fly
St Mark’s Day is on April 25th and that’s when we should expect to see a Bibionid fly called St Mark’s fly. Fishermen call them Hawthorn Flies because they gather around the flowering bushes. These are predatory flies that look a bit like large, black midges, which makes it easy for them to invade the mating swarms and get a good meal. They have long, dangly back legs which they use to grip their prey.

Midges are the plankton of Paxton Pits, the basis of our food chain, so next time you breath in a lungful of them, try and remember that.