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.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Spring forward

On 26th March we turned our clocks forward an hour and British Summer Time (BST)
began. It's not really summertime yet; hardly even spring, but the idea is there. As the earth's northern axis tilts towards the sun our days get longer and, since we prefer long evenings to early sunrises, the clocks have to be adjusted. We lose an hour from our morning (when most of us are asleep) and add it on to the evening when we can use it more productively. Off to the allotment we go!

In fact, BST was first used in 1916 in an effort to save fuel and energy as well as increase production in a time of war. After the war it was dropped, but reinstated for the same reasons in World War 2. Since then there has been a lot of debate about its usefulness. The strongest argument for keeping it is that it extends daylight when most people are up and a bout and therefore cuts down on accidents.

The change in daylight length has innumerable effects; on the economy, the weather, on plants and animal hormones. And on us too. After months of living in the dark, we get SAD (seasonally adjusted disorder) and we get "cabin fever" from being cooped up like chickens. We feel mildly depressed and our hair and skin look about ten years older than they did in September. We have aches and pains and we have put on weight. In short, February is a miserable month.

A fine day in early March, but not much sign of spring.
At the end of February my wife turned to me from her laptop and said "Look at this. We could move to Shetland and buy a house with eight bedrooms."

We both get this urge to migrate every year. Our current house looks tired and worn, we are fed up with the indoor routine. The garden is a mess. We are bored and feel we are drowning in stuff and a fresh start, a new beginning, looks like the way out. Like our house, the entire neighbourhood looks like it is going to the dogs.

Then we had a spring day. We threw open the doors and windows and bees flew in. There was blossom in the trees and flowers in the garden. Suddenly our rhubarb was knee high and the lawn was ready to cut. The flood of vitamin D felt like a drug, which is what it would be if you got it in a bottle. The tills at the local garden centre rang out like it was Christmas as people queued to buy compost, seeds and tools.

Of course that warm spring weather in early March could only last a day, but it did the trick. We shifted from emigration mode to spring-cleaning mode. If I was a bird, I would have been building a nest.

At Paxton Pits, March brought us our first sand martins. These little brown swallows often arrive when the lakes have ice on them and there is snow coming down, which must be really frustrating for a bird that eats nothing but insects. Why do they come so early? Why not join the house martins and swallows that come at a more sensible time, in April?
Sand martin (RSPB)
I don't know the answer, but here's a guess. Nature is always experimenting and for every rule there is always an exception, or the chance of one. Every year a few birds will migrate on the wrong date, or take the wrong route, perhaps arriving thousands of miles from their normal breeding or wintering area. If they die on the journey, perhaps over an ocean, we say that their genes are "lost at sea". They won't get a chance to breed and start a new population. If pioneers, such as early migrating sand martins, do survive to breed, then more birds will take the same risk. They may not form an entirely new population of birds, just a group of birds in the population that arrives earlier than others. In some years this will pay off and in others it won't. The habit may well have built up in a period when springs were warmer than today.

And what could be the advantage of getting here early? I think competition for nest sites may be the answer. Sand martins form colonies in exposed sand banks. Nowadays there are lots of sites in quarries and gravel pits, but historically nesting sites on river bends and small cliffs must have been temporary and rare. It may have been a good idea to get here early to stake a claim, especially at a time when the sand martin population was much bigger than it is now.

Chiff-chaff  (Phil Smith)
Sand martins usually nest twice in summer (they are double brooded) so an early start might give them a better chance of success with both broods. However, despite their very early arrival date they never seem to lay eggs until May. Despite my guesswork, there are some mysteries still to be solved.

Chiff-chaffs also arrive in March when they feed pretty much like goldcrests, gleaning insects and spiders off the leaves while the sand martins pass to and fro across the lake looking for hatches of midges, which are surprisingly frequent in March. Black headed gulls often sit on the water and catch the flies as they hatch because they are not as nimble in flight as the sand martins.

It is likely that the chiff-chaffs use the stars to navigate but sand martins probably use the sun. As the sun moves north of the equator they get the urge to fly north themselves. The further north they go, the longer the days will be in June, but if they fly too far to the West they may not make landfall until Greenland.

Sailors use a clock called a ship's chronometer (set to Greenwich time) to record the time that the sun rises and sets where they are. The sun rises and hour later for every 15 degrees you travel west. Scientist reckon that birds use a similar system using their biological clock. If that clock is inaccurate they will get their longitude wrong.
Gulls hawking for midges in March.
Effectively then, by turning our clocks forward, we move the time of sunrise on an hour, which is like moving your house 15 degrees further west. In that case, my house is now lost at sea somewhere off Ireland and directly south of Iceland. Help!

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Spring is sprung.....

“Spring is sprung, the grass is rizz, 
I wonder where the birdies is!

They say the birds are on the wing 
But that’s absurd 
Because the wing is on the bird!”

Greylag family in the meadow in May.
No-one knows the origin of this rhyme, and anyway, it’s nonsense. I know exactly where the birdies is! A lot of them were already nesting in January even though the grass was not growing at all. Here’s what I discovered.

In December the first cormorants started to build their twiggy nests in the willows on Heronry Lake. Rooks were already making visits to their old nests, high up in the sycamores behind the Sailing Lake and thrushes were singing from the roof tops.

In January, herons joined the cormorants and started building nests while great tits were already singing their tee-cher tee-cher song.

February brought every conceivable kind of weather and nesting activity stopped and started several times. By the end of the month the rooks, herons and cormorants were sitting on eggs in nests that threatened to blow away during Storm Doris. Hazel catkins swung in the breeze scattering pollen before any insects were about to do the job for them.

By early March the blackbirds, greenfinches and other garden birds were singing and our nest-boxes were being visited by blue tits and great tits carrying moss and feathers. The birds that stayed here for the winter were mostly gone and the first summer migrants were arriving. Up to this point, all the nests had been in the tops of trees or in holes and cavities, well off the ground, but once the grasses, rushes and nettles started to grow the ground-nesters took over.

Mr.s Mallard on guard.
A dog could easily scatter her brood so that crows can get them.
Ducks nest in clumps of rushes or nettles, often quite a long way from water. They lay up to fourteen eggs, usually one a day, which they incubate for 28 days, so the complete nesting period is about 6 weeks, during which the mother, the eggs and the ducklings are highly vulnerable to disturbance and attacks by predators. Mallards are soon joined by moorhens, swans and geese. Black headed gulls nest on the islands in the Sailing Lake where they are joined by oystercatchers, lapwings and redshanks. Wading birds positively shun long grass; they like bare ground.

Our first spring migrants from the south arrive quite early in March when the blackthorn blossom is out but most trees are still leafless. Chiff-chaffs are tiny green warblers that give themselves away by repeating their name over and over again. They sing from the tops of trees, from overhead wires or tall bushes, but they nest on the ground, often very close to our paths. Sand martins are little brown swallows that dig tunnels into the sand in the quarry. Cetti’s warblers (if you can ever see one) look like big wrens, but you can’t miss them shouting “Cherrupp, Cherrupp” as you walk around the meadow. Some stay all winter but most come in March to nest low down under the brambles.

April brings the great flood of migrant birds from Africa, including our famous nightingales. The pathfinder males announce their arrival by singing loudly and continuously to lure down their mates. Although they sing from high up, the nest is almost always on the ground, under the bushes and briars. They are soon joined by a confusing batch of warblers, none of which is brightly coloured, but they make up for their dullness by their songs.
Partridge and pheasant chicks are good at running,
but very few survive their first few days.

By now, most of the trees and bushes will be in leaf and so it’s safe for small birds such as finches to build nests out in the branches. But a few late-comers will join the ground-nesting skylarks, pipits, partridges and pheasants in our fields and pastures. Grasshopper warblers make their reeling songs from the coarse weeds at the edges of the meadows and fields where they too nest on the ground.

By the time the may-blossom is out, spring is already moving into summer. The meadows hum and buzz with insects that I can no longer hear. Swallows and other aerial feeders swoop low over grass and water to feed on flies while families of birds poke about in the grass for caterpillars and other creepy-crawlies. Now the longer days enable them to hunt for insects for over 16 hours a day. That’s why so many birds come here from Africa each year. Aren’t we lucky they do?

Please do your bit to prevent disturbing baby birds and animals in the long grass this spring and summer. In particular it is important to keep dogs on leads on the meadow path and on the Heron Trail between the main gate and the river.

Jim Stevenson
Senior Ranger

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Bird Cloud

At Paxton Pits Nature Reserve we sell second hand books. This makes money to build hides, paths and manage habitats for wildlife, but it also helps to broaden people's horizons by offering cheap books that they might otherwise have not bought or seen.

I recently bought a book by Annie Proulx called "Bird Cloud" for £3 just on a whim. (It's normally £16.99) You may have read or seen the films of two of her books, "The Shipping News" and "Brokeback Mountain."

I thought I had read everything by Annie Proulx (I'm a big fan) but this one is a memoir, not fictional. It's about the triumphs and tribulations of building her new home in Wyoming. The reason I'm drawing it to your attention is that the final chapters take us through a year of watching the local birds from her (almost) finished house.

Buy or borrow the book and read it along with your guide to the Western Birds and follow her encounters with bald and golden eagles, ravens, prairie falcons, (Barrow's) goldeneyes, mountain bluebirds and so on. There are cougars, marmots and other critters, as well as Annie's usual cast of not quite reputable humans.

I enjoyed her armchair birding, though I know she's not always to everyone's taste, I'm glad I bought it.

After all the bother and huge expense of building the house in an extremely remote site she found that it was practically inaccessible for weeks on end during winter as the track was never ploughed. She started to look for another house.....

You can find pictures of the house on line. I must say, it looked better in wiring that it does in photographs!  I was rather disappointed in some ways. The outside makes bit of a statement, but the inside rather looks like a college building with both library and canteen looking a bit utilitarian. The location is another story and one that she tells really well.

The Guardian had a good review of the book at

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Ducks, Cuckoos and……Lobsters?

The Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve have begun 2017 with a full programme of indoor and outdoor events, so there’s something for everyone.

Every New-year's Day we hold our famous "icebreaker" event during which we take people on guided walks to try and see over 50 species in under two hours. On my walk, I charge 10p per species seen, which works in our favour... if we see anything and if anyone shows up.

The weather is a big factor for visitors and birds. None of us likes a wet dreary day when it starts to get light at 10 am and looks like dusk by lunchtime, but that's what it was like on January 1st this year. All the same, half a dozen people came along on both of our organised walks and we ticked over 40 species of birds. I enjoyed it, but by the time we trudged and dripped along the tarmac road towards the Visitor Centre, all we wanted was a a warm room and a hot drink. The fuggy atmosphere and the cheerful chatter in the centre wrapped around us like a warm towel. (Remind me to bring an actual towel next time.)

The arable fields along the Haul Road are under the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme and our neighbouring farmer, Mr Rampley, does a great job in attracting flocks of finches and buntings, some of which stray onto our land too. As we walked past we could see flocks of small birds that could have been linnets, goldfinches or almost anything else. There were hundreds of them but we just could net get a good enough view because of the weather. Similarly there were flocks of larger finches and buntings as well as starlings, blackbirds and redwings all feeding in the dense cover of the crop. I'm sure we could have added a few species there, but we had to give up.

Fearing worse weather to come we have planned a couple of indoor events and one that uses our

On Wednesday January 25th at 2:30 pm, our own “Ranger Jim” will give an illustrated talk on the part lobsters play in the culture, history and economy of New England. There will be recipes too! Tickets £2.50 at the door.

The RSPB’s annual "Big Garden Birdwatch" takes place on the last weekend in January. It's a great activity for the whole family to take part in. You can download a pack from the RSPB's website at

As usual we are joining in at Paxton Pits, but in addition, on Sunday 29th January we are running our own “Big Lake Birdwatch”. The event runs from 10am to 3 pm and admission is free. We hope to show you at least 15 kinds of waterbird as well as our regular bird-table visitors. Volunteer guides will be on hand in our birdwatching hides and the visitor centre.

Nick Davies is the man to go to if you want to know about the scandalous private life of the cuckoo. His most recent book on the subject "Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature” is full of fascinating facts and unanswered questions about these mysterious birds. You can hear him speak on the subject on Wednesday February 1st at 2:30. Tickets £2.50 at the door.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Volunteer Party

Every year, close to Christmas-time, the Countryside Rangers hold an event for all of the volunteers who work at our sites, including Hinchingbrooke Country Park, Holt Island, Godqmanchester Community Nursery, Sudbury Meadow, Barford Road Pocket Park and, or course, Paxton Pits Nature Reserve.

The purpose of the gathering is to say a huge thank-you to all of the amazing characters who turn up every week, rain or shine, to plant, harvest, build, prune, trim or make tea. These people are our inspiration. They are the driving force that pushes us all forward to achieve far more than we would without them. What’s more, they really know how to party!

This year’s event was held at Hinchingbrooke Country Park. It was basically a kids’ tea-party for grown ups, including games, dressing-up and a massive Nerf-gun fight. As always, our volunteers rose to the occasion splendidly.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Wind Pump

You don't see many wind pumps like ours in the UK, probably because we get so much rain that we don't need them and also because they only work when the wind blows.

We have all seen them in cowboy films and horror movies. A film company once enquired about filming a murder in our Great Meadow because they needed a pump in the background. They certainly add some atmosphere, especially when  they are the only upright object for miles in a flat landscape, and the more battered they are, the better they look. Then there is the creepy creaking sound that they make when the wheel is turning and the piston in the shaft is going up and down.

Pumps are a common feature of stock farms in arid places like Kansas, Texas and the Australian Outback where livestock may have no access to natural surface water. Think of the farm in the Wizard of Oz for example. Wind provides free energy to reliably bring water up from underground to fill tanks, ponds and troughs and the pumps need very little maintenance to do it. Apart from requiring a little wind, their only drawback is that they are not very powerful and so, if the water is more than a few meters below the surface, they can't suck it up.

Our pump was made in Axminster and came with a thick manual and instructive DVD, but I learned a huge amount about them from a novel by Annie Proulx. You may know her from her gritty books that have been made into films, especially "The Shipping News" and "Brokeback Mountain." She is fascinated by strange men who are outsiders in unfamiliar places, mostly in some wilderness or other.

"That Old Ace in the Hole" is set in the Texas Panhandle where ranchers rely on a shrinking aquifer that lies deep underground. The old creaking wind pumps have largely become obsolete as the water table has fallen, but they still stand rusting in the fields. The landscape is flat, parched and almost uninhabited so that straggling barbed wire fences and rotting pumps are the only things to draw the eye until a buzzard or an owl appears. Great horned owls often collide with the rotors and destroy the mechanism.

Old pumps are peppered with gunshot holes in the tail and the blades, I suppose because there's nothing else to shoot at, except perhaps hog farmers who pollute the aquifer and take more than their share of the water. And that's the main thread of the story.

The old-time cowboys would ride the range on horseback, carrying a bundle of wooden poles. Those old pumps did not turn themselves off when the wind blew too hard or the mechanism jammed, so part of the pump-rod was made of wood that would fail and be easily replaced. If one pump had failed, you could expect all the other pumps in the area to have failed too, so it was a constant job that the cowboys got to hate.

You can't work on a pump if the rotor is turning, so you have to able to disengage the gear box or block the blades in some way. A lasso could be handy (but dangerous) and there are hidden dangers too, lightning strikes being the most common. Most surprisingly for me there is also the danger of electric shock that has nothing to do with lightning. A cowboy might ride up to the pump and reach towards it only to be thrown to the ground by a massive charge of static. The static could be caused internally by friction between parts, but Proulx points out that driving hail can create a huge amount of energy that the metalwork can store like a battery.

Knowing all this, we approach our pump with caution. Ranger Matt Hall and I have chosen a windless day to check that it is working and to find out why the number on the water-meter hasn't changed in a month. (It's the blue bit at the bottom of the tower.) We have to remove the meter to check it as it's not good idea to stick your hand or anything else up the pipe. After undoing a dozen large nuts, we have the heavy meter in our hands and find that it does turn, but it's too stiff. A bit of manipulation by Matt seems to have cured the problem. Now the blades turn when he blows on them,  just like those children's windmills that you used to stick in your sand-castle on a seaside holiday.

While we put it all back together. our herd of highland cows has lost interest in us and they are all lying down to chew the cud, except the black one who is the matriarch and doesn't trust anybody. The pump draws water from an old well and keeps the ditches full enough to water the cattle and and provide a bit of habitat for plants like flowering rush, for frogs and toads and perhaps water voles. Matt has heard a characteristic "plop" on previous visits but we don't see any evidence of them today, neither do we see any water birds, except moorhens. We often find snipes, jack snipes and green sandpipers along the ditches in winter, all attracted because of the work the pump does for us.

It seems strange that we have to meter our water and pay for it. The water comes from our own well and is discharged onto the surface so that most of it soaks back into the ground. But, as Annie Proulx points out, its not just our water, is it?