The gadwall is a very easily overlooked duck. At first glance, the male is a rather dull grey but if you get close, you’ll see that it has very smart, finely speckled plumage, complementing its dark grey bill and tail. The female is very similar to a female mallard. The gadwall is one of the species for which Paxton Pits is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). There are usually 100-300 here in the winter, over 1% of the UK population. Some stay all year round and they have occasionally bred here.
If you visit the reserve regularly you will have seen cormorants all year round, but you might not realise that most of the birds you see in the winter are not the same ones that are here in the summer! In the 1990’s Paxton Pits became only the second inland breeding site in the UK and there are usually about 50 nests here every summer. However, many of the young birds and their parents leave in the autumn, to be replaced by other cormorants from elsewhere in the UK and, possibly, continental Europe. Cormorants are very efficient fish catchers but do almost all their fishing at Grafham Water and other local sites, returning to roost in the trees around the Heronry Lakes at dusk. You can find out more about cormorants in Trevor Gunton’s article.
The lack of leaves on the trees and bushes makes winter a good time of year to spot the wren, one of our tiniest and commonest birds. Despite its small size, the wren features in many stories and legends, and in many countries is called the “king of the birds”. There was an old Celtic tradition of hunting wrens on Boxing Day or New Year’s Day, but thankfully nowadays the wren’s main enemy in winter is the cold. Wrens sometimes huddle together in groups to share their body heat but extreme winters can lead to population crashes. Trevor’s article is full of more fascinating information about the wren.
Lichens are conspicuous on bare winter twigs, and they make an attractive substitute for flowers at this time of the year. Lichens are fascinating organisms: surprisingly, they are not plants, but are composed of a fungus and an alga in a close, symbiotic relationship. The alga provides carbon and energy by photosynthesis, which the fungus uses to build the physical structure of the lichen. The fungus also extracts other nutrients from the tree or rock on which the lichen is growing. There are about 1800 species of lichen in the UK, and many are very sensitive to pollution so their abundance at Paxton Pits is a positive sign of our good air quality.