Farmland birds have declined dramatically in the UK over the last forty years, largely due to changing agricultural practices. At Paxton Pits, we sow seed-bearing crops to provide much-needed winter sustenance for finches and other seed-eating birds. If you look in Peter’s Field, or in the hedgerows and trees alongside, you are likely to see mixed flocks including chaffinches, goldfinches and linnets. The linnet is easily overlooked, as it can look rather drab in winter, though the forked tail is a useful identification feature. However, you can see the males’ pinkish-red breasts and foreheads in Spring.
Two birds that you would be very unlikely to see at Paxton Pits twenty years ago are the little and great white egrets. Today, it’s not unusual to see both together, which gives you a good opportunity to compare them. They are both members of the heron family, with long legs and dagger-like beaks, but with all-white plumage. The most obvious difference is their size: the great white is as big as a grey heron while the little egret lives up to its name by being much smaller. Size can be hard to judge if a bird is on its own so what else can you look for? A key difference is the feet as great egrets have black feet, but little egrets have yellow feet, unless they are covered by mud. Finally, little egrets always have black bills while great whites have yellow bills in the winter, though, unhelpfully, they turn black in the breeding season.
This is one of our most handsome ducks. The male’s rich green head contrasts with its mainly cream body, while the female has a grey body and a gingery-brown head with a shaggy crest at the back. If you get a really good view through binoculars you might be able to see that goosanders have serrated, hooked bills to help them grip their fish dinners. Goosanders breed on rivers in northern and western Britain but small numbers visit Paxton Pits in the winter. At the end of January, ten were seen on Heronry Lake North so there’s a good chance of spotting some in February.
Finally, next time you buy a hot drink at the visitor centre, take a close look at the pond in the garden. There’s a good chance that there will be frogspawn by the end of the month, a sign that Spring really is just round the corner.