As winter approaches, ducks start to return from their summer breeding grounds to spend the winter on our lakes and gravel pits. For many years, Paxton Pits volunteers have carried out monthly surveys to monitor the numbers of each species and this has shown that the pochard is one of our most common overwintering ducks. Pochards are diving ducks, so they feed by submerging completely, before popping up a few seconds later, often several metres from where they dived. This method enables them to feed in relatively deep water, so you are most likely to see them on the reserve’s deeper northern pits. The distinctive chestnut head and black breast make the male pochard easy to identify.
Perhaps the best known of owls, with its pale plumage and distinctive heart-shaped face, the barn owl has evolved to be a highly efficient hunter. It combines almost silent flight with exceptionally acute hearing and sensitive low-light vision. Its face acts like a satellite dish, focussing the sounds of its prey to enable the owl to detect the source more accurately. Barn owls mainly hunt voles and mice and we can analyse their diet because they cough up the indigestible remains in the form of “owl pellets”. Recently, our volunteers found some barn owl pellets underneath one of our owl boxes which contained the bones of wood mice and field voles. Unlike tawny owls, barn owls do not hoot; they make piercing screeches, giving rise to their old name, “screech owl”. Barn owls are regularly present at Paxton Pits though there is no strong evidence of them breeding on the reserve. If you are lucky, you might see them hunting at dusk but the best place to see them is on our wildlife camera videos.
Foxes are rarely reported by visitors to the reserve, though I recently saw one trotting along the side of Heronry Lake North in late afternoon. This is surprising because our wildlife cameras reveal that they are common, being recorded at multiple locations every week. Last year young cubs were captured on camera at opposite ends of the reserve and one camera recorded three different adults within 24 hours. Foxes are social animals and live in complex family groups. In the autumn, some cubs leave their parents and disperse to set up their own territories, but some stay with their families and help to raise the next generation of cubs the following year. This time of year is also when you are most likely to hear foxes, as mating is a noisy affair, featuring barking males and screaming vixens.