The magpie is one of our best-known and most easily-identified birds but has a mixed reputation. On the one hand, magpies are intelligent and sociable birds, and in many cultures are supposed to bring good luck. However, they can come across as noisy and aggressive and, being omnivores, will often take eggs and chicks from other bird’s nests. The well-known counting rhyme reflects this, associating them with sorrow, joy, children and gold, among other things. Recent research has shown that, contrary to popular belief, they are not particularly attracted to shiny objects and prefer to collect non-shiny items to decorate their nests. Magpies are common at Paxton Pits. Next time you see one, look closely at its plumage and you will see that its “black” feathers show a range of beautiful metallic blue, purple and green sheens.
The male smew is one of our most eye-catching overwintering ducks, with its black eyepatch and narrow black lines contrasting with its otherwise mainly white plumage. These small, dainty birds are sawbills, closely related to the larger goosanders, and the female smew’s chestnut head is similar to that of the female goosander. Only a few hundred smew overwinter in Britain so we are lucky that a small number regularly choose Paxton Pits as their winter home. They are most often seen on the northern pits, but sometimes spend time on the Heronry lakes.
If you have a bird feeder in your garden, you will probably be very familiar with the goldfinch and might be surprised to hear that it has only become a common visitor to gardens in the last few decades. In the wild, goldfinches prefer the small seeds of plants such as thistles and groundsel but have adapted well to the much larger sunflower hearts in our garden feeders. In Victorian Britain, goldfinches were trapped in large numbers for the caged bird trade and numbers have increased substantially since this practice ended. Some goldfinches migrate to Spain in the winter, but on the reserve you can see mixed flocks of goldfinches, linnets and chaffinches feeding on the seed crops sown for them in Peter’s field.
No plant is associated more strongly with Christmas than the holly. Its leaves are supposed to represent Jesus’ crown of thorns and its berries his blood. However, holly has long been a tree associated with winter in many religious and cultural traditions. Along with other evergreen plants such as ivy and mistletoe, it is perhaps seen as a symbol of life and hope at the most challenging time of the year. For wildlife, holly berries are a valuable food source; thrushes, including blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares seem to love them. The dense evergreen, prickly foliage also provides excellent cover at all times of the year, and in spring the nectar and pollen feed many insect species. If you are observant, you might notice that many holly trees don’t have any berries. There’s nothing wrong with them, they just happen to be male! Unlike most plants, the holly has separate male and female individuals.