December is a great month to look for lichens at Paxton Pits, as the deciduous trees have lost their leaves and the ground flora has died back for the winter. Look on the bark of willows next to the paths bordering the lakes and on the bare, gravel soil for cup lichen and dog lichen.
Some fruits and berries are still in abundance on the shrubs — those that haven’t been eaten by winter thrushes. Not only rose hips and hawthorn berries, but also the large black bryony berries, which hang from their withered vines on trees and shrubs. Look for the acorns of the Turkey oak (in a prickly cup) and English oak, though finding the latter is difficult as many are parasitised by a gall wasp, producing the Knopper Gall. The affected acorn soon falls.
A favourite food source of siskins is the alder seeds. The male catkins are visible, along with the new and older, open fruit (they resemble small, dark fir cones). Most of the alders can be seen from the permissive footpath by the Sailing Lake, and look out, too, for the dogwood’s bright red stems along this path.
The last seed heads of teasel, evening primrose, yarrow and mullien blow in the wind. The gravel area to the right of the Heron Trail just beyond the Hayden Hide usually boasts a good number of evening primroses. Look at the huge number of emerging basal leaves — if they survive the frosts, next summer will see a fine display of these large, yellow flowers.
Meanwhile, December is relatively quiet for ‘new’ birds at Paxton, though the number of wildfowl depends on the weather — if there’s an icy period, more birds will move down from the north.
Wildfowl take centre stage, with more than 70 goldeneyes, up to 500 pochards and similar numbers of tufted ducks. Goosanders should be present in small numbers (up to 10), mostly on Heronry Lake and Washout Pit, while a cold snap should bring the first smew to the pits and, perhaps, rarer grebes, such as Slavonian. Occasional wild geese may pass overhead, while there are occasional reports of ruddy ducks and red crested pochards.
Siskins and goldfinches feed on the alders, while redwings and fieldfares scavenge the hedgerows for berries, though once supplies are exhausted, they’ll move on west. Look out, too, for the most special of berry-eaters, the waxwing, a rare visitor to these parts.
Marsh tits and long-tailed tits are a regular feature of the Hayden Hide feeding station. Grey wagtail, jack snipe, snipe and green sandpipers may be present around the margins of the shallow pits, while the exciting winter roost of cormorants, jackdaws, rooks and stock doves builds towards dusk each day.