Finding Out About… Cormorants

Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the first in a series of informative articles written during lockdown and shared originally with our volunteers.

Image: Sunny, CC BY 2.0

There be Pelicans breeding at Paxton Pits!

Yes, its true, Cormorants are members of the Pelican family, Latin name Phalacrocorax.

Two sub-species breed in Europe and it is mainly the southern race, Sinensis that is found breeding inland, including the UK.  The other race is larger, named Carbo, is principally a seabird and breeds as far north as Iceland and northern Norway.

I first met Cormorants on the Yorkshire coast, where due to persecution by fishermen it has always been a rather scarce breeder, and its near relative the Shag has fared little better.

Here in the UK we have traditionally looked upon the Cormorant as a seabird, but across Europe this is not typical, with large inland populations of over one thousand nests in the flooded river systems of the Rhone, Danube and Rhine.

It is particularly numerous in The Netherlands, where the New Polders hold many thousand pairs, so is it possible that our first colonists of the modern age originated from here?

Historically Cormorants nested in trees in Norfolk during the Victorian period before they were shot out. The last record of Norfolk tree nester occurred in 1917.  This leads me to wonder if, back in pre-history, the Cormorant actually nested in many inland counties. This may have been before The Fens were drained and the man-made Norfolk Broads were created.

Image by Sunny, CC BY 2.0

Anyhow, to the hard facts:

Abberton Reservoir in Essex was first colonised in 1981, when 9 pairs nested. This, the first inland breeding colony grew rapidly to reach 150 pairs in 1986. The 500 mark was soon reached before dropping back to around 250 pairs in 2016.

Paxton Pits was England’s second inland site. I found the first nest in 1988(which failed), but the following year 9 pairs nested successfully. Our colony reached 218 pairs in 1996, dropping back to about 180 pairs in 2005 and more like 50/60 pairs in recent years.

The average number of young raised per nest seems to be about 2.5 per nest (how do you count half a Cormorant?)

Winter roosts have been of great interest to me over the years and it is thought that many of our birds leave the colony in the Autumn, to be replaced by birds from other sites- mainly from UK colonies, but a few from near Europe. From a max count of 131 birds in 1987, to a steady increase to 880, and then during the very hard Winter of 1994, we counted an all time high of 1,153 birds on Jan 4th. This really was an amazing site, as we seem to have attracted Cormorants from all over East Anglia!

Recent counts have averaged from 100-200 birds. So, over the years Paxton has mirrored Abberton in that both original sites have shown an increase at a similar rate. So, what seems to be happening is that some birds break away to form new colonies; and today the original sites have become 35, hosting some 1,330 pairs in England alone.

Image by Pete Beard, CC BY 2.0

Away from Paxton, Cambridgeshire has 4-5 other nest sites, including a well known one on The Ouse Washes. Jim, our former Head Ranger told me, some years ago, that, at Grafham, larger fish were being introduce making it more difficult for Cormorants to feed. Is this the cause of the decline of the Paxton colony? Another unproven puzzle.

One very unusual nest site is on The Inner Solway Firth, between England and Scotland, where after WW2, Cormorants nested on an old RAF bombing target! This four-legged wooden platform at one stage held 66 nests, now down to just 20 pairs in 2019.  This is due to the deterioration of the structure.

In Victorian Britain, many bird species were eaten, including the Cormorant. I have found the following recipe: Place the Cormorant in the ground for 2/3 days. Then dig up the bird and remove all the entrails before replacing them with a Portuguese onion! Cook slowly and when tender, carve like a goose or duck. Anyone fancy giving it a try?

As you read this, many of our Cormorants will have departed for The Wash, Mersey and other sites.  Some big juveniles will be around the trees, looking just like Ospreys (as one birdwatcher remarked to me). Many birds will replace them, making an amazing sight as they return to the trees on Heronry South at dusk.

So, as you can guess, I have a long-standing relationship with Cormorants over 40 odd years.  I hope that the dark fisherman of Paxton Pits will remain a very special feature of our wonderful reserve for many years to come.

Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve wins Community Award

We are absolutely delighted that Little Paxton Parish Council have awarded the Friends of Paxton Pits a Community Civic Award for our work giving back to the community of Little Paxton. Presented to Mike Thomas and Trevor Gunton at the very successful Autumn Flower and Vegetable Show on 12 September, we are very proud to have been given such recognition.

Mike Thomas and Trevor Gunton receive the award and trophy at the Autumn Flower & Vegetable Show

Covid-19 – Thoughts from your Treasurer

Image by Peter Hagger

David Butterworth, the Treasurer of the Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve, outlines some of the financial difficulties the Friends face thanks to the Covid-19 crisis – and shares his thanks to all of our supporters.

It will come as no surprise to learn that the pandemic has had a huge impact on the Friends of Paxton Pits’ funds in 2020. Two of our main sources of income, namely the Visitor Centre shop and the programme of events, were reduced to zero for 6 months and only now are we able to offer limited opening of the VC, while events are still cancelled for the rest of the year. In cash terms, the VC would normally average £3,000 per month in sales plus £300 for second-hand books and a significant sum in donations. The talks, guided walks, and social events would have added considerably more to the total. 

Of equal importance is that we have been unable to extend our renowned welcome to all our visitors and provide the interaction and information at events and in the VC, all of which has made people value the Reserve and come back time and time again. Our face-to-face recruitment of members has also had to halt, which means our total number of paying members has reduced, and that includes the income that comes with it. Sadly, the fire which destroyed the Kingfisher Hide and some mindless vandalism has brought some additional, unexpected bills.

But it’s not all bad news. Following the fire we have received a considerable number of donations, many of them very significant, which will allow us to replace the Hide and undertake several other restoration projects. I have tried to write to all the donors to thank them but I know there is small number who have remained firmly anonymous. To them and to all our supporters can I offer heartfelt thanks. 

I believe that our members and supporters have a real sense of ownership of “your” Nature Reserve and without the army of volunteers and the generosity of so many people we could be in real difficulty. As it is, we are able to carry on our programme of conservation, expansion and improvements to visitor facilities, albeit by also dipping into our rainy day reserves, but really because of your support. Thank you for keeping your Treasurer happy.

If you enjoy spending time on the Reserve and appreciate the work the Friends do to look after this special place, please consider joining as a member. It costs as little as £4 per year and helps provide us with financial stability, particularly through these difficult times.

Visitor Centre re-opened!

After being closed for virtually 4 months the Visitor Centre is reopening again, albeit on a limited basis. It will be open from 11am until 3pm on the 15th and 16th July, and again on the 22nd and 23rd July. Further times and dates will be announced as we go on, and we’re looking forward to welcoming visitors back into the space.

The Hunts District Council (HDC) team, and especially Robyn and Kirsty, have put a lot of work into making the Centre Covid-secure, with a one-way system and take-away drinks available only. Entry to the centre is via the back of the building which is clearly marked, and card payment is preferred on all purchases (no minimum spend!).

Please respect the measures we have put in place to protect the staff and volunteers, both in the Visitor Centre and also on your walks around the Reserve.

The Wildlife Trust BCN Education Centre will also be open to families again over the summer holidays, with a pre-booking system and strict measures in place to keep everyone safe. Debbie is really looking forward to welcoming people back, so do keep an eye on their Facebook Page for more information on how to book.

2019 Wildlife Report

Our annual report which gathers together all the sightings at the Paxton Pits complex over one year has now been published for 2019. Available to read on our website (along with reports from previous years), all the sightings have been gathered by volunteers, including for our WeBS and bird ringing surveys.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed sightings, taken part in wildlife surveys, and helped the Friends to produce this brilliant report.