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.

Wildlife gardening – top tips

Jim Stevenson, recently-retired Ranger for Paxton Pits Nature Reserve, shares his tips for gardening for wildlife, inspired by the work at Paxton Pits.

If you want good ideas to attract more wildlife to your garden, look no further than Paxton Pits Nature Reserve. Start in the wildlife garden or the Environmental Education Centre where (at Debbie Mckenzie’s request) we have created raised ponds, bug banks, raised beds, hedgehog lodgings, log-and-turf walls and bug hotels.

Here are a few ideas I have borrowed for my own garden:

  • Get rid of that old fence and plant a native hedge using blackthorn, hawthorn, spindle, cherry and field maple and reward yourself with blossom, berries, nuts and glorious autumn colours. 
  • Use winter trimmings to create a tidy habitat pile for bugs to hide in and birds to hunt in.
  • Make a log and turf bank for toads to winter in.
  • Keep some rotting logs or stumps for beetles and for fungi, as we do in Rory’s Wood. 
  • Make a mini pond: We bought some large pots (without holes in the bottom) and filled them with potato-sized beach pebbles before topping up with rain water. The pots are arranged in a cluster and we have planted small, emergent water plants in them. Frogs hide among the stones. 
  • Make a small raised pond. I would love to use an old galvanised cattle trough, but Matt the Senior Ranger says he still needs them for the cows and sheep. A coffin sized planter, packed at one end with bricks to support a few plants and then lined it with butyl rubber did the trick. It reflects the sky and attracts dragonflies and water boatmen. We have surrounded it on three sides with large pots so that frogs and newts can make their way over the rim. 
  • Plant for insects: Top Paxton plants for insects include knapweed, scabious and viper’s bugloss as well as the ubiquitous Buddleia or butterfly bush. You don’t have to use wild varieties and, by having a mix you can extend the flowering season as well as the range of colours. I have also tried sowing a patch with wildflower seeds (like the nectar mix we use in our arable fields) which worked well for me, and for the bees.
  • Make or buy a bug hotel: Those frames filled with hollow canes, reeds, fennel-stems and elder twigs are all the rage, and they work too. Mine has leaf cutter bees in it as well as other useful insects like lacewings and ladybirds. All you need is a hook one a sunny wall to hang it on. 

Looking wider afield, you can imitate any wild habitat from mountain top to sea-shore but it’s best to work with the local soil and climate. The University Botanical Gardens in Cambridge is a good place to get ideas or just go for a walk on any nature reserve, take a photo of a feature you would love to copy and set about making it.

And if you need inspiration and plants to buy, we’ve got a Plant Sale coming in May at the Visitor Centre, run by the Little Paxton Gardening Club where you can buy a brilliant selection of locally-grown plants.

(Don’t steal plants from the wild as it is illegal and works against what we should be trying to achieve.)

A shorter version of this blog was published in the February 2020 issue of Between Friends, the quartlery newsletter of the Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve. Join today!

Kingfisher Lottery funds a new Kingfisher Bank

The organisers of the Kingfisher Lottery Club are always keen to invest funds into projects that improve the overall experience of both human and wildlife visitors to the nature reserve. So they jumped at the idea of installing a Kingfisher Bank to improve the Kingfisher population.

So what is A Kingfisher Bank?  It is a number of artificially made nesting units installed into a steep earth bank at the waters edge. The units consist of a nesting chamber and upward sloping entrance tunnel. The units were chosen on the recommendation of many websites, including the RSPB. 

The base of the tunnel (1m in length) and chamber is made of mesh to allow drainage, while the main body of the unit is made from a breathable ‘woodcrete’ designed to prevent condensation. 

Where is the Kingfisher Bank?

The steep earth bank to the right of the Cobham Hide pit seems to be a suitable site to install the Kingfisher Bank as there is no danger of erosion or rising water levels. 

Why haven’t kingfishers nested there already?  

Kingfishers prefer a clear flight path into the nest site and over the years dead wood and branches have fallen into the pit. This has now been removed by volunteers. Which also improves the view from the Cobham hide. 

What am I looking for?  

Looking out of the window on the right-hand side of the Cobham Hide, across the pit to the bank, you may be able to see the tunnel entrances. They are approx. 10cm x 10cm so quite hard to see without binoculars.

There are three in total because kingfisher usually have two/three broods per season and build a new nest for each brood, approx. one or two metres from the original nest.   

While the holes are fairly small and hard to see, a kingfisher is hard to miss.  Although small, they are unmistakably bright blue and orange birds. They fly rapidly, low over water, and hunt fish from riverside perches and they make a shrill ‘Toot Toot’ call.

How will we know if it’s successful? 

We are relying on our eagle-eyed bird watchers to record all sightings of Kingfishers seen at Cobham Hide via the sightings board/book in the Visitor Centre and Facebook page.   

In addition, at the end of the year, our nest box survey volunteers will inspect, record and prepare the nesting units for the next season. 

Volunteers uplifted by ‘The Gloomy Trees’

Janet Prior reports on a new old find for the reserve…

If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise. If you go down to the woods today you’ll never believe your eyes!  This was the situation for the mid-week volunteers who ventured into the woods to erect protective stock fencing in the east scrub area of the nature reserve during January.  

Their big surprise was to find two very old and gloomy looking Apple Trees.  The age of the trees is currently uncertain but the cankers and gnarly bark suggest that they have been slowly drifting into old age, unseen for many years. 

Although the trees were nick-named ‘The Gloomy Trees’, the effect on the volunteers was far from gloomy.  Everyone looked on them with amazement and felt uplifted having discovered these awesome veterans. 

One of the trees looks quite unhealthy as it has shed its lower limbs.  However, this phenomenon, known as ‘Summer branch drop’, and is associated with weather patterns is what trees do naturally in order to prolong their life.  Hopefully it’s not too late for this tree and we can look after and enjoy them both for many more years. 

Photos of The Gloomy Trees kindly provided by Matt Hall

Bird ringing report 2019

Derek Gruar introduces the 2019 report from the bird ringing and monitoring that takes place at Paxton Pits

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has used Constant Effort Site (CES) bird ringing to monitor the abundance, breeding success and survival of 24 common breeding songbirds since 1986. Paxton Pits Nature Reserve is one of over 140 sites across the UK that contributes data to this programme.

Monitoring is carried out by qualified volunteer bird ringers during the breeding season, with twelve visits between May and early September where the same nets are set for same standard length of time for each visit. At Paxton, we monitor the site with eight mist-nets totalling 140 metres in length that are set between 5.30-11.30am. 

The results are used to measure changing population sizes (comparing the number of adult birds caught each year) whilst the ratio of juvenile to adult captures provides a measure of breeding success. In addition to ringing new birds we also record data for all birds we recapture; those of adult birds ringed in previous years are used to estimate annual survival rates. 

Some birds ringed in 2019. L-R House Sparrow, Bullfinch, Reed Warbler.

2019

In 2019, we conducted 15 bird ringing sessions at “The Sanctuary” at Paxton Pits Nature Reserve. The first session was in early January and our standard CES monitoring began in May and continued until late August. 2019 proved to be another improvement on the previous two CES seasons. Post CES we managed to successfully target late summer migrants on three visits in September. The final session of the year was a demonstration event where visitors from the Friends of Paxton group were invited join us during the ringing session. Sadly, the poor weather in autumn prevented any further visits.

Over the year, mild winter conditions were replaced with cold and wet weather in late spring. We were fortunate that conditions had improved by the time the start of the 2019 CES ringing season was due. Fine and dry weather in May enabled resident species to raise broods with Blue Tits, Long-tailed Tits and Robins making up the most of the early season catches. June however was quite wet which seemed to affect breeding warbler numbers, especially Blackcaps which were surprisingly absent. The record warmth of July seemed to suit Phylloscopus warblers with a record combined catch of Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff on 21st July. Late summer saw an increase in thunderstorms and in August numbers of birds ringed were steady rather than spectacular. The highlight was the number of fledged Bullfinches. 

Overall, we succeeded in conducting ringing sessions on eleven of the twelve allocated time periods. A total of 346 new birds were ringed of 23 different species. This was a further improvement on 2018 as bird populations at Paxton seem to be recovering after the poor year in 2017. An average of 34 new birds ringed per visit is just above the 10 year mean.