Sights and Sounds
In our wonderful Ouse Valley we have an amazing opportunity to get out and engage with nature. And it is good for us to do so. At the current time (May 2020) we are restricted from walking too close together, and for very good reasons, but it is also acknowledged that we need to exercise for our physical and mental well-being.
So, what could be a better time and place for us to discover more about where we live, record our experiences and share them with other Ouse Valley enthusiasts. In this way we can all can broaden our knowledge of the gifts our Valley has to offer – our Landscape for Life.
Sights and Sounds is for you. Send us brief descriptions of what you see, what you hear and the scenes and scenery you discover. It doesn’t have to be a momentous event, like an Osprey diving into the river and flying off with a huge fish. It can be as simple as a Leaf-cutter Bee buzzing by with a tiny circle of green leaf between its legs, or the sudden sight of a meadow full of buttercups, or a Mute Swan showing off her new family. Photographs and recordings too would be welcome. Have you heard a Cuckoo yet? You may be on a walk, on a bike or in a canoe, or merely looking out the window - if it happened in the the Ouse Valley somewhere we want to know about it. Send you contributions to us via the website. We’ll look forward to posting them to grow into a fascinating journey through the Ouse Valley year. We’d love to hear from your children too.
Here’s a few to start you off. The first one about a flooded meadow was compiled over the winter months. Others can be much shorter and single observations. These just happen to be about birds. Tell us about flowers, insects, trees and scenery too. In fact anything else you see or hear. Anything goes. Let’s share our sights and sounds of the Great Ouse Valley!
Index For your convenience we have indexed topics/species/places covered in Sights and Sounds. Click on an Index entry to find the item. The selected item will appear at the top of the page.
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS START HERE!
Holt Island Nature Reserve, St Ives, January 2022
A recent birthday brought me a trail camera present. This was exciting but I needed assistance to programme it from a series of (to me) complicated options. It is triggered by movement and can be set to record still, or video images of varying lengths, both during the day and night. As the light fades it switches to infra-red and a white light is cast ahead of the camera which animals cannot see – much used on Winter Watch recently! Mine is a basic model, battery driven, and with a limited infra-red range – but hey, you gotta start somewhere.
With permission from a nearby nature reserve I set up in two positions a few days apart. The first was a few metres back from a sett exit hole just behind a fallen log. Into the cracks and crevices of the bark was smeared peanut butter, and whole nuts were scattered around to present hopefully tempting delicacies to precede an evening’s foraging for roots, worms and grubs.
The excitement on replaying the recordings is palpable. But often it not obvious why the sensor has been activated. But then a pair of bright luminescent eyes will bounce across the field of view with ears raised as a Wood Mouse pauses, selects a peanut and then bounds off again. Jumping Jack I called him. Then the dainty presence of a Muntjac deer drifts into view and nibbles around. And finally, another pair of eyes appears, cautiously at first, from the burrow and then, when satisfied, hauls out a bulky form to start hoovering up the nuts. She follows the baited trail to the peanut butter and stays a while on the hors d’oeuvres. Marvellous to see.
The second location was facing an obvious track leading from the back of the sett to the boardwalk. She approached the camera slowly sniffing the air. When filming, a tiny red light winks and this seems to generate puzzlement, but not fear. She snuffled closer and closer along the peanut path until, after one final stare at the lens, she turned abruptly and returned in the direction of the sett. Enough peanuts for one night.
I say ‘she’ because it is hoped this may be a pregnant female feeding up prior to giving birth and suckling cubs next month. Better get some fresh batteries!
Trustee Ian Jackson
The links below will take you to each of the three videos:
Portholme Meadow, Brampton, August 2021
Jim Stevenson decided to circumnavigate this enormous flood plain meadow, thought to be the largest in the country, by canoe. This is his tale
The Great Ouse takes a huge loop around Portholme Meadow, making it an island that we can circumnavigate by canoe. Sometimes, when the river is thick and swollen after storms, we can paddle right across it. In spring the boggy puddle-patches that remain will attract migrating Curlews, Oystercatchers and Redshanks that will later burble and whistle their eerie calls in the northern Pennines, Scotland or even as far away as Iceland. Then the wildflowers will start to show among the grasses and we will make our annual pilgrimage to worship the chequered flowers of Snake’s-head Fritillaries and spikes of Early-purple Orchids. Corn Buntings will sing their jingle-jangle songs, Swallows and Sand Martins will swoop low over the water. The white Common Tern ‘sea swallows’ with their long-streamers for tails, black crowns and blood-red bills, will take shortcuts across the grassland to carry tiddlers to their chicks.
Today the meadow is silent and we can only hear the swish and drip of our paddles as we take a back-channel though lesser meadows. These pastures have not been cut for hay for some years now, so rough purple thistles and tall yellow Ragworts have taken over. Even so, cattle find rich grazing, especially at the water’s edge and along the lushness of the wet ditches.
We flush a Heron from the bank and a Kingfisher streaks by as we run aground on a gravel bar to watch hundreds of small silver fish swarm across the stones. They are mostly Bleak (a little roach-like fish) and Minnows. Under the Water-cress at the edge of the channel there will be Sticklebacks, Loaches and Bullheads too. It’s a perfect hunting ground for that Kingfisher and easy wading for the Heron.
Our fishy fascination is disrupted by a huge splash, then another as a herd of bullocks wade into the stream to take a very close look at us. We push off through two-metre tall stands of dark green Bulrushes that look like giant versions of the hard rushes that grow in wet pastures. We enter a pool, fringed with more rushes, reeds and great spikes of Purple Loosestrife. Here is Flowering Rush, which isn’t a rush at all, but a glorious waterside flower with an umbrella-head of large pink-red three-petalled flowers. It grows out of the water in clumps by the moorings along the bank. Also with three petals, this time white, the Water Arrowhead is named for its triangular leaves. Down here in the canoe we can marvel at the detail in all these special plants that grow with their feet in the water.
We can’t peek over the bank into Portholme today because of a fringe of tall Stinging Nettle, Gypsywort, Willow-herb, Orange Balsam and Hemp Agrimony, but stands of purple Water-Mint and blue Water Forget-me-not creep down the banks to greet us. Big blue Emperor Dragonflies dash among the stems and smaller Ruddy Darters sun themselves on the tips of the flowers and on the reeds. Metallic-blue Banded Demoiselles crowd on the gunwale of our canoe.
Now the low sun is warm on our backs and our dreamy, hazy eyes allow the scene to liquify into an eddying swirl of air, water, plants and insects, punctured by flashing bright refracted strobes of blinding sliver sunlight. The slow current drifts us silently along and we remain mesmerised until families of Africa-bound Swallows push through the soft air and splat onto the water to drink. It’s time for us to leave too.
You can learn more about the wildlife of Portholme Meadow from Dr Pat Doody’s article here: Visiting the Area. You can also see photographs of some of the plants mentioned by Jim in Ian Dobson’s Sight and Sound piece here: Riverside Rapture
River Great Ouse, July 2021
Candi Hopkinson has posted some fantastic photographs of Common Seals recently - no, not from the Norfolk Coast but here, right in the Great Ouse Valley. They caught our attention on a Facebook page and she has kindly agreed for us to show a couple here and to describe her encounter. Thanks Candi.
Walking the dogs along a public footpath near the river the other day a head popped up over the grasses. It was a mum seal taking a look at us. I popped the dogs back on their leads and took a peek over the grass and saw the pup too.
Neither of them seemed in the slightest bit concerned that we were there. The pup rolled around on the grass stretching and lolloping around, and then went back to his mum for a nuzzle. It was lovely to see and a great opportunity to snap a few photos. I continued on my walk and was pleased to see they were still there when I returned.
Sightings of seals in our river this far inland are not that uncommon, and so keep an eye on the water and bank on your walks. If you are travelling by boat keep an eye on jetties as these are favourite hauling-out platforms. And if you are paddle boarding, don’t hang about – seals are getting the hang of joining you!
Photographs by Candida Hopkinson
Jones’ Boatyard, St Ives, 19 May 2021
Here is a tale of daring do and dedication that will warm your heart. The drama caught the attention of the BBC Breakfast and the hero, Rob Adamson, was interviewed live from Jones Boatyard. The story has now gone viral.
Rob lives on a narrow boat in a quiet corner of the marina and is passionate about wildlife. You may recall he contributed our Sights and Sounds on the Water Vole. One evening recently the water level in the marina rose alarmingly. Rob was concerned as he knew the nearby Mute Swan nest held 8 eggs. He also knew that you are not supposed to interfere in natural events in the wild, but this was a swan that he had already protected from predators with a fox-proof fence. And he had seen her lose eggs in previous years. He was determined this time to save her nest and so sprang into action. He had to think quickly. As the waters lapped the nest in the dark he made a makeshift raft and gently slid the nest, eggs and all, onto it. He says, ‘The dad was watching, but neither of the parents attacked me. I think they knew it was their best chance.’ He roped the nest to his boat so it would not float away and a few days later the eggs all hatched successfully. What a story, and what a hero! Well done Rob.
Photos by Rob Adamson
Rob and BBC Cameraman by Jones Boatyard
Trustee Ian Jackson
Paxton Pits, St Neots, May 2021
We had just posted a Facebook message asking Ouse Valley spotters to let us know about sights and sounds of Cuckoos, with pictures if possible, when in flew this beautiful shot by Jacqueline Hill. She says it was taken ‘at the river point Paxton Pits, St Neots on 3 May’. It truly is a great photograph. Thank you Jacqueline.
Photo © Jacqueline Hill
If you want to know more about these amazing birds – their journeys, incredible nesting behaviour and much more, check out the article we published in the Hunts Post on 5 May, now on the site here under our Media section. Please let us know of other Cuckoo sightings and stories. And how about a recording?
Trustee Ian Jackson
Front door, St Ives, February 2021
Our house is on a narrow plot in town on the river, with the front door on the side. It is built to allow the flood to come up around and underneath, and to flow back again with some assistance from me to brush back debris and silt. We are used to floods that hang around for up to a week or so, and I always enjoy the birdwatching on the flood meadow opposite at such times (see Sights and Sounds November – March 2020).
On this occasion, however, it has lasted six weeks from Christmas Eve. As usual, I opened the door early to schlepp up to the postbox for the paper. Half asleep, I was startled by a bright blue flash and a whirring of wings that made me jump out of my skin. It took me a few seconds to register what had happened.
A Kingfisher had been sitting on the low wall immediately outside the door, presumably peering down into the shallow water lapping against the house, and hoping for a movement that might indicate breakfast. It made me realise how difficult it must be for these wonderful birds to continue to catch small fry when the river is so high, fast and coloured. This particular bird must have viewed our little ‘backwater’ as a potential feeding ground. Small fish must presumably mass in eddies off the main stream during a flood and, as long as visibility allows, the bird can snatch a displaced fish from such places.
Another opportunity might be offered on Holt Island Nature Reserve just upstream. Here the receding water level traps fish in temporary pools and our local Grey Heron has been seen to make regular visits. On a previous occasion we rescued a small, but contented, pike from one pool.
|The low wall perch with water receded||The sight I missed! Photograph by Nigel Sprowell|
Trustee Ian Jackson
Buckden area, November 2020
We are pleased to have received this new Otter sighting in the valley, this time during the day and with vocals! Celia Woolley describes the experience as ‘a day I will never forget’, and we can see why. This is her story.
The weather in the morning was a little overcast but dry, although pretty muddy and slippery underfoot with the rain from previous days. I decided I would turn around after a couple of miles walking along the riverbank and head back to the car. I then heard something quite unusual on the opposite bank of the river, which seemed to be coming from a row of trees. It was a very loud and continuous, nearly ear-piercing, screeching sound. I have never heard anything like it before. I stood for a few moments staring at the trees thinking there must be a rare bird, maybe an owl, sitting on one of the branches. My brother is a keen ornithologist so I took a video on my phone of the trees, just for the sound, and thought I would send it to him later for him for identification of this ‘rare, elusive bird’! (VIDEO 1) As I finished the short video the noise was getting even louder and seemed to be moving slowly. I stood for a few more minutes just staring at the trees, but the sound seemed to be travelling too slowly for a bird. Then I caught sight of something moving in the water, just along the edge of the reeds. At first I wasn’t sure what it was, but then it dawned on me - it was an Otter - and, as it swam, it was making the ear-piercing noise. Quickly getting my phone out again I managed to video it swimming near the reeds (VIDEO 2), and then across the river to a creek under a footbridge (VIDEO 3). For a couple of minutes I could still hear the screeching noise in the distance as the Otter disappeared out of sight.
I have researched Otters since my sighting and the sound it was making was an alarm call. It was possibly a juvenile otter who had strayed, maybe calling to its parents. Back in September I spoke to a couple of fishermen, about a mile away from my sighting, who had seen an adult Otter with three cubs swimming across the river. Maybe my sighting was one of this family?
In the past the Otter has nearly disappeared from the rivers and waterways of England, but thankfully populations have been increasing over the last few years, mainly due to huge efforts to improve water quality. As I watched the elusive Otter swimming across the river, with a newly built road bridge and wind turbines in the background, it made me feel positive that we can still live alongside nature and enjoy its outstanding beauty. We just need to take care of our surroundings so wildlife can flourish for us all to enjoy.
|Video 1 - click on image to play||Video 2 - click on image to play||Video 3 - click on image to play|
Thank you Celia for this brilliant sighting and your accurate recording of it
The Thicket, St Ives, November 2020
How old are the woods along the Thicket Path? There are signs that they are very old indeed, possibly between 300 and 400 years in fact. How do we know? Because there are plants that can be seen there that grow only in places that have never been cultivated. In other places Bluebells are the clue. Along the riverside here we are fortunate to have two very different distinctive plants that are easy to spot. The first is the Spindle Tree with its shocking pink, four-lobed berries. As they split a bright orange seed protrudes – they could almost be tiny Christmas tree decorations! Instead the seeds were once dried, ground to a powder and sprinkled on the heads of small boys to kill their lice. The girls must not have had itchy scalps! The hard Spindle wood was used to make skewers, toothpicks, pegs and knitting needles – a very useful plant.
|Spindle Tree berries||Spurge Laurel berries|
Photographs by Ian Jackson
The second ancient wood ‘indicator plant’ is Spurge Laurel, with characteristic glistening black fruits. This too was useful – in some counties it was gathered and sold as a horse medicine. It is a member of the Daphne family and sometimes crops up in gardens and is welcomed for its delicious honey scent.
See for yourself At the time of writing (early November) both plants were putting on a show. Head down the Thicket Path from the town and turn right up the steep footpath into the woodland by the information board (or from Houghton, turn left). Along this path there are at least three Spindle Trees, but many more Spurge Laurel bushes. You are now in a very old wood!
Trustee Ian Jackson
Hemingford Abbots, October 2020
Photographs by Bridget Flanagan
Perhaps there are fairies at the bottom of my garden? If they do come to visit there are lots of their favourite red and white toadstools to sit on. The ground beneath the silver birch and pine trees has hundreds of Amanita muscari, commonly known as Fly Agaric. Fly Agarics thrive on the light sandy, slightly acidic soils on the gravel ridges along parts of the Great Ouse Valley. They are mycorrhizal fungi and have a symbiotic relationship with the birch and pine trees – they exist by taking sugars from the trees ‘in exchange’ for moisture and nutrients gathered from the soil. Their fungal strands (mycorrhizae) greatly to the root system.
But however enchanting these toadstools may look, they are poisonous and will cause vomiting and nausea. Fly Agarics were traditionally used as an insecticide – which is how the fungusl got its common name; the cap, which contains ibotenic acid, was crumbled into saucers of milk to intoxicate and kill flies.
The Amanita muscari toadstool contains another toxin - muscimol - and together with the ibotenic acid, this gives the fungus hallucinogenic and psychoactive properties when ingested. In ancient Iran and India it was used in a sacred, ritual drink called soma. The druids and shamen of northern Europe used it to induce euphoria, to allow them to commune with the spirit world. There are theories that the Siberian use of Fly Agaric may be part of the development of the Santa Claus legend. Reindeer grazed on the fungi, and, observing their strange behaviour, the herders would kill and eat the intoxicated animals, trying to experience the strange effects for themselves. At the winter solstice shamen distributed gifts of dried Fly Agaric, but if there was deep snow they may have entered the yurts from above by the central smoke hole. Then, after completing the due ceremonies, they would have departed the way they entered. So, flying red-nosed reindeer, winter gifts brought via the chimney, and the red-and-white colouring of a mystery donor who lives in the Arctic, might all be part of a very good story!
Trustee Bridget Flanagan
St Ives, September 2020
Remember Ratty from Wind in the Willows? I was delighted to be introduced to him again recently by Rob Adamson who sees Ratty in his true guise just about every evening through the summer. Ratty is of course a Water Vole and we are happy to say he appears to be making a comeback along the Great Ouse Valley. Conditions have to be just right and Rob Adamson is lucky that his home, a narrowboat, is moored very close to some lush reedbeds, just off the main river. This is what happened.
Rob pointed out a slight twitching in the stems, and a scrunching, munching noise, a bit like a pair of scissors snipping. A reed stem disappeared as it was pulled back out of sight. We waited as more rustling occurred and then – hey presto - a pair of beady eyes appeared and then a round, chestnut head and shoulders took a full look. What a treat!
Photograph by Rob Adamson
This was mid-afternoon. Rob explained that the voles are more active in the evening when he often hears them squeaking to one another – probably debating who gets which reed! Sometime they swim from one patch to another. They seem to prefer backwater channels which are less disturbed by boat wash. They have appeared in Rob’s location in the last three years and numbers are increasing. So why not try and spot one for yourself? Choose a warm, still evening along a quiet, reedy backwater. If you can see some reeds neatly chopped off short you are in a good place. Listen intently. Be still and patient. You could be rewarded by a glimpse of one of the most enchanting mammals along the Great Ouse Valley. Thank you Rob.
Trustee Ian Jackson
Hemingford Meadows, July 2020
Walking along the bridleway from Hemingford Abbots to Houghton Mill on a glorious day in mid-July, I found the meadow buzzing with activity. Haymaking was in full swing. The hay had been cut a few days earlier, and now it was being turned and baled. There was no time wasted; vehicles zoomed around the field in a well-ordered scheme. One machine steadily moved the cut and dried grass into rows. This was followed by a tractor with a baler - travelling at nearly 30 mph as it swallowed the hay, then disgorged it in giant half-ton (1,000 lbs) rectangular bales. A relay of tractors with forklifts carried the bales, one by one, and loaded them high on to the waiting wagons. It was an impressive sight. But how different, I thought, to haymaking here 100 years ago.
William Kay Blacklock painted the same scene in 1915 and the spire of Houghton Church can be seen in the background. There are no machines. Women are raking and turning the hay. It isn’t baled, but remains loose; men lift and load it with pitch forks on to the carts or hay-wains, which the horses will then lead back to the farm. Long, slow, heavy work for everyone – except it is a race (as much as is possible) against the weather and the looming storm.
Another painting by Blacklock is titled ‘The Hay Barge’ and is set at Hemingford Mill (demolished c1958). Hay has been brought by lighter across the backwater, from the island to the north of Hemingford lock. It may look an idyllic rural scene, but six men are labouring hard. Before this hay will be stacked in the farmyard, it is being handled at least four times – from the meadow onto a cart, then into and then out of the lighter, and then onto a cart by the mill.
Haymaking in 1915, in the vast flood plain meadows of the Great Ouse, took weeks of back-breaking labour-intensive work, not two to three days of tractor activity as in 2020. But in 1915, in a pre-mechanised farming age, the hay crop was a vital resource; it was the fuel, the winter feed for the draught animals that pulled the ploughs on arable land and for the horses that gave transport.
Trustee Bridget Flanagan
All images supplied by Bridget Flanagan
Hemingford Abbots, 23 July 2020
This contribution results from the garden visit referred to in ‘The Hemingford Fox’ (3 July 2020).
Photograph by Nigel Sprowell
Red Kites are now seen readily across the UK with a current population of some 10,000 birds, including about 2,000 breeding pairs. These birds have wonderful plumage, long broad wings and a flexible forked tail enabling them to twist and turn acrobatically as they soar high in the air with gentle mewing calls.
The birds have recovered to these numbers in only the last 30 years or so, thanks to a reintroduction programme. They were a regular sight in the Middle Ages clearing up food waste and other edible rubbish in the streets, but in more recent times they became persecuted and a target for egg collectors, and became practically extinct in the UK apart from a few pairs in Wales.
One of the reintroduction areas was Northamptonshire where they are now quite common, and as juveniles fledge they spread out to find new territories. The wooded areas along the Ouse Valley are becoming attractive to these birds and there are several nesting sites now in the Huntingdon and St Ives area.
Red Kites generally like to nest in the dense canopy of hardwood trees about 60 feet up, making them exceedingly difficult to see, let alone monitor. They make a large nest of twigs with soft materials for lining. Historically they were renowned for stealing linen for this purpose from washing lines! Shakespeare wrote in The Winter’s Tale ‘When the kite builds look for lesser linen’.
The birds usually lay one to three eggs in late March and after an incubation period of around 38 days they hatch and it then takes up to a further 60 days for the hatchlings to fledge, depending on the number of chicks. Their diet is mainly small mammals, mice, voles and worms plus a wide variety of carrion including the carcasses of dead birds, rabbits and roadkill.
A nest in the Hemingford area has been observed from a distance (and a long lens) and just recently two juveniles successfully fledged. They are likely to remain in the vicinity of the nest site for two to three weeks, practicing their flight skills and being fed by their parents who will also train them to fend for themselves.
All photographs by Nigel Sprowell
The juveniles out of the nest now begin to wing stretch in preparation for flight.
The juveniles will then probably leave the area and seek territories of their own, sometimes returning to their original nesting area after a couple of years. The parents, who are monogamous, are likely to remain loyal to their nesting site if undisturbed, staying in the area and raising further broods in the future.
We will hopefully be able to enjoy more of these magnificent birds as they twist and tumble in the skies above us, as long as their delicate habitat remains protected!
Towards Hemingford Lock, 10th July 2020
Photograph by Keith Knight
We decided to cruise quietly upstream into the sunset late on a perfectly still evening. A Green Woodpecker called and then flew across the river ahead of us. A guest on board, Keith Knight, had positioned himself up front and managed to capture this amazing shot of the bird reflected in the glow as it headed for its roost - a magical moment in the Great Ouse Valley.
Trustee Ian Jackson
Hemingford Abbots, 8 July 2020
The fox that Ian Jackson delightedly photographed with his phone has a near neighbour. I live just up the road and, back in April, I was searching in an old shed for some wire netting when my ears caught a faint sound of scrabbling. Inside a large wooden box there were two fox cubs barely 10 in (25 cm) from nose to tail. I quickly left the shed but on checking next day I found that the vixen had moved them to new quarters.
They cannot have been taken far because I have seen the vixen so frequently. This was usually at night but not infrequently by day. The movement of any large animal across my lawn triggers a security light and I sit up in bed to see who is the culprit. I have had Foxes, Muntjac deer, cats of course, an occasional Badger but, luckily, never a human intruder. My phone is waiting beside the bed.
Photographs by Robert Burton
The Quick Brown Fox
Drinking from the Pond (video still)
I have also set up a game camera on a tripod which takes videos or stills of the visitors. The foxes usually trot straight across the lawn and jump over the fence into the next garden or wander around, sniffing out worms or insects in the grass. They also stop for a drink by the pond (hopefully not taking the newts). This week I was very pleased to see two half-size foxes exploring the bushes together. The cubs have survived and are beginning to prepare for the time when the apron-strings will be cut.
Some weeks hence, they will find an easy source of food. Although Foxes are technically carnivores, they are not averse to feeding on windfall apples and pears. Aesop was not making it up when he wrote the fable of the fox and the grapes.
Hemingford Abbots, 3 July, 2020
It all started with an invitation from a friend to view a Red Kite’s nest in her garden. (This, hopefully will be the subject of another ‘Sights’ in the not too distant future.) As we threaded our way through a wooded area (it is a big garden) my attention was caught by an earth spoil and tunnel entrance. ‘Fox?’ I remarked, to which our host responded,’ Yes, and there she is!’ And sure enough, a Red Fox appeared trotting leisurely across the path ahead of us from left to right. It was early evening and so the light was good and viewing clear. She seemed pale to me and slight. There was no fear in our presence, merely curiosity. A few trots, pause, look back at us. A few trots more, pause. By the time I realized the opportunity and pulled out my phone she was some way distant. But then to my luck a final pause and glance, and ‘click’ – gotcha! After cropping and enlargement I was quite pleased with the result.
Photographs by Ian Jackson
Where on earth .... ?
There! Just goes to show what you can do with the humble phone.
So, what do we know about foxes in the Ouse Valley? You tell me! Please write with your sightings, observations, experiences – good or bad. This individual is lucky. She is living undisturbed among large houses and indifferent to the neighbour’s dog apparently. I know of another one on Holt Island Nature Reserve in St Ives that trots over the bridge entrance as if he owns the place. We have footage of him catching a rat on the website. Check out ‘Nature in the Raw’ and compare size and colour of this individual and the Hemingford one (Hidden Secrets of Holt Island).
The clue may be the time of year. I checked the Discover Wildlife website and found this for July by Sarah McPherson: ‘Adults are by now very thin after provisioning for three months; they also look very tatty because they are moulting. So they stop feeding the cubs and start competing with them for food, often driving them off and forcing them to explore.’ So the Hemingford garden might be worth keeping an eye on for cubs!
Trustee Ian Jackson
Hemingford Meadow, June 2020
St Ives resident Ian Dobson is passionate about the wonderful meadow and riverside flora we get to enjoy in spring and early summer in St Ives. His contribution includes a tribute to Bridget Smith, an accomplished local botanist and Reeve of Hemingford Great Meadow, who passed on to many of us her enthusiasm for the plants and their historic relevance. She is sadly no longer with us but her insights and stories remain.
Hemingford Great Meadow and its meadow's edge walks are a delight at all times of the year. But delight gives way to excitement when in May a carpet of Buttercups appears that overlays the meadow, as far as eyes can see. Now in June this bright yellow abundance makes way for subtler hues and a profusion of water meadow plants, grasses and flowers. We can count among them Yellow Hayrattle and Lady's Bedstraw, yellow-orange Birds-foot Trefoil, lilac Cuckoo Flower aka Lady's Smock, reddish-purple Knapweed and Red Clover. These are typical of flood meadows managed for hay. Look close and you will also spy deep-red Great Burnet and creamy white Meadowsweet. Look closer still and you may even glimpse bright-blue Skullcap.
In July this Lammas meadow will give up its hay. But not before fading plants drop their seed, so next year's spectacular display is guaranteed. The timing is good, because now the focus can move from Great Meadow to Great Ouse. The joy in July and August of the meadow's river-bank and water's edge riot of colour is there for all to share, whether walking on the bank or by electric boat trip from St Ives Quay. In May and June Yellow Flag had already delighted the eye. But now it's the patches of Purple Loosestrife and pinkish-purple Willowherb and the flotillas of Yellow Waterlily that will capture our attention. And there are other striking flowers like Marsh Woundwort, Woody Nightshade aka Bittersweet and Hemp Agrimony. My favourites at the water's edge are Branched Bur-reed and Flowering Rush. Like others, I would not have come to appreciate these but for Bridget Smith's expert and ever-friendly guidance.
| Photo by Plants for a Future
| Photograph by Gail Hampshire
Photograph by Ian Jackson
Wyton, June 2020
We have been aware of the occasional sighting of this charismatic mammal in the Great Ouse Valley but do not yet have a body of evidence of their numbers and locations. Nationally we know that Otters are making a welcome comeback from previous persecution (we know that they were hunted locally not that many years ago), and that most counties now report them, even from city centres, Bristol and Sheffield for example. Here, we know that Great Paxton Pits has had an occupied Otter holt, and boaters sometimes report sightings in the St Ives area. We would love to gather more information and so if you have records, do please be in touch.
In the meantime, I am delighted to report that we have been approached by Eamonn Lillis of Wyton who has had a couple of exciting otter encounters to add to our Sights and Sounds in the Great Ouse Valley. His notes are as follows.
I was house/dog minding for a friend one weekend when early one wet Saturday morning last year I walked the dog along a cut that was fed by the river. I spotted a cloudy mud trail on the bottom of the cut. The water is quite shallow there. Looking ahead I saw that it was being made by a young otter who was swimming towards the river. Luckily the dog had raced ahead and remained blissfully ignorant of the otter, while it remained blissfully ignorant of me. Eventually it glanced over its shoulder and saw me with a brolly right behind it. It then jumped out of the water, ran across the grass and entered the river. Concealing itself in some undergrowth it ‘hissed’ it’s annoyance at my disturbance of its morning perambulation. The dog returned and we left the otter to its business, my only regret being that I had not brought along my phone to get a couple of snaps.
I subsequently photographed the otters on the north bank between Hartford Marina and Houghton Mill. I’m happy for people to know as they have already been spotted by several locals. I set up a camera trap by the riverbank in a small inlet where I had a very close encounter with a young otter last year. Some of the shots are infrared but I did manage to get a few daylight shots on another occasion. All the shots are time and date stamped. I’ve reset the camera now to try to capture video footage as well (fingers crossed). Otters don’t keep very social hours so the camera trap is probably the best method of observing them at present. It's great to see that such apex predators are active and thriving in the area.
Note the time of day in each case. Eamonn says otters don’t keep very social hours – he’s right!
All photographs by Eamonn Lillis
Very well done Eamonn and we are all looking forward to hearing more stories of your encounters and your video footage in due course. Please keep us posted.
SHOULD WE FEED BREAD?
St Ives, 15 June 2020
This is another contribution from Nigel Sprowell, a Committee Member for the Friends of Holt Island Nature Reserve, on Holt Island. Nigel has been tracking the progress of the Mute Swan that regularly nests on the island. See his Sightings entry for 10 May.
In early May we were delighted to see ‘our’ swans presenting their new family of eight cygnets. Here’s a reminder of them then:
Photograph by Nigel Sprowell
She successfully raised a similarly large brood last year all the way through to adulthood, which was a fantastic achievement. Sadly, however, this year I must report that very recently, and one by one, she lost three of her cygnets, reducing the family to five. These remaining five appear to be growing well (as seen here just over a month later), as were the three that have been lost.
Photograph by Ian Jackson
It is not unusual to suffer casualties, albeit they had arguably passed the extremely dangerous stage when they could easily have been predated by corvids (crow family), mink or pike, for example. Alternatively they may well have been predated by foxes, or even otter, or may just have succumbed to illness. Dare I even suggest that maybe they suffered from too much ‘love’ from their admiring public, perhaps by consuming far too much unhealthy bread!
Like us humans, ducks, swans and all bird life need a balanced diet and too many carbohydrates is not good for them, providing little nutritional value - equivalent to junk food for birds! They need a varied diet - natural plants and insect proteins - to mature properly. It is too easy for ducklings, cygnets and the like to get an easy meal from bread handouts, which may make them reliant and does not encourage them to forage for their important nutrient foods.
It's wonderful to see the ducks and swans with their young and a real joy for the children to be with them and to feed them, and I certainly do not wish to discourage this in any way. But, perhaps, we should just think about what they are being fed. Maybe, reduce the size and quantity of bread, and consider alternatives such as floating duck pellets, crushed biscuits, cereals, oats, bird seed, sweet corn, and even defrosted peas and shredded lettuce leaves – they all go towards providing a balanced healthy diet for our avian wildlife.
This is just a thought for you – and we all I’m sure, wish all our birds well, including of course ’our’ swan family, and so please, please continue to enjoy them.
Note for readers in St Ives: floating duck pellets can be purchased from Just Cards in Bridge Street.
The Trout Stream, Hemingford Grey, 2 June 2020
Just to prove the point that practically anything goes in Sights and Sounds, and that if you sit still long enough something will happen, try this!
Up the Trout Stream (again) after a fairly long row on a wonderfully warm day, I sat back with my feet on the thwart and felt my eyes closing. I had noticed some lovely damsel and dragonflies on the way. Every summer I vow to try to identify more but they are usually too quick for me. Darting past and amazingly manoeuvrable as they chase their aerial prey it is difficult to see one pausing long enough to examine.
But then I felt the faintest of faint touches on my foot. I opened one eye and froze. Where was my camera? Just out of reach. I tried to drink in every detail for later reference. Like a sloth I stretched out my arm, inch by slow inch, but my visitor flew off. Damn. But it circled round and to my joy alighted again on my toe. This time I got the shot. Then things got better and better. Using my digit as a hunting platform, sorties after prey and return were launched at regular intervals, and sometimes the other toe used.
Photograph © Ian Jackson
Back home I consulted the book. The adult male Scarce Chaser Libellula fulva fitted the description but the best bit was this: ‘males spend up to two thirds of their time surveying their territories from vantage points overhanging slow flowing rivers, making short forays over the water’. So, in his territory on that day my big toe was his vantage point. In fact, he made my day.
True to say we are blessed with a wide variety of damsel and dragonflies along the Great Ouse valley. Our river is perfect for them - slow, shallow and with much lush marginal vegetation. These are are fascinating and impressive insects and as you can see they reward the ‘sitting and waiting approach’. Please let us have your own sightings.
[Reference Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland Steve Brooks, British Wildlife Publishing 1997]
Trustee: Ian Jackson
Back garden, St Ives, 28 May 2020
It’s amazing what you can see right under your nose if you take the trouble to look. Especially when you are in confinement with all this lovely weather. In fact, I recommend a sit down with a cuppa outside at least once a day to just gaze around. This time my eye was caught by a leaf pattern I did not recognize. I remembered it as a wisteria but now I wasn’t so sure.
Photographs © Ian Jackson (left) and Warren Photographic (right)
Each leaf had a semi-circle missing, sometimes two. Was it some weird disease? I recalled the same thing happening last year but on a rose. Half-way through my cuppa the culprit was revealed. An insect took off with something held between its legs, a bit like a miniature rolled up carpet – a Leaf-cutter Bee! A quick bit of research explained everything. We have seven Megachile species that do this. They are all solitary and it is the female that neatly snips the leaf semi-circles and takes them back to the nest to construct a cell. Each cell contains an egg and a store of food (nectar and pollen) and is capped. The larva that hatches then has a pretty good start. The best news is that although the bee favours fresh young leaves the plants are not harmed – and that’s from the RHS!
Trustee Ian Jackson
Back garden, St Ives, 21 May 2020
Another very warm day, warm enough to barbecue a sausage for supper. The slight breeze had died completely until the air was perfectly still. I pushed back my plate, reached for the wine and then was distracted by movement over the pergola. Specks catching the low sunlight were moving up and down fast and waltzing around each other. Squinting revealed long graceful tails - mayflies! A quick count - about twenty. I watched for some minutes as they rose and fell and remembered the story. This was their one day of joy. They had spent most of their life underwater as nymphs and had just hatched to live just long enough to mate after the courtship dance. If I was a fly fisherman I would have reached for my tackle box.
Wine forgotten I was mesmerised. Then, disaster! A Black-headed Gull floated into view at low level, banked suddenly and did a fly past. In a flash it was gone. And so were a few of the flies. Before I had to time to realise what had happened it came back. And then again. Within a very few minutes my dancing Queens were no more.
Illustration from MDWFP Museum of Natural Science
Trustee: Ian Jackson
St Ives, 14 May 2020
I pulled the kitchen curtain at 5.40 am to catch a glimpse of a dumpy, chestnut brown shape running along the Meadow path alongside the river from the left. By the time it was opposite the reed bed on Holt Island Nature Reserve I had realised what it was. The Muntjac deer slipped into the river by one of the fishing platforms without any hesitation and swum strongly across. It scrambled ashore to disappear into the reeds and I watched the waving reed tops mark its passage inland as it pushed its way through. I hoped the Reed and Sedge Warblers nests were not too disturbed!
Photogaph by Nigel Sprowell (different occasion)
We have always had a small family of these deer on the reserve. It looks like we now might have a new arrival. Their fondness for fresh green shoots does not endear them to gardeners of riverside properties but on the island they can munch away to their heart’s content. Visitors and especially children are thrilled by the odd sighting, usually in the evening, and they do look rather charming. Our damp riverside habitats suit them well and I understand they have spread through East Anglia from a few escapes at Woburn Abbey.
Check out Holt Island Nature Reserve at www.holtisland.org
The Waits, St Ives, 10 May 2020
Where has she been? This is the question we have been asking ourselves for the past few weeks. And now? Deja-vu! Last year ‘our’ swan gave pleasure to many whilst nesting on the Island, on The Waits side, producing a family of eight cygnets, all of which eventually reached adulthood being a remarkable achievement.
Well, she was clearly hiding nearby - maybe in isolation -- and in the last few days she proudly presented another batch of eight cygnets to her admirers at The Waits. We wish them all well and let us hope they are as successful as last year - and learn to practice social distancing!
Photographs by Nigel Sprowell
Holt Island Nature Reserve, 10 May 2020
I sat on The Waits and listened to the rolling skirl of the recently arrived Sedge Warbler’s song just opposite me across the backwater in a patch of Phragmites reed. Suddenly the bird darted into fleeting view. I raised my camera. These chances are rare. The bird’s attention was suddenly attracted to a large spider. I hit the motor drive as a sudden quick stab sealed the spider’s fate. I was very pleased with the results. Such a beautiful summer warbler feeding here after an epic journey of 6,000 miles. It is so good to have it back in the Great Ouse Valley.
Photographs by Nigel Sprowell
The Trout Stream, Hemingford Grey, 7 May 2020
The Trout Stream is narrow, fast flowing and twists through the meadows from the weir opposite the regatta meadow. In places sharp bends reveal crumbly cliffs, ideal for tunnels. Access by small boat (no engine) allows quiet observation from a respectful distance at anchor with binoculars – and a lot of patience. These are brief notes from an hour-and-a-half’s viewing.
Photograhs by Nigel Sprowell (different occasion)
‘The bird came in low and fast (as they always do) like an arrow from far right. It disappeared into the foliage of the large collapsing willow opposite the hole. After a few seconds it reappeared and alighted just below the hole and then, in a flash, it was in. This cautious approach was a recurring theme. The hole’s exact location is not to be revealed. After a varying amount of time, the bird would reappear, splash down into the stream, immediately arise, dip down again and then fly off immediately up upstream. What was happening? I checked the book. The kingfisher nesting chamber is a tight smelly place. Feeding birds need to cleanse themselves after delivering food.’
[Reference: Kingfisher Charlie Hamilton James, Evans Mitchell Books 2009]
Trustee Ian Jackson
The river, St Ives, May 2020
Photograher unknown (different occasion)
Downstream they came, three abreast. Fearsome ‘reptilian’ birds looking as if they meant business. And they sure did. Together they presented a perfect synchronized dive, disappearing without a ripple for a few long seconds. Up they bobbed close to one another with one triumphant beak in the act of swallowing a fish. I hadn’t seen this before. I imagined them underwater working as a team and corralling fish to restrict their escape. Clever stuff.
Trustee Ian Jackson
Wildlife Trust Godmanchester Nature Reserve, April 2020
Photgraph by Nigel Sprowell (different occasion)
An uncommon visitor to this reserve, a Nightingale’s pure liquid song poured forth in the third week of April. It stopped me in my tracks as the bird delivered its soaring pin and low jug notes in a cascade from deep within a thicket, the performer too shy to be seen. For a few brief moments time was suspended and my mind was stilled. What a privilege to hear, so close to home. I was pleased that my phone recorded it so well. Listen to it here:
Trustee Phil Rothwell
EYES OVER THE FLOOD MEADOW
St Ives, November - March 2020
When our river rises at this time of year and the Hemingford flood meadow fills, as it is supposed to do, it is fascinating to see the winter birds the new lake attracts. Here are notes of those spotted as the level rose and fell at least four times this year. (The photographs by Nigel Sprowell were not all taken on the meadow.)
- The Little Egret is the most reliable regular. Always solo he crouches and probes the margins of the lake as it grows and shrinks. Pure white and elegant he is sometimes missed in the hundreds of gulls also feeding.
- In contrast, his big brother the Great Egret is less frequent but equally striking and able to wade deeper. Also solitary. The presence of egrets is evidence of global warming (if we need any more!) as they spread north from their Mediterranean range.
- This year Wigeon, pretty ducks with a yellow Mohican stripe, have formed large flocks widely scattered over the meadow lake in early morning. Constantly on the move they appear fidgety and the first jogger of the day sets them off.
- There is a local single pair of Egyptian Geese sometimes seen on the river. Another bird with interesting head plumage, sunglasses always come to mind! They always seem to be about important urgent business.
- The black bottom of the Gadwall is a giveaway and it has been seen just once this winter in small numbers. In close-up the plumage is elegant grey.
- Tufted Duck in contrast are plain black and white and seen here are often a sign the surrounding lakes are frozen.
- The male Pintail on the other hand is positively stunning. Long and white neck and chestnut head pick him out easily, along with his pin tail of course. Only one pair sighted this year.
- Last of the ducks is the one with the oversized bill, the Shoveler. Fascinating to watch, a small flock of seven sieved through the water with back and forth bills, seemingly keen to make the most of their short stay.
- Now the waders. A wonderful flock of magnificent Black-tailed Godwits graced the meadow just once. They busily probed the soggy grass with impressive bills while moving elegantly up and down on stilted legs. A joy to watch.
- And then a big flock of the more dumpy Dunlin dropped in briefly, more usually a shore bird but welcome in St Ives. A flock turning together in flight flashes dark and then white as the white underwings catch the light. Thrilling!
So, how to see this wonderful array of (mostly) winter visitors spending time with us? There are two viewing points. One is Floods Tavern patio from which you can scan most of the St Ives end of Hemingford Meadow and keep your feet dry! You’ll need at least 10x50 binoculars or better still a scope. Or, if you can venture through the Dolphin Hotel passage in wellies, you can stand in the flood for your views! Happy spotting.
Trustee Ian Jackson
WHY NOT JOIN OUR SUPPORTERS' FRIENDS GROUP!
If you have enjoyed browsing through the wealth of Sights and Sounds presented here and you have become more appreciative of the nature of our Great Ouse Valley and all it has to offer, you might like to know more about the work of the Trust. We are a registered Charity with volunteer Trustees committed to promote, protect and enhance our wonderful Ouse Valley. Send us a message via this site and we will record your interest in order to contact you when our Friends group is set up. We are looking forward to creating a network of Ouse Valley enthusiasts who share our aims. You have our word we will never use your details for any other purpose.
The Trustees, May 2020