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Exploring one of Cambridge's newest wildlife areas - Hobson's Park

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This month I want to highlight a special place - a haven for wildlife very close to the city, and one which only a few short years ago did not exist.

Anyone who has taken the time to gaze eastwards from the London-bound train window, instead of staring at their smartphone or laptop, might have spotted the evolution of this new wetland in fields not far from the rail tracks and guided busway.

Hobson's Park (7168153)
Hobson's Park (7168153)

This is Hobson’s Park, part of which forms Great Kneighton Bird Reserve. An area of rough grassland and lakes, it is the latest part of a green wildlife corridor that now runs all the way from Shelford and Trumpington right along Hobson’s Brook and into the Empty Common allotments, to Brooklands Avenue. There, only a couple of roads cross what to a bird must seem like an almost continuous highway of green, with the Botanic Garden, Vicar’s Brook, Sheep’s Green and Coe Fen continuing the sequence of nature-friendly habitats down to the River Cam and the Backs.

Take a look at the area on Google maps and you will see what I mean.

Excavations for the main lake in the bird reserve began in the winter of 2011 and, by the autumn of 2012 it had filled with water and had begun to attract wildlife. In 2014, bird screens were added, using large rectangular timbers and these form convenient lookouts for gazing out over the reed-fringed lake.

Hobson’s Park now totals some 120 acres, which is about four times the area of Parker’s Piece, and the habitats include stands of trees, the main lake and smaller ponds, with stands of reed and bulrush, and grassland. The main lake has small floating raft-islands as well as a large solid island and these provide safer nest sites for birds, away from marauding predators such as foxes.

Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus), Lower Moors, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly (7168155)
Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus), Lower Moors, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly (7168155)

My friend Bob Jarman and I braved the Arctic chill to check out this site, and we were not disappointed. Though it is close to populated areas and easy of access, there were few other people about - just the occasional dog walker - so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Bob is also a keen naturalist and fellow birdwatcher and in just a couple of hours we had chalked up a list of 26 species - not bad for a site that was farmland just a few years ago.

Gazing out from behind one of the wooden screens, Bob spotted something close to the shore of the lake. Two long ears were visible amongst the stems of grass and reed. The hare looked up and then lolloped along the top of the bank, putting up a couple of snipe which fluttered over the water to safety in the scrub opposite. Altogether we saw several of these charming waders with their long, pencil-straight bills, used for probing deep into the wet mud.

Bearded tit (7168149)
Bearded tit (7168149)

But the prize spot for me came a short while later. As we strolled along the wet tussocks of partly frozen grass, every few yards another snipe shot up. Then we noticed one that seemed a little smaller and its bill definitely shorter. It was my first jack snipe for many a year, and definitely the bird of the day. While common snipe breed in this country and their numbers are boosted by migrants in winter, jack snipe are only with us in winter, breeding on the boggy tundra of northern Europe and they are spotted far less often. There are estimated to be only around 100,000 birds throughout the UK, so we were rather lucky.

Another relatively rare bird has been seen there, and that is the bearded tit. A male has made its home in the fringing reed-beds in recent weeks and is a colourful sight in its beautiful plumage. Bearded tits prefer extensive, long-established reed-beds, so it is good to know that this lone male has arrived to feed amongst the reeds and bulrushes of this small wetland.

See more of local nature photographer Simon Stirrup’s images on simonstirrup.co.uk.

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