A night on the reserve…

Last week a number of our Young Naturalists spent the night at Blashford, camping out under shelters they had made themselves, cooking dinner and breakfast over the camp fire and embarking on a night time adventure around the reserve.

The Young Naturalists project has been shortlisted for the Young People category of Hampshire’s 10th annual Countryside Awards, organised by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). With judging taking place over the summer, they began their camp out by hosting the judges and showing them some of the activities they enjoy taking part in and some of the areas they have worked in around the reserve. We went through the light trap, looking at and having a go at identifying the moths, then wowed our important visitors with the variety of life found in the pond. After pond dipping, we headed off to the woodland to show them the log circle the group had replaced last June and the Woodland Hide.

After the judges had left us, it was time to think about setting up camp and we selected our materials and headed over to our camp area. It had been incredibly hot during the day, but we were expecting rain overnight and possibly some rumbles of thunder, so all were keen to construct a good shelter and we had a nice variety of designs:

It was then time to think about food so we gathered firewood and got the fire going, prepared an extravagant dinner of jacket potatoes, fish and a vegetable bean chilli and began cooking once the fire had died down a little.

Whilst cooking and eating dinner, and pudding, we enjoyed a stunning sunset:

Stunning sky

It was then time to head off into the night in search of some wildlife! We had already set the light trap, set some mammal traps near the Centre and locked the Woodland and Ivy lake hides, so decided to venture over the road towards the Clear Water Pond and Goosander Hide. Armed with bat detectors, torches and Bob’s homemade moth gloop (a sticky concoction of unrefined sugar, treacle and half a bottle of bitter, designed hopefully to attract moths if painted liberally onto tree trunks), we headed off into the night.

Our bat detectors soon picked up the characteristic ‘wet slaps’ or ‘smacks’ of both Common and Soprano pipistrelles as we passed the lichen heath and paused near the bridge over the Dockens Water. As we followed the path along the Dockens we painted some of the trees with our moth gloop, in the hope that on our return a little later something may have been attracted to the sweet syrup:

Painting trees with moth gloop

After carefully crossing the road we followed the path around the Clear Water Pond towards Goosander Hide and were rewarded with a bat feeding frenzy, picking up Daubenton’s bat and more Pipistrelles. Whilst Daubenton’s bat are picked up on the bat detector at the same frequency as Common pipistrelle, they can be distinguished by a different call, a rapid series of regular ‘clicks’ which resemble rapid machine gun fire. We enjoyed listening to them and spent a while watching them dive low over the water and fly overhead.

It was then time to head back to the Education Centre and we had a lot of painted trees to check on the way. On our way back we spotted slugs, spiders, woodlice (the only thing really attracted to Bob’s moth gloop) and a toad.

After not a lot of sleep (we had rain and a couple of rumbles of thunder, but luckily, with the exception of volunteer Geoff’s, our tarp shelters stood up to the test) it was time to think about cooking breakfast. Geoff had been up bright and early and got the fire going again for us, after rather a soggy nights sleep (sorry Geoff!), so we cooked breakfast then headed off to open up the hides, top up the bird feeders and check the light trap.

You may have spotted the tent in the first picture, this was Jess and Maddy’s plan D, after seeing the forecast for the night and taking three attempts to make their shelter. They retreated here at about 3 o’clock in the morning, not beaten by the weather (their shelter was bone dry, Geoff would have loved it!) but by the slugs…

Our final task of the morning, aside from taking down our shelters and tidying camp, was to check the mammal traps we had put out the night before. We were rewarded with two bank voles and two wood mice, out of the ten we had set – not a bad catch!

Thank you all the Young Naturalists who joined us for a night on the reserve, and a really big thank you to volunteers Geoff, Nigel and Emily for giving up their time too!

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly funded by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

One Day, Two Reserves

I am not often at Blashford on a Saturday, but this weekend I was, I managed to intersperse catching up on paperwork with a walk round all the hides. Getting around the reserve is very pleasant but also highlights all the tasks that need planning into the coming winter season, I think an eight month winter would just about be enough!

Opening up the hides I saw a greenshank and three wheatear from the Tern hide, which suggested that there might well be migrants about and with luck “something” might turn up.

As usual the day proper started with a look through the moth trap. This contained no rarities but one unexpected moth, a very fresh dark form coronet, this is an attractive moth and one we see quite often, but it flies in June and July. If I was to get one at this time of year, I would have expected it t be an old, battered one on its last legs, not a pristine newly emerged one.

coronet late season

coronet

The cumulative results of my wanderings throughout the day indicated that there were indeed a reasonable scatter of migrants around the reserve. Chiffchaff were frequently to be seen, although willow warbler were many fewer than last week. In one mixed flock of birds near the Lapwing hide I saw a very smart juvenile lesser whitethroat, a rather rare bird at Blashford these days. On the south side of the main car park a spotted flycatcher was catching insects from the small trees and there were several blackcap eating blackberries.

In the early afternoon I was in Tern hide when I spotted an osprey in the distance flying towards us down the valley, it looked as if it was going to come low over Ibsley Water, but as it came over Mockbeggar North lake a large gull started to chase it and, rather than brush off this minor irritation, it gained height and headed off at speed to the south. It was a young bird and is going to have to learn to tough out such attention.

It was not a bad day for insects, I saw red admiral, painted lady, small white and speckled wood, despite almost no sunshine and there were good numbers of migrant hawker and brown hawker about. I also saw more hornet than I had noticed so far this summer and very widely about the reserve too.

Other birds of note were mostly signs of approaching autumn, a single snipe near the Lapwing hide was the first I have seen since the spring here and later wigeon, one on Ivy Lake and 4 on Ibsley Water were also the first returns that I have seen.

For a couple of years now I have been noticing increasingly large floating mats of vegetation in the Ivy Silt Pond and kept meaning to identify the plant species involved. I finally did so yesterday and one of them, the one with the rosettes of pointed leaves, is water soldier, a rare plant in Hampshire and mostly found on the Basingstoke canal!

water soldier

water soldier

It is probably most likely to be here as a result of escaping from a local garden pond, but might be wild, anyway it seems to be a notable record and as far as I know it has not been recorded here before.

In the evening I went out to another reserve in my area, Hythe Spartina Marsh, it was close to high water and I was interested to see if there was a wader roost. There was, not a large one but interesting, it included 74 ringed plover, 30 dunlin, 2 turnstone, 3 grey plover and a single juvenile curlew sandpiper. In addition 2 common sandpipers came flying north up  edge and on the way across the marsh I saw a clouded yellow butterfly nectaring on the flowers of the sea aster. I also saw that on e of the juvenile ringed plover had got colour rings on its legs, however it would only ever show one leg so all I could see was a white ring above a red ring on the left leg, not enough to identify where it had come from. Ringed plover can breed locally on our beaches or have spent the summer way off in the high Arctic of Canada, so it would have been good to see all the rings.

Seeing the Light

I frequently include moths in this blog and this is because we regularly run a moth trap at Blashford Lakes, but it is also an important part of the species recording program on the reserve. Over 2500 species of moths have been recorded in Britain and they occupy all terrestrial habitats and even a few aquatic ones. Many species occupy very specific habitats and they can be indicators of habitat health and help to identify key habitat elements for management. Moths are also attractive and, although common, rather rarely seen by most people, so we find them very useful for the education team as well.

The recent very warm nights have resulted in some much better catches and opening the trap on Thursday morning we found a good range of species including one rare New Forest speciality, the light crimson underwing.

light crimson underwing

light crimson underwing

It does have crimson hind-wings but at rest you cannot see them. It lives in old oak woods and over the years we have caught a few at Blashford, enough to suggest they breed on the reserve and this highlights the value of our old woodland along the Dockens Water.

One strange fact about moth trapping is that nobody really knows why moths are attracted to lights. There are theories of course, but none entirely stand up. We also know that different types of light attract more moths than others and even that some species don’t really come to light at all. Our light trap is one that produces a lot of light in the ultra-violet range, this is the part of the spectrum that attracts the greatest range of moths so most light trap use this type of bulb.

In contrast to moths we have very few species of butterflies in Britain, but they are generally much more familiar. Overall this summer has been a poor one for butterflies and moths, with most species being seen in relatively low numbers. I did come across one of Blashford’s scarcer species yesterday when I saw a brown argus nectaring on a small patch of heather.

brown argus

brown argus

Very few birds to report unfortunately, Wednesday’s first pintail of the autumn had moved on by Thursday. Other wildfowl of note were 14 shoveler and 7 pochard, but waders and other migrants are still scarce.

 

Challenging and Wild Play!

This week has seen our summer programme of Wild Days Out events come to an end – they’ve been a lot of fun! We began on Monday with a Wild Challenge for the older children, where in teams they had to explore the reserve and tackle different challenges on the way – they were certainly up for it!

We spent slightly longer than planned making our all important team flags, mainly because we decorated them with paints made from natural finds – charcoal, the baked clay that had lined our pit furnace, chalk and blackberries. We also collected leaves and bracken to print with, and painted our hands and feet!

Whilst finishing off our flags in the classroom, we had a go at our first challenge of the day, some dingbats, or visual word puzzles of well known words or phrases.  Volunteer Cheryl gave the two teams a great example to get them going and by the time we headed outside the boys were just ahead by one point, as they had got all their dingbats right and gained a bonus point by finishing first, it was starting to get competitive!

Dingbats

Dingbats – forever; double decker bus; Jack in the box; banana split; snowball; lazy bones; ants in your pants; misunderstanding; four wheel drive; up hill struggle; Cheryl’s example, mayonnaise

Heading outside our challenges got more serious and we played the chocolate game, where you have throw a six with a dice, dress up and try to cut a bar of chocolate using a knife and a fork whilst everyone else in the team keeps rolling for a six. If someone else rolls one, you have to change over. The boys were very vocal with this game, but unfortunately both teams were so good at rolling sixes the girls only managed to cut two pieces and the boys one, meaning they were neck and neck. Here’s Millie demonstrating the chocolate game in her very fetching health and safety gear, much more exciting to wear than a woolly hat and scarf!

Chocolate game!

The chocolate game, with a health and safety twist

We then headed to the woodland for two more challenges, a plant identification memory test and some fire lighting. Both teams were brilliant at their plant challenge, remembering most of the leaves, grasses and flowers hidden under the tea towel, although we did give them both a second sneaky peak!

It was then onto fire lighting, with one point awarded for creating a spark and two for lighting a piece of cotton wool.  All were brilliant at persevering with the strike sticks, as you do need to apply a fair amount of pressure to create a spark, but the girls just crept into the lead with everyone in their team managing to light a piece of cotton wool.

We finished the day by setting a trail for the other team to follow, with points awarded for how good their trail was, e.g. could the other team actually follow it successfully, and how well they hid at the end. Amber, Connor and Max all gained an extra point each for being expert hiders!

Whilst waiting for the other team to set their trail, we played two more games: magic carpet, where you have to flip over the ‘carpet’ you’re standing on without putting your foot on the ground; and human knot, where you have to hold hands with each other and un-tangle yourselves back into a circle, without letting go:

Both teams fully embraced the challenges and had a lot of fun – although the girls just beat the boys to it by a whopping one point, they were all brilliant and equally rewarded at the end!

Arrows

Arrow on our tracking trail

Yesterday the younger children joined us for a Wild Play session, a lovely way to finish off the holidays! We began by making kites then headed outside to see if they would fly – luckily there was just enough of a breeze:

Kite flying!

Kite flying, with just enough of a breeze!

We spent most of the day in our camp area, making paints, decorating flags, tree climbing, den building, bug hunting and fire lighting, before having an afternoon popcorn treat! We tried flavouring our popcorn with a little bit of cinnamon and sugar, which needs a little bit of perfecting but was very tasty…

We had a couple of great wildlife spots whilst in the meadow, catching an awesome Dark bush cricket, which hung around long enough for a photo, and spying a brilliant Goat moth caterpillar, which we quickly re-located to a safer spot. The Goat moth caterpillars feed principally on willow, a species we have plenty of!

Goat moth caterpillar

Goat moth caterpillar

We finished off our play day with a paddle in the river to cool off, and a game of hide and seek.

There will be more exciting Wild Days Out in the October Half Term – keep an eye on the website for details:

http://www.hiwwt.org.uk/whats-on

Mothless, well Almost

Yesterday I ran a “Moth event” at Blashford, unfortunately I forgot to tell the moths and there were probably more human participants than moths! Usually late August is a good time for catching large numbers of moths, but big catches require warm, calm nights following warm settled days. What we had was a windy, mostly clear night following a rather stormy day.

Luckily the day got more settled as it went on, at least until late afternoon anyway. This brought out good numbers of insects, including as many dragonflies as I have seen this year. Around the reserve I saw several brown hawker, southern and migrant hawkers, an egg-laying emperor dragonfly and a fair few common darter. Damselflies included common blue, azure, red-eyed, small red-eyed and blue-tailed.

Butterflies were rather fewer, most that I saw were whites, with all three common species near the Centre. Out on the reserve a few meadow brown and gatekeeper are still flying and speckled wood are increasing again. Near the Lapwing hide I saw both red admiral and painted lady, perhaps indicating some continued arrival of passage insects.

The sunshine in the middle of the day brought out reptiles as well and I saw two grass snake and an adder. The adder was very fat and I suspect a female which will shortly be giving birth, since adders have live young rather than laying eggs as grass snakes do.

adder

adder

I have heard reports of wasp spider being seen around the reserve recently and today I finally saw one.

wasp spider

wasp spider

This is a female, the males are much, much smaller and wander about seeking the females.

I had hoped for a few different birds, following the rough weather, perhaps a few terns, but there was little change form the past week. A few extra waders were the best that could be found, 2 dunlin, 2 oystercatcher, 2 common sandpiper, 1 redshank and the pick of the day, 3 greenshank, although they only flew through. There are starting to be a few more ducks around, I saw 8 shoveler and 3 teal, but there are still no wigeon on the reserve, although they should not be far away. Away for the water looking up there were 2 raven, and single hobby and peregrine. Whilst low over the water before the day warmed there were 1000+ sand martin and c200 house martin.

Perhaps the sighting of the day for many visitors though was the female roe deer that spent part of the morning in front of the Woodland hide.

roe deer at Woodland hide 3

roe deer doe at the Woodland hide

 

Bronze Age, Bioblitz, Birds and Bugs!

The last two weeks have seen children on our Wild Days Out embracing the Bronze Age, carrying out their own Blashford Bioblitz and embarking on a bird and bug hunt, with a bit of fire lighting, den building and damper bread cooking thrown in for good measure!

Last week we stepped back in time and embraced the Bronze Age, with help from Dr Chris Standish from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Southampton. The Bronze Age saw bronze gradually replace stone as the main material for tools as a new culture arrived in Britain via cross-channel connections with mainland Europe. By 2200 BC the period known as the Early Bronze Age had begun.

Our fire pit was transformed into a pit furnace so we could have a go at copper smelting. The pit was lined with clay and a fire lit in the bottom, before a crucible containing copper ore (malachite) was placed into it and covered with more charcoal:

To increase the temperature, bellows were used to blow air into the bottom of the pit furnace, close to where the crucible had been placed. It was hard work!

We also had examples to look at of the materials and equipment used for copper smelting:

Whilst waiting to have a turn with the bellows, we entertained ourselves by making spears and bows and arrows from willow and turning charcoal, clay and chalk into face and body paint:

The university had also kindly lent us a flint knapping kit, an activity hugely enjoyed by the group:

After everyone had been able to practice with the bellows, we attempted to smelt the copper ore by bellowing continuously for a longer period of time. The charcoal was carefully scraped back and the crucible was removed from the pit furnace and its molten contents emptied over the axe mould.

Unfortunately there wasn’t enough copper to fill the axe mould, but we did manage to pour a shape which, once cleaned up looked remarkably like Britain! Thanks again to Chris for giving up his time and sharing with us his knowledge of the Bronze Age and copper smelting and to the University of Southampton for lending us their flint knapping kit.

With the younger children, we embarked on a Wild in the Woods Wild Day Out, den building, having a go at fire lighting, face painting and making chocolate flavoured damper bread! Here are some photos from the day:

This week we challenged the older children to a Blashford Bioblitz, visiting as many different habitats as we could in search of amphibians, reptiles, insects, birds and more. We began with a rummage through the light trap and roped Bob in for his moth knowledge! The trap revealed 17 different species of moth, a harlequin ladybird and caddisfly whilst we also spotted a southern hawker dragonfly and brimstone butterfly over by the pond.

Rummage through the light trap

Rummaging through the light trap

It was then time to delve into the pond to see what else we could find, adding another 23 species to our list, including cased caddis, pond and ramshorn snails, water stick insects, newtpoles or ‘efts’, lesser and greater waterboatmen, whirligig and screech beetles, phantom midge larvae, damselfly, dragonfly and mayfly nymphs and a leech.

After lunch we headed to the meadow, finding a brown hawker dragonfly, common blue damselfly, meadow grasshopper, honey bee, ants and spiders, amongst others. The meadow was also the perfect place to test out our homemade pooters, with Archie managing to catch ants and a spider in his. Inspired by Bob’s talk of how moths were named, the girls decided their common blue butterfly was to be called Ambermidia, a mixture of their names.

In an attempt to find some shade, we popped into Ivy North Hide, spotting coot and mallard, then headed to the woodland to see what we could find up in the canopy. We held a beat tray under a tree branch, then shook the branch to see what, if anything, fell out:

Our most exciting finds were an oak bush cricket and a buff tip caterpillar, with James carrying the naming theme on, renaming a midge ‘annoyingus midginus’.

After a quick visit to the Woodland Hide which revealed 9 more bird species and a bank vole, we headed down to the river for a proper cool off, catching pond skaters, freshwater shrimp, beetle larvae and stonefly nymph whilst we were there, but sadly no fish.

Finally, we had a quick peek in the compost bin and were rewarded with 3 grass snakes. Here’s a not particularly great photo of two of them, as they didn’t hang around for long!

Grass snakes

Grass snakes in the compost bin

With a grand total of 81 different species, we had done brilliantly considering the heat!

Yesterday we carried on with the bird and bug theme with the younger children, making bee finger puppets and decorating birds on sticks before trying to camouflage our own moths by colouring them in and hiding them outside, testing our camouflage skills!

We went on our own mini bird hunt challenge, visiting both the Woodland Hide and Ivy South Hide in two teams – the totals were almost the same, with only a Coal tit in it for the winning team!

There were birds there a minute ago

Bird watching from the woodland hide, there were birds there a minute ago!

After embarking on a fun and rather giant bug hunt, we headed to the meadow to see what we could find:

So all in all it’s been a fun and busy couple of weeks, filled with birds, bugs, copper smelting and more. Thank you for reading to the end!!!

Clouded Yellow

From the Tern hide first thing it was no surprise to find that yesterday’s spoonbill had moved on. Possibly a good thing as the volunteers were working outside the hide this morning to further improve the view by hand-pulling the annual; plant growth that obscures the shoreline. During the we came across a “Woolly bear” caterpillar, once a very common sight these larvae of the tiger moth are now not so often seen. Then a rather large grass snake slithered away up the bank and lastly the reserve’s first clouded yellow of the year flew by. Later in the Centre car park I saw a second clouded yellow, so perhaps there is something of a migrant insect arrival underway with the change in the weather, if it includes moths we could be in for a good session on Sunday morning. Incidentally if you would like to come along to see what the trap has gathered overnight there are still places available.

Birds were rather few, a dunlin on Ibsley Water and 2 whitethroat in the bramble around the main car park were as good as it got for me today.