Counting butterflies and moths…

For the past few years we have taken part in Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count, usually incorporating it into our July Young Naturalists session. We’ve missed doing it as a group this year, for obvious reasons, although I have reminded the group about the survey and hopefully some of them will be able to take part before it finishes on Sunday 9th.

Given the sun has been shining today and you only need 15 minutes to spare, I thought I would spend a bit of time by the Education Centre ponds after lunch and see what I could spot. We have counted at this spot before, but last year we went to our wild play area where we do den building and campfire activities, so if I get the chance I might try there later on in the week.

There was an abundance of gatekeepers, I counted nine in the 15 minutes, but given they are the most abundant around the whole reserve at present that was not too surprising, and two small whites. Perhaps not the most exciting count, but all records are useful and help to build up a bigger picture. In comparison, albeit in a different location on the reserve, last year we managed 15 butterflies altogether and five species, compared to today’s 11 butterflies and two species.

I didn’t take any photos at the time, as I was obviously focused on spotting, counting and recording, but the survey does include some day flying moths and in looking closely at the wild marjoram in search of the mint moths you can quite often see, I spotted a clearwing moth. On closer inspection it was a red-tipped clearwing:

Red-tipped clearwing (4)

Red-tipped clearwing

Red-tipped clearwing (3)

Red-tipped clearwing

I have only ever seen clearwing moths attracted to pheromone lures before, so spotting one nectaring on the marjoram was very exciting (and a complete distraction from the butterfly counting) and although it didn’t stay still for long I was pleased to get a couple of photos.

I did also spot a couple of mint moths:

There is still time to sit back and count butterflies, all you need is 15 minutes and a sunny spot, so if you get the chance between now and Sunday 9th August it is well worth it, you never know what you might see. Details can be found on their website, along with a downloadable chart and you can also use smartphone apps which make recording your sightings even easier.

As well as watching the butterflies and moths, there were lots of bees enjoying the marjoram and I noticed a shield bug on the buddleia. After taking a photo and looking it up, it is I think a hairy shieldbug.

Hairy shieldbug (4)

Hairy shieldbug

Hairy shieldbug (3)

Hairy shieldbug

Yesterday morning I decided to check Goosander Hide was still secure, so headed over the road first thing. Calling in at Tern Hide, there was a lapwing on the shoreline and large numbers of Egyptian geese out on the water. Coot numbers on Ibsley water also seem to be increasing, and I saw a number of mute swans and grey herons. There were also pochard, cormorant, tufted duck and great crested grebe present.

Walking the closed footpath through the old Hanson concrete site I saw a grass snake basking on the path. I didn’t notice it until I was almost on top of it, so was too slow to get a photo as it disappeared quickly into the vegetation. A little further on I had my second grass snake sighting, this time of one swimming along the edge of the Clearwater Pond. Too distant for a photo, I watched it through my binoculars until it was out of sight.

From Goosander Hide I watched the remaining sand martins flying overhead, every so often swooping low over the water and into the nesting holes in the sand martin bank. After a few minutes a kingfisher appeared, first settling further away on the trees that have been felled into the lake, before flying closer and resting on a perch. Every so often it flew down in front of the bank, hovered in front of the holes as though it was investigating them, then returned to the perch. After doing this a few times it flew closer and perched just below the hide window, which took me by surprise and I managed to get a couple of closer photos:

Kingfisher

Kingfisher in front of Goosander Hide

Kingfisher (2)

Kingfisher in front of Goosander Hide

After visiting Goosander Hide I headed back to the Centre, feeling I had been out for long enough and we were potentially going to be busy, and the rest of the day was spent working from the Welcome Hut and chatting to visitors. A very nice office I have to say!

Given I hadn’t made it quite that far yesterday, I decided to head up to Lapwing Hide this morning as the reserve was very quiet first thing. At the hide I was greeted by a very smart red underwing moth, which was happily settled on the door. You can just see a hint of the red underwings that give this moth its name in the photo below:

Red underwing (2)

Red underwing

From the hide I saw Canada geese, three little grebe and a number of black-headed gulls. The reedbed just past the hide was looking lovely in the sunshine:

P1200095

Reedbed near Lapwing Hide

On my way back I followed a fox cub along the path; a really nice encounter, it would run ahead, round a corner, turn then on seeing me approach run off again. I thought it had left the path to the left, but on heading round to Goosander Hide I had a second fox cub encounter, spotting one off to the left of the path sunbathing under some branches. On spotting me it too didn’t hang around, but it was great to watch, albeit briefly.

I had a quick look out of Goosander Hide but didn’t linger, spotting two grey wagtails working their way along the shoreline and a moorhen, then headed back to the Centre again along the closed Hanson footpath.

Along the path I saw a brown argus enjoying the fleabane, the first one I have seen this year and a change to all the gatekeepers I had been spotting:

Brown argus

Brown argus

The moth trap has produced another couple of really nice species recently, including a very smart female oak eggar which was in the trap last Thursday morning, and a dusky thorn which was in there this morning:

Oak eggar

Female oak eggar

Oak eggar (2)

Female oak eggar

Dusky thorn (3)

Dusky thorn

By the new dipping pond this morning there was a pair of mating red-eyed damselflies. I watched them being hounded every time they settled by male common blues, but managed a couple of photos:

Red eyed damselflies (4)

Red-eyed damselflies

Red eyed damselflies (3)

Red-eyed damselflies mating

Finally, and last but not least, here’s a very smart species of digger wasp on one of the planters outside the front of the Centre.:

Digger wasp

Digger wasp sp.

 

Tigers, kittens and emperors

Emptying the moth trap this morning revealed a beautiful garden tiger moth, which was definitely a treat to see. When disturbed they display their orange hind wings with blue-black spots, the bright colours acting as a reminder to predators that they are unpalatable.

Garden tiger

Garden tiger moth

Garden tiger 2

Garden tiger moth

The larvae of the garden tiger moth are large, black and covered in long, dense, black and ginger hairs, giving them their name the ‘woolly bear’. They feed on stinging nettles, dock leaves and a variety of garden plants. They can be seen from August until the following June and are often seen moving rapidly across bare ground when fully grown so are a good caterpillar to keep an eye out for, although it is best to leave them to it if you do see one as the hairs can irritate.

When the sun is shining the pond is still a brilliant to spot to look for dragonflies, with common darters often resting up on a chosen spot and both brown hawkers and emperor dragonflies hawking overhead or egg laying:

Common darter

Common darter resting on a picnic bench

Emperor dragonfly

Male emperor dragonfly pausing briefly on vegetation

There are still plenty of damselflies around and I managed to photograph this pair of common blue damselflies mating. The male is blue and the female is a more camouflaged olive green colour:

Common blue damselflies

Common blue damselflies mating

The male dragonflies and damselflies have two pairs of hooks at the tip of the abdomen which they use to grasp either the neck (in damselflies) or head (in dragonflies) of the female. Pairs can often be seen flying together in tandem and shortly after capturing a female they will mate and form the ‘wheel position’ seen in the image above. Some species remain coupled for several hours amongst vegetation whilst others, like the chaser dragonflies, couple briefly for just a few seconds. Following mating the female is ready to lay eggs.

There are also still plenty of butterflies on the wing, including this common blue which was outside the front of the centre earlier today.

Common blue

Common blue

On Sunday we held another of our online Young Naturalist catch ups where we expanded on the last session delivered by Owain from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and discussed all six native reptiles. We were treated to some fantastic photos by Kimberley, taken on her phone, of a very friendly male sand lizard she had encountered whilst walking her dog at Dewlands Common in Verwood.

I used to visit Dewlands Common regularly when employed by East Dorset District Council so it is great to know they are still present on the site.

Will also shared some photos he had taken, including a lovely photo of a wool carder bee on lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina). We had been hoping the lamb’s ear in one of the planters outside the Education Centre would attract wool carder bees as they will scrape hairs from the leaves to line and seal the brood cells in their nests, but sadly there has been no sign of any.

Will also shared a photo of a small skipper butterfly which was taken up on the Laverstock Downs, a gatekeeper which he had photographed at Horatio’s Garden at Salisbury Hospital, and an abandoned robin’s nest in his bird box at home – the robin’s had for some reason moved elsewhere.

We also looked at the moths in the light trap, where the highlight was this very fresh looking Sallow kitten:

Sallow kitten

Sallow kitten

Finally regular visitor and volunteer Phil shared this photo with us of the Osprey which visited on the 16th July. It was only here on that day, but did spend quite some time sat on the perch out on Ibsley Water and Phil was able to get a photo from a distance. I was on leave that week so completely missed it!

Osprey by Phil West

Osprey by Phil West

Our Young Naturalists are kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

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Rediscovering Blashford Lakes

Earlier in the year little did I know that when I locked up and left Blashford, somewhat appropriately as it happens, on Friday 13th March, that I would not be back until the 2nd July, thanks to a cocktail of a poorly child with a high temperature having to stay off school, subsequent quarantining of myself and family, lockdown and, later, furloughed leave.

A lot has changed in that time, at home, in the UK and across the World, for the Trust and, specifically, for Blashford Lakes.

Any regular readers of the Blashford Blog will know how Bob continued to manage and warden the site throughout lockdown, monitoring and dealing with the affects of ash dieback on the woodland despite, or in-spite, of the restrictions that lone-working imposed and his having to deal with the impacts that “cov-idiots” including poachers, dog walkers and cyclists were having upon the reserve and the wildlife.

As lockdown restrictions were eased he was joined by Tracy and they worked hard together to make and adjust to new socially distanced working procedures and hygiene arrangements whilst planning how the nature reserve might most safely be reopened to the public.

I for one am very grateful for all that they did and I am sure that our visitors are too, albeit that many won’t know that they are, or should be!

I returned to work from furloughed leave on 1st July, worked from home on that first day and returned to Blashford itself on the 2nd to reacquaint myself with the site and acquaint myself with new ways of working.

The site itself is much as it always was, although now displaying an awful lot more directional signage to aid visitors around the new one-way circular walking routes and with more of Tracy’s educational and insightful mini-interpretation notices which highlight particular aspects of wildlife as you explore the nature reserve.

The insects have been fabulous, none more so that the clouds of common blue damselflies which were particularly in evidence when I first got back at the beginning of the month.

The wilder areas around the dipping ponds as well as the relatively recently (last Summer) created ornamental raised flower beds and wildflower turf around the Welcome Hut at the front of the Centre have been, and are, full of insect life. Indeed our butterfly survey volunteers are finding that although the northern transect is doing well the southern transect is generally quite poor this year – with the exception of that area around the Education Centre.

Small copper feeding on yarrow next to the Welcome Hut

One of the highlights of returning to work has been being able to view the moths attracted to the light trap over night, although always tinged a little with sadness that this summer we have not been sharing the same with our school group visitors:

Also on the moth front, a six spot burnet moth (this one photographed in the mini meadow grassland habitat along the footpath on the approach to Tern Hide and the main car park (both still closed at present). Some years absent at Blashford Lakes, but sporadically fairly frequent, this year is one of those where they seem to be doing well

The bird hides remain closed and are not set to open as normal anytime soon so glimpses of the lakes are infrequent and few but the view from the Ibsley Water viewing platform at the back of the main car park remains open and does still give a fantastic, if distant, view of that lake – and indeed it was from there that a number of visitors enjoyed views of an osprey perched on the perch placed out in that lake with just that purpose in mind. The sweet honey like scent of the creeping thistle which is growing in profusion there, alongside other fantastic nectar sources like ragwort and teasel is pretty special too:

So all in all, although the hides remain closed, there is still plenty of wildlife to see and you never know, you might get lucky and see something more unusual like an osprey, or, as other visitors have reported seeing on different days over the last couple of weeks, Blashford treats like kingfisher or treecreeper, or slightly more unusually, an otter or a family of stoats.

And visitors we are getting; plenty of regulars just like the “old days” before lockdown, but also lots of new visitors. Since restrictions eased further and holidays were allowed we’ve seen a lot of families and visitors new to the nature reserve on their holidays but we are also continuing to welcome local visitors who have and are staying close to home and who having done so are looking for new places close to home to explore and enjoy.

As a result the nature reserve is actually probably attracting more visitors this month than it would normally do so at this time of year and I suspect that this will continue over the next couple of months.

Tracy and I are continuing to develop the means by which we can engage with both visitors to the nature reserve and visitors, including schools, who might normally visit the nature reserve but are unable to do so at the present time.

A big step forward has been the installation of WiFi boosters outside the Centre which has not only allowed us to lead live virtual pond dipping activities (Tracy with her Young Naturalists meeting and myself with the Year 1 and Year 2 classes at Ringwood Infant School), but which will also enable us to offer other live virtual meetings, including “mini-beasting” or emptying the light trap for example.

Another benefit of the much improved WiFi has been our being able to re-open the Welcome Hut on an occasional basis, at least for now.

As mentioned earlier in this post, we are seeing lots of new visitors, but with the Centre and Welcome Hut closed and our Welcome Volunteers still stood down at present, there often is not someone available to provide assistance or guidance when required.

The improved WiFi coverage means that we can log on to the Wildlife Trusts remote desktop and continue to work on office and admin work from the Welcome Hut while being on hand to greet and provide assistance to visitors as needs be.

There are a number of benefits to this new working environment, not least of which is that it is a very pleasant place to work – with the doors fully opened and side windows ajar there is a lovely natural “air-conditioning”, the sound of bird song with an accompaniment of Roesel’s bush-cricket and grasshopper from the adjacent wildflower “meadow” fills the air and there is a lovely view of the tree’s around the Centre car park. Of course if anyone needs assistance we are there to help – and, as an added bonus should any further incentive to work out there be required, although it’s a bit early to be sure that it is a pattern and not just a coincidence, visitor donations seem to have gone up since I moved “office”.

This latter point is actually really important – the Wildlife Trust relies on its income from membership contributions as well as donations and at Blashford we especially rely on donations to help fund all elements of our work, from administration, to conservation, to education to access repair and improvements. Our income has been hit hard with none of the donations from group visits that we would normally receive throughout the summer, nor the usual donations from our “every day” visitors, despite there being more of them in recent weeks. This is, in part at least, because fewer and fewer people are carrying or using cash in our post-lockdown world. Bob recently made up some new “donation ask” signs with a QR code that visitors can use to make a donation to the Trust electronically and this too may have prompted more visitors who can to make a cash donation during their visit.

Time will tell whether it is my welcoming face, the new QR code or something else which will help our coffers over coming weeks!

Been away awhile, but it’s good to be back…

It’s been a long time since I posted to this blog, even longer than usual, and, like everyone else who enjoys these blogs, I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with all things Blashford, reading about what Tracy and Bob were up to on the reserve and finding out how the site and wildlife was faring from mid March as Spring shifted to Summer all the way through to the beginning of July as Summer begins transition to Autumn, effectrively missing a whole season in the process.

I think everyone has had very different experiences of lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic generally as everyone’s individual circumstances have been so different. For me I am pleased, and relieved, to say that for all that it was scary, disturbing and unsettling at times, it has actually been positive for us as a family on the whole and has left us stronger, wilder and greener.

Hopefully our economy can be too.

Until my return to Blashford on 2nd July the previous time my feet had graced its paths was 13th March – my daughter fell ill over that weekend with a sore throat, ears and high temperature. Although it was unlikely to be coronavirus, following the guidance at the time she stayed off school and I worked from home initially to look after her but then, following the then 7 days quarantine period just as we thought she was returning to school and I was returning to work the goal posts changed and a 7 day quarantine for the ill person changed to 14 days for the ill person and their family. She was gutted to not be going back to school – and even more so when, again, just as she thought she would be returning, lockdown kicked in, school and the Trust offices closed and we were all at home indefinitely!

So life for us as a family had changed massively, as it did for most people. Those first few weeks weren’t too bad as we were all at home, but I don’t mind admitting that it soon got much harder, partly managing the emotional well-being of the family and especially my daughter who felt so cheated of time with her friends, and partly adjusting to a new routine of “teaching” the children during the day and then logging onto the Trusts remote desktop to work at night and into the early hours of the morning while the children were asleep, only to start it all over again the next day. My wife, who is an infant school teacher, would have sailed through the children’s work with them, but she of course was soon back at work in the classroom with those children whose parents were key workers or vulnerable so our kids were stuck with me. Generally, although hard, it all went okay but there were the occasional memorable days or odd weeks when things really did not work out so well. Both my daughter and I will, I think, remember always some very heated conversations about fractions whilst we battled through some of her maths lessons together!

So, although very unsettling at the time when the proposal that the Trust education staff be furloughed was first made, the reality was that actually in many ways it was a huge relief and meant that I could concentrate on just looking after my family rather than trying to juggle them and work and failing to do as well at either as I would have liked.

I reckon that a couple of weeks before I returned to work we even, finally, had it cracked at last, with the sudden realisation from the younger two children that actually if they just knuckled down and got on with it in the morning we could do fun stuff all afternoon! Shame it took them so long, but hey-ho!

Apart from the never-ending school home learning (the routine of which actually, however other children/parents found it, was, I think, invaluable to helping us get through lockdown in one piece as a family) the other thing that kept us going was being outside.

There was not a day went by when we were not immensley thankful to live where we do – just a 20 minute brisk walk from the front door to a woodland or 15 minute brisk walk to heathland.

The “gorse walk” was awash with silver-studded blues on occasion this summer
The “secret path” through the wood. One of the pleasures of lockdown was discovering places we’d previously walked past rather than through and we really enjoyed exploring them. Even when it was wet!

Pretty much every day, without fail, after my wife had got back from work and we had had our tea we would all head out for our “exercise walk” and a recharge in nature that all of us needed and benefited from, even if, out of the five of us, it was only my wife and I that realised, or admitted to ourselves just how important to us it was! The children have always been reasonable walkers and always enjoyed exploring and creating mini-adventures on walks in the past, but, prior to lockdown, my wife and I would always first have to endure a barrage of moaning about it before and as we set out. During lockdown our evening walks just became part of what we did and no more did they moan. Within just a few weeks a walk that had taken us about an hour to complete was only taking about 45 minutes and we were able to lengthen the journey and venture a little further afield, discovering new walks and lots of lovely hidden gems of bog and ancient woodland hitherto unknown to us, and all right on our doorstep. As the lockdown restrictions eased and everyone else seemingly took back to their cars we continued (and still continue) to walk from home and are thoroughly enjoying doing so.

We are also very much blessed, unlike many, in so much that we have a garden, albeit a very small one. It was somewhere the children – and I – could escape to whenever we needed to. As weeks turned into months we were able to enjoy watching (and listening!) to the families of great tits and blue tits in the two bird boxes in our garden grow and fledge and, because we spent so much time outside, they and the other “resident” house sparrows, robins and blackbirds became very trusting of us and provided us all with an unparalleled closeness to wild birds that I think we are unlikely to experience again.

No fancy camera, just my phone (which is not at all fancy) and although its not going to win any prizes it does illustrate nicely just how close we were to the birds in our garden as we went about our day to day business and they went about theirs

At one time, before children, our little garden was an oasis for wildlife – with a small pond and mini bog, a couple of fruit tree’s, micro-meadow, log pile and a herb bed that would buzz with insects all summer. With the arrival of our eldest things changed quickly – initially with “just” the loss of our pond (one of the hardest things I’ve ever done was filling that in!) but soon, as he became more adventurous and needed extra play space and was joined by his sister, a lawn was needed for football and chasing around in and the herb bed later disappeared under an extension as we added to the ground floor of the house to give us a little extra space to accommodate child number 3.

So it was with delight that over lockdown the children (instigated by them but very much encouraged by me!) decided that their “playing garden” should have more space for wildlife in it, and so it has developed over the last few months, giving both them, and especially me, a lot of pleasure in the process. It would be true to say that the children still govern the lion-share of the space, but, in addition to the two bird boxes, it now boasts a micro-meadow again, complete with “good for pollinator” flowers, chirruping with grasshoppers and churring with crickets, a mini (washing up bowl) pond, complete with attendant male large red damselflies (I’ve yet to see a female there, but live in hope!), a bespoke mini-beast & bee “hotel” and a small log pile.

The new “wild patch” at the bottom of the garden

One of the highlights was going out at night after the kids were in bed to check on a botched together home-made light trap (it was useless as it happens and never caught a single insect, let alone moth!) only to be surprised by the sudden movement from a medium sized animal illuminated by the camping lantern that was supposed to be attracting insects. After the initial surprise I was thrilled to see that what I had at first taken to be a rat (there’s been a few of those around as well) was actually a hedgehog – the first I’d seen in the garden for years 🙂

The children have yet to see the hog, other than a photograph and short film of it, but they are delighted to know that the “sacrifices” they have made within the garden in the interests of wildlife conservation have paid off and are really keen to add a hedgehog house to the “wild patch”. After I’ve made them a “den” out of recycled pallets that is – yes, they still have their own interests and priorities for me to follow and willingly “allowed” me to mow some of “our” meadow in order to accommodate the groundworks for the new construction (don’t worry though. I cunningly managed to miss a different patch of lawn when I mowed last to mitigate for the recent depletion in garden grassland habitat!).

The den is being constructed, slowly. Following my return to work at the beginning of the month, progress has slowed somewhat, but it has not ground to a halt and the childrens interest in our wildlife visitors has not reduced as the restrictions of lockdown have eased, helped somewhat perhaps by the occasional new “resident” of our garden, like this rather fine male stag beetle who graced our front garden with his presence for several days recently.

Stag beetle scaling the wall at our front door

It was really very strange that first day back at Blashford – even just driving to work and joining the A31 at Picket Post Hill and accelerating to 70mph after nearly 4 months of not driving anywhere beyond a weekly food shop and not leaving the 40mph restricted roads of the New Forest, was quite a shock to the system.

It’s been great to finally see and catch up with Bob & Tracy, and, of course, re-discover Blashford Lakes in its limited, but still quite special, new post-lockdown guise.

Lots of work to be done now, both at work as well as at home in the garden wild patch – and all of it so much easier than lockdown fractions with my 8 year old!

Golden delight

Yesterday I accompanied Bob to the old Hanson concrete plant to see how the area was developing, what was growing and what insects were around. On our way we popped in to Tern Hide where there was a common sandpiper foraging on the shore of Ibsley Water:

Common sandpiper

Common sandpiper

The old Hanson plant, now named by Bob as ‘the empty quarter’, does look rather barren. Most of the area has crushed concrete underfoot, but plants including St John’s wort, ragwort and lots of common centaury are growing, alongside grasses and the pioneer tree species silver birch, which is quick to colonise new habitats following disturbance and will need managing to ensure the saplings do not take over.

Hanson site

The Empty Quarter

The sandy looking area in the photo above was probably the most interesting as here there was less crushed concrete and an abundance of holes in the softer ground, evidence the area is being used by solitary bees and wasps. There is obviously enough flowering on this part of the reserve and the surrounding banks for the green-eyed flower bee below:

Green eyed flower bee

Green-eyed flower bee

There were lots of dowdy plume moths (identified later by Bob, who also discovered one of their favourite larval food plants is common centaury) and we also saw a species of leaf-cutter bee and a six-spot burnet moth:

Leafcutter bee

Megachile sp

Six spot burnet

Six-spot burnet moth

I haven’t set foot on this part of the reserve before so it was nice to get the opportunity to have a look and see how it is developing. For those of you who are regular, long-standing readers of the blog, please don’t ask about the footpath, there is still no news…

Elsewhere on the reserve I have seen my first cinnabar moth caterpillars, with their distinctive black and yellow stripes. Their bright colours are a warning to predators not to eat them: as they merrily munch their way through common ragwort, the toxins present inside the plant build up inside them, making them unpalatable to predators.

Cinnabar caterpillar

Cinnabar caterpillar

There are also plenty of gatekeeper butterflies on the wing, like this one enjoying the common fleabane in the sweep meadow:

Gatekeeper

Gatekeeper

When I emptied the moth traps this morning there were a couple of nice species inside, including a yellow-tail, coronet and a canary-shouldered thorn.

The highlight from the moth trap though was a hornet. Hornets are attracted to light, but are very docile first thing in the morning, taking a while to warm up and fly off. This one was quite content walking around the bench until it was ready to fly away, and it was nice to have a really good look at it up close:

Hornet

Hornet

Although hornets may get a bad press, they are much less aggressive than their smaller relative the common wasp and will only sting if attacked. They play an important role in pollination and are a gardener’s friend, helping control unwanted pests with their diet of insects.

Today has been a really good day for dragonflies, with common darter, emperor and brown hawker all on the wing over the ponds by the Education Centre. The common darters in particular have been posing nicely and letting you creep up quite close for a photo:

Common darter

Common darter

Today’s highlight though has to be the golden ringed dragonfly a visitor spotted over the ponds behind the Centre, with regular visitor John letting me know so I could take a photo:

Golden ringed dragonfly

Golden ringed dragonfly

This striking black dragonfly has yellow rings along the length of the abdomen, hence the name, and green eyes. The females are the longest dragonfly in the UK due to their long ovipositor which can reach 84mm in length. If they choose to rest they may stay in one place for some time and although present on the reserve (we sometimes catch their nymphs in the Dockens Water when river dipping, where they prefer flowing acidic water to still water) they are not quite as easy to see here as some of our other dragonfly species. It was a rather nice end to the day!

The native and the more exotic…

This morning I was getting ready for our online Young Naturalists session when I spotted a Large skipper by the pond, the first one I’ve seen this year. It stayed there for some time although I couldn’t see it later on in the day, despite a bit of looking.

They have a pretty faint chequered pattern on the wings, so are easy to tell apart from the similar Small and Essex skippers which fly at the same time.

Large skipper

Large skipper

We have just had our Centre wifi improved enabling us to teach online whilst outside, which is great for our fortnightly Young Naturalists sessions and, although too late for this term, will also allow us to offer virtual sessions to schools as things slowly return to some kind of normal in the autumn.

I tested it out today, running our fortnightly session from the shelter behind the Centre, emptying the moth trap with the group (sadly there weren’t many moths) and showing them the evidence of leaf-cutter bees in the bug hotel.

outdoor classroom

All set up for today’s virtual Young Naturalists session

Whilst outside I also spotted a male blackbird sunbathing on the top of the bug hotel, and managed to take a couple of distant photos:

Blackbird

Blackbird 2

I then watched it bathing in the pond, but wasn’t quite in the right place to get a photo.

For our Young Naturalists session today we were joined by Owain Masters, Public Engagement and Education Officer for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust’s Snakes in the Heather project. The project aims to raise public awareness of the conservation needs of our native reptiles andFinal heathland heritage, helping to promote a better understanding that will safeguard their future. In particular it focuses on the conservation of the smooth snake, Britain’s rarest reptile.

Although not present on the reserve, we are lucky to have them locally on the sandy heaths of Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey.

Owain shared his passion for snakes with the group, talked about the three species native to the UK and tested the group with a fun quiz, ‘snake or fake’, to see what information they had picked up whilst he had been talking. He had been due to join us onsite for a session so it was great he could join us online and hopefully we will be able to reschedule his site visit at some point in the future.

Given our session had a reptile theme, the group’s show and tell was also distinctly reptilian, with Thomas and Harry sharing photos of their pet geckos. Slightly more exotic than our native snakes! Apologies to Alex’s mum… a second gecko may now be on the cards…

The group also shared a few native reptile encounters, with Harry, Thomas and Alex talking about their adder encounters, Cameron and Torey sharing a photo their dad had taken of a grass snake outside the front of Ivy South Hide and Will sharing a photo of a common lizard:

Will also talked about seeing osprey at Fishlake Meadows and watching a collared dove from his bedroom window that was nesting in his garden. He had also seen a large white butterfly, red admiral, scarlet tiger moth and female stag beetle.

Finally, Cameron shared some really lovely landscape photos from a walk around Whitsbury, near Fordingbridge:

Next time we will be chatting a bit more about reptiles and looking at all six species naive to the UK and have our usual rummage through the light trap. It will be interesting to see what wildlife they have all encountered between now and then.

After the session was over I had another look by the pond for the large skipper but had to content myself with this lovely skipper instead, I think a small skipper rather than an Essex skipper.

Small skipper

Small skipper

Finally, towards the end of the day a very kind visitor pointed out a crab spider that was lurking in amongst the buddleia flowers by the pond. After a bit of searching, I think its a goldenrod or flower crab spider. Its pale colouring and purple stripes did help it blend in really well with the flowers, I have no idea how they spotted it!

Goldenrod or flower crab spider Misumena vatia

Goldenrod or flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

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

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Moving in

Clearing the vegetation growing in front of the bug hotel a number of weeks ago has opened it up to a lot more sunlight, and as a result I noticed this week that the leaf-cutter bees have been busy and used one of the blocks of wood:

Evidence of leaf cutter bees

Evidence of leaf-cutter bees

They will happily make their homes in solitary bee hotels positioned in a sunny spot, so our south facing bug hotel is ideal.

The females collect sections of leaf which they chew into a pulp and mix with saliva to create the walls of a cell for their offspring. Inside each cell she lays an egg and leaves it with a mixture of pollen and nectar on which to feed. The cells are then sealed up before she moves on to the next one, and finally she plugs the hole to the whole cavity with more leaf pulp. The young will develop over winter and emerge the following year.

I had a good look at the other blocks of wood the Young Naturalists had drilled holes in and added to the hotel and noticed another had four holes each with a solitary bee in it, the weather was not so nice so they were probably deciding whether or not to venture out. One did emerge from its hole, flew to a couple of bramble flowers then decided to fly back to the comfort of the wood.

As well as enjoying the comfort of the bug hotel the bees have been favouring the rather large thistle which has sprung up behind the Education Shelter.

Whilst by the bug hotel I spotted a couple of dark bush-crickets on the ground below:

Dark bush cricket

Dark bush-cricket

Bush-crickets have very long thread-like antennae, compared to grasshoppers which have much shorter antennae.

When the sunshine has been out female emperor dragonflies have been busy ovipositing or egg-laying in the newer of the two ponds by the Education Centre. They can lay hundreds of eggs over their adult lives, in batches over a few days or weeks. The eggs are elongated in shape and laid into plant material on or near the surface of the water using a scythe-like ovipositor.

Emperor dragonfly

Female Emperor dragonfly egg laying

Whilst having lunch earlier in the week I was joined by a red admiral, which seemed very happy to settle on the gravel and let me get very close for a photo:

Red admiral

Red admiral

I also managed to get my first ever photo of a ruby-tailed wasp… but they do not hang around for long so it is a bit of a distant photo!

Ruby tailed wasp

Ruby-tailed wasp

They are though very beautiful to look at, even if from a distance. Ruby-tailed wasps are also solitary, however instead of doing all the work themselves like the leaf-cutter bees mentioned above, the females lay their eggs in the nests of other solitary bees and wasps, favouring mason bees in particular. When the eggs hatch, they eat the larvae of the mason bees, giving the ruby-tailed wasp its other name of ‘Cuckoo Wasp’.

Parasitising other bees’ nests is risky, but the ruby-tailed wasp has a number of defences. It has a concave abdomen which allows it to curl up tightly into a ball and it has a hard body cuticle that protects it from the stings of the host species. They can sting themselves, but this sting is not venomous.

Recent highlights from the light trap have included this black arches and eyed hawk-moth:

The planters in front of the Centre are still attracting lots of bees including the green-eyed flower bees we have shared photos of in the past. Earlier in the week there was a tiny species of yellow-faced bee on the astrantia along with a sawfly of some description:

Yellow faced bee

Yellow-faced bee

Sawfly

Sawfly

The mini meadow by the Welcome Hut is still good for butterflies when the sun has been shining, with four skippers dancing round each other earlier in the week. There have also been ringlet in the area of long grass and bramble by the boat, along with comma and red admiral on the wing fairly regularly. The gatekeepers are also now flying, the adults emerge slightly later in the season and are also known as hedge browns.

Gatekeeper

Gatekeeper

30 Days Wild – Day 30

The last of the 30 Days for this year, just 335 wild days to go until 30 Days 2021. It has been the oddest of months, despite a relaxation in lockdown, most people have not been venturing far, although this has been a limitation, it has also opened the eyes of many to what they have within walking distance of home. Perhaps more significant it has highlighted the importance of local informal spaces, we cannot rely on travelling to a greenspace far from home, we need it close at hand. Our wildlife needs this too, a few highly protected nature reserves just will not do we need space for wildlife everywhere. When I say “We” I mean everybody, not just wildlife enthusiasts, all of us feel better and live healthier lives with access to greenspace and especially diverse informal greenspace. Luckily for wildlife this is also exactly what it wants too, far from the needs of wildlife being at odds with the needs of people they are actually aligned, particularly when it comes to mental heath and well being.

Times remain uncertain, for all of us and for our wildlife, will our relationship actually been changed? Will the “New normal” actually be new and importantly better? Let’s hope that in our haste to leave this crisis behind we don’t sprint off looking back at it as we run headlong over the precipice of the next.

We entered the 30 Days in extreme heat and are leaving it with the cool, breezy damp of  the old fashioned English summers of my childhood, that is as they mostly were, rather than as we all remember them. It has been a month of heat and drought, of record moth catches, full of damselflies and beetles, I have seen a good few new species and missed some favourites.

Today’s highlight in the moth trap was a glow worm, a new species for the garden. The males fly, unlike the females, but do not glow, again unlike the females. I do not think they are very strong flyers so I assume it had not come far even though I have never seen glow worm locally when out looking and listening for nightjar.

glow worm

glow worm (male)

I ran two traps at Blashford, moths were rather few but did include a small scallop, unfortunately it had not inflated its wings properly, although it could obviously fly.

small scallop

small scallop

There was also a satin wave, not a rare moth but often they are rather worn, but not this one.

satin wave

satin wave

Anyone who has visited recently will have seen the tremendous growth of plants in Ivy Silt Pond, mostly water soldier, but also lots of others such as bur-reed.

patch of bur reed

patch of bur-reed

There are several species, I am fairly sure this one is unbranched bur-reed.

bur-reed

Unbranched bur-reed (I think)

I will end on a correction, the jewel wasp I posted a few days ago has been re-identified for me as Hedychrum nobile (many thanks to Paul Brock). This species is probably a recent colonist in the UK, it is not quite clear when it arrived, as it remained unidentified for some years. it is clear that it is spreading though from the original sites close to London.

Hedychrum nobile

Hedychrum nobile

I will not stop blogging, although the frequency will undoubtedly reduce. Thank you to everyone who reads, follows and comments. I hope you have had a great 30 Days Wild and done lots of your own wild things and that you keep on doing them.

Still going wild

On Sunday we had another of our fortnightly Young Naturalist catch ups, and it was great to hear what the group have been getting up to. Will had been down to the Lymington and Keyhaven Marshes and shared some photos from his walk, including one of an avocet with chick.

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Thomas and Alex had been for a walk at Iping Common, a Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve, and had seen Silver-studded blue butterflies, a glow worm larva, a bloody-nosed beetle and a pill millipede.

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Harry talked to us about the bug hotel in his garden which he built six years ago and is very popular with the spiders and Poppy had also sent me a photo during the week of the female broad-bordered yellow underwing moth which had emerged from a pupa she had found in the garden. Last time we met online she had shown everyone the pupa wriggling and we had guessed at Large yellow underwing, so weren’t far off!

Sadly Saturday night was so windy we didn’t have a huge number of moths to look at, despite Bob running both light traps, but we did have a dozen or so to study under the digital microscope. The group are getting quite good at identifying a few we either catch more regularly or stand out, such as the Spectacle moth or Buff-tip. The most exciting was this lovey Purple thorn, which was very obliging and posed for some time for photos:

Purple thorn (2)

Purple thorn

Nigel had put together another quiz for the group, this time on butterflies, dragonflies, other insects and some spiders they are likely to see whilst out and about and we talked through a presentation on bees, the main reason for all the bee photos I’ve been taking recently!

The group have requested reptiles and amphibians as themes for the next couple of sessions and we will run another in a fortnights time. Grass snake photos will certainly be easy, I spotted one curled up in the vegetation by the Education Centre pond Sunday afternoon:

Grass snake (4)

Grass snake

When I arrived at Blashford yesterday a rather substantial branch had come down by the entrance so I decided to walk the closer footpaths to check everything else was as it should be.

I popped into Ivy South Hide to have a look at the tern rafts and could make out quite a few Common tern chicks, although they were difficult to count especially when an adult came back with food and they all dashed around. Closer to the hide there was a pair of Black-headed gull chicks on one of the life-ring rafts and I watched the smaller one bobbing around in the water before it climbed back on to the raft:

Black-headed gull chicks (2)

Black-headed gull chick

Walking back up the Dockens path I saw another grass snake, this time a young one, basking on the large fallen tree close to the mushroom sculpture. I managed a quick photo before it disappeared over the back of the trunk:

Grass snake (3)

Grass snake

Further along the path I spotted another plant I have not noticed before, identified by Bob today as Tutsan. Tutsan is a deciduous flowering shrub in the Hypericum or St John’s Wort family, and native to western and southern Europe. Its leaves were apparently gathered and burned to ward off evil spirits on the eve of St. John’s Day and it has also been used to treat wounds and inflammation. The name Tutsan comes from the French words “tout” (all) and “sain” (healthy), a reference to the plant’s healing capabilities.

Tutsan

Tutsan

From the river dipping bridge I decided to head over to Tern Hide to have a look at Ibsley Water and see if there were any Ringlets in the area of rough grass between the pedestrian gate and car park height barrier. There were a couple flying about and I also saw my first Gatekeeper of the year, although it did not settle for a photo.

Ringlet (2)

Ringlet

Whilst photographing the Ringlet I noticed a hoverfly, Volucella pellucens, on the bramble flowers. Also called the Pellucid fly or Large Pied-hoverfly, it is one of the largest flies in Britain and has a striking ivory-white band across its middle and large dark spots on its wings. The adults favour bramble flowers and umbellifers whilst the larvae live in the nests of social wasps and bumblebees, eating waste products and bee larvae.

Volucella pellucens

Volucella pellucens

On reaching Tern Hide a movement caught my eye and I noticed a large wasps nest under the roof and to the right of the right hand door. I spent some time watching them flying in and out. Bob did head over there yesterday too to take a look and shared a photo, but here’s another:

Wasps and wasp nest

Wasps and wasp nest

Although we’re not going over there as regularly as we would have done under normal circumstances, I’m surprised neither of us had noticed it sooner given the size!

Yesterday afternoon we had a brief power outage whilst our supply was switched back from a generator to the mains, and as the sun was shining I took the opportunity to linger by the planters outside the Centre, chat to the few visitors that were passing and see which insects were visiting the flowers. Although we’ve shared a few Green-eyed flower bee photos before, they are so smart I couldn’t resist taking a few more photos of them when they either rested on the planter edge or paused for long enough on the vervain.

I also spotted an Alder beetle on the lavender, a bee enjoying the astrantia, a Large white butterfly on the verbena and a mint moth.

The mini meadow by the Welcome Hut is also still really good for insects, with Thick-legged flower beetles, hoverflies and Small skippers enjoying the remaining ox-eye daisies, yarrow and ragged robin. The hoverfly could I think be a male Long hoverfly,  Sphaerophoria scripta, with its narrow body noticeably longer than its wings. The female of this species is broader.

Today has been decidedly soggier, but I did watch a butterfly fly past in the rain and there are plenty of soggy looking damselflies trying to find shelter on the plant stems:

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

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30 Days Wild – Day 29 – Almost there!

When I met Tracy at Blashford she mentioned a large wasp nest that had been made at the Tern Hide, so when I went over there on my site check I took a look. I am not sure how I had missed it before.

wasp nest 2

wasp nest

The nests are made of chewed up wood pulp, essentially paper and the hides are often a favourite source, the sound of scraping wasp jaws is one that summer hide visitors will know well. If the hide were open this nest would be a problem as it is very near the door, but as it is not and I doubt it will be anytime soon, I think I can leave it alone.

Returning to the Centre a visitor then told me of another wasp nest, this time under a sign near the car park.

wasp nest 1

another wasp nest – 2 in one day

This one will need to be avoided as it is under the sign and not obvious so easy to inadvertently get very close to. We have put out a sign and I will fix up a temporary fence to keep people at a safe distance.

We have several species of social wasps in the UK, I am pretty sure that both of these nests are the same species though, the common wasp Vespula vulgaris.

I went down to check on the common tern rafts and am pleased to say they are still doing well, with lots of fast growing chicks making good use of the shelters.

terns raft and chicks

tern raft and chicks

It is not a great picture, but you can see the chicks, especially grouped around the left hand shelter. There is a good way to go yet,  but this is great progress in a season when I had feared I would get no rafts out for them.