Wild Days Out

Firstly apologies for the recent lack of posting – due in part to Bob being on holiday, in part the reserve generally being fairly quiet on the wildlife front and in part (and in no means related to the latter point I’m sure) the fact that Tracy and I have been very busy leading our summer holiday program of activities…

On the wildlife front the recent (and in many ways welcome) cooling and wetting down weather wise has meant that invertebrate and reptile sightings have been fairly minimal and in fact last week in a marked shift to preceding weeks latterly, saw our site butterfly transect survey volunteers recording their worst week 20 ever.

Bird wise it has also been quiet. For the last few years August has been kingfisher month with photographers  gunning for space in Goosander Hide to capture some brilliant close up shots of kingfisher and kingfisher behaviour. This year has seen a few die-hard kingfisher hunters staking claim to their benches in Goosander Hide early on, but sadly, despite a great deal of dedication on their part, the kingfishers have not, to date, taken up residence as they have done previously and, a few fly-bys aside, dedication has not paid off. Not that kingfishers aren’t around – sat on the benches at the back of the centre, or even sat in the office with windows open, you can’t help but be aware of their piping as they zip up and down the Dockens Water and they are also showing quite well on Ivy Lake this year. Generally not close enough for good pictures but this morning one did pose beautifully outside Ivy South Hide for a few minutes after I had opened up.

Our public events program has gone well over the last couple of weeks – Tracy’s River Play Day Monday before last went well on the day and was booked twice over and then some in advance of the date. Originally planned as just a morning event there was so much interest she went in to fill an afternoon session with no advertising and we still had to turn people away! Families making the most of what may have been the last of the heat wave I think. Last Friday afternoons pond dipping was also full although with the wet forecast we did have some cancellations, filled with more hardy last minute attendees and boy when the heavens opened, did they open. Needless to say having been running on empty much of the last few months the pond is now full again! In addition last week we attended Ellingham Show and this week the New Forest National Park Authority Wild Play Day around Whitefield Moor Car Park near Brockenhurst.

Our main focus however, as it is every summer, has of course been our Wild Days Out activities.

Last week we tested the children’s engineering skills with a newspaper tower construction challenge as a warm up activity, followed by a giant catapult construction challenge, both of which were met with enthusiasm by both our older and younger children:

Newspaper towers to start –

Followed by catapult construction, and of course, testing –

Great fun was had by all, and the catapults worked relatively well, even if I must admit to being a little disappointed by the range achieved (maximum distance that a wet sponge achieved was just over 6m!). I now seek to tweak the design slightly and replace the bungee’s that we did use for something elastic with more stored potential energy (best idea I’ve had so far is old bicycle inner tube, but I am open to suggestions?!).

This week the challenge was less about engineering and more about creativity and flair as the children joined us for our Campfire Cookout Challenge – and , once more it has to be said, really did rise to the challenge producing campfire food that was (to my surprise!) not only edible, but nutritious,  and on occasion, downright delicious! Judged according to team work, hygiene (we very much pushed this one given that, as judges, we were to be sampling the end results!), taste, appearance, “soggy bottom-ness”, and “eatability” all of the teams did really well – although some of the flavour combinations were just a little weird (I could cope with the apple on the tomato and cheese based pizza produced by one team, after all some people enjoy pineapple on theirs, but blackberries, however freshly picked, were a step too far!).

Presented with a set of ingredients to choose from, the teams all produced an array of different menus which included “chips” (all delicious), pizza (with a variety of toppings and bases, some of which were more successful than others, one of which was quite possibly the best pizza I have ever eaten, campfire, home-made, restaurant or otherwise!), vegetable soups,  vegetable and fruit kebabs (some times vegetable, sometimes fruit, sometimes vegetable AND fruit, the latter of which I must confess were not quite as appealing as the former two!), fruit and chocolate filled breads and cookies, and baked fruit…

All of the cooking was done outside over a number of campfires but we did cheat slightly on day 2 when it chucked it down and prepare the food in the classroom instead. Surprisingly day 2 was actually a Thursday when it famously “never rains” on Blashford volunteer work party tasks. This weeks rare departure from this norm was, we all agreed, because Reserves Officer Bob was on holiday!

Preparation and cooking:

Enjoying the end result!

Needless to say all of the children, and the judges too, finished the day absolutely stuffed!

Next week will be more wildlife orientated again with a walk, explore and play all around the nature reserve and the following week we are back in the river again for coracle sailing and snorkeling. So I’m very much hoping for another mini-heat wave for the last week of August!

 

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Warning, survey ahead

Just a quick heads-up that tomorrow Wessex Water will be carrying out their annual weed cover survey of Blashford Lakes, during the course of the day they will be crossing the lakes with a canoe on transects to measure the weed amounts and take samples. Each survey will only take a short time but during the day all the main lakes will be subject to survey and, inevitably some disturbance.

Fishlake Flowers

I was working at Fishlake Meadows yesterday morning and it was wonderful to be somewhere so green and full of flowers. Access to water is not a problem for the plants at Fishlake so they have kept growing whilst the rest of the countryside has turned brown.

fen flowers

Floriferous Fishlake

Many of these flowers are also very good nectar sources and it was noticeable how many bees there were visiting the flowers. Butterflies were also common, but there were rather few hoverflies, but this maybe because they tend to keep out of the sun at the warmest part of the day.

Over-topping most of the others is the hemp agrimony, a popular plant with butterflies like peacock and red admiral.

hemp agrimony

hemp agrimony

Another very tall plant is angelica, an umbellifer and very popular with hoverflies.

angelica

angelica

Slightly smaller and almost finished flowering now, the meadow sweet is a typical plant of wet meadows and river banks.

meadow sweet

meadow sweet

Of similar height and with prominent purple spires of flower, the purple loosestrife is impossible to miss and very popular with nectaring bees, brimstone and white butterflies.

purple loosestrife

purple loosestrife

Some plants get a bad press and thistles are certainly one of these, they can be  a nuisance when they become dominant, but they are a great nectar source for lots of insects, popular with bees, butterflies and flies. At Fishlake creeping thistle is scattered and as such not a problem but an addition to the floral display.

creeping thistle

creeping thistle

A particular favourite with bees is comfrey, the bell-like flowers of which come in two shades, this is the paler one.

comfrey

comfrey

To get at the nectar of the comfrey needs a long tongue, for those that do not have one more open flowers and especially composites are a favourite. Ones with a good supply of food will also attract longer tongued visitors too, fleabane is popular with a wide range of species from hoverflies to butterflies.

fleabane

fleabane

Fleabane dies best on damp ground, where the ground is properly wet a favourite flower with insects is water mint, this will grow on the bank and as an emergent plant in shallow water.

water mint

water mint

All in all something to suit all nectar seekers, we can mimic this diversity of flower type in our gardens if we too want to attract the widest range of insects.

 

Walter Returned

Jim, reported the sighting of a great white egret on Ivy Lake the other day and speculated that it might be “Walter” our regularly returning bird. This bird was ringed in 2003 in France and first arrived at Blashford in August of that year, since then he has come back to spend each autumn and winter with us. We know that it is the same bird each year as he was ringed as a nestling with a combination of coloured rings. He is now 15 years and 3 months old, a good age for almost any bird. I have seen a maximum age for this species in Europe of 17 years, but it seems the official European bird ringing site (EURING) reports a maximum age of only 13 year and 9 months, which would make Walter Europe’s oldest great white egret by some margin.

With this in mind I was very keen to establish if the bird seen was actually Walter and not some other visitor and as I locked up yesterday there he was outside Ivy North hide, with rings on full show. This egret was indeed Walter returned and apparently a record breaker.

Of course he would have also been Europe’s oldest last year as well, he was reported then and does not seem to have made it onto the database, so perhaps there are others, even older out there that have also not got into the records yet. But, for now at least we will claim him as the oldest.

So how old might he get? The oldest great white egret (also known as “Great egret”), I can find is 22 years in North America and a grey heron has reached 37 years 6 months, so we could be seeing him for some years yet with a bit of luck.

Arrivals

Although there has not been much sign of migrating birds at Blashford Lakes so far, there have been some insect arrivals. The birds at this time of the year are returning from breeding to the north, the insects, by contrast, are arriving from the south. It seems likely that there will be many more in the days to come as the high pressure builds back and temperatures rise again.

So far we have recorded a couple of lesser emperor dragonflies, but no southern migrant hawker as yet, but I am hopeful that someone will spot one somewhere on the reserve soon. The other migrant so far have all been moths. This morning the traps had silver Y, rush veneer, diamond-backed moth, dark sword-grass, Cydia amplana and Yponomeuta sedella, all probably freshly arrived from the south.

Cydia amplana

Cydia amplana, a migrant Tortrix moth that seems to be getting more frequently recorded each year.

Yponomeuta sedella

Yponomeuta sedella, this could be a migrant or a scarce local resident, it feeds on Sedum species, mainly the larger ones such as orpine, which does not grow at Blashford.

Perhaps oddly there have been very few migrant butterflies this summer, just a few painted lady and those several weeks ago now. It has also been a very lean year for humming-bird hawk-moth and convolvulus hawk-moth so far, but maybe numbers will pick up.

Just as I wrote the above I heard a buzzing sound at the window, only to find a humming-bird hawk-moth trapped inside the house!!! I have just successfully released it into the great outdoors to continue heading north.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring…………

 

A Couple of Tanners

Despite continued warm nights the number of moths coming to the trap are actually declining, I suspect it might have got too warm and especially dry for many moths to cope with. This does not mean the traps have been devoid of interest though, on two recent mornings the catch has included one of Britain’s largest beetles, the tanner beetle Prionus coriarius. 

tanner beetle

tanner beetle

This is something of a New Forest speciality, being quite frequent in the area and rather scarce across the rest of south-east England.

It will be interesting to see if the numbers pick up again now that it has rained and the weather settles down again, as it is supposed to do by the end of the week.

At Blashford things remain pretty quiet, there are unusual numbers of gadwall making the most of the weed in Ivy Lake, the peak count so far is 139. Numbers of coot, both there and on Ibsley Water are relatively high as well. There has been very little sign of migration so far, although there are several common sandpiper around and at least one green sandpiper. There has been some indication of small birds on the move, the ringers have caught whitethroat and grasshopper warbler and there are a few willow warbler and chiffchaff that seem to be passing through.

 

Dots of Green

The prolonged dry conditions have caused the grass to go brown almost everywhere you look at the moment. Grasses are a group of plants that are drought adapted and when it rains you can be confident that it will green up again quite rapidly. Other plants respond differently, most annuals are as crisp as the grass, often growing less than usual and seeding earlier before the lack of water kills them. What is obvious though is that even in the brownest grass there still dots of green, these are the deep rooted perennial plants. In my mini-meadow the field scabious in particular still has green leaves and is covered in flowers.

The plants that can keep growing in these conditions provide valuable nectar sources for insects. At Blashford Lakes one plant that just carries on is burdock and the plants near the Education Centre are a magnet for insects.

sil;ver-washed fritillarysilver-washed fritillary

Most butterflies have had a good season, numbers overall have been higher than in recent years, although many are not flying for very long. The species that over-winter by hibernation such as peacock and small tortoiseshell have disappeared, they will be hiding away in sheds and cellars, before they fly again in the early autumn.

One group of butterflies that don’t seem to mind the conditions are the whites, perhaps being white their colour reflects the heat better than the dark browns, which hide away in the shade during the hottest part of the day.

small white

small white

As well as butterflies the same flowers are attracting bees as well, at Blashford Lake, a swell as the bumble-bees, I have seen lots of green-eyed flower bee on the burdock flowers. These smallish, compact bees are very fast flyers and have a distinctive, high pitched buzz.

green-eyed flower bee

green-eyed flower bee

In general the reserve remains quite for birds. On Ivy Lake over a hundred gadwall is a good count for the time of year and on Ibsley Water there are good numbers of coot and tufted duck, although counting them is proving tricky. A few migrant waders are turning up, a common sandpiper or two and the occasional black-tailed godwit are witness to approaching autumn. The ringers have reported catching willow warbler, whitethroat and grasshopper warbler recently, almost certainly all migrants rather than local birds.

Taking Stock

Things have been relatively quiet at Blashford recently, although also very busy! Quiet in that we are in a time when the breeding season is more or less over and the migration season has hardly started.

Overall the bird nesting season was a mixed story. Resident birds mostly started late, the snow in March set them back. The migrants were mostly late arriving, with some in lower numbers than usual. It seemed that migrants that come from the SE were much as usual but those that take the West African route were down. Having arrived most small birds relished the warm weather with lots of insects to feed their young and seem to have done well. Resident species have had a more mixed time, single brooded species such as blue tits have done well, multi-brooded worm feeders like blackbird and song thrush have had a harder time.

Overall it has been a bumper season for insects, in the main they all do well in a hot summer a hot summer, although those that use shallow wetlands are probably finding things difficult.

six-spot burnet

six-spot burnet moth

As the breeding season ends we are starting to see some migration, swift are leaving as are the young of the first brood of sand martin and adult cuckoo have all gone. The first waders are coming back from the north, green sand piper and a number of common sandpiper have been seen on the reserve.

Yesterday a party of 7 black-tailed godwit flew south over Ibsley Water, they were in full breeding plumage and showed no sign of moult, so I would guess they were newly arrived from Iceland. If conditions are good they will make the flight in one go, arriving at a favoured moult site such as one of the harbours on the south coast. Once they get here wing moult starts almost straight away.

Further signs of approaching autumn are rather larger, at Fishlake Meadows 2 osprey have recently been seen perched up in the dead trees, one carries a blue ring, apparently ringed as a nestling in Scotland.

The prolonged hot weather is taking a toll, a lot of trees are losing their leaves in an attempt to reduce water loss, some will lose branches and as the ground dries one or two are falling. Perhaps surprisingly it is often trees growing on usually damp sites that are suffering the most. Easily accessible water in typical times mean they have not developed such large or deep root systems and are more vulnerable in drought conditions.

Garden Highlights

I seem to have been very busy recently, a couple of days away and evenings spent out surveying nightjar have left no time for blogging. The last few days have produced a few notable species in my garden which I will cover, a Blashford update will have to wait a bit longer I’m afraid.

The other day I recorded my first silver-washed fritillary in the garden, it was on a Buddleia, the “butterfly bush”, I do not grow the common davidii, which seeds freely and can be an invasive species in dry habitats. To avoid the seeding risk I grow a sterile hybrid known as Buddleia weyerianait may not be quiet as attractive to insects, but has the advantage of a much longer flowering season.

silver-washed fritillary

silver-washed fritillary

The moth trap has been productive as well, warm nights are always good for moths and we have had lots of those recently. The pick of the recent catches has been a very smart mocha, caught a couple of nights ago.

mocha

mocha

Followed last night by a Jersey tiger, this splendid looking moth used to be found only along the south coast of Devon, but in recent years has become established on the Isle of Wight and very recently along the southern edge of the New Forest too.

Jersey tiger

Jersey tiger

Old faithful?

Reports of our first great white egret of the summer on Ivy Lake today – unfortunately it was wading and therefore no one was able to see colour rings on its legs and confirm whether it is THE great white, “Walter”.

Other season firsts today, for me at least, common darter dragonfly and brown argus butterfly, whilst opening the hides in the morning was a wildlife extravaganza with fox cub, roe deer, bullfinch and kingfisher all sighted as I nipped around quickly on the bike to be ready for my morning with Hyde Preschool!

Brown Hawker dragonflies all very much in evidence across the reserve now too.