Adders, Grass Snakes and Legless Lizards….sorry …Slow Worms

For several years now volunteers and staff have been keeping an eye on the reptile
population at Blashford. And we are delighted to say that we have a pretty healthy
population – at least of some species. The habitat on the reserve is not conducive to all UK reptiles (Smooth Snakes and Sand Lizards have very specific habitat requirements) but we do have thriving populations of Adders, Grass Snakes and Slow Worms.

As part of ‘keeping an eye’ two teams of volunteers regularly carry out surveys on
the reserve. One team does the morning surveys and the other the afternoon, during the active reptile season from March to October.

Adders. Bob Chapman

Surveys involve both visual searches of the site and the use of artificial refugia – namely
corrugated felts and tins. These are placed in the areas most likely to support
reptiles and in sunny locations, providing a solar heated refuge and protection from
avian predation. Generally they are away from public view to avoid unnecessary
disturbance. The disturbance of these refugia can significantly affect our ability to determine
the presence of reptiles. The higher levels of disturbance cause them to increase the time spent under dense cover and results in them using less optimal habitat. This has both a negative effect on surveying, and on our populations of reptiles as a whole. If you do happen to come across refugia (here at Blashford or anywhere else on your travels) it is very important that you keep your distance and do not disturb them. Sometimes reptiles are found close to, but not underneath the refugia. If you have binoculars and/or a camera with a good lens, it is occasionally possible to get photos of these from quite far away. Please do heed the ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ notices on the refugia and keep a good distance away – we pride ourselves at Blashford on contributing to science, conservation and education, and hope that visitors to the reserve will respect this.

Grass Snakes. Bob Taylor

By doing regular monitoring we not only see what types of reptiles are on the site but
we learn a bit more about their behaviour and how this changes throughout the year. We get to know the numbers of different populations of each species around the reserve, particularly by where they first emerge after the winter hibernation period. For those nerds amongst you the term for hibernation amongst snakes and amphibians is ‘brumation’. Brumation is the term used for the hibernation of cold-blooded animals.

Slow Worm. Jim Day

We generally see how the reptiles at Blashford respond to the temperature. In the morning they will emerge into the sunlight in order to raise their body temperature and enable their muscles etc. to become active. But during the day, a good time to see them could be in the sunshine after a dull, cloudy or damp period, when they will come out into the open to bask
and warm up. Once warm they will often move off to carry out their daily business, look for food, find a mate etc.

An extended period of hot weather is not usually good for sightings, as the reptiles have less need for the added warmth of the refugia. Snakes are usually found on the sunny sides of vegetation, along the edges where they are seldom far from dense cover for protection. But once warm it is not uncommon to see a grass snake swimming across a pond or a lake. They are sometimes known as ‘water snakes’. Any of the reptiles could be seen crossing paths and verges, so don’t rush your walks, you never know what you might see if you are walking softly.

Although snakes may eat a wide variety of food depending on what is available and
how hungry they are, adders and grass snakes tend to prioritise different types.
Adders mainly eat small rodents and lizards, whilst grass snakes’ preferred foods are
frogs, toads and newts.

Slow worms are, of course, NOT worms or snakes, but are actually legless lizards. Characteristics include the ability to shed their tails and blink with their eyelids, which snakes are unable to do. They have a different diet to snakes and feed on a variety of invertebrates; slugs, snails, spiders and earthworms.

One of our puzzles at Blashford is that we haven’t recorded any common lizards
even though the habitat would seem to be suitable; that is woodland, grassland,
brown field sites. We do have woodland, there are some grassy areas and we are a
former airfield and quarrying site after all. There have been a couple of suspected
sightings and one or two reports but no regular confirmation. If you see any do let us
know. Time and place would be good to know and if you can get a picture that would
be brilliant …although they are pretty quick to disappear!!

Common Lizard. The Wildlife Trusts

For those of you who are interested in learning more about any of these species,
surveying procedures etc. you can visit ARC, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.
https://www.arc-trust.org. Thank you to Jacki for writing this blog post, and to all the volunteers that are dedicated to recording and protecting the reptiles here at Blashford.

Don’t forget, if you’re uploading photos to Twitter please write Blashford Lakes within the post so that we can find it and retweet it!

Historical British Birds journals available – quite a collection!

British Birds (as I am sure many of you will know), is a monthly journal which began in 1907, and has been an incredible resource for birders ever since. https://britishbirds.co.uk/content/about-british-birds
These journals contain a range of material on behaviour, conservation, distribution, ecology, identification, movements, status and taxonomy, as well as the ‘latest’ news items and book reviews… or in the case of the ones we have at Blashford Lakes, some very historical information!

A while ago, we had some boxes of British Birds journals given to us, and there are just too many to put in the Welcome Hut. The collection goes as far back as 1946, to around 1999. We don’t have every year by any means, but the years we do have generally each monthly edition is present.

We are happy for these to go as an entire collection, or as specific years, but we don’t have the capacity at the moment to deal with lots of emails asking about specific journal dates etc. We have already a donation for a few years, which included the year the person started birdwatching, and the year of their binoculars!

If you (or somebody you know) would be interested in this rather wonderful historical record of British Birds for a suitable donation to Blashford and HIWWT, please email Chloe chloe.dalglish@hiwwt.org.uk to organise coming in to the Education Centre to take a look. Please note I work part-time, so I won’t always respond straight away. We really hope these journals can find good homes!

As ever, happy birding!

Invaded!

If YOU head down to Blashford Lakes tomorrow (Sunday 22nd May) you should be prepared for a big surprise!

A giant surprise even.

In fact a giant crayfish surprise!

James Fantom, South West Lakes Trust Invasive Species Officer, will be here in costume between 10am and 3pm to raise awareness of the invasive American signal-crayfish 🦞 during Invasive Species Week.

Found throughout the UK, their population has been thriving since they were brought to England as a fashionable shellfish in the 1970’s. These 15cm-long beasts are bad news for our native and endangered (listed as Endangered on the global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) White-clawed crayfish.

American-signal crayfish – clearly showing the white patch, or “signal”, on the base of the claw

American-signal crayfish are larger, more aggressive, breed faster than the native species, carry a fungal disease called ‘crayfish plague’, which is particular harmful to our native species, as well as depleting fisheries directly through predation of fish eggs and indirectly through their severely damaging and undermine river banks with their burrowing and hence destroying freshwater habitat.

So, it is clear that they’re bad news and, although not widespread at Blashford Lakes, they are very much present in water bodies across the Avon Valley and are known to be present at low densities within the nature reserve itself.

The best defence against the signal crayfish invader is biosecurity – ensuring that individual crayfish are not transported between waterbodies and that the spores from the crayfish plague are killed prior to entering another waterbody using the “CHECK – CLEAN – DRY” method for all equipment, footwear or clothing, which have been in the water, for example wellies/waders, boats, canoes, and nets.

So say “Hi” to James if you see him tomorrow and do ask him for more information about American signal-crayfish and other invasive non-native wildlife while he is here.

Young Naturalists in search of dragons

There were seven Young Naturalists for our end of April meeting, including one new member, Fletcher.  The theme this month was pond and river life, but first, as usual, we checked the overnight moth trap.  Despite a cold night, we did find a few moths in the trap, the best being a pair of Brindled Beauty, as well as a Sharp-angled Peacock. 

We headed to the pond for the rest of the morning, and our target was to find some dragonfly larvae, which we wanted to try and identify to species.  The pond produced loads of fine creatures, including five Smooth Newts (of whom three were males, showing very flashy crested tails). 

Male Smooth Newt

There was also a massive Great Diving Beetle, and lots of Water Hoglouse, Damselfly larvae and Whirligig Beetles, and we were delighted to catch a total of eight Dragonfly larvae.  We all agreed that they were all the same species, but it was difficult to know exactly which from our reference book, as several seemed quite similar.  On the day, we guessed that they might be Downy Emerald, but having done a little more research online, I think they were possibly Common Darter, with long, spidery legs, and a thick body, covered in fine hairs.

Dragonfly larva – possibly Common Darter

Over lunch, Fletcher had the opportunity to try out his macro photography skills, with a few close-up pictures of butterflies, including this nectaring Peacock.

Peacock butterfly, pictured by Fletcher

More of Fletcher’s photos can be seen on his Instagram:

https://instagram.com/fletcherfootsphotography?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

Rosie and Lucas pond-dipping

While we were at the pond, a visitor reported that there was a hornet flying around in one of the bird hides, so we went to have a look.  Fortunately, by the time we arrived, the hornet had made its way out, so we headed to the river.

In the Dockens Water

It is always good just to walk down the river in welly boots, and feel the flow of the stream around you, but we all wanted to see what we could catch.  We were soon using nets and kick sampling to have a look at the river creatures, including several fish.  We caught two Bullhead, and several small fry which looked like young Brown Trout, as well as Minnows.  We also found some spectacular Cased Caddis Fly larvae, a Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly larva, and more dragonfly larvae, this time Golden-ringed Dragonfly.

Cased Caddisfly larva
Golden-ringed Dragonfly larva

After releasing the fish and the other creatures back into the river, and washing up the equipment, we still had time to head down to Ivy South hide, where we watched a Mute Swan chase off a Canada Goose.  On the way to Ivy South we had great views of a Kingfisher on the Ivy Silt Pond, which hovered and dived for a fish while we watched.

We’ll be doing more birdwatching next month, and also looking for reptiles. For more details, and to book onto next month:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/blashford-lakes-young-naturalists-reptile-surveying-and-birdwatching-tickets-333481170157

The Terns are arriving at Blashford

There have been quite a few arrivals recently, the keen eyed of you will have noticed (without needing binoculars) that Jack Medley, our new Reserves Officer has now started. I am sure he will do a blog introducing himself soon, but at the moment he has quite a lot of information to absorb, Blashford is a big site with a lot of history!

Of the winged variety of arrivals – the Sand Martin wall has had a flurry of activity, and a Swift or two have been spotted around Lapwing hide. The CES monitoring has also started, with Kevin reporting many returning Reed Warblers.

Those of you who have been out on the reserve recently will have noticed the Terns arriving in small numbers, and Jack thought it was time to begin putting out the rafts. The tern rafts are put out gradually, as the gulls do have a habit of taking over, and we very much want at least a few to be occupied by terns!

With the help of Simon King and others from our Lower Test team, one Tern raft has now been deployed on Ivy Lake. The regular Blashford work party groups have been instrumental in getting the rafts up together and ready for this season, alongside Jo from Fishlake and Jack. Over the next few weeks the rafts for Ibsley Water will be prepared, and more rafts will be put out on both Ivy Lake and Ibsley Water as Tern numbers increase.

WARNING! Main car park and Tern Hide CLOSURE this weekend!

Fri 28th April – Mon 2nd May

Challenging Events Ltd are leasing the main car park for use during their Huntsman triathlon event on Sunday, including time either side of the weekend for their event set up. As a result their will be no car parking available to visitors in the main car park adjacent to Tern Hide from Friday to Monday. There will be no access to Tern Hide at all on Sunday and access may also be limited, or impossible, for all or some of Friday, Saturday and Monday.

Pedestrian access to the Ibsley Water viewing platform will be possible throughout this period and nor is any of the rest of the reserve affected. Visitors to the nature reserve will use the parking on the Education Centre side of the nature reserve – but as this has limited capacity you may prefer to visit on a different occasion.

If you do choose to visit us over the bank holiday weekend and particularly on the Sunday while the triathlon itself is taking place, please be particularly vigilant for race marshals and athletes around the entrance to the nature reserve off Ellingham Drove. There should not be any spectators/supporters in this area but just because they are not supposed to be there does not mean that there won’t be any!

Blashford birders and photographers – we need your help to record ringed Lapwing and Redshank.

The GWCT Wetlands department is studying the breeding ecology of redshank in the Avon Valley and are aiming to discover more about this fascinating bird’s breeding behaviour and ecology. We need a better knowledge of redshank territory size and how faithful birds are to their breeding sites within a breeding season and between seasons. We also need to know about the movement of birds in the valley – where they feed and where they go to in winter. This information allows us to refine management recommendations designed to benefit redshank, by understanding the specific habitats that are most important for nest and chick-rearing, and the areas of habitat required by each pair. We are using colour ringing to investigate these questions.

Adult ringed Redshank

Colour ringing involves fitting a unique combination of coloured rings to a bird’s leg. This enables identification of an individual bird in the field, without the need to recapture the bird to read the metal ring number. Larger, long-lived species like waders and gulls are particularly suited to colour ringing because the bird and its rings are more visible and may be reported multiple times during the bird’s life. Ringing of all kinds is only performed under strict licence, and colour-ringing projects must obtain approval from a central co-ordinator that considers both bird welfare and the viability of the study.

If you are spending time at Blashford and are able to photograph any ringed Lapwing and Redshank clearly that would be incredibly helpful. Please share the information as per the details on the bottom of the information sheet.

Easter fun – family pond dipping!

Whoever is in charge of the weather really favoured us last Wednesday, we had beautiful sunshine for our family pond dipping day. Initially our plan was to run a morning session, but because of demand we opened up an afternoon slot as well, it’s encouraging to see so many people wanting to participate in nature based learning activities during the school holidays.

A family being helped by one of our brilliant volunteers

After a quick chat about health and safety, and how to pond dip responsibly we gathered around the pond. I ensured the children knew how to supervise their adults properly, and with the help of volunteers Nora and Louise we had a brilliant session. The children quickly got to grips with identifying the creatures they found, so ‘water spider!?!!’ was soon correctly identified as dragonfly nymph (they do have rather long legs!), and ‘swimming lizard!!’ got recognised as an amphibian and subsequently a newt.

Our pond is rather weedy at the moment, which can mean that after a few sweepy figure of 8 motions with the pond net it can be quite a job to haul the net out of the water. Collecting weed (and pond snot!) can pay off though, as lots of invertebrates do love to hide in it.

Catching a lot of weed, and pond creatures!

One particular family seemed to have the monopoly on newt catching, and although I think every family in the afternoon session did catch a newt…. they managed to catch 8! The highlight was a little boy catching a newt eft, which started discussions on amphibian lifecycles, and where pet axolotls originally come from. We caught a huge diversity of species, and just before the afternoon session started we even saw a large adult grass snake slide across the grass by the pond.

Smooth newt

All animals were safely returned back to the pond at the end of the sessions. We are very clear to highlight responsible handling, and it is always wonderful to see people treating their finds with care. My personal highlight of the day was a parent who came up and thanked me at the end, as he had never been pond dipping and had always wanted to do it with somebody who was knowledgeable. We didn’t lose any children or parents to the pond, and everybody left with smiles on their faces!

Easter Wet & Wild Days Out!

We truly did have wet and wild days, exploring the pond behind the centre and the Dockens water with two wonderful groups of children.

It’s been a while since we had a Wild Day Out, in fact, it would have been during my very first week here at Blashford in October. I had a great time then, so I knew our Easter days would be fab too!

We started both days with some froggy arts and crafts in the classroom, using coloured paper to make frogs and blowing bubbles in a mixture of paint and washing up liquid to pop bubbles onto paper for frogspawn. This worked very well for Jim’s example (exceptional craft skills, 10/10!), but not necessarily for everyone else then one child had a clever idea, to use the glue lid and mixture to make frogspawn circles – very resourceful!

Our first outdoor activity on both days was pond dipping. With all the equipment set up around the pond and on the benches, Jim let everyone know how to dip safely, and we began. The problem with remembering how to dip safely (either sat crossed legged or one knee down, one knee up so as not to tip into the water) …. is that it’s just TOO EXCITING!

Pond dipping

We love excitement for nature here at Blashford, what we don’t like is children covered in ‘pond snot’, but thankfully everybody stayed dry!

We had a bit of a competition between tables, filling the grid trays with all the different creatures we could find. Dragonfly nymph, water beetles, water louse, damselfly larvae, water boatman and the mecca of all finds (which is always combined with a shriek), the NEWT! My favourite exclamation, was a repeated, ‘I FOUND A MEWT, A MEWT!’ and I think maybe I will always endearingly now think of them as mewts.

Looking in trays and classifying our finds

After lunch and some time to play out on the hill it was time to walk to the river. Wellies were donned in the hope that nobody would get wet feet… and we headed for the Dockens. On the way we passed some rushes and made rush boats to float down the river, some with elaborate sails made of leaves added on.

After demonstrating best practise for kick-sampling in the river (it’s important to hold the net downstream of your feet!) everyone got into the river to have a good go! With the help of some ID sheets the children did very well at identifying their finds, cased-caddis fly being a firm favourite. Some otter spraint on a spot under the bridge caught Jim’s attention and we even had some brave children give it a little sniff (otter spraint smells sweet, mink will smell fishy).

The determination to catch fish is a common theme when river dipping, and both Wild Days Out were no exception. With Jim holding all the nets in a row, we created a ‘fish trap’ and all the children agitated the river bed upstream of the nets…. and what a catch, one net had both a bullhead and a lamprey! Excellent teamwork and so much excitement…… and, as is always the way… lots of water inside welly boots!

Bullhead

The time at the river always goes quickly, even when combined with hula hooping! We had brought the hoops down to the river to play a game, but as time was pressing we didn’t play, but we did attempt to hula hoop! We had some very proficient children, and I combined guarding the deep water area with some hula hooping (I am pretty good… but my Trust fleece did hamper me slightly), and Jim even had a go too!

Time pressing on we walked back to the centre, and stopped the children short of the door. ‘Does anybody have water inside their wellies’….. a chorus of YES! and an instruction to empty them outside the building was heeded by all, although some did end up aiming their water onto coats that had been discarded on the floor.

Two Wild Days Out, lots of excited children, happy staff and volunteers, and many creatures later we were finished, and I am sure our finds were glad to be left in peace in their pond and river homes. Little do the pond creatures know… we’ve got a family pond dip event on tomorrow!

Little & (very!) large

Hope everyone is out and about enjoying some glorious Spring sunshine this Easter weekend 🙂 . The warmer more settled weather is resulting in some “firsts for the year”, including my first Orange-tip butterfly and first Garden Warbler (singing to me as I opened up the main car park gate). Yesterday it was the turn of the return of Reed Warblers, singing from the reeds outside Ivy North Hide & also Ivy Silt Pond on my morning “rounds”.

As previously reported, Sand Martins are back & volunteer Phil West photographed the first few tentatively investigating the artificial sand face at Goosander Hide earlier in the week:

Sand Martins by Phil West

Hopefully they will have a good year again as there is nothing quite like the spectacle of viewing the swirls of 100’s of martins from, and on teh approach to, the hide during the summer.

He also clocked this White-tailed Eagle passing over!

White-tailed Eagle by Phil West

Although the wonderful Wild Daffodils are now well & truly over the the very first of the Bluebells are just starting to show, the Primroses are still looking fabulous and being very much beloved by Bumblebees and one of my favourite spring flowers, Moschatel (Five-faced Bishop or Townhall Clock!), is also having a really good year this year:

Chloe & I have been busy this week with Wild Days Out school holiday activity days – we missed the best of the weather unfortunately, but it could have been a lot worse! A good time was had by all in the pond & river (including we staff & volunteers!) and a separate blog post specifically about that will follow.

No Wild Day Out next week but we are inviting families to “Go Wild!” and join us for pond dipping on Wednesday – the initial morning session is now fully booked so we have now started taking bookings for a second session in the afternoon – for more information and to book your places please see: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/321316184357

Families are welcome, but so too are individual adults without children who wish to find out more about some of our fascinating wetland wildlife.

Discovering pondlife on Tuesdays Wild Day Out – more pictures & information to follow in a subsequent blog!

Sadly too much of my time these days is spent in the office dealing with increasingly complicated administrative and managerial tasks when I’m not out and about teaching and one of these necessary jobs is the production of the Annual Report to our partners (South West Water & Wessex Water). Although very time consuming it is also always a good opportunity to reflect on the challenges & achievements of the previous year so not as arduous an undertaking as it might seem. Still, I am sure that having signed off on his last Blashford Lakes Project Annual Report it is one part of the job that our recently retired Bob will not miss!

Having put the work in we are keen to share it more widely than with just the Project partners so do download it and have a read for a “behind the scenes” glimpse into work at Blashford Lakes!