Go Wild this June!

June is almost upon us and 30 Days Wild is back for its sixth year! It is a fun, feel-good challenge run annually by The Wildlife Trusts which aims to bring people closer to nature and take small actions on a daily basis that can collectively have a big impact, for their health, wellbeing and for the planet.

You can sign up to the nature challenge here, where you will get a downloadable pack full of wild ideas to see you, your family or those in your care through the month. You could plant for pollinators, go on a bug hunt, give up plastics for a day, dig a pond, make a bug home, litter-pick, listen to birdsong, cloud watch, walk barefoot through the grass, get up to watch the sunrise, the options are endless.

If you’re on social media, you can share your random acts of wildness by using the #30DaysWild and @HantsIWWildlife on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. We’d love to see what you’re up to!

The website also has lots of extra ideas for those of you who are currently homeschooling, how to stay connected to nature if you are working from home and how to create a wildlife garden.

Have fun going wild!

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Ivy Lake in the sunshine

Back to Blashford

Last Monday I helped Bob put a couple of tern rafts out on Ivy Lake, something he had been hoping to do for a while but needed someone on site whilst he went out on the water. So when I say ‘help’, I do mean it in the loosest sense of the word as I kept an eye on him from the comfort of Ivy South hide.

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The view from Ivy South hide – the spiders have moved in and the vegetation is taking over!

Luckily, two of the rafts were still on the edges of the lake, so they just needed moving out into position in the middle and securing in place. By the end of the day there were six common terns interested in one of the rafts and this number has gradually increased over the course of the week. In wandering down there today there were at least twenty either on the raft itself or flying around overhead, with a few black-headed gulls. We would usually put out more rafts but without volunteer support to make them and move them (not a job that allows for social distancing) they will have to make do with these two instead.

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A blurred Bob out on Ivy Lake with two tern rafts (I liked the foreground!)

Whilst waiting for Bob I listened to the reed warblers with their distinctive chatty song and watched a pair of great crested grebes out on the water. I also noticed lots of newly emerged damselflies, yet to develop their full colours and markings, on the stems growing outside the hide. It takes a few days for them to develop their colouring, a useful survival mechanism as at present they are not quite ready to fly so blend in rather well with the vegetation. Lower down you could make out the cast skins or exuvia clinging on to the vegetation following their final moult and emergence as an adult.

Bob has also been busy strimming step asides into the edges of some of the footpaths, where it has been possible to do so, to create areas for people to pass each other more easily and aid social distancing when walking around.

In addition we have been busy planning extra signage for some of the footpaths and will be making some routes one way, again to aid social distancing and enable people to visit safely. Crossing the stretches of boardwalk safely will be particularly difficult, so people will be directed over these a certain way. We hope to begin putting signage up this week, at the entrances to the reserve and also at path junctions, so if and when you do visit please keep an eye out for them. Hopefully we will have ironed out any snags by the time we are able to open a car park, which fingers crossed will not be too far off now, we will keep you all posted…

It has been nice to spend a bit of time out on the reserve – I was back just in time to experience the bluebells along the Dockens Water, although they are going over now, and also heard my first cuckoo of the year this week. I wasn’t sure I was going to hear one this spring. There is also still some greater stitchwort flowering along the Dockens path:

On Ibsley Water the large raft is mainly occupied by black-headed gulls, although there were a couple of common tern on there early last week. It’s lovely to see the common terns back again for another summer.

By the Centre there has been plenty of insect life around the pond, with beetles, bees, dragonflies and damselflies making the most of the sunshine:

On Wednesday Bob and I were sat having lunch when the female mallard he had noticed on the new Education Centre pond made an appearance, followed by 13 ducklings. We watched them topple off the boardwalk into the water, one or two at a time, and enjoyed their company whilst we finished eating. Later on that afternoon they moved over to the original centre pond but I haven’t seen them since, so I hope they are ok.

It has also been really nice to be able to rummage through the moth trap again, although with a few cold nights it has been quite quiet. Here are some moth highlights:

There have also been a number of cockchafers in the light trap. Also known as May bugs or doodlebugs these large brown beetles also fly around at dusk.

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Cockchafer, May bug or doodlebug

On Thursday I found the exuvia or final moult of a hawker dragonfly in the pond and fished it out to take a closer look:

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Dragonfly exuvia

Leaving it out in a sunny spot to dry out I completely forgot about it, only remembering once I had driven home that evening. By this morning though it had found its way onto my desk, so Bob must have spotted it too!

I have also visited the meadow a couple times, the oxeye daisies are looking beautiful now they are coming into flower, rivalling the gorgeous pink display of ragged robin by the Welcome Hut which Jo shared a photo of last week. The common vetch and buttercups are also flowering and there are a few common blue butterflies on the wing.

The beautiful green beetle above has many names, it is known as the thick-legged flower beetle, false oil beetle and swollen-thighed beetle. Only the males have thickened hind legs, I might have to visit the meadow again in search of a female.

Wildlife encounters of the furlough kind

I returned to work on Sunday after eight weeks away from Blashford (it is so green now!) and six weeks on furlough along with around 40% of my Trust colleagues, most of whom are still off. Whilst I’m back to help Bob with the reserve tasks he cannot do by himself and engage with visitors on site from a safe distance, following on from the easing of restrictions last week, we are still closed whilst we look at what we can safely offer in the coming weeks and months. We will keep you updated as and when things begin to change!

A Blashford blog will follow shortly, but I thought I would share what I have been getting up to whilst off.

Spending so much time at home meant I was able to discover what wildlife visits my garden, a bit of a distraction whilst I was supposed to still be working, but it was really nice to be there during the day and have more time to appreciate my outside space. My garden is only small, with two patio areas which contain a number of plants in pots and a lawn which has struggled as a lawn and now has a few flowers planted into the patchier bits as I slowly tun it into a much wilder space. I have lived there for a couple of years, and this year the garden really seems to have come to life with birds and insects, which has been really nice to see.

Whilst at home I had blue tits, wood pigeons, dunnocks and blackbirds frequently visiting the garden along with a wren, great tits and a goldfinch. I have a willow bird table and the blackbirds seem to really like this, launching themselves onto it from the hedge and swinging around whilst they fed.

I have two hedges in the garden and this year the blackbirds successfully nested in one (I did a fair amount of cat chasing whilst off, if they have another brood they’re on their own!) which was lovely to watch. I saw four fledglings at the same time, two sunning themselves in one hedge and two in the other and both adults worked really hard to feed them with the male bringing back huge beak fulls, including a garden centipede in the photo below:

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Male blackbird with a beak full

They fledged last Thursday so I was able to enjoy their company for a few days, with one of the young staying in the garden until Sunday morning. It was very amusing to see it sat swinging on the bird table calling mum for food.

I had written a rather long list of things to do to keep me busy, and one of those things was to dig a pond. Digging a pond was definitely more exciting than decorating the bathroom, re-pointing some dodgy brickwork to hopefully solve a damp issue in the kitchen and damp proofing and repainting the kitchen wall, so it was one of the first things I did and it’s been really nice to see it change over just a few weeks. The less exciting jobs were left until last week when I knew I was returning to work…

The photos below show the garden before and after, then the pond full of mud as the female blackbird decided the moss I had placed round the edge would make really nice nest building material (she had ignored it the entire time it was elsewhere in the garden) and later on with some plant additions (all native) I had been able to order online.

Whilst digging the pond I unearthed the snake millipede below, along with centipedes that were too fast for a photo, and the stones placed around the edge quickly became resting spots for hoverflies:

The blackbirds had been using a bucket of water with some willow sticks in to drink from and bathe in, but they now both use the pond which is really nice to watch. The female didn’t mind me being around at all but the male was a lot more wary of me to begin with and would fly off even if I was watching from the window, but now he is quite happy for me to be out in the garden whilst he’s there feeding.

As well as the birds it was great to see which insects were visiting the flowers and which flowers were growing really well, the ragged robin in particular has seeded so well from one plant in a pot last year I was able to plant it out in different places in the grass.

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I live on the edge of Salisbury so on my daily walks I walked my dog from home to either a little stretch of the River Bourne in Laverstock or up to the Laverstock Downs, enjoying the fact there were fewer cars on the road.

These photos were taken in the little patch of woodland down by the river:

I had hoped to see some bluebells on my wanders but sadly all those I did see were garden escapees.

I spent a lot more time up on the Downs as although they were further to walk to, it was much easier to practice social distancing up here than it was down by the river which tended to be busier with people and had a stretch of boardwalk to contend with.

It was a great spot for bird watching and I had some brilliant views of both blackcap and common whitethroat, especially early spring when the whitethroats were displaying and establishing territories.

I managed a total of 47 bird species whilst off, either in my garden, flying over my garden or on my daily walks: blackbird, blue tit, dunnock, wren, great tit, wood pigeon, collared dove, jackdaw, starling, long-tailed tit, yellowhammer, carrion crow, buzzard, pheasant, song thrush, chaffinch, chiffchaff, red kite, blackcap, common whitethroat, swallow, linnet, goldfinch, red-legged partridge, little egret, mallard, shoveler, kingfisher, magpie, skylark, great spotted woodpecker, robin, Canada goose, mute swan, raven, sparrowhawk, rook, bullfinch, house sparrow, Cetti’s warbler, grey heron, moorhen, mistle thrush, swift, house martin, peregrine falcon and mandarin duck. They were quite a good mix!

The Downs were also a great spot for butterflies, with orange tips, brimstones, small tortoiseshells, green-veined whites, small heaths, peacocks and dingy skippers all on the wing. I also found lots of green-veined orchids and other flowers on the chalk grassland.

The most exciting spot though was probably to see glow worm larvae on three separate occasions, so I must go up there over the summer in search of glow worms.

Glow worm larvae

Glow worm larvae

I was very lucky to have my garden to enjoy and also have some lovely spaces within walking distance to explore (it was also quite nice to use my car less!), so I had plenty of nature to keep me company during the pandemic, whilst a list of house and craft projects also kept me busy. I might be heading back up to the Downs at the weekend…

Fence post leftovers

Last Friday Bob had some dead trees at Blashford Lakes that needed felling, so I headed over to be his first aid cover. It was so great to venture further afield and get to have a look around the reserve again. The wildflower seed matting next to the welcome hut and around the new pond was packed with ragged robin.

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Ragged robin

On Monday I checked the Ashley Meadow fence line to make sure it was all in tact ahead of the cattle coming on sometime in June. On the last stretch I found the remains of what I think was a rat, given the size of the tail, on one of the fenceposts. As there are many birds of prey at Fishlake Meadows I wouldn’t like to say for certain what type of bird took it, but I imagine it much be quite a big one.

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Suspected rat tail

I then walked the rest of the paths, seeing lots of damselflies and what I’m fairly sure was a downy emerald dragonfly, but it flew away before I could get a good look. All around the reserve lots of common comfrey is in flower with its variable flower colours, it’s a great nectar source for many insects and a food plant of the scarlet tiger moth caterpillar.

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Common comfrey in flower

Bittersweet is also coming in to flower along the permissive path, its flowers are so striking with the contrasting deep purple and bright yellow, they are great to see. As it’s a member of the nightshade family, the berries that develop later are poisonous. Still, it’s bright coloured flowers are great to look at.

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Bittersweet

More and more insects are around at the moment, this hoverfly, which I’m fairly sure is helophilus pendulus, common name sun fly, was nectaring on a rose. Its latin name translates to “dangling marsh lover” and is typically found around boggy areas. There is a massive diversity in hoverflies and they can be difficult to identify, a group I’m keen to try and learn more about.

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helophilus pendulus or sun fly

Out in the Garden

Like most people who are lucky enough to have one, I have been spending a lot of time in the garden recently. Our garden is almost exactly the average size of a UK garden, so a little larger than most people will have, but still not a large plot. It does allow space for all the elements with a flower border, vegetable plot, lawn and most importantly a pond and mini-meadow. The aim has always been to maximise the opportunities for wildlife within a more or less conventional garden space and I am really pleased that it was as there has enough wildlife to keep me interested throughout lockdown.

Although the garden is very short of trees and shrubs the variety and features such as the meadow seem very attractive to lots of birds, probably just because it offers home to a large number and wide variety of invertebrates, the main food of nestlings.

blackbird female

Blackbird female

As we have been sitting out a lot it is really noticeable how much more tame most of the birds have become, a feature not just of birds that use the feeder, they just seem to have got used to us being out there.

I took the chance to refurbish our pond, which had evidently sprung a leak, so it was relined and filled from the water butts. In no time it attracted eight smooth newt and several damselflies and even egg-laying broad-bodied chaser with an attendant male.

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broad-bodied chaser male

The mini-meadow, which with the area of the pond is in a 5m x 4m space is the main attraction for most wildlife. It was made by initially allowing the existing grass to grow and cutting and removing the vegetation once a year. I then added some seed and a few small plants that I grew from seed and over the last five years it has developed.

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common vetch – just one of the species that was already present 

A flowery meadow is, unsurprisingly very popular with butterflies, over the last few days I have seen my first small copper and common blue of the year in my garden, both species I think breed in the meadow.

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My first common blue of 2020

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Small copper pair

Lots of other insects live in the meadow, most obviously lots of ants, I now have a number of anthills dotted about the patch, you may have spotted a couple of ants in the common vetch picture above, probably collecting nectar from the base of the flowers. A range of true bugs are wandering about, mostly, but not all, vegetarians.

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Rhopalus subrufus – one of the many true bugs

There has been a lot in the media in recent times about bees and pollinators. You could be forgiven for thinking that pollination is dependent upon honey-bees, occasionally in very industrial scale agriculture this is almost true, but generally this is far from the case. In fact it turns out that more diverse environments have more pollinators and more different types of pollinators, we have a pollinator “problem” because we have impoverished our environment. I notice in my garden that having lots of different plants with differing flower types results in seeing lots of different types of insects and especially different species of bees.

ashy mining bee

ashy-mining bee

The ashy mining bee is one very distinctive species of spring-flying solitary mining bee which is increasingly visiting gardens. Pollination is carried out by almost all insects that visit flowers and even by other creatures like birds and small mammals. Recently the importance of moths has received some attention, as they fly at night their role is often forgotten. Hoverflies are more obvious and it is easy to see them visiting lots of flowers, often with a coating of pollen grains. I was interested to see a species I did not recognise recently int he garden and luckily got a picture that was good enough to identify the species. It turned out to be a recent colonist to this country with larvae that eat house-leeks, it may have got here under its own steam, but more likely was brought here as a result of the plant trade. It was first found in 2006 and now quite widespread across the southern part of the country.

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Cheilosia caerulescens – the house leek hoverfly

 

Fishlake Meadows tree works

Tomorrow, Tuesday 12th May, 5 ash trees next to the path, location shown by the green triangle on the map, with significant ash dieback are being felled. While the tree surgeons are working there will be limited opportunity to walk this stretch of footpath. Therefore please avoid using this section of footpath on 12th May. Ash dieback makes the trees brittle and susceptible to collapse, therefore it is essential for safety that these trees are felled. European Protected Species and bat roost surveys have been completed and permission granted from the TVBC planning team. More information about ash dieback can be found here; https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/ash-dieback.

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Ash tree with ash dieback

In addition to the ash trees there is a willow limb and 2 hanging branches that the tree surgeons will be removing, locations shown by green square and green circle, this work may roll over in to Wednesday 13th May. Again you may have to wait to walk through while the work is underway.

Ash tree work May 12th and 13th

Locations of works

Important Information about Reserve Opening

You have probably heard that people will be allowed to exercise away from home more and at a greater distance than previously from Wednesday 13th May. However Blashford Lakes will remain closed. In fact even the limited access that has been possible in recent weeks will not be available as the main road access along Ellingham Drove will be closed Wednesday-Friday (13th-16th May) for resurfacing works. Please do not attempt to visit at all during this time.

Beyond these works plans for, probably limited, opening are being looked at. It will be necessary to ensure that any opening will be safe, so the Centre and hides are unlikely to open for some time yet. Restricted car park opening may be possible, one limitation is lack of staff, most are currently furloughed and current rules would suggest they cannot return immediately. There are also some works that are needed to enable continued safe access that are outstanding, due to difficulties obtaining materials for repairs.

Be assured that every effort is being made to ensure safe visiting is possible as soon as possible, but this will not be on Wednesday for, as outlined above, a variety of reasons.

 

Spring leaving some ash trees behind

On Friday I had a closer look at some ash trees that I had been waiting to come in to leaf to see what condition they were in. In short, they haven’t come in to leaf much at all, therefore I am now in the process of arranging to have them felled. They have advanced signs of dieback and are close to a path so unfortunately need to go. Ash trees on the reserve that aren’t near the paths, even if they have signs of dieback, will be left to die where they stand. If you would like to know more about ash dieback and the impact it’s having, there is a lot of information here; https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/ash-dieback. 

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Ash tree with ash dieback

Cuckoos have been singing away for a few weeks now, I managed to get a good view of one on Friday, including getting a photo. The light meant it’s more of a silhouette shot, but you can clearly see the droopy wings which give it away. 

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Cuckoo with wings drooping below branch

 As well as lots of flowers coming in to bloom, the grasses and sedges are following suit. The greater pond sedge either side of the permissive path is particularly striking at the moment. 

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Greater pond sedge

 Many birds will be nesting already, indeed some greylag geese and mallards already have goslings and ducklings. It’s lovely to see them preparing for and looking after new arrivals, a pair of coot are nest building fairly close to the screens. It is important for all of us to tread lightly and be considerate of this, keep to the paths and move on if a bird seems agitated near you. 

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Coot with nesting material

 Damselflies are emerging more and more at the moment, and now the demoiselle’s are following, a week or so ago I saw my first banded demoiselle, and on  Friday I saw my first female beautiful demoiselle. It shouldn’t be too long until I spot my first dragonfly, indeed others may have already seen one. 

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Female beautiful demoiselle

 Fishlake Meadows now has it’s own standalone blog, so if you would like to continue to see what’s happening there please follow the link and subscribe here. I will continue to posts my blogs on to the Blashford blog for a short while to give people a chance to get signed up. 

Spring Advances

There have been a lot of consequences of the current coronavirus outbreak that we might not have foreseen. One of these at Blashford are problems for our breeding common terns. The virus and consequent cancellation of all volunteer work parties has meant that the rafts the terns usually nest on cannot be launched. Luckily the very large raft we put out last summer on Ibsley Water was never brought in and the terns seem to be willing to consider it as a nest site.

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Displaying common terns on the “Mega raft”.

The bird to the right has a fish, this will be a male that has caught a fish to bring back to his mate as part of courtship feeding. This behaviour will show a new partner his fishing ability, or just strengthen existing pair bonds, it will also help the female gain condition in readiness for producing the eggs, a huge drain in her resources.

It will be interesting to see how many pairs turn up this year, after years of steady growth the population has fallen in the last couple of years, I think due to poor weather at migration time and more problems competing with nesting black-headed gulls. We also seem to have had very few birds passing through, until this year that is. The other day 68 were counted over Ibsley Water, of course that does not mean they will stay to breed and most have certainly moved on, but at least 14 remain, so perhaps we have a core of seven pairs to build on.

The spring is peak time for birds passing through and as well as common tern we usually see some of their more northern nesting cousins, Arctic terns and occasionally a few of the inland marsh nesting, black tern, although sadly they do not nest in the UK. Black tern and another passage visitor the little gull are probably on their way to nesting around the Baltic Sea area. This spring does seem to have been a good one for little gull, with birds being seen on several days.

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Little gull, one hatched last year (2cy).

The young birds, hatched last year vary a lot in the amount of dark markings in their wings, this one being fairly typical, but some have almost totally black upper-wings and some much reduced. These birds used to be called “First summer” , although this might seem a little odd as they were hatched last spring, but their actual first summer would have been spent in juvenile plumage, so “First summer” actually described the plumage, not the age of the bird. Things get more confusing with some other species that time their moult differently, so these days you are more likely to hear birders referring to “Second calendar year” (often reduced to 2cy) indicating the age of the bird, rather than the plumage.

As it is spring most of our birds are settling down to nest. As I was having some lunch on Monday a mallard was on the new pond built last year behind the Education Centre, I wondered why it was so reluctant to leave as I sat down nearby. The answer was actually obvious, it had a nest near the pond and when I looked away it flew a short distance into the vegetation and disappeared, no doubt it was just taking a short break from the arduous task of incubation, which is all done by the female.

mallard duck on Centre pond

mallard duck on Centre pond

Blashford Lakes is not an obviously good site for orchids, generally when thinking of these the mind goes to long established chalk downland and these are certainly very good for orchids. However just because Blashford is a recently developed old gravel pit complex this does not mean there are no orchids. In fact we have at least seven species, which might seem surprising, but the secret is that the soils are very nutrient poor, something they have in common with old chalk downland. Our commonest species is probably bee orchid, with scattered groups in various, mostly grassy, places. Next would be southern marsh and common spotted orchids in the damper areas. In deep shade and so probably often overlooked there are common twayblade. On the dry grassland was have a growing population of autumn lady’s tresses and, since it was first found last year a single green-winged orchid. Last years plant was a good tall one, but it got eaten, probably by deer or rabbit. I wondered if it had come up this year so went to have a look yesterday and found it, although a good bit smaller than it was last year, but still flowering.

green-winged orchid

green-winged orchid

Hawking hobby’s and other new arrivals

After strimming the rest of the paths on Monday, I walked down to the viewing screens. It was a fabulous day, lots of birds singing away and lots of birds hawking around overhead, including 4 hobby’s! They were feeding on the wing, picking off large flying insects. They were very high so didn’t manage a very good photo, but one that show’s their shape well.

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Hobby

Part way to the screens were a few pairs of greylag geese, all with goslings. Most of the goslings were up and about feeding, but a few were still preferring protection over exploring.

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Greylag goose and goslings

At the screens a Cetti’s warbler was making use of the dead hedge in front of the western screen, this is the second time I have seen one very close in this hedge. This one decided to give a quick burst of song which, as well as nearly deafening me, gave me a wonderful view and a chance to get a quick photo.

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Cetti’s warbler

On my way back I went in to the western fen to make a start on fence line checks and to see what flowers and insects were around. There were quite a few more damselflies than last week, including a freshly emerged and therefore not fully coloured blue-tailed damselfly.

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Blue-tailed damselfly

There are also a lot more flowers beginning to bloom, wintercress is coming in to flower across much of the reserve, particularly along the path edges, adding a splash of extra colour.

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Common wintercress

Unfortunately a bit of lockdown fatigue seems to be creeping in for visitors at Fishlake Meadows and I’ve started coming across people doing things they wouldn’t normally. Such as finding people sunbathing on some tree trunks about 30 metres off the public footpath. I also came across 2 people magnet fishing in the barge canal, who begrudgingly moved on after I told them the canal is a SSSI and therefore they would need consent for that type of activity, and also need to seek permission from the landowner first. It’s very important that we all hang in there and only leave home for the reasons clearly stated by government.