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!

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.

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!

March Young Naturalists… on the search for elusive mice

What a weekend to run a Young Nats session! The weather was beautifully sunny and warm, a contrast to winter and a stark contrast to the cold snap we are having right now.

8 Young Nats arrived promptly at 10am, ready for the challenge of finding harvest mouse nests. Bob had kindly put the moth trap on the night before, so the Young Nats and Nigel set about checking the trap and identifying all the moths – I still have a lot to learn. I was very impressed with our Young Nats moth knowledge, and their eagerness to scrutinise the moth book when we found some we didn’t know straight away. We got a total of 11 species, including the Oak Beauty, and Hebrew Character.

Puzzling over moth ID

Having prepped some small mammal traps on Friday for Bob, the first thing I did after opening up in the morning was sneak around to see how many doors were closed.. quite a few! Once we were finished with moths we spoke about small mammal trapping and why you might do it (species diversity, species abundance if you were going to set out a grid and conduct a mark-recapture survey) and the requirements to ensure the animals’ welfare is catered to. These traps were set out close to the Education Centre, targeting voles and woodmouse/yellow necked mouse. We had more than half of the traps closed… but not all had occupants!

Some of our mice… especially our yellow necked mice have become rather crafty. They like to inhabit the loft in the winter, and become exceptionally adept at getting over the tripwire, eating the food, and out again. There were 5 traps during Young Nats that had tell-tale signs of mouse-habitation but open doors – I think the yellow necked mice we have released are playing tricks on us once more.

My focus for this trapping session was to have each Young Nat learn how to check a trap in a handling bag, and then to scruff the mouse/vole safely. The method is as follows – empty trap into bag, then remove trap and all bedding. Handling bags are large plastic bags with a seam along the bottom and two very useful corners. To keep the creature still you must wait until it is in a corner, and then bring a hand underneath the outside of the bag and around the animal to hold it snugly and firmly with its nose pointed into the corner. Then your other hand can enter the bag, and using thumb and forefinger you feel for the ‘scruff’ of the neck, focusing on feeling the shoulders and base of the back of the skull. Once you can feel these you take a pinch of skin and (if it’s enough skin and you’ve got an even amount from both sides) the animal will stay nice and still. This technique is used when surveying to sex the animal, place it in a bag for weighing, and to perform tasks like fur clipping safely if it’s a requirement of a survey.

I am very pleased to say that everybody managed to scruff a mouse or vole successfully, it does take a few tries to get it, and even though we had some apprehensive hands to start with everyone did well.

Fantastic scruffing of a woodmouse

After lunch we headed out to the north of the reserve, sticks and tape measures in hand to do a final search for harvest mice (winter surveying finished 31st March). I will do a separate blog about our winter harvest mouse surveys, to give final numbers etc soon.

In an attempt at a brief summary – we measured out two 10 x 20m squares to survey, in an area between Goosander and Lapwing Hides that isn’t accessible by the public. What does access it lots however.. is the deer. Frustrating though their numbers can be, they have made useful tracks so that we could navigate our way in and set up the survey.

Harvest mice build their nests around 30cm up in the grass, woven into little tennis ball sized spheres. They strip the grass into pieces and weave it while it is still attached, which means their nests stay suspended long after they leave. We were searching for 2021 breeding nests, which thankfully still persist in the grasses… but as the grass had been flattened by deer and wind we had to be very thorough.

Using gloves and sticks to help separate the grasses, we all begin a focused search for nests. Nigel, Geoff and I were assisting, and after about 15 minutes there was a yell of ‘I FOUND ONE’ from one of the girls, and excitement from the rest of that team. Once we knew they really were there, and we COULD find them… the focus turned into a forensic type search with some very careful searching and in total we found 4 nests. Absolutely brilliant work from everybody involved, and this adds to our previous finds from this winter’s surveying which is our first ever evidence of harvest mice in the northern part of the reserve. Well done Young Nats, and our volunteer surveyors this winter!

On the hunt for harvest mouse nests

The Welcome Hut: friendly volunteers to help, and lots of treasures to discover inside!

I am sure you have walked past the Welcome Hut on your way to the Woodland Hide and Ivy Lake, but when was the last time you took a wander inside?

Almost daily the Welcome Hut has a friendly volunteer ready to answer your questions, have a chat, and help with anything Blashford related, and if they don’t know the answers they’re pretty good at finding them! If you need a map, they’ve got them, and if you would like to make a donation they can point you towards a tin, and give assistance with the card reader if required.

This beautiful little building houses myriad of wildlife wonders, items to buy, things to look at, so please take a peek inside.

The Welcome Hut – it’s not just for adults! There are skulls, birds nests, feathers and specimens which are all there for inquisitive people to take a look at and learn about.

If you or someone you know needs a little help with identification there are FSC guides for sale (we’ve got garden birds, amphibians, ducks geese and swans, invertebrates and many more) which are incredibly useful resources for adults and young people alike.

You can buy greetings cards which have beautiful photos of a range of wildlife that can be found on the reserve and many of which have been taken here, and are blank inside so suit any occasion. Take a look on the bottom shelf too, you’ll find a wide variety of second hand books available for a small donation, including ‘Discovering Dorset’, ‘Wildflowers as they grow’, ‘The Living Planet’ by David Attenborough and many more.

A huge thank you to all our Welcome Volunteers, your knowledge and enthusiasm is invaluable, and thanks for being so cheerful even when it’s cold outside!

Bird ringing at Blashford

Brenda has been ringing birds at Blashford for many years, and it has been a pleasure to observe some of her winter ringing sessions. The practise of bird ringing generates information on the survival, productivity and movement of birds, and is an important method to help us understand locally and nationally (and globally!) how and why populations are changing.

All bird ringing is conducted following BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) protocols by trained and licenced ringers, with assistance from supervised trainees. If you would like to learn more about this head to https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/ringing.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

A morning ringing… it’s an early start!
Birds are most active in the morning (not the sort of just before lunch lazy morning, the real ‘sun just got up and is only just peeking over the trees’ type of early!), so the mist nets are set-up to make the most of this, and as a general trend more birds are caught early, with the numbers tapering down until the nets are closed around lunchtime.

Close up of a mist net. Mist net including poles and guy ropes.

Mist nets are an invaluable piece of equipment for ornithologists, providing a safe method to catch birds for research. A mist net is made of very fine nylon netting and is almost invisible, hence the term ‘mist’. Each net has 5 evenly spaced thicker horizontal strings called trammels, which are secured to vertical poles at each end of the net to ensure even tension. Between each trammel is fine netting that arcs down into a sort of pouch. They fly into the net and fall into a pouch and await careful extraction. This is the part I find fascinating. On each net check (regular intervals throughout the session) Brenda determines which side of the net the bird flew into, so that she can extract it successfully. She uses a variety of holds to ensure the bird stays still and can be untangled from the net without harm. Once extracted they are placed into a small drawstring bag for safekeeping and taken back to the area which has been set up for processing.

Birds waiting to be processed. Table laid out with ringing equipment.

Biometric data is taken for each bird (e.g. wing length, weight) and age/sex determined (depending on time of year) by identifiable features related to moult, feather colouration and feather shapes, or if during certain times of year the presence of e brood patch or cloacal protuberance (CP). If the bird is a re-capture then it will already have a ring, but if it’s a new bird then a small metal ring is fitted around the right leg which has a unique identifiable number. The rings are made of wide, flat metal, which is pressed around the leg, ensuring the join is smooth and the edges are flush. Once the ringer is confident the ring can move up and down the leg with absolutely no impact on the bird’s movement, it is then released. Brenda has a fantastic way of teaching and is exceptionally calm and patient and has one bespoke piece of kit that she made herself, a knitted bird! This bird can be used to practise specific handling techniques, be fitted with bird rings etc, so that when a trainee comes to handle a live bird they are more confident in their abilities.

These unique ring numbers are vital, as the data on re-capture can tell us how old the bird is, where it may have flown from (therefore its range), helping to inform bird conservation efforts. This morning we caught around 25 birds, and (bearing in mind I class myself as ‘not really a birder’) being able to see so many birds up close and learn about their markings has really helped me in my quest to be better at bird ID!

Lesser redpoll (Acanthis cabaret)

Stick Man arrives at Blashford Lakes, spends time with the Tots, what route does he take?

The Stick Men began life as a pile of sticks, and were soon brought to life by our Wildlife Tots group. They collected all different shapes and sizes of leaves to create fantastic skirts, trousers, and even legwarmers for their Stick Men! The leafy hairdos and headdresses were ornate, and that left only one thing, a scarf to keep the stickmen warm.

As Tracy read through the story, we moved around the reserve. First, we took our Stick Men on a walk towards the river, to get away from the fictional dog who would have used them for a game of fetch!

The next obstacle in our Stick Men’s quest to get home… pooh sticks! We gathered some sticks and went to the Docken’s bridge, careful to drop our sticks and not our Stick Men. 1…2….3…. DROP! Sticks into the river and Stick Men safe, we ran to the other side of the bridge to see who would win.

Having survived the pooh stick game, our Wildlife Tots and Stick Men moved on to our next activity, building a nest for a swan. We gathered some sticks and put them all together, then counted out some ‘eggs’ for our cuddly toy swan to keep warm. In the next part of the story, the Stick Man drifts down the river and out to sea, washing up on the beach.

Tracy read on, “Here comes a dad with a spade in his hand. Stick Man oh Stick Man, beware of the sand!’ ‘A mast!’ yells the dad, ‘An excellent mast!” and our next activity, making sandcastles of course! We got pots, sticks and leaves, and using sand next to the river a village of castles was made.

We left the river, some castles were trampled by Tots feet, and we made our way to the campfire area, stopping in some muddy puddles for a splash on the way. It’s winter in the story now, and the Stick Man’s next hurdle on his way home… is being mistaken for the perfect ‘stick arm’ for a snowman. As is the usual way with Hampshire… it’s not snowy despite it being winter, so we created doughmen instead of snowmen!

The group scrambled around to find good sticks for the arms, and charcoal for eyes and buttons. We then had a quick briefing on campfire safety, and, keeping all our Stick Men safe, Tracy lit a small fire. Enthralled by the campfire, the Tots were the quietest they had been all morning, and listened intently to the last part of the story. The Stick Man in the story helps Father Christmas escapes the fire, helps to deliver the presents, and then gets returned safe and sound to his Family Tree. After putting out the fire, we walked back to the centre and all the newly created Stick Men got in the car with their Tots, ready to go on another adventure.