Slime mould – A new kingdom

A week or so ago, on a piece of wood, next to the east/west path at Fishlake Meadows, I spotted this wonderful slime mould. Originally considered fungi, slime moulds are now classified in to a completely different kingdom. Slime moulds are formed by the fusion of single cells and are multi-nucleate. When slime moulds form the visible globule (as shown in the photo below), they are able to move…with purpose! Many studies have been carried out with slime mould, one study discovered that they always chose the shortest path in a maze leading to a food source. If you see one, take a photo, leave it for a while, and when you return it will probably have changed shape.

Slime mould

This slime mould is in its reproductive phase, the smooth white silvery surface develops before enteridium lycoperdon splits open and exposes masses of brown spores underneath. These spores then disperse by wind and rain until they are basically all gone. Enteridium lycoperdon is also known as the false puffball and is one of the more common species of slime mould.

slime mould 1 week on

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Super Volunteers!

This winter we have been able to get a huge amount of winter scrub cutting done, thanks to the tremendous efforts of our dedicated volunteers. Altogether the volunteers have clocked up 587.5 hours on winter work parties between the 24th October and the 27th February. One block of scrub has been completely cleared and a second is very nearly cleared. This has opened up views across the reserve beautifully, and looks wonderful.

View from canal where scrub cleared 2019 3

View across the reedbed now opened up and lovely large dead hedge.

You may have noticed that the stumps have been left quite high, there are several reasons for this;

  • it’s easier for staff and volunteers to cut the stumps a bit higher.
  • if the stumps do regrow vigorously, it gives us scope to cut the stumps down lower and then still be able to treat them with herbicide.
  • as the stumps die off there will be standing dead wood created.

We have created more dead hedges and increased the size of existing ones with the material extracted. This is great habitat for many birds to forage for insects, get shelter and to nest. Keep an eye out for wrens, blackcaps and dunnocks in these dead hedges.

Spring is now fully on its way, in the last few weeks I have spotted many lovely signs of spring. The catkins on the willows have been out for quite a while and look lovely. At Blashford male adders are beginning to emerge quite regularly to bask when the temperatures are high enough.

Lesser periwinkle is in flower near the old pond to the rear of the centre at Blashford. Periwinkle are lovely flowers with asymmetrical petals so they look like fan blades or a windmill.

lesser periwinkle blashford march 19

The weather is staying mild and doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of turning, so we could have a very early start to nesting and breeding season, and a very successful spring for wildlife. Although, this is an indication that climate change is having a real impact, I’m not sure our wildlife will cope very well if we have another summer as dry as last year.

A race to the end of February

I’ve had a very busy few weeks trying to get through as much scrub cutting as possible before the end of February. Since the 4th February I’ve had a student from Sparsholt with me on work experience. Chloe is studying Ecology and Conservation and is in her first year, so we have spent a lot of time out doing practical conservation work and talking about why the work is needed, and the species that may benefit from the different work we’ve been doing.

Working with the Fishlake Meadows volunteers we have been trying to get blocks of scrub cleared, and the material added in to the dead hedges. This winter has been much wetter than last year and there have been several days when the water has been too deep to get to the scrub. Clearing the scrub prevents succession in to wet willow woodland, allows the reedbeds to expand and improves views from the canal path. Building the dead hedges with the cut material creates wonderful habitat for birds and invertebrates to find food and shelter in.

 

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Scrub cutting in deep water

Fishlake meadows building dead hedge

Dead hedge built from cut scrub

At the end of Chloe’s first week, we headed to St Catherine’s Hill to help the Winchester team with some hedge laying. This turned out to be a very wet and windy day, so was a little miserable being on top of a hill! It was a great opportunity for both of us to practice our hedge laying, and we were able to get quite a bit done. The day had to be cut short when the wind picked up in the afternoon and it began hailing. Fortunately it didn’t put Chloe off enough not to come back the following week.

We have also had quite a few days with the Blashford volunteers, allowing Chloe to see a different reserve, experience working with different volunteers and to see how work can differ between sites. With the Blashford volunteers we have been doing more tree felling of sycamores and grey alder and clearing up larger trees felled by contractors. In between all of this we were able to have a look around the hides so Chloe could get a good look at the birds and learn a few more of them. This included a very good view of the bittern as it moved from one area of reeds to another.

Snowdrops

Snowdrops at Blashford Lakes

Along the way we’ve seen some great wildlife, lots of flowers are coming in to bloom, including some lovely patches of snowdrops at Blashford. While walking to the hides at Testwood Lakes we saw some lovely bright pink hazel flowers. There have been plenty of birds around at the Fishlake Meadows screens we’ve seen pintail, teal, shoveler and pochard. We’ve heard lots of cetti’s warbler, water rail and reed bunting, and have in fact had a few very good views of cetti’s warbler, which as many of you may know is a novelty. At Testwood Lakes around 200 lapwing were flying around or resting, giving us a good look at their beautiful green colouring and crest, it was also a delight to hear their squeaking calls.

Hazel flower 2019 close up

Hazel flowers

There seems to be a lot of colour appearing already as many spring flowers are coming through, primroses are now in flower at Blashford, as well as lesser celandine and wild daffodils. At Fishlake Meadows some violets are flowering and scarlet elf cups are adding to the colours to be seen, they are getting particularly large now.

Yesterday on Chloe’s penultimate day of work experience she was very lucky to get some even better views of the bittern at Blashford Lakes. I went along a bit later to see if I could get a glimpse and hopefully a photo too. I did manage to get a photo, but was only a record shot at best, it was lovely to see it again and I may get a chance next week to get a better photo. We finished Chloe’s placement with a final walk around Fishlake Meadows, it was a bit of a grey foggy morning but there was plenty of noise coming from the reed beds. There were lots of reed buntings singing away, which we didn’t hear on Wednesday and many cetti’s warblers and water rails joining in. We even got another very good view of a cetti’s warbler as a wren chased it away. At least 2 great white egrets were moving around, and lots of geese and gulls were making a lot of noise, I suspected a bird of prey may be troubling them, but we didn’t manage to spot one.

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Not a very good photo of a bittern

Dead wood

I have been asked many times why there are so many dead trees at Fishlake Meadows, so I thought a blog to shed some light on this would be a good idea. Fishlake Meadows used to have the water pumped off so crops could be grown and the land farmed. The trees, primarily poplars, would have been planted as wind breaks and  along field boundaries. When farming stopped and pumping the water off the site ended, the area gradually became wetter and wetter. Poplars do well in quite wet conditions, which is probably why they were chosen for Fishlake, however the site eventually became too wet for them. This has meant they have slowly died off and began breaking apart, some still have a bit of life, noticeable by leaves growing in the summer.

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View of dead trees from the 2nd viewing platform

The dead trees are a wonderful feature of the nature reserve and are so full of character. When you see a photo with the lines of dead trees amongst reedbeds and open water you immediately know which nature reserve it is.

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Line of dead poplars in the reedbed

In addition to being a wonderful feature, they are fantastic for birds. Many of the birds of prey, osprey, marsh harrier, peregrine falcon and hobby, use them as perching posts while resting of keeping a look out for their next meal. Cormorants use them to roost and dry out their wings, great white egrets and herons are regularly seen perched in them.

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Dead trees through the middle of open water

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Peregrine falcon making use of the dead trees

The dead and dying trees also provide nest sites for many birds, the softer wood is easier to hollow out and where branches have fallen away a hole is often left.

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Small hole and dead branches of an old oak tree provide great habitats for a wealth of wildlife.

Invertebrates benefit from the ample deadwood at Fishlake, many beetles lay eggs on deadwood so their larvae can hatch and bore in to the dead wood. This gives them, warmth protection and food. There are up to 2000 invertebrates in the UK that are saproxylic, which means they are reliant on deadwood for part of their lifecycle. Around 330 of these are Red Data Book listed because they are rare, vulnerable or endangered.

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Bore holes in deadwood from insects

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Soft deadwood dry and sheltered on a wet day

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Dead wood is in decline around the UK which isn’t good news for the 7.5% of species directly associated with dead wood. This decline is due to changes in woodland management. Dead wood is now regularly removed from woodland as its often thought of as messy and needing “tidying”. Many wooded areas in the UK are plantations which means the trees are in blocks where they are all the same age and then harvested before any die off. Traditional practices such as coppicing and pollarding would open areas of woodland floor on rotation allowing flora to thrive. Pollarding and coppicing also created a woodland with trees of every age, including creating dead wood habitats each year, unfortunately these traditional practices aren’t used much anymore.

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Dead trees that are beginning to break apart.

At Fishlake Meadows there is truly an abundance of dead and dying wood which is a real asset to the nature reserve and the wildlife. In a time when dead wood is sometimes in short supply I am very proud to manage a nature reserve that has plenty. There are several old oak trees that have broken and dying limbs which will have a whole host of micro habitats suitable for many species.

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Dead oak tree near the viewing screens

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Oak tree with dying branches near the east/west path.

Much of the dead wood on the ground around Fishlake is also being colonised by a variety of fungi and lichen, yet more wildlife that thrives when there is a healthy supply of dead wood around.

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Bracket fungi species on a fallen branch

Dead wood is a wonderful thing and is beneficial to have in gardens too, it provides shelter and protection for invertebrates, mammals and amphibians. A small pile of wood in a partly shaded area with some dead leaves around it will soon get lots of visitors.

 

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Blue Monday Medicine

I heard on the radio yesterday morning that it was “Blue Monday”! Supposedly due to gloomy weather, still being weeks from pay day, the festive period being over and broken new years resolutions to name a few of the reasons. I have to agree that it feels like there have been dark mornings and evenings for a long time and I’m certainly looking forward to spring. Fortunately for me I have a job that allows me to get outside in day light hours and see some lovely wildlife. This, as we know, is very important for our wellbeing and mental health.

Yesterday I decided to try and combat blue Monday by getting out to Fishlake Meadows to do some odd jobs and have a walk around. Heading to the screens, at first glance there wasn’t much there, just as I was about to walk away, a marsh harrier came in to view. It flew low over the reeds and gave me some wonderful views of it, I believe its a second year male. I don’t have a particularly good camera, so unfortunately my photo’s aren’t very good.

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Marsh harrier

A great white egret then flew in and landed at the edge of the pool. 4 were seen together at the weekend, and it’s quite a while since I’ve seen one at Fishlake Meadows, so I was very pleased to see one again. It was spending a lot of time fishing at the edge of the pool and looked like it was having a successful time.

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Great white egret seen from the screens

A peregrine falcon then shot in to view and landed in one of the dead trees near the great white egret, showing very well, staying there for quite a while. Usually I’ve only seen them later in the day as the starlings are gathering.

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Peregrine falcon showing well in the dead trees

After the peregrine flew away I headed back along the permissive path being serenaded by cetti’s warbler and water rail. The stonechat pair came in to view, they don’t seem to be a shy bird, quite often coming very close. This allowed me to get some slightly better photos.

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Female stonechat

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Male stonechat

Nearly back to the east/west path and a kestrel flew overhead from the west and landed in its favourite spot on the pylons. It is quite often seen perching along the cables or tower of the pylons throughout the year.

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Kestrel making use of the pylons

For a walk that first seemed like it wasn’t going to offer much, it really brightened my day to suddenly see all these amazing birds and to get such lovely views of them, it certainly stopped my Monday from being blue.

Fishlake Meadows car park now open!

We are pleased to announce that the car park for Fishlake Meadows nature reserve is now open! The opening times are 8am-6pm year round. There may be times when we have to close the car park at short notice for management works. I will strive to put notices up and issue information on social media and the blog if such closures are going to be happening.

car park sign photo 1

The car park is in the new Oxlease Meadow development next to Fishlake Meadows nature reserve. After turning in the new Oxlease Meadow development, take the first left and the car park is at the end of that road. There is more information here on the HIWWT website.

If you would be interested in helping with the locking and unlocking of the car park, please get in touch with me at jo.armson@hiwwt.org.uk.

 

Work parties, waxwings and where’s that otter?

I’ve had a busy week and a half back at work after the Christmas break. I started the year with meeting one of our ecology team to survey some of the trees at Fishlake Meadows for bats. It was interesting getting to see some of their different gadgets in action, including an endoscope camera. This allows the ecologists to check inside small nooks and crannies to see if there are any bats or signs that bats have been in there.

On the 4th I managed to go and see the waxwings in Totton. It was great to see them, it’s been about 6 years since I last saw any. They weren’t at all bothered about the crowd of people that came to see them, which was about 50 strong! Waxwings first arrive along the East coast with Scotland and the North getting the higher numbers. They then spread South and West in the search of their favourite food, berries. Amenity planting around car parks draw them in as they often have lots of trees with berries on.

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The 6th of January was the first work party of the year at Fishlake Meadows, and thanks to a dry festive period we were able to get back to scrub cutting in the reedbed. We are working to clear a thick block of scrub over a few years. This will hopefully allow the reedbed to extend to the cleared areas, which has already begun to happen in the sections cleared last year. This work also has the added bonus of improving views across the reserve from the canal footpath.

After the work party I took the chance to have a good walk around the reserve to see what was about. I had a pretty successful walk, seeing a few pintail and teal from the screens, whilst there I also heard an otter bark, followed by a splosh in the ditch, hopefully I will see one soon! Walking back along the permissive path I spotted a marsh harrier circling high over the body of water nearest the Fishlake Meadows road. Near the gate on the permissive path I stopped to get a look at a kestrel on the pylons, as I scanned up I noticed there was a kingfisher showing well at the edge of the small pool. There have been quite a few sightings of them recently.

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Kingfisher – not the best photo, taken on my phone through binoculars.

Just before leaving the starlings began gathering and murmurating in pretty good numbers. On the whole it was quite a relaxed murmuration as no peregrine appeared to give chase. Its likely that the starlings will continue to gather and murmurate at Fishlake into February. A good place to watch from is the platforms along the canal path or near the screens. starlings 6 (6th jan)starlings 7 (6th jan)

It’s Christmas!

This has been a lovely last week at work before finishing for Christmas. There have been some good breaks in the rain to be able to get out and see Fishlake Meadows and Blashford Lakes. It even stayed mainly dry for the Fishlake Meadows work party on Wednesday which doesn’t usually happen! However, due to the heavy rain, we still haven’t been able to get back to the scrub cutting near the canal. Instead we tackled some of the scrub on the canal bank itself. This is to improve views across the reedbed and fens from the elevated barge canal path, and to keep the banks from getting too overgrown. The material cut was again used to make some dead hedges. At lunch time we enjoyed a treat of mince pies to get us in the Christmas spirit.

Work party 21.12.18 before

Just as we were getting started.

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Once we had finished the view was much more open, and easy to see across the meadows.

On Thursday I was at Blashford for a Christmas treat work party, where we cooked some jacket potatoes on a fire and had them along with some lovely home made mince pies, a very nice way to spend the final work party before Christmas. After the work party I headed to Ivy North hide with the hope of catching another glimpse of the bittern… Fortunately I was very lucky and got a very good view of it, fully emerging from the reeds in to a little bit of an opening for a couple of minutes.

Today I had a walk around Fishlake Meadows to get some photos from around the reserve and to see how it was looking. There wasn’t a huge amount to see, but there was a lot of lovely noise, amongst the usual water rails and cetti’s warbler, as I was leaving I could hear a good number of teal whistling away.

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View from the road, lots of gulls!

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View from the 2nd platform along the canal.

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View from the left hand screen at the bottom of the permissive path.

I would like to say a huge thank you to the Fishlake Meadows volunteers! In the last year the wardens have clocked up 548 hours (starting in April) and the work party volunteers have given 284 hours from October until the work party on Wednesday! Volunteers have also managed to carry out 12 butterfly transects, a habitat condition assessment and fixed point photography. I hope they all have a wonderful Christmas and New Year and rest up ready for more in 2019!

Members walk 17th December

On Monday I led a walk for members at Fishlake Meadows, with the hope of catching a starling murmuration at the end of the walk. It was quite a grey afternoon, but very still so conditions were on our side for seeing a good show. Walking along the canal we spotted a grey heron, swans on distant lakes and heard several cetti’s warblers. We stopped to enjoy views from the new platforms and to look at Ashley Meadow. Making use of the pylons that run through Fishlake Meadows were a kestrel and a buzzard. Just before turning down the new permissive path part of the group got a good view of a goldcrest.

The permissive path is currently a bit flooded in a couple of places due to the heavy rain. Its a couple of inches deep in parts now, so if your walking boots aren’t that waterproof, wellies would be a good idea. The path surface is staying solid though. We got to the screens and heard water rails and cetti’s warblers and saw a few coot on the water. As we were at the screen we saw a lovely murmuration of starlings, not very many, but some lovely movements.

We headed back to the canal path in the hope of getting a better view of the murmuration, as we walked more starlings were flying overhead towards the larger group. Unfortunately they seemed to be going straight in to roost and not murmurating, but at least we got a good view from the screens.

Nearly back to the car park we caught a glimpse of a marsh harrier in the distance, the light was dropping so it wasn’t the clearest view, but a good spot all the same. We made it back to the car park just before it got completely dark, all in all it was a very successful walk and the members were very happy with what they had seen. A big thank you to all of our members, your support is very valuable to us.

 

December wildlife

In the last few weeks I have been busy doing a variety of scrub cutting and tree felling at Fishlake Meadows and Blashford Lakes, trying to make the most of the breaks in the rain! In between the rain I have seen quite a few plants in flower! It’s lovely to still see some colour around, but is a sign that the weather has been a bit on the warm side. I saw this red dead nettle in flower at Fishlake Meadows and several common storksbill in flower at Blashford Lakes. Common storksbill often has 2 petals which are larger than the others and sometimes have black spots at the base. Its one of the food plants of the brown argus butterfly caterpillar.

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Red dead nettle in flower at Fishlake Meadows

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Common storksbill in flower at Blashford, 2 top petals showing the darker spots

At Fishlake Meadows on the 5th December was another work party. This time we were thinning scrub through the middle of Ashley Meadow and cutting willow branches back that were getting near to the fence. On the whole we mainly cleared the more mature scrub, and the younger saplings were left. This way we can maintain some scrub through the meadow without their being an increase. Each year we will review how much scrub there is and cut any we think is needed. Thank you to Simon and his Lower Test volunteer team, also the 2 new forest apprentices for their help scrub cutting in Ashley Meadow.

While cutting some of the willow branches at the edge of Ashley Meadow we spotted this lovely drinker moth caterpillar. They hibernate when part grown, start feeding again in spring and are then fully grown by June. The caterpillars feed mainly at night, resting low on vegetation in the day. They feed on coarse grasses such as cock’s-foot, reed canary grass and common reed, favouring damp habitats.

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Drinker moth caterpillar

Back at Blashford Lakes and while we were clearing an area of scrub and non native grey alder we noticed that there were quite a few common puffball fungi on the woodland floor. They are sometimes called the warted puffball because they are covered in lots of little bumps. Once they have matured a small hole opens up at the top of the ball to release the large number of spores inside, released in a visible puff if it’s knocked.

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Common puffball

On some of the willow that was pulled out from the area was a vast number of giant willow aphids. I thought I would do some reading in to them to learn about them, and found that they have a very interesting lifecycle. They are anholocyclic which means there are no males, and the females reproduce without being fertilised, so are parthenogenetic. They typically group together in large colonies as we saw, with all different sizes present as they continue to reproduce through the winter.

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Cluster of giant willow aphids

There is lots of wildlife to see and learn about all year round, so I’m pleased to have seen so much in the last couple of weeks. On the run up to Christmas I will be keeping an eye out for even more.