About robertc2011

Reserves Officer for Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve, mostly working at Blashford Lakes, Ringwood.

Butterflies and Beetles

Suddenly it seems to be summer. On Sunday I saw as many insects as I have seen for some years, the past couple of years have been poor ones for insects, so we are due a good season. Butterflies are at a low just now, most spring species have come to and end and summer ones have yet to get going. However I did see common blue, small copper, a few orange-tip, speckled wood, a few red admiral and peacock, small and green-veined white and most exciting of all, and a first for the reserve, a green hairstreak.

green hairstreak

green hairstreak – a reserve first!

It was also good for beetles, including several brilliant common malachite beetle near the Centre pond.

common malachite beetle

common malachite beetle

Longhorn beetles are also starting to appear.

longhorn beetle pair

longhorn beetle pair

There are also huge numbers of damselflies all over the reserve now, but still rather few dragonflies, although I did manage to see a single hairy dragonfly perched near Ivy North hide, although I failed to get a picture of it.

Brilliant Volunteers

As I have noted many times on this blog, Blashford Lakes would not be anything like as good a site without the invaluable input from our great volunteer team. Our volunteers help out with a range of tasks and do some projects in their entirety.

Over the last week we have had volunteer educators helping with school groups river dipping in the rain, reptile and butterfly surveyors, office administration and our Tuesday and Thursday working parties.

The rarest habitat at Blashford Lakes is the Lichen Heath, perhaps because of its industrial origin it is not actually designated, but it is home to many nationally rare species which form an assemblage which needs looking after.

lichens

Lichen Heath close-up

The importance of the area rests on it having very low nutrients, but over time nutrients fall from the sky and collect in the upper layers of the soil as mosses, lichens and small plants die. The obvious conclusion is that it will slowly disappear and turn into nutrient poor acid grassland. So how to keep some areas to true Lichen Heath? The answer is probably to strip off the surface layer and get down to the bare sandy surface and let it colonise once more. This seems very drastic and it feels wrong to be stripping off what is still a diverse sward with lots of interesting species. We started doing this in a small way on Tuesday, doing six small trial plots which we can monitor, if it looks a good technique we can extend it more widely in the years to come.

Lichen heath before

Lichen heath before surface stripping

Lichen heath after

Lichen heath after surface stripping

We chose sites where there were small bramble or birch trees that needed removing anyway and piled up the material on the northern side of the scraped area to provide some variation in the surface topography and potentially warm nesting sites for the many species of bees, ants, wasps etc. that call the heath home.

The rain this last week is what allowed us to work on the heath as it meant the lichens absorbed water and so could be walked on gently, in dry conditions they would just crumble to dust under foot, which is why we ask visitors not to walk on it. Even in wet conditions it is intolerant to trampling so we do as little as possible out there. So it was a treat whilst we were there to see some of the special species that grow on the heath including the two rare bird’s-foot trefoils.

hairy bird's foot

Hairy bird’s-foot trefoil

 

slender bird's foot

slender bird’s-foot trefoil

On Thursday the volunteers were back on the task of clearing Himalayan balsam and pink purslane from along the Dockens Water. These two invasive alien species can muscle out native species, but can be controlled by pulling them up to prevent seeding. After several years of doing this we have made great progress and balsam is now no more than occasional where once it was the dominant plant. Along the way when doing such tasks we come across other things of interest, one such find was a mating pair of lime hawk-moth.

lime hawk pair mating

Lime-hawk moth pair

Some discoveries though are less welcome and one such was an American skunk cabbage plant, the first I have ever heard of along the Dockens Water. This plant has been a big problem in wetland sites across the New Forest and the subject of an eradication program, so finding it here is a worry. I suspect that somewhere up stream someone has it planted around their pond and the seeds are escaping to grow in the wild.

skunk cabbage

skunk cabbage, a young plant without the huge leaves and yellow flower that attracts water-gardeners.

Our last chance find was made by Geoff, one of our most regular volunteers who photographed this crab spider which had ambushed a bee visiting a daisy flower.

spider

Crab spider with bumble-bee prey on ox-eye daisy.

I will endeavour to do a wildlife update for the week later, I know we have received a number of fabulous photographs from visitors.

 

Meanwhile, Back at Blashford

Whilst Tracy was off roaming the southern side of the Forest with the Young Naturalists, I was back at Blashford where Sunday was very pleasantly sunny and warm. As the week ahead looks grey and damp, it was likely to be the best day of the week for butterflies and a good opportunity to get the transects done. Although numbers of butterflies are declining as the spring species decline there are a few summer ones starting to appear, the last couple of days have seen the first common blue and brown argus on the wing. Thanks to Blashford’s brilliant volunteers for organising and doing the butterfly transects.

brown argus

The first brown argus of the year (well my first at least).

I also finally saw my first grass snake of the year too, perhaps not strictly my first as I did find a freshly dead one a couple of weeks ago, probably killed by a buzzard. This live one was rather unexpectedly crossing the open gravel behind the Education Centre.

grass snake

grass snake on gravel

Although it has been sunny recently it was still quite cool in the persistent north or north-east wind, this changed on Saturday and the extra warmth seemed to prompt large numbers of damselflies top emerge, I must have seen many hundreds on Sunday, mostly common blue damselflies, but including large red, azure and beautiful demoiselle.

common blue damselfly

common blue damselfly (male), still not quiet fully coloured up.

It is very pleasing to see that two of our projects are showing signs of success again. The tern rafts are used every year, but it gets harder each year to stop them all being claimed by gulls, timing in putting them out is the key. By Monday there were at least 20 common tern on the rafts so hopefully this will be enough to fend of the gulls. The other project, the sand martin wall, has had more mixed fortunes. After a few years of success to start with it fell out of favour with none nesting for several years, but this year they are back! Not in huge numbers but a visit to Goosander hide is well worth the effort.

A number of people have asked me recently when the “new” path from the main car park to Goosander hide will open, regular visitors will have noted that the work was completed some months ago now. Unfortunately the answer is still “I don’t know” but rest assured I will make it known when it is open. The hold up is not of our making, but to do with the process of transfer from previous occupiers via our landlord and the meeting of various planning and other requirements.

The change to more south-westerly winds has reduced migrant activity, but the reserve has still seen a some waders passing through in the last few days, on Sunday a sanderling with a peg-leg was by Tern hide and today a turnstone was on Long Spit (as I have decided to christen the new island we created to the east of Tern hide this spring). Both these are high Arctic breeders and only occasional visitors to Blashford.

Progress Against an Invader

Thursday at Blashford is volunteer day and we had a good turn out of fourteen for our first Himalayan balsam pull of the year. After many years of pulling this plant we have very significantly reduced the population and it is nowhere the dominant plant. The advantage of doing the first sweep early in the season is that we remove a significant number of plants but also get an idea of where the main problem areas are and so where to concentrate on our later visit. Pleasingly we found no more than a couple of hundred plants on about half the length of the stream, enough to suggest that there is still a seed source upstream  somewhere but not so many that it is having a serious impact on native wildlife.

The common terns are finally taking some interest in the rafts on Ivy Lake, although they are still not really taking control of any in numbers sufficient to deter the black-headed gulls. I tried putting out another raft during the afternoon in the hope that a new one might tempt them in. The gulls often just loaf around on the rafts, but have the annoying habit of bringing reeds and sticks and leaving them scattered  over the surface. I suspect they are mostly young adults, as the older birds started nesting a couple of weeks ago, a few may eventually build a proper nest, but in the meantime their practice efforts are putting off the terns.

Generally things were quite across the reserve, most of the birds are now nesting or getting ready to do so. Our visitor form North America, the Bonaparte’s gull is still to be seen, although it does not now attract more than the occasional admirer. I did manage to get a slightly better picture of it, which does show a couple of the differences from black-headed gull. You can see the slightly smaller size and overall thinner, more “pointed” look. Now that it is getting a summer plumage hood you can also see that this is blacker than that of black-headed gull, which is actually chocolate brown.

Bonaparte's gull

Bonaparte’s gull (right)

A very noticeable feature of the past week has been the huge increase in the numbers of damselflies around the reserve. Common blue and azure damselflies are now out in numbers, but the large red damselfly, typically the commonest spring species is very hard to find, perhaps due to the very poor April weather last year.

 

 

Out and About in the Sunshine

It has been very, very dry recently and reasonably sunny, however it has also been quite cold for a lot of the time, with north or north-east winds. This has made for quite a good spring for insects, certainly better than for several years, although it could do with warming up a bit and we will need some rain, not too much, just enough to keep the vegetation green. Yesterday it was warmer and the wind swung round to a more southerly direction.

I finally saw my second dragonfly of the year, I have seen lots of damselflies but dragons have been in very short supply. Although the view was brief I think it was a hairy dragonfly. I also found several of one of my favourite insects, groundhoppers, small relations to grasshoppers that get easily overlooked as they are adult in spring. There are three species in Britain and we get two of them at Blashford, or at least sop far I have only found two species. They favour damp, bare ground and can both fly and swim! The one below is a slender groundhopper.

slender groundhopper 2

Slender groundhopper

I was out bird surveying at the start of the day at Linwood reserve and noticed that the leaves on the oak there are mostly brown, almost all the first flush of leaves dead. Linwood lies in the valley of the Dockens Water a well known frost-hollow, these leaves had all been killed by the late frost that also had my early potatoes. This will be bad news for the nesting blue tit on the reserve as they mainly feed their chicks on winter moth caterpillars and these eat the first flush of oak leaves.

Hawthorn, or may, traditionally flowers in May, although often it seems to be earlier, this year it has lived up to the name and was in full bloom in the first week of the month. Although it has lots of flowers they do not seem to attract as many insects as the earlier blackthorn flowers, however one in a good sunny spot can still be worth checking for bees, hoverflies and beetles. I spotted this leaf beetle nectaring on the bush close to Ivy South hide as I locked up yesterday afternoon.

leaf beetle

leaf beetle on hawthorn

Yesterday’s birds included a male wheatear on the Lichen Heath and the long-staying Bonaparte’s gull on Ibsley Water.

 

 

It’s Good to have a Hobby

And even better to have two! Which is what we saw today hunting insects over Ivy Lake when we went to put out another of the tern rafts. These sickle-winged falcons winter south of the Sahara and fly north to breed along with their favourite prey, swallows and martins. Watching them swooping to catch flying insects is a fantastic experience, you can only marvel at their mastery of the air, one of the great sights of summer.

The tern rafts are gradually being deployed, so far the terns have looked interested but failed to occupy any of the rafts before they have been dominated by pairs of  black-headed gull. It is always a problem getting the timing right and this is why I deploy the rafts one or two at a time, at some point the terns must surely be ready to take control of one.

preparing the tern raft

Preparing a tern raft

There have been at least 30 common tern around regularly and they have been doing courtship flights and bringing food, so I think they should be ready to settle soon. So far there has been little sign of much tern passage, apart from a few beautiful black tern, the biggest group so far being 5 on Sunday afternoon. Little gull are usually birds of passage that stay at most a day or so , which makes the fine adult that has been frequenting  Ibsley Water for several days something of an exception. It was there again today, although I don’t think anyone saw the Bonaparte’s gull. Other birds have included a few dunlin and common sandpiper and last week a bar-tailed godwit.

Barwit

Bar-tailed godwit

In recent posts we have featured a number of pictures of lapwing chicks, sadly I don’t think any of them have survived. This season has been a good one for the number of pairs and in general hatching success has been quite good, but the chicks have been disappearing fast. I think a combination of dry weather and predators is the cause. Dry conditions mean the chicks get brought to the lakeshore to seek food, as all their favoured puddles are gone, unfortunately the shore is regularly patrolled by fox and other predators, as it regularly has washed up food in the shape of dead birds and fish. The foxes may not be actively seeking the chicks but they will not refuse one should they come across it. Sadly a similar lack of success is befalling the little ringed plover, but at least they will continue to try and may yet succeed before the summer is out.

LRP

Little ringed plover near Tern hide.

The cold winds are making moth trapping a slow business, with few species flying, although we have caught an eyed hawk-moth and a couple of poplar hawk-moth recently.

poplar hawk

Poplar hawk-moth

Resisting the Chill

Despite the cold blast, so far the nesting waders on Ibsley Water seem to be continuing to do well. The stretch of shore in front of Tern hide has a lone parent lapwing with two chicks now two weeks old and to the west of the hide there are two more broods of smaller chicks. One of these broods walked across from the restored concrete plant where they had nested. Unfortunately they did it during the middle of the day when the car park was busy and they got split up and wandering about under the brambles. I had to rescue them and carry the brood over the bank, luckily their parents were watching and quickly joined them.

As well as lapwing the shore outside Tern hide looks as though it will be hosting a pair of little ringed plover again, after a couple of years when the have been rather further away. There were a pair displaying vigorously just a few metres from the hide yesterday.

little ringed plover male

Male little ringed plover

Although it was woolly hat and gloves weather yesterday the sun is now pretty strong, so out of the wind it was not too bad and at lunchtime I even saw a male orange-tip near the Centre.

orange-tip male on Jack-by-the-Hedge

male orange-tip

The cold wind had kept the swallows, martins and swifts low over Ibsley Water in their hundreds all day, although I find it hard to imagine there were many insects even there.

The Bonaparte’s gull continues to attract visiting birders, with a supporting caste of black tern and three little gull. Remarkably another Bonaparte’s gull turned up yesterday on Bournemouth Water’s Longham Lakes site, just a few miles away. I still have not managed to better my remarkable “Record shot” of the gull, so I will sign off with one of the moth-stealing robin.

robin

The Moth Thief