First Migrants

For the last few days it has been feeling distinctly spring-like and I have been expecting the first sand martin, little ringed plover and singing chiffchaff of the spring. So far I have been disappointed, but yesterday visitors to the reserve were reporting chiffchaff singing near Ivy North hide and a little ringed plover on Ibsley Water. Chiffchaff will over-winter on the reserve, although this year none were seen after the New Year so I don’t think there is any real doubt this was a new arrival.

As the summer visitors start arriving many of the winter visitors are leaving, this is especially noticeable on Ivy Lake where there were around a thousand wildfowl only a couple of weeks or so ago, now there are little more than a hundred. Some winter visitors are still with us though, brambling can be seen regularly around the feeders and at the last ringing session four were caught.

brambling male in the hand

Male brambling in the hand

One of the most obvious signs of spring is the changes in plants. Bluebell laves are now well up and wild daffodil are in full bloom.


Wild daffodil

Often one of the very first flowers of many years is colt’s foot, although this year it has only started flowering in the last week or so.

colt's foot

colt’s foot

Yesterday while out working with the volunteers they spotted a brimstone butterfly, often the first butterfly of spring, although these days red admiral usually beats them due to their rather shallow hibernation.

The change in the season means the end of the winter work and the last couple of weeks has been busy with tidying up around areas we have been working in during the winter. Our next big task will be preparing the tern rafts so they can go out when the common tern arrive sometime in mid April.

I will end with a mystery, or at least something that is a mystery to me, I am hoping someone will be able to help me identify it. On Sunday I was looking at a clonal patch of young aspen trees and noticed small clusters of something I took to be lichen on the lower stems of several very small suckers. This was surprising as the trees were just a hand full of years old, rather a short time for lichens to get going. Looking closer I don’t think it is lichen, but I don’t know what it is, does anyone have any idea?

lower stem of aspen

Lower stem of aspen, about 10cm above ground – but what is it?


Making the most of it…

Over the last few weeks we have been utilising our willow crop, making the most of the many withies our osier bed produces. Sometimes referred to as basket willow, common osier has traditionally been coppiced or pollarded for its withies: thin, pliable rods used for making baskets or hurdles, screens or sculptures.


Willow withies, cut and ready to be woven!

Willow is of value to wildlife, with the caterpillars of a number of moth species feeding on the foliage, the catkins providing an important source of early nectar and pollen for bees and other insects and the branches making good nesting and roosting sites for birds.

Our volunteers were busy harvesting the willow over the winter months. Some are left to grow for longer, producing large poles which can be used for fencing stakes or den building poles, whilst our main bed is pollarded each year, providing us with toasting sticks for cooking food over the campfire, bundles of willow we can sell to willow weavers and Forest School leaders for willow craft activities and lots of withies we can use ourselves.

At their February meeting, our Young Naturalists had a go at constructing a living willow dome to the side of the Education Centre. Although it may not look living now, the willow rods pushed into the ground will hopefully take, producing lots of side shoots we can then weave into the basic structure.

We began by pollarding the last few willows in the osier bed and rummaging through the piles of cut withies to select a number which were nice and long and straight.

Using a piece of twine tied to a stick pushed into the ground, we measured out our willow dome and pushed a number of withies into the ground in a circle. We then pulled in the tips of those rods and tied them together at the top before adding some horizontally part way up the structure to pull in the shape and create a dome.

Megan had made willow hoops on a Natural Wellbeing session in January whilst with us for work experience and shared this new found knowledge with Mollie and Will, producing a number of hoops we could use as windows.


Making willow hoop windows

We added in two archways for doors and our willow hoop windows then, having run out or time, admired our creation.


Our willow dome

Hopefully the willow will grow and over time we will be able to strengthen our structure with the new growth, giving it more shape and definition. I know it will be a welcome addition to the area by the Education Centre, our Wildlife Tots in particular loved the structure when they joined us at the start of the month. Thank you to volunteers Geoff and Roma for your help, and to volunteer placement Sarah who has added in more willow over the past week to fill in some of our gaps!


Our willow dome with a few more willow rods – thank you Sarah!

We have also used the willow to make hedgerow baskets on an adult workshop and simple platters with children from Moyles Court School as part of their Global Development Day.

On our hedgerow workshop we harvested the willow on day one, using it to create the framework of our baskets before foraging for other materials on day two, including bramble, holly, ivy, sedge, rush, broom, birch and larch, experimenting with these materials when weaving the body of the basket. Here are some of our participants finished creations:

At Moyles Court School we made simple willow platters with the children as part of their Global Development Day, introducing them to the material and discussing the many uses of willow. They really enjoyed their willow weaving experience and everyone went away with a willow platter they had expertly woven:

Whilst we’ve used a lot of last year’s willow growth, we still have plenty left for other creations, projects and campfire cooking – and there will always be more of this wonderful natural material to harvest next Winter and use in the Spring!

Then the Thaw

Sunday was a day of great change, at first the snow was still thick in many places, turning to slush on the paths, but still making the roads a little difficult in places.

After the cold of the previous few days the warm sun of a proper springlike day was very welcome. The change during the day was remarkable, by lunchtime the entrance track was largely clear of snow and the Dockens Water was starting to rise and flood through the woodland.

Dockens Water

Dockens Water levels starting to rise

There rapid change resulted in some unusual sightings, perhaps the oddest and something I don’t think I had seen before, was a banded snail crawling across the snow surface. Unfortunately when I tired to take a picture it retreated into its shell, so in the picture you can just see the foot still out, but the rest of the body is hidden.

snail on snow

snail on snow

Another unusual sight, although not as surprising, was that of scarlet elf-cup poking up through the snow.

Elf cup in snow

scarlet elf-cup in snow

I noted in the morning that there were still no lapwing on the nesting areas, I have known birds to be egg-laying by the first week of March. However by the afternoon in the sunshine there were two males on territory on the former Hanson plant site and several more wandering around the shore nearby.

By the end of the day the Dockens Water was flooding through the alder carr and through the silt pond into Ivy Lake.

alder carr flooding

Dockens Water flooding through the alder carr

Having not been on the reserve fro a few days it was pleasing to see that there are still a good few brambling around the Woodland hide along with 8 or more reed bunting. In the afternoon the ring-billed gull was in the gull roost and, rather late in the day and distantly, also the Thayer’s gull.

The Big Chill

Like many people I have been pretty much holed up for the last couple of days. I did venture out onto the edge  of the Forest on Thursday. It was very quiet with only a few blackbird and robin digging about in the leaf litter. I came across a group of New Forest ponies, showing just how hardy they are, eating gorse with a covering of snow on their backs. The snow covering shows just how good their coats are at insulating them, the longer hairs that form the winter coat trap layer of air, just as we are told to if we are to keep warm.

a hardy New Forest pony

New Forest pony eating gorse in the snow.

The area I was in is prime nightjar habitat and somewhere I often visit to listen to and watch them. It is remarkable to think that they will probably be churring away here in under two months.

Nightjar habitat

Nightjar habitat

Despite the undoubtedly wintery weather we are actually on the very edge of spring. As thought to emphasise this there were a pair of garganey at Farlington Marshes at the end of last week and sand martin usually arrive at Blashford around the end of the first week of March.

Some signs of spring start a little earlier than the arrival of long-distance migrants. Plants are often our first signs and wild daffodil have been out for a while as have lesser celandine and primrose.

Yesterday I ventured out again and got as far as our Hythe Spartina Marsh reserve, it was very bleak indeed!

Hythe Spartine Marsh

Hythe Spartina Marsh

There were flocks of wigeon and various waders feeding along the water’s edge where the seawater was keeping the mud unfrozen. The wind was cold, blowing across Southampton Water and I did not stay long.

When I decided that opening up on Thursday was not going to happen I did wonder if I had done the right thing. At the time I could have got to the reserve, but the forecast was not promising. Since my way home would have been along the A31, I am very pleased I opted not to open as I might well not have got home the same day!

Blashford back in business – just in time for this years last Pop-up Café!

After a couple of days enforced closure the reserve is open again today – and will be tomorrow too, just in time for the last “Pop up Café” of the year! So if you’ve not been out and about sledging/snowballing with grand/children and you’ve been going stir crazy make a date to come out for some fresh air, exercise, birds and cake tomorrow!

It was a very snowy scene when I arrived:


Ivy North Hide – overlooking frozen reedbeds and Ivy Lake.



The view from Tern Hide this morning. Brrrr…!

I was surprised to find that the lakes were all pretty much ice free apart from a little bit of ice about the margins, particularly as even the river is frozen in stretches. However it has been such a brisk wind I suspect that the wave action has kept the ice off the open water of the lakes – good news for the wildfowl.

For today at least although Tern Hide is open I have not opened the Main Car Park – the concrete surface is particularly treacherous in icy conditions. Bob may or may not open it tomorrow depending on how quickly it thaws in this afternoons rain and overnight.

Otherwise the reserve is open as normal. Jacki came in to volunteer this morning as normal (after I called her to give her the all clear having safely made it in – she is someone who was desperate to get out of her house especially as she’d missed her usual Thursday morning volunteering “fix” too!). After opening the centre and filling up the bird feeders for some very grateful birds we cleared the snow from the hide thresholds and access ramps, the bridges and boardwalks to ensure that if the thaw did not come too quickly the compacted snow did not become too slippery for visitors. We did stop at clearing all the paths however so please do take care over the next day or so until the snow/ice has all gone!

There have been a few visitors today – mostly photographers after pictures of bramblings in the snow by the car park feeders and at the Woodland Hide, but I imagine there will be a few more tomorrow:

I also melted a hole in the ice/snow covering the centre dipping pond – melted using hot water  in a pan rather than cracked it, as this can have a detrimental effect upon the aquatic life – sadly not everyone knows or appreciates this fact so there is evidence of a number of holes in both the pond and Ivy Silt Pond where small (or, I suspect, not so small, boys and girls have delighted in throwing in rocks to break the ice). Poulner Dads Club were supposed to be in pond and river dipping this afternoon – under the circumstances I think we made the right decision to postpone!


After several changes of hot water, a hole finally melted through what amounted to several inches of ice over the dipping pond! And evidence of some earlier rock throwing…


Even the river is frozen in places making life tricky for our aquatic mammals – can’t be 100% sure but I’m fairly confident that this was evidence of an otter tracking in and out of the river and going for an “ice dive”!



And they – and at least one fox, and no doubt some birds too, have been enjoying this tasty looking morsel over the last few days too:


Fish supper anyone?!










Reserve Closure

Our area of the country is subject to an Amber Weather Warning, for increasing snowfall and strong winds. This means the reserve will be very cold, icy and probably rather unpleasant to visit. In addition the roads around may well be subject to delays or even closures and seem likely to be hazardous for travel. So the reserve will not be open for visitors today and potentially tomorrow, as significant improvement seems unlikely.

We will open again as soon as travel for staff and visitors is safe and the conditions on the reserve are suitable.

A Big Chill

It looks as though the week ahead is going to be a cold one. A freeze at the very end of winter like this can be particularly problematic, wild food such as seeds are almost exhausted and a cold snap will bring a halt to any early spring flush of new foods.

It will also stop any early nesting attempts. I have known lapwing to be settled on eggs in the first week of March, but I am sure they will be much later this year.

frosty lapwing

frosty lapwing

Birds are well adapted to deal with cold weather, despite maintaining a higher body temperature than we do their feathers do a fantastic job of insulation. The lapwing in the picture has a layer of frost on its back, showing just how good this insulation is.

We are predicted to get snow this week, and we will certainly get ice. The reserve is obviously more dangerous when it is icy, as are the roads on the way and the car parks. We are intending to stay open all week, but this might change if either staff cannot safely travel or the conditions on the reserve become dangerous. I will try and keep information up to date here on the blog.


Not the Otter I wanted to See

I posted the other day about seeing an otter in Ivy Lake, it always a treat to see them. They are so superbly adapted to their environment and have come back from the very brink of extinction in this country. When I started taking an interest in wildlife the very idea of seeing one seemed fantasy.

I saw one again today, however the circumstances were altogether different. This one, perhaps even the same one as I saw last Sunday, was dead beside Ellingham Drove.

dead otter

The end of an otter

Taking a look at the body the many adaptations that make them so at home in the water were clear. The strong, muscular tail, huge webbed feet and dense fur. A particular feature I noticed though was the whiskers, they were very long and pointed down under the chin and out to the sides at least as far as the head was wide on each side.

otter whiskers

Otter whiskers are very long indeed!

These whiskers will act as “feelers” helping the animal to seek out prey, much of which is found in dense weed or under banks. Although they do catch fish in open water, they also enjoy digging out signal crayfish from under overhanging tree roots or eels from reedmace roots.

A lot of otters get killed on roads, they are not very fast on land and seem to have no road sense at all. Most will have large territories and cover a lot of ground each day. Blashford Lakes is a good area for otters but it is criss-crossed with roads. Although there are many lakes, a lot now have otter fencing around them to keep otters out and protect valuable fish kept for anglers. In effect this fragments the habitat forcing the animals to travel more and cross more roads making accidents more likely. I hope this casualty was not the one I enjoyed watching on Sunday, but I fear it was.

A Day by the Sea

On Monday Jo and I spent the morning working with the Milford Conservation Volunteers at Keyhaven. Although we mainly work at Blashford Lakes and Fishlake Meadows we have a number of other sites to look after. The reserve at Keyhaven is large, consisting of almost all the saltmarshes and mudflats outside the sea wall between Hurst Beach and the Lymington River. It is an important reserve for nesting gulls and terns in the summer and for waders and wildfowl in the winter. Its value is greatly enhanced by the neighbouring Hampshire County Council nature reserve, together the two reserves make one of the largest areas managed for nature conservation in the county.

The work we were doing was on the one small area of the Trust reserve that is inside the seawall. The wall here used to be a rather porous construction of timber and clay, as a result the land behind it was wet and quiet salty. Since the wall was reconstructed just over 25 years ago the saltwater has been kept out more effectively and the area has become drier and fresher. A lot of species are adapted to live in the narrow habitat band that lies between the saltiness of the sea and truly freshwater, as this habitat is very restricted these species tend to be very local and frequently rare. A time of rising sea level might be thought of as one which would bring benefits to these species, but in fact many are in decline. Our modern seawalls are effectively engineered so that they keep almost all of the saltwater outside and freshwater inside, the fuzzy edge that was the home of the brackish habitat lovers has been squeezed.

I was approached last year by a group of local residents interested in the potential of getting the brackish elements back, by finding a way to get some more seawater onto the marsh. It was really exciting to have such interest in what is often perceived as a dull habitat. Although we are still looking at how they goal might be achieved there is interest in the idea from both Natural England and the Environment Agency.

Monday’s task was to tackle some of the scrub that has established since the site has become fresher so that the former open character can be restored. We coppiced lots of willow and cleared a large area of bramble thicket. Hopefully once there is a more salty regime this will help to limit the regrowth of much of this scrub and encourage brackish marshland habitat.


Clearing bramble thicket with the Milford Conservation Volunteers, (and collecting rubbish).


Back Again

I was back at Blashford after a week away in North Wales. It was a good many years since I was there and it was great to visit familiar places and some new ones too. Seeing wildlife that I don’t see at home was also good. Birds such as dipper, chough, whooper swan, black guillemot and hen harrier were all a treat.

So it was back to work today, but as if to emphasise that it is not so bad, as if I needed reminding, on the way in I saw a hawfinch which flew across the road. Opening up the Tern hide a black-necked grebe was on view. Outside the Centre two male brambling were by the feeder and from Ivy South hide Walter the great white egret and an otter. There really are worse places to work!

I was in the office for a good part for the day, there is no way to escape the after-break email backlog. This did mean that I saw lots of people coming and going from the Pop-up cafe, which did a good trade despite it being quite q quiet day for visitors. If you want the chance to sample the splendid homemade cakes on offer there are just two more opportunities this winter, they will be back on the first and third Sundays in March and then taking their break until next autumn. It is a testament to the quality on offer that some of today’s customers were returnees who came in just for the cake and did not even visit the reserve.

There was one negative event to report, a car was broken into int he main car park, although nothing was stolen. Although a very rare event at Blashford, with well under one break-in a year it still pays to be careful. Just as in the New Forest car parks you should obviously not leave valuables on display, but also don’t put them in the boot in the car park, if you are being watched this just shows the criminal where to look and that there is something to steal. Either don’t leave things in the car or put them out of the way at a stop before you arrive to park. If you see anything or anyone suspicious let us know, note down a car number or anything else that might help. The reserve has always been very safe and we would like to keep it that way.

Locking up at the end of the day it was evident that there was no otter around Ivy Lake, the ducks were looking very relaxed, in stark contrast to their demeanour in the morning. Although we might think of otters as fish eaters they are far from averse to duck and locally they seem to favour signal crayfish when they are abundant.


Evening on Ivy lake, peace and quiet.

The cormorant have returned to roost in the trees around Ivy Lake after going elsewhere for a while, although they are only using the ones on the spit. I also noticed that “Walter” had come back to roost in his favoured dead alder tree, if you look closely you can just make him out as a white spot on the right hand side of the picture. I expect he will be heading back to France soon, he rarely stays into March and often goes in January. Hopefully he will be back in the late summer, but as he approaches his fifteenth year of life he is a grand old great white egret now and at some point we will not see him again.

At the very end of the day the gull roost included the ring-billed gull, a couple of Caspian gull, but no Thayer’s gull, despite it having been seen flying south over Alderholt for the day spent feeding in pig fields at Tidpit. It has evidently found an alternative roost, perhaps in Christchurch Harbour.