A Close Shave?

After a windy night I looked out over Tern hide this morning with some hope of seeing something new blown in. I was greeted by an adult peregrine perched on one of the posts outside Tern hide and unsurprisingly not many other birds.

peregrine

Peregrine digi-scoped in the early morning gloom.

Scanning further up the lake I spotted the juvenile black tern that has been with us for a while, then a second bird also dipping over the water, this time a young little gull, later it became clear there were two of the same age. Lastly I noticed a small wader flying low over the water, it took me a moment to realise it was a grey phalarope, no doubt blown inland overnight and if the forecast is correct probably the first of many.

There were still hundreds of hirundines, it seemed more were house martin today, but it may just have been that more martins were low over the water today. With all these martins it was perhaps inevitable that a hobby would be drawn in to hunt them and there was at least one for a good part of the day. It engaged in fantastic dives, steep climbs and stall turns that would have even have impressed the spitfire pilots that once flew from here. In mid afternoon the phalarope caught its eye and apparently it managed to knock it into the water, luckily it seemed uninjured and flew off high to the east with the hobby in pursuit. A few minutes later a hobby flew in from the east, so it was hoped that the phalarope escaped.

The volunteers were working to cut back the path to Lapwing hide today, normally this is a quiet part of the reserve, but the phalarope attracted a fair few admirers so we saw a lot more people than usual. With almost five miles of paths on the reserve keeping them open in the face of fast growing brambles and and descending willows is a constant task, especially with autumn gales added to the picture. We were not just cutting back but also trying to create sheltered bays and edges for insects and reptiles, so this was combined habitat creation and access work.

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19th September – Sightings

A windy day with occasional showers and a lot of cloud. Iblsey Water hosted hundreds of hirundines all day, in contrast to yesterday, when almost all were house martin, today there were good numbers of swallow with quite a few sand martin as well, in a quick estimate first thing I came up with about 400-500 swallow and perhaps 200 sand martin low over the water and closest to Tern hide, with about 500 house martin, mostly towards the north and as is usually the case higher up in the sky. I searched the higher house martin for a late swift, but without success.

The edges of the car park held at least 5 chiffchaff and it was my impression that there were many more about today generally. I was mostly stuck in meetings for the rest of the day sop I have relied upon “reports received” for the rest. Over Ibsley Water single hobby, peregrine and a passing female type marsh harrier were seen as was a fly over cattle egret, I still have yet to see one at Blashford! A single great white egret spent the day on the lake amongst the crowd of grey heron. The juvenile black tern remained in place for its fifth day.

Sightings

Although there has not been a lot of migrant activity over recent days there are lots of birds around on the reserve at present. As someone said to me today “It is great if you like coots”, yesterday I counted 908 of them on Ibsley Water alone.

Rather more interesting to most visitors though will be the juvenile black tern which has been over Ibsley Water for the last four days. Both great white egret have been seen daily, but the cattle egret seem to have departed, without my ever managing to see one. A few wildfowl are starting to arrive with up to 12 wigeon on Ivy Lake and a few teal and shoveler to be seen on both Ibsley Water and Ivy Lake.

Locking up this evening I estimated at least 800 house martin over Ibsley Water with a very few sand martin, if there were any swallow I could not find them.

A Few Birds

We had a mini bird race for teams from our Blashford Lakes Project partners today, which meant that I got to have a good look around the reserve and see a few birds as well. Generally it was a quite day with rather little sign of migration despite the season.

Over Ibsley Water there were several hundred hirundines, predominantly house martin but including sand martin and swallow. The only wader was common sandpiper, but the bushes between the lakes held some small birds including chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap and a single spotted flycatcher, mostly accompanying flocks of long-tailed tit.

Walter our regular great white egret was back in his regular spot outside Ivy North hide after going absent for a few days, his recent companion has not been seen for several days. An adult hobby hunting over the trees at the same spot was also nice to see and a peregrine was reported there as well.

Numbers of wildfowl have been high for the time of year and I took the opportunity to get a new count of the coot on Ibsley Water and found 794, a really high count for the first half of September.

 

Birds, Beetles and Butterflies (and a bit more besides)

We are slipping into autumn, despite the weather remaining warm the signs are everywhere. Berries are ripening and birds are on the move. Over the last few days there have been between 500 and 1000 house martin over Ibsley Water, gathering before migrating south. On Ivy Lake numbers of winter wildfowl are starting to rise, at least 12 wigeon and 18 shoveler were there on Sunday and last week 3 pintail dropped in. In fact overall numbers of wildfowl are very high for the time of year, probably due to good weed growth.

Any visitor to Ibsley Water recently cannot have failed to miss the large numbers of cormorant and heron. They are feeding on the huge numbers of small common carp, a fantastic spectacle, but a sign of problems ahead. Such large numbers of small carp will grow into a very large population of medium sized fish which are likely to largely eliminate the weed and eventually most of the food for wildfowl.

Another very obvious feature at present is the lace-like leaves of the alders, they have been eaten away to skeletons.

alder leaves eaten

alder leaf eaten away by alder leaf beetle

The alder leaf beetles that are responsible are a striking metallic blue and were considered as an extinct species in the UK until just a few years ago, however their status has changed dramatically in the last few years and they are now not just present but super abundant. They seem to be everywhere at the moment and almost every alder leaf has been eaten away and they seem to have been eating hazel and even birch as well. Quiet why they have undergone such an extreme change in fortunes is something of a mystery.

alder leaf beetle

alder leaf beetle Agelastica alni

We are now heading into autumn and the moth trap is starting to catch species typical of the season, perhaps none more so than the aptly named autumnal rustic.

autumnal rustic

autumnal rustic

Another autumn favourite of mine is the intricately marked feathered gothic.

feathered gothic

feathered gothic (male)

The males use their feathered antennae to test the air for female pheromones, in effect using them to smell.

The main butterfly on the wing at present is speckled wood and they are very abundant this year, they are one of the few species that you can see throughout the season as they have a series of overlapping broods. Sometimes the first are on the wing before the end of March ans they can still be flying in November.

speckled wood

speckled wood

Autumn is also the fungi, actually they are to be found all year but many species are most abundant at this time of the year. When we were working today we came across a bright yellow patch on a log near the Woodland hide, but although many of the logs in that are are covered in fungi, this was not a fungus, but a slime mould called troll butter.

troll butter

troll butter slime mould

For those that like to venture up to the Lapwing hide in the winter or spring I have good news. The need to take the long way round or risk getting wet feet when the route through the reedbed floods will soon be a thing of the past, we are having a boardwalk constructed!

new boardwalk to Lapwing hide under construction

new boardwalk to Lapwing hide under construction

Messing about in boats…

…with boats, out of boats and under boats!

Yes, the last week of the summer holiday saw us, and the children on “Wild Days Out” as well of course (I have to justify somehow), taking the plunge, quite literally, into the Dockens Water river again. The theme this week?

“River Adventure”…

Starting off in the classroom with paperboat folding and colouring/waterproofing them with wax crayons we were then ready to head down to the water to test them out and do some kick sample surveying for wildlife:

Plenty of invertebrates were of course caught but, as always, it was the fish which captured most children’s interest – with the exception of those few who caught either a leech (always exciting for their “yuck” or “eeuuurgh” factor), beautiful demoiselle or golden ringed dragonfly nymph (both similarly exciting and always elicit a “what is THAT?!” response).

On the fish front by far the most numerous species was minnow, but bullhead, as always, were much in evidence and we are also seeing signs of a good recruitment to the brown trout population this year too. Fishy highlights were an elver (second we’ve caught kick sampling this year, and again, a promising sign that they have had a good year) and a relatively large stone loach (easily identified by the barbels with which it finds its invertebrate prey amongst the silt and stones at the bottom of the river at night).

By this time and being, surprisingly, relatively dry and warm still we quit while we were ahead to stop for lunch – and then equip and prepare ourselves for the real adventure that was to come: coracle paddling and snorkelling!

The coracle had been pre-prepared this year by Tracy with one of our volunteers, Rex, who fulfilled a life long ambition by coming in over a couple of mornings to create and then paddle it himself! Thank you Rex! Thanks also to the Spinnaker Sailing Club for providing us with a loan of buoyancy aids for our intrepid adventurers to wear, “just in case”. As it was most children did manage to stay in the coracle, and the only time it actually sank was when Tracy, somewhat optimistically it has to be said, tried sending 3 children off in it!

Our craft, constructed from some of our willow pollarded last winter, was fitted out with a seat scavenged from a building site by another volunteer, Geoff, and then lined with some left over pond liner from a pond project at Testwood Lakes (pond liner works just as well at keeping water out of a boat as it does in a pond). And despite some heavy use survived completely unscathed – although to be fair, I did not actually have a go in it myself this year, and, had I done so, things might have ended differently!

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So, with a little disappointment it has to be said, I didn’t make it into the coracle this year. Not too much disappointment however because the only reason I didn’t was that I was having far too much fun snorkelling beneath the peaty waters to spend too much time above it!

Having enjoyed (honest!) a very cold and wet weekend camping a couple of days before I was still tired and, with the weather grey as it was, I woke up and came to work with a certain amount of apathy towards the idea of deliberately submerging myself in the river again. However we’d said we’d do it so I reluctantly donned my wetsuit and we made our way down and in… and I was SO glad that I had! I, and everyone who was brave (or foolish) enough to come in with me had a ball and we saw SO MANY fish! As many as we had thought we had caught kick-sampling earlier it really was a very small fraction of just what was in the river!

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So you think they look a bit crazy? You have to be a little bit crazy to even think of doing this!

And its amazing just how much you can see, even in shallow water!

Although the deep water is fun too – the trick is to just swim/crocodile crawl up stream so all of the disturbed silt/sediment washes back behind you and definitely don’t try and snorkel down stream of a load of kick-sampling river dippers!

Wonderful, unusual, wildlife sights await those who brave the water!

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It was cold, but so worth it and well done to all of the children who joined us in the river this summer – you are all part of what is a very small and highly elite group of people who have snorkelled and paddled the Dockens Water river.

You may call yourselves the “Dockens Divers” and, quite rightly, be proud of your achievement!

 

 

 

Wandering in Nature

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Another belated blog post relating to our summer holiday activity program… this time a “Wildlife Wander”. Nice easy one to plan and prepare for this one. Basically gather children and head out on the nature reserve to walk, play and see what we can discover!

Being August, and with blackberries fruiting in the prodigious quantities that they are this summer, blackberry picking and eating featured quite highly throughout both of our wildlife wanders! Sometimes picking “traditionally” with fingers, sometimes “browsing” them off the stem directly like a deer or a giraffe, just for fun. Regardless the end result was lots of purple faces, although some did somehow end up a lot more purple than others! None more so than these two who opted for painting their hands with the fruit:

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There’s quite a lot of fruit around generally, although disappointingly this year the cherry plums have been spectacularly bad. Related to the cherry plums, the blackthorm seems to be producing a good sloe crop. Blackthorn is an occasional shrub at Blashford and by no means occurs in sufficient quantities for Tracy (or anyone else for that matter!) to keep herself in sloe gin, but there is more than ample for me to delight in encouraging young people to try the bittersweet fruit! Love it!

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Bird watching as well as foraging also featured highly in our expeditions, with visits to Ivy North, Goosander and Tern Hides. The “hidelight” was undoubtedly on the second day when we observed a large grass snake emerge from the water beneath Goosander Hide, much to the consternation of the grey wagtail we were also watching at the time, and then proceed to make its way to the wall and attempt to slither inside a crack in the blockwork at the base.

Bug hunting was on the agenda of many of our wildlife explorers too of course – we are after all talking about children, and children interested in nature at that! Best of all though were the wasp spiders in the hard rush tussocks amongst the scrub behind Goosander Hide where we picnicked. I was delighted to see these beauties as I had failed to see any earlier in the year when sweep netting in our small meadow by Ivy North Hide where we usually do see (and sometimes inadvertently catch) at least a few each summer. Of the children Thomas “bug boy” Baker was by far the best spotter, finding at least 12 on the Tuesday, but even his sterling efforts were far outstripped by Tracy on Thursday who must have found at least 20 herself. I was quite frustrated and didn’t find any of my “own” until I eventually did manage to get my eye in and find 8 or so (my excuse is that Tracy, being more vertically challenged than I, is more on a level with the spiders, thus making them easier for her to spot…). With the children finding a good number more it really was astounding just how many there are up there:

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Hmmm. Do I like this, or do I not like this…?!

And then there was the wander itself – it was lovely watching and listening to the children amble along with their friends and making new friends,  chatting about this, that and nothing in particular:

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The second day was a bit warmer than the first and, as far as the children were concerned, they had walked miles, so towards the end we needed an incentive to keep them going – what more of an incentive could a child need than the opportunity to get in a river? None it turned out and a good time was had by all – so at the end of the day a lot of tired, blackberry full, very wet children went home very happy!

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Myths, moths and marshmallows

With the summer holidays over and the brief lull in group visits that always follows while the Southeasts children all settle back into school and  uniformed groups back into their packs and colonies, I am making the most of the opportunity to catch up on some outstanding blog posts from the summer. This one my storytelling event a couple of weeks ago…

Other than watching “Jackanory” on TV, or reading bedtime stories with my Mum and Dad when I was a child (and neither of those things are really quite the same as hearing a story being told), storytelling was not something I was aware of until I went to work in the USA, right back at the start of my career in outdoor education.

Initially employed as a Scuba Diver Instructor at the Catalina Island Marine Institute’s series of “summer camps”, my work permit and contract were extended such that I stayed on as an Outdoor Educator, taking parties of school children staying for week long residential experiences of island ecology, marine ecology, sea kayaking and snorkeling and “astronomy” evening sessions, among other things far to numerous to mention…

It was with CIMI that I broke in my outdoor/environmental educator boots and much of what I learnt there still informs what and how I deliver education at Blashford today. It was during the astronomy sessions that I had my first taste of “real” storytelling, and they really did strike a chord with me. I can still picture that first session I observed as part of my induction – a short 20 minute hike up from camp onto “Lions Head Rock”, Cherry Cove to one side of us, 4th Of July Cove to the other and straight ahead nothing but the guano covered Bird Rock reflecting the moon and starlight – and the Pacific Ocean. Overhead, with little, or no light pollution, nothing but stars and the lead instructor for that evening pointing out the autumn constellations with a powerful dive torch and then telling his audience, and I, the Greek and  Native American creation stories and myths of their making. I was hooked and was soon learning and enjoying telling those same stories myself.

Eventually, upon my return to the UK, I learnt and told new stories, giving performances  at work in various places of outdoor education in both voluntary and paid employment, and in schools or to WI groups  and similar. However, it has always been those first few stories that I heard on Santa Catalina Island that have stayed with me the longest and which I have been able to recall and recount with greatest ease though!

Storytelling still occasionally comes into work and my life, but as time has moved on, not as much as it once did, so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I decided to dabble in to oracular history again this summer with our “Myths, moths and marshmallows” event.

I shouldn’t have worried: once a storyteller, always a storyteller!

Campfires and stories go together like bread and cheese so our first job was to light the fire:

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Always good when it works first time!

Then my first story, a Native American, Ojibwa, story of “How bat came to be”. Somewhat fitting given I had rescued a Soprano pipistrelle bat from behind the bins in the centre that very afternoon and, covered in cobwebs as it was, taken it down the road to our local Wildlife Hospital for a once-over and subsequent release…

Then a tale of how Cockerel lost his voice and gained his crow – involving a bit of audience participation (even a good audience can only stay quiet for so long!) and then, because even a good audience can only sit still for so long, we headed back up to the centre to look at and release our moths from the night before and re-set the traps for that night…

Upon our return the fire had died down to the perfect marshmallow toasting temperature so we all indulged ourselves in sweet treats before my final storytelling of a Lincolnshire snowy night and the magic of a tawny owl in a small wood outside a village… and, as the night drawed in, our evening came to a close.

If my audience enjoyed hearing the stories half as much as I enjoyed telling them, a good evening was had by all!

Thank you to my lovely volunteers for watching the fire while we let the moths go and for taking the above pictures of the evening.

And look out for “Myths, moths and marshamallows” next year if this blog has piqued your interest!

 

This weeks wildlife highlights

Further to Bobs post earlier this week, in which he mentioned the unusually early bittern sighting and egrets galore, today saw more signs of autumn passage with thousands of hirundines, house martins in particular, gathered over Ibsley Water this morning and later on in the morning Robin Smith came in for help with the identification of this osprey photographed over Ibsley Water as it flew from the north west to the south east, not hanging around for closer pictures unfortunately:

Osprey by Robin Smith

Elsewhere on the reserve a hobby has been very active today and for the last couple of days – particularly over the lichen heath and northern half of Ivy Lake.

This year has also proven a very good year for Autumn ladies tresses, with more flower spikes than ever now showing beautifully in their particular understated kind of way:

Autumn ladies tresses by Jim Day

Autumn ladies tresses

 

The White Stuff

A Red Letter Day for Fishlake Meadows today, we finally have some cattle on site! We had hoped they would be on much earlier and next year I am sure we will. They will be grazing in Ashley Meadow for the next few weeks, hopefully helping us to maintain the rich fen habitat.

English White cattle on Ashley Meadow

British White cattle on Ashley Meadow

As we were unable to graze the meadow earlier in the year we did take a hay cut from about half of the field.

Ashley Meadow

Ashley Meadow showing the boundary between the cut and uncut areas

The intention is to maintain a mix of tall and slightly shorter herbage with very few trees and shrubs. Such habitats are very rich in plants and as a result invertebrates. Mowing certainly can deliver this, but the act of mowing is rather dramatic, eliminating large areas of habitat at a stroke, by contrast grazing achieves a similar result but at a more gradual pace. Gazing animals will also favour some areas and species over others so the variability in height, what is known as the “structure” of the grassland will be greater.

When I was in Ashley Meadow preparing for the arrival of the cattle today I saw a good range of species including several very smart small copper.

small copper

small copper

There was a very interesting article in a recent issue of British Wildlife magazine which highlighted the effects of different grassland management regimes on spider populations and species. I have not managed to identify the one below yet, but I saw it lurking on a flower waiting for an unwary insect to be lured in.

spider

crab spider on fleabane flower

When looking at grassland management there are many considerations, should it be mown or grazed,or both, most hayfields are cut for the hay crop and then grazed later in the season. Traditional hay meadows were cut around or just after mid-summer and this favoured plants that set seed by this time like yellow rattle or which spread vegetatively. Modern grass cropping by silage making produces a much larger grass crop but the grassland is more or less a mono-culture, the land may be green but it is certainly not pleasant as far as most wildlife is concerned.

Once the cutting regime is settled there is grazing to consider, but not all animals graze in the same way, sheep and horses cut the grass short using their teeth, cattle rip the grass in tufts using their tongue to gather each bunch. The resulting grassland will look very different and be home to very different wildlife. Timing of grazing will also make a big difference, mid-late summer grazing tends to produce the most diverse flora, but this will vary with location and ground type.

Lastly different breed of animals will graze in different ways, our cattle at Fishlake are British Whites, a traditional bred that will eat grass but also likes to mix in some rougher sedge and other herbage as well as some tree leaves and twigs, ideal for a site such as Fishlake Meadows.

It was not only a white themed day at Fishlake, as I locked up at Blashford Lakes the view from Tern hide was filled with birds, in particular 13 brilliant white little egret and 2 great white egret.

herons egrets and cormorants

egrets, herons and cormorants

Ibsley Water has been attracting huge numbers of fish eating birds recently, with up to 300 cormorant, over 100 grey heron and the egrets, although I have failed to see them there have also been 2 cattle egret seen.

Ivy Lake has also produced a few notable records int he last few days, yesterday a bittern was photographed flying past Ivy South hide, far and away our earliest reserve record, but with the British population doing much better these days perhaps something we will get used to as young birds disperse. There have also been a few notable ducks, yesterday a juvenile garganey and today 4 wigeon , 3 pintail and a few shoveler as well as good numbers of gadwall and a dozen or so teal.