Hawks, Snakes and Terns


We had another successful Sunday with the Young Naturalists group recently, looking at three very different aspects of the wildlife at Blashford Lakes. First we unpacked the overnight light trap, which is mainly used to keep a record of the moths on site, but the first insect out of the trap wasn’t a moth at all, but a cockchafer beetle (or May Bug, if you prefer). These large and impressive beetles are only on the wing for a few weeks each Spring, and this one was sufficiently sleepy to allow us to pick it up, and feel it tickle the hand as it tried to cling on.


Thanks to Fletcher for the brilliant head‐on photo. Most impressive of the moths was a Poplar Hawk Moth, and this time Fletcher gave us a profile photo. We also managed to identify Light Emerald, Treble Bar, White Ermine, Scorched Wing, Clouded Border, Nut‐tree Tussock, May Highflyer, and a couple of what we think were Orange Footman.


The rest of the morning was spent searching for snakes. A team of Blashford volunteers has laid out a number of tin sheets and felt squares for snakes and other reptiles to use. They are tucked away well hidden around the reserve, and only checked once a fortnight to minimise the disturbance for any snakes which might use them as shelters and places to warm up. We had special permission to lift a few felts and look underneath, and we had also heard that a baby grass snake had been spotted underneath a log in the Badger Wood area, when a visiting school had been on a search for minibeasts. So we were delighted when we turned over a log, and there was a small grass snake curled up underneath. Again, Fletcher was quick enough to capture a photo before the snake wriggled away into cover.
The photo also shows the snake’s nictitating eye membrane, a translucent protective cover over its eye. We found another four grass snakes under another of the felts, all of which looked to be youngsters, but they didn’t hang around long enough for a photo.


After lunch we headed over to the north side of the reserve, to have a look at places where adders have been seen basking in sunny spots in the undergrowth. We didn’t see any adders, but while we were out we took a look at the tern rafts which have been moored in the lakes to attract breeding Common Terns. The terns don’t seem to be in charge of the rafts on Ibsley Water, where the Black‐headed Gulls have taken over, but back on Ivy Lake we counted between 8 and 10 terns which appeared to be sitting on nests on the rafts. We also checked the rafts out on Ellingham Pound, where again the Black‐headed Gulls were in charge. While we were looking at them, Geoff spotted a Hobby, hawking above the trees, and we watched as it appeared to eat a dragonfly on the wing.


This month the Young Naturalists are meeting on Sunday, 26th June, when we will be joined by Claire Sheppard, a local photographer, and we will be getting tips on improving our wildlife photography. For more details, see:
https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/events/2022‐06‐26‐blashford‐lakes‐young‐naturalists‐picture


Nigel Owen – Young Naturalists Leader

Wildlife Tots enjoying the Dockens Water

Not content with only getting into the river the week before, I decided Monday’s Tots session would also be river themed! I am delighted to say that we had a fully booked morning session for Tots, and ran an afternoon session as well – one boy enjoyed himself so much that he came to both sessions.

Our first was to make paper boats (or rather, my task the night before).. was to learn how to fold a piece of a4 paper into a boat. PAPER! I hear you cry! But PAPER SINKS!? Ah ha, well…. at Blashford we are rather clever you see.

A4 paper at the ready, we scribbled and scribbled and scribbled and scribbled.. and … you guessed it…. scribbled some more…. with wax crayons, until both sides of our paper was completely covered, and WATERPROOFED!

Once we had waterproofed our paper, everybody followed along with my folding (well done parents, and children!) until we had created some lovely little boats.

We walked to the campfire area and sat around in a circle, heard a little bit of a story and then meandered our way to the river, picking little ‘passengers’ (flowers, grass heads etc) for our voyage down the river. When we arrived at the river we got in, lined up and with an assortment of adults to ‘field’ for boats so we didn’t lose any down the river proper, we let them go and had a boat race. Well, we actually had about 5 boat races!

Once we had finished racing, and ‘passengers’ had gone overboard, we all had a go at river dipping. The Tots loved splashing in the river finding all sorts of tiny creatures, and we didn’t have anywhere near as many full wellies as I had imagined. A huge thank you to the parents in the afternoon session, I was helping the children wash their hands at the tippy tap, and as I got back to the riverside all the equipment was rinsed, packed up and ready to go back to the centre. A busy day, but a wonderful one.

Family River Splash!

We couldn’t let half term pass without trying to soak some children in a river… and so that’s (almost) exactly what we did!

The weather has been quite changeable recently, but thankfully this morning began bright and sunny. I got to Blashford and enlisted the help of Jacki one of our wonderful volunteers who was here for the regular volunteer party, to help me take all the equipment down to the river. Wheelbarrow full (although maybe not quite as full as Jim manages), and we trundled off to the river. ‘Danger’ deep water flags were set out… we don’t actually want to lose children in the deep bits, and nets, trays, ID guides too.

On arrival at the Education Centre the children engrossed themselves in colouring and water-themed word searches, and once we had everybody we got started. Our first stop was to find some rushes to make some rush boats to float down the river. After demonstrating how to fold the rushes and wrap them to secure the ‘boat’ and create a mast we all searched for a suitable leaf to be a sail. Some rush boats ended up a little top heavy!

We walked down to the river and followed the meander to race our boats and to see how the water feels whooshing past our boots in the deeper sections of meander. As we walked back to the bridge we hunted for pooh sticks, and with a yell of THREE, TWO, ONE, DROP! we raced them under the bridge.

I explained how to river dip, and what we might find, and then everybody got into the river again! It wasn’t long before the depth of water inside some people’s wellies was actually deeper than the water they were stood in, but they didn’t seem to mind!

We caught a lot of little freshwater shrimp, and all the families did well at using the guides to identify what they caught, and then we manage to catch some tiny little bullhead fish too.

Nobody really wanted to get out of the river, so we overran a little bit, and did a final pooh sticks challenge to finish. Once the welly boot water had been tipped back into the river it was time to wash hands and have some lunch. Well timed too, as not long after we stopped it started to rain.

Adders, Grass Snakes and Legless Lizards….sorry …Slow Worms

For several years now volunteers and staff have been keeping an eye on the reptile
population at Blashford. And we are delighted to say that we have a pretty healthy
population – at least of some species. The habitat on the reserve is not conducive to all UK reptiles (Smooth Snakes and Sand Lizards have very specific habitat requirements) but we do have thriving populations of Adders, Grass Snakes and Slow Worms.

As part of ‘keeping an eye’ two teams of volunteers regularly carry out surveys on
the reserve. One team does the morning surveys and the other the afternoon, during the active reptile season from March to October.

Adders. Bob Chapman

Surveys involve both visual searches of the site and the use of artificial refugia – namely
corrugated felts and tins. These are placed in the areas most likely to support
reptiles and in sunny locations, providing a solar heated refuge and protection from
avian predation. Generally they are away from public view to avoid unnecessary
disturbance. The disturbance of these refugia can significantly affect our ability to determine
the presence of reptiles. The higher levels of disturbance cause them to increase the time spent under dense cover and results in them using less optimal habitat. This has both a negative effect on surveying, and on our populations of reptiles as a whole. If you do happen to come across refugia (here at Blashford or anywhere else on your travels) it is very important that you keep your distance and do not disturb them. Sometimes reptiles are found close to, but not underneath the refugia. If you have binoculars and/or a camera with a good lens, it is occasionally possible to get photos of these from quite far away. Please do heed the ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ notices on the refugia and keep a good distance away – we pride ourselves at Blashford on contributing to science, conservation and education, and hope that visitors to the reserve will respect this.

Grass Snakes. Bob Taylor

By doing regular monitoring we not only see what types of reptiles are on the site but
we learn a bit more about their behaviour and how this changes throughout the year. We get to know the numbers of different populations of each species around the reserve, particularly by where they first emerge after the winter hibernation period. For those nerds amongst you the term for hibernation amongst snakes and amphibians is ‘brumation’. Brumation is the term used for the hibernation of cold-blooded animals.

Slow Worm. Jim Day

We generally see how the reptiles at Blashford respond to the temperature. In the morning they will emerge into the sunlight in order to raise their body temperature and enable their muscles etc. to become active. But during the day, a good time to see them could be in the sunshine after a dull, cloudy or damp period, when they will come out into the open to bask
and warm up. Once warm they will often move off to carry out their daily business, look for food, find a mate etc.

An extended period of hot weather is not usually good for sightings, as the reptiles have less need for the added warmth of the refugia. Snakes are usually found on the sunny sides of vegetation, along the edges where they are seldom far from dense cover for protection. But once warm it is not uncommon to see a grass snake swimming across a pond or a lake. They are sometimes known as ‘water snakes’. Any of the reptiles could be seen crossing paths and verges, so don’t rush your walks, you never know what you might see if you are walking softly.

Although snakes may eat a wide variety of food depending on what is available and
how hungry they are, adders and grass snakes tend to prioritise different types.
Adders mainly eat small rodents and lizards, whilst grass snakes’ preferred foods are
frogs, toads and newts.

Slow worms are, of course, NOT worms or snakes, but are actually legless lizards. Characteristics include the ability to shed their tails and blink with their eyelids, which snakes are unable to do. They have a different diet to snakes and feed on a variety of invertebrates; slugs, snails, spiders and earthworms.

One of our puzzles at Blashford is that we haven’t recorded any common lizards
even though the habitat would seem to be suitable; that is woodland, grassland,
brown field sites. We do have woodland, there are some grassy areas and we are a
former airfield and quarrying site after all. There have been a couple of suspected
sightings and one or two reports but no regular confirmation. If you see any do let us
know. Time and place would be good to know and if you can get a picture that would
be brilliant …although they are pretty quick to disappear!!

Common Lizard. The Wildlife Trusts

For those of you who are interested in learning more about any of these species,
surveying procedures etc. you can visit ARC, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.
https://www.arc-trust.org. Thank you to Jacki for writing this blog post, and to all the volunteers that are dedicated to recording and protecting the reptiles here at Blashford.

Don’t forget, if you’re uploading photos to Twitter please write Blashford Lakes within the post so that we can find it and retweet it!

Historical British Birds journals available – quite a collection!

British Birds (as I am sure many of you will know), is a monthly journal which began in 1907, and has been an incredible resource for birders ever since. https://britishbirds.co.uk/content/about-british-birds
These journals contain a range of material on behaviour, conservation, distribution, ecology, identification, movements, status and taxonomy, as well as the ‘latest’ news items and book reviews… or in the case of the ones we have at Blashford Lakes, some very historical information!

A while ago, we had some boxes of British Birds journals given to us, and there are just too many to put in the Welcome Hut. The collection goes as far back as 1946, to around 1999. We don’t have every year by any means, but the years we do have generally each monthly edition is present.

We are happy for these to go as an entire collection, or as specific years, but we don’t have the capacity at the moment to deal with lots of emails asking about specific journal dates etc. We have already a donation for a few years, which included the year the person started birdwatching, and the year of their binoculars!

If you (or somebody you know) would be interested in this rather wonderful historical record of British Birds for a suitable donation to Blashford and HIWWT, please email Chloe chloe.dalglish@hiwwt.org.uk to organise coming in to the Education Centre to take a look. Please note I work part-time, so I won’t always respond straight away. We really hope these journals can find good homes!

As ever, happy birding!

Invaded!

If YOU head down to Blashford Lakes tomorrow (Sunday 22nd May) you should be prepared for a big surprise!

A giant surprise even.

In fact a giant crayfish surprise!

James Fantom, South West Lakes Trust Invasive Species Officer, will be here in costume between 10am and 3pm to raise awareness of the invasive American signal-crayfish 🦞 during Invasive Species Week.

Found throughout the UK, their population has been thriving since they were brought to England as a fashionable shellfish in the 1970’s. These 15cm-long beasts are bad news for our native and endangered (listed as Endangered on the global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) White-clawed crayfish.

American-signal crayfish – clearly showing the white patch, or “signal”, on the base of the claw

American-signal crayfish are larger, more aggressive, breed faster than the native species, carry a fungal disease called ‘crayfish plague’, which is particular harmful to our native species, as well as depleting fisheries directly through predation of fish eggs and indirectly through their severely damaging and undermine river banks with their burrowing and hence destroying freshwater habitat.

So, it is clear that they’re bad news and, although not widespread at Blashford Lakes, they are very much present in water bodies across the Avon Valley and are known to be present at low densities within the nature reserve itself.

The best defence against the signal crayfish invader is biosecurity – ensuring that individual crayfish are not transported between waterbodies and that the spores from the crayfish plague are killed prior to entering another waterbody using the “CHECK – CLEAN – DRY” method for all equipment, footwear or clothing, which have been in the water, for example wellies/waders, boats, canoes, and nets.

So say “Hi” to James if you see him tomorrow and do ask him for more information about American signal-crayfish and other invasive non-native wildlife while he is here.

Young Naturalists in search of dragons

There were seven Young Naturalists for our end of April meeting, including one new member, Fletcher.  The theme this month was pond and river life, but first, as usual, we checked the overnight moth trap.  Despite a cold night, we did find a few moths in the trap, the best being a pair of Brindled Beauty, as well as a Sharp-angled Peacock. 

We headed to the pond for the rest of the morning, and our target was to find some dragonfly larvae, which we wanted to try and identify to species.  The pond produced loads of fine creatures, including five Smooth Newts (of whom three were males, showing very flashy crested tails). 

Male Smooth Newt

There was also a massive Great Diving Beetle, and lots of Water Hoglouse, Damselfly larvae and Whirligig Beetles, and we were delighted to catch a total of eight Dragonfly larvae.  We all agreed that they were all the same species, but it was difficult to know exactly which from our reference book, as several seemed quite similar.  On the day, we guessed that they might be Downy Emerald, but having done a little more research online, I think they were possibly Common Darter, with long, spidery legs, and a thick body, covered in fine hairs.

Dragonfly larva – possibly Common Darter

Over lunch, Fletcher had the opportunity to try out his macro photography skills, with a few close-up pictures of butterflies, including this nectaring Peacock.

Peacock butterfly, pictured by Fletcher

More of Fletcher’s photos can be seen on his Instagram:

https://instagram.com/fletcherfootsphotography?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

Rosie and Lucas pond-dipping

While we were at the pond, a visitor reported that there was a hornet flying around in one of the bird hides, so we went to have a look.  Fortunately, by the time we arrived, the hornet had made its way out, so we headed to the river.

In the Dockens Water

It is always good just to walk down the river in welly boots, and feel the flow of the stream around you, but we all wanted to see what we could catch.  We were soon using nets and kick sampling to have a look at the river creatures, including several fish.  We caught two Bullhead, and several small fry which looked like young Brown Trout, as well as Minnows.  We also found some spectacular Cased Caddis Fly larvae, a Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly larva, and more dragonfly larvae, this time Golden-ringed Dragonfly.

Cased Caddisfly larva
Golden-ringed Dragonfly larva

After releasing the fish and the other creatures back into the river, and washing up the equipment, we still had time to head down to Ivy South hide, where we watched a Mute Swan chase off a Canada Goose.  On the way to Ivy South we had great views of a Kingfisher on the Ivy Silt Pond, which hovered and dived for a fish while we watched.

We’ll be doing more birdwatching next month, and also looking for reptiles. For more details, and to book onto next month:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/blashford-lakes-young-naturalists-reptile-surveying-and-birdwatching-tickets-333481170157

The Terns are arriving at Blashford

There have been quite a few arrivals recently, the keen eyed of you will have noticed (without needing binoculars) that Jack Medley, our new Reserves Officer has now started. I am sure he will do a blog introducing himself soon, but at the moment he has quite a lot of information to absorb, Blashford is a big site with a lot of history!

Of the winged variety of arrivals – the Sand Martin wall has had a flurry of activity, and a Swift or two have been spotted around Lapwing hide. The CES monitoring has also started, with Kevin reporting many returning Reed Warblers.

Those of you who have been out on the reserve recently will have noticed the Terns arriving in small numbers, and Jack thought it was time to begin putting out the rafts. The tern rafts are put out gradually, as the gulls do have a habit of taking over, and we very much want at least a few to be occupied by terns!

With the help of Simon King and others from our Lower Test team, one Tern raft has now been deployed on Ivy Lake. The regular Blashford work party groups have been instrumental in getting the rafts up together and ready for this season, alongside Jo from Fishlake and Jack. Over the next few weeks the rafts for Ibsley Water will be prepared, and more rafts will be put out on both Ivy Lake and Ibsley Water as Tern numbers increase.

WARNING! Main car park and Tern Hide CLOSURE this weekend!

Fri 28th April – Mon 2nd May

Challenging Events Ltd are leasing the main car park for use during their Huntsman triathlon event on Sunday, including time either side of the weekend for their event set up. As a result their will be no car parking available to visitors in the main car park adjacent to Tern Hide from Friday to Monday. There will be no access to Tern Hide at all on Sunday and access may also be limited, or impossible, for all or some of Friday, Saturday and Monday.

Pedestrian access to the Ibsley Water viewing platform will be possible throughout this period and nor is any of the rest of the reserve affected. Visitors to the nature reserve will use the parking on the Education Centre side of the nature reserve – but as this has limited capacity you may prefer to visit on a different occasion.

If you do choose to visit us over the bank holiday weekend and particularly on the Sunday while the triathlon itself is taking place, please be particularly vigilant for race marshals and athletes around the entrance to the nature reserve off Ellingham Drove. There should not be any spectators/supporters in this area but just because they are not supposed to be there does not mean that there won’t be any!

Blashford birders and photographers – we need your help to record ringed Lapwing and Redshank.

The GWCT Wetlands department is studying the breeding ecology of redshank in the Avon Valley and are aiming to discover more about this fascinating bird’s breeding behaviour and ecology. We need a better knowledge of redshank territory size and how faithful birds are to their breeding sites within a breeding season and between seasons. We also need to know about the movement of birds in the valley – where they feed and where they go to in winter. This information allows us to refine management recommendations designed to benefit redshank, by understanding the specific habitats that are most important for nest and chick-rearing, and the areas of habitat required by each pair. We are using colour ringing to investigate these questions.

Adult ringed Redshank

Colour ringing involves fitting a unique combination of coloured rings to a bird’s leg. This enables identification of an individual bird in the field, without the need to recapture the bird to read the metal ring number. Larger, long-lived species like waders and gulls are particularly suited to colour ringing because the bird and its rings are more visible and may be reported multiple times during the bird’s life. Ringing of all kinds is only performed under strict licence, and colour-ringing projects must obtain approval from a central co-ordinator that considers both bird welfare and the viability of the study.

If you are spending time at Blashford and are able to photograph any ringed Lapwing and Redshank clearly that would be incredibly helpful. Please share the information as per the details on the bottom of the information sheet.