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.

kingfisher fishlake

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)

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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

Storksbill blashford dec

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.

drinker moth caterpillar dec

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.

Fencing, banks, paths, scrub & birds!

There has been a lot more happening around Fishlake Meadows recently. Some new chestnut paling fencing has gone in at the southern end of the canal path. This has been put in to smarten up the first section that many people who visit the nature reserve see. It gives the beginning of the path a much more cared for look I think.

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Next to the car park a small section of path has been laid to make the pedestrian access better from the new housing development. Before the access was just an area of grass that was becoming muddy and worn as people walked over it, this new section of path will protect the surrounding grass and shouldn’t get muddy through the winter. Along the canal bank, restoration work has been started in areas where the bank has become eroded.

Work parties have continued with scrub cutting near the canal and have made wonderful progress. The views through to the water from the canal are much better now. In the areas that were cut last year, the reeds are growing well, increasing the size of the reedbed. The areas cleared this year should develop in the same way.

Before scrub cutting on 4th Nov and after scrub cutting 21st Nov

Comparison of before the work party on the 4th November and the end of the work party on the 21st November.

You may notice that the stumps have been left high rather than cut low to the ground. This is something that Bob Chapman had started doing at Blashford Lakes, and found that instead of getting regrowth, the stumps died off. Therefore we’re trialling the same approach at Fishlake Meadows. It may not work in the same way it did at Blashford Lakes, but we feel it’s worth a shot.

Beofre and after 21.11.18

Photo from the start of the work party on the 21st November and when we had finished. Stumps left high, which will hopefully lead to less regrowth as at Blashford.

Wildlife at Fishlake Meadows has been wonderful in the last few weeks. There have regularly been 2 great white egrets around (possibly 3), goldeneye, pintail, kingfisher, marsh harrier and lots of water rail squealing away. The starlings are gathering in higher and higher numbers which is attracting a peregrine falcon regularly. With the weather staying colder we could start to see even more interesting wildlife putting in an appearance.

Heron in tree

Grey heron perched at the top of a dead tree.

 

Scrub cutting, dragging & dead hedging

Since the 24th October there have been 2 more work parties at Fishlake Meadows, both of which have seen a lot of rain! On 4th November, the first Sunday work party, we made a start on clearing another block of the mature willow scrub that runs parallel to the Barge Canal. Clearing more of this scrub has several benefits; it creates better views across the nature reserve from the Barge Canal, it continues the programme of rotational scrub cutting and should allow the reeds to expand and grow right through the area that’s opened up.

Before scrub cutting on 4th Nov and after scrub cutting on 7th Nov

Top photo showing before scrub cutting started on the 4th November and the bottom showing a much thinner block of scrub at the end of the work party on the 7th November.

Seven volunteers came along to the work party on the 4th November, and made a great start on cutting the willow, dragging it out of the knee deep muddy water, and stacking it up ready for dead hedging. They worked incredibly hard, managing to drag all of the material cut that day to near where the new bit of dead hedging was going.

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Volunteers making a start on the dead hedge from the huge pile of cut willow.

On the 7th November, with a few more people and a huge pile of cut willow, half the group made a start on dead hedging, while the other half continued cutting and dragging. Again, everyone worked very hard and managed to get all of the material already cut in to a dead hedge.

Work party 7.11.18 brash pile before

The pile of willow at the start of the day, the volunteers starting to cut up the brash for the dead hedge.

Work party 7.11.18 brash pile and dead hedge after

After! All the willow has been cut up and made in to a very neat dead hedge.

The dead hedges create wonderful habitat for birds and invertebrates. The dead hedges that we built last year frequently have robins, blackcaps and great tits foraging in them. They are built by intertwining cut material to create a dense pile of brash. As the brash begins to dry out and die, the hedge will sink down, allowing more brash to simply be added to it the following year. A big thank you to all the volunteers who have been to work parties so far this year.

First Fishlake winter work party 2018

On Wednesday 24th October we had our first work party of the winter at Fishlake Meadows. It was a wonderful sunny day and incredibly mild, so not very wintery at all! Eleven volunteers came out to give their time helping with management of Fishlake Meadows. They were all very excited to be helping out to be getting the work parties started for the winter.

View from right viewing screen

Lovely sunny day for scrub cutting

The task for the day was to improve the views at the viewing screens which are at the end of the newly laid and opened permissive path, and also to do some scrub cutting along the new permissive path. The wonderful volunteers managed to clear the willows from in front of the screen overlooking the reeds (photo of the view above). This has created a lovely view in to the reedbed and should allow the chance to see reed warbler, sedge warbler and reed bunting up close. Photos below show how the screens looked before and after, it turned out to be an awful lot of willow that needed to be cleared.

Reed and willow scrub screen

Right hand screen before scrub cutting

Willow cleared from right hand screen oct 18

Right hand screen now cleared

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In front of the screen overlooking the water we were able to cut the willow sapling and the reeds, this has made the view of the water much clearer and wider. Sightings from this screen include gadwall, kingfisher, great white egret, hobby and teal.

View from left viewing screen

Left hand screen with willow sapling blocking the view

Reeds cleared from left hand screen oct 18

Left hand screen once reeds and willow cut down

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then moved on to thinning out some of the scrub along the permissive path. This allowed us to open up some views of the ponds along the path too. The scrub that was cut was used to build some dead hedges. As these rot down they create wonderful habitat for birds and invertebrates. The volunteers were very pleased with the results of their hard work and are looking forward to the next work parties.

volunteers scrub cutting oct 18

Volunteers working hard together to cut willow

scrub cutting along permissive path Oct 18

Pond now visible from the path between the willow scrub

If you would like to get involved with the work parties or other volunteering at Fishlake Meadows, please get in touch with me at jo.armson@hiwwt.org.uk.

Great Expectations and Small Surprises

I was not at Blashford for most of yesterday, a site meeting at Fishlake to look at the upgrade work to the canal footpath, followed by a meeting about tern conservation meant that it was mid-afternoon before I arrived.

I was at Fishlake a little early so had a quick look over the reserve, the only bird of any note was a great white egret, although these are now more or less in the “expected” category these days.

The tern meeting was interesting, if a little depressing. Our terns are declining,  in almost every year for the last three decades or more they have failed to produce sufficient young to maintain the population. Problems are many, but sea level rise is major among them, there are fewer places to nest and these are being competed over by gulls, terns and shore nesting waders. Added to this, even some of the remaining areas that are available are visited too often by people for the bird to feel safe.

There are lots of local initiatives aimed at arresting the decline, involving building shingle banks, putting up electric fencing and wardening. But it is all small scale and local gains cannot address the overall decline. It epitomises the problem that those of us working in conservation have, however “successful” we are with nature reserves we are all too often not doing more than delaying the inevitable for many species. Reserves can act as refuges but unless the chance is there for species to spread out from them they will eventually be lost. A nature reserve is just to small, too isolated to be able to provide a genuinely viable home for most species in the long term.

When I did eventually get to Blashford and got over to Tern hide I was surprised to see an adult little gull, then even more surprised to see two, then three and finally four. They were sometimes dipping after insects on the lake’s surface right in front of the hide, a magical sight.

Recent night shave been especially mild and quite good for moths, combined with some southerly winds this is a recipe for catching migrants. There have been some rarities around but the best I have caught was a vestal on Sunday.

vestal

vestal

Today’s catch was pretty good as well and included sallow, pink-barred sallow, red-line Quaker, satellite, straw dot, white-point, chestnut, snout, large wainscot, beaded chestnut, barred sallow, canary-shouldered thorn, black rustic, lunar underwing, lesser yellow underwing, large yellow underwing, frosted orange, feathered thorn, several Epirrita (a group of hard to identify moths including autumnal moth, and the two November moths), Hysopygia glaucinalis (a Pyralid moth) and the pick of the bunch a Clifden nonpareil.

Clifden nonpareil

Clifden nonpareil, also known as blue underwing

The Clifden nonpareil used to be a rare migrant, but is evidently established locally in southern England now, as it used to be before it died out. It is a close relative of the more familiar red underwing, but is larger and with a blue and black hind wing. I did catch a red underwing the other night too.

red underwing

red underwing

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.

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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.

Taking Stock

Things have been relatively quiet at Blashford recently, although also very busy! Quiet in that we are in a time when the breeding season is more or less over and the migration season has hardly started.

Overall the bird nesting season was a mixed story. Resident birds mostly started late, the snow in March set them back. The migrants were mostly late arriving, with some in lower numbers than usual. It seemed that migrants that come from the SE were much as usual but those that take the West African route were down. Having arrived most small birds relished the warm weather with lots of insects to feed their young and seem to have done well. Resident species have had a more mixed time, single brooded species such as blue tits have done well, multi-brooded worm feeders like blackbird and song thrush have had a harder time.

Overall it has been a bumper season for insects, in the main they all do well in a hot summer a hot summer, although those that use shallow wetlands are probably finding things difficult.

six-spot burnet

six-spot burnet moth

As the breeding season ends we are starting to see some migration, swift are leaving as are the young of the first brood of sand martin and adult cuckoo have all gone. The first waders are coming back from the north, green sand piper and a number of common sandpiper have been seen on the reserve.

Yesterday a party of 7 black-tailed godwit flew south over Ibsley Water, they were in full breeding plumage and showed no sign of moult, so I would guess they were newly arrived from Iceland. If conditions are good they will make the flight in one go, arriving at a favoured moult site such as one of the harbours on the south coast. Once they get here wing moult starts almost straight away.

Further signs of approaching autumn are rather larger, at Fishlake Meadows 2 osprey have recently been seen perched up in the dead trees, one carries a blue ring, apparently ringed as a nestling in Scotland.

The prolonged hot weather is taking a toll, a lot of trees are losing their leaves in an attempt to reduce water loss, some will lose branches and as the ground dries one or two are falling. Perhaps surprisingly it is often trees growing on usually damp sites that are suffering the most. Easily accessible water in typical times mean they have not developed such large or deep root systems and are more vulnerable in drought conditions.