Butterflies and Beetles

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

green hairstreak

green hairstreak – a reserve first!

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

common malachite beetle

common malachite beetle

Longhorn beetles are also starting to appear.

longhorn beetle pair

longhorn beetle pair

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

Weekend wanderings – part 2!

As promised earlier in the week, here’s what happened on day two of our Young Naturalists New Forest residential.

On Sunday morning we started bright and early, meeting Home Farm’s Education Officer Steve Barnard for an animal feed session. Steve took us on a tour of the farm, letting the group help out with some of the feeding tasks, collecting eggs and generally having the opportunity to ooh and ahh or gobble at every animal they came across…it was a definite highlight of the weekend!

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We particularly enjoyed watching Lysander feed the ducks, which he had to get to via some sheep…he did a brilliant job…

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After our fun feed session we thanked Steve for his time and went to meet Paul and Mandy Manning from Amews Falconry for an incredibly informative falconry demonstration. We began in the garden room with Paul introducing us to four different birds, an American red tailed hawk, a peregrine falcon, a kestrel and a European eagle owl. He gave the group a basic understanding of these different birds of prey along with their training and care.

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We then headed outside for two tremendous flying displays from a Harris hawk and a Gyr falcon.

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Paul with the Gyr falcon

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Gyr falcon by Geoff Knott

Thank you Paul and Mandy for a fabulous morning!

We then headed over the Lepe Country Park for lunch followed by a wander through the nature reserve.  Whilst at Lepe we saw peacock, brimstone, red admiral, holly blue, orange tip and large white butterflies along with kestrel, swift, chaffinch, shelduck, godwit, redshank, grey heron, blue tit, Canada goose, little egret, oystercatcher, lapwing, black headed gull and ferel pigeon.

After an ice cream break we headed along the shore for a spot of beach combing before it was time to head back to Home Farm and head home.

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Everyone had a really enjoyable weekend, adults included! We managed to find 52 species of bird, plus seven different types of butterfly, an extraordinary great diving beetle larvae on a mission and two different species of bat on our wanderings. We visited heathland, broadleaved woodland and the coast, well and truly exploring this lovely part of the forest.

Will’s favourite part of the weekend was hearing his first cuckoo while Lysander enjoyed beach combing at Lepe. Everyone else enjoyed the farm feed session and the falconry display whilst visiting Needs Ore and listening to churring nightjars were both firm favourites with the adults.

Which leaves me to say a huge thank you to volunteers Emily, Harry, Nigel and Geoff who gave up an entire weekend to spend time with the group, cooking one splendid dinner, two great breakfasts and preparing two lunches – we couldn’t have done the residential without you!!

Thanks too to the Countryside Education Trust for being such great hosts, Home Farm was a great place to stay and hopefully we’ll be able to visit again soon!

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We’ve had a fab weekend, we’re just a tad sleepy…

Our Young Naturalists project is funded by the Cameron Bespolka Trust – empowering today’s youth through love for nature.

Brilliant Volunteers

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

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

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

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Lichen Heath close-up

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

Lichen heath before

Lichen heath before surface stripping

Lichen heath after

Lichen heath after surface stripping

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

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

hairy bird's foot

Hairy bird’s-foot trefoil

 

slender bird's foot

slender bird’s-foot trefoil

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

lime hawk pair mating

Lime-hawk moth pair

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

skunk cabbage

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

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

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

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

 

Meanwhile, Back at Blashford

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

brown argus

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

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

grass snake

grass snake on gravel

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

common blue damselfly

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

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

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

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

Weekend wanderings – part 1!

This weekend ten Young Naturalists joined us for our first weekend residential in the New Forest, staying from 7pm Friday night until 4pm Sunday afternoon at the Countryside Education Trust‘s Home Farm centre in Beaulieu.

From our base we explored a mixture of habitats including the local heathland, the traditionally managed broadleaf woodland at Pondhead, near Lyndhurst, the Needs Ore Marshes which form part of the North Solent National Nature Reserve, the farm at Home Farm and the shoreline at Lepe. We also had time for fascinating and informative falconry display by Amews Falconry, so all in all it was a fun, varied and packed weekend!

Here’s what we got up to…

After settling ourselves in at Home Farm, we headed out onto the heathland at Fawley Inclosure in search of churring nightjars, meeting up with Bob just after 8.30pm who was going to be our guide for the evening. We didn’t have to wait long! After walking a short distance down to the dip near Flash Pond we picked up their distinctive call, pausing to listen. We staying in this part of the Inclosure for a few minutes and were rewarded for our patience, with at least two different birds deciding to fly. One perched on the top of a gorse bush giving us great views of this secretive bird in the evening light.

I’m sure you can make out the nightjar shape in the photo below…thanks Nigel!

spot the nightjar Nigel Owen

Spot the nightjar… by Nigel Owen

We also spotted Stonechats and on turning on the bat detectors picked up both Common and Soprano pipistrelles. It was a great spot for Nightjar spotting so thank you Bob for sharing it with us.

On Saturday morning we headed over to Pondhead Inclosure, just outside Lyndhurst. The inclosure is a unique area of woodland in the Forest, being the only remaining area of hazel coppice with oak standards on the Crown land. In addition is has not been grazed by ponies and cattle for well over a century which has resulted in a rich variety of flora. Today the woodland is managed by the Pondhead Conservation Trust in partnership with the Forestry Commission.

Woodland walk at pondhead2

Walking through the woodland at Pondhead

Here we met Derek Tippetts who led us on an informative wander around the woodland, sharing his knowledge of the site’s history along with its current management, namely hazel coppicing and charcoal production. Charcoal burning is a historic New Forest industry which traditionally takes place during the summer months, thus complementing the winter coppice management. It also enables the Trust to manage the woodland in a self sustainable way through the sale of their New Forest charcoal to the local community.

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We were lucky to have caught the end of the bluebells which still carpeted the woodland floor, along with greater stitchwort and wood spurge. We also spotted herb Robert and bugle.

After being impressed by the craftsmanship that went into creating the Pondhead dragon, we made our way back to the minibus and thanked Derek for our brilliant guided tour (we had definitely lost our bearings by this point after venturing down some of the smaller paths and grassy rides!).

Pondhead dragon Nigel Owen

Pondhead dragon by Nigel Owen

From Pondhead we headed back towards Beaulieu, making our way down to Needs Ore Point for a picnic lunch. It was a lovely spot for a picnic, listening to the oystercatchers and redshank and watching the boats on the Beaulieu River.

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Our lunchtime view from Needs Ore Point

We explored the point, peeking into the old gull watching hut, spotting Sandwich terns as they flew past and watching the nesting oystercatchers.

We then made our way back along the track to the Needs Ore Marshes, which form part of Natural England’s North Solent National Nature Reserve. We spotted three distant spoonbills whilst crossing the field towards the hides and spent some time watching the birds on the Blackwater. We had heard a cuckoo calling throughout the afternoon, but the girls were lucky enough to spot one from one of the hides, which landed briefly on a tree in front of them before taking off again.

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We then walked further up the track, making our way towards Gravelly Marsh in search of a good view towards the Isle of Wight and to see what other bird life we could spot. We were stopped in our tracks however by two lapwing calling overhead. On close inspection of the ground below we spotted two lapwing chicks, camouflaged in amongst the soft rush and grass. We didn’t go any further and watched them for a few minutes before leaving them in peace.

On our way back to the track we were stopped again, but this time by the larvae of a great diving beetle, not something we expected to see wriggling its way with determination over the grass! We took a lot of photos before moving out of its way.

From here we got back on the minibus and made our way round to Park Lane, following the footpath down to Park Shore. We followed the shoreline back towards Gravelly Marsh to see if we could spot any nesting avocets on the nature reserve. We walked as close as we could and were able to spot a number in and on the edge of the pools on Great Marsh.

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Megan also found time for some sand art on the beach:

After a lot of bird spotting and making the most of the sunshine, we decided we had walked far enough for one day and headed wearily back to the minibus then back to the centre for dinner, cooked expertly by Emily and Harry.

Small copper Jackson Hellewell

Small copper by Jackson Hellewell

Thank you to Derek Tippetts for our excellent and informative tour of Pondhead and to Adam Wells, Reserves Officer, for his tips on where to go and what to look out for whilst on Needs Ore Point and Marshes and whilst exploring this fabulous part of the North Solent Natural Nature Reserve. Thanks too to Adam for sorting out our permissions for visiting both here and Park Shore with the Beaulieu Estate.

Thanks also to Geoff, Nigel, Jackson, Megan C and Megan Y for taking lots of fab photos during the day and for letting me pinch them in the evening for the blog.

Our wildlife sightings for Friday evening and day one (in no particular order!) were:

Stonechat, nightjar, soprano pipistrelle, common pipistrelle, Canada geese, greylag geese, cuckoo, linnet, chiff chaff, mistle thrush, spoonbill, lapwing, two lapwing chicks, reed bunting, reed warbler, black headed gulls, avocet, redshank, turnstone, mallard, blue tit, oystercatcher, ringed plover, Sandwich tern, common tern, cormorant, robin, red legged partridge, pheasant, gadwall, pied wagtail, mute swan, grey heron, Cetti’s warbler, wood pigeon, coot, crow, jackdaw, goldfinch, starling, little egret, swallow, blackbird, rook, shelduck, sparrow, kestrel, little grebe, house martin, pochard and skylark, along with great diving beetle larvae and a small copper butterfly.

To be continued…

Progress Against an Invader

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

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

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

Bonaparte's gull

Bonaparte’s gull (right)

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

 

 

Out and About in the Sunshine

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

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

slender groundhopper 2

Slender groundhopper

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

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

leaf beetle

leaf beetle on hawthorn

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