30 Days Wild – Day 30: At Last!

Sorry for the late post of this the last day of 30 Days Wild, but my 30th day was spent on the road. On my travels I passed through areas of the country that I have lived in during years gone by. It was interesting to see that there were buzzard almost everywhere, I remember when it was necessary to go west to at least the Welsh borders to see one. I also saw red kite, once so rare that a special trip was the only option if you wanted a glimpse of one.

As my post is late it coincides with National Meadows Day, so I will mention one of the other things I noticed on my travels, the verges and how they were managed. I was mostly on the motorway network so much of the grass was long, with scattered banks of scrub. I was disappointing to see the particularly wide banks of grassland beside the M6 Toll road being mown short even right to the top and the cuttings left lying, it looked very “neat” but was a disaster for wildlife. I don’t know if it was because it was a toll road but this was thankfully the only section I saw getting quite such brutal treatment.

Incidentally I make no apology for not applying the strict definition of a meadow, that is a field where herbage is cut as a crop, dried in the sun and removed to feed livestock, there are rather few of these now. For my purposes, if it is a grass and hopefully, herb mix that is maintained with little or no spring grazing, it could be a meadow as far as most of the species that use meadows are concerned. So wide verges, roundabouts, golf course rough and corporate greensward all count.

As I said I spent the day on the road, in fact it was also part of the night as well, due to road closures and subsequent detours. On the nocturnal part of my journey I saw a couple of foxes and another recent addition to south-east England, a polecat, which trotted across the road in front of me as I was navigating a back route alternative to the A34.

Today I was at Lepe Country Park, where they were opening a new sensory garden, put together by staff and the Friends of Lepe, it is very fine and well worth a visit. Many years ago I used to work at Lepe and one of the projects I did then was to add what is now the meadow area at the north of the site onto the Country Park. It had been a deep ploughed cereal field but we seeded it and thirty years on is a meadow afforded SINC (Site of Importance for Nature Conservation) status. I took a quick look today and it was alive with butterflies, maybe not an old meadow but a great one for wildlife. This is one of the wonderful things about grassland, a relatively few years of good management can produce something of real value for wildlife. Despite this it is trees that get planted all the time as good for nature conservation, yet most of these secondary woodlands will still be struggling to reach anything like their potential in a few centuries. Plant a tree if you must, but make a meadow if you can or persuade someone who manages grass to step back and appreciate that they manage a wonderful habitat, not a green carpet. With a little imagination we could be surrounded by meadows.

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30 Days Wild – Day 29: A Grave Day

Luckily not as bad as it sounds, in fact actually a “Jolly”. Each year the volunteer team have a day out at Kitt’s Grave, it is part of the Martin Down National Nature Reserve but belongs to the Wildlife Trust. Although it is managed by Natural England we usually go up top do a couple of tasks each winter, although we did not make it last season. We have been assisting in the clearance of scrub to open up glades and ultimately restore areas of chalk grassland. As we have been doing this for some years it is interesting to see how the habitat has been developing, I am pleased to say that the answer is well so far.

Our visits are usually a great chance to see lots of butterflies, but as we left the car park this morning we were wondering if we would see any at all. Luckily we had a good start in other ways, with a turtle dove purring away in the thorns. Crossing the road to Kitt’s Grave we heard a lesser whitethroat and heard and saw yellowhammer and corn bunting. Then a surprise, a ringlet, then more and marbled white, small skipper, meadow brown, small heath and even dark green fritillary. Although it was overcast it was warm enough for insects to be active, but not so warm that they were too flighty, this allowed a great chance to get really good views as they basked in an attempt to get warm.

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basking ringlet

Some of the butterflies were warm enough to get on with life.

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ringlet pair mating

The marbled white were especially numerous and lots of the females were egg-laying.

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marbled white male basking

I noticed one small skipper below a pyramidal orchid flower spike, at first I thought it was sheltering, but it did not look right, then I realised that it was actually in the jaws of a crab spider, ambushed as it was trying to get warm, or maybe feeding. Luckily not all of them had fallen victim to predators.

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small skipper on scabious

We also saw silver-washed fritillary, but the most surprising butterfly seen was a purple hairstreak, picked up off the path, but which flew off before a picture could be taken. Although we never saw the sun we did see a common lizard, sitting out in the hope of catching a few rays. As we always do and despite unpromising conditions we had a great time and saw a lot of wildlife. Martin Down is a magical place to go and a reminder of what large parts of the southern chalk must once have been like.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 28: Good for Snails?

This maybe the time of year when the sun is at its highest but it was hard to tell today as it never actually stopped raining, it eased to drizzle at times, but never stopped.  It seemed that the return of wet weather had every froglet, toadlet, slug and snail out and about in celebration of the end of the hot, dry days.

The night was damp but warm with the cloud overhead and the moth trap was quite busy again, I had only one out last night. Although it is a “Moth trap” it would be more correct to call it a nocturnal flying insect trap as it catches many other insects, in fact sometimes many more non-moths than moths. One of last night’s non-moths was a fly and one that probably also benefits from damp conditions as it was a snail-killing fly. It is actually the larvae that are the killers of snails and slugs. Considering I have so many slugs and snails in my garden it is surprising I have never found a snail-killing fly there, although the reason for this is that they do not generally prey on the common garden species.

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snail-killing fly

I also realised that yesterday’s moth catch included one that was new to the reserve, although all the books describe it as “common”, I had never seen one before. It was a green arches. Looking at the distribution map for Hampshire it is apparent that it avoids the New Forest area for some reason, despite being a moth of damp woodland, perhaps it does not like acid soils.

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green arches

The heavy rain in the morning did present one surprise, as I opened up the Tern hide there was a flock of 20 black-tailed godwit flying around, eventually landing to the east of the hide. They were all in fine, red breeding plumage, these were Icelandic godwits returning to the south coast for the winter, or at least to moult. They had all their wing feathers too, which would indicate that they had probably arrived straight from Iceland and just been forced low by the rain. This early in the “autumn” they will be birds that have failed to breed successfully so head to the south coast of England to undergo their post-breeding moult. This will start only once they get here so they can make the journey fully feathered, having arrived they will start to moult their wing feathers almost immediately. Moulting is an energy intensive business, but there is lots of food in the mud at this time of year and not many waders around competing for it, so their strategy is a good one. A lot of godwits from this population have been given colour-rings, so when they landed I checked through the flock, but there were all unadorned.

30 Days Wild – Day 27: Location, Location, Location

After several days of the forecast promising rain in a couple of days, it finally arrived, although not yet in great quantity it is none the less welcome, so long as it does not get out of hand.

I have been running two moth traps at Blashford on several recent nights and it is remarkable how different the catches are. On trap is on the open ground beside the Centre and the other about 50m away under some trees. One of the most immediate differences that I notice when opening the traps is that the one close to the Centre has hawk-moths in it, that under the trees does not. Clearly the hawk-moths favour flying over open ground, perhaps their fast flight is just not suited to confined spaces, like trying to drag race around the streets of Fordingbridge. Under the trees there are many more smaller moths, is seems probably that they are actively avoiding the open spaces where their weak flight may mean they lose control over where they are going.  It has certainly been a lesson in importance of exact location in determining what is caught.

As a further illustration of the difference that location made is that the trap in the open caught 34 species, whilst the one under the trees 40 species, but there were only 18 species that were caught in both traps. Both have been run for the same time each night, coming on and going off at the same time, the effect would seem to be due to where they have been running. Open sites might be expected to catch less on windy nights but last night was not windy so this is unlikely to have been a factor and both sites are shaded from the morning sun, which might otherwise warm the moths and means some fly out of the trap, so lost moths can probably be discounted too. Clearly I will need to give more consideration to precisely where I put the trap in future as it would seem to be a very important factor determining what gets caught.

30 Days Wild – Day 26: In the Woods

A day of meetings for me today, but at least one of them was in a woodland on a small reserve where we are looking at some works to rejuvenate a mire that is getting shaded out by willow, birch and pine. The area has a lot of fallow deer and although we saw only a couple of adults we found two fawns lying up in the bracken.

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fallow fawn

There were a few butterflies out including meadow brown and ringlet, but it was reptiles that stole the day. We saw a very large female grass snake and as we were leaving a fine male adder.

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adder

I had to wait until I got home to see my other highlight of the day, when I checked the moth trap it contained a small elephant hawk-moth, one of my favourite species.

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small elephant hawk-moth

 

30 Days Wild – Day 25: Very Black and White

I made a brief foray to the coast in the morning and was rewarded with the sight of a pair of avocet with two chicks. The parents were very alert, using their typical contact call to keep in touch and a very distinctive alarm call whenever a great black-backed gull or similar predator was spotted. The chicks obviously knew exactly what this meant and immediately stopped their feeding on the open mud and ran into the long grass beside the lagoon.

I managed two very poor shots of one of the feeding adults, they were much too active for digi-scoping.

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feeding avocet

Although broad sweeps of the surface layer are the typical method of feeding there were times when there was a need to get further in.

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Deep feeding

Avocet are not the rarity they once were and a real conservation success story, they are also one of those species that sort of demand to be looked at.

30 Days Wild – Day 24: Wild in the Garden

Gardens are also habitats, domesticated but at the same time with potential to be wild. They are very diverse and cover a large area when totalled together, but they are also dynamic, styles of gardening change over time and with changes of ownership. So however good for wildlife they might become they are individually precarious places for wildlife. An example of this is the change that happened to the garden of my former home, after twenty years something of a wildlife haven with breeding grass snake and slow worm, the new owners filled the pond, laid the whole to grass and fenced it to allow their dogs to roam safely. This is not to say that having a wildlife garden for twenty years was a waste of time. Lots of species will have benefited and most will have spread out to new homes and they will mostly have been species that are good at moving around to have got to my garden in the first place.

The more people that can find space for wildlife in their gardens the more “stepping stone” patches that wildlife can use to move about, potentially connecting populations and reducing local extinctions.

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Lady’s bedstraw now flowering in our back garden mini-meadow

Such little patches of grassland will not make a huge difference on their own but when added to other nearby patches in other gardens, on road verges and playing field edges might add up to enough to support populations  of many insects such as this robberfly.

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Dioctria baumhaueri with prey

Robberflies are predators, so if the habitat can support a predator it must also be supporting populations of its prey, the presence of predators is a positive sign.

It has been for sometime a mantra of conservationists that  we need a countryside that has habitats that are “Bigger, Better and more Joined-up”. Larger areas will support more species and be more resilient to species loss. It is useful if the patches actually join, so are contiguous, but if not then as close as possible with stepping stones or, better still, corridors between them. Contiguity, or if you prefer continuity of area is important as is continuity in time. Very short-lived bits of habitat will hold fewer species than ancient sites with very little change. Some specialists thrive on change and to do well need bare, new sites, rapidly being ousted by other species once things settle down, but even these species need a continuous supply of new sites, so continuity is still vital to their survival. Looking at habitat in this way, seeking the continuities can allow you to spot where the valuable sites are, even in the absence of wildlife records. It might also suggest what are the key habitats on which to concentrate management for the most positive outcomes.

30 Days Wild – Day 23: Priorities

Finally a day when it was cool enough to get out on site with some machinery to get some of the paths trimmed. This is not the most glamorous of reserve management tasks but it has to be done. Managing a nature reserve is full of conflicting demands and dilemmas. No management is without impact and what is positive for one group of species will be negative for others. Trimming the paths often means cutting back nettles, as most will know these are the food plant of peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies, so I try to avoid cutting the patches in full sun which they prefer and to do larger scale cutting only after they caterpillars have finished feeding.

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a fresh summer brood small tortoiseshell

The clearance of dense nettlebeds promotes patches of grassland and other herbage which is preferred by a wider range of species such as small skipper, which have just started to fly this year.

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small skipper

Over the years I have managed many different sites used for various purposes, ranging from nature reserves, long distance paths, picnic sites and Country Parks and these dilemmas occur at all of them. In truth all land management involves conflicting interests and all land is in multiple use. On a nature reserve wildlife will take precedence over most of the site, but access and safety will be paramount in some areas. I do believe that whatever the land use, it is wrong to deny the multiple interests, land management is about balancing interests not ignoring some entirely. Above all management should be about maintaining and enhancing the possibilities that are available for the future, good management is about increasing potential not applying a full stop.

Following Day 22’s horsefly picture I got another, this time of a male Hybomitra species in flight. This one is Hybomitra distinguenda and they fly very fast indeed, the picture was taken at 1/4000 sec and the wings are still in motion.

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Hybomitra distinguenda

It is reputed that a species of this genus, albeit a rather large one from Southern Africa is the fastest flying insect having allegedly been clocked at 90 mph!

I have noted before how Blashford has many species that have come in from elsewhere, often due to the somewhat chequered industrial history. We have a number of coastal species including a very large population of annual beard grass, perhaps the largest in    the county, the natural habitat for it is poached upper saltmarsh, such a scan be found at Farlington Marshes.

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Mayweed flower in annual beard grass.

 

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 22: Punctuated

It was thankfully cooler today which allowed us to do some work along the open western shore of Ibsley Water. As it was Thursday the “us” was the famous Blashford volunteer team. We were trimming brambles and pulling ragwort. I know ragwort is a great nectar source, but in this case we are trying to establish grassland where there has been bramble, willow and nettlebeds, this means mowing, but as we have ponies on site we need to remove the ragwort first. Ponies will rarely eat growing ragwort, but if cut and mixed in grass they will and so can get poisoned.

This shore was dominated by huge beds of ragwort and nettles but years of cutting and light grazing are taking effect and we now have mostly grassland with patches of ox-eye daisy, bird’s foot trefoil and other more desirable species. In turn this is attracting insects such as long-winged conehead.

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long-winged conehead, female nymph

We saw a good few butterflies including good numbers of comma. It seems they are having a very good year and the fresh summer brood emerging now is particularly strong. This generation will breed and produce another generation of adult in the autumn which will them hibernate.

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comma

They get their name from the white comma-shaped marking on the under-wing, which is not visible in this shot. Their ragged wing outline makes them less butterfly-shaped and so harder for predators to find, this is especially so when the wings are closed.

I ran two moth traps last night, only about 50m apart, but one under trees and the other in the open. An illustration of what a difference location makes is seen from the number of hawk-moths caught. The one in the open contained 8 elephant hawk-moth, a pine hawk-moth and 2 poplar hawk-moth, whereas the one under the trees contained just one eyed hawk-moth.

As you will have gathered from this blog, I am a fan of insects in general, even horseflies, although I am less keen on them when they come into the office as this one did today.

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Chrysops relictus female

It is the females that bite, so it would be better if this one went outside again.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 21: More Dragons than Game of Thrones

Although thankfully less death and destruction and all the dragons are dragonflies, they are really enjoying the hot weather. From a photography point of view the heat makes it very difficult to get close to them as they are extremely active. I saw lots of emperor dragonfly today, there have been a number of reports of  the migrant lesser emperor in recent days, although none from Blashford as yet. I did manage to get a picture of a male black-tailed skimmer today though, perched along the path to Ivy South hide as I went to lock up.

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black-tailed skimmer male

The butterflies are also liking the conditions although avoiding the very hottest part of the day. I did see my first ringlet of the year, again on the path to Ivy South hide, they are usually most frequent on the northern side of the reserve, it was too active for me to get a picture this time.

In recent days I have noticed that there almost always seem to be stock dove on the lichen heath, yesterday there were at least eight there. They seem to be picking at the vegetation, or possibly seeds, often they don’t immediately notice me on the path allowing some good views until they suddenly realise I am there and race off with a clatter of wings. Otherwise it was generally quiet, from Tern hide it was good to see two little ringed plover chicks as I opened up along with the single oystercatcher chick.