Substitutes and Declines

It was feeling very spring-like today, I got very warm as I worked with the volunteers felling some grey alder beside the path to Lapwing Hide. These trees were planted as a “substitute” for native alder, which is not a hard tree to source, when the restoration planting was done after the gravel working ceased. Sadly truly native trees are not always specified in planting schemes, even when they are supposedly done for nature conservation and even when they are, substitutes are often allowed. Often even if the tree species is native they are not from a UK source, importing trees has brought us several diseases that have significantly impacted upon native woodland. These imports are also often adapted to a different climate so will flower or leaf earlier out of sync with native insects. Let’s have more native trees that are really native, ideally grown from the seed of trees as local to the planting site as possible.

wild daffodil

Wild daffodil just coming into flower, a good indicator of remaining ancient woodland at Blashford Lakes.

Having said all this planting trees is an often seriously over rated activity, if they establish well we end up with secondary woodland that will not be more than a pale shadow of an ancient woodland in even a thousand years. The best way to extend woodland cover is to allow existing ancient woods to grow outwards, letting them seed into neighbouring open ground, something that will happen naturally in most places if grazing or mowing are stopped. This way we will get locally adapted trees establishing where they will do best and other species can move out from the old wood into the new. It will also serve to buffer the older woodland and reduce the distance to the nearest neighbouring wood. I am prepared to make an exception for hedges though, so many of these have been lost that replanting is the only practical way to get them back, but the need for locally plant stock remains important.

There has been a good bit of coverage of the severe global decline in insect numbers in the media over the last few days and it is very alarming. A series of studies are now coming to very similar conclusions and these are that insects are in trouble globally with significant declines not just in developed western Europe but in tropical forests as well. Insects may be small but their abundance and diversity mean they are vital to the effective functioning of almost all terrestrial ecosystems. They are predators and prey, decomposers, pollinators and grazers, in fact they are almost everywhere and everywhere they are, they perform essential functions. I have run a moth trap for many years monitoring the species caught before releasing them and I can attest to a great drop in numbers over the years, I see as many species but none in great abundance as I used to.

pale brindled beauty

Pale brindled beauty, a typical late winter species, there were two in the trap last night.

Over the last few weeks things have been a bit hectic on the reserve with work going on all over the place, the new pond is being dug behind the Education Centre and preparations continuing for the installation of the new Tern hide next month. We are doing our best to keep the reserve up and running in the meantime, but there will be occasional interruptions to normal service, such as temporary closure of the main car park or limitations on the use of parts of the car parks.

Out on the reserve two bittern have been seen a number of times recently at Ivy North hide as have two great white egret. I am especially keen to try to record the last sighting of “Walter” our colour-ringed great white egret, he usually heads off back to France around this time of year so any definite sightings gratefully received. At the weekend an otter was seen at Ivy North hide and this morning I have very, very, brief views of one near Ivy South hide, so it is well worth keeping an eye out.

roost

A roosting great white egret with lots of cormorant, it might have been “Walter” but I could not see the legs to check for rings.

 

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High-brow

I was elsewhere yesterday so was only able to read about the bird of the day, the yellow-browed warbler seen near Ivy South hide. It was not a great surprise as they are now scarce migrants and winter visitors in Hampshire despite breeding in Asia and being smaller than a chiffchaff! Although climate change might be expected to lead to more southern bird species spreading north and it probably has, there also seems to be a strong trend for traditionally Siberian species to be spreading west. Several formerly very rare species are now occurring much more frequently in western Europe and even nesting.

So as I opened up the hides I was keeping an eye out for a long-tailed tit flock as the warbler was tagging along with one yesterday. Leaving the Ivy South hide there was a flock just behind the hide and there it was, high in an alder, the yellow-browed warbler had found me! Only brief views as they don’t stay still for long, but I did grab a quick picture.

yellow-browed warbler

yellow-browed warbler

These birds are common in Asia breeding across a wide area and migrating south to winter mostly in tropical south-east Asia. On the face of it their now regular arrival in some numbers in western Europe in autumn and wintering in south-west Europe would seem very unlikely and may be related to a westward range extension in the summer.

I understand the bittern was seen several times today and a Caspian gull was in the roost on Ibsley Water. I was busy all day so my only other sighting of any note was at dusk from Ivy North hide where there were two water rail and two great white egret in the trees. It was a magnificent evening with a splendid sky at sunset.

sunset from main car park

sunset from the main car park

Back From the Brink(s) or Beyond and now at Blashford!

On the shortest day of the year it is perhaps appropriate to consider things turning, from here on the days will lengthen for the next six months and today at Blashford it was possible to see several species that have experience a turnaround in fortune.

We had another visit from the white-tailed eagle today, it circled over Ibsley Water causing mayhem for about five minutes before heading off toward the New Forest. These amazing birds used to breed widely in Scotland and around our rocky coastlines where there were cliffs of sufficient height, local the western end of the Isle of Wight was the nearest location but they died out there centuries ago due to persecution. They hung on in more out of the way places in Scotland until the early 20th century before finally being exterminated. Now they are back, admittedly with a good bit of help from a fairly large scale reintroduction program, but they have also recovered well in mainland Europe too and our bird is probably form there rather than Scotland. When I started birdwatching there were none in the UK and few enough in nearby Europe, so I would never have expected to see one. A combination of reduced persecution, active conservation efforts and strategic reintroduction have reestablished viable populations over large areas of their former range.

At Ivy North hide the bittern was showing well on and off all day. As I locked up it showed wonderfully well, walking out into the open on a cut pile of vegetation, then adopting a threat posture with feathers raised and wings stretched, before flying off to roost. Bittern got close to extinction in the UK, in the early 1990s there were fewer than 20 territorial males in the whole country and the numbers were falling year on year. Targeted habitat management and some large scale habitat creation projects have turned things around dramatically. It helped that the habitat they require, wet reedbed,  is easy to create, so long as there is the will to do it. The greatest example is the Avalon Marshes project near Glastonbury, now home to tens of bittern territories and much else besides.

Looking across the lake from Ivy North hide after the bittern had gone to roost I could see three great white egret roosting in the dead alder opposite. I suspect “Walter” was one of them, he first came to us in 2003, when they were still a rare bird in Britain. In the 1980s they looked likely to go completely extinct in western Europe and numbered only hundreds of pairs in eastern Europe and rapidly declining. They and the two small egrets have undergone remarkable changes in fortune. All the egrets had been shot for their plumes for many years and this along with habitat degradation had reduced all of them to low numbers. Increased efforts at conserving wetlands and reduced persecution has turned things around and now all are doing well.

Other birds today were 52 pintail on Ibsley Water, along with about 210 wigeon, the black-necked grebe and a water pipit, all as I opened up the Tern hide. The weather seems set reasonably fair over the Christmas week and the reserve will be open every day apart from Christmas Day itself. I think we can say there will certainly be a nice range of species on offer and on New Years Day we also have the pop-up cafe to look forward to.

There are great pictures of the eagle and bittern taken to day at Blashford on the HOS sightings site Hampshire Goingbirding photos .

 

An Eagle at Lunchtime

Tuesday is one of our volunteer task days, but the forecast was not promising, however as it turned out the morning was not as bad as predicted. We were felling sycamore from the edge of the car park near the Centre to give the oak a bit more space, luckily the poor forecast kept visitors away so we did not have to hold up too many people as we cleared the trees from the entrance track. Towards the end of the morning the rain set in and we decided to call it a day, just as we did a visitor arrived to tell us that the white tailed eagle, that has been up the road in the New Forest, had paid us a visit and was perched on an island in Ibsley Water.

white-tailed eagle with crows

White-tailed eagle with crows

It really was a huge bird! with a massive hooked beak and feet to match, magnificent and if the possible introduction project on the Isle of Wight comes to fruition perhaps a regular sight in the future. The very definition of “Charismatic megafauna”.

white-tailed eagle with crow

White-tailed eagle with crow

The crows did not seem obviously intimidated, and strolled around within a few feet, the gulls were a lot more circumspect, even the great black-backed gull only made a few, quite distant, mobbing swoops.

white-tailed eagle with crow 2

Showing off a seriously big pair of wings!

It was a good way off but we could clearly see that it had a metal ring on its right leg and no colour-rings. It is a juvenile so will have been ringed as a nestling somewhere last summer. A lot, perhaps even most, ringed eagle chicks receive a coloured ring or wing tag at the same time as being ringed with a standard metal ring, as this enables their movements to be tracked more easily. This bird seems to have been an exception so we have no idea where it might have come from, it could be from Scotland, but is probably more likely to be from Scandinavia somewhere. The juveniles move much further than the older birds and the adults will usually try to stay on their nesting territory all year if the food supply allows.

Unsurprisingly this was a first record for the reserve and although relatively few people were about to see it due to the poor weather, I know it was a new bird for quite a few. Some lucky people went on to the Ivy North hide and had very good views of bittern as well, not a bad bit of birdwatching for a bad weather day!

Other birds today included a water pipit at Tern hide whilst looking at the eagle, the black-necked grebe was also seen in the distance and there were 112 pochard there also, with 57 more on Ivy Lake. Locking up at dusk in the tipping rain, there were two great white egret roosting in the dead alder trees beside Ivy Lake.

All in all not a bad day for birds on the reserve, or any site in the UK. As most will know access to the reserve is free, but we do still need to raise money to keep things going and hopefully improve them so donations are always more than welcome, in fact they are essential! So if you visit and have a good time please consider making a donation. We have a had a lot of generous donations to our appeal for various improvements, including a new Tern hide and dipping pond, but it is the year round donations that keep us running day to day.

A Misty Morning

A fine and frosty morning, perhaps the first that has felt properly wintry. Having scraped the frost from my windscreen I headed to Blashford across a New Forest washed with mist. I stopped briefly near our reserve at Linwood and took the picture below.

Lookinmg across Dockens Valley S of Linwood

The valley of the Dockens Water on a frosty morning

In the Avon Valley the mist was thicker and there was almost nothing within viewing range at the hides, but it still made for an atmospheric scene.

misty morning over Ivy Lake

The misty view from Ivy South hide

The mist soon cleared and the day was a fine one for working with the volunteers out on the reserve. Our team is somewhat larger than usual at present as we have two Apprentice Rangers from the New Forest National Park working on the reserve until early January. Today we were felling grey alder trees on the path towards Lapwing hide. These trees are similar to our native alder but tend to grow rather larger and faster and have a habit of spreading far and wide by seed. We are removing them to allow the native alder to grow unhindered and diversify the habitat along the path edges where more light will now get down to the ground layer.

felling grey alder

Felling grey alder beside the path to Lapwing hide

I took advantage of the fine evening to make a count of the goosander roost, I managed to see at least 118 gathered in two groups near the Goosander hide, there were at least 35 adult drakes, very close to the average of one third that I have recorded over many years. The rest were what are known as “redheads” that is birds with grey bodies and reddish-brown heads, these will include both adult females and immature birds of both sexes. Other bird in the bay were a single green sandpiper very close to the hide and at least 14 goldeneye.

Yesterday evening as I closed Ivy North hide I could clearly see 4 great white egret roosting in the dead alder trees. I have suspected there were more than the three that are often seen for sometime now but have been unable to prove it before. Generally yesterday was a better day for bird sightings despite the poorer weather, but then using a chainsaw all day is not particularly conducive to seeing birds! Other sightings yesterday included the black-necked grebe on Ibsey Water, along with at least 78 pochard, a good count these days and all the better as there were at least 73 on Ivy Lake as well. Ten or twenty years ago these figures would have been unremarkable, but these ducks are in decline all over Europe for a variety of reasons including lowered breed success due to a significant imbalance of the sexes.

Out on the reserve yesterday I flushed a woodcock between Goosander and Lapwing hides, my first of the winter, whilst in the same area 2 raven flew over and a chiffchaff was calling in the willows. At dusk I took a quick look at the gull roost, I could not find the ring-billed gull, but there were at least 11 yellow-legged gull, all adult and including the atypical adult bird with the heavily marked head. Yellow-legged gull adults usually have all white heads in winter, in contrast to most of the other large gulls, this well marked bird is similar to those of the race that is found on the Azores,  separated as the race “atlantis”. Gull watching came to an end when an adult female peregrine made several low passes over the roost, scattering it in all directions.

With more wintry weather it is perhaps unsurprising that the moth trap is getting quieter, despite this, but appropriate to the season recent catches have included Winter moth, December moth and mottled umber.

The Turn of the Season

As autumn slips into winter and the last of the leaves get blown from the trees we are seeing the wildlife of the reserve taking on a more wintry feel too. At the weekend the goosander roost passed 100 birds for the first time, whilst the gull roost is now well up into the thousands. A black-necked grebe has returned to Ibsley Water, although as is typical, it is frequenting the extreme northern shore of the lake. The startling roost in reeds just west of the A338 Salisbury Road, but best viewed from the main car park area or Lapwing hide, had built up and is now quite a sight in a fine evening.

IMG_9789 (2)[3497]

Starling murmuration by Jon Mitchell

At times this gathering is attracting various predators, over the last ten days or so I have seen peregrine, sparrowhawk, marsh harrier and goshawk all eyeing up the roost for a potential snack.

Green sandpiper and water pipit are still being regularly seen at various points around Ibsley Water, but Goosander hide seems to be the most frequent place for good views of both. At least 3 great white egret are wandering the reserve and out into the valley, I have not managed to see more than three at any one time, but I strongly suspect there are more, perhaps up to five?

Visitors to the reserve may find diversions or short path closures over the next few weeks as we are doing some tree thinning, it should be possible to access all the hides though. The trees we are removing are mainly planted aliens species such as grey and Italian alder or species such as sycamore and Scots pine that are crowding more desirable species oak, elm and ash. The objective is to thin areas that were planted too densely and promote native species over non-natives, this should benefit a range of wildlife in the long run. Where possible we will be leaving standing dead trees, or lying dead wood for beetles and other invertebrates.

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

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

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

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

alder leaves eaten

alder leaf eaten away by alder leaf beetle

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

alder leaf beetle

alder leaf beetle Agelastica alni

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

autumnal rustic

autumnal rustic

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

feathered gothic

feathered gothic (male)

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

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

speckled wood

speckled wood

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

troll butter

troll butter slime mould

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

new boardwalk to Lapwing hide under construction

new boardwalk to Lapwing hide under construction

Making Preparations

Although it feels very much like winter there are preparations for the coming spring afoot. At Blashford Lakes I spent Tuesday working with our volunteer team clearing the Long Spit island and the open ground of the old Hanson plant making the ground ready for nesting lapwing, little ringed plover, common tern and black-headed gull. Lapwing can settle down to nest as early as the start of March and will be pairing up at nest sites well before then if the weather is suitable.

before

The Long Spit before clearance

after

Long Spit after clearance

It was very cold and we had feared we would also get wet as there were some fierce showers, luckily they mostly missed us and by the time we had finished the sun was out.

By way of proof of approaching spring I spotted a pair of blue tit checking out a nest box outside my kitchen window, luckily the Blashford boxes have all been cleaned out, a reminder for me to do mine at home.

blue tit investigating

Blue tit checking out the nest box outside my kitchen window at the weekend.

Today we were working with our new volunteer team at Fishlake Meadows, again we were making preparations for later in the year. This time it was scrub cutting in preparation for grazing parts of this new reserve. Although much of the reserve is open water and reedbed there are areas of wet grassland that is gradually getting ranker and invaded by willow and bramble. To arrest this we plan a light grazing regime to maintain the mix of grass, fen and small patches of low scrub. Today we removed some young willow and cleared small alder to leave a few larger trees that will provide valuable shade for cattle in the summer sun.

start

Making the first cuts – the Fishlake volunteers starting out.

We were lucky with the weather, it was cold, but we managed to stay out of the wind and in the sun making it feel rather pleasant, hopefully we will be as lucky next time.

finish

With the scrub removed these trees will provide valuable shade for the cattle later in the year.

As we walked out to the worksite I saw a distant great white egret and on the way back we watched 2 red kite sparring with a pair of crow.

In the afternoon I returned to Blashford Lakes and got a quick picture of a water pipit outside Tern hide, nit the best I have seen but the best picture I have managed,

water pipit

water pipit

I am very lucky to be able to see quite a lot of wildlife as I go about my working day, however there are times when I should definitely have been looking the other way. As we headed out to work on the Long Spit on Tuesday we apparently disturbed an otter from the lakeside and it then swam by the Tern hide, somehow none of us saw it!

At Blashford we are also at the start of preparations of a different kind, we are planning a number of improvements around the reserve. To fund this we are hoping to apply for a grant and part of this process involves sounding out our visitors for their experience of the reserve. If you have visited recently it would be very useful to have your views, a questionnaire is attached here: Blashford Lakes Questionnaire if you are able to complete it and email it to us it would greatly help us with our grant application.

 

Just the Job

The Pop-up cafe was back and so were our splendid Blashford volunteers, for their first task of the new year. I had planned a hedge-laying task but the cold morning and brisk north-east wind caused me to rethink and look for a more sheltered work site. So we ended up clearing a patch of small willow, birch and alder that have invaded the boggy reeds at the top end of the Ivy Silt Pond. I had been meaning to do this task for a while but somehow other things kept pushing this down the list.

start

At the start

This is one of rather few boggy habitats we have on the reserve and it is home to a few species we do not have elsewhere, such as royal fern, bog myrtle and Sphagnum moss. I suspect all arriving there via the Dockens Water. It is amazing what five people working for a couple of hours can do!

end

At the end of a couple of hours work

We dead-hedged the material we cut, much quicker and less damaging than burning. Perhaps the most obvious thing int he second picture is the tall stumps, we usually cut at between knee and waist height, I know this will seem strange to many trained to cut stumps as low as possible, but I do have my reasons.

If we are working with handtools it is very difficult to cut very low to the ground, so cutting at this level is just easier. Low stumps are also hard to see when dragging cut material away so there is a trip risk, the taller stumps are easier to avoid. If I want to I can go round and cut them really low with a chainsaw once the site is clear, or I can treat them with less chance of missing any.  For some species such as birch and alder I have also found that fewer grow back at this height than if cut flush to the ground and then the remaining stump becomes a useful bit of standing deadwood.

Surprisingly on a day when visitors were complaining of the cold, it was very pleasant working int he sunshine and out of the wind and we all had to shed a layer or two to avoid overheating!

The reserve was busy with visitors all day and a good range of birds were to be seen, despite the wind. On Ibsley Water one of the black-necked grebe was close to Goosander hide for most of the day and I counted 129 pochard, a good count these days. A ring-billed gull was reported, but most of the duck were sheltering close to the northern shore.

Ivy Lake is much more sheltered and held at least one thousand wildfowl, including about 250 teal. There were also good numbers of gadwall and wigeon along with a few shoveler, pintail, mallard, coot and diving ducks. Walter the great white egret was also there during the day but seems to have found a more sheltered roost site than his usual exposed dead alder.

At the Woodland hide several brambling and a good range of other woodland species are increasingly evident. I suspect we may get good numbers later on in February and March.

A Returning Visitor

Not a great day to be out and about, the temperature topped out at 4 degrees and it rained throughout the daylight hours. As a result the reserve was quiet, at least for visitors, there was a good range of birds about though. All the usual wildfowl were seen, apart from either of the pink-footed goose, although it might have been there as some of the geese were lurking behind the islands.

The woodland was busy with redpoll and several bullfinch much in evidence. The nyger feeders are starting to attract siskin and goldfinch already, so I think we might be needing considerable extra supplies before the winter is out, they don’t usually start feeding on these feeders in numbers until well after Christmas.

The peak time to be out was at dusk, the starling roost was again well over 25000 birds, mostly arriving from the north, although they did not perform for long before going to roost, perhaps conserving their energy with a cold night ahead. The gull roost included a ring-billed gull for the first time this winter. I think it was the returning adult that has joined the roost over the last few winters. I managed to get a few rather poor shots of it, typically it was not playing ball, mostly facing away from me.

ring-billed gull 2

ring-billed gull, preening.

This picture does show the pale grey mantle and narrow white tips to the tertials and scapulars. On a common gull these are much more obvious, being both broader and contrasting more strongly with the darker grey mantle of that species.

ring-billed gull 1

ring-billed gull

This picture shows the heavier ringed-bill than common gull and the pale iris, most common gull have a dark iris (although a few do not, so this is a character not to be used in isolation).

Last of all and when it was almost completely dark, I saw “Walter” the great white egret roosting in the dead alder beside Ivy Lake.