Autumn’s nibbled tresses

The weather certainly feels as though it is heading for autumn, although the recent (and current!) rainfall has certainly improved the look of our original dipping pond which with a tear in the liner had definitely suffered during the rather long hot dry spell.

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Our dipping pond, looking much happier and healthier than it did a few weeks ago

Thankfully we have had the second pond to use for our dipping sessions and yesterday saw another four very happy family groups delving into its depths to see what they could catch.

The highlight for me this time were the few alderfly larvae we caught in the morning:

alderfly larvae

Alderfly larvae

Whilst out by the pond we also had great views of a number of dragonflies, with a common darter perching close by on the boardwalk, a pair of common darters mating in the wheel position and resting on nearby vegetation, and in the afternoon a female southern hawker getting very close to us and egg lay into the grooves in the wooden boardwalk.

common darter

Common darter

Mating common darters

Pair of Common darters mating

Female southern hawker

Female Southern hawker

Female southern hawker 2

Female Southern hawker

I have seen dragonflies egg laying straight into the water and pond vegetation many times before but hadn’t realised some species prefer to lay their eggs into wood on the pond margin and will happily use a newish boardwalk rather than an older rotting stick.

Whilst dipping a Common carder bee flew onto one of the children, who was not worried at all, but in brushing it off her leg it fell into the pond where she was so close to it. It was quickly rescued and relocated onto some of the flowering water mint to recover:

 

August is the time of year to look for the last of our flowering orchids, Autumn Lady’s-tresses, which can be found on grassland and heathland. Here it grows in places on the lichen heath, if it is given the chance!

It is a very delicate looking orchid with white individual flowers that spiral round the short stem. I have been on the lookout for them since the start of the month, when they first started popping up on social media, but had no success. Although they can be very hard to spot I put their absence in part down to the very dry spell we had over the spring and summer. Jim though did manage to spy a small group of them on the lichen heath and Bob, in checking for them again came to the conclusion the increasing numbers of rabbits on the reserve have in fact merrily munched their way through the ones that have flowered.

Not expecting much, I decided to have one last try this morning before the rain arrived and was rewarded with one flower, admittedly slightly past its best, in amongst a clump of I think St John’s Wort (I say I think as that was also going over) which clearly kept it safe from the rabbits. Nearby I also spied a second stem, with the flower bitten clean off:

Autumn lady's-tresses

Autumn Lady’s-tresses

nibbled autumn lady's-tresses

Autumn Lady’s-tresses nibbled stem

If anyone would like to try and find some, I think Wilverly Plain in the forest will be a better place to look!

It is probably time for me to relocate everything from the Welcome Hut (a much nicer spot to work from even in the pouring rain!) back to the centre, so I will finish with a few photos taken a week or so go that I didn’t quite get round to sharing: a bee-wolf and another heather colletes bee enjoying the heather in bloom in the meadow and a solitary bee on the Inula hookeri outside the front of the Centre.

Spring Advances

There have been a lot of consequences of the current coronavirus outbreak that we might not have foreseen. One of these at Blashford are problems for our breeding common terns. The virus and consequent cancellation of all volunteer work parties has meant that the rafts the terns usually nest on cannot be launched. Luckily the very large raft we put out last summer on Ibsley Water was never brought in and the terns seem to be willing to consider it as a nest site.

two tern pairs

Displaying common terns on the “Mega raft”.

The bird to the right has a fish, this will be a male that has caught a fish to bring back to his mate as part of courtship feeding. This behaviour will show a new partner his fishing ability, or just strengthen existing pair bonds, it will also help the female gain condition in readiness for producing the eggs, a huge drain in her resources.

It will be interesting to see how many pairs turn up this year, after years of steady growth the population has fallen in the last couple of years, I think due to poor weather at migration time and more problems competing with nesting black-headed gulls. We also seem to have had very few birds passing through, until this year that is. The other day 68 were counted over Ibsley Water, of course that does not mean they will stay to breed and most have certainly moved on, but at least 14 remain, so perhaps we have a core of seven pairs to build on.

The spring is peak time for birds passing through and as well as common tern we usually see some of their more northern nesting cousins, Arctic terns and occasionally a few of the inland marsh nesting, black tern, although sadly they do not nest in the UK. Black tern and another passage visitor the little gull are probably on their way to nesting around the Baltic Sea area. This spring does seem to have been a good one for little gull, with birds being seen on several days.

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Little gull, one hatched last year (2cy).

The young birds, hatched last year vary a lot in the amount of dark markings in their wings, this one being fairly typical, but some have almost totally black upper-wings and some much reduced. These birds used to be called “First summer” , although this might seem a little odd as they were hatched last spring, but their actual first summer would have been spent in juvenile plumage, so “First summer” actually described the plumage, not the age of the bird. Things get more confusing with some other species that time their moult differently, so these days you are more likely to hear birders referring to “Second calendar year” (often reduced to 2cy) indicating the age of the bird, rather than the plumage.

As it is spring most of our birds are settling down to nest. As I was having some lunch on Monday a mallard was on the new pond built last year behind the Education Centre, I wondered why it was so reluctant to leave as I sat down nearby. The answer was actually obvious, it had a nest near the pond and when I looked away it flew a short distance into the vegetation and disappeared, no doubt it was just taking a short break from the arduous task of incubation, which is all done by the female.

mallard duck on Centre pond

mallard duck on Centre pond

Blashford Lakes is not an obviously good site for orchids, generally when thinking of these the mind goes to long established chalk downland and these are certainly very good for orchids. However just because Blashford is a recently developed old gravel pit complex this does not mean there are no orchids. In fact we have at least seven species, which might seem surprising, but the secret is that the soils are very nutrient poor, something they have in common with old chalk downland. Our commonest species is probably bee orchid, with scattered groups in various, mostly grassy, places. Next would be southern marsh and common spotted orchids in the damper areas. In deep shade and so probably often overlooked there are common twayblade. On the dry grassland was have a growing population of autumn lady’s tresses and, since it was first found last year a single green-winged orchid. Last years plant was a good tall one, but it got eaten, probably by deer or rabbit. I wondered if it had come up this year so went to have a look yesterday and found it, although a good bit smaller than it was last year, but still flowering.

green-winged orchid

green-winged orchid

Bank Holiday Birds with a Twist

A rainy August Bank Holiday and unsurprisingly Blashford was not very busy with visitors, although there were quiet a few birds of interest. When I opened the hides the great white egret was perched in front of Ivy North and at Ivy South 3 wigeon hint at the winter to come. I had hoped for a few waders or terns to drop in, rain often forces them down from their high level flights overland, but all Ibsley Water had to offer were a couple of common sandpiper. The rain had forced in a huge flock of hirundines to feed low over the water though, I estimated at least a thousand, roughly 40% swallow, 40% house martin and 20% sand martin.

Having just returned from holiday I had a backlog of office work to deal with, being in the office was not so bad when the rain was pouring down outside. Still by lunchtime I had to get out for a bit and went over to the Tern hide to see if anything had changed, the answer was yes. There were terns, only three but they were 2 adult common tern and a  juvenile Arctic tern. There were also more waders, I counted at least 4 and probably 6 common sandpiper, also a dunlin, a little ringed plover and a juvenile little stint. In addition 14 shoveler were flushed by a grey heron and flew over to Mockbeggar Lake.

The rain continued and I returned to the office. Luckily by mid afternoon it stopped and so before doing the round for locking up I went for a quick look on the edge of the lichen heath, in search of Autumn lady’s-tresses, a small orchid that seems to be having a good year. As far as I know it has only been recorded once at Blashford and that some years ago. I looked pretty hard, even using binoculars and was about to give up when I found one, only one, but a good size for this usually small species.

Autumn lady's tresses

Autumn lady’s-tresses

Admittedly not as big as it looks in the picture, perhaps 12cm high. Their Latin name is Spiranthes spiralis and it is easy to see how it got the name from the way the flowers twist around the stem. The recent rain has greened up the heath and caused lots of the plants to flower again, the blue fleabane being especially abundant.

blue fleabane

blue fleabane

When I closed up the Tern hide all I could find of the earlier birds was the Arctic tern and a couple of common sandpiper, so perhaps the improvement in the weather had persuaded the rest to move on. Even the hirundines has mostly gone leaving more or less just sand martin, although I estimated there were now over 300 of them.