Brilliant Brownsea

It seems like a long time ago now, but mid-March we headed with our Young Naturalists to the Purbecks, to hopefully explore and discover some different habitats and visit some new places. Unfortunately the weather was partly against us, and whilst I had hoped the snow from the start of the month would not return, it unfortunately did and cut our weekend short. A weekend away at the start of the year before many of the group became focussed on exams and revision had seemed a good idea at the time!

After meeting at Blashford on the Friday night, we headed over to Brenscombe Outdoor Centre just outside Corfe Castle which was to be our base for the weekend. On Saturday morning we were up bright and early and drove the short distance from the centre to the chain ferry, crossing the entrance to Poole Harbour for the ferry to Brownsea Island.

Brownsea map

Brownsea Island

A short boat trip later and we had arrived, meeting up with Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Poole Harbour Reserves Officer Luke Johns. Whist the island is owned by the National Trust, the northern section is managed by Dorset Wildlife Trust and Luke took us on a guided walk around this part of Brownsea.

Do we look cold

Beginning our guided walk, only ever so slightly cold!

It was bitterly cold and the group did brilliantly to keep focussed and answer Luke’s questions. There were also a number of bird hides for us to visit and shelter in, which gave us excellent views of wetland birds in the lagoon including avocet.

We had planned on taking part in a beach clean with Luke, but by midday the snow was falling fairly heavily, most of us had lost all feeling in our fingers and toes and the beach in question was fully exposed to the elements, so we abandoned that plan. Luke very kindly let us warm up and have lunch in The Villa Wildlife Centre, where the group were delighted to be able to red squirrel watch from the window – we had thought our chances of seeing any were now incredibly slim, given the inclement weather.

After lunch we headed to the Church, in search of more red squirrels – we had been advised this was the best place to try and weren’t disappointed. Distracted by the peahens which were too busy sheltering to worry about our group, we soon spotted two red squirrels, one of which came incredibly close to the group, in fact too close for most cameras!

Red squirrel by Talia Felstead

Red squirrel by Talia Felstead

Thomas was very pleased to find a peacock feather in the woodland, a fitting souvenir for our visit to the island.

Deflecting questions along the lines of ‘which boat are we getting back’ we headed across the island and managed to get down onto the beach on the southern side of Brownsea. It was a lot more sheltered down here and you could feel the change in temperature. We followed the shoreline watching oystercatcher and brent geese and looking for other things of interest, warming up in the process.

Whilst on Brownsea we had noted 27 different species of bird: avocet, shelduck, redshank, black-tailed godwit, black-headed gull, cormorant, gadwall, oystercatcher, wigeon, great black-backed gull, pintail, dunlin, curlew, mallard, moorhen, bar-tailed godwit, brent goose, great tit, chaffinch, tufted duck, great spotted woodpecker, great crested grebe, robin, blackbird and crow, as well as of course peacock and peahen.

We then headed to the site of Lord Baden-Powell’s experimental camp which was held on 1st August 1907 and set the foundation of the Scouting and Guiding movements today.

Whilst there we spotted a small number of Sika deer, which on spotting us headed off rather quickly, leaving good tracks in the soft mud. Britain’s second largest breed of deer, they were introduced to the island from Japan in 1896. They soon discovered they could swim across the water to the Isle of Purbeck and once here established new herds.

Finally, after exploring most of the island we headed back to the church to see if we could catch another glimpse of the red squirrels, which we managed, then headed back to the ferry. We’d had a brilliant day on Brownsea and, despite the freezing cold the group thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Unfortunately after waking on Sunday morning to spectacularly snowy scenes, the group enjoyed a snowball fight then we packed up and slowly headed back to Blashford for some snowy bird photography at the woodland hide instead. We didn’t want to get stranded anywhere in the minibus and equally weren’t entirely sure how easy it would be for all the parents to get to Blashford to pick the group up.

Although cut short, it was a great weekend and one we will hopefully repeat properly at a more sensible time of year! Thank you to Luke for our guided walk around Dorset Wildlife Trust’s reserve on Brownsea and to volunteers Kate and Geoff for giving up their weekend to join us.

Young Nats Brownsea

Young Naturalists at Brownsea Island

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly sponsored by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

 

 

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Listing, Lessons and Speculations

Like lots of people who look at wildlife I cannot resist keeping lists, not usually very thorough and I usually lose interest in about mid-February each year. So far I have kept going and find that I have seen 116 species of birds so far this year, all of them in Hampshire and at least 105 of them on visits to Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust reserves.

Of the 116 species I can see that five of them are introduced alien species (Canada goose, Egyptian goose, Mandarin duck, pheasant and red-legged partridge) and another an introduced population of a former native (greylag).  All of these  have been either introduced for “sport” or escaped from parkland collections.

Of the native species I am struck by the many species that have changed their status radically since I arrived in Hampshire. There are various reasons for this, the white trio of little egret (now breeding), great white egret (soon to be breeding here?) and spoonbill (perhaps likewise), have increased in number and range right across western Europe. The same could be said for Cetti’s warbler, avocet, yellow-legged gull and Mediterranean gull.

Birds of prey have increased, more or less across the board and seeing red kite, marsh harrier and peregrine is not now especially notable and buzzard has spread right across the county rather than being a New Forest bird. All of these species have benefited from a more benign environment, in which they are less exposed to harmful chemicals and suffer less persecution, at least in lowland England. One other species has gained from the same change is the raven, which now nests across most of the county. Goshawk has also colonised the county and benefited similarly, although the population is of escaped , or released, origin.

When I first came to Hampshire in 1978 there was no accepted record of ring-billed gull and I am not sure there was even such a thing as a Caspian gull thought about.

I estimate that if I had been doing the same thing forty years ago my list would most likely not have included at least 14 of those I have seen this year, so more than 10% of my list are birds that would have seemed remarkable then. Of course there would have been some species that I would have expected to see then by mid January, that we have now more or less lost, or at least which now need more particular seeking. For example Bewick’s swan, white-fronted goose, grey partridge, willow tit, corn bunting, yellowhammer and tree sparrow.

So listing may well be a rather pointless exercise in many ways but reflecting upon my list so far certainly tells a story of how much has changed and of course makes one think how much might change in the future. So what might a list in another forty years include?

I suspect we will have established populations of additional alien species, most likely is ring-necked parakeet (I suspect this will happen quite soon), but I think black swan may also get a firmer foothold too and Egyptian goose could become very common. Who knows perhaps even sacred ibis could make it over here in time if the continental populations develop uncontrolled.

Natural colonists that look like becoming regulars include, cattle egret and glossy ibis, both already occasional visitors. It is interesting to note the preponderance of wetland birds that are expanding their ranges. A bit of a wildcard might be the potential for a whole range of essentially  Pacific Arctic species to turn up as winter vagrants. The ice melt along the northern coast of Russia has opened up a route for many previously unconsidered species. The occurrence in Europe in recent years of slaty-backed gull hints at the potential for species to come via this route in years to come.

Unfortunately I think a lot of species are going to get much rarer. Coastal species will be under particular pressure, in forty years time there will be little or no saltmarsh along most of the Solent shoreline and much reduced mudflats, so wintering coastal wader populations will surely be much reduced. Couple this with and increase in “short-stopping”, which means that wintering birds coming from the north and east just don’t come so far in the increasingly mild winters. Overall I think it certain that the Solent will not be nearly so significant for wintering wetland birds.

This discussion of change is only considering the winter, our breeding birds could be in for at least as great a change, who knows I might speculate on this in a later blog.

 

Hedges, Terns and Starlings

During the last week I seem to have been all over the place, doing all kinds of things. As usual we had two work parties, one on Tuesday, when we did some hedge laying near Ellingham Lake.

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Hedge laying, this version is not as stock proof as traditional laying, but it retains more of the twiggy top and so should flower and fruit from this year.

The end result is what we need for a better wildlife hedge, wider, and denser than the line of saplings and in time also with some height.

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a finished section.

On Thursday we were tidying up around the main car park, trimming back the hedges and cutting back the willows.

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I would remove this laurel hedge if it was not for the large greenfinch roost that gathers in it.

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Re-coppicing the willows around the car park.

In between the two work parties, on Wednesday, I had a day at the South Coast Seabird Forum discussing what can be done to bolster tern populations along the south coast. Almost everything seems to be against them, what with sea level rise, competition with gulls for the diminishing shingle banks and disturbance from human activity and predators. The one bright spot was the success of rafts at Hayling Oyster Beds and once again at Blashford, at both sites common tern nested with good productivity.

It was not really a day to be inside as it was undoubtedly the best day of the year so far, I did manage to briefly drop into Farlington Marshes before the meeting though, where I added avocet and bearded tit to my bird list for the year.

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Farlington Marshes on a perfect morning – not a day to be inside!

During the week the ring-billed gull continued to be seen most evenings on Ibsley Water at Blashford Lakes and both black-necked grebe remained in their usual places at each end of the lake. Walter the great white egret was seen most days and the number of brambling seem to be slowly increasing at Woodland hide.

The starling roost at Blashford has moved north and is now in reeds to the north of Mockbeggar Lane. Meanwhile I encountered another starling roost on a HIWWT reserve this week, at Lymington Reedbeds, not a huge number but the few thousand there were put on a fantastic show when watched from the causeway east of the level crossing, well worth a look if you are in the town in the late afternoon.

Birds and a (mini) Beast

As promised here are a couple of excellent pictures of the avocet that dropped into Blashford Lakes on Monday, many thanks to Keith Beswick for sending them in.

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Avocet by Keith Beswick

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Avocet by Keith Beswick

What is immediately obvious is that this is a juvenile bird, the brownish feathers would be black in an adult. Juvenile birds tend to turn up in slightly unusual places as they learn about their environment and where best to be, this one will probably join the large wintering flock in Poole Harbour.

Signs of the changing season are all around now, opening the Tern hide yesterday I saw 8 shoveler, 7 teal, a wigeon (although this was probably the bird that summered with us), a shelduck and a garganey. There were also at least 3 common sandpiper and a green sandpiper. At the end of the day the lake was dominated by fish-eating birds with at least 50 grey heron, 6 little egret, 1 great white egret (“Walter”) and 195 cormorant.

During the day I was working with the volunteers on efforts to establish a grassland in the old concrete plant site, we are making good progress and I think it will be a valuable addition to the reserve. The new path is still not open yet as the necessary agreements with our landlords are still not in place. On our way back for lunch the volunteers found a splendid caterpillar, it reminded me of Dougal the dog, a reference that will date me for those who recognise it.

sycamore caterpillar

sycamore caterpillar

The sycamore moth is rather a dull pale grey species but the caterpillar is a wonderful creature.

Reserve Visiting

I have just returned from a holiday up north where I visited a few reserves myself, but the title here refers to a visitor we had at Blashford today, an avocet. Not perhaps quite the rarity they once were, but still very unusual, unfortunately I missed it. It flew in in the early afternoon and gave good views for  a short time from the Tern hide, I am told there are pictures too, so perhaps some will make it here. I then discovered that there had been an avocet at the Trust’s new Fishlake Meadows reserve in Romsey at about 11:30 and that it had flown off heading west, it seems highly probable that these two sightings relate to the same bird travelling between the two reserves.

The one problem with going away is the number of things that have to be caught up on when you get back and the dread emails kept me in the office for a fair bit of the day, which is not to say that I did not get out on the reserve as well. The sun had brought out a few butterflies, but numbers are on the decline now. I did find a very smart comma near the Goosander hide.

comma

comma

Not far away I also came across a female Roesel’s bush-cricket sitting on one of our benches.

Roesel's bush cricket female

Roesel’s bush-cricket

Looking from Tern hide I saw Walter the great white egret now looking very relaxed with a large group of grey heron. The herons seem not to take so much notice of him these days, at one time they would constantly be chasing him around, perhaps they have just got used to him. It is a curious thing that when little egret were first turning up they were often mobbed by gulls but now they are just ignored. Perhaps there is something about the unusual that elicits these responses and once something is regular they just become part of the scenery.

Locking up I was pleased to see that at least one of our wasp spiders is still going, I am not sure if something has predated the others or if they have laid their eggs. This one looks a though it will not be long before she lays her eggs and disappears.

wasp spider female

wasp spider, female

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.

avocet

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.

avocet 2

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.

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…

30 Days Wild – Day 7

I spent most of the day working at Blashford Lakes with the volunteers, mostly cutting back bramble growth from around paths and signs. We had a real bonus sighting just as we were getting the tools out though, when a female honey buzzard flew low over the trees heading west. We don’t see them very often at Blashford, perhaps once or twice a year at best.

At lunchtime we saw another ornate brigadier soldierfly, this time a female so we have the makings of a breeding population, if she can find Sunday’s male!

In the evening I was surveying breeding birds on the coast, it was a fabulous evening and I found a ringed plover sitting on a nest and on a coastal pool saw a brood of three avocet chicks. A very pleasant way to end the day.

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Hemlock water-dropwort against a late evening sky.

It’s all about the Curves

I arrived at Blashford to open up the Tern hide this morning and was greeted by the sight of an avocet flying across the lake and then swimming around. Not an unprecedented sight,  but still quite a rare one inland in Hampshire.

As It was Tuesday it was a volunteer day, our Tuesday group is much smaller than the Thursday and so we tackle tasks that work best with a small group, we also work for longer, typically about five hours. Today’s task was to cut the vegetation on the shore to the west of the Tern hide, this is a favourite are with nesting lapwing, but it is constantly being colonised by brambles, willows and birches, so  we cut it each year to keep it open. Below is what it looked like before we started.before 1 And now afterwards.after1

Disappointingly it does not look that different, but I can assure you that the vegetation that was some 25cm high is now mown right down, ideal for lapwing nest spring. You can see more of the lake over the top of the shore where the rushes have been cut along the lake edge, so there is a difference.

Around lunchtime a curlew flew over calling, another rather scarce wader at Blashford, although they can be fairly regular in the spring. Of course avocet are well know for having an up-curved bill, one of rather few species that do. Curlew have very decurved bills, in fact both curlew and avocet are probably best known for the curvature of their bills. I am almost tempted to say we got the set when it comes to bill curvature, but that would be to forget the wrybill, whose bill turns to the side, the only species to do so. Unfortunately this is a New Zealand species and so probably unlikely to occur at Blashford (okay it will never turn up here).

In keeping with the long tradition of top quality wildlife photography, for which this blog is so well known, I now present my picture of the avocet, taken at the end of the day when it was swimming with the roosting gulls.avocet

Other birds today included the great white egret again on Rockford Lake and perched in a tree on Ivy Lake and at dusk an adult Mediterranean gull in the roost on Ibsley Water.

 

Hobby Display Team

A quick look out of the Tern hide first thing revealed that yesterday’s avocet was still present as were 2 greenshank and 2 dunlin. But as I was busy elsewhere today I could not linger, hopefully they would still be there at lunchtime.

Ed has been away this week so the first Sunday of the month volunteer task fell to me to lead. It has been a while since I have done one and there were a few new faces since my last foray with the team. Six of us set out to tackle some more Himalayan balsam, carrying on from where we left off on Thursday with the weekday volunteers. We ended up spending the whole two hours in the alder carr area where we found quite a lot of plants. Although they are still small it is easier to see them than it will be when the nettles get really tall later in the season. It was not all plants though, we found a starling’s nest in an old woodpecker hole and several common frog, the one below was caught on camera by Natasha.

a frog we came across as we were balsam pulling

a frog we came across as we were balsam pulling

After topping up the pond with the rainwater collected thanks to last night’s rain I set off for a look at the northern part of the reserve. Looking from the Tern hide I saw the avocet again as well as a sanderling, unlike last weeks breeding plumage bird this one was still looking very wintery. They was also a peregrine, several swift and 2 hobby. I then headed off to the Goosander and Lapwing hides.

It was a good while since I was up there and on the way I looked out for some of the orchids that grow in the old silt pond. I quickly found a good few twayblade, not in flower yet but actually not far off.

twayblade

twayblade

In an area that we have been cutting for some years to see what would come up I found a good few southern marsh orchids.

southern marsh orchid

southern marsh orchid

And a few with spotted leaves that were probably common spotted orchid.

common spotted orchid

common spotted orchid

Unfortunately many were already quite nibbled by deer and they may yet ensure that none of them get to flower. Deer are a particular and growing problem in this part of the reserve where  a lot of fallow lay up in the daytime and feed at night, they are having a heavy impact on the vegetation which gets worse and worse as their numbers continue to rise.

I then went up to the Lapwing hide, which, as it turned out, was where the action really was. On the way I had been impressed by 2 hobby swooping overhead, but from the hide there were five and they were coming very close to the hide, giving a fantastic display, the best I had seen in years.

I was also interested to see we still have 3 wigeon and a few teal, although I could find no sign of yesterday’s splendid drake garganey. There was a smart red bar-tailed godwit on the grass and a whimbrel flew in from the south, so there was a good tally of waders about today. May is always an exciting month and there may yet be more interesting visitors, perhaps a black tern or two?