30 Days Wild – Day 24

Working with the Blashford volunteers again today, this time a little ragwort control, but not too much, fencing checks before the ponies arrive and a count of the bee orchids along the way. We found over 60, which is a good number for this part of the reserve and a very variable lot they were too.

bee orchid, a pale one
a darker one
a more typical one

The last one looks like a toy duck with a tiny gosling on its head! (or at least it does to me).

Back at the Centre for lunch I noticed the dark mullein is now in flower so went to look for some mullein moth caterpillars, did not find any but got this close up image of one of the flowers.

dark mullein close-up

I had a quick look on the lichen heath near the Pound afterwards when I went to collect parts of one of the rafts that had collapsed after I had been unable to get it in last autumn. These dry, sandy habitats have a whole suite of species that specialise in living on them and coping with the difficult conditions. One of these is the small velvet ant, actually a wingless wasp that parasitises other wasp species that make nest tunnels in the sand.

small velvet ant

Another specialist of sandy habitats is the chafer beetle Anomala dubia, one I had not seen before.

Anomala dubia

We are now firmly into horsefly season and today’s humidity was ideal for them. Many species of the Tabanidae have amazingly patterned and coloured eyes. only the females bite, luckily this Chrysops caecutiens.

Chrysops caecutiens

More wild stuff tomorrow!

30 Days Wild – Day 9

The moth trap this morning did not have a lot of moths, although there was the first large yellow underwing of the year, this is one of the commonest moths in the trap throughout late summer and the autumn.

As well as a couple of common chafer beetles there was also a great diving beetle in the trap.

Diving beetles can fly between ponds and do so a lot as anyone who has made a garden pond will know, they can attract beetles with in hours. Fish are not so mobile, although they are often said to get moved as eggs attached to the legs of ducks there is rather little evidence for this. Overwhelmingly they are moved by people or move between sites during flood events. Two common species in the lakes on the reserve are rudd and perch, both in the picture below.

two rudd and a perch

Fish are prey for some birds such as kingfisher and heron, but also predators, taking smaller fish and lots of insects. So the larval stages of dragonflies, although voracious predators themselves have to be skilled at avoiding fish throughout their nymphal stage. So it is perhaps a surprise that so many dragon and damselflies survive to adulthood. Today I added another species to this years list when I saw my first scarce chaser of the year.

scarce chaser

Scarce chaser used to be a rare species of larger rivers, but in recent years it has spread and now exploits standing waters as well, just like the commoner broad-bodied chaser, although that specie soften uses small ponds too.

broad-bodied chaser

I had been wondering where out bee orchids had got to, with lots of pictures of them flowering elsewhere I wondered if we had lost ours, but no, they were just a bit later coming into flower.

30 Days Wild – Day 10

A third of the way through the 30 Days now and we continue to live in strange times in which many of us have changed somewhat our relationship with the local environment. Even people who were in the habit of walking out from home have found new places to go and in the process found lots of unnoticed doorstep wildlife. In particular the flowers growing on verges, greens and playing field edges have caught people’s eyes with lots of pictures in social media of bee orchids in new places. There was also “No Mow May”, this was promoting the idea of not mowing grass in the month of May and seeing what came up. Quiet a few people found that bee orchids were growing in their lawns all the time, and many realised just how important dandelions were for insects. It demonstrated that our gardens and maintained green spaces could be supporting a lot more wildlife and helping to address some of issues around the decline in pollinating insects.

Day 10 was rather damp at times, actually for quite a lot of the time where I was, but the moth trap can be relied on to deliver something of interest and this time it was a very beautiful small elephant hawk-moth. Perhaps because I don’t see them very often this is just about my favourite hawk-moth.

small elephant hawk-moth

small elephant hawk-moth

I took the afternoon off and made a short excursion to the coast, where it was rather grey and breezy, but I did manage to see my first little tern of the year. I tried to take a picture but it avoided me as soon as I raised my camera, in fact all the birds seemed very camera shy, even this black-headed gull did not want a picture taken.

camera shy black-headed gull

camera shy black-headed gull

 

Feather finds

Today’s wild highlight was finding and appreciating this beautiful jay feather, which I spotted on the gravel outside the back of the Education Centre this morning, close to the moth trap:

jay feather

Beautiful blue Jay feather

The moth trap was fuller today than it has been for some time, with a greater variety of species. The highlights (or the one’s that didn’t fly off instantly, it’s so warm first thing) were:

I also thought I’d share two that were in the trap last Thursday morning, as I didn’t get round to sharing them then and they are both too smart not to:

After looking at the moths I decided to clear in front of the bug hotel, before it got even hotter. Our Young Naturalists group made it last summer, using old pallets that had been left over from the improvement works here last Spring and anything else we could find. It sits behind the new pond, but was no longer visible from the decking.

bug hotel before

Spot the bug hotel

I only pulled up the garlic mustard, also known as ‘Jack-by-the-hedge’, which has gone over now and is present all round the back of the pond, and some stinging nettles that were right in front of the hotel, opening it up again to receive more sunlight. We couldn’t have cleared it much sooner as Bob had noticed the female mallard on the pond and was certain she was nesting directly behind the hotel, so we would have disturbed her.

bug hotel after

After!

I will have to keep an eye on the blocks of wood to see if any bees move in…

Whilst out by the pond I spotted lots of damselfly exuvia on the vegetation growing out of the water, which is not surprising given the amount of damselflies that are on the wing at present. These dried outer cases are left behind when damselflies (and dragonflies) finish the aquatic stage of their lifecycle and emerge as an adult.

damselfly exuvia

Damselfly exuvia

I also went over to the main car park in search of a couple of different orchids Bob had mentioned were flowering. There are two pyramidal orchids close to the footpath into the car park and a bee orchid to the left of the path that leads up to the viewing platform. I could only spot one bee orchid, and was there some time looking for it! If you venture up there, tread carefully…

bee orchid

Bee orchid

This afternoon I walked round the ‘Wild Walk’ sculpture trail route to see which flowers are now out and what I could ‘label’ with our temporary signs over the coming weeks. I took one with me to mark the best spot for looking for grass snakes, and whilst there met a family who had seen one a short while earlier. I am still waiting for my first grass snake spot of the year!

On my way back I spotted a white-tailed bumblebee enjoying the bramble flowers. The honeybees are also back in the cavity of the turkey oak which is at the top of the Dockens Water path, before you turn right to head towards the river dipping bridge. I watched them flying in and out, but they were too speedy for a photo!

white tailed bumble bee

White-tailed bumblebee, Bombus lucorum

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.

P1080400

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

Full of Promise

It seems to have been a week for blossom, the crab apple is at its best, the pear is just ahead but still great on the northern side of the tree and yes we do have a pear at Blashford, blackthorn is over and today I saw my first hawthorn in bloom.

hawthorn blossom

Hawthorn in flower

Lots of  flowers should mean lots of fruits in the autumn, unless we have a very, very dry summer of course.

Elsewhere on my rounds I found three orchids, twayblades nearly in flower, but also in the dark under a bush so I could not get a picture. In the open were a southern marsh orchid, with very spotted leaves.

marsh orchid

Southern marsh orchid

And even more in the open, several bee orchid rosettes.

bee orchids

bee orchids, rather nibbled by rabbits

These orchids will be flowering later in the season, but as you may have noticed there are lots of bees out now, many will visit dandelions and daisies, not weeds but vital nectar sources. A good few species also visit willows in the spring, including that rare spring species the grey-backed mining bee Andrena vaga, the females return to their nests with loads of the bright willow yellow pollen as food for their larvae.

Andrena vaga

grey-backed mining bee

Spring is a time of migration and one of the species that passes through on the way from North Africa to the uplands of Scotland an Scandinavia is the ring ouzel. This is a bird very like a blackbird, in fact sit was known as the mountain blackbird, but it has a white crescent across the chest and rather longer wings, as befits a bird that flies long distances. Today I saw a blackbird with some white, sadly though not a ring ouzel, but a common blackbird with some white feathering.

blackbird

“Just” a blackbird

Finally I turned on the camera screen at Blashford today as I waited for computer support to reconnect me to our network and found that the grey squirrel that has been occupying the owl box has actually been rearing a family.

young squirrels in box

young squirrel in the owl box

30 Days Wild – Day 12 – Here be Bees

Another mostly dull day, although dry, conditions that may seem not so good for finding insects, which is true, but if you find them they are much less active and so easier to see well.

hoverfly

hoverfly, Platycheirus albimanus (I think)

On such days insects will often be found sitting in the open in the hope that the sun will come out and enable them to warm up enough to become active. Predatory species, if they can get active can then easily catch prey that has not warmed up so much. Robberflies are one such predator and several species are on the wing now.

robberfly

robberfly

Many insects will vibrate their wing muscles to increase their core temperature, bees have an added advantage of being furry which will help to reduce heat loss.

solitary bee

solitary bee

The cooler weather did encourage me to do some control of the bramble regrowth in the grassland in the former Hanson plant entrance, this area gets very hot in the sun, which should make it good for insects. The soil, if it can be called that is very poor, an advantage for establishing a non-grassy sward, but here it is so poor, that in places almost nothing will grow. This is in contrast to the bank of deeper soil just to the south where there are probably too many nutrients.

Hanson bank

Grassy bank on former Hanson entrance

Despite having only been seeded three years ago and on soil spread from the old concrete block plant site it already has some quiet surprising species.

old roadway

bee orchid on line of old tarmac roadway

I assume the bee orchids must have been already in the soil, surely three years is too short a time for them to have grown from seed? There were only  a few but one was one of the variants, I think “Belgarum”.

bee orchid flowert variant

bee orchid variant

30 Days Wild – Day 4 Far and Wide

A very varied day for me today, I started with a farmland bird survey on the Hampshire chalk, almost on the Wiltshire border, then to Blashford working with the volunteers and finally a guided walk at Hurst Spit.

The farmland survey is always enjoyable as I get to see species that I otherwise rarely come across, in this case yellowhammer, corn bunting and grey partridge. It was a fine, if cloudy morning and it would have been completely enjoyable, if it had not been for getting soaked by the heavy dew as I pushed my way through waist-high goose-grass.

At Blashford we were working on the design of a new tern raft, I think we have more or less cracked it now! I also had to check the fences for the soon to arrive ponies and in doing so I found over 100 bee orchid! They grow in several places around the reserve but typically in small groups.

bee orchid

bee orchid

After a speedy lunch it was off to Hurst Spit to lead a guided walk. I walked the length of the shingle rather than going by ferry, this seemed a mistake as light rain started to fall. Fortunately the rain eased and then stopped allowing us to see at least some of the wildlife of the stabilised shingle at the end of the spit.

The stabilised shingle has a very distinctive flora with zonation from the high tide line back into the grassy areas via damper dips with areas of saltmarsh vegetation. We found a good few broomrape plants, seemingly parasitic on wild carrot, so I assume the coastal version of common broomrape.

common broomrape

common broomrape

Broomrapes are weird plants, they have no chlorophyll so cannot produce their own food, they live parasitically on other plants, tapping into their root systems. There are a number of species and some are very specific about the hosts they exploit, the common broomrape is one of the less fussy ones.

More typical shingle beach plants included some magnificent sea kale, huge, glaucous, leathery leaves and a great froth of white flowers.

sea kale 4x3

sea kale

We also saw lots of sea beet, and yellow-horned poppy.

yellow-horned poppy

yellow-horned poppy

As you can see it is a yellow flowered poppy, the “horn” is the seed pod, which can extend to 20cm or more, quite different from the typical, more spherical, seedhead of most other species of poppy.

It was not all plants though, we found three cream-spot tiger moths, a pale form of mullein wave and lots of the small coastal Pyralid moth Platytes cerussella. The area around the castle has lots of rock pipit, I am sure they have become more common  since I was last out there.

Walking back up the beach I came across a jellyfish in the tideline. I have not heard of many along the coast, but perhaps this is going to be a “jellyfish year”, one of those when they arrive in hundreds of thousands. I have always dreamt of seeing a leatherback turtle in such a year, as these huge reptiles will follow their jellyfish prey as far as our shores. Although reptiles, it seems they have the ability to regulate their body temperature, keeping it at around 26 degrees Celsius, allowing them to come into colder waters than their smaller cousins.

jellyfish 4x3

jellyfish

30 Days Wild – Day 14 – Concrete to Orchids

Blashford’s brilliant volunteers were working hard again, this time on a project to produce a grassland on the former concrete block plant entrance. This is a project with a lot of difficulties, the site was abandoned fro three years and much of it got overgrown with bramble. The old hard standings and buildings were broken up leaving a mix of rubble, gavel and a very little soil. This might sound a bad start for a grassland, but it actually has potential, the most diverse grassland habitats are those with very poor soils and this area has a very, very poor soil. From this poor beginning we are making real progress, the old tarmac entrance now has flowering ox-eye daisy and bird’s-foot-trefoil and this is in just the second season since seeding. Perhaps most remarkably as we headed back for a cup of tea we found a flowering bee orchid!

bee orchid on Hanson entrance track

bee orchid growing on old entrance road

I suspect it may have come not as a seed but as a small plant along when some of the soil was being moved around, but clearly it is doing well. When I returned in the afternoon to do some more mowing of bramble regrowth I came across a pyramidal orchid on the bank that used to edge the road. The soil there was not so disturbed, so I would guess it had arrived some time ago.

pyramidal orchid

pyramidal orchid

Although the day had started drizzly it dried up, as it always does on a Thursday morning, famously it never rains during our Thursday volunteer sessions, whatever the forecast might say.

By afternoon it was hot in the sunshine and as I ate lunch I saw lots of insects. On bramble flower behind the Education Centre I found a yellow-and-black longhorn beetle.

yellow-and-black longhorn beetle

yellow-and-black longhorn beetle

I also saw several dark bush cricket nymphs.

dark bush cricket nymph

dark bush cricket nymph

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The wild carrot that I featured before the flowers open a while back is now in full flower and attracting insects.

dronefly on wild carrot

dronefly on wild carrot

There are several species of dronefly, all named for their similarity to male honey-bees. I think this one is Eristalis pertinax, but actually might be E. nemorum as it looks a little bright to be pertinax.

The reason for my late post of this time is that I was out again last night surveying nightjar. I heard possibly one that moved about or up to three, unfortunately I could never hear two at the same time, so I cannot say with certainty that there was more than one.

30 Days Wild – Day 13 – A Swarm of Bees

Out early this morning, or fairly early at least, to get in a breeding bird survey at one of our smaller reserves before work. Most of the birds were unremarkable, the typical birds of a New Forest wood, but I did get a calling crossbill in a willow tree, probably a dispersing bird that had just stopped for a rest and a hawfinch. I have long thought hawfinch could be at this site but had never previously recorded one there. I have failed to find redstart this year though and it is my impression that there are not so many  in the Forest generally this summer.

Then to was off to Blashford, where I had run two light traps overnight. Despite this the rather cooler, clearer conditions meant that the catch was considerably lower than yesterday. There was a clear highlight though, a blotched emerald, not a rare species but one I don’t see every year. The various green moths fade very quickly and so catching a fresh, near perfect individual is a treat.

blotched emerald

blotched emerald (male)

Although it was trapped in the office rather than in the trap the tiny moth that Tracy spotted was the emerald’s only competition for the title of “Moth of the Day”.

Ypsolopha sequella

                     Ypsolopha sequella           

This striking little moth has caterpillars that feed on field maple and sycamore, it is not rare but I don’t see them very often. To take the picture I moved it from the window to  rather more photogenic surroundings.

I spent the day split between mowing and desk work. I started work in conservation many years ago, at that time if you managed a nature reserve a desk was considered a decidedly optional extra. The day ended with a trip out on the water to visit the Gull Island to ring some black-headed gull chicks. We have been putting colour-rings on a sample each year for a number of seasons now. This evening we ringed 24 birds in about 45 minutes on the island. The trips need to be carefully planned for days that are not too windy, cool or damp and each visit needs to be short so as not to expose the nests to risk of cooling too much. The results of previous years have seen the chicks heading off, mainly south and west, sometimes very quickly, one made it to Somerset within two weeks and it could not even fly when it was ringed! Others have gone to the Newport Wetlands Centre in Wales, Nimmo’s Pier in Galway, Ireland and across the channel to France.

As I was transporting the boat to get us out to the island I noticed a groups of bee orchid, so on the way back I stopped to look at them. Although there were only about fifteen of them there was a great variation in the flowers.

bee orchid 2

A fairly typical bee orchid flower

bee orchid 3

A slightly oddly shaped flower

bee orchid 1

Paler and more elongate

bee orchid 4

With very pale flowers

bee orchid 5

The best marked and brightest one

An extraordinary variation in a small population, even for a variable species.

What’s in My Meadow Today? 

I have quiet a few cowslip in the meadow and they flowered well this spring and they will shortly be seeding, so I will probably have a good few more in the next few years. It is easy enough to plant things into a created meadow, what is probably the best test is which species establish and then start to set their own seedlings.

cowslip seedhead

cowslip seedhead