Change is in the Air

Actually change is the only thing that seems constant on the reserve just at the present. Levelling the car park near the Centre is well underway, but will mean this area is closed to parking for at least the whole of this week. In addition work is advancing on the remaining issues that have been preventing us gaining permission to use the new path to Goosander hide, so watch this space for updates on this.

A further sign of the times is that most of the reserve signs are being replaced, sounds simple enough perhaps, but working out exactly what has to be put on each and precisely where they should be placed takes time. Too many sites are over-signed and I don’t want this for Blashford, ideally there should be just enough to do the job and they should be obvious without being intrusive. Only time will tell how close we get to this ideal.

Out on the reserve the yellow-browed warbler continues to please most visitors that seek it, today mostly just to the north of Ivy South hide from what I understand, I did not see it myself. I did see a small flock of eight lesser redpoll in a birch in the same area though, my first this year. At Tern hide the water pipit, or at least a water pipit, seemed to be present for much of the day as did a flock of linnet, although their numbers seem to have reduced. The Woodland hide was very busy, with all the usual suspects present and especially large numbers of goldfinch and siskin when I looked in.

At Ivy North hide the bittern was seen occasionally as were water rail and Cetti’s warbler. When I locked up there was a great white egret, although it was not Walter, as it had no rings.

Lastly, just up the road at Harbridge a single Bewick’s swan continues to feed with the herd of mute swan, sometimes very close to the road.

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Thayer’s Gull

There has been much excitement in recent days at Blashford Lakes over the sighting of a potential Thayer’s gull. I say potential because these are not easy birds to identify or at least it is not easy to know exactly what you are looking at. Larger gulls are a particularly tricky bunch, they can vary quite a lot within species and not much at all between species and (even worse) sometimes hybridise!

So how do you ever know what you are looking at? For all the species there are the “Classic” birds, the ones that look like the have just stepped off the pages of the field guide, these should not be too difficult, although some genetic studies suggest even some of these might not be quiet what they seem. The others are more problematic, at least for people who like to put a name to them. Often it then comes down to looking at the various characters and scoring what is positive and what negative, after that you can consult experts or, for the more free-wheeling just decide if you are happy or not. For some there is no “right” answer, just the balance of probability.

So is this Thayer’s gull the real thing? The short answer is I don’t know and it will probably get decided by committee in the end and some will accept the decision and others not. Having seen the bird at some distance last night and then rather better tonight I have a few observations. The books often say they are structurally like Iceland gull and a claimed one I saw many years ago in Ireland was, to my eyes, identical in structure to Iceland gulls nearby. This bird looks bulkier than what I would expect for an Iceland gull, but it has the same wide, round head so typical of that species. Iceland gulls do have broader bodies and heads than herring gulls but this bird looks very heavy indeed. The wings do not look long and the rear of the bird on the water looks less attenuated than typical for Iceland, but this may be due to the rather large body size and males gulls are often a lot larger than females. As far as I can tell the plumage looks as though it has all the expected features.

Whatever it is, it is interesting and different from any other gull I have seen before, even the other one claimed as Thayer’s. It is quite obvious in the roost, it certainly stands out as different. Another way of looking at it is what might it be if it is not a Thayer’s gull? It seems American herring gull will hybridise with Thayer’s gull and that they will also hybridise with Glaucous-winged gull producing offspring that look like Thayer’s gulls. However it seems that these various hybrids tend not to have the round head, which this bird certainly does have.

If you are a bird lister it really matters if this is or is not a Thayer’s gull, importantly if it is accepted as such by the rarities committee once they have weighed up the pros and cons. Whatever they decide it is a very interesting bird and I am pleased I have seen it, I have looked at many, many thousands of gulls and never seen one quiet like it before. There is a school of thought that Thayer’s gull is just a form of Iceland gull and not a full species at all.

All this begs the question of just what defines a species, actually an important question for conservationists as rarity often drives much funding and conservation effort. A rare species will attract more effort than attract more effort than a sub-species. The definition of a species is  not a simple thing and not as clear as you might think and subject to change. Actually what matters are populations, we need to conserve populations, it does not really matter if they are species, sub-species or separate groups of one species. Keeping populations viable ensures their survival whatever their status, we should not consider them less because they are not a separate species by the current definition.

As for the Thayer’s gull, I enjoyed seeing it whatever it is eventually decided to be. Come to that I enjoyed seeing all the other gulls in the roost too. All 9,000 or so of them, including a juvenile Iceland gull, yellow-legged gulls, Mediterranean gulls and the thousands of lesser black-backed gulls and black-headed gulls. If you are interested there are pictures of the Thayer’s gull on the HOS go birding website, mine are so bad I will not torture you with them!

Elsewhere, away from the gulls, “Walter” the great white egret was on Ivy Lake and 2 black-necked grebe on Ibsley Water along with a single Bewick’s swan, a  real rarity here these days, although there were almost 200 wintering in the valley a few decades ago.

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.

 

In Between Times

A cold and frosty start to the day saw mist rising from the lakes as the sun came up.

ivy-lake

Ivy Lake, early morning

It was warm in the sun though and where it touched the frost disappeared quickly.

It might be “Christmas week” but as it was Thursday the volunteers were out in force to continue a willow cutting task in the reedbed area towards the Lapwing hide. This is a curious area of habitat, an old silt pond that filled with reeds and willows as it dried out. Normally the willows grow up and the reed dies off, here though, the willows are struggling and the reed seems to be doing better each year. The original plan was to manage it as willow scrub, but the willow refuses to grow and so we are opting for a reedbed with scattered willow instead. So we are cutting areas of the weak willow and allowing the reed space to expand.

volunteers-cutting-willows-in-the-reedbed

Ten volunteers turned out today to continue willow cutting in the reedbed.

We have also been cutting willows in the old silt pond near the Centre, although here they grow back vigorously. Our last task there was the Thursday before Christmas and despite the lure (?) of Christmas shopping there was a good turn out then too. We always try to make positive use of the cuttings where we can, today we were making a dead hedge which will probably grow up with brambles giving some valuable habitat. The dead twigs are also a valuable habitat in their own right, we are often told of the value of log piles for wildlife, but deadwood does not have to be large to be good for wildlife lots of species will use smaller deadwood.

The brash from the sallows near the Centre is being used to top the bank alongside the new path that is going in between the main car park and Goosander hide. I am hoping this bank will grow a bramble top which will provide cover for lots of species and nectar for insects and this will grow up in the shelter of the dead hedge.

the-source

The source coppice

the-destination

The destination

Although the weather has turned colder so far it has not resulted in much change in the wildlife on offer on the reserve. There still appear to be 2 great white egret about, the regular bird, “Walter” mainly around Ivy Lake and usually roosting there each evening and the newer arrival which seems to prefer the area from the north of Ibsley Water and off the reserve towards Mockbeggar Lake and Ibsley North lakes. A bittern is still being seen somewhat intermittently from Ivy North hide, where there are also water rail and Cetti’s warbler. At the Woodland hide up to 3 brambling are being seen as are a few reed bunting along with all the regular woodland species. Under the alder carr just outside the Woodland hide there was a water rail feeding in the open for most of today in the wet area just by the path, giving a great opportunity to see this usually shy bird well.

On Ibsley Water the gull roost is still as large as ever and includes 2 or 3 Mediterranean gull, 2 different ring-billed gull (although it is some days since both were seen on the same evening), 10 or more yellow-legged gull and a few gulls that remain a challenge to even the most dedicated. If you look at enough gulls you realise there are a few that just don’t “fit”, perhaps hybrids or birds of more distant and unfamiliar races or just plain oddities. A Bewick’s swan made an appearance late yesterday, although it did not seem to come to roost this evening, so has perhaps moved on. On the eastern shore of the lake this morning there were at least 8 raven attracted by some carrion on the bank. In the evening a small roost of starling behind the Lapwing hide have been trying their best to put on a bit of a show, but with only about 2000 birds it is not quite ready to rival Rome city centre. Two snipe were very obliging in front of Tern hide this afternoon and a green sandpiper always seems to be there just after dark as I hear it calling when I lock the car park.

Don’t forget the Pop-up Café returns to Blashford on New Year’s Day, so you can come and see some great birds and eat great cake too!

Icy start to a busy day

I arrived a few minutes late this morning due to treacherous road conditions on the way in, so was delighted to see that the main “Tern Hide” car park was clear and, to my surprise, reasonably safe to drive and walk over so was able to open up. It is a week since I was last at Blashford so a build up in wildfowl numbers, particularly wigeon and teal, was especially noticeable on both Ibsley Water and Ivy Lake, the latter of which had a lovely early morning mist dissipating when I opened up. Also unmissable was the massive erosion scar in front of Tern Hide and just how much higher the lake was. Made me quite glad that I’d missed it – in more than 10 years working at Blashford the car park has been flooded by the Dockens Water on a regular basis on many an occasion, but never has it been so flooded that it has gone under the hide. A big thanks to Ed, Steve and Jacki who cleared up the devastation:

Ibsley Water - more than a little fuller after the river emptied into it via the car park earlier in the week, leaving a quite obvious flood channel where the river water exited the car park beneath the hide!

Ibsley Water – more than a little fuller after the river emptied into it via the car park earlier in the week, leaving a quite obvious flood channel where the river water exited the car park beneath the hide!

Coot and early morning mist looking south over Ivy Lake

Coot and early morning mist looking south over Ivy Lake

Wigeon, teal, gadwall, coot and tufted duck to the north of Ivy South Hide.

Wigeon, teal, gadwall, coot and tufted duck to the north of Ivy South Hide.

The lakes are all very high now and the river, though dropped, is higher than normal. Still, the board walk through the willow carr beyond Ivy South hide is accessible again!

Board walk accessible again!

Board walk accessible again.

Further along the path that runs between Ellingham Lake and the river was more evidence of the recent flood event however; this time another of our mature oaks gone. However, uprooted as it is on the river bank it has, and will, create brilliant little micro-habitats in the root plate and in the river itself, the dead and rotting wood will support hundreds of species of invertebrate, fungi, lichens, small mammals and birds and it is entirely possible that, depending upon what roots remain intact in the ground, it will continue to grow. And thankfully, because it is in an area of reserve with no access, it can just be left without worry that someone will come a cropper:

Another lovely old oak gone...

Another lovely old oak gone…

It didn’t take too long for the thickest of the frost to melt this morning, but it really was quite stunning in places while it lasted and allowed me the opportunity to get a little creative:

Frosted lichens...

Frosted lichens…

131229 Blashford today by J Day (6)_resize

The beautiful day and strong winter sun saw a steady stream of visitors coming through the reserve – busiest I have seen since last winter/early spring and what was particularly nice was the fact that it was a real mix of serious birders and photographers, less serious photographers (i.e. they hadn’t re-mortgaged the house or sold the car to purchase their equipment!) and lots of families just out for a walk and the opportunity to see some wildlife – with black necked grebe and merlin on Ibsley Water, and, at times, really good views of at least two bittern and the great white egret on Ivy Lake, Ivy North Hide. Also reported today was the first Bewick’s swan of this winter, on Ibsley Water and no doubt over in the water meadows of Harbridge too.

A reasonable number of visitors either arrived late or stayed on later in hope of a decent starling murmuration, which sadly did not entirely live up to expectations in terms of numbers of birds nor weather which clouded over right towards the end of the day and even started raining while I locked up. However it was still a wonder to behold and with at least one peregrine diving into the midst of the birds they did perform. The main roost certainly does seem to have dispersed into at least two smaller roosts now with some still going down west of the A338 north of Ellingham Church and some into Mockbeggar North north of Mockbeggar Lane. Didn’t see any going into the reeds behind Lapwing Hide tonight, but they did yesterday and surely will do so again. Kind of forgotten about with the excitement of the starlings, the gull roost was also quite spectacular today. Neither picture below do either spectacle justice, but were the best I could manage in poor light with a poor camera!

Some of the starlings this evening

Some of the starlings this evening

Gulls over Ibsley Water

Gulls over Ibsley Water

 

A Day of Two Halves

Bird News: Ibsley Water Bewick’s swan 6, shelduck 11, goldeneye 14, goosander 70+. Ivy Lakebittern 1, ferruginous duck 1, great white egret 1.

A very flat, grey morning, but the gloom seemed to have fooled the roosting birds on Ibsley Water into staying rather longer than normal this morning. There were still at least 2000 black-headed gull and goosander all over the lake, I counted at least 70 in scattered groups, often displaying. The 6 Bewick’s swans were still asleep when I first looked out, but soon woke up and flew off to the valley, although evidently not going to Harbridge to joint the mute swans, where they were looked for without success, although there was the bonus of a report of a whooper swan there, a real rarity in Hampshire. Also on Ibsley Water were 11 shelduck, a good count and at least 17 goldeneye, including 8 adult drakes.

So a good start to the day by any standards. I opened the Centre and then off to the remaining hides. At the Ivy North hide I looked out and a bittern was hunting just below the hide and I had not even raised my binoculars! I now wondered if I was going to complete the round with the ferruginous duck, but a quick check of the few pochard at the Ivy South hide soon answered that with disappointment.

I spent much of the morning path trimming, a noisy activity which makes it pretty certain that no wildlife will be seen, an afternoon in the office did not improve my wildlife sightings although I did come across the latest report on the ruddy duck cull, an issue that I know interests a good few of our visitors. A link to this, for those that are interested is:

https://secure.fera.defra.gov.uk/nonnativespecies/index.cfm?pageid=244

It was very mild and this was brought home when I was walking through the lobby and glanced up at the Pondcam and saw a male smooth newt, actively looking for food. I had been pondering that the first common frog spawn was probably not too far away, but perhaps the newts will not be far behind.

As it got towards dusk I set out to lock the hides and arriving first at the Ivy South hide the great white egret was perched in one of the trees on the long peninsula opposite the hide and looking south, the ferruginous duck was also on view, although sleeping. All in all, a good day with some excellent birds.

 

A Day to Enjoy

Bird News: Ibsley WaterBewick’s swan 6, goosander 95, black-tailed godwit 2, peregrine 1, green sandpiper 1. Ivy Lakeferruginous duck 1, bittern 2, water rail 1, yellow-legged gull 1, green samdpiper 1. Rockford Lakegoldeneye 4, Egyptian goose 10, pintail 1, green sandpiper 1.

After yesterday’s wash-out today’s sunshine was very welcome. Visitor numbers were high all day, in fact the car parks were more or less full from mid morning to mid afternoon. Luckily people were well spread around the reserve so none of the hides were too jammed. The ferruginous duck was to the south of the Ivy South hide for most of the day, unfortunately looking into the sun did not give the best views though. A few lucky people saw bittern from Ivy North hide, the circumstances suggest that there were two birds involved.

As I opened the Tern hide this morning I was just in time to see the 6 Bewick’s swan before they flew out to the valley, curiously, although they flew in the direction of their usual feeding fields, they were not seen there today. Green sandpipers were seen on three different lakes and 2 black-tailed godwits added to the waders, although they left to the south in the late afternoon. At dusk a good roost count of the goosander was reported, still shy of the magic one hundred, but 95 was still impressive.

Following yesterday’s report of a Caspian gull on Blashford Lake I went to see if it was there this morning, I did find a large gull, which promptly flew to Ivy Lake, where I got a few pictures of it, but I reckon this bird is a yellow-legged gull, so my search for a Caspian this winter goes on.

yellow-legged gull

Walking back passed Rockford Lake the masses of whistling wigeon were rather drowned out by the cries of 10 Egyptian geese.

Egyptian goose

Going through the woodland I noticed several large flies basking int he sunshine on the lichen covered trunks of two trees. Looking closer I was taken by the fabulous gardens of lichens and moss that these trunks had developed. There also seemed to be some differences between the two trees flora, possibily because one was an oak and the other an ash.

lichens on oak trunk

 

lichens on ash trunk

One of the great things about Blashford Lakes is that it appeals to a wide range of visitors, not just out and out birders, although the ferruginous duck was attracting a steady stream of admirers, others did not give it a second, or even first, glance. There were people seeking their first glimps of a bittern or trying to unravel the finer points of gull identification, but at least as many were gathered at the Woodland hide enjoying  the great spotted woodpeckers, lesser redpolls and blue tits.

blue tit

Locking up at the end of a busy day, there were still people hoping a water rail would come out to feed as the sun set. Locking up the Ivy South hide it wa sgood to see the ferruginous duck doing something other than sleeping. It was bathing and preening and swimming about, it looked much better when it was active. Unlike many other ducks pochard, and I suspect the ferruginous duck also, feed at night and I think these birds were just setting out for the start of their day as I was finishing mine.