Autumn well underway

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There has been a very autumnal feel to this week with hundreds of martins gathering over Ibsley Water each morning and today I was there as they continued with their migration southward – one moment they were all zipping around just above the lake surface and in the blink of an eye, at some signal unseen by me, they launched their way skywards in a fairly close spiral and very quickly were lost to sight.

There’s plenty of other signs of the changing season too – including the fact that this morning I chose to wear a jumper AND jacket into work!

The grasslands have been looking lovely first thing each day as well, festooned with their dew-laden cobwebs as they have been, and everywhere you go (there, the woodland, and even the car parks and outside the Centre) the ground is liberally covered with badger droppings whose diet has now very clearly moved on from plum to blackberry!

It’s still very dry so the fungi have not yet fruited in earnest but there are still some to be found, including this newly erect (there’s no other word for it really!) stinkhorn photographed near Woodland Hide this morning.

I’ve smelt it coming for a few days now, but not managed to see it, presumably because it was still in its “egg” form as opposed to my just being unobservant as it was particularly fresh looking this morning. They don’t tend to last overly long, but this one will soon be replaced by another marked by a new “egg” bottom left of the photograph. Weird things these eggs, and far more easily overlooked than the mature fungus (which, lets face it, is also pretty weird!) as they often form just below the ground, so nice to see and get a photo of it today.

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You can just see a fly coming in in the top left corner of the picture. Attracted by the rotten/sweet small of the fungus it will become coated with the sticky jelly carrying spores and so assist the fungi in its dispersal as it flies away on whatever business flies get up to when not lured by stinkhorns.

Kingfishers have continued to oblige this summer, to an extent at Goosander Hide, but in recent weeks at Ivy South Hide in particular.

There are still at least two great white egrets around, debatably 3, one of which is “Walter” and yesterday afternoon they have been joined by another of our seasonal herons, with a bittern seen in flight by half-a-dozen visitors as it flew over the reed/reedmace bed, from left to right, in front of Ivy North Hide, giving all a fantastic view.

It will probably be a while before the next sighting, and even longer before anyone gets a picture as the reeds are all so tall and dense still at this time of year, but good to know that there is at least one around so keep your eyes peeled on your next visit and you never know!

 

Bittern not Stung

I am fairly sure that the bittern that spent a good part of the winter showing off by Ivy North Hide left on the night of Sunday 17th March, conditions were perfect and there were no records in the next couple of days. However a couple of brief sightings in since suggested I was wrong. This evening I saw a bittern from the hide, but it was not the bird that wintered there, being somewhat duller and, I think, smaller. This may be the second bid seen during the winter but which was chased off by the regular one, now able to hunt in peace, or perhaps a migrant.

The sun was warm today, although the wind was a little chilly. In shelter there were lot of insects about, I saw peacock, brimstone and small tortoiseshell and probably thousands of solitary bees. I was able to identify a few species, the commonest was yellow-legged mining bee then the grey-backed mining bee, nationally a very rare species, but abundant locally at Blashford Lakes. The only other I certainly identified was red-girdled mining bee. It was pleasing to see lots of female grey-backed miners as I had been seeing what I was convinced were males for several days, but they are very similar to the males of a commoner species, the females are much more distinctive. My first female was sunning itself on the new screen I was building beside Goosander Hide.

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female grey-backed mining bee catching some rays

I later went to see if there were any around the sandy bank we dug for bees a couple of seasons ago and there were, loads and loads of them!

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grey-backed mining bee female checking out a likely site to dig a nest hole.

The sound of the masses of bees was amazing, there really was a “Buzz in the air”, although solitary bees can sting they do not often do so and the vast majority of the bees around the bank were males, which have no sting, so it is possible to enjoy the experience with little risk.

I had the first report of sand martin at the nesting bank today, hopefully we will have a good few nesting pairs again this year.

Elsewhere reports of a glossy ibis at Fishlake Meadows was impressive as was that of a white stork very close by at Squabb Wood, Romsey

Nearly Re-Terned and Last Pop-up

We are nearly there, the Tern Hide reconstruction is getting close to completion. The structure is up, although the roof still has to be finished, then there are the banks and screens to put up and various other finishing elements to do, but we are nearing the end now. The project has not just been about the Tern Hide though.

There is a great new viewing platform on the bank to the rear of the main car park, which gives a fantastic view, not just of Ibsley water but a panorama of the whole valley, it could become a great place to watch migration.

Over at the Education Centre we have a new information hut and a second education pond, this is will allow us to reline the existing one which leaks badly, without having any time without a pond. There are also various other improvements to the lay-out that should make it much easier and safer for education groups and visitors as a whole.

Further out on the reserve there will be new signage and one or too surprises too. If you have not visited for a while you may also notice that we have done some further tree felling, this has been targeted at invasive Turkey oak and grey alder, in both cases removing these will allow space for more native trees to grow. Although the landscape value of such non-native trees can be positive, they harbour markedly less wildlife.

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roe deer

Although we are approaching the end there are still some restrictions in places, most notably the car parking at the Centre, which is being re-levelled and surfaced, please take notice of signage and temporary fences whilst this work is going on.

This work has been made possible thanks to a grant from the Veolia Environmental Trust.

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Despite all this work we have remained open for business as close to normal as possible. The bittern has been parading about, although it seems likely it has now departed. The ring-billed gull has been roosting on Ibsley Water, where there has also been a very fine drake garganey. At Woodland Hide there have been small numbers of redpoll and brambling among the chaffinch, goldfinch and reed bunting. On top of all this there are migrants arriving in moderate numbers with at least 27 sand martin yesterday and also blackcap, chiffchaff and little ringed plover.

This weekend sees the last appearance for the season of the Pop-up cafe, so if you do not make it to the reserve you will have to wait until next autumn for some of the best cake around.

Spring is all around with insect numbers increasing, numbers of moths have been rising and last night we saw our first brindled beauty of the year, following on from our first streamer and engrailed earlier in the week.

brindled beauty

brindled beauty

Numbers of solitary bees have been increasing too, including lot of what I think are male grey-backed mining bee, this is a very rare bee and the males are very similar to the much common ashy mining bee.

male Andrena

male mining bee, I think grey backed (Andrena vaga)

 

And Wildlife Too

Although the week on the reserve was undeniably hectic with contractors working away all over the place, it was still a week of wonderful wildlife.

The early surge of migrants dropped off when the wind and weather changed, but as we get into mid-March migrants are arriving anyway. Chiffchaff are now singing at various locations, sand martin are being seen occasionally and a little ringed plover has been a fixture on Ibsley Water, although hard to find hunkered down out of the wind.

Perhaps the most surprising bird on the reserve has been the bittern, which seems not to want to leave and has been giving good views day after day from Ivy North hide.

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The bittern remains lurking and often not, near Ivy North Hide

The adult ring-billed gull seems again to have become a regular fixture in the gull roost on Ibsley Water each evening, after having gone off somewhere or the mid-winter period.

The early butterflies have retreated due to lack of sunshine, but the occasional adder is still being seen and mild nights have resulted in good moth catches. Common Quaker are most abundant, but Hebrew character, small Quaker, twin-spotted Quaker, clouded drab and oak beauty have all been regular. Although not warm enough for butterflies, bees are made of sterner stuff. Buff-tailed bumble-bee queens are buzzing around and investigating potential nest sites between bouts of feeding, sallow catkins being one of their favourites.

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buff-tailed bumble-bee visiting sallow flowers

There are also some solitary bees flying, so far only males that I have seen, they tend to emerge earlier than the females. Yellow-legged mining bee being the most common, but I found a blacker bee this week, I suspect it of being the rare grey-backed mining bee. The female is very distinctive but the males look similar to the much commoner ashy mining bee.

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a male mining bee, I suspect grey-backed mining bee

The wonderful thing about spring is that you can see the things moving on day by day, even when the weather is poor, the imperative to get on with life pulls wildlife along, or perhaps pushes it. The costs of being late are probably to miss out on breeding, so this encourages getting earlier to steal a march on rivals, but get it wrong and starting too early and all can be lost.

Climate change is an added complication at this time of year when timing is so important and the costs of getting things wrong so high. Many species respond to temperature, but others to day length, or other factors or combinations of them. Many species will be dependent upon on another, bees need flowers for food but the plants need bees to pollinate them, sometimes the relationships are complex and the interdependence critical to survival. If the relationship is broken completely extinction is likely for one or both partners, but even stretching it will result in declines.

There is no doubt that our management or mismanagement of land, use of chemicals and casual approach to waste have all taken a serious  toll, the much publicised insect decline being just one result. We are now recognising some of this and some things have been turned around, ozone in the atmosphere being a good example of effective action.

However the really big threat is climate change and it will not be so easy to reverse, in fact halting it looks way beyond us at present. So it was really refreshing to see so many young people getting involved in a call for real action, showing that there is perhaps a generation who are seeing the big picture. The lack of engagement by the young in politics is often decried but maybe they are seeing what others are missing, the real issue is way beyond politics and certainly our current politicians. The environment not as special interest, but a matter of life and death.

 

A Pond (more or less)

One of the parts of the current improvement project on the reserve is the digging of  a new dipping pond behind the Education Centre. You may ask why we need a new one when we already have one. The answer is the old one has a leak and needs repair, but to do this it needs draining and so will mean we would have no pond for dipping for perhaps a year. The new pond will allow us to effect the repair and eventually to have two ponds, which will mean that neither gets too disturbed as we will be able to spread the dipping activity between them. Below are a series of shots showing the pond developing up to today, when it is about half full of water thanks to a bit of much needed rain.

 

Just starting

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pond digging

The pond moving on

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pond filling

The project is funded by the Veolia Environmental Trust.

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Next week work should start on installation of the new Tern Hide, so watch this space for further updates.

I know I probably overdid the bittern pictures last night but here is one from this morning anyway!

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Bittern in the sunshine

Some Things are Hard to Swallow

A rough day on the reserve today, but despite this there were reports of at least eight sand martin over Ibsley Water, so Spring migrants are still arriving. I missed seeing the martins but did see a little ringed plover. Other birds today were a small flock of black-tailed godwit which flew over, a single dunlin, the black-necked grebe, now in breeding plumage and a brambling. The bittern continues to be seen at Ivy North Hide, it is getting very late for it to still be here. At the end of the day it was sitting hunkered down in the reeds near the hide, looking miserable after a wet and windy day.

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Miserable looking bittern

It did not look as though it was interested in anything other than keeping out of the wind and rain, however something caught its attention.

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What was that?

It certainly seemed worth investigating.

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Got to go and take a look

It certainly was!

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Definitely worth taking a look

Having made the capture the next trick is was to manoeuvre it into a swallowable position.

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sideways is no good

Turning a pike this big whilst it is still alive is no easy task.

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Too good a meal to let go

Even when turned it was to wide to get down with mouth agape.

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Eventually the head was in

Now it was only going to go one way.

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Almost gone

It is a good thing they have expanding necks!

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Gone

It then stalked off, passing close to the hide to spend the night digesting, I would guess it won’t be flying off tonight so should still be around for at least another day.

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Heading off to do a little digesting

A cracking way to end the day!

Things Moving On

The unseasonably warm weather has yet to produce any summer migrant birds at Blashford, although elsewhere in the country there have been multiple sightings of swallow, sand martin and house martin, a swallow has even reached Shetland! We do have lots of signs of spring though, the wild daffodil are coming out in numbers, especially near the Woodland Hide and the moth trap is turning up some species more typical of March than February.

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oak beauty

twin-spot quaker

twin-spotted Quaker

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satellite

Things are also moving on with the various works on the reserve and are likely to pick up further next week. The new Centre pond is almost ready to receive water.

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New pond under construction

Some things don’t seem so keen to move though, the bittern remains regularly seen outside Ivy North Hide, at times showing very well.

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bittern fishing outside Ivy North Hide yesterday

The other notable heron species that had been seen regularly there, the great white egret does seem to have made the move though, with no sightings in the last few days. My last known sighting of “Walter” the colour-ringed egret was last Saturday, I am guessing he has returned to France for the summer.

Trapped

The night was a little warmer and the result was the best moth catch for some time, not saying a lot perhaps, but it is only mid February. In all there were four species, a dotted border.

dotted border

dotted border

Two chestnut, these will have over-wintered as adult moths.

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chestnut

Two spring usher, ushering in the spring!

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spring usher

And a single micro-moth, a Tortricodes alternella, actually there was another micro, but it flew off before I could see it well enough.

Tortricodes alternella

Tortricodes alternella

Not everything in the trap was a moth though, other insects are also attracted to light, in this case a female great diving beetle.

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great diving beetle (female)

I understand that a bittern was seen again today at Ivy North hide and a redpoll at the Woodland hide. Out on Ibsley Water single black-necked grebe, a yellow-legged gull and a water pipit were seen.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Wildlife Watch -working with willow

An unpromising Saturday morning which started with unexpected rain whilst opening up but soon cleared to be a fresh but quite lovely day with lots of visitors coming to make the most of it – and enjoying their views of all the usual winter suspects in the process, including bittern and brambling.

Our small, but growing, Wildlife Watch group met at the Centre for their monthly meeting in the morning too.

First job was to make some fat balls combined with a special individually hand picked ‘n’ mixed  selection of sunflower seeds, hearts and/or sultanas. Unfortunately one of our leaders is vegan, but he stoically saw the activity through, albeit from a distance, knowing full well that the vegetable equivalent of beef suet is not palatable to birds…

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With the food itself made we headed outside into the winter sunshine to saw:

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Drill:

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Poke, snip and tie:

(Actually, I didn’t take any pictures of this activity, you will just have to imagine sliding willow withies up through all the drilled holes until wedged tight, cutting them to size and securing the tops – and bottoms/sides, depending on the style of creation of the individual Wildlife Watch member!)

Before finally filling – and proudly showing off – the finished bird feeders:

Next month we meet 10.30am-12.30pm, on Saturday 9th March, for a wildlife walk in search of Spring!

E-mail Blashfordlakes@hiwwt.org.uk to find out more… or if you’re not aged 6-12 but wish you were simply watch this space to enjoy the session vicariously!