30 Days Wild – Day 17 – Knights In…

Moth of the day at Blashford was (and yes, you have probably already guessed it) a white satin.

white satin

white satin moth (male)

This is not a rare species, although not common and one I don’t see very often at all. On the face of it Blashford should be a good site as the larvae eat willow, poplar and aspen, all of which we have in some quantity.

Other moths today that I had not recorded so far this year were the delicate.

delicate

delicate

This is typically a migrant species, although it may be able to over-winter in some years. The other”new one” was a clouded brindle, a species that is pretty well camouflaged on the mossy bark, unlike the white satin.

clouded brindle

clouded brindle

After a morning cutting paths and bramble regrowth I had a look around near the Centre at lunchtime and found a batch of small cinnabar caterpillars tucking into the flower heads of a ragwort plant.

cinnabar caterpillars

young cinnabar moth caterpillars

Nearby I found a wasp beetle, this is one of the longhorn beetles with larvae that tunnel into wood.

wasp beetle

wasp beetle

It has similar black and yellow warning colouration to the cinnabar caterpillars, although I am not sure if it is actually poisonous like the caterpillars or just exploiting the fact that many birds will avoid any black and yellow insect as potentially unwise prey.

Although the reserve was pretty quiet today there are a few things to report. I saw my first fledged little ringed plover of the year, two juveniles on the Long Spit on Ibsley Water. There were also a number of flying black-headed gull juveniles too. Near Goosander hide a family of five small coot chicks were just below the sand martin wall. As the drizzle set in during the afternoon the numbers of swift and martin grew until there were at least 250 swift and several hundred martins. There was a report of 3 black-tailed godwit and I saw a redshank.  However the really big news, might actually be from last Friday, written in the Tern hide logbook was a report of a pratincole, with “collared?” written after it. Collared is the most likely, although even that is a very rare bird. Unfortunately the observer did not leave a name or any further details other than that it was on the Long Spit and flew away, not sure when it was seen, by whom or which way it went. If anyone can shed any light on this potentially very interesting record I would be delighted to know.

I returned home in persistent drizzle and took a quick look in the moth trap which I had not managed to do this morning. Three species of hawk-moth, elephant, pine and privet, matched the range,if not species, at Blashford but otherwise there was not much.

Which leaves….

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The yellow-rattle which I featured in flower at the start of the 30 Days, is now going to seed, as the stems dry the seeds will start to rattle in the swollen calyx when shaken.

yellow rattle seedpods

yellow-rattle with developing seed.

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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

Moths and a bit More

The thunder on Saturday night heralded a change to more normal spring weather, but the burst of summer has produced a marked change. In a matter of three or four day the beech trees have leafed up and there has been a dramatic greening of the scene.

The moth trap catches are increasing in numbers and species range. Yesterday’s catch includes several brindled beauty.

brindled beauty

brindled beauty (male)

There was also the first pale pinion of the season.

pale pinion

pale pinion

The early spring species are starting to decline in numbers with fewer Quakers and Hebrew character, although fresh frosted green continue to be caught.

frosted green

frosted green

The number of swift increased again to 25 or more during the day and there were still at least 3 brambling around the feeders. On Ibsley Water a single common sandpiper was the only sign of wader passage. Some of the black-headed gull are starting to settle down to nest and the common tern are pairing up, so the nesting season is showing signs of getting going properly after a slow start.

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.

Making Preparations

Although it feels very much like winter there are preparations for the coming spring afoot. At Blashford Lakes I spent Tuesday working with our volunteer team clearing the Long Spit island and the open ground of the old Hanson plant making the ground ready for nesting lapwing, little ringed plover, common tern and black-headed gull. Lapwing can settle down to nest as early as the start of March and will be pairing up at nest sites well before then if the weather is suitable.

before

The Long Spit before clearance

after

Long Spit after clearance

It was very cold and we had feared we would also get wet as there were some fierce showers, luckily they mostly missed us and by the time we had finished the sun was out.

By way of proof of approaching spring I spotted a pair of blue tit checking out a nest box outside my kitchen window, luckily the Blashford boxes have all been cleaned out, a reminder for me to do mine at home.

blue tit investigating

Blue tit checking out the nest box outside my kitchen window at the weekend.

Today we were working with our new volunteer team at Fishlake Meadows, again we were making preparations for later in the year. This time it was scrub cutting in preparation for grazing parts of this new reserve. Although much of the reserve is open water and reedbed there are areas of wet grassland that is gradually getting ranker and invaded by willow and bramble. To arrest this we plan a light grazing regime to maintain the mix of grass, fen and small patches of low scrub. Today we removed some young willow and cleared small alder to leave a few larger trees that will provide valuable shade for cattle in the summer sun.

start

Making the first cuts – the Fishlake volunteers starting out.

We were lucky with the weather, it was cold, but we managed to stay out of the wind and in the sun making it feel rather pleasant, hopefully we will be as lucky next time.

finish

With the scrub removed these trees will provide valuable shade for the cattle later in the year.

As we walked out to the worksite I saw a distant great white egret and on the way back we watched 2 red kite sparring with a pair of crow.

In the afternoon I returned to Blashford Lakes and got a quick picture of a water pipit outside Tern hide, nit the best I have seen but the best picture I have managed,

water pipit

water pipit

I am very lucky to be able to see quite a lot of wildlife as I go about my working day, however there are times when I should definitely have been looking the other way. As we headed out to work on the Long Spit on Tuesday we apparently disturbed an otter from the lakeside and it then swam by the Tern hide, somehow none of us saw it!

At Blashford we are also at the start of preparations of a different kind, we are planning a number of improvements around the reserve. To fund this we are hoping to apply for a grant and part of this process involves sounding out our visitors for their experience of the reserve. If you have visited recently it would be very useful to have your views, a questionnaire is attached here: Blashford Lakes Questionnaire if you are able to complete it and email it to us it would greatly help us with our grant application.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 13: Gulls get Rings

Tuesday is one of our two regular volunteer days at Blashford Lakes, this week’s main task was further work to improve the grassland habitat along the western shore of Ibsley Water. We have had a long-term project to remove bramble, nettle and willow that has been threatening to take dominate. This shore was remodelled into a steep bank using the topsoil removed from the gravel pit surface when it was first dug, conditions ideal for the development of nettle beds and bramble thickets. To reverse this we have been mowing to allow grass and perennial herb species to get the upper-hand.  This has been targeted work aiming to take out only the least desirable species. Even the nettle beds have elements that we leave, such as any patches with nets of peacock and small tortoiseshell larvae.

peacock caterpillars

peacock caterpillars

Alongside the nutrient-rich soils there are poorer patches and these have a more interesting flora including a number of bee orchid.

bee orchid and mower

bee orchid

At the end of the day I went out to Gull Island in Ibsley Water with the bird-ringers to colour-ring a sample of the black-headed gull chicks. We have been doing this for a number of years to find out where the birds from this recently established colony go to and if the chicks reared here return to breed in later years. We managed to catch and ring thirty chicks during our short visit, a good sample.

209C gets ringed

209C gets a ring, where will it go and will it come back?

In the evening I came across a female stag beetle on the fence in the garden, the first female I have seen this year. The day ended on a fine calm note and so I decided to head out to listen to the nightjar again. One came and perched on a branch very close by and gave great views. I never tire of watching and listening to nightjar and to have the opportunity to do so just a few minutes walk from home is wonderful.

30 Days Wild – Day 9: Send in the Troops

Despite a bit of a stutter in the summer weather this week the season still advances and Day 9 of 30 Days Wild saw the first common tern chicks on the rafts on Ivy Lake. I think they probably hatched couple of days ago. One pair was a few days ahead of the main group so I am expecting a lot of chicks to hatch next week. Common tern almost invariably lay three eggs, so if they all hatch our 36 pairs will have about 100 chicks between them, so fingers crossed for a successful season.

I saw the terns from Ivy South hide where the grass snake were on show, basking on the stump below the hide.

two grass snakes on the stump

Snakes on the stump

The most significant sightings of the day though were once again of insects. I will always try to make a quick check of the hemlock water-dropwort at lunchtime, this plant is very attractive to nectaring insects and amongst these can be some rarer species. In particular it attracts bees, hoverflies and soldierflies. Blashford is a good site for bees, many of which use the dry lichen heath for nesting. Equally the wetland habitats are the home to many hoverflies and especially soldierflies, including some nationally rare species. So I was very pleased to spot at least one ornate brigadier soldierfly (Odontomyia ornata), a species that we see at Blashford every couple of years or so and has, so far, not been found anywhere else in Hampshire. I then spotted a second species, the black colonel (Odontomyia tigrina), slightly more often recorded but still quite rare, this one at least allowed me to take a picture.

Odontomyia tigrina female

Black colonel soldierfly (Odontomyia tigrina), female on hemlock water-dropwort.

However visiting flowers to feed, as these insects must do, is a risky business, there are predators lying in wait, in particular crab spiders.

crab spider with bee prey

Crab spider with bee as prey

Elsewhere on the reserve the three smaller lapwing chicks are still surviving in front of Tern hide along with the single larger one, I did not see the oystercatcher chicks and I suspect they may have lost one late on Thursday. We will see what next week brings.

Progress Against an Invader

Thursday at Blashford is volunteer day and we had a good turn out of fourteen for our first Himalayan balsam pull of the year. After many years of pulling this plant we have very significantly reduced the population and it is nowhere the dominant plant. The advantage of doing the first sweep early in the season is that we remove a significant number of plants but also get an idea of where the main problem areas are and so where to concentrate on our later visit. Pleasingly we found no more than a couple of hundred plants on about half the length of the stream, enough to suggest that there is still a seed source upstream  somewhere but not so many that it is having a serious impact on native wildlife.

The common terns are finally taking some interest in the rafts on Ivy Lake, although they are still not really taking control of any in numbers sufficient to deter the black-headed gulls. I tried putting out another raft during the afternoon in the hope that a new one might tempt them in. The gulls often just loaf around on the rafts, but have the annoying habit of bringing reeds and sticks and leaving them scattered  over the surface. I suspect they are mostly young adults, as the older birds started nesting a couple of weeks ago, a few may eventually build a proper nest, but in the meantime their practice efforts are putting off the terns.

Generally things were quite across the reserve, most of the birds are now nesting or getting ready to do so. Our visitor form North America, the Bonaparte’s gull is still to be seen, although it does not now attract more than the occasional admirer. I did manage to get a slightly better picture of it, which does show a couple of the differences from black-headed gull. You can see the slightly smaller size and overall thinner, more “pointed” look. Now that it is getting a summer plumage hood you can also see that this is blacker than that of black-headed gull, which is actually chocolate brown.

Bonaparte's gull

Bonaparte’s gull (right)

A very noticeable feature of the past week has been the huge increase in the numbers of damselflies around the reserve. Common blue and azure damselflies are now out in numbers, but the large red damselfly, typically the commonest spring species is very hard to find, perhaps due to the very poor April weather last year.

 

 

It’s Good to have a Hobby

And even better to have two! Which is what we saw today hunting insects over Ivy Lake when we went to put out another of the tern rafts. These sickle-winged falcons winter south of the Sahara and fly north to breed along with their favourite prey, swallows and martins. Watching them swooping to catch flying insects is a fantastic experience, you can only marvel at their mastery of the air, one of the great sights of summer.

The tern rafts are gradually being deployed, so far the terns have looked interested but failed to occupy any of the rafts before they have been dominated by pairs of  black-headed gull. It is always a problem getting the timing right and this is why I deploy the rafts one or two at a time, at some point the terns must surely be ready to take control of one.

preparing the tern raft

Preparing a tern raft

There have been at least 30 common tern around regularly and they have been doing courtship flights and bringing food, so I think they should be ready to settle soon. So far there has been little sign of much tern passage, apart from a few beautiful black tern, the biggest group so far being 5 on Sunday afternoon. Little gull are usually birds of passage that stay at most a day or so , which makes the fine adult that has been frequenting  Ibsley Water for several days something of an exception. It was there again today, although I don’t think anyone saw the Bonaparte’s gull. Other birds have included a few dunlin and common sandpiper and last week a bar-tailed godwit.

Barwit

Bar-tailed godwit

In recent posts we have featured a number of pictures of lapwing chicks, sadly I don’t think any of them have survived. This season has been a good one for the number of pairs and in general hatching success has been quite good, but the chicks have been disappearing fast. I think a combination of dry weather and predators is the cause. Dry conditions mean the chicks get brought to the lakeshore to seek food, as all their favoured puddles are gone, unfortunately the shore is regularly patrolled by fox and other predators, as it regularly has washed up food in the shape of dead birds and fish. The foxes may not be actively seeking the chicks but they will not refuse one should they come across it. Sadly a similar lack of success is befalling the little ringed plover, but at least they will continue to try and may yet succeed before the summer is out.

LRP

Little ringed plover near Tern hide.

The cold winds are making moth trapping a slow business, with few species flying, although we have caught an eyed hawk-moth and a couple of poplar hawk-moth recently.

poplar hawk

Poplar hawk-moth

Spring Between the Showers

On Thursday the volunteers were working out on the shore of Ibsley Water putting out fresh shingle patches for nesting little ringed plover and oystercatcher. Now that the old concrete block plant has been removed and the site opened up to the lakeshore there is a much larger area of suitable habitat for these species and for lapwing, so we have high hopes for the coming nesting season.

plover-patches

“Plover patches” small areas of fresh shingle ideal for nesting little ringed plovers.

It turned out we were just in time as on Friday the first little ringed plover of the season was seen! They are usually one of the first of the spring migrants along with sand martin. There are lots of other signs of approaching spring around the reserve now, the hazel catkins and flowers are out.

hazel-catkins

Hazel catkins, these are the familiar male flowers that produce lots of pollen.

The tiny female flowers are easily overlooked and very different, each tree will have both the catkins and female flowers, you just need to look closely to see them.

hazel-flower

Female flower of hazel.

It is not just hazel that has catkins, those of alder are also out now and rather similar to look at.

alder-catkins

Alder catkins, with last year’s seed cones.

I was also working with the volunteers today, although in less benign conditions, it rained and hailed and we took shelter by the Centre and made nest boxes. However Jim had thought to put out the moth trap and I was quite impressed to find it contained five moths, 2 twin-spot Quaker, a small Quaker, an oak beauty and a yellow-horned, so we got to see a little wildlife at least.

yellow-horned

Yellow-horned moth, the first of the season.

I did get lucky as I was opening up the Ivy North hide as the bittern was in the open beside the “pool” just below the western end of the hide, it must surely be thinking of going soon. At the end of the day I took a quick look at the gull roost, now mostly smaller gulls with about 3000 black-headed gull, only 21 common gull and just a single Mediterranean gull.