September’s End

Another fine day although with more of an autumnal feel that yesterday. There was still mist over the lakes as I opened the hides, from Tern hide the highlight was the unringed great white egret flying past the hide, heading south.

I made the most of the cooler conditions to go and do some path trimming, in places the bramble growth has pushed the path almost completely off the gravel surface. I was working near the southern end of Ellingham Lake  and the hedge there has some large ivy growths, some of it now flowering and on these I saw a few of the ivy bee Colletes hederae. This is quite large for a solitary bee and flying so late in the season is very obvious, so it seems extraordinary that it was only described as new to science in 1993, since when it has been found over much of Europe. It was first found in the UK in Dorset in 2001 and has now spread as far north as Norfolk.

ivy bee

Ivy bee Colletes hederae

In the late afternoon I went over to Goosander and Lapwing hides. In the reedbed and willows there were a few chiffchaff but no other migrants. From Lapwing hide I saw 2 green sandpiper and at least 1 common sandpiper. The screens overlooking the silt pond behind Lapwing hide proved worth a look with 2 mandarin and 2 snipe on show and some bullfinch in the willows.

At Goosander hide there has been a feeding frenzy going on for many days now. The cormorant seem to have got a large shoal of small carp hemmed in the bay near the hide and they are attracting everything that can swallow a small fish. There were the cormorant of course along with little egret, a great white egret (Walter this time), grey heron, great crested grebe, little grebe, black-headed gull and even mallard. The mallard and gulls are mostly steeling dropped fish, but a lot of the cormorant seem not to be bothering to eat everything they catch. Sometimes the cormorant are coming up with large perch or even pike, these are also in on the hunt for small carp, but run the risk of becoming a meal themselves in the process.

Goosander hide feeding frenzy 2

Cormorant flock fishing for carp

The cormorant dive for the fish which are driven into the weedy shallows in an attempt to escape, where they then run into the line of heron and egret.

Goosander hide feeding frenzy

Grey heron, little egret and great white egret waiting to the carp to be driven near to the shore

Finally, as I locked up the tern hide right at the end of the day I was delighted to see the reported wood sandpiper just in front of the hide. It was a juvenile, with fresh yellowish spangled feathers looking very splendid in the golden glow of the setting sun. To add to the scene the grey phalarope flew in and landed some 100m away, despite trying I could not see the juvenile garganey that was also seen earlier, but tomorrow is another day.

 

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A Perfect Day

It was a glorious day at Blashford today, to my mind the perfect balance of sunshine and cool temperatures, the ideal autumn day for getting work done on the reserve. It was also a pretty good day for birds, although many of them have been with us for a while now.

When I first looked from Tern hide as I opened up I saw the two young little gull and thousands of house martin, low over the water, I estimated 3000 at least but they were everywhere low over the trees, lakes with others high in the sky. I could see no sign of the black tern or grey phalarope. A small wader on the gravel island way out near the middle of the lake caught my eye, there was something of a redshank about it but it was not one. This meant wood sandpiper was the most likely candidate and after a little while it was disturbed by a black-headed gull and made a short flight confirming the identification, our second of the autumn.

Later in the day it turned out the phalarope was still present and I got good views of it as I locked up. Other birds included both great white egret, at least one green sandpiper and reports of common sandpiper, I missed that, so did not get the “Sandpiper set”. Locking up the Ivy North hide I saw a pintail, the first for a few days.

I got no pictures of birds, or anything else today (working too hard, obviously!). However I will post a few pictures of recent notable records from the reserve, not great pictures mind you. The first is of a small Tortrix moth Olinida schumacherana, which seems to be the first record for the 10km square that includes the reserve.

Olinida schumacherana

Olinida schumacherana

The next is the Australian Pyralid moth that we first recorded last year as possibly new for Hampshire. In appears to have been introduced with the tree ferns that the caterpillars eat, although it now seems to be finding local ferns to its liking.

Austral Pyralid

Musotima nitidalis

It was first found in the UK in Dorset in 2009.

I will end with a couple of pictures from my garden, two late butterflies bringing  a little colour to the end of their season.

small copper

small copper on Sedum

common blue male

A very fresh male common blue

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.

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.