Damp Days

The long, hot summer seems an age away now, with most days dominated by drizzle (Friday excepted). It is still very mild, but the combination of damp and mildness makes for difficult working conditions. Winter work on the reserve is mostly fairly heavy, with lots of protective clothing and machinery, things that do not go well with mild damp weather. Despite this we have been busy with the volunteers clearing sites and generally preparing for the planned updates to the reserve. Alongside this there is still the usual maintenance to be done and today I was out with the team repairing the boardwalk and trimming back the path sides.

The Pop-up Cafe was in the Centre again today, sadly things were rather quiet, probably a result of the poor weather, the cakes were as good as ever, if you missed them, they will be back on the 16th of December and New Year’s Day with more.

Out on the reserve things seem fairly quiet, I say this but there was quiet a lot to see. On Ibsley Water there was a black-necked grebe, 2 dunlin, green sandpiper, a variety of duck including pintail, wigeon, pochard, goosander, goldeneye and at dusk the gull roost and starling murmuration. I just missed seeing a peregrine take a drake pochard, I would have thought rather a bulky prey item for this falcon. Other birds today included red kite, chiffchaff, Cetti’s warbler and at dusk on Ivy Lake three roosting great white egret, all in all not bad for a “quiet day”!

 

Advertisements

The Turn of the Season

As autumn slips into winter and the last of the leaves get blown from the trees we are seeing the wildlife of the reserve taking on a more wintry feel too. At the weekend the goosander roost passed 100 birds for the first time, whilst the gull roost is now well up into the thousands. A black-necked grebe has returned to Ibsley Water, although as is typical, it is frequenting the extreme northern shore of the lake. The startling roost in reeds just west of the A338 Salisbury Road, but best viewed from the main car park area or Lapwing hide, had built up and is now quite a sight in a fine evening.

IMG_9789 (2)[3497]

Starling murmuration by Jon Mitchell

At times this gathering is attracting various predators, over the last ten days or so I have seen peregrine, sparrowhawk, marsh harrier and goshawk all eyeing up the roost for a potential snack.

Green sandpiper and water pipit are still being regularly seen at various points around Ibsley Water, but Goosander hide seems to be the most frequent place for good views of both. At least 3 great white egret are wandering the reserve and out into the valley, I have not managed to see more than three at any one time, but I strongly suspect there are more, perhaps up to five?

Visitors to the reserve may find diversions or short path closures over the next few weeks as we are doing some tree thinning, it should be possible to access all the hides though. The trees we are removing are mainly planted aliens species such as grey and Italian alder or species such as sycamore and Scots pine that are crowding more desirable species oak, elm and ash. The objective is to thin areas that were planted too densely and promote native species over non-natives, this should benefit a range of wildlife in the long run. Where possible we will be leaving standing dead trees, or lying dead wood for beetles and other invertebrates.

A Great Day

I arrived at the reserve in heavy rain, always promising at this time of year and looking out form Tern hide I saw 4 bar-tailed godwit, migrants headed north grounded by the weather. Otherwise things were pretty much as the day previous day, including two very smart black-necked grebe, always a massive treat in breeding plumage.

The night had been cold (again), but there were a few moths in the trap including two new for the year, an iron prominent.

iron prominent

iron prominent

And a great prominent.

great prominent

great prominent

The moth trap does not only catch moths and looking through pictures from a few days ago I noticed a small fly I had not yet identified. It turned out to be a Tephritid fly, more often called picture-winged flies. Most of these have larvae that eat plants, especially seedheads of composites such as thistles. I identified this one as Euphranta toxoneura as species that is a brood parasite or predator on sawflies of the genus Pontania which make leaf galls on willows. It appears to be quite a scarce species and certainly one I had not seen before and a new species for the reserve.

Euphranta toxoneura

Euphranta toxoneura

Around lunchtime,as the weather cleared, an osprey flew over, it headed off east and was maybe the one seen at Lower Test nature reserve later. Unfortunately I missed it, I think at least the third one to have flown over me so far this year without my seeing any of them. The only other birds of note today were 14 black-tailed godwit and a whimbrel, briefly with the bar-tailed godwit in flight over Ibsley Water, a common sandpiper and a screaming group of about 40 swift.

Back Again

I was back at Blashford after a week away in North Wales. It was a good many years since I was there and it was great to visit familiar places and some new ones too. Seeing wildlife that I don’t see at home was also good. Birds such as dipper, chough, whooper swan, black guillemot and hen harrier were all a treat.

So it was back to work today, but as if to emphasise that it is not so bad, as if I needed reminding, on the way in I saw a hawfinch which flew across the road. Opening up the Tern hide a black-necked grebe was on view. Outside the Centre two male brambling were by the feeder and from Ivy South hide Walter the great white egret and an otter. There really are worse places to work!

I was in the office for a good part for the day, there is no way to escape the after-break email backlog. This did mean that I saw lots of people coming and going from the Pop-up cafe, which did a good trade despite it being quite q quiet day for visitors. If you want the chance to sample the splendid homemade cakes on offer there are just two more opportunities this winter, they will be back on the first and third Sundays in March and then taking their break until next autumn. It is a testament to the quality on offer that some of today’s customers were returnees who came in just for the cake and did not even visit the reserve.

There was one negative event to report, a car was broken into int he main car park, although nothing was stolen. Although a very rare event at Blashford, with well under one break-in a year it still pays to be careful. Just as in the New Forest car parks you should obviously not leave valuables on display, but also don’t put them in the boot in the car park, if you are being watched this just shows the criminal where to look and that there is something to steal. Either don’t leave things in the car or put them out of the way at a stop before you arrive to park. If you see anything or anyone suspicious let us know, note down a car number or anything else that might help. The reserve has always been very safe and we would like to keep it that way.

Locking up at the end of the day it was evident that there was no otter around Ivy Lake, the ducks were looking very relaxed, in stark contrast to their demeanour in the morning. Although we might think of otters as fish eaters they are far from averse to duck and locally they seem to favour signal crayfish when they are abundant.

P1090870

Evening on Ivy lake, peace and quiet.

The cormorant have returned to roost in the trees around Ivy Lake after going elsewhere for a while, although they are only using the ones on the spit. I also noticed that “Walter” had come back to roost in his favoured dead alder tree, if you look closely you can just make him out as a white spot on the right hand side of the picture. I expect he will be heading back to France soon, he rarely stays into March and often goes in January. Hopefully he will be back in the late summer, but as he approaches his fifteenth year of life he is a grand old great white egret now and at some point we will not see him again.

At the very end of the day the gull roost included the ring-billed gull, a couple of Caspian gull, but no Thayer’s gull, despite it having been seen flying south over Alderholt for the day spent feeding in pig fields at Tidpit. It has evidently found an alternative roost, perhaps in Christchurch Harbour.

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.

Hedges, Terns and Starlings

During the last week I seem to have been all over the place, doing all kinds of things. As usual we had two work parties, one on Tuesday, when we did some hedge laying near Ellingham Lake.

P1090448

Hedge laying, this version is not as stock proof as traditional laying, but it retains more of the twiggy top and so should flower and fruit from this year.

The end result is what we need for a better wildlife hedge, wider, and denser than the line of saplings and in time also with some height.

P1090449

a finished section.

On Thursday we were tidying up around the main car park, trimming back the hedges and cutting back the willows.

P1090452

I would remove this laurel hedge if it was not for the large greenfinch roost that gathers in it.

P1090453

Re-coppicing the willows around the car park.

In between the two work parties, on Wednesday, I had a day at the South Coast Seabird Forum discussing what can be done to bolster tern populations along the south coast. Almost everything seems to be against them, what with sea level rise, competition with gulls for the diminishing shingle banks and disturbance from human activity and predators. The one bright spot was the success of rafts at Hayling Oyster Beds and once again at Blashford, at both sites common tern nested with good productivity.

It was not really a day to be inside as it was undoubtedly the best day of the year so far, I did manage to briefly drop into Farlington Marshes before the meeting though, where I added avocet and bearded tit to my bird list for the year.

P1090451

Farlington Marshes on a perfect morning – not a day to be inside!

During the week the ring-billed gull continued to be seen most evenings on Ibsley Water at Blashford Lakes and both black-necked grebe remained in their usual places at each end of the lake. Walter the great white egret was seen most days and the number of brambling seem to be slowly increasing at Woodland hide.

The starling roost at Blashford has moved north and is now in reeds to the north of Mockbeggar Lane. Meanwhile I encountered another starling roost on a HIWWT reserve this week, at Lymington Reedbeds, not a huge number but the few thousand there were put on a fantastic show when watched from the causeway east of the level crossing, well worth a look if you are in the town in the late afternoon.

Counting and Estimating

It was a very grey dawn that broke as I waited in Lapwing hide this morning in an attempt to count the goosander roost on Ibsley Water. Unfortunately I think a lot of them  had already left as I saw only 54, I would have expected over a hundred at this stage of the winter. Luckily, although it was very grey, there was almost no wind, making counting the wildfowl quite easy. Overall the counts on Ibsley Water were poor, a few years ago there could have been totals of a thousand or more, but poor weed growth has meant there is little food for many species this winter. The highlight was seeing both of the black-necked grebe together, although they then went their own ways very quickly, one remaining close the southern shore the other up to the north-west corner as usual.

Luckily some of the other lakes do have a good growth of weed, most notably Ivy Lake which held 356 gadwall and 318 wigeon, although only 31 coot was a real surprise as they are also weed-eaters. It seems the coot were mostly on Rockford Lake, where there were 340, but only a few dozen each of wigeon and gadwall. Perhaps they prefer different types of weed or maybe the coot are going after weed in deeper water. Recent conditions may mean that the ducks do not need to follow the coot around to get at the weed they drag up and can feed on floating fragments.

Wildfowl are relatively easy to count on a lake, they do not move fast and if you have a good viewpoint you can see them all, at least if they are not diving. Later in the I encountered birds that were rather more difficult to count.

In the afternoon I was at our new reserve at Fishlake Meadows, to look at what will eventually be the reserve storage area and yard. We will not have access to it for a while but it was valuable to see the site and where service entry points are. Setting up a new site is always exciting but dealing with all the elements that need to be in place to make things work at their best taxes my brain at times.

After dealing with the boring but essential site details we walked the canal path and witnessed the modest but still impressive starling roost. I say modest, but I was quite unable to count them, an estimate would be perhaps 8-10,000, nothing like the 60,000 or more that were seen a couple of weeks ago. They arrived in several groups, the largest landed quite quickly.

dropping down to roost

The flock dropping into roost

Shortly after this a buzzard flew low over the roost which took flight and then mostly landed in neighbouring trees and bushes.

starlings sitting in trees

bushes full of starlings

All the while extra groups of birds were flying in. Quite a sight and they attracted a fair crowd of local people, it is always good to see people able to enjoy wildlife on their own doorstep. There is something especially satisfying about being able to walk out from your own home and see wildlife, or better still be able to see it in, or from your own garden. Wildlife should really be living around us, not just experienced by travelling to special places, one of the great things about Fishlake Meadows is its proximity to the town of Romsey, wildlife on their doorstep.

Just the Job

The Pop-up cafe was back and so were our splendid Blashford volunteers, for their first task of the new year. I had planned a hedge-laying task but the cold morning and brisk north-east wind caused me to rethink and look for a more sheltered work site. So we ended up clearing a patch of small willow, birch and alder that have invaded the boggy reeds at the top end of the Ivy Silt Pond. I had been meaning to do this task for a while but somehow other things kept pushing this down the list.

start

At the start

This is one of rather few boggy habitats we have on the reserve and it is home to a few species we do not have elsewhere, such as royal fern, bog myrtle and Sphagnum moss. I suspect all arriving there via the Dockens Water. It is amazing what five people working for a couple of hours can do!

end

At the end of a couple of hours work

We dead-hedged the material we cut, much quicker and less damaging than burning. Perhaps the most obvious thing int he second picture is the tall stumps, we usually cut at between knee and waist height, I know this will seem strange to many trained to cut stumps as low as possible, but I do have my reasons.

If we are working with handtools it is very difficult to cut very low to the ground, so cutting at this level is just easier. Low stumps are also hard to see when dragging cut material away so there is a trip risk, the taller stumps are easier to avoid. If I want to I can go round and cut them really low with a chainsaw once the site is clear, or I can treat them with less chance of missing any.  For some species such as birch and alder I have also found that fewer grow back at this height than if cut flush to the ground and then the remaining stump becomes a useful bit of standing deadwood.

Surprisingly on a day when visitors were complaining of the cold, it was very pleasant working int he sunshine and out of the wind and we all had to shed a layer or two to avoid overheating!

The reserve was busy with visitors all day and a good range of birds were to be seen, despite the wind. On Ibsley Water one of the black-necked grebe was close to Goosander hide for most of the day and I counted 129 pochard, a good count these days. A ring-billed gull was reported, but most of the duck were sheltering close to the northern shore.

Ivy Lake is much more sheltered and held at least one thousand wildfowl, including about 250 teal. There were also good numbers of gadwall and wigeon along with a few shoveler, pintail, mallard, coot and diving ducks. Walter the great white egret was also there during the day but seems to have found a more sheltered roost site than his usual exposed dead alder.

At the Woodland hide several brambling and a good range of other woodland species are increasingly evident. I suspect we may get good numbers later on in February and March.

New Years Day – Listers, Cakes and a Wolf Moon

As might have been expected the reserve was busy today, with birders out to start their yearlists, lots of people out for a walk and a bit of wildlife and everyone able to take advantage of a special extra Pop-up Cafe day.

I had to go around all the hides to take in last year’s logbooks and put out the new ones, so I took advantage of walking to whole reserve and starting my own yearlist. By the time I had opened up all the hides I was already on 53 species of birds and 3 species of mammals. I actually saw Walter, our great white egret when I was opening the Centre as he flew over the car park, perhaps a good thing as he was not at his usual roost at dusk, probably because of the cold wind that got up later in the day. Two pairs of mandarin duck on Ivy Lake were a little unexpected and 96 pintail on Ibsley Water was the most I have seen this winter.

I still had to go to Goosander and Lapwing hides and my trip there saw me add black-necked grebe, in fact there were two, one distantly near Gull Island and the other quite close to the hide. A water pipit at Lapwing hide was also good to see.

It was not all about the birds though I saw two flowering plants in bloom, primrose – living up to its name of “prime rose” or first flower.

Primrose

The first flower – primrose

The second was a small clump of the undoubtedly planted snowdrop beside the car park, although the flowers of these were not quite open yet.

snowdrop

snowdrop

Later in the day I managed to add some more bird species to my list, including a fine male brambling, the ring-billed gull, a first winter Caspian gull and an adult Mediterranean gull, meaning that I ended with 73 species. Not a bad total as I always think anything over 70 in a day at Blashford is good. I missed at least ten species that others saw or I know were there, so I could have got 80 with a very fair wind, maybe one day.

Closing up the Moon was very large and full in the sky, apparently this is the day when the full Moon is the closest to Earth that it will be in the whole of 2018. I am also told it was a “Wolf Moon” it seems this is the first full Moon of the New Year. Whatever you call it, it was certainly very striking.

Full Moon with duck

Full Moon over Ivy Lake (2018’s “Super Moon” and “Wolf Moon” in one go).

Driving home I was surprised to see lots of Winter moth flying in the headlight beams as I drove down Ellingham Drove, my first moths of the year.

A Cold and Frosty Morning

Ivy Lake from Ivy South hide

Ivy Lake on a chill morning

Despite the chill, seven volunteers turned out today to do a dead hedging task at Blashford Lakes. I am a great fan of the dead hedge, when we are scrub cutting, or coppicing or just dealing lop and top it provides a great way to clear the branches without the damage caused by burning. Conservationists are great at leaving log piles for invertebrates, often forgetting that the smaller branches and twigs are home to even more species. In addition the dense tangle of a dead hedge provides cover for nesting birds, hibernating insects and also makes a good barrier. We use them as shelter to promote bramble, both as barrier features and habitat in its own right.

Out on the reserve on Ibsley Water the black-necked grebe was still present as were both pink-footed geese, although the juvenile looks very unwell. I counted 118 pochard, my largest count for some years, although I missed the goosander roost, a disappointment as I expect there are well over 100 now.  Near the Centre and at the Woodland hide there were a few brambling and one or two lesser redpoll. 

pink-footed goose

a very poor record shot of the juvenile pink-footed goose

Dusk saw a somewhat reduced number of starling coming to roost, although they gave a good show thanks to being attacked by a peregrine. The gull roost included the regular ring-billed gull, although it seems there has been another bird seen recently, although I don’t think both have been seen on the same evening. “Walter” our great white egret was back on his dead alder roost on Ivy Lake near the cormorant roost, but there still seems to be no sign of a bittern yet.

I got an almost equally poor record shot of the black-necked grebe the other day as well, poor but still the best I have managed!

black-necked grebe

It will close with a last shot of the Ivy Silt Pond with almost perfect reflections in the calm chill of the morning as I opened up the hides.

silt pond reflections

Ivy Silt Pond reflections

Don’t forget the Pop-up cafe will be in again on New Years Day, see you there!