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.

wild daffodil

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.

pale brindled beauty

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.

roost

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.

 

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Tern(ed) Down

Well the deed is done, today we took down the Tern Hide, after a bit of a slow start we got into our stride and it came down more or less in sections as planned. It was in pretty good condition for the most part, until we took up the floor, the supports were in a poor state. It will be about two months until the new hide is up and ready, this might seem a long time, but I had only a couple of days each week when there are enough of our brilliant volunteers to tackle this scale of job and it could not have been done if the day had been windy, so I decided to allow a two week window to get it done. Before the new hide can go up we have to remove a large slab of concrete, which will take a while, so extra days might prove useful later on.

staring to demolish tern hide

Just making a start

going

about half way there

almost gone

Just the last two panels to go

Meanwhile, back at the Education Centre, progress on the pond has been slower, but hopefully will pick up tomorrow. The car park there is now usable again, the surface is not the finished article yet, the final layer will have to wait until all the other works are complete, but it is fine to park on. There is still fencing up in places with some restrictions on access but the paths are open as is the Centre and hides. I am still hopeful that the path from the main car park to Goosander hide will be opened up soon, now that all the works have been finished.

I did not hear many reports of wildlife today, although the yellow-browed warbler was apparently seen in the brambles right in front of Ivy South hide. Locking up I had good views of water rail at Ivy North hide, I also heard a Cetti’s warbler singing and saw a great white egret roosting in the trees. The two first winter Caspian gull were again in the roost on Ibsley Water along with at least one Mediterranean gull.

At lunchtime I saw a common toad swim past the camera on Pondcam, my first of the year, although I am not sure if I can count “seen on Pondcam”.

Thinning

Not a reference to the effects of advancing age but to today’s volunteer task on the reserve, which was felling some sycamore trees to open up some space. In places we have dense stands of very tall, thin sycamores which tend to over-top and then shade out other species. To reduce the negative effects of this we are thinning out a lot of the smaller trees, especially where they are growing amongst other species such as oak. It was the perfect day for felling, at least until the rain started, being cool, so I did not overheat in the protective chainsaw gear and calm, so the trees would hopefully fall where I intended them to.

volunteers clearing felled sycamore

Volunteers clearing away the upper branches of a felled sycamore

By the end of the day we had cleared quite a few trees, but the more we took down the more there seemed to be! At the same time there was a more open feel to the area so we must have done something. We did come across quiet a few small, self-sown hazel and even one covered in honeysuckle and these should benefit from some more sunlight.

the aftermath of sycamore thinning

the aftermath of sycamore thinning

I left a number of the stumps fairly high, this allows me to ring-bark the stump reducing the chance of it growing back, without using pesticide and also gives the opportunity to make some cut slots and holes to allow rot to get a hold and make habitat for various invertebrates.

Chainsawing for most of the day does reduce the chance of seeing wildlife somewhat, but not completely. Locking up the hides at dusk I was lucky enough to see both great white egret and bittern at Ivy North hide. I understand the yellow-browed warbler was again near Ivy South hide and out on Ibsley Water there were peregrine, Mediterranean gullyellow-legged gull and black-necked grebe, but no sign of the lesser scaup, perhaps it has moved to Blashford Lake where it spent much of its time last winter when it was here. At Woodland hide there was also a brambling reported, perhaps the same bird that Tracy saw yesterday.

walter in the reedmace

Walter hiding amongst the reedmace in the gloom of dusk

 

A Fine Day on the Reserve

Thursday dawned calm and slightly misty with a promise of sunshine to come.

Misty morning at Ivy North

Early morning over Ivy Lake

I am not sure if they were doing the Wildlife Trust’s 7 Days of Wild Christmas, checkout #7DaysofWildChristmas for more on this, but there were lots of visitors on the reserve on Wednesday and they certainly saw a lot of wildlife.

From Ivy North hide the bittern was seen by most who were willing to spend a little time looking and some had excellent views. The picture below was sent in by John Parr after he took it on Saturday from Ivy North hide.

Bittern by John Parr

Bittern by John Parr

As well as the bittern, water rail and Cetti’s warbler were also frequently on show from Ivy North hide. Further out on Ivy Lake a good variety of ducks were on view, there remains an unusually large number of pochard around, with up to 100 on Ivy Lake alone at times. At dusk a single great white egret roosted in the trees.

At the Woodland hide the usual common woodland birds have now been joined by a few reed bunting, attracted by the seed spread on the ground, we have still yet to see any brambling though.

On Ibsley Water the flock of linnet was again feeding on the shore near Tern hide whilst out on the lake up to a dozen goldeneye, over 40 pintail, 200 or so wigeon and the single black-necked grebe. In the late afternoon the gull roost included a Caspian gull, but there was still no sign fop the ring-billed gull, which looks increasingly likely to have moved on somewhere.

As it was Thursday there was a volunteer task on the reserve and six volunteers joined me in doing some willow scrub clearance and pollarding in the reedbed area between Goosander and Lapwing hides. The area is a former silt pond and had grown up with a very uniform cover of closely spaced and rather weakly growing willows, not a habitat with great wildlife value. By opening up clearings and making pollards of the stronger growing willows we can diversify the habitat, making it suitable for a much wider range of wildlife. In particular the open clearings have proved very popular with the areas strong adder population.

The mild weather continues and there are signs of this all around the reserve. On the path to Ivy North hide I found a red campion still in flower.

red campion flower

red campion in flower

Nearby the leaves of lord’s and ladies are well up through the leaf litter.

lords and ladies

lords and ladies

Near the Centre there are patches of speedwell in the gravel and many are in flower.

speedwell

speedwell

The mild conditions, along with the damp conditions are proving good for fungi, with many particularly small species to be found if you look closely. One of the commonest species on well rotted wet logs is the candle snuff fungus.

candle snuff

candle snuff

 

 

An Eagle at Lunchtime

Tuesday is one of our volunteer task days, but the forecast was not promising, however as it turned out the morning was not as bad as predicted. We were felling sycamore from the edge of the car park near the Centre to give the oak a bit more space, luckily the poor forecast kept visitors away so we did not have to hold up too many people as we cleared the trees from the entrance track. Towards the end of the morning the rain set in and we decided to call it a day, just as we did a visitor arrived to tell us that the white tailed eagle, that has been up the road in the New Forest, had paid us a visit and was perched on an island in Ibsley Water.

white-tailed eagle with crows

White-tailed eagle with crows

It really was a huge bird! with a massive hooked beak and feet to match, magnificent and if the possible introduction project on the Isle of Wight comes to fruition perhaps a regular sight in the future. The very definition of “Charismatic megafauna”.

white-tailed eagle with crow

White-tailed eagle with crow

The crows did not seem obviously intimidated, and strolled around within a few feet, the gulls were a lot more circumspect, even the great black-backed gull only made a few, quite distant, mobbing swoops.

white-tailed eagle with crow 2

Showing off a seriously big pair of wings!

It was a good way off but we could clearly see that it had a metal ring on its right leg and no colour-rings. It is a juvenile so will have been ringed as a nestling somewhere last summer. A lot, perhaps even most, ringed eagle chicks receive a coloured ring or wing tag at the same time as being ringed with a standard metal ring, as this enables their movements to be tracked more easily. This bird seems to have been an exception so we have no idea where it might have come from, it could be from Scotland, but is probably more likely to be from Scandinavia somewhere. The juveniles move much further than the older birds and the adults will usually try to stay on their nesting territory all year if the food supply allows.

Unsurprisingly this was a first record for the reserve and although relatively few people were about to see it due to the poor weather, I know it was a new bird for quite a few. Some lucky people went on to the Ivy North hide and had very good views of bittern as well, not a bad bit of birdwatching for a bad weather day!

Other birds today included a water pipit at Tern hide whilst looking at the eagle, the black-necked grebe was also seen in the distance and there were 112 pochard there also, with 57 more on Ivy Lake. Locking up at dusk in the tipping rain, there were two great white egret roosting in the dead alder trees beside Ivy Lake.

All in all not a bad day for birds on the reserve, or any site in the UK. As most will know access to the reserve is free, but we do still need to raise money to keep things going and hopefully improve them so donations are always more than welcome, in fact they are essential! So if you visit and have a good time please consider making a donation. We have a had a lot of generous donations to our appeal for various improvements, including a new Tern hide and dipping pond, but it is the year round donations that keep us running day to day.

Caught on Camera

It has been a busy week at Blashford Lakes with volunteer work parties on four days, despite unpromising weather we actually got a lot done. On Sunday we repaired some damaged sections of the boardwalk, Tuesday saw us felling some non-native grey alder trees, Thursday’s task was scrub clearance to increase habitat connectivity for reptiles and today we were clearing the shore of Ibsley Water to improve habitat for nesting lapwing next spring.

About ten days ago the apprentices put out a trailcam and today we got it in to look at the images. There were not a great many but the range of species captured was impressive. There was one shot of a passing fox, several of fallow deer and grey squirrel. Bird were fewer with one shot each of blackbird and blue tit, but several of tawny owl and on more than one night too. The picture quality was not great but the owl was landing in front of the camera, possibly to take small invertebrate prey.

IMAG0005

tawny owl caught on trailcam

Throughout the week I have been checking the roosting great white egret on Ivy Lake when I go to lock up the hides, I suspect there are as many as five around but still have yet to see more than four together, this evening there were three.

The rain today caused the Dockens Water to flood into Ivy Lake and it is now filling at last, hopefully the reedbed in front of Ivy North hide will have enough water for the bittern to favour this area soon, one was seen from there on Wednesday.

A feature of this winter is the unusual number of pochard on the lakes, or at least unusual for recent years. This morning there were 109 on Ivy Lake and at dusk at least 150. It appears that they gather on Ivy Lake in the late afternoon before flying off at dusk in groups of ten to twenty, probably to feed. At the same time the tufted duck, which used to roost on Ivy Lake also leave, I am not sure where they go but I did notice a lot fly in just as it got dark when I was counting the goosander from Goosander hide on Tuesday, I suspect they go to roost there rather than to feed. Walking back from Ivy South hide after locking up usually happens more or less in the dark at this time of year and a feature has been the squeaking calls of mandarin duck gathered on the silt pond, in the gloom I have just been able to make out as many as ten drakes displaying on some evenings.

The black-necked grebe has been seen daily on Ibsley Water as has at least one water pipit and green sandpiper. The grebe has been favouring the western shore to the north of the low islands, the water pipit and sandpiper the shore near Tern and Goosander hides. However for many visitors it has not been the rarer bird that have attracted to interest but the starling roost. The numbers are not exceptionally large but they can put on quiet a good show looking west into the last light of the setting sun. this evening they were especially spectacular, climbing high into the air in an effort to avoid a hunting peregrine.

Starlings 1

Starling murmuration starting to form over the trees west of Tern hide

Starlings 2

The gathering twisting to avoid a peregrine, there is a small group coming int to join them towards the top left.

Starlings 3

Some of the flock trying to funnel down into the roost site

Starlings 4

The peregrine was keeping the main flock high in the air but the draw of the roost was strong and they were falling down in a column whenever they could risk it.

Starlings 5

One group broke away in an exceptionally tight ball of birds and just dropped like a stone from the spiralling flock.

The starlings had all gone to roost by about 16:15, so if you want to give them a try I would try to arrive by 16:00 at the latest, viewing is good from the high point at the back of the main car park and possible, but sometimes less easy, from the Tern hide.

A Misty Morning

A fine and frosty morning, perhaps the first that has felt properly wintry. Having scraped the frost from my windscreen I headed to Blashford across a New Forest washed with mist. I stopped briefly near our reserve at Linwood and took the picture below.

Lookinmg across Dockens Valley S of Linwood

The valley of the Dockens Water on a frosty morning

In the Avon Valley the mist was thicker and there was almost nothing within viewing range at the hides, but it still made for an atmospheric scene.

misty morning over Ivy Lake

The misty view from Ivy South hide

The mist soon cleared and the day was a fine one for working with the volunteers out on the reserve. Our team is somewhat larger than usual at present as we have two Apprentice Rangers from the New Forest National Park working on the reserve until early January. Today we were felling grey alder trees on the path towards Lapwing hide. These trees are similar to our native alder but tend to grow rather larger and faster and have a habit of spreading far and wide by seed. We are removing them to allow the native alder to grow unhindered and diversify the habitat along the path edges where more light will now get down to the ground layer.

felling grey alder

Felling grey alder beside the path to Lapwing hide

I took advantage of the fine evening to make a count of the goosander roost, I managed to see at least 118 gathered in two groups near the Goosander hide, there were at least 35 adult drakes, very close to the average of one third that I have recorded over many years. The rest were what are known as “redheads” that is birds with grey bodies and reddish-brown heads, these will include both adult females and immature birds of both sexes. Other bird in the bay were a single green sandpiper very close to the hide and at least 14 goldeneye.

Yesterday evening as I closed Ivy North hide I could clearly see 4 great white egret roosting in the dead alder trees. I have suspected there were more than the three that are often seen for sometime now but have been unable to prove it before. Generally yesterday was a better day for bird sightings despite the poorer weather, but then using a chainsaw all day is not particularly conducive to seeing birds! Other sightings yesterday included the black-necked grebe on Ibsey Water, along with at least 78 pochard, a good count these days and all the better as there were at least 73 on Ivy Lake as well. Ten or twenty years ago these figures would have been unremarkable, but these ducks are in decline all over Europe for a variety of reasons including lowered breed success due to a significant imbalance of the sexes.

Out on the reserve yesterday I flushed a woodcock between Goosander and Lapwing hides, my first of the winter, whilst in the same area 2 raven flew over and a chiffchaff was calling in the willows. At dusk I took a quick look at the gull roost, I could not find the ring-billed gull, but there were at least 11 yellow-legged gull, all adult and including the atypical adult bird with the heavily marked head. Yellow-legged gull adults usually have all white heads in winter, in contrast to most of the other large gulls, this well marked bird is similar to those of the race that is found on the Azores,  separated as the race “atlantis”. Gull watching came to an end when an adult female peregrine made several low passes over the roost, scattering it in all directions.

With more wintry weather it is perhaps unsurprising that the moth trap is getting quieter, despite this, but appropriate to the season recent catches have included Winter moth, December moth and mottled umber.

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”!

 

Time for a Trim

Tuesday is one of our volunteer task days at Blashford and today’s task was to cut the vegetation in front of Ivy North hide and open up some sight lines through the reedbed. The hides are great for seeing birds but only if we can keep the views open, but more than this we are also trying to ensure that people get the best possible views of the wildlife that might be on offer. One of the occasional treats at Ivy North is the chance to see a bittern and this is one of the main objectives of the reed cutting near this hide.

Ivy North reeds before

Reeds at Ivy North hide before cutting sight lines.

The reeds have been spreading and this year’s growth was especially vigorous, meaning than cutting the line was hard work. The one positive was that it was fairly dry, although this made cutting easier to do it means that there is not likely to be a bittern there any time soon.

Ivy North reeds after

Ivy North reeds after cutting sight line

This year I also cut a line through to the water right in front of the hide.

Ivy North reeds centre area after

a line cut through to the water

The objective of a hide should be to give the observer a view that they would not get otherwise. At Blashford we have tried, as much as possible, to get each hide to deliver something different and hopefully at least one or two will have something really worth seeing from them at all times of the year. Today there were two peregrine near Tern hide, with one adult perched on one of the posts near the hide, the water pipit was seen from both Tern and Goosander hide and a great white egret from Ivy North, despite our  working outside the hide. The only other birds there whilst we were working were two or more water rail heard calling and a singing Cetti’s warbler.

We are soon looking to replace the Tern hide, it is in a very exposed location and is showing signs of age ahead of most of the others. Replacement offers the chance to tweak things a bit too and the new hide is to be slightly larges, slightly higher off the ground and moved ever so slightly, all changes that should give improved views. Expect to read more about this and other updates top the reserve in the coming weeks.

A Marvellous Day

The first Sunday of the month is volunteer task day and this morning we were continuing work on the path between Goosander and Lapwing hide. The path is being trimmed back and the gravel surface cleaned of grass and other growth,. In addition we are opening up sheltered clearings along the path to increase interest. At one point we are making a solitary bee nesting bank, it is always worth making use of suitable ground for these kind of features which can be quiet rare.

Out on the reserve there were lots of visitors enjoying the cool sunshine. There were birds to see to, especially from Goosander hide where the feeding frenzy is still in full swing. There were 50 or more grey heron, several little egret, both great white egret and lots of cormorant, with gulls and grebes there to mop up the small fry.

The ferrunginous duck seems to have departed, probably for Kingfisher Lake and the wood sandpiper also appears to have left after a rather long stay. There was still a common sandpiper and at least 2 green sandpiper though and a rather unexpected redshank, not a bird we see much other than in spring and summer at Blashford.

Elsewhere there were 2 pintail on Ivy Lake along with 6 wigeon and I saw at least 300 coot on Rockford Lake. In the willows around the reserve there were good numbers of chiffchaff, but no other small migrants that I could locate. A few swallow were passing through, including at least one rather late adult, most at this time are juveniles. First thing this morning there were 60 or so house martin over Ibsley Water although I saw none later in the day.

Locking up there was a considerable gull roost developing and I noticed that there were a lot of very dark backed individuals amongst the lesser black-backed gull flock, a much higher percentage than we see in the winter, an indication of birds from further north and east in Europe passing through.

The sunshine brought out a few butterflies and I saw a good few speckled wood and several small copper around the reserve. The cool night was not the best for moths but the trap did contain one of my favourite species, a merveille du jour.

Merveille du Jour

merveille du jour

Other moths were red-line Quaker, large yellow underwing, lunar underwing, beaded chestnut, black rustic and deep-brown dart.