At Last, a Bit of Fine Weather

As December starts the winter has turned a little more like winter, with frost at night and finally a drier spell. This has allowed us to get a few outstanding tasks done, yesterday’s was clearing the vegetation in front of the Ivy North Hide and opening up the channels through the reedbed.

before

Looking out from Ivy North Hide before we started.

after

The main channel cleared

As we worked at least 2 Cetti’s warbler were moving about in the reeds and water rail were squealing frequently, although went typically unseen.

Other recent tasks have included laying some hedge lengths, clearing bramble from grassland areas and also making a start on removing some infected ash trees. The last will be a large task in the next couple of years. You may have heard about ash die-back, it is a fungal infection that kills ash trees and is expected to result in over 95% of our ash being lost. The disease originated in the Far East and probably arrived in Europe via the horticultural trade.

Where these trees are deep in the woods this will mean more standing deadwood habitat, so not an entirely bad thing. Where we have paths , hides, roads and car parks they will have to be felled before they fall. There is no doubt this is going to have a noticeable impact as ash is a frequent tree and it will impact upon species that depend upon this tree. It is also going to be a very expensive task for land managers, at Blashford we only have a couple of hundred, but still a lot of work. The one positive note is that work at Kew Gardens has revealed that some British ash trees show some immunity, so if these survive they will be available to provide a seed source to enable restocking. It will still be a long time before we get back to ash being once again a frequent tree in our landscape.

Out on the reserve things have also taken a more wintery turn, wildfowl numbers have picked up, although only on Ivy Lake is this very noticeable. The goosander roost on Ibsley Water is growing and has over 80 birds now. Also on Ibsley Water a long-tailed duck has been present for a while now and on Monday 3 black-necked grebe were present, but were perhaps only passing through as I don’t think they were seen yesterday. Less seasonal is the common sandpiper, these usually just pass through in autumn and only green sandpiper normally winter with us. The rain has resulted in a significant rise in water levels, the water pipits have become much less obvious following the rise, perhaps because the rise has covered a lot of the exposed weed along the shore.

We are hoping the dry weather will hang on for a day or two more so we can fill the pot-holes in the entrance track, with luck we will be doing this on Thursday, so access to the Centre car park will be somewhat restricted.

Ducking and Diving

On Tuesday I was up at Kitts Grave with the volunteers clearing a ride through the scrub/woodland. Although it does not look much like it from the pictures below, we did clear quite long length!

3

Looking N before we started

4

Looking N near the end of the day

1

Looking S at the start

2

Looking S at the end of the day

Actually, looking again it hardly looks as if we were there at all! If you visit you will see a difference though.

This part of the Martin Down NNR is a fabulous mosaic of scrub and chalk grassland, we have been cutting scrub in order to maintain this mix of habitat, since without control the woody plants would take over completely. It may come as a surprise to many that trees will actually grow over most of lowland Britain without being planted, in fact stopping them doing so need active intervention. Our longer term plan is to introduce  a light grazing regime in the hope that we can maintain the mosaic without the constant need for cutting.

Despite the fact that trees will grow unbidden, they are also under threat and this fact formed the backbone of today’s work. We were out at Blashford looking at trees that will need to be cut as a result of ash die-back disease. This non-native fungal disease was imported into Europe with nursery trees and looks like killing 95% or so of all ash trees. Where these are away from roads, buildings etc. this will provide a big increase in deadwood habitat and so not an entirely bad thing. However a lot will have to be felled to maintain safety and we have to check them for potential bat roosts before any work can be planned.

As we criss-crossed the reserve we came across various fungi including this puffball type, full of spores.

puffed

puffball fungus full of spores

We also found what I think was a slime mould on an alder stump, an especially bright coloured one at that.

orange slime mould

orange slime mould (I think)

At dusk this evening I went over to Goosander Hide to see how many goosander came into the roost, the answer was at least 63, with a bonus side order of at least 24 fallow deer on the shore beside them.

goosander and deer at dusk

Goosander roost and fallow deer in the near darkness.

My goosander roost picture may be rather poor quality, but wait until you see my last offering! The long-tailed duck that has been on Ibsley Water for a number of days now finally had enough of the northern shore and appeared in front of Tern Hide today, an ideal opportunity to get some pictures of it at last. My best effort is below, it illustrate perfectly the perils of digi-scoping.

dived

long-tailed duck……almost.

Recent Activity and a Little Wildlife

I am sorry for the lack of posts recently, I will try and get back to a couple a week again. Recent weeks have been busy both at Blashford and at Fishlake.

At Blashford the volunteers have been constructing an artificial badger sett.

badger sett construction

badger sett construction, the chamber.

Once the chamber had been made a roof was added along with an entrance tunnel.

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construction continues.

Yesterday we covered the whole structure with a layer of soil to bury, now all we have to do is wait and see if the badgers approve.

The ponies have now left Blashford as the grazing season draws to a close. Meanwhile at Fishlake the cattle have grazed in both Ashley Meadow and the North-west fen and done a great job. Reducing the tall herbage will take several seasons but we are now holding the succession into rank fen with increasing willow scrub and starting to reverse it.

P1110376

British white cattle, now back in Ashley Meadow.

The autumn has been relatively quite for birds, or at least for rarities at both sites. Fishlake has been visited by several osprey, but they have not stayed as long as in  previous years. There have been several great (white) egret as both sites and 2 cattle egret flew south over Ibsley Water at Blashford. Both sites are now starting to see increases in wildfowl, with small flocks of teal at Fishlake and wigeon at Blashford.

The warm summer saw a number of records of lesser emperor dragonfly, a migrant that is occurring in increasing numbers, this great picture of a hovering male was sent in by  Kevin Kearns.

lesser emperor Kevin Kearns

lesser emperor Kevin Kearns

Moths have been a little disappointing, with a couple of Clifden nonpareil and a few commoner migrants. We have caught a couple more of the non-native Australian Pyralid, Masotima nitidalis, introduced with tree ferns but now evidently eating our native ferns in the wild.

Masotima nitidalis

Masotima nitidalis

There is still time for some autumn excitement where migrant birds are concerned, although we will soon be entering the late autumn lull before the main arrival of wintering birds. Insects will be winding down for winter, but fungi are coming into their main season, so there is always something to look forward to.

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Fungus season is starting

30 Days Wild – Day 27

That unusual combination of hot and windy today, the breeze providing some, but not  a lot, of relief from the strong sunshine, although increasing the risk of getting unknowingly burnt. The volunteers were tidying up around the Centre and trimming and pulling nettles from the path edges.

The extra warmth is good for dragonflies, snakes and butterflies, although it makes them very active and so difficult to get close to. There are, at last, dragonflies to be seen in fair numbers, most though seem to be emperor or black-tailed skimmer. One species that I thought I might have missed was downy emerald, typically a late April dragonfly at Blashford, that you see through May and tails off in June. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a female beside Ivy North Hide as I locked up. It was also pleasing to get a picture as this is a species that does not often land within reach, often perching high up.

downy emerald female

downy emerald (female)

30 Days Wild – Day 20

A slippery sort of a day, blue sky to start then rain, then warm sun and eventually heavy rain, it was hard to know how many layers and of what type to wear and every time I went out I got it wrong. The wildlife seemed equally confused, at Ivy South Hide as I opened up in thick cloud the grass snakes were “basking” on the tree stump.

grass snake

the largest grass snake

By the time I set out with the volunteers at 10:00 to work on the eastern shore of Ibsley Water, the sun was strong and the sun block was out in force. Ten minutes later when we got there, grey clouds were threatening and curtains of rain could be seen falling to the south-west. Luckily, and to my surprise, we got away with it and managed to return still more or less dry. On the return journey I noticed a mullein plant with the telltale tattered leaves caused by munching mullein moth caterpillars.

mullein moth caterpillar

mullein moth caterpillar

Our tern rafts have mainly been occupied by gulls again this year, this is to be expected as gulls far outnumber terns. There are about twenty pairs of terns nesting though and many now have chicks.

raft with B-h gulls

Raft with black-headed gull families

There are still a few common tern seemingly loafing around on Ibsley Water, I assume off-duty birds whose partners are still sitting on eggs, but perhaps non-breeders.

common tern

common tern

The picture, with wings open shows a clear identification feature of the species, the darker outer primaries. The reason for this is that the outer four or five of the wing feathers much older than the inner ones and so more worn. The white edges wear away more quickly which means older feathers look darker, forming a definite dark wedge in the outer-wing. The reason this helps with identification because the most similar tern species, the Arctic tern moults all of its wing feathers in one continuous sequence, meaning that there is no such contrast between the newest and oldest wing feather, making the wing look the same all along its length.

Warm wet weather is perfect for slime moulds, the really weird end of nature and a group I have featured a few times before.

Fuligo serptica

Fuligo septica

This one has various names, one is troll butter, but there are many more.

The bark chippings in the raised beds at the Centre also has some, at first I though just one type but a closer look suggests at least two. A close look is essential as the fruiting bodies are very small indeed.

slime mould 1

Slime mould fruiting body looking like tiny strings of pearls

Close up they look like minute stylised trees.

slime mould poss Physarum album

slime mould possibly Physarum album

Taking a closer look is when I realised that not all of them had white stems and spherical tops.

Slime mould close in

A different slime mould

slime mould

Even closer

30 Days Wild – Day 13

As I was wondering if I should put on a fleece under my jacket in an effort to keep both dry and warm, it was good to think back to those balmy days of short-sleeves in February and know that it would be warm again, sometime. Needless to say, despite it being mid-June, it was not a day for insects, or much else.

The stalwarts of Blashford’s Brilliant Volunteers worked through it all though and we made a good job of finally clearing the yard of scrap metal and old tyres. Sadly we are “donated” rather a lot of rubbish, not generally by our visitors, but in the form of fly-tipping. I suppose it is something we should feel “Wild” about, but after years of working in the countryside it, sadly, has becomes an expected part of the job.

Although I have said our reserve visitors are generally very good alt not leaving litter, there have been a few incidents recently of mess being left at the Goosander Hide, probably int he evenings. There is some indication of a degree of general anti-social behaviour as well. If anyone is on the reserve at any time and sees such things going on it is very useful to have such details as it is easy to get. These issues are difficult to tackle so any information is useful, an email to the Blashford Lakes email or if ongoing int he daytime a call to the office or one of our mobiles is very helpful, the contact details are posted in the hides.

One sign of summer at Blashford was in evidence though, although it was necessary to peer through the drizzle to see it, the ponies are back grazing the shore of Ibsley Water.

pony in the mist

Pony in the mist

The weather has been a problem in lots of ways, one of them is that it is preventing us from colour-ringing our usual sample of young black-headed gull. It seems likely that most will have fledged before we get the weather to go and ring them.

black-headed gull juv

juvenile black-headed gull

Let’s hope for some more summery conditions next week.

30 Days Wild – Day 11

Following the recent and unseasonable wet and windy weather the volunteer task on Tuesday was first to walk all the paths and check for fallen branches and other hazards. With five miles of paths this takes a while, especially when there is clearance to be done, not exciting work but very necessary.

This same weather has been having quite an impact on nesting birds, it makes food harder to find for some, although rain makes worms easier to find. Open nests can get wet and wet chicks can chill very quickly. Some species with young that leave the nest soon after hatching are especially vulnerable. However many are still doing well, I came across this brood of coot on the Ivy Lake Silt Pond as I was locking  up on Day 11.

coot adult and juvs

Adult coot and cootlets.

Some of the black-headed gull juveniles have fledged, but many are still wandering around their island or on the rafts, they are mostly quite large so should cope with getting wet reasonably well.

black-headed gull

black-headed gull adult on watch near a nest

The nesting terns are due to start hatching soon, I do worry that very small chick will be at great risk if this period of cool wet weather continues. Very small chicks have fluffy down and a very high surface area to weight ratio. This means if they get wet, the down holds onto the water and they can chill very fast and die. In addition wet, windy conditions make it harder for the adults to find and catch food. Crossed fingers everyone, let’s hope the rain eases and the wind drops soon.

30 Days Wild – Day 6

The Blashford volunteers were out in force today and we were pulling Himalayan balsam along the Dockens Water, I am delighted to say that we found very little until we got down to the very lowest part of the stream, just where it leave the reserve. All the years of work seem to be paying off. This lower part of the stream is an area where we have been allowing the stream “to do its own thing” a little bit of rewilding, if you like. This has been the approach for over ten years now and all we do in there is clear rubbish washed down the stream and control invasive alien species, such as the balsam. It has developed into an amazing area of habitat.

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Wet woodland along the Dockens Water

We came across a strange patch of red in the stream at one point, I think it is a red alga presumably exploiting some mineral seepage, but I may very well be wrong about that!

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The red stuff!

The reserve was generally quiet, but as I locked up the Tern Hide I noticed a second calendar year Mediterranean gull close to the hide, it had a colour-ring on the left leg and luckily it was showing well enough to read the code.

colour-ringed Med gull

colour-ringed Mediterranean gull

I think it was ringed in Ireland and I will update when I have found out details form the scheme organiser.

Rafts, Birds and Bees

It’s that time of year again, the tern rafts are going out and the migrant waders are on the move. On Tuesday the volunteers got two rafts out onto Ivy Lake, after wintering on the shore.

preparing tern raft for launch

Adding nesting substrate to the raft.

They were occupied by common tern within minutes, although black-headed gull also arrived in numbers and by the end of the day were the only species present. This highlights one of the big problems that terns have these days, as their nesting habitats reduce they are competing more and more with gulls and usually lose out to them.

tern raft with terns (and gulls)

two terns and two gulls on newly floated raft

Yesterday’s migrant birds were mainly waders heading to the high Arctic and included a common sandpiper, a bar-tailed godwit,

bar-tailed godwit

bar-tailed godwit

a very smart turnstone and two dunlin.

dunlin

one of two dunlin

The waders that nest with us are all displaying but none seem to have really settled down yet. Little ringed plover are especially in evidence near Tern Hide.

little ringed plover

Little ringed plover, male

Although it has got cooler the spring insects are still in evidence and some of the earlier season species are beginning to disappear for another year. One such is the rare grey-backed mining bee Andrena vaga, there are only a few females to be found now, but as they feed on willow pollen their food will soon run out.

Andrena vaga

grey-backed mining bee female, one of only a few still flying

If you look at a solitary bee nesting bank there are usually lots of, what at first, look like wasps, but these are actually parasitic bees. Many are very specific as to their host species, I came across two species yesterday. I found what I think was Lathbury’s nomad bee, which uses grey-backed and  the commoner ashy mining bee as hosts.

Nomada lathburiana

Lathbury’s nomad bee Nomada lathburiana

 

I also found lots of painted nomad bee, which visits the nests of the common yellow-legged mining bee.

Nomada fucata

painted nomad bee Nomada fucata

Work continues on the parking area close to the Education Centre, which means that it will not be available for parking until after the weekend, please take note of any signs to keep safe on your visit whilst we have machinery working on site.

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.