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.

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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.

 

Paths to Wildlife

A busy few days, either working with the volunteers or on a chainsaw course has meant that I have not really had time to look around the reserve or hear many reports from those that have. As it happens it seems there has been little change, the ferruginous duck is still present and frequenting the group of sticks at the end of Long Spit in Ibsley Water and when not there on the long Spit itself, although often only visible from Goosander hide. The wood sandpiper is also still around, although now often on the eastern shore of the lake between Goosander and Lapwing hides. There are still 2 green sandpiper a common sandpiper and a dozen or so wigeon and both great white egret remain. The only new bird that I was aware of today was a single black-tailed godwit on the western shore of Ibsley Water.

With the volunteers were have been cutting the shore west of Goosander hide and the site of the former concrete block works to keep the habitat suitable for nesting lapwing next spring. We have also been working on the paths between Goosander and Lapwing hides. In all we have something like 8 kilometres of paths on the reserve and keeping them in a reasonable state takes quiet a bit of time and effort. We also like to try to keep them interesting, not just routes from A to B, but ones on which you might come across things of interest. Today we were clearing the paths, but also opening up the edges to provide sheltered clearings and making a sand bank for solitary bees to nest.

I am keen to try and get the management of the reserve to always be maximising the opportunities for all kinds of wildlife, both because this makes it a more interesting place  to visit and because our beleaguered wildlife needs all the opportunities it can get.

 

 

A Close Shave?

After a windy night I looked out over Tern hide this morning with some hope of seeing something new blown in. I was greeted by an adult peregrine perched on one of the posts outside Tern hide and unsurprisingly not many other birds.

peregrine

Peregrine digi-scoped in the early morning gloom.

Scanning further up the lake I spotted the juvenile black tern that has been with us for a while, then a second bird also dipping over the water, this time a young little gull, later it became clear there were two of the same age. Lastly I noticed a small wader flying low over the water, it took me a moment to realise it was a grey phalarope, no doubt blown inland overnight and if the forecast is correct probably the first of many.

There were still hundreds of hirundines, it seemed more were house martin today, but it may just have been that more martins were low over the water today. With all these martins it was perhaps inevitable that a hobby would be drawn in to hunt them and there was at least one for a good part of the day. It engaged in fantastic dives, steep climbs and stall turns that would have even have impressed the spitfire pilots that once flew from here. In mid afternoon the phalarope caught its eye and apparently it managed to knock it into the water, luckily it seemed uninjured and flew off high to the east with the hobby in pursuit. A few minutes later a hobby flew in from the east, so it was hoped that the phalarope escaped.

The volunteers were working to cut back the path to Lapwing hide today, normally this is a quiet part of the reserve, but the phalarope attracted a fair few admirers so we saw a lot more people than usual. With almost five miles of paths on the reserve keeping them open in the face of fast growing brambles and and descending willows is a constant task, especially with autumn gales added to the picture. We were not just cutting back but also trying to create sheltered bays and edges for insects and reptiles, so this was combined habitat creation and access work.

30 Days Wild – Day 14 – Concrete to Orchids

Blashford’s brilliant volunteers were working hard again, this time on a project to produce a grassland on the former concrete block plant entrance. This is a project with a lot of difficulties, the site was abandoned fro three years and much of it got overgrown with bramble. The old hard standings and buildings were broken up leaving a mix of rubble, gavel and a very little soil. This might sound a bad start for a grassland, but it actually has potential, the most diverse grassland habitats are those with very poor soils and this area has a very, very poor soil. From this poor beginning we are making real progress, the old tarmac entrance now has flowering ox-eye daisy and bird’s-foot-trefoil and this is in just the second season since seeding. Perhaps most remarkably as we headed back for a cup of tea we found a flowering bee orchid!

bee orchid on Hanson entrance track

bee orchid growing on old entrance road

I suspect it may have come not as a seed but as a small plant along when some of the soil was being moved around, but clearly it is doing well. When I returned in the afternoon to do some more mowing of bramble regrowth I came across a pyramidal orchid on the bank that used to edge the road. The soil there was not so disturbed, so I would guess it had arrived some time ago.

pyramidal orchid

pyramidal orchid

Although the day had started drizzly it dried up, as it always does on a Thursday morning, famously it never rains during our Thursday volunteer sessions, whatever the forecast might say.

By afternoon it was hot in the sunshine and as I ate lunch I saw lots of insects. On bramble flower behind the Education Centre I found a yellow-and-black longhorn beetle.

yellow-and-black longhorn beetle

yellow-and-black longhorn beetle

I also saw several dark bush cricket nymphs.

dark bush cricket nymph

dark bush cricket nymph

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The wild carrot that I featured before the flowers open a while back is now in full flower and attracting insects.

dronefly on wild carrot

dronefly on wild carrot

There are several species of dronefly, all named for their similarity to male honey-bees. I think this one is Eristalis pertinax, but actually might be E. nemorum as it looks a little bright to be pertinax.

The reason for my late post of this time is that I was out again last night surveying nightjar. I heard possibly one that moved about or up to three, unfortunately I could never hear two at the same time, so I cannot say with certainty that there was more than one.

30 Days Wild – Day 12 – The Power of a Flower

Tuesday at Blashford is volunteer day, or at least one of them, we also have a regular work party on a Thursday as well, today we were balsam pulling. The balsam in question is Himalayan balsam, a garden plant that escaped into the countryside and particularly likes growing along river and stream banks, “riparian habitats” as they are known. It is an extraordinary plant, growing to two or three metres tall in a matter of a few weeks,outgrowing all native plants that live in similar places. It also has explosive seed pods which can throw the seeds a metre or more when they pop. Being a non-native it has escaped its natural disease and insect controls and grows almost without check, which is why it has become a problem.

before

a disappointingly large stand of balsam

We have been removing this plant by pulling them up for many years now and have made good progress on the upper parts of the Dockens Water, where there are very few plants now. Clearly though, we failed to find quiet a few plants last year for there to be quite such a dense stand as this. Flooding carries the seed along and will also concentrate it where the seed gets deposited. We had a lot of plants to pull up, but we did pull them up and this is what it looked like a short while later.

after

after balsam pulling

What is very clear is that once the balsam is gone there is very little other vegetation, showing how it out competes other species.

Himalayan balsam has very nectar rich flowers, leading some to claim it is “Good for bees”, bees and other insects will take nectar from it, but I think the case for it being “good for bees” is very questionable. When it flowers it is very popular, but before this it shades out all the other flowering plants that would providing nectar, so across the season it probably provides no more than would be there anyway, it makes the habitat one of feast or famine cutting off food sources earlier in the season.

Flowers are immensely rich sources of food for lots of creatures, perhaps especially insects, but I have watch deer carefully picking off flowers and leaving the rest of the plant. The flower has the protein-rich pollen and the sugar-rich nectar, in short the stuff needed to make animals and keep them running. The flowers are not giving this largess, they are trying to get their pollen transferred to another flower to allow seed formation and make new plants. As the year progresses different flowers become the main attraction for lots of insects. Just now hemlock water dropwort is very attractive, but a new draw is appearing in the form of bramble flowers.

bramble flowers

bramble flowers

We easily notice the larger species such as butterflies, but look closer and you will see lots of tiny insects.

bramble flower with pollen beetles

A bramble flower with several small beetles

I think the beetles in the picture are pollen beetles, but I am not certain.

Closely related to brambles, the roses are at their peak now, the similarity in flower form between the bramble and this dog rose are clear even if the rose is the showier.

dog rose

dog rose

I was pleased to receive reports of four little ringed plover chicks seen today from Tern hide, the first proof of any hatching so far this year. It was also good to see the common tern arriving at the rafts on Ivy Lake carrying small fish to feed newly hatched chicks.

My moth trap highlight today was a lobster moth caught at home, not a species I see very often and I still have to find the extraordinary caterpillar which is the source of the moth’s name.

lobster moth

lobster moth

To refer back to my earlier comments about the food value of flowers, I noticed the mullein moth caterpillar in my garden has eaten most of the flowers off the figwort plant, it has eaten all the best bits first!

mullein moth on figwort

mullein moth on figwort

What’s in My Meadow Today?

I know it is not a plant that belongs in a meadow in southern England, but I like bloody crane’s-bill, so I have it in the meadow, where it grows and seeds quite well.

bloody cranesbill

bloody crane’s-bill flower

Something else that does not really belong are the anthills, this is not because ants are not native here, but you do not usually get anthills in meadows. This is because a meadow is really a field that is grown to produce a crop of grass, so the act of cutting the field would knock down the anthills before they became large. I cut the grass around the anthills taking care to leave them to get bigger year by year as I rather like them. This maybe because I spent many years working at Farlington Marshes where the masses of anthills are a significant feature of the reserve.

anthill

One of the anthills being extended by the ants.

 

On Show and No Show

When I arrived at Blashford on Friday afternoon to join our brilliant volunteer team for the annual “Thank you” event I was greeted with news that there had been a water shrew seen on “Pondcam”, I was a very envious! Water shrews are aquatic hunters of invertebrates and even small fish. They have long hairs on their feet and under-tail which aid swimming and are as frantic underwater as their terrestrial cousins are on land.

They are not uncommon, but not easy to see and so probably very under recorded. Just as I was bemoaning my bad luck there was a swirl of debris in front of the camera and it was back! A frenetic silver predator scattering everything before it. They look silver underwater due to the layer of air trapped in their fur. Although great swimmers they also hunt on land taking larger prey than other native shrews as befits their greater size, they are about twice the weight of a common shrew.

Blashford Lakes clocked up another “First” for Hampshire this weekend when a Thayer’s gull was found in the roost on Ibsley Water at dusk on Sunday. The finder was also responsible for the last county first found at Blashford, last autumn’s lesser scaup. Both of these species are from the western side of the Atlantic. The gull breeds in high Arctic Canada and mostly winters on the Pacific coast of Canada and the USA. Although considered as having a population of only a few thousand pairs it has been occurring with increasing frequency on the east coast of N. America and very rarely in W. Europe. Although usually listed as a full species it seems quite possible that it will be “lumped” in with Iceland gull and Kumlien’s gull, they are structurally very, very similar.

Not unexpectedly when I returned to Blashford this evening, after spending most of the day at Fishlake Meadow, there was a good crowd gathered in the hope of seeing the Thayer’s gull. Sadly they were disappointed, as it never showed up. I was not too surprised as the few Iceland gulls that have appeared in the roost over the years have almost always only been there on one evening, still it was a shame and there is still a chance it is around somewhere locally.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 22: Punctuated

It was thankfully cooler today which allowed us to do some work along the open western shore of Ibsley Water. As it was Thursday the “us” was the famous Blashford volunteer team. We were trimming brambles and pulling ragwort. I know ragwort is a great nectar source, but in this case we are trying to establish grassland where there has been bramble, willow and nettlebeds, this means mowing, but as we have ponies on site we need to remove the ragwort first. Ponies will rarely eat growing ragwort, but if cut and mixed in grass they will and so can get poisoned.

This shore was dominated by huge beds of ragwort and nettles but years of cutting and light grazing are taking effect and we now have mostly grassland with patches of ox-eye daisy, bird’s foot trefoil and other more desirable species. In turn this is attracting insects such as long-winged conehead.

IMG_1898

long-winged conehead, female nymph

We saw a good few butterflies including good numbers of comma. It seems they are having a very good year and the fresh summer brood emerging now is particularly strong. This generation will breed and produce another generation of adult in the autumn which will them hibernate.

IMG_1916

comma

They get their name from the white comma-shaped marking on the under-wing, which is not visible in this shot. Their ragged wing outline makes them less butterfly-shaped and so harder for predators to find, this is especially so when the wings are closed.

I ran two moth traps last night, only about 50m apart, but one under trees and the other in the open. An illustration of what a difference location makes is seen from the number of hawk-moths caught. The one in the open contained 8 elephant hawk-moth, a pine hawk-moth and 2 poplar hawk-moth, whereas the one under the trees contained just one eyed hawk-moth.

As you will have gathered from this blog, I am a fan of insects in general, even horseflies, although I am less keen on them when they come into the office as this one did today.

IMG_1922

Chrysops relictus female

It is the females that bite, so it would be better if this one went outside again.

 

Meanwhile, Back at Blashford

Whilst Tracy was off roaming the southern side of the Forest with the Young Naturalists, I was back at Blashford where Sunday was very pleasantly sunny and warm. As the week ahead looks grey and damp, it was likely to be the best day of the week for butterflies and a good opportunity to get the transects done. Although numbers of butterflies are declining as the spring species decline there are a few summer ones starting to appear, the last couple of days have seen the first common blue and brown argus on the wing. Thanks to Blashford’s brilliant volunteers for organising and doing the butterfly transects.

brown argus

The first brown argus of the year (well my first at least).

I also finally saw my first grass snake of the year too, perhaps not strictly my first as I did find a freshly dead one a couple of weeks ago, probably killed by a buzzard. This live one was rather unexpectedly crossing the open gravel behind the Education Centre.

grass snake

grass snake on gravel

Although it has been sunny recently it was still quite cool in the persistent north or north-east wind, this changed on Saturday and the extra warmth seemed to prompt large numbers of damselflies top emerge, I must have seen many hundreds on Sunday, mostly common blue damselflies, but including large red, azure and beautiful demoiselle.

common blue damselfly

common blue damselfly (male), still not quiet fully coloured up.

It is very pleasing to see that two of our projects are showing signs of success again. The tern rafts are used every year, but it gets harder each year to stop them all being claimed by gulls, timing in putting them out is the key. By Monday there were at least 20 common tern on the rafts so hopefully this will be enough to fend of the gulls. The other project, the sand martin wall, has had more mixed fortunes. After a few years of success to start with it fell out of favour with none nesting for several years, but this year they are back! Not in huge numbers but a visit to Goosander hide is well worth the effort.

A number of people have asked me recently when the “new” path from the main car park to Goosander hide will open, regular visitors will have noted that the work was completed some months ago now. Unfortunately the answer is still “I don’t know” but rest assured I will make it known when it is open. The hold up is not of our making, but to do with the process of transfer from previous occupiers via our landlord and the meeting of various planning and other requirements.

The change to more south-westerly winds has reduced migrant activity, but the reserve has still seen a some waders passing through in the last few days, on Sunday a sanderling with a peg-leg was by Tern hide and today a turnstone was on Long Spit (as I have decided to christen the new island we created to the east of Tern hide this spring). Both these are high Arctic breeders and only occasional visitors to Blashford.

Blashford’s Busiest Week?

Most of last week was typified by cold clear nights followed by crisp, bright days. No doubt this accounted for the large numbers of visitors to the reserve on most days. The wildlife also cooperated fairly well with the bittern seen on most days and sometimes giving good views. The great white egret also spent a good time each day on Ivy Lake and there was also little egret for easy comparison.

The Woodland hide is also getting busier all the time with over 100 chaffinch, at least 3 brambling, 5 or more reed bunting and all the usual woodland birds. Siskin are starting to visit the nyger feeders now the alder seed is getting scarcer. Under the alders outside the hide the water rail has been showing again and the firecrest has been frequently seen in the ivy covered oaks just behind the hide.

The gull roost has quietened somewhat with rather fewer lesser black-backed gull coming in now, although numbers of the smaller gulls remain high and at least one ring-billed gull has been seen. Very bright conditions are actually a hindrance to gull watchers as it makes the shades of grey more a result of shadow than actual shade, in addition a more north or east wind direction takes the gulls towards the eastern and northern shore of the lake where they are harder to see well.

The fine weather has also enabled us to get on with a lot of work, something that has been boosted by some bumper turn-outs by our volunteers. As a result we have completed the dead hedge around the old Hanson plant site, about 250m or so in length! We have also made great progress with the scrub clearance on the adjacent lake shore, which should make the whole area much more attractive to nesting waders. Restoring this old factory site to useful wildlife habitat is going to be a long task but we have made a great start.

We also had a tree surgeon on site on Thursday to deal with a few trees that had been an increasing cause for concern. Some I could perhaps have felled myself, but having a tree surgeon climb them enables the damaged part to be removed and, where possible, leave a section of trunk standing. This can be very valuable habitat and many of the damaged trees are ones with hollows and holes, ideal for lots of species. From a wildlife point of view it is often the trees of most safety concern that are the very ones that we would most want to keep. So getting them partially felled is a useful way to make them safe and keep a good part of the wildlife value.

I am hoping the good weather will continue and we can have  another productive week. So often the winter work program ends in a rush to get what we can finished before spring races in. So far this winter we have done really well, although I am sure there will be tasks outstanding when the end of February comes, but then the task of reserve management is never one that has a real end point.