Camping out

At our last Young Naturalists session in July, we spent a night on the reserve, exploring Blashford and the surrounding area late in to the evening and early in the morning. It seems like a really long time ago now, but hopefully this blog is better late than never…

After arriving on the Saturday morning we got straight on with setting up our camp, using old army ponchos to make dens to sleep under and whittling pegs out of willow.

We then headed to the back of the Education Centre to sit by the pond and butterfly spot as part of the Big Butterfly Count. The Purple loosestrife proved to be very popular with the butterflies and we saw a large white, numerous small whites, a green-veined white and brimstones, along with a gatekeeper and painted lady by the bramble. We also watched the water for newts coming up to the surface and spotted a number of young frogs.

After lunch we headed up into the Forest, exploring the local Rockford and Ibsley Commons for a different view of the lakes. The bell heather was in flower and attracting lots of honey and bumble bees.

We paused for a while at the bridge over the Dockens Water, exploring this stretch of the river and taking a closer look at some of the plants before heading up on to the Common for another view of the reserve, this time Ibsley Water.

On arriving back at Moyles Court we paused by the ford for a paddle, although Jorge got wetter than most!

Walking back along the Dockens we spotted this fabulous Chicken of the Woods fungi growing on an old log:

Chicken in the woods

Chicken of the Woods

Arriving back at the Education Centre, it was time to empty the light trap from the night before so we could re-set it for the Saturday evening and we also set some mammal traps to see if we could catch any of our smaller resident mammals.

It was then time to think about food and the group did a great job of chopping the ingredients before tucking in to healthy wraps toasted over the fire followed by slightly less healthy popcorn and banana stuffed with chocolate and mini marshmallows…

Lysander had also very kindly bought some of his left over Cadet rations to share with the group, cooking them through using his stove. Whilst not all sampled his food, we were pleasantly surprised by how nice it tasted!

After eating we headed off on a night walk in search of bats, picking up pipistrelles on the bat detectors in the woodland and near Ivy South hide.

After convincing the group to get up bright and early on Sunday morning, we roused them at 5.30am and headed off up to Lapwing Hide for some early morning wildlife spotting.

It was lovely and peaceful to be out on the reserve so early, and whilst we didn’t spot anything out of the ordinary we had a good wander and worked up an appetite for breakfast which we cooked over the campfire.

Breakfast

Breakfast, looking slightly sleepy

It was then time to check the mammal traps we had put out the previous evening, but sadly although a couple had been sprung we were unsuccessful. The two light traps however gave us 31 different species off moth to identify, along with a Dark bush cricket and an Oak bush cricket:

After tidying away our camp and bringing everything back to the Centre it was time for the group to head off, a little sleepy but having spent a very enjoyable time overnight on the reserve.

Emperor dragonfly

Emperor dragonfly at the Education Centre Pond

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

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Busy in the Sunshine

Sorry for the lack of posts, we seem to have been very busy and by the end of the day exhaustion has taken over. It is the time of year when there is lots of growth to cut back, bramble regrowth to cut off and nettle to remove from potential grassland areas. Today I spent the morning removing ragwort from one of the areas due to be mowed later this month and the afternoon mowing bramble regrowth from a bank beside Ibsley Water where we are trying to establish grassland. Hot and heavy work, there are times when I think I am getting too old for it! Being out in the sun did mean I saw lots of butterflies, meadow brown and gatekeeper are probably the most abundant now.

gatekeeper

gatekeper

There are also a number of summer broods out, I saw peacock, small tortoiseshell, common blue, brown argus and small copper. Possibly a side effect of the hot weather is the number of common blue that are unusually small, some as small or smaller than brown argus. I think this happens because the food quality of the plant the caterpillar was on was not good enough or in sufficient quantity for it to grow to full size.

When I had lunch I took a look at the Centre pond and there were dozens of pairs of azure damselfly pairs, egg-laying in tandem. They do this so that the male can be sure that the eggs being laid are the ones that he has fertilised. Some dragonflies do the same and others will stay hovering close tot eh female whilst she lays.

azure damselfly pairs

azure damselfly pairs

I know that I was only doing “What’s in My Meadow Today” during 30 Days Wild, but I will end with a picture from there anyway. One thing that is very noticeable as the grass has gone brown and then yellow is that some plants remain green, field scabious is one of these, which is not just green but flowering well.

small skipper on field scabious

small skipper on field scabious

The Heat Continues

After a June and 30 Days Wild which was extremely hot and the met office now tells us was the driest on record we have now hit July and things are not changing. I did see some cloud on Sunday, but all it seemed to do was increase the humidity.

The heat is making it difficult to work, despite this on Sunday five volunteers turned out and we pulled Himalayan balsam for an hour and a half, a remarkable effort. On Monday I saw removing ragwort from the areas I plan to mow on the shore of Ibsley Water.

All this heat continues to be very good for insects, the moth catch overnight on Sunday/Monday was the highest I have ever had at Blashford, one trap caught 96 species! This included a lot of micro moths, many of these are quite spectacular looking, but it is hard to appreciate what they really look like as they are so small.

Mompha propinquella

Mompha propinquella

The one above is actually quiet common and I see it fairly regularly. I did catch a few new species for the reserve including a chalk grassland species that feeds on marjoram, a plant which does grow in the gravel near the building, so perhaps it was a local rather than a wanderer.

Acompsia schmidtiellus

Acompsia schmidtiellus a species that feeds on marjoram.

There are lots of butterflies and dragonflies around the reserve. Silver-washed fritillary are having a good year and gatekeeper are now emerging as are the summer broods of small copper and brown argus.

gatekeeper

gatekeeper

Brown hawker and southern hawker dragonflies are both already flying in some numbers, although common darter are still quiet few.

southern hawker

southern hawker

The picture above was my best of a few attempts at getting a flight shot over the Centre pond at Sunday lunchtime. At the same time I saw a large red damselfly that had fallen into the pond and been preyed upon by a water boatman.

water boatman with large red damselfly prey

water boatman with large red damselfly prey

When you are an insect there are many ways to die more or less everything is out to get you! There are predators and more gruesomely parasites almost everywhere. I found a parasitic wasp hunting for a beetle larva in which to lay its egg.

Ichneumonid wasp Ephilates manifestator

Ephilates manifestator probing for beetle larvae

The needle-like ovipositor can be pushed deep into the wood, when not in use it is protected by a sheath, in the picture you can see the ovipositor in use probing almost vertically downward.

The dry weather is stressing plants and some smaller trees are losing their leaves already. Most of the grass is now brown and many species rapidly going to seed. There are still flowers out there though and one such is creeping cinquefoil.

creeping cinquefoil

creeping cinquefoil

 

The Blues

The last few days have seen warm sunshine by day but chilly nights, meaning it has been poor for moths but good for day-flying insects. Today at Blashford Lakes I saw my first scarce chaser and downy emerald of the year and there were other dragonflies about too with reports of emperor, broad-bodied chaser and hairy dragonfly.

Most of the butterflies that over winter by hibernation as adults are getting scarce now and spring species such as orange-tip are dropping in numbers. there are a few whites around with all three of the common species, but the highlight today was the emergence of  blues. The small meadow near Ivy North hide had six or more male common blue as I went to lock up and at least three brown argus as well, the argus is brown, but an honorary “blue” all the same..

common blue male

common blue (male), freshly emerged.

The brown argus look very like small female common blue, and the male common blues will get up to chase one if it flies by, however they quickly realise their mistake and give up. The first emergences are all males and the females will follow in a day or so. The reason for this is the same as that for male migrant bird arriving just ahead of the females. Evolution will push the males to be in place and ready for the first females to arrive, it does not pay to be late, so the pressure for males to be early is greater than that on females, who can afford to wait until they know there will be males to mate with.

The spring solitary bees are starting to disappear now, many species collect pollen from just a few plants and as these cease to flower they need to wrap up their breeding cycle. I did come across one interesting species today though, it was one of the nomad bees and the smallest species of them to be found in Britain, Nomada sheppardana.

Nomada sheppardana

Nomada sheppardana on forget-me-not

Visiting flowers is something many insects have to do to feed, it may sound an unproblematic things to do, the flowers want to offer a nectar reward, or perhaps bribe might be a better description, to the insects that will pollinate them. However it is not as safe as it might sound, flowers can hide predators, especially the camouflaged crab spider which match their colour to the flowers they sit on.

crab spider with hoverfly

crab spider with hoverfly prey

The crab spider here matched the hawthorn flowers so well that I missed it and initially set up to take a picture of the hoverfly, only then did I see the spider!

It has not been a good year for ground-nesting birds so far this spring, with most lapwing and little ringed plover losing their eggs to predators. I suspect mammals at night as the ones nesting on the islands are doing much better. Or at least they were, on Thursday might all the black-headed gull on Long Spit abandoned their nests. Although I don’t know for sure I suspect that something swam out there and ate their eggs, probably a fox or a badger. These mammals are usually not that keen on swimming, but if they are hungry they will go to great lengths to get the food they want, I think small mammals, which are their preferred prey, are in short supply this year, which might be why they are seeking birds eggs more actively.

Despite a bad time for some ground-nesters the pair of oystercatcher are still doing well, with their two chicks growing well. They hatched on Long Spit, moved off to the shore near Tern hide and have now returned to Long Spit, this meant they were not out there on the night of the predator raid. So far the main gull colony on Gull Island shows no sign of being attacked and neither do the tern rafts on Ivy Lake.

 

Emperors

Another very hot day and a good one for insects, hot conditions allow them to be especially active as they do not need to spend time sitting in the sun to warm up as they would on a more normal English summer’s day. I saw my first Blashford silver-washed fritillary of the year, they are regular in small numbers, but never common on the reserve.

silver-washed fritillary

silver-washed fritillary

Later I came across a pair of brown argus, these are the start of the second generation for this species this year.

brown argus pair

brown argus pair

Brown argus are one of the “Blues” but one that forgot this and so is not blue. The same area of grass was also hiding several stridulating Roesel’s bush-cricket, I am quite pleased that I can still hear these as they are quiet high frequency and so one of the species that slip away as we get older. If you do get to see one the pale line around the lower edge of the pronotum is an identifying character.

Roesel's bush-cricket

Roesel’s bush-cricket

However the highlight of the day was none of these fine insects. After lunch I went over to Ellingham Pound to check how the common tern chicks were doing, the answer was just fine and it looks as though all seven will be flown off very soon. It is a good place to see dragon and damselflies and one of the only regular places on the reserve for small red-eyed damselfly and a quick check found one floating on some algae. I then started to look at the dragonflies in the hope of finding a lesser emperor, as there have been quite  few in the country recently and one was reported from Ibsey Water a couple of days ago. After seeing a couple of emperor dragonfly, a distinctive male lesser emperor shot past, after many attempts I got a couple of shots, not great, but I only had a 60mm lens with me!

lesser emperor male

lesser emperor male

The mainly dark abdomen with pale blue “saddle” is what identifies it. As I waited for it to skim past again I inevitably snapped other dragonflies too, when I looked at these pictures later I think one of them shows a female lesser emperor.

lesser emperor female

female

The lesser emperor is a migrant from the south, it used to be regarded as very rare but is getting more common, especially in warm summers and certainly tries to breed here now. It seems it is another species that is trying to colonise thanks to warming temperatures. The Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) seem to be especially responsive to these changes with many species spreading across Europe dramatically in the last couple of decades.

Elsewhere on the reserve there were at least three common sandpiper on Ibsley Water where there was also a juvenile little egret and, at the end of the day, 3 adult yellow-legged gull. I also found that the pair of Mediterranean gull on Long Spit had managed to fledge a single chick, or at least I could only find one. Although they have nested with us before I cannot be completely certain they have raised a chick to flying on Ibsley Water previously.

Hopefully it will cool down a bit next week and I can get some of the paths trimmed, they certainly need it! I had intended to try today but it was just too hot.

Chalk downland extravaganza!

On Sunday twelve Young Naturalists joined us for a trip to Martin Down National Nature Reserve, one of the largest areas of uninterrupted chalk downland in Britain. Jointly owned and managed by Natural England and Hampshire Country Council, the reserve is home to a fantastic variety of plants and animals associated with chalk downland and scrub habitats.

Regular readers of the blog will know that part of Martin Down National Nature Reserve, Kitts Grave, belongs to Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. This site is managed as part of the wider reserve by Natural England, but our volunteers do a couple of tasks there each winter – we did not visit this part of the reserve so as to avoid a busy road crossing and the car park height barrier, parking instead at the end of Sillens Lane and exploring the Down between here and the Second World War rifle range.

Martin Down resized

Martin Down

The weather was in our favour and we got off to a great start, spotting brown hare in a field close to where we had parked the minibus. We headed off in the direction of the rifle range, keeping our eyes peeled for butterflies and listening out for the distinctive purring of turtle dove. This stretch kept us busy with our cameras and binoculars as we saw yellowhammer, skylark, red-legged partridge, jackdaw and chiff chaff.

The butterflies also didn’t disappoint, with specked wood, common blue and large skipper settling close by for photos. We also spotted a red and black froghopper and a fabulous caterpillar, later identified as that of a drinker moth.

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As we left the edge of the tree line and headed into more open downland, we saw small blue, orange-tip, small heath, brimstone, large white and Adonis blue butterflies, along with a cinnabar moth. We also spotted a number of stunning golden bloomed grey longhorn beetles, with their fantastic long and stripy antennae.

The butterfly highlight of the day though was possibly this beautiful Marsh fritillary, which was in no hurry to fly away:

Marsh fritillary resized

Marsh fritillary

Geoff took a photo of this caterpillar, which we think is that of a six-spot burnet moth.

Six-spot Burnet caterpillar by Geoff Knott

Six-spot burnet moth caterpillar by Geoff Knott

We also stumbled across lots of tent caterpillars, so grouped because of their ability to build conspicuous silk tents in the branches of host trees. They are sociable, with many grouping together in one spot and we believe most of those we saw are larvae of the small eggar moth – the second photo may show a different species or an older instar, I’m not completely sure!

We also scoured the tops of small trees and bushes in the hope of spotting a Corn bunting amongst all the signing skylarks, a bird I’d been hoping to see! We were in luck, watching one for some time before it flew off to perch further away on another bush.

Corn bunting by Nigel Owen

Corn bunting by Nigel Owen

We paused for lunch at the rifle range, an excellent spot as it turned out as whilst sat on the top we watched a female cuckoo fly from bush to bush below us, sitting on the top of one for a few moments before flying back into the scrub and out of sight.

We then followed the Neolithic Bokerley Ditch which snakes along the western edge of Martin Down, defining the Dorset and Hampshire border. Possibly built as a boundary in the Iron Age, it was fortified in the 5th or 6th centuries AD against invading Saxons. We were now in search of orchids, spotting plenty of common spotted orchids and finding the beautiful burnt tip orchids.

20170528-IMG_1391-Edit

Burnt tip orchids by David Felstead

Orchid hunting resized

Orchid hunting

The other wild flowers did not disappoint either and we identified yellow rattle, kidney vetch, horseshoe vetch, meadowsweet and wild or yellow mignonette amongst others. We also saw and heard stonechat, more yellowhammer, a roe doe and two brown argus butterflies.

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We decided we had just enough energy and time left for one last slope in the sunshine so headed uphill, in search of a greater butterfly orchid. At the top of the slope we found these along with fragrant orchid and also spotted a five spot burnet moth.

Butterfly orchid resized

Greater butterfly orchid

Fragrant orchid resized

Fragrant orchid

Five spot burnet resized

Five spot burnet

It was then time to head back to the minibus before the showers started and we almost made it! We had unfortunately run out of time to linger for long by any of the scrub for the sound of turtle doves and the rain shower although very refreshing began to get heavier, but Geoff who was walking at the back of the group did manage to pick out their distinctive call.

We had a brilliant day, it was definitely hotter and sunnier than we had been expecting which bought out a great variety of butterflies including Adonis blue, brown argus and the beautiful marsh fritillary. We also had great views of brown hare, corn bunting, yellowhammer and cuckoo. Martin Down is a brilliant site for downland species and definitely worth a visit on a sunny day!

Back at Blashford, the two oystercatcher chicks were again showing nicely in front of Tern Hide with both adult birds also present and continuing to be very attentive. The light trap has been revealing more moth species now the nights are warmer, with highlights on Sunday including a chocolate-tip (sadly no photo as my camera seems to have momentarily malfunctioned!) and scorched wing and yesterday we had lots of light emeralds and a lovely privet hawk-moth.

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Our Young Naturalists group is supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust. Thank you to volunteers Nigel, Geoff, Emily, Kate and Roma for your help on Sunday!

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.

Seeing the Light

I frequently include moths in this blog and this is because we regularly run a moth trap at Blashford Lakes, but it is also an important part of the species recording program on the reserve. Over 2500 species of moths have been recorded in Britain and they occupy all terrestrial habitats and even a few aquatic ones. Many species occupy very specific habitats and they can be indicators of habitat health and help to identify key habitat elements for management. Moths are also attractive and, although common, rather rarely seen by most people, so we find them very useful for the education team as well.

The recent very warm nights have resulted in some much better catches and opening the trap on Thursday morning we found a good range of species including one rare New Forest speciality, the light crimson underwing.

light crimson underwing

light crimson underwing

It does have crimson hind-wings but at rest you cannot see them. It lives in old oak woods and over the years we have caught a few at Blashford, enough to suggest they breed on the reserve and this highlights the value of our old woodland along the Dockens Water.

One strange fact about moth trapping is that nobody really knows why moths are attracted to lights. There are theories of course, but none entirely stand up. We also know that different types of light attract more moths than others and even that some species don’t really come to light at all. Our light trap is one that produces a lot of light in the ultra-violet range, this is the part of the spectrum that attracts the greatest range of moths so most light trap use this type of bulb.

In contrast to moths we have very few species of butterflies in Britain, but they are generally much more familiar. Overall this summer has been a poor one for butterflies and moths, with most species being seen in relatively low numbers. I did come across one of Blashford’s scarcer species yesterday when I saw a brown argus nectaring on a small patch of heather.

brown argus

brown argus

Very few birds to report unfortunately, Wednesday’s first pintail of the autumn had moved on by Thursday. Other wildfowl of note were 14 shoveler and 7 pochard, but waders and other migrants are still scarce.

 

Afloat and Ashore

Yesterday I assisted Ed with putting out the last of the four tern rafts on Ivy Lake. We had an ideal morning, flat calm and sunny, a real contrast to what greeted us this morning!

Rafts on Ivy Lake

Rafts on Ivy Lake

There really is nothing like “messing about in boats” when the weather is good, however we had to spend most of the day ashore. Once the boat was put away there was one other, always enjoyable task, the checking of the moth trap. The catch was not large but included a very fresh coxcomb prominent,

coxcomb prominent

coxcomb prominent

and the first pale tussock moth that I have seen this year, although I suspect this is the species described to me by Michelle as being in the trap earlier in the week, “a largish, furry, grey one”.

pale tussock

pale tussock

One of the tasks we had to do was path trimming in the sweep-netting meadow. In the sunshine we saw several common blue and came across this mating pair of brown argus.

brown argus pair

brown argus pair

What a contrast today was!  Yesterday we had calm and warm sunshine, today was cold and very, very wet. Despite this there was a fair turn out by Blashford’s stalwart volunteers. The main task was again Himalayan balsam pulling, with a bit of path trimming for variety. When we eventually got back to the Centre I think everyone, even those with full waterproofs, were soaked through.

On the general wildlife sightings front the day was quiet, the best were single dunlin, greenshank and whimbrel, all on Ibsley Water. I was also very pleased to see at least twelve common tern trying to take possession of one of the tern rafts in the face of competition with the already ensconced black-headed gulls.

Butterflies, Bees and a good Soaking

Friday was a warm if not particularly sunny day, apart from right at the end , but I will try not to dwell on that!

Although the reserve is known for the lakes we are lucky to have some very good woodland and small areas of heath, most of which is lichen heath. However some of the heath is the more traditional kind with patches of heather and these are now in full flower.

heather

heather

Heather not only looks good it also produces lots of nectar which attracts lots of insects and despite the lack of sunshine these included several butterflies and bees. I saw common blue, brown argus and this small copper all enjoying a good feast and sitting with wings open to gain as much warmth as they could from the weak sunshine.

small copper on heather

small copper on heather

We have probably all heard of heather honey as being one of the most sought after, and heather is often visited by honey bees, but the bees visiting these plants were much smaller, one of the solitary Colletes species.

small bee on heather

small bee on heather

Having looked it up I am pretty sure they were Colletes succinctus , a common species that especially favours heather flowers. I also saw at least one bee wolf, a wasp that hunts bees and especially honey bees, I wondered if it would take the little solitary bees but it did not seem interested in them, perhaps waiting for larger prey.

The heather was not the only plant flowering though, there was just enough sunlight to open the flowers of common centaury.

common centaury

common centaury

This attractive little plant has flowers which only open if the sun is more or less out, as this when the insects that will pollinate it will be flying.

It was quite a good day for butterflies all round, at least in terms of species seen, I also saw silver-washed fritillary and clouded yellow as well as the commoner species. I failed to get any pictures of clouded yellow or fritillary, although I did get this female meadow brown with wings open, something they don’t tend to do when the sun is fully out as they get too hot.

meadow brown female on fleabane

meadow brown female on fleabane

I locked up the hides at the end of the day as Jim and Tracey were setting up things for the Ellingham Show, if you can, go along and say hello to them, they have lots of activities with them and the show attracts lots of participants, so is well worth a visit. A feature of the locking up process was mandarin ducks, I saw two juveniles on Ivy Lake, one on Ibsley Water and no less than four on the Clearwater Pond. They have obviously had a good nesting season, as have almost all species it seems. On Ivy Lake there are still four common tern chicks to fledge and I saw several broods of tufted duck, especially on Ibsley Water.

It started to rain hard as I locked up the Tern hide, normally the last hide to visit, but unfortunately from there I could see that the windows of the Lapwing hide had been left open and I knew that heavy rain would soak the hide, so I went up to close them. By the time I got there the seats and arm rests were drenched as was the hide log book. On the plus side I did see 3 common sandpiper, a green sandpiper, 3 shoveler, a teal and a snipe, I also got very, very wet!