Fitting it all in…

At the end of April our Young Naturalists were joined by Paul from Strong Island Media, who had come along to take photos and film them during a session. As a result we managed to fit in a number of different activities to showcase what we get up to and enjoyed a very varied day!

Whilst Joel and Vaughan headed off to the Woodland Hide with Nigel to photograph birds the rest of the group opted to pond dip, something we hadn’t actually done in some time. We caught a number of dragonfly nymphs, water stick insects, some fabulous cased caddis fly larvae and a smooth newt. We also spotted a large red damselfly on the edge of the boardwalk, so moved it to a safer spot away from our tubs, nets and feet.

We then had a look through the light trap which we had begun to put out more regularly with the weather warming up. The trap unfortunately didn’t contain an awful lot as it had been cold the night before, but there were a couple of very smart nut tree tussocks along with two Hebrew characters and a common quaker.

Volunteer Geoff had very kindly made up some more bird box kits for the group to put together, so we tidied away the pond dipping equipment and they had a go at building the boxes:

Brenda has been keeping us posted on the activity going on in the nest boxes the group made in October and we put up in January, using them to replace some of the older boxes on the reserve. Out of the twelve boxes made, six are active with the others either containing a small amount of nesting material or nothing: Poppy’s box contains 11 warm eggs and the female is incubating them; Geoff’s box contains 7 hatched, naked and blind blue tit chicks along with 2 warm eggs hopefully to hatch; Ben’s contains 3 downy and blind great tit chicks which will hopefully be large enough to ring when Brenda next checks; Will H’s box contains 7 naked and blind great tit chicks and 2 warm eggs hopefully still to hatch; Megan’s box contains 7 downy and blind blue tit chicks and 1 warm egg which may not hatch and finally Thomas’ box contains 9 warm great tit eggs.

Brenda has also been taking photos of some of the boxes for us to share with the group:

Thank you Brenda for continuing to update us on the progress of our nest boxes, we look forward to the next one!

After lunch we headed down to the river to see what else we could catch. Again we haven’t done this in quite a while so it was nice for the group to get in and see what they could find. We caught a stone loach, a dragonfly nymph, a number of bullhead and a very smart demoiselle nymph:

Finally, those who joined us in February were delighted to see the willow dome is sprouting. As the shoots get longer we will be able to weave them into the structure, giving it more shape and support.

willow dome

Thanks to Geoff and Nigel for their help during the session and to Paul from Strong Island Media for joining us, we look forward to seeing his footage of the group and being able to share it to promote the group and our work.

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

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An adventurous couple of days…

A couple of weeks ago I posted a blog (here) that included a brief description of my initial foray into the Dockens Water in preparation for our Wild days Out “Stream Snorkel Safari” and all of my reservations having braved the icy water… this week saw us leading 41 intrepid children aged 5-12 (not all at the same time!) into the Dockens Water to do just that and I am so glad that we did… it was brilliant!

The older children went first on Wednesday. Wednesday, you may remember, was grey, gloomy and COLD! Following the unusually glorious Bank Holiday weekend and highs of 29°C,  Wednesday saw the temperature plummet to a high of 14°C and a weather forecast dominated by heavy rain and jumping into the river was the last thing I really wanted to do!

Did it put us off? Well yes, of course it did!

Did it stop us? NO!

We split into three groups in the end – a large number of children had wetsuits so on the basis they would feel the cold the least, they went first – along with one or two other children who were just hard-core! Next we had those who did not have wetsuits but were up for the challenge, and finally, there was an opportunity for those who were really keen to give it a go but reluctant to venture too far, or for too long, to brave the small plunge pool at the end of our usual river dipping area:

Blashford Stream Snorkel_01

Getting “suited” up! (Gloves were a last-minute addition to the PPE requirements following my earlier recce when I realized that stream snorkeling involved more “crocodile crawling” than actual swimming!)

Blashford Stream Snorkel_03

On our way… not sure why they all have their hands up. Looks like we are forcing them into the river at gun point but I assure you we weren’t!

Blashford Stream Snorkel_04

Last minute briefing…

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Temperature acclimatization…!

Blashford Stream Snorkel_16

And we’re off! (It has to be said that some did more snorkeling than others! And that the boy took a great deal of delight in pouring the icy cold water out of his glove down my back. Again… and again… and again!)

Unlike my previous snorkel this time, despite having umpteen noisy, splashy, silt stirring children with us, there were times when we lay still and let the water clear around us that we could actually see under water:

And believe it or not we even saw fish! Nothing bigger than a few centimeters and nothing other than minnow or bullhead, but fish, in their natural environment, nonetheless. Very exciting… it made us squeal through our snorkels anyway!

Blashford Stream Snorkel_28

FISH! Minnows maybe?

While we were snorkeling Tracy Nigel and Yvette were getting on with the more usual business of river dipping, boat building and damming with everyone who had either snorkeled already or who were waiting to snorkel:

Blashford Stream Snorkel_24

Our usual version of river dipping!

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What have we got?

Blashford Stream Snorkel_40

Not the usual use of our nets!

In light of the temperature (as it was the forecast rain, thankfully, did not really come to anything in the end) we compressed the in-water river activities into the morning and warmed up with lots of hot blackcurrant drinks over lunch before setting out for a brisk walk to finish the day. Heading off in the direction of Ivy North Hide and the sweep netting meadow we had a good explore and, with reference back to Tracy’s last “Young Naturalists” blog from the weekend (here), this is the pink grasshopper that didn’t get away on this occasion!

Blashford Stream Snorkel_44

A PINK meadow grasshopper!

And then on Thursday we did it all over again with the 5-8 year olds:

You can’t tell from any of these pictures but I will confess that I bottled it and dug out my old wetsuit on day 2…  having shown solidarity with the children who did not own a wetsuit for my initial recce and on day 1, I decided that on the basis that I was spending much more time in the water than any of the children would be it was perfectly acceptable for me to do so. I have to say that , although no more or less enjoyable, it was by far a more pleasant experience with it on!

Blashford Stream Snorkel_46

Not what you usually expect to see heading off along the path into the woods!

Blashford Stream Snorkel_48

Acclimatization time again! Slowly does it!

And, for the less adventurous, or less well insulated but equally bonkers, the “plunge pool” beyond the river dipping area provided an unusual and equally exciting opportunity for discovering the river – including fantastic fish watching with a couple of very obliging (and no doubt confused!) bullhead:

It really was a wonderful, adventurous, “once in a life time” experience for everyone, staff and volunteers included  – but I can not begin to tell you just how cold it actually was, so hats off and respect to all of the children who literally jumped in at the deep end and went for it regardless! Especially those who did not have the benefit of wetsuits!

I had the day off to look after my own children yesterday while my wife was at work and I took them to the beach – we had a bit of a swim and I have to tell you that the sea temperature was like a bath tub compared to that of the river!

The summer holidays are now all but over and the stream snorkel was the grand finale of our Wild Days Out events – look out for the next during the October halfterm holiday:

https://shop.hiwwt.org.uk/product-category/events/

 

 

Spring Dipping for Lamprey

It was lovely to be back at Blashford on Sunday after a two week break, with the sun shining and chiffchaffs calling from what seemed like every other tree. It was time again for our monthly Young Naturalists meeting, and with the weather warming up we began with a rummage through the light trap. It revealed a number of Common and Small Quakers and Hebrew Characters along with this rather pale Brindled Beauty.

Brindled Beauty by Talia Felstead

Brindled Beauty by Talia Felstead

The light trap also contained a number of Clouded Drabs, with this one in particular making us take a closer look:

Clouded drab by Talia Felstead

Clouded Drab by Talia Falstead

We wondered if it could perhaps have been a Lead-coloured Drab instead, but couldn’t be sure. Having only a photo to show Bob today, we’ve decided it probably was a Clouded Drab, as their colours can be quite variable, but you never know, we might be wrong!

After carefully putting the moths back in the light trap to be released later in the day, we headed down to the Dockens Water in search of Brook Lamprey. Brook Lamprey can grow up to 15cm and can easily be confused with small eels, but they lack jaws, instead having a sucker disc with a mouth in the centre. They also lack scales, any paired fins and a gill cover, instead having a line of seven respiratory holes behind the eye. They are easily overlooked, burrowing down into sand, silt or mud before emerging in the Spring to spawn. They die soon after spawning, but their corpses are quickly devoured by fish and birds so often are not found.

Now was the time to go looking for them, and we knew a couple had been caught on a school visit the week before. We were in luck, catching nine in our usual river dipping spot and another two when we searched further downstream.

We also caught bullhead fish, mayfly nymphs, caddisfly larvae and pond skaters. On moving further downstream, we caught a large number of dragonfly nymphs, fourteen in total. We decided they were likely to be nymphs of the Golden-ringed dragonfly, a species that usually patrols upland and heathland streams. The nymphs often burrow down into the stream’s muddy or sandy bottom, leaving only their head and the tip of their abdomen exposed. They may remain in the same position for several weeks, waiting to ambush any prey that passes by.

With the Dockens starting its journey to the sea in the New Forest, it is not surprising the nymphs have found their way downstream to us, and whilst we don’t get many sightings of the adults on the reserve they are sometimes seen hawking low over the water.

It was great to see so many nymphs of all different sizes, we should have Golden-ringed dragonflies emerging from the Dockens for a good few years!

Whilst down by the river, we took some Elder cuttings from nearby trees for Bob. A small deciduous tree native to the UK, elder grows well on wasteland, as well as in woodland, scrub and hedgerows. As they do so well on disturbed ground, they will be planted by the volunteers on the Hanson site where hopefully if they root well their flowers will be an important nectar source for a variety of insects whilst their berries will be a great food source for mammals and Autumn migrants.

After lunch we were joined by Corinne from the Cameron Bespolka Trust, who came with us for a spot of nettle pulling alongside a stretch of path in the woodland. Whilst nettles are fantastic for wildlife, we have plenty on the reserve and clearing some areas gives other flora the chance to thrive. We’re hoping to see increased amounts of ground ivy and hopefully twayblades, a medium sized orchid that can be easily overlooked, so keep your eyes peeled!

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

A varied Sunday!

Our Young Naturalists had a practical session on Sunday, building shelters to go out on the new set of tern rafts currently being put together by our volunteers. The shelters will provide excellent cover for the tern chicks once they hatch, enabling them to hopefully avoid any hungry dive-bombing gulls.

We were joined on the day by Corinne, Cameron’s mum, who together with family and friends formed the Cameron Bespolka Trust in his memory, which is supporting the Young Naturalists group at Blashford alongside other projects. It was great to have an extra pair of hands for such a practical activity!

When collecting our wood and tools, we spied this blackbird which had made her nest close to our store. We had a super quick peak before leaving her in peace, constructing our shelters at the back of the centre.

Blackbird on nest

Blackbird by Talia Felstead

The task was a great challenge for the group as we had a couple of old examples to use as a guide and lots of offcuts of wood, so making them was a good test of our team building skills – it was a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, finding the best pieces to fit and figuring out the best way to join them:

Cutting wood

Cutting wood 2

Sawing planks to make the shelters

Hammering

Hammering 2

Making the shelters

We managed to make four shelters during the morning, which I’m sure will be very well received by the tern chicks when the time comes:

Finished shelters

Chick shelters

Our four finished chick shelters

During lunch we were watched rather closely by an inquisitive jackdaw, which Talia managed to photograph:

Jackdaw

Jackdaw by Talia Felstead

After lunch we headed back down to the river as we’d enjoyed dipping so much last time and not all of the group had had the opportunity. We managed to catch more bullhead fish, brook lamprey and trout fry, along with dragonfly, mayfly and stonefly nymphs and beetle larvae.

Whilst down by the river we spotted lots of fresh deer tracks in the soft ground along the edge of the river bank, following them until they headed off up the bank and into the trees:

Deer tracks

Deer tracks in the soft ground

There were also a small number of bluebell in flower – hopefully more will follow and the woodland along the Dockens Water will soon be a splash of blue.

Bluebells

Bluebell by Talia Felstead

After river dipping, we headed over to Ellingham Pound to have a look at the prototype tern raft which had been launched a week or so ago so the group could see where their chick shelters would eventually end up. Whilst there, we were distracted by ripples on the surface of the lake which seemed to move around rather purposefully, and realised we were watching alder-fly which had recently emerged from the water. One conveniently left the surface of the lake and landed nearby, allowing us to take a closer look:

Caddis fly

Alder-fly by Talia Felstead

Finally on heading back to the centre, we spied this speckled wood butterfly sunning itself. It took a while to make sure everyone had seen it as it was so well camouflaged against the dead leaves and sticks on the woodland floor.

Speckled Wood

Speckled wood butterfly by Talia Felstead

Our Young Naturalists group offers monthly conservation tasks and wildlife activities to young people aged 13-17 years and is kindly funded by the Cameron Bespolka Trust. To find out more or join the group please telephone Jim or Tracy at the Education Centre on 01425 472760.

Water world

On Sunday our Young Naturalists joined us for a watery session, discovering the life lurking at Blashford in the pond and the Dockens Water.

We began the day though with a rummage through the moth trap, a task greatly enjoyed by the group last year so it was great to have the opportunity again now the weather has warmed up and there are more moths on the wing.

Emptying the light trap

Emptying the moth trap

Moth id

Moth identification

We only had five different species to identify so our task didn’t take too long, but there were plenty of moths in the trap: 25 Hebrew character, ten Common quaker, five Small quaker, 6 Clouded drab and one very smart Lunar marbled brown:

Lunar marbled brown resized

Lunar marbled brown

After carefully putting the moths back in the trap to be released at the end of the day, we spent the rest of the morning having a closer look at the life lurking in the Education Centre pond.

Pond dipping 2

Inspecting our catch2

pond dipping

Pond dipping

The pond has certainly sprung to life with the warmer weather and after a lot of dipping, it was time to take a closer look at our catch.

Inspecing our catch

Having a closer look

Having a closer look at some of our smallest finds

We were lucky enough to catch a number of newts, both adults and newt tadpoles, known as efts. The efts breathe through external feathery gills located just behind their heads, which really make them look like miniature dragons!

Adult newt and eft by Talia Felstead

Adult newt with eft by Talia Felstead

Male smooth newt

Male smooth newt, with its frilly crest extending from its head to the tip of its tail

Newt handling

Careful newt handling, with very wet hands!

We also caught a number of cased caddisfly larvae. Cased caddisfly are probably my favourite of all the pond (and river!) creatures as they construct the most amazing cases to live in, providing themselves with excellent camouflage. They use whatever materials they have available to them in the pond or river, which could be sand, tiny stones, segments cut from weed or other water plants, old snail shells, seed pods, the list is endless! They really are the ultimate swimming stick:

Cased caddis

Two cased caddisfly larvae by Talia Felstead, these two have used plant material to create their cases

One of the many different caddis

Another cased caddis, this one has used older pieces of plant matter and old seed pods

We also caught a number of water stick insects:

Water stick insect

Water stick insect

Finally, after exhausting the pond we headed down to the river in search of other aquatic life, including fish. We had to search a little harder, as the invertebrates in the river along with many of the fish will hide in amongst and under stones and rocks on the river bed to avoid being picked up by the current and taken downstream. We did though manage to catch a number of bullhead and brook lamprey:

Bullhead

Bullhead by Talia Felstead

Brook lamprey

Brook lamprey by Talia Felstead

The brook lamprey are often confused with small eels, but instead of having jaws they have a sucker disc with their mouth in the centre. Now is definitely the time of year to look for them as they spend most of their time buried in the sand or silt on the river bed, emerging in spring to spawn and dying soon after.

If you look closely in shallower stretches of the Dockens Water when passing, you might be lucky enough to spot some!