30 Days Wild – Day 19 – Back on the Road

On Tuesday morning I was in Manchester, not a wildlife hotspot compared to the New Forest but like many cities a great place for swifts. Area with lots of Victorian housing are especially good as there are usually lots of gaps into roof spaces where the swifts love to nest. I did not see many birds, but I did hear quite a few.

I was awoken by a singing blackbird at 03:42, then heard the distinctive screech of a ring-necked parakeet. It turned out there were several parakeets int he the nearby park. I knew they were well established in SW London but was unaware they were in Manchester. These parakeets originally come from South Asia and arrived here in the pet trade and having escaped or been let free are now doing well in urban areas, not just in the UK, but across a wide area of the world. They are very adaptable, quiet aggressive and will exploit new food sources easily, all very useful traits for survival in new environments.

I then hit the road again to make my return journey, wildlife was limited to the usual travellers sightings of fly over buzzard, red kite and just a couple of kestrel. This last species used to be regarded as the classic roadside bird, exploiting the rodents that thrived in the long grass of the verges. They seem to have declined in recent years, just as the fortunes of buzzard and red kite have been improving.

I got home in time to take a late look at the meadow………..

What’s in My Meadow Today?

Not all the tall yellow flowering plants you see in fields at this time of year are ragwort, quite often it is St.John’s-wort.

perforate St John's-wort

perforate St John’s-wort

There are several species of St, John’s-wort, is named because if you look very closely at the leaves against the light they have tiny, pin-prick holes through them. I have a number of plants of it growing in my meadow, where it tops out at just about the same height as the seeding grasses.

Advertisements

Listing, Lessons and Speculations

Like lots of people who look at wildlife I cannot resist keeping lists, not usually very thorough and I usually lose interest in about mid-February each year. So far I have kept going and find that I have seen 116 species of birds so far this year, all of them in Hampshire and at least 105 of them on visits to Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust reserves.

Of the 116 species I can see that five of them are introduced alien species (Canada goose, Egyptian goose, Mandarin duck, pheasant and red-legged partridge) and another an introduced population of a former native (greylag).  All of these  have been either introduced for “sport” or escaped from parkland collections.

Of the native species I am struck by the many species that have changed their status radically since I arrived in Hampshire. There are various reasons for this, the white trio of little egret (now breeding), great white egret (soon to be breeding here?) and spoonbill (perhaps likewise), have increased in number and range right across western Europe. The same could be said for Cetti’s warbler, avocet, yellow-legged gull and Mediterranean gull.

Birds of prey have increased, more or less across the board and seeing red kite, marsh harrier and peregrine is not now especially notable and buzzard has spread right across the county rather than being a New Forest bird. All of these species have benefited from a more benign environment, in which they are less exposed to harmful chemicals and suffer less persecution, at least in lowland England. One other species has gained from the same change is the raven, which now nests across most of the county. Goshawk has also colonised the county and benefited similarly, although the population is of escaped , or released, origin.

When I first came to Hampshire in 1978 there was no accepted record of ring-billed gull and I am not sure there was even such a thing as a Caspian gull thought about.

I estimate that if I had been doing the same thing forty years ago my list would most likely not have included at least 14 of those I have seen this year, so more than 10% of my list are birds that would have seemed remarkable then. Of course there would have been some species that I would have expected to see then by mid January, that we have now more or less lost, or at least which now need more particular seeking. For example Bewick’s swan, white-fronted goose, grey partridge, willow tit, corn bunting, yellowhammer and tree sparrow.

So listing may well be a rather pointless exercise in many ways but reflecting upon my list so far certainly tells a story of how much has changed and of course makes one think how much might change in the future. So what might a list in another forty years include?

I suspect we will have established populations of additional alien species, most likely is ring-necked parakeet (I suspect this will happen quite soon), but I think black swan may also get a firmer foothold too and Egyptian goose could become very common. Who knows perhaps even sacred ibis could make it over here in time if the continental populations develop uncontrolled.

Natural colonists that look like becoming regulars include, cattle egret and glossy ibis, both already occasional visitors. It is interesting to note the preponderance of wetland birds that are expanding their ranges. A bit of a wildcard might be the potential for a whole range of essentially  Pacific Arctic species to turn up as winter vagrants. The ice melt along the northern coast of Russia has opened up a route for many previously unconsidered species. The occurrence in Europe in recent years of slaty-backed gull hints at the potential for species to come via this route in years to come.

Unfortunately I think a lot of species are going to get much rarer. Coastal species will be under particular pressure, in forty years time there will be little or no saltmarsh along most of the Solent shoreline and much reduced mudflats, so wintering coastal wader populations will surely be much reduced. Couple this with and increase in “short-stopping”, which means that wintering birds coming from the north and east just don’t come so far in the increasingly mild winters. Overall I think it certain that the Solent will not be nearly so significant for wintering wetland birds.

This discussion of change is only considering the winter, our breeding birds could be in for at least as great a change, who knows I might speculate on this in a later blog.

 

Counting and Estimating

It was a very grey dawn that broke as I waited in Lapwing hide this morning in an attempt to count the goosander roost on Ibsley Water. Unfortunately I think a lot of them  had already left as I saw only 54, I would have expected over a hundred at this stage of the winter. Luckily, although it was very grey, there was almost no wind, making counting the wildfowl quite easy. Overall the counts on Ibsley Water were poor, a few years ago there could have been totals of a thousand or more, but poor weed growth has meant there is little food for many species this winter. The highlight was seeing both of the black-necked grebe together, although they then went their own ways very quickly, one remaining close the southern shore the other up to the north-west corner as usual.

Luckily some of the other lakes do have a good growth of weed, most notably Ivy Lake which held 356 gadwall and 318 wigeon, although only 31 coot was a real surprise as they are also weed-eaters. It seems the coot were mostly on Rockford Lake, where there were 340, but only a few dozen each of wigeon and gadwall. Perhaps they prefer different types of weed or maybe the coot are going after weed in deeper water. Recent conditions may mean that the ducks do not need to follow the coot around to get at the weed they drag up and can feed on floating fragments.

Wildfowl are relatively easy to count on a lake, they do not move fast and if you have a good viewpoint you can see them all, at least if they are not diving. Later in the I encountered birds that were rather more difficult to count.

In the afternoon I was at our new reserve at Fishlake Meadows, to look at what will eventually be the reserve storage area and yard. We will not have access to it for a while but it was valuable to see the site and where service entry points are. Setting up a new site is always exciting but dealing with all the elements that need to be in place to make things work at their best taxes my brain at times.

After dealing with the boring but essential site details we walked the canal path and witnessed the modest but still impressive starling roost. I say modest, but I was quite unable to count them, an estimate would be perhaps 8-10,000, nothing like the 60,000 or more that were seen a couple of weeks ago. They arrived in several groups, the largest landed quite quickly.

dropping down to roost

The flock dropping into roost

Shortly after this a buzzard flew low over the roost which took flight and then mostly landed in neighbouring trees and bushes.

starlings sitting in trees

bushes full of starlings

All the while extra groups of birds were flying in. Quite a sight and they attracted a fair crowd of local people, it is always good to see people able to enjoy wildlife on their own doorstep. There is something especially satisfying about being able to walk out from your own home and see wildlife, or better still be able to see it in, or from your own garden. Wildlife should really be living around us, not just experienced by travelling to special places, one of the great things about Fishlake Meadows is its proximity to the town of Romsey, wildlife on their doorstep.

30 Days Wild – Day 30: At Last!

Sorry for the late post of this the last day of 30 Days Wild, but my 30th day was spent on the road. On my travels I passed through areas of the country that I have lived in during years gone by. It was interesting to see that there were buzzard almost everywhere, I remember when it was necessary to go west to at least the Welsh borders to see one. I also saw red kite, once so rare that a special trip was the only option if you wanted a glimpse of one.

As my post is late it coincides with National Meadows Day, so I will mention one of the other things I noticed on my travels, the verges and how they were managed. I was mostly on the motorway network so much of the grass was long, with scattered banks of scrub. I was disappointing to see the particularly wide banks of grassland beside the M6 Toll road being mown short even right to the top and the cuttings left lying, it looked very “neat” but was a disaster for wildlife. I don’t know if it was because it was a toll road but this was thankfully the only section I saw getting quite such brutal treatment.

Incidentally I make no apology for not applying the strict definition of a meadow, that is a field where herbage is cut as a crop, dried in the sun and removed to feed livestock, there are rather few of these now. For my purposes, if it is a grass and hopefully, herb mix that is maintained with little or no spring grazing, it could be a meadow as far as most of the species that use meadows are concerned. So wide verges, roundabouts, golf course rough and corporate greensward all count.

As I said I spent the day on the road, in fact it was also part of the night as well, due to road closures and subsequent detours. On the nocturnal part of my journey I saw a couple of foxes and another recent addition to south-east England, a polecat, which trotted across the road in front of me as I was navigating a back route alternative to the A34.

Today I was at Lepe Country Park, where they were opening a new sensory garden, put together by staff and the Friends of Lepe, it is very fine and well worth a visit. Many years ago I used to work at Lepe and one of the projects I did then was to add what is now the meadow area at the north of the site onto the Country Park. It had been a deep ploughed cereal field but we seeded it and thirty years on is a meadow afforded SINC (Site of Importance for Nature Conservation) status. I took a quick look today and it was alive with butterflies, maybe not an old meadow but a great one for wildlife. This is one of the wonderful things about grassland, a relatively few years of good management can produce something of real value for wildlife. Despite this it is trees that get planted all the time as good for nature conservation, yet most of these secondary woodlands will still be struggling to reach anything like their potential in a few centuries. Plant a tree if you must, but make a meadow if you can or persuade someone who manages grass to step back and appreciate that they manage a wonderful habitat, not a green carpet. With a little imagination we could be surrounded by meadows.

Coppicing, Snipe and Great Whites

A brilliant sunny day, not a great surprise to Blashford aficionados, is was Thursday and so volunteer day, (it almost never rains on a Thursday morning). The volunteers continued coppicing and using the brash to make a new dead hedge in the former Hanson plant site. This hedge should grow up with bramble and so provide valuable cover and habitat. The earth bank has steep south-facing slopes and these should be great for insects and hopefully also reptiles. Unfortunately I still have no firm date on the opening of the new path but at least the preparations are progressing well.

In the afternoon I was leading a winter bird walk, it is always good to get out on site and see some wildlife and this afternoon was glorious. We started at Tern hide with good views of water pipit and 3 snipe close to the hide.

snipe-2

one of three snipe feeding along the shore near the hide

A dead gull on the shore just east of the had attracted a crow which was tucking in, but very soon it was pushed off the prize by two buzzard, and two magpie also came down to see what they could snatch.

carrion-feeders

carrion feeders

A meal of meat is always welcome to these birds but in cold weather such as we are having now could make all the difference to these birds survival. It may seem a little gory, but nothing goes to waste.

Looking further out onto the lake we managed to miss the black-necked grebe that had been reported but did find a  female red-breasted merganser, these close relatives of the goosander are usually found on the coast and it is some years since there was one on the reserve. We also saw several of our regular goosander by way of comparison, these are larger and although the females are similar, the goosander have an overall cleaner look.

At the Woodland hide we saw a good range of the regular smaller birds, but the highlight was the water rail feeding in the pool under the alder carr just outside the hide, it gave wonderful views and seemed completely unconcerned by our watching it. After failing to see a bittern, we headed back to Tern hide and were rewarded with great views of a green sandpiper on the shore below the hide, it only flew off when a second came by.

When I went to lock up I saw a great white egret roosting in the trees on Ivy Lake from the Ivy North hide, “Walter” on his usual perch. By the time I got to Ivy South hide and looked across there were two! Presumably the second bird which has been using the area just north of the reserve had joined him, it will be interesting to see if they both roost there regularly.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 17

Definitely not the wildest day, I had to drive to the north-west of England and back. However the journey north took my past Oxford where, despite the rain I saw two red kite flying low over the road. Although they have quite wide range in Europe they do seem to do especially well in this country. I can remember seeing my first one, when they were one of our rarest breeding birds and confined to the uplands of mid-Wales. Like many people I associated them with the hills and high pastures, but they really thrive in productive lowland landscapes.

Red kite needed a helping hand to return to England in numbers, buzzard and raven made it unaided once there was a relaxation in persecution. The sight of a large(ish) bird of prey always adds a little “Wild” to any day. Perhaps one day we will have white-tailed eagle back on the south coast too, as they supposedly used to breed on the Isle of Wight. More realistically I feel sure we will eventually have breeding osprey, although at their present rate of spread I doubt I will see it!

Swallows and More

I was out early doing a breeding bird survey off-site this morning and when I arrived at Blashford it was to be told that I had just missed a red-rumped swallow. This Mediterranean nesting cousin of our familiar swallow occurs as a regular, but still rare, migrant at this time of year, some of them migrate north with a bit too much vigour and over-shoot their intended destinations. They usually turn up in flocks of swallows and martins at places like Ibsley Water, so it was something of a surprise that we had not got a reserve record before now. It was reported again about an hour later and I did see a bird that was supposed to be it, but I could not convince myself that it was and before I could get a better look it flew off. One that got away!

However there were lots of other birds, at least 850 mixed swallows and martins, I estimated about 400 sand martin, 250 swallow and 200 house martin. There were also at least 6 swift, although I was told there were many more. Scanning around I also saw a red kite, 2 raven, at least 8 little ringed plover in an aerial dash past the hide and lots of buzzard. On the ground I saw my first common sandpiper of the spring and a white wagtail.  In addition the first summer little gull was still there as were at least 6 common tern.

The main work recently seems to have been raft related. We are building a new set of tern rafts with money from a grant given by Hampshire Ornithological Society (HOS). A few days ago we launched the prototype before we get on with building the new fleet.

tern raft

Although the common tern are starting to arrive they won’t be getting down to nesting for a little while yet unlike the resident birds. In the last few days I have found nests of both blackbird and song thrush. The pictures show the differences between the two, the eggs of song thrush are clear blue with black spots, clearly distinct from the more muted colours of the blackbird eggs. You can also see the difference in the nests themselves. Blackbirds have a lining of grass whereas song thrush have a smooth render of mud that dries to a hard shell and no lining at all.

blackbird nest

song thrush nest

Blurry bittern and fuzzy buzzard

As Jim surmised in his posting, at least one bittern was seen  from both the North and South Ivy Lake hides yesterday.  One of these sightings was of a bird with a large tench, too large for it to swallow, which it carried  into the reeds outside the North hide, presumably to dismember and eat in peace (or pieces?).  The great white egret was spotted, briefly, from the same hide.  Also reported yesterday were a small flock of Brent geese on Ibsley Water, although not obviously there when I opened up this morning.

I was, however, lucky enough to see one of the bittern as it stalked the reed edges visible to the south of Ivy Lake. At first almost invisible to the naked eye, and even in binoculars, it emerged and wandered along in front of the reeds for at least an hour. Never one to pass up an opportunity to post, yet another, distant, dark and blurred image, this is what I saw..

Bittern lurking along reed edges to south of Ivy Lake

Bittern lurking along reed edges to south of Ivy Lake

Some lucky visitors also saw a water rail from the Ivy North hide.

But it’s not all about distant images of the more rare species.  One of the great perquisites*  of my job is being the first to see which birds are on parade immediately outside the hides when they are opened each morning.  Carefully opening the door and treading quietly, many birds are unaware of one’s presence and its possible to get reasonably close images with my modest camera.  Even though we have a large number of coot on the reserve, it’s not always possible to see them at close range.

P1460784 coot

One of the many coot outside the hide. Notice the slight pink flush to the bill a feature not always seen.

They are often followed by gadwall, a species for which the reserve has designated conservation status, as we have something like 1% of Britain’s wintering population here.  They have a similar diet to that of the coot, a liking for the plants that grow in the depths of the lakes.  Being dabbling ducks, they can’t dive to retrieve plant material, the lakes are quite deep,  the gadwall have learned that they can live quite well by scavenging the left-overs from the plants the coot bring up. So in a curious way it’s probably the presence of so many coot that allow the gadwall to survive the winter here in such numbers and give the reserve its conservation designation.

For the casual spectator,  gadwall can appear to be quite drab looking ‘grey’ ducks, but a close-up reveals some quite intricate patterning within the feathers, making them, for me, one of our most attractive waterfowl.

The subtle and intricate pattern of wavy markings (vermiculations) on the gadwall's plumage

The subtle and intricate pattern of wavy markings (vermiculations **) on the gadwall’s plumage

This image was taken through the glass in the hide window on a dull day and doesn’t do full justice to the splendour of these birds, but do try to look closely on a fine sunny day – absolutely stunning.

Across the reserve the numbers and range of birds are much as I reported last week.  Winter hasn’t really started to bite too deeply and the natural food supply allows  means many of the woodland birds are still able to resist the temptation of our well-stocked seed feeders.

One regular visitor to the Woodland Hide area, a buzzard,  is often only seen as (s)he flies through,  so I took the opportunity of grabbing an image of this bird perched on a branch nearby.

Buzzard, lurking near woodland hide.

Buzzard, lurking near woodland hide.

As you can see its yet another in my now famous series of slightly fuzzy pictures!!

*perquisite (perk) -‘an incidental benefit gained from a certain type of employment’  

**vermiculation – Wormlike marks or carvings, as in a mosaic or masonry.  

Words and Birds

Hello again.  It’s been a while (three weeks) since I posted on this blog, having been away and then, last week, after spending a time trimming back seed heads from buddleia to prevent them overrunning the reserve, and afterwards not feeling inspired enough to write anything.  I was berated, earlier this week,  by one of our regular volunteers and reader of the blog (you know who you are!!!) for not writing anything last Sunday, so I thought I’d better make an effort today.  Those of you who do any writing will probably recognise the problems of either  not feeling they have anything to say and/or struggling to find the words.     Along those lines,  I remember the tale of one professional writer who couldn’t think of a particular word for two weeks – but then it suddenly came to him….’fortnight’!!!

Having said all this, I guess most of you will want to read some news from Blashford, so here goes.

The bittern(s) is still in being seen regularly from Ivy South Hide, but has also been viewed, in its more usual habitat, in the reed beds outside Ivy North Hide. Whilst closing the reserve last Sunday,  I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this bird in the left hand side of the reeds, far off to the right side of the Ivy North Hide. As no one else has posted any pictures of this bird yet, I’ll start with this rather poor, distant image, taken in low light conditions ( getting all my excuses in first!!)  as evidence that the bird is here. P1460717 bittern Recent addition to the avifauna n the form of a ferruginous duck reported yesterday from Ivy South Hide. Otherwise the red-crested pochard is still around as are good numbers of many of the other ducks such as  mallard, shoveller, gadwall, wigeon, teal, pochard, goldeneye and tufted duck. A few green sandpiper  are scattered around the margins of the lakes.

For the gull fans (I know there are a few of you out there) up to nine yellow-legged gulls were seen coming in to roost on Ibsley Water yesterday.  Roost time can also produce increased numbers of goosander as they fly in from the Avon Valley to spend the night here.  Also in residence in and on the water, in roughly decreasing size order, we have mute swan, Canada goose, greylag goose, Egyptian goose, great-crested grebe, lapwing, coot, moorhen and little grebe. 

The alders are providing enough food to keep a regular flock of siskin in and around the Woodland Hide area.  This abundance of natural food means that many of the  winter visitors to our seed feeders haven’t yet put in much of an appearance although some lesser redpoll have been reported.  otherwise the usual collection of tit species including marsh tit as well as nuthatch and treecreeper are being seen from the Woodland Hide.  A water rail was seen, by some lucky visitors,  feeding on a fish (the rail feeding, not the visitor!), just outside the Ivy South Hide for about twenty minutes in the mid-afternoon.

A party from an RSPB local group have chosen Blashford for a day trip. One of the party reported seeing a large bird of prey flying low over the heath and going into the trees, from the description one of ‘our’ buzzards.

To finish here is a picture of what must be one of but maybe not the last ‘summer’ flowers to be seen on the reserve

red campion

red campion

Life on the Edge

With the cooler weather starting to bite, quite a number of visitors have been seeking temporary refuge at the Center to warm themselves with a beverage from our excellent range available from the coffee machine.   (end of advertisement).

Elsewhere the wildfowl have taken to loafing on the ice sheets around the edges of the lakes rather than bobbing around on the water, it seems they prefer a firm place to stand but with the option of being able to quickly slip into the water if danger threatens.

P1380894

Teal and wigeon on the ice shelf

Overall there is a nice diversity of different species including teal, wigeon, pochard, shoveler, tufted duck and gadwall out on Ivy Lake, providing a majestic spectacle of wildlife behaviour and an opportunity to hone some identification skills.

The woodland hide is now buzzing with plenty of our tit and finch species, including siskin and good numbers of redpoll and a decent smattering of brambling , in with the numerous chaffinches.  An added feature today was the gradual appearance of a mole hill being thrown up a foot or so from the base of one of the feeder supports.  Now getting to be an almost regular feature of the  Woodland Hide area a buzzard cruised through the open(ish) area to the left of the hide.

Last Saturday we put out some feeders in an area close to the Dockens Water to encourage the birds, especially finches and tits, into this woodland area in advance of the local bird Ringers putting out their mist nets early in the New Year. 

P1380866

Readers of  early wildlife writers may be familiar with their allusion to what we would now call families and species of animals in terms such as ‘tribes‘ or ‘nations’ . Those of you who   have read my previous postings will know I have a penchant for word play and I was briefly tempted to post an entry last saturday entitled ‘Feeders put out to tempt nation’  — which has an almost familiar ring to it —-but thought better of it!!!!

.