A Fine Day on the Reserve

Thursday dawned calm and slightly misty with a promise of sunshine to come.

Misty morning at Ivy North

Early morning over Ivy Lake

I am not sure if they were doing the Wildlife Trust’s 7 Days of Wild Christmas, checkout #7DaysofWildChristmas for more on this, but there were lots of visitors on the reserve on Wednesday and they certainly saw a lot of wildlife.

From Ivy North hide the bittern was seen by most who were willing to spend a little time looking and some had excellent views. The picture below was sent in by John Parr after he took it on Saturday from Ivy North hide.

Bittern by John Parr

Bittern by John Parr

As well as the bittern, water rail and Cetti’s warbler were also frequently on show from Ivy North hide. Further out on Ivy Lake a good variety of ducks were on view, there remains an unusually large number of pochard around, with up to 100 on Ivy Lake alone at times. At dusk a single great white egret roosted in the trees.

At the Woodland hide the usual common woodland birds have now been joined by a few reed bunting, attracted by the seed spread on the ground, we have still yet to see any brambling though.

On Ibsley Water the flock of linnet was again feeding on the shore near Tern hide whilst out on the lake up to a dozen goldeneye, over 40 pintail, 200 or so wigeon and the single black-necked grebe. In the late afternoon the gull roost included a Caspian gull, but there was still no sign fop the ring-billed gull, which looks increasingly likely to have moved on somewhere.

As it was Thursday there was a volunteer task on the reserve and six volunteers joined me in doing some willow scrub clearance and pollarding in the reedbed area between Goosander and Lapwing hides. The area is a former silt pond and had grown up with a very uniform cover of closely spaced and rather weakly growing willows, not a habitat with great wildlife value. By opening up clearings and making pollards of the stronger growing willows we can diversify the habitat, making it suitable for a much wider range of wildlife. In particular the open clearings have proved very popular with the areas strong adder population.

The mild weather continues and there are signs of this all around the reserve. On the path to Ivy North hide I found a red campion still in flower.

red campion flower

red campion in flower

Nearby the leaves of lord’s and ladies are well up through the leaf litter.

lords and ladies

lords and ladies

Near the Centre there are patches of speedwell in the gravel and many are in flower.

speedwell

speedwell

The mild conditions, along with the damp conditions are proving good for fungi, with many particularly small species to be found if you look closely. One of the commonest species on well rotted wet logs is the candle snuff fungus.

candle snuff

candle snuff

 

 

It’s a Small World

Boxing Day was quite busy at Blashford, with a fair few visitors on the reserve, most who were prepared to spend the time waiting saw the bittern at Ivy North hide. Whilst they waited good views were to be had of water rail and Cetti’s warbler.

From the hides on Ibsley Water the black-necked grebe could be distantly seen along with at least two water pipit and near Tern hide, at least 85 linnet. An adult female marsh harrier crossed over the lake a few times and a sparrowhawk was seen trying to hunt the small starling roost int he late afternoon. The starling roost has evidently relocated having dropped from tens of thousands to a few hundred. I could also find no sign of any great white egret, even at dusk when I looked at the usual roost site, none could be found.

linnets

Part of the linnet flock on the shore beside Tern hide, there are lots of them but they are hard to pick out!

I had a look through the gull roost and there were good numbers of lesser black-backed gull and black-headed gull, but only 14 common gull, two yellow-legged gull and no sign of the ring-billed gull or Caspian gull. Obviously I could not check all the gulls present but conditions were very good, so I was disappointed not to find either species.

Away from the birds I came across an oak branch with a remarkable habitat growing across it, just one branch had it’s own forest of lichen, moss and fungi, small in scale but extraordinary.

lichens

lichen and moss on oak branch

lichen and moss 2

More lichen and moss

hair lichen

hair-like lichen

fungus

A small fungus (I think)

It might be only just after Christmas, but signs of spring were to be found. I saw snowdrops pushing through the ground and the hazel catkins are opening.

hazel catkins

hazel catkins

I also heard singing mistle thrush and great tit as well as the year round singers like robin and Cetti’s warbler.

Twice Bittern

There was no repeat of yesterday’s eagle excitement at Blashford, although news that it was seen up at Picket Post, just outside Ringwood and left flying south-west offers hope for Dorset birders. Hampshire misses out on rarities compared to both Sussex and Dorset, but white-tailed eagle is one of the rare exceptions as the county has had three in recent times.

However the better weather did bring out a lot more people and the reserve was quiet busy. The star of the day was the bittern at Ivy North hide which gave good views from time to time and was photographed catching a good sized rudd. I narrowly missed seeing it though but all was not lost, as you will see later.

The rain has resulted in some flooding in the Avon Valley and this has resulted in an increase in wildfowl numbers as they come inland to exploit new feeding areas. This is especially true of wigeon and pintail, the latter had increase to 36 this morning and I suspect there will be a good few more if it keeps raining. It is also likely that black-tailed godwit will start to appear, in major flood events there can be over 3000, I assume coming up from Poole Harbour and the Solent coast. My personal highlight of the morning was a count of at least 92 linnet beside Tern hide, a very respectable flock and a record count for the reserve.

My afternoon was mainly spent at Fishlake Meadows putting in a new sign at the car park, which should be open very soon, but watch this space for details…… Jo had been leading a work party there with the intention of doing some more willow cutting, but there is now so much water that it would be necessary to wade out to the trees!

I had time to take a quick walk round just before it got dark, it is an amazing place to have right on the edge of town, or indeed anywhere, a truly impressive habitat. Ashley Meadow was looking good and living up to its billing as “wet meadow”.

Ashley Meadow flooded

Ashley Meadow, looking a little damp!

The north/south path is still passable, but I would suggest wellies if you are planning to visit.

Fishlake north south path flooding

north/south path with some flooding

I walked down to the screens, where there was not a lot to see but it was very noisy, with several squealing water rail and explosive Cetti’s warbler.

Looking out form the screen Fishlake

Looking south from the screen

As I set off on my return an adult peregrine flew low overhead and then a brown shape flew up from the reeds to my right and flew passed me, a bittern! I was far to slow to get a picture, but it was a great view.

As I walked back to the car a rush of wings signalled a flight of starling overhead the first of several groups, probably totalling a few thousand, but they mostly dropped straight down into the roost and there was only one brief communal wheel about.

Dec 17th – Mist & Missed (again)

The wet ground combined with a cold dawn to give a misty morning with frost in the hollows and ice on the puddles. Opening Tern hide it was good to see the linnet flock still present, although I could only count 57 today. Out on the water 14 pintail were the most I have seen so far this winter.

frosty morning

The misty, cold approach to Ivy North hide

At Ivy North I saw two great white egret stalking the shallows for an early morning snack and heard a Cetti’s warbler.

Leaving the hide I found some funnel fungi covered in frost. I think they might be Clitocybe sinopica but I am very far from certain.

Funnel

funnel fungus

It was a morning of odd jobs and on my way back from blowing the debris off the boardwalk I was told of a cattle egret at the Ivy North hide. I still have not seen one of these on the reserve despite multiple sightings of up to three this year, so I went to take a look. Unsurprisingly it had gone, just one little egret was on show with a fly past by the great white egret, two out of three but I had missed again! At least I did spot the bittern in the reedmace.

My afternoon was spent in a meeting in the main office, on the way I passed the crowd of people in a lay-by by the A31 armed with telescopes and binoculars, I suspect looking at the white- tailed eagle, but no time to stop so, missed again!

By the time I returned it was dark and my only birds on locking up were grey heron and mandarin heard calling at Ivy Silt Pond.

15th Dec – Rain

A wet day from start to finish making getting around the reserve unpleasant and seeing wildlife difficult. It was no surprise that there were few visitors, but those that did venture out could still see something.

Ibsley Water: Water pipit at least 2 and probably 3, but as usual scattered around the lake shore. The single black-necked grebe was along the north-western shore of the lake, but lost to view in the heavier rain. Otherwise the continue to be more pochard than usual, over 60 sheltering in the south-west corner of the lake, three drake pintail did circuits of the lake all day and there were a few wigeon, shoveler and teal about. Close to Tern hide three snipe were feeding on the shore and at least 70 linnet were picking seeds from amongst the gravel.

Ivy Lake: A single great white egret was present in the morning and at dusk two were roosting, unsurprisingly the bittern was not seen and other birds of interest were confined to hearing Cetti’s warbler and water rail.

News has dribbled out of a white-tailed eagle not far from the reserve in the New Forest, these eagles often frequent wetlands so it is certainly worth keeping an eye out, no doubt it will cause a stir should it drift our way!

Damp Days

The long, hot summer seems an age away now, with most days dominated by drizzle (Friday excepted). It is still very mild, but the combination of damp and mildness makes for difficult working conditions. Winter work on the reserve is mostly fairly heavy, with lots of protective clothing and machinery, things that do not go well with mild damp weather. Despite this we have been busy with the volunteers clearing sites and generally preparing for the planned updates to the reserve. Alongside this there is still the usual maintenance to be done and today I was out with the team repairing the boardwalk and trimming back the path sides.

The Pop-up Cafe was in the Centre again today, sadly things were rather quiet, probably a result of the poor weather, the cakes were as good as ever, if you missed them, they will be back on the 16th of December and New Year’s Day with more.

Out on the reserve things seem fairly quiet, I say this but there was quiet a lot to see. On Ibsley Water there was a black-necked grebe, 2 dunlin, green sandpiper, a variety of duck including pintail, wigeon, pochard, goosander, goldeneye and at dusk the gull roost and starling murmuration. I just missed seeing a peregrine take a drake pochard, I would have thought rather a bulky prey item for this falcon. Other birds today included red kite, chiffchaff, Cetti’s warbler and at dusk on Ivy Lake three roosting great white egret, all in all not bad for a “quiet day”!

 

Advance Notice

On Sunday we are running a training course on the identification of gulls at Blashford, this will mean that the Tern, Goosander and Lapwing hides will be in use by groups on the course from mid afternoon, so if you are visiting on Sunday and not on the course you might want to visit these hides in the morning or early afternoon instead.

I am sometimes asked for an advised route around the reserve and although the “best” route is always a matter of circumstances on the day there are some general rules that hold true. So Ivy North hide faces south-east, this makes it difficult on a sunny morning, Ivy South faces east and likewise difficult early on in sunshine, so both of these are probably best in the afternoon. The Woodland hide is less of an issue, although the light is best here in the afternoon also. The Tern hide faces north so is pretty good all day. Goosander hide faces north west, so is at its best in the morning and the same is true of Lapwing hide, which faces almost due west, so is very hard work on a sunny afternoon.

The above obviously is only a choice dictated by the direction of the light, there are other factors too of course. Wind direction can be important, most birds will seek shelter and this needs to be considered. In a strong northerly, Tern hide will be both a long way from the birds sheltering under the northern shore of Ibsley Water, nearly a kilometre away and if you open the window you will be looking into the teeth of the wind! By contrast the northern end of Ivy Lake near Ivy North hide will be sheltered and with luck full of birds.

Then there is what you want to see, not a problem if you just want to see a range of birds, being guided by the weather and lighting will probably be the best option. There are some obvious rules, the birds that gather to roost will only be doing so at the end of the day and you will need to be in the right place to see them. The gulls roost on Ibsley Water is well known and is the attraction for the identification course. Ibsley also hosts a roost gathering of goosander, which mainly roost in the bay at Goosander hide, although they are usually only there in the minutes just before darkness. They fly in from all directions but can often be best seen doing so from the bank at the back of the main car park, which is also the best place to view the starling murmuration and get an overview of the gull roost. If it is great white egret you want to see then Ivy North at the end of the day is the place, recently there have been three there each evening, there is also a cormorant roost in the trees here.

By contrast if you are looking for finches, don’t leave it too late, they tend to get up late and go to bed early, the Woodland hide feeders will be busy with tits from dawn ’til dusk but the finches tend to turn up in the middle part of the morning and are often heading off to roost not long after 3:00 pm in the winter.

Some species are more obvious at certain times of the day, birds of prey will soar around mainly during the middle part of the day when the ground has warmed to aid this kind of flight by causing upward air currents. Water rail and Cetti’s warbler are usually far more vocal around dusk. Pochard tend to feed at night and roost during the day, whereas tufted duck are typically the reverse, feeding in the day and roosting at night.

So if planning a birding trip consider the conditions on the day and what you are most keen to see and you should get the most out of your visit. The above is just about Blashford Lakes, but every destination will have a range of factors that will be at play. Wherever you go it always pays to be lucky of course, but to some degree you can make your own luck by making good decisions about how you go about your visit.

 

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.

Being a Responsible Consumer

I visited Fishlake Meadows first thing this morning, the sedge and reed warblers were singing as were cuckoo, cetti’s warbler, blackcap and garden warbler along with much, much more. The sheer abundance of birdlife was wonderful to experience. I was delighted to meet a few others , also out to enjoy this wonderful site.

As many will know Fishlake has recently been added to the Wildlife Trust list of reserves following many years of abandonment, during which time the area changed from agricultural land into a fabulous wetland. It is probably fair to say that there was something of a free for all on the site for a few years with reports of shooting, unlicenced angling and various other activities. These all had an impact upon the wildlife that could use the area, meaning that some species stayed and others did not. One of the functions of the new nature reserve is to improve the access and opportunities to see wildlife, whilst also reducing disturbance.

Fishlake from canal path

A view across Fishlake Meadows from the Barge Canal path.

Being a formal reserve means that there is the chance to make improvements for visitors and manage the habitat so as to maintain the most interesting and rarest elements. This will inevitably lead to an increase in visitors and the need to control access, both for the sake of the wildlife and the visitors.

Access to nature is increasingly being recognised as of great value to human wellbeing, but we need to be aware that this access is not without cost to the nature. However careful we are every visit to see wildlife will have an impact, at this time of year we will not avoid disturbing nesting birds, even if briefly as we walk by and this is but one example. This applies at least as much to dedicated wildlife watchers as the general public. In fact keen watchers of wildlife can be the worst offenders, putting a desire to see or photograph something above its welfare. Worst of all the desire to get close often applies most to the rarest species, the very ones that should be given the greatest space.

Some bird species are afforded special protection (under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) when nesting or potentially nesting, meaning that it is actually an offence to disturb them or photograph them where they might be breeding. I have been asked a number of times recently where people can go to photograph kingfisher, my answer at present is probably nowhere. Kingfisher are one of these special protected species and photographing them near a nest without a licence is illegal, in fact it is a criminal offence. It is far better to wait until late summer when the young are independent. There are many such protected species, including some that might surprise a lot of people, such as Cetti’s warbler and barn owl. Many of us carry cameras now and the temptation to get a shot of one of these when we should not is great. There are lots of great pictures of them and our desire just puts the birds under stress and at increased risk, there is no right to get a picture, or even a “better” view. The Rare Bird Alert website has a very useful page on this subject photographing schedule 1 birds

Sadly recent incidents at several Trust reserves have seen people straying into protected areas or just too close to rare species to get that slightly better view or picture. Some birds that might have nested have left as a result and some other commoner species have suffered as “collateral damage” in this quest.

For wildlife to survive on our crowded island we need to learn to live alongside it, to give it necessary space and not to treat it as a consumable to be used up for our amusement. This is what those that go too close are doing, they are using up our wildlife for personal gratification. We cannot avoid having an impact, but we can make it as small as possible,  if we acknowledge this fact and take responsibility for it and we might have a a richer wildlife experience that everyone can all enjoy.

 

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.