Autumn Flight

Definitely feeling autumnal now, with the evenings getting rapidly earlier and a generally cooler and windier feel to the weather. There are still signs of summer when the sun comes out, dragonflies such as migrant and southern hawker and common darter are still out and about as are a fair few butterflies. This peacock, looking so fresh that I wonder if it was a second generation individual, was feeding on Inula hookerii beside the Centre a couple of days ago.

A very fresh peacock

Peacock butterflies over-winter as adults and emerge in spring to mate and lay eggs, sometimes they survive well into mid-summer, the caterpillars then feed up and pupate and a new generations hatches from July and after feeding up hibernates. However in very warm years they sometimes lay eggs and produce a summer brood as small tortoiseshell and comma do.

There are also lots of speckled wood around at present, these follow a quite different strategy, having several broods from early spring until late autumn. They are one of the only butterflies that can be seen in every week from late March to the end of October as the generations overlap.

speckled wood

There are a fair few autumnal moth species, some of which also overwinter as adults, one of these is the brick.

brick

Some others fly only in the autumn and over-winter as eggs, one of these is the magnificent merveille du jour, one of my favourite moths, not rare, just very splendid.

Other autumn species include deep-brown dart,

deep brown dart

and brown-spot pinion.

brown-spot pinion

We are still waiting for a Clifden nonpareil, perhaps oddly we have yet to catch one this year, despite the fact that they seem to be having one of their best years in living memory, with individuals turning up widely across the country.

A Couple of Days in the Garden

I made the most of the weekend sunshine and spent some time in my garden, now with a refurbished pond. Refurbished in that it now actually holds water, it had been reduced to an ephemeral pond at best, an interesting habitat, but perhaps not the most appealing in a garden. On Sunday I decided to use the last of the rainwater stored in the water butt to top up the pond, trusting in the forecast rain to replenish the store. I was almost instantly rewarded with the appearance of a female broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, perching near the pond and then dipping her abdomen into the water as she laid some eggs.

broad-bordered chaser 4x3

broad-bodied chaser (female)

A little later there were two, chasing each other around between bouts of egg-laying and resting up in the sun. I also saw large red damselfly and common blue damselfly in the garden, making three Odonata in the garden before the end of April.

It was a weekend for egg-laying insects I watched, but failed to photograph successfully, an orange-tip laying on the garlic mustard and a holly blue laying on alder buckthorn.

holly blue 4x3

holly blue female

I had not known that holly blue would lay on alder buckthorn, although I did know they used a good deal more species than just the traditional holly and ivy. Laying on my rather small alder buckthorn also puts the caterpillars in direct competition with the brimstone caterpillars when they hatch in a few days after being laid last week.

brimstone egg-laying

brimstone egg-laying

The early rush of butterflies was dominated by brimstone and peacock especially, with fewer comma and small tortoiseshell. Perhaps because of the very good weather these species seem to have declined rapidly an dare now being replaced by the whites  and the first of the arriving red admiral. Small white and green-veined white are residents and typically pick up in numbers during April.

IMG_9640-002

green-veined white (male)

Large white are resident in rather small numbers but bolstered by, sometimes very large, arrivals of migrants.

large white

large white (female)

There is a bit of a race on at the moment to see who can add the next new butterfly species to the UK list. One thing is pretty certain it is going to happen and probably not very long away, in fact it may well already be here. The species is the southern small white, it has expanded from southern Europe over recent years all the way to the channel coast, under 30 miles away. The difficulty is that it is quiet similar to our regular small white, so if you want to make a name for yourself look up the differences, keep your camera handy in the garden and plant candytuft. Why candytuft? Because it is the preferred caterpillar foodplant of the southern small white. It could be you, especially if you live on the south coast, the Isle of Wight has to be a likely location, if someone in Kent does not get in first!

I will end on a picture of the most dramatic plant in my garden, the giant viper’s bugloss Echium pininana which as it starts to flower becomes a tower of bees as the flowers shoot 3 to 4m or more into the air.

Echium 4x3

giant viper’s bugloss

I have, of course been recording the species I have seen in the garden and uploading the data to the many citizen science recording schemes, something we can all do for everything from butterflies to earthworms.

 

Close to Home

Very, very close, in the garden in fact, but still full of wildlife. I saw three species of butterfly, with brimstone and peacock leading the way, but with my first comma in the garden this year as well. A pair of peacock were courting by the fast declining pond, it has a leak! I took some video, but unfortunately I cannot upload that here, but it may turn up elsewhere.

My mini-meadow is starting to look good, not much flowering, but a few things nearly there, but lots of seedlings coming up. The yellow rattle seedlings that first showed last week are coming up thick and fast.

yellow rattle 4x3

yellow rattle

I did not get on very well with the camera or in finding many ants, these were my main objective today, strange how there are lots about until you start looking for them!

Other firsts for the year included a very smart gorse shieldbug, one of the more brightly coloured species and it can be found on a lot more plants than just gorse.

gorse shieldbug 4x3

gorse shieldbug

As a fully paid-up member of The Self-isolating Bird Club (thankfully it is free), I also recorded any birds I could. You can follow the SIBC on Twitter @SIBirdClub, I recorded all the birds I could see and hear whilst having lunch in the garden, 30 minutes and I recorded 15 species, 2 lesser black-backed gull were unusual, but I suspect they were a pair from nearby as they flew up to harass 4 passing buzzard. I will try again tomorrow, although it sounds rather cooler, so I may need extra layers.

Strange Days

In fact probably the strangest we have ever known. We are now winding down to the minimum work aimed at maintaining health and safety and looking after livestock. The first remains important whilst there are still people allowed to walk around the sites and the latter is just essential. Luckily I have no livestock at Blashford, but we do still have a trickle of visitors. I would certainly not encourage anyone to visit but with paths that allow open access we will still have people on site, unless all going out is banned.

With spring now more or less sprung it is time once again to assess the state of our ash trees to see how ash die-back is hitting them. It is already apparent that some have completely died since the autumn and many others are in serious decline. In some areas it is possible that paths may not be able to reopen even if the Covid emergency passes, as there is likely to be a considerable amount of further felling needed and some roadside trees may need dealing with very soon. Luckily these assessments can be made by a single person so I can work and maintain isolation.

There are still surprisingly large numbers of wildfowl around, probably over 1500, a lot for the time of year. The water levels are dropping ever so slowly and I found a pair of pintail perched on a newly exposed wooded rail, alongside them was the long-tailed duck, without the long tail and perhaps envying the drake pintail his splendid feathers.

pintail and long-tail 4x3

pintail and long-tail

The sunshine has brought out butterflies in number and I have seen lots of brimstone and peacock, with a few comma and pleasingly several small tortoiseshell, maybe  a welcome return to their former status is in the offing. With all surveys now cancelled this year we will not have the butterfly transect data to know for sure.

small tortoiseshell pair

small tortoiseshell pair

I hope to continue blogging from the reserve for as long as I can, although I am conscious that this may just highlight what most people are missing. It is very odd to be out on such a sunny  day and see almost nobody, it makes me feel guilty with so many at home.

Woodwork and wandering

The weather last week resulted in two very different Wild Days Out, with Tuesday very wet and soggy and not the best conditions for wildlife watching although we did still manage a trip to the hides and a walk in search of wasp spiders, and the Wednesday much warmer and brighter.

On Tuesday we swapped wildlife watching for some making, made possible with a small group and limited only by the children’s imagination, the materials we could lay our hands on and the woodwork skills of volunteers Chris and Lucy and myself. The group did keep us on our toes! But the focus and determination that went into the making was fabulous, we started with a bit of wand making then this progressed into making paints from blackberries, charcoal and clay, bug homes, a willow snail and a sword and a shield.

And there was definitely time to play at the end, especially when they found a toad!

Playing

With very different weather on the Wednesday, we headed off to the lichen heath in search of wasp spiders, munched a few wild strawberries and blackberries then made our way to Goosander Hide to see what we could spot.

Unfortunately we didn’t manage to spot any adders, but on our way back we did see a number of butterflies enjoying the sunnier weather:

There were also plenty of butterflies and other insects enjoying the flowers by the pond at lunchtime:

We also spent a bit of time enjoying the new sand pit, tunnel and stepping stones:

After lunch we rummaged through the moth trap, with the highlights including a stunning Elephant hawk-moth, a Poplar hawk-moth and a Canary-shouldered thorn:

We then headed off on the ‘Wild Walk‘, keeping our fingers crossed for grass snakes and we were not disappointed, spotting six altogether either on the branches in Ivy Silt Pond or outside the front of Ivy South Hide: 

We carried on along the sculpture trail then headed down to the river to finish with a paddle and some rush boat racing:

We still have some spaces available on our summer Wild Days Out and details on how to book can be found on our website.

30 Days Wild – Day 5 – A Smashing Time in the Garden

By way of contrast with my wanderings yesterday, today I was mainly in my garden. The highlight of the day was a summer generation small tortoiseshell, my first and I think a rather early date for one. Small tortoiseshell hibernate as adults like peacock butterflies, both emerge in spring, mate and lay eggs. The small tortoiseshell develop quickly and a new generation of adults hatch in summer to lay more eggs which will result in adults that emerge in early autumn and then hibernate until the following spring. Peacock, by contrast have just one generation and when the new adults emerge in July they will survive all the way until the following spring, occasionally some of the over-wintering generation are still on the wing when the first of the new generation emerge. The comma has a similar strategy to the small tortoiseshell. It should also be added that this story only holds in southern Britain, head up to Scotland and both small tortoiseshell and peacock are single brooded.

I totally failed to get any pictures of the butterfly but I did manage to get one of a soldierfly in the mini-meadow. It was the common Chloromyia formosa, a shining green species that can be seen sitting around, sunning itself on leaves in grassy areas.

Chloromyia formosa

Chloromyia formosa

Something of a feature today was the frequent tapping sound of a song thrush smashing snails against various hard surfaces in the garden. The recent dry weather has made finding their preferred earthworms very difficult, so they eat snails, but there is the problem of getting them out of their shell. Beating them against a rock or the wooden edge of the raised vegetable bed.

snail shell smashed

Garden snail shell broken open by a song thrush

Open Again

The Tern Hide will be open again today, although there are still some access restrictions elsewhere on the reserve, where works continue, please take note of any signs as works are changing day by day as they are completed. That said all the hides are open, as is the Centre.

The last few days have been as hectic as have many over the last few weeks, although thankfully we are firmly on the home stretch now. Despite a degree of chaos spring is definitely moving along apace.

Chiffchaff and blackcap are now present in good numbers and we have also have the first reed warbler and willow warbler on the reserve. Over Ibsley Water large numbers of sand martin, house martin and swallow have been gathering and some sand martin are now visiting the nesting wall. There have also been migrants passing through, the week has been characterised by a significant movement of little gull, with up to 12 over Ibsley Water at times, on their way to breeding areas around the Baltic Sea.

little gull

one of the adult little gull over Ibsley Water

A proportion of the swallows and martins will be moving on as will be the splendid male yellow wagtail that was seen on Thursday.

Insect numbers are increasing also with many more butterflies around.

comma

comma, one of the species that over-winters as an adult

As well as the species that hibernate as adults there are also lots of spring hatching species too, particularly speckled wood and orange-tip.

orange-tip

male orange-tip

The nights, although rather cool have more moths now, on Friday morning the highlight in the moth trap was the first great prominent of the year.

great prominent

great prominent

Earlier in the week a red sword-grass was a notable capture, possibly a migrant but also perhaps from the nearby New Forest which is one of the few areas in southern England with a significant population.

red swordgrass

red sword-grass

I have also seem my first tree bumble-bee of the year, a queen searching for a nest site, this species only colonised the UK in the last 20 years, but is now common across large areas.

tree bumble bee

tree bumble-bee queen searching for a nest site

Of course all the while resident species are starting to nest, blue tit and great tit are starting to lay eggs and I have seen my first song thrush fledgling of the year. Out on Ibsley Water lapwing and little ringed plover are displaying, truly spring has arrived at Blashford Lakes.

lapwing male

male lapwing

Oh, to Bee in England…

As though to emphasise the change in season today was one of those rare days when it was possible to see both brambling and swift at Blashford Lakes an opportunity that lasts for only a few days.  When I started birdwatching in the Midlands our equivalent was seeing fieldfare and swallow in the same place, on the same day. The brambling were at least 2 males at the feeders and the swift at least 14 over Ibsley Water.

Despite the remaining reminders of winter it felt very spring-like, with orange-tip, green-veined and small white, comma, peacock, brimstone, holly blue and several speckled wood butterflies seen, along with the year’s first damselfly, the large red.

After last night’s thunder storm I was not surprised that the moth trap was not over-filled with moths, although the catch did include a lesser swallow prominent, a pale prominent and a scarce prominent, the last a new reserve record, I think.

The warm weather has encouraged a lot of insects out, I saw my first dark bush cricket nymph of the year near the Centre pond. Nearby I also saw my first dotted bee-fly, this species used to be quite scarce but can now be seen widely around the reserve, although it is well outnumbered by the commoner dark-bordered bee-fly.

dark bush cricket nymph

dark bush cricket nymph

The wild daffodil are now well and truly over but the bluebell are just coming out.

bluebell

bluebell

A lot of trees are in flower now or are shortly to be, the large elm on the way to Tern hide is still covered in flower though.

elm flowers

elm flower

Trees are a valuable source of food for a lot of insects and the find of the day was a species that makes good use of tree pollen. I had spotted what I at first thought were some nesting ashy mining bees Andrena cineraria, but they did not look right. That species has a dark band over the thorax and black leg hairs. This one had white hairs on the back legs and no dark thorax band. I took some pictures and it turns out to be grey-backed mining bee Andrena vaga, until very recently a very rare species in the UK which seems to now be colonising new areas.

grey-backed mining bee 2

grey-backed mining bee

They make tunnelled nests in dry soil and provision them with pollen from willows for the larvae.

greybacked mining bee

grey-backed mining bee with a load of pollen

The same area of ground also had several other mining bees, including the perhaps the most frequent early spring species, the yellow-legged mining bee.

yellow-legged mining bee 2

yellow-legged mining bee (female)

 

Garganey!

When I opened up the Tern hide this morning I was greeted by the sight of a pair of garganey feeding just to the right of the hide. It is always a treat to see these small ducks, our only duck species that visits for the summer having wintered in Africa. They used to be called “Cricket teal” after the call of the drake, or “Summer teal” because they are about the size of a teal and come here for the summer. The only other notable birds was a another common tern, at present they seem to be adding one a day.

Later in the morning I was amazed to hear that there were now 7 garganey on Ibsley Water, some years we don’t even record a single one, clearly there had been a significant arrival of these ducks.

It has been much more spring-like in the last two days and there have been lots of butterflies seen, including brimstone, peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma in some numbers. Adder have been spotting basking by the paths north of Ellingham Drove and the great tit are nest building in earnest. Perhaps spring has finally arrived.

common dog violet

common dog violet, one of the real signs of spring.

A Lull

The last few days have been quiet, we are in an interim period, almost all the summer visitors and migrants have gone, but as yet, most of the wintering birds have yet to arrive. This reflected in this week’s sightings, a few chiffchaff remain, especially around the main car park. A juvenile ruff dropped into Ibsley Water for a day, but there are still only a few tens of wigeon around.

This does not mean there has been nothing to see though. Opening up Tern hide this week I have twice seen an adult peregrine perched on the small shingle island near the hide.

peregrine

adult peregrine

peregrine stretch

peregrine, stretching before heading off

During the day on Friday the two New Forest National Park apprentices paid us a visit, they will be working at Blashford for three months from November. As it was their first visit we took a look around the reserve to see some of the areas they will be working in. The sun was out and it was remarkably warm, along the way we saw lots of butterflies, at one spot on the Dockens Water path we could see 4 red admiral, 5 speckled wood and a comma and we saw many more elsewhere along with a single peacock. There were also a few reptiles, including this very small adder, proof that they have bred successfully on the reserve again this year.

young adder

“adderling”

Our best sighting though was when we visited the Tern hide, there was very little to see as all there attested and the lake looked at best sparsely dotted with birds. However I glanced at the shingle just in front of the hide and realised that with the couple of meadow pipit strolling around was a woodlark, my best views ever of this species.

I will end with a plea, at this time of year rats will be spreading out looking for a good place to winter, something we do not want them to do on the reserve if we can avoid it. To this end we try not to have food lying on the ground during the autumn, we only ground feed in the late winter. Recently I have found a number of piles of bird food on logs and seats, or just on the ground as I have been going to lock up at the end of the day. This shows that the birds are not eating it, so it will be consumed by rodents overnight, potentially by rats. If any rats find enough food for them to decide to settle with us we will be unable to ground feed in the late winter when the finches are at their best. So my plea is for visitors to please not leave bird food around the reserve where rats and rodents can get to it.