30 Days Wild – Day 29 – Almost there!

When I met Tracy at Blashford she mentioned a large wasp nest that had been made at the Tern Hide, so when I went over there on my site check I took a look. I am not sure how I had missed it before.

wasp nest 2

wasp nest

The nests are made of chewed up wood pulp, essentially paper and the hides are often a favourite source, the sound of scraping wasp jaws is one that summer hide visitors will know well. If the hide were open this nest would be a problem as it is very near the door, but as it is not and I doubt it will be anytime soon, I think I can leave it alone.

Returning to the Centre a visitor then told me of another wasp nest, this time under a sign near the car park.

wasp nest 1

another wasp nest – 2 in one day

This one will need to be avoided as it is under the sign and not obvious so easy to inadvertently get very close to. We have put out a sign and I will fix up a temporary fence to keep people at a safe distance.

We have several species of social wasps in the UK, I am pretty sure that both of these nests are the same species though, the common wasp Vespula vulgaris.

I went down to check on the common tern rafts and am pleased to say they are still doing well, with lots of fast growing chicks making good use of the shelters.

terns raft and chicks

tern raft and chicks

It is not a great picture, but you can see the chicks, especially grouped around the left hand shelter. There is a good way to go yet,  but this is great progress in a season when I had feared I would get no rafts out for them.

30 Days Wild – Day 27

A very different day, windy and quite wet at times with heavy showers, especially in the morning,. Despite this the moth catch was still reasonable, although nothing like yesterday’s. There were several species caught for the first time this year such as slender brindle, dingy footman, black arches, blue-bordered carpet and European corn borer. There were also several extra micro moths such as pine shoot moth,

pine shoot moth

pine shoot moth

and Zeiraphera isertana.

Zeiraphera isertana

Zeiraphera isertana

However the top prize for “Catch of the Day” went to a soldierfly, Oxycera rara.

Oxycera rara 4x3

Oxycera rara

Perhaps blown in by the windy weather, a young, second calendar year little gull was over Ibsley Water. At the Centre a hobby flew over and there was a grey wagtail around the ponds. The common tern colony on the rafts on Ivy Lake is still going strong, with the chicks growing fast and lots of pairs with all three chick still surviving. The wind can be a problem for chicks when they are first trying to fly, lifting them off the rafts prematurely, luckily they are not that well grown yet. However strong winds can make it much harder for the adults to catch the fish they need to feed the chicks, resulting in poorer growth, or at worst, starvation. The next couple of weeks will see how they have fared.

30 Days Wild – Day 18

Day 18 was the day the rain came to Blashford, now that we are open, at least in a limited way, it also brought a few visitors, although not many. The rain is welcome after a very long dry spell, but it is unfortunate that it has come just as we reopen.

rain

rain

Planning for how we are able to carry on providing environmental education and safe access to wildlife continues. At present with 2 metres distancing things are very difficult, especially as our paths are under 2m wide, which is why we have a one-way system on the path network.

On Ivy Lake the mute swan pair hatched three cygnets and while ago, the swans that have nested there in recent years have proved very bad at rearing their young, so I did not hold out much hope they would survive. However, although there is  along way to go, they are still alive and thriving.

swan and cygnets

swan and cygnets

I am also delighted to say that the common tern on the raft are still going strong, most, possibly all, have now hatched their chicks and they are sometimes being left alone in groups when their parents go off to find food. With a bit of luck you will just be able to  see the chicks in the picture below.

terns on raft with chicks

terns on raft with chicks

There is a group of small chicks near the shelter on the left-hand side of the raft. Hopefully they will continue to grow well and fledge, over the years our fledging success has been very high, fingers crossed it will be again this year.

I have slipped a bit behind, but will try and catch up.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 15

The summer is moving on and I am delighted to say that I have seen the first common tern chicks of the year, under a month from the day the rafts went out. They will usually lay three eggs on consecutive days and then incubate them for about 21 days. They have had 28 days since the rafts went out so they got down to nesting very quickly! Some have not yet hatched and the off-duty birds can still be seen taking it easy before the real work of feeding the chicks starts.

common tern - Copy

common tern having a good preen whilst there it still has some “Me time”

The black-headed gulls are much more advanced and a few chicks are flying now, with a lot more to come.

gulls on raft - Copy

Gulls on a raft with lots of chicks

There have been a lot of mallard broods about for a while, but I saw my first brood of gadwall yesterday, although they were already fairly well grown. They breed much later than mallard and prefer a warm dry summer, so this should be a good year for them.

gadwall

gadwall and brood, there were actually 8 ducklings in all.

Grasses don’t get much attention, but Blashford does have a large population of one particularly distinctive species, the annual beard grass, it normally grows near the coast but finds conditions on the reserve quite suitable, despite being inland.

annual beard grass - Copy

annual beard grass

 

30 Days Wild – Day 5

You may have got the impression from yesterday’s three pictures of Tortrix moths that they are all grey or at best black and white, but nothing could be further from the truth and to prove it here is a very different one.

Agapeta zoeganaAgapeta zoegana

This one was in my garden moth trap, the caterpillar eats the roots of knapweed and probably field scabious, both of which I have growing in my garden mini-meadow.

My journey to work takes me across the New Forest and from time to time I see interesting wildlife on my way. This morning’s top spot went to a hawfinch which flew low over the road in front of me.

By contrast things at Blashford were pretty quiet today, the patchy weather perhaps not helping, with several showers and the wind pretty strong at times too. One surprise though was a pair of gadwall on the Education Centre dipping pond when I was emptying the moth trap. I have often seen mallard on there, but gadwall I had not expected.

Towards the end of the afternoon I went down to Ivy South to check on the common terns nesting on the raft. With the iffy weather I knew all the birds with clutches would be sure to be sitting tight. In addition the wind meant the rafts were swinging a bit so I could see from slightly different angles, with luck I hoped to get a good count of the sitting birds.

terns on raft 4x3

Nesting terns on Ivy Lake raft

I concluded there are certainly 23 nests on this raft, probably 24, and possibly 25, there is also one gull nest. In addition there is another on the other raft along with several black-headed gull and an additional pair which don’t seem to have settled yet. So the total is a minimum of 25 pairs and perhaps up to 27. There also appears to be one pair still milling around on Ibsley Water. The density of nests on this raft is amazing, it is only 2.4m x 2.4m (8ft x 8ft) so the total area is 5.75 square metres, there are at least 24 nests which gives each pair just under a quarter of a square metre each (50cm x 50cm).

Although our tern colony is not large but it is important as over the years it has been one of the most productive in the country, sometimes fledging over two chick for each nesting pair, typically productivity is between 0.5-1.0 chicks per pair on average across a colony. So you could say it is as important as perhaps a 100 strong colony might be elsewhere. Terns live a long time, 20 years and more, so the chicks produced at Blashford over the years will probably be out there in colonies all over southern England. One thing that is certain is that few return to us, if they did our colony would be in the low hundreds of pairs by now!

Overall, so far at least, this seems to be a good breeding season for lots of species. The fine weather suited most of the small birds, with perhaps only the thrushes not liking the dry conditions, The coot and moorhen have done well, they will have benefited from the good weather but their success also suggests we do not have a significant issue with mink on the reserve just now.

young moorhen

young moorhen

A successful early brood is doubly important for moorhens, as once full grown the offspring of the first brood will help to rear the next. This helps the parents, meaning the second brood can be larger but it also means the young will have experience in what it takes to rear a brood, making them more likely to succeed when they first nest themselves next spring.

Back to Blashford

Last Monday I helped Bob put a couple of tern rafts out on Ivy Lake, something he had been hoping to do for a while but needed someone on site whilst he went out on the water. So when I say ‘help’, I do mean it in the loosest sense of the word as I kept an eye on him from the comfort of Ivy South hide.

Ivy Lake 3

The view from Ivy South hide – the spiders have moved in and the vegetation is taking over!

Luckily, two of the rafts were still on the edges of the lake, so they just needed moving out into position in the middle and securing in place. By the end of the day there were six common terns interested in one of the rafts and this number has gradually increased over the course of the week. In wandering down there today there were at least twenty either on the raft itself or flying around overhead, with a few black-headed gulls. We would usually put out more rafts but without volunteer support to make them and move them (not a job that allows for social distancing) they will have to make do with these two instead.

Ivy Lake 2

A blurred Bob out on Ivy Lake with two tern rafts (I liked the foreground!)

Whilst waiting for Bob I listened to the reed warblers with their distinctive chatty song and watched a pair of great crested grebes out on the water. I also noticed lots of newly emerged damselflies, yet to develop their full colours and markings, on the stems growing outside the hide. It takes a few days for them to develop their colouring, a useful survival mechanism as at present they are not quite ready to fly so blend in rather well with the vegetation. Lower down you could make out the cast skins or exuvia clinging on to the vegetation following their final moult and emergence as an adult.

Bob has also been busy strimming step asides into the edges of some of the footpaths, where it has been possible to do so, to create areas for people to pass each other more easily and aid social distancing when walking around.

In addition we have been busy planning extra signage for some of the footpaths and will be making some routes one way, again to aid social distancing and enable people to visit safely. Crossing the stretches of boardwalk safely will be particularly difficult, so people will be directed over these a certain way. We hope to begin putting signage up this week, at the entrances to the reserve and also at path junctions, so if and when you do visit please keep an eye out for them. Hopefully we will have ironed out any snags by the time we are able to open a car park, which fingers crossed will not be too far off now, we will keep you all posted…

It has been nice to spend a bit of time out on the reserve – I was back just in time to experience the bluebells along the Dockens Water, although they are going over now, and also heard my first cuckoo of the year this week. I wasn’t sure I was going to hear one this spring. There is also still some greater stitchwort flowering along the Dockens path:

On Ibsley Water the large raft is mainly occupied by black-headed gulls, although there were a couple of common tern on there early last week. It’s lovely to see the common terns back again for another summer.

By the Centre there has been plenty of insect life around the pond, with beetles, bees, dragonflies and damselflies making the most of the sunshine:

On Wednesday Bob and I were sat having lunch when the female mallard he had noticed on the new Education Centre pond made an appearance, followed by 13 ducklings. We watched them topple off the boardwalk into the water, one or two at a time, and enjoyed their company whilst we finished eating. Later on that afternoon they moved over to the original centre pond but I haven’t seen them since, so I hope they are ok.

It has also been really nice to be able to rummage through the moth trap again, although with a few cold nights it has been quite quiet. Here are some moth highlights:

There have also been a number of cockchafers in the light trap. Also known as May bugs or doodlebugs these large brown beetles also fly around at dusk.

May bug

Cockchafer, May bug or doodlebug

On Thursday I found the exuvia or final moult of a hawker dragonfly in the pond and fished it out to take a closer look:

Dragonfly exuvia

Dragonfly exuvia

Leaving it out in a sunny spot to dry out I completely forgot about it, only remembering once I had driven home that evening. By this morning though it had found its way onto my desk, so Bob must have spotted it too!

I have also visited the meadow a couple times, the oxeye daisies are looking beautiful now they are coming into flower, rivalling the gorgeous pink display of ragged robin by the Welcome Hut which Jo shared a photo of last week. The common vetch and buttercups are also flowering and there are a few common blue butterflies on the wing.

The beautiful green beetle above has many names, it is known as the thick-legged flower beetle, false oil beetle and swollen-thighed beetle. Only the males have thickened hind legs, I might have to visit the meadow again in search of a female.

Spring Advances

There have been a lot of consequences of the current coronavirus outbreak that we might not have foreseen. One of these at Blashford are problems for our breeding common terns. The virus and consequent cancellation of all volunteer work parties has meant that the rafts the terns usually nest on cannot be launched. Luckily the very large raft we put out last summer on Ibsley Water was never brought in and the terns seem to be willing to consider it as a nest site.

two tern pairs

Displaying common terns on the “Mega raft”.

The bird to the right has a fish, this will be a male that has caught a fish to bring back to his mate as part of courtship feeding. This behaviour will show a new partner his fishing ability, or just strengthen existing pair bonds, it will also help the female gain condition in readiness for producing the eggs, a huge drain in her resources.

It will be interesting to see how many pairs turn up this year, after years of steady growth the population has fallen in the last couple of years, I think due to poor weather at migration time and more problems competing with nesting black-headed gulls. We also seem to have had very few birds passing through, until this year that is. The other day 68 were counted over Ibsley Water, of course that does not mean they will stay to breed and most have certainly moved on, but at least 14 remain, so perhaps we have a core of seven pairs to build on.

The spring is peak time for birds passing through and as well as common tern we usually see some of their more northern nesting cousins, Arctic terns and occasionally a few of the inland marsh nesting, black tern, although sadly they do not nest in the UK. Black tern and another passage visitor the little gull are probably on their way to nesting around the Baltic Sea area. This spring does seem to have been a good one for little gull, with birds being seen on several days.

P1080400

Little gull, one hatched last year (2cy).

The young birds, hatched last year vary a lot in the amount of dark markings in their wings, this one being fairly typical, but some have almost totally black upper-wings and some much reduced. These birds used to be called “First summer” , although this might seem a little odd as they were hatched last spring, but their actual first summer would have been spent in juvenile plumage, so “First summer” actually described the plumage, not the age of the bird. Things get more confusing with some other species that time their moult differently, so these days you are more likely to hear birders referring to “Second calendar year” (often reduced to 2cy) indicating the age of the bird, rather than the plumage.

As it is spring most of our birds are settling down to nest. As I was having some lunch on Monday a mallard was on the new pond built last year behind the Education Centre, I wondered why it was so reluctant to leave as I sat down nearby. The answer was actually obvious, it had a nest near the pond and when I looked away it flew a short distance into the vegetation and disappeared, no doubt it was just taking a short break from the arduous task of incubation, which is all done by the female.

mallard duck on Centre pond

mallard duck on Centre pond

Blashford Lakes is not an obviously good site for orchids, generally when thinking of these the mind goes to long established chalk downland and these are certainly very good for orchids. However just because Blashford is a recently developed old gravel pit complex this does not mean there are no orchids. In fact we have at least seven species, which might seem surprising, but the secret is that the soils are very nutrient poor, something they have in common with old chalk downland. Our commonest species is probably bee orchid, with scattered groups in various, mostly grassy, places. Next would be southern marsh and common spotted orchids in the damper areas. In deep shade and so probably often overlooked there are common twayblade. On the dry grassland was have a growing population of autumn lady’s tresses and, since it was first found last year a single green-winged orchid. Last years plant was a good tall one, but it got eaten, probably by deer or rabbit. I wondered if it had come up this year so went to have a look yesterday and found it, although a good bit smaller than it was last year, but still flowering.

green-winged orchid

green-winged orchid

Accommodation Crisis

The common tern are back at Blashford Lakes, or at least the first few pairs are. It is always good to see them back and the reserve has proved very good for them. We do not have a large population, typically around 20 pairs, but they are very successful, sometimes rearing an average of more than two chicks per pair, an exceptional fledging rate.

common tern

common tern

Our terns nest on rafts that we put out for them, but this year we cannot mobilise the staff and volunteers to do this due to the impossibility of maintaining social distancing when doing the launching. We do have one raft out and there are some shingle patches on one or two islands, so we will have to hope these will be enough to allow them to nest.

I posted a picture of the camera view inside our tawny owl box the other day, full not of owlets, but grey squirrels. The young squirrels have now moved on and the box has immediately been occupied by a pair of stock dove, showing the premium there is on large tree cavities.

stock doves in owl box

stock doves in owl box

Other species are less constrained for nest sites and for them the breeding season moves on. Coot are nest building all around the lakes, or at least anywhere there is something to secure a nest to with some cover.

coot

coot

I have been going into work less frequently than usual and trying to work from home, however there is only so much paperwork a reserves officer can do and site tasks are starting to become more pressing. One in particular has become rather horrifyingly apparent as the spring has unfolded and that is the extent of progress made by ash die-back disease in the last few months. It is now obvious that large numbers of trees have died and will need to be removed. I will leave any that are away from paths as standing dead wood, but unfortunately this still leaves a lot that will need to be felled.

ash die-back

As the trees have come into leaf the full extent of ash die-back has become apparent

Lockdown Impacts on Wildlife

I was on site for checks again yesterday and a good thing as it turned out as a large oak bough had fallen across a path. Presumably in the wind on Monday a branch, with no obvious decay and just coming into leaf, was ripped off and fell 8m or so to the ground, luckily nobody was under it. Fortunately Jo was also doing checks not too far away at Fishlake and was able to come over to provide my first aid cover so I could use the chainsaw to clear the problem away.

Generally the reserve is quiet now with very few people continuing to drive out and so mainly only being visited by those within walking range. I had hoped that fewer people might mean some benefit for wildlife, especially more easily disturbed species that may avoid areas close to car parks and paths under normal circumstances. I think some of this may be happening, it appears that snakes are basking beside the paths a little more than usual, they undoubtedly do so anyway, but will move away each time someone passes. I spotted this very bright adder by a path edge yesterday.

adder 4x3

basking adder

Unfortunately I think the overall effect on wildlife will be very negative, what I have found, and this seems to be getting worse, is that the few people who are still driving out to the reserve are mostly wandering well off the paths. At least four of yesterdays eight vehicles parked near the reserve for long periods were definitely associated with anglers, either wandering with bait boxes to look at fish or actively fishing. As a result there is regular and at times persistent disturbance around most of the lake shores, in areas that would usually be quiet. It was noticeable that both pairs of oystercatcher seem to have gone and the three lapwing displaying last week were nowhere to be seen.

I did see my first common tern of the year yesterday, but with little chance of getting the rafts out they will have only the islands to nest on. The main island is usually full of gulls, but these are absent this year, which would give them a chance free from the usual competition. Unfortunately I suspect the gulls are not there because of the high level of disturbance from anglers on the nearest bank, which will also put off the terns. It is also likely that angling is even more common at night so my records probably underplay the impacts.

The day was bright and sunny and it was pleasant to be out, I heard my first singing garden warbler and was able to enjoy the crab apple in all its glory.

P1080329

crab apple in bloom

As a conservationist I am an optimist, it goes with the territory, even when the evidence is against us a belief that things can be improved is essential. In life though the actions of a few can undo the good intentions of the many, whether in wildlife conservation or, as we are all now finding, in the suppression of a viral pandemic.

Stay safe, really look at your bit of the world and the other life you share it with, enjoy it and think how it could be made better.

30 Days Wild – Day 20

A slippery sort of a day, blue sky to start then rain, then warm sun and eventually heavy rain, it was hard to know how many layers and of what type to wear and every time I went out I got it wrong. The wildlife seemed equally confused, at Ivy South Hide as I opened up in thick cloud the grass snakes were “basking” on the tree stump.

grass snake

the largest grass snake

By the time I set out with the volunteers at 10:00 to work on the eastern shore of Ibsley Water, the sun was strong and the sun block was out in force. Ten minutes later when we got there, grey clouds were threatening and curtains of rain could be seen falling to the south-west. Luckily, and to my surprise, we got away with it and managed to return still more or less dry. On the return journey I noticed a mullein plant with the telltale tattered leaves caused by munching mullein moth caterpillars.

mullein moth caterpillar

mullein moth caterpillar

Our tern rafts have mainly been occupied by gulls again this year, this is to be expected as gulls far outnumber terns. There are about twenty pairs of terns nesting though and many now have chicks.

raft with B-h gulls

Raft with black-headed gull families

There are still a few common tern seemingly loafing around on Ibsley Water, I assume off-duty birds whose partners are still sitting on eggs, but perhaps non-breeders.

common tern

common tern

The picture, with wings open shows a clear identification feature of the species, the darker outer primaries. The reason for this is that the outer four or five of the wing feathers much older than the inner ones and so more worn. The white edges wear away more quickly which means older feathers look darker, forming a definite dark wedge in the outer-wing. The reason this helps with identification because the most similar tern species, the Arctic tern moults all of its wing feathers in one continuous sequence, meaning that there is no such contrast between the newest and oldest wing feather, making the wing look the same all along its length.

Warm wet weather is perfect for slime moulds, the really weird end of nature and a group I have featured a few times before.

Fuligo serptica

Fuligo septica

This one has various names, one is troll butter, but there are many more.

The bark chippings in the raised beds at the Centre also has some, at first I though just one type but a closer look suggests at least two. A close look is essential as the fruiting bodies are very small indeed.

slime mould 1

Slime mould fruiting body looking like tiny strings of pearls

Close up they look like minute stylised trees.

slime mould poss Physarum album

slime mould possibly Physarum album

Taking a closer look is when I realised that not all of them had white stems and spherical tops.

Slime mould close in

A different slime mould

slime mould

Even closer