Late Winter Dash as Spring Looms

This time of year is always hectic, the winter work really needs to be finished by the end of February and somehow there is never quiet enough winter to get it all done. That said we have done very well this time, getting round to some tasks that I had been wanting to do for some years as well as doing  a lot of work in the former block works site to make it ready to become part of the reserve.

In the last week we have planted several hundred shrubs, coppiced a lot of willow and built a long dead hedge we have also cleared small birches to make basking sites for reptiles and nesting areas for solitary bees, raked cut brambles and taken willow cuttings. Luckily Blashford’s Brilliant Volunteers have turned out en masse and with the Our Past, Our Future apprentice rangers and Emily, our volunteer placement, the workforce has been at peak performance.

before

The site for a new dead hedge

after

The dead hedge completed, looking back towards the viewpoint of the picture above.

Even with all this activity there has still been some time for a bit of wildlife. The last couple of nights have been much warmer, spring is definitely in the air now, so we have put out the moth trap. Today’s catch was 3 chestnut, 3 pale brindled beauty, a spring usher (I said it was in the air), one of my favourites, an oak beauty

oak-beauty

oak beauty, one of the finest moths of spring

and a dotted border.

dotted-border

dotted border

A bittern was seen a couple of days ago, but not since, so perhaps the feel of spring has made it return to more suitable breeding habitat. So far we still have two great white egret, including “Walter”, although he usually departs about mid-February, so I suspect he will not be here much longer. The Cetti’s warbler are singing a lot now, hopefully they will stay to breed this year. The ring-billed gull are still present, with both birds seen in the past few days, although not on the same evening. Oystercatcher have come back and up to three have been noisily flying great circles above the reserve. The gull roost now includes 15 or more Mediterranean gull, a now typical spring build-up. The cormorant roost was up to 148 the other evening in the tree beside Ivy Lake

cormorant-roost

Cormorant roost beside Ivy Lake

and this evening there were upward of 5000 starling performing to the north of Ibsley Water, putting on quite a show, perhaps because there was a peregrine about, I am guessing they roosted in the reeds to the north of the lane.

Locking up Ivy North hide there was a very tame grey squirrel outside the hide, gorging on food that someone had thrown out of the window.

grey-squirrel

Grey squirrel, not turning down a free meal.

As I closed Tern hide and the starlings were doing their thing off to the north, there was a rather fine sunset off to the west, a perfect end to a very busy day.

ducks-at-dusk

Sunset, with three ducks.

 

 

 

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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.

 

In Between Times

A cold and frosty start to the day saw mist rising from the lakes as the sun came up.

ivy-lake

Ivy Lake, early morning

It was warm in the sun though and where it touched the frost disappeared quickly.

It might be “Christmas week” but as it was Thursday the volunteers were out in force to continue a willow cutting task in the reedbed area towards the Lapwing hide. This is a curious area of habitat, an old silt pond that filled with reeds and willows as it dried out. Normally the willows grow up and the reed dies off, here though, the willows are struggling and the reed seems to be doing better each year. The original plan was to manage it as willow scrub, but the willow refuses to grow and so we are opting for a reedbed with scattered willow instead. So we are cutting areas of the weak willow and allowing the reed space to expand.

volunteers-cutting-willows-in-the-reedbed

Ten volunteers turned out today to continue willow cutting in the reedbed.

We have also been cutting willows in the old silt pond near the Centre, although here they grow back vigorously. Our last task there was the Thursday before Christmas and despite the lure (?) of Christmas shopping there was a good turn out then too. We always try to make positive use of the cuttings where we can, today we were making a dead hedge which will probably grow up with brambles giving some valuable habitat. The dead twigs are also a valuable habitat in their own right, we are often told of the value of log piles for wildlife, but deadwood does not have to be large to be good for wildlife lots of species will use smaller deadwood.

The brash from the sallows near the Centre is being used to top the bank alongside the new path that is going in between the main car park and Goosander hide. I am hoping this bank will grow a bramble top which will provide cover for lots of species and nectar for insects and this will grow up in the shelter of the dead hedge.

the-source

The source coppice

the-destination

The destination

Although the weather has turned colder so far it has not resulted in much change in the wildlife on offer on the reserve. There still appear to be 2 great white egret about, the regular bird, “Walter” mainly around Ivy Lake and usually roosting there each evening and the newer arrival which seems to prefer the area from the north of Ibsley Water and off the reserve towards Mockbeggar Lake and Ibsley North lakes. A bittern is still being seen somewhat intermittently from Ivy North hide, where there are also water rail and Cetti’s warbler. At the Woodland hide up to 3 brambling are being seen as are a few reed bunting along with all the regular woodland species. Under the alder carr just outside the Woodland hide there was a water rail feeding in the open for most of today in the wet area just by the path, giving a great opportunity to see this usually shy bird well.

On Ibsley Water the gull roost is still as large as ever and includes 2 or 3 Mediterranean gull, 2 different ring-billed gull (although it is some days since both were seen on the same evening), 10 or more yellow-legged gull and a few gulls that remain a challenge to even the most dedicated. If you look at enough gulls you realise there are a few that just don’t “fit”, perhaps hybrids or birds of more distant and unfamiliar races or just plain oddities. A Bewick’s swan made an appearance late yesterday, although it did not seem to come to roost this evening, so has perhaps moved on. On the eastern shore of the lake this morning there were at least 8 raven attracted by some carrion on the bank. In the evening a small roost of starling behind the Lapwing hide have been trying their best to put on a bit of a show, but with only about 2000 birds it is not quite ready to rival Rome city centre. Two snipe were very obliging in front of Tern hide this afternoon and a green sandpiper always seems to be there just after dark as I hear it calling when I lock the car park.

Don’t forget the Pop-up Café returns to Blashford on New Year’s Day, so you can come and see some great birds and eat great cake too!

The End of Winter?

Surely it cannot be long before the cold nights end and spring proper starts. This is obviously a pleasant prospect, but it always means a bit of a scramble to get the last of the winter tasks done. Today I was working with the volunteers to coppice willows around the ephemeral ponds beside the path to the Goosander hide. We did pretty well getting the whole job done in a single session. This is before…..before… and this is more or less the same view afterwards.after

Ephemeral, or temporary ponds are very important habitats for lots of species, in fact many species are found only in them. Permanent ponds are fine habitats but their long term residents tend to dominate and exclude many species. Fish, in particular, have a huge impact on many species which just cannot live alongside them. This is why the best garden ponds for wildlife are actually the ones that don’t have fish in them. This would also be true for larger ponds and lakes but in practice it is impossible to keep fish out. Many people will tell you that fish get in as eggs on the feet of ducks and this may not be impossible, but the overwhelming majority are put there by people. In recent times the main fish that people introduce seem to be carp, unfortunately one of the most damaging species in terms of their impact upon the aquatic habitat and other species.

The day continued with us dealing with a few unsafe trees near the Woodland Hide (sorry if we scared the birds away!), laying over a few old coppiced willows and filling in a couple of the potholes in the entrance track.

In wildlife news the bittern was seen again today from Ivy North hide and the Woodland was busy with siskin, lesser redpoll and brambling along with the more regular “locals”. On Ibsley Water I saw the Slavonian grebe as I opened up but could find no sign of the black-necked grebes, so perhaps they have gone. At the end of the day the ring-billed gull was again in the roost on Ibsley Water, along with several Mediterranean gull.

With a bit of luck the first sand martin will be with us within a fortnight and then spring will really be on its way.

 

Stripping the willow

Yesterday, Thursday, was volunteer day and I’d love to tell you that mid-way through the task everyone broke into some spontaneous traditional dancing, but sadly(?) that wasn’t the case and the blog title actually refers to the fact that we continued the osier willow pollarding that was begun last week…

Pollards before...

Pollards before…

...and after.

…and after.

As always everyone worked really hard and by the end of the morning, although there is still some to be cut, particularly around the margins, the bulk of this block has now been cleared. Over the next few weeks that will be finished and work will begin on re-coppicing some of the surrounding willow blocks. The willow poles, or withies, that are cut are stacked into a number of cradles (one of which is pictured in the foreground above) ready for use either on-site or elsewhere. The cradles lift them off the ground, mostly to lift them out of the reach of the rabbits who will gnaw at the bark and wood rendering them useless, but also partly to stop them rooting into the soil and growing.

Although probably not true osiers the withies that are harvested are almost as flexible and can be, and have been in the past, used in basketry work by local basket makers and on courses at the centre.  Some of the willow will be used by Michelle and myself with school and community groups or events to make everything from toasting sticks, to wreaths and bird feeders, but there is always far more than we have a use for, so every year we will sell what we can (for a donation) to schools, youth and community groups and private individuals. If you are interested, or know someone who might be interested, please do let them know and get in touch with us to arrange collection (01425 472760 or BlashfordLakes@hiwwt.org.uk). The smaller stems are approximately 0.5cm in diameter and 1.5m long, the larger stems approximately 1.5cm in diameter and 3m long. In addition to the a fore mentioned use in baskets and crafts these willows are ideal for planting to create living willow sculptures.

Sherry modeling some freshly harvested willow!

Sherry modeling some freshly harvested willow!

While most people were engaged in the pollarding work mention should also go to Russel and Phillip. Russel stoically helped Michelle tackle the ever ending bramble “seedlings” in what should be one of our meadow sweep netting areas, but as long as it is as bramble infested as it is, with out reinforced sweepnets(!) it is not really useable as such. Between the two of them they removed loads, but sadly, there are still plenty more to go…

Russel getting to the root of our bramble problem

Russel getting to the root of our bramble problem

Phillip meanwhile was armed with the leaf blower and managed to clear the leaves from the paths between Ivy North, Woodland and Ivy South Hides, as well as making good headway along the woodland/Dockens Water footpath between the Tern Hide and Goosander Hide. It may seem a little strange to “waste” time, fuel and effort on removing leaves from the footpaths on a nature reserve, but the truth is that the consequences of not doing so will prove far more expensive both in terms of time and resources in the long run. One of the great things about Blashford Lakes as a nature reserve for many people is the accessibility of the paths – unfortunately if leaves are left on the paths they really quite quickly get trodden in and decompose down to a nice organic substrate that is perfect for grass and other plants to root into and in a relatively short space of time what were easily accessible gravel paths become grown over with far less accessible tussocks of grass and other vegetation. This has happened already on other, more remote, parts of the reserve which we know are going to need some attention over the next 12 months to improve them and bring them back up to spec.

Phillip - armed and ready to blow!

Phillip – armed and ready to blow!

Bird wise I’ve not much to report from yesterday – I’m not even aware of bittern having been seen, but as I type I have just had a visitor report seeing the red-crested pochard and four goosander on Ibsley Water. Not that the goosander are unusual, but it is less common for them to be seen on the lake in the middle of the day except in inclement weather.