Rediscovering Blashford Lakes

Earlier in the year little did I know that when I locked up and left Blashford, somewhat appropriately as it happens, on Friday 13th March, that I would not be back until the 2nd July, thanks to a cocktail of a poorly child with a high temperature having to stay off school, subsequent quarantining of myself and family, lockdown and, later, furloughed leave.

A lot has changed in that time, at home, in the UK and across the World, for the Trust and, specifically, for Blashford Lakes.

Any regular readers of the Blashford Blog will know how Bob continued to manage and warden the site throughout lockdown, monitoring and dealing with the affects of ash dieback on the woodland despite, or in-spite, of the restrictions that lone-working imposed and his having to deal with the impacts that “cov-idiots” including poachers, dog walkers and cyclists were having upon the reserve and the wildlife.

As lockdown restrictions were eased he was joined by Tracy and they worked hard together to make and adjust to new socially distanced working procedures and hygiene arrangements whilst planning how the nature reserve might most safely be reopened to the public.

I for one am very grateful for all that they did and I am sure that our visitors are too, albeit that many won’t know that they are, or should be!

I returned to work from furloughed leave on 1st July, worked from home on that first day and returned to Blashford itself on the 2nd to reacquaint myself with the site and acquaint myself with new ways of working.

The site itself is much as it always was, although now displaying an awful lot more directional signage to aid visitors around the new one-way circular walking routes and with more of Tracy’s educational and insightful mini-interpretation notices which highlight particular aspects of wildlife as you explore the nature reserve.

The insects have been fabulous, none more so that the clouds of common blue damselflies which were particularly in evidence when I first got back at the beginning of the month.

The wilder areas around the dipping ponds as well as the relatively recently (last Summer) created ornamental raised flower beds and wildflower turf around the Welcome Hut at the front of the Centre have been, and are, full of insect life. Indeed our butterfly survey volunteers are finding that although the northern transect is doing well the southern transect is generally quite poor this year – with the exception of that area around the Education Centre.

Small copper feeding on yarrow next to the Welcome Hut

One of the highlights of returning to work has been being able to view the moths attracted to the light trap over night, although always tinged a little with sadness that this summer we have not been sharing the same with our school group visitors:

Also on the moth front, a six spot burnet moth (this one photographed in the mini meadow grassland habitat along the footpath on the approach to Tern Hide and the main car park (both still closed at present). Some years absent at Blashford Lakes, but sporadically fairly frequent, this year is one of those where they seem to be doing well

The bird hides remain closed and are not set to open as normal anytime soon so glimpses of the lakes are infrequent and few but the view from the Ibsley Water viewing platform at the back of the main car park remains open and does still give a fantastic, if distant, view of that lake – and indeed it was from there that a number of visitors enjoyed views of an osprey perched on the perch placed out in that lake with just that purpose in mind. The sweet honey like scent of the creeping thistle which is growing in profusion there, alongside other fantastic nectar sources like ragwort and teasel is pretty special too:

So all in all, although the hides remain closed, there is still plenty of wildlife to see and you never know, you might get lucky and see something more unusual like an osprey, or, as other visitors have reported seeing on different days over the last couple of weeks, Blashford treats like kingfisher or treecreeper, or slightly more unusually, an otter or a family of stoats.

And visitors we are getting; plenty of regulars just like the “old days” before lockdown, but also lots of new visitors. Since restrictions eased further and holidays were allowed we’ve seen a lot of families and visitors new to the nature reserve on their holidays but we are also continuing to welcome local visitors who have and are staying close to home and who having done so are looking for new places close to home to explore and enjoy.

As a result the nature reserve is actually probably attracting more visitors this month than it would normally do so at this time of year and I suspect that this will continue over the next couple of months.

Tracy and I are continuing to develop the means by which we can engage with both visitors to the nature reserve and visitors, including schools, who might normally visit the nature reserve but are unable to do so at the present time.

A big step forward has been the installation of WiFi boosters outside the Centre which has not only allowed us to lead live virtual pond dipping activities (Tracy with her Young Naturalists meeting and myself with the Year 1 and Year 2 classes at Ringwood Infant School), but which will also enable us to offer other live virtual meetings, including “mini-beasting” or emptying the light trap for example.

Another benefit of the much improved WiFi has been our being able to re-open the Welcome Hut on an occasional basis, at least for now.

As mentioned earlier in this post, we are seeing lots of new visitors, but with the Centre and Welcome Hut closed and our Welcome Volunteers still stood down at present, there often is not someone available to provide assistance or guidance when required.

The improved WiFi coverage means that we can log on to the Wildlife Trusts remote desktop and continue to work on office and admin work from the Welcome Hut while being on hand to greet and provide assistance to visitors as needs be.

There are a number of benefits to this new working environment, not least of which is that it is a very pleasant place to work – with the doors fully opened and side windows ajar there is a lovely natural “air-conditioning”, the sound of bird song with an accompaniment of Roesel’s bush-cricket and grasshopper from the adjacent wildflower “meadow” fills the air and there is a lovely view of the tree’s around the Centre car park. Of course if anyone needs assistance we are there to help – and, as an added bonus should any further incentive to work out there be required, although it’s a bit early to be sure that it is a pattern and not just a coincidence, visitor donations seem to have gone up since I moved “office”.

This latter point is actually really important – the Wildlife Trust relies on its income from membership contributions as well as donations and at Blashford we especially rely on donations to help fund all elements of our work, from administration, to conservation, to education to access repair and improvements. Our income has been hit hard with none of the donations from group visits that we would normally receive throughout the summer, nor the usual donations from our “every day” visitors, despite there being more of them in recent weeks. This is, in part at least, because fewer and fewer people are carrying or using cash in our post-lockdown world. Bob recently made up some new “donation ask” signs with a QR code that visitors can use to make a donation to the Trust electronically and this too may have prompted more visitors who can to make a cash donation during their visit.

Time will tell whether it is my welcoming face, the new QR code or something else which will help our coffers over coming weeks!

Fishlake Flowers

I was working at Fishlake Meadows yesterday morning and it was wonderful to be somewhere so green and full of flowers. Access to water is not a problem for the plants at Fishlake so they have kept growing whilst the rest of the countryside has turned brown.

fen flowers

Floriferous Fishlake

Many of these flowers are also very good nectar sources and it was noticeable how many bees there were visiting the flowers. Butterflies were also common, but there were rather few hoverflies, but this maybe because they tend to keep out of the sun at the warmest part of the day.

Over-topping most of the others is the hemp agrimony, a popular plant with butterflies like peacock and red admiral.

hemp agrimony

hemp agrimony

Another very tall plant is angelica, an umbellifer and very popular with hoverflies.

angelica

angelica

Slightly smaller and almost finished flowering now, the meadow sweet is a typical plant of wet meadows and river banks.

meadow sweet

meadow sweet

Of similar height and with prominent purple spires of flower, the purple loosestrife is impossible to miss and very popular with nectaring bees, brimstone and white butterflies.

purple loosestrife

purple loosestrife

Some plants get a bad press and thistles are certainly one of these, they can be  a nuisance when they become dominant, but they are a great nectar source for lots of insects, popular with bees, butterflies and flies. At Fishlake creeping thistle is scattered and as such not a problem but an addition to the floral display.

creeping thistle

creeping thistle

A particular favourite with bees is comfrey, the bell-like flowers of which come in two shades, this is the paler one.

comfrey

comfrey

To get at the nectar of the comfrey needs a long tongue, for those that do not have one more open flowers and especially composites are a favourite. Ones with a good supply of food will also attract longer tongued visitors too, fleabane is popular with a wide range of species from hoverflies to butterflies.

fleabane

fleabane

Fleabane dies best on damp ground, where the ground is properly wet a favourite flower with insects is water mint, this will grow on the bank and as an emergent plant in shallow water.

water mint

water mint

All in all something to suit all nectar seekers, we can mimic this diversity of flower type in our gardens if we too want to attract the widest range of insects.

 

From Lakes to Lake

Last Sunday I spent the day at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s new reserve at Fishlake Meadows on the edge of Romsey. The reserve is so new that we don’t yet have a reserves officer in post, but it is good to have some presence on site, so for the day I got to swap Blashford Lakes for Fishlake.

The site is around 60ha of abandoned farmland that has flooded to produce a mosaic of open water, reedbed and fen, wonderful habitat for a wide range of species. At present views across the site are limited by rapidly colonising willow and bramble, but tantalising glimpses can be had across the area from the old barge canal that runs north from the town.

The day was much finer than had been forecast and instead of dodging showers I got to enjoy a huge range of insects enjoying the flowery fen vegetation. One species that I was very pleased to see was the yellow loosestrife bee. This species is dependent upon the yellow loosestrife, not for nectar or even for pollen, but for its oil. Why would a bee need oil? That is the really clever part of the story, the bees collect the oil from the flowers on special hairs on their legs and use it to waterproof their nest chambers. This allows them to make their nests in areas that are prone to flooding, so they can nest close to the flower rich fen rather than having to nest elsewhere and waste energy flying in.

yellow loostrife bee

Yellow loosestrife bee, nectaring on creeping thistle.

The huge number of flowers attract lots of different bees and I saw many species, although identifying them is a bit of a challenge. I think this one is a patchwork leafcutter bee, but I could be wrong, also nectaring on a thistle, this time a spear thistle.

patchwork leafcutter bee female

Patchwork leafcutter bee

I also saw lot of wasps, these are even more of a challenge to identify and I have not even tried with this one.

parasitic wasp

parasitic wasp

There was an osprey on site when I was there but I managed very skilfully to miss it entirely.

30 Days Wild – Day 8: Flowers in the Rain

Thursday is volunteer day at Blashford and it is well known that it does not rain when the Thursday volunteers are working, but today something went wrong and we got wet! We were continuing with our project to create a diverse new grassland along what used to be the entrance to the old concrete plant, we have spread seed and cleared brambles. Now we are going back to continue with cutting back the bramble regrowth and discourage nettles and some of the denser stands of creeping thistle.

A lot of the seed we spread has germinated but is has a lot that was already there lying dormant in the seedbank. This includes some with famously long-lived seed like poppies.

poppy

poppy

Poppies used to be a common “weed” of agricultural crops but these days are effectively controlled in most by herbicides. Another such agricultural weed was field pansy, which has also appeared.

field pansy
field pansy flower

Several species of thistles have grown up too, alongside the creeping and spear thistle there are a few musk thistle, not yet flowering, but the symmetry of their flower buds appealed to me.

Musk thistle bud

Musk thistle in bud

We also have a good showing of mullein plants with both dark mullein and great mullein, a few with mullein moth caterpillar on them. Both species have tall spires of yellow flowers, however the individual flowers are very attractive on their own.

dark mullein flower

dark mullein flower

I have high hopes for this area, it has many of the attributes you need for a herb rich grassland, a mostly poor, thin soil and a sunny aspect, if we can establish a tight sward it could become a real asset for to the reserve, good for plants, insects and close to the path and so easy to see.

My last shot of the day is also of a flower but in this case it is what was sitting upon it that was the main attraction. The flower is an ox-eye daisy and on it is a male red-eyed damselfly, I find this a difficult species to get a picture of, as they usually spend their time sitting on floating pond weed well out in the water, so one away from water was too good to miss.

red-eyed damselfly on ox-eye daisy

red-eyed damselfly on ox-eye daisy

This is what we should now call the large red-eyed damselfly, rather than the smaller newcomer to these shores, the small red-eyed damselfly, which tends to fly later in the season.

Although I did get wet, it was not cold and being out in a bit of weather from time to time has its own appeal, albeit in moderation. Let’s hope for a bit better tomorrow.

Pictures from the Purple Patch

It’s often been said, ( although, probably only  by me!) that a lot of the conservation work at Blashford is  ‘ a bit like gardening, but on an industrial scale‘ .  Today I was doing what, to me,  is one of the more pleasant gardening tasks of dead heading the buddleia.   We don’t have much buddleia left on the reserve, it’s a terribly invasive non-native plant and as such doesn’t really belong here so it’s largely being eradicated from the more wild parts of the reserve, with only one plant left near the Centre.  It is, however, a great nectar source for insects and removing the seed heads encourages more flower to form.  So what could be finer on a pleasantly warm day than a little light pruning whilst seeped in a heady fragrance and being constantly visited by comma, small tortoiseshell, green-veined white, silver-washed fritillary and peacock butterflies and also this smart red admiral.

 

Red Admiral

Red Admiral

The rich lilac/purple flowers of the buddleia are mirrored by many other flowers at the moment – indeed the reserve is going through a ‘purple patch; as evidenced by the flower-heads of creeping thistle, teasel and marjoram

creeping thistle

creeping thistle

 

Teasel

Teasel

 

Marjoram

Marjoram

All of which were within about four metres of the buddleia.

In fact I didn’t really need to go more than a few paces to see …

Green-veined white butterflies on marjoram

Green-veined white butterflies on marjoram

Southern hawker dragonfly

Southern hawker dragonfly

Common Lizard playing 'peek-a-boo' on fencing around the pond

Common Lizard playing ‘peek-a-boo’ on fencing around the pond

and perhaps most unexpected this small furry mammal taking advantage of  the largess provided by some spikes of seeds ( sorrel I think) close by the pick-nick benches

mouse or vole

mouse?

After my embarrassing faux-pas over the bee/hoverfly last week ( thanks to those who put me right) I’m reluctant to put a name to this  —  I just know there are really knowledgeable folks out there who can tell us.

And a final flourish was this rather posey small tortoiseshell who insisted on sharing a pick-nick bench with me.

Small tortoiseshell

Small tortoiseshell

As I say all this from, almost, a single position – can’t be bad…

Thistle Do(wn)

Hi(low)light of the day was an injured young greylag goose which some visitors saw being hit by a car on Ellingham Drove. Fortunately they  managed to catch it and bring in to the centre. We don’t have facilities or expertise to deal with injured wildlife, but there is a gentleman living close by who is able and prepared to give his time to rescuing wildlife and was willing to look after this bird.

At this time of year the initial frenzy of bird breeding activity has largely abated, many adults will no longer be holding breeding territories and are not so vocal. As they start to moult their plumage they will be less nimble and need to keep under cover, away from predators and birdwatchers.  A larger number of the waterfowl are now spending time simply loafing about on the lakes. For instance some 400 coot have been counted on Ibsley water.  I was asked to count them today, but unfortunately didn’t have a telescope with me.  Some birds, though, are easier to see as were the little egret and grey heron.

Little egret - note the yellow foot

Little egret – note the yellow foot

 

Grey heron

Grey heron

More a time for insect and wildflower interest at the moment. Trolling up to the seasonal path to check on the ponies we have grazing the reserve,  I noticed a profusion of pink, yellow and purple from hemp agrimony, fleabane and a mixture of spear thistles  and creeping thistles.

Hemp agrimony

Hemp agrimony

The flowers look sort of ‘washed out’ from the side view, but are magnificently intricate and olourful from above

Top view of hemp agrimony flower

Top view of hemp agrimony flower

Fleabane flowers are, perhaps,  one of the the richest yellow colours on the reserve,

Fleabane

Fleabane

especially where they occur in large clumps,

P1520842

whilst the delightful purple shades of  spear thistle are a welcome attractant to many insects.

hoverfly (Volucella inanis?) on spear thistle

hoverfly (Volucella inanis?) on spear thistle

even without accompanying insects the plants are a captivating structurally

spear thistle

spear thistle

although an awful lot of the creeping thistle have now set wonderfully fluffy seed heads

creeping thistle seed heads

creeping thistle seed heads

When I took this shot I was unaware of the small tortoiseshell – a sort of bonus really.

As I hinted above, there are plenty of insects around, but the heat is keeping most of them fairly active – so tricky to photograph, but I was quite pleased with this shot of a common blue damselfly.

common blue damselfly perched on a nettle leaf

common blue damselfly perched on a nettle leaf

The light trap is now in more regular use, following a period when a bird (robin I believe) was using it as a larder.  Pick of today’s ‘catch’ were this almost butterfly like moth, a  large emerald.

Large emerald

Large emerald

not to be outdone by an impressive garden tiger moth,

garden tiger moth

garden tiger moth

and an equally impressive tanner beetle.

tanner beetle

tanner beetle