A wet and wild week

 

After a super busy summer term the holidays are here and we’re just as busy with our usual monthly events and our Wild Days Out programme of children’s holiday activities.

Our Young Naturalists met last Sunday for a beginners photography session led by local photographer Clifton Beard. Cliff was a brilliant tutor, keeping things simple and remembering the group would be taking photos with a variety of equipment from smart phones to point and shoot to digital SLRs.

Group in classroom resized

Cliff set us little tasks throughout the session, encouraging us to think more before merrily snapping away and ran through the importance of light, composition and moment. We looked for certain colours, lines, edges and lots more and tried focusing on macro subjects before having a mini photo competition with our best images of the day.

As we didn’t stray far from the building, it was really interesting to see what everyone managed to find close by. Cliff’s parting advice was that the best camera is the one you have on you, which really is true, if you don’t have it with you then you will miss the shot!

Thanks to Cliff for giving up his day to share his knowledge and expertise with the group and to Amy Hall and Corinne Bespolka from the Cameron Bespolka Trust for joining us too.

Wednesday was an entirely different affair, with a very wet and soggy Wild Day Out. Not to be deterred from our ‘Wildlife Safari’, we began the day dissecting some owl pellets, an activity the group thoroughly enjoyed. We had fun picking them apart with cocktail sticks and trying to decide which bits of small mammal we were looking at; a rib, or a shoulder blade, or a jaw bone or a skull. To tie in with this we also had lots of bones and other signs of wildlife to look at and hold.

After a short while we decided it was about time we braved the elements, pulled on our waterproofs and headed outside. Despite the rain, we soon spotted lots of cinnabar caterpillars on the ragwort on the lichen heath. As we looked closer we also disturbed a grasshopper and realised the wildlife was still all around us, just hunkering down low to avoid the wet weather. Probably a very sensible thing to be doing!

Our first sign of something ever so slightly bigger than our grasshopper was this pile of rabbit droppings:

Muddy ground is great for spotting tracks, however the first ones we noticed were not of the wildlife kind, or at least not the wildlife we were after:

IMG_0552

Vehicle tracks in the soft mud

We then headed towards the Dockens, taking the path towards the road crossing to Goosander hide and playing pooh sticks on the bridge over the river. Continuing along the path, we found a safe spot to get into the river then explored upstream, occasionally having to get back out again and walk along the bank when the pools became too deep. Whilst exploring the river we came across a number of deer tracks in the soft mud.

We were now quite wet, although some were wetter than others, and Isabelle and Millie had to empty their wellies after our river wanderings.

We picked blackberries on our way to Goosander hide, looking forward to a dry spot for lunch. We were stopped in our tracks by a scattering of feathers, trying to decide what had happened, who had been eaten (we decided a duck after studying the feathers) and by whom (we thought fox). A little further along the path we found the kill site, spotting a hollow off to the side of the path which contained the remains of two different birds. One of the skeletons was complete and as it was a bit on the large size for a duck we thought it could be a goose. The other we weren’t so sure!

We lunched in Goosander Hide, watching the rain get heavier and the sand martins and swallow flitting low over the water. Despite the weather we saw herons, cormorant, black headed gull, mute swans, little grebe and great crested grebe. The highlight though was the kingfisher, who didn’t seem put off by the rain or the bunch of 7-12 year olds picnicking in the hide and flew across in front of us a number of times, pausing for a while on one of the branches in the water.

We headed back to the Education Centre, dried off and warmed up with the help of a hot chocolate, happy in the knowledge that even in the pouring rain there were still plenty of signs of life and the wildlife itself to entertain us!

Thursday’s Wild Day Out was somewhat drier, a nice change to Wednesday! We were in search of dragons so headed to the pond to see what we could catch and keeping our fingers crossed the sun would put in an appearance and bring dragonflies hawking above the surface of the water.

By the time we had eaten, the weather had brightened up considerably and we headed over to the meadow, munching blackberries along the way. It was too wet to meadow sweep but we still embarked on a still hunt, finding a quiet spot in the meadow to just sit and look and watch the meadow world go by. We then had a go at stealthily catching some of the creatures we had been watching using bug pots. Slightly harder than using a sweep net, it certainly made us look closer.

We also managed to spot five wasp spiders in the meadow, making sure we left them safely in their webs:

wasp-spider

After discovering the miniature world of the meadow we headed to the Woodland Hide in search of birds then went on to Ivy South Hide, spotting a grass snake on the edge of Ivy Silt Pond.

We then returned to the Education Centre the long way (there were lots more blackberries to pick the long way back), seeing how many small children it takes to hug a rather large oak tree (I can’t remember the answer, but it was a fair few!) and playing pooh sticks on the bridge over the river.

Tree hugging

Tree hugging, with I think seven 5-8 year olds!

Pooh sticks

Pooh sticks on the Dockens Water, and looking for fish!

It’s been a rather wet and wild week!

We still have some spaces left on our upcoming Wild Days Out this summer, if you know of someone who might like to join us please visit the website for details and to book.

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30 Days Wild – Day 25

Day 25 and I was in Portsmouth at the Lakeside North Harbour site doing a public event for National Insect Week. Looking at the pictures I have posted during 30 Days Wild it would seem I have been more or less doing 30 Days of Insects, but as they form so much of our wildlife I will make no apologies for doing so. The other reason is that I only have one decent lens for my camera and that is a macro lens! You can find out more about National Insect week at http://www.nationalinsectweek.co.uk. It is run every two years by the Royal Entomological Society with the assistance of lots of other organisations including the Wildlife Trusts.

The Lakeside site lies just beside the A27 and is a large area of offices in several blocks, perhaps it does not sound that promising for wildlife? But think again, it is constructed on chalk which was dumped onto marshes left isolated north of the road, so far so disastrous for wildlife, but the habitat that has developed is chalk grassland with lots of flowers including thousands of orchids. There is also some wetland and scrub, in short a varied and generally nutrient poor landscape, with a wide range of species, something of a biodiversity hotspot! The management has been enlightened enough not to “garden” too much of it, although the corporate love of grass like a carpet, lollipop trees and gob-stopper bushes is evident in parts. Anyone who visits a corporate HQ or similar office cannot help but be struck by how much they really baulk at the intrusion of the natural world, few tolerate any native flora and fauna and obviously spend lots of money keeping the areas around their buildings that way. An odd approach when most would say they are efficient and environmentally aware.

As I said lakeside is actually a very good wildlife site and shows what can be done, in addition the more natural areas are very popular with the staff, many of whom will walk around the grounds in their lunch break. A “Green break” is something that I am sure is good for their wellbeing and probably afternoon productivity.

The weather was not the best, my plan to run a moth trap overnight had failed as the trap had not turned on and half the people booked onto the walk did not show up, so not the best of starts. However the insects did not let us down and we were joined by as many people who had not booked as were on the original list, so we actually had more participants than  expected. Highlights were six-spot burnet, both as larvae and adult, with this one posing on a pyramidal orchid for photos.

six-spot burnet on pyramidal orchid

six-pot burnet on pyramidal orchid

We also saw several species of hoverflies, two soldierflies, robberflies, damselflies, lots and lots of true bugs, beetles and even a few butterflies. The weather was against us though and just as we were coming to the end of the event we all had to run for shelter  as the heavens opened and the thunder and lightening swept in.

the end of the insect walk

rain and lost of it!

In the afternoon I was back at Blashford, where the weather was much better, although I passed through some of the heaviest rain I have encountered in many years on the way. When you see the full force of a really torrential downpour like that it is interesting to imagine what the impact must be on creatures as small as insects, it must be significant.

Storms are local events so even if they could be devastating they should not impact whole populations. Spiders however are everywhere and the recent mass emergence of damselflies has given them more food that they can cope with, one web by the Centre pond contained three such victims. Shear numbers are what keep insects going, even if thousands die, enough can go on and each survivor can produce many offspring.

trapped damselfly

captured damselfly

As I locked up it was pleasing to see that there were still lapwing chicks on view near the Tern hide and that at least two of the little ringed plover chicks have fledged. I also spotted that the female common scoter I found with the tufted duck flock on Thursday was still there diving for food out in the middle of the lake.

30 Days Wild – Day 19

Sunday and almost mid-summer and I was at Blashford where we were hosting Fordingbridge Astronomical Society’s Sun Day. They had telescopes set up so that the sun could be safely viewed and some of its usually hidden secrets seen. However, the clouds did not play along and the sun remained hidden resulting an early end to Sun Day.

However Sunday continued and in the afternoon I was leading a walk to look for dragonflies, damselflies and miscellaneous other bugs. Unfortunately the clouds had continued to gather and light rain started to fall, making insects hard to find.

wet damselfly

soggy damselfly

Despite the rain we did see four species of butterflies, an optimistic migrant red admiral at the Centre Pond, common blue and meadow brown hiding in the meadow and a hundred or more peacock caterpillars in front of the Ivy North hide.

In the morning it had been a little less wet and I had found a few more insects and other invertebrates out and about, including this snipefly, with huge eyes.

fly

snipefly

There are also a lot more siders about now.

spider

spider

Mid-summer is also a time for flowers, perhaps a surprise to some of our visitors, but Blashford is actually quite a good site for orchids, we have several species and sometime sin quite large numbers. This despite most of the being a “Brownfield” site, we tend to think of orchids as plants of ancient downland sites, but many will colonise freely if they get the chance. The bee orchids are at their best now and some can be seen on bank on the side of the main car park.

bee orchid flower

bee orchid flower

 

30 Days Wild – Day 13

Nearly caught up! Day 13, a Monday and a wet one at that. I was leading a guided walk at Blashford in the morning and was a little concerned that we might struggle to see very much. I need not have worried, we started at the Centre with a quick look at the moths and then, as the school group were elsewhere, checked out the tanks and trays of creatures caught in the pond. Before we even got around to seeing any birds we had clocked up several dozen species and, thanks to the shelter, we had not even got wet.

As often seems to be the case the weather improved a bit later in the day and before going to lock up I checked out the sides of the Centre pond looking for dragon and damselflies. There were lots of newly emerged damselflies all around the pond edge with some stems having several exuviae showing how many had already emerged.

newly emerged

newly emerged damselfly

exuviae

signs of a mass emergence

The masses of immobile soft-bodied insects attract predators and the local robin was having a feast. Even when they are able to fly they need to be wary about where they land as there are ambushes all over the place. I spotted this crab spider lurking on a hemlock water-dropwort flower head, when I first saw it she was just finishing off a common blue damselfly.

crab spider

crab spider lurking