Filling in the gaps

It has been some time since my last blog… I’m sorry about the gap! I had a bit of time off over New Year – which seems like a super long time ago now – and since the lockdown I have been part time furloughed (and spending more time exploring more locally to me in Salisbury), so I’m at Blashford three days a week at present.

So, after Christmas I had a break from weaving willow wreaths – our final wreath total was a whopping 94 (out of 100) sold for a donation, which was a fantastic response to the activity and we hope those who bought them enjoyed decorating them. I think we may have to offer it again next year…

This was briefly replaced with a ‘Forest Folk’ activity for our younger visitors, where they could make their own forest friend or stickman then enjoy some simple activities along the wild walk loop. Although short lived, due to the lockdown, a number of families took part and we will be able to put the activity and signs out again when restrictions are lifted.

I’ve also been out and about helping Bob more, mainly to provide first aid cover whilst he’s chainsawing, and it’s been nice to spend time on other bits of the reserve. We’ve spent a bit of time widening the footpath up by the screens on the approach to Lapwing Hide:

Whilst out and about it’s easy to get distracted by the signs of spring – it’s nice to know it’s on its way! I’ve seen my first scarlet elf cups and primroses are also in flower. The snowdrops near the Centre have emerged and the buds are very close now to opening fully.

I also found a nice clump of jelly ear fungus along the Dockens Water path…

… and a very nice blob of Yellow brain or witches’ butter:

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Yellow brain fungus or Witches’ butter

According to European folklore, if yellow brain fungus appeared on the gate or door of a house it meant a witch had cast a spell on the family living there. The only way to remove the spell was to pierce the fungus several times with straight pins until it went away, which gave it the common name ‘witches’ butter’. In Sweden, it was burnt to protect against evil spirits.

Another sign of spring I like to look for each year is on the hazel trees. If you look really closely at the hazel you might be able to spot some of its incredibly tiny pink flowers, which look a bit like sea anemones. Hazel is monoecious, with both the male and female flowers found on the same tree. The yellow male catkins appear first before the leaves and hang in clusters, whilst the female flowers are tiny, bud-like and with red styles.

Once pollinated by pollen from other hazel trees, the female flowers develop into oval fruits which then mature into hazelnuts.

On the insect front, the only moth I’ve seen recently was this mottled umber, which greeted me on the Centre door as I was opening up one morning:

mottled umber

Mottled umber

The robins near Ivy Silt Pond continue to be very obliging, posing for photos, and I’ve also been watching the kingfisher by the pond outside the back of the Centre. It seems to prefer this spot when the lake levels are higher and visibility poorer, making it harder to fish for food.

robin

Robin

kingfisher

Kingfisher

And we have on occasion had some rain! These photos were from the heavy downpours last week:

On Sunday I was half expecting to arrive to a snowy scene, but it seemed to just miss the reserve. On my drive in it became less and less wintery and I arrived to a thin layer of melting slush, having left behind a rather white Salisbury. Given I had to get home again it was probably a good thing, but I admit I was slightly disappointed! It was though a good day for photographing water droplets, as everything was melting and there were plenty around!

I will finish with a blue tit enjoying the sunshine up by Lapwing Hide, and will endeavour to blog again soon… I’m woefully behind with my Young Naturalists updates…

blue tit

Blue tit enjoying the sunshine

Another Autumn Day

We have had a rather vigorous few days, I arrived on the reserve on Saturday in heavy rain. Perhaps foolishly I ventured out when it eased a bit, only for the heavens to open again, so I took refuge in the Tern Hide (sorry, it is not open, I had the key with me!). Sat on a post near the hide was an adult male peregrine looking very miserable. It is not a great picture but it was raining hard and quite dark.

peregrine

Despite the weather it was not hunkered down, but looking about and head bobbing all the time then, suddenly, he was off, low over the water towards the western shore. It was raining hard and none of the birds on the island seemed to see him coming, in no time he was on them and grabbing a coot that had been feeding on the top of the island. Coot can be quite a handful, they have a powerful kick and sharp claws and there were a few minutes of struggle before the peregrine won out. Such a large bird was too heavy to be carried off whole so he stayed and fed where he was. I think the foul weather was the secret of the success of this particular hunt, I had felt a little sorry for him stuck out in the open, but I think he knew exactly what he was doing.

There was almost 20mm of rain in just a few hours during the morning and the Docken Water rapidly flooded.

Flooded woodland along the Dockens Water

The river was full of leaves, the rain and wind seems to be making short work of the autumn splendour of the trees this year, still they look good on the ground too.

Autumn leaves – oak, field maple and birch

There are probably several reasons why some trees are already almost leafless whilst others of the same species nearby remain well covered. Some birches were losing leaves in August this year, probably due to drought but where they still have them they are in fine colour now.

birch trees, as you can see it did stop raining!

Having started the day in driving rain it ended with largely blue skies, I even saw a red admiral butterfly.

Wet, wet, wet…

Although the winds have subsided, keeping the reserve closed today as well as yesterday was definitely the right thing to do as when I arrived this morning Ellingham Drove was flowing like a river and the water levels definitely rose in the few hours I was on site.

I didn’t venture too far, only checking the paths between the Woodland and Ivy Lake hides for any trees that had come down in yesterday’s strong winds, but wellington boots were definitely needed for stretches of footpath around the Woodland Hide and down towards Ivy South. I decided to save the rest of the checking until tomorrow in case the river on Ellingham Drove became too deep and I struggled to leave – there was at least one car further down the Drove towards Moyles Court that had become stuck in deeper water and a number of drivers decided to think twice, turn around and head back towards the A338.

The only trees of note, which admittedly I could have missed as I haven’t unlocked or locked up for a few days, were well away from the path but unfortunately in the middle of the woodland log circle area we use for bug hunting. They seemed to have just toppled over, lifting up the saturated ground as they went:

woodland

I know the boardwalk past Ivy South Hide does occasionally flood when Ivy Lake and the silt pond are both at capacity, but I have never seen water flowing over it before:

The Dockens Water is also fuller than I’ve ever seen it, resulting in it spilling out over Ellingham Drove and into the main reserve car park.

The water was flowing just shy of the river dipping bridge. It will be interesting to see what our dipping area looks like once the waters have dropped again, our ‘beach’ had been looking quite good after the last flood!

Given it was still raining when I left and there really isn’t anywhere for such a huge volume of water to go, it is going to take a day or so for the flood waters to subside from the main car park, even if Ellingham Drove clears relatively quickly:

The photos above don’t really do it justice, the water was flowing into the car park with some force in places, and although I could wade along the road in, I was up to the tops of my wellies not far past the waymarker post in the foreground of the photo of the car park and Tern Hide.

It would be very advisable not to visit in too much of a hurry tomorrow! It is highly likely the main car park will remain closed for a day or two, depending on how quickly the levels drop, and even if Tern Hide becomes accessible by skirting the edge of the car park along slightly higher ground, welly boots will definitely be needed.

The south side of the reserve will hopefully open as usual tomorrow, although again welly boots might be useful for some parts!

Sadly we have had to cancel tomorrows Willow Bird Feeder event, in addition to today’s Weave a Willow Snail event which had been postponed from last Sunday, but hopefully it will stop raining soon and we can get back to normal!

30 Days Wild – Day 6

The Blashford volunteers were out in force today and we were pulling Himalayan balsam along the Dockens Water, I am delighted to say that we found very little until we got down to the very lowest part of the stream, just where it leave the reserve. All the years of work seem to be paying off. This lower part of the stream is an area where we have been allowing the stream “to do its own thing” a little bit of rewilding, if you like. This has been the approach for over ten years now and all we do in there is clear rubbish washed down the stream and control invasive alien species, such as the balsam. It has developed into an amazing area of habitat.

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Wet woodland along the Dockens Water

We came across a strange patch of red in the stream at one point, I think it is a red alga presumably exploiting some mineral seepage, but I may very well be wrong about that!

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The red stuff!

The reserve was generally quiet, but as I locked up the Tern Hide I noticed a second calendar year Mediterranean gull close to the hide, it had a colour-ring on the left leg and luckily it was showing well enough to read the code.

colour-ringed Med gull

colour-ringed Mediterranean gull

I think it was ringed in Ireland and I will update when I have found out details form the scheme organiser.

All Change

After a cold and snowy end to last week,  Sunday saw me arriving to find almost the whole of Ibsley Water frozen over and Ivy Lake completely so.

frosty silt pond

Ivy Silt Pond on Sunday morning

Things actually started to thaw during the day on Sunday, so that by the end of the day there was more open water, at least on Ibsley Water.

goosander flock preening

a group of goosander preening near Lapwing hide

The cold resulted in a typical increase in the number of common gull in the roost, with over 400 reported and, more excitingly, the return of the ring-billed gull, probably it had come in with the common gull influx, but where has it been?

Even at dusk  on yesterday Ivy Lake was still frozen over and this seemed to put off the cormorant roosting flock, instead of the usual 150 or more birds there were just two! Others did fly in and around the trees but headed off elsewhere. A single great white egret, probably “Walter” roosted in the trees, but away from the two cormorant.

Today was quite different, mild and wet, a combination of snow melt and rain resulted in the Dockens Water flooding through the alder carr and into Ivy Lake, probably to the great relief of the bittern which was back in the reedmace at Ivy North Hide as I locked up this evening.

bittern

Bittern in the reedmace below Ivy North hide

I am pretty confident that every sighting of bittern that I have had this winter has been of the same bird, as have been all the pictures I have seen. On a couple of occasions I have seen threat behaviour that I would usually associate with there being a second nearby, but have never seen another bird. So reports of two seen on Friday were interesting, although the second bird could just have been displaced by the cold as they often are when lakes freeze. However today I see that two were seen in early January, so perhaps there really have been two all along! As they are territorial it may just be that the second is usually too far from the hide for us to see it, there is a good bit of reedbed off the west of the Ivy North Hide where it would be very difficult to see a lurking bittern.

By dusk this evening it was quite hard to see very much in any case, as the mist descended over the lakes.

misty Ivy Lake

Misty Ivy Lake (actually the bittern is in this picture, but I doubt you can see it!!)

Two for one

I am behind with our Young Naturalists updates, I think mainly because New Year and time off got in the way after our December session, so here’s a quick update from the last couple of months.

We met in between Christmas and New Year for a festive campfire cookout, something the group had enjoyed doing at the end of 2017 and requested again. We had a slightly random feast, depending on what food items each of the group had brought along, including crumpets, sausages, bacon, a very festive and warming fruit punch and of course marshmallows.

After tidying everything away we headed off for a wander and decided to go down to the Dockens Water to see if we could spot any tracks in the soft ground. We found plenty of signs of deer and some much smaller tracks which we decided could have been squirrel, I should have taken something for scale!

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Walking along the Dockens Water

Corinne from the Cameron Bespolka Trust, who very kindly sponsors our Young Naturalists group, enabling us to run the sessions, venture further afield and enlist the help of specialists, had called in to leave Trust t-shirts and Great grey shrike pin badges for the group. The group were delighted with both, and we handed them out again in January to those who couldn’t make it in December. Despite the cold, I managed to convince a number to put them on straight away for a photo:

At the end of January we once again took part in the Big Garden Bird Watch, a survey we have now taken part in for three years. We spent an hour in the woodland hide, recording the greatest number of each species seen at any one time, no mean feat where the chaffinch were concerned!

In total, after comparing results from each pair, we had counted 91 birds and 18 different species, along with three grey squirrels. They were: 38 chaffinch, 9 reed bunting, 6 goldfinch, 5 siskin and blackbird, 4 great tit, blue tit and dunnock, 3 long-tailed tit, 2 greenfinch, robin, jackdaw and woodpigeon, and 1 coal tit, nuthatch, brambling, great spotted woodpecker and jay.  Both the chaffinch and reed bunting were hard to count where they were mostly feeding on the ground, and I’m sure we missed a few. In addition, and not included in our results as they were flying over, Will spotted a cormorant and herring gull, so it was a good bird watching hour!

Compared to the past two years, our number of species has gradually increased, with 15 different species recorded in January 2017 and 16 recorded in 2018. Interestingly chaffinch numbers have risen from 16 to 23 to 38 whilst no reed bunting were recorded in 2018 and only 1 in 2017. Greenfinch numbers have decreased with 2 recorded this year compared to 4 in both 2018 and 2017, whilst 2017 saw 10 blackbird out in front of the hide, compared to 4 in 2018 and 5 this year. Finally, last year we picked a good hour and saw 1 lesser redpoll, something I had been hoping for this year, but it really does just depend on what is about on the day. It will be interesting to see what results we get next year.

After lunch we headed back out to lay a short stretch of hedge along the reserve boundary, past Ellingham Pound and by the A338. Stretches of this hedge have been laid at different times over the past few years and it has been laid with wildlife in mind rather than traditionally. A nice, thick, denser hedge is the perfect sanctuary for smaller mammals and birds, giving them a safer place to nest and hide from predators. As it continues to grow it will thicken out and grow up, with the new growth providing the perfect cover.

The two photos below show Geoff explaining to the group how to cut at an angle into the tree so it will bend and lay over those previously cut without breaking, and the stretch of hedge before we began working.

As well as laying the trees, we did a bit of ‘tidying up’, so to speak, clearing the many brambles growing in between and entwining around them to make them easier to lay and also more comfortable for us to get to them, and also as this hedge is hawthorn and blackthorn, cutting back any of the branches likely to again impede our task.

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Cutting back

We managed to lay a good stretch whilst we were out, leaving the odd tree still standing and working in from both ends. There is not much left now to lay, so perhaps we will get a chance to head back to it again another time or the volunteers will be able to lay the final bit. The weather had changed for my ‘after’ photo, but hopefully you can see the difference. The gravel mound across the road is certainly more obvious!

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The hedge after

Thanks to Geoff, Nigel and Roma for your help on Sunday.

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

Messing about in boats…

…with boats, out of boats and under boats!

Yes, the last week of the summer holiday saw us, and the children on “Wild Days Out” as well of course (I have to justify somehow), taking the plunge, quite literally, into the Dockens Water river again. The theme this week?

“River Adventure”…

Starting off in the classroom with paperboat folding and colouring/waterproofing them with wax crayons we were then ready to head down to the water to test them out and do some kick sample surveying for wildlife:

Plenty of invertebrates were of course caught but, as always, it was the fish which captured most children’s interest – with the exception of those few who caught either a leech (always exciting for their “yuck” or “eeuuurgh” factor), beautiful demoiselle or golden ringed dragonfly nymph (both similarly exciting and always elicit a “what is THAT?!” response).

On the fish front by far the most numerous species was minnow, but bullhead, as always, were much in evidence and we are also seeing signs of a good recruitment to the brown trout population this year too. Fishy highlights were an elver (second we’ve caught kick sampling this year, and again, a promising sign that they have had a good year) and a relatively large stone loach (easily identified by the barbels with which it finds its invertebrate prey amongst the silt and stones at the bottom of the river at night).

By this time and being, surprisingly, relatively dry and warm still we quit while we were ahead to stop for lunch – and then equip and prepare ourselves for the real adventure that was to come: coracle paddling and snorkelling!

The coracle had been pre-prepared this year by Tracy with one of our volunteers, Rex, who fulfilled a life long ambition by coming in over a couple of mornings to create and then paddle it himself! Thank you Rex! Thanks also to the Spinnaker Sailing Club for providing us with a loan of buoyancy aids for our intrepid adventurers to wear, “just in case”. As it was most children did manage to stay in the coracle, and the only time it actually sank was when Tracy, somewhat optimistically it has to be said, tried sending 3 children off in it!

Our craft, constructed from some of our willow pollarded last winter, was fitted out with a seat scavenged from a building site by another volunteer, Geoff, and then lined with some left over pond liner from a pond project at Testwood Lakes (pond liner works just as well at keeping water out of a boat as it does in a pond). And despite some heavy use survived completely unscathed – although to be fair, I did not actually have a go in it myself this year, and, had I done so, things might have ended differently!

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So, with a little disappointment it has to be said, I didn’t make it into the coracle this year. Not too much disappointment however because the only reason I didn’t was that I was having far too much fun snorkelling beneath the peaty waters to spend too much time above it!

Having enjoyed (honest!) a very cold and wet weekend camping a couple of days before I was still tired and, with the weather grey as it was, I woke up and came to work with a certain amount of apathy towards the idea of deliberately submerging myself in the river again. However we’d said we’d do it so I reluctantly donned my wetsuit and we made our way down and in… and I was SO glad that I had! I, and everyone who was brave (or foolish) enough to come in with me had a ball and we saw SO MANY fish! As many as we had thought we had caught kick-sampling earlier it really was a very small fraction of just what was in the river!

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So you think they look a bit crazy? You have to be a little bit crazy to even think of doing this!

And its amazing just how much you can see, even in shallow water!

Although the deep water is fun too – the trick is to just swim/crocodile crawl up stream so all of the disturbed silt/sediment washes back behind you and definitely don’t try and snorkel down stream of a load of kick-sampling river dippers!

Wonderful, unusual, wildlife sights await those who brave the water!

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It was cold, but so worth it and well done to all of the children who joined us in the river this summer – you are all part of what is a very small and highly elite group of people who have snorkelled and paddled the Dockens Water river.

You may call yourselves the “Dockens Divers” and, quite rightly, be proud of your achievement!

 

 

 

Camping out

At our last Young Naturalists session in July, we spent a night on the reserve, exploring Blashford and the surrounding area late in to the evening and early in the morning. It seems like a really long time ago now, but hopefully this blog is better late than never…

After arriving on the Saturday morning we got straight on with setting up our camp, using old army ponchos to make dens to sleep under and whittling pegs out of willow.

We then headed to the back of the Education Centre to sit by the pond and butterfly spot as part of the Big Butterfly Count. The Purple loosestrife proved to be very popular with the butterflies and we saw a large white, numerous small whites, a green-veined white and brimstones, along with a gatekeeper and painted lady by the bramble. We also watched the water for newts coming up to the surface and spotted a number of young frogs.

After lunch we headed up into the Forest, exploring the local Rockford and Ibsley Commons for a different view of the lakes. The bell heather was in flower and attracting lots of honey and bumble bees.

We paused for a while at the bridge over the Dockens Water, exploring this stretch of the river and taking a closer look at some of the plants before heading up on to the Common for another view of the reserve, this time Ibsley Water.

On arriving back at Moyles Court we paused by the ford for a paddle, although Jorge got wetter than most!

Walking back along the Dockens we spotted this fabulous Chicken of the Woods fungi growing on an old log:

Chicken in the woods

Chicken of the Woods

Arriving back at the Education Centre, it was time to empty the light trap from the night before so we could re-set it for the Saturday evening and we also set some mammal traps to see if we could catch any of our smaller resident mammals.

It was then time to think about food and the group did a great job of chopping the ingredients before tucking in to healthy wraps toasted over the fire followed by slightly less healthy popcorn and banana stuffed with chocolate and mini marshmallows…

Lysander had also very kindly bought some of his left over Cadet rations to share with the group, cooking them through using his stove. Whilst not all sampled his food, we were pleasantly surprised by how nice it tasted!

After eating we headed off on a night walk in search of bats, picking up pipistrelles on the bat detectors in the woodland and near Ivy South hide.

After convincing the group to get up bright and early on Sunday morning, we roused them at 5.30am and headed off up to Lapwing Hide for some early morning wildlife spotting.

It was lovely and peaceful to be out on the reserve so early, and whilst we didn’t spot anything out of the ordinary we had a good wander and worked up an appetite for breakfast which we cooked over the campfire.

Breakfast

Breakfast, looking slightly sleepy

It was then time to check the mammal traps we had put out the previous evening, but sadly although a couple had been sprung we were unsuccessful. The two light traps however gave us 31 different species off moth to identify, along with a Dark bush cricket and an Oak bush cricket:

After tidying away our camp and bringing everything back to the Centre it was time for the group to head off, a little sleepy but having spent a very enjoyable time overnight on the reserve.

Emperor dragonfly

Emperor dragonfly at the Education Centre Pond

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

Then the Thaw

Sunday was a day of great change, at first the snow was still thick in many places, turning to slush on the paths, but still making the roads a little difficult in places.

After the cold of the previous few days the warm sun of a proper springlike day was very welcome. The change during the day was remarkable, by lunchtime the entrance track was largely clear of snow and the Dockens Water was starting to rise and flood through the woodland.

Dockens Water

Dockens Water levels starting to rise

There rapid change resulted in some unusual sightings, perhaps the oddest and something I don’t think I had seen before, was a banded snail crawling across the snow surface. Unfortunately when I tired to take a picture it retreated into its shell, so in the picture you can just see the foot still out, but the rest of the body is hidden.

snail on snow

snail on snow

Another unusual sight, although not as surprising, was that of scarlet elf-cup poking up through the snow.

Elf cup in snow

scarlet elf-cup in snow

I noted in the morning that there were still no lapwing on the nesting areas, I have known birds to be egg-laying by the first week of March. However by the afternoon in the sunshine there were two males on territory on the former Hanson plant site and several more wandering around the shore nearby.

By the end of the day the Dockens Water was flooding through the alder carr and through the silt pond into Ivy Lake.

alder carr flooding

Dockens Water flooding through the alder carr

Having not been on the reserve fro a few days it was pleasing to see that there are still a good few brambling around the Woodland hide along with 8 or more reed bunting. In the afternoon the ring-billed gull was in the gull roost and, rather late in the day and distantly, also the Thayer’s gull.

Spring Dipping for Lamprey

It was lovely to be back at Blashford on Sunday after a two week break, with the sun shining and chiffchaffs calling from what seemed like every other tree. It was time again for our monthly Young Naturalists meeting, and with the weather warming up we began with a rummage through the light trap. It revealed a number of Common and Small Quakers and Hebrew Characters along with this rather pale Brindled Beauty.

Brindled Beauty by Talia Felstead

Brindled Beauty by Talia Felstead

The light trap also contained a number of Clouded Drabs, with this one in particular making us take a closer look:

Clouded drab by Talia Felstead

Clouded Drab by Talia Falstead

We wondered if it could perhaps have been a Lead-coloured Drab instead, but couldn’t be sure. Having only a photo to show Bob today, we’ve decided it probably was a Clouded Drab, as their colours can be quite variable, but you never know, we might be wrong!

After carefully putting the moths back in the light trap to be released later in the day, we headed down to the Dockens Water in search of Brook Lamprey. Brook Lamprey can grow up to 15cm and can easily be confused with small eels, but they lack jaws, instead having a sucker disc with a mouth in the centre. They also lack scales, any paired fins and a gill cover, instead having a line of seven respiratory holes behind the eye. They are easily overlooked, burrowing down into sand, silt or mud before emerging in the Spring to spawn. They die soon after spawning, but their corpses are quickly devoured by fish and birds so often are not found.

Now was the time to go looking for them, and we knew a couple had been caught on a school visit the week before. We were in luck, catching nine in our usual river dipping spot and another two when we searched further downstream.

We also caught bullhead fish, mayfly nymphs, caddisfly larvae and pond skaters. On moving further downstream, we caught a large number of dragonfly nymphs, fourteen in total. We decided they were likely to be nymphs of the Golden-ringed dragonfly, a species that usually patrols upland and heathland streams. The nymphs often burrow down into the stream’s muddy or sandy bottom, leaving only their head and the tip of their abdomen exposed. They may remain in the same position for several weeks, waiting to ambush any prey that passes by.

With the Dockens starting its journey to the sea in the New Forest, it is not surprising the nymphs have found their way downstream to us, and whilst we don’t get many sightings of the adults on the reserve they are sometimes seen hawking low over the water.

It was great to see so many nymphs of all different sizes, we should have Golden-ringed dragonflies emerging from the Dockens for a good few years!

Whilst down by the river, we took some Elder cuttings from nearby trees for Bob. A small deciduous tree native to the UK, elder grows well on wasteland, as well as in woodland, scrub and hedgerows. As they do so well on disturbed ground, they will be planted by the volunteers on the Hanson site where hopefully if they root well their flowers will be an important nectar source for a variety of insects whilst their berries will be a great food source for mammals and Autumn migrants.

After lunch we were joined by Corinne from the Cameron Bespolka Trust, who came with us for a spot of nettle pulling alongside a stretch of path in the woodland. Whilst nettles are fantastic for wildlife, we have plenty on the reserve and clearing some areas gives other flora the chance to thrive. We’re hoping to see increased amounts of ground ivy and hopefully twayblades, a medium sized orchid that can be easily overlooked, so keep your eyes peeled!

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly funded by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.