Back From the Brink(s) or Beyond and now at Blashford!

On the shortest day of the year it is perhaps appropriate to consider things turning, from here on the days will lengthen for the next six months and today at Blashford it was possible to see several species that have experience a turnaround in fortune.

We had another visit from the white-tailed eagle today, it circled over Ibsley Water causing mayhem for about five minutes before heading off toward the New Forest. These amazing birds used to breed widely in Scotland and around our rocky coastlines where there were cliffs of sufficient height, local the western end of the Isle of Wight was the nearest location but they died out there centuries ago due to persecution. They hung on in more out of the way places in Scotland until the early 20th century before finally being exterminated. Now they are back, admittedly with a good bit of help from a fairly large scale reintroduction program, but they have also recovered well in mainland Europe too and our bird is probably form there rather than Scotland. When I started birdwatching there were none in the UK and few enough in nearby Europe, so I would never have expected to see one. A combination of reduced persecution, active conservation efforts and strategic reintroduction have reestablished viable populations over large areas of their former range.

At Ivy North hide the bittern was showing well on and off all day. As I locked up it showed wonderfully well, walking out into the open on a cut pile of vegetation, then adopting a threat posture with feathers raised and wings stretched, before flying off to roost. Bittern got close to extinction in the UK, in the early 1990s there were fewer than 20 territorial males in the whole country and the numbers were falling year on year. Targeted habitat management and some large scale habitat creation projects have turned things around dramatically. It helped that the habitat they require, wet reedbed,  is easy to create, so long as there is the will to do it. The greatest example is the Avalon Marshes project near Glastonbury, now home to tens of bittern territories and much else besides.

Looking across the lake from Ivy North hide after the bittern had gone to roost I could see three great white egret roosting in the dead alder opposite. I suspect “Walter” was one of them, he first came to us in 2003, when they were still a rare bird in Britain. In the 1980s they looked likely to go completely extinct in western Europe and numbered only hundreds of pairs in eastern Europe and rapidly declining. They and the two small egrets have undergone remarkable changes in fortune. All the egrets had been shot for their plumes for many years and this along with habitat degradation had reduced all of them to low numbers. Increased efforts at conserving wetlands and reduced persecution has turned things around and now all are doing well.

Other birds today were 52 pintail on Ibsley Water, along with about 210 wigeon, the black-necked grebe and a water pipit, all as I opened up the Tern hide. The weather seems set reasonably fair over the Christmas week and the reserve will be open every day apart from Christmas Day itself. I think we can say there will certainly be a nice range of species on offer and on New Years Day we also have the pop-up cafe to look forward to.

There are great pictures of the eagle and bittern taken to day at Blashford on the HOS sightings site Hampshire Goingbirding photos .

 

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The White Stuff

A Red Letter Day for Fishlake Meadows today, we finally have some cattle on site! We had hoped they would be on much earlier and next year I am sure we will. They will be grazing in Ashley Meadow for the next few weeks, hopefully helping us to maintain the rich fen habitat.

English White cattle on Ashley Meadow

British White cattle on Ashley Meadow

As we were unable to graze the meadow earlier in the year we did take a hay cut from about half of the field.

Ashley Meadow

Ashley Meadow showing the boundary between the cut and uncut areas

The intention is to maintain a mix of tall and slightly shorter herbage with very few trees and shrubs. Such habitats are very rich in plants and as a result invertebrates. Mowing certainly can deliver this, but the act of mowing is rather dramatic, eliminating large areas of habitat at a stroke, by contrast grazing achieves a similar result but at a more gradual pace. Gazing animals will also favour some areas and species over others so the variability in height, what is known as the “structure” of the grassland will be greater.

When I was in Ashley Meadow preparing for the arrival of the cattle today I saw a good range of species including several very smart small copper.

small copper

small copper

There was a very interesting article in a recent issue of British Wildlife magazine which highlighted the effects of different grassland management regimes on spider populations and species. I have not managed to identify the one below yet, but I saw it lurking on a flower waiting for an unwary insect to be lured in.

spider

crab spider on fleabane flower

When looking at grassland management there are many considerations, should it be mown or grazed,or both, most hayfields are cut for the hay crop and then grazed later in the season. Traditional hay meadows were cut around or just after mid-summer and this favoured plants that set seed by this time like yellow rattle or which spread vegetatively. Modern grass cropping by silage making produces a much larger grass crop but the grassland is more or less a mono-culture, the land may be green but it is certainly not pleasant as far as most wildlife is concerned.

Once the cutting regime is settled there is grazing to consider, but not all animals graze in the same way, sheep and horses cut the grass short using their teeth, cattle rip the grass in tufts using their tongue to gather each bunch. The resulting grassland will look very different and be home to very different wildlife. Timing of grazing will also make a big difference, mid-late summer grazing tends to produce the most diverse flora, but this will vary with location and ground type.

Lastly different breed of animals will graze in different ways, our cattle at Fishlake are British Whites, a traditional bred that will eat grass but also likes to mix in some rougher sedge and other herbage as well as some tree leaves and twigs, ideal for a site such as Fishlake Meadows.

It was not only a white themed day at Fishlake, as I locked up at Blashford Lakes the view from Tern hide was filled with birds, in particular 13 brilliant white little egret and 2 great white egret.

herons egrets and cormorants

egrets, herons and cormorants

Ibsley Water has been attracting huge numbers of fish eating birds recently, with up to 300 cormorant, over 100 grey heron and the egrets, although I have failed to see them there have also been 2 cattle egret seen.

Ivy Lake has also produced a few notable records int he last few days, yesterday a bittern was photographed flying past Ivy South hide, far and away our earliest reserve record, but with the British population doing much better these days perhaps something we will get used to as young birds disperse. There have also been a few notable ducks, yesterday a juvenile garganey and today 4 wigeon , 3 pintail and a few shoveler as well as good numbers of gadwall and a dozen or so teal.

Potatoes and Pies

The Thursday volunteers were coppicing today and we took the opportunity of the fire we were using to burn up the top to bake some potatoes for our Christmas Bash. A tub of grated cheese, some butter and excellent chutney went well with what turned out to be perfectly cooked potatoes, we finished off with homemade mince pies.

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Lunch for the volunteers and Jim (who just came for lunch!)

The willow in this area grows poorly and often dies back, I think because of the poor soil which is derived from pumped silt. Reeds grow well though, especially where it lies wet in winter and I think this is what will happen once this area is cleared. This was our second day cutting and I expect it will take a couple more sessions to clear the whole patch.

finish

Still work to do, but we are getting there.

A day spent cutting willows meant that we saw almost no wildlife, a couple of egrets flew over, one was certainly a little, the other, spotted just as is went behind the trees looked like a great white. When I went up to turn in the fire as it got dark I also had a quick look from the Lapwing hide and there was certainly a great white egret there then, along with 90 goosander. We did find a winter moth in the willows and what looked like a butterfly flew off unidentified just before lunch. Otherwise a couple of calling chiffchaff were the other highlights.

Elsewhere on the reserve a brambling was reported by  a few visitors today, hopefully to be followed by many more.