Bittern not Stung

I am fairly sure that the bittern that spent a good part of the winter showing off by Ivy North Hide left on the night of Sunday 17th March, conditions were perfect and there were no records in the next couple of days. However a couple of brief sightings in since suggested I was wrong. This evening I saw a bittern from the hide, but it was not the bird that wintered there, being somewhat duller and, I think, smaller. This may be the second bid seen during the winter but which was chased off by the regular one, now able to hunt in peace, or perhaps a migrant.

The sun was warm today, although the wind was a little chilly. In shelter there were lot of insects about, I saw peacock, brimstone and small tortoiseshell and probably thousands of solitary bees. I was able to identify a few species, the commonest was yellow-legged mining bee then the grey-backed mining bee, nationally a very rare species, but abundant locally at Blashford Lakes. The only other I certainly identified was red-girdled mining bee. It was pleasing to see lots of female grey-backed miners as I had been seeing what I was convinced were males for several days, but they are very similar to the males of a commoner species, the females are much more distinctive. My first female was sunning itself on the new screen I was building beside Goosander Hide.

grey-backed mining bee blog2

female grey-backed mining bee catching some rays

I later went to see if there were any around the sandy bank we dug for bees a couple of seasons ago and there were, loads and loads of them!

grey-backed mining bee blog1

grey-backed mining bee female checking out a likely site to dig a nest hole.

The sound of the masses of bees was amazing, there really was a “Buzz in the air”, although solitary bees can sting they do not often do so and the vast majority of the bees around the bank were males, which have no sting, so it is possible to enjoy the experience with little risk.

I had the first report of sand martin at the nesting bank today, hopefully we will have a good few nesting pairs again this year.

Elsewhere reports of a glossy ibis at Fishlake Meadows was impressive as was that of a white stork very close by at Squabb Wood, Romsey

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Twice Bittern

There was no repeat of yesterday’s eagle excitement at Blashford, although news that it was seen up at Picket Post, just outside Ringwood and left flying south-west offers hope for Dorset birders. Hampshire misses out on rarities compared to both Sussex and Dorset, but white-tailed eagle is one of the rare exceptions as the county has had three in recent times.

However the better weather did bring out a lot more people and the reserve was quiet busy. The star of the day was the bittern at Ivy North hide which gave good views from time to time and was photographed catching a good sized rudd. I narrowly missed seeing it though but all was not lost, as you will see later.

The rain has resulted in some flooding in the Avon Valley and this has resulted in an increase in wildfowl numbers as they come inland to exploit new feeding areas. This is especially true of wigeon and pintail, the latter had increase to 36 this morning and I suspect there will be a good few more if it keeps raining. It is also likely that black-tailed godwit will start to appear, in major flood events there can be over 3000, I assume coming up from Poole Harbour and the Solent coast. My personal highlight of the morning was a count of at least 92 linnet beside Tern hide, a very respectable flock and a record count for the reserve.

My afternoon was mainly spent at Fishlake Meadows putting in a new sign at the car park, which should be open very soon, but watch this space for details…… Jo had been leading a work party there with the intention of doing some more willow cutting, but there is now so much water that it would be necessary to wade out to the trees!

I had time to take a quick walk round just before it got dark, it is an amazing place to have right on the edge of town, or indeed anywhere, a truly impressive habitat. Ashley Meadow was looking good and living up to its billing as “wet meadow”.

Ashley Meadow flooded

Ashley Meadow, looking a little damp!

The north/south path is still passable, but I would suggest wellies if you are planning to visit.

Fishlake north south path flooding

north/south path with some flooding

I walked down to the screens, where there was not a lot to see but it was very noisy, with several squealing water rail and explosive Cetti’s warbler.

Looking out form the screen Fishlake

Looking south from the screen

As I set off on my return an adult peregrine flew low overhead and then a brown shape flew up from the reeds to my right and flew passed me, a bittern! I was far to slow to get a picture, but it was a great view.

As I walked back to the car a rush of wings signalled a flight of starling overhead the first of several groups, probably totalling a few thousand, but they mostly dropped straight down into the roost and there was only one brief communal wheel about.

Great Expectations and Small Surprises

I was not at Blashford for most of yesterday, a site meeting at Fishlake to look at the upgrade work to the canal footpath, followed by a meeting about tern conservation meant that it was mid-afternoon before I arrived.

I was at Fishlake a little early so had a quick look over the reserve, the only bird of any note was a great white egret, although these are now more or less in the “expected” category these days.

The tern meeting was interesting, if a little depressing. Our terns are declining,  in almost every year for the last three decades or more they have failed to produce sufficient young to maintain the population. Problems are many, but sea level rise is major among them, there are fewer places to nest and these are being competed over by gulls, terns and shore nesting waders. Added to this, even some of the remaining areas that are available are visited too often by people for the bird to feel safe.

There are lots of local initiatives aimed at arresting the decline, involving building shingle banks, putting up electric fencing and wardening. But it is all small scale and local gains cannot address the overall decline. It epitomises the problem that those of us working in conservation have, however “successful” we are with nature reserves we are all too often not doing more than delaying the inevitable for many species. Reserves can act as refuges but unless the chance is there for species to spread out from them they will eventually be lost. A nature reserve is just to small, too isolated to be able to provide a genuinely viable home for most species in the long term.

When I did eventually get to Blashford and got over to Tern hide I was surprised to see an adult little gull, then even more surprised to see two, then three and finally four. They were sometimes dipping after insects on the lake’s surface right in front of the hide, a magical sight.

Recent night shave been especially mild and quite good for moths, combined with some southerly winds this is a recipe for catching migrants. There have been some rarities around but the best I have caught was a vestal on Sunday.

vestal

vestal

Today’s catch was pretty good as well and included sallow, pink-barred sallow, red-line Quaker, satellite, straw dot, white-point, chestnut, snout, large wainscot, beaded chestnut, barred sallow, canary-shouldered thorn, black rustic, lunar underwing, lesser yellow underwing, large yellow underwing, frosted orange, feathered thorn, several Epirrita (a group of hard to identify moths including autumnal moth, and the two November moths), Hysopygia glaucinalis (a Pyralid moth) and the pick of the bunch a Clifden nonpareil.

Clifden nonpareil

Clifden nonpareil, also known as blue underwing

The Clifden nonpareil used to be a rare migrant, but is evidently established locally in southern England now, as it used to be before it died out. It is a close relative of the more familiar red underwing, but is larger and with a blue and black hind wing. I did catch a red underwing the other night too.

red underwing

red underwing

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.

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.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 25 – The Heat is On

When I checked the moth trap in my garden I was surprised to find 2 leopard moth! In some years I don’t see any at all and this year we have had them a few times at Blashford and now two at home on the same day.

leopard moth male

leopard moth male

When they are disturbed they don’t fly, but adopt a strange curled posture, at the same time the abdomen is lengthened, the effect is rather odd. Although it does not look like  a wasp or anything obviously threatening it does look like something you would think twice about picking up, which I guess is the idea.

leopard mopth male curled

leopard moth male curled

I was at Fishlake for the morning waiting for a delivery meaning that I did not get to Blashford until the afternoon. It was very hot and lots of the insects had taken cover in the shade. Out on the hot shingle beside Ibsley Water I spotted two half grown little ringed plover chicks, running about very energetically, hopefully they will fledge and join the two others that have already become independent.

Out on Ivy Lake the common tern chicks were less keen on the heat and were standing around panting, however they are growing well and I expect the first ones will be flying in a few days.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

It is looking very dry now, much of the grass is yellow or pale brown, but most of the meadow perennials are deep rooted and still look more or less okay. A lot of the earlier flowering species are  going to seed now. Looked at closely the seeds of meadow buttercup look rather like a Medieval mace.

meadow buttercup seedhead

meadow buttercup seedhead

Although they do not look as though they would be very good at it, I assume the hooks aid dispersal by getting caught on animal fur, or maybe botanist’s socks.

30 Days Wild – Day 20 – A Leopard

Back at Blashford and checking the moth trap I found it contained a leopard moth, these strange moths have larvae that eat wood. They tunnel into the stems of living trees and shrubs, typically in branches and take two or three years to grow to sufficient size to pupate. The moth was rather battered, they are a moth which doe snot seem to stay in good condition for very long.

battered leopard moth

leopard moth

It seems I missed one in much better condition in the trap in Monday, although the books say they are quite common this is a species I do not see every year, so two in the week is good for Blashford.

There a a fair few other moths, but nothing of great note and the only other one that I had not seen so far this year was a tiny micro-moth.

Caloptilia populetorum

Caloptilia populetorum

I am not sure if I have seen this species before, it’s larvae eat birch so you might think is would be common and widespread, however it seems to be quite local. Clearly there are many other factors that influence their distribution.

After a morning at Blashford I had to go over to Fishlake at lunchtime. I was meeting with members of the Trust’s grazing team about getting some of their British White cattle onto the reserve to help preserve the varied fen vegetation. The fields look very attractive with purple loostrife, comfrey, meadow sweet, common meadow-rue and much more.

meadow rue with tree bumble-bee

common meadow-rue, with tree bumble-bee

If the meadows are so good you might ask why graze them? The answer is to keep them in this state. Years without grazing have seen them start to scrub over in places and become more dominated by very tall vigorous species, shading out the lower growing plants.

The tree bumble-bee hovering to the right of the picture is one of the more distinctive bumble-bees, with a brown thorax and black abdomen with a white tail end. This is a recent colonist of the UK arriving at the turn of the millennium and being first found in Southampton. As far as we know it crossed the channel unaided and has now travelled up the country as far as northern Scotland and west to Ireland.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

It was warm and sunny when I arrived home and a quick look in the meadow revealed lots of insects, best was a skipper butterfly, my first in the garden this year.

Essex skipper on wild carrot

Essex skipper on wild carrot

The Essex and small skipper are very similar, best separated by the black underside to the tip of the antennae. The picture seems to show they are present on this one making it an Essex skipper.

 

Dumping and Cutting, a Tale from the Roadside

There seems to be a lot going on at present. At Blashford we are resurfacing a lot of the paths, the entrance track and a few other improvements will follow.

We have also been putting out the tern rafts, so far the gulls have been taking most of the space but hopefully the terns will get their act together soon.

Out on Ibsley Water the lapwing have not been doing well, with most nests failing at the eggs stage, I suspect fox or badger, as the birds nesting on the islands seem unaffected.

I was at Fishlake briefly today and saw my first hairy dragonfly of the year, it was beautifully perched, but I did not have a camera with me!

Meanwhile back at Blashford we received an overnight donation of two large tractor tyres, several car tyres and the remains of a trailer. Not the kind of donation we want as it will cost a fair bit to dispose of. Fly tipping in the countryside is an increasing problem as the cost legitimate disposal increases.

Another increasing roadside problem is the decline in the the diversity of flora found on verges. I remember a series called “Wayside and Woodland” books, I always took the implication of the title was that much of the wildlife featured was to be found on waysides, that is path and road verges. The reason is the accumulation of nutrients, in fact this is probably one of the greatest threats to wildlife diversity in almost all habitats. It is no accident that habitats that are very poor in freely available nutrients are rich in species, they have to fight it out for resources and tiny differences in adaptations mean that one species will win over if even a very small change in the environment happens. Thus a thin chalk soil can produce an incredibly rich sward with huge species diversity. Where nutrients are easy to come by a few very vigorous specie swill overwhelm the competition and species diversity is low and growth vigorous.

Road verges suffer the twin threats of car exhausts, which are rich in nitrogen a key nutrient for vigorous plant growth. This growth then gets cut, often many times a year and the cutting left as a “mulch” further aiding the building up of nutrients. Cutting once  later in the year and removing the cuttings would reduce the nutrients, reduce the vigour of the growth and promote plant diversity. In fact Plantlife have just produced an excellent guide to managing road verges The Good Verge Guide

The Highways Agency also produced quiet good guidelines for highways managers, but these do not seem to have been widely taken up by the people that set the contracts for the work. A case in point is a very fine round about close to my home, this morning I admired the good show of ox-eye daisy and could make out the soon to be flowering stems of corky-fruited water dropwort as I waited at the traffic lights. On my way home tonight I see it has been mown and the cuttings left as a deep green mulch, it is large round about and easy to see across so there is little need for cutting for safety reasons. Slowly but surely this fine area of herb-rich, semi-natural grassland is being destroyed by the state, an act of causal degradation of our biodiversity in the midst of an extinction crisis.

I will end with a couple more moths form yesterday, the catch was small but included perhaps the smartest pebble prominent I have ever seen.

pebble prominent

pebble prominent

There were also three very fresh poplar hawk.

poplar hawk 2

poplar hawk

Being a Responsible Consumer

I visited Fishlake Meadows first thing this morning, the sedge and reed warblers were singing as were cuckoo, cetti’s warbler, blackcap and garden warbler along with much, much more. The sheer abundance of birdlife was wonderful to experience. I was delighted to meet a few others , also out to enjoy this wonderful site.

As many will know Fishlake has recently been added to the Wildlife Trust list of reserves following many years of abandonment, during which time the area changed from agricultural land into a fabulous wetland. It is probably fair to say that there was something of a free for all on the site for a few years with reports of shooting, unlicenced angling and various other activities. These all had an impact upon the wildlife that could use the area, meaning that some species stayed and others did not. One of the functions of the new nature reserve is to improve the access and opportunities to see wildlife, whilst also reducing disturbance.

Fishlake from canal path

A view across Fishlake Meadows from the Barge Canal path.

Being a formal reserve means that there is the chance to make improvements for visitors and manage the habitat so as to maintain the most interesting and rarest elements. This will inevitably lead to an increase in visitors and the need to control access, both for the sake of the wildlife and the visitors.

Access to nature is increasingly being recognised as of great value to human wellbeing, but we need to be aware that this access is not without cost to the nature. However careful we are every visit to see wildlife will have an impact, at this time of year we will not avoid disturbing nesting birds, even if briefly as we walk by and this is but one example. This applies at least as much to dedicated wildlife watchers as the general public. In fact keen watchers of wildlife can be the worst offenders, putting a desire to see or photograph something above its welfare. Worst of all the desire to get close often applies most to the rarest species, the very ones that should be given the greatest space.

Some bird species are afforded special protection (under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) when nesting or potentially nesting, meaning that it is actually an offence to disturb them or photograph them where they might be breeding. I have been asked a number of times recently where people can go to photograph kingfisher, my answer at present is probably nowhere. Kingfisher are one of these special protected species and photographing them near a nest without a licence is illegal, in fact it is a criminal offence. It is far better to wait until late summer when the young are independent. There are many such protected species, including some that might surprise a lot of people, such as Cetti’s warbler and barn owl. Many of us carry cameras now and the temptation to get a shot of one of these when we should not is great. There are lots of great pictures of them and our desire just puts the birds under stress and at increased risk, there is no right to get a picture, or even a “better” view. The Rare Bird Alert website has a very useful page on this subject photographing schedule 1 birds

Sadly recent incidents at several Trust reserves have seen people straying into protected areas or just too close to rare species to get that slightly better view or picture. Some birds that might have nested have left as a result and some other commoner species have suffered as “collateral damage” in this quest.

For wildlife to survive on our crowded island we need to learn to live alongside it, to give it necessary space and not to treat it as a consumable to be used up for our amusement. This is what those that go too close are doing, they are using up our wildlife for personal gratification. We cannot avoid having an impact, but we can make it as small as possible,  if we acknowledge this fact and take responsibility for it and we might have a a richer wildlife experience that everyone can all enjoy.

 

World Water Day

Every year on the 22nd March the United Nations encourage us to celebrate World Water Day. The aim of World Water Day is to get people to appreciate how important water is. This year’s theme is “Nature for Water”exploring nature-based solutions to the water challenges we face in the 21st century.

RS6539_Fishlake Meadows © Tony Wright

Photo of Fishlake Meadows by Tony Wright. More of Tony’s photos can be found here; https://www.flickr.com/photos/51495393@N04/

Wetlands are often overlooked and seen as wasteland, this has led to 2/3 of natural wetlands disappearing since 1990. This is why sites such as Fishlake Meadows are so important for us to protect, manage and try to expand the wetland habitat communities. By reducing scrub and tree cover across Fishlake Meadows, the areas of ponds, ditches and reedbed will thrive and increase.

4 billion people (half the world’s population) live in urban areas, which put pressure on cities to grow; as they do there can be a tendency to encroach on wetlands, reducing their size. Wetlands serve an important purpose to cities; they absorb rainfall, their vegetation filters waste and improves water quality, and they offer recreation and relaxation opportunities to boost people’s well-being.

Fishlake Meadows southern viewing area view

Photo by Joanna Armson

Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust manage a number of wetland nature reserves, such as Testwood Lakes, Lower Test, Winnall Moors and Blashford Lakes. Why not visit one for World Water Day to discover how special they are? If you would like to find out more about our work with wetlands please go to: http://www.hiwwt.org.uk/wildlife/habitats/wetlands-and-rivers, and there is lots of information about World Water Day here: http://worldwaterday.org/.