Wildlife encounters of the furlough kind

I returned to work on Sunday after eight weeks away from Blashford (it is so green now!) and six weeks on furlough along with around 40% of my Trust colleagues, most of whom are still off. Whilst I’m back to help Bob with the reserve tasks he cannot do by himself and engage with visitors on site from a safe distance, following on from the easing of restrictions last week, we are still closed whilst we look at what we can safely offer in the coming weeks and months. We will keep you updated as and when things begin to change!

A Blashford blog will follow shortly, but I thought I would share what I have been getting up to whilst off.

Spending so much time at home meant I was able to discover what wildlife visits my garden, a bit of a distraction whilst I was supposed to still be working, but it was really nice to be there during the day and have more time to appreciate my outside space. My garden is only small, with two patio areas which contain a number of plants in pots and a lawn which has struggled as a lawn and now has a few flowers planted into the patchier bits as I slowly tun it into a much wilder space. I have lived there for a couple of years, and this year the garden really seems to have come to life with birds and insects, which has been really nice to see.

Whilst at home I had blue tits, wood pigeons, dunnocks and blackbirds frequently visiting the garden along with a wren, great tits and a goldfinch. I have a willow bird table and the blackbirds seem to really like this, launching themselves onto it from the hedge and swinging around whilst they fed.

I have two hedges in the garden and this year the blackbirds successfully nested in one (I did a fair amount of cat chasing whilst off, if they have another brood they’re on their own!) which was lovely to watch. I saw four fledglings at the same time, two sunning themselves in one hedge and two in the other and both adults worked really hard to feed them with the male bringing back huge beak fulls, including a garden centipede in the photo below:

Blackbird 2

Male blackbird with a beak full

They fledged last Thursday so I was able to enjoy their company for a few days, with one of the young staying in the garden until Sunday morning. It was very amusing to see it sat swinging on the bird table calling mum for food.

I had written a rather long list of things to do to keep me busy, and one of those things was to dig a pond. Digging a pond was definitely more exciting than decorating the bathroom, re-pointing some dodgy brickwork to hopefully solve a damp issue in the kitchen and damp proofing and repainting the kitchen wall, so it was one of the first things I did and it’s been really nice to see it change over just a few weeks. The less exciting jobs were left until last week when I knew I was returning to work…

The photos below show the garden before and after, then the pond full of mud as the female blackbird decided the moss I had placed round the edge would make really nice nest building material (she had ignored it the entire time it was elsewhere in the garden) and later on with some plant additions (all native) I had been able to order online.

Whilst digging the pond I unearthed the snake millipede below, along with centipedes that were too fast for a photo, and the stones placed around the edge quickly became resting spots for hoverflies:

The blackbirds had been using a bucket of water with some willow sticks in to drink from and bathe in, but they now both use the pond which is really nice to watch. The female didn’t mind me being around at all but the male was a lot more wary of me to begin with and would fly off even if I was watching from the window, but now he is quite happy for me to be out in the garden whilst he’s there feeding.

As well as the birds it was great to see which insects were visiting the flowers and which flowers were growing really well, the ragged robin in particular has seeded so well from one plant in a pot last year I was able to plant it out in different places in the grass.

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I live on the edge of Salisbury so on my daily walks I walked my dog from home to either a little stretch of the River Bourne in Laverstock or up to the Laverstock Downs, enjoying the fact there were fewer cars on the road.

These photos were taken in the little patch of woodland down by the river:

I had hoped to see some bluebells on my wanders but sadly all those I did see were garden escapees.

I spent a lot more time up on the Downs as although they were further to walk to, it was much easier to practice social distancing up here than it was down by the river which tended to be busier with people and had a stretch of boardwalk to contend with.

It was a great spot for bird watching and I had some brilliant views of both blackcap and common whitethroat, especially early spring when the whitethroats were displaying and establishing territories.

I managed a total of 47 bird species whilst off, either in my garden, flying over my garden or on my daily walks: blackbird, blue tit, dunnock, wren, great tit, wood pigeon, collared dove, jackdaw, starling, long-tailed tit, yellowhammer, carrion crow, buzzard, pheasant, song thrush, chaffinch, chiffchaff, red kite, blackcap, common whitethroat, swallow, linnet, goldfinch, red-legged partridge, little egret, mallard, shoveler, kingfisher, magpie, skylark, great spotted woodpecker, robin, Canada goose, mute swan, raven, sparrowhawk, rook, bullfinch, house sparrow, Cetti’s warbler, grey heron, moorhen, mistle thrush, swift, house martin, peregrine falcon and mandarin duck. They were quite a good mix!

The Downs were also a great spot for butterflies, with orange tips, brimstones, small tortoiseshells, green-veined whites, small heaths, peacocks and dingy skippers all on the wing. I also found lots of green-veined orchids and other flowers on the chalk grassland.

The most exciting spot though was probably to see glow worm larvae on three separate occasions, so I must go up there over the summer in search of glow worms.

Glow worm larvae

Glow worm larvae

I was very lucky to have my garden to enjoy and also have some lovely spaces within walking distance to explore (it was also quite nice to use my car less!), so I had plenty of nature to keep me company during the pandemic, whilst a list of house and craft projects also kept me busy. I might be heading back up to the Downs at the weekend…

Blashford’s Micro World – Taking a Closer Look

I opened up the hides at Blashford this morning in a fog that meant I could see only a few hazy birds looming in and out of the mist. The sun looked like it might break through, but in fact it took until nearly midday and then we had banks of cloud from time to time. The volunteers tried to do the butterfly transect and just about managed it, although butterflies were few in number.

When the sun did come out at lunchtime I took a walk by the lichen heath, this is a fascinating and very vulnerable bit of habitat, the lichens do not like being walked on, so I kept off the heath proper. The habitat owes its existence to the ultra-poor soil which has just enough nutrients for lichens and mosses and a few very, very small flowering plants. Amongst them two or more species of speedwells.

wall speedwell (I think)

wall speedwell (I think)

Most speedwells are small plants, this one, wall speedwell, is very small with flowers perhaps 2mm across. I also found a patch of blinks, I seem to remember being told that it was the UK’s smallest flowering plant.

blinks

blinks

There are also several forget-me-not species, two of which are especially small.

early forget-me-not

early forget-me-not

This one is early forget-me-not and has flowers about 2mm across, they are a traditional forget-me-not blue, as might be expected. The other tiny species is quite remarkable in that it cannot decide what colour the flowers should be, or rather it has flowers that change colour as the age, it is the aptly named changing forget-me-not.

changing forget-me-not

changing forget-me-not

The heath is also home to a wide range of small insects and other invertebrates, a surprising number of them seem to be either ants or spiders. I came across a number of small mounds of sand, well actually many were more like chimneys, made of sand grains pile dup and with a hole down the centre. They were evidently entrance ways into ant nests as there were ants clearly visible around the entrances. Although I describe them as entrances there did not seem to be many ants coming and going so perhaps, like termites they build them as part of an air circulation system.

ant chimney

ant chimney

My last find of interest out on the heath was a small moth, now I have had trouble identifying it with anything like certainty, I am pretty sure it is a Gelechid  of some sort, my best guess is Aroga velocella, which has larvae that eat sheep’s sorrel.

Gelechid moth

Gelechid moth

Walking round the edge of the heath I passed a Scots pine and noticed it was in flower, the male flowers release huge amounts of wind-blown pollen which fertilise the female comes, each tree is both male and female, as you can see from the picture, the large males flowers are above the smaller female cone.

flowering Scots pine

flowering Scots pine

Looking closely at the flowers I realised that many of them had a spider on them, the same species every time and seemingly only one on each flower cluster, they were also quite well camouflaged. I have failed to identify the species, if anyone can help I would be very pleased.

spider

spider

On my way back to the office I stopped by the handful of ramsons I found the other week, a plant I had not known even grew at Blashford. They are now in flower and I took a couple of pictures and in one I saw that the flowers were being visited by ants, presumably feeding on the nectar.

ants on ramsons flowers

ants on ramsons flowers

Although the sun was not out for long it did feel quite spring-like and warm, a calling cuckoo added to the feel as did 2 swifts which flew over. The 2 or 3 calling Mediterranean gull that circled over made for a rather more seaside feel, but all in all it was very pleasant.

Other birds about today were about 30 common tern, good news as we will be putting out some tern rafts tomorrow and I would like them to be fully occupied as soon as possible to stop the black-headed gulls taking over.