Improvement update and birds, birds, birds!

Just a quick reminder to anyone who hasn’t visited us in a while or missed any previous blogs or onsite signage, improvements on the reserve are now well on the way so if you do decide to visit us soon, please bear with us!

The main nature reserve car park is open as usual, however Tern Hide is no longer there (it was dismantled at the start of the month so there was plenty of time to do the all important ground works) and the installation of the new hide will not take place until next month – if all goes to plan it should be open by the end of March.

The new pond by the Education Centre should be finished soon and the Welcome Hut which arrived on Monday should be completed by the end of the week – with both these works taking place so close to the Centre, along with deliveries arriving over the next few days for other aspects of our improvement works, car parking at the Centre is limited. If you are able to park in the main car park and walk across to this side of the nature reserve please do!

The Education Centre itself, Lapwing, Goosander, Ivy North, Ivy South and the Woodland hides are all open as usual.

Last week saw the delivery and installation of some brilliant chainsaw carved sculptures by Simon Groves, a chainsaw artist from West Sussex (to see some photos of these being enjoyed by some of our younger visitors, please read on!) and on Sunday our Young Naturalists worked with willow artist Kim Creswell on three dragonfly sculptures which will also be added to our newly named ‘Wild Walk‘ along with more of Kim’s wonderful work. A separate blog about Young Naturalists will follow!

On the bird front, two Bittern were seen from Ivy North hide on Sunday and at least one has been seen from there this week, including excellent views today, and a pair of Redpoll continue to visit the feeders at the Woodland hide.

And birds are the real reason for this blog, as last week was half term and it was a busy bird filled one, with a family event weaving willow bird feeders and two bird themed Wild Days Out where we were lucky enough to get a little closer to some of our native owls and raptors, courtesy of Liberty’s Owl, Raptor and Reptile Centre, made a lot of bird feeders and visited the Woodland and Ivy South hides in whatever time we had left in a girls vs boys who could spot the most species challenge.

We were joined by John from Liberty’s on Wednesday and Jayson on Thursday, with both giving brilliant talks to the children about the different birds they had bought with them, encouraging them to ask questions and letting them stroke the owls, a definite highlight! On Wednesday we were treated to a Kestrel, Peregrine falcon, Golden eagle (which really was huge and delighted the children by going to the toilet in the classroom) and Barn owl and on Thursday saw a Tawny owl, Little owl (definitely my favourite), Kestrel, Peregrine falcon and Goshawk.

On both days the children loved seeing the birds up close and being able to stroke some of them, and they asked some very sensible questions. It was definitely a highlight and we would like to thank John and Jayson from Liberty’s Owl, Raptor and Reptile Centre for taking the time to join us and supporting our Wild Days Out in this way. They once again very kindly demonstrated their birds free of charge to support Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, something they were only too pleased to be able to do as long standing “Wildlife Investors” of the Trust.

To find out how your business can support the work of the Trust at Blashford Lakes, or anywhere across the two counties, follow the link or contact Steph Watson on 01489 774400 or email Steph.Watson@hiwwt.org.uk.

Liberty’s owls and raptors were once again a hard act to follow, but whilst we had been waiting for them to arrive the children had been busy making popcorn bird feeders by threading popcorn onto a piece of wire, and fat balls using a suet, bird seed and sultana mix, so we headed outside to make our feeders for the fat balls to go into.

On the Thursday we had a few children who were bird feeder pro’s, having already made one either the day before or earlier in the month at Wildlife Watch, so they had a go at a different design, weaving one solely from willow instead of using the wooden disc base.

All three feeder designs looked great and everyone went away with two fabulous feeders. We then had just enough time to visit both the Woodland hide and Ivy South hide in two teams, boys vs girls, to see who could spot the most species of bird. On Thursday we even had time to walk a slightly longer loop so we could admire the new chainsaw sculptures that had been installed earlier in the week. The children loved them, with the badger in particular proving popular.

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Despite having photographic evidence of the boys using their binoculars to bird watch, I have to say the girls did spot more species both days, we were obviously being too competitive for photography! They also, rather sneakily, lulled Jim’s boys team into a false sense of security on the Thursday by making a right noise when the two teams crossed paths with each other, but up until this point had been super quiet and determined to see the most…

I know the boys did see a few bird species we didn’t see, but the girls’ lists over the two days included Coal tit, Great tit, Blue tit, Robin, Chaffinch, Dunnock, Long tailed tit, Goldfinch, Siskin, Blackbird, Greenfinch, Reed bunting, Jay, Jackdaw, Moorhen, Cormorant, Coot, Tufted duck, Great crested grebe, Black-headed gull, Mallard, Gadwall, Pochard, Collared dove, Treecreeper, Goldcrest, Pheasant, Carrion crow, Grey heron, Little grebe and Wood pigeon. I was particularly impressed with Megan for spotting the treecreeper! It was pretty good for a quick bird watch and I know they all really enjoyed their day.

Our Wild Days Out will be back for the Easter holidays, where we will be heading out onto the reserve in search of our reptiles and amphibians. Bookings may be made on-line only and are taken 4-6 weeks in advance of the activities via: https://shop.hiwwt.org.uk/product-category/events/

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The Turn of the Season

As autumn slips into winter and the last of the leaves get blown from the trees we are seeing the wildlife of the reserve taking on a more wintry feel too. At the weekend the goosander roost passed 100 birds for the first time, whilst the gull roost is now well up into the thousands. A black-necked grebe has returned to Ibsley Water, although as is typical, it is frequenting the extreme northern shore of the lake. The startling roost in reeds just west of the A338 Salisbury Road, but best viewed from the main car park area or Lapwing hide, had built up and is now quite a sight in a fine evening.

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Starling murmuration by Jon Mitchell

At times this gathering is attracting various predators, over the last ten days or so I have seen peregrine, sparrowhawk, marsh harrier and goshawk all eyeing up the roost for a potential snack.

Green sandpiper and water pipit are still being regularly seen at various points around Ibsley Water, but Goosander hide seems to be the most frequent place for good views of both. At least 3 great white egret are wandering the reserve and out into the valley, I have not managed to see more than three at any one time, but I strongly suspect there are more, perhaps up to five?

Visitors to the reserve may find diversions or short path closures over the next few weeks as we are doing some tree thinning, it should be possible to access all the hides though. The trees we are removing are mainly planted aliens species such as grey and Italian alder or species such as sycamore and Scots pine that are crowding more desirable species oak, elm and ash. The objective is to thin areas that were planted too densely and promote native species over non-natives, this should benefit a range of wildlife in the long run. Where possible we will be leaving standing dead trees, or lying dead wood for beetles and other invertebrates.

Listing, Lessons and Speculations

Like lots of people who look at wildlife I cannot resist keeping lists, not usually very thorough and I usually lose interest in about mid-February each year. So far I have kept going and find that I have seen 116 species of birds so far this year, all of them in Hampshire and at least 105 of them on visits to Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust reserves.

Of the 116 species I can see that five of them are introduced alien species (Canada goose, Egyptian goose, Mandarin duck, pheasant and red-legged partridge) and another an introduced population of a former native (greylag).  All of these  have been either introduced for “sport” or escaped from parkland collections.

Of the native species I am struck by the many species that have changed their status radically since I arrived in Hampshire. There are various reasons for this, the white trio of little egret (now breeding), great white egret (soon to be breeding here?) and spoonbill (perhaps likewise), have increased in number and range right across western Europe. The same could be said for Cetti’s warbler, avocet, yellow-legged gull and Mediterranean gull.

Birds of prey have increased, more or less across the board and seeing red kite, marsh harrier and peregrine is not now especially notable and buzzard has spread right across the county rather than being a New Forest bird. All of these species have benefited from a more benign environment, in which they are less exposed to harmful chemicals and suffer less persecution, at least in lowland England. One other species has gained from the same change is the raven, which now nests across most of the county. Goshawk has also colonised the county and benefited similarly, although the population is of escaped , or released, origin.

When I first came to Hampshire in 1978 there was no accepted record of ring-billed gull and I am not sure there was even such a thing as a Caspian gull thought about.

I estimate that if I had been doing the same thing forty years ago my list would most likely not have included at least 14 of those I have seen this year, so more than 10% of my list are birds that would have seemed remarkable then. Of course there would have been some species that I would have expected to see then by mid January, that we have now more or less lost, or at least which now need more particular seeking. For example Bewick’s swan, white-fronted goose, grey partridge, willow tit, corn bunting, yellowhammer and tree sparrow.

So listing may well be a rather pointless exercise in many ways but reflecting upon my list so far certainly tells a story of how much has changed and of course makes one think how much might change in the future. So what might a list in another forty years include?

I suspect we will have established populations of additional alien species, most likely is ring-necked parakeet (I suspect this will happen quite soon), but I think black swan may also get a firmer foothold too and Egyptian goose could become very common. Who knows perhaps even sacred ibis could make it over here in time if the continental populations develop uncontrolled.

Natural colonists that look like becoming regulars include, cattle egret and glossy ibis, both already occasional visitors. It is interesting to note the preponderance of wetland birds that are expanding their ranges. A bit of a wildcard might be the potential for a whole range of essentially  Pacific Arctic species to turn up as winter vagrants. The ice melt along the northern coast of Russia has opened up a route for many previously unconsidered species. The occurrence in Europe in recent years of slaty-backed gull hints at the potential for species to come via this route in years to come.

Unfortunately I think a lot of species are going to get much rarer. Coastal species will be under particular pressure, in forty years time there will be little or no saltmarsh along most of the Solent shoreline and much reduced mudflats, so wintering coastal wader populations will surely be much reduced. Couple this with and increase in “short-stopping”, which means that wintering birds coming from the north and east just don’t come so far in the increasingly mild winters. Overall I think it certain that the Solent will not be nearly so significant for wintering wetland birds.

This discussion of change is only considering the winter, our breeding birds could be in for at least as great a change, who knows I might speculate on this in a later blog.

 

Go Team!

Last Sunday our Young Naturalists participated in the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and Hampshire Ornithological SocietyBird Trail” here at Blashford Lakes.

The bird watching and wildlife event for teams of children and young people was hugely fun to participate in, and I’m sure another blog from Jim will follow shortly!

We had a while to wait until our allocated start time, so swiftly headed over to the bird ringing demonstration led by British Trust for Ornithology bird ringers Graham Giddens and Marcus Ward. The group have always enjoyed watching bird ringing demonstrations as it is such a good way to see the birds up close – we were lucky enough to see blue tit, great titnuthatch and goldfinch. Thomas spotted a chiff-chaff being caught but the bird made a speedy getaway so we were unable to get a closer view. A couple of the group, including Thomas below, had a go at holding then releasing the birds, a real privilege!

We then visited Liberty’s Owl, Raptor and Reptile Centre‘s static display of birds, again enjoying such close up views.

Peregrine falcon

Peregrine falcon

Kestrel

Kestrel

Still having time to wait we headed over to the Education Centre to have a look at the moths caught in the light trap the night before and the Natural History Museum stand, which contained lots of interesting identification guides and survey projects.

Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum

Finally it was time for us to start the trail, so we headed over towards Ivy North Hide, spotting robin, chaffinch, woodpigeon on our way with Thomas taking charge of our list. Before reaching the hide we were treated to distant views of a Peregrine falcon which we watched for some time. At Ivy North Hide we focused on the water birds, spotting cormorant, mute swan, Canada goose, grey heron, coot, gadwall, great crested grebe, shoveler and tufted duck. We also saw jay, swallow and herring gull.

Bird spotting

Bird spotting from Ivy North hide

On our way to the woodland hide we added a few more woodland birds to our list, including blackbird, siskin, long-tailed tit, dunnock, coal tit and greenfinch. Sadly though, despite our best efforts we couldn’t spot a wren

Pausing by the silt pond in the hope of a flash of blue, we heard Cetti’s warbler and rook whilst from Ivy South hide we watched mallard, black-headed gull and little grebe. From Ivy South hide we headed over the boardwalk and followed the path back along the Dockens Water. Backtracking for Thomas’ rucksack we spied a kingfisher (thanks Thomas!) then on making it to Ibsley Water we saw little egret, grey wagtail, greylag goose, Egyptian goose, lapwing, starling, lesser black-backed gull, jackdaw and buzzard from Goosander and Tern hides.

In total we had spotted a very respectable 47 species – thank you to HIWWT volunteer Nigel Owen and HOS volunteer John Shillitoe for expertly helping us with our bird identifying and for verifying our finds. Thanks too to Corinne Bespolka who was able to join us for the day.

On heading back to the Centre and handing in our sightings sheet, we were delighted to discover our bird spotting efforts had paid off and we had come second! I know those who joined us will thoroughly enjoy their prize, a family ticket to Liberty’s Owl, Raptor and Reptile Centre – thank you Liberty’s for supporting the event!

 

Young Nats by Corinne Bespolka

Our team, minus those who had to leave early, with Chris Packham and Karima from Bird Aware Solent, by Corinne Bespolka

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

Busy, Busy Blashford

This has been a busy week at Blashford, with volunteer work parties on Tuesday and Thursday, a meeting with our partners on Wednesday and several education groups and this evening a star-gazing event. Along the way we also, finally, got our new entrance signs for the main entrances.

On Tuesday we burnt up the vegetation on  Gull Island in Ibsley Water. Clearing it each year prevents it getting covered with scrub and so unsuitable for the gulls, ducks and waders that nest there each summer. We are hoping to make one end as clear as possible to see if we can encourage terns to nest there once again, I suspect we may need to add some shingle, but luckily we have some of that.

Clearing Gull Island

Clearing Gull Island

Terns are in real trouble on the coast, where most nest, very few manage to rear any chicks most years and so colonies are declining. They have to cope with high tides washing out the nests, disturbance by people, lack of food and predation. Although many fewer nest inland they generally breed much more successfully, so encouraging more to do so might be vital to their future. At Blashford we have between 20 and 25 pairs of common tern and they usually rear at least 50 young, so it seems well worth trying to encourage more.

On Thursday we were clearing the bramble and willow from the western shore of Ibsley Water, in this case to provide more grassland area for wildfowl to graze and, if we are lucky, lapwing to nest. There were a good group of volunteers and it is amazing what can be achieved in just under two hours!

Before

Before

……….and then after, as you can see even the weather improved!

After

After

It has also not been a bad week for wildlife, the great white egret has been seen several times, mostly on Rockford Lake. The count of goldeneye has gone up to five, with two adult drakes. Roosting bird numbers are picking up, with at least 25 goosander, perhaps 8000 starling and thousands and thousands of gulls, probably in excess of 10,000. Other birds have included sightings of red kite and goshawk and at the Woodland hide brambling and lesser redpoll. There have even been a few moths, including feathered thorn and a sprawler.