Signs of Spring…

Yesterday was grey, murky and pretty miserable – this morning the sun is out and everywhere is looking beautiful, and yes, despite an apparent lack of winter so far this year, Spring does seem to be drawing near, if not upon us already.

Although we have yet to encounter any on the nature reserve earlier in the week I found some frogspawn in a shallow pool near home in the New Forest and the last couple of evenings I have encountered “toad patrols” out helping  migrating toads cross roads safely outside Poulner and Sway – these volunteers do an amazing job under difficult, and, at times, dangerous conditions in the dark, saving many thousands of toads from an untimely and unnatural demise under the wheels of our cars. Readers of this blog are likely to be considerate, respectful and appreciative of their efforts, but of course many motorist’s are not and quickly succumb to “road rage” if required to slow down on their commute home so do watch out, take care and vouch for the toad volunteers where ever and whenever you can!

On the reserve itself the great spotted woodpeckers are drumming on their favourite drumming posts, including the usual dead “stag head” branches of the large oak between the river and the centre car park, tits are being seen investigating nest boxes and although the snowdrops have been flowering for some weeks, and scarlet elf cups fruiting for some weeks, this week they have been doing so in force and, down by the Woodland Hide, the first of our wild daffodils is now flowering too:

A more unusual, or at least early, first sighting of the year was that of a large female grass snake outside Ivy North Hide this morning and reported to me by visitors Mark & Alison as I wrote this blog post! Mark very kindly emailed me his picture:

First grass snake of 2020 by Mark Dartnall

First grass snake of 2020 by Mark Dartnall

Elsewhere it is really business as usual with not much changing – still no bittern, still a kingfisher at Ivy South Hide, still loads of wildfowl on Ivy Lake and still a starling murmurartion in the valley, although this does now seem to have moved from Mockbeggar to a roost site west of the A338 just north of Ellingham Village and best viewed (hopefully against a stunning sunset!) from the viewing platform at the back of the main car park.

With the lighter evenings the starlings are now starting to gather shortly after 4.30pm and going to roost by about 5pm. It’s not often the car park is closed bang on 4.30pm, but it does happen on occasion and although we are as flexible as possible sometimes the staff or volunteers locking up do need to leave when they need to leave. As the evenings continue to draw out do consider parking the car outside the car park gates, safely off the roadside, so you can watch  the starlings perform without interruption should the site need securing in a more timely fashion!

Round up of recent events

So far each month this year has seen us recording a record number of visitors to the reserve. October may prove to be the exception, due, no doubt, to it being generally rather wet and gloomy. It hasn’t deterred everyone however and those visitors who have braved the rain have reported/recorded some good sightings – including the following by one of our Welcome Volunteers, Doug, taken a couple of weeks ago on one of the few days where there was actually some sunshine(!):

great crested grebe by Doug Massongrass snakes by Doug Massongrass snake by Doug MassonTawny by Doug Masson

I think the grass snakes may actually have given up and found somewhere to hibernate over winter by now but they had been pretty active outside Ivy South Hide in the usual spot. When I say pretty active I actually mean unusually VERY active, particularly given the time of the year… the picture of the three together above were actually mating and another visitor had reported seeing the same behaviour a few days prior to Doug capturing it on “film”, although all of the guide books suggest that this usually only happens in or around April soon after they have emerged from hibernation.

The tawny owl shot is fabulous and Doug is the second photographer that I am aware of who has been fortunate enough to chance upon one of “our” owls hiding out on the reserve during the day this year.

Visitors to the Centre may have had a fiddle with the wildlife camera controller fixed up to the TV in the lobby and discovered that additional camera’s are now live – in addition to the original pond and compost camera’s and the new Woodland Hide feeder camera, there is now a bird box camera, tawny owl box camera and an artificial badger sett camera.

Being new and the wrong time of year, there is absolutely nothing going on on these new additions, but fingers crossed, they will see activity next year! Actually, I say there is nothing going on in them, but there is a lovely cobweb across the front of the badger cam and at times the spider is in evidence too 😉

Out on the water autumn arrivals are dropping in in dribs and drabs but goosander are now to be seen on a daily basis on Ibsley Water as are teal, pochard and wigeon across the site. Walter and friends are still around too, although they have kept a low profile for much of this month. The great white egrets do seem to be back roosting on Ivy Lake near the cormorants again though with at least two birds around regularly and three individuals seen yesterday. Also on Ivy Lake Bob saw otter again when he locked up one evening last week. First otter sightings for a while that we are aware of and he saw it from both Ivy North and Ivy South Hide and the wildfowl saw it too – and were not very happy about it!

Not so good for our visitor numbers the wet weather has certainly been good for fungi, with fantastic displays of puffball species, parasol and fly agaric mushrooms in particular.

Puffballs by Daisy MeadowcroftParasol by Daisy MeadowcroftFly agaric by Daisy Meadowcroft

There have been occasional nice beefsteak fungi too, but sadly foragers did for the best of these before reaching their prime.

I haven’t got anything against the gathering and consumption of wild fungi personally and have been known to indulge myself on more than one occasion, but I only ever collect a few specimens from locations where that species is abundant and I always ensure that plenty are left to complete their life-cycle and spore. It is very unfortunate that, as with many pastimes, a few selfish and/or thoughtless individuals spoil it for the many.

Feel free to question the actions of visitors foraging at Blashford, or let staff/volunteers know, as, unless part of an organised fungus group survey, they will almost certainly not have permission to be collecting!

Half-term next week and we have “Wild Days Out” activity days on Tuesday and Thursday and, if we get any more bookings (they’re rather thin at the moment) we have a Stargazing event with Fordingbridge Astronomers on Tuesday evening.

And finally, for lovers of fine food everywhere, we are very pleased to announce the most welcome and long-awaited return of the Pop Up Café in the Centre classroom a week on Sunday (Sunday 3rd November)!

Nigel and Christine from Walking Picnics are back serving hot drinks and delicious home baked cakes and savoury snacks from 10.30am-3.30pm on New Years Day and the first and third Sundays of November, December and January with possible additional dates later in the year to follow. Enjoy!

Woodwork and wandering

The weather last week resulted in two very different Wild Days Out, with Tuesday very wet and soggy and not the best conditions for wildlife watching although we did still manage a trip to the hides and a walk in search of wasp spiders, and the Wednesday much warmer and brighter.

On Tuesday we swapped wildlife watching for some making, made possible with a small group and limited only by the children’s imagination, the materials we could lay our hands on and the woodwork skills of volunteers Chris and Lucy and myself. The group did keep us on our toes! But the focus and determination that went into the making was fabulous, we started with a bit of wand making then this progressed into making paints from blackberries, charcoal and clay, bug homes, a willow snail and a sword and a shield.

And there was definitely time to play at the end, especially when they found a toad!

Playing

With very different weather on the Wednesday, we headed off to the lichen heath in search of wasp spiders, munched a few wild strawberries and blackberries then made our way to Goosander Hide to see what we could spot.

Unfortunately we didn’t manage to spot any adders, but on our way back we did see a number of butterflies enjoying the sunnier weather:

There were also plenty of butterflies and other insects enjoying the flowers by the pond at lunchtime:

We also spent a bit of time enjoying the new sand pit, tunnel and stepping stones:

After lunch we rummaged through the moth trap, with the highlights including a stunning Elephant hawk-moth, a Poplar hawk-moth and a Canary-shouldered thorn:

We then headed off on the ‘Wild Walk‘, keeping our fingers crossed for grass snakes and we were not disappointed, spotting six altogether either on the branches in Ivy Silt Pond or outside the front of Ivy South Hide: 

We carried on along the sculpture trail then headed down to the river to finish with a paddle and some rush boat racing:

We still have some spaces available on our summer Wild Days Out and details on how to book can be found on our website.

30 Days Wild – Day 24

A warm clam night, ideal for moths and so it proved, with the best catches of the year so  far. There was not a lot of great note, just all the usual suspects plus a lot of small species, which tend to be caught much more on calm nights. In fact it was the micro moths that provided the best moth of the night, assuming I have managed to identify it accurately, it was a Tortrix moth, Pammene trauniana.

Pammene trauniana

Pammene trauniana

The grass snakes were putting on a show again yesterday at Ivy South Hide, with four individuals on the tree stump in front of the hide.

Signs of the year moving on are starting to appear, a common sandpiper on Ibsley Water will be one on the return journey south and the moulting goose flocks are building in size.

There was clearly an arrival of painted lady butterflies with several around in the afternoon, perhaps more to follow and maybe other species too.

Following yesterday’s clearwing success, I tried the lures again at lunchtime and again attracted a single orange-tailed clearwing. This time I did manage some rather better pictures.

orange-tailed bee

orange-tailed clearwing

 

30 Days Wild – Day 20

A slippery sort of a day, blue sky to start then rain, then warm sun and eventually heavy rain, it was hard to know how many layers and of what type to wear and every time I went out I got it wrong. The wildlife seemed equally confused, at Ivy South Hide as I opened up in thick cloud the grass snakes were “basking” on the tree stump.

grass snake

the largest grass snake

By the time I set out with the volunteers at 10:00 to work on the eastern shore of Ibsley Water, the sun was strong and the sun block was out in force. Ten minutes later when we got there, grey clouds were threatening and curtains of rain could be seen falling to the south-west. Luckily, and to my surprise, we got away with it and managed to return still more or less dry. On the return journey I noticed a mullein plant with the telltale tattered leaves caused by munching mullein moth caterpillars.

mullein moth caterpillar

mullein moth caterpillar

Our tern rafts have mainly been occupied by gulls again this year, this is to be expected as gulls far outnumber terns. There are about twenty pairs of terns nesting though and many now have chicks.

raft with B-h gulls

Raft with black-headed gull families

There are still a few common tern seemingly loafing around on Ibsley Water, I assume off-duty birds whose partners are still sitting on eggs, but perhaps non-breeders.

common tern

common tern

The picture, with wings open shows a clear identification feature of the species, the darker outer primaries. The reason for this is that the outer four or five of the wing feathers much older than the inner ones and so more worn. The white edges wear away more quickly which means older feathers look darker, forming a definite dark wedge in the outer-wing. The reason this helps with identification because the most similar tern species, the Arctic tern moults all of its wing feathers in one continuous sequence, meaning that there is no such contrast between the newest and oldest wing feather, making the wing look the same all along its length.

Warm wet weather is perfect for slime moulds, the really weird end of nature and a group I have featured a few times before.

Fuligo serptica

Fuligo septica

This one has various names, one is troll butter, but there are many more.

The bark chippings in the raised beds at the Centre also has some, at first I though just one type but a closer look suggests at least two. A close look is essential as the fruiting bodies are very small indeed.

slime mould 1

Slime mould fruiting body looking like tiny strings of pearls

Close up they look like minute stylised trees.

slime mould poss Physarum album

slime mould possibly Physarum album

Taking a closer look is when I realised that not all of them had white stems and spherical tops.

Slime mould close in

A different slime mould

slime mould

Even closer

30 Days Wild – Day 19

Another rainy day, all the trees dripping and overall just drab and damp. The mild night resulted in a few moths, a few new for the year; purple clay, elephant hawk-moth and blotched emerald.

It was not cold and I suppose this was why the grass snake were out on the tree stump at Ivy South Hide, two seemed to be there all day, both a good size, but one especially large one.

Poor weather is a signal to catch up on paperwork, or at least to try to. However too much paperwork is bad for the soul, so this afternoon we were out doing something I have never done before. Hanging woven willow sculptures in trees, specifically three each of dragonflies and wasps.

willow dragonfly 2

willow dragonfly

The dragonflies were made in workshops led by Kim Creswell as part of the Veolia Environmental Trust project  by our Young Naturalists Group and the wasps made by members of the local Home Educators community who have regular field visit meet ups here throughout the year. They have joined the various other sculptures on the circular walk from the Centre south via the boardwalk and back along the Dockens Water.

willow wasp

willow wasp

As well as doing the blog, more or less daily, look for tweets @30DaysWild from us and loads of other people, you can add your own and use #30DaysWild, if you tweet about Blashford use #BlashfordLakes too if you can.

vet-logo

30 Days Wild – Day 16

Since Thursday evening something dramatic has happened to the breeding gulls on Ibsley Water, they have completely abandoned their nesting island. I know there were lots of large chicks still on there, so I can only assume that a ground predator reached the island and predated a lot of them. Perhaps most likely is that a fox swam out there and spent some time wandering about killing chicks, but it could have been an otter or mink. Luckily some of the chicks had already flown, so this was not a complete colony loss.

The moth trap overnight caught rather little, unsurprisingly as it was again very windy, with a few showers. There was one notable species though, a lunar yellow underwing, this is a species of very dry grassland and regularly found at only two sites in Hampshire. Curiously I have several times caught them on nights that would generally be thought of as poor for moths, I once caught three in a night of high winds and rain when the total catch was only twelve moths.

lunar yellow underwing

lunar yellow underwing

Wet and windy weather is not good for insects, unsurprising really as they mostly like warm sunshine! I found one casualty in the new Centre pond yesterday.

Emperor dead

Dead emperor dragonfly

The rain and wind has brought down a few trees, a combination of wet ground and a heavy weight of leaves making them much more unstable. In the afternoon we suffered a power cut when a tree fell on the overhead power lines, hopefully to be restored by the start of the new working week. All trees will fall eventually and most will go onto have a value for wildlife, either by continuing to grow or by providing a deadwood resource. One group that uses deadwood are the slime moulds and I found what I think was one on a dead willow stump.

slime mould possibly

A slime mould (possibly)

The patchy sunshine brought out good numbers of insects and other warmth loving species, after a few days in hiding they were keen to get active if they could.

grass snake

grass snake on the stump at Ivy South Hide

 

I saw three different large female grass snake during the day, no doubt tempted out by the sunny spells, but not so warmed up that they were really active.

Other insects out and about included this distinctive click beetle.

Agrypnus murinus

Agrypnus murinus

There were also quiet a lot of solitary bees about, including this yellow-face bee.

yellow faced bee

yellow-face bee (not sure which species)

 

Bonaparte’s Again

A couple of years ago Blashford Lakes was visited by a first year Bonaparte’s gull, a small species between little gull and black-headed gull in size and looking very like the latter. They breed in North America and very occasionally get blown across the Atlantic. Most turn up in this country in spring and are first year birds. It seems probable that they are blown across in autumn storms and are following a natural instinct to migrate north after wintering well to the south of us. Yesterday the second of this species to be found on the reserve was seen from the splendid new Tern Hide and attracted a fair few birders as the news got out.

Bonaparte's gull

Bonaparte’s gull (right) with black-headed gull of the same age and common terns.

Although similar to a black-headed gull the differences are not too hard to see up close, although this bird is somewhat larger than our last and so less obvious. At long range and especially if feeding on the water, it is much less easy to spot. However there are some clues that might help. The most obvious is the difference in feeding action, the Bonaparte’s has a habit of up-ending and overall swims with neck very stretched looking reminiscent of a phalarope, with their faster feeding action as well.

The Tern Hide is also proving a great place, appropriately enough, to see terns, specifically common tern.

common tern

displaying common tern from Tern Hide

The last few days have seen a few migrant birds passing through or arriving, we have recorded our first swift and migrant waders like dunlin and whimbrel. I have not managed to get pictures of any of these but I did snap a red kite that flew over on Monday.

red kite

red kite

The spring is not all about birds though, as the season moves on we are seeing lots more insects such as small copper, holly blue and many spring hoverflies.

Epistrophe elegans

Epistrophe eligans – a typical spring hoverfly

We are also seeing more reptiles and I found the grass snake below basking beside the main car park!

grass snake

grass snake

Our developments are still ongoing, but are drawing to a close, however the latest job will be to resurface the car park nearest the Education Centre, meaning it will be unavailable for parking for a few days, most likely next week. We are nearly at the end of the works, so things should settle down soon! Thank you to New Forest LEADER for funding our improvements to the area in front of the Education Centre.

New Forest LEADER

 

Summing up…

The past two weeks hasn’t all been about the current improvements at Blashford, we have been in search of reptiles and amphibians on two Wild Days Out, run a busy family pond dip session (distinctly lacking in newts, we must have scared them all off the week before!) and woven some very pretty Easter baskets using materials found on the reserve.

And the reserve is looking lovely! It is getting greener by the day, although some trees are suffering more than others from the ever increasing number of munching Alder leaf beetles. This Crab apple in particular is being stripped bare:

There are plenty of wildflowers out, including Germander speedwell, Ground ivy, Cuckoo flower, Moschatel, Primrose, Cowslip and Common Dog-violet. Lesser celandine is carpeting the woodland floor near the reserve entrance and the Bluebells will soon be following suit, with some already flowering.

The warm sunny weather has bought the butterflies out in force, with Brimstone, Orange-tip, Speckled wood, Small white, Comma and Peacock all on the wing.

Large numbers of Sand martin have been investigating the holes in the Sand martin wall in preparation for nesting and Swallows are also back, although currently in much smaller numbers. Three Black tern spent most of today over Ibsley Water and as I left all three had alighted the Osprey perch out in the lake. Little ringed plover have been on the shoreline and Lapwing continue to display overhead.

P1140678

Sand martins

David Stanley-Ward sent in two very fine photos recently, one of two fighting Coot taken from the new Tern Hide and the other of two Great-crested grebes displaying in front of Goosander Hide.

Coots

Fighting Coots by David Stanley-Ward

Great-crested Grebe

Great-crested Grebes by David Stanley-Ward

If you have visited recently and would like to share your wildlife sighting with us, please do email them to BlashfordLakes@hiwwt.org.uk along with whether you are happy for us to use them on the blog and on other promotional material and how you would like to be credited. We don’t always manage to post images straight away, but do always enjoy seeing them, so thank you David for sharing these.

The woodland is full of bird song, with Chiff-chaff and Cetti’s warbler in particular standing out with their more striking calls. Blackcaps are seen frequently although they do not stay in one spot for long and Willow warblers are also present whilst Brambling and Reed bunting continue to feed in front of the Woodland Hide. Sedge warbler and Reed warbler can also be heard in the reedbeds by Ivy North Hide and Ivy Silt Pond.

P1140586

Brambling

And finally back to the events! On our Wild Days Out Amphibian and Reptile Rambles we managed one young grass snake, the same snake in the same spot on both days. This really isn’t the best photo, but if you look in the centre you might be able to make out the tip of it’s tail as it disappeared into the undergrowth.

P1140225

Spot the tiny grass snake’s tail!

On both days the weather was fairly cool so we failed to spot an adder, but both groups enjoyed a longer walk over to Goosander Hide and the older children managed to make it as far as Lapwing Hide.

Back at the pond we had more success, catching a number of newts, and we also found some under the logs in the woodland. Both days were enjoyed by all, even if the reptiles were a bit thin on the ground!

And last but not least, on Wednesday morning a very satisfying two hours were spent weaving in willow wood, with a number of children creating some very striking Easter baskets using materials collected on the reserve and a wooden disc base prepped by volunteer Geoff. We used rush, sedge and larch as well as the willow, with a couple of the older children even having a go with fresh bramble. One of the girls stripped the bark off some of the willow leaving the inner white of the rod on show. They all looked amazing!

The last couple of weeks have been very varied, but with the weather warming up it has been lovely to be out and about on the reserve. Spring is definitely here!

Wandering in Nature

180823WDOWildWander by J Day (3)

Another belated blog post relating to our summer holiday activity program… this time a “Wildlife Wander”. Nice easy one to plan and prepare for this one. Basically gather children and head out on the nature reserve to walk, play and see what we can discover!

Being August, and with blackberries fruiting in the prodigious quantities that they are this summer, blackberry picking and eating featured quite highly throughout both of our wildlife wanders! Sometimes picking “traditionally” with fingers, sometimes “browsing” them off the stem directly like a deer or a giraffe, just for fun. Regardless the end result was lots of purple faces, although some did somehow end up a lot more purple than others! None more so than these two who opted for painting their hands with the fruit:

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There’s quite a lot of fruit around generally, although disappointingly this year the cherry plums have been spectacularly bad. Related to the cherry plums, the blackthorm seems to be producing a good sloe crop. Blackthorn is an occasional shrub at Blashford and by no means occurs in sufficient quantities for Tracy (or anyone else for that matter!) to keep herself in sloe gin, but there is more than ample for me to delight in encouraging young people to try the bittersweet fruit! Love it!

180823WDOWildWander by J Day (2)

Bird watching as well as foraging also featured highly in our expeditions, with visits to Ivy North, Goosander and Tern Hides. The “hidelight” was undoubtedly on the second day when we observed a large grass snake emerge from the water beneath Goosander Hide, much to the consternation of the grey wagtail we were also watching at the time, and then proceed to make its way to the wall and attempt to slither inside a crack in the blockwork at the base.

Bug hunting was on the agenda of many of our wildlife explorers too of course – we are after all talking about children, and children interested in nature at that! Best of all though were the wasp spiders in the hard rush tussocks amongst the scrub behind Goosander Hide where we picnicked. I was delighted to see these beauties as I had failed to see any earlier in the year when sweep netting in our small meadow by Ivy North Hide where we usually do see (and sometimes inadvertently catch) at least a few each summer. Of the children Thomas “bug boy” Baker was by far the best spotter, finding at least 12 on the Tuesday, but even his sterling efforts were far outstripped by Tracy on Thursday who must have found at least 20 herself. I was quite frustrated and didn’t find any of my “own” until I eventually did manage to get my eye in and find 8 or so (my excuse is that Tracy, being more vertically challenged than I, is more on a level with the spiders, thus making them easier for her to spot…). With the children finding a good number more it really was astounding just how many there are up there:

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Hmmm. Do I like this, or do I not like this…?!

And then there was the wander itself – it was lovely watching and listening to the children amble along with their friends and making new friends,  chatting about this, that and nothing in particular:

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The second day was a bit warmer than the first and, as far as the children were concerned, they had walked miles, so towards the end we needed an incentive to keep them going – what more of an incentive could a child need than the opportunity to get in a river? None it turned out and a good time was had by all – so at the end of the day a lot of tired, blackberry full, very wet children went home very happy!

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