September’s End

Another fine day although with more of an autumnal feel that yesterday. There was still mist over the lakes as I opened the hides, from Tern hide the highlight was the unringed great white egret flying past the hide, heading south.

I made the most of the cooler conditions to go and do some path trimming, in places the bramble growth has pushed the path almost completely off the gravel surface. I was working near the southern end of Ellingham Lake  and the hedge there has some large ivy growths, some of it now flowering and on these I saw a few of the ivy bee Colletes hederae. This is quite large for a solitary bee and flying so late in the season is very obvious, so it seems extraordinary that it was only described as new to science in 1993, since when it has been found over much of Europe. It was first found in the UK in Dorset in 2001 and has now spread as far north as Norfolk.

ivy bee

Ivy bee Colletes hederae

In the late afternoon I went over to Goosander and Lapwing hides. In the reedbed and willows there were a few chiffchaff but no other migrants. From Lapwing hide I saw 2 green sandpiper and at least 1 common sandpiper. The screens overlooking the silt pond behind Lapwing hide proved worth a look with 2 mandarin and 2 snipe on show and some bullfinch in the willows.

At Goosander hide there has been a feeding frenzy going on for many days now. The cormorant seem to have got a large shoal of small carp hemmed in the bay near the hide and they are attracting everything that can swallow a small fish. There were the cormorant of course along with little egret, a great white egret (Walter this time), grey heron, great crested grebe, little grebe, black-headed gull and even mallard. The mallard and gulls are mostly steeling dropped fish, but a lot of the cormorant seem not to be bothering to eat everything they catch. Sometimes the cormorant are coming up with large perch or even pike, these are also in on the hunt for small carp, but run the risk of becoming a meal themselves in the process.

Goosander hide feeding frenzy 2

Cormorant flock fishing for carp

The cormorant dive for the fish which are driven into the weedy shallows in an attempt to escape, where they then run into the line of heron and egret.

Goosander hide feeding frenzy

Grey heron, little egret and great white egret waiting to the carp to be driven near to the shore

Finally, as I locked up the tern hide right at the end of the day I was delighted to see the reported wood sandpiper just in front of the hide. It was a juvenile, with fresh yellowish spangled feathers looking very splendid in the golden glow of the setting sun. To add to the scene the grey phalarope flew in and landed some 100m away, despite trying I could not see the juvenile garganey that was also seen earlier, but tomorrow is another day.

 

Advertisements

A Perfect Day

It was a glorious day at Blashford today, to my mind the perfect balance of sunshine and cool temperatures, the ideal autumn day for getting work done on the reserve. It was also a pretty good day for birds, although many of them have been with us for a while now.

When I first looked from Tern hide as I opened up I saw the two young little gull and thousands of house martin, low over the water, I estimated 3000 at least but they were everywhere low over the trees, lakes with others high in the sky. I could see no sign of the black tern or grey phalarope. A small wader on the gravel island way out near the middle of the lake caught my eye, there was something of a redshank about it but it was not one. This meant wood sandpiper was the most likely candidate and after a little while it was disturbed by a black-headed gull and made a short flight confirming the identification, our second of the autumn.

Later in the day it turned out the phalarope was still present and I got good views of it as I locked up. Other birds included both great white egret, at least one green sandpiper and reports of common sandpiper, I missed that, so did not get the “Sandpiper set”. Locking up the Ivy North hide I saw a pintail, the first for a few days.

I got no pictures of birds, or anything else today (working too hard, obviously!). However I will post a few pictures of recent notable records from the reserve, not great pictures mind you. The first is of a small Tortrix moth Olinida schumacherana, which seems to be the first record for the 10km square that includes the reserve.

Olinida schumacherana

Olinida schumacherana

The next is the Australian Pyralid moth that we first recorded last year as possibly new for Hampshire. In appears to have been introduced with the tree ferns that the caterpillars eat, although it now seems to be finding local ferns to its liking.

Austral Pyralid

Musotima nitidalis

It was first found in the UK in Dorset in 2009.

I will end with a couple of pictures from my garden, two late butterflies bringing  a little colour to the end of their season.

small copper

small copper on Sedum

common blue male

A very fresh male common blue

19th September – Sightings

A windy day with occasional showers and a lot of cloud. Iblsey Water hosted hundreds of hirundines all day, in contrast to yesterday, when almost all were house martin, today there were good numbers of swallow with quite a few sand martin as well, in a quick estimate first thing I came up with about 400-500 swallow and perhaps 200 sand martin low over the water and closest to Tern hide, with about 500 house martin, mostly towards the north and as is usually the case higher up in the sky. I searched the higher house martin for a late swift, but without success.

The edges of the car park held at least 5 chiffchaff and it was my impression that there were many more about today generally. I was mostly stuck in meetings for the rest of the day sop I have relied upon “reports received” for the rest. Over Ibsley Water single hobby, peregrine and a passing female type marsh harrier were seen as was a fly over cattle egret, I still have yet to see one at Blashford! A single great white egret spent the day on the lake amongst the crowd of grey heron. The juvenile black tern remained in place for its fifth day.

Sightings

Although there has not been a lot of migrant activity over recent days there are lots of birds around on the reserve at present. As someone said to me today “It is great if you like coots”, yesterday I counted 908 of them on Ibsley Water alone.

Rather more interesting to most visitors though will be the juvenile black tern which has been over Ibsley Water for the last four days. Both great white egret have been seen daily, but the cattle egret seem to have departed, without my ever managing to see one. A few wildfowl are starting to arrive with up to 12 wigeon on Ivy Lake and a few teal and shoveler to be seen on both Ibsley Water and Ivy Lake.

Locking up this evening I estimated at least 800 house martin over Ibsley Water with a very few sand martin, if there were any swallow I could not find them.

A Few Birds

We had a mini bird race for teams from our Blashford Lakes Project partners today, which meant that I got to have a good look around the reserve and see a few birds as well. Generally it was a quite day with rather little sign of migration despite the season.

Over Ibsley Water there were several hundred hirundines, predominantly house martin but including sand martin and swallow. The only wader was common sandpiper, but the bushes between the lakes held some small birds including chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap and a single spotted flycatcher, mostly accompanying flocks of long-tailed tit.

Walter our regular great white egret was back in his regular spot outside Ivy North hide after going absent for a few days, his recent companion has not been seen for several days. An adult hobby hunting over the trees at the same spot was also nice to see and a peregrine was reported there as well.

Numbers of wildfowl have been high for the time of year and I took the opportunity to get a new count of the coot on Ibsley Water and found 794, a really high count for the first half of September.

 

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.

Walter Returned

Jim, reported the sighting of a great white egret on Ivy Lake the other day and speculated that it might be “Walter” our regularly returning bird. This bird was ringed in 2003 in France and first arrived at Blashford in August of that year, since then he has come back to spend each autumn and winter with us. We know that it is the same bird each year as he was ringed as a nestling with a combination of coloured rings. He is now 15 years and 3 months old, a good age for almost any bird. I have seen a maximum age for this species in Europe of 17 years, but it seems the official European bird ringing site (EURING) reports a maximum age of only 13 year and 9 months, which would make Walter Europe’s oldest great white egret by some margin.

With this in mind I was very keen to establish if the bird seen was actually Walter and not some other visitor and as I locked up yesterday there he was outside Ivy North hide, with rings on full show. This egret was indeed Walter returned and apparently a record breaker.

Of course he would have also been Europe’s oldest last year as well, he was reported then and does not seem to have made it onto the database, so perhaps there are others, even older out there that have also not got into the records yet. But, for now at least we will claim him as the oldest.

So how old might he get? The oldest great white egret (also known as “Great egret”), I can find is 22 years in North America and a grey heron has reached 37 years 6 months, so we could be seeing him for some years yet with a bit of luck.

Back Again

I was back at Blashford after a week away in North Wales. It was a good many years since I was there and it was great to visit familiar places and some new ones too. Seeing wildlife that I don’t see at home was also good. Birds such as dipper, chough, whooper swan, black guillemot and hen harrier were all a treat.

So it was back to work today, but as if to emphasise that it is not so bad, as if I needed reminding, on the way in I saw a hawfinch which flew across the road. Opening up the Tern hide a black-necked grebe was on view. Outside the Centre two male brambling were by the feeder and from Ivy South hide Walter the great white egret and an otter. There really are worse places to work!

I was in the office for a good part for the day, there is no way to escape the after-break email backlog. This did mean that I saw lots of people coming and going from the Pop-up cafe, which did a good trade despite it being quite q quiet day for visitors. If you want the chance to sample the splendid homemade cakes on offer there are just two more opportunities this winter, they will be back on the first and third Sundays in March and then taking their break until next autumn. It is a testament to the quality on offer that some of today’s customers were returnees who came in just for the cake and did not even visit the reserve.

There was one negative event to report, a car was broken into int he main car park, although nothing was stolen. Although a very rare event at Blashford, with well under one break-in a year it still pays to be careful. Just as in the New Forest car parks you should obviously not leave valuables on display, but also don’t put them in the boot in the car park, if you are being watched this just shows the criminal where to look and that there is something to steal. Either don’t leave things in the car or put them out of the way at a stop before you arrive to park. If you see anything or anyone suspicious let us know, note down a car number or anything else that might help. The reserve has always been very safe and we would like to keep it that way.

Locking up at the end of the day it was evident that there was no otter around Ivy Lake, the ducks were looking very relaxed, in stark contrast to their demeanour in the morning. Although we might think of otters as fish eaters they are far from averse to duck and locally they seem to favour signal crayfish when they are abundant.

P1090870

Evening on Ivy lake, peace and quiet.

The cormorant have returned to roost in the trees around Ivy Lake after going elsewhere for a while, although they are only using the ones on the spit. I also noticed that “Walter” had come back to roost in his favoured dead alder tree, if you look closely you can just make him out as a white spot on the right hand side of the picture. I expect he will be heading back to France soon, he rarely stays into March and often goes in January. Hopefully he will be back in the late summer, but as he approaches his fifteenth year of life he is a grand old great white egret now and at some point we will not see him again.

At the very end of the day the gull roost included the ring-billed gull, a couple of Caspian gull, but no Thayer’s gull, despite it having been seen flying south over Alderholt for the day spent feeding in pig fields at Tidpit. It has evidently found an alternative roost, perhaps in Christchurch Harbour.

Thayer’s Gull

There has been much excitement in recent days at Blashford Lakes over the sighting of a potential Thayer’s gull. I say potential because these are not easy birds to identify or at least it is not easy to know exactly what you are looking at. Larger gulls are a particularly tricky bunch, they can vary quite a lot within species and not much at all between species and (even worse) sometimes hybridise!

So how do you ever know what you are looking at? For all the species there are the “Classic” birds, the ones that look like the have just stepped off the pages of the field guide, these should not be too difficult, although some genetic studies suggest even some of these might not be quiet what they seem. The others are more problematic, at least for people who like to put a name to them. Often it then comes down to looking at the various characters and scoring what is positive and what negative, after that you can consult experts or, for the more free-wheeling just decide if you are happy or not. For some there is no “right” answer, just the balance of probability.

So is this Thayer’s gull the real thing? The short answer is I don’t know and it will probably get decided by committee in the end and some will accept the decision and others not. Having seen the bird at some distance last night and then rather better tonight I have a few observations. The books often say they are structurally like Iceland gull and a claimed one I saw many years ago in Ireland was, to my eyes, identical in structure to Iceland gulls nearby. This bird looks bulkier than what I would expect for an Iceland gull, but it has the same wide, round head so typical of that species. Iceland gulls do have broader bodies and heads than herring gulls but this bird looks very heavy indeed. The wings do not look long and the rear of the bird on the water looks less attenuated than typical for Iceland, but this may be due to the rather large body size and males gulls are often a lot larger than females. As far as I can tell the plumage looks as though it has all the expected features.

Whatever it is, it is interesting and different from any other gull I have seen before, even the other one claimed as Thayer’s. It is quite obvious in the roost, it certainly stands out as different. Another way of looking at it is what might it be if it is not a Thayer’s gull? It seems American herring gull will hybridise with Thayer’s gull and that they will also hybridise with Glaucous-winged gull producing offspring that look like Thayer’s gulls. However it seems that these various hybrids tend not to have the round head, which this bird certainly does have.

If you are a bird lister it really matters if this is or is not a Thayer’s gull, importantly if it is accepted as such by the rarities committee once they have weighed up the pros and cons. Whatever they decide it is a very interesting bird and I am pleased I have seen it, I have looked at many, many thousands of gulls and never seen one quiet like it before. There is a school of thought that Thayer’s gull is just a form of Iceland gull and not a full species at all.

All this begs the question of just what defines a species, actually an important question for conservationists as rarity often drives much funding and conservation effort. A rare species will attract more effort than attract more effort than a sub-species. The definition of a species is  not a simple thing and not as clear as you might think and subject to change. Actually what matters are populations, we need to conserve populations, it does not really matter if they are species, sub-species or separate groups of one species. Keeping populations viable ensures their survival whatever their status, we should not consider them less because they are not a separate species by the current definition.

As for the Thayer’s gull, I enjoyed seeing it whatever it is eventually decided to be. Come to that I enjoyed seeing all the other gulls in the roost too. All 9,000 or so of them, including a juvenile Iceland gull, yellow-legged gulls, Mediterranean gulls and the thousands of lesser black-backed gulls and black-headed gulls. If you are interested there are pictures of the Thayer’s gull on the HOS go birding website, mine are so bad I will not torture you with them!

Elsewhere, away from the gulls, “Walter” the great white egret was on Ivy Lake and 2 black-necked grebe on Ibsley Water along with a single Bewick’s swan, a  real rarity here these days, although there were almost 200 wintering in the valley a few decades ago.

Preparations for Spring

It was a properly frosty morning, but walking round to open up the hides this morning signs of approaching spring were everywhere.

Frosty thistle

Frosty thistle

The snowdrops near the store are well out now and primroses are flowering around the car park edge, near the Woodland hide the leaves of the wild daffodils have been up for  a while, but now the flower buds can be seen. Along the path sides shiny, bright green wild arum leaves are showing everywhere and near the alder carr there are the brilliant red spots of colour provided by scarlet elf cup fungi.

As it was Tuesday we had a volunteer task today and we were also looking forward to the warmer days. Our task was clearing back the path sides on the way to the Ivy South hide to open up sheltered scallops to give something of the feeling of a woodland ride. This path runs almost exactly north-south and so has many sun-traps beloved of insects and reptiles. Out plan was to create more such spots in the hope of making more encounters with these creatures later in the year.

pathside clearance

Cleared path sides to create sunny “scallops”.

The end of the day saw rather fewer birders at the Tern hide hoping for a sight of the Thayer’s gull, they were disappointed again. There was the usual ring-billed gull, several yellow-legged gull, a first winter Caspian gull and an adult Mediterranean gull in the roost. My own sightings were rather few, “Walter” our great white egret was fishing in Ivy Lake and on Ibsley Water 2 shelduck and 3 oystercatcher were the most interesting records.

Tomorrow we are working at Fishlake Meadows again, clearing cut willow into dead hedges to create new views across the reedbeds and pools.