Rafts, Birds and Bees

It’s that time of year again, the tern rafts are going out and the migrant waders are on the move. On Tuesday the volunteers got two rafts out onto Ivy Lake, after wintering on the shore.

preparing tern raft for launch

Adding nesting substrate to the raft.

They were occupied by common tern within minutes, although black-headed gull also arrived in numbers and by the end of the day were the only species present. This highlights one of the big problems that terns have these days, as their nesting habitats reduce they are competing more and more with gulls and usually lose out to them.

tern raft with terns (and gulls)

two terns and two gulls on newly floated raft

Yesterday’s migrant birds were mainly waders heading to the high Arctic and included a common sandpiper, a bar-tailed godwit,

bar-tailed godwit

bar-tailed godwit

a very smart turnstone and two dunlin.

dunlin

one of two dunlin

The waders that nest with us are all displaying but none seem to have really settled down yet. Little ringed plover are especially in evidence near Tern Hide.

little ringed plover

Little ringed plover, male

Although it has got cooler the spring insects are still in evidence and some of the earlier season species are beginning to disappear for another year. One such is the rare grey-backed mining bee Andrena vaga, there are only a few females to be found now, but as they feed on willow pollen their food will soon run out.

Andrena vaga

grey-backed mining bee female, one of only a few still flying

If you look at a solitary bee nesting bank there are usually lots of, what at first, look like wasps, but these are actually parasitic bees. Many are very specific as to their host species, I came across two species yesterday. I found what I think was Lathbury’s nomad bee, which uses grey-backed and  the commoner ashy mining bee as hosts.

Nomada lathburiana

Lathbury’s nomad bee Nomada lathburiana

 

I also found lots of painted nomad bee, which visits the nests of the common yellow-legged mining bee.

Nomada fucata

painted nomad bee Nomada fucata

Work continues on the parking area close to the Education Centre, which means that it will not be available for parking until after the weekend, please take note of any signs to keep safe on your visit whilst we have machinery working on site.

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Bee is for Blashford

Or maybe Blashford is for bees, well of course it is! Blashford is for all wildlife and the people who like to experience it. Everyone knows the honey bee and bumble bees, although perhaps not that there are 28 species of them. However there are something like 250 other species of bees in Britain and they all spend their days visiting flowers and pollinating them. These 250 are the so called solitary bees, despite the name they can occur in great aggregations, importantly though each nest is the domain of just one female, there are no worker bees.

Andrena vaga female 2

grey-backed mining bee (female) with a load of willow pollen.

There has been much coverage recently about the declines in insect numbers around the world and that of pollinating insects in particular, perhaps because they are economically important to us as pollinators of crops. Declines could be for many reasons and probably are multi-factored, but a general loss of habitat and an increasing uniformity in what is left, along with increased prevalence of chemical contaminants are all likely contributors. Some enlightened local authorities are modifying their grass mowing regimes on verges, roundabouts and recreation site to allow more flowering, some of the best are actually seeding back wildflowers or using “meadow mixes”. In fact we can all help by providing flowers that are good sources of nectar and by valuing some of the “weeds” that we might have removed in the past. For instance a lawn with dandelions may not win the green-keepers prize but these are a very important source of food for early flying bees and hoverflies.

Blashford Lakes has lots of nectar sources, especially at this time of year when willows are important for many species and so has lots of solitary bees. Many also need bare, sandy soil to dig their nests and we have that in abundance too.

Andrena vaga female emerging from burrow

grey-backed mining bee (female) emerging from nest hole

One of the problems with solitary bees is that some species are very similar to one another and so difficult to identify in the field. Although the grey-backed mining bee female is distinctive the male looks very like the male of another species, the ashy mining bee.

Andrena cineraria male

ashy mining bee (male)

One of the commonest mining bees around at present is the yellow-legged mining bee, which can be found nesting in bare ground in banks, lawns and various other places.

Andrena flavipes male

yellow-legged mining bee (male) – or at least I think it is!

Some bees are neither colonial nor make their own solitary nests, they are nest parasites of other bees. One genus of bees the Nomada bees specialise in this way of life, often specialising on one particular host species. The yellow-legged mining bee plays unwilling host to the painted nomad bee, which looks very wasp-like.

Nomada fucata male

painted nomad bee (male)

The last few of days have seen big arrivals of hirundines, Monday was almost all sand martin, yesterday there were a few swallow and the odd house martin and today there were even more swallow, probably over 50. On Ibsley Water there a couple of pairs of oystercatcher, a pair of redshank, probably five little ringed plover, several lapwing and today two green sandpiper. Meanwhile around the Centre and Woodland Hide the wheezing of brambling is very much in evidence, particularly in the morning, there are at least 30 and I suspect 50 or more around just now.

And remember it does not take much effort not to mow the lawn for a few days and let the dandelions flower to feed the bees. You could put your feet up and have a cup of tea, or a beer (other drinks are available), whilst making your own contribution to Wilding Hampshire!

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

Nearly Re-Terned and Last Pop-up

We are nearly there, the Tern Hide reconstruction is getting close to completion. The structure is up, although the roof still has to be finished, then there are the banks and screens to put up and various other finishing elements to do, but we are nearing the end now. The project has not just been about the Tern Hide though.

There is a great new viewing platform on the bank to the rear of the main car park, which gives a fantastic view, not just of Ibsley water but a panorama of the whole valley, it could become a great place to watch migration.

Over at the Education Centre we have a new information hut and a second education pond, this is will allow us to reline the existing one which leaks badly, without having any time without a pond. There are also various other improvements to the lay-out that should make it much easier and safer for education groups and visitors as a whole.

Further out on the reserve there will be new signage and one or too surprises too. If you have not visited for a while you may also notice that we have done some further tree felling, this has been targeted at invasive Turkey oak and grey alder, in both cases removing these will allow space for more native trees to grow. Although the landscape value of such non-native trees can be positive, they harbour markedly less wildlife.

deer

roe deer

Although we are approaching the end there are still some restrictions in places, most notably the car parking at the Centre, which is being re-levelled and surfaced, please take notice of signage and temporary fences whilst this work is going on.

This work has been made possible thanks to a grant from the Veolia Environmental Trust.

vet-logo

Despite all this work we have remained open for business as close to normal as possible. The bittern has been parading about, although it seems likely it has now departed. The ring-billed gull has been roosting on Ibsley Water, where there has also been a very fine drake garganey. At Woodland Hide there have been small numbers of redpoll and brambling among the chaffinch, goldfinch and reed bunting. On top of all this there are migrants arriving in moderate numbers with at least 27 sand martin yesterday and also blackcap, chiffchaff and little ringed plover.

This weekend sees the last appearance for the season of the Pop-up cafe, so if you do not make it to the reserve you will have to wait until next autumn for some of the best cake around.

Spring is all around with insect numbers increasing, numbers of moths have been rising and last night we saw our first brindled beauty of the year, following on from our first streamer and engrailed earlier in the week.

brindled beauty

brindled beauty

Numbers of solitary bees have been increasing too, including lot of what I think are male grey-backed mining bee, this is a very rare bee and the males are very similar to the much common ashy mining bee.

male Andrena

male mining bee, I think grey backed (Andrena vaga)

 

And Wildlife Too

Although the week on the reserve was undeniably hectic with contractors working away all over the place, it was still a week of wonderful wildlife.

The early surge of migrants dropped off when the wind and weather changed, but as we get into mid-March migrants are arriving anyway. Chiffchaff are now singing at various locations, sand martin are being seen occasionally and a little ringed plover has been a fixture on Ibsley Water, although hard to find hunkered down out of the wind.

Perhaps the most surprising bird on the reserve has been the bittern, which seems not to want to leave and has been giving good views day after day from Ivy North hide.

bittern square

The bittern remains lurking and often not, near Ivy North Hide

The adult ring-billed gull seems again to have become a regular fixture in the gull roost on Ibsley Water each evening, after having gone off somewhere or the mid-winter period.

The early butterflies have retreated due to lack of sunshine, but the occasional adder is still being seen and mild nights have resulted in good moth catches. Common Quaker are most abundant, but Hebrew character, small Quaker, twin-spotted Quaker, clouded drab and oak beauty have all been regular. Although not warm enough for butterflies, bees are made of sterner stuff. Buff-tailed bumble-bee queens are buzzing around and investigating potential nest sites between bouts of feeding, sallow catkins being one of their favourites.

Bombus terrestris and sallow catkins

buff-tailed bumble-bee visiting sallow flowers

There are also some solitary bees flying, so far only males that I have seen, they tend to emerge earlier than the females. Yellow-legged mining bee being the most common, but I found a blacker bee this week, I suspect it of being the rare grey-backed mining bee. The female is very distinctive but the males look similar to the much commoner ashy mining bee.

Andrena bee male

a male mining bee, I suspect grey-backed mining bee

The wonderful thing about spring is that you can see the things moving on day by day, even when the weather is poor, the imperative to get on with life pulls wildlife along, or perhaps pushes it. The costs of being late are probably to miss out on breeding, so this encourages getting earlier to steal a march on rivals, but get it wrong and starting too early and all can be lost.

Climate change is an added complication at this time of year when timing is so important and the costs of getting things wrong so high. Many species respond to temperature, but others to day length, or other factors or combinations of them. Many species will be dependent upon on another, bees need flowers for food but the plants need bees to pollinate them, sometimes the relationships are complex and the interdependence critical to survival. If the relationship is broken completely extinction is likely for one or both partners, but even stretching it will result in declines.

There is no doubt that our management or mismanagement of land, use of chemicals and casual approach to waste have all taken a serious  toll, the much publicised insect decline being just one result. We are now recognising some of this and some things have been turned around, ozone in the atmosphere being a good example of effective action.

However the really big threat is climate change and it will not be so easy to reverse, in fact halting it looks way beyond us at present. So it was really refreshing to see so many young people getting involved in a call for real action, showing that there is perhaps a generation who are seeing the big picture. The lack of engagement by the young in politics is often decried but maybe they are seeing what others are missing, the real issue is way beyond politics and certainly our current politicians. The environment not as special interest, but a matter of life and death.

 

Insects on the Up?

The progress of the season has been rather erratic this year, with spells of very warm or even hot weather interspersed with much colder days. Overall I think that we are still a little behind the average of recent years, but it is a very mixed picture.

Sunday was a fine, warm, sunny day with little wind, ideal for insects and I saw my first beautiful demoiselle, broad-bodied chaser, four-spotted chaser and emperor dragonfly of the year. The four-spotted chaser had emerged from the Centre pond, I think th efirst time I have proved that they have done so there, although I have seen individuals there a number of times. Numbers of large red, common blue, azure and blue-tailed damselfly are also continuing to build.

I am trying to look more closely at the bees on the reserve this year, Blashford has a lot of dry ground with sandy slopes, ideal for solitary bees. In fact “brownfield sites” such as Blashford are particularly good for bees as they often have variations in soil type, slopes and banks ideal for nesting.

Andrena bicolor

Andrena bicolor

Gwynne’s mining bee, Andrena bicolor is one of our commonest spring mining bees and also has a summer brood, it is a close relative of the much rarer grey -backed mining bee, Andrena vaga which was found on the reserve for the first time a couple of weeks ago. The rarer species is still around, but not in the same numbers as a fortnight ago, some of them are getting worn now and so look rather like the much commoner ashy mining bee Andrena cineraria.

ashy mining bee excavating

ashy mining bee Andrena cineraria excavating a nest tunnel.

For several years now there has been increasing evidence of an overall decline in total insect abundance, it is very hard to prove absolutely but accounts of declining moth trap catches and a general scarcity of many insects is attested by many. Older people will remember that when travelling any distance by car in the summer it was necessary to clean many squashed insects off the windscreen. Of course more aerodynamic cars may be a factor too. Whatever the reason it has become much harder to find many insect species in the average summer these days. It was pleasing to see a fair few hoverflies out yesterday including a number of Cheilosia species, a rather difficult genus of mainly black species, the identification of the images below maybe open to revision!

Cheilosia bergenstammi male

Cheilosia bergenstammi (male)

Cheilosia impressa

Cheilosia impressa (female)

Despite the warmer days the nights are still quiet cool and so the moth trap has remained quiet. The pick of the catch was a chocolate-tip moth, it is evidently quiet a good year for therm as this was the third we have caught recently.

chocolate-tip

chocolate-tip

The only grasshoppers and crickets about at present are a few tiny nymphs, but this is the time for finding adult groundhoppers, although the only one I saw was a common groundhopper, but at least it posed for a picture.

common groundhopper

common groundhopper

It would be good to think that we are turning a corner in the insect decline, unfortunately I doubt it, I suspect the wider environment is continuing to become less insect friendly. Although some of this is down to the use of very effective insecticides and industrial mono-culture farming, it is also our overall failure to leave any space for them, even where it would be easy to do so.

Emerging

Looking in the sweep meadow I spotted a yellow rattle seedling just poking up form the surrounding vegetation. These grow very quickly at this time of year no doubt helped by the fact that they get energy both from photosynthesis in their green leaves and the parasitic tapping of the roots of neighbouring plants.

yellow rattle seedling

yellow rattle seedling

Their parasitic habit reduces growth in other plants allowing them and other plants that struggle to compete with vigorous species, to thrive. For this reason it is often added to wildflower mixes as it often parasites grasses. For the same reason it was hated in hayfields, where it greatly reduced the growth of the grass crop.

OI posted about the discovery of the grey-backed mining bee at Blashford the other day, this still very rare species in the UK depends upon willow pollen for food and suitable ground in which to dig a nest, Blashford has lots of both. The nest tunnel is more or less vertical  and, to judge by the amount of spoil, quite deep. I got this series of pictures of one emerging from a bit of excavating.

pic 4

Andrena vaga – Just an antenna above ground

pic 3

Andrena vaga – Taking a peek

pic 2

Andrena vaga – Yep, looks safe

pic 1

Andrena vaga – Above ground, but in need of a dust-off

 

Oh, to Bee in England…

As though to emphasise the change in season today was one of those rare days when it was possible to see both brambling and swift at Blashford Lakes an opportunity that lasts for only a few days.  When I started birdwatching in the Midlands our equivalent was seeing fieldfare and swallow in the same place, on the same day. The brambling were at least 2 males at the feeders and the swift at least 14 over Ibsley Water.

Despite the remaining reminders of winter it felt very spring-like, with orange-tip, green-veined and small white, comma, peacock, brimstone, holly blue and several speckled wood butterflies seen, along with the year’s first damselfly, the large red.

After last night’s thunder storm I was not surprised that the moth trap was not over-filled with moths, although the catch did include a lesser swallow prominent, a pale prominent and a scarce prominent, the last a new reserve record, I think.

The warm weather has encouraged a lot of insects out, I saw my first dark bush cricket nymph of the year near the Centre pond. Nearby I also saw my first dotted bee-fly, this species used to be quite scarce but can now be seen widely around the reserve, although it is well outnumbered by the commoner dark-bordered bee-fly.

dark bush cricket nymph

dark bush cricket nymph

The wild daffodil are now well and truly over but the bluebell are just coming out.

bluebell

bluebell

A lot of trees are in flower now or are shortly to be, the large elm on the way to Tern hide is still covered in flower though.

elm flowers

elm flower

Trees are a valuable source of food for a lot of insects and the find of the day was a species that makes good use of tree pollen. I had spotted what I at first thought were some nesting ashy mining bees Andrena cineraria, but they did not look right. That species has a dark band over the thorax and black leg hairs. This one had white hairs on the back legs and no dark thorax band. I took some pictures and it turns out to be grey-backed mining bee Andrena vaga, until very recently a very rare species in the UK which seems to now be colonising new areas.

grey-backed mining bee 2

grey-backed mining bee

They make tunnelled nests in dry soil and provision them with pollen from willows for the larvae.

greybacked mining bee

grey-backed mining bee with a load of pollen

The same area of ground also had several other mining bees, including the perhaps the most frequent early spring species, the yellow-legged mining bee.

yellow-legged mining bee 2

yellow-legged mining bee (female)