What a difference a day makes!

After a gorgeously sunny Christmas Day yesterday, today saw the return of the rain and I got soaked opening up the hides – needless to say the reserve has been very quiet today! Even the wildlife decided to stay in the warm and dry – we have been keeping an eye on the Tawny Owl box as something has definitely moved in and made itself a very dry and cosy home out of oak leaves and soft rush. Although not the owl we had been hoping for, it is still very nice to see a grey squirrel up close on camera, although you can’t see much when it hunkers down inside its nest:

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Squirrel making itself at home in the owl box

Last week we realised one had stashed food in the box as we noticed it rummaging through the wood chip that had been put in the bottom – clearly it decided with all the rain we’ve been having this was a good spot, came back and made some home improvements. This morning I watched it look out the hole a few times before it decided it was better off back in bed:

Wet grey days are definitely for catching up with the blog, and this one may turn out to be quite long as I am two Young Naturalists sessions behind, one of which was our November residential at the Countryside Education Trust’s Home Farm in Beaulieu…

Unfortunately the weather was not quite on our side then either, although we were able to dodge most of the showers. We began on the Friday night with an excellent talk by Steve Tonkin about the night sky – sadly it was too cloudy to head outside for any observing so we will have to invite Steve again another evening, but the group enjoyed the talk and asked some excellent questions that definitely kept Steve on his toes.

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Astronomy talk

On Saturday morning we headed to Rans Wood, just outside Beaulieu, to meet Sally Mitchell from Wild Heritage for a fungi walk. We didn’t have to stray too far from the car park and were rewarded with over thirty species which was great for late Autumn. Before heading off Sally tested the group’s current fungi knowledge with an identification activity – they knew a few edible and inedible species and were also very good at erring on the side of caution with those they weren’t sure about.

Fungi foray

Testing our knowledge

Fungi is not my strong point so it was brilliant to go looking with someone able to identify what we saw and also be so enthusiastic about it. Sally also has permission from Forestry England to pick the fungi for identification purposes (not to eat as there is a no picking ban for this in the Forest), so we were able to study some close up and take a closer look at the gills or pores. We also used mirrors to look under some, including the Amethyst deceiver, so we could see underneath without picking.

We did quite a lot of sniffing! Here are some of the different species we found – I think my favourites were the Amethyst deceivers, the bright Yellow club and looking at the tubular pores inside the Beefsteak fungus:

We also paused to have a go at ‘creating’ a Fly agaric – sadly we were unable to find any – using a balloon and a tissue. The tissue was held over the balloon and sprayed with water to make it damp. When air was blown into the balloon, the balloon became larger and the tissue broke up into smaller pieces as this happened, to create the speckled effect of white spots seen on the Fly agaric fungus.

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Making a Fly agaric

We also found a huge oak tree so decided to see how many Young Naturalists could fit around it:

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Hugging a very large oak tree!

After thanking Sally we headed to Hatchet Pond and had lunch with the Mute swans, Black-headed gulls and donkeys.

We then spent the afternoon at Roydon Woods, another Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust nature reserve, and tested the fungi identification skills learnt that morning, keeping our fingers crossed for a glimpse of a Goshawk whilst we wandered. We last visited the reserve in the Spring, when the woodland floor had been carpeted in bluebells and other Spring flowers, so it was nice to return in the Autumn.

Some of the group were also lucky enough to spot a Goshawk fly past, but only because we had stopped to wait for others to catch up and it flew past behind them. A lucky encounter!

On the Sunday the group enjoyed a farm feed session first thing with Education Officer Steve whilst Michelle and I tidied and cleaned Home Farm ready for our departure. They love doing this as they can get up close to many of the animals and help out with the feeding:

We then visited the New Forest Wildlife Park and were joined by another couple of the group who had been unable to stay for the weekend. We had arranged a guided tour with one of the park’s education team and Laila was brilliant – I think she enjoyed a slightly older audience to usual and the group were great at engaging in conversation about the wildlife and different conservation projects. I was impressed by how much they knew. We got caught in a couple of heavy showers whilst we were there which made taking photos a bit difficult, but here are a few, the harvest mice were popular…

We had a brilliant weekend so although it was a while ago now, would like to thank Steve for the astronomy session, Sally for her fungi knowledge, Steve for the farm feed session and Laila for the brilliant tour around the wildlife park. We also couldn’t run residentials without volunteer support so would like to say a huge thank you to Geoff, Nigel and Michelle for giving up their weekends to join us and help with all the cooking, cleaning, minibus driving and evening entertainment (we had a quiz Saturday night which was hilarious)…

Sticking with the Young Naturalists theme, on Saturday we ventured over to Poole for a boat trip with Birds of Poole Harbour. The group had been fortunate to win the boat trip as their prize for coming first in the bird trail here at Blashford back in May, and we were able to open it up to other group members who hadn’t been able to join us on the day and turn it into our December session.

It was rather cold and wet at times, and we saw a lot of rainbows whilst out in the harbour, but also managed at least 26 species of bird including Red-breasted merganser, Shag, Great black-backed gull, Great crested grebe, Great northern diver, Brent goose, Gadwall, Avocet, Shelduck, Teal, Shoveler, Cormorant, Black-tailed godwit, Grey heron, Oystercatcher, Grey plover, Dunlin, Knot, Little egret, Wood pigeon, Sandwich tern, Goldeneye, Starling, Carrion crow, Spoonbill (very distant!) and Curlew.

We had some nice views of Brownsea Island and the lagoon…

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Brownsea Island

Brownsea lagoon

Lagoon at Brownsea

…and a very distant view of a rather grey Corfe Castle:

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle

The rainbow photographing opportunities were numerous:

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

Thanks for reading! Here’s a sunnier photo taken just up the road at Ibsley when I was passing yesterday morning as a reward for getting to the end, hopefully it will stop raining again soon!

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View from Ibsley Bridge – the River Avon is just out of shot to the right

Two for one

I am behind with our Young Naturalists updates, I think mainly because New Year and time off got in the way after our December session, so here’s a quick update from the last couple of months.

We met in between Christmas and New Year for a festive campfire cookout, something the group had enjoyed doing at the end of 2017 and requested again. We had a slightly random feast, depending on what food items each of the group had brought along, including crumpets, sausages, bacon, a very festive and warming fruit punch and of course marshmallows.

After tidying everything away we headed off for a wander and decided to go down to the Dockens Water to see if we could spot any tracks in the soft ground. We found plenty of signs of deer and some much smaller tracks which we decided could have been squirrel, I should have taken something for scale!

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Walking along the Dockens Water

Corinne from the Cameron Bespolka Trust, who very kindly sponsors our Young Naturalists group, enabling us to run the sessions, venture further afield and enlist the help of specialists, had called in to leave Trust t-shirts and Great grey shrike pin badges for the group. The group were delighted with both, and we handed them out again in January to those who couldn’t make it in December. Despite the cold, I managed to convince a number to put them on straight away for a photo:

At the end of January we once again took part in the Big Garden Bird Watch, a survey we have now taken part in for three years. We spent an hour in the woodland hide, recording the greatest number of each species seen at any one time, no mean feat where the chaffinch were concerned!

In total, after comparing results from each pair, we had counted 91 birds and 18 different species, along with three grey squirrels. They were: 38 chaffinch, 9 reed bunting, 6 goldfinch, 5 siskin and blackbird, 4 great tit, blue tit and dunnock, 3 long-tailed tit, 2 greenfinch, robin, jackdaw and woodpigeon, and 1 coal tit, nuthatch, brambling, great spotted woodpecker and jay.  Both the chaffinch and reed bunting were hard to count where they were mostly feeding on the ground, and I’m sure we missed a few. In addition, and not included in our results as they were flying over, Will spotted a cormorant and herring gull, so it was a good bird watching hour!

Compared to the past two years, our number of species has gradually increased, with 15 different species recorded in January 2017 and 16 recorded in 2018. Interestingly chaffinch numbers have risen from 16 to 23 to 38 whilst no reed bunting were recorded in 2018 and only 1 in 2017. Greenfinch numbers have decreased with 2 recorded this year compared to 4 in both 2018 and 2017, whilst 2017 saw 10 blackbird out in front of the hide, compared to 4 in 2018 and 5 this year. Finally, last year we picked a good hour and saw 1 lesser redpoll, something I had been hoping for this year, but it really does just depend on what is about on the day. It will be interesting to see what results we get next year.

After lunch we headed back out to lay a short stretch of hedge along the reserve boundary, past Ellingham Pound and by the A338. Stretches of this hedge have been laid at different times over the past few years and it has been laid with wildlife in mind rather than traditionally. A nice, thick, denser hedge is the perfect sanctuary for smaller mammals and birds, giving them a safer place to nest and hide from predators. As it continues to grow it will thicken out and grow up, with the new growth providing the perfect cover.

The two photos below show Geoff explaining to the group how to cut at an angle into the tree so it will bend and lay over those previously cut without breaking, and the stretch of hedge before we began working.

As well as laying the trees, we did a bit of ‘tidying up’, so to speak, clearing the many brambles growing in between and entwining around them to make them easier to lay and also more comfortable for us to get to them, and also as this hedge is hawthorn and blackthorn, cutting back any of the branches likely to again impede our task.

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Cutting back

We managed to lay a good stretch whilst we were out, leaving the odd tree still standing and working in from both ends. There is not much left now to lay, so perhaps we will get a chance to head back to it again another time or the volunteers will be able to lay the final bit. The weather had changed for my ‘after’ photo, but hopefully you can see the difference. The gravel mound across the road is certainly more obvious!

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The hedge after

Thanks to Geoff, Nigel and Roma for your help on Sunday.

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

Another Year

What a great start to the New Year, a beautiful morning and the reserve was busy with visitors and birds for them to see. So busy in fact that the Pop-up cafe ran out of cake! This may also be because word is getting around that the cakes are exceedingly fine so people get in early, they will be back next Sunday though, so all is not lost.

A New Year means a new “list” not that I ever manage to keep one going to year’s end, but a good start for me at least, with 78 species recorded, 75 of them at Blashford.

Ibsley Water featured at least two (although I think there must be more) water pipit, seen from all three hides during the day, the black-necked grebe, typically near the north-western shore, a fly-over by the dark-bellied brent goose (rare at Blashford), a marsh harrier, green sandpiper and all the usual wildfowl. In the afternoon the Caspian gull was in the roost along with about 10 yellow-legged gull.

Meanwhile Ivy Lake had the bittern on view on and off for much of the day at Ivy North hide along with a supporting caste of Cetti’s warbler, chiffchaff and water rail, joined later by first one and then two great white egret which stayed to roost with the cormorants.

At Woodland hide the regular woodland birds have now been joined by a few reed bunting, but there is no sign as yet of any redpoll or brambling, but it is early days. More widely around the reserve a firecrest was at the road crossing to Goosander hide and several more chiffchaff were in the reeds and willows on the walk to Lapwing hide, where there was a reed bunting giving brief snatches of song, they usually don=t start until well into the spring.

Despite recording 75 species on the reserve, I never saw a greenfinch! and there were a few other species missing that are generally not that difficult to see.

I saw just four mammal species (not counting humans) all day and two of those were non-natives, grey squirrel, fallow deer, roe deer and a wood mouse, live-trapped in the loft. Meanwhile the year’s moth list got off to a roaring start with a single mottled umber, although by convention moths are recorded as being on the previous day as most fly just after dusk, so this is when they are attracted to the light.

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a very well marked mottled umber

 

Caught on Camera

It has been a busy week at Blashford Lakes with volunteer work parties on four days, despite unpromising weather we actually got a lot done. On Sunday we repaired some damaged sections of the boardwalk, Tuesday saw us felling some non-native grey alder trees, Thursday’s task was scrub clearance to increase habitat connectivity for reptiles and today we were clearing the shore of Ibsley Water to improve habitat for nesting lapwing next spring.

About ten days ago the apprentices put out a trailcam and today we got it in to look at the images. There were not a great many but the range of species captured was impressive. There was one shot of a passing fox, several of fallow deer and grey squirrel. Bird were fewer with one shot each of blackbird and blue tit, but several of tawny owl and on more than one night too. The picture quality was not great but the owl was landing in front of the camera, possibly to take small invertebrate prey.

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tawny owl caught on trailcam

Throughout the week I have been checking the roosting great white egret on Ivy Lake when I go to lock up the hides, I suspect there are as many as five around but still have yet to see more than four together, this evening there were three.

The rain today caused the Dockens Water to flood into Ivy Lake and it is now filling at last, hopefully the reedbed in front of Ivy North hide will have enough water for the bittern to favour this area soon, one was seen from there on Wednesday.

A feature of this winter is the unusual number of pochard on the lakes, or at least unusual for recent years. This morning there were 109 on Ivy Lake and at dusk at least 150. It appears that they gather on Ivy Lake in the late afternoon before flying off at dusk in groups of ten to twenty, probably to feed. At the same time the tufted duck, which used to roost on Ivy Lake also leave, I am not sure where they go but I did notice a lot fly in just as it got dark when I was counting the goosander from Goosander hide on Tuesday, I suspect they go to roost there rather than to feed. Walking back from Ivy South hide after locking up usually happens more or less in the dark at this time of year and a feature has been the squeaking calls of mandarin duck gathered on the silt pond, in the gloom I have just been able to make out as many as ten drakes displaying on some evenings.

The black-necked grebe has been seen daily on Ibsley Water as has at least one water pipit and green sandpiper. The grebe has been favouring the western shore to the north of the low islands, the water pipit and sandpiper the shore near Tern and Goosander hides. However for many visitors it has not been the rarer bird that have attracted to interest but the starling roost. The numbers are not exceptionally large but they can put on quiet a good show looking west into the last light of the setting sun. this evening they were especially spectacular, climbing high into the air in an effort to avoid a hunting peregrine.

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Starling murmuration starting to form over the trees west of Tern hide

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The gathering twisting to avoid a peregrine, there is a small group coming int to join them towards the top left.

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Some of the flock trying to funnel down into the roost site

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The peregrine was keeping the main flock high in the air but the draw of the roost was strong and they were falling down in a column whenever they could risk it.

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One group broke away in an exceptionally tight ball of birds and just dropped like a stone from the spiralling flock.

The starlings had all gone to roost by about 16:15, so if you want to give them a try I would try to arrive by 16:00 at the latest, viewing is good from the high point at the back of the main car park and possible, but sometimes less easy, from the Tern hide.

Something you don’t see everyday

On advantage of working outdoors for a lot of the time is that you do get to see a lot of wildlife. It is not just the range of wildlife that is interesting, quite often it is a behaviour exhibited by an otherwise common species. On Thursday I was briefly in the Woodland hide where there were at least 15 brambling and 14 reed bunting feeding, but the thing that caught my eye was a grey squirrel. There were several squirrels about, but one was running passed the hide carrying something large in its mouth. I did not immediately see what it was carrying before it had gone by. However it came back along the same route and this time I could see it was carrying a baby squirrel. It later came back with a third, evidently this squirrel was moving its young family to a new home. Whilst this may not be an unusual behaviour it was one I had never seen before.

Earlier in the week I was sent a picture by a regular visitor Lynda Miller that illustrated another behaviour that I was unaware of.

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Kingfisher collecting reedmace seeds by Lynda Miller

I shows a kingfisher clearly collecting beakfuls of reedmace seeds, Lynn told me the bird then flew off carrying the seeds. The only reason that I can thing of for doing this is to line a nest, however as far as I was aware or can find out from the literature, the most they are recorded as doing is “lining the nest with fish bones added during incubation”. So this might be an original observation.

Over the years there have been a number of other interesting observations made from the hides at Blashford. These include mallard killing and eating juvenile sand martin when they fell into the water, this was seen ten years or so ago by many people. Subsequently this behaviour has appeared in the scientific literature as an “original observation” made in Eastern Europe.

Hides can offer the chance to see unusual things even when all the wildlife present is not unusual, you never know what might happen.