Advance Notice

On Sunday we are running a training course on the identification of gulls at Blashford, this will mean that the Tern, Goosander and Lapwing hides will be in use by groups on the course from mid afternoon, so if you are visiting on Sunday and not on the course you might want to visit these hides in the morning or early afternoon instead.

I am sometimes asked for an advised route around the reserve and although the “best” route is always a matter of circumstances on the day there are some general rules that hold true. So Ivy North hide faces south-east, this makes it difficult on a sunny morning, Ivy South faces east and likewise difficult early on in sunshine, so both of these are probably best in the afternoon. The Woodland hide is less of an issue, although the light is best here in the afternoon also. The Tern hide faces north so is pretty good all day. Goosander hide faces north west, so is at its best in the morning and the same is true of Lapwing hide, which faces almost due west, so is very hard work on a sunny afternoon.

The above obviously is only a choice dictated by the direction of the light, there are other factors too of course. Wind direction can be important, most birds will seek shelter and this needs to be considered. In a strong northerly, Tern hide will be both a long way from the birds sheltering under the northern shore of Ibsley Water, nearly a kilometre away and if you open the window you will be looking into the teeth of the wind! By contrast the northern end of Ivy Lake near Ivy North hide will be sheltered and with luck full of birds.

Then there is what you want to see, not a problem if you just want to see a range of birds, being guided by the weather and lighting will probably be the best option. There are some obvious rules, the birds that gather to roost will only be doing so at the end of the day and you will need to be in the right place to see them. The gulls roost on Ibsley Water is well known and is the attraction for the identification course. Ibsley also hosts a roost gathering of goosander, which mainly roost in the bay at Goosander hide, although they are usually only there in the minutes just before darkness. They fly in from all directions but can often be best seen doing so from the bank at the back of the main car park, which is also the best place to view the starling murmuration and get an overview of the gull roost. If it is great white egret you want to see then Ivy North at the end of the day is the place, recently there have been three there each evening, there is also a cormorant roost in the trees here.

By contrast if you are looking for finches, don’t leave it too late, they tend to get up late and go to bed early, the Woodland hide feeders will be busy with tits from dawn ’til dusk but the finches tend to turn up in the middle part of the morning and are often heading off to roost not long after 3:00 pm in the winter.

Some species are more obvious at certain times of the day, birds of prey will soar around mainly during the middle part of the day when the ground has warmed to aid this kind of flight by causing upward air currents. Water rail and Cetti’s warbler are usually far more vocal around dusk. Pochard tend to feed at night and roost during the day, whereas tufted duck are typically the reverse, feeding in the day and roosting at night.

So if planning a birding trip consider the conditions on the day and what you are most keen to see and you should get the most out of your visit. The above is just about Blashford Lakes, but every destination will have a range of factors that will be at play. Wherever you go it always pays to be lucky of course, but to some degree you can make your own luck by making good decisions about how you go about your visit.

 

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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.

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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.

Wetlands

This week has been busy working with volunteers at both Blashford Lakes and Fishlake Meadows. Both are wetland sites, rich in wildlife and the tasks have been aimed at maintaining this diversity of habitat and wildlife. The value of many wetlands lies not in the water itself but what grows in it or immediately around it and how these species and habitats interact. They form a mosaic including open water with lush marginal vegetation, these plants act as the support for a huge foodweb, although it is often only those species such as reed warbler or marsh harrier near the top that we notice.

So what were the volunteers up to? on both Wednesday and Thursday each team was managing scrub willow, to recreate open areas, allowing in light and restarting the habitat succession. In the past such work might have accompanied by a roaring bonfire, something I moved away from a good few years ago. I have several reasons for avoiding fires, they pollute the atmosphere, they sterilise the ground with their heat at the fire site, the ash acts as a fertiliser for hungry plants like nettle and thistle and the twigs and branches burnt are potential habitat for lost of species. For years we left log piles for beetles and other wood boring species, but the smaller diameter branches and twigs were ignored, despite the fact that they support even more species. So now we avoid fires and use dead hedges wherever we can. Ultimately the wood will break down and the carbon in it be released, but much more slowly and only after use by many other species.

volunteers working at Fishlake Meadows

Fishlake’s volunteers getting stuck-in shifting willow from a reedbed area to a new dead hedge.

At Blashford Lakes the terrain was a little drier and the areas opened up will support a mixed reed and dry fen vegetation, there is also an additional reason for clearance as this habitat is favoured by adder at Blashford. Many adder populations are in trouble, with some rarely producing young, luckily Blashford’s adders seem to be doing well and we see young snakes quite regularly.

Blashford volunteers

Blashford’s volunteers clearing scrub willow.

At Blashford we have combined the clearance of small willow with pollarding of larger ones to keep some dense willow growth favoured by many species. The dead hedges here provide valuable wind breaks for lots of wildlife including snakes and log piles placed in shelter are used for basking.

As it happens today is “World Wetlands Day“, this year’s theme is “Urban Wetlands – prized land, not wasteland“. Blashford Lakes is perhaps not an urban wetland, although it is not far from the town, but it is a prized wetland developed from a former industrial site, used for gravel extraction and making concrete products. Fishlake is perhaps a suburban wetland rather than a truly urban one, it is certainly right on the doorstep of Romsey town. In many ways it had been something of a wasteland since the abandonment of farming, but a “wasteland” that nature has reclaimed in a spectacular manner and well on the way to becoming a prize wetland site.

At dusk yesterday I was struct by just how valuable wetlands are for wildlife, from Ivy South hide I could see close on a thousand wildfowl, scattered all across the lake.

wildfowl on Ivy Lake

wildfowl on Ivy Lake

A little later still on Ibsley Water the huge gull roost emphasised how much wildlife depends upon wetlands, in this case as a roost site, as most of them spend the day feeding on farmland out on Salisbury Plain.

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A small part of the Ibsley Water gull roost with a few duck in the background.

Although the Thayer’s gull of last Sunday has not returned, this week has seen regular sightings of the regular ring-billed gull and on Wednesday and Thursday evenings a juvenile Iceland gull.

 

On Show and No Show

When I arrived at Blashford on Friday afternoon to join our brilliant volunteer team for the annual “Thank you” event I was greeted with news that there had been a water shrew seen on “Pondcam”, I was a very envious! Water shrews are aquatic hunters of invertebrates and even small fish. They have long hairs on their feet and under-tail which aid swimming and are as frantic underwater as their terrestrial cousins are on land.

They are not uncommon, but not easy to see and so probably very under recorded. Just as I was bemoaning my bad luck there was a swirl of debris in front of the camera and it was back! A frenetic silver predator scattering everything before it. They look silver underwater due to the layer of air trapped in their fur. Although great swimmers they also hunt on land taking larger prey than other native shrews as befits their greater size, they are about twice the weight of a common shrew.

Blashford Lakes clocked up another “First” for Hampshire this weekend when a Thayer’s gull was found in the roost on Ibsley Water at dusk on Sunday. The finder was also responsible for the last county first found at Blashford, last autumn’s lesser scaup. Both of these species are from the western side of the Atlantic. The gull breeds in high Arctic Canada and mostly winters on the Pacific coast of Canada and the USA. Although considered as having a population of only a few thousand pairs it has been occurring with increasing frequency on the east coast of N. America and very rarely in W. Europe. Although usually listed as a full species it seems quite possible that it will be “lumped” in with Iceland gull and Kumlien’s gull, they are structurally very, very similar.

Not unexpectedly when I returned to Blashford this evening, after spending most of the day at Fishlake Meadow, there was a good crowd gathered in the hope of seeing the Thayer’s gull. Sadly they were disappointed, as it never showed up. I was not too surprised as the few Iceland gulls that have appeared in the roost over the years have almost always only been there on one evening, still it was a shame and there is still a chance it is around somewhere locally.

 

A Fishlake Wander, Recent sightings and Festive Opening

Work at the new Trust reserve at Fishlake Meadows is picking up, with the fencelines being cut out and plans being made for the start of willow coppicing, both to maintain some of the low scrub and to open up some new views across the reserve. As part of this planning process we were out on site at the start of the week, luckily we picked a good day.

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View across part of Fishlake Meadows

On our wandering in some of the damp fields we encountered a large number of Cetti’s warbler, the reserve has large areas of almost perfect habitat for them. We also flushed a fair few snipe including one jack snipe. Perhaps our most surprising sighting was of 2 hawfinch perched in a small tree near a flock of fieldfare. There has been a once in a lifetime invasion of hawfinches this winter with many thousands arriving from the continent. These two were probably some of these immigrants rather than local birds, but with the New Forest being the UK hotspot for the species they could have been more local.

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a view across the lower lake

 

mistletoe at Fishlake

Mistletoe on poplar at Fishlake

Around the drier margins and especially along the canal path there are still many live poplars and quiet a few of them have a festive bunch or two of mistletoe high in their branches.

Meanwhile at Blashford Lakes latest reports are that the ring-billed gull is now being seen regularly in the gull roost on Ibsley Water as is the first winter Caspian gull, with a 2nd winter bird also reported recently, the roost also includes 2 Mediterranean gull. The starlings have been putting on quite show, with some estimates of up to 50000 birds coming into roost, usually just to the west of Ibsley water so seen from the hill at the back of the main car park. On Ibsley Water itself there have been up to 104 goosander roosting, 14 goldeneye and a single black-necked grebe. At least one of the pink-footed geese can be seen on and off with the greylag. There continue to be something like 90 pochard and 25-30 pintail as well.

On Ivy Lake “Walter” the great white egret is being seen fairly regularly and was joined by a second bird the other day. From Ivy North hide water rail and Cetti’s warbler are regular, although we have yet to get a report of a bittern this winter. The Woodland hide has one or two brambling and lesser redpoll as well as the occasional and less desirable report of brown rat.

robin

Robin

CHRISTMAS OPENING: We will be open as usual over Christmas apart from Christmas Day itself when we will be closed. In addition on New Years Day we will have the Pop-up Café again in the Centre, so you can start your birdlist for the year and get a hot cup of something and some excellent homemade cakes.

 

A Returning Visitor

Not a great day to be out and about, the temperature topped out at 4 degrees and it rained throughout the daylight hours. As a result the reserve was quiet, at least for visitors, there was a good range of birds about though. All the usual wildfowl were seen, apart from either of the pink-footed goose, although it might have been there as some of the geese were lurking behind the islands.

The woodland was busy with redpoll and several bullfinch much in evidence. The nyger feeders are starting to attract siskin and goldfinch already, so I think we might be needing considerable extra supplies before the winter is out, they don’t usually start feeding on these feeders in numbers until well after Christmas.

The peak time to be out was at dusk, the starling roost was again well over 25000 birds, mostly arriving from the north, although they did not perform for long before going to roost, perhaps conserving their energy with a cold night ahead. The gull roost included a ring-billed gull for the first time this winter. I think it was the returning adult that has joined the roost over the last few winters. I managed to get a few rather poor shots of it, typically it was not playing ball, mostly facing away from me.

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ring-billed gull, preening.

This picture does show the pale grey mantle and narrow white tips to the tertials and scapulars. On a common gull these are much more obvious, being both broader and contrasting more strongly with the darker grey mantle of that species.

ring-billed gull 1

ring-billed gull

This picture shows the heavier ringed-bill than common gull and the pale iris, most common gull have a dark iris (although a few do not, so this is a character not to be used in isolation).

Last of all and when it was almost completely dark, I saw “Walter” the great white egret roosting in the dead alder beside Ivy Lake.

Some Bird Sightings

A few sightings from the reserve today, mostly from Ibsley Water. When I opened up the Tern hide there were 4 pintail (3 drakes), 3 green sandpiper (the most I have seen so far this season) and a drake shelduck.  I dropped in there briefly at lunchtime and saw a water pipit just in front of the hide and did not see the juvenile pink-footed goose which was hiding in a large flock of greylag.

Elsewhere there were reports of one or two brambling from near the Centre and Woodland hide.

At closing time there was a first winter Caspian gull in the large gull roost on Ibsley Water, I estimated about 7000 lesser black-backed gull. There was also a gathering of starling, still in the 3000+ range, so enough to be a decent flock but not a really spectacular gathering yet.

As it was almost dark, I could just make out “Walter” our returning great white egret roosting in his favourite dead alder tree beside Ivy Lake.

A Wintery Feel

Not to the weather, but certainly to the birds, but more of that later. The day was pleasantly warm for the time of the year and I was busy with the volunteers and apprentices working on the eastern shore of Ibsley Water. We cut back the rushes on the shoreline to open up access for grazing wildfowl from the water and carried on with coppicing and pollarding in the reedbed. The brash is used to create a dead hedge as a habitat corridor.

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Dead hedging

The willow we pollarded will come back with a dense growth of fresh shoots next year, they can grow as much as 2 or 3 metres in a season.

The wintery feel came in the form of brambling at the feeder on the car park near the centre, at least 5 goldeneye on Ibsley Water and at dusk 7000 or so gulls coming in to roost with 3000-5000 starling wheeling about behind them, hopefully the start of a significant roost for later in the winter.

The moth trap yielded rather little today with just red-line Quaker, yellow-line Quaker, chestnut, “November” moth and silver Y.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Between Times

A cold and frosty start to the day saw mist rising from the lakes as the sun came up.

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Ivy Lake, early morning

It was warm in the sun though and where it touched the frost disappeared quickly.

It might be “Christmas week” but as it was Thursday the volunteers were out in force to continue a willow cutting task in the reedbed area towards the Lapwing hide. This is a curious area of habitat, an old silt pond that filled with reeds and willows as it dried out. Normally the willows grow up and the reed dies off, here though, the willows are struggling and the reed seems to be doing better each year. The original plan was to manage it as willow scrub, but the willow refuses to grow and so we are opting for a reedbed with scattered willow instead. So we are cutting areas of the weak willow and allowing the reed space to expand.

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Ten volunteers turned out today to continue willow cutting in the reedbed.

We have also been cutting willows in the old silt pond near the Centre, although here they grow back vigorously. Our last task there was the Thursday before Christmas and despite the lure (?) of Christmas shopping there was a good turn out then too. We always try to make positive use of the cuttings where we can, today we were making a dead hedge which will probably grow up with brambles giving some valuable habitat. The dead twigs are also a valuable habitat in their own right, we are often told of the value of log piles for wildlife, but deadwood does not have to be large to be good for wildlife lots of species will use smaller deadwood.

The brash from the sallows near the Centre is being used to top the bank alongside the new path that is going in between the main car park and Goosander hide. I am hoping this bank will grow a bramble top which will provide cover for lots of species and nectar for insects and this will grow up in the shelter of the dead hedge.

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The source coppice

the-destination

The destination

Although the weather has turned colder so far it has not resulted in much change in the wildlife on offer on the reserve. There still appear to be 2 great white egret about, the regular bird, “Walter” mainly around Ivy Lake and usually roosting there each evening and the newer arrival which seems to prefer the area from the north of Ibsley Water and off the reserve towards Mockbeggar Lake and Ibsley North lakes. A bittern is still being seen somewhat intermittently from Ivy North hide, where there are also water rail and Cetti’s warbler. At the Woodland hide up to 3 brambling are being seen as are a few reed bunting along with all the regular woodland species. Under the alder carr just outside the Woodland hide there was a water rail feeding in the open for most of today in the wet area just by the path, giving a great opportunity to see this usually shy bird well.

On Ibsley Water the gull roost is still as large as ever and includes 2 or 3 Mediterranean gull, 2 different ring-billed gull (although it is some days since both were seen on the same evening), 10 or more yellow-legged gull and a few gulls that remain a challenge to even the most dedicated. If you look at enough gulls you realise there are a few that just don’t “fit”, perhaps hybrids or birds of more distant and unfamiliar races or just plain oddities. A Bewick’s swan made an appearance late yesterday, although it did not seem to come to roost this evening, so has perhaps moved on. On the eastern shore of the lake this morning there were at least 8 raven attracted by some carrion on the bank. In the evening a small roost of starling behind the Lapwing hide have been trying their best to put on a bit of a show, but with only about 2000 birds it is not quite ready to rival Rome city centre. Two snipe were very obliging in front of Tern hide this afternoon and a green sandpiper always seems to be there just after dark as I hear it calling when I lock the car park.

Don’t forget the Pop-up Café returns to Blashford on New Year’s Day, so you can come and see some great birds and eat great cake too!