Wildlife encounters of the furlough kind

I returned to work on Sunday after eight weeks away from Blashford (it is so green now!) and six weeks on furlough along with around 40% of my Trust colleagues, most of whom are still off. Whilst I’m back to help Bob with the reserve tasks he cannot do by himself and engage with visitors on site from a safe distance, following on from the easing of restrictions last week, we are still closed whilst we look at what we can safely offer in the coming weeks and months. We will keep you updated as and when things begin to change!

A Blashford blog will follow shortly, but I thought I would share what I have been getting up to whilst off.

Spending so much time at home meant I was able to discover what wildlife visits my garden, a bit of a distraction whilst I was supposed to still be working, but it was really nice to be there during the day and have more time to appreciate my outside space. My garden is only small, with two patio areas which contain a number of plants in pots and a lawn which has struggled as a lawn and now has a few flowers planted into the patchier bits as I slowly tun it into a much wilder space. I have lived there for a couple of years, and this year the garden really seems to have come to life with birds and insects, which has been really nice to see.

Whilst at home I had blue tits, wood pigeons, dunnocks and blackbirds frequently visiting the garden along with a wren, great tits and a goldfinch. I have a willow bird table and the blackbirds seem to really like this, launching themselves onto it from the hedge and swinging around whilst they fed.

I have two hedges in the garden and this year the blackbirds successfully nested in one (I did a fair amount of cat chasing whilst off, if they have another brood they’re on their own!) which was lovely to watch. I saw four fledglings at the same time, two sunning themselves in one hedge and two in the other and both adults worked really hard to feed them with the male bringing back huge beak fulls, including a garden centipede in the photo below:

Blackbird 2

Male blackbird with a beak full

They fledged last Thursday so I was able to enjoy their company for a few days, with one of the young staying in the garden until Sunday morning. It was very amusing to see it sat swinging on the bird table calling mum for food.

I had written a rather long list of things to do to keep me busy, and one of those things was to dig a pond. Digging a pond was definitely more exciting than decorating the bathroom, re-pointing some dodgy brickwork to hopefully solve a damp issue in the kitchen and damp proofing and repainting the kitchen wall, so it was one of the first things I did and it’s been really nice to see it change over just a few weeks. The less exciting jobs were left until last week when I knew I was returning to work…

The photos below show the garden before and after, then the pond full of mud as the female blackbird decided the moss I had placed round the edge would make really nice nest building material (she had ignored it the entire time it was elsewhere in the garden) and later on with some plant additions (all native) I had been able to order online.

Whilst digging the pond I unearthed the snake millipede below, along with centipedes that were too fast for a photo, and the stones placed around the edge quickly became resting spots for hoverflies:

The blackbirds had been using a bucket of water with some willow sticks in to drink from and bathe in, but they now both use the pond which is really nice to watch. The female didn’t mind me being around at all but the male was a lot more wary of me to begin with and would fly off even if I was watching from the window, but now he is quite happy for me to be out in the garden whilst he’s there feeding.

As well as the birds it was great to see which insects were visiting the flowers and which flowers were growing really well, the ragged robin in particular has seeded so well from one plant in a pot last year I was able to plant it out in different places in the grass.

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I live on the edge of Salisbury so on my daily walks I walked my dog from home to either a little stretch of the River Bourne in Laverstock or up to the Laverstock Downs, enjoying the fact there were fewer cars on the road.

These photos were taken in the little patch of woodland down by the river:

I had hoped to see some bluebells on my wanders but sadly all those I did see were garden escapees.

I spent a lot more time up on the Downs as although they were further to walk to, it was much easier to practice social distancing up here than it was down by the river which tended to be busier with people and had a stretch of boardwalk to contend with.

It was a great spot for bird watching and I had some brilliant views of both blackcap and common whitethroat, especially early spring when the whitethroats were displaying and establishing territories.

I managed a total of 47 bird species whilst off, either in my garden, flying over my garden or on my daily walks: blackbird, blue tit, dunnock, wren, great tit, wood pigeon, collared dove, jackdaw, starling, long-tailed tit, yellowhammer, carrion crow, buzzard, pheasant, song thrush, chaffinch, chiffchaff, red kite, blackcap, common whitethroat, swallow, linnet, goldfinch, red-legged partridge, little egret, mallard, shoveler, kingfisher, magpie, skylark, great spotted woodpecker, robin, Canada goose, mute swan, raven, sparrowhawk, rook, bullfinch, house sparrow, Cetti’s warbler, grey heron, moorhen, mistle thrush, swift, house martin, peregrine falcon and mandarin duck. They were quite a good mix!

The Downs were also a great spot for butterflies, with orange tips, brimstones, small tortoiseshells, green-veined whites, small heaths, peacocks and dingy skippers all on the wing. I also found lots of green-veined orchids and other flowers on the chalk grassland.

The most exciting spot though was probably to see glow worm larvae on three separate occasions, so I must go up there over the summer in search of glow worms.

Glow worm larvae

Glow worm larvae

I was very lucky to have my garden to enjoy and also have some lovely spaces within walking distance to explore (it was also quite nice to use my car less!), so I had plenty of nature to keep me company during the pandemic, whilst a list of house and craft projects also kept me busy. I might be heading back up to the Downs at the weekend…

Full of Promise

It seems to have been a week for blossom, the crab apple is at its best, the pear is just ahead but still great on the northern side of the tree and yes we do have a pear at Blashford, blackthorn is over and today I saw my first hawthorn in bloom.

hawthorn blossom

Hawthorn in flower

Lots of  flowers should mean lots of fruits in the autumn, unless we have a very, very dry summer of course.

Elsewhere on my rounds I found three orchids, twayblades nearly in flower, but also in the dark under a bush so I could not get a picture. In the open were a southern marsh orchid, with very spotted leaves.

marsh orchid

Southern marsh orchid

And even more in the open, several bee orchid rosettes.

bee orchids

bee orchids, rather nibbled by rabbits

These orchids will be flowering later in the season, but as you may have noticed there are lots of bees out now, many will visit dandelions and daisies, not weeds but vital nectar sources. A good few species also visit willows in the spring, including that rare spring species the grey-backed mining bee Andrena vaga, the females return to their nests with loads of the bright willow yellow pollen as food for their larvae.

Andrena vaga

grey-backed mining bee

Spring is a time of migration and one of the species that passes through on the way from North Africa to the uplands of Scotland an Scandinavia is the ring ouzel. This is a bird very like a blackbird, in fact sit was known as the mountain blackbird, but it has a white crescent across the chest and rather longer wings, as befits a bird that flies long distances. Today I saw a blackbird with some white, sadly though not a ring ouzel, but a common blackbird with some white feathering.

blackbird

“Just” a blackbird

Finally I turned on the camera screen at Blashford today as I waited for computer support to reconnect me to our network and found that the grey squirrel that has been occupying the owl box has actually been rearing a family.

young squirrels in box

young squirrel in the owl box

Spring has definitely sprung

Yesterday I was keeping an eye on things at Blashford and after a bit of time finishing things off in the office (the last couple of days have been filled with emails, creating signs and cancelling events and school visits) I had lunch outside the back of the centre with one of our very friendly robins for company and decided to make the most of the glorious weather and venture out onto the reserve.

P1160843

Lunchtime company

Being at Blashford with the car park empty and the sun shining did remind me of the very quiet days we have on the reserve in the summer, when you know everyone has headed to the beach and the coast to stay cool. The main reminder of spring was the increase in birdsong, it was lovely to hear chiffchaff calling, and also the new growth on the trees.

willow leaves

New growth on the willow 

willow catkins

Willow catkins

Nearing the entrances however it was apparent people were very much still out and about and there were a fair few cars parked up. Fortunately most people were respecting social distancing, however I did have to stand in vegetation at one point to allow a group to pass who were quite happy to walk, albeit in single file, down the middle of the footpath. Out footpaths are not that wide… so please do take care out there and give people space!

Keeping the car parks closed does encourage fewer people to visit the reserve, which gives everyone a chance to keep their distance, but it does also reduce the risk of fly tipping on the site. Between me leaving on Friday and arriving back on Sunday a large amount of rubbish, including a couple of single mattresses, had been dumped in the first lay by on Ellingham Drove, if coming from the A338, and although this may have happened over night we have in the past had fly tipping occur during day inside our gates on the approach to Tern Hide and also on the nature reserve itself, near the water treatment works. Although those who fly tip will always sadly find somewhere for it to go, at least having the reserve secure at all times will reduce the opportunities available for fly tipping on the reserve itself, where the site is now generally quieter and our staff presence lower. Unfortunately with quieter roads this issue is something that may sadly increase over the next few weeks and months.

My real reason though for venturing close to the entrance was to stare at the very fine display of moss growing on the top of the wooden fence by our gate. I had been waiting for a sunny day to photograph it and usually when I am passing I am driving, either having just arrived or heading home. After a bit of searching, I think it is capillary thread moss, but am happy to be corrected if wrong!

capillary thread moss

Capillary thread moss

The hazel trees near the entrance are also displaying fresh bright green leaves and lesser celandine carpets the woodland floor below them.

hazel leaves

Hazel leaves

lesser celandine

Lesser celandine

I followed the path along the Dockens Water, spotting a brimstone butterfly but it did not settle for a photo. On my way up to Lapwing Hide I saw great tit and blue tit feeding amongst the willows and nearer to the hide itself chiffchaff, Cetti’s warbler, water rail and little grebe were all calling and I saw a reed bunting in the trees.

I also spied my first adder of the year, something I wasn’t necessarily expecting as it was now mid afternoon and had warmed up considerably.

P1160887 2

Adder in amongst dead wood

On the edges of the paths colt’s-foot is flowering. It looks like a short dandelion but has a much rounder middle. Flowering early in spring, the flowers appear before the leaves do which has led to the plant getting the name ‘Son-before-father’.

coltsfoot

Colt’s-foot

Blackthorn is also blossoming and looking very pretty against a bright blue sky:

blackthorn blossom

Blackthorn blossom

After walking round to Goosander Hide I cut back across to Tern Hide via the closed Hanson path and saw my first peacock butterfly of the year, which was more obliging than the brimstone and paused just long enough for a photo.

peacock

Peacock

I popped in to Tern Hide to check all was well and see if there were any little ringed plover yet on the shore line. I couldn’t see any, or the common sandpiper which had been quite frequent, but did see teal, wigeon, tufted duck, goldeneye, shovelar, goosander and good numbers of pintail out on the water.

ibsley water and tern hide

Tern Hide and Ibsley Water from the viewing platform

On heading back to the Centre I decided to keep following the path along the Dockens Water to see if there were any signs of flowers on the bluebells (not yet, but it won’t be long!) and also to check the boardwalk was still taped off at either end where it is currently closed.

The hawthorn along the path is another tree coming into leaf. Its flowers are similar to blackthorn, however hawthorn comes into leaf first, and will not flower until May, whereas the flowers of blackthorn appear before the leaves, as seen in the photo above.

hawthorn

Hawthorn leaves

All in all it was a very nice wander around the reserve in the sunshine. I am working from home today, listening to the chaffinch and dunnock singing outside, and will be doing so more over the coming weeks and months so it was good to get out on the reserve while I still could. I will be spending more time in my little garden and walking my dog down to the closest stretch of the River Bourne in Laverstock, or possibly up to the Laverstock Downs themselves if they remain quiet. So I will finish this blog with a photo of a primrose, as there are still plenty flowering on the reserve:

primrose

Primrose

Laying around

Another busy day with lots of visitors, a volunteer work party and the Pop-up cafe. The bittern performed from time to time at Ivy North hide, including at dusk as I went to lock up. A water rail there was seen to catch and eat a small fish, which surprised some watching, in fact water rail are not fussy eaters and will happily eat vegetation, seed, and animal matter alive and dead. I have seen them eat fish and even small birds and they are a well known hazard when ringing birds in a reedbed, as they will try to pick birds from the nets given half a chance.

The volunteers worked laying another section of the hedge alongside the A338 on the western side of Ellingham Drove. This hedge was planted in 2005/06 winter and is being laid to thicken it up and make it more useful for wildlife and as a visual screen for the road.

hedge before laying

The hedge plants before work began

After the hedge laying you can see it is already much denser even though some of the side branches have been removed.

hedge after laying

hedge after laying

Those of you that are familiar with the traditional craft of hedge laying will immediately notice that this is not a craftsman’s job. The traditional craft produced a barrier that would keep livestock in before the days of barbed wire, it had a woven line of rods on top between stakes and much more of the twigs and branches were removed. This art is still practised and there are regular competitions, to make a good traditional hedge in this way takes great skill. However we are just trying to thicken up the hedge and retain as much of the potential for flowering and fruiting next year and for this purpose some reduction in the branches and a partial cut to lay the stem over will suffice.

Such hedges make good nesting places for many of our common birds like robin, dunnock and blackbird.

blackbird male

adult male blackbird at Woodland hide

This hedge is almost entirely made up of hawthorn, but we are trying to diversify it by adding extra species. One that we could add is hazel, normally we would plant these in the winter when the plants are dormant, but looking at the hazel around the reserve today they are anything but dormant.

hazel catkins

hazel catkins

The catkins are the familiar flowers of the hazel, but these just the male flowers which open to scatter their pollen, the female flowers are much smaller and easily overlooked. Each hazel will have flowers of both sexes, the catkins on the ends of the twigs and the female flowers a little further down.

hazel flower female

the female hazel flower

Although winter is natures “downtime” it is not so for all species and on the outside of the Education Centre door this morning there was a male winter moth.

winter moth

Winter moth (male)

When moth trapping you always catch many more males than females, probably because they fly around more seeking females, however in the case of the winter moth you will only ever catch males as the females are wingless. The larvae to these moths eat oak leaves are the main food collected by blue and great tit when feeding their young, one of the possible effects of climate change could be a disconnect between the timing of peak caterpillar numbers and hungry chicks. Only time and project s such as the one undertaken by Brenda at Blashford (see the last post) will show if this becomes a real problem for the birds.

I was trying out a new camera today, a replacement for my one that packed up the other day, it is a “bridge camera”, not something I have used before so I was keen to see what it could do. The light was not good today, but it seems as though it will be useful. I tried a range of pictures, standard shots a sat the top of the page, some macro and finally some using the full magnification, although not a great shot I quiet liked the one below of a group of pintail.

three pairs of pintail

three pairs of pintail up ending

Hopefully we will get some better light and I will get the chance to put it through its paces rather more fully.

Out and About in the Sunshine

It has been very, very dry recently and reasonably sunny, however it has also been quite cold for a lot of the time, with north or north-east winds. This has made for quite a good spring for insects, certainly better than for several years, although it could do with warming up a bit and we will need some rain, not too much, just enough to keep the vegetation green. Yesterday it was warmer and the wind swung round to a more southerly direction.

I finally saw my second dragonfly of the year, I have seen lots of damselflies but dragons have been in very short supply. Although the view was brief I think it was a hairy dragonfly. I also found several of one of my favourite insects, groundhoppers, small relations to grasshoppers that get easily overlooked as they are adult in spring. There are three species in Britain and we get two of them at Blashford, or at least sop far I have only found two species. They favour damp, bare ground and can both fly and swim! The one below is a slender groundhopper.

slender groundhopper 2

Slender groundhopper

I was out bird surveying at the start of the day at Linwood reserve and noticed that the leaves on the oak there are mostly brown, almost all the first flush of leaves dead. Linwood lies in the valley of the Dockens Water a well known frost-hollow, these leaves had all been killed by the late frost that also had my early potatoes. This will be bad news for the nesting blue tit on the reserve as they mainly feed their chicks on winter moth caterpillars and these eat the first flush of oak leaves.

Hawthorn, or may, traditionally flowers in May, although often it seems to be earlier, this year it has lived up to the name and was in full bloom in the first week of the month. Although it has lots of flowers they do not seem to attract as many insects as the earlier blackthorn flowers, however one in a good sunny spot can still be worth checking for bees, hoverflies and beetles. I spotted this leaf beetle nectaring on the bush close to Ivy South hide as I locked up yesterday afternoon.

leaf beetle

leaf beetle on hawthorn

Yesterday’s birds included a male wheatear on the Lichen Heath and the long-staying Bonaparte’s gull on Ibsley Water.

 

 

Spring?

Willow catkin

Willow catkin

Despite another miserable, wet day, as the subject title suggests there are at least glimmers of hope that spring might be on the way!

One of these is the growing number of  “pussy willows” (pictured above) whose catkins have opened and are now ready to service the needs of hungry insects including early bee’s and butterflies and even birds such as blue tits have been known to feed on this rich supply of early nectar. You can try it yourself if you want, though you may get a few odd looks; simply pop the open catkin in your mouth and suck for a little sample of the sweet nectar. Just take care to only pick “fresh” looking flowers as bedraggled, damp ones may have recently been tried by someone else reading the blog! If the weather carries on like this you may as well try a few because there will certainly be no insects to pollinate the flowers until the weather improves.

Elsewhere around the reserve there are a few other signs that spring is around the corner – chiff chaffs are in full song and good numbers of and a number of swallows were feeding over Ibsley Water today and though there are not yet signs that the martins have begun excavating nest cavities in the sand martin bank other birds are certainly “in the mood” – a pair of great crested grebes were diligently constructing a nest outside Tern Hide this afternoon and I caught a pair of tufted duck “in the act” as I opened it up this morning too. 

Though far from being in full leaf the hawthorn hedges have now got a very obvious “fuzz of green” about them and other tree leaf buds are swelling and will soon be emerging too.

Bread and Cheese

Bird News: Ibsley Waterblack-tailed godwit 1, redshank 2. Ivy Lakebittern 1, scaup 1. Woodlandbrambling 1.

Another misty morning and I was not expecting to see much as I opened the hides, in fact the visibility meant that it was not possible to see much from the Tern hide. At the Ivy North hide I had very good views of a Cetti’s warbler in the reedmace and saw a water rail briefly in flight. However it was the Ivy South hide that delivered the surprise of the morning, I scanned around the lake, the usual scatter of tufted duck and shoveler, then I saw a very fine drake scaup. He was head bobbing and neck stretching, clearly keen to take flight, but none of the tufted duck seemed to share this desire to get away. I had hoped this would mean it would decide to stay, but no, within a couple of minutes it was off, circling the lake then off high into the murk to the south-east, the bird of the day well and truly gone.

Several people came into the Centre to ask where they could see the bittern, they were directed toward the Ivy North hide, along with the opinion that they were probably too late and the bitterns had probably gone. I have suggested we have seen the last of the bitterns several times now, you might have thought I would have learnt my lesson by now and once again I was proved wrong. If there is one thing harder to establish than the presence of a bittern it is the absence of one.

I continued clearing rubbish from around the reserve and yet again have filled the skip I ordered and still have more to go into it. One of my rubbish piles was over beside Mockbeggar Lake and on my way there I passed the hawthorn hedge we had a go at layering to thicken a couple of years ago, it is really looking quite good now.

roadside hedge, Ellingham Drove

The next stage will be to remove the old fence altogether and keep the hedge trimmed to allow it to really thicken up. It is not as good as the classic plashed hedge of old, but much quicker to do and within my capabilities. It has the additional advantage of retaining enough of the top growth that it will flower and fruit the first season after being done. The leaf buds are starting to open on some of the bushes now and the tiny flower buds can also be seen. These shoots can be eaten and were known as “Bread and cheese”, for some reason the advent of burgers and crisps seems to have dented enthusiasm for nibbling the hedgerows.

bread and cheese

We are still awaiting a real arrival of migrants, but I did hear news of an arrival today, a swallow was seen just north of Ibsley village, an impressively early date, especially in a spring when things seem to be on the late side, despite apparently good weather. I also heard that the long-staying whooper swan is still in the fields north of Harbridge church.