30 Days Wild – Day 10 – Damp(ish)

Most of my “Wildness” involved being indoors looking out, although it was not too bad at the beginning and end of the day. The office window at Blashford looks out over the picnic tables and the small pond used by education groups for pond-dipping. It was a movement on the pond-dipping boardwalk that attracted my attention as I was using the photocopier.

roe eating dropwort 4x3

Roe deer eating hemlock water-dropwort

It seemed to be eating mainly the flowers, but the books will tell you that every part of the plant is highly poisonous. I have previously noticed that cattle seem very partial to eating this plant, apparently without obvious harm.

I ventured out at lunchtime, but only as far as the Tern Hide, but I was rewarded with an adult lapwing accompanied by a juvenile with several colour-rings. I do not know for sure yet, but I am pretty certain it is one ringed by the Waders for Real project in the Avon Valley. Given the poor success of our own birds this year I was just pleased to see a fledged juvenile.

colour-ringed juv lapwing

colour-ringed juv lapwing

Although the juvenile was running around feeding well and could fly very well it was still being defended vigorously by the adult, which spent sometime dive-bombing a family party of Canada geese.

wet lapwing

A rather damp adult lapwing, still watching over the youngster despite having left home.

Other birds around were two wigeon, a drake and a duck, but not together, a black swan, hundreds of swift, similar numbers of house martin (in both cases over 350). The highlight though was a marsh harrier, hunched down in the shelter of the vegetation on one of the islands, looking rather miserable.

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30 Days Wild – Day 3

I spent most of the day report writing, not an activity conducive to seeing a lot of wildlife. However at lunchtime I got out by the pond and found a male common blue damselfly tucking into a small moth he had caught. They are very aggressive predators, even if only at a small scale.

common blue damselfly

male common blue damselfly with prey

It was a good day for insects and the hemlock water-dropwort was quite busy with hoverflies and bees. Amongst the hoverflies were a couple of Scaeva pyrastri, a migrant from the continent with distinctive white comma markings.

Scaeva pyrastri

Scaeva pyrastri

There was little to report on the bird front today, although I did see my first flying black-headed gull fledglings of the year, they are very early and well ahead of any of the others on the reserve.

30 Days Wild – Day 2

Back working at Blashford Lakes today, this morning with the first Sunday of the month volunteers. Only a small turnout today but we spent the time working around the new dipping pond, covering up the exposed liner and generally trying to make it look more like a “real” pond. As we were working I noticed some of the plants that had grown up on the exposed soil thrown up when the pond was dug and amongst the plants were several of common fumitory.

fumitory

common fumitory

This is a species that was once an abundant “weed” of cultivation, typical of the margins of arable fields. Some thirty years ago it was noticed that the distribution of turtle dove and fumitory were very similar in Devon, this gave rise to the idea that perhaps the doves needed the plant. However it turned out that it was more that they both needed the same habitat, it was a correlation, both depended upon there being a bit of space left for them between the intensive arable.

The hemlock water-dropwort growing beside the old pond is now in full flower and is usually a really good nectar source for lots of insects, so far this year I have not seen nearly as many as I would expect. However today there were at least a few hoverflies to be seen on the flowers.

Eristalis horticola 4x3Eristalis horticola

Myathropa florea

Myathropa florea

The warm night resulted in much the best moth catch of the year so far, with 34 species including a privet hawk-moth, poplar hawk-moth, pale tussock, Brussels Lace and this alder moth.

alder moth

alder moth

Almost immaculate, apart form a slightly rubbed thorax.

As I went to lock up the Tern hide looking out over Ibsley Water I saw a tern in the distance that did not “look right” and no wonder, it was a little tern, in fact there were two of them. Typically very much coastal terns in the UK, so it is always a treat to see them inland, or increasingly anywhere these days, as they are one of our most threatened seabirds.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 12 – The Power of a Flower

Tuesday at Blashford is volunteer day, or at least one of them, we also have a regular work party on a Thursday as well, today we were balsam pulling. The balsam in question is Himalayan balsam, a garden plant that escaped into the countryside and particularly likes growing along river and stream banks, “riparian habitats” as they are known. It is an extraordinary plant, growing to two or three metres tall in a matter of a few weeks,outgrowing all native plants that live in similar places. It also has explosive seed pods which can throw the seeds a metre or more when they pop. Being a non-native it has escaped its natural disease and insect controls and grows almost without check, which is why it has become a problem.

before

a disappointingly large stand of balsam

We have been removing this plant by pulling them up for many years now and have made good progress on the upper parts of the Dockens Water, where there are very few plants now. Clearly though, we failed to find quiet a few plants last year for there to be quite such a dense stand as this. Flooding carries the seed along and will also concentrate it where the seed gets deposited. We had a lot of plants to pull up, but we did pull them up and this is what it looked like a short while later.

after

after balsam pulling

What is very clear is that once the balsam is gone there is very little other vegetation, showing how it out competes other species.

Himalayan balsam has very nectar rich flowers, leading some to claim it is “Good for bees”, bees and other insects will take nectar from it, but I think the case for it being “good for bees” is very questionable. When it flowers it is very popular, but before this it shades out all the other flowering plants that would providing nectar, so across the season it probably provides no more than would be there anyway, it makes the habitat one of feast or famine cutting off food sources earlier in the season.

Flowers are immensely rich sources of food for lots of creatures, perhaps especially insects, but I have watch deer carefully picking off flowers and leaving the rest of the plant. The flower has the protein-rich pollen and the sugar-rich nectar, in short the stuff needed to make animals and keep them running. The flowers are not giving this largess, they are trying to get their pollen transferred to another flower to allow seed formation and make new plants. As the year progresses different flowers become the main attraction for lots of insects. Just now hemlock water dropwort is very attractive, but a new draw is appearing in the form of bramble flowers.

bramble flowers

bramble flowers

We easily notice the larger species such as butterflies, but look closer and you will see lots of tiny insects.

bramble flower with pollen beetles

A bramble flower with several small beetles

I think the beetles in the picture are pollen beetles, but I am not certain.

Closely related to brambles, the roses are at their peak now, the similarity in flower form between the bramble and this dog rose are clear even if the rose is the showier.

dog rose

dog rose

I was pleased to receive reports of four little ringed plover chicks seen today from Tern hide, the first proof of any hatching so far this year. It was also good to see the common tern arriving at the rafts on Ivy Lake carrying small fish to feed newly hatched chicks.

My moth trap highlight today was a lobster moth caught at home, not a species I see very often and I still have to find the extraordinary caterpillar which is the source of the moth’s name.

lobster moth

lobster moth

To refer back to my earlier comments about the food value of flowers, I noticed the mullein moth caterpillar in my garden has eaten most of the flowers off the figwort plant, it has eaten all the best bits first!

mullein moth on figwort

mullein moth on figwort

What’s in My Meadow Today?

I know it is not a plant that belongs in a meadow in southern England, but I like bloody crane’s-bill, so I have it in the meadow, where it grows and seeds quite well.

bloody cranesbill

bloody crane’s-bill flower

Something else that does not really belong are the anthills, this is not because ants are not native here, but you do not usually get anthills in meadows. This is because a meadow is really a field that is grown to produce a crop of grass, so the act of cutting the field would knock down the anthills before they became large. I cut the grass around the anthills taking care to leave them to get bigger year by year as I rather like them. This maybe because I spent many years working at Farlington Marshes where the masses of anthills are a significant feature of the reserve.

anthill

One of the anthills being extended by the ants.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 9: Send in the Troops

Despite a bit of a stutter in the summer weather this week the season still advances and Day 9 of 30 Days Wild saw the first common tern chicks on the rafts on Ivy Lake. I think they probably hatched couple of days ago. One pair was a few days ahead of the main group so I am expecting a lot of chicks to hatch next week. Common tern almost invariably lay three eggs, so if they all hatch our 36 pairs will have about 100 chicks between them, so fingers crossed for a successful season.

I saw the terns from Ivy South hide where the grass snake were on show, basking on the stump below the hide.

two grass snakes on the stump

Snakes on the stump

The most significant sightings of the day though were once again of insects. I will always try to make a quick check of the hemlock water-dropwort at lunchtime, this plant is very attractive to nectaring insects and amongst these can be some rarer species. In particular it attracts bees, hoverflies and soldierflies. Blashford is a good site for bees, many of which use the dry lichen heath for nesting. Equally the wetland habitats are the home to many hoverflies and especially soldierflies, including some nationally rare species. So I was very pleased to spot at least one ornate brigadier soldierfly (Odontomyia ornata), a species that we see at Blashford every couple of years or so and has, so far, not been found anywhere else in Hampshire. I then spotted a second species, the black colonel (Odontomyia tigrina), slightly more often recorded but still quite rare, this one at least allowed me to take a picture.

Odontomyia tigrina female

Black colonel soldierfly (Odontomyia tigrina), female on hemlock water-dropwort.

However visiting flowers to feed, as these insects must do, is a risky business, there are predators lying in wait, in particular crab spiders.

crab spider with bee prey

Crab spider with bee as prey

Elsewhere on the reserve the three smaller lapwing chicks are still surviving in front of Tern hide along with the single larger one, I did not see the oystercatcher chicks and I suspect they may have lost one late on Thursday. We will see what next week brings.

30 Days Wild – Day 7

I spent most of the day working at Blashford Lakes with the volunteers, mostly cutting back bramble growth from around paths and signs. We had a real bonus sighting just as we were getting the tools out though, when a female honey buzzard flew low over the trees heading west. We don’t see them very often at Blashford, perhaps once or twice a year at best.

At lunchtime we saw another ornate brigadier soldierfly, this time a female so we have the makings of a breeding population, if she can find Sunday’s male!

In the evening I was surveying breeding birds on the coast, it was a fabulous evening and I found a ringed plover sitting on a nest and on a coastal pool saw a brood of three avocet chicks. A very pleasant way to end the day.

hemlock water dropwort

Hemlock water-dropwort against a late evening sky.