Birds, Birds, Birds

Blashford Lakes are a great place to see lots of birds. Both Ibsley Water and Ivy Lake have large numbers of duck at present with each often having over one thousand wigeon on most days recently.

wigeon

drake wigeon

There are also hundreds of pintail on Ibsley Water, they have been attracted up the Avon Valley along with a lot of the wigeon due to the flooding of the fields. These ducks tend to spend the day resting on the open water, only going out to feed in the valley after dark. By contrast most of the gadwall will be found feeding on the lakes during the day, with fewer flying out at dusk.

gadwall

drake gadwall

Ivy Lake is home to a large cormorant roost, these fly in at dusk to perch high in the trees around the lake shore, so far this winter I have managed to count only about 150 birds, but this roost can get to over 200.

cormorant roost

cormorant roost

For really large numbers of birds the time to visit is just before dusk, if you stand on the viewpoint at the back of the Main Car Park, from where you can see several thousand gulls fly in to roost on the water and tens of thousands of starling. Last evening the starling roosted in two locations, most to the north of the lake, but several thousand also to the west.

roosts-001

Starling murmuration

The birds were making impressive shapes in the air as they were being chased by at least one peregrine and we also saw a marsh harrier fly past. We could also see goosander flying in to roost on the lake and as it got dark a load of cackling greylag flew in to spend the night on the water.

The reserve is not all about birds though and as I locked up in the morning there were three roe deer feeding in the reeds just beside Ivy North Hide.

roe deer

Roe deer in the reeds

If you are visiting, I can now report that the Main Car park is open as usual as the flooding has now receded.

 

A New Tern Hide Rising

The new Tern Hide is going up, work started on Monday with the footings, Tuesday saw the framework go up.

Hide construction starting base steel

Framework going in

Hide construction base steel

Going up

hide building frame

Taking shape

As you can see this is a somewhat different structure to the old hide. It has a steel frame and is raised off the ground, the old hide suffered when the floor started rotting out, not helped by the odd flood when water was flowing under the hide base.

Hide building 2

By the end of the day the panels are starting to go up

It will take time to get all the sides up and roof on, and then there are the windows and internal fixings to do, but work is progressing well despite the windy conditions.

hide construction ongoing

Starting to look like a hide now

The hide will have some higher level windows to make it easier to stand up and use a telescope on a tripod, hopefully a boon when doing a winter gull watch. Although it may not look it, it is larger in every dimension so it should also not get quiet so much of a crush when we do get a crowd in.

We have also made a more defined and level view point on the bank at the rear of the car park, which will give a great overall view of the lake and valley as a whole. Hopefully much better viewing all round.

I still do not expect work to be completed before the end of the month, but as you can see progress is now good.

This project has been made possible thanks to funds from the Veolia Environmental Trust.

vet-logo

All Change

After a cold and snowy end to last week,  Sunday saw me arriving to find almost the whole of Ibsley Water frozen over and Ivy Lake completely so.

frosty silt pond

Ivy Silt Pond on Sunday morning

Things actually started to thaw during the day on Sunday, so that by the end of the day there was more open water, at least on Ibsley Water.

goosander flock preening

a group of goosander preening near Lapwing hide

The cold resulted in a typical increase in the number of common gull in the roost, with over 400 reported and, more excitingly, the return of the ring-billed gull, probably it had come in with the common gull influx, but where has it been?

Even at dusk  on yesterday Ivy Lake was still frozen over and this seemed to put off the cormorant roosting flock, instead of the usual 150 or more birds there were just two! Others did fly in and around the trees but headed off elsewhere. A single great white egret, probably “Walter” roosted in the trees, but away from the two cormorant.

Today was quite different, mild and wet, a combination of snow melt and rain resulted in the Dockens Water flooding through the alder carr and into Ivy Lake, probably to the great relief of the bittern which was back in the reedmace at Ivy North Hide as I locked up this evening.

bittern

Bittern in the reedmace below Ivy North hide

I am pretty confident that every sighting of bittern that I have had this winter has been of the same bird, as have been all the pictures I have seen. On a couple of occasions I have seen threat behaviour that I would usually associate with there being a second nearby, but have never seen another bird. So reports of two seen on Friday were interesting, although the second bird could just have been displaced by the cold as they often are when lakes freeze. However today I see that two were seen in early January, so perhaps there really have been two all along! As they are territorial it may just be that the second is usually too far from the hide for us to see it, there is a good bit of reedbed off the west of the Ivy North Hide where it would be very difficult to see a lurking bittern.

By dusk this evening it was quite hard to see very much in any case, as the mist descended over the lakes.

misty Ivy Lake

Misty Ivy Lake (actually the bittern is in this picture, but I doubt you can see it!!)

29th Dec – Sightings

No pictures today as my camera has died on me. Opening the hides first thing there was a water pipit at Tern hide (later I also had singles at both Goosander and Lapwing hides as well), also from there a new high count of linnet 108, and a chiffchaff beside the hide. At Ivy North hide the bittern was standing high in the reedmace giving great views. At the Woodland hide the reed bunting count had risen to 7 along with all the usual woodland birds.

Walking round the reserve the number of species singing was notable, I heard mistle thrush, song thrush, great tit, treecreeper, robin and Cetti’s warbler between the Centre and Ivy South hide.

In the afternoon a first winter Caspian gull was showing well swimming among the larger gulls from at least 2 o’clock. Despite searches by a few people no other notable gulls were found apart from rather more yellow-legged gull than recently seen, with perhaps 10 or more.

Towards dusk a green sandpiper was at Goosander hide, a great white egret flew over heading south, I assumed the egret was heading to roost in the trees at Ivy Lake, but when I got there none were to be seen. A small starling roost gathered over the north end of Ibsley Water, maybe 1000 or so birds, being chased by a peregrine. The peregrine them forced low over the water, so low that many wings broke the surface and produced a sudden flash of spray.

 

Dec 17th – Mist & Missed (again)

The wet ground combined with a cold dawn to give a misty morning with frost in the hollows and ice on the puddles. Opening Tern hide it was good to see the linnet flock still present, although I could only count 57 today. Out on the water 14 pintail were the most I have seen so far this winter.

frosty morning

The misty, cold approach to Ivy North hide

At Ivy North I saw two great white egret stalking the shallows for an early morning snack and heard a Cetti’s warbler.

Leaving the hide I found some funnel fungi covered in frost. I think they might be Clitocybe sinopica but I am very far from certain.

Funnel

funnel fungus

It was a morning of odd jobs and on my way back from blowing the debris off the boardwalk I was told of a cattle egret at the Ivy North hide. I still have not seen one of these on the reserve despite multiple sightings of up to three this year, so I went to take a look. Unsurprisingly it had gone, just one little egret was on show with a fly past by the great white egret, two out of three but I had missed again! At least I did spot the bittern in the reedmace.

My afternoon was spent in a meeting in the main office, on the way I passed the crowd of people in a lay-by by the A31 armed with telescopes and binoculars, I suspect looking at the white- tailed eagle, but no time to stop so, missed again!

By the time I returned it was dark and my only birds on locking up were grey heron and mandarin heard calling at Ivy Silt Pond.

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.

 

A Great Day

I arrived at the reserve in heavy rain, always promising at this time of year and looking out form Tern hide I saw 4 bar-tailed godwit, migrants headed north grounded by the weather. Otherwise things were pretty much as the day previous day, including two very smart black-necked grebe, always a massive treat in breeding plumage.

The night had been cold (again), but there were a few moths in the trap including two new for the year, an iron prominent.

iron prominent

iron prominent

And a great prominent.

great prominent

great prominent

The moth trap does not only catch moths and looking through pictures from a few days ago I noticed a small fly I had not yet identified. It turned out to be a Tephritid fly, more often called picture-winged flies. Most of these have larvae that eat plants, especially seedheads of composites such as thistles. I identified this one as Euphranta toxoneura as species that is a brood parasite or predator on sawflies of the genus Pontania which make leaf galls on willows. It appears to be quite a scarce species and certainly one I had not seen before and a new species for the reserve.

Euphranta toxoneura

Euphranta toxoneura

Around lunchtime,as the weather cleared, an osprey flew over, it headed off east and was maybe the one seen at Lower Test nature reserve later. Unfortunately I missed it, I think at least the third one to have flown over me so far this year without my seeing any of them. The only other birds of note today were 14 black-tailed godwit and a whimbrel, briefly with the bar-tailed godwit in flight over Ibsley Water, a common sandpiper and a screaming group of about 40 swift.

Changeable

The last week or so has been very strange, with the arrival of several migrants and further snow.

gorse flower in snow 3

Spring!

On the migrant front there are now small numbers of sand martin hawking over several of the lakes, the most I have seen together is only six. On Ibsley Water there have been at least 2 little ringed plover, but be warned as there has also been a ringed plover. Other waders in the snow last weekend included a few dunlin and 3 golden plover. A single swallow has been recorded on several days and is perhaps the one reported in North Gorley as well. In the woodland small numbers of chiffchaff are singing and near Tern hide a pair of wheatear have been seen for the last four days. Perhaps the greatest excitement has been the sighting of 2 osprey passing singly overhead in the last week. typically for spring birds, they did not linger.

Other notable sightings have included up to 5 stonechat beside Ibsley Water, this is usually a very scarce species on the reserve, I suspect these are birds that had returned to the open Forest before snow and moved into the valley to escape the worst of the conditions. Two adult little gull have been over Ibsley Water where numbers of Mediterranean gull are increasing and the ring-billed gull is still being seen int he evening roost.

As thought to highlight the confusion of the seasons there have been birds starting to nest and the dawn chorus has gone up a gear. The picture below was taken through my kitchen window and shows blue tits investigating a nestbox in the snow.

blue tit pair at box in snow

The drive to start breeding is not stopped by changeable weather.

 

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.

Cake and Colours

A fine Blashford day and better still one with cake, because we hosted the Pop-up Café once again today. The reserve was fairly busy, both with visitors and birds. At opening up time Ivy Lake was busy with ducks, nothing unusual, but a good mix of species.

Ivy Lake

Ivy Lake with lots of wildfowl

The trees are in particularly good colour just now, with the oak just turning, joining the beech, hazel, willows and others. Some hazel are still completely green while others are in their autumn glory.

hazel

Hazel in full autumn colour

Although there are few on the reserve, the guelder rose draws attention at this time of year thanks to very bright leaves.

guelder rose

guilder rose

Field maple, like all the Acers, has very good autumn colour, although most of their leaves seem already to have fallen at Blashford.

field maple leaves

fallen field maple leaves

Not all the colour comes from leaves though, I know Tracy posted a picture of it on Friday but I cannot resist another one of the cobalt crust fungus.

cobalt fungus

cobalt crust fungus

The colour is amazing! It seems it is uncommon and mostly found on ash twigs and branches, at Blashford it is on rotting willow branches lying on the ground in deep shade.

Out on the reserve both the water pipit and pink-footed goose were on show at Tern hide on and off throughout the day. Over 30 goosander were present well before dusk and 3000 or so starling gave a rather brief display before going to roost rather earlier than I had expected.  Three Cetti’s warbler were singing around Ivy Lake and a fourth was calling beside Lapwing hide. At Woodland hide a redpoll, a couple of brambling and a firecrest were all reported and a woodcock was seen in the willows near the Centre car park. At dusk on Ivy Lake, Walter our regular great white egret was again roosting in his favourite dead alder beside the cormorant roost.

Ibsley Water

Ibsley Water towards the end of the day from Lapwing hide.