A wet and wild week

 

After a super busy summer term the holidays are here and we’re just as busy with our usual monthly events and our Wild Days Out programme of children’s holiday activities.

Our Young Naturalists met last Sunday for a beginners photography session led by local photographer Clifton Beard. Cliff was a brilliant tutor, keeping things simple and remembering the group would be taking photos with a variety of equipment from smart phones to point and shoot to digital SLRs.

Group in classroom resized

Cliff set us little tasks throughout the session, encouraging us to think more before merrily snapping away and ran through the importance of light, composition and moment. We looked for certain colours, lines, edges and lots more and tried focusing on macro subjects before having a mini photo competition with our best images of the day.

As we didn’t stray far from the building, it was really interesting to see what everyone managed to find close by. Cliff’s parting advice was that the best camera is the one you have on you, which really is true, if you don’t have it with you then you will miss the shot!

Thanks to Cliff for giving up his day to share his knowledge and expertise with the group and to Amy Hall and Corinne Bespolka from the Cameron Bespolka Trust for joining us too.

Wednesday was an entirely different affair, with a very wet and soggy Wild Day Out. Not to be deterred from our ‘Wildlife Safari’, we began the day dissecting some owl pellets, an activity the group thoroughly enjoyed. We had fun picking them apart with cocktail sticks and trying to decide which bits of small mammal we were looking at; a rib, or a shoulder blade, or a jaw bone or a skull. To tie in with this we also had lots of bones and other signs of wildlife to look at and hold.

After a short while we decided it was about time we braved the elements, pulled on our waterproofs and headed outside. Despite the rain, we soon spotted lots of cinnabar caterpillars on the ragwort on the lichen heath. As we looked closer we also disturbed a grasshopper and realised the wildlife was still all around us, just hunkering down low to avoid the wet weather. Probably a very sensible thing to be doing!

Our first sign of something ever so slightly bigger than our grasshopper was this pile of rabbit droppings:

Muddy ground is great for spotting tracks, however the first ones we noticed were not of the wildlife kind, or at least not the wildlife we were after:

IMG_0552

Vehicle tracks in the soft mud

We then headed towards the Dockens, taking the path towards the road crossing to Goosander hide and playing pooh sticks on the bridge over the river. Continuing along the path, we found a safe spot to get into the river then explored upstream, occasionally having to get back out again and walk along the bank when the pools became too deep. Whilst exploring the river we came across a number of deer tracks in the soft mud.

We were now quite wet, although some were wetter than others, and Isabelle and Millie had to empty their wellies after our river wanderings.

We picked blackberries on our way to Goosander hide, looking forward to a dry spot for lunch. We were stopped in our tracks by a scattering of feathers, trying to decide what had happened, who had been eaten (we decided a duck after studying the feathers) and by whom (we thought fox). A little further along the path we found the kill site, spotting a hollow off to the side of the path which contained the remains of two different birds. One of the skeletons was complete and as it was a bit on the large size for a duck we thought it could be a goose. The other we weren’t so sure!

We lunched in Goosander Hide, watching the rain get heavier and the sand martins and swallow flitting low over the water. Despite the weather we saw herons, cormorant, black headed gull, mute swans, little grebe and great crested grebe. The highlight though was the kingfisher, who didn’t seem put off by the rain or the bunch of 7-12 year olds picnicking in the hide and flew across in front of us a number of times, pausing for a while on one of the branches in the water.

We headed back to the Education Centre, dried off and warmed up with the help of a hot chocolate, happy in the knowledge that even in the pouring rain there were still plenty of signs of life and the wildlife itself to entertain us!

Thursday’s Wild Day Out was somewhat drier, a nice change to Wednesday! We were in search of dragons so headed to the pond to see what we could catch and keeping our fingers crossed the sun would put in an appearance and bring dragonflies hawking above the surface of the water.

By the time we had eaten, the weather had brightened up considerably and we headed over to the meadow, munching blackberries along the way. It was too wet to meadow sweep but we still embarked on a still hunt, finding a quiet spot in the meadow to just sit and look and watch the meadow world go by. We then had a go at stealthily catching some of the creatures we had been watching using bug pots. Slightly harder than using a sweep net, it certainly made us look closer.

We also managed to spot five wasp spiders in the meadow, making sure we left them safely in their webs:

wasp-spider

After discovering the miniature world of the meadow we headed to the Woodland Hide in search of birds then went on to Ivy South Hide, spotting a grass snake on the edge of Ivy Silt Pond.

We then returned to the Education Centre the long way (there were lots more blackberries to pick the long way back), seeing how many small children it takes to hug a rather large oak tree (I can’t remember the answer, but it was a fair few!) and playing pooh sticks on the bridge over the river.

Tree hugging

Tree hugging, with I think seven 5-8 year olds!

Pooh sticks

Pooh sticks on the Dockens Water, and looking for fish!

It’s been a rather wet and wild week!

We still have some spaces left on our upcoming Wild Days Out this summer, if you know of someone who might like to join us please visit the website for details and to book.

From Lakes to Lake

Last Sunday I spent the day at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s new reserve at Fishlake Meadows on the edge of Romsey. The reserve is so new that we don’t yet have a reserves officer in post, but it is good to have some presence on site, so for the day I got to swap Blashford Lakes for Fishlake.

The site is around 60ha of abandoned farmland that has flooded to produce a mosaic of open water, reedbed and fen, wonderful habitat for a wide range of species. At present views across the site are limited by rapidly colonising willow and bramble, but tantalising glimpses can be had across the area from the old barge canal that runs north from the town.

The day was much finer than had been forecast and instead of dodging showers I got to enjoy a huge range of insects enjoying the flowery fen vegetation. One species that I was very pleased to see was the yellow loosestrife bee. This species is dependent upon the yellow loosestrife, not for nectar or even for pollen, but for its oil. Why would a bee need oil? That is the really clever part of the story, the bees collect the oil from the flowers on special hairs on their legs and use it to waterproof their nest chambers. This allows them to make their nests in areas that are prone to flooding, so they can nest close to the flower rich fen rather than having to nest elsewhere and waste energy flying in.

yellow loostrife bee

Yellow loosestrife bee, nectaring on creeping thistle.

The huge number of flowers attract lots of different bees and I saw many species, although identifying them is a bit of a challenge. I think this one is a patchwork leafcutter bee, but I could be wrong, also nectaring on a thistle, this time a spear thistle.

patchwork leafcutter bee female

Patchwork leafcutter bee

I also saw lot of wasps, these are even more of a challenge to identify and I have not even tried with this one.

parasitic wasp

parasitic wasp

There was an osprey on site when I was there but I managed very skilfully to miss it entirely.

Sunny Day

As is usual on a sunny day in August the reserve was very quiet yesterday, the birds having finished nesting and most of the migrants have yet to get moving. The human visitor too mostly go elsewhere when the summer sun comes out. However the sun does bring out the insects and there was a fair showing of dragonflies and butterflies, although tempered by the fact that numbers seem to be well down this summer across the board.

The moth trap catch was quite good, but much lower than I would have hoped, but with a warm week ahead we could be in for bumper catches by next Sunday morning when I have a moth event. To whet the appetite here are a couple of pictures of regulars from the trap.

black arches

black arches, male

brown china-mark

brown china-mark

Out on the reserve there were insects about but numbers are still rather disappointing, I did see a painted lady though, a species that has not been common this year. On the edge of the lichen heath I was looking for bee wolves when I spotted what, at first I thought was a large ant, but in fact was a true-bug nymph that was trying to look like an ant.

bug nymph

Alydus calcaratus nymph.

If anything they look even more convincing from the side.

bug nymph 2

Alydus calcaratus nymph

You can see the rostrum, that is the piercing feeding tube under the head that gives it away as a true bug, rather than the jaws that an ant would have.

One group of insects that do seem to be abundant are the grasshoppers. One species that still seems to be increasing is the lesser marsh grasshopper, a previously coastal species that has spread inland.

lesser marsh grasshopper

lesser marsh grasshopper

Although there were few birds of note around, there were significant numbers of some species. On Ibsley Water I counted 271 tufted duck and 355 greylag geese, the goose flock included what looked like an emperor goose accompanied by a barnacle goose and  a single hybrid off-spring.

A Trip to Kitts

A quick bit of catch-up. On Thursday we did not do a volunteer task, but instead went up to Kitts Grave, the part of the Martin Down National Nature Reserve that belongs to the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. The site is managed as part of the wider reserve by Natural England, but we do a couple of tasks there each winter and it is always good to go an see how the habitat is developing. We have been helping with scrub clearance there to reinstate chalk grassland patches and rides within the scrub. It seems to be working well and the area is fabulous for a wide range of insects. Unfortunately Thursday was mostly dull but luckily warm enough for some insects to be about. Very obvious, as they sat around on the foliage in full view, were several scarlet tiger moth.

scarlet tiger

scarlet tiger moth

The mix of scrub and grassland is very good for ringlet and they don’t mind flying even in very overcast conditions.

ringlet

ringlet

As the grassland area grows we will no doubt be seeing more and more marbled white, the dull conditions meant they were basking with their wings wide open, something they rarely do in sunshine.

marbled white on creeping thistle

marble white on creeping thistle

Meadow marvels

We’ve spent a lot of time in the meadow over the last few weeks, weather permitting! Occasionally we have had to resort to ‘look, but don’t touch’ as the showers have left the grass too damp for sweep netting, but this habitat has certainly come alive with a great range of insects, spiders and bugs.

Today we headed there with our Wildlife Tots, after a crafty caterpillar and butterfly making session in the classroom and a quick look in the light trap. We also had a look at the Lime hawk-moth caterpillars we have been rearing in a tank in the centre, they have certainly grown on their diet of silver birch leaves (more accessible than the lime trees we have on the reserve!) and look even more impressive!

Lime hawk moth caterpillar

Lime hawk-moth caterpillar

On our way to the meadow we were distracted on the lichen heath, finding flowers for our card and pipe cleaner butterflies to nectar on, and discovered these cinnabar moth caterpillars. Once we had our eye in, we found lots of black and yellow caterpillars munching their way through the ragwort:

Cinnabar caterpillar

Cinnabar moth caterpillar

On entering the meadow, we embarked on a still hunt, no mean feat for a group of toddlers! We found a quiet spot on the path so as not to trample the long grass and sat quietly, looking intently at the miniature world going on around us:

still hunt

We’re going on a still hunt…

After being brilliant still hunters, spotting butterflies, damselflies, bumblebees, grasshoppers and beetles, we had a go at catching many of the creatures using a sweep net.

Thanks too to Wendy for sending us this lovely photo of Wildlife Tot Sam with his very impressive sunflower, planted during our March into Spring session back in, yes you’ve guessed it, March! It’s so tall!!

Sam and his sunflower

Sam with his amazingly tall sunflower!!

Carrying on with the meadow theme, this was also the focus of our last Young Naturalists session at the end of June. We were fortunate to have more sun than today, with the butterflies in particular quite happy to let us get close enough for photos.

little skipper

Small skipper butterfly

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly

Meadow brown

Meadow brown butterfly

cricket

Cricket, with super long antennae, longer than the length of its body

Grasshopper by Talia Felstead

Grasshopper, with its antennae shorter than its body

Robber fly

Robber fly

Fairy-ring longhorn beetle

Fairy-ring longhorn beetle, I think!

common blue damselfly

Common blue damselfly

Identifying our catch 2

Identifying our meadow creatures

The moth trap as usual revealed a good selection of moths ready for the group to identify, whilst we also spotted Mullein moth and Orange tip butterfly caterpillars:

Although the meadow was a fitting spot to visit as we met right at the end of National Insect Week, it wasn’t all about the insects and we still found time to visit Ivy South hide in search of a basking grass snake…

Grass snake by Talia Felstead

Grass snake by Talia Felstead

…and spotted this toad whilst carrying out Plantlife’s Bee Scene survey, in search of wildflowers good for bumblebees:

Toad by Talia Felstead

Toad by Talia Felstead

Luckily our wanderings found plenty of wildflowers good for bumblebees, a relief perhaps as we were looking on a nature reserve, but still a worthwhile activity for the group to do, encouraging them to brush up on their plant identification. Of the fifteen Bee Scene flowers we had to look for, we found dandelion, white clover, hedge woundwort, foxglove, bramble, red campion, red clover and thistle throughout the day, luckily spotting a few bumblebees too!

Buff tailed bumble bee by Talia Felstead

Buff tailed bumble bee by Talia Felstead

More details about the survey can be found on Plantlife’s website – all you need is a local green space, which doesn’t have to be a nature reserve, it could be your garden, a park, footpath or school grounds. Happy wildflower hunting!

Red campion by Talia Felstead

Red campion by Talia Felstead

 

Staying Wild – Life Still Bee Hard

I had a couple of days off on Friday and Saturday but was back at Blashford on Sunday. Although it was raining at first by the end of the day it was actually feeling summery, with bees and butterflies.

Opening up I saw the common scoter was still on Ibsley Water, but apart from a single redshank, a pochard and 97 tufted duck I could see little else.

I was working with the volunteers during the morning, and attended to various odd jobs in the afternoon. As I said the sun came out and  along with it lots of insects. In the sweep meadow I found a very splendid bee basking on a fence post, I am pretty sure it is a coast leafcutter bee, as the name suggests usually found on the coast in sandy places, it presumably finds the sandy soil of the Lichen Heath to its liking.

coast leafcutter bee male

coast leafcutter bee (male)

At lunchtime the picnic tables were attracting lots of basking female horseflies, they all seemed to be Tabanus bromius. Luckily they seemed more interested in warming up than biting, at least for now.

Tabanus

Tabanus bromius female.

Towards the end of the afternoon I was at the sandy bank where I observed the Nomad bees several weeks ago as they tried to parasitize the yellow-legged bee colony. This time the solitary bees, I am not sure what species, were being attacked by hunting wasps.

bee hunting wasp

wasp hunting solitary bees

It was capturing the small bees in the same way that a bee wolf does honey bees, but it was a small wasp, hunting smaller bees. After stinging them it carried them to a nest hole and tried to get them underground. From what I could see the bee was not dead but incapacitated and certainly seemed unable to fight back

Upon Reflection

Today was yet another dry, sunny, early spring day, the fourth in a row. Despite the sunshine it was quite fresh, with a cool easterly breeze. Still the sunshine tempted many creatures out into the open. I saw my first grass snake and adder of the year and a peacock butterfly with red admiral also being seen. It was wise to stay out of the wind though and find ways to make the most of the sun’s warmth. The butterflies were staying on the sheltered side of lines of trees but it is possible to do more. It is well known that dark things warm up more and this is why snakes often shelter under dark rocks and why surveyors use roofing felts to attract them in. I saw a number of hoverflies out and about including several Eristalis pertinax.

Eristalis pertinax

They seemed to favour perching on very pale or white surfaces, presumably because they were reflecting the light, although they would not get as warm as a dark surface. I also saw my first large bee-fly of the year and it was also on a pale surface.

bee-fly Bombylius major

Dark insects on very pale surfaces make for difficult photography, but these were the best that I could do.

Many spring flowers are yellow, one of the first in most years is the colt’s foot, although this year the daffodils seem to have beaten it.

colt's foot

The extremely bright yellow is also very hard to capture in a photograph, but I think the yellow flowers of lesser celandine are even more difficult.

lesser celendine

These have shiny, brilliant yellow petals, in some species and perhaps in this also the petals actually concentrate the heat of the sun so that the centre of the flower is heated making it more attractive to pollinating insects. Despite colt’s foot and celandine being attractive to pollinating flies I saw none actually doing so, but then insects still seem to be in short supply, even though many flowers are now in bloom.

In bird news I hear the bittern was seen again yesterday, although not today, but it must surely be due to go soon. On Ibsley Water the Slavonian grebe and both black-necked grebe were seen and the gull roost contained at least on adult ring-billed gull and  a number of Mediterranean gull.