Making Preparations

Although it feels very much like winter there are preparations for the coming spring afoot. At Blashford Lakes I spent Tuesday working with our volunteer team clearing the Long Spit island and the open ground of the old Hanson plant making the ground ready for nesting lapwing, little ringed plover, common tern and black-headed gull. Lapwing can settle down to nest as early as the start of March and will be pairing up at nest sites well before then if the weather is suitable.

before

The Long Spit before clearance

after

Long Spit after clearance

It was very cold and we had feared we would also get wet as there were some fierce showers, luckily they mostly missed us and by the time we had finished the sun was out.

By way of proof of approaching spring I spotted a pair of blue tit checking out a nest box outside my kitchen window, luckily the Blashford boxes have all been cleaned out, a reminder for me to do mine at home.

blue tit investigating

Blue tit checking out the nest box outside my kitchen window at the weekend.

Today we were working with our new volunteer team at Fishlake Meadows, again we were making preparations for later in the year. This time it was scrub cutting in preparation for grazing parts of this new reserve. Although much of the reserve is open water and reedbed there are areas of wet grassland that is gradually getting ranker and invaded by willow and bramble. To arrest this we plan a light grazing regime to maintain the mix of grass, fen and small patches of low scrub. Today we removed some young willow and cleared small alder to leave a few larger trees that will provide valuable shade for cattle in the summer sun.

start

Making the first cuts – the Fishlake volunteers starting out.

We were lucky with the weather, it was cold, but we managed to stay out of the wind and in the sun making it feel rather pleasant, hopefully we will be as lucky next time.

finish

With the scrub removed these trees will provide valuable shade for the cattle later in the year.

As we walked out to the worksite I saw a distant great white egret and on the way back we watched 2 red kite sparring with a pair of crow.

In the afternoon I returned to Blashford Lakes and got a quick picture of a water pipit outside Tern hide, nit the best I have seen but the best picture I have managed,

water pipit

water pipit

I am very lucky to be able to see quite a lot of wildlife as I go about my working day, however there are times when I should definitely have been looking the other way. As we headed out to work on the Long Spit on Tuesday we apparently disturbed an otter from the lakeside and it then swam by the Tern hide, somehow none of us saw it!

At Blashford we are also at the start of preparations of a different kind, we are planning a number of improvements around the reserve. To fund this we are hoping to apply for a grant and part of this process involves sounding out our visitors for their experience of the reserve. If you have visited recently it would be very useful to have your views, a questionnaire is attached here: Blashford Lakes Questionnaire if you are able to complete it and email it to us it would greatly help us with our grant application.

 

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A Clear(er) View

On Thursday the volunteers cleared the annual vegetation from in front of the Tern hide, we do this each year for a couple of reasons. The most obvious is that it improves the view of the nearest shore from the hide. Another is that it clears the ground for the nesting lapwing and little ringed plover next spring. There are also always some seedling bramble, birch and willow that need pulling out before they get established.

before

The shore before we started

after

and after a couple of hours of hard weeding

Looking out from the hide today this did not make much difference as visibility was seriously reduced due to persistent heavy rain. Despite this there were some birds to see, including at least 800 sand martin, 3 swift, 2 dunlin, a little ringed plover, 3 common sandpiper, 33 mute swan and 3 pochard. Ivy Lake was quieter with just a few coot, gadwall and great crested grebe, there are also still two broods of two common tern chicks on the rafts.

Today was not a day for invertebrates, but I do have one more picture from Thursday, spotted in long grass as I went round locking up, a wasp spider, my first of the year.

wasp spider

Wasp spider female with prey.

 

Messing around on the water…

Last Sunday fourteen of our Young Naturalists met up again for our usual monthly meeting, and this time we were back in Beaulieu and heading out onto the water on a canoe safari with New Forest Activities. We were hoping to get a different view of some of the river birds and spot some of the moon jellyfish we had heard so much about. Moon jellyfish can often be seen in large numbers in the Beaulieu River during the summer months and are easily identifiable by the four rings visible in the centre of their transparent bodies.

After a briefing from our instructors we sorted ourselves out into canoes and headed out onto the water.

Briefing

Receiving our briefing

The weather wasn’t as hot and sunny as it had been, possibly a good thing for being out on the water, but it was warm and the group didn’t appear to mind getting a bit wet. Some got wetter than others!

After getting used to our canoes we headed upstream, foraging for wild samphire along the way and spotting lapwing. We also looked at a nesting platform which hopefully may one day tempt a passing osprey to stay in the area for longer.

We soon noticed lots of small jellyfish in the water, which the group were particularly excited by. We had a go at scooping up some of them to see what they felt like before quickly returning them to the river. They were quite hard to catch but Annabel in particular seemed to have the jellyfish catching knack.

A lot of the creeks and inlets were out of bounds due to nesting birds but we were able to explore one, spotting crabs in the shallower water and watching the jellyfish drift by. Turning back round at the end was entertaining.

Heading up the creek

Heading into the creek…

On the lookout for crabs

On the lookout for crabs…

After a picnic on the shore at Beaulieu, it was time to head back down river and back to Bailey’s Hard. Although the sun had by now come out, the wind had also picked up and getting back was definitely harder!

The group had a great time, spotting lapwing, oystercatcher, mute swans, mallards and swallows on and over the water, but the wildlife highlight was definitely the jellyfish!

Thank you to New Forest Activities for a fun day out and to volunteers Nigel, Geoff and Emily for joining us.

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

30 Days Wild – Day 15: Trying to Impress

I was out on the eastern side of Ibsley Water with the volunteers this morning to clear the areas we cut and which are grazed by ponies of ragwort. It is toxic to animals, but they will usually not eat when it is growing, however they will if it is cut and gets mixed with grass or hay. At one time it was one of the commonest plants in this area but now it is much reduced and overall the grassland is looking much better, with quite a good range of species. A couple of highlights this morning were several patches of corky-fruited water-dropwort.

IMG_1455

corky-fruited water-dropwort

Corky-fruited water-dropwort is an Umbellifer, one of the carrot family and is very attractive to insects, this one had lots of pollen beetles on it. It is quiet frequent in unimproved grasslands in a swathe roughly south of the M4, so it is pleasing to see it at Blashford where the grassland is still recovering from the ravages of mineral extraction. Another find was knotted clover, a plant of dry sandy places, often near the coast, I am not sure if I have found it at Blashford previously.

knotted clover

knotted clover

At lunchtime I tried the pheromone lures for clearwing moths again, completely without success. However I did spot a handsome black-and-yellow longhorn beetle.

black-and-yellow longhorn beetle Rutpela maculata

black-and-yellow longhorn beetle Rutpela maculata.

After doing various odd jobs in the afternoon I went to lock up the hides and found a pair of crab spiders on a hemlock water-dropwort flower head, The male is quite different from the female and a lot smaller so he has to tread carefully if he is not going to get eaten.

crab spider pair

crab spider pair

It seemed it was not only the spiders that were making plans, on a nearby ox-eye daisy I saw a female hoverfly Eristalis horticola, with a male hovering low over her and darting from side to side. I am not sure if she was impressed but he was trying hard to dazzle her with his advanced hovering skills.

Eristalis horticola pair

Eristalis horticola pair

I also found another slime mould, on the same log as the one the other day, although this was clearly a different species.

slime mould

slime mould

The only new bird sighting of note today was of a first summer little gull as I locked Tern hide. It was pleasing to see that the single oystercatcher chick from gull island has fledged and that the remaining one near Tern hide is close to doing so. In additions the single large lapwing chick is also close to flying and two of the smaller ones are still going strong. Even better was a sighting of two well grown little ringed plover chicks today. On Ivy Lake the common tern chicks are growing well and most broods seem to still be of three chicks.

30 Days Wild – Day 14: Getting Brown

A hot day and at this time of year one when you need to take care in the full sun. I was in the office for much of the morning, which was at least cooler. At lunchtime I went outside, hoping to see some hoverflies and soldierflies on the hemlock water-dropwort, but all I saw was bees. I think it was too hot for many insects, on these kind of days they often sit out the hottest part of the day in the shade and can be found clinging to the underside of leaves.

A number of people have commented on the lack of butterflies in recent days, it is true there are not a lot, but this is not that unusual at  this time of year. The spring species have mostly finished and the high summer species are just starting, the “gap” is often bridged by lots of white butterflies, but this year they have been quiet scarce. At Blashford the mid-summer butterflies are the browns and the meadow brown are just starting to appear in numbers now. They do not bask with wings open very much once the day has warmed, up so it was no surprise that they were all sitting with wings closed today.

meadow brown

meadow brown

Meadow brown has just one generation a year and they will fly from now until early September. Some species, like small tortoiseshell and comma have two generations, with the second over-wintering as an adult hidden away out of the worst of the frost. Another of the browns, the speckled wood has three overlapping generations so can be seen from late March to early November, it can also over-winter as ether a caterpillar or a pupa.

speckled wood

speckled wood

In other news, I saw the larger of the lapwing chicks today from tern hide and it must be getting close to fledging now, as is the one remaining oystercatcher chick. The three smaller lapwing chicks seem to have been reduced to two, but they at still growing well. Out on the rafts most of the common tern eggs have now hatched and generally they seem to be in broods of three, with lots of small fish being brought in, so they are growing fast. Today many of the chicks were using the shelters to get out of the strong sunshine, over-heating can be a real problem for small chicks, so shade is important.

30 Days Wild – Day 6: And the Wind did Blow

And how it blew! And how it rained too, very unseasonal gales to tear at the trees and soak fluffy wader chicks. So it was with some trepidation that I got to Blashford today. Looking from Tern hide when I opened up I saw at least two of the small lapwing chicks and spotted one of the oystercatcher offspring too, although they should be well able to survive a bit of weather by now. A few of our trees had not done so well, no major fallers but several branches down, at this time of year, in full leaf and soaked with rain, the wind can really get hold of a branch twisting and breaking it off. Luckily the volunteers were in and between us we were able to walk the full length of all the paths clearing branches as we went and then returning to saw off the few larger leaning stems.

At lunchtime a smooth newt was spotted on the surface of the Centre pond, Jim then realised that it had been caught by a great diving beetle larva, these are ferocious predators but I was surprised that one would tackle a full grown newt.

newt and diving beetle larva

Newt being attacked by great diving beetle larva.

The newt was struggling but it was hard to see how it was going to get the beetle larva off as it had its jaws firmly embedded. As we watched a second, equally large larva closed in and joined the attack, I don’t think the newt had any chance against two attackers. I knew they would tackle prey larger than themselves but this was the first time I had seen one take on something so large. The picture is an example of “Digi-binning” that is holding the digital point and shoot camera up to one eyepiece of the binoculars.

Unsurprisingly the moth trap was very quiet, I doubt many moths tried to fly and those that did probably had trouble getting anywhere they wanted to go. Amongst the few that did get out and into the trap was a very fresh mottled beauty.

mottled beauty

mottled beauty

The weather did improve a bit in the afternoon and there were quite a few insects flying as I went to lock up, lots of damselflies and various things nectaring on the flower heads of hemlock water-dropwort, one of the best food sources for lots of species at this time of year. I cannot identify them but the many insects include a number of sawflies.

sawfly

sawfly (unidentified)

Looking after a nature reserve can be rewarding, especially when you can work to improve habitats, allowing them to support more species and individuals, in the jargon increasing biodiversity and biomass. On a reserve such as Blashford Lakes there is the additional goal of increasing the accessibility of this wildlife to allow appreciation and enjoyment for people. Increasingly it is being realised that this is good for our health, diverse green space really matters to our wellbeing, individually and as a society. It is also a small push back against a tide of mass declines in species abundance and variety, to make a real difference to that needs action on a much larger scale than just a nature reserve.

So on Day 6 of  my 30Days Wild I have to confess to getting a little wild myself. I have already blogged about my tiny back garden meadow and we are doing work at Blashford to enhance the grassland to support more species. Species rich grasslands and meadows have been one of the fastest declining habitats in recent decades, with the accompanying loss of wild flowers, butterflies and the rest of the species such places support. Local Authorities and Government Agencies have a duty to enhance the environment where possible. There has recently been much publicity about the importance of grass verges for wildflowers, it has made national radio and some species are now almost only found by roadsides.  The Highways Agency publishes very good guidelines for the management of verges, round-abouts and other roadside grass areas, with the idea that managers of such places will have a best practice guide to follow.

So what made me wild? It was the close mowing, for the second time this season, of the large (probably 0.5ha or so) round-about at the end of the road where I live. This does not improve safety, to do this at most a couple of metres around the edge would need mowing, nor was it tall, no more than 30-40cm and the mass of corky-fruited water-dropwort was just coming into flower. The first cut dealt with the cowslips and much else besides, this is a relatively herb-rich grassland that is being systematically destroyed by close mowing and swamped by a layer of mulched cuttings each time. Eventually this will ensure it has only a tall coarse sward of cocks-foot, thistle and nettle and another vestige of our grassland heritage will have gone. I don’t know which particular arm of authority undertakes this mowing, but the guidelines have evidently not reached them! So long as there is careless disregard for such places the march to environmental mediocrity will continue and we may as well lay Astroturf and be done with it!

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow, unless the “Wild” part of 30 Days Wild takes hold again!

30 Days Wild – Day 5: Wet and Windy

Not a very June-like day, with increasingly strong winds and rain getting heavy by the end of the day. Not the kind of conditions to be a newly hatched, fluffy lapwing chick and not the conditions to be an adult lapwing trying to keep your chicks alive. In front of Tern hide the brood of tiny chicks I first saw yesterday turned out to be a family of three. The adults have a difficult line to tread, if they brood the chicks, keeping them warm and dry, they don’t get enough food and ultimately starve, if they let them feed they run the risk of getting wet and cold and dying anyway. So prolonged wet windy weather is very bad for chick survival, let’s hope there are enough dry breaks in the weather to give them have a chance.

wader conflict

Lapwing and oystercatcher chicks

As it the weather was not enough the adult lapwing are very protective of their chicks and see danger everywhere, in this case they seemed to think that the oystercatcher and her chick and the starlings were unacceptably close and needed driving off.

The oystercatcher chicks are somewhat larger now and able to cope with a bit of adverse weather. When they get to this size the adults often take charge of one chick each, watching over them and feeding them, with the chick finding a little food itself.

Oystercatcher family

Oystercatcher family

The poor weather brought lots of swallows, martins and swifts to feed over Ibsley Water, the numbers growing throughout the day as the conditions worsened until, by the time I closed up I estimate there were at least 1000 swifts, an amazing sight. I got a picture, but in the rain it is hard to make out the birds, I think there are probably about 75 in this shot and the whole sky was filled with them.

swifts

every dot is a swift!

30 Days Wild – Day 1: Weird Stuff

Here we are again, another June and another 30 Days Wild, I will try to keep up this year and post something every day.

I was at Blashford today with the volunteers tidying up on the southern shore of Ivy Lake, clearing away some old tern rafts and doing a little Himalayan balsam pulling, actually the volunteers did these things, I cut a few brambles and set up the telescope to count the nesting common tern. I am pretty sure we now have 25 pairs on the rafts with nests and eggs, possibly 26 pairs. So with five pairs on the Pound we have reached thirty pairs for the first time! This has been a really successful project and almost entirely the work of our great volunteer team. Over the last ten years the Blashford terns have consistently produced more flying chicks per pair than any other local colony, with many pairs achieving the magical 100% success rate, laying three eggs and fledging three chicks. Over the last year we have made a whole set of new rafts funded by a grant from Hampshire Ornithological Society (HOS) to a design refined and honed by our volunteer team.

During the course of the work we came across two grass snake, a nest of bank vole and a number of dragonflies including an emperor, scarce chaser and broad-bodies chaser.

The weirdest thing I saw today though was an old favourite of mine, a slime mould, these are strange organisms that usually live as single cells but aggregate to form sporangia and it is this stage that we can see on old wet logs. The one I found today near the Woodland hide was a Stemonitis, possibly Stemonitis axifera. They take less than a day to aggregate, develop and produce spores and then disappear.

Stemonitis axifera

Slime mould, probably Stemonitis axifera on a damp log near the Woodland hide.

Regulars will be pleased to hear that the two lapwing chicks and the two oystercatcher chicks are still doing well outside Tern hide, with an additional and larger, oystercatcher chick in the distance on Gull Island as well.

You can see various 30 Days Wild stuff on Twitter via #30DaysWild and probably lots of other places too and it is still not too late to join the over 45,000 people who have signed up to do something wild on 30 Days. Our environment is vital to our wellbeing, physical and mental health and it is where we live, despite this it is not getting much attention

Stay Close

At the Tern hide there is still a pair of lapwing with three chicks and now also a pair of oystercatcher with two chicks. Lapwing are good parents, they will defend their chicks vigorously, but they still have to find their own food and so wander off making them vulnerable to predators. Oystercatcher are great defenders and also find food for their chicks. This has two clear advantages, the chicks can stay very close to their parents and they get  a lot more food. I watched the birds yesterday afternoon and the adults were feeding the chick a good sized food item every 30 seconds or so.

stay close

Oystercatcher chicks stay close for protection and food.

A number of people told me there was only one chick, but this mistake is easy to make as the adults seem to concentrate on feeding one chick at a time the other resting, well hidden and probably digesting all the food it has just had.

More dragonflies are noticeable around the reserve, yesterday I saw broad-bodied chaser and black-tailed skimmer and numbers of damselflies are really impressive.

black-tailed skimmer

Recently emerged black-tailed skimmer

It’s Good to have a Hobby

And even better to have two! Which is what we saw today hunting insects over Ivy Lake when we went to put out another of the tern rafts. These sickle-winged falcons winter south of the Sahara and fly north to breed along with their favourite prey, swallows and martins. Watching them swooping to catch flying insects is a fantastic experience, you can only marvel at their mastery of the air, one of the great sights of summer.

The tern rafts are gradually being deployed, so far the terns have looked interested but failed to occupy any of the rafts before they have been dominated by pairs of  black-headed gull. It is always a problem getting the timing right and this is why I deploy the rafts one or two at a time, at some point the terns must surely be ready to take control of one.

preparing the tern raft

Preparing a tern raft

There have been at least 30 common tern around regularly and they have been doing courtship flights and bringing food, so I think they should be ready to settle soon. So far there has been little sign of much tern passage, apart from a few beautiful black tern, the biggest group so far being 5 on Sunday afternoon. Little gull are usually birds of passage that stay at most a day or so , which makes the fine adult that has been frequenting  Ibsley Water for several days something of an exception. It was there again today, although I don’t think anyone saw the Bonaparte’s gull. Other birds have included a few dunlin and common sandpiper and last week a bar-tailed godwit.

Barwit

Bar-tailed godwit

In recent posts we have featured a number of pictures of lapwing chicks, sadly I don’t think any of them have survived. This season has been a good one for the number of pairs and in general hatching success has been quite good, but the chicks have been disappearing fast. I think a combination of dry weather and predators is the cause. Dry conditions mean the chicks get brought to the lakeshore to seek food, as all their favoured puddles are gone, unfortunately the shore is regularly patrolled by fox and other predators, as it regularly has washed up food in the shape of dead birds and fish. The foxes may not be actively seeking the chicks but they will not refuse one should they come across it. Sadly a similar lack of success is befalling the little ringed plover, but at least they will continue to try and may yet succeed before the summer is out.

LRP

Little ringed plover near Tern hide.

The cold winds are making moth trapping a slow business, with few species flying, although we have caught an eyed hawk-moth and a couple of poplar hawk-moth recently.

poplar hawk

Poplar hawk-moth