A Constellation of Garlic

A fairly busy day on the reserve today with a steady stream of new visitors, it is always good to encounter people who are still just discovering us after all this time! I was out with the volunteers removing brambles from a warm south-facing bank which I hope will prove popular with insects and reptiles.

It seems odd to say there was not a lot of bird news when the Bonaparte’s gull was still present, but it has been here a while now and most who were keen to see it have done so by now. The first summer little gull is also still with us, otherwise migrants were a dunlin, a whimbrel and at least three common sandpiper. Numbers of swift have increased again I think, with at least 100 zooming noisily about this afternoon.

Out on the edge of the lichen heath I saw a small copper and a grey-patched mining bee.

grey-patched mining bee Andrena nitida

grey-patched mining bee Andrena nitida

I only saw my first damselfly of the year a couple of days ago, I don’t think I have ever waited until May before I saw my first of the year before. My first was, as expected, a large red damselfly and today I saw a single female common blue damselfly.

common blue damselfly

common blue damselfly (female)

As you can see it is not at all blue, but it has not long hatched out and has yet to acquire its colour, many females do not get all that blue anyway.

The wild daffodil have long since ceased flowering and the bluebell are starting to go over, but the reserve’s only patch of ramsons, also known as wild garlic, is looking very fine and in full, starry flower. Half close your eyes and it looks like a firework display  worthy of any New Year. I was hoping to find the hoverfly that feeds on it as it would be new for the reserve, but no such luck.

ramsons 2

ramsons

Although I had not luck with the hoverfly I did find a snail-killing fly near the Centre Pond, I think it is Tetanocera ferruginea.

snail-killing fly-001

Tetanocera ferruginea

Although it was a rather cool night the moth trap did catch a few species including my first pale pinion of this year, never an abundant species, I usually see only a few each year.

plae pinion

pale pinion

 

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The Heat Continues

After a June and 30 Days Wild which was extremely hot and the met office now tells us was the driest on record we have now hit July and things are not changing. I did see some cloud on Sunday, but all it seemed to do was increase the humidity.

The heat is making it difficult to work, despite this on Sunday five volunteers turned out and we pulled Himalayan balsam for an hour and a half, a remarkable effort. On Monday I saw removing ragwort from the areas I plan to mow on the shore of Ibsley Water.

All this heat continues to be very good for insects, the moth catch overnight on Sunday/Monday was the highest I have ever had at Blashford, one trap caught 96 species! This included a lot of micro moths, many of these are quite spectacular looking, but it is hard to appreciate what they really look like as they are so small.

Mompha propinquella

Mompha propinquella

The one above is actually quiet common and I see it fairly regularly. I did catch a few new species for the reserve including a chalk grassland species that feeds on marjoram, a plant which does grow in the gravel near the building, so perhaps it was a local rather than a wanderer.

Acompsia schmidtiellus

Acompsia schmidtiellus a species that feeds on marjoram.

There are lots of butterflies and dragonflies around the reserve. Silver-washed fritillary are having a good year and gatekeeper are now emerging as are the summer broods of small copper and brown argus.

gatekeeper

gatekeeper

Brown hawker and southern hawker dragonflies are both already flying in some numbers, although common darter are still quiet few.

southern hawker

southern hawker

The picture above was my best of a few attempts at getting a flight shot over the Centre pond at Sunday lunchtime. At the same time I saw a large red damselfly that had fallen into the pond and been preyed upon by a water boatman.

water boatman with large red damselfly prey

water boatman with large red damselfly prey

When you are an insect there are many ways to die more or less everything is out to get you! There are predators and more gruesomely parasites almost everywhere. I found a parasitic wasp hunting for a beetle larva in which to lay its egg.

Ichneumonid wasp Ephilates manifestator

Ephilates manifestator probing for beetle larvae

The needle-like ovipositor can be pushed deep into the wood, when not in use it is protected by a sheath, in the picture you can see the ovipositor in use probing almost vertically downward.

The dry weather is stressing plants and some smaller trees are losing their leaves already. Most of the grass is now brown and many species rapidly going to seed. There are still flowers out there though and one such is creeping cinquefoil.

creeping cinquefoil

creeping cinquefoil

 

Insects on the Up?

The progress of the season has been rather erratic this year, with spells of very warm or even hot weather interspersed with much colder days. Overall I think that we are still a little behind the average of recent years, but it is a very mixed picture.

Sunday was a fine, warm, sunny day with little wind, ideal for insects and I saw my first beautiful demoiselle, broad-bodied chaser, four-spotted chaser and emperor dragonfly of the year. The four-spotted chaser had emerged from the Centre pond, I think th efirst time I have proved that they have done so there, although I have seen individuals there a number of times. Numbers of large red, common blue, azure and blue-tailed damselfly are also continuing to build.

I am trying to look more closely at the bees on the reserve this year, Blashford has a lot of dry ground with sandy slopes, ideal for solitary bees. In fact “brownfield sites” such as Blashford are particularly good for bees as they often have variations in soil type, slopes and banks ideal for nesting.

Andrena bicolor

Andrena bicolor

Gwynne’s mining bee, Andrena bicolor is one of our commonest spring mining bees and also has a summer brood, it is a close relative of the much rarer grey -backed mining bee, Andrena vaga which was found on the reserve for the first time a couple of weeks ago. The rarer species is still around, but not in the same numbers as a fortnight ago, some of them are getting worn now and so look rather like the much commoner ashy mining bee Andrena cineraria.

ashy mining bee excavating

ashy mining bee Andrena cineraria excavating a nest tunnel.

For several years now there has been increasing evidence of an overall decline in total insect abundance, it is very hard to prove absolutely but accounts of declining moth trap catches and a general scarcity of many insects is attested by many. Older people will remember that when travelling any distance by car in the summer it was necessary to clean many squashed insects off the windscreen. Of course more aerodynamic cars may be a factor too. Whatever the reason it has become much harder to find many insect species in the average summer these days. It was pleasing to see a fair few hoverflies out yesterday including a number of Cheilosia species, a rather difficult genus of mainly black species, the identification of the images below maybe open to revision!

Cheilosia bergenstammi male

Cheilosia bergenstammi (male)

Cheilosia impressa

Cheilosia impressa (female)

Despite the warmer days the nights are still quiet cool and so the moth trap has remained quiet. The pick of the catch was a chocolate-tip moth, it is evidently quiet a good year for therm as this was the third we have caught recently.

chocolate-tip

chocolate-tip

The only grasshoppers and crickets about at present are a few tiny nymphs, but this is the time for finding adult groundhoppers, although the only one I saw was a common groundhopper, but at least it posed for a picture.

common groundhopper

common groundhopper

It would be good to think that we are turning a corner in the insect decline, unfortunately I doubt it, I suspect the wider environment is continuing to become less insect friendly. Although some of this is down to the use of very effective insecticides and industrial mono-culture farming, it is also our overall failure to leave any space for them, even where it would be easy to do so.

Fitting it all in…

At the end of April our Young Naturalists were joined by Paul from Strong Island Media, who had come along to take photos and film them during a session. As a result we managed to fit in a number of different activities to showcase what we get up to and enjoyed a very varied day!

Whilst Joel and Vaughan headed off to the Woodland Hide with Nigel to photograph birds the rest of the group opted to pond dip, something we hadn’t actually done in some time. We caught a number of dragonfly nymphs, water stick insects, some fabulous cased caddis fly larvae and a smooth newt. We also spotted a large red damselfly on the edge of the boardwalk, so moved it to a safer spot away from our tubs, nets and feet.

We then had a look through the light trap which we had begun to put out more regularly with the weather warming up. The trap unfortunately didn’t contain an awful lot as it had been cold the night before, but there were a couple of very smart nut tree tussocks along with two Hebrew characters and a common quaker.

Volunteer Geoff had very kindly made up some more bird box kits for the group to put together, so we tidied away the pond dipping equipment and they had a go at building the boxes:

Brenda has been keeping us posted on the activity going on in the nest boxes the group made in October and we put up in January, using them to replace some of the older boxes on the reserve. Out of the twelve boxes made, six are active with the others either containing a small amount of nesting material or nothing: Poppy’s box contains 11 warm eggs and the female is incubating them; Geoff’s box contains 7 hatched, naked and blind blue tit chicks along with 2 warm eggs hopefully to hatch; Ben’s contains 3 downy and blind great tit chicks which will hopefully be large enough to ring when Brenda next checks; Will H’s box contains 7 naked and blind great tit chicks and 2 warm eggs hopefully still to hatch; Megan’s box contains 7 downy and blind blue tit chicks and 1 warm egg which may not hatch and finally Thomas’ box contains 9 warm great tit eggs.

Brenda has also been taking photos of some of the boxes for us to share with the group:

Thank you Brenda for continuing to update us on the progress of our nest boxes, we look forward to the next one!

After lunch we headed down to the river to see what else we could catch. Again we haven’t done this in quite a while so it was nice for the group to get in and see what they could find. We caught a stone loach, a dragonfly nymph, a number of bullhead and a very smart demoiselle nymph:

Finally, those who joined us in February were delighted to see the willow dome is sprouting. As the shoots get longer we will be able to weave them into the structure, giving it more shape and support.

willow dome

Thanks to Geoff and Nigel for their help during the session and to Paul from Strong Island Media for joining us, we look forward to seeing his footage of the group and being able to share it to promote the group and our work.

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

Oh, to Bee in England…

As though to emphasise the change in season today was one of those rare days when it was possible to see both brambling and swift at Blashford Lakes an opportunity that lasts for only a few days.  When I started birdwatching in the Midlands our equivalent was seeing fieldfare and swallow in the same place, on the same day. The brambling were at least 2 males at the feeders and the swift at least 14 over Ibsley Water.

Despite the remaining reminders of winter it felt very spring-like, with orange-tip, green-veined and small white, comma, peacock, brimstone, holly blue and several speckled wood butterflies seen, along with the year’s first damselfly, the large red.

After last night’s thunder storm I was not surprised that the moth trap was not over-filled with moths, although the catch did include a lesser swallow prominent, a pale prominent and a scarce prominent, the last a new reserve record, I think.

The warm weather has encouraged a lot of insects out, I saw my first dark bush cricket nymph of the year near the Centre pond. Nearby I also saw my first dotted bee-fly, this species used to be quite scarce but can now be seen widely around the reserve, although it is well outnumbered by the commoner dark-bordered bee-fly.

dark bush cricket nymph

dark bush cricket nymph

The wild daffodil are now well and truly over but the bluebell are just coming out.

bluebell

bluebell

A lot of trees are in flower now or are shortly to be, the large elm on the way to Tern hide is still covered in flower though.

elm flowers

elm flower

Trees are a valuable source of food for a lot of insects and the find of the day was a species that makes good use of tree pollen. I had spotted what I at first thought were some nesting ashy mining bees Andrena cineraria, but they did not look right. That species has a dark band over the thorax and black leg hairs. This one had white hairs on the back legs and no dark thorax band. I took some pictures and it turns out to be grey-backed mining bee Andrena vaga, until very recently a very rare species in the UK which seems to now be colonising new areas.

grey-backed mining bee 2

grey-backed mining bee

They make tunnelled nests in dry soil and provision them with pollen from willows for the larvae.

greybacked mining bee

grey-backed mining bee with a load of pollen

The same area of ground also had several other mining bees, including the perhaps the most frequent early spring species, the yellow-legged mining bee.

yellow-legged mining bee 2

yellow-legged mining bee (female)

 

30 Days Wild – Day 2: In the Garden

My weekend started early and I was on a day off today, so I took the chance to do some work in the garden. Although not large and a pretty typical suburban garden it is now home to a good range of wildlife. When we moved in nearly three years ago we decided to leave part of the lawn and develop it as a small-scale meadow. It has come on well and looks the part quite convincingly now, with yellow rattle, field scabious, knapweed, ox-eye daisy and much more. It is perhaps more accurately a herb-rich grassland as some species are not entirely typical of true hay meadows, but it looks good and the wildlife seems to like it.

Ox-eye daisy

Ox-eye daisy

We do also have more conventional flower borders and here we have gone for plants that are good for nectar and pollen, such as geraniums, fleabanes and scabious species. Today I came across a brightly coloured fleabane tortoise beetle on an elecampane flower bud.

Fleabane tortoise beetle

Fleabane tortoise beetle

I did not manage to dig a pond in the first year so it was a bit of a late addition, but a very necessary one in any wildlife garden. A pond, even a small one such as our, does bring in so many more species, especially if you do not add fish.

pond skaters

Pond skaters feeding on a drowned bumblebee.

We even get a fair range of dragonflies and damselflies and today I found a pair of large red damselfly egg-laying.

Large red damselfly pair egg-laying

Large red damselfly pair egg-laying

The male remains attached to the female whilst she lays to ensure that the eggs he has fertilised get laid.

We also planted a few native shrubs, including an alder buckthorn, the food plant of the brimstone butterfly, this has almost worked too well and our tiny tree has more than ten caterpillars and almost every leaf has been nibbled!

Brimstone caterpillars

Brimstone butterfly caterpillars

I like the fact that I can be at home in the garden but still be surrounded by a bit of the wild. Gardens can be fantastic for wildlife, especially for insects such as bees and others that require nectar and pollen, growing good plants for these species also gives you a great flower filled garden so is a win all round.

Meanwhile, Back at Blashford

Whilst Tracy was off roaming the southern side of the Forest with the Young Naturalists, I was back at Blashford where Sunday was very pleasantly sunny and warm. As the week ahead looks grey and damp, it was likely to be the best day of the week for butterflies and a good opportunity to get the transects done. Although numbers of butterflies are declining as the spring species decline there are a few summer ones starting to appear, the last couple of days have seen the first common blue and brown argus on the wing. Thanks to Blashford’s brilliant volunteers for organising and doing the butterfly transects.

brown argus

The first brown argus of the year (well my first at least).

I also finally saw my first grass snake of the year too, perhaps not strictly my first as I did find a freshly dead one a couple of weeks ago, probably killed by a buzzard. This live one was rather unexpectedly crossing the open gravel behind the Education Centre.

grass snake

grass snake on gravel

Although it has been sunny recently it was still quite cool in the persistent north or north-east wind, this changed on Saturday and the extra warmth seemed to prompt large numbers of damselflies top emerge, I must have seen many hundreds on Sunday, mostly common blue damselflies, but including large red, azure and beautiful demoiselle.

common blue damselfly

common blue damselfly (male), still not quiet fully coloured up.

It is very pleasing to see that two of our projects are showing signs of success again. The tern rafts are used every year, but it gets harder each year to stop them all being claimed by gulls, timing in putting them out is the key. By Monday there were at least 20 common tern on the rafts so hopefully this will be enough to fend of the gulls. The other project, the sand martin wall, has had more mixed fortunes. After a few years of success to start with it fell out of favour with none nesting for several years, but this year they are back! Not in huge numbers but a visit to Goosander hide is well worth the effort.

A number of people have asked me recently when the “new” path from the main car park to Goosander hide will open, regular visitors will have noted that the work was completed some months ago now. Unfortunately the answer is still “I don’t know” but rest assured I will make it known when it is open. The hold up is not of our making, but to do with the process of transfer from previous occupiers via our landlord and the meeting of various planning and other requirements.

The change to more south-westerly winds has reduced migrant activity, but the reserve has still seen a some waders passing through in the last few days, on Sunday a sanderling with a peg-leg was by Tern hide and today a turnstone was on Long Spit (as I have decided to christen the new island we created to the east of Tern hide this spring). Both these are high Arctic breeders and only occasional visitors to Blashford.

Progress Against an Invader

Thursday at Blashford is volunteer day and we had a good turn out of fourteen for our first Himalayan balsam pull of the year. After many years of pulling this plant we have very significantly reduced the population and it is nowhere the dominant plant. The advantage of doing the first sweep early in the season is that we remove a significant number of plants but also get an idea of where the main problem areas are and so where to concentrate on our later visit. Pleasingly we found no more than a couple of hundred plants on about half the length of the stream, enough to suggest that there is still a seed source upstream  somewhere but not so many that it is having a serious impact on native wildlife.

The common terns are finally taking some interest in the rafts on Ivy Lake, although they are still not really taking control of any in numbers sufficient to deter the black-headed gulls. I tried putting out another raft during the afternoon in the hope that a new one might tempt them in. The gulls often just loaf around on the rafts, but have the annoying habit of bringing reeds and sticks and leaving them scattered  over the surface. I suspect they are mostly young adults, as the older birds started nesting a couple of weeks ago, a few may eventually build a proper nest, but in the meantime their practice efforts are putting off the terns.

Generally things were quite across the reserve, most of the birds are now nesting or getting ready to do so. Our visitor form North America, the Bonaparte’s gull is still to be seen, although it does not now attract more than the occasional admirer. I did manage to get a slightly better picture of it, which does show a couple of the differences from black-headed gull. You can see the slightly smaller size and overall thinner, more “pointed” look. Now that it is getting a summer plumage hood you can also see that this is blacker than that of black-headed gull, which is actually chocolate brown.

Bonaparte's gull

Bonaparte’s gull (right)

A very noticeable feature of the past week has been the huge increase in the numbers of damselflies around the reserve. Common blue and azure damselflies are now out in numbers, but the large red damselfly, typically the commonest spring species is very hard to find, perhaps due to the very poor April weather last year.

 

 

Didn’t tern up today

Weather like today often brings in large numbers of black terns and with the lovely bird mentioned by Bob in his last post I had high hopes, despite Bobs suggestion at the end of yesterday that it was still a bit early in the year… so when I opened up I suppose I shouldn’t have been too disappointed that there weren’t any, not even the bird that had been around the last couple of days!

So I was grateful to David for sending this picture of yesterdays black tern, as well as one of the little gull which was at least still here today!

Black tern by David Stanley Ward

Black tern by David Stanley-Ward

Little gull by David Stanley Ward

Little gull by David Stanley-Ward

What there was, apart from the little gull, was a large number of sand martins, house martins and a good number of swifts – the first I’ve seen this year. Talking of firsts the sunshine of Wednesday seems along time ago today but I also saw my first large red damselfly of the year then – not at Blashford but actually on my way back here from our head office near Botley where it alighted on the grass by the small pond there when I was passing.

Keeping with the bee theme from Bobs last post here is a red-tailed bumble bee nectaring on ground ivy, sent in by Andy:

orange tail bumble bee

red tailed bumble bee by Andy Copleston

Woodland Hide is definitely getting quieter this week – Bobs male brambling doesn’t seem to have hung around but there was a female out there today, and there are still a few siskin. Finally a selection of common Blashford birds taken and sent in during the last fortnight by Adrian Moore:

Wren by Adrian Moore

Wren by Adrian Moore

Long tailed tit by Adrian Moore

Long tailed tit by Adrian Moore

Pochard by Adrian Moore

Pochard by Adrian Moore

 

 

 

 

 

An Emperor and a Mullet Hawk

Lots of woodland birds about but mostly hidden in the dense foliage whilst they go about their breeding business.

Out on the water, the tern rafts are well occupied. I’m told, by those with sharper eyes than mine, that there are 15 pairs of common tern.  With luck this should ensure a reasonable breeding season, although many are sharing their rafts with black-headed gulls – not a recipe for raising small tern chicks successfully.

Tern raft with compliment of common terns and black-headed gulls

Tern raft with compliment of common terns and black-headed gulls

One of the perpetual mysteries, following  successful  common tern breeding in previous years, is the apparent lack of returning youngsters.  Admittedly its very difficult to be sure of the provenance of any of the terns which breed here. Given their location on the rafts, ringing the chicks would be quite  difficult and because of the mixed age of chicks from  different pairs, the optimum time for ringing some could well disturb others and cause them to abandon the rafts, with disastrous consequences.

A few fortunate visitors were lucky enough to see an osprey passing through, although I gather it was quite distant. A old local name for these birds is mullet hawk, presumably from their habit of catching such fish around the coast and within estuaries.

At least four different damselfly species are  on the wing, common blue, azure, blue tailed  and large red.   The warmer conditions are encouraging the emergence of other insects. Yesterday  a couple of visitors spotted  this emperor dragonfly hanging up in some nettles. The strong green colouring caused some confusion at first sight and downy emerald was suggested, but on closer inspection I’m fairly sure its a freshly emerged emperor dragonfly.

Freshly emerged emperor dragonfly

Freshly emerged emperor dragonfly