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

 

 

 

The Tern and the Turtle

 

About ten days ago we put out the first two tern rafts in the hope that the twenty or so terns present then would quickly occupy them. We kept two back to go out after the first had attracted a core group. The idea of leaving it late to put them is to give the best chance against the black-headed gulls, which start nesting earlier so would get in before the terns arrive. The plan does not seem to have worked this year, although common terns were the first to land on the rafts they were quickly replaced by gulls, at least keeping two rafts in reserve allows us to try again with unoccupied nesting sites, we will see if the gulls take over ahead of the terns. A lot of the gulls are probably first time breeders, they mess about a lot, make nests but don’t necessarily ever lay or if they do, they don’t know what they are really supposed to do, they do keep the terns off though!

tern rafts

tern rafts

There were a few terns around as we towed the rafts out and a few gulls as well.

gulls and terns

gulls and terns

We put the rafts out first thing in the morning and a s I walked back to the Centre the sun was getting really warm along the path beside Rockford Lake, with the west wind the blowing the path was really sheltered and there were swarms of recently emerged common blue damselflies. They take a few days to get the intense blue colouration.

common blue damselfly uncoloured

common blue damselfly uncoloured

The male above will be brilliant blue in a couple of days, a few slightly older ones were also about, but in the sun they were hard to get close to without them flying away.

common blue damselfly. male

common blue damselfly, male

Despite the sun I only saw one other Odonata species, large red damselfly and not very many of them.

large red damselfly, male

large red damselfly, male

Ed and I went up to Kitts Grave later in the morning to take a look a the work done in the winter clearing scrub. The site is a mosaic of grassland, scrub with some true woodland, all the these elements are rich habitats in their own right, but the scrub has been spreading at the expense of the grassland in recent years. As we arrived at the gate we spotted a small blue, the first I had seen this year.

small blue

small blue

It was a morning of sunshine and sharp showers are we dodged in and out of the trees trying to keep dry. Along the way we saw good numbers of common spotted orchid and twayblade, although both were a couple of weeks or so from flowering, unlike the early purple orchid which were just about at their peak.

early purple orchid

early purple orchid

The area of scrub we cleared in the winter now looks green and there are remarkably few areas of bare ground.

Kitts Grave area cleared by volunteers last winter

Kitts Grave area cleared by volunteers last winter

When the sun came out it was very warm and we saw a fair few butterflies, including  a lot of brimstone, orange tip, green-veined white and a few peacock. We also saw there or four dingy skipper, although I did not manage to get a picture of any of them as they were much too fast for me. A bit easier was the scarlet tiger moth caterpillar that we came across.

scarlet tiger caterpillar

scarlet tiger caterpillar

As we headed back to the car park that once common and so evocative summer sound, the purring of turtle dove. It is extraordinary and very frightening how the status of these beautiful birds has changed in my lifetime. They were genuinely common birds in hedgerows and copse edges and now it needs a special trip for even the chance of hearing one. We also saw a fair few yellowhammer, another bird so familiar thirty years ago that everyone knew them as the bird that sang “A little bit of bread and no cheese”, one of the most familiar sounds of the countryside then.

Obviously there have been gains, with some species colonising over the same period, but the declines in some species that were so common that they were generally known to anyone who ventured out into the countryside to a condition of scarcity, or even rarity, is a warning to us all.

Eventually we retreated as a particularly heavy squall approached and headed back to Blashford.

storm clouds gathering

storm clouds gathering

The loss of once common and widespread species tells of the limitations of relying on nature reserves to look after wildlife, reserves can do valuable work but it is the way we live in and use the country that really determines what our future wildlife will be like and how many species will be common enough for the next generation to just take them for granted, as I did the turtle dove and yellowhammer.

Dark, Eyed, Scarce, Green & White plus a charge of the Light Brocade

As all the serious players on the Trust payroll were at a staff meeting today, it was left to your’s truly to manage the reserve today.  Not a problem, but it’s a bit unusual for me to be here midweek.

A quiet sort of day with enough heat to keep a few insects active including good numbers of damselflies, mostly large red damselfly and azure damselfly, but all were a little too skittish for me to photograph.

Our recent resurrection of the light trap is starting to pay dividends as there was a range of interesting species last night so I’ll share a few pictures with you.

First a couple of moths whose markings are an intricate pattern of browns and cream colours, perhaps, somewhat understated…

Dark Arches

Dark Arches

Light Brocade

Next a couple of brightly coloured moths – why are they so colourful, given their nocturnal habits?

White Ermine

White Ermine

Green Carpet

Green Carpet

And a most spectacular looking species, who only normally reveal the reason for their name when they flash their hind wings to discourage predators……

Eyed Hawkmoth

Eyed Hawkmoth

Last, but by no means least, this rare and beautiful moth. The first one I’ve ever seen ….

Scarce Merveille du Jour

Scarce Merveille du Jour