Hide opening update and events for children and families this summer

Having satisfied our adult visitors last week with the long-awaited opening of the hides, out on site our attention has turned to maintaining access to said hides despite the unstoppable force of nature that is the bramble and stinging nettle growth during the perfect growing conditions of sunshine and rain! The re-opening generally seems to have gone down well and everyone is happy to be in the hides again after all this time, even though there is not a HUGE amount to see from them at the moment. Everyone does also seem to be behaving themselves and respecting everyone else at present, which is also pleasing, and reassuring, to see!

A plea however!

Understandably, and in line with our request to keep the hides well ventilated while in use, the windows are being opened up but could EVERYONE also please make sure that they close the hide windows behind them when they leave (also in line with our request on the notices outside and within each hide). Last week was ridiculously hot and it was not unexpected therefore to find them all open at the end of the day, but the weather has broken, it is not so hot, and we are getting some very heavy downpours and it is very disappointing to find the majority of windows in the majority of hides all still wide open when closing up, even when it is chucking it down with rain outside (and inside!) the hides.

Grass snake basking outside Ivy North Hide on Tuesday morning

Elsewhere on the reserve, across the lichen heath to be exact, you can’t help but be amazed (I can’t anyway) by the field of gold that it has become over the last couple of weeks, primarily with the perforate St Johns-wort pictured above, but with a scattering of nectar rich ragwort towering above them and hawkbits below.

Back in the office I have been juggling reduced staffing, volunteer availability, COVID-19 mitigation, testing and “pings” to work out what our summer holiday children’s activity programme will look like.

It was a bit of a complex tangle to unravel but I am delighted to say that, as things stand at present at least, yesterday afternoon bookings for a busy summer of pond and river dipping, den building, fire-lighting and mini-beasting went live!

Details and booking (which is essential for all of our events this summer) can now all be found in the Events section of the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust website here: https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/events (easiest way to find the Blashford Lakes entries is to use the “Location” filter, second from the bottom of the filter menu ūüėČ

A word of warning – in recent months some of our visitors have had difficulties booking on to our events via their mobile phones. They get so far, including all of the form filling which is required, but then stall at payment and can get no further. This glitch is unfortunately beyond my control and more than a little frustrating, so please do use a computer or laptop to book places on the events if you can – and if you can’t and you do experience problems do please let us know and we will collate and pass on any feedback to those responsible for the website platform in hope that enough people fed up with it might generate some action to correct it! Fingers crossed it all just works though!

Looking forward to seeing some “old faces” again soon. Mind-boggling to think that our last Wild Days Out events were in February last year – see https://blashfordlakes.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/winter-craft/! #

We’re looking forward to another summer of this at long last!

Tern Hide open…

…but only if you are wearing wellies!

The rain on Tuesday night, on top of what has generally been a wet few weeks, was enough to bring the Dockens Water up higher than I have seen it for about four years. Although by no means as high as I have seen it in the past, it was sufficiently up that Ellingham Drove was within its flood plain and, unfortunately, that means that the main car park was too, as the river flows along the road until it reaches the roadside entrance to the reserve at which point it does what water does and flows downhill and into the car park. With groundwater levels now very high it is likely to take a little while for the flood water remaining in the car park to soak away so, for now at least, the Main car park remains closed.

The outer gates to the car park are now open however, so please do park here for the next few days until we are able to open the car park proper again – as I anticipate that with the favourable weather forecast for the weekend, coupled with the Centre classroom playing host to the last Pop Up Cafe of this winter season, we are likely to see¬† lots of visitors, and parking on the Centre side of the reserve alone is unlikely to meet the demand for parking places – and Christine’s sausage rolls!.

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Please park beyond the roadside entrance gates along the approach to the car park for the next few days until we are able to open the main car park up again. 

 

 

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Despite this, the flood water has subsided quite significantly since Wednesday morning¬† so today Tern Hide has been opened, although with several inches of water across the width of the car park you can only get to it (and the viewing platform) with wellies – and a slow, careful walk too avoid “bow waves”!

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The route to Tern Hide from the footpath across the car park. Wellies essential!

The view from Ibsley Water this morning saw it as full as I have ever seen it I think. The photo below shows just how little of the small island nearest the Tern Hide there is left just poking up above the water! It still has black-necked grebe and long-tailed duck and the valley still has a sizable startling murmuration – although yesterday at least it seems to have split into two with half of the starlings north of Mockbeggar Lane and the other half in the reed bed behind Lapwing Hide.

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Ivy Lake however is still the place to go if you aren’t worried about seeing particular birds, but do want to just sit and watch lots of wildlife:

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As always our visitors take far better pictures than me so here now with some brilliant kingfisher pictures taken by Jon Mitchell from Ivy South Hide last weekend:

Kingfisher 2 by Jon Mitchell (2)Kingfisher 1 by Jon Mitchell (1)

Spooked ducks by Jon Mitchell

I know these aren’t kingfishers! In between the kingfisher posing for portraits, something in the lake – assumed to be an otter – disturbed all of the wildfowl. Gives you some idea of just how many birds are on Ivy Lake¬† at present.

Our Welcome Volunteer Doug Masson spent a few hours in Ivy South Hide on Wednesday this week too, and got these lovely shots of Cetti’s warbler – images Bob admitted to being quite jealous of, as, despite his best efforts, he has yet to get any Cetti’s to match these!

Cetti's warbler by Doug MassonCetti's warbler 2 by Doug Masson

Elsewhere on the reserve, and on more of a macro scale than the bird life, the lichen is all looking absolutely fantastic after all of this wet weather. An assemblage of species which can appear quite grey and lifeless during the summer when it is dry, is now fresh and vibrant and really brings a vivid splash of colour to what can otherwise appear to be a fairly drab landscape – and nowhere more so than the edge of the lichen heath where this picture of Cladonia sp. was taken:

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For spring colour however nothing can rival the scarlet elf cup fungi which thrive so well on the wet decaying logs in and around our woodlands. We don’t normally expect to see much evidence of it until a little later in the year in February, but there is actually already quite a few of the fruiting bodies to be seen:

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30 days Wild – Day 10 –

I had the best moth catches of the year so far both at home, where the pick was a privet hawk-moth and at Blashford where honours were shared between a small elephant hawk-moth and a scarce merveille du jour.

scarce merveille du jour

scarce merveille du jour

The day was warm, although not always sunny, but it was warm enough for damselflies and dragonflies to be flying. The small blue damselflies so far have mostly been azure, but the numbers of common blue seem to be increasing and both can get very abundant at Blashford in good years.

common blue damselfly

common blue damselfly (male)

I had some mowing to do in the morning in an area where we are trying to establish a grassland and prevent the encroachment of bramble, we are getting there, but it takes time. Cutting at this time or year hits the bramble hard and although it does have an impact upon annual species perennials survive perfectly well and will benefit in the long run. I only cut a small part of the area at any one time, which also helps to minimise the impact. In one of the better areas which I was not cutting I found a single bee orchid.

bee orchid

bee orchid

The management of open areas does not just involve cutting, we also graze some areas and on the lichen heath we have been experimenting with stripping off the top few centimetres of vegetation. This gets us back to the mineral, sandy gravel to see if we can combat the increase in nutrients which is slowly turning it into dry acid grassland. Looking at one of the plots today I think we may have had some success as it was well colonised by one of the areas rarer plant species , slender bird’s-foot-trefoil,¬† a species that does not seem to like competition.

slender bird's-foot-trefoil

slender bird’s-foot-trefoil

Once again today I saw a painted lady, this one flying vigorously northwards, so no picture, I did get one of the other migrant butterfly I saw, a red admiral. It was perched on nettle, the foodplant so this one might have had more of a mind to breed than migrate.

red admiral

red admiral on nettle

The nearest thing to bird highlight on the reserve today was a bar-headed goose, as their native range is other side of the Himalayas I think we can be sure it is an escapee or the descendant of escapees.

I got home, with time to take a quick look in the meadow…………

What’s in My Meadow Today?

I mentioned meadow buttercup yesterday and today I spotted a small yellow and black hoverfly on one of the flowers. It is a common and distinctive species and one that is probably found in gardens all over the country.

Sphaerophoria scripta

Sphaerophoria scripta  (male) on meadow buttercup

My other find was a couple of ants on a flower of common vetch, they seemed to be feeding, at the base of the flower, possibly they had made a hole to get at the nectar flow without entering the flower, as bumblebees will do to runner bean flowers, effectively taking the nectar without doing the job of pollination.

common vetch and ant

common vetch and ant

On the Hop

On Tuesday we were working on the western shore of Ibsley Water again with the volunteers. Over the years we have been controlling ragwort and nettle that used to be the dominant here to convert it to grassland, at last we are seeing some real results.¬†Much of it is now mainly grass with a good range of herb species, especially bird’s-foot trefoil. We are also seeing a lot more butterflies and other insects, marbled white are especially frequent in the grass there now.

As we worked I heard a lot of Roesel’s bush-cricket and saw field grasshopper and meadow grasshopper. The grassy sward is not ideal for all species though, the mottled grasshopper likes grassland with lots of bare ground and very dry conditions, at Blashford they are mostly found on the lichen heath.

mottled grasshopper male 2

mottled grasshopper (male)

One distinctive thing about the males of this species is that the ends of the antennae are bent out and swollen, they are also our smallest grasshopper. The males were chirruping, or more correctly stridulating, the object of this is to attract a female and I found one that was evidently playing the right song.

grasshopper pair

mottled grasshopper pair

The females are quite a bit larger and have more conventional grasshopper antennae.

Brilliant Volunteers

As I have noted many times on this blog, Blashford Lakes would not be anything like as good a site without the invaluable input from our great volunteer team. Our volunteers help out with a range of tasks and do some projects in their entirety.

Over the last week we have had volunteer educators helping with school groups river dipping in the rain, reptile and butterfly surveyors, office administration and our Tuesday and Thursday working parties.

The rarest habitat at Blashford Lakes is the Lichen Heath, perhaps because of its industrial origin it is not actually designated, but it is home to many nationally rare species which form an assemblage which needs looking after.

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Lichen Heath close-up

The importance of the area rests on it having very low nutrients, but over time nutrients fall from the sky and collect in the upper layers of the soil as mosses, lichens and small plants die. The obvious conclusion is that it will slowly disappear and turn into nutrient poor acid grassland. So how to keep some areas to true Lichen Heath? The answer is probably to strip off the surface layer and get down to the bare sandy surface and let it colonise once more. This seems very drastic and it feels wrong to be stripping off what is still a diverse sward with lots of interesting species. We started doing this in a small way on Tuesday, doing six small trial plots which we can monitor, if it looks a good technique we can extend it more widely in the years to come.

Lichen heath before

Lichen heath before surface stripping

Lichen heath after

Lichen heath after surface stripping

We chose sites where there were small bramble or birch trees that needed removing anyway and piled up the material on the northern side of the scraped area to provide some variation in the surface topography and potentially warm nesting sites for the many species of bees, ants, wasps etc. that call the heath home.

The rain this last week is what allowed us to work on the heath as it meant the lichens absorbed water and so could be walked on gently, in dry conditions they would just crumble to dust under foot, which is why we ask visitors not to walk on it. Even in wet conditions it is intolerant to trampling so we do as little as possible out there. So it was a treat whilst we were there to see some of the special species that grow on the heath¬†including the two rare bird’s-foot trefoils.

hairy bird's foot

Hairy bird’s-foot trefoil

 

slender bird's foot

slender bird’s-foot trefoil

On Thursday the volunteers were back on the task of clearing Himalayan balsam and pink purslane from along the Dockens Water. These two invasive alien species can muscle out native species, but can be controlled by pulling them up to prevent seeding. After several years of doing this we have made great progress and balsam is now no more than occasional where once it was the dominant plant. Along the way when doing such tasks we come across other things of interest, one such find was a mating pair of lime hawk-moth.

lime hawk pair mating

Lime-hawk moth pair

Some discoveries though are less welcome and one such was an American skunk cabbage plant, the first I have ever heard of along the Dockens Water. This plant has been a big problem in wetland sites across the New Forest and the subject of an eradication program, so finding it here is a worry. I suspect that somewhere up stream someone has it planted around their pond and the seeds are escaping to grow in the wild.

skunk cabbage

skunk cabbage, a young plant without the huge leaves and yellow flower that attracts water-gardeners.

Our last chance find was made by Geoff, one of our most regular volunteers who photographed this crab spider which had ambushed a bee visiting a daisy flower.

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Crab spider with bumble-bee prey on ox-eye daisy.

I will endeavour to do a wildlife update for the week later, I know we have received a number of fabulous photographs from visitors.

 

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

What a Difference a Day Makes –

Firstly apologies for not posting yesterday – this was due to a cybernetic thrombosis – otherwise known as a¬†‘clot on a computer’. I’d started a posting but somehow managed to lose it in cyberspace!!!!

So in a special ‘two for one’ offer I’ve concatenated a few notes from¬†yesterday and today.

Sunday was a quite brilliantly sunny day which is in keeping with conservation work parties (although I believe the previous Sunday work party in September was particularly wet.).

One of the rarer habitats on the reserve is the lichen heath, an area surrounding the water treatment plant and close to the small car-park on the way to the centre.  This primarily consists of very fine, nutrient poor silt and fine sand which are the washings from the old gravel workings.  The lack of any goodness in this soil makes it a great place for lichen to grow, but it is now starting to be invaded by pioneer species such as birch. If left alone this would eventually become a scrubby area with no particular special features, so we set about taking out some of the young and not so young  birch and bramble.

View of Water treatment Plant before clearance

and after

The obvious bushes are gone, but so too are a huge number of very small saplings – not bad going for a team of seven ( ‘The Magnificent Seven’) volunteers.

With bird numbers on the increase, there is now a steady stream of visitors including blue tits, great tits, nuthatch, chaffinch, greenfinch goldfinch and siskin, together with collared doves and even robin on the feeder with pheasant lurking around the base for spilt seed.

Even thought the brightness of the sun tends to wash out the colours, it’s tempting to try to capture some pictures of even the most common birds in the sunshine,

Chaffinch in tree by feeder

A rather ‘rakish’ looking nuthatch pinching a black sunflower seed.

Although bright, it had been cold overnight, and the light trap on Saturday/Sunday had few moths in it. In contrast today it had rained overnight , but there was an 800% increase in moth numbers РO.K. it was only 18 moths, but much better than the two on Sunday.  There was also a tremendous increase in the number of caddisflies attracted to the light trap РI guess they had  been brought out by the last couple of warmer days.

Caddisfly

Otherwise the grey and grizzly weather today was altogether uninspiring and views across the lakes hampered by the slightly misty conditions. There were quite a large number of lesser black-backed gull loafing on Ibsley Water and the selection of wildfowl continues to expand with the range of duck species¬† improving on a weekly if not daily basis. Tufted duck, mallard¬†and gadwall are fairly easily seen with many of the others such as pochard, wigeon and teal present¬†but not always obvious, as they¬†invariably seem to lurk at the far side of the lake. (It doesn’t matter which side of the lake you look from, they’re always on the far side!!! How do they do that??)¬† Whilst there are many young birds and adults in different states of moult , it can still be a bit of a nightmare identifying¬† which species any particular bird belongs to.

Our ever-present pheasants – refugees from the rough and tumble of the surrounding countryside where, apart from the lack of so much free food, they also might risk getting shot – continue to provide photo opportunities including this one that wasn’t ¬†afraid of being ‘on the table’ but preferred to keep its feathers on for the trip!

The ‘ready for table’ pheasant