Rafts, Birds and Bees

It’s that time of year again, the tern rafts are going out and the migrant waders are on the move. On Tuesday the volunteers got two rafts out onto Ivy Lake, after wintering on the shore.

preparing tern raft for launch

Adding nesting substrate to the raft.

They were occupied by common tern within minutes, although black-headed gull also arrived in numbers and by the end of the day were the only species present. This highlights one of the big problems that terns have these days, as their nesting habitats reduce they are competing more and more with gulls and usually lose out to them.

tern raft with terns (and gulls)

two terns and two gulls on newly floated raft

Yesterday’s migrant birds were mainly waders heading to the high Arctic and included a common sandpiper, a bar-tailed godwit,

bar-tailed godwit

bar-tailed godwit

a very smart turnstone and two dunlin.

dunlin

one of two dunlin

The waders that nest with us are all displaying but none seem to have really settled down yet. Little ringed plover are especially in evidence near Tern Hide.

little ringed plover

Little ringed plover, male

Although it has got cooler the spring insects are still in evidence and some of the earlier season species are beginning to disappear for another year. One such is the rare grey-backed mining bee Andrena vaga, there are only a few females to be found now, but as they feed on willow pollen their food will soon run out.

Andrena vaga

grey-backed mining bee female, one of only a few still flying

If you look at a solitary bee nesting bank there are usually lots of, what at first, look like wasps, but these are actually parasitic bees. Many are very specific as to their host species, I came across two species yesterday. I found what I think was Lathbury’s nomad bee, which uses grey-backed and  the commoner ashy mining bee as hosts.

Nomada lathburiana

Lathbury’s nomad bee Nomada lathburiana

 

I also found lots of painted nomad bee, which visits the nests of the common yellow-legged mining bee.

Nomada fucata

painted nomad bee Nomada fucata

Work continues on the parking area close to the Education Centre, which means that it will not be available for parking until after the weekend, please take note of any signs to keep safe on your visit whilst we have machinery working on site.

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Open Again

The Tern Hide will be open again today, although there are still some access restrictions elsewhere on the reserve, where works continue, please take note of any signs as works are changing day by day as they are completed. That said all the hides are open, as is the Centre.

The last few days have been as hectic as have many over the last few weeks, although thankfully we are firmly on the home stretch now. Despite a degree of chaos spring is definitely moving along apace.

Chiffchaff and blackcap are now present in good numbers and we have also have the first reed warbler and willow warbler on the reserve. Over Ibsley Water large numbers of sand martin, house martin and swallow have been gathering and some sand martin are now visiting the nesting wall. There have also been migrants passing through, the week has been characterised by a significant movement of little gull, with up to 12 over Ibsley Water at times, on their way to breeding areas around the Baltic Sea.

little gull

one of the adult little gull over Ibsley Water

A proportion of the swallows and martins will be moving on as will be the splendid male yellow wagtail that was seen on Thursday.

Insect numbers are increasing also with many more butterflies around.

comma

comma, one of the species that over-winters as an adult

As well as the species that hibernate as adults there are also lots of spring hatching species too, particularly speckled wood and orange-tip.

orange-tip

male orange-tip

The nights, although rather cool have more moths now, on Friday morning the highlight in the moth trap was the first great prominent of the year.

great prominent

great prominent

Earlier in the week a red sword-grass was a notable capture, possibly a migrant but also perhaps from the nearby New Forest which is one of the few areas in southern England with a significant population.

red swordgrass

red sword-grass

I have also seem my first tree bumble-bee of the year, a queen searching for a nest site, this species only colonised the UK in the last 20 years, but is now common across large areas.

tree bumble bee

tree bumble-bee queen searching for a nest site

Of course all the while resident species are starting to nest, blue tit and great tit are starting to lay eggs and I have seen my first song thrush fledgling of the year. Out on Ibsley Water lapwing and little ringed plover are displaying, truly spring has arrived at Blashford Lakes.

lapwing male

male lapwing

Bee is for Blashford

Or maybe Blashford is for bees, well of course it is! Blashford is for all wildlife and the people who like to experience it. Everyone knows the honey bee and bumble bees, although perhaps not that there are 28 species of them. However there are something like 250 other species of bees in Britain and they all spend their days visiting flowers and pollinating them. These 250 are the so called solitary bees, despite the name they can occur in great aggregations, importantly though each nest is the domain of just one female, there are no worker bees.

Andrena vaga female 2

grey-backed mining bee (female) with a load of willow pollen.

There has been much coverage recently about the declines in insect numbers around the world and that of pollinating insects in particular, perhaps because they are economically important to us as pollinators of crops. Declines could be for many reasons and probably are multi-factored, but a general loss of habitat and an increasing uniformity in what is left, along with increased prevalence of chemical contaminants are all likely contributors. Some enlightened local authorities are modifying their grass mowing regimes on verges, roundabouts and recreation site to allow more flowering, some of the best are actually seeding back wildflowers or using “meadow mixes”. In fact we can all help by providing flowers that are good sources of nectar and by valuing some of the “weeds” that we might have removed in the past. For instance a lawn with dandelions may not win the green-keepers prize but these are a very important source of food for early flying bees and hoverflies.

Blashford Lakes has lots of nectar sources, especially at this time of year when willows are important for many species and so has lots of solitary bees. Many also need bare, sandy soil to dig their nests and we have that in abundance too.

Andrena vaga female emerging from burrow

grey-backed mining bee (female) emerging from nest hole

One of the problems with solitary bees is that some species are very similar to one another and so difficult to identify in the field. Although the grey-backed mining bee female is distinctive the male looks very like the male of another species, the ashy mining bee.

Andrena cineraria male

ashy mining bee (male)

One of the commonest mining bees around at present is the yellow-legged mining bee, which can be found nesting in bare ground in banks, lawns and various other places.

Andrena flavipes male

yellow-legged mining bee (male) – or at least I think it is!

Some bees are neither colonial nor make their own solitary nests, they are nest parasites of other bees. One genus of bees the Nomada bees specialise in this way of life, often specialising on one particular host species. The yellow-legged mining bee plays unwilling host to the painted nomad bee, which looks very wasp-like.

Nomada fucata male

painted nomad bee (male)

The last few of days have seen big arrivals of hirundines, Monday was almost all sand martin, yesterday there were a few swallow and the odd house martin and today there were even more swallow, probably over 50. On Ibsley Water there a couple of pairs of oystercatcher, a pair of redshank, probably five little ringed plover, several lapwing and today two green sandpiper. Meanwhile around the Centre and Woodland Hide the wheezing of brambling is very much in evidence, particularly in the morning, there are at least 30 and I suspect 50 or more around just now.

And remember it does not take much effort not to mow the lawn for a few days and let the dandelions flower to feed the bees. You could put your feet up and have a cup of tea, or a beer (other drinks are available), whilst making your own contribution to Wilding Hampshire!

Some Birds and Some Bees

I had my first proper look out of the new Tern Hide when I arrived to open up this morning and was greeted by something between 600 and 1000 sand martin swooping over the water, the first serious arrival of hirundines this spring. I saw only one swallow though and no sign of any house martin.

Along the shore in front of the hide there was a pair of little ringed plover and a fine male lapwing.

lapwing

male lapwing from Tern Hide

There were several ducks feeding close in too.

gadwall drake

drake gadwall, not just a dull, grey duck as some would have you believe

shoveler pair

shoveler pair

tufted duck pair

tufted duck pair

I spent a good part of the day trying to complete the annual report, which kept me in the office on a day when outside would have been far preferable. However I did have an excuse to get out for a while and enjoy the sunshine as we had a visit from a small group of top entomologists to look particularly at solitary bees, of which we saw many species including a few new reserve records. Incidentally we also saw several orange-tip, including one female, speckled wood and peacock.

Locking up the weather was still sunny and at the Woodland Hide finches were still feeding, including a good number of brambling.

brambling male

male brambling

There were also several reed bunting, almost all males.

reed bunting male

male reed bunting 

Nearly Re-Terned and Last Pop-up

We are nearly there, the Tern Hide reconstruction is getting close to completion. The structure is up, although the roof still has to be finished, then there are the banks and screens to put up and various other finishing elements to do, but we are nearing the end now. The project has not just been about the Tern Hide though.

There is a great new viewing platform on the bank to the rear of the main car park, which gives a fantastic view, not just of Ibsley water but a panorama of the whole valley, it could become a great place to watch migration.

Over at the Education Centre we have a new information hut and a second education pond, this is will allow us to reline the existing one which leaks badly, without having any time without a pond. There are also various other improvements to the lay-out that should make it much easier and safer for education groups and visitors as a whole.

Further out on the reserve there will be new signage and one or too surprises too. If you have not visited for a while you may also notice that we have done some further tree felling, this has been targeted at invasive Turkey oak and grey alder, in both cases removing these will allow space for more native trees to grow. Although the landscape value of such non-native trees can be positive, they harbour markedly less wildlife.

deer

roe deer

Although we are approaching the end there are still some restrictions in places, most notably the car parking at the Centre, which is being re-levelled and surfaced, please take notice of signage and temporary fences whilst this work is going on.

This work has been made possible thanks to a grant from the Veolia Environmental Trust.

vet-logo

Despite all this work we have remained open for business as close to normal as possible. The bittern has been parading about, although it seems likely it has now departed. The ring-billed gull has been roosting on Ibsley Water, where there has also been a very fine drake garganey. At Woodland Hide there have been small numbers of redpoll and brambling among the chaffinch, goldfinch and reed bunting. On top of all this there are migrants arriving in moderate numbers with at least 27 sand martin yesterday and also blackcap, chiffchaff and little ringed plover.

This weekend sees the last appearance for the season of the Pop-up cafe, so if you do not make it to the reserve you will have to wait until next autumn for some of the best cake around.

Spring is all around with insect numbers increasing, numbers of moths have been rising and last night we saw our first brindled beauty of the year, following on from our first streamer and engrailed earlier in the week.

brindled beauty

brindled beauty

Numbers of solitary bees have been increasing too, including lot of what I think are male grey-backed mining bee, this is a very rare bee and the males are very similar to the much common ashy mining bee.

male Andrena

male mining bee, I think grey backed (Andrena vaga)

 

And Wildlife Too

Although the week on the reserve was undeniably hectic with contractors working away all over the place, it was still a week of wonderful wildlife.

The early surge of migrants dropped off when the wind and weather changed, but as we get into mid-March migrants are arriving anyway. Chiffchaff are now singing at various locations, sand martin are being seen occasionally and a little ringed plover has been a fixture on Ibsley Water, although hard to find hunkered down out of the wind.

Perhaps the most surprising bird on the reserve has been the bittern, which seems not to want to leave and has been giving good views day after day from Ivy North hide.

bittern square

The bittern remains lurking and often not, near Ivy North Hide

The adult ring-billed gull seems again to have become a regular fixture in the gull roost on Ibsley Water each evening, after having gone off somewhere or the mid-winter period.

The early butterflies have retreated due to lack of sunshine, but the occasional adder is still being seen and mild nights have resulted in good moth catches. Common Quaker are most abundant, but Hebrew character, small Quaker, twin-spotted Quaker, clouded drab and oak beauty have all been regular. Although not warm enough for butterflies, bees are made of sterner stuff. Buff-tailed bumble-bee queens are buzzing around and investigating potential nest sites between bouts of feeding, sallow catkins being one of their favourites.

Bombus terrestris and sallow catkins

buff-tailed bumble-bee visiting sallow flowers

There are also some solitary bees flying, so far only males that I have seen, they tend to emerge earlier than the females. Yellow-legged mining bee being the most common, but I found a blacker bee this week, I suspect it of being the rare grey-backed mining bee. The female is very distinctive but the males look similar to the much commoner ashy mining bee.

Andrena bee male

a male mining bee, I suspect grey-backed mining bee

The wonderful thing about spring is that you can see the things moving on day by day, even when the weather is poor, the imperative to get on with life pulls wildlife along, or perhaps pushes it. The costs of being late are probably to miss out on breeding, so this encourages getting earlier to steal a march on rivals, but get it wrong and starting too early and all can be lost.

Climate change is an added complication at this time of year when timing is so important and the costs of getting things wrong so high. Many species respond to temperature, but others to day length, or other factors or combinations of them. Many species will be dependent upon on another, bees need flowers for food but the plants need bees to pollinate them, sometimes the relationships are complex and the interdependence critical to survival. If the relationship is broken completely extinction is likely for one or both partners, but even stretching it will result in declines.

There is no doubt that our management or mismanagement of land, use of chemicals and casual approach to waste have all taken a serious  toll, the much publicised insect decline being just one result. We are now recognising some of this and some things have been turned around, ozone in the atmosphere being a good example of effective action.

However the really big threat is climate change and it will not be so easy to reverse, in fact halting it looks way beyond us at present. So it was really refreshing to see so many young people getting involved in a call for real action, showing that there is perhaps a generation who are seeing the big picture. The lack of engagement by the young in politics is often decried but maybe they are seeing what others are missing, the real issue is way beyond politics and certainly our current politicians. The environment not as special interest, but a matter of life and death.

 

Some Things are Hard to Swallow

A rough day on the reserve today, but despite this there were reports of at least eight sand martin over Ibsley Water, so Spring migrants are still arriving. I missed seeing the martins but did see a little ringed plover. Other birds today were a small flock of black-tailed godwit which flew over, a single dunlin, the black-necked grebe, now in breeding plumage and a brambling. The bittern continues to be seen at Ivy North Hide, it is getting very late for it to still be here. At the end of the day it was sitting hunkered down in the reeds near the hide, looking miserable after a wet and windy day.

bittern 01

Miserable looking bittern

It did not look as though it was interested in anything other than keeping out of the wind and rain, however something caught its attention.

bittern 2

What was that?

It certainly seemed worth investigating.

bittern 3

Got to go and take a look

It certainly was!

bittern 4

Definitely worth taking a look

Having made the capture the next trick is was to manoeuvre it into a swallowable position.

bittern 5

sideways is no good

Turning a pike this big whilst it is still alive is no easy task.

bittern 6

Too good a meal to let go

Even when turned it was to wide to get down with mouth agape.

bittern 7

Eventually the head was in

Now it was only going to go one way.

bittern 8

Almost gone

It is a good thing they have expanding necks!

bittern 9

Gone

It then stalked off, passing close to the hide to spend the night digesting, I would guess it won’t be flying off tonight so should still be around for at least another day.

bittern 10

Heading off to do a little digesting

A cracking way to end the day!

30 Days Wild – Day 25 – The Heat is On

When I checked the moth trap in my garden I was surprised to find 2 leopard moth! In some years I don’t see any at all and this year we have had them a few times at Blashford and now two at home on the same day.

leopard moth male

leopard moth male

When they are disturbed they don’t fly, but adopt a strange curled posture, at the same time the abdomen is lengthened, the effect is rather odd. Although it does not look like  a wasp or anything obviously threatening it does look like something you would think twice about picking up, which I guess is the idea.

leopard mopth male curled

leopard moth male curled

I was at Fishlake for the morning waiting for a delivery meaning that I did not get to Blashford until the afternoon. It was very hot and lots of the insects had taken cover in the shade. Out on the hot shingle beside Ibsley Water I spotted two half grown little ringed plover chicks, running about very energetically, hopefully they will fledge and join the two others that have already become independent.

Out on Ivy Lake the common tern chicks were less keen on the heat and were standing around panting, however they are growing well and I expect the first ones will be flying in a few days.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

It is looking very dry now, much of the grass is yellow or pale brown, but most of the meadow perennials are deep rooted and still look more or less okay. A lot of the earlier flowering species are  going to seed now. Looked at closely the seeds of meadow buttercup look rather like a Medieval mace.

meadow buttercup seedhead

meadow buttercup seedhead

Although they do not look as though they would be very good at it, I assume the hooks aid dispersal by getting caught on animal fur, or maybe botanist’s socks.

30 Days Wild – Day 17 – Knights In…

Moth of the day at Blashford was (and yes, you have probably already guessed it) a white satin.

white satin

white satin moth (male)

This is not a rare species, although not common and one I don’t see very often at all. On the face of it Blashford should be a good site as the larvae eat willow, poplar and aspen, all of which we have in some quantity.

Other moths today that I had not recorded so far this year were the delicate.

delicate

delicate

This is typically a migrant species, although it may be able to over-winter in some years. The other”new one” was a clouded brindle, a species that is pretty well camouflaged on the mossy bark, unlike the white satin.

clouded brindle

clouded brindle

After a morning cutting paths and bramble regrowth I had a look around near the Centre at lunchtime and found a batch of small cinnabar caterpillars tucking into the flower heads of a ragwort plant.

cinnabar caterpillars

young cinnabar moth caterpillars

Nearby I found a wasp beetle, this is one of the longhorn beetles with larvae that tunnel into wood.

wasp beetle

wasp beetle

It has similar black and yellow warning colouration to the cinnabar caterpillars, although I am not sure if it is actually poisonous like the caterpillars or just exploiting the fact that many birds will avoid any black and yellow insect as potentially unwise prey.

Although the reserve was pretty quiet today there are a few things to report. I saw my first fledged little ringed plover of the year, two juveniles on the Long Spit on Ibsley Water. There were also a number of flying black-headed gull juveniles too. Near Goosander hide a family of five small coot chicks were just below the sand martin wall. As the drizzle set in during the afternoon the numbers of swift and martin grew until there were at least 250 swift and several hundred martins. There was a report of 3 black-tailed godwit and I saw a redshank.  However the really big news, might actually be from last Friday, written in the Tern hide logbook was a report of a pratincole, with “collared?” written after it. Collared is the most likely, although even that is a very rare bird. Unfortunately the observer did not leave a name or any further details other than that it was on the Long Spit and flew away, not sure when it was seen, by whom or which way it went. If anyone can shed any light on this potentially very interesting record I would be delighted to know.

I returned home in persistent drizzle and took a quick look in the moth trap which I had not managed to do this morning. Three species of hawk-moth, elephant, pine and privet, matched the range,if not species, at Blashford but otherwise there was not much.

Which leaves….

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The yellow-rattle which I featured in flower at the start of the 30 Days, is now going to seed, as the stems dry the seeds will start to rattle in the swollen calyx when shaken.

yellow rattle seedpods

yellow-rattle with developing seed.

30 Days Wild – Day 12 – The Power of a Flower

Tuesday at Blashford is volunteer day, or at least one of them, we also have a regular work party on a Thursday as well, today we were balsam pulling. The balsam in question is Himalayan balsam, a garden plant that escaped into the countryside and particularly likes growing along river and stream banks, “riparian habitats” as they are known. It is an extraordinary plant, growing to two or three metres tall in a matter of a few weeks,outgrowing all native plants that live in similar places. It also has explosive seed pods which can throw the seeds a metre or more when they pop. Being a non-native it has escaped its natural disease and insect controls and grows almost without check, which is why it has become a problem.

before

a disappointingly large stand of balsam

We have been removing this plant by pulling them up for many years now and have made good progress on the upper parts of the Dockens Water, where there are very few plants now. Clearly though, we failed to find quiet a few plants last year for there to be quite such a dense stand as this. Flooding carries the seed along and will also concentrate it where the seed gets deposited. We had a lot of plants to pull up, but we did pull them up and this is what it looked like a short while later.

after

after balsam pulling

What is very clear is that once the balsam is gone there is very little other vegetation, showing how it out competes other species.

Himalayan balsam has very nectar rich flowers, leading some to claim it is “Good for bees”, bees and other insects will take nectar from it, but I think the case for it being “good for bees” is very questionable. When it flowers it is very popular, but before this it shades out all the other flowering plants that would providing nectar, so across the season it probably provides no more than would be there anyway, it makes the habitat one of feast or famine cutting off food sources earlier in the season.

Flowers are immensely rich sources of food for lots of creatures, perhaps especially insects, but I have watch deer carefully picking off flowers and leaving the rest of the plant. The flower has the protein-rich pollen and the sugar-rich nectar, in short the stuff needed to make animals and keep them running. The flowers are not giving this largess, they are trying to get their pollen transferred to another flower to allow seed formation and make new plants. As the year progresses different flowers become the main attraction for lots of insects. Just now hemlock water dropwort is very attractive, but a new draw is appearing in the form of bramble flowers.

bramble flowers

bramble flowers

We easily notice the larger species such as butterflies, but look closer and you will see lots of tiny insects.

bramble flower with pollen beetles

A bramble flower with several small beetles

I think the beetles in the picture are pollen beetles, but I am not certain.

Closely related to brambles, the roses are at their peak now, the similarity in flower form between the bramble and this dog rose are clear even if the rose is the showier.

dog rose

dog rose

I was pleased to receive reports of four little ringed plover chicks seen today from Tern hide, the first proof of any hatching so far this year. It was also good to see the common tern arriving at the rafts on Ivy Lake carrying small fish to feed newly hatched chicks.

My moth trap highlight today was a lobster moth caught at home, not a species I see very often and I still have to find the extraordinary caterpillar which is the source of the moth’s name.

lobster moth

lobster moth

To refer back to my earlier comments about the food value of flowers, I noticed the mullein moth caterpillar in my garden has eaten most of the flowers off the figwort plant, it has eaten all the best bits first!

mullein moth on figwort

mullein moth on figwort

What’s in My Meadow Today?

I know it is not a plant that belongs in a meadow in southern England, but I like bloody crane’s-bill, so I have it in the meadow, where it grows and seeds quite well.

bloody cranesbill

bloody crane’s-bill flower

Something else that does not really belong are the anthills, this is not because ants are not native here, but you do not usually get anthills in meadows. This is because a meadow is really a field that is grown to produce a crop of grass, so the act of cutting the field would knock down the anthills before they became large. I cut the grass around the anthills taking care to leave them to get bigger year by year as I rather like them. This maybe because I spent many years working at Farlington Marshes where the masses of anthills are a significant feature of the reserve.

anthill

One of the anthills being extended by the ants.