Strange Days

In fact probably the strangest we have ever known. We are now winding down to the minimum work aimed at maintaining health and safety and looking after livestock. The first remains important whilst there are still people allowed to walk around the sites and the latter is just essential. Luckily I have no livestock at Blashford, but we do still have a trickle of visitors. I would certainly not encourage anyone to visit but with paths that allow open access we will still have people on site, unless all going out is banned.

With spring now more or less sprung it is time once again to assess the state of our ash trees to see how ash die-back is hitting them. It is already apparent that some have completely died since the autumn and many others are in serious decline. In some areas it is possible that paths may not be able to reopen even if the Covid emergency passes, as there is likely to be a considerable amount of further felling needed and some roadside trees may need dealing with very soon. Luckily these assessments can be made by a single person so I can work and maintain isolation.

There are still surprisingly large numbers of wildfowl around, probably over 1500, a lot for the time of year. The water levels are dropping ever so slowly and I found a pair of pintail perched on a newly exposed wooded rail, alongside them was the long-tailed duck, without the long tail and perhaps envying the drake pintail his splendid feathers.

pintail and long-tail 4x3

pintail and long-tail

The sunshine has brought out butterflies in number and I have seen lots of brimstone and peacock, with a few comma and pleasingly several small tortoiseshell, maybe  a welcome return to their former status is in the offing. With all surveys now cancelled this year we will not have the butterfly transect data to know for sure.

small tortoiseshell pair

small tortoiseshell pair

I hope to continue blogging from the reserve for as long as I can, although I am conscious that this may just highlight what most people are missing. It is very odd to be out on such a sunny  day and see almost nobody, it makes me feel guilty with so many at home.

Willow, wildflowers… and bittern!!

Yesterday we ran another willow weaving event, this time making living willow structures which were created straight into a pot filled with compost. If kept wet so they are able to root, the willow will continue to grow and once established they could be potted up or planted out into the garden.

We used common osier from our main willow bed alongside the colourful willows Megan and I harvested up near Lapwing Hide last week. Ten sets of two willow rods were pushed into the compost, with five sets angled to the right and five angled to the left, so when they were woven around each other they created a diamond pattern. The rods were then bound at the top to keep them in place. The finished structures looked great!

Willow sculptures

Fingers crossed they all grow well!

Now that the reserve is coming back to life after what feels like a very long, if mild, winter, we have been using our temporary signs to label some of the different plants and flowers that are adding welcome colour to the woodland floor, so do keep an eye out for them when you visit:

IMG_2674

Moschatel, or Town-Hall-Clock as it is also known, is flowering in a number of places along the edges of the footpath in the woodland. It is easy to miss, as it is low growing and the delicate flowers themselves are very small, growing up on a tall stalk, but they do look lovely. It is the unusual arrangement of the flower head that gives it the common name of Town-Hall-Clock, as each flower head comprises of five flowers, four of which face outwards at ninety degrees to each other to resemble a clock face. The fifth sits on top facing upwards.

Moschatel has a number of other common names, including five-faced bishop, hollowroot, tuberous crowfoot and muskroot. The latter apparently refers to the faint musk-like smell given off by the flowers as evening approaches. It is a delightful flower to find and worth keeping an eye out for, there is a label by an oak tree along the connecting path between Ivy North Hide and the path that runs down to the Woodland Hide and Ivy South, where it is carpeting the ground.

Moschatel

Moschatel flower

Yesterday, and again just now, we have had sightings of a bittern at Ivy North Hide, so if you visit this week it is well worth spending a bit of time in there and scanning the reed bed just in case it stays with us for a few days before moving on elsewhere. A group in the hide yesterday saw it fly out of the reeds to the right of the hide before going back down into the reeds to the left, whilst it was showing nicely a short while ago for those lucky enough to be in the hide at the right time.

A couple of redpoll are still visiting the feeders at the Woodland Hide and marsh harrier, common sandpiper and Mediterranean gull were all recorded yesterday on Ibsley Water. The long-tailed duck is also still present on Ibsley Water, it was there yesterday and was showing well this morning, being closer to the hide than I have seen it previously, albeit still a fair way off! There are also still high numbers of pintail, seen out on the water but also on the bank by Goosander Hide.

Pintail

Pintail

Today’s sunshine has also bought out the butterflies, on swapping the seasonal sign in Tern Hide over this morning Megan and I saw a peacock and brimstone, and we were joined by another brimstone whilst having lunch outside the Centre by the pond. A little more of today’s weather (along with a view of a bittern) would be lovely!

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!.

IMG_20200117_103019

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. 

 

 

IMG_20200116_104125

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”!

IMG_20200116_104125

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.

IMG_20200117_095430

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:

IMG_20200117_095601_394

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:

IMG_20200116_114028

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:

IMG_20200117_092913

 

 

 

 

 

Recently on the Reserve

There is a good range of species around the lakes at present, although numbers are not very high. Ibsley Water does not have a lot of wildfowl this winter due to rather weak water-weed growth, but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in variety. The long-tailed duck has been showing well at times near Goosander and Tern hides and there is now a black-necked grebe frequenting the northern shore of the lake. Recent rain has resulted in some local flooding in the Avon Valley, conditions which lead to increases in numbers of pintail and black-tailed godwit, both of which will visit Ibsley Water during the day. Recently there have been 70 or more pintail and up to 400 godwit at times on the lake. In addition we have a wintering common sandpiper and at least 1 water pipit, both sometimes right in front of Tern Hide.

By contrast Ivy Lake has been very busy with large numbers of wildfowl with hundreds of gadwall, wigeon and coot. There have also been up to 4 great white egret, including “Walter”. Cetti’s warbler seem to be at an all time high on the reserve with one even using the woodland near the Centre and frequently in the vegetation beside the dipping pond. There have been a number of firecrest around, with the hollies along the Dockens Water a favourite location, this very fine picture was sent in last week.

Firecrest by Doug Masson

Firecrest by Doug Masson

Doug also sent in a nice shot of a female shoveler, a duck that is present in only moderate numbers this winter so far.

Shoveler by Doug Masson

Shoveler by Doug Masson

Each winter for the last few years we have had two apprentices from the New Forest National Park working on the reserve for a couple of months, they provide valuable assistance to me on days when I have no volunteer working parties. The apprentices have been doing great work recently, laying two sections of hedge along the western side of Ellingham Lake and on Friday we took to the water and cleared three of the islands on the western side of Ibsley Water of their annual vegetation.

P1110542

A section of hedge being prepared for laying.

On Saturday I ran a gull identification workshop in partnership with Hampshire Ornithological Society. These things are rather hit and miss when it comes to going out to see the gulls, so much depends upon the weather and even then the gulls may decide to roost distantly from the hides. We did not find any unusual gulls, but the long-tailed duck, black-necked grebe, goosander roost and a very fine peregrine were all highlights. I was with a group at Tern Hide and we had the peregrine perch on a post close to the hide.

peregrine

Peregrine perched close to Tern Hide

Other recent sightings have included a regular female marsh harrier, a modest starling roost to the north of Ibsley Water, a young female scaup on Rockford Lake and an otter near Ivy South hide, although an American mink was seen there at the weekend. The Ibsley Water gull roost has contained 6 or more yellow-legged gull, an adult Caspian gull and up to 2 Mediterranean gull.

At Last, a Bit of Fine Weather

As December starts the winter has turned a little more like winter, with frost at night and finally a drier spell. This has allowed us to get a few outstanding tasks done, yesterday’s was clearing the vegetation in front of the Ivy North Hide and opening up the channels through the reedbed.

before

Looking out from Ivy North Hide before we started.

after

The main channel cleared

As we worked at least 2 Cetti’s warbler were moving about in the reeds and water rail were squealing frequently, although went typically unseen.

Other recent tasks have included laying some hedge lengths, clearing bramble from grassland areas and also making a start on removing some infected ash trees. The last will be a large task in the next couple of years. You may have heard about ash die-back, it is a fungal infection that kills ash trees and is expected to result in over 95% of our ash being lost. The disease originated in the Far East and probably arrived in Europe via the horticultural trade.

Where these trees are deep in the woods this will mean more standing deadwood habitat, so not an entirely bad thing. Where we have paths , hides, roads and car parks they will have to be felled before they fall. There is no doubt this is going to have a noticeable impact as ash is a frequent tree and it will impact upon species that depend upon this tree. It is also going to be a very expensive task for land managers, at Blashford we only have a couple of hundred, but still a lot of work. The one positive note is that work at Kew Gardens has revealed that some British ash trees show some immunity, so if these survive they will be available to provide a seed source to enable restocking. It will still be a long time before we get back to ash being once again a frequent tree in our landscape.

Out on the reserve things have also taken a more wintery turn, wildfowl numbers have picked up, although only on Ivy Lake is this very noticeable. The goosander roost on Ibsley Water is growing and has over 80 birds now. Also on Ibsley Water a long-tailed duck has been present for a while now and on Monday 3 black-necked grebe were present, but were perhaps only passing through as I don’t think they were seen yesterday. Less seasonal is the common sandpiper, these usually just pass through in autumn and only green sandpiper normally winter with us. The rain has resulted in a significant rise in water levels, the water pipits have become much less obvious following the rise, perhaps because the rise has covered a lot of the exposed weed along the shore.

We are hoping the dry weather will hang on for a day or two more so we can fill the pot-holes in the entrance track, with luck we will be doing this on Thursday, so access to the Centre car park will be somewhat restricted.

Ducking and Diving

On Tuesday I was up at Kitts Grave with the volunteers clearing a ride through the scrub/woodland. Although it does not look much like it from the pictures below, we did clear quite long length!

3

Looking N before we started

4

Looking N near the end of the day

1

Looking S at the start

2

Looking S at the end of the day

Actually, looking again it hardly looks as if we were there at all! If you visit you will see a difference though.

This part of the Martin Down NNR is a fabulous mosaic of scrub and chalk grassland, we have been cutting scrub in order to maintain this mix of habitat, since without control the woody plants would take over completely. It may come as a surprise to many that trees will actually grow over most of lowland Britain without being planted, in fact stopping them doing so need active intervention. Our longer term plan is to introduce  a light grazing regime in the hope that we can maintain the mosaic without the constant need for cutting.

Despite the fact that trees will grow unbidden, they are also under threat and this fact formed the backbone of today’s work. We were out at Blashford looking at trees that will need to be cut as a result of ash die-back disease. This non-native fungal disease was imported into Europe with nursery trees and looks like killing 95% or so of all ash trees. Where these are away from roads, buildings etc. this will provide a big increase in deadwood habitat and so not an entirely bad thing. However a lot will have to be felled to maintain safety and we have to check them for potential bat roosts before any work can be planned.

As we criss-crossed the reserve we came across various fungi including this puffball type, full of spores.

puffed

puffball fungus full of spores

We also found what I think was a slime mould on an alder stump, an especially bright coloured one at that.

orange slime mould

orange slime mould (I think)

At dusk this evening I went over to Goosander Hide to see how many goosander came into the roost, the answer was at least 63, with a bonus side order of at least 24 fallow deer on the shore beside them.

goosander and deer at dusk

Goosander roost and fallow deer in the near darkness.

My goosander roost picture may be rather poor quality, but wait until you see my last offering! The long-tailed duck that has been on Ibsley Water for a number of days now finally had enough of the northern shore and appeared in front of Tern Hide today, an ideal opportunity to get some pictures of it at last. My best effort is below, it illustrate perfectly the perils of digi-scoping.

dived

long-tailed duck……almost.

This weeks bird of the week…

…is the long-tailed duck.

Present on Ibsley Water since Monday this immature drake doesn’t have a long tail!

Normally a sea duck, and a winter visitor and passage migrant to the UK, it has been seen daily, including today, since Bobs first sighting on Monday morning.

They feed by diving for molluscs, crustaceans and some small fish and although they usually feed close to the surface, they are apparently capable of regularly diving to depths of 60 m and possibly even as deep as nearly 150 meters. They are the only ducks that use their wings to dive, which gives them the ability to dive much deeper than other ducks. Of course it won’t be diving quite as deep as that in Ibsley Water but its superb underwater swimming ability does make it one of the more challenging birds to keep tabs on as once its dived there is no telling when, or where, it is going to surface again!

Many thanks to Paul Swann for sharing this picture with us:

Longtailed duck by Paul Swann

Although we have not had any near the amount of rain that other parts of the UK have had, it has been pretty wet this week, albeit with moments of clear skies and sunshine. Paul captured one of these moments on the same day he snapped the long-tailed duck (Monday 4th November):

Ibsley rainbows by Paul Swann

Other wildlife news this week includes a general increase in both the number and diversity of wildfowl  across the nature reserve, sightings of water pipit and the first arrivals of goldeneye (both on Ibsley Water), increasing numbers of goosander (including at least two birds on Ivy Lake yesterday), the on-going presence of at least two great white egret (including Walter), in the Avon Valley and lakes in various locations by day but roosting on Ivy Lake at night, the arrival of our first sizeable flocks of siskin (one of those magical, Blashford Autumn special wildlife sightings for me), the beginning of at least a small evening murmuration (a few thousand birds) of starlings in the Valley, viewable from Tern Hide and the viewing platform at the back of the car park if you manage to get the timing and conditions right… I haven’t done so yet!

There is no Pop-Up Café tomorrow, but “Walking Picnics” will be back serving delicious cakes and savoury bakes with warm drinks next Sunday, 17th November, and if they do as well as they did last weekend you would do well to come early before they sell out!

 

 

 

 

Bittern doing what bittern do best…

…hiding! There are bittern around the reserve this winter, but whether because of high water levels, or because the relatively mild weather so far this winter has kept numbers on the reserve down again this year, they are being seen consistently on a pretty much daily basis, but often only one sighting in a day from different locations. Andy Copleston kindly sent in this picture earlier in the week of a bittern in the reeds fringing the southern shore of Ivy Lake:

Bittern by A Copleston

Bittern by A Copleston

Yes, I know. I had to look twice too! Try double clicking the picture to open it and zoom on the mid-point. It is there honest!

When you do see a bittern like this it does make you wonder how many others are out there under your nose being overlooked!

Kingfisher are showing quite well at the moment, particularly from Ivy North Hide and over Ivy Silt Pond, the ring-billed gull and long-tailed duck are still about, as is the great white egret (usually on Mockbeggar, Rockford or Ivy Lakes). New to the Blashford winter scene this season though are redpoll with sightings of a couple of birds feeding on the alder with siskin near Lapwing Hide. They have yet to be seen from the Woodland Hide though, where siskin are also thin on the ground still, with the birds preferring the alder and silver birch seeds of which there is apparently still plenty supply. Brambling have been seen in the Forest, but as yet have not made it to Blashford this winter…

A lovely day in the end today, it was very icy first thing this morning, with black ice all along Ellingham Drove and particularly by the entrance to the reserve. Last year (and this year so far) were so mild it is easy to forget, but this particular spot is always nasty in a cold snap so please do take care as you slow down on the approach and also be aware that the main car park (Tern Hide) can at times be terribly treacherous and that staff may choose to keep the car park (and possibly Tern Hide itself) closed if we deem it too dangerous. Forewarned is forearmed!

Thank you!

I’ve had my leg pulled by various staff, volunteers and visitors after my “rant” about roadside parking out side the gates to Goosander and Lapwing Hide, but, I have to say, parking there has decreased dramatically this week, even on a busy day like today, with just one car parked there when I had a look this afternoon (and that was leaving).

So, thank you to everyone who has taken heed! It is appreciated (and not just by me!).

The “bird of the day” I guess must be the Bewick swan that was reported flying onto Ibsley Water today – they are very thin on the ground in the valley again this winter (I am aware of one before Christmas). This one didn’t stick around either, having taken off flying south by mid-afternoon. Also still showing on Ibsley Water were the long-tailed duck, black-necked grebe and  ring-billed gull.

Having said that for a little while I thought there could have been something else new to report following the description of a number of mysterious very dark, black tailed duck like birds on Ellingham Pound by someone who shall remain nameless to preserve their dignity… It seems that they were actually just gadwall caught in silhouette against the glare of the water… Got me out of the office for a nice walk in the sunshine though!

Gadwall are still the most numerous duck on Ivy Lake, though compared to last weekend they have been joined by significantly more of other species. Woodland Hide was it’s usual treat this afternoon in the sunshine, with a constant flurry of feathered activity; nothing unusual, but a nice variety in reasonable numbers – far more than my photo implies!

Ivy Lake

Ivy Lake

View from the Woodland Hide

View from the Woodland Hide

 

 

How to Take a REALLY Bad Photograph!

My first day back at work today after the long Christmas break, of course the staff at Blashford have been here everyday apart from Christmas Day itself and it has been quite a busy festive period with lots to see. During the morning I was working in the office and had visitors trickling in with tales of a bittern at the Ivy North hide, great white egret on Rockford Lake and the ferruginous duck on distant Kingfisher Lake. So when it came to lunchtime I decided to eat it in the Tern hide and see what I could find. I quickly saw the long-tailed duck off to the west of the hide and the black-necked grebe well to the north. A flock of mixed geese included an escapee bar-headed goose, there were nine or more goldeneye, including at least 3 adult drakes and three goosander flew in from the direction of the river, not bad at all.

As there were already a fair few gulls I took a look through them and found the adult ring-billed gull, at first it was much closer to the northern shore but then it flew towards us and landed a good bit closer. It was then that the opportunity for a picture arose, a challenge that I decided to rise to and, as you can see below, utterly fail to achieve! You can, just about, tell it is a ring-billed gull, but it must rate as one of the worst pictures I have ever shared.

ring-billed gull (just about).

ring-billed gull (just about).

Later in the day reports came in of a firecrest, in an ivy covered tree near the entrance, so eye-stripes and crown-stripes were added to ringed-bills, long-tails, black-necks and barred-heads.