On mammals and murmurations…

Further to the last couple of short blog posts with information about the storm damage and the impact upon access at Blashford Lakes, I can confirm that all is now well with the exception of just two short sections of path (one between Ivy North & Woodland Hide, one along the Dockens Water) which remain closed due to the ongoing danger posed by large branches which have been torn from the tree’s and caught up in lower branches at height over the footpath.

Visitors have been asking about starlings for several weeks now and last night I saw my first more significant murmuration of the season. Consisting of several thousand starlings, they gathered to the west of the A338 before going to roost shortly after 4.30pm in the old gravel pits north of Ellingham. It’s still early days and bodes well, I think, for another good sized roost and wildlife spectacle later this winter. As always we recommend viewing the starlings from the viewing platform at the back of the main car park – where you will never be particularly close, but from where it is almost always possible to view the birds regardless of where they actually choose to roost in the valley.

Last week was half-term, as anyone with children or grandchildren will know (they’ve only been back at school a week and it already seems an age ago!). As such we once again held our popular “Wild Day Out” activity days and, once again, everyone had fun and, once again, it was questionable who had most fun – the staff and volunteers or the children!

This time round the theme was one of mammals and the day began with a “what am I quiz?” as they arrived – a collection of various animal remains and leavings to be identified (not all mammal it has to be said). The children did very well, albeit with the odd clue or hint dropped here or there ūüėČ

We then bought in our Longworth small mammal traps which were put out around the Education Centre at the end of the preceding day and left out overnight with the hope that if we were lucky we might catch mouse or vole or two. And lucky we were! On the first day 15 traps resulted in one common shrew, 4 bank voles and 3 wood mice and 14 traps on day two resulted in 3 bank voles and 4 wood mice which is a pretty good return by anyone’s reckoning! Interestingly we did not capture a single yellow-neck mouse – despite these currently being the most commonly trapped mouse in the Centre loft, where they are trapped and removed to be released in suitable habitat at the far end of the nature reserve (far enough away, we hope, not to come back to the Centre and cause damage) on an almost daily basis at this time of year.

The mild, misty, weather at the start of last week clearly suited our small mammal quarry but the conditions also very much suited molluscs and as a result, in addition to the mammals described above, we also released at least as many Arion ater, common slugs, and which are easily large and heavy enough to “trip” the traps.

Sadly for the molluscs I think it is fair to say that most children were more interested in the mammals we released!

With such a good haul in the traps we took our time and were all ready for lunch after the last animal had been released back into the place it had been trapped. Post lunch we took ourselves off for a walk to think about how we might hone our senses to become more aware of the wildlife around us and practice our tracking skills with a couple of games and activities, including one in which we split into two teams, one of whom laid trails of sticks, stones, bird seed and other marks for the seeking team to follow to the end and try and spot the hiding, trail laying, first team and then swap. I think it is fair to say that this activity was for most participants (and volunteers!) the best bit of the day and many (but not all!) particularly enjoyed the opportunity to “camouflage” their faces (and in some cases arms, hands and legs) with charcoal and clay…

Some of the children really were exceptional at hiding themselves away at the end of the trail – thanks to a combination of their camo-“facepaint”, camo clothing and the very un-childlike ability to be still AND quiet for a surprisingly long length of time while the “seekers” tried to find them. These two boys were exceptional ūüôā

Can you see them? We couldn’t for ages, even when stood right next to them! They are a bit easier to spot with a close up:

…others of course, despite their best efforts, were not quiet so well hidden ūüôā

Sorry Nigel ūüėČ

I’ll round off this blog with a lovely observation from one of the children at the end of the day that really struck a chord with me:

“What I really liked was doing new things and meeting other people. I don’t get to do that much anymore”.

That’s why we do what we do and why we will keep on doing so.

No Wild Days Out over the Christmas holidays but you can email blashfordlakes@hiwwt.org,uk to be put on the mailing list for Wild Days Out updates if you want to find out when and what Wild Days Out we are holding over February half-term.

Hope you enjoyed reading this post almost as much as we enjoyed our Wild Days Out!

A different view

On Tuesday I accompanied Bob to the north eastern shore of Ibsley Water so he could fell some of the willows into the lake, creating perches over the water for birds like heron and egret to fish from. I did fell a few smaller trees, but admit I was mainly there as first aid cover and did make the most of the opportunity of being in a different spot, enjoying a wander along the edge of the bay where I’ve only been once before.

Bob tree felling

Bob felling trees into the bay north of Lapwing Hide

Across Mockbeggar towards Ibsley Common

The view across Mockbeggar Lake towards Ibsley Common

Whilst we were up there, a goosander flew overhead and a couple of pied wagtails made themselves comfortable on the osprey perch:

pied wagtail 2

Pied wagtail

On the walk back I noticed some blackening waxcaps on the edge of the lake near Lapwing Hide, which were beginning to change colour. A grassland fungi, blackening waxcaps turn black with age, hence the name, but prior to blackening they can be red, orange or yellow in colour.

Blackening waxcap

Blackening waxcap, beginning to blacken

Looking back towards Tern Hide

The view towards Tern Hide from in front of Lapwing Hide

There is plenty of fungi in accessible locations on the reserve, with candlesnuff fungus seemingly everywhere if you look closely enough at the woodland floor along the footpath edges:

Candlesnuff fungus

Candlesnuff fungus on a moss covered log

I also found a couple of earthfans on the edge of the lichen heath. They can be found on dry sandy soil and have a rosette like fruiting body which is usually reddish brown to dark chocolate brown in colour.

Earthfan

Earthfan

There were also a number of russula growing in amongst the lichen. There are approximately 200 russula species in the UK and the generic name means red or reddish. Although many have red caps, many more are not red and those that are usually red can also occur in different colours. This species could be Russula rosea, the rosy brittlegill, but I’m not completely sure so will stick with the genus russula on this occasion!

Russula

Russula species in amongst the lichen

There was also a branch covered in jelly ear fungus along the ‘Wild Walk’ loop, close to the acorn sculpture:

Jelly ear

Jelly ear fungus

Also known as wood ears or tree ears, the fruiting body is ear shaped and is usually found on dead or living elder.

With the colder, wetter weather we have begun to get a number of more unwelcome visitors in the centre, usually wood mice or yellow-necked mice. Although we enjoy catching small mammals as an education activity, they are less welcome additions to the centre loft where they have in the past chewed through the cables. So we trap them in the loft too, using the Longworth small mammal traps, and safely relocate any we do catch to the further reaches of the reserve. On Sunday morning there were two mice in the loft, so I took them up to Lapwing Hide and released them into the undergrowth. 

mouse Kate Syratt

Mouse released from one of the mammal traps by Kate Syratt, who joined me for a socially distant wander to release them

There have been a good variety of moths in the light trap recently, with the highlights including mottled umber, streak, red-green carpet, green-brindled crescent, feathered thorn and December moth:

mottled umbar

Mottled umber

streak

Streak

Red green carpet

Red-green carpet

green brindled crescent Kate Syratt

Green brindled crescent by Kate Syratt

Feathered thorn

Feathered thorn

December moth

December moth

Although I haven’t seen any sign of the brambling recently, the feeder by the Welcome Hut is being regularly visited by at least one marsh tit. We had a pair around the centre regularly over the summer so it has been really nice to get great views of at least one feeding frequently.

marsh tit (3)

Marsh tit

Starling numbers have been increasing and on Tuesday evening there were several thousand north of Ibsley Water. They are best viewed on a clearer evening from the viewing platform which is accessible on foot through the closed main car park and gives panoramic views of Ibsley Water.

Ibsley Water from Viewpoint

Ibsley Water from the viewpoint

This is the perfect spot to watch the starlings put on a show as they twist, turn, swoop and swirl across the sky in mesmerising shape-shifting clouds. These fantastic murmurations occur just before dusk as numerous small groups from the same area flock together above a communal roosting site. The valley boasts a sizeable starling murmuration most years, with the reedbeds to the north of Ibsley Water often used, along with those on the other side of the a338 to the west and the smaller reedbed by Lapwing Hide in the east, so from this higher vantage point all possible roost sites can be seen. 

Although I don’t have any photos to share of the murmuration, taking a video instead the last time I watched them, it’s also a really nice spot to watch the sun set.

sunset

Sun setting to the west of Ibsley Water from the viewing platform

Camping out

At our last Young Naturalists session in July, we spent a night on the reserve, exploring Blashford and the surrounding area late in to the evening and early in the morning. It seems like a really long time ago now, but hopefully this blog is better late than never…

After arriving on the Saturday morning we got straight on with setting up our camp, using old army ponchos to make dens to sleep under and whittling pegs out of willow.

We then headed to the back of the Education Centre to sit by the pond and butterfly spot as part of the Big Butterfly Count. The Purple loosestrife proved to be very popular with the butterflies and we saw a large white, numerous small whites, a green-veined white and brimstones, along with a gatekeeper and painted lady by the bramble. We also watched the water for newts coming up to the surface and spotted a number of young frogs.

After lunch we headed up into the Forest, exploring the local Rockford and Ibsley Commons for a different view of the lakes. The bell heather was in flower and attracting lots of honey and bumble bees.

We paused for a while at the bridge over the Dockens Water, exploring this stretch of the river and taking a closer look at some of the plants before heading up on to the Common for another view of the reserve, this time Ibsley Water.

On arriving back at Moyles Court we paused by the ford for a paddle, although Jorge got wetter than most!

Walking back along the Dockens we spotted this fabulous Chicken of the Woods fungi growing on an old log:

Chicken in the woods

Chicken of the Woods

Arriving back at the Education Centre, it was time to empty the light trap from the night before so we could re-set it for the Saturday evening and we also set some mammal traps to see if we could catch any of our smaller resident mammals.

It was then time to think about food and the group did a great job of chopping the ingredients before tucking in to healthy wraps toasted over the fire followed by slightly less healthy popcorn and banana stuffed with chocolate and mini marshmallows…

Lysander had also very kindly bought some of his left over Cadet rations to share with the group, cooking them through using his stove. Whilst not all sampled his food, we were pleasantly surprised by how nice it tasted!

After eating we headed off on a night walk in search of bats, picking up pipistrelles on the bat detectors in the woodland and near Ivy South hide.

After convincing the group to get up bright and early on Sunday morning, we roused them at 5.30am and headed off up to Lapwing Hide for some early morning wildlife spotting.

It was lovely and peaceful to be out on the reserve so early, and whilst we didn’t spot anything out of the ordinary we had a good wander and worked up an appetite for breakfast which we cooked over the campfire.

Breakfast

Breakfast, looking slightly sleepy

It was then time to check the mammal traps we had put out the previous evening, but sadly although a couple had been sprung we were unsuccessful. The two light traps however gave us 31 different species off moth to identify, along with a Dark bush cricket and an Oak bush cricket:

After tidying away our camp and bringing everything back to the Centre it was time for the group to head off, a little sleepy but having spent a very enjoyable time overnight on the reserve.

Emperor dragonfly

Emperor dragonfly at the Education Centre Pond

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

Preparing for Winter!

November’s Wildlife Tots was all about how different animals prepare for the winter. After getting slightly messy with the paint, creating leaf prints and leaf rubbings indoors, we headed outside and positioned a number of mammal traps around the building – we had prepared these especially for the wood mice and bank voles, who stay active all year round, filling them with lots of cosy hay and some tempting bird seed!

We then pretended to be squirrels, hiding our acorns (or pasta shells) in various secret places to see if we could locate them again later – a test of our squirrel-ness! We searched for natural holes, hid them under leaf litter and looked for crevices in tree bark.

It was then time to head over to our willow wood, to make a cosy home fit for a hedgehog to hibernate in. We collected lots of different natural materials, including grasses and soft and cosy moss to turn into an animal home, before placing a film canister (our pretend hedgehog!) filled with hot water inside.

Whilst our pretend hedgehogs stayed in their homes, we delved into the clay pit to make hedgehog sculptures to take home:

It was then time to re-take the temperature of the water inside our pretend hedgehogs. It had started off at a whopping 54 degrees Celsius, cooling down to somewhere between 17 and 22. Although the temperature had dropped, they all did a really good job at keeping their hedgehogs cosy and warm!

It was then time to head back to the Centre, to check the mammal traps we had put out (sadly we were unsuccessful at catching anything this time!) and to search for the acorns we had squirreled away. Almost all of them were found, with the lost few remaining in the undergrowth. We were brilliant squirrels, but were reminded about how important squirrels, and in particular jays, are at helping the oak tree, as the ‘lost’¬†acorns are able to then germinate in the ground.

Thank you Wildlife Tots for a lovely day!

kenya-sam-and-olivia

Kenya, Sam and Olivia being scary!

 

A night on the reserve…

Last week a number of our Young Naturalists spent the night at Blashford, camping out under shelters they had made themselves, cooking dinner and breakfast over the camp fire and embarking on a night time adventure around the reserve.

The Young Naturalists project has been shortlisted for the Young People category of Hampshire’s 10th annual Countryside Awards, organised by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). With judging taking place over the summer, they began their camp out by hosting the judges and showing them some of the activities they enjoy taking part in and¬†some of the areas they have worked in around the reserve. We went through the light trap, looking at and having a go at identifying the moths, then wowed our important visitors with the variety of life found in the pond. After pond dipping, we headed off to the woodland to show them the log circle the group had replaced last June and the Woodland Hide.

After the judges had left us, it was time to think about setting up camp and we selected our materials and headed over to our camp area. It had been incredibly hot during the day, but we were expecting rain overnight and possibly some rumbles of thunder, so all were keen to construct a good shelter and we had a nice variety of designs:

It was then time to think about food so we gathered firewood and got the fire going, prepared an extravagant dinner of jacket potatoes, fish and a vegetable bean chilli and began cooking once the fire had died down a little.

Whilst cooking and eating dinner, and pudding, we enjoyed a stunning sunset:

Stunning sky

It was then time to head off into the night in search of some wildlife! We had already set the light trap, set some mammal traps near the Centre¬†and locked the Woodland and Ivy lake hides, so decided to venture over the road towards the Clear Water Pond and Goosander Hide. Armed with bat detectors, torches and Bob’s homemade moth gloop (a sticky concoction of unrefined sugar, treacle and half a bottle of bitter, designed hopefully to attract moths if painted liberally onto tree trunks),¬†we headed off into the night.

Our bat detectors soon picked up the characteristic ‘wet slaps’ or ‘smacks’ of both Common and Soprano pipistrelles as we passed the lichen heath and paused near the bridge over the Dockens Water. As we followed the path along the Dockens we painted some of the trees with our moth gloop, in the hope that on our return a little later something may have been attracted to the sweet syrup:

Painting trees with moth gloop

After carefully crossing the road we followed the path around the Clear Water Pond towards Goosander Hide and were rewarded with a bat feeding frenzy, picking up Daubenton’s bat and more Pipistrelles. Whilst Daubenton’s bat are¬†picked up on the bat detector at the same frequency as Common pipistrelle, they can be distinguished by a¬†different call,¬†a rapid series of regular ‘clicks’ which resemble rapid machine gun fire.¬†We enjoyed listening to them and spent a while watching them dive low over the water and fly overhead.

It¬†was then time to head back to the Education¬†Centre and we had a lot of painted trees to check on the way. On our way back we spotted slugs,¬†spiders, woodlice (the only thing really attracted to¬†Bob’s moth gloop)¬†and a toad.

After not a lot of sleep (we had¬†rain and a couple of rumbles of thunder, but luckily, with the exception of volunteer Geoff’s, our tarp shelters stood up to the test) it was time to think about cooking breakfast. Geoff had been up bright and early and got the fire going again for us, after rather a soggy nights sleep (sorry Geoff!), so we cooked breakfast then headed off to open up the hides, top up the bird feeders and¬†check the light trap.

You may have spotted the tent in the first picture, this was Jess and Maddy’s plan D, after seeing the forecast for the night and taking three attempts to make their shelter. They retreated here at about 3 o’clock in the morning, not beaten by the weather (their shelter was bone dry, Geoff would have loved it!) but by the slugs…

Our final task of the morning, aside from taking down our shelters and tidying camp, was to check the mammal traps we had put out the night before. We were rewarded with two bank voles and two wood mice, out of the ten we had set – not a bad catch!

Thank you all the Young Naturalists who joined us for a night on the reserve, and a really big thank you to volunteers Geoff, Nigel and Emily for giving up their time too!

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