30 Days Wild – Day 6

The Blashford volunteers were out in force today and we were pulling Himalayan balsam along the Dockens Water, I am delighted to say that we found very little until we got down to the very lowest part of the stream, just where it leave the reserve. All the years of work seem to be paying off. This lower part of the stream is an area where we have been allowing the stream “to do its own thing” a little bit of rewilding, if you like. This has been the approach for over ten years now and all we do in there is clear rubbish washed down the stream and control invasive alien species, such as the balsam. It has developed into an amazing area of habitat.

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Wet woodland along the Dockens Water

We came across a strange patch of red in the stream at one point, I think it is a red alga presumably exploiting some mineral seepage, but I may very well be wrong about that!

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The red stuff!

The reserve was generally quiet, but as I locked up the Tern Hide I noticed a second calendar year Mediterranean gull close to the hide, it had a colour-ring on the left leg and luckily it was showing well enough to read the code.

colour-ringed Med gull

colour-ringed Mediterranean gull

I think it was ringed in Ireland and I will update when I have found out details form the scheme organiser.

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Tern(ed) Down

Well the deed is done, today we took down the Tern Hide, after a bit of a slow start we got into our stride and it came down more or less in sections as planned. It was in pretty good condition for the most part, until we took up the floor, the supports were in a poor state. It will be about two months until the new hide is up and ready, this might seem a long time, but I had only a couple of days each week when there are enough of our brilliant volunteers to tackle this scale of job and it could not have been done if the day had been windy, so I decided to allow a two week window to get it done. Before the new hide can go up we have to remove a large slab of concrete, which will take a while, so extra days might prove useful later on.

staring to demolish tern hide

Just making a start

going

about half way there

almost gone

Just the last two panels to go

Meanwhile, back at the Education Centre, progress on the pond has been slower, but hopefully will pick up tomorrow. The car park there is now usable again, the surface is not the finished article yet, the final layer will have to wait until all the other works are complete, but it is fine to park on. There is still fencing up in places with some restrictions on access but the paths are open as is the Centre and hides. I am still hopeful that the path from the main car park to Goosander hide will be opened up soon, now that all the works have been finished.

I did not hear many reports of wildlife today, although the yellow-browed warbler was apparently seen in the brambles right in front of Ivy South hide. Locking up I had good views of water rail at Ivy North hide, I also heard a Cetti’s warbler singing and saw a great white egret roosting in the trees. The two first winter Caspian gull were again in the roost on Ibsley Water along with at least one Mediterranean gull.

At lunchtime I saw a common toad swim past the camera on Pondcam, my first of the year, although I am not sure if I can count “seen on Pondcam”.

Four Finches and a Hide Away

A fine if chilly day on the reserve and it seemed lots of people were out looking for brambling, although there has been one seen at the Woodland Hide I think it will be a week or tow more before they are regular. Although they are “Winter” finches, they are actually most frequent at our feeders in early spring, so March is often the best month. I think the reason is that they tend to come to artificial feed once the natural food sources reduce. There are certainly more finches at the feeders now than before Christmas, with siskin now present most of the time, with the males singing whenever the sun comes out.

singing siskin

singing siskin

Greenfinch are now probably scarcer than siskin at garden feeders, a reflection of the fall in their numbers as well as an undoubted rise in siskin abundance.

greenfinch

Greenfinch, not as common a sight as once it was

One finch that rarely comes to garden feeders is the linnet, it is a bird of more open habitats, there is a good flock on the shore of Ibsley Water at present and I got a shot of part of the group today.

linnet flock

part of the linnet flock

I took the shot above from Tern hide, by way of a farewell, the hide will be closed as of this evening and tomorrow we start to take it down in readiness for replacing it with a brand new hide. This will mean that part of the car park will be closed tomorrow, although the Centre car park should be back on stream, so overall there will still be plenty of parking.

Although everyone seemed to be looking for brambling, their resident close relative the chaffinch is a very fine bird which we perhaps disregard too easily, probably because it is so common.

male chaffinch

male chaffinch

Reports from around the reserve today included –

At Ivy North Hide: the bittern and great white egret, with supporting caste of water rail.                                                                                                                                                        At Woodland Hide: reed bunting and all the regulars.                                                                At Tern Hide: 3 Mediterranean gull, probably 2 Caspian gull and well over 100 common gull, as well as the linnet flock noted above.

As far as I know the yellow-browed warbler has not been certainly seen for a few days now, although I have heard rumours of sightings at various points between Ivy North hide and south of the boardwalk, so who knows?

If you do visit over the next few weeks there will be various works going on, I would ask that you take note of any signs and fences, these will be in place to keep you safe when there is machinery moving around and working. Apart from the Tern hide, which is being replaced, all the other hides remain open and there will always be parking available. The Centre and toilets should be available as usual.

 

Thinning

Not a reference to the effects of advancing age but to today’s volunteer task on the reserve, which was felling some sycamore trees to open up some space. In places we have dense stands of very tall, thin sycamores which tend to over-top and then shade out other species. To reduce the negative effects of this we are thinning out a lot of the smaller trees, especially where they are growing amongst other species such as oak. It was the perfect day for felling, at least until the rain started, being cool, so I did not overheat in the protective chainsaw gear and calm, so the trees would hopefully fall where I intended them to.

volunteers clearing felled sycamore

Volunteers clearing away the upper branches of a felled sycamore

By the end of the day we had cleared quite a few trees, but the more we took down the more there seemed to be! At the same time there was a more open feel to the area so we must have done something. We did come across quiet a few small, self-sown hazel and even one covered in honeysuckle and these should benefit from some more sunlight.

the aftermath of sycamore thinning

the aftermath of sycamore thinning

I left a number of the stumps fairly high, this allows me to ring-bark the stump reducing the chance of it growing back, without using pesticide and also gives the opportunity to make some cut slots and holes to allow rot to get a hold and make habitat for various invertebrates.

Chainsawing for most of the day does reduce the chance of seeing wildlife somewhat, but not completely. Locking up the hides at dusk I was lucky enough to see both great white egret and bittern at Ivy North hide. I understand the yellow-browed warbler was again near Ivy South hide and out on Ibsley Water there were peregrine, Mediterranean gullyellow-legged gull and black-necked grebe, but no sign of the lesser scaup, perhaps it has moved to Blashford Lake where it spent much of its time last winter when it was here. At Woodland hide there was also a brambling reported, perhaps the same bird that Tracy saw yesterday.

walter in the reedmace

Walter hiding amongst the reedmace in the gloom of dusk

 

From all Corners

There were birds from all over the place on the reserve today. All the way from Siberia; the yellow-browed warbler was again near Ivy South hide as I opened up, giving good views until it disappeared before our very eyes. It makes astonishingly fast changes of direction which mean that following its movements for very long is incredibly difficult.

From North America we had; lesser scaup, a drake near the furthest shore of Ibsley Water, probably last winter’s bird returned by popular demand. These duck are similar in appearance to the greater scaup which is much more familiar in Europe, but smaller, around the size of a tufted duck.

From all over northern and eastern Europe we had all the other wildfowl and a good few other birds too. Arrived from the Alps and now to be seen on the shores of Ibsley Water are the water pipit, I got a mediocre picture of one today.

water pipit

water pipit from Tern hide

And finally from just up the road somewhere we have the rest, including this adult female peregrine, seen here in another iffy picture!

peregrine

adult female peregrine

Other birds to be seen out and about on the reserve today were the bittern at Ivy North hide along with Walter the great white egret. Other birds to be seen on Ibsley Water included green sandpiper, pintail and in the gull roost several yellow-legged gull and three Mediterranean gull. 

However the reserve is not just about birds, today there was also cake and lots of it, with another successful day for the pop-up cafe.  I also took some non-birdy pictures, largely due to a failure to get very good ones of the birds. There are quite a few fungi about now, scarlet elf-cup are just starting to appear in numbers as are lost of Turkeytail.

turkeytail

Moss, fern and Turkeytail

The bare trees make it possible to appreciate how much lichen some of them have on their branches, the willow near Lapwing hide are especially heavily festooned.

lichen on willow twigs

lichen on willow twigs

Other species grow on the trunks of trees.

lichen on birch trunk

lichen on birch trunk

Lichens are a mash-up of alga and fungus, although it now appears it is probably rather more complicated than this.

The reserve was busy today despite reduced parking due to the ongoing levelling works near the Centre, but hopefully this work will be completed by the end of the coming week and things will be slightly closer to normal again, at least for a time.

Year’s End

The last day of 2018 and I was out doing my December waterbird count, numbers are generally low this winter, but there was variety. I started with Ibsley Water, the most numerous species was coot with 327 other species exceeding one hundred were wigeon 206 and lapwing 288. Gulls are not counted but at dusk were present in thousands. During the day the highlights from Ibsley Water were black-necked grebe, a dark-bellied brent goose, water pipit(s), first winter Caspian gull and a first winter Mediterranean gull, in addition the flock of linnet were feeding outside Tern hide once again.

Elsewhere the bittern was on show at Ivy North hide, along with water rail and Cetti’s warbler and at dusk two great white egret. On Blashford (Spinnaker) Lake during the day there were two great white egret and a good number of wildfowl including 300 coot. A further 299 coot were on Rockford Lake and a water pipit on the shore close to the path was something I had not seen there before.

No doubt tomorrow will be busy and there are a nice range of birds to see along with the extra attraction of the Pop-up cafe.

Changeable

The last week or so has been very strange, with the arrival of several migrants and further snow.

gorse flower in snow 3

Spring!

On the migrant front there are now small numbers of sand martin hawking over several of the lakes, the most I have seen together is only six. On Ibsley Water there have been at least 2 little ringed plover, but be warned as there has also been a ringed plover. Other waders in the snow last weekend included a few dunlin and 3 golden plover. A single swallow has been recorded on several days and is perhaps the one reported in North Gorley as well. In the woodland small numbers of chiffchaff are singing and near Tern hide a pair of wheatear have been seen for the last four days. Perhaps the greatest excitement has been the sighting of 2 osprey passing singly overhead in the last week. typically for spring birds, they did not linger.

Other notable sightings have included up to 5 stonechat beside Ibsley Water, this is usually a very scarce species on the reserve, I suspect these are birds that had returned to the open Forest before snow and moved into the valley to escape the worst of the conditions. Two adult little gull have been over Ibsley Water where numbers of Mediterranean gull are increasing and the ring-billed gull is still being seen int he evening roost.

As thought to highlight the confusion of the seasons there have been birds starting to nest and the dawn chorus has gone up a gear. The picture below was taken through my kitchen window and shows blue tits investigating a nestbox in the snow.

blue tit pair at box in snow

The drive to start breeding is not stopped by changeable weather.

 

Thayer’s Gull

There has been much excitement in recent days at Blashford Lakes over the sighting of a potential Thayer’s gull. I say potential because these are not easy birds to identify or at least it is not easy to know exactly what you are looking at. Larger gulls are a particularly tricky bunch, they can vary quite a lot within species and not much at all between species and (even worse) sometimes hybridise!

So how do you ever know what you are looking at? For all the species there are the “Classic” birds, the ones that look like the have just stepped off the pages of the field guide, these should not be too difficult, although some genetic studies suggest even some of these might not be quiet what they seem. The others are more problematic, at least for people who like to put a name to them. Often it then comes down to looking at the various characters and scoring what is positive and what negative, after that you can consult experts or, for the more free-wheeling just decide if you are happy or not. For some there is no “right” answer, just the balance of probability.

So is this Thayer’s gull the real thing? The short answer is I don’t know and it will probably get decided by committee in the end and some will accept the decision and others not. Having seen the bird at some distance last night and then rather better tonight I have a few observations. The books often say they are structurally like Iceland gull and a claimed one I saw many years ago in Ireland was, to my eyes, identical in structure to Iceland gulls nearby. This bird looks bulkier than what I would expect for an Iceland gull, but it has the same wide, round head so typical of that species. Iceland gulls do have broader bodies and heads than herring gulls but this bird looks very heavy indeed. The wings do not look long and the rear of the bird on the water looks less attenuated than typical for Iceland, but this may be due to the rather large body size and males gulls are often a lot larger than females. As far as I can tell the plumage looks as though it has all the expected features.

Whatever it is, it is interesting and different from any other gull I have seen before, even the other one claimed as Thayer’s. It is quite obvious in the roost, it certainly stands out as different. Another way of looking at it is what might it be if it is not a Thayer’s gull? It seems American herring gull will hybridise with Thayer’s gull and that they will also hybridise with Glaucous-winged gull producing offspring that look like Thayer’s gulls. However it seems that these various hybrids tend not to have the round head, which this bird certainly does have.

If you are a bird lister it really matters if this is or is not a Thayer’s gull, importantly if it is accepted as such by the rarities committee once they have weighed up the pros and cons. Whatever they decide it is a very interesting bird and I am pleased I have seen it, I have looked at many, many thousands of gulls and never seen one quiet like it before. There is a school of thought that Thayer’s gull is just a form of Iceland gull and not a full species at all.

All this begs the question of just what defines a species, actually an important question for conservationists as rarity often drives much funding and conservation effort. A rare species will attract more effort than attract more effort than a sub-species. The definition of a species is  not a simple thing and not as clear as you might think and subject to change. Actually what matters are populations, we need to conserve populations, it does not really matter if they are species, sub-species or separate groups of one species. Keeping populations viable ensures their survival whatever their status, we should not consider them less because they are not a separate species by the current definition.

As for the Thayer’s gull, I enjoyed seeing it whatever it is eventually decided to be. Come to that I enjoyed seeing all the other gulls in the roost too. All 9,000 or so of them, including a juvenile Iceland gull, yellow-legged gulls, Mediterranean gulls and the thousands of lesser black-backed gulls and black-headed gulls. If you are interested there are pictures of the Thayer’s gull on the HOS go birding website, mine are so bad I will not torture you with them!

Elsewhere, away from the gulls, “Walter” the great white egret was on Ivy Lake and 2 black-necked grebe on Ibsley Water along with a single Bewick’s swan, a  real rarity here these days, although there were almost 200 wintering in the valley a few decades ago.

Preparations for Spring

It was a properly frosty morning, but walking round to open up the hides this morning signs of approaching spring were everywhere.

Frosty thistle

Frosty thistle

The snowdrops near the store are well out now and primroses are flowering around the car park edge, near the Woodland hide the leaves of the wild daffodils have been up for  a while, but now the flower buds can be seen. Along the path sides shiny, bright green wild arum leaves are showing everywhere and near the alder carr there are the brilliant red spots of colour provided by scarlet elf cup fungi.

As it was Tuesday we had a volunteer task today and we were also looking forward to the warmer days. Our task was clearing back the path sides on the way to the Ivy South hide to open up sheltered scallops to give something of the feeling of a woodland ride. This path runs almost exactly north-south and so has many sun-traps beloved of insects and reptiles. Out plan was to create more such spots in the hope of making more encounters with these creatures later in the year.

pathside clearance

Cleared path sides to create sunny “scallops”.

The end of the day saw rather fewer birders at the Tern hide hoping for a sight of the Thayer’s gull, they were disappointed again. There was the usual ring-billed gull, several yellow-legged gull, a first winter Caspian gull and an adult Mediterranean gull in the roost. My own sightings were rather few, “Walter” our great white egret was fishing in Ivy Lake and on Ibsley Water 2 shelduck and 3 oystercatcher were the most interesting records.

Tomorrow we are working at Fishlake Meadows again, clearing cut willow into dead hedges to create new views across the reedbeds and pools.

 

Listing, Lessons and Speculations

Like lots of people who look at wildlife I cannot resist keeping lists, not usually very thorough and I usually lose interest in about mid-February each year. So far I have kept going and find that I have seen 116 species of birds so far this year, all of them in Hampshire and at least 105 of them on visits to Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust reserves.

Of the 116 species I can see that five of them are introduced alien species (Canada goose, Egyptian goose, Mandarin duck, pheasant and red-legged partridge) and another an introduced population of a former native (greylag).  All of these  have been either introduced for “sport” or escaped from parkland collections.

Of the native species I am struck by the many species that have changed their status radically since I arrived in Hampshire. There are various reasons for this, the white trio of little egret (now breeding), great white egret (soon to be breeding here?) and spoonbill (perhaps likewise), have increased in number and range right across western Europe. The same could be said for Cetti’s warbler, avocet, yellow-legged gull and Mediterranean gull.

Birds of prey have increased, more or less across the board and seeing red kite, marsh harrier and peregrine is not now especially notable and buzzard has spread right across the county rather than being a New Forest bird. All of these species have benefited from a more benign environment, in which they are less exposed to harmful chemicals and suffer less persecution, at least in lowland England. One other species has gained from the same change is the raven, which now nests across most of the county. Goshawk has also colonised the county and benefited similarly, although the population is of escaped , or released, origin.

When I first came to Hampshire in 1978 there was no accepted record of ring-billed gull and I am not sure there was even such a thing as a Caspian gull thought about.

I estimate that if I had been doing the same thing forty years ago my list would most likely not have included at least 14 of those I have seen this year, so more than 10% of my list are birds that would have seemed remarkable then. Of course there would have been some species that I would have expected to see then by mid January, that we have now more or less lost, or at least which now need more particular seeking. For example Bewick’s swan, white-fronted goose, grey partridge, willow tit, corn bunting, yellowhammer and tree sparrow.

So listing may well be a rather pointless exercise in many ways but reflecting upon my list so far certainly tells a story of how much has changed and of course makes one think how much might change in the future. So what might a list in another forty years include?

I suspect we will have established populations of additional alien species, most likely is ring-necked parakeet (I suspect this will happen quite soon), but I think black swan may also get a firmer foothold too and Egyptian goose could become very common. Who knows perhaps even sacred ibis could make it over here in time if the continental populations develop uncontrolled.

Natural colonists that look like becoming regulars include, cattle egret and glossy ibis, both already occasional visitors. It is interesting to note the preponderance of wetland birds that are expanding their ranges. A bit of a wildcard might be the potential for a whole range of essentially  Pacific Arctic species to turn up as winter vagrants. The ice melt along the northern coast of Russia has opened up a route for many previously unconsidered species. The occurrence in Europe in recent years of slaty-backed gull hints at the potential for species to come via this route in years to come.

Unfortunately I think a lot of species are going to get much rarer. Coastal species will be under particular pressure, in forty years time there will be little or no saltmarsh along most of the Solent shoreline and much reduced mudflats, so wintering coastal wader populations will surely be much reduced. Couple this with and increase in “short-stopping”, which means that wintering birds coming from the north and east just don’t come so far in the increasingly mild winters. Overall I think it certain that the Solent will not be nearly so significant for wintering wetland birds.

This discussion of change is only considering the winter, our breeding birds could be in for at least as great a change, who knows I might speculate on this in a later blog.