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.

 

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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.

 

New Years Day – Listers, Cakes and a Wolf Moon

As might have been expected the reserve was busy today, with birders out to start their yearlists, lots of people out for a walk and a bit of wildlife and everyone able to take advantage of a special extra Pop-up Cafe day.

I had to go around all the hides to take in last year’s logbooks and put out the new ones, so I took advantage of walking to whole reserve and starting my own yearlist. By the time I had opened up all the hides I was already on 53 species of birds and 3 species of mammals. I actually saw Walter, our great white egret when I was opening the Centre as he flew over the car park, perhaps a good thing as he was not at his usual roost at dusk, probably because of the cold wind that got up later in the day. Two pairs of mandarin duck on Ivy Lake were a little unexpected and 96 pintail on Ibsley Water was the most I have seen this winter.

I still had to go to Goosander and Lapwing hides and my trip there saw me add black-necked grebe, in fact there were two, one distantly near Gull Island and the other quite close to the hide. A water pipit at Lapwing hide was also good to see.

It was not all about the birds though I saw two flowering plants in bloom, primrose – living up to its name of “prime rose” or first flower.

Primrose

The first flower – primrose

The second was a small clump of the undoubtedly planted snowdrop beside the car park, although the flowers of these were not quite open yet.

snowdrop

snowdrop

Later in the day I managed to add some more bird species to my list, including a fine male brambling, the ring-billed gull, a first winter Caspian gull and an adult Mediterranean gull, meaning that I ended with 73 species. Not a bad total as I always think anything over 70 in a day at Blashford is good. I missed at least ten species that others saw or I know were there, so I could have got 80 with a very fair wind, maybe one day.

Closing up the Moon was very large and full in the sky, apparently this is the day when the full Moon is the closest to Earth that it will be in the whole of 2018. I am also told it was a “Wolf Moon” it seems this is the first full Moon of the New Year. Whatever you call it, it was certainly very striking.

Full Moon with duck

Full Moon over Ivy Lake (2018’s “Super Moon” and “Wolf Moon” in one go).

Driving home I was surprised to see lots of Winter moth flying in the headlight beams as I drove down Ellingham Drove, my first moths of the year.

A Fishlake Wander, Recent sightings and Festive Opening

Work at the new Trust reserve at Fishlake Meadows is picking up, with the fencelines being cut out and plans being made for the start of willow coppicing, both to maintain some of the low scrub and to open up some new views across the reserve. As part of this planning process we were out on site at the start of the week, luckily we picked a good day.

P1090322

View across part of Fishlake Meadows

On our wandering in some of the damp fields we encountered a large number of Cetti’s warbler, the reserve has large areas of almost perfect habitat for them. We also flushed a fair few snipe including one jack snipe. Perhaps our most surprising sighting was of 2 hawfinch perched in a small tree near a flock of fieldfare. There has been a once in a lifetime invasion of hawfinches this winter with many thousands arriving from the continent. These two were probably some of these immigrants rather than local birds, but with the New Forest being the UK hotspot for the species they could have been more local.

P1090319

a view across the lower lake

 

mistletoe at Fishlake

Mistletoe on poplar at Fishlake

Around the drier margins and especially along the canal path there are still many live poplars and quiet a few of them have a festive bunch or two of mistletoe high in their branches.

Meanwhile at Blashford Lakes latest reports are that the ring-billed gull is now being seen regularly in the gull roost on Ibsley Water as is the first winter Caspian gull, with a 2nd winter bird also reported recently, the roost also includes 2 Mediterranean gull. The starlings have been putting on quite show, with some estimates of up to 50000 birds coming into roost, usually just to the west of Ibsley water so seen from the hill at the back of the main car park. On Ibsley Water itself there have been up to 104 goosander roosting, 14 goldeneye and a single black-necked grebe. At least one of the pink-footed geese can be seen on and off with the greylag. There continue to be something like 90 pochard and 25-30 pintail as well.

On Ivy Lake “Walter” the great white egret is being seen fairly regularly and was joined by a second bird the other day. From Ivy North hide water rail and Cetti’s warbler are regular, although we have yet to get a report of a bittern this winter. The Woodland hide has one or two brambling and lesser redpoll as well as the occasional and less desirable report of brown rat.

robin

Robin

CHRISTMAS OPENING: We will be open as usual over Christmas apart from Christmas Day itself when we will be closed. In addition on New Years Day we will have the Pop-up Café again in the Centre, so you can start your birdlist for the year and get a hot cup of something and some excellent homemade cakes.

 

Emperors

Another very hot day and a good one for insects, hot conditions allow them to be especially active as they do not need to spend time sitting in the sun to warm up as they would on a more normal English summer’s day. I saw my first Blashford silver-washed fritillary of the year, they are regular in small numbers, but never common on the reserve.

silver-washed fritillary

silver-washed fritillary

Later I came across a pair of brown argus, these are the start of the second generation for this species this year.

brown argus pair

brown argus pair

Brown argus are one of the “Blues” but one that forgot this and so is not blue. The same area of grass was also hiding several stridulating Roesel’s bush-cricket, I am quite pleased that I can still hear these as they are quiet high frequency and so one of the species that slip away as we get older. If you do get to see one the pale line around the lower edge of the pronotum is an identifying character.

Roesel's bush-cricket

Roesel’s bush-cricket

However the highlight of the day was none of these fine insects. After lunch I went over to Ellingham Pound to check how the common tern chicks were doing, the answer was just fine and it looks as though all seven will be flown off very soon. It is a good place to see dragon and damselflies and one of the only regular places on the reserve for small red-eyed damselfly and a quick check found one floating on some algae. I then started to look at the dragonflies in the hope of finding a lesser emperor, as there have been quite  few in the country recently and one was reported from Ibsey Water a couple of days ago. After seeing a couple of emperor dragonfly, a distinctive male lesser emperor shot past, after many attempts I got a couple of shots, not great, but I only had a 60mm lens with me!

lesser emperor male

lesser emperor male

The mainly dark abdomen with pale blue “saddle” is what identifies it. As I waited for it to skim past again I inevitably snapped other dragonflies too, when I looked at these pictures later I think one of them shows a female lesser emperor.

lesser emperor female

female

The lesser emperor is a migrant from the south, it used to be regarded as very rare but is getting more common, especially in warm summers and certainly tries to breed here now. It seems it is another species that is trying to colonise thanks to warming temperatures. The Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) seem to be especially responsive to these changes with many species spreading across Europe dramatically in the last couple of decades.

Elsewhere on the reserve there were at least three common sandpiper on Ibsley Water where there was also a juvenile little egret and, at the end of the day, 3 adult yellow-legged gull. I also found that the pair of Mediterranean gull on Long Spit had managed to fledge a single chick, or at least I could only find one. Although they have nested with us before I cannot be completely certain they have raised a chick to flying on Ibsley Water previously.

Hopefully it will cool down a bit next week and I can get some of the paths trimmed, they certainly need it! I had intended to try today but it was just too hot.

A Dry Spring

Lots of visitors are coming to the Tern hide at present, drawn in roughly equal measure by the Bonaparte’s gull and great views of the lapwing chicks. The gull was present on and off again yesterday as were 3 little gull (2 of them beautiful adults), up to 27 or more Mediterranean gull and at least a dozen common tern.

The two lapwing chicks in front of the hide are doing well and approaching two weeks old now, this is especially pleasing as they are only protected by their mother, dad having gone missing a while ago. She is driving off all comers, but especially redshank, common sandpiper and little ringed plover, not perhaps the greatest threats to her chicks.

lapwing chicks

lapwing chicks sheltering from a cool north wind.

So far lapwing are having a remarkable year and we have something like 20 pairs nesting with at least five already hatched. Of these three can be seen from Tern hide. The lake shore has the lure of water, where the chicks can find small insect prey, but it is not that safe as it is frequented by many predators. They would be better staying around puddles away from the shore, but the recent long bout of dry weather has meant almost all of them have dried out now, we could really do with some rain!

The good weather has been brilliant for early butterflies though; the reserve has had lots of orange-tip and large first broods of speckled wood and small copper.

small copper

small copper, one of many first brood ones seen this year.

As spring moves on we are now entering “Willow snow” season, when the woolly seeds of the willows are blown around and collect in drifts. It is these light-weight seeds that allow willows to colonise so well as they are carried long distances by the wind.

willow snow

willow seeds

Despite the dry weather there have been a few fungi around and I came across the one in the picture below growing on lichen heath on Sunday, I have failed to put a name to it though.

fungus

fungus on lichen heath

Recent days have seen a good range of birds around the reserve. Both garden warbler and common swift have arrived in numbers and there has been a good variety of migrants. On Sunday a fine male ruff was on Ibsley Water and other passage waders in the last few days have included whimbrel, greenshank, dunlin and common sandpiper.

Spring Between the Showers

On Thursday the volunteers were working out on the shore of Ibsley Water putting out fresh shingle patches for nesting little ringed plover and oystercatcher. Now that the old concrete block plant has been removed and the site opened up to the lakeshore there is a much larger area of suitable habitat for these species and for lapwing, so we have high hopes for the coming nesting season.

plover-patches

“Plover patches” small areas of fresh shingle ideal for nesting little ringed plovers.

It turned out we were just in time as on Friday the first little ringed plover of the season was seen! They are usually one of the first of the spring migrants along with sand martin. There are lots of other signs of approaching spring around the reserve now, the hazel catkins and flowers are out.

hazel-catkins

Hazel catkins, these are the familiar male flowers that produce lots of pollen.

The tiny female flowers are easily overlooked and very different, each tree will have both the catkins and female flowers, you just need to look closely to see them.

hazel-flower

Female flower of hazel.

It is not just hazel that has catkins, those of alder are also out now and rather similar to look at.

alder-catkins

Alder catkins, with last year’s seed cones.

I was also working with the volunteers today, although in less benign conditions, it rained and hailed and we took shelter by the Centre and made nest boxes. However Jim had thought to put out the moth trap and I was quite impressed to find it contained five moths, 2 twin-spot Quaker, a small Quaker, an oak beauty and a yellow-horned, so we got to see a little wildlife at least.

yellow-horned

Yellow-horned moth, the first of the season.

I did get lucky as I was opening up the Ivy North hide as the bittern was in the open beside the “pool” just below the western end of the hide, it must surely be thinking of going soon. At the end of the day I took a quick look at the gull roost, now mostly smaller gulls with about 3000 black-headed gull, only 21 common gull and just a single Mediterranean gull.

Approaching Spring

Although not quite as pleasant a day as it was on Saturday, Sunday was still mild and busy with visitors on the reserve, the Pop-up Café probably helping numbers with tea and homemade cake. A good range of birds also helps, 2 great white egret were seen on Ivy Lake, whilst on Ibsley Water a drake scaup, black-necked grebe and a white-fronted goose were all seen. The scaup was only the second adult drake I have seen on the reserve, this winter has seen unusual numbers of scaup in southern England so perhaps it was not such a surprise that we would get one on the reserve. The black-necked grebe is now progressing well into breeding plumage with the golden ear tufts now visible. The white-fronted goose was presumably the juvenile that has spent the winter with the local greylag goose flock.

In the woodland the warm weather is spurring many birds to start singing and the constant twitter of siskin is now the main background sound near the Woodland hide. It will not be long before some resident birds start nesting, signs of spring are everywhere now.

snowdrops

snowdrops

There were sightings of brambling again at the Woodland hide and 2 firecrest were also seen.

Saturday had seen the first butterfly of the year, a brimstone and the first reptile, a female adder.

The bittern was seen on Saturday, but not on Sunday, it will surely be departing soon. It was also very noticeable that there were many fewer gulls, with only 2 Mediterranean gull and no ring-billed gull visible in the roost last night.

I did have one last minute highlight though, the drake ferruginous duck, which usually frequents an inaccessible private lake to the south of the complex, was on Ivy Lake as I locked up the hides.