Spring Advances

There have been a lot of consequences of the current coronavirus outbreak that we might not have foreseen. One of these at Blashford are problems for our breeding common terns. The virus and consequent cancellation of all volunteer work parties has meant that the rafts the terns usually nest on cannot be launched. Luckily the very large raft we put out last summer on Ibsley Water was never brought in and the terns seem to be willing to consider it as a nest site.

two tern pairs

Displaying common terns on the “Mega raft”.

The bird to the right has a fish, this will be a male that has caught a fish to bring back to his mate as part of courtship feeding. This behaviour will show a new partner his fishing ability, or just strengthen existing pair bonds, it will also help the female gain condition in readiness for producing the eggs, a huge drain in her resources.

It will be interesting to see how many pairs turn up this year, after years of steady growth the population has fallen in the last couple of years, I think due to poor weather at migration time and more problems competing with nesting black-headed gulls. We also seem to have had very few birds passing through, until this year that is. The other day 68 were counted over Ibsley Water, of course that does not mean they will stay to breed and most have certainly moved on, but at least 14 remain, so perhaps we have a core of seven pairs to build on.

The spring is peak time for birds passing through and as well as common tern we usually see some of their more northern nesting cousins, Arctic terns and occasionally a few of the inland marsh nesting, black tern, although sadly they do not nest in the UK. Black tern and another passage visitor the little gull are probably on their way to nesting around the Baltic Sea area. This spring does seem to have been a good one for little gull, with birds being seen on several days.

P1080400

Little gull, one hatched last year (2cy).

The young birds, hatched last year vary a lot in the amount of dark markings in their wings, this one being fairly typical, but some have almost totally black upper-wings and some much reduced. These birds used to be called “First summer” , although this might seem a little odd as they were hatched last spring, but their actual first summer would have been spent in juvenile plumage, so “First summer” actually described the plumage, not the age of the bird. Things get more confusing with some other species that time their moult differently, so these days you are more likely to hear birders referring to “Second calendar year” (often reduced to 2cy) indicating the age of the bird, rather than the plumage.

As it is spring most of our birds are settling down to nest. As I was having some lunch on Monday a mallard was on the new pond built last year behind the Education Centre, I wondered why it was so reluctant to leave as I sat down nearby. The answer was actually obvious, it had a nest near the pond and when I looked away it flew a short distance into the vegetation and disappeared, no doubt it was just taking a short break from the arduous task of incubation, which is all done by the female.

mallard duck on Centre pond

mallard duck on Centre pond

Blashford Lakes is not an obviously good site for orchids, generally when thinking of these the mind goes to long established chalk downland and these are certainly very good for orchids. However just because Blashford is a recently developed old gravel pit complex this does not mean there are no orchids. In fact we have at least seven species, which might seem surprising, but the secret is that the soils are very nutrient poor, something they have in common with old chalk downland. Our commonest species is probably bee orchid, with scattered groups in various, mostly grassy, places. Next would be southern marsh and common spotted orchids in the damper areas. In deep shade and so probably often overlooked there are common twayblade. On the dry grassland was have a growing population of autumn lady’s tresses and, since it was first found last year a single green-winged orchid. Last years plant was a good tall one, but it got eaten, probably by deer or rabbit. I wondered if it had come up this year so went to have a look yesterday and found it, although a good bit smaller than it was last year, but still flowering.

green-winged orchid

green-winged orchid

Accommodation Crisis

The common tern are back at Blashford Lakes, or at least the first few pairs are. It is always good to see them back and the reserve has proved very good for them. We do not have a large population, typically around 20 pairs, but they are very successful, sometimes rearing an average of more than two chicks per pair, an exceptional fledging rate.

common tern

common tern

Our terns nest on rafts that we put out for them, but this year we cannot mobilise the staff and volunteers to do this due to the impossibility of maintaining social distancing when doing the launching. We do have one raft out and there are some shingle patches on one or two islands, so we will have to hope these will be enough to allow them to nest.

I posted a picture of the camera view inside our tawny owl box the other day, full not of owlets, but grey squirrels. The young squirrels have now moved on and the box has immediately been occupied by a pair of stock dove, showing the premium there is on large tree cavities.

stock doves in owl box

stock doves in owl box

Other species are less constrained for nest sites and for them the breeding season moves on. Coot are nest building all around the lakes, or at least anywhere there is something to secure a nest to with some cover.

coot

coot

I have been going into work less frequently than usual and trying to work from home, however there is only so much paperwork a reserves officer can do and site tasks are starting to become more pressing. One in particular has become rather horrifyingly apparent as the spring has unfolded and that is the extent of progress made by ash die-back disease in the last few months. It is now obvious that large numbers of trees have died and will need to be removed. I will leave any that are away from paths as standing dead wood, but unfortunately this still leaves a lot that will need to be felled.

ash die-back

As the trees have come into leaf the full extent of ash die-back has become apparent

Spring showers

Yesterday morning after opening up the hides, welcome volunteer Hilary and I were treated to views of a Common or Lesser redpoll close to the Welcome Hut. It was hopping around on the ground looking for food before flying up onto the feeder base where it investigated the hole the feeder usually sits in, unfortunately not currently there in an attempt to deter the rats from getting too at home, pausing long enough for me to get an ok-ish photo then flew off.

redpoll

Redpoll disappointed by the lack of a bird feeder!

Redpoll have been noticeably absent this winter and early spring, my only view prior to this being two feeding on the bird feeder station outside the Woodland Hide from the TV in the Education Centre lobby – admittedly a very good view but not quite the same! Two have been coming to the feeders by the Woodland Hide regularly now for a few days, today there was a record of three in the hide diary, so it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re at the reserve and haven’t managed to spy one yet this year.

After this rather exciting sighting, I got ready for a willow weaving event and spent the morning helping participants have a go at making fish and snails using willow from the reserve and adding in a bit of soft rush to the fish to make them nice and stripey. The finished results looked brilliant, especially the fish as they were so colourful. A fun time was I think had by all!

Yesterday was a very mixed day weather wise, when the sun was out it was lovely, but we also had a hail shower and another couple of showers which did pass through quickly but were very heavy. I had gone out to re-write a couple of temporary signs when I got caught out by one of these, and seeing blue sky in the distance decided to shelter under a holly tree and wait it out, where I was joined by the Saunders family who decided to do the same thing.

We were talking and they rather excitedly said they had just seen a duck sat high up in a tree, something they had heard of but never actually seen before. I have never seen a duck up in a tree either, and when it stopped raining they very kindly walked back along the path to show me. I had walked straight past her, so it was a brilliant spot!

Mallard

Female mallard

She is quite high up, so I assume she is nesting, and fingers crossed she’s successful. She was certainly looking content!

As well as being lucky enough to see the mallard yesterday, I also watched two treecreepers having what I assume was a territorial dispute. They were both making their way up to the tops of two separate but very close to each other trees, then on reaching the top flew at each other before tumbling down to the ground together. They then went back to the trees, climbed to the tops, did it all over again before flying further apart. If it wasn’t a territorial dispute, perhaps it was some kind of courtship behaviour, but either way it was fascinating to see. Treecreepers seem to be particularly visible and easy to spot at the minute, partly because the trees are yet to be covered in leaves, and they are a lovely bird to watch. I was too busy watching their fluttery tumbling to get a photo but did manage this one afterwards:

treecreeper

Treecreeper

A heavy shower is enough to form a rather large puddle in the main nature reserve car park at present where the ground water levels are so high, and although yesterday you could skirt the edge after a heavy downpour without wellies it is worth bearing this in mind if you visit after a heavy shower. After checking the water levels in the car park I spent a short while in the hide watching a pair of Pied wagtails moving on the shore of Ibsley Water.

wagtail

Pied wagtail

The Long-tailed duck was still present yesterday, along with a Common sandpiper on the shoreline and two Marsh harrier. Pintail are still present on Ibsley Water in large numbers and the male Goldeneye have been displaying, tossing their heads back before stretching their necks up and pointing their bills to the sky.

Today work experience student Megan and I ventured up to Lapwing Hide to cut some of the more colourful willows that are growing in the reedbed and spotted a Common snipe hiding amongst the soft rush. Its stripes and barring provide excellent camouflage:

snipe

Spot the snipe!

We were also ever so slightly distracted by the Kingfisher which returned to the Education Centre pond today, it seems to prefer this spot it when its wet! It did perch briefly on one of the antlers of the willow deer:

Kingfisher

Kingfisher perched on the willow deer

Kingfisher 2

Kingfisher by the Education Centre pond

Finally, jumping back to yesterday and just to prove it was a very showery kind of day, there was a lovely double rainbow over Ivy Lake when I locked Ivy South Hide. If I’d had my camera on me I might have got it in one photo, but had to make do with two instead:

 

Who would live in a house like this…

On Thursday I joined volunteers Brenda, Jacki and Sarah to put up the twelve nest boxes made by our Young Naturalists last October.

Brenda had made a few changes to the boxes for us: attaching a metal plate to the entrance hole which will prevent larger birds and other predators from enlarging the hole to gain access; adding a couple of drainage holes to the bases of each box; drilling fixing holes to allow wire to be passed through so the top of the box can be secured firmly to a tree; and finally extra hooks to ensure the box lids closed firmly.

Nest boxes

Nest boxes built by our Young Naturalists group in October

The boxes were used to replace some of the older ones on the reserve that had seen better days, rather than increasing the number on site as checking them all takes time! Once they were positioned on to a tree, Jacki recorded the direction the box was facing, the height of the box, its GPS, the species of tree it was attached to and the number of the box.

Most of the boxes were attached quite low to trees – bird boxes do not need to be high and fixing them low means they can be easily checked by volunteers without the need for a ladder, speeding up the process. We did however attach one box higher than the others, in the hope of enticing a pair of nuthatch to make it their home, so low boxes don’t suit all species.

Brenda and Jacki are going to keep us updated with our Young Naturalist nest boxes, fingers crossed they will be put to good use and we can follow what happens, who moves in and how many chicks fledge successfully. All of the data they collect is passed on to the British Trust for Ornithology and helps to build a better picture of the breeding success of our birds across Britain.

We look forward to our updates and hopefully later on in the Spring when there is less chance of us disturbing any activity we will be able to assist Brenda and Jacki with some of the monitoring.

Blue tit

Blue tit checking out one of the nest boxes on site