30 Days Wild – Day 16 – Dealing with Uncertainty

After writing yesterday’s blog I was out at dusk surveying nightjar again. I did find some nightjar, I heard at least four churring males, but the highlights were actually a roding woodcock and drumming snipe. The churring of nightjar is an extraordinary sound, much more reminiscent of machinery than a bird. Woodcock make a strange squeaking call as they fly around their territory and, if they fly right overhead you will also hear a short croak between the toy-like squeaking. Snipe are closely related to woodcock and also fly around at night on display flights, they make a weird sound called “drumming”, this is not a call but a noise made by the bird diving at speed so that the air causes the outer tail-fathers to vibrate. A walk on a New Forest heath at night is a fabulous experience filled with strange sounds.

Day 16 started with a look at the moth trap, there were 2 privet hawk-moth, but the only new species for the year was an uncertain, or was it? It might have been a rustic, because these two species cannot reliably be distinguished and are best recorded as an aggregate.

uncertain

perhaps an uncertain and not certainly a rustic

What’s in My Meadow Today?

There are several dandelion like yellow flowers in my meadow, but a lot of them are not dandelion. The Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon is one as are the hawk’s-beards. The smallest is smooth hawk’s-beard.

smooth hawk's-beard

small bee on smooth hawk’s-beard

They are very attractive to nectaring bees and these small bees, which I have not identified so far, like them all and often move from the smooth hawk’s-beard to the other common species, beaked hawk’s-beard.

beaked hawk's-beard

beaked hawk’s-beard

Looking into the meadow is always worth a second and a third look. As though to confirm its status as a meadow I spotted two meadow bug Leptopterna dolbrata.

Meadow bug (Leptopterna dolabrata)

Meadow bug (Leptopterna dolabrata)

I think these are a pair, although the females typically have short wings and both of these are fully winged. I also found a brilliant green beetle on the wild carrot flower head, it was a rose chafer. This was at about five in the afternoon on Day 16, as I write this now, at just after seven in the morning on Day 17, looking out of the window I can see the beetle still on the same flower head.

rose chafer on wild carrot

rose chafer on wild carrot

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30 Days Wild – Day 14 – Concrete to Orchids

Blashford’s brilliant volunteers were working hard again, this time on a project to produce a grassland on the former concrete block plant entrance. This is a project with a lot of difficulties, the site was abandoned fro three years and much of it got overgrown with bramble. The old hard standings and buildings were broken up leaving a mix of rubble, gavel and a very little soil. This might sound a bad start for a grassland, but it actually has potential, the most diverse grassland habitats are those with very poor soils and this area has a very, very poor soil. From this poor beginning we are making real progress, the old tarmac entrance now has flowering ox-eye daisy and bird’s-foot-trefoil and this is in just the second season since seeding. Perhaps most remarkably as we headed back for a cup of tea we found a flowering bee orchid!

bee orchid on Hanson entrance track

bee orchid growing on old entrance road

I suspect it may have come not as a seed but as a small plant along when some of the soil was being moved around, but clearly it is doing well. When I returned in the afternoon to do some more mowing of bramble regrowth I came across a pyramidal orchid on the bank that used to edge the road. The soil there was not so disturbed, so I would guess it had arrived some time ago.

pyramidal orchid

pyramidal orchid

Although the day had started drizzly it dried up, as it always does on a Thursday morning, famously it never rains during our Thursday volunteer sessions, whatever the forecast might say.

By afternoon it was hot in the sunshine and as I ate lunch I saw lots of insects. On bramble flower behind the Education Centre I found a yellow-and-black longhorn beetle.

yellow-and-black longhorn beetle

yellow-and-black longhorn beetle

I also saw several dark bush cricket nymphs.

dark bush cricket nymph

dark bush cricket nymph

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The wild carrot that I featured before the flowers open a while back is now in full flower and attracting insects.

dronefly on wild carrot

dronefly on wild carrot

There are several species of dronefly, all named for their similarity to male honey-bees. I think this one is Eristalis pertinax, but actually might be E. nemorum as it looks a little bright to be pertinax.

The reason for my late post of this time is that I was out again last night surveying nightjar. I heard possibly one that moved about or up to three, unfortunately I could never hear two at the same time, so I cannot say with certainty that there was more than one.

The Big Chill

Like many people I have been pretty much holed up for the last couple of days. I did venture out onto the edge  of the Forest on Thursday. It was very quiet with only a few blackbird and robin digging about in the leaf litter. I came across a group of New Forest ponies, showing just how hardy they are, eating gorse with a covering of snow on their backs. The snow covering shows just how good their coats are at insulating them, the longer hairs that form the winter coat trap layer of air, just as we are told to if we are to keep warm.

a hardy New Forest pony

New Forest pony eating gorse in the snow.

The area I was in is prime nightjar habitat and somewhere I often visit to listen to and watch them. It is remarkable to think that they will probably be churring away here in under two months.

Nightjar habitat

Nightjar habitat

Despite the undoubtedly wintery weather we are actually on the very edge of spring. As thought to emphasise this there were a pair of garganey at Farlington Marshes at the end of last week and sand martin usually arrive at Blashford around the end of the first week of March.

Some signs of spring start a little earlier than the arrival of long-distance migrants. Plants are often our first signs and wild daffodil have been out for a while as have lesser celandine and primrose.

Yesterday I ventured out again and got as far as our Hythe Spartina Marsh reserve, it was very bleak indeed!

Hythe Spartine Marsh

Hythe Spartina Marsh

There were flocks of wigeon and various waders feeding along the water’s edge where the seawater was keeping the mud unfrozen. The wind was cold, blowing across Southampton Water and I did not stay long.

When I decided that opening up on Thursday was not going to happen I did wonder if I had done the right thing. At the time I could have got to the reserve, but the forecast was not promising. Since my way home would have been along the A31, I am very pleased I opted not to open as I might well not have got home the same day!

30 Days Wild – Day 13: Gulls get Rings

Tuesday is one of our two regular volunteer days at Blashford Lakes, this week’s main task was further work to improve the grassland habitat along the western shore of Ibsley Water. We have had a long-term project to remove bramble, nettle and willow that has been threatening to take dominate. This shore was remodelled into a steep bank using the topsoil removed from the gravel pit surface when it was first dug, conditions ideal for the development of nettle beds and bramble thickets. To reverse this we have been mowing to allow grass and perennial herb species to get the upper-hand.  This has been targeted work aiming to take out only the least desirable species. Even the nettle beds have elements that we leave, such as any patches with nets of peacock and small tortoiseshell larvae.

peacock caterpillars

peacock caterpillars

Alongside the nutrient-rich soils there are poorer patches and these have a more interesting flora including a number of bee orchid.

bee orchid and mower

bee orchid

At the end of the day I went out to Gull Island in Ibsley Water with the bird-ringers to colour-ring a sample of the black-headed gull chicks. We have been doing this for a number of years to find out where the birds from this recently established colony go to and if the chicks reared here return to breed in later years. We managed to catch and ring thirty chicks during our short visit, a good sample.

209C gets ringed

209C gets a ring, where will it go and will it come back?

In the evening I came across a female stag beetle on the fence in the garden, the first female I have seen this year. The day ended on a fine calm note and so I decided to head out to listen to the nightjar again. One came and perched on a branch very close by and gave great views. I never tire of watching and listening to nightjar and to have the opportunity to do so just a few minutes walk from home is wonderful.

30 Days Wild- Day 10: Bees and Butter

Not at work on Day 10, so I spent some time in the garden. It is a mixture of fairly traditional borders and a small wilder area which we manage as a mini-meadow. In the border the emphasis is on plants that look good but have flowers that will be attractive to insects. Certain types are particularly good, the star so far this year has been the Echium pinana which attracts bees in amazing numbers. Another very good group of plants are the scabious and similar species. We have a good patch of the very large Cephalaria grandiflora which lots of insects will visit.

common carder bee on Cephalaria gigantea

common carder bee on Cephalaria gigantean.

I have always liked growing Umbellifers in the garden and I am pleased to say they seem to getting more popular, most species are attractive to hoverflies, this year we have added the lace flower (Orlaya grandiflora), and it seems to have been well received by the insects.

hoverfly on Orlaya grandiflora

hoverfly on Orlaya grandiflora

To provide feeding for as many bees as possible it is necessary top grow a range of plants with a range of flower types as different bees are adapted to exploit different flower forms. They will also collect pollen as well as nectar. Some of the bumblebees have especially long tongues and so can reach into flowers with very long tubes such as some of the clovers which smaller species cannot.

red-tailed bumblebee on white clover

red-tailed bumblebee on white clover

The star sighting of the day was attracted in by the flowers, but it was not a bee, but a humming-bird hawk-moth, my first of the year. Although they seem to be getting more regular these day-flying migrant hawk-moths are always exciting to see.

I am lucky to live within a short walk of the New Forest, so as dusk approached a short excursion to listen to nightjar was in order. It was a bit windy, which reduced activity a bit but we still heard one or two churring birds and briefly saw some wing-clapping display flight.

In walking through the pines to get top the heath edge something brilliant yellow stood out on the woodland floor. So bright, in fact that my first thought was that it was a bit of rubbish, but it was not, it was a large patch of troll butter. This is slime mould and like most is found of rotten wood.

troll butter

troll butter

 

 

Weekend wanderings – part 1!

This weekend ten Young Naturalists joined us for our first weekend residential in the New Forest, staying from 7pm Friday night until 4pm Sunday afternoon at the Countryside Education Trust‘s Home Farm centre in Beaulieu.

From our base we explored a mixture of habitats including the local heathland, the traditionally managed broadleaf woodland at Pondhead, near Lyndhurst, the Needs Ore Marshes which form part of the North Solent National Nature Reserve, the farm at Home Farm and the shoreline at Lepe. We also had time for fascinating and informative falconry display by Amews Falconry, so all in all it was a fun, varied and packed weekend!

Here’s what we got up to…

After settling ourselves in at Home Farm, we headed out onto the heathland at Fawley Inclosure in search of churring nightjars, meeting up with Bob just after 8.30pm who was going to be our guide for the evening. We didn’t have to wait long! After walking a short distance down to the dip near Flash Pond we picked up their distinctive call, pausing to listen. We staying in this part of the Inclosure for a few minutes and were rewarded for our patience, with at least two different birds deciding to fly. One perched on the top of a gorse bush giving us great views of this secretive bird in the evening light.

I’m sure you can make out the nightjar shape in the photo below…thanks Nigel!

spot the nightjar Nigel Owen

Spot the nightjar… by Nigel Owen

We also spotted Stonechats and on turning on the bat detectors picked up both Common and Soprano pipistrelles. It was a great spot for Nightjar spotting so thank you Bob for sharing it with us.

On Saturday morning we headed over to Pondhead Inclosure, just outside Lyndhurst. The inclosure is a unique area of woodland in the Forest, being the only remaining area of hazel coppice with oak standards on the Crown land. In addition is has not been grazed by ponies and cattle for well over a century which has resulted in a rich variety of flora. Today the woodland is managed by the Pondhead Conservation Trust in partnership with the Forestry Commission.

Woodland walk at pondhead2

Walking through the woodland at Pondhead

Here we met Derek Tippetts who led us on an informative wander around the woodland, sharing his knowledge of the site’s history along with its current management, namely hazel coppicing and charcoal production. Charcoal burning is a historic New Forest industry which traditionally takes place during the summer months, thus complementing the winter coppice management. It also enables the Trust to manage the woodland in a self sustainable way through the sale of their New Forest charcoal to the local community.

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We were lucky to have caught the end of the bluebells which still carpeted the woodland floor, along with greater stitchwort and wood spurge. We also spotted herb Robert and bugle.

After being impressed by the craftsmanship that went into creating the Pondhead dragon, we made our way back to the minibus and thanked Derek for our brilliant guided tour (we had definitely lost our bearings by this point after venturing down some of the smaller paths and grassy rides!).

Pondhead dragon Nigel Owen

Pondhead dragon by Nigel Owen

From Pondhead we headed back towards Beaulieu, making our way down to Needs Ore Point for a picnic lunch. It was a lovely spot for a picnic, listening to the oystercatchers and redshank and watching the boats on the Beaulieu River.

IMG_0176

Our lunchtime view from Needs Ore Point

We explored the point, peeking into the old gull watching hut, spotting Sandwich terns as they flew past and watching the nesting oystercatchers.

We then made our way back along the track to the Needs Ore Marshes, which form part of Natural England’s North Solent National Nature Reserve. We spotted three distant spoonbills whilst crossing the field towards the hides and spent some time watching the birds on the Blackwater. We had heard a cuckoo calling throughout the afternoon, but the girls were lucky enough to spot one from one of the hides, which landed briefly on a tree in front of them before taking off again.

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We then walked further up the track, making our way towards Gravelly Marsh in search of a good view towards the Isle of Wight and to see what other bird life we could spot. We were stopped in our tracks however by two lapwing calling overhead. On close inspection of the ground below we spotted two lapwing chicks, camouflaged in amongst the soft rush and grass. We didn’t go any further and watched them for a few minutes before leaving them in peace.

On our way back to the track we were stopped again, but this time by the larvae of a great diving beetle, not something we expected to see wriggling its way with determination over the grass! We took a lot of photos before moving out of its way.

From here we got back on the minibus and made our way round to Park Lane, following the footpath down to Park Shore. We followed the shoreline back towards Gravelly Marsh to see if we could spot any nesting avocets on the nature reserve. We walked as close as we could and were able to spot a number in and on the edge of the pools on Great Marsh.

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Megan also found time for some sand art on the beach:

After a lot of bird spotting and making the most of the sunshine, we decided we had walked far enough for one day and headed wearily back to the minibus then back to the centre for dinner, cooked expertly by Emily and Harry.

Small copper Jackson Hellewell

Small copper by Jackson Hellewell

Thank you to Derek Tippetts for our excellent and informative tour of Pondhead and to Adam Wells, Reserves Officer, for his tips on where to go and what to look out for whilst on Needs Ore Point and Marshes and whilst exploring this fabulous part of the North Solent Natural Nature Reserve. Thanks too to Adam for sorting out our permissions for visiting both here and Park Shore with the Beaulieu Estate.

Thanks also to Geoff, Nigel, Jackson, Megan C and Megan Y for taking lots of fab photos during the day and for letting me pinch them in the evening for the blog.

Our wildlife sightings for Friday evening and day one (in no particular order!) were:

Stonechat, nightjar, soprano pipistrelle, common pipistrelle, Canada geese, greylag geese, cuckoo, linnet, chiff chaff, mistle thrush, spoonbill, lapwing, two lapwing chicks, reed bunting, reed warbler, black headed gulls, avocet, redshank, turnstone, mallard, blue tit, oystercatcher, ringed plover, Sandwich tern, common tern, cormorant, robin, red legged partridge, pheasant, gadwall, pied wagtail, mute swan, grey heron, Cetti’s warbler, wood pigeon, coot, crow, jackdaw, goldfinch, starling, little egret, swallow, blackbird, rook, shelduck, sparrow, kestrel, little grebe, house martin, pochard and skylark, along with great diving beetle larvae and a small copper butterfly.

To be continued…