Rediscovering Blashford Lakes

Earlier in the year little did I know that when I locked up and left Blashford, somewhat appropriately as it happens, on Friday 13th March, that I would not be back until the 2nd July, thanks to a cocktail of a poorly child with a high temperature having to stay off school, subsequent quarantining of myself and family, lockdown and, later, furloughed leave.

A lot has changed in that time, at home, in the UK and across the World, for the Trust and, specifically, for Blashford Lakes.

Any regular readers of the Blashford Blog will know how Bob continued to manage and warden the site throughout lockdown, monitoring and dealing with the affects of ash dieback on the woodland despite, or in-spite, of the restrictions that lone-working imposed and his having to deal with the impacts that “cov-idiots” including poachers, dog walkers and cyclists were having upon the reserve and the wildlife.

As lockdown restrictions were eased he was joined by Tracy and they worked hard together to make and adjust to new socially distanced working procedures and hygiene arrangements whilst planning how the nature reserve might most safely be reopened to the public.

I for one am very grateful for all that they did and I am sure that our visitors are too, albeit that many won’t know that they are, or should be!

I returned to work from furloughed leave on 1st July, worked from home on that first day and returned to Blashford itself on the 2nd to reacquaint myself with the site and acquaint myself with new ways of working.

The site itself is much as it always was, although now displaying an awful lot more directional signage to aid visitors around the new one-way circular walking routes and with more of Tracy’s educational and insightful mini-interpretation notices which highlight particular aspects of wildlife as you explore the nature reserve.

The insects have been fabulous, none more so that the clouds of common blue damselflies which were particularly in evidence when I first got back at the beginning of the month.

The wilder areas around the dipping ponds as well as the relatively recently (last Summer) created ornamental raised flower beds and wildflower turf around the Welcome Hut at the front of the Centre have been, and are, full of insect life. Indeed our butterfly survey volunteers are finding that although the northern transect is doing well the southern transect is generally quite poor this year – with the exception of that area around the Education Centre.

Small copper feeding on yarrow next to the Welcome Hut

One of the highlights of returning to work has been being able to view the moths attracted to the light trap over night, although always tinged a little with sadness that this summer we have not been sharing the same with our school group visitors:

Also on the moth front, a six spot burnet moth (this one photographed in the mini meadow grassland habitat along the footpath on the approach to Tern Hide and the main car park (both still closed at present). Some years absent at Blashford Lakes, but sporadically fairly frequent, this year is one of those where they seem to be doing well

The bird hides remain closed and are not set to open as normal anytime soon so glimpses of the lakes are infrequent and few but the view from the Ibsley Water viewing platform at the back of the main car park remains open and does still give a fantastic, if distant, view of that lake – and indeed it was from there that a number of visitors enjoyed views of an osprey perched on the perch placed out in that lake with just that purpose in mind. The sweet honey like scent of the creeping thistle which is growing in profusion there, alongside other fantastic nectar sources like ragwort and teasel is pretty special too:

So all in all, although the hides remain closed, there is still plenty of wildlife to see and you never know, you might get lucky and see something more unusual like an osprey, or, as other visitors have reported seeing on different days over the last couple of weeks, Blashford treats like kingfisher or treecreeper, or slightly more unusually, an otter or a family of stoats.

And visitors we are getting; plenty of regulars just like the “old days” before lockdown, but also lots of new visitors. Since restrictions eased further and holidays were allowed we’ve seen a lot of families and visitors new to the nature reserve on their holidays but we are also continuing to welcome local visitors who have and are staying close to home and who having done so are looking for new places close to home to explore and enjoy.

As a result the nature reserve is actually probably attracting more visitors this month than it would normally do so at this time of year and I suspect that this will continue over the next couple of months.

Tracy and I are continuing to develop the means by which we can engage with both visitors to the nature reserve and visitors, including schools, who might normally visit the nature reserve but are unable to do so at the present time.

A big step forward has been the installation of WiFi boosters outside the Centre which has not only allowed us to lead live virtual pond dipping activities (Tracy with her Young Naturalists meeting and myself with the Year 1 and Year 2 classes at Ringwood Infant School), but which will also enable us to offer other live virtual meetings, including “mini-beasting” or emptying the light trap for example.

Another benefit of the much improved WiFi has been our being able to re-open the Welcome Hut on an occasional basis, at least for now.

As mentioned earlier in this post, we are seeing lots of new visitors, but with the Centre and Welcome Hut closed and our Welcome Volunteers still stood down at present, there often is not someone available to provide assistance or guidance when required.

The improved WiFi coverage means that we can log on to the Wildlife Trusts remote desktop and continue to work on office and admin work from the Welcome Hut while being on hand to greet and provide assistance to visitors as needs be.

There are a number of benefits to this new working environment, not least of which is that it is a very pleasant place to work – with the doors fully opened and side windows ajar there is a lovely natural “air-conditioning”, the sound of bird song with an accompaniment of Roesel’s bush-cricket and grasshopper from the adjacent wildflower “meadow” fills the air and there is a lovely view of the tree’s around the Centre car park. Of course if anyone needs assistance we are there to help – and, as an added bonus should any further incentive to work out there be required, although it’s a bit early to be sure that it is a pattern and not just a coincidence, visitor donations seem to have gone up since I moved “office”.

This latter point is actually really important – the Wildlife Trust relies on its income from membership contributions as well as donations and at Blashford we especially rely on donations to help fund all elements of our work, from administration, to conservation, to education to access repair and improvements. Our income has been hit hard with none of the donations from group visits that we would normally receive throughout the summer, nor the usual donations from our “every day” visitors, despite there being more of them in recent weeks. This is, in part at least, because fewer and fewer people are carrying or using cash in our post-lockdown world. Bob recently made up some new “donation ask” signs with a QR code that visitors can use to make a donation to the Trust electronically and this too may have prompted more visitors who can to make a cash donation during their visit.

Time will tell whether it is my welcoming face, the new QR code or something else which will help our coffers over coming weeks!

30 Days Wild – Day 3 – A Herd of Elephants

I was at Blashford Lakes Nature Reserve today after a couple of days off. We had a volunteer work party in the morning but before we started I checked through the moth trap, although the catch was quiet good there was nothing too surprising, although I was pleased to see my first peach blossom of the year, no picture though as it flew off. There were several hawk-moths including a group of three elephant hawk-moth on one egg box.

a herd of elephant hawks

a herd of elephant hawk-moth

There were also a few species of prominents including a pale prominent, they all get their name from the small raised point on the folded wing, presumably an adaptation to break up their outline and make them look less like moths. For a moth, not looking like a moth is very useful as birds love to eat moths, so lots of moths either hide away or just try to look not like moths. The pale prominent does this rather well.

pale prominent

pale prominent looking like a dead bit of plant stem

Our volunteer tasks were giving the outside of the Education Centre a was down and having a clear-out of the tool store, both much needed tasks, if not exactly conservation work. At least we should be able to find most of the tools and equipment now and the building does look a lot smarter for a wash.

I checked the hemlock water dropwort around the centre pond at lunchtime for visiting insects, the flowers are a very good nectar source. There were lots of hoverflies and a few beetles including a wasp beetle, a yellow-and-black longhorn beetle and a red-headed cardinal beetle.

red-headed cardinal beetle

red-headed cardinal beetle

What’s in My Meadow Today?

By the time I got home most of the meadow in my garden was in shade, but it was still making its presence felt. The grasses are flowering and their pollen is blowing in the wind as every hayfever sufferer will know. Grasses do not rely on insects to carry their pollen from one flower to another to achieve fertilisation, they just release huge clouds of pollen into the air to be carried to another flower. This saves on the need to produce nectar as an inducement to insects, but does mean that a lot of pollen has to be produced.

flowering grasses

flowering grasses – much of it Yorkshire fog

Many trees use the same method, resulting in allergic reactions for many in spring.  Pollen deposited in peat and similar wet habitats has allowed us to look back in time and work out what the dominant vegetation cover was in the distant past. It turns out that although there was rapid colonisation of the UK by tree after the end of the last Ice Age the nature of the cover changed over time. One tree now generally rare, the small-leaved lime, was abundant at one time and it turns out that elm have seen several rises and falls in abundance, perhaps indicating previous outbreaks of “Dutch” elm disease.

The tiny garden pond does not have many plants, but one it does have is lesser reedmace and it is now flowering and also sheds pollen into the wind, the pollen is produced by the male part of the plant, which here is the upper part of the flowering stem.

lesser reedmace flower

lesser reedmace flower

Oh, to Bee in England…

As though to emphasise the change in season today was one of those rare days when it was possible to see both brambling and swift at Blashford Lakes an opportunity that lasts for only a few days.  When I started birdwatching in the Midlands our equivalent was seeing fieldfare and swallow in the same place, on the same day. The brambling were at least 2 males at the feeders and the swift at least 14 over Ibsley Water.

Despite the remaining reminders of winter it felt very spring-like, with orange-tip, green-veined and small white, comma, peacock, brimstone, holly blue and several speckled wood butterflies seen, along with the year’s first damselfly, the large red.

After last night’s thunder storm I was not surprised that the moth trap was not over-filled with moths, although the catch did include a lesser swallow prominent, a pale prominent and a scarce prominent, the last a new reserve record, I think.

The warm weather has encouraged a lot of insects out, I saw my first dark bush cricket nymph of the year near the Centre pond. Nearby I also saw my first dotted bee-fly, this species used to be quite scarce but can now be seen widely around the reserve, although it is well outnumbered by the commoner dark-bordered bee-fly.

dark bush cricket nymph

dark bush cricket nymph

The wild daffodil are now well and truly over but the bluebell are just coming out.

bluebell

bluebell

A lot of trees are in flower now or are shortly to be, the large elm on the way to Tern hide is still covered in flower though.

elm flowers

elm flower

Trees are a valuable source of food for a lot of insects and the find of the day was a species that makes good use of tree pollen. I had spotted what I at first thought were some nesting ashy mining bees Andrena cineraria, but they did not look right. That species has a dark band over the thorax and black leg hairs. This one had white hairs on the back legs and no dark thorax band. I took some pictures and it turns out to be grey-backed mining bee Andrena vaga, until very recently a very rare species in the UK which seems to now be colonising new areas.

grey-backed mining bee 2

grey-backed mining bee

They make tunnelled nests in dry soil and provision them with pollen from willows for the larvae.

greybacked mining bee

grey-backed mining bee with a load of pollen

The same area of ground also had several other mining bees, including the perhaps the most frequent early spring species, the yellow-legged mining bee.

yellow-legged mining bee 2

yellow-legged mining bee (female)

 

Trying to Spring

Spring has stuttered somewhat this week, with the return of night frosts and a chilly northerly wind. With continuing sunny days this has not had too much effect on many species but the cold nights have really hit the moths. Recent days have been seeing just a handful of moths in the trap at most. Some of the highlights have been a couple of great prominent.

great prominent

great prominent

The first pale prominent of the year.

pale prominent

pale prominent

And, yesterday a spectacle.

spectacle

spectacle

One hazard that we have to watch very closely when checking the moth trap is our resident robin, it has got very tame and will dive in and grab a moth if given the smallest chance.

The sunny days are still good for butterflies and other insects and this spring has been one of the best in recent years to spring insects. One of the typical spring hoverflies, Epistrophe eligans is quite frequent along the wooded paths now.

Epistrophe eligans

Epistrophe eligans (male)

There are also good numbers of green tiger beetle in the sandier areas of the reserve, these are very active, running fast and flying very readily, a proper challenge to photograph!

green tiger beetle

green tiger beetle

On the bird front yesterday saw our first black tern of the year over Ibsley Water, along with the Bonaparte’s gull, little gull and the return of the male ruff first seen on Sunday, but apparently not on Monday.

Phew!! What a scorcher. – now you know I’ve run out of ideas for titles!!!

In a somewhat ironic (or iconic) piece of fortune the first mini-beast of the day was a gatekeeper butterfly which buzzed me as I opened up the gate to the Tern Hide car-park.

Gatekeeper or Hedge brown - keeping an eye on our gate!!

Gatekeeper or Hedge brown – keeping an eye on our gate!!

Other butterflies are really making their presence felt – not before time, following the unusually cold ( do you remember that?) spring.  A red admiral has been floating around the Education Centre and without moving too far away it’s been possible to see both large white and small white, meadow brown, speckled wood, peacock, comma, brimstone and what was almost certainly a silver-washed fritillary scuttling through.  Many of them will have been looking for nectar sources, but the plants that always used to be cited as the ‘butterfly bush’ , buddleia , have yet to produce much in the way of flowers– possibly another effect of the cold spring.

A gentle stroll around the path between Ellingham Water and Dockens water, ostensibly to do a bit of trimming back of overhanging branches and invasive brambles, produced a few bonuses in terms of dragonflies and damselflies including a fine male emperor dragonfly, a couple of brown hawker and numerous common blue damselflies,and one beautiful demoiselle. Only a keeled skimmer stayed still long enough to have its picture taken and that was from some distance away.

Keeled skimmer

A more obvious pair of megafauna graced us with a fleeting glimpse, as a female roe deer and her fawn dashed across the lichen heath.

Along the path heading south towards the Iron Age hut there are a number of broad-leaved helleborine, which are only just starting to come into flower. Disappointingly a number of them have been decapitated, probably having been nibbled by deer.  There were, however, several intact specimens, which even before fully flowering have a delightfully sweeping architectural shape.

Broad-leaved Helleborine

Broad-leaved Helleborine

but only one that had started to bloom.

Broad-leaved helleborine

First flowering spike of broad-leaved helleborine

Helleborines are in the orchid family, a fascinating group of plants with more different members than any other family of vascular plants. Genetically they are rather complicated with more DNA than many more complex plants and animals including ourselves. As a group that is currently rapidly evolving many hybrids may be formed and for this reason may present  challenges to anyone wishing to identify the species. Given my track record on plant ID, I might be foolish, but I’m pretty sure these are broad-leaved helleborine…

As it’s the time of year for interesting insects I’ll finish, as usual, with a few moths.

Pinion

Pinion

Pale prominent

Pale prominent

Small scallop

Small scallop