Autumn Flight

Definitely feeling autumnal now, with the evenings getting rapidly earlier and a generally cooler and windier feel to the weather. There are still signs of summer when the sun comes out, dragonflies such as migrant and southern hawker and common darter are still out and about as are a fair few butterflies. This peacock, looking so fresh that I wonder if it was a second generation individual, was feeding on Inula hookerii beside the Centre a couple of days ago.

A very fresh peacock

Peacock butterflies over-winter as adults and emerge in spring to mate and lay eggs, sometimes they survive well into mid-summer, the caterpillars then feed up and pupate and a new generations hatches from July and after feeding up hibernates. However in very warm years they sometimes lay eggs and produce a summer brood as small tortoiseshell and comma do.

There are also lots of speckled wood around at present, these follow a quite different strategy, having several broods from early spring until late autumn. They are one of the only butterflies that can be seen in every week from late March to the end of October as the generations overlap.

speckled wood

There are a fair few autumnal moth species, some of which also overwinter as adults, one of these is the brick.

brick

Some others fly only in the autumn and over-winter as eggs, one of these is the magnificent merveille du jour, one of my favourite moths, not rare, just very splendid.

Other autumn species include deep-brown dart,

deep brown dart

and brown-spot pinion.

brown-spot pinion

We are still waiting for a Clifden nonpareil, perhaps oddly we have yet to catch one this year, despite the fact that they seem to be having one of their best years in living memory, with individuals turning up widely across the country.

Wildlife encounters of the furlough kind

I returned to work on Sunday after eight weeks away from Blashford (it is so green now!) and six weeks on furlough along with around 40% of my Trust colleagues, most of whom are still off. Whilst I’m back to help Bob with the reserve tasks he cannot do by himself and engage with visitors on site from a safe distance, following on from the easing of restrictions last week, we are still closed whilst we look at what we can safely offer in the coming weeks and months. We will keep you updated as and when things begin to change!

A Blashford blog will follow shortly, but I thought I would share what I have been getting up to whilst off.

Spending so much time at home meant I was able to discover what wildlife visits my garden, a bit of a distraction whilst I was supposed to still be working, but it was really nice to be there during the day and have more time to appreciate my outside space. My garden is only small, with two patio areas which contain a number of plants in pots and a lawn which has struggled as a lawn and now has a few flowers planted into the patchier bits as I slowly tun it into a much wilder space. I have lived there for a couple of years, and this year the garden really seems to have come to life with birds and insects, which has been really nice to see.

Whilst at home I had blue tits, wood pigeons, dunnocks and blackbirds frequently visiting the garden along with a wren, great tits and a goldfinch. I have a willow bird table and the blackbirds seem to really like this, launching themselves onto it from the hedge and swinging around whilst they fed.

I have two hedges in the garden and this year the blackbirds successfully nested in one (I did a fair amount of cat chasing whilst off, if they have another brood they’re on their own!) which was lovely to watch. I saw four fledglings at the same time, two sunning themselves in one hedge and two in the other and both adults worked really hard to feed them with the male bringing back huge beak fulls, including a garden centipede in the photo below:

Blackbird 2

Male blackbird with a beak full

They fledged last Thursday so I was able to enjoy their company for a few days, with one of the young staying in the garden until Sunday morning. It was very amusing to see it sat swinging on the bird table calling mum for food.

I had written a rather long list of things to do to keep me busy, and one of those things was to dig a pond. Digging a pond was definitely more exciting than decorating the bathroom, re-pointing some dodgy brickwork to hopefully solve a damp issue in the kitchen and damp proofing and repainting the kitchen wall, so it was one of the first things I did and it’s been really nice to see it change over just a few weeks. The less exciting jobs were left until last week when I knew I was returning to work…

The photos below show the garden before and after, then the pond full of mud as the female blackbird decided the moss I had placed round the edge would make really nice nest building material (she had ignored it the entire time it was elsewhere in the garden) and later on with some plant additions (all native) I had been able to order online.

Whilst digging the pond I unearthed the snake millipede below, along with centipedes that were too fast for a photo, and the stones placed around the edge quickly became resting spots for hoverflies:

The blackbirds had been using a bucket of water with some willow sticks in to drink from and bathe in, but they now both use the pond which is really nice to watch. The female didn’t mind me being around at all but the male was a lot more wary of me to begin with and would fly off even if I was watching from the window, but now he is quite happy for me to be out in the garden whilst he’s there feeding.

As well as the birds it was great to see which insects were visiting the flowers and which flowers were growing really well, the ragged robin in particular has seeded so well from one plant in a pot last year I was able to plant it out in different places in the grass.

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I live on the edge of Salisbury so on my daily walks I walked my dog from home to either a little stretch of the River Bourne in Laverstock or up to the Laverstock Downs, enjoying the fact there were fewer cars on the road.

These photos were taken in the little patch of woodland down by the river:

I had hoped to see some bluebells on my wanders but sadly all those I did see were garden escapees.

I spent a lot more time up on the Downs as although they were further to walk to, it was much easier to practice social distancing up here than it was down by the river which tended to be busier with people and had a stretch of boardwalk to contend with.

It was a great spot for bird watching and I had some brilliant views of both blackcap and common whitethroat, especially early spring when the whitethroats were displaying and establishing territories.

I managed a total of 47 bird species whilst off, either in my garden, flying over my garden or on my daily walks: blackbird, blue tit, dunnock, wren, great tit, wood pigeon, collared dove, jackdaw, starling, long-tailed tit, yellowhammer, carrion crow, buzzard, pheasant, song thrush, chaffinch, chiffchaff, red kite, blackcap, common whitethroat, swallow, linnet, goldfinch, red-legged partridge, little egret, mallard, shoveler, kingfisher, magpie, skylark, great spotted woodpecker, robin, Canada goose, mute swan, raven, sparrowhawk, rook, bullfinch, house sparrow, Cetti’s warbler, grey heron, moorhen, mistle thrush, swift, house martin, peregrine falcon and mandarin duck. They were quite a good mix!

The Downs were also a great spot for butterflies, with orange tips, brimstones, small tortoiseshells, green-veined whites, small heaths, peacocks and dingy skippers all on the wing. I also found lots of green-veined orchids and other flowers on the chalk grassland.

The most exciting spot though was probably to see glow worm larvae on three separate occasions, so I must go up there over the summer in search of glow worms.

Glow worm larvae

Glow worm larvae

I was very lucky to have my garden to enjoy and also have some lovely spaces within walking distance to explore (it was also quite nice to use my car less!), so I had plenty of nature to keep me company during the pandemic, whilst a list of house and craft projects also kept me busy. I might be heading back up to the Downs at the weekend…

A Couple of Days in the Garden

I made the most of the weekend sunshine and spent some time in my garden, now with a refurbished pond. Refurbished in that it now actually holds water, it had been reduced to an ephemeral pond at best, an interesting habitat, but perhaps not the most appealing in a garden. On Sunday I decided to use the last of the rainwater stored in the water butt to top up the pond, trusting in the forecast rain to replenish the store. I was almost instantly rewarded with the appearance of a female broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, perching near the pond and then dipping her abdomen into the water as she laid some eggs.

broad-bordered chaser 4x3

broad-bodied chaser (female)

A little later there were two, chasing each other around between bouts of egg-laying and resting up in the sun. I also saw large red damselfly and common blue damselfly in the garden, making three Odonata in the garden before the end of April.

It was a weekend for egg-laying insects I watched, but failed to photograph successfully, an orange-tip laying on the garlic mustard and a holly blue laying on alder buckthorn.

holly blue 4x3

holly blue female

I had not known that holly blue would lay on alder buckthorn, although I did know they used a good deal more species than just the traditional holly and ivy. Laying on my rather small alder buckthorn also puts the caterpillars in direct competition with the brimstone caterpillars when they hatch in a few days after being laid last week.

brimstone egg-laying

brimstone egg-laying

The early rush of butterflies was dominated by brimstone and peacock especially, with fewer comma and small tortoiseshell. Perhaps because of the very good weather these species seem to have declined rapidly an dare now being replaced by the whites  and the first of the arriving red admiral. Small white and green-veined white are residents and typically pick up in numbers during April.

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green-veined white (male)

Large white are resident in rather small numbers but bolstered by, sometimes very large, arrivals of migrants.

large white

large white (female)

There is a bit of a race on at the moment to see who can add the next new butterfly species to the UK list. One thing is pretty certain it is going to happen and probably not very long away, in fact it may well already be here. The species is the southern small white, it has expanded from southern Europe over recent years all the way to the channel coast, under 30 miles away. The difficulty is that it is quiet similar to our regular small white, so if you want to make a name for yourself look up the differences, keep your camera handy in the garden and plant candytuft. Why candytuft? Because it is the preferred caterpillar foodplant of the southern small white. It could be you, especially if you live on the south coast, the Isle of Wight has to be a likely location, if someone in Kent does not get in first!

I will end on a picture of the most dramatic plant in my garden, the giant viper’s bugloss Echium pininana which as it starts to flower becomes a tower of bees as the flowers shoot 3 to 4m or more into the air.

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giant viper’s bugloss

I have, of course been recording the species I have seen in the garden and uploading the data to the many citizen science recording schemes, something we can all do for everything from butterflies to earthworms.

 

The Benefits of Staying at Home

I am still going over the reserve to make site checks, mainly security and safety checks, but sadly also dealing with the result of the actions of people who see the present situation as an opportunity. Arriving on site the first thing I spotted was a donation, sadly not a positive one, but a quantity of fly-tipped rubbish, inconveniently thrown well into a bramble to make it extra difficult to retrieve.

fly-tipping

fly-tipping

Thankfully very few people are continuing to drive out to the reserve, although some are, and they are providing good cover for a variety of people up to no good. There has been evidence of poaching on most days since the “Lockdown” started as well a several people wandering around in off-limits areas of the reserve, for no legitimate reason.

On my patrol I surprised a roe deer, she started up, but still had not seen me and stopped to look around to see what I was, standing very still she took a while to realise I was just a few feet away!

roe deer 4x3

rod deer doe

It was very warm in the sunshine and there were lots of butterflies about, mainly brimstone and peacock, but I also saw my first green-veined white of the year.

battered peacock

a rather battered peacock

Today I was with everyone else, at home in the sunshine. So the garden was my domain and I decided to keep a list of all the birds I could record in the day, it turned out to be a rather poor 29 species, although I did see my first two swallow of the year, both flying over heading north. I ran a moth trap overnight, but that was disappointing too, only Hebrew character and pine beauty, however with bright sunshine the daytime insect were out ion abundance. Solitary bees were particularly abundant, with lots of Andrena scotica, the chocolate mining bee, and not they don’t mine chocolate!

chocolate mining bee 4x3

chocolate mining bee

My small bee hotel, actually just a block of wood with holes drilled in it and placed in a sunny spot, had Osmia caerulescens, the blue mason bee nesting in it last summer. The males are now emerging, they are quite unlike the metallic blue females, but very smart for all that.

blue mason bee male 4x3

blue mason bee male

Staying at home is not just good for the nation’s health, if you look hard, or even not so hard, there is lots to see and some of it is really spectacular.

Close to Home

Very, very close, in the garden in fact, but still full of wildlife. I saw three species of butterfly, with brimstone and peacock leading the way, but with my first comma in the garden this year as well. A pair of peacock were courting by the fast declining pond, it has a leak! I took some video, but unfortunately I cannot upload that here, but it may turn up elsewhere.

My mini-meadow is starting to look good, not much flowering, but a few things nearly there, but lots of seedlings coming up. The yellow rattle seedlings that first showed last week are coming up thick and fast.

yellow rattle 4x3

yellow rattle

I did not get on very well with the camera or in finding many ants, these were my main objective today, strange how there are lots about until you start looking for them!

Other firsts for the year included a very smart gorse shieldbug, one of the more brightly coloured species and it can be found on a lot more plants than just gorse.

gorse shieldbug 4x3

gorse shieldbug

As a fully paid-up member of The Self-isolating Bird Club (thankfully it is free), I also recorded any birds I could. You can follow the SIBC on Twitter @SIBirdClub, I recorded all the birds I could see and hear whilst having lunch in the garden, 30 minutes and I recorded 15 species, 2 lesser black-backed gull were unusual, but I suspect they were a pair from nearby as they flew up to harass 4 passing buzzard. I will try again tomorrow, although it sounds rather cooler, so I may need extra layers.

Sunshine and Solitude

Another sunny, spring-like day and finally people seem to be getting the message as there were many fewer people about. Sadly the few who are out include a high number of people who are behaving very badly, often in restricted areas after climbing gates and fences and ignoring signs. I had thought that fewer people might at least mean that wildlife would get less disturbance, but the last couple of days suggest that it will actually suffer a great deal more.

As I knew I was coming in I ran the moth trap overnight and although the night was cold quite a few moths were attracted. New for the year was an early grey.

early grey

early grey

There were also several common and small quaker and clouded drab, which although grey and brown is not as dull as the name suggests.

clouded drab

clouded drab

The sunny days have really brought out the butterflies, my impression is that numbers of all the hibernating species are very good, perhaps at odds with the idea that they survive better in a cold winter. Unfortunately we will not know for sure if this is true as the long -running Butterfly Transect Survey, which monitors numbers, is understandably suspended. The same is true of all bird surveys, bumble-bee and dragonfly transects, in fact all the long-running datasets that tell us the impact of what is actually going on in our countryside.

peacock

peacock

I also spotted this caddisfly larva which I found oaring its way across the surface of the Centre Pond at lunchtime, it has a wonderful spiky case, if we had something similar but scaled up of course, the 2 metre zone would be easier to maintain!

caddis larva 4x3

caddis fly larva

I will end with a plea to anyone who is going out for their daily exercise on Trust reserves, or indeed anywhere else. I know usual viewing points are often closed, but please don’t get round this by wandering “off piste”. Although paths are open in most places, remember these are often narrow and will not allow you to keep 2 metres apart if you need to pass anyone, some very popular sites such as Fishlake Meadows are a particular problem in this regard. Going out in nature is so valuable to us all, but we need to consider the impacts carefully and do this safely and with minimum negative effects.

Strange Days

In fact probably the strangest we have ever known. We are now winding down to the minimum work aimed at maintaining health and safety and looking after livestock. The first remains important whilst there are still people allowed to walk around the sites and the latter is just essential. Luckily I have no livestock at Blashford, but we do still have a trickle of visitors. I would certainly not encourage anyone to visit but with paths that allow open access we will still have people on site, unless all going out is banned.

With spring now more or less sprung it is time once again to assess the state of our ash trees to see how ash die-back is hitting them. It is already apparent that some have completely died since the autumn and many others are in serious decline. In some areas it is possible that paths may not be able to reopen even if the Covid emergency passes, as there is likely to be a considerable amount of further felling needed and some roadside trees may need dealing with very soon. Luckily these assessments can be made by a single person so I can work and maintain isolation.

There are still surprisingly large numbers of wildfowl around, probably over 1500, a lot for the time of year. The water levels are dropping ever so slowly and I found a pair of pintail perched on a newly exposed wooded rail, alongside them was the long-tailed duck, without the long tail and perhaps envying the drake pintail his splendid feathers.

pintail and long-tail 4x3

pintail and long-tail

The sunshine has brought out butterflies in number and I have seen lots of brimstone and peacock, with a few comma and pleasingly several small tortoiseshell, maybe  a welcome return to their former status is in the offing. With all surveys now cancelled this year we will not have the butterfly transect data to know for sure.

small tortoiseshell pair

small tortoiseshell pair

I hope to continue blogging from the reserve for as long as I can, although I am conscious that this may just highlight what most people are missing. It is very odd to be out on such a sunny  day and see almost nobody, it makes me feel guilty with so many at home.

Spring has definitely sprung

Yesterday I was keeping an eye on things at Blashford and after a bit of time finishing things off in the office (the last couple of days have been filled with emails, creating signs and cancelling events and school visits) I had lunch outside the back of the centre with one of our very friendly robins for company and decided to make the most of the glorious weather and venture out onto the reserve.

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Lunchtime company

Being at Blashford with the car park empty and the sun shining did remind me of the very quiet days we have on the reserve in the summer, when you know everyone has headed to the beach and the coast to stay cool. The main reminder of spring was the increase in birdsong, it was lovely to hear chiffchaff calling, and also the new growth on the trees.

willow leaves

New growth on the willow 

willow catkins

Willow catkins

Nearing the entrances however it was apparent people were very much still out and about and there were a fair few cars parked up. Fortunately most people were respecting social distancing, however I did have to stand in vegetation at one point to allow a group to pass who were quite happy to walk, albeit in single file, down the middle of the footpath. Out footpaths are not that wide… so please do take care out there and give people space!

Keeping the car parks closed does encourage fewer people to visit the reserve, which gives everyone a chance to keep their distance, but it does also reduce the risk of fly tipping on the site. Between me leaving on Friday and arriving back on Sunday a large amount of rubbish, including a couple of single mattresses, had been dumped in the first lay by on Ellingham Drove, if coming from the A338, and although this may have happened over night we have in the past had fly tipping occur during day inside our gates on the approach to Tern Hide and also on the nature reserve itself, near the water treatment works. Although those who fly tip will always sadly find somewhere for it to go, at least having the reserve secure at all times will reduce the opportunities available for fly tipping on the reserve itself, where the site is now generally quieter and our staff presence lower. Unfortunately with quieter roads this issue is something that may sadly increase over the next few weeks and months.

My real reason though for venturing close to the entrance was to stare at the very fine display of moss growing on the top of the wooden fence by our gate. I had been waiting for a sunny day to photograph it and usually when I am passing I am driving, either having just arrived or heading home. After a bit of searching, I think it is capillary thread moss, but am happy to be corrected if wrong!

capillary thread moss

Capillary thread moss

The hazel trees near the entrance are also displaying fresh bright green leaves and lesser celandine carpets the woodland floor below them.

hazel leaves

Hazel leaves

lesser celandine

Lesser celandine

I followed the path along the Dockens Water, spotting a brimstone butterfly but it did not settle for a photo. On my way up to Lapwing Hide I saw great tit and blue tit feeding amongst the willows and nearer to the hide itself chiffchaff, Cetti’s warbler, water rail and little grebe were all calling and I saw a reed bunting in the trees.

I also spied my first adder of the year, something I wasn’t necessarily expecting as it was now mid afternoon and had warmed up considerably.

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Adder in amongst dead wood

On the edges of the paths colt’s-foot is flowering. It looks like a short dandelion but has a much rounder middle. Flowering early in spring, the flowers appear before the leaves do which has led to the plant getting the name ‘Son-before-father’.

coltsfoot

Colt’s-foot

Blackthorn is also blossoming and looking very pretty against a bright blue sky:

blackthorn blossom

Blackthorn blossom

After walking round to Goosander Hide I cut back across to Tern Hide via the closed Hanson path and saw my first peacock butterfly of the year, which was more obliging than the brimstone and paused just long enough for a photo.

peacock

Peacock

I popped in to Tern Hide to check all was well and see if there were any little ringed plover yet on the shore line. I couldn’t see any, or the common sandpiper which had been quite frequent, but did see teal, wigeon, tufted duck, goldeneye, shovelar, goosander and good numbers of pintail out on the water.

ibsley water and tern hide

Tern Hide and Ibsley Water from the viewing platform

On heading back to the Centre I decided to keep following the path along the Dockens Water to see if there were any signs of flowers on the bluebells (not yet, but it won’t be long!) and also to check the boardwalk was still taped off at either end where it is currently closed.

The hawthorn along the path is another tree coming into leaf. Its flowers are similar to blackthorn, however hawthorn comes into leaf first, and will not flower until May, whereas the flowers of blackthorn appear before the leaves, as seen in the photo above.

hawthorn

Hawthorn leaves

All in all it was a very nice wander around the reserve in the sunshine. I am working from home today, listening to the chaffinch and dunnock singing outside, and will be doing so more over the coming weeks and months so it was good to get out on the reserve while I still could. I will be spending more time in my little garden and walking my dog down to the closest stretch of the River Bourne in Laverstock, or possibly up to the Laverstock Downs themselves if they remain quiet. So I will finish this blog with a photo of a primrose, as there are still plenty flowering on the reserve:

primrose

Primrose

Butterflies

As lots of you will know this year has been tipped to be a once in a decade one for an invasion of painted lady butterflies. There have been huge numbers arriving on the east coast, but locally it has seemed pretty unremarkable so far. Or at least it had, until this afternoon when I suddenly saw 19 in a small area just south of Goosander Hide along with several red admiral and peacock.

painted lady

One of at least six painted lady on one clump of fleabane near Goosander Hide

A a rule such an arrival of painted lady would have been the stand-out butterfly event of the day, but no so this time. That accolade goes, by some margin, to an extraordinary and most unexpected sighting of a male chalkhill blue. This is a chalk downland butterfly that has caterpillars that feed on horse-shoe vetch, quite what it was doing beside an old gravel pit on the edge of the New Forest is beyond me. The nearest colony must be several miles away on the chalk north of Fordingbridge I would guess.

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chalkhill blue (male) – not the greatest shot but a really good reserve record.

Summer Passing

It seems that once the 30 Days Wild are over, the signs of passing summer become increasingly obvious. I heard my last singing cuckoo on 22nd June, we now know that many will have left the country southward by the end of June, thanks to the advent of tiny satellite trackers fitted to some birds by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), you can follow their progress via a link on their website.

At Blashford Lakes common sandpiper are returning and on Sunday there was a greenshank, returned from breeding, probably in Scandinavia. Lots of the swift have left already as have the first generation of young sand martin. Over at Fishlake Meadows an osprey is being seen regularly, with other sightings including up to six cattle egret.

Around the reserves we are now at the peak of butterfly numbers, with lots of “Browns” especially.

gatekeeper

gatekeeper

This week will probably see “Peak-gatekeeper” and we may have just passed peak-meadow brown. Speckled wood, by contrast are perhaps the only butterfly with a real chance of being seen throughout the 26 weeks of the butterfly recording season as it has continuously overlapping broods.

speckled wood

speckled wood

In places you may notice a few very dark, almost black, meadow brown, actually these may well be ringlet, with slightly rounder wings and multiple eye-spots.

ringlet

ringlet

Several species now have their summer broods emerging, this is true for common blue, brown argus, small copper and peacock.

peacock

peacock

The warm weather has been great for insects in general, there have been good numbers of dragonflies, including a single lesser emperor, a formerly very rare migrant species that seems to be getting ever more frequent.