Young Naturalists – Seven for the Price of One

Hopefully better (very) late than never, here’s an update of what our Young Naturalists have been up to over the last seven (!) months. It’s going to be long one!

August

In August the group decided they wanted to have a go at snorkelling in the Dockens Water. We’ve done this before with children on our Wild Days Out holiday activities, but never with the Young Naturalists. After roping in a friend (Ida) as our qualified diver (!) to satisfy our risk assessment needs and meeting Jo prior to the session to check the river was free of any hazardous debris, we were all set to do as much or as little paddling, swimming and snorkelling as we wished.

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Ready to snorkel

There was a lot of sticking bottoms up into the air, but a number of faces definitely did get quite wet as we stared closely at the gravel on the river bed:

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Getting our faces wet

We explored the river from the bridge by the road crossing to Lapwing and Goosander Hides down to our usual river dipping spot. We did some litter picking along the way:

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Litter picking on the way

Generally speaking the river is only ankle deep, but there are some deeper pools to explore and those who wished to managed to do a bit of swimming and snorkelling – we even managed to see some fish!

Ida

Ida snorkelling in the Dockens Water

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Alex having a swim

Alex was happy to oblige for an underwater photo – he definitely enjoyed himself!

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Alex getting ready to take the plunge

Alex

Alex

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Photographing Alex underwater

Alex underwater

Alex underwater

We also found time to remove some Himalayan Balsam from the edge of the river, definitely easier to do whilst stood in the channel and already wet.

removing Himalayan Balsam 2

Removing Himalayan Balsam

removing Himalayan Balsam

Removing Himalayan Balsam

Introduced as a garden plant in 1839, Himalayan Balsam is an invasive plant found along river banks and in ditches that prevents native species from growing through its abilities to grow and spread quickly.

After drying off and having our lunch we headed back down to the river, this time to have a go at river dipping. I had borrowed a couple of underwater viewers, which led to a new watch and wait tactic on the edge of a deeper pool. They saw fish using the viewer but I’m not sure it improved their catching abilities!

September

September saw us heading up to the area by Goosander Hide to remove some of the silver birch trees which were encroaching on the open scrub habitat. Putting what we were cutting to good use, we used it to make besom brooms and added the excess to the dead hedge to the left of the hide.

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Removing birch trees near Goosander Hide

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Besom broom making

Some of the group took their broomsticks home whilst others made them for us to sell for a donation from the Welcome Hut in the run up to Halloween:

Broomsticks

Broomsticks for sale

We also went looking for wasp spiders but sadly we were too late in the year and had no luck. We did though find a number of their stripy egg sacs:

Wasp spider egg sac

Wasp spider egg sac

October

October’s session didn’t quite go to plan, with strong winds the night before putting paid to my plans for a fungi walk followed by a campfire. We adjusted the session slightly and spent the morning tidying up what storm damage we could and closing off paths as necessary.

We paused to look at the river which was in flood, and Harry made a boat to sail on the water below.

pausing to look at the Dockens Water

Pausing to look at the Dockens Water

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Distracted by the river

After lunch we did head over to the campfire to cook toffee apples. Before lighting the fire, we carefully emptied a sprung mammal trap from the Centre loft, which revealed a wood mouse who was very happy to pose for photos.

With the campfire lit, we prepped some toasting sticks and cooked our toffee apples:

We also had a rummage under some of the logs and found this juvenile newt, who we popped back carefully after having a good look:

juvenile newt

Juvenile newt

November

For November’s session the group helped pollard some of the willows growing on the northern side of the reserve, up towards Lapwing Hide, so we had plenty of cuttings to turn into willow wreaths. Once made, the wreaths were sold for a donation from the Welcome Hut in the run up to Christmas, with families and individuals encouraged to enjoy a short walk on the reserve gathering materials (or using cuttings from elsewhere) to decorate them with.

The new growth from the pollards this coming year will provide us with more willow rods next autumn and winter.

After carrying all of our cut material back to the Centre, some of the group had a go at creating and decorating a willow wreath to take home whilst others headed to the bird hides for some bird watching.

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Making wreaths

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Willow wreaths

December

In December we headed out of the reserve and up to Rockford and Ibsley Commons.

Our bird list for the walk totalled 41 species which wasn’t bad, given it was a rather dull, grey day and whilst up on Ibsley Common we did eventually manage to spot a very distant herd of deer – for a while we didn’t think we were going to see any.

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Our bird list for the walk was as follows: Siskin, Great tit, Blackbird, Wood pigeon, Long-tailed tit, Blue tit, Jackdaw, Coot, Mute swan, Robin, Buzzard, Goldeneye, Wigeon, Tufted duck, Great crested grebe, Herring gull, Carrion crow, Shoveler, Pochard, Gadwall, Great white egret, Lesser black-backed gull, Cormorant, Jay, Redwing, Mallard, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Song thrush, Treecreeper, Goldcrest, Coal tit, Stonechat, Meadow pipit, Starling, Canada goose, Grey heron, Pied wagtail, Magpie, Mistle thrush and Green woodpecker.

We enjoyed a different view of the reserve, looking down from Rockford Common towards Blashford Lake and down from Ibsley Common towards Mockbeggar Lakes and Ibsley Water.

Redwing

Redwing

We finished the session toasting marshmallows over the campfire.

Toasting marshmallows

Toasting marshmallows

January

January saw us treated to a bird ringing demonstration by BTO trained bird ringers Brenda and Kevin and trainee ringer Kate. The group learnt how to age and sex the birds, measure their weight and wing length and they practiced how to handle the birds using Brenda’s knitted example.

After the birds were ringed and processed the group were able to carefully release them under Brenda’s watchful eye:

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Elliott getting ready to release the Firecrest

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Alex releasing a robin

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Will releasing a chaffinch

A total of 43 birds were caught: 3 Chaffinch; 3 Dunnock; 8 Lesser redpoll; 5 Greenfinch; 12 Blue tit; 4 Great tit; 2 Long-tailed tit; 1 Goldcrest; 1 Siskin; 2 Robin; 1 Firecrest; 1 Goldfinch.

We also had time to visit the bird hides, but sadly the Bittern evaded us!

Bird watching from Ivy South Hide

Bird watching from Ivy South Hide

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Bird watching from Ivy South Hide

February

Finally, we met yesterday for some pewter smelting. Whilst some of the group laid the fire and had a go at fire lighting, others made a smaller fire in the base of a Kelly kettle so we could boil some water to make a play dough that would be used to create moulds for the pewter to be poured into.

With the water boiled, Isabella and Alice mixed up some dough. We divided the dough into balls and everyone had a go at pressing something they had either bought with them or found on the reserve into it.

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Moulds ready for pewter

Our items included alder cones (difficult to cast!), sea shells and snail shells, Chloe bought in a shark’s tooth and some pieces of ammonite, Will bought in an antler and Harry bought in a small wooden hedgehog.

We sat around the campfire for lunch, giving it time to take and burn down a little:

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Group sat around the campfire

After lunch we set about taking it in turns to melt some pewter shot before carefully pouring it into the moulds.

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With a bit of practice we slowly got better at pouring the pewter into the moulds and their results were fantastic:

Yesterday’s session was sadly my last with the group, so it was brilliant to see so many faces, both old and new, and spend a bit of time around the campfire. Nigel and Geoff very kindly bought in some cake for us all to share and the group had contributed to a photo book of our sessions, which included comments from some past members.

It was great to hear how our sessions have shaped some of our members, who have gone on to gain more knowledge and skills in conservation through work experience, on to further education courses at Sparsholt and Kingston Maurward Colleges or on to university to study subjects including Biology, Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Science (with a view to working with children and educating them about wildlife and conservation) and Zoology.

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Finishing off around the campfire

I shall definitely miss working with them all, the group has easily been the highlight of my time at Blashford and we’ve come along way since our first session with three young people as Wildlife Rangers back in April 2015.

Funding and support from the Cameron Bespolka Trust for five years enabled us to grow the group and try new things, venturing further afield for residentials, visiting other nature reserves and inviting experts to share their skills and knowledge with the group.

I know they will be in safe hands with Jim and Chloe going forwards and will continue to enjoy all the opportunities offered to them.

Shovelling silt

On Sunday our Young Naturalists were treated to the lovely task of clearing all the silt, mud and other debris from the main car park by Tern Hide, following the recent flooding, a task they got stuck into and I think quite enjoyed!

Car park

Before

I think the thing they enjoyed the most, was trying to sweep the water lengthways down the puddle then through the outflow pipe…

Playing aside, they did scrape off a lot and Bob was very impressed by their efforts.

After lunch they then had a go at pewter smelting, as we had all the kit to hand and they hadn’t tried it before. They used the play-dough to make a mould before melting the pewter shot over the fire and carefully pouring it into the mould.

Their finished items looked great, we will have to do it again:

Pewter smelting by Izzy Fry 2

Pewter pine cone and mould by Izzy Fry

Cast items

Finished items – alder cones, shells, pine cones and acorns

After the session Izzy went to the Woodland Hide to see what she could spot and sent in these brilliant photos:

Thanks Izzy for sharing!

Our Young Naturalists group is funded by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

Winter craft

Last week we carried on regardless with our craft themed Wild Days Out despite the weather, making the most of our outdoor shelter so we could still have a fire and spending a little more time indoors than we would do normally, in particular on the Thursday. We did though manage a wander in search of firewood – which we saved for another day as everything really was rather soggy – and some outdoor play at lunch time to let off some steam.

Being craft themed, our main aim over the two days was to use the fire to melt some pewter before carefully pouring it into a mould to produce a cast of a natural object. We made some play-dough (one cup of flour, half a cup of salt, two tablespoons of cream of tartar, one table spoon of oil and some water) to use for our moulds which worked really well and could even be re-used once partially baked by the pewter. Acorns, alder cones, pine cones and shells were carefully pressed into the dough then removed, leaving an imprint behind that could be filled with the pewter.

Once the moulds were ready, we carefully heated up some lead-free pewter shot (a mixture of 95% tin, 4% antimony and 1% copper) over the fire in a spoon attached to a long handle, and once melted poured this into the mould.

Once the items had cooled down, they could be removed from the play-dough:

The children really enjoyed having a go at pewter casting and their items all looked fabulous! The shells in particular came out really well, and the pine cones did look like little hedgehogs.

Whilst we were doing this in small groups, they also had a go at modelling with the play-dough, willow weaving, painting and making rush boats.

Despite the weather, a fun time was had by all! Easter’s activities have a somewhat appropriate watery theme as we explore the pond and river. Bookings can be made from Monday, for more details please visit one of the following:

Wet n’ Wild for 7 to 12 year olds on Tuesday 7th April

Splash! for 5 to 8 year olds on Wednesday 8th April

Smelting and melting…

Last week we embarked on two Wild Days Out with a difference, exploring autumn and the changing seasons through alchemy and art. In particular, we had a go at smelting pewter with the older children and wax with the younger ones, pouring the molten metal and wax into molds made out play-doh which we had pressed natural finds such as acorns, sycamore seeds and pine cones in to. The results were fantastic!

On both days we began with a forage in search of natural treasures, gathering up firewood on the way.

We found time to pop into Ivy North Hide and Harry made a note of all the birds we were spotting in the hide diary.

After collecting lots of different seeds and leaves, we headed into willow wood and laid the fire. We used play-doh to make a mold of our natural finds then sat it on the edge of the fire surround. Once the pewter shot had melted we carefully poured it over the mold then left it to cool before popping it out of the mould and into a bucket of water to finish cooling off and be cleaned of any last play-doh residue.

The pewter creations, once wiped clean looked fantastic and the children were all thrilled with the results. The acorns in their cups and pine cones worked particularly well:

With the younger children, we swapped the pewter for wax, melting it in a pan over the fire before decanting it using the spoons into their molds:

Wax objects in their play doh moulds

Wax objects cooling off in thir play-doh molds

The wax objects came out just as well, but the play-doh was a bit harder to peel off from the blackberries and pine cones!

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Wax pine cone and blackberry, needing a little more cleaning to remove the play-doh…

Whilst we out experimenting, we did some leaf bashing, Toby made a rush boat, went in search of minibeasts and generally embraced just how muddy the clay pit and the area in general had become…

We had two great days, I’m not sure who enjoyed experimenting with pewter and wax the most, us or them, but they were all very happy with their creations and keen to make more! We will definitely do it again…