A wet and wild week

 

After a super busy summer term the holidays are here and we’re just as busy with our usual monthly events and our Wild Days Out programme of children’s holiday activities.

Our Young Naturalists met last Sunday for a beginners photography session led by local photographer Clifton Beard. Cliff was a brilliant tutor, keeping things simple and remembering the group would be taking photos with a variety of equipment from smart phones to point and shoot to digital SLRs.

Group in classroom resized

Cliff set us little tasks throughout the session, encouraging us to think more before merrily snapping away and ran through the importance of light, composition and moment. We looked for certain colours, lines, edges and lots more and tried focusing on macro subjects before having a mini photo competition with our best images of the day.

As we didn’t stray far from the building, it was really interesting to see what everyone managed to find close by. Cliff’s parting advice was that the best camera is the one you have on you, which really is true, if you don’t have it with you then you will miss the shot!

Thanks to Cliff for giving up his day to share his knowledge and expertise with the group and to Amy Hall and Corinne Bespolka from the Cameron Bespolka Trust for joining us too.

Wednesday was an entirely different affair, with a very wet and soggy Wild Day Out. Not to be deterred from our ‘Wildlife Safari’, we began the day dissecting some owl pellets, an activity the group thoroughly enjoyed. We had fun picking them apart with cocktail sticks and trying to decide which bits of small mammal we were looking at; a rib, or a shoulder blade, or a jaw bone or a skull. To tie in with this we also had lots of bones and other signs of wildlife to look at and hold.

After a short while we decided it was about time we braved the elements, pulled on our waterproofs and headed outside. Despite the rain, we soon spotted lots of cinnabar caterpillars on the ragwort on the lichen heath. As we looked closer we also disturbed a grasshopper and realised the wildlife was still all around us, just hunkering down low to avoid the wet weather. Probably a very sensible thing to be doing!

Our first sign of something ever so slightly bigger than our grasshopper was this pile of rabbit droppings:

Muddy ground is great for spotting tracks, however the first ones we noticed were not of the wildlife kind, or at least not the wildlife we were after:

IMG_0552

Vehicle tracks in the soft mud

We then headed towards the Dockens, taking the path towards the road crossing to Goosander hide and playing pooh sticks on the bridge over the river. Continuing along the path, we found a safe spot to get into the river then explored upstream, occasionally having to get back out again and walk along the bank when the pools became too deep. Whilst exploring the river we came across a number of deer tracks in the soft mud.

We were now quite wet, although some were wetter than others, and Isabelle and Millie had to empty their wellies after our river wanderings.

We picked blackberries on our way to Goosander hide, looking forward to a dry spot for lunch. We were stopped in our tracks by a scattering of feathers, trying to decide what had happened, who had been eaten (we decided a duck after studying the feathers) and by whom (we thought fox). A little further along the path we found the kill site, spotting a hollow off to the side of the path which contained the remains of two different birds. One of the skeletons was complete and as it was a bit on the large size for a duck we thought it could be a goose. The other we weren’t so sure!

We lunched in Goosander Hide, watching the rain get heavier and the sand martins and swallow flitting low over the water. Despite the weather we saw herons, cormorant, black headed gull, mute swans, little grebe and great crested grebe. The highlight though was the kingfisher, who didn’t seem put off by the rain or the bunch of 7-12 year olds picnicking in the hide and flew across in front of us a number of times, pausing for a while on one of the branches in the water.

We headed back to the Education Centre, dried off and warmed up with the help of a hot chocolate, happy in the knowledge that even in the pouring rain there were still plenty of signs of life and the wildlife itself to entertain us!

Thursday’s Wild Day Out was somewhat drier, a nice change to Wednesday! We were in search of dragons so headed to the pond to see what we could catch and keeping our fingers crossed the sun would put in an appearance and bring dragonflies hawking above the surface of the water.

By the time we had eaten, the weather had brightened up considerably and we headed over to the meadow, munching blackberries along the way. It was too wet to meadow sweep but we still embarked on a still hunt, finding a quiet spot in the meadow to just sit and look and watch the meadow world go by. We then had a go at stealthily catching some of the creatures we had been watching using bug pots. Slightly harder than using a sweep net, it certainly made us look closer.

We also managed to spot five wasp spiders in the meadow, making sure we left them safely in their webs:

wasp-spider

After discovering the miniature world of the meadow we headed to the Woodland Hide in search of birds then went on to Ivy South Hide, spotting a grass snake on the edge of Ivy Silt Pond.

We then returned to the Education Centre the long way (there were lots more blackberries to pick the long way back), seeing how many small children it takes to hug a rather large oak tree (I can’t remember the answer, but it was a fair few!) and playing pooh sticks on the bridge over the river.

Tree hugging

Tree hugging, with I think seven 5-8 year olds!

Pooh sticks

Pooh sticks on the Dockens Water, and looking for fish!

It’s been a rather wet and wild week!

We still have some spaces left on our upcoming Wild Days Out this summer, if you know of someone who might like to join us please visit the website for details and to book.

April Catch-up

April is flying by and we’ve been busy! We’re sorry for the rather long gap between this and the last blog, but hopefully this one explains a little of what we’ve been up to and what’s currently out and about on the reserve.

The sunshine brought plenty of visitors to our local craft event, who enjoyed the excellent refreshments provided by Nigel and Christine’s pop-up café (which will return in November) along with basket making, hurdle making and wood turning demonstrations and the chance to have a go at making bird feeders from willow.

Willow bird feeders

Willow bird feeders made at our craft event

This was swiftly followed by Wildlife Tots, who got into the spirit of Spring by making excellent nests for our cuddly birds.

Jessie with nest

Jessie with her nest for a Teal

We then entertained a holiday club visiting from London with den building and fire lighting activities, followed by a night walk. We’ve welcomed new six-month volunteer placement Harry, who is with us now until September and thrown him in at the deep end with a group of beavers who were here to enjoy a river dip. Luckily that didn’t put him off and Emily and the other volunteers have been busy showing him the ropes.

This week we’ve had two wet Wild Days Out, pond and river dipping in search of newts, fish and other monsters, rescuing ducks, floating boats, building dams and enjoying a balloon free water fight. Our most monstrous find was this awesome Great Diving Beetle Larva, which tried to devour anything in its sight:

Great diving beetle lava 2

Great Diving Beetle larva ready to pounce

Our volunteers have been super busy, with the warmer weather bringing with it the start of our butterfly transects and reptile surveys. The butterfly transects have had an excellent start, with Peacock, Orange Tip, Brimstone, Speckled Wood, Comma and Small White all recorded and Holly Blue, Green Veined White and Small Tortoiseshell also seen around. They have already recorded more than they did in the whole of April last year, so fingers crossed numbers will continue to be good!

Grass snakes and adders have started to venture into areas accessible to visitors so if the cloud disappears and the temperature warms up again keep your eyes peeled! Two grass snakes were seen recently from Ivy South hide, but out of the window at the far end rather than their usual basking spot on the log outside the front; whilst the grass verges too and from Lapwing hide are usually good places to try for a basking adder.

In bird news, Lapwing, Common sandpiper, Redshank and Little ringed plover have all been showing nicely in front of Tern Hide, along with the Black headed gulls which are getting more and more vocal! An osprey reportedly flew over the reserve on Wednesday and a Common tern was also seen on Wednesday from Tern Hide.

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Thank you to Richard Smith for emailing across a photo of two very busy Little ringed plover:

Little Ringed Plovers by Richard Smith

Little ringed plover by Richard Smith

A Great spotted woodpecker has been busy excavating a hole in a tree trunk near Ivy Lake and best viewed from the far right hand window in Ivy North hide. Brambling were also still being spotted from the Woodland Hide this week, looking very smart as they develop their summer plumage and our first fledglings have been seen too – Robin and Dunnock – so keep an eye out for parent birds feeding their young.

Thanks to Lyn Miller and Steve Michelle for also sending in some great photos from recent visits to the reserve:

Kingfisher by Lyn Miller

Hungry kingfisher devouring a newt by Lyn Miller

Redpoll by Steve Michelle

Lesser redpoll by Steve Michelle

Black Headed Gull by Steve Michelle

Black headed gull by Steve Michelle

Finally thank you to everyone who’s popped in to tell us what they’ve seen, Jim and I have unfortunately been slightly office bound when not out and about leading events and group visits, so it’s great to know what’s going on out on the reserve!

We will try not to leave such a long gap between this and next blog, Bob’s back from leave soon so fingers crossed!

A night on the reserve…

Last week a number of our Young Naturalists spent the night at Blashford, camping out under shelters they had made themselves, cooking dinner and breakfast over the camp fire and embarking on a night time adventure around the reserve.

The Young Naturalists project has been shortlisted for the Young People category of Hampshire’s 10th annual Countryside Awards, organised by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). With judging taking place over the summer, they began their camp out by hosting the judges and showing them some of the activities they enjoy taking part in and some of the areas they have worked in around the reserve. We went through the light trap, looking at and having a go at identifying the moths, then wowed our important visitors with the variety of life found in the pond. After pond dipping, we headed off to the woodland to show them the log circle the group had replaced last June and the Woodland Hide.

After the judges had left us, it was time to think about setting up camp and we selected our materials and headed over to our camp area. It had been incredibly hot during the day, but we were expecting rain overnight and possibly some rumbles of thunder, so all were keen to construct a good shelter and we had a nice variety of designs:

It was then time to think about food so we gathered firewood and got the fire going, prepared an extravagant dinner of jacket potatoes, fish and a vegetable bean chilli and began cooking once the fire had died down a little.

Whilst cooking and eating dinner, and pudding, we enjoyed a stunning sunset:

Stunning sky

It was then time to head off into the night in search of some wildlife! We had already set the light trap, set some mammal traps near the Centre and locked the Woodland and Ivy lake hides, so decided to venture over the road towards the Clear Water Pond and Goosander Hide. Armed with bat detectors, torches and Bob’s homemade moth gloop (a sticky concoction of unrefined sugar, treacle and half a bottle of bitter, designed hopefully to attract moths if painted liberally onto tree trunks), we headed off into the night.

Our bat detectors soon picked up the characteristic ‘wet slaps’ or ‘smacks’ of both Common and Soprano pipistrelles as we passed the lichen heath and paused near the bridge over the Dockens Water. As we followed the path along the Dockens we painted some of the trees with our moth gloop, in the hope that on our return a little later something may have been attracted to the sweet syrup:

Painting trees with moth gloop

After carefully crossing the road we followed the path around the Clear Water Pond towards Goosander Hide and were rewarded with a bat feeding frenzy, picking up Daubenton’s bat and more Pipistrelles. Whilst Daubenton’s bat are picked up on the bat detector at the same frequency as Common pipistrelle, they can be distinguished by a different call, a rapid series of regular ‘clicks’ which resemble rapid machine gun fire. We enjoyed listening to them and spent a while watching them dive low over the water and fly overhead.

It was then time to head back to the Education Centre and we had a lot of painted trees to check on the way. On our way back we spotted slugs, spiders, woodlice (the only thing really attracted to Bob’s moth gloop) and a toad.

After not a lot of sleep (we had rain and a couple of rumbles of thunder, but luckily, with the exception of volunteer Geoff’s, our tarp shelters stood up to the test) it was time to think about cooking breakfast. Geoff had been up bright and early and got the fire going again for us, after rather a soggy nights sleep (sorry Geoff!), so we cooked breakfast then headed off to open up the hides, top up the bird feeders and check the light trap.

You may have spotted the tent in the first picture, this was Jess and Maddy’s plan D, after seeing the forecast for the night and taking three attempts to make their shelter. They retreated here at about 3 o’clock in the morning, not beaten by the weather (their shelter was bone dry, Geoff would have loved it!) but by the slugs…

Our final task of the morning, aside from taking down our shelters and tidying camp, was to check the mammal traps we had put out the night before. We were rewarded with two bank voles and two wood mice, out of the ten we had set – not a bad catch!

Thank you all the Young Naturalists who joined us for a night on the reserve, and a really big thank you to volunteers Geoff, Nigel and Emily for giving up their time too!

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

Bronze Age, Bioblitz, Birds and Bugs!

The last two weeks have seen children on our Wild Days Out embracing the Bronze Age, carrying out their own Blashford Bioblitz and embarking on a bird and bug hunt, with a bit of fire lighting, den building and damper bread cooking thrown in for good measure!

Last week we stepped back in time and embraced the Bronze Age, with help from Dr Chris Standish from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Southampton. The Bronze Age saw bronze gradually replace stone as the main material for tools as a new culture arrived in Britain via cross-channel connections with mainland Europe. By 2200 BC the period known as the Early Bronze Age had begun.

Our fire pit was transformed into a pit furnace so we could have a go at copper smelting. The pit was lined with clay and a fire lit in the bottom, before a crucible containing copper ore (malachite) was placed into it and covered with more charcoal:

To increase the temperature, bellows were used to blow air into the bottom of the pit furnace, close to where the crucible had been placed. It was hard work!

We also had examples to look at of the materials and equipment used for copper smelting:

Whilst waiting to have a turn with the bellows, we entertained ourselves by making spears and bows and arrows from willow and turning charcoal, clay and chalk into face and body paint:

The university had also kindly lent us a flint knapping kit, an activity hugely enjoyed by the group:

After everyone had been able to practice with the bellows, we attempted to smelt the copper ore by bellowing continuously for a longer period of time. The charcoal was carefully scraped back and the crucible was removed from the pit furnace and its molten contents emptied over the axe mould.

Unfortunately there wasn’t enough copper to fill the axe mould, but we did manage to pour a shape which, once cleaned up looked remarkably like Britain! Thanks again to Chris for giving up his time and sharing with us his knowledge of the Bronze Age and copper smelting and to the University of Southampton for lending us their flint knapping kit.

With the younger children, we embarked on a Wild in the Woods Wild Day Out, den building, having a go at fire lighting, face painting and making chocolate flavoured damper bread! Here are some photos from the day:

This week we challenged the older children to a Blashford Bioblitz, visiting as many different habitats as we could in search of amphibians, reptiles, insects, birds and more. We began with a rummage through the light trap and roped Bob in for his moth knowledge! The trap revealed 17 different species of moth, a harlequin ladybird and caddisfly whilst we also spotted a southern hawker dragonfly and brimstone butterfly over by the pond.

Rummage through the light trap

Rummaging through the light trap

It was then time to delve into the pond to see what else we could find, adding another 23 species to our list, including cased caddis, pond and ramshorn snails, water stick insects, newtpoles or ‘efts’, lesser and greater waterboatmen, whirligig and screech beetles, phantom midge larvae, damselfly, dragonfly and mayfly nymphs and a leech.

After lunch we headed to the meadow, finding a brown hawker dragonfly, common blue damselfly, meadow grasshopper, honey bee, ants and spiders, amongst others. The meadow was also the perfect place to test out our homemade pooters, with Archie managing to catch ants and a spider in his. Inspired by Bob’s talk of how moths were named, the girls decided their common blue butterfly was to be called Ambermidia, a mixture of their names.

In an attempt to find some shade, we popped into Ivy North Hide, spotting coot and mallard, then headed to the woodland to see what we could find up in the canopy. We held a beat tray under a tree branch, then shook the branch to see what, if anything, fell out:

Our most exciting finds were an oak bush cricket and a buff tip caterpillar, with James carrying the naming theme on, renaming a midge ‘annoyingus midginus’.

After a quick visit to the Woodland Hide which revealed 9 more bird species and a bank vole, we headed down to the river for a proper cool off, catching pond skaters, freshwater shrimp, beetle larvae and stonefly nymph whilst we were there, but sadly no fish.

Finally, we had a quick peek in the compost bin and were rewarded with 3 grass snakes. Here’s a not particularly great photo of two of them, as they didn’t hang around for long!

Grass snakes

Grass snakes in the compost bin

With a grand total of 81 different species, we had done brilliantly considering the heat!

Yesterday we carried on with the bird and bug theme with the younger children, making bee finger puppets and decorating birds on sticks before trying to camouflage our own moths by colouring them in and hiding them outside, testing our camouflage skills!

We went on our own mini bird hunt challenge, visiting both the Woodland Hide and Ivy South Hide in two teams – the totals were almost the same, with only a Coal tit in it for the winning team!

There were birds there a minute ago

Bird watching from the woodland hide, there were birds there a minute ago!

After embarking on a fun and rather giant bug hunt, we headed to the meadow to see what we could find:

So all in all it’s been a fun and busy couple of weeks, filled with birds, bugs, copper smelting and more. Thank you for reading to the end!!!

30 Days Wild – Day 13

Nearly caught up! Day 13, a Monday and a wet one at that. I was leading a guided walk at Blashford in the morning and was a little concerned that we might struggle to see very much. I need not have worried, we started at the Centre with a quick look at the moths and then, as the school group were elsewhere, checked out the tanks and trays of creatures caught in the pond. Before we even got around to seeing any birds we had clocked up several dozen species and, thanks to the shelter, we had not even got wet.

As often seems to be the case the weather improved a bit later in the day and before going to lock up I checked out the sides of the Centre pond looking for dragon and damselflies. There were lots of newly emerged damselflies all around the pond edge with some stems having several exuviae showing how many had already emerged.

newly emerged

newly emerged damselfly

exuviae

signs of a mass emergence

The masses of immobile soft-bodied insects attract predators and the local robin was having a feast. Even when they are able to fly they need to be wary about where they land as there are ambushes all over the place. I spotted this crab spider lurking on a hemlock water-dropwort flower head, when I first saw it she was just finishing off a common blue damselfly.

crab spider

crab spider lurking

 

Water world

On Sunday our Young Naturalists joined us for a watery session, discovering the life lurking at Blashford in the pond and the Dockens Water.

We began the day though with a rummage through the moth trap, a task greatly enjoyed by the group last year so it was great to have the opportunity again now the weather has warmed up and there are more moths on the wing.

Emptying the light trap

Emptying the moth trap

Moth id

Moth identification

We only had five different species to identify so our task didn’t take too long, but there were plenty of moths in the trap: 25 Hebrew character, ten Common quaker, five Small quaker, 6 Clouded drab and one very smart Lunar marbled brown:

Lunar marbled brown resized

Lunar marbled brown

After carefully putting the moths back in the trap to be released at the end of the day, we spent the rest of the morning having a closer look at the life lurking in the Education Centre pond.

Pond dipping 2

Inspecting our catch2

pond dipping

Pond dipping

The pond has certainly sprung to life with the warmer weather and after a lot of dipping, it was time to take a closer look at our catch.

Inspecing our catch

Having a closer look

Having a closer look at some of our smallest finds

We were lucky enough to catch a number of newts, both adults and newt tadpoles, known as efts. The efts breathe through external feathery gills located just behind their heads, which really make them look like miniature dragons!

Adult newt and eft by Talia Felstead

Adult newt with eft by Talia Felstead

Male smooth newt

Male smooth newt, with its frilly crest extending from its head to the tip of its tail

Newt handling

Careful newt handling, with very wet hands!

We also caught a number of cased caddisfly larvae. Cased caddisfly are probably my favourite of all the pond (and river!) creatures as they construct the most amazing cases to live in, providing themselves with excellent camouflage. They use whatever materials they have available to them in the pond or river, which could be sand, tiny stones, segments cut from weed or other water plants, old snail shells, seed pods, the list is endless! They really are the ultimate swimming stick:

Cased caddis

Two cased caddisfly larvae by Talia Felstead, these two have used plant material to create their cases

One of the many different caddis

Another cased caddis, this one has used older pieces of plant matter and old seed pods

We also caught a number of water stick insects:

Water stick insect

Water stick insect

Finally, after exhausting the pond we headed down to the river in search of other aquatic life, including fish. We had to search a little harder, as the invertebrates in the river along with many of the fish will hide in amongst and under stones and rocks on the river bed to avoid being picked up by the current and taken downstream. We did though manage to catch a number of bullhead and brook lamprey:

Bullhead

Bullhead by Talia Felstead

Brook lamprey

Brook lamprey by Talia Felstead

The brook lamprey are often confused with small eels, but instead of having jaws they have a sucker disc with their mouth in the centre. Now is definitely the time of year to look for them as they spend most of their time buried in the sand or silt on the river bed, emerging in spring to spawn and dying soon after.

If you look closely in shallower stretches of the Dockens Water when passing, you might be lucky enough to spot some!