30 Days Wild – Day 22: Punctuated

It was thankfully cooler today which allowed us to do some work along the open western shore of Ibsley Water. As it was Thursday the “us” was the famous Blashford volunteer team. We were trimming brambles and pulling ragwort. I know ragwort is a great nectar source, but in this case we are trying to establish grassland where there has been bramble, willow and nettlebeds, this means mowing, but as we have ponies on site we need to remove the ragwort first. Ponies will rarely eat growing ragwort, but if cut and mixed in grass they will and so can get poisoned.

This shore was dominated by huge beds of ragwort and nettles but years of cutting and light grazing are taking effect and we now have mostly grassland with patches of ox-eye daisy, bird’s foot trefoil and other more desirable species. In turn this is attracting insects such as long-winged conehead.

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long-winged conehead, female nymph

We saw a good few butterflies including good numbers of comma. It seems they are having a very good year and the fresh summer brood emerging now is particularly strong. This generation will breed and produce another generation of adult in the autumn which will them hibernate.

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comma

They get their name from the white comma-shaped marking on the under-wing, which is not visible in this shot. Their ragged wing outline makes them less butterfly-shaped and so harder for predators to find, this is especially so when the wings are closed.

I ran two moth traps last night, only about 50m apart, but one under trees and the other in the open. An illustration of what a difference location makes is seen from the number of hawk-moths caught. The one in the open contained 8 elephant hawk-moth, a pine hawk-moth and 2 poplar hawk-moth, whereas the one under the trees contained just one eyed hawk-moth.

As you will have gathered from this blog, I am a fan of insects in general, even horseflies, although I am less keen on them when they come into the office as this one did today.

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Chrysops relictus female

It is the females that bite, so it would be better if this one went outside again.

 

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30 Days Wild – Day 15: Trying to Impress

I was out on the eastern side of Ibsley Water with the volunteers this morning to clear the areas we cut and which are grazed by ponies of ragwort. It is toxic to animals, but they will usually not eat when it is growing, however they will if it is cut and gets mixed with grass or hay. At one time it was one of the commonest plants in this area but now it is much reduced and overall the grassland is looking much better, with quite a good range of species. A couple of highlights this morning were several patches of corky-fruited water-dropwort.

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corky-fruited water-dropwort

Corky-fruited water-dropwort is an Umbellifer, one of the carrot family and is very attractive to insects, this one had lots of pollen beetles on it. It is quiet frequent in unimproved grasslands in a swathe roughly south of the M4, so it is pleasing to see it at Blashford where the grassland is still recovering from the ravages of mineral extraction. Another find was knotted clover, a plant of dry sandy places, often near the coast, I am not sure if I have found it at Blashford previously.

knotted clover

knotted clover

At lunchtime I tried the pheromone lures for clearwing moths again, completely without success. However I did spot a handsome black-and-yellow longhorn beetle.

black-and-yellow longhorn beetle Rutpela maculata

black-and-yellow longhorn beetle Rutpela maculata.

After doing various odd jobs in the afternoon I went to lock up the hides and found a pair of crab spiders on a hemlock water-dropwort flower head, The male is quite different from the female and a lot smaller so he has to tread carefully if he is not going to get eaten.

crab spider pair

crab spider pair

It seemed it was not only the spiders that were making plans, on a nearby ox-eye daisy I saw a female hoverfly Eristalis horticola, with a male hovering low over her and darting from side to side. I am not sure if she was impressed but he was trying hard to dazzle her with his advanced hovering skills.

Eristalis horticola pair

Eristalis horticola pair

I also found another slime mould, on the same log as the one the other day, although this was clearly a different species.

slime mould

slime mould

The only new bird sighting of note today was of a first summer little gull as I locked Tern hide. It was pleasing to see that the single oystercatcher chick from gull island has fledged and that the remaining one near Tern hide is close to doing so. In additions the single large lapwing chick is also close to flying and two of the smaller ones are still going strong. Even better was a sighting of two well grown little ringed plover chicks today. On Ivy Lake the common tern chicks are growing well and most broods seem to still be of three chicks.

A Record Broken

We have been very busy mowing and generally cutting back before the winter birds arrive. Today it was the turn of the western shore of Ibsley Water to receive a haircut. We have been working for some years to get this shore into a largely grassy state. Much of it started out as 1.5m high ragwort, then it became dominated by nettle and now, after many years of mowing and grazing it is mostly grass. As I was mowing I saw lots of bank vole, several common frog and a few common toad. The sun was out and it was rather warm for late September, although the many red admiral were not unhappy.

Out on the lake this afternoon there was a large arrival of cormorant, there have been good numbers for a while now, with a few counts around the 200 mark, but today we reached new heights, these extra flock took the total to at least 308! and I am pretty certain there were some I could not see behind the islands. I am sure this is a new record count for the reserve.

The highlight of the day though was a juvenile garganey out on Ibsley Water first thing in the morning. although it did not seem to stay, as nobody else saw it all day.

Meadow marvels

We’ve spent a lot of time in the meadow over the last few weeks, weather permitting! Occasionally we have had to resort to ‘look, but don’t touch’ as the showers have left the grass too damp for sweep netting, but this habitat has certainly come alive with a great range of insects, spiders and bugs.

Today we headed there with our Wildlife Tots, after a crafty caterpillar and butterfly making session in the classroom and a quick look in the light trap. We also had a look at the Lime hawk-moth caterpillars we have been rearing in a tank in the centre, they have certainly grown on their diet of silver birch leaves (more accessible than the lime trees we have on the reserve!) and look even more impressive!

Lime hawk moth caterpillar

Lime hawk-moth caterpillar

On our way to the meadow we were distracted on the lichen heath, finding flowers for our card and pipe cleaner butterflies to nectar on, and discovered these cinnabar moth caterpillars. Once we had our eye in, we found lots of black and yellow caterpillars munching their way through the ragwort:

Cinnabar caterpillar

Cinnabar moth caterpillar

On entering the meadow, we embarked on a still hunt, no mean feat for a group of toddlers! We found a quiet spot on the path so as not to trample the long grass and sat quietly, looking intently at the miniature world going on around us:

still hunt

We’re going on a still hunt…

After being brilliant still hunters, spotting butterflies, damselflies, bumblebees, grasshoppers and beetles, we had a go at catching many of the creatures using a sweep net.

Thanks too to Wendy for sending us this lovely photo of Wildlife Tot Sam with his very impressive sunflower, planted during our March into Spring session back in, yes you’ve guessed it, March! It’s so tall!!

Sam and his sunflower

Sam with his amazingly tall sunflower!!

Carrying on with the meadow theme, this was also the focus of our last Young Naturalists session at the end of June. We were fortunate to have more sun than today, with the butterflies in particular quite happy to let us get close enough for photos.

little skipper

Small skipper butterfly

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly

Meadow brown

Meadow brown butterfly

cricket

Cricket, with super long antennae, longer than the length of its body

Grasshopper by Talia Felstead

Grasshopper, with its antennae shorter than its body

Robber fly

Robber fly

Fairy-ring longhorn beetle

Fairy-ring longhorn beetle, I think!

common blue damselfly

Common blue damselfly

Identifying our catch 2

Identifying our meadow creatures

The moth trap as usual revealed a good selection of moths ready for the group to identify, whilst we also spotted Mullein moth and Orange tip butterfly caterpillars:

Although the meadow was a fitting spot to visit as we met right at the end of National Insect Week, it wasn’t all about the insects and we still found time to visit Ivy South hide in search of a basking grass snake…

Grass snake by Talia Felstead

Grass snake by Talia Felstead

…and spotted this toad whilst carrying out Plantlife’s Bee Scene survey, in search of wildflowers good for bumblebees:

Toad by Talia Felstead

Toad by Talia Felstead

Luckily our wanderings found plenty of wildflowers good for bumblebees, a relief perhaps as we were looking on a nature reserve, but still a worthwhile activity for the group to do, encouraging them to brush up on their plant identification. Of the fifteen Bee Scene flowers we had to look for, we found dandelion, white clover, hedge woundwort, foxglove, bramble, red campion, red clover and thistle throughout the day, luckily spotting a few bumblebees too!

Buff tailed bumble bee by Talia Felstead

Buff tailed bumble bee by Talia Felstead

More details about the survey can be found on Plantlife’s website – all you need is a local green space, which doesn’t have to be a nature reserve, it could be your garden, a park, footpath or school grounds. Happy wildflower hunting!

Red campion by Talia Felstead

Red campion by Talia Felstead

 

3o Days Wild – Day 23

Another Thursday and we decided to tackle what is without doubt the volunteers least favourite task of the year, ragwort control around Ibsley Water. When I first started at the reserve ragwort was the dominant plant around large areas of the shore, often to the exclusion of all other plants. Over the years we have cut and pulled it to try and establish a more mixed and predominantly grassy sward. It has been back breaking work, but it finally seems to be paying off. Walking the eastern shore it is now no more that occasional and forms part of an increasingly varied sward including sedges, bee orchid and much more.

Ragwort is actually a valuable nectar source and present in small amounts in grassland that is not used for hay does not present any real risk to livestock. Although poisonous few animals will eat it when growing. Fortunately at Blashford the grassland has many other nectar sources so loss of some ragwort  probably has minimal impact upon nectaring insects. As we worked we saw a good range of butterflies, despite the overcast conditions including lots of meadow brown.

meadow brown pair

Meadow brown pair mating

I also saw my first small skipper of the year, although a few have been seen on the reserve by others.

small skipper

small skipper

The day was not entirely positive though. Arriving at the reserve and looking out onto Ibsley Water it was clear that the black-headed gull pairs with chicks and single common tern pair that had just started sitting on the small island neat Tern hide had been lost overnight, probably to a predatory mammal. Fox is probably likely, but they often get the blame when others are actually the culprit and I cannot rule out badger, mink or otter.

black-headed gulls

black-headed gull pair

I got a real surprise at the end of the day when I closed up the Tern hide I realised there was a female common scoter floating around with the tufted duck flock. There was also a black-necked grebe reported in the hide diary, although I could not find it.

 

 

The Admiral, the Mermaid and the Great White

Sea level rise might be a problem eventually but this particular tale of the high seas was an all lake affair! Over the last few days thewarm weather has kicked in again and finally the dragonflies are out in force and the number of butterflies has picked up markedly. There are new red admiral out and about, these could be either new migrants or offspring of earlier arrivals.

red admiral

red admiral

Other species are more certainly home grown, with summer brood individuals of peacock and comma also out and about now.

comma

comma

So having dealt with the “Admiral” and the “,” what about the mermaid? Yesterday I was working with the volunteers to clear the last of the ragwort from the eastern shore of Ibsley Water when we saw……………

mermaid

mermaid

I had always doubted the existence of mermaids, but the camera does not lie, although it can take pictures of large carp. In this case a very large, but dead one, it probably died as a result of the exertions  of spawning.

To wind up the marine theme, as I opened up the Ivy North  hide today the great white egret was standing outside by the reedbed, I say “the” because it was our regular colour-ringed bird, which has returned to us each year since it first came in August 2003. It generally arrives between mid July and early September and leaves between the end of January and early March.

Mellow Yellow Day

It rained quite heavily overnight but was clearing as I arrived and I had a hope that it would, as we expect, clear in time for the volunteers work party. In fact it did and fifteen, more or less willing volunteers set off to start the annual task of controlling ragwort. On a site like Blashford on dry soils with a long history of disturbance total control will be impossible, the seed bank must be enormous and will last for tens if not hundreds of years. Despite this we do try to control growth along the boundaries where there is seen to be a problem with spread onto grazing land. Today we started on the western side of Ellingham Lake, the conditions were fine to start with but then deteriorated and suddenly the plants growing under the trees became the target of special effort. There was a short discussion about calling it a day, but Blashford volunteers are made of stern stuff and we carried on and then the rain stopped and we completed the whole length.

ragwort pulling in the rain

We walked back past Ellingham Inlet Pound, the very short vegetation around the eastern end has a lichen heath character, but includes some species not out on the main area of heath near Ivy Lake including one that was very striking in today’s dull light, the brilliant yellow biting stonecrop.

biting stonecrop

The rain returned for quite a bit off the afternoon and kept going right until the visiting school group left, when the sun came out! In the brief warm spell I noticed several tree bumblebee workers feeding at the flowers of the dark mullein near the Centre. The picture also highlights the amazing colour of the flowers.

tree bumblebee on dark mullein

The tree bumblebee is a recent colonist from the Continent and is now spreading rapidly northwards, last year we had a nest near the Centre in a bird box. On the same mullein plants there were also a few caterpillars of mullein moth, at this stage they seem to be eating the flowers rather than the leaves.

mullein moth caterpillar and honey bee

I had another good look at the common tern rafts again today and am now more or less certain that there are twenty-one pairs nesting now, sixteen with chicks and a further five late nesters on eggs. A good few of the chicks would be flying within a week, so it looks like it should be another good nesting season for them.