A Wild Day Out at last!

During the half-term school holiday of February 2020 we enjoyed some unseasonably mild, but very, very wet weather amidst the good company of children, both regulars and newcomers, and enjoyed some natural craft activities on our school holiday activity days known as “Wild Days Out” (see the blog post that followed it here:https://blashfordlakes.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/winter-craft/).

Little did we know at the time that that would be the last for 18 months!

So it was with some trepidation, but mostly delight, that this summer holiday we finally held Wild Days Out again – Tracy at the beginning of the holidays with some den building and fire-lighting fun, me at the end with an aquatic adventure; pond dipping and river dipping with a difference.

The weather throughout August could have been better, but it could have been a lot worse, and I think it is fair to say that staff, volunteers and children all had a ball and that everyone involved was genuinely pleased to be back doing what we love! Yet another milestone in the road to pandemic recovery.

I love my job as an Education Officer, but even so it is not often that I will declare that all of the children that I work with are delightful, but, in this instance, they really were and it was so lovely to spend some time playing outdoors with them all, everyone sharing a love of and learning about nature ūüôā

We started our Wild Day Out off at the pond with some pond dipping following on from some colouring, wordsearch, frog origami and pipe-cleaner dragonfly crafting activities while we waited for everyone to arrive and be registered. Given that the dipping pond we were using is only just more than two years old it amazes me every time we dip it just how much wildlife has already colonised it – and is colonising it. All of the children had memorable close up dragonfly encounters whilst being inspected by the southern and migrant hawkers standing guard over their territory!

Still as good as the pond is, and the promise it holds, I very much hope we are successful in raising enough money through our current boardwalk and pond replacement fundraising appeal to replace the neighbouring “original” dipping pond which, sadly, despite the incredible biodiversity it once held, no longer holds water and which has, during this very dry summer that we have had, now all but dried out completely.

We need to raise £5,000 to supplement some money which has already been secured, partly by a very generous donation from a regular supporter of, and visitor to, Blashford and if you would like to help us achieve this amount Рand in doing so ensure that we are able to continue to offer incredible educational experiences and wildlife encounters for children and adults on Wild Days Out, school visits or events Рplease do visit our appeal page and donate to the project by following the link to the website here: https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/appeals/blashford-lakes-boardwalk-pond-appeal

A very heartfelt thank you to everyone who has already contributed to our appeal – as well as to everyone who I hope will now do so!

We spent a lot of time at the pond and what was particularly gratifying on this occasion especially was how long the children spent studying and identifying the invertebrates in their catch: all too often it is the “thrill of the hunt” which captivates them so this was great ūüôā !

Following lunch (which again was remarkably civilised for a Wild Day Out) we headed down to the river dipping area to explore the Dockens Water, pausing on route to make some soft rush boats on our way down, always a much loved, favourite and memorable past time!

Rush boats making – and a none too subtle hint of what was to come when we got to the river!

Boats sailed (see the video clip I posted in my Twitter feed here: https://twitter.com/JimDay22857614/status/1430944382287556616 !) we got on with the business of kick sampling to see what river wildlife could be found:

Sadly there was not as much wildlife to be found as we would normally expect to see, although more than enough to satisfy us on this occasion. I fear that a lot of “dam building” by visitors this summer may have excessively disturbed the river bed and thus dislodged the invertebrates – and some fish – who were sheltering under the cobbles and amidst the gravels that were used in the construction. Although I am reasonably confident that the wildlife itself is fine, and just resettled downstream, it has left our dipping area somewhat bereft of its usual abundance of life, and probably won’t be recolonised until we get some rainfall and the spate conditions which follow re-distributes the animals along the course of the river. There is a lot to be said for encouraging river play, and indeed I positively encourage it myself, but it should always be borne in mind that our actions can, and do, often have unintended consequences. Indeed it is due to the impacts that our river activity can have on the wildlife that within the nature reserve we very much limit our activity to one very small section of river.

With time marching on, the end of the session (and collection by parents) drawing closer it was time to take the plunge – quite literally – for those that wanted to, and were daft enough!

While some children (probably quite sensibly) continued fishing with their nets, a handful of us (lumping myself in this group as the biggest kid of the lot ūüėČ ) donned masks and snorkels to see what, if anything we could see…

Some of us were content to just put our faces in…

Some of us wanted to go further, but were not quite committed enough…

And some of us went for it!

And just for the record I did see fish – some little minnows which I was ridiculously excited to see as the exclamations through my snorkel would testify to all that were there to hear them!

And was it cold? Cor blimey, yes it was! A lot colder than the sea had been when I’d gone swimming with the family at Highcliffe a couple of days before hand!

A lot of fun though ūüėČ

All being well the next Wild Day Out will be held during the October half-term holiday. Although the theme for the activities is yet to be decided they are likely to run on Tuesday 26th October (for 7-12 year olds) and Wednesday 27th October (for 5-8 year olds) if you want to pencil those dates in your diary! We’ll advertise and take bookings through the website as normal when we are ready: https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/events

Our Young Naturalists are back onsite!

Since May 2020 we’ve managed to stay in touch with 17 of our Young Naturalists and gain one new member, through 13 online sessions and three onsite sessions (we managed to squeeze two short campfire sessions in during December and met up again onsite at the end of April).

Using zoom and aided by the digital microscope we’ve looked at pond and river life, moths, birds (less successfully online I have to admit…) and a variety of skulls. Aided by PowerPoint and a lot of photos we’ve also covered topics including insects (primarily bees, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies), reptiles, birds of prey and freshwater fish.

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Their topic requests have at times kept me on my toes!

We were also joined online by Owain from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation back in the summer and Amy from the New Forest National Park Authority in October. Following on from our session with Amy, we were joined in November by a New Forest Commoner, Lyndsey Stride, who took us on an autumnal forest walk via zoom and talked about the key New Forest habitats, how her animals interacted with them and and the commoning year.

Rather than being attached to individuals, the common rights of the New Forest are attached to properties and land in the Forest, with the New Forest Commoners being those who occupy the land or property to which the privileges are attached. These privileges include the right to graze stock on the open forest and many commoners are descendants of families who have been commoning for many generations. Today commoning doesn’t generally provide a living, resulting in many commoners being employed elsewhere and it was really interesting to hear Lyndsey talking about her way of life.

At the end of April we were able to meet up properly on site, much to my relief as I had I think had my fill of zoom, and, being able to facilitate more young people than in December we also reverted back to our old meeting time of 10am until 2.30pm – it was great to have a bit more time to do things and a bit more time to catch up with the group.

With dawn chorus day (the first Sunday in May) fast approaching I thought it would be fun to make and try out parabolic reflectors, having seen some great do it yourself versions on social media. Using Sarah Dowling‘s fabulous art work as a guide, we had a go at making them using a plastic bowl and some wooden offcuts Geoff had kindly provided and prepped for us.

plant pot parabolic 4

Plant pot parabolic instructions by Sarah Dowling

We placed a piece of wood inside the bowl and put a couple of elastic bands around it, which would be used to keep the recording device in place, then screwed through this piece of wood (avoiding the elastic bands!), the bowl and into another piece of wood that would be used as the handle.

Once made, you could attach your recording device inside the bowl (in this case we used mobile phones) and either record the sound using a recording app or just via the video function on the phone. They worked brilliantly and I was impressed by how much bird song they picked up for something so simply made.

After testing our recording capabilities (the instructions suggested downloading either the ‘Rode Reporter’ app for IOS or the ‘RecForge II’ app for android) we went on a wander in search of bird song. Thankfully it was not hard to find!

plant pot parabolic 2

Using our plant pot parabolics

plant pot parabolic

Recording bird song

It was quite breezy so some of the recordings picked up a lot of background noise, but I was quite pleased with a couple that came out more clearly and you could make out blackcap, garden warbler, blackbird, robin, chiffchaff, and Cetti’s warbler singing, as well as a black-headed gull calling (or squawking) as it flew overhead. I’ll definitely be taking mine out again on a walk at some point!

After having lunch we headed down to the river, as having talked about freshwater fish during our last online session some river dipping seemed rather fitting.

Although Jim had been busy running river study sessions for small groups of home educated children, they had been exploring further down stream and as a result we caught a good number of bullheads and a stone loach in our usual river dipping spot. We also found a very nice demoiselle nymph.

Our next Young Naturalists session is on Sunday 30th May and if the weather is nice we will be heading off on a walk in search of reptiles. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

If you know of an enthusiastic Young Naturalist please do spread the word, we are always keen to welcome new members – booking is essential via either our website or Eventbrite and anyone joining us for the first time will need to have completed a parental consent form, which can be obtained by emailing us at BlashfordLakes@hiwwt.org.uk

Thank you to the Cameron Bespolka Trust for funding our purchase of tools and equipment for the group www.cameronbespolka.com

Messing about in boats…

…with boats, out of boats and under boats!

Yes, the last week of the summer holiday saw us, and the children on “Wild Days Out” as well of course (I have to justify somehow), taking the plunge, quite literally, into the Dockens Water river again. The theme this week?

“River Adventure”…

Starting off in the classroom with paperboat folding and colouring/waterproofing them with wax crayons we were then ready to head down to the water to test them out and do some kick sample surveying for wildlife:

Plenty of invertebrates were of course caught but, as always, it was the fish which captured most children’s interest – with the exception of those few who caught either a leech (always exciting for their “yuck” or “eeuuurgh”¬†factor), beautiful demoiselle or golden ringed dragonfly nymph (both similarly exciting and always elicit a “what is THAT?!” response).

On the fish front by far the most numerous species was minnow, but bullhead, as always, were much in evidence and we are also seeing¬†signs of a good recruitment to the brown trout population this year too. Fishy highlights were an elver (second we’ve caught kick sampling this year, and again, a promising sign that they have had a good year) and a relatively large stone loach (easily identified by the barbels with which it finds its invertebrate prey amongst the silt and stones at the bottom of the river at night).

By this time and being, surprisingly, relatively dry and warm still we quit while we were ahead to stop for lunch – and then equip and prepare ourselves for the real adventure that was to come: coracle paddling and snorkelling!

The coracle had been pre-prepared this year by Tracy with one of our volunteers, Rex, who fulfilled a life long ambition by coming in over a couple of mornings to create and then paddle it himself! Thank you Rex! Thanks also to the Spinnaker Sailing Club for providing us with a loan of buoyancy aids for our intrepid adventurers to wear, “just in case”. As it was most children did manage to stay in the coracle, and the only time it actually sank was when Tracy, somewhat optimistically it has to be said, tried sending 3 children off in it!

Our craft, constructed from some of our willow pollarded last winter, was fitted out with a seat scavenged from a building site by another volunteer, Geoff, and then lined with some left over pond liner from a pond project at Testwood Lakes (pond liner works just as well at keeping water out of a boat as it does in a pond). And despite some heavy use survived completely unscathed Рalthough to be fair, I did not actually have a go in it myself this year, and, had I done so, things might have ended differently!

180829RiverAdventure by J Day (6a) - Copy

So, with a little disappointment it has to be said, I didn’t make it into the coracle this year. Not too much disappointment however because the only reason I didn’t was that I was having far too much fun snorkelling beneath the peaty waters to spend too much time above it!

Having¬†enjoyed (honest!)¬†a very cold and wet weekend camping a¬†couple of¬†days before I was still tired and, with the weather grey as it was, I woke up and came to work with a certain amount of apathy towards the idea of deliberately submerging myself in the river again. However we’d said we’d do it so I reluctantly donned my wetsuit and we made our way down and in… and I was SO glad that I had! I, and everyone who was brave (or foolish) enough to come in with me had a ball and we saw SO MANY fish! As many as we had thought we had caught kick-sampling earlier it really was a very small fraction of just what was in the river!

180829RiverAdventure by J Day (4) - Copy

So you think they look a bit crazy? You have to be a little bit crazy to even think of doing this!

And its amazing just how much you can see, even in shallow water!

Although the deep water is fun too – the trick is to just swim/crocodile crawl up stream so all of the disturbed silt/sediment washes back behind you and definitely don’t try and snorkel down stream of a load of kick-sampling river dippers!

Wonderful, unusual, wildlife sights await those who brave the water!

180830WDORiverAdventureII by J Day (19) - Copy180829RiverAdventure by J Day (1) - Copy

It was cold, but so worth it and well done to all of the children who joined us in the river this summer Рyou are all part of what is a very small and highly elite group of people who have snorkelled and paddled the Dockens Water river.

You may call yourselves the “Dockens Divers” and, quite rightly, be proud of your achievement!

 

 

 

Fitting it all in…

At the end of April our Young Naturalists were joined by Paul from Strong Island Media, who had come along to take photos and film them during a session. As a result we managed to fit in a number of different activities to showcase what we get up to and enjoyed a very varied day!

Whilst Joel and Vaughan headed off to the Woodland Hide with Nigel to photograph birds the rest of the group opted to pond dip, something we hadn’t actually done in some time. We caught a number of dragonfly nymphs, water stick insects, some fabulous cased caddis fly larvae and a smooth newt. We also spotted a large red damselfly on the edge of the boardwalk, so moved it to a safer spot away from our tubs, nets and feet.

We then had a look through the light trap which we had begun to put out more regularly with the weather warming up. The trap unfortunately didn’t contain an awful lot as it had been cold the night before, but there were a couple of very smart nut tree tussocks along with two Hebrew characters and a common quaker.

Volunteer Geoff had very kindly made up some more bird box kits for the group to put together, so we tidied away the pond dipping equipment and they had a go at building the boxes:

Brenda has been keeping us posted on the activity going on in the nest boxes the group made in October and we put up in January, using them to replace some of the older boxes on the reserve. Out of the twelve boxes made, six are active with the others either containing a small amount of nesting material or nothing: Poppy’s box contains 11 warm eggs and the female is incubating them; Geoff’s¬†box contains 7 hatched, naked and blind blue tit chicks along with 2 warm eggs hopefully to hatch; Ben’s contains 3 downy and blind great tit chicks which will hopefully be¬†large enough to ring when Brenda next checks; Will H’s box contains 7 naked and blind great tit chicks and 2 warm eggs hopefully¬†still to hatch; Megan’s box contains 7 downy and blind blue tit chicks and 1 warm egg which may not hatch and finally Thomas’ box contains 9 warm great tit eggs.

Brenda has also been taking photos of some of the boxes for us to share with the group:

Thank you Brenda for continuing to update us on the progress of our nest boxes, we look forward to the next one!

After lunch we headed down to the river to see what else we could catch. Again we haven’t done this in quite a while so it was nice for the group to get in and see what they could find. We caught a stone loach, a dragonfly nymph, a number of bullhead and¬†a very smart demoiselle nymph:

Finally, those who joined us in February were delighted to see the willow dome is sprouting. As the shoots get longer we will be able to weave them into the structure, giving it more shape and support.

willow dome

Thanks to Geoff and Nigel for their help during the session and to Paul from Strong Island Media for joining us, we look forward to seeing his footage of the group and being able to share it to promote the group and our work.

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

“What’s on?” April – July 2018

View the latest copy of our “What’s on?” leaflet with details of forthcoming events and activities here: Blashford Lakes Whats On Apr – Jun 2018

Every year I am asked why we just do events for children and, in particular, why we don’t do pond dipping for adults, and every year I explain that we do – so I will particularly draw your attention to “Pond and River Dipping for Adults” on April Saturday 8th , 2pm ‚Äď 4pm and July Wednesday 18th, 7pm ‚Äď 9pm, as well as Bob’s “Mid-Summer Bugs“, guided walk with an invertebrate focus on June Thursday 21st, 2-4pm!

Most events, including these three, require booking in advance – email blashfordlakes@hiwwt.org.uk or call 01425 472760 and leave your name, contact details (a mobile number is always handy for last minute hiccups if you do book by email) and how many places you require.

See you soon!

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Pond dipping – not just for children! Images by Rex Waygood

Spring Dipping for Lamprey

It was lovely to be back at Blashford on Sunday after a two week break, with the sun shining and chiffchaffs calling from what seemed like every other tree. It was time again for our monthly Young Naturalists meeting, and with the weather warming up we began with a rummage through the light trap. It revealed a number of Common and Small Quakers and Hebrew Characters along with this rather pale Brindled Beauty.

Brindled Beauty by Talia Felstead

Brindled Beauty by Talia Felstead

The light trap also contained a number of Clouded Drabs, with this one in particular making us take a closer look:

Clouded drab by Talia Felstead

Clouded Drab by Talia Falstead

We wondered if it could perhaps have been a Lead-coloured Drab instead, but couldn’t be sure. Having only a photo to show Bob today, we’ve decided it probably was a Clouded Drab, as their colours can be quite variable, but you never know, we might be wrong!

After carefully putting the moths back in the light trap to be released later in the day, we headed down to the Dockens Water in search of Brook Lamprey. Brook Lamprey can grow up to 15cm and can easily be confused with small eels, but they lack jaws, instead having a sucker disc with a mouth in the centre. They also lack scales, any paired fins and a gill cover, instead having a line of seven respiratory holes behind the eye. They are easily overlooked, burrowing down into sand, silt or mud before emerging in the Spring to spawn. They die soon after spawning, but their corpses are quickly devoured by fish and birds so often are not found.

Now was the time to go looking for them, and we knew a couple had been caught on a school visit the week before. We were in luck, catching nine in our usual river dipping spot and another two when we searched further downstream.

We also caught bullhead fish, mayfly nymphs, caddisfly larvae¬†and pond skaters. On moving further downstream, we caught a large number of dragonfly nymphs,¬†fourteen in total. We decided they were likely to be nymphs of the Golden-ringed dragonfly, a species that usually patrols upland and heathland streams. The nymphs often¬†burrow down into the stream’s¬†muddy or sandy bottom,¬†leaving only their head and the tip of their abdomen exposed. They may remain in the same position for several weeks, waiting¬†to ambush any prey that¬†passes by.

With the Dockens starting its journey to the sea in the New Forest, it is not surprising the nymphs have found their way downstream to us, and whilst we don’t get many sightings of the adults on the reserve they are sometimes seen hawking low over the water.

It was great to see so many nymphs of all different sizes, we should have Golden-ringed dragonflies emerging from the Dockens for a good few years!

Whilst down by the river, we took some Elder cuttings from nearby trees for Bob. A small deciduous tree native to the UK, elder grows well on wasteland, as well as in woodland, scrub and hedgerows. As they do so well on disturbed ground, they will be planted by the volunteers on the Hanson site where hopefully if they root well their flowers will be an important nectar source for a variety of insects whilst their berries will be a great food source for mammals and Autumn migrants.

After lunch we were joined by Corinne from the Cameron Bespolka Trust, who came with us for a spot of nettle pulling alongside a stretch of path in the woodland. Whilst nettles are fantastic for wildlife, we have plenty on the reserve and clearing some areas gives other flora the chance to thrive. We’re hoping to see increased amounts of ground ivy and hopefully twayblades, a medium sized orchid that can be easily overlooked, so keep your eyes peeled!

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

A varied Sunday!

Our Young Naturalists had a practical session on Sunday, building shelters to go out on the new set of tern rafts currently being put together by our volunteers. The shelters will provide excellent cover for the tern chicks once they hatch, enabling them to hopefully avoid any hungry dive-bombing gulls.

We were joined on the day by Corinne, Cameron’s mum, who together with family and friends formed the Cameron Bespolka Trust in his memory,¬†which is supporting the Young Naturalists group at Blashford alongside other projects. It was great to have an extra pair of hands for such a practical activity!

When collecting our wood and tools, we spied this blackbird which had made her nest close to our store. We had a super quick peak before leaving her in peace, constructing our shelters at the back of the centre.

Blackbird on nest

Blackbird by Talia Felstead

The task was a great challenge for the group as we had a couple of old examples to use as a guide and lots of offcuts of wood, so making them was a good test of our team building skills – it was a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, finding the best pieces to fit and figuring out the best way to join them:

Cutting wood

Cutting wood 2

Sawing planks to make the shelters

Hammering

Hammering 2

Making the shelters

We managed to make four shelters during the morning, which I’m sure will be very well received by the tern chicks when the time comes:

Finished shelters

Chick shelters

Our four finished chick shelters

During lunch we were watched rather closely by an inquisitive jackdaw, which Talia managed to photograph:

Jackdaw

Jackdaw by Talia Felstead

After lunch we headed back down to the river as we’d enjoyed dipping so much last time and not all of the group had had the opportunity. We managed to catch more bullhead fish, brook lamprey and trout fry, along with dragonfly, mayfly and stonefly nymphs and beetle larvae.

Whilst down by the river we spotted lots of fresh deer tracks in the soft ground along the edge of the river bank, following them until they headed off up the bank and into the trees:

Deer tracks

Deer tracks in the soft ground

There were also a small number of bluebell in flower Рhopefully more will follow and the woodland along the Dockens Water will soon be a splash of blue.

Bluebells

Bluebell by Talia Felstead

After river dipping, we headed over to Ellingham Pound to have a look at the prototype tern raft which had been launched a week or so ago so the group could see where their chick shelters would eventually end up. Whilst there, we were distracted by ripples on the surface of the lake which seemed to move around rather purposefully, and realised we were watching alder-fly which had recently emerged from the water. One conveniently left the surface of the lake and landed nearby, allowing us to take a closer look:

Caddis fly

Alder-fly by Talia Felstead

Finally on heading back to the centre, we spied this speckled wood butterfly sunning itself. It took a while to make sure everyone had seen it as it was so well camouflaged against the dead leaves and sticks on the woodland floor.

Speckled Wood

Speckled wood butterfly by Talia Felstead

Our Young Naturalists group offers monthly conservation tasks and wildlife activities to young people aged 13-17 years and is kindly funded by the Cameron Bespolka Trust. To find out more or join the group please telephone Jim or Tracy at the Education Centre on 01425 472760.