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.

Camping out

At our last Young Naturalists session in July, we spent a night on the reserve, exploring Blashford and the surrounding area late in to the evening and early in the morning. It seems like a really long time ago now, but hopefully this blog is better late than never…

After arriving on the Saturday morning we got straight on with setting up our camp, using old army ponchos to make dens to sleep under and whittling pegs out of willow.

We then headed to the back of the Education Centre to sit by the pond and butterfly spot as part of the Big Butterfly Count. The Purple loosestrife proved to be very popular with the butterflies and we saw a large white, numerous small whites, a green-veined white and brimstones, along with a gatekeeper and painted lady by the bramble. We also watched the water for newts coming up to the surface and spotted a number of young frogs.

After lunch we headed up into the Forest, exploring the local Rockford and Ibsley Commons for a different view of the lakes. The bell heather was in flower and attracting lots of honey and bumble bees.

We paused for a while at the bridge over the Dockens Water, exploring this stretch of the river and taking a closer look at some of the plants before heading up on to the Common for another view of the reserve, this time Ibsley Water.

On arriving back at Moyles Court we paused by the ford for a paddle, although Jorge got wetter than most!

Walking back along the Dockens we spotted this fabulous Chicken of the Woods fungi growing on an old log:

Chicken in the woods

Chicken of the Woods

Arriving back at the Education Centre, it was time to empty the light trap from the night before so we could re-set it for the Saturday evening and we also set some mammal traps to see if we could catch any of our smaller resident mammals.

It was then time to think about food and the group did a great job of chopping the ingredients before tucking in to healthy wraps toasted over the fire followed by slightly less healthy popcorn and banana stuffed with chocolate and mini marshmallows…

Lysander had also very kindly bought some of his left over Cadet rations to share with the group, cooking them through using his stove. Whilst not all sampled his food, we were pleasantly surprised by how nice it tasted!

After eating we headed off on a night walk in search of bats, picking up pipistrelles on the bat detectors in the woodland and near Ivy South hide.

After convincing the group to get up bright and early on Sunday morning, we roused them at 5.30am and headed off up to Lapwing Hide for some early morning wildlife spotting.

It was lovely and peaceful to be out on the reserve so early, and whilst we didn’t spot anything out of the ordinary we had a good wander and worked up an appetite for breakfast which we cooked over the campfire.

Breakfast

Breakfast, looking slightly sleepy

It was then time to check the mammal traps we had put out the previous evening, but sadly although a couple had been sprung we were unsuccessful. The two light traps however gave us 31 different species off moth to identify, along with a Dark bush cricket and an Oak bush cricket:

After tidying away our camp and bringing everything back to the Centre it was time for the group to head off, a little sleepy but having spent a very enjoyable time overnight on the reserve.

Emperor dragonfly

Emperor dragonfly at the Education Centre Pond

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