At the beginning of June we re-started our Wildlife Tots sessions, discovering the weedy depths of the Blashford Pond.
Our morning session started with a rescue, with Isabelle fishing this Emperor dragonfly out of the pond. It was quite happy to be handled, or relieved to be rescued, so we were all able to take a really good look.
Rescued Emperor dragonfly
Rescued Emperor dragonfly
Rescued Emperor dragonfly
I then relocated it to a safer spot, where it could finish drying off. It was still there when we met the afternoon group, so they were able to take a look at it too before it flew off.
Newly emerged adult dragonflies are known as tenerals. They are weaker in flight and paler in colour. As the body and wings harden off they begin hunting for food, spending about a week feeding away from water and gradually acquiring their adult colouration. They are then ready to return to the pond to mate.
It was a good day to look for dragonflies, we found lots of exuvia on the vegetation around the edge of the pond and found another newly emerged Emperor dragonfly along with a newly emerged Broad-bodied chaser.
From the pond itself we caught dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, newts and a caseless caddisfly nymph, amongst others:
It was also nice to see the other insects enjoying the vegetation around the edge of the pond, like this honeybee, large red damselfly and figwort sawfly:
Large red damselfly
At the end of the day I was lucky enough to spot another dragonfly emerge, this time it was a Black-tailed skimmer:
So it was a very good day for dragonflies!
At the beginning of July we headed to the meadow. On the edge of the lichen heath we spotted this small tortoiseshell butterfly:
As we went in to the meadow we disturbed this grass snake, and we watched it slither up the hill to the birch trees at the top.
We then sat quietly and did a still hunt, looking closely at the miniature world of the meadow around us before using sweep nets to catch grasshoppers, spiders, beetles, true bugs and more.
We also saw a solitary bee, small skipper butterfly, ruby-tailed wasp and marmalade hoverfly:
My highlight from the meadow though was this solitary wasp, the Bee-wolf. The females prey on honeybees, paralysing them with a sting and carrying them back to their sandy burrow. Up to six paralysed honeybees are placed in each chamber within the burrow, then a single egg is laid and the chamber is sealed with sand. After hatching, the larva feed on the honeybees before spinning a cocoon to hibernate in through the winter and emerging the following spring.
Our Wildlife Tots group offers fun outdoor play and wildlife discovery activities for pre-school aged children and their parents or carers once a month, usually (but not always!) on the first Monday. After a break in August, we will be meeting again in September, and details will be available on the events page of our website soon.
On Thursday I began cutting the mini meadow by the Welcome Hut to hopefully keep or increase the flower species present and keep the surrounding grasses under control. Without this the grasses can form an impenetrable thatch which which the wildflowers struggle to grow through.
Mini meadow by the Welcome Hut
This little patch of ground by the Welcome Hut was laid with wildflower turf last year and has looked fabulous this spring and summer, with ragged robin, marjoram, yarrow, clover, selfheal, wild carrot and bird’s foot trefoil flowering, to name just a few. The wild carrot may have been a later addition, planted by Bob, along with some scabious and I think he also added some yellow rattle seed…
The meadow in May, full of ragged robin
Over the summer it has been alive with grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies, beetles, bees and more:
Skipper sp. resting on a blade of grass, taken in June
Small copper, taken in July
Although many of the flowers and grasses have now died back, whilst cutting the vegetation I watched a number of spiders scurrying about and disturbed this very smart looking caterpillar:
Ruby tiger caterpillar
At first the garden tiger moth sprang to mind, its caterpillars are also known as the woolly bear, but it didn’t look big enough or quite right, so after a bit of searching I think it is the fully grown caterpillar of the ruby tiger moth:
Ruby tiger moth
The caterpillars feed on a variety of herbaceous plants including ragwort, plantain, dock and dandelion. This caterpillar is probably from a second brood and will overwinter as a caterpillar, emerging during early spring: I relocated it to a safer spot away from my shears.
I have quite a bit more cutting to do, but it is good to cut a meadow in sections and to leave some sections untouched. I might wait for some nicer weather before carrying on!
Whilst outside the front of the Education Centre I also saw this common carder bee enjoying the Inula hookerii which is still flowering:
Common carder bee
The light trap only contained two moths, the highlight for me being this frosted orange:
The last few days have not been so pleasant, although the original dipping pond I imagine is grateful for the rain. This morning I spied this very bedraggled looking bumblebee on one of the planters outside the front of the Centre. Despite looking very sorry for itself it was moving around, so I attempted to warm it up slightly, gave it some sugar water (which it literally lapped up) and released it somewhere hopefully more sheltered as it had become very active. My good deed for the day, fingers crossed it survives the night…
Earlier in the year little did I know that when I locked up and left Blashford, somewhat appropriately as it happens, on Friday 13th March, that I would not be back until the 2nd July, thanks to a cocktail of a poorly child with a high temperature having to stay off school, subsequent quarantining of myself and family, lockdown and, later, furloughed leave.
A lot has changed in that time, at home, in the UK and across the World, for the Trust and, specifically, for Blashford Lakes.
Any regular readers of the Blashford Blog will know how Bob continued to manage and warden the site throughout lockdown, monitoring and dealing with the affects of ash dieback on the woodland despite, or in-spite, of the restrictions that lone-working imposed and his having to deal with the impacts that “cov-idiots” including poachers, dog walkers and cyclists were having upon the reserve and the wildlife.
As lockdown restrictions were eased he was joined by Tracy and they worked hard together to make and adjust to new socially distanced working procedures and hygiene arrangements whilst planning how the nature reserve might most safely be reopened to the public.
I for one am very grateful for all that they did and I am sure that our visitors are too, albeit that many won’t know that they are, or should be!
I returned to work from furloughed leave on 1st July, worked from home on that first day and returned to Blashford itself on the 2nd to reacquaint myself with the site and acquaint myself with new ways of working.
The site itself is much as it always was, although now displaying an awful lot more directional signage to aid visitors around the new one-way circular walking routes and with more of Tracy’s educational and insightful mini-interpretation notices which highlight particular aspects of wildlife as you explore the nature reserve.
The insects have been fabulous, none more so that the clouds of common blue damselflies which were particularly in evidence when I first got back at the beginning of the month.
The wilder areas around the dipping ponds as well as the relatively recently (last Summer) created ornamental raised flower beds and wildflower turf around the Welcome Hut at the front of the Centre have been, and are, full of insect life. Indeed our butterfly survey volunteers are finding that although the northern transect is doing well the southern transect is generally quite poor this year – with the exception of that area around the Education Centre.
One of the highlights of returning to work has been being able to view the moths attracted to the light trap over night, although always tinged a little with sadness that this summer we have not been sharing the same with our school group visitors:
The bird hides remain closed and are not set to open as normal anytime soon so glimpses of the lakes are infrequent and few but the view from the Ibsley Water viewing platform at the back of the main car park remains open and does still give a fantastic, if distant, view of that lake – and indeed it was from there that a number of visitors enjoyed views of an osprey perched on the perch placed out in that lake with just that purpose in mind. The sweet honey like scent of the creeping thistle which is growing in profusion there, alongside other fantastic nectar sources like ragwort and teasel is pretty special too:
So all in all, although the hides remain closed, there is still plenty of wildlife to see and you never know, you might get lucky and see something more unusual like an osprey, or, as other visitors have reported seeing on different days over the last couple of weeks, Blashford treats like kingfisher or treecreeper, or slightly more unusually, an otter or a family of stoats.
And visitors we are getting; plenty of regulars just like the “old days” before lockdown, but also lots of new visitors. Since restrictions eased further and holidays were allowed we’ve seen a lot of families and visitors new to the nature reserve on their holidays but we are also continuing to welcome local visitors who have and are staying close to home and who having done so are looking for new places close to home to explore and enjoy.
As a result the nature reserve is actually probably attracting more visitors this month than it would normally do so at this time of year and I suspect that this will continue over the next couple of months.
Tracy and I are continuing to develop the means by which we can engage with both visitors to the nature reserve and visitors, including schools, who might normally visit the nature reserve but are unable to do so at the present time.
A big step forward has been the installation of WiFi boosters outside the Centre which has not only allowed us to lead live virtual pond dipping activities (Tracy with her Young Naturalists meeting and myself with the Year 1 and Year 2 classes at Ringwood Infant School), but which will also enable us to offer other live virtual meetings, including “mini-beasting” or emptying the light trap for example.
Another benefit of the much improved WiFi has been our being able to re-open the Welcome Hut on an occasional basis, at least for now.
As mentioned earlier in this post, we are seeing lots of new visitors, but with the Centre and Welcome Hut closed and our Welcome Volunteers still stood down at present, there often is not someone available to provide assistance or guidance when required.
The improved WiFi coverage means that we can log on to the Wildlife Trusts remote desktop and continue to work on office and admin work from the Welcome Hut while being on hand to greet and provide assistance to visitors as needs be.
There are a number of benefits to this new working environment, not least of which is that it is a very pleasant place to work – with the doors fully opened and side windows ajar there is a lovely natural “air-conditioning”, the sound of bird song with an accompaniment of Roesel’s bush-cricket and grasshopper from the adjacent wildflower “meadow” fills the air and there is a lovely view of the tree’s around the Centre car park. Of course if anyone needs assistance we are there to help – and, as an added bonus should any further incentive to work out there be required, although it’s a bit early to be sure that it is a pattern and not just a coincidence, visitor donations seem to have gone up since I moved “office”.
This latter point is actually really important – the Wildlife Trust relies on its income from membership contributions as well as donations and at Blashford we especially rely on donations to help fund all elements of our work, from administration, to conservation, to education to access repair and improvements. Our income has been hit hard with none of the donations from group visits that we would normally receive throughout the summer, nor the usual donations from our “every day” visitors, despite there being more of them in recent weeks. This is, in part at least, because fewer and fewer people are carrying or using cash in our post-lockdown world. Bob recently made up some new “donation ask” signs with a QR code that visitors can use to make a donation to the Trust electronically and this too may have prompted more visitors who can to make a cash donation during their visit.
Time will tell whether it is my welcoming face, the new QR code or something else which will help our coffers over coming weeks!
Like most people who are lucky enough to have one, I have been spending a lot of time in the garden recently. Our garden is almost exactly the average size of a UK garden, so a little larger than most people will have, but still not a large plot. It does allow space for all the elements with a flower border, vegetable plot, lawn and most importantly a pond and mini-meadow. The aim has always been to maximise the opportunities for wildlife within a more or less conventional garden space and I am really pleased that it was as there has enough wildlife to keep me interested throughout lockdown.
Although the garden is very short of trees and shrubs the variety and features such as the meadow seem very attractive to lots of birds, probably just because it offers home to a large number and wide variety of invertebrates, the main food of nestlings.
As we have been sitting out a lot it is really noticeable how much more tame most of the birds have become, a feature not just of birds that use the feeder, they just seem to have got used to us being out there.
I took the chance to refurbish our pond, which had evidently sprung a leak, so it was relined and filled from the water butts. In no time it attracted eight smooth newt and several damselflies and even egg-laying broad-bodied chaser with an attendant male.
broad-bodied chaser male
The mini-meadow, which with the area of the pond is in a 5m x 4m space is the main attraction for most wildlife. It was made by initially allowing the existing grass to grow and cutting and removing the vegetation once a year. I then added some seed and a few small plants that I grew from seed and over the last five years it has developed.
common vetch – just one of the species that was already present
A flowery meadow is, unsurprisingly very popular with butterflies, over the last few days I have seen my first small copper and common blue of the year in my garden, both species I think breed in the meadow.
My first common blue of 2020
Small copper pair
Lots of other insects live in the meadow, most obviously lots of ants, I now have a number of anthills dotted about the patch, you may have spotted a couple of ants in the common vetch picture above, probably collecting nectar from the base of the flowers. A range of true bugs are wandering about, mostly, but not all, vegetarians.
Rhopalus subrufus – one of the many true bugs
There has been a lot in the media in recent times about bees and pollinators. You could be forgiven for thinking that pollination is dependent upon honey-bees, occasionally in very industrial scale agriculture this is almost true, but generally this is far from the case. In fact it turns out that more diverse environments have more pollinators and more different types of pollinators, we have a pollinator “problem” because we have impoverished our environment. I notice in my garden that having lots of different plants with differing flower types results in seeing lots of different types of insects and especially different species of bees.
The ashy mining bee is one very distinctive species of spring-flying solitary mining bee which is increasingly visiting gardens. Pollination is carried out by almost all insects that visit flowers and even by other creatures like birds and small mammals. Recently the importance of moths has received some attention, as they fly at night their role is often forgotten. Hoverflies are more obvious and it is easy to see them visiting lots of flowers, often with a coating of pollen grains. I was interested to see a species I did not recognise recently int he garden and luckily got a picture that was good enough to identify the species. It turned out to be a recent colonist to this country with larvae that eat house-leeks, it may have got here under its own steam, but more likely was brought here as a result of the plant trade. It was first found in 2006 and now quite widespread across the southern part of the country.
A fairly busy day on the reserve today with a steady stream of new visitors, it is always good to encounter people who are still just discovering us after all this time! I was out with the volunteers removing brambles from a warm south-facing bank which I hope will prove popular with insects and reptiles.
It seems odd to say there was not a lot of bird news when the Bonaparte’s gull was still present, but it has been here a while now and most who were keen to see it have done so by now. The first summer little gull is also still with us, otherwise migrants were a dunlin, a whimbrel and at least three common sandpiper. Numbers of swift have increased again I think, with at least 100 zooming noisily about this afternoon.
Out on the edge of the lichen heath I saw a small copper and a grey-patched mining bee.
grey-patched mining bee Andrena nitida
I only saw my first damselfly of the year a couple of days ago, I don’t think I have ever waited until May before I saw my first of the year before. My first was, as expected, a large red damselfly and today I saw a single female common blue damselfly.
common blue damselfly (female)
As you can see it is not at all blue, but it has not long hatched out and has yet to acquire its colour, many females do not get all that blue anyway.
The wild daffodil have long since ceased flowering and the bluebell are starting to go over, but the reserve’s only patch of ramsons, also known as wild garlic, is looking very fine and in full, starry flower. Half close your eyes and it looks like a firework display worthy of any New Year. I was hoping to find the hoverfly that feeds on it as it would be new for the reserve, but no such luck.
Although I had not luck with the hoverfly I did find a snail-killing fly near the Centre Pond, I think it is Tetanocera ferruginea.
Although it was a rather cool night the moth trap did catch a few species including my first pale pinion of this year, never an abundant species, I usually see only a few each year.
A couple of years ago Blashford Lakes was visited by a first year Bonaparte’s gull, a small species between little gull and black-headed gull in size and looking very like the latter. They breed in North America and very occasionally get blown across the Atlantic. Most turn up in this country in spring and are first year birds. It seems probable that they are blown across in autumn storms and are following a natural instinct to migrate north after wintering well to the south of us. Yesterday the second of this species to be found on the reserve was seen from the splendid new Tern Hide and attracted a fair few birders as the news got out.
Bonaparte’s gull (right) with black-headed gull of the same age and common terns.
Although similar to a black-headed gull the differences are not too hard to see up close, although this bird is somewhat larger than our last and so less obvious. At long range and especially if feeding on the water, it is much less easy to spot. However there are some clues that might help. The most obvious is the difference in feeding action, the Bonaparte’s has a habit of up-ending and overall swims with neck very stretched looking reminiscent of a phalarope, with their faster feeding action as well.
The Tern Hide is also proving a great place, appropriately enough, to see terns, specifically common tern.
displaying common tern from Tern Hide
The last few days have seen a few migrant birds passing through or arriving, we have recorded our first swift and migrant waders like dunlin and whimbrel. I have not managed to get pictures of any of these but I did snap a red kite that flew over on Monday.
The spring is not all about birds though, as the season moves on we are seeing lots more insects such as small copper, holly blue and many spring hoverflies.
Epistrophe eligans – a typical spring hoverfly
We are also seeing more reptiles and I found the grass snake below basking beside the main car park!
Our developments are still ongoing, but are drawing to a close, however the latest job will be to resurface the car park nearest the Education Centre, meaning it will be unavailable for parking for a few days, most likely next week. We are nearly at the end of the works, so things should settle down soon! Thank you to New Forest LEADER for funding our improvements to the area in front of the Education Centre.
The first Sunday of the month is volunteer task day and this morning we were continuing work on the path between Goosander and Lapwing hide. The path is being trimmed back and the gravel surface cleaned of grass and other growth,. In addition we are opening up sheltered clearings along the path to increase interest. At one point we are making a solitary bee nesting bank, it is always worth making use of suitable ground for these kind of features which can be quiet rare.
Out on the reserve there were lots of visitors enjoying the cool sunshine. There were birds to see to, especially from Goosander hide where the feeding frenzy is still in full swing. There were 50 or more grey heron, several little egret, both great white egret and lots of cormorant, with gulls and grebes there to mop up the small fry.
The ferrunginous duck seems to have departed, probably for Kingfisher Lake and the wood sandpiper also appears to have left after a rather long stay. There was still a common sandpiper and at least 2 green sandpiper though and a rather unexpected redshank, not a bird we see much other than in spring and summer at Blashford.
Elsewhere there were 2 pintail on Ivy Lake along with 6 wigeon and I saw at least 300 coot on Rockford Lake. In the willows around the reserve there were good numbers of chiffchaff, but no other small migrants that I could locate. A few swallow were passing through, including at least one rather late adult, most at this time are juveniles. First thing this morning there were 60 or so house martin over Ibsley Water although I saw none later in the day.
Locking up there was a considerable gull roost developing and I noticed that there were a lot of very dark backed individuals amongst the lesser black-backed gull flock, a much higher percentage than we see in the winter, an indication of birds from further north and east in Europe passing through.
The sunshine brought out a few butterflies and I saw a good few speckled wood and several small copper around the reserve. The cool night was not the best for moths but the trap did contain one of my favourite species, a merveille du jour.
merveille du jour
Other moths were red-line Quaker, large yellow underwing, lunar underwing, beaded chestnut,black rustic and deep-brown dart.
It was a glorious day at Blashford today, to my mind the perfect balance of sunshine and cool temperatures, the ideal autumn day for getting work done on the reserve. It was also a pretty good day for birds, although many of them have been with us for a while now.
When I first looked from Tern hide as I opened up I saw the two young little gull and thousands of house martin, low over the water, I estimated 3000 at least but they were everywhere low over the trees, lakes with others high in the sky. I could see no sign of the black tern or grey phalarope. A small wader on the gravel island way out near the middle of the lake caught my eye, there was something of a redshank about it but it was not one. This meant wood sandpiper was the most likely candidate and after a little while it was disturbed by a black-headed gull and made a short flight confirming the identification, our second of the autumn.
Later in the day it turned out the phalarope was still present and I got good views of it as I locked up. Other birds included both great white egret, at least one green sandpiper and reports of common sandpiper, I missed that, so did not get the “Sandpiper set”. Locking up the Ivy North hide I saw a pintail, the first for a few days.
I got no pictures of birds, or anything else today (working too hard, obviously!). However I will post a few pictures of recent notable records from the reserve, not great pictures mind you. The first is of a small Tortrix moth Olinida schumacherana, which seems to be the first record for the 10km square that includes the reserve.
The next is the Australian Pyralid moth that we first recorded last year as possibly new for Hampshire. In appears to have been introduced with the tree ferns that the caterpillars eat, although it now seems to be finding local ferns to its liking.
It was first found in the UK in Dorset in 2009.
I will end with a couple of pictures from my garden, two late butterflies bringing a little colour to the end of their season.
A Red Letter Day for Fishlake Meadows today, we finally have some cattle on site! We had hoped they would be on much earlier and next year I am sure we will. They will be grazing in Ashley Meadow for the next few weeks, hopefully helping us to maintain the rich fen habitat.
British White cattle on Ashley Meadow
As we were unable to graze the meadow earlier in the year we did take a hay cut from about half of the field.
Ashley Meadow showing the boundary between the cut and uncut areas
The intention is to maintain a mix of tall and slightly shorter herbage with very few trees and shrubs. Such habitats are very rich in plants and as a result invertebrates. Mowing certainly can deliver this, but the act of mowing is rather dramatic, eliminating large areas of habitat at a stroke, by contrast grazing achieves a similar result but at a more gradual pace. Gazing animals will also favour some areas and species over others so the variability in height, what is known as the “structure” of the grassland will be greater.
When I was in Ashley Meadow preparing for the arrival of the cattle today I saw a good range of species including several very smart small copper.
There was a very interesting article in a recent issue of British Wildlife magazine which highlighted the effects of different grassland management regimes on spider populations and species. I have not managed to identify the one below yet, but I saw it lurking on a flower waiting for an unwary insect to be lured in.
crab spider on fleabane flower
When looking at grassland management there are many considerations, should it be mown or grazed,or both, most hayfields are cut for the hay crop and then grazed later in the season. Traditional hay meadows were cut around or just after mid-summer and this favoured plants that set seed by this time like yellow rattle or which spread vegetatively. Modern grass cropping by silage making produces a much larger grass crop but the grassland is more or less a mono-culture, the land may be green but it is certainly not pleasant as far as most wildlife is concerned.
Once the cutting regime is settled there is grazing to consider, but not all animals graze in the same way, sheep and horses cut the grass short using their teeth, cattle rip the grass in tufts using their tongue to gather each bunch. The resulting grassland will look very different and be home to very different wildlife. Timing of grazing will also make a big difference, mid-late summer grazing tends to produce the most diverse flora, but this will vary with location and ground type.
Lastly different breed of animals will graze in different ways, our cattle at Fishlake are British Whites, a traditional bred that will eat grass but also likes to mix in some rougher sedge and other herbage as well as some tree leaves and twigs, ideal for a site such as Fishlake Meadows.
It was not only a white themed day at Fishlake, as I locked up at Blashford Lakes the view from Tern hide was filled with birds, in particular 13 brilliant white little egret and 2 great white egret.
egrets, herons and cormorants
Ibsley Water has been attracting huge numbers of fish eating birds recently, with up to 300 cormorant, over 100 grey heron and the egrets, although I have failed to see them there have also been 2 cattle egret seen.
Ivy Lake has also produced a few notable records int he last few days, yesterday a bittern was photographed flying past Ivy South hide, far and away our earliest reserve record, but with the British population doing much better these days perhaps something we will get used to as young birds disperse. There have also been a few notable ducks, yesterday a juvenile garganey and today 4 wigeon , 3 pintail and a few shoveler as well as good numbers of gadwall and a dozen or so teal.
Sorry for the lack of posts, we seem to have been very busy and by the end of the day exhaustion has taken over. It is the time of year when there is lots of growth to cut back, bramble regrowth to cut off and nettle to remove from potential grassland areas. Today I spent the morning removing ragwort from one of the areas due to be mowed later this month and the afternoon mowing bramble regrowth from a bank beside Ibsley Water where we are trying to establish grassland. Hot and heavy work, there are times when I think I am getting too old for it! Being out in the sun did mean I saw lots of butterflies, meadow brown and gatekeeper are probably the most abundant now.
There are also a number of summer broods out, I saw peacock,small tortoiseshell, common blue, brown argus and small copper. Possibly a side effect of the hot weather is the number of common blue that are unusually small, some as small or smaller than brown argus. I think this happens because the food quality of the plant the caterpillar was on was not good enough or in sufficient quantity for it to grow to full size.
When I had lunch I took a look at the Centre pond and there were dozens of pairs of azure damselfly pairs, egg-laying in tandem. They do this so that the male can be sure that the eggs being laid are the ones that he has fertilised. Some dragonflies do the same and others will stay hovering close tot eh female whilst she lays.
azure damselfly pairs
I know that I was only doing “What’s in My Meadow Today” during 30 Days Wild, but I will end with a picture from there anyway. One thing that is very noticeable as the grass has gone brown and then yellow is that some plants remain green, field scabious is one of these, which is not just green but flowering well.