From pond to meadow

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.

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. 

Emperor dragonfly

Emperor dragonfly

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.

Dragonfly exuvia

Dragonfly exuvia

Emperor dragonfly (4)

Emperor dragonfly

Broad bodied chaser

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:

Honeybee

Honeybee

 

Large red damselfly

Large red damselfly

Figwort sawfly

Figwort sawfly

At the end of the day I was lucky enough to spot another dragonfly emerge, this time it was a Black-tailed skimmer:

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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:

Small tortoiseshell

Small tortoiseshell

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.  

Grass snake

Grass snake

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.

Meadow sweeping

Meadow sweeping

We also saw a solitary bee, small skipper butterfly, ruby-tailed wasp and marmalade hoverfly:

Solitary bee

Solitary bee

Small skipper

Small skipper

Ruby-tailed wasp

Ruby-tailed wasp

Marmalade hoverfly

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.

Bee wolf

Bee-wolf

Bee wolf

Bee wolf

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. 

Small copper

Small copper

Autumn Flight

Definitely feeling autumnal now, with the evenings getting rapidly earlier and a generally cooler and windier feel to the weather. There are still signs of summer when the sun comes out, dragonflies such as migrant and southern hawker and common darter are still out and about as are a fair few butterflies. This peacock, looking so fresh that I wonder if it was a second generation individual, was feeding on Inula hookerii beside the Centre a couple of days ago.

A very fresh peacock

Peacock butterflies over-winter as adults and emerge in spring to mate and lay eggs, sometimes they survive well into mid-summer, the caterpillars then feed up and pupate and a new generations hatches from July and after feeding up hibernates. However in very warm years they sometimes lay eggs and produce a summer brood as small tortoiseshell and comma do.

There are also lots of speckled wood around at present, these follow a quite different strategy, having several broods from early spring until late autumn. They are one of the only butterflies that can be seen in every week from late March to the end of October as the generations overlap.

speckled wood

There are a fair few autumnal moth species, some of which also overwinter as adults, one of these is the brick.

brick

Some others fly only in the autumn and over-winter as eggs, one of these is the magnificent merveille du jour, one of my favourite moths, not rare, just very splendid.

Other autumn species include deep-brown dart,

deep brown dart

and brown-spot pinion.

brown-spot pinion

We are still waiting for a Clifden nonpareil, perhaps oddly we have yet to catch one this year, despite the fact that they seem to be having one of their best years in living memory, with individuals turning up widely across the country.

Wildlife encounters of the furlough kind

I returned to work on Sunday after eight weeks away from Blashford (it is so green now!) and six weeks on furlough along with around 40% of my Trust colleagues, most of whom are still off. Whilst I’m back to help Bob with the reserve tasks he cannot do by himself and engage with visitors on site from a safe distance, following on from the easing of restrictions last week, we are still closed whilst we look at what we can safely offer in the coming weeks and months. We will keep you updated as and when things begin to change!

A Blashford blog will follow shortly, but I thought I would share what I have been getting up to whilst off.

Spending so much time at home meant I was able to discover what wildlife visits my garden, a bit of a distraction whilst I was supposed to still be working, but it was really nice to be there during the day and have more time to appreciate my outside space. My garden is only small, with two patio areas which contain a number of plants in pots and a lawn which has struggled as a lawn and now has a few flowers planted into the patchier bits as I slowly tun it into a much wilder space. I have lived there for a couple of years, and this year the garden really seems to have come to life with birds and insects, which has been really nice to see.

Whilst at home I had blue tits, wood pigeons, dunnocks and blackbirds frequently visiting the garden along with a wren, great tits and a goldfinch. I have a willow bird table and the blackbirds seem to really like this, launching themselves onto it from the hedge and swinging around whilst they fed.

I have two hedges in the garden and this year the blackbirds successfully nested in one (I did a fair amount of cat chasing whilst off, if they have another brood they’re on their own!) which was lovely to watch. I saw four fledglings at the same time, two sunning themselves in one hedge and two in the other and both adults worked really hard to feed them with the male bringing back huge beak fulls, including a garden centipede in the photo below:

Blackbird 2

Male blackbird with a beak full

They fledged last Thursday so I was able to enjoy their company for a few days, with one of the young staying in the garden until Sunday morning. It was very amusing to see it sat swinging on the bird table calling mum for food.

I had written a rather long list of things to do to keep me busy, and one of those things was to dig a pond. Digging a pond was definitely more exciting than decorating the bathroom, re-pointing some dodgy brickwork to hopefully solve a damp issue in the kitchen and damp proofing and repainting the kitchen wall, so it was one of the first things I did and it’s been really nice to see it change over just a few weeks. The less exciting jobs were left until last week when I knew I was returning to work…

The photos below show the garden before and after, then the pond full of mud as the female blackbird decided the moss I had placed round the edge would make really nice nest building material (she had ignored it the entire time it was elsewhere in the garden) and later on with some plant additions (all native) I had been able to order online.

Whilst digging the pond I unearthed the snake millipede below, along with centipedes that were too fast for a photo, and the stones placed around the edge quickly became resting spots for hoverflies:

The blackbirds had been using a bucket of water with some willow sticks in to drink from and bathe in, but they now both use the pond which is really nice to watch. The female didn’t mind me being around at all but the male was a lot more wary of me to begin with and would fly off even if I was watching from the window, but now he is quite happy for me to be out in the garden whilst he’s there feeding.

As well as the birds it was great to see which insects were visiting the flowers and which flowers were growing really well, the ragged robin in particular has seeded so well from one plant in a pot last year I was able to plant it out in different places in the grass.

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I live on the edge of Salisbury so on my daily walks I walked my dog from home to either a little stretch of the River Bourne in Laverstock or up to the Laverstock Downs, enjoying the fact there were fewer cars on the road.

These photos were taken in the little patch of woodland down by the river:

I had hoped to see some bluebells on my wanders but sadly all those I did see were garden escapees.

I spent a lot more time up on the Downs as although they were further to walk to, it was much easier to practice social distancing up here than it was down by the river which tended to be busier with people and had a stretch of boardwalk to contend with.

It was a great spot for bird watching and I had some brilliant views of both blackcap and common whitethroat, especially early spring when the whitethroats were displaying and establishing territories.

I managed a total of 47 bird species whilst off, either in my garden, flying over my garden or on my daily walks: blackbird, blue tit, dunnock, wren, great tit, wood pigeon, collared dove, jackdaw, starling, long-tailed tit, yellowhammer, carrion crow, buzzard, pheasant, song thrush, chaffinch, chiffchaff, red kite, blackcap, common whitethroat, swallow, linnet, goldfinch, red-legged partridge, little egret, mallard, shoveler, kingfisher, magpie, skylark, great spotted woodpecker, robin, Canada goose, mute swan, raven, sparrowhawk, rook, bullfinch, house sparrow, Cetti’s warbler, grey heron, moorhen, mistle thrush, swift, house martin, peregrine falcon and mandarin duck. They were quite a good mix!

The Downs were also a great spot for butterflies, with orange tips, brimstones, small tortoiseshells, green-veined whites, small heaths, peacocks and dingy skippers all on the wing. I also found lots of green-veined orchids and other flowers on the chalk grassland.

The most exciting spot though was probably to see glow worm larvae on three separate occasions, so I must go up there over the summer in search of glow worms.

Glow worm larvae

Glow worm larvae

I was very lucky to have my garden to enjoy and also have some lovely spaces within walking distance to explore (it was also quite nice to use my car less!), so I had plenty of nature to keep me company during the pandemic, whilst a list of house and craft projects also kept me busy. I might be heading back up to the Downs at the weekend…

A Couple of Days in the Garden

I made the most of the weekend sunshine and spent some time in my garden, now with a refurbished pond. Refurbished in that it now actually holds water, it had been reduced to an ephemeral pond at best, an interesting habitat, but perhaps not the most appealing in a garden. On Sunday I decided to use the last of the rainwater stored in the water butt to top up the pond, trusting in the forecast rain to replenish the store. I was almost instantly rewarded with the appearance of a female broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, perching near the pond and then dipping her abdomen into the water as she laid some eggs.

broad-bordered chaser 4x3

broad-bodied chaser (female)

A little later there were two, chasing each other around between bouts of egg-laying and resting up in the sun. I also saw large red damselfly and common blue damselfly in the garden, making three Odonata in the garden before the end of April.

It was a weekend for egg-laying insects I watched, but failed to photograph successfully, an orange-tip laying on the garlic mustard and a holly blue laying on alder buckthorn.

holly blue 4x3

holly blue female

I had not known that holly blue would lay on alder buckthorn, although I did know they used a good deal more species than just the traditional holly and ivy. Laying on my rather small alder buckthorn also puts the caterpillars in direct competition with the brimstone caterpillars when they hatch in a few days after being laid last week.

brimstone egg-laying

brimstone egg-laying

The early rush of butterflies was dominated by brimstone and peacock especially, with fewer comma and small tortoiseshell. Perhaps because of the very good weather these species seem to have declined rapidly an dare now being replaced by the whites  and the first of the arriving red admiral. Small white and green-veined white are residents and typically pick up in numbers during April.

IMG_9640-002

green-veined white (male)

Large white are resident in rather small numbers but bolstered by, sometimes very large, arrivals of migrants.

large white

large white (female)

There is a bit of a race on at the moment to see who can add the next new butterfly species to the UK list. One thing is pretty certain it is going to happen and probably not very long away, in fact it may well already be here. The species is the southern small white, it has expanded from southern Europe over recent years all the way to the channel coast, under 30 miles away. The difficulty is that it is quiet similar to our regular small white, so if you want to make a name for yourself look up the differences, keep your camera handy in the garden and plant candytuft. Why candytuft? Because it is the preferred caterpillar foodplant of the southern small white. It could be you, especially if you live on the south coast, the Isle of Wight has to be a likely location, if someone in Kent does not get in first!

I will end on a picture of the most dramatic plant in my garden, the giant viper’s bugloss Echium pininana which as it starts to flower becomes a tower of bees as the flowers shoot 3 to 4m or more into the air.

Echium 4x3

giant viper’s bugloss

I have, of course been recording the species I have seen in the garden and uploading the data to the many citizen science recording schemes, something we can all do for everything from butterflies to earthworms.

 

Strange Days

In fact probably the strangest we have ever known. We are now winding down to the minimum work aimed at maintaining health and safety and looking after livestock. The first remains important whilst there are still people allowed to walk around the sites and the latter is just essential. Luckily I have no livestock at Blashford, but we do still have a trickle of visitors. I would certainly not encourage anyone to visit but with paths that allow open access we will still have people on site, unless all going out is banned.

With spring now more or less sprung it is time once again to assess the state of our ash trees to see how ash die-back is hitting them. It is already apparent that some have completely died since the autumn and many others are in serious decline. In some areas it is possible that paths may not be able to reopen even if the Covid emergency passes, as there is likely to be a considerable amount of further felling needed and some roadside trees may need dealing with very soon. Luckily these assessments can be made by a single person so I can work and maintain isolation.

There are still surprisingly large numbers of wildfowl around, probably over 1500, a lot for the time of year. The water levels are dropping ever so slowly and I found a pair of pintail perched on a newly exposed wooded rail, alongside them was the long-tailed duck, without the long tail and perhaps envying the drake pintail his splendid feathers.

pintail and long-tail 4x3

pintail and long-tail

The sunshine has brought out butterflies in number and I have seen lots of brimstone and peacock, with a few comma and pleasingly several small tortoiseshell, maybe  a welcome return to their former status is in the offing. With all surveys now cancelled this year we will not have the butterfly transect data to know for sure.

small tortoiseshell pair

small tortoiseshell pair

I hope to continue blogging from the reserve for as long as I can, although I am conscious that this may just highlight what most people are missing. It is very odd to be out on such a sunny  day and see almost nobody, it makes me feel guilty with so many at home.

30 Days Wild – Day 5 – A Smashing Time in the Garden

By way of contrast with my wanderings yesterday, today I was mainly in my garden. The highlight of the day was a summer generation small tortoiseshell, my first and I think a rather early date for one. Small tortoiseshell hibernate as adults like peacock butterflies, both emerge in spring, mate and lay eggs. The small tortoiseshell develop quickly and a new generation of adults hatch in summer to lay more eggs which will result in adults that emerge in early autumn and then hibernate until the following spring. Peacock, by contrast have just one generation and when the new adults emerge in July they will survive all the way until the following spring, occasionally some of the over-wintering generation are still on the wing when the first of the new generation emerge. The comma has a similar strategy to the small tortoiseshell. It should also be added that this story only holds in southern Britain, head up to Scotland and both small tortoiseshell and peacock are single brooded.

I totally failed to get any pictures of the butterfly but I did manage to get one of a soldierfly in the mini-meadow. It was the common Chloromyia formosa, a shining green species that can be seen sitting around, sunning itself on leaves in grassy areas.

Chloromyia formosa

Chloromyia formosa

Something of a feature today was the frequent tapping sound of a song thrush smashing snails against various hard surfaces in the garden. The recent dry weather has made finding their preferred earthworms very difficult, so they eat snails, but there is the problem of getting them out of their shell. Beating them against a rock or the wooden edge of the raised vegetable bed.

snail shell smashed

Garden snail shell broken open by a song thrush

Bittern not Stung

I am fairly sure that the bittern that spent a good part of the winter showing off by Ivy North Hide left on the night of Sunday 17th March, conditions were perfect and there were no records in the next couple of days. However a couple of brief sightings in since suggested I was wrong. This evening I saw a bittern from the hide, but it was not the bird that wintered there, being somewhat duller and, I think, smaller. This may be the second bid seen during the winter but which was chased off by the regular one, now able to hunt in peace, or perhaps a migrant.

The sun was warm today, although the wind was a little chilly. In shelter there were lot of insects about, I saw peacock, brimstone and small tortoiseshell and probably thousands of solitary bees. I was able to identify a few species, the commonest was yellow-legged mining bee then the grey-backed mining bee, nationally a very rare species, but abundant locally at Blashford Lakes. The only other I certainly identified was red-girdled mining bee. It was pleasing to see lots of female grey-backed miners as I had been seeing what I was convinced were males for several days, but they are very similar to the males of a commoner species, the females are much more distinctive. My first female was sunning itself on the new screen I was building beside Goosander Hide.

grey-backed mining bee blog2

female grey-backed mining bee catching some rays

I later went to see if there were any around the sandy bank we dug for bees a couple of seasons ago and there were, loads and loads of them!

grey-backed mining bee blog1

grey-backed mining bee female checking out a likely site to dig a nest hole.

The sound of the masses of bees was amazing, there really was a “Buzz in the air”, although solitary bees can sting they do not often do so and the vast majority of the bees around the bank were males, which have no sting, so it is possible to enjoy the experience with little risk.

I had the first report of sand martin at the nesting bank today, hopefully we will have a good few nesting pairs again this year.

Elsewhere reports of a glossy ibis at Fishlake Meadows was impressive as was that of a white stork very close by at Squabb Wood, Romsey

Dots of Green

The prolonged dry conditions have caused the grass to go brown almost everywhere you look at the moment. Grasses are a group of plants that are drought adapted and when it rains you can be confident that it will green up again quite rapidly. Other plants respond differently, most annuals are as crisp as the grass, often growing less than usual and seeding earlier before the lack of water kills them. What is obvious though is that even in the brownest grass there still dots of green, these are the deep rooted perennial plants. In my mini-meadow the field scabious in particular still has green leaves and is covered in flowers.

The plants that can keep growing in these conditions provide valuable nectar sources for insects. At Blashford Lakes one plant that just carries on is burdock and the plants near the Education Centre are a magnet for insects.

sil;ver-washed fritillarysilver-washed fritillary

Most butterflies have had a good season, numbers overall have been higher than in recent years, although many are not flying for very long. The species that over-winter by hibernation such as peacock and small tortoiseshell have disappeared, they will be hiding away in sheds and cellars, before they fly again in the early autumn.

One group of butterflies that don’t seem to mind the conditions are the whites, perhaps being white their colour reflects the heat better than the dark browns, which hide away in the shade during the hottest part of the day.

small white

small white

As well as butterflies the same flowers are attracting bees as well, at Blashford Lake, a swell as the bumble-bees, I have seen lots of green-eyed flower bee on the burdock flowers. These smallish, compact bees are very fast flyers and have a distinctive, high pitched buzz.

green-eyed flower bee

green-eyed flower bee

In general the reserve remains quite for birds. On Ivy Lake over a hundred gadwall is a good count for the time of year and on Ibsley Water there are good numbers of coot and tufted duck, although counting them is proving tricky. A few migrant waders are turning up, a common sandpiper or two and the occasional black-tailed godwit are witness to approaching autumn. The ringers have reported catching willow warbler, whitethroat and grasshopper warbler recently, almost certainly all migrants rather than local birds.

Busy in the Sunshine

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.

gatekeeper

gatekeper

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

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.

small skipper on field scabious

small skipper on field scabious

Garganey!

When I opened up the Tern hide this morning I was greeted by the sight of a pair of garganey feeding just to the right of the hide. It is always a treat to see these small ducks, our only duck species that visits for the summer having wintered in Africa. They used to be called “Cricket teal” after the call of the drake, or “Summer teal” because they are about the size of a teal and come here for the summer. The only other notable birds was a another common tern, at present they seem to be adding one a day.

Later in the morning I was amazed to hear that there were now 7 garganey on Ibsley Water, some years we don’t even record a single one, clearly there had been a significant arrival of these ducks.

It has been much more spring-like in the last two days and there have been lots of butterflies seen, including brimstone, peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma in some numbers. Adder have been spotting basking by the paths north of Ellingham Drove and the great tit are nest building in earnest. Perhaps spring has finally arrived.

common dog violet

common dog violet, one of the real signs of spring.