Spring Advances

There have been a lot of consequences of the current coronavirus outbreak that we might not have foreseen. One of these at Blashford are problems for our breeding common terns. The virus and consequent cancellation of all volunteer work parties has meant that the rafts the terns usually nest on cannot be launched. Luckily the very large raft we put out last summer on Ibsley Water was never brought in and the terns seem to be willing to consider it as a nest site.

two tern pairs

Displaying common terns on the “Mega raft”.

The bird to the right has a fish, this will be a male that has caught a fish to bring back to his mate as part of courtship feeding. This behaviour will show a new partner his fishing ability, or just strengthen existing pair bonds, it will also help the female gain condition in readiness for producing the eggs, a huge drain in her resources.

It will be interesting to see how many pairs turn up this year, after years of steady growth the population has fallen in the last couple of years, I think due to poor weather at migration time and more problems competing with nesting black-headed gulls. We also seem to have had very few birds passing through, until this year that is. The other day 68 were counted over Ibsley Water, of course that does not mean they will stay to breed and most have certainly moved on, but at least 14 remain, so perhaps we have a core of seven pairs to build on.

The spring is peak time for birds passing through and as well as common tern we usually see some of their more northern nesting cousins, Arctic terns and occasionally a few of the inland marsh nesting, black tern, although sadly they do not nest in the UK. Black tern and another passage visitor the little gull are probably on their way to nesting around the Baltic Sea area. This spring does seem to have been a good one for little gull, with birds being seen on several days.

P1080400

Little gull, one hatched last year (2cy).

The young birds, hatched last year vary a lot in the amount of dark markings in their wings, this one being fairly typical, but some have almost totally black upper-wings and some much reduced. These birds used to be called “First summer” , although this might seem a little odd as they were hatched last spring, but their actual first summer would have been spent in juvenile plumage, so “First summer” actually described the plumage, not the age of the bird. Things get more confusing with some other species that time their moult differently, so these days you are more likely to hear birders referring to “Second calendar year” (often reduced to 2cy) indicating the age of the bird, rather than the plumage.

As it is spring most of our birds are settling down to nest. As I was having some lunch on Monday a mallard was on the new pond built last year behind the Education Centre, I wondered why it was so reluctant to leave as I sat down nearby. The answer was actually obvious, it had a nest near the pond and when I looked away it flew a short distance into the vegetation and disappeared, no doubt it was just taking a short break from the arduous task of incubation, which is all done by the female.

mallard duck on Centre pond

mallard duck on Centre pond

Blashford Lakes is not an obviously good site for orchids, generally when thinking of these the mind goes to long established chalk downland and these are certainly very good for orchids. However just because Blashford is a recently developed old gravel pit complex this does not mean there are no orchids. In fact we have at least seven species, which might seem surprising, but the secret is that the soils are very nutrient poor, something they have in common with old chalk downland. Our commonest species is probably bee orchid, with scattered groups in various, mostly grassy, places. Next would be southern marsh and common spotted orchids in the damper areas. In deep shade and so probably often overlooked there are common twayblade. On the dry grassland was have a growing population of autumn lady’s tresses and, since it was first found last year a single green-winged orchid. Last years plant was a good tall one, but it got eaten, probably by deer or rabbit. I wondered if it had come up this year so went to have a look yesterday and found it, although a good bit smaller than it was last year, but still flowering.

green-winged orchid

green-winged orchid

Full of Promise

It seems to have been a week for blossom, the crab apple is at its best, the pear is just ahead but still great on the northern side of the tree and yes we do have a pear at Blashford, blackthorn is over and today I saw my first hawthorn in bloom.

hawthorn blossom

Hawthorn in flower

Lots of  flowers should mean lots of fruits in the autumn, unless we have a very, very dry summer of course.

Elsewhere on my rounds I found three orchids, twayblades nearly in flower, but also in the dark under a bush so I could not get a picture. In the open were a southern marsh orchid, with very spotted leaves.

marsh orchid

Southern marsh orchid

And even more in the open, several bee orchid rosettes.

bee orchids

bee orchids, rather nibbled by rabbits

These orchids will be flowering later in the season, but as you may have noticed there are lots of bees out now, many will visit dandelions and daisies, not weeds but vital nectar sources. A good few species also visit willows in the spring, including that rare spring species the grey-backed mining bee Andrena vaga, the females return to their nests with loads of the bright willow yellow pollen as food for their larvae.

Andrena vaga

grey-backed mining bee

Spring is a time of migration and one of the species that passes through on the way from North Africa to the uplands of Scotland an Scandinavia is the ring ouzel. This is a bird very like a blackbird, in fact sit was known as the mountain blackbird, but it has a white crescent across the chest and rather longer wings, as befits a bird that flies long distances. Today I saw a blackbird with some white, sadly though not a ring ouzel, but a common blackbird with some white feathering.

blackbird

“Just” a blackbird

Finally I turned on the camera screen at Blashford today as I waited for computer support to reconnect me to our network and found that the grey squirrel that has been occupying the owl box has actually been rearing a family.

young squirrels in box

young squirrel in the owl box

30 Days Wild – Day 8

A morning walk at Fishlake Meadows with a Wildlife Trust group got the day off to a good start, although rather windy and eventually curtailed by rain. We were looking at insects and flowers in Ashley Meadow, a part of the reserve that is not normally open to visitors. It has lush wet meadow and fen vegetation including a good population of southern marsh orchid.

Ashley Meadow flowers

Meadow vegetation with southern marsh orchids

Insects were rather few, but we did find larvae of the fleabane tortoise beetle, a few snail-killing flies and hoverflies, before the rain put an end to things. The canal was a little higher after the rain but the yellow water lily were keeping their heads above water well enough.

yellow lilies in Barge Canal

yellow water lily in the Barge Canal

Back at home by lunchtime today as the walk was a morning only event, th esun came out and a quick check soon found the silver-studded blue just about a metre from where I left it yesterday.

silver-studded blue

silver-studded blue

Something hopped onto the grass close by, a grasshopper nymph, the first I have seen in the garden this year, although it is already well grown, so I must have just missed it until now.

field grasshopper nymph

grasshopper nymph, I think of field grasshopper.

As it was World Oceans Day I thought I should go down to the sea, so made a quick trip to Lepe. A steady passage of common tern carrying fish suggests that breeding to the west is going well, so far, I just hope the storm has not flooded out too many nests.

Lepe

The Solent at Lepe

Even though it is June the last twenty-four hours have been decidedly wild, in not such a good way, with unseasonable wind and a fair bit of rain.

A different sort of wild tomorrow as it is the Wood Fair at Roydon Woods and I will be there doing some mini-beats walks and generally enjoying this fabulous site and of course all the exhibits and stalls.

Pathwork

We have been having an upgrade to the paths at Blashford over recent days and so if you visit you will see lots of new surfaces. We are also getting the wooden bridges  refurbished so both will be subject to closures for periods as this is being done.

We have also been working on the paths at Fishlake Meadows, yesterday the volunteers were clearing the path edges where the recent rain had caused the vegetation to flop across the path. There will be surfacing work starting here too, so watch this space for updates on when this will be happening.

banded demoiselle

banded demoiselle

Along the canal path on a dull day we saw lots of resting banded demoiselle, mostly males like the one above.

The fields are looking very wet again after recent rain, but very green and flower filled. Yellow flag iris are particularly obvious, but there is a lot else, including some very splendid southern marsh orchids.

southern marsh orchid

southern marsh orchid

There were at least four cuckoo flying around, three of them males that were “cuckooing” constantly, I thought there might have been five and someone later reported six! Fishlake is a remarkable site for this species.

I was back at Blashford later in the day where the number of moths at the trap have increased significantly in recent days, a reflection of warmer nights which allow the moths to fly for much longer through the night. Meanwhile warmer days are resulting in lots of insects across a wide range of groups getting out and about. I saw this black-striped longhorn beetle when I went to lock up the hides yesterday evening.

black-striped longhorn beetle

black-striped longhorn beetle

I will be having a go at the 30 Days Wild again this year and will be trying to do a blog everyday throughout the month once again. There is still time to sign up if you visit 30 Days Wild sign up where you can join thousands of others who will be promoting the benefits of a !Wildlife” throughout the month.

30 Days Wild – Day 4: A Day for Orchids

After working in the morning with the Sunday volunteer team path trimming, I got out on site for an hour or so in the afternoon. This is peak orchid flowering time, we don’t get many at Blashford and this year’s dry spring seems to have done them no favours, however I did see four species. First was a small group of bee orchid near the Goosander hide.

bee orchid

bee orchid flower

The packet of pollen, known as pollinia can be seen hanging down in the centre, there would have been two, so one has probably been carried away by a visiting insect.

I also found single specimens of common spotted orchid

common spotted orchid

common spotted orchid

and also a southern marsh orchid.

marsh orchid

southern marsh orchid

I also came across a common twayblade, but it was too dark for a picture.

The sunshine was a bit on and off, even with a brief shower at one point, but in the sunnier periods there were quite good numbers of insects out and about. My best picture of an insect today was of a hoverfly Xylota sylvarum, a very fine species with a golden-haired tip to the abdomen.

Xylota sylvarum

Xylota sylvarum, doing a bit of wing cleaning.

My last thing to do for the day was to clean out and feed the puss moth caterpillars, hatched from some eggs laid by a female I caught in the trap. Rearing caterpillars is one of those things I enjoy doing each year, the species vary according to what we come across, in recent years we have reared lime hawk-moth, eyed hawk-moth, iron prominent and alder moth amongst others.

puss moth young caterpillar

A young puss moth caterpillar, they get very impressive when they are fully grown.

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 15

Up hideously early and out to do a breeding bird survey, luckily the weather was fine, although I could have done without it having rained overnight as the trees were dripping and the tall grass very wet. Still it was calm and sunny and, for mid June, a good few birds were singing. As well as the birds I saw my first meadow brown of the year, actually lots of them and also a few common spotted and southern marsh orchid and a single Mother Shipton moth. 

common spotted orchid or hybrid

common spotted orchid, or possibly a hybrid as the leaves were unspotted. (I have just spotted the 7-spot ladybird in this shot!)

I arrived at Blashford by ten o’clock and had a quick check of the moth trap, rather few moths but very fresh individuals of small angle shades and lime hawkmoth. However it was the trays of creatures laid out for the school pond-dipping session that caught my eye, in particular one containing a water stick insect nymph.

water stick insect nymph

water stick insect nymph

The sun came out briefly at lunchtime so I went out for a break from the desk and nectaring on a hemlock water-dropwort plant was a very fresh red admiral.

red admiral 2

red admiral

There are quite good numbers of migrant insects about just now, there have been modest arrivals of red admiral and painted lady butterflies and huge numbers of the tiny diamond-back moth, so many that they have made the national news and it is not often a micro-moth does that! There are also lots of the marmalade hoverfly and silver Y moths, if you have flowers out in the garden you will almost certainly be able to see them nectaring at dusk.

My afternoon was spent in a meeting, but as it was still sunny when I got home I took a look in the garden and found this swollen-thighed beetle (Oedemera nobilis) feeding on an ox-eye daisy in our mini-meadow.

beetle on ox eye daisy

male swollen-thighed beetle on ox-eye daisy

30 Days Wild – Day 3

On day three and still in Pembrokeshire with its famous beaches and rocky coastline, a day by the beach was called for and no day at the beach is complete without a bit of rock-pooling. Along with a spectacular variety of seaweeds we found anemones, lots of molluscs and lots of prawns, I think this one is a common prawn.

prawn

common prawn

Lots of the sandy beaches in West Wales are backed by dune systems, these are wonderfully rich habitats and behind Freshwater West beach is one with a wet pool known as a “slack”, in addition the stabilised sand now has a rich flora including early marsh orchid and southern marsh orchid.

marsh orchid

Southern marsh orchid growing in a flower-rich dune slack.

I also came across a robber-fly that was new to me and it turns out is a specialist occupier of grassy areas in fixed dunes, favouring slightly worn areas along paths, which was exactly where I pictured this one.

robberfly

Fan-bristled robberfly (Dysmachus trigonus)