The White Stuff

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.

English White cattle on Ashley Meadow

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

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.

small copper

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.

spider

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.

herons egrets and cormorants

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.

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Roasting and toasting

It was rather warm on Sunday for our August Young Naturalists gathering, so we decided to roast ourselves even more by spending time in the meadow, a habitat we haven’t really visited yet this year, followed by a bit of blackberry bread cooking over the campfire…

We began though with a look through the light trap which revealed at least 19 different species including a lovely Peach blossom, a Purple thorn, a Pebble hook tip and a Chinese character, amongst others.

We were then distracted by a Southern hawker flying over the pond, which Talia managed to photograph whilst it was busy hawking for insects:

Southern hawker by Talia Felstead

Southern hawker by Talia Felstead

After gathering up some sweep nets, identification sheets and bug pots we made our way over to the meadow in search of wasp spiders, grasshoppers and bush crickets and anything else we could find. It didn’t take us long to locate the wasp spider, just inside the gate on the left hand side.

Wasp spider by Talia Felstead

Wasp spider by Talia Felstead

I set the group a challenge to find a pink grasshopper and a Roesel’s bush cricket. I don’t think they believed me about the pink grasshopper, but once they’d spotted one they tried their best to catch it and find more, but without any success! So sadly no photo!

Most grasshopper species are a more sensible green-brown colour, allowing them to blend in with their surroundings, but some do carry genes that make them pink or purple-red. They just might not survive for long in the wild (or stay in one place long enough for a photo!), as they are more likely to be predated. The group did now believe there were pink grasshoppers though, and there were plenty more sensibly coloured ones around that didn’t move quite as fast for us to catch and look at closely.

As for the Roesel’s bush cricket, although we swept through the grass outside the meadow as well as in it, we couldn’t find one, so I will have to be content with the photo Bob put on the blog yesterday instead. We did though catch a very fine looking female long-winged conehead cricket instead:

Female bush cricket by Talia Felstead

Long-winged conehead by Talia Felstead

Bush cricket

Long-winged conehead, quite content on Megan’s hand

We also found a number of other spiders, including some brilliantly patterned orb web spiders and a wolf spider, alongside caterpillars, an orange swift moth, common blue damselflies, honey beesbaby toads and more.

After getting a bit hot in the meadow, we relocated momentarily to the shade and picked blackberries before heading to the campfire area to attempt a bit of bread making. Megan and Will H did a superb job of mixing us up some dough whilst Will S and Ben helped lay the fire which Ben then lit.

I offered the group blackberries, dried fruit, freshly picked marjoram and chocolate buttons for their ingredients, which seemed to cater for all tastes, and we had a mix of fillings and shapes on the grill – not everyone opted for chocolate! Everyone went back for seconds…

The group enjoyed bread making so much they requested more campfire cooking, so we agreed on a winter cookout towards the end of the year, the food list is already quite lengthy!

We also found time to hunt here for minibeasts, finding a flat backed millipede that managed to stay still long enough for Talia to take a photo and a ground beetle larvae.

Flat backed millipede by Talia Felstead

Flat backed millipede by Talia Felstead

Beetle larvae by Talia Felstead

Beetle larvae by Talia Felstead

Thanks to volunteers Geoff and Roma for their help on the day and to Talia for taking lots of great photos and sharing them with me for the blog.

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

30 Days Wild – Day 25

Day 25 and I was in Portsmouth at the Lakeside North Harbour site doing a public event for National Insect Week. Looking at the pictures I have posted during 30 Days Wild it would seem I have been more or less doing 30 Days of Insects, but as they form so much of our wildlife I will make no apologies for doing so. The other reason is that I only have one decent lens for my camera and that is a macro lens! You can find out more about National Insect week at http://www.nationalinsectweek.co.uk. It is run every two years by the Royal Entomological Society with the assistance of lots of other organisations including the Wildlife Trusts.

The Lakeside site lies just beside the A27 and is a large area of offices in several blocks, perhaps it does not sound that promising for wildlife? But think again, it is constructed on chalk which was dumped onto marshes left isolated north of the road, so far so disastrous for wildlife, but the habitat that has developed is chalk grassland with lots of flowers including thousands of orchids. There is also some wetland and scrub, in short a varied and generally nutrient poor landscape, with a wide range of species, something of a biodiversity hotspot! The management has been enlightened enough not to “garden” too much of it, although the corporate love of grass like a carpet, lollipop trees and gob-stopper bushes is evident in parts. Anyone who visits a corporate HQ or similar office cannot help but be struck by how much they really baulk at the intrusion of the natural world, few tolerate any native flora and fauna and obviously spend lots of money keeping the areas around their buildings that way. An odd approach when most would say they are efficient and environmentally aware.

As I said lakeside is actually a very good wildlife site and shows what can be done, in addition the more natural areas are very popular with the staff, many of whom will walk around the grounds in their lunch break. A “Green break” is something that I am sure is good for their wellbeing and probably afternoon productivity.

The weather was not the best, my plan to run a moth trap overnight had failed as the trap had not turned on and half the people booked onto the walk did not show up, so not the best of starts. However the insects did not let us down and we were joined by as many people who had not booked as were on the original list, so we actually had more participants than  expected. Highlights were six-spot burnet, both as larvae and adult, with this one posing on a pyramidal orchid for photos.

six-spot burnet on pyramidal orchid

six-pot burnet on pyramidal orchid

We also saw several species of hoverflies, two soldierflies, robberflies, damselflies, lots and lots of true bugs, beetles and even a few butterflies. The weather was against us though and just as we were coming to the end of the event we all had to run for shelter  as the heavens opened and the thunder and lightening swept in.

the end of the insect walk

rain and lost of it!

In the afternoon I was back at Blashford, where the weather was much better, although I passed through some of the heaviest rain I have encountered in many years on the way. When you see the full force of a really torrential downpour like that it is interesting to imagine what the impact must be on creatures as small as insects, it must be significant.

Storms are local events so even if they could be devastating they should not impact whole populations. Spiders however are everywhere and the recent mass emergence of damselflies has given them more food that they can cope with, one web by the Centre pond contained three such victims. Shear numbers are what keep insects going, even if thousands die, enough can go on and each survivor can produce many offspring.

trapped damselfly

captured damselfly

As I locked up it was pleasing to see that there were still lapwing chicks on view near the Tern hide and that at least two of the little ringed plover chicks have fledged. I also spotted that the female common scoter I found with the tufted duck flock on Thursday was still there diving for food out in the middle of the lake.

30 Days Wild – Day 19

Sunday and almost mid-summer and I was at Blashford where we were hosting Fordingbridge Astronomical Society’s Sun Day. They had telescopes set up so that the sun could be safely viewed and some of its usually hidden secrets seen. However, the clouds did not play along and the sun remained hidden resulting an early end to Sun Day.

However Sunday continued and in the afternoon I was leading a walk to look for dragonflies, damselflies and miscellaneous other bugs. Unfortunately the clouds had continued to gather and light rain started to fall, making insects hard to find.

wet damselfly

soggy damselfly

Despite the rain we did see four species of butterflies, an optimistic migrant red admiral at the Centre Pond, common blue and meadow brown hiding in the meadow and a hundred or more peacock caterpillars in front of the Ivy North hide.

In the morning it had been a little less wet and I had found a few more insects and other invertebrates out and about, including this snipefly, with huge eyes.

fly

snipefly

There are also a lot more siders about now.

spider

spider

Mid-summer is also a time for flowers, perhaps a surprise to some of our visitors, but Blashford is actually quite a good site for orchids, we have several species and sometime sin quite large numbers. This despite most of the being a “Brownfield” site, we tend to think of orchids as plants of ancient downland sites, but many will colonise freely if they get the chance. The bee orchids are at their best now and some can be seen on bank on the side of the main car park.

bee orchid flower

bee orchid flower

 

A Couple More Pictures

After doing our count mostly in the lull between the heavier rain that followed it was a surprise when, all of a sudden, the sun came out and we locked up the reserve under clear blue skies. This allowed me to get s picture of one of the snipe from Tern hide, always a pleasure to see.

sleeping snipe

resting snipe

Otherwise my only wildlife picture of the day was of a huge spider that ran across the Centre floor, it is one of the “House spiders”, perhaps T. gigantea as it was very large indeed!

Tegenaria species

Tegenaria species

Blashford’s Micro World – Taking a Closer Look

I opened up the hides at Blashford this morning in a fog that meant I could see only a few hazy birds looming in and out of the mist. The sun looked like it might break through, but in fact it took until nearly midday and then we had banks of cloud from time to time. The volunteers tried to do the butterfly transect and just about managed it, although butterflies were few in number.

When the sun did come out at lunchtime I took a walk by the lichen heath, this is a fascinating and very vulnerable bit of habitat, the lichens do not like being walked on, so I kept off the heath proper. The habitat owes its existence to the ultra-poor soil which has just enough nutrients for lichens and mosses and a few very, very small flowering plants. Amongst them two or more species of speedwells.

wall speedwell (I think)

wall speedwell (I think)

Most speedwells are small plants, this one, wall speedwell, is very small with flowers perhaps 2mm across. I also found a patch of blinks, I seem to remember being told that it was the UK’s smallest flowering plant.

blinks

blinks

There are also several forget-me-not species, two of which are especially small.

early forget-me-not

early forget-me-not

This one is early forget-me-not and has flowers about 2mm across, they are a traditional forget-me-not blue, as might be expected. The other tiny species is quite remarkable in that it cannot decide what colour the flowers should be, or rather it has flowers that change colour as the age, it is the aptly named changing forget-me-not.

changing forget-me-not

changing forget-me-not

The heath is also home to a wide range of small insects and other invertebrates, a surprising number of them seem to be either ants or spiders. I came across a number of small mounds of sand, well actually many were more like chimneys, made of sand grains pile dup and with a hole down the centre. They were evidently entrance ways into ant nests as there were ants clearly visible around the entrances. Although I describe them as entrances there did not seem to be many ants coming and going so perhaps, like termites they build them as part of an air circulation system.

ant chimney

ant chimney

My last find of interest out on the heath was a small moth, now I have had trouble identifying it with anything like certainty, I am pretty sure it is a Gelechid  of some sort, my best guess is Aroga velocella, which has larvae that eat sheep’s sorrel.

Gelechid moth

Gelechid moth

Walking round the edge of the heath I passed a Scots pine and noticed it was in flower, the male flowers release huge amounts of wind-blown pollen which fertilise the female comes, each tree is both male and female, as you can see from the picture, the large males flowers are above the smaller female cone.

flowering Scots pine

flowering Scots pine

Looking closely at the flowers I realised that many of them had a spider on them, the same species every time and seemingly only one on each flower cluster, they were also quite well camouflaged. I have failed to identify the species, if anyone can help I would be very pleased.

spider

spider

On my way back to the office I stopped by the handful of ramsons I found the other week, a plant I had not known even grew at Blashford. They are now in flower and I took a couple of pictures and in one I saw that the flowers were being visited by ants, presumably feeding on the nectar.

ants on ramsons flowers

ants on ramsons flowers

Although the sun was not out for long it did feel quite spring-like and warm, a calling cuckoo added to the feel as did 2 swifts which flew over. The 2 or 3 calling Mediterranean gull that circled over made for a rather more seaside feel, but all in all it was very pleasant.

Other birds about today were about 30 common tern, good news as we will be putting out some tern rafts tomorrow and I would like them to be fully occupied as soon as possible to stop the black-headed gulls taking over.

I scream Sunday

The first Sunday of the month and as Ed couldn’t be here, it fell to me to run the conservation volunteers bash.  Today we attacked the encroaching vegetation along the footpath between the small car-park and the equipment storage area. Its one of those areas where gradually growing willow, sedge and brambles have narrowed the width of the path and made it quite narrow. Thanks to all who turned up we now have a much easier route through.

There were a number of ‘seasonal’ bird sightings today.

When  opening up there were three pied wagtail, an adult and two youngsters, perched up on the Tern Hide.  I went  back to the car for my camera, but they flew before I could capture the scene.  Fortunately, however, my trip wasn’t wasted as I managed to snap a couple of young Egyptian geese on the shore outside the hide.

Young Egyptian geese

Young Egyptian geese

Kingfishers are nearly always seen more frequently at this time of year. Although the suitable habitat for breeding on the reserve is only really along the Dockens Water, or further afield in the Avon valley, at this time of year young birds are dispersing – or being dispersed by their parents who are driving them off – and so turn up in some number on the lakes.  Today there were a number of reports from visitors of kingfisher seen from Ivy North and South Hides.

Sometime later at least one visitor saw an osprey over Ibsley water and common sandpiper were regularly patrolling along the shore in front of the Tern hide.

common sandpiper - note the white 'shoulder-stripe' which is characteristic of this species, not seen on other sandpipers

common sandpiper – note the white ‘shoulder-stripe’ which is characteristic of this species, not seen on other sandpipers

It’s also that time of year when the spider population in the hides builds up. I know quite a few people who don’t find this a pleasing aspect of birdwatching and they can provoke an almost hysterical response if they drop from the roof. Personally I don’t mind them, some of them are beautifully marked, but I appreciate there not to everyone’s taste. Those with arachnophobia should look way now.

Spider in Tern Hide

Spider in Tern Hide

The now almost regular highlight of this time of year is the arrival of the great white egret and there were at least half a dozen visitors today who were looking for this bird.  There were several reports  from both Ivy North and South hides and I was lucky enough to capture this image late in the day.

Great whit egret from Ivy North Hide

Great white egret from Ivy North Hide

Slightly unusually when it came to the time I was closing the Tern Hide, several mute swans were busy preening just off shore. It’s the time of year when considerable numbers of these beautiful birds spend time with us as they moult their feathers, as witnessed by large quantities of feathers floating on the lakes and distributed around the shore.

P1450302_Mute Swan

Mute swan outside Tern hide