Been away awhile, but it’s good to be back…

It’s been a long time since I posted to this blog, even longer than usual, and, like everyone else who enjoys these blogs, I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with all things Blashford, reading about what Tracy and Bob were up to on the reserve and finding out how the site and wildlife was faring from mid March as Spring shifted to Summer all the way through to the beginning of July as Summer begins transition to Autumn, effectrively missing a whole season in the process.

I think everyone has had very different experiences of lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic generally as everyone’s individual circumstances have been so different. For me I am pleased, and relieved, to say that for all that it was scary, disturbing and unsettling at times, it has actually been positive for us as a family on the whole and has left us stronger, wilder and greener.

Hopefully our economy can be too.

Until my return to Blashford on 2nd July the previous time my feet had graced its paths was 13th March – my daughter fell ill over that weekend with a sore throat, ears and high temperature. Although it was unlikely to be coronavirus, following the guidance at the time she stayed off school and I worked from home initially to look after her but then, following the then 7 days quarantine period just as we thought she was returning to school and I was returning to work the goal posts changed and a 7 day quarantine for the ill person changed to 14 days for the ill person and their family. She was gutted to not be going back to school – and even more so when, again, just as she thought she would be returning, lockdown kicked in, school and the Trust offices closed and we were all at home indefinitely!

So life for us as a family had changed massively, as it did for most people. Those first few weeks weren’t too bad as we were all at home, but I don’t mind admitting that it soon got much harder, partly managing the emotional well-being of the family and especially my daughter who felt so cheated of time with her friends, and partly adjusting to a new routine of “teaching” the children during the day and then logging onto the Trusts remote desktop to work at night and into the early hours of the morning while the children were asleep, only to start it all over again the next day. My wife, who is an infant school teacher, would have sailed through the children’s work with them, but she of course was soon back at work in the classroom with those children whose parents were key workers or vulnerable so our kids were stuck with me. Generally, although hard, it all went okay but there were the occasional memorable days or odd weeks when things really did not work out so well. Both my daughter and I will, I think, remember always some very heated conversations about fractions whilst we battled through some of her maths lessons together!

So, although very unsettling at the time when the proposal that the Trust education staff be furloughed was first made, the reality was that actually in many ways it was a huge relief and meant that I could concentrate on just looking after my family rather than trying to juggle them and work and failing to do as well at either as I would have liked.

I reckon that a couple of weeks before I returned to work we even, finally, had it cracked at last, with the sudden realisation from the younger two children that actually if they just knuckled down and got on with it in the morning we could do fun stuff all afternoon! Shame it took them so long, but hey-ho!

Apart from the never-ending school home learning (the routine of which actually, however other children/parents found it, was, I think, invaluable to helping us get through lockdown in one piece as a family) the other thing that kept us going was being outside.

There was not a day went by when we were not immensley thankful to live where we do – just a 20 minute brisk walk from the front door to a woodland or 15 minute brisk walk to heathland.

The “gorse walk” was awash with silver-studded blues on occasion this summer
The “secret path” through the wood. One of the pleasures of lockdown was discovering places we’d previously walked past rather than through and we really enjoyed exploring them. Even when it was wet!

Pretty much every day, without fail, after my wife had got back from work and we had had our tea we would all head out for our “exercise walk” and a recharge in nature that all of us needed and benefited from, even if, out of the five of us, it was only my wife and I that realised, or admitted to ourselves just how important to us it was! The children have always been reasonable walkers and always enjoyed exploring and creating mini-adventures on walks in the past, but, prior to lockdown, my wife and I would always first have to endure a barrage of moaning about it before and as we set out. During lockdown our evening walks just became part of what we did and no more did they moan. Within just a few weeks a walk that had taken us about an hour to complete was only taking about 45 minutes and we were able to lengthen the journey and venture a little further afield, discovering new walks and lots of lovely hidden gems of bog and ancient woodland hitherto unknown to us, and all right on our doorstep. As the lockdown restrictions eased and everyone else seemingly took back to their cars we continued (and still continue) to walk from home and are thoroughly enjoying doing so.

We are also very much blessed, unlike many, in so much that we have a garden, albeit a very small one. It was somewhere the children – and I – could escape to whenever we needed to. As weeks turned into months we were able to enjoy watching (and listening!) to the families of great tits and blue tits in the two bird boxes in our garden grow and fledge and, because we spent so much time outside, they and the other “resident” house sparrows, robins and blackbirds became very trusting of us and provided us all with an unparalleled closeness to wild birds that I think we are unlikely to experience again.

No fancy camera, just my phone (which is not at all fancy) and although its not going to win any prizes it does illustrate nicely just how close we were to the birds in our garden as we went about our day to day business and they went about theirs

At one time, before children, our little garden was an oasis for wildlife – with a small pond and mini bog, a couple of fruit tree’s, micro-meadow, log pile and a herb bed that would buzz with insects all summer. With the arrival of our eldest things changed quickly – initially with “just” the loss of our pond (one of the hardest things I’ve ever done was filling that in!) but soon, as he became more adventurous and needed extra play space and was joined by his sister, a lawn was needed for football and chasing around in and the herb bed later disappeared under an extension as we added to the ground floor of the house to give us a little extra space to accommodate child number 3.

So it was with delight that over lockdown the children (instigated by them but very much encouraged by me!) decided that their “playing garden” should have more space for wildlife in it, and so it has developed over the last few months, giving both them, and especially me, a lot of pleasure in the process. It would be true to say that the children still govern the lion-share of the space, but, in addition to the two bird boxes, it now boasts a micro-meadow again, complete with “good for pollinator” flowers, chirruping with grasshoppers and churring with crickets, a mini (washing up bowl) pond, complete with attendant male large red damselflies (I’ve yet to see a female there, but live in hope!), a bespoke mini-beast & bee “hotel” and a small log pile.

The new “wild patch” at the bottom of the garden

One of the highlights was going out at night after the kids were in bed to check on a botched together home-made light trap (it was useless as it happens and never caught a single insect, let alone moth!) only to be surprised by the sudden movement from a medium sized animal illuminated by the camping lantern that was supposed to be attracting insects. After the initial surprise I was thrilled to see that what I had at first taken to be a rat (there’s been a few of those around as well) was actually a hedgehog – the first I’d seen in the garden for years ūüôā

The children have yet to see the hog, other than a photograph and short film of it, but they are delighted to know that the “sacrifices” they have made within the garden in the interests of wildlife conservation have paid off and are really keen to add a hedgehog house to the “wild patch”. After I’ve made them a “den” out of recycled pallets that is – yes, they still have their own interests and priorities for me to follow and willingly “allowed” me to mow some of “our” meadow in order to accommodate the groundworks for the new construction (don’t worry though. I cunningly managed to miss a different patch of lawn when I mowed last to mitigate for the recent depletion in garden grassland habitat!).

The den is being constructed, slowly. Following my return to work at the beginning of the month, progress has slowed somewhat, but it has not ground to a halt and the childrens interest in our wildlife visitors has not reduced as the restrictions of lockdown have eased, helped somewhat perhaps by the occasional new “resident” of our garden, like this rather fine male stag beetle who graced our front garden with his presence for several days recently.

Stag beetle scaling the wall at our front door

It was really very strange that first day back at Blashford – even just driving to work and joining the A31 at Picket Post Hill and accelerating to 70mph after nearly 4 months of not driving anywhere beyond a weekly food shop and not leaving the 40mph restricted roads of the New Forest, was quite a shock to the system.

It’s been great to finally see and catch up with Bob & Tracy, and, of course, re-discover Blashford Lakes in its limited, but still quite special, new post-lockdown guise.

Lots of work to be done now, both at work as well as at home in the garden wild patch – and all of it so much easier than lockdown fractions with my 8 year old!

The native and the more exotic…

This morning I was getting ready for our online Young Naturalists session when I spotted a Large skipper by the pond, the first one I’ve seen this year. It stayed there for some time although I couldn’t see it later on in the day, despite a bit of looking.

They have a pretty faint chequered pattern on the wings, so are easy to tell apart from the similar Small and Essex skippers which fly at the same time.

Large skipper

Large skipper

We have just had our Centre wifi improved enabling us to teach online whilst outside, which is great for our fortnightly Young Naturalists sessions and, although too late for this term, will also allow us to offer virtual sessions to schools as things slowly return to some kind of normal in the autumn.

I tested it out today, running our fortnightly session from the shelter behind the Centre, emptying the moth trap with the group (sadly there weren’t many moths) and showing them the evidence of leaf-cutter bees in the bug hotel.

outdoor classroom

All set up for today’s virtual Young Naturalists session

Whilst outside I also spotted a male blackbird sunbathing on the top of the bug hotel, and managed to take a couple of distant photos:

Blackbird

Blackbird 2

I then watched it bathing in the pond, but wasn’t quite in the right place to get a photo.

For our Young Naturalists session today we were joined by Owain Masters, Public Engagement and Education Officer for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust’s Snakes in the Heather project. The project aims to raise public awareness of the conservation needs of our native reptiles andFinal heathland heritage, helping to promote a better understanding that will safeguard their future. In particular it focuses on the conservation of the smooth snake, Britain’s rarest reptile.

Although not present on the reserve, we are lucky to have them locally on the sandy heaths of Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey.

Owain shared his passion for snakes with the group, talked about the three species native to the UK and tested the group with a fun quiz, ‘snake or fake’, to see what information they had picked up whilst he had been talking. He had been due to join us onsite for a session so it was great he could join us online and hopefully we will be able to reschedule his site visit at some point in the future.

Given our session had a reptile theme, the group’s show and tell was also distinctly reptilian, with Thomas and Harry sharing photos of their pet geckos. Slightly more exotic than our native snakes! Apologies to Alex’s mum… a second gecko may now be on the cards…

The group also shared a few native reptile encounters, with Harry, Thomas and Alex talking about their adder encounters, Cameron and Torey sharing a photo their dad had taken of a grass snake outside the front of Ivy South Hide and Will sharing a photo of a common lizard:

Will also talked about seeing osprey at Fishlake Meadows and watching a collared dove from his bedroom window that was nesting in his garden. He had also seen a large white butterfly, red admiral, scarlet tiger moth and female stag beetle.

Finally, Cameron shared some really lovely landscape photos from a walk around Whitsbury, near Fordingbridge:

Next time we will be chatting a bit more about reptiles and looking at all six species naive to the UK and have our usual rummage through the light trap. It will be interesting to see what wildlife they have all encountered between now and then.

After the session was over I had another look by the pond for the large skipper but had to content myself with this lovely skipper instead, I think a small skipper rather than an Essex skipper.

Small skipper

Small skipper

Finally, towards the end of the day a very kind visitor pointed out a crab spider that was lurking in amongst the buddleia flowers by the pond. After a bit of searching, I think its a goldenrod or flower crab spider. Its pale colouring and purple stripes did help it blend in really well with the flowers, I have no idea how they spotted it!

Goldenrod or flower crab spider Misumena vatia

Goldenrod or flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

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

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30 Days Wild – Day 13: Gulls get Rings

Tuesday is one of our two regular volunteer days at Blashford Lakes,¬†this week’s main task was further work to improve the grassland habitat along the western shore of Ibsley Water.¬†We have had a long-term project to remove bramble, nettle and willow that has been threatening to take dominate. This shore was remodelled into a steep bank using the topsoil removed from the gravel pit surface when¬†it was first dug, conditions ideal for the development of nettle beds and bramble thickets. To reverse this we have been mowing to allow grass and perennial herb species to get the upper-hand.¬† This has been targeted work aiming to take out only the least desirable species. Even the nettle beds have elements that we leave, such as any patches with nets of peacock and small tortoiseshell larvae.

peacock caterpillars

peacock caterpillars

Alongside the nutrient-rich soils there are poorer patches and these have a more interesting flora including a number of bee orchid.

bee orchid and mower

bee orchid

At the end of the day I went out to Gull Island in Ibsley Water with the bird-ringers to colour-ring a sample of the black-headed gull chicks. We have been doing this for a number of years to find out where the birds from this recently established colony go to and if the chicks reared here return to breed in later years. We managed to catch and ring thirty chicks during our short visit, a good sample.

209C gets ringed

209C gets a ring, where will it go and will it come back?

In the evening I came across a female stag beetle on the fence in the garden, the first female I have seen this year. The day ended on a fine calm note and so I decided to head out to listen to the nightjar again. One came and perched on a branch very close by and gave great views. I never tire of watching and listening to nightjar and to have the opportunity to do so just a few minutes walk from home is wonderful.

30 Days Wild – Day 8

In the morning I was leading a guided walk at Blashford, the bird highlight of which was probably  a red kite which flew over Ibsley Water. It was a very tatty bird and as I was commenting on this one of its secondary feathers fell out, active moult in action!

We also looked in the moth trap where the pick was a scarce merveille du jour, a moth of old oak woodland and very attractive.

scarce merveille du jour

scarce merveille du jour

In the afternoon I was out on the water off Lymington looking at potential projects that might help nesting terns on the coast. With rising sea levels their favoured low shingle banks are being swamped ever more frequently and they have to compete for space with the many gulls that have been pushed off the saltmarshes for the same reason. Unless there is room for more habitat creation inland of the seawalls it is hard to see how they are going to survive for much longer. There are one or two opportunities provided by projects such as the creation of breakwaters, but these do not really substitute for what is being lost.

At home in the evening I checked through my moth trap ran last night and was delighted to find not one, but two stag beetle, always a treat to see and a real June speciality.

stag beetle

male stag beetle

Towards dusk I went for a short walk on the heath, it was very quite, but I did see some very fine crow footprints, the detail is fantastic because they have been made in exceedingly fine dust and the lack of wind had meant they had stayed perfect.

crow footprint

carrion crow footprint

I wonder if I will catch up before day 30???