Our Young Naturalists are back onsite!

Since May 2020 we’ve managed to stay in touch with 17 of our Young Naturalists and gain one new member, through 13 online sessions and three onsite sessions (we managed to squeeze two short campfire sessions in during December and met up again onsite at the end of April).

Using zoom and aided by the digital microscope we’ve looked at pond and river life, moths, birds (less successfully online I have to admit…) and a variety of skulls. Aided by PowerPoint and a lot of photos we’ve also covered topics including insects (primarily bees, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies), reptiles, birds of prey and freshwater fish.

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Their topic requests have at times kept me on my toes!

We were also joined online by Owain from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation back in the summer and Amy from the New Forest National Park Authority in October. Following on from our session with Amy, we were joined in November by a New Forest Commoner, Lyndsey Stride, who took us on an autumnal forest walk via zoom and talked about the key New Forest habitats, how her animals interacted with them and and the commoning year.

Rather than being attached to individuals, the common rights of the New Forest are attached to properties and land in the Forest, with the New Forest Commoners being those who occupy the land or property to which the privileges are attached. These privileges include the right to graze stock on the open forest and many commoners are descendants of families who have been commoning for many generations. Today commoning doesn’t generally provide a living, resulting in many commoners being employed elsewhere and it was really interesting to hear Lyndsey talking about her way of life.

At the end of April we were able to meet up properly on site, much to my relief as I had I think had my fill of zoom, and, being able to facilitate more young people than in December we also reverted back to our old meeting time of 10am until 2.30pm – it was great to have a bit more time to do things and a bit more time to catch up with the group.

With dawn chorus day (the first Sunday in May) fast approaching I thought it would be fun to make and try out parabolic reflectors, having seen some great do it yourself versions on social media. Using Sarah Dowling‘s fabulous art work as a guide, we had a go at making them using a plastic bowl and some wooden offcuts Geoff had kindly provided and prepped for us.

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Plant pot parabolic instructions by Sarah Dowling

We placed a piece of wood inside the bowl and put a couple of elastic bands around it, which would be used to keep the recording device in place, then screwed through this piece of wood (avoiding the elastic bands!), the bowl and into another piece of wood that would be used as the handle.

Once made, you could attach your recording device inside the bowl (in this case we used mobile phones) and either record the sound using a recording app or just via the video function on the phone. They worked brilliantly and I was impressed by how much bird song they picked up for something so simply made.

After testing our recording capabilities (the instructions suggested downloading either the ‘Rode Reporter’ app for IOS or the ‘RecForge II’ app for android) we went on a wander in search of bird song. Thankfully it was not hard to find!

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Using our plant pot parabolics

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Recording bird song

It was quite breezy so some of the recordings picked up a lot of background noise, but I was quite pleased with a couple that came out more clearly and you could make out blackcap, garden warbler, blackbird, robin, chiffchaff, and Cetti’s warbler singing, as well as a black-headed gull calling (or squawking) as it flew overhead. I’ll definitely be taking mine out again on a walk at some point!

After having lunch we headed down to the river, as having talked about freshwater fish during our last online session some river dipping seemed rather fitting.

Although Jim had been busy running river study sessions for small groups of home educated children, they had been exploring further down stream and as a result we caught a good number of bullheads and a stone loach in our usual river dipping spot. We also found a very nice demoiselle nymph.

Our next Young Naturalists session is on Sunday 30th May and if the weather is nice we will be heading off on a walk in search of reptiles. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

If you know of an enthusiastic Young Naturalist please do spread the word, we are always keen to welcome new members – booking is essential via either our website or Eventbrite and anyone joining us for the first time will need to have completed a parental consent form, which can be obtained by emailing us at BlashfordLakes@hiwwt.org.uk

Thank you to the Cameron Bespolka Trust for funding our purchase of tools and equipment for the group www.cameronbespolka.com

Messing about in boats…

…with boats, out of boats and under boats!

Yes, the last week of the summer holiday saw us, and the children on “Wild Days Out” as well of course (I have to justify somehow), taking the plunge, quite literally, into the Dockens Water river again. The theme this week?

“River Adventure”…

Starting off in the classroom with paperboat folding and colouring/waterproofing them with wax crayons we were then ready to head down to the water to test them out and do some kick sample surveying for wildlife:

Plenty of invertebrates were of course caught but, as always, it was the fish which captured most children’s interest – with the exception of those few who caught either a leech (always exciting for their “yuck” or “eeuuurgh” factor), beautiful demoiselle or golden ringed dragonfly nymph (both similarly exciting and always elicit a “what is THAT?!” response).

On the fish front by far the most numerous species was minnow, but bullhead, as always, were much in evidence and we are also seeing signs of a good recruitment to the brown trout population this year too. Fishy highlights were an elver (second we’ve caught kick sampling this year, and again, a promising sign that they have had a good year) and a relatively large stone loach (easily identified by the barbels with which it finds its invertebrate prey amongst the silt and stones at the bottom of the river at night).

By this time and being, surprisingly, relatively dry and warm still we quit while we were ahead to stop for lunch – and then equip and prepare ourselves for the real adventure that was to come: coracle paddling and snorkelling!

The coracle had been pre-prepared this year by Tracy with one of our volunteers, Rex, who fulfilled a life long ambition by coming in over a couple of mornings to create and then paddle it himself! Thank you Rex! Thanks also to the Spinnaker Sailing Club for providing us with a loan of buoyancy aids for our intrepid adventurers to wear, “just in case”. As it was most children did manage to stay in the coracle, and the only time it actually sank was when Tracy, somewhat optimistically it has to be said, tried sending 3 children off in it!

Our craft, constructed from some of our willow pollarded last winter, was fitted out with a seat scavenged from a building site by another volunteer, Geoff, and then lined with some left over pond liner from a pond project at Testwood Lakes (pond liner works just as well at keeping water out of a boat as it does in a pond). And despite some heavy use survived completely unscathed – although to be fair, I did not actually have a go in it myself this year, and, had I done so, things might have ended differently!

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So, with a little disappointment it has to be said, I didn’t make it into the coracle this year. Not too much disappointment however because the only reason I didn’t was that I was having far too much fun snorkelling beneath the peaty waters to spend too much time above it!

Having enjoyed (honest!) a very cold and wet weekend camping a couple of days before I was still tired and, with the weather grey as it was, I woke up and came to work with a certain amount of apathy towards the idea of deliberately submerging myself in the river again. However we’d said we’d do it so I reluctantly donned my wetsuit and we made our way down and in… and I was SO glad that I had! I, and everyone who was brave (or foolish) enough to come in with me had a ball and we saw SO MANY fish! As many as we had thought we had caught kick-sampling earlier it really was a very small fraction of just what was in the river!

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So you think they look a bit crazy? You have to be a little bit crazy to even think of doing this!

And its amazing just how much you can see, even in shallow water!

Although the deep water is fun too – the trick is to just swim/crocodile crawl up stream so all of the disturbed silt/sediment washes back behind you and definitely don’t try and snorkel down stream of a load of kick-sampling river dippers!

Wonderful, unusual, wildlife sights await those who brave the water!

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It was cold, but so worth it and well done to all of the children who joined us in the river this summer – you are all part of what is a very small and highly elite group of people who have snorkelled and paddled the Dockens Water river.

You may call yourselves the “Dockens Divers” and, quite rightly, be proud of your achievement!