30 Days Wild – Day 27

A very different day, windy and quite wet at times with heavy showers, especially in the morning,. Despite this the moth catch was still reasonable, although nothing like yesterday’s. There were several species caught for the first time this year such as slender brindle, dingy footman, black arches, blue-bordered carpet and European corn borer. There were also several extra micro moths such as pine shoot moth,

pine shoot moth

pine shoot moth

and Zeiraphera isertana.

Zeiraphera isertana

Zeiraphera isertana

However the top prize for “Catch of the Day” went to a soldierfly, Oxycera rara.

Oxycera rara 4x3

Oxycera rara

Perhaps blown in by the windy weather, a young, second calendar year little gull was over Ibsley Water. At the Centre a hobby flew over and there was a grey wagtail around the ponds. The common tern colony on the rafts on Ivy Lake is still going strong, with the chicks growing fast and lots of pairs with all three chick still surviving. The wind can be a problem for chicks when they are first trying to fly, lifting them off the rafts prematurely, luckily they are not that well grown yet. However strong winds can make it much harder for the adults to catch the fish they need to feed the chicks, resulting in poorer growth, or at worst, starvation. The next couple of weeks will see how they have fared.

30 Days Wild – Day 15

The summer is moving on and I am delighted to say that I have seen the first common tern chicks of the year, under a month from the day the rafts went out. They will usually lay three eggs on consecutive days and then incubate them for about 21 days. They have had 28 days since the rafts went out so they got down to nesting very quickly! Some have not yet hatched and the off-duty birds can still be seen taking it easy before the real work of feeding the chicks starts.

common tern - Copy

common tern having a good preen whilst there it still has some “Me time”

The black-headed gulls are much more advanced and a few chicks are flying now, with a lot more to come.

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Gulls on a raft with lots of chicks

There have been a lot of mallard broods about for a while, but I saw my first brood of gadwall yesterday, although they were already fairly well grown. They breed much later than mallard and prefer a warm dry summer, so this should be a good year for them.

gadwall

gadwall and brood, there were actually 8 ducklings in all.

Grasses don’t get much attention, but Blashford does have a large population of one particularly distinctive species, the annual beard grass, it normally grows near the coast but finds conditions on the reserve quite suitable, despite being inland.

annual beard grass - Copy

annual beard grass

 

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.

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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

Accommodation Crisis

The common tern are back at Blashford Lakes, or at least the first few pairs are. It is always good to see them back and the reserve has proved very good for them. We do not have a large population, typically around 20 pairs, but they are very successful, sometimes rearing an average of more than two chicks per pair, an exceptional fledging rate.

common tern

common tern

Our terns nest on rafts that we put out for them, but this year we cannot mobilise the staff and volunteers to do this due to the impossibility of maintaining social distancing when doing the launching. We do have one raft out and there are some shingle patches on one or two islands, so we will have to hope these will be enough to allow them to nest.

I posted a picture of the camera view inside our tawny owl box the other day, full not of owlets, but grey squirrels. The young squirrels have now moved on and the box has immediately been occupied by a pair of stock dove, showing the premium there is on large tree cavities.

stock doves in owl box

stock doves in owl box

Other species are less constrained for nest sites and for them the breeding season moves on. Coot are nest building all around the lakes, or at least anywhere there is something to secure a nest to with some cover.

coot

coot

I have been going into work less frequently than usual and trying to work from home, however there is only so much paperwork a reserves officer can do and site tasks are starting to become more pressing. One in particular has become rather horrifyingly apparent as the spring has unfolded and that is the extent of progress made by ash die-back disease in the last few months. It is now obvious that large numbers of trees have died and will need to be removed. I will leave any that are away from paths as standing dead wood, but unfortunately this still leaves a lot that will need to be felled.

ash die-back

As the trees have come into leaf the full extent of ash die-back has become apparent

Lockdown Impacts on Wildlife

I was on site for checks again yesterday and a good thing as it turned out as a large oak bough had fallen across a path. Presumably in the wind on Monday a branch, with no obvious decay and just coming into leaf, was ripped off and fell 8m or so to the ground, luckily nobody was under it. Fortunately Jo was also doing checks not too far away at Fishlake and was able to come over to provide my first aid cover so I could use the chainsaw to clear the problem away.

Generally the reserve is quiet now with very few people continuing to drive out and so mainly only being visited by those within walking range. I had hoped that fewer people might mean some benefit for wildlife, especially more easily disturbed species that may avoid areas close to car parks and paths under normal circumstances. I think some of this may be happening, it appears that snakes are basking beside the paths a little more than usual, they undoubtedly do so anyway, but will move away each time someone passes. I spotted this very bright adder by a path edge yesterday.

adder 4x3

basking adder

Unfortunately I think the overall effect on wildlife will be very negative, what I have found, and this seems to be getting worse, is that the few people who are still driving out to the reserve are mostly wandering well off the paths. At least four of yesterdays eight vehicles parked near the reserve for long periods were definitely associated with anglers, either wandering with bait boxes to look at fish or actively fishing. As a result there is regular and at times persistent disturbance around most of the lake shores, in areas that would usually be quiet. It was noticeable that both pairs of oystercatcher seem to have gone and the three lapwing displaying last week were nowhere to be seen.

I did see my first common tern of the year yesterday, but with little chance of getting the rafts out they will have only the islands to nest on. The main island is usually full of gulls, but these are absent this year, which would give them a chance free from the usual competition. Unfortunately I suspect the gulls are not there because of the high level of disturbance from anglers on the nearest bank, which will also put off the terns. It is also likely that angling is even more common at night so my records probably underplay the impacts.

The day was bright and sunny and it was pleasant to be out, I heard my first singing garden warbler and was able to enjoy the crab apple in all its glory.

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crab apple in bloom

As a conservationist I am an optimist, it goes with the territory, even when the evidence is against us a belief that things can be improved is essential. In life though the actions of a few can undo the good intentions of the many, whether in wildlife conservation or, as we are all now finding, in the suppression of a viral pandemic.

Stay safe, really look at your bit of the world and the other life you share it with, enjoy it and think how it could be made better.

30 Days Wild – Day 20

A slippery sort of a day, blue sky to start then rain, then warm sun and eventually heavy rain, it was hard to know how many layers and of what type to wear and every time I went out I got it wrong. The wildlife seemed equally confused, at Ivy South Hide as I opened up in thick cloud the grass snakes were “basking” on the tree stump.

grass snake

the largest grass snake

By the time I set out with the volunteers at 10:00 to work on the eastern shore of Ibsley Water, the sun was strong and the sun block was out in force. Ten minutes later when we got there, grey clouds were threatening and curtains of rain could be seen falling to the south-west. Luckily, and to my surprise, we got away with it and managed to return still more or less dry. On the return journey I noticed a mullein plant with the telltale tattered leaves caused by munching mullein moth caterpillars.

mullein moth caterpillar

mullein moth caterpillar

Our tern rafts have mainly been occupied by gulls again this year, this is to be expected as gulls far outnumber terns. There are about twenty pairs of terns nesting though and many now have chicks.

raft with B-h gulls

Raft with black-headed gull families

There are still a few common tern seemingly loafing around on Ibsley Water, I assume off-duty birds whose partners are still sitting on eggs, but perhaps non-breeders.

common tern

common tern

The picture, with wings open shows a clear identification feature of the species, the darker outer primaries. The reason for this is that the outer four or five of the wing feathers much older than the inner ones and so more worn. The white edges wear away more quickly which means older feathers look darker, forming a definite dark wedge in the outer-wing. The reason this helps with identification because the most similar tern species, the Arctic tern moults all of its wing feathers in one continuous sequence, meaning that there is no such contrast between the newest and oldest wing feather, making the wing look the same all along its length.

Warm wet weather is perfect for slime moulds, the really weird end of nature and a group I have featured a few times before.

Fuligo serptica

Fuligo septica

This one has various names, one is troll butter, but there are many more.

The bark chippings in the raised beds at the Centre also has some, at first I though just one type but a closer look suggests at least two. A close look is essential as the fruiting bodies are very small indeed.

slime mould 1

Slime mould fruiting body looking like tiny strings of pearls

Close up they look like minute stylised trees.

slime mould poss Physarum album

slime mould possibly Physarum album

Taking a closer look is when I realised that not all of them had white stems and spherical tops.

Slime mould close in

A different slime mould

slime mould

Even closer

30 Days Wild – Day 25 – The Heat is On

When I checked the moth trap in my garden I was surprised to find 2 leopard moth! In some years I don’t see any at all and this year we have had them a few times at Blashford and now two at home on the same day.

leopard moth male

leopard moth male

When they are disturbed they don’t fly, but adopt a strange curled posture, at the same time the abdomen is lengthened, the effect is rather odd. Although it does not look like  a wasp or anything obviously threatening it does look like something you would think twice about picking up, which I guess is the idea.

leopard mopth male curled

leopard moth male curled

I was at Fishlake for the morning waiting for a delivery meaning that I did not get to Blashford until the afternoon. It was very hot and lots of the insects had taken cover in the shade. Out on the hot shingle beside Ibsley Water I spotted two half grown little ringed plover chicks, running about very energetically, hopefully they will fledge and join the two others that have already become independent.

Out on Ivy Lake the common tern chicks were less keen on the heat and were standing around panting, however they are growing well and I expect the first ones will be flying in a few days.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

It is looking very dry now, much of the grass is yellow or pale brown, but most of the meadow perennials are deep rooted and still look more or less okay. A lot of the earlier flowering species are  going to seed now. Looked at closely the seeds of meadow buttercup look rather like a Medieval mace.

meadow buttercup seedhead

meadow buttercup seedhead

Although they do not look as though they would be very good at it, I assume the hooks aid dispersal by getting caught on animal fur, or maybe botanist’s socks.

Dumping and Cutting, a Tale from the Roadside

There seems to be a lot going on at present. At Blashford we are resurfacing a lot of the paths, the entrance track and a few other improvements will follow.

We have also been putting out the tern rafts, so far the gulls have been taking most of the space but hopefully the terns will get their act together soon.

Out on Ibsley Water the lapwing have not been doing well, with most nests failing at the eggs stage, I suspect fox or badger, as the birds nesting on the islands seem unaffected.

I was at Fishlake briefly today and saw my first hairy dragonfly of the year, it was beautifully perched, but I did not have a camera with me!

Meanwhile back at Blashford we received an overnight donation of two large tractor tyres, several car tyres and the remains of a trailer. Not the kind of donation we want as it will cost a fair bit to dispose of. Fly tipping in the countryside is an increasing problem as the cost legitimate disposal increases.

Another increasing roadside problem is the decline in the the diversity of flora found on verges. I remember a series called “Wayside and Woodland” books, I always took the implication of the title was that much of the wildlife featured was to be found on waysides, that is path and road verges. The reason is the accumulation of nutrients, in fact this is probably one of the greatest threats to wildlife diversity in almost all habitats. It is no accident that habitats that are very poor in freely available nutrients are rich in species, they have to fight it out for resources and tiny differences in adaptations mean that one species will win over if even a very small change in the environment happens. Thus a thin chalk soil can produce an incredibly rich sward with huge species diversity. Where nutrients are easy to come by a few very vigorous specie swill overwhelm the competition and species diversity is low and growth vigorous.

Road verges suffer the twin threats of car exhausts, which are rich in nitrogen a key nutrient for vigorous plant growth. This growth then gets cut, often many times a year and the cutting left as a “mulch” further aiding the building up of nutrients. Cutting once  later in the year and removing the cuttings would reduce the nutrients, reduce the vigour of the growth and promote plant diversity. In fact Plantlife have just produced an excellent guide to managing road verges The Good Verge Guide

The Highways Agency also produced quiet good guidelines for highways managers, but these do not seem to have been widely taken up by the people that set the contracts for the work. A case in point is a very fine round about close to my home, this morning I admired the good show of ox-eye daisy and could make out the soon to be flowering stems of corky-fruited water dropwort as I waited at the traffic lights. On my way home tonight I see it has been mown and the cuttings left as a deep green mulch, it is large round about and easy to see across so there is little need for cutting for safety reasons. Slowly but surely this fine area of herb-rich, semi-natural grassland is being destroyed by the state, an act of causal degradation of our biodiversity in the midst of an extinction crisis.

I will end with a couple more moths form yesterday, the catch was small but included perhaps the smartest pebble prominent I have ever seen.

pebble prominent

pebble prominent

There were also three very fresh poplar hawk.

poplar hawk 2

poplar hawk

Hedges, Terns and Starlings

During the last week I seem to have been all over the place, doing all kinds of things. As usual we had two work parties, one on Tuesday, when we did some hedge laying near Ellingham Lake.

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Hedge laying, this version is not as stock proof as traditional laying, but it retains more of the twiggy top and so should flower and fruit from this year.

The end result is what we need for a better wildlife hedge, wider, and denser than the line of saplings and in time also with some height.

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a finished section.

On Thursday we were tidying up around the main car park, trimming back the hedges and cutting back the willows.

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I would remove this laurel hedge if it was not for the large greenfinch roost that gathers in it.

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Re-coppicing the willows around the car park.

In between the two work parties, on Wednesday, I had a day at the South Coast Seabird Forum discussing what can be done to bolster tern populations along the south coast. Almost everything seems to be against them, what with sea level rise, competition with gulls for the diminishing shingle banks and disturbance from human activity and predators. The one bright spot was the success of rafts at Hayling Oyster Beds and once again at Blashford, at both sites common tern nested with good productivity.

It was not really a day to be inside as it was undoubtedly the best day of the year so far, I did manage to briefly drop into Farlington Marshes before the meeting though, where I added avocet and bearded tit to my bird list for the year.

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Farlington Marshes on a perfect morning – not a day to be inside!

During the week the ring-billed gull continued to be seen most evenings on Ibsley Water at Blashford Lakes and both black-necked grebe remained in their usual places at each end of the lake. Walter the great white egret was seen most days and the number of brambling seem to be slowly increasing at Woodland hide.

The starling roost at Blashford has moved north and is now in reeds to the north of Mockbeggar Lane. Meanwhile I encountered another starling roost on a HIWWT reserve this week, at Lymington Reedbeds, not a huge number but the few thousand there were put on a fantastic show when watched from the causeway east of the level crossing, well worth a look if you are in the town in the late afternoon.

30 Days Wild – Day 14: Getting Brown

A hot day and at this time of year one when you need to take care in the full sun. I was in the office for much of the morning, which was at least cooler. At lunchtime I went outside, hoping to see some hoverflies and soldierflies on the hemlock water-dropwort, but all I saw was bees. I think it was too hot for many insects, on these kind of days they often sit out the hottest part of the day in the shade and can be found clinging to the underside of leaves.

A number of people have commented on the lack of butterflies in recent days, it is true there are not a lot, but this is not that unusual at  this time of year. The spring species have mostly finished and the high summer species are just starting, the “gap” is often bridged by lots of white butterflies, but this year they have been quiet scarce. At Blashford the mid-summer butterflies are the browns and the meadow brown are just starting to appear in numbers now. They do not bask with wings open very much once the day has warmed, up so it was no surprise that they were all sitting with wings closed today.

meadow brown

meadow brown

Meadow brown has just one generation a year and they will fly from now until early September. Some species, like small tortoiseshell and comma have two generations, with the second over-wintering as an adult hidden away out of the worst of the frost. Another of the browns, the speckled wood has three overlapping generations so can be seen from late March to early November, it can also over-winter as ether a caterpillar or a pupa.

speckled wood

speckled wood

In other news, I saw the larger of the lapwing chicks today from tern hide and it must be getting close to fledging now, as is the one remaining oystercatcher chick. The three smaller lapwing chicks seem to have been reduced to two, but they at still growing well. Out on the rafts most of the common tern eggs have now hatched and generally they seem to be in broods of three, with lots of small fish being brought in, so they are growing fast. Today many of the chicks were using the shelters to get out of the strong sunshine, over-heating can be a real problem for small chicks, so shade is important.