Then the Thaw

Sunday was a day of great change, at first the snow was still thick in many places, turning to slush on the paths, but still making the roads a little difficult in places.

After the cold of the previous few days the warm sun of a proper springlike day was very welcome. The change during the day was remarkable, by lunchtime the entrance track was largely clear of snow and the Dockens Water was starting to rise and flood through the woodland.

Dockens Water

Dockens Water levels starting to rise

There rapid change resulted in some unusual sightings, perhaps the oddest and something I don’t think I had seen before, was a banded snail crawling across the snow surface. Unfortunately when I tired to take a picture it retreated into its shell, so in the picture you can just see the foot still out, but the rest of the body is hidden.

snail on snow

snail on snow

Another unusual sight, although not as surprising, was that of scarlet elf-cup poking up through the snow.

Elf cup in snow

scarlet elf-cup in snow

I noted in the morning that there were still no lapwing on the nesting areas, I have known birds to be egg-laying by the first week of March. However by the afternoon in the sunshine there were two males on territory on the former Hanson plant site and several more wandering around the shore nearby.

By the end of the day the Dockens Water was flooding through the alder carr and through the silt pond into Ivy Lake.

alder carr flooding

Dockens Water flooding through the alder carr

Having not been on the reserve fro a few days it was pleasing to see that there are still a good few brambling around the Woodland hide along with 8 or more reed bunting. In the afternoon the ring-billed gull was in the gull roost and, rather late in the day and distantly, also the Thayer’s gull.

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Back Again

I was back at Blashford after a week away in North Wales. It was a good many years since I was there and it was great to visit familiar places and some new ones too. Seeing wildlife that I don’t see at home was also good. Birds such as dipper, chough, whooper swan, black guillemot and hen harrier were all a treat.

So it was back to work today, but as if to emphasise that it is not so bad, as if I needed reminding, on the way in I saw a hawfinch which flew across the road. Opening up the Tern hide a black-necked grebe was on view. Outside the Centre two male brambling were by the feeder and from Ivy South hide Walter the great white egret and an otter. There really are worse places to work!

I was in the office for a good part for the day, there is no way to escape the after-break email backlog. This did mean that I saw lots of people coming and going from the Pop-up cafe, which did a good trade despite it being quite q quiet day for visitors. If you want the chance to sample the splendid homemade cakes on offer there are just two more opportunities this winter, they will be back on the first and third Sundays in March and then taking their break until next autumn. It is a testament to the quality on offer that some of today’s customers were returnees who came in just for the cake and did not even visit the reserve.

There was one negative event to report, a car was broken into int he main car park, although nothing was stolen. Although a very rare event at Blashford, with well under one break-in a year it still pays to be careful. Just as in the New Forest car parks you should obviously not leave valuables on display, but also don’t put them in the boot in the car park, if you are being watched this just shows the criminal where to look and that there is something to steal. Either don’t leave things in the car or put them out of the way at a stop before you arrive to park. If you see anything or anyone suspicious let us know, note down a car number or anything else that might help. The reserve has always been very safe and we would like to keep it that way.

Locking up at the end of the day it was evident that there was no otter around Ivy Lake, the ducks were looking very relaxed, in stark contrast to their demeanour in the morning. Although we might think of otters as fish eaters they are far from averse to duck and locally they seem to favour signal crayfish when they are abundant.

P1090870

Evening on Ivy lake, peace and quiet.

The cormorant have returned to roost in the trees around Ivy Lake after going elsewhere for a while, although they are only using the ones on the spit. I also noticed that “Walter” had come back to roost in his favoured dead alder tree, if you look closely you can just make him out as a white spot on the right hand side of the picture. I expect he will be heading back to France soon, he rarely stays into March and often goes in January. Hopefully he will be back in the late summer, but as he approaches his fifteenth year of life he is a grand old great white egret now and at some point we will not see him again.

At the very end of the day the gull roost included the ring-billed gull, a couple of Caspian gull, but no Thayer’s gull, despite it having been seen flying south over Alderholt for the day spent feeding in pig fields at Tidpit. It has evidently found an alternative roost, perhaps in Christchurch Harbour.

Thayer’s Gull

There has been much excitement in recent days at Blashford Lakes over the sighting of a potential Thayer’s gull. I say potential because these are not easy birds to identify or at least it is not easy to know exactly what you are looking at. Larger gulls are a particularly tricky bunch, they can vary quite a lot within species and not much at all between species and (even worse) sometimes hybridise!

So how do you ever know what you are looking at? For all the species there are the “Classic” birds, the ones that look like the have just stepped off the pages of the field guide, these should not be too difficult, although some genetic studies suggest even some of these might not be quiet what they seem. The others are more problematic, at least for people who like to put a name to them. Often it then comes down to looking at the various characters and scoring what is positive and what negative, after that you can consult experts or, for the more free-wheeling just decide if you are happy or not. For some there is no “right” answer, just the balance of probability.

So is this Thayer’s gull the real thing? The short answer is I don’t know and it will probably get decided by committee in the end and some will accept the decision and others not. Having seen the bird at some distance last night and then rather better tonight I have a few observations. The books often say they are structurally like Iceland gull and a claimed one I saw many years ago in Ireland was, to my eyes, identical in structure to Iceland gulls nearby. This bird looks bulkier than what I would expect for an Iceland gull, but it has the same wide, round head so typical of that species. Iceland gulls do have broader bodies and heads than herring gulls but this bird looks very heavy indeed. The wings do not look long and the rear of the bird on the water looks less attenuated than typical for Iceland, but this may be due to the rather large body size and males gulls are often a lot larger than females. As far as I can tell the plumage looks as though it has all the expected features.

Whatever it is, it is interesting and different from any other gull I have seen before, even the other one claimed as Thayer’s. It is quite obvious in the roost, it certainly stands out as different. Another way of looking at it is what might it be if it is not a Thayer’s gull? It seems American herring gull will hybridise with Thayer’s gull and that they will also hybridise with Glaucous-winged gull producing offspring that look like Thayer’s gulls. However it seems that these various hybrids tend not to have the round head, which this bird certainly does have.

If you are a bird lister it really matters if this is or is not a Thayer’s gull, importantly if it is accepted as such by the rarities committee once they have weighed up the pros and cons. Whatever they decide it is a very interesting bird and I am pleased I have seen it, I have looked at many, many thousands of gulls and never seen one quiet like it before. There is a school of thought that Thayer’s gull is just a form of Iceland gull and not a full species at all.

All this begs the question of just what defines a species, actually an important question for conservationists as rarity often drives much funding and conservation effort. A rare species will attract more effort than attract more effort than a sub-species. The definition of a species is  not a simple thing and not as clear as you might think and subject to change. Actually what matters are populations, we need to conserve populations, it does not really matter if they are species, sub-species or separate groups of one species. Keeping populations viable ensures their survival whatever their status, we should not consider them less because they are not a separate species by the current definition.

As for the Thayer’s gull, I enjoyed seeing it whatever it is eventually decided to be. Come to that I enjoyed seeing all the other gulls in the roost too. All 9,000 or so of them, including a juvenile Iceland gull, yellow-legged gulls, Mediterranean gulls and the thousands of lesser black-backed gulls and black-headed gulls. If you are interested there are pictures of the Thayer’s gull on the HOS go birding website, mine are so bad I will not torture you with them!

Elsewhere, away from the gulls, “Walter” the great white egret was on Ivy Lake and 2 black-necked grebe on Ibsley Water along with a single Bewick’s swan, a  real rarity here these days, although there were almost 200 wintering in the valley a few decades ago.

Wetlands

This week has been busy working with volunteers at both Blashford Lakes and Fishlake Meadows. Both are wetland sites, rich in wildlife and the tasks have been aimed at maintaining this diversity of habitat and wildlife. The value of many wetlands lies not in the water itself but what grows in it or immediately around it and how these species and habitats interact. They form a mosaic including open water with lush marginal vegetation, these plants act as the support for a huge foodweb, although it is often only those species such as reed warbler or marsh harrier near the top that we notice.

So what were the volunteers up to? on both Wednesday and Thursday each team was managing scrub willow, to recreate open areas, allowing in light and restarting the habitat succession. In the past such work might have accompanied by a roaring bonfire, something I moved away from a good few years ago. I have several reasons for avoiding fires, they pollute the atmosphere, they sterilise the ground with their heat at the fire site, the ash acts as a fertiliser for hungry plants like nettle and thistle and the twigs and branches burnt are potential habitat for lost of species. For years we left log piles for beetles and other wood boring species, but the smaller diameter branches and twigs were ignored, despite the fact that they support even more species. So now we avoid fires and use dead hedges wherever we can. Ultimately the wood will break down and the carbon in it be released, but much more slowly and only after use by many other species.

volunteers working at Fishlake Meadows

Fishlake’s volunteers getting stuck-in shifting willow from a reedbed area to a new dead hedge.

At Blashford Lakes the terrain was a little drier and the areas opened up will support a mixed reed and dry fen vegetation, there is also an additional reason for clearance as this habitat is favoured by adder at Blashford. Many adder populations are in trouble, with some rarely producing young, luckily Blashford’s adders seem to be doing well and we see young snakes quite regularly.

Blashford volunteers

Blashford’s volunteers clearing scrub willow.

At Blashford we have combined the clearance of small willow with pollarding of larger ones to keep some dense willow growth favoured by many species. The dead hedges here provide valuable wind breaks for lots of wildlife including snakes and log piles placed in shelter are used for basking.

As it happens today is “World Wetlands Day“, this year’s theme is “Urban Wetlands – prized land, not wasteland“. Blashford Lakes is perhaps not an urban wetland, although it is not far from the town, but it is a prized wetland developed from a former industrial site, used for gravel extraction and making concrete products. Fishlake is perhaps a suburban wetland rather than a truly urban one, it is certainly right on the doorstep of Romsey town. In many ways it had been something of a wasteland since the abandonment of farming, but a “wasteland” that nature has reclaimed in a spectacular manner and well on the way to becoming a prize wetland site.

At dusk yesterday I was struct by just how valuable wetlands are for wildlife, from Ivy South hide I could see close on a thousand wildfowl, scattered all across the lake.

wildfowl on Ivy Lake

wildfowl on Ivy Lake

A little later still on Ibsley Water the huge gull roost emphasised how much wildlife depends upon wetlands, in this case as a roost site, as most of them spend the day feeding on farmland out on Salisbury Plain.

gull roost

A small part of the Ibsley Water gull roost with a few duck in the background.

Although the Thayer’s gull of last Sunday has not returned, this week has seen regular sightings of the regular ring-billed gull and on Wednesday and Thursday evenings a juvenile Iceland gull.

 

Preparations for Spring

It was a properly frosty morning, but walking round to open up the hides this morning signs of approaching spring were everywhere.

Frosty thistle

Frosty thistle

The snowdrops near the store are well out now and primroses are flowering around the car park edge, near the Woodland hide the leaves of the wild daffodils have been up for  a while, but now the flower buds can be seen. Along the path sides shiny, bright green wild arum leaves are showing everywhere and near the alder carr there are the brilliant red spots of colour provided by scarlet elf cup fungi.

As it was Tuesday we had a volunteer task today and we were also looking forward to the warmer days. Our task was clearing back the path sides on the way to the Ivy South hide to open up sheltered scallops to give something of the feeling of a woodland ride. This path runs almost exactly north-south and so has many sun-traps beloved of insects and reptiles. Out plan was to create more such spots in the hope of making more encounters with these creatures later in the year.

pathside clearance

Cleared path sides to create sunny “scallops”.

The end of the day saw rather fewer birders at the Tern hide hoping for a sight of the Thayer’s gull, they were disappointed again. There was the usual ring-billed gull, several yellow-legged gull, a first winter Caspian gull and an adult Mediterranean gull in the roost. My own sightings were rather few, “Walter” our great white egret was fishing in Ivy Lake and on Ibsley Water 2 shelduck and 3 oystercatcher were the most interesting records.

Tomorrow we are working at Fishlake Meadows again, clearing cut willow into dead hedges to create new views across the reedbeds and pools.

 

On Show and No Show

When I arrived at Blashford on Friday afternoon to join our brilliant volunteer team for the annual “Thank you” event I was greeted with news that there had been a water shrew seen on “Pondcam”, I was a very envious! Water shrews are aquatic hunters of invertebrates and even small fish. They have long hairs on their feet and under-tail which aid swimming and are as frantic underwater as their terrestrial cousins are on land.

They are not uncommon, but not easy to see and so probably very under recorded. Just as I was bemoaning my bad luck there was a swirl of debris in front of the camera and it was back! A frenetic silver predator scattering everything before it. They look silver underwater due to the layer of air trapped in their fur. Although great swimmers they also hunt on land taking larger prey than other native shrews as befits their greater size, they are about twice the weight of a common shrew.

Blashford Lakes clocked up another “First” for Hampshire this weekend when a Thayer’s gull was found in the roost on Ibsley Water at dusk on Sunday. The finder was also responsible for the last county first found at Blashford, last autumn’s lesser scaup. Both of these species are from the western side of the Atlantic. The gull breeds in high Arctic Canada and mostly winters on the Pacific coast of Canada and the USA. Although considered as having a population of only a few thousand pairs it has been occurring with increasing frequency on the east coast of N. America and very rarely in W. Europe. Although usually listed as a full species it seems quite possible that it will be “lumped” in with Iceland gull and Kumlien’s gull, they are structurally very, very similar.

Not unexpectedly when I returned to Blashford this evening, after spending most of the day at Fishlake Meadow, there was a good crowd gathered in the hope of seeing the Thayer’s gull. Sadly they were disappointed, as it never showed up. I was not too surprised as the few Iceland gulls that have appeared in the roost over the years have almost always only been there on one evening, still it was a shame and there is still a chance it is around somewhere locally.