On the first day of Spring…

A drift of wild daffodils near Woodland Hide

…what better way to celebrate and welcome it in than with, yes, you guessed it, more wild daffodils! If you’re fed up of seeing wild daffodils on these posts you may want to skip the next bit, but if like me you look forward to their blooming each year and mourn their passing, have a look at this short film I recorded a couple of weeks ago on behalf of a colleague:

Although the wild daffodil is unquestionably my favourite wildflower of late winter/early spring there are a number of close runners up, one of which is the tiny and so easily overlooked moschatel, or town hall clock:

It is tiny, and I think that’s why I like it so much. A bit like the scarlet male flowers of the hazel, seeing and appreciating their diminutive, perfectly cubic, flower heads is like discovering a secret known only to a select few every year.

Like the wild daffodil, and the bluebell whose leaves are becoming more prominent week by week around the nature reserve, moschatel is an ancient woodland indicator; i.e. a flower which indicates that you are in a woodland habitat that has survived as continuous woodland cover for a period of at least 400 years. The biodiversity of such a woodland is far, far greater than that of a newly planted woodland. The more ancient woodland indicator species there are present, the more likely that it is that that woodland is “ancient “.

As well as being Spring, today, the 20th March, also marks the first ever “World Rewilding Day”.

Rewilding is a relatively new term, but it is a concept whose value in helping to achieve the reversal of the climate change crisis through carbon capture, as well as, of course, helping to conserve biodiversity and reverse the terrible decline of so many species, has very quickly become a mainstream concept, no longer the preserve of a few scientists, radical landowners or guerrilla conservationists. Those few individuals in this at the start must today be incredibly pleased and surely also not a little surprised, that rewilding is now a world wide celebration!

What has the moschatel pictured below got to do with rewilding? Well, growing where it is within a small woodland amidst what was an aggregate quarry it is itself probably a rewilded plant. The Dockens Water river which flows through Blashford Lakes has retained and protected a narrow belt of ancient semi-natural woodland while all around it over the years man has farmed, constructed a WWII airbase and extracted sand and gravel. Once the quarrying activity stopped plants, animals, fungi and all the many other life forms which comprise our woodland ecosystem, are slowly, but steadily, recolonising the land.

It’s been rewilded.

The last couple of years has seen a huge drive to plant trees across the UK in a bid to slow or reverse the effects of climate change through the capture of carbon by trees. Planting tree’s is no bad thing, particularly in an urban environment. But in a non-urban setting nature can, and will, “plant” trees far better. Tree’s plant themselves if allowed to do so and if they are protected from intensive grazing or trampling. The resulting woodland will be more natural, more resilient and more diverse. And that is exactly what you can see happening on a small scale in the secondary woodland habitat around BlashfordLakes. It is far from being as biodiverse as the woodland along the Dockens Water, but, give it time… the moschatel and wild daffodils, and everything else, will come!

Of course in this time of enheightened awareness of climate change and rewilding we must remember that biodiversity is about far more than trees. Heathland, wetland, bog and grassland habitats can, and do, all sequester carbon and can, and do, all provide habitat for many rare species. Planting tree’s, or even allowing a woodland to develop naturally, in one of our few remaining ancient meadow habitats for instance would be as catastrophic for wildlife as ploughing it up or building on it. Indiscriminate tree planting, albeit with all of the best intentions, is not always the best or right thing to do.

Moschatel: the flowers are only just starting to open. Most are still just small green “pom-poms” and even the open one in this picture has yet to open fully. Well worth looking out for over the next few weeks – and “getting in” on the secret!

A film and many questions…

Back in April our Young Naturalists group were joined by Paul from Strong Island Media who came along to film them engaging with nature and participating in a number of different activities. As a result, we had a brilliantly varied session and Paul was able to produce a fabulous short film of them chatting about their experiences and their interest in wildlife, a brilliant snapshot of the group and a great piece of promotional material.

The group did a fantastic job and the film is available here: https://youtu.be/GSyY1C_upvg , please do take a look and share it with anyone you think may be interested in seeing it or possibly joining us at future sessions.

Slightly less polished was our very wet session at the end of August, although at the time the pond was certainly grateful for a top up. We tidied the area at the back of the centre, weeding the gravel and cutting back the bramble and other vegetation that was coming through the fence by the pond. It was a soggy task!

We did then retire to the classroom where the group had a lot of fun dissecting owl pellets, an activity we had been doing that week on our Wild Days Out. I had been hoping someone would find the skull of a small bird amongst all the small mammal skulls (just for a bit of variety!), however Lysander managed to go one better discovering a bit of metal instead which we were excited to discover was a bird ring.

Bird ringAfter studying the bird ring under the microscope to decide exactly what was written on it, we settled on Poland St. Orn. Gdansk JA 40684 and submitted it online via Euring Web Recovery to see if we could find out more.

Unfortunately, we have had our pellets at Blashford for a rather long time and are not entirely sure when we got them or even where they came from, with Testwood Lakes and even Lincolnshire via Jim both possible candidates. But it was still incredibly exciting to have found the ring of a bird originally ringed in Poland and exciting to see what else we could discover about its life via the Euring Recovery programme.

So the results? Our bird was a dunlin, a wading bird slightly smaller than a starling and one we do get in small numbers from time to time at Blashford. It is the smallest of the regular wading birds found on our local coastline and they can be seen here all year round, preferring estuaries where they eat insects, worms and molluscs. Locally the largest numbers are present in the winter and these birds will depart in the spring to their breeding grounds of Northern Scandinavia and Russia. The dunlin seen overwintering in the Solent are not the same birds seen in the summer.

This particular bird was ringed in Ujscie Redy, Gdanskie, Poland by Wlodzimierz Meissner Kuling when it was in its second calendar year but it is unknown whether it was male or female. Ringed on 30th July 1983, the ring is now 35 years old with the bird possibly 37 if alive today. According to the BTO the oldest recorded dunlin was 19 years, 3 months and 26 days (record set in 2010) so I suspect ours had been dead and languishing in an owl pellet for a considerably long time.

It was fascinating to learn a little bit more about this particular bird and fingers crossed it did live to a ripe old age before its unfortunate demise. Not knowing where the pellets came from (in terms of geographical location and owl species as they had begun to disintegrate) or when the pellets were found the ring discovery does raise a lot of questions:

– which owl species eat dunlin (from a quick bit of research Short-eared owls possess the ability to take shore birds and seem the likeliest candidate, with pellets taken from Farlington Marshes during the winter of 1970-71 illustrating this, however Barn owls are also capable of taking larger birds as prey).

– was the wader roost raided, was the bird a solitary target or was it already sick or injured?

– did the owl migrate or the dunlin, and if it was the owl where was it feasting before its migration? I have really been assuming it was the dunlin, but there is always a chance it was the owl. It can take up to 10 hours for an owl to regurgitate a pellet, I have no idea how long it would take for an owl to fly from mainland Europe to the UK, this dunlin could have been its last meal before that flight…

– when did the owl eat the dunlin?

Sadly we will never know, but it has been fun and very interesting thinking about it!

RS1085_KeyhavenDunlin_Thea_Love_30.01.11

Dunlin at Keyhaven by Thea Love

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