30 Days Wild – Day 26 – Seeking the Sleepy

A very hot day, which caused me some problems when trying to choose a task for the Tuesday volunteers. We have a lot of mowing to do at this time of year, but working for long periods in such hot sunshine is not safe or sensible. What we did was spend a short session clearing nettle and bramble regrowth from the western shore of Ibsley Water, but with five people working we still got a good bit done.

The aim of this work is to establish grassland along this shore and in particular along the earth bank put up to screen the gravel digging and later lake from the busy A338 Salisbury road. The difficult with such earth banks is that they are deep soils with lots of nutrients they grow great crops of nutrient hungry “weedy” species, so this bank was initially dominated by a huge growth of ragwort. We got on top of that and then the area became dominated by nettles with bramble. Repeated mowing can get on top of this and eventually grasses will replace them but it is hard work and ideally the cuttings are raked up and removed. In fact what we are doing is trying to establish a herb-rich grassland by removing nutrients, exactly the principle of hayfield management.

We stopped for an early lunch and then headed for some shade to put up some dormouse boxes. We had a report of an animal seen in a small willow a few weeks ago which sounded quiet good for this species, but which we have not certainly recorded on the reserve. So we have put out five boxes in a suitable area and see if we can confirm them as present. Dormice will sleep during the peak of the summer so I don’t expect we will get any signs of occupancy for at least several months, possibly even until next year.

When I was locking up I saw my first common tern chick attempting to fly, it ended in a splash-down in the lake but this is not normally a problem for them unless they have been very prematurely forced from the raft. Tern chicks swim well and we have refuges for them to climb out onto. Also on Ivy Lake it was interesting to see two new coot nests, it seems very late for them to be starting here, but this has been an odd season for coot. In the spring all the coot left, just when they would normally have been starting to nest and they only really returned around six weeks ago and then seemed only interested in feeding.

At home my moth trap had caught another small elephant hawk-moth, a pine hawk-moth, buff arches and 2 festoon.

What’s in My Meadow Today?

Although the grass is high one of the interesting elements to a hay meadow is that the mix herb species means that the structure is many layered. There are flowering plants with their head above the top of the grass stems, but also low down just a few centimetres above the ground level. One of the ground floor residents and a very good nectar source is selfheal, which is coming to the end of its flowering season now.

selfheal

selfheal

I confess I had never looked very closely at the flowers of this common plant before, so had never noticed the “spines” on the tops of the flowers. I do not know their purpose, but perhaps they are to encourage insects to use only the open “front door” to the flower, which is where they will pick up the pollen that the plants wants transporting to the next flower.

Not many of the  “30 Days” left now and day 27 will be spent in meeting, so wildlife might be in short supply!

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30 Days Wild – Day 14 – Concrete to Orchids

Blashford’s brilliant volunteers were working hard again, this time on a project to produce a grassland on the former concrete block plant entrance. This is a project with a lot of difficulties, the site was abandoned fro three years and much of it got overgrown with bramble. The old hard standings and buildings were broken up leaving a mix of rubble, gavel and a very little soil. This might sound a bad start for a grassland, but it actually has potential, the most diverse grassland habitats are those with very poor soils and this area has a very, very poor soil. From this poor beginning we are making real progress, the old tarmac entrance now has flowering ox-eye daisy and bird’s-foot-trefoil and this is in just the second season since seeding. Perhaps most remarkably as we headed back for a cup of tea we found a flowering bee orchid!

bee orchid on Hanson entrance track

bee orchid growing on old entrance road

I suspect it may have come not as a seed but as a small plant along when some of the soil was being moved around, but clearly it is doing well. When I returned in the afternoon to do some more mowing of bramble regrowth I came across a pyramidal orchid on the bank that used to edge the road. The soil there was not so disturbed, so I would guess it had arrived some time ago.

pyramidal orchid

pyramidal orchid

Although the day had started drizzly it dried up, as it always does on a Thursday morning, famously it never rains during our Thursday volunteer sessions, whatever the forecast might say.

By afternoon it was hot in the sunshine and as I ate lunch I saw lots of insects. On bramble flower behind the Education Centre I found a yellow-and-black longhorn beetle.

yellow-and-black longhorn beetle

yellow-and-black longhorn beetle

I also saw several dark bush cricket nymphs.

dark bush cricket nymph

dark bush cricket nymph

What’s in My Meadow Today?

The wild carrot that I featured before the flowers open a while back is now in full flower and attracting insects.

dronefly on wild carrot

dronefly on wild carrot

There are several species of dronefly, all named for their similarity to male honey-bees. I think this one is Eristalis pertinax, but actually might be E. nemorum as it looks a little bright to be pertinax.

The reason for my late post of this time is that I was out again last night surveying nightjar. I heard possibly one that moved about or up to three, unfortunately I could never hear two at the same time, so I cannot say with certainty that there was more than one.

30 Days Wild – Day 12 – The Power of a Flower

Tuesday at Blashford is volunteer day, or at least one of them, we also have a regular work party on a Thursday as well, today we were balsam pulling. The balsam in question is Himalayan balsam, a garden plant that escaped into the countryside and particularly likes growing along river and stream banks, “riparian habitats” as they are known. It is an extraordinary plant, growing to two or three metres tall in a matter of a few weeks,outgrowing all native plants that live in similar places. It also has explosive seed pods which can throw the seeds a metre or more when they pop. Being a non-native it has escaped its natural disease and insect controls and grows almost without check, which is why it has become a problem.

before

a disappointingly large stand of balsam

We have been removing this plant by pulling them up for many years now and have made good progress on the upper parts of the Dockens Water, where there are very few plants now. Clearly though, we failed to find quiet a few plants last year for there to be quite such a dense stand as this. Flooding carries the seed along and will also concentrate it where the seed gets deposited. We had a lot of plants to pull up, but we did pull them up and this is what it looked like a short while later.

after

after balsam pulling

What is very clear is that once the balsam is gone there is very little other vegetation, showing how it out competes other species.

Himalayan balsam has very nectar rich flowers, leading some to claim it is “Good for bees”, bees and other insects will take nectar from it, but I think the case for it being “good for bees” is very questionable. When it flowers it is very popular, but before this it shades out all the other flowering plants that would providing nectar, so across the season it probably provides no more than would be there anyway, it makes the habitat one of feast or famine cutting off food sources earlier in the season.

Flowers are immensely rich sources of food for lots of creatures, perhaps especially insects, but I have watch deer carefully picking off flowers and leaving the rest of the plant. The flower has the protein-rich pollen and the sugar-rich nectar, in short the stuff needed to make animals and keep them running. The flowers are not giving this largess, they are trying to get their pollen transferred to another flower to allow seed formation and make new plants. As the year progresses different flowers become the main attraction for lots of insects. Just now hemlock water dropwort is very attractive, but a new draw is appearing in the form of bramble flowers.

bramble flowers

bramble flowers

We easily notice the larger species such as butterflies, but look closer and you will see lots of tiny insects.

bramble flower with pollen beetles

A bramble flower with several small beetles

I think the beetles in the picture are pollen beetles, but I am not certain.

Closely related to brambles, the roses are at their peak now, the similarity in flower form between the bramble and this dog rose are clear even if the rose is the showier.

dog rose

dog rose

I was pleased to receive reports of four little ringed plover chicks seen today from Tern hide, the first proof of any hatching so far this year. It was also good to see the common tern arriving at the rafts on Ivy Lake carrying small fish to feed newly hatched chicks.

My moth trap highlight today was a lobster moth caught at home, not a species I see very often and I still have to find the extraordinary caterpillar which is the source of the moth’s name.

lobster moth

lobster moth

To refer back to my earlier comments about the food value of flowers, I noticed the mullein moth caterpillar in my garden has eaten most of the flowers off the figwort plant, it has eaten all the best bits first!

mullein moth on figwort

mullein moth on figwort

What’s in My Meadow Today?

I know it is not a plant that belongs in a meadow in southern England, but I like bloody crane’s-bill, so I have it in the meadow, where it grows and seeds quite well.

bloody cranesbill

bloody crane’s-bill flower

Something else that does not really belong are the anthills, this is not because ants are not native here, but you do not usually get anthills in meadows. This is because a meadow is really a field that is grown to produce a crop of grass, so the act of cutting the field would knock down the anthills before they became large. I cut the grass around the anthills taking care to leave them to get bigger year by year as I rather like them. This maybe because I spent many years working at Farlington Marshes where the masses of anthills are a significant feature of the reserve.

anthill

One of the anthills being extended by the ants.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 3 – A Herd of Elephants

I was at Blashford Lakes Nature Reserve today after a couple of days off. We had a volunteer work party in the morning but before we started I checked through the moth trap, although the catch was quiet good there was nothing too surprising, although I was pleased to see my first peach blossom of the year, no picture though as it flew off. There were several hawk-moths including a group of three elephant hawk-moth on one egg box.

a herd of elephant hawks

a herd of elephant hawk-moth

There were also a few species of prominents including a pale prominent, they all get their name from the small raised point on the folded wing, presumably an adaptation to break up their outline and make them look less like moths. For a moth, not looking like a moth is very useful as birds love to eat moths, so lots of moths either hide away or just try to look not like moths. The pale prominent does this rather well.

pale prominent

pale prominent looking like a dead bit of plant stem

Our volunteer tasks were giving the outside of the Education Centre a was down and having a clear-out of the tool store, both much needed tasks, if not exactly conservation work. At least we should be able to find most of the tools and equipment now and the building does look a lot smarter for a wash.

I checked the hemlock water dropwort around the centre pond at lunchtime for visiting insects, the flowers are a very good nectar source. There were lots of hoverflies and a few beetles including a wasp beetle, a yellow-and-black longhorn beetle and a red-headed cardinal beetle.

red-headed cardinal beetle

red-headed cardinal beetle

What’s in My Meadow Today?

By the time I got home most of the meadow in my garden was in shade, but it was still making its presence felt. The grasses are flowering and their pollen is blowing in the wind as every hayfever sufferer will know. Grasses do not rely on insects to carry their pollen from one flower to another to achieve fertilisation, they just release huge clouds of pollen into the air to be carried to another flower. This saves on the need to produce nectar as an inducement to insects, but does mean that a lot of pollen has to be produced.

flowering grasses

flowering grasses – much of it Yorkshire fog

Many trees use the same method, resulting in allergic reactions for many in spring.  Pollen deposited in peat and similar wet habitats has allowed us to look back in time and work out what the dominant vegetation cover was in the distant past. It turns out that although there was rapid colonisation of the UK by tree after the end of the last Ice Age the nature of the cover changed over time. One tree now generally rare, the small-leaved lime, was abundant at one time and it turns out that elm have seen several rises and falls in abundance, perhaps indicating previous outbreaks of “Dutch” elm disease.

The tiny garden pond does not have many plants, but one it does have is lesser reedmace and it is now flowering and also sheds pollen into the wind, the pollen is produced by the male part of the plant, which here is the upper part of the flowering stem.

lesser reedmace flower

lesser reedmace flower

Pathwork

We have been having an upgrade to the paths at Blashford over recent days and so if you visit you will see lots of new surfaces. We are also getting the wooden bridges  refurbished so both will be subject to closures for periods as this is being done.

We have also been working on the paths at Fishlake Meadows, yesterday the volunteers were clearing the path edges where the recent rain had caused the vegetation to flop across the path. There will be surfacing work starting here too, so watch this space for updates on when this will be happening.

banded demoiselle

banded demoiselle

Along the canal path on a dull day we saw lots of resting banded demoiselle, mostly males like the one above.

The fields are looking very wet again after recent rain, but very green and flower filled. Yellow flag iris are particularly obvious, but there is a lot else, including some very splendid southern marsh orchids.

southern marsh orchid

southern marsh orchid

There were at least four cuckoo flying around, three of them males that were “cuckooing” constantly, I thought there might have been five and someone later reported six! Fishlake is a remarkable site for this species.

I was back at Blashford later in the day where the number of moths at the trap have increased significantly in recent days, a reflection of warmer nights which allow the moths to fly for much longer through the night. Meanwhile warmer days are resulting in lots of insects across a wide range of groups getting out and about. I saw this black-striped longhorn beetle when I went to lock up the hides yesterday evening.

black-striped longhorn beetle

black-striped longhorn beetle

I will be having a go at the 30 Days Wild again this year and will be trying to do a blog everyday throughout the month once again. There is still time to sign up if you visit 30 Days Wild sign up where you can join thousands of others who will be promoting the benefits of a !Wildlife” throughout the month.

First Migrants

For the last few days it has been feeling distinctly spring-like and I have been expecting the first sand martin, little ringed plover and singing chiffchaff of the spring. So far I have been disappointed, but yesterday visitors to the reserve were reporting chiffchaff singing near Ivy North hide and a little ringed plover on Ibsley Water. Chiffchaff will over-winter on the reserve, although this year none were seen after the New Year so I don’t think there is any real doubt this was a new arrival.

As the summer visitors start arriving many of the winter visitors are leaving, this is especially noticeable on Ivy Lake where there were around a thousand wildfowl only a couple of weeks or so ago, now there are little more than a hundred. Some winter visitors are still with us though, brambling can be seen regularly around the feeders and at the last ringing session four were caught.

brambling male in the hand

Male brambling in the hand

One of the most obvious signs of spring is the changes in plants. Bluebell laves are now well up and wild daffodil are in full bloom.

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Wild daffodil

Often one of the very first flowers of many years is colt’s foot, although this year it has only started flowering in the last week or so.

colt's foot

colt’s foot

Yesterday while out working with the volunteers they spotted a brimstone butterfly, often the first butterfly of spring, although these days red admiral usually beats them due to their rather shallow hibernation.

The change in the season means the end of the winter work and the last couple of weeks has been busy with tidying up around areas we have been working in during the winter. Our next big task will be preparing the tern rafts so they can go out when the common tern arrive sometime in mid April.

I will end with a mystery, or at least something that is a mystery to me, I am hoping someone will be able to help me identify it. On Sunday I was looking at a clonal patch of young aspen trees and noticed small clusters of something I took to be lichen on the lower stems of several very small suckers. This was surprising as the trees were just a hand full of years old, rather a short time for lichens to get going. Looking closer I don’t think it is lichen, but I don’t know what it is, does anyone have any idea?

lower stem of aspen

Lower stem of aspen, about 10cm above ground – but what is it?

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.

 

Making Preparations

Although it feels very much like winter there are preparations for the coming spring afoot. At Blashford Lakes I spent Tuesday working with our volunteer team clearing the Long Spit island and the open ground of the old Hanson plant making the ground ready for nesting lapwing, little ringed plover, common tern and black-headed gull. Lapwing can settle down to nest as early as the start of March and will be pairing up at nest sites well before then if the weather is suitable.

before

The Long Spit before clearance

after

Long Spit after clearance

It was very cold and we had feared we would also get wet as there were some fierce showers, luckily they mostly missed us and by the time we had finished the sun was out.

By way of proof of approaching spring I spotted a pair of blue tit checking out a nest box outside my kitchen window, luckily the Blashford boxes have all been cleaned out, a reminder for me to do mine at home.

blue tit investigating

Blue tit checking out the nest box outside my kitchen window at the weekend.

Today we were working with our new volunteer team at Fishlake Meadows, again we were making preparations for later in the year. This time it was scrub cutting in preparation for grazing parts of this new reserve. Although much of the reserve is open water and reedbed there are areas of wet grassland that is gradually getting ranker and invaded by willow and bramble. To arrest this we plan a light grazing regime to maintain the mix of grass, fen and small patches of low scrub. Today we removed some young willow and cleared small alder to leave a few larger trees that will provide valuable shade for cattle in the summer sun.

start

Making the first cuts – the Fishlake volunteers starting out.

We were lucky with the weather, it was cold, but we managed to stay out of the wind and in the sun making it feel rather pleasant, hopefully we will be as lucky next time.

finish

With the scrub removed these trees will provide valuable shade for the cattle later in the year.

As we walked out to the worksite I saw a distant great white egret and on the way back we watched 2 red kite sparring with a pair of crow.

In the afternoon I returned to Blashford Lakes and got a quick picture of a water pipit outside Tern hide, nit the best I have seen but the best picture I have managed,

water pipit

water pipit

I am very lucky to be able to see quite a lot of wildlife as I go about my working day, however there are times when I should definitely have been looking the other way. As we headed out to work on the Long Spit on Tuesday we apparently disturbed an otter from the lakeside and it then swam by the Tern hide, somehow none of us saw it!

At Blashford we are also at the start of preparations of a different kind, we are planning a number of improvements around the reserve. To fund this we are hoping to apply for a grant and part of this process involves sounding out our visitors for their experience of the reserve. If you have visited recently it would be very useful to have your views, a questionnaire is attached here: Blashford Lakes Questionnaire if you are able to complete it and email it to us it would greatly help us with our grant application.

 

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.

P1090448

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.

P1090449

a finished section.

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

P1090452

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

P1090453

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.

P1090451

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.