A Bit of a Catch-up

Apologies for a bit of a gap in posts, a combination of not a lot to report and too much to do.

The volunteers have been busy working in and around the former Hanson concrete plant site to get it into shape for the winter and to enhance the establishment of the plantings and sown grassland areas.  I am amazed how well the planting have survived considering the prolonged dry spell we have had and the almost unspeakably poor soil they were planted into, testament to how carefully they were planted. We have also been cutting nettle, bramble and thistle growth off the areas that we want to establish as grassland such as the shore to the west of Goosander hide where we were working on Tuesday in the oppressive heat.

before

The shore before we started covered with low bramble.

after

The shore at the end of the day.

It turned out there was quite a lot of grass and other plants under the bramble cover, so whilst there is still a fair bit to do I think we should be able to establish a grassy bank in the longer term, ideal for wigeon in the winter and lapwing in the spring.

The warm weather has been good for insects with butterfly numbers surging in the last week.

speckled wood

speckled wood

Moth trapping has also been good with several new species for the year.

Crescent

crescent moth

As well as good numbers of old favourites.

black arches

Black arches moth, a male with feathery antennae, the pattern seems to be slightly different on each one.

purple thorn

Purple thorn.

We are into a bit of a slack time for birds at the moment, although with autumn migration just starting things should pick up soon. A single green sandpiper has been around and common sandpiper reached at least six on Monday. Today there were 6 pochard, 4 more than recently. Almost all of the common tern have fledged now, just the three late broods remain, once again success has been very high at around two chicks fledged per pair. On Iblsey Water there are at least four broods of tufted duck and one of gadwall.

I had hoped to feature some of the many fine pictures I have been sent in recent days and I will do so soon, I’m afraid tonight that the technology has defeated me.

On the Hop

On Tuesday we were working on the western shore of Ibsley Water again with the volunteers. Over the years we have been controlling ragwort and nettle that used to be the dominant here to convert it to grassland, at last we are seeing some real results. Much of it is now mainly grass with a good range of herb species, especially bird’s-foot trefoil. We are also seeing a lot more butterflies and other insects, marbled white are especially frequent in the grass there now.

As we worked I heard a lot of Roesel’s bush-cricket and saw field grasshopper and meadow grasshopper. The grassy sward is not ideal for all species though, the mottled grasshopper likes grassland with lots of bare ground and very dry conditions, at Blashford they are mostly found on the lichen heath.

mottled grasshopper male 2

mottled grasshopper (male)

One distinctive thing about the males of this species is that the ends of the antennae are bent out and swollen, they are also our smallest grasshopper. The males were chirruping, or more correctly stridulating, the object of this is to attract a female and I found one that was evidently playing the right song.

grasshopper pair

mottled grasshopper pair

The females are quite a bit larger and have more conventional grasshopper antennae.

30 Days Wild – Day 22: Punctuated

It was thankfully cooler today which allowed us to do some work along the open western shore of Ibsley Water. As it was Thursday the “us” was the famous Blashford volunteer team. We were trimming brambles and pulling ragwort. I know ragwort is a great nectar source, but in this case we are trying to establish grassland where there has been bramble, willow and nettlebeds, this means mowing, but as we have ponies on site we need to remove the ragwort first. Ponies will rarely eat growing ragwort, but if cut and mixed in grass they will and so can get poisoned.

This shore was dominated by huge beds of ragwort and nettles but years of cutting and light grazing are taking effect and we now have mostly grassland with patches of ox-eye daisy, bird’s foot trefoil and other more desirable species. In turn this is attracting insects such as long-winged conehead.

IMG_1898

long-winged conehead, female nymph

We saw a good few butterflies including good numbers of comma. It seems they are having a very good year and the fresh summer brood emerging now is particularly strong. This generation will breed and produce another generation of adult in the autumn which will them hibernate.

IMG_1916

comma

They get their name from the white comma-shaped marking on the under-wing, which is not visible in this shot. Their ragged wing outline makes them less butterfly-shaped and so harder for predators to find, this is especially so when the wings are closed.

I ran two moth traps last night, only about 50m apart, but one under trees and the other in the open. An illustration of what a difference location makes is seen from the number of hawk-moths caught. The one in the open contained 8 elephant hawk-moth, a pine hawk-moth and 2 poplar hawk-moth, whereas the one under the trees contained just one eyed hawk-moth.

As you will have gathered from this blog, I am a fan of insects in general, even horseflies, although I am less keen on them when they come into the office as this one did today.

IMG_1922

Chrysops relictus female

It is the females that bite, so it would be better if this one went outside again.

 

30 Days Wild – Day 8: Flowers in the Rain

Thursday is volunteer day at Blashford and it is well known that it does not rain when the Thursday volunteers are working, but today something went wrong and we got wet! We were continuing with our project to create a diverse new grassland along what used to be the entrance to the old concrete plant, we have spread seed and cleared brambles. Now we are going back to continue with cutting back the bramble regrowth and discourage nettles and some of the denser stands of creeping thistle.

A lot of the seed we spread has germinated but is has a lot that was already there lying dormant in the seedbank. This includes some with famously long-lived seed like poppies.

poppy

poppy

Poppies used to be a common “weed” of agricultural crops but these days are effectively controlled in most by herbicides. Another such agricultural weed was field pansy, which has also appeared.

field pansy
field pansy flower

Several species of thistles have grown up too, alongside the creeping and spear thistle there are a few musk thistle, not yet flowering, but the symmetry of their flower buds appealed to me.

Musk thistle bud

Musk thistle in bud

We also have a good showing of mullein plants with both dark mullein and great mullein, a few with mullein moth caterpillar on them. Both species have tall spires of yellow flowers, however the individual flowers are very attractive on their own.

dark mullein flower

dark mullein flower

I have high hopes for this area, it has many of the attributes you need for a herb rich grassland, a mostly poor, thin soil and a sunny aspect, if we can establish a tight sward it could become a real asset for to the reserve, good for plants, insects and close to the path and so easy to see.

My last shot of the day is also of a flower but in this case it is what was sitting upon it that was the main attraction. The flower is an ox-eye daisy and on it is a male red-eyed damselfly, I find this a difficult species to get a picture of, as they usually spend their time sitting on floating pond weed well out in the water, so one away from water was too good to miss.

red-eyed damselfly on ox-eye daisy

red-eyed damselfly on ox-eye daisy

This is what we should now call the large red-eyed damselfly, rather than the smaller newcomer to these shores, the small red-eyed damselfly, which tends to fly later in the season.

Although I did get wet, it was not cold and being out in a bit of weather from time to time has its own appeal, albeit in moderation. Let’s hope for a bit better tomorrow.

30 Days Wild – Day 6: And the Wind did Blow

And how it blew! And how it rained too, very unseasonal gales to tear at the trees and soak fluffy wader chicks. So it was with some trepidation that I got to Blashford today. Looking from Tern hide when I opened up I saw at least two of the small lapwing chicks and spotted one of the oystercatcher offspring too, although they should be well able to survive a bit of weather by now. A few of our trees had not done so well, no major fallers but several branches down, at this time of year, in full leaf and soaked with rain, the wind can really get hold of a branch twisting and breaking it off. Luckily the volunteers were in and between us we were able to walk the full length of all the paths clearing branches as we went and then returning to saw off the few larger leaning stems.

At lunchtime a smooth newt was spotted on the surface of the Centre pond, Jim then realised that it had been caught by a great diving beetle larva, these are ferocious predators but I was surprised that one would tackle a full grown newt.

newt and diving beetle larva

Newt being attacked by great diving beetle larva.

The newt was struggling but it was hard to see how it was going to get the beetle larva off as it had its jaws firmly embedded. As we watched a second, equally large larva closed in and joined the attack, I don’t think the newt had any chance against two attackers. I knew they would tackle prey larger than themselves but this was the first time I had seen one take on something so large. The picture is an example of “Digi-binning” that is holding the digital point and shoot camera up to one eyepiece of the binoculars.

Unsurprisingly the moth trap was very quiet, I doubt many moths tried to fly and those that did probably had trouble getting anywhere they wanted to go. Amongst the few that did get out and into the trap was a very fresh mottled beauty.

mottled beauty

mottled beauty

The weather did improve a bit in the afternoon and there were quite a few insects flying as I went to lock up, lots of damselflies and various things nectaring on the flower heads of hemlock water-dropwort, one of the best food sources for lots of species at this time of year. I cannot identify them but the many insects include a number of sawflies.

sawfly

sawfly (unidentified)

Looking after a nature reserve can be rewarding, especially when you can work to improve habitats, allowing them to support more species and individuals, in the jargon increasing biodiversity and biomass. On a reserve such as Blashford Lakes there is the additional goal of increasing the accessibility of this wildlife to allow appreciation and enjoyment for people. Increasingly it is being realised that this is good for our health, diverse green space really matters to our wellbeing, individually and as a society. It is also a small push back against a tide of mass declines in species abundance and variety, to make a real difference to that needs action on a much larger scale than just a nature reserve.

So on Day 6 of  my 30Days Wild I have to confess to getting a little wild myself. I have already blogged about my tiny back garden meadow and we are doing work at Blashford to enhance the grassland to support more species. Species rich grasslands and meadows have been one of the fastest declining habitats in recent decades, with the accompanying loss of wild flowers, butterflies and the rest of the species such places support. Local Authorities and Government Agencies have a duty to enhance the environment where possible. There has recently been much publicity about the importance of grass verges for wildflowers, it has made national radio and some species are now almost only found by roadsides.  The Highways Agency publishes very good guidelines for the management of verges, round-abouts and other roadside grass areas, with the idea that managers of such places will have a best practice guide to follow.

So what made me wild? It was the close mowing, for the second time this season, of the large (probably 0.5ha or so) round-about at the end of the road where I live. This does not improve safety, to do this at most a couple of metres around the edge would need mowing, nor was it tall, no more than 30-40cm and the mass of corky-fruited water-dropwort was just coming into flower. The first cut dealt with the cowslips and much else besides, this is a relatively herb-rich grassland that is being systematically destroyed by close mowing and swamped by a layer of mulched cuttings each time. Eventually this will ensure it has only a tall coarse sward of cocks-foot, thistle and nettle and another vestige of our grassland heritage will have gone. I don’t know which particular arm of authority undertakes this mowing, but the guidelines have evidently not reached them! So long as there is careless disregard for such places the march to environmental mediocrity will continue and we may as well lay Astroturf and be done with it!

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow, unless the “Wild” part of 30 Days Wild takes hold again!

30 Days Wild – Day 4: A Day for Orchids

After working in the morning with the Sunday volunteer team path trimming, I got out on site for an hour or so in the afternoon. This is peak orchid flowering time, we don’t get many at Blashford and this year’s dry spring seems to have done them no favours, however I did see four species. First was a small group of bee orchid near the Goosander hide.

bee orchid

bee orchid flower

The packet of pollen, known as pollinia can be seen hanging down in the centre, there would have been two, so one has probably been carried away by a visiting insect.

I also found single specimens of common spotted orchid

common spotted orchid

common spotted orchid

and also a southern marsh orchid.

marsh orchid

southern marsh orchid

I also came across a common twayblade, but it was too dark for a picture.

The sunshine was a bit on and off, even with a brief shower at one point, but in the sunnier periods there were quite good numbers of insects out and about. My best picture of an insect today was of a hoverfly Xylota sylvarum, a very fine species with a golden-haired tip to the abdomen.

Xylota sylvarum

Xylota sylvarum, doing a bit of wing cleaning.

My last thing to do for the day was to clean out and feed the puss moth caterpillars, hatched from some eggs laid by a female I caught in the trap. Rearing caterpillars is one of those things I enjoy doing each year, the species vary according to what we come across, in recent years we have reared lime hawk-moth, eyed hawk-moth, iron prominent and alder moth amongst others.

puss moth young caterpillar

A young puss moth caterpillar, they get very impressive when they are fully grown.

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 1: Weird Stuff

Here we are again, another June and another 30 Days Wild, I will try to keep up this year and post something every day.

I was at Blashford today with the volunteers tidying up on the southern shore of Ivy Lake, clearing away some old tern rafts and doing a little Himalayan balsam pulling, actually the volunteers did these things, I cut a few brambles and set up the telescope to count the nesting common tern. I am pretty sure we now have 25 pairs on the rafts with nests and eggs, possibly 26 pairs. So with five pairs on the Pound we have reached thirty pairs for the first time! This has been a really successful project and almost entirely the work of our great volunteer team. Over the last ten years the Blashford terns have consistently produced more flying chicks per pair than any other local colony, with many pairs achieving the magical 100% success rate, laying three eggs and fledging three chicks. Over the last year we have made a whole set of new rafts funded by a grant from Hampshire Ornithological Society (HOS) to a design refined and honed by our volunteer team.

During the course of the work we came across two grass snake, a nest of bank vole and a number of dragonflies including an emperor, scarce chaser and broad-bodies chaser.

The weirdest thing I saw today though was an old favourite of mine, a slime mould, these are strange organisms that usually live as single cells but aggregate to form sporangia and it is this stage that we can see on old wet logs. The one I found today near the Woodland hide was a Stemonitis, possibly Stemonitis axifera. They take less than a day to aggregate, develop and produce spores and then disappear.

Stemonitis axifera

Slime mould, probably Stemonitis axifera on a damp log near the Woodland hide.

Regulars will be pleased to hear that the two lapwing chicks and the two oystercatcher chicks are still doing well outside Tern hide, with an additional and larger, oystercatcher chick in the distance on Gull Island as well.

You can see various 30 Days Wild stuff on Twitter via #30DaysWild and probably lots of other places too and it is still not too late to join the over 45,000 people who have signed up to do something wild on 30 Days. Our environment is vital to our wellbeing, physical and mental health and it is where we live, despite this it is not getting much attention