Caught on Camera

It has been a busy week at Blashford Lakes with volunteer work parties on four days, despite unpromising weather we actually got a lot done. On Sunday we repaired some damaged sections of the boardwalk, Tuesday saw us felling some non-native grey alder trees, Thursday’s task was scrub clearance to increase habitat connectivity for reptiles and today we were clearing the shore of Ibsley Water to improve habitat for nesting lapwing next spring.

About ten days ago the apprentices put out a trailcam and today we got it in to look at the images. There were not a great many but the range of species captured was impressive. There was one shot of a passing fox, several of fallow deer and grey squirrel. Bird were fewer with one shot each of blackbird and blue tit, but several of tawny owl and on more than one night too. The picture quality was not great but the owl was landing in front of the camera, possibly to take small invertebrate prey.

IMAG0005

tawny owl caught on trailcam

Throughout the week I have been checking the roosting great white egret on Ivy Lake when I go to lock up the hides, I suspect there are as many as five around but still have yet to see more than four together, this evening there were three.

The rain today caused the Dockens Water to flood into Ivy Lake and it is now filling at last, hopefully the reedbed in front of Ivy North hide will have enough water for the bittern to favour this area soon, one was seen from there on Wednesday.

A feature of this winter is the unusual number of pochard on the lakes, or at least unusual for recent years. This morning there were 109 on Ivy Lake and at dusk at least 150. It appears that they gather on Ivy Lake in the late afternoon before flying off at dusk in groups of ten to twenty, probably to feed. At the same time the tufted duck, which used to roost on Ivy Lake also leave, I am not sure where they go but I did notice a lot fly in just as it got dark when I was counting the goosander from Goosander hide on Tuesday, I suspect they go to roost there rather than to feed. Walking back from Ivy South hide after locking up usually happens more or less in the dark at this time of year and a feature has been the squeaking calls of mandarin duck gathered on the silt pond, in the gloom I have just been able to make out as many as ten drakes displaying on some evenings.

The black-necked grebe has been seen daily on Ibsley Water as has at least one water pipit and green sandpiper. The grebe has been favouring the western shore to the north of the low islands, the water pipit and sandpiper the shore near Tern and Goosander hides. However for many visitors it has not been the rarer bird that have attracted to interest but the starling roost. The numbers are not exceptionally large but they can put on quiet a good show looking west into the last light of the setting sun. this evening they were especially spectacular, climbing high into the air in an effort to avoid a hunting peregrine.

Starlings 1

Starling murmuration starting to form over the trees west of Tern hide

Starlings 2

The gathering twisting to avoid a peregrine, there is a small group coming int to join them towards the top left.

Starlings 3

Some of the flock trying to funnel down into the roost site

Starlings 4

The peregrine was keeping the main flock high in the air but the draw of the roost was strong and they were falling down in a column whenever they could risk it.

Starlings 5

One group broke away in an exceptionally tight ball of birds and just dropped like a stone from the spiralling flock.

The starlings had all gone to roost by about 16:15, so if you want to give them a try I would try to arrive by 16:00 at the latest, viewing is good from the high point at the back of the main car park and possible, but sometimes less easy, from the Tern hide.

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A Misty Morning

A fine and frosty morning, perhaps the first that has felt properly wintry. Having scraped the frost from my windscreen I headed to Blashford across a New Forest washed with mist. I stopped briefly near our reserve at Linwood and took the picture below.

Lookinmg across Dockens Valley S of Linwood

The valley of the Dockens Water on a frosty morning

In the Avon Valley the mist was thicker and there was almost nothing within viewing range at the hides, but it still made for an atmospheric scene.

misty morning over Ivy Lake

The misty view from Ivy South hide

The mist soon cleared and the day was a fine one for working with the volunteers out on the reserve. Our team is somewhat larger than usual at present as we have two Apprentice Rangers from the New Forest National Park working on the reserve until early January. Today we were felling grey alder trees on the path towards Lapwing hide. These trees are similar to our native alder but tend to grow rather larger and faster and have a habit of spreading far and wide by seed. We are removing them to allow the native alder to grow unhindered and diversify the habitat along the path edges where more light will now get down to the ground layer.

felling grey alder

Felling grey alder beside the path to Lapwing hide

I took advantage of the fine evening to make a count of the goosander roost, I managed to see at least 118 gathered in two groups near the Goosander hide, there were at least 35 adult drakes, very close to the average of one third that I have recorded over many years. The rest were what are known as “redheads” that is birds with grey bodies and reddish-brown heads, these will include both adult females and immature birds of both sexes. Other bird in the bay were a single green sandpiper very close to the hide and at least 14 goldeneye.

Yesterday evening as I closed Ivy North hide I could clearly see 4 great white egret roosting in the dead alder trees. I have suspected there were more than the three that are often seen for sometime now but have been unable to prove it before. Generally yesterday was a better day for bird sightings despite the poorer weather, but then using a chainsaw all day is not particularly conducive to seeing birds! Other sightings yesterday included the black-necked grebe on Ibsey Water, along with at least 78 pochard, a good count these days and all the better as there were at least 73 on Ivy Lake as well. Ten or twenty years ago these figures would have been unremarkable, but these ducks are in decline all over Europe for a variety of reasons including lowered breed success due to a significant imbalance of the sexes.

Out on the reserve yesterday I flushed a woodcock between Goosander and Lapwing hides, my first of the winter, whilst in the same area 2 raven flew over and a chiffchaff was calling in the willows. At dusk I took a quick look at the gull roost, I could not find the ring-billed gull, but there were at least 11 yellow-legged gull, all adult and including the atypical adult bird with the heavily marked head. Yellow-legged gull adults usually have all white heads in winter, in contrast to most of the other large gulls, this well marked bird is similar to those of the race that is found on the Azores,  separated as the race “atlantis”. Gull watching came to an end when an adult female peregrine made several low passes over the roost, scattering it in all directions.

With more wintry weather it is perhaps unsurprising that the moth trap is getting quieter, despite this, but appropriate to the season recent catches have included Winter moth, December moth and mottled umber.

Damp Days

The long, hot summer seems an age away now, with most days dominated by drizzle (Friday excepted). It is still very mild, but the combination of damp and mildness makes for difficult working conditions. Winter work on the reserve is mostly fairly heavy, with lots of protective clothing and machinery, things that do not go well with mild damp weather. Despite this we have been busy with the volunteers clearing sites and generally preparing for the planned updates to the reserve. Alongside this there is still the usual maintenance to be done and today I was out with the team repairing the boardwalk and trimming back the path sides.

The Pop-up Cafe was in the Centre again today, sadly things were rather quiet, probably a result of the poor weather, the cakes were as good as ever, if you missed them, they will be back on the 16th of December and New Year’s Day with more.

Out on the reserve things seem fairly quiet, I say this but there was quiet a lot to see. On Ibsley Water there was a black-necked grebe, 2 dunlin, green sandpiper, a variety of duck including pintail, wigeon, pochard, goosander, goldeneye and at dusk the gull roost and starling murmuration. I just missed seeing a peregrine take a drake pochard, I would have thought rather a bulky prey item for this falcon. Other birds today included red kite, chiffchaff, Cetti’s warbler and at dusk on Ivy Lake three roosting great white egret, all in all not bad for a “quiet day”!

 

A Marvellous Day

The first Sunday of the month is volunteer task day and this morning we were continuing work on the path between Goosander and Lapwing hide. The path is being trimmed back and the gravel surface cleaned of grass and other growth,. In addition we are opening up sheltered clearings along the path to increase interest. At one point we are making a solitary bee nesting bank, it is always worth making use of suitable ground for these kind of features which can be quiet rare.

Out on the reserve there were lots of visitors enjoying the cool sunshine. There were birds to see to, especially from Goosander hide where the feeding frenzy is still in full swing. There were 50 or more grey heron, several little egret, both great white egret and lots of cormorant, with gulls and grebes there to mop up the small fry.

The ferrunginous duck seems to have departed, probably for Kingfisher Lake and the wood sandpiper also appears to have left after a rather long stay. There was still a common sandpiper and at least 2 green sandpiper though and a rather unexpected redshank, not a bird we see much other than in spring and summer at Blashford.

Elsewhere there were 2 pintail on Ivy Lake along with 6 wigeon and I saw at least 300 coot on Rockford Lake. In the willows around the reserve there were good numbers of chiffchaff, but no other small migrants that I could locate. A few swallow were passing through, including at least one rather late adult, most at this time are juveniles. First thing this morning there were 60 or so house martin over Ibsley Water although I saw none later in the day.

Locking up there was a considerable gull roost developing and I noticed that there were a lot of very dark backed individuals amongst the lesser black-backed gull flock, a much higher percentage than we see in the winter, an indication of birds from further north and east in Europe passing through.

The sunshine brought out a few butterflies and I saw a good few speckled wood and several small copper around the reserve. The cool night was not the best for moths but the trap did contain one of my favourite species, a merveille du jour.

Merveille du Jour

merveille du jour

Other moths were red-line Quaker, large yellow underwing, lunar underwing, beaded chestnut, black rustic and deep-brown dart.

 

Paths to Wildlife

A busy few days, either working with the volunteers or on a chainsaw course has meant that I have not really had time to look around the reserve or hear many reports from those that have. As it happens it seems there has been little change, the ferruginous duck is still present and frequenting the group of sticks at the end of Long Spit in Ibsley Water and when not there on the long Spit itself, although often only visible from Goosander hide. The wood sandpiper is also still around, although now often on the eastern shore of the lake between Goosander and Lapwing hides. There are still 2 green sandpiper a common sandpiper and a dozen or so wigeon and both great white egret remain. The only new bird that I was aware of today was a single black-tailed godwit on the western shore of Ibsley Water.

With the volunteers were have been cutting the shore west of Goosander hide and the site of the former concrete block works to keep the habitat suitable for nesting lapwing next spring. We have also been working on the paths between Goosander and Lapwing hides. In all we have something like 8 kilometres of paths on the reserve and keeping them in a reasonable state takes quiet a bit of time and effort. We also like to try to keep them interesting, not just routes from A to B, but ones on which you might come across things of interest. Today we were clearing the paths, but also opening up the edges to provide sheltered clearings and making a sand bank for solitary bees to nest.

I am keen to try and get the management of the reserve to always be maximising the opportunities for all kinds of wildlife, both because this makes it a more interesting place  to visit and because our beleaguered wildlife needs all the opportunities it can get.

 

 

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!

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.