Today I took 3 of our regular volunteers out to the north of the reserve to re-survey some plots in grassy habitat, to look for harvest mouse nests.
During the winter of 21-22, the Mammal Society asked people UK wide to go out and survey for harvest mice nests. It’s now time to head out again to find the nests that were built throughout 2022. This ‘National Harvest Mouse Survey’ is helping to build a picture of where they are found, their associated habitats, and will provide an idea of how much they have declined and what work needs to be done to protect them. To find out more have a look at the link below, and if you want to go out and survey in your local area please do!
We found 3 nests today, all woven into the grassy stalks and still suspended. One was the size of a golf ball – this is a solitary nest. Then another beautiful, newer nest that was much larger – this one was definitely a breeding nest. Then in another plot we found an older nest hidden away which could have been from spring 2022, or more likely we think could be from 2021.
We would like to survey more of the reserve to see whether harvest mice are present, and it was fantastic to find these nests in the same plot that was most fruitful last year. We need to ensure that the habitat doesn’t get encroached by brambles, so this will probably be one of the winter jobs for our conservation volunteer groups.
For several years now volunteers and staff have been keeping an eye on the reptile population at Blashford. And we are delighted to say that we have a pretty healthy population – at least of some species. The habitat on the reserve is not conducive to all UK reptiles (Smooth Snakes and Sand Lizards have very specific habitat requirements) but we do have thriving populations of Adders, Grass Snakes and Slow Worms.
As part of ‘keeping an eye’ two teams of volunteers regularly carry out surveys on the reserve. One team does the morning surveys and the other the afternoon, during the active reptile season from March to October.
Surveys involve both visual searches of the site and the use of artificial refugia – namely corrugated felts and tins. These are placed in the areas most likely to support reptiles and in sunny locations, providing a solar heated refuge and protection from avian predation. Generally they are away from public view to avoid unnecessary disturbance. The disturbance of these refugia can significantly affect our ability to determine the presence of reptiles. The higher levels of disturbance cause them to increase the time spent under dense cover and results in them using less optimal habitat. This has both a negative effect on surveying, and on our populations of reptiles as a whole. If you do happen to come across refugia (here at Blashford or anywhere else on your travels) it is very important that you keep your distance and do not disturb them. Sometimes reptiles are found close to, but not underneath the refugia. If you have binoculars and/or a camera with a good lens, it is occasionally possible to get photos of these from quite far away. Please do heed the ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ notices on the refugia and keep a good distance away – we pride ourselves at Blashford on contributing to science, conservation and education, and hope that visitors to the reserve will respect this.
By doing regular monitoring we not only see what types of reptiles are on the site but we learn a bit more about their behaviour and how this changes throughout the year. We get to know the numbers of different populations of each species around the reserve, particularly by where they first emerge after the winter hibernation period. For those nerds amongst you the term for hibernation amongst snakes and amphibians is ‘brumation’. Brumation is the term used for the hibernation of cold-blooded animals.
We generally see how the reptiles at Blashford respond to the temperature. In the morning they will emerge into the sunlight in order to raise their body temperature and enable their muscles etc. to become active. But during the day, a good time to see them could be in the sunshine after a dull, cloudy or damp period, when they will come out into the open to bask and warm up. Once warm they will often move off to carry out their daily business, look for food, find a mate etc.
An extended period of hot weather is not usually good for sightings, as the reptiles have less need for the added warmth of the refugia. Snakes are usually found on the sunny sides of vegetation, along the edges where they are seldom far from dense cover for protection. But once warm it is not uncommon to see a grass snake swimming across a pond or a lake. They are sometimes known as ‘water snakes’. Any of the reptiles could be seen crossing paths and verges, so don’t rush your walks, you never know what you might see if you are walking softly.
Although snakes may eat a wide variety of food depending on what is available and how hungry they are, adders and grass snakes tend to prioritise different types. Adders mainly eat small rodents and lizards, whilst grass snakes’ preferred foods are frogs, toads and newts.
Slow worms are, of course, NOT worms or snakes, but are actually legless lizards. Characteristics include the ability to shed their tails and blink with their eyelids, which snakes are unable to do. They have a different diet to snakes and feed on a variety of invertebrates; slugs, snails, spiders and earthworms.
One of our puzzles at Blashford is that we haven’t recorded any common lizards even though the habitat would seem to be suitable; that is woodland, grassland, brown field sites. We do have woodland, there are some grassy areas and we are a former airfield and quarrying site after all. There have been a couple of suspected sightings and one or two reports but no regular confirmation. If you see any do let us know. Time and place would be good to know and if you can get a picture that would be brilliant …although they are pretty quick to disappear!!
For those of you who are interested in learning more about any of these species, surveying procedures etc. you can visit ARC, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. https://www.arc-trust.org. Thank you to Jacki for writing this blog post, and to all the volunteers that are dedicated to recording and protecting the reptiles here at Blashford.
Don’t forget, if you’re uploading photos to Twitter please write Blashford Lakes within the post so that we can find it and retweet it!
There have been quite a few arrivals recently, the keen eyed of you will have noticed (without needing binoculars) that Jack Medley, our new Reserves Officer has now started. I am sure he will do a blog introducing himself soon, but at the moment he has quite a lot of information to absorb, Blashford is a big site with a lot of history!
Of the winged variety of arrivals – the Sand Martin wall has had a flurry of activity, and a Swift or two have been spotted around Lapwing hide. The CES monitoring has also started, with Kevin reporting many returning Reed Warblers.
Those of you who have been out on the reserve recently will have noticed the Terns arriving in small numbers, and Jack thought it was time to begin putting out the rafts. The tern rafts are put out gradually, as the gulls do have a habit of taking over, and we very much want at least a few to be occupied by terns!
With the help of Simon King and others from our Lower Test team, one Tern raft has now been deployed on Ivy Lake. The regular Blashford work party groups have been instrumental in getting the rafts up together and ready for this season, alongside Jo from Fishlake and Jack. Over the next few weeks the rafts for Ibsley Water will be prepared, and more rafts will be put out on both Ivy Lake and Ibsley Water as Tern numbers increase.
I am sure you have walked past the Welcome Hut on your way to the Woodland Hide and Ivy Lake, but when was the last time you took a wander inside?
Almost daily the Welcome Hut has a friendly volunteer ready to answer your questions, have a chat, and help with anything Blashford related, and if they don’t know the answers they’re pretty good at finding them! If you need a map, they’ve got them, and if you would like to make a donation they can point you towards a tin, and give assistance with the card reader if required.
This beautiful little building houses myriad of wildlife wonders, items to buy, things to look at, so please take a peek inside.
The Welcome Hut – it’s not just for adults! There are skulls, birds nests, feathers and specimens which are all there for inquisitive people to take a look at and learn about.
If you or someone you know needs a little help with identification there are FSC guides for sale (we’ve got garden birds, amphibians, ducks geese and swans, invertebrates and many more) which are incredibly useful resources for adults and young people alike.
You can buy greetings cards which have beautiful photos of a range of wildlife that can be found on the reserve and many of which have been taken here, and are blank inside so suit any occasion. Take a look on the bottom shelf too, you’ll find a wide variety of second hand books available for a small donation, including ‘Discovering Dorset’, ‘Wildflowers as they grow’, ‘The Living Planet’ by David Attenborough and many more.
A huge thank you to all our Welcome Volunteers, your knowledge and enthusiasm is invaluable, and thanks for being so cheerful even when it’s cold outside!
The stalwart Tuesday volunteers arrived at Blashford ready to work this morning despite the heavy rain and strong winds. I think probably much against his better judgement Bob took them out on site to continue work on the removal of the old dilapidated boardwalk, clearing way for the construction of the new replacement one. They soldiered on as the rain grew heavier and the wind grew stronger only giving in (to what some sat in a nice warm & dry office – well dry anyway – would say was just plain old fashioned common sense!) when the wheel came off Bobs trailer…
With the volunteers headed home to dry off and warm up, and Bob trying to dry off his second coat of the day, we settled down to lunch only to be plunged into darkness when the power went off. Hot on the heels of Arwen Storm Barra had hit Blashford and toppled a large sycamore tree near the entrance to the nature reserve taking out an entire length of power cable…
Fortunately (there was some good luck today!) the horrible weather meant that the few visitors we had earlier in the day had all gone home so it was a simple matter to close up the site. Not so simple was letting everyone know who needed to know that the power was down, but we got there in the end and Scottish & Southern Electric were on site relatively quickly.
By the time I left shortly after 4pm we were properly in the “eye of the storm” with evening sunshine and just a gentle breeze and there were any number of power lines men, tree surgeons, cars, vans, trucks and cherry pickers on site with a promise that power would be restored by morning…
However the weather forecast has the worst of Storm Barra not actually coming through until the early hours of tomorrow morning so just a heads up to everyone that if that is the case although we may have electricity back up & running in the office & centre, if more tree’s come down it may become necessary to temporarily close footpaths &/or hides until they can be cleared so if you are planning on visiting tomorrow (8th December) maybe hold off arriving until later in the day?
Working with the Blashford volunteers again today, this time a little ragwort control, but not too much, fencing checks before the ponies arrive and a count of the bee orchids along the way. We found over 60, which is a good number for this part of the reserve and a very variable lot they were too.
The last one looks like a toy duck with a tiny gosling on its head! (or at least it does to me).
Back at the Centre for lunch I noticed the dark mullein is now in flower so went to look for some mullein moth caterpillars, did not find any but got this close up image of one of the flowers.
I had a quick look on the lichen heath near the Pound afterwards when I went to collect parts of one of the rafts that had collapsed after I had been unable to get it in last autumn. These dry, sandy habitats have a whole suite of species that specialise in living on them and coping with the difficult conditions. One of these is the small velvet ant, actually a wingless wasp that parasitises other wasp species that make nest tunnels in the sand.
Another specialist of sandy habitats is the chafer beetle Anomala dubia, one I had not seen before.
We are now firmly into horsefly season and today’s humidity was ideal for them. Many species of the Tabanidae have amazingly patterned and coloured eyes. only the females bite, luckily this Chrysops caecutiens.
A slippery sort of a day, blue sky to start then rain, then warm sun and eventually heavy rain, it was hard to know how many layers and of what type to wear and every time I went out I got it wrong. The wildlife seemed equally confused, at Ivy South Hide as I opened up in thick cloud the grass snakes were “basking” on the tree stump.
the largest grass snake
By the time I set out with the volunteers at 10:00 to work on the eastern shore of Ibsley Water, the sun was strong and the sun block was out in force. Ten minutes later when we got there, grey clouds were threatening and curtains of rain could be seen falling to the south-west. Luckily, and to my surprise, we got away with it and managed to return still more or less dry. On the return journey I noticed a mullein plant with the telltale tattered leaves caused by munching mullein moth caterpillars.
mullein moth caterpillar
Our tern rafts have mainly been occupied by gulls again this year, this is to be expected as gulls far outnumber terns. There are about twenty pairs of terns nesting though and many now have chicks.
Raft with black-headed gull families
There are still a few common tern seemingly loafing around on Ibsley Water, I assume off-duty birds whose partners are still sitting on eggs, but perhaps non-breeders.
The picture, with wings open shows a clear identification feature of the species, the darker outer primaries. The reason for this is that the outer four or five of the wing feathers much older than the inner ones and so more worn. The white edges wear away more quickly which means older feathers look darker, forming a definite dark wedge in the outer-wing. The reason this helps with identification because the most similar tern species, the Arctic tern moults all of its wing feathers in one continuous sequence, meaning that there is no such contrast between the newest and oldest wing feather, making the wing look the same all along its length.
Warm wet weather is perfect for slime moulds, the really weird end of nature and a group I have featured a few times before.
This one has various names, one is troll butter, but there are many more.
The bark chippings in the raised beds at the Centre also has some, at first I though just one type but a closer look suggests at least two. A close look is essential as the fruiting bodies are very small indeed.
Slime mould fruiting body looking like tiny strings of pearls
Close up they look like minute stylised trees.
slime mould possibly Physarum album
Taking a closer look is when I realised that not all of them had white stems and spherical tops.
As I was wondering if I should put on a fleece under my jacket in an effort to keep both dry and warm, it was good to think back to those balmy days of short-sleeves in February and know that it would be warm again, sometime. Needless to say, despite it being mid-June, it was not a day for insects, or much else.
The stalwarts of Blashford’s Brilliant Volunteers worked through it all though and we made a good job of finally clearing the yard of scrap metal and old tyres. Sadly we are “donated” rather a lot of rubbish, not generally by our visitors, but in the form of fly-tipping. I suppose it is something we should feel “Wild” about, but after years of working in the countryside it, sadly, has becomes an expected part of the job.
Although I have said our reserve visitors are generally very good alt not leaving litter, there have been a few incidents recently of mess being left at the Goosander Hide, probably int he evenings. There is some indication of a degree of general anti-social behaviour as well. If anyone is on the reserve at any time and sees such things going on it is very useful to have such details as it is easy to get. These issues are difficult to tackle so any information is useful, an email to the Blashford Lakes email or if ongoing int he daytime a call to the office or one of our mobiles is very helpful, the contact details are posted in the hides.
One sign of summer at Blashford was in evidence though, although it was necessary to peer through the drizzle to see it, the ponies are back grazing the shore of Ibsley Water.
Pony in the mist
The weather has been a problem in lots of ways, one of them is that it is preventing us from colour-ringing our usual sample of young black-headed gull. It seems likely that most will have fledged before we get the weather to go and ring them.
juvenile black-headed gull
Let’s hope for some more summery conditions next week.
The Blashford volunteers were out in force today and we were pulling Himalayan balsam along the Dockens Water, I am delighted to say that we found very little until we got down to the very lowest part of the stream, just where it leave the reserve. All the years of work seem to be paying off. This lower part of the stream is an area where we have been allowing the stream “to do its own thing” a little bit of rewilding, if you like. This has been the approach for over ten years now and all we do in there is clear rubbish washed down the stream and control invasive alien species, such as the balsam. It has developed into an amazing area of habitat.
Wet woodland along the Dockens Water
We came across a strange patch of red in the stream at one point, I think it is a red alga presumably exploiting some mineral seepage, but I may very well be wrong about that!
The red stuff!
The reserve was generally quiet, but as I locked up the Tern Hide I noticed a second calendar year Mediterranean gull close to the hide, it had a colour-ring on the left leg and luckily it was showing well enough to read the code.
colour-ringed Mediterranean gull
I think it was ringed in Ireland and I will update when I have found out details form the scheme organiser.
Back working at Blashford Lakes today, this morning with the first Sunday of the month volunteers. Only a small turnout today but we spent the time working around the new dipping pond, covering up the exposed liner and generally trying to make it look more like a “real” pond. As we were working I noticed some of the plants that had grown up on the exposed soil thrown up when the pond was dug and amongst the plants were several of common fumitory.
This is a species that was once an abundant “weed” of cultivation, typical of the margins of arable fields. Some thirty years ago it was noticed that the distribution of turtle dove and fumitory were very similar in Devon, this gave rise to the idea that perhaps the doves needed the plant. However it turned out that it was more that they both needed the same habitat, it was a correlation, both depended upon there being a bit of space left for them between the intensive arable.
The hemlock water-dropwort growing beside the old pond is now in full flower and is usually a really good nectar source for lots of insects, so far this year I have not seen nearly as many as I would expect. However today there were at least a few hoverflies to be seen on the flowers.
The warm night resulted in much the best moth catch of the year so far, with 34 species including a privet hawk-moth, poplar hawk-moth, pale tussock, Brussels Lace and this alder moth.
Almost immaculate, apart form a slightly rubbed thorax.
As I went to lock up the Tern hide looking out over Ibsley Water I saw a tern in the distance that did not “look right” and no wonder, it was a little tern, in fact there were two of them. Typically very much coastal terns in the UK, so it is always a treat to see them inland, or increasingly anywhere these days, as they are one of our most threatened seabirds.