A Day Unparalleled

Although I failed to see it a when I opened up this morning, the grey phalarope remained on Ibsley Water as did a juvenile black tern and the two ruff. A feature of recent days on this lake has been the mass fishing events, when a flock of cormorant, sometimes a hundred or more will act together to drive  large shoal of small fish into a corner. This attracts grey heron, little egret and the great white egret, which patrol the shallows, everyone gets some fish, sometimes several, which shows just how big the shoal must be.

The swallow and martin flock was perhaps a little smaller today, but still ran to several thousand and once again included a single swift. However it was not the birds that made for an “Unparalleled” day, it was a moth, a Clifden nonpareil, or blue underwing.

Clifden Nonpareil

Clifden nonpareil in egg boxes from the moth trap.

These are very large and, until recently, very rare moths. Having become extinct in the UK they turned up only as rare migrants until recolonizing about ten years ago. The New Forest area seems to be their stronghold now and in the last few years we have seen one or two each year, but they at still a real treat. It is just a shame it did not turn up yesterday for the moth event.

Big Blue headshot

Clifden nonpareil close up.

We have been doing quite a lot of grass cutting recently, some areas we are managing like meadows to increase the variety of wild flowers and this means we have to cut and remove the bulk of the grass by the end of the growing season. Today we cut areas of the sweep meadow used by education groups near the Ivy North hide. In this areas we cut in alternate years to leave longer herbage for over-wintering insects. If we leave it uncut for too long bramble and small trees start to colonise and many of the grassland plants, upon which so many insects depend, disappear.

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A meadow area near Lapwing hide prior to cutting.

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Meadow area near Lapwing hide after cutting.

The grass is raked up and piled into a heap which should provide a good place for grass snakes to breed next year, especially if the heap is in a sunny spot.

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Fishing in the Rain

The last two days have not been the best, I think it rained, even if only lightly, for the whole time I was at Blashford on Sunday. It did not put of the monthly volunteers, or at least not completely, four stalwarts came in and spent nearly two hours pulling nettles from along the paths and around the wild daffodil bank. The rain did stop everyone from coming to my planned “Late Summer Wildlife” walk though and so they all missed the two black tern that spent the afternoon over Ibsley Water and the thousand or two of house martin and swallow too.

Iblsey Water has had a lot of fish eating birds on it lately and Sunday was not exception with both grey heron and great crested grebe hunting close to Tern hide.

grey heron juv

Juvenile grey heron

There have been well over 70 grey heron on a number of days recently and my maximum count was late last week when I saw 153!

GCG in rain

Great crested grebe in the rain

I have also made some of my highest counts of grebes for  along time recently, today I saw at least 57 from Tern hide alone. There have also been at least 6 little egret, Walter the great white egret and as many as 193 cormorant, so life for smaller fish has been difficult, but equally there must be  a lot of them to have attracted the attention of so many predators.

Birds and a (mini) Beast

As promised here are a couple of excellent pictures of the avocet that dropped into Blashford Lakes on Monday, many thanks to Keith Beswick for sending them in.

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Avocet by Keith Beswick

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Avocet by Keith Beswick

What is immediately obvious is that this is a juvenile bird, the brownish feathers would be black in an adult. Juvenile birds tend to turn up in slightly unusual places as they learn about their environment and where best to be, this one will probably join the large wintering flock in Poole Harbour.

Signs of the changing season are all around now, opening the Tern hide yesterday I saw 8 shoveler, 7 teal, a wigeon (although this was probably the bird that summered with us), a shelduck and a garganey. There were also at least 3 common sandpiper and a green sandpiper. At the end of the day the lake was dominated by fish-eating birds with at least 50 grey heron, 6 little egret, 1 great white egret (“Walter”) and 195 cormorant.

During the day I was working with the volunteers on efforts to establish a grassland in the old concrete plant site, we are making good progress and I think it will be a valuable addition to the reserve. The new path is still not open yet as the necessary agreements with our landlords are still not in place. On our way back for lunch the volunteers found a splendid caterpillar, it reminded me of Dougal the dog, a reference that will date me for those who recognise it.

sycamore caterpillar

sycamore caterpillar

The sycamore moth is rather a dull pale grey species but the caterpillar is a wonderful creature.

Mouldy Old Day

On my way to open up the hides this morning I found another slime mould on a log near the Woodland hide. More regular readers will perhaps know I am rather fond of these bizarre organisms. This morning’s species was the coral slime mould Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa and it resembled a hoar frost in colour and shape.

coral slime mould

coral slime mould

I spent the day working with the volunteers continuing to develop the new area of grassland beside the path through the old concrete works. Before anyone asks, no I don’t have an opening date for the path yet, but I hope it will be reasonably soon. We were doing some cutting, but also a lot or raking up and it was remarkable how many young common toad there were in the area, certainly many tens and probably hundreds, clearly it is an important area for them. The seeding we did back in the spring has worked surprisingly well considering how dry it was, although it seems to be making up for that now. There are lots of young bird’s foot trefoil and ox-eye daisy plants coming up so it should look pretty good in a year or two.

At the end of the day I set off to lock up the hides and my eye was caught by something brilliant yellow, another slime mould! This time troll butter, it is almost dayglow in brightness.

troll butter and very small beetle

troll butter

It was only when I downloaded the picture that I noticed the tiny beetle.

 

 

A Clear(er) View

On Thursday the volunteers cleared the annual vegetation from in front of the Tern hide, we do this each year for a couple of reasons. The most obvious is that it improves the view of the nearest shore from the hide. Another is that it clears the ground for the nesting lapwing and little ringed plover next spring. There are also always some seedling bramble, birch and willow that need pulling out before they get established.

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The shore before we started

after

and after a couple of hours of hard weeding

Looking out from the hide today this did not make much difference as visibility was seriously reduced due to persistent heavy rain. Despite this there were some birds to see, including at least 800 sand martin, 3 swift, 2 dunlin, a little ringed plover, 3 common sandpiper, 33 mute swan and 3 pochard. Ivy Lake was quieter with just a few coot, gadwall and great crested grebe, there are also still two broods of two common tern chicks on the rafts.

Today was not a day for invertebrates, but I do have one more picture from Thursday, spotted in long grass as I went round locking up, a wasp spider, my first of the year.

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Wasp spider female with prey.

 

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!