Christmas is coming…

…like it or not, it actually is, and, at Blashford at least, it’s looking like it could be a white Christmas too. A great white egret Christmas that is!

Up to 5 great white egret, with up to 13 little egret “in attendance” are being seen on the reserve at present,  mostly on or around Ibsley Water where they are particularly enjoying spending time hanging out over the water at the south western corner of the lake on the willows that we have been felling along that shore and over the lake to vary the habitat, improve nesting capacity for birds like little and great crested grebes and coot, and, at the same time, impede access to those users (abusers) of the nature reserve who insist on being where they shouldn’t be…

Sadly it would appear that the famous, one and only “original” Blashford great white egret, affectionately known to all as Walter White, is not one of those five 😦

As regular readers of this Blog and visitors to the nature reserve will know Walter was a distinctive bird with leg rings which he received as a chick in France in 2003 so could always be readily identified upon his return, usually at some point in August, although at times both earlier and later than that month. Tipped to become Europes  oldest great white egret (record currently stands at 17 years) it would appear that Walter sadly may well have matched it, but has not exceeded it, as we have neither seen or had reports of a ringed great white this winter.

There is still hope however,  albeit slim. It was only last year (maybe the year before) that Bob, having given up hope of Walter’s return, effectively wrote an obituary for this  much loved bird on these pages – only for Walter to be sighted the very next day. So fingers crossed everyone!

Elsewhere in the general environs around Ibsley Water I can’t not mention the starling murmuration. Although still very much not on the scale of some winters there are, at present, still a good number of several thousand birds gathering and roosting in Valley and although perhaps not big on numbers some evenings at least they have been performing some great displays and throwing some stunning shapes! Good to see the goosander coming into roost too – so far Bob has recorded a little over 50 and there are now 10+ goldeneye too.

Around the woodland habitats on the reserve, this winter looks like being a good one for redpoll with a number feeding in the tree tops amidst the siskin – although not yet coming down to feed on the bird feeders. We also still have a pair of marsh tits established in an area roughly from the Centre down to Ivy South Hide – both have now been ringed by BTO volunteer bird ringers Kevin & Brenda so if you see a marsh tit without a ring let us know because it will mean we actually have more than just the two birds!

Further to  Tracy’s last post, in which she described the DIY wreath activity you can enjoy on your next visit, should you choose, I just thought I’d give a plug for the various items which can be bought from the Welcome Hut while you are here, the proceeds from which will all go towards supporting the education and conservation work here at Blashford Lakes. Just bear us in mind for some of those stocking fillers for your nature loving loved ones – just like the high street, we need your support (and if like many you are doing a lot of your shopping online at present remember you can still support the Trust either by purchasing direct from our online shop ( http://www.hiwwt.org.uk/shop-support-wildlife ) or by shopping via Amazon Smile or Easyfundraising and nominating Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust as your chosen charity.

But now for more in terms of what we can sell you from here when you visit!

The Welcome Hut remains closed to visitors (not very welcoming I know – sorry!), but it is making a very handy additional office space so we can better manage our socially distant safe working practices, and it does mean one of us is usually around to take your money if there is anything in particular you are interested in buying 😉

If you arrive and there isn’t anyone working from the hut do knock on the Centre door or call the mobile phone number which will have been left out on a sign outside the Hut.

At present we have Christmas cards (either handmade ones for sale at 2 for £3, or packs of 10 Wildlife Trust cards for £3), lovely handturned wooden ballpoint pens (£3), a wide variety of FSC wildlife identification guides (4 of which are shown below – £3.30 or £4 each), a small selection of children’s picture books, bird nest boxes and bat boxes (£10) and bug homes (£5).

Wet and Wild

I think that about sums up the conditions at present, the rain seems to have been fairly continuous since September! The lakes have gone from almost the lowest I can remember to as high as I have ever seen.

flooded boardwalk

Flooding under the boardwalk south of Ivy South Hide

The flooding has been widespread and the Avon Valley is awash, this encourages wildfowl to come up from the coast to feed on the flooded fields. They mainly feed there at night spending the day on the lakes, but as they, which is why there are over 340 pintail regularly on Ibsley Water just now and today I counted 1470 wigeon on Ivy Lake alone!

The floods mean the gull roost has declined as many are now roosting in the valley rather than on Ibsley Water. But this does not mean there is no roost spectacle to be seen as there is a large starling roost just to the north which is best seen from the viewpoint at the rear of the Main Car Park. Although this at some distance from the roost it does give a full view of the whole gyrating flock once a real murmuration gets going as it frequently has with two or more peregrine trying to catch a late meal most evenings.

starlings 2

Starlings

starlings 1

More starlings

It is very difficult to guess at numbers, but I would say there are at least 25000.

The high water levels have meant we have seen very few snipe this winter, I think they have all gone off into the valley, although I did spot one the other morning from tern Hide.

snipe

common snipe, more or less hiding

The most regular wader this winter has been the unseasonal common sandpiper, these usually migrate well to the south for the winter and the few that do stay in the UK are almost all on the coast. It was around daily until around the New Year when it disappeared, I thought the chancy strategy of wintering so far north had caught up with it, but on Sunday it reappeared on the shore outside Tern Hide again.

common sandpiper

common sandpiper

A less welcome sight outside the same hide, and all along the southern shore were two dogs, it seems they stray from a garden nearly a mile away, bad for wildlife and a real risk to the dogs as they cross or run down the road on their way here.

dogs!

Dogs!

We also had an incident of people on the reserve with dogs in circumstances suggestive of attempted poaching, luckily they were seen by an eagle-eyed visitor and reported to us. If you are visiting and see anything that seems untoward, please let us know, if possible at the time, our numbers are posted in the hides. Whilst the reserve is well respected by almost everyone and this is key to its success there is always the chance that the actions of a few can spoil things for the many.

As you may know the reserve is dog-free apart from the public footpaths, so on most of the reserve the wildlife does not associate people with dogs. One consequence of this is that the roe deer are relatively approachable, often just spotting to look at you before wandering off rather than racing away in panic.

roe deer

Three roe on the path to Ivy North Hide on a gloomy morning

As we passed into 2020 I had to admit that we seem to have no bittern for the year-listers this winter as last autumn’s bird has not been seen for some time. We do still have Europe’s oldest great white egret though, “Walter” has made it into 2020 and now has just about four and a half months to his 17th birthday.

Walter

Walter, and gull – again in the gloom, the light has mostly been terrible for taking pictures!

Even though it has felt like it has rarely stopped raining and right now it is blowing a gale outside there has been some respite and even a bit of sunshine, as when this rainbow appeared over Ibsley Water on Sunday, when we were also visited by the ferruginous duck on a brief foray away from its hiding place on Kingfisher Lake.

rainbow over Ibsley Water

rainbow over Ibsley Water

 

Recently on the Reserve

There is a good range of species around the lakes at present, although numbers are not very high. Ibsley Water does not have a lot of wildfowl this winter due to rather weak water-weed growth, but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in variety. The long-tailed duck has been showing well at times near Goosander and Tern hides and there is now a black-necked grebe frequenting the northern shore of the lake. Recent rain has resulted in some local flooding in the Avon Valley, conditions which lead to increases in numbers of pintail and black-tailed godwit, both of which will visit Ibsley Water during the day. Recently there have been 70 or more pintail and up to 400 godwit at times on the lake. In addition we have a wintering common sandpiper and at least 1 water pipit, both sometimes right in front of Tern Hide.

By contrast Ivy Lake has been very busy with large numbers of wildfowl with hundreds of gadwall, wigeon and coot. There have also been up to 4 great white egret, including “Walter”. Cetti’s warbler seem to be at an all time high on the reserve with one even using the woodland near the Centre and frequently in the vegetation beside the dipping pond. There have been a number of firecrest around, with the hollies along the Dockens Water a favourite location, this very fine picture was sent in last week.

Firecrest by Doug Masson

Firecrest by Doug Masson

Doug also sent in a nice shot of a female shoveler, a duck that is present in only moderate numbers this winter so far.

Shoveler by Doug Masson

Shoveler by Doug Masson

Each winter for the last few years we have had two apprentices from the New Forest National Park working on the reserve for a couple of months, they provide valuable assistance to me on days when I have no volunteer working parties. The apprentices have been doing great work recently, laying two sections of hedge along the western side of Ellingham Lake and on Friday we took to the water and cleared three of the islands on the western side of Ibsley Water of their annual vegetation.

P1110542

A section of hedge being prepared for laying.

On Saturday I ran a gull identification workshop in partnership with Hampshire Ornithological Society. These things are rather hit and miss when it comes to going out to see the gulls, so much depends upon the weather and even then the gulls may decide to roost distantly from the hides. We did not find any unusual gulls, but the long-tailed duck, black-necked grebe, goosander roost and a very fine peregrine were all highlights. I was with a group at Tern Hide and we had the peregrine perch on a post close to the hide.

peregrine

Peregrine perched close to Tern Hide

Other recent sightings have included a regular female marsh harrier, a modest starling roost to the north of Ibsley Water, a young female scaup on Rockford Lake and an otter near Ivy South hide, although an American mink was seen there at the weekend. The Ibsley Water gull roost has contained 6 or more yellow-legged gull, an adult Caspian gull and up to 2 Mediterranean gull.

Things Moving On

The unseasonably warm weather has yet to produce any summer migrant birds at Blashford, although elsewhere in the country there have been multiple sightings of swallow, sand martin and house martin, a swallow has even reached Shetland! We do have lots of signs of spring though, the wild daffodil are coming out in numbers, especially near the Woodland Hide and the moth trap is turning up some species more typical of March than February.

oak beauty 4x3

oak beauty

twin-spot quaker

twin-spotted Quaker

satellite

satellite

Things are also moving on with the various works on the reserve and are likely to pick up further next week. The new Centre pond is almost ready to receive water.

pond progress

New pond under construction

Some things don’t seem so keen to move though, the bittern remains regularly seen outside Ivy North Hide, at times showing very well.

bittern 2

bittern fishing outside Ivy North Hide yesterday

The other notable heron species that had been seen regularly there, the great white egret does seem to have made the move though, with no sightings in the last few days. My last known sighting of “Walter” the colour-ringed egret was last Saturday, I am guessing he has returned to France for the summer.

Substitutes and Declines

It was feeling very spring-like today, I got very warm as I worked with the volunteers felling some grey alder beside the path to Lapwing Hide. These trees were planted as a “substitute” for native alder, which is not a hard tree to source, when the restoration planting was done after the gravel working ceased. Sadly truly native trees are not always specified in planting schemes, even when they are supposedly done for nature conservation and even when they are, substitutes are often allowed. Often even if the tree species is native they are not from a UK source, importing trees has brought us several diseases that have significantly impacted upon native woodland. These imports are also often adapted to a different climate so will flower or leaf earlier out of sync with native insects. Let’s have more native trees that are really native, ideally grown from the seed of trees as local to the planting site as possible.

wild daffodil

Wild daffodil just coming into flower, a good indicator of remaining ancient woodland at Blashford Lakes.

Having said all this planting trees is an often seriously over rated activity, if they establish well we end up with secondary woodland that will not be more than a pale shadow of an ancient woodland in even a thousand years. The best way to extend woodland cover is to allow existing ancient woods to grow outwards, letting them seed into neighbouring open ground, something that will happen naturally in most places if grazing or mowing are stopped. This way we will get locally adapted trees establishing where they will do best and other species can move out from the old wood into the new. It will also serve to buffer the older woodland and reduce the distance to the nearest neighbouring wood. I am prepared to make an exception for hedges though, so many of these have been lost that replanting is the only practical way to get them back, but the need for locally plant stock remains important.

There has been a good bit of coverage of the severe global decline in insect numbers in the media over the last few days and it is very alarming. A series of studies are now coming to very similar conclusions and these are that insects are in trouble globally with significant declines not just in developed western Europe but in tropical forests as well. Insects may be small but their abundance and diversity mean they are vital to the effective functioning of almost all terrestrial ecosystems. They are predators and prey, decomposers, pollinators and grazers, in fact they are almost everywhere and everywhere they are, they perform essential functions. I have run a moth trap for many years monitoring the species caught before releasing them and I can attest to a great drop in numbers over the years, I see as many species but none in great abundance as I used to.

pale brindled beauty

Pale brindled beauty, a typical late winter species, there were two in the trap last night.

Over the last few weeks things have been a bit hectic on the reserve with work going on all over the place, the new pond is being dug behind the Education Centre and preparations continuing for the installation of the new Tern hide next month. We are doing our best to keep the reserve up and running in the meantime, but there will be occasional interruptions to normal service, such as temporary closure of the main car park or limitations on the use of parts of the car parks.

Out on the reserve two bittern have been seen a number of times recently at Ivy North hide as have two great white egret. I am especially keen to try to record the last sighting of “Walter” our colour-ringed great white egret, he usually heads off back to France around this time of year so any definite sightings gratefully received. At the weekend an otter was seen at Ivy North hide and this morning I have very, very, brief views of one near Ivy South hide, so it is well worth keeping an eye out.

roost

A roosting great white egret with lots of cormorant, it might have been “Walter” but I could not see the legs to check for rings.

 

All Change

After a cold and snowy end to last week,  Sunday saw me arriving to find almost the whole of Ibsley Water frozen over and Ivy Lake completely so.

frosty silt pond

Ivy Silt Pond on Sunday morning

Things actually started to thaw during the day on Sunday, so that by the end of the day there was more open water, at least on Ibsley Water.

goosander flock preening

a group of goosander preening near Lapwing hide

The cold resulted in a typical increase in the number of common gull in the roost, with over 400 reported and, more excitingly, the return of the ring-billed gull, probably it had come in with the common gull influx, but where has it been?

Even at dusk  on yesterday Ivy Lake was still frozen over and this seemed to put off the cormorant roosting flock, instead of the usual 150 or more birds there were just two! Others did fly in and around the trees but headed off elsewhere. A single great white egret, probably “Walter” roosted in the trees, but away from the two cormorant.

Today was quite different, mild and wet, a combination of snow melt and rain resulted in the Dockens Water flooding through the alder carr and into Ivy Lake, probably to the great relief of the bittern which was back in the reedmace at Ivy North Hide as I locked up this evening.

bittern

Bittern in the reedmace below Ivy North hide

I am pretty confident that every sighting of bittern that I have had this winter has been of the same bird, as have been all the pictures I have seen. On a couple of occasions I have seen threat behaviour that I would usually associate with there being a second nearby, but have never seen another bird. So reports of two seen on Friday were interesting, although the second bird could just have been displaced by the cold as they often are when lakes freeze. However today I see that two were seen in early January, so perhaps there really have been two all along! As they are territorial it may just be that the second is usually too far from the hide for us to see it, there is a good bit of reedbed off the west of the Ivy North Hide where it would be very difficult to see a lurking bittern.

By dusk this evening it was quite hard to see very much in any case, as the mist descended over the lakes.

misty Ivy Lake

Misty Ivy Lake (actually the bittern is in this picture, but I doubt you can see it!!)

Thinning

Not a reference to the effects of advancing age but to today’s volunteer task on the reserve, which was felling some sycamore trees to open up some space. In places we have dense stands of very tall, thin sycamores which tend to over-top and then shade out other species. To reduce the negative effects of this we are thinning out a lot of the smaller trees, especially where they are growing amongst other species such as oak. It was the perfect day for felling, at least until the rain started, being cool, so I did not overheat in the protective chainsaw gear and calm, so the trees would hopefully fall where I intended them to.

volunteers clearing felled sycamore

Volunteers clearing away the upper branches of a felled sycamore

By the end of the day we had cleared quite a few trees, but the more we took down the more there seemed to be! At the same time there was a more open feel to the area so we must have done something. We did come across quiet a few small, self-sown hazel and even one covered in honeysuckle and these should benefit from some more sunlight.

the aftermath of sycamore thinning

the aftermath of sycamore thinning

I left a number of the stumps fairly high, this allows me to ring-bark the stump reducing the chance of it growing back, without using pesticide and also gives the opportunity to make some cut slots and holes to allow rot to get a hold and make habitat for various invertebrates.

Chainsawing for most of the day does reduce the chance of seeing wildlife somewhat, but not completely. Locking up the hides at dusk I was lucky enough to see both great white egret and bittern at Ivy North hide. I understand the yellow-browed warbler was again near Ivy South hide and out on Ibsley Water there were peregrine, Mediterranean gullyellow-legged gull and black-necked grebe, but no sign of the lesser scaup, perhaps it has moved to Blashford Lake where it spent much of its time last winter when it was here. At Woodland hide there was also a brambling reported, perhaps the same bird that Tracy saw yesterday.

walter in the reedmace

Walter hiding amongst the reedmace in the gloom of dusk

 

From all Corners

There were birds from all over the place on the reserve today. All the way from Siberia; the yellow-browed warbler was again near Ivy South hide as I opened up, giving good views until it disappeared before our very eyes. It makes astonishingly fast changes of direction which mean that following its movements for very long is incredibly difficult.

From North America we had; lesser scaup, a drake near the furthest shore of Ibsley Water, probably last winter’s bird returned by popular demand. These duck are similar in appearance to the greater scaup which is much more familiar in Europe, but smaller, around the size of a tufted duck.

From all over northern and eastern Europe we had all the other wildfowl and a good few other birds too. Arrived from the Alps and now to be seen on the shores of Ibsley Water are the water pipit, I got a mediocre picture of one today.

water pipit

water pipit from Tern hide

And finally from just up the road somewhere we have the rest, including this adult female peregrine, seen here in another iffy picture!

peregrine

adult female peregrine

Other birds to be seen out and about on the reserve today were the bittern at Ivy North hide along with Walter the great white egret. Other birds to be seen on Ibsley Water included green sandpiper, pintail and in the gull roost several yellow-legged gull and three Mediterranean gull. 

However the reserve is not just about birds, today there was also cake and lots of it, with another successful day for the pop-up cafe.  I also took some non-birdy pictures, largely due to a failure to get very good ones of the birds. There are quite a few fungi about now, scarlet elf-cup are just starting to appear in numbers as are lost of Turkeytail.

turkeytail

Moss, fern and Turkeytail

The bare trees make it possible to appreciate how much lichen some of them have on their branches, the willow near Lapwing hide are especially heavily festooned.

lichen on willow twigs

lichen on willow twigs

Other species grow on the trunks of trees.

lichen on birch trunk

lichen on birch trunk

Lichens are a mash-up of alga and fungus, although it now appears it is probably rather more complicated than this.

The reserve was busy today despite reduced parking due to the ongoing levelling works near the Centre, but hopefully this work will be completed by the end of the coming week and things will be slightly closer to normal again, at least for a time.

A Few Birds

We had a mini bird race for teams from our Blashford Lakes Project partners today, which meant that I got to have a good look around the reserve and see a few birds as well. Generally it was a quite day with rather little sign of migration despite the season.

Over Ibsley Water there were several hundred hirundines, predominantly house martin but including sand martin and swallow. The only wader was common sandpiper, but the bushes between the lakes held some small birds including chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap and a single spotted flycatcher, mostly accompanying flocks of long-tailed tit.

Walter our regular great white egret was back in his regular spot outside Ivy North hide after going absent for a few days, his recent companion has not been seen for several days. An adult hobby hunting over the trees at the same spot was also nice to see and a peregrine was reported there as well.

Numbers of wildfowl have been high for the time of year and I took the opportunity to get a new count of the coot on Ibsley Water and found 794, a really high count for the first half of September.

 

Walter Returned

Jim, reported the sighting of a great white egret on Ivy Lake the other day and speculated that it might be “Walter” our regularly returning bird. This bird was ringed in 2003 in France and first arrived at Blashford in August of that year, since then he has come back to spend each autumn and winter with us. We know that it is the same bird each year as he was ringed as a nestling with a combination of coloured rings. He is now 15 years and 3 months old, a good age for almost any bird. I have seen a maximum age for this species in Europe of 17 years, but it seems the official European bird ringing site (EURING) reports a maximum age of only 13 year and 9 months, which would make Walter Europe’s oldest great white egret by some margin.

With this in mind I was very keen to establish if the bird seen was actually Walter and not some other visitor and as I locked up yesterday there he was outside Ivy North hide, with rings on full show. This egret was indeed Walter returned and apparently a record breaker.

Of course he would have also been Europe’s oldest last year as well, he was reported then and does not seem to have made it onto the database, so perhaps there are others, even older out there that have also not got into the records yet. But, for now at least we will claim him as the oldest.

So how old might he get? The oldest great white egret (also known as “Great egret”), I can find is 22 years in North America and a grey heron has reached 37 years 6 months, so we could be seeing him for some years yet with a bit of luck.