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.

 

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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.

Back Again

I was back at Blashford after a week away in North Wales. It was a good many years since I was there and it was great to visit familiar places and some new ones too. Seeing wildlife that I don’t see at home was also good. Birds such as dipper, chough, whooper swan, black guillemot and hen harrier were all a treat.

So it was back to work today, but as if to emphasise that it is not so bad, as if I needed reminding, on the way in I saw a hawfinch which flew across the road. Opening up the Tern hide a black-necked grebe was on view. Outside the Centre two male brambling were by the feeder and from Ivy South hide Walter the great white egret and an otter. There really are worse places to work!

I was in the office for a good part for the day, there is no way to escape the after-break email backlog. This did mean that I saw lots of people coming and going from the Pop-up cafe, which did a good trade despite it being quite q quiet day for visitors. If you want the chance to sample the splendid homemade cakes on offer there are just two more opportunities this winter, they will be back on the first and third Sundays in March and then taking their break until next autumn. It is a testament to the quality on offer that some of today’s customers were returnees who came in just for the cake and did not even visit the reserve.

There was one negative event to report, a car was broken into int he main car park, although nothing was stolen. Although a very rare event at Blashford, with well under one break-in a year it still pays to be careful. Just as in the New Forest car parks you should obviously not leave valuables on display, but also don’t put them in the boot in the car park, if you are being watched this just shows the criminal where to look and that there is something to steal. Either don’t leave things in the car or put them out of the way at a stop before you arrive to park. If you see anything or anyone suspicious let us know, note down a car number or anything else that might help. The reserve has always been very safe and we would like to keep it that way.

Locking up at the end of the day it was evident that there was no otter around Ivy Lake, the ducks were looking very relaxed, in stark contrast to their demeanour in the morning. Although we might think of otters as fish eaters they are far from averse to duck and locally they seem to favour signal crayfish when they are abundant.

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Evening on Ivy lake, peace and quiet.

The cormorant have returned to roost in the trees around Ivy Lake after going elsewhere for a while, although they are only using the ones on the spit. I also noticed that “Walter” had come back to roost in his favoured dead alder tree, if you look closely you can just make him out as a white spot on the right hand side of the picture. I expect he will be heading back to France soon, he rarely stays into March and often goes in January. Hopefully he will be back in the late summer, but as he approaches his fifteenth year of life he is a grand old great white egret now and at some point we will not see him again.

At the very end of the day the gull roost included the ring-billed gull, a couple of Caspian gull, but no Thayer’s gull, despite it having been seen flying south over Alderholt for the day spent feeding in pig fields at Tidpit. It has evidently found an alternative roost, perhaps in Christchurch Harbour.

Thayer’s Gull

There has been much excitement in recent days at Blashford Lakes over the sighting of a potential Thayer’s gull. I say potential because these are not easy birds to identify or at least it is not easy to know exactly what you are looking at. Larger gulls are a particularly tricky bunch, they can vary quite a lot within species and not much at all between species and (even worse) sometimes hybridise!

So how do you ever know what you are looking at? For all the species there are the “Classic” birds, the ones that look like the have just stepped off the pages of the field guide, these should not be too difficult, although some genetic studies suggest even some of these might not be quiet what they seem. The others are more problematic, at least for people who like to put a name to them. Often it then comes down to looking at the various characters and scoring what is positive and what negative, after that you can consult experts or, for the more free-wheeling just decide if you are happy or not. For some there is no “right” answer, just the balance of probability.

So is this Thayer’s gull the real thing? The short answer is I don’t know and it will probably get decided by committee in the end and some will accept the decision and others not. Having seen the bird at some distance last night and then rather better tonight I have a few observations. The books often say they are structurally like Iceland gull and a claimed one I saw many years ago in Ireland was, to my eyes, identical in structure to Iceland gulls nearby. This bird looks bulkier than what I would expect for an Iceland gull, but it has the same wide, round head so typical of that species. Iceland gulls do have broader bodies and heads than herring gulls but this bird looks very heavy indeed. The wings do not look long and the rear of the bird on the water looks less attenuated than typical for Iceland, but this may be due to the rather large body size and males gulls are often a lot larger than females. As far as I can tell the plumage looks as though it has all the expected features.

Whatever it is, it is interesting and different from any other gull I have seen before, even the other one claimed as Thayer’s. It is quite obvious in the roost, it certainly stands out as different. Another way of looking at it is what might it be if it is not a Thayer’s gull? It seems American herring gull will hybridise with Thayer’s gull and that they will also hybridise with Glaucous-winged gull producing offspring that look like Thayer’s gulls. However it seems that these various hybrids tend not to have the round head, which this bird certainly does have.

If you are a bird lister it really matters if this is or is not a Thayer’s gull, importantly if it is accepted as such by the rarities committee once they have weighed up the pros and cons. Whatever they decide it is a very interesting bird and I am pleased I have seen it, I have looked at many, many thousands of gulls and never seen one quiet like it before. There is a school of thought that Thayer’s gull is just a form of Iceland gull and not a full species at all.

All this begs the question of just what defines a species, actually an important question for conservationists as rarity often drives much funding and conservation effort. A rare species will attract more effort than attract more effort than a sub-species. The definition of a species is  not a simple thing and not as clear as you might think and subject to change. Actually what matters are populations, we need to conserve populations, it does not really matter if they are species, sub-species or separate groups of one species. Keeping populations viable ensures their survival whatever their status, we should not consider them less because they are not a separate species by the current definition.

As for the Thayer’s gull, I enjoyed seeing it whatever it is eventually decided to be. Come to that I enjoyed seeing all the other gulls in the roost too. All 9,000 or so of them, including a juvenile Iceland gull, yellow-legged gulls, Mediterranean gulls and the thousands of lesser black-backed gulls and black-headed gulls. If you are interested there are pictures of the Thayer’s gull on the HOS go birding website, mine are so bad I will not torture you with them!

Elsewhere, away from the gulls, “Walter” the great white egret was on Ivy Lake and 2 black-necked grebe on Ibsley Water along with a single Bewick’s swan, a  real rarity here these days, although there were almost 200 wintering in the valley a few decades ago.

Preparations for Spring

It was a properly frosty morning, but walking round to open up the hides this morning signs of approaching spring were everywhere.

Frosty thistle

Frosty thistle

The snowdrops near the store are well out now and primroses are flowering around the car park edge, near the Woodland hide the leaves of the wild daffodils have been up for  a while, but now the flower buds can be seen. Along the path sides shiny, bright green wild arum leaves are showing everywhere and near the alder carr there are the brilliant red spots of colour provided by scarlet elf cup fungi.

As it was Tuesday we had a volunteer task today and we were also looking forward to the warmer days. Our task was clearing back the path sides on the way to the Ivy South hide to open up sheltered scallops to give something of the feeling of a woodland ride. This path runs almost exactly north-south and so has many sun-traps beloved of insects and reptiles. Out plan was to create more such spots in the hope of making more encounters with these creatures later in the year.

pathside clearance

Cleared path sides to create sunny “scallops”.

The end of the day saw rather fewer birders at the Tern hide hoping for a sight of the Thayer’s gull, they were disappointed again. There was the usual ring-billed gull, several yellow-legged gull, a first winter Caspian gull and an adult Mediterranean gull in the roost. My own sightings were rather few, “Walter” our great white egret was fishing in Ivy Lake and on Ibsley Water 2 shelduck and 3 oystercatcher were the most interesting records.

Tomorrow we are working at Fishlake Meadows again, clearing cut willow into dead hedges to create new views across the reedbeds and pools.

 

Hedges, Terns and Starlings

During the last week I seem to have been all over the place, doing all kinds of things. As usual we had two work parties, one on Tuesday, when we did some hedge laying near Ellingham Lake.

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Hedge laying, this version is not as stock proof as traditional laying, but it retains more of the twiggy top and so should flower and fruit from this year.

The end result is what we need for a better wildlife hedge, wider, and denser than the line of saplings and in time also with some height.

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a finished section.

On Thursday we were tidying up around the main car park, trimming back the hedges and cutting back the willows.

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I would remove this laurel hedge if it was not for the large greenfinch roost that gathers in it.

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Re-coppicing the willows around the car park.

In between the two work parties, on Wednesday, I had a day at the South Coast Seabird Forum discussing what can be done to bolster tern populations along the south coast. Almost everything seems to be against them, what with sea level rise, competition with gulls for the diminishing shingle banks and disturbance from human activity and predators. The one bright spot was the success of rafts at Hayling Oyster Beds and once again at Blashford, at both sites common tern nested with good productivity.

It was not really a day to be inside as it was undoubtedly the best day of the year so far, I did manage to briefly drop into Farlington Marshes before the meeting though, where I added avocet and bearded tit to my bird list for the year.

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Farlington Marshes on a perfect morning – not a day to be inside!

During the week the ring-billed gull continued to be seen most evenings on Ibsley Water at Blashford Lakes and both black-necked grebe remained in their usual places at each end of the lake. Walter the great white egret was seen most days and the number of brambling seem to be slowly increasing at Woodland hide.

The starling roost at Blashford has moved north and is now in reeds to the north of Mockbeggar Lane. Meanwhile I encountered another starling roost on a HIWWT reserve this week, at Lymington Reedbeds, not a huge number but the few thousand there were put on a fantastic show when watched from the causeway east of the level crossing, well worth a look if you are in the town in the late afternoon.