Oh, to Bee in England…

As though to emphasise the change in season today was one of those rare days when it was possible to see both brambling and swift at Blashford Lakes an opportunity that lasts for only a few days.  When I started birdwatching in the Midlands our equivalent was seeing fieldfare and swallow in the same place, on the same day. The brambling were at least 2 males at the feeders and the swift at least 14 over Ibsley Water.

Despite the remaining reminders of winter it felt very spring-like, with orange-tip, green-veined and small white, comma, peacock, brimstone, holly blue and several speckled wood butterflies seen, along with the year’s first damselfly, the large red.

After last night’s thunder storm I was not surprised that the moth trap was not over-filled with moths, although the catch did include a lesser swallow prominent, a pale prominent and a scarce prominent, the last a new reserve record, I think.

The warm weather has encouraged a lot of insects out, I saw my first dark bush cricket nymph of the year near the Centre pond. Nearby I also saw my first dotted bee-fly, this species used to be quite scarce but can now be seen widely around the reserve, although it is well outnumbered by the commoner dark-bordered bee-fly.

dark bush cricket nymph

dark bush cricket nymph

The wild daffodil are now well and truly over but the bluebell are just coming out.

bluebell

bluebell

A lot of trees are in flower now or are shortly to be, the large elm on the way to Tern hide is still covered in flower though.

elm flowers

elm flower

Trees are a valuable source of food for a lot of insects and the find of the day was a species that makes good use of tree pollen. I had spotted what I at first thought were some nesting ashy mining bees Andrena cineraria, but they did not look right. That species has a dark band over the thorax and black leg hairs. This one had white hairs on the back legs and no dark thorax band. I took some pictures and it turns out to be grey-backed mining bee Andrena vaga, until very recently a very rare species in the UK which seems to now be colonising new areas.

grey-backed mining bee 2

grey-backed mining bee

They make tunnelled nests in dry soil and provision them with pollen from willows for the larvae.

greybacked mining bee

grey-backed mining bee with a load of pollen

The same area of ground also had several other mining bees, including the perhaps the most frequent early spring species, the yellow-legged mining bee.

yellow-legged mining bee 2

yellow-legged mining bee (female)

 

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Yellow Days

It is often said that early spring flowers are mostly yellow and there is some truth in this, at Blashford Lakes just now it is certainly the most frequent flower colour. Although not usually actually the “Prime rose” or first flower the primrose is undoubtedly yellow.

primrose

One of the many primroses in flower near the Education Centre.

I am not entirely sure that they are native at Blashford, or at least if they were I suspect they were eradicated by the gravel workings and these are the result of plantings, however they do well and are spreading.

By contrast the wild daffodils are genuinely wild, they grow only where the original woodland ground surface remains, although they are also slowly spreading onto ground that was disturbed.

wild daffodil

wild daffodils

The surrounding area has quite a good population of wild daffodils, although they do show signs of hybridising near to the larger plantings of garden cultivars. For this reason we have removed just about all the cultivated varieties from the reserve, although we still manage to find a few hidden away somewhere every year.

One of the more important early nectar sources for insects is the lesser celandine, these are so reflectively yellow that they are difficult to photograph. They have  a dish-shaped flower which reflects the sun into the centre heating it up. The flowers also reflect ultraviolet light very strongly, especially around the flower centre, making them very attractive to bees and hoverflies which see these wavelengths very well.

lesser celandine

lesser celandine

Another very attractive flower to insects is willow, the catkins are also yellow, although this is because of the abundant pollen, which is also the main prize for many of the insects that visit.

Willow catkins

willow catkins

These are the male flowers and the trees are single sexed, so only about half have the “Pussy willow” flowers.

willow catkins with wasp

Willow catkins, look closely at one of the lower flowers and you can see a small wasp.

Although both sexes produce nectar the male trees are especially valuable for bees as they need pollen as a food source in the spring, apparently this stimulates the queens to lay eggs.

Other yellow flowers include gorse, flowering now ,although peaking usually in May and famously never not in flower hence the saying that “When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season”.

gorse

gorse, a very prickly member of the pea family.

In the alder carr the opposite-leaved golden saxifrage is now flowering, the flowers are not large or very obvious, but they continue the yellow theme.

opposite-leaved golden saxifrage

opposite-leaved golden saxifrage

This plant only colonised Blashford Lakes in the last ten years, I think carried down the Dockens Water, possibly from our reserve at Linwood where it is very common.

 

First Migrants

For the last few days it has been feeling distinctly spring-like and I have been expecting the first sand martin, little ringed plover and singing chiffchaff of the spring. So far I have been disappointed, but yesterday visitors to the reserve were reporting chiffchaff singing near Ivy North hide and a little ringed plover on Ibsley Water. Chiffchaff will over-winter on the reserve, although this year none were seen after the New Year so I don’t think there is any real doubt this was a new arrival.

As the summer visitors start arriving many of the winter visitors are leaving, this is especially noticeable on Ivy Lake where there were around a thousand wildfowl only a couple of weeks or so ago, now there are little more than a hundred. Some winter visitors are still with us though, brambling can be seen regularly around the feeders and at the last ringing session four were caught.

brambling male in the hand

Male brambling in the hand

One of the most obvious signs of spring is the changes in plants. Bluebell laves are now well up and wild daffodil are in full bloom.

P1100207

Wild daffodil

Often one of the very first flowers of many years is colt’s foot, although this year it has only started flowering in the last week or so.

colt's foot

colt’s foot

Yesterday while out working with the volunteers they spotted a brimstone butterfly, often the first butterfly of spring, although these days red admiral usually beats them due to their rather shallow hibernation.

The change in the season means the end of the winter work and the last couple of weeks has been busy with tidying up around areas we have been working in during the winter. Our next big task will be preparing the tern rafts so they can go out when the common tern arrive sometime in mid April.

I will end with a mystery, or at least something that is a mystery to me, I am hoping someone will be able to help me identify it. On Sunday I was looking at a clonal patch of young aspen trees and noticed small clusters of something I took to be lichen on the lower stems of several very small suckers. This was surprising as the trees were just a hand full of years old, rather a short time for lichens to get going. Looking closer I don’t think it is lichen, but I don’t know what it is, does anyone have any idea?

lower stem of aspen

Lower stem of aspen, about 10cm above ground – but what is it?

The Big Chill

Like many people I have been pretty much holed up for the last couple of days. I did venture out onto the edge  of the Forest on Thursday. It was very quiet with only a few blackbird and robin digging about in the leaf litter. I came across a group of New Forest ponies, showing just how hardy they are, eating gorse with a covering of snow on their backs. The snow covering shows just how good their coats are at insulating them, the longer hairs that form the winter coat trap layer of air, just as we are told to if we are to keep warm.

a hardy New Forest pony

New Forest pony eating gorse in the snow.

The area I was in is prime nightjar habitat and somewhere I often visit to listen to and watch them. It is remarkable to think that they will probably be churring away here in under two months.

Nightjar habitat

Nightjar habitat

Despite the undoubtedly wintery weather we are actually on the very edge of spring. As thought to emphasise this there were a pair of garganey at Farlington Marshes at the end of last week and sand martin usually arrive at Blashford around the end of the first week of March.

Some signs of spring start a little earlier than the arrival of long-distance migrants. Plants are often our first signs and wild daffodil have been out for a while as have lesser celandine and primrose.

Yesterday I ventured out again and got as far as our Hythe Spartina Marsh reserve, it was very bleak indeed!

Hythe Spartine Marsh

Hythe Spartina Marsh

There were flocks of wigeon and various waders feeding along the water’s edge where the seawater was keeping the mud unfrozen. The wind was cold, blowing across Southampton Water and I did not stay long.

When I decided that opening up on Thursday was not going to happen I did wonder if I had done the right thing. At the time I could have got to the reserve, but the forecast was not promising. Since my way home would have been along the A31, I am very pleased I opted not to open as I might well not have got home the same day!

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.

Sights and Sounds of Spring

St David’s Day today and although there was a rather wintery feel to things, at Blashford it did look commendably spring-like with the wild daffodil appropriately now in full bloom.

p1070239

Wild daffodils on a rainy St David’s Day

Although we have yet to see any summer migrants at Blashford, they will not be far away now, the first sand martin should be with us in about a week and the first has already been seen in the UK. We have had a number of clear signs of birds moving though, lots of the duck have left and for the last several days there have been curlew either on the shore of Ibsley Water or flying over calling. I am not sure if these are migrants heading north to breeding areas, perhaps in the Pennines or Scotland or birds that breed on the New Forest bogs. Either way they are an increasingly rare sight as curlew are a fast declining species in the UK, despite being one of our longest-lived bird species. They seem to be suffering from a double or even triple whammy of lowered breeding success in summer and pressure on their wintering grounds due to loss of habitat and increased disturbance.

In fact it seems that worldwide the curlew and godwit species are all suffering declines and recent research suggests that half of all species are at real risk of extinction. A summary of this research can be found at  http://www.birdguides.com/webzine/article.asp?a=6233 .

We are lucky in the New Forest to have one of the last areas in Southern England with a breeding population, albeit one that is under threat. They nest on a number of the Forest bogs, but are especially vulnerable to disturbance and predation. These go together as often it is when the adults are scared away from their nest that the predators take the chance to take the eggs. Taking note of the signs about keeping to paths and preventing dogs from wandering off over open heath and bog would probably be a real help to them and many other ground nesting species.

Waders are especially vulnerable in several ways, most species will only attempt to raise one brood of no more than four young per year. They lay large eggs for their size as their chicks are well developed when they hatch, so incubation time is long, coupled with nesting on the ground, this makes them at high risk of being found by a predator before they hatch. They have overcome this relatively low productivity by being long-lived, a curlew may live well over 30 years! However this means that small changes in adult survival can tip them over the edge and send populations into free fall. It seems that curlew species globally are facing this twin challenge of lower breeding success and poorer adult survival, setting real challenges for conservationists and anyone who loves the evocative sight and sound of these fabulous birds.

What a difference a few hours can make!

It was a slow drive to work across the Forest this morning and the view over Ibsley Water was fairly non-existent:

a-misty-start

The view from Tern Hide at 8.45am…

 

4 hours later it was a very different scene indeed!

a-sunny-finish

The same view from Tern Hide at 2pm!

Everything was fairly distant, but lovely to see all the lapwing that have started gathering on the shore line – mostly on the spit and grassy eastern bank this afternoon but last night they were much closer to Tern Hide around the little island in particular.

Bittern was present again at Ivy North Hide, where this morning when I opened up a goldeneye was an unusual record for Ivy Lake – a handsome drake.

Lesser redpoll and brambling were both seen on and off from the Woodland Hide during the day and they and the sunshine have been delighting everyone!

 

Apparently Blashford snowdrops were the photo leading the BBC weather last night – I missed it so here is my offering that you are unlikely to see on the BBC! The wild daffodils which are now flowering outside Woodland Hide are my spring favourite though:

Last nights “Night Senses” event went well, although there was a disappointing lack of stars. The cloud cover bought the evening temperature back up however so we did see a few moths around the light trap – they were much easier to photograph this morning in daylight however!

 

Should be nice again tomorrow so expecting another busy day – if you are joining us remember your purse/wallet so you can take advantage of the treats available from the Pop up café in the classroom from 10am-3.30pm!

First Flowering

I was acting as substitute Jim today as he is on leave, it made a change to be on the reserve on a Saturday and a very pleasant one, in the fine spring sunshine. After a morning spent tying up various loose ends from the year end, I took the chance to get out tin the sun after lunch. I wanted to check out a few of the projects we have done over the years and see how they have worked. First I went to an area we cleared of rhododendron some five years ago, it had been one of the few areas not dug for gravel and still had a few large, old hazel stools growing up through it. We cleared the rhododendron and planted  a few hazel in their place. The ground flora had all been killed off by decades of deep shade from the rhododendron, so we decided to try collecting some wild daffodil seed from near the Woodland hide and spreading it on the bare ground, to see if we could establish some new plants. The seedlings came up and today I found the first flower!first daffodil

Wild daffodil are a feature of the reserve, or at least the areas that were not destroyed by gravel extraction, so re-establishing them to places they would once have been and removing planted garden daffodils is a thing we have been to do for some time.

I then went to the western side of Ellingham Lake to look at the hedge we laid last winter. It has suffered somewhat from being nibbled by rabbits, but is not looking too bad on the whole.hedge

The sunshine had brought out lots of butterflies, I saw good numbers of brimstone, a few peacock and a single small tortoiseshell.small tortoiseshell

Most of the butterflies were nectaring, as this small tortoiseshell was, on ground ivy, one of the best sources of food for butterflies and bees at this time of year.ground ivy

I also found a fine grass snake enjoying the sunshine, it was on very open ground so rather than slip off to cover it reared up in threat and then froze, allowing me to get some shots.grass snake

With a little effort I managed to creep really close and get some headshots, when I did it became apparent that it had some sort of damage around the upper jaw, it looks quite nasty, but the snake seemed to be in otherwise good shape.snake head

There had evidently been some arrival of migrants overnight, with a couple of willow warbler singing near the main gate as I opened up and there were noticeably more chiffchaff and blackcap. The highlight though, was a male wheatear on the lichen heath near Ivy North hide.

As I ate my lunch I watched a pair of long-tailed tit collecting spider’s web for their nest from under the eaves of the Education Centre and the resident pair of robin were courtship feeding on the picnic tables.

Closing up the Tern hide a sudden commotion flushed all the shoveler from the south-east part of Ibsley Water out into the centre of the lake, allowing me to get a good count, the total was 283, pretty good for April. There was little else to report, although the Slavonian grebe was still there somewhere apparently, although I failed to see it myself.

 

Some Moths and No Bins!

I ran the moth trap last night for the first time in a while and caught a dozen moths of five species, all typical early spring ones, but good to see for all that. The most frequent was common Quaker.common quaker

Next commonest was Hebrew character.hebrew character

Then small Quaker.small quaker

One thing that has not changed was the need to keep a close eye on the catch and keep it away from our resident robin.robin

There were also single clouded drab and early grey, but neither posed well for pictures.

Out on the reserve today the Woodland hide was busy with the usual good numbers of siskin, lesser redpoll, chaffinch and commoner woodland birds. When I was there I also saw 4 brambling and 7 reed bunting. It is always good to see the buntings as these are probably our nesting birds and feeding up well at this time of year has been shown to increase nesting success, important for a species that has been declining in recent years.

Out on the reserve reports received suggest that both of the black-necked grebe are still on Ibsley Water as was the Slavonian grebe. I saw a single adult Mediterranean gull, but I do not know if the ring-billed gull was seen today.

Near the Woodland hide there are quite  a lot of scarlet elf cup now, perhaps a little later than usual, but as bright as ever.scarlet elf cup

Although not as prominent as the many wild daffodil in the same area.wild daffodil

I spent the afternoon dealing with various odd jobs around the reserve. Although it was dry and quite pleasant the reserve was relatively quiet so I took the opportunity of the low traffic to fill in a few more of the pot holes in the entrance track, there are still quite a few but it is getting better.

Unfortunately towards the end of the day I realised that, at some point in the afternoon, I had put down my binoculars and as hard as I looked I could not find them anywhere. Although now rather battered I will be very sad if they do not turn up, they have been my constant companions for pretty much every day of the last twenty plus years, lots of birds seen through good times and bad. If you happen to see a lost looking pair of binoculars, please let me know!

Blashford Rarities

When it comes to what constitutes a notable wildlife record it I soften the context that matters. As proof of this I will offer a couple of sightings I made at Blashford Lakes today. I was at the reserve early so I opened up the hides, I had a good look across Ibsley Water from the Tern hide, hoping for an early sand martin as I have never seen one in February, and I still haven’t! Scanning the lake I did see at least 11 goldeneye, including 5 adult drakes, but it turned out the most notable bird was standing just to the east of the hide on the shore, a single brent goose. It was an adult dark-bellied brent, a common bird just a few miles away on the coast but they very rarely go far inland, at least in winter.

brent goose and redshank

brent goose and redshank

When I told Ed about the goose I found out that the redshank was also of interest being the first one reported this year. As I mentioned brent are coastal birds in the winter, perhaps venturing a mile or so inland to feed on grass or winter cereal fields at most. At about this time of year, especially in a mild winter they will start to move off eastwards, heading to Holland and N. Germany, where they will feed up until mid May, when they head into the eastern end of the Baltic Sea. They breed about half-way along the northern shore of Siberia and get there by flying overland across Finland from the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic to the White Sea in the Arctic Ocean. On occasion over half the total population have been watched heading off overland in a single day, this is perhaps 200,000 birds or more in a single day. My guess is that today’s bird was at the start of the first leg eastwards, perhaps to Essex and got parted from the rest of the flock in the night and in wandering about lost found its way to Blashford.

This year’s mild winter is in strong contrast to last year, when winter stayed with us into April as did most of the winter birds, this year many have already gone and the first summer visitors will be with us by the end of next week.

Amazingly the brent goose was not my only notable sighting of the morning, outside the Lapwing hide there was a male stonechat, again hardly a rare bird and a species that you can see with ease all winter no more than a mile away, but actually on the reserve they are very rare visitors. This was only the third that I have ever seen at Blashford, I have no good explanation for their rarity, much of the grassland with brambles along the eastern shore of Ibsley Water looks fine for them, but evidently I do not see things as a stonechat does.

I will end with some wild daffodil, taken near the Woodland hide, they are looking very good, just in time for St David’s Day.

wild daffodils

wild daffodils