A Constellation of Garlic

A fairly busy day on the reserve today with a steady stream of new visitors, it is always good to encounter people who are still just discovering us after all this time! I was out with the volunteers removing brambles from a warm south-facing bank which I hope will prove popular with insects and reptiles.

It seems odd to say there was not a lot of bird news when the Bonaparte’s gull was still present, but it has been here a while now and most who were keen to see it have done so by now. The first summer little gull is also still with us, otherwise migrants were a dunlin, a whimbrel and at least three common sandpiper. Numbers of swift have increased again I think, with at least 100 zooming noisily about this afternoon.

Out on the edge of the lichen heath I saw a small copper and a grey-patched mining bee.

grey-patched mining bee Andrena nitida

grey-patched mining bee Andrena nitida

I only saw my first damselfly of the year a couple of days ago, I don’t think I have ever waited until May before I saw my first of the year before. My first was, as expected, a large red damselfly and today I saw a single female common blue damselfly.

common blue damselfly

common blue damselfly (female)

As you can see it is not at all blue, but it has not long hatched out and has yet to acquire its colour, many females do not get all that blue anyway.

The wild daffodil have long since ceased flowering and the bluebell are starting to go over, but the reserve’s only patch of ramsons, also known as wild garlic, is looking very fine and in full, starry flower. Half close your eyes and it looks like a firework display  worthy of any New Year. I was hoping to find the hoverfly that feeds on it as it would be new for the reserve, but no such luck.

ramsons 2

ramsons

Although I had not luck with the hoverfly I did find a snail-killing fly near the Centre Pond, I think it is Tetanocera ferruginea.

snail-killing fly-001

Tetanocera ferruginea

Although it was a rather cool night the moth trap did catch a few species including my first pale pinion of this year, never an abundant species, I usually see only a few each year.

plae pinion

pale pinion

 

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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.

 

Continuing Works and Wildlife

We are still in the grips of various construction projects on the reserve and the pace is going to step up again next week. The levelling of the Centre car park should be completed early next week, so things on that front should ease. At the same time on Monday work on the new dipping pond behind the Education Centre starts and on Tuesday we commence taking down the Tern hide. This will lead to some disturbance and disruption, however we will be trying to keep this to a minimum and the reserve will be open throughout, with only local restrictions at times.

At the end of the works we will have a new dipping pond, which we need as our existing one is leaking. Having the levelled car park should mean the rainwater no longer puddles near the Education Centre. Replacing the Tern hide is needed because the existing one is starting to show its age and we didn’t want to wait until it actually starts to fall down, although the floor is starting to give way so time was not on our side.

Meanwhile out on the reserve yesterday saw the bittern seen again at Ivy North hide after no reports the day before and also a report of the yellow-browed warbler again near Ivy South hide.

It might only be the end of January but the season is on the move, near Woodland hide the wild daffodils are starting to push up.

wild daffodil pushing up

wild daffodil just showing above ground

More remarkably I came across a bramble bush with flowers on!

bramble flowers

January bramble flowers

The Woodland hide is getting busier, and there have been reports of single brambling and redpoll in recent days, despite taking  a look all I saw were the “regulars”.

nuthatch

Nuthatch, a ringed bird, perhaps from the nesting box on the Education Centre

Late in the day I was at Goosander hide as the gulls were arriving to roost. I have noticed before that the black-headed gull often look as though they are feeding, swimming around constantly picking at the water’s surface. I assume feeding on some sort of emerging insect, probably a gnat of some sort, however I have never seen as many doing this so densely packed together as I did last evening.

gull feeding frenzy

black-headed gull flock feeding at the water’s surface

So the reserve is still open and full of all the usual wildlife, but please bare with us if there are areas cordoned off from time to time and please take note of any signs and fences as these will indicate safe routes and keep contractors diggers and people safely separate.

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)

 

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.