On mammals and murmurations…

Further to the last couple of short blog posts with information about the storm damage and the impact upon access at Blashford Lakes, I can confirm that all is now well with the exception of just two short sections of path (one between Ivy North & Woodland Hide, one along the Dockens Water) which remain closed due to the ongoing danger posed by large branches which have been torn from the tree’s and caught up in lower branches at height over the footpath.

Visitors have been asking about starlings for several weeks now and last night I saw my first more significant murmuration of the season. Consisting of several thousand starlings, they gathered to the west of the A338 before going to roost shortly after 4.30pm in the old gravel pits north of Ellingham. It’s still early days and bodes well, I think, for another good sized roost and wildlife spectacle later this winter. As always we recommend viewing the starlings from the viewing platform at the back of the main car park – where you will never be particularly close, but from where it is almost always possible to view the birds regardless of where they actually choose to roost in the valley.

Last week was half-term, as anyone with children or grandchildren will know (they’ve only been back at school a week and it already seems an age ago!). As such we once again held our popular “Wild Day Out” activity days and, once again, everyone had fun and, once again, it was questionable who had most fun – the staff and volunteers or the children!

This time round the theme was one of mammals and the day began with a “what am I quiz?” as they arrived – a collection of various animal remains and leavings to be identified (not all mammal it has to be said). The children did very well, albeit with the odd clue or hint dropped here or there 😉

We then bought in our Longworth small mammal traps which were put out around the Education Centre at the end of the preceding day and left out overnight with the hope that if we were lucky we might catch mouse or vole or two. And lucky we were! On the first day 15 traps resulted in one common shrew, 4 bank voles and 3 wood mice and 14 traps on day two resulted in 3 bank voles and 4 wood mice which is a pretty good return by anyone’s reckoning! Interestingly we did not capture a single yellow-neck mouse – despite these currently being the most commonly trapped mouse in the Centre loft, where they are trapped and removed to be released in suitable habitat at the far end of the nature reserve (far enough away, we hope, not to come back to the Centre and cause damage) on an almost daily basis at this time of year.

The mild, misty, weather at the start of last week clearly suited our small mammal quarry but the conditions also very much suited molluscs and as a result, in addition to the mammals described above, we also released at least as many Arion ater, common slugs, and which are easily large and heavy enough to “trip” the traps.

Sadly for the molluscs I think it is fair to say that most children were more interested in the mammals we released!

With such a good haul in the traps we took our time and were all ready for lunch after the last animal had been released back into the place it had been trapped. Post lunch we took ourselves off for a walk to think about how we might hone our senses to become more aware of the wildlife around us and practice our tracking skills with a couple of games and activities, including one in which we split into two teams, one of whom laid trails of sticks, stones, bird seed and other marks for the seeking team to follow to the end and try and spot the hiding, trail laying, first team and then swap. I think it is fair to say that this activity was for most participants (and volunteers!) the best bit of the day and many (but not all!) particularly enjoyed the opportunity to “camouflage” their faces (and in some cases arms, hands and legs) with charcoal and clay…

Some of the children really were exceptional at hiding themselves away at the end of the trail – thanks to a combination of their camo-“facepaint”, camo clothing and the very un-childlike ability to be still AND quiet for a surprisingly long length of time while the “seekers” tried to find them. These two boys were exceptional 🙂

Can you see them? We couldn’t for ages, even when stood right next to them! They are a bit easier to spot with a close up:

…others of course, despite their best efforts, were not quiet so well hidden 🙂

Sorry Nigel 😉

I’ll round off this blog with a lovely observation from one of the children at the end of the day that really struck a chord with me:

“What I really liked was doing new things and meeting other people. I don’t get to do that much anymore”.

That’s why we do what we do and why we will keep on doing so.

No Wild Days Out over the Christmas holidays but you can email blashfordlakes@hiwwt.org,uk to be put on the mailing list for Wild Days Out updates if you want to find out when and what Wild Days Out we are holding over February half-term.

Hope you enjoyed reading this post almost as much as we enjoyed our Wild Days Out!

A Wild Day Out at last!

During the half-term school holiday of February 2020 we enjoyed some unseasonably mild, but very, very wet weather amidst the good company of children, both regulars and newcomers, and enjoyed some natural craft activities on our school holiday activity days known as “Wild Days Out” (see the blog post that followed it here:https://blashfordlakes.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/winter-craft/).

Little did we know at the time that that would be the last for 18 months!

So it was with some trepidation, but mostly delight, that this summer holiday we finally held Wild Days Out again – Tracy at the beginning of the holidays with some den building and fire-lighting fun, me at the end with an aquatic adventure; pond dipping and river dipping with a difference.

The weather throughout August could have been better, but it could have been a lot worse, and I think it is fair to say that staff, volunteers and children all had a ball and that everyone involved was genuinely pleased to be back doing what we love! Yet another milestone in the road to pandemic recovery.

I love my job as an Education Officer, but even so it is not often that I will declare that all of the children that I work with are delightful, but, in this instance, they really were and it was so lovely to spend some time playing outdoors with them all, everyone sharing a love of and learning about nature 🙂

We started our Wild Day Out off at the pond with some pond dipping following on from some colouring, wordsearch, frog origami and pipe-cleaner dragonfly crafting activities while we waited for everyone to arrive and be registered. Given that the dipping pond we were using is only just more than two years old it amazes me every time we dip it just how much wildlife has already colonised it – and is colonising it. All of the children had memorable close up dragonfly encounters whilst being inspected by the southern and migrant hawkers standing guard over their territory!

Still as good as the pond is, and the promise it holds, I very much hope we are successful in raising enough money through our current boardwalk and pond replacement fundraising appeal to replace the neighbouring “original” dipping pond which, sadly, despite the incredible biodiversity it once held, no longer holds water and which has, during this very dry summer that we have had, now all but dried out completely.

We need to raise £5,000 to supplement some money which has already been secured, partly by a very generous donation from a regular supporter of, and visitor to, Blashford and if you would like to help us achieve this amount – and in doing so ensure that we are able to continue to offer incredible educational experiences and wildlife encounters for children and adults on Wild Days Out, school visits or events – please do visit our appeal page and donate to the project by following the link to the website here: https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/appeals/blashford-lakes-boardwalk-pond-appeal

A very heartfelt thank you to everyone who has already contributed to our appeal – as well as to everyone who I hope will now do so!

We spent a lot of time at the pond and what was particularly gratifying on this occasion especially was how long the children spent studying and identifying the invertebrates in their catch: all too often it is the “thrill of the hunt” which captivates them so this was great 🙂 !

Following lunch (which again was remarkably civilised for a Wild Day Out) we headed down to the river dipping area to explore the Dockens Water, pausing on route to make some soft rush boats on our way down, always a much loved, favourite and memorable past time!

Rush boats making – and a none too subtle hint of what was to come when we got to the river!

Boats sailed (see the video clip I posted in my Twitter feed here: https://twitter.com/JimDay22857614/status/1430944382287556616 !) we got on with the business of kick sampling to see what river wildlife could be found:

Sadly there was not as much wildlife to be found as we would normally expect to see, although more than enough to satisfy us on this occasion. I fear that a lot of “dam building” by visitors this summer may have excessively disturbed the river bed and thus dislodged the invertebrates – and some fish – who were sheltering under the cobbles and amidst the gravels that were used in the construction. Although I am reasonably confident that the wildlife itself is fine, and just resettled downstream, it has left our dipping area somewhat bereft of its usual abundance of life, and probably won’t be recolonised until we get some rainfall and the spate conditions which follow re-distributes the animals along the course of the river. There is a lot to be said for encouraging river play, and indeed I positively encourage it myself, but it should always be borne in mind that our actions can, and do, often have unintended consequences. Indeed it is due to the impacts that our river activity can have on the wildlife that within the nature reserve we very much limit our activity to one very small section of river.

With time marching on, the end of the session (and collection by parents) drawing closer it was time to take the plunge – quite literally – for those that wanted to, and were daft enough!

While some children (probably quite sensibly) continued fishing with their nets, a handful of us (lumping myself in this group as the biggest kid of the lot 😉 ) donned masks and snorkels to see what, if anything we could see…

Some of us were content to just put our faces in…

Some of us wanted to go further, but were not quite committed enough…

And some of us went for it!

And just for the record I did see fish – some little minnows which I was ridiculously excited to see as the exclamations through my snorkel would testify to all that were there to hear them!

And was it cold? Cor blimey, yes it was! A lot colder than the sea had been when I’d gone swimming with the family at Highcliffe a couple of days before hand!

A lot of fun though 😉

All being well the next Wild Day Out will be held during the October half-term holiday. Although the theme for the activities is yet to be decided they are likely to run on Tuesday 26th October (for 7-12 year olds) and Wednesday 27th October (for 5-8 year olds) if you want to pencil those dates in your diary! We’ll advertise and take bookings through the website as normal when we are ready: https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/events

Hide opening update and events for children and families this summer

Having satisfied our adult visitors last week with the long-awaited opening of the hides, out on site our attention has turned to maintaining access to said hides despite the unstoppable force of nature that is the bramble and stinging nettle growth during the perfect growing conditions of sunshine and rain! The re-opening generally seems to have gone down well and everyone is happy to be in the hides again after all this time, even though there is not a HUGE amount to see from them at the moment. Everyone does also seem to be behaving themselves and respecting everyone else at present, which is also pleasing, and reassuring, to see!

A plea however!

Understandably, and in line with our request to keep the hides well ventilated while in use, the windows are being opened up but could EVERYONE also please make sure that they close the hide windows behind them when they leave (also in line with our request on the notices outside and within each hide). Last week was ridiculously hot and it was not unexpected therefore to find them all open at the end of the day, but the weather has broken, it is not so hot, and we are getting some very heavy downpours and it is very disappointing to find the majority of windows in the majority of hides all still wide open when closing up, even when it is chucking it down with rain outside (and inside!) the hides.

Grass snake basking outside Ivy North Hide on Tuesday morning

Elsewhere on the reserve, across the lichen heath to be exact, you can’t help but be amazed (I can’t anyway) by the field of gold that it has become over the last couple of weeks, primarily with the perforate St Johns-wort pictured above, but with a scattering of nectar rich ragwort towering above them and hawkbits below.

Back in the office I have been juggling reduced staffing, volunteer availability, COVID-19 mitigation, testing and “pings” to work out what our summer holiday children’s activity programme will look like.

It was a bit of a complex tangle to unravel but I am delighted to say that, as things stand at present at least, yesterday afternoon bookings for a busy summer of pond and river dipping, den building, fire-lighting and mini-beasting went live!

Details and booking (which is essential for all of our events this summer) can now all be found in the Events section of the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust website here: https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/events (easiest way to find the Blashford Lakes entries is to use the “Location” filter, second from the bottom of the filter menu 😉

A word of warning – in recent months some of our visitors have had difficulties booking on to our events via their mobile phones. They get so far, including all of the form filling which is required, but then stall at payment and can get no further. This glitch is unfortunately beyond my control and more than a little frustrating, so please do use a computer or laptop to book places on the events if you can – and if you can’t and you do experience problems do please let us know and we will collate and pass on any feedback to those responsible for the website platform in hope that enough people fed up with it might generate some action to correct it! Fingers crossed it all just works though!

Looking forward to seeing some “old faces” again soon. Mind-boggling to think that our last Wild Days Out events were in February last year – see https://blashfordlakes.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/winter-craft/! #

We’re looking forward to another summer of this at long last!

Wild Play!

Last week saw the last of this summers “Wild Days Out” activity days – this time with a team challenge theme for the older age group and simply outdoor, “wild” play for the younger ones the following day. The weather was kind to us on both days and fun was definitely had by all!

Our Wild Challenge began with deciding our teams and warming up with some riddles, anagrams and team flag making. It was then out for some problem solving games and activities before competing to be the first to light a small fire, boil a “Kelly Kettle” and make the leaders the best cup of tea ;o)

190821 WildChallenge_Play_Tracy Standish (2)

After lunch the fun really began as we headed over to our den building area, not to make dens, but rather to attempt to construct ballista/catapults (from the den building poles, rope and old bicycle inner tubes) in preparation for battle!

Our teams came up with quite different designs, both effective, but neither catapult could compete with Sammy’s inventive use of his own legs and feet in conjunction with the inner tube for projectile distance!

190821_22WildChallenge_PlayWDOJD (6)

With inventions completed, tested and fine tuned, our teams were armed with sponges and buckets of water and the Great Battle of Blashford commenced!

And I wasn’t going to just sit around supervising letting them all have the fun!

The following day our Wild Play began in the same den building area, this time with den building, tree climbing and leafy art and clay creations.

Tree climbing by Tracy Standish190821 WildChallenge_Play_Tracy Standish (1)

After lunch some of the children asked about pond dipping – something that everyone joined in in the end (you can’t beat a good pond dip when your 6!). Those waiting a turn or ready for something else spent a lovely time playing in the sand pit or bug hunting – the “tunnel” at the back of the centre was a child magnet in this respect, festooned with spiders and large white butterfly caterpillars as it was!

 

This filled most of the rest of the day so we finished up by taking down the dens and had just enough time left for another water fight, this time dispensing with catapults and settling for simply cobbing wet sponges at each other!

190821_22WildChallenge_PlayWDOJD (24)

A bit soggy, the children left tired and happy and the leaders were dry by the time they locked up at the end of the day!

The next Wild Days Out are scheduled for October half term with Autumn themed activities – event bookings on “Eventbrite” will be opened next week:

BIG Autumn Adventure for 7-12 year old children on Tuesday 29th October – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/wild-days-out-big-autumn-adventure-tickets-70779598685?aff=ebdssbdestsearch

little Autumn Adventure for 5-8 year old children on Thursday 31st October – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/wild-days-out-little-autumn-adventure-tickets-70765239737?aff=ebdssbdestsearch

 

Row, row, row your boat

As yesterday was so gloriously sunny, our Young Naturalists enjoyed a day exploring the further reaches of the reserve and finishing off a fun task started back in January at our volunteer get together.

We began the day though with our usual rummage through the light trap, where the group were thrilled with a good selection to identify, their best so far this year. Our haul included the following: white ermine, cinnabar, treble lines, poplar hawkmoth, common marbled carpet, marbled brown, orange footman, common white wave, angle shades, light brocade, brown silver lines, common pug and marbled minor. Here are a few photographs taken by Young Naturalist Talia Felstead:

Common marbled carpet

Common marbled carpet

Cinnabar

Cinnabar

Poplar hawkmoth

Poplar hawkmoth

Light brocade

Light brocade

Marbled brown

Marbled brown

White ermine

White ermine

IMG_1543

Angle shades

It was then time to undertake a practical task with a difference, the lining of the coracle made earlier in the year at our volunteer get together. Coracles are small oval shaped boats traditionally used in Wales, but also in parts of western and south western England, Ireland and Scotland. Designed for use in swiftly flowing streams they have been in use for centuries, primarily by fishermen.

The structure is usually made up of a framework of split and interwoven willow rods, a material which we have plenty of here on the reserve, so it seemed silly not to take the plunge (literally) and attempt our own Blashford coracle.

Coracle frame

Our willow framework and wooden seat

The group were up for the challenge of finishing it off, cutting a slightly less traditional liner out of some left over pond liner from Testwood Lakes – thank you Testwood! This outer layer would have originally been an animal skin, covered with a thin layer of tar to make it fully waterproof. Today this has been replaced with tarred calico or canvas, with the Blashford way being whatever we could lay our hands on. So pond liner it was!

We carefully cut the liner to size, before Bella came up with the idea of looping cord through slits cut in the liner and weaving it in and out of the liner and willow rods. It was then time to take it down to the river for the all important will it float test…funnily enough no one else was brave or silly enough to give it a go:

She floats

Looking slightly dubious

Looking concerned

Getting ready…

 

Excitingly, it floats rather well, I think to the disbelief of some of the Young Naturalists, and possibly volunteers! So now we can get cracking with the rest of the flotilla…with plans already in place for a coracle themed Wild Day Out for the older children in the summer holidays.

After lunch we headed over to the northern side of the reserve on a wildlife hunt. We quickly spotted large numbers of Common blue damselflies sunning themselves on the gravel, moving a little further ahead as we approached them:

Common blue 3

Common blue damselfly

We headed up to Lapwing hide where on entering we were greeted with this view of a Canada goose with seven goslings:

Canada goose goslings 2

Canada goose goslings

Canada goose goslings 3

Canada goose with goslings

We stayed for a while, spotting a couple of herons, a little grebe and watching a Common tern fishing over Ibsley Water before perching on one of the posts:

Common tern

Common tern

On our way back, Edie somehow spotted this Elephant hawkmoth in the long grass to the right of the path:

Elephant hawk moth

Elephant hawkmoth

Finally, our last wildlife spot was this Beautiful demoiselle, which perched beautifully for a photo:

Beautiful demoiselle 2

Beautiful demoiselle

Thanks Talia for taking the photos!

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly funded by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.