Improvement update and birds, birds, birds!

Just a quick reminder to anyone who hasn’t visited us in a while or missed any previous blogs or onsite signage, improvements on the reserve are now well on the way so if you do decide to visit us soon, please bear with us!

The main nature reserve car park is open as usual, however Tern Hide is no longer there (it was dismantled at the start of the month so there was plenty of time to do the all important ground works) and the installation of the new hide will not take place until next month – if all goes to plan it should be open by the end of March.

The new pond by the Education Centre should be finished soon and the Welcome Hut which arrived on Monday should be completed by the end of the week – with both these works taking place so close to the Centre, along with deliveries arriving over the next few days for other aspects of our improvement works, car parking at the Centre is limited. If you are able to park in the main car park and walk across to this side of the nature reserve please do!

The Education Centre itself, Lapwing, Goosander, Ivy North, Ivy South and the Woodland hides are all open as usual.

Last week saw the delivery and installation of some brilliant chainsaw carved sculptures by Simon Groves, a chainsaw artist from West Sussex (to see some photos of these being enjoyed by some of our younger visitors, please read on!) and on Sunday our Young Naturalists worked with willow artist Kim Creswell on three dragonfly sculptures which will also be added to our newly named ‘Wild Walk‘ along with more of Kim’s wonderful work. A separate blog about Young Naturalists will follow!

On the bird front, two Bittern were seen from Ivy North hide on Sunday and at least one has been seen from there this week, including excellent views today, and a pair of Redpoll continue to visit the feeders at the Woodland hide.

And birds are the real reason for this blog, as last week was half term and it was a busy bird filled one, with a family event weaving willow bird feeders and two bird themed Wild Days Out where we were lucky enough to get a little closer to some of our native owls and raptors, courtesy of Liberty’s Owl, Raptor and Reptile Centre, made a lot of bird feeders and visited the Woodland and Ivy South hides in whatever time we had left in a girls vs boys who could spot the most species challenge.

We were joined by John from Liberty’s on Wednesday and Jayson on Thursday, with both giving brilliant talks to the children about the different birds they had bought with them, encouraging them to ask questions and letting them stroke the owls, a definite highlight! On Wednesday we were treated to a Kestrel, Peregrine falcon, Golden eagle (which really was huge and delighted the children by going to the toilet in the classroom) and Barn owl and on Thursday saw a Tawny owl, Little owl (definitely my favourite), Kestrel, Peregrine falcon and Goshawk.

On both days the children loved seeing the birds up close and being able to stroke some of them, and they asked some very sensible questions. It was definitely a highlight and we would like to thank John and Jayson from Liberty’s Owl, Raptor and Reptile Centre for taking the time to join us and supporting our Wild Days Out in this way. They once again very kindly demonstrated their birds free of charge to support Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, something they were only too pleased to be able to do as long standing “Wildlife Investors” of the Trust.

To find out how your business can support the work of the Trust at Blashford Lakes, or anywhere across the two counties, follow the link or contact Steph Watson on 01489 774400 or email Steph.Watson@hiwwt.org.uk.

Liberty’s owls and raptors were once again a hard act to follow, but whilst we had been waiting for them to arrive the children had been busy making popcorn bird feeders by threading popcorn onto a piece of wire, and fat balls using a suet, bird seed and sultana mix, so we headed outside to make our feeders for the fat balls to go into.

On the Thursday we had a few children who were bird feeder pro’s, having already made one either the day before or earlier in the month at Wildlife Watch, so they had a go at a different design, weaving one solely from willow instead of using the wooden disc base.

All three feeder designs looked great and everyone went away with two fabulous feeders. We then had just enough time to visit both the Woodland hide and Ivy South hide in two teams, boys vs girls, to see who could spot the most species of bird. On Thursday we even had time to walk a slightly longer loop so we could admire the new chainsaw sculptures that had been installed earlier in the week. The children loved them, with the badger in particular proving popular.

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Despite having photographic evidence of the boys using their binoculars to bird watch, I have to say the girls did spot more species both days, we were obviously being too competitive for photography! They also, rather sneakily, lulled Jim’s boys team into a false sense of security on the Thursday by making a right noise when the two teams crossed paths with each other, but up until this point had been super quiet and determined to see the most…

I know the boys did see a few bird species we didn’t see, but the girls’ lists over the two days included Coal tit, Great tit, Blue tit, Robin, Chaffinch, Dunnock, Long tailed tit, Goldfinch, Siskin, Blackbird, Greenfinch, Reed bunting, Jay, Jackdaw, Moorhen, Cormorant, Coot, Tufted duck, Great crested grebe, Black-headed gull, Mallard, Gadwall, Pochard, Collared dove, Treecreeper, Goldcrest, Pheasant, Carrion crow, Grey heron, Little grebe and Wood pigeon. I was particularly impressed with Megan for spotting the treecreeper! It was pretty good for a quick bird watch and I know they all really enjoyed their day.

Our Wild Days Out will be back for the Easter holidays, where we will be heading out onto the reserve in search of our reptiles and amphibians. Bookings may be made on-line only and are taken 4-6 weeks in advance of the activities via: https://shop.hiwwt.org.uk/product-category/events/

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Wildlife Watch -working with willow

An unpromising Saturday morning which started with unexpected rain whilst opening up but soon cleared to be a fresh but quite lovely day with lots of visitors coming to make the most of it – and enjoying their views of all the usual winter suspects in the process, including bittern and brambling.

Our small, but growing, Wildlife Watch group met at the Centre for their monthly meeting in the morning too.

First job was to make some fat balls combined with a special individually hand picked ‘n’ mixed  selection of sunflower seeds, hearts and/or sultanas. Unfortunately one of our leaders is vegan, but he stoically saw the activity through, albeit from a distance, knowing full well that the vegetable equivalent of beef suet is not palatable to birds…

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With the food itself made we headed outside into the winter sunshine to saw:

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Drill:

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Poke, snip and tie:

(Actually, I didn’t take any pictures of this activity, you will just have to imagine sliding willow withies up through all the drilled holes until wedged tight, cutting them to size and securing the tops – and bottoms/sides, depending on the style of creation of the individual Wildlife Watch member!)

Before finally filling – and proudly showing off – the finished bird feeders:

Next month we meet 10.30am-12.30pm, on Saturday 9th March, for a wildlife walk in search of Spring!

E-mail Blashfordlakes@hiwwt.org.uk to find out more… or if you’re not aged 6-12 but wish you were simply watch this space to enjoy the session vicariously!

Preparing for the floods and willow bird feeders

Very mixed weather today – as forecast, though the lovely weather this morning and even this afternoon on and off (actually better than predicted) did draw in a number of visitors, some of whom joined in todays DIY willow bird feeder event.

On the wildlife front an otter was seen again today this morning – “just” one, and a distant view, to the south of Ivy South Hide, but still more than I have managed to glimpse! Bittern, great white egret, red crested pochard and black neck grebe and the mealy redpoll were also all reported at different times throughout the day.

Unsurprisingly after the terrific rainfall yesterday afternoon and last night (10 mm when I checked the gauge at the end of yesterday and an additional 14mm by lunch time), the main car park has been closed again today due to flooding – though the Tern Hide has been open as normal, but only accessible in wellies. Depending on how much more rain we have today and overnight it may be possible to open it (the car park) again tomorrow. I’m afraid Goosander Hide is still closed, but I am reasonably confident that it should finally be sorted by next weekend at the latest.

Following a request which I made a couple of weeks ago, and somewhat appropriately given the current weather, the Spinnaker Sailing Club have donated us a small dinghy – it needs a bit of work, but should be ship-shape soon:

Pete and Rex hard at work restoring our "new" boat.

Not Noah, but rather Pete and Rex hard at work restoring our “new” boat.

It needs a bit of repair work to the fibreglass to tidy it up and make it safe, which we won’t be able to do until we have a reasonable spell of dry weather, but I’m looking forward to its being installed and ready for use – and not for the heavy rain which I suggested earlier, but rather the floods of children who I’m sure will enjoy playing on it when they visit the Centre.

This morning was the “Weave a feeder” event, which went rather well I think, with some lovely feeders constructed by some lovely people – two different fat ball holder designs, both made out of willow and both functional, though one rather fancier looking than the other! First of all here are a few of the participants with their finished articles and then I’ll take you through the steps for making the fancy one if you want to have a go at home (don’t have willow? Don’t worry, speak to a member of staff when you visit us next and we can provide some for a suitable donation to the Trust!):

First to finish! Max with two expertly crafted feeders

First to finish! Max with two expertly crafted feeders

Ruth and Susan proudly display their finished feeders!

Ruth and Susan proudly display their finished feeders!

How to make a fancy feeder:

Prepare a surface to work your willow from – in the past I’ve just poked the withies into some soft ground, but given that the forecast was not looking so great yesterday I prepared some blocks:

The "starting block"

The “starting block”

Next insert your 5 withies (if using a block like that pictured DON’T make the mistake that I did the first time and jam the willow in as you’ll have a devil of a job removing them when you are done!):

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Note the safety glasses – the willow withies, or whips, really are quite whippy and safety glasses are recommended, particularly if you are working with some one else.

The next step is to bend over withy 1 into the inside of withy 3. Number 1 is the withy that is the “odd one out”, i.e. that which does not form a corner of the square frame:

Withy 1 bent to the inside of withy 3...

Withy 1 bent to the inside of withy 3…

Next take withy 3 and bend this on the inside of withy 4:

Withy 3 bent to the inside of withy 4...

Withy 3 bent to the inside of withy 4…

And then, you guessed it, bend withy 4 over to the inside of with 5:

Withy 4 bent to the inside of withy 5...

Withy 4 bent to the inside of withy 5…

Withy 5 bent to the inside of withy 2...

Withy 5 bent to the inside of withy 2…

And finally, withy 2 bends over to the inside of what was withy 1, now in the original position of withy 3 (yes I know that doesn’t make sense, but hopefully it does if you look at the picture!):

Withy 2 bent to the inside of withy 1...

Withy 2 bent to the inside of withy 1…

And now you carry on round, always folding the next withy in the sequence to the inside of the next to form an ever decreasing spiral:

...now just keep going...

…now just keep going…

...and going...

…and going…

....and going! Until it looks something like this...

….and going! Until it looks something like this…

Next take the withy ends one at a time and post them back on themselves through the small hole at the top of your “pyramid” and round to come out and pull tight alongside the “legs” holding the feeder in the block (a flat bladed crew driver at this point can help to prise the feeder out enough to give you a bit of “wriggle” room and also to coax the withy through):

Tidy away the "tops" by posting them through on themselves.

Tidy away the “tops” by posting them through on themselves.

Finally prise the feeder out of the block, being sure to keep hold of withy 1 at the base to prevent your hard work all unravelling and then secure this by trapping it between the join made by withies 2 and 5.

Sorry! At this point I didn’t have a hand free to take any pictures! You are nearly done now; just take a couple of the longer “tops” and weave/tie them together to make a hanger and then trim off all the extra lengths of willow, leaving a length of ~2cm so the feeder doesn’t unravel as/if it dries out:

As viewed from the side...

As viewed from the side…

...and the top

…and the top

Now just add the fat balls of your choice, or mix up some suet with a seed selection and pack it in. The birds will love it, it looks great (I think so anyway!) and it is 100% sustainable and compostable (but not squirrel proof!).