Young Naturalists – Seven for the Price of One

Hopefully better (very) late than never, here’s an update of what our Young Naturalists have been up to over the last seven (!) months. It’s going to be long one!

August

In August the group decided they wanted to have a go at snorkelling in the Dockens Water. We’ve done this before with children on our Wild Days Out holiday activities, but never with the Young Naturalists. After roping in a friend (Ida) as our qualified diver (!) to satisfy our risk assessment needs and meeting Jo prior to the session to check the river was free of any hazardous debris, we were all set to do as much or as little paddling, swimming and snorkelling as we wished.

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Ready to snorkel

There was a lot of sticking bottoms up into the air, but a number of faces definitely did get quite wet as we stared closely at the gravel on the river bed:

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Getting our faces wet

We explored the river from the bridge by the road crossing to Lapwing and Goosander Hides down to our usual river dipping spot. We did some litter picking along the way:

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Litter picking on the way

Generally speaking the river is only ankle deep, but there are some deeper pools to explore and those who wished to managed to do a bit of swimming and snorkelling – we even managed to see some fish!

Ida

Ida snorkelling in the Dockens Water

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Alex having a swim

Alex was happy to oblige for an underwater photo – he definitely enjoyed himself!

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Alex getting ready to take the plunge

Alex

Alex

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Photographing Alex underwater

Alex underwater

Alex underwater

We also found time to remove some Himalayan Balsam from the edge of the river, definitely easier to do whilst stood in the channel and already wet.

removing Himalayan Balsam 2

Removing Himalayan Balsam

removing Himalayan Balsam

Removing Himalayan Balsam

Introduced as a garden plant in 1839, Himalayan Balsam is an invasive plant found along river banks and in ditches that prevents native species from growing through its abilities to grow and spread quickly.

After drying off and having our lunch we headed back down to the river, this time to have a go at river dipping. I had borrowed a couple of underwater viewers, which led to a new watch and wait tactic on the edge of a deeper pool. They saw fish using the viewer but I’m not sure it improved their catching abilities!

September

September saw us heading up to the area by Goosander Hide to remove some of the silver birch trees which were encroaching on the open scrub habitat. Putting what we were cutting to good use, we used it to make besom brooms and added the excess to the dead hedge to the left of the hide.

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Removing birch trees near Goosander Hide

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Besom broom making

Some of the group took their broomsticks home whilst others made them for us to sell for a donation from the Welcome Hut in the run up to Halloween:

Broomsticks

Broomsticks for sale

We also went looking for wasp spiders but sadly we were too late in the year and had no luck. We did though find a number of their stripy egg sacs:

Wasp spider egg sac

Wasp spider egg sac

October

October’s session didn’t quite go to plan, with strong winds the night before putting paid to my plans for a fungi walk followed by a campfire. We adjusted the session slightly and spent the morning tidying up what storm damage we could and closing off paths as necessary.

We paused to look at the river which was in flood, and Harry made a boat to sail on the water below.

pausing to look at the Dockens Water

Pausing to look at the Dockens Water

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Distracted by the river

After lunch we did head over to the campfire to cook toffee apples. Before lighting the fire, we carefully emptied a sprung mammal trap from the Centre loft, which revealed a wood mouse who was very happy to pose for photos.

With the campfire lit, we prepped some toasting sticks and cooked our toffee apples:

We also had a rummage under some of the logs and found this juvenile newt, who we popped back carefully after having a good look:

juvenile newt

Juvenile newt

November

For November’s session the group helped pollard some of the willows growing on the northern side of the reserve, up towards Lapwing Hide, so we had plenty of cuttings to turn into willow wreaths. Once made, the wreaths were sold for a donation from the Welcome Hut in the run up to Christmas, with families and individuals encouraged to enjoy a short walk on the reserve gathering materials (or using cuttings from elsewhere) to decorate them with.

The new growth from the pollards this coming year will provide us with more willow rods next autumn and winter.

After carrying all of our cut material back to the Centre, some of the group had a go at creating and decorating a willow wreath to take home whilst others headed to the bird hides for some bird watching.

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Making wreaths

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Willow wreaths

December

In December we headed out of the reserve and up to Rockford and Ibsley Commons.

Our bird list for the walk totalled 41 species which wasn’t bad, given it was a rather dull, grey day and whilst up on Ibsley Common we did eventually manage to spot a very distant herd of deer – for a while we didn’t think we were going to see any.

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Our bird list for the walk was as follows: Siskin, Great tit, Blackbird, Wood pigeon, Long-tailed tit, Blue tit, Jackdaw, Coot, Mute swan, Robin, Buzzard, Goldeneye, Wigeon, Tufted duck, Great crested grebe, Herring gull, Carrion crow, Shoveler, Pochard, Gadwall, Great white egret, Lesser black-backed gull, Cormorant, Jay, Redwing, Mallard, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Song thrush, Treecreeper, Goldcrest, Coal tit, Stonechat, Meadow pipit, Starling, Canada goose, Grey heron, Pied wagtail, Magpie, Mistle thrush and Green woodpecker.

We enjoyed a different view of the reserve, looking down from Rockford Common towards Blashford Lake and down from Ibsley Common towards Mockbeggar Lakes and Ibsley Water.

Redwing

Redwing

We finished the session toasting marshmallows over the campfire.

Toasting marshmallows

Toasting marshmallows

January

January saw us treated to a bird ringing demonstration by BTO trained bird ringers Brenda and Kevin and trainee ringer Kate. The group learnt how to age and sex the birds, measure their weight and wing length and they practiced how to handle the birds using Brenda’s knitted example.

After the birds were ringed and processed the group were able to carefully release them under Brenda’s watchful eye:

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Elliott getting ready to release the Firecrest

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Alex releasing a robin

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Will releasing a chaffinch

A total of 43 birds were caught: 3 Chaffinch; 3 Dunnock; 8 Lesser redpoll; 5 Greenfinch; 12 Blue tit; 4 Great tit; 2 Long-tailed tit; 1 Goldcrest; 1 Siskin; 2 Robin; 1 Firecrest; 1 Goldfinch.

We also had time to visit the bird hides, but sadly the Bittern evaded us!

Bird watching from Ivy South Hide

Bird watching from Ivy South Hide

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Bird watching from Ivy South Hide

February

Finally, we met yesterday for some pewter smelting. Whilst some of the group laid the fire and had a go at fire lighting, others made a smaller fire in the base of a Kelly kettle so we could boil some water to make a play dough that would be used to create moulds for the pewter to be poured into.

With the water boiled, Isabella and Alice mixed up some dough. We divided the dough into balls and everyone had a go at pressing something they had either bought with them or found on the reserve into it.

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Moulds ready for pewter

Our items included alder cones (difficult to cast!), sea shells and snail shells, Chloe bought in a shark’s tooth and some pieces of ammonite, Will bought in an antler and Harry bought in a small wooden hedgehog.

We sat around the campfire for lunch, giving it time to take and burn down a little:

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Group sat around the campfire

After lunch we set about taking it in turns to melt some pewter shot before carefully pouring it into the moulds.

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With a bit of practice we slowly got better at pouring the pewter into the moulds and their results were fantastic:

Yesterday’s session was sadly my last with the group, so it was brilliant to see so many faces, both old and new, and spend a bit of time around the campfire. Nigel and Geoff very kindly bought in some cake for us all to share and the group had contributed to a photo book of our sessions, which included comments from some past members.

It was great to hear how our sessions have shaped some of our members, who have gone on to gain more knowledge and skills in conservation through work experience, on to further education courses at Sparsholt and Kingston Maurward Colleges or on to university to study subjects including Biology, Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Science (with a view to working with children and educating them about wildlife and conservation) and Zoology.

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Finishing off around the campfire

I shall definitely miss working with them all, the group has easily been the highlight of my time at Blashford and we’ve come along way since our first session with three young people as Wildlife Rangers back in April 2015.

Funding and support from the Cameron Bespolka Trust for five years enabled us to grow the group and try new things, venturing further afield for residentials, visiting other nature reserves and inviting experts to share their skills and knowledge with the group.

I know they will be in safe hands with Jim and Chloe going forwards and will continue to enjoy all the opportunities offered to them.

Boardwalk replacement work begins!

It is with many thanks to everyone who gave to our appeal for donations to replace the deteriorated boardwalk connecting Ivy South Hide with the Ellingham Lake walk, an integral part of the ever-popular short circular route called the “Wild Walk”, that we are pleased to report that the work to replace it has begun!

Unfortunately this does necessitate the closure of this part of the route while the existing boardwalk is removed and the new one is constructed and we apologise for the inconvenience that this will cause for the duration of the work. Please check the website and blog for updates on progress and, in the meantime, please observe and abide by the warning signs and path closures. It will be worth the wait! Thank you.

In other news if you are saddened to know that the boardwalk is closed it may be of some small conciliation to know that Bob has now cut the first “bittern channel” through the reed bed to the east of Ivy North Hide. As long as other jobs including the boardwalk construction task, time & weather allow, the intention is to cut the usual additional channels and possibly lengthen this one as well:

The first channel has been cut through the reedbed to facilitate views of elusive wildlife including water rail and bittern

Although there were a few sporadic sightings of bittern towards the end of the summer and the beginning of autumn we believe these to be “local” UK breeding birds who are moving on south from breeding territories and just stopping off here temporarily on route. If we are to see any obliging over-wintering bittern historically we don’t tend to see them until a week or so before Christmas, so fingers-crossed for this year.

The relatively mild and sunny autumn has really bought out the autumn colours across the country in recent weeks, and Blashford has been no exception:

On the wildlife front the light trap has been consistently catching albeit in low numbers, including the rather lovely December moth:

December moth

There is a small, but reliable, starling murmurartion in the Valley again this winter, with wonderful views of it now possible from the Ibsley Water viewing platform which Bob and the volunteers have now really opened up the views from by carefully removing some of the silver birch and willows which had been obscuring the views. At least 5 goldeneye and 30+ goosander duck have now joined the other wildfowl on the lake. Firecrests have very much been in evidence across the reserve in recent weeks and Bob also reported seeing two cattle egret coming in to roost with the little egrets among the tree’s on the eastern shore of Ivy Lake.

Meanwhile Tracy and Chloe have made good use of some of the willow arisings from the viewing platform work to make a fantastic start weaving the wreath hoops for the self-guided wreath decorating activity walk which opens this weekend – for more information see the website here: https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/events/2021-11-28-decorate-willow-wreath

Wreath frames ready – just add natural greenery!

Willow is one commodity we are not short of at Blashjford Lakes and it does not look as if we are likely to run out of the withy’s required to form the hoops anytime soon!

Should keep Tracy and Chloe out of mischief over the next few weeks…might even have to help out myself Mine will be the wonky ones if you happen to pick one of those out ūüėČ !

In between weaving

I’ve been meaning to write another blog for a while now, but have been ever so slightly pre-occupied by cutting willow and wreath making, with our decorate a wreath activity turning out to be staggeringly popular! As of today, I’ve made 80 willow wreaths (with a little help from Jim who finished some I’d started off for me) and 72 have been ‘sold’ for a donation, so a huge thank you to every one who has joined in, donated and spread the word. We’ve had some fantastic feed back from both individuals and families and it’s been lovely to weave outside the front of the Centre and chat to people as they head off collecting. We may have to do it this way next year, as it clearly works!

I decided to have a break from making today as the weather has resulted in a quiet day visitor wise, but I have more willow cut and ready to weave into hoops for the rest of the week. I haven’t managed to get many photos of finished wreaths but do have a couple:

Oliver is one of our Wildlife Tots and, missing our usual wreath making December session, his mum asked if they could make their wreath as well as decorate it. They were very pleased with the finished result!

I haven’t just been standing outside the front of the Centre weaving, although most of my time spent out on the reserve does now involve staring at every willow I come across, looking for nice straight rods to harvest and weave with at a later date.

Here are a stonechat, marsh tit and robin I’ve photographed whilst out and about:¬†

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Stonechat on the edge of the main car park, when the sun was shining!


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Marsh tit on the feeder by the Welcome Hut


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Robin along the path by Ivy Silt Pond

We’ve also had some really lovely photos sent in by Doug Masson and Phil West. Thank you both very much for sharing them, and sorry for the delay in putting them on the blog!

Chiffchaff by Doug Masson

Chiffchaff by Doug Masson


Goldcrest by Doug Masson

Goldcrest by Doug Masson


Goldfinch by Doug Masson

Goldfinch by Doug Masson


Female mallard by Doug Masson

Female mallard by Doug Masson


Siskin by Doug Masson

Siskin by Doug Masson


Treecreeper by Doug Masson

Treecreeper by Doug Masson


Treecreeper 3 by Doug Masson

Treecreeper by Doug Masson

 

Fallow deer by Phil West

Fallow deer by Phil West


Fallow deer 2 by Phil West

Fallow deer by Phil West

Aside from photographing the wildlife on the reserve, the dewy and frosty mornings we’ve had recently have also provided some good opportunities for taking photos. A few more frosty mornings and a little less rain would be very nice…¬†

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Dewy seed heads on the edge of the lichen heath


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Dewy spiders web by the car park


Another wreath has just gone, so tomorrow I think I will be back weaving – definitely not a bad way to spend the day!

Feeling festive!

On Sunday I began cutting some of the willow we have growing on the reserve to weave into wreaths. Usually at this time of year we would be offering willow wreath making sessions for individuals and families, harvesting the willow, weaving the wreath and decorating it with items gathered on the reserve. This year, we are offering it as a self-led activity, where visitors can make a donation for a pre-made wreath then follow the mile long ‘Wild Walk’ circular loop in search of natural items to decorate the wreath with. I may be wreath making on and off for the next week or so!¬†

Our pre-made wreaths can be found on the plant sales table by the Welcome Hut, for a suggested donation of £3 to £5. Payment can be made by card using the contactless donations point by the door to the Welcome Hut, or by cash in the green box on the fence.

Bundles of wool for tying items on to the wreath and for hanging it up afterwards can be found hanging on the tree to the left of the table. If you want to tie items on all the way round, instead of leaving some of the willow showing, you will need more than one bundle – we are happy to take back anything you don’t use for another time. You could also try tucking items in between the pieces of willow to secure them.

There are also a couple of buckets on the ground containing additional items which can be added in if you wish. 

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Wreath making station and plant sales

I walked the ‘Wild Walk’ loop to make an example wreath, and found a nice mix of natural items including bracken (I snapped top of a couple of individual leaves off), a mixture of leaves from the ground, some moss, some dried seed heads, grasses and a small twig that still had closed catkins on it. When you do go gathering, please remember to collect responsibly and not take too much of one particular item.¬†

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Finished wreath

Some items will last longer than others, but those that begin to wilt could be replaced with something else you find next time you go for a walk, or items from the garden… and on that note you are of course than more welcome to make a donation for a wreath and take it away with you to decorate at home. Either way, have fun wreath making!¬†

Once you have finished with your wreath, the items you have added will break down if put back outside and the wool could be reused again another time for something else. Your wreath will dry and change colour, but it will last and if stored somewhere dry it could be used again next year and the year after…

Finally, we do still have some plants on the plant sales table available for a donation, along with other items made by volunteer Geoff that would either make a great addition to a wildlife friendly garden or make a great gift: the bug homes are £5 each and the bird and bat boxes are £10 each. Again donations can be made by cash or card.

Feeling Festive!

It’s the time of year for festive wreath making and we have been busy with a number of different groups, weaving a willow hoop then decorating it with greenery found on the reserve.

First up was our Dine and Discover event at the end of November,  where we enjoyed a short walk gathering holly, ivy, pine, larch, ferns, seed heads and anything else that caught our eye before harvesting some willow from our main osier bed and having a go at making a wreath. After a very scrummy lunch cooked over the campfire of broccoli and stilton soup, brie and cranberry wraps and a festive spiced apple juice (thanks to Jim and volunteer David for keeping the fire going and doing most, if not all, of the cooking!), we decorated the wreaths with the greenery collected and they all looked amazing:

Our Dine and Discover events are monthly sessions (usually on the last Friday) for adults excited by wildlife, nature and the outdoors. They are themed with the changing seasons and include preparing and cooking a simple meal together around the campfire alongside the main activity. We are having a break in December and January so our next Dine and Discover will be on Friday 28th February where we will be going on a walk to discover the wonderful wetland wildlife Blashford has to offer. Further details can be found on the website.

Next up was Wildlife Tots where we made leaf wreaths by threading different leaves onto some wire, collected all the pom pom baubles to decorate our tiny Chrismas tree and had a go at making a simple willow wreath, tying different natural treasures on with wool to decorate:

January’s Wildlife Tots session on Monday 6th has a ‘Stickman’ theme and we will be enjoying a short walk around the reserve with some fun activities along the way. The morning session books up fast but there are usually spaces available in the afternoon from 1pm until 2.30pm and again details can be found on the website.

Finally last week we were joined by the local Home Educated group who visit us a number of times a year to take part in wildlife themes activities. As it was December we were again wreath making and after a walk gathering materials they had a go at weaving and then decorating their willow wreaths:

I think we’ve made about 50 wreaths in total, so hopefully they’re all hanging pride of place on a door somewhere!

The Holly and the Ivy…

This morning a number of families joined us for a forage around the reserve in search of natural materials worthy of decorating a willow wreath. There was plenty to choose from! After gathering seed heads, ivy, bracken, rush and sedge amongst other delights to go with the pine, holly and larch  Emily and I had cut during the week from slightly further away, we headed back to the Education Centre to weave simple wreaths from willow.

It was then time for the fun bit, poking in, wiring on and tying on the greenery and other finds we had collected to create our very different and very individual masterpieces!

Here are some of our amazing creations:

A fun time and creative time was had by all!