Dogs

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The subject of dogs can be a very tricky subject in the many lines of work in the countryside. Integral to some ways of life and purely recreational to others, they are part of the family and quite rightly, treated as such. However, the effect on the environment can, in some cases, be dramatic. I, however, do not want to talk about that in this post but I would like to share an experience that I had recently.

Last week I was in the highlands of North wales, gallivanting around Snowdonia with my dog in tow. We were heading up into the Carneddau, a quieter section of the hills and solid sheep country. I had head phones in and was running along, panting on an uphill when I glimpsed a farmer coming along on his quad bike. He was every bit a welsh sheep farmer and addressed me in his native tongue which, unfortunately, I do not know a lot of, so stared back blankly.

I was half expecting him to confront me. I don’t know why as I wasn’t doing anything wrong but panic swept over me that I may somehow have strayed from course and was in the wrong area or had made some transgression somehow. What actually happened was that he thanked me for having my dog on the lead which led to a pleasant conversation about his sheep and farming in Wales.

Now, I had passed two signs that had asked me to put my dog on a  lead. I was also in sheep country during lambing season so the thought of letting my dog loose did not occur to me. Unfortunately this is  not the case some of the time and he regaled me with stories of sheep that he had lost due to dog attacks recently and how he had shot five dogs, much to his regret. I took this with a pinch of salt as the propensity to over exaggerate is (in my experience) often a little common in this line of work. However, what I took away from this experience was the fact that on my reserves I often ask people to put dogs on lead to protect ground nesting birds or livestock but what I don’t do is thank the majority of people that do keep their dogs under control.

So thanks, to all those responsible dog owners and their lovely pooches for enjoying our reserves with care and giving nature a chance. This also goes out to those who do not walk dogs but again, enjoy nature whilst treading lightly.

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Making space for terns

I tried to title this post with a witty play on the word tern.. terning the tide, terning up the heat but they all sounded rubbish so I kept it basic. We’ve been making space for terns, simple as that.

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks! If I see another bag of shingle, I may pass out! We have been very busy lugging it around and doing some management work to improve potential nest sites for terns across our sites.

Terns, mainly common and sandwich but also little and roseate nest, or used to nest, in the Solent area. There are still a number of colonies such as the ones on the islands off of Farlington. When you look at these colonies in the height of the breeding season with hundreds of screaming sea birds you would be forgiven to think that they are doing very well. Unfortunately there are some underlying issues resulting in the decline in all tern species in the Solent. Procutivity,(the number of chicks produced each year) is not at a sustainable level. Basically they are not producing enough baby terns to keep the population going.

Now, this is down to a lot of issues; over fishing, pollution, irregular weather and lack of suitable nesting space. Well, I can’t do much about most of these but I can provide some space and that is what we have been doing!

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Pewit from offshore – looking less vegetated

 

It all starts with Pewit…

I’ve mentioned this little island in a blog post before. It is a reasonable sized island in Portsmouth Harbour and provides a significant opportunity for a serious seabird colony. It needed some work though. We went over in the autumn and removed all the gorse that had grown up. Wednesday was spent in the sunshine, moving gravel out and improving the existing shingle banks, creating perfect conditions for terns. We moved 40 bags of gravel out to spread on a higher area, well out of the way of any surge tides. For the effort involved in taking it out, it went a depressingly short way! At one point I moved 20 bags from the truck 20 metres to the beach and then onto a boat, at a run because the tide was going out.  It was a crazy day and a beer and a lie down was needed in the evening!

It will require more work in the future to get it into really good condition but I am very excited about the potential for this site. There are a whole bunch of issues we will need to overcome. Getting tehre is a mission in itslef, requiring good tides and a boat. (Thanks to Wez from the RSPB for shipping us over.)

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The new shingle bank, well out of reach of the tide but a depressingly small amount given the effort of transporting it

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The improved shingle spits with sand patches that terns love

There is signs that foxes have been out there which will stop a seabird colony in its tracks. As will people visiting the island. There is no access allowed and to give the birds a chance, I hope people will accept this. If we can keep it predator free with no disturbance there is no reason the seabirds shouldn’t set up out there and prosper.

Farlingon….platforms and islands

We have predator proofed two small islands within the deeps. These are good roost sites but with a little work could harbour a small seabird colony. Predation is a tricky one here as foxes regularly patrol the marsh. The solution was to put a fence around it but within the water, banking on a fox not wanting to swim over and climb/squeeze through. It won’t stop avian predators but that is a whole other issue.

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predator proofed, well hopefully.

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Little patches of shingle will hopefully attract the seabirds in

 

The overall aim is to shingle the both islands completely but given time constraints and  the shear amount of effort that we have already put into these projects, we couldn’t face moving more out. I aim to get that done in the Autumn when the breeding birds in the surrounding area are finished and not being disturbed by our presence on the marsh.

The shingle that we have used is fine 10mm shingle mixed with sand, hopefully giving the perfect conditions for terns, who tend to like the finer substrates on the beach, especially little tern, hence why they often nest on the strand line.

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the large platform under construction. This is now out in the deeps

We have also started putting out some raised platforms, two in the upper stream and one in the deeps. This is because  these are the two areas that don’t try out in summer.  THey are only small but hopefully they will work for a small number of terns. It’s worth a go. The one in the deeps is larger and offers the most promise but I have seen very small ones work on other sites nearby, so fingers crossed

 

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This is one of the small platforms, knocked together out of old pallets and bits of wood lying around. 

There are a couple of other plans in the  pipeline as well, a raft etc. on different sites but that still needs some work. Fingers crossed for a successful breeding season!

All in all, it’s worth a go. I’ve no idea if any of these plans will come to fruition but any space that can be provided is an opportunity that should be taken, especially given the dramatic decline of these species. Also, how cool would it be if Little Tern nested on one of these platforms!

 

Sightings week ending 25/03/18

Feeling like Spring finally! Thanks Goodness for that, lets hope the ‘Beast’ stays clear.

Lots of nice stuff around this week at Farlington. Spoonbill and Garganey seem like permanent features. The spoony is hanging around the scrape and the long central ditch line in the middle of the marsh. The garganey is as elusive as ever and frustratingly preferring the scrape again.

Velvet Scoter and Scaup have been hanging around off the point in the harbour. Nice little spot. We’ve been working out in the marsh a couple of days this week so apologies for the disturbance. When we were out there Thursday there must have easily been 200 Shelduck roosting and similar Pintail. Curlew are still numerous and approximately 1000 Brents still loitering.

All the usual elsewhere. The reptiles are starting to creep above ground. Grass snakes were seen at Swanwick this week in the sunnier spells. No common lizards yet but shouldn’t be long. Should see a butterfly or two soon as well. Chiffs are starting to sing and we should see the first of the proper migrants in soon.

Why we cut down trees

It’s the end of winter for us. 28th of Feb officially means we down tools and stop cutting as the birds are busy setting up territories to breed and nest. I feel its very important to stick to this, many people do not and fell into March but working for the Wildlife Trust, one must set an example of good practice.

It has come to the end of the season for me to think that I should explain why we do an activity that looks so destructive. I’ve touched on it in other blogs but a number of comments from members of the public across our reserves has made me address the issue in a bit more detail. (I probably should have written this at the start of winter!).

It is all a matter of structure. This is the key work for the day, both in terms of time and space. Structure in the age of the trees within a woodland, as well as structure within the physical state of that woodland. Structure breeds a robust and diverse woodland that can cope with disturbance and provide more niches for specific species to occupy.

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Diagram A

How do we achieve structure? Well, strangely I know, it involves cutting a lot of that wood down. It is however important to put this into context. Take Swanwick Lakes nature reserve for instance. Once a clay pit, before that a mixture of woodland and farmland, it has gone through many transformations over the years. When abandoned in the 70’s, the trees grew in place of heavy machinery and industry. This woodland developing on a site, where woodland has not been constantly is called secondary woodland. The problem with this if left untended is that it all grows up evenly at the same time, developing a uniform structure. Diagram A shows a simplified example of this. We call them lollipop trees as they grow tall and straight, battling for light, and form a little cluster of branches near the top and create a dense canopy with its neighbouring trees. Little light therefore penetrates to the understorey so no plants develop here unless they are very shade tolerant, ferns or ivy generally.

This isn’t to say that there is no value in this woodland, it is however more or less all in the canopy. It lacks structure. It would also mean that all the trees will reach maturity at the same time and all die, more or less at the same time.

So the solution is to cut some trees down. This is a process that we call thinning. How heavy you thin will depend on personal taste and what woodland you are dealing with but normally it is between a 1/3 and 2/3 trees removed. A forester would walk the woods and remove trees around the good looking, straight hardwoods that will grow on and produce a crop. We however aren’t interested in timber production. we want the trees that remain to grow on and become old and gnarly and rot in places. This adds more value to the tree in terms of biodiversity. In fact we regularly thin and leave the not so nice trees in tact so they grow in weird directions and produce biologically interesting trees.

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Diagram B

Diagram B shows a woodland after thinning. There are now gaps in the canopy that allow in light. A flush of ground flora will develop – bluebells or ramsons, lesser celandine or violets. In areas thinned more intensely, grasses and more light specific plants develop and create glades. Crucially whoever, a middle storey develops. Perhaps shrub species grow on such as nectar rich bramble or trees that have been cut back. Hazel, willow, blackthorn, species that live in the lower section of a wood will create a thick layer from the middle of the wood to the floor. This is vital for many bird species such as the dramatically declining nightingale and many mammals such as hazel dormice.

The trees that are left  grow on and expand, branching out and becoming rounder and more stable.The canopy is still there but is more fragmented so the canopy species persist. It has gone from a 2D landscape of canopy life to a 3D landscape where birds, mammals, invertebrates persist at all levels throughout the woodland.

Go on 50, 100, 200 years and the woodland will have grown and be in the latter stages that the woodland reaches where biodiversity is at its highest. (diagram C) Some trees have grown old and died and but remain standing, producing wonderful habitat for inverts and woodpeckers, holes for tree nesting species. Given a management regime such as coppicing the woodland will have different generations of trees, giving robustness for the future as well a diversity. The coppicing will have produced a continuous thick middle storey in ever changing parts of the woodland, creating open spaces for wildflowers and nectar producing plants .

 

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Diagram C

 

 

Often people tell me that I should be leaving the woodland just to do it’s thing. It’s complicated as other organisations tell people to do this, that trees shouldn’t be cut down as we lack trees within our landscape. And quite rightly too! We do lack significant woodland in the UK. However, this needs to be taken in context. We lack high biodiversity woodland as well as the physical quantity within our landscape. You could argue that less, well managed woodland would be better than lots of woodland left to its own devices as biodiversity per square metre should be higher. You can imagine that eventually woodland left to its own devices may become dominated by species such as rhododendron or sycamore, significantly reducing its value to our wildlife.

Management (crucially not over-management) is only replicating natural processes from species of large herbivores that no longer live in our country. Therefore it is important that we sympathetically cut down trees in some of our woodland.

Sightings for week ending 18/03/18

The ‘Beast from the East’ is due one last throw this weekend so may make getting out and about difficult / unpleasant but today has been glorious. I spent the morning down at Farlington where I was treated to the spoonbill on the central scrape. Best viewed from the eastern sea wall near the old pill box, there should also be a large collection of shelduck, pintail and widgeon hanging around in the same area. There is currently a large pre-breeding daytime roost there of black headed gulls and med gulls. They often spend the morning washing on the stream and then move over to the scrape.

The garganey is still loitering around but is proving tricky to find. it seems to like lurking in the long grass.

The lapwing are starting to display across the main marsh and the redshank are becoming more vocal. Still lots of brents around and there was well over 50 curlew across the marsh this morning.

 

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Garganey – Alan Dunk

Elsewhere the intermittent sunshine has brought some butterflies out. I saw my first Brimstone on Tuesday. The woodland birds are singing well. There is a beautiful male Bullfinch singing in the car park at Swanwick every time I go down as well as goldcrest and firecrest.

Winter Survey at Farlington

Over the winter the volunteer team down at Farlington Marshes have been helping me do some survey work to look in a little bit more detail what the birds have been doing. The aim is to build up a detailed knowledge of how waders and wildfowl use the site. this will be a reflection on the condition of the site and will help us tweak management to maximize the effectiveness of the site.

I thought it may be interesting for you  to see what we do in regards of monitoring our sites and influencing management.

So, from November until the end of March the volunteers wandered around the sea wall and recorded where the birds were at what time on a map. They also recorded where the birds came in from / went out to if they were disturbed or just natural movements. This not only built up a picture of how many birds were using the site but also how they used the site in terms of time of day, stage of tide or preferred feeding/roosting areas.

There is quite a lot to analyse but I have started to look at the brent geese as these are one of the primary users of the site and a target species. It has turned up some interesting results, not unexpected but nicely explains some of the basic movements that are happening on site

Over the study period there was an increase in the mean number of birds using the site (see graph). This follows an expected change in winter feeding behavior as the primary food source in the harbour, eelgrass (Zoostera spp) reduces through either overgrazing or natural seasonal decline. There is a steady increase of site usage, peaking in February where the site has a mean number of 1582.86 birds. Historically the number of birds is much higher than this, potentially 4000. 2017/2018 however has been a year with significantly less juveniles in the area following the natural trend associated with breeding success.

The site was used more during high tide than low tide which suggests that the geese were feeding in the harbour. Given the higher mean temperature this winter, this would be expected as the eelgrass stayed in better condition later into the winter.

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Graph showing the total  mean number of Brent geese on the site per month as well as the mean at low tide and high tide

 

Maps 1-3 show the key areas during all three months of the survey. The northern point, as well as the lake and key areas around the deeps remain important at each stage through the winter. The lake was used solely as a roosting and bathing area and did not see the high numbers that other areas did. Areas around the deeps were important for grazing but the deeps itself forms the same function as the lake.

From January onwards the southern end of the marsh forms the most important area for the geese, with the highest numbers recorded and the most frequent area where birds were recorded.

This southern end saw significantly less Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense) during summer 2017 so underwent less intensive management and so the sward is likely in much better condition, with significantly more grasses and herbaceous plants.

This can also be said for the northern point and areas around the deeps which had less thistle on over summer and subsequently had to be mown less.

In contrast the North West area in January saw high numbers but only for a shorter amount of time. This area had significant areas of dense creeping thistle in the summer and therefore the sward had to be intensively managed and probably had less suitable grasses for long term grazing.

It does show however that the management did produce suitable grazing for the winter period and prolonged management should produce a more robust sward for the future.

 

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Map 1 – key areas in December

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Map 2 – key areas in January

 

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Map 3 – Key areas in February

Recent Sightings week ending 11th March

I haven’t been out on the reserves much recently, well not when I’m not at the business end of a chainsaw. So my eye has been off the ball with regards to what has been  about. With the weekend approaching with some fairly shabby weather coming in, there still may be some opportunities for sun and wildlife. So here is what I know…

Farlington.

A male Garganey is the main attraction ath the moment. He was sat on the stream just down from the building today. Not an uncommon visitor, we had two in the autumn, but it will not hang around long i suspect so worth a look. A very nice little bird.

Ther is plenty about down there at the moment, the shoulder seasons always producing some good stuff. We are in the ‘ anything can happen’ part of the year with winter birds and migrants starting to come through. Short eared Owls, Merlins and Marsh Harrier have all been seen on site recently making up a n ice bird of prey list with the usual Kestrel, Buzzards and Peregrines. 

Lots of waders still around. Casting an eye over the main marsh will pick up large numbers of Curlew and Lapwing. The latter of these are starting to display as well as Redshank which I heard calling away today. We did a Snipe count today in the Hay field, turning up 11 birds with 3 Jack Snipe, lower numbers than we expected (can be 50+ there). These can be regularly seen from the viewpoint , sitting on the area of cut reed around the lake.

We’ve been getting quite large numbers of Ringed Plover roosting on the Deeps at very high tides which is nice. The Deeps also sees a lot of Shelduck, Pintail and Wigeon as well as good numbers of Shoveler and Teal.

All in all, wildfowl numbers have been good this year compared to wader numbers which have been low. A reflection of the weather I think.

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The usual array of woodland birds with Redwing around still in large numbers.

St Clair’s

It seems quite hard not to go to this site and not see a Kingfisher. It will often be seen zooming a long the top end of the river near the bridge. There is regularly a Barn Owl and Grey Wagtails floating around as well.