The Annual Hair Cut

IMG_1720

Busy at work, the vols lug a lot of grass around

Last Monday we embarked on the task of cutting the orchid meadow at Southmoor. This is called the orchid meadow because, as you may have guessed, it has orchids in it (we’re not the most imaginative). It has a lot of orchids, well it used to but due to a high turnover in staff over the last few years and the uncertain future of the site (rectified now I am pleased to say and a blog post in the near future) the maintenance of the site dropped  off the radar. This lead to the vegetation getting away a bit as the cows chomped all the good stuff, inadvertently selecting the tough, less palatable species such as meadow sweet, fleabane and hard rush to steadily take control.

It was high time to do something about it and with a borrowed BCS (big mower) some brushcutters and some hardy volunteers we made a start cutting, raking, removing. I was going to get a contractor to cut it but I thought it my be fun for the volunteer groups to do as a project. However,  in my mind the field was much smaller than in reality and it turned in to quite a mission. The volunteer teams did an absolutely stunning job and we have cleared the vast majority of the field, leaving some patches and a good margin to act as safe refuges for the invertebrates.

IMG_1722

How much grass can you fit on a truck

The aim of cutting it is to break the back of the tougher vegetation that would not be removed by the cattle. In a natural system this is okay as there are several herbivores that eat different things and some areas become tough but this is fine as its part of a larger, more fluid system where habitats change over time. In a small reserve in an urban area it has to more stationary to provide the best ecological potential.

IMG_1744

Harvest mouse nest whilst cutting, narrowly avoided

 

With the tougher vegetation removed, spaces in the sward are made to allow the daintier, nectar rich flowers to flourish, giving a huge source of food for invertebrates and the cascade effect up the trophic levels that this has, i.e. feeding birds, reptiles  and mammals that then feed other species.

 

The sward is currently very thick and not as diverse as it could be. Speckled throughout is ragged robin, southern marsh orchid, marsh marigold, knapweeds and other lovely plants. These just need some help to flourish.

Cutting is quite sudden for the invertebrate communities to cope with, kind of like a natural disaster like an earthquake. If it knocked down an entire city we would be in a bit of trouble but if it came in waves and only knocked down a few at a time we would have somewhere to shelter and survive. Cutting is like this but if you leave patches, don’t cut too short and do it over a number of days you can dramatically reduce the impact that you have. This also benefits species such as harvest mice and other small mammals as well as reptiles.

The key thing is that removal of vegetation is necessary to get the most out of your meadows, grazing is great but supplementary cuts are necessary but can be done right to reduce the impact on the species that you are trying to promote. They will benefit in the end as there will be more flowers and therefore a greater food source.

This isn’t just for nature reserves. You can do this in your garden as well. Leaving lawns to grow long and improving them with seed mixes and cutting is great for wildlife. Don’t let anybody tell you that they look a mess. They look amazing in the summer and are cut by autumn and will enrich you garden and lives. Just remember to leave a few little patches long when you do cut it.

 

IMG_1746

Very dense areas of fleabane and meadowsweet

Sightings for the Week Ending 23/07/17

DSCF0551

marbled white (mike smith)

Things are starting to pick up again at Farlington. Lots of waders around with large numbers starting to build of black-tailed godwits, redshank and oyster catchers. There are several common sandpipers on the stream and a little ringed plover has been seen. The avocet are loafing around on the lake with the two recently fledged birds which are slightly brown on the top.

There are plenty of young birds around. I saw young chiffchaffs and  marsh tit at Swanwick Lakes the other day as well as the hoards of blue tits and great tits.

DSCF0721

silver washed fritillary (mike smith)

There was a grey seal spotted in the harbour the other day as well. Unusual in the  area as common seals tend to dominate. This was seen at the end of the muddy spit south of the reserve.

DSCF0663

White admiral (Mike Smith)

Purple emperors are flying at Swanwick Lakes and are a great spot if you’re lucky enough. Silver washed fritillary and white admiral seem to be abundant this year and can be seen at Hookeath meadows as well. Gatekeepers and marbled whites are also on the wing in excellent numbers. Whilst working at Farlington there were a great deal of common blues in the bushes area of the site as well as small heaths.

Dragons are patrolling many of the sites, with emperors, common hawkers, broad bodied chasers and black tailed skimmers being some of the most common as well as numerous damselflies such as common blues, blue tailed and red eyed.

All in all a good week with all the joys of the summer invertebrates but with a rapidly building bird population as some of the migrants start to return.

FullSizeRender

Broad Bodied Chaser

Plastic. Plastic Everywhere!!!

‘The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.’

 

IMG_0498

A month ago or so we did a litter pick around the edge of Farlington Marshes, dragging the accumulated detritus off the foreshore. This was a difficult and rather smelly job for the volunteers. There are pinch points around the marsh where lots of flotsam and jetsam accumulate, telling a long story of activities on the high seas for those of an imaginative bent. Stories of shipwrecks and piracy abound and the odd drinks can from the 70’s or foreign object allows one to marvel at the stretch of the currents and the force of the sea to move objects long distances. Our education teams would have had a field day, spinning tales for the kids in the fantastic way that they do, capturing their imaginations about the natural world.

Unfortunately for me when embarking in a life based around conservation, you get rather cynical. What this litter pick brought forth for me was not a dramatized romantic notion of the sea but the disturbing truth that plastic is a major and growing problem out there, one where the true reach cannot be seen.

Some of it is visible and what I found most shocking was the fine, sand like multicolored strand line around the edge of the site. Billions of pieces of plastic forming a rainbow around the edge of the concrete wall. This ranged from pieces the size of a grain of sand to small floating pieces of polystyrene but all massed together as the calm sea slowly receded, leaving the evidence of several life times of wasteful and excessive plastic use.

IMG_0496

billions of fine grounds of plastic and polystyrene 

What you have to bear in mind is that this is the tip of the iceberg. Not even the tip, the first ice crystal at the very tip. Plastic is a colossal problem in our oceans one that is going to have long lasting effects, perhaps even irreversible ones.

Recently a cuviers beaked whale drifted into a harbour in Norway. It was clearly in distress and despite valiant attempts to help it was eventually deamed the best thing to do was to kill it. It was promptly shot and an autopsy was carried out. What was discovered, I found shocking beyond belief. 30 plastic bags knotted into a mass within it’s stomach . The poor whale starved to death. I’m very fond of whales and beaked whales like this are not only truly magnificent animals but so little is known about them, it is nice to have something still mysterious out there.

This is not an isolated incident. either. A cuviers washed up on Skye not too long ago with the exact same issue.

I was confused over why they would eat plastic bags. Cetaceans are generally quite clever animals. Surely they could tell apart a plastic bag from a squid? I then read up on the subject and it makes a lot of sense in the end. Cuviers dive to great depths to hunt squid and other such deep diving cephalopods. At that depth visibility is poor and the way that they feed is through echolocation. A series of clicks and whistles rebound off their prey and they can essentially see what they are hunting but in this method, a plastic bag looks, (or sounds I suppose) just like a squid. Hence a stomach full of plastic. How are plastic bags at that depth! It shows that at all levels of the ocean, plastic has penetrated and is causing issues.

One of the most disturbing things that I have heard is the reference to marine plastic flour. This is the term used for the plastic floating around the ocean that is so minuscule that it is likened to flour. A scary thought when you think of the accumulation within the bodies of sea going animals. Even scarier is the thought that if you eat seafood, you are potentially eating accumulated plastic. That can’t be good!

Well what is the solution? Is there even one? With all these things, mass species decline, global warming, loss of habitat, uncontrolled development, mass agriculture and pesticide use, it may seem like there isn’t one but I fully believe that we can curb it and even reverse it but it requires effort from all of us. I found a quote the other day which I feel is so important I have put in in bold!  Dramatic I know but I feel necessary

 

The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.

 

This is one of the most pertinent phrases out there and a trap that we all fall in to. It is that classic mentality that you carry on an activity because the millions of others around you are and if you were to stop, at minor inconvenience to yourself, it will make little difference. The trouble is, most of the other people around you are thinking that and the wheel of self destruction keeps turning.

It all sound very preachy I know and I”ll be the first to admit that I fall in to the trap over and over again. Plastic is everywhere and unavoidable. Your weekly shop at any major superstore will mean plastic by the bucket load, despite the heavy reduction in plastic bags. Broccoli wrapped in clingfilm, oranges in bags, strawberries in punnets. It all seems a bit unnecessary and goodness knows I’m not going from one shop to another to get all the bits separately!

As with all these things, public demand drives the major distributors to change. Try and reduce and you will fall in to the habit. It takes time to work it all out, what you can buy and from where. In this day and age, nobody wants to spend two hours in a supermarket trying to work out how to buy stuff without plastic but over time, you can work it out.

So yes, there is no magic plan to reduce this. Just hard graft and steady but persistent change but it has to be from all of us.

And lastly, recycle. Recycle like you mean it.

A successful season

DSC_0877

Avocets

It is a turning point in the season and though many of you will be distressed to hear, it is swiftly running into autumn. In fact, the autumn migration has already begun! Farlington is slowly filling with waders, brightly coloured godwits, still clinging on to their rusty summer plumage, dunlin with their black bellies and common sandpipers up and down the ditches across the marsh. There was even a little ringed plover on the scrape the other day.

If you have frequented Farlington throughout the spring and summer you will no doubt have noticed the Lapwing and Redshank buzzing around, calling and dive bombing any crows or other potential predators. These are our regular breeders and both had a good year with 15 territories for the lapwing and 5 for the redshank. There has also been another addition this year to our breeding wader assemblage.

DSC_0897

I am very pleased to announce that we have had, for the first time ever in the known history of Farlington, breeding Avocets! This is a fantastic result for the reserve and we’re all very pleased.

There is no real reason that  I can point out as to why they have suddenly decided to breed. This winter saw record numbers roosting on the site so perhaps some took a fancy. With poor success at other sites in the areas due to a number of very tricky issues they may have just given up and moved on.

It hasn’t been a complete success however. I counted 10 chicks in total from potentially 4 broods. One of these was a second go from a pair that had all their eggs stolen by a crow. I watched it fly in over the course of 30 mins or so and steadily empty the nest. I was, to put it mildly, livid! Out of the 10 chicks, as far as I can tell, only two have fully fledged. Not a great success but when compared to other sites in the local area, a much higher percentage. There may be a few hiding but it looks like the younger ones have been picked off by a Buzzard.

Now, this may sound like a bit of a disaster but we have a bird that has never shown any sign of nesting at Farlington and we have had 4 pairs attempt. We have also had up to 16 adults around. These were probably failed breeders from elsewhere or non breeders that have helped protect the other nests and chicks. It also means that hopefully they will all come back next year and attempt to breed.

You also have to bear in mind that we were completely unprepared for this. They suddenly just appeared and started to breed. We can therefore put measures in place next year to give them a helping hand and boost the local numbers.

All in all it has been really nice to gain a breeding bird rather than losing one which is more often than not the case nowadays.

DSC_0929

Stemming the tide

DSC_0846

Cattle in a sea of thistle

 

Thistle is the bane of my life. It used to be cows but the focus of my rage and annoyance has shifted. After our epic fencing work in early spring, we have had one bovine Houdini who managed to limbo through an old section of fence but otherwise, fingers crossed, we have had no escapees. 

When you look out across the main marsh, it is fairly evident that there is a good deal of thistle. Forming thick stands it will start developing a purple haze over the marsh in the next couple of weeks as it comes into flower. This is great for many of our invertebrate friends, providing plenty of nectaring opportunities and for the Goldfinches that flock in their hundreds in winter to feed on the seed heads. The problem is that it is getting out of control and muscling out the other plants. The cows, quite rightly, won’t touch the stuff and therefore neither will the geese, wigeon or other species that depend on a short, grassy turf to sustain them through the winter. 

It is vital, therefore, that we try and stem the tide of thistle on the main marsh. Unfortunately for me this means sitting in a non air-conditioned tractor, slowly topping the worst areas. This is not only painful because of, without being overly dramatic, the oven like conditions that I have to sit in but because it has to be done with the utmost care so as not to mow over any nesting birds.

The key to effective topping of thistle is timing. Get them before they go to seed so they don’t spread but late enough so most of the birds have fledged and are running around. This is tricky when species like skylark have several broods in a season. Lapwing however only have one but can be late. This means that I have spent a lot of time monitoring them throughout spring and early summer. I have a handy map where all the territories are and they can therefore be avoided. Skylarks and meadow pipits are a bit tricky but they tend to fly off their nests when disturbed. So before I go to top an area, I spend 5 minutes or so thrashing around and watching for anything to fly up. If they do, I make a note and avoid that area, hopefully missing any nests.

Unfortunately I may hit one. I am not aware that I have yet and would be devastated to find out if I did. But, you have to weigh it up. If I don’t top, the marsh will steadily become more and more unsuitable until eventually wintering birds will suffer and nesting birds will have a much harder time. If I batter back the thistle over the next few years, the amount of topping needed will steadily reduce.

As I mention in most of my posts, it’s all about balance.

IMG_1091

Swamped by Mediterranean gulls and black-headed gulls whilst topping

 

Summer is here

I’ve not posted in a little while. A mixture of being very busy, very relaxed (on holiday) and more recently very hot. Working in thirty degree heat over the last couple of days has been somewhat taxing.

FullSizeRender

It is starting to happen though. Invertebrate life is springing into action all over our reserves and as things quieten down with the bird life, we stop looking up and start staring intently into the long grass.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t any decent birds around.

Farlington Marshes nature reserve has had the usual, a mob of black-tailed godwits chattering away by the building or on the deeps. They were joined the other week by a stunning male ruff, in full breeding plumage. this chap has been frequenting various sites around the Solent for a few weeks now. There have also been a lot of bearded tits showing off in the reed bed.

The meadow browns have emerged en mass across most of our sites. Swanwick and Hookheath in particular. We have also seen silver washed fritillaries, white admirals and marbled whites, with at least one purple emperor reported as well.

IMG_1164

Swanwick Lakes nature reserve has also had its fair share of dragons. A walk through on Friday afternoon saw Emperor, black-tailed skimmer, red-eyed damselfly, golden-ringed, common blue, blue-tailed and small red damselfly. There have also been downy emeralds seen regularly, but not by me, despite a lot of trying.

IMG_1174

The orchids this year have been exceptional. North-east meadow at Swanwick Lakes nature reserve has had the most ever, as has Hookheath. Farlington has had a very good year, with common spotted and southern marsh orchids filling the top of the hay field and pyramidal orchids scattered along the path.

IMG_1157

All in all its been a good, yet warm, couple of weeks – and over the next couple, we should see a bigger emergence of species like marbled whites, gatekeepers and a few more silver washed.

Siren Song

Swanwick Lakes nature reserve used to be a very good spot for nightingales. Unfortunately, mirroring decline that is occurring across the whole of the UK, they have dropped off the radar on the site. This is extremely upsetting as they are one of my top birds but it has been a number of years since they have been recorded on site, so it’s fairly safe to say they are no longer present.

One of the most charismatic singers in the UK bird population, nightingale can be heard in the evening, babbling away within a dense thicket of scrub and is a song like no other. It can get confusing when the song thrushes mimic them (which they do incredibly well) but once you have heard one, it is something that sticks with you and, I think, always exciting to hear.

There does not seem to be any major reason why they disappeared at Swanwick but it may be changing levels of thick scrub, in which they nest, or other slight changes that pushed them away. I could be they just never made it back on migration.

There is plenty of decent habitat there now and we are working on some very specific management to encourage suitable habitat to develop. They need very thick scrub, usually densely packed, young growth of trees like birch or willow. This needs to be combined with a more open woodland that provides feeding opportunities for them. The northeast meadow and the yellow trail is ideal for this.

The ideal habitat type is really nicely described here by the BTO.

You can see that the domed effect is the ideal, with scrubby, youthful growth at the sides and a mature stand in the middle, providing bare ground and lots of invertebrates. This really focuses on the importance of scrub on reserves as it can often be seen as the daemon habitat, one to be swiftly removed when encroaching onto your flower-rich grassland.

IMG_0007

perfect Nightingale habitat in a nearby woodland

North East meadow at Swanwick Lakes is wood pasture so it’s a mix of flora rich grassland, changing with the dappled shade of the sparse trees, producing a woodland/grassland blend. There are pockets of scrub around the edges but I am keen to maintain some sporadic patches throughout. These dense little blocks will hopefully provide the perfect nesting opportunities for nightingales but are difficult to produce due to the pressure that we have from deer.

Weirdly deer are a contributing factor to nightingale decline, as well as many other species that rely on dense regrowth within our woodlands – dormice for instance. They browse everything to death and it’s at this time of year that they are most destructive as the plants have little reserves and the succulent new tips that do all the growing are promptly chomped off.

With our nice new scrubby habitat we are now going to tempt them in. The tricky thing with nightingales is that they are very site faithful and the males will return to the same spot year after year. There has been a ringing project in a woodland not too far away from Swanwick which has been monitoring a population for many years. Year on year the same individuals come back to almost exactly the same spot, a magnificent feat seeing as they went all the way to Sub-Saharan Africa and back. If I was illiterate so couldn’t read signs, had no map, GPS, compass, the likelihood of me walking to the northern tip of Scotland and back, ending up in the exact place I started, is fairly remote to say the least!

There is evidence to suggest that young males are attracted to the nocturnal song of established males (which incidentally becomes much richer and diverse the older the get as they learn more tunes). With this in mind I have started playing it through a speaker within the reserve over night. Hopefully a young male will fly over, hear it and investigate. He will hopefully then realise that his site has everything he needs and set up a territory.

Fingers crossed!