A Helping Hand

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The Lapwing have been nesting across the marsh, as have a number of other ground nesting species such as Redshank, Skylark and Meadow Pipits. They are very vulnerable at this time of year and so we do a few things to help give them a helping hand.

I’ve had a few questions recently about some of the things that we have done so I thought a blog post may help answer some of these questions. The main one that has come across is to do with the spikes that we have put on many of the fence posts around the main marsh. These are to deter avian predators such as Crows, Buzzards and Magpies from perching all day and scanning the site for vulnerable eggs or chicks.

There has been some very nice studies produced that show the effect of vantage points on nesting success in ground nesting birds such as Lapwing. One study saw that Lapwing would not nest within, on average,  50 metres of a potential perching point. Therefore to maximise the number of territories within a site you have to deter birds from perching on all the very convenient posts that we have placed for them with our fencing.

We have had to look at natural vantage positions as well. Hedgerows with standards and high points act in the same way, allowing predators to comfortably sit and observe. This in mind, we dropped the height on many of the hedgerows in strategic places around the main marsh. This will be a staged approach where we will do some each year so that there is still plenty of nesting opportunities for species like Sedge Warbler and Whitethroats but within a few years we will have all the hedges at a manageable height. Most of the work that we have done, the hedges are still bulky enough to have birds nesting in any way.

The next step is with the cattle. I have put in 36 cows into the main marsh. This is a fine balance between having too many and increasing the chance of squashing a nest and having too few and the grass be too long for the chicks to feed. Lapwing chicks need areas of short vegetation to feed on, gleaning invertebrates off the surface.

It’s an important balance that needs to be struck. Do you dissuade all predators across the site? Do you leave a natural level? What is a natural level? What you have to bear in mind is that when natural levels of predators existed there was a much more natural coastline where sites shifted and changed each year with coastal erosion and drift. This means that there were many more places for these bird species to nest. Now there is very few and Farlington represents an important site in the area. A bad year here has significant effects on numbers in the area.

Ringing in the Reedbeds

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An exquisite male Bearded Tit

On Sunday we started ringing in the reedbeds at  Farlington Marshes. The aim is to concentrate on the Bearded Tits to try and get an idea as to how the population is fairing. It turned out to be a reasonable start and we caught a good number of birds. The females all had brood patches which signifies breeding so things are looking good.

Bearded Tits, actually called Bearded Parrotbills now (formally Bearded Reedlings) are one of Farlingtons iconic species. They draw in a lot of people as the site has a very good population, especially for its size. The only issue is that they are very difficult to see. Normally all you get is a fleeting view of them as they bounce over the top of the reed before quickly dropping down. This makes monitoring very difficult and really the only way that we have a chance of getting a population estimate is through ringing. This also helps us look at longevity of individuals and location within the reed bed itself. All very useful stuff which can help influence how we manage the site.

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A very handsome male Reed Bunting

It was a good session catching Bearded Tits, Reed Bunting, Cetties Warbler and Sedge Warbler. The whole reed bed was alive with the chatter of segdes and there were even some Reed Warbler there. These will build up steadily as they migrate in and then disperse leaving the breeding population.

The Lapwing have begun to settle down and there seems to be a good number of Redshank on the marsh and in the hay field. Hopefully we will see a higher than average year for these this year but its still early days. The Lapwing are in low numbers but this is the same across many sites at the moment so hopefully they are just late arriving.

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The very noisy Sedge Warbler

Luxury Penthouse to Rent, Riverside View, Fishing Rights and Natural Surroundings Included

DSC_0974We spent a very happy day last Thursday at Swanwick playing at the edge of the water. This of course was made all the better with the t-shirt weather that we had. The aim was to build a Kingfisher nesting cliff to entice them to stay on site all year.

Kingfishers generally nest in river banks and excavate nests out of loose soil, digging a long tunnel with a chamber at the end. I don’t think anybody who has seen a kingfisher would expect this of them and it does seem like a strange thing for a bird to do. It is however a good strategy as the small cliffs at the side of the river tend to drop straight into water and so are very tricky for predators such as stoats to access. I’ve also seen them nesting in the root bases of fallen tree. These often form pools where the root base has been ripped out of the ground and so creates a perfect little spot for them to nest.

A lot of sites have Kingfishers in late summer and through the winter but don’t have them in the spring and early summer. This is generally because of the lack of suitable banks in which they can nest. The late summer individuals will be the first brood which are then self sufficient and then all of them rove around a bit in the winter. You get a number along the coast as well, especially in cold times when fresh water is frozen over.

So if you have a site ‘sans bank’, you have to help them out a little bit if you want them to stay all year and everybody likes a Kingfisher so many reserve officers take on the challenge of enticing them in. Enter the fake Kingfisher cliff.

This is how we went about it.

Step 1. Find a suitable spot. This is on the edge of a lake with a some deepish water in front of it, preferably with a bit of a bank already. We found a good spot on toms lake.DSC_0962

Step 2. Dive in two stakes on the edge of the bank. You then clad the front with boards. You also need to box in the sides.

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Step 3. Back fill with soil. This builds up the bank behind it. It’s good to have a team of volunteers/minions to do this

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Step 4. Place the nest box. Once you have the soil high enough (the entrance hole needs to be a metre or so above the water) you then need to place the box at a slight angle, so the box is a tiny bit higher. You also need to line the bottom of the box with clay or soil so its a bit more natural.

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Step 5. Cover with soil. This surrounds the box and you want a good layer over the top. You can leave this loose so you can access the box to clean it out.

Step 6. Fill the tunnel section with loose sand/soil. The Kingfishers like to excavate a little themselves.

Step 7. Clad the front with clay. This makes it look more natural (we haven’t done this yet).

Step 8. Sit back and watch the Kingfishers flock in.

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Hopefully step 8 will be the case but they are tricky little things. I’ve seen boxes on other sites used but in other places they aren’t touched. There has been one at Swanwick for a few years now but has never had any success. It may be a number of reasons but we intend to put three up in total to maximise our chances of success. Hopefully one will look attractive.

 

 

Helping out the beardies

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We have spent a couple of days working in the reed bed at Farlington. I love reed beds, they’re one of my favourite habitats. Once your in a few metres, you have a huge sense of isolation with all the reed towering above you. The best part of the Farlington reed beds is that as soon as you step in, you are surrounded by Bearded Tits making their classic ‘ping’ call.

Reed beds are an unusual habitat with lots of interesting traits. They are essentially effemeral, only existing naturally for a reasonable short length of time (in the grand scheme of landscapes). They doom themselves as they grow each year, die and steadily raise the level of the soil, eventually drying out the area within which they are growing and then getting out competed buy more vigorous plants. I suppose that you can say this about many habitats as succession eventually changes them into the climax community, normally a woodland.

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Cutting reed, great fun!

So, if you want reed beds to stay as reed bed in the long term you have to manage them and the key to reed bed longevity is to cut them and remove the cuttings so that they don’t build up. Some places even graze them, short stocky ponies that don’t sink are often the beast of choice. The simple rule is if you cut the reed in winter, you promote the reed. If you cut in summer, you suppress the reed and allow other species to grow. Like most things it isn’t all together that simple but that is the basic premise.

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Raking reed, great fun!

Water levels throughout the year play a vitally important role.You don’t want to flood freshly cut reed in the summer as it will drown. You also need to flood the reed bed, preferably in sections to allow invertebrate species to thrive and support the species higher up the trophic levels, species such as Bittern, Bearded Tits, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Cettis Warblers. These are all reed bed specialists, many of which are in decline due to the lack of large reed beds in the UK.

Bearded Tits are one of the most iconic species at Farlington. I meet a lot of people who have come to the site just to see them. They are however very tricky to see. A warm still day is best and you can see the floating over the top of the reed or between the patches of reed by the sluice. During winter they feed on reed seed and therefore need grit to help digest this. During the breeding season they switch to high energy invertebrates to feed their nestlings.

They nest quite close to the ground , preferring older dense stands of reed. There is evidence to suggest that newer reed stands, (reed that was cut that winter or the one before) have a higher seed density and support higher invertebrate numbers, suggesting that a mix of older and newer stands will yield the highest number of birds.

With this all in mind we have cut some small patches of reed bed this year. This also creates edge habitat which species such as reed warbler prefer, nesting very close to the edge of the reed. Cutting sections maximises this usable area. It also allowed us to collect the cut reed to turn in to nest boxes for bearded tits.

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Great work from the team, lots of bearded tit nests

Last year there was big issues with the water levels in the reed bed and we think that the bearded tits may have really suffered as their nests may have been flooded out. They are also restricted to the dryer sections of the reed bed in which they can nest. An RSPB reserve up north called Leighton Moss have used nest ‘wigwams’ to great success, opening up more reed bed to the bearded tits and maximising the area that they can use. We though that we’d give it a go. they may not get used and they are certainly doing quite well but I was keen to have somewhere safe that they can nest in as a back up in case of severe flooding again. It’s also quite cool.

Making the nests was surprisingly difficult. You bundle a load of reeds together. You then tie off both ends. The secret is to tie them off super tight. I mean SUPER tight. This stops the reed slipping but also makes the next stage really hard. You have to tease the reed out into a wigwam shape with a nice little cavity in the middle in which they can nest.

That’s a wrap

I haven’t posted a recent sightings for a few weeks so I apologies for that. A mixture of holiday, illness and a crazy rush before Spring has left little to no office time. But, Spring is in the air! Well kind of. In between storms, howling wind and some very heavy rain  we have had some quite pleasant days which make one feel that Spring may be very nearly about to be sprung.Certainly the crocuses and snowdrops have been quite spectacular. Just down the road from our offices the churchyard is a swathe of colour.

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dsc_0770We have been very busy. Bird nesting season officially starts on the 1st of March. At this point we no longer cut scrub, chop down trees or do anything that may disturb our little avian friends from settling down and making more little avian friends. We therefore have to rush to get all the jobs we started finished and all the things that we thought that we had loads of time to do, done.

Our main focus has been to improve conditions for the nesting Lapwing at Farlington. We have therefore concentrated on reducing perching points for keen eyed corvids such as crows and magpies which sit atop trees in hedge rows and watch carefully for an unguarded nest or wandering chick.

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We have also removed vegetation along the sea wall next to the hay field. This helps reduce erosion of the wall and opens it out for the benefit of ground nesting birds

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We removed some scrub that was moving steadily out into the marsh. The ground nesting birds such as Lapwing and Skylark don’t like this

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The hedge between the point field and the main marsh. It had become quite a substantial piece of vegetation. We have now trimmed it down to chest height all the way along.

We have reduced the height of the hedges between the point field and the main marsh and the main marsh and the hay field. This opens up sight lines, making it feel less enclosed and takes out the perching points. Hopefully this may squeeze in a few more lapwing territories and it is all about maximizing our space for our target species. My sincerest apologies to all the people on Tuesday wandering around the sea wall as we scared some of the birds away from the Deeps as we had to get in to finish the work that we had done on the hedge.

The last full survey done of breeding lapwing was in 2012 with 17 pairs identified across the site. Prior to this a survey was done in 2006 with 33 pairs. The aim this year is to do another full census. Hopefully the numbers will have remained stable since 2012.

On another note and excitingly, I found a Water Vole latrine in the deeps and a feeding station in the reed bed. I hope to do a more extensive survey in May, (the peek time for voles) but it looks hopeful that there may be a population hanging on in there. How they have survived I have no idea as the site must be completely isolated from any other water vole colony. It’s good to have some firm evidence that they are around.

 

 

Big Trees

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A thousand year old Oak

We wander around every day past history. I expect that if you were to walk through a quaint little village up on the downs or somewhere similar, you would be impressed by the buildings that are a couple of hundred years old, marvel at the history they have been part of. Even more so when looking at our cathedrals and castles, stately homes that have seem changes over the last two, three, four hundred years. This is however not an every day occurrence for most of us.

I bet more often you pass a tree, such as an oak, that predates all of these old buildings and yet we take no heed of them. They blend seamlessly into the background, filling in the space on the horizon that we expect to be there, maybe even comforting us subliminally, harking back to our ancestral days in the wildwood.

How amazing these trees are though. We are particularly blessed in the Solent area due to our long maritime history where the planting of Oak was encouraged to build the mighty warships that floated the empire and protected this little isle. They pop up everywhere and there will undoubtedly be a three hundred year old oak near you somewhere. Other trees gain such enormous stature that to stand under them is truly a humbling experience. For instance, there is a pine on the road not far from our offices that sits just off the road running from botley to wickham. Hundreds of people drive past it every day, thousands maybe. A smaller but no less significant number stroll within feet of it’s towering trunk and yet a minor percentage of them will look up and be awed, think about the size of it and how long it has taken to grow and what in it’s lifetime it has seen. This pine is ornamental and so was planted by somebody maybe with the intention of crowning the top of the hill it is on. This it has achieved magnificently.

Where I used to work in Gosport, there was an estate called Rowner. This was your typical estate, concrete punctuated by grass amenity pitches. However, despite all the odds, several trees had persisted, one of which was one of the biggest coppiced oaks that I have seen, its base an intricate woven mass of the coppiced limbs. An absolute cracker of a tree, sat in the middle of a sports pitch. Big trees are everywhere if you look. Field boundaries, old lanes, cemeteries are all good places.

I visited Mottisfont last weekend to see the London Plane tree. This is a giant and as impressive a tree as I have seen in the UK. I like London Planes, interestingly a hybrid between an Oriental and American Plane and has the ability to absorb and store pollution. The crazy thing was that just outside the ground, down the aptly named Oakley Lane, was an Oak of a thousand years old and a true veteran of a tree, as impressive, if not more, than the Plane, but going undetected by 99% of the people that go there.

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The mighty London Plane at Mottisfont

The term veteran is used when referring to old trees that exhibit the signs of decay, such as rot, broken limbs, holes, dead bits. These sound bad but in a tree that is seeing out the end of it’s days, this provides so many niches for so many species to thrive. No truer is this than in Oak trees who support the most species in our country. It doesn’t mean that they have to be a thousand years old. It is dependent on the tree species. For example, the Birch is a short lived species, so a hundred year old Birch could be considered a veteran, but in a Beech or an Oak, this would barely be in it’s teenage years.

Despite these special trees being around they are under severe pressure, especially older ones,  and there are several schemes working at the moment to record and save them. The tree charter is an excellent one (https://treecharter.uk/) as is the ancient tree hunt with the Woodland Trust (http://www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk/). These allow you to get involved and easily record the old trees around you and have your say on what you think about our woods and old trees. Looking at the map of the area that I live in, there are very few recorded.

So, next time you wander down a field boundary or through a wood, stop and think about those trees that you are passing and vision what they themselves have seen pass below their canopy, think about what we can do to allow them to persevere, maybe record them. Maybe even give them a hug, not that I have ever done that 🙂

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A huge pine just down the road from our offices

Logs for sale

dsc_0008We have a lot of spare wood down at Swanwick Lakes nature reserve, so if you are in need of some firewood to get you through the upcoming cold winter months, please get in touch.

It is mostly a mix of birch and oak and has been produced from conservation tasks at Swanwick Lakes. It’s been seasoned for around a year in cord lengths and we cut and split it to order. It will be particularly good if you want to stock up ready for next year but burns just fine for this winter. The mix of fast and hot burning birch with the slow release oak is really good. There’s even some ash in there, which is the best of the best firewood.

Unfortunately we don’t have the facilities to deliver so it is pick up by appointment at the Swanwick Lakes education centre.

It’s for sale at a very reasonable price of £50 / m3 split – and we can do deals for unsplit.

If you would like some or know somebody who does, please email or phone me on:

christopher.lycett@hiwwt.org.uk or 07917616697

Chris