Pewit

IMG_2275Last week we launched out to sea and made a trip out to Pewit Island. This is a very small nature reserve in the middle of Portsmouth harbour and one we have seldom managed to get out to.

There are records that in the past, pewit was a large black headed gull colony, until egg collecting finally sore the end to them. Since then and certainly in recent years, it has scrubbed over to create more and more unsuitable conditions for waders and wildfowl to roost.

It is important to set the context of Pewit island within the harbour to convey how important it is and how important it can become. It is the only island within the harbour. If you look at the three harbours of Portsmouth, Langstone and Chichester, there are only a handful of islands with no human influence and that are fully cut off at high tide, it makes up one of these few. These islands are vital for overwintering waders to roost safely, away from disturbance and predation. They are also in peril from more frequent storms and sea level rise.

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Before, a massed centre of gorse

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After, clear and open

Suitability of these islands for waders is something that needs careful attention. Pewit, when we alighted this year, had a core of gorse, broom and bramble, blocking the sight lines that waders need to feel comfortable. This therefore had to be removed. The issue has always been getting out to the island to manage the ever encroaching scrub.

Thankfully we had to help of Wez from the RSPB who has a trusty little boat with a shallow draft, ideal for reaching the island and getting people and equipment ashore. He picked us up from the slipway in Fareham and we motored over with a few volunteers and some equipment on a rather blustery and damp Thursday.

The gorse, which formed the bulk of the scrub was leggy and easy to cut down so we managed to blitz through it, creating a large bonfire in the centre of the island. We also cut down the bramble and gorse and then started cutting the longer grass so that a short sward was left. The key is that the waders can sit comfortably and look in multiple directions so as to watch predators approach. Whilst we were there a peregrine bombed over, sending the remaining birds into a frenzy.

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a big bonfire

As we approached the island in the morning, 300+ oystercatcher were roosting on the edges as well as a number of curlew and brent geese. We took it as a good omen that a sandwich tern was fishing off the shore whilst we worked for the site has substantial potential to become a tern nesting colony, with very little work needed. there are a couple of shingle banks that already exist. Our hope is that with the gorse gone, the terns may feel more confident and take up residence.

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nice shingle bunds with tern potential

Our biggest issue will be from people landing on the island. There is a history of groups sailing or kayaking over for picnics as well as anglers overnighting there. We hope to educate people on this and show them the importance of leaving this site undisturbed and left to prosper

 

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Plastic. Plastic Everywhere!!!

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

 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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Stemming the tide

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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.

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Swamped by Mediterranean gulls and black-headed gulls whilst topping

 

Collaborative Efforts

DSC_0065At the Wildlife Trust we’re firm believers in helping out where we can. After all, conservation is our main function and many species don’t respect site boundaries so helping out on other sites often helps out on our sites in the long term.

With that in mind we have been helping the RSPB out with the Little Tern project in Langstone Harbour. These fantastic little birds live a precarious existence, preferring to nest on bare, fine shingle that is prone to getting washed away in any high spring tides. They are also very vulnerable to predation and being muscled out by the gulls.

The RSPB have been protecting the tern colonies in Langstone for some time now but with an increase in gull nesting numbers, especially an increase in the very impressive Mediterranean Gull, the Common Terns and Little Terns have had a rough few years.  This year it was therefore decided to create a raft to put out on the Oyster Beds, one of the main sites off the west side of Hayling island.

DSC_0074DSC_0080In my mind this was a relatively easy task, tying some barrels on and covering with shingle. In my mind it wasn’t going to be a big raft. Turns out I was mistaken. The four metre square (!!!!) raft arrived in four pieces with 24 barrels to be lashed on and bolted together and shingled. It took a long day but our Thursday team worked extremely hard to get this done, well into extra time. I know Wez (Langstone Reserve Officer for the RSPB) was very grateful for their help.

Eventually it was floated and rowed out to its designated spot just off one of the islands. It was then covered with a tarpaulin to deter the gulls, who nest earlier than the terns. It would then be unveiled at the crucial time to allow the terns on.

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Next we headed out to Baker’s Island, just off the eastern side of Farlington. This is one of the main Little Tern breeding areas and consists of a small spit of shingle, surrounded by salt marsh. The shingle had been put there a few years ago and the northern tip is finer grained, the southern consisting of larger pebbles. We had to firstly weed the entire area, removing any vegetation that would deter the terns from using the site. We then spread out the finer sand to occupy as wide an area as possible. The larger shingle is unsuitable for the terns, therefore small dinner plate sized patches were added to provide suitable opportunities. The old electric fencing was removed and it shall be restrung soon. This is to prevent foxes from decimating the colony which it could do over night. Encouragingly we saw two Little Terns whilst out there so they’re starting to arrive. Little decoys were put out to encourage terns to use the site as it already looks like their mates are there.

DSC_0142DSC_0145DSC_0148I learned a lot this week about the management of seabird colonies and what is involved in their upkeep and success. I also learned a lot about tern ecology which I am very grateful to Wez for. Hopefully with potential on many of our sites for establishing sea bird colonies, I can use this in the future. I know the RSPB were very grateful for the efforts of the Wildlife Trust volunteers for getting this work done, they really did do a sterling effort over some very tough days.

Whilst writing this I got an email off Wez with this link:

After a matter of minutes of removing the tarp from the raft there were Common Terns landing on the raft and showing signs of settling down. A great result.

A little bit on grassland management

DSC_0846If you have been to either Farlington Marshes or Southmoor nature reserves you will have noticed that last month our furry lawnmowers appeared. Cattle are now used extensively in conservation to graze sites to achieve the specific goals that are needed. In most cases this is to maintain grassland/heathland in a perpetual state of suspended animation.

This is essentially what most conservation management is. You halt succession at a designated point that achieves certain goals for that site. This may be a flower rich grassland, grazing to stop woodland from establishing. It may be even earlier in the successional history, maintaining lichen rich heaths, early pioneering stages of habitats. It could also be for specific species, mixed height heathland for nightjars and woodlark for instance.

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The ins and outs and rights and wrongs of this type of management and the persuasion towards a more ‘natural’ management scenario is a topic for another post. This one really is for looking at how we graze our sites and why we do it.

From Spring until late Autumn, Farlington Marshes and Southmoor are grazed. The numbers are built up steadily until a peak in June/July when there can be as many as 200 on the main marsh. The overall aim is to get the grass nice and short for winter when the brent geese arrive and need somewhere to graze. Their short bills are perfect for tearing at grass up to 5cm. That’s why you see them on sports pitches so much.

You can’t however just shove 200 cattle on at the end for a few months, there are other aspects to look at, mainly our breeding birds. Lapwing, redshank, meadow pipit and skylark all use the main marsh areas to breed in. They need to have a mixture of short and long grass to feed and nest in. Too long and the young chicks won’t be able to find food easily. Too short and the nests will be easily found by predators. This means that a low number of cattle through their breeding season should provide a mosaic of sward heights, (or if you want to be fancy, structural heterogeneity).

If you overstock it, you run the risk of the nests being trampled. A rather good study looking at skylarks found that a density one cow every 3 ha has minimal effects on breeding success. This needs to be balanced out with the weather conditions. If you get a really hot spring with frequent rain, the grass will shoot up and you will need some more cattle to obtain the correct height and vice versa for a cold, dry one.

In a way Farlington is more like farming than many of my other sites. The overall picture is more about grassland structure rather than floral diversity, though the grazing method produces some excellent diversity on top of it being quite an interesting grassland anyway (coastal grazing marsh and transitional salt marsh). Other sites such as Swanwick Lakes and Hookheath nature reserves are grazed very differently. Cattle come on in July for a few months, leaving around October. This has a much better effect on plants as they have mostly gone to seed by this point and then you are removing the main bulk of the vegetation slowly. This benefits invertebrates by not being as sudden as cutting by machine. It also means that there are more flowering plants throughout the summer for invertebrates to take advantage of, hence why both of these sites are so good for butterflies.

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Grazing isn’t the be all and end all though. Last year for instance I supplementary cut two meadows at Swanwick as I felt that the cattle had not eaten enough and over the years a thatch had developed. This is a layer of tougher grasses that stop other plants from growing up. I therefore had it cut and the cuttings removed. This will hopefully allow more flowering plants, especially annuals, to grow this year. Hopefully the effect of the cutting will not have detrimentally affected the invertebrate population. You do however need to balance out the effect of cutting with the benefit of having more flowering plants, as the more of these you have the more inverts you will ultimately support.

So you’ve looked at your site, thought about what you want from it, decided on the stocking density (the number of cows you need to do the job) and the length of time and time of year. Great, shove them on and let them do their stuff. It doesn’t however stop here. You get plants in all swards that become dominant and these tend to be the ones that are unpalatable or super tough. Creeping Thistle is a big problem at Farlington and has a hold on a big section of the main marsh. This has to managed separately to the grazing by cutting it with machinery before it sets seed, preferably a couple of times. Hookheath has a lot of hemlock water dropwort which is a bit of a brute on wet pasture. This is managed in the same way, cut back after the cattle have done their bit.

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So, grassland management is a complicated beast as no grassland is the same, all have different facets to the sites that cause things to grow differently and a slight stray from the optimum management can have long lasting negative effects. If you churn up the ground in winter, for instance, you can ruin the soil structure which affects the sward for years to come. Managing the cows themselves can be an absolute nightmare – they escape, get ill, get stuck, give birth when you least expect it. That all said Hampshire has some amazing, hugely rich and diverse grassland sites, with colleagues at the Wildlife Trust doing excellent work on many of these (Winchester area and South Downs have some incredible grassland). So as we go into summer, get out there and take a look.

A big thank you has to go out to all our volunteer wardens and lookers, across the whole Trust who keep an eye on our cattle whilst we have them. We couldn’t do it without them.

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 are very few and Farlington Marshes nature reserve represents an important site in the area. A bad year here has significant effects on numbers in the area.