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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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.

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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!

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.

Ringing in the Reedbeds

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An exquisite male Bearded Tit

On Sunday we started ringing in the reedbeds at  Farlington Marshes nature reserve. The aim is to concentrate on the bearded tits to try and get an idea as to how the population is faring. 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 Farlington’s 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, Cetti’s 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

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, Cetti’s 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.

An old goose

429a3052We have been undertaking a large survey project this winter, looking at movements of Brent Geese and waders around the Solent. This will hopefully help towards guiding development in the future as we hope to highlight which areas are most important for the birds. This may be a large reserve like Farlington or a playing field such the Polo Field in Gosport or the college playing fields in Portsmouth.

What is key is to work out what fields are important and how they move around these, not only throughout the day as part of their natural cycle but also when they are flushed by some sort of disturbance event, such as a dog walker, jogger etc. Do they just move a small distance and return or do they move site completely, potentially highlighting a suit of sites in one area that are important if they are moved on by human activity.

With that in mind, we have been looking at a lot of geese! Several thousand throughout the Solent area but one in particular has been noticed a couple of times. This is G4 a colour ringed brent goose that was spotted on the 13th of Feburary in Portsmouth. This was ringed in 1999 in Farlington as a Juvenile. It was then recorded around the harbour, mainly off Portsea Island all winter. It then disappeared until September 2000 when it showed up at Farlington again. It followed the same pattern as the year before and then on 30th March it was recorded at Leyhoern Nature Reserve on the North Coast of Germany.

It was then recorded almost every year in the Netherlands in late April or early May and then it was then picked up in Portsmouth again in 2011 and 2012 during early winter and then Germany in 2014 and 2015 in early April.

This shows the clear staging areas that this goose was using along the coast of the Netherlands and the north coast of Saxony. It spent many of its winters (probably all of them) in the Langstone harbour area and then around April it popped over the sea and spent a month or so in Netherlands and Germany before carrying on up north.

The early data is much more complete, with more recorders around then. This allowed a good idea of what was happening around the harbour for this goose and this is reflective of at least its family group if not a wider sub population as the geese are creatures of habit and tend to do the same thing each day, each year.

We have started to see patterns through the survey work that we have undertaken this year. For instance the Gosport geese follow a circuit around the amenity pitches throughout the day before flying out to Portsmouth harbour to roost. The geese off of the west side of Hayling move out to the RSPB islands at high tide before moving onto Farlington and then on to the playing field behind and then reverse to roost in the lakes on the reserve or on the islands.429a2881

It’s really important that we know what these birds are doing and the colour ringing scheme has provided some excellent data. Not only do we know that that goose is 18 years old (oldest record is 28) but we know roughly where it goes whilst its in our area and then where its staging grounds are on the way back north. There are a number of different colour ringing schemes across the area on a wide species of birds such as Black Tailed Godwits. The bird pictured above was recorded moving around the Solent area one year,showing a range of sites used. It was then recorded in late Spring in Iceland. The next winter it was back in the Solent area before heading to the west country. Really interesting stuff.

 

Seals

csc_0011I’m often talking to the public about the on-goings of wildlife in the harbour and almost always it’s dominated by birds because, as i’m sure many of you are aware, we have a fair few birds around.

What surprises me though is the lack of knowledge that we have on, in my opinion, one of the most charismatic and graceful creatures living within our waters. The Common Seal. Also known as Harbour Seals, they are found around the coast of the UK. They are fairly infrequent along the south coast, especially in  a busy strip such as the Solent but they have, against all the odds, set up home in Langstone and Chichester. I don’t know if they have always been there in low numbers or have recolonized at some point in the recent past.

They are in low numbers, I believe 43 was the last count over the two harbours. That doesn’t sound low but then when compared to high density areas such as Scotland and Cornwall, this is pretty a small number. In fact the vast majority of the seals in the UK, which make up a large proportion of the global population, live in Scotland. This, you assume, is due to the lack of people in Scotland  and the endless uninhabited beaches and islands. The waters up there are also very rich in fish. Compare them to the Solent and you are justified in your surprise that they persist here.

Langstone and Chichester Harbour however are very different to Scotland with more activity such as boats, ships, canoes, water skiers and a very high population and development rate. It does, at low tide, offer numerous safe haul outs for the seals. Unlike Grey Seals which favour rocky secluded shoreline, Harbour Seals prefer sandy/muddy flat areas where they can beach themselves at low tide and float off when it rises. This the harbour has in abundance.

The Wildlife Trust initiated a joint project a few years ago to look at the population in the harbour.  Some very interesting stuff was discovered, especially with the radio tracked individuals. These showed just how mobile they are, ranging long distances to feed but returning to the same haul outs.

Farlington is a reliable spot to see them. On a nice day you can sit at the point with a scope and at low tide, if you scan the mudflats and sand bars you’re likely to come across one or two. I also regularly see them swimming around the islands off to the east.

All in all, we’re very lucky to have them. Common seals are decreasing, despite their name and it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for them.

 

A code of conduct can be seen here

http://www.langstoneharbour.org.uk/images/upload/files/about-publications-files_pdf_2098.pdf