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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Sightings for week ending 14/05/2017

It’s been a pretty mixed week, with the start nice and sunny and the end, some well-deserved rain and we still have migrants coming in! The swifts have started to turn up and there are generally more hirundines across all the sites. Swanwick Lakes had a big flock of house martins over it the other night whilst I was stomping around doing and evening survey.

The seals have been quite obvious recently. If you take a scope to the southern end of Farlington Marshes and look across the mud flats at low tide, there is almost always several, hauled out along the creek that runs near to the aggregates port. Whilst sitting having lunch at Southmoor yesterday, one popped its head up just off the shore. Always exciting seeing a seal. Love them!

For me, the stars of the show this week have been the grey plover on the main lake at Farlington. They are in their breeding plumage and are absolutely stunning. The little terns have also been making themselves known. At high tide they come really close to the sea wall, fishing right on the edge,. Perfect opportunity for some shots of terns disappearing into the water.

The usual around otherwise. A marsh harrier has been spotted a lot, the short eared owl is still around, surprisingly, and the yellow wagtails are regularly in among the cattle on the main marsh. In the bushes there are lesser whitethroat around.

There was a cuckoo calling at Swanwick on Monday, the only one across all my sites this year (that I have heard anyway). There has also been a garden warbler singing away and a firecrest. These are both good records for the site, with potentially breeding firecrest a new record.

We’ve had a couple of rough weeks for butterflies. We have struggled to get our survey work done as it’s actually been quite chilly during the days. Wednesday wasn’t too bad though with highlights at Swanwick and Hookheath being, green hairstreak, holly blue and small copper. There was also a hairy dragonfly and beautiful demoiselle recorded.

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.

Sightings week ending – Easter!

gv whiteNice to have a long weekend, it means that I can actually get out birding and hopefully do a bit of ringing!

It’s been another glorious week and you have to wonder when the run of good weather will break, though as I write this clouds are amassing over my house. Maybe a bit of bad weather would be good though, as the migrants seem to be flying straight through. A low cloud base for a few days and we might see a fall.

There have been some migrants around. A cracking male Wheatear has been along the south edge of the marsh at Farlington. There has also been a Redstart in the bushes, plenty of Whimbrel in the harbour and I saw my first Little Tern on Thursday. There are also Reed Warbler, Sedges and Blackcaps all over the site. The resident Cettis are very noisy and the Linnets are singing really well all the way around the point field. There was a Marsh Harrier on Thursday for half an hour or so.

There are still two Avocets on the deeps which is looking very promising but I don’t want to jinx it.

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Hook heath Meadows is currently glorious, full of Ramsoms, Bluebells, Wood Anemone, Red Campion and a number of other really nice woodland plants. There was also a Mandarin hanging around a suitable looking nesting hole. Not a native but an impressive looking fowl and I certainly have nothing against it if he fancies making a nest in an old willow. The butterflies are also building. I had a lovely Green Veined White on Tuesday.

Fingers crossed it’ll be a good Easter weekend for all the sites and hopefully everybody can get out and enjoy nature. Unfortunately there is a lot of antisocial behaviour going on at the moment. Some of our northern reserves have been hit really badly by arson. We’ve suffered down south but, thankfully, not quite as dramatically. Poaching, BBQ’s in areas where birds are nesting, people walking through the middle of the marsh and kids throwing rocks at birds are just a few things that will be taking their toll on our breeding birds. I am very sure that those of you who read this blog regularly are people who conscientiously enjoy nature but please feel free to report incidents to us as the more of the picture that we can build, the better we can deal with it.

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