Sightings for week ending 18/03/18

The ‘Beast from the East’ is due one last throw this weekend so may make getting out and about difficult / unpleasant but today has been glorious. I spent the morning down at Farlington where I was treated to the spoonbill on the central scrape. Best viewed from the eastern sea wall near the old pill box, there should also be a large collection of shelduck, pintail and widgeon hanging around in the same area. There is currently a large pre-breeding daytime roost there of black headed gulls and med gulls. They often spend the morning washing on the stream and then move over to the scrape.

The garganey is still loitering around but is proving tricky to find. it seems to like lurking in the long grass.

The lapwing are starting to display across the main marsh and the redshank are becoming more vocal. Still lots of brents around and there was well over 50 curlew across the marsh this morning.

 

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Garganey – Alan Dunk

Elsewhere the intermittent sunshine has brought some butterflies out. I saw my first Brimstone on Tuesday. The woodland birds are singing well. There is a beautiful male Bullfinch singing in the car park at Swanwick every time I go down as well as goldcrest and firecrest.

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Winter Survey at Farlington

Over the winter the volunteer team down at Farlington Marshes have been helping me do some survey work to look in a little bit more detail what the birds have been doing. The aim is to build up a detailed knowledge of how waders and wildfowl use the site. this will be a reflection on the condition of the site and will help us tweak management to maximize the effectiveness of the site.

I thought it may be interesting for you  to see what we do in regards of monitoring our sites and influencing management.

So, from November until the end of March the volunteers wandered around the sea wall and recorded where the birds were at what time on a map. They also recorded where the birds came in from / went out to if they were disturbed or just natural movements. This not only built up a picture of how many birds were using the site but also how they used the site in terms of time of day, stage of tide or preferred feeding/roosting areas.

There is quite a lot to analyse but I have started to look at the brent geese as these are one of the primary users of the site and a target species. It has turned up some interesting results, not unexpected but nicely explains some of the basic movements that are happening on site

Over the study period there was an increase in the mean number of birds using the site (see graph). This follows an expected change in winter feeding behavior as the primary food source in the harbour, eelgrass (Zoostera spp) reduces through either overgrazing or natural seasonal decline. There is a steady increase of site usage, peaking in February where the site has a mean number of 1582.86 birds. Historically the number of birds is much higher than this, potentially 4000. 2017/2018 however has been a year with significantly less juveniles in the area following the natural trend associated with breeding success.

The site was used more during high tide than low tide which suggests that the geese were feeding in the harbour. Given the higher mean temperature this winter, this would be expected as the eelgrass stayed in better condition later into the winter.

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Graph showing the total  mean number of Brent geese on the site per month as well as the mean at low tide and high tide

 

Maps 1-3 show the key areas during all three months of the survey. The northern point, as well as the lake and key areas around the deeps remain important at each stage through the winter. The lake was used solely as a roosting and bathing area and did not see the high numbers that other areas did. Areas around the deeps were important for grazing but the deeps itself forms the same function as the lake.

From January onwards the southern end of the marsh forms the most important area for the geese, with the highest numbers recorded and the most frequent area where birds were recorded.

This southern end saw significantly less Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense) during summer 2017 so underwent less intensive management and so the sward is likely in much better condition, with significantly more grasses and herbaceous plants.

This can also be said for the northern point and areas around the deeps which had less thistle on over summer and subsequently had to be mown less.

In contrast the North West area in January saw high numbers but only for a shorter amount of time. This area had significant areas of dense creeping thistle in the summer and therefore the sward had to be intensively managed and probably had less suitable grasses for long term grazing.

It does show however that the management did produce suitable grazing for the winter period and prolonged management should produce a more robust sward for the future.

 

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Map 1 – key areas in December

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Map 2 – key areas in January

 

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Map 3 – Key areas in February

Recent Sightings week ending 11th March

I haven’t been out on the reserves much recently, well not when I’m not at the business end of a chainsaw. So my eye has been off the ball with regards to what has been  about. With the weekend approaching with some fairly shabby weather coming in, there still may be some opportunities for sun and wildlife. So here is what I know…

Farlington.

A male Garganey is the main attraction ath the moment. He was sat on the stream just down from the building today. Not an uncommon visitor, we had two in the autumn, but it will not hang around long i suspect so worth a look. A very nice little bird.

Ther is plenty about down there at the moment, the shoulder seasons always producing some good stuff. We are in the ‘ anything can happen’ part of the year with winter birds and migrants starting to come through. Short eared Owls, Merlins and Marsh Harrier have all been seen on site recently making up a n ice bird of prey list with the usual Kestrel, Buzzards and Peregrines. 

Lots of waders still around. Casting an eye over the main marsh will pick up large numbers of Curlew and Lapwing. The latter of these are starting to display as well as Redshank which I heard calling away today. We did a Snipe count today in the Hay field, turning up 11 birds with 3 Jack Snipe, lower numbers than we expected (can be 50+ there). These can be regularly seen from the viewpoint , sitting on the area of cut reed around the lake.

We’ve been getting quite large numbers of Ringed Plover roosting on the Deeps at very high tides which is nice. The Deeps also sees a lot of Shelduck, Pintail and Wigeon as well as good numbers of Shoveler and Teal.

All in all, wildfowl numbers have been good this year compared to wader numbers which have been low. A reflection of the weather I think.

Swanwick/ Hookheath

The usual array of woodland birds with Redwing around still in large numbers.

St Clair’s

It seems quite hard not to go to this site and not see a Kingfisher. It will often be seen zooming a long the top end of the river near the bridge. There is regularly a Barn Owl and Grey Wagtails floating around as well.

The Big Hedge Laying Extravaganza

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A nicely laid hedge

28th of February marks the end of the winter season for the reserve team and all the scrub bashing, tree felling and other such activities stop as we transition swiftly into fencing, survey work and other Spring time delights.

It has been an exceptionally busy winter for us over the 2017/2018 period and we have achieved a great deal. So busy that I have barely blogged! I have to say that I am quite proud of what we have achieved this winter and even more proud of the volunteer teams as they have really persevered through some very ambitious tasks.

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The Blackthorn tunnel before laying 

 

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Nice and open after laying

 

One such task was the epic hedge laying that we undertook at Southmoor. Prior to the realignment that is due to take place down there over this year I wanted to start the process of taming the hedge that had turned into more of a blackthorn thicket, with the aim of eventually having two parallel, low hedges. This will thicken up and create better nesting habitat whilst opening up the site for waders and wildfowl which do not like to be closed in. This will be important in the future down there. It will also have the added benefit that it will give better views of the new habitat that will be created by the realignment but also break up the outline of people and dogs, creating less disturbance

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An unexpected end, the last say of work saw some snow!

This was no small task. It took about two months of one, sometimes two tasks per week and dealing with entwined blackthorn which liked to spring back in your face a lot. All in all we did about 150 – 200  metres, stripping it right back and then going through and thinning it out, lastly laying it. It has massively opened up the footpath which had turned into a tunnel where the two hedges were meeting in the middle. It should have the added bonus of drying the path out which usually remains wet all year.

Our other big task has been at St Clair’s and again involves a hedge. We are due to re-fence the site this Spring to get it into a suitable condition to graze. The original fence line needed to have the vegetation growing through it removed. I was supposed to get a contractor in to do this but the weather didn’t allow this and the boggy nature of the site compounded things. It was therefore up to the volunteer teams to crack on. Another task that has taken several weeks, we managed to clear about 400 metres of hedgeline, no mean feat!

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Busy sorting the hedge at St Clair’s

Beardies

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photo – David Phillips

I was sent some lovely photos of one of Farlingtons most iconic birds the other day and it prompted me to do a quick bit on them as they really are very special.

 

Bearded Tits are a reed bed specialist and as such a pain to view. I would say though that Farlington has to be one of the best places in the area to see them, especially at this time of year. On a sunny day with little wind they will venture on to the top of the reed to feed upon the seed heads. There is a growing population down there and a lucky encounter from the viewpoint on the western sea wall can mean anywhere from 15 to 30 can be seen.

But what makes them so special and such specialists? Interestingly they are not tits at all, like blue tits or great tits. In fact they aren’t even called bearded tits. Panuris biamicus in latin has been the only constant name. Bearded reedling originally it has now been lumped in with the parrotbills as the bearded parrotbill and hence not really related to any other bird species in the UK.

It is a beautiful and illusive bird. They are communal, especially in the winter when they form a large flock or several smaller ones. In the summer they breed in loose colonies, building nests in the dead layers of reed near the base of the stems. They’re preference for this lower nest sites leaves them very vulnerable to fluctuations in water levels.

Like many farmland birds they swap their diets according to the availability dictated by the seasons. In summer when they are feeding  young, they pluck invertebrates from the stems of the reeds and surrounding vegetation. They are particularly fond of spiders according to one study. During winter when bugs are less prevalent, they turn to the main staple of the reed bed, the seed.  During this time they are very fond of consuming grit which they need to help grind the seed up.

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photo – David Phillips

The birds themselves are sexually dimorphic meaning that the males look different to the females. Males are obvious with their striking blue head and black moustachial stripes. Females and juveniles are much duller but still a beautiful chestnut brown.

They are a very niche species, only occurring in reed beds but not in all reed beds. There are a number of factors that must be there for them to colonise. Water stability is a key factor. I worked previously on a reed bed much larger than Farlingtons but there were no bearded tits. This was in part because the water constantly swung widely from flood to drought all through the year. This not only makes nesting incredibly difficult but also washes away the invertebrate communities upon which they depend on in the summer. Another important factor is seed quality. Some reed beds are mostly formed from clonal reeds, meaning that they do not breed and hence create little or poor quality seed. The seed heads at Farlington seem to be bursting with seed and so favoured by the bearded tits.

We do some management of the reed bed but not huge amounts. I plan to start cutting areas  next winter. This maintains the quality of the reed and the health of the reed bed, which would dry out over time due to the accumulation of dead reed. there is also evidence to suggest that newly cut areas are favoured by many bird species, including beardies as the new growth attracts more invertebrates. Certainly you get a higher number of reed warblers nesting as they like to nest near the edge of reed beds and cutting areas increases that reed edge.

Wood Pasture, What its all About?

Wood Pasture is a particularly interesting habitat type. It is one of my favorites and one that we deal with a little bit in the Solent reserves so I thought that I would write a little bit about it.

What is it?

Well, the font of all knowledge (Wikipedia) describes it as:

Wood pasture is a historical European land management system in which open woodland provided shelter and forage for grazing animals, particularly sheep and cattle, as well as woodland products such as timber for construction and fuel, coppiced stems for wattle and charcoal making and pollarded poles.’

My Higher Level Stewardship document ( the grant system that governs most of what we do in the Trust) suggests that tree cover should be between 50 and 75 trees per hectare with areas of meadow interspersed.

So you can see, wood pasture is both an historic habitat type and somewhere in between a woodland and a meadow. It is an open habitat, with either meadows or heath, interspersed with trees, widely spaced but with patches of thickets, denser trees and scrub.

It is considered a man made habitat and for much of medieval times, the predominant woodland type in northern Europe. In the UK, people were free to graze their livestock in these areas, harvest fuel and fodder from the trees. Indeed, within the Solent area there was the Forest of Bere, much retracted in size nowadays but once stretching across a large swathe of the county.

The confines of wood pasture to a purely man made habitat has been questioned in recent years. Franz Vera published an in depth critique of much of the works in the 20th century on forest ecology and came to the conclusion that looking at pollen records and the composition of trees within Europe, the likelihood was that large herbivores kept a continual mosaic of open habitat, comparable to wood pasture that we have today. Otherwise shade loving trees such as lime and beech would have taken over much of the landscape. Pollen records however show Oak, Hazel, Birch to be present in large quantities.

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Wood pasture in the New Forest

I confess that I am a follower of this theory, though much has been published since to challenge it. However, when I walk through wood pasture it feels primeval. It feels like its right, with such a broad mix of habitats, meadow, heath, scrub, veteran woodland, secondary woodland, it has to provide habitat for such a range of a species, that it could almost be seen as the optimal habitat type. That isn’t to say that this would have dominated. Vera suggests thickets punctuated the landscape and these ‘thickets’ could be hundreds of kilometers in size.

Why is it so important?

Well, from purely a landscape view, it is quite rare nowadays. We are lucky in Hampshire as we have places like the New Forest where grazing animals still roam free (though arguably in too great numbers but that is a different discussion). A lot of the country however has very little.

From a species point of view it supports a great deal. There are huge numbers of invertebrates and fungi associated and also many specific bird species such as lesser spotted woodpecker. Early stage wood pasture with scrub and woodland offers great conditions for nightingales and warbler species.

All in all it’s rather good.

What are we doing for wood pasture?

Swanwick is our main area of wood pasture restoration. It has gone through many changes in history, farming and quarrying being the most recent but historically it was part of the previously mentioned Forest of Bere. With that in mind it was decided to revert some of the site and this is why there has been so much thinning occurring in the north east meadow. It is looking good too. Over the past few years the meadow has established and the wooded areas are steadily opening up and you can see the trees reacting to the light, sending out new branches and morphing from their lollipop image to a much broader canopy.

As the years have progressed the woodland has become thinner but it still needs a bit more work, to give it that open feel. It does however not need to be even. This means that trees need to be irregularly spaced, with clumps of thicker cover and areas more open and some areas of dense scrub. This is what we are starting to do now. We will be putting up some areas of deer fencing so as to allow some scrub to develop without being chomped to death by deer.

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Image of wood pasture structure, note openness between trees but also spacial differences where some trees form thickets and presence of scrub (dark shading).

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It has been important to start thinking of the future of the wood pasture on site, not just adapting it to work in the present. That is why we have been experimenting with pollarding some of the oaks. Pollarding is the same as coppicing just done higher up out of the way of browsing animals. Here you can see an oak tree that I have cut at chest height and how it has reacted, throwing out regrowth. This will form the characteristic pollard shape, a round crown emanating from a high central point. Veteran pollards provide more niches than many trees that are left in their maiden state as they tend to develop more features characteristic of veteran trees such as rot and dead wood. You have to be very careful doing this as it may shock the tree and kill it. Older trees need to be pollarded steadily over many years whereas younger trees such as this one can survive and indeed flourish with pollarding, given ample light and good ground conditions.

 

 

 

 

A Busy Winter

Well, it’s been a while again since I have posted. It has been a busy season so far, winter being the time where we can get most of our work done. You can see this as there has been no posts since October, when we are allowed to start works.

The Work

Since then we have been very busy with mainly thinning works and scrub management, the usual. We started in Hookheath where we did some coppicing of some old hazel stools and opened up the a couple glades, extending the meadow system within the woodland. We also delved into the very wet alder car where we did some strategic thinning to encourage some age structure and ground flora back.

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Thinning in the soggy alder carr

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The team at Swanwick over Christmas, busy burning brash from the thinning

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A wood mouse investigating what we were doing at Farlington

After that we have been working at Farlington, reducing some of the heights of hedgerows and removing scrub from the main marsh so as to open up sight lines and make the wildfowl feel more comfortable. We are now north of the road, reducing the bramble cover to a reasonable level. It has taken over and reduced what was a hot spot on the reserve for butterflies to a dark tunnel.

 

 

 

 

 

We have also been busy at Swanwick, thinning areas of the woodland, especially on north east meadow as we transition it into wood pasture, opening it up and enjoying all the benefits of meadow and woodland combined.

We aim to do a bit more now, especially behind the lakes so as to encourage some scrub regrowth and ground flora.The pics below show the gaps we have been creating in the canopy.

We finally managed to get some signage sorted for the building at Farlington and after a long absence I am pleased with the results. It has bought a bit of colour to the inside which was starting to look a little dated. We have also replaced the old stone bench with a more comfortable wooden one.

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Fancy new signage

As we move into the final stretch we are going to be busy down at Southmoor, working on the central hedge. It isn’t really a hedge any more, it is a thick tunnel of blackthorn. My aim is to reduce the height and width and lay it steadily over the next few years. This should open the two fields up, but retain the nesting habitat for the smaller bird species such as robin. It will also break up the outline of people and dogs, making the waders that use the site more comfortable.

The Wildlife

Farlington has been unusual again this winter. We started off with hoards of waders on migration, filling the lake but this has died off now and the usual black tailed godwits, dunlin and redshank aren’t using the lake to roost in any large numbers. We did do some work there at the start of the winter which may have put them off, so hopefully they will return. Overall in the harbour, wader numbers have been low. Some species seem to be doing okay though. Lapwing and curlew are on the main marsh in their hundreds.

I had a wander around on Friday and watched everthing fly off as a peregrine and then a marsh harrier fly around. The latter bobbed over to the island and scared several thousand Dunlin up. There is a flock of barnacle geese present regulalrly. They can get over a hundred but are more regularly around 40 individuals. We don’t know if they are a feral popualtion or a migratory one that has moved south. They tend to be a much more noirtherly species.

The island off the south of the site seems to be a favoured wader roost at the moment. It seems to attract bar -tailed godwits regularly as well as large numbers of dunlin, shelduck, brent geese and curlew. Last there was reports of both  black brant and pale bellied brent  on the reserve.

If you venture north of the road and go into the aerial field, there is a scrape on the eastern edge. This is almost always inhabited by a green sandpiper.

Southmoor has been particularly good this year, with the usual large contingent of waders and wildfowl along the foreshore on a low tide. At high tide it has been very good for black knecked grebe, great crested grebe, red breasted merganser and great northern diver.

Swanwick has the usual woodland bird population and is probably the best place I know to see marsh tit. Bullfinch, nuthatch and siskin are all regular visitors as well as plenty of redwing.