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.

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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.

Sightings for week ending 05/03/2017

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It’s been a mixed week weather wise and I think that this will carry on into the weekend with Saturday looking good but Sunday turning grim. So if you are getting out, Saturday would be the best bet.

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I have managed to spend a lot of time down at Farlington this week which has been lovely. Thursday was a fantastic day where we worked in the reedbed and I am glad to say that we were absolutely surrounded by Bearded Tits. I waded into the reed to look for a ditch and four were sat in a tall stand. They were pinging around us all day. Unfortunately this does not help you if you wish to see them as my best views have been whilst standing deep within the reed. I have seen them regularly near the feeder by the building and I have tried to keep it stocked with grit. I have also put millet in and the Reed Buntings are often present.They have started singing as well, I had a lovely view of a pair today.

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With some reasonable spring tides the marsh has been alive with birds. Well over a thousand Brent Geese were in the deeps on Tuesday and today they moved onto the top of the north marsh. Wigeon, Lapwing, Teal, Shelduck and Pintail are still in high numbers and today there were a good number of Grey Plover and Dunlin on the deeps.

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I sat at the lake after checking the sluice today and I was graced with a fly past from the Short Eared Owl and then the Peregrine put everything up. Later in the afternoon a Barn Owl floated up and down the eastern sea wall before heading into the bushes. This combined with a Buzzard and a feeding Kestrel made for a good day for predatory birds.

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There was a Kingfisher reported by the deeps today and I saw one at Southmoor this morning, hovering above the inter-tidal area.

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All in all there are still plenty of waders and wildfowl in Farlington but they’ll soon be going so it’s worth getting down for a last look.

Sad day for a Southmoor Bottlenose

Bottlenose Dolphin - The Boay has been tied around its tail to find the body if it were to float off the beach.

Bottlenose Dolphin on the shore of Southmoor

Yesterday I heard that a Bottlenose Dolphin had unfortunately beached on the foreshore of Southmoor at the north end of Langstone harbour. The male Dolphin, measuring 2.7m in length, was first found on Wednesday and has later been removed by the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme to carry out an autopsy to try to understand the death of this impressive creature.

Bottlenose dolphins can be up to 3.9 meters in length and up to 650kg in weight. They are infrequently seen around the Solent which makes this sighting particularly unusual.

Even if this incident has nothing to do with mans intervention with the sea it has made me particularly mindful for further protection in our seas. Marine Conservation Zones are one step closer to helping protect wonderful animals like the Bottlenose Dolphin. Unfortunately of the 127 zones proposed only 27 were designated – none of which were in Hampshire.  For more information on MCZ’s please check out – http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/mcz

Many thanks to Paul, our Southmoor cattle looker,  for passing on the details and taking these photos.

Too Hot Even for Butterflies

Another very hot day,  Rob and the Farlington volunteers were working over at Southmoor removing ragwort and spear thistle, I had intended to be with them but got called away to try to find the cattle at Swanwick which had been reported missing. in fact they were there, just being lethargic and hiding in the best shade they could find, as I said in yesterday’s post counting, or indeed even finding, cattle can be harder than you might imagine!

I did make it over to Southmoor for a couple of hours and progress son removing the ragwort was very good and the main field is now more or less free of it. The change in this field since the Wildlife Trust took on the management is extraordinary, it started as a long grass field with a dense thatch of dead grass and huge areas of dense creeping thistle and stands of ragwort. It now looks like a grazed permanent grassland, still with  along way to go, but on the way to being a real asset as a bit of shore side grassland habitat. The grass was alive with butterflies again, in fact it got so hot that many of them left the grass to rest in the shade of the hedges, I found this marbled white doing just that on the path along the northern side of the reserve.

marbled white

marbled white

I had to go over to Farlington to check on the cattle and do the butterfly transects. It was very pleasing to find 4 small tortoiseshell on the transects, they have been almost rare for several years, a remarkable change from their status as one of the most familiar of all butterflies in my youth. I also saw a good few small skipper and my first Essex skipper of the year. The biggest change over the last week has been the large-scale emergence of gatekeeper, in fact I probably missed quiet a lot of them as many were hiding from the heat on the shady side of bushes, one traveller’s joy covered bush had at least eight perched on it, all with wings closed.

gatekeeper on traveller's joy

gatekeeper on traveller’s joy

On the north-east wall I found a stem of cuckoo pint full of berries, they will turn red as they ripen.

cuckoo pint berries

cuckoo pint berries

I am pleased to say I also found all the cattle, although those on Main Marsh did need the use of the telescope.

I will end with a few pictures from Hookheath yesterday that I was unable to post. This pair of small skipper had been on  along chasing flight before landing and sitting still as though trying to decide if their relationship was going anywhere.

small skipper pair

small skipper pair

The answer, by the way, seemed to be nowhere as the female flew off strongly leaving the male alone. As well as the butterflies  here were a good few six-spot burnet moth on the wing.

six-spot burnet

six-spot burnet

One of the reasons it is such a good place for insects in the large amount of flowers everywhere. There are large stands of hogweed, knapweed, bird’s foot trefoil and lots of others including some spikes of betony.

betony

betony

Come into my Parlour…

It has been quite a hectic few days and I have not had a chance to post. Summer has arrived and we have been working in weather that has been verging on being too good. On Monday the Beechcroft team were path clearing at Southmoor, we hope to lay the hedge here next winter which will hopefully reduce the problems with it closing down the path width and make the whole length much better for wildlife as well.

path clearing at Southmoor

path clearing at Southmoor

The hotter weather has also resulted in a surge in the numbers of insects around. There are now good numbers of meadow brown and small heath flying over the grasslands and summer brood small tortoiseshell and comma seem to be doing well too. Small tortoiseshell have been in very short supply in recent years so seeing good number of them is especially pleasing. More insects has been good for the spiders too and I have got several shots of them cashing in on the abundance over recent days. First a zebra spider on the outside wall of the Building at Farlington.

zebra spider with fly

zebra spider with fly

Then a larger spider on a wild carrot flower head near the Lake at Farlington.

Tibellus oblongus

Tibellus oblongus

Lastly a small spider inside the Buidling at Farlington that was taking on a horsefly.

spider with horsefly

spider with horsefly

The hot weather is not good news for all though. Yesterday I went to the sluice at the Lake to clear any debris at the grill and found it partly blocked with dead flounders. They all looked fine and only larger fish were involved. The spring tides at present mean the Lake level gets very low at  low water and the water heats up resulting in severe oxygen deficit, the fish may well have tried to get out through the sluice but were too large to exit and so died in the deepest water still available to them. I have seen this before in hot dry spells and I think only eels can successfully survive int he Lake in all conditions.

dead flounders

dead flounders

The low Lake levels are allowing the wader roost to build and a sign of approaching autumn is the number of redshank and now greenshank that are gathering. I saw three greenshank but fourteen were reported yesterday. I was pleased to see a half-grown redshank chick on the south side of the Lake though, it is often very difficult to assess their breeding success but this seems to have been quite a good year for them.

 

 

 

 

 

Families in the Field

Two days in one, although most fo the sightings refer to yesterday as I was only on site briefly today.

I started out at Southmoor on Thursday, where the path in from Southmoor Lane needed a cut back, this hedge was planted about seven years ago and has grown pretty well, although it now needs thinning and laying if it is to continue as a useful hedge rather than becoming a line of leggy trees. The downside of this job is that the path is used by lots of dog owners as a dog toilet, making progress along it a smell and generally unpleasant experience. I did see my first pheasant of the year though so. The field to the south of the path is a former playing field that had reverted to long, rank grass where we have introduced grazing in an attempt to improve it for wildlife. I was delighted to see a group of 10 brent geese grazing, one of our target species for the site and my first sighting on the field.

brent on Southmoor

brent on Southmoor

The group consisted of three pairs, two with two juveniles each. There are very few families with  juveniles this winter, but those there are tend to feed on grass more often than those without and often away from the groups with no young to avoid competition. A quick look around the neighbouring Budd’s Farm pools and nearby shore added tufted duck, pochard and greenshank to my yearlist. The pools attract a good few duck and, in the past had small roosts of waders at high tide, although the banks seem to have grown up somewhat, I would be useful to get them cut again if possible.

I then headed to Farlington for some lunch and heard reports of the red-breasted goose on North Marsh, although I could not see it from the Building. I did hear a few bearded tits and singing Cetti’s warbler though. I also finally saw some ringed plover near the entrance to the reserve by the Eastern Road roundabout.

I then went to Hook Heath to see what had been the effect the very high floods there before Christmas. The answer was not a lot, although the flattened vegetation bore witness to the very high level of the water and the rapid flow rate. There were several more car parts along the river along with sundry other debris, all of which will need clearing. Overall the reserve was quiet, although I did add nuthatch, marsh tit and raven to my yearlist.

Today I was briefly at Farlington Marshes and saw the red-breasted goose, distantly with brent geese at the Willow Pool, right at the southern end of the reserve. I also experienced a close fly by from a fine adult male peregrine, it then landed out on the field near the Scrape, another first for the year, taking me to 96 species so far, perhaps I will top 100 this weekend.