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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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.

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.

Luxury Penthouse to Rent, Riverside View, Fishing Rights and Natural Surroundings Included

DSC_0974We spent a very happy day last Thursday at Swanwick Lakes nature reserve playing at the edge of the water. This of course was made all the better with the t-shirt weather that we had. The aim was to build a kingfisher nesting cliff to entice them to stay on site all year.

Kingfishers generally nest in river banks and excavate nests out of loose soil, digging a long tunnel with a chamber at the end. I don’t think anybody who has seen a kingfisher would expect this of them and it does seem like a strange thing for a bird to do. It is however a good strategy as the small cliffs at the side of the river tend to drop straight into water and so are very tricky for predators such as stoats to access. I’ve also seen them nesting in the root bases of fallen tree. These often form pools where the root base has been ripped out of the ground and so creates a perfect little spot for them to nest.

A lot of sites have Kingfishers in late summer and through the winter but don’t have them in the spring and early summer. This is generally because of the lack of suitable banks in which they can nest. The late summer individuals will be the first brood which are then self sufficient and then all of them rove around a bit in the winter. You get a number along the coast as well, especially in cold times when fresh water is frozen over.

So if you have a site ‘sans bank’, you have to help them out a little bit if you want them to stay all year and everybody likes a Kingfisher so many reserve officers take on the challenge of enticing them in. Enter the fake Kingfisher cliff.

This is how we went about it.

Step 1. Find a suitable spot. This is on the edge of a lake with a some deepish water in front of it, preferably with a bit of a bank already. We found a good spot on toms lake.DSC_0962

Step 2. Dive in two stakes on the edge of the bank. You then clad the front with boards. You also need to box in the sides.

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Step 3. Back fill with soil. This builds up the bank behind it. It’s good to have a team of volunteers/minions to do this

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Step 4. Place the nest box. Once you have the soil high enough (the entrance hole needs to be a metre or so above the water) you then need to place the box at a slight angle, so the box is a tiny bit higher. You also need to line the bottom of the box with clay or soil so its a bit more natural.

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Step 5. Cover with soil. This surrounds the box and you want a good layer over the top. You can leave this loose so you can access the box to clean it out.

Step 6. Fill the tunnel section with loose sand/soil. The Kingfishers like to excavate a little themselves.

Step 7. Clad the front with clay. This makes it look more natural (we haven’t done this yet).

Step 8. Sit back and watch the Kingfishers flock in.

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Hopefully step 8 will be the case but they are tricky little things. I’ve seen boxes on other sites used but in other places they aren’t touched. There has been one at Swanwick for a few years now but has never had any success. It may be a number of reasons but we intend to put three up in total to maximise our chances of success. Hopefully one will look attractive.

 

 

Sightings for week ending 12/03/2017

Its been a busy week down Farlington this week. Lots of Bearded Tits, a Marsh Harrier, Kingfisher, Barn Owl, tons of Curlew, Brent Geese and Shelduck and still a Short Eared Owl or two. There was a leucistic duck by the building Tuesday which I think was a Gadwall, despite being positioned next to a Pintail.

Today was particularly gloomy but there were 500+ Dunlin feeding on the mudflats west of the marsh with a few Black Tailed Godwits and Redshank mixed in. There was also one solitary Avocet roosting on the lake. I haven’t seen any Avocet around for a little while, despite the high numbers earlier in the year.

Spring really descended on Thursday. We were working in tshirts at Swanwick Lakes, basking in the warmth on the edge of the lakes. Whilst we were sat at lunch we had a Brimstone, Peacock, Comma and a Red Admiral pass by! These are the first butterflies that I have seen this year.

I think Saturday will be the better day this weekend and so will be a good opportunity to see the last of the waders and wildfowl. The numbers have certainly dropped significantly in the last couple of weeks and it will be sensible to keep an eye out for the first of the summer migrants. Reports of Wheatears and House/Sand Martins have been arriving across the country for a week or so now!

Sightings for the week ending 15/01/2017

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Spotted Redshank (courtesy of Alan Dunk)

A wet end to the week, none of the snow that we were promised though. I suppose that is good, though I do really enjoy the snow. I spent the week at Swanwick mostly where the feeders were overflowing with feeding Blue Tits, Bull Finches, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Marsh Tits, Nuthatch, Great spotted Woodpeckers and Long Tailed Tits. So, if you want some nice photos of some nice woodland bird species, this is an excellent spot.

A quick walk through Hookheath on Friday didn’t turn up a lot, a few Marsh Tit and Bullfinch but not a lot else.

Nothing has changed much at Farlington this week. Maybe this cold weather will push some more birds down but so far Brent Geese numbers remain low but wader numbers are consistently high. The Spotted Redshank is being very obliging and feeding by the building. I was down there last weekend and the Bearded Tits were at the southern end of the reed bed, flitting around near the outlet. Usually they are up by the building this time of year.

 

Logs for sale

dsc_0008We have a lot of spare wood down at Swanwick Lakes nature reserve, so if you are in need of some firewood to get you through the upcoming cold winter months, please get in touch.

It is mostly a mix of birch and oak and has been produced from conservation tasks at Swanwick Lakes. It’s been seasoned for around a year in cord lengths and we cut and split it to order. It will be particularly good if you want to stock up ready for next year but burns just fine for this winter. The mix of fast and hot burning birch with the slow release oak is really good. There’s even some ash in there, which is the best of the best firewood.

Unfortunately we don’t have the facilities to deliver so it is pick up by appointment at the Swanwick Lakes education centre.

It’s for sale at a very reasonable price of £50 / m3 split – and we can do deals for unsplit.

If you would like some or know somebody who does, please email or phone me on:

christopher.lycett@hiwwt.org.uk or 07917616697

Chris