Saturday, 1 August 2015

Muddying the waters

As hectic as the marshes were a month ago its nearly all quiet on the tern front.  Of the fourteen pairs that bred this summer we guess the early contingent may well be sunning themselves in Africa by now - Brian Colley:
There appears to be just one youngster left - and its parents were dropping very obvious hints this morning by bring tasty fish in and then scoffing them in front of it:
Masses of lapwings down on the marsh at present - some 280 being a consistent figure over the last weeks.  Of interest to note was the traditional starling present with them:
I don't know if there is any scientific basis in my own personal observations over several years that every sizeable lapwing flock appears to hold a starling amongst its number much like a ceremonial goat.  Next time you see a big flock of lapwing flying overhead have a look for the small mascot invariably present.

Of other small but notable birds the little ringed plovers appear to have departed now.  The general consensus seems to be that they got off at least two chicks, one seems to have been predated - but there is some sketchiness around a third.  At any rate they have had their best year on the reserve in 7 at Tophill so a good result.  The lowered levels on the marsh have been starting to pull birds in with snipe amongst the feeders;
And best yet was this cracking knot in full plumage - a ruff was present at the same time - photo by Luke Rothery:
However a bit different was a bittern last week by John Leason - an unseasonable bird on the marsh and perhaps a hope that it is exploiting the newly resurgent stickleback populous in the marsh. 

However the shine has been somewhat taken off the marshes by the lagoons which sounds odd after 10 years of being a duck habitat.  All the habitat works of winter are now starting to pay dividends.  Initially it was the piscivores that were the big attraction.  Present in numbers of up to 3 have been grey heron:
And up to 8 little egret knocking on the door of the site maxima of 12:
These have undoubtedly been the show stealers giving some great photographic opportunities.  We get a bit blasé about kingfishers but these are on the lagoons most times too for those that can't stomach the walk up to North Marsh:
But what we're really aiming at is that rich mud favoured by passage wading birds.  Those whom aren't of certain years wont be sure what the fuss is about, but the lagoons were traditionally the habitat at Tophill and perhaps fair to say the best place for close in views of wading birds in Yorkshire in their prime, allowing photographs of spotted redshank, ruff, curlew sandpipers and even long billed dowitcher and lesser yellowlegs at point blank range.  Perhaps most notable were the huge roosts of green sandpiper with up to 45 present on a night.  To be fair these days are perhaps a thing of the past as populations have all decreased whereas there are many more options for habitat these days.  But the option had been removed because of the sludge build up in the habitat meaning we couldn't expose all that juicy mud since 2007.  Now its back we've seen a build up in numbers - promised north easterlies last week delivered the grim weather but not the mass influx we or others were hoping for - but it seems some birds are filtering down - three green sandpipers being consistent over the last three days:
Two common sandpiper:
Nice flight shot by Andy Marshall:
Two ruff there this morning:
Dunlin, greenshank, redshank, grey wagtail and a smart juvenile water rail have all been on the habitat in the last three days too.  August is the best month for waders on the reserve - so hopefully that's the start of things to come - and best of all its only 100yds amble from the car park.  However still a few breeders about - mute swans - Brian Colley:
And wrens are just fledging from the car park building - Brian:
Incidentally keep checking the flickr feed on the right of this page for the most recent photos - we're currently suffering issues in that it won't preview the most recent images on here, but if you click there are some cracking shots from the likes of Tony McLean, Alan Walkington, Jeff Barker and others on there.  Also recent updates on Erich's page too here:

However the best of it is that this is not the only wader habitat on site; Hempholme Meadows holds its waders quietly in the background.  The whole area was topped and baled in the week so the hollows and scrapes are now exposed.  That said plenty of finishing off to do with the volunteers - everyone drafted in - even belted Galloways:
Raking up arising's - Dentists don't have the best of profiles in conservation this week; but our two ex's doing sterling work behind Lukas so they're not all bad!:
Hempholme has seen counts of up to 10 greenshank, 12 little egret and spotted redshank, ruff, green sands and others in recent years so well worth a look too in the next month or two.  Without this hard work we would lose a lot of the important wildflowers around the reserve - the orchids may have gone over but there are others to look at beyond the fleabane - cracking stand of melilot much favoured by turtle doves on SMW:
Sneezewort in South Scrub:
Favoured by such as the comma's just emerging:
Umbellifers like greater water parsnip flourishing:
And home to beasties like the black and yellow longhorn beetle:
All enjoyed by characters like these hummingbird hawkmoths on the buddleias in the car park - another in full view this morning:
A not so lucky ringlet by Brian Colley:
Black tailed skimmer also by Brian:
Make the most of Martin's esticadinho nature page before jealously takes over and we get reports of exotica in warmer climes here.  As detailed Doug and Martin have now achieved a landmark 600 species of moth recorded on Tophill Low since 1992 -  a great achievement indeed. 

Another nice plant was uncovered on Watton Nature Reserve - creeping jenny:
One may question why we were wandering around Watton Nature Reserve - and as eluded to in the last blog posting it was to have a look around with the new management.
After a great deal of uncertainty over the last three years the reserve is secure again.  For those new to the background Watton Nature Reserve is not part of Tophill Low but was owned by the Environment Agency and run with the assistance of Hull Valley Wildlife Group and Tophill Volunteers over 20 years.  Three years ago the site was put on the open market prompted by government funding cuts meaning any 'non operational' assets needed to be offloaded.  This caused great concern as initially there were no assurances given to its status.  Many members of the Tophill community showed a great concern and were keen to secure the future of the site - even offering substantial sums of personal money to 'group buy' the reserve.  Years of monitoring collated by Tophill Volunteers helped attain the reserve Local Wildlife Site status with the support of East Riding's biodiversity team.  A factor that was very important as it emerged during the lengthy sales process that a development may have been on the cards at one point - but fortunately the covenants and designations were robust enough to withstand it.  Whilst we would have liked to buy and add it to the Yorkshire Water site we need to justify such decisions widely and it cannot be an aspiration to own all land - in the same way that many National conservation charities have moved away from this and more into influence.  But that is all history - the new buyer comes with our blessing as the best outcome for the reserve.  But certainly much thanks can be credited to a number of individuals who know who they are, whose actions or offers are greatly appreciated by myself.

The reserve is now owned by Chris Saunders who has a long history in the area.  Chris's previous generations actually owned the former Tophill Low farm before it was compulsory purchased for the Water Works in the 1950's.  Chris already owns the neighbouring Easingwold Farm which holds a large chunk of the only remaining area of original Hull Valley Carr land left as well as the 'Horse Fields' of Wilfhome - favoured by vast numbers of winter thrushes and golden plover.  Watton was compulsory purchased from the farm in 1990 and turned into the current pits - so Chris was always keen to reunite the holdings if the opportunity arose.  After a great deal of negotiation this came to fruition a couple of weeks back - we've been in talks with Chris for a long while and are pleased its come to fruition.   

So what now?
Those worrying about the development of the reserve can expect... what we had before.  Chris's intention is to run the reserve as a nature reserve and work with ourselves and folk like Roy Lyon whom were instrumental over many years in its management to maintaining the site.  There wont be any fishing, shooting or other activities detrimental to the wildlife;  Like the rest of Tophill work will now centre on halting succession as hawthorn is already marching across much of the grasslands.  The intention broadly speaking is to retain the pits with a fringe of open grassland and an outer border of hawthorn and shelterbelt.  To do this - as is our current practice we plan to let loose cattle and grazing stock from the neighbouring farm at Easingwold in a partnership with Mark across there.  Hopefully this will support stewardship applications to improve the farmland habitat around Tophill Low and benefit neighbours and the wildlife alike - so a great outcome. 

Perhaps the only change is on access to the hide at the south west of the pits - this was formerly public access but will now become private with access for volunteers helping to manage the reserve only due to the issues around insurance and safety - although obviously the prow behind remains unaltered. 

So a cracking result all round - Lagoons, Marshes and Watton Nature Reserve all sorted this summer - a red letter season it would seem and after uncertainty a bright new future on all.  Now did someone mention new reception hides?... 

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Lesser 'a threat

Just as soon as the menace of the lesser black backed gulls appeared to be materialising at the beginning of the month it no sooner subsided.  After reports of up to three chicks in the nest by the 10th all were gone for reasons unclear.  Lesser black backs can be prone to avian botulism or it may just have been a first attempt by inexperienced breeders - so alas no lesser black backed's this year which in some ways is unfortunate as they are an amber listed species - John Coish:
But every cloud; In this case for  all other residents of the marsh.   The little ringed plovers appear to be having great success - hatching all eggs and keeping all young to near fledging age - unfortunately losing one of the four on Wednesday to unknown - most likely sparrowhawk predation - John Coish:
But all in all one of the best years of recent times - a multi-legged LRP by John Coish:
Common terns are hugely variable - attentive parents as ever their skills are never in question but we have a massive range of birds  Some that nested literally as we refilled the marsh in the first weekend of May hatched, grew and fledged and are now heading back to Africa.  Some - presumably attracted by the melee created by the new habitat improvements arrived from elsewhere mid season and are currently feeding young.  Some - like those who lost chicks the LBBG's have re-laid about 2 weeks ago and will likely be here til September - Maurice Dowson. 
But regardless its certainly the best year on record - the best figure we can go on was that at their peak 14 pairs were nesting on the marsh. 

Another interesting development this year have been garganey - with two pairs present at the beginning of the season and certainly one showing a serious interest in Hempholme Meadow.  They are notoriously secretive and we are yet to see any young but we feel there has certainly been an attempt this year.

Whilst these were widely broadcast elsewhere on social media at the beginning of the year we deliberately did not publicise them as they are very much threatened from egg collectors and the like. 
And while on the subject it's also prudent to put the reminder out there that the reserve is covered by the same CCTV network as Yorkshre Water's treatment works which has just been upgraded with some very high end kit.  Coupled with our own network of around 15 cameras we're developing for monitoring habitats and individual species we hope this acts as a good deterrant to anyone up to no good. 

But hidden away in the same meadow at Hempholme have been snipe which have probably bred, yellow wagtail and lapwing for which a chick appeared last week.  We will be hay cropping the meadow shortly as the middle of July marks the turn in the year:
There'll still be plenty of time to see critters like these golden bloomed grey longhorn beetles however - John Coish:
A lot more diversity in dragonflies now - if not in volume.  Black tailed skimmer doing its best to dislodge a stick hogging broad bodied chaser by Pat Hogarth:
For a more in depth revue check out Martin's page as ever for more on the latest odonata and lepidoptera finds in recent days.  Some good sightings of grass snakes around - 7 reported north of O res in the week - Maurice Dowson:
But most efforts now are on the marshes and lagoons.  For the first time in 10 years we can now drop the north lagoon thanks to the investments by Yorkshire Water over last winter.  Its a steady job made worse by copious amounts of hydroponically grown willow blocking the outlets but as the level is revealed little egrets have already started to exploit the food opportunities:
And a common sandpiper dropping in:

On the other hand we can be more reactive with the South Marsh East.  In times gone by we used to have to eek out enough water to last us the summer and when it was gone it was gone.  Now we can raise and lower the level at will and worries over evaporation, transpiration and winter droughts are gone.  To this end we exposed a load of mud last week which has seen around 28 black tailed godwit moving through:
Along with dunlin, knot, ruff, curlew and some close in views of snipe:
Also check out Erich Hediger's new blog 'birds and biking too for more updates - link here.  Now the wind has swung westerly and the potential for a good eastern wader has reduced we can top it back up again ready for the next good easterly.
Otherwise we're hearing some nasty whisperings of the mink hordes at the gates of the reserve; so it's back into action for the team here to try and halt them before they start on our resurgent water vole population.  The weapon up our sleeve this year however is again due to funding from Yorkhire Water.  We've bought in 40 mink rafts for distribution both here of which 8 are now in service and the remainder are to distribute in the wider catchment.  We've already linked up with Chris McGregor and his colleagues at Natural England to programme the installation of new traps on Leven Carrs and in some of the chalk stream stretches.  Also here is Mark Richardson from JSR Farms who has also taken a couple to install on the upper reaches:
We're also sending some up to Jon at Skerne Wetlands too.  Put simply we can't continue on our own as we removed 12 last winter in a mammoth effort - but are essentially creating a vaccuum all the time that sucks more in.

If you have permissions and access to a section of the river Hull we'd be only be too pleased to hear from you if you can think you can help - as this is perhaps one of the most 'direct action' bits of conservation we can undertake for all wildlife.  As the river Hull is an isolated catchment this work can be a lot more effecive than the rest of mainland UK. 

To hear about this and all the latest news don't forget that there is the reserve update meeting tomorrow at 2:30pm in the old wildlife centre (teas and coffees available from 2pm).  This includes the big announcement on Watton...

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The neighbours from hell

The marshes are alive with breeding birds in undoubtedly their busiest year ever.  A quick tot up last week revealed 99 pairs of black headed gulls, a continued record pounding 14 pairs of common terns, 1 pair of lesser black backed gulls and a pair of little ringed plover amongst the usual array of wildfowl.  There's a big variation in sizes of young with some tern chicks laid at the beginning of May being not far off flight now - whereas others were only laid last week and will hopefully fledge late August:
We say 'hope' as the harmony seems to have disappeared.  First casualty were the oystercatchers which failed after reaching nearly full term.  We presume squabbles with black headed gulls put paid to that attempt - although they have subsequently been seen mating so we hope there'll be another attempt - Andy Marshall:
The main perpetrators as predicted however are the lesser black backed gulls.  These menacing larger birds have already started on the neighbours - first to go was one of the tern nests that they had been sharing the island with.  The debate was always out there as to whether choosing to nest here was a wise move on the terns part - and it now seems proven not.  That said there have already been up to 11 tern chicks seen so hopefully a good proportion will escape. 
Faring better at present seem to be the little ringed plovers - they successfully hatched all their eggs and last night at least all four chicks were readily visible in front of the hide on South Marsh East:
Couple of shelduck chicks still seem to be doing well:
So a great breeding season it would seem; A couple of Mediterranean gulls popped in on Sunday - Lukas Rowe:
But the year turns on - and now we're well into autumn migration.  There's been a gradual ramp up in the numbers of waders visiting the southern marshes.  Dunlin, wood, common and green sandpipers as singles all bode well, with 6 adult LRP's, and up to 78 lapwing in the last week:
Tweaking of levels will continue in coming days and weeks with the north lagoon to be drawn down for the first time in a decade to see what waders can be brought in here.  Whilst prepping the dykes and ditches around site Roy Vincent uncovered this water shrew in the north lagoon outlet ditch and managed some rare pictures of this presumably common but elusive mammal:
Roy also snapped this more brazen mammal in D woods - stoat carting off tea. 
Less welcome were reports of a mink at Watton railway crossing showing they are still very much in the wings.  Otter has been seen repeatedly on North Marsh of late along with water voles.  Grass snakes have moved into the new wildlife explorers built heap near east pond and over 6 were seen at Hempholme Meadow last week.  That said hobby continues to eclipse all on north marsh - a cracking series of images from North Marsh by Roy Vincent:
Kingfisher still holding its own - Christine Watts:
But before we embrace the autumn passage an interesting aside has been the delayed flowering of orchids this season.  Normally we say that the first week of June is the best for bee orchids but we seem a whole month late this year.  Not as impressive a year for bee's however with only 6 logged this year compared to 199 last year - but they are notoriously erratic in their flowering;
Very impressive however have been the common spotted and marsh orchids with a spectacular purple carpet in south scrub:
An excellent spectacle and well worth capturing from above - we undertook some filming work with the team from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trusts Nature Tourism Team and photographer George Stoyle using a drone to capture some excellent vistas for a upcoming promotional film for East Yorkshire Nature Reserves:
Mike views his replacement;
It's been a good year generally for orchids and meadows we established a few years back seem to have finally come good as creeping thistle has disappeared - old wildlife centre:
And orchids move in:
More recently we've been undertaking thinning around some of the oaks in the woodland.  This has given a bit of light to floor and produced a spectacular display:
A few other specialties like wood wasp by Andy Marshall:
And black tailed skimmer:
Reserve walk coming up Saturday the 4th at 10am to see a selection of the above.