Monday, 12 September 2016

A good hiding

It’s all been a bit manic this season on the reserve; A good selection of waders so far has been excellent and great that the lagoons and the marshes are pulling their weight again.  As the inverts build up it should keep getting better, and we presume that some of the regular individuals on passage will remember it is a good food stop and tell their pals for future - perhaps like the four avocets the other day and welcome turnstone on the 11th which are maybe rounding off this years wader passage: 

The main emphasis though has been on the new reception hide for the reserve.  We’ve been hinting at this for long enough without giving much in the way of formal declaration – simply because we were unsure on when it was going to occur largely due to budgets (Yorkshire Water very kindly funding) and our species protection obligations.  The window arose this June and it was very suddenly all systems go which is great news – and even better that the habitats are back up to past glories to compliment it.

Whilst our volunteer teams know the score, many other observers don't know the whole picture - so sit down and set aside 10 mins for enlightenment!
It’s maybe a bit extreme to say that we built the structure around a pair of binoculars – but it certainly got us thinking.  The Norris family were regulars in the early days (sponsors of the original North Marsh hide) and bequeathed us a pair of Swarovski binoculars.  On arrival these monsters were more geared for watching the CCCP coming over the Steppes and really needed their own self-propelled carriage.  We had nowhere suitable to mount them as they required a fixed mounting point over a big habitat like D res to make the most of them against the aggro of setting them up - for the old wildlife centre meadow they'd have been a bit OTT!:

It’s fair to say the facilities evolved over 40 years at Tophill and were often hand me downs and quick fixes.  The early hides were well built by volunteers in many cases, but often with untreated timber due to budget constraints and some are now meeting the end of their lifespan.  We’ve spent a considerable sum patching up D res hide over the years but it’s approaching the end of its life:

It’s also the first hide most new visitors to the reserve go to – and this is their first experience of the reserve:

No natural light, small apertures and poor access mean that without optics and interpretation it can be difficult to appreciate the reservoir as more than a ‘concrete tank’ to some.

Likewise the paths leading from the car park are pretty bleak to the uninitiated.  The northerly route takes 500m to ‘enter’ a habitat and suffers from shared use by vehicles ripping and muddying up the surface:

That’s for those who don’t turn west and do the 1km D res straight as their first experience: 

Going south takes a trip back through the car park, past the residential area, access road traffic and water works security fences before reaching north lagoon: 

Multiple options and routes from the car park with no natural flow meant that people were lost as soon as they’d arrived: 
We can get negative comments that there is ‘nothing there.’  Our regulars and the site lists dispute this, and the thousands of photos online would suggest otherwise.  And herein lies another problem.  The internet gives instant access to amazing shots by our photographers, and there is an expectation that you can arrive at Tophill on a Sunday afternoon, get out the car and see an otter / kingfisher / barn owl / snake.  Thus visitors without the equipment and the knowledge can leave dissatisfied - the zoo mentality, the 'ipad' press of a fingertip gratification, or the highly distilled TV production creates an unrealistic expectation.  A short attention span from a lack of stimulation leads to noise and looking over reservoir walls disturbing the wildfowl and other users, and leads to subsequent conflict with our volunteer teams and nobody wins. 
Not a problem some would say; It puts people off and keeps them away.  The tragedy is though to see younger potential enthusiasts turned off from nature, even though they may have been buoyed up by what they watched on Springwatch the night prior or saw on Facebook that morning.  In a time when people are becoming detached from nature we need capture the imagination and passion of people getting into birding and the natural world and get them hooked.  Tophill is a cracking place with year round wildlife spectacle – people just need to be awakened to it.   I see it every week when I take people on escorted trips round, great wonderment at what is here that they never would have seen alone.  The trouble is how to do it for all visitors.

We need people to appreciate the value of the reserve universally so it can be protected from pressures that aren’t nature observation and conservation driven.  We are in a time of growing population and the pressures of curiosity unchecked will compound the above issues to the ultimate detriment of wildlife.  Regardless of habitat and species management we need to manage humans for wildlife even more so. 

An earlier attempt to do this was the old wildlife centre.  This was a conversion of the former social club for the Water Works in the 1990’s and was fair to say was quite progressive in its time with good interactive displays (especially the remote camera when it worked), interpretation panels and a useful meeting room:

Time moved on and the building didn’t (the toilets were pretty unmentionable with an umbrella needed indoors sometimes) – a simple refit perhaps? 

The problem was more deep seated than this though; the structure was full of asbestos meaning a complete professional removal of the internal structure back to the shell: 

We could potentially have replaced it at the same spot, but the problem was its location.  It wasn’t on the way to anywhere and didn’t look over anything (feeders excepted – these were great but could be anywhere – more on this later).  Looking at peer reserves the core building invariably looks over a major habitat; Whereas we looked at the back end of the water works.  Yet just across the car park we have views and birds like this:
In the old centre regulars never went in, visitors didn’t know it was there – no matter how many signs were erected (people don’t read signs – fact!).  This meant that it was a pretty grim place to volunteer staff – Old Ray used to, and spent many a lonely Saturday talking to nobody.  In a nutshell this building was great when there was a cricket pitch and a bar, not so good for a wildlife centre.    

This created the next issue; the Warden’s base.  Because the reserve and car park couldn’t be administered from the wildlife centre it was instead wardened from the former grounds maintenance shed in the car park:

We’ve got an excellent team of knowledgeable and very dedicated volunteers who will readily show people what’s about and where to go.  But this to the uninitiated could be visually intimidating on arrival and again damage people’s experience before they ever got to a habitat.  If we could take this social atmosphere and move it somewhere where visitors could interact and exchange information and sightings it would become a much friendlier place and be an asset itself.   

The Hull Valley hut housed the sightings books, but again was perhaps another complication for where people started their visit.  Invaluable for regular birders but useless for visiting beginners, we needed to show people what there is to see and where to go more clearly. 

So that got us up to 2013; four failing buildings and none of them complimenting or working.  We’d set funding aside at this time but not enough to get us a new hide.  The most pressing need was toilets and warden facilities given the imminent demise of the old centre.  We reconditioned the wardens base and old grounds maintenance hut as the long term site toilets – basically as they were already on a mains connection, so visually it would complement the new building:

It was never intended to solve the intrinsic problems of visitor flow – just keep us operational in the interim and provide long term toilet and reserve management facilities.

So with new funding approved by OFWAT in 2015 we set about the main event; the new Reception Hide.  First off it’s a reception hide because ‘visitor centre’ comes with its own baggage.  People often think visitor centre and view it as a combination of TIC and tired display.  This is a hide, with several combined functions, but has a clear purpose; The first hide you visit to view one of our best habitats, showcase what is here and where to go next.    

In the first instance we wanted to sort the perpetual problem of the mystified visitor.  There will soon be one way only to get on to the northern reserve; and in the near future the entire reserve.  The main entrance and pay hut will be just past the former HVWG hut (to be removed) and will instantly immerse you into the nature reserve.  No walking hundreds of yards – instead straight between the two balsam poplars acting as gate guardians to the site:

There’ll be no access north out the car park bar an exit only gate for those returning from D res straight.   Good for treecreeper and tawny we intend to create a good thicket of hazel, dogwood here in combination with bellflower and other woodland plants. 

Straight away you’re ascending height to an eventual +3.2 metres.  The whole premise is the building needs to be two story to see over the res wall:
As such we want and indeed need to provide disability access to a 1st floor height.  Wooden ramps are out as they are a proven maintenance liability.  Lifts are out likewise as there may not be anyone there when it breaks.  So instead we scaled up north marsh hide.  Some of you may remember our 2009 project to replace the original dilapidated north marsh hide with the current highly acclaimed version.  In line with our current activity initially a scene of devastation back then:

The pond quickly colonised and the surrounding new planting and woodland work delivered breeding willow tit:

So we did the same here; we cleared an area of windblown larch to create a large glade in the woodland:

Colonised by spectacular foxgloves all this seeded topsoil was salvaged and is now on the ramps, and rosette stage foxgloves saved and moved:

We then used clay subsoil excavated from a new wildlife pond (seemingly known as ‘D woods mere’ given its colossal proportions) to create the new disability compliant access ramps in and out the hide.  They’ll give an interesting eye to eye view of birds in the oak tree canopy: 

They were never intended to be quite so gargantuan, but flood risk consents as part of the planning process stipulated the ground floor height was elevated, and as such so was the height and base of the ramps.  This has meant the base of several trees has been covered (We’ve always retained the oaks in preference) – we will scallop around them where we can though some may succumb.  Regardless there are a great many new trees to plant – particularly sub story species to give better nesting and feeding habitat.  Our volunteers have been carefully tending plants grown on in our new polytunnel set up, where possible from seeds collected locally to vegetate the landscaped areas and create a riot of botanical interest.  Native bluebell, snowdrop, wild garlic and foxgloves will have good coverage with many more woodland specialists besides:

The pond itself is up to 2m in deep in places and was largely excavated from the 1950’s clay spoil as a result of the reservoir excavations:
It’s still being finished but there is already 30cm of water and an array of inverts in there: 
Greater diving beetle, southern hawker, ruddy and common darter are already present and correct and ovipositing:
And even a slightly over-optimistic kingfisher and the odd mozzie!:

Seeing the new pond develop will be really interesting (although to our derision marsh frog was about the first colonist!).  A new pond dipping platform to go in is already in waiting.  We’re never under the illusion this is going to have smew drifting across it and likely will house a tolerant moorhen or two; It’s going to be high traffic particularly with the picnic tables relocated here (a much better outlook than the car park) and means they will be reserved for the use of actual reserve visitors being ‘inside’ the reserve .  Therefore fish are being kept out bringing nothing to the party (as long as possible) and the emphasis is on inverts.  A nice sun trap it’ll be great for draggies and water vole and newts should do well too.  We will however pre-empt the blanket coverage of reed-mace by establishing notable reserve plants like greater water parsnip and greater spearwort so people can readily enjoy some of our best botanical interest in an accessible location.

We ran out of clay so approximately 50% of the ramp material is recycled material from the construction of the WTW nitrate plant in 2013: 

Entry to the hide is on the first floor across a veranda area with a view over the pond and even to the river Hull (a question we are always asked is where the reservoir water comes from; now it’s in eye shot). 
We’ve done an awful lot of in-depth thinking with our appointed Architects Group Ginger of Leeds about user groups and how we can better help beginners and visitors enjoy the reserve without sacrificing the enjoyment of our long term experienced regulars.  To the left will be a standard hide.  No frills, no interp and no help.  It’ll house the sightings books and give an unimpeded by glass view for optics by serious birders looking at the gull roosts and wildfowl.  Cantilevered out, the hide will be nice and quiet and take the place of the former car park hide (to be cannibalised and demolished this autumn – we expect a touching tribute blog post from Martin). 

Centrally will be the stair head for access to the lower floor and meeting room with ground floor access for disability - to give us space for groups and talks like we have attempted to hold in our currently limited facilities:
Externally the wall upstairs combines a display screen for the what’s about boards – meaning we can illustrate with pictures exactly what species are here.      

To the right is the viewing gallery:
Prior to this point the view to the D res will be impeded meaning the initial view for anyone new walking into the room will be spectacular ,overlooking the big expanse of water that many in East Yorkshire do not realise is here.  As its glass we’ve done a lot of research looking at anti bird strike designs and the windows themselves are ‘Ornilux’ – a specific product with a pattern invisible to the human sight spectrum but betrays its presence to birds as a glaring pattern.  We’ve also been very careful on backlighting and silhouetting so that human figures do not disturb the wildfowl in front.  As the whole structure sits closer to the res and slightly higher at +50cm on than the old hide it should give a lot better views of birds previously invisible under the wall.  But to help with viewing we intend to have a few optical aids – not least the monstrous bino’s to assist.  A couple of scopes will be rigged up during Wardened opening, one of which will be linked to a digi scoping cam relaying pictures onto a big screen.  So hopefully no more, “it’s out of focus / its swum out of shot / I’ve knocked it” when trying to get on that scaup or black necked grebe. 
TV is also the order of the day all round.  With some excellent and welcome help from our volunteers we have repaired the old South Marsh pan tilt and zoom camera – meaning we can simultaneously view here, and already the D res osprey platform and barn owl cameras we have rigged up.  We’ve already watched spoonbill on remote camera this year and been able to observe the previously unacknowledged south marsh summer lesser black backed gull roost in infra-red night vision: 
Also great for finding spotted crake (If anyone’s ever interested in them again after the North Cave one!).

Ultimately we want to be able to bird the whole reserve from here – showing people what can be seen if you know where and how to look.  We also reckon it could be handy for the gull roost extending viewing beyond natural light and giving the option of viewing birds on O res at the same time as D.

As it’s got commanding views across the reserve it should yield more intensive birding and more sightings of the undoubted countless species which pass through unseen at present.  With a better presence of observers, kit to view and plenty of literature and the internet to hand, we hope that viz-migging will be a reality and a new dimension for the records.  And for the ultimate close in we’ll be making a return of the glazed bird feeder window like the old centre which was so popular – on to dedicated feeders outside the side window, where there’ll also be the chance for unimpeded photo ops round the corner from a viewing screen. 

A question we are very often asked is ‘will there be a cafĂ©?’  The answer is no.  We’d blur the lines too much – we are a nature reserve; people that come are doing so to see nature.  We’re also far too out in the sticks to be viable on a cold weekday morning in December – there’s good facilities up in Cranswick that do that well already.  We do intend to have basic catering of self-serve hot drinks during wardened hours as that’s a sensible and repeated request.  The bulk of heating will be by log burner – we throw willows on bonfires all winter so it seems sensible to make sustainable use of bio fuel for heat and tea.  So hopefully gull watching in winter should be in a cosy environment; though for those whom prefer purgatory the option’s still there next door! 

The intention is that this will be a great place both for observers and volunteers to base from as opposed to set-ups of old.  We have a great team of volunteers, but we will be on the look-out for people who can help us with giving a little of their time to watch birds, talk to and inspire people about birds and watch telly, all whilst drinking tea!  If you think you have what it takes please get in touch.   

Likewise if you think you can help out practically we always need assistance.  We’re doing a lot of work with building paths and woodland management, and also a lot of horticultural work propagating new plants and extending the butterfly garden.  It may seem cheeky asking for help when we are investing in the new building, but really we’ve put everything into getting the structure right to the exhaustion of all else.  Our Hull based project managers Mason Clarke associates have been doing a great job in keeping everything within our limited budget, and it’s great to see Hull based firm Houlton’s doing the construction using near all East Yorkshire based contractors.  Everything else not in the build is on a shoe-string so paths, cameras, woodland work, trees, plants, interp design is being delivered with the help of volunteers.  That goes down to pulling the nails out of thousands of reclaimed Japanese beech floorboards from the old centre dancefloor for laying in the new building, sourcing display screens and furniture on ebay (including picking up a CCTV tower from Slough!), and already having built 170m of new paths with shovels and mini tractors:

The new paths will be around the woodland behind the car park and give an instant wildlife experience to observers new and old. 

Gone will be the muddy route marches, instead bank on taking 5 times as long to cover the same distance taking in a variety of wet woodland habitat that instantly takes you to the wild Hull Valley of pre-drainage times, home to water voles, otters, bats and dragonflies - and the need to spend much time birding and looking as opposed to marching to the next hide. 
Punctuated on a short circular walk will be several stop offs, focussed at the new and younger enthusiast with grass snake heaps, mammal tracking points and more.  However we’ve given serious thought and respect to our users at Tophill and certainly don’t want to lose or alienate our established naturalists and photographers.  Stray beyond this point and you’re on your own with no help or assistance.  We know full well many come to Tophill because it is quiet and wild; so the hides like North Marsh will continue to be places of solitude as before.  There is a stat I recall stating 80% of visitors to the countryside don’t walk more than 100m from their car, which is quite believable (and account for many negative perceptions at Tophill if that’s their radius!).  The concept is an easy appreciation of Tophill’s wildlife within 100m for all, and wild nature for the next 1000m beyond it.    

We also hope it links in with the investment in nature reserves across East Yorkshire at present, as driven under the Nature Tourism Triangle project - to create a momentum, wildlife spectacle and experience in the region that encourages people to visit and stay in the area boosting up the nature tourism economy. 

We intend to be functionally complete by around Christmas with all the new cameras and paths open in time for our ‘Water Works for Wildlife Weekend’ on the 17th and 18th of June 2017.  This will be a free open weekend and feature a number of activities and exhibitions much like our ‘BBC Summer of Wildlife’ open day in 2013, and is something we hope to make an annual feature – given this is when the best of the orchids are on the go, the kingfishers active and the breeding birds in full flow.       


So a bit of a mammoth posting – and this is a summary!.  In total we’ve been carefully developing this concept for 8 years with a lot of thought, with the hope it will both change everything and nothing depending on what you want out of a visit to Tophill. 


A couple of warnings; the path to North Marsh will be restricted on September the 13th and some days wc the 19th during work hours for construction.  It can still be reached but via the circumnavigation of D res!.