Saturday, 18 November 2017

The bi-annual blogging

At last! A way overdue posting...  It comes to something when Tony McLean has updated his blog (Well worth a read as ever here) more recently than I - so action needed to be taken!


The last one was for the open weekend which went really well - we have another open day planned again for next summer on Sunday the 17th of June as a date for your diary.  After a lot of work getting the new facilities up and running I went on holiday and decided against the phone and laptop joining me.  I'm afraid to say I quite enjoyed it.  So much birding now seems to take place on the internet and its forums rather than the field and it was nice to see wildlife through some bino's rather than on a screen.  Unfortunately this was immediately followed by various home issues (set in the context of the busiest summer and highest membership on record) over summer which took precedence over blog writing so here we are at the beginning of winter now everything's a little calmer...

Whilst I was otherwise engaged I'm greatly appreciative and indebted to the volunteers - several individuals particularly that have kept everything running in the background when I haven't been able to be present.  A lot has changed but the reserve is still largely a one man show - assisted to a greater or lesser extent by a great team of helpers - so my apologies to those whose e-mails or calls have fallen under the intray - Tophill has taken up the majority of my life for ten years but for the last few months it has had to play a second. 

So what's been happening?
The new reception hide I'm very pleased with.  Rather than me having to apologise daily for the lack of facilities, sightings and experience people actually come to us and say how they enjoyed their visit and what they saw, ranging from a delegation of experienced conservationists from Holland coming for a tour of our otter holts given our reputation, to children experiencing nature for the first time on the school visits led by our education guide Margaret Boyd - whom reports;
Since April the new facilities at the reserve have been welcoming school groups on a weekly basis from across Yorkshire and the Hull area. Pupils have taken part in a range of activities to find out about the various habitats that are managed at the reserve. They have hunted out minibeasts, dissected owl pellets, identified trees, followed a natural treasure hunt, done art and crafts and even played bingo! But the favourite activity chosen by schools is to do some pond dipping in the new centre pond. Here, by developing their sampling skills, and practicing their use of identification keys the pupils have provided the reserve with important information about the flora of the pond. Each week has uncovered new species found to be living in the pond and also given a good representation of how the species change over the months. The groups have been the on site scientists and have thoroughly enjoyed their pond dipping. For each visit schools can chose two or three activities from six themes. They have full use of The holt education classroom for the day but will spend the vast majority of their time outside. The sessions are provided free and can be booked via Bookings are being taken for spring and summer term 2018.

Perhaps most touchingly we had a lady in recently whom had been a keen birder throughout her life but an accident had placed her in a care home.  With the access and facilities she was able to have a brief but rewarding spell of birding in the reception hide which is currently yielding regular visits from siskin and brambling and hopes to be able to repeat it.  I can appreciate for some experienced and able bodied birders it may not enhance their visit  - but for a lot of people it makes all the difference. 

Many, many hours and years spent developing the layout seem to have come together.  The important thing hopefully all our visitors can appreciate is that it now functions and vindicates itself as a Nature Reserve - which safeguards it as that.  If people like it, enjoy it and it works well it means we can resist pressures to water it down or deviate from this designation - thus protecting the 95% of the Nature Reserve beyond the car park environs where humans don't come first - something I'm looking forward to seeing again also - photo's Maggie Smith:  

So first off the headline success of the season - Kingfishers.  Initially five youngsters were seen exiting the nest hole at Hempholme.  Unfortunately they didn't quite pay back the photographers who diligently watched all season and rather than line up for a family portrait they apparently scattered to the four winds in succession.  Apparently food was still being taken into the whole later that day - so perhaps one or more were still in there and fledged unseen? Bruce King:
Within a week though the courting and cavorting had started again and by mid-August another 5 young had fledged.  There was also another nest we were aware of elsewhere so its quite likely in excess of 20 kingfishers emerged this year from the reserve alone - and to date they're still giving regular great photos - Don Davis:
Some fascinating behaviour was caught but for me a highlight was the diversity of fish being presented such as flounders - Ian Melton:
Pike - Done Davis:
And plenty of rudd (I think and not dace)- Don Davis:
Sticklebacks - Neil Murray:
The practical team mucked in literally and did a lot of clearance under north marsh hide re-opening the ditch under the hide which has yielded good views of water rail recently - Martin Lonsdale:
Perhaps absent of late have been water vole sightings.  There are still latrines and field signs but they are not being seen with as much regularity.  Some of the mink (the north American predator that annihilates them) traps we have distributed to neighbouring landowners have had good success with JSR Farms making some good in roads, but we've had a poor trapping season here partly due to some cunning mink, and partly still due to the passing of Chris our star trapper last summer - and we have yet to find another of his calibre.

Otters have been doing well; plenty of sightings including the gammy-eyed dog that has been a fixture for over three years.  If you have good images of otters then please keep them coming.  Hull University have been undertaking a study for the last three years on the reserve's otters and chin markings and scars evident in photos has built up a considerable family tree of the animals - and Alicia this year will be glad of them to pick up where Nadine left off - Neil Murray: 
South Marsh East was a disappointment this season we have to say.  Islands were prepped as normal in March and electric fences primed.  Marsh Harrier and Garganey both appeared early season - Dave Hobson:
Little ringed plover made repeated attempts at nesting.  But nightly everything was raided on the marshes which meant with the exception of shelduck all was lost.  Fortunately the common terns finally got the hint and went onto the rafts at Watton where a few chicks were fledged after repeated losses on the marsh.  The little ringed plovers we even caged in an effort to conserve them - but the cage was undermined after a couple of weeks and the eggs eaten.

As a small consolation we have a new species for the botanical list and grown some spectacular tomatoes on the gravel islands - but they're not really of conservation concern:
A few are in the frame here.  Fox most likely.  In 1993 a 4m wide 2m deep fox trench was installed around the perimeter to prevent them accessing the central marsh:
Irrespective of the photos we have of them swimming and predating nests:
We know the trench has silted and overgrown and now is lost in places with no access to get a machine back to restore them (this kind of thing happens when you try):

As we have said mink are known to be present with a couple of sightings this summer in spite of trapping.  Otter are not angelic here as they too have been seen to take birds - but previously only those in water and never on land.  Birds too could be an issue, with corvids and the lesser black backed's all possibilities - even the stoat - Pat Hogarth:
To prevent a waste of time and money lecturer and regular Thomas Breithaupt from Hull Uni kindly loaned us the trail cameras which were put into service monitoring the South Marsh East to gather data and prove what it was.  Once I'd got over the shock of seeing a tapir in east scrub (which Thomas had forgotten to delete from his Brazil trip) we got some fascinating images.  Regardless of the predators the pictures coming back have been pretty stunning of little gull:
 Black-headed gull:
Common tern:
And little ringed plover:
But eventually this sinister figure appear most nights in the small hours:
And later in summer tell tale prints in the mud:
It is indeed the foxes which are running riot on the marsh and causing the devastation.  So the question now was what action to take.  One angle is to remove the foxes.  Many conservation organisations do this with good results (fox excepted) but for us we don't feel its the right solution - Mandy James:
As with all predator control remove a dominant animal and the hierarchy is lost (see gammy eyed otter - he's the boss - and that's why there's just him we see).  With no structure the result is a vacuum and predation goes up.  We've seen this first hand with mink (25 trapped between 2013-15) - get rid of one and several arrive in the vacuum.  I don't believe we have the resources to adequately shoot foxes now or in future years and keep the population supressed.  We know foxes are controlled on neighbouring farms and it is dozens per winter.  I have enough on writing a blog let alone looking down a telescopic sight all night.  I also am averse to the immense paperwork and risk assessments involved in said exercise.  We also enter a slippery slope.  We have traditionally never controlled natives at Tophill, if we do this do we then start on stoats, weasels, corvids?  It's not a road we wish to start down.  Lastly but by no means least the majority of our visitors love to see or photograph a fox.  At the end of the day we are trying to breed birds on the marsh in a tiny oasis as opposed to a vast inland wetland as was the case until the 1700's.  A tiny concentrated population of prey is always going to attract predators.  We tell irate carp ponds this regularly with otters and the same is true of us with foxes.  We're not sure about why this still laced up berghaus boot is in a pollard close to the fox earth; As we've said its been one of the busiest years on record for visitors so on this basis potential human predation is deemed inconsequential:

So prevention and protection it is.  We've dabbled with netting and fencing many times on the marsh but it was meant as low pressure deterrence rather than to resist sustained attack.  A fox fence fit for purpose is a fairly immense structure with sub50mm gauge netting extending 5ft+ above ground with a capping of electric on top.  The existing fencing around the tern islands is an eyesore and as its doing nothing we have already started removing it - here with Hull University Volunteers:

Fortifying each island to 6ft individually would look pretty horrendous.  So the intention is to build a 'built once and built right' outer cordon largely hidden in the treeline and giving the marsh a much more natural look again:

This otter fence from round the ponds at Brandesburton gives some flavour of what we are looking at:
Some of you will have seen our initial work to clear areas both to make room and manage existing coppice around the back to back hides - some great work by the regular work party from Beverley College.  Ronny and his students have been helping clear scrub and intend to work through the winter renovating and painting the hides and re-surfacing the path in a great little project:

Obviously this is one area favoured by the cetti's warbler and we have given it great consideration.  The cetti's now seem well established on the reserve and the ringing data and calls shows breeding success over a lot of the southern site now.  The areas of thicket succession (and perhaps unnoticed within includes 30 foot regen poplar trees) are rapidly becoming canopy woodland.  This is not what is desirable between two marshes and in the middle of one of our best areas of reedbed.  It fragments a sizeable habitat that should be exclusively for reedbed specialists - reed warbler, sedge warbler, marsh harrier, bittern, cuckoo, and not least the current spectacle of the starling roost:
2 hectares of well managed reedbed is also regarded as the minimum size for the possibility of breeding bittern.  This potentially gives us that in combination of the wider feeding grounds on the river Hull berm managed by the TCV last winter.  Thicket and carr wood is not something we are short of at Tophill.  Premium reed bed is.  This now creates a habitat of scale and big skies, and working there it's great to have the redshank flying past your ear whom now regard it as South Marsh - rather than 'East and West' and dropping in from 200ft:

Another new experience for me at the reserve is getting an ear bending now for cutting things down I already cut down.  Here is the area of the back to backs in 2009 the last time we coppiced it. 
And here it is in 2017: 

Some areas we aren't touching.  Some areas we have taken back to the ground.  Some tall trees have been coppiced.  This way there is always rotation of suitable habitat.  Hull Uni students here getting good experience working alongside us: 

Lecturer Africa Gomez's glasses didn't enjoy it so much - we intend to sieve the fire for them at some stage...

Incidentally some of the hazel stakes are destined for prime time TV stardom rather than the bonfire.  Tophill volunteer Ken Granger suitably buoyant from his hedge laying experiences here has been working on a hedge on the North York Moors; and has reportedly been filmed with Helen Skelton for Countryfile due to air on the 3rd of December.  So don't blink and you may see a slice of Tophill being knocked in!.  Historically this was but one of dozens of uses for coppice products - and indeed the whole reason for the coppice cycle and why our wildlife has learnt to thrive in it.  In the modern era these uses have been superseded by plastic and metal; so woodlands go rank and the wildlife deserts it.  For a bit of further reading there is an excellent and succinct publication by the charity Plantlife here.  Read this and reach for the nearest billhook.   

Tophill is an active living environment and keeping a cycle going supports the thicket breeders we want, and its no coincidence we are one of the few sites nationally to have a colonising and expanding population of willow and marsh tit, along with grasshopper warbler and spotted flycatchers returning to breed again.  They exist because of our habitat work not in spite of it.  In 1978 this fascinating picture was taken - long before the south marshes and Watton NR, and barely a tree to be seen both on Tophill and the wider landscape bar O res 'old wood'; 
And here in 1993 on completion of South Marsh East but before the West had started construction:
A halcyon time according to some, but also with a much lower tree line than currently - trees in the right place are great.  Breaking up our most significant reed bed is not.  The landscape around Tophill Low is now much more afforested but it doesn't all hold willow tit and marsh tit.  Birds like these (and many others) need managed woodland as has been the case for millennia.  The trouble is management since the 1950's has been increasingly mechanised.  Planting a wood then returning 30 years later and clear-felling it with a harvester in an hour does not provide the habitat for these species.  Constant work and the creation of a tapestry of species, ages, and heights is key.  Lots of academics and papers suggest this;  At Tophill, and crucially because of the volunteers here working with hand tools it actually occurs - and the rewards are here to see.  Personally some of my favourite habitat at Tophill Low are the pollards.  They give great biodiversity - but also through the scars of repeated cutting tell a story of many volunteers and wardens going back years - and individual trees I can still associate with people present and past.

Regardless of the tree works there are a couple of important jobs that need attending to in this region.  One is South Marsh West which currently does not seem to retain water and would seem to be a porous bund (another thing we're good at) - so this needs checking out and banking up.  Not a complete disaster; lots of exposed mud this season has seen another remarkable breeding success.  We re-introduced the nationally rare greater water parsnip to Tophill Low in 2010.  In some areas it stagnated and disappeared.  In others it has formed dense stands.  We thought a suitable test would be to not plant it on any islands as it would prove successful germination and establishment if it got there itself.  This year both on the islands of SMW and North Marsh it has colonised islands in multiples.  This is the only incidence of the plant spreading by itself I am aware of in the UK in recent times so cause for great celebration:
The other issue is that the south marsh east outlet has become very vegetated at its outfall which is quite shallow and now covered in reedmace:

Access is all but impossible and before long we will be hindered for draining the marsh in wader season.  And if the willow carr starts growing into this ditch which is impossible to get a machine to - it'll be a serious problem to resolve in future:

Some of you may have observed the garganey and other dabblers feeding in this area last year as all the suspended goodies pass through this delta on their way out the marsh.  To allow a more permanent solution to dropping water levels in the marsh the intention is to link up this old land drain again with the marsh next to the hide (as it was originally in 1993).

Spurred off this drain and providing bund material we intend to dig several bittern trenches and make this top notch reed bed.  All the dabbling action will occur right under the hide, where we intend to excavate Lukas Bay (it was his idea) to give some great views of birds close in.  Another area where we get admonished annually because people can't see out the hide, and then again for cutting it down and disturbing the birds; hopefully this will better views and reduce disturbance. 

To finish off the fence will be installed nicely capped off with a run of electric from the back to back hides we squared up as part of the reception hide electric sign off. 

So my apologies - we'll be working on the south marshes all this winter generally disturbing the birds during daytime.  Luckily there are other areas to see all the wildfowl present on there elsewhere on the reserve.  More and more attention is being given to curlew these days and we duly take note our curlew roost is a notable feature - and this can continue on a night uninterrupted. 

We hope the payback will be a really exciting 2018 breeding season on south marsh east for gulls, terns, little ringed plover and wildfowl.  Vegetation beds safe from marauding foxes may just tempt back those marsh harriers, and who knows what new arrivals to boot.  And in winter those curlew can sleep easy without having to be ready to fly each time the fox arrives.  Its a lot of work - but equally its a lot of excitement for the potential.  If you fancy beating the winter blues we have volunteer opportunities to help with these projects in the field, or helping show people wildlife from the new reception hide - juts get in touch. 

There's more keeping me busy this winter; but that's plenty for now...

So what else wildlife wise?
Grey Herons bred successfully again near north marsh; a good result - and conversely the benefit of having the right trees in the right places.  The guestimate is two pairs but its very difficult to see - one here from Don Davis showing some output.  Hopefully next year we'll do some droning:  
One of the ultimate goals is to get the herons well established, as little egrets often breed colonially with herons - which would be great.  No shortage on the marsh this summer - Mel Ridgers:
Mal Jones:
Jane Robinson:
At the rate they are going its likely though to be a close run thing with these guys - great white egret have been a permanent fixture in the river Hull Valley since summer.  Again a wetland secure of predators and containing big stands of reedmace and the like would suit them very well...  Michael Flowers:
Dave Hobson 
Roy Vincent:
And working all the way up to spoonbill which dropped in on South Marsh in July - Paul Lyons:
The wider wader season was a bit of a damp squib; but then it was for everyone it seems with a never ending stream of westerlies knocking the enthusiasm out of proceedings. All the usual candidates - just not in any great volume - black tailed godwits:
Brian Colley:
 And green sandpiper by Brian Colley:
A late reprise came with a curlew sandpiper and wood sandpiper.  Making up for waders however were little gulls.  I was made up with my 71+ little gull in early July - the highest count for a long while:

Brian Colley:
Alas Martin Hodges raised the stakes to an even higher account with a whacking 142 on the 24th of August.  Its officially winter with Martin in gull mode now - having logged the greatest density of Mediterranean gulls in Tophill history in early Autumn.  For all the detail on exploits when the sun was shining check out his page for all the info on moths and more - Martin.
Marsh harrier as is the norm bred off site and used the reserve as a take away - Neil Murray:

Some great breeding success otherwise with willow tit, marsh tit, grasshopper warbler, possible spotted flycatcher, sparrowhawk and cuckoo - great shot by Don Davis:
Nice to see brown argus logged on the reserve again - Brian Colley:
And gatekeeper:
 Common Blue:
The season came to an end with hay cutting - heaps of work done by the volunteers as ever:

Deftly followed by the Beswick Hall belted galloways doing a fine job:
Early autumn saw some more good birds from young eyes with Will Scott finding yellow browed warbler at the back to backs, and Lukas Rowe a nightjar laid up on North Lagoon hide.  Gold star award went to Lee Johnson though for turning up a better late than never black tern at last this year - but most notably finding and photographing wryneck at the south of the site:
Verdigris fungi by Michael Flowers:
Winter came in earnest with various groups of pink-footed geese - Tony McLean:
Whooper swans - Roy Lyon:
And jay - Yvonne Barwick:

A few bean geese in recent days and merlin on the approach road last week with hen harrier last month.  So back up to speed; Lots more detail that could be said as ever - but lots to look forward to over winter too...