Sunday, 23 December 2018

How low can you go...

Thanks to our education guide Margaret whom has been keeping things ticking over on the blog; I’ve been busy banging my head against a wall on various projects some of which seem to finally be coming to fruition – so it seems a timely point for a catch up over your mulled wine…

On the subject of Margaret she has done an excellent job of tutoring 1170 children through the holt education facility since March.  Some of them come from schools with no outdoor space – so it’s a great opportunity to educate and inspire a new generation on wildlife and its importance; Particularly in the setting of the river Hull Valley – more on that later.
If you are affiliated with a local junior school (and younger or older catered for too) booking details are to be found on the Yorkshire Water site here – as the spring summer sessions are fast disappearing.  The reserve open day film finally made the edit and came out well - look out for the heronry footage (perhaps we may be curtailed on drone footage next year...):

The volunteers worked valiantly in late July to clear North Lagoon for wading birds of the water speedwell eruption:
But alas apart from a few token common sandpipers it was mainly teal that feasted on what are presumably delicious water speedwell seeds in September giving some good counts.  The thought is that the vegetation was just too dense and overbearing making birds wary of coming into such an enclosed area.

South Marsh East was a different story and performed very well in what was a poor wader year.  This was without doubt due to the water supply from the lagoons.  Other east Yorkshire wetlands became dry or anaerobic like our own Hempholme Meadow – desiccated swan mussel:
 And rat tailed maggots breathing from the air rather than the water through their snorkel:
Meanwhile we had a reliable supply of heavily oxygenated water rich in daphnia constantly washed through which kept everything invigorated.  

Garganey – mainly juvenile birds were likely into the double figures of individuals.  Erich Hediger:
Catching up work has continued out on the marshes.  We've neglected them somewhat keeping up with the reception hide and fox fence installation so a lot of overdue maintenance has been required.  Thousands of willow saplings have been rooted out:
Larger willows have been felled and burned on the islands:
And on South Marsh West we've cut half the reed bed island down (a large heap of willow removed on the left):

This is important as it keeps the quality of the reedbed up for specialists like reed warbler and cuckoos.  Burning off the thatch knocks the organic mass out the soil keeping it nice and low - and bramble free:

The terns of south marsh easy appeared to fledge whereas the Watton NR birds started well - but all disappeared soon after hatching.  A familiar tale unfortunately - the four rafts (three this season as one had broken its tether) do a great job of attracting the terns, only for them to be picked off by lesser black-backed's and carrion crows.  We often get moans about 'too many black headed gulls forcing out the terns.'  In reality the terns need the mutual protection of the gull colony to thrive and on Watton they are too isolated - Tony McLean:

Some of you may remember the controversy over the sale of neighbouring Watton NR a few years ago (here), which caused much anguish amongst the many volunteers whom had helped out on the reserve over the 20 years prior.  After this low point and much negotiations we were pleased that local landowner Chris Saunders secured the reserve with a commitment to maintain it for wildlife and with the help of Natural England is undertaking various improvements over this winter and going forward to secure it into the future. 
Chris also owns Easingwold Farm neighbouring Tophill and this has recently been put into environmental stewardship too.  We've had some good winter birds of late - the pink footed geese very active with around 300 loitering this winter, merlin, short eared owl, hen harrier and great white egret.  None of this is any coincidence - in the last 3 years there have been huge and wide-scale habitat improvements along the river Hull valley. 
Most of you will already be aware of Jon Traill and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's work upstream at Skerne wetlands converting a former fish farm into a more natural chalk stream environment.   Yorkshire Water as part of its biodiversity fund sponsored some of the restoration works as it directly influences the quality of water we abstract at Hempholme.  Marsh harriers, bitterns and the roving starling roost all utilise this as they do Tophill.  JSR Farms at Standingholme reverted some of their borderline arable land into wet grassland habitat which boosts up the hunting for short-eared owls.  Over at Easingwold drainage ditches and grips have blocked and scrapes opened up.  Thirty years ago one of our previous wardens stood in front of a tractor to try and stop the last few areas of wet grassland from being ploughed out.  Now the same farm is being paid to run it as wet grassland for livestock in a traditional manner rather than thrash an oilseed rape crop out of it.  The huge flock of goldfinch, greenfinch and even corn buntings a couple of years back were feeding on seed crops within the farm; with more set to be planted as part of stewardship - with the aim of benefitting turtle dove.  There is a public footpath behind Watton NR and its well worth a look - it's very under-watched and undoubtedly gets some cracking birds. 
Further south our grazier Edward Duggleby has his own area of wet grassland and scrapes on the farm with good success.  Perhaps unsung in the background of all of this are Chris McGregor and Ian Armstrong of Natural England whom have been quietly working with landowners to encourage a more sustainable manner of farming, allowing them to maintain a good income and also taking some of the risk out of seeding an expensive crop into an area so prone to flooding.  Alas many of our efforts within Tophill pale into insignificance compared to the Leven Carrs project over the river.  Chris and Ian have been working with Albanwise - a major farming concern whom own hundreds of hectares under the wind turbines south of Leven Canal to develop habitat whilst safeguarding the less flood prone areas of their farm.  Rather than me tell you about it there is an excellent film that outlines the project here:

All this has meant that we're seeing Tophill at the centre of a re-emerging wildlife landscape;  Turtle dove visiting again this summer and the cranes frequenting the area south of the reserve are hopefully the beginning of a brighter new future. 
In the immediacy though it is Watton NR of interest at the minute.  Chris Saunders with Natural England backing has sanctioned restoration landscaping of the reserve.  Once there were three bunds dividing the reserve into three lakes, the southernmost having all but eroded to nothing.  The middle is not far behind and is only drained by a 4" soil pipe that frequently blocks and drains so slowly its unreactive. 
The intention is to set new 12" pipes into rebuilt bunds with sluice valves on the ends.  This means we can hold water back in a series of three terraces, allowing us to store winter water and drop it for an autumn passage.  This should reveal new landscaping with spits and scallops projecting into the pits that will give more feeding and edge habitat - much like we have done on south marsh east. 
Disappearing will be the wooden sand martin box;  After 10 years its starting to look its age and has alas never managed breeding interest.  It's unfortunate as a lot of volunteer time went into the structure - but after considering it thoroughly the only way to rejuvenate it will be to disassemble and virtually start again.  The timber we hope to save for bird boxes and the footprint we will pull back up into a rough cliff again and see what the birds do naturally. 
Also going will be the 4 tern rafts (or three if you exclude the currently beached one).  The intention is to bring them across to the open water of south marsh east amongst the mutual protection of the gull colony where they can have a decent output.  
Beyond this there is a lot of vegetation cut back and clearance to open up sight lines both for birds and humans. 
Back over at Tophill it might seem odd we are pulling out the fox fence we spent so long installing back in Spring.  This is all part of the prep for the long drawn out photographic hide project. 
The intention is to install an extremely low level, sub-aqua hide.  We've been thinking about something along these lines for a long while given the growing popularity of wildlife photography and been inspired by some of the examples we've seen across Europe such as in the link here.  A lot of our existing Tophill hides are of their era giving a vantage point for viewing a wide area.  This is great for birders and there will always be a place for this at the reserve, but photographers want to be eye-to-eye with their subject matter rather than the traditional 'hide perspective' from above.  A logical place to try and do something better was the South Marsh East number 1 hide.  Since we made the alterations to the marsh with the new 'sandpiper bay' and water transfer ditch outfall where all the waders, egrets and kingfishers feed in oxygenated nutrient rich water, there have been some stonking photo opportunities - but alas completely at odds with the now mis-angled hide: 
Given we already needed to rectify this it seemed the logical place to try.  That said it isn't a new idea - this idea was already tried on south lagoon before the siltation and trees grew up:
This was the original photography hide.  Hopefully the new one won't need wellies to sit in.  One hide we often hear favourable things about is the Green Future's photography hide at Thornwick Bay.  This has given excellent photos albeit in something of a trial form.  Speaking with John Beaumont he said he'd really like to push the concept further and get it so the camera lens is resting on the surface of the water.  This brings its own challenges hence a year down the line we've also brought in R Church Plant to partner up and deliver something really special: 
Given the near scraps that occurred at the kingfisher nest last year the photography hide will initially likely be members only until we get a handle on numbers. 
We'll also be tweaking the Hempholme hide again; as the original kingfisher ditch of a couple of years ago is getting quite overgrown now.  So all in all its shaping up to being an exciting start to 2019.  
Its great to see all these elements come together with events like the open day, the photography exhibition and year listing day as a celebration of the wildlife along the river Hull valley.  50 years ago a young Peter Izzard was hauled in front of a committee for blocking a ditch in a backwater of Tophill Low to encourage passage waders in his lunch hour.  How far this has come, and how the positives we put on experiencing wildlife can improve the environment far beyond the boundaries of Tophill.  Indeed - many of the seed heads weeded out by the volunteers this winter from the South Marsh East tern islands are going over to Leven Carrs to re-invigorate the flora there.
The photo exhibition will be open until Sunday the 6th from 10-4 with 125 excellent images taken by visitors to the reserve over 2018. 

On new years day we will be having the annual year listing event with two warden led walks at 10am and 13:30pm to try and record as many bird species as possible within the day.  Whether we'll beat 2018's huge 80 is debatable.  As last year donations welcome - or sponsor 10p a species in aid of Jean Thorpe's Ryedale Wildlife Rehabilitation whom has helped us out many times with our waif's and strays.   
Otherwise a merry Christmas and happy new year to all.  Thanks for all your support on the reserve through 2018 - particularly the volunteers whom give so much, and here's to some cracking wildlife in 2019...

For me a highlight as ever is getting to go to places few others get - the interior of South  Marsh West - last visited 5 years ago.  It's always a great privilege to be lost in a wilderness in the middle of East Yorkshire.