Monday, 9 December 2019

Reserve to remain closed until at least Monday 16th

An update on the flood risk issues which have temporarily closed the reserve;

If you have been in East Yorkshire this autumn you’ll have perhaps noticed the rain – after 18 months of very little rainfall we have had 170% of average rainfall according to the met office (or 9” of rain in Beverley in November according to resident meteorologist Mike Fishwick).
We have been in similar scenarios before such as back in 2012 as per the Tophill blog then .  So the river Hull brimming is not un-precedented (John Barnard):
The river levels height shows that the river reached within 60mm of its all-time record:

The difference in these scenarios is the level dropped back again within a few days and the pressure receded.  However, this year the level has been high for so many weeks.  This was filmed this back in November and it has been at this level consistently for a month:
(It should be noted that the EA is currently requesting no walking on the banks).   Whilst the levels on surrounding farmland and in the Barmston Drain have fallen this is because it is mechanically pumped into the river by the EA and the main channel height has not fallen.  High tides at the end of last week have caused further over-topping compromising the structure of the flood defences north of the reserve:

The last time the river breached was in 1953; here is the post being delivered to neighboring Standingholme Farm:
You may be familiar with our river level board on red route – this shows the water level of the adjacent river Hull compared to the reserve:  
It does not take too much imagination to consider the impacts if the river escapes so all efforts are being put in by the Environment Agency at present to sure up the defences; set in the context we still have most of winter to go. 

It is easy to walk in this landscape and take it for granted as just ‘flat land’ – but in its natural form the river Hull valley was a vast wetland until the 1800’s.   Much of it is at or below sea level and ‘Top hill’ was effectively an island surrounded by marshes and carr land:
And is still echoed in November's flood alert:
This was the realm of local folk legend ‘old stinker’ and why we keep him alive at Tophill Low to illustrate this past landscape: 
It also exists in local place names ‘Beverley, Cranswick, Storkhill’ etc.  To read more this link takes you to June Sheppard’s history of drainage in the Hull Valley.  Maggie Smith from Tophill is currently working on the Tophill Low book we hope for release in mid-2020 which will explain more again.  Additional good reads are Ian Rotherham’s ‘Yorkshire’s forgotten Fenlands’ and ‘Becks banks drains and Brains – the drainage history of the river Hull.’

In the here and now the landscape is very artificial and has been of great debate since 2007.  Many local farmers are taking a proactive approach to continued flood risk with farming interests, flood management and biodiversity all benefiting.  The Leven Carrs scheme with Natural England and Albanwise is a great example: 
In the immediacy though we have changeable weather this week and a spring tide on Saturday the 14th: (

Once this has passed we hope we can re-evaluate on Monday the 16thHowever, certainly until this point Tophill Low Nature Reserve will remain closed as at present we can’t assure that visitors and staff can safely be notified and leave the site if the level should suddenly rise.

The water treatment works is the main priority on site and has been protected with 1300 metres of flood barricade and high capacity pumps. 

Unfortunately this Saturday’s planned mammal safari event is cancelled as a result along with group visits.  We very much hope that we will be OK for the winter photography exhibiton starting on the 21st.  Please hang on to your entries until the reserve is notified open again.  Thank you to those whom have already brought them down (they are stored safe).  The worst case is we may need to postpone. 

In the interim please do not attempt to visit the reserve as the car park is closed and the engineers are currently running the show.  As you can imagine for Tophill volunteers and visitors it is an ordeal as many of them call it home; we’ll work to re-open as soon as deemed safe.   

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Flood risk

Tophill Low is temporarily closed due to flood risks as of the 06th December.  The Environment Agency are currently undertaking repair works and we hope to be back to normal soon.   More details to follow. 

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Open day and opening

We're well into summer now and the annual open day is almost upon us, but there's been plenty of excitement already this year anyway.  It must be one of the most memorable breeding years to date on the reserve - success has been variable already but in diversity it must be unbeaten.  The marsh harriers were an early spectacle with some superb views of food passes etc Brian Blinkhorn:
However the pesky fox which cleared the marshes between 2015 and 17 has again overcome our defences.  In 2018 we finished the massive fencing project for summer leaving a 'horse shoe' - the open section at the rear being in deeper open water and too big a job to finish in time for nesting season.  We reasoned the obstacle was too big to overcome for the fox last year and we were rewarded with a great breeding season in 2018.  We assumed it would be the same for 2019.  Unfortunately though it appears to be skirting all around the perimeter of the fence, down the river bank, and then swimming across some very treacherous water to reach the interior and as such has cleared out most of the spits and is certainly active amongst the rushes of the northern archipelago - which is also where the harriers were active.
Whether it was the demise of the harriers is debatable.  Whilst they were active building and even mating, many suspected they were too young to breed - Jason Peacock:
Alas whichever, it has come to nothing although they are still present in the environs at North Marsh - where they were most displeased with this osprey filmed by Pat Hogarth:

The fox at least had the benefit of dislodging a rare summering bittern - Richard Horsman:  
So we know what we'll be doing this winter... Alas the same fate likely became the little ringed plovers which whilst still present are yet to commit anywhere - Sue Murray:
Common terns have been present albeit late this year.  Breeding is still to be determined with the best attempt seemingly on the cleared Watton NR islands.  Unfortunately one bird passed away in front of the Izzard hide - on closer inspection due to a prolapsed oviduct (egg bound) in spite of the valiant efforts of its upside-down ringed mate to keep feeding it until the end - Brian Blinkhorn:
 Roy Lyon:
Oystercatchers attempted to nest and got 3 chicks hatched on South Marsh West but were quickly predated.  Surviving gull chicks here points the finger at an avian predator; Perhaps the lesser black backed's which took the lapwings nesting on Hempholme Meadow - Steve Hines:
Sand martins have returned for a second year to the wall - Tony Platten:
Whilst some ungrateful individuals are excavating opposite the izzard hide.  The other digger proved elusive with kingfishers but a fleeting glimpse until last week when the first brood appeared - and for a change are favouring South Lagoon - but now spread all across site - Tony Simpson:
 Chris Barker:
The other stars have been the tawny owls seemingly now indifferent to their celebrity status - Steve Clipperton:
Higher up in the woodlands the herons go into their third year with at least two well developed chicks - Lynn Glasby:
Whilst the barn owls currently on TV in the reception hide are about to hatch out their 8 eggs - although how many of them will survive is up for debate:
A second pair also exists on the southern site - but on a different TV channel a new show rivals attentions; The Water Treatement Works kestrels - 5 eggs all now hatched and feeding voraciously:
Out in the wetlands wildfowl wise the garganey are a great addition and we assume a female is hidden away accompanying the two showy drakes - Brian Blinkhorn:
The goosander have been an enigma with at one stage a pair of birds present - Brian Blinkhorn:
For the first time in a while great crested grebe are attempting to nest - a nice accolade for the winter works in addition to the shelduck brood - Roy Lyon:
Otter too endorsing the works - Brian Colley:
Great spotted woodpeckers have already fledged - a nest above the main path going unnoticed by most.  Elsewhere cuckoo, grasshopper warbler and spotted flycatcher have all had a presence. 

So a varied year and plenty still to look forward to.  Spring wader passage made little impact this year - a few greenshank, common and green sandpipers, and sporadic whimbrel making little impression.  The only memorable beast was the long staying bar tailed godwit as a Tophill rarity - John Leason:
 Brian Colley:
Biggest rarity perhaps bird wise was the firecrest - John Leason:
Technically there have been fewer cattle egrets - but one gets the impression that the current bird feeding merrily amongst the bemused belted galloways is but the thin end of the wedge - Jason Peacock:
Chris Barker:
Steve Clipperton:
Spoonbill too is perhaps a bird we may see more of also - Lee Johnson:
John Barnard:
Autumn passage is the next thing on the horizon - and that's where all the main efforts are this year as spring has been so lacklustre.  Hopefully if the masses of fish fry outside Izzard hide are anything to go by it should be quite something.  However before all that we have the open day this Sunday the 9th.  It should be a great day with the exhibitor list now firmed up with the following;

Natural England - badge making and information
East Yorkshire Bat Group - conservation advice and live bat
Hedgehog rescue - Driffield and Langtoft - conservation adice
Holderness Hedgehog Hospital - conservation advice and fundraiser stall
Yorkshire Red Kites - Information stand
RSPB Bempton - Childrens activities and information
East Yorkshire Archaeology - local history information and river Hull artefacts
Second Nature Books - bird and wildlife book dealer
Duggleby's catering – sample some locally sourced beef or pulled pork sandwiches
Michael Flowers -   Birdwatching courses
Tophill Low Bird ringing team - survey work and demo on the reserve
John Naylor wildlife artist
East Yorkshire Rivers Trust - conservation info on local rivers
Yorkshire Water Biodiversity Invasive Non-Native Species team - advice on conservation and biosecurity
Humberside Police Wildlife crime unit - information and car
Tophill Low education Service - hands on craft and nature activities for children
Tophill Low moth demo - see the diversity of moths (10am)
Hull University – Zoology dept info on otters and grassland management
Green Future Buildings - builders of the Izzard hide - buy and construct a bird box and info
Josh Harrison Photography - wildlife photographer
Jan Taylor Wildlife Artist
Experience Community accessibility trust for disability users - advice and info
Cranedale Centre environmental activities for young and old
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Living Seas Centre - information and displays
Steve Shipley Wildlife Photography
Living with Water Partnership – Hull & Haltemprice - info on flood risk
East Yorkshire Badger Protection group - conservation information
Tophill Low Membership stand and tombola -
 fundraiser for local conservation charities

Hopefully you can join us on the day; Due to capacity please note standard car parking will be directed in the fields at Easingwold Farm with a 400m walk to the Reception hide.  Usual car park reserved for blue badge holders. 

Nearly finished too is the new fish pass at Hempholme Lock - an incredible engineering feat - more pictures to come:

The other exciting news is that for the first time in 11 years there is a job opportunity on the reserve!  Due to the popularity of the site and the want for me to undertake conservation projects for Yorkshire Water further afield we have a brilliant opportunity for a Nature Reserve Apprentice role.  Deadline for applications is the 21st of June.  For full information visit this link - its a wonderful and rare opportunity for someone. 

Make the most of summer - a whooper swan, two goldeneye and a pink footed goose in early June is a little ominous!!

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Spring has sprung

May soon becomes a month of “firsts” as reports of the first damselfly and dragonflies emerge, the first marsh orchid appears and the first hobby is seen. Butterflies are now being seen around the reserve and there is a vast array of some spectacular insect life. Bird sightings this month have included a couple of sightings of osprey on the D reservoir, a bar tailed godwit stayed for several weeks on south marsh, two male garganeys have been reported also on south marsh and a pair of pintail have been present all month. The little ringed plovers hopefully will breed again this year and the marsh harriers have been seen carrying branches earlier in the month again indicating breeding. The barn owl that is in the nest box that can be viewed from the camera link into reception hide is sitting on four eggs so that has proved exciting and will get better as the young hatch. The pair of tawny owls are active even during the day around the reception hide and have been spotted on a number of occasions out in the open. It won't be long hopefully before we see young of both owl species. A black tern and Mediterranean gulls were noted over D reservoir and when the weather was very wet thousands of hirrundines (sand martins, house martins and swallows) were feeding low over the water on the reservoir.
Tawny owl reception woods by Maurice Dowson

All positive signs of a rich biodiversity on site that continues to draw interest from a range of enthusiasts, whether they are bird watchers, photographers, entomologists, lepidopterists, botanists or families out to just enjoy a lovely walk. If you haven’t yet visited the reserve and so many people who live close by have yet to make their way down that long and windy road, then on Sunday 9th June we are having our annual open day. The reserve will be open from 10am – 4pm with no admission charge. There are a number of exhibitors coming along to the reserve on the open day to inform you of various wildlife organisations in the local area. People from the RSPB, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Natural England, East Yorkshire Bat group, Hedgehog Rescue, Humberside Police & Wildlife Crime Unit, East Yorkshire Archaeology will be able to give details on their activities. Birding with Flowers and Yorkshire Coast Nature along with the Cranedale centre also have exhibits about the services they offer. There will be a tombola and membership detail with proceeds going to local conservation charities. The reserve’s education service will be running activities throughout the day so that families can investigate the reception pond and the woodland area as well as providing craft activities. A catering stall will be run by local Beswick farm whose cattle help on the reserve by grazing different areas.  Sorry but no dogs are allowed on the reserve. This is a great opportunity to visit Tophill Low and find out about not only the reserve itself but the abundance of events and activities that are going on in our area all linked to conservation.

Meanwhile you may be wondering how to occupy children during the half term week. The next family event at the reserve is during the May half term holiday on Wednesday 29th May from 10am -12 noon and the theme will be wildlife arts & crafts. We will be exploring the nature trail and getting inspiration for our very own natural masterpieces. This event is FREE with standard admission and booking is advised on 01377 270690

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

March 2019

The winter wildfowl that call Tophill Low home during our relatively mild winters have already started heading back to their summer breeding grounds so the large numbers of coot, wigeon, pochard and goldeneye  are diminishing on a daily basis. The long staying female red crested pochard gave some late wildfowl interest till the middle of March.
Breeding activity on the reserve is in full swing and a short walk around the reception woods can uncover many birds pairing up. Last week there were chaffinches, great tits, wrens, dunnocks and robins and a very loud song thrush all singing.

Take a walk a bit further onto the reserve and head up to North Marsh woods and you will hear the noise of the grey herons which have already established their nesting sites; always an early breeder. Oystercatchers have been seen and their distinctive “piping” heard on the “D” reservoir walls and Marsh harriers have been spotted dragging nesting material into the reed beds. With kingfishers starting to dig a nest hole also on the reserve, it certainly looks like an interesting season ahead.
Many roadside verges and parks are now covered in daffodils and there are some in the reception woods but for a more subtle spring flower look out for the dainty violets along the nature trail; both purple and white varieties can be seen. An often overlooked spring flower is the coltsfoot, similar on first glance to a dandelion but it flowers earlier and has very different stem structure and a more delicate shade of yellow. With spring flowers in bloom then you would expect there to be more insect life and the first bees have been seen and last week there were an awful lot of ladybirds to be found in the recently pruned buddleia bushes that edge the nature trail.

Easter holidays, if the weather is kind, can be the first time that some of us get up and out, ready to explore new places. It’s a great time to see the reserve with your family. During the Easter break there will be a number of activities that you can try your hand at with young children; pond dipping is a favourite and there is an I-Spy sheet that youngsters can take with them on the short natural trail. On Wednesday 17th April from 10am to noon there is a dedicated family event all about eggs. Not an Easter egg hunt but a fact finding mission to delve into the amazing world of birds; from how they chose, build and maintain their nests to why eggs are different colours, shapes and sizes. If you and your family want to join our Education guide on this event then please call the reserve to book a place on 01377 270690. The event is FREE with standard admission prices but all children must be accompanied by an adult.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Watton earth

Early spring is always a manic time on the reserve - chiefly because we knew as soon as the cold weather of early Feb had passed it opens the floodgates to a whole host of breeding behaviour - not that we were expecting 20 degrees...  That said it was worth pausing and revelling in the ice for a while;
A smattering of notable gulls has occurred with glaucous gulls - at least two juveniles with one bizarrely showing a similar daily cycle to last year's 'Billy'.   Why Tophill has become such a popular winter destination for 1st winter glauc's is unknown - John Leason:
Caspian gulls too have occurred with some regularity and Mediterranean has been in typical numbers.  The red-necked grebe was a welcome addition to the start of the year on O res initially:
It moved to D res where it stayed for some time before a hiatus, and then suddenly reappeared again this weekend.  The drake smew continued to share its time between D res and Hornsea Mere - and any presence is an honour - John Coish:
But whilst all the interest was on the reservoirs it's the perfect opportunity to undertake various works around the reserve.  The first of which delayed from last year is the photographic hide.  Most of the delay is from the challenge of ensuring it isn't a swimming pool.  Working with R Church plant of Pateley Bridge & Mason Clarker of Hull we fabricated a galvanised tank to get us to the required depth of -3 feet:
This will ensure that water does not enter.  The next challenge was to get it installed at the correct height.  No pressure - as to go to high would defeat the concept of a low level hide.  Go too low and we'd risk not being able to fill the marsh to winter height without filling the hide.  Box being dropped in:

Given the dimensions of the tank, the spirit level justifiably sat on it for several days in satisfaction
It certainly looked impressive in the dry - though modelling with Jeff Barker perhaps is an unfair representation!:

The view with the marsh at the minimum:

Photography hides are often mentioned as being the thing of the moment.  However it should be remembered they do need to look at something worthwhile.  In this case it is but the finishing flourish to the water transfer ditch started in 2014 that allows us to control the levels and creates all the wader, egret and kingfisher interest at such concentrations.  A luxury for us is that we can control water really well now on the southern site - so we could immediately put the installation to the test.  With the level at the South Marsh sluice at its maximum:

The level arrived at its calculated maximum - 1" short of the brim: 
Without compromising the maximum height of the marsh - the sluice at its maximum and the hide 1" higher:
And as foreseen in suitable conditions at full height with strong waves as whipped up by Storm Erik then it does overtop and needed bailing:
So that makes it perfect - any higher and it would be inefficient!

We've had a careful think about all aspects it looks out upon.  We've carefully placed each lump of prehistoric bog oak for best layout and harvested weathered timbers to demarcate the 'bittern trench' an area of deep water designed to tempt feeding bitterns.  We've transplanted a new reed-bed backdrop; 
The inspiration for this came from John Leason's excellent bittern image last year:
The problem with the old layout was there was no where for this bird to retreat into - it could merely pace around 'sandpiper bay' and back out again.  Now we have a porous backdrop it can move in and out of, with the reeds serving to hold fish fry feeding in the oxygenated and daphnia laden waters.  Likewise the hope is this will be equally appealing to water rails and perhaps spotted crakes.

We've also noted that the gravel outwash from the transfer ditch was very popular with grey wagtails and common sandpipers.  As such we have built on this with Tophill's only 'montane stream' habitat - sweep stake on the next dipper:  

The top half of the hide is coming as a pre-assembled unit from Green Futures Buildings of Elland - known locally for their very popular photography hide at Thornwick Bay we checked out two years ago.  Under construction:
Finishing off by the volunteers:
 Just some of the installation gang:
 The outlook - Jo's willow arch covers approaching viewers from the air:
The view over sandpiper bay - inlet bottom right which is what holds all the bird attention in mid summer:
The informal opening ceremony - we have named the new hide in recognition of Peter Izzard pictured whom was instrumental in successfully leading the site to being a nature reserve since 1963:
 And a rare shot of three Tophill Wardens - myself, Roy Lyon and Peter Izzard:
As for access certainly in year one the hide will be for reserve members only to keep a handle on numbers; But there will be a sneak peak until March 31st for all - Here's some pictures from day one - Brian Blinkhorn:
Steve Shipley:
John Leason:
Hopefully the first of many...

The other major project of this spring has been on Watton Nature Reserve.  We've been trying to shepherd a safe future for it over the last few years and are really pleased this has all come together.  We've been working with the owner Chris Saunders and Natural England to develop a stewardship and management programme that maximises the benefit for nature - with further input from Watton stalwarts Tony McLean and Roy Lyon.  Whilst some of the work has been grant funded by NE - Chris has very nobly dug into his own pockets to fund much of the habitat work privately himself - so we're really pleased we've got an owner who appreciates the value of the reserve.  Perhaps some of you saw the recent Winterwatch series and the drive to get individuals to take a stand for themselves in nature conservation rather than waiting for 'organisations' to sort it - and this is a great example.

Broadly speaking the assets that were highlighted in studies last year as really important on Watton were the botanical communities on the open grasslands - heavily grazed by wildfowl, rabbits and deer which are unique.  As ever a huge privilege walking around the interior - there are so few areas in East Yorkshire that hold these nutrient impoverished meadows - and as such the thousands of delicate orchids that can exist without nitrate boosted grasses, docks, thistles and nettles:

The seasonal ponds on the southern plateau should get good wader and wildfowl use which is a spectacle for the viewer.  But much of it has been lost to succession - excellent features like this scrape which could be utilised by snipe, redshank, curlew - but with a hawthorn towering above it:
The whole concept of management is to keep the area open as the pits were originally made 25 years ago for wildfowl - as ever open sightlines and views encourage birds to use the habitat without fear of predation.  The more warning they get - the better they can escape - and the more they visit and stay in view for us.  One of the best examples of this management approach locally is Nosterfield Nature Reserve in North Yorkshire and that's the look we're going for.  It's brutally efficient, but the same excavator and operator we used for the photo hide made short work of this and generated some epic bonfires:
The island was considered - but it was agreed by all that it held far more biodiversity interest as an open area than an afforested one.  The true test would be to explore it.  The last time a human stepped on this island was 25 years ago;
The volunteers respectful as ever to their superiors:
 Rob makes landfall:
Again another great privilege - how many people have summited Everest in comparison to walked this island?  Alas there were no endemic wonderments - just some rancid swan eggs:
So the area has been opened out.  The mute swans have already been laying claim - they will care not whether it has willows or not - and it'll be interesting to see what else uses it to boot:

The old sand martin colony had become a bit of an eyesore - we set about with the volunteers:

And the East Riding College team:
The timber is being recycled for nest boxes - and we then rebuilt the mound to original spec;  It used to work successfully in this guise - but when it flooded in 2006 and 2007 the artificial boxes were installed:
It won't be ready just yet as it needs re-cutting vertically when it has settled and bound together (This is why you can't build it vertical unless you use a South Marsh West style retaining wall):

That said - kingfisher has already been reportedly eyeing it up... The central bund that was at risk of eroding completely has been rebuilt to last another 25 years:
Incidentally looking through the old photos it now looks remarkably similar to this photo from 1996:
And shows that cormorants aren't a modern scourge as some would believe... This also incorporates a new sluice - so for the first time we have level control on the southern pits - allowing us to maximise autumn wader passage.  And to boost this further we've done some subtle edge habitat improvements to create more diverse feeding grounds:
So we don't have to repeat this the intention is to regularly graze the pits in autumn and keep the open grassland habitat there.  Meanwhile the tern rafts have returned to Tophill and are now installed on south marsh east where it is hoped they can work to full potential:

Elsewhere we've had a few tweaks to the Hempholme view:
Minor compared to the fish pass installation - this is what the crane is for...
This major scheme is creating a cut through the central island of the lock to allow the movement of migratory fish in the river Hull such as trout, salmon, lamprey, eels, dace etc as demanded under EU habitat directives.  More on this to follow.

And some great works by Hull University volunteers to finish the winter work programme off...

So what has this all yielded?  Already marsh harrier, barn owls, kingfisher, shelduck are all looking promising - and herons have been active all month - Maurice Dowson:
The early year has kickstarted a lot of things very early - coltsfoot on February 19th:
Chiffchaffs calling on the 28th Feb - Roy Lyon:
And the reserve's earliest ever sand martin - 6th of March from the 12th in 1993/4 - photo John Barnard:
So with luck everything is in place for a great 2019
The new membership cards are now available as all expire on the 31st of March - all details available on the membership tab above