Monday, 18 February 2019

February updates

Here at Tophill Low we know that it is the place to be if you are interested in wildlife and although you may not see what you came for eg kingfisher or otter there is always something of interest, whether it is the carpet of snowdrops that are in full flower in the reception woods or the array of woodland birds visiting the feeders at the moment. A recent, independent and detailed survey was carried out across East Yorkshire and in particular the Yorkshire Nature Triangle region to see how various nature reserves are attracting tourists in the area. It has highlighted the importance of places like Tophill Low to visitors. The growth in nature tourism has been quite incredible since 2010, growing from £9M to £24M in 2018 so it is a fast-growing sector of the hugely important tourism industry in this area. 68% of Tophill Low visitors surveyed said that the sole reason for coming to East Yorkshire was to visit Tophill Low and typically spent over 3 hours at the reserve. 88% of those surveyed came because of the biodiversity rather than visiting for the scenery, the walking, or for a cafĂ© and 75% are returning visitors which shows us that whatever the reason for visiting Tophill, whether for the birds, the general wildlife or for photography, people continue to come back for more. Yorkshire Water has carried out their own survey of its recreation sites across the Yorkshire Water region and this has also emphasised the importance that visitors place on the biodiversity that is seen at Tophill Low and the feeling that people have of being immersed in an area that is truly for the wildlife.
The reserve is forever changing as the habitats are constantly managed and developed to increase the biodiversity at the site. Recently, volunteers have been working hard to clear and remove areas of dense hawthorn on the banks and island at the Watton Borrow Pit site which adjoins Tophill Low. In doing so areas of wet grassland are being created to encourage breeding wetland birds such as lapwing and redshank. And it seems to be working as last week I spotted 12 redshank and 8 curlew feeding in the area. It is certainly worth the walk if you have not been down to that end of the reserve for a while to see the changes.
In other areas of the reserve there has been a lot of pre-breeding activity. Male goldeneyes on “D” reservoir have been showing off to their potential mates. The males have a very characteristic head throwing display which involves throwing their heads back along their backs. Goldeneye tend to mate up before they head back to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and the Baltic states, saving crucial time when they arrive back to breed. Other birds that are showing signs of pairing ready for breeding are the grey herons that can be spotted in North Marsh woods; they have been very vocal recently and it’s hoped that the number of nesting birds will increase each year if they are successful. With 7-8 little egrets on Hempholme meadow last week maybe they might join the grey herons, as egrets and herons share a breeding colony. The recent settled and relatively mild weather means that birds are searching out nestboxes and beginning to sing to defend their territories, so the woodland is awash with activity. Always plenty to see at Tophill Low.
School visits have started again at the reserve and our future scientists have found a wide range of freshwater invertebrates in the reception pond last week. There were plenty of damselfly larvae and freshwater shrimps as well as a great water stick insect. On the "D" reservoir children helped to count coot and tufted duck and spent a lot of time observing how these birds spend their time on the water. In the reception hide there is a great opportunity to compare water and woodland birds as there are plenty of each that can easily be seen. If you know a local school that would be interested in visiting the reserve then please tell them to visit to book their FREE visit.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Clean sweep

A few more species to add into the year list with Mediterranean gull, pintail, 6 shelduck appearing a few days later, black tailed godwit, merlin and red kite today to keep things ticking over.  Thanks to everyone whom participated in the day - we also raised £35.10 for Ryedale Wildlife Rehab to assist in their good work. 

As the official Tophill Christmas tree has become a habitat pile for the wrens, the Wildlife Photography Exhibition also comes to an end.  Thanks to everyone who submitted images and visited and voted in what was a really successful first instalment.  Hopefully everyone got chance to drop in and look through them.  Judging them was really difficult - as mentioned previously the panel's decision was based not purely on image and kit, but also the context and story the image told.  All were judged anonymously (where untitled on the picture).  Its all subjective; but our decision was for the animal category:
Marsh Frog by Rose Habberley - whilst technically an invasive; we liked its epic struggle up the log:

For the Wading bird category:
Jack snipe by Brian Blinkhorn - It was close run but the scarcity of the species in a well posed shot in its habitat edged it. 

For the plants category;
Water violets by Steve Shipley - Simple and effective on the reception hide pond. 

For the birds category;
Another Blinkhorn!  lots of great pictures in this category but the soft light on a tribute to a bird which more than likely didn't make it (one of this years youngsters which had been roosting on the reception hide but succumbed in Decembers prolonged wet spell).

Rob Worsfold's complete rainbow over the approach road. 

Best gull was a 50:50 shot with just two participants!:
Geraldine Gray's nesting black headed.

And then a hatrick for the kingfisher category:
Brian Blinkhorn again - a difficult choice but the way Brian's kingfisher had a three dimensional aspect and the clearly focussed pupil on its prey set it apart. 

And finally for invertebrates;
Scorpion fly by Steve Hines - a well posed picture of a smart beast. 

One category went un-awarded - young photographer unfortunately with no takers.  We'll certainly be running the exhibition again next Christmas with similar categories, but with the addition of a short video / sound recoding class of up to three minutes.  Full details will be posted in due course so get snapping...

But were the jury correct?  We also had the public vote so visitors could express their opinion.  The ballot was counted today and in 4th place:
Meadow pipits by Steve Hines - a cracking shot of a daily bird at Tophill - but very seldom on the ground.  In 3rd place:
Curlew by John Leason - a pin sharp shot of a bird that deserves recognition at Tophill.  In second place:
Hare by John Leason - a stunning portrait of an animal synonymous with East Yorkshire, and in 1st place...
Bittern by John Leason! Certainly a compelling verdict and well deserved on the consistency of quality in all his images.  Also worthy of note that it was taken at the aspect of the photography hide - so hopefully more to come this season at this location...

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Getting one up...

2018 finished off with a final flourish.  On Friday the 28th we overheard 6 whoopers as they landed on O res.  Going for a look at lunch Gill Reid clocked the drake smew which was great to see back again on O res, and came to D on the 31st also. 
John Coish:
The following day we had a visit from Pete Short, the RSPB's Blacktoft Sands Warden.  Its always good therapy to exchange notes on the perils of Wardening,  A chief moan is the 'it's quiet there's nothing here' we both get on occasion.  In our eyes there is always something to see - it may not what was expected - but there is always something if folks open their eyes...

With this in mind Pete passed me these shots later in the day:
This bird certainly smacks strongly of American blue-winged teal, immature males can still be in sub-adult plumage at this time of year so the white crescent would not be fully developed as here.   The other reason it could be indistinct is because it could be a hybrid.  Ideally more pictures and study would have been obtained - unfortunately another visitor then arrived and opened the flaps and flushed the bird, whilst remarking 'all these birds and we haven't seen anything rare'... 

At the time of writing we're still hoping it'll reoccur and vindicate itself fully with some nice flight shots. 

So with the above in mind what can you see with a bit of application?  A good barometer is the annual year listing event - we had a tough target this year, with 80 from 2018 the all time record to top.  So...

Arriving at the start of proceedings Angram Farm, Lukas and I leapfrogged down the road recording 
1) Woodpigeon
2) Rook - 200 over Decoy
3) Carrion crow
4) Pheasant
5) Barn owl unexpectedly flew overhead and straight into the Angram outbuildings
6) Blue tit
7) Great tit
8) Tree sparrow were all on the feeders - but alas no house this year
9) Feral pigeon / Rock dove - hanging around the yard
10) Stock dove - calling, but further good sightings later
11) Magpie
12) Blackbird
13) Great black backed gull - was on some prey item in the fields
14) Mistle thrush on the approach road was welcome for a some years troublesome tick
15) Redwing were in the hawthorns - and somewhat elusive the rest of the day
16) Common buzzard on Easingwold
17) Chaffinch was on the muck-heap first of many
18) Red legged partridge - a small covey at Easingwold Farm
19) Jackdaw - in the garden
20) Moorhen - 5 this year unfettered by last years otters at this time in Barmston Drain
21) Goldcrest in the car park conifers
Many thanks to all the great assistance we got through the day today - a great turn out of regulars and visitors helped keep the tally coming.  Jeff and Chris in the reception hide had already had:
22) Treecreeper
23) Pied wagtail
24) Coal tit
25) Starling
26) Cormorant
27) Robin
28) Dunnock
29) Great spotted woodpecker
30) Fieldfare
31) Song thrush
32) Lee Johnson bagged a couple of good ticks - grey partridge
33) Woodcock at first light (John Coish another later on Easingwold).  This was all by 9am! 
10am saw the first of the two walks; We started with a proper look on the D res -
34) Black-headed gull
35) Pochard
36) Goldeneye
37) Common gull
38) Tufted duck
39) Coot
40) Great crested grebe
41) Mute swan
42) Goldfinch
43) Wigeon
44) Gadwall
45) Greenfinch as we left heading south
46) Long tailed tit
47) Marsh tit - flew along the north lagoon willow tunnel calling - alas no willow today
48) Teal on south lagoon - with masses more on Watton and South Marsh East
49) Mallard there too
50) Lapwing
51) Redshank - an impressive 18 on the lowered South Marsh East (although already a digital tick on camera)
52) Curlew - three on SME
53) Sparrowhawk - sat on a post surveying the scene on SME
54) Marsh harrier - a female quartered the reed bed before another passed high over D res late in the day
55) Greylag geese - Watton
56) Canada geese - Watton
57) Kestrel - hovering at the rear - Lukas Rowe:
58) Goosander - the pair which had earlier been missed by the early watchers
59) Shoveler - several on Watton
60) Little egret - a single and more going along the river to roost at dusk
61) Cetti's warbler called from the top of Watton.  Not seen anywhere but heard multiple places.
62) Bullfinch - again on call in South Scrub
63) Water rail - another call
64) Herring gull overhead
Arriving back at the reception hide we met up with the other teams who had also recorded;
65) Pink-footed goose - another from Lee
66) The drake smew had made a welcome return for the day.  Mid afternoon it flew and dropped straight into the river Hull behind north scrub - perhaps where it goes?
67) Grey heron
68) Peregrine falcon
69) Kingfisher
70) Grey wagtail
71) Siskin
72) Linnet
73) Yellowhammer
74) Reed bunting - a confiding bird on north scrub later entertained everyone. 
75) Common snipe - final bird of the morning Lukas uncovered on Easingwold footpath on the carrs:
This presented us with a problem as we were only five off the pace - but not much easy left for the afternoon
76) Lesser black-backed gull was picked out by Chris Straw, before the long walk north through D woods and around Hemholme and back.  Chief target was a willow tit but to no avail.
77) Little grebe was the other target - the morning surveyors had failed; but we managed four downstream of the weir
78) Meadow pipit were in a small party over Hempholme lock.
79) Collared dove was not as enigmatic as the intended little owl at Hallytreeholme Farm - but a tick none the less and perhaps as uncommon now at Tophill.
80) The clincher came when a group of "large finches" alighted opposite north marsh.  A scope view found them to be a party of 16 corn bunting.  Best birds of the day - and a fitting end as we knew that; 
81) Tawny owl was an inevitability around the reception hide as darkness fell. 
So there we are - a new record set!  And tactically one up on last year so not setting the bar impassably high for 2020... In addition roe deer, hare, rabbit and otter spraint on the mammal list.  Proof indeed that there is always something to see!
To critique ourselves - no Mediterranean gull or other larid exotica (no Martin), the shelduck previously present daily had gone, and the two pintail according to Dave Hobson's feed were at Eske all day despite our efforts.  Willow tit was sorely missed and short-eared owl could not be located at dusk on Hallytreeholme or Easingwold.

We had a collection along the way for Ryedale Wildlife Rehab - so if you are suitably impressed by our efforts we'll be keeping the tin open for donations until Sunday the 6th of Jan - which is the last day for viewing the photo exhibition too. 

Hopefully the rest of the year carries on as strongly...   

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.