Monday, 14 April 2014

In April, come i will....

Heard my first Cuckoo today!  In the river side fields we have at Mottisfont, down near the Oakley Oak i heard that distant call that sends us straight back to childhood with the cuckoo poem echoing in my brain:

"In April come i will,
In May i sing all day,
In June i change my tune,
In July i prepare to fly,
In August, away i must"

I love the simplicity of this rhyme and the hint of melancholy - the cuckoo's time here is so short and you realise how fast the summer months fly before the cuckoo heads off again and is not heard on our shores beyond August.
My final words on my last blog post proved to be prophetic – I had just written about how it could only be a matter of time before male adders were seen ‘duelling’ – and sure enough, later that day, Matt got the following photo of two males in combat.  Adders won’t bite each other in a fight but they will twist round each other and rear up, each trying to get higher than the other and push its opponent down with its body.  I was also lucky enough to see some duelling action at the weekend, having spotted 2 males slithering around some vegetation obviously scenting each other and a female and thus looking for a fight. One of the males slithered out across the open patch I was standing in, only about 2 inches from my boots, but totally preoccupied with scenting the female which must have passed that way earlier.  Luckily I was downwind of him and so by keeping stock still I remained undetected and he carried on past me.  We then found him and his rival in some vegetation just further on duelling and chasing each other – well the big male was chasing the smaller one round and round in a comic style race and in the centre of it all we spotted 2 females – a reddish beauty and the black one Matt found weeks earlier – worthy prizes indeed!  After several good attempts, the smaller male got chased off for good and went to sulk in the sun nearby, whilst the bigger male continued patrolling the clump of bracken and gorse where the females were hiding.  It was like watching a soap opera – but much more entertaining I’d say!
Male adders duelling - the yellowy coloured one on the left won this fight.
A beauty of a grass snake i found under a tin - there was a smaller male with her but he scarpered.  Our biggest native snake.
Meanwhile, adders aside, we have been up to all sorts as usual.  The countryside everywhere is finally starting to blossom and bloom – this time of year it is always like every tree and shrub has been holding its breath over the winter – and suddenly they release it and boom!  There is lush green grass everywhere and the hedgerows are popping with bright green buds and Blackthorn blossom.  Even the bluebells are well on their way to a Spring spectacular – our site at Curbridge, on the river Hamble, is always a winner for bluebells as are the Mottisfont estate woodlands.  As you drive into Mottisfont the fields by the entrance, which were underwater for so long, are finally dry and green again and the scummy tideline that adorned the bottom of all the trees has faded away.  No one seems to have told the swans though which are still happily spending most of their time in those fields, unwilling perhaps to give up their extended kingdom.  In the space of a week the butterfly transect on Stockbridge Down has gone from 6 butterflies to a whopping 48 today – including my first Green Veined white of the year and an abundance of Orange tips.

The background soundtrack to this beautiful time of year is bird song.  I managed to get this photo of a Black Cap singing in the Duck Grounds – lovely little bird with the male wearing a shiny black hat and the female wearing a chestnut brown one - and this male was really going for it, trilling away. 
Also got a photo of a Long Tailed tit nest tucked away in a gorse bush.  These nests are really spectacular as they are made with cobwebs and lichens, a true masterpiece of architecture.

Long Tailed tit nest

Black Cap

We had a visit last week from a man who first discovered the Barbastelle bat populations at Mottisfont ten years ago.  He has returned to examine the known bat roosts and find potential for new ones here at Mottisfont.  Our woodlands host a number of bat species but the Barbastelle are probably the most unique.  They require woodland in which to roost and riverine habitat nearby that they go to feed.  They use woodland rides and hedgerows as corridors to fly from their woodland haunt, down to the river and wetlands where they feast on insects- mainly moths.  They are one of the rarer British mammals and there are few known breeding maternity sites in the country– of which we are privileged to be one.  They tuck themselves away in the cracks of trees or under loose bark so it is important that there are suitable trees for this purpose; if we were to fell every dead or dying or storm damaged tree, that would be the end of the Barbastelle – and many more species as of course trees are micro worlds for hundreds of different species of invertebrate, flora and larger animals.

Another creature that likes to roost in trees are Barn Owls.  We have several known pairs across the estate which are monitored by our volunteer bird surveyor Alan Snook – if a new bird of any species happened to turn up, fly over or drift by Mottisfont, Alan will be the first to know about it – the man seems omnipotent when it comes to avian life! He works closely with the Hampshire Ornithological Society and managed to get hold of some Barn Owl boxes to put up across the estate.  Barn owls will roost in buildings (hence the name) but also in old trees – our Oakley Oak has a Barn owl pair in one of the limbs.  However they can be kicked out by Jackdaws that tend to take over the whole tree for their nesting colony.  By putting up Barn Owl nest boxes you are providing more suitable roosting sites that the barn owls can discover and use for nesting.  Alan had got us 2 nesting boxes and 2 roosting boxes, to be used in pairs.  Basically the female Barn owl will nest and lay eggs in the nest box and as she will sit on the eggs continually until they hatch, she relies on the male to bring her food.   However she does not like the male to be in the nest box with her, so by providing a roost box nearby – like a bachelor pad – the male has somewhere to hang out and call to his mate, until she requires him to bring her food or help with the young.  Doubtless there are some human set ups that are very similar.

Nesting box on the left and the male's bachelor pad on the right.

The seasonal warmth has seen another change come in – our sheep flock are beginning to take some pride in their appearance and shed their winter wool in favour of their light summer jackets.  Wiltshire Horn sheep are self-shedding so it means you don’t need to shear them but also means you don’t get a full fleece off of them – they are more a meat breed.  But they have started doing a fine job of cutting their hair and you can see from this photo of a young one the difference in their winter and summer wool.  The lamb’s neck has got the summer wool coming through, fine and soft – the rest of its body is still covered in thick, dreadlocked, matted wool which it will lose as the warm days go on.

Now stop reading my blog and get out there and enjoy the sun!

See the fine summer wool on the neck

Guilty looking sheep acting nonchalant, having just nicked my sandwich!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Black snakes and Orange Tips

Days like today are the days I work for, the days I spend the dark hours of midwinter dreaming about.  Warm sun, greenery popping out on every tree and bush, colours twinkling in your vision from passing butterflies, new flowers and busy birds.  From my office I can always see the Pied Wagtail pair wagging their long tails as they peck among the shop plant display and the kestrels patrolling the stable yard as they decide where to make start their nest building.

I found my first tick yesterday happily suckling on my leg – luckily it was had not had much of a chance to drink its fill of my blood and I swiftly dispatched it with a pair of tweezers.

'I wandered lonely as a cloud'...sea of Daffodils at Mottisfont.

Blackthorn in flower on the Dun

This is the time of year we take a bit of a stock check.  The winter cutting season has ended and we roll up our sleeves and look towards the work that summer brings.  We have several projects that are on for the coming months including the restoration work on the river bank at Stockbridge Marsh – watch this space. 

Last week myself and Ryan led the volunteers in an epic couple of work days on Stockbridge Down and Marsh during which we got a huge amount done.  Monday saw the entire sheep flock get treated with Crovect (a spray on treatment to help prevent blowfly attack).  Wiltshire Horns are supposedly less prone to fly strike due to their short fleeces, but having had two late attacks in November last year I am taking no chances, and am starting the treatment from now onwards.  Luckily we didn’t have to rugby tackle and turn the sheep for this – it is just a spray from a nozzle gun down their back and across their buttocks and its job done.

We also used the tractor and strop to pull out a rotten gatepost and replace it and the gate with shiny new ones, repaired and restored a damaged carpark barrier, replaced some of the broken wooden hurdles that encircle the Bronze Age Barrows and do some other gate and carpark maintenance ready for the summer season. 

Then on Thursday we had the volunteers down on Stockbridge Marsh at the Southern gate which has always suffered badly from poaching in winter – being a peat marsh it will always be wet but in winter this far corner becomes a total quagmire into which only the hardiest of welly wearers will try and reach the gate.  We spent the day constructing a boardwalk which Ryan designed and the volunteers processed the timber for.  It is made using our own Larch off the estate and this is left untreated to prevent any toxins leaching into the peaty soil.  Being peat it tends to preserve the wood quite well so the new boardwalk should last for a good while yet.  The boggy ground around it should now dry out without the footfall pressure of people squelching through it and this will enable the grass and flora to grow again in this corner – next time you are walking the Test way, which runs right past it, take a turn through the gate and onto the Marsh without getting your feet muddy.
Muddy and well used already - new boardwalk over the Grimpen Mire

 Today, April Fool’s day, also marks another big turning point in our working calendar – it’s the official start of butterfly surveying season!  Across our sites we have a broad range of habitats and we have various surveys that are conducted including bats, reptiles, butterflies, birds, inverts, dormice, bio surveys…the list goes on.  Having this information allows us to monitor the impact of the work we do and ensure that it is having positive results, not detrimental ones.   
Our butterfly transects cover three sites across our Mottisfont wooded estate and we have another one on Stockbridge Down.  We are also setting up new butterfly transects across our New Forest sites too, so all in all, we are in for a busy butterfly summer providing we get the weather.  My survey today brought out all the usual candidates that overwinter as adults – brimstone, peacock, tortoiseshell – and my first Orange Tip!  This species overwinters as a chrysalis and emerges on warm April days – the male is unmistakable with its bright orange wing tips – and a sure sign that winter has turned its back.  The females can often be mistaken for small whites as they have black tipped wings (like small whites) but they do share with the male, the striking underside colouring of its wing – a beautiful green marbled effect on the underneath of its lower wing marks it out from small or green veined whites.

 The warm weather has also brought the adders out in force for Matt’s adder project which I mentioned in my previous post.  He has caught some stunning specimens including a whopping female of 67cm in length and 125g in weight – a fair old chunker.  He has also found bootlace adders (last year’s young) having just swallowed a common lizard and consequently not able to move very much!
Bootlace adder stuffed full of lizard - we all know that feeling of having overeaten!

I have spent a couple of days helping him and was absolutely over the moon to spot and catch my first melanistic – black – adder!  Right up until the moment I caught it I was in two minds as to whether it was a black adder or a dog turd (they look amazingly similar when curled up) but then I saw those gleaming red eyes that signified that this was not faecal matter.  He turned out to be male so I named him Edmund (the only choice for a male Black adder surely…)
Edmund Blackadder
Adders like to bask on moss - this one had found a nice mossy cushion this log.

Matt has also caught another black adder on the site – a female – so there is obviously a small population of melanistic adders in the area.  It would be romantic to think the two black adders will partner up and mate but I don’t think they are too bothered about colour matching.  However the males have started their pre mating sloughing of their skin and mate guarding (where they find a female and ‘guard’ her against other males) showing that the mating season is almost upon them.  The photo below is a fantastic shot of this – Matt saw this group of male adders all basking and guarding a mossy basking site that he had previously found a female in – and judging by the presence of all these males she was obviously still there hiding under the moss!
 Fingers crossed we get lucky and witness the males doing their competitive ‘dance of the adders’ - it’s only a matter of time now…

How many adders can you spot?  Males hanging outside the ladies dressing room...