Shovelers

These pictures of male and female shovelers were taken from the main hide with a mobile phone through Tim’s new scope.

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The huge wide ‘shovel-like’ bill is very distinctive and is used to strain food through water as the duck dabbles. Shovelers are especially adapted to muddy-bottomed marshes; their bills having small comb structures on the inside edges to filter insects from the water.

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The female looks more like a mallard but the broad bill makes it easy to identify.  Shovelers are a widespread species; breeding in Europe and Asia.  In the UK they breed in the South East of the Country, nesting on the ground, typically laying 9 eggs.  The birds wintering at Home Farm Marsh are more likely to be from Ireland and Iceland.

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Winter Homes for Ducks and Waders

Winter Homes for Ducks and Waders

The main pond at Home Farm Marsh has been getting really crowded at times over the winter months.  There are often large numbers of wigeon, teal and canada geese with total counts regularly over 500 birds last winter.  The Gaia Trust made a small extension to the pond last Autumn 2015 and over the winter 2015 / 16 there were record numbers of teal, snipe, lapwing, shovelers, redshanks and golden plover.

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The increase in pond size and apparent corresponding increase in abundance of 6 species was more than our regular birder and volunteer Geoff could stand; and he soon made a plan to raise some money for a further extension and some winter ‘scrapes’.img_0938

Geoff cycled 425 miles with his wife and  2 other ladies between Cherbourg and Roscoff camping out each night along the way, raising more than £600 through sponsorship – GREAT WORK Geoff!

The Tarka Country Trust kindly gave another £500 towards the work.

The digger has created more standing water and reduced the profile of the pond to a shallow slope giving more roosting space for ducks and waders and making it easier for them to access the water.  The bare soil attracts golden plover, godwits and redshank.

Geoff overseeing works

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The scrapes will hold water over the winter. This water as well as the mud around the edges will attract both waders and ducks.

img_5844 One of 4 shallow scrapes that will hold water over the Winter months

Osprey Nest Platform

Ospreys can be seen fishing on the Taw Torridge Estuary in North Devon in the Spring and Autumn.

img_5270These large rangy hawks are on passage between their breeding grounds further north and Africa where they see out our winter. Research shows that they have favoured migration routes that they stick to throughout their lives.

We watched an Osprey on the 26th August from Home Farm Marsh.  Birders Tim Smith and Geoff Taylor spotted it sitting on a post on the other side of the estuary – here they are watching it.  It flew up the river towards Barnstaple hunting for fish.  We saw it drop into the water 3 times without any success – it must have been close on one occasion because we saw a fish jump up out of the water next to it.

Here is a picture of the Osprey taken with a mobile phone through binoculars – it was more than 700 metres away sitting on top of a post in the river.  There are no suitable perching posts on the Home Farm Marsh side of the river making seeing Osprey from the Reserve tricky.

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The Gaia Trust has remedied the situation by putting up an Osprey nest platform on the edge of the Reserve.  Western Power kindly offered to put the posts up – big thanks to all the guys involved at Western Power.

The next stage of the Project is to install a high quality camera with pan, tilt and zoom on the second pole above the nest platform that will send a signal to the Fremington Quay cafe and from there, a live stream on the web.  The camera will enable viewers to both look at the surrounding estuary and zoom in on birds on the mud and sand banks, as well as hear the sounds of the birds – and wind!

The nest platform base was made using treated softwood with a wire mesh stapled to it.  We made sure that there were no sharp edges or places where a bird could trap a foot or claw.  The sticks on top of the platform are to resemble a natural Osprey nest and we wanted them to be long-lasting in the harsh estuary environment.  The Forester at Tapeley Park gave us access to the drive where we collected some old dead chestnut branches – they were incredibly dense and hard so they should last well.

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Here is the nest platform being attached to the pole and the pole being craned into the 8 foot hole that Western Power had bored into the stoney estuary ground.  The last picture taken at low tide shows the platform with the second camera post above.

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Geoff’s bird boxes

Geoff took some of the oak off-cut scraps from when we built the bird hides and has knocked up some high quality bird boxes.

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We put one of the boxes up on the lane before the hides on a hedgerow elm and 3 more in the copse.

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The open fronted boxes are designed for robins and spotted flycatchers and the little round holes suit tits, sparrows and nuthatches.

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Spring at Home Farm Marsh

Friday was a bright sunny morning with swallows swooping over the main pond, dipping to take big beak-fulls of water. There were 2 male shelduck on the pond – in fine conditions with their bright red beaks I’m guessing that there are females in burrows on eggs.

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The hay rattle is thick on the ground along the sea defences embankment. A small patch that is already in flower is attracting bees working hard for early spring nectar.  Along with the dandelions there are other flowers in bloom – apple, gorze, oxeye daisy, hawthorn and hemlock water dropwort.

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The hemlock water dropwort is becoming dense on the flowery bank and it is smothering flower-rich turf.   Dropwort is also one of the most toxic plants in Britain; the leaves and roots ‘dead man’s fingers’ are highly toxic and can cause massive seizures and sometimes death.

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This Large Red Damselfly has just emerged from its nymph stage – you can see its discarded nymph body at the top of the picture.  Damselfly / Dragonfly nymphs spend anywhere between 2/3 months and 5 years! under water in their dark bodies crawling about in the mud before they climb out of the water, their skin breaking open; they emerge – transformed into a brightly coloured winged predator.

Weekend of sunshine in the reed-beds at Saltpill Duck Pond

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18 students from Bristol University Conservation Group joined our usual volunteers at the weekend.  The goals for the weekend were to clear invasive scrub from the Saltpill reed-bed and to put 2 new Gaia Trust cycle racks in on the Tarka Trail at either end of the Reserve.

The Reed-bed

We started by clearing an area of alder; most of which had been coppiced before so there were about 8 stems on each coppice stool.  Alder grows very fast and is well adapted to growing in and around water.  Back in the days of old, it was grown on 12 year cycles and used for charcoal and, because its wood is extremely light, for making wooden soles for shoes and clogs.

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Tim and Geoff dragging the cut alder through thick reeds and water – hard work

Tamarisk is a very adaptable plant! – I knew it could tolerate salt, wind and poor soils but here it is flourishing in 2 feet of water.  Covered in bramble and twisting and rooting in every direction and growing out of the water and thick mud; made progress slow to begin with.

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Clearing the bramble to get to the tamarisk

Birds and Butterflies

We were treated to the sounds of water rails screeching and squealing close to us in the reeds.  They start nesting at the end of March so we will keep an eye on the reed bed to see if they stay with us.  The other notable bird was a cetti’s warbler – its very loud clear song is unmistakeable – cetti’s is a recent coloniser and was first recorded breeding in the UK in 1972.  A brimstone was purposefully following along the sunlit hedges.  Brimstones spend the winter hidden deep in dense vegetation such as ivy and it is the bright, lemon yellow males that wake up three weeks before the paler females, heralding spring.

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Jumble of tamarisk growing out of the reed-bed

Cycle Racks

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The cycle racks are made of locally grown oak from Tapeley Park and the lettering is hand carved by woodsman John Bowden.

They mark the West and East Reserve boundaries along the Tarka Trail and will encourage cyclists to get off their bikes and visit the Reserve.  They might also make it easier for our regular volunteers and recorders to travel to the Reserve by bike.

The students enjoyed digging the holes! – each post was set 2.5 to 3 feet into the ground so that no cement had to be used.

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Bird ringer Lowell in the evening sunshine propped up against the East Gate Rack 

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The West Gate

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Cooking sausages on the beach

What have Bumblebees got to do with it?

Bumblebees? – I thought it was all about the honey bee.  I was wrong….

I recently attended a Conference hosted by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust at Royal Holloway University in Surrey.

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There are 250 known bee species in the UK; 225 of these are solitary bees, 24 of them bumblebees and just one species of honey bee.

The common carder is the only common UK bumblebee that is mostly brown or ginger.

Perhaps surprisingly surveys indicate that honey bees comprise only 2 – 3 % of visits to  flowers.  Bumblebees are very efficient pollinators and they are the main pollinators  for commercial pea and bean crops.  Their size and hairiness mean that they have both; more contact with the stigma of the flower and more pollen sticks to them.  Bumbles are not hoarders like honey bees so they have to be out every day, early and late in the year, collecting pollen for their grubs.   In fact some British Bumblebee species are out and about nectaring right through the winter.  Consequently they are endothermic, meaning they can generate their own body heat and are specially adapted to cool, wet climates.

They are used commercially in soft fruit production and are known to have a positive impact both on yields and the quality of the fruit.  Economists in the US have started putting million dollar figures on Bumbles contribution to the National Economy.

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These solitary bees above nest in holes collecting mud and using it to ‘plug’ the end to protect their eggs.  They also have a significant role in pollinating  both our food crops and wild flowers.

02062011245In recent decades the geographical area where bumblebees occur has declined by over 70% and their abundance by more than 75% – why?

The most likely reason for this massive decline is a lack of pollen and nectar for food especially at the beginning and end of the year (March – October) when commercial flowering crops such as oil seed rape have been harvested and their nectar is no longer available.  It in these periods when availability of food is low that wild flowers ‘fill the gap’ providing essential pollen and nectar at key times of the year.  An estimated 97% of our flower rich grasslands have disappeared.

Different species of bumblebees favour different species of flowers – bumbles have differing tongue lengths and tubular flowers favour longer tongues.  The loss and decline of harebell and sheeps bit scabious is associated with the decline of specific bumblebee species.

It was noticed that flowers from the pea family – clovers and vetches seemed to be the most attractive to bumblebees and it has been discovered that these plants have the most high levels of protein in their pollen and nectar.

What can we do at Home Farm Marsh for Bumblebees?

There were some inspiring examples of managing farms to encourage bumblebees, as well as for other nectar and pollen loving insects.  There has been enough research to formulate best practice and much of what is already being done at Home Farm Marsh is benefitting bumblebees.

Several smaller 0.25 ha (0.6 acre) areas of high yielding pollen and nectar plants is better than one bigger area.  The Bumblebee Conservation Trust suggests having field margins 6 metres by 400 metres around a farm.  These strips need to be on the south side of hedges for maximum warmth and sunlight.

images The famous picture gallery at Royal Holloway has a dozen or so paintings of pastoral and rural scenes and it is interesting to note how many of them show small areas of unkempt ground where plants have been left to grow and flower.  Our modern farms tend to be very clean and tidy environments and unmanaged areas tend to have very high levels of nutrients that make them unsuitable for wild flowers.  We need to find ways to recreate these areas of colour and biodiversity.  Urban gardens are something that most of us can have an immediate impact on and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has some great advice for those wanting to increase Bumble numbers.

2013-06-19-485There was some disagreement about whether it is better to establish specific pollen and nectar seed mixes or if more general wildflower mixes are better.  In April this year we planted a pollen and nectar mix at Home Farm Marsh  with limited success.  Several experts at the Conference confirmed, not only the difficulty of establishing these plant mixes, but also their limited life span of 2 or 3 years.  Wildflower mixes are easier to establish and last 10 years or more.

We are planting a wildflower meadow in April in Gutter Marsh field and hope that this will provide abundant nectar and pollen for our many pollinators.  Home Farm Marsh is 80 hectares and could support 40 bumblebee colonies.

Anyone wanting to take part in surveying for Bumblebees at Home Farm Marsh or the other Reserves in Cornwall can get in touch with the Gaia Trust