Friday, 8 July 2016

Reach 24 Bioblitz

Last Saturday evening, anyone passing Reach 24 Acres may have been slightly confused by all the activity on the site. At 8 o’clock we started to track down as many different species as possible on the site before lunch time on Sunday.

Reach 24 Acres is a parcel of land on the edge of the village of Reach. The National Trust purchased it as part of the Wicken Fen Vision Project in 2011. The front 12 acres is being leased to the Reach community, who have created a steering group to drive the village’s ideas for the site. The aim is that the area will be used by local people as an area to enjoy being outdoors. They have already established a cricket pitch which they use for matches against other local village teams, planted an orchard made up of old native apple, pear and plum breeds, and have also planted a woodland that should develop nicely over the next few years. There is also a horse ménage being planned for riders to be able to stop at on other routes towards Reach Lode.

The Bioblitz was an exciting opportunity to get some baseline species data for this site, as well as getting people out looking for wildlife on their local patch. Saturday evening started off with setting out small mammal traps in the orchard and down some of the paths ready to be checked the next morning. Then John Rawle arrived to help us track down some bats. We had to waiting a little while and wander down closer to the village to hear anything on our bat detectors, but we saw a good amount of pipistrelles and then by the time we got back to Reach 24 we managed to hear one on site so it could be recorded as our first mammal species. By this time, Bill Mansfield had set up some moth traps and they were coming in thick and fast. By the end of the night, and after a few close encounters with the macro moths, we had recorded 48 moth species, including a Reed Lepoard Moth (Phragmataecia castaneae) which are nationally scarce. 

We were then up early to check the mammal traps, and we found 3 common shrews (Sorex araneus), one of which was a very pregnant female shrew. There was no rest from then on as we hunted down birds, bugs and butterflies through the morning. We then finished with a wander around the site checking off all the plant species we could identify. By Sunday lunch time, the species count had reached 231. Some more results have come in since, as some of the experts took some insects away to have a closer look at and we are now at 291 species!

Thank you to all the experts who came and shared their knowledge, and to everyone who came along to have a good time too.

Filling up the Longworth traps with food and bedding

Setting out the mammal traps in the Orchard
Listening out for bats at sunset
Watching for moths
A Small Magpie moth (Anania hortulata)
A grumpy looking Ghost moth (Hepialus humuli)
Sometimes the wildlife was just begging to be counted, like this brown slug (Deroceras reticulatum) found on someone's boot!
One of the Shrews (Sorex araneus) caught in the Longworths
Bug hunting
How ever big or small we were counting it!
A golden-bloomed grey longhorn beetle ( Agapanthia villosoviridescens)
Basecamp where all findings were recorded
Sweeping for butterflies
There were lots of Meadow Browns (Miniola jurtina)
And a Comma (Polygonum c-album)
And this fuzzy fella is a Ruby Tiger (Phragmatobia fuliginosa)
Scarlet Pipernel (Anagallis arvensis)
And I can't remember what plant this was but it had a nifty trick of its leaves following the sun as the day went on.
The total at the end of the day, which has now exceeded 290.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Spring Arrivals

As the weather warms up and the  clocks go forwards we're all starting to see and hear the signs of spring around Wicken Fen. The flowering plants are just starting to peak out, braving some of the early morning frosts we've been having recently. Primroses are popping up in Gutter Bridge Wood, while celandines are appearing all over the paths at the Fen. the hedgerows are also coming into blossom as the hawthorn as their little white flowers come into bloom.

These early flowering plants are an important food source for many of the first pollinators that are also starting to appear. I saw my first butterfly of the year last Saturday, a Peacock out on Burwell Fen, and as I've been writing this blog a male Brimestone has fluttered past our office window. My first Bumblebee sighting beat the butterflies by a matter of days, again on Burwell Fen, but as I was driving a tractor at the time I couldn't watch it for long enough to identify the species.

The annual Ranger bird spotting competition has started, seeing who can spot the migrating bird species first. Carol already has Chiff Chaffs and Grasshopper Warblers under her belt, while Alan spotted the first Swallows this morning. I don't like this game, mostly because I'm no good at it, but it does get you thinking about looking up and listening out while out doing work around the fen. Sedge and Reed warblers have also been heard but the rules state that you have to see it to claim first spotted so we'll all be watching the ditches carefully over the next week.

We're also expecting the arrival of some cuckoos imminently. We have started to follow the BTO's tracked cuckoos on their website. It an exciting race to see which of the seven will make it to Britain first, two having taken the lead by crossing the Sahara first. I'm rooting for Stanley who appears to be the only one who spent anytime in East Anglia last year.

Our resident birds are also gearing up for spring. The bitterns can be heard booming from the reedbed, and the males will continue to boom until they find a mate for the summer. Snipe can also be heard drumming at the moment, a very weird wound when you first hear it, but one you'll never forget once you know what it is.

Not to be out done by the rest of the wildlife the Koniks and Highlands have also been getting in on the spring action. We've had three new foals in the last few weeks, all girls call Bela, Hinny and Merrylegs. Our foal naming theme for the year is horses from books, though some of them are slightly obscure! They have all been born into the same family group to experienced mums, Nanja, Kaluna and Yara.
Hinny and Bela with mums Kaluna and Nanja

Gale is the first cow to calf this year, and has had a little boy. He's her first bull calf, though she has had two little girls in the last two years. As cows tend to do, she is keeping him away from the herd until he's a little surer on his legs, but Apple and Raven, Gale's previous calves, have joined her. They make a lovely family picture on the fen looking after little bro while mum has a bite to eat.

We've called him Winfrid, after Sir Norman Winfrid Moore, who died at the end of last year. He was on the Wicken Fen committee for many years and was an incredibly valuable source of knowledge. He had a huge impact on the ecological science, most notably discovering the impact of DDT pesticides on food chains and top predators.
Baby Winfrid soon after birth
and with mum Gale the next day

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Wicken Winter Highlights

Since the start of the year, the Rangers have been cracking on with lots of odd jobs around the Fen. We've carried on pollarding in North Field, which we started before Christmas, and we've started lots of fence repairs that need to happen before the Livestock come back to Tubney, Hurdle Hall and Oily Hall in the Spring.

While we've been out all over the reserve, we have been enjoying all the wildlife that can only be seen in the winter. Of particular note are the Short Eared Owls (Asio flammeus) on Burwell Fen. The rangers who check the livestock are usually lucky enough to see these lovely birds every time they go to Burwell at this time of year. These owls can be found in the UK all year round, but only come to the Fen in the winter. Though some Short Eared Owls breed in Northern England and Scotland, the birds in East Anglia have probably migrated here from Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland.  They are most often seen hunting during the day at Burwell Fen, looking for small mammals to have for supper, most probably field voles. If you pop over to Burwell for a look, also keep an eye out for Brown Hares (Lepus europaeus. Hares are on Burwell all year round, it's just slightly easier to see them at this time of the year when the grass sward is slightly lower. They don't burrow like rabbits, instead they hunker down in the longer grass tussocks, relying on their speed to escape from predators if they're flushed up. Its also coming up to Hare boxing season. It's the time of year when males get particularly frisky and the females literally have to bat them away, stand up on their hinds legs batting at their amorous opponent with their front legs. This behaviour is normally seen around March time, hence the expression "mad as a march hare".

If your headed for a day out from the Visitor's Centre don't worry, not all the wildlife action is on Burwell Fen. Field fares (Turdus pilaris) can often be seen in the hedges and scrub around the boardwalk, and look out for Redwings (Turdus iliacus) also hiding away in those flocks. If you hang around the Visitor Centre at sunset you may also see Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus) coming into roost for the night. Hen Harriers only spend the winter at Wicken Fen, preferring to go to the Northern parts of the UK to breed on upland heather moorland. These harriers are very rare in the UK, and in 2014 there were only 4 breeding pairs. We are very lucky to see at least three at the Fen every evening. The grey males are a beautiful sight to see soaring over the sedge fen scoping out a good place to bed down for the night.

Our two long term Ranger Volunteers have been taking advantage on their on site accommodation to go out wildlife watching during the dusky hours. Below is Alex's account of the Burwell Fen Starling murmuration they witnessed a week or so ago:

That season has arrived again. It is time for the starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) to start collecting together and roosting on the fen. Over the past few weeks an estimated 20,000 to 35,000 starlings have been providing a stunning murmuration spectacle over Burwell fen. A few days ago two of our long term volunteer rangers headed down to the reed bed by the concrete bridge in an attempt to experience the fantastic display. Widespread and resident in the UK throughout the year, starlings are still considered one of the commonest garden birds feeding on insects and fruit. The reason for the mass aerial stunt is widely speculated. Many believe starlings group together as it offers safety in numbers against predators such as peregrine falcons Falco peregrines. Starlings gather at their roosting site to keep warm at night and to swap knowledge, such as good feeding sites. 

Other wildlife sightings that night included Mute Swan Cygnus olor, Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus, Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, c200 Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus, c50 Jackdaw Corvus monedula, Barn owl Tyto alba, Short eared Owl Asio flammeus.