Welcome to the LDV NNR ringing blog, this blog is designed to share the experiences, findings and tales from a group of dedicated ringers. We specialise in conservation orientated research projects, largely focusing on wildfowl, waders, owls and birds of conservation concern, in and around the Vale of York NNR's.

NB - Whilst the purpose of this blog was initially designed to cover our nationally important wildfowl ringing activities, it now also features wildlife and work posts, explaining we how manage the NNR for both wildlife and people.

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Monday, 6 October 2014

Autumn - Work on the NNR

September began with another day spent with Judith, looking for new plants, grasses, sedges, rushes and mosses, this time on Skipwith Common NNR. We identified over thirty new species for the year, including Marsh Arrowgrass, Lesser Marshwort, Marsh St.John’s-wort, Bulbous Rush, Pill Sedge, Common Yellow Sedge, Jointed Rush and Purple Moor-grass, along with several new ones that we didn’t find last year. In addition to looking for new plants we were also keeping an eye out for invertebrates and found a number of new species of spider out on the heath. Caterpillars, shield bugs, leaf hoppers, reptiles, amphibians and dragonflies added to the variety of the day and the first fungi of the season were spotted – Fly Agaric, Tawny Grissette, Ochre Brittlegill and Spiny Puffball. A full write-up of the day can be read here.

 Discovering the world of moss
 Common Frog - Skipwith Common
 Tawny Grissette - Skipwith Common

Throughout August and September some of the team took an interest in Shield Bugs, and managed to find seven different species across the valley. Shield Bugs are attractive insects with their bright colouring, and are easily characterised by their flattened oval-shaped shell, and a triangular plate which sits between the wing cases - this is called the scutellum, meaning ‘small-shield’, which gives Shield Bugs their name. They are also known as Stink Bugs due to their ability to produce a pungent smelling liquid from special glands near their legs, when threatened. The majority of species (46 in total) feed on plant sap, however some are predatory, such as the Bronze and Red-legged Shield Bugs which feed on caterpillars and other insects. Along with finding many adults a number of nymphs were also found. When hatched Shield Bugs pass through several moults (five in total), changing colour and shape and resembling more like the adults at each stage until they reach the final breeding stage. When they are in the early stages, known as ‘instars’ identifying them can test even the most knowledgeable observer!

Bronze Shield Bug adult - Skipwith Common
Bronze Shield Bug nymph - Skipwith Common

At the beginning of September on Skipwith Common the Marsh Gentians started to flower, found near the bomb bay loop (opposite the WWII memorial). Marsh Gentians are only found on this one particular area of the Common, probably occurring because of the lime enrichment of the soil from the concrete nearby from the RAF base. The only other colony in the Vale of York is on Strensall Common SSSI. The area they occur on at Skipwith is managed to maintain their numbers by close mowing and disturbance of the soil in late autumn and early winter, reducing the competition by other species and leaving bare and open areas for them to thrive. This management seems to be working with a general increase over recent years from 60 or so flowering plants to around 150+.

Marsh Gentian - Skipwith Common

Throughout September several Marsh Harriers (two females and a second year male) showed well around the Lower Derwent Valley, particularly at North Duffield Carrs. Seeing Marsh Harriers in the valley now-a-days is not unusual, although roll back the years to the 1970’s and only a handful of pairs were present in the country, all of which were restricted to Norfolk and Suffolk, however by 2010 numbers had increased to around 400 pairs. Numbers visiting the Lower Derwent Valley NNR have increased in line with the national trend, and with a population of breeding birds based around the Humber birds are now almost resident in the valley. Birds have bred or have attempted breeding sporadically in recent years but are yet to really colonise the valley as an annual breeding species – however birds can be seen almost throughout the year across the valley, although Wheldrake Ings and North Duffield Carrs are the favoured locations.

Marsh Harrier - T.Weston

Although there are species of fungi that remain throughout the year, autumn is the best known season for looking for fungi and indeed more species are out from now on until the end of the year. Whilst we’ve been carrying out practical management works on the site over the last few weeks, we have noticed the appearance of a number of new species, especially on Skipwith Common which is a fungi hotspot in the local area. Species such as Common Earthball, Common Puffball, Spiny Puffball, Tawny Grissette, and Ochre Brittlegill are just a few of the species that we have found lately

We also came across a small group of Fly Agaric which were just starting to emerge, Fly Agaric is probably the best known mushroom species due to its distinctive look and bright red colours, making it instantly recognisable. Fly Agaric appear initially like this one pictured here, before growing in size and height – with some individuals reaching 30cm tall! At it goes on to mature, the scarlet ‘cap’ opens and becomes flattened. This species is rumoured to get its name from medieval times when it was used as a fly killer – the cap would be broken up and mixed into saucers of milk – both attracting and killing flies.

Fly Agaric - Skipwith Common
Each year we manage a small (3ha) fen meadow next to the Alder Carr Woodland at Thornton Ellers – a quiet and undisturbed part of the NNR. Lying on the junction between underlying sand and peat, the site is very diverse but equally very sensitive, needing an alternative method to cut and bale it rather than using today’s heavy agricultural equipment. So it’s up to ourselves to cut the field by allen scythe, rowing up by hand and using our mini-baler to produce manageable bales to remove. Cutting the fen meadow keeps the more dominant species like Glyceria, Phalaris and Soft Rush in check, allowing a wide range of fenland specialities such as Fen Bedstraw, Marsh Cinquefoil, Greater Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Devil’s-bit Scabious to flourish. We always cut the area of Devil’s-bit Scabious last, after it has finished flowering as it provides a great nectar source for so many invertebrates. 

This year we are baling the hay ‘green’ – meaning we won’t let it dry out before we bale it, which will reduce the number of seeds that get shaken out of the crop. This is due to the bales going to a large wet grassland/fenland creation project this year in the Hull Valley, at Leven Carrs just south of Tophill Low. This project has been funded by Natural England’s Agri-environment Scheme (HLS), with the aim of improving this area which can be found beside the Leven Canal. It’s nice to think our NNR meadow will help turn another part of Yorkshire into another fantastic habitat for wildlife.

Devil's-bit Scabious in full bloom
John loading up the hay bales

It certainly won’t win any prizes (!) but here’s a photograph of the Humming-bird Hawk-moth that was found in the NNR Base Garden at the beginning of September, feeding on the lavender. This is the second reserve record following one in 2012 – which is particularly pleasing as the garden was designed as a nectar rich demonstration butterfly and bee garden. The individual in 2012 was present for several days and was enjoyed by a number of visitors to the reserve, sadly this one didn’t linger for very long, remaining just for the initial day it was found. 

Humming-bird Hawk-moths are day flying moths, regularly migrating from southern Europe where they can be extremely numerous. Often seen visiting wild and garden flowers such as Red Valerian, Honeysuckle, Buddleia, Jasmine and Lavender. They tend to hover in front of each flower (often beating their wings so quickly that they are near on invisible), they then use their long tongue to reach deep into the flower to access the nectar. Humming-bird Hawk-moths occur in the UK in variable numbers each year with around 50-100 reported in a normal year but large influxes in some years can bring vast numbers, such as the 6000 recorded in 2006.

Humming-bird Hawk-moth - NNR Base

By mid-September it was time to check on a few of our second broods of Barn Owls. At one site we found six chicks which had been a clutch of eight eggs on the 23/06, so it was pleasing to see that six of them had made it and were a good healthy size, four were not far off from fledging, with the other two a bit further behind. At the other box we’d planned to check we found four very small young which weren’t big enough to ring so we’ll return at a later date to hopefully ring these, and lastly a box which had a clutch of six eggs at the end of June were sadly no more as the tree had come down, presumably in the very windy weather we experienced a few weeks ago – so we’ll now go about moving the box to another tree ready for next season. These chicks and hopefully the four to come in a few weeks will be the last for the year – unless we can squeeze in any more time to check for other second broods – we know from the data we’ve already collected that it’s been a fantastic year for Barn Owls, and one that has definitely made up for the last two poor seasons which were blighted by the weather.

 Soon to be fledging Barn Owl chick
 Beki - one happy volunteer!

Towards the middle of September we'd just about finished cutting and baling all the hay from the meadow at Thornton Ellers - once dropping the hay off at Leven Carrs we spread it out to allow it to drop its seeds on the prepared seed bed pictured here. One day whilst working at the Ellers raking the last of the hay we were lucky enough to get amazing views of a Red Kite, which treated us to a low fly past before soaring over our heads, a quick fumble around for the camera and we managed to get this shot which doesn’t do justice to how close the bird was to us – a definite right place right time moment.

 Fal unloading the hay at Leven Carrs
Red Kite - Thornton Ellers

Over the course of a few weeks in September we added several new ladybirds to the 2014 species list, which is pleasing as up until only a few weeks ago the only species we’d come across was the common Seven-spot Ladybird! However since then we found the Two-spot Ladybird and Harlequin Ladybird (form spectabilis) on Wheldrake Ings. The Kidney Spot Ladybird was later found on Skipwith Common, which appears to be a good site for the species. On the Common we also found the Cream Spot Ladybird and at Thornton Ellers the yellow 22-spot Ladybird & Harlequin Ladybird (form succinea) was found in the meadow whilst searching for new plants and grasses.

 Harlequin Ladybird H.succinea - Thornton Ellers
 Cream-spot Ladybird - Skipwith Common
Harlequin Ladybird H.spectabilis - Wheldrake Ings

At this time of year (following the end of the breeding season and the meadows being cut, and prior to the site wetting up again), we use local contractors to carry out weed cutting, ditching clearance and scrape maintenance. For the next 4-8 weeks work will be carried out across the Ings to ensure the 90km of ditches across the site are managed on rotation to aid drainage and water control and to maintain open water bodies for breeding and wintering birds, but also to maintain suitable conditions for a range of wetland plants and invertebrates. So far works have included Bank Island and North Duffield Carrs with further work planned for North Duffield Ings, Aughton and Wheldrake Ings and then Melbourne Ings during the rest of September and early October.

 Adrian busy on Wheldrake Ings

During the last week of September whilst out collecting records on the Common we were very fortunate to come across this stunning Grass Snake which was warming itself up in the late September sunshine. Grass Snakes rely on ambient heat, by basking in the sunshine it allows them to reach high enough temperatures to allow them to function efficiently and digest their prey (mainly amphibians). We are soon approaching the time of year that Grass Snakes will start to go into hibernation, which usually goes from October until March/April. Usually when the ground becomes frosty and temperatures start to drop they will seek cover somewhere dry, often in leaf litter or under logs and habitat piles. However in really mild years it has been known for Grass Snakes to be recorded all year round.

Grass Snake - Skipwith Common

Also whilst working on the Common lately we’ve been taking a good look at some of the spiders which can be found amongst the Juncus (often in the wetter areas). On a morning their webs stand out laden with dew making quite a sight - even to those less enamoured by our eight-legged friends! Species such as the Four-spot Orb Weaver, Marbled Orb Weaver, Walnut Orb Weaver, Furrow Spider, Lesser Garden Spider and the Common Garden Spider have been found recently. One of the most pleasing finds was the Marbled Orb Weaver, a species which is more known to be recorded in the south. As their name suggests they have a marbled pattern on their abdomen, their Latin name ‘marmoreus’ means marble-like.

The Four-spot Orb Weaver is a species which varies in colour, from dark brown, to orange/red to yellowy/green. The female of the species builds an elaborate web with a retreat off to the side, here she’ll wait for prey and take cover from bad weather. Interestingly, the females can change colour to match their surroundings, a process which takes three days!

 Four-spot Orb Weaver - Skipwith Common
 Furrow Spider - Skipwith Common

At the end of September some of the team were working at Forge Valley Woods NNR near Scarborough – one of the best examples of valley side mixed deciduous woodland in North Yorkshire. We were joined there by two VIP guests from Natural England who came to find out more about the site and what we do on this great NNR. We arrived early in order to catch and ring a sample of the woodland birds around the birdwatchers car park. Members of the public keep these feeders fed up during the year, providing a fantastic opportunity for visitors to get close views of a number of woodland species. It's also a popular place for photographers with the birds coming so close and being unconcerned by the constant arrival of cars and people. The site is busy with birds coming and going to the feeders and is a great place to enjoy species like Marsh Tit, Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Great Spotted Woodpecker, with Jays occasionally building up enough confidence to come down to the tables for the peanuts. Val and Anne got to see some of the birds in the hand and found out about why we ring them - to monitor populations and to study their movements, and the use of the surrounding woodland network. 

Whilst the guests explored the site, members of the team got on with the day job of strimming the grassland glades on the shallow soils around the quarries. These areas support localised species such as Salad Burnet, Quaking Grass and Rock Rose, cutting them back every year helps prevent more vigorous species from taking over and swamping them out. These sites are also important for invertebrates and hold a small population of the Brown Argus butterfly.

 Nuthatch pair - Forge Valley
James busy strimming the grasslands

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