Hello everyone,

Hope you’re all having a good summer and making the most of what’s been a very warm and dry season. We’ve had an extremely busy few months with multiple projects as well as the usual monitoring and maintenance regimes. Thanks to everyone for playing your part. I hope you enjoy the (rather long) update below. As always, if you have any questions about the bits below then do get in touch.

Nick & Sam

Blean Woods

Annual monitoring

Our breeding bird surveys are complete for another year with many thanks to the Phil Earley / David Feast and Nicole Khan / Jason Moule teams for getting themselves out of bed so early on multiple occasions to help us out. We would also like to give massive thanks to Michael Walter for his enormous annual contribution to our breeding bird data.

At the moment we are still collating everyone’s figures so final numbers will come in our next instalment. However we do have a few we can reveal:

  • Blean continues to have a small but steady population of nightjars, nesting in coppiced areas adjacent to open heathland areas where they spend the evening hunting for moths. As Blean has a relatively small area of heathland, hunting ground is limited and as such, we would never expect to have a huge population. Our historical peak of 7 churring males was last reached in 2010. Since then the site has alternated between 3-4 males with 4 territories recorded this summer. The ongoing project to open up the heathland with new grazing stock and mechanical cutting will hopefully get us back on track to achieving those peak numbers seen between 2006-10.

  • Our species of most concern this year are woodcock which Michael has been recording since 2003. Since then, our population has averaged  approximately 40 roding males per year. However, this is a species which has shown some eratic counts at Blean in recent years. In 2014 the site had its lowest ever count of 28. This was followed in 2015 by a record high of 83 and then 60 in 2016 (2nd highest). However this year we counted only 15 – a new record low. Following such excellent years, this dramatic drop is perplexing. To quote from Michael’s recent blog:

“Woodcock are waders that have adapted to woodland conditions, but still feed by probing into soft ground with their long beaks, so their decline in Kent may be due to the warmer, drier summers of recent years.  Fifty years ago the species was moderately widespread in the county, particularly in West Kent but now, apart from strongholds in The Blean and Bedgebury Forest, the woodcock is all but extinct in the county.”

With summers in the south east predicted to become drier and hotter in years ahead, this is concerning. Over the next few years we will be looking at ways in which we can retain more water on the site which will hopefully benefit many species, especially the elusive woodcock.

Heath fritillaries

Whilst the wet summers of 2015 and 2016 yielded record numbers of woodcock, they were truly terrible for butterfly populations. This contrast highlights the difficulties of managing for such a variety of wildlife - there will always be winners and losers each season.  One butterfly we were desperate to see a good result for this season was our star species, the heath fritillary. This species has been in decline at Blean since a peak in 2011. As anyone who has been involved in the ride widening over the last few years knows, we have been fighting this trend by creating more permanently open habitat within the woods but this habitat will take time to develop.

Following a long dry spring, the fritillaries emerged early and in greater numbers than last season. There is still a long way to go but it was good to see the population steadying after some difficult years. A peak count of 370 compared favourably with last season’s lowly count of 286.

Heathland fence

There has been a tireless effort from March-June to prepare the heath for the imminent arrival of grazing goats. A key part of the heathland restoration project is to bring goats onto the site to help us open up the landscape and prevent it disappearing under young birch trees. Whilst our ponies did a good job controlling grasses, they didn’t quite like the taste of birch! Whilst we are convinced that goats are the answer, they do come with quite a reputation for escape. To counter this, an enormous effort has gone into securing and stock proofing the fence line around the large heath. Somewhere in the region of 150-200 posts were prepared from raw chestnut timber cut last winter. This process involved collecting chestnut poles from rides and coppice plots around the woods, moving them to the heath, stripping them of bark and cutting points onto the ends.

Nearly 100 rotten posts were removed and replaced around the perimeter fence line on both eastern and western compartments on the heath. We then moved on to replacing entire stretches of fence using fresh posts, strainers and struts. As a result, we are now ready to start our new grazing regime, so thank you to everyone who has been involved.

A highlight of the heath work was the song of a tree pipit singing from the canopy of a nearby clump of trees and the occasional parachuting dive that they perform during the breeding season. The call of buzzards circling overhead and the odd sighting of a hobby dashing across the heath were further highlights of a summer on the heath. 

Green huntsman (micrommata virescens) found during fencing work

Path clearance

Since finishing the fence repairs we have moved onto the task of path clearance. It’s a big job, knocking back vegetation encroaching on the public footpaths and our trail network. Luckily we have had lots of new volunteers start over the summer months to lend us a hand! One of the benefits of doing this work has been seeing the array of butterfly species across the woods that rely on the flower rich path edges for a nectar source at this time of year. There are some great wildflowers in bloom with common centaury, birdsfoot trefoil, common cow wheat, scarlet pimpernel, common fleabane and agrimony catching the eye. The hot weather has created an agreeable climate for butterflies with sightings of white admiral, gatekeeper, comma, small and Essex skippers, and brimstone giving us good reason to pause as we work. A full roundup of this year’s butterfly surveys will be given in the next update.

Coppice survey

Extensive surveying has been carried out this summer to gain further insight into the species, age and structure of Blean’s coppice coupes as well as mapping features of interest such as wild service and whitebeam populations as well as badger sets.  This is all extremely useful information for setting our coppice rotation and making sure that delicate features do not get damaged during coppicing. A few examples of the data collected can be viewed below - click on each picture to get a larger, clearer view!

A 'phoenix tree' in a coppice plot - this occurs when a tree falls, but instead of dying it throws up new shoots from the main stem

Events

It’s been a fantastic year for events so far. All 4 of our spring/summer events sold out, even our dawn chorus walk! A brief rundown...

Dawn Chorus – those who braved the 5am start were rewarded with a wide array of bird song. The ever impressive nightingale was heard alongside the likes of blackcap, willow warbler, chiffchaff, goldcrest, song thrush and a rare sighting of a garden warbler singing on top of young silver birch.

Nightjar walks – two evening walks proved to be our most popular and sold out quickly. As the light began to fade we were treated to the songs of nightingale and song thrush on our way to the small heath. Once there, nightjars were seen in display flight, churring and performing wing clapping! As an added bonus we also had woodcock swooping low overhead.

Butterfly walk – although it was a fantastic week weather-wise leading up to the event, we were unfortunate in having a very overcast Saturday. We stuck with it though and the walk took in different habitats of Blean including our coppice, ride and glade management areas. Plenty of wildflowers were in flower including some dense patches of common spotted orchids. In the brighter spells we had plenty of ringlets on display and some great up-close views of small skippers.

Small skipper on rosebay willow herb. Photo taken by Jonathan Cook on the walk.

Track upgrade

As part of a series of track repairs across the entire woodland we have a newly laid, pothole-free track leading from the New Road down to the A2 exit (past the large heath). This much needed upgrade will enable us to travel across the site more safely and efficiently. The biggest bonus is that it aides our habitat management work by improving site conditions for contracted work such as oak thinning, coppicing and mulching. Extracting and selling the wood we cut is hugely important in funding our work at Blean. The A2 track is the main extraction route for timber leaving the site, so this upgrade has come just in time for the firewood sales season.

New signs

Anyone who has visited the Blean car park in the last few months will have noticed a few new features as you enter. A series of new welcome signs greet you along the track, an updated notice board tells you the most recent nature sightings and events and a dog waste bin is helping to tackle the long standing problem of bags being left everywhere. Despite the nice rustic look of the old wooden height barriers, too much time was being spent fixing them as they were quite susceptible to vandalism. The height barriers have also been replaced. We would like to add special thanks to volunteer Dick Church for his fantastic ingenuity in designing and building both the frames for our new secondary access signs and the also the height barriers, truly excellent and highly professional finishes on both fronts! Our car park now looks a lot more cared for and issues with vandalism appear to be largely reduced.

Internship

At the end of July our intern of the past 12 months, Ben Lawson, finished stint with us. Ben has been a great asset to the team and has developed a fantastic array of skills towards a career in conservation. Not only did he get stuck in to the practical habitat management, he also helped us a lot with survey work including doing his own breeding bird survey transect at Seasalter and taking a lead on the execution of the coppice survey work at Blean. From the whole Blean and Seasalter team - thank you Ben!

Ben clearing scrub at Seasalter Levels during the winter

With barely a pause for breath, we have recruited 3 new interns! Laurie, Victoria and Rebecca have all had their inductions to the sites and have been out on volunteer work parties getting to know the reserves and the teams who run them. August and September will be busy months for them with lots of training courses and the beginning of the winter work season! Welcome to the team guys!

Volunteers

We would like to extend a big thank you and a goodbye to Friday volunteer, Gustavo Gatti. Gus joined us over the summer months and was always a pleasure to have out on the work parties due to his strong work ethic and friendly personality. Good luck on your travels to Italy this summer Gus!

 

Seasalter Levels

Hydrology

Thanks to the new bunds and a vastly improved pump system we were able to keep the fields of the LNR wetter than they have ever been! With more water being held on the fields it has created ideal foraging habitat for wading birds, especially lapwing and redshank, who both like to feed by probing in wet mud for invertebrates. As more bunds are built year by year, we hope to create a mosaic of shallow scrapes and wet rills that will become a breeding site for ground nesting and over-wintering waders.

Breeding birds

It’s been a mixed year for breeding birds at Seasalter. Breeding wader numbers remained relatively low, but improved on 2016. Lapwing had 6 pairs, up from 4 from last year. Redshank had 7 pairs, compared to 4 last year.

Passerines fared extremely well with above average or record highs for a number of species:

Species

Average

2016

2017

Comments

Cettis Warbler

15

17

22

Record high

Grasshopper Warbler

4

5

4

 

Meadow Pipit

8

7

13

Record high

Reed Bunting

30

40

41

Record high

Reed Warbler

54

64

79

Record high

Sedge Warbler

56

52

104

Record high

Skylark

28

23

33

 

 

There were also first time breeding records for wheatear and lesser whitethroat as well as yellow wagtail (first in over 4 years).

Other surveys

With Seasalter still in its infancy as project for the RSPB, we still have lots to learn about it. One of the best ways to get a better understanding of the reserve is to conduct surveys and this year we were able to add extra records on top of all the breeding bird data. Surveys for harvest mice nests were led by Stuart Harris, tubular water dropwort by Jan Andrews and Lesley Brown, and monthly dragonfly surveys by Jason Moule, all of which had positive results.

Next year we hope to add a bumble bee transect to the records. If anyone is interested, please contact us at the Blean office 01227 464898.

Harvest mouse nest in dry reeds in a ditch on the LNR at Seasalter Levels

Pennywort

As spring began we breathed a sigh of relief as we were able to take a break from floating pennywort control. The plant takes a small break from its relentless growth during the spring, allowing us to focus on maintaining the hydrology on the fields and completing bird surveys. However, as June approaches and the water begins to warm up, it springs to life, keen to make up for lost time! The worst patches were raked out and hauled to a central composting site. Any regrowth is then followed up with herbicide treatment. This ongoing annual maintenance means our waterways have become a haven for dragonfly species and freshwater fish, which would otherwise struggle to survive under a blanket of pennywort.

Long service award

It was with great pleasure that we were able to award Shelagh Wilson with her 5 year long service award back in March. Seasalter Levels has always maintained a small, low-key work party and Shelagh has by far been the mainstay of this set up. Her hard work and dedication to the site in second to none and she has been a huge asset to the warden teams that have come and gone.

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