RSPB Mersehead Recent Sightings 26th June – 2nd July 2021

After weeks of surveys and careful monitoring, this week brought the delight of finding the first Natterjack toadlets! The first surveys, back at the end of April, were spent searching for spawn strings. The location of these strings marked; we have returned twice a week to monitor their progression. The first major change comes when the strings of eggs hatch and clusters of tiny tadpoles can be found, sometimes hidden in the vegetation. As the tadpoles grow, we not only keep an eye out for new spawn strings, but record their development by categorising them as new, growing, large, 2 legs and 4 legs with a tail. Once large enough, a white chin can be seen which distinguishes them from the Common Toad tadpoles, and around the 4-leg stage the characteristic yellow dorsal stripe is present.

Examples of the development of the Natterjack Toad from a spawn string laid in Amplexus, through egg rearrangement within the string and the hatching of new tadpoles. Photo credit: B.Taylor

At the final stage of toadlet emergence, our attention is focussed on the ground rather than the water as we scan for movement. It sounds simple enough, but with froglets, spiders and even the odd Palmate Newt, it’s hard to spot the well-camouflaged toadlet. One helpful distinction between the toadlets and froglets is their movement. Whereas the toadlets ‘run’, the froglets jump, and these powerful hoppers can be ruled out in the hunt for Natterjacks. Based on the trajectory of their population cycles, this year was set to be a good one for the Natterjacks. However, the cold spring combined with the dry weather hasn’t made it easy for them. In the coming weeks, the focus will be on estimating the emerging population, which will give an indication of the adult population which will reach maturity in three years’ time.

Natterjack Toadlets. Photo credit: B.Taylor

Whilst surveying the Natterjacks, a colourful black and red blur flew past. Its wings held in a different position to the common Cinnabar moth, we decided this was either a 5 or 6-spotted burnet but waited for it to land on a thistle before concluding this was a 6-spot Burnet moth.

The sweltering weather has seen the vegetation shooting up all over the reserve. 2 grassland fields are ready to take hay, so a priority this week has been removing toxic Ragwort and unpalatable Dock and Spear Thistle. This has been a tiring task in the enervating heat, fighting off horseflies, and only possible with the continued hard work of volunteers. In the field to the right of the track, walking towards the woodland, the oats which were planted in the spring are also rocketing skywards. A Roe Deer was spotted amongst them, his clean antlers standing proud of the crop.

Roe Deer. Photo credit: B.Taylor

The sweet smell of Elderflower in bloom is strong along the hedgerows, and the paths are flanked with the delicate flower of Lesser Stitchwort. Butterflies are enjoying these flowers, with increasing numbers of Ringlets, Meadow Browns and Common Blues, and in the dappled sun in the woodland, 2 Speckled Wood butterflies danced in a spiral around each other. Juvenile Nuthatches have also been spotted in the woodland. Although faint, the eye stripe is a good diagnostic, and the chestnut-red tinge will soon develop.

Elderflower and Lesser Stitchwort. Photo credit: B.Taylor

With a minimum temperature of 14 degrees last night (which would have felt like a pleasantly warm day time temperature only a few weeks ago), we recorded the largest number of moth species so far this year as part of the Garden Moth Scheme. The Drinker moth caterpillar is one of the most conspicuous caterpillars and this week, at the start of its flight season, we recorded the first adult.

Drinker moth, male. Photo credit: B.Taylor

Thanks goes to the combined effort of our volunteers and one of their relatives in the spotting and identifying of a newly emerged Buff Ermine, still expanding its wings. When moths and butterflies emerge from their chrysalises, their wings appear small and folded. Before they can fly, they must expand their wings by pumping meconium through the venation structure. Once the wings are fully expanded, the meconium is pumped back into the body and expelled. The small amounts left in the veins will dry and harden, providing the structure and support for the wings.

Buff ermine (newly emerged). Photo credit: D.Jackson. Fully developed. Photo credit: B.Taylor

The agitated call of Lapwing can be heard periodically as although the majority of chicks have now fledged, they are not fully independent until 6 or 7 days after fledging, and parent birds are still protective. Large post-breeding flocks are present around the reserve; a rewarding sight after months of monitoring.

Post breeding flock of Lapwing. Photo credit: B.Taylor

The visitor centre is now open for viewing, in accordance with social distancing guidelines, giving glorious views over the grassland. Farmland birds have been flocking to the feeders, with close views of Linnets, Yellowhammers and Tree Sparrows seen from the viewing window. Skylarks have also been out in force this week, with their unmistakable song indicating their presence, even if they’re hard to pick out against the bright sky. As the sun set, and the sky darkened, the silhouettes of a pair of Stonechats were seen flitting along the dunes, perching at the top of grasses.

Stonechats at sunset. Photo credit: B.Taylor

Skylark. Photo credit: B.Taylor

As my last week at Mersehead, this has been an excitingly busy one. A huge thank you to the Mersehead team for a fantastic 9 months.

Beth Taylor, Residential Volunteer