Well if you did'nt pay us a visit this weekend you certainly missed a real treat as the almost now aligned planets seemed to bring about a mystical concoction that brought some of the best birding of the year!
It all started on Friday evening when the harrier roost put on yet another breath taking performance of 20+ marsh harriers and two hen harriers including the stunning grey male who brushed past the hide at Singleton, not a bad start to the weekend! Then on Saturday evening I decided to have the last couple of hours on site after a busy day of digging the garden and setting my shallots and broad beans! I'd heard on the news that the planets were going to put on a show, and with its relative isolation and darkness the Sands is usually the place to be in the local area to see the sky at it's best, so off went, quite excited at the prospect of a planetary overload. I was certainly not to be disappointed as Venus and Jupiter (plus its moons) were both shining like the Star of David side by side, then looking over my shoulder I could see the glowing red Mars hanging over the near by Wolds. With the clear sky and warmth of the night there certainly seemed to be magic in the air while the feeling was made more intense by having the first bat of the year flutter around me and also the serenade of the toads croaking from the marsh. The deed was done and the spell was cast, Sunday was not to disappoint!
Sunday! What a beautifully warm and sunny day with the first birds to greet me being nine avocets who had come onto the reserve at high tide. Added to that I heard bearded tit and cettis warbler on my way up to shepherd the Konik ponies, not a bad start. As the day really started there was a hint of what was to come with several Marsh harriers displaying high in the sky and a lone buzzard slowly flapping its way by. By the end of the day at least 13 buzzards had converged on the reserve and these were supported by the two hen harriers many roosting marsh harriers plus an early barn owl out to hunt!
Late morning a little gull joined the throng of black headed gulls that were fighting over the nesting islands and to top it all there were two bitterns chasing each other around the lagoons in the afternoon! Add to this our usual ducks and a good number of snipe, dunlin and the odd curlew then it had been one of those perfect and very memorable Blacktoft weekends!
I'm not finished there though as there was also a nice range of other wildlife emerging from their winter slumber with 3 species of butterfly, (peacock, and small tort) and a few bumble bees, roe deer and the usual brown hares and a weasel! Nice to see so many of you enjoying the reserve and its Wildlife too and some good laughs like the chap who asked me how did I get a name like Pedro (the name I had put on my name badge) when I was born in Barnsley! And also the very freindly Airedale terrier who visited on his own, I had to tell him in a very polite way that dogs were not allowed on the reserve which he seemed to understand. Eventually I managed to drive him down the road and find his owner who was out looking for him!
All this was finally ended by a breathtaking evening sunset.
This weekend the Konik ponies eventually found the gap in the fence line through to the newly fenced area of fen and lagoons, several weeks after it was opened up for them. Not too sure how bright they are at times but then maybe they think the same about me!
So, when I went to shepherd them they had just walked into the main fen block and were exploring the area like excited little children who when I arrived seemed to look a little as if they had done something wrong. In fact I was overjoyed as it marks the next phase of the Konik project for the summer months ahead and also begins a very interesting part of the overall Konik experiment. As I left, the field the Boys came charging at full gallop along the Ousefleet lagoon bund, kicking, biting and bucking as they went. A truly magnificent sight and one of the bonuses of having them on site. But this pleasant distraction is not the reason why the Koniks were brought to Blacktoft.
You see the Koniks are not a gimmick to bring more people to the site or just us 'tinkering' for fun, they are part of a very ambitious and serious trial to see how these ponies can be used to manage the grassland, fenland, scrub and pools to make them better for birds and other wildlife and also help reduce down the need for the use of heavy machinery in the future. The RSPB and other conservation charities manage many large nature reserves in the UK and as the price of machinery and fuel goes up the task will become more and more expensive. In fact you only have to turn away from the fuel prices for a day at the moment and the cost of fuel has risen. Eventually this could mean that managing large areas of land like the Sands with machinery could become too expensive.
The use of grazing animals of all kinds will I'm sure become more and more crucial over the next 20 years if we are to keep our habitats in excellent condition for the range of birds we want to conserve. Grazed in the correct manner we are hoping the Koniks (and cattle) will help give us a long term option at Blacktoft that is a lot cheaper and more sustainable. Yes it has meant a bit of investment in fences and other infrastructure initially but hopefully this will pay dividends in terms of money saved in the long run and also in the benefits to the habitat, birds and other biodiversity. The experiment may also help inform other land manager and give them options to manage their habitat more sustainably in years to come.
It is of course still early days and we are learning all the time about how the ponies will manage the land and how we will have to manage them to get what we want too! I for one am finding it a very interesting time particularly as its so new to me in terms of managing the reserves habitats. However, it will probably be at least three years before we know exactly what is happening and how well it is working, so don't expect instant results! Early indications are though that it was the right decision to go this way, even if in the end the trail does not produce the results we want! Sometimes though you just have to have the courage and vision to find out what could be..............
Here are a few recent photos to show how they are managing the land
grazing newly emerged reed shoots along the river bank
In the 2nd phase area of Fen (with Marshland hide in the background)
Ousefleet flash - short grass, muddy margins and water with fen in the background. This area has been grazed over the winter and is already changing its habitat character (if only there was a little more water!)
A quick update on recent sightings for anyone planning a visit this week.
All our star attractions, bittern, avocet, marsh harrier and bearded tit have been showing over the last few days. The beardies as usual can be elusive but the other three have at times put on a fantastic show.
Other highlights have been the first two sand martins of the spring, cettis warbler, up to 10 black tailed godwit, buzzard, barn owl and on Sunday short eared owl at Singleton hide. The little gull seems to be hanging around the black headed gulls who are now sporting their fresh breeding plumage
Plenty of ducks on site with shoveler suddenly becoming more common and still a few snipe around the lagoon edges. Ousefleet can be good to connect with curlew at the moment and a few more lapwings and the odd redshank now starting to feed on the mud. Plenty of little grebes around and at least a couple of great crested too.
Avocets on their breeding islands
Koniks in a sea of fen! (read last blog if you are interested in the management of the reserve)
Seems like this high pressure system will never end at the moment with each day seemingly like the first day of spring, very groundhog! But things are slowly changing on the Sands this week with the marsh harriers continuing to put on their breath taking aerial display, mallards looking for nest sites and barn owls pair bonding around their nestbox! The green of the hedgerow is also pushing forth just that little bit more each day while the snowdrops of yesterday look worn and ragged.
For a full list of the recent sightings see the last blog but certainly this morning the Cetti's warbler was still about and there was a nice wisp of 12 snipe on Xerox but no signs of any more avocets or early migrants. Maybe its all going to happen on this weekends high tides!
I think all the Avo's are all down on Reads Island at the moment as my friend DM rang me up to say he had about 500 along the shore this week! I was also sent a list of Avocet colour ring sightings from last year, all read just over the river at Alkborough, and with all the details of where they had been ringed. It indeed makes very interesting reading with fledged chicks reared from all around the east coast and inland using the Humber to feed up on before moving south in the autumn. It of course just goes to show how important the Humber Estuary is in helping to fuel many of our local breeding wetland birds on migration and in winter not just those that travel many thousands of miles from abroad. Just think those Avocets, lapwings and redshank on your local wetlands in South and West Yorkshire or where ever you hail from may have been the ones you saw at Blacktoft in the Winter, Spring or Autumn!
Anyway why not come and visit this weekend and have a taste of spring like the photo's below! (Snipe and Bullfinch by Tim and Si Jump)
This week has seen the return of some of our spectacular smart looking male marsh harriers as they establish their territories about the reserve. They are now present throughout the day - particularly from singleton and first hides. The action will peak over coming weeks as they sort out their boundaries and nest selecting takes place. For more information click here.
Elsewhere today there were up to 24 avocets on marshland lagoon, chiffchaff singing near townend, the little gull was back at its favourite spot at ousefleet screen, the bittern was once again seen down at singleton this afternoon and many of our small birds like tree sparrow and reed bunting can be heard as you walk along the trails.
Yesterday, there was still a hen harrier around so could you could still see one of these if you are lucky.
This week has also seen an increase of toads around the reserve so be careful where you walk as toads can make an appearance anywhere. The best spot is the pools either side of the path as you approach reception. Here is one of those toads: