Blashford Lakes was the venue for the Waterside Natural History Society outdoor meeting in January.
The temperature hovered above freezing during the day but with no wind and weak sunshine it proved to be a pleasant opportunity for a winters walk.
Oddly enough one of the first things seen was a sign of spring in the form of a group of Snowdrops on the bank of the Dockens Water stream.
Woodland birds also had spring in mind with increased activity and cheerful calls. Robins, blackbirds, thrush, nuthatch and tree creeper were all spotted in the woodland as the group made its way to the hides on the far side of Ibsley water.
A challenging few minutes was enjoyed trying to track the progress of a wren through the undergrowth with the wren eventually winning on points.
Wrens are one of the commonest birds in the countryside but their small size and secretive nature make them difficult to study. They feed on small insects in low undergrowth for which they are constantly on the move trying to complete their diet.
Successful feeding is especially difficult during cold winter weather and can result in a dip in their numbers. However during the summer the males build several nests and try to attract females to as many as possible which help to rebalance their populations.
The main attraction of Blashford Lakes are the birds on the water and many thousands of migrating birds arrive to seek food and shelter during the winter months. The sheer number of birds can affect the water quality and hence the type of food available even on the largest lakes. So over the years changes can be seen in the number and type of birds seen. Gooseander numbers for instance were noticeably lower than even a few years ago but three females and two males were seen from the aptly named Gooseander hide overlooking Ibsley Water. The small lake between Ibsley Water and Mockbeggar Lake by contrast which was devoid of bird life a few years ago had a healthy population of Gadwall and Coot on its surface.
Flocks of Canada Geese could be seen on the far side of the lake and a single Greylag Goose sailed sedately past. A Bewick Swan although far away could be easily recognised by its lemon yellow bill which seemed to light up in the mist. Three types of Grebe could be seen during the visit. Great Crested Grebe, Small Grebe or Dabchick and Black Necked Grebe were all seen. The Black Necked Grebe in its winter plumage looks like a slightly larger and paler version of the Small Grebe and has a similar habit of disappearing below the water when binoculars are trained on it.
The morning was taken up by our group visiting the three hides around Ibsley Water and in the afternoon the three hides around the visitor centre. Many small birds or passerines are attracted to the bird feeders around the visitor centre and the Woodland hide. They usually fly in to the feeders, pick up a nut or seed, and fly straight back out again to their roost in the trees. Chaffinch, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Nuthatch all take their turn visiting the feeders. The migrating birds such as Brambling, Siskin and Redpoll however were noticeable by their absence. Perhaps the winter has not been cold enough or more likely the cold north easterly winds have not yet materialised.The regular Bank Vole was present at the Woodland Hide picking up anything thrown out by the birds on the feeders above.
Regular attractions such as the Bittern or Water Rail were also absent but the atmosphere during the late afternoon more than made up for this disappointment. The sunlight during winter has to make its way through more atmosphere so the reflected light around sunrise and sunset gives a 3D effect and more depth to the view. The shrill whistle of the Wigeon together with the call of the Coot and the packets of seed from the Reed Mace as they drifted by on a still afternoon leave pleasant memories long after the visit came to an end.
The indoor meeting for January was taken up by the Annual General Meeting followed by an American Supper. 2014 saw a change in Committee members although retiring Chairman Brian Harrison, Secretary Ron Mintrum and Treasurer Breda Jones still play an active part in the Society. The new committee consists of an all-female line up of Felicity Beard as Chairperson, Jill Bascombe as Secretary and Dawn Kemish as Treasurer.
Natural History Societies struggle with fewer members at the moment but the Waterside Society has maintained good numbers for both the indoor and outdoor meetings. The finances have also stabilised over the past year due to a combination of annual subscriptions and a prudent selection of Speakers. Nevertheless new people are always welcome both for the free outdoor meetings and the indoor talks.