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March and April – what to look out for

While some winter birds are yet to fly back north to their nesting sites, spring fever is definitely on its way.  March and April is such an exciting time of year with plenty of spring wildlife to look out for.

Buds are budding and the first blossom of blackthorns are pretty as a picture.  In amongst the blossom listen out for the distinctive call of the chiffchaff, he calls out his name.

Butterflies and insects

Look out for the first butterflies during the next month:

Speckled Wood
Comma

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pale green Brimstones look like leaves
Peacock butterfly

 

 

 

 

Birds

New spring-time arrivals


The distinctive Wheatear with its “bandit” face mask comes all the way from Africa for the summer. You might seen them anywhere, this one was on a washed up log on the salt marsh.

Breeding plumage

Many of our residents are showing off their breeding plumage.

For most of the year Black-headed gulls have white heads with just a telltale white spot behind the eye. But this time of year they actually live up to their name – well nearly, the head is actually brown!

Courtship displays

Soon our wildlife will be looking to nest and rear young so this is the time for courtship displays.

Male shelducks display to impress a mate, though clearly it is not working here! She looks decidedly disinterested. Look out for them on the foreshore and on North Pool Island.

Or you may be lucky enough to see oystercatchers strutting their stuff on the North Pool island or on  the foreshore.

Water voles

Water Voles are becoming more active in the rhynes. Now is a chance to glimpse one swimming. It gets harder to see them once all the reeds start growing.

While on the Salt Marsh

Sea scurvy grass in flower on the salt marsh. It is rich in vitamin C and sailors used to eat it to prevent scurvy.

 There is so much going on among our spring wildlife so this is just a taster of things to look out for. 

February – What to look out for

 

Look out for FROGS and TOADS!

This is their mating time and they are on the move. February and March is the time when we are most likely to see them as large numbers converge on their breeding ponds. As Portbury Wharf is a wetland area with plenty of lovely watery places many frogs, toads and newts will be heading our way.

They have spent the winter in hedges, muddy ditches, under stones, plant pots or hunkered down under compost heaps. The rising temperature triggers the breeding season.

Frogs become increasingly active in garden ponds just before the migration begins, a sure sign that movement is imminent. I can hear frogs croaking and frolicking in my pond as I type this! If weather conditions are favourable (mild, damp evenings) the onset of migration is sudden. They will begin, en masse, to head to their breeding ponds.

They take the quickest route along ancestral pathways to the pond were they spawned. This often brings them into conflict with cars, cyclists and pedestrians.

Usually you can join Portishead Toad Patrol to help them cross the Village Quarter and The Vale safely. However this year, unfortunately COVID-19 has put paid to that but hopefully with less traffic during the lockdown they will be okay.

Join the Portishead Toad Patrol
For future reference you can contact the Portishead Toad Patrol at:

Winter birds are still here

The winter birds are still around so take a look at what you might expect to see on our Winter Birds page. They will be going back north to nest soon so see them while you still can!

See if you can spot Dunlin and Wigeon on the North Pool or out on the estuary  . . .

Dunlin
Male Wigeon

. . . or maybe you will hear the beautiful warbling call of a curlew or two.

Curlews with a Redshank

January – What to look out for

Happy New Year!

Although it is a shiny new start to the year, sadly we are in another lockdown . . .

. . . but our winter birds are still flying free along our coast and on the reserve.

This month I thought we would concentrate on one species of bird which is on the reserve in big numbers at the moment. There are a number of different birds that visit us in the winter and you can find out more about them on our Winter Birds page.

We are going to look at just one of these in more detail:

 THE WIGEON  

Male wigeon Male and female wigeon

The drake (male) Wigeon is a really handsome duck. His chestnut head has a bright golden streak running from the top of his bill over his crown, which stands out when you get a good view of him in the sunlight.

The female is less colourful, but still has rufous brown sides and smart black wing feathers and a white tummy.

Wigeon have small bills and a steep forehead, which gives them an attractive “baby-face” look. They are one of the prettier ducks!

male and female wigeon in flight  With roe deer on Portbury Wharf salt marsh

In flight you can see the wigeons’ white bellies. The males have distinctive large white wing patches.

When and where to see wigeon

From October, our estuaries and wetlands fill up with tens of thousands of them flying in from their breeding grounds in Iceland, Scandinavia and northern Russia to take advantage of our milder weather. Only a few wigeon breed in the UK and most of these do so in Scotland.

The North Pool and the Saltmarsh at Portbury Wharf are usually home to big flocks of Wigeon in the winter. The graph show shows the numbers on the North Pool build up each winter, though the numbers this year have not been as high as the previous two years. Note that the count for January 2021 has not yet been included.

All our Wigeon have normally returned north by March!

You can find more graphs of our counts on the Monitoring page – click here.

 

 DID YOU KNOW?  

Wigeon are a grazing duck. They usually feed while walking on land, nibbling grass and other vegetation in wet fields or eating seeds and algae in the saltmarsh.

Wigeon grazing
Wigeon grazing on Portbury Wharf salt marsh
The Whistling Duck!

One of the best sounds on the reserve in mid-winter is the whistling call of the Wigeon. The best place to hear it is from either the Tower Hide or the North Pool Hide next door. Big flocks of Wigeon are constantly whistling to each other!

LISTEN TO THEM WHISTLE!

“Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope)” from xeno-canto by Stuart Fisher. Genre: Anatidae.

Wigeon over roe deer on Portbury Wharf salt marsh

December – What to look out for

IT’S DECEMBER!

December is the month of CHRISTMAS and that makes it hard to avoid references to mistletoe, robins, holly and ivy! Let’s learn more about these Christmas symbols which you might spot on a walk around the reserve at this festive time of year.

The Robin

Robin

How many Christmas cards will you receive featuring a robin somewhere in the picture? British robins are our favourite, friendly garden bird, largely because they can become so tame and, let’s face it, they are such pretty birds!

It is not hard to see robins on the reserve at this time of year. Many of them might be winter visitors from elsewhere, even from the continent. They will have come here because it’s milder here than further north or east.

Robins sing all through the winter, so listen out for their beautiful, wistful tune as you walk through the reserve. This is what it sounds like:

Robin song recorded by david m. from www.xeno-canto.org

Mistletoe

Mistletoe growing on the branches of a tree

Now that most of the leaves have fallen off many of the trees on the reserve, mistletoe shows up really clearly because it keeps its green leaves all year round. You will see a lot of it around the reserve if you look out for it.

To germinate, seeds of the mistletoe do not have to pass through the gut of a bird. The seeds are surrounded by a very sticky pulp (viscin) which often stick to a bird’s beak when the berries are eaten. They are then often wiped off onto a branch when the bird cleans its beak. The viscin then hardens to fix the seed to the bark of a new host tree and sometimes these seeds germinate.

 

The green root growing out of a mistletoe seed and into a tree branch.
The seed then grows a root, which burrows through the bark of the tree and into the sapwood inside. Here is a picture of this happening on a tree in my garden.

The mistletoe gets water and minerals from the tree, though it also makes some of its own food by photosynthesis, which is why it has green leaves.

Here is the same mistletoe plant three years later……..
…and here is a slice through a branch showing the mistletoe roots (white) growing into the wood of the tree

Holly

If the Robin is the ultimate Christmas bird, Holly must be the ultimate Christmas plant. As the carol says  “the holly wears the crown” and its dark green leaves and bright red berries have become the colours of Christmas.

Unlike many plants, holly has trees of different sexes. You won’t find berries on a male tree; their flowers only produce pollen.

Holly was valued by farmers in bygone days in many parts of the country as an important source of winter fodder. Branches would be cut off trees and, despite the prickles, cattle and sheep fed on leaves.

 

Ivy

We featured Ivy in a September post. It is an extremely valuable plant for wildlife and, unlike Mistletoe, it is not a parasite, but simply uses the trees that it climbs for support.

If you want to read more about this wonderful plant follow this link – Ivy post

 

 

 

Did you know?

IVY
  • Ivy was once thought to be a way of countering the worse effects of alcohol
  • “Ale-stakes”, poles covered in ivy, were once used as signs for taverns
  • Ivy was traditionally seen as a “female” plant and holly as a “male” one
  • Young Queen Victoria once wore a wreath of ivy intertwined with diamonds in her hair
  • Traditional schoolgirl rhyme: “Ivy, Ivy, I love you; In my bosom I put you; The first young man who speaks to me; My future husband he shall be.”
MISTELTOE
  • Apple, lime and poplar are mistletoe’s favourite hosts, but it can parasitize many different species
  • Mistletoe growing on oak trees is unusual and very rare. This may be why the druids were supposed to particularly value mistletoe harvested from an oak tree
  • Mistle thrush and blackcap are the two main dispersers of mistletoe
  • Like holly, mistletoe plants are either male or female. Only female plants carry berries
  • Kissing under the mistletoe may have originated from Norse mythology and probably began in the 18th century when it was first used as a festive decoration in our homes. One kiss was allowed for each berry and after each kiss a berry would be removed until there were none left.
HOLLY
  • Holly wood was traditionally used to make stocks and horse whips
  • Holly trees were left standing in cut hedgerows “to stop witches running along the tops of the hedges”

Hinkley Connection Update November 2020

This update relates to the continuation of work at Portbury Wharf Nature Reserve.

This is a briefing we have received from the Community Relations Team of the National Grid Hinkley Connection Project. We are posting these briefings so you are kept up to date with the work being done on Portbury Wharf Nature Reserve.

As you’ll be aware, we’re working with Western Power Distribution (WPD) to make changes to their local electricity distribution network and our work at the reserve includes, removing some of the existing pylons, replacing them with underground cables, making changes to Portishead substation and nearby overhead lines, and building a new line of T-pylons from Sandford to Seabank.

Together with our contractor, Murphy, we’re in the final stages of building the cable ducts along the route of the new underground electricity cables between Nailsea and Portishead substation and we’re preparing to install the electricity cables in the coming months.

From April next year, WPD will start work to install new underground cables and remove the pylons in the north of the reserve. In recent months, WPD has been carrying out ecological surveys and putting measures in place to reduce disruption to local wildlife. To stop protected species from entering construction areas, we need to manage the vegetation in each area. From Monday 2 November, we need to remove vegetation along a section of the footpath on Wharf Lane.

To keep everyone safe during this work, a section of the footpath will be closed from 2 to 6 November, between 9.00am and 3.30pm each day. We’re aware this path is well used and we’re working to reopen it as soon as possible.

Attached is a PDF of the information boards we’ve affixed at key locations in the reserve and we’ve updated our project website: https://hinkleyconnection.co.uk/portbury-wharf-nature-reserve/.

We are sorry about the inconvenience caused during this closure – should you receive any queries about this work, please direct them to our community relations team on 0800 377 7347​ or by email hinkleyconnection@nationalgrid.co.uk.

NOVEMBER – What to look out for

Welcome to November!

The clocks have gone back, so dusk comes early in November. The first frosts have arrived and the trees are rapidly losing their leaves….but it’s a good time for wildlife spotting. Winter visitors are streaming in, so there’s lots to look out for!

The North Pools

As the cold sets in further north and east, many ducks fly in to enjoy our milder winters. We do regular monitoring counts on the reserve and the charts of the duck numbers on the North Pools clearly show this happening.

 

Both these species breed on the reserve, so they are here all the year round, but their numbers on the North pools are bigger in the winter months.This will be due to local birds moving to the North Pools where there is safety and lots of food, but also their numbers will be boosted by extra birds coming in to join them from elsewhere.
Coot
Mute Swan

These two species spend their summer further north and just visit us in the winter.The numbers that reach us will depend on how harsh the winter is elsewhere.

Will this year bring bigger numbers? The October counts looked good, but we’ll have to wait until December or January to know for sure!

Male Wigeon
Shoveler, male and female

The South Pool

Recent management work has opened up the South Pool and the water levels have increased with the wet weather. The South Pool hide is a great place to sit and search for Snipe. Snipe numbers also increase in the winter, but they are hard to spot amongst the tussocky grasses because of their amazing camouflage. They have  impressively long beaks for their size and fly away with a zig-zag flight if disturbed.

Common Snipe

 

The Hedgerows

The count on 27th October also saw the first winter thrushes – a flock of Redwings. Look out for big flocks of both Redwings, Fieldfares and Blackbirds on the Hawthorn trees around the reserve as they swoop in to strip the trees of their berries or “haws”. Some years the crop has almost gone by the end of the month! 

Fieldfare
Redwing

As well as hawthorn berries there are lots of other seeds to look out for.  Keep any eye out for these on the reserve, of course, the hungry wildlife might get them first! ​

The weather might not always be friendly in November, but a visit to the reserve is always worth the effort. You never know what you might see!

 

 

Images: some supplied by “Friends” others are courtesy of www.pixaby.com thank you all!

OCTOBER – What to look out for

Hawthorn berries (haws) after rain

Welcome to October!

We are well into the autumn and this can be a lovely time of year with lots going on.

Birds

While the summer birds have gone south to find warmer climates, the winter birds are coming here from colder countries further north. We may not think it, but our winters are relatively warm for these northern birds which will stay until spring. They will spend the winter feeding on the salt marsh and the pools in the reserve.

Also keep an eye out for snipe around the muddy pool edges. They are well camouflaged waders so take some spotting!

Look carefully – can you spot the snipe?
Shoveler, male and female
Shoveler are named for their big scoop of a bill, but the males are most easily recognised by their white and chestnut sides.
Male Wigeon
Wigeon are neat and dainty ducks; usually found in good numbers on the North Pools in mid-winter as well as out on the Saltmarsh.
Male Teal – he has a fabulous head pattern if you can ever get close enough to see it properly.
Teal are the smallest of our ducks and are also fond of the Saltmarsh. They also seem to prefer the cover and shallow water of the South Pool to the open spaces of the North Pool, so this can be the best place to see them well.

The numbers of waders like dunlin and redshank will also increase during October and November. Dunlins may be dumpy little wading birds, but they fly along the tide line in large mesmerising flocks (flings of dunlins).

The larger redshanks will also become increasingly numerous now, identifiable by their long red legs and long red bills. Add to that the haunting calls of the long-legged, long-beaked curlews echoing across the salt marsh. All in all it is a lovely place to stand and stare during autumn and winter.

In the hedgerows

Glossy red rose hips

October is a time of plenty. Though the blackberries may be starting to run out there are lots of other berries to keep wildlife fed.  Look out for the glossy red hawthorn berries and red rose hips. Rose hips, contain the seeds of the rose and are jam packed with vitamin C. Field mice will climb along the slender stems to reach them if the thrushes don’t get them first. Other small mammals can join in this feast by picking up berries when they fall to the ground.

Insects and butterflies will benefit from the over mature fruit on offer now. While tempting ripe seeds are on the menu for the likes of goldfinches and linnets.

Where there is fruit and seeds there is likely to be wildlife, so look closely.

Red Admiral on Ivy

Flowers may be in short supply now that summer is over so insects that rely on pollen and nectar have to search harder in October. This is where the ivy flowers come to the rescue. Ivy is a fantastic plant for wildlife and will keep flowering into November. You can read more about ivy here.

 

Enjoy your October visit to the reserve

We hope you enjoy your visit to the reserve and maybe, if you are lucky, you will see some of our wonderful wildlife.

SEPTEMBER – What to look out for

Hawthorn berries and Old Man’s Beard (aka Traveller’s Joy / Clematis vitalba)

September is here!

By the meteorological calendar, the first day of autumn begins on 1 September and ends on 30 November. So  autumn is officially here. The weather may be sunny and warm at times, but nature is preparing for the hardships to come. Fruits and nuts are ripening, many animals are fattening up for migration or hibernation – some have gone already!

Birds

On the pools, the ducks will be starting to moult out of their eclipse plumage into their full breeding colours. This will make them much easier to identify. The first of the wintering species will also be starting to appear, though it will be a while before their numbers really build up.

Lookout for the first wigeon, shoveler and teal. There will be lots on the pools by December!

Shoveler, male and female
Shoveler are named for their big scoop of a bill, but the males are most easily recognised by their white and chestnut sides.
Male Wigeon
Wigeon are neat and dainty ducks; usually found in good numbers on the North Pools in mid-winter as well as out on the Saltmarsh.
Male Teal – he has a fabulous head pattern if you can ever get close enough to see it properly.
Teal are the smallest of our ducks and are also fond of the Saltmarsh. They also seem to prefer the cover and shallow water of the South Pool to the open spaces of the North Pool, so this can be the best place to see them well.

In the hedgerows our summer warblers are laying down fat reserves to fuel their long migration flights south. You can often see Whitethroats and Blackcaps feasting on elderberries or blackberries this month and look out for more unusual species moving through.

Female Blackcap
Long-tailed Tit

Two of the birds that will stay with us through the winter also sing throughout the winter months. The Robin has a slightly wistful, but pretty, winter tune that can often be heard on Wharf Lane. By contrast the Cetti’s Warbler has a strident and explosive, though abrupt song that erupts from the thickest scrub. Both birds can be heard now and in the months to come, though most other species have stopped singing.

Insects

Some types of butterfly will still be active and searching for nectar-rich flowers all through the autumn, provided that the weather stays mild for them. Some species of butterfly over-winter as eggs, pupae or even caterpillars, but Peacock and Red Admiral both over-winter as adult butterflies. Before they go into hibernation they must keep feeding up, so you will often see them gorging on the sweet juices of over-ripe blackberries or apples.

Red Admiral
Peacock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dragonflies are beginning to die off now, though their larvae, or nymphs, are still very much alive in the ponds and rhynes. Three species that you can still look out for are the Ruddy and Common Darter and the Migrant Hawker.

The two darters are not always easy to tell apart but you will often see them perched on the tip of a prominent twig or fencepost. From here they will dart out to catch flies before returning to the same perch – hence their name!

Male Ruddy Darter
Female Common Darter

 

 

 

 

 

 

Migrant Hawkers are also often still abundant in September. In contrast to the darters, they spend a lot of their time flying backwards and forwards round a small circuit “hawking” for flies. Unlike most other dragonflies they are not territorial and can sometimes be seen in quite big groups, zig-zagging around a sheltered patch close to trees – Wharf Lane can be a good spot.

Male Migrant Hawker
Female Migrant Hawker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In conclusion

September can be a lovely month, with lots of warm weather. So make the most of it when it’s fine and get out onto the reserve to see what our wildlife is up to. There’s plenty happening this month – just keep your eyes peeled and enjoy your walks – suitable distanced of course!

AUGUST – What to look out for

Whilst for us August is the height of summer, for much of our wildlife it’s almost the beginning of autumn. The breeding season’s over, lots of plants are ripe with fruit and some bird species are even starting to move south.

On the Pools

This is the month when you should start looking out on the pools for birds beginning their migration. Some species will be arriving from spending the summer further north, some will be setting off to the south having spent the summer here.

 

 

Sand Martins and a Swallow gather at the North Pool (Dave Horlick)

You might see gatherings of Swallows and Martins as they get ready to leave for Africa. They will often come together in big numbers close to water, where there are lots of insects to feed on and reeds to roost in overnight.

Swifts are one of the first summer visitors to leave us. By the middle of August most have gone. It is an amazing fact that young Swifts, when they launch themselves from the nests in our houses where they hatched, will probably not touch down again at all for two years!  For two long years they will fly continuously; eating, drinking and sleeping on the wing and during this time they will make two return visits to southern Africa. Amazing birds!

Look out as well for the first waders returning from the north where they nested. Some, like the Curlew, will stop here and stay the winter with us; others will push on further south to Europe or Africa. With so many birds moving through, there’s always the chance of seeing something unusual on the pools at this time of year.

A curlew in the saltmarsh (Hilary Kington)

In the Fields and Hedges

Many of the wild flowers start to go over and dry up in the heat as we go into August, but brambles are in full flower and we will soon be seeing the first blackberries.

Bramble flowers are a great source of nectar this month for lots of insects, but especially for the butterflies. In addition to the Commas, Red Admirals and Peacocks that you can often see around th reserve, look out at the moment for Painted Lady butterflies.

Painted Lady Butterfly

These lovely butterflies are long-distance travellers and each year they move up from Morocco, where they spend the winter, and push north. How many reach us in Britain depends on the weather in southern Europe. They breed as they move north if the weather is suitable and in some years they can arrive here in huge numbers. This year is proving to be a good year for Painted Ladies, so keep your eyes peeled as you walk around the reserve – they are a beautiful sight!

Why not send in your butterfly sightings from the reserve to the Big Butterfly Count ? This is a national survey that takes place this month and relies on members of the public  to send in counts from their gardens or neighbourhoods. The reserve would be a great place to do it. You can find all the details on their website here: https://www.bigbutterflycount.org/about

 

JULY – what to look out for

July is the start of high summer. The flowers and insects are at their best and busiest, but many of the birds will have finished nesting. In July and August many birds are winding down and moulting into a new set of feathers.

On the Pools

Some of the ducks may have late broods, especially if they lost their eggs of chicks first time around, but most of this year’s young will now be fledged. The adults now moult into their “eclipse” plumage. This is much less showy than their full breeding colours, particularly for the males and this makes them very hard to tell from the females.

Male mallard in breeding plumage
Male mallard in eclipse

 

In the Fields and Hedges

Here are some of the flowers and butterflies that are showing along the paths this month which will give you some ideas of what to look out for as you walk around the reserve in July.

Common mallow
Great Willowherb

These are two plants with mauve and white flowers, but they are easy to tell apart. Both are common wayside flowers.

 

 

 

Meadowsweet
St John’s Wort

There are lots of different types of St John’s Wort, but they are really hard to tell apart. It’s also quite a common garden plant.

Meadowsweet is a plant of marshy places and it grows beside the rhynes.

 

Melilot
Teasel

Melilot is very common in the Sanctuary, but also grows beside the paths.

Later in the year Teasel is a favourite with Goldfinches. They love pecking the seeds out of the spikey heads

 

 

 

Lady’s Bedstraw
Hedge Bedstraw

These two straggly plants with tiny flowers are both Bedstraws and are closely related but easy to tell apart. One has white flowers and the other one yellow.

The name comes from the fact that in bygone times these plants were used to stuff mattresses because they contain a chemical that repels fleas!

 

Peacock
Red Admiral

Some butterflies are easy to recognise – like these two! Here they are feeding on thistle flowers, but both of them love Buddleia flowers, which make it a great shrub to have in your garden.

 

 

Gatekeeper
Meadow Brown
Comma

There are lots of brown butterflies around at this time of year and they are not so easy to tell apart.

The Gatekeeper loves hedges, especially those with bramble flowers and there are lots of those along the reserve tracks!

The Meadow Brown, as its name suggests, tends to stay out in the grassy areas and it’s a much duller brown than the others.

The Comma is a really vivid orange on top but darker brown underneath when it closes its wings. It has jagged edges to its wings and if you look carefully at the photo you can see the little white mark on the underside of its wing which is what gives it its name. It also loves bramble flowers.

DUTCH ELM DISEASE

One result of the dry, hot weather in July is that the elm trees on Wharf Lane start to show the effects of Dutch Elm Disease. The stress of the dry weather seems to weaken the trees and branches start to die. Soon this spreads to the whole tree – as you can see from these photos. New elm suckers will sprout up from the roots and grow into new trees, but these trees will probably die off again when they reach a certain size.

Signs of Dutch Elm Disease
Dying elm trees on Wharf Lane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We hope you enjoy your visits to the reserve and that you see some of the wildlife we’ve described.