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About Me

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I have been interested in nature for most of my life but since I retired I spend as much time as I can exploring the nature reserves and wildlife hotspots of my adopted home, Dorset in southern England. Whilst out I record what I see and take snaps where I can (I am no photographer!) and that forms the basis of my Nature of Dorset website. When I find something new I like to research it and write about it in my nature notes, it is how I learn and hopefully you might find my notes helpful as well!

This website is for the people of Dorset interested in wildlife and for people from elsewhere interested in the wildlife of Dorset!

31 December, 2009

Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus)

The Blue Tit stands at number 2 in the Garden Bird top 20.

Unlike it's cousin, the Great Tit, the Blue Tit seems happier away from its natural woodland habitat and is more eclectic in its taste, happy with seed, peanuts, fat balls and so on as well as keen on cleaning up the aphids from the roses. If you have Blue Tits in your garden you probably have them all year, not just in winter.

Blue Tits are common, fairly dull, have no real song, they are just ordinary, but they have one thing on their side, they are really cute!

Apart from the Robin perhaps, I suspect the Blue Tit has done more to further the cause of birds with the general public than any other. Their readiness to make a home in a nest box almost anywhere makes them particularly popular.

Quite often people can think they have a resident three or four birds in their garden in winter and yet, in reality, they have a constant stream of different birds popping in. Ringing in gardens has revealed some quite interesting facts about actual number as against perceived numbers.

Common they may be but they really are lovely little characters and always entertaining on the garden nut bag.

Great Tit (Parus major)

The Great Tit is a common woodland bird that you see almost everywhere there are trees and shrubs, except our garden.

We are blessed with a good number of birds and yet the Great Tit to us is a rarity! This, despite the fact it stands at number 8 in the top twenty garden birds.

The Great Tit is a smart little bird with its grey coat over a yellow waste coat with a long black cravat down the front. In the field, it is those white cheeks that one frequently notices first.

The Great Tit has an array of songs, or rather calls, for the spring time. It is thought they have at least twelve, with the most familiar being 'teacher, teacher' (I liken this call to someone pumping up their bicycle tyres with a squeaky pump.

This call is surely a sign spring has sprung when you hear it first and within six weeks or so it should be heard all over the county.

28 December, 2009

Mistletoe (Viscum album)

I know Christmas is all but gone for another year but I saw an oak tree full of Mistletoe yesterday near King's Stag in North Dorset and just had to share it with you as it is so seasonal.

Mistletoe is now quite rare and this is the first I have seen for the best part of ten years. It is a parasitic plant that grows only on standard trees. Unlike some parasites, though, it does not kill its host, just raids it for nutrients.

It has very sticky berries which birds like to eat but when they have eaten the flesh of the berry they end up with the seed stuck to their beaks. In attempt to rid themselves of it they wipe their beak on a branch, the seed comes off and a new Mistletoe plant is born.

Reproduction in nature can be so specialised you have to wonder how on earth such complex evolution came about without the plant becoming extinct in the process!

27 December, 2009

Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans)

I can never decide whether the appearance of Winter Heliotrope is a sign that spring is on its way or that winter is definitely with us! Sadly, it is probably the latter and we still have a month or two to wait for true signs of spring.

Winter Heliotrope was brought over from the Mediterranean in Victorian times and it subsequently 'escaped' and has become a naturalised wild flower. It common in Dorset this time of year in damp, shaded habitats along hedgerows, road verges, river banks and waste places. It often forms quite large patches.

It is interesting that despite the colder climate here it still flowers at the same time as it would have done in its home Mediterranean region. It was introduced into gardens, partly for its winter colour but also because it has a strong vanilla scent, the fragrance giving its botanical name, 'fragrans'.

The plant produces large, round leaves which are readily identified. If you see an area of large round leaves by the roadside then stop and take a closer look, it could well be Winter Heliotrope. It will flower through until February and then it will be replaced by its cousin, Butterbur (Petasites hybridus)

26 December, 2009

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

The Chaffinch is frequently described in guide books as Britain's most common bird, it is certainly Europe's most common finch. With them being so common it is easy to overlook what a striking little bird the male Chaffinch is with a range of colours from pink to blue to black to white and many others in between.

Despite the diverse range of colours, it is the white that one notices first when it flies; the white wing bars are immediately visible and are the easiest diagnostic feature. Quite often with birds there is one specific point that you recognise instantly and enables you to identify it immediately.

Unlike most of its finch cousins the Chaffinch has never really mastered the art of nut bag feeding but is prepared to have a go at seed containers that provide little perches to stand on but even then, though, they do not seem happy. The much prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground.

At present it stands at number 5 amongst the most common garden birds. We get a good number in winter when food supplies are short in the fields but they disappear in spring to go nesting and raise their young returning to us again in October.

25 December, 2009

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Well, what else for Christmas Day? I could not resist taking 15 minutes out of the day to give this little Robin its chance to be famous right across the world!

The Robin is special to us here in Britain, our folklore is littered with references to this enchanting little bird and yet, despite its diminutive size it is a real fighter, especially when confronted by another Robin on its patch.

It is, of course, resident and there can hardly be a day in the year when a Robin does not grace our garden. Perhaps a for a couple of weeks in August whilst it is moulting it becomes scarce but otherwise, there it is, helping with the gardening, checking out the washing on the line, looking over the apple tree to make sure it is one piece, making the sure the lid on the compost bin is secure, and singing from the top of the fir tree.

Not surprisingly it stand quite well in the top 20 garden birds at number 6; nearly every garden must have one but of course, in small numbers.

It is the song of the Robin that I find special, partly because it sings for ten months out twelve and for much of the autumn and early winter it is the only singing bird to cheer up cold, dark days. The other thing about the Robins song is that from September it has a very wistful, almost melancholy, tone but as we get to February and the days are lengthening and the thoughts of spring loom so its becomes much more vibrant and jolly.

Thanks Robin, life would not be the same without you. Happy Christmas!

24 December, 2009

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba-yarrelli)

This little character is real trial to photograph as it just does not keep still! It is always running around, here and there, chasing this, chasing that! It is, in fact, the smallest bird that actually walks; other small birds tend to hop.

The other interesting thing about this bird is that it is almost indistinguishable from the White Wagtail. In fact, the British Pied Wagtail is a sub-species of the European White Wagtail being just a little darker in colour. It takes an expert to tell the difference but apart from the odd 'white' that turns up on migration, the ones we see in Dorset are almost certainly going to be 'pied'.

In terms of a garden bird, this was once an almost certainty in many gardens but, sadly, like so many other species this is no longer the case. We never get them in the garden itself but we do see them in the road outside and, despite the abundance of food we put out it does not seem to interest these little chaps!

Wagtails are basically insect eaters anyway and this time of year there are very few insects in gardens.

The best place to see Pied Wagtails in any number is around the car ferry terminal in Weymouth where they roost in their hundreds.

23 December, 2009

Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

n recent years the Siskin has been becoming more and more common in gardens during the winter months and it now stands at number 19 in the league table.

Like their close relative, the Greenfinch (and both are relatives of the Canary), Siskins are ravenous seed eaters and the tendency nowadays is to put out seed rather than peanuts or bread for birds which may well account for this up turn in numbers.

If you have a feeding station that does not have little perches you will notice that the Siskin has a definite preference for eating upside down! This is because it has to point downwards to get at seeds in fir cones in its normal habitat, coniferous forest.

Living not too far from Wareham forest where Siskins nest they are frequent visitors to our garden and at their peak we had nine at one sitting last spring and it was well into June before they stopped coming in.

We have none yet but they are due any day and I look forward to it.

22 December, 2009

Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)

Whilst looking at your garden bird feeders here is a bird you surely cannot over look. It is a bad tempered species that is reluctant to share with anyone and it will stand its ground against all comers!

In the shade they can look a bit nondescript, even dowdy, but in the sunshine they are revealed as a beauty dressed in glorious shades of green and yellow.

Currently number 10 in the top garden bird feeders it was once higher but in times, notably the last three years or so, there has been concern at falling numbers due to a form of salmonella poisoning. However, there indications that this is now behind them and populations levels are recovering. Last week we had eleven in at one go which is by far the most we have ever had at any one time.

Having Greenfinches in your garden is good news/bad news! The good news is they are attractive birds to look at and fun to watch, the bad news is that they eat a tremendous amount of seed between them so get your cheque book ready.

21 December, 2009

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Although not in the top twenty garden feeding birds the Nuthatch is an active feed bag visitor to gardens that are near woodland. If you have Nuthatches then they will be frequently about.

Not only do the like seed, they eat peanuts and adore cheese, especially if it is rubbed in to the bark of a tree.

The Nuthatch is very much a part of the woodland fauna and is very common right across the woods of Dorset. All year round its very distinctive 'piping' call makes unmissable - hear the sound, locate the bird! It can also be heard sometimes opening (or hatching) a nut high in the tree canopy.

Quite dramatic looking, the Nuthatch is like no other bird and cannot really be mistaken. They are regular visitor to the nut bags by the information centre at Arne and always causes a bit of a thrill amongst the visitors.

It likes to feed facing downwards and is quite unique in being able to walk down a tree trunk.

20 December, 2009

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Oh how the numbers of birds in our gardens goes up in the winter and the levels of food we put out goes down so quickly! One of the reasons, the Starling!

Actually, feeding birds has changed considerably over the last thirty years ago. In 1979 my wife and I moved in to a bungalow just outside Southampton and we had our first garden. The first thing we did was to put up a couple of nut bags and then throw out some bread crumbs and scraps everyday. Within minutes we would have around two dozen Starlings darting around, squabbling and demolishing the feast we had put before them. Not any more!

Feeding birds is now much more sophisticated. Bread is no longer consider safe for birds and so we can buy peanuts (except the birds will not eat them any more!), several types of seed including sunflower kernels and nyger seed, fat balls, fruity nibbles and any other fancy that the garden centres or the RSPB will sell us.

Apart from the droppings from the seed containers there is no ground feeding as this attracts rats and spreads disease. With the bread gone, so to are the hoards of Starlings, apart from the odd two or three prepared to fight each other for a place on the fat ball holder.

In 1979 there were an average of15 Starlings per garden in the RSPB Garden Bird Watch, thirty years on, in 2009 there were just 3.2! We still have enormous numbers of Starlings wintering in this country but they just do not seem to like gardens any more.

19 December, 2009

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

We are not quite at the shortest day yet but somehow the Song Thrush seems to be able to tell the darkening days are almost behind us and the corner towards spring has been turned.

The Robin has been the sole singer (or is it the 'soul' singer with that plaintiff winter song?) for the past three months but now, gradually, the Song Thrush is joining in; I have three in the last week.

Once upon a time the Song Thrush was common in gardens but in recent years the numbers have crashed and now it ranks number 17 in the garden bird league table when thirty years ago it was number 10.

Fortunately the decline of this species does seem to have stopped and the population stabilised and one hears them quite often out in the countryside but they are still only very occasional visitors to gardens.

They are lovely birds, quite gentle compared to their cousin, the aggressive Blackbird.

17 December, 2009

Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima)

"There is something moving in amongst the rocks and seaweed; there it is, look; what is it? It is so well hidden".

One of the real reasons we get involved in nature watching is because there is always the chance of something new, something unusual, something special. Maybe its the old hunter/gatherer thing and when I am out for a walk I am always hunting out that something extra, especially if there is going to be chance of a photo.

So it was one cold December day. We were walking along Studland Beech towards Poole. It was low tide and at the point where the line of the beach turns toward the harbour there is a long line of rocks stretching out to sea and I just caught a glimpse of something moving and after a little 'chase' there they were, five Purple Sandpipers.

Not a common bird by any means but they are regular visitors to Dorset shores in winter and I have seen small parties in amongst the rocks right down on point of Portland Bill.

In summer these birds nest on the hillsides in the Arctic tundra of Iceland and northern Scandinavia but most winters a dozen or so end up here on our coast; keep an eye open for them on our rocky coastal places.

16 December, 2009

Crustose Lichen (Lecanora dispersa)

If you stop at one of the bridges over the lower reaches of the River Frome to look for the Wall Rue and Maidenhair Spleenwort then you will, I am sure, notice the extensive areas of crusty white stuff on the tops of the walls.

I find it hard to believe that this dried up and cracked substance is actually a living thing - in fact it is two living things; an algae and a fungus living together as one lichen.

I accept that it is not much to look at nor particularly exciting to find but, that said, I do find it fascinating. It is very slow growing and you can only stand and wonder just how old it is.

There are several similar species but I am fairly certain that this is Lecanora dispersa and you will find it on walls, tomb stones and calcareous rock substraits right across the county. It is very common and is very resistant to pollution and so has no problems growing close to roads even there there are high levels of toxins there.

Why not take a magnifying glass and go out and have a look at these crusty old things! There is not much else to see this time of year.

12 December, 2009

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Each month during the winter I am part of team that counts wildfowl along the River Frome from Wareham up towards Bovington. Each time I am reminded just how well the Mute Swan is now doing compared to when I started bird watching some thirty years ago.

In the early 1980's there was real concern about falling numbers of Mute Swans along our rivers and research on dead birds showed they were consuming significant numbers of lead pellets from fishing equipment which was, unsurprisingly, affecting their ability to breed as well as eventually poisoning them.

As soon as this was known fishermen changed from using lead weights and the problem halted almost as quickly and we now have a thriving swan population again. We regularly see over eighty birds on our three mile stretch of the river.

The Mute Swan for me is, as Chris Packham would say, a top ten bird (along with 25 or so other species!). It must surely be one of our most beautiful birds and they are so serene as they glide along the river.

Dorset has a special connection with swans of course with the swannery at Abbotsbury and Swanage being named after them. I guess that makes the Mute Swan our county's bird?

11 December, 2009

Lesser Black Backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

Amongst the more common gulls we have all year round here in Dorset (Great Black-backed, Herring and Black Headed) we get a number of other visitors from the family.

The Lesser Black-backed is not an uncommon species in winter around our shores, and it is always worth having a closer look at any gull with a dark back to see if it is 'Lesser' rather than 'Greater'.

As you might expect, the Lesser is smaller than the Greater but also the Lesser's back is less black than the Greater's!

The Lesser Black-backed Gull is a very close relative of the Herring Gull, it is the same size, has similar legs and beak (including the red patch) and in many ways is just a Herring Gull with a dark back.

In the south of England the Herring Gull is much more common but as you head north so the Lesser Black-back takes over.

10 December, 2009

Moss Species (Bryum capillare)

This moss is common everywhere, it grows on walls, rocks and, most often, on trees and the surrounding soil in woodlands.

This moss forms lovely silvery green carpets, you almost expect to able to turn the corner over and see the Axminster or Wilton label underneath it!

Not only is it common and found all over the place it is one of the more easy mosses to identify because of its silvery and almost catkin like 'stems'.

From early spring through to summer it produces frequent tiny pear shaped fruits. They appear on dark red stalks that shoot up from within the green carpet and for a while the carpet develops red-tinged patches (but not because someone has spilt wine it!).

09 December, 2009

Fruticose Lichen (Usnea subfloridana)

As you walk along by hedgerows and scrub now denuded of leaves you surely cannot fail to notice the masses of lichen that adorn the stems and branches.

Of these lichens this 'spidery' one forms great masses of bristly offshoots. It is called Usnea subfloridana.

The Usnea range of lichen are members of the fruiticose set because they produce little fruiting bodies that often look a little bit like golf tee pegs.

Usena subfloridana is by far the most common of the British Usnea species. It grows on trees, fences and occasionally on rock. It is the most tolerant of the species to air pollution and is very common in the south and west of England (including Dorset of course) but it has disappeared from the Midlands and north of England.

08 December, 2009

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Here is another creature, familiar in Dorset now, that has its origins in wildfowl collections in our country parks and gardens from Victorian times.

The Canada Goose is, of course, now widespread on lakes, ponds and other waterside areas across the country.

The Canada Goose is a North American species where there are several variable races. The one we are familiar with here is the pale Atlantic coast variety.

In their native environment they are very migratory along the Atlantic coast of North America. In this country the population seems less mobile although they can still make a pretty impressive sight when thirty or more form a 'V' shaped skein and fly over our house and up the Frome Valley in the early autumn making that wonderfully evocative 'honking' call as they go.

Like many imported species they can be a bit of a pest, and they certainly make a real mess with their droppings. In places steps are being taken to control their numbers now.

07 December, 2009

Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

We must all have seen a Cormorant doing this but why do they do it? Conventional wisdom says it is to dry their wings which obviously get saturated after they have been diving.

This may well, of course, be very true but it raises the question that why do Cormorants need to do it when other diving birds do not? You never see duck or grebes, for example, drying their wings after a fishing expedition.

The answer could well be that the Cormorant has much bigger wings and. as it spends more time flying than a duck or a grebe, then drying them out is more important. However, I have heard a theory that this posture aids their digestion. Cormorants swallow their catch hole, head first, and it takes a good while to get the fish right down the throat and in to the stomach. Holding out its wings like this opens the passage way and eases the flow. There may be truth in both of these.

The Cormorant is very common on the coastal areas and the larger lakes and rivers of lowland Dorset with hundreds in Poole harbour, for example, in winter. Along the higher, rocky cliffs of the Purbecks they are replaced by their more seafaring cousin, the Shag.

04 December, 2009

Yellow Brain Fungus (Tremella mesenterica)

There are some strange things in our natural world in Dorset and this is one of them! This seems more like slime than a fungus but then fungi come in such a diverse array of forms, shapes, sizes and colours.

This one has the wonderful name of the Yellow Brain Fungus and it is certainly yellow! It starts lemon yellow, becomes egg yoke coloured before drying orange. In its early stages it gelatinous, watery and translucent but it becomes brittle when dry.

It is found on dead branches of Ash and Gorse and so is quite abundant on the heaths of Purbeck.

It is not edible, but then I didn't fancy it anyway!

02 December, 2009

Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

A visit to Poole Harbour at any time of year will undoubtedly yield a number of these handsome ducks. In winter, however, the numbers increase with birds coming south from northern Britain and Scandinavia.

The Shelduck is not actually a duck, and It not a goose either! Scientifically, it placed between the two and actually, it s not hard to see why.

The diet of a Shelduck is somewhat different to ducks and geese who tend to be vegetarian, in that they eat enormous numbers if Hydrobia which are tiny molluscs that live in our estuary mud flats. Molluscs have shells hence the name - Shelduck. Easy!

Males and females are very similar but the male (as in this photo) has a broader brown waste band.

Shelduck make their nests in burrows, often those of Rabbits. How does such a large bird get down into such a relatively small hole?

01 December, 2009

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

My favourite bird identification book was published back in 1978, the year I started 'birding'. It says "Many birds suffer from human activity but a few show sufficient adaptability to profit from change and the Reed Bunting is one of these."

Thirty years ago we regularly had Reed Buntings in our garden during the winter months and I would frequently see them on farmland around where we were living. Reed Buntings were common!

How things change! Those words I quoted are far from true now. The Reed Bunting has declined substantially over recent years is is now nationally and locally scarce, usually seen only in its established habitat of Phragmytes reed beds. It is now on the 'Red List' for endangered species.

The Reed Bunting became dependent on farmland for food in winter but modern farming which sees fields green with winter wheat rather that brown with corn stubble has hit this (any many other species too of course) very badly.

The Reed Bunting is a distinctive looking bird with that vivid white moustache and the noticeable pale eye stripe. The male has an almost black head and face whereas the female, like this one, is a darkish brown.

29 November, 2009

Blushing Bracket Fungus (Deadaleopsis confragosa)

If you want to make a start identifying fungi then starting with the brackets is a good idea. Basically, they are quite obvious that they are bracket fungi which then narrows down the choice somewhat and there are not that many to choose from.

It is a good idea to try and decide what sort of wood they are growing on (brackets all grown on wood) as that will give you a further guide. Time of year is not such a good indicator as they can occur all year round but the rule of commonality will certainly apply - unless you are really lucky it will be the most common fungi you find.

The other vital piece of information you will require is whether the fungus you have found has gills on the underside or pores. Finally, and quite often key in any form of identification, not just fungi, is whether there is any particular feature that strikes you; on this fungi I was struck by the dark patches that look like bruises.

Armed with all this information it is then off to the field guide or reference book where all this information will be needed. In my guide, the pictures show that this could be one of several possibilities but the fact it has gills eliminated a group called the polypores. This one was in a rather damp woodland so I was pretty sure it was growing on a willow, there were no leaves on the tree at the time but it looked like Sallow to me. That brings down the choice again.

But the decider for me were these 'bruises'. They are a primary feature of Deadaleopsis connfragosa and that is how it gets its common name, the Blushing Bracket.

All identification in nature requires logical, systematic evaluation of the facts. Looking at pictures on its own rarely works.

27 November, 2009

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)

Although the Coot and the Moorhen superficially look very similar (and they are both members of the Rail family) they are quite different.

To look at, the Moorhen appears black but, on closer examination, is in fact a dark reddish brown and has a red beak and frontal shield. The Moorhen also has highly visible white flashes in its wings and especially in its tail.

From a distance you can tell a Moorhen from a Coot because of its different shape. It is a more slender bird and has a much more pronounced fan shaped tail.

The feet of Moorhen are less padded that those of a Coot and that reflects the fact that they spend less time on muddy surfaces and more time on grassy river banks and other harder surfaces.

The Moorhen is quite common as it is an adaptable bird, always found near water but any patch of water that is surrounded by vegetation will do be that a river, pond or marsh and can even appear in parks and large gardens. It does have a preference for fresh water rather than saline.

Less gregarious than a Coot and less inclined to look for conflict it is a shy bird, easily alarmed if taken by surprise and yet quite tame and will feed happily whilst you walk nearby provided it knows you are there.

BIrders call this the 'Moron', which reflects the closeness of the names not the nature of the animal.

26 November, 2009

Coot (Fulica atra)

Coot (Fulica atra)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset
It is not hard to see where the old saying "As bald as a Coot" comes from is it? This bird is proudly showing us its most distinctive feature, the white frontal shield and white beak.

The Coot is actually not black but dark grey when seen close up. You can just discern that perhaps from the lit under feathers on its front here. Apart from its white features it has no other distinctive markings.

Coot have remarkable feet, not webbed like a duck, but having a kind of padding along each toe, three toes pointing forward and one back. This padding stops them sinking in to the mud whereas a duck's web feet are used as paddles. If you look in soft mud you will often see the imprints of these feet (but be careful because they could also be Moorhen's footprints). They browse for food as well as diving and dabbling.

Overall, I guess the Coot is bit of a comical bird. It can be bad tempered and very aggressive towards neighbours, especially other Coot and Moorhens. They make a honking noise like an old hand-held air horn, the ones with a rubber bubble you squeeze! To take off they run along the surface of the water flapping their wings furiously to gain sufficient speed to get in to the air.

Coot can be found anywhere there is open water, salt or fresh, but rarely on the sea. They are very common in Dorset, especially in winter as the numbers are boosted from arrivals from further north. Quite large numbers can be seen in Christchurch harbour, Poole harbour, on the River Wey at Radipole, on the Fleet and just about anywhere there is still, open water.

25 November, 2009

Foliose Lichen (Parmelia caperata)

Parmelia caperata is a very common lichen found on deciduous trees across southern England and hence can be found almost anywhere in Dorset. It can also be found on rocks and mosses and conifers too but it is not able to cope with air pollution, hence is more common in the south west than further east and north.

Now I have been a distant admirer of lichens for a long, long time, ever since I was privileged to meet an authority on the subject some 25 years ago whilst on holiday on the Isle of Skye. Noel was in his seventies then, had been a devotee of lichens for as long as he could remember and as we walked together in a small study group he would suddenly drop to his knees and enthuse over a tiny little lichen growing amongst the heather. He also pointed out rocks saying 'That's a bird perch" and sure enough, watch a little while and a Wheatear would land there. He showed us fence posts with lichen on one side and not the other, it being totally missing from the side where the wire was stapled because the wire had rusted and the polluting rust ran down the post in rain water!

My message is that for some people even the most inconspicuous, almost lifeless piece of nature can inspire and enthuse if you look closely and think about it.

Now lichens have a language all of their own having apotheca and rhizinae, soralia and thallus, and I have never mastered this language but every time I look closely at a lichen like this one I remember, with affection, Noel and the way he enriched our lives that week in Scotland. Thanks Noel.

24 November, 2009

Magpie Inkcap (Coprinus picaceus)

In Dorset we have some lovely Beech woods and in autumn the fallen leaves and remains of the Beech nuts (Beech mast) form thick carpets on the ground which become home to a complex micro system of organisms, both animal and vegetable, that breakdown this 'waste' product.

Leaf litter is something one probably rarely looks too closely at but, out of this rotting material comes beautiful gems such as this stunning Magpie Fungus. By far my favourite fungi, this is common in southern England but, being an inkcap, it only presents in this immaculate form for a few hours before the caps start melting away in to an inky substance.

It apparently smells of naphthaline (ie moth balls) and is "said to be poisonous but eaten by some with no ill effects". Note, the book says eaten by some will no ill effects, it does not say what happened to the others!

In any event, who would want to pick and cook such a lovely structure. Is it not best left where it was found for others to see?

Fungus species (Amanita spissa)

Safe to eat or certain death? Now there is a question it is best not even to contemplate! As far as I can tell this in Amanita spissa which is very common and edible according to my book. However, it is a definite 'look-a-like' for Amanita phalloides which is affectionately known as the Death Cap Fungus and for Amanita virosa, aka the Destroying Angel and I am sure you have worked out that both of these species are DEADLY POISONOUS. So get the answer wrong and that's it, no second chance!

The Death Cap and Destroying Angel are so poisonous that you only need to touch them to transfer the poison to your fingers, then you stop to have sandwiches for lunch and then, a few painful hours later, the lights go out. This is why, of course, unless you are an expert, fungi are best admired from a short distance and not in the hand.

I like the comment in my book against Amanita excelsa (again very similar in appearance to A. spissa): "Said to be edible" - obviously the author has decided not to try it to find out for himself.

The Amanita family also includes 'A. muscaria', the familiar red capped Fly Agaric which is described as having a pleasant taste, but later in the text as being poisonous! It is certainly known to bring on hallucinations that give it the name of the 'Magic Mushroom'.

So, the Amanita family of fungi are an interesting group. They are quite common, especially in broad leaved woodlands, and have similarities in appearance that make them difficult to separate without dissecting them or looking at their spores under a microscope. Mycology is a tricky subject.

22 November, 2009

Hooded Merganser (Mergus cucullatus)

The Hooded Merganser is not really a part of the nature of Dorset other than that there has been this single male at the RSPB Radipole Lake reserve for about a year now and it has become part of the 'furniture'!

My reason for including it is to qualify a message I am always anxious to give budding nature watchers who are keen to find something rare and exclusive.

I have always been a numbers person so early on in bird watching 'career' I understood very well what someone said to me. "If you are not sure about which species a bird you have seen is then, out of the options, it is statistically likely to the most common one and you need good evidence to be certain that this is not the case." I have always found them wise words.

So, having promoted this message I felt I should add a rider to it - always expect the unexpected! Last weekend I was out with two friends counting wildfowl on the River Frome near Wareham when we put two geese up. In astonishment we looked at each other and said "Egyptian Geese?" And yes, two Egyptian Geese they were as they flew over our heads.
Yes, always expect the unexpected.

The origins of this Hooded Merganser are unknown. It appeared on the River Wey about a year ago as an immature male bird. Hooded Mergansers are a north American species and it is just possible that it made the journey across the Atlantic to arrive here but far more likely is that it was born to parents that are part of a collection somewhere and before it could be pinioned it made its escape and, finding the company of many other ducks and plenty of food in the centre of Weymouth it decided to stay.

Escapes from collections, and those two Egyptian Geese almost certainly were too, have always been a problem and the plethora Sika Deer in Purbeck is another case in point. It is particularly true in wildfowl where there is a greater tendency to interbreed with other ducks.and to create hybrids which can weaken the genetic strain of the natural birds.

21 November, 2009

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

I normally advise new bird watchers to take no notice of a birds name when trying to identify a new species. For example, you never find Garden Warblers in gardens and Willow Warblers can be seen in trees other than Willows.

For Pipits, however, with other factors taken in to account, it works. There are six Pipits seen in the UK. Of these, two are very uncommon you are unlikely to see Richards and Tawney Pipits - leave those to the experts! That leaves four to choose from.

The Water Pipit is an unusual winter visitor to watercress beds on Dorset's rivers so if you see a Pipit away from this habitat it won't be a Water Pipit.

Tree Pipits are found on our heaths, usually perched in the occasional birch or pine trees that occur there. They are also summer visitors and easy to match up when you find one thanks to the heath/tree connection.

The Rock Pipit is a Dorset resident all along our rocky sea cliffs and ONLY on our rocky sea cliffs, hence Rock Pipit.

This leaves the Meadow Pipit for everywhere else! Heath, downland, rough pasture, even farmland are its preferred habitats with a marked drift towards coastal regions in autumn and winter. It is also our most common Pipit sometimes appearing in quite large flocks.

This little one (probably not quite an adult because it is still very light underneath) is not by a watercress bed, not in a tree on heathland, and not on rocks, it is on coastal downland and so its a Meadow Pipit!

19 November, 2009

Peat Moss (Sphagnum capillifolium)

Now much of the colour has gone from the countryside there are still occasional hints of brightness to be found and if you walk out on to the Dorset heaths, in the boggier areas you can still see the bright green of Sphagnum moss.

Not easy to photograph in a way that does it justice, Sphagnum is made up of masses of much smaller plants all growing together in a tight colony. Normally it is found in large compact cushions just above the water table in bogs, on heathland and in damp acid woodland.

Sphagnum acts like a sponge, it holds lots of water as a protection against drying out if the water levels drop in drier weather. This 'capillary' action gives it its name, 'capillifolium'; foliage that soaks up water.

My little field guide lists eleven species of Sphagnum mosses, all incredibly similar, and eight are found in Britain. I am pretty sure however, this is 'capillifolium' unless anyone can tell me otherwise!

18 November, 2009

Honey Fungus (Armillaria melles)

This is an aptly named fungus. It not only has it the colour of honey but it has a slightly sticky appearance which makes it look as though it has been smeared with honey.

It always grows in these 'clumps' and can be found on tree stumps, buried branches and dead roots of trees of all kinds. It also produces the common white rot you see on dead wood.

This fungus is a deadly parasite in woods, plantations and gardens and is certain death to any tree that becomes infected by it. It accounts for the loss of considerable amounts of commercial timber each year and is virtually impossible to eradicate once established. It can wreak havoc in gardens amongst shrubs.

It is also known as Boot-lace Fungus as it has long black cords that spread underground to infect new trees.

It is a very common species. The fruiting bodies appear in late summer and early autumn and are edible when young but become toxic with age.

17 November, 2009

Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia portentosa)

I find lichen identification extremely difficult and if anyone has any tips I would love to hear them. However, there is one lichen anyone can identify. All you have to do is walk out on to one the Dorset heaths and look amongst the heather and in no time at all you will find 'reindeer lichen'.

Whilst there are various similar species of 'reindeer lichen' there is only one found here. The others are confined to the Arctic tundra and is a favourite food of ... reindeer, of course!

Not much look at at first glance but get down close, add a bit of magnification and you have this wondrous mass of intricate 'branchlets' that spread out in all directions. to make delicate, fluffy, tufted mats.

In some books this can be listed as Cladonia impexa as some lichens are being reclassified after DNA analysis reveals more about them and their relationship to other lichens.

16 November, 2009

Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

The Dorset woods in autumn and winter are brightened by the bright red unmistakable berries of Holly.

It is interesting that although Holly is one of Britain's best known trees it is actually quite local occurring mainly in hedgerows and older, traditional forest and woods. It is tolerant of shade which means it can survive quite comfortably under other trees, especially Ash and Birch. The Holly is also tolerant of clipping, and as it is also evergreen, it is popular as a hedging plant.

Another interesting feature is that only the lower leaves are prickly, presumably to give the plant protection against grazing. The upper leaves are often quite smooth edged.

The Holly is unusual in that there are male trees and female trees, although occasionally both forms of flower appear on one tree. Obviously the male trees do not bear berries, its sole purpose to produce pollen that will fertilise the flowers on the female trees which is where the berries will ripen and appear.

Holly was traditionally associated with ancient pre-Christian festivals but it has also become synonymous with Christmas and is a popular decoration as well as being mentioned in carols.

15 November, 2009

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

I have led a number of walks in my time and the question I get asked more than 'What was that?' is 'How do you know?'.

New people to nature watching often place their entire emphasis on colouring and forget all the other factors. For example, we handed over our RSPB credit card with a picture of a Kingfisher on it in a local shop recently and the shop assistant said 'My wife saw a Kingfisher in our garden recently'. I asked him whether they lived by a river or the coast and the answer was 'No, near Wareham Forest.' I suggested it was a Nuthatch rather than a Kingfisher and the response was 'How do you know?'

This is obviously a picture of a Kestrel, but how do you know? Chestnut brown colouring; mottled plumage underneath; black bars in the tail; but there is something far more obvious, what is it doing? It is hovering; it is hunting; therefore it is a bird of prey and, as the only one that hovers is a Kestrel then you do not even need to lift your binoculars to see the plumage markings (by the way Buzzards do hover of sorts too).

It is not just about plumage it is about size, shape, posture, movement, activity, location, time of year, time of day, population numbers, instinct. experience, a whole bundle of things.

This is not just true for birds but for every facet of wildlife, including flowers and other plants.

14 November, 2009

Spindle (Euonymus europeaus)

There are some plants that have really insignificant, sometimes almost indiscernible, flowers but come in to their own when autumn arrives and their fruits emerge. Holly is one that comes to mind but the Spindle is undoubtedly another.

Spindle is not an uncommon shrub, probably overlooked for much of the year. In summer it has tiny little creamy green four petalled flowers just a few millimetres across. In the autumn they produce these brilliant coral pink seed cases that could almost be flowers in their own right. Then the seed cases split to reveal a bright orange fruit inside. Quite unique amongst our wild flora and easy to pick out.

Spindle occurs mainly on our chalk downland and lime rich soils. It has thin twiggy branches, hence our use of the word 'spindly' for anything thin. The wood, however, is white in colour and hard and smooth in texture which led to it being used for traditional spindles that were used in spinning wool and cotton. It was also the primary plant for producing artist's charcoal.

Altogether an interesting plant that is popular with insets too.

13 November, 2009

Stinking Iris (Iris foetidissima)

This plant is a double beauty. Not only does it have the most beautiful blue/grey flowers in summer but it produces three large seed pods which split in autumn to reveal these fantastic orange/red berries in a striking 'tripod' arrangement if you see what I mean!

I have never sought to smell this plant, having been partly put off by its name and partly because it is not something I do, smelling flowers is not a 'man thing' I guess, however, having read about this now I might give it a go as, if you crush it, it gives off a smell of fresh meat which gives it its local name of the Roast Beef plant; now that does sound more tempting!

The Stinking Iris is common over much of Dorset, especially on sea cliffs, in damp woodlands and in hedgerows. It has a preference for chalky soil and can occur in many other situations down here as well.

12 November, 2009

Holm Oak (Quercus ilex)

Holm Oak (Quercus ilex)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset

Now this can be a conundrum when you are out in 'the field' and not expecting it. They are Acorns right? Then it is an Oak tree? But those are not the usual Oak shaped leaves, they look a bit like Holly? And the leaves are not turning colour and falling, they are still green, and the tree itself, it is not big enough to be an Oak, nor is it the right shape.

The Holm Oak is a true Oak nonetheless, it bears the Oak Latin name of Quercus to prove the point but it is Britain's only common evergreen Oak although it is not truly indigenous having been introduced from the Mediterranean area during the 16th Century into large gardens and parks but also as a wind break, especially in large estates near the sea because it is resistant to salt laden winds.

In Dorset it is quite common along the coast line and can be seen in abundance, for example, at Durlston Country Park where it was presumably introduced to help protect the old estate's garden from the south westerlies that blow in on these exposed cliffs. It can alse be found along the Fleet in places like Abbotsbury.

Often overlooked, or dismissed because it cannot be named, look out for Holm Oak, it is an interesting tree.

11 November, 2009

Beafsteak Fungus (Fistulina hepatica)

The distinctive colouring of this bracket fungus is the key to its identification as the beafsteak fungus. It is a common species, found frequently on Oak and Sweet Chestnut in our local woodlands.

It is edible but I suspect it is not as tasty as a piece of rump steak - my book says "the flesh is dark and succulent, is mottled in appearance with pink veins that give out a blood like sap. It tastes sourish and has a pleasant smell". Try it if you dare!

What I found interesting is that this parasitic plant turns the wood of its host a dark drown (back to that blood like sap' I suppose) which makes it in much demand from the furniture industry. The poor tree! If the fungus doesn't get you the carpenter will

10 November, 2009

Moss Species (poss. Polytrichum formosum)

If there is not much to see when you look upwards on a woodland walk try looking downwards at the woodland floor. There you will find a wide variety of plants, even in Autumn and Winter.

Be prepared for an identification challenge though unless you have the best reference books around and a microscope!

Unfortunately I only have a small field guide but I can tell that this is a member of the Polytrichum family, either 'formosum' or 'commune'; both are common in acid woodland and on heath. Microscopic examination is required to tell them apart but I favour that this is 'formosum' as it apparently likes slightly drier conditions and I found this specimen on a stream bank, damp but drained.

To appreciate moss you need to get down and take a close look. This plant forms large carpets of individual little spiky trees, a bit like a minute conifer forest! In amongst the 'trees' shoots appear with little nodules on the top which contain the spores for distribution by the wind.

OK, moss may not be 'your thing' but I think it worth a second glance, specially this time of year when there does seem much else to admire!

09 November, 2009

Oak Moss Lichen (Evernia prunastri)

Take a walk in the woods this time of year and there does not seem much to see. Point a camera with a close up lens on at various things and just see what you might get!

This amazing lichen is very common and I have no doubt we all pass it by with hardly a glance. However, it has been used as a fixative for perfume, a dying agent, it was ground up to make a hair powder and was used as wadding in shotguns.

Nowadays it is a known source of usnic acid and is used in the production of antibiotics. It is also the preferred lichen used by Long-tailed Tits in their nests.

So,next time you take a winter walk in the woods, why not take a closer look at lichen, you find more than you bargained on.

07 November, 2009

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

For me the 'benchmark' for identifying ducks is the Mallard. The Mallard has been so successful in our modern world you will find it all across Europe and in other parts of the world too.

The Mallard can be found anywhere there is water (salt or fresh), anywhere in Britain (both inland and coastal) and any time of year (winter and summer) and so, if you see a duck it is, statistically speaking, most likely to be a Mallard. That is why it is important to know a Mallard well so that you can know for sure when you have seen a different species worth a closer look.

I chose this photo I took of a Mallard because it shows very clearly the blue feathers in the wing. This is important because male and female Mallards are different in plumage but they both have the blue in the wing. In late summer the male moults and loses its gorgeous metallic green/blue head but usually the blue in the wing is still visible. To add to the confusion the Mallard inter breed with some forms of domestic duck and and all sorts of hybrids may be encountered but, even so, quite often the blue in the wing remains as clear indicator that you are looking at a form of Mallard.

There are other features too that identify a Mallard, one of which is their classic duck 'quack, quack, quack' call. The whitish flanks under the wing are quite clear, especially when in flight and so too is the white in the tail.

Get to know your Mallard well, then you will know when you are looking at a duck that is not!

06 November, 2009

Teal (Anas crecca)

Teal (Anas crecca)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset
As winter draws near the number of immigrant birds builds all along the south coast and especially in Dorset around Christchurch Harbour, Poole Harbour and the The Fleet.

Amongst the incoming birds are waders, geese and ducks and, surprisingly to me, it seems that the Teal is not only one of the most common but also the most overlooked by the casual observer.

I think many inexperienced bird watchers perhaps dismiss them as Mallard because of the green on their head. Although closely related to Mallard, Teal are easily distinguished as they are much smaller and have a clearly visible yellow triangle to the rear, under the wing. This yellow is visible, especially through binoculars), from a considerable distance and is the essential mark of Teal.

I think it is also true to say that they are a more social bird than the Mallard and tend to keep together in quite large flocks, often a few hundred together.

Generally found on our salt marshes around Phragmites reed beds but you will also find them on sodden riverside pasture and large ponds.

So, next time you see a lot of brown ducks, take a closer look. Can you see that yellow flash?

03 November, 2009

Collared Dove (Streptopelia docaocto)

The Collared Dove is a frequent visitor to gardens, indeed most gardens now have one according to the BTO Garden Birdwatch Survey.

This is not the best picture in the world but it does illustrate the obvious feature of the bird, its black 'collar'. It would be hard to confuse this bird with anything else although I have heard people refer to it as the Ringed Dove which is actually at totally different non-British species.

Until the early 1950's the Collared Dove was a non-British species too, being more at home in the Balkans. During the 1930's it suddenly began to spread across Europe and arrived in Britain in 1954 (as far I can ascertain). Its arrival had the 'twitchers' of its day quite excited but now it is just a common bird seen near human habitation from farms to city centres right across the United Kingdom.

It has such a gentle face and seems quite a gentle bird in nature too preferring to fly off when confronted by even a smaller bird like a Starling.

It is by no means a song bird possessing a rather monotonous "I don't know! I don't know!' phrase which it repeats for varying lengths of time from its preferred perch, often a television areal.

Voracious seed feeders and almost consistently breeding throughout the spring, summer and in to the autumn. Surveys reveal that its increase in numbers may have actually stopped and there has been a slight indication of a downturn due, it is thought, to disease, possibly linked to their ground feeding under seed bags in gardens.

02 November, 2009

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

Having looked at the Stock Dove yesterday, here is the Wood Pigeon for comparison. Note the white patches on the neck which, from a distance, looks like a white collar. That, and white in the wing when it flies, is the easiest way to tell them apart.

The Wood Pigeon is a bird that has thrived on modern farming methods and they can be seen in large flocks now as numbers continue to increase (although latest surveys show the population levels may have plateaued in recent years).

In autumn and winter it is now quite common to see flocks of a thousand or more birds in fields which does not endear them to our farmers. What we often do not realise is that large numbers of 'our' birds migrate to Europe at this time of year and people watching visible migration here in Dorset report movements of 30,000 plus birds a day heading south.

To compensate, however, large numbers of these birds come in to the UK from Eastern Europe where it is much colder than here.

Not a favourite bird perhaps but, in our garden, they are known as 'hoovers' as they work their way around under the seed feeders picking up anything, not just nut kernels, that have fallen to the ground and to that extent, at least, they are useful!

30 October, 2009

Foliose Lichen (Xanthoria parietina)

As the leaves disappear from the trees and the hedgerows so other life forms become more apparent, especially lichens.

Lichens may not look much, just some dried up crusty old vegetation, but they are actually fascinating. A lichen is actually two living organisms, an algae and a fungus, which live together for mutual benefit, symbiosis (I'm turning into Chris Packham!)

To survive they need a host which may be vegetable or mineral from which it can derive support, minerals and moisture. Lichens do no harm to their hosts, they are not parasitic.

Identifying lichens is a real headache. This one though is very easy as it is really the only yellow coloured one and it is extremely common, mainly because it seems to be resistant to air pollution.

You can find Xanthoria on trees, rocks and walls, especially on bird perching sites such as fence posts and milestones. Unfortunately they do not have English names.

Fungus (Calocera viscosa)

The is so much in the natural world that is small and so often missed.

I decided to take a walk and look specifically for fungi, although I find them very hard to identify. I set off for Sandford Woods, near Wareham, which is predominantly natural Scots Pine and under conifers is usually a good place for fungi. With this in mind I looked closely at fallen branches and tree stumps and, amongst the mosses and lichens that colonise these places I found this, Calocera viscosa.

Now Calocera viscosa is not uncommon, in fact it is very common everywhere but particularly on pine stumps. It may not be uncommon but it is small, these 'tongues' stand less than an inch tall and, despite their bright orange colour, are easily missed if you are not looking closely. This shows too, the advantage of magnified photography as it reveals detail and beauty that is otherwise easily missed.

This also illustrates that not all fungi have the familiar toadstool shape and when you look closely you find all sorts of strange and wonderful things.

29 October, 2009

Shaggy Inkcap (Coprinus comatus)

The Shaggy Inkcap is also familiarly known as the Lawyers Wig fungus for fairly obvious reasons!

Not far from our house is an open area of grass with a scattering of ornamental trees and every October these fungi appear, as if by magic. Every day for a couple of weeks a dozen 'spikes' arise from the ground, by evening they have reached this stage (as I have photographed it). Overnight it continues to develop and the cap separates from the stipe and then by morning the whole things starts to dissolve, the black spores making the liquid look like old fashioned Stephen's ink which some of you will remember from your school days. The liquid soaks into the ground taking the spores with it to start a new generation of the fungus.

Every day the old spikes can be seen dissolving as new spikes appear. This method of spore (or seed) distribution is quite unique to this family of fungi I believe.

It is a widespread species and you can find it on lawns, pasture, along footpaths, on areas of bare ground, even rubbish tips.

28 October, 2009

Gt Black Backed Gull (Larus marinus )

The third 'common' gull in Dorset is the Great Black Backed Gull. By no means as numerous as the Black Headed or the Herring Gull but you can potentially see them anywhere along the coast line from the harbours to the cliffs.

They seem to be less keen on the company of other Great Black Backs and prefer to hang around with other species of gulls and it is quite usual to see in amongst a flock of other gulls a couple of these.

They are by far the biggest of the common three and indeed of all the gulls we get in Dorset and have, as their name implies (which is not always a good guide!) a very dark back. The only possible confusion would be with the Lesser Black Backed Gull which is smaller (the size of a Herring Gull), possibly not such a dark back and in Dorset not so common.

The Great Black Backed Gull is a ferocious predator, having the advantage of size over its competitors and readily takes chicks of other gulls, terns and waders. They are also great 'muggers' watching the other species of gull around them and if they see one with food will attack and chase it until it drops the food and then swoops down to claim its prize.

Their big wing span makes them superb gliders and is wonderful to see them out at sea looking for all the world like an albatross.