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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!

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.

27 October, 2009

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

The most evocative bird call I know is the wonderful 'laughing' call of the Herring Gull. As a youngster, like all kids I expect, I loved going to the seaside and when I heard this call from the chimney tops at Ryde on the Isle of Wight I knew we were there!

The Herring Gull is, perhaps, a much maligned bird because it has developed a taste for human rubbish. During the autumn and winter upwards of 1,000 fly over us (near Wareham) every morning on their way to the landfill sites on the Bere Regis road and then, every evening, they make their way back to Poole Harbour to roost. Sometimes, when disturbed, they all rise into the sky in a towering cloud of birds all 'mewing' anxiously to each other.

In spring, the birds spread out along our coastline, especially on the cliffs, to nest and our daily processions declines in numbers for a while. They also tend to see a house top as a cliff and readily nest up against chimney stacks which makes them unpopular with the house owners.

The are a common sight in Dorset, much bigger than the Black Headed Gull with yellow legs and bill, and the bill has a red patch on the underside, more noticeable in the breeding season.

People find it hard to believe that Herring Gull numbers are falling, just as with many other sea birds, and this thought to be linked to the declining health of our seas.

26 October, 2009

Black Headed Gull (Larus ridibundus)

Spotting gulls is a tricky one and getting the identification right can be really difficult for a number of reasons.

Firstly, some have different plumage in winter than they do in summer and that is no truer than with the Black-headed Gull. In winter it has no black head at all, just a 'comma' behind its ear. In summer its not black-headed either, it has a chocolate brown face. Not the best of names for this bird!

In Dorset this is one of our two most common species of gulls, the other is the Herring Gull. They nest in Poole harbour, especially on Brownsea Island lagoon, and in winter they are all around the harbour, in Swanage Bay, around Weymouth, especially Radipole Lake, where its is common the see over 100 standing in puddles in the car park fully expecting all cars to deviate around them.

Like the Starling, the Black-headed Gull is a bird with attitude. It is aggressive and noisy and its harsh call is like nothing else, just a rasping shriek.

The problem with Black-backed Gulls is they gather together in quite large numbers and other, much rarer gulls, tend to move in with them. You have to virtually look at every individual in the crowd to see if there is a different species lodging there.

Stand in the car park at Radipole and check the legs and beaks. If They are red then you have Black-headed Gull; if it's not but the bird is the same sort of size, then you have some thing else that needs a closer look - Common Gull or Mediterranean Gull perhaps or even something much rarer. At least you can always pop in to the RSPB visitor centre and find out what it is you have found.

25 October, 2009

Ivy (Hedera helix)

Ivy (Hedera helix)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset
Now Ivy is not a plant I have ever had much time for; it's common, it's green, it's boring. Well that is maybe what I have thought all these years but, whilst looking for the Ivy bee, I started looking at Ivy itself.

Agreed it is common, you can find it just about anywhere, in woods climbing trees or carpeting the ground, in hedgerows, on walls and buildings, just about anywhere it has something to climb on.

It is also green! Not only the leaves but also these complex flower heads with their yellowish green colouring.

Boring? Hardly! The flowers come out in September and last through until November, a time when there are few other flowers around, and at this time it becomes a vital nectar source for late summer and autumn insects. These flowers will soon produce black berries which will feed birds and small mammals through the winter.

Ivy is not a parasitic plant but does thrive by climbing on other larger plants, trees and shrubs. The question is, does Ivy kill its host by doing this? There seems to be some debate on this. While many think it does and call for it to be cut down others say it only thrives on trees that are already dying and, because the host is producing less leaves there is more light to encourage the Ivy growth. Ivy certainly grows best on dead trees where it has both support and light.

Ivy is a very important plant in our natural system and we should destroy it at our peril!

22 October, 2009

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

During the spring and summer Grey Herons gather together in nesting colonies and so become less frequent elsewhere in the county. There are currently eight known heronries in Dorset which are surveyed every year and the figures obtained show the Grey Heron as a declining species.

One of these heronries is on Brownsea Island and they are known to be heavy predators of the tern colony and Sandwich Terns in particular have suffered although measures have been taken to reduce this with some success and the terns have benefited as a result.

In the autumn and winter the birds from the nesting colonies spread out across the county, mainly to coastal sites (Christhurch Harbour, Poole Harbour, Lodmore, Radipole, the Fleet and so on) but the also go to some inland lakes and rivers and you can encounter them just about anywhere there is water.

They stand motionless up to their knees in water waiting for a fish to swim by. Sometimes the prowl slowly around to disturb unsuspecting prey. On cold days they stand hunched up and looking really bad tempered.

It is strange that Grey Heron numbers should be declining when their cousins, the Little Egret, are doing so well and their more remote family, Spoonbills and Cattle Egrets are being seen more and more in Dorset.

21 October, 2009

Bracket Fungus (Trametes Versicolor)

Decaying wood from fallen trees makes a superb micro-habitat for various forms of wildlife and that is why, on nature reserves at least, fallen trees are usually left to rot away naturally. If they fall across paths or present some form of danger then they have to be removed of course.

One of the key players in the rotting process is fungi and this is one of the most common. Bracket fungi are similar in many ways to the normal 'umbrella' toadstools, it is just that the fruiting head has a half moon shape.

The fungus is, of course, present all year round. It lives within the log feeding on the decaying matter and hastening the recycling process. If you pick away at a rotting stump you might well find the white thin strands of the fungus itself.

In autumn (usually, not always) the fruiting head appears which has a protective covering on the top and it is from underneath the spores are released.

Trametes versicolor occurs on virtually all forms of decaying wood. Some species, such as the Birch Polypore (I wrote about that on the 1st October) are more specialised. Trametes versicolor will vary in colour depending on the fruiting body's age, it dries out after serving its purpose and becomes harder and darker. When the fruiting body is fresh, however, it has this lovely 'concentric ringed appearance' with iridescent shades of grey, green, brown, violet and even black.

20 October, 2009

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

The British Trust for Ornithology records show that in the early 1960's, when research in to bird populations began in earnest, the Great Spotted Woodpecker was not a common bird at all. Forty years on the situation is quite different and it is now one undoubtedly one of the commonest 50 birds in the country, that is certainly true in Dorset anyway.

I was interested to read a review of the population trend of this bird over this period of time and the research shows that numbers increased substantially during the late 1970's. This coincides with the arrival of Dutch Elm Disease that swept the country and turned the country's English Elms in to dead stumps. The arrival of Dutch Elm disease had devastating effects on our hedgerows and on the insects that depended on them but there was a winner in this, the Great Spotted Woodpecker. Dead and rotting trees are where it lives, where it feeds.

Nature is such a complex system, the balance is constantly changing, there are always winners and losers. The rate of change can be quite fast, some creatures adapt others suffer. We can only watch and hope that the continuing changes we are seeing before our very eyes turn out to produce more winners than losers. Certainly having more Great Spotted Woodpeckers around is a plus but we do miss the Elms.

19 October, 2009

Traveller's Joy (Clematis vitalba)

Traveller's Joy is also known as Old Man's Beard (for obvious reasons) and also Wild Clematis. You may encounter any one of these names as they are all applied to this vigorous climbing plant. Most field guides seem to favour Traveller's Joy although I am not sure why when the other two seem more appropriate to me!

The hedgerows of Dorset are full of this stuff, it can be found anywhere on chalk and limestone soils and where it occurs it can be abundant.

The Traveller's Joy is a double win for our wildlife population as the lovely little cream flowers come out in mid-summer and are a popular nector source. Then, in autumn, these massed seed heads appear and so our seed eating birds take their turn.

It is certainly one of our more scruffy plants but it really is lovely where ever it occurs and in both of its states.

18 October, 2009

Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae)

Now this delightful little solitary bee is a real treat. First recorded in this country in Dorset in 2001 and in just eight years has spread across much of southern England. It is found mainly in coastal locations but is appearing more and more inland.

This one I photographed at Lodmore, Weymouth and I saw them again at Durlston Country Park, Swanage on Friday.

This species of bee does not emerge until September when its main nectar plant, Ivy (Hedera helix) is in flower and that is obviously where it takes it scientific name from, 'hederae' meaning 'of the Hedera', ie Ivy, hence its colloquial name, the Ivy Bee.

Now extremely plentiful along the Dorset coast, it is well worth looking for them where ever you find Ivy in flower and with the sun shining on it. They are active little bees and you may need to watch a while until one decides to settle down for lunch and then you can have a good look at it.

Colletes hederae is not a pest of anything and so should be seen as a welcome arrival to our shores, not all incomers are bad!

17 October, 2009

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

Probably one of the most noticeable of autumn berries along the hedgerow is the Haw. The berries start bright red like this and gradually deepen to dark red before withering away.

Everyone knows hips and haws. We were taught about them at infant school and they always seem to go together like strawberries and cream! Although both are ultimately members of the Rose family they are very different plants so I am not sure why they should be so linked.

Like the Rose Hip however, Haws have long been used by humans and I remember my aunt used to make Haw Jelly, a form of jam, although I can't remember what it tastes like.

Haws have strong medicinal qualities too, being particularly good for the heart and circulation apparently.

Popular with Redwing and Fieldfare, and the Thrush family in general, Haws are another important winter food source for many creatures. There is the odd belief that a good crop of haws means its going to be hard a winter when what it really means is we had a good spring and lots of the flowers were pollinated.

16 October, 2009

Dog Rose (Rosa canina)

One of my memories of childhood is having to take a spoonful of Rose Hip Syrup every day (that may have been only during winter). During and in the early days after the second world war children were sent out to collect Rose Hips to make this sickly syrup as it is a rich source of Vitamin C and in those days our diets were restricted by shortages of imported fruit. Rose Hip Syrup was an ideal diet supplement and I find that it can still be bought from health food shops today!

I also remember taking the thin, leathery coating off the hips to reveal the seeds inside and we put the seeds down our school friends shirts as 'itchy powder'!

The fruits of the hedgerow were vital to our ancestors and they remain so for our mammal, bird and insect populations today. It is such a shame that as soon as the crop harvest is finished we use flails on tractors to cut the fruits from our hedges before the berries and seeds can be used in a productive way, all in the name of tidiness. I'm back on my soap box again!

15 October, 2009

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

Walk along any hedgerow in the autumn and you we see a real variety of fruits and seeds, I thought perhaps for once, rather than take them for granted, I would take a closer look at some.

The Sloe is the fruit of the Blackthorn. Blackthorn is the first of our hedgerow plants to flower each spring with that lovely 'dusty' look as the flowers come out before the leaves.

The fruit is navy blue or black and has a sort of 'misty' coating or bloom. It is one of the larger fruits at about 1.5cms in diameter.

I have never tried eating a Sloe but some people do use it to flavour gin and other spirits. My book describes the taste as very astringent, I guess that means sharp, or perhaps sour, and it is not a popular fruit with birds and mammals, probably because of this.

There is not a lot of flesh on a Sloe, just a thin covering of the stone inside, despite being a close relative of the plum. The fruits tend to just go on ripening to a point where they fall to the ground and, once there, the outside flesh continues to rot away leaving the stone or seed to germinate forming a new plant.

14 October, 2009

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Sturnus vulgaris? I suppose that the Starling is a sort of vulgar creature! It is noisy, has attitude, it's quarrelsome, some would say it is dirty, and it has a look of trouble about it.

I would add that they are great fun and, when seen close up in sunshine, quite handsome. I like Starlings.

One of the wonders of the natural world is undoubtedly the site of millions, yes millions, of Starlings swirling around in clouds prior to diving into a reed bed to roost. Unfortunately that is not really a Dorset event, one has to cross the border and go to the RSPB reserve at Ham Wall in Somerset to see this event every evening during the winter.

Despite the countless numbers of Starlings in the UK during the winter enforced by great influxes from across northern Europe, as a breeding bird in this country it has been in steady decline and that may still be a continuing trend.

It is also interesting that returns from the RSPB Garden Birdwatch show declining numbers feeding in our gardens in mid-winter when there are undoubtedly huge numbers of them (see above re millions at dusk in Somerset). I think that the garden feeding is down over the last 30 years because of changes in garden use and in the way we feed birds but that is a big issue and one, sadly, I cannot discuss here.

13 October, 2009

Common Reed (Phragmites australis)

Continuing the theme of reeds and rushes here is a photo of the Common Reed, Phragmites.

It has the vernacular name of Common Reed because it is SO common. You find Phragmites just about anywhere in lowland Britain where there is water! It occurs in fens, swamps, ditches, lakes and on riversides, both in brackish and alkaline waters, even in acid bogs!

This plant can cover large areas and forms an invaluable habitat for birds. Here in Dorset, of course, some parts of Poole and Christchurch Harbours and Radipole Lake and Lodmore are all examples of Phragmites reed beds. If you want to find Bearded Tit or Cettis Warbler, Water Rail or Bittern, even Marsh Harrier, then it is a large Phragites bed you need. They are also used by swallows and starlings for roosting, often in large numbers.

12 October, 2009

Bulrush (Shoenoplectus lacustris)

Having yesterday said what was NOT a Bulrush (ie: the Reed Mace) I thought perhaps I should answer the obvious question that follows, so what is a Bulrush then?

The Bulrush is the classic reed, a smooth, green, round stemmed plant with a grass-like flower. (Rushes are round, sedges have edges!)

The Bulrush is very common and probably the sort of plant you pass by with a second glance because it is so mundane and has little to attract your attention, although a close look at its little flower that appears in July and August is worth stooping down for..

It grows by rivers, lakes and ponds, especially in silty places, and can be abundant where it occurs.

11 October, 2009

Reed-mace (Typha latifolia)

This familiar plant of ponds, slow moving rivers and swamps is often, mistakenly, called the Bulrush.

In fact, if you look in a field guide of grasses, sedges, rushes and reeds you will not find this plant at all, you need to look in a wild flower guide as, although it thrives in similar habitat to reeds and sedges it is totally unrelated.

I will leave it to real botanists to muse over why this is a flower and not a grass but, regardless of its classification, is a 'functional' plant. The attractive brown pods it produces are packed full of seeds which split when ripe and the seeds fall, or are blown, on to the water where they get gradually get washed to a muddy area where they settle, germinate and produce more Reed-mace.

Not a great food source for insects perhaps but Reed Buntings and other birds do like the seeds.

07 October, 2009

Common Cat’s-ear (Hypochoeris radicata)

There are a number of different plants with a complex ‘dandelion’ like flower and they can be quite confusing at first. The secret (if there is one) is to look beyond the flower at the plant itself.

In addition to the Dandelion there are three other flowers commonly found in these later months of the season and I have written about Autumnal Hawkbit and Bristly Oxtongue in recent weeks and here is the third, Common Cat’s-ear.

Common Cat’s-ear gets its name from little ‘ear-shaped’ leaflettes that can be found on the otherwise smooth stems and this is the defining factor. The overall ‘look’ of this plant is different too when you get to know it; it is totally smooth and hairless whereas the other two out in flower at the moment are very scruffy and hairy, even prickly. As I say, you just need to look at the leaves and stems rather than the flowers if you want to tell them apart.

You can find Common Cat’s-ear out in flower from June onwards until the frosts put an end to them. You can find them just about anywhere; on roadside verges, in hedgerows, in meadows and grassland, on sea cliffs, sand dunes, indeed anywhere as long as the soil is not too chalky.

06 October, 2009

Small Puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme)

The leaves are turning to the colours of autumn and on the woodland floor fungi are beginning to burst from the soil and leaf litter. Still a week or two away from the main irruption but at the forefront of the emergence is the Small Puffball.

In Thorcombe Wood (Lower Bockhampton) they are now everywhere there is bear ground under the trees.

There are several species of 'puffball' and this is, by far, the most common. They are not all woodland species however, some are more common on pasture and some on heathland.

When they first start to emerge puff balls have this scaly appearance. They then start to age and dry out , turn paler and lose the scales. The ball is full of spores and when raindrops land on them the impact causes puffs of spores to be emitted from a hole on top of the ball, a but like a volcano blowing ash. As the fruiting body ages further so the wind will cause spores to distribute too.

So, if you see a puff ball, don't stamp on it - let it do its job naturally!

04 October, 2009

Sea Aster (Aster tripolium)

The first time I encountered this flower after moving to Dorset I thought it was an 'escaped' Michaelmas Daisy which is grown in many gardens and originates from North America. However, there subsequently proved to be so much of it along the coastal cliffs and especially on salt-marshes (Radipole and Lodmore for example) I soon had to get my field guide out.

The Sea Aster is, indeed a close relative of the Michaelmas Daisy and even flowers at the same time of year. The flowers are very similar but closer examination of the plant itself reveals thicker, more fleshy leaves.

The most obvious distinction however is where they grow.

Sea Aster is very much a plant of late summer and autumn and a much valued nectar source for insects at a time when many flowers have gone to seed. It is an abundant plant of our sea and estuary coasts and a very attractive one it is too.

03 October, 2009

House-fly (Mesembrina meridiana)

Although this fly is categorised along with house flies Mesembrina meridiana is unlikely to be found in houses. Instead, it prefers sunbathing whilst tucking in to a meal of nectar from umbrellifer flowers (Hogweed, Cow Parsley, Wild Angelica, etc) or, later in the year when these are mostly over, Ivy.

This is a large fly which is quite distinctive because of the brown colouring at the top of the wings, It is pretty well black all over otherwise.

Like most flies their life cycle is pretty unpleasant when viewed through human eyes. It lays its eggs in dung and the larvae then participate in the ongoing recycling of material turning cow and horse dung back in to soil. That may make Mesembrina meridiana a bit of a dirty character but it does a vital job in the cycle of life so spare some time to take a look at it. I think it strangely attractive!

02 October, 2009

Bristly Oxtongue (Picris echioides)

If you are anywhere near the coast of Dorset in late summer or autumn then you will find considerable numbers of this rather untidy plant, the Bristly Oxtongue.

At first glance this might look like another of those hard to identify Dandelion 'look-a-likes' but actually it is really easy to pick out because its leaves are prickly (a bit like a thistle) but the main feature is the presence of 'bumps' all over the leaves, they look a bit like galls. This is a difficult to describe and illustrate feature but once you find the plant you will know what I mean, it is like no other.

The flower head turns in to the classic Dandelion clock when it is over and the same plant produces many stems each with flowers at various stages in the cycle. You will find new buds, full flowers like this one and some with seed heads all on the same plant.

A scruffy plant yes, but these yellow complex flower heads are quite delightful and are a prime nectar source for insects late in the year, particularly for bees and hoverflies.

01 October, 2009

Brich Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus)

The Birch Polypore is a remarkable fungus because it looks so like its host plant, the Silver Birch (Betula pendula). Whether this is a real attempt at camouflage or whether it inherits certain substances from the tree that makes it look that way I have no idea!

Anywhere in the county, indeed country, where there are Silver Birch trees you will find some with the Polypore fungus. The fungus is named 'betulinus' as it is only ever found on the Silver Birch; 'Betulina'.

It is parasitic and will eventually destroy its host tree but it is believed that it only attacks dying trees and thereby hastens the natural recycling process. Silver Birch is a short lived tree in any event.

The fruiting bodies, as seen above, are visible all year although spores are only released in the autumn. They are not edible.