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Showing posts from November, 2009

Blushing Bracket Fungus (Deadaleopsis confragosa)

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Blushing Bracket Fungus (Deadaleopsis confragosa)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard 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 bruise…

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)

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Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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 garden…

Coot (Fulica atra)

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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 neighb…

Foliose Lichen (Parmelia caperata)

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Foliose Lichen (Parmelia caperata)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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 o…

Magpie Inkcap (Coprinus picaceus)

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Magpie Inkcap (Coprinus picaceus)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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…

Fungus species (Amanita spissa)

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Fungus species (Amanita spissa)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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 appeara…

Hooded Merganser (Mergus cucullatus)

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Hooded Merganser (Mergus cucullatus)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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 R…

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

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Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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 ONL…

Peat Moss (Sphagnum capillifolium)

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Peat Moss (Sphagnum capillifolium)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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 ca…

Honey Fungus (Armillaria melles)

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Honey Fungus (Armillaria melles)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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.

Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia portentosa)

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Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia portentosa)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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.

Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

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Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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 whic…

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

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Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset
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 on…

Spindle (Euonymus europeaus)

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Spindle (Euonymus europeaus)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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 u…

Stinking Iris (Iris foetidissima)

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Stinking Iris (Iris foetidissima)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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.

Holm Oak (Quercus ilex)

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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…

Beafsteak Fungus (Fistulina hepatica)

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Beafsteak Fungus (Fistulina hepatica)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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

Moss Species (poss. Polytrichum formosum)

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Moss Species (poss. Polytrichum formosum)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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 …

Oak Moss Lichen (Evernia prunastri)

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Oak Moss Lichen (Evernia prunastri)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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.

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

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Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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 t…

Teal (Anas crecca)

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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 ma…

Collared Dove (Streptopelia docaocto)

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Collared Dove (Streptopelia docaocto)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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 pref…

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

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Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)
Originally uploaded by Nature of Dorset 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 Eu…