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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.