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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, 2010

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 is 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)

30 December, 2010

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

The dramatic decline of the House Sparrow is pretty common knowledge now I suspect given the amount of publicity it has had in recent years. Despite this, the humble 'Cockney Sparra' is still top of the charts and is the number 1 bird in our gardens.

Although the numbers of gardens reporting House Sparrows has fallen, where they do occur they are usually pretty numerous. Thirty years ago when the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch began it was recorded from most gardens and the results showed an average of 10.0 per garden; last year, the average was 3.2 per garden.

The House Sparrow is a confident little chap that nothing seems to phase. Bouncy, noisy, quarrelsome, enthusiastic, greedy, messy; surely all adjectives that apply to this rather plain, everyday little bird.

As its name implies it has long been associated with human activity, especially around dwellings where it is happy to scratch a living from just about anything it can find. It is not a fussy eater! It must surely be a change in our life style that has had such a dramatic effect on the Sparrow population. Happily, the figures seem to show that the decline has halted in recent years and there may even be a hint of a recovery but it is far too early to tell for sure.

29 December, 2010

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.

28 December, 2010

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Looking for trouble? You've found it!

By far the most aggressive bird in our garden is the Blackbird. We usually have about five of them but the cold weather means we now have nine and they spend most of the day trying to protect their food supply from the others. They must use enormous amounts of energy shadowing their opponent, staying between it and their food, having the occasional flutter at each other.
They chase round and round the garden, under shrubs and out again, up in to the trees and down again, into the water dish and out again, all energy, all action packed.

Being ground feeders they eat almost anything thrown on the ground but prefer fruit to seed. We recently bought a tub of RSPB fruity nibbles which have been a great success and, at first light every morning we have a queue outside waiting for them to be put out. To try and avoid arguments we have to scatter them round different parts of the garden.

It will not be long before most of the TV arials around us will have a male singing away at dusk.

Blackbirds are number 3 in the top garden birds survey. They are real characters and make garden bird watching fun.

27 December, 2010

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! Once the number 1 garden bird in winter it has fallen now to number 4.

Actually, feeding birds has changed considerably over the last thirty years. 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.

Despite being brash, aggressive, noisy, quarrelsome and much beside they are real characters. Their scientific name is Srurnus valgaris; vulgar certainly but great fun to watch.

26 December, 2010

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. They 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, 2010

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 stands 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 Robin's 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 it becomes much more vibrant and jolly.

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


And a very happy Christmas to all my readers! Thanks for the encouraging comments over the year, they are much appreciated.

Early in the New Year I am launching a new website called the Nature of Dorset and I hope some of you will join me in contributing photos, comments and data about the nature we find here in the most beautiful county in England!

take a look at: www.natureofdorset.co.uk

24 December, 2010

Mistletoe (Viscum album)

So, it's Christmas Eve, what else could I feature in today's blog?

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!

23 December, 2010

Collared Dove (Streptopelia docaocto)

The Collared Dove has risen quickly up the top twenty garden birds list and is currently number 7 having first entered the top 10 at number 10 in 1989.

Until the early 1950's the Collared Dove was a non-British species, 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.

Of all the birds, this is the one we almost always see in pairs, no matter what time of year. When one flies in its mate is not far behind and they always seem to leave together too. I had hoped to find out whether they mate for life but I have had no success but the fact they are usually in pairs and that they breed for nine moths of the year feeding one lot of young whilst brooding the next clutch of eggs must indicate that it is likely.

Already, the prelude to another years frantic family life has started with the occasional male singing its monotonous tones around our neighbourhood.

They are lovely together though aren't they, the perfect loving couple!

22 December, 2010

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.

21 December, 2010

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

The world is always changing and we don't always notice it. Only through the accumulation of data over a period of time can change be measured which is why projects like the BTO Garden Bird census can be so useful. Quite often, when we look at the data we realise that we have seen the changes happen but just did not notice at the time.

So it is with the Wood Pigeon. There have always been a lot of Wood Pigeons about in my time birding but I had really not noticed a change in the garden.

However, the data from bird surveys shows that gradually, over the last thirty years this species has been steadily rising up the charts. In 1979 it was barely scoring at around 18th place, by 1989 it had risen to 13th and was at number 10 in 1999. Last year it had reached number 9.

Why the increase? The rise of the Wood Pigeon is partly due to the success it is having as a breeding species in this country and there are now staggering numbers of this bird across the country. The other reason is the decline and fall down the ratings of others such as the Song Thrush and the Dunnock to mention just a couple.

The Wood Pigeon is a strong bird, versatile in the habitat it can stand and it is certainly not a fussy eater! Is it destined to go above 9? Yes, I think it probably is.

20 December, 2010

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 recent 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.

19 December, 2010

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

I wonder if you are like me? I eagerly await the new season of bird song, summer migrants, wild flowers, busy insects and so, as soon as the shortest day passes next week I will start looking for signs of spring! A bit early perhaps? No, if you start looking early you see just small but significant changes.

Yesterday, for example, I encountered a Dunnock just beginning to utter the first few tentative notes of his song. As the days progress now so he will grow in confidence and soon Dunnocks will join with the Robins and Song Thrushes in heralding spring.

Actually, when I was young my father called this a Hedge Sparrow but, as it is not a sparrow the name changed back in the 1970's I suppose. It is a members of the Accentor family and so, on the formal British nomenclature list it is known as the Hedge Accentor. Three names for the same little bird.

As a garden bird it ranks number 11. In the RSPB Garden Bird Watch it is reported from 54% of gardens but in the BTO garden recording scheme it is seen in 81% of gardens, a major difference. I put this down to under recording in the RSPB event as many observers will just put this down as a sparrow and not realise exactly what it is.

What it is is a rather plain little brown bird that skulks around the bottom of hedges and shrubbery minding its own business. But it is also a little brown bird with a delightful song that is a very welcome addition to our garden and the countryside in general.

18 December, 2010

Magpie (Pica pica)

Magpie (Pica pica)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard
This is they bird people love to hate! If you listen to many people you would soon believe that the poor Magpie is the sole reason for the decline in numbers of garden birds.

This is, of course, absolute rubbish. These prejudices against the Magpie have no basis in science at all.

The fact is, as any reasonable person will know already, that garden birds populations reflect total populations. If a bird has decreased in numbers across the country in all habitats it will, obviously, be seen less often in gardens! The decline in many bird species populations are usually complex and revolve around loss of suitable breeding territory and problems with food supply.

The Magpie is NOT increasing in numbers and not, therefore, decimating our garden birds. The Magpie eats more carrion than live prey and benefits from road casualties in Pheasants, Hedgehogs, etc. The Magpie is responsible for less losses amongst baby birds than domestic cats and Grey Squirrels.

These facts are based on scientific research done by Sheffield University and supported by RSPB findings.

Although it looks black and white in colour the Magpie in bright sunshine if seen close up is a wonderful mixture of iridescent blues and green - a bit like a Mallard's head only generally darker!

The Magpie is, however, number 12 in the chart of the most common bird in gardens but that is because they feed on scraps, not other birds.

Justice for the Magpie!

17 December, 2010

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

Thirty years ago a Goldfinch in your garden would have been a rare sight. Gradually, however, possibly as our way of feeding birds has changed, the Goldfinch has become a regular visitor to many gardens and it has reached number 13 in the top 20 gardens birds.

Initially they started coming to gardens later in the winter after food supplies in the countryside were exhausted and the BTO study shows that around mid-February would see numbers in gardens build up. But that has changed now too and they can turn up at almost any time.

Definitely a seed eater, they will pay little attention to peanuts and even less to fat balls; anything on the ground is usually overlooked too. Their particular favourite is nyger seed and you can now buy it in special 'Goldfinch only' containers!

They are smaller than most finches but what they lack in size they make up for in fighting spirit. They can more than hold their own against all comers.

It being so cold I had to take this photo through the window so it is not quite as sharp as I would have liked. I will try and get a better one when the weather improves.

16 December, 2010

Coal Tit (Parus ater)

Coal Tit (Parus ater)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard
I am not sure whether I was surprised to see that the Coal Tit was number 14 in the top garden birds list or not. They are certainly regulars in our garden but, unless I am walking in coniferous woodland, I rarely see them 'in the wild'

They are active little birds that don't stay around long, in and out for a quick raid on the seed normally but this one paused long enough for me to get a snap and, obligingly, he turned his head to one side to show the diagnostic white stripe down the back.

Coal Tits have a reputation for hoarding seed and we were amused for a couple of days last winter watching two of them in turn collect a seed from the container, then fly down and bury it in the garden. They never came back for them of course but I think the Blackbirds found most of them.

15 December, 2010

Long Tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

What an enchanting little bird the Long Tailed Tit is! I never cease to be captivated by them whenever I see them.

You would think, of course, that it was related to Great, Blue and Coal Tits but it's not. It is the only British member of the family Aegithalidae whereas the others are Parudae; not a lot of people know that!

The Long Tailed Tit is a gregarious little fellow, especially in winter when they come together in feeding parties. You never see one alone; as you look around you see more and more. They also huddle together at night for warmth.

Being so small they are very susceptible to the cold and suffer heavy losses in hard winters. However, the run of continuous mild winters here in Dorset has seen numbers increase through enhanced winter survival rates and that increase in population levels is reflected in them being seen more and more in gardens. Having not featured in the top 20 garden birds before, in the last couple of years they have become our 15th most common garden bird.

I wonder how this cold spell is going to affect them? I hope they will be all right.

14 December, 2010

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Continuing my look at the top twenty winter garden birds we get to number 16, the Wren.

Being such a small bird it can be easily over looked in winter when it is not singing and is busily looking for food, but come the spring, although one our smallest birds (only the Goldcrest and Firecrest are smaller) it has one of the loudest voices.

If you are familiar with its complex song full of crescendos and trills then you will often know there is a Wren around long before you see it, if you see it that is! In winter you might just catch a brief glimpse as it works its way around climbing plants in your garden looking for the occasional bug to eat.

One of the features of the Wren from a distance is that it frequently has its tail cocked up, sadly this one did not so I can't illustrate the point.

In spring, amongst the time spent singing its territorial song the male Wren is busy building four or five nests. He then shows his partner around them and she will choose which one, if any, she is prepared to raise her young in. If she doesn't like any of them he is out of luck as she will be off looking at another chaps efforts!

13 December, 2010

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

We are not quite at the shortest day yet but somehow the Song Thrush will 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 soon, gradually, the Song Thrush will be joining in. Every year, as soon as the shortest day passes so you start to hear the Song Thrush in full voice.

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.

12 December, 2010

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

At number 18 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 at all they will be frequently visitors. 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 them 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.

11 December, 2010

Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

In 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.

10 December, 2010

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

They say the camera never lies and so, if proof is needed, here it is - the Great Spotted Woodpecker loves peanuts and as a result is at number 20 in the top Garden Visitors survey.

We associate the Greater Spotted Woodpecker with woodland, of course, and so gardens near woodland will have a higher chance of a visit. They are quite dramatic birds and always bring a bit of excitement when they appear.

They are very keen on peanuts, less so it seems on seed. The container needs to be easily accessible so that they have a clear flight path in and then out again, and they need a container they can cling to easily. The squirrel proofing cage here only helps to support the bird rather than prevent it getting access to the nuts.

The Great Spotted Woodpecker is common across Dorset so there could be one in your garden on your nut bag any time soon.

09 December, 2010

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.

08 December, 2010

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 is a darkish brown.

07 December, 2010

Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

I always think the Mistle Thrush is something of a forgotten bird. In my memory it was once quite common, indeed, thirty years ago we used to have a pair nest every year in an ornamental cherry tree right by the entrance to our driveway. Even then we somewhat took them for granted!

Now you don't see them very often, no one ever seems to mention them, they have not featured on Spring Watch or Autumn Watch (as far as I can recall). When species that are causing concern because of falling numbers are talked about the Mistle Thrush does not seem to get mentioned. As I say, to me it is the forgotten bird which is such a shame.

Although similar in colouring to its more familiar close cousin, the Song Thrush, it should not really be confused. It is larger, more slender and more upright.

Usually seen on farmland it was once common in parkland and gardens. Indeed, the orchard was its favoured home, especially one where the fruit trees had Mistletoe growing on them, as the name suggests the two are linked.

The Mistle Thrush is also known as the Stormcock in some areas because it will sit and sing from a high perch on even the worst spring days!

05 December, 2010

Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla)

Extreme cold weather in winter can mean the normal order of bird life in our garden gets turned on its head and almost anything can happen. We get around 16 species of birds in a normal week during the winter but the recent cold snap has seen 23 come in last week including Blackcap, Goldcrest and this little chap, a lone Brambling.

The Brambling is very closely related to the Chaffinch and is very common in the conifer forests of Scandinavia where Chaffinches do not breed. It is believed that have successfully bred in Scotland in the past but they are very much a winter visitor to our shores.

Bramblings are a bit like Waxwings in that some years we get virtually no Bramblings at all and in other years there are masses of them. This year they do seem to be quite common and the weather must be bad further north as we are seeing them here on the south coast.
Although they resemble a Chaffinch they are quite distinctive and easily told apart.

This little chap in our garden looks a bit bewildered and is not quite sure what way to go next! He didn't stay long.

04 December, 2010

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)

Earlier this year, on the 10th January, we were having coffee in a favourite cafe in Swanage over looking the beach. There was a bitter east wind and it had been snowing, not really the day for doing much else other than staying in doors and drink coffee.

As we looked out to sea we saw several birds flying in, followed by more, then even more. I estimate that they were coming in at around twenty a minute and as we were there an hour or so we probably saw over 1000 birds come in and that was just where we were sat.

The vast majority of these birds were Fieldfare and Redwing but there were also a good number of pipits too. They seemed to be coming from the South East so presumably bad weather in northern France had driven them westwards.

After that Purbeck was full of these birds and they turned up regularly in our garden and eating us out of apples! With the recent cold weather and snow I would have expected to see a lot around again now but so far there seem to be very few.

Large flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare are not uncommon here in winter. Last year there were over 1,000 near Rushton Farm at East Stoke. Fieldfare and Redwing keep each other company and you rarely see one without the other close by.

They breed in the north, particularly Scandinavia, but when winter comes they head south in enormous numbers but it was wonderful to watch them come pouring in off the sea after what must have been an epic journey. How did they know that when they flew off over the coast in France out to sea they would find land? What confidence ...

03 December, 2010

Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)

Does the Rabbit count as wildlife or not? It was almost certainly introduced by the Normans primarily as a food source and it remained part of our staple diet, particularly amongst 'country folk', for about 1,000 years. I can remember, as a very small child, my grandmother regularly serving up Rabbit stew when we went round to see her.

That all changed in 1955 when Myxomatosis was introduced. It seems that the Rabbit was becoming to be seen as a pest (probably linked to the shortage of food supplies during the war?) and man decided to take control. This vile disease decimated the Rabbit population and it ceased to be part of the human diet and other predators of the Rabbit declined rapidly, especially the Buzzard.

In recent years the numbers have begun to rebuild but it seems Myxomatosis is still around and when numbers in a given area grow so the disease reappears and knocks them back again.

No longer favoured by we British as a meal it remains popular with foxes. stoats, buzzards and other animals at the top of the food chain and the Rabbits revival has certainly been matched by an increase in Buzzards over the last thirty years.

02 December, 2010

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 it's 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 Beach 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.

29 November, 2010

Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

We first started visiting Arne about 20 years ago when we still lived near Winchester. It has always been a favourite place and holds many happy memories of special things we have seen there over the years. We even used to have our Christmas picnic lunch there (returning home for Christmas Dinner!) in the Coombe Heath Hide.

Initially an Avocet at Arne (or anywhere else for that matter) was just a dream. Then they started arriving, more and more each year and now there are hundreds, if not a thousand or more.

They are such special birds and are bound to create debate in our family as to whether they are the most beautiful of birds or whether that honour belongs to the Barn Owl. I love to see the way they will often team up and work an area of mud together.

From near extinction in the UK to now a common winter visitor to Poole Harbour (and the River Exe, Pagham Harbour and other places) the Avocet is a real success story and one that the RSPB can be rightly proud of as they have a had a major hand in the revival of this birds fortunes; indeed they use it as their logo.

The Avocet is, to me at least, nature in perfection!

27 November, 2010

Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

In amongst all the Curlew around this time of year its worth looking out for its close 'look-a-like', the Whimbrel. Primarily seen on passage during migration time they can turn up any time during the winter depending on the weather elsewhere.

Poole Harbour is a favoured place for these birds, along with Christchurch Harbour and the Fleet.

The problem with Whimbrel is that they can be really difficult to tell from a Curlew and sometimes it helps to see both together. I wonder how many of us have dismissed a Whimbrel as 'just another Curlew'?

The key really is the bill; long and down turned like a Curlew, but no where near as long. It also seems to bend at a point two-thirds down whereas the Curlew's bill is a more gentle curve.

The Whimbrel is also a less bulky bird, more compact perhaps? The markings on the head differ but unless you have a really good view that can be difficult to tell from a distance.

22 November, 2010

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.

21 November, 2010

Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina)

The Lady Fern is a much more delicate, graceful fern than the Male Fern. It forms forms dense clumps of its 'leaves' but with a much lower, almost rosette like, form. It is also slightly paler in colour.

The Lady Fern is a native species, common throughout Dorset in damp woods, hedgerows, ditches and also amongst rocks and occasionally in marshes. Its liking to similar habitat to the Male Fern makes it harder to tell apart as there is the tendency to think that the Lady Fern is a developing Male Fern when it is, in reality, a different species in its own right.

With a magnifying glass and a good reference book then there are other features that tell them apart from other ferns but I leave that for the specialists!

Once you have mastered the difference between these two plants you are well on the way to sorting Dorset's ferns out, just the two 'Buckler Ferns' to contend with after that. Most of the other ferns are are readily identifiable.

19 November, 2010

Moss (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!).

18 November, 2010

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!

17 November, 2010

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.

16 November, 2010


Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard
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 by 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.

14 November, 2010

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 grow 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.

13 November, 2010

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.

12 November, 2010

Magpie Inkcap

Magpie Inkcap
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard
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?

10 November, 2010

Fungus (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.

09 November, 2010

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!

08 November, 2010

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.

07 November, 2010

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

I normally advise new bird watchers to take no notice of a birds English 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 eight Pipits seen in Dorset. Of these, four are very uncommon and you are unlikely to see Richards, Tawny, Olive Backed or Red Throated - 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. They also turn up around reed beds, especially Lodmore and Christchurch harbour.

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 co

06 November, 2010

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.

05 November, 2010

Great 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.

04 November, 2010

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.

They 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.

03 November, 2010

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.

01 November, 2010

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

A common sight in Poole Harbour these days is the elegant Little Egret. Despite its fondness for feeding in amongst the mud it always looks immaculate in its pure white attire.

When I started out 'birding' over thirty years ago seeing one of these would have been a major event but. by the mid-eighties they had established as a UK breeding species and now, twenty years on, they can be seen as far north as Inverness.

The spread of the Little Egret has been quite remarkable and that gives rise to speculation that possibly the Spoonbill and possibly Cattle Egret may colonise our shores as well.

Although frequent around the harbour I always get a little bit of a thrill when I see one of these lovely birds, long may they stay with us.

31 October, 2010

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.