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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 May, 2010

Fungus (Chlorociboria aeruginascens)

When walking in old woodland with lots of fallen branches and twigs you may encounter a piece of rotting wood with a metallic green appearance. It is easy to pass this by thinking it is just natural colouration but it is. in fact, produced by a fungus, Chlorociboria aeruginascens.

The fungus does produce fruiting 'cups' later in the year and, of course, the fungus itself which lives inside the rotting timber may not be seen until the wood starts to break up.

Wood affected by Chlorociboria was used in marquetry to give a green/blue appearance to the finished product.

This is very common, often over looked, and sometimes not visible but it worth keeping an eye out for as it looks really lovely, especially in good light.

Moth (Pyraustra aurata)

This little moth is common in Dorset during the summer, flying from May to August.

It is barely 1/4 inch across but the golden spots stand out really well and draw your attention to the moth itself.

Found in meadows and grassy areas generally they often come in to gardens too, especially on warm sunny days (when we get them!).

Wayfairing Tree (Viburnum opulus)

This time of year with Hawthorn dominating the hedgerow and Elder beginning to flower too it is easy to overlook this white flowering shrub, the Wayfaring Tree.

Indeed, the Wayfairing Tree is not widely known by name either and yet it is quite common in southern England and well spread in Dorset on calcareous soils.

It flourishes in scrubby areas, in hedgerows and on woodland edges.

It will, like many hedgerow shrubs, produce berries in the early autumn . These are poisonous to humans but birds can happily eat them.

30 May, 2010

Creeping Buttercup(Ranunculus repens)

By far the most common of our buttercups is the Creeping Buttercup. It flowers from May to July and you can find it just about anywhere, including on your lawn!

It tends to be lower growing than the Meadow Buttercup and it has a vigorous display of large leaves which is the best way to tell them apart. The other common buttercup, Bulbous Buttercup does not have these leaves either and is a much more delicate flower.

Found across the county in hedgerows, woodlands, grassland, and waysides.

Muslin Moth (Diaphora mendica)

You could be forgiven for thinking that this was a White Ermine moth that had just come down a sooty chimney! It is a very closely related species of the family Arctiidae although of a different genus.

The Muslin Moth is a frequent visitor to my moth trap, whether it the same one who keeps being attracted by the light, or whether they are different I do not know and I am reluctant to mark it any way to find out as I am very reluctant to do any wildlife any harm.

Flying in May and early June it is generally common through the British Isles in gardens, downland and open woodland.

The larvae can be found on docks, chickweeds, plantains, dandelions and other plants, and as the named species are all very common it means the Muslin Moth thrives.

29 May, 2010

Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi)

Ragged Robin looks a bit like a Red Campion on which some one has decided to shred the petals with a razor blade!

It is a member of the Campion family and was once a common flower of wet meadows, fens and damp places but as much of this habitat has been drained over recent year to make improved pasture it has declined considerable.

In Dorset it can still be found along the margins of our main rivers and in meadows that remain damp though the spring, especially where flooding occurs during the winter. It flowers from May through to July.

Buff-tip (Phalera bucephala)

One can only wonder at how life on earth came to be as it is! Has this amazing looking moth become just like a Silver Birch twig through random gene mutation and natural selection (therefore almost by accident)? On the other hand, did the design team in charge of moth development decide that a moth that looked like a piece of twig would be a nice idea!

Who knows what is correct. There may even be a third reason we humans have yet to discover but for me that is the wonder of nature, so much if it is still a mystery and waiting to be discovered.

The Buff-tip is just emerging as an adult moth now and will be flying until mid July. It is more common in the south but does occur throughout the British isles.

White Ermine (Spilosoma lubricipeda)

I always love to find one of these in the moth trap, they are such beautiful creatures.

The White Ermine is such an apt name too, a furry white texture with small black spots, this moth would be at home in the House of Lords!

The White Ermine is widespread and common throughout the British Isles, flying from late May until July. There is occasionally a second brood here in the south if the weather is warm enough in early autumn.

28 May, 2010

Mayfly (Ephemera danica)

This is a remarkable insect. It spends most of its life as a nymph in lakes or rivers that have sandy or muddy bottoms. What makes it remarkable though is that thousands and thousands hatch on the same day and throng the air 'dancing' up and down in the sun.

They do not eat as flying adults, they just mate, lay eggs and die where they become food for hungry trout.

The main rivers of Dorset are ideal for Mayflies but you have to be there on the day they hatch to see the spectacle and we were lucky enough to see this on the River Sour near Sturminster Newton yesterday.

Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris)

Late May is when the Meadow Buttercup is at its best. Although it flowers through to August now is the best time to see damp meadows covered in this lovely flower.

The water meadows between Fiddleford and Sturminster Newton as just golden now with these buttercups. From a distance you might think that Rapeseed is growing there but as you get closer you become overwhelmed with the number of buttercups.

If you struggle telling buttercups apart, the Meadow Buttercup is a tall plant that grows up higher than the surrounding grass, has multiple flowers on each stalk and thin, 'spidery' leaves.

It grows in untreated meadows across the county but does seem to prosper best in fields by rivers that regularly flood during the winter.

Portland Spurge (Euphorbia portlandica)

Although named after the place where it was first identified by botanists, Portland, Portland Spurge can be found elsewhere along the Dorset coast, notably Durlston.

It is a very local flower and nationally scare and Dorset is its stronghold (if you can call it that).

It is a flower of the sea cliffs and is in bloom from May right the way through until September.

Although a typical member of the Spurge family it is unmistakable, partly because of the habitat it prefers, and it has smaller flowers than most other spurges.

27 May, 2010

Razorbill (Alca torda)

There are a fair number of Guillemots that nest along the Dorset cliffs and' amongst them, are a lesser number of Razorbills.

They are not easy to get close to from the heights of the cliffs as they nest on the lower edges and this is about as good a view as I have ever been able to get. It does show the two features, however, that enable you to pick them out from amongst the many Guillemots.

Firstly, and usually the most obvious feature, is the Razorbills razor bill! The Guillemot has a much more pointed bill whereas the Razor bill has a much bigger, chunkier beak.

The other feature, when the light is good, is that the Razorbill is very much darker, almost black, on its back whereas the Guillemot is chocolate brown.

The two species are both members of the Auk family (along with Puffins of course) and they are often seen together and so obviously get on well together

Thrift (Armeria maritima)

One feature of our coasts in summer that we must nearly all be familiar with is the wonderful carpets of sea Thrift. During June and July it will be a major feature of our sea side environment with lovely carpets of pink flowers.

The complex flower heads are very popular with insects and the 6-spot Burnett moth will be just one of many insects to feast on its nectar.

In some areas the Thrift forms large carpets of spongy green foliage and this is a great place for insects to build their nests.

I am old enough to remember the old 'thrupenny-bit'; a five sided coin of the pre-decimalisation days which featured thrift on the back. I have no idea where this plant gets its thrifty name or why it was on that coin. If anyone does know I would be really pleased to find out.

Sea Campion (Silene maritima)

The Sea Campion is now coming in to flower along the Dorset coast, from sea cliffs to shingle beaches. It does not seem to mind too much as long as it is near the sea. They often form large carpets and are quite spectacular when in full flow.

At first sight Sea Campion appears to have black 'marks' on the petals but when you get close up you can see that these are, in fact black stamens, a bit unusual as stamens are usually yellow or orange.

The black 'marks' are the obvious way to tell this species apart from White Campion or Bladder Campion. The inflated area behind the flowers on Sea Campion can sometimes be misleading and lead you to think that it is Bladder Campion. Obviously, the habitat of being by the sea is another clear indicator. Bladder Campion is a flower of the hedgerow and chalk grasslands.

Sea Campion is just one of the many reasons to head to the Purbeck and Portlands cliffs at this time of year!

26 May, 2010

Hound's-tongue (Cynoglossum officinale)

There are a few plants that are very rare in the United Kingdom that we have here in Dorset, especially along the coastal cliffs and the Purbeck Ridge.

Hound's-tongue is one of those plants, found quite frequently here it is now uncommon in other parts of the country. Indeed, the Dorset Environmental Records Centre is actively collecting records of this plant.

A member of the Borage family Hound's-tongue is also known as the roast beef plant as it supposedly smells like roast beef when rubbed. I have never made the connection! My field guide says it smells like mice and having had mice in our garage this winter I could go along with that description.

Although it is an untidy plant it has lovely maroon flowers that were not quite out when I took this photo.

25 May, 2010

Small Blue (Cupido minimus)

The Small Blue is certainly a small butterfly, each wing is little more than 1/4 inch across so this photo may be a little misleading.

Whilst it is small it is not blue however! This is the male which has just a hint of blue on a charcoal background whereas the female lacks the hint of blue altogether. It has no other markings on the upper side of the wing but does have the light coloured border like most of the 'blue' family.

Small Blues are hard to see for a variety of reasons. Firstly, their size means they are easily over looked. Then they have a very short season flying for a couple of weeks around the end of May and beginning of June. There is a partial second brood towards the end of August.

Thirdly, they are quite rare, found in very few locations and in Dorset we have small colonies at Durlston and on Portland. (Maybe elsewhere but I am not aware of any?)

Finally, they live in little pockets just a few yards across; they favour small patches where Kidney Vetch grows. It is possible to be in the right place at the right time and yet miss them because they are so limited in range.

Going looking for the Small Blue? The very best of luck!

Fungi (Mitrula paludosa)

When you are out and about it pays to keep your eyes open, look up and down, left and right! After a while I think you develop a sense of what is unusual as opposed to 'ordinary'. There is nothing 'ordinary' in the world, may be familiar would be better?

When at Arne it is easy to look up in to the trees for birds, or through the woods for deer or out across Poole Harbour just for the views but if you keep your eyes open you will find many things that are quite unusual, and this fungi is one of them.

OK, it's not much to look at but in the drainage ditch where it grows there is a lot of it and it is unusual. Referring to my library I find this is a fungus called Mitrula paludosa that grows on rotting twigs in damp ditches amongst sphagnum mosses. The amazing thing to me is that exactly these factors come together in the coniferous woodland near the Shipstall bird hide and there is the fungus right where the book says it will be!

It is described as 'occasional' which means it is not that common. I want to know how this fungus can survive and spread given the uniqueness of its habitat?

24 May, 2010

Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa)

In my notes on the Adonis Blue butterfly I suggested you go in search of Horseshoe Vetch, the butterfly's food plant. It occurs to me now that you may not be familiar with it so here is a photo to show you what you are looking for!

Being a vetch it is, therefore, a member of the pea family and as such has the classic pea shaped flower head. However, the pea flowers are arranged in a horseshoe shape around the head of the stalk; there does not seem to be a specific number of flowers per 'horseshoe'.

Flowering from May to July it can be found on short, calcareous, turf on cliffs and downs, and is extremely common near the Dorset coast, hence the abundance of Adonis Blue butterflies.

Adonis Blue (Lysandra bellargus)

When you see so many Adonis Blue out on the Dorset cliffs it is hard to believe this is a nationally scarce species. This time of year they are more numerous than the Common Blue.

When we first moved here to Dorset four years ago I was worried that I would not notice the difference between the two. Actually, once you have seen the brilliant blue of the Adonis you will not mistake the species thereafter.

I don't think the camera really does the colour justice. I have taken many photos of the Adonis and none really seem to truly reflect the stunning colour. What this photo does show however, is that on the Adonis the black veins in the wing run through the white edge, the only 'blue' that that occurs on. The Adonis is also larger than the Common Blue.

At the moment there are masses of Horseshoe Vetch out on the cliffs and as that is the sole food plant of the young Adonis larvae then where there is Horseshoe Vetch then you may find Adonis Blue.

23 May, 2010

Common Vetch (Vicia sativa)

As I have said before in my notes on wildlife there are many flowers you just pass by and without a second look because they are so familiar. If you stop and look, and take a close up photo, you find these flowers are amazingly beautiful.

The Common Vetch can be found across Dorset in hedgerows, on banks, on grass downlands and in meadows and so can easily be taken for granted but what a wonderful colour it is and such a delicate flower.

A member of the pea family, there are several vetches in flower from May until July, the Common Vetch is just one of them and they are all lovely.

22 May, 2010

Broad Bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa)

The warm weather of the last couple of days has started an irruption of insects emerging from the garden pond.

The undoubted stars of the show have been three Broad Bodied Chasers. Whilst a common species they are stunning colours and the female in iridescent green with yellow triangles along the side is a joy to behold.

The interesting thing here is that immature males are also greenish when they first emerge but turn blue with maturity. They are not as striking as the females though.

They have a preference for still, fresh water and garden ponds are ideal for them. It will not be long before the females are back laying eggs in the pond they left and we look forward to seeing them dab their eggs on to the vegetation in our pond.

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

April through to July is the time to look for the Wild Strawberry flower. It is very similar to the garden Strawberry we all love to eat only much smaller and, inevitably, the fruit is smaller too (shame!)

Common in woods and hedgerows across Dorset it is easily confused with the Barren Strawberry which is very similar but that flowers earlier from February through to May

21 May, 2010

Oxford Ragwort (Senecio squalidus)

If you are going anywhere by train during the summer months you will see this common weed of the railway tracks, Oxford Ragwort.

This is not the Common Ragwort seen in meadows in the autumn, it is a totally different flower although superficially similar.

It was an imported species brought in to Oxford, possibly the University as part of a research programme, many years ago. I did hear the story some years ago and no can't remember it!

Like Common Ragwort these flowers turn into small dandelion type seed heads which are dispersed by wind. They were flowering near the main railway line in Oxford and the seeds were carried along the line in the slip stream of trains and now they are seen across the entire rail network.

They originate from volcanic areas where they thrive on thin, dry soils so the chippings on railway lines is well suited to their needs.

20 May, 2010

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

I have been visiting the RSPB reserve at Arne for the best part of 25 years, and quite frequently since we moved here to Dorset (just 7 miles from Arne) four years ago and yet I have never noticed just how many Rowan trees there are there.

Rowan is normally found in dry woods on acid soils and the peat of the Dorset heaths certainly is acidic but Rowan elsewhere in Purbeck does not seem common anywhere other than Arne.

At the moment the trees look really lovely with pure white blossoms and they are worth a closer look in their own right but they are also a haven for all sorts of insects and a closer inspection may reveal all sorts of interesting little creatures.

On this flower head I found a longhorn beetle which I had never seen before.

Longhorn Beetle (Rhagium mordax)

Longhorn beetles are not that common so it is always a bit of a thrill to find one, especially one you have not seen before.

This one, that goes under the catchy name of Rhagium mordax, was on Rowan blossom at the Arne RSPB reserve.

It was amazing that this beetle, once aware of my intruding camera lens (and I admit it was very close) just dropped off of the flower to the ground and there, against the moss, it was so well camouflaged it took me a little while to find it again. This seemed to be a pretty effective safety device. I felt a bit guilty at first thinking it had a long climb back up the blossom but of course it can fly so I am sure it was not long before it was tucking in to its lunch again.

This species lays its eggs on stumps and fallen trees and that is precisely why you will see a lot of dead wood as you walk around the Shipstall area of the reserve. Conservation measures do work!

Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus)

The Yellow Iris is also known as Yellow Flag.

An exceptionally beautiful flower, especially when freshly unfurled and when seen close up.

It flowers from May through until July and is very common anywhere there is standing water, both saline and fresh. It can be found in abundance in ponds, marsh, reed beds, damp woods - as long as it is wet then Yellow Iris has a chance of surviving. Where it does occur, once established can become abundant and although a nice addition to a garden pond it can take over very quickly if left unchecked.

Once the flowers are pollinated they develop large green seed heads which, when ripe, will split open, ejecting the seeds in to the water where they float away to form new plants which is why they can be so prolific once established.

18 May, 2010

Treble Lines (Charanyca trigammica)

Giving moths English names is a fairly recent phenomenon compared to birds and flowers, many of which have had names for as long as human beings have been naming things, which is a mighty long time!

As a result, the origin of moth names is not lost in distant history and quite often describes the moth itself.

If you look at the moth above I am sure you will agree that the most prominent feature is the three lines that run across the wings. What is it called? Treble LInes!

Treble Lines is widespread and common over much of England and Wales inhabiting open woodlands, downland, commons, rough pasture and hedgerows. Flying from Mid May until early July it will be a frequent find in the moth trap for a few weeks to come.

The larvae, as you might expect from such a diverse species, can be found on a wide range of low, ground cover plants. It over winters as a larvae which is uncommon, most pupate to avoid the worst of winter.

Yellow Archangel (Galeobdolon luteum)

Yellow Archangel display the characteristic features of the Labiate family, a square stem and tubular flowers.

Found mainly in woodlands, especially woodland edges and rides, it is quite widespread in Dorset but not particularly common. It prefers rich calcareous soils which does limit its range a little.

It flowers in May and June and is out now and at its best.

17 May, 2010

White Deadnettle (Lamium album)

When you encounter a flower you do not know you need to look it up in a reference book of some sort. My 'master' book, "The Illustrated Flora of Britain and Northern Europe" has 544 pages and my pocket field guide, is much smaller, it is only 480 pages.

The question is then, where, on all those pages do you start to look?

As with all wildlife, animal or vegetable, science has classified all living things into Kingdoms, Phylum, Classes, Orders, Families, Genera and Species (You can remember this by recalling that King Philip called out for garlic sausage!)

In other words, if you can decide on the order or the family then you know where to start looking.

The labiate family has some 40 species listed in my field guide over five pages. They all have square stems and tubular, trumpet shaped flowers. The flowers nearly always come as a whorl around the stem. They include mints, nettles, woundworts and bugles. All different yet all with similar features.

This is a photo of a plant with a square stem and tubular flowers in a whorl and can be quickly traced to the dead-nettles, in this case, as the flowers are white it's White Deadnettle.


Crane Fly (Tipula oleracea)

If you think identifying little brown birds is difficult, there are far more taxing issues! Once you have sorted out Common Milkwort from Chalk Milkwort have a go at crane flies ...

Tipula oleracea has 13 segments in its antennae and Tipula paludosa has 14! Otherwise they are 'very alike'.

The thing is, though, that physical features are not the only guide and we often forget that. T. oleracea is around between April and October and T. paludosa from, errr, April to October. However, T. oleracea is abundabt in May and June whereas T. paludosa is abundant in the autumn.

As a result, I can be fairly certain that this is Tipula oleracea and not Tipula paludosa even though I cannot clearly see the number of segments in the antennae.

If anyone wishes to query my judgement then go ahead but be sure of your facts!

16 May, 2010

Red Twin Spot Carpet (Xanthorhoe spadicearia)

You do not only see moths at night. Some, a very small number, prefer to fly by day. Others are just light sleepers and it does not take a lot to disturb them. If you do wake one and it flutters to another spot to go back to sleep then following can prove pretty tricky as the find a way of hiding very quickly!

If you are fortunate enough to follow it then it is an ideal time to get a good look.

The Red Twin Spot Carpet is quite common and is one that you frequently disturb during the day from bushes and hedges. Indeed, it easier to see them that way as they are not overly attracted to light. They have two broods here in the south, the first flying from May to June and their off-spring are on the wing from Mid July until the end of August.

The 'Geometridae' moths are generally known as carpet moths, not because the larvae infest your carpet, but because they rest with their wings open and hove lovely intircate designs, a bit like an Axminster carpet!

This one give the distinct appearance of being primarily red in colour and it has two twin spots on the outer corner of each wing. That is why it is the Red Twin Spot Carpet moth!

15 May, 2010

Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holosea)

Greater Stitchwort is now abundant along the hedgerows, waysides and woodland edges of Dorset. Often it is found in the company of Bluebells and Red Campion making a striking red, white and blue display - very patriotic!

When young, I used to know this plant as 'Shirt Buttons', I have no idea why!

It is a member of the Campion family and the five deeply lobed petals make it similar to its relatives, the Chickweeds, but with the flowers being half an inch across it can hardly be mistaken for them.

A common flower may be, but a very attractive one as it always grows in clusters and gives a lovely fresh look to the hedgerows.

Cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha)

The Cockchafer is also known as the May Bug for good reason. As soon as we get to the middle May each year my moth trap fills up with these little beasts.

They are probably far more common than you realise as they are seldom seen. Occasionally one might fly in to a window with bit of thud or, if you have a window open, they might actually end up indoors as, like moths, they are certainly attracted to light.

They are not the most beautiful of creatures, in fact they are pretty ugly and I find it difficult to find anything to like about them!

I collect all those that end up in the moth trap (often 20 or so), put them in a box and take them a long way from the garden and deposit them. Their larvae are big, white 'slug' like things that do an enormous amount of damage to the roots of plants, especially trees, so we reckon the fewer we have in our garden the better.

14 May, 2010

Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus)

How many of us see buttercups and think that's it, it's a buttercup! Well, it gets more difficult if you ask which species of buttercup? There are several, eight in fact that look like traditional buttercups!

Its not quite that bad as some are very rare now having been affected by intensive spraying of our fields, the Corn Buttercup, once common, is now all but extinct. Other species are quite distinctive in their own way so it really leaves Meadow, Creeping and Bulbous as the most likely choice if it's a standard buttercup you are looking at.

The Bulbous Buttercup is very common on dry grassland, especially on chalk, and so is very common in Dorset.

It does have a distinctive feature that is easily seen. The sepals, found under the petals, turn downwards as shown in the photograph.

So, now all you have to do is tell the difference between Meadow and Creeping Buttercups!

Bugle (Ajuga reptans)

Bugle (Ajuga reptans)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard
This a common flower of damp woodlands and meadows at this time of year and is common across Dorset in such habitat.

One needs to be a bit careful as it looks, at first glance, a bit like Ground Ivy and it is, indeed, closely related. A more detailed look will quickly tell you it is not Ground Ivy, the plant being usually taller, the flowers larger and a darker blue and the stem being darkish in colour, almost a dark red.

Flowering for a short time in May, possibly in to June it can be seen now.

Why it is called Bugle I have no idea, perhaps it is those long 'trumpet like' flowers?

Shuttle Shaped Dart (Agrotis exclamationis)

We have some absolutely stunning moths in this country and some rather dull, boring ones. This one, the Shuttled Shaped Dart is quite definitely on of the dull, boring ones!

It is one of our commonest species, widespread and common across the whole of southern England and so readily found here in Dorset.

These little chaps, they are only half an inch or so long, can be found almost any time from April to October. They have several overlapping broods a year and so they can turn up in a moth trap at almost any time (and frequently do).

The larvae feed on docks, Dandelion, Knotgrass, Lettuce, and many other plants as well which is why they are so common.

12 May, 2010

Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

I am not sure any 'wild bird' survey or count should include the Pheasant, it is not a natural British species after all.

If they were not bred specifically for 'sport' then there would be no Pheasant here at all. It is only because they are farmed and habitat is managed for them that they survive.

They are an Asian species that seems to have been introduced for food all over Europe and the British Isles by the Romans. That means they have been here c2000 years so they are now pretty British I suppose.

What I find distressing is the practice of many game keepers of killing all possible predators of young Pheasant so that people can pay for the 'pleasure' of doing it. How many birds of prey are illegally poisoned because they might have an impact on farmed Pheasant numbers?

There are less Pheasant in Dorset than were we used to live in Hampshire. On the main road from our village to the nearest town you would see countless dead pheasants killed by cars, and yet the local game keepers would complain that they lost Pheasants to foxes.

Hypocrisy rules it seems!

11 May, 2010

Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

Many of us are familiar with catkins but we usually think of the Hazel catkins, or Lamb's Tails, we see earlier in the year.

In fact several trees produce catkins as flowers and the Silver Birch is certainly one. Not quite the same as Hazel of course but nonetheless catkins is what they are.

Like Hazel, the Silver Birch flowers before the leaves come but flowers much later in the year. Silver Birch are in flower now, April and May whereas Hazel catkins were out as early as January and all over by the end of March.

As the Silver Birch flowers die off so the lovely fresh green leaves appear and there are very few prettier trees that a Silver Birch freshly dressed in delicate green.

10 May, 2010

Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

Of all our mature trees surely the Horse Chestnut has the most striking display of flowers. The wonderful flower spikes make the tree look like an enormous candelabra!

It was the flower display that led the Horse Chestnut to be here in this country in the first place. It is native to the Balkans and Asia Minor and was brought here to adorn our park lands as long ago as the sixteenth century. Five hundred years and its still not a local - its unlikely I am ever going to be accepted as a local here in Dorset as I have not done five years yet!

The Horse Chestnut is a prominent tree, usually found in avenues and in clusters in ornamental parks but some have self seeded elsewhere.

When I was young we used to collect the conkers to use in conker fights and tradition had it that if you buried one for a while it would make it hard. I guess if you do not go back and unearth it then there is a pretty good bet that a Horse Chestnut tree will appear.

Not only are the flower spikes and the conkers key features of this tree, it has a large, imposing frame, large seven-lobed leaves and, of course, has 'sticky buds' in spring. At junior school we used to put some twigs with sticky buds in a jam jar of water and watch them open

Not a native but welcome none the less I think.

09 May, 2010

Minotaur Beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus)

ack on the 12th April I posted a photo of a male Minotaur Beetle I had seen at Arne. It was quite striking with three pointed spines on its thorax which it uses to move Rabbit droppings to its nest where the female then takes it under ground for their larvae to feed on.

Well, today on Stoborough Heath I encountered the female pictured here and I thought it worth posting to show the difference. It is actually very similar, it lacks those three spines which would be a major impediment to it burrowing under ground to make a nest.

It favours sandy soil which tends to be softer which makes burrowing easier of course. The book says it particularly likes Rabbit droppings but doth the specimens I have found have been near Sika Deer rather than Rabbits so I think it has a penchant for deer poo.

07 May, 2010

Hoverfly (Epistrophe nitidicollis)

Hoverflies are a real problem to identify, especially these wasp mimics. I am lucky enough to have the definitive guide to hoverflies as I have a real fondness for them (it takes all sorts!) and there are some thirty or so similar species.

This species is, as far as I can tell from the yellow and black markings on the thorax Epistrophe nitidicollis.

This specimen was by a woodland ride in Thorncome Wood near Hardy's Cottage, Bockhampton sat on a tree leaf and. lo and behold, my book says that woodland rides and coppice glades in May provide the best conditions for seeing them.

This is a fairly local species in the south, flies from April to August but peaks in May. I saw several of them in quite a small area.

What was interesting is that they can go from stationary in to flight in an instant and then return to almost the same spot it left just a few seconds later.

This is a male as the eyes are joined together, in female flies there is a gap between the eyes.

06 May, 2010

Flame Shoulder (Ochropleura plecta)

The Flame Shoulder is one of our most common moths here in Dorset. Indeed, it widespread and common across much of the British Isles and is found as far north as Orkney and the Outer Hebrides.

It is only about 1/2" long and is very distinctive because of the metallic copper-coloured flashes along the outside edges of the fore wings.

There are two broods of flying adults each year, one is about now until June and then the second brood will be on the wing between August and September.

Particularly fond of Ragwort for its nectar source the larvae live on plantains, docks and groundsels. They over winter as a pupae.

Wild Arum (Arum maculatum)

I guess many of us struggle with Latin specific names. They are so much harder to remember than the English common name.

Specific names are important however and this plant really shows why that is so. This is Wild Arum also known as Lords and Ladies also known as Cuckoo-pint also known as the Arum Lily but specifically known as Arum maculatum.

Local English names can cause so much confusion. With birds there is the 'official' list of English names but not so with flora. The specific name is international, everywhere in the world where this plant occurs it will be specifically known as Arum maculatum.

So Arum maculatum is now in flower along our hedgerows. It is a very common plant and can be seen on chalk soils right across the county.

So call it what you will, my preference is Wild Arum, my field guide calls it Lords and Ladies, but we can at least agree on Arum maculatum!

05 May, 2010

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

"Ne'er cast a clout 'til May is out!" Well the May is out now but this year you would be advised to keep your clout on a little longer as the wind remains quite chilly. I guess it has been a Blackthorn winter!

May is the country name for Hawthorn, not surprisingly because it comes out in May! That said, in recent years it has often come in April due to the milder winters we have had.

Like Blackthorn, Hawthorn is a member of the Rose family and has white, five petalled flowers. On Blackthorn the flowers come before the leaves, on Hawthorn the leaves come before the flowers. Blackthorn flowers first and as it fades so Hawthorn steps in to keep our hedgerows shining white.

Common across the county, Hawthorn can be seen almost anywhere from town parks to country hedgerows. In autumn, those flowers will have turned to the red berries we know as Haws.

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

The Wren is one of our smallest birds (only the Goldcrest and Firecrest are smaller) and yet 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!

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.

This time of year, in amongst its 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!

So, spare a thought for the male Wren this time of year; life is not easy for him!

04 May, 2010

Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robor)

The countryside is beginning to turn green again and this is in no small part due to the leaves coming on our most common tree in Dorset, the Pedunculate Oak.

More and more of them are now becoming dressed in fresh green leaves and these catkin type flowers. No wonder spring can be a difficult time for hayfever sufferers who are allergic to tree pollen!

Much more common than the Sessile Oak, the Pedunculate Oak has its leaves and its acorns on 'pendules' or short stalks. This is missing on the Sessile Oak.

In Dorset, Sessile Oak is very scarce, usually occurring only where it has been planted whereas the Pedunclate Oak can be found almost everywhere except on our heathland and our coastal downs.

02 May, 2010

Chalk Milkwort (Polygala calcarea)

The short turf on the cliff tops of the chalky Dorset coast are now showing patches of this delightful little plant, Chalk Milkwort.

Whilst Milkwort is quite easy to identify, separating the three British species is not so easy! The differences are quite small and it takes a good botanist to spot the minor variations between them.

For the lesser botanist like me then habitat is the best guide but certainly not the most accurate. In general however, Chalk Milkwort grows amongst short turf on chalk in southern England; Heath Milkwort ... yes, grows on acid soils and especially heathland and is common on the Dorset heaths and elsewhere it is likely to be Common Milkwort! Common Milkwort does also occur on the chalk as well as heathland though!

Just to add to the "interest" Heath Milkwort is also known as Thyme-leaved Milkwort. Not only that, all the species occur frequently in a mauve colour as well as the lovely true blue, quite often growing quite close to each other.

Regardless of which of the species it is, in my opinion it is well worth getting down on your knees to have a closer look at.

01 May, 2010

Cowslip (Primula veris)

There must be 101 reasons to visit Durlston Country Park near Swanage and this is certainly one of them. In the flower meadows at the top of the cliffs this time of year there are countless numbers of Cowslips. The same is true of the neighbouring Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve of Townsend.

Cowslips were once very common. These days they are still found throughout the county in meadows and on grassland, occasionally even in the middle of roundabouts!

Closely related to the Primrose, they are both Primulas and that is where part of the problem lies, Many gardens have cultivated Primula species, especially Polyanthus. Insects visiting these and then going on the wild flowers cause hybridisation and gradually the wild flowers die out.

A meadow full of Cowslips is surely the sign that spring is here.

Early Thorn (Selenia dentaria)

There are probably two main reason why we do not see moths very often. The first is pretty obvious, moth are only active at night. However, the other reason is that whilst at rest during the day they are so well camouflaged.

The Early Thorn is a striking example of this. At rest it looks just like a dead leaf and predators would rarely find it as it sleeps the day away in the depth of shrubbery.

Despite its name it is found not only in April and May, it has a second brood in in August and September. It is widespread and generally common in Southern England but less so in te North where it usually just has one brood flying in May and June.

The larvae feed on a range of trees and shrubs including Hawthorn, Birch, Alder, Sallow and Blackthorn.