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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 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.

30 October, 2010

Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

The Dorset woods in autumn and winter are brightened by the bright red unmistakable berries of Holly.

It is interesting that although Holly is one of Britain's best known trees it is actually quite local occurring mainly in hedgerows and older, traditional forest and woods. It is tolerant of shade which means it can survive quite comfortably under other trees, especially Ash and Birch. The Holly is also tolerant of clipping, and as it is also evergreen, it is popular as a hedging plant.

Another interesting feature is that only the lower leaves are prickly, presumably to give the plant protection against grazing. The upper leaves are often quite smooth edged.

The Holly is unusual in that there are male trees and female trees, although occasionally both forms of flower appear on one tree. Obviously the male trees do not bear berries, its sole purpose to produce pollen that will fertilise the flowers on the female trees which is where the berries will ripen and appear.

Holly was traditionally associated with ancient pre-Christian festivals but it has also become synonymous with Christmas and is a popular decoration as well as being mentioned in carols.

29 October, 2010

Beef Steak Fungus (Fistulina hepatica)

The distinctive colouring of this bracket fungus is the key to its identification as the beef steak fungus. It is a common species, found frequently on Oak and Sweet Chestnut in our local woodlands.

It is edible but I suspect it is not as tasty as a piece of rump steak - my book says "the flesh is dark and succulent, is mottled in appearance with pink veins that give out a blood like sap. It tastes sourish and has a pleasant smell". Try it if you dare!

What I found interesting is that this parasitic plant turns the wood of its host a dark drown (back to that blood-like sap I suppose) which makes it in much demand from the furniture industry. The poor tree! If the fungus doesn't get you the carpenter will ...

28 October, 2010

Moss (Polytrichum formosum)

If there is not much to see when you look upwards on a woodland walk try looking downwards at the woodland floor. There you will find a wide variety of plants, even in Autumn and Winter.

Be prepared for an identification challenge though unless you have the best reference books around and a microscope!

Unfortunately I only have a small field guide but I can tell that this is a member of the Polytrichum family, either 'formosum' or 'commune'; both are common in acid woodland and on heath. Microscopic examination is required to tell them apart but I favour that this is 'formosum' as it apparently likes slightly drier conditions and I found this specimen on a stream bank, damp but drained.

To appreciate moss you need to get down and take a close look. This plant forms large carpets of individual little spiky trees, a bit like a minute conifer forest! In amongst the 'trees' shoots appear with little nodules on the top which contain the spores for distribution by the wind.

OK, moss may not be 'your thing' but I think it worth a second glance, specially this time of year when there does seem much else to admire!

27 October, 2010

Lichen (Evernia prunastri)

Take a walk in the woods this time of year and there does not seem much to see. Point a camera with a close up lens on at various things and just see what you might get!

This amazing lichen is very common and I have no doubt we all pass it by with hardly a glance. However, it has been used as a fixative for perfume, a dying agent, it was ground up to make a hair powder and was used as wadding in shotguns.

Nowadays it is a known source of usnic acid and is used in the production of antibiotics. It is also the preferred lichen used by Long-tailed Tits in their nests.

So,next time you take a winter walk in the woods, why not take a closer look at lichen, you find more than you bargained on.

25 October, 2010

Holm Oak (Quercus ilex)

Now this can be a conundrum when you are out in 'the field' and not expecting it. They are Acorns right? Then it is an Oak tree? But those are not the usual Oak shaped leaves, they look a bit like Holly? And the leaves are not turning colour and falling, they are still green, and the tree itself, it is not big enough to be an Oak, nor is it the right shape.

The Holm Oak is a true Oak nonetheless, it bears the Oak Latin name of Quercus to prove the point but it is Britain's only common evergreen Oak although it is not truly indigenous having been introduced from the Mediterranean area during the 16th Century into large gardens and parks but also as a wind break, especially in large estates near the sea because it is resistant to salt laden winds.

In Dorset it is quite common along the coast line and can be seen in abundance, for example, at Durlston Country Park where it was presumably introduced to help protect the old estate's garden from the south westerlies that blow in on these exposed cliffs. It can alse be found along the Fleet in places like Abbotsbury.

Often overlooked, or dismissed because it cannot be named, look out for Holm Oak, it is an interesting tree.

24 October, 2010

Fungus (Calocera viscosa)

There is so much in the natural world that is small and so often missed.

I decided to take a walk and look specifically for fungi, although I find them very hard to identify. I set off for Sandford Woods, near Wareham, which is predominantly natural Scots Pine and under conifers is usually a good place for fungi. With this in mind I looked closely at fallen branches and tree stumps and, amongst the mosses and lichens that colonise these places I found this, Calocera viscosa.

Now Calocera viscosa is not uncommon, in fact it is very common everywhere but particularly on pine stumps. It may not be uncommon but it is small, these 'tongues' stand less than an inch tall and, despite their bright orange colour, are easily missed if you are not looking closely. This shows too, the advantage of magnified photography as it reveals detail and beauty that is otherwise easily missed.

This also illustrates that not all fungi have the familiar toadstool shape and when you look closely you find all sorts of strange and wonderful things.

21 October, 2010

Lichen (Xanthoria parietina)

As the leaves disappear from the trees and the hedgerows so other life forms become more apparent, especially lichens.

Lichens may not look much, just some dried up crusty old vegetation, but they are actually fascinating. A lichen is actually two living organisms, an algae and a fungus, which live together for mutual benefit, symbiosis (I'm turning into Chris Packham!)

To survive they need a host which may be vegetable or mineral from which it can derive support, minerals and moisture. Lichens do no harm to their hosts, they are not parasitic.

Identifying lichens is a real headache. This one though is very easy as it is really the only yellow coloured one and it is extremely common, mainly because it seems to be resistant to air pollution.

You can find Xanthoria on trees, rocks and walls, especially on bird perching sites such as fence posts and milestones. Unfortunately they do not have English names.

19 October, 2010

Shaggy Inkcap (Coprinus comatus)

The Shaggy Inkcap is also familiarly known as the Lawyers Wig fungus for fairly obvious reasons!

Not far from our house is an open area of grass with a scattering of ornamental trees and every October these fungi appear, as if by magic. Every day for a couple of weeks a dozen 'spikes' arise from the ground, by evening they have reached this stage (as I have photographed it). Overnight it continues to develop and the cap separates from the stipe and then by morning the whole things starts to dissolve, the black spores making the liquid look like old fashioned Stephen's ink which some of you will remember from your school days. The liquid soaks into the ground taking the spores with it to start a new generation of the fungus.

Every day the old spikes can be seen dissolving as new spikes appear. This method of spore (or seed) distribution is quite unique to this family of fungi I believe.

It is a widespread species and you can find it on lawns, pasture, along footpaths, on areas of bare ground, even rubbish tips.

18 October, 2010

Ivy (Hedera helix)


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

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

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

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

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

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

17 October, 2010

Bracket Fungus (Trametes versicolor)

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

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

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

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

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

15 October, 2010

Common Reed (Phragmites australis)

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

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

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

14 October, 2010

Bulrush (Shoenoplectus lacustris)

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

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

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

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

13 October, 2010

Reed Mace (Typha latifolia)

This familiar plant of ponds, slow moving rivers and swamps is often, mistakenly, called the Bulrush. I guess, for many of us older people, this will always be connected with pictures in our school Bibles of Moses in the Bulrushes!

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

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

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

12 October, 2010

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow is a common flower around Dorset at this time of year. It has, in fact, been flowering since August but is more prominent now that the other flowers are dying away.

Yarrow is, perhaps, one of those flowers you walk by without a second look because it is so common but when you stop and take a really close look you find that the flower-head is not one flower but a hundred or so tiny flowers, all like little daisies.

The overall flower head can range from white to pink but, in general, is dirty white or, perhaps more kindly, cream. Popular with insects, Yarrow can be found in meadows, grasslands, hedgerows and roadsides, just about anywhere in fact. It is also a common weed of lawns and definitely not a gardeners friend.

11 October, 2010

Clouded Yellow (Colias crocea)

Although we get an influx of migrant Clouded Yellows most years it always gives me bit of a thrill to see one. I suppose, when you first glimpse one, you know you have seen something slightly out of the ordinary.

Last year, when I took this photograph, they were about in good numbers; this year I have not seen one! There is still time, of course, as one can see them right through in to November if the weather remains warm.

In some years they arrive earlier and those adults lay eggs which hatch out to give even greater numbers when the autumn arrivals hit land. Sadly, any eggs laid by the autumn team are doomed to die when the temperatures drop later in the winter.

Seeing one close up under the camera lens one can't help but be struck by its large green eyes and its brown toupee!

10 October, 2010

Small Puff Ball (Lycoperdon pyriforme)

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

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

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

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

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

09 October, 2010

Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae)

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

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

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

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

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

08 October, 2010

Common Cat's-ear (Hypochaeris radicata)

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

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

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

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

07 October, 2010

Housefly (Mesembrina meridiana)

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

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

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

06 October, 2010

Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus)

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

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

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

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

05 October, 2010

Sea Aster (Aster tripolium)

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

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

The most obvious distinction however is where they grow.

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

04 October, 2010

Fungi (Macrocystidia cucumis)

This amazing collection of fungi covers several square metres on the edge of the car park at Upton Country Park. It is quite a sight, especially if you like toadstalls.

Macrocystidia cucumis is actually quite common according to my book but I have never seen it anywhere else in Dorset. It can grow on the edge of woodlands and roadsides especially under broadleaved trees and likes bare soil. At Upton it has taken hold of some bark chippings that were put down to keep the weeds out and is thriving.

It apparently has a strong smell of fishy cucumber! I have no idea whether it is edible but I think it is best left well alone, not a good idea to take chances with fungi ...

03 October, 2010

Meadow Grasshopper (Chorthippus parallelus)

As I have said previously when I looked at the Common Field Grasshopper, this group, othoptera, are a tricky identification task.

Along with the 'Field' the Meadow Grasshopper is very common but, unlike the 'Field' it has green around the face and thorax. The abdomen tends to be stripy brown and quite often has tinges of orange and I have even found one bright purple (this often occurs in the females I believe).

The Meadow Grasshopper, as it name implies cab be found on almost any grassland but is especially common where the grass is moist. Just after the entrance to Powerstock Common there is some rough, moist, grassy scrub and as you walk through it you see 'clouds' of these jumping out of the way of your path.

If you have good enough hearing then you may catch their 'song', like a sewing machine in three second bursts and repeated every ten to fifteen seconds gradually getting louder

You should still be able to find both the 'Meadow' and the 'Field' until the end of October and possibly in to November if the weather remains mild.

02 October, 2010

Bristly Oxtongue (Picris echioides)

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

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

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

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

01 October, 2010

Hoverfly (Metesyrphus corollae)

Just as many of our wild flowers are coming to an end so the Ivy bursts out. An inconspicuous flower perhaps but, nonetheless, an invaluable nectar source for the late summer insects.

Here I found one of the wasp-mimicking hoverflies, Metasyrphus corollae, enjoying the rewards from a newly opened Ivy blossom.

This group of hoverflies is a tricky one and the pattern of the yellow patches on the backs is the key identifier but they can even vary within the same species!

Metasyrphus corollae is one of the most common of our hoverflies and can be abundant in some years, with migratory insects coming in from Europe. It can be found from April through to October and even in to November when conditions remain favourable although it is most common in mid-summer. You can find it on flowers in gardens, fields and meadows, road verges and hedges and waste ground in urban areas.

In this photo the light coloured patches on the thorax look white which would indicate a different species but they were really yellow!