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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!

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

Coot


Coot
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.