If you would like to read my Dorset nature notes about any of these featured species or sites please click on the post title
- I have been interested in nature for most of my life but since I retired I spend as much time as I can exploring the nature reserves and wildlife hotspots of my adopted home, Dorset in southern England. Whilst out I record what I see and take snaps where I can (I am no photographer!) and that forms the basis of my Nature of Dorset website. When I find something new I like to research it and write about it in my nature notes, it is how I learn and hopefully you might find my notes helpful as well!This website is for the people of Dorset interested in wildlife and for people from elsewhere interested in the wildlife of Dorset!
31 December, 2010
Winter Heliotrope was brought over from the Mediterranean in Victorian times and it subsequently 'escaped' and has become a naturalised wild flower. It is common in Dorset this time of year in damp, shaded habitats along hedgerows, road verges, river banks and waste places. It often forms quite large patches. It is interesting that despite the colder climate here it still flowers at the same time as it would have done in its home Mediterranean region. It was introduced into gardens, partly for its winter colour but also because it has a strong vanilla scent, the fragrance giving its botanical name, 'fragrans'.
The plant produces large, round leaves which are readily identified. If you see an area of large round leaves by the roadside then stop and take a closer look, it could well be Winter Heliotrope.
It will flower through until February and then it will be replaced by its cousin, Butterbur (Petasites hybridus)
30 December, 2010
Although the numbers of gardens reporting House Sparrows has fallen, where they do occur they are usually pretty numerous. Thirty years ago when the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch began it was recorded from most gardens and the results showed an average of 10.0 per garden; last year, the average was 3.2 per garden.
The House Sparrow is a confident little chap that nothing seems to phase. Bouncy, noisy, quarrelsome, enthusiastic, greedy, messy; surely all adjectives that apply to this rather plain, everyday little bird.
As its name implies it has long been associated with human activity, especially around dwellings where it is happy to scratch a living from just about anything it can find. It is not a fussy eater! It must surely be a change in our life style that has had such a dramatic effect on the Sparrow population. Happily, the figures seem to show that the decline has halted in recent years and there may even be a hint of a recovery but it is far too early to tell for sure.
29 December, 2010
Unlike it's cousin, the Great Tit, the Blue Tit seems happier away from its natural woodland habitat and is more eclectic in its taste, happy with seed, peanuts, fat balls and so on as well as keen on cleaning up the aphids from the roses. If you have Blue Tits in your garden you probably have them all year, not just in winter.
Blue Tits are common, fairly dull, have no real song, they are just ordinary, but they have one thing on their side, they are really cute!
Apart from the Robin perhaps, I suspect the Blue Tit has done more to further the cause of birds with the general public than any other. Their readiness to make a home in a nest box almost anywhere makes them particularly popular.
Quite often people can think they have a resident three or four birds in their garden in winter and yet, in reality, they have a constant stream of different birds popping in. Ringing in gardens has revealed some quite interesting facts about actual number as against perceived numbers.
Common they may be but they really are lovely little characters and always entertaining on the garden nut bag.
28 December, 2010
By far the most aggressive bird in our garden is the Blackbird. We usually have about five of them but the cold weather means we now have nine and they spend most of the day trying to protect their food supply from the others. They must use enormous amounts of energy shadowing their opponent, staying between it and their food, having the occasional flutter at each other.
They chase round and round the garden, under shrubs and out again, up in to the trees and down again, into the water dish and out again, all energy, all action packed.
Being ground feeders they eat almost anything thrown on the ground but prefer fruit to seed. We recently bought a tub of RSPB fruity nibbles which have been a great success and, at first light every morning we have a queue outside waiting for them to be put out. To try and avoid arguments we have to scatter them round different parts of the garden.
It will not be long before most of the TV arials around us will have a male singing away at dusk.
Blackbirds are number 3 in the top garden birds survey. They are real characters and make garden bird watching fun.
27 December, 2010
Actually, feeding birds has changed considerably over the last thirty years. In 1979 my wife and I moved in to a bungalow just outside Southampton and we had our first garden. The first thing we did was to put up a couple of nut bags and then throw out some bread crumbs and scraps everyday. Within minutes we would have around two dozen Starlings darting around, squabbling and demolishing the feast we had put before them. Not any more!
Feeding birds is now much more sophisticated. Bread is no longer consider safe for birds and so we can buy peanuts (except the birds will not eat them any more!), several types of seed including sunflower kernels and nyger seed, fat balls, fruity nibbles and any other fancy that the garden centres or the RSPB will sell us.
Apart from the droppings from the seed containers there is no ground feeding as this attracts rats and spreads disease. With the bread gone, so to are the hoards of Starlings, apart from the odd two or three prepared to fight each other for a place on the fat ball holder.
In 1979 there were an average of15 Starlings per garden in the RSPB Garden Bird Watch; thirty years on, in 2009, there were just 3.2! We still have enormous numbers of Starlings wintering in this country but they just do not seem to like gardens any more.
Despite being brash, aggressive, noisy, quarrelsome and much beside they are real characters. Their scientific name is Srurnus valgaris; vulgar certainly but great fun to watch.
26 December, 2010
Despite the diverse range of colours, it is the white that one notices first when it flies; the white wing bars are immediately visible and are the easiest diagnostic feature. Quite often with birds there is one specific point that you recognise instantly and enables you to identify it immediately.
Unlike most of its finch cousins the Chaffinch has never really mastered the art of nut bag feeding but is prepared to have a go at seed containers that provide little perches to stand on but even then, though, they do not seem happy. They much prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground.
At present it stands at number 5 amongst the most common garden birds. We get a good number in winter when food supplies are short in the fields but they disappear in spring to go nesting and raise their young returning to us again in October.
25 December, 2010
The Robin is special to us here in Britain, our folklore is littered with references to this enchanting little bird and yet, despite its diminutive size, it is a real fighter, especially when confronted by another Robin on its patch.
It is, of course, resident and there can hardly be a day in the year when a Robin does not grace our garden. Perhaps a for a couple of weeks in August whilst it is moulting it becomes scarce but otherwise, there it is, helping with the gardening, checking out the washing on the line, looking over the apple tree to make sure it is one piece, making the sure the lid on the compost bin is secure, and singing from the top of the fir tree.
Not surprisingly it stands quite well in the top 20 garden birds at number 6; nearly every garden must have one but, of course, in small numbers.
It is the song of the Robin that I find special, partly because it sings for ten months out twelve and for much of the autumn and early winter it is the only singing bird to cheer up cold, dark days. The other thing about the Robin's song is that from September it has a very wistful, almost melancholy, tone but as we get to February and the days are lengthening and the thoughts of spring loom so it becomes much more vibrant and jolly.
Thanks Robin, life would not be the same without you. Happy Christmas!
And a very happy Christmas to all my readers! Thanks for the encouraging comments over the year, they are much appreciated.
Early in the New Year I am launching a new website called the Nature of Dorset and I hope some of you will join me in contributing photos, comments and data about the nature we find here in the most beautiful county in England!
take a look at: www.natureofdorset.co.uk
24 December, 2010
I saw an oak tree full of Mistletoe yesterday near King's Stag in North Dorset and just had to share it with you as it is so seasonal.
Mistletoe is now quite rare and this is the first I have seen for the best part of ten years. It is a parasitic plant that grows only on standard trees. Unlike some parasites, though, it does not kill its host, just raids it for nutrients.
It has very sticky berries which birds like to eat but when they have eaten the flesh of the berry they end up with the seed stuck to their beaks. In attempt to rid themselves of it they wipe their beak on a branch, the seed comes off and a new Mistletoe plant is born.
Reproduction in nature can be so specialised you have to wonder how on earth such complex evolution came about without the plant becoming extinct in the process!
23 December, 2010
Until the early 1950's the Collared Dove was a non-British species, being more at home in the Balkans. During the 1930's it suddenly began to spread across Europe and arrived in Britain in 1954 (as far I can ascertain). Its arrival had the 'twitchers' of its day quite excited but now it is just a common bird seen near human habitation from farms to city centres right across the United Kingdom.
Of all the birds, this is the one we almost always see in pairs, no matter what time of year. When one flies in its mate is not far behind and they always seem to leave together too. I had hoped to find out whether they mate for life but I have had no success but the fact they are usually in pairs and that they breed for nine moths of the year feeding one lot of young whilst brooding the next clutch of eggs must indicate that it is likely.
Already, the prelude to another years frantic family life has started with the occasional male singing its monotonous tones around our neighbourhood.
They are lovely together though aren't they, the perfect loving couple!
22 December, 2010
We are blessed with a good number of birds and yet the Great Tit to us is a rarity! This, despite the fact it stands at number 8 in the top twenty garden birds.
The Great Tit is a smart little bird with its grey coat over a yellow waste coat with a long black cravat down the front. In the field, it is those white cheeks that one frequently notices first.
The Great Tit has an array of songs, or rather calls, for the spring time. It is thought they have at least twelve, with the most familiar being 'teacher, teacher' (I liken this call to someone pumping up their bicycle tyres with a squeaky pump.
This call is surely a sign spring has sprung when you hear it first and within six weeks or so it should be heard all over the county.
21 December, 2010
So it is with the Wood Pigeon. There have always been a lot of Wood Pigeons about in my time birding but I had really not noticed a change in the garden.
However, the data from bird surveys shows that gradually, over the last thirty years this species has been steadily rising up the charts. In 1979 it was barely scoring at around 18th place, by 1989 it had risen to 13th and was at number 10 in 1999. Last year it had reached number 9.
Why the increase? The rise of the Wood Pigeon is partly due to the success it is having as a breeding species in this country and there are now staggering numbers of this bird across the country. The other reason is the decline and fall down the ratings of others such as the Song Thrush and the Dunnock to mention just a couple.
The Wood Pigeon is a strong bird, versatile in the habitat it can stand and it is certainly not a fussy eater! Is it destined to go above 9? Yes, I think it probably is.
20 December, 2010
In the shade they can look a bit nondescript, even dowdy, but in the sunshine they are revealed as a beauty dressed in glorious shades of green and yellow.
Currently number 10 in the top garden bird feeders it was once higher but in recent times, notably the last three years or so, there has been concern at falling numbers due to a form of salmonella poisoning. However, there indications that this is now behind them and populations levels are recovering. Last week we had eleven in at one go which is by far the most we have ever had at any one time.
Having Greenfinches in your garden is good news/bad news! The good news is they are attractive birds to look at and fun to watch, the bad news is that they eat a tremendous amount of seed between them so get your cheque book ready.
19 December, 2010
Yesterday, for example, I encountered a Dunnock just beginning to utter the first few tentative notes of his song. As the days progress now so he will grow in confidence and soon Dunnocks will join with the Robins and Song Thrushes in heralding spring.
Actually, when I was young my father called this a Hedge Sparrow but, as it is not a sparrow the name changed back in the 1970's I suppose. It is a members of the Accentor family and so, on the formal British nomenclature list it is known as the Hedge Accentor. Three names for the same little bird.
As a garden bird it ranks number 11. In the RSPB Garden Bird Watch it is reported from 54% of gardens but in the BTO garden recording scheme it is seen in 81% of gardens, a major difference. I put this down to under recording in the RSPB event as many observers will just put this down as a sparrow and not realise exactly what it is.
What it is is a rather plain little brown bird that skulks around the bottom of hedges and shrubbery minding its own business. But it is also a little brown bird with a delightful song that is a very welcome addition to our garden and the countryside in general.
18 December, 2010
This is, of course, absolute rubbish. These prejudices against the Magpie have no basis in science at all.
The fact is, as any reasonable person will know already, that garden birds populations reflect total populations. If a bird has decreased in numbers across the country in all habitats it will, obviously, be seen less often in gardens! The decline in many bird species populations are usually complex and revolve around loss of suitable breeding territory and problems with food supply.
The Magpie is NOT increasing in numbers and not, therefore, decimating our garden birds. The Magpie eats more carrion than live prey and benefits from road casualties in Pheasants, Hedgehogs, etc. The Magpie is responsible for less losses amongst baby birds than domestic cats and Grey Squirrels.
These facts are based on scientific research done by Sheffield University and supported by RSPB findings.
Although it looks black and white in colour the Magpie in bright sunshine if seen close up is a wonderful mixture of iridescent blues and green - a bit like a Mallard's head only generally darker!
The Magpie is, however, number 12 in the chart of the most common bird in gardens but that is because they feed on scraps, not other birds.
Justice for the Magpie!
17 December, 2010
Initially they started coming to gardens later in the winter after food supplies in the countryside were exhausted and the BTO study shows that around mid-February would see numbers in gardens build up. But that has changed now too and they can turn up at almost any time.
Definitely a seed eater, they will pay little attention to peanuts and even less to fat balls; anything on the ground is usually overlooked too. Their particular favourite is nyger seed and you can now buy it in special 'Goldfinch only' containers!
They are smaller than most finches but what they lack in size they make up for in fighting spirit. They can more than hold their own against all comers.
It being so cold I had to take this photo through the window so it is not quite as sharp as I would have liked. I will try and get a better one when the weather improves.
16 December, 2010
They are active little birds that don't stay around long, in and out for a quick raid on the seed normally but this one paused long enough for me to get a snap and, obligingly, he turned his head to one side to show the diagnostic white stripe down the back.
Coal Tits have a reputation for hoarding seed and we were amused for a couple of days last winter watching two of them in turn collect a seed from the container, then fly down and bury it in the garden. They never came back for them of course but I think the Blackbirds found most of them.
15 December, 2010
You would think, of course, that it was related to Great, Blue and Coal Tits but it's not. It is the only British member of the family Aegithalidae whereas the others are Parudae; not a lot of people know that!
The Long Tailed Tit is a gregarious little fellow, especially in winter when they come together in feeding parties. You never see one alone; as you look around you see more and more. They also huddle together at night for warmth.
Being so small they are very susceptible to the cold and suffer heavy losses in hard winters. However, the run of continuous mild winters here in Dorset has seen numbers increase through enhanced winter survival rates and that increase in population levels is reflected in them being seen more and more in gardens. Having not featured in the top 20 garden birds before, in the last couple of years they have become our 15th most common garden bird.
I wonder how this cold spell is going to affect them? I hope they will be all right.
14 December, 2010
Being such a small bird it can be easily over looked in winter when it is not singing and is busily looking for food, but come the spring, although one our smallest birds (only the Goldcrest and Firecrest are smaller) it has one of the loudest voices.
If you are familiar with its complex song full of crescendos and trills then you will often know there is a Wren around long before you see it, if you see it that is! In winter you might just catch a brief glimpse as it works its way around climbing plants in your garden looking for the occasional bug to eat.
One of the features of the Wren from a distance is that it frequently has its tail cocked up, sadly this one did not so I can't illustrate the point.
In spring, amongst the time spent singing its territorial song the male Wren is busy building four or five nests. He then shows his partner around them and she will choose which one, if any, she is prepared to raise her young in. If she doesn't like any of them he is out of luck as she will be off looking at another chaps efforts!
13 December, 2010
The Robin has been the sole singer (or is it the 'soul' singer with that plaintiff winter song?) for the past three months but soon, gradually, the Song Thrush will be joining in. Every year, as soon as the shortest day passes so you start to hear the Song Thrush in full voice.
Once upon a time the Song Thrush was common in gardens but in recent years the numbers have crashed and now it ranks number 17 in the garden bird league table when thirty years ago it was number 10.
Fortunately the decline of this species does seem to have stopped and the population stabilised and one hears them quite often out in the countryside but they are still only very occasional visitors to gardens.
They are lovely birds, quite gentle compared to their cousin, the aggressive Blackbird.
12 December, 2010
The Nuthatch is very much a part of the woodland fauna and is very common right across the woods of Dorset. All year round its very distinctive 'piping' call makes them unmissable - hear the sound, locate the bird! It can also be heard sometimes opening (or hatching) a nut high in the tree canopy.
Quite dramatic looking, the Nuthatch is like no other bird and cannot really be mistaken. They are regular visitor to the nut bags by the information centre at Arne and always causes a bit of a thrill amongst the visitors.
It likes to feed facing downwards and is quite unique in being able to walk down a tree trunk.
11 December, 2010
Like their close relative, the Greenfinch (and both are relatives of the Canary), Siskins are ravenous seed eaters and the tendency nowadays is to put out seed rather than peanuts or bread for birds which may well account for this up turn in numbers.
If you have a feeding station that does not have little perches you will notice that the Siskin has a definite preference for eating upside down! This is because it has to point downwards to get at seeds in fir cones in its normal habitat, coniferous forest.
Living not too far from Wareham forest where Siskins nest they are frequent visitors to our garden and at their peak we had nine at one sitting last spring and it was well into June before they stopped coming in.
10 December, 2010
We associate the Greater Spotted Woodpecker with woodland, of course, and so gardens near woodland will have a higher chance of a visit. They are quite dramatic birds and always bring a bit of excitement when they appear.
They are very keen on peanuts, less so it seems on seed. The container needs to be easily accessible so that they have a clear flight path in and then out again, and they need a container they can cling to easily. The squirrel proofing cage here only helps to support the bird rather than prevent it getting access to the nuts.
The Great Spotted Woodpecker is common across Dorset so there could be one in your garden on your nut bag any time soon.
09 December, 2010
The other interesting thing about this bird is that it is almost indistinguishable from the White Wagtail. In fact, the British Pied Wagtail is a sub-species of the European White Wagtail being just a little darker in colour. It takes an expert to tell the difference but apart from the odd 'white' that turns up on migration, the ones we see in Dorset are almost certainly going to be 'pied'.
In terms of a garden bird, this was once an almost certainty in many gardens but, sadly, like so many other species this is no longer the case. We never get them in the garden itself but we do see them in the road outside and, despite the abundance of food we put out it does not seem to interest these little chaps!
Wagtails are basically insect eaters anyway and this time of year there are very few insects in gardens.
The best place to see Pied Wagtails in any number is around the car ferry terminal in Weymouth where they roost in their hundreds.
08 December, 2010
Thirty years ago we regularly had Reed Buntings in our garden during the winter months and I would frequently see them on farmland around where we were living. Reed Buntings were common!
How things change! Those words I quoted are far from true now. The Reed Bunting has declined substantially over recent years is is now nationally and locally scarce, usually seen only in its established habitat of Phragmytes reed beds. It is now on the 'Red List' for endangered species.
The Reed Bunting became dependent on farmland for food in winter but modern farming which sees fields green with winter wheat rather that brown with corn stubble has hit this (any many other species too of course) very badly.
The Reed Bunting is a distinctive looking bird with that vivid white moustache and the noticeable pale eye stripe. The male has an almost black head and face whereas the female is a darkish brown.
07 December, 2010
Now you don't see them very often, no one ever seems to mention them, they have not featured on Spring Watch or Autumn Watch (as far as I can recall). When species that are causing concern because of falling numbers are talked about the Mistle Thrush does not seem to get mentioned. As I say, to me it is the forgotten bird which is such a shame.
Although similar in colouring to its more familiar close cousin, the Song Thrush, it should not really be confused. It is larger, more slender and more upright.
Usually seen on farmland it was once common in parkland and gardens. Indeed, the orchard was its favoured home, especially one where the fruit trees had Mistletoe growing on them, as the name suggests the two are linked.
The Mistle Thrush is also known as the Stormcock in some areas because it will sit and sing from a high perch on even the worst spring days!
05 December, 2010
The Brambling is very closely related to the Chaffinch and is very common in the conifer forests of Scandinavia where Chaffinches do not breed. It is believed that have successfully bred in Scotland in the past but they are very much a winter visitor to our shores.
Bramblings are a bit like Waxwings in that some years we get virtually no Bramblings at all and in other years there are masses of them. This year they do seem to be quite common and the weather must be bad further north as we are seeing them here on the south coast.
Although they resemble a Chaffinch they are quite distinctive and easily told apart.
This little chap in our garden looks a bit bewildered and is not quite sure what way to go next! He didn't stay long.
04 December, 2010
As we looked out to sea we saw several birds flying in, followed by more, then even more. I estimate that they were coming in at around twenty a minute and as we were there an hour or so we probably saw over 1000 birds come in and that was just where we were sat.
The vast majority of these birds were Fieldfare and Redwing but there were also a good number of pipits too. They seemed to be coming from the South East so presumably bad weather in northern France had driven them westwards.
After that Purbeck was full of these birds and they turned up regularly in our garden and eating us out of apples! With the recent cold weather and snow I would have expected to see a lot around again now but so far there seem to be very few.
Large flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare are not uncommon here in winter. Last year there were over 1,000 near Rushton Farm at East Stoke. Fieldfare and Redwing keep each other company and you rarely see one without the other close by.
They breed in the north, particularly Scandinavia, but when winter comes they head south in enormous numbers but it was wonderful to watch them come pouring in off the sea after what must have been an epic journey. How did they know that when they flew off over the coast in France out to sea they would find land? What confidence ...
03 December, 2010
That all changed in 1955 when Myxomatosis was introduced. It seems that the Rabbit was becoming to be seen as a pest (probably linked to the shortage of food supplies during the war?) and man decided to take control. This vile disease decimated the Rabbit population and it ceased to be part of the human diet and other predators of the Rabbit declined rapidly, especially the Buzzard.
In recent years the numbers have begun to rebuild but it seems Myxomatosis is still around and when numbers in a given area grow so the disease reappears and knocks them back again.
No longer favoured by we British as a meal it remains popular with foxes. stoats, buzzards and other animals at the top of the food chain and the Rabbits revival has certainly been matched by an increase in Buzzards over the last thirty years.
02 December, 2010
One of the real reasons we get involved in nature watching is because there is always the chance of something new, something unusual, something special. Maybe it's the old hunter/gatherer thing and when I am out for a walk I am always hunting out that something extra, especially if there is going to be chance of a photo.
So it was one cold December day. We were walking along Studland Beach towards Poole. It was low tide and at the point where the line of the beach turns toward the harbour there is a long line of rocks stretching out to sea and I just caught a glimpse of something moving and after a little 'chase' there they were, five Purple Sandpipers.
Not a common bird by any means but they are regular visitors to Dorset shores in winter and I have seen small parties in amongst the rocks right down on point of Portland Bill.
In summer these birds nest on the hillsides in the Arctic tundra of Iceland and northern Scandinavia but most winters a dozen or so end up here on our coast; keep an eye open for them on our rocky coastal places.