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Showing posts from December, 2010

Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans)

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Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard I can never decide whether the appearance of Winter Heliotrope is a sign that spring is on its way or that winter is definitely with us! Sadly, it is probably the latter and we still have a month or two to wait for true signs of spring.

Winter Heliotrope was brought over from the Mediterranean in Victorian times and it subsequently 'escaped' and has become a naturalised wild flower. It is common in Dorset this time of year in damp, shaded habitats along hedgerows, road verges, river banks and waste places. It often forms quite large patches. It is interesting that despite the colder climate here it still flowers at the same time as it would have done in its home Mediterranean region. It was introduced into gardens, partly for its winter colour but also because it has a strong vanilla scent, the fragrance giving its botanical name, 'fragrans'.

The plant produces large, round leaves which are readi…

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

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

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

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

As its name implies it has long been associated with human activity, especially around dwellings where it is happy to scratch a living from just about a…

Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus)

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Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard The Blue Tit stands at number 2 in the Garden Bird top 20.

Unlike it's cousin, the Great Tit, the Blue Tit seems happier away from its natural woodland habitat and is more eclectic in its taste, happy with seed, peanuts, fat balls and so on as well as keen on cleaning up the aphids from the roses. If you have Blue Tits in your garden you probably have them all year, not just in winter.

Blue Tits are common, fairly dull, have no real song, they are just ordinary, but they have one thing on their side, they are really cute!

Apart from the Robin perhaps, I suspect the Blue Tit has done more to further the cause of birds with the general public than any other. Their readiness to make a home in a nest box almost anywhere makes them particularly popular.

Quite often people can think they have a resident three or four birds in their garden in winter and yet, in reality, they have a constant stream of different birds popping in. …

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

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Blackbird (Turdus merula)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard Looking for trouble? You've found it!

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

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

It will…

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

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Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard Oh how the numbers of birds in our gardens goes up in the winter and the levels of food we put out goes down so quickly! One of the reasons, the Starling! Once the number 1 garden bird in winter it has fallen now to number 4.

Actually, feeding birds has changed considerably over the last thirty years. In 1979 my wife and I moved in to a bungalow just outside Southampton and we had our first garden. The first thing we did was to put up a couple of nut bags and then throw out some bread crumbs and scraps everyday. Within minutes we would have around two dozen Starlings darting around, squabbling and demolishing the feast we had put before them. Not any more!

Feeding birds is now much more sophisticated. Bread is no longer consider safe for birds and so we can buy peanuts (except the birds will not eat them any more!), several types of seed including sunflower kernels and nyger seed, fat balls, fruity nibbles and any other fanc…

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

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Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard The Chaffinch is frequently described in guide books as Britain's most common bird, it is certainly Europe's most common finch. With them being so common it is easy to overlook what a striking little bird the male Chaffinch is with a range of colours from pink to blue to black to white and many others in between.

Despite the diverse range of colours, it is the white that one notices first when it flies; the white wing bars are immediately visible and are the easiest diagnostic feature. Quite often with birds there is one specific point that you recognise instantly and enables you to identify it immediately.

Unlike most of its finch cousins the Chaffinch has never really mastered the art of nut bag feeding but is prepared to have a go at seed containers that provide little perches to stand on but even then, though, they do not seem happy. They much prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground.

At present it stands …

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

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Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard Well, what else for Christmas Day? I could not resist taking 15 minutes out of the day to give this little Robin its chance to be famous right across the world!

The Robin is special to us here in Britain, our folklore is littered with references to this enchanting little bird and yet, despite its diminutive size, it is a real fighter, especially when confronted by another Robin on its patch.

It is, of course, resident and there can hardly be a day in the year when a Robin does not grace our garden. Perhaps a for a couple of weeks in August whilst it is moulting it becomes scarce but otherwise, there it is, helping with the gardening, checking out the washing on the line, looking over the apple tree to make sure it is one piece, making the sure the lid on the compost bin is secure, and singing from the top of the fir tree.

Not surprisingly it stands quite well in the top 20 garden birds at number 6; nearly every garden must ha…

Mistletoe (Viscum album)

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Mistletoe (Viscum album)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard So, it's Christmas Eve, what else could I feature in today's blog?

I saw an oak tree full of Mistletoe yesterday near King's Stag in North Dorset and just had to share it with you as it is so seasonal.

Mistletoe is now quite rare and this is the first I have seen for the best part of ten years. It is a parasitic plant that grows only on standard trees. Unlike some parasites, though, it does not kill its host, just raids it for nutrients.

It has very sticky berries which birds like to eat but when they have eaten the flesh of the berry they end up with the seed stuck to their beaks. In attempt to rid themselves of it they wipe their beak on a branch, the seed comes off and a new Mistletoe plant is born.

Reproduction in nature can be so specialised you have to wonder how on earth such complex evolution came about without the plant becoming extinct in the process!

Collared Dove (Streptopelia docaocto)

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Collared Dove (Streptopelia docaocto)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard The Collared Dove has risen quickly up the top twenty garden birds list and is currently number 7 having first entered the top 10 at number 10 in 1989.

Until the early 1950's the Collared Dove was a non-British species, being more at home in the Balkans. During the 1930's it suddenly began to spread across Europe and arrived in Britain in 1954 (as far I can ascertain). Its arrival had the 'twitchers' of its day quite excited but now it is just a common bird seen near human habitation from farms to city centres right across the United Kingdom.

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

Great Tit (Parus major)

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Great Tit (Parus major)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard The Great Tit is a common woodland bird that you see almost everywhere there are trees and shrubs, except our garden.

We are blessed with a good number of birds and yet the Great Tit to us is a rarity! This, despite the fact it stands at number 8 in the top twenty garden birds.

The Great Tit is a smart little bird with its grey coat over a yellow waste coat with a long black cravat down the front. In the field, it is those white cheeks that one frequently notices first.

The Great Tit has an array of songs, or rather calls, for the spring time. It is thought they have at least twelve, with the most familiar being 'teacher, teacher' (I liken this call to someone pumping up their bicycle tyres with a squeaky pump.

This call is surely a sign spring has sprung when you hear it first and within six weeks or so it should be heard all over the county.

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

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

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

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

Why the increase? The rise of the Wood Pigeon is partly due to the success it is having as a breeding species in this country and there are now staggering n…

Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)

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Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard Whilst looking at your garden bird feeders here is a bird you surely cannot over look. It is a bad tempered species that is reluctant to share with anyone and it will stand its ground against all comers!

In the shade they can look a bit nondescript, even dowdy, but in the sunshine they are revealed as a beauty dressed in glorious shades of green and yellow.

Currently number 10 in the top garden bird feeders it was once higher but in recent times, notably the last three years or so, there has been concern at falling numbers due to a form of salmonella poisoning. However, there indications that this is now behind them and populations levels are recovering. Last week we had eleven in at one go which is by far the most we have ever had at any one time.

Having Greenfinches in your garden is good news/bad news! The good news is they are attractive birds to look at and fun to watch, the bad news is that they eat a tremendous amou…

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

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

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

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

As a garden bird it ranks number 11. In the RSPB Garden Bird Watch it i…

Magpie (Pica pica)

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

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

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

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

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

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

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

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

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

Coal Tit (Parus ater)

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

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

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

Long Tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

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Long Tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard What an enchanting little bird the Long Tailed Tit is! I never cease to be captivated by them whenever I see them.

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

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

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

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

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Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard Continuing my look at the top twenty winter garden birds we get to number 16, the Wren.

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

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

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

In spring, amongst the time spent singing its territorial song the male Wren is busy building four or five nests. He then shows his…

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

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Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard We are not quite at the shortest day yet but somehow the Song Thrush will be able to tell the darkening days are almost behind us and the corner towards spring has been turned.

The Robin has been the sole singer (or is it the 'soul' singer with that plaintiff winter song?) for the past three months but soon, gradually, the Song Thrush will be joining in. Every year, as soon as the shortest day passes so you start to hear the Song Thrush in full voice.

Once upon a time the Song Thrush was common in gardens but in recent years the numbers have crashed and now it ranks number 17 in the garden bird league table when thirty years ago it was number 10.

Fortunately the decline of this species does seem to have stopped and the population stabilised and one hears them quite often out in the countryside but they are still only very occasional visitors to gardens.

They are lovely birds, quite gentle compared to their cousin,…

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

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Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard At number 18 in the top twenty garden feeding birds the Nuthatch is an active feed bag visitor to gardens that are near woodland. If you have Nuthatches at all they will be frequently visitors. Not only do the like seed, they eat peanuts and adore cheese, especially if it is rubbed in to the bark of a tree.

The Nuthatch is very much a part of the woodland fauna and is very common right across the woods of Dorset. All year round its very distinctive 'piping' call makes them unmissable - hear the sound, locate the bird! It can also be heard sometimes opening (or hatching) a nut high in the tree canopy.

Quite dramatic looking, the Nuthatch is like no other bird and cannot really be mistaken. They are regular visitor to the nut bags by the information centre at Arne and always causes a bit of a thrill amongst the visitors.

It likes to feed facing downwards and is quite unique in being able to walk down a tree trunk.

Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

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Siskin (Carduelis spinus)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard In recent years the Siskin has been becoming more and more common in gardens during the winter months and it now stands at number 19 in the league table.

Like their close relative, the Greenfinch (and both are relatives of the Canary), Siskins are ravenous seed eaters and the tendency nowadays is to put out seed rather than peanuts or bread for birds which may well account for this up turn in numbers.

If you have a feeding station that does not have little perches you will notice that the Siskin has a definite preference for eating upside down! This is because it has to point downwards to get at seeds in fir cones in its normal habitat, coniferous forest.

Living not too far from Wareham forest where Siskins nest they are frequent visitors to our garden and at their peak we had nine at one sitting last spring and it was well into June before they stopped coming in.

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

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Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard They say the camera never lies and so, if proof is needed, here it is - the Great Spotted Woodpecker loves peanuts and as a result is at number 20 in the top Garden Visitors survey.

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

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

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

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba-yarrelli)

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Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba-yarrelli)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard This little character is real trial to photograph as it just does not keep still! It is always running around, here and there, chasing this, chasing that! It is, in fact, the smallest bird that actually walks; other small birds tend to hop.

The other interesting thing about this bird is that it is almost indistinguishable from the White Wagtail. In fact, the British Pied Wagtail is a sub-species of the European White Wagtail being just a little darker in colour. It takes an expert to tell the difference but apart from the odd 'white' that turns up on migration, the ones we see in Dorset are almost certainly going to be 'pied'.

In terms of a garden bird, this was once an almost certainty in many gardens but, sadly, like so many other species this is no longer the case. We never get them in the garden itself but we do see them in the road outside and, despite the abundance of food we put out it does…

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

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Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard My favourite bird identification book was published back in 1978, the year I started 'birding'. It says "Many birds suffer from human activity but a few show sufficient adaptability to profit from change and the Reed Bunting is one of these."

Thirty years ago we regularly had Reed Buntings in our garden during the winter months and I would frequently see them on farmland around where we were living. Reed Buntings were common!

How things change! Those words I quoted are far from true now. The Reed Bunting has declined substantially over recent years is is now nationally and locally scarce, usually seen only in its established habitat of Phragmytes reed beds. It is now on the 'Red List' for endangered species.

The Reed Bunting became dependent on farmland for food in winter but modern farming which sees fields green with winter wheat rather that brown with corn stubble has hit this (any many o…

Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

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

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

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

Usually seen on farmland it was once common in parkland and gardens. Indeed, the orchard was its favoured home, especially one where the f…

Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla)

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

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

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

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)

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

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

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

After that Purbeck was full of these birds and they turned up regularly in our garden and eating us out of apples! With the recent cold weather and snow I would have expected to see a lot around…

Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)

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

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

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

No longer favoured by …

Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima)

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Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard "There is something moving in amongst the rocks and seaweed; there it is, look; what is it? It is so well hidden."

One of the real reasons we get involved in nature watching is because there is always the chance of something new, something unusual, something special. Maybe it's the old hunter/gatherer thing and when I am out for a walk I am always hunting out that something extra, especially if there is going to be chance of a photo.

So it was one cold December day. We were walking along Studland Beach towards Poole. It was low tide and at the point where the line of the beach turns toward the harbour there is a long line of rocks stretching out to sea and I just caught a glimpse of something moving and after a little 'chase' there they were, five Purple Sandpipers.

Not a common bird by any means but they are regular visitors to Dorset shores in winter and I have seen small parties in amongst th…