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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!

15 February, 2011

Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

February seems like one fine day followed by four or more far less kind. If you go up on to the Dorset sea cliffs or the Purbeck Ridge on one of those better February days not only are you rewarded with the most wonderful of views but you will also be serenaded by the song of the Skylark.

I am not too good on Latin but 'laud' means to praise and 'arvensis' means 'of the field' so I like to think that the Skylarks scientific name, Alauda arvensis, means the 'praise from the meadows' ... room for a bit of emotion in science perhaps?

I love the Skylark's song. They always seem so enthusiastic and so happy with life. Nature holds many joys for me and the Skylark's song is certainly up there near the top.

Sadly, this once common bird has diminished in numbers considerably in the last thirty years or so. It is certainly vulnerable to disturbance and, as it nests on the ground, its young are prone to accidental trampling by people, tractors and cattle but this would not account for the current decline. This is almost certainly down to less insects to feed to its young due the amount of insecticide used in crop sprays.

This trend in farmland bird populations is a familiar one. You can wipe a population out very quickly but it takes decades to build up a new one.

14 February, 2011

Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)

When I decided that my surveying and recording days were over and that I would buy a new camera and try my hand at some snaps of wildlife I had no idea that my eyes would be opened to a new world!

For years, I would walk along with my recorder and mutter 'Red Deadnettle' and walk on without a second glance. Now, as I try to get a respectable shot of just about anything, when I get home and plug the camera in to the computer I am often amazed at the beauty I had missed all those years.

OK, Red Deadnettle is hardly a rarity! It one of our most common weeds of cultivation and is now out in profusion just about anywhere and everywhere, Indeed, we will probably be pulling some out next time it stops raining and we can get in to the garden. However, looked at close up through the camera lens it becomes a different plant and a thing of rare beauty.

Well, that's how it looks to me anyway, how about you?

13 February, 2011

Alder (Alnus incana)

Alder (Alnus incana)
Originally uploaded by Peter Orchard
Our native Alder is a moderately small sized tree with a narrow crown and short, spreading branches. It grows extensively in damp places alongside streams, rivers, ponds and lakes as well as marshy areas.

In some boggy areas it grows in great perfusion and forms the habitat commonly called Alder Carr.

The tree has both sexes of flowers on it. The the male catkins resemble hazel catkins a little.

The female flowers develop a little later in the year, are smaller, cylindrical and are purplish brown in colour. The flowers are wind pollinated.

Fertile female flowers develop in to these small cones and they will often stay on the tree all winter, long after the seeds have dropped. The seeds themselves are distributed generally by floating on the water until they reach land.

These cones, which are quite unique for a deciduous tree, are quite often the defining feature in winter.

The Alder bears on its roots little nodules that contain a live bacterium which enable it to take soluble nitrogen salts out of the inert nitrogen of the air. Consequently, the spoil on which Alder grows is remarkably fertile.

Alder is rarely planted as it has little forestry value although wood turners quite like it because the wood is both strong yet easily worked.

12 February, 2011

Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis)

Just when it seems winter will never end and we enter another cold, bleak month in February we are suddenly reminded that things are changing and spring is just around the corner.

The most obvious sign is that the days are getting longer at quite a fast rate and the birds are beginning to sing again, some a bit tentative perhaps, but the signs are there.

For most of us, however, it is the appearance of the first spring flowers that tell us spring is on the way and these Snowdrops are now in flower everywhere.

Sadly, they are not really a native species being found mainly in central Europe but over the years they have become naturalised from garden escapes and now are found on banks, hedgerows and waysides across Dorset, especially in churchyards and near parks and gardens of our more 'stately' homes!

This little member of the Lily family is a particular favourite of ours in the Orchard family
and we look forward to them every spring.

11 February, 2011

Lombardy Poplar (Populus nigra 'Italica')

This line of Poplar trees is quite a landmark in Wareham and is quite typical of how Poplar's have been planted; a preference for rows and presumably this is to use them as a wind break or shelter belt?

There are three sorts of Poplar but this tall, elegant version is the most well known and most common. The Lombardy Poplar is not our native Poplar, the native tree is the Black Poplar but that is now quite unusual.

The Lombardy was introduced from Italy in about 1758. There are more male trees than female tress for some reason.

The bark starts smooth but as the tree ages it soon takes on a rugged appearance, quite often black at the base but much greyer higher up. The ruggedness helps lichens to readily colonise it.

The wood is virtually useless for timber as it is riddled with knots and that is probably why they usually get the chance to grow so big and tall.

Both in winter in silhouette like this or in summer dressed in shimmering pale green leaves, they are a lovely sight

10 February, 2011

Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria)

Hazel coppice can be one of the best habitats to find spring flowers and by April the woodland floor will be covered in yellow, white and blue from an array of species. However, if you go to a coppice now in February or possibly March you may be rewarded by the discovery of this rare and unique flower, Toothwort.

Toothwort is a parasitic plant that grows on the roots of trees and has a particular affinity to the Hazel. Because it is parasitic it does not need chlorophyll and so it is a creamy white colour tinged with purple. Those of you familiar with the Broomrape family will see a resemblance as they are also parasitic and are related.

This is a tiny flower, not easy to find and may be often overlooked but I am only aware of one site for it in Dorset and that is in the wooded slopes to the west of the DWT reserve at Stonehill Down.

09 February, 2011

Hazel (Corylus avellana)

Whilst we can't help but see the male Hazel catkin we often overlook the tiny female flower which appears on the same tree.

This is actually much more like a conventional flower as it contains the seed box. The red 'petals' are actually multiple stigmas that catch the pollen released by the Catkins of neighbouring trees. The pollen then fertilises the seeds which grow and develop in to the Hazel nut, a favourite food of the squirrel and, of course, the Dormouse which is why, if you are looking for Dormice, you should look in Hazel coppice!

The Hazel, of course, is rarely allowed to grow naturally. It has always been a favoured source of wood for hurdles, fencing, thatching spurs, charcoal, even chair-bodging! As a result Hazel was invariable coppiced and cut down to ground level so that it re-shoots multiple thin stems, ideal for these old country crafts.

These days these crafts have all but died out and so coppicing is not practised as it used to be and often it is either left to becoming overgrown and straggly or it is just cleared and burnt to allow other plants to prosper.

Hazel coppice is such a rich habitat; especially in spring, when primroses, wood anemones, violets, bluebells and so on all thrive on the coppice floor.

08 February, 2011

Hazel (Corylus avellana)

Spring is getting nearer and so we are now seeing the the familiar Hazel catkin or Lamb's Tail opening up having been present but tightly closed for most of the winter.

The Hazel is not the only tree to produce catkins, others do too, most noticeably the Alder and other members of the birch family like the Silver Birch.

The catkin is the male flower of the Hazel, its role is to produce pollen which is wind dispersed. The catkin does not produce the well known Hazel nut however, that develops from the totally separate female flower.

07 February, 2011

Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)

If you know the Isle of Purbeck you will know the Scots Pine.

The Scots Pine is a native British tree but is found only in its truly wild state in Scotland. Here in Dorset it was introduced for timber production and much of heathland was covered in it after WW2 and it has prospered. It so likes the habitat that it readily seeds and young trees can be seen sprouting up almost everywhere.

It is easy to identify the Scots Pine becuase the bark has a reddish brown rusty appearance, especially towards the top of the trunk.

The trunk grows straight and tall making it an ideal forestry product and the timber is used for telegraph poles, fencing, construction work, boxes, paper pulp and wood board. It was also used extensively for railway sleepers and pit props, the market for which has now all but disappeared so the demand for Scots Pine as a timber is reducing.

In common with other pines the leaves are the familiar needles, blueish green in colour. The twigs on which the leaves grow seem to be very brittle and prone to breaking easily, especially in strong winds.

As with all conifers the fruiting body comes in the form of a 'cone'. Partly this reason, and also that it is a native tree wildlife uses it, particularly in winter and it is the place to look for visiting Crossbill, Redpoll and Siskin during the winter months. If you stop to look underneath any Scots Pine you will often find ones that have been extensively chewed to get at the seeds and this is, usually anyway, the work of the Grey Squirrel.

In Dorset we are seeing extensive work to restore our precious heathland habitat and so many areas are being cleared of the Scots Pine. Indeed, at Arne people had the opportunity to 'pull a pine' for Christmas to remove newly , self seeded plants before they got too big. Elsewhere large areas are being felled and not replanted.

We may actually be witnessing the end of the Scots Pine in the area; good or bad? What effect will this have on the Squirrel population?

06 February, 2011

Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

Ladies and gentleman, our next guest tree needs no introduction from me! There can be no one, surely, who does not know the wonderfully elegant Silver Birch.

This tree is at its best in spring when dressed in a covering of light green fresh leaves but even in winter it has a certain delicacy about it.

In Dorset this is a very common tree on our wet heathland but it also occurs all over the County, especially, but not exclusively, where it is a bit damp. The Silver Birch freely self seeds and establishes itself. In some areas they have to be taken out to stop them dominating and overwhelming other forms of vegetation. They are one of our native trees and very good for wildlife in general.

The 'silver' bark is unique, it is the defining feature of this tree and makes identification possible from even quite a way off. On younger trees the bark is almost unblemished but as it grows larger and older so warty areas appear and that is why this is sometimes called the Warty Birch.

The Silver Birch grows quickly but has a fairly short life span of about thirty years. As it ages often the common Birch polypore fungus takes hold and the tree dies. The fungus itself is fascinating as it starts out brown on top and white underneath but as it dries out it takes on the same colouring and appearance as its host and you would think it was all part of the natural tree itself.

05 February, 2011

Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

What a wonderfully elegant tree a fully grown Beech is. Tall and dominating and lacking the gnarled twists and turns of the Oak. Apparently in the Cotswolds it is known as the 'Lady of the Woods'.

It took me while to find a Beech to photograph and, in the end, I had to make a short journey to Badbury Rings. I found it surprising to learn that the Beech is not commonly indigenous to Dorset and most of our specimens have been planted for specific purposes, often for protection as a wind break or for forestry production.

Some Beech trees have been pollarded and not allowed to develop this beautiful uplifting natural shape; instead becoming more spreading from the central crown point.

Up close and personal, the Beech has smooth bark with a silver-grey or even metallic appearance. It has slight horizontal lines. The bark is thin and the wood inside is hard and strong and of a bright buff colouring with brown flecks which make it a popular choice for furniture and is also a favourite with wood turners to make bowls and other items.

Profile and bark are all very well for identifying trees in winter but often the best way is to look on the ground under the tree for evidence. Dead leaves are often a give away but so too are the remains of the nuts. Beech 'mast' is unmistakable.

The woodland floor with dead leaves and mast is an ideal place to look for all sorts of wildlife from Squirrels and other mammals foraging, to birds looking under them for small insect and, of course, the insects, grubs and plants (mainly fungi) that feed on the litter itself.

Nothing like a bit of detective work!

04 February, 2011

Ash (Fraxinus execlsior)

The Ash is a fine, tall, upstanding member of the tree community. The main trunk reaches a point where it divides into many branches that go upwards rather than stretching outwards.

They are usually found in clusters too, rather than as occasional loan trees like the Oak. It is a widely distributed tree and can be found extensively in Dorset.

It is one of the last to get its leaves in spring and yet one of the earliest to shed its leaves in autumn.

Close up the bark has a distinctive 'ash' colouring. In its early years the bark is fairly smooth and has a more greyish green appearance but as the tree matures with age so these irregular ridged patterns form and the grey ashen colour becomes more distinctive.

The flowers appear well before the leaves on the Ash from dark black buds that can be seen on the twigs almost all winter. The flowers turn in to clusters of brown keys which often stay on the tree all winter and then fall to the ground in spring as the new flowers appear. The wind will then disperse them thanks to that 'wing' each has.

The twigs have the definite nobly appearance and tend to have a greenish tinge to them.

Ash is commonly harvested as it is used for tennis rackets, billiard cues, hockey sticks, oars, hurdles, tent pegs, tool handles and furniture.

03 February, 2011

Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robor)

There is not much to see this time of year and even less to photograph. However, I was out walking, looked across the open field and there was a tree standing tall and it occurred to me that my tree identification skills on a scale of 0 to 10 is about 1!

There are a lot tress around so I thought it time to put that to rights and where else to start than by getting to know the English Oak, the Pedunculate Oak.

In winter we do not have a lot to go on, leaves are often the best indicator of tree species but the silhouette of trees without leaves does vary and this rounded appearance with a solid trunk and major branches is indicative of the English Oak.

It is also one of our most common trees so they are not hard to find and large trees of this nature are only going to be one of a handful of species anyway.

There are three other oak trees, the Sessile which is a tree of parks, the Holm and the Turkey. The latter two are very different and cannot really be confused with the good old English Oak, they have acorns but the tree itself is quite different.

01 February, 2011

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosos)

OK! OK! This is not a good photograph, but the circumstance surrounding it are truly amazing in my view.

This is a photograph of one of the United Kingdom's rarest birds of prey, certainly as a breeding species. But that is not all; this photograph was taken in the middle of one of Dorset's largest towns, Weymouth. And that is not all; a pair of Marsh Harriers now breed in the middle of this large town!

Take a minute to think about that; this is actually one of the most surprising and encouraging successes for bird conservation in recent times. No breed and release scheme here. This is down to planning and careful habitat management to create the right conditions for this bird to thrive. I may be wrong, but the last time this was truly successful was probably in the 1980's at Minsmere and the recolonisation of our eastern marshland by the Avocet.

Both projects were the result of expert and excellent work by the RSPB and next, possibly this year, may be we well have Bitterns breeding in the middle of Weymouth too; how remarkable would that be?