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Showing posts from March, 2014

One swallow may not make a summer but it makes my spring!

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All right, one swallow (Hirundo rustica) does not make a summer but at least seeing the first one each year does constitute a further sign that spring is with us. For me it is a turning point in the calendar; after not seeing them for six months or so suddenly there they are! Just where did they come from?  I saw and photographed this one at Radipole Lake on the

Palmate newt: putting its foot in it

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There are three species of British newt, the great crested, the smooth and the palmate. The great crested has a great crest, the smooth newt is smooth, so what about the palmate newt (Triturus helveticus); why palmate? Time to turn to my dictionary again for a specific definition of palmate: "of the feet; having three toes connected by webbing". That says it all really, now we know why it is the palmate newt; if you look at the hind feet of the male

The wood ant passes the acid test

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It only recently dawned on me that ants are related to bees and wasps, they are all of the order hymenoptera. One would think that they have little in common with their more air born cousins and, in appearance at least, that is possibly true in that they look very different to the most familiar species of wasps and bees that we might see. A closer look, though, reveals a resemblance to some species of solitary bee and digger wasps. This is most noticeable in the wood ant (Formica rufa) because

Colts-foot: Its not the cough that carries you off its the coffin they carry you off in

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March is all about looking for signs of spring as far as I am concerned. After those long bleak winter months with little of interest to see, the anticipation of spring bursting upon us in April just seems too long to wait and so March is full of expectation. Actually there is not always that much sign of life in March so little hints of spring lift the spirit and what signs there are are more visible because of lack of competition from other species. So it is with colt's-foot (Tussilago farfara); the bright yellow flowers

Chuffed to hear the chiffchaff

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I usually reckon to hear my first chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) on, or just after, the 15th March each year; they are suddenly there in the bare branches of the trees calling their repetitive "chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff "song. I am always pretty chuffed when I first hear them as they are one of the heralds of spring for me but after a while they are quickly taken for granted and I look for 'more interesting' things! The chiffchaff is usually back here a good

Adding soft shield fern to the armoury

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In researching and writing about ferns in my nature notes I noticed a tendency for ferns to be named after armour! There is male-fern which seems to have derived its name from chain mail and the buckler ferns where a buckler is a shield buckled to the forearm. So now I have soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum) for which I can find no notes about the origin of the name but the fern is undoubtedly shield shaped so I presume that is why it is a shield fern. The soft shield fern has soft fronds, there is a hard shield fern which are stiffer and

Slow-worm? It is neither slow or a worm

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As I have said before in my nature notes common English names can be very misleading. The slow-worm (Anguis fragilis) is obviously not a worm at all, it is not even a snake, it is a lizard. Despite its lack of legs it is a lizard and it can move very quickly when it needs to. It lives much of the time under ground and so legs would just get in the way and it can move much more effectively in its environment without them. It is because they live in the soil they are

Droning on and on about Eristalis tenax

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The drone fly (Eristalis tenax) is one of our most common insects and yet one of our most unrecognised. As its nick-name, drone, suggests it is an exceptionally effective mimic of the male hive bee or drone but it is, in fact, a hoverfly.  This insect is one of the first to be seen in early spring and one of the last to disappear in the late Autumn. Adults hibernate in any suitable outdoor crevice and

Dent-de-lion: the common dandelion

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You can probably find a dandelion (Taraxacum agg.) in flower at just about any time of year but it is March when they seem to burst upon us in great numbers and to many, along with daisies, are an absolute pest making a mess of our lawns, verges, parks, churchyards and open grassy places! Dandelions, however, are a vitally important flower as they form the basic food source for many of our early emerging insects. Find a patch of dandelions and take a look; many

The wheatear won't stay here

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During the spring thousands and thousands of birds pass through Dorset as they return from the far south to their breeding grounds across the United Kingdom. Many go unseen, they do not stop as there is an urgency and a drive to get 'home'. The autumn is a little different, many stop off here for a final meal before setting off across the Channel on their long journey to their winter quarters. One of the first to arrive in spring is

Summing up the adder

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I guess if there is one species of British wildlife that will strike fear into people then it has to be the adder (Vipera berus)! Not only is it a snake (and many people love to hate snakes), it is a poisonous snake. Now I am not going to pretend the adder is a harmless creature and I treat them with respect as anyone should, but I never see reports of people being bitten by them. Here in the Purbeck area of Dorset the adder is probably as 'common' as it is anywhere and if people were being bitten by them we would know about it. If anything it is uncontrolled dogs that are most likely to

The brimstone butterfly: bucking the trend

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The brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni)is unique in several ways. Firstly, it has an almost unpronounceable and unspellable scientific name, Gonepteryx rhamni!  Secondly, its larvae feed exclusively on alder buckthorn and purging buckthorn which are generally found in open chalk downland areas and yet the brimstone is plentiful here in Purbeck where these buckthorns are not common. They are frequent visitors to our garden where there is certainly no buckthorn at all and it is believed that

Roses are red, sweet violets are blue ...

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Well, that is a quite easy distinction between two totally unrelated plants but what about telling sweet violets (Viola odorata) from the other species of violets often seen? That is a very different issue because they all look "violet-like"! In reality it is not that complicated as there are only four species of violet commonly encountered in the wild and so there is not that many to choose from.  The first and most obvious clue to identification comes

Is the blackcap coming or going?

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It may not be a common sight but a blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) in gardens in winter is certainly not unusual. Now to me the blackcap is a welcome summer visitor to our woodlands and hedgerows. Its lovely, intense, warbling song is one of the highlights of spring each year. Frequently the song will be heard but the bird will be difficult to spot as it often sings from the among leaf canopy; a real poor man's nightingale! It is also a bit of a fidget and

Say hello to Daphne for me!

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In our garden we have a shrub, a daphne, that is in full flower and has been for about three weeks now. Today (9th March 2014) it has been visited by at least four small tortoiseshells, two red admirals and a peacock. Not only these butterflies but also buff-tailed bumble-bees, honey bees, a hoverfly (Eristalis tenax) and, most surprisingly perhaps, a humming-bird hawk-moth. Also a regular visitor to the garden today, but not to daphne, a brimstone butterfly.
Now I do not write this as an attempt to show off and to say how great our garden is, wildlife gardening is not, despite what some think, a competitive sport! No,

Stourpaine and the Trailway

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The track of the long-since abandoned Somerset and Dorset railway line has been renovated to provide a footpath and cycleway along the Stour Valley in North Dorset. Depending on your physical capabilities you can walk (or cycle of course) from Sturminster Newton to Blandford Forum, about ten miles. Partly because that is far too much for us these days and, in any event, to enjoy the nature you need to walk quite slowly, we tend to walk it in short stretches and one such stretch runs from

A right royal fern!

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I have been unable to track down why this fern should be called the 'Royal Fern', the best suggestion seems to be that it is due to its imposing size and stature. There is no reason why this should not be the case, of course, but it would have been far more interesting if King Peter the first had hidden behind one to avoid capture by elephants! What is interesting I suppose is that the royal fern (Osmunda regalis)may have derived its Latin name

Common Frog: The spawn of a new day

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There can be very few of us who did not watch common frog (Rana temporaria) spawn turn in to small frogs in our school days. It was many years ago now but I remember quite clearly a fish tank in the corner of our classroom at primary school with developing frogs in it. We watched as the spawn hatched in to tadpoles and then as the tadpoles grew legs and developed towards being mature frogs. One day the tank was gone! Our teacher

The down to earth buff-tailed bumble-bee

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One of the first insects to be seen in spring each year is the humble bumble-bee, Bombus terrestris. Also known as the buff-tailed bumble-bee the name can be misleading as it is not the only bumblee-bee with a buff tail! However, the two honey coloured bands, one on the thorax and one on the abdomen help you

Lesser Celandine: reflections of spring sunshine

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You can find small numbers of lesser celandines (Ranunculus ficaria) in flower in sheltered spots from Christmas onwards but it is in March that they begin to appear in greater profusion in the Dorset countryside. By the begining of April there will be carpets of them on banks, in woodlands, along hedgerows, on river sides, in fact all over the place. Their bright, cheery faces glow and glisten in the spring sunlight and are they another reminder of the transformations

The black redstart starts back off home

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As the spring equinox approaches we begin to anticipate the return to our shores of birds that left us the previous autumn to spend the winter in a warmer climate. By April that stream of migrant birds coming in off the sea each day is in full flow as they return for the breeding season. What we often forget is that there is an exodus from here going on at the same time as birds that came here for the