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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!

30 January, 2016

Xylaria hypoxylon: the candle snuff fungus



I suppose that when we think of fungi we immediately have in our mind a picture of the classic mushroom shape; a round cap resting on a short stipe. Many fungi are, indeed, that shape, hence the nick-name of toadstool because they look like a stool and one that is low enough for a toad to sit on! In reality fungi fruiting bodies take various forms and this one, commonly known as candle snuff (Xylaria hypoxylon), is certainly living proof of that. It is easy to see why it is called candle-snuff because it does have the appearance of a burnt candle wick and, when a few days old, it can be quite powdery too, just like candle snuff. 
This is a very common species that can be found all year on dead wood, especially conifer stumps, but it is quite small and easily overlooked unless you take time to inspect any dead branches and tree stumps that you encounter.
It is not edible of course, it is too powdery and not big enough to justify making a meal out of it.
Xylaria hypoxylon: the candle snuff fungus

29 January, 2016

Red Twin-spot Carpet: lights out





Being a light sleeper it does not take a lot to disturb the red twin-spot carpet moth (Xanthorhoe spadicearia) from its day time slumbers. If you do wake one and it flutters to another spot to go back to sleep then following it can prove pretty tricky as they find a way of hiding very quickly! If you are fortunate enough to follow it then it is an ideal time to get a good look. 
The red twin-spot carpet is quite common and is found in bushes and hedges. They are not attracted to light and so seeing them during the day when disturbed is the best way to see them. They have two broods here in the south, the first flying from May to June and their off-spring are on the wing from Mid July until the end of August. The Geometrid moths are generally known as carpet moths, not because the larvae infest your carpet, but because they rest with their wings open and have lovely intricate designs, a bit like best Axminster or Wilton! 
This one give the distinct appearance of being primarily red in colour and it has two twin spots on the outer corner of each wing. That is why it is the red twin-spot carpet moth!
Red Twin-spot Carpet: lights out

28 January, 2016

Sheeps Sorrel: the sour weed





Where there are bare patches of ground on the heath, often alongside footpaths, or sparsely grassy places then you may well find sheep's sorrel (Rumex acetosella); it certainly thrives on acid soils. It is a common plant and where it occurs it is usually quite well established.
Sheep's sorrel is a member of the dock family and its maroon flowers quickly give way to red seeds and the whole plant takes on a reddish-brown hue giving the appearance of being withered and finished when actually it is still quite active. The leaves are shaped like an arrowhead and I recall, as a lad, we used to bite them to release a bitter taste, we called it the vinegar plant! It is apparently also known as sour weed and the taste comes from oxalic acid. It is a small plant, rarely growing to no more than a few inches tall. It is much smaller than its similar relative, common sorrel.
It seems to be well thought of as a medicinal herb and is used for anti-cancer therapy, as an anti-inflammatory agent, an anti-bacterial agent and immune system booster, an all round good egg it seems!
Sheeps Sorrel: the sour weed

27 January, 2016

Carrion Crow: top of the class





Rook or crow? Now there is a question that even quite experienced bird watchers can ask from time to time. Seen clearly it is no contest with the carrion crow (Corvus corone) a much sleeker looking bird than the rook and without the distinctive beak that the rook has.
There is an old saying and quite a true one; "One or two its a crow, many more they are rooks". Carrion crows can get together in groups but prefer to operate in pairs whereas you nearly always see large flocks of rooks. Indeed, in terms of life style the two similar looking birds are very different. The carrion crow is, as its name suggests a scavenger; picking at dead carcasses, clearing up people's picnics, harrying other birds who have food to make them drop it, and yes, they do take young birds from nests. Rooks, however, feed on invertebrates they find in soil.
Along the water front, at Baiter, in Poole they are much more successful than the gulls in finding a shell fish, flying up in to the air and dropping it on to the tarmac of the car park to break the shell. The gulls just have not twigged that you break more shells on tarmac than on grass, mud and stones! Clever chaps crows!
Carrion Crow: top of the class

26 January, 2016

Parsley-piert: breaking up stones





Identification of plants can be difficult at times but there are plants that are difficult to find before you actually even start to try and identify them! Parsley-piert (Aphanes arvensis) certainly falls in to this latter category. Whilst most plants have a flower to attract your attention and to give you a start with identification parsley-piert has tiny, petalless flowers with just green sepals visible under a hand lens. How often must one walk over it without even noticing its presence, it is not a rare plant as such.
On the plus side, though, it does tend to form dense patches which increases your chances of finding it. It has leaves resembling the garden herb, parsley, but it is not related as it is, remarkably, a member of the rose family. It favours dry, bare ground and can be found in fields and waste places.
There is also a close relative called slender parsley-piert which is very similar with just a difference in the fruits, again visible only with a hand lens. Parsley-piert favours lime soils, the slender cousin favours non-lime soils so that might help.
Herbalists consider this to be good for treating complaints of the liver and for removing stones from the body which gives it its other name parsley breakstone.
Parsley-piert: breaking up stones

25 January, 2016

Sarcophaga carnaria: the flesh fly





The flesh fly (Sarcophaga carnaria) is not a popular insect! It is a member of the group known as house flies and is frequently found around houses but rarely inside them. I suspect many people just do not like flies; they have a bad history I suppose.
There are several species of flesh fly and they are very similar but the most common is Sarcophaga carnaria and I am assuming that that is what this one is. The red eyes, speckled abdomen and large feet as well as their large size make them easily identifiable as a genus, even if not as a species.
This fly breeds in carrion and the female gives birth to young larvae rather than laying eggs which is quite unusual in insects.
Sarcophaga carnaria: the flesh fly

23 January, 2016

Chlorociboria aeruginascens: the green elf cup fungus





When walking in old woodland with lots of fallen branches and twigs you may encounter a piece of rotting wood with a metallic green appearance. It is easy to pass this by thinking it is just natural colouration but it is, in fact, produced by a fungus, Chlorociboria aeruginascens. The fungus does produce fruiting 'cups' later in the year although these are small and rarely seen and, of course, the fungus itself which lives inside the rotting timber may not be seen until the wood starts to break up. 
The Chlorociboria fungus particularly infects oak and the resulting effect is sometimes called green oak  and is used in marquetry and other wood working techniques to give a green/blue appearance to the finished product. This is very common, often over looked, and sometimes not visible but it worth keeping an eye out for as it looks really lovely, especially in good light.
I think you might break your teeth if you tried to eat it! 
Chlorociboria aeruginascens: the green elf cup fungus

22 January, 2016

Orange Underwing: breaking the myths





Some moths break all the assumptions we make about them. Moths fly by night? No, not true. Several species fly by day and the orange underwing (Archiearis parthenias) is one you can find on bright sunny days. Again, moths are summer insects? No, not true either. There are moths that can be found in the middle of winter as they have a form of anti-freeze in their blood and the orange underwing is found in March and April even before spring really gets underway. Moths are drab coloured insects? Totally untrue. Many species disprove this but when the fairly dull coloured top wings of the orange underwing part slightly they reveal the most glorious golden orange on the underwings; its is called the orange underwing after all!  
Despite flying by day and being widespread and locally common in Britain the orange underwing is actually rarely seen as it generally flies around the tops of trees but occasionally they can be seen at ground level as it friskily flies. I was lucky to find this one at rest on the ground so was able to photograph it. They favour birch but also visit sallow blossom and late Marchand early April is certainly the time for that.


Orange Underwing: breaking the myths

21 January, 2016

Bog Pondweed: the floating voter





Stop and look into any pool formed on the Dorset heathlands and you may well see bog pondweed (Potamogeton polygonifolius) growing. Pondweeds are quite common on still water and here are various species but, as the name suggests, bog pondweed is the one you are most likely to see growing in acid water and that means, in Dorset, on the heaths.
The leaves mainly float on the surface of the water but some occasionally protrude above and others remain submerged. I suspect varying water levels due to rainfall and evaporation may have something to do with this. It can survive if the water disappears completely and you can encounter it on muddy surfaces with no water present. The leaves look dead and over because, although they start green they quickly turn to their natural colour, reddish brown (that probably comes from the chemistry of the water). The leaves are narrow and pointed witch also helps distinguish it from its most common relative, broad-leaved pondweed. The flowers appear on spikes that emerge from the water above the leaves; these too are reddish brown in colour. They look a bit like plantain flowers and have no petals. 
This plant can sometimes be found in garden ponds provided the water is acidic enough but it can be quite invasive so I would not seek to try and encourage it in our pond!
Bog Pondweed: the floating voter

20 January, 2016

Pheasant: cannon fodder





I am not sure if any 'wild bird' survey or count should include the pheasant, it is not a natural British species after all. They are an Asian species that seems to have been introduced for food all over Europe and the British Isles by the Romans. That means they have been here c2000 years so they are now pretty British I suppose. However, If they were not bred specifically for 'sport' then there would be no pheasants here at all. It is only because they are farmed and habitat is managed for them that they survive. 
What I find distressing is the practice of some gamekeepers of killing all possible predators of young pheasants so that people can pay for the 'pleasure' of doing it. How many birds of prey are illegally poisoned because they might have an impact on farmed pheasant numbers?

There seem to be less pheasants in Dorset than where we used to live in Hampshire. On the main road from our village to the nearest town you would see countless dead pheasants killed by cars and yet the local gamekeepers would complain that they lost pheasants to foxes and buzzards! Hypocricy rules it seems!


Pheasant: cannon fodder

19 January, 2016

Bugloss: true blue





Whilst many of us will be familiar with the common viper's-bugloss we may not be so with plain and simple bugloss (Anchusa arvensis). The two species are not closely related with bugloss being a lungwort whilst the viper's-bugloss is an echium; both are sub-groups of the borage family, boraginacaea.
Bugloss is very much an arable weed and is far less common that it once was due to modern herbicides, indeed it is considered an obnoxious weed in some quarters and has been singled out for attack. It is often found close to the sea and I have only found it on neglected farmland at Holton Lee near the shore of Poole Harbour. Viper's-bugloss is a flower of scrubby and bare calcareous soils. Bugloss has bright blue flowers with white 'honey guides' and can be seen in flower from April to September. It is short plant rarely growing more than a foot tall. 
Sadly I have not been able to find out much else about this species. 
Bugloss: true blue

18 January, 2016

Stratiomys potamida: the banded general soldier fly





This striking yellow and black fly looked to me like a wasp-impersonating hoverfly when I first saw it but it turned out to be neither! It is just a fly despite that bold appearance. It is one of the family called soldier flies because of the smart uniform they wear. This species was recently given the common name of the banded general (Stratiomys potamida). Its larvae feed on algae and rotting vegetable matter in very damp areas so you will often find the fly itself in similar habitat, either on the ground laying eggs or perhaps nectaring on nearby umbellifer flowers such as Hemlock-water Dropwort, Hogweed and Angelica.
Seen from June until early September this certainly a species of southern England but it is not common. My reference book, "Insects of Britain and Ireland" by Paul Brock suggests that it has been becoming more frequent since the 1970's and it will be interesting to see how it fairs given the general decline in insects in recent years.
One of three similar species so one needs a careful eye to distinguish which one, the 'eye' that helped me with this one was the amazing I-Spot website!
Stratiomys potamida: the banded general soldier fly

16 January, 2016

Aleuria aurantia: the orange peel fungus:





If ever a fungi had a truly descriptive English or common name it must surely be this one, the orange peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia); it looks exactly like orange peel dropped by a passer by. It is quite common and is usually found in large clusters on bare soil alongside paths and roadsides in woody areas in late summer and early autumn. It also appears in grassy areas some times.
The cup size can vary considerably and can be as little as .5cm and up to 10cms, that is about 4 inches! It is easy to be confused by this variation and one might think they are different species but the only British alternative is the scarlet elf cup but that is a much deeper red, well scarlet actually!
Said to be edible but I do not think it tastes like an orange.
Aleuria aurantia: the orange peel fungus:

15 January, 2016

Six-spot Burnet: crimson beauty





The vivid metallic coloured six-spot burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae) emerges in July and can be seen their millions, by day, across Dorset. No, I have not counted them but I assure that is no exaggeration - just visit the flower meadows at Durlston and you will be staggered by how many there are in that place alone. They can be seen all along the coastal grasslands, along the north Dorset chalk hills and on the Purbeck heaths. 
Whilst there are other moths in the family it is hard to mistake the six-spot burnet for anything other than the much rarer five-spot burnet. The forewings have a dark slate coloured background with six red spots usually clearly visible but some times the two at the 'shoulder' are fused together giving the appearance of having just five spots which can be misleading (mistaken as a five-spot burnet perhaps). The rear wings are bright red with a slate grey border. 
Whilst happy to feed on many flowers, their first loves are knapweed and scabious. The eggs, however, are laid on birds-foot trefoil and other leguminous plants on which the larvae feed before they transfer to a grass stem, climb up it and pupate. If you find six-spot burnet moths take a look at the surrounding grass and you will find their empty cocoons.


Six-spot Burnet: crimson beauty

14 January, 2016

Bog Myrtle: the sweet gale





The Internet can share words, photographs, video and sound but sadly not smell (well, not yet anyway). So, I can share this photo with you and write some words about it but I cannot share the scent of bog myrtle (Myrica gale). I cannot pass this shrubby plant without nipping a bud, seed head or leaf off of it, then crushing it and sniffing the wonderful aroma of pine, it so strong. It also quite distinctive and is its main feature.
I doubt my photo, which is of the ripening seeds, will be flagged as a favourite by anyone. This is not a particularly beautiful plant; in fact it is a bit plain and boring with flowers that are hardly discernible, very small catkins that appear in April and May before the greyish, oval leaves subsequently come out.
As its name implies, it can be found in boggy areas on any low lying, damp, acid heathland. It forms quite large colonies, one is unlikely to find one individual plant. 


Bog Myrtle: the sweet gale

13 January, 2016

Kestrel: the windhover





I have led a number of walks in my time and the question I get asked most is than 'What was that?' and it is usually followed by 'How do you know?'. New people to nature watching often place their entire emphasis on plumage 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.


Kestral: the windhover

12 January, 2016

Wild Onion: crow garlic





Anyone who has grown onions in their garden will probably recognise this flower immediately, the wispy little florets growing from what appears to be a cluster of seeds; once pollinated they do, indeed, become seeds of course. All the onion (or allium) family have flowers like this and the wild onion (Allium vineale) is no exception. After ramsons, the wild garlic, the wild onion is the most likely member of the family to be encountered in the countryside. It grows in bare or sparsely grassed places and can be a real problem in agricultural settings if it gets established as it can give cereal crops around it the taste and smell of garlic; ready made garlic bread perhaps?
This is also commonly known as crow garlic, indeed two of my reference books call it that, the other three settle on wild onion. Wikipedia uses wild onions to reference all members of the family that grow wild and uses crow garlic for this particular species. Whilst edible it is not considered suitable for human consumption like cultivated garlic as it is much stronger in flavour and does tend to spread its aroma about!
Wild Onion: crow garlic

11 January, 2016

Mesembrina meridiana: the noon day fly





Although this fly is categorised along with the group known as house flies Mesembrina meridiana is unlikely to be found in houses. Instead, it prefers sunbathing whilst tucking in to a meal of nectar from umbellifer flowers (Hogweed, Cow Parsley, Wild Angelica, etc) or, later in the year when these are mostly over, Ivy. This habit of sunbathing gives it its nickname of the noon day fly.
This is a large fly which is quite distinctive because of the orange/brown colouring at the top of the wings. It is mainly black all over otherwise. 
Like most flies their life cycle is pretty unpleasant when viewed through human eyes. It lays its eggs in cow dung, each egg in a different pat. The larvae are carnivorous and feed on the larvae of other insect species that are, in turn, feeding on the dung. By only laying one egg in each pat it ensures that they do not eat each other. That may make Mesembrina meridiana a bit of a dirty character but that is life in the insect world! It may be something of a rogue but I think it a strangely attractive one!


Mesembrina meridiana: the noon day fly

09 January, 2016

Calocera viscosa: the yellow stagshorn fungus





There is so much in the natural world that is small and so often missed. I decided to take a walk and look specifically for fungi, although I find them very hard to identify. I set off for Sandford Woods, near Wareham, which is predominantly natural Scots Pine and under conifers is usually a good place for fungi. With this in mind I looked closely at fallen branches and tree stumps and, amongst the mosses and lichens that colonise these places I found this, the Yellow Stagshorn fungus (Calocera viscosa).
Now Calocera viscosa is not uncommon, in fact it is very common everywhere but particularly on pine stumps. It may not be uncommon but it is small. These 'tongues' stand less than an inch tall and, despite their bright orange colour, are easily missed if you are not looking closely. This shows too, the advantage of magnified photography as it reveals detail and beauty that is otherwise easily missed. This also illustrates that not all fungi have the familiar toadstool shape and when you look closely you find all sorts of strange and wonderful things.


Calocera viscosa: the yellow stagshorn fungus

08 January, 2016

Mother Shipton: the old witch





This is one of several moth species that only fly by day. It is called Mother Shipton (Callistege mi) but why on earth would a moth be called Mother Shipton?  You need to look very closely at the dark patch on each fore wing, use your imagination and you will see the face of an old hag - long nose, pointed chin, black eye; can you see it? The original Mother Shipton was a 16th century witch! 
Mother Shipton is one of two common day flying moths that you can see on downland and other grassy places across Dorset from May until July, the other is the burnet companion which is similar in many ways so care needs to be taken. Flying by day they can easily be mistaken for a butterfly, especially the dingy skipper, until you see them at rest like this and then they look just like ... a butterfly!
The larvae feed mainly on plants of the pea family and so areas rich in clovers, vetches and the like are the most likely places to find the adults. They are very active insects, always alert and sensitive to movement, so you need to be very careful in your approach. 


Mother Shipton: the old witch

07 January, 2016

Bog Asphodel: golden stars





In July and on in to early August the boggy areas of the Purbeck heaths are brightened by the golden yellow flowers of the bog asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum), as they bring much needed colour to the otherwise drab appearance of this landscape as we await the carpets of purple from the heathers. A member of the lily family they have star shaped flowers with six points which are arranged in spikes. The flowers are golden yellow with a touch of orange to start, the plants turns orange as it ages and goes to seed.
Bog asphodel is not uncommon in the right habitats which, in Dorset, are damp heathland and bogs, elsewhere they can be found on the moors of the north country where it some times known as moor asphodel. Where it occurs it can be quite prolific and can form a lovely sight as they grow and flower together. 
Bog Asphodel: golden stars

06 January, 2016

Wigeon: whistle down the wind





Another common duck on the shores of Dorset in winter is the wigeon (Anas penelope). Breeding in the far north a good number, thousands in fact, come this far south arriving from October onwards before heading back north again in March and April.
Wigeon are lovely little ducks, multicoloured with a yellow forehead on a maroon head but, from a distance, it is the white in the wing and tail that shows up.
The males make a gentle whistling noise which is nothing like a traditional duck 'quack'. Quite often you will hear them before you see them.
Always in large flocks, more often on fresh water than saline and frequently seen grazing on land you will find wigeon on the Fleet, in Poole Harbour and Christchurch Harbour as well as other places like Radipole and Lodmore.
Wigeon: whistle down the wind

05 January, 2016

Pale Persicaria: always read the label





The persicarias are members of the dock family and include common weeds such as redleg (or redshank as was) and water-pepper. Pale persicaria (Persicaria lapathifolia) is much like these two species but perhaps less common being a lover of rich soils. Indeed, this does not seem to be a common species in Dorset at all, probably because in the heathlands and on the calcareous soils the earth will not be rich enough for it. It also, apparently, is not a good competitor and so would struggle to survive against more dominant heathers and grasses that one would find in these common Dorset environments.
It is a much bushier plant and the flowers are paler cream or white, with just a tinge of pink, compared to the other two and the flowers often tend to droop over under their own weight when fully developed. It lacks the intense red stem that redleg has; a much paler plant in stem and flower hence, as its label implies, 'pale' persicaria.

Pale Persicaria: always read the label

04 January, 2016

Crane Fly: Tipula oleracea

If you think identifying little brown birds is difficult, there are far more taxing issues! And once you have sorted out common milkwort from chalk milkwort have a go at crane flies ... Tipula oleracea has 13 segments in its antennae and Tipula paludosa has 14! Otherwise they are 'very alike'. 

The thing is, though, that physical features are not the only guide to identification and we often forget that. Tipula oleracea is around between April and October and Tipula paludosa from, errr, April to October. However, Tipula oleracea is abundant in May and June whereas Tipula paludosa is abundant in the autumn. As a result, as I photographed this one in May I can be fairly certain that this is Tipula oleracea and not Tipula paludosa even though I cannot clearly see the number of segments in the antennae. If anyone wishes to query my judgement then go ahead but be sure of your facts!
 
Actually, Tipula oleracea is slightly bigger than its cousin because the wings are the same length as the body, in Tipula paludosa the wings are shorter than the body. This is not always obvious in the field but in my photograph you can see the wings are the same length as the body even though they are outstretched so Tipula oleracea it is.



Crane Fly: Tipula oleracea