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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!

29 February, 2016

Chloromyia formosa: the broad centurion soldier fly





If you take the trouble to look you will find this little fly, the broad centurion soldier fly (Chloromyia formosa) sunbathing on the leaves of hedgerow plants in summer. They are also often seen feeding on the pollen from hogweed in late summer. It is a wonderful metallic green that glistens in the sun. The male has a bronze sheen to the abdomen whereas the female has a more bluish colouring.
One of a family commonly known as soldier flies because of their bright colouring supposedly resembling military uniforms this one has been named the broad centurion. It has a flattened body with a square 'tail' end. 
Eggs are laid on leaves and the leaves fall in autumn where the larvae emerge the following spring and feed on leaf litter and other material in damp ground. This means they have a preference for wetter areas around woodland edges and hedges which have ditches and that is where you find the adult fly sunbathing.
Chloromyia formosa: the broad centurion soldier fly

28 February, 2016

Auricularia auricula-judae: the Jews ear





The scientific name of the this strange fungus is Auricularia auricula-judae which means "like a Jew's ear". These days however, it seems this description is not politically correct and so I hear it now being referred to as jelly-ear fungus and wood ear fungus instead; the Latin scientific name remains the same. 
 
Whilst most common, like many fungi, in the autumn you can find Jelly-ear all year round growing in various types of dead soft wood but it has a particular preference for elder. It is only brown, soft and supple when it first emerges, it soon hardens and turns black.
 
Very common and edible too; it is the primary edible fungus of Chinese cooking. It is also widely used in Chinese herbal medicine as a cure for all manner of sores and scars but its use in Europe for such purposes ended long ago.

Auricularia auricula-judae: the Jews ear

27 February, 2016

Yellow Oat-grass: chalk it up





Yellow oat-grass (Trisetum flavescens) is primarily a species of limestone grassland and so its stronghold in Dorset is, not surprisingly then, the Purbeck cliffs and ridge-way and here it is quite common. It can be found on chalk grasslands too.
Although quite distinctly a member of the oat family its flower head remains fairly upright whereas in the wild oat species the flower/seed heads are found at the end of horizontal thing stems. These flowers heads have a yellow, almost golden, tinge even when new which gives it is common name of course. It is a medium height grass growing to about two feet tall in loose tufts (ie: several stems from a single root) and it has a single, long thin leaf that bends away from the main stem.
Growing on calcareous soils it absorbs some of the calcium into its structure and this makes it toxic to livestock who, in turn, can absorb excess amounts of calcium into their organs which causes various health problems.
Yellow Oat-grass: chalk it up

26 February, 2016

Callimorpha dominula: the scarlet tiger moth





This impressive moth, the scarlet tiger (Callimorpha dominula), is a species that flies freely by day and, when you find it, you will usually find it in large numbers. The pattern on the wings can, as in some other tiger moths, be quite variable.
The scarlet tiger is very much a moth of river banks, water meadows, marshy areas and sea cliffs. It is not found very often, it is a very local species and seems confined to south and western Britain. The lush vegetation along Dorset rivers such as the Frome and Stour are good places to find them. Single brooded, they fly on sunny days in June and July. They lay their eggs on waterside plants such as comfrey, meadowsweet, hemp-agrimony and so on as well as nettles and brambles.
Finding scarlet tigers is one of the thrills of wildlife watching!
Callimorpha dominula: the scarlet tiger moth

25 February, 2016

Mossy Stonecrop: the bare necessities





Stonecrops grow in dry places; they especially favour rocks and walls and, indeed, some members of the family are popular plants in garden rockeries. Mossy stonecrop (Crassula tillaea), however, grows and bare sandy patches of soil on heathland. It can occasionally be found growing on the bare, well trodden and baked ground of footpaths where nothing else can grow as it is too weak to tolerate any completion for resources.
Mossy stonecrop does actually look like a moss so it is well named. A tiny, prostrate and spreading out across the ground from its central root it forms something of a mat on the ground, much like some species of mosses can do. The whole plant is red in colour and it gives the appearance of being dead and shrivelled up even when in full flower! The flowers are very small and not really discernible without magnification.
Originally a plant of Mediterranean climates it was once quite rare here in Britain but it seems to be spreading and can be found in car parks (non-tarmaced ones of course) and on caravan sites. Away from artificial sites like these the Dorset heaths are a likely place to find it.
Mossy Stonecrop: the bare necessities

24 February, 2016

Raven: on the up





I have seen many changes in my many years of birding and one of them is undoubtedly the rise in numbers of ravens (Corvus corax) in recent years. It is not that long ago that I had never seen a raven and now when I am out and about on the Dorset coast I usually see them and occasionally they are seen at inland sites, especially on the north Dorset downs.
They can be a bit difficult to distinguish from carrion crows at first but they are significantly bigger and have 'fingered' wing ends. They also have a definite 'croak' call which they are more than happy to use! That call is often the first thing you notice; you hear it, look up and there is the raven overhead.
Like all the crow family (corvids) they are very intelligent birds and this can show itself in a variety ways. There are also lots of superstitions surrounding them too, and they feature in various folk tales and folk songs. 
Whilst rarely seen in great numbers during the day they do congregate in to communal roosts at night and in some areas of the country I know they can be together in huge numbers. Anyone know of a communal roost in Dorset? 
Raven: on the up

23 February, 2016

Wavy Bittercress: this way and that





Although they may not know the name all gardeners will be familiar with the rampant little weed, hairy bittercress. This species I am featuring is its cousin, the wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa). Although its appearance is not disimmilar there are many reasons why you should joot confuse the two.
Firstly, wavy bittercress is a bigger, stronger plant than the much smaller hairy variety. Wavy bittercress grows in damp woodland areas, often on muddy paths, whereas hairy bittercress is a weed of cultivated ground hence its presence in gardens in profusion! Finally, and it is the origin of its common name, the stem of wavy bittercress zig-zags from side to side turning in a different direction at each leaf joint.
This is a member of the cabbage family and can be used as a salad garnish but you would need an awful lot of it to make a meal.
Wavy Bittercress: this way and that

22 February, 2016

Lucilla caesar: the greenbottle





So flies are not everyone's favourite creatures but, even if you despise them, just take a moment to have a close look at the greenbottle (Lucilla caesar). The shiny metallic green colouring is, in my view at least, amazing. You can even see my reflection in this one as I creep up on it to take its photo! Look at those amazing big brown eyes too, nearly 10% of this insects body are eyes. 
Great sunbathers on walls and fences the greenbottle rarely comes in to our houses and I confess that it is not the most tasteful of insects. Frequently seen on dung of all kinds, especially dog's, and then seen on blackberries. Do you like to pick the odd blackberry to eat as you stroll along a country path?  It lays its eggs in carrion and the larvae, we know them as maggots, are a key part of the recycling process.
 
There are various similar species but, as far as I can tell from the pattern of veins in the wing, this is the commonest, Lucilla caesar.


Lucilla caesar: the greenbottle

21 February, 2016

Silver Hair-grass: hallmark of a fine grass





I will get the obvious 'funny' out of the way first; this species is not silver-hair grass, a form of cannabis for older people, it is silver hair-grass (Aira caryophyllea).
Hair-grasses are so called because the branches that the florets appear on are exceedingly fine, just like hair. In the case of silver hair-grass the whole plant has a silvery colouring as it glistens in the sun but close up it has something of a purple tinge to it. Flowering from May until July it is fairly short grass a that grows on dry, bare patches on sandy or gravelly soils. When the flowers are over they turn white.
It is a very delicate plant and getting a good photograph of it has escaped me so far. 
Silver Hair-grass: hallmark of a fine grass

20 February, 2016

Hyphodontia sambuci; the elder whitewash





Elder whitewash fungus (Hyphodontia sambuci) is a member of a group of fungi known as the resupinates. These fungi tend to leave an external crusty layer on the surface of the infected wood. This particular species displays what you might call a white rot on decaying timber, especially but not exclusively, the soft wood of elder; and always broad-leaved woods, not conifers. If you create a wildlife wood pile in your garden it is pretty likely this fungus, or one of a similar nature,  will soon set to work on it to break it down. It is a very common species seen in woods everywhere.
Is is edible? What do you think? 
Hyphodontia sambuci; the elder whitewash

19 February, 2016

Cinnabar Moth: Jacobs poison





The cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae) is a member of the tiger-moth family that flies late at night but you do frequently see them during the day, they are easily disturbed. They fly from late May until July and the caterpillars will appear on common ragwort (Scenecio jacobaea) in August so little wonder that the cinnabar moth is named Tyria jacobaeae; the Tyria of the common ragwort.
The adult moth is a fantastic metallic black and red colour and the caterpillars are the familar yellow and brown hooped caterpillars that feed on, and entirely strip, ragwort plants in late summer. Ragwort is a plant poisonous to cattle and the insect takes up that poison which makes them decidedly unpalatable to birds and other predators giving some immunity to attack. However, our modern day obsession with ragwort pulling means they are not as common as they once were.


Cinnabar Moth: Jacobs poison

18 February, 2016

Marsh Lousewort: the red rattle





Whilst marsh lousewort (Pedicularis palustris) has much in common with its relative, the common lousewort, it also has some distinct differences and so should be quite distinguishable if found. It is generally found far less frequently that the common lousewort. 
Marsh lousewort grows somewhat taller than its cousin, even growing to two feet tall in exceptional circumstances and is an erect plant whereas common lousewort is low growing and sprawling. The flowers of marsh lousewort are a much deeper colour, more red than pink and that redness gives rise to its other name, red rattle. Finally, the marsh lousewort likes much wetter conditions that the dampness favoured by common lousewort. Flowering from May right through until September look for marsh lousewort in marshes and fens. It has less of a preference for the acidic conditions favoured by common lousewort which also helps to separate them. 
Like common lousewort it is a semi-parasitic plant, using various grasses as its host for nutrition, as well as fending for itself.
Marsh Lousewort: the red rattle

17 February, 2016

Rook: all mouth and trousers





If you want to know the difference between a rook (Corvus frugilegus) and a crow then look at the beak! The rook has a distinctive 'bony' look to its beak where as the carrion crow has a totally black, smooth beak. Another noticeable difference between the two is that the rook is much more untidy in appearance and has baggy short trousers! The crow is a much more sleek creature all round.
Rooks are very gregarious and are rarely seen in small numbers. They are often found in large flocks feeding on the ground in fields and numbers are frequently boosted by the presence of their cousins, jackdaws. It is difficult to know whether the jackdaws tag along with the rooks or whether the rooks like the company of jackdaws. Whichever way, mixed flocks of well over five hundred are quite common and when they take to the sky the noise can be deafening!
By February rooks are already thinking about nesting and can be seen circling around their favoured nesting site, or rookery. Again, being social birds, they nest in colonies and I can't imaging what it is like to live near a rookery! Is there any peace with their seemingly constant raucous calls? 
Rook: all mouth and trousers

16 February, 2016

Wood Dock: not bloody likely





You can find wood dock (Rumex sanguineus) just about anywhere there it is shade from trees. This is, of course, mainly in woodland habitats but it freely occurs along hedgerows where trees create shade. It is the only dock one is likely to find in these conditions. It has a preference for heavy, damp soils.
It is a much more delicate plant than the other common dock species which tend to be sturdy, significant plants. Wood dock grows to about about two feet tall and the leaves tend to be only on the lower levels of the stems. The flower spikes occur ion June and July but because they are red in colour similar to the reddish brown seed heads it can give the impression of flowering longer.
Sanguineus means "resembling or containing blood" which is a bit odd as I have never noticed anything of the sort in plants I have seen. There is a garden variety called the blood-vein dock which has red veins in the leaves which has the latin name  Rumex sanguineus var sanguineus.
Wood Dock: not bloody likely

15 February, 2016

Tipula paludosa: the autumn crane fly





In autumn countless 'Daddy-long-legs' appear; they all seem to hatch about the same time in one huge awakening. Tipula paludosa is probably the most common species of crane fly in Britain, especially in the atuumn. We get a good number in the garden and around the house, they seem attracted to light in the same way moths are.
It has a close cousin, Tipula oleracae, which is more common in spring and early summer. The two species look much the same but my book says oleracae has 13 segments in its antennae and paludosa 14. Try counting them without a microscope ...! Tipula paludosa also has wings that are shorter than its body whereas oleracae has wings as long as the body. Armed with these basic facts it becomes possible to tell the two species apart if they are at rest which during the day they often are.
The larvae of the two species are the crop damaging leatherjackets which are a favourite delicacy for Rooks and Jackdaws.
Tipula paludosa: the autumn crane fly

07 February, 2016

Meadow Oat-grass: staying neutral





Whilst the three species of oat-grass are readily identifiable as a group separating them is, to my eye anyway, more difficult. This is a case of taking other factors in to account to try and come to a conclusion. Meadow oat-grass (Helictotrichon pratense) is a medium to tall grass species and where it occurs it can be abundant and the dominant vegetation.
How do you distinguish from the downy and yellow oat-grasses? Firstly, meadow oat-grass has glaucous leaves and sheath; this blueish colouring rather than bright green is a helpful indicator, so too the fact the leaves and sheath are smooth and without hairs. The downy and yellow varieties have a distinct preference for lime soil whereas meadow oat-grass grows in neutral soils. Finally, meadow oat-grass flowers a little later than its cousins, the spikes appearing in July and early August whereas the other two flower in May and June, possibly early July.
Not easy but with practice it can be done, I still need a lot of practice on these three!
Meadow Oat-grass: staying neutral

06 February, 2016

Scleroderma citrinum: the common earth ball





In autumn the common earth ball (Scleroderma citrinum) is probably the most common species of fungus found on the Dorset heaths where the soil is mossy, peaty and sandy. At first glance many would mistake it for the familiar puff ball but, on closer inspection, the surface of the ball is much more scaly, indeed almost ridged. When fresh the appearance is quite light in colour but as it ages it turns a distinct yellow which is probably where its scientific name of 'citrinum' comes from, citrus coloured. .
The spherical dome does, indeed, recall a puff ball but the earth ball does not puff its spores out through a hole in the top when rain hits it, instead the common earth ball splits open when riple to release its spores.
It is not an edible fungus because it only has spores inside, very little flesh.
Scleroderma citrinum: the common earth ball

05 February, 2016

Yellow-barred Longhorn Moth: Fancy dancing





The yellow-barred longhorn moth (Nemophora degeerella) is less than a centimetre  long and yet its antennae are twice as long in females and four times as long in males. Not surprising, then, that this and its cousins are generally called longhorn moths even though they do not have horns of course! From the antennae I would suggest that this photograph is of a female which is also slightly darker in colour than the male. 
To see these in the sunshine sitting on a leaf like this is not uncommon as they are distributed across the country in areas of deciduous or mixed woodland. Most frequently, however, you see them in woodland clearings on sunny days in May and June dancing up and down (not dissimilar to a mayfly). They are much harder to identify and separate from their related species then as you cannot see their lovely and distinctive colouring. With the sun on them they are wonderful combination of gold on a metallic green back ground.
Yellow-barred Longhorn Moth: Fancy dancing

04 February, 2016

Small Cudweed: plain and simple





Heathland tends to occur on sandy soils, often course sand, but where the sand is finer bare patches can occur, possibly lightly grassed. It is on these dry, bare areas you should look for the elusive small cudweed (Filago minima). It is far from common but is probably often overlooked because, true to its name, it is small. Ted Pratt's indispensable guide to the Wild Flowers of the Isle of Purbeck suggests Studland is the best place for it as well as restricted areas on Stoborough Heath and Hartland Moor (although I have never found it there).
You would be forgiven for thinking that this plant does not produce flowers because they are very small and pale yellow which does not stand out well against the greyish/green of the stem and leaves. Rarely growing above a couple of inches tall it is a member of the daisy family so the flowers, visible from June through until September, appear in clusters at the tops of the stems. The stems and leaves are very downy which gives it is grey appearance.
Not a remarkable wild flower to look at, rather plain and simple, but a good find when you spot it.
Small Cudweed: plain and simple

03 February, 2016

Jackdaw: old blue eyes





The most common of the crow family here in Dorset has to be the Jackdaw (Corvus monedula). Not only is it found in a wide variety of habitat from sea cliffs to quarries, woodland to pasture, towns to villages, where it occurs it is usually in large numbers. At least 100 are frequently around us here in Wareham. This is a sociable little crow, not only enjoying the company of its own kind but often found with flocks of rooks and also with carrion crows too. Despite these flocks you will often find them in pairs, when perched they are often in twos.
The origin of their name is not really known. The daw is a country name for a crow and it seems to me that their distinctive harsh 'jack' call must lead us to Jackdaw but jack also means both common and small in the country language so they could be common crows or small crows, take your pick.
Apart from their characteristic call they are easy to tell apart from the other crows because they are smaller and the back of the head is grey (this is not a sign of ageing!). They are also accomplished fliers, with a more direct and purposeful flight than their cousins. They can be quite aerobatic too, just watch them over the cliffs at Durlston.
They have lovely blue eyes and are quite endearing, very intelligent and quite pompous too, strutting around knowing they are in control.
Jackdaw: old blue eyes

02 February, 2016

Common sow-thistle: the rough with the smooth





There are two common species of sow-thistle (Sonchus species) that are very similar and I am not competent enough to tell them apart and so I combine my sightings under the name 'common sow-thistle'. The two species are prickly but also known as rough sow-thistle (Sonchus asper) and smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus).
They are different, of course, but the defining factor is whether the auricles of the leaves are rounded or not! Rough sow-thistle can have brighter yellow flowers, may have more pointed leaves, may prefer lime soils and is less likely to be seen in winter months. Smooth sow-thistle is probably the nore frequent of the two. Overall, they are quite unmistakably thistles but with yellow flowers that occur in clusters, have prickly leaves and exude a milky substrance if broken.
Undoubtedly weeds of cultivated areas the seed and spread quickly. The leaves are edible and are popular in Chinese cooking and the plant are used by herablists as a cure for gall stones, liver and kidney complaints and piles.
Common sow-thistle: the rough with the smooth

01 February, 2016

Tachina grossa: a parasitic fly





In general I am pretty positive about nature; I try to find some beauty or wonder in everything but what can I find to like about this? It is ugly, dirty and evil! It is a parasitic fly called Tachina grossa and it is certainly gross. It is quite common on heathland in August and September. In flight it looks like a bumble-bee but when it settles it becomes quite obvious very quickly that it is not a cute little furry insect but a rather disgusting fly. 
It parasitises large caterpillars by laying its eggs inside them. The larvae then eat the insides of the caterpillar before pupating and overwintering as a pupae. Given its liking for large caterpillars and heathland I expect the large, woolly caterpillar of the fox moth is a favoured target as they, too, are quite common in late summer.
However unpleasant it still has a role to play in the wider scheme of things and so I guess its 'live and let live'!
Tachina grossa: a parasitic fly