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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 March, 2016

Rock Pipit: on the rocks





The rocky limestone of the Purbeck and Portland coasts is home to a good number of rock pipits (Anthus petrosus). It is not a common bird nationally but not uncommon here in Dorset in the right places.
All pipits are much the same to look at really; streaky brown back with a 'thrush-like' spotted front and telling a rock pipit from meadow pipit can be a bit daunting until you realise that you find the rock pipit on rocks, and meadow pipit in grassland habitats! If only it were that simple for some other species and their allotted English names! Garden warbler in a English country garden for example? I don't think so ...
Like other pipits the male rock pipit has a lovely 'parachute' display, flying up and then gliding down, making a piping sound as it descends to a prominent rocky perch and you can see them doing that from late March through until mid-May. 
The rock pipit and the water pipit, although named as separate species are considered to be almost one and the same but water pipits are usually found in winter and at inland sites where there is water present, such as watercress beds.    
Rock Pipit: on the rocks

28 March, 2016

Sicus ferrugineus: the thick-headed fly



Some species of insect are really quite unmistakable, they quite unique. Unmistakable, that is, if you know what they are!
After spending half an hour thumbing through my field guides I could not put a name to this species which annoyed me as it should have been quite obvious from the shape and the colour. In the end I gave up and posted the photograph on the Open University Ispot website [http://www.ispot.org.uk] and within an hour or so it had been identified and three other people confirmed that it was one of the thick-headed flies (Sicus ferrugineus). There are apparently several different species.
Referring back to my field guides this species is in none of them so thanks to those enthusiasts on Ispot without whose amazing knowledge this would have remained another of my photographs of unidentified insects.
I guess the name thick-headed fly is descriptive of its appearance and not its mental intelligence?
Sicus ferrugineus: the thick-headed fly

27 March, 2016

Clavulinopsis fusiformis: the golden spindles fungus





The golden spindles fungus (Clavulinopsis fusiformis) is aptly named; golden spindle shapes coming out of the leaf litter on acidic soils hence it can be found in wooded areas of heath, such as that found around the Purbeck area. It comes out in autumn and is very common but becuase of its size it must be frequently over looked.  It is very similar to the yellow club and one or two other species so you need to be careful; ideed, I hope I have got this right!
Who cares if it is edible, there is not enough of it to eat!
Clavulinopsis fusiformis: the golden spindles fungus

25 March, 2016

Xanthorhoe montanata: the silver-ground carpet moth





The silver-ground carpet (Xanthorhoe montanata) is a geometrid, from its triangular shape, moth that is a light sleeper and is easily disturbed during the day from grassy roadside verges, hedgerows and woodland scrub. It is probably one of the more likely carpet moths to be seen by day. It emerges early in the evening when things start to cool rather than as it gets dark and is not attracted to light at all so never falls in to the moth trap.
This is a widespread and common species throughout the country and is very common in Dorset. It flies from late May until mid-July and its larvae then feed on bedstraws and other low growing flowering plants.
Xanthorhoe montanata: the silver-ground carpet moth

24 March, 2016

Narrow-leaved Hawkweed: the leafy hawkweed




These dandelion look-a-likes are notoriously difficult to identify. They look similar and they have similar names; hawkweeds, hawkbits, hawksbeards, just where do you start? Indeed, for the casual observer like me it is almost impossible to approach these flowers with any confidence at all.
The usual rules can be applied, however, and by taking in to account habitat, the time of year it is in flower and how common a species is helps to narrow down the field to a limited choice. With the narrow-leaved hawkweed (Hieracium umbellatum) these rules help because it occurs on dry heathland where it is quite common. From there it is just a question of telling it apart from the limited number of species occurring in such conditions. It then becomes relatively easy because narrow-leaved hawkweed is a tall plant with a tight cluster of small, dandelion-like flowers at the top of the stem and a series of opposite, narrow and pointed leaves occurring along the full length of the stem, bigger leaves at the bottom getting smaller as you go us. This array of leaves up the stem gives rise to its other common name, leafy hawkweed.
Even with this series of diagnostic steps it is still easy to get it wrong but don't worry, even experts can struggle with this family of plants!
Narrow-leaved Hawkweed: the leafy hawkweed

23 March, 2016

Yellowhammer: a little bit of bread





Back in the 1970's, and before of course, a walk on the rolling chalk downs of Hampshire and Dorset would have soon yielded a familiar, thin sounding bird song from a nearby hedge or tree; the 'famous' "Little bit of bread and no cheeeeese" of the yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella). Sadly, along with so many other farmland birds this is now quite a rarity as the population of the yellowhammer has plummetted.
The bird in this photograph was not singing that song, of course, as this is the female; a yellowish brown on the back rather than the bright canary yellow of her mate. Nonetheless, still a very attractive little bird and always a joy to see.
As a member of the bunting family the yellowhammer eats seed in the winter and the lack of fallow ground and spilt seed from pre-intensive farming times means that winters are now very hard for their survival. I find that I encounter them most now on the heaths around Moreton, Puddletown and also at Holt with occasional sightings from the Purbeck coastal cliffs but they are not the common bird of farmland that they one were. Such a shame.
Yellowhammer: a little bit of bread

21 March, 2016

Bluebottle: it makes you sick

My daily nature note series tries to look at all aspects of nature in Dorset and I do not pick and chose what to include based on how beautiful or 'nice' a species is! The bluebottle (Calliphora vomitoria), like the rat, must be amongst the most despised, even hated, species. Their link with spreading disease is the obvious reason for this; vomitoria says it all really! The females are attracted to fish and meat for egg laying and houses are a pretty good place to find such things. They also lay on carrion outside of houses too of course.
Despite their bad reputation these days with modern refrigerators and food storage systems they are not really a significant problem but, nonetheless, they can be irritating as they buzz around your kitchen window trying to get out before you swat them! They are called bluebottles, of course, because of the amazing metallic blue colouring which is best seen in sunshine as they bask on shrub leaves in the garden.
They are around most of the year, whenever the weather is mild. There are several very similar species of bluebottle and I cannot be absolutely certain that this is Calliphora vomitoria but, as that is by far the most common, it probably is.
Bluebottle: it makes you sick

20 March, 2016

Carex riparia: the greater pond sedge





Pond sedges are quite easy to recognise as they tend to be quite big plants that grow in lakes, ponds and swamps but distinguishing between greater and lesser pond sedge is a bit more difficult. They both favour the same habitats and are both common. Funnily enough, it seems lesser pond sedge is some 20cm taller than greater pond sedge so size is not a good guide either!
The greater pond sedge (Carex riparia) has more flowering spikes than the lesser and the leaves are usually much broader. The greater pond sedge flowers earlier in the year too so there are some things to go on but they are not easy if, like me, you are not an accomplished botanist!
Carex riparia: the greater pond sedge

19 March, 2016

Diatrype disciformis: the beech barkspot fungus





A piece of rotting wood with black spots on it - not very exciting is it and probably something we all pass by without even noticing it? However, those small black spots are the visual representation of a living organism, the fungus Diatrype disciformis that is busy inside the dead wood breaking it down and rotting it away back to soil, a vital process in regeneration. This species, as the name suggests, is associated with beech, the spots emerge from under the bark rather than growing on it and it is from these spots that the spores are released. It can occur on other broad-leaved woods as well but most often it is beech.
I would love to see you trying to scrape it off to eat!
Diatrype disciformis: the beech barkspot fungus

18 March, 2016

Pseudopanthera macularia: the speckled yellow moth





The speckled yellow moth (Pseudopanthera macularia) is a small, delicate moth that flies by day in woodland settings, usually along open footpaths and rides. It has a less purposeful flight movement than a butterfly which should make you stop and take a closer look but you may need to see it at rest to actually identify it.
Once settled the golden-yellow background with dark blotches is quite distinctive and can be no other species of moth or butterfly. The actual dark patterns vary between individuals but that should not confuse given that they are quite unique in appearance.
The adult moths fly in May and June and are often seen in association with wood sage which is frequently chosen as the food plant for its larvae. Where they occur they can be quite numerous.
Pseudopanthera macularia: the speckled yellow moth

17 March, 2016

Lesser Skullcap: a flat minor





This being lesser skullcap (Scutellaria minor) it does not take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that there is also a skullcap which is bigger! Skullcap (the larger one) is found near streams and fresh water and, whilst not common, is certainly far from rare. Its lesser cousin, however, is much more restricted in its preferences and so is found far less often.
Lesser skullcap is a member of the bugle family and has the familiar trumpet-shapes flower associated with such species. It is a delicate, sprawling little flower, pink or mauve in colour and the stem is square but, very thin, and also of a pinkish colour. The leaves are pointed and have clearly defined veins. The plant has a mild, minty scent; it does not seem to be the herbal remedy that its larger cousin is, probably because it is not big enough.
It flowers from July through until October and can be found in damp, acidic conditions on heaths and in woods.
Lesser Skullcap: a flat minor

16 March, 2016

Meadow Pipit: naming rights





I normally advise new bird watchers to take no notice of a birds common name when trying to identify a new species. For example, you never find garden warblers in gardens and willow warblers can be seen in trees other than Willows. For pipits, however, with other factors taken in to account, it works. There are eight pipits seen in Dorset and of these, four are very uncommon you are unlikely to see Richard's, tawny, olive-backed or red-throated - leave those to the experts! That leaves four to choose from.  
The water pipit is an occasional winter visitor to watercress beds on Dorset's rivers so if you see a pipit away from this habitat it almost certainly won't be a water pipit although they also turn up around reed beds, especially Lodmoor and Christchurch harbour. Tree pipits are found on our heaths, usually perched in the occasional birch or pine trees that occur there. They are also summer visitors and easy to match up when you find one thanks to the heath/tree connection. The rock pipit is a Dorset resident all along our rocky sea cliffs and ONLY on our rocky sea cliffs, hence rock pipit.
 
This leaves the meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis) for everywhere else! Heath, downland, rough pasture, even farmland are its preferred habitats with a marked drift towards coastal regions in autumn and winter. It is also our most common pipit sometimes appearing in quite large flocks. The one in my hpotograpph is a little one (probably not quite an adult because it is still very light underneath) is not by a watercress bed, not in a tree on heathland, and not on rocks, it is on coastal downland and so its a meadow pipit!

Meadow Pipit: naming rights

15 March, 2016

Wild Daffodil: true or false





Once upon a time our countryside in spring would graced with the lovely yellow wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus); now I am not absolutely certain there are any true wild daffodils left in Dorset. I have found some that display the characteristics and have recorded them as the real thing but I have a feeling I may be wrong!
As is slowly happening with primroses and bluebells, imported species and cross bred species that we like to have in our gardens are slowly inter-breeding with the wild stock and changing the wild species forever. Virtually all daffodils you see along roadsides and waysides in March and April are there as a result of dumped garden rubbish or by cross-pollination by insects going about their normal business.
The wild daffodil is generally a more delicate flower than the bold specimens we have in gardens although now, of course, there are small varieties of narcissus too which are becoming popular. The wild daffodil has a darker trumpet that the surrounding petals and the flower heads tend to point gently downwards rather shyly than look you boldly in the eye. It is sad that the real thing is not seen more often.
Wild Daffodil: true or false

14 March, 2016

Tipula maxima: the giant cranefly





I am sure nearly everyone will be familiar with the 'daddy-long-legs' crane fly that is common in gardens in late summer and is attracted by the lights in houses. This is a close relative, its country cousin, Tipula maxima
There are several species of crane fly and this one is the largest found in the United Kingdom, indeed, in western Europe hence the common name of the giant crane fly although giant may be something of an exaggeration! Rather than gardens it is mainly found in damp areas around marshes, bogs or wet woodlands. They can be encountered from April right through until August.
 
I have never considered the daddy-long-legs to be a beautiful creature but just look at the markings on those wings! It is also very well disguised as its perches on the heather to get warmth to enable it to fly. When it does fly it is something of a cumbersome effort and they do not go far in each flight and never gain much height. 

Tipula maxima: the giant cranefly

12 March, 2016

Tremella mesenterica: the yellow brain fungus





There are some strange things in our natural world in Dorset and this is one of them! This seems more like slime than a fungus but then fungi come in such a diverse array of forms, shapes, sizes and colours. This one has the wonderful common name of the yellow brain fungus (Tremella mesenterica) and it is certainly yellow! It starts lemon yellow, then becomes egg yoke coloured before drying orange. In its early stages it gelatinous, watery and translucent but it becomes brittle when dry. It is found on dead branches of hazel and gorse. This coinnection with gorse means is quite frequent on dead gorse bushes on the heaths of Purbeck. It can also occur on ash, beech and some other broad-leaved trees. It is visible all year and is quite common.
It is not edible, but then I didn't fancy it anyway!
Tremella mesenterica: the yellow brain fungus

11 March, 2016

Chimney Sweeper: black beauty





Many of the most successful species in nature thrive because they can cope in a variety of habitats and conditions, others have much more specific requirements and can only be found where those conditions are met. The chimney sweeper moth (Odezia atrata) has some pretty specific requirements! It likes chalk grassland, limestone hills and damp grassy meadows and at Corfe Common the chalk of the Purbeck Ridge to the north and the limestone Purbeck Hills to the south meet in the damp, grassy conditions that exist on the common. As a result, on sunny days this is a place to find this little moth in June and July. 
One look at the photo shows why it is called the chimney sweeper, it is a dusty black colour all over. It may be plain black but it is an unusual colour for a moth and I think it is quite beautiful.
This is a local and uncommon species in the south of England but, because the habitat is right, it is quite common on Corfe Common!
Chimney Sweeper: black beauty

10 March, 2016

Lesser Stitchwort: a stitch in time





Greater stitchwort, sometimes called shirt buttons, is very much a flower of woodlands and hedgerows so to find that its cousin, lesser stitchwort (Stellaria graminea) prefers grassy places, usually on acid soils is quite a surprise. This explains, however, why one often finds lesser stitchwort on heathland.
Whilst having similar characteristics to greater stitchwort lesser is, as it name suggests, a much frailer, with narrower stems and smaller leaves. The petals are much finer too giving it a very different look, whilst still feeling familiar.  The narrow white flowers lead to its other common name, starwort.
It flowers from May until August (greater stitchwort flowers earlier than this) and is quite common in the right habitat.
Lesser Stitchwort: a stitch in time

09 March, 2016

Skylark: praise from the meadow





March can seem like one fine day followed by four or more less kind. If you go up on to the Dorset sea cliffs or the Purbeck Ridge on one of those lovely March days not only are you rewarded with the most wonderful of views but you will also be serenaded by the joyful song of the skylark (Alauda arvensis).
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 skylark's scientific name, Alauda arvensis, means the 'praise from the meadow' ... room for a bit of emotion in science perhaps? I love the song of the skylark; 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, dogs, 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.
Skylark: praise from the meadow

08 March, 2016

Silverweed: leaves you in no doubt





Usually we look at the blossoming flower of a plant and decide what it is; after all quite often a flower's colour, shape, number of petals and so on are going to be unique to a particular species. Sometimes though the answer is staring at you from another part of the plant than the flower.
This is certainly true in the case of silverweed (Potentilla anserina) which has a bright yellow, five-petalled flower that actually resembles various other flowers including buttercups and cinquefoils. Look past the flower head to the leaves and their silvery-grey sheen, especially on the underside, and the answer is obvious; it is a silver weed!
Silverweed can be found in short grassy habitats and dry, bare patches anywhere but roadsides and waysides seem to be its stronghold and it can be a very common plant in these conditions. It flowers from May through until August and in some years on into September and beyond. 
In folklore it was supposedly thought to ward of evil spirits and in herbal medicine it has been used as cure for digestive and gynaecological health problems. In Tibet the roots are eaten as a vegetable! Whatever next?
Silverweed: leaves you in no doubt

07 March, 2016

St Marks Fly: hanging out in woods





St Mark's day falls on the 25th April and it is about then that this fly emerges as an adult and can be seen in woodland across Dorset. That is where it gets its name from, St Marks Fly (Bibio marci).
It is quite a common insect of the spring and quite often will be seen in large numbers. They are quite distinctive when in flight as their legs hang down which is very noticeable and a key identification feature. When the weather is cooler or shady they rest on leaves as they await for the warmth of the sun to get them going again. They are jet black with big brown eyes and, overall, have a glossy appearance.
They are only active for about three weeks and then they are gone. They lay their eggs in leaf litter and rotting vegetation and this is where the larva spends its life, helping to break down the leaves on the woodland floor. 
St Marks Fly: hanging out in woods

05 March, 2016

Lycoperdon perlatum: the common puff-ball





Perlatum; like a pearl. When young the common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) is almost pure white and has a dappled appearance which, together with its shape, does recall a pearl so hence its name. It is the common puffball because it is, by far, the most frequently encountered member of the family. As its name implies, the fruiting body is ball-shaped. It has a hole in the top from which spores are released in puffs, often as raindrops fall on them.
Found in summer and autumn, often in large groups, this species likes woodland where there are plenty of rotting branches and twigs. The fruiting body appears on the soil or leaf litter but there will likely be dead wood nearby where the fungus itself is at work. The common use of bark chippings as a mulch means that this is now quite a common species in gardens.
Edible when young but that is when they look their loveliest.
Lycoperdon perlatum: the common puff-ball

04 March, 2016

Silver Y: marking time





Butterflies fly by day and moths by night ...? No, not true. I am sure no butterflies fly by night but there are a number of moths that fly by day including this one, the silver Y (Autographa gamma), which is quite happy to fly by day or by night.
All the silver Y moths we see here are immigrants from the warmer climate of Southern Europe. In some years they can be abundant everywhere and I remember giving up after counting to a hundred one morning in my moth trap and I still had many more to go! 
 
Not often found at rest, usually there is a fluttering of wings, but when they do settle the silver Y marking on the wings is quite distinctive. There are golden Y moths too, but not usually seen during the day unless disturbed.
 
The silver Y does lay eggs on every kind of low vegetation and the larva do hatch and become adults later in the summer boosting numbers but they cannot survive our winters.

Silver Y: marking time

03 March, 2016

Heath Groundsel: the woodland ragwort





Most people with a garden will be familiar with the small, pernicious weed, groundsel; an untidy and fast spreading plant that is difficult to eradicate from well kept flower beds! Well, imagine a bigger version of that; it exists but, fortunately, will not normally bother you as you lovingly tend your flower borders.
The larger version is called heath groundsel (Senecio sylvaticus) and it grows in dry, sandy places and so ii Dorset is often found on heathland but not always. Interestingly perhaps, sylvaticus means 'of woodland' and yet it is rarely found in woodland habitat unless the tree canopy is open and the soil sandy. It is known in some places as the woodland ragwort because, like ragwort, it is a member of the daisy family but for me that is where the similarity between the two ends!
Apart from favouring different growing conditions and being somewhat bigger, usually at least a foot tall, its flower heads are much more conical; wide in the seed box and narrow at the petal tips. It also tends to be more upright than the common groundsel which can be a bit droopy.
Quite common, indeed it can locally be very common, it flowers from June right through until September.
Heath Groundsel: the woodland ragwort

02 March, 2016

Stonechat: rolling stones





If you asked me to choose the quintessential bird of the heath and downland of Purbeck I would have to choose the stonechat (Saxicola torquatus). All year round you will see them perched on the gorse, on scrub, even the taller heather clumps.
My photo represents the typical view you will get of this lovely little bird, the male resplendent in his smart attire with the black head and white collar, the female similar but without such a dark head. 
In spring, the first you may know of their presence is their strange call, like two stones being knocked together, hence its name.
 
Although widespread in much of Purbeck and southern Dorset where there is gorse and scrub the stonechat is less frequent on other habitats but it can crop up in other places. This species is doing well in Dorset and I, for one, sincerely hope it stays that way. For me, it is the bird of the heath!


Stonechat: rolling stones

01 March, 2016

Black Currant: the Ribena plant





Anyone who goes berry picking at pick-your-own farms will be familiar with the black currant (Ribes nigrum) bush and most people will know the berry even if they do not know the plant, the berry being the source of Ribena (ribes = current) of course!
It is easy to forget that this plant does occur naturally in the wild and although the books say its common I have not encountered it that often but then it does have a preference for damp woodland which maybe I have not visited that often. There are occasional bushes elsewhere and these will have been spread by birds taking the berries.
The red currant is very similar, the black current has larger leaves that are aromatic.
Black Currant: the Ribena plant