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Showing posts from June, 2016

Wild Carrot: Queen Annes Lace

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The wild carrot (Daucus carota) is a common plant of our cliff tops and of chalk grassland. It has a lovely domed flower head that consists of lots of small florets, a bit like a cauliflower! When they first come out they often have a small reddish patch at the centre and the country name for the plant is Queen Anne's Lace, the flowers looking like lace and the small reddish spot in the middle looking like a small patch of blood where the lace maker pricked their finger with their needle! Queen Anne was a renowned lace maker. True to its name of wild carrot the root of the plant is edible just like the cultivated variety however, it is only palatable whilst young. The rest of the plant is less so and can cause upset if eaten. Many members of the carrot family, notably the hemlock, are of course poisonous and so collecting wild carrot for food is possibly not a good idea unless one is very sure of what one is doing. Flowering from June until August this is another umbellifer that is v…

Spotted Flycatcher: looping the loop

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The spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) is not a particularly glamorous bird but it has a gentleness about it that makes it a favourite of mine. One of the many changes I have witnessed in my years of birding is the sad decline of this species. It was never common but frequently nested around the houses of the village we lived in the Test Valley in Hampshire back in the 1980's and 90's before we moved to Dorset but now it is uncommon everywhere. Whilst they are present in Dorset I took this photograph on a return to that Hampshire village so it is holding on there.  On Springwatch they reported that numbers of spotted flycatcher were down a staggering 81% on levels of just 20 years ago. All sorts of issues come in to play; declining numbers of insects, loss of nesting habitat, problems in their wintering quarters in Africa and persecution whilst on migration all contribute to decline of this species; I just hope it is not too late to reverse the trend.  You do not need to see…

Yellow Rattle: the hay rattle

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Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) is also known as hay rattle. It is common on grassland and downland from May until August and has a preference for chalk soils. It is a major contributor the wonderful flower meadows at Durslton in mid-summer where it is exceedingly common but it also common elsewhere in the county too. Yellow rattle flowers look very much like a nettle but they are not related at all. It is a member of the figwort family, closely related to the parasitic broomrapes, and is semi-parasitic on grasses. It is considered an excellent way of minimising the impact of grass in meadows making it popular with ecologists and conservationists as it adds to the general biodiversity of any meadow it grows in. With this in mind it has been sewn for that very purpose. When the seed cases ripen the seeds 'rattle' inside the the calyx, hence the common name. The scientific name Rhinanthus minor begs the question "is there a Rhinanthus major?" There is, it is the greater…

Atylotus fulvus: the golden horsefly

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I have to say that this insect is one of the most unusual I have ever come across; when I first encountered it sat on bracken I could not even work out what sort of insect it was! I managed to get a couple of slightly blurred photographs before it flew off and armed with those photos I eventually worked out what it was, the golden horsefly (Atylotus fulvus). It has the most amazing large green eyes. One of the reason it took a while to identify was that although I thought it might be this species my book said it is very rare and found mainly in wet heathland mire in the New Forest and on the heaths of Surrey. This one, being on Wareham Common, did not fit that at all but on enquiry to people that know these things it seems this may be the third record for Dorset and it does have a wider distribution than just Hampshire and Surrey. It is far more common in mainland Europe. As a horse fly it is, as with its cousins, a pest to livestock, especially horses.   Atylotus fulvus: the golden hors…

Coprinopsis picacea: the magpie inkcap fungus

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In Dorset we have some lovely beech woods and in autumn the fallen leaves and remains of the beech nuts (beech mast) form thick carpets on the ground which become home to a complex micro system of organisms, both animal and vegetable, that breakdown this 'waste' product. Leaf litter is something one probably rarely looks too closely at but, out of this rotting material comes beautiful gems such as this stunning magpie inkcap fungus (Coprinopsis picacea). By far my favourite fungus, this is fairly common in southern England but, being an inkcap, it only presents in this immaculate form for a few hours before the caps start melting away in to an inky substance.  It apparently smells of naphthalene (ie moth balls) and is said "to be poisonous but eaten by some with no ill effects". Note, the book says eaten by some with no ill effects, it does not say what happened to the others! In any event, who would want to pick and cook such a lovely structure. Is it not best left w…

Hemlock Water-dropwort: mud mud glorious mud

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I suppose all carrot family plants look much the same when in flower; just compare this species to, say, hogweed. At first sight there may seem to be little difference but, as always, there are clues if you look closely to enable an identification to be made  The obvious thing about hemlock water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) is that you always find it with its roots in wet ground; in ditches, drainage channels, marshes and so on. Whilst there are other umbellifer flowers that grow in these damp conditions they are far less common. Blooming from early May through to the end of July hemlock water-dropwort can be found almost anywhere the ground is usually wet, it does not grow in water as such, it loves mud. Apart from this habitat preference hemlock water-dropwort always grows in large masses whereas many other carrot species are less communal. It is also quite a large, sturdy plant which makes it different to many of its cousins. Finally, the leaves are very celery-like. The habitat, the…

Camptogramma bilineata: the yellow shell moth

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Over the years I have frequently flushed smallish yellow/orange coloured moths from long grass and and bushes as I wander around looking for wildlife and although I have tried to follow them they always seem to vanish without trace. Then, eventually, on a coldish day when the moth was a bit sluggish I eventually succeeded  in tracking one down to get a photograph. Armed with this I was able to identify it as a yellow shell moth (Camptogramma bilineata).  The yellow shell is a bit unusual in that it over winters as a caterpillar, from August when it hatches until the following May when it pupates it feeds on members of the bedstraw family of flowers, especially cleavers which is very common. They remain as pupae for a short time before emerging in late May and fly until August when, after breeding, they are gone until the next brood hatch the following year. Common on grassland, in hedgerows and in gardens everywhere at low levels it can be frequently found but it can take some years unt…

Red Clover: through the looking glass

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When did you last stop and take a close look at red clover (Trifolium pratense)? It is so familiar to us that I think it falls in to the category of another 'walk by' flower! You can find it as a common plant of pastures, meadows and hedgerows just about everywhere and it is just taken for granted but this flower is very lovely when seen close up through a 'looking glass' or, in this case, a macro lens.  Red Clover is a member of the pea family and an essential plant for bumble-bees of all types, they thrive on it and as it is in flower from May right through until September it is a reliable, ongoing food source for them. Native to Europe its spread across the globe has been exaggerated by being planted as a fodder crop for farm animals; this is certainly an important plant. Food for bees and cows perhaps but it not wise for human consumption in any great amount as it can cause a wide range of problems but it has been used as a herbal remedy for a number of illnesses so …

Peregrine Falcon: the ton-up boy

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There can surely be no other bird that evokes more excitement in casual bird watchers than the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). Hardened expert birders need a 'life tick', something brought to our shores by unique circumstances, to get the pulse racing but lead a party of of mere mortals along the cliffs at Durlston and watch the sheer delight and anticipation as a peregrine flashes by. In a stoop down towards an unfortunate and unsuspecting pigeon the peregrine reaches astonishing speeds and is known to be the fastest bird in the list of British avifauna. Indeed, it has been estimated that when stooping in perfect conditions they can reach 200mph. How they survive impact with their prey at these sort of speeds is unfathomable and the poor bird they hit certainly will not survive but at least it is a quick end. Even in straight flight they travel at between 40 and 60mph!  Persecution brought the British peregrines to the verge of extinction back in the 1950's but subsequ…

Common Birds-foot Trefoil: eggs and bacon

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Common bird's-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) must surely be one of our most familiar flowers as it can be found just about anywhere from the coastal cliffs to hedgerows, from woodland to grassland. Apart from very acid soils you can find it in almost habitat. It is a member of the pea family with the classic 'vetch' shaped flower which can have orange or red on them during the early stages before becoming pure yellow. It is generally a low-growing, almost sprawling, plant.  It is a very popular plant with insects and is the food plant for several species of moth and butterfly. The common name 'bird's foot' comes from the shape of the seed heads that form once the flower has gone over. It looks just like the foot of a small bird.   Sometimes called 'eggs and bacon' although I have no idea why as it does not look like an egg and there is no trace of any bacon. I have also known it to be called Tom Thumb and even granny's toe-nails!  Common Birds-foot …

Villa cingulata: the downland bee-fly

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This is a unique photograph! It is the first photograph of the first specimen of the downland bee-fly (Villa cingulata) to be found in Dorset. What is unknown is whether this is a long standing resident that has evaded the eye of Dorset entomologists in the past or whether it is a new species that is starting to colonise the chalk downland in the north of the county.  As its name implies, it a species that likes south facing slopes on chalk and limestone downland where they have a particular passion for umbelifer flowers, especially wild parsnip. This is nationally rare species found mainly at a nature reserve in the Chilterns with occasional other records from the Cotswolds. It may have once been more common as there are historical records from other sites where it has not now been recorded for some time.Only time will tell if this is a species expanding its range. If more records now appear for Dorset then it is spreading its wings, if not then it is probable that there is a small, lo…

Portland Spurge:

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Although named after the place where it was first identified by botanists, Portland, Portland spurge (Euphorbia portlandica) can be found elsewhere along the Dorset coast, notably Durlston but is surprisingly not that common on Portland!. It is a very local flower and nationally scarce. Although a typical member of the Spurge family it is unmistakable, partly because of the coastal habitat it prefers, usually on sandy soils and bare ground, sometimes on the shore line and also on cliffs. It has smaller flowers than most other spurges and a distinctive and unique red stem. It is in bloom from April right the way through until September. Portland Spurge:

Agaricus campestris: the field mushroom

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The field mushroom (Agaricus campestris) was once a very common fungus but it is now declining. It is the original edible mushroom but specimens are now much harder to find and so cultivated species now form the basis of supplies in our supermarkets. The field mushroom occurs on fairly rich soils, usually amongst grass and are often in troops (large groups) in late summer and in to the autumn. They first appear as 'buttons' but soon grow to have the distinctive smooth, white cap with black or very dark brown gills. The cap can be anything from 5 to 10 cms across. As I said, they are good to eat but you need to be absolutely certain that what you are picking are field mushrooms otherwise you may not live to pick another! Agaricus campestris: the field mushroom

Agrotis exclamationis: the heart and dart moth

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Top moth in my trap in July is often the heart and dart (Agrotis exclamationis), out scoring the others quite significantly.  Not a real 'looker' like may moths, the heart and dart is a bit dull and ordinary and not one you love to see every time you open up the trap in the morning. A quick look at the dark brown patches on the fore-wing is enough to see how it got its name; one is the shape of a heart, the other a dart! The heart and dart flies from Mid May until the end of July and is widespread and often common throughout most of the British Isles. Like many moths, it is keen on buddleia, valerian and ragwort and so is very much a garden species. Agrotis exclamationis: the heart and dart moth

Sea Campion: a black mark

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In June and July the sea campion (Silene uniflora) comes in to flower along the Dorset coast; from sea cliffs to shingle beaches It does not seem to mind too much as long as it is near the sea. It often form large carpets and can be quite spectacular when in full flow. At first sight sea campion appears to have black 'marks' on the petals but when you get close up you can see that these are, in fact black stamens, a bit unusual as stamens are usually yellow or orange. These black 'marks' are the obvious way to tell this species apart from white campion and bladder campion as the inflated area behind the flowers on sea campion can sometimes be misleading and lead you to think that it is bladder campion. Obviously the seaside is another clear distinction as bladder campion is a flower of the hedgerow and chalk grasslands. Sea campion is just one of the many reasons to head to the Purbeck and Portlands cliffs in summer! Sea Campion: a black mark

House Martin: a white wash

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Although less common than it once was the house martin (Delichon urbicum) is still a familiar site around human settlements in summer as it has adopted our houses as its preferred nest site. Strangely, it tends to be houses with white walls that they choose. They like to build their nests up under the gutters and soffits and usually on houses rather than bungalows. The house martin is, of course, one of our summer visitors arriving back here in April from its wintering grounds in Africa. It breeds here because of the abundant supply of insects we have in this country, before setting off back south again in September. They migrate south in large flocks and thousands can be seen over Duration in autumn. The numbers build up during the day as they reach open water and so stop to feed up before setting off at first light across the channel.   Martins are often seen in the company of swallows and can be a bit difficult to tell apart but, in general, they feed at a higher level than swallows …

Hounds Tongue: the roast beef plant

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There are a few plants that are quite rare in the United Kingdom but that we have here in Dorset, especially along the coastal cliffs and the Purbeck Ridge. hound's-tongue (Cynoglossum officinale) is one of those plants. It can be found along the coast here in Dorset but uncommon in other parts of the country and the Dorset Environmental Records Centre is actively collecting records of this plant which is an indication as to its status. A member of the borage family hound's-tongue is also known as the roast beef plant as it supposedly smells like roast beef when rubbed but I have never made the connection! My field guide says it smells like mice and having had mice in our garage most winters I could go along with that description. Although it is an untidy plant it has lovely maroon flowers that were not quite out when I took this photo. Hounds Tongue: the roast beef plant

Tipula lunata: the percentage option

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If you look at the places I have come across this particular species of crane fly, which I believe to be Tipula lunata, you may notice that the sites are predominantly woodland areas; in fact damp woodland and that is the preferred habitat for this particular species. Crane fly identification from photographs is not ideal, the experts prefer a specimen to examine for minute details, but for the casual naturalist like me I am happy to adopt a more 'percentage' based approach. This is how I work; firstly I form an opinion on the type of insect I have in front of me, in this case it is obviously a crane fly, its size and those outstretched wings could hardly be anything else. I then think about the date and narrow down the options by using my field guide or other reference source to home in on those species likely to be about at that time. Linked to this I will look for species found in Southern England. With a much shorter list of possibles now I turn to the habitat and look for s…

Schizopora paradoxa: the split polecrust fungus

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Several fungi create a white rot on decaying timber. They can be very difficult to tell apart as, although at a detail level they can be very variable between themselves, to the casual, superficial observer like me they all look much the same!  I believe this to be the split polecrust fungus (Schizopora paradoxa). Why? Well it is one of the most common 'white rot' species, it occurs on broad-leaved wood where this example was, and it forms a dense thick white crust like this. There are a couple of dozen similar species but generally less common so, statistically, I am more likely to be right than wrong! Not an edible species as it hard and crusty. Schizopora paradoxa: the split polecrust fungus

Lacanobia oleracea: the bright-line brown-eye moth

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A moth on the wing in midsummer, the bright-line brown-eye (Lacanobia oleracea) may not have an exactly a catchy title but it is an apt one as you will see on the fore-wings there is a bright (white in fact) line running across near the outer edge which looks like an ECG print with a couple of blips on it! Further up towards the centre of the wing is a brown colour spot or eye. So bright-line brown-eye it is then. Flying from May until July the odd one frequently turns up in the moth trap but never in any numbers. Here in Dorset there is a second brood later in the year around September time. It is a widespread species and quite common and it is happy to feed from almost any flowers. The larvae can be a pest if the hatch on cultivated tomatoes. Lacanobia oleracea: the bright-line brown-eye moth

Horseshoe Vetch: the butterflies friend

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If you are particularly keen to see an Adonis blue butterfly then I suggest you start by going in search of horseshoe vetch (Hippocrepis comosa), the butterfly's food plant. The Adonis is not the only species that has a passion for this flower, the chalkhill blue is another, but there is undoubtedly a very close connection between the two and you will only find the Adonis where there is a very good colony of horseshoe vetch. Being a vetch it is, of course, a member of the pea family and as such has the classic pea shaped flower. However, in horseshoe vetch the pea flowers are arranged, unsurprisingly perhaps, in a distinctive horseshoe shape around the head of the stalk; there does not seem to be a specific number of flowers per 'horseshoe'. Flowering from May to July horseshoe vetch can only be found on short, calcareous, turf on cliffs and downs and so is extremely common near the Dorset coast, hence the abundance of Adonis blue butterflies here too. Horseshoe Vetch: the bu…

Cuckoo: often heard but rarely seen

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I have never been able to get close to a cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), they are very nervous birds. This photo reflects a fairly typical view that one might get of one. I sometimes wonder if they are nervous because they are up to no good and do not want anyone to know! Most birds, though, are nervous and easily disturbed so the cuckoo is no exception really. Often heard but not seen, the cuckoo resembles a bird of prey in flight; a bit like a kestrel in some ways being of similar size. When it lands the tail is often 'cocked' at an angle to the rest of the body. It likes a perch with a good view because it is, of course, looking for nests of other birds that it can use to lay its eggs in. Surely there can be very few people not familiar with the life cycle of the cuckoo? Once one of our most familiar birds, the true herald of spring, people used to write to the Times newspaper to report their first cuckoo heard each year. In recent years, sadly, the cuckoo has declined sharply i…

Common Vetch: the garden vetch

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As I have said before in my nature notes there are many flowers you just pass by without so much of a second look because they are so familiar. If you stop and look, and take a close up photo, you find these flowers are amazingly beautiful. Once grown as a fodder crop the common vetch (Vicia sativa), or garden vetch as it is sometimes called, can be found across Dorset in hedgerows, on banks, on grass downlands and in meadows and so can easily be taken for granted but what a wonderful colour it is and such a delicate flower. A member of the pea family, there are several vetches in flower from May until July, the common vetch is just one of them and they are all lovely. Common Vetch: the garden vetch

Polieties lardaria: when a house-fly is not house fly

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A house-fly with the scientific name of Polieties lardaria - a pest found in the larder perhaps? Not true! Whilst some related species, notably the now less than common common house-fly are known to carry disease from dung to unprotected food, many house flies are never found in houses at all!  This species, which looks a little like a small flesh-fly, likes open country, hedgerows and sparse woodland but it often occurs in well stocked gardens from April right through until the autumn. Its larvae are predatory and live in dung. So this is a house-fly rarely found in houses unless it takes a wrong turning through an open window in which case its sole aim will be to get outside again. If you get one indoors don't swat it, help it on its way. Polieties lardaria: when a house-fly is not house fly

Charanyca trigrammica: the treble lines

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Giving moths English names is a fairly recent phenomenon compared to birds and flowers, many of which have had names for as long as human beings have been naming things, which is a mighty long time! As a result, the origin of moth names is not lost in distant history and quite often describes the moth itself. If you look at the moth in this photo I am sure you will agree that the most prominent feature is the three lines that run across the wings. What is it called? The treble lines moth (Charanyca trigrammica).  The treble Lines is widespread and common over much of England and Wales inhabiting open woodlands, downland, commons, rough pasture and hedgerows. Flying from Mid May until early July it will be a frequent find in the moth trap for a few weeks in mid-summer. The larvae, as you might expect from such a diverse species, can be found on a wide range of low, ground cover plants. It over winters as a larvae which is uncommon, most pupate to avoid the worst of winter.       Charanyca…

Oxford Ragwort: right on track

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If you are going anywhere by train during the summer months you will see this common weed of the railway tracks, Oxford ragwort (Senecio squalidus). This is not the common ragwort seen in meadows in late summer and autumn, it is a totally different species although superficially similar. This is an imported species brought in to Oxford, possibly to the University botanical gardens, as part of a research programme many years ago. I did hear the exact story some years ago and no can't remember it! Like common ragwort these flowers turn into small dandelion type seed heads which are dispersed by wind. They were flowering near the main railway line in Oxford and the seeds were carried along the line in the slip stream of trains and now they are seen across the entire rail network. They originate from volcanic areas in the Mediterranean region where they thrive on thin, dry soils so the chippings on railway lines is well suited to their needs. Oxford Ragwort: right on track

Tree Pipit: in free fall

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Pipits in trees are usually tree pipits (Anthus trivialis), just like this one. They are very similar in appearance to the meadow pipit so their different calls and their preferred habitats are important in identifying them.   A summer visitor to our heathland, you can certainty see tree pipits in Wareham Forest at various locations and at Arne on Coombe Heath. They like open heath with a scattering of trees and bushes with a generous helping of bracken as they like to nest under bracken. Pipits have a lovely display where they fly up in to the air in circles and then parachute down, wings open, 'pipiting' as they descend. With the tree pipit this is often back to the same tree perch they took off from.  Tree Pipit: in free fall