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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 December, 2016

Wintercress: goes with a bang



Wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris) flowers in May, June and July so one wonders at the name of wintercress! The cress is certainly in keeping as it is a member of the mustard set of the cabbage family and is said to have a bitter taste. It is a biennial plant which means it grows green in the first year and then flowers in the second. This would mean that it is green over winter and so if it was to be used as a vegetable then it would be a cress available in winter. I have not found confirmation of this but as it is also known as winter rocket I think mt theory may be sound.
Wintecress is a sturdy plant that can grow to three feet tall. It has a strong, ridged stem and the leaves at the base are large and lobed, just like some varieties of cabbage. The flowers are yellow and form in clusters around the top of the stem. Flowers that have a;ready gone to seed can be found just below the current ones on the stem. It is a shiny green colour. This is a plant that prefers moist conditions and is found along roadside ditches and on the banks of streams but it can turn up almost anywhere!
The wintercress contains several chemicals including saponins which make it resistant to some insects. Wikipedia has an interesting note that some species of moth and beetle feed on the  wintercress and absorb these saponin chemicals which then cause their larvae to die shortly after birth. This has led to tests being carried out to see if growing wintercress with other crops susceptible to moth and beetle infestations can act as a natural form of pest control. It does not say whether this has been successful.
The scientific name Barbarea is derived from St Barbara, the patron saint of artillery gun crews, as it was once used to sooth the wound caused by explosions.
Wintercress: goes with a bang

29 December, 2016

Sphagnum compactum: the compact bog moss



It is always a relief with difficult species groups to encounter one that is unmistakable and the compact bog moss (Sphagnum compactum) certainly comes in to that category.  It is a species of moss one can easily take for granted living here in Purbeck surrounded by heath where there are wet bogs and poos which make this seem quite a common plant but because its habitat requirements are quite strict it is not actually a common species across the country or, indeed, across the county. It thrives best where a thin layer of peat lies over a bed of sand or gravel but where, despite the porous under soil it remains wet or, at least, damp.
This moss has tightly compacted bunches of stems that are so tightly woven together that the individual stems are not visible. This forms a dense carpet of the moss that can cover quite large areas. This species also gives the impression it is dying when actually it is doing very well because it has a brownish tinge to it. 
Sphagnum compactum: the compact bog moss

28 December, 2016

Harebell: the Scottish bluebell



I always though of the harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) as being a classic chalk grassland flower so when I moved to Dorset some years ago now I was surprised to find them on heath and acid grasslands as well as the more familiar chalk and limestone soils. Further research confirmed that they do, indeed, grow on in grassy areas on both alkaline and acid soils.
The harebell is delightful delicate flower. A member of the bellflower family, Campanulaceae, it is a slender plant a few pale blue flowers occurring in the tops of the stems from July onward until the autumn puts a stop to them. Usually they are quite small plants but they can grow to over a foot tall. They spread by underground creeping stems but do, of course, set seed as well being a favoured nectar source for bees. They also self-pollinate so all i all they can spread themselves about a bit! .
In Scotland they are known as bluebells but they are not related in any way to the bluebells we know here down south in Dorset. In 2002 Plantlife named this as the county flower of Yorkshire following a poll of the local folk.
Harebell: the Scottish bluebell

23 December, 2016

Molinia caerulea: the purple moor grass



Many species are linked to a favoured habitat and that usually depends on the chemical composition and moisture level of the soil being suited to the plant's requirements. Some are not just linked to favoured habitat types, some are actual indicators of a specific habitat type. So it is with the purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea). Purple moor grass and rush pasture is a recognised habitat type that obviously features purple more grass and rushes (usually soft rush) mixed in. This habitat often features the meadow thistle, devil's-bit scabious and heath and common spotted orchid as insects such as the marsh fritillary butterfly and the narrow bordered bee hawk moth. This habitat type occurs on heavy, moist, peaty or acidic clay soils and it occurs in various places in Dorset although it is by no means as common as it once was due to extensive draining and improvement for agriculture of the sites.
Purple moor grass occurs in may other situations too and is especially frequent on the Dorset heaths, especially the wetter areas but not where the ground is frequent. It grows in small tufts and also in large tussocks and various stages in between. Tall stems grow from the basal leaves and from July through until September purple 'flowers' appear at the top of the stems. Where there is a lot of this grass growing together it can be a lovely site as the summer breeze sends ripples through these grass stems. Once over, the flowers turn brown and can be seen for some considerable time in to the winter.
Molinia caerulea: the purple moor grass

22 December, 2016

Kidney Vetch: a bad hair day



Looking at the kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) flower one gets the impression it has a fungal infection or has, perhaps, been attacked by a gall wasp because in amongst the familiar yellow vetch flower heads are masses of white hairs. This is actually perfectly natural and it is this feature that makes kidney vetch unique and unmistakable.
Flowering from May until September the flowers are classic clover-shaped which confirms it as a member of the Fabaceae or pea family. The head is made up of a cluster of typical pea shaped flowers that start with an orange tint but quickly become a bright yellow before withering to a reddish brown. Often you can find all three stages on the one flower. It is the fluffy material between these flowers that makes it easily distinguished from its cousins in the clover family. 
It is a sprawling plant that does not grow very tall and it likes dry, open grassland; usually on chalk or limestone and frequently on sea cliffs. Where it occurs it can be abundant. It is the food plant pf the small blue butterfly and they live in close association with each other.
Kidney Vetch: a bad hair day

21 December, 2016

Piezpdorus lituratus: the gorse shieldbug



As its common name suggests the gorse shieldbug (Piezpdorus lituratus) is, indeed, a shield-shaped bug that is associated with gorse and also broom. Those who follow my nature notes will know I caution against trusting common names but here is a case where you can! As it feeds on gorse and broom it can be found anywhere these plants grow but the most likely place to find it is on the Dorset heaths. Although quite common they get lost in the gorse and one does not see them very often. 
This is an interesting species as the adults vary in colouration throughout the year. They hibernate as adults and the first to emerge in spring can be seen in March and the early specimens are green with blue edges to the wings and they have reddish antennae. Those later in the year in September and October have a purple triangle on the wing cases and purple antennae! It seems the purple colouring wears off over winter during hibernation. The purple triangle can be a bit of a problem with identification as other species of shieldbug display similar markings.
Piezpdorus lituratus: the gorse shieldbug

20 December, 2016

Musk Mallow: graceful and delicate



My field guide describes the musk mallow (Malva moschata) as a graceful plant; how something that does not move can be graceful I am not sure but yet I knows what the author means. Although it can grow to over two feet tall and is quite a sturdy plant I think it looks very delicate; perhaps more delicate than graceful? That delicacy is, possibly, due to lovely pale pink flowers that adorn the plant from June to August.
The flower is classic mallow in style, five equal and almost triangular petals around a cluster of stamens in the middle. The flowers do have a faint musky smell hence the common name. Not only does the pale pink flower tend to set it apart from other mallows the leaves are very different too being deeply cut in to narrow strips. 
It is not a not common plant but it can be found on dry, bare areas in grassy and scrubby places and sometimes it can be found as a weed of cultivation. Being such a lovely flower it can also be found in gardens and can be more common near human habitation than it further away.
Musk Mallow: graceful and delicate

19 December, 2016

Schoenus nigricans: the black bog-rush



The black bog-rush (Schoenus nigricans) is a common sedge but if it is common how come I have not got a very good photograph of it? Quite simply, it grows in very wet places and is difficult to get close to to get a photograph and my picture is actually the view you will often get when you find it.
This plant has a central stem that grows to between two and three feet tall and at its tip a smallish black flower appears in July and August. It has thin, pointed leaves that grow from the base of the plant and these only reach about half way to the flower head. It grows in masses; there is always a lot of it where it occurs. It is not that common overall but abundant where it is established and it establishes itself in wet bogs and salt marshes near the sea. This means that around Poole Harbour, especially on the wet areas of the Purbeck heaths to the south of the harbour, is a favoured habitat for it.
Next summer I really must put my wellies on and go wading to get a better photograph!
Schoenus nigricans: the black bog-rush

18 December, 2016

Creeping Cinquefoil: foiled again



One look at the creeping cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans) flower and leaves is sufficient to identify it as a member of the rose family. The flower has five petals that form an open rose-like circle and the leaves five triangular segments with toothed edges similar to the dog-rose and other rose family members. With five lobed leaves it is easy to see how it became called cinquefoil, cinque being French for five of course. This is a certainly a creeping plant that sprawls across the ground, the thin stems branching to a single flower head at frequent intervals, Creeping cinquefoil does seem a suitable name for it. 
Widespread and common where there is bare or sparsely vegetated ground and it can become invasive if in the wrong place and it can be difficult to eradicate. It should be easily identified provided you take a little care as the flowers alone could be muddled with silverweed and it has much in common with tormentil but that usually only has four petals. To confuse it with a buttercup is unforgivable! 
Like many of our herbs it has a tradition of curing many illnesses including diarrhoea, sore throats and toothache.
Creeping Cinquefoil: foiled again

17 December, 2016

Miltochrista miniata: the rosy footman



Although it is primarily a nocturnal species I was fortunate to come cross two of these lovely rosy footman moths (Miltochrista miniata) feeding on hemp-agrimony in broad day light whilst walking through Hethfelton Wood near Bovington. They are unique in that they are the only moths of this vivid pink colour, pale pink in the middle with a bright rose pink border around the edge of the fore-wings. There are also some fine 
Flying through out July they are a species that likes woodland and mature hedgerows which perhaps explains why I have never had them in my moth trap although they are attracted by light. Their larvae feed on the lichens found on the stems of shrub and tree branches. They overwinter as larvae, pupating in May ready for their summer hatching.
They are widespread though nit necessarily common throughout southern Britain so I hope to see them again one day.
Miltochrista miniata: the rosy footman

16 December, 2016

Sea Rocket: shore fire



Surely one of the most inhospitable habitats for a plant to survive in is the sand on a beach. There is no firm soil here to put your roots down into to get stability and moisture, just fine, loose granules of fine rock. Despite this the sea rocket (Cakile maratima) manages to grow in these conditions quite successfully and can be found on sandy, not shingle, beaches above the high water line.
Rockets are usually members of the cabbage or crucifereae family having four petals in the shape of a cross. The sea rocket is a member of this family and has the right form of flower but the plant itself is much more fleshy than its cousins and this enables it to store what little moisture it can glean. It is a rather floppy plant with several flowering stems and produces flowers in July and August which can be various shades of lilac from very pale to quite dark.
The seeds have a fiery flavour but it is a strange plant chemically with the seeds in particular containing erucic acid which can induce heart failure in some animals and yet appears to be beneficial to humans as it can be found in rapeseed oil used as a modern replacement for butter and margarine.
Sea Rocket: shore fire

15 December, 2016

Brachypodium rupestre: the tor grass



A tor is a hill in old English, the exact origins of the name escape me but it is certainly a hill. Tor-grass (Brachypodium rupestre), then, you expect to find on hills and to a degree it does although you can encounter it virtually anywhere the soil is chalky. Its other common name is the chalk false-brome which confirms its liking for chalk and confirms it is not a species of brome!
Tor-grass grows in dense clusters with lots of leaves emanating from a condensed area. The leaves are pale yellowish green and this makes it quite distinctive. It produces flowers in July which are upright with large seeds pods, similar to soft brome.
Tor-grass can be abundant on limestone cliffs near the sea in southern England and steps are being taken in places to try and reduce it through grazing to give other plants a chance. However, it is also the food plant of Lulworth skipper caterpillars and it could be that those measures are now having an adverse effect on Lulworth skipper population levels, the experts are still out on that one.
Brachypodium rupestre: the tor grass

14 December, 2016

Wild Thyme: what a nightmare



I suppose it is easy to forget that all of the vegetables and herbs we cook with and eat today derived from wild plants. Over the years selective breeding has produced new variants of the originals and the originals now exist in the wild state less foraged than they once were. Some people still like to forage for wild plants and fungi but most of us prefer go to the supermarket.
One of the herbs we grow in our garden is thyme and it seems to look quite different to its native cousin, the wild thyme. Wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus) is a plant very much associated with chalk and can be found on bare patches amongst thin grass on chalk cliffs and downs, often on ant hills. Growing on poor soil it tends to be a low, sprawling plant rather that the little bush we have in the herb garden. Wild thyme is evergreen and has woody stems that grow out across the ground and small pink flowers form on them to create a fairly large cluster.
Species of thyme were considered ideal remedies for headaches and it was believed that if you drank a tea made from the leaves it would prevent nightmares!
Wild Thyme: what a nightmare

13 December, 2016

Alydus calcaratus: the broad-headed bug



I found this bug climbing along the frame of our bedroom window looking for a way out! As this broad-headed bug (Alydus calcaratus) is very local and found only on heaths that may seem an off place to find one especially as I have never seen one anywhere else but as, in Wareham, we live close to the Purbeck heaths may be it is not so surprising after all?
It is fairly long and thin for this group of bug species and is the only British member of this particular family. There is some doubt as to whether it is actually a native species. It is easily recognised by the white marks along the edges of the abdomen and if it opens its wings then a bright orange mark on the abdomen can also be seen. Apparently this is also diagnostic should it be seen in flight.
It can be seen as an adult from May through until September on heath where it favours the leaves of gorse and broom shrubs. The larva resembles and small black ant and it is thought that it may benefit from this similarity by living with ants when in this stage of its life. You can, perhaps, imagine how difficult it my be to actually prove this fact!
Alydus calcaratus: the broad-headed bug

11 December, 2016

Hedge Mustard: the singers plant



If we apply human values and judge flowers for their perceived beauty then I am afraid that hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale) would not get a look in! By our values it is a boring, untidy and pretty worthless plant.

Hedge mustard is a member of the cabbage family and has tiny four-petalled yellow flowers that form in small clusters at the end of stalks that continue to grow out, new flowers appearing at the leading end whilst the ones behind turn to seed. This gives the plant a unique appearance with several flowering 'branches' coming out from the main stem. It has rather ragged pale green leaves but the stem tends towards a reddish colour. It flowers from April through until October and beyond in mild autumns and is one of the most common wayside and waste ground weeds.

It may be an untidy, ragged looking plant that we do not give a thought too but this is actually cultivated in some parts of the world as a food source, the leaves having something of a bitter taste but quite edible. The seeds are also ground into mustard and that is, of course, how it gets its common name. In traditional medicine it was considered an effective remedy for sore throats and breathing problems and was apparently known as the singer's plant.

Hedge Mustard: the singers plant

10 December, 2016

Apamea remissa: the dusky brochade



The dusky brochade (Apamea remissa) demonstrates quite well the problem with identifying some moths. Within the same species the colouring can be quite different from one individual to another. It can range from a greyish brown through, like this one, to a very dark brown partly depending on the specimens age as the colour does where off over time and if an individual manages to survive for a few weeks then it will be quite worn both structurally and pigmentally (is that a word?). Regardless of colour, though, the underlying pattern remains the same as does its physical features and so it remains possible to name a find in most cases.

A nocturnal moth that is rarely seen by day it flies as an adult from late May right through in to August. Not the same individuals of course but a succession of emerging insects. They feed on grasses and to they can turn up just about anywhere and they are quite common in gardens. The larvae feed on grasses to and over winter as a larvae before pupating and emerging in the early summer.

Apamea remissa: the dusky brochade

08 December, 2016

Hedgerow Cranesbill: hedging your bets



The cranesbill family are lovely flowers, our garden geraniums all form part of this family and they are very popular. Of the wild species my favourite is the hedgerow cranesbill (Geranium pyrenaicum).

Although most often found along hedgerows and banks it does also occur in open grassy areas which can throw you a bit when you come across it in such a location. It has pinkish or purple flowers visible from May until September. The flowers are perhaps bluer than most wild geraniums which helps with identification. It is also larger than most growing to almost two feet tall and has large seven-lobed leaves. It is a downy plant which gives the leaves and stems a slightly greyish appearance.

I said earlier that geraniums are popular garden flowers and there are cultivated versions of this species and when you Google Geranium pyrenaicum you find no shortage of garden plant suppliers with these for sale. As a result there is little about the wild versions. I am intrigued by the pyrenaicum species name and wonder if this is a plant found most often in the Pyrenees? It does seem to be a native species however.

Hedgerow Cranesbill: hedging your bets

07 December, 2016

Echthrus reluctator: an ichneumon



The main reason why I write my nature notes is so that I can research a species and find out much more about it. With my collection of books together wite Google and Wikipedia I usually come up with some facts that I did not know about my subject for the day. Today the Internet has met its match! Whilst Google does return a few options for the ichneumon fly Echthrus reluctator there is no information of note anywhere about it!

So, what do I know? Well, firstly I am pretty certain that this is the ichneumon Echthrus reluctator, everything about its visual characteristics matches available images elsewhere and there are a number on the Internet. Secondly, as an ichneumon I know that it will predate another insect by laying eggs in either the adult or the larvae of its host and, thanks to my big book of insects, I know this to be wood boring beetles. It follows, therefore, that this is a woodland species. I also know it is not a common species, it being described as 'local'. Beyond that I am stuck.

That said, I do know it occurs in the woodland near Shipstal at Arne as I saw several crawling over a ragwort plant by the dragonfly ponds in mid-summer. They were a bit difficult to photograph so I apologise for the quality of the image.

Echthrus reluctator: an ichneumon

06 December, 2016

Thyme-leaved Speedwell: what is the thyme



Thyme-leaved Speedwell (Veronica serpyllifolia) is a tiny flower which will often be overlooked as it somewhat insignificant amongst the other plants around it. It has preference for bare ground where there is little competition but it still struggles to get noticed. The flower is very small and the petal fall very quickly if the plant is touched.

Flowering from April through until October the flowers are a very pale blue, almost white, but are, on close inspection, typical of the speedwell family with four petals, the one at the bottom being narrower and more pointed than the others. The main feature are the leaves which are oval, dark green and shiny and do, indeed, recall those of the wild thyme.

It is common on bare ground, gravel, edges of car parks and such places as well as being a garden ' weed'. It can also grow in short grass including lawns.

Thyme-leaved Speedwell: what is the thyme

05 December, 2016

Lycophotia porphyrea: the true lovers knot



A moth called the true lovers knot (Lycophotia porphyrea) is bound to raise question "how does it guess its name?". This is an attractive and intricately marked moth and the pattern on the wing is said to resemble a knot that is used to join two ropes together and that is called the true lovers knot as it binds two separate entities together for ever. It seems, however there is no specific knot attributed to this name but any one of several that are used to join two ropes can carry the name so not so romantic after all for this little moth.



Another rather attractive moth that flies at night and is rarely seen by day. They fly from June until August and although widespread and do occur in gardens they favour heathers as a nectar source and so are most commonly found on heathland and there is no shortage of that here in Dorset. The larvae feed on heather too and overwinter as a larva.



Lycophotia porphyrea: the true lovers knot

04 December, 2016

Yellow Horned-Poppy: stone me



I never ceased to be amazed by nature! The yellow horned-poppy (Glaucium flavum) grows in the shingle you find on beaches, just how amazing is it that plants can not just survive but actually thrive in what appears to be a totally inhospitable environment. It is not alone, a few other plants have made shingle beaches their home.
Being a large yellow-flowered poppy you hardly likely to mistake it for any other plant but just to be certain that the sprawling, large four-petalled flower growing on a shingle beach that you have found is, indeed, the yellow horned-poppy look for the seed capsules from flowers that have gone over. In fact you probably will not need to look for them they will be obvious at once being anything from six to twelve inches long, the largest seed capsule of any British plant. This long seed capsule is, of course, how it gets its name as a horned-poppy. Related to the common field poppy you can find this flower on the various shingle beaches in Dorset but Chesil beach is its stronghold.
This is a very poisonous plant that can cause all manner of ill effects if consumed. Some chemicals, notably glaucine, are taken from it for various modern drugs but these can sometimes be accompanied by difficult side effects.
Yellow Horned-Poppy: stone me

03 December, 2016

Meadow Barley: Sir John Barleycorn



It is easy to forget that our vital cereal crops have been developed from wild grasses. When you look at meadow barley (Hordeum secalinum) it quickly reminds you of the fact, it has the characteristics of the cultivated versions in our farm fields.
It is difficult to describe the flower of the barley and I probably do not need too as most of us will be familiar with it. Barley have lots of long hairs or bristles that protrude from the central seed cases. That is very crude really, I should be mentioning glumes, awns and lemmas! However, as I do not really know what they are and I am pretty sure that unless you are grass enthusiast you would not know what I was talking about I will stick with hairs, bristles and seeds!
There are few barley species likely to be found in Dorset, the common one being wall barley and the meadow barley is very different being taller and more erect and growing in old meadows rather than on waste ground and roadsides and so it is a readily identifiable species if you encounter it. It is supposedly common but there are few old meadows still around so iy will nly be common in suitable habitat.
Meadow Barley: Sir John Barleycorn

02 December, 2016

Green Alkanet: the evergreen bugloss



This flower has such lovely deep blue petals one wonders why it is called green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens), after all nearly all flowers have green leaves and stems because they contain chlorophyll. The answer would appear to be that this plant retains its green leaves and stem throughout the winter, it is always green even when there are no blue flowers. 
This species is related to forget-me-nots and that can clearly be seen in the shape of the flowers, blue with a white centre and honey guides. These flowers can be seen from as early as March through util July. It is an erect plant growing to a metre tall with very hairy leaves and stems which give it a rough appearance.
Green alkanet can be found on roadsides and in hedgerows, sometimes in woodland borders, and often this will be near human habitation. Although a native plants it was often grown in cottage gardens and has frequently escaped. It does not grow on acid soils preferring more alkaline conditions and it is thought that is where the alkanet name comes from. There are other varieties of alkanet grown in gardens and they two are sometimes encountered in the wild.
Green Alkanet: the evergreen bugloss

01 December, 2016

Eriothrix rufomaculata: a parasitic fly



When I first started out nature watching I really struggled with Latin scientific names. I may have been a Grammar School boy but I didnot study Latin although I had the chance too! Anyway, after many years I have started to pick up bits and I know that rufo is red, from our word rufus of course. Maculata means spotted and so this fly could be called the spotted red fly but it is not, it is just known by its scientific name Eriothrix rufomaculata. It is red and does have black spots so it is an appropriate name.
Being a parasitic fly it lays its eggs in moth larvae, in fac in crambid moth larvae. Crambid moths are a selection of tiny insects, long and thin when at rest, that fly up as you walk across unimproved grassland ansd so that is exactly where you will find this fly. It emerges as an adult in July and August and is quite widespread and can be very common where it occurs.
Eriothrix rufomaculata: a parasitic fly