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Showing posts from January, 2017

Macrophya duodecimpunctata: a sawfly

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As I attempt to write about the 1,500 plus species of animals and plants I have found in Dorset since I started looking in 2007 I occasionally come across a species about which it is almost impossible to say anything and I just do not no where to start, That is where I find myself with this sawfly, Macrophya duodecimpunctata. I suppose, for a start, we do know it is a sawfly which means it is related to bees, wasps and ants in the family Hymenoptera. Sawflies are so named because the females have an ovipositor adapted for sawing into the stem of a chosen host plant in which to lay her eggs. In this case the host plant is usually a sedge and therefore the favoured habitat is marsh and I found this one along the marshy shores of Poole Harbour at the Eastern end by Holton Lee. It is in flight as an adult from May to July. The National Biodiversity Network distribution map shows a sketchy distribution with most records from coastal areas and records from Dorset seem quite sparse. Elsewhere…

Salad Burnet: one for the pot

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When I first started taking an interest in plants it took me a while to make the connection between habitat and vegetation. Looking back I find that quite strange as I readily accepted that I would find robins in gardens, nuthatches in woodland and redshank on mudflats. If birds have favoured habitat then why not plants? Now when I walk on to chalk grassland I expect to see certain species and salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) is certainly one of them. The burnets are members of the rose family but do not look much like the roses in your garden. The flowers are rounded with little sign of petals, they are quite nondescript really. It is when you look at the leaves you see some similarity with roses in general. The plant itself is quite bushy but rarely grows to two feet tall. It may not look much but at least it is distinctive and easily recognised once you know it. Why does the common name include salad? The answer is quite obvious, it was once used in salads it having a mild cucumber t…

Ceratodon purpureus: the fire moss

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The definitive guide to British Mosses and Liverworts is by E V Watson and I have had my copy sines the 1980's; it is essential bed time reading for insomniacs! It is a text book containing incredible detail on what must be a thousand moss species and is a quite remarkable book on a subject that not too many books get written about. Mr Watson says that this species, the redshank moss (Ceratodon purpureus), is one of the two most common species of moss in the British Isles, the other being hypnum cupressiforme. Is is, however, a very variable moss and can easily confuse the beginner ... all mosses confuse the beginner in my opinion. All is not lost for us mortals starting out looking at mosses though as this particular species likes bare ground, especially burnt ground on heaths. We have lots of heath in south eastern Dorset and bare patches where conservation work has involved burning heaps of cut gorse or rhododendron means that you can encounter suitable habitat with this moss on…

Zigzag Clover: round the bend

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An odd name for a flower perhaps but an appropriate one. Zigzag clover (Trifolium medium) gets its name from the stem which goes one way to a leaf joint, then turns and heads off in another direction to the next leaf joint and so on, the stem grows in a zigzag. The flower head itself is not unlike red clover but that said it is quite easily distinguishable. The zigzag-clover is a darker pink and the individual florets are more open and spreading without white marks; it is quite obvious when you see it. Unlike red clover which has a reddish stem, zigzag has a pale green stem and pale green leaves, the higher leaves being a little darker than those below. It often grows in large 'clusters' whilst red clover often covers a large area but each plant is separate. Once quite common in pastures in the British Isles it is now far less so due to habitat loss. It likes heavy clay soils and so it is not particularly common in Dorset. Zigzag Clover: round the bend

Pseudoterpna pruinata: the grass emerald moth

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The caterpillars of the grass emerald (Pseudoterpna pruinata) feed on gorse, broom and petty whin and so your best chance of seeing it in Dorset is on the extensive heathland areas. Given its food plant and likely habitat calling it the grass emerald seems a little strange! This is a pretty, delicate moth that is a delightful shade of pale green when newly emerged, hence the name emerald, but the green fades as it ages and can become grey over time which might make identification harder unless you good a good look at it. It is considered a common day flying species but it tends to rest during the day and unless flushed, when it will then make a short flight to another plant and rest again, it may well be overlooked. Indeed, despite spending many hours on heathland I have only encountered it once in exactly the circumstances described above. The adult is on the wing from late June through until August and the small green and pink caterpillar emerges in late July onwards. It is somewhat u…

Water Figwort: the shoreline figwort

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The figworts are quite unusual looking flowers that really stand out from the rest and are quite unmistakable once you recognise them. Realistically, you are only going to encounter common figwort and water figwort (Scrophularia auriculata) in Dorset and if you cannot tell the flowers apart the habitat is usually enough to help you. Water figwort is usually found in wet places, stream sides, ditches, pond edges and so on whereas common figwort prefers drier conditions in shade so is more likely to be found in woodland and shaded hedgerows. Water figwort grows to about four feet tall. It is a robust plant with the flowers appearing at the top of the stout, square stem (which is usually a reddish brown colour). The dark reddish brown flowers can be seen from June through until September. Strangely, this is also known as the shoreline figwort which implies salt water but this is very much  fresh water plant. Water Figwort: the shoreline figwort

Eilema depressa: the buff footman

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The footman moths have quite a distinctive rounded shape to the end of their wings and that helps when homing in on an identification. There are several footman species so it is good to have a starting point when trying to narrow down to the one you are looking for.  The buff footman (Eilema depressa) is typical of the range, with the rounded wings, and it is generally a buff colour so that is it, job done! I say generally buff coloured but caution is needed because it can vary from a pale grey through to a darker, almost slate grey colour. The variations are apparently more frequent in the larger females. The buff or straw colour is the most common however. This is a nocturnal species flying in a single brood in July and August and sometimes into September if the conditions are favourable. It is very much a species of mature woodlands as the larvae feed on lichens and algae that occur on mature trees. That said, it is quite a common and widely distributed species so they do turn up in …

Anabolia nervosa: the brown sedge caddis fly

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There are several species of insect that spend most of their life in water as a larvae before climbing in to the open air, pupating and then emerging as a flying adult with the sole purpose of mating and then dying when their part of that process is complete. Dragonflies and damselflies are probably the best known examples along with mayflies of course but caddis flies do this too. Caddis flies are insects of fresh water rivers and are best known for the habit the larvae have of coating themselves with sand grains to protect them from predation. There are about ten species of caddis fly and this one is the brown sedge caddis (Anabolia nervosa). The adult has wings about half an inch long and are quite a small insect. Like mayflies large numbers tend to hatch at the same time and so finding them is not difficult as one tends to encounter a swarm of them. Most numerous in August and September, widely distributed in or rivers and not uncommon. Anabolia nervosa: the brown sedge caddis fly

Marsh Mallow: sugar and spice

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What does marsh mallow mean to you? Is is surely a soft, spongy, sticky, sickly piece of confectionery., I remember the dome shaped, chocolate covered ones wrapped in silver paper I used to have in my lunch box back in my school days. You can still buy them but I think they are known as tea cakes these days. Actually a marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) is a plant of the malvaceae family, the mallows. It has large pale mauve or pink flowers in July and August and the main plant itself can grow to to nearly five feet tall with a strong central stem to bear the weight and support the multiple flowers. The stems and leaves are a velvety grey colour which helps to make the plant quite distinctive, No longer a common plant, it is found in damp places, usually near the sea. So is there a connection between marsh mallow and marsh mallow; the confection and the plant? I was surprised to learn that a sweet, sugary spice can be obtained from the roots of the plant and that this was the basis for …

Acronicta leporina: the miller

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People with the name Miller are usually given the nickname of dusty, a throwback to the days when each town, and even village, would have had their own flour mill powered by water or wind. Naturally, the chap who tended the mill would get covered in a fine white/grey powder from the milling process. One look at this moth, then, and it is not hard to see how it became known as the miller (Acronicta leporina). The miller is predominantly has a greyish white colouring with occasional black marks on the forewings. It has a slightly furry head to compound the connection with milling as it looks as if the covering on the head could well be flour! The underwings are shining white. Flying from late May until early August this is a nocturnal species which you may discover at rest by day. The one I discovered had found a white background to rest on to try and hide itself from potential predators. A widespread species found in a variety of scrubby habitats which would readily include a garden wit…

Glasswort: the salt in the wounds

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It seems to me that although glassort (Salicornia dolichostachya) is a very simple name it reflects what must be quite a complex story.  It is certainly a simple plant, basically just a green plant with no apparent flower, upright and branched, a bit like a small cactus I suppose. It starts green in May then turns yellowish before reaching reddish brown by September. It is plant found solely on saltmarsh and is very common at the western end of Poole harbour and it also occurs on tidal mudflats elsewhere in the county. I cannot find much else to say about the plant itself other than it has a salty taste (from the sea water of course) and is used in salads in posh restaurants around here. In hope of more I turn to the Internet and, sure enough, there is stacks of information about this plant and its relatives. Its resistance to salinisation is being studied in some depth to see if it has genetic content that might help make crops salt resistant in other parts of the world where the soil…

Long-stalked Cranesbill: at the end of their tether

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Gardeners will now the cranesbills better as Geraniums, there are many cultivated forms some of which occur naturalised in the countryside now, usually near human habitation and often as a result of someone dumping garden rubbish! The long-stalked cranesbill (Geranium columbinum) is not one of these, it is a native species found across southern England, throughout much of mainland Europe and in to north Africa. Whilst the flower is much like other wild cranesbills they occur at the end of long stalks, hence their name and hence the best way to identify them. An upright plant that can grow to as much as two feet tall, but usually much less than that, the flowers look quite delicate tethered to the end of the long stalks and one wonders how they manage to stay there with bees and flies visiting for pollen. The plant produces flowers from May until August and when they go to seed they produce they have long, pointed seed cases, just like a crane's bill! The leaves are very fragmented …

Dexiosoma caninum: a parasitic fly

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There are hundreds of species of flies in this country and identifying them is a job for the experts but a small number can  be named by outright amateurs with some certainty. As always, it is a matter of not just looking at the small picture but looking at the surrounding bigger picture. However, with so many species of flies there are countless species about which we know very little. What do we know about this species? All I can establish is that it is called Dexiosoma caninum with no common English name. The species name, caninum, obviously has something to do with dogs but the fly itself does not seem to! My field guide to the insects of Britain by Paul Brock says that this species is between 8 and 13 millimetres in length which is about half an inch which is quite big for a fly. It has long legs in relation to its body. It favours woodland and the low vegetation below the trees with a particular fondness for bracken. It can be seen from June through until September and it is beli…

Sea Bindweed: the princes flower

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You find sea bindweed (Calystegia soldanella) by the sea. I Know that is stating the obvious but as, superficially, it is very like field bindweed it is one of the quickest ways to tell them apart. Sea bindweed is found mainly on sand dunes and occasionally on shingle all around the coast if Britain but it is not actually common anywhere. Both sea and field bindweed are low, sprawling plants sending out several stems across the ground from which the heart shaped leaves appear and amongst these the pink and white flowers. Sea bindweed flowers are probably a bit bigger than those of the field bindweed and the petals are a delicate combination of pink and white whereas the field bindweed can be all white, all pink, or a combination of both. The field bindweed is a weed of cultivation on farmland  and in hedgerows and will never be found in the same habitat as the sea bindweed. Sea bindweed flowers from June to August. In the USA this is called the beach morning glory but the accepted morni…

Miris striatus: the fine streaked bugkin

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Getting a close up extension for my camera was one of the most significant moments in my natural history involvement. From an interest in only 'large' creatures, mainly birds, the beauty of a fascinating world of much smaller animals emerged. This photograph of a mirid bug (Miris striatus) is a testament to that. At less than half an inch long the mirid bug is rarely noticed as it prowls oak trees and hawthorn bushes looking for aphids for lunch. If you choose to look you can find them from May until July in woodand and hedgerows across Dorset but nationally they are quite localised and not spread widely across the country as a whole. Being so small they just look yellowish to the naked eye but under a close up lens their attractive yellow and black markings are revealed. In contrast they have red legs and in some individuals there is more orange in the wing cases than yellow. When you 'google' mirid stratus you find that this has been given the common name in some quart…

Navelwort: the wall pennywort

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Although called navelwort (Umbilicus rupestris) in my main field guide it is known as wall pennywort in some others. Another example of the confusion common names and local variations can bring. Navelwort is a member of the stonecrop family, otherwise known in botanical circles as crassulaceae, and like its relatives is usually found growing on walls, often by the sea, and can also be found on rocks where the sea does reach high enough in storms to wash it off. It does also grow on earth banks some times. It is quite a distinctive plant growing in a spike which can vary from 6 inches to one foot six inches depending on its location but I suppose 9 inches is about normal.  It is a perennial plant and has fleshy leaves to store moisture when it can get it so that it can avoid drying out in spells without rain. The flowers are an off-white colour and are bell shaped. They grow and dangle from the central stem a bit like a foxglove! The stem is often a reddish brown. Why the peculiar name o…

Collema cristatum: crustose lichen

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This is one of several similar species of crustose lichen and as I am no expert I am going to have to play the 'percentage game' and stick my neck out and say that this is Collema cristatum. I am fairly certain it is a collema species and that means it is one of four possible species. All are widespread and common so for the non-expert this is a challenge! Here is my logic! C tenax occurs on earth, sand and brick mortar not on rocks so three left. C auriculatum has lobes up to 3mm across, this species is muuch finer so two left. C crispum is the slighly more 'chunky' of the two remaining (no point in using the technical term here because lichen have a language of their own!) leaving Collema cristatum which is the finer of the two and this looks very fine to me. A common species on calcareous rocks, walls and mortar and quite frequent around the rocky coasts of Dorset. Collema cristatum: crustose lichen

Great Mullein: reaching for the sky

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Growing sometimes to two metres tall the great mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is truly deserving of the name. Even smaller specimens are well over a one and a half metres tall. Great mullein is not only the tallest of the verbascum family but also the most common growing on waste ground and roadsides where there is limited competition from other plants. It presents as a tall spike with large yellow flowers appearing up the stout stem a few at a time with the older ones in seed as the new flowers appear. It starts to flower in June and continues through until August. It has large wide leaves that finish in a point that are covered in white, downy hairs. I really do not think you can confuse this plant with any other. Quite often the leaves will have holes in them where they have been attacked by moth caterpillars and some species of bees, especially the wool carder bee.  Once considered a cure for coughs and throat infections it has also been used to treat skin conditions. In some places it…

Mythimna comma: the shoulder-striped wainscot

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This nocturnal species of moth, the shoulder-striped wainscot (Mythimna comma) inhabits damp, grassy places including commons and heath. It is not surprising, then, that they turn up in my moth trap as I live near Wareham Common which is certainly a damp, grassy place! There are several similar species of moth all known as wainscots which are, in part, distinguishable by there furry, domed heads. The shoulder-striped wainscot has a darker grey colouring to the forewings than its relatives and has streaks running down them including a prominent dark stripe and that, of course, gives it its name. Flying in June and July it lays its eggs on various species of grass and the larvae hatch and overwinter as larvae in a cocoon. The origin of the shoulder-strip name is obvious from the wing patterns but I was intrigued by wainscot. A wainscot is an area of wooden panelling in a house and I am still wondering how the two are connected, if they are connected at all of course. Mythimna comma: the sh…

Common Mouse-ear:

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One thing at least is true about the name of this plant, the common mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum); it is common! Debating which is the most common plant species is futile as it could never be established but f one were to try then surely common mouse-ear would be one of the main contenders. Being co common it is rarely given a second glance which is a shame. Mouse-ears are members of the caryophyllaceae family which are better known as pinks; campions and stitchworts are related. The may be pinks but they are not all pink of course. My field guide lists eleven species of mouse-ears and they are have white flowers. They tend to be small plants, indeed, some are very small, and they have five deeply lobed petals making it seem that they may have ten petals in five pairs. Common mouse-ear is one of the larger plants in the group and is very variable in size and can grow to over a foot tall apparently but I have never seen any of this size. A ubiquitous plant of grasslands, especially whe…

Carex pseudocyperus: the cyperus sedge

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Not all sedges are dull and boring, well actually I do not think any are. Some are attractive, elegant plants and are planted around garden ponds as an additional feature. The cyperus sedge (Carex pseudocyperus) is one of these. Cyperus sedge can grow to around four feet tall. It has glossy, bright, yellowish green leaves that are thin, pointed and ribbed. From amongst the leaves a 'flower' spike emerges and in July or August upon which four or five large catkin-like flowers develop, each on the end of its own thin stalk. These 'flowers' are the female flowers and are quite large and furry and dangle downwards. The top-most flower on the plant is the male flower which is thinner and more pointed. The male flowers being above the female flowers enables self-pollination but, in general, the pollen needed comes in on the breeze from neighbouring plants. The large, dangling female flowers give the plant its other name, the hop sedge. Cyperus sedge is quite common near fresh …

Lesser Spearwort: point well made

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Just as daisies and dandelions can all appear the same when you start taking an interest so buttercups can seem a challenge too. As always, with a bit of care they are actually not that difficult, you just have to look beyond the flower. With the lesser spearwort (Ranunculus flammula) the clue is in the name 'spearwort'. The yellow five-petalled flower is much like most buttercups but look at the leaves and they are pretty unique in the buttercup family; they are pointed or spear-shaped. The lesser spearwort can be quite a variable flower and it has taken me by surprise on a couple of occasions but the spear-shaped leaves are always the key. There are two other features that help confirm the species. Firstly, the stems are usually reddish in colour. This is not the only species of buttercup with red stems but there are not that many. The other feature is that lesser spearwort always grows in wet places. Again, not the only buttercup that occurs in such places but there are only…

Steatoda nobilis: the false black widow

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Some creatures, and plants for that matter, get very bad press! Earlier this year a school closed for a while because the false black widow spider (Steatoda nobilis) had colonised a part of it. I am not saying that was wrong, just saying how some creatures get bad press. Back in the autumn there were headlines in one paper saying there were going to be plaques of them this year. It is a fact that this spider is venomous and should be treated with a degree of caution. For most people the effects are minimal, not even as bad a wasp sting but a small number of people have had a severe reaction to a bite and have been quite ill, I may love nature of all kinds but I would not tolerate one of these indoors.  This can be quite a large species although much smaller than the common house spider and has brown markings on a black background; the males are more distinctly marked than the females. They are quite unique in appearance and are easily identified.  A native of the Canary Islands and Made…

Mistletoe: give us a kiss

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Mistletoe (Viscum album) is inextricably linked with Christmas but being evergreen it can be seen all year round although It is now quite scarce. It is a parasitic plant that grows only on standard trees but, unlike some parasites, it does not kill its host, just raids it for nutrients. Most often associated with apple orchards but it does appear on other trees including hawthorn, lime and poplar but it is rarely found on oak.  It is quite unmistakable and cannot be confused with anything else. It grows in large clumps usually high up on tree branches and so the flower are not easily seen. The male and female flowers grow on separate plants and both are out from February through to April each year. The white berries it produces do not appear until November or December and are very sticky which birds like to eat but when they have eaten the flesh of the berry they end up with the seed stuck to their beaks. In attempt to rid themselves of it they wipe their beak on a branch, the seed com…

Hoplodrina blanda: the rustic moth

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This is the rustic moth (Hoplodrina blanda): 'blanda' just about sums it up! What can you say about an insect that is rather bland and nondescript? Even my text book finds it hard to come up with anything. Well, first of all, you can say that despite its bland appearance to the human eye it is, like all nature, an requisite little creature. Everything it needs to survive and thrive is packed in to that little body and that is something I just have to marvel at. Whilst the few markings on the wing remain constant the background colouring can be quite variable with some a dark greyish brown and at the other extreme a light, silvery brown. The lighter ones may be bland but actually are a delicate mottled brown when seen close up. it is quite a small moth, about a centimetre long, that flies at night but is readily attracted to light. It has a passion for ragwort and also adores buddleia and generally common in the south from July through until September in dry habitats and is very…

Hoary Willowherb: a touch of frost

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It is so easy to pass by a flower, jump to name and keep walking and end up misidentifying a species because you did not stop to think. I say 'you' but I really mean 'me'! It is one of my many bad habits and it's why I never made a good botanist. With the hoary willowherb (Epilobium parviflorum) it is so easy to just think "great willowherb" and yet there is really no reason why you should, there are several obvious differences. Although the flowers of hoary and great willowherbs have the same form, the greater is, indeed, greater than the flower of its hoary cousin and it is a deeper pink. Great willowherb also grows much taller than hoary, reaching well over a metre in height where the hoary would never get anywhere near a metre tall. The third and really the most obvious difference when you see it is that the hoary willowherb is very hairy whereas the greater is smooth. The hairs on the hoary willowherb are white and give the plant a grey appearance; ho…