Showing posts from January, 2015

Snowdrop: the milk flower | Nature Notes from Dorset

In January it seems winter will never end and then we enter another cold, bleak month in February. However, there are small signs that reminded us that things are changing and spring is just around the corner, the most obvious being that the days start getting longer at quite a fast rate and the birds begin to sing again, some a bit tentative perhaps, but the signs are there. For most of us, however, it is the appearance of the first spring flowers that tell us spring is on the way and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are amongst the first and in February they seem to be in flower everywhere.

Read more: Snowdrop: the milk flower | Nature Notes from Dorset

Lichen: Candelariella aurella | Nature Notes from Dorset

Here is a common sight on brick buildings; both walls and roofing tiles (and even roofing felt), Candelariella aurella. This is a mustard coloured foliose lichen that grows outwards in a oval shape, gradually expanding in size as it developes. Once it gets established those dish-shaped discs appear which are the fruiting bodies from which the tiniest of spores are released. It does no harm to its substrate (or the building in general) but it is tempting to clean it off which is a shame as it is easy to forget it is a living organism

Read more: Lichen: Candelariella aurella | Nature Notes from Dorset

Little Egret: new horizons | Nature Notes from Dorset

A common sight in Dorset these days is the elegant little egret (Egretta garzetta). Despite its fondness for feeding in muddy places it always looks immaculate in its pure white attire.  When I started out 'birding' back in the 1970's seeing a little egret was a major event but by the mid-eighties they had established as a UK breeding species and now they can be seen as far north as Inverness. I remember getting a phone call one morning, it must have been 1987, from someone we knew who said he had seen a albino heron in the field opposite his house in Stockbridge, Hampshire. Within 20 minutes I was there and was delighted to a little egret feeding alongside the River Test;

Read more: Little Egret: new horizons | Nature Notes from Dorset

Gorse Spider-mite: the mighty gorse controller | Nature Notes from Dorset

Frequently one sees white webs on gorse bushes out on the Dorset heaths. I had always been led to believe that these were the work of a moth, probably the lackey moth, but one day I noticed a brown rusty colour in one of these webs and so I stopped for a closer look. The photograph is poor as it was difficult to get the image magnified enough and yet remain in focus. Still unable to work out what was happening I collected some of the 'rust' and brought it home a put it under a microscope. I was amazed to see what looked like little spiders! It took a while but I eventually tracked it down to being a colony of gorse spider-mites (Tetranychus lintearius). 

Read more: Gorse Spider-mite: the mighty gorse controller | Nature Notes from Dorset

Common Groundhopper: an ugly bug | Nature Notes from Dorset

The common groundhopper (Tetrix undulata) is a relative of grasshoppers and bush-crickets; the order Orthoptera. It is not considered a common species but it is thought that it is probably under recorded given its relatively small size and choice of habitat. This insect could not be considered a 'looker'! At first sight I thought it was a bird dropping on a sedge leaf but then it moved and I took a closer look, Having never seen anything like it before I had to take a photograph and then thumb through the books when I got home. It is quite small, about half an inch long, is a dull mottled brown and has quite warty or undulating skin (undulata).

Read more: Common Groundhopper: an ugly bug | Nature Notes from Dorset

Greenfinch: the poison challice | Nature Notes from Dorset

Whilst looking at your garden bird feeders you surely cannot over look the greenfinch (Carduelis chloris). It is a bad tempered species that is reluctant to share with anyone and it will stand its ground against all comers! In the shade they can look a bit nondescript, even dowdy, but in the sunshine they are revealed as a beauty, dressed in glorious shades of green and yellow. The male becomes even more brightly coloured as spring draws nearer. They are related to the canary.

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Greenfinch: the poison challice | Nature Notes from Dorset

Three Cornered Leek: a triple treat | Nature Notes from Dorset

The three cornered or triquetrous leek (Allium triquetrum) is a plant of the western Mediterranean that has found its way into the British flora having become naturalised after spreading from gardens. It is found almost exclusively in south western Britain and is quite common in the Isles of Scilly and coastal areas of Cornwall where I have seen it on visits there. It is rare in Dorset but it does occur at Durlston Country Park, usually in flower between April and June

Read more: Three Cornered Leek: a triple treat | Nature Notes from Dorset

Lichen: Cladonia fimbriata | Nature Notes from Dorset

These golf tee shaped fruiting bodies are indicative of the Cladonia family of lichens; they are collectively included in the fruiticose forms of lichen and Cladonia is derived from the Greek for a 'twig'. Various species can be found on Dorset heathland and in woodland. Cladonia fimbriata favours rotting tree stumps and bare earth where the crusty foundation of the lichen covers the surface and the 'pegs' shoot up from that.

Read more: Lichen: Cladonia fimbriata | Nature Notes from Dorset

Grey Heron: playing statues | Nature Notes from Dorset

During the spring and summer grey herons (Ardea cinerea) gather together in nesting colonies and so become less frequent elsewhere in Dorset. There are currently eight known heronries in the county which are surveyed every year and the figures obtained show the grey heron as a declining species. One of these heronries is on Brownsea Island and they are known to be heavy predators of the tern colony and sandwich terns in particular have suffered although measures have been taken to reduce this with some success and the terns have benefited as a result.

Read more: Grey Heron: playing statues | Nature Notes from Dorset

Gall Mite: Aceraria echii | Nature Notes from Dorset

We found a number of viper's bugloss plants with deformed stems and leaves whilst out walking on the Purbeck cliffs and were rather intrigued by them. After some research on the internet I discovered the deformities are caused by a tiny gall mite, Aceraria echii. The mite is, as the name implies, very small. It is shaped like the horn of a cow and has two hooks by which it attaches itself to the plant to extract nutrients. There can be countless numbers on a single plant and they produce between them what I think is a rather attractive effect!

Read more: Gall Mite: Aceraria echii | Nature Notes from Dorset

Short Winged Conehead: expect the unexpected | Nature Notes from Dorset

Always expect the unexpected! When I happened upon this little creature on the Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve at Kilwood I was chuffed to be able to get a photo of what I thought at the time was a long winged conehead. When I got it home and had a proper look at it, to my delight I saw it was a female short winged conehead (Conocephalus dorsalis)! Why should I be so pleased? Because in the last 30 years the then rarer long winged conehead has spread rapidly and is now quite common whereas the short winged has stayed quite rare.  The 'coneheads' are crickets rather than grasshoppers

Read more: Short Winged Conehead: expect the unexpected | Nature Notes from Dorset

Great Tit: pumping up its tyres | Nature Notes from Dorset

The great tit (Parus major) is a common woodland bird that you see almost everywhere there are trees and shrubs, except in our garden! We are blessed with a good number of birds and yet the great tit to us is a rarity! This, despite the fact it stands at number 8 in the top twenty RSPB Garden Birdwatch results. The great tit is a smart little bird with its grey coat over a yellow waste coat with a long black cravat down the front. In the field, it is those white cheeks that one frequently notices first.

Read more: Great Tit: pumping up its tyres | Nature Notes from Dorset

Shepherds-purse: a winter cress | Nature Notes from Dorset

This is a tough little character! Even in the depths of winter you can find shepherd's-purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) in flower. I have no idea what pollinates it at such a difficult time of year for insects but somehow it must be worth this plant flowering. Normally a weed of cultivation it thrives in gardens, field edges and areas of disturbed earth but it can also grow where there is minimal soil and can be found in roadside gutters and drains and in other bare, waste places. I have even seen it growing on concrete. The size of the plant does vary considerably, the harsher the conditions the smaller it is, but in summer and in favourable soil it can grow to be quite a strong plant.

Read more: Shepherds-purse: a winter cress | Nature Notes from Dorset

Lichen: Cladonia flowrkeana - Devils matchsticks | Nature Notes from Dorset

Despite being sensitive to air polution lichens are one of our most diverse and widespread life forms and whilst declining in eastern areas they still thrive in the west and here in Dorset there are many of them. Lichens are specialists. Some species use rocks, walls, roof tiles and gravestones as their substrate, others prefer wood and colonise tree trunks and branches, fence posts and wooden buildings. There is also a family of lichen, the Cladonia species where some members colonise bare ground and this one,Cladonia floerkeana, is one of those.

Read more: Cladonia flowrkeana - Devils matchsticks | Nature Notes from Dorset

Shag: the lesser cormorant | Nature Notes from Dorset

I am often asked what the difference is between a cormorant and a shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) and the simple answer is that there are many differences when you see them close up and side by side! From a distance, however, they are much harder to separate, the shag being a bit smaller and having darker colouring all over. However, the best guide, and a pretty reliable one too, is to say cormorants like inland waters (rivers and large lakes) and sandy areas off shore

Read more: Shag: the lesser cormorant | Nature Notes from Dorset

Cherry Gall: the rough with the smooth | Nature Notes from Dorset

The cherry gall (Cynips quercusfolii) is the product of the egg laying of a small species of gall wasp. It lays its eggs on the underside of oak (quercus) foliage (folii) and they develop there, sometimes one, sometimes a small collection. They start pale green (like the one I photographed) and become red as they mature and that is when they begin to look like cherries. As with similar galls a single 'fruit' has several chambers in it, each with a single larva.

Read more: Cherry Gall: the rough with the smooth | Nature Notes from Dorset

Long Winged Conehead: twixt and between | Nature Notes

This is not a grasshopper as the antennae are too long and it is not a bush-cricket as the body shape is wrong, so just what is it? It is caught in between and is called a 'conehead'. There are two British species of conehead; the long winged and the short winged, this is the long winged conehead (Conocephalus discolor). Whilst similar in size there are two main distinguishing features between the two.

Read more: Long Winged Conehead: twixt and between | Nature Notes

Collared Dove: love birds | Nature Notes

It would be hard to confuse the collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto) with anything else although I have heard people refer to it as the ringed dove which is actually at totally different non-British species. Until the early 1950's the collared dove was a non-British species too, being more at home in the Balkans. During the 1930's it suddenly began to spread across Europe and arrived in Britain in 1954 (as far I can ascertain). Its arrival had the 'twitchers' of its day quite excited but now it is just a common bird seen near human habitation from farms to city centres right across the United Kingdom. It entered the RSPB Garden Birdwatch top ten in 1989 and has since gone on to reach number 7 in 2014.

Read more:Collared Dove: love birds | Nature Notes

Common Whitlowgrass | Nature Notes

Common whitlowgrass (Erophila verna) is not a grass at all, as you can see it is a flower.The four deeply lobed petals make this a member of the cruciferae (or cress) family. It is a tiny flower, less than three inches tall, but one that is worth a closer look under magnification. The flower head of this plant is so small it is very easy to not see it in the first place! It grows where there is very little soil, often on concrete or tarmac in gutters of roads or car parks. Not only does it grow in harsh conditions it thrives in February and March,

Read more: Common Whitlowgrass | Nature Notes

Lichen: Hypogymnia physodes | Nature Notes

Hypogymna physodes is a lichen species that is not affected by pollution at all and can grow just about anywhere, even in parks in cities! It is very common on tree branches and twigs, rocks, walls, even soil. It is certainly very common across the United Kingdom and is often encountered here in Dorset. It can form large, condensed patches of these 'fingery' grey or, sometimes, grey-green lobes or thallus

Read more: Lichen: Hypogymnia physodes | Nature Notes

Cormorant: hung out to dry | Nature Notes

We must all have seen a cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) doing this but why do they do it? Conventional wisdom says it is to dry their wings which obviously get saturated after they have been diving. This may well, of course, be very true but it raises the question that why do cormorants need to do it when other diving birds do not? You never see duck or grebes, for example, drying their wings after a fishing expedition. The answer could well be that the cormorant has much bigger wings and. as it spends more time flying than a duck or a grebe, then drying them out is more important. I have, however, heard a theory that this posture aids their digestion.

Read more: Cormorant: hung out to dry | Nature Notes

Oak Apple Gall: natural amazement | Nature Notes

I write these nature notes as a part of my learning process about the natural world and I am constantly amazed at the intricate relationships that exist between species, in the case of most galls between insects and trees or flowers. Knowing nothing about oak apples (Biorhiza pallida) I turned to my reference book, "Britain's Plant Galls" by Michael Chinnery to find out how they come about. Here is a potted version of the incredible story. The female gall wasp lays eggs in the leaf bud of an oak tree in early spring and the oak apple develops.

Read more: Oak Apple Gall: natural amazement | Nature Notes

Roesels Bush Cricket: | Nature Notes

Roesel's Bush Cricket (Metrioptera roeselii) is new to Dorset being first recorded here in 2005. In his excellent book "The Grasshoppers, Bush-crickets and allies of Dorset" Bryan Edwards explains that this was once a species confined to the south east of England but in the 1990's it started to increase its range becoming common in the Thames Valley and then spreading further west and is now well established here in Dorset. It seems to like riverside vegetation and is present in some numbers along the Stour and Avon valleys. Although still mainly an east Dorset species it is still gradually pushing further west.

Read more: Roesels Bush Cricket: | Nature Notes

Wood Pigeon: the garden hoover | Nature Notes

The natural world is always changing but we do not always notice it. Only through the accumulation of data over a long period of time can change be measured which is why projects like the RSPB Garden Birdwatch can be so useful. Quite often, when we look at the data we realise that we have seen the changes happen but just did not notice at the time. So it is with the wood pigeon (Columba palumbus).

Read more: Wood Pigeon: the garden hoover | Nature Notes

Winter Heliotrope: vanilla ices | Nature Notes

I can never decide whether the appearance of winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) in early January is a sign that spring is on its way or that winter is definitely with us! Sadly, it is probably the latter and we still have a month or two to wait for true signs of spring. Winter heliotrope was brought over from the Mediterranean in Victorian times and it subsequently 'escaped' and has become a naturalised wild flower. It is interesting that despite the colder climate here it still flowers at the same time as it would have done in its home Mediterranean region. It was introduced into gardens,

Read more: Winter Heliotrope: vanilla ices | Nature Notes

Lichen: Peltigera canina - the dog lichen | Nature Notes

My book says the dog lichen (Peltigera canina) is is a very common lichen found on walls, on rocks, on soil and amongst grass, even on lawns and sand dunes. That may be the case but in several years of looking I have only encountered it twice (so far!). It is a large foliose lichen; that is to say the main body of the lichen, the thallus, is a bit like leaves.  You may be wondering why this is called dog lichen?

Read morte: Lichen: Peltigera canina - the dog lichen | Nature Notes

Great Crested Grebe: the water dancer | Nature Notes

When spring arrives everything changes and much of it we notice but some things go unnoticed perhaps. We hear the birds starting to sing again, we see insects on the wing, we see the green shoots on the tress and hedgerows, and we see the colour of the early flowers. But, do we notice that birds are getting their breeding plumage?  In a lot of species the change is negligible of course, one does not notice the more vibrant colours in the greenfinch and the chaffinch but you can hardly miss the wonderful head dress that the great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) develops.

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Great Crested Grebe: the water dancer | Nature Notes