Showing posts from July, 2015

Fourteen-spot Ladybird: the smiling dog | Nature Notes from Dorset

Some creatures you cannot miss when out for a walk but others are so small that you could certainly be forgiven for never seeing them. Even if you do see them you then need the advantage of a close up camera lens can enable you to see exactly what it is. This is certainly the case with little chap! The fourteen-spot ladybird (Propylea 14-punctata) is only about 3mm long and they spend their lives on the leaves of shrubs and large leaved plants. Spotting one is usually pure chance, a tiny blob of yellow on a green leaf. Quite often then will be hidden from view anyway as well as being tiny. They are, however, quite common even if not commonly seen. To add to the difficulties they can vary from almost entirely yellow to almost completely black,

Read more: Fourteen-spot Ladybird: the smiling dog | Nature Notes from Dorset

Trailing Tormentil: a botanical torment | Nature Notes from Dorset

I find having an all round interest in nature presents me with some difficult challenges! The same would be true for the casual observer or the budding naturalist starting out. The difference between some species is very small indeed and expert knowledge is needed to sort them out. This is true with botany, entomology, ornithology; indeed most nature related 'oligies'.  So it is with this species, one could say differentiating trailing tormentil (Potentilla anglica) from tormentil is something of a torment for the non-specialist botanist! These are very similar plants and occur in similar habitats so just what is the difference? Trailing tormentil has a slightly larger flower than tormentil, they are about the same size as the flowers of the similar creeping cinquefoil. In addition, the leaves on tormentil have virtually no stalks and so are attached almost directly to the stem whereas in trailing tormentil the leaves are stalked; short stalks on the top leaves and longer stalk…

Annual Meadow-grass: American blue-grass | Nature Notes from Dorset

Annual meadow-grass (Poa annua) has to be the most common grass species of ground that is frequently disturbed and can be found almost anywhere! It is one of those 'conflict' species that people plant where they want it (lawns, putting greens, football pitches, fodder crop) and try to get rid of where they do not want it. You can buy annual meadow-grass seed and, almost along side it in the garden centre, a herbicide that seeks to control it and then, a bit further on, a fertiliser to make it grow thick and green ... are we not a funny creature? Annual-meadow grass is a low growing, creeping grass that, if left uncut, produces a flower spikelet with branches that produce white florescence that in turn make hundreds of seeds

Read m ore: Annual Meadow-grass: American blue-grass | Nature Notes from Dorset

Comma: punctuation marks | Nature Notes from Dorset

A comma (Polygonia c-album) butterfly in our garden always causes a bit of excitement. At first sight it is somewhat like a fritillary and to have a fritillary of any description in the garden would be immense! That said, the comma is such a lovely insect it is always welcome. It gets its name from the distinctive white comma shape on the underside of the wing. Commas can actually be seen from January to December depending on the weather. They over winter by hibernating as adults and can emerge on any day in winter if the weather is encouraging. These insects that have hibernated lay eggs in April and May and these then form the first brood and laying eggs that hatch around July and August to provide the second brood. The second brood are the insects that will then hibernate until the following spring. The food plant of the comma larvae is primarily the common, or stinging, nettle

Read more: Comma: punctuation marks | Nature Notes from Dorset

Corn Spurrey: the farmers ruin | Nature Notes from Dorset

In my experience corn spurrey (Spergula arvensis) is not a common weed of cultivation in Dorset. This is a plant that does not like lime soils and much of Dorset's arable farmland is up on the downs, the lowland acid soils tend to be heath and acid grazing, not much in the way of arable crops are grown on acid soils. Corn spurrey is a low growing, rather straggly plant but it has attractive little white flowers with the green sepals clearly visible behind the petals. It does not have much in the way of leaves, just whorls of thin needle-like leaves. It is a member of the chickweed family and has much in common with its relatives. As with many weeds it seems, it is a strange combination of crop weed and food crop!

Read more: Corn Spurrey: the farmers ruin | Nature Notes from Dorset

Hoverfly: Epistrophe nitidicollis | Nature Notes from Dorset

The yellow/orang and black hoverflies that mimic wasps are really difficult to identify. I am lucky enough to have the definitive guide to hoverflies as I have a real fondness for them (it takes all sorts!) and there are some thirty or so similar species. This species is, as far as I can tell from the pattern of the markings on the thorax, Epistrophe nitidicollis.   This specimen was by a woodland path in Thorncombe Wood near Hardy's Cottage at Bockhampton. It was sat on a tree leaf and, lo and behold, my book says that woodland rides and coppice glades in spring provide the best conditions for seeing them. This is a fairly local species in the south, flies from April to August but peaks in May. I saw several of them in quite a small area.

Read more: Hoverfly: Epistrophe nitidicollis | Nature Notes from Dorset

Field Bindweed: our ladys wine glass | Nature Notes from Dorset

Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) can be a little deceiving in that the flowers can be pure white, pure pink or a combination of the two! It can be told from the hedge bindweed and large bindweed primarily because it has a smaller flower and tends to be prostrate on the ground rather than entwined in hedges. Sea bindweed has flowers of similar size and colour but sea bindweed grows on dunes and shingle by the sea; field bindweed can occur near the sea too! All the bindweeds are pretty vigorous weeds and they are somewhat despised which is a shame as they have lovely flowers but they really can be a problem and virtually impossible to eradicate if they get in to the wrong place. Field bindweed is fast growing and can choke most other vegetation growing near it. It also forms quite large mats which prevent even grass from growing beneath it!

Read more: Field Bindweed: our ladys wine glass | Nature Notes from Dorset

Two-spot Ladybird: spot the difference | Nature Notes from Dorset

If you see a red ladybird do not assume it is the familiar seven-spot that one commonly sees, there are ten or so red ladybird species although several are quite scarce unless you are in the right place at the right time! You need to count the spots to get an idea which species you are looking at and a red ladybird with a black spot on each wing case (elytra) will be the two-spot ladybird (Adalia bipunctata) ... one plus one equals two! The seven spot has three and a half on each wing case making it appear like seven. The two-spot is very common here in the south from March right on through until November and can be seen on vegetation of all sorts, especially shrubs, and occurs frequently in gardens.

Read more: Two-spot Ladybird: spot the difference | Nature Notes from Dorset

Heath Dog Violet: the acid test | Nature Notes from Dorset

The easiest way to tell a heath dog violet (Viola canina) from its near relatives the common and the early dog violets is through habitat! It does not always work with English names but if you find a dog violet on heathland it will, almost certainly, be heath dog violet. You can then make doubly sure by checking the spur behind the flower and if it is a creamy or yellowish colour then heath dog violet it is.  Whilst not a rare flower it is certainly far from common, its preference for acidic heath meaning its range is bound to be restricted anyway. It does occur in patches on the heath in Dorset but it not that often that you encounter it. It also occurs on acid grassland

Read more: Heath Dog Violet: the acid test | Nature Notes from Dorset

Red Admiral: an admirable butterfly | Nature Notes from Dorset

Finding a perfect specimen of a red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), looking straight out of the chrysalis, reminded me just what striking butterflies they are. The markings are similar to the painted lady but the colours so much bolder and vivid. You cannot really mistake this species for any other butterfly, even at a disatnce.  I always look on the red admiral as a an 'English' butterfly but in fact they are largely migratory. They are extremely hardy insects and some manage to successfully hibernate and we see them emerge in early spring. By April and May we start to see an influx from the warmer south and by the late summer and early autumn we see the offspring of those early arrivals emerge along with yet more immigrants. They love to feed on rotting fruit and, depending on the weather, they can be out and about well into November

Read more: Red Admiral: an admirable butterfly | Nature Notes from Dorset

Common Chickweed: chicken feed | Nature Notes from Dorset

Common Chickweed (Stellaria media) just has to be our commonest agricultural weed. It grows on rich soils where there are bare patches and that can include flower beds in your garden! Where it grows it usually forms large clusters of sprawling, prostrate, bright green plants with small white flowers. There are five species of chickweed, whilst this is the most common it pays to just take a second look to make sure it is not lesser, greater, water or upright chickweed although the differences are quite clear when you know them. It will not surprise you to learn that the name common chickweed came about as this is a plant that chickens do like to eat. So it is a common weed eaten by chickens hence to the common name.

Read more: Common Chickweed: chicken feed | Nature Notes from Dorset

Hoverfly: Episyrphus balteatus | Nature Notes from Dorset

There can be few more distinctive hoverflies than Episyrphus balteatus because the thick and thin pairs of black lines on the abdomen are quite unique. I have heard this species referred to as the marmalade hoverfly becuase of the orange coloured background with those black lines looking a bit like peel! It is a small, slender insect and one you might not even take a second look at unless you are really keen! Not only is it distinctive, it is also very, very common and you can find it on all types of flowers and in all kinds of habitat

Read more: Hoverfly: Episyrphus balteatus | Nature Notes from Dorset

Grey-patched Mining Bee: Andrena nitidi | Nature Notes from Dorset

Sadly I have not been able to find out much about the grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitidi) and the best source of information can be found on the Bees, wasps and ant recording society's web site here: For those of you not wishing to follow the link here is a summary of some of what is known about this species. This is a large species of mining bee (one that excavates a nest under ground). It has a reddish (foxy) brown thorax and a shiny (polished) abdomen but the female has grey hairs on the thorax which is where the common names comes from of course. It is a fairly common species

Read more: Grey-patched Mining Bee: Andrena nitidi | Nature Notes from Dorset

Black Nightshade: the wonder berry | Nature Notes from Dorset

Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is one of those plants that were once very comon in our fields but now less so as modern agricultural methods reduce the 'weeds' that grow amongst crops. If the flower appears familiar it is because it is closely related to the potato and tomato. Black nightshade produces black berries and that is, presumable, where it gets its name as not other part of the plant is black although the stems can turn dark when the plant is fully grown. Like other members of the nightshade family the berry is not good for you so leave them alone! They are poisonous although you have to eat a lot of them for it to be fatal.

Read more: Black Nightshade: the wonder berry | Nature Notes from Dorset

Seven-spot Ladybird: call the fire brigade | Nature Notes from Dorset

Once spring has sprung you will start to encounter the familiar ladybird. The insects found in early spring will have hibernated over winter in a garden shed or somewhere safe and venture out on warmer spring days feeding up and preparing to breed. There are actually forty-five species in this family of beetles but this bright red and black 7-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) is the most familiar. Ladybirds, in general, are to be encouraged in the garden as they, and their larvae, consume vast numbers of greenfly and other 'pests'. The new ladybird on the block, however, the Harlequin, is less welcome and threatens the future of our own native species. The bright colours are a warning to birds that they have an exceedingly unpleasant taste.

Read more: Seven-spot Ladybird: call the fire brigade | Nature Notes from Dorset

Tormentil: lighting up the heath | Nature Notes from Dorset

As you walk the heaths of Dorset you cannot fail to notice the small, four-petalled, yellow tormentil (Potentilla erecta) flowers around you. You cannot fail to notice them partly because their cheerful bright yellow flowers stand out in what might otherwise be quite drab surroundings. The other reason is the sheer abundance of them. It is hard to believe that it is a declining species and one that is in need of special protection. It is so easy to think that because something is thriving around you there is no problem and not see the bigger picture; that is where species recording schemes are so essential to provide accurate, unbiased, data upon which to base decisions. The reason it is declining is the declining amount of suitable habitat.

Read more: Tormentil: lighting up the heath | Nature Notes from Dorset

Peacock: winter shut eye | Nature Notes from Dorset

The peacock (Inachis io) is very often the first butterfly seen in our gardens each spring as they hibernate and can awake on any warm day in early spring. It will often be the off-spring of these early insects that we see later in July and August and the peacock should be a common sight right through until October, perhaps even beyond. The food plant for the larvae of the peacock is the common, or stinging, nettle but the adults will nectar at any suitable flower including thistles and knapweeds.

Read more: Peacock: winter shut eye | Nature Notes from Dorset

Common Orache: | Nature Notes from Dorset

Common orache (Atriplex patula) is the most common of the six orache species so it is aptly named. It is certainly the most common away from the sea shore where the others are more likely to be seen as common orache is a weed of bare, disturbed ground usually near farms. Common orache is however, quite a confusing plant as it can be so variable; it can be white varying to reddish, it can be erect varying to sprawling, the leaves can be triangular varying to lanceolate, and other variations besides. Many years ago, back in the days of Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), common orache was used as a leaf vegetable

Read more: Common Orache: | Nature Notes from Dorset

Hoverfly: Meliscaeva auricollis | Nature Notes from Dorset

This little hoverfly, Meliscaeva auricollis, looks almost as though the abdomen is made of glass! As with some other species it took the camera to produce an image large enough for me to get an identification and this photograph reveals a central grey line running down the abdomen with the black markings making triangular shapes either side of the central line - that is enough to be able to put a name to it. It can be seen almost any time throughout the year depending on the weather but, as with many insects, the numbers peak in late summer when umbel flowers such as hogweed and angelica are at their best.

Read more: Hoverfly: Meliscaeva auricollis | Nature Notes from Dorset

Ashy Mining Bee: Andrena cineraria | Nature Notes from Dorset

The 'andrena' bees are often known as mining bees as they nest underground, usually in sandy banks and soil where it is easy to burrow. As a result they are quite often seen on the heaths of Dorset where they feed on heather. They are honey bees, collecting pollen from a wide range of flowers, but only the female takes pollen back to her nest to feed the young larvae. They are important pollinators of crops. Seen in spring and throughout the summer,Andrena cinerariais best identified by its generally black body with white hairs, the thorax in particular has a lot of white hairs but these can wear and fade

Read more: Ashy Mining Bee: Andrena cineraria | Nature Notes from Dorset

Ground-elder: widespread and troublesome | Nature Notes from Dorset

Whilst quite an attractive plant, a member of the carrot family (or umbellifereae), ground-elder (Aegopodium podagraria) has something of a reputation! My field guide describes it as "a perennial and pestilential weed of shady places, waysides and all too often, gardens." For the sake of clarity pestilential means "very widespread and troublesome" so ground-elder is undoubtedly a widespread and troublesome weed of cultivation.  This plant has flowers and leaves that resemble;e those of elder hence its accepted common name but it not related to elder in any way. It is also known by a number of other country name such as herb gerard, bishop's weed, goutweed, and snow-in-the-mountain. The leaves are edible and this was once grown as a crop! It is thought to relieve the symptoms of gout and arthritis if applied as a compress

Read more: Ground-elder: widespread and troublesome | Nature Notes from Dorset

Soldier Beetle: Cantharis rustica | Nature Notes from Dorset

There are over seventy members of the Cantharis genus of beetles but not all occur in Britain. Indeed very few are regularly seen and this one,Cantharis rustica, is one of the more common ones. It has a very common cousin that is a rusty colour whereas 'rustica' is not rusty at all, it has almost black wing cases (elytra). In any event, rustica means 'of the country' or rustic but it could be confusing if you link it with rust! Cantharis rustica is at its most abundant in July and August and is often found of the flower heads of the carrot and daisy flower families

Read more: Soldier Beetle: Cantharis rustica | Nature Notes from Dorset

Bog Pimpernel: the bog primrose | Nature Notes from Dorset

The Dorset heaths can be very dry in parts and elsewhere they can be very boggy with many other variations in between. Where the soil is peaty and quite wet one can find this delicate plant; bog pimpernel (Anagallis tenella). It is related to the familiar scarlet pimpernel, a much more common weed of fields and gardens. Bog pimpernel is not rare as such but can only be found in suitable moist conditions and so may not be encountered very often. Where it does occur it can produce quite large carpets of leaves with these little flower heads appearing

Read more: Bog Pimpernel: the bog primrose | Nature Notes from Dorset

Small Tortoiseshell: ups and downs | Nature Notes from Dorset

The population levels of the small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) seem to vary year on year, almost cyclical. I can clearly remember in 2002 counting fifteen on ice plants in our garden at one go, all jostling for space and a chance to get at the nectar. However, by 2012 I wrote that I was concerned by the almost non-existence of small tortoiseshells anywhere. Last year and this they seem to me to be one of our most frequently seen butterfly species again. The reason for these ups and downs in numbers seems to be something of a mystery and Oxford University Zoology department are investigating what the reason(s) might be. One theory is that it is linked to the arrival from the continent of a small parasitic fly, Sturmia bella, in the late 1990's. The small tortoiseshell has a close relationship with the common nettle (hence the 'urticae' of the scientific name) and its caterpillars thrive on them. The fly lays its eggs on nettle leaves and the caterpillars consume them


Red Goosefoot: agricultural irony | Nature Notes from Dorset

Although sometimes found near saltmarsh and dunes you are most likely to encounter red goosefoot (Chenopodium rubrum) down on the farm; it thrives in disturbed, nutrient rich soils with a particular fondness for manure heaps! The Chenopodium family in Britain consists of about nine species (some of which are quite rare nowadays) and they are similar to the Atriplex family which provide another seven species one might encounter and they are all quite similar in my estimation. The advantage of red goosefoot is that it has a beetroot coloured stem and a red tinge to the flowers. That said there are other reddish coloured members of the family but they seem to be pretty rare so that is not something I would bother myself with! Along with these relative species, red goosefoot is considered a food plant in some cultures and is grown for that purpose whereas here, where it could grow freely if allowed, we try to rid ourselves of it.  One of the ironies of modern agriculture perhaps?

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Hoverfly: Eupeodes luniger | Nature Notes from Dorset

Eupeodes luniger is a hoverfly that is predominantly black with yellow comma shaped markings on the abdomen. There are three very similar species but Eupeodes luniger is the most common and so I expect my photograph is of that species through sheer force of numbers. Common in the summer in open places such as meadows and verges it also inhabits gardens. It is also one of the earliest emerging species and can be seen as early as February in some places.   This is a migratory species and in some years it can be more common than others

Read more: Hoverfly: Eupeodes luniger | Nature Notes from Dorset

Andrena bicolor: a solitary mining bee: | Nature Notes from Dorset

An amateur naturalist's knowledge is always going be restricted by the quality of reference material available which is usually going to be a field guide. I have looked for years for a top quality field guide to insects but have yet to find one so inevitably I photograph a number of insects I can never identify. 
n the early spring we have a number of these small bees in our garden. They are less than half an inch long they fly around almost continuously, perching only briefly on a leaf before launching off again. I believe this to beAndrena bicolor, a 'mining bee'; one that nests under ground and you often see little 'volcanoes' on sandy soils from which they have emerged or where they intend to lay their eggs

Read more: Andrena bicolor: a solitary mining bee: | Nature Notes from Dorset

Annual Mercury: the garden mercury | Nature Notes from Dorset

One of the things I enjoy most about writing my nature notes is the challenge of finding something interesting to say about every species I feature and I hope, in time, to feature every species of animal and plant I have found in Dorset. Today's flower, part of the "Weeds of Cultivation" series, has certainly been a challenge. There is really not much one can say about annual mercury (Mercurialis annua)! It is a fairly nondescript flower to look at, it grows on nutrient rich soils in arable fields, gardens and waste ground in mid to late summer and is also known as garden mercury. Being a rather plain, unattractive plant it be can easily be easily overlooked. However, whilst common in south east England it does not appear to be so elsewhere in Britain

Read ore: Annual Mercury: the garden mercury | Nature Notes from Dorset

Click beetle: Athous haemorrhoidalis | Nature Notes from Dorset

There are several species of click beetle and this one, Athous haemorrhoidalis, is far far the most common. It is a species that one normally finds in hedgerows and grassy areas where the adults feed on flower pollen. The larvae, however, feed on grass roots and this passion for grass roots has brought them into direct conflict with farmers as they can be a pest on cereal crops. The reason they are called click beetles is that the adults have a unique ability, if disturbed, to launch themselves in to the air at high speed and with a loud click

Read more: Click beetle: Athous haemorrhoidalis | Nature Notes from Dorset

Painted Lady: lady of Spain | Nature Notes from Dorset

The painted lady (Vanessa cardui) is an immigrant species to this country; it originates as far away as north Africa, especially in Morroco, and are usually very common in Spain. In some years we get huge quantities of them and then we can go several years with relatively few. In May 2009 Butterfly Conservation were estimating over 2 million were coming in across the Channel every day! That was an amazing year and since then I have seen hardly any but that could change if the conditions become favourable for them. If we get an early influx, like in 2009, the arriving insects do lay eggs that hatch and that can give us a second brood in the autumn. These, together with autumn arrivals, lay eggs but they sadly cannot stand a British winter

Read more: Painted Lady: lady of Spain | Nature Notes from Dorset