Showing posts from August, 2015

Hoverfly: Eristalis nemorum | Nature Notes from Dorset

There are five members of the Eristalis family likely to be found Dorset and they are all rather similar to the inexperienced eye! Quite often records will have an element of doubt about them as even specimens within the same species can differ in markings. The differences between species can be as slight as the width of the tibia (part of the leg!) or small markings on the wing. Not an easy task without catching specimens for microscopic identification.  Eristalis nemorum is one of the smaller members of the eristalis genus. It is very common and found in a diverse array of woodland and grassland environments throughout the late spring, summer and in to the autumn. The segements of the abdomen seem to me to be much more pronounced with white bands in this species than in the other small eristalis species, arbustorum.  In this species the male can often be seen hovering

Read more: Hoverfly: Eristalis nemorum | Nature Notes from Dorset

Quaking Grass: purple hearts | Nature Notes from Dorset

With so many species of grass being very similar to each other it is a relief to discover one that is unique and that cannot possibly be confused with another; one so distinctive almost anyone with the smallest degree of knowledge could name it. Quaking grass (Briza media) is certainly one such species. Quaking grass has distinctive little purple heart shaped florets on fine stems that dance in the wind. They are so distinctive one rarely even looks at the leaves which are quite nondescript and towards the base of the stem. Quaking grass is primarily a species of chalk grassland but it can occur in other habitats provided the soil is lime-based; calcareous. Now actually I lied to you at the outset. Why? Well there is a lesser quaking grass and a greater quaking grass.

Read more: Quaking Grass: purple hearts | Nature Notes from Dorset

Common Field Speedwell: the birds eye | Nature Notes from Dorset

I used to know common field speedwell (Veronica persica) as bird's eye, I am not sure why when I look at it now! It is a common species of speedwell but is probably not the one we are most familiar with; that is certainly germander speedwell which is seen hedgerows and grassy places almost anywhere. Yes, common field speedwell is, as its name suggests, also common but to see it you need to go out into farm fields or other areas where the earth is frequently tilled, it is not uncommon in gardens. It is a low growing, sprawling plant which, again, is unlike germander speedwell. It also has sky blue flowers with the lower petal usually white unlike the all blue flower of germander. Common field speedwell is an alien species, first recorded in 1825

Read more: Common Field Speedwell: the birds eye | Nature Notes from Dorset

Striped Ladybird: coffee and cream | Nature Notes from Dorset

Not all ladybirds are red with black spots. This one, the striped ladybird (Myzia oblongoguttata), is coffee coloured with cream stripes and spots! Otherwise it has much in common with its cousins in terms of size and shape. As with some other ladybirds the exact pattern of the markings can vary within the species. The books actually describe the dominant colour as chestnut brown but coffee and cream works for me. The striped ladybird is quite common although not seen very often as it specialises in feeding on a particular species of large brown aphid of the Cinara family that are associated with Scots pine. As a result you will only find this ladybird on Scots pine woodland and Dorset is considered to be one of its strongholds. I was fortunate to find one on a gate in a Scots pine woodland.

Read more: Striped Ladybird: coffee and cream | Nature Notes from Dorset

Dwarf Gorse: the eastern goorse | Nature Notes from Dorset

When walking on dry, sandy heathland in late summer you will see gorse growing close to the ground. It is easy to think that this is gorse that has been cut or burned regenerating but the truth is that it is a totally different species to the common gorse, it is dwarf gorse (Ulex minor). Dwarf gorse is more closely related to western gorse than European gorse and is sometimes called eastern gorse because of the variation in regions in which they are found. In Dorset they overlap and are found together but although having similar pale yellow flowers and sharp, intense spines they should be identifiable purely on size, dwarf gorse growing no higher than a metre whereas western gorse rarely flowers until well over that height.

Read more: Dwarf Gorse: the eastern goorse | Nature Notes from Dorset

Mallard: the benchmark for ducks | Nature Notes from Dorset

For me the 'benchmark' for identifying ducks is the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). It has been so successful in our modern world you will find it all across Europe and in other parts of the world too.  Mallard can be found anywhere there is water (salt and fresh), anywhere in Britain (both inland and coastal) and any time of year (winter and summer) and so, if you see a duck it is, statistically, most likely to be a mallard.  I chose this photo because it shows very clearly the blue feathers in the wing. This is important because whilst both male and female are different in plumage they both have the blue in the wing. In late summer the male moults and loses its gorgeous metallic green/blue head but usually the blue in the wing is still visible. To add to the confusion mallard inter breed with some forms of domestic duck and all sorts of hybrids may be encountered but, even so, quite often the blue in the wing remains as clear indicator that you are looking at a form of mallard. …

Knotgrass: it is not grass | Nature Notes from Dorset

I try to find something interesting to say about everything I write about but with this plant, knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare), I am struggling! The first thing to say is that it is not, of course, a grass; it is a flowering plant. The flowers tend to be very small with the resulting seeds being more visible than the flowers. It has few distinguishing features being much like its relatives in the dock family. Knotgrass is undoubtedly a weed of cultivation that can be found on bare earth and cultivated soils just about everywhere. It is variable in height sometimes growing to a metre tall but it is usually much, much shorter than that. There are six species of knotgrass in my field guide and this is by far the most common, most have suffered as the result of herbicide usage

Read more: Knotgrass: it is not grass | Nature Notes from Dorset

Hoverfly: Eristalis arbustorum | Nature Notes from Dorset

There are a number hoverflies in the eristalis family, probably five common ones and as they all have much in common and yet each species can be quite variable within themselves they can be a bit difficult to indentify with confidence. In addition to the body colour patterns, which as I said can vary one needs to take in to account the time of year, the food plant and general habitat in coming to a conclusion. Eristalis arbustorumis one of the smaller members of the family which is a start and then tends to have more orange on the throrax than the others. It is an abundant species in late summer loving the flowers of thistles, knapweeds and umbellifers.

Read more: Hoverfly: Eristalis arbustorum | Nature Notes from Dorset

Common Bent: the brown top grass | Nature Notes from Dorset

The bent family of grasses are exceedingly common although usually only on acid soils. As a result the common bent (Agrostis capillaris) in particular is a species of heathland and the acid grassland that frequently occurs where the heathers, gorses and other typical heathland flora give way to a lawn expanse of dense bent grass. It prefers dry conditions. The florescence of common bent is usually brownish in colour and is very fine in structure making it appear quite glossy. Indeed, one of its other common names is brown top, it appears over whilst in fact it is still in full 'blossom'. Common bent is used extensively for lawn grass and is commonly used on golf courses where, according to Wikipedia, it gives some of the best playing surfaces in the world. Obviously, in these conditions it is carefully managed and regularly cut so one never sees it at its best, an expansive sward of gently swaying flower heads. If left uncut it can grow to two feet tall but normally one would e…

Lesser Snapdragon: the weasels snout | Nature Notes from Dorset

Many a private garden has snapdragons growing the in flower borders. Known is horticultural circles as antirrhinums they have a distinctive flower head that has what appears to be a mouth! When you gently squeeze the flower on each side with your finger and thumb so the mouth opens, release and the mouth snaps shut. Watch antirrhinums for a while and you will see a bee land on the lower lip so that the mouth opens and the bee then disappears inside to get to the nectar and pollen. The garden antirrhinum has various wild cousins often bearing the name toadflax. The lesser snapdragon (Antirrhinum orontium) is a member of this sub-family of plants and is, as its name implies, just a small version of the garden variety. It has small mauve flowers, grows to about a foot tall, flowers between July and October and thrives in the cultivated soil of gardens and farm fields.

Read more: Lesser Snapdragon: the weasels snout | Nature Notes from Dorset

Green Nettle Weevil: through the looking glass | Nature Notes from Dorset

Nettles are one of the best places to look for insects, all sorts of things can turn up on them. Nettles may sting us but insects seem immune from the effects. If you look closely at the leaves of the nettles you will sometimes see small whitish flecks which, close up, prove to be shiny green nettle weevils (Phyllobius pomacues) like this one. Not much more than 1/8" long and until they move you might think they are not even insects at all. This particular species is often abundant on nettles and hence its common name.  The green colour comes from tiny scales that easily rub off leaving a black 'shell' underneath.

Read more: Green Nettle Weevil: through the looking glass | Nature Notes from Dorset

Western Gorse: look north for the west | Nature Notes from Dorset

As the main flush of European gorse flowers fade in May and June so July brings the flowers to western gorse (Ulex gallii). Western gorse will continue flowering until October by which time the European gorse will start to bear blossom prior to the main flowering in the spring. This succession gives rise to the belief that gorse flowers continuously. Gorse may well flower almost continuously throughout the year but that is because there are, in fact, three species flowering at different times. There are other differences between western and European gorse than flower times. The flower of western gorse is smaller and more slender being a paler yellow and lacking the coconut fragrance of its cousin. The spines on western gorse are akin to razor wire whereas European gorse is just very prickly! There are other minor differences for the specialist botanist to ponder too.

Read more: Western Gorse: look north for the west | Nature Notes from Dorset

Marsh Fritillary: a bit of a devil around scabious | Nature Notes from Dorset

The beautifully marked marsh fritillary (Eurodryas aurinia) is a nationally scarce species found mainly in southern Britain and Dorset has a small number of sites where it can still be seen. Although the 'marsh' fritillary it is not generally found in marshes, well not in Dorset at least, but usually in rough, damp grassland where its larval food plant, devil's-bit scabious, can be found. It is not a strong flyer and tends to stay together in small colonies which is one of the reasons for its decline, along with draining and improvement of grassland for agricultural purposes. It can be seen here from late April through until the end of May.

Read more: Marsh Fritillary: a bit of a devil around scabious | Nature Notes from Dorset

Black Bindweed: the false bindweed | Nature Notes from Dorset

You may be familiar with field and hedge bindweed, both common climbing or spreading plants, but although carrying some of the same characteristics as these two in terms of leaf shape, stem colour and climbing nature black bindweed (Polygonum convolvulus) is not related. Black bindweed is more closely related to the dock family than to the convolvulus family. Closer inspection  of the flowers will prove this point! Black bindweed is a fast growing, climbing or binding, plant that entwines itself clockwise around the stems of stronger plants; it can grow to over a metre long. It is a plant almost entirely of arable fields winding its way through crops damaging the plant(s) it is climbing on and making harvesting difficult. As a result black bindweed is not a popular weed! Apparently, like so many of our weeds, this was once an edible crop

Read more: Black Bindweed: the false bindweed | Nature Notes from Dorset

Hoverfly: Rhingia campestris | Nature Notes from Dorset

I make no secret of my interest in hoverflies and here I bring you Rhingia campestris. It is a common hoverfly and quite easy to identify partly because of its plump orange/brown body but mainly because it has a longish 'snout' which is quite unique to this species and its less common but close cousin, Rhingia rostrata. It looks quite an evil insect capable of inflicting a painful bite but it is, as with all hoverflies, totally harmless.  This is a very common, but often overlooked insect flying from April to November and especially noticeable towards the end of the season as other species dwindle in numbers. You can find it along woodland rides and in hedgerows, its long snout making it particularly adapted to feeding on various flowers,

Read more: Hoverfly: Rhingia campestris | Nature Notes from Dorset

Tall Fescue: friends in high places | Nature Notes from Dorset

I find that the best way to identify tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is to initially look for a tall grass! That may seem obvious and it is but this species is tall, very tall, growing to six feet high which is, yes, tall for a grass. This is its stand out feature. Once you have a grass as tall as you are  then just check that it is growing in a tussock, that is, a cluster of stem originating from a central basal point (in the States this is know as a bunchgrass). From there it is pretty easy to check the leaves and the florescence just to be certain. This is a species of open grasslands but it is most often found on roadside verges where it is not uncommon but with our zealous verge cutting regimes you may not actually find it that often! It is the basis of several cultivated species that are used as forage crops as well as ornamental grasses for gardens.

Read more: Tall Fescue: friends in high places | Nature Notes from Dorset

Purple Toadflax: the perennial snapdragon | Nature Notes from Dorset

Purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea) was originally a garden plant in this country imported from its native Italy but is spreads readily on cultivated ground and has now escaped into the wider countryside where it prospers on roadsides, waste ground and farm field corners just about anywhere. It is not that common as yet but where it occurs there can be a lot of it! We know this to our costs, when we moved to our current property the garden was full of it and despite waging all out (non-chemical) warfare against it it is still coming up all over the place! It is actually quite an attractive flower and it is easy to see why it is popular in gardens. It is quite a tall plant growing up to a metre high with long spikes of small snapdragon flowers; hence its other name, the perennial snapdragon. As well as being a perennial it seeds readily so it wins on both fronts! You can pull out the plants but the seeds soon develop and grow afresh.

Read more: Purple Toadflax: the perennial snapdragon |…

Harlequin Ladybird: the foreign invader | Nature Notes from Dorset

The harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) is one of our best known examples of an 'invasive species'! It is causing concern as it spreads through Britain and, as it does so, interbreeds with our native ladybirds and will, it is thought, eventually mean our pure bred species will be no more. This is a very emotive topic and our attitude to new species colonising our islands has been described as akin to racism.  The harlequin ladybird is a native of south east Asia and was brought to Europe BY HUMAN BEINGS to control aphids. From mainland Europe, by one means or another, it has reached our shores and with the potential of a changing climate (man made of course) it is likely to spread far and wide. Having got here courtesy of man-kind as a perceived benefit to man-kind it is now seen as a potential enemy.  New species colonising new areas of the world is nothing new, it has been going on for millennia. In this country most of the species, even the ones considered indigenous, actu…

Gorse: the kissing season | Nature Notes from Dorset

"When gorse is in flower kissing is in season!" There are not many months of the year when it seems gorse (Ulex europaeus) is not in flower but there is no doubt, here in Purbeck at least, that it is at its best in April and May. From the spring equinox (usualy the 21st March) onwards the heaths and downs are aglow with the vibrant yellow flowers of the furze, a local name for gorse. The other wonderful thing you notice as you walk amongst the yellow flowered bushes in the strong, unmistakable scent resembling coconut; lovely! The common or European gorse does not actually flower all year as it may seem. It tends to take a rest from mid summer but by then, in July through to September, the dwarf gorse takes its place. Superficially they are very similar, you just tend to think that dwarf gorse is a young gorse bush but it is a different species. Then from August through until as late as November in some years western gorse flowers and by Christmas the common gorse can be show…

Silver-washed Fritillary: barking up the right tree | Nature Notes from Dorset

I always have a sense of excitement when I first see a silver-washed fritillary (Argynnis paphia). It is such a beautiful creature; a large butterfly with intricate markings and is an absolute joy to behold. It is essentially a butterfly of woodlands, especially areas of well established woodland, both deciduous and coniferous. This is certainly a butterfly of the south and there are several sites in Dorset where it can still be found. It may not be as common as it once was perhaps, but where it does occur it can be quite numerous, especially at the peak of its flight time, July and in to August. It has just the one brood each year and the eggs are laid in the crevices of tree bark (notably oak) and that is where the larvae return to to hibernate before emerging as adult butterflies the following summer. It often appears in a darker olive green form which can be mistaken for a different species.

Read more: Silver-washed Fritillary: barking up the right tree | Nature Notes from Dorset

Curled Dock: ironsides | Nature Notes from Dorset

Docks can be troublesome weeds of cultivation and curled dock (Rumex crispus) along with its close cousin broad-leaved dock are as guilty as any! Both are very common and can spread over quite large areas if unchecked. The two also hybridise and they happily live together. Telling curled and broad-leaved dock apart is relatively easy just by the leaved. Curled dock has narrow leaves that, yes, 'curl' up around the edges whereas broad-leaved dock has, yes, broad leaves that are mainly flat. The flowers are a little different too with curled dock flowers being redder and in bigger clusters.  Once the hybrid species kicks in it becomes much more difficult. Curled dock contains oxalic acid and a high iron content

Read more: Curled Dock: ironsides | Nature Notes from Dorset

Hoverfly: Syrphus species | Nature Notes from Dorset

As much as we like to put a name to species of wildlife we see sometimes you just have to accept that you cannot always do it! In some species the differences are so minute that you can only separate them by microscopic examination. To do that you need two things, a good microscope and a dead specimen. For me nature is about enjoyment not science and I cannot bring myself to kill an animal purely to try and find out what species it is. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with people engaged in conservation and biological science doing this if it furthers our knowledge and understanding of how to conserve them. Insects have such a short life span that they would have died a few days, or even hours, later anyway.

So it is with these black and yellow wasp mimic hoverflies. Some have four black rings (or stripes depending on your point of view!) but the one in my photograph has five so this is eitherSyrphus ribesii, Syrphus vitripennis or Syrphus torvus. Which of the three? There is…

Rough Meadow-grass: take the rough with the smooth | Nature Notes from Dorset

I can understand why people, including me, struggle to identify grasses. They are something of a specialist subject but grass is with us everywhere we look it seems and any significant vegetative or habitat survey is going to include grass; there is no escape! Once you start you find that grass is not just dull and green but quite attractive and interesting. Rough Meadow-grass (Poa trivialis) is very, very similar to smooth meadow-grass so how do you tell them apart? Apart from what might seem obvious, one has slightly rough leaf sheaths and the other has smooth the books say rough meadow-grass has slightly paler leaves than smooth. That is fine seen side by side but not much help otherwise. The saving grace here is that rough meadow-grass is not really a grass of meadows at all, it likes damp, shady places and is often found along woodland rides and woodland fringes.

Read more: Rough Meadow-grass: take the rough with the smooth | Nature Notes from Dorset

Red Deadnettle: the purple archangel | Nature Notes from Dorset

When I decided that my nature surveying and recording days were over and that I would buy a new camera and try my hand at some snaps of wildlife I had no idea that my eyes would be opened to a new world! For years, I would walk along with my recorder and mutter "Red Deadnettle" and walk on without a second glance. Now, as I try to get a respectable shot of just about anything, when I get home and plug the camera in to the computer I am often amazed at the beauty I had missed all those years. OK, Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) is hardly a rarity! It is one of our most common weeds of cultivation and can be found in profusion on disturbed ground just about anywhere and everywhere; indeed, we will probably be pulling some out next time we can get in to the garden. However, looked at close up through the camera lens it becomes a different plant and a thing of rare beauty. Well, that's how it looks to me anyway, how about you? Although looking like a nettle it does not sting…

Fleabane Tortoise Beetle: a strict diet | Nature Notes from Dorset

A small selection of the leaf beetles (chrysomeidae) are known as 'tortoise' beetles because they appear to have a complete casing with no real visible head giving the impression of a tortoise with its head withdrawn into its shell.  Leaf beetles are small and can resemble ladybirds and this is probably true of this one, the fleabane tortoise beetle (Cassida murraea). The fleabane tortoise beetle spends its entire life eating the leaves of the common late summer flowering plant, fleabane. Just imagine, the same for breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea and supper every day of its life and possibly living on the same leaf day after day! It has a reddish orange colour to its casing with dark spots, hence its likeness to a ladybird but close up it becomes obvious the abdomen is a different shape and the thorax is noticeably separated from the abdomen whereas the ladybird is, on the face of it, one complete unit.

Read more: Fleabane Tortoise Beetle: a strict diet | Nature Notes from Dorset

Hairy Birdsfoot Trefoil: a scarce trefoil | Nature Notes from Dorset

Hairy Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus subbiflorus) is a scarce plant in Britain where it occurs on sandy soils near the sea; the heath of Dorset has sandy soil and so this little flower does occur occasionally. It is right on the northern edge of its range here and is much more common across the channel. It is a small plant and has the classic pea-shaped flower that its cousin, common birdsfoot trefoil produces however the flowers are smaller than in common birdsfoot trefoil and a little more lemon coloured when fully out. The flower head clusters contain fewer flowers and the sepals and stem have distinct hairs, hence hairy birdsfoot trefoil.

Read more: Hairy Birdsfoot Trefoil: a scarce trefoil | Nature Notes from Dorset

Dark-green Fritillary: flap flap glide | Nature Notes from Dorset

Three things stand out for me with the dark-green fritillary (Argynnis aglaia) which can help with identification as fritillaries can be quite difficult to tell apart unless you get a good view of them. Firstly, the dark-green fritillary is very much a butterfly of open chalk grassland and downs where there are good quantities of flowering plants to nectar on whereas the other fritillaries would not be seen in such surroundings. Secondly, the dark-green fritillary has a very strong, direct flight and has intermittent glides between wing beats. I am not sure any other species of butterfly actually does this. Finally, it is not dark green! Well, not at first sight at least. This is a wonderful large, orange and brown species but, if you see it at rest on a flower you will see the underside of the wing is, indeed, partly dark green.

Read more: Dark-green Fritillary: flap flap glide | Nature Notes from Dorset

Broad-leaved Dock: the soothing leaf | Nature Notes from Dorset

When it comes to weeds of cultivation I guess there are few so widespread and vigorous as broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius). It is the most sturdy and imposing of the dock family with stout stems, large leaves and elongated flower spikes; it is quite easily recognised as being different to its cousins. Broad-leaved dock can be found on disturbed or bare ground anywhere including farm fields, spoil heaps, hedgerows, waste ground, river banks, even coastal shingle beaches. Growing to over a metre tall, sometimes even bigger it can also in less favourable conditions be as small as one foot tall. The heart shaped leaves are always large being six to eight inches long. The small, yellowish brown flowers occur in whorls around the stem

Read more: Broad-leaved Dock: the soothing leaf | Nature Notes from Dorset

Hoverfly: Epistrophe grossulariae | Nature Notes from Dorset

Epistrophe grossulariae is a wasp-mimic hoverfly that can present a headache for the amateur naturalist!  There are several similar species and it is one reason why a camera is a great aid to identification. Once you have a photograph they can then fly away and it does not matter! This one needed some real time spent pondering the books at home. In the end those parallel and even spaced black lines on yellow clinched it for me. I later had it confirmed by posy=ting the photograph on the wonderful Ispot website run by the Open University.  I found this one by chance along the path from Ringstead to Osmington as it lapped up the last of the sun's warmth before it set beyond Portland. Just as the book says, it was along a woodland edge but near umbel flowers. This is a local species and it was certainly a new find to me.

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

Smooth Meadow-grass: Kentucky blue-grass | Nature Notes from Dorset

I may have mentioned elsewhere that identifying grasses can be difficult and it certainly can be as you can find several related species that have little details that separate them and, unless you specialise in the subject, remembering those differences and spotting them in the field can be a challenge. I find that a grass may look familiar but that I cannot put a name to it. Usually there is a lot of the species about at the point i found it so I take a sample home for inspection! It is the only species group that I do collect very occasionally. Smooth meadow-grass (Poa pratensis) is one of those species I need to take a sample of. Although it is very, very common on dry grasslands, waysides and waste ground it is so like other species of grasses that I am never totally sure of it, the truth lies in the detail! It has a smooth stem and short, pointed leaves. It can grow to anything from 6 inches to over two feet tall but it has no obvious distinctive feature and needs close examinatio…

Field Forget-me-not: the soldiers farewell | Nature Notes from Dorset

Field Forget-me-not (Myosotis arvensis) is the most common of the four species found on dry, cultivated soils or areas of otherwise thin soils and restricted vegetation such as bare patches by footpaths in woods. The small bluish grey flowers are smaller than those of wood forget-me-not and changing forget-me-not has pale yellow flowers. Early forget-me-not is much smaller than 'field' and flowers from March until May whereas field forget-me-not flowers from May onwards so identification should not be an issue. Field forget-me-not is a rather untidy, upright plant growing to about a foot tall, sometimes a bit bigger. The small, five petalled flowers are quite distinctive and well known by most people.

Read more: Field Forget-me-not: the soldiers farewell | Nature Notes from Dorset