Showing posts from September, 2015

Hooded Merganser: expect the unexpected

The hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) is not a part of the nature of Dorset. This one I photographed was a single male at the RSPB Radipole Lake reserve for well over a year and for a while it has became part of the 'furniture'! My reason for including it is to qualify a message I am always anxious to give to budding nature watchers who are keen to find something rare and exclusive. I have always been a numbers person so early on in my bird watching 'career' I understood very well when someone said to me "If you are not sure about which species a bird you have seen is then, out of the options, it is statistically likely to the most common one and you need good evidence to be certain that that is not the case." I have always found those wise words and so, having promoted this message frequently in my nature notes, I felt I should add a rider to it - always expect the unexpected!  The origins of this particular hooded merganser are unknown. A native normal…

Charlock: the yellow peril

We are used to seeing fields of yellow these days, yellow with the blossoms of oil-seed rape grown for the manufacture of cooking oil and butter substitutes. We may think of this as a modern phenomenon but years ago fields were yellow with the flowers of charlock (Sinapis arvensis), also known as wild mustard. Charlock was not grown as a crop, however, as its leaves and seeds are poisonous if consumed in any quantity. Charlock is a fast spreading weed of disturbed soils (mainly on lime or chalk) in fields, waysides and waste areas. Now controlled, where it does occur it is usually present in large, somewhat untidy masses of plants. Like other mustards, charlock is a member of the brassica or cabbage family and has the familiar four-petalled flowers of this group of plants (also known as crucifereae). The flowers emerge up the stems as previous flowers, now lower down, turn to long, cylindrical, smooth pale green seed pods. The plants grow to about a metre tall and have large lobed leav…

Hoverfly: Merodon equestris

Some hoverflies are so good at mimicking bees and wasps they can really throw you of the scent! I spent quite a while trying to identify this thinking it was a bumblebee and in the end, the experts on the I-spot website solved it for me. This is Merodon equestris, a species is so good at being a bee mimic that various colourings emerge, each resembling different bees.  This particular species is also known as the narcissus fly because it lays its eggs in daffodil bulbs where the larvae develop. As a result, this is a species seen often in spring and quite often in gardens. It is thought that the species first came to this country in daffodil bulbs imported from Europe towards the end of the 19th century when gardening was

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Wood Millet: a process of elimination

A number of grass families, the bents, the fescues, the meadow-grasses and others have this familiar 'Christmas tree' flower head or florescence. Close examination of the structure of the flowers, the leaves and other component parts will lead you to the species but for many casual observers, and I include myself in this, distinguishing between grass species can be quite daunting sometimes. It is here that bringing in other factors that one can start to at least narrow down the choice and so it is with wood millet (Milium effusum). First and foremost this is a species of broadleaved woodlands, especially areas within the wood that are damp, and few similar species are likely to be found in this environment. Next, it is a very tall grass growing to around four feet and that, too, is uncommon for species with these types of flower heads. Finally, the flowers are actually quite distinctive with the branches some way apart and have pale green spikelets that seem to shimmer in the …

Field Madder: out of the blue

Many of our weeds of cultivation tend to be low growing, sprawling and often quite small. I guess this enabled them to survive during harvesting when this was done in traditional ways, that is with manual labour rather than the extensive mechanisation now employed. Field madder (Sherardia arvensis) is a species that fits this description well. Field madder is a member of the bedstraw family and has the clusters of four petalled flowers that are typical of this group of plants. It also has a square stem that is covered in small hairs. The flower is usually mauve although my photograph may give the idea that they are blue. In some places this is actually known as blue field madder. Like so many agricultural weeds this little plant is far less common than it once was but it can still be found in

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Dead-nettle Leaf Beetle: a shining example

It always seems to me that creatures that are dependent on a particular plant for their survival are taking something of a risk; if anything happens to their host species then they are doomed! I suppose the dead-nettle leaf beetle (Chrysolina fastuosa) does not have to worry too much as its preferred vegetables are dead-nettles and hemp-nettles which are both widespread and very hardy. Chrysolina fastuosa is relatively small (between 5mm to 7mm) but stands out in a crowd due to its brilliant metallic green sheen which can also feature blue, red and gold depending on the light and the age of the specimen. Preferring waterside locations they are clearly visible on suitable vegetation where they feed on the leaves. May be this is where they derive their colouration from? They can be seen from as early as March

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Common Storks-bill: the pinweed

Common stork's-bill (Erodium cicutarium) is a member of the popular family of garden flowers, the geraniums. This group of flowers has one obvious thing in common, when the petals are over and fall the central pistil stands pointed like the long bill of storks and cranes. The larger members of the family are called crane's-bills and the smaller ones stork's-bills; common stork's-bill is a small, sprawling little geranium with the stems often reddish in colour. When one discounts the number of garden varieties that have escaped into the wild there are basically four species of stork's-bill and, of those, three (sticky, musk and sea) are pretty uncommon and will probably not be found in Dorset. Common stork's-bill on the other hand is common and can be frequently found on the Dorset heath. This is interesting because the soil on the heaths is usually acidic and yet my flower guide says it is found in grassy places, especially on lime (alkaline) soils. It does add …

Pochard: playing it cool

My first reaction to this photograph was that it was not a good enough to grace the Internet; then, on reflection, I thought that as my motives are not to display exceptional photographs (because I do not take exceptional photographs) but to show nature as we tend to see it then is a fairly typical view of a pochard (Aythya ferina)! Pochard are related to the tufted duck and are often seen in the company of them, they both favour fresh water locations. In general, however, while the 'tuftie' is an active duck, always going somewhere, doing something, saying something, the pochard is much more laid back. In fact, they seem to spend most of the time drifting around, often with their head under their wing like this one. Not as common as the tuftie, the pochard has unmistakable grey flanks and an attractively coloured maroon neck and head; rusty coloured perhaps hence ferina - 'of iron'. When the head comes out from under the wing it is often hunched up with little trace of …

Black Mustard: the spice of life

Like dandelion-type flowers, yellow members of the cabbage family (or cruciferae) can also be a challenge in the field. Quite often it is the seeds that help distinguish between the various similar species. Most members of this family, also known as brassicas of course, flower up the stem in sequence so you get active flowers at the top and below the seeds formed from earlier flowers and these seeds can give you a vital clue. In black mustard (Brassica nigra) the seed pods turn upwards and run very close to the stem which, although not unique to this species, it is a help. Black mustard is certainly a weed of cultivation and can be found on disturbed ground almost anywhere but it seems to favour coastal areas, especially sea cliffs, and that is where I have generally found it in rough and ready areas on cliff tops. The books suggest that it also likes river banks and waste places so expect it anywhere! It is not common but where it occurs it can be all over the place. This plant is grow…

Hoverfly: Helophilus pendulus

If you have a pond in your garden you will almost certainly find this smart hoverfly, Helophilus pendulus, nearby. It is one of the easier hoverflies to identify because it has yellow vertical stripes on its thorax, the only really common species that has this feature. It has a cousin, Helophilus hybridus, which is far less likely to be encountered. This is a common and very widespread species found all over the United Kingdom. Its larvae have been found in farmyard drains, very wet manure and very wet old sawdust (who on earth looks at these sorts of things?) and so is a very versatile and adaptable little creature. Whilst having a passion for shallow ponds, puddles and ditches it can be found well away from water and as well as having a liking for flowers it can also be found sat on leaves basking in the sunshine

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Reed Sweet-grass: not the common reed but a common grass

Reed sweet-grass (Glyceria maxima) is a tall, waterside grass found by freshwater lakes and ponds, slow moving rivers and in ditches. It is quite common and until you know it even exists it would be easy to assume this is the common reed, Phragmites.  Once you know then the differences are quite obvious. Firstly, reed sweet-grass does not grow as tall as the common reed and it does not form such large, dense patches. The flower heads are much greener than common reed and actually are formed quite differently if you compare the two. The flowers are in full flow in July and August. The leaves are narrower and there is a brown mark on the stem by the leaf junction.  I can find no explanation as to why it is called sweet-grass but

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Greater Plantain: down trodden but thriving

I do not think it is unfair to say that greater plantain (Plantago major) is one of those flowers that people just take for granted, hardly notice or just ignore. I suppose that is partly because it is so common, partly that it is rather nondescript and partly because it does not even look like a flower! Greater plantain is basically a green plant; a basal rosette of green leaves, a green stem and a cluster of green flowers forming a series up the stems. It can be quite variable in size being quite small and insignificant or as much as 40 centimetres tall and quite imposing. It perhaps looks more like a member of the fern family than a flowers, adders-tongue fern comes to mind. This is certainly a common plant occurring along paths where it is typically quite small, in farm yards and farm fields, in gardens and lawns, and just about anywhere there is bare or well trodden ground. In damp places it tends to grow larger

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Tufted Duck: the model for Donald

I can't help thinking that the model for Disney's Donald Duck, was in fact, our tufted duck (Aythya fuligula)! Although the tufted duck is widespread, almost always on fresh water lakes and ponds, throughout Dorset it is far more common in winter as extra reinforcements arrive from the frozen north. It is a quite distinctive duck too, its white sides being a marked contrast to the dark metallic blue/black of the back and head. Early in the year its breeding crest is clearly visible. The only duck you could confuse this with is the scaup which is a close relative but generally found on salt water, out at sea in bays and estuaries. This photograph is, of course, of the male, the female is very similar but the white is replaced by a less conspicuous buff and the crest is much shorter. The tufted duck is a diving duck, as opposed to a dabbling duck, so it will frequently disappear beneath the surface of the water before popping up again a few feet away

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Heath Milkwort: the thyme leaved milkwort

The dryer areas of the Dorset heaths are not well known for the array of flowers to be seen; heathers are the dominant species of course and there is little scope for much else. However, between May and September this tiny little flower, the heath milkwort (Polygala serpyllifolia) holds its own, especially along footpaths and areas where the heather is less well established. Going purely by appearance, telling this species from its close relatives, the common and the much rarer chalk milkwort, is quite tricky. However, heath milkwort loves acid soils, the other two prefer chalk, and so that helps to narrow the choice down somewhat. The heath milkwort is smaller and usually a deeper blue, not so bright as its cousins

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Leaf Beetle: Cryptocephsalus aureolus

This beetle may have a big, big name, Cryptocephsalus aureolus but it is a tiny insect, just 5mm or so long. As a result, although common it is frequently overlooked as it lives its life on flowers, usually the yellow flowers of the hawkweed family (like dandelions). They are a wonderful metallic green colour and it takes a close-up lens to really bring the best out of this little chap.  This is one of a large range of species collectively known as leaf beetles because they are vegetarian and feed on plants, many beetles are carnivores feeding on other insects or scarabs feeding on carrion. Not all leaf beetles are metallic green but there are some similar species to this one which are far less common. In fact, I cannot be absolutely sure this is Cryptocephsalus aureolus and not one of its close relatives;

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Field Pansy: wild but not the wild pansy

Our most common wild pansy is not the wild pansy itself but the field pansy (Viola arvensis). The field pansy in its natural state is a delightful small creamy coloured flower but it does hybridise with the wild pansy which is purple or mauve and so sometimes the appearance can vary and, as always with hybridisation, can be quite misleading to a casual observer like me. The pansy is, of course, a familiar garden flower and everyone will surely recognise the familiar shape of the flower, stem and leaves. The garden pansy can also be found in the wild as a garden escape but there should be no difficulty in telling them apart from their wild cousins. As its name implies, the field pansy will be found in arable fields flowering from April through until July but it far from common now it having declined with so many of our 'weeds of cultivation' following the extensive use of herbicides in modern farming, This may be a small, delicate flower but research has shown

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Hoverfly: Myathropa florea

If you can, try and take a close look at the pattern on the thorax of this hoverfly, Myathropa florea; my book describes it as being like the Batman logo and when I looked again after reading that I could clearly see it! As a result there should be no mistaking this species when nectaring on a late summer plant. The larvae of Myathropa florea are known as the rat-tailed maggot! They are very common in anything that holds water, even plastic containers such as watering cans. It is, actually, a woodland breeding species but in late summer they are happy to spread out and find suitable breeding water anywhere they can. A widespread and abundant species

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Common Reed: thatching and weaving | Nature Notes from Dorset

Despite being called the common reed (Phragmites australis) this is not a reed at all, it is a species of grass; its wonderful florescence is the sure indicator of this as no reed or rush has anything like it. It may not be a reed but it certainly is common. You can find Phragmites just about anywhere in lowland Britain where there is water! It occurs in fens, swamps, ditches, lakes and on riversides, both in brackish and alkaline waters, even in acid bogs! Although it has the scientific name of Phragmites australis there does not appear to be any direct link to the plant originating in Australia, it is very much a native of Europe. This plant can spread to cover large areas and forms an invaluable habitat for birds. Here in Dorset, of course, some parts of Poole Harbour, Christchurch Harbour, Radipole Lake and Lodmore all have vast Phragmites reed beds. If you want to find bearded tit or cettis warbler, water rail or bittern, or even marsh harrier, then it is a large Phragmites bed yo…

Ivy-leaved Speedwell: small and hairy | Nature Notes from Dorset

Many of the speedwell family of flowers seem to have a preference for disturbed or cultivated ground and ivy-leaved speedwell (Veronica hederifolia) is certainly one of them. Like so many weeds of cultivation it is a prostrate and sprawling plant that spreads over quite large areas when it gets the chance. The flowers on this plant are quite small and insignificant and seem to readily fall off when touched. The leaves are vaguely similar to ivy leaves, as the name would imply, but I have to say that in my opinion the resemblance to ivy is not convincing! However, the leaves are a different shape to the other speedwell species which may help in identification.  The stems and leaves are very hairy too as my photograph seems to have captured. Where it occurs

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Lagria hirta: a darkling beetle | Nature Notes from Dorset

This small beetle is one of the family Tenebrionidae which are known as darkling beetles, so named as nearly all of the species in the family are dark brown or black. Lagria hirta has a black head, body and legs but the wing cases (the elytra) are a lovely copper brown, the exact colour tends to vary with the light as it has an almost metallic finish. It is also a rather hairy insect and 'hirta' comes loosely from the Latin for hairy. This is a common species in mid-summer and can be frequently found on flower heads, especially bramble flowers, in dry habitats. Eggs are laid in the soil and the hatching larvae then feed in the decaying leaf matter underneath the flower or shrub, pupating in autumn and overwintering in that state until emerging as an adult in May or June.

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Broom: a clean sweep | Nature Notes from Dorset

Broom (Cytisus scoparius) is very much like a spineless gorse and you could be forgiven for dismissing it as gorse at first glance. Both are members of the pea family and have bright yellow pea-shaped flowers but that is where the similarity ends. They may be related but not closely; broom has no spines, it has totally smooth stems without even any hairs. Its stems are green all year round and it has tiny leaves which none if the gorses have. Broom looks as if it is evergreen but technically it is not, it does shed its leaves but because the stems stay green it gives the impression of being an evergreen shrub. Out on the heaths from April until July it is common on dry, acid soils across the British Isles. On the Dorset heaths it tends to be patchy but where it does grow it is likely to be very common. It can be one of the first species to colonise an area affected by fire. On hot sunny days in August (if we get any) you can hear the snap of the seed pods as they dry out and burst open…

Shoveler: beak almighty | Nature Notes from Dorset

Without being too personal that certainly is one almighty beak! That said, it is a really effective feeding tool. The shoveler (Anas clypeata) does what it says on its label, shovelling its food up by taking in large amounts of water and filtering it out through the sides of that large beak and digesting what is left. Often, you will see little lines of them with the leader disturbing the water and the ones behind in its 'slip stream' benefiting from the stirred up water. This is another duck that is far more common in Dorset in winter than summer with inward migration from the north where you will find them mainly on fresh water, especially in areas where there are reed beds or marshy areas. They particularly like scrapes on nature reserves and

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Dwarf Mallow: the buttonweed | Nature Notes from Dorset

The mallow family are attractive flowers, attractive enough for some species to be grown 'intentionally' in gardens. Most of this family however, are happy growing unintentionally any where there is bare ground, often by the sea, but dwarf mallow (Malva neglecta) prefers farmyards and the corners of fields. Like many 'weeds of cultivation' dwarf mallow is a low growing and rather sprawling plant putting out stems across the ground rather than upwards with the flowers then forming from these steems at ground level. I wonder if that has come about to help it survive the reaping and other farming activity going on at a higher level? Whatever the reason the flowers are quite small, with five petals and a lovel pale mauve colour which I am not sure more photograph reproduces very well. These small flowers at ground level give it its other name

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Hoverfly: Eristalis pertinax | Nature Notes from Dorset

In late summer we have many flowers of the daisy family in full bloom, especially thistle, knapweed and fleabane. These are ideal places to take a closer look for insects, especially hoverflies. One of the most common species is this one, Eristalis pertinax. It is quite a large insect with a slightly pointed or tapered abdomen which is unique to this member of the quite similar species in the Eristalis family. The abdomen is black but with two noticeable white lines across. The thorax is bright orange but with a dark X shape on it. This insect is actually on the wing continuously throughout the summer from March to November but as adults only live three or four weeks it means that there must be almost continuous broods throughout the spring, summer and autumn. Larvae have been found in farmyard drains

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Wood Melick: an ancient woodland indicator | Nature Notes from Dorset

As with plants in general some grasses thrive in their preferred habitat and are rarely found anywhere than in those conditions that suit them best. Many plants cannot survive in the shade of woodland or hedgerows but wood melick (Melica uniflora) manages to admirably. Rarely found outside of old woodlands on dry and often chalky soils it flowers in May and June even though the leaf canopy from the trees is at its most dense. Growing up to two feet tall it is a slender but spreading grass with small florets appearing along the upper stems; at first glance they appear heart shaped but on closer examination they are formed of two spiklets alongside each other. The leaves are bright green, long and thin and tend to bend down under their own weight. This grass often occurs with in association with bluebells and ramsons under beech trees

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Grey Field Speedwell: eyes of blue | Nature Notes from Dorset

Our most common speedwell (or bird's-eye) in fields and gardens is the aptly named common field speedwell but there is a close, similar sprawling member of the same family to be found on bare, cultivated ground and that is the grey field speedwell (Veronica polita). Although similar they are not the same, however, and of course there are differences which may go unnoticed at first until one is aware of the existence of them both and their variations. The first and most obvious difference is the flower. The grey field speedwell has a perfectly blue flower with a white centre whereas its cousin has a white lower lip and is generally a much paler blue. The second difference, and it is where its name comes from, is that the leaves are a greyish green colour as opposed to the pale green of the common field speedwell. Both are prostrate plants

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Lily Beetle: the unwelcome guest | Nature Notes from Dorset

We British love our gardens, we have brought plants from all corners of the globe to adorn them. Our garden is a home for any plant we select and allow to live there. Sadly, not so with insects; we are far more selective and will readily resort to chemical controls to keep insects out. If you disagree with that statement then count the pesticide controls on the shelves of your local garden centre. We brought lilies in to Britain from all over the world to grow in our gardens and, naturally, in bringing in the plants we brought in insects that use them as a food source; with lilies that is the lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii). The lily beetle is not an indigenous species, it was introduced by human beings and now, along with other 'invasive' species, they are deemed a pest when they are only doing what they have done since their first appearance in the scheme of evolution - eat lilies!

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Petty Whin: the needle furze | Nature Notes from Dorset

Whilst petty whin (Genista anglica) is similar in many respects to the various species of gorse it is not, in fact, closely related. It is a member of the pea family as, of course, are the gorses and has yellow pea flowers and spines on its stems but closer examination shows some differences, notably that the stems and spines are brown and not green. It also has very visible pea leaves which are not visible on gorse. It can grow up to about a metre tall but is usually much smaller and 'petty' is a corruption of the French for small, petite, while 'whin' is a country name for gorse making this the small gorse but it is very different from the dwarf gorse of our Dorset heaths. In my experience, petty whin is quite uncommon in Dorset and it seems likely it only occurs in a handful of sites on damp heaths. It may be more common across the county border

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Gadwall: calm and collected | Nature Notes from Dorset

The gadwall (Anas strepera) is a very handsome duck! A little larger than its relatives, it has this wonderful mottled appearance with a distinctive white patch in an area of black in the wing which can be seen from some distance. It does not have any other really distinctive features to set it apart from other ducks. The gadwall is another duck that is more common in winter in Dorset. Unlike some duck species that are happy on sheltered water source the dawall is very much a fresh water bird. It is usually seen in the company of other ducks, especially mallard. They strike me as being a very serene, calm bird.

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Small-leaved Knotgrass: devil in the detail | Nature Notes from Dorset

There are many challenges and traps for the casual botanist like me to fall into when trying to identify plants, some species look so much like another that unless you have a super memory for detail making a record in the field can be quite difficult. This is the case with telling small-leaved (or in some books equal-leaved) knotgrass from its close cousin, common knotgrass. They have much in common at a casual glance and are both very common species. There are, however, some little clues that make all the difference. First and foremost, small-leaved flowers a month later (July to November) that common knotgrass (June to November) so, in mid-summer, there is a time when there is only one to chose from. Next, common knotgrass is usually a bigger and more upright plant than small-leaved which tends to be a rather prostrate, even sprawling plant. Next, the flowers of common knotgrass tend towards being pink whereas small-leaved are usually more white or perhaps even greenish. 

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