Showing posts from October, 2015

Nipplewort: not just another dandelion

Dandelion-type flowers can be a real trial for even the experienced botanist on occasions so what chance have we amateurs got? Well, with a little thought, we have a chance with some and this one, nipplewort (Lapsana communis), is a good start. Nipplewort is a fairly tall plant growing to a metre or more tall and so it cannot be a dandelion. The plant has multiple flowers on shorter branches emanating from a central stem so it cannot be a dandelion. The leaves are not toothed they are fragmented and they do not form a basal rosette but grow out from the central stem so it cannot be a dandelion. The flowers themselves are quite small and simple whereas a dandelion has bold, complex flowers. Nipplewort is a common plant of shady hedgerows and woodland whereas dandelions are found in the open in grassy areas. Hopefully you are getting the idea! Nipplewort is part of a 'subset' of the dandelion family known as hawkbits and, with experience and using the various features of the flowe…

Dung Beetle: Aphodius rufipes

Imagine a world where animal dung stayed forever just as it was when it hit the ground! Nature wastes nothing, however, and fungi get to work on this material breaking it down and so too do species of beetles, the so called dung beetles or scarabs; Aphodius rufipes is one such creature. Mainly nocturnal and spending much time under ground this beetle is rarely seen although is apparently quite common. It is attracted to light and sometimes turns up in my moth trap.  This beetle is just under an inch long and its wing cases (elytra) are anything from dark red to black but the legs are usually red and that makes this species distinctive when compared to other similar beetles. This little chap goes about its work unnoticed but we should

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Heath Speedwell: common gipsyweed

Although heath speedwell (Veronica officinalis) has the classic 'speedwell' petal arrangement with three rounded petals above a single pointed one it is not always immediately obvious that this plant is a speedwell because each flower is so small. When you examine it more closely it becomes more obvious that it is the same family as the more familar germander speedwell of thre common field speedwell, often known as bird's-eye. Heath speedwell is an attractive little plant that grows on heath or acid grassland. It forms mats of haisy lttle plants with each stem having a spike of small mauve, sometimes purple, flowers.  It flowers from May until August and is not that common but where it occurs there is usually quite a lot of it. Also known as common gipsyweed it has medicinal properties and has been used for calming coughs and settling digestive disorders. Back in the 19th Century the French also used the leaves to make a tea

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Dipper: Dipping out

I always associated the dipper (Cinclus cinclus) with fast running streams in the granite country of Dartmoor, Wales, northern England and Scotland so when I moced to Dorset I was surprised to find that dipper occur on the species list of some nature reserves in Dorset. Further research reveals that they are pretty rare in Dorset but do occur in the far west of the county on the upper reaches of the River Frome and on a couple of its tributaries. It is listed as occurring at Kingcombe and Brackets Copse which both have fast flowing streams running through them but how recent or reliable these records are I do not know. The best source of information about this sort of thing is, naturally I suppose, the excellent annual report published by the Dorset Bird Club which seems to suggest a couple of pairs nest on the Frome near Frampton and Maiden Newton where the river is much wider than at KIngcombe or Brackets but still quite fast flowing. I have had a couple of forays across to the far s…

Field Pepperwort: bedded in

When we first moved to Dorset we were fortunate to soon make some new friends who invited us round to their place for tea one Sunday afternoon. As out hosts showed us round their garden I was somewhat concerned to see the flower beds in places were full of field pepperwort (Lepidium campestre). Field pepperwort is a vigorous weed of cultivation and spreads quickly through the masses of seeds it produces. What was I to say? Fortunately the wife of the couple said "I like this flower but I don't know what it is" at which point I was able to tell her. When we next saw their garden there was no trace of the field pepperwort! Field pepperwort is one of those wild flowers that is not that common but where it does occur there is a lot of it. Certainly the wild and waste places around Wareham have a good amount of it as does, or at least could be, our garden. It certainly thrives on thin, bare soils and gardens, arable fields, waste ground, even paths and gutters are ideal for it…

Hoverfly: Volucella pellucens

I have a real soft spot for hoverflies and this one, Volucella pellucens, has a particular place in my heart. When I first got the 'bug' for nature watching my interest was, as it is with many people, in birds but one day in the summer of 1986 I was walking along a country lane with brambles in the hedgerow and I saw one of these on a bramble flower. I guess it was love at first sight! I had no idea what it was but I was mesmerised and took a series of snaps of it and then I had to find someone to identify it for me; thanks to the Southampton Natural History Society I soon found out exactly what it was. With my eyes opened I started looking for insects as well as birds; flowers and everything else soon followed. That encounter with this insect that day changed my whole perspective and opened up a new fascinating world for me. So it is, perhaps, not surprising that this little creature is one of my favourite insects! Volucella pellucens is a striking black and white insect and is…

Soft Brome: bull grass

I have been criticised in the past for applying 'emotional' adjectives to certain animals and plants. It seems describing an flower as beautiful or an insect as ugly is just not scientific and human emotion should be left out of descriptions. However, having been bit of a rebel all my life I am going to do it again and describe soft brome (Bromus hordeaceus) as a very elegant grass species. Soft brome does not grow particularly tall, anything from one to three fee depending on the conditions that exist where it is growing, but it holds its head up proudly and does not bow over like most other bromes. The spikelets are formed in a narrow cluster at the top of the stem and point upwards. The stems and leaves are generally hairy and the leaves are quite small, narrow and pointed, and grow alternately up the stem. Probably the most common species of brome, soft brome grows on roadside verges, on waste ground, in meadows and also on cultivated ground where, naturally, it is considere…

Groundsel: the old man of spring

A quick survey of wild flowers in our garden shows that after the tiny hairy bittercress the rather dull groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) is the next most common species. Whilst the bittercress is the one my wife hates the most, for me it has to be groundsel. I am usually pretty positive about most animal and plant species but I am afraid groundsel is just ... irritating. It is that 'pull on site' weed for me! It is a member of the daisy family although it lacks the white ring of petals, instead having yellow rays a bit like a closed up dandelion. Once they go to seed the flowers certainly look like miniature dandelion clocks. It is variable in height growing anywhere to a foot tall. The leaves are narrow, pointed and have jagged edges.  Groundel flowers all year round and has many country names, one of which the the old man of spring! It is described as being both tenacious and noxious although not considered

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Soldier Beetle: Cantharis nigricans

My first memories of soldiers dates back to pictures of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. I remember seeing the 'reds' and the 'blues' on their horses accompanying the state coach to Westminster Abbey. With soldier beetles we have the 'reds', the so called 'bloodsucker' beetles, and the blues represented by this little chap, Cantharis nigricans. Actually Cantharis nigricans is more grey than blue but for me they are still the 'blues'! There is some debate, it seems, as to why they are called soldier beetles but their bright colours recalling the tunics of soldiers is certainly one reason put forward and understandably so. However, the common red soldier beetle is so numerous in summer it is as though there are armies of them and hence the name of soldier beetle for that particular species and that has then been applied to the family as a whole. Cantharis nigricans is far less common that the red soldier beetle and one does not see armies…

Wood Sage: not one for the pot

Although bearing the name wood sage (Teucrium scorodonia) it is not a woodland plant as one might assume. It is much more frequently found on dry, sandy and acidic soils and, in Dorset, that generally means heathland although not exclusively so. I suspect the name wood sage comes from the woody texture of its stem rather than its preferred habitat. Wood sage is very common in the right habitat and is quite unmistakeable being a stout plant, growing to between one and two feet tall. As I say, it has a sturdy stem and pointed, pale, downy leaves. The flowers are small, pale greenish yellow trumpets that run down the stem. There is no other flower that comes to mind that is quite like it. It is a member of the germander family which are related to mints (or labiates) and bear many features of this group of plants. It is also known as wood germander. This plant flowers from July to September but is visible virtually all year round as it is a sturdy perennial. Although sharing a name with sa…

Grey Wagtail: bridge over troubled waters

There was a time, not that many years ago, when you could stand on any bridge over a Dorset river and you would see a grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), well probably two, a nesting pair. They were quite common birds on streams and rivers where they fed on insects but it seems that now it is quite unusual to see them. Where did they go? Another species whose population level has crashed in the last twenty years or so and yet another indicator that all is not well in our countryside and rivers.  One of the first things you notice about the grey wagtail is that it is yellow! Many people think that they are, in fact, yellow wagtails, but the yellow wagtail is much more yellow than the grey which is so named because it flanks and front are grey.  The two species are quite different in colouration and can easily be told apart, especially when you consider that they frequent very different habitats. The grey wagtail has the long tail that bobs up and down (or 'wags')

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Hairy Bittercress: let battle commence

Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) may be a little plant but, in the wrong place, it can be a big problem! One of the wrong places appears to be our garden where despite my wife declaring war on it the more she attacks it the stronger it seems to come back. In fact, by pulling it out one merely helps to spread its seeds as the pods burst when touched. The seeds can germinate quickly and soon increase the number of plants you have. I try to explain this but the approach remains the same, pull on sight.  It is such a shame that all forms of cultivation and wild flowers seem to be in direct conflict. Hairy bittercress is not a 'looker' as far as gardeners are concerned and so it has to go; and the same applies with other 'weeds' too, of course. Seeds often come in to gardens with plants purchased from garden centres and nurseries. As a cress it is a member of the cabbage (crucifereae) family with four white petals but being a small flower this is not always obvious. It h…

Hoverfly: Volucella bombylans

This hoverfly has a truly remarkable resemblance to a bumblebee and there is a good reason for it; they lay their eggs in bumblebees nests and to achieve this without being attacked by the bees the adult fly disguises itself as a bee! This is not a parasitic species, however, the hoverfly's larvae feed on debris in the bottom of the nest. Volucella bombylans comes in three forms. One looks like a red-tailed bumblebee, the one in my photograph looks like a white-tailed bumblebee and there is a much rarer variety that looks like the common carder bee. This is a widespread and quite common species, especially in woodlands, where the males can be very territorial and defend their territory that they establish in a woodland glade. They may be quite common but

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Barren Brome: sterile oats

The classic and rather lovely falling tassels of oat-like flowers makes barren brome (Anisantha sterilis) one of the more distinctive grasses of our hedgerows and roadsides.  It is quite common and readily occurs in suitable habitat flowering from May until July. The leaves are long and narrow, are a bluish/green colour and hairy whereas the main stem of the plant is smooth. As well as being called barren brome it is also known as sterile brome (the Latin name is sterilis) and poverty brome but I am at a loss as to why it bears these names because the plant is self-pollinating and produces ripe seeds. If it is barren or sterile that would imply that it would not have ripe seeds would it not? Anyone who can shed light on this please let me know. Growing between sea level and 365 meters it can be an invasive species in the wrong place and in some quarters it is deemed an obnoxious weed

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Pineappleweed: a fruit squash

Pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea) has two distinctive characteristics that mean that it should never go unidentified by anyone who takes the trouble to look at it; its petals and its scent. I say that its petals are distinctive but they are distinctive by their absence. When you look at pineappleweed it looks every bit a daisy flower like scentless mayweed or chamomile except the petals are just not there, they have not fallen off, the plant never had any in the first place! Despite this lack of petals the plant obviously manages to pollinate and spread as it is one of our most successful colonisers of waste ground and paths. The central piece of the flower looks a little like a pineapple but that is not how it got its name. The name comes from its second distinctive feature, its scent. Pick a piece of pineappleweed, squash it your fingers and take a sniff. What is that familiar smell? Yes, of course, its smells like pineapple. It seems that this is a native of north America

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Common Whirligig Beetle: never decreasing circles

So, you are not impressed with the photograph? Well, you try taking a picture of a tiny beetle about 5mm long that is charging around in circles on the surface of water! This is my best result yet but I am still trying. There are eleven species of whirligig beetle in the United Kingdom and I am assuming this is by far the most frequent, the common whirligig (Gyrinus substriatus) but without catching one and examining it under a microscope I cannot be sure. The curious habit of swimming rapidly in circles is presumably something to do with hunting for food. They feed on virtually anything that falls on to the surface of water and so either they swim around frantically hoping to find something or there is some clever science at work here, I have not been able to establish which as yet. What is interesting is that they have two pairs of eyes, one for seeing above the water surface and the other below. Jusy how does a tiny creature have the room for four eyes on its head? And how can they p…

Common Dodder: the devils guts

The Dorset heaths are a really different sort of habitat to almost anywhere else in the county with some unique species to be found. One of those is common dodder (Cuscuta epithymum) although actually is not totally a heathland species but it seems it is most likely to be found there because it is a parasitic plant that grows on gorse and heather species. It was once found in corn fields and pasture, clovers are another host, but it has been almost totally eradicated from food growing areas now by spraying. Common dodder is a member of the bindweed family and produces the same 'streamer' stems which entwine anti-clockwise and along which the tiny pink, five petalled flowers form in July and August. Being parasitic it has no roots and does not have chlorophyll as it draws the nutrients it needs from its host hence the stems are red/brown and so merge in with the heathers where it is most commonly found. That, and the tiny flowers, mean that common dodder can be very easily overl…

Reed Bunting: an unfulfilled prophecy

My favourite bird identification book was published back in 1978, the year I started 'birding'. It says "Many birds suffer from human activity but a few show sufficient adaptability to profit from change and the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) is one of these." Back then we regularly had reed buntings in our garden during the winter months and I would frequently see them on farmland around where we were living. Reed buntings then were common!  How things change; those words from my book I quoted seem far from true now. The reed bunting has declined substantially in recent years and is is now nationally and locally scarce, usually seen only in its established habitat of Phragmytes reed beds. It is now on the 'Red List' for endangered species. The reed bunting was dependent on farmland for food in winter but modern farming methods which turn fields green with winter wheat rather than brown with corn stubble has hit this (any many other species too of course)…

Thale Cress: the gutter cress

Living on a development of bungalows build back in the 1960's our roads do not get much attention from the local council. That is not a complaint, I am actually quite pleased as we get all manner of wild flowers growing in the gutters and along the pavements and walls! I had never seen thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) until we moved here back in 2006 but it is quite common around our local roads. Although quite a common weed of cultivation it does not generally occur on lime soils and much of the cultivated fields of Dorset and Hampshire are on the chalk downs. I am sure that is one of the reasons I missed it previously but there is another reason I suspect. Thale cress is a small, frail plant with just a few tiny four-petalled flowers at the top of the stem, easily overlooked in a field but less so in a roadside gutter. The amazing thing about thale cress is that despite its very small flowers they create long, thin, cylindrical seed pods which point upwards. This distinguishes i…

Hoverfly: Eupeodes corollae

Just as many of our wild flowers are coming to an end so the ivy flowers burst out. An inconspicuous flower perhaps but, nonetheless, an invaluable nectar source for late summer insects, especially bees and hoverflies. Here I found one of the wasp-mimicking hoverflies, Eupeodes corollae, taking a rest after enjoying the rewards from a newly opened Ivy blossom.  This group of hoverflies is a tricky one and the pattern of the yellow patches on the back can be a key identifier but they can vary within the same species! In some cases the differences between species can be very small indeed, even down to the pattern of veins in the wings or the presence of hairs on the legs or even the eyes. Eupeodes corollae is one of the most common of our hoverflies and can be abundant in some years, with migratory insects coming in from Europe. It can be found from April through to October and even in to November when conditions remain favourable although it is most common in late-summer. You can find it…

Hairy brome: the woodland oats

Hairy brome (Bromopsis ramosa) is a grass found in woodlands on rich soils and so is also known as wood brome. Bromes tend to have droopy heads with flowers almost like tassels and hairy brome certainly displays those features. Bromes are related to the oat grasses and the florets have longish, thin spiked florets. Hairy brome is quite a tall grass, anything from 1 to 1.5 metres tall and it has long, narrow leaf that has hairs on the surface, hence hence the common name. The flower heads bend forward under the weight of the florets that run along a series of very slender stems, four of five florets to a stem. These flowers are in full flow during July and August. This grass should not be confused with other species although giant fescue might seem similar

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Scentless Mayweed: daisy of the fields

Nobody who has been for a walk in the countryside and crossed an arable farm field cannot have failed to notice this daisy flower and perhaps rather taken it for granted and not given a thought to its name; it is just a daisy. Its common name is scentless mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum) although it is also known as false chamomile. Scentless mayweed is undoubtedly one of our most common weeds of cultivation but it is one of seven superficially similar species and it would be quite possible for the casual observer like me to dismiss them all as scentless mayweed without a second thought. Sea mayweed is found in a different environment but the others are all likely to be found on disturbed soils, usually that means farmland and as a result most of the six have declined considerably in recent times due to the extensive use of herbicides; somehow though, scentless mayweed soldiers on! It is a European species but it has spread to north America where it is considered an obnoxious weed.  …

Soldier Beetle: Cantharis livida

One of the soldier beetles it may be but Cantharis livida does not have a bright military uniform nor does it come in armies! It is, of course, related to the much more common 'bloodsucker' beetle that can be found in hordes during the summer months on umbel flowers and thistles, but is much less common although widespread across much of the country. It is a little bigger than the 'bloodsucker and less colourful. Cantharis livida is an insect that favours shrubby grassland and open countryside where it hunts small insects on flower heads and leaves. Its larvae are predators too, feeding on the ground on snails and earthworms. The adult beetle can be seen from April through until August but they are at their peak in June and July.

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Marsh Gentian: the trumpet major

There is little doubt that some flowers have a special aura about them, a mystique perhaps that will bring enthusiasts from far and wide to see them. Orchids are, of course, the obvious example but the marsh gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe) is certainly another speciality that is actively sought by many. I know this to be true as I have emails from several people asking me where they can see marsh gentian whilst visiting Dorset. The beautiful blue flowers are pretty unique amongst native British flora and the fact that they are far from common must help to make them special. Not only are they quite rare they grow and prosper in inaccessible places in boggy areas of heath, flowering from July until early September. They can be found in various places on the Dorset heath where conditions are suitable but they are not always that easy to find. Undoubtedly the best and most accessible display I have found is on Hartland Moor between Wareham and Corfe Castle. Discovering the blue trumpet flow…

Red-breasted Merganser: pass the comb please

When watching birds at sea one rarely gets a good view. The bird may be some way off, the light may be poor, the continual motion of the waves keeping the subject moving out of the field of vision of your binoculars and then, to cap it all, it dives beneath the surface! Despite that it is still often possible to make a positive identification through little signs. Plumage colouration is only a part of the overall picture as I think this photograph shows. Obviously it is a 'duck' and it is on the sea so that narrows down the choice straight away and then, in profile, two key features are visible. The bird has a longish pointed bill, far from duck-like, and it looks like it needs a good feather brush to sort its head dress out! So with a distant view and no colours to go on this can still be named, a red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator). This is a form of duck, it is one of a family known as sawbills as they have a serrated bill to help them secure fish beneath the waves. They…

Dames Violet: evening fragrance

Dame's violet (Hesperis matronalis) is a member of the cabbage or crucifereae family; in fact it is one of a sub-group of the family we know as stocks and it is often cultivated in gardens. In Britain wild specimens are likely to be garden escapes. Being a cabbage the flower has four petals but, just to confuse, these petals can be coloured lilac, purple or white! The flowers are highly fragrant and that is where the link to violets comes in, not from the colour or shape of the flower as it is not related to the violet family in any way. Flowering from May until August, Dame's violet can be found in the corner of fields and on waste ground, occasionally one might encounter it in hedgerows. This is not a rare plant but it is not one I encounter regularly. It can grow up to a metre in height and it can be a rather untidy plant towards the end of its flowering period. Where it occurs there are likely to be several plants. Having established where the link to violets comes from (the…

Hoverfly: Sericomyia silentis

At first sight this might look like a very large wasp - I certainly thought it was as it flew quickly in front of me. It was not until it came to rest on some bracken that I got a good look and could see it was a hoverfly and not a wasp at all!  Sericomyia silentis is a large insect and it is widespread in Britain according to my reference book  It goes on to say that this insect inhabits boggy heaths, acid wet meadows or woodland clearings and margins with similar peaty or sandy soil. Now, as habitat like that is not widespread, I find it hard to understand how the insect can be! However, it does explain why I found this one on Hartland Moor, near Wareham in Dorset. I have a bit of a soft spot for hoverflies and despite its size and wasp-like appearance this was a really docile little beast who obligingly stayed put despite the intrusions of my camera lens! Many hoverflies are wasp mimics, it gives them some degree of protection it is believed but they are, of course,

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Giant Fescue: just shading it

How big does something have to be to be considered a giant? I guess it needs to tower over its relatives? Well, giant fescue (Festuca gigantea) grows to around 1.5m whereas tall fescue tops that at 2.0m. Still, English common names are often misleading and 1.5m or five feet tall is pretty gigantic compared to many grasses. Superficially giant and tall fescues are similar in structure but the florescence of giant fescue opens out in to a lovely spray of almost oat-like hairy florets. Close inspection reveals various differences between these two species and the experts will tell them apart readily. For me, though, it comes down to the fact that tall fescue is a plant of grasslands and is also frequently in sunny hedgerows whereas giant fescue prefers shady places like woods and the dark side of hedges. This difference in habitat preference is not a total clincher but it is a good start! Recent research has indicated that this may not actually be a member of the fescue family and there is…

Common Cornsalad: lambs lettuce

There are some difficult challenges for the casual nature enthusiast where botanical knowledge is, shall we say, sketchy! That is the case with me, I can cope with some of the dandelion/hawkweed issues but then species like the cornsalads are beyond me. I label all cornsalads I find as common cornsalad (Valerianella locusta) whereas, in reality, it is possible that they could be one of the others. Cornsalads are members of the Valerian family and are generally small plants each with small clusters of blue or violet coloured flowers. There are five similar species and there are differences in structure but examination of the seeds (or fruits) is the only real way to come up with a certain identification. Common cornsalad is, indeed, by far the most common and then narrow-fruited, keeled-fruited, broad-fruited and hairy-fruited can all be found in Dorset although broad-fruited I believe is more likely to be found in Hampshire. All of these species grow on arable land as well as places whe…

Green Dock Beetle; the metal reflector

The green dock beetle (Gastophysa viridula) is one of several beetles that have a shiny, metallic sheen. Although primarily green they can also show gold, bronze and brass colours depending on their age and the brightness of the daylight in which you see them. The legs in this species are also metallic green which may help in identification from similar species. Small beetles, the males are around about 5mm in length and females slightly bigger, they have distinctively separate head, thorax and abdomen body parts. They are part of the grouping known as leaf beetles and for good reason; as their common name implies they are generally found on dock leaves and their larvae can only develop if feeding on docks. They can strip leaves bare in a fairly short time and one often sees dock leaves with just veins and no 'flesh'. Rhubarb is a member of the dock family and this species can be a pest if they get established. If you go to pick one off of a leaf it will instantly drop to the g…

Marsh Pennywort: the answer lies in the leaves

The vegetation in wet areas of heath is, naturally, very diffferent to that of dry heath. Whilst some plants occur in both, in general each species has its preference for areas of wet mire and bog or dry, sandy soil. It should not come as a surprise, then, that marsh pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris) favours damp bog and fen. It also has a preference for acid conditions so the wet areas on the Dorset heaths is a place you are likely to find it.  If you are looking for a flower to identify it by you are most likely going to struggle because the flowers are very small, green in colour and are formed in a tight ball so although flowers are present from June in to August they are not readily visible! Fortunately the leaves are quite distinctive being disc-like forming a very shallow cone. The leaves recall water-lily in some ways as they tend to float on standing water if present. Not over common in my experience but where it does occur

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