Showing posts from November, 2015

Megachile centuncularis: the patchwork leaf-cutter bee

Leaf-cutter by name because a leaf cutter by nature. Leaf-cutter bees cut pieces out of leaves, often rose leaves in gardens, to make cells in their nests in to which they lay their eggs. They nest in crevices above ground, often in decaying wood and old walls, sometimes in garden canes.  There are six species of leaf-cutter bee in the British Isles and this one, the patchwork leaf-cutter (Megachilecentuncularis), is a southern species and the one of the most encountered as it does have a liking for gardens and your best roses. However, it is such a fascinating and entertaining little creature I think you would have to forgive it for any limited damage it might do. They use leaves for nesting but visit brambles and thistles for food. Just under half an inch long they can be seen from late May through until August by which time their work is done and their larvae are snug inside their leafy nests until

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False Oat-grass: the tall meadow oat

By venturing into the world of oat-grasses I am entering difficult territory! In my view this is really the domain of experts and that is something I am not; not even close. The problem is that there are four oat-grass species commonly found in Southern England and whilst the pictures in the books show them as being different trying to distinguish them in the field, even with a book to refer to, is a tricky business. False oat-grass (Arrhenatherum elatius) has "stems, sometimes swollen at the base. The spikelets are shining with two florets and a long, straight awn. Leaves with a blunt ligule" (Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter.) I rest my case, I frankly struggle with that even though I reckon I know what spikelets, florets, awns and ligules are. Flowering from May through until September you can find false oat-grass on roadside verges, waste ground, meadows and other 'grassy' places. It can also colonise limest…

Small Toadflax: the dwarf snapdragon

Small toadflax (Chaenorhinum minus) is not a flower one encounters on nature reserves very often as arable land, which is its stronghold, rarely features on reserves. I have only seen this in the fields near Ashley Wood that one crosses to get to the wood from Tarrant Rushton. In the fields here it is quite common and I suspect that it is common elsewhere in north Dorset where wild flowers are given a chance. This is often in the corner of fields where the sprays do not reach and sometimes on footpaths that run across fields where the crops are thin. Small toadflax is an attractive little plant having classic small snapdragon flowers on a slender, hairy stalk. Several purple and yellow flowers occur alternately up the central stem. Several stems come from a central root to make a small bushy plant. It flowers from June until October. This plant is also known

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Lasioglossum calceatum: the slender mining bee:

Whilst walking across the downs at Durlston one day in summer I could not help but notice hundreds of small holes in the bare ground on the path and lots of small insects either flying around or at rest near by. I was eventually able to find one at rest long enough to get this photograph. Given the insect itself was only a few millimetres long this photo came out quite well and I was able to get an identification, it is the slender mining bee (Lasioglossum calceatum). This is a common mining bee in southern England and can be seen from April through until October and I saw it in May just as its breeding activity was beginning to get under way, hence all the activity. Whilst the are solitary bees, that is to say they do not have a hive with queen and workers, the do seem to like to nest in colonies. Being a mining bee it digs a small nest in underground and that is why the path was peppered with small holes. The Latin name suggest a preference for calcareous soils and that is certainly …

Teal: the yellow peril

Every winter the number of immigrant birds builds all along the south coast and especially in Dorset around Christchurch Harbour, Poole Harbour, Radipole/Lodmoor and the Fleet. Amongst the incoming birds are waders, geese and ducks and, surprisingly to me, it seems that the teal (Anas crecca) is not only one of the most numerous but also the most overlooked by the casual observer.  I think some inexperienced bird watchers may dismiss them as mallard because of the green on their head. Although closely related to mallard, teal are easily distinguished as they are much smaller and have a clearly visible yellow triangle to the rear, under the wing. This yellow is visible, especially through binoculars, from a considerable distance and is the essential mark of the teal. I think it is also true to say that they are a more social bird than the mallard and tend to keep together in quite large flocks, often a few hundred, some times a thousand, together.  Generally found on our salt marshes a…

Heath Bedstraw: the acid test

Depending on common English names to identify plants can lead to mistakes but in the case of heath bedstraw (Galium saxatile) you are on fairly safe ground (as long as the ground is acidic!). Heath bedstraw is by far the most common member of the bedstraw family to be found on heaths and acid grasslands. In fact, in Dorset, you can be pretty sure that it is the only one. Heath bedstraw in a low growing, somewhat sprawling plant that can form quite large mats of vegetation. The creamy white flowers appear from May through until August and, if you get down on your hands and knees and have a sniff you will find them fragrant. I would say that this plant is most common in dry, grassy areas but it can occur amongst heather and can even colonise rocky areas.

Redleg: new name same game

I recently purchased an excellent new field guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland (by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter) and I discovered that this plant I had always known as redshank is now named as redleg (Persicaria maculosa). The reason for the change is, I think, quite obvious. It is to avoid confusion with the bird of the same name, the common  wader with red legs known as the redshank. The name may have changed but the distinctive features are, of course, still the same! It is a member of the dock family, the polygonums. It is a sprawling plant, very variable in height and usually growing in large clusters. The distinctive feature is its central stem which is, inevitably, red and it has small pale red flowers which are in fact clusters of smaller flowers. Just to be sure, look for the triangular black smudges on the leaves. This a very common plant of bare, damp ground and is often found on farms and in meadows where tractors or Land Rovers have m…

Hoverfly: Helophilus hybridus

Hoverflies are both fascinating and baffling! I confess to being a real fan of them and I marvel at their ability to go from nought to gone in a fraction of a second and their ability to hover in a stationary spot before suddenly darting off. The ability of some species to mimmic bees, wasps and even hornets and to enter the nests of these host species and lays eggs is a marvel to me. Despite being very keen on them I find identification very difficult and often they need examination in great detail to a reliable conclusion. Having had experts look at this photograph I can be pretty sure it is of a species called Helophilus hybridus rather than of its close cousin, Helophilus pendulus. It is a female 'hybridus' because over half of the hind tibia are black whereas in 'pendulus' it would be about a third of the hind tibia that is black!  As I said, identifying hoverflies is difficult but that

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Wild Oat: sewing but not reaping

It is easy to forget that our modern cereal crops were developed from wild varieties of common grasses. It is when one finds a grass and then identifies it as wild oat (Avena fatua) that this is brought home. Even though the family resemblance is there the wild and the cultivated oat differ in many ways and although related it does not take much wild oat to grow amongst cereal crops to cause problems in harvesting. Wild oat has very delicate spikelets on fine stemmed branches, several (five or six) emanating from hubs at intervals along the central stem. The spikelets are covered in fine, silky hairs. The sheath-like leaf comes at the bottom of the stem. Flowering from June until September it can be found quite frequently in

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Early Forget-me-not: between a rock and a hard place

I suppose the early forget-me-not (Myosotis ramosissima) is not really a weed of cultivation,it is a small plant that manages to survive in dry, barren places and that includes pavements and gutters. It grows quite readily on the roadsides here where I live. It can also be found on rocks and walls near the sea. It is a small plant, probably due to lack of nutrition from the hostile environments it grows in and also to its inability to get a firm foothold to support anything bigger. Each flower is tiny but indisputably 'forget-me-not' shaped. Usually there is a small cluster of three or flowers at the top of the stem and below that are seed pods from earlier flowers that have been pollinated. Each seed pod is at the end of a small stalk ans the stalks run alternately opposite up the stem. Although my reference book says that this plant flowers from April to June we can see them in flower as early as late February. This is a quite inconspicuous little plant and as such

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Fairy-ring Longhorn Beetle: a chance encounter

Have you ever seen a ring of toadstools on grass in the autumn? Commonly known as fairy rings they are formed by the fruiting body of the champignon fungus. The main part of the fungus is at work in the ground dissolving vegetable matter but what has that to do with this beetle? I love to look closely at bramble flowers in summer, you never know quite what you might find and this chance encounter with a small beetle I did not recognise was to reveal one of the most remarkable associations between species that I have come across. This beetle is known as the fairy-ring longhorn (Pseudovadonia livida) because although the adult beetle lives most of its life nectaring on flowers, its larvae a thrive in soil infested by the fairy-ring champignon fungus! I know some insects are dependent on other insects but an insect dependant on a fungus must surely be unique to this species? Widespread in southern England but not that common it can be found from May until September. Given fairy rings

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Pale Butterwort: a sticky wicket

I expect most of us are familiar with the insectivorous plants known as sundews but perhaps many do not realise that the bogs and fens of the Dorset heath have other such plants that feed on insects; the butterworts. Although much more common on the moors of northern England, Wales and Scotland butterworts can be found here in Dorset and more so the pale butterwort (Pinguicula lusitanica) which has a preference for acidic conditions, its cousin the common butterwort prefers limestone. Butterworts have a single small flower on a slender stem that emerges from the centre of a star of olive green, pointed leaves. The leaves are sticky and insects become glued to them. The leaves then curl inwards to cover the victim and the plant dissolves its prey. A bit of a nightmare scenario for the poor insect! The little flower self pollinates and

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Red-banded Sand Wasp: living down under

Not all wasps are yellow and black and spoil your barbecue or picnic! There are many species of wasps and can be quite variable despite being closely related. Some nest in communities like the familiar common wasp but others are solitary with the females living alone and bring up their young without hordes of workers to help. The red-banded sand wasp (Ammophila sabulosa)  is one of those solitary species. They nest underground and the sandy soil of the Purbeck heaths is ideal for them. They have an interesting way of life; having dug their burrow they then find a caterpillar or other insect larvae, often much bigger than itself, and paralyse it with their sting and then carry or drag the victim back to the burrow. Once underground they lay their eggs on their prey so that the hatchling larvae have a ready made food supply. That may seem a bit gruesome but it is actually no different to us killing a cow for our Sunday joint. The adult wasps can be seen from June through until September a…

Sainfoin: devoured by donkeys

Just one look at this lovely flower, sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia), and you can instantly see that it is a member of the pea family, a legume. Indeed, it is a striking member of the clover family with conspicuous purple flower spikes which make it somewhat unique amongst its cousins who tend to have rounded flower heads. Sainfoin flowers from June until August. Sainfoin was once grown as a fodder crop for farm animals and survives in some grassy areas on lime soils; notably the meadows at Durlston. Although my book describes it as 'frequent' I have only found it there and along the coast at St Adhelms Head. The name, according to Wikipedia, derives from old French sain-foin meaning dry hay and its Latin family name, Onobrychis, comes from ancient Greek and means 'devoured by donkeys'! This is a plant beloved by insects, especially bees, for its pollen and nectar as well as being the food plant of some butterflies. It also has medicinal properties for humans so, all in…

Hoverfly: Parasyrphus vittiger

With experience there comes a time when you see a fleeting glimpse of a bird and you know what it is instantly even though you did not see its plumage colouring or anything else in detail. A well known ornithologist, T A Coward, is credited with making the term popular by using it in a book he wrote in 1922 but whether he invented the term is not clear. There are various suggestions as to its origination but, to me, it stands for 'just is'. "Why was that flash a robin?"; answer "I can't explain, it just is, I could tell by its jizz." What on earth has that got to do with a hoverfly? Well, jizz can apply to virtually anything and sometimes it does not tell you what a species is but it tells you that something you have seen is possibly something you have not encountered before. So it was with this hoverfly, Parasyrphus vittiger.  I was walking on heathland with conifers nearby in September and I saw and photographed this insect visiting the last remaining h…

Shelduck: the shell eating duck

A visit to Poole Harbour at any time of year will undoubtedly yield a number of these handsome ducks. In winter, however, the numbers increase with birds coming south from northern Britain and Scandinavia. The shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) is not actually a duck, and It not a goose either! Scientifically, it placed between the two and actually, it is not hard to see why as it displays characteristics of both. The diet of a shelduck is somewhat different to ducks and geese who tend to be vegetarian. Shelduck eat enormous numbers if hydrobia which are tiny molluscs that live in our estuary mud flats. Molluscs have shells hence the name - shelduck. The duck that eats shells; easy! Males and females are very similar but the male (as in this photo) has a broader brown waste band. Shelduck make their nests in burrows, often those of rabbits. How does such a large bird

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Lucerne: an insectary plant

Much of the wild flora in our countryside occurs as a result of human intervention. Many flowers that we now deem to be 'wild flowers' were originally brought here to adorn our gardens but, through various means, they have escaped to become naturalised. Some are welcome, some not so. Over the years the range of crops humans have sewn and reaped for food or have grown as fodder for farm animals has changed. Once fashionable plants are no longer seen in our fields except where they have self seeded, avoided the sprays and successfully continued to prosper. Once such plant is lucerne (Medicago sativa).  Lucerne is a member of the pea family, it is a clover. Once commonly grown as a fodder crop it still lingers in places. The flowers appear between June and September and vary in colour from violet to rich purple depending on the soil. It is a very popular flower with insects and is planted in some parts of the world to enhance insect activity and to aid pollination of other crops p…

Hoverfly: Meliscaeva cinctella

Whilst a few hoverflies are readily identifiable many are, for one reason or another, very difficult. Despite being armed with a good field guide such as "Britain's Hoverflies" written by two national experts, Stuart Ball and Roger Morris, it remains a significant challenge. Even a photograph cannot help sometimes! Help is at hand, however, in the form of the Open University's iSpot website where experts from across the country keep an eye on photographs submitted and, quite often, they are able to name the species.

So it was with this little hoverfly. After thumbing through the book several times I had absolutely no idea what it was so I put it on iSpot and in no time at all I had the answer, Meliscaeva cinctella.  Armed with this knowledge I was able to go back the book and match my photograph to the image and text there; it is how I learn new things. For the record Meliscaeva cinctella is a woodland species (I saw this one in woodland) that frequents woodland flower…

Tobacco-coloured Longhorn Beetle

The tobacco-coloured longhornbeetle (Alosterna tabacicolor) is a small beetle with huge antennae that are twice the length of the body so it is fully deserving the title of a longhorn (the antennae are not horns of course). The beetlke itself has a black thorax and head but the wing cases (the elytra) are, you guessed, tobaco coloured hence the other part of its common name. This beetle is found in woodlands where the larvae feed on damp, rotten wood, especially soft woods like conifers and so can be found in the Corsican pine plantations in Dorset. The adult beetles visit flowers for food and the best place to find them is on the heads of flowers that occur along the rides and pathways in woodlands. They are widerspread and not uncommon in southern England from April

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Lousewort: the cause not the cure

In areas of damp heath, often where there is grass rather than heather, you will often find lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica). It can also occur in quite wet areas of bog and myre. It is a low growing plant that spreads along the along the ground producing pink or purple flowers that have a top lip that is longer and overhangs three smaller ones along the bottom. It flowers from May until July and the blooms look much like those of the deadnettle family (the labiates) but lousewort is more closely related to the broomrapes and as such is a parasitic plant. Unlike broomrapes which tend to have specific hosts lousewort is more generalist although it seems to have a preference for grasses. Lousewort is actually hemi-parasitic so partly fends for itself and that is why it has green chlorophyll which the true broomrapes lack. Lousewort does not get its name as a an old cure for lice, quite the opposite. It was thought

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Marsh Harrier: hurray for the harrier

OK! OK! I know this is not a good photograph, but the circumstance surrounding it are truly amazing in my view. This is a photograph of one of the United Kingdom's rarest birds of prey, certainly as a breeding species. But that is not all; this photograph was taken in the middle of one of Dorset's largest towns, Weymouth. And that is not all; a pair of marsh harriers (Circus aeruginosus) have now bred in the middle of this large town!  Take a minute to think about that; this is actually one of the most surprising and encouraging successes for bird conservation in recent times. No breed and release scheme here. This is down to planning and careful habitat management to create the right conditions for this bird to thrive. I may be wrong, but the last time this was truly successful was probably in the 1980's at Minsmere and the recolonisation of our eastern marshland by the Avocet. Both projects were the result of expert and excellent work by the RSPB and

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Scarlet Pimpernel: poor mans weather-glass

There can be few more distinctive wild flowers than the scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) and it is one I am sure we can all name on sight. The small, prostrate plant with clear red flowers is instantly recognisable and its popular name is one we learn at an early age. It flowers from May until September and is visible throughout the summer on disturbed ground and so is suited to arable fields and gardens where it is quite common. What else can I tell you about this familiar plant that you will not already know? Very little in fact. One would expect such a popular plant (the emblem of the famous fictional character of the French Revolution of course) to be steeped in folk-lore but I can find nothing of note other than it has an old country name of the poor man's weather-glass because the flowers close up in when the sun goes in. I find it a bit strange that it should be called that given any poor man would know the sun had gone in without needing to look at a flower to tell! Th…

Hoverfly: Volucella zonaria

This hoverfly, Volucella zonaria, is yet another that mimics other, more fearsome, insects; in this case the hornet. Hornets are renowned for having a very painful sting and some people are terrified of them although the number of cases of hornet stings I believe is very low as there are few hornets these days and, in any event, they do not sting unless under threat. Sadly, this lovely, harmless hoverfly can strike panic in to people when it turns up in their gardens looking for nectar supplies. Volucella zonaria is the largest species of hoverfly found in Britain and its appearance as a hornet mimic has a purpose, they lay their eggs in hornets nests but, more often, also in wasps nests where the larvae feed on debris in the bottom of the nest. That disguise certainly helps them avoid attack! This is a fairly recent coloniser of southern Britain being first recorded in the 1930's. After establishing itself in the London area it has now spread west and north and can be found in Dors…

Yorkshire Fog: the iconic grass species

To my mind there is one grass species above all others that speaks for its kind; Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus). As well as being one of our most widespread and common species it is the one that nearly everyone would recognise even if they could not name it. I am probably a bit odd but I think the emerging flower head of Yorkshire-fog is a thing of real beauty, a beauty that my poor photography cannot capture. Found in grassy locations everywhere from meadows to roadside verges to waste ground to open woodland glades, Yorkshire-fog is, to use the favoured Springwatch phrase, the iconic grass species. When first emerging it produces thick, close-knit spikes of purple florets which then open out in to glorious triangular shaped heads with the florets on layers of branches each decreasing in length as you go up the stem with the newest at the top still yet to open, it is like a Christmas tree! The florets become creamy-white as they open. It flowers from July until September and can form g…