Parish Nature Notes for April - John Wright

April has been declared the wettest on record for England and after a dry and sunny March, it felt as if the brakes had been applied to spring. Summer migrant birds have been delayed, butterflies have been scarce and flowering plants are appearing somewhat later than in 2011. However, the much-needed rain will bring benefit to both plants and insects in May as temperatures rise.

April 1st was sunny and as I walked round Wareham Forest and Morden Bog, there were plenty of chiffchaffs and one or two blackcaps singing. A Kingfisher flashed past me at Morden Park Lake and I was pleased to see that one of the Great Crested Grebes was sitting on a newly-finished but very exposed nest in mid-water.

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

A few days later a male Orange-tip butterfly flew by as it patrolled a lane at Organford.Two of its favourite food plants are garlic mustard and cuckoo-flower (lady's smock) but as neither of these were in flower as yet, I suspect that some were visiting Honesty, growing in nearby gardens. Orange-tip butterflies accumulate distasteful mustard oils from their foodplants during the caterpillar stage and the orange patches on the wings of the highly visible males serve as a warning to birds - once eaten, the experience will not be repeated!

Male Orange-tip Butterfly

Male Orange-tip Butterfly

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

Though cloudy on the 8th April, I heard five dartford warblers singing on Great Ovens Heath and in Morden Bog, a welcome sign that the breeding season was underway. A female mallard on Morden Park Lake with nine chicks and the nesting great crested grebes were a further sign that for resident birds at least, new life was starting. Deciduous woodland is scarce within the Parish and the sight of wood anemones in flower below the lake outfall on the far side of the Sherford River was an unexpected pleasure. Wood anemones are a reliable sign of ancient woodland.

Wood Anemones

Wood Anemones

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

A walk around the southern end of Morden Bog on 13th April when it was still cool but sunny provided me with a good view of a large male sand lizard in full breeding colours basking on a fallen log. Soon afterwards I heard a couple of tree pipits singing from low song posts. These are early summer migrants and normally the first arrivals can be heard singing in late March. As temperatures rose, a male brimstone butterfly appeared and then a green-veined white fluttered onto a dandelion flower to collect nectar.

Male Sand Lizard

Male Sand Lizard

Photograph: John Wright

Soon afterwards I heard the unmistakeable sound of swallows conversing as they moved overhead. For the remainder of the month I've seen small numbers on numerous occasions, battling their way north through strong winds. A cuckoo was reported over a couple of days in the middle of the month and another a week later, but I failed to hear one myself in April this year. There have also been small family parties of crossbills in Morden Bog, but having bred very early in the year they normally disappear by the end of April.

Swallows

Swallows

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

By the middle of the month more flowers were in evidence. The first cuckoo flowers appeared in damp meadows, wild bluebells flowered in small relict patches of woodland and on Great Ovens Heath, lousewort and heath milkwort produced welcome splashes of colour. Lousewort supplements the food it gets from the poor heathland soils by being semiparasitic and using its roots to attach to grasses and other plants to obtain further nutrition. It is now showing particularly well along the middle of the north side of the west-east track across Great Ovens heath which ends in the north-east corner of the reserve.

Lousewort

Lousewort

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

A week later there were a pair of grey wagtails at the Morden Park Lake outfall but a bird I was particularly keen to hear eventually sang from an inaccessible patch of birch and willow trees in the middle of Morden Bog. Luckily redstarts sing very frequently and the sound carries well - this one was about 150 m away. The male redstart is a spectacularly colourful bird, more characteristic of western and northern oak woods in Britain. However, within Dorset, Morden Bog has been the most reliable site to hear and see this bird in recent years.

Male Common Redstart

Male Common Redstart

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

It may seem odd, but one of the best places for various species of wild orchids within the Parish is the Holton Heath Industrial Estate. The soil and spoil under the road verges and some frontages must vary considerably and include calcareous material in places. Last year green-winged orchids appeared in numbers in one location and this year the first few flowering spikes were apparent by 23rd April. These attractive plants are pollinated by bumblebees and require undisturbed ground.

Green-veined Orchids

Green-winged Orchids

Photograph: John Wright

Another walk round Morden Bog on the 27th produced a single redstart singing in the same location but also good views of a couple of male common wheatears on migration. One of them flew from a low conifer onto the track in front of me and proceeded to pick up small items of food with swift darting movements from its initial upright stance. All common wheatears winter in sub-saharan Africa before starting on their incredible migrations. Some breed in Britain but many others continue north-west to breed in Iceland, Greenland and even in Canada. Amazingly, others peel off north east across Asia to Siberia. In autumn both adults and juveniles have to embark on the reverse journey - quite something for a bird weighing a mere 20 to 30 grams!

Male Common Wheatear

Male Common Wheatear

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

A respite from the rain on the 30th provided a chance for a local walk and just beyond the Sandford Community Hall another summer migrant, the lesser whitethroat was producing its characteristic rattling song. A dartford warbler and tree pipit were singing near the gun emplacement on Sandford Heath and a few more swallows flew overhead. In passing the main gate of the Admiralty Research Establishment on Station Road, a young grey squirrel lay on its stomach on the grass, enjoying the heat of the sun. Then a few paces further on, just 20 metres inside the high metal fence, a buck roe deer complete with antlers and still in its winter coat sat on the newly cut lawn eyeing me intently. Another instance of ......if only I had had my camera with me!