Parish Nature Notes for May - John Wright

May is always an exciting month to observe wildlife and the exceptional rains of April and early May, followed by hot dry weather later in the month have produced some lush vegetation and a wide range of wild flowers. In addition, birds are nesting and rearing young and increasing numbers of spring butterflies and dragonflies are on the wing.

Viper's Bugloss

Viper's Bugloss

Photograph: John Wright

On 5th May, despite some light rain and a cool breeze, many birds were in full song as I took my regular walk around Wareham Forest and Morden Bog. Resident birds including song thrushes, dartford warblers, skylarks and tree creepers were singing, as were summer visitors such as chiffchaffs, willow warblers, blackcaps and tree pipits. West of Sherford Bridge swallows zipped low over the grass alongside cows chewing the cud and at Morden Park Lake more swallows, house martins and a sand martin took emerging fly life. Meanwhile one great crested grebe continued the patient vigil on her nest with her mate nearby.

Dartford Warbler

Dartford Warbler

Photograph: Aidan Brown

As I passed Decoy Cottage I heard my first cuckoo, much later than usual this spring, but fortunately the first of three or four different individuals heard at separate locations across the Parish later in the month. On our heathland, meadow pipits appear to be the usual target species for the cuckoo when laying its eggs, but other species are sometimes used. On one occasion I saw a male yellowhammer acting very agressively towards a perched cuckoo which may have been observing the female yellowhammer on her nest. High over the old decoy pond, a dozen or more swifts were another welcome sign of spring as they sliced through the air, snapping up small insects.Their remarkable life-style means that they have remained in the air all the time since they left us last August for Africa, sleeping on the wing as they circle at high altitude.

Cuckoo

Cuckoo

Photograph: Aidan Brown

On the 11th May I visited Holton Lee where the reedbeds by Lytchett Bay were alive with the songs of reed warbers, distinguished by their relatively slow-paced and repeated phrases in contrast to the more frenetic and excitable songs of sedge warblers which prefer vegetated ditches and swampy areas with bushes. Nearby, a herd of about 35 sika deer were busy feeding. The herd included a few mature 6-point stags with antlers (soon to be cast), younger males, hinds and yearlings and finally four white deer which also appeared to be hinds. Along the shoreline of the Wareham Channel the first patches of thrift were coming into flower.

Thrift

Thrift

Photograph: John Wright

The next day, my regular walk past Morden Park Lake revealed that the nest previously used by the great crested grebes had been abandoned and there were large volumes of water pouring over the southern spillway. Eventually I located the two adult birds at the far end of the lake but it proved impossible to determine whether one of the birds had any young sitting safely on its back, protected by folded wings. The only positive sign was that only one of the two birds was diving. At the old decoy pond it was good to find a pair of hobbies catchng insects high above the lake before one bird descended and landed in a short conifer by the water. Half a mile further south another hobby was perched in a dead oak tree but as a second bird flew by, it took off and they chased each other in very close formation before one bird lost height and then swept up and past its mate, calling as it did so. These spectacular falcons, whose aerobatic flight enables them to specialise in catching birds such as swallows plus manoeuvrable insects including dragonflies and moths, spend their winters in central Africa before migrating north to breed on our heaths.

Hobby

Hobby

Photograph: Aidan Brown

The next day, west of Organford, but some distance from the Sherford River I saw two beautiful demoiselle damselflies. These exotic insects emerge from the river in spring but then fly some distance away to harden their wings, develop their full colouration and mature before returning to the river to find a mate. Along with the banded demoiselle, which emerges later and whose immature stages tend to favour muddy locations further downstream, these are the largest and most robust damselflies in this country.

Beautiful Demoiselle

Beautiful Demoiselle

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

On the 16th May, after Harold Gillen and I were given special permission to undertake some wildlife recording on the Trigon Estate for the Sandford Heritage Project, we were able to walk along a short section of the River Piddle on the south-west perimeter of the Parish. Here we watched the emergence of another large insect, usually refered to as the fisherman's mayfly. Having spent almost two years as a larva, buried in sand and feeding on fine particles of detritus in the water, this mayfly quickly floats to the surface, breaks out of the larval skin and flies off into nearby emergent vegetation. Trout, taking advantage of this major event and intercepting the emerging insects are so obsessed with feeding that fishermen refer to this emergence period as duffer's fortnight and used to put the emerging mayflies on their hooks before the development of artificial flies.

Ephemera danica - the fisherman's mayfly

Ephemera danica - the fisherman's mayfly

Photograph: John Wright

By the 21st May, as the temperature rose, more butterflies appeared. A male and female brimstone butterfly chased each other through our garden, a green-veined white appeared and, rather unexpectedly, a wall butterfly settled for a while. The wall butterfly has two generations per year and favours rough grassland with bare patches for basking. It is common along the Purbeck coast and elsewhere in May, but can also wander and turn up in gardens occasionally. Last year the first Parish record for this species was on the 31st July on a Sandford Heritage walk in Wareham Forest - clearly a second generation specimen. In the late evening of the 21st May, we also had a second visit by a hedgehog this year, which picked up some tasty morsels below our bird table.

Wall Butterfly

Wall Butterfly

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

The day was hot and sunny as I walked west from Organford Bridge on 25th May. The vegetation on the wide verges of the track was tall and luxuriant and many new flowers were appearing, such as meadow vetchling.Just to give you some sense of the explosion of plant life at this time of year, whereas I recorded just over 180 flowering plants between January and the end of April this year, a further 162 had been added by the end of May. As soon as I walked into the wooded area the sound of great spotted woodpecker nestlings demanding to be fed became obvious and in less than an hour I had walked past three active nests. Once the young have left the nest, the parent birds will have a new set of demands placed upon them as they train the youngsters to find their own food and make them aware of the various threats to their survival. That evening, having driven home after a meeting I got out of the car and a nightjar promptly flew about two feet over my head as it searched for moths around the houses. Clearly, summer had arrived!

Meadow Vetchling

Meadow Vetchling

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

The next day, my regular Wareham Forest/Morden Bog walk provided me with the firm evidence I was hoping for. There, at the far end of Morden park Lake were the pair of Great Crested Grebes and nearby a grey-coloured juvenile swimming on the surface.The previous week I had seen a small head nestling between the closed wings of one adult so I knew that at least one egg had hatched, but here was proof that they had raised one youngster to a size where it would probably survive to adulthood. As I watched at the lake, various damselflies appeared including azure, large red and beautiful demoiselle together with a 4-spot chaser dragonfly, the latter a frequent prey item of the hobby.

Four-spot Chaser Dragonfly

4-spot Chaser

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

The 27th was hot and a walk around the Holton Heath Industrial Estate provided more interest in the way of flowers and butterflies. A small copper butterfly was seen on rough grassland, one or two common blue butterflies appeared near to some common birds-foot trefoil and then, much to my delight, I found several substantial plants of the much less common hairy birds-foot trefoil in full flower. But more was to follow, because as I was taking photographs, a dingy skipper butterfly landed on one of the plants. Although it has to be admitted that this butterfly fully merits its uninspiring name, the truth is that it hasn't been recorded in our Parish before, according to the records held by the Dorset Environmental Records Centre.

Dingy Skipper

Dingy Skipper

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

And finally, the end of May and early June is the time to look for orchids on our heathlands including, amongst one or two others, the southern marsh orchid. This is often a robust bright purple spike with many flowers and unspotted leaves which does best in damp areas.

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Photograph: John Wright