Spring Sunshine

It’s been a glorious Spring week here. The temperatures are creeping over 20°C but there is still a pleasant breeze meaning it’s ideal for getting out and watching wildlife. I haven’t seen any clouds for days- here’s a blue tit to show off the blue sky.

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And another bird surrounded by blue sky is my local great spotted woodpecker.

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I’ve seen and heard woodpeckers a lot in this small patch of trees over the last few weeks. It’s the time of year of their drumming display. Both sexes drum at trees as a way of making first contact with potential mates. An unpaired male can drum as many as 600 times a day! Interestingly these woodpeckers have a gender equal society with both sexes drumming, excavating a nest, incubating eggs and looking after young after fledging.

This week has seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of butterflies around. I’ve so far seen brimstones, peacocks, large whites, orange tips, red admirals and speckled woods.

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It’s amazing what a difference a week can make- last weekend there were no speckled woods to be found whereas this weekend they seem to be everywhere. These butterflies have interesting mating behaviour. Male speckled woods either find a sunny spot and defend it from other males, waiting for a female to come along or patrol the forest actively looking for females. The females are monandrous, meaning they only mate once in their lifetime, and have to make the decision to mate with either a defender or a patroller.

Today I ventured up into the New Forest where I was treated with some magnificent views.

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I mainly hoped to see some reptiles and eventually I got lucky and found this slow worm.

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I thought at the time that this was a particularly long individual. In hindsight I should have placed an item near it for scale. These legless lizards are supposed to grow up to 50cm long but I am convinced this one was longer.

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It’s frustratingly impossible to know quite how long it was but it’s clear this was a particularly long individual. It was calm and basking in the sun to warm up and was happy for me to have a close look at it.

There were lots of birds hopping around on the gorse and under the heather and eventually I managed to get a good look at one and discover they were meadow pipits.

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Meadow pipits are the main host bird for cuckoos in the New Forest. Interestingly I heard a cuckoo calling today which seems remarkably early. I’ve been keeping an eye on the BTO tagged Cuckoos (see here) and Selborne, who was tagged in Hampshire, is only in the North of Spain whilst all the others are still South of the Sahara! That all suggests that the cuckoo I heard today is a really early arrival and likely hasn’t been in the forest for more than a few days.

I was saddened to learn this week of the extreme plight of New Forest curlews. Over the last 12 years the numbers of Forest curlews have fallen by two-thirds, from about 100 breeding pairs in 2004 to just 40 in 2016. At this rate they could become extinct in Southern England in as little as twenty years (Full story).

The main reason being attributed to this decline is nest disturbance. Curlews are ground-nesting birds and it’s likely that nests are being disturbed by runners, walkers and dogs who are not keeping to the main tracks. People seem to think they have a right to go anywhere on the Forest and this is the impact of it.

Anyway, let’s hope the good weather continues into this week and I’ll see you again soon for more.

Top Birds

The results to the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch 2017 came out this week and as always, make for interesting reading.

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This isn’t too far off for our garden, though we have considerably more starlings than house sparrows. We regularly have as many as thirty starlings descend on the garden, squawking and fighting for access to the food. It’s easy to imagine that starlings are doing well when we see that many around but numbers have decreased 79% since the first birdwatch in 1979.

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It’s also bad news for greenfinches whose numbers have fallen 59% in the same year. This is much more noticeable here as they were one of our most common birds and now we never see them at all. They have fallen victim to Trichomonosis disease which is why cleaning bird feeders is so important.

Still, at least it’s better news for other species. Since 2007 goldfinch numbers have risen 44% and robins have gone up by 24% in the same time. Both are regular visitors to our garden and I’ve particularly noticed a large number of robins in the area at the moment.

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The bushes around my patch are teeming with birds at the moment and it’s delightful. A couple of my favorites have been this pied wagtail sat on dead wood in the middle of the River Avon and the long-tailed tit hopping around the brambles nearby.

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One day this week the great crested grebe came unusually close to the shore of the fishing lake giving me a clear view of the beautiful bird.

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I’ve spotted my third butterfly species of 2017 this week, the lovely comma.

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When they close their wings commas look a lot like dead leaves and with only early growth on bushes I found it tricky to watch the two I saw. There are actually two forms of commas. This form has a darker underside so as to survive the winter in the dead leaf disguise. The other form develops directly to sexual maturity and has a lighter underside as it has no need to survive the winter.

An invertebrate I’ve seen a lot this week is the Melanostoma scalare hoverfly. You can see it here at the top of a dandelion flower.

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This species is very common, found in most of the ‘palearctic zone’ (that’s essentially Europe, Northern Asia and Northern Africa) and even as far South as Zimbabwe and New Guinea. Despite how common this species is hardly anything is known about it! It visits a large variety of flowers which suggests it’s probably an important pollinator and is thought to be a predator of small insects in leaf litter. It’s amazing that something can be so common yet we know so little about it.

Nettles are really important for insects and have just started going into flower recently. This is a red-dead nettle, an important species for many moths and is a prominent source of pollen for bees at this time of year.

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I’ve also seen white-dead nettle, which is also very good for bees. Neither of this nettles sting, hence the ‘dead’ part of their names.

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That’s all for today, see you next week!

The Egg Thief

I will start today’s post with an update on the nests I have been following. Last week I introduced you to the collared dove that is nesting on the bracket of our satellite dish. It had laid two eggs.

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Yesterday there the mother was not sat on the nest which has been very unusual over the past week. I went and had a closer look at the nest from an upstairs window and discovered it was empty. Something had taken the eggs.

We have a magpie who is a regular visitor to our garden and it is likely it found the nest and ate the eggs. It’s easy to feel sad about this but it’s nature. The magpies will be laying eggs soon so this meal can help to give them the energy to build their nest and look after their young. Our collared doves will likely try again elsewhere and maybe they will have learnt their lesson about building a nest in such an obvious place. Only a few hundred yards down the road is this nest which is harder to reach.

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Having better luck are the Bournemouth peregrines who this week managed to lay another two eggs, bringing the batch up to four (the same as last year).

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The eggs should start hatching around the 20th April. At the moment the eggs are being incubated virtually 24/7- this experienced pair certainly know what they are doing.

With Spring well and truly underway, the early butterflies are now fluttering around. I’ve seen a fair few brimstones around and also some peacocks which look absolutely stunning in the Spring sunlight.

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I have also noticed plenty of early bees and hoverflies buzzing around too. You would have thought pollen was limited at this time of year but this Tapered Drone Fly (Eristalis pertinax)  is covered in it!

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Fortunately I saw this adult rather than the maggot form as they sound really unpleasant. Tapered drone flies have ‘rat-tailed maggots’, the long tail acting like a snorkel as the organism breathes underwater. These larvae prefer water badly polluted with organic matter such as drainage ditches and pools around manure piles and sewage.

Not far away I saw some roe deer in a field.

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There were six deer here, five does and one buck. I can’t work out where these deer come from. There is the herd I usually see by the Avon not too far away and the lower New Forest deer are even closer but from either direction the deer would have to walk through built-up areas.

These deer will lose this site soon. A large development is being built on this site, at least sixty homes and likely more if the next phase of planning permission is granted. This is green belt land where I’ve also seen a kestrel hunting and a flock of meadow pipits. Then there’s the other environmental effects, like how this will affect the water drainage and adding even more cars to the local roads. In their wisdom New Forest District Council have decided none of that matters.

Let’s end on a happier note shall we? Here’s one more nest I’ve seen this week, a mute swan.

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Primroses and Peregrines

Spring is so very close now and the temperature is starting to reflect this. We seem to have spent much of the week here trapped in mist which doesn’t feel very spring-like at all.

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I found these wild primroses (Primula vulgaristhis week. The colour of the flowers vary but these are the more common pale yellow colour. The name comes from the old French ‘primerose’ meaning ‘first rose’, highlighting the fact it is one of the earliest flowering plants of the year. Despite the name it bears no relation to true roses.

Not far from these primroses I spotted this grey squirrel munching on something on top of a fence.

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It is likely that this squirrel has recently had a litter of young, or is about to. Grey squirrels usually have two litters a year, the first around February/March and the second around June/July. This is likely to be a male squirrel as females are probably with their young in the drey at the moment. Male grey squirrels do not form pair bonds so don’t worry about looking after their young, hence why this individual looks so relaxed!

My other mammal spot of the week were the Avon roe deer. They appeared to be very relaxed when I saw them today, sat on the grass.

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Here we can see a female (doe) and a male (buck). This particular doe caught my attention as she is unusually pale for this herd of deer. The colour of the buck is typical for the deer I’ve seen by the Avon but this doe is much lighter. It’s always interesting to see the natural variation of animals, especially when they are likely to have fairly similar genetics. This doe should be easy to identify so I shall name her Sandy and look out for her in future.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting by first butterfly of the year and it appeared today. I didn’t get a great view so couldn’t be sure on the species but from my limited view and the time of year it seems likely it was a brimstone.

I also saw my first moth of the year yesterday, sat on a fence post on the cliff top in Bournemouth. It’s probably a Common Plume moth but is certainly a member of the plume (Pterophoridae) family.

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Whilst I was in Bournemouth I also had a look for the peregrine falcons that nest in the clock tower of Bournemouth and Poole college. There were plenty of pigeons around the building, an excellent source of food for the peregrines, but no sign of the falcons themselves. Fortunately there is a handy webcam of their nesting eyrie.

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This screenshot was taken this morning where the falcon appeared to be tidying up the nest. Last year the female falcon laid the first eggs in the early hours of the 15th March. If that’s typical then we can expect the eggs to be laid this week! The pair of peregrines successfully raised three young in 2016, two males and a female- with any luck they will do just as well this year.

I shall be keeping an eye on the webcam and will be eagerly awaiting the eggs. You can do the same on this link.

Walter White

I just have to open today with what my well be my bird of the year, a Great White Egret!

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Now usually I can’t tell you too much about an individual bird but this one has a full history. He’s affectionately known as Walter White, after the character from Breaking Bad. I saw him over at Blashford Lakes where he has been a Winter visitor every year since 2003. He was ringed as a chick in a nest in Lac de Grand-Lieu near Nantes in France that year. This makes him 13 which is a ripe old age for a great white egret but he is still looking magnificent.

I’ve found myself at Blashford Lakes more and more often recently. It’s a fantastic nature reserve and at this time of year there is always something to see. Here’s a grey heron which was perched only a little way in front of one of the hides.

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Although the Woodland Hide is perhaps less exciting at this time of year you sometimes get lucky and see some more unusual visitors. This nuthatch was feeding on and off for the whole time I was in the hide on my last visit.

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I was also lucky to see a jay on one of the feeders. Jays are one of the birds which I have personally noticed the decline of. They were a relatively common bird a few years ago but now you hardly ever see them which is a shame as they are the most beautiful corvid we have.

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It’s a big time of year for deer as the males are rutting, fighting off competitors in order to breed with the females. My experience of this is limited but I did see a few roe deer by the Avon recently. I suspect this is a young stag with a small harem, separate from the main harem which is likely to be held by a larger, older stag. There’s also the possibility that the stag and the two hinds are very young and therefore not concerned about breeding yet. You can see the relatively large antler for a roe deer and the real strength in the stag’s muscles.

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A couple of birds I somehow haven’t yet mentioned here now. On my visit to Stanpit in Christchurch last week I saw plenty of oystercatchers feeding on the shoreline.

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Not too far away from here, on a small stream passing through woodland, was this Grey Wagtail.

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I actually see a grey wagtail quite regularly at a stream on the entrance to Blashford Lakes. I’ve never been able to capture that one clearly though because it flutters away as soon as I spot it and because they like covered streams it’s so dark it’s hard to get a photo from any distance.

I’ve seen some fantastic spider webs covered in the morning dew recently- it really makes you appreciate their intricacy when you can see them this clearly.

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Here’s what I suspect might well be my last butterfly sighting of the year, a red admiral. This was on the 30th October but I haven’t seen any this week and we had our first frost on Wednesday night so it now seems unlikely, though not impossible, that I’ll see any in November.

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Finally, here’s a red slug.

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You can clearly see a large hole in the side of this individual. At first I thought it was damage caused by a predator but after some research I discovered it is actually it’s pneumostome. It’s a breathing pore which air goes through and into the slug’s single lung, a mantle cavity. I like to think of it as the slug equivalent of blow hole in a whale. It’s an interesting piece of biology which I had no idea about until I saw this slug!

Bird Bonanza

Last weekend I visited Lymington-Keyhaven Nature Reserve and was delighted to find it teeming with bird life. There were a few species I see all the time but are still lovely to watch like black headed gulls and little egrets.

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But actually the majority of species I saw were ones which I don’t usually get to see. First up were some little plovers plodding around looking for food.

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In the same area were lots of sanderlings, also having a feed.

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There were a few lapwings around too, though most of them were looking pretty sleepy.

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I took that photo for the lapwing but it was only upon closer inspection that I realised the ducks were more interesting than they appeared from a distance. It’s difficult to see when they are so tucked up but you can just make out that they are in fact teals.

The most magnificent bird of the day was this stunning bar-tailed godwit. It’s a really beautiful bird.

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Even that though wasn’t the most exciting spot of the day- that accolade goes to this wheatear.

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I’ve never seen one before and was lucky to see several on what may well have been one of the last days they were around before migrating South.

Whilst I’m on the subject of birds I don’t usually see, we had an unheard of visitor to our garden this week. We’ve lived in this house for 19 years now so getting new bird species these days is extremely unusual. I was surprised to see this female pheasant poking around the garden when I came home from work one day.

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It was a surprise because we live in quite a built-up suburban area and even in the farmland not too far away pheasants are pretty unusual. We had some really heavy rain earlier in the day so I am theorising that this pheasant was driven to go somewhere more sheltered and perhaps was struggling to feed on water-logged land where it usually goes.

Something else which has also appeared in our garden recently are these great Sulphur Tuft mushrooms. We’ve had fairy ring mushrooms on the lawn before but these are new and they look great. They also seem to be proving popular with our resident slugs which is why some of them look a little chewed.

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It still seems plausible that I may see a butterfly in November this year. There’s still plenty around- I saw both speckled woods and a large white today and a rather battered looking red admiral at Lymington-Keyhaven last weekend.

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I even saw a dragonfly today which goes to show that the weather is still proving fairly mild. This is a very dark female common darter.

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It’s interesting to see that Autumn is so late this year. The leaves have taken long to start to change colour and drop off too. Other than a couple of days of very heavy rain it’s been very dry and though it is certainly colder now it’s actually relatively mild- I don’t think it has dropped below 4° at night yet. A longer summer must be a good thing for the majority of wildlife- the shorter the winter the higher number of individual animals will survive.

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Autumn Days

We’re now a week into October and it really feels like Autumn now. The temperature is dropping, especially at night, and the leaves are a rainbow of colour. This plant that grows on a wall at the end of our street always looks magnificent at this time of year.

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The local horse chestnut trees are producing lots of conkers too, most of which are collected by local children.

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I’ve seen the River Avon cygnets a few times lately and they are looking more and more grown-up each day. They look like grey adults now but there’s something magnificent about them.

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The swans weren’t the only juvenile birds in this area as I saw this young Grey Heron fishing on the Avont too.

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I was surprised to spot some stonechats on the farmland not far from my house. I’ve seen plenty up in the New Forest but never so close to the town. I can’t really explain why they came down from the forest though- perhaps to take advantage of an untapped food source.

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It may be well into October but there are still a handful of butterflies around. I’ve seen three different species today (8th October)- a Red Admiral, some form of White and this Speckled Wood.

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Last weekend I visited Blashford Lakes again and as usual there was plenty to see. My first spot was a load of Harlequin Ladybirds crawling around some wooden fence posts.

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I saw lots of fungi but the only one I hadn’t seen before was this Cep (Boletus edulis).

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Apparently this is one of the most tasty mushrooms according to foragers. Mushroom foraging is banned in the New Forest and I know that Blashford Lakes support this view. It’s much better to be able to enjoy the fungi if they are not picked by others and is of course better for the local environment.

There was lots of activity at the Woodland Hide with the usual tits and finches:

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Chaffinch/Goldfinch

I also captured this Nuthatch living up to it’s name:

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The thing I love most about Blashford is that you never quite know what you are going to see. Often it’s something fairly ordinary but still nice to see, like a rabbit or a coot.

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Sometimes you might see something more exciting, like a shoveler:

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But it you’re really lucky you might see something really special, like a kingfisher.

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I am so pleased with this picture. I know it’s not a great photo, but it’s the content I love. It felt like a real achievement to finally capture a kingfisher on camera. It was so lovely to get a proper look at one too. Usually if you see a kingfisher you see little more than a blue blur as it flies away. This one sat on that stick for a good few minutes so I was able to sit and watch it for a while. It was a real moment of delight.

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Brownsea Island II

Last weekend I visited the fantastic island that is Brownsea in Poole Harbour. In my last post I shared my experiences at the Brownsea Lagoon but today’s post covers the wildlife I saw elsewhere on the island.

It may have been the middle of September but there will still some late insects fluttering around the island. One of the latest butterflies of the year is the red admiral and there several around the entrance to one of the hides.

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There were also plenty of dragonflies about, all of which were common darters. These are usually the latest flying dragonflies.

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I saw common darters in various parts of the Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve but most were near a pond which is actually a WW2 bomb crater. I also spotted a male attempting to mate with a female on the boardwalk.

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The other insects I saw clearly on the island were wood ants and I spotted quite a few nests in the woods.

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I have discussed wood ants here before; they are the most amazing British insect builders, massing in huge numbers to build these nests which are enormous in comparison to a single ant. It’s so fascinating to stand and look at a wood ants nest for a few minutes and realise just how much is going on when you look closely.

In terms of mammals, there’s one species that Brownsea Island is most notable for: the red squirrel. You probably know the story that red squirrels were native to Britain but became largely extinct thanks to the introduction of the grey squirrel from America. Brownsea is one of the few isolated pockets of reds in England and they have survived largely because of their isolation. It means there are few predators and grey squirrels have never made it across in significant numbers to do them too much harm.

At this point you are probably wondering if I saw any red squirrels and I have to sadly admit that I didn’t. I spent hours in prime red squirrel territory but sadly didn’t spot a single one. A young child even spotted one at the base of a tree a few hundred yards in front of me that I may have spotted if their father hadn’t shouted “IT IS ONE!” at an unnecessary volume.

Not to worry though because Brownsea is home to another more unusual mammal, this one:

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This is a Sika deer. Sika are East Asian deer and were introduced to Brownsea Island from Japan in in 1896. It was great to be able to see a deer I’d never usually be able to see- there are populations in the UK, including one on the Isle of Purbeck which has spread from Brownsea, but they are still an unusual sight.

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It says on the Brownsea website that the deer are quite shy but I found this individual to be one of the least shy wild deer I’ve ever seen. It allowed me to approach to within ten feet of it and may even have let me come closer if I tried. Perhaps I was able to be especially quiet but it was certainly aware of my presence and seemed content to let me watch it eat away. I think this is one of this year’s fauns so maybe it hasn’t learnt to be wary of humans yet.

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One of Brownsea’s sika deer has been something of a viral hit this week after it was seen bouncing across Poole Harbour at dawn.

Another introduced species on Brownsea Island are the peacocks. These are of course purely ornamental but seem to enjoy pestering tourists for food.

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I was surprised at the number of different habitats on such a small island- the lagoon, woodland, reeds, freshwater lake and heathland. I don’t think there was a single part of the island I visited that wasn’t stunningly beautiful either.

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That’s all on Brownsea for now but I suspect I will be making a return visit in the not too distant future…

Knopper Galls

The local oak trees are really starting to switch to Autumn mood now. As well as acorns they ‘produce’ another ‘fruit’, knopper galls.

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Of course knopper galls aren’t produced by the tree itself- they are chemically induced by gall wasps when they lay their eggs on acorns. Now all the galls are falling from the trees and the adult wasps will emerge in the spring. The degree of attack by the parasitic wasp varies but this year seems to have been a bad year for oak trees with these knopper galls covering virtually every oak tree for some miles around.

Another odd growth nearby is this incredible beefsteak fungus.

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This fungus is so called due to it’s appearance and apparently has even been used as a beef substitute in tough times. I have not been brave enough to try it!

Autumn might be approaching but there’s still time for flowers to bloom. At the moment there are lots of these field scabious flowers in the vicinity.

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Our next-door neighbours have recently hacked away at the hedge at the side of our garden and have sadly killed one of the plants that was part of it by severing it from the ground. As the hedge was dying off I spotted this old nest in it, which I suspect belonged to house sparrows. As they are colonial birds there is a fair chance there are other nests in other parts of the hedge. It’s always amazing to look at a nest closely and see the engineering skill performed by the birds.

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We’ve had some more unusual visitors in the garden several times this week in the form of a volery of long-tailed tits. Unlike other tits they are almost always found in a group.

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The next bird is one that I’ve been attempting to photograph for months now. This little egret is nearly always found in the same spot on the river Avon but over the summer it has been avoiding my camera lens. It’s flown off, hidden behind tufts of grass or been too far away. Finally, here it is in all it’s glory.

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Here’s a similar bird, a grey heron having a preen:

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And a few more aquatic birds:

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Mute Swan
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Cormorant– over at Barton-on-Sea

I think we shall end with some lepidoptera. The butterfly numbers are starting to drop now but there are still plenty around, including a fair few speckled woods.

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It’s unusual to see most moths in the daytime but I found this Silver Y sat on top of a local street sign.

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A Quiet Week

It’s perhaps the quietest time of year for most wildlife, especially bird life. At this time of year lots of birds are moulting and laying low. All of which makes being a wildlife blogger quite tricky at this time of year! Nonetheless I’ve been out photographing whatever I can find.

Before all that though, I have good news about the ban driven grouse shooting petition. It has now reached 100,000 signatures which means it will be considered for debate in parliament. The word ‘consider’ is important here; it doesn’t guarantee the subject will be debated but there’s a good chance. At the very least the issue and the public’s view on it will have reached the ears of the people who can do something about it.

It’s been warm and calm on the fishing lake recently but a few species have been frequenting its waters.

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There’s usually the odd black-headed gull floating around the centre of the lake. They don’t seem to be doing much other than just floating there.

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There’s lots of mallards around at the moment and they all appear to be females. Appearances can be deceptive though as at this time of year mallards moult and both genders look very similar.

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I was surprised to spot a new bird species on the lake that I’ve never seen there before this week. This is an Egyptian Goose which is actually a non-native species. They were introduced as an ornamental waterfowl but their population is gradually increasing.

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The RSPB say that most of their UK population is in Norfolk but I think the local population is probably growing. There has been a small population around Blashford Lakes for a little while and it appears they are happy to travel a short distance to find new habitats.

There are still a few dragonflies in the area too. This is a common darter, a maturing male.

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There are also plenty of butterflies too, like this Speckled Wood.

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I finally managed to spot one of this year’s buzzard chicks this afternoon. I hear them every time I go near the lake but they are housed in a small wood which is on private land. The constant screeching is instantly recognisable. I still didn’t get a good view today but I saw a the young buzzard preening on a rock on the edge of the woods.

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I suspect the young buzzard(s) are not good news for the many rabbits that inhabit the local fields and hedgerows.

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In the same field as the buzzard was the subject of today’s obligatory deer photo, a young roe deer.

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The housing estate I live in has been mostly absent of bird life but if you look closely there are birds to see. Here’s a collared dove snoozing on our roof.

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There’s usually plenty of starlings on the rooves and aerials in the late afternoon.

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