Last few weeks at Arne

June is a glorious month!

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Southern marsh orchids at RSPB Arne

It’s prime time for orchids and they seem to be everywhere I look now. We’ve got a lovely crop of southern marsh orchids on the reserve near the Shipstal ponds which are lovely to see there and very popular with the visitors.

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A closer look look at a southern marsh orchid

I went to another of the RSPB’s reserves in Dorset for the first time a few weeks ago, with the estates team. Garston Wood is an area of ancient woodland near Shaftsbury, it’s famed amongst those in the know for spectacular displays of bluebells in the spring. When we went, they were all over but we did find some lovely early purple and common spotted orchids.

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Common spotted orchid in Garston Woods

We were there to tidy up some logs left behind, following some clearance work to the rides through the wood. As part of the management of the wood, some areas have been cleared to allow more light in and provide more varied habitats for plants and other wildlife. Greatest biodiversity is often found on the edges, where one habitat merges with another so it’s important to manage the land in a way that will promote diversity.

During our work a very lucky palmate newt was spotted on one of the damp logs that had been piled onto the trailer. Very lucky to have avoided being squished!

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Palmate newt at Garston Woods

As well as seeing other parts of the Dorset Reserves, I’ve also had plenty of opportunities to explore Arne and find out what each week brings. On an early morning walk, I spotted this labyrinth spider web. These are a kind of funnel-web spider but unlike their more famous Australian cousins, they are (mostly) harmless. The web was easy to spot in the morning dew but there are loads of them about now and easy to find if you are looking out for them!

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There is someone at home!

Another seasonal sight on sunny days on the reserve are clouds of dancing male Nemophora degeerella. These are a longhorn moth whose caterpillars feed on leaf litter in deciduous woodland. They are beautiful moths with distinctive gold bands and striped patterns on their wings.

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Nemophora degeerella in woodland at Arne

The moth traps have also yielded plenty more fascinating moths in the last few weeks. The contents of the traps have been becoming more numerous and varied with impressive hawkmoths being present most weeks too!

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Treble Lines (Charanyca trigrammica) 

A fairly common moth with three distinctive lines across its wings. The photo shows two colour variants.

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Oak Hook-tip (Watsonalla binaria)

Hook-tips are named as a group because of the curved tips of their fore-wings. The oak Hook-tip is fairly common in the south and found in oak woodland where the larva feed on oak leaves.

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Peppered Moth (Biston betularia)

Probably known to a lot of those who studied GCSE biology as the classic example of the success of one genetic variant over another due to local environmental conditions. This black and white patterning is the typical form but an all black melanic form can also be found. In the big industrial cities of the north during the 19th and 20th centuries, the dark form became dominant. The simple explanation is that during the industrial revolution, the factories were pumping out huge amounts of smoke, leading to soot blackening of the tree trunks that the moths rest on. The dark forms were effectively camouflaged and avoided predation. The lighter speckled forms, while very well hidden on the light lichen covered trunks of unpolluted trees were very visible on the darkened trees. Since environmental standards have improved, the typical form is now dominant throughout the UK.

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Small Square-spot (Diarsia rubi)

A pretty little moth. Common in the UK and particularly associated with damp marshy areas.

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Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi) and eggs

This is a very tatty example of a fox moth. As they get older, their wings become more ragged. A freshly emerged moth has very bright clear markings on its wings and sharp crisp edges too.

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Puss Moth (Cerura vinula)

Looking a (very little) bit like a fluffy white cat, the adult moth is very attractively patterned. It’s fairly common throughout the British Isles.

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Iron Prominent (Notodonta dromedarius)

Presumably so-called because of the rusty red colouring on the patterned wings.

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Eyed Hawk-Moth (Smerinthus ocellata)

Although I didn’t manage to get a picture, this moth has a dramatic blue and black eye pattern on its hindwings.

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Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi)

Unusually, this moth rests with it’s hindwings forward of the forewings giving it a very distinctive shape. It is very well camouflaged on tree trunks as you can see in the photo!

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Brown Silver-line (Petrophora chlorosata)

This is a common little moth which is often seen fluttering up  during the day if you walk through bracken.

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Ichneumon Wasp

We also occasionally get other insect life in the moth traps. Cockchafers  are common as are the smelly Black Sexton beetle. This Ichneumon wasp was a bit more unusual. Ichneumon wasp are a group of long this wasps that tend to parasitise other insects, particularly butterfly and moth caterpillars. The eggs are laid in the host and when they hatch, the host provides the larvae with their first meal!

It’s been pretty challenging to fit everything I wanted to into this post, so I’m hoping from this week on, I will be able to stay up-to-date by writing a weekly post on what I’ve learnt and what’s going on at the reserve.

I’m planning to move things around on the blog a bit to give all this non-making stuff a place of it’s own and will try to get back to making things soon!

Sheep pigs

Lowland heath is one of the most threatened habitats in the UK, with a decline of nearly 85% in the last 200 years. Here in Dorset the RSPB manages and helps to manage many areas of lowland heath which are sadly very fragmented. One of the most biodiverse habitats, it is also home to some very specialised species such as the Dartford warbler – Arne’s poster bird – which would not survive were its habitat to diminish too much. Lowland heath is also important for other scarce birds such as nightjar as well as the nationally rare sand lizard and smooth snake and a whole host of dragonflies, beetles, spiders and plants.

Well managed heath on the public reserve
Well managed heath on the public reserve

A lot of the RSPB’s work in Dorset goes on away from  the main public reserves at Arne, Radipole and Lodmoor. A few weeks ago I went with the estates team to Grange Heath, near Creech.  Historically, most of southern England would have originally been lowland heath until the land was developed for another purpose. Until relatively recently, Grange was given over to forestry but under RSPB management, it is being returned to valuable lowland heath. Apart from the odd scots pine, most of the trees have been felled.

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Looking over Grange

Once gone, the heathland can regenerate from the seeds and other plant-life that have remained dormant in the ground. As the photo above shows though, after years of softwood plantation, the ground is left covered in a suffocating layer of pine needles and other debris. For healthy heathland to develop, this layer must be removed.

The conventional way to do this is to use diggers and other machinery to scrape the top layer away. However, for this project, a more environmentally friendly alternative is proving pretty effective!

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A friendly and curious bunch of hard working piglets

Grange heath is home to a lot(!) of Mangalitza pig. They belong to The Salt Pig in Wareham and live free range in certain areas of the heath. By rooting around as they forage for food, they turn over the earth and clear the way for the new heathland plants to take hold again.

The work all done by hardworking pigs
The work all done by hardworking pigs

As the picture shows, apart from trees and gorse, the ground is completely bare earth now. The pigs are rotated around different areas so that the whole area will eventually be systematically cleared. Now, these are just piglets. I titled this post sheep pigs, and now I’ll show you why!

Teenage mangalitzas, still wearing their woolly coat
Teenage mangalitzas, still wearing their woolly coat

These pigs are a few months older than the other piglets and have a thick curly winter coat which they are still wearing. While at Grange, I was also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the newest arrivals to the group. When they are born, these piglets are stripy, like wild boar!

Only a few days old!
Only a few days old!

The younger pigs tend to get very excited at the presence of a human – I suppose they think they might be fed! The adults in their pen though are much more laid back and definitely enjoy a good back scratch.

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The grown-ups take it easy

Ostensibly, we were at Grange to move some fallen trees and repair the fences that they fell on. Unfortunately it turned out that the task was a bit bigger than had been realised…

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Bitten off more than they could chew?

Which happily left some of us with a bit of time to look around at the wildlife. We went for a bit of a walk through the bog, spotting plenty of sundews and seeing a newly emerged dragonfly among other things.

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Common toad
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Striped ladybird
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Mystery caterpillar – if you recognise it I’d love to know!

Hopefully from now on I’ll manage to maintain a weekly update of goings on at Arne. I found the use of the pigs as a land management tool fascinating so had to finish off this post but I’ll try to keep more up to date now!

Watching the feeders

One of my favourite things about manning the information hut at Arne is watching the comings and goings of the birds and other wildlife on the feeders. It’s amazing how unfazed they are by the comings and goings of visitors and how close they allow you to come.

Even the most common of garden birds are lovely to watch and when you look closely you come to realise just how pretty they can be!

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Blue-tit and male siskin
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Great-tit and goldfinch
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Coal-tit, two male house sparrows and a male chaffinch
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Nuthatch
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Male siskin, female greenfinch, male greenfinch, goldfinch
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Male siskin, male greenfinch
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Female chaffinch, two male siskins
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Two male chaffinches
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Male siskin, female chaffinch

Monday moth morning

On Mondays in May we have moth mornings at Arne where visitors can have the opportunity to see what has been collected in the moth traps overnight. This week, I was treated to an introduction to this fascinating world.

Moths are a brilliant indicator of the health of a habitat. The greater the variety found, the greater diversity of other wildlife can also be supported as moths are often a vital food source for many birds and animals. They are also often very specific about their food plants and environment so getting moths particular to the kind of habitat you are trying to create shows that the land is being well managed.

This post covers a selection of the moths that we found this week.

Note – The moths were identified during the event and all other information I’ve mostly got from ukmoths.org.uk

Maiden's Blush (Cyclophora punctaria)
Maiden’s Blush (Cyclophora punctaria)

Maiden’s blush  – a pretty, delicate little moth, this is found in oak woodlands and the caterpillars feed on oak leaves. It is fairly common locally in the south and had two flying generations, first in May/June and then again in August.

Male Muslin Moth (Diaphora mendica)
Male Muslin Moth (Diaphora mendica)

Muslin moth – these show clear sexual dimorphism where the males and females have different appearance. We found several of these in the moth traps, all light grey/brown males with bright orange under the thorax. Females are white and fly during the day so aren’t usually found in the traps. They are pretty common throughout the UK and live in a variety of habitats.

Female Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi)
Female Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi)

Fox moth – terrible picture, sorry! In this species it is the females who fly at night and are caught in the moth traps. They are bigger and greyer than the males which are generally reddish brown (hence fox?!) These are common locally and open woodlands, moors and commons where the caterpillars feed on a variety of plants including heather and bramble. This moth seemed to have spent all night depositing her eggs around the trap and we found several clusters!

Probably fox moth eggs...?
Probably fox moth eggs…?
Pale Tussock (Calliteara pudibunda)
Female Pale Tussock (Calliteara pudibunda)

Pale tussock – an interesting looking moth with distinctive tarantula-like legs sticking out forwards at rest. Males are smaller with darker markings. These are pretty common in England and Wales.

Light Brocade (Lacanobia w-latinum)
Light Brocade (Lacanobia w-latinum)

Light brocade – a striking moth, it reminds me of those paintings you do in primary school by splodging paint on a piece of paper then folding it in half 🙂 These are pretty common in the south and there were several in the trap this week. They live near rough ground and heathland on calcareous soil.

Lesser Swallow Prominent (Pheosia gnoma)
Lesser Swallow Prominent (Pheosia gnoma)

Lesser swallow prominent – Prominents are a group of moths that share an upright, narrow resting position and often prominent humps or ridges on the upper surface. The larger white patches distinguish it from the swallow prominent which is also a fairly common in the UK.

Coxcomb Prominent (Ptilodon capucina)
Coxcomb Prominent (Ptilodon capucina)

Coxcomb prominent – typically a rich brown with a distinctive cream tuft on the thorax, they feign death when handled. Fairly common, they fly in two generations, in May/June and again in August. The caterpillars feed on deciduous trees.

Buff-tip (Phalera bucephala)
Buff-tip (Phalera bucephala)

Buff-tip – Another really distinctive moth. It looks very much like a small birch twig and is found in mixed woodland. It’s quite common in the south and found throughout the UK.

Great Prominent (Peridea anceps)
Great Prominent (Peridea anceps)

Great prominent – a dullish looking moth, it’s found mainly in the south but also in the Lake District. It is found in oak woodlands where the caterpillars feed on oak leaves. One of these took a fancy to one of the visitor hut staff and stayed on his jacket all day, bit of a conversation starter!

In addition we saw a couple of more moths that I didn’t manage to get a photo of.

Horse chestnut – uninspiring in appearance this was the least frequent of the moths we found this week. It doesn’t feed on horse chestnut, despite the name, the caterpillars mostly feed on heather. They are found on lowland heath and can be quite common locally.

Angle shades – very distinctive, it’s wings are held in angular furls at rest. They can be found from May to October throughout the UK but more frequently in the south.

Not the most interesting post to some I guess, but it’s a useful record for me!  There will be more, sorry! (Not sorry)

Down at the reserve

In just two weeks so much has changed down at Arne. Most of the trees have their summer coats on now and the woodland areas of the reserve have become cooler and shadier than before.

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The lush, green early summer colour of the woodlands

Swifts have suddenly appeared in much greater numbers now and hobbys and spotted flycatchers have also been regularly spotted. The kestrel pair at the farm now have four eggs and the barn owls in their nest box have six.

Ms Kestrel showing off her eggs on the live video feed
Ms Kestrel showing off her eggs on the live video feed

The reserve at Arne is lucky enough to be home to all six of the UKs native reptile species. These are viviparous or common lizard, sand lizard, slow worm, smooth snake, adder and grass snake. Last week, staff and volunteers had a reptile survey training day where we learned how to check tins and felts for smooth snakes, slow worms and adders. These were just one metre square sheets of corrugated tin or roofing felt which were laid strategically over the heathland . These sheets warm up under the sun and in the morning the reptiles crawl underneath to warm up for the day ahead. It was great to see and hold my first smooth snake and see a bright green male sand lizard too!

A stone chat poised at the top of a scots pine on the heath
A stonechat poised at the top of a scots pine on the heath

Other recent wildlife sightings include stonechats, mistle thrush and long-tailed tits. All these have very distinctive calls which I’m trying to learn to recognise. Stonechats make a loud chirping sound like two pebbles being knocked together and the mistle thrush I saw were emitting their loud warning call, like the sound of a football rattle. Long-tailed tits are just the sweetest ball of pink, black and white fluff with a deceptively loud voice!

On Friday evening we also enjoyed a camp out on the reserve and were fortunate enough to hear and briefly see a nightjar. The loud whistling call during flight and the chirring song are easy to hear after dark, in the absence of most other bird calls. In June and July there are weekly nightjar walks which I hope to go on to hear and see more of these special birds.

Gosh it’s been a busy couple of weeks!

Time seems to accelerate as the weather gets warmer and the days get longer! I’m now working four days a week at the markets and volunteering two days a week at the RSPB reserve at Arne, leaving less and less time for crafty pursuits.

The view from Shipstal Hill to the islands of Poole Harbour
Working at Arne: The view from Shipstal Hill to the islands of Poole Harbour

The weather being so good though, it has been a fantastic way to spend whole days! I’ve really enjoyed talking to the visitors, many of whom are keen birders, and finding out what they hope to see or have seen on the reserve. I’ve always been interested in wildlife but am much better on plants and fungi than birds and animals so it’s been fascinating so far!

After only 3 days of volunteering, I’ve already learned  more about birds than I ever knew before. I was lucky enough to see a kestrel in a nest box lay its first egg of the year, thanks to a live camera feed and I could probably happily spend all day watching the many birds that come to enjoy the feeders outside the information hut, not to mention the rats!

The bold rat living in the woodpile near the hut
The bold rat living in the woodpile near the hut

Mostly what I’ve enjoyed is just getting outside and really looking around at what’s there. To my shame I realised it’s been years since I went for a proper walk around the reserve, although we used to go all the time when I was younger. It’s the same for a lot of local places, you think “Oh, we always go there” but actually it’s been a long time since I’ve made time to explore the beautiful places right on my doorstep.

A stunning display of flowers at Arne Church in April
A stunning display of flowers at Arne Church in April

One of the best things about spending at lot of time exploring the same places is that you can really get a feel for the changing seasons. In just two weeks so much at Arne has changed. At the beginning of April, the primroses in the churchyard filled the grassy slopes with spots of bright colour. Now, the early blossoms are fading but the bright green of new leaves has begun to burst from the buds of the many oak trees on the reserve.

Beautiful pink mottled galls on oak trees near the Shipstal hide
Beautiful pink mottled galls on oak trees near the Shipstal hide

Before starting at Arne, I didn’t have much of an idea of what the changing seasons meant to the other wildlife. From the arrival of the first swallows at the end of March to the call of a cuckoo in mid-April and the anticipation of eggs in the barn-owl and kestrel nest boxes, it’s been great to learn what to look out for. I’m looking forward to seeing what else will arrive as the year progresses!

Last week we had two separate reports of fish in one of the ponds on the reserve, where no fish had been seen before. Following two reconnaissance trips we concluded that the ‘fish’ were most likely to be newts, of which there are plenty. They do have a habit of swimming with their limbs pressed against their sides, looking for all the world like little fish, until they pause on the surface and their legs spread out again.

One of the newts in a pond near the Shipstal hide
One of the newts in a pond near the Shipstal hide
Longhorn cattle at Arne farm
Longhorn cattle at Arne farm

In addition to the wildlife, Arne is also home to a herd of longhorn cattle – my favourite breed. They are quite old-fashioned but growing in popularity now, and very elegant with the great curved horns framing their faces beautifully. Both the longhorns and other cattle on the farm often have to share their fields with herds of sika deer. These roam freely on the reserve and there are two white deer that are particularly popular with visitors.

One of the beautiful white deer on the reserve
One of the beautiful white deer on the reserve

I hope I will be able to keep a record of the things I see and learn while working at Arne over the coming months. I’ve got a couple of other long term projects on the go at the moment too so hopefully I’ll find time to fit everything in!

A pair of snails resting on some bark
A pair of snails resting on some bark
The jewel like heath with hundreds of spider webs glimmering in the morning sun
The jewel like heath with hundreds of spider webs glimmering in the morning sun