My Diary ...

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  • Nature records for June 2018

    Published Date: 
    Saturday, 30 June, 2018

    June was an unsettled month for weather, sometimes cold for the time of the year and then turning more like summer eventually ending quite hot. What becomes apparent from the tweeted nature reports bird activity declines and butterflies and dragonflies start to take centre stage. This June, though, it seemed something was wrong. Migration is over by June with the birds going north to breed long gone but this June there signs of returning birds that would not normally reappear in Dorset until August at the earliest. This was most notable amongst the waders with species like black and bar tailed godwits, whimbrel, grey plover, common sandpiper, even wood sand piper appearing around our coasts, often still in breeding plumage. Speculation as to why was never really resolved as far as I know but the likelihood would seem weather conditions prevented some birds from getting the their breeding grounds in time to pair up, nest and raise young and so they took the first flight out back to their wintering quarters. The initial rush of returners soon subsided and numbers stabilised so it seems that for many it was going to be a successful breeding season.

    Although usually a quiet month for birds some specialities turned up and a royal tern brought the twitchers in fomn all over the country during the few days it stayed with us in the Weymouth area. Other surprise visitors included an small influx of red-footed falcons, a red-backed shrike and a sub-alpine warbler. Once very are here like its cousin the little egret there were regular sightings of great white egrets from along the coast. The presence of a whooper swan in the records resulted from the release of a bird that had been trapped in netting for several days at a fish farm near Bridport. It was rescued and nursed back to health by the team at the Abbotsbury swannery and the once released the bird stayed around for a few days before departing.

    The many invertebrate records featured mainly dragon and damselflies. There has been quite an upturn in interest in these insects of late, usually birders looking for something else to entertain them during the 'close' season! Whether the number and variety of odonata reports are due to an expanding number of species or an expanding number of recorders is not clear but the records for June included some seemingly rare species from several locations. The most noticeable was the scarce chaser; once living up to its name and scare in Dorset there were reports from various sites this year. Other species reported included red-veined darter and lesser emperor dragonflies and small red-eye and southern damselflies.

    First broods of the Dorset speciality butterflies, the adonis blue and the Lulworth skipper emerged during the month although the top butterfly report was of a small number of purple emperors found in the RSPB reserve at Garston Wood which, as far as I can tell, is the only time the species has been seen in Dorset for many years. This is due to considerable habitat improvement by the RSPB in the woodland and it is likely the purple emperors came across the border from Chase Wood in Wiltshire. No one knows how long they have been in Garston Wood, they may have been overlooked previously of course.

    There were lots of records of invertebrates with a sudden increase in reports of five-spot and narrow-bordered five-spot burnets. Again, this increase in reporting may be down to greater awareness and that previously these had been dismissed as the more common six-spot burnet. There were also a good number of reports of glow worm from  known locations surveyed at night.

    Flora, as usual, did not produce so many reports but the nationally are slender centuary featured as did another national scarcity whorled caraway. Several orchid reports were made including the scarce marsh helleborine and the often overlooked fragrant orchid. 


     

    Five spot burnet: one of many on Brownsea Island

     

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  • Any old iron ...

    Published Date: 
    Tuesday, 5 June, 2018

    Four years ago I spent a wonderful summer's afternoon on Hod Hill, near Child Okeford. The wild flowers were amazing and the views across the green and beautiful county of Dorset were beyond description. I vowed that one day I would take Ann there to see it and yesterday was that day. Four years is quite a long time and it is surprising just how much your memory and your physical capabilities can change in that time when you get to 'an age'! The climb up to the top of the hill was much steeper than I recalled and the distance around the walls much further than it seemed last time. I really though Ann was not going to make it but she may be small in stature but she is not small on determination and grit and, somehow, she made it.

    Hod Hill is one of several Dorset iron age hill forts and one of the largest. These hill forts date back to the neolithic period between 1500BC and 500BC and were all built on hill tops by constructing rings of steep banks around the top of the hill to deter invaders. How they did that without the kind of machinery we have today I just do not know; it is beyond imagination. There is an arc of these forts from Flowerdown, near Lulworth to Woolsbarrow in Wareham forest and then Woodbury Hill near Bere Regis. The next is the well known Badbury Rings between Wimborne and Blandford. West of Blandford, near Child Okeford, are Hambledon and Hod Hills then around to Eggardon Hill. There is the most famous, Maiden Castle near Dorchester, and finally Chalbury Hill near Weymouth. I may well have omitted some smaller, lesser known ones from the arc, I think there is one at Poundbury at least. It is said that each fort could see the next one in the chain and could therefore signal to the others if danger approached. The string of forts extends out west beyond Eggardon to Coney's Castle, Lambert's Castle and Pilsden Pen. 

    Whilst the wildlife of each of these hill forts varies, Maiden Castle is quite boring, in general the earth banks of the walls have been virtually undisturbed for over 2,500 years which means the flora is well established and many have notable species including good displays of orchids; this is certainly true of Badbury, Hambledon, Hod and Eggardon. Where there are flowers there are usually lots of insects and these are often good sites for butterflies. 

    Although a physical challenge we really enjoyed our visit to Hod Hill although we were concerned at the lack of butterflies, bees and hoverflies; it is worrying how quickly insect population levels seem to have fallen. We finished our outing with a very nice lunch at the Saxon Inn in Child Okeford, a delightful Dorset village pub.


     

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  • Nature records for May 2018

    Published Date: 
    Thursday, 31 May, 2018

    At last the weather improved somewhat in May and the on-off bird migration in April started to pick up with more visible signs of movement. It was the larger birds that were most evident and brought the most reports with the red kite being the stand-out species. Not normally considered a migrant species there were 61 reports of incoming kites this month with large groups coming through together. It seems that being carrion feeders they found the going tough during the 'beast from the east' and some had drifted south into Europe so the improved conditions saw them returning to their home grounds in Wales and the Chilterns.

    On top of the red kite movement a number of ospreys were seen moving north as well as the usual movement of wheatear, whinchat and other smaller passage migrants. Of the local breeding birds there were first reports of nightjar from the heaths and little terns from Chesil beach.

    Whilst all this migration movement is going on one expects a number of unusual and sometimes rare species to turn up, usually on Portland. This year was no exception with a string of notable birds turning up including a black-headed bunting with is very scarce here. The other 'specials' included a white stork, a glossy ibis, a common crane, three golden oriole,  couple of hoopoe, a couple of bee-eaters, a bluethroat, a rose-coloured starling, and a red-rumped swallow. The Bonaparte's gull seen earlier in the year also made a guest appearance for a few days.

    Out at sea Risso's dolphin was seen along with a basking shark, a sign the water is getting warmer. On land sand lizards were reported along with wall lizards and the more usual reptiles.

    May is not just about bird migration of course, the eruption of spring invertebrates starts too. The most notable species recorded was the spider, Hypsosinga heri. This species was thought to be extinct in Britain but a couple of years ago it was discovered at Radipole and it was found there again this year so it seems to be well established but difficult to find. Raft spiders emerged as did emperor moths but the were fewer records of the Duke of Burgundy fritillary this year at Giant Hill. Good numbers of hairy dragonfly were reported and this seems to be a species benefiting from climate change. Another rare species, the heath tiger beetle, was reported from two sites. Also out o the heath reports of raft spiders became frequent.

    Amongst the spring flora early spider orchid and early gentian were a little litte flowering this year and so too was toothwort.


     Photo: Little terns returned to their nesting colony on Chesil beach

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  • The Fool on the Hill

    Published Date: 
    Wednesday, 23 May, 2018

    Now, before you ask; no, this is not a self portrait. I am much better looking than this guy and I have not played rounders since I left primary school many, many years ago. Any other resemblance between the two of us is purely coincidental!

    It was another lovely morning and as Ann was going out with one of her friends this afternoon I took the opportunity to have an 'away day' and I thought I would go looking for the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly. The only publicly accessible site for the species now, I believe, is Giant Hill, hence the photograph of the famous Cerne Giant. It was my first visit to actually walk on Giant Hill so I did not know quite what to expect but I can say that, despite there being no sign of the Duke, it was a wonderful walk with masses of flowers and lots of other butterflies of various species including numerous marsh fritillary which are another of our declining species.

    As you can tell from the photograph the hill is very steep and I found the paths rough and hard going. As I walked along the top of the hill I was consumed by the wonderful views all around me and it just reaffirmed what a beautiful county Dorset is. There was not a house to be seen for miles on either side of me and there was no one else up there on top of the hill, just me. It had been quite an effort to get up there and whist it was worth it I suddenly felt a bit vulnerable. I don't feel that old but physically these days out in wild places are becoming much harder and although I enjoy being in places like this on my own it dawned on me that maybe it was becoming just a bit foolish to do this now. Paul McCartney's Fool on the Hill came mind! "But the fool on the hill sees the sun going down and the eyes in his head see the world spinning round"; what if I had got lost, or became ill or had fallen over up there...?


     

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  • Peace be with you

    Published Date: 
    Thursday, 17 May, 2018

    My dictionary defines peace as "Freedom from disturbance; tranquillity"; a rare commodity these days. You can find peace if you know where to look and one of the best places I know to experience tranquillity and to be free from disturbance is on the wonderful Kingcombe nature reserve in west Dorset. It is miles from anywhere and accessed along narrow country lanes. There is no traffic noise to be heard, well perhaps the sound of a distance tractor ploughing a field on an adjacent farm. That does not mean you will find total silence and Kingcombe, especially in spring and summer when there is bird song, tweets and twitters from everyone of the many hedgerows.

    Being a remote place it gets few visitors. There is the study centre there which runs courses but you can spend a couple of hours exploring the meadows and not see another soul; you just have the flowers and insects for company and to me that is peace!

    Owned and managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust Kingcombe was once a farm but a farm that somehow escaped the onset of mechanisation and intensification. When the owner of many years died they were able to raise the funds to acquire what is now a quite unique look at how the countryside in west Dorset was before the war. The meadows are damp with rough pasture and reeds and it is hard to imagine how anyone could have made any sort of living from this land other than by grazing cattle. The absence of cultivated crops means these meadows are rich in flowers from April onwards.

    So today I experienced tranquillity and peace and it is hard to think of a better way to spend a couple of hours with the one who means the most to you just than just strolling around Kingcombe meadows. We followed up our walk at the delightful Marquis of Lorne pub in Nettlecombe and you can, if you feel so inclined read about that in the 'my dining' section.


     

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  • Three Steps to Heaven

    Published Date: 
    Wednesday, 9 May, 2018

    Some people will tell you that heaven does not exist; do not believe them because it does! I know, I have been there. If you would like to go there too here are the three steps to heaven (with no apology to Eddie Cochran fans):

    • Step 1: Get yourself together a picnic lunch
    • Step 2: Drive up the Blandford to Salisbury road, turn towards Sixpenny Handly and then take the first right when you get to the village. Drive for about two miles until you come to a small woodland car park on your left
    • Step 3: Park, put your walking boots on, take your camera and go through the gate into heaven

    That may sound simple and it is, anyone can go to heaven by following those three steps.

    You will be anxiously waiting for me to tell you what it is like in heaven. Well, you can see archangels (yellow ones) and you will find Solomon (well his seal anyway). You will find large oak trees, coppiced hazel trees and hawthorn bushes all in newly acquired fresh green leaves. In the trees you will hear blackcaps, chaffinches, robins, blackbirds and lots of wrens singing their praises. You will see the woodland floor carpeted in white with the flowers of ramsons, greater stitchwort, pignut and sanicle. Early purple orchids stand proud and many other flowers abound along the path edges, especially bluebells. Large white, green-veined white, brimstone and orange-tip butterflies flutter by in the dappled sunlight visiting the abundant flowers. Look closely and you will find other creatures there too; bumble bees, bee-flies and the lover of wild garlic, the hoverfly Portavinia maculata.

    Heaven is tended by its guardian angels, the RSPB, and we mortals know the place as Garston Wood but in spring it is better known as heaven.


     

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  • Nature in April 2018

    Published Date: 
    Wednesday, 2 May, 2018

    Dire, dead, dismal - some of the words used by Dorset's wildlife tweeters in April! Normally the beginning of the migration season with reports of incoming passage migrants abounding and yet this year little seemed to be happening. There were a couple of 'spikes' in activity but on the whole it was a very quiet month. The abysmal weather obviously did not help but there is concern that there may be a more serious underlying reason for the lack of activity, something which has yet to come to light when the full picture is known perhaps.

    There was little to excite the rare bird watcher. The Bonaparte's gull that had been here earlier in the year returned to Longham Lakes for a couple of weeks, golden oriel and hoopoe were around on Portland for a few days and cattle egret were reported frequently from Abbotsbury; apart from these records there was little to get the pulse racing. There seemed to be an unusually high number of reports of red kite from various locations along the coast as well as inland. The red kite is not considered to be a migratory species but it is possible that the severe weather in March had driven many of them south into France to find food and in April we witnessed their return. 

    The most prominent incoming birds were the W's! Many reports came in of whimbrel, wheatear, whinchat and whitethroat; all expected at this time of year although only the whitethroat was likely to stay here in Dorset for the breeding season. Other common returners from the far south included swallows and sand martins but the reports of house martin seemed quite scarce. Some swifts started arriving towards the end of the month but they are always late arrivals. Returning common and sandwich terns were seen in their usual haunts and the first of the Chesil little terns arrived towards the end of the month.

    Despite the rather inclement weather fourteen species of butterfly were reported and this included unusual sightings of migratory species such as clouded yellow and painted lady which are not normally seen until later in the year. Avid moth trappers reported  total of twenty one species although these were mainly the species you would expect in spring. A few early beetles were about including green tiger beetle and bloody-nosed beetle. Just the one odanata species, the large red damselfly, was seen in April.

    It was good to see a fair number of reports of flowers, often overlooked by our regular tweeters. Many of the spring favourites seemed to be a little late this year and it was near the end of the month before the first reports of blackthorn in flower came in. The more notable species included the early spider orchid in flower along the Purbeck coast and early purple orchid from various sites across the county. There was also a report of the parasitic toothwort in woodland in north Dorset.


     [Photo: Early (or wood) dog-violet]

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  • What statin aid of?

    Published Date: 
    Sunday, 29 April, 2018

    I am aware that “prevention is better than cure” but I also truly believe “if ain’t broke don’t fix it”! When this letter arrived from my GP on Thursday I was, at first, very concerned that something had shown up in my recent blood test and action was needed to put things right. Then I read it again and things no longer seemed to make sense. Was the letter telling me I had a heart problem and needed to take statins or was it telling me I should take statins to prevent a heart problem; cure or prevention, broken or not?

     

    I was intrigued by the sentence in the letter that says “this recommendation is CONTROVERSIAL and MANY people develop side effects with statin treatment”. That certainly set the alarm bells ringing and I decided to dig deeper so that I could make an informed decision and where it led me was, I thought, quite interesting.

     

    The second page of this letter gives details of a website called ‘qintervention’ where you can model different scenarios; models, numbers? That’s me, I’m in! 

     

    Using yet another cliche; I am usually a ”glass half full man”, not a “glass half empty” man and so although the letter says I have a QRISK2 score that shows a 17.91% chance of heart problems within the next ten years to me that was, on reflection, good news as it means that statistically there is an 82.09% likelihood of me reaching 80 years old without heart problems seeing me off sooner. As a UK male aged 70 my current life expectancy based on the national average is 85 so if the QRISK2 score is correct then I must also have a reasonable chance of reaching 85.

     

    Having put the details provided by the doctor into the qintervention calculator I discovered that my heart age is 70 which is the same as my actual age and that my QRISK2 score is LOWER than a normal healthy person of my age. Only a small difference but my blood pressure and cholesterol must be lower than most to produce such a result. So it seems “it ain’t broke” after all!  

     

    I thought I would double check this with some research elsewhere and I found that my blood pressure of 132/86 is in line with what, for a male over 60, is apparently considered to be normal at 134/87. I also discovered that my cholesterol/HDL ratio of 3.7 is in the 'good' range and below what is considered to be the satisfactory limit of 4.0. I also had an ECG not three months ago and was declared ‘perfect’ with no trace of problems. The cross evidence supported the conclusion that my heart and circulation are healthy so where does this 17.91% risk come from? 

     

    I had a blood test four months ago and I did not get a warning then so why now? It soon dawned on me that the one factor to change is that I have, between to the two tests, turned 70 and that must be the trigger surely? Some more modelling and I find that my QRISK2 factor will have been over the “current recommendation” level of 10% since I was about 55! This reveals that this recommendation to take statins is probably going to all men over the age of 70 whether they have a problem or not! Why? It is prevention not cure. If you take statins you may prevent heart problems developing, your QRISK2 chance falls by about 3% but is still around 14.5%. Is risk the of side effects worth a small gain in reduced chance of heart disease? 

     

    Now I do have a problem. Three times in the last three years I have been told I am “on the cusp” of developing type 2 diabetes. This is why I have regular blood tests and for these three years I have always been “on the cusp” but, so far at least, it has not happened. When I look at the doctor’s letter again I see that 1 in 204 people who take statins develop diabetes! I note also that a lower ratio, 1 in 217, actually benefit from statins than suffer a significant side effect. Now why would someone “on the cusp” of developing diabetes and with no apparent heart issues want to take medication to reduce the non-existent heart problem but will significantly increase the possibility of inducing diabetes?  Surely that would be madness? 

     

    There is a further issue that I found on the calculator that is not mentioned in the doctor’s letter. It shows that by taking statins there is a 4.2% increase in the risk of cataracts. At my recent eye test I was told there is a sign of one developing on my left eye, taking statins would surely hasten this? There are issues around other side effects too but these seem less significant although I could certainly do without pain from muscle damage. The letter suggests more exercise to reduce weight and keep my heart healthy, I cannot see me being able to do that with muscle damage! 

     

    All in all I am quite angry about this hence this tirade. I know the letter was routinely produced by a computer because I am now 70 and my GP just signed it amongst many other letters put on her desk, but I do not think this should not have been sent to me. To do so was wrong. Fortunately I am sort of person with the both the temperament and resources to dig into this and see the dangers but many will get this letter, mistake the message and opt for statins that could do them more harm than good. 

     

    I think the world of the NHS. I have great respect for the ability and dedication of all of its staff from surgeons to cleaners and I have a form of affection for our GP’s at the Wareham surgery. However, I can see why this “recommendation is controversial” and I wonder if our GP is really happy about this given the caution expressed in the later stages of the letter. 

     

    What is it in aid of?


     

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  • Radipole: inspecting the lions teeth

    Published Date: 
    Thursday, 26 April, 2018

    It's Thursday, my day off! Being bright and breezy outside we decided after due consideration that it called for somewhere not too exposed to the wind and somewhere where the walking was easy so we came up with the RSPB reserve at Radipole; interesting any time of year and always worth a visit.

    Being the middle of the migration season lots of the wintering birds have flown off to their summer breeding grounds and so 'good' birds were hard to find but the Cetti's warblers never let you down here with their loud, distinctive song. A secretive bird usually but we actually saw one today and must have heard nine or ten. The other highlight was a quick glimpse of a pair of marsh harriers, they nest at Radipole right in the middle of Weymouth thanks to a lot of work from the RSPB to make it a good home for them. Some summer migrant species present too, reed warblers warbling in the reeds, swallows and house martins overhead and a blackcap in full song too together with a chiffchaff to make up the numbers.

    As I said, fairly quiet though for birds now but the flowers are beginning to steal the show with cuckooflower looking good and marsh marigolds looking splendid. The real highlight though, and this may seem strange, were the dandelions. Now at their best with their lovely bright yellow flowers and looking stunning in their simple way. The dandelion is so named as a corruption of 'dent de lion'; French for the teeth of the lion. You need to see the jagged edges of the leaves to see how it gets this name. Dandelions are a key nectar source for many spring insects, especially small hoverflies and so we spent much of our time inspecting the lion's teeth looking for them. Sadly not many about this year but the weather has been so cold.

    One insect in very good numbers was the St Mark's fly, Bibio marci. It is so named as it often appears on or around St Mark's day, the 25th April and today was the 26th - right on time! St Mark's fly is jet black in colour and flies with its legs dangling and is quite unmistakable in flight although if you see them perched on vegetation they are much less distinctive. They look a bit ferocious and likely to bite but they are quite harmless. 

    From Radipole we stopped off at the Springhead in Sutton Poynz for lunch on the way home. Sadly a bit disappointing really; the meal size far too big for us and the chips were soggy and not that nice, we both left half of it. It was also noisy because three people on a nearby table were shouting at each other rather than chatting quietly and that along with the hissing of the coffee machine made it a bit oppressive. The seats were not that comfortable either. It might be a while before we go there again ...


     

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  • Athelhampton House and Gardens; weeds or wild flowers?

    Published Date: 
    Wednesday, 25 April, 2018

    Last Thursday the sun was shining and it was the warmest April day since 1949 in London and it was pretty near 27 degrees here in Dorset and so we decided to visit Athelhampton House near Tolpuddle to see the gardens in spring, we don't do houses, only gardens! We like Athelhampton for a number of reasons. It is not far to drive, the gardens are not over groomed, the grounds have a stretch of the river Piddle running through them and they have a nice restaurant. All in all it is a pleasant place to visit for a day out.

    Browsing around the gardens it struck me (not for the first time) that I am really bit of an odd ball! There I am looking for and making a list of the wild flowers whilst everyone else was looking at the cultivars, the 'wild flowers' were to them just weeds. I expect I was the only visitor to the gardens that day who loved the lesser celandines in the lawn, the wavy bittercress in the damp borders, the red deadnettles in the kitchen garden and who stopped to look at the dandelions to see if there were any bees or hoverflies on them. If that makes me odd then so be it.

    What I did find disturbing though was the lack of insects; I saw just one butterfly, a small tortoiseshell, despite the sunshine. There were a few drone flies (Eristalis tenax) hovering in their territories and a couple of bees but very little else. Given insects tend to prefer native plants I never expect lots of insects in a country garden like this but I would have thought there would be more than there were. Even in the 'wild' area by the river there was virtually nothing and that is a growing concern. Again, I was probably the only visitor that day looking tor them, I expect no one else noticed or was bothered in the slightest.

    Athelhampton is not the cheapest day out but we get a discount for Ann being 'disabled' and me as her carer; every little helps!


     

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