The summer of 2012 was exceptionally wet and vegetation grew tall, but this summer many plants have struggled to find sufficient water and have withered after flowering. Plants and the insects associated with them are favoured by different conditions but somehow adapt to survive our unpredictable climate. If you are interested in nature in Dorset, then you will never be bored!
A time for new feathers
Have you noticed how scruffy adult blackbirds are looking after their parental duties? Along with many other resident birds, they are keeping a low profile as they progressively moult their old feathers and develop new ones for the coming autumn and winter.
Mallard and other waterfowl shed all their flight feathers at the same time and use open water and marginal vegetation to avoid predation when they are flightless.
In contrast, large birds of prey such as buzzards which soar overhead to locate their prey cannot afford to be grounded and replace their flight feathers one by one over a long period of time. Incidentally, the insistent ‘mewing’ of newly fledged buzzards is now very noticeable as they plead with their parents to provide them with food.
August is the time to enjoy the spectacular purple and yellow colours on our heathlands in east Dorset and, in particular, the long spikes of Dorset heath which grows on wet heathland in north Purbeck. More common is cross-leaved heath which also prefers wet heaths and bell heather and ling which occur in drier locations.
On these last two plants also look for dodder, a parasitic plant which has no leaves but sports clusters of small pink flowers along its threadlike red stems which smother their host and send suckers into the host’s stem to take up nutrients and water.
Dorset also boasts two different species of summer flowering gorse the more robust western gorse and the somewhat smaller and less spikey dwarf furze, which only occurs in the eastern half of the county.
Look out for a special orchid
Although most of our orchids flower in spring and early summer one curious species, autumn ladies tresses, flowers in August. It occurs quite widely in Dorset and sometimes in abundance in short calcareous turf but can also appear on garden lawns and even on heathland verges. The flowering spikes are quite short and consist of a series of small white flowers arranged spirally up the stem.
Peacock butterflies which overwintered laid eggs in the spring and we are now seeing the next generation on our garden flowers. The brimstone has a similar life cycle and the yellow-winged males with their characteristic shape are also on the wing. However, most of the red admirals we are seeing are the progeny of individuals that migrated into England earlier in the year from the continent.
Have you seen a wasp spider?
A walk through grassland on a hot summer day will surely produce the sight and sounds of numerous grasshoppers. Having chewed the grasses and passed through several instars to reach adulthood, some may now fall prey to the impressive wasp spider.
This large orb-weaving predator with a yellowish abdomen and black bars across it is also notable for a distinctive zig-zag of white silk on the web. The individuals seen in grassland, on heathland and on vegetation in ditches in August are the females, the much smaller males having mated with the females and possibly been eaten in July.
Grasshoppers are a favoured prey item of the female and once in the web, they are wrapped in silk and given a lethal bite of venom and protein dissolving enzymes!
Swifts taking their leave
And finally, in the first few days of August, keep your eyes and ears open for swifts as they take their leave and depart for Africa. These masters of the air will have flown at least 500 miles every day during their short nesting season with us in order to capture small insects on the wing. Migrating to Africa should be a doddle!
Written by John Wright
Dorset Wildlife Trust Member & Volunteer
Stop Press: If you see any swifts - please let us know for our Swift Survey on our Swift Sightings page