Nature Studies

By Michael McCarthy

Iridescent blue: the broad-bodied chaser Photo: © Robin Mills

Looking back across 2023 I see that I have written here about snowdrops, chalkstreams, hedgehogs, dormice, butterfly transects and swifts, among quite a lot else; so now I am going to list some of the other wildlife highlights of my Dorset year, which for one reason or another I did not mention.
Butterfly experts thought the summer drought of 2022 might have a bad knock-on effect on lepidoptera this year; in the event, despite the washout July and August, 2023 was surprisingly good for butterflies, and the abundance of autumn red admirals in particular was remarkable. But my insect highlight of the year was not a butterfly, but a dragonfly. In April my wife Jo realised a long-term wish and had a pond installed in the garden; and we sat back to see what would happen. After a week the pond skaters appeared, those small insects which appear to row across the surface film; God knows where they came from. That was interesting enough, but after a month, there was a true delight: a male broad-bodied chaser dragonfly came and took up residence. This is a common species, but I never fail to be thrilled by the iridescent pale blue of the body (to be precise, of the abdomen) seen to such advantage here in the lovely photo by Robin Mills, which Robin took at the pond in his own garden in the village. We felt blessed; we felt we had a distinguished visitor.
With wild flowers, there were two highlights for me. One was to discover the orchid meadows by the sea, shown to us by our friend Anthony, who holds many of the Dorset countryside’s secrets (he showed us the ruined chapel deep in the woods near Abbotsbury, which some readers may know.) The orchid meadows are fields of grassland above a well-known beach, bypassed by most visitors other than dog walkers; but get right into them in June and you find that they are filled with pyramidal orchids, and clumps of bee orchids, and there are even groups of that loveliest of flowers, the greater butterfly orchid. They were fabulous.
The other floral highlight was something which just blew in, that is, it appeared in the garden of its own accord. There were several such species, in fact, including that pretty pink end-of-summer flower, soapwort; but the real highlight among the unexpected visitors was a dandelion-relative with a charming and distinctive deep orange colour, and an equally charming name: fox-and-cubs. It grew from a crack in the path and I could scarcely believe my eyes. I fervently hope I will see fox-and-cubs again.
Finally, two encounters with birds gave me particular pleasure, one being a group evening walk on Brownsea Island in early June to look and listen for nightjars. On the heath in the island’s centre we waited and as dusk fell, the long churring calls began and we saw a couple of distant birds, so a few people—including me—began to wave white handkerchiefs. This is meant to be an infallible nightjar-attractor, as in the half-light the hankies resemble the white patches on the wings of the bird and they will come and investigate. And so they did. One came and swooped silently around us in the gloaming, silhouetted on its hawk-like wings against the glowing sky; and then another; then another. That was magical.
The other encounter, and for me the highlight of the whole year, brief though it was, happened in the Frome valley below Moreton where I was fishing with my son on Saturday May 13, a sublime spring day with the hawthorn in flower and the cow parsley high in the verges. At ten past eight in the evening Seb came running towards the car where I was taking a break, shouting at me to come and listen and I did, and over the watermeadows floated the most wonderful mellifluous sound, the most musical sound in all of nature, those two notes, the descending minor third—it was a cuckoo! So common a spring sound once and so rare now, with the bird having declined by nearly 80 per cent in England, and certainly, hardly ever heard around the village. It was the first I have heard myself since before the pandemic, for at least three years, and I was moved almost to tears. Two notes, that’s all; but it seemed for that brief moment as if the whole of the worth of the natural world was in them.