Article for DWT Magazine Summer 2008 (John Wright)
Hyde Heath includes internationally important dry and wet lowland heath, wet woodland and a varied selection of ponds and old gravel workings totalling 54 hectares. This popular reserve has something for everyone and recent sightings of birds, reptiles and insects are logged on a blackboard within a comfortable hide overlooking the largest pond. Over the years the reserve has been used for educational projects and Tony Conway of Dorset Bird Club has undertaken breeding bird surveys.
In January 2007 I started twice-monthly visits to the reserve to observe the plants and animals through the changing seasons. Even in January and February there is plenty to see. The overwintering coots on the big pond are joined by little grebes and moorhens in February whilst nearby, bullfinches can be found feeding on willow buds and in buddleia bushes. Within the wood, four species of tits, goldcrest, tree creeper, redpoll, siskin, great spotted woodpecker and redwing can be seen or heard, mistle thrush is in full song and chaffinches practise their song. The adjacent heath may seem uninviting at first but the sudden appearance of a dartford warbler on flowering gorse, the cascading flute-like song of a woodlark on a sunny day, a snipe flushed from wet heath or finding sika hinds with last years calves make the effort worthwhile.
By March stonechats and yellowhammers have returned to the heath, grey wagtails appear by the pond, reptiles become more active and chiffchaffs announce their arrival from almost every willow. But April heralds the arrival of many more summer migrants including sand martins and swallows over the big pond, blackcaps in the wood and willow warblers, tree pipit and cuckoo over the heath. All six British reptiles can be seen at Higher Hyde and the bright green breeding colours of male sand lizards are particularly spectacular at this time of year. Insects also start to feature with brimstone and speckled wood butterflies, large red damselflies and the bee fly which plunges its long proboscis into primroses. In addition, tormentil, heath milkwort and lousewort add delicate splashes of colour to the heath.
In May, garden warblers sing from thick cover and you just might see a hobby scything through the air as it searches for dragonflies by day and moths in the evening. The numerous ponds are now yielding several species of dragonflies including downy emerald, emperor dragonfly and broad bodied chasers. This is also the month when the pale dog violet, a speciality of this reserve, may be encountered.
As June ushers in the longest days, the heathland displays bell heather, cross-leaved heath, cotton-grass and bog asphodel and, with luck, the parasitic dodder and insectivorous pale butterwort. Family parties of twittering linnets and noisy stonechats catch the eye, silver-studded blue butterflies start to emerge and the impressive golden-ringed dragonfly appears. This is also the time when sika hinds appear with their new offspring.
The many buddleia bushes on the reserve, although not native, provide a perfect location for observing some of the many butterflies found in July. Apart from peacocks, red admirals and painted ladies, they also attracted a dark green fritillary whilst other locations yielded silver-washed fritillaries, holly blues, marbled whites, small copper and grayling butterflies. The variety of damsel and dragonflies also peak in July with azure, common blue, blue-tailed and emerald damselflies on show by the ponds together with keeled skimmers on wet heathland and ruddy and common darters widely distributed over the reserve.
With the heathland now showing off dwarf furze and the heathers, sika hinds and their calves become more numerous and summer slips into August. Southern and migrant hawker dragonflies appear but within the woodland, mixed flocks of tits, tree creepers and nuthatch plus returning migrants such as spotted flycatchers and even a pied flycatcher suggest the end of summer.
Through September the southward parade of summer migrants quickens, the variety of butterflies and dragonflies decreases and by October only speckled woods and common darters remain. As linnets retreat from the heathland, a woodlark returns to sing, redpoll reappear in the woods and an impressive sika stag struts the woodland edge, producing a curious high-pitched rutting call somewhat reminiscent of a creaking door. Groups of ten or more sika hinds are seen nearby, dartford warblers prepare for the winter and the last chiffchaffs are heard.
And finally, as winter sets in, woodcock are flushed in the damp woodlands, ravens fly overhead and small groups of bullfinches search for food near the partially frozen pond.