Sunday in the orchard with butterflies

It was still early when I looked out of the back window.   I had expected a clear morning but, instead, a veil of grey mist lay across the eastern hills.  The line of mist seemed to follow the course of the river Dart hidden beneath the lower town, softening and lending an air of mystery to the view.     A hazy orange glow emerged above the line of mist gradually shading into a clear, translucent blue sky.  This orange dawn light reminded me of one of the species of the butterfly about at this time of year.  The French call these butterflies “l’aurore”, (the dawn) and the Germans refer to them as “Aurorafalter”, (the dawn butterfly).  We English settle for the name “orange-tip butterfly” (from the bright orange wing tips of the male). 

Last year, during the first lockdown I found orange-tip butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines) in the Nursery Car Park, one of the town centre car parks.  The butterflies laid eggs on the garlic mustard growing along one of the borders, caterpillars developed and I presume they left chrysalises on vegetation in the car park.  Unfortunately, last December, the council carried out a “tidiness” raid on the Nursery Car Park cutting down most of the trees and all the plants and other vegetation, presumably destroying the chrysalises.  Some early spring flowers did grow but in the third week of April the “tidiness brigade” returned and strimmed the borders again.  This included destroying a bank of flowering three-cornered garlic that was popular with female hairy-footed flower bees last year.  I don’t bother to look in the Nursery Car Park now.

The male orange-tip butterfly is one of the clear signs that the new season has arrived and, at this time of year, they can be seen meandering about the countryside searching for females.  In flight, they mostly appear white making them awkward to distinguish from other “white” butterflies although hints of the orange wing tips can sometimes be seen.  This year, I had seen several of the males in different places around the town despite the markedly cool weather.  I had only seen one female so, last Sunday afternoon, with sunshine forecast, I decided to have another attempt at finding orange-tip females, this time in an orchard on the western side of Totnes.

Colwell Wood is owned by the Woodland Trust and located a short distance up Harper’s Hill.  It occupies a sloping site with good views towards Dartmoor and was planted nearly 25 years ago.  Now there is an area of woodland with a good selection of broadleaf native trees and an orchard stocked with heritage fruit trees: apple, plum, pear, cherry, medlar and mulberry.

A mature horse chestnut tree greeted me when I walked through the wooden gate off Harper’s Hill into Colwell Wood.   The tree was covered in floppy lime-green leaves and there were plenty of white candle-like flowers flecked with pink.  The woodland area is a short distance away and, with the trees now fairly mature, this a lovely spot.  A path took me through the rows of mature trunks, sunlight percolated through the partially leafed trees and above me a chiff chaff sang among branches that chattered as the breeze made them tremble.  The lesser celandine that had given the woodland floor a yellow sheen a few weeks ago were on their way out, the colour being replaced by a fulsome green growth with ferns unfurling and hogweed leaves spreading. 

Apple blossom in the orchard

The woodland ended and I walked a little way down the slope into the orchard, now a mass of flowers with most of the trees in blossom.  Apple predominated with its pink and white flowers and a steady stream of pollinators were visiting.  I saw bumblebees, honeybees and hoverflies and above the trees a few St Mark’s flies.

I also began to see an intermittent passage of white butterflies across the orchard in the sunshine.  With their undulating, slightly uncertain flight these insects often remind me of fragments of paper blowing in the wind but here a better comparison would be with the pale petals of apple trees.  These were blowing about in the breeze and on more than one occasion I jumped thinking that a butterfly had passed me only to find it was just a fragment of apple blossom.    

Several species of butterfly appear white in flight, so it’s important to look carefully at individual characteristics to identify the species. Most of the “white” butterflies passing through the orchard that afternoon, though, were elusive and accelerated away when they saw me. Then two appeared dancing around one another in the air.  I watched, thinking this might have been a mating pair but one flew off leaving the other to land on some cow parsley.  I got a quick glimpse of orange as the butterfly landed so I knew this was a male orange-tip.  He tolerated me approaching and looking, even when I knelt down and inadvertently sat on a stinging nettle.  His wings were closed for most of the time, revealing the beautiful green and yellow mottled underwing patterns (see picture at the top of this post and also below).  Slight traces of orange bled into the pattern but the dominant mottling blended well with the colours of the cow parsley.  When he had finished feeding, he flew off giving me another quick flash of brash colour.

Then another “white” butterfly appeared and landed on one of the pear trees.  This insect fed with wings half open, also exhibiting the mottled underwing pattern characteristic of orange-tip butterflies.   It lacked the orange upper wing markings but in their place were black wing tips and spots showing this to be a female of the species.  I was able to watch for a while before she flew off.

My third close encounter with a “white” butterfly that afternoon occurred as one landed on apple blossom and rested with its wings closed.  The underwings of this individual were mostly yellowish green with a beautiful pattern of darker, radiating veins rather like the branches of a tree.  This was a green-veined white butterfly (Pieris napi).

The weather changed, cloud covered the sun and the temperature fell a little.  The butterflies took this as a signal and I saw no more that afternoon but I returned a few days later on a sunny but rather windy day.  Walking through the woodland section, I came across several clumps of garlic mustard, the larval food plant of the orange-tip butterfly (and also the green-veined white).  I examined each plant carefully and very gently and was pleased to find one tiny, orange, ovoid structure attached just under the flower head on one flower stem (see pictures below).  This “mini rugby ball” was the egg of an orange-tip butterfly.  It has a much better chance of producing a new butterfly next year in this environment compared to those I saw last year in the Nursery Car Park.

Thanks to Dr Claudia Garrido who identified the medlar tree for me (see picture below).

Male orange-tip butterfly on cow parsley showing the mottled underwing pattern
Male orange-tip butterfly showing upper wings
Female orange-tip butterfly showing the mottled underwing pattern and upper wing with black tips and spots
Female orange-tip butterfly showing the mottled underwing pattern projecting through in the sunshine
Green-veined white butterfly
Garlic mustard showing the orange egg of the orange tip butterfly
Close up of the orange-tip butterfly egg
Flowers of the medlar tree

An otter in a tree? – Lockdown Nature Walks 16

With Lockdown easing in the UK, this is the last Lockdown Nature Walk of this series.  I wanted to see how spring was progressing along a typical Devon country lane. So, on a mild day with intermittent sunshine and a light wind, I walked up Harper’s Hill on the western side of Totnes (as in Lockdown Nature Walk 7) to reach Jackman’s Lane and the ridgeway road.  It was an interesting walk but not always in the way I had anticipated.   After the account of my walk, I have included a relevant poem, “The Trees” by Philip Larkin

The prominent sign at the start of Jackman’s Lane proclaimed “Unmetalled Road” and the hard-packed, rutted, reddish soil base of the track showed evidence of regular use by farm vehicles and horses.  I made slow progress along the lane, examining the soil banks lining the track, occasionally pausing to enjoy the views across rolling countryside with fields and trees.  Skylarks sang their endlessly inventive songs overhead, plump queen bumblebees buzzed along the hedges and the wind carried the sound of a tractor.  Spring flowers decorated the soil banks including primroses, celandine, violets and stitchwort.  Nettles grew in a profusion of green together with thuggish hogweed leaves while the heavily flailed woody stems along the hedge tops were only just shooting.    

Then on a narrow ledge surrounded and almost hidden by grasses, my attention was captured by a flash of a different green, a silvery green.  When I looked carefully, I saw a fine lizard curled up neatly and basking in a shaft of warm sunshine (see picture at the head of this post).  The reptile was about 12cm long, a common lizard (Zootoca vivipara) with a complex pattern of black swirls and dots along its body.   The colours of common lizards vary and local expert, John Walters told me that the green colour probably helps the creature to avoid predators in this grassy environment. 

As I watched the lizard, I saw it eyeing me warily, so I left it in peace and carried on down the lane.  Butterflies occasionally surprised me by erupting from the track where they had been basking, rising too quickly to identify.  Then two of these insects materialised above me, dancing in the air, turning circles around each other before one fell to the ground just behind the left-hand bank.  I scrambled up and recognised it as a small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) with its brilliant orange, yellow and black markings.  It seemed to be fluttering its wings repeatedly as it danced above some young nettle leaves.  Was this a form of courtship behaviour? 

I continued to see or hear bumblebees as I walked and then towards the end of the lane, hoverflies began to appear.  Some were flying about but most were quietly basking on exposed leaves in the sunshine.  The hoverflies that I saw that day were all of the same species, the tapered drone fly (Eristalis pertinax), a mixture of males and females.   The more I look at hoverflies, the more I appreciate the beauty of these creatures and I hope the photos posted below show this.  Look, for example, at their wings which resemble panes of crazed glass and the neat bands of hair decorating their thorax and abdomen.

As I was watching the hoverflies, I heard a familiar but not entirely welcome sound.  Turning to look back down the lane, I glimpsed a galloping horse and rider approaching at speed.  I moved to the edge of the track to make way but the horse slowed down and walked past me.  I thanked the rider but she said nothing.  I may have spoiled her planned gallop along this unpaved country track!

Jackman’s Lane ended and I turned right along the ridgeway road in the direction of Totnes.  Views to the north across the valley below were hazy and Dartmoor lay invisible in the mist that enveloped the distant hills.  A farmer was treating the nearby fields with chemical fertiliser while ploughing the upper surface of the red Devon soil.  A plume of dust accompanied his tractor, so I walked on quickly. 

The ridgeway road runs roughly eastward so that the soil bank on one side is south facing, getting the benefit of the sun when it shines and encouraging growth.  Many flowers will appear here later in spring and even that day, I saw more here than along Jackman’s Lane including three members of the dead-nettle family. 

White dead-nettle was one of these with its hooded, slightly hairy flowers spreading splashes of snowy white among the lush greenery covering the bank.  A few red dead-nettle flowers had just pushed through the grasses and there were drifts of yellow archangel, a member of the family that has the look of a yellow dead-nettle.  Two kinds of yellow archangel grew on the soil bank, the wild flower with its all-green leaves and the garden throw out (argentatum) with silvery green leaves.  The garden variety blooms earlier and spreads more aggressively than its wild counterpart and it had formed a large yellow mat along one edge of the ridgeway road. 

The flowers of members of the dead-nettle family are similar with a wide lower lip like a landing pad to attract pollinators, sometimes marked with abstract patterns.  Above the lip is a hood concealing stamens that close over the inquisitive insect so that, when it leaves, it takes away some pollen to fertilise the next flower it visits.  Several common carder bee queens (Bombus pascuorum), some of the first I had seen this year, were taking advantage of the flowers.

While I was watching the bees, I became aware of a motor scooter that had slowed down and turned on the road behind me.  The scooter drew up at my side, stopped and the rider, an older man, swathed in coats and a large crash helmet, asked:

“Are you going towards Bowden?”

I thought he wanted directions and replied “Sort of”.

“Have you seen the otter in the tree?” he asked.

“What! An otter in a tree, it must be dead?” I replied in surprise.

“No, no”, he must have thought I was stupid, “it’s part of the tree, its uncanny how it looks like an otter, I am surprised more fuss hasn’t been made about it”.

He told me in some detail how to find it and I agreed to look.  

As he was getting ready to go, he looked at me oddly and asked “What’s a farmer’s favourite sport?”

“I have no idea. What is farmer’s favourite sport”, this was becoming surreal.

He revved up, looked fixedly at me again and, as he accelerated away, blurted out “fencing!”. 

I walked on and near the junction with the Ashprington road I could see the tree and the arboreal otter.  It was indeed an uncanny likeness. 

It was only then that I remembered it was April 1st but I haven’t made this story up, all this really did happen.

The otter in the tree

…………………………………..

“The Trees” by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

…………………………………..

stitchwort
violet
small tortoiseshell butterfly on nettles
female hoverfly (eristalis pertinax), the eyes don’t meet in the middle of the head so this is a female
male hoverfly (eristalis pertinax), the eyes meet in the middle of the head so this is a male
white dead-nettle with common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)
yellow archangel with common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Hitch-hiking beetles and dancing bees – Lockdown Nature Walks 15

I had intended to go further afield for my next Lockdown Nature Walk but events drew me back once again to the Leechwell Garden, the community garden in the centre of Totnes.  I visited several times during the second week of March and discovered a fascinating story of bees, beetles and their mutual interactions. 

After my account, I have included part of a poem, “The Spring”, by William Barnes written in the dialect of the west country county of Dorset.

Immature leaves and catkins on weeping willow

A laughing sound, the yaffle of a green woodpecker, reached our house on several days and I thought it might be coming from the Leechwell Garden.  I went to look but I didn’t find the bird.  It’s no hardship, though, to visit the Garden at this time of year when the non-human world seems to be waking up and changing rapidly.  On early spring mornings, it’s a very peaceful spot and the combination of old stone walls and sunshine creates a warm microenvironment.  Noise from nearby roads can intrude but birdsong and the rushing of water from the stream overcome this.  There are often a few children enjoying the play area, their voices blending with the song of the chaffinches flitting around the Garden. 

Most shrubs and trees are in bud now but the weeping willows seem to be in the lead, their gracefully hanging branches grazing the ground in cascades of lime green.  Close up, the green haze covering the branches is a mixture of immature spear-shaped leaves and catkins.  The catkins are small green cigar shapes at present but will turn yellow as they mature.  Towards the back of the Garden, snowy splashes of blackthorn decorate the hedges and fleshy green tongues of ramsons make their way up through the leaf litter. 

One of the small bees, a male yellow-legged mining bee (Andrena flavipes)

Below the pergola is a sloping, southeast-facing grassy bank.  When I visited, a few dandelions and daisies were pushing through the grass and the underlying soil had been exposed on part of the bank by children’s feet running excitedly towards the play area.   It was March 9th, on a sunny morning, when I first noticed a few small bees flying about above this bare soil.  Occasionally one of the insects paused on a leaf or flower to take the sun or to feed on nectar and I could then see their well-marked stripy abdomen.  They were quite small, about two thirds the size of a honeybee and over the next few days, especially when the sun shone, the numbers increased.  There were also several holes in the bare soil, some surrounded by soil spill and the bees occasionally stopped to investigate, disappearing inside the hole for a short time. 

By the middle of March, a mobile cloud of the insects, at least 100 I estimated, would fly just above the soil.  They moved back and forth and from side to side, circling, dancing, the urgency of movement increasing when the sun shone, like water simmering, threatening to boil over.   My photos of the insects highlighted the prominent creamy hair bands around the abdomen, the pale hairs that decorate the face and sides of the thorax and the haze of pale yellow hairs coating the legs, confirming that they were male Yellow-Legged Mining bees (Andrena flavipes), one of our earliest spring solitary bees.    

One day I noticed a slightly larger but otherwise similar bee pausing on a dandelion.  The size suggested this might be a female and before I could take a photo my hunch was confirmed as one of the smaller bees hopped on top of the larger bee.  They stayed clasped together for about two minutes, his legs twitching before they separated.  She stayed on the flower whereas he moved to a nearby blade of grass. If this mating was successful, the female now starts the job of nest building.  Within one of the tunnels in the bare soil she will construct a series of cells each equipped with one egg and a mixture of pollen and nectar collected from flowers. The eggs will develop into new bees.   Each mated female works alone without cooperation so that these insects are referred to as solitary bees.

One of my visits to the Garden was on a sunny Sunday morning and, after I had looked at the bees, I wandered about glancing at the flowers.  My attention was captured, though, by a large black beetle (about 2.5cm long) among a mass of ivy beneath a hawthorn tree.  I found a second similar insect close by on a separate leaf.  Both were motionless and seemed to be taking the sun.  These are unusual creatures with a small head and thorax compared to their much larger abdomen.  Wing cases were visible but they were too small to cover the abdomen, rather like a portly Victorian gentleman unable to secure his jacket across his belly.  The prominent legs and antennae of the beetles seemed to be comprised of many small segments so that they resembled tightly coiled wire. In the sunshine, their bodies, legs and antennae sparkled a beautiful iridescent dark blue.  After a bit of searching and with some kind help from John Walters, I worked out that these were female violet oil beetles (Meloe violaceus).  This was a surprise as these rare insects have not been spotted in the Leechwell Garden before.

Oil beetles have one of the most bizarre life cycles of all insects, one that is inextricably intertwined with the lives of solitary bees.  Each spring, mated female oil beetles dig shallow burrows in soil where they lay eggs in large numbers.  The eggs develop and the louse-like, early-stage larvae, called triungulins, eventually leave the burrow.  The tiny triungulins look for flowers, climb up the stems and wait in the flower for a passing solitary bee.  When an unsuspecting bee arrives looking for pollen and nectar, the triungulin clambers on board and hitches a ride to the bee’s nest.  Once there, it feeds on the pollen and nectar left by the bee for its own offspring and, after passing through several developmental stages, a new oil beetle emerges the following spring.

With such a complex life cycle, it’s surprising that oil beetles manage to survive, but survive they do.  They are, though, declining and part of the problem is a reduction in the number of solitary bees.  With urbanisation and the intensification of agriculture, wildflowers have disappeared from large parts of the countryside.  Solitary bees are unable to survive in such a degraded environment with obvious knock-on effects on oil beetles.

The Leechwell Garden has a good selection of flowers, both wild and cultivated, and there are several colonies of solitary bees including the Yellow-Legged Mining Bees mentioned earlier.  I hope these oil beetles will be able to continue their lives here and, as the season progresses, I shall be looking for the triungulins on flowers popular with solitary bees.

As a postscript, last Saturday morning we were walking down our street and were very surprised to find another female oil beetle.  This one was crossing the road, moving quickly, antennae flexing and moving all the time as the beetle sampled the air.  We stood nearby to prevent it from being squashed by cars or other passers-by.  I was able to get a reasonable photo and Andrew Whitehouse kindly confirmed that this was another violet oil beetle, newly emerged.  

Perhaps there are more of these insects about than I had realised?

…………………………….

“The spring” by William Barnes

When wintry weather’s all a-done,
An’ brooks do sparkle in the zun,
An’ naïsy-builden rooks do vlee
Wi’ sticks toward their elem tree;
When birds do zing, an’ we can zee
Upon the boughs the buds o’ spring, –
Then I’m as happy as a king,
A-vield wi’ health an’ zunsheen.

Vor then the cowslip’s hangen flow’r
A-wetted in the zunny shower,
Do grow wi’ vi’lets, sweet o’ smell,
Bezide the wood-screened graegle’s bell;
Where drushes’ aggs, wi’ sky-blue shell,
Do lie in mossy nest among
The thorns, while they do zing their zong
At evenen in the zunsheen.

[These are the first two verses of Barnes evocation of a 19th century Dorset spring.  Most of the dialect becomes clear if read aloud but here are three translations:  Vield – filled, graegle – bluebell, drush – thrush]

One of the smaller, male yellow-legged mining bees showing the haze of yellow hairs coating his legs and catching pollen grains.
Female yellow-legged mining bee (Andrena flavipes) showing the golden pollen hairs on her back legs.

Mating pair of yellow legged mining bees.

Holes in the bare soil forming entrances to nest tunnels.

The two female violet oil beetles (Meloe violaceus) in the sunshine. The upper beetle is also shown at the head of this post.

Signs of spring? – Lockdown Nature Walks 14

For my next Lockdown Nature Walk, I wandered about a community garden and a car park in the centre of Totnes looking at how spring was progressing in these semi-urban settings.   I made my observations over the weekend of February 27/28 during the short spell of warmer weather we enjoyed towards the end that month.  I have included a poem by Wordsworth “The lesser celandine” at the end of the account followed by some photos of the species I saw.

The sun rising on February 28th 2021 to the left of the houses with remnants of the apricot dawn light

After weeks of oppressive weather, grey, wet and then quite cold, these few days of sunshine and spring-like warmth were very welcome. I felt my spirits lift and I acquired a renewed sense of purpose despite the constraints of lockdown.   Several of the days dawned to cloudless skies accompanied by fuzzy white blankets of frost.  On one of these mornings, I went out early to watch the dawn light.  With sunrise still more than half an hour away and the sky an intense dark blue, a bright apricot glow rose behind the eastern hills.  The dawn chorus echoed across the valley and it was tempting to think that the birds were singing of the impending arrival of spring.  

The absence of cloud allowed me to watch the sun as it rose above the eastern hills and I began to see how this event in itself held indications of seasonal change.  Not only was the Late February sunrise more than an hour earlier compared to the beginning of the year, but the sun now rose closer to the east compared with roughly south east in early January.  The sun will continue its eastern trajectory, rising directly from the east on March 20th, the vernal or spring equinox, the astronomical start of spring.

With these ideas of seasonal change in mind, I decided to take advantage of the short spell of warmer weather to visit some of the town centre gardens and car parks to look for signs of spring.  First stop was the Leechwell Garden, one of the community gardens in the centre of Totnes.   By the time I reached this town centre oasis, warm sunshine had dismissed the early morning frost and a peal of children’s voices rang out from the play area and sand pit.  The early flowers, the snowdrops and winter aconites, were already past their best but nearby I came across the first blackthorn blossom.  The porcelain-white flowers were not fully open but their red-tipped stamens were already on show.  Blackthorn is very popular with early solitary bees and that day I made my first sighting of the year.  A dandelion was the host and a small bee with a bright orange-brown thorax and yellow pollen hairs was feeding.  This was a female Gwynne’s Mining Bee (Andrena bicolor).  A few lesser celandines were showing around the Garden but it was a nearby car park that surprised with its impressive display of these flowers. 

The Nursery Car Park is enclosed by old stone walls and the parking area is lined by wide soil borders mostly covered in rough grass.    In the past, I have seen solitary bees nesting in the grassy borders and butterflies taking advantage of the flowers growing there.  During the winter, the local council decided to cut the vegetation on the soil borders and did so very harshly.  This is probably bad news for overwintering butterflies but the early flowers seem to have responded well, perhaps owing to lack of competition from grasses.  The long border along the north side is sheltered by a tall ivy-clad stone wall and when the sun shines this is a warm sheltered spot. A few lesser celandines (Ficaria verna) had been struggling into flower here earlier in February but the warm weather triggered an outpouring of these starry golden flowers as if the area had been spattered with yellow gloss paint.

A lesser celandine flower showing the two-tone petals and the central fuzz of pollen-loaded stamens

I stood there for a while, looking, listening; one of the few benefits of lockdown is that the car park is very quiet.  Blackbirds squabbled noisily over ivy berries, a wren trilled, heard but unseen, and a large bumblebee tracked across the border.  I admired the celandine flowers with their shiny two-tone petals, mostly lemon yellow but with a darker slightly brown section near the centre of the flower.   Also, their central fuzz of bright, buttery yellow, pollen-loaded stamens surrounding a nascent green seed pod. 

There is something about these golden flowers on a bright sunny day with their petals held horizontally that speaks of their close relationship with the sun.  Part of this is the sensitivity of the flowers to light levels.  On dull days when cloud obscures the sun, the flowers will close and even on sunny days, they do not open until about 9am and are closed again by 5pm.   Then there are the stamens, thickly coated with yellow pollen.  With its colour and its richness, for me this pollen symbolises the energy of the sun.  And of course, it does contain some of the sun’s energy but it acquires this indirectly via the shiny heart-shaped green leaves that form thick mats across the border.  Photosynthesis in the leaves captures the energy of sunlight transforming it and generating among other substances, pollen and nectar, energy for insects.  It is perhaps no accident that the Celtic name for the lesser celandine is grian, the sun.

The first insect I saw taking advantage of this floral energy store during the warm spell was a honeybee.  It moved from flower to flower, its pollen baskets accumulating sticky yellow lumps of pollen to take back to the hive as food.  Several hoverflies also appeared on the flowers.  Mostly these were Common Drone Flies (Eristalis tenax) a species that overwinters as an adult and comes out on warm winter days to top up with pollen and nectar.  They bear more than a passing resemblance to male honeybees as their name suggests.   Most of the Eristalis I saw were females, characterised by eyes separated at the top of their head.  Several Bumblebees also fed from the flowers but these were very jumpy and I manged only one photo.

In the past, the lesser celandine was referred to as the “spring messenger” being one of the first woodland flowers to show each year.  Gilbert White noted that in 18th century Hampshire the flowers first appeared on average on February 21st.  This year in Devon, based on my observations, they emerged several weeks earlier.  The lesser celandine is also one of the first flowers to appear during weather warm enough to tempt out many insects.  It will continue flowering into April providing support for many species including the solitary bees that emerge as spring unfolds.

………………………………………….

The golden flowers have Inspired poets including William Wordsworth.  The lesser celandine was his favourite flower and he wrote three poems about them.  Here is his poem entitled “The lesser celandine”

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!

When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
“It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.

“The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.”
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.

To be a Prodigal’s Favourite – then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner – behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!

Blackthorn flowers showing the red-tipped stamens

Gwynne’s mining bee (Andrena bicolor) on a dandelion

Honeybee on lesser celandine, note the yellow pollen accumulating

Common drone fly (Eristalis tenax) on lesser celandine. The prominent eyes do not meet on the top of the head, characteristic of a female

Bumblebee on lesser celandine. From this picture it is impossible to determine the species but based on size and the time of year it may be a queen Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)

Hope and Loss along a Devon country lane – Lockdown Nature Walks 13

For my next Lockdown Nature Walk (taken on February 10th 2021), I went up Fishchowter’s Lane, an ancient track on the southern side of Totnes.  It was a very cold, grey day but I found much that was encouraging and some that wasn’t.  After my account of the walk, I have included a poem that feels relevant, “A Backward Spring” by Thomas Hardy.   

An open part of Fishchowter’s Lane showing the ferns and wall pennywort growing along the soil banks

A jumble of bright green, grass-like leaves spills along a roadside wall near the beginning of Fishchowter’s Lane on the southern edge of Totnes.  This is three-cornered garlic and despite the bitter easterly wind, a flower stem has dared to appear among the leaves.  Most of the flowers on the stem are still swathed in a pale papery bract but one has escaped, snowy white with a hint of a pale green stripe. For a moment, this fragile flower holds my hope that spring, when it arrives, might lighten this lockdown making it easier to bear.

I begin to walk up the lane past houses and a former quarry, now a dark, fern-fringed grotto occasionally used by a wood worker.  Trees grow within the quarry and a group of small birds fusses in the leafless branches.  One of these trees, a hazel, drapes over my path casting a mist of yellow catkins that shimmers in the wind.

The lane rises gently along the side of a grassy valley as it enters open countryside and I begin to be aware of a stream rushing along the valley bottom a little way below.   I am used to mud on this path but with the recent spell of cold weather, it has frozen hard with reminders of that morning’s snow caught in crevices.     At first the lane feels open with views across nearby fields in the valley but soon the character changes.  Trees and scrub growing in the path-side soil banks now cover the track giving it a more enclosed, sheltered feel.  By late spring, fresh leaves will have created a mysterious green tunnel here but today some light still gets through.  With the overcast conditions, though, this is a poor flat light and everything feels rather gloomy. 

Despite this, the enclosed track has a feeling of lush green growth.  Ferns and wall pennywort cover large areas of the soil banks and have yet to be touched by the cold weather.  Shiny arrow head-shaped leaves push up through the soil on the banks and by the path side, some with prominent black spots.  These are the leaves of Lords and Ladies whose beacons of orange-red berries will light up the green tunnel in late summer. Groups of pointed leaves like small spears, some spattered with mud are also emerging through the hard soil along the side of the path. Breaking a piece of leaf releases a sharp oniony smell transporting me forwards to a time when these starry-flowered ramsons will capture the edges of the track.  Then further along, green mats of oval wavy-edged leaves cover the bank.   This is opposite-leaved golden saxifrage an evergreen, damp and shade-loving plant.  A few yellow flower stems are already showing, bringing hints of sunshine to the dark track.

The path continues to climb slowly, sometimes enclosed by trees, sometimes more open.  A stream running off a steeply sloping field crosses the lane to join the water in the valley and I pass an organic smallholding before the lane rises again to reach a junction where another path crosses at right angles.  The junction is set in a peaceful tree-lined glade where water cascades from fields across rocks and old tree stumps before entering a culvert to hurry downhill towards the valley stream.  I stand there for a while listening to the ebb and flow of the watery sounds and I try to imagine the people that have walked this way over the years.   I also reflect on how, if you walk a path regularly, it can insinuate itself into your life.

Fishchowter’s Lane leaves the tree-lined glade to head steeply upwards across the side of a rising hillside.  The path is enclosed by scrub and mature trees and feels rather bleak today.  As I climb, the noise of the wind threading through the trees begins to dominate and apart from wall pennywort growing on the soil banks there is little to see except for a few green spikes that may be bluebells. In compensation, the views to the north become increasingly spectacular, across the valley below, to the town of Totnes and further on to the Dartmoor hills.  

The lane climbs about 75metres from the watery glade in a short distance so I am relieved when the track levels out.  This part of Fishchowter’s Lane is open and airy in spring and summer, its high hedges richly embroidered with wildflowers.  Today, though, the plants growing along the banks look damaged.  Foxgloves and wall pennywort show this most with their leaves drooping uncharacteristically.  I am puzzled by this at first but decide that the recent high winds from the east combined with persistent low temperatures have damaged the lush leaves of plants that grew well in the earlier mild weather. It looks alarming and although it may set back these plants, they will recover and regrow so I press on to the next junction where I turn left along Bowden Lane. 

This is a well-used farm track, scarred with deep muddy ruts glinting with shards of ice.  It’s another mass of growth in the warmer seasons, abounding with flowers and insects but today it looks apocalyptic.  The farmer appears to have decided to rein in the vegetation, flailing the hedge and plants growing there, spreading the cuttings across the high banks that line the lane.  A thick brown layer of coarse fragments of wood and leaves covers both sides smothering any new growth, so that the lane looks dead.    I don’t hang around here, there is nothing to see, the wind is bitter and a little snow is now falling.   The lane ends at a four-way junction and I walk on to the minor road which allows me to descend along Totnes Down Hill.  Primroses with their yellow flowers are showing well in the high banks but it is very exposed with more evidence of wind damage.

So, what about my earlier hopes for the arrival of spring? With all this natural and unnatural destruction, all this loss, I can’t help but feel downcast but then I come across a splash of snowdrops growing by the side of the road.  As I look at the delicate green markings on these flowers, a great tit sings a joyful “teacher, teacher” from a nearby tree and then a robin appears.  Not wishing to be left out, the bird begins to speak to me.

……………………………………………………………….

A Backward Spring by Thomas Hardy

The trees are afraid to put forth buds,
 And there is timidity in the grass;
 The plots lie gray where gouged by spuds,
  And whether next week will pass
 Free of sly sour winds is the fret of each bush
  Of barberry waiting to bloom.

 Yet the snowdrop’s face betrays no gloom,
 And the primrose pants in its heedless push,
 Though the myrtle asks if it’s worth the fight
  This year with frost and rime
  To venture one more time
 On delicate leaves and buttons of white
 From the selfsame bough as at last year’s prime,
 And never to ruminate on or remember
 What happened to it in mid-December.

……………………………………………..

Leaves of Lords and Ladies

Green spears of ramsons coming through the hard soil at the path edge

Opposite leaved golden saxifrage showing the leaves and some flower stems with the bright yellow stamens in groups of eight

The view from the high point across the valley to Totnes and Dartmoor

Wall pennywort showing frost and wind damage, also some remnants of snow

Foxglove showing frost and wind damage

View along Bowden Lane with icy, muddy ruts and the banks, flailed and cut

Snowdrops growing along Totnes Down Hill

A visitor from Eastern Europe and a winter hoverfly – Lockdown Nature Walks 12

For my next Lockdown Nature Walk I took advantage of a rain-free day to cross Totnes to look at some unusual flowers growing on the northern edge of the town.  Here is my account of the walk (taken on January 25th 2021) together with a poem by the American poet Ruby Archer entitled Fire in the Sky.  For my previous Lockdown Nature Walks, please click here.

The day dawned to a washed out, almost translucent, pale blue sky.  To the east, though, there was a hint of what was to come as an apricot halo crept above the low hills as if a fire were burning behind them. Then, as the sun rose, a raft of thin cloud towards the south east caught its light, first a rose-pink, then orange before relaxing to cream.  It was a good way to start the day.

No rain was forecast so I decided to walk across the town, past the castle to the northern edge, where semi-urban and residential gradually give way to rural.  It was a day of light and dark, a day of bright sunshine and long shadows, and a cold day where frost lingered in areas inaccessible to the sun.  

A minor road, Barracks Hill lies in this transitional zone, striking north away from the bypass past a modern housing development.  The road rises gradually between rough grassy banks and then more steeply to cross a low ridge.  This section of the road is enclosed and dark.   It rises, like a sunken green lane, between steep sides, some rocky, some covered in rough vegetation, emerging eventually into sunshine and open countryside with farmland and trees.  There was once a Barracks along this lane, built in the late 18th century.  Some of the buildings remain but most were demolished when a fine Georgian house was built in the 1820s.

But I want to go back down the hill to the lower part of the lane to look at the scruffy areas of vegetation that line the road.  Where it can, the sun casts pools of brightness on to these roadside banks, its spotlight picking out pennywort, hart’s tongue fern, brambles and what looks suspiciously like garden rubbish.  Whatever can get a foothold here seems to flourish and there is a long section of the bank where lime green, heart-shaped leaves push through a mass of dark brown, dry, decaying vegetation.  Unusually for the time of year, many sturdy flower spikes also rise above the leaves, some sporting striking blue flowers that sparkle in the sunshine like sapphire jewels. This is oriental borage (Trachystemon orientalis) commonly known as Abraham-Isaac-Jacob.  A relative of wild borage (Borago officinalis), this plant was introduced into gardens in the UK in 1868 from its native Bulgaria, Georgia and Turkey where all parts of the plant are consumed as a popular spring vegetable.

This patch of the plant is probably a garden throw-out and it seems very happy here, covered in flowers and having elbowed out all the competition.  At a first glance, the flowers look rather chaotic but this is because several different forms and colours exist together at the same time. 

First there are the pink tapering flower buds about 1cm long, decorated with a fuzz of white hairs resembling the stubble on an old man’s chin.   The buds open to reveal the strikingly beautiful complex flowers.  Each has five petals that curl and twist backwards creating an intensely blue frilly decoration around a crimped white collar reminiscent of a sapphire-coloured ruff around the neck of an Elizabethan lady.  Adding to the complexity, five stamens, each about 1 cm long, and a single slightly longer style protrude proudly from the collar as a tight cluster.  The stamens themselves are multicoloured starting white at the top, then pinkish-lilac, terminating as indigo anthers clasping lumps of pollen. 

As the flowers mature, they discard the petals and stamens leaving an odd-looking remnant where a spiky pinkish-lilac style emerges from hairy sepal cup.  This form in particular contributes to the overall messy look of the plant.    Unusually, all three flower forms, representing different stages of maturation, are present at the same time.  This may be the inspiration for the common name of the plant, Abraham-Isaac-Jacob, itself a reference to three generations of a biblical family.   [Photographs at the end of this post illustrate the three different flower forms.]

A plant that produces flowers at this low time of year is a rare discovery and these out of season sources of pollen and nectar often attract winter-active insects.  Nothing was about when I looked, though, and the day was probably too cold.  I came back a few days later on a warmer afternoon and was pleased to find a fine hoverfly on the flowers (see picture at the top of this post).  With its bulging brown eyes and distinctive barcoded abdominal pattern of yellow, silver and black bands this was a marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) a species that overwinters as an adult and emerges on mild winter days.  It was collecting pollen from the indigo-coloured anthers and nectar from the nectaries in the white collar.

…………………………………….

Fire in the Sky by Ruby Archer

I thought the darkness would not yield,
Glooming the sun-forgotten sky,
‘Till pulsing, surging glows revealed
A far-off burning,—home or field,
Up flung the light. Oh whence? O why?

I thought forgetfulness had spread
A Lethean gloom athwart one sky,
‘Till memory’s light crept warmly red
From flame I deemed in ashes dead.
Up leapt the light. Oh whence? Oh why?

…………………………………………………..

The roadside bank with the lime-green leaves and blue flowers of Abraham-Isaac-Jacob

Pink tapering flower buds with their decoration of white hairs

Three of the beautiful and complex flowers showing the frilly decoration of blue petals around the white collar and the tight cluster of stamens and style. Note also the indigo-coloured anthers with pollen.

Some of the spiky remnant flowers

Marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) feeding from the anthers of one of the flowers on Abraham-Isaac-Jacob

A Christmas Sunrise Surprise

What is it about a spectacular sunrise that captures our imagination so strongly? Here is an article I wrote for the February edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine inspired by the special sunrise that I witnessed on Christmas morning.

It was still early and I was in the kitchen, making cups of tea and getting some of the food ready for our festive breakfast.  Carols sang out from the radio and I did my best to ignore the news on this very different Christmas morning.

Our kitchen window looks northwards across a narrow valley on the edge of town and there is always much to see even if it is only a storm approaching from the west.  That morning, though, I noticed something different, something special.  The part of the eastern sky that I could see was suffused with orange light suggesting that we might be in for an interesting sunrise.  This doesn’t happen very often here and I knew it wouldn’t last so I told Hazel, grabbed my camera and went into the street to get a better view.   There was an unusual stillness, a rare quiet but, by contrast, the entire eastern sky appeared to be alight with a bright, fiery display that captured the view, transforming telegraph poles and nearby trees into skeletal silhouettes.

It was as though someone had taken a large brush and splashed paint in rough horizontal layers across the thin cloud that hung in the eastern sky that morning – starting with yellow, then switching to orange, then red and finally mauve.  

By now Hazel had joined me and we stood there, neither of us dressed for the occasion but both in awe at the astonishing natural spectacle we were witnessing.  I knew the colours were changing all the time as the sun crept upwards and the cloud cover shifted so I took a few photos as a record.   Suddenly remembering where I was, I looked about and saw thick frost on the parked cars and realised I was getting cold. It was time to go in but I went with renewed optimism.  Even in a pandemic year, perhaps especially in a pandemic year, the non-human world can surprise and thrill. 

The rational part of me knows that there is a good scientific explanation for the extraordinary light show we witnessed but this does not detract from the spectacular nature of that morning’s sunrise.  So, what is it about these displays that we find so captivating?   The colours are surely part of this.  The reds and oranges filling the sky express a certain danger, a wildness that is unpredictable, uncontrollable and ephemeral.  Perhaps we also gain an insight into the power of the sun and a better appreciation of our place in the world as just one small part of the overall ecosystem? 

Impression, soleil levant, Claude Monet 1872 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

As you might expect, the beauty and mystery of the light at sunrise (and sunset) have inspired artists who have tried to capture some of the effects in their paintings.  Norham Castle, Sunrise, painted by the British artist JMW Turner in 1845 is a depiction of the morning light over this Northumberland landmark.  The painting barely illustrates the castle itself, concentrating more on the light from the rising sun and its reflections across the nearby river.  The French artist, Claude Monet was also fascinated by the effects of light at different times of day and created many artworks trying to capture these effects.  One of his best-known depictions of the morning light is Impression, soleil levant 1872, showing the sunrise over the port at Le Havre with the sun casting red light across the water and orange light across the hazy clouds.   

Science, on the other hand, provides us with a different understanding of the colours we see at sunrise.  Two basic ideas are important here.  Firstly, although the light leaving the sun appears white, it actually consists of light of different wavelengths that we see as a range of colours from red and orange through yellow and green to blue, indigo and violet.  A helpful way to imagine this is to think of a rainbow where these different colours are spread out in the sky. Secondly, the sun’s light is scattered as it passes through the layer of gases, principally nitrogen and oxygen, that constitutes the atmosphere surrounding our planet.   This scattering is wavelength-dependent so that blue wavelengths are scattered more than the red and orange.  

With those two ideas in mind, let’s consider the sun in relation to the earth at different times of day.  When the sun is high in the sky during the day, the sunlight will have a short path through the atmosphere.  Preferential scattering of some of the blue light will occur making the sky appear blue and, because some blue has been removed the sunlight acquires a yellow tinge.  At sunrise, the position of the sun is very different.  Sunrise occurs when the world turns until light from the sun just reaches the part of the planet where we are observing.  With the sun low in the sky and close to the horizon, the sunlight will have to travel a much greater distance across the atmosphere.  As a result, scattering away of blue light is almost complete, allowing the orange and red light to dominate.  An analogous argument can be applied at sunset.

Although this explains how the light becomes orange and red at sunrise (and sunset), it doesn’t account for the variability of the event.  This depends strongly on the particular weather conditions of the day.  The key to a sunrise where orange and red light fills the sky, though, is high level cloud but not too much of it.  This cloud catches the red and orange light, rather like a celestial projector screen, and the result is a memorable sunrise like the one I saw on Christmas morning.

On the Ridgeway Road – Lockdown Nature Walks 11

Here we are again in another Lockdown. The rules prevent us travelling away from the local area and while I support this, it feels much more constraining this time with winter weather and pandemic fatigue.  The only answer is to make the best of it so we are taking daily exercise walks around the town and the nearby countryside looking at the non-human world as winter gives way to spring. 

During the first Lockdown, I wrote a series of posts entitled Lockdown Nature Walks and I intend to do the same during the current hiatus.  In the first of these new Lockdown Nature Walks (taken on January 13th 2021) I go up to one of the high points above the town of Totnes in south Devon.  As well as the description of my walk, I have included a poem that feels relevant, The Rainbow by the 18th century Scottish poet James Thomson, and some photos of what I saw. 

Harper’s Hill

I started on the western edge of the town and walked up Harper’s Hill with its unpredictable surface and its 1 in 3 gradients (see Lockdown Nature Walk 7).  The sides of this ancient sunken track showed plenty of growth, mainly ferns and pennywort but I did find a few clumps of dark green spears piercing the leaf mould cover.  The white swellings at the top of these spears told me that these were snowdrops, getting ready to flower, a welcome indication that the year was moving on.  

The lane levelled out and at Tristford Cross, I turned right on to the old ridgeway road.  The trees that had been providing some shelter petered out and I began to feel the full force of the bitterly cold wind that blew from the west.   To the north, the land fell away to a deep valley, a patchwork of fields, farms and woodland. The edge of Totnes lay to the east some 100 metres below.  It felt very exposed on the ridgeway road and curious things were happening in the air above the valley as fragments of rainbow formed and faded repeatedly as if memories of past events were attempting to replay.  These transient hints of colour really did feel spectral but, in reality, they were the result of a significant meteorological battle.  Thick grey cloud was trying to dominate, even partly obscuring the hills of Dartmoor in the distance. Occasionally, though, the sun got the upper hand, breaking through the cloud and transiently painting fields in the valley a luminous yellow-green.  Barely visible, mobile swirls of mizzle were also about, waiting to separate the sunlight into its constituent colours. 

Until the Turnpike was built in the valley below, this ridgeway road was the main route from Totnes to Plymouth and the west. Nowadays, it is very quiet and, in spring, colourful wild flowers decorate its roadside banks.   Even in mid-winter, though, I found a drift of fleshy heart-shaped green leaves on the roadside bank with the occasional spike of shaggy white and mauve flowers pushing through.  This was winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), introduced into gardens in the early 19th century, loved by some for its almond-scented flowers, hated by others for its invasive nature.  Further along, a single chunky flowerhead, rather like a large bottle brush showed above the rough grass along with one round leaf. This was butterbur (Petasites hybridus), having emerged very early, and I noticed multiple pink and white florets covering the flowerhead.  

Winter heliotrope and butterbur are members of the same botanical family, Petasites, named after the Greek word petasos for a wide brimmed felt hat, a tribute to their large leaves.  Later in the year, butterbur leaves can grow up to a metre across and, in the days before refrigeration, were used to wrap butter, hence the name. 

Rain arrived from the west driving me back down Harper’s Hill towards home but also reminding me of the other use of mature butterbur leaves as impromptu umbrellas.

………………………………

The Rainbow by James Thomson

Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around.
Full swell the woods; their every music wakes,
Mix’d in wild concert, with the warbling brooks
Increased, the distant bleatings of the hills,
And hollow lows responsive from the vales,
Whence, blending all, the sweeten’d zephyr springs.
Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense; and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion running from the red
To where the violet fades into the sky.
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And to the sage-instructed eye unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling maze. Not so the boy;
He wondering views the bright enchantment bend,
Delightful, o’er the radiant fields, and runs
To catch the falling glory; but amazed
Beholds th’ amusive arch before him fly,
Then vanish quite away.

Snowdrops piercing the leaf mould on Harper’s Hill

Fragments of rainbow form and fade above the valley

The ridgeway road with a bank of winter heliotrope and a rainbow fragment
Winter heliotrope

Butterbur growing by the ridgeway road

Butterbur, showing the pink and white florets

The Jurassic Coast – where do you start?

The East Devon and Dorset coast in the south west of the UK, popularly known as the Jurassic Coast, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 putting it on a par with the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef.  The Jurassic Coast is unique in being the only place on the planet where 185 million years of the earth’s history are sequentially exposed in cliffs, coves, and other coastal features.   Since 2001, museums and visitor centres have sprung up along its 95-mile length and a fine stone sculpture, the Geoneedle at Orcombe Point, Exmouth celebrates the beginning of the World Heritage Site in East Devon.  On a sunny day in early November, just before the second lockdown, I went to take a look.

The Geoneedle at Orcombe Point with the view towards the Exe estuary and Dawlish Warren

The sea front at Exmouth was quiet when I arrived, there were just a few people about taking morning walks or enjoying the beach and the sunshine.    I left the car and walked to the end of the promenade where red cliffs strike out across the beach.  From here, it is an easy walk up a zig zag path, past the café, to the cliff top and the area known as the High Land of Orcombe.  By now, the early mist had evaporated affording spectacular views from the cliff top across the Exe estuary, Dawlish Warren and the south Devon coast as far Torquay.  The mild sunny weather had also brought out late season insects including bumblebees, hoverflies and an ageing red admiral butterfly.  A short stroll then took me to an open grassy area above the cliffs where the Geoneedle stands and the Jurassic Coast begins.  

A hoverfly that I saw near the Geoneedle

An ageing red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)

The Geoneedle is an impressive modernist sculpture about 5 metres in height and one-metre square at the base tapering to a stainless-steel point that takes on the colour of the sky, a clear blue that day but catching the sun at certain angles.   It was designed by public artist, Michael Fairfax and is constructed from three kinds of Portland stone with insets of eight different rocks representing the principal building stones found along the Jurassic Coast. The site also includes a compass showing some of the local landmarks and a Jurassic Coast hopscotch, both made from stones set into the ground.  The sculpture was inaugurated by Prince Charles in 2002. 

Not only is the Geoneedle a beautiful object, it also cleverly encapsulates the story of the Jurassic Coast in its design.  The eight stone insets are arranged so that they correspond to the three different geological time periods of the many kinds of rock found along the 95 mile stretch of coast between Orcombe Point and Studland Bay.  Starting at the bottom, the first two stone insets come from the oldest time period, the Triassic (about 250 million years ago); the hard, red rocks and softer mudstones below Orcombe Point are from this time period and were formed as sediment accumulated when the earth was an arid desert.  The middle four insets are from the Jurassic period (about 170 million years ago) when southern England was under a tropical sea; some of the best-known coastal features in West Dorset, Portland and the Purbecks were laid down at this time.  Finally, the two topmost insets are from the Cretaceous period (about 65 million years ago) when sea levels fell and sediments from lagoons, swamps and rivers were deposited.  The Cretaceous rocks are the youngest along the Jurassic Coast and can be seen at various points notably in the white cliffs at Beer in East Devon and in the chalk stacks of Old Harry Rocks near Studland.  

The Geoneedle showing the eight stone insets

Much of our knowledge of the origins of the different rocks comes from studies of the fossils and minerals found along the coast giving important information on the plants and animals that lived there and the climatic conditions prevailing during the different time periods.  The findings of local geologists and palaeontologists were crucial in this and the most important of these was Mary Anning, working in the 19th century, discovering fossils dating from the Jurassic period in the mobile cliffs around Lyme Regis.  Her discoveries illustrated a hitherto unknown, bygone world dominated by massive marine reptiles swimming in a tropical sea.

When I had finished looking at the Geoneedle, I walked back down the zig zag path, across the promenade and on to the beach.   By now, the tide had receded leaving large swathes of pale, firm sand and the area was very busy with people, many walking dogs, all enjoying the gift of this sunny pre-lockdown day.  There were even two horses with riders at the water’s edge making for a very evocative image.  

The low tide made it possible for me to walk around Orcombe Point to examine the red cliffs and their rocks. Starting from the beach road, red cliffs extend at right angles up to the jagged outcrop of Rodney Point.  The exposed rock here is a hard sandstone of the Triassic period with considerable honeycomb weathering caused by wind and rain.  Beyond Rodney Point, red cliffs continue but there is also a very striking red rock formation, the Devil’s Ledge, a broad wave-cut platform.    Orcombe Point lies a little further to the east with the Geoneedle just visible, high above.  These red Triassic rocks owe their colour to iron oxides and they continue with some interruptions along the coast to Ladram Bay, Sidmouth and beyond Seaton before Jurassic rocks take over near Lyme Regis.

The red cliffs near Orcombe Point showing the downwards tilt in the strata

To the east of Orcombe Point, the hard, red sandstone is overlaid by softer rocks and the strata exposed in the cliffs exhibit a pronounced downwards tilt to the east.  This tilt occurred after the Jurassic period and brought the older Triassic rocks to the surface.  Cretaceous material was then deposited and, after many millions of years of weathering, the Jurassic Coast of today was created with its distinctive pattern of exposed rocks from the three time periods. 

If, therefore, we take a notional walk along the entire length of the Jurassic Coast, starting at Orcombe Point and finishing at Studland Bay, we will encounter a multitude of different landforms including dramatic cliffs, stone stacks, pebble beaches and rocky coves.  These coastal features, and the rocks they contain, represent an almost continuous record of 185 million years of the earth’s history, rather like the pages of a book or the travels of a time machine. 

That day, of course, I had only skimmed the pages of the first chapter of the book.  As I walked back to the car, though, on that mild late autumn day, I reflected on how my visit had given me a renewed sense of the importance and of the unique nature of the Jurassic Coast.

This article appeared in the December 2020 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Starling Murmurations and Natural Music at Slapton Ley

In the Guardian Country Diary for November 13th 2020, Sarah Gillespie described, in beautiful poetic language, her experience of starlings roosting in reed beds at Slapton Ley in south Devon.  By coincidence, we had visited Slapton Ley a week or so earlier (on October 25th) and had a different but complementary experience. 

A murmuration of starlings above the northern reed beds

It was a grey, overcast Sunday afternoon as we headed towards the coast, dry and not too cold but with a blustery wind.  Our plan had been to walk around the Ley and through the village of Slapton, finishing in time to watch any starling roost in the 30 minutes before sunset.  Slapton Ley is known for its starling roosts but we had no idea where we might see any activity or even whether any would occur.

The Ley is a long, thin lake separated from the sea by a narrow shingle bar, the Slapton Line, wide enough to accommodate a road, paths and stony beach.  The shingle supports many interesting plants and the lake, reed beds, marshes and woodland form an important nature reserve with many species including passage and overwintering birds.    The Ley extends roughly north-south with extensive reed beds at both ends.  Our walk took us south along the inland flank of the lake by the water’s edge and under trees with intermittent views across the water.  It was a pleasant, late autumn jaunt and it felt good to be outside and in touch with the changing season.  The path was quite muddy in places and there were, unsurprisingly, few flowers about although we did see several cheerful red campion and some fresh-looking white deadnettle, brightening the gloom like fairy lights. 

Near the start of our walk, we found the observation platform.  This is a wooden-slatted affair that extends for a short distance across the water, largely surrounded by vegetation.  It is a good place to look out across the Ley or to listen to the rustlings of waterfowl hidden among the reeds.   With the recent heavy rain, the Ley was quite full and we noticed the sound of the water lapping on the wooden slats of the platform, the sound rising and falling as the wind imposed its rhythm.  The sounds of the wind and the water felt like natural music and captured our attention.

The wooden slatted observation platform

The breakfast programme on BBC Radio 3 with Elizabeth Alker has a Saturday Sounds feature where listeners send in recordings from everyday life.  We decided to record our “natural music” (click here to listen; warning, when this video is finished, Facebook will try to load another unrelated video over which I have no control) and send it to the programme but this also needed a companion piece of music.   Perhaps it was the wooden slats of the observation platform but we both kept thinking of music played on the marimba and the simplicity of the sound suggested the composer Steve Reich. Hazel, though, found another piece that complemented the rising and falling of the natural music even better:  Orbit by Will Gregory played by the saxophonist Jess Gillam but with an ensemble that includes a marimba (click here to listen). 

To our surprise and delight, both recordings were played on the show on November 7th.

Towards the end of our walk, the sky began to clear.  Bright light filled the western sky and the low reddening sun captured the tops of roadside hedges, highlighting drifts of plump red berries.  Flocks of finches flew from nearby fields including   chaffinches, goldfinches and greenfinches.

By now it was about half an hour until sunset so we looked for a suitable vantage point to watch for roosting starlings.  We came across a small group of people by a bridge looking towards the northern end of the Ley where there are extensive reed beds, so we waited nearby.  The northern sky was clear now except for a few clouds, some white and some grey. We didn’t know why the people had gathered there so It was a bit of a gamble but our uncertainty was soon dispelled when a small group of starlings rose from the northern reed beds.  At first, they were just a mobile smudge on the pale blue background but more birds soon joined. This larger group began to move back and forth in a more defined manner sculpting mobile motifs against the sky, the pulsating mass taking on a life of its own like a shape-shifting, super organism.   The murmuration continued for a short time before this first group of birds fell back to the reeds only to be replaced by another; this process of rising and falling was then repeated several times.  The light was steadily fading but as the sun dipped downwards it cast pastel hues of rose and mauve across the northern sky. 

Starlings against a northern sky coloured rose and mauve by the setting sun

Occasionally, rather than returning to the northern reed beds, the mass of birds streamed past some trees on a nearby rise disappearing in the direction of Ireland Bay behind us.  Sometimes, though, they took the alternative route to Ireland Bay directly across where we were standing and this turned out to be an intensely visceral experience. The sight of several thousand birds flying low overhead is spectacular on its own but there was also the noise, the rushing sound of their wings beating urgently, disturbing the air as they passed low over us.  The level of sound rose rapidly as the birds approached, falling away just as quickly as they went on, like a sudden gust of wind passing through trees.    I hadn’t known what to expect but just for a few moments that afternoon we had been close to these wild creatures, closer than I can ever remember, witnessing part of their life and experiencing them in an entirely unexpected way.

Starlings streaming across a nearby rise
Starlings approaching us to fly overhead
Here is a short video of the starlings moving about and then streaming across the nearby ridge

The starlings, of course, don’t behave like this for our benefit, an underlying urge for security and safety compels them to form these groups.  This didn’t, however, stop me from marvelling at their behaviour and the liquid shapes they carved across the sky, like artists creating magical images from paint and canvas.  There was, though, another, less comfortable sensation hovering at the edge of my consciousness that I found harder to pin down.   Perhaps it was a hint of fear, perhaps at some level I was concerned that so many birds so close to me might pose a threat. Overall, though, these were moments of magic that made me glad to be alive and as the poet, Mary Oliver writes: “Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us”.

The watchers on the bridge

The small group of people who shared these events seemed to be entirely focussed on the birds and there was little or no conversation. One man even had a notebook, the true mark of a serious naturalist!  We had a brief physically-distanced conversation with them afterwards and learnt that the Slapton Ley starlings divide their roost between the northern and the south western (Ireland Bay) reed beds.  They also told us that a loud plop from nearby water had probably been an otter. 

I did not notice any “bright, intrusive screens held up between world and eye” but perhaps we were lucky that afternoon.  I did take a few photos myself but I made sure that I also watched the murmurations. For me, photographs provide a record, jogging my memory, sometimes showing aspects of events that I failed to notice in the heat of the moment. 

By now the sun had set and the starlings had settled down to roost so we walked back to the car.  A pale half circle of moon hung low above a dark blue sea.  On the beach, pebbles rushed back and forth urged on by the waves and, across the bay, the lighthouse at Start Point began to flash its protecting light.

The photo of Slapton Ley at the head of ths post and the photo of the wooden-slatted observation platform were both taken by Hazel Strange.

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