All posts by philipstrange

Winter bumblebees and the Keith Richards red admiral

The Christmas weather had been poor but Boxing Day (December 26th) was mild, clear and bright and the seafront at Paignton in south Devon was thronged with people promenading in the sunshine and as busy as I have ever seen.  Some had also come to watch “Walk into the sea” a charity event where hardy souls, often in fancy dress, splash in the cold waters of Torbay. 

A short video of Walk into the Sea 2022, from Youtube

It was good to see all the people enjoying the weather but I was here for a different reason. I left the crowds behind and headed past the little harbour towards Roundham Head, a promontory that protrudes into the waters of Torbay.  Here I found Roundham Head Gardens, public gardens built on the sloping, south-facing side of this headland where narrow paths zig zag up and down the cliff face between borders planted with many exotic species.  Some of these plants flower throughout our winter providing an unusual micro environment.

Scorpion vetch (Coronilla valentina) (see picture at the head of this post), a native of the Mediterranean, is one of the plants that flourishes here and the low winter sun seemed to accentuate the lemon-yellow colour of its pea type flowers.  In the same border overlooking the sea I also found some bergenia flowers, an almost psychedelic pink in this low light.

The view to the south from the Roundham Head Gardens showing the low winter sun

It wasn’t just the humans who had been drawn out by the mild sunny weather, there were also a number of insects about.  A small furry bumblebee had discovered the scorpion vetch and was systematically visiting each flower to feed.  Her black, white and brownish-yellow banding stood out like a furry bar code and she carried a yellow lump of sticky pollen on each rear leg.  She was most likely a worker buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) and I watched her track across the clump of flowers.

Bumblebee worker with pollen, feeding from Scorpion Vetch

Eventually, I had to move to the far side of the border to get a better view of the small bee, but I hadn’t noticed the large queen bumblebee feeding on the bergenia.  She objected to my presence and flew away buzzing loudly after circling closely around my head.  Was this a warning or was she just having a look?  I only got a quick glimpse but she looked like a buff-tailed bumblebee queen, our largest bumblebee species.  Later, I got a much better view of one of these huge insects basking in the sun on an old stone wall.  This one was the size of the distal section of my thumb, very furry and with clear black and orange-brown bands and a brownish tail. 

Queen Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) basking on old stone wall

As I wandered about the enclosed paths, I encountered more small buff-tailed bumblebees, often feeding from the slate blue flowers of the rosemary that grows well here.  Most of these were carrying pollen of different colours, white, yellow or red, so they were all workers. 

Bumblebee worker carrying reddish pollen and feeding from rosemary

This winter bumblebee activity is probably a consequence of the mild marine environment in these gardens and the profusion of flowers that grows here even in the lowest months.   The worker bumblebees will be supporting nests begun by queens a few months ago, whereas the queens I saw may be preparing to set up new nests that will last across winter.

A return to the first border gave another surprise:  a red admiral butterfly basking on bergenia having been tempted out by the warm sun. As I watched it flexing its wings, another floated past my shoulder before disappearing.  I shared my picture of the red admiral on social media and one commenter (see below for details) pointed out that although this survivor from the summer still had bright colours, it now looked very worn and suggested that this was the Keith Richards of red admirals! 

Red admiral butterfly on bergenia

The commenter referred to above was “Noticing Nature: the British microseason project” (@Naturalcalendar). They can be found on Twitter and they have a newsletter

The good, the bad and the ugly at Charmouth in west Dorset

In the first week of November, we spent a few days in west Dorset.  On the way over we stopped at Charmouth, a coastal village we know very well from many visits, to take a walk and to eat our sandwiches.  It was a luminous, very mild, sunny day with mostly blue skies and a light but cool west wind. 

The view from the west cliff at Charmouth across Lyme Bay to Lyme Regis, also showing the scrub and bramble that cover the cliff-top plateau

From the beach car park, we walked along Higher Sea Lane, a residential road which heads up the cliffs that rise to the west.  An enclosed grassy path then led us to the cliff top with fine views to the west across Lyme Bay to Lyme Regis. Looking to the east, we could see the cliffs rising steeply from the other side of the beach and the distinctive flat-topped bulk of Golden Cap (see picture at the head of this post).  The sea was calm and a steely blue, transformed in places to tracts of liquid silver by the sun.  Although the sea appeared to be calm, two surfers were lurking in the water with their boards so good waves must have been expected that day.  The mild weather had also encouraged four hardy swimmers to take a dip, clad only in swimming costumes.

The cliff top to the west starts as a gently sloping plateau wreathed in thick scrub and brambles, fenced off for safety and a perfect haven for wildlife.  Many insects were flying and one large queen bumblebee landed on a bramble leaf in front of us.  At the edge of the plateau the cliff drops more steeply in soft mobile rock containing fossils and Charmouth attracts many visitors keen to sift through rocks hoping to find the perfect fossil.

We walked back down the grassy slope to the promenade and beach. It was  high tide and waves were attacking the concrete sea defences dissipating their energy in a mixture of noise and spray, lending the air a distinctive salty seaside odour.  The beach at Charmouth is a mixture of sand and shingle and stretches to the east under high cliffs.  The river Char also reaches the sea here and before it crosses the beach a long lagoon forms separating the beach into east and west sections connected by a bridge.

Large amounts of woody debris were spread across the west bank of the lagoon and when I looked carefully I found small, ridged, cylindrical blue plastic pellets (about 0.5cm across) scattered among the debris.  The same pellets were also apparent in debris on the east bank. I have seen these pellets here before: they are biobeads used by South West Water in sewage treatment at their Lyme Regis works but released into Lyme Bay through poor husbandry.  The company were supposed to have put in filters to prevent this release but it is possible that a reservoir of pellets exists on the seabed and storms bring them on to the shore.

We also walked on the beach and cliffs on the east side of the river and as we turned back into the wind to return, we were greeted by a very unpleasant smell, something I have never encountered here before.   Rotting seaweed can create unpleasant smells by the seaside but this was not rotting seaweed and smelt more like sewage. 

There is an ongoing problem, a crisis even, in the UK with water companies discharging untreated sewage into the sea and into rivers, especially after storms.  There were reports of sewage being discharged at Charmouth on November 3rd and we visited on the 4th.   After we had detected the smell, we noticed that the water in the lagoon was rather cloudy (a potential sign of sewage pollution) and wondered how this might affect the resident population of gulls and ducks and the aquatic invertebrates that live there.  We also watched dogs going in and out of the water and shaking themselves dry, sometimes on to their owners.  And what about the swimmers and surfers?

The queen bumblebee that stopped in front of us on the cliff top

View across the lagoon formed by the river Char at Charmouth with the bridge linking the west and east beaches (picture taken a few years ago)

Woody debris on the west bank of the Char showing blue biobeads. There is a piece of smooth blue plastic in the top left hand corner which is not a biobead. If you look around carefully in the picture you may see some black pellets. These are also biobeads.

Blue biobeads among debris on the east bank of the Char.

The myth and the magic of hares

The minor road headed roughly northwards, climbing gradually across chalk downland towards Ansty Cross. At least that’s what we had planned until a large red and white placard loomed ahead of us at a four-way junction declaring “Road Closed” in capital letters.  It didn’t specify which road was closed and we could see no sign of roadworks so we decided to take the risk and press on past the sign.  At the next junction, though, another sign was more specific.  The road ahead, our planned route, was closed and, this time, we could see the roadworks blocking our way.  A few minutes of frantic map reading revealed that an alternative was possible and soon we were on our way northwards again.   We were now following a very quiet one car’s width-road lined by hawthorn scrub and low fences with grassy downland rising on the western side, a pleasant if unanticipated place to be on this mild, sunny early May morning.

Suddenly as we drove on, two animals, the size of medium dogs, shot out from the hedge and proceeded to chase one another up the road ahead of us.  We slowed down to avoid upsetting them and watched, transfixed. My initial reaction was “two deer, possibly muntjac”.    I was wrong, though, because just as suddenly as they appeared, they turned and ran back into the hedge and it became clear that these were hares, running fast.  One came out again on to the road briefly before returning through the hedge on to the downland.

We moved forward, stopped the car and looked through a gap in the hedge on to the nearby field. It was like looking through a portal into another world as there on the downland were three hares with their long ears and sandy brown fur, almost golden in the morning sunshine.  One was very still and held its ears down but the other two proceeded to have a rough and tumble, squaring up aggressively, running about at high-speed, chasing, even jumping over one another.  After a few minutes, one ran off, “defeated” and we decided to leave the hares in peace.  We drove on, in total silence for some time but glowing, after one of the more surprising and emotional wildlife encounters we have ever experienced.    

hares “boxing”

 The animals we saw are more properly called brown hares to distinguish them from the other species found in the UK, the mountain hare, now mostly confined to the Highlands of Scotland.  Brown hares are large animals, about twice the size of a rabbit with sandy brown fur, long black-tipped ears, powerful back legs and staring eyes set so that they have almost all-round vision.  They are herbivores inhabiting grassland and open woodland, feeding mainly on young cereals, grasses and herbs.   In autumn and winter, brown hares are nocturnal, solitary creatures ranging widely and feeding at night.  They have no burrow and rest during the day in a hollow in the ground where from a distance they are largely invisible.  The lack of burrow makes them potentially vulnerable to predators such as foxes or birds of prey so they are always on the watch for threats, helped by their superb vision and hearing.  They can usually elude predators by being able to run at speeds up to 40 mph.

Their lives change in the spring months when mating becomes the driving force leading to the sort of daytime display we witnessed that morning.  The classic behaviour is “boxing” when two animals square up to one another and may exchange blows but chasing and jumping also often occur.  This pattern is now thought to reflect a persistent male encountering a reluctant female who tries to fend him off and the energetic leaping and wild chasing have given rise to the phrase “as mad as a March hare”.   The pattern may also be part of a ritual where the female selects a suitable mate based on his strength and endurance.

Female hares are receptive to males for much of the year, they can conceive even when already pregnant and can have up to four litters in a year.  Young hares, leverets, are born fully furred and with eyes open into a depression in the ground.   The adult female leaves the young during the day returning at night to give one feed.  The young leverets left like this are vulnerable to predators and some may also be killed by grass cutting equipment.  Other threats facing hares come from intensification of farming which has removed some food sources needed for good nutrition and there has also been an increase in the number of foxes. The result is a 75% reduction in the brown hare population since WW2.

With their lives lived mostly at night and often unseen there is something elusive and undefinable about hares.  Add to this their surprising behaviour during the breeding season and it’s easy to see why these creatures have become associated over the years with myth and magic.  One widespread belief in medieval times was that hares were shape shifters linked to witches and related stories of this transformation may be found in various parts of the country.  

A Dorset version of the shape shifter myth is told by local story teller Martin Maudsley.  It concerns a group of four farm labourers from the village of Littlebredy who went out at night hunting with dogs to catch animals for food.  While they went hunting, they left their farming tools by the house of an old woman whom some people in the village thought was a witch and others respected as a healer.  One evening when the men were out hunting, they glimpsed a mysterious and magical creature, a pure white hare and tried unsuccessfully to catch her.  Catching the white hare became an obsession for the men and one evening they were almost successful.  They cornered the white hare and she was thrown about and bitten by the dogs but still managed to escape.   

When the men went to collect their tools, they found the old woman lying on the floor in her cottage badly injured with her clothes ripped and bloody.  Most of the men left quickly, filled with fear and guilt, but one stayed with the old woman and nursed her back to health.  Chastened by this experience, the men vowed never to hunt the white hare again.  

The full story of the white hare may be read at https://www.dorsetaonb.org.uk/the-white-hare/.

This article appeared in the October2022 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The pictures are from Wikipedia

Flowers and moths lend a hint of the Mediterranean to Totnes

A cluster of red valerian flowers

Totnes is an ancient town with many old stone walls lining passageways, roads and the edges of gardens.  In spring and summer, the wintery-dark stone of these walls erupts with clumps of green leaves followed by dense, rounded clusters of tiny flowers, usually a bright pink, so that the clusters resemble scoops of strawberry ice cream.   This plant is red valerian (Centranthus ruber) and is thought to have been introduced from the Mediterranean in the late 16th century.  It is now naturalised in the UK and common in England and Wales, especially in the south west where it insinuates its roots into the mortar in the old walls wherever it can get a toehold.    Its colourful flowers lend a hint of the Mediterranean to some west country towns.  

Despite this summer’s very dry weather, some valerian flower heads still remain attracting insects looking for late season nectar.  Large furry bumblebees scramble about the colourful flowers and white butterflies perch on flower heads but the plant is a particular favourite of a spectacular day flying moth with a wingspan of about 5cm, the hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum).  Most years I see one of these moths but this summer I have had many more sightings especially in the last week of August and first week of September.  A long spell of warm southerly winds may have brought the moths northwards from their Mediterranean strongholds. 

A clump of red valerian hanging from an old stone wall in our street has been very popular with the moths.  On several recent days, a hummingbird hawk moth has appeared by a flower head, as if from nowhere, and hovered, its long proboscis deftly inserted into one tiny flower collecting nectar from the base of the corolla. The moth seems to hang in the air, its greyish body with black and white chequered rear showing well.  Its brown and orange wings beat so rapidly that they appear as a blur and create an audible hum.  When it has finished with one flower cluster, it jinks to another.

There is something magical about these elegant creatures and I feel privileged to be able to see them. My feelings, though, are tinged with sadness as their arrival in greater numbers is a reflection of our rapidly changing climate.

A short video of one moth on a windy day
Large white butterfly nectaring on red valerian

Hummingbird hawk moth nectaring on red valerian

Hummingbird hawk moth moving between flowers with its proboscis coiled up (you may need to enlarge the picture to see this)

Gangs of male bumblebees

During the hot weather in the first few weeks of August, we took to sitting in the shade by our pond with our mid-morning coffee.  Butterflies, bees and hoverflies passed by, sometimes stopping on nearby flowers, but the main attraction was a large clump of lavender.  With its many purple flowers and grey green foliage, it lent a sweet scent to the air as it cascaded down a rough stone wall by the path and was thronged with medium sized bumblebees.  The heat seemed to stimulate them and they moved continuously from flower to flower, stopping only briefly to feed.  Each time they moved to a new flower head the stem dipped as it took their weight only to spring back as it adjusted.  Sometimes the light reflected off their wings like glittering fragments of glass.  With all this activity, the lavender clump appeared to be alive.

In the middle of the day, up to ten bumblebees could be seen moving about the lavender clump at any one time and with their black, yellow and white striped furry bodies they looked superficially to be of the same species, probably buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris).  Photographs supported this identification and examination of their back legs showed they were males.  These male buff-tailed bumblebees will have emerged from a nest that reached maturity during the summer and males, once out of the nest, cannot return and spend their time searching for virgin queens and feeding.  Dave Goulson has likened the gangs of male bumblebees drinking nectar on flowers such as lavender to groups of men propping up the bar in a pub. 

I wondered what they did at night and one evening I walked past the lavender and found three immobile male bumblebees attached upside down to flower heads (see pictures at the head of this post and below).  This was their roost and one of more was there roosting on many subsequent evenings.  Male bumblebees have a short life, a few weeks, and by the third week of August numbers had dropped and those that were still about looked rather sluggish.  Small brown Common Carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) began to take over the clump but that was also beginning to show signs of age.

This short video gives an impression of the actiivy on the lavender

Buff-tailed bumblebee feeding from lavender. The shape of the back leg is characteristic of a male.
Another of the bumblebees
Roosting bumblebee (seen early on the morning of August 15). The lavender is showing signs of age.

Hedge woundwort – a beautiful wild flower loved by bees

Close up view of a hedge woundwort flower showing the art deco-style markings

There’s a path I often take on my way into town.   It runs between the back gardens of two rows of houses and is probably an ancient right of way.  Much of the path is lined by old stone walls, softened in summer by the pinks and purples of valerian and campanula. Walking along here one early June morning, I was surprised to find a dense mass of flower spikes, some up to a metre tall, rising from a bank usually covered in rough grass.  Whorls of purplish red flowers decorated with white art deco-style patterns grew around each stem above heart-shaped leaves, toothed and pale green, nettle-like but without the sting.  This is hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica).  To some, it’s an invasive weed but to me it’s a beautiful wild flower, attractive to insects and with interesting medicinal properties.

A bumblebee feeding from the flowers

Small bumblebees were drinking nectar from the flowers in their lazily laconic manner, pushing their tongue between the three-lobed lower lip and the curving upper lip, acquiring an involuntary dusting of pollen from the hidden stamens.   Hedge woundwort is, though, a particular favourite of another smaller bee species, one with a very different personality.   One of these was moving edgily from flower to flower stopping very briefly to feed, emitting a distinctive high-pitched buzz as it went.  It was about half the size of a honeybee, a non-descript brown except for some orange hairs on the tail and a golden pollen brush on the back legs.  This was a female fork-tailed flower bee (Anthophora furcata).  While she was feeding, another small bee arrived at high speed, a similar brown colour but with prominent yellow hairs on the face.   This was the male fork-tailed flower bee; he hovered briefly behind the female buzzing loudly before pouncing. Both bees ended up falling to the ground. 

Hedge woundwort and the closely related marsh woundwort have a long history of use in folk medicine for wound healing. The 16th century surgeon Gerard once witnessed a man cut himself badly with a scythe.  Gerard offered help but the man refused and poulticed the injury himself with woundwort, stopping the bleeding; his wound healed in a few days.  Gerard went on to use the plant in his own practice but, his professional pride piqued by the man’s rejection, christened it “clowne’s woundwort”.  

A female fork-tailed flower bee feeding from the flowers.

A female fork-tailed flower bee in flight with a glimpse of the orange hairs on the tip of her abdomen.
A male fork-tailed flower bee feeding by pushing his tongue between the two main parts of a flower. His yellow facial markings are showing.
Male fork-tailed flower bee in flight with his tongue ready to feed.

When the Moon came to Exeter Cathedral

It was a rare, cloud-free evening in mid-February earlier this year and I had stopped to gaze up at the sky, by now a deepening dark blue.  Although the sun had set nearly an hour previously, vestiges of light lingered in the west and only the brightest stars were visible.   Almost directly above me, though, it was the Moon that captured my attention.  It was bright and well defined that evening and just over half illuminated.  I gazed upwards for a while and this set me thinking about our relationship with this celestial body. 

The Moon is the Earth’s only natural satellite and the only place away from the Earth where humans have set foot.  It orbits our planet at a distance of 384,400 km and although that may seem a long way away, the Moon influences life on Earth to a surprising extent.  It is the main driver of tides on the Earth setting up important rhythms that dominate lives lived near the sea.  It can also influence the timing of migration and reproduction in the non-human world.  Its prominence in the Earthly sky and its regular phases (new Moon, full Moon etc) have given the Moon great cultural significance influencing ancient religions as well as many artists, musicians, poets and writers. 

Before the advent of widespread street lighting, the Moon was the only source of night time illumination.  Travelling in the dark, without moonlight, was hazardous and evening social gatherings were often planned to take advantage of a full Moon.  Nowadays, darkness features less in our lives and awareness of the phases of the Moon and the night sky is minimal.  Despite this, everyday speech still contains references to the Moon in terms such as “once in a blue moon”, “over the moon”, “honeymoon” and “lunacy”.

The Moon was uppermost in my mind that evening because, the following day, we were booked to visit the Museum of the Moon exhibition in Exeter Cathedral.  This exhibition featured UK artist Luke Jerram’s massive travelling artwork depicting the Moon.  Jerram’s artwork had already been exhibited in several other places locally including Bournemouth, Sherborne, Taunton and Wells.

The view upon entry to the Cathedral

When we arrived in the Cathedral Close that morning, a small queue of people, each wearing a mask, had formed at the entrance door.  After a short delay we were ushered in and were immediately confronted by the huge pale sphere.  It hung between the roof and floor of the Cathedral, almost filling the vast space, dominating the view and capturing our attention. Most people reacted with surprise and there were audible exclamations of “Wow! or Gosh!”

Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon is a massive blue-grey globe, seven metres in diameter with a mottled surface, depicting the geography of the moon.    The artwork is a 1/500,000 scale model based on precise lunar imaging from NASA combined with modern printing techniques and with internal lighting to create as realistic a representation as possible.  In Exeter Cathedral, it was accompanied by a soundtrack specially created by composer Dan Jones. 

We walked around the installation, looking from different directions, trying to take it in, not quite sure what to make of it.  We weren’t alone, though, as there were quite a few people about that morning making it feel busy.  Small children were running here and there, lying down beneath the huge sphere to look up, shrieking.   School children, some in uniform, were drawing, colouring in shapes. Adults were standing, looking, holding their phones up to capture images.  Some adults also wanted to lie down and “moonbathe”, but adults don’t, do they?

Luke Jerram’s Moon is a great concept but I wasn’t as impressed by it as I thought I would be.  Perhaps in today’s culture where we are barraged with so many graphic images it is difficult to impress?  Perhaps having witnessed the first Moon landings half a century ago it is hard to better those moments?  I also found it difficult to concentrate on the artwork with all the other people, noise and movement around me.  Despite these comments, it was good to see the children running about, enjoying the installation and engaging with its ideas.   Perhaps that’s what we should all have been doing?

It’s also difficult for any artwork to compete with the splendour of Exeter Cathedral and I couldn’t help being drawn away from the Moon to gaze at the architecture, the medieval vaulted ceiling, the colourful roof bosses, the stained glass and some of the memorials and chapels.  It felt as though having the Moon artwork there made me look afresh at the Cathedral.  In the end, we stayed for more than an hour suggesting that we were very engaged with the totality of the experience.

One of my favourite artefacts in Exeter Cathedral is the Astronomical Clock.  Dating from the 15th century but still in use, the main face of the clock shows the hour in its outer dial and on the inner dial the days of the lunar month (the time between successive new Moons).  The sphere representing the Moon also rotates to show its phase.  When we visited, the Moon on the clock was roughly half illuminated, very similar to what it had been in reality the night before.  Despite these obvious references to the Moon, I noticed no attempt to link the Astronomical Clock to the artwork and, for the visit of the Moon to Exeter Cathedral, this was a missed opportunity.

Overall, though, Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon has been a huge global success having been presented more than 250 times in more than 30 countries (there are several Moon artworks circulating) and experienced by more than 10 million people.  The Museum of the Moon is still on the move inspiring different creative responses wherever it appears.  One of its notable recent outings has been at WOMAD 2022 where it was accompanied by an immersive sonic experience inspired by the ethos of the Festival and composed by Yazz Ahmed. 

For many who have witnessed the artwork, this will have been their most intimate interaction with the Moon generating considerable new interest in this celestial body.  Hopefully, this will have gone some way towards reconnecting people with their only natural satellite.

The Museum of the Moon
The Great East Window in Exeter Cathedral
The Astronomical Clock with the Moon (half illuminated) in the inner ring.

This article appeared in the August edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Spring flowers at Cogden in west Dorset

More than six weeks ago I went searching for spring flowers in west Dorset. I wrote about this for the Marshwood Vale Magazine and the article below appeared in the June edition.

It was an unexpectedly bright morning in the first week of May and I had come to one of my favourite places, Cogden in west Dorset in the south west of the UK.  I stood in the car park for a few moments enjoying the gentle warmth of the air and taking in the familiar view set out below me.  There was the sea, calm that day and a uniform greenish-blue merging into the distant mist with no clear horizon.  There, also, was the yellowish-brown shingle beach with its fringe of white water, part of the larger Chesil Beach sweeping eastwards towards Portland, the wedge shape barely visible in the mist.  I was here to see what flowers were in bloom on this spring day and I hoped I might find some of the first orchids. 

The view down to Cogden Beach

I began my search by heading eastwards through the gate from the Car Park into the meadows that slope down below the coast road towards the sea.  Despite the traffic noise, skylarks trilled overhead and a green woodpecker “yaffled” nearby.  The ground was quite uneven, perhaps churned up by cattle when wet and muddy, making for awkward walking.  Rough grass predominated but a few bright yellow cowslips were dotted about and spikes of bugle with their pale blue flowers were also showing well.  Bugle is an unassuming flower, often overlooked but a closer examination revealed the delicately beautiful patterns of darker stripes and pale patches that decorate the flowers.  Elsewhere in the meadow, the first yellow cushiony flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were emerging, a foretaste of times to come.

I asked some passing dog walkers if they had seen any orchids.  They hadn’t, but kindly warned me to beware of adders. I continued to the east through several fields and across stiles gradually descending towards the sea.  Traffic noise from the coast road gave way to the soothing sound of pebbles driven rhythmically back and forth by waves on the beach.   When I reached the coast path, I turned to walk westwards, first along a narrow track enclosed by lush green vegetation and later above a broad grassy area bordering the reed bed and shingle beach.  Colourful drifts of wild flowers grew here, mostly cowslip and cuckooflower. 

I have always loved cowslips for their clusters of bright yellow, frilly-edged, trumpet shaped flowers (see picture at the head of this post). Seeing so many here reminded me of my childhood when it was common to find large numbers growing across chalk grassland and railway embankments in Dorset.  Nowadays, it is a treat to see even just a few of the flowers, a reminder of how much has been lost from our countryside, mainly through urbanisation and the relentless march of intensive agriculture.   

Cuckooflower is a very attractive, rather delicate looking flower, also called lady’s smock (picture below). The petals here were white with variable amounts of lilac pigmentation and lilac filigree markings.  Cuckooflower is one of several plants whose name honours the cuckoo; the flowers are said to bloom at about the same time as the bird arrives from its migration.  Cuckooflower is also one of the larval food plants for the orange tip butterfly.

In time, the reed bed petered out and I reached the first paved access track from the Cogden Car Park.  The shingle beach near here is a very special place where many unusual plants flourish despite the harsh environment by throwing down long roots to harvest fresh water from the underlying soils.   Sea kale is one of the main attractions.  It is now rather uncommon in the UK but numerous clumps of the plant with their fleshy, cabbage-type, dark green leaves were evident that day.  A few flowers, yellow at first then turning to white, were also showing.   It was, though, too early for their great display when each clump will be covered with white flowers making the beach look as though a heavy snow has fallen.  Another plant was, however, providing interest in the interim.  This was sea campion and large mats of the plant were growing across the shingle, each covered in hundreds of white bowl-shaped flowers.    

I still hadn’t found any orchids and was about to give up when, almost accidentally, I came across several groups of the flowers in an area of longish rough grass, bramble and gorse behind the shingle beach.   There were, perhaps, twenty or more spikes of flowers of a brilliant purplish-pink held on thick stems emerging through the drab, rough grass, looking as if someone had splashed pink paint across a dull canvas.  Many were in peak condition.  A few were already past their best but others were just emerging.   The flower spikes were loosely decorated with florets, like jewels on a bracelet. Each floret comprised a prominent extended lower lip, mostly purplish-pink but white towards the throat with a pattern of pink spots.  An overhanging hood, marked white on some spikes, contained the reproductive parts of the plant and behind the hood a spur curved upwards.  These are early purple orchids (Orchis mascula), usually the first of the species to appear each year and they conjure an otherworldly beauty wherever they grow.  Early purple orchids were once common across the UK but have suffered in the same way as cowslips. 

My visit to Cogden had been fascinating, as always, and I was particularly pleased to have found the orchids.  It was, though, early May and many flowers were only just beginning to show.   In a few weeks, the shingle beach will be dominated by the white flowers of sea kale, large drifts of pink thrift will appear across the low coastal cliffs and yellow horned poppy will begin to bloom.  In the meadows and in the grassy areas near the reed bed many flowers will appear including several species of orchid.    

Cuckooflower

Sea campion growing across the shingle on Cogden Beach

Sea campion
Early purple orchid
Early purple orchids

Long-horned bees along the south Devon coast

A week ago, I went down to the south Devon coast below the village of East Prawle to find the rare long-horned bees that live there.   Their main nest site is located in the low cliffs near Horseley Cove and I scrambled down the steep path to the foot of the cliffs to have a look.  It was a beautiful sunny day and the area was bathed in sunshine while the sea, a deep blue in that day’s light, fussed on the jumble of large boulders that lie just off shore.  The sea was calm when I visited but in the winter these boulders will defend the cliffs from the worst of the storms creating a protected microenvironment. 

Tracts of reddish soft rock peppered with pencil-sized holes were evident across the cliffs and several bees, roughly honeybee-sized, were patrolling the area showing a particular interest in these cavities. They swung in and moved quickly just above the surface sashaying back and forth and from side to side like hyped-up ballroom dancers.  They looked very fresh and were rather lively and It was difficult to discern details but when I focussed my attention on a single insect I could see a pale yellow face, a bright russet thorax and two extra-long antennae, for these were the male long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis) I had come to see.   One landed briefly and I marvelled at his magnificent antennae, each as long as the rest of his body. 

Numbers varied but there were always a few about and sometimes up to six at one time, weaving around one another, creating a loud buzz.  My presence didn’t seem to bother them, some flew around me and another collided with me but they carried on regardless.  They are driven by procreative urges and having emerged from their nest holes in the soft rock within the last week or so, they were now waiting to catch a virgin female as she appeared.  Mating had, though, already begun.  On two or three occasions, a bee flew directly into a hole and didn’t reappear. Photos confirmed that these slightly chunkier bees with golden pollen brushes on their back legs were female Eucera longicornis, already mated and preparing their nests. 

Eucera longicornis is rare and much declined and one of many special insect species found along this stretch of coast, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  The cliff top meadow above the nests was a mosaic of wildflowers and earlier I had found a few male Eucera feeding on bird’s foot trefoil.  The coast path either side of the meadow had, however, been treated with herbicide and strimmed, virtually eliminating wildflowers, seriously degrading this important site.

Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) flying about the nest area

Female Eucera longicornis enetering nest hole
Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) pausing briefly by the nest site on the soft rock cliffs
Male long-horned bee and bird’s foot trefoil
Male long-horned bee on bird’s foot trefoil showing his yellow face
Evidence of herbicide use along coast path (photo taken May 21st)
Evidence of strimming along coast path

Sighting seals along the south west coast of the UK

A glistening black head suddenly broke through the surface of the water a metre or two offshore.  A long, dark, shadowy shape was also just visible and we realised that this was a seal.  We watched, captivated, as it swam slowly south westwards, staying roughly parallel to the beach, leaving a trail of ripples in its wake.  Along the beach, people were swimming and when they saw the seal coming, they quickly made their way to dry land but the seal had already disappeared. 

A grey seal swimming, (not the one referred to in the text whch took us completely by surprise)

This magical encounter occurred last year as we were walking along a shingle beach in south Devon, but chance sightings of seals can occur almost anywhere along the Dorset and Devon coasts in the south west of the UK and are unpredictable and surprising.   Each observation, though, is a reminder that these fascinating creatures live alongside us, and gives an insight, however brief, into their lives.

Seals are the largest land-breeding marine mammals found in the UK and two species may be seen around our coasts, the grey seal and the common or harbour seal.  The grey seal is the larger of the two with males up to 2.6 metres in length and 300kg in weight.  The grey seal is one of the rarest species of seal globally and the UK has more than a third of the world’s population, mostly found around the west coast of Scotland, also the Orkneys and the Shetlands with a few significant colonies along the East coast of England.  Common seals are smaller, with males up to 2 metres in length and 150 kg in weight.  Numerically, UK waters contain fewer common seals but the population is still significant amounting to 30% of the European sub species.  Common seals have a similar UK distribution to that of the grey seal. 

Grey seal

Should you sight a seal, it can be tricky to decide which species but if you can see the head, that may help.  Common seals have relatively smaller heads compared to body size with a clearly defined forehead and short snout.  Grey seals have larger heads with longer flat noses and no forehead.   Fur colour is deceptive as both species vary in colour from grey to pale brown and whether the animal is wet or dry.  Fur patterns, though, may help identification with grey seals having irregular darker blotches and common seals being more uniformly spotted.

Common Seal (photo by CJ Sharp from Wikimedia Commons)

Seals spend their lives partly on land and partly in the water.  They haul out, often in groups, on uninhabited rocky islands, secluded beaches and sandbanks to rest, to digest their food or to give birth.  More than half of their time, though, is spent in the water feeding and they can travel long distances to forage.  They are superb swimmers, capable of diving to a depth of up to 100 metres to find food on the sea bed and during a dive they slow their heart rate in order to conserve oxygen.    On land, seals can appear ponderous and ungainly, dragging themselves about using their front flippers, but once in the water they swim with grace, elegance and speed.  This ability to slip effortlessly between two distinct lives, one on land and the other in the water, seen and largely unseen, gives seals an aura of mystery. It is no surprise that a wealth of myth and story has attached itself to the creatures.

A grey seal hauled out on rocks

Because the majority of seals in the UK are found along northern and north western coasts, sightings as far south as Dorset and Devon are infrequent but of great interest.  There are no regular haul out sites along the Dorset and east Devon coasts so sightings are usually of seals moving about.  Most of these casual sightings are of grey seals although there are thought to be a few common seals resident in Poole Harbour.  The picture changes as we move into south Devon where several regular haul out sites are found along the coast.  Here grey seals gather in small numbers at low tide to rest although they can also be seen swimming nearby.  Seals are also seen in the Exe and Dart estuaries sometimes a distance from the coast. 

The Dorset Wildlife Trust Fine Foundation Wild Seas Centre at Kimmeridge is trying to build up a catalogue of seal sightings.  Individual seals have characteristic marking patterns on their fur, so that photos can be used, rather like a fingerprint, to identify seals seen regularly in Dorset or moving about along the coast.  By sharing their findings with other seal recorders, they already know that some seals seen along the Dorset coast have also been spotted in Hampshire, south Devon, Cornwall or France.   Should you see a seal, you can help this project by reporting your sighting (with photographs if available, see below for details).

There is increasing concern, however, that seals are being disturbed by encounters with humans.  They are large wild animals and, although they are curious creatures, they can be easily upset and disturbed.   Seals haul out to rest and digest food and this essential quiet time can be interrupted if humans get too close.  Disturbed seals may even panic, jumping from rocks into the sea so risking injuring themselves.   There are also sporadic reports of humans being bitten when trying to feed or pat seals.  Feeding seals additionally risks disturbing their natural feeding patterns.

The Dorset Wildlife Trust has compiled a code of conduct to try to deal with these problems.  This code should be followed at all times when encountering seals or taking photographs, to protect both seals and humans and to minimise disturbance of these wild creatures:

  • Keep well away from seals so that they can’t see, hear or smell you
  • Use a camera zoom or binoculars for a better view
  • Keep dogs on a lead if seals are known to be in the area
  • Never feed seals 
  • Take all litter home 
  • Do not seek out encounters with seals in the water 

Seals are iconic wild creatures and we are privileged to be able to see them along our coasts.  We must, however, treat them with respect.  They have their own lives, very different from ours, and they have as much right to occupy the environment as we do.  We should enjoy watching these beautiful creatures but make sure that they can live their lives undisturbed.

I should like to thank Sarah Hodgson of the Dorset Wildlife Trust for her generous help and guidance when I was preparing this article

All photos shown here were taken using a zoom lens.

To report seal sightings in Dorset, use this link: http://seals.dorsetwildlifetrust.net/  , seal sightings elsewhere in the south west can be reported by emailing:   sightings@cornwallsealgroup.co.uk

This article also appeared in the April 2022 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine