Category Archives: science writing

The week the Swifts departed

It’s become something of a ritual.  Each year in the first week of August, we scan the sky nervously.  We’re looking for birds but anticipating an absence.  It’s not that we want the swifts to go but we know they must.  The next part of their life is lived in Africa where they spend the months of September to April after their long migration.   When they leave us, it’s a sign that the year has moved on and summer is gradually giving way to autumn.

This year the swifts arrived at the beginning of May.  We had been watching out for them for several days and then finally we noticed a few birds swooping around in the sky above our house.  With that dark crossbow silhouette and those rapid bursts of wing beats interspersed with smooth glides, we were relieved and pleased to see that the swifts had returned.  Messages circulated on our local WhatsApp group celebrating their arrival and it was clear that our neighbours were just as interested as us.  Gradually their numbers built up as more birds arrived from Africa.  Numbers varied and, on some days, we saw none but at their peak this year up to 30 swifts were swooping and screaming across the valley below our house.  The valley contains a community garden with flowers and trees and most likely the swifts come to feed on the insects that breed there. 

Throughout late spring and summer we watched them flying backwards and forwards at high speed, changing direction as they banked and turned, sometimes going into steep dives pulling out at what seemed like the last minute, screaming as they went.  Sometimes a group flew about together, individual birds adjusting their relative positions before splitting into smaller groups like rockets at a firework display.  Sometimes the birds flew towards our terrace of houses, turning finally to avoid the brickwork or deftly navigating the gap between this and the next terrace.

Swifts near our house

The position of our house gave us a very privileged view of the birds.  It is one of a terrace of five houses built on a ridge on the southern edge of Totnes overlooking the valley and community garden so that our kitchen window is level with the tops of the trees below.  Sometimes, when the birds were flying about near the houses, they passed at speed very close to our kitchen window giving us views worthy of a nature documentary programme.  Sometimes, when we sat outside on the patio, the birds passed directly overhead screaming as they went, a joyous and very visceral experience.   

Swifts over Totnes seen from our kitchen window in 2020

Sitting outside, we could also see some of the birds swooping up to the eaves of two houses in adjacent terraces where they made nests.  They also nested in the roof space of one of the houses in this terrace and, for the first time, they occupied a wooden bird box fixed near the eaves on another house.  The box was put up several years ago by a neighbour.   It was occupied by sparrows one year and tree bumblebees in another but this year the swifts used it.  Swifts tend to return to the same places to nest each year so we have high hopes of seeing them in this box in the future. 

The second week of August arrived and the birds were still about.  Although we expected them to go any day, they still had the ability to surprise.   On the 10th just before 9 o’clock with the sun setting, I was standing outside looking across the valley, watching the light fade and the colours changing.  I hadn’t seen swifts that day and wondered if they had left.  The western sky was still bright, a luminous pale blue, and light cloud in the northern sky gathered pinkish-orange tinges from the setting sun.  Suddenly, above the general hum of human activity I heard the familiar screaming sound announcing the arrival of a volley of swifts.  About ten birds in groups of two or three were heading straight towards me just above head height.  At the last minute, though, they changed course to fly through the gap between the terraces. 

If all this wasn’t exciting enough, I had a second fascinating close encounter with the non-human world in the same week, this time with a very different species and some distance away from Totnes.

The second story began when, in the first week of August, Tim Worfolk, a local bird illustrator and naturalist, reported on social media that he had seen some rare and unusual bees on a nature reserve south of Exeter.  This was the first report of this species in Devon and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go to have a look.  So, on August 9th I made the 40-minute drive to the Exminster Marshes, part of the river Exe floodplain and a wetland nature reserve managed by the RSPB.   I had driven through a shower on my way over and rain threatened later but it was my only free day that week.    I parked in the reserve car park and made my way down a lane towards the Exeter Canal and the river Exe.  Signs of water were never far away.  Although the lane was enclosed by hawthorn bushes and other scrub, reeds grew through the vegetation and a ditch half full of water ran alongside the lane.  Late summer flowers grew in the hedges including bright yellow fleabane, the lemon-yellow snap dragon-like flowers of common toadflax and the pink cushions of hemp agrimony. 

The Exminster Marshes showing the flat watery landscape

I left the lane to cross open grassland criss-crossed by ditches with rough stony bridges.  Clumps of tussocky grass grew across the marshy land along with stands of creeping thistle that attracted small copper and small tortoiseshell butterflies and some chunky hoverflies.  Cows grazed nearby and this would have been a peaceful spot had it not been for the M5 motorway bridge crossing the marshes towards the north creating a continuous background hum of traffic noise.

At the end of the field path, I crossed the cycle track and scrambled up to the towpath at the edge of the Exeter Canal.  The pleasant town of Topsham with its Dutch-gabled buildings lay across the river Exe on the far side of the canal.  The towpath was quiet, most likely because of the weather, but a few walkers passed and two stand-up paddleboarders drifted lazily past on the canal. A little drizzle was now falling and I began to wonder if any bees would be about but I decided to press on.  Banks of reeds lined the towpath and flowers grew up through the vegetation.   I noticed the pink flowers of marsh woundwort with their intricately decorated lip and a few tall spikes of purple loosestrife.  Then, as I walked southward, thick clumps of yellow flowers appeared in the canal-side greenery.  This was yellow loosestrife, a plant that grows in wet places and, with its copious sprays of bright yellow cup-shaped flowers produced in late summer, it shone like a beacon of light on this gloomy day.   Each flower contained large amounts of grainy yellow pollen and the plant grew in many places along the canal up to the lock where the canal and river merge. (The picture at the top of this post shows some the yellow loosestrife flowers)

Vegetation by the side of the Exeter Canal showing yellow loosestrife and marsh woundwort. Topsham is in the background.

Light drizzle continued to fall and I had almost given up on finding bees when I spotted a medium-sized dark insect in one of the yellow loosestrife flowers.  Visually, I couldn’t see much to distinguish this insect except some white hairs on the hind legs. Photographs also showed the prominent white hairs on the back legs along with some black as well.  These characteristics together with the association of the insect with the yellow loosestrife flowers showed that this was a female Macropis europaea, the yellow loosestrife bee, one of the bees I had come to find.  The photographs also showed a few small drops of rain on the insect which was sheltering on this damp day and essentially immobile, making it easier for me to take pictures.  Further along the canal, I came across another dark insect also resting in a yellow flower and in this case, photos revealed its swollen hind legs and its prominent yellow face, characteristic of a male of the same species. 

Female Macropis europaea showing the white and black hairs on her hind legs. Look out for the raindrops.
Male Macropis europaea showing his swollen back legs
Male Macropis europaea showing his yellow face and swollen back legs

These are the bees reported by Tim Worfolk but why was I so interested in seeing them?  They are rare which is of course one reason. They also have some very unusual characteristics being the only UK species of bee that collects floral oils and they find these oils in the flowers of yellow loosestrife.   

Within the flowers there are tiny glands that secrete floral oils.  The glands, termed trichome elaiosomes, are found towards the lower part of the inside surface of the petals and along the stamen tubes and the oils collect near the glands.  The female Macropis bees have specialised brushes of hair on their front and middle legs that they use to collect these oils which are then transferred to the hairs on their back legs, sometimes mixed with pollen also collected from the flowers.  The female bees use the oils for two purposes, to waterproof the inside of the nest chambers they construct in wet places and, mixed with pollen, to provide food for their larvae. 

When I visited, the damp conditions prevented the females from flying so I was unable to observe them collecting pollen or oils.  Local naturalist John Walters has a nice video of the female bees collecting pollen where the bees look like they are wearing bright yellow pollen pantaloons.

I was glad to have made the trip to Exminster Marshes, despite my doubts about the weather.  Seeing these oil-collecting bees and understanding the close and reciprocal relationship they have with the yellow loosestrife flowers was an unexpected gift.   

But what about the swifts?  August 13th was the last day we saw the birds near our house so we assume they are now on their long migratory journey.  Their presence has not only entertained us but has enriched our lives this year, bringing us closer to the non-human world.  It has been an excellent year for the birds in terms of numbers and it was good to see them reproducing so well, especially in this time of environmental crisis. 

Marsh woundwort with common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum)
Small copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas)
Hoverfly (Helophilus trivittatus)

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

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)

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.

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.

Seaside Storms and bumblebees

By the end of October, I had begun to feel that autumn was running away from me.   Then came the announcement that a second lockdown would be imposed.  So, one afternoon at the beginning of November, I decided I needed to get outside and went to Roundham Head in Paignton, one of my favourite nearby nature haunts.  Roundham Head sits roughly in the centre of the semi-circular arc of Torbay and from the southern side of the promontory there are fine long views around to Brixham with its harbour, small boats and breakwater. 

My main reason for visiting, though, was the public garden built on the southern slopes of the headland.  Here, zig zag paths meander up and down between borders stocked with tender and unusual plants many originating in warmer climates but thriving here in the mild maritime conditions of Torbay.  Many of these plants continue to flower here in autumn and winter.

I started at the top of the public garden looking south west with the low sun creating a dazzling mirror across the wet, low-tide sand at Goodrington where dogs and their owners rushed back and forth.  There was rain about, though, and across the bay Brixham was veiled in a grey mist, its landmark lighthouse barely visible.  Fortunately for my afternoon, the storm gradually moved away, and the cloud over Paignton evaporated leaving blue sky and sunshine but with a strong blustery wind. 

Agapanthus seed heads
Yucca gloriosa with its lantern shaped flowers

I wandered about the gardens where the low sun was casting long shadows from the trees and shrubs, draining them of colour, leaving dark silhouettes.   The agapanthus had lost their blue flowers, replacing them with mop heads of chunky green seed capsules, like so many large lozenges.  A fuchsia hedge, covered in blossom last time I visited was now nearly devoid of flowers but, in compensation, yellowish-brown clumps of fungi grew beneath.  Some plants were still in bloom, though, and I was surprised to find several large clusters of creamy coloured lantern-shaped flowers with pinkish sepals, hanging like ornate chandeliers above thick clumps of spiky strap-shaped leaves.  These are yucca gloriosa, plants originating in the southern US although they seem to be very happy here.

Hoverfly (Eristalis tenax) on rosemary

Spread about the upper, sunnier parts of the garden, I also found several large banks of rosemary.  The plant grows prolifically here, covering long stretches of wall where it hangs like a pale blue curtain.  It begins to flower in late summer and continues through the winter providing important forage for insects; many of its locations here are also sheltered from the wind.   Despite recent heavy rain, the rosemary was covered in small, spiky, silvery-blue flowers and this is where I began to see pollinators.   A hoverfly, probably Eristalis tenax, the world’s most widespread hoverfly, was feeding and I managed a few photos despite its jumpiness.  Then I saw the first of several small bumblebees each with a furry, pale chestnut thorax and stripy abdomen.  They were nectaring from the rosemary, moving purposefully from flower to flower, taking away a dusting of pollen from the overarching stamens as they fed.  These were common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) and as well as feeding they occasionally basked on the stones of the wall in the sunshine.  Sometimes, two or more were present on the same patch of rosemary and there was a little joshing between the insects.

I took as many photos as the carder bees would allow in the hope of being able to see their back legs as these are a key to establishing the gender. Where I was able to see the back legs, the insects were all males and Steven Falk kindly helped confirm my identification. These males must be late survivors from the second brood. The mated females will have settled down to hibernate and the males are left to live out their short lives.

Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) feeding from rosemary. If you look at the back leg, the tibia has a rounded end so this is a male. Steven Falk also pointed out the antennal segments which are bulging rather than cylindrical, another characteristic of the males of this species.
Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) feeding from rosemary. This is another male with a round ended tibia.

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) feeding from rosemary. This was a worker carryng pollen, (I have other out of focus photos showing the pollen)

I did see one smallish buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) collecting pollen, a worker which most likely comes from one of the winter active colonies that live in these gardens.  I was surprised to see so few but perhaps the weather had put them off or there were other flowers available in the many nearby private gardens.   The surviving male common carder bees have no nest to return to for shelter which may be why they were still foraging in this threateningly damp weather.

The storm over Broadsands and the change in the light

By now, another storm had bubbled up from the south west but this time it was closer and a fine grey haze hung over the beach and countryside at Broadsands just along from Goodrington.   The blustery wind chased the autumn leaves about and hurled a few large drops of rain at me, stinging my face.  The sea took on a sinister greenish blue tone and a kestrel appeared, hovering in the wind above the gardens, eventually landing on the steep cliff face.   I decided to get back to the car before the rain set in properly. 

A floral paradise – Lockdown Nature Walks 8

The Lockdown may be easing but with coronavirus still circulating and with little sensible guidance coming from central government, life is far from normal.  So, I am continuing my Lockdown Exercise Walks and avoiding large gatherings where possible.  In this eighth Walk, I want to take you to one of my favourite parts of the south Devon coast near Prawle Point, Devon’s southernmost headland. 

The forecast for the coast was good so, towards the end of the third week of June, we headed off across the rolling hills of the South Hams towards Kingsbridge.  The weather, though, seemed to be unaware of the forecast.   Great slabs of grey cloud loomed ahead and there were clear signs of recent rain.  I began to wonder if this trip were such a good idea but we pressed on, knowing how quixotic the Devon weather can be.  At Kingsbridge we picked up the coast road turning right at the village of Frogmore across a watery inlet to follow four miles of narrow, winding lanes. 

Not only are the lanes narrow here, they are enclosed by Devon hedges, creating a narrow corridor with steep banks. At this time of year, the banks are smothered with lush vegetation, mostly green but enlivened by splashes of white cow parsley, yellowing Alexanders and bright pink foxglove remnants.  In just one spot, a large patch of rosebay willowherb coloured the bank coral pink as if paint had been spilt and when we stopped to let an oncoming car pass, a few spikes of purple tufted vetch cried out to be seen.

As we approached the village of East Prawle we passed the duckpond with its large clumps of chrome yellow monkey flower and parked by the village green.  Hazel wanted a longer walk, whereas I wanted to spend time looking at flowers, so we agreed to meet later.  I began by heading towards the coast down a steep road edged by rough stone walls.  Fulsome clumps of red valerian clung to the stone, rain-remnant drops of water hanging from the flowers like tiny glass globes.  The sun began to break through the cloud that had brought the rain, the water droplets sparkled like fairy lights and butterflies flickered among the flowers.  Now and then, I glimpsed the coast spread out below and the sea, a uniform misty blue.

Near a row of coastguard cottages, I entered a narrow lane lined by green hedges coloured by more valerian, also honeysuckle and bramble.  The lane turned sharp left to descend more steeply across slippery exposed bedrock and through scrub and woodland.  A chiff chaff called and I stopped to gaze at the flowers and insects on a bank of bramble caught in the morning sunshine.  Suddenly a woman appeared down a nearby path that joined the lane looking surprised to find me standing there. 

“Are you alright?” she asked

“I’m just looking at the flowers” I replied, trying to reassure her.

“Yes, there are lots of flowers about.  Have you seen the pink sweet peas on the coast, they don’t smell like the garden variety?” she continued.

“That’s narrow- leaved everlasting pea, a perennial wild form of the garden variety and coincidentally its pink flowers are part of the reason I’m here today, some rare bees feed from them” I replied.

“It’s so difficult to identify wild flowers from books” she worried.

“Yes, I sometimes leaf through the entire book to identify something I have seen.”

I told her I could wait if she wanted to go ahead down the lane so that we maintained physical distancing but she said there was no need as she was taking another path to the right and promptly disappeared.

The coastline below East Prawle looking eastwards towards Peartree Point. The coastal barley fields are in the middle of the picture with the steep inland cliffs with rocky outcrops to the left. The cliff edge scrub with the narrow-leaved everlasting pea is the darker green fringe above the pale sand.

Leaving the woodland, I passed between arable fields along another enclosed path with the sea now ahead of me.  These fields occupy a gently sloping coastal plain stretching between steep inland cliffs with rocky outcrops and the present low cliffs above the sea.  The steep inland cliffs give the area an enclosed, almost claustrophobic feeling whilst creating a gentle microclimate.  Barley grows in these fields, spring sown so that its seed and stubble can be left after autumn harvest to provide winter food for the rare cirl buntings that now flourish here.  As I walked, the distinctive rattle of one of the birds echoed around the inland cliffs.  The barley was a soft, uniformly yellowish-green carpet so I assumed it had been well sprayed with herbicide.

When I reached the coast, I headed westwards along the coast path between the cliff edge and the barley field.  The cliff edge was fringed with bracken and blackthorn, the latter providing good nest areas for the cirl buntings.  Tall stems of hemp agrimony grew here along with a profusion of narrow-leaved everlasting pea scrambling through the bracken and the scrub, grabbing on with fine tendrils.   Large, mostly pink, pea-type flowers (see picture at the head of this post) were scattered about the plants, not in large numbers but frequently enough to make an impact.   The large upper petals, like bright pink sails decorated with fine green striations, stand out above the smaller lower petals that resemble miniature boxing gloves, with an unusual bluish-pink hue.

Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) nectaring from narrow-leaved everlasting pea. Note the long antennae and the silvery hairs, this male has been around for several weeks.

Silvery bees patrolled the area around the flowers weaving their way deftly and quickly among the vegetation and I wondered how they were able to navigate so easily.  Sometimes they stopped to take nectar and from their very long black bootlace antennae I recognised these as male long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis).   This part of the south Devon coast contains the largest UK colony of these very rare and very distinctive bees.  The sun had now come out making it feel quite warm and I stayed by the flowers for a while.  A few female long-horned bees soon appeared carrying large chunks of pollen so I presume they were coming to collect nectar.  They share only a passing resemblance to their male counterparts:  they have short antennae and are covered in thick pale hairs.  They hang below the pink flowers holding their body in a tightly curved crescent as they feed and the flowers of narrow-leaved everlasting pea seem to be a very important pollen source for the insects.

Female long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) feeding from narrow-leaved everlasting pea.
Female long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) feeding from narrow-leaved everlasting pea. Note the lump of pollen on her back legs

I moved on through two latch gates to enter a narrow but long coastal meadow stretching between cliff tops fringed with bracken and scrub and the inland cliffs that tower above.  The meadow hadn’t been cultivated or grazed and was thick with knee-length grasses and wild flowers.  Grasshoppers rose as I walked and small brownish butterflies danced around me.  This is a floral paradise, a mosaic of colour and form.

Sea carrot growing prolifically in the coastal meadow

The predominant flowers at the beginning of the meadow were the white hemispheres of sea carrot rising like so many large mushrooms through the  thick grass to dominate the landscape.  There were also some of the nodding yellow heads of cat’s ear, popular with red-tailed bumblebees, and the pinkish-purple flowers of common vetch.  Partially buried in the grass I noticed the small, bright pink flowers of centaury with their prominent yellow stamens.  Narrow-leaved everlasting pea climbed through the cliff-edge bracken attracting more long-horned bees to its pink flowers, so I stopped to watch. 

Rose chafer (Cetonis aurata) on sea carrot showing how the white flower is actually tinged with pink

I dragged myself away and further on, a rough path took me down the low cliff to an area of soft rock riddled with small pencil-sized holes, thought to be the principal nest site of the long-horned bees.  As I waited to see the insects returning to their nests, I was conscious of the sea grumbling around the rocks behind me and the patchwork of colours it held.  The water was mostly a shimmering deep blue but with darker areas hiding submerged rocks and tinged green where it washed over shallow sand.  My reverie was interrupted when the woman I met earlier appeared on the rocks around the cliff corner.   She seemed keen to talk and I learnt that she lived in London but had come down to stay in her cottage when the lockdown was imposed.

I scrambled back up to the coast path and as I walked westwards in the direction of Prawle Point, the floral mix in the meadow changed. Cat’s ear now dominated lending the meadow a yellow cast.  Along the cliff edge, the bracken had been replaced by tracts of yellow bird’s foot trefoil and purple tufted vetch. I also noticed lady’s bedstraw and hedge bedstraw and the bright reddish-purple flowers of bloody cranesbill. This kaleidoscope of colour brought more bumblebees and solitary bees although I thought the vetches looked past their best, perhaps a result of the dry spring.

Hazel appeared, having finished her walk and we made our way back up to East Prawle starting along a field-edge wall where brambles and other wildflowers grew.  Cirl buntings sang and, in the sunshine, a male long-horned bee fed from one of the flowers, butterflies danced together and a fine mason wasp collected nectar.

Marbled white butterfly (Melanargia galathea) on bramble
Spiny mason wasp (Odynerus spinipes) on bramble. The female of this species digs burrows in vertical banks of hard soil, sand or clay, finishing with a “chimney” that curves over the opening

Conceptual Art in a Devon Country Lane – Lockdown Nature Walks 7

In this seventh Lockdown Nature Walk, I want to take you along more of the ancient lanes that crisscross the countryside around Totnes rather like the lines on the palm of my hand. The walk I describe was done in the last week of May on a sunny, warm day when there was a distinct feeling that the seasons were changing.

I begin at the foot of Harper’s Hill on the western side of town where an ancient trackway strikes steeply upwards in a south-westerly direction into trees and away from the busy Kingsbridge Road.  This is hard walking especially on the uneven surface and quite soon the lane becomes deeply sunken, bordered on both sides by steep banks, up to four metres in height.   Ferns and pennywort grow along these banks and a jungle-like tree canopy cuts out most of the light so that even on a sunny day the lane has a gloomy, slightly sinister feeling.  Today, small insects are caught, dancing like dust motes in the few shafts of light that make it through the canopy.  Earlier this year, fleshy green ramsons carpeted the pathside banks but their leaves are now yellowish and a vague garlicky odour hangs in the air as they decay.

It’s difficult to believe that for hundreds of years, until the inception of the turnpikes, Harper’s Hill was the main route out of Totnes towards Plymouth and the west.  As I trudge up the steep hill, I imagine the countless others who walked this way with heavy loads, or animals or rickety carts.  It’s as though I am “slipping back out of this modern world” (after W H Hudson).

Eventually, though. the lane levels out.  A gateway on the right offers a brief window through the curtain of vegetation and I see the land falling away steeply into a deep valley and Dartmoor lurking in the distance.   I continue along the track as it becomes more open between tall trees and a few caravans used for housing to reach Tristford Cross.

In the past, those who had laboured up Harper’s Hill bound for Plymouth and the west would have turned right at Tristford Cross on to the old ridgeway road along the brow of Broomborough Down.  But I go straight ahead at this crossroads along a paved lane avoiding the occasional car to reach Cholwell Cross where another track, Jackman’s Lane, crosses at right angles.  Signs announce that this is an unmetalled road and it is indeed a deeply rutted, reddish soil track used by farm vehicles and muddy after rain but today bone dry and hard as concrete.

The start of Jackman’s Lane

I turn right along one section of Jackman’s Lane.  Superficially, this appears to be just another country track but from the first time I came here, I realised that this was a place with its own particular character and charm.  Unlike so many local lanes, it is flat, light and airy and surrounded by rolling countryside stretching into the distance.  Although it is bordered by Devon Hedges, these seem to have been maintained, restricting their height and allowing light to reach both sides of the track especially when the sun shines as it does today.  Many flowers grow along the lane, bees, butterflies and hoverflies dart about and there is a general buzz in the air.

Here are a few of the insect species I saw:

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo)

lace wing

Speckled yellow moth (Pseudopanthera macularia)

A Nomad bee (Nomada species) on hogweed. This photo does not show enough detail to assign this bee to a species but it is one of the many cuckoo bees that parasitise the nests of solitary mining bees.

As I enter the lane, I notice thick rope-like skeins of a scrambling plant in the right-hand hedge with dark green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves that look as though they have been coated with shiny paint.  This is black bryony and its pale yellow insignificant flowers are now showing.  Insignificant they may be but they will give rise to trailing strings of plump, shiny red berries in the autumn.  Several tree species are present in the hedges including elder, hazel, holly, rowan and sycamore, suggesting that this is a very old hedge.  In several places, foxgloves grow from the top of the bank in large groups (see picture at the head of this post) creating a vivid pink display against the clear blue sky, reminiscent of the colourful banners displayed at music festivals.  Large buzzy bumblebees systematically work the individual foxglove flowers.

Black bryony with its glossy leaves and small yellow flowers

Banks of cow parsley along Jackman’s Lane

Banks of lacy white cow parsley line the lane in places but the insects seem to ignore this umbellifer.  The same is not true for hogweed and one or two tall stands of this robust plant with its white pompom flowers are proving irresistible for hoverflies and solitary bees.  Then I come to the toilet!  Someone has dumped an old toilet in the right-hand hedge and scrawled “R Mutt” on it in black letters.  This may be fly-tipping but I also think it is an “hommage” to Marcel Duchamp, and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the value of this piece of conceptual art.

no caption required!

A gateway into a field appears on the left so I stop to take in the view.  I work out that I am looking roughly south west and an image unspools ahead of me of fields and hedges, a few cows, repeating into the distance, disappearing into a blue haze.  For a short time, I am transfixed by this view, it’s so unusual for this part of Devon to encounter a landscape free from hills and valleys.  It feels as though the sea should lie somewhere in the distant blue haze but that’s beyond what I can see.

In the middle section of the lane, I find flowers that speak more of summer than of spring so despite the limbo imposed on human lives by the lockdown, seasonal change carries on regardless.   Foxgloves are part of this seasonal shift but I also see large amounts of a yellowish plant that grows almost horizontally from the side of the hedges.  It has greenish-yellow, hairy leaves arranged symmetrically in whorls of four with clusters of small fragrant yellow flowers at the bases of the leaves.  I initially thought this was lady’s bedstraw but it is in fact crosswort, a relative.  Vetches are also showing.  Bush vetch with its untidy mauve flowers has been about for a while but I also find the yellow, pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling.  Both vetches attract bees but another favourite of these insects is hedge woundwort.  This plant has just come into flower in the lane displaying its burgundy red flowers decorated with fine white hieroglyphics.

Crosswort

Meadow vetchling with a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Hedge woundwort with a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Further on, nettles begin to dominate the hedges and a few tall trees appear before the lane reaches the old ridgeway road.  The section of Jackman’s Lane that I have described is quite short, barely half a mile in length, but it has a very particular character.  It is also very rich in wildlife and unexpectedly, it contains an interesting piece of conceptual art.

There are various ways to complete a circular walk from here but perhaps the most interesting is to turn left until a stony track leaves the ridgeway road to bear right, downhill.  This is another section of Jackman’s Lane which eventually reaches the Plymouth Road at Follaton for an easy return to the town.

To see my previous Lockdown Nature Walks please look here