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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The commenter referred to above was “Noticing Nature: the British microseason project” (@Naturalcalendar). They can be found on Twitter and they have a newsletter
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Here is a short piece I wrote after a visit to the Lamb Garden in Totnes on March 9th together with a poem by Thomas Hardy.
It’s that time of year when I spend more time than I should peering at patches of lungwort. The wild variety (Pulmonaria officinalis) has been flowering for several weeks here in Devon and now has a mixture of pinkish-red and purplish-blue trumpet-shaped flowers above fleshy, white-spotted green leaves. The weather has kept most insects away but this morning, there is a hint of warmth in the air and finally, I see what I have been anticipating.
It’s one of the first bees to emerge each year, and I get that first time thrill again. I don’t see it arrive but suddenly it’s there hovering by the lungwort, hanging in the air as if working out which flower to sample. As it hovers, I notice the mostly buff-haired abdomen and thorax, also the pale yellow mask-like face and is that the tongue hanging in readiness? This chunky insect might be mistaken for a bumblebee but is a very fresh male hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), usually the first solitary bee species to appear in Totnes each spring.
Having chosen a flower, he settles down to feed, pushing his head in deeply to access nectar. His legs are splayed out gripping either side of the corolla, displaying the silky hairs that decorate them, celebrated in his common name. He doesn’t stay long, darting to another flower with a brief hover in between, buzzing loudly.
Lungwort flowers start out red and acquire the blue colour as they age. Red flowers contain more nectar than blue and the Anthophora feed preferentially from these red, higher forage flowers. This colour code means they don’t waste time visiting low-nectar blooms and may visit several plants looking for high nectar flowers, increasing the chance of cross pollination.
The male then notices me and hovers, buzzing loudly and aggressively in my direction before departing in a huff. Other males appear and occasionally two find themselves together on the flowers. This also doesn’t go down well and they depart, carving circles in the air around one another.
I wanted to include a poem to go with these spring observations so here is Thomas Hardy meditating on the topic in “The Year’s Awakening” .
If, like me, you enjoy looking at flowers, then winter can be a pretty dismal time. The plants that give colour to the autumn such as asters and sedums have long since faded and there’s a gap of several weeks before the winter flowers, snowdrops, aconites and pulmonaria show their faces. It hasn’t helped this winter that the December weather, although very mild, brought many overcast days. Ceilings of thick grey cloud hung overhead, keeping light levels low and draining the landscape of colour so that I yearned for some brightness.
But there is help at hand in the form of winter flowering shrubs and plants which bring welcome colour to the gloom. These include winter honeysuckle and winter flowering heathers but my favourite is mahonia with its starbursts of lemon-yellow flowers and its spiky evergreen leaves. Mahonia works hard, flowering from November with some varieties continuing to bloom well into the New Year. A large stand of the shrub is a fine sight in winter, sometimes as much as three metres in height, covered with multiple plumes of flowers reaching upwards above sprays of spiky mid green holly-like leaves. Even on the darkest winter day, the yellow flowers light up their surroundings like banks of fluorescent tubes and should the sun shine, both flowers and leaves glow in reply. As an added bonus, stands of mahonia are often enveloped in a cloud of sweet fragrance said to resemble lily of the valley, a rare experience in these low months. If all that wasn’t enough, as the flowers mature, they produce attractive blue-black berries dusted with a white bloom.
Mahonia was first discovered during the Lewis and Clark expedition sent to explore the newly acquired north western territory of the United States during the early years of the 19th century. The shrub was found growing extensively between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean. The prominent Irish/American nurseryman Bernard McMahon based in Philadelphia was responsible for propagating the seeds and plants brought back from the expedition and mahonia was named in recognition of his work. Mahonia is also referred to as Oregon grape after the resemblance of its berries to the vine fruit and the part of the US where the shrub was first seen.
The native US shrub was imported into the UK in the 19th century and different varieties were also found in Asia at about the same time. These and their hybrids are now very popular in this country contributing architectural interest to gardens as well as winter colour. They are often planted around the edges of car parks and outside buildings where their potential size can be readily accommodated.
It’s not just humans, though, who take pleasure from mahonia in winter. Both insects and birds relish the profusion of flowers and berries on the shrub. The long arching racemes thrown upwards by mahonia are densely packed with small flowers, each shaped like an upturned bell and formed from concentric rings of petals and sepals. The flowers are rich sources of pollen and nectar providing important forage for insects on mild winter days and, as the insects feed, they contribute to pollination.
Among the insects visiting mahonia in winter, bumblebees are regular foragers in the south of the UK and I have seen both workers and queens even in late December, sometimes liberally dusted with yellow pollen. Honeybees and hoverflies will also venture out to feed on milder winter days and they may occasionally be joined by red admiral butterflies. It’s fascinating to watch bumblebees working the flowers, moving systematically along a raceme, dislodging yellow petals which fall to decorate nearby leaves and create a yellow “snow” on pavements below. Birds such as blackcaps and blue tits also take sugar-rich nectar from mahonia flowers. When they visit, they may pick up pollen on their beaks contributing to pollination.
The flowers have a special mechanism for increasing the efficiency of pollination by visiting insects and birds. In each flower, the pollen-loaded stamens are arranged in a ring just inside the petals. Stimulating the flower, as would happen if a pollinator visits, causes the stamens to move inwards increasing the likelihood that the pollinator will pick up pollen to transfer to the next flower. Pollination leads to formation of the berries, each about the size of a blackcurrant which start green and mature to blue-black with a white bloom. The berries provide winter food for birds later in the season and blackcaps, blackbirds and song thrushes may be seen feeding.
Although mahonia was a new discovery for colonists in the US in the early 19th century, the native American tribes of the north west were already familiar with its properties. Some ate the berries, either raw or cooked and some used preparations of the shrub for medicinal purposes. Yellow dyes derived from the plant were also used by the tribes for colouring fabrics and basketry. Preparations of mahonia have been employed in traditional Chinese medicine over many years and are used by some contemporary herbalists but rigorous scientific studies of their effects have not been performed.
It is interesting to reflect on how mahonia, a shrub native to parts of the US and Asia, has successfully travelled to the UK where not only does it brighten our winters but it also supports wildlife across this low season.
One of my favourite parts of the coast path in south Devon is the section between Prawle Point and Start Point. Between these two imposing coastal landmarks the path follows the meandering line of the low cliffs and, unusually for this part of Devon, there are few hills and walking is easy. The area inland of the coast path is notable for the line of steep rocky cliffs that, many years ago, formed the coastline when sea levels were higher. Between these inland cliffs and the present coastline is a flattish area, about a field’s width across, mostly used for pasture and arable farming. One section, a long curving coastal meadow (above Horseley Cove), is left uncultivated and many wild flowers grow here and, to a lesser extent, along the edges of other parts of the coast path. With the rocky coastline and rugged inland cliffs, the area retains a wildness and I come here to be close to the sea and to immerse myself in nature in all its fullness.
The stretch of coastline between Start Point and Prawle Point is a nationally important site for rare invertebrates and was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1986. For some years now, I have been coming here in early summer to watch the rare long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis) (see here as well) that use the soft rock cliffs for nest sites and forage from the wild peas and vetches that flourish in this environment. The area is also a stronghold for the cirl bunting and I often see and hear these rare birds when I visit. If I am lucky, I may also see seals swimming nearby or basking on the rocks at Peartree Point .
Earlier this year, in April, I walked along this section of the coast path and was alarmed at what I found. The long curving coastal meadow, filled with wildflowers later in the year, was intact but outside of this area there was considerable evidence of herbicide use. Some fields to the east of the meadow and the paths around them had been drenched with herbicide prior to planting new crops. The chemicals had reached the hedges that line the sides of the coast path and the area looked barren and dried out (picture below). To the west, where the coast path runs between the cliff edge and arable fields, there had been spot spraying of “weeds”. It looked as though attempts were being made to eliminate wildflowers alongside areas where crops are grown.
Wildflowers are very important for supporting the insects and, indirectly, the birds that flourish here and I was concerned by this apparent degradation of the site. I decided to make several visits across the summer to see how the site recovered and how the insects fared.
My first visit was in late May and I found good numbers of male long-horned bees in the coastal meadow, foraging mainly on bush vetch. This flower scrambles through the bracken that lines the cliff edge of the meadow. With its slightly untidy looking flowers that start a deep purple but open to pale lilac petals, bush vetch provides excellent early forage (picture below). The long-horned males looked very fresh with their yellow face, bright russet thorax, shiny black abdomen, legs coated with fine hairs and their trademark very long, shiny, black antennae. They are such iconic, beautiful creatures and it was a pleasure to see them moving swiftly about the site between flowers. I also went to look at the nest area in the soft rock cliffs below the meadow where the vertical, reddish surface is peppered with pencil-sized holes. Males appeared here regularly looking about the site for females. They arrived and performed a meandering flight across the nest area, sometimes repeating this before flying off. There was some play-fighting and a few overexcited males got tired of waiting and tried to mate with their male cousins.
The coastal meadow looked glorious. A dense coating of knee-high grasses grew across the site lending it a sheen of pale browns, greens and muted reds. Many flowers grew among the grasses in addition to the bush vetch, including buttercup, catsear, common vetch, speedwell, hop trefoil, wild carrot and along the cliff edge to the western end, bird’s foot trefoil, thrift and bloody cranesbill, a rich kaleidoscope of colours . For the most part, herbicide-treated areas outside the meadow had grown back although some flowers had been eliminated.
Female Eucera longicornis appeared in June and by the third week of the month they outnumbered males. One hot spot for females was a hedge along the sea side of the coast path where it skirted a field just to the east of the flowery meadow. Narrow-leaved everlasting pea grew here in moderate amounts, its bright pink flowers proving very attractive to the females. I watched them feeding from the flowers; they looked rather different from the males, their antennae were a more conventional length and they appeared chunkier with striking golden plumes of pollen-collecting hair on their back legs. When they arrived, they landed on the lip of the flower pushing the large sail-like upper petal backwards to access nectar. Narrow-leaved everlasting pea also grew through the cliff edge bracken in the coastal meadow and female long-horned bees were foraging there too. Although many other flowers were growing here including several large patches of the yellow scrambling meadow vetchling, the females showed an absolute preference for the wild pea. I also spent some time by the nest area watching a regular stream of females returning to their nest, some carrying large lumps of sticky pollen on their back legs. A few males hung about the nest site and others foraged from bush vetch in the meadow but they paid little attention to the females, all mated by now.
Although the coastal meadow was still looking outstanding with its rich fabric of grasses embroidered by so many wildflowers, the situation elsewhere on the site was not as encouraging. Wilting plants in several locations indicated more herbicide usage and the path along the coastal hedge mentioned earlier had been strimmed on the sea side and treated with herbicide again on the field side (more wilting plants, pictures below). To cap all of this, when I visited in the second week of July, cattle had been allowed into this area trashing the hedge and eating all the narrow leaved everlasting pea growing there. In previous years, this hedge and the wild pea that grows here have been critical for the survival of the female long-horned bees so this could have been catastrophic. Fortunately, this year large amounts of the wild pea with its bright pink flowers had grown up in the coastal meadow and many females were foraging there instead.
So, based simply on this year’s observations and the numbers I saw, the long-horned bees seem to be doing well at this south Devon site. The colony is moderate in size and numbers seem to be holding compared with observations made in previous years.
There has, though, been significant degradation of the local environment this year with loss of wildflowers following herbicide use and cattle damage to an extent I had not seen before. In order to support these rare bees and perhaps to increase the size and extent of the colony of long-horned bees, the numbers of wild flowers should be increasing along the length of the coast path rather than being restricted to the coastal meadow as currently seems to be happening. This degradation of the site surely runs counter to the legal protections associated with an SSSI?
Another concern at this site is the fate of the six banded nomad bee (Nomada sexfasciata), the UK’s rarest bee. This bee is a parasite of Eucera longicornis and in the UK is only known at this south Devon site. I last saw it in 2017 when I made several sightings. Since then, it has been seen by others on only one occasion each subsequent year so it is very rare. This year, I saw several Nomada species by the nest area in late June. One stayed for a short time but was definitely not Nomada sexfasciata and the others disappeared too quickly for verification. I believe there have been no other sightings this year.
The south Devon site needs support to protect the unique flora and fauna present there, especially the rare bees and other insects that live in this special habitat. Buglife and the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are developing a project termed Life on the Edge which aims to protect the site and increase the number of wildflowers. It is currently seeking funding so we have to hope it gets that support.
The state of the site across spring and summer
The featured image at the head of this post shows a male Eucera longicornis on bird’s foot trefoil in late May.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
The minor road that climbs past the Spyway Inn near Askerswell was quiet that day, a welcome relief from the seemingly endless traffic clogging the A35. Eventually, though, Eggardon Hill came into view, the road levelled out and our attention was captured by the stunning panorama laid out to the west. Below, the land unfolded in a mosaic of fields, trees and hedges with different colours and textures, backed by the hills of west Dorset rising mysteriously in the slight haze that softened the air. To the south west, the sea and the familiar ups and downs of the Jurassic Coast completed the image. [The picture at the top of this post shows the view in a slightly spread out panoramic form] We drove on and, just before the road dipped under the old railway bridge, turned into the car park at the Powerstock Common Nature Reserve.
Trees surrounded the car park and bright early June sunshine filtered through the leaf cover casting dappled light across the parking area. Birdsong echoed around us and the rippling sound of running water emerged from the nearby woodland. Common vetch scrambled through the fences along the car park edge and its purplish-pink pea-type flowers were proving popular with plump, furry, pale brown bumblebees.
We set out along the woodland path taking a right fork to stay on the northern edge of the reserve. The track felt enclosed but wildflowers grew along the margins including the inconspicuous bright blue speedwell and the purplish-blue spikes of bugle. In time, the woodland melted away leaving the path to run between broad sloping banks topped by trees and scrub. This is the Witherstone cutting, once the path of the Bridport branch railway as it ran between Powerstock and Toller stations.
This branch Line opened in 1857 linking Bridport to Maiden Newton and the main line. The coming of the railway to West Dorset revolutionised social and commercial life in the area which, at the time, was poorly served by roads. People could travel more widely and I tried to imagine trains passing through the cutting, drawn in a haze of smoke and noise by the small steam engines of the Great Western Railway. I pictured people on the trains, travelling for work or for leisure or moving about during the two world wars. The line was also important for the transport of milk, watercress and the net and twine produced in Bridport. As motor transport came to dominate, traffic on the railway declined resulting in its closure in 1975. Although the tracks were lifted, there are still signs of the old railway, notably the rusty fence posts that line the track. The remains of an old brickworks can also be found in the nearby wood. This was set up near the railway to take advantage of the clay that remained when the cutting was excavated.
On the day of our visit, the sloping banks on either side of the path were mostly clad in short rough grass although there were some areas of exposed grey soil, perhaps a result of slippage. The former railway cutting felt very sheltered and the bright yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil grew across the grassy areas. We also found many small flowers of milkwort, almost hidden in the grass. Milkwort is a common plant on rough grassland and the flowers exist in several colours. Pink and purplish-blue flowers grew at Powerstock Common but each flower also had one white petal divided into finger-like lobes giving it a passing resemblance to a miniature cow’s udder. This may account for the name of the flower and its use in the past for increasing milk production. We also found one common spotted orchid with beautiful purple markings but more will have appeared, along with many other flowers, as the season advanced.
The abundance of flowers attracted insects and several common blue butterflies flew past or around us displaying their sky-blue upper wings and intricately patterned lower wings. Two yellow butterflies also passed by, dancing around one another in the air. I hoped they would land so that I could identify the species but they did not oblige. Bumblebees moved lazily among the flowers but we made our most exciting observation on a slightly raised area of rough grass with some exposed grey soil not far from the main path.
Here we found bees flying about at high speed, backwards and forwards and from side to side, just above the ground, accompanied by a clearly audible buzz. There were perhaps a hundred or more of the insects, and with their incessant movement this was an impressive sight. It was difficult to identify them at first owing to their frantic activity but they were honeybee-sized and I thought I could see shiny black abdomens. Very occasionally, one would pause to feed from the bird’s foot trefoil revealing a yellow face, a pale brown-haired thorax and two very long antennae, each as long as the rest of their body. Such long antennae, resembling shiny black bootlaces, are seen only on one UK species of bee, the male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).
The obvious excitement of these male bees arose because they were anticipating the emergence of females and wanted to try to mate. Indeed, on several occasions some left their frantic flying to coalesce into a small mobile cluster. Others tried to join in, some left the melee. This was a mating cluster and formed when a virgin female emerged from her nest chamber. Many males then pounced upon her hoping to mate but only one was successful. Once mated, females get on with nest building and laying of eggs to secure the population of next year’s long-horned bees.
The long-horned bee was once a common sight in May and June across the southern half of the UK, unmistakeable from the long antennae of the males. Agricultural intensification led to destruction of habitat used by these bees along with a loss of their favoured flowers such as wild vetches and peas. As a result, the species is now quite rare being restricted to twenty or so UK sites many of which are along the southern coast. The Powerstock colony is large and seems to be prospering; it was a treat to see it that day.
Powerstock Common is a rich and varied nature reserve and we glimpsed only a small part during our visit. Even so, we enjoyed the peace and the floral beauty of the old railway cutting and discovered a fascinating mixture of natural and industrial history.
At the beginning of July, Natural England announced that the combined land at Powerstock Common and nearby Kingcombe Meadows, both managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, would become a National Nature Reserve recognising the unique character of these west Dorset sites and the rare wildlife they contain.