Tag Archives: Alexanders

Signs of spring?

Dull, wet and mild has been the prevailing story for the winter weather so far this year in the south west of the UK.  Much needed winter sunshine has been in short supply and we’ve woken up to frost on only a handful of days. And then the storms:  in February alone, two consecutive weekends of severe weather brought heavy rain and gale force winds but very mild temperatures.   Local roads were blocked by water but flooding in other parts of the UK was much worse.

Even before the storms, walking in the rain-saturated countryside was particularly difficult but we managed to get out, although this sometimes meant paddling through mud and water.

Westcombe Beach

One of these walks was on a sunny February 1st when we took the opportunity to walk to Westcombe Beach near Kingston in south Devon.  This is an isolated sandy cove bisected by a sprightly stream and enclosed by some impressively jagged shiny grey rock formations.  The beach was largely clear of plastic waste, a rare find nowadays, but on one side I came across several unusual pale blue and pink inflated objects.  Although these might look as though they are made from plastic, they are in fact living creatures, Portuguese Men o’ War, driven on to the beach by south westerly winds.   They normally float on the surface of the sea, trailing dark blue tentacles with the capacity to deliver a very nasty sting, their pink sail catching the wind.

Portuguese Man o’War (some of the features of these organisms are lost when they are beached)

During our walk to and from Westcombe Beach we came across several flowers usually associated with the spring including primroses, violets and celandine.  As we were near the coast, the dark green fleshy leaves of Alexanders also flourished along the path sides but I was surprised to see one plant already in flower.

The flowers of Alexanders with a fly (probably a Yellow Dungfly)

Then as we walked back along the cliff tops in the low, late afternoon sunshine, we encountered a large caterpillar crossing the coast path.  It was very furry with orange-brown hairs along the top and darker grey-brown hairs below.  This is a larva of the fox moth and on sunny winter days they come out of hibernation to bask.

Fox moth caterpillar

Just under a week later, on February 6th, a day of sunny intervals, we walked to Mansands near Brixham.  Mansands is another isolated cove but with a stony beach and backed by a substantial body of water that attracts both waterfowl and bird watchers.  The land rises steeply either side of the beach with cliffs and there had been some falls of the soft rock on the eastern side over the winter which may have affected the solitary bees that nest there. [The picture at the head of this post shows the eastern side of Mansands beach and cliffs.]

Our biggest surprise of the day was finding a pair of toads (male and female) on the path along Mansands Lane as it descended towards the beach.  Hazel spotted the pair and had to take quick evasive action to avoid squashing them.  They were most likely on their way to the water below the path to spawn.  The males are opportunists and hitch a lift on the back of the larger females when they pass.  Once the female arrives at the water, more males will jump on her, competing for her attention.  Eventually, she will choose one male to fertilise her eggs as she deposits strings of them in the water.  We managed to persuade the pair to move to the path edge where they were more likely to avoid the danger of passing human feet.

Male and female toads

There were more surprises in store as we walked up the very steep Southdown Cliff away from Mansands where we saw several flowers often associated with spring.

Blackthorn flowers on Southdown Cliff above Mansands

 

Greater stitchwort on Southdown Cliff above Mansands

I hadn’t expected to see these flowers so early in the year but perhaps the generally warm weather has encouraged them.  There have also been reports of solitary bees emerging earlier than expected and I have seen queens of the bumblebee Bombus pratorum in two places in Devon, on January 15th and 20th so both very early.

Bombus pratorum queen (January 20th 2020)

A simple explanation for these findings is that our climate is changing.  Warmer, wetter winters with unstable weather are becoming more likely as a result of global temperature increases with corresponding effects on the flora and fauna.  But one person’s observations in one year don’t go beyond the anecdotal and we need much more comprehensive data to draw conclusions.

For this, I went to Nature’s Calendar, a citizen science project that records first flowerings, first sightings etc for many species across the UK.   When I looked at their report for 2019, I was surprised to see that blackthorn, to take one example, flowered 27 days earlier in the UK than it did in 2001.  In fact in 2019 all but one of Nature’s Calendar spring events were early, some considerably so.   Lorienne Whittle of Nature’s Calendar attributes these changes to the warmer winters we are now experiencing and the concern is that the long-established patterns of nature are being disturbed with potentially serious consequences.  For example, if frogs and toads spawn early, late frosts could kill their tadpoles.  Also, should insects emerge too soon they may not survive unless plentiful flowers are available for food.  We are entering uncertain times.

Bantham Beach in south Devon – the lost and the found

The dunes and strandline at Bantham Beach
The back of the beach at Bantham showing the dunes and the white-bleached wooden fences, also the strandline with seaweed.

 

There’s something other-worldly about sand dunes. They’re such unusual, secretive places and I remember as a child being able to lose myself in a dune dip. So, as we walk up the sandy path crossing the dune ridge at Bantham on the south Devon coast, there’s a little bit of me back all those years, hiding. The path is edged with marram grass, richly gilded in today’s low sun, and seemingly threatening to take the path back. There’s also a prolific patch of Alexanders with its shiny, yellowish-green leaves. The plant is one of the early signs of spring by the coast and I notice a few fresh creamy white flowers.

The roar of the waves increases steadily until we reach the highest point where the path widens between white-bleached wooden fences. A sandy beach, deep and broad, is now spread out below us and we get our first taste of the cool sea breeze. We walk downwards across the unsteadily soft sand and, with the tide this low, it’s a long walk to the surf. But there certainly is surf and I watch volleys of waves and white water making their attack. To the west, the beach ends with the mouth of the River Avon, while ahead the central view is filled by the green outcrop of Burgh Island with its white art deco hotel shimmering in the sunshine.

There are several family groups on the beach today. It’s half term and children are enjoying building sand castles; some are even paddling. One large group pass us, body boards slung over shoulders. The strandline spreads in a wide semi-circle across the beach with increasing amounts of seaweed towards the eastern side. I spend some time poking around with a walking pole examining the strandline debris. There’s not much large plastic waste but I do see small fragments over most of the beach, some gradually disappearing under wind-blown dry sand.

I notice a young woman nearby with her children, all clad for arctic weather. She’s looking in my direction and eventually comes over to enquire kindly:

“Have you lost something?”

“No, I am actually looking for something.”

I open my hand to show her the few plastic pellets I have found on the beach: “I’m looking for these.” Her children also want to look. “Some of them are nurdles, the raw material of the plastics industry.”

“Yes, I’ve heard about them” she replies

She continues: “Did you see about the palm oil on the beaches, apparently it’s completely legal for ships carrying palm oil to flush out their holds into the sea. Several dogs have died eating lumps of the stuff washed up on beaches.”

We talk for a while and then she wishes me good luck in my hunt, telling me to make sure I publicise what I find.

A high-pitched “peep, peep” announces the arrival of several rock pipits skittering around on the beach, looking for insects in the seaweed. They swoop around like wagtails, even wagging a little when they land.

It’s cold on the beach so we head up along the coast path that follows the edge of the cliffs at the eastern side of the beach. The path is busy with families and dogs and, after heavy overnight rain, it’s muddy and slippery. As we gain height we get better views of the waves approaching the beach in wide, white-fringed, concentric arcs.

The path levels out to snake eastwards, roughly following the line of the cliffs. It’s being continually re-routed inland because of “activity” in the cliffs and we notice deep red-rock fissures where the cliff will eventually fall away. Thurlestone Bay with its distinctive stone arch is laid out ahead of us, the sea dominated by a silvery mirror spread by the low sun. We look downwards to buff-yellow sandy beaches criss-crossed with anonymous footprints and to dark rocks where the water boils and spray shoots upwards as the waves rush inwards. Oystercatchers add their yearning cries to the atmosphere.

Thick tussocky grass fringes the path and starry yellow celandines are starting to show, with the occasional gorse bush continuing the colour theme. A large black beetle, about 2cm long, makes its unsteady way across the path. In the sunshine I see hints of iridescent blue from its back and from its distinctive wire-wound legs. This is a Bloody-nosed Beetle; later we see another and I wonder how many are squashed by walkers gazing at the views. The same may be true about two large caterpillars we encounter later. About three times the length of the beetle, they are covered in thick wiry hair, bright orange-brown above and mid brown below. These striking creatures are larvae of the Fox Moth taking advantage of some winter sunshine.

We catch fragments of conversation from passing walkers, minor insights into other lives. Then ahead I see a young man sprawled on the grass by the path. Has he slipped on the mud and hurt himself? No, he is checking his phone messages!

For some distance the coast path follows the edge of the golf course. Signs helpfully warn us to watch out for flying golf balls but today there are few players and after passing the Club House we reach Leas Foot Sands, a pleasant sheltered sandy beach and lunch stop. We see the usual bits and pieces of plastic rope and twine but the beach appears relatively clean today compared with previous visits. Sea mayweed, with its fleshy green foliage, is growing well at the back of the beach accompanied by plastic fragments blown into the grass behind the dunes. Hazel discovers a crack in the rocks on the west side of the beach where many different kinds of industrial plastic pellet have collected.

After lunch we retrace our steps along the cliffs passing a male stonechat sitting on a bush flicking his tail and displaying his snowy white collar. The wind is stronger and colder, and water and waves are now coming within striking distance of the dunes at Bantham. Two kite surfers enjoy the white water, zipping back and forth. Occasionally, like watery ballet dancers, they leap into the air as the wind shifts.

We visited Bantham on February 15th 2018

Looking eastwards from the coast path above Bantham
Looking eastwards from the coast path above Bantham

 

A fissure in the active cliffs above Bantham
A red-rock fissure in the cliff top above Bantham

 

Coast path above Bantham
Approaching the golf course on the coast path between Bantham and Thurlestone

 

Bloody-nosed Beetle near Bantham Beach
Bloody-nosed Beetle (photo by Hazel Strange)

 

Fox Moth caterpillar
Fox Moth caterpillar

 

Looking towards Thurelstone Rock and Bolt Tail from Leas Foot Sands
Leas Foot Sands looking towards Thurlestone Rock and Bolt Tail

 

Plastic pellets found at Leas Foot Sands

 

 

Bantham Beach high tide
Approaching Bantham at high tide