Tag Archives: birds

What a difference a storm makes.

Here I am again at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone on the South Devon coast, a week after my first visit.  Storm Ophelia passed noisily through the area between the two visits, bringing very high winds and rough seas and I wanted to see how the beach had fared.

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 4
The sand dunes at the back of the beach with some debris

Mist accompanied me for most of the journey down but as I approached the coast, the gloom cleared and there was a hint of brightness in the sky.  To the west, the art deco hotel on Burgh Island glowed in a halo of white light and there was even a little milky sunshine at Thurlestone.  These luminous promises were destined to be unfulfilled as the sky quickly resumed its overcast state leaving the sea a uniform dull grey-blue.  At least it was calm; there was virtually no wind and the waves looked as though they couldn’t be bothered.  Perhaps because of the calm, there were birds about, on the beach and on the cliffs, wagtails, corvids and pipits.  Compared with my visit a week ago, the tide was much lower, exposing a larger area of beach with several concentric arcs of debris and a mass of dark seaweed at the water’s edge.

The beach at Leas Foot Sands is enclosed on either side by moderate red cliffs and backed by scrappy sand dunes that have suffered badly in previous years’ stormy weather.   Today these dunes resembled a piece of conceptual art dedicated to our throwaway culture.  All sorts of debris littered the rising sand:  many small fragments of plastic, wood and seaweed, feathers, plastic containers and many pieces of plastic wrapping. There was even a battered but colourful drink can that seemed to have come from the Far East.    It had obviously been fairly wild when the storm arrived, with high winds and waves reaching right up to the back of the beach; this area had been mostly clean a week ago.

Further down the beach, there were several arcs of debris presumably corresponding to the distance reached by different tides as the storm abated.  These strandlines contained small pieces of seaweed, cuttlefish shells, Portuguese Men O’War looking rather sad and deflated with some in pieces, cotton bud stems, colourful rope and fishing tackle.

One of the arcs of debris in the centre of the beach grabbed my attention.  It contained some of the same stuff but in lower amounts: a few feathers, small dry pieces of wood and seaweed and the occasional shard of plastic.  The big difference was the presence of nurdles, very easy to spot littered among the other debris here.  There must have been several hundred of the small, mostly grey, plastic particles spread across the beach in this arc.

Finally, near the water’s edge, there were substantial amounts of shiny dark brown seaweed partly submerged in the shallow water.  It looked as though this had been newly collected and dumped by the storm.  There was little or no plastic waste in this area.

So, what a difference a storm makes.  I wasn’t surprised to see all the litter at the back of the beach given the ferocity of the storm but the nurdles were a shock.  A week ago we had been hard pressed to find any nurdles at all whereas today they were plentiful.  The challenge now is to understand why the nurdles arrived and why they were apparently concentrated in one strandline.

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Our seas and our beaches are contaminated by nurdles, these small pieces of easily transportable plastic used as a raw material for making many of our plastic goods.  Nurdles pose many dangers but one obvious concern is that that they will be consumed by seabirds and by fish with dire consequences for their health.  Here is a link to more information about nurdles.

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 2
Debris at the back of the beach superimposed on one of the clumps of sea rocket

 

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 1
Debris at the back of the beach

 

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 3
A drink can seen at the back of the beach – it that may have travelled far.

 

Leas Foot Sands, back of beach after storm Ophelia 5
Debris piled up at the back of the beach

 

Leas Foot Sands middle of beach after storm Ophelia 2
A mid beach shot with a sad-looking Portuguese Man’O War

 

Leas Foot Sands middle of beach after storm Ophelia 1
More unusual finds on a mid beach hunt

 

Nurdles on Leas Foot Sands after storm Ophelia 1
Nurdles on the middle of the beach along with natural debris. The nurdles are the small grey cylindrical pieces.

 

Nurdles on Leas Foot Sands after storm Ophelia 2
More nurdles in the middle of the beach.

 

Shoreline at Leas Foot Beach after storm Ophelia
Seaweed at the water’s edge.

 

Have you seen the bee orchids?

There I was, standing up to my knees in the long grass trying to examine a flower, when a woman passing on the nearby path asked, “Have you seen the bee orchids?”  I turned and answered “No, but I was hoping to find them” and she continued “If you go nearly to the end of the reserve by the bridge, there’s a very nice one”.

Bird's foot trefoil
Bird’s-foot Trefoil

 

Common vetch
Common vetch

 

Aller Brook Nature Reserve in Newton Abbott is a place of contrasts.  It might reasonably be called an edgeland for it is on the edge of the town and the reserve starts where the Brunel Industrial Estate ends.  But it’s more urban than even that implies; the other main boundary of the reserve is the A380 trunk road making its presence felt through the continual loud rumble of cars and lorries speeding between Torquay and Exeter.  Between these two urban barriers is an extended triangular tongue of land with the water of Aller Brook running down the middle in a deep scrub-lined channel – this is the Nature Reserve.

Despite all the noise and light-industrial activity, this reserve is a perfect example of how nature can be coaxed in to a space if it is properly managed.  Kingfishers and otters are reported to visit the Brook and, when I was there, birdsong filled the air, at least when traffic noise allowed.  The main path along the boundary with the industrial estate was fringed with typical May flowers: red campion, cow parsley and brambles, all blooming beneath a thick tree canopy.  On the other side of the path, the Brook was occasionally visible through the scrub shield.

Further along the path, I came across several small areas of grassland managed as hay meadows.  Typical meadow plants were flourishing adding splashes of colour to the muted green grasses. Tall drifts of yellow and white ox eye daisies and unruly purple knapweed grew through the thick vegetation.  Common vetch, dotted with pink pea flowers, and buttery yellow bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the rough cover holding on wherever they could.  A few common spotted and marsh orchids added a little exoticism.  Along the edge of the brook there were stands of dog rose with their floppy, pale pink petals. With all these flowers about, bees were abundant.

The reserve ends at a bridge where the Brook empties into the estuary of the river Teign between huge swathes of tea-coloured reed beds and shiny pillows of brown mud.  The same reeds form a narrow border to the brook.  The bridge area was the part of the reserve where the Bee Orchids were supposed to be, so I looked very carefully within the grass.  They were quite easy to spot, six fine flower spikes standing about 20 cm above the ground with triple propeller-like, pinkish-violet sepals surrounding their complex flowers.

From the bridge, a path returns along the other side of Aller Brook and, at least at the beginning, the vegetation is quite similar.  Compact tracts of grassland sloped downwards to the Brook; common vetch scrambled through the grass accompanied by a few pyramidal orchids.  This side of the reserve, however, felt more contained with stands of brambles and thick tree cover attempting to mask the nearby main road.  It was still slightly unnerving to see glimpses of cars speeding past at 70 mph about 20 metres away.  Incongruously, near here I found another impressive group of Bee Orchids, five spikes in total, with two growing perilously close to the path edge.

As the reserve narrows, so does the path and for some time I walked along a green corridor beneath thick tree cover with relative shade and few flowers.  Eventually the path emerged into the light near a very busy roundabout and the car park of the Toby Carvery.  A ranger I had met earlier told me to look at the grassy area around the car park.  I had to ask a cuddling couple sitting on the edge of this area if they minded if I wandered around the grass but eventually I found thirteen flowering spikes of Bee Orchids looking very fresh, together with one pyramidal orchid.  This unlikely and rather bleak urban spot has a better population of Bee Orchids than the Nature Reserve itself!

There is something very beautiful and rather weird about the flowers of the Bee orchid when you look beyond the three pink sepals.  The most obvious part is the lower petal, the labellum, largely a rich dark red but decorated with variable, yellow horseshoe patterns.  Either side of the labellum are two spurs with a furry surface.  Above the labellum is a pale green arching structure containing two small yellow balls (pollinia) supported by fine threads so that when the wind blows these vibrate.  Above this pale green structure are two horns.

As the name of the orchid suggests, some people see a bee in the complex structure of the flowers.  They imagine the body of a chunky bee (the labellum, complete with furry extensions) with antennae (the two horns) and wings (two of the sepals).  To be honest, I don’t get this – all I see is a complex and idiosyncratic flower but perhaps I am being too literal.  I showed the pictures to Hazel, however, and she immediately saw the bee.

The apparent resemblance of the flowers to bees is also linked with theories of pollination whereby a male bee sees the orchid “bee”, thinks it is a female and tries to pseudo-copulate.  As it does so, it picks up pollen from the pollinia and when it leaves, disappointed, it tries again on another flower pollinating it at the same time.  In southern Europe, the Bee Orchid is cross-pollinated by bees of the Eucera genus but to me none of these bees looks anything like the Bee orchid.  But anyway, who knows what a bee “sees” and it has been suggested that the odour of the flower is more important in attracting the male bees.  To complicate things even more, Bee Orchids in the UK self-pollinate so they manage without bees.

Visiting a place like Aller Brook I can’t help but reflect on our relationship with nature.   I really like the Aller Brook Nature Reserve, there’s something special about the grassland with its profusion of meadow flowers and the Brook with its resident kingfishers and otters.  I love the orchids.  I can’t, however, help feeling troubled by the urban noise, the proximity of traffic and light industry.  This juxtaposition of modern urban life with some of the real glories of nature highlights our dysfunctional relationship with wildlife.  Is this tiny scrap of land the best we can do?  Surely we should be giving nature a higher priority rather than endlessly building roads and houses?

As I thought about this, Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi kept coming back to me, particularly the words:

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”

I visited Aller Brook Nature Reserve on May 30th 2017

Common spotted orchid
Cut-leaved cranesbill and common spotted orchid

 

Bee orchid 1
Bee orchid

 

Bee on knapweed
Bumblebee (male B.pratorum) on knapweed

 

Bee orchid 3
Bee orchids showing pollinia

 

Aller Brook
Aller Brook

 

Toby Carvery Car Park
The car park of the Toby Carvery

 

An autumn sunshine walk in South Devon – Salcombe to Gara Rock

East Portlemouth Ferry
The ferry arrives at East Portlemouth from Salcombe

 

Steep steps descend from a narrow passageway off Salcombe’s Fore Street.   At water level there is a stone jetty, the Ferry Pier, and above and to the right the Ferry Inn enjoys almost perfect views across the estuary.   A clinker-built motor boat, with the skipper standing up, is already making its way across the water to pick up the few waiting passengers.  Once we are all safely on board, he backs out and turns before heading across the estuary to East Portlemouth; it’s a calm day so this is an easy crossing.   The view from the boat always impresses me, low in the water, a cormorant’s perspective.  Looking towards the mouth of the estuary, the sea is a dark blue but, in the light breeze, ripples caught in the low sunshine cast a dancing light across the water.

The journey takes only a few minutes but it’s transformative.   Salcombe is all cafes and posh clothing shops but across the water we find peaceful long beaches with fine sand.  The tide is very low so we follow the strandline, leaving a record of our footsteps in the soft sand.  Beachside houses cast long shadows in the low sunshine but, where the sun reaches the beach, it creates pale blues and greens in the seawater, shallow over golden sand, and I imagine the Mediterranean.

Eventually, we reach Mill Bay, a football pitch-sized expanse of undulating, pale sand stretching from the sea to the coast road.  Very popular for family holidays in summer, today it is all but deserted.  On one side of the beach, the low tide has exposed a long, green, seaweed-covered slipway with prominent metal rails and stone teeth.  This was built in 1943 by the US navy to support landing craft during the Normandy landings.  It’s hard to imagine the beaches and the estuary filled with ships awaiting the assault on occupied France.

The rear of the beach is fringed with sand dunes bound together with scrubby grass.  One exposed vertical face is peppered with holes, burrows for insects, and several black and yellow striped wasps are moving about the nest area in a proprietorial manner.  Longer and sleeker than the better known common wasp, these are field digger wasps, solitary insects that dig tunnels in the sand and provision them with dead flies as food for their larvae.  A large buff-tailed bumblebee queen is scrabbling in the sand wall as if she is trying to burrow.  She looks in good condition but behaves as if something is wrong.

The path leaves the beach to head gently upwards through coastal woodland in the direction of the estuary mouth.  The autumn leaf-strewn track meanders through the woods with tantalising views of beaches below.  In today’s light, the colours of the sand and water glimpsed through the trees look more southern European than south Devon.  We emerge from woodland cover into brilliant sunshine and spectacular but slightly hazy views across the mouth of the estuary to the vast green headland of Bolt Head and the sandy beach at South Sands with its boutique hotels.  A red, yellow and blue boat passes by purposefully; it may look like a toy, but it is the Ferry that links South Sands with Salcombe town.

The path turns gradually eastwards seemingly cut into the hillside so that we walk with the land falling away to the sea below us and, on the landward side, rising steeply to rocky outcrops.  There is much bracken in evidence, already showing the effects of autumn; bright sparks of yellow gorse shoot upwards.  We pass a single spike of mullein, a few yellow toadflax and clumps of sheep’s bit with their unruly mops of blue petals.  Several stonechats entertain us, fluttering up and down, tail flicking, chatting.

The sea is calm today. From this vantage point, it is a deep blue but where it meets the rocky coastline, the surface shatters into bright fragments in the sunshine.  I scan the coastal waters for seals but get a surprise when I see what looks like a person standing on a rock just above the sea.  A closer look reveals a large cormorant, sunning itself.   Further away, sailing boats take advantage of the good weather and a fishing boat moors close enough for us to read its name through our binoculars.

Eventually, ahead of us we see a curious, white-painted, cylindrical hut, topped with a thatched roof and perched high above the path upon one of the rocky outcrops.  Far below the hut is a secluded stretch of sandy beach and in the distance lies another headland, Gammon Head.  The thatched hut is the former coastguard lookout at Gara Rock and we leave the coast path to head up to investigate.   Behind the lookout there is a new resort/hotel/apartment complex with people sitting in the sunshine enjoying a drink.  A row of coastguard cottages was built here in the 19th century and converted into a popular hotel early in the 20th century.  Laurence Olivier, John Betjeman and Margaret Rutherford are said to have stayed here, not necessarily at the same time.  The old building was knocked down in the last ten years and rebuilt as the new complex.

The old coastguard lookout has glorious views across the sea and coast and it is surrounded by huge banks of ivy.  Much of the ivy is in full flower, filling the air with its distinctive sickly-sweet smell.  Perhaps it is something to do with the light today but the flower heads on these clumps of ivy appear as almost perfect globes.  Multiple pale green lollipops extend from the centre of each flower head in perfect symmetry, like pins in a pin cushion.  Each lollipop is decorated with a frieze of pale yellow-headed stamens, creating, from a distance, a sunny halo around the green globe.  The ivy flowers attract many insects including more field digger wasps but it is the ivy bees that I am looking for and I am not disappointed.  Many of the elegant yellow and black striped-females move quickly about the flowers together with a few hopeful males.  The females are carrying large amounts of bright yellow pollen but still feeding.

We drag ourselves away from this extraordinary spot and head back down the inland valley to Mill Bay following an ancient, slightly sunken green lane with farmland either side.  This is a green tunnel with muted light, formed by overhanging trees including a long stretch of very old lime trees with dark, gnarled bark and multiple branching trunks.  When we reach Mill Bay, we take the coast road back to the jetty.  Many of the houses here are closed up; more than 40% of the houses in the Salcombe area are second homes.  The chimney of one of these homes is swarming with bees, probably honeybees.  The owner will be in for a shock when they next visit!

For a map and further information on this walk click here.

 

Mill Bay
Mill Bay

 

US Navy slipway, Mill Bay
The old US Navy slipway

 

 

Field Digger wasp
Field digger wasp (Mellinus arvensis)

 

South Sands Ferry
South Sands Ferry

 

Coast Path
The coast path and view across to Bolt Head

 

Sheep's Bit
Sheep’s Bit

 

Coastguard lookout Gara Rock
Coastguard lookout at Gara Rock

 

Inspecting the ivy
Inspecting the ivy at Gara Rock

 

Ivy with ivy bee
Female ivy bee (Colletes hederae) with ivy

 

View from Gara Rock lookout
View from the lookout

 

 

Ancient limes
Ancient Lime Trees

 

Bees in the chimney
Bees in the chimney

The oil well and the beach – a clash of the human and the natural at Kimmeridge Bay

The Isle of Purbeck in south east Dorset is an area of outstanding natural beauty but it is also Dorset’s oil country. I wanted to see how the demands of the oil industry could be reconciled with the demands of nature, so a few weeks ago I drove through the Purbeck Hills to Kimmeridge Bay.

Kimmeridge 10
The view from the limestone ridge down to Kimmeridge Bay

 

The final stage of my journey took me over the coastal limestone ridge into open countryside where the views became wider, the colours and contrasts more intense. The wide sweep of Kimmeridge Bay lay below me in the sunshine: greens and blues, shadow and light, like an image from a travel magazine. From here the road descended, tentatively, through several broad arcs to reach the thatched, stone-cottaged village and the narrow beach access road. I left the car at the cliff-top car park and got out to look. The wide semi-circular bay, backed by moderate cliffs, spread either side of me and narrow, dark-stone ledges extended from the beach like giant fingers. A few white wavelets interrupted the surface of a deep blue sea and across the water, the vast mass of Portland loomed out of the mist.

Kimmeridge 1
Kimmeridge Bay with the limestone ridges. The WW2 pill box shows prominently and its distance from the cliffs gives a rough indication of erosion.

 

I walked away from the cliffs and followed the access road westward around the row of 19th century, grey-stone cottages. The landward side of the road was lined by sodden arable fields enlivened only by a group of pied wagtails, jittering, fluttering. Soon I reached a large wire-mesh enclosure set back from the cliff edge. Inside the enclosure were pipe work, storage tanks and a “nodding donkey” oil pump, its huge black beam moving ponderously up and down as it sucked crude oil out of the reserves buried deep below the cliff.

Oil pump
The oil well and pump

 

The pump has been working here since 1961 and is the oldest continuously working oil pump on the UK mainland. The oil-bearing rocks are located about 350 metres below the cliff, yielding 65 barrels of oil a day together with some natural gas. This is a modest deposit but it led to the discovery of the much larger Wytch Farm oilfield located ten or so miles away, stretching long distances under Poole Bay.

The oil pump itself is virtually noise-free as it is powered by electricity and, when I visited, there was nobody working nearby. The enclosure is some distance away from the centre of the Bay and partially screened by bushes so it is invisible to many visitors. Nevertheless, I find it incongruous to come across an oil well in this isolated, somewhat desolate and very natural place. To give myself some perspective I went to see more of the bay.

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Kimmeridge 6
One of the limestone ledges at low tide. Hen Cliff is prominent with the former fishermen’s huts below and the Clavell Tower above.

 

The beach is accessible down a precarious wooden stairway through a break in the cliffs, the Gaulter Gap, a narrow valley containing a fast-flowing stream. It’s a stony beach with pebbles, rocks and sand of many shades of grey, giving way to the dark stone ledges. These are visible at low tide reaching outwards into the sea and tilting slightly upwards to the west. The ledges provide great opportunities for rock-pooling and Ralph Wightman also speaks of a game of pebble bowls played along them.

Kimmeridge 4
The World War 2 military pillbox

 

Near the Gaulter Gap the natural feel of the beach is rudely interrupted by a white cylindrical WW2 military pillbox standing on the beach looking as though someone planned to take it away but forgot. It used to sit on the cliff and its current position gives us an idea of how much erosion has occurred in the passing of 70 years.

Kimmeridge 5
The rock layering in the cliffs

 

The beach is backed by grass-topped cliffs about 10 metres high containing distinct layers of rocks of different colours and textures. Bands of pale reddish brown and grey rock appear repeatedly in a semi-rhythmic pattern; differences in the hardness of the rocks and their resistance to erosion give the cliffs texture and a fascinating mosaic of colours. The rock layering in the cliffs make this both a geologist’s paradise and a geological time machine as each of the layers represents a discrete event in the Jurassic period, 200-150 million years ago.

Within the grey layers of rock is an oil shale for which Kimmeridge has been justifiably famous in the past. The richest deposits of oil shale, the “Blackstone”, are found in cliffs east of the bay. The Blackstone contains flammable hydrocarbons and used to be called “Kimmeridge Coal”. For many years it was used as a fuel, initially for cooking and heating and later for various industrial enterprises despite its high sulphur content and foul smell when burnt. In the 19th century it was mined here on an industrial scale and processed to make a range of petroleum products in Wareham and Weymouth in a series of short-lived enterprises.

The oil shale contains flammable hydrocarbons but it does not contain crude oil. Crude oil forms when the remnants of microscopic animals and plants accumulate at the bottom of the sea and are subjected to conditions of high temperature and pressure. Organic molecules are gradually converted to crude oil and this is what happened, many millions of years ago, in the rocks deep below the oil pump. The oil shale deposits exposed in the cliffs began in the same way but were never subjected to high enough temperatures or pressures to produce mature crude oil.
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Kimmeridge 8
The Clavell Tower

 

It’s a pleasant walk along the beach and out along the ledges towards the eastern end of the bay with its slipway, its jumble of boats and the cluster of black-painted, former fishermen’s huts. Behind the huts and partially hidden in the bushes is a scrub-lined, stone stairway heading steeply upwards to the top of Hen Cliff, standing 100m over the bay. This is a hard climb but worth it for the coastal views and for getting close to the Clavell Tower, a 19th century folly and observatory. This three story tower with its Tuscan colonnade stands on Hen Cliff with long views over the bay and the coast. Decked out in pink render and pale stone, it certainly looks very smart. But so it should, as starting in 2006 it was taken apart piece by piece and reassembled 25 metres away from the original site to prevent it falling in to the sea as the cliff eroded. It opened again in 2008 as an upmarket holiday rental. The Tower is now an integral part of Kimmeridge Bay but, in the past, reactions were divided. Frederick Treves, for example, referred to a “ridiculous tower” but to the Dorset dialect poet, William Barnes, in his poem “The Leady’s Tower”, it was “stately”.

Kimmeridge 9
The view across Kimmeridge Bay from the cliffs near the Clavell Tower. If you click on the picture and enlarge it you will be able to see (from right to left) the tops of the former fishermen’s huts, the cliff top car park, the stone cottages and the oil well.

 

As I stood on the high cliff by the Clavell Tower, the full sweep of Kimmeridge Bay and its various landmarks were spread out below me. I had expected to be offended by the oil pump, fearing it might intrude on the natural world. But I was wrong: the oil pump is just one of several traces left by human hand at Kimmeridge Bay; it has little or no direct impact on the bay or its natural setting and is now part of the scenery. If you are looking to be offended by intrusions of the human on the natural, you could focus on the slew of wind-blown litter along the sides of the Gaulter Gap valley or the derelict, red fire engine gradually decaying behind the stone cottages.

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A more fundamental question does, however, arise about whether we should continue to extract this oil. Towards the end of last year the Paris Agreement recognised the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels to 2 degrees or less. Although the Agreement can be criticised for its lack of enforceability, it clearly defines the climate change problem as one of greenhouse gas emissions. A major contributor to these emissions is the burning of fossil fuels such as the oil extracted underneath Kimmeridge Bay.

Early in the 20th century, the novelist EM Forster stood a few miles north east of Kimmeridge and wrote in Howards End: “If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills, and stand him on their summit….”. From this vantage point, Forster saw the rivers and landscapes of Dorset and neighbouring counties as a microcosm of all that existed in England. It wasn’t all beauty as he also saw creeping suburbia and its ill effects. Today we might relocate Forster’s vantage point and stand him by the Clavell Tower to look down on an eroding coastline under attack from increased storm activity and rising sea levels. He would also look down on the oil pump working away to extract more fossil fuels. Perhaps this alternative Purbeck view would illustrate some of the tensions inherent in contemporary England.

Kimmeridge 11
Kimmeridge Bay from the stairway up Hen Cliff. Click and enlarge the picture to see the Kimmeridge landmarks. The WW2 military pillbox can be seen standing on the beach below the stone cottages

 

The photographs were taken on February 24th 2016

A seal steals the show

The smooth sheet of water ahead of me alternates between sparkling and dull as the low sunshine and grey clouds compete on this mild, early December day. Across the water, bordering the beds of tea-coloured reeds at the river’s edge, a thin strip of brown mud holds on tenaciously against the high tide and a few curlews and one little egret take advantage of the drier land. I am standing on the raised viewing platform looking across the confluence of the Rivers Clyst and Exe just south of Topsham in east Devon; this is the western end of Bowling Green Marsh, a local nature reserve.

As I scan hopefully with my binoculars I hear someone nearby say “Did you see the seal?” I hadn’t, but when I lower the binoculars I can see great swirls of mud in the shallow water. Then, about twenty feet away, a shiny black shape breaks the surface; with its domed dog-like head this is unmistakably one of Devon’s grey seals. It looks about furtively and raises its head at an angle displaying thick, grey, wiry whiskers. Now we can also see a large flat fish in its mouth, still alive judging from the twitching tail. There’s a bit of a battle on; the pale fish is resisting and the seal is trying very hard to gulp it down with a little help from gravity. Eventually the seal gets its way; the fish disappears and I can almost hear the belch! It swims a short victory lap, dives and disappears but we count ourselves fortunate to be treated to such a display.

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The view from the road near the Bird Hide

 

The Bird Hide is a short walk away; it’s a new and rather luxurious building and I have never seen so many birders in one place. This human parade is trumped by the avian display outside the windows. Plump, brownish-grey wading birds with long legs litter the riverside grass across from the Bird Hide. There are up to a thousand of these Black-tailed Godwits on Bowling Green Marsh at present but I can’t see much detail from the Hide, the birds are too far away for my binoculars. From the nearby road I get a better view: the birds are rarely still, continually and edgily moving about probing the grass with their long spear-like beaks as they feed.

But the Black-tailed Godwits don’t have it all to themselves; I notice several elegant black and white birds picking their way cautiously among the flock as though trying to avoid something unpleasant on the ground. With their prominent black bibs over white chests and elegant swept-back, black crests these Lapwings look like a cross between a posh waiter and a 1920s flapper. On the edge of the main flock a few wigeon and teal are enjoying the shallow water. The teal spend much of their time searching for food from the river bed, paddling frantically to maintain this unorthodox tail-in-the-air position. When the low sun shines, their yellow, under-tail patch glows like creamy butter.

Before I leave, I walk back to the viewing platform. The tide is now falling rapidly, water giving way to mud and I almost miss the first major arrivals. A large group of waders, probably Black-tailed Godwits, appears suddenly as if from nowhere, descending rapidly, wheeling and banking as they come in to land. The low sunshine picks out their pale under-parts and once they are safely down, they create a dark slick on the shallow water and concentrate on the important job of feeding.

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Looking across the water from the viewing platform, the slick of waders is just visible

Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham, December 4th 2015.

The featured image is a view across the Exe near Topsham.

A Christmas Coast Path Walk

This is the view we had yesterday from the South Devon Coast Path near Bantham on an unseasonably mild and sunny Christmas Day.  The River Avon meets the sea here creating one of South Devon’s best surfing beaches.  If you look carefully you can see many surfers enjoying a Christmas Day wave.  The other landmark here is Burgh Island with its art deco hotel sitting like a white wedding cake on a plate.

The cliffs were decorated with a few struggling sea pinks and irregular splashes of yellow gorse.  Here and there we saw stonechats flying from bush to bush, their russet waistcoats glowing in the sunshine.  On the beaches, small flocks of rock pipits moved among the seaweed sometimes accompanied by pied wagtails.

Here are two images from our walk:

Snails in wall Thurlestone
Snails sheltering in a dry stone wall at Thurlestone in South Devon. On the right, some wall pennywort.

 

South Milton Ley
The reed beds at South Milton Ley.

 

 

The photos were taken by Hazel Strange

 

The charm of goldfinches

Sometimes goldfinches one by one will drop
From low hung branches; little space they stop;
But sip, and twitter, and their feathers sleek;
Then off at once, as in a wanton freak:
Or perhaps, to show their black, and golden wings
Pausing upon their yellow flutterings.

From I stood tip-toe upon a little hill by John Keats (1817)

I suppose it’s the time of year. Our neighbours have taken to decorating their garden trees. But don’t think Christmas lights, think bird feeders. Every imaginable variety of feeder swings merrily on the breeze offering an avian cafeteria that no right-thinking bird can resist. There are peanuts, fat balls, fat-filled coconut halves and several kinds of seed and don’t the birds know it. The feeder array is as busy as a city-centre fast-food joint with the main customers being house sparrows, blue tits and great tits. A few blackbirds and coal tits also muscle in occasionally only to be overtaken by opportunistic starlings and crows.

But the birds that have surprised and delighted me most are the goldfinches. They patronise one particular feeder containing black seed (nyjer seed) and the two perches are busy until the light begins to fade. Frequently one or more hopefuls will also be waiting above the feeder and when they try to supplant the incumbent this results in much twittering and “yellow fluttering”. They are not restful birds; while they are feeding, goldfinches continually look around checking for threats. Sometimes something spooks them and they all fly off to apparent safety. A pair of crows occasionally blunders their way on to one of the nearby peanut feeders and these swaggering adolescents invariably empty the tree of all other birds.

I thought I had a rough idea of what a goldfinch looked like but having an almost captive supply of the birds has been a revelation. I knew about the blood-red “face”, the black and white head and the signature lemon-yellow wing flash but I hadn’t realised how intricately patterned the birds were. Their eyes appear to be surrounded by black “goggles” making them look like jaunty bank robbers. The tan-coloured feathers on their backs contrast with white feathers on the chest and underparts although some tan colouration extends in hand-like protrusions on to the chest. Just as interesting, when the bird turns away, are the patterns of the folded wings. Above the yellow flash, each jet- black upper wing exhibits a regular geometric pattern of small white spots resembling quotation marks. And then there is the song. I watch through a window so I can’t hear their song but I can recommend a recording on the RSPB web site or Mark Cocker’s description: “a filigree music grained with joy”.

But I am still not sure why they are here? We don’t normally see many goldfinches in the gardens and I don’t think it’s because I haven’t previously been looking. I suspect it’s because of the availability of a popular food (nyjer seed) combined with a reduction in weed seed in the countryside, partly seasonal and partly because of agricultural intensification. Whatever the explanation, I must have a word with our neighbours and encourage them to keep putting out the seed.

Goldfinches frequently appear in literature and in painting. Here is an excellent article on goldfinch-associated symbolism.

Picture credits: “Carduelis carduelis close up” by Francis Franklin – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carduelis_carduelis_close_up.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Carduelis_carduelis_close_up.jpg