Tag Archives: celandine

An otter in a tree? – Lockdown Nature Walks 16

With Lockdown easing in the UK, this is the last Lockdown Nature Walk of this series.  I wanted to see how spring was progressing along a typical Devon country lane. So, on a mild day with intermittent sunshine and a light wind, I walked up Harper’s Hill on the western side of Totnes (as in Lockdown Nature Walk 7) to reach Jackman’s Lane and the ridgeway road.  It was an interesting walk but not always in the way I had anticipated.   After the account of my walk, I have included a relevant poem, “The Trees” by Philip Larkin

The prominent sign at the start of Jackman’s Lane proclaimed “Unmetalled Road” and the hard-packed, rutted, reddish soil base of the track showed evidence of regular use by farm vehicles and horses.  I made slow progress along the lane, examining the soil banks lining the track, occasionally pausing to enjoy the views across rolling countryside with fields and trees.  Skylarks sang their endlessly inventive songs overhead, plump queen bumblebees buzzed along the hedges and the wind carried the sound of a tractor.  Spring flowers decorated the soil banks including primroses, celandine, violets and stitchwort.  Nettles grew in a profusion of green together with thuggish hogweed leaves while the heavily flailed woody stems along the hedge tops were only just shooting.    

Then on a narrow ledge surrounded and almost hidden by grasses, my attention was captured by a flash of a different green, a silvery green.  When I looked carefully, I saw a fine lizard curled up neatly and basking in a shaft of warm sunshine (see picture at the head of this post).  The reptile was about 12cm long, a common lizard (Zootoca vivipara) with a complex pattern of black swirls and dots along its body.   The colours of common lizards vary and local expert, John Walters told me that the green colour probably helps the creature to avoid predators in this grassy environment. 

As I watched the lizard, I saw it eyeing me warily, so I left it in peace and carried on down the lane.  Butterflies occasionally surprised me by erupting from the track where they had been basking, rising too quickly to identify.  Then two of these insects materialised above me, dancing in the air, turning circles around each other before one fell to the ground just behind the left-hand bank.  I scrambled up and recognised it as a small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) with its brilliant orange, yellow and black markings.  It seemed to be fluttering its wings repeatedly as it danced above some young nettle leaves.  Was this a form of courtship behaviour? 

I continued to see or hear bumblebees as I walked and then towards the end of the lane, hoverflies began to appear.  Some were flying about but most were quietly basking on exposed leaves in the sunshine.  The hoverflies that I saw that day were all of the same species, the tapered drone fly (Eristalis pertinax), a mixture of males and females.   The more I look at hoverflies, the more I appreciate the beauty of these creatures and I hope the photos posted below show this.  Look, for example, at their wings which resemble panes of crazed glass and the neat bands of hair decorating their thorax and abdomen.

As I was watching the hoverflies, I heard a familiar but not entirely welcome sound.  Turning to look back down the lane, I glimpsed a galloping horse and rider approaching at speed.  I moved to the edge of the track to make way but the horse slowed down and walked past me.  I thanked the rider but she said nothing.  I may have spoiled her planned gallop along this unpaved country track!

Jackman’s Lane ended and I turned right along the ridgeway road in the direction of Totnes.  Views to the north across the valley below were hazy and Dartmoor lay invisible in the mist that enveloped the distant hills.  A farmer was treating the nearby fields with chemical fertiliser while ploughing the upper surface of the red Devon soil.  A plume of dust accompanied his tractor, so I walked on quickly. 

The ridgeway road runs roughly eastward so that the soil bank on one side is south facing, getting the benefit of the sun when it shines and encouraging growth.  Many flowers will appear here later in spring and even that day, I saw more here than along Jackman’s Lane including three members of the dead-nettle family. 

White dead-nettle was one of these with its hooded, slightly hairy flowers spreading splashes of snowy white among the lush greenery covering the bank.  A few red dead-nettle flowers had just pushed through the grasses and there were drifts of yellow archangel, a member of the family that has the look of a yellow dead-nettle.  Two kinds of yellow archangel grew on the soil bank, the wild flower with its all-green leaves and the garden throw out (argentatum) with silvery green leaves.  The garden variety blooms earlier and spreads more aggressively than its wild counterpart and it had formed a large yellow mat along one edge of the ridgeway road. 

The flowers of members of the dead-nettle family are similar with a wide lower lip like a landing pad to attract pollinators, sometimes marked with abstract patterns.  Above the lip is a hood concealing stamens that close over the inquisitive insect so that, when it leaves, it takes away some pollen to fertilise the next flower it visits.  Several common carder bee queens (Bombus pascuorum), some of the first I had seen this year, were taking advantage of the flowers.

While I was watching the bees, I became aware of a motor scooter that had slowed down and turned on the road behind me.  The scooter drew up at my side, stopped and the rider, an older man, swathed in coats and a large crash helmet, asked:

“Are you going towards Bowden?”

I thought he wanted directions and replied “Sort of”.

“Have you seen the otter in the tree?” he asked.

“What! An otter in a tree, it must be dead?” I replied in surprise.

“No, no”, he must have thought I was stupid, “it’s part of the tree, its uncanny how it looks like an otter, I am surprised more fuss hasn’t been made about it”.

He told me in some detail how to find it and I agreed to look.  

As he was getting ready to go, he looked at me oddly and asked “What’s a farmer’s favourite sport?”

“I have no idea. What is farmer’s favourite sport”, this was becoming surreal.

He revved up, looked fixedly at me again and, as he accelerated away, blurted out “fencing!”. 

I walked on and near the junction with the Ashprington road I could see the tree and the arboreal otter.  It was indeed an uncanny likeness. 

It was only then that I remembered it was April 1st but I haven’t made this story up, all this really did happen.

The otter in the tree

…………………………………..

“The Trees” by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

…………………………………..

stitchwort
violet
small tortoiseshell butterfly on nettles
female hoverfly (eristalis pertinax), the eyes don’t meet in the middle of the head so this is a female
male hoverfly (eristalis pertinax), the eyes meet in the middle of the head so this is a male
white dead-nettle with common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)
yellow archangel with common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Lockdown Nature Walks

We’ve been in lockdown in the UK for nearly a week.  I was glad when it was announced as it was the first decisive step our government has taken during the coronavirus crisis.  We’re  supposed to stay in our homes except for essential outings (work, food or medical) and one “exercise” walk each day.  Hopefully the lockdown will reduce the spread of the coronavirus by limiting social interaction but it does require people to follow the new rules.

It has been a beautiful week for weather,  mild and spring-like with bright sunshine and blue skies, the sort of weather where the air is filled with birdsong and you can almost hear the buds swelling.  When I have been out on my exercise walks, I have been taking photographs when I see something that catches my eye.  I thought I would post these here, partly for interest as spring arrives in the west country and partly to show how much wildlife there is about us.

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This Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) was nectaring on celandine on a grassy bank not far from our house. This individual is mostly paprika coloured with dark spots and paler edges and has recently come out of hibernation. With its scalloped wings and mottled brown underside it resembles a dead leaf providing camouflage during hibernation.

 

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The Leechwell Garden, the town centre community garden, is a short walk from our house. I found this plum tree in the Garden, covered in pure white flowers each with a mass of yellow-tipped stamens. The hoverfly is hopefully providing pollination.

 

On Wednesday, when I visited the Leechwell Garden, I was surprised to see many small bees flying close to the surface of a grassy bank bathed in warm sunshine. The picture shows one of the bees, a female yellow-legged mining bee (Andrena flavipes), and I think you can see why she gets her name. They dig holes in the underlying soil for their nests.

 

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Behind the Leechwell Garden is the Nursery Car Park, very quiet this week. Along one edge of the Nursery Car Park there is a grassy bank with many celandine and dandelion currently in flower. This small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) was nectaring on celandine. The wings are mainly bright orange with black and yellow spots but along the back edges are patterns of small blue shields. When I was growing up I used to see clouds of these butterflies but that doesnt happen any longer.

 

B.hypnorum
This Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) was feeding from a dandelion in the Nursery Car Park. Tree Bumblebees have the annoying habit of taking over nest boxes intended for small birds

 

The picture at the head of this post is of some Anemone blanda growing among leaf litter in the Leechwell Garden. These blue flowers are native to southeastern Europe but seem to do well here.

 

One sunny day does not make a Spring

The sun greets the spring

And the blossom the bee,

The grass the blea hill

And the leaf the bare tree

From “Love and Memory” by John Clare

 

The signs have been there for a while.  Birds singing as though someone told them it’s time to turn up the volume.  Grassy banks dotted with starry yellow celandine flowers.  A green haze of fresh leaves slowly creeping over previously bare branches.  If only the weather would play fair it might be spring.

So, after many days of damp and grey, the sun shone, the air was warm and it was as though a transformation had taken place.  It was also Friday Market Day and, as people wandered between the stalls, they smiled at one another and remarked on the weather.  Two busking fiddlers played pleasing harmonies in the Market Square and, outside the Italian Café, it was not quite Tuscan weather but the beautiful people laughed and smiled in the Devon sunshine.

I wandered down to the Leechwell Garden where, soon after I arrived, my attention was grabbed by a low but insistent buzzing.  On an extensive stand of rosemary growing against one of the old brick walls I saw a real sign of spring. It was a chunky bee covered in rich brown hairs but with a pale nose.  Moving quickly and purposefully among the slate-blue flowers, it collected nectar, buzzing as it went.  This was a male Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes), my first one of the year and seeing it lifted my spirits.

Elsewhere in town, I looked at a huge willow (Salix caprea) that has been cleverly pollarded and trained over a wall where its many slender stems drop like water over a precipice.  The tree has been covered in immature, grey “pussy willow” catkins and, recently, these have been mutating into bright pollen-loaded male catkins. Last Friday in the sunshine the tree was very impressive: a mass of yellow flower heads, unruly brushes made from the long stamens, alive with honeybees and a few bumble bees and small flies.  The whole tree buzzed as the sun’s energy was transformed into sound.

When the bumblebees saw me, they flew off in disgust.  The honeybees, however, were drunk on pollen and nectar and either didn’t see me or didn’t care.    Many of them already carried large chunks of orange-yellow pollen to take back to the hive but when they encountered a new flower head they wallowed in it, they almost swam in the stamens.  If they could have expressed pleasure this would have been the occasion.

Later, a light mist crept over the hills to the east, gradually enveloping the town and shutting out the sun.

A plumipes
Hairy-footed flower bee on rosemary

 

willow
The willow waterfall

 

honeybee 2
Honeybee on willow catkin

 

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Honeybee with pollen on willow catkin

 

B hypnorum
Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) on willow catkin

I know a bank where the wild bee goes

The young woman sitting in her car rolled the window down and enquired: “Would you mind telling me what you are doing?” I was in one of the town centre car parks adjacent to the Leechwell Garden and had been peering at a bank covered with scrappy grass and flowers, occasionally taking photographs. She continued hesitantly, asking if perhaps I was interested in the wild flowers. She was right, of course, but that was only part of the story.

The car park is called the Nursery, its incongruous name purloining a bit of local history. Difficult as it is to believe,  until the early 1980s this part of central Totnes housed several fine commercial market gardens.  All kinds of vegetables were produced in season and sold through shops in the town. The land that now forms the Nursery car park used to be covered with greenhouses growing tomatoes, lettuces and out of season chrysanthemums.

car park sign
The soil bank by the car park on a quiet day

I find it sad that these very productive market gardens were tarmacked over to provide car parking but that is what happened. Narrow banks of soil were left around the parking area, perhaps to leaven the bleakness. Some of these banks are now covered with brambles, others with grass. The bank I have been watching is about ten feet wide and south facing. It is mostly covered with grass although there are a few exposed areas of friable soil; at this time of year there is a good population of flowering dandelions and celandines. Behind the bank is a high wall clad in ivy and on sunny days, the area gets quite warm attracting many insects.

Solitary bee on daisy
One of the small bees feeding on a daisy

 

solitary bee March 26
Another of the small bees

 

Last year, my friend Susan Taylor told me about some solitary mining bees living in this bank. I had a look, but didn’t study them properly, mostly owing to my ignorance. This year I decided to try to identify the inhabitants and occasionally popped in to the car park to see if anything was happening. It wasn’t until the third week of March that I was rewarded with my first sighting of the solitary bees. On a warm, sunny day I found a cloud of small, slender bees, each about two thirds the size of a honeybee. They were flying about in an excited, staccato manner about twelve inches above the ground repeatedly changing direction, occasionally bumping in to one another, occasionally stopping to feed from dandelions. Susan Taylor describes this behaviour as their “Sun Dance” and they do seem to fly only when it is warm and sunny. From my photographs, I could see their black abdomen with prominent white stripes and their thorax and face decorated with pale brown hairs.

Solitary bee female April 6
One of the larger bees showing the orange-yellow hairs on its back legs

 

nest area
The nest area with tunnels built in friable soil

 

Solitary bee females April 6 2
Two of the larger bees crawling about

 

The “Sun Dance” continued on warm days and then about two weeks after I first saw the small bees I came across an area of friable soil in the bank with some prominent holes which I assume are the nests. Here I saw a few larger bees that were otherwise quite similar in appearance to the “Sun Dancers”. There was one clear difference apart from size and that was the orange-yellow hair on their upper back legs. They were also behaving quite differently, crawling around near the holes but rarely entering. I didn’t see any evidence of mating but a few days later I began to see some of these larger bees returning to the holes loaded with chrome-yellow pollen and quickly disappearing inside to equip their nests. On good days, the smaller bees were still evident but in gradually decreasing numbers. The larger bees have continued to collect pollen; the dandelions are declining but many local fruit trees are now blossom-covered so there is no shortage.

solitary bee female with pollen April 12
One of the larger bees with pollen

 

So, what have I been seeing? I have compared photographs of my car park-bees with pictures in bee books and with the many photographs of solitary bees on the internet. It is very difficult to make a firm identification, but I will offer a suggestion. The smaller bees are likely to be males and the larger bees the females of the same species. What we have called the “Sun Dance” is a crowd of males waiting for the females and getting over-excited, rather like sulky adolescent boys. I did not witness mating but collection of pollen and nest building are performed only by mated females. Their early emergence, their nest location, the complete white bands and the orange-yellow leg-hairs on females but not males suggest Andrena flavipes, the Yellow-legged Mining Bee. These are common mining bees that build nests in tunnels in soil banks. They are found in the southern UK and may have a second brood in mid-summer; I shall have to keep watch.

It would be interesting to hear what others think about this tentative identification.

………………………………………..

But why am I interested in these bees if they are not rare? Why am I taking the trouble to watch them and take photographs?

I believe it is important to document these creatures, to get to know their life cycles and spread the word. Their emergence and nest-building each spring is one of nature’s amazing phenomena and I feel privileged to watch. These bees are also important pollinators; it’s good to know they are around and we should aim to support them.

I find it fascinating that these small lives are being lived in a busy town centre car park, literally under our noses. Perhaps realising that there is life in the soil banks makes up in part for the loss of the market gardens?

I explained some of this to the young woman in the car and she seemed interested, if a little bemused. It’s not every day you stop in a car park and get an enthusiastic lecture on solitary bees!