Tag Archives: nature writing

Winter bumblebees and the Keith Richards red admiral

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. 

A short video of Walk into the Sea 2022, from Youtube

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.

The view to the south from the Roundham Head Gardens showing the low winter sun

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.

Bumblebee worker with pollen, feeding from Scorpion Vetch

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. 

Queen Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) basking on old stone wall

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. 

Bumblebee worker carrying reddish pollen and feeding from rosemary

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! 

Red admiral butterfly on bergenia

The commenter referred to above was “Noticing Nature: the British microseason project” (@Naturalcalendar). They can be found on Twitter and they have a newsletter

The good, the bad and the ugly at Charmouth in west Dorset

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. 

The view from the west cliff at Charmouth across Lyme Bay to Lyme Regis, also showing the scrub and bramble that cover the cliff-top plateau

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?

The queen bumblebee that stopped in front of us on the cliff top

View across the lagoon formed by the river Char at Charmouth with the bridge linking the west and east beaches (picture taken a few years ago)

Woody debris on the west bank of the Char showing blue biobeads. There is a piece of smooth blue plastic in the top left hand corner which is not a biobead. If you look around carefully in the picture you may see some black pellets. These are also biobeads.

Blue biobeads among debris on the east bank of the Char.

Flowers and moths lend a hint of the Mediterranean to Totnes

A cluster of red valerian flowers

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.

A short video of one moth on a windy day
Large white butterfly nectaring on red valerian

Hummingbird hawk moth nectaring on red valerian

Hummingbird hawk moth moving between flowers with its proboscis coiled up (you may need to enlarge the picture to see this)

Spring flowers at Cogden in west Dorset

More than six weeks ago I went searching for spring flowers in west Dorset. I wrote about this for the Marshwood Vale Magazine and the article below appeared in the June edition.

It was an unexpectedly bright morning in the first week of May and I had come to one of my favourite places, Cogden in west Dorset in the south west of the UK.  I stood in the car park for a few moments enjoying the gentle warmth of the air and taking in the familiar view set out below me.  There was the sea, calm that day and a uniform greenish-blue merging into the distant mist with no clear horizon.  There, also, was the yellowish-brown shingle beach with its fringe of white water, part of the larger Chesil Beach sweeping eastwards towards Portland, the wedge shape barely visible in the mist.  I was here to see what flowers were in bloom on this spring day and I hoped I might find some of the first orchids. 

The view down to Cogden Beach

I began my search by heading eastwards through the gate from the Car Park into the meadows that slope down below the coast road towards the sea.  Despite the traffic noise, skylarks trilled overhead and a green woodpecker “yaffled” nearby.  The ground was quite uneven, perhaps churned up by cattle when wet and muddy, making for awkward walking.  Rough grass predominated but a few bright yellow cowslips were dotted about and spikes of bugle with their pale blue flowers were also showing well.  Bugle is an unassuming flower, often overlooked but a closer examination revealed the delicately beautiful patterns of darker stripes and pale patches that decorate the flowers.  Elsewhere in the meadow, the first yellow cushiony flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were emerging, a foretaste of times to come.

I asked some passing dog walkers if they had seen any orchids.  They hadn’t, but kindly warned me to beware of adders. I continued to the east through several fields and across stiles gradually descending towards the sea.  Traffic noise from the coast road gave way to the soothing sound of pebbles driven rhythmically back and forth by waves on the beach.   When I reached the coast path, I turned to walk westwards, first along a narrow track enclosed by lush green vegetation and later above a broad grassy area bordering the reed bed and shingle beach.  Colourful drifts of wild flowers grew here, mostly cowslip and cuckooflower. 

I have always loved cowslips for their clusters of bright yellow, frilly-edged, trumpet shaped flowers (see picture at the head of this post). Seeing so many here reminded me of my childhood when it was common to find large numbers growing across chalk grassland and railway embankments in Dorset.  Nowadays, it is a treat to see even just a few of the flowers, a reminder of how much has been lost from our countryside, mainly through urbanisation and the relentless march of intensive agriculture.   

Cuckooflower is a very attractive, rather delicate looking flower, also called lady’s smock (picture below). The petals here were white with variable amounts of lilac pigmentation and lilac filigree markings.  Cuckooflower is one of several plants whose name honours the cuckoo; the flowers are said to bloom at about the same time as the bird arrives from its migration.  Cuckooflower is also one of the larval food plants for the orange tip butterfly.

In time, the reed bed petered out and I reached the first paved access track from the Cogden Car Park.  The shingle beach near here is a very special place where many unusual plants flourish despite the harsh environment by throwing down long roots to harvest fresh water from the underlying soils.   Sea kale is one of the main attractions.  It is now rather uncommon in the UK but numerous clumps of the plant with their fleshy, cabbage-type, dark green leaves were evident that day.  A few flowers, yellow at first then turning to white, were also showing.   It was, though, too early for their great display when each clump will be covered with white flowers making the beach look as though a heavy snow has fallen.  Another plant was, however, providing interest in the interim.  This was sea campion and large mats of the plant were growing across the shingle, each covered in hundreds of white bowl-shaped flowers.    

I still hadn’t found any orchids and was about to give up when, almost accidentally, I came across several groups of the flowers in an area of longish rough grass, bramble and gorse behind the shingle beach.   There were, perhaps, twenty or more spikes of flowers of a brilliant purplish-pink held on thick stems emerging through the drab, rough grass, looking as if someone had splashed pink paint across a dull canvas.  Many were in peak condition.  A few were already past their best but others were just emerging.   The flower spikes were loosely decorated with florets, like jewels on a bracelet. Each floret comprised a prominent extended lower lip, mostly purplish-pink but white towards the throat with a pattern of pink spots.  An overhanging hood, marked white on some spikes, contained the reproductive parts of the plant and behind the hood a spur curved upwards.  These are early purple orchids (Orchis mascula), usually the first of the species to appear each year and they conjure an otherworldly beauty wherever they grow.  Early purple orchids were once common across the UK but have suffered in the same way as cowslips. 

My visit to Cogden had been fascinating, as always, and I was particularly pleased to have found the orchids.  It was, though, early May and many flowers were only just beginning to show.   In a few weeks, the shingle beach will be dominated by the white flowers of sea kale, large drifts of pink thrift will appear across the low coastal cliffs and yellow horned poppy will begin to bloom.  In the meadows and in the grassy areas near the reed bed many flowers will appear including several species of orchid.    

Cuckooflower

Sea campion growing across the shingle on Cogden Beach

Sea campion
Early purple orchid
Early purple orchids

Long-horned bees along the south Devon coast

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.

Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) flying about the nest area

Female Eucera longicornis enetering nest hole
Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) pausing briefly by the nest site on the soft rock cliffs
Male long-horned bee and bird’s foot trefoil
Male long-horned bee on bird’s foot trefoil showing his yellow face
Evidence of herbicide use along coast path (photo taken May 21st)
Evidence of strimming along coast path

Lurking by lungwort and the spring’s first bee.

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” .

How do you know that the pilgrim track

Along the belting zodiac

Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds

Is traced by now to the Fishes’ bounds

And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud

Have wrapt the sky in a clammy shroud,

And never as yet a tinct of spring

Has shown in the Earth’s apparelling;

     O vespering bird, how do you know,

          How do you know?

How do you know, deep underground,

Hid in your bed from sight and sound,

Without a turn in temperature,

With weather life can scarce endure,

That light has won a fraction’s strength,

And day put on some moments’ length,

Whereof in merest rote will come,

Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;

     O crocus root, how do you know,

          How do you know?

Mooching about by mahonia

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. 

A large mahonia in full flower

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.

Sprays of mahonia flowers showing the developing unripe berries that will eventually turn black

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.

Close-up view of mahonia flower showing the ring of stamens just inside the petals (see also the picture at the head of this post).
The same mahonia flower but after stimulation causing stamens to move inwards

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.

Worker buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) on mahonia flower with pollen (November 25th 2021)
Queen buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) on mahonia flowers (December 4th 2021)
Red admiral butterfly on mahonia (November 25th 2021)

This article appeared in the February edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

West Dorset surprises

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.

The old railway cutting

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. 

Three short videos of the long-horned bees showing their behaviour that day can be seen on my YouTube channel  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvXWn_9QYdx0AU6guJ3iYLA

common vetch
milkwort (pink version) showing white petal
Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) in flight showing his long antennae
Female Eucera longcornis showing her pollen-collecting hairs on her back legs. The female also has antennae of a more conventional length.
mating cluster
mating cluster with male looking on
common spotted orchid

This article appeared in the August 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

A Summer’s Day at Dawlish Warren

As the train drew in to Dawlish Warren station, I realised that I hadn’t made this journey by rail for nearly two years because of the pandemic.   Seeing the familiar landmarks at the station and, in particular, the river Exe, a pale blue ribbon of water stretching ahead parallel to the railway, was like visiting the house of an old friend.  I had decided to travel by train to try to inject some sense of normality into my life.  Being “double-jabbed”, I felt the risk was low.   

The journey had gone well, the vast majority of passengers wore masks and were being careful and respectful of others.  The railway line between Newton Abbot and Exeter runs close to water all the way, providing one of the great railway journeys in the UK and I was enthralled, as always, by the close-up views of the Teign estuary and of the sea between Teignmouth and Dawlish Warren.  It was by no means a “normal” experience, though, as everywhere there were signs urging people to take care.

Leaving the station, I walked through the commercial area which had a distinct holiday atmosphere. Racks of colourful plastic buckets and spades vied for attention with row upon row of beach shoes and there were quite a few people about.   Some were enjoying the funfair, some the busy cafes and pub while others were simply promenading.

When I reached the seafront, I sat on one of the benches for a short time to take in the view.  Thin cloud hung overhead but milky sunshine kept the temperature pleasant.  Visibility was good and there were clear views across the water to the red cliffs of East Devon.  The tide was low and the sea a silvery-blue mirror tempting children and parents into the water for a swim or splash about.    

A fenced boardwalk took me down into the nature reserve passing between sandy areas covered in rough grass where the papery, lemon-yellow flowers of evening primrose showed well.  Some small birds were moving about here perching above the scrubby bushes.  I was unable to see them clearly enough to identify by eye but their distinctive rattling call told me they were cirl buntings, rare birds that frequent this part of south Devon.

The damp area with yellow bartsia. Meadowsweet can be seen to the rear together with the land rising to the dune ridge

The middle part of the reserve is a large area of damp grassland and ponds surrounded by sand dunes.  A dense population of scrambling plants grew across the damp areas with colourful flowers decorating the thick green matrix (see picture at the top of this post).  Meadowsweet with its frothy, creamy blooms was perhaps the dominant flower but there were also many spikes of yellow bartsia, a root hemiparasite that takes nutrients from grasses and suppresses their growth.  Purple tufted vetch scrambled through the lush canopy and the tall stems of purple loosestrife were just coming into flower.  The southern marsh orchids that had illuminated the area a month ago were now mostly over although a few flowers remained. 

Marsh helleborine. The upper central flower shows the yellow reproductive apparatus beneath two petals and the lower left hand flower shows the complex lower lip.

Further on I began to see one of Dawlish Warren’s summer specialities, marsh helleborine. Clusters and then large drifts of this beautiful but unusual orchid were coming up through the short, damp grassland lending it a pinkish veneer.  I made the error of kneeling down to look more carefully at the flowers only to realise just how damp the area was.  The flowers are complex with three pink sepals and two upper petals, white with pink striations, covering the yellow reproductive apparatus.  The large lower lip is even more complex with its upper section decorated with pink striations and its lower, mostly white frilly-edged section.  This lip also has a strange appendage, rather like a pocket with egg yolk splodges.

The land then rose steadily towards the dune ridge in a network of soft sandy paths separating patches of rough vegetation.  The sounds of the sea were always present and as I walked about, it seemed that wherever there was loose sand, a few small stripy bees were resting near the path edge.  Photographs showed that these had striking green eyes.  Some had yellowish brown hair around the thorax and looked very fresh whereas in others this had turned silvery an indication of their age.  The green eyes and the preference for a sandy environment are characteristic of male silvery leafcutter bees (Megachile leachella).  This species is found in large numbers at Dawlish Warren.

The pink and white pea-type flowers of restharrow grew alongside one rising sandy path and a stream of black and white stripy bees, (slightly larger and pointier than the male leafcutters) were arriving to forage.  They landed on the white lower part of the flower and then rocked backwards and forwards as they accessed the nectar.  These are female silvery leafcutter bees collecting nectar for their nests.  There were also males about but they showed no interest in the females, mating having, I presume, happened already.

Not far away was a different habitat again where the soft paths ran between small vertical areas of sand held together by rough grass and with poorly defined but visible cavities.  Male leafcutters were loitering about here but then I saw a female arrive carrying a segment of green leaf under her abdomen.  She landed in front of one of the holes and gradually eased forward eventually disappearing with her leaf segment.  The piece of leaf will be used to construct her nest in the cavity in the sand.    

But where was she cutting her leaf segments?  I wandered about the area near her nest looking at the vegetation and eventually came across a tree where the leaves had many small semi-circular holes.  Some of the leaves had been so well cut that there was little leaf left.  This may be the source of the leaf segments but without seeing one of the bees cutting I can’t be sure as there is another species of leafcutter resident at Dawlish Warren.  No bees turned up to answer my question and by now the weather had changed becoming cooler and windy and it felt as though the bees had decided to take the afternoon off.

Last year, I did find silvery leafcutter bee females cutting leaf segments at Dawlish Warren but from a different tree and here is a short video:

With the change in the weather, I decided to go home and made my way to the railway station.  It had been a good visit and I was pleased to have taken my first train journey after such a long time.   Ironically, that evening, the Prime Minister announced that from July 19th all COVID restrictions on behaviour would be abandoned.  This has not been met with universal acclaim and I would urge you to read this deeply felt critique.  For myself, I am not sure I would feel comfortable to travel by train again unless the railway companies make mask wearing compulsory.

Evening primrose with hoverfly
Southern Marsh Orchid
Male Silvery Leafcutter Bee (Megachile leachella), note the green eyes
Male Silvery Leafcutter Bee (Megachile leachella) showing green eyes and yellow face
Female Silvery Leafcutter Bee collecting nectar from restharrow. Note the distinctive pair of white spots on terminal abdominal segment.
Female Silvery Leafcutter Bee with leaf segment approaching her nest
A tree used by leafcutter bees for cutting leaf segments

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

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

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

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

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

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

The start of Jackman’s Lane

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

Here are a few of the insect species I saw:

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo)

lace wing

Speckled yellow moth (Pseudopanthera macularia)

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

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

Black bryony with its glossy leaves and small yellow flowers

Banks of cow parsley along Jackman’s Lane

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

no caption required!

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

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

Crosswort

Meadow vetchling with a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Hedge woundwort with a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

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

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

To see my previous Lockdown Nature Walks please look here