Tag Archives: restharrow

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

An oasis of calm, a mosaic of environments

Towards the end of July, I visited the Maer, a nature reserve situated at the eastern end of the promenade in Exmouth, a seaside town in the south west of the UK.  With its sand dunes and sandy grassland, the Maer is a remnant of a much larger dune system that once stretched down to the beach. Nowadays, it provides an oasis of calm close to the busy sea front as well as a habitat for special plants and insects.

sea holly growing on the sandy ridge

A slight mist softened the long views as I walked eastwards along Exmouth sea front.  Some warmth penetrated the cloud and a few people were already enjoying the beach on this late summer morning.  The sandy tip of Dawlish Warren lay tantalisingly close across the water and further on, the Ness at Shaldon lurked in the mist like a gigantic wedge of cheese.  The commercial area with its big wheel, pubs and cafes was busy but eventually I reached a quieter part where sand and scrub tumbled downwards at the side of the beach road.  This is the edge of the Maer, a local nature reserve and one of Exmouth’s hidden gems. Superficially, the Maer is a large grassy, sandy space sandwiched between the beach road and Exmouth Cricket Club but it conceals a mosaic of different environments with unusual flora and fauna.

A substantial sandy dune ridge forms the southern border of the Maer giving views across the reserve on one side and towards the beach on the other.  Marram grass grows thickly giving the sand stability but there are also areas of bare sand and areas of scrub, reminders of the dune system that must have occupied this area before the beach road was built.  Restharrow with its pink and white pea-type flowers and a few residual yellow evening primrose provided some colour but it was the sea holly that surprised.   This is an unusual and unexpected plant that grows extensively along the first part of the ridge.  Its spiky greenish-grey leaves with white margins and veins and its powder blue flowers light up the sand as though someone had spilt pale paint.  Sea holly flourishes in these arid conditions by having leaves covered in a waxy cuticle to help retain water and through its deep roots. Although sea holly has some visual resemblance to our Christmas greenery, it is a relative of the carrot; in the past it was employed as an aphrodisiac.

Several large insects with bold black and yellow markings crawled about the bright blue sea holly flowers collecting nectar.  These are beewolves, some of our most spectacular solitary wasps, that nest in sandy places and specialise in catching honeybees.  Both male and female beewolves were feeding that day but it is the larger female (up to about 2cm long) that catches and paralyses honeybees and may be seen flying back to the nest carrying a quiescent honeybee beneath her.  She digs a nest tunnel in sandy soil up to a metre long with multiple terminal branches where she lays eggs and provides honeybees as food for the developing larvae.  These once rare insects have expanded their UK range since the 1980s, possibly in response to climate change and I saw them in several places on the reserve notably on a stand of mauve thistles. They are not aggressive towards humans.

Further along the ridge, before it is colonised by brambles, scrub and low trees, I found a large clump of an unruly scrambling plant covered in pea-type flowers of an impressive reddish-pink colour.  This is broad-leaved everlasting pea, a perennial relative of our annual sweet pea, growing through the grasses on the Maer ridge holding on via thin tendrils.  A chunky dark bee was feeding from the flowers, apparently undeterred by their jerky movements in the breeze. This was a leafcutter bee, most likely the Coast Leafcutter Bee that favours sandy habitats near the sea.  They nest in burrows in vegetated sand lined with pieces of leaf cut from trees and plants.    Later, when the sun came out, I saw several of these bees chasing one another around the bright pink flowers like children in a playground.

The large central part of the reserve was coated with golden brown grass criss-crossed with paths for walkers and looking very dry, a reflection of the recent lack of rain.  Within the grass were mats of restharrow and many of the yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear.  One area resembled a lunar landscape with many small craters where the surface had been dug out exposing the sand.  Solitary wasps and small leafcutter bees had happily nested here.

Tall clumps of ragwort with bright yellow daisy-like flowers and deeply lobed green leaves were dotted around the central area. This plant provides valuable habitat and food for invertebrates and I found one clump that had been appropriated by black caterpillars with prominent yellow bands.  They were moving about, eating the leaves of the ragwort, voraciously consuming the greenery and destroying the upper parts of the plant.  These are caterpillars of the cinnabar moth and as they feed, they assimilate some of the toxic alkaloids contained in ragwort, rendering themselves unpalatable to birds and other predators.  It is said that their yellow stripes act as a warning to birds.   Once fed and mature, the caterpillars dig themselves into the ground to spend 12 months or so as pupae before emerging as beautiful day-flying red and black moths.  The adult moths live for a few weeks, feeding on nectar before mating and laying eggs on the ragwort leaves.  The eggs grow into caterpillars and the cycle starts all over again.   The cinnabar moth is entirely dependent on ragwort for its survival.

Towards the western end of the reserve, I found a large colony of flowering plants, perhaps suggesting damper conditions.  Clumps of common mallow up to a metre tall dominated with their trumpet flowers composed of five deep pink petals each with purple stripes.  At the centre of each flower was a mass of grey pollen-covered stamens emanating from a single stalk like a miniature bunch of flowers.  Near the mallow, large areas were covered by a sprawling, scrambling plant richly covered with pea-like flowers above many small, spear-shaped, mid green leaves.  Flower colours varied from very pale to light blue, mauve and deep purple with some plants having several of these colour variants.  One plant even had bright yellow flowers.  This is Sand Lucerne, a fertile hybrid of lucerne and sickle medic, naturalised in East Anglia, where its two parents grow together, but now transplanted elsewhere.

There’s so much to see at the Maer and I could easily have spent several more hours looking about.  But I had a train to catch so I headed back along the promenade and across the town towards the station.

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

The picture at the head of this article shows the sandy ridge just above the seafront in Exmouth and the clump of broad-leaved everlasting pea.

 

beewolf on sea holly
male beewolf on sea holly

 

Female beewolf on thistle
female beewolf on thistle

 

Broad-leaved everlasting pea with leafcutter bee
leafcutter bee on broad-leaved everlasting pea

 

cinnabar moth caterpillars on ragwort
cinnabar moth caterpillars on ragwort

 

common mallow
common mallow

 

Sand Lucerne
sand lucerne