Tag Archives: slapton ley

A jewel of a bee on a shingle beach

It felt like an unexpected gift, a warm, dry and mostly sunny day after so much dull, wet weather.  I had been feeling very constrained and was determined to get out to enjoy this different day and it looked as though the non-human world felt the same. The wisteria at the front of our house caught the morning sun, wafting its distinctive sweet fragrance on to the air and bees were busily foraging from the greyish-mauve flowers.   Bumblebees, honeybees and two red mason bees (Osmia bicornis males) were among the insects working the blossom.  The Osmia came from one of the nearby bee houses and it was good to see them about after the spell of poor weather.

Hazel had a meeting in Kingsbridge that afternoon, so I dropped her off and took the opportunity to make a quick trip to the coast.  It took me about 20 minutes, passing through several small villages, to reach Torcross and the sea.   The sun shone optimistically as I then began the two and a half mile drive from Torcross along what is known locally as the Slapton Line.  The geography here is very unusual with the road running northwards in a straight line along a narrow bank bordered on both sides by water.  On one side of the road a shingle beach slopes down to the sea and on the inland side a narrow area of rough grass and vegetation separates the road from an extensive lagoon, Slapton Ley.   The situation of the road makes it very vulnerable to storms, high tides and rising sea levels and, in 2018 it had to be closed and rebuilt after damage by Storm Emma.

That day, though, the sea was calm, a deep blue shading to a darker steely blue.  Sunlight sparkled on the surface of the lagoon and generous clumps of thrift decorated the edges of the road as if splashed with pink paint.  When the road turned inland to climb away from the water, I located the car park that gives access to the northern part of Slapton Sands, as it is known locally. 

The beach here is a broad flat plateau of fine, pale brown shingle that eventually slopes down to the sea from a low ridge.  The landward side is backed by densely wooded cliffs giving the beach an enclosed feel and providing some shelter from winds.  This can be an elemental place especially when a westerly gale blows and fierce waves attack the beach. That afternoon, though, there was just a light breeze from the west and spells of sunshine warmed the air.  A few clouds were moving about overhead and as they shifted, mobile pools of light and shade tracked across the shingle.  I paused to stand on the beach for a short time and looked across the water towards Start Point and its lighthouse listening to the sound of the water lapping on the beach and the occasional cry of a passing gull.

The islands of vegetation on the shingle beach showing some red valerian. The wooded cliffs at the back of the beach are just visible and the sea is to the right.

Shingle beaches are rare environments and this one is unlike any other I have encountered, not only for its size but for the special selection of plants that grows here.    The section of beach near the land featured many small islands of vegetation, a green archipelago in a sea of pale shingle.  Often, these islands contained a clump of red valerian, a plant introduced into the UK in the 16th century and now widely naturalised in the west.  Each island also contained a variety of other plants including sea campion, bird’s foot trefoil, forget me not and hawksbeard.  One contained a colony of rosy garlic with its charming pale pink flowers, others supported small shrubs.  The red valerian flowers looked very fresh and many were not yet open.  In a few weeks, though, huge numbers will be in flower casting a distinctive reddish-pink sheen across the beach.

Towards the sea, the green flowery islands petered out leaving a sparsely vegetated zone of shingle populated by plants capable of coping with harsher conditions.  Sea spray and some large waves reach this part of the beach and only specially adapted plants can grow here.  These often have leaves with waxy coatings to prevent water loss and long roots to reach fresh water deep below the shingle.  Sea kale is one of these and imposing clumps of this plant grew towards the shingle ridge.  The clumps were several feet across with fleshy, dark green, cabbage-type leaves tinged with pink, and overlaid with copious sprays of white flowers.  Sea kale is an impressively architectural plant that dominates this part of the beach and perhaps it encourages people to build the beach sculptures with flat stones that I saw nearby.

Rosettes of furry, pale grey-green leaves were also emerging from the shingle in this zone.  These are from yellow-horned poppy, yet to flower.  Later in the year, these plants will light up the beach with their papery, lemon-yellow flowers and enormously long scimitar-shaped seed pods.  Also struggling through the shingle were many long ropes of a plant with fleshy, green, spade-shaped leaves arranged geometrically around a central stem with a slight helical twist.  This is sea spurge another of the plants that frequents these salty, harsh environments.  It has very unusual flowers (see pictures below).

I spent the rest of the time wandering about the beach looking at the flowers, hoping I might see some interesting insects given all the floral resource about.   I concentrated on the bird’s foot trefoil, a bee-favourite that grew well in several of the island clumps.  A few bumblebees were foraging from these bright yellow cushiony flowers and then suddenly another very different bee appeared, feeding from the bird’s foot trefoil, moving purposefully from flower to flower. It was quite small, about two thirds the size of a honeybee and a striking ruby red colour with prominent golden bands of hair around and across its abdomen (see picture at the head of this post and below). 

I had seen several of these insects here two years ago; they are gold-fringed mason bees (Osmia aurulenta) and this one was a female.  Not only are they very beautiful insects with their sparkling, jewel-like colouration but their life cycle sets them apart as they are one of the three UK bee species that nests in empty snail shells.  The female constructs cells within the abandoned snail shell using leaf mastic and provisions each cell with pollen and nectar before laying one egg.  Even more bizarrely, they decorate the outside of the filled shell with more leaf mastic.   Vegetated shingle is one of their favoured habitats and there were empty snail shells scattered sparsely across the beach.  Try as I might, though, I have yet to find one of these insects working on a snail shell!

I visited Slapton Sands on May 19th on a warm dry day but on May 20th, the cold, wet weather returned. After a week, however, something meteorological shifted and, thankfully, summer finally arrived. Many female red mason bees are now busily building nests in the bee houses.

Red valerian in one of the islands of vegetation showing the reddish-pink flowers
Bird’s foot trefoil growing on the shingle
Rosy garlic flowers growing in one of the islands pof vegetation
Sea Kale growing on the harsher part of the shingle beach
Sea spurge showing the rope-like stems and the unusual flowers. The flowers have no petals or sepals but are held in a cup formed from two bracts. The pale green tri-symmetric structure contains one small female flower. The yellow discs are glands that secrete nectar to attract insects and near the glands are several small yellow spherical stamens containing pollen.
A gold-fringed mason bee on bird’s foot trefoil

Starling Murmurations and Natural Music at Slapton Ley

In the Guardian Country Diary for November 13th 2020, Sarah Gillespie described, in beautiful poetic language, her experience of starlings roosting in reed beds at Slapton Ley in south Devon.  By coincidence, we had visited Slapton Ley a week or so earlier (on October 25th) and had a different but complementary experience. 

A murmuration of starlings above the northern reed beds

It was a grey, overcast Sunday afternoon as we headed towards the coast, dry and not too cold but with a blustery wind.  Our plan had been to walk around the Ley and through the village of Slapton, finishing in time to watch any starling roost in the 30 minutes before sunset.  Slapton Ley is known for its starling roosts but we had no idea where we might see any activity or even whether any would occur.

The Ley is a long, thin lake separated from the sea by a narrow shingle bar, the Slapton Line, wide enough to accommodate a road, paths and stony beach.  The shingle supports many interesting plants and the lake, reed beds, marshes and woodland form an important nature reserve with many species including passage and overwintering birds.    The Ley extends roughly north-south with extensive reed beds at both ends.  Our walk took us south along the inland flank of the lake by the water’s edge and under trees with intermittent views across the water.  It was a pleasant, late autumn jaunt and it felt good to be outside and in touch with the changing season.  The path was quite muddy in places and there were, unsurprisingly, few flowers about although we did see several cheerful red campion and some fresh-looking white deadnettle, brightening the gloom like fairy lights. 

Near the start of our walk, we found the observation platform.  This is a wooden-slatted affair that extends for a short distance across the water, largely surrounded by vegetation.  It is a good place to look out across the Ley or to listen to the rustlings of waterfowl hidden among the reeds.   With the recent heavy rain, the Ley was quite full and we noticed the sound of the water lapping on the wooden slats of the platform, the sound rising and falling as the wind imposed its rhythm.  The sounds of the wind and the water felt like natural music and captured our attention.

The wooden slatted observation platform

The breakfast programme on BBC Radio 3 with Elizabeth Alker has a Saturday Sounds feature where listeners send in recordings from everyday life.  We decided to record our “natural music” (click here to listen; warning, when this video is finished, Facebook will try to load another unrelated video over which I have no control) and send it to the programme but this also needed a companion piece of music.   Perhaps it was the wooden slats of the observation platform but we both kept thinking of music played on the marimba and the simplicity of the sound suggested the composer Steve Reich. Hazel, though, found another piece that complemented the rising and falling of the natural music even better:  Orbit by Will Gregory played by the saxophonist Jess Gillam but with an ensemble that includes a marimba (click here to listen). 

To our surprise and delight, both recordings were played on the show on November 7th.

Towards the end of our walk, the sky began to clear.  Bright light filled the western sky and the low reddening sun captured the tops of roadside hedges, highlighting drifts of plump red berries.  Flocks of finches flew from nearby fields including   chaffinches, goldfinches and greenfinches.

By now it was about half an hour until sunset so we looked for a suitable vantage point to watch for roosting starlings.  We came across a small group of people by a bridge looking towards the northern end of the Ley where there are extensive reed beds, so we waited nearby.  The northern sky was clear now except for a few clouds, some white and some grey. We didn’t know why the people had gathered there so It was a bit of a gamble but our uncertainty was soon dispelled when a small group of starlings rose from the northern reed beds.  At first, they were just a mobile smudge on the pale blue background but more birds soon joined. This larger group began to move back and forth in a more defined manner sculpting mobile motifs against the sky, the pulsating mass taking on a life of its own like a shape-shifting, super organism.   The murmuration continued for a short time before this first group of birds fell back to the reeds only to be replaced by another; this process of rising and falling was then repeated several times.  The light was steadily fading but as the sun dipped downwards it cast pastel hues of rose and mauve across the northern sky. 

Starlings against a northern sky coloured rose and mauve by the setting sun

Occasionally, rather than returning to the northern reed beds, the mass of birds streamed past some trees on a nearby rise disappearing in the direction of Ireland Bay behind us.  Sometimes, though, they took the alternative route to Ireland Bay directly across where we were standing and this turned out to be an intensely visceral experience. The sight of several thousand birds flying low overhead is spectacular on its own but there was also the noise, the rushing sound of their wings beating urgently, disturbing the air as they passed low over us.  The level of sound rose rapidly as the birds approached, falling away just as quickly as they went on, like a sudden gust of wind passing through trees.    I hadn’t known what to expect but just for a few moments that afternoon we had been close to these wild creatures, closer than I can ever remember, witnessing part of their life and experiencing them in an entirely unexpected way.

Starlings streaming across a nearby rise
Starlings approaching us to fly overhead
Here is a short video of the starlings moving about and then streaming across the nearby ridge

The starlings, of course, don’t behave like this for our benefit, an underlying urge for security and safety compels them to form these groups.  This didn’t, however, stop me from marvelling at their behaviour and the liquid shapes they carved across the sky, like artists creating magical images from paint and canvas.  There was, though, another, less comfortable sensation hovering at the edge of my consciousness that I found harder to pin down.   Perhaps it was a hint of fear, perhaps at some level I was concerned that so many birds so close to me might pose a threat. Overall, though, these were moments of magic that made me glad to be alive and as the poet, Mary Oliver writes: “Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us”.

The watchers on the bridge

The small group of people who shared these events seemed to be entirely focussed on the birds and there was little or no conversation. One man even had a notebook, the true mark of a serious naturalist!  We had a brief physically-distanced conversation with them afterwards and learnt that the Slapton Ley starlings divide their roost between the northern and the south western (Ireland Bay) reed beds.  They also told us that a loud plop from nearby water had probably been an otter. 

I did not notice any “bright, intrusive screens held up between world and eye” but perhaps we were lucky that afternoon.  I did take a few photos myself but I made sure that I also watched the murmurations. For me, photographs provide a record, jogging my memory, sometimes showing aspects of events that I failed to notice in the heat of the moment. 

By now the sun had set and the starlings had settled down to roost so we walked back to the car.  A pale half circle of moon hung low above a dark blue sea.  On the beach, pebbles rushed back and forth urged on by the waves and, across the bay, the lighthouse at Start Point began to flash its protecting light.

The photo of Slapton Ley at the head of ths post and the photo of the wooden-slatted observation platform were both taken by Hazel Strange.