Tag Archives: south devon

Hitch-hiking beetles and dancing bees – Lockdown Nature Walks 15

I had intended to go further afield for my next Lockdown Nature Walk but events drew me back once again to the Leechwell Garden, the community garden in the centre of Totnes.  I visited several times during the second week of March and discovered a fascinating story of bees, beetles and their mutual interactions. 

After my account, I have included part of a poem, “The Spring”, by William Barnes written in the dialect of the west country county of Dorset.

Immature leaves and catkins on weeping willow

A laughing sound, the yaffle of a green woodpecker, reached our house on several days and I thought it might be coming from the Leechwell Garden.  I went to look but I didn’t find the bird.  It’s no hardship, though, to visit the Garden at this time of year when the non-human world seems to be waking up and changing rapidly.  On early spring mornings, it’s a very peaceful spot and the combination of old stone walls and sunshine creates a warm microenvironment.  Noise from nearby roads can intrude but birdsong and the rushing of water from the stream overcome this.  There are often a few children enjoying the play area, their voices blending with the song of the chaffinches flitting around the Garden. 

Most shrubs and trees are in bud now but the weeping willows seem to be in the lead, their gracefully hanging branches grazing the ground in cascades of lime green.  Close up, the green haze covering the branches is a mixture of immature spear-shaped leaves and catkins.  The catkins are small green cigar shapes at present but will turn yellow as they mature.  Towards the back of the Garden, snowy splashes of blackthorn decorate the hedges and fleshy green tongues of ramsons make their way up through the leaf litter. 

One of the small bees, a male yellow-legged mining bee (Andrena flavipes)

Below the pergola is a sloping, southeast-facing grassy bank.  When I visited, a few dandelions and daisies were pushing through the grass and the underlying soil had been exposed on part of the bank by children’s feet running excitedly towards the play area.   It was March 9th, on a sunny morning, when I first noticed a few small bees flying about above this bare soil.  Occasionally one of the insects paused on a leaf or flower to take the sun or to feed on nectar and I could then see their well-marked stripy abdomen.  They were quite small, about two thirds the size of a honeybee and over the next few days, especially when the sun shone, the numbers increased.  There were also several holes in the bare soil, some surrounded by soil spill and the bees occasionally stopped to investigate, disappearing inside the hole for a short time. 

By the middle of March, a mobile cloud of the insects, at least 100 I estimated, would fly just above the soil.  They moved back and forth and from side to side, circling, dancing, the urgency of movement increasing when the sun shone, like water simmering, threatening to boil over.   My photos of the insects highlighted the prominent creamy hair bands around the abdomen, the pale hairs that decorate the face and sides of the thorax and the haze of pale yellow hairs coating the legs, confirming that they were male Yellow-Legged Mining bees (Andrena flavipes), one of our earliest spring solitary bees.    

One day I noticed a slightly larger but otherwise similar bee pausing on a dandelion.  The size suggested this might be a female and before I could take a photo my hunch was confirmed as one of the smaller bees hopped on top of the larger bee.  They stayed clasped together for about two minutes, his legs twitching before they separated.  She stayed on the flower whereas he moved to a nearby blade of grass. If this mating was successful, the female now starts the job of nest building.  Within one of the tunnels in the bare soil she will construct a series of cells each equipped with one egg and a mixture of pollen and nectar collected from flowers. The eggs will develop into new bees.   Each mated female works alone without cooperation so that these insects are referred to as solitary bees.

One of my visits to the Garden was on a sunny Sunday morning and, after I had looked at the bees, I wandered about glancing at the flowers.  My attention was captured, though, by a large black beetle (about 2.5cm long) among a mass of ivy beneath a hawthorn tree.  I found a second similar insect close by on a separate leaf.  Both were motionless and seemed to be taking the sun.  These are unusual creatures with a small head and thorax compared to their much larger abdomen.  Wing cases were visible but they were too small to cover the abdomen, rather like a portly Victorian gentleman unable to secure his jacket across his belly.  The prominent legs and antennae of the beetles seemed to be comprised of many small segments so that they resembled tightly coiled wire. In the sunshine, their bodies, legs and antennae sparkled a beautiful iridescent dark blue.  After a bit of searching and with some kind help from John Walters, I worked out that these were female violet oil beetles (Meloe violaceus).  This was a surprise as these rare insects have not been spotted in the Leechwell Garden before.

Oil beetles have one of the most bizarre life cycles of all insects, one that is inextricably intertwined with the lives of solitary bees.  Each spring, mated female oil beetles dig shallow burrows in soil where they lay eggs in large numbers.  The eggs develop and the louse-like, early-stage larvae, called triungulins, eventually leave the burrow.  The tiny triungulins look for flowers, climb up the stems and wait in the flower for a passing solitary bee.  When an unsuspecting bee arrives looking for pollen and nectar, the triungulin clambers on board and hitches a ride to the bee’s nest.  Once there, it feeds on the pollen and nectar left by the bee for its own offspring and, after passing through several developmental stages, a new oil beetle emerges the following spring.

With such a complex life cycle, it’s surprising that oil beetles manage to survive, but survive they do.  They are, though, declining and part of the problem is a reduction in the number of solitary bees.  With urbanisation and the intensification of agriculture, wildflowers have disappeared from large parts of the countryside.  Solitary bees are unable to survive in such a degraded environment with obvious knock-on effects on oil beetles.

The Leechwell Garden has a good selection of flowers, both wild and cultivated, and there are several colonies of solitary bees including the Yellow-Legged Mining Bees mentioned earlier.  I hope these oil beetles will be able to continue their lives here and, as the season progresses, I shall be looking for the triungulins on flowers popular with solitary bees.

As a postscript, last Saturday morning we were walking down our street and were very surprised to find another female oil beetle.  This one was crossing the road, moving quickly, antennae flexing and moving all the time as the beetle sampled the air.  We stood nearby to prevent it from being squashed by cars or other passers-by.  I was able to get a reasonable photo and Andrew Whitehouse kindly confirmed that this was another violet oil beetle, newly emerged.  

Perhaps there are more of these insects about than I had realised?

…………………………….

“The spring” by William Barnes

When wintry weather’s all a-done,
An’ brooks do sparkle in the zun,
An’ naïsy-builden rooks do vlee
Wi’ sticks toward their elem tree;
When birds do zing, an’ we can zee
Upon the boughs the buds o’ spring, –
Then I’m as happy as a king,
A-vield wi’ health an’ zunsheen.

Vor then the cowslip’s hangen flow’r
A-wetted in the zunny shower,
Do grow wi’ vi’lets, sweet o’ smell,
Bezide the wood-screened graegle’s bell;
Where drushes’ aggs, wi’ sky-blue shell,
Do lie in mossy nest among
The thorns, while they do zing their zong
At evenen in the zunsheen.

[These are the first two verses of Barnes evocation of a 19th century Dorset spring.  Most of the dialect becomes clear if read aloud but here are three translations:  Vield – filled, graegle – bluebell, drush – thrush]

One of the smaller, male yellow-legged mining bees showing the haze of yellow hairs coating his legs and catching pollen grains.
Female yellow-legged mining bee (Andrena flavipes) showing the golden pollen hairs on her back legs.

Mating pair of yellow legged mining bees.

Holes in the bare soil forming entrances to nest tunnels.

The two female violet oil beetles (Meloe violaceus) in the sunshine. The upper beetle is also shown at the head of this post.

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.

Autumn in the Blackpool Valley

We perched on a stone wall overlooking the pebble beach and sea at Blackpool Sands to eat our sandwiches.  Across the water, the Start Point peninsula was a moody, dark bluish grey outline while mobile pools of bright light wandered about Start Bay as gashes in the cloud cover opened and closed. 

We had walked down the Blackpool Valley starting in bright autumn sunshine on the western edge of Dartmouth where a huge housebuilding project is now underway.  Narrow country lanes took us away from the commotion into quieter places.  Hedges were punctuated periodically with flushes of flowering ivy and the sun, following heavy rain, seemed to have brought the insects out.   An elegant ichneumon wasp, largely black but with a few white markings and with reddish legs was cleaning its antennae, and nearby we spotted a mating pair of hoverflies.  Their striped thorax reminded me of mid-20th century school blazers.  A beautiful male wall butterfly basked briefly in the sunshine, its wings, the colour of paprika and cinnamon held the essence of the season changing around us.  A few pollen-loaded female ivy bees joined the show while, on the road, two all black devil’s coach horse beetles wandered past giving us their scorpion-like, tale up, warning greeting.

The ichneumon wasp cleaning its antennae. Malcolm Storey on the British Ichneumonoidea Facebook site identified this as a male Vulgichneumon saturatorius.

Mating hoverflies, most likely Helophilus pendulus

Male wall butterfly (Lasiommata megera)

Devil’s coach-horse beetle (Ocypus olens)

At Venn Cross, we turned right along Blackpool Valley Road descending between dramatic hills and following the course of a stream in the valley bottom.  Lane side hedges had avoided a vicious flailing this season; hazel and sycamore had grown prolifically together with a few sprigs of rowan and dog rose, giving the lane an enclosed feeling.  Veteran beeches and oaks grew from the hedges and when the sun played across the beech leaves it accentuated their kaleidoscopic colour range of greens, yellows and browns.  The lower trunk of one of the old beeches had become an impromptu local notice board including a carved declaration of love. 

The declaration of love carved on a beech tree. I wonder who they were?

Blackpool Valley Road

The main stream passing over a weir, well down the Blackpool Valley

The water gathered force as we headed southwards with small streams joining the main flow from surrounding hills and, eventually we came to Riversbridge Farm, one of several old water mills situated along the valley.  Altogether we counted five former mills before we reached the sea, each set in this landscape of trees, pastures and steep hillsides.   Today it was a peaceful scene but I wondered how much it had changed over the years.  The artist Lucien Pissarro worked and lived here a century ago producing a charming set of images of the valley, a record of country life in the first part of the 20th century and apart from the arrival of the motor car the landscape and buildings look very similar (see picture below).  The mills, of course, are no longer used, they are mostly private dwellings but the buildings show signs of their former activity alongside 21st century incursions such as a small water driven hydro and a hot tub. 

We left Blackpool Sands to complete the circuit back to our car.  As we stopped to look back at the beach, as many as 30 house martins circled over the cove feeding, perhaps before leaving for warmer places. 

Blackpool Farm, formerly a mill

Blackpool Valley, Lucien Pissarro,1913, probably looking north towards Dartmouth ( City of Edinburgh Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/blackpool-valley-1913-93704)

We walked down the Blackpool Valley near Dartmouth in south Devon on October 8th 2020

Ivy bee stories 2020

Even before the recent storms there were signs of the changing season.  Flushes of red berries had begun to appear in roadside hedges and subtle colour changes were permeating leaf canopies.  One sign for me, though, that always heralds the arrival of autumn is the emergence of the ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last species of solitary bee to appear in this country.  It’s the time of year when I stand in front of clumps of flowering ivy gazing at these insects feasting on this final flush of food. So, here are two stories about my recent experiences with the ivy bees. 

The first concerns a visit I made to Roundham Head, Paignton, south Devon in the second week of September:

The old stone walls at Roundham Head with their ivy covering and an intriguing gateway

Hidden away on one side of a residential street on Roundham Head is a curious area of rough grass and trees divided into rectangular spaces by old stone walls and loved nowadays by dog walkers.  This was once the kitchen garden of a nearby Victorian villa, now a care home, set in a commanding position on the edge of the promontory overlooking Torbay.   The kitchen garden is surplus to requirements but the land has not been developed and the old walls have been commandeered by ivy.  At this time of year, this normally dark green and slightly sinister climber adopts a new persona covering itself with lime green globe flower heads creating a multi-sensory experience for anyone prepared to look.

I approach one of the old stone walls bathed in sunshine, and gradually I become aware of the sickly-sweet perfume emanating from the ivy flowers to pervade the surrounding air.  This perfume attracts huge numbers of insects which move about the ivy flowers in all directions at high speed, occasionally pausing on a flower to sample the extraordinary, late-season canteen of pollen and nectar.  This profusion of insect life means that a clearly audible buzz surrounds the ivy. 

Today, I see honeybees, hoverflies, a speckled wood butterfly and a buff tailed bumblebee together with many, many ivy bees.  These insects must have emerged very recently and with their pale chestnut-haired thorax and yellow and black-hooped abdomen they look very fresh.  The slimmer, slighter males (about two thirds the size of a honeybee) outnumber the chunkier females who collect lumps of bright yellow pollen on their back legs.  The pulsating movement of so many insects implies a huge kinetic energy fuelled by the sugary nectar provided by the ivy flowers.

Wherever there is ivy and sunshine there are ivy bees on the old walls and the same is true when I walk through the nearby public gardens built on the cliffs overlooking Goodrington Sands.  The gentle microenvironment offered by this seaside garden supports succulents, palms and other tender plants and today the agapanthus are providing flashes of a bright steely blue.  Ivy has also insinuated its way into the gardens growing along old walls and railings overlooking the sea.  

At one end of the gardens is a partly concealed path leading downwards to the beach below and along one side of the path I find a long grassy bank.  The grass has not been cut this summer, a result of the pandemic, but beneath the grass cover I can see bare red soil with open holes and many more male ivy bees.  This is the main nest site for the ivy bees at Roundham Head. The males are even more excited here, dancing above the grass, flying backwards and forwards rapidly and from side to side in a tick tock movement.  They occasionally explore the holes but emerge disappointed and fly off.  Sometimes there is a little joshing between the males who seem overexcited but they are waiting for females to emerge so that they can mate. 

Today, though, I don’t witness any matings but I do see a few females returning to the nest area carrying bright yellow pollen so some couplings have occurred.  These mated females enter the nest holes and leave pollen as food for their larvae. It does feel, however, as though the main emergence of female ivy bees has not yet occurred here.  The males will go on waiting by the nest site for that chance to mate, visiting the ivy occasionally for a top up of sugary nectar.

Male ivy bees

Female ivy bee with pollen

The grassy bank with the nest area overlooking Goodrington Sands

Male ivy bees at the nest site

Female ivy bee with pollen returning to her nest

…………………….

My second story comes from a visit we made to West Sussex in the third week of September to deliver our daughter to University.  We had a few days walking in the county including this visit to the coast:

A view along West Wittering beach with East Head on the right stretching into the distance and a storm behind. A man is painting, looking towards the sea and it was a mystery as to how he kept the canvas on the easel in the wind. (photo courtesy of Hazel Strange)

Autumn had arrived with a vengeance in West Sussex, the temperature had dropped by nearly ten degrees overnight and there were heavy squally showers at West Wittering where we had planned to walk.   Rain fell as we made our way along quiet lanes between houses to access the track along the water’s edge leading to East Head a huge sand spit projecting into Chichester Harbour.  Long views across the flat watery surroundings made approaching storms easy to spot adding an elemental feel to the day.    East Head is coated in marram grass which must help to stabilise its structure but, as we walked along the beach, there were signs of erosion at the sides of the spit and much of it is cordoned off to prevent further damage.  Near the tip, it was possible to look at plants growing away from the edge such as sea holly, its prickly blue flowers faded to grey, sea rocket with its pale violet flowers and sea spurge its grey green leaf-covered stems tipped with greenish yellow complex flowers.

Banks of ivy overhanging the stony beach above Chichester Harbour with East Head in the distance

Behind East Head is a lagoon with salt marshes and the path along this side eventually curves round to meet shingle beaches on the edge of the harbour.  Oaks grew along the edge and a few generous clumps of ivy overhung the beach.  Much was in flower and here I saw the first ivy bees of the day, all males with clear yellow and black hoops moving backwards and forwards with high speed despite the lack of sun. 

This kind of watery environment with extensive salt marshes should also favour the close relative of the ivy bee, the rare Colletes halophilus which Steven Falk refers to as the sea aster bee owing to its preference for the flower. I looked around for sea aster and found some, rather pale and faded but I saw no insects on the flowers.  Then we came to a grassy open area by the side of the water.  Large stands of gorse were growing by the edge and one of these was smothered by Russian vine, an invasive scrambling climber with many racemes of small white flowers.  I have seen this used by ivy bees in Devon, even when flowering ivy is abundant and the same was true here, or so I thought.  Insects that looked like ivy bee males were moving about the flowers rapidly, barely resting to feed but I managed a few photos as it was otherwise difficult to see the details of the insects.  In the photos, to my surprise, all of the bees I captured on camera had black and white hoops. 

The sea aster bee looks very similar to the ivy bee only its hoops are white compared to the ivy bee’s yellow hoops.  So, could I have seen the rare sea aster bee here?  The environment is certainly right for the insect and it has been recorded at this site before but it is impossible to draw a firm conclusion based on colouration. Male ivy bees can fade, losing their yellow colour and microscopic analysis of the mouth parts is required to distinguish males of the two species unequivocally but that is beyond my capability.

Females are easier to distinguish from photographs as there are yellow furry patches, like epaulettes, at the top of the abdomen of the ivy bee that are lacking in the sea aster bee.  You can see these furry patches in the picture of the ivy bee at the end of this post.  Unfortunately, I saw no females that day but it provides a good reason to return to this fascinating place with its mosaic of environments.

Male ivy bee at West Wittering

Russian vine with possible sea aster bee.

Russian vine with possible sea aster bee

Female ivy bee showing furry patch at the top of the abdomen (between left wing and left back leg on this picture).

A floral paradise – Lockdown Nature Walks 8

The Lockdown may be easing but with coronavirus still circulating and with little sensible guidance coming from central government, life is far from normal.  So, I am continuing my Lockdown Exercise Walks and avoiding large gatherings where possible.  In this eighth Walk, I want to take you to one of my favourite parts of the south Devon coast near Prawle Point, Devon’s southernmost headland. 

The forecast for the coast was good so, towards the end of the third week of June, we headed off across the rolling hills of the South Hams towards Kingsbridge.  The weather, though, seemed to be unaware of the forecast.   Great slabs of grey cloud loomed ahead and there were clear signs of recent rain.  I began to wonder if this trip were such a good idea but we pressed on, knowing how quixotic the Devon weather can be.  At Kingsbridge we picked up the coast road turning right at the village of Frogmore across a watery inlet to follow four miles of narrow, winding lanes. 

Not only are the lanes narrow here, they are enclosed by Devon hedges, creating a narrow corridor with steep banks. At this time of year, the banks are smothered with lush vegetation, mostly green but enlivened by splashes of white cow parsley, yellowing Alexanders and bright pink foxglove remnants.  In just one spot, a large patch of rosebay willowherb coloured the bank coral pink as if paint had been spilt and when we stopped to let an oncoming car pass, a few spikes of purple tufted vetch cried out to be seen.

As we approached the village of East Prawle we passed the duckpond with its large clumps of chrome yellow monkey flower and parked by the village green.  Hazel wanted a longer walk, whereas I wanted to spend time looking at flowers, so we agreed to meet later.  I began by heading towards the coast down a steep road edged by rough stone walls.  Fulsome clumps of red valerian clung to the stone, rain-remnant drops of water hanging from the flowers like tiny glass globes.  The sun began to break through the cloud that had brought the rain, the water droplets sparkled like fairy lights and butterflies flickered among the flowers.  Now and then, I glimpsed the coast spread out below and the sea, a uniform misty blue.

Near a row of coastguard cottages, I entered a narrow lane lined by green hedges coloured by more valerian, also honeysuckle and bramble.  The lane turned sharp left to descend more steeply across slippery exposed bedrock and through scrub and woodland.  A chiff chaff called and I stopped to gaze at the flowers and insects on a bank of bramble caught in the morning sunshine.  Suddenly a woman appeared down a nearby path that joined the lane looking surprised to find me standing there. 

“Are you alright?” she asked

“I’m just looking at the flowers” I replied, trying to reassure her.

“Yes, there are lots of flowers about.  Have you seen the pink sweet peas on the coast, they don’t smell like the garden variety?” she continued.

“That’s narrow- leaved everlasting pea, a perennial wild form of the garden variety and coincidentally its pink flowers are part of the reason I’m here today, some rare bees feed from them” I replied.

“It’s so difficult to identify wild flowers from books” she worried.

“Yes, I sometimes leaf through the entire book to identify something I have seen.”

I told her I could wait if she wanted to go ahead down the lane so that we maintained physical distancing but she said there was no need as she was taking another path to the right and promptly disappeared.

The coastline below East Prawle looking eastwards towards Peartree Point. The coastal barley fields are in the middle of the picture with the steep inland cliffs with rocky outcrops to the left. The cliff edge scrub with the narrow-leaved everlasting pea is the darker green fringe above the pale sand.

Leaving the woodland, I passed between arable fields along another enclosed path with the sea now ahead of me.  These fields occupy a gently sloping coastal plain stretching between steep inland cliffs with rocky outcrops and the present low cliffs above the sea.  The steep inland cliffs give the area an enclosed, almost claustrophobic feeling whilst creating a gentle microclimate.  Barley grows in these fields, spring sown so that its seed and stubble can be left after autumn harvest to provide winter food for the rare cirl buntings that now flourish here.  As I walked, the distinctive rattle of one of the birds echoed around the inland cliffs.  The barley was a soft, uniformly yellowish-green carpet so I assumed it had been well sprayed with herbicide.

When I reached the coast, I headed westwards along the coast path between the cliff edge and the barley field.  The cliff edge was fringed with bracken and blackthorn, the latter providing good nest areas for the cirl buntings.  Tall stems of hemp agrimony grew here along with a profusion of narrow-leaved everlasting pea scrambling through the bracken and the scrub, grabbing on with fine tendrils.   Large, mostly pink, pea-type flowers (see picture at the head of this post) were scattered about the plants, not in large numbers but frequently enough to make an impact.   The large upper petals, like bright pink sails decorated with fine green striations, stand out above the smaller lower petals that resemble miniature boxing gloves, with an unusual bluish-pink hue.

Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) nectaring from narrow-leaved everlasting pea. Note the long antennae and the silvery hairs, this male has been around for several weeks.

Silvery bees patrolled the area around the flowers weaving their way deftly and quickly among the vegetation and I wondered how they were able to navigate so easily.  Sometimes they stopped to take nectar and from their very long black bootlace antennae I recognised these as male long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis).   This part of the south Devon coast contains the largest UK colony of these very rare and very distinctive bees.  The sun had now come out making it feel quite warm and I stayed by the flowers for a while.  A few female long-horned bees soon appeared carrying large chunks of pollen so I presume they were coming to collect nectar.  They share only a passing resemblance to their male counterparts:  they have short antennae and are covered in thick pale hairs.  They hang below the pink flowers holding their body in a tightly curved crescent as they feed and the flowers of narrow-leaved everlasting pea seem to be a very important pollen source for the insects.

Female long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) feeding from narrow-leaved everlasting pea.
Female long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) feeding from narrow-leaved everlasting pea. Note the lump of pollen on her back legs

I moved on through two latch gates to enter a narrow but long coastal meadow stretching between cliff tops fringed with bracken and scrub and the inland cliffs that tower above.  The meadow hadn’t been cultivated or grazed and was thick with knee-length grasses and wild flowers.  Grasshoppers rose as I walked and small brownish butterflies danced around me.  This is a floral paradise, a mosaic of colour and form.

Sea carrot growing prolifically in the coastal meadow

The predominant flowers at the beginning of the meadow were the white hemispheres of sea carrot rising like so many large mushrooms through the  thick grass to dominate the landscape.  There were also some of the nodding yellow heads of cat’s ear, popular with red-tailed bumblebees, and the pinkish-purple flowers of common vetch.  Partially buried in the grass I noticed the small, bright pink flowers of centaury with their prominent yellow stamens.  Narrow-leaved everlasting pea climbed through the cliff-edge bracken attracting more long-horned bees to its pink flowers, so I stopped to watch. 

Rose chafer (Cetonis aurata) on sea carrot showing how the white flower is actually tinged with pink

I dragged myself away and further on, a rough path took me down the low cliff to an area of soft rock riddled with small pencil-sized holes, thought to be the principal nest site of the long-horned bees.  As I waited to see the insects returning to their nests, I was conscious of the sea grumbling around the rocks behind me and the patchwork of colours it held.  The water was mostly a shimmering deep blue but with darker areas hiding submerged rocks and tinged green where it washed over shallow sand.  My reverie was interrupted when the woman I met earlier appeared on the rocks around the cliff corner.   She seemed keen to talk and I learnt that she lived in London but had come down to stay in her cottage when the lockdown was imposed.

I scrambled back up to the coast path and as I walked westwards in the direction of Prawle Point, the floral mix in the meadow changed. Cat’s ear now dominated lending the meadow a yellow cast.  Along the cliff edge, the bracken had been replaced by tracts of yellow bird’s foot trefoil and purple tufted vetch. I also noticed lady’s bedstraw and hedge bedstraw and the bright reddish-purple flowers of bloody cranesbill. This kaleidoscope of colour brought more bumblebees and solitary bees although I thought the vetches looked past their best, perhaps a result of the dry spring.

Hazel appeared, having finished her walk and we made our way back up to East Prawle starting along a field-edge wall where brambles and other wildflowers grew.  Cirl buntings sang and, in the sunshine, a male long-horned bee fed from one of the flowers, butterflies danced together and a fine mason wasp collected nectar.

Marbled white butterfly (Melanargia galathea) on bramble
Spiny mason wasp (Odynerus spinipes) on bramble. The female of this species digs burrows in vertical banks of hard soil, sand or clay, finishing with a “chimney” that curves over the opening

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

Lockdown Nature Walks 4

For the fourth of my Lockdown Nature Walks, I want to take you along Copland Lane, one of the many old tracks that radiate like compass points from the town of Totnes.    Copland Lane follows the westward compass point, roughly parallel to the busy railway line to Plymouth and Cornwall which lies some distance below in the valley.  It takes me about 15 minutes, on foot, to reach the beginning of Copland Lane which lies between the gate to a popular group of allotments and a moderate sized, newish housing estate.  I walked Copland Lane about a fortnight ago on a day of clear blue skies and warm sunshine tempered by a blustery cold wind.

Near the beginning of Copland Lane

A large stand of blackthorn, still covered in its small white flowers, grows near the start of the lane as if to herald the transition out of the semi-urban into a different world, a world of green, a world of growth, a world of colourful wildflowers. 

At first, the lane drops gently downwards, bordered on the right-hand side by steep banks below the gardens of houses and on the other side by a bank of tightly packed soil perhaps stabilised by rubble, known locally as a Devon Hedge.  Various kinds of vegetation including shrubs and coppiced trees, grow up prolifically from both sides not quite meeting above the lane but creating an enclosed, sheltered feeling.  Sunlight percolates through the tree screen casting a dappled pattern across the track, but there is more to the light today.  At this time of year, the trees have fresh, pale green, almost transparent leaves and as the sunlight filters between and through the leaves it acquires a subtle greenness that I only experience in spring.  

Along the right-hand side of the lane, where sun warms the soil, I notice large stretches of yellow archangel with its many pale yellow flowers each with hooded, fringed upper lip and broader, three-lobed lower lip with intricate pale brown markings.  Looking at the spear-shaped leaves, I see no silvery markings so this is likely to be the true native species rather than the garden cultivar.  A worker early bumblebee with its pink-tipped abdomen feeds from the flowers. 

yellow archangel

 

Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) worker with pollen feeding at yellow archangel. Look for the single yellow band near the head and the pink tip to the abdomen.

 

hart’s tongue fern, semi-transparent in the low sunshine

The left-hand side of the lane sees less direct sunlight but growth seems just as prolific although the species that prosper are different.  Banks of ramsons line the base of the Devon Hedge, starry white flowers just beginning to show.  Several pale spathes of Lords and Ladies struggle through the thick ivy that covers the side of the bank.  Fronds of hart’s tongue fern unfurl in groups as they push upwards and where the low sunshine catches their leaves, they become semi-transparent as if X-rayed.   Navelwort (wall pennywort) grows in places covering sides of the lane with its circular, fleshy green leaves with their central dimple or navel.  Its immature flower spikes push upwards getting ready to display many small white lantern flowers in a few weeks.

a dense, tangled green mass of plants

As I walk on, the lane changes, casting off its enclosed feel to become more open. The Devon Hedge loses its tree cover allowing the sun full access to the soil bank and the fertile conditions encourage the growth of a dense, tangled, green mass of plants (see picture at the head of this post and above).  Without flowers, I can’t recognise many of these but I do see the fleshy stems and crimson flowers of red campion and the starry white flowers of stitchwort.  I notice vetch-type leaves scrambling through the mass of greenery and one bright pink and white, pea-type flower reveals that this is common vetch.  The low sunshine cuts across the bank and through the mass of greenery, highlighting the dense luxurious growth.  Something about the light changes as it filters through the seemingly unfettered tangle of vegetation.  It’s difficult to pin the effect down but there is a softening, a dispersion.

Occasionally, I encounter people walking along the lane towards me and we perform an elaborate dance to maintain social distancing which often involves one party sheltering in a hedge.  Everyone is very polite and we usually say Hello but it feels so alien to shun others where we might normally have exchanged experiences, if only of the weather.

ground ivy – the fragrant leaves of this plant were used as a bittering agent in beers until hops took over.

 

cuckoo flower

Now, gradually, the feel of the lane changes again.  It becomes wider and bound by neat hedges and farmland on the left.  There are cows in the fields and the lane takes on the persona of a farm track.  The houses on the right eventually peter out, also giving way to farmland, but before they do, there are large grassy banks bathed in sunshine and scattered, confetti-like, with stitchwort.  I also notice the violet-blue, funnel-shaped flowers and fleshy scalloped leaves, dark green but tinged red, of ground ivy showing well.   Some wild strawberry flowers promise fruit to come and one or two spikes of cuckoo flower push through the grass displaying their delicate lilac flowers.

As I stand gazing at the flowers, a man emerges on to the lane through a gate from one of the houses with his wheelbarrow.  He looks at me quizzically as I peer at the grassy bank and asks, not aggressively, what I am looking at. 

“I’m looking at the flowers and the insects” I answer

“Ah yes, the flowers are much better now they clear the brambles” he replies before moving off.

 

tall trees create a green corridor

The lane now has a short section where tall trees create a green corridor with much less sunlight.  The vegetation changes accordingly and the path edges are again lined densely with ramsons and, on the right-hand side, where a little sunlight filters through, more yellow archangel seems to prosper.  Not long after the tree cover ends, the open, hedged lane splits, offering a choice of two tracks.  One is Higher Copland Lane which leads to the hamlet of Copland where someone with a sense of culture and a sense of humour has set up a Bed and Breakfast called Appalachian Spring.  I take the other track, Lower Copland Lane, which provides me with the easier way to return to the town, but before I do, I look at the large clump of Alexanders that has colonised the junction of tracks.  It stands in full sunshine today with its creamy mop head flowers above thick fleshy stems reminding me of scoops of Cornish Dairy Ice Cream enjoyed as a child on holiday.  Alexanders grows mainly by the coast so it is a surprise to find it here.  The flowers are proving very popular with hoverflies and almost every flower head is occupied by one of these insects.

Alexanders growing at the junction of paths

 

hoverfly (Eristalis sp.)

Copland Lane itself is about a mile long, whether you take the Higher or Lower branch.  It contains a variety of different environments and there are many interesting things to see.  Today it also provided me with a much-needed distraction from the unusual and unsettling way of life now imposed upon us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lockdown Nature Walks 3

In this third post on Nature Walks during the Lockdown, I want to take you on a very short stroll, only a few steps in fact, into our front garden.  It’s a small garden but it’s south facing and sheltered and it comes to life in the spring, especially on a sunny day.

I stand in the garden and listen.  Today is cooler and breezier than it has been for some days and, across the street, the wind wanders through the developing leaf canopy on the tall sycamore creating a low rushing sound.  A buzzard mews as it circles overhead, a few gulls gossip on the roof tops and a greenfinch wheezes nearby.

But there is one sound I have become accustomed to that I can’t hear today.  This is the continuous low buzz that has been coming from the front hedge on warmer, sunnier days.  The hedge is a Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica) and for several weeks has been covered in small fleshy green leaves and bright orange-red, cup-shaped flowers filled with yellow stamens (see picture at the head of this post).  The flame-coloured flowers flare brightly in the spring sunshine, but they tend to be partly buried by green foliage tempering their overall impact.  Once the flowers fade this will be just another green hedge but, in the autumn, when the leaves fall, they reveal attractive pale green fleshy fruits that seem to have appeared from nowhere.  For now, though, the flowers celebrate the spring by being a magnet for all kinds of bee.  Unlike many flowers, there seem to be no preferences and I have seen honeybees, several species of bumblebee and several species of solitary bee, many loaded with yellow pollen; the almost continuous presence of bees working the flowers produces this spring buzz.  I have tried to get pictures of the different bees feeding from the flowers but this has been unusually difficult. It feels as though when the bees see me, they move quickly to flowers deeper in the hedge although I did manage a couple of photos.

A solitary bee resting on the quince leaves. This is probably a mining bee but it is impossible from the photo to determine the species.

 

Another solitary bee, this time feeding from the quince flowers. She is carrying plenty of pollen and when I first saw her I thought she was probably a furrow bee (Lasioglossum sp.).

 

Spring has, however, recently moved up a gear.  There are two small bee houses attached to the front of our house and, a year ago, these were occupied by red mason bees who filled some of the holes, topping them off with reddish mud.  Just over a week ago, two of the mud plugs were broken and out came two red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) males.  There are now at least six and they spend their time flying frantically about the bee houses dancing in the air, sometimes stopping to look in one of the holes, sometimes resting on the wall in the sun and sometimes feeding from nearby flowers.  They are brimming with sexual energy, waiting for females to emerge from the bee houses, desperate to mate and their pent up excitement sometimes leads to mistaken male on male mating attempts.  Male red mason bees are very attractive insects and it’s worth pausing to look.  They are about two thirds the size of a honeybee, and notable for their long antennae, pale facial hair and striking bands of orange hair across the abdomen that sparkle in the sun.

A male red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) resting on the bee house in the sunshine

 

It’s always an exciting time when the mason bees appear and busy themselves around the bee house.  It’s a sign to me that spring has really arrived and summer will follow and I am reassured that nature is still following its plan.

As if to serenade the emergence of the mason bees, the cherry tree near the hedge also burst into flower this week.  I had been watching the tree and thought there would be plenty of blossom and it is now covered in sprays of small white flower buds each clasped by five green sepals.  Many of the buds have opened revealing five pure white petals on each flower, the sepals having bent backwards.  Within the flower there is more to see, a mass of stamens each topped with a yellow anther, also a single thicker pale green pistil.  Our tree is a Morello cherry, a cooking variety and self-fertile but pollination depends on insects to transfer pollen between anther and pistil.  As if to underline this point, as more flowers have opened, I have noticed a stream of insects coming to feed from the flowers including hoverflies, solitary bees and even some of the mason bees from the bee houses.  Some of the solitary bees went systematically from flower to flower so pollination should be fine and, providing the birds are kept at bay, we should enjoy a good crop of fruit in the late summer.

I don’t expect the flowers to last very long so it’s important sometimes to stop, stand back and admire the tree in its spring guise covered with pure white flowers, and remember the poem “Loveliest of Trees” where A E Housman saw his cherry “hung with snow”.

A spray of cherry buds each clasped by green sepals.

 

Mature flowers on the cherry tree showing the five pure white petals. The yellow-tipped stamens and the thicker pale green pistil can be seen more easily if the picture is enlarged by clicking.

 

A hoverfly feeding from the cherry flowers and hopefully pollinating them. This may be a Tapered Drone Fly (Eristalis pertinax).

 

Lockdown Nature Walks 2

We are now well into the third week of lockdown in the UK. Totnes seems to be following the rules well, there are very few people about and when I encounter someone they mostly keep two metres away.  With the lack of traffic, an abnormal quiet seems to have settled across the town so that we now notice the singing of the birds. 

It’s a difficult time and perhaps reflecting this, a crop of supportive  messages appeared recently in chalk on houses and on the road on Kinsgbridge Hill and Maudlin Road. One of these heads this post and I have put another below.

 

A supportive message with a rainbow, seen on the Kingsbridge Hill in Totnes

 

It has been easier, at least for me, to endure the lockdown given the gentle weather we have been experiencing.  Mornings have been particularly glorious as the warm light of the rising sun is softened  through a thin veil of mist across the valley below our house.  

I have been continuing to enjoy my Lockdown exercise walks around the town centre gardens, car parks and lanes and here are a few notable observations.

This is a hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) I spotted on a grassy bank by the Nursery Car Park resting on a dead leaf. They are one of the earliest solitary bees to emerge each year (early March) and, for me, they signify the arrival of spring. They whizz about gardens buzzing loudly, occasionally hovering in front of flowers such as comfrey or lungwort before feeding. This is a male with his tawny body hairs and yellow face. The picture does not do justice to his signature hairy legs so I have included another photo below taken before the lockdown.

 

Another hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) male showing the silky hairs that decorate his legs. Photographed in the Leechwell Garden in mid March. The female hairy-footed flower bee, by contrast, is jet black with orange back legs.

 

Do look at the short video at the end of this post which shows a female hairy-footed flower bee feeding in the Nursery Car Park.  It illustrates her behaviour and her colouring.

 

I saw this this dark-edged bee fly (Bombylius major) along one of the walled passages behind the Leechwell Garden. With their round furry bodies they might be confused with bumblebees but at rest, unlike bumblebees, they hold their wings at right angles to the body and have a long straight proboscis. They are parasites of solitary bees, flicking their eggs into solitary bee nests where the bee fly larva takes over and consumes the supplies left for the bee larvae.

 

We are fortunate to live on the southern edge of Totnes close to  open countryside.  Just a short walk from our house lies Fishchowter’s Lane,  an ancient sunken lane, once thought to have been one of the principal southern routes out of Totnes towards Dartmouth.  Nowadays, it is very quiet making it a pleasant walk by woods and fields with various possibilities for longer or shorter loops back to Totnes.   Here are some pictures taken as we walked the lane recently.  For more images of the lane through the seasons, have a look here.

Fishchowter’s Lane is lined at this time of year by banks of ramsons with their fleshy green leaves and the merest touch will release a pungent garlicky smell. If you look down the lane in this picture you will see one of the two old stone bridges found along the track. These enabled animals to move under the lane from fields on one side to fields on the other.

 

We found a large patch of yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon) near the start of the lane. The pale flowers are popular with pollinators for early season feeding. The hooded upper lip has a fringe of hairs and the lower lip has attractive brown markings. The silvery marks on some of the leaves show that this is not the wild species, but  the garden cultivar, ssp argentatum.

 

A few of these attractive blue flowers were pushing up through banks of nettles. This is ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) a common wild flower of hedgerows and woodland.

 

There is a small paddock along the lane and this horse eyed us enigmatically

 

Finally, back to the town centre where one unanticipated effect of the lockdown has been the lack of strimming along car park edges allowing wild flowers to prosper.  This is particularly clear in the Nursery Car Park where there are now drifts of of golden dandelions and a large bank of three-cornered leek covered with its trumpet-like white flowers with their pale green stripes.  The flowers are very popular with female hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes); here is a short video clip I took yesterday morning of these insects  showing how they behave.

Signs of spring?

Dull, wet and mild has been the prevailing story for the winter weather so far this year in the south west of the UK.  Much needed winter sunshine has been in short supply and we’ve woken up to frost on only a handful of days. And then the storms:  in February alone, two consecutive weekends of severe weather brought heavy rain and gale force winds but very mild temperatures.   Local roads were blocked by water but flooding in other parts of the UK was much worse.

Even before the storms, walking in the rain-saturated countryside was particularly difficult but we managed to get out, although this sometimes meant paddling through mud and water.

Westcombe Beach

One of these walks was on a sunny February 1st when we took the opportunity to walk to Westcombe Beach near Kingston in south Devon.  This is an isolated sandy cove bisected by a sprightly stream and enclosed by some impressively jagged shiny grey rock formations.  The beach was largely clear of plastic waste, a rare find nowadays, but on one side I came across several unusual pale blue and pink inflated objects.  Although these might look as though they are made from plastic, they are in fact living creatures, Portuguese Men o’ War, driven on to the beach by south westerly winds.   They normally float on the surface of the sea, trailing dark blue tentacles with the capacity to deliver a very nasty sting, their pink sail catching the wind.

Portuguese Man o’War (some of the features of these organisms are lost when they are beached)

During our walk to and from Westcombe Beach we came across several flowers usually associated with the spring including primroses, violets and celandine.  As we were near the coast, the dark green fleshy leaves of Alexanders also flourished along the path sides but I was surprised to see one plant already in flower.

The flowers of Alexanders with a fly (probably a Yellow Dungfly)

Then as we walked back along the cliff tops in the low, late afternoon sunshine, we encountered a large caterpillar crossing the coast path.  It was very furry with orange-brown hairs along the top and darker grey-brown hairs below.  This is a larva of the fox moth and on sunny winter days they come out of hibernation to bask.

Fox moth caterpillar

Just under a week later, on February 6th, a day of sunny intervals, we walked to Mansands near Brixham.  Mansands is another isolated cove but with a stony beach and backed by a substantial body of water that attracts both waterfowl and bird watchers.  The land rises steeply either side of the beach with cliffs and there had been some falls of the soft rock on the eastern side over the winter which may have affected the solitary bees that nest there. [The picture at the head of this post shows the eastern side of Mansands beach and cliffs.]

Our biggest surprise of the day was finding a pair of toads (male and female) on the path along Mansands Lane as it descended towards the beach.  Hazel spotted the pair and had to take quick evasive action to avoid squashing them.  They were most likely on their way to the water below the path to spawn.  The males are opportunists and hitch a lift on the back of the larger females when they pass.  Once the female arrives at the water, more males will jump on her, competing for her attention.  Eventually, she will choose one male to fertilise her eggs as she deposits strings of them in the water.  We managed to persuade the pair to move to the path edge where they were more likely to avoid the danger of passing human feet.

Male and female toads

There were more surprises in store as we walked up the very steep Southdown Cliff away from Mansands where we saw several flowers often associated with spring.

Blackthorn flowers on Southdown Cliff above Mansands

 

Greater stitchwort on Southdown Cliff above Mansands

I hadn’t expected to see these flowers so early in the year but perhaps the generally warm weather has encouraged them.  There have also been reports of solitary bees emerging earlier than expected and I have seen queens of the bumblebee Bombus pratorum in two places in Devon, on January 15th and 20th so both very early.

Bombus pratorum queen (January 20th 2020)

A simple explanation for these findings is that our climate is changing.  Warmer, wetter winters with unstable weather are becoming more likely as a result of global temperature increases with corresponding effects on the flora and fauna.  But one person’s observations in one year don’t go beyond the anecdotal and we need much more comprehensive data to draw conclusions.

For this, I went to Nature’s Calendar, a citizen science project that records first flowerings, first sightings etc for many species across the UK.   When I looked at their report for 2019, I was surprised to see that blackthorn, to take one example, flowered 27 days earlier in the UK than it did in 2001.  In fact in 2019 all but one of Nature’s Calendar spring events were early, some considerably so.   Lorienne Whittle of Nature’s Calendar attributes these changes to the warmer winters we are now experiencing and the concern is that the long-established patterns of nature are being disturbed with potentially serious consequences.  For example, if frogs and toads spawn early, late frosts could kill their tadpoles.  Also, should insects emerge too soon they may not survive unless plentiful flowers are available for food.  We are entering uncertain times.