Last week we saw this beautiful and surprising creature, a hummingbird-hawk moth, feeding from the red valerian that grows so profusely in Totnes.
Here are two more photos I managed before it flew away.
The wing span is about 5cm to give some scale. These day flying moths come into the UK from southern Europe in the summer.
Seeing this insect was all the more surprising as I have recently had several conversations with people about how few moths they see nowadays and that is my experience as well. If you want to read about the general decline of insects in the UK here is an interesting article from the Observer.
After so many cool, damp and grey days, spring arrived in a rush in the third week of April. Temperatures soared by nearly ten degrees and the sun shone strongly from a virtually cloud-free sky, filling the air with an unexpected brightness, at least for a few days. The sudden change in the weather demanded that I get outside so I drove the short distance to the fishing port of Brixham, parking on the clifftop road on the eastern edge of the town. A steep stone stairway took me down the hillside past curious, deserted, rectangular buildings and wide sweeps of concrete enclosed by thick scrub echoing with birdsong. These are remnants of the Brixham Battery, built in 1940 to guard Torbay against a German invasion, now Grade 2 listed and an informal, unplanned nature reserve. Dandelions and cowslips were dotted about grassy areas and fleshy-leaved green alkanet with its grey-blue flowers provided a contrasting colour. The stairway continued downwards among trees until I was just above the sea where I joined the coast path.
This section of the coast path is enclosed by low scrub and, at this time of year, blackthorn dominates, its branches covered with a snow of small flowers, creating a curtain of white with occasional glimpses of the blue sea. In the bright sunshine, the delicate white petals were almost transparent below a confused mass of yellow-tipped stamens. Eventually, this enclosed path gave on to an open, grassy area roughly the size of a football pitch, overlooking the water of Torbay and backed by thick trees creating a sense of seclusion. Wooden benches positioned along the sea side were popular, occupied by people wearing sun hats and enjoying the spectacular view. The full panorama of Torbay was spread out ahead like an enticing display in a travel brochure: the red cliffs, the white seafront buildings, the pine trees, the big wheel and, in the foreground, the Brixham breakwater with its white lighthouse. The sea was a bright, slightly greenish blue textured with patches of silvery sheen and pleasure boats shuttled across the water to and from Torquay. It was a holiday scene and felt almost Mediterranean.
Amongst all this human activity, no one seemed to be paying any attention to the many mini-volcanoes of crumbly soil partly concealed beneath the rough grass or to the many bees moving about the area just above the grass. Everywhere I looked there were bees flying about, backwards and forwards, swinging from side to side, as if they were trying to find something; a few were walking about on the red soil. There must have been thousands of bees, an amazing natural phenomenon and very exciting to watch. When I looked carefully, I saw that they were mostly black but with distinctive bands of pale hair. These are Ashy Mining Bees (Andrena cineraria), one of our more common solitary bees, and the soil volcanoes in the ground are their nests.
While I was taking in the scene, a couple arrived, both carrying plastic bags. He was in his sixties with long white hair roughly corralled into a pony tail. She was in her late fifties with copious dark hair. They threw down a blanket into the middle of the grassy area, stripped down to their underwear, cracked open some cans and proceeded to sunbathe. Like the other people, they didn’t notice the bees swirling about the grass around them and I wondered how they might react if they encountered the insects. Luckily for them, only the females of these kinds of mining bees possess a sting and they use it only when threatened.
I wanted to take some photos of the bees but, wishing to avoid any misunderstandings as I waved my camera about, I moved to the other end of the grassy area, passing a small turf-roofed building that used to contain the searchlight for the wartime Battery. I found an unoccupied bench, sat down, and providing I was still, the bees resumed their incessant movement around me. The bench turned out to be a front-row seat as, on several occasions, I saw one bee rush at another and the two struggled for a while on the ground. Two or three others tried to join in and it all got a bit confused and messy for a while. Eventually, however, only two were left coupled together, end to end. They stayed like this for a few minutes before separating and flying off. I presumed they were mating but it seemed rather sedate compared to the frantic copulatory behaviour of some solitary bees.
Photographing the flying bees is difficult, but for the short time they were occupied in mating they were relatively still, making it easier. My photographs showed that the honeybee-sized females have shiny black abdomens with a blue sheen in some lights. Two thick, furry bands of grey-white hair line the front and back of the thorax and the face is white-haired with black antennae. The slimmer and smaller males also have black abdomens but differ from the females in having white hairs on the sides of the thorax and thick tufts of white hair on the face. With their pale hairs and contrasting dark abdomens, Ashy Mining Bees are one of the most distinctive and beautiful species of mining bee in the UK.
Despite all this excitement on the ground, I kept an occasional watch on the sea and got quite excited when I saw a shiny black head emerge from the water. This was one of the local colony of grey seals swimming towards Fishcombe Cove. The water was so clear and calm that the seal’s huge body was clearly visible as it passed.
When I had finished, I walked back past the lush banks of three cornered leek that grow along the low cliff edge. I saw male Ashy Mining bees nectaring from the delicate white-belled flowers. Further on, I stopped to look at the blackthorn flowers. Here there were more Ashy Mining Bees foraging together with one very different bee with a shock of orange-brown hair on the thorax and a largely black abdomen tipped with orange-red hair. I later identified this as an Orange-tailed Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa). With all this insect interest, there should be a good crop of sloes on the blackthorn here in the autumn.
If you are interested to learn more about these wonderful bees, here are three more descriptions:
As we stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, we had our first glimpse of the river Exe, its waters a sparkling pale blue in the bright sunshine. The weather was a welcome change after so many cold and snowy days but, during our short journey from Totnes, we had passed bright ridges of snow still piled against field hedges and, in low lying places, large lakes of standing water from snow melt. Perhaps the weather was giving us a gentle reminder of its power to disrupt life.
We hadn’t intended to visit Dawlish Warren again so soon (see here for a description of our previous visit) but we wanted to get out for a walk and, hearing that some country roads were still snow-blocked, we chose somewhere easily accessible. We also wondered how the recent extreme weather might have affected this beautiful sand spit.
The view from the promenade quickly told us part of the answer. Sand was piled up on the retaining wall that slopes to the beach and, along the promenade, some of the benches were partly submerged in sand as if caught by a pale brown snow storm. On the beach, huge quantities of wooden debris lay in random heaps, along with some very large plastic items; it will be a mammoth task to clear this. A closer look showed that the debris was a mixture of wood and reeds along with bits and pieces of plastic and many industrial plastic pellets (mostly grey nurdles). I don’t want to go on too much about these industrial pellets, I’ve written about them several times already, but we found them littering all the beaches at the Warren to a greater or lesser extent. Near the promenade there must have been thousands.
As we were picking up a few of the pellets, a woman asked Hazel what she was doing. After an explanation, the woman said:
“I thought you were picking up driftwood,” and after Hazel had shown her some pellets the woman continued “still they might be very nice for decorating a mirror.”
We then walked around the Dawlish Warren sand spit following the route I outlined in a previous post, which also gives some background information about this nature reserve.
The central area of the Warren was partially flooded but still passable. No spring flowers were to be seen yet but small birds were performing florid mating displays while a group of black corvids sat judgementally in a nearby tree. Vegetation along paths over the dunes was seemingly spray-painted with a coat of rough sand, probably a result of the blizzard sucking up material from the beach. Near the bird hide, I disturbed a large flock of Brent geese feeding on the golf course. These imposing birds took off as a group and circled low over us before moving to a quieter spot.
Warren Point at the end of the sand spit was as mysterious and beautiful as always, its pale marram grass covering glowing in the sunshine. A small flock of linnets, the males with their pink bibs standing out, fidgeted in the branches of a low bush. A skylark rose from the ground, wings flapping frantically as it hovered in mid-air, singing, turning a tune over and over, changing it each time. Then, without warning, it stopped flapping and deftly descended back to the ground with subtle, steadying wing movements.
The story on the beaches bordering Warren Point was less uplifting. There was a slew of debris along the strandline, mostly wood and reeds but also many dead birds. We saw at least twenty casualties, mostly lapwings, identified by their largely black colouring combined with russet brown and white undersides. During the storm there had been a mass movement of these birds across the Warren and a proportion didn’t survive. We also saw one or two golden plovers with their exquisite pale brown and white herringbone patterns. On the beach facing up the Exe, the low sand cliffs at the back of the beach had been damaged by high water and when we rounded the point to walk back, there were more signs of storm damage. Areas of marram grass had been torn out and reddish soil had been deposited on the edge of the remaining marram grass.
The most significant damage, however, had occurred to the taller sand cliffs that abut the groynes on the sea-facing beach. Sand had been washed away from the back of the groynes and several metres of sand cliff removed exposing, in some places, the old sea defences. Some of the new fences built on the reinforced dune ridge had been torn out and now lay on the ground in casual heaps or hanging in mid-air, still partly attached. The groynes themselves seemed to be intact but plastic notices attached to them lay in pieces among the other debris. In a powerful demonstration of the scale of the storm and the water level reached, small pieces of wood and more plastic pellets lay along the wooden planks of the groynes and on top of the main support posts nearly a metre above the sand.
Despite all this, the Warren itself is intact and ready for the bloom of spring flowers. The scale of the damage to the new sea defences was shocking and a salutary reminder of the power of the sea, but at least the defences did hold. Elsewhere in south Devon, the coast road linking Torcross and Slapton was almost completely washed away. As in 2014, when the Dawlish railway line was destroyed, this year’s damage was the result of a combination of high winds and very high tides, perhaps combined with increased sea level.
As we waited at the station for our homeward train, I noticed willow trees by the platform with many plump, pussy willow catkins. A medium sized buff-tailed bumblebee arrived to collect pollen from the lemon-yellow male flowers.
Here are a few photos to record yesterday’s exceptional weather when the cold air from Russia (nicknamed the Beast from the East) met Atlantic Storm Emma and large amounts of snow were dumped on the south west of the UK. Here in Totnes we experienced blizzard conditions for most of the day, many roads were impassable and a support centre had to be set up to help people stranded in the town.
I have concentrated on some of the birds I saw feeding during the blizzard. The photos convey the feel of the blizzard; the white-out is also shown very well in the featured image at the top of this post.
There’s something other-worldly about sand dunes. They’re such unusual, secretive places and I remember as a child being able to lose myself in a dune dip. So, as we walk up the sandy path crossing the dune ridge at Bantham on the south Devon coast, there’s a little bit of me back all those years, hiding. The path is edged with marram grass, richly gilded in today’s low sun, and seemingly threatening to take the path back. There’s also a prolific patch of Alexanders with its shiny, yellowish-green leaves. The plant is one of the early signs of spring by the coast and I notice a few fresh creamy white flowers.
The roar of the waves increases steadily until we reach the highest point where the path widens between white-bleached wooden fences. A sandy beach, deep and broad, is now spread out below us and we get our first taste of the cool sea breeze. We walk downwards across the unsteadily soft sand and, with the tide this low, it’s a long walk to the surf. But there certainly is surf and I watch volleys of waves and white water making their attack. To the west, the beach ends with the mouth of the River Avon, while ahead the central view is filled by the green outcrop of Burgh Island with its white art deco hotel shimmering in the sunshine.
There are several family groups on the beach today. It’s half term and children are enjoying building sand castles; some are even paddling. One large group pass us, body boards slung over shoulders. The strandline spreads in a wide semi-circle across the beach with increasing amounts of seaweed towards the eastern side. I spend some time poking around with a walking pole examining the strandline debris. There’s not much large plastic waste but I do see small fragments over most of the beach, some gradually disappearing under wind-blown dry sand.
I notice a young woman nearby with her children, all clad for arctic weather. She’s looking in my direction and eventually comes over to enquire kindly:
“Have you lost something?”
“No, I am actually looking for something.”
I open my hand to show her the few plastic pellets I have found on the beach: “I’m looking for these.” Her children also want to look. “Some of them are nurdles, the raw material of the plastics industry.”
“Yes, I’ve heard about them” she replies
She continues: “Did you see about the palm oil on the beaches, apparently it’s completely legal for ships carrying palm oil to flush out their holds into the sea. Several dogs have died eating lumps of the stuff washed up on beaches.”
We talk for a while and then she wishes me good luck in my hunt, telling me to make sure I publicise what I find.
A high-pitched “peep, peep” announces the arrival of several rock pipits skittering around on the beach, looking for insects in the seaweed. They swoop around like wagtails, even wagging a little when they land.
It’s cold on the beach so we head up along the coast path that follows the edge of the cliffs at the eastern side of the beach. The path is busy with families and dogs and, after heavy overnight rain, it’s muddy and slippery. As we gain height we get better views of the waves approaching the beach in wide, white-fringed, concentric arcs.
The path levels out to snake eastwards, roughly following the line of the cliffs. It’s being continually re-routed inland because of “activity” in the cliffs and we notice deep red-rock fissures where the cliff will eventually fall away. Thurlestone Bay with its distinctive stone arch is laid out ahead of us, the sea dominated by a silvery mirror spread by the low sun. We look downwards to buff-yellow sandy beaches criss-crossed with anonymous footprints and to dark rocks where the water boils and spray shoots upwards as the waves rush inwards. Oystercatchers add their yearning cries to the atmosphere.
Thick tussocky grass fringes the path and starry yellow celandines are starting to show, with the occasional gorse bush continuing the colour theme. A large black beetle, about 2cm long, makes its unsteady way across the path. In the sunshine I see hints of iridescent blue from its back and from its distinctive wire-wound legs. This is a Bloody-nosed Beetle; later we see another and I wonder how many are squashed by walkers gazing at the views. The same may be true about two large caterpillars we encounter later. About three times the length of the beetle, they are covered in thick wiry hair, bright orange-brown above and mid brown below. These striking creatures are larvae of the Fox Moth taking advantage of some winter sunshine.
We catch fragments of conversation from passing walkers, minor insights into other lives. Then ahead I see a young man sprawled on the grass by the path. Has he slipped on the mud and hurt himself? No, he is checking his phone messages!
For some distance the coast path follows the edge of the golf course. Signs helpfully warn us to watch out for flying golf balls but today there are few players and after passing the Club House we reach Leas Foot Sands, a pleasant sheltered sandy beach and lunch stop. We see the usual bits and pieces of plastic rope and twine but the beach appears relatively clean today compared with previous visits. Sea mayweed, with its fleshy green foliage, is growing well at the back of the beach accompanied by plastic fragments blown into the grass behind the dunes. Hazel discovers a crack in the rocks on the west side of the beach where many different kinds of industrial plastic pellet have collected.
After lunch we retrace our steps along the cliffs passing a male stonechat sitting on a bush flicking his tail and displaying his snowy white collar. The wind is stronger and colder, and water and waves are now coming within striking distance of the dunes at Bantham. Two kite surfers enjoy the white water, zipping back and forth. Occasionally, like watery ballet dancers, they leap into the air as the wind shifts.
I wasn’t sure what to expect today. Major engineering work had been carried out at Dawlish Warren over the past year to stabilise the beaches and dunes and this was our first visit since the project had been completed. I hoped the area hadn’t been changed too much as it’s a special place.
Dawlish Warren is a massive sand spit that extends north-eastwards for about 2km across the mouth of the River Exe from its western bank. It reaches out like a giant hand towards the town of Exmouth but fails to make contact, leaving a narrow channel where tides and the waters of the Exe flow in vast amounts each day. The sand spit is about 500m wide but incomplete; a huge bite has been taken out of the inner side creating the inland bay, leaving the tip of the spit, Warren Point, attached by a thin strip of dunes. Some of the recent stabilisation work was aimed at strengthening this dune strip against future increases in sea level. Much of the Warren is now a nature reserve with several rare habitats including vegetated dunes, mud flats and salt marsh and has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The Warren was once used for breeding rabbits for food, hence the name, but with the arrival of the railway, it became a popular holiday resort. It now also has a golf course, fun fair, shops, cafes and a pub although these are concentrated at the western end and do not detract appreciably from the nature reserve.
Despite heavy overnight rain, the day was dry, and warm for the time of year (11 degrees) but feeling cooler in the stiff sea breeze. Layers of dark cloud dominated the sky but occasional linear shafts of sunlight broke through towards the steel-grey sea. There were clear views from the promenade along the outer sea-facing beach with its many groynes and across the water to Orcombe point, the start of the East Devon/Dorset Jurassic Coast.
We left the promenade via a boardwalk descending to the central, low-lying part of the reserve, once a tidal lake but long since filled in. Today the area was puddle-strewn and barren; later in the year, it will be a colourful mosaic of wild flowers. A large pond with wildfowl lay behind a tree screen where an exquisitely pink male bullfinch showed for a while. On the water, two swans performed like synchronised swimmers.
A sandy track led us up to the marram grass-fringed path along the crest of the outer dunes with views over the golf course and inner bay to the north and across the outer sandy beach and sea to the south. A large flock of Brent Geese were feeding on one of the greens, no doubt to the irritation of the golfers. Dropping down to the inner bay we walked along the stony foreshore, finding it littered with large amounts of debris, mostly wood and reeds but also industrial pellets and shards of plastic.
On one side of the inner bay there is a large bird hide that looks across mud flats and salt marsh at low tide. Huge numbers of waders can be seen here. Yellow gorse sparkled near the hide together with several small stands of flowering ragwort; fuzzy, lime green lichen coated some bushes. From the hide, we watched ghostly black cormorants on a mud bank spreading their wings to dry and saw hundreds of oystercatchers huddled together, the colours of their plumage merging into discrete layers of black and white. A little egret flew across displaying its yellow feet and a curlew probed the mud with its long curving beak.
From the inner bay we accessed Warren Point and the soft sandy beach that leads around the tip of the sand spit. At the back of the beach there were dunes clad with marram grass, a subtle mixture of green and yellowish-brown spikes. This part of the Warren is both strangely beautiful and unsettling and as we circled the Point, we were conscious of the vast amounts of water passing at the foot of the sloping beach and the apparent proximity of Exmouth just across this turbulent channel. Again, there were huge amounts of debris on the beach, wood and reeds predominantly but mixed with plastic including more industrial pellets. On the inner beach, we also saw as many as eight green tennis balls, many plastic bottles, several golf tees and many fresh green leaves. I presume this waste had come down the Exe propelled by the heavy rain that had fallen inland over the past few days. Once we had rounded the Point and started walking back along the outer beach, the nature of the debris changed and we saw mainly plastic rope and twine, probably fishing-related.
By now it was mid-afternoon and the low tide gave us the chance to walk below the end of the newly reinstated groynes that stalk, triffid-like, across the wide sandy beach. The sea was calm but the gentle waves were enough to satisfy a lone, silhouetted surfer. Then, for a few minutes, the low sun broke through the layers of grey cloud, casting an intense yellow light across the dunes at the back of the beach, creating a mysterious, unnatural landscape where, surrounded by pink sand, the marram grass had turned to gold. At the same time, the western view was filled with an intense white light, bleaching grey out of the cloud and sprinkling silver across the sea.
Eventually, we reached the commercial part of the Warren where the mystery might have ended, but there was one final treat in store: a queen buff-tailed bumblebee as large as my thumb, collecting pollen from purple Hebe, presumably to stock her nest.
My concerns about the effects of the engineering work turned out to be mostly unfounded. Only one part of the Warren is visibly different, the narrow dune strip which is now topped with bare sand. The area has, however, been planted with marram grass which will take over in time. Overall, Dawlish Warren remains a special, elemental place.
The featured image shows the outer beach and groynes viewed from the dune strip, with, in the distance, Orcombe Point and the start of the East Devon/Dorset Jurassic Coast .
The Christmas weather in south Devon was stormy and very wet so when we woke on December 27th to bright sunshine and clear, pale blue skies we had to get out for a walk. We chose one combining countryside and sea, one we often walk after heavy rain as it mostly follows minor roads or paved paths.
We started at Townstal, a suburb on the edge of Dartmouth. Townstal is noted for its leisure centre and two supermarkets but it does provide easy parking and quick access to open countryside. Our route headed gradually southwards towards the sea along narrow roads edged by high grassy banks. Volleys of gulls and crows rose from adjacent fields and the low sunshine created strongly contrasting areas of light and dark on the deep valleys and rolling countryside, emphasising even the slightest undulation.
Some steep ups and downs took us to Venn Cross where we turned to descend along the Blackpool Valley with its spirited stream, growing ever fuller as it gathered water from springs or from the sodden fields. This part of the walk is tree lined and the minor road is cut into the hillside well above the stream. Several former water mills are dotted along the valley; they are now rather grand private houses but one has installed a turbine to harness the power of the water once again.
At this time of year, the trees are dark latticeworks of bare branches but pale brown immature catkins were showing well on some of the trees, readying themselves for the spring. Patches of winter heliotrope spread along verges enclosing the ground with their fleshy, green, heart-shaped leaves. Purple and white lollipop flowers struck through the leaves, broadcasting their characteristic almond odour.
Eventually, we reached Blackpool Sands, a popular shingle beach and café, surrounded by pine trees and sheltered by steeply rising hills. The low winter sun created strongly contrasting colours: the yellowish- brown shingle, the fringe of frothy white waves, the sea a rich dark blue tinged with turquoise highlights, and there were clear views across the bay to Start Point with its lighthouse. Near the café, a hardy group of swimmers were struggling on their wet suits in readiness for a dip. They passed me as they ventured in to the sea accompanied by audible yelps and shrieks.
I was keen to have a look at the shingle beach for two reasons. There had been a very successful beach clean four days previously organised by Amanda Keetley of Less Plastic. We hadn’t been able to be there owing to family commitments but there had also been storms since then and I wondered how much more plastic had washed up. I didn’t find any, the beach was still clean which should have been good news.
To be honest, however, I was feeling disheartened about efforts to reduce the load of plastic in our seas after reading two articles in the Guardian over the Christmas period. It seems that the US, along with financial support from Saudi Arabia, is planning a huge increase in plastic production, the driver being cheap shale gas. If we are to reduce the amount of plastic in our seas we need to reduce the amount in circulation and this new plan runs directly counter to this.