Tag Archives: Totnes

The week the Swifts departed

It’s become something of a ritual.  Each year in the first week of August, we scan the sky nervously.  We’re looking for birds but anticipating an absence.  It’s not that we want the swifts to go but we know they must.  The next part of their life is lived in Africa where they spend the months of September to April after their long migration.   When they leave us, it’s a sign that the year has moved on and summer is gradually giving way to autumn.

This year the swifts arrived at the beginning of May.  We had been watching out for them for several days and then finally we noticed a few birds swooping around in the sky above our house.  With that dark crossbow silhouette and those rapid bursts of wing beats interspersed with smooth glides, we were relieved and pleased to see that the swifts had returned.  Messages circulated on our local WhatsApp group celebrating their arrival and it was clear that our neighbours were just as interested as us.  Gradually their numbers built up as more birds arrived from Africa.  Numbers varied and, on some days, we saw none but at their peak this year up to 30 swifts were swooping and screaming across the valley below our house.  The valley contains a community garden with flowers and trees and most likely the swifts come to feed on the insects that breed there. 

Throughout late spring and summer we watched them flying backwards and forwards at high speed, changing direction as they banked and turned, sometimes going into steep dives pulling out at what seemed like the last minute, screaming as they went.  Sometimes a group flew about together, individual birds adjusting their relative positions before splitting into smaller groups like rockets at a firework display.  Sometimes the birds flew towards our terrace of houses, turning finally to avoid the brickwork or deftly navigating the gap between this and the next terrace.

Swifts near our house

The position of our house gave us a very privileged view of the birds.  It is one of a terrace of five houses built on a ridge on the southern edge of Totnes overlooking the valley and community garden so that our kitchen window is level with the tops of the trees below.  Sometimes, when the birds were flying about near the houses, they passed at speed very close to our kitchen window giving us views worthy of a nature documentary programme.  Sometimes, when we sat outside on the patio, the birds passed directly overhead screaming as they went, a joyous and very visceral experience.   

Swifts over Totnes seen from our kitchen window in 2020

Sitting outside, we could also see some of the birds swooping up to the eaves of two houses in adjacent terraces where they made nests.  They also nested in the roof space of one of the houses in this terrace and, for the first time, they occupied a wooden bird box fixed near the eaves on another house.  The box was put up several years ago by a neighbour.   It was occupied by sparrows one year and tree bumblebees in another but this year the swifts used it.  Swifts tend to return to the same places to nest each year so we have high hopes of seeing them in this box in the future. 

The second week of August arrived and the birds were still about.  Although we expected them to go any day, they still had the ability to surprise.   On the 10th just before 9 o’clock with the sun setting, I was standing outside looking across the valley, watching the light fade and the colours changing.  I hadn’t seen swifts that day and wondered if they had left.  The western sky was still bright, a luminous pale blue, and light cloud in the northern sky gathered pinkish-orange tinges from the setting sun.  Suddenly, above the general hum of human activity I heard the familiar screaming sound announcing the arrival of a volley of swifts.  About ten birds in groups of two or three were heading straight towards me just above head height.  At the last minute, though, they changed course to fly through the gap between the terraces. 

If all this wasn’t exciting enough, I had a second fascinating close encounter with the non-human world in the same week, this time with a very different species and some distance away from Totnes.

The second story began when, in the first week of August, Tim Worfolk, a local bird illustrator and naturalist, reported on social media that he had seen some rare and unusual bees on a nature reserve south of Exeter.  This was the first report of this species in Devon and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go to have a look.  So, on August 9th I made the 40-minute drive to the Exminster Marshes, part of the river Exe floodplain and a wetland nature reserve managed by the RSPB.   I had driven through a shower on my way over and rain threatened later but it was my only free day that week.    I parked in the reserve car park and made my way down a lane towards the Exeter Canal and the river Exe.  Signs of water were never far away.  Although the lane was enclosed by hawthorn bushes and other scrub, reeds grew through the vegetation and a ditch half full of water ran alongside the lane.  Late summer flowers grew in the hedges including bright yellow fleabane, the lemon-yellow snap dragon-like flowers of common toadflax and the pink cushions of hemp agrimony. 

The Exminster Marshes showing the flat watery landscape

I left the lane to cross open grassland criss-crossed by ditches with rough stony bridges.  Clumps of tussocky grass grew across the marshy land along with stands of creeping thistle that attracted small copper and small tortoiseshell butterflies and some chunky hoverflies.  Cows grazed nearby and this would have been a peaceful spot had it not been for the M5 motorway bridge crossing the marshes towards the north creating a continuous background hum of traffic noise.

At the end of the field path, I crossed the cycle track and scrambled up to the towpath at the edge of the Exeter Canal.  The pleasant town of Topsham with its Dutch-gabled buildings lay across the river Exe on the far side of the canal.  The towpath was quiet, most likely because of the weather, but a few walkers passed and two stand-up paddleboarders drifted lazily past on the canal. A little drizzle was now falling and I began to wonder if any bees would be about but I decided to press on.  Banks of reeds lined the towpath and flowers grew up through the vegetation.   I noticed the pink flowers of marsh woundwort with their intricately decorated lip and a few tall spikes of purple loosestrife.  Then, as I walked southward, thick clumps of yellow flowers appeared in the canal-side greenery.  This was yellow loosestrife, a plant that grows in wet places and, with its copious sprays of bright yellow cup-shaped flowers produced in late summer, it shone like a beacon of light on this gloomy day.   Each flower contained large amounts of grainy yellow pollen and the plant grew in many places along the canal up to the lock where the canal and river merge. (The picture at the top of this post shows some the yellow loosestrife flowers)

Vegetation by the side of the Exeter Canal showing yellow loosestrife and marsh woundwort. Topsham is in the background.

Light drizzle continued to fall and I had almost given up on finding bees when I spotted a medium-sized dark insect in one of the yellow loosestrife flowers.  Visually, I couldn’t see much to distinguish this insect except some white hairs on the hind legs. Photographs also showed the prominent white hairs on the back legs along with some black as well.  These characteristics together with the association of the insect with the yellow loosestrife flowers showed that this was a female Macropis europaea, the yellow loosestrife bee, one of the bees I had come to find.  The photographs also showed a few small drops of rain on the insect which was sheltering on this damp day and essentially immobile, making it easier for me to take pictures.  Further along the canal, I came across another dark insect also resting in a yellow flower and in this case, photos revealed its swollen hind legs and its prominent yellow face, characteristic of a male of the same species. 

Female Macropis europaea showing the white and black hairs on her hind legs. Look out for the raindrops.
Male Macropis europaea showing his swollen back legs
Male Macropis europaea showing his yellow face and swollen back legs

These are the bees reported by Tim Worfolk but why was I so interested in seeing them?  They are rare which is of course one reason. They also have some very unusual characteristics being the only UK species of bee that collects floral oils and they find these oils in the flowers of yellow loosestrife.   

Within the flowers there are tiny glands that secrete floral oils.  The glands, termed trichome elaiosomes, are found towards the lower part of the inside surface of the petals and along the stamen tubes and the oils collect near the glands.  The female Macropis bees have specialised brushes of hair on their front and middle legs that they use to collect these oils which are then transferred to the hairs on their back legs, sometimes mixed with pollen also collected from the flowers.  The female bees use the oils for two purposes, to waterproof the inside of the nest chambers they construct in wet places and, mixed with pollen, to provide food for their larvae. 

When I visited, the damp conditions prevented the females from flying so I was unable to observe them collecting pollen or oils.  Local naturalist John Walters has a nice video of the female bees collecting pollen where the bees look like they are wearing bright yellow pollen pantaloons.

I was glad to have made the trip to Exminster Marshes, despite my doubts about the weather.  Seeing these oil-collecting bees and understanding the close and reciprocal relationship they have with the yellow loosestrife flowers was an unexpected gift.   

But what about the swifts?  August 13th was the last day we saw the birds near our house so we assume they are now on their long migratory journey.  Their presence has not only entertained us but has enriched our lives this year, bringing us closer to the non-human world.  It has been an excellent year for the birds in terms of numbers and it was good to see them reproducing so well, especially in this time of environmental crisis. 

Marsh woundwort with common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum)
Small copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas)
Hoverfly (Helophilus trivittatus)

Sunday in the orchard with butterflies

It was still early when I looked out of the back window.   I had expected a clear morning but, instead, a veil of grey mist lay across the eastern hills.  The line of mist seemed to follow the course of the river Dart hidden beneath the lower town, softening and lending an air of mystery to the view.     A hazy orange glow emerged above the line of mist gradually shading into a clear, translucent blue sky.  This orange dawn light reminded me of one of the species of the butterfly about at this time of year.  The French call these butterflies “l’aurore”, (the dawn) and the Germans refer to them as “Aurorafalter”, (the dawn butterfly).  We English settle for the name “orange-tip butterfly” (from the bright orange wing tips of the male). 

Last year, during the first lockdown I found orange-tip butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines) in the Nursery Car Park, one of the town centre car parks.  The butterflies laid eggs on the garlic mustard growing along one of the borders, caterpillars developed and I presume they left chrysalises on vegetation in the car park.  Unfortunately, last December, the council carried out a “tidiness” raid on the Nursery Car Park cutting down most of the trees and all the plants and other vegetation, presumably destroying the chrysalises.  Some early spring flowers did grow but in the third week of April the “tidiness brigade” returned and strimmed the borders again.  This included destroying a bank of flowering three-cornered garlic that was popular with female hairy-footed flower bees last year.  I don’t bother to look in the Nursery Car Park now.

The male orange-tip butterfly is one of the clear signs that the new season has arrived and, at this time of year, they can be seen meandering about the countryside searching for females.  In flight, they mostly appear white making them awkward to distinguish from other “white” butterflies although hints of the orange wing tips can sometimes be seen.  This year, I had seen several of the males in different places around the town despite the markedly cool weather.  I had only seen one female so, last Sunday afternoon, with sunshine forecast, I decided to have another attempt at finding orange-tip females, this time in an orchard on the western side of Totnes.

Colwell Wood is owned by the Woodland Trust and located a short distance up Harper’s Hill.  It occupies a sloping site with good views towards Dartmoor and was planted nearly 25 years ago.  Now there is an area of woodland with a good selection of broadleaf native trees and an orchard stocked with heritage fruit trees: apple, plum, pear, cherry, medlar and mulberry.

A mature horse chestnut tree greeted me when I walked through the wooden gate off Harper’s Hill into Colwell Wood.   The tree was covered in floppy lime-green leaves and there were plenty of white candle-like flowers flecked with pink.  The woodland area is a short distance away and, with the trees now fairly mature, this a lovely spot.  A path took me through the rows of mature trunks, sunlight percolated through the partially leafed trees and above me a chiff chaff sang among branches that chattered as the breeze made them tremble.  The lesser celandine that had given the woodland floor a yellow sheen a few weeks ago were on their way out, the colour being replaced by a fulsome green growth with ferns unfurling and hogweed leaves spreading. 

Apple blossom in the orchard

The woodland ended and I walked a little way down the slope into the orchard, now a mass of flowers with most of the trees in blossom.  Apple predominated with its pink and white flowers and a steady stream of pollinators were visiting.  I saw bumblebees, honeybees and hoverflies and above the trees a few St Mark’s flies.

I also began to see an intermittent passage of white butterflies across the orchard in the sunshine.  With their undulating, slightly uncertain flight these insects often remind me of fragments of paper blowing in the wind but here a better comparison would be with the pale petals of apple trees.  These were blowing about in the breeze and on more than one occasion I jumped thinking that a butterfly had passed me only to find it was just a fragment of apple blossom.    

Several species of butterfly appear white in flight, so it’s important to look carefully at individual characteristics to identify the species. Most of the “white” butterflies passing through the orchard that afternoon, though, were elusive and accelerated away when they saw me. Then two appeared dancing around one another in the air.  I watched, thinking this might have been a mating pair but one flew off leaving the other to land on some cow parsley.  I got a quick glimpse of orange as the butterfly landed so I knew this was a male orange-tip.  He tolerated me approaching and looking, even when I knelt down and inadvertently sat on a stinging nettle.  His wings were closed for most of the time, revealing the beautiful green and yellow mottled underwing patterns (see picture at the top of this post and also below).  Slight traces of orange bled into the pattern but the dominant mottling blended well with the colours of the cow parsley.  When he had finished feeding, he flew off giving me another quick flash of brash colour.

Then another “white” butterfly appeared and landed on one of the pear trees.  This insect fed with wings half open, also exhibiting the mottled underwing pattern characteristic of orange-tip butterflies.   It lacked the orange upper wing markings but in their place were black wing tips and spots showing this to be a female of the species.  I was able to watch for a while before she flew off.

My third close encounter with a “white” butterfly that afternoon occurred as one landed on apple blossom and rested with its wings closed.  The underwings of this individual were mostly yellowish green with a beautiful pattern of darker, radiating veins rather like the branches of a tree.  This was a green-veined white butterfly (Pieris napi).

The weather changed, cloud covered the sun and the temperature fell a little.  The butterflies took this as a signal and I saw no more that afternoon but I returned a few days later on a sunny but rather windy day.  Walking through the woodland section, I came across several clumps of garlic mustard, the larval food plant of the orange-tip butterfly (and also the green-veined white).  I examined each plant carefully and very gently and was pleased to find one tiny, orange, ovoid structure attached just under the flower head on one flower stem (see pictures below).  This “mini rugby ball” was the egg of an orange-tip butterfly.  It has a much better chance of producing a new butterfly next year in this environment compared to those I saw last year in the Nursery Car Park.

Thanks to Dr Claudia Garrido who identified the medlar tree for me (see picture below).

Male orange-tip butterfly on cow parsley showing the mottled underwing pattern
Male orange-tip butterfly showing upper wings
Female orange-tip butterfly showing the mottled underwing pattern and upper wing with black tips and spots
Female orange-tip butterfly showing the mottled underwing pattern projecting through in the sunshine
Green-veined white butterfly
Garlic mustard showing the orange egg of the orange tip butterfly
Close up of the orange-tip butterfly egg
Flowers of the medlar tree

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.

Hope and Loss along a Devon country lane – Lockdown Nature Walks 13

For my next Lockdown Nature Walk (taken on February 10th 2021), I went up Fishchowter’s Lane, an ancient track on the southern side of Totnes.  It was a very cold, grey day but I found much that was encouraging and some that wasn’t.  After my account of the walk, I have included a poem that feels relevant, “A Backward Spring” by Thomas Hardy.   

An open part of Fishchowter’s Lane showing the ferns and wall pennywort growing along the soil banks

A jumble of bright green, grass-like leaves spills along a roadside wall near the beginning of Fishchowter’s Lane on the southern edge of Totnes.  This is three-cornered garlic and despite the bitter easterly wind, a flower stem has dared to appear among the leaves.  Most of the flowers on the stem are still swathed in a pale papery bract but one has escaped, snowy white with a hint of a pale green stripe. For a moment, this fragile flower holds my hope that spring, when it arrives, might lighten this lockdown making it easier to bear.

I begin to walk up the lane past houses and a former quarry, now a dark, fern-fringed grotto occasionally used by a wood worker.  Trees grow within the quarry and a group of small birds fusses in the leafless branches.  One of these trees, a hazel, drapes over my path casting a mist of yellow catkins that shimmers in the wind.

The lane rises gently along the side of a grassy valley as it enters open countryside and I begin to be aware of a stream rushing along the valley bottom a little way below.   I am used to mud on this path but with the recent spell of cold weather, it has frozen hard with reminders of that morning’s snow caught in crevices.     At first the lane feels open with views across nearby fields in the valley but soon the character changes.  Trees and scrub growing in the path-side soil banks now cover the track giving it a more enclosed, sheltered feel.  By late spring, fresh leaves will have created a mysterious green tunnel here but today some light still gets through.  With the overcast conditions, though, this is a poor flat light and everything feels rather gloomy. 

Despite this, the enclosed track has a feeling of lush green growth.  Ferns and wall pennywort cover large areas of the soil banks and have yet to be touched by the cold weather.  Shiny arrow head-shaped leaves push up through the soil on the banks and by the path side, some with prominent black spots.  These are the leaves of Lords and Ladies whose beacons of orange-red berries will light up the green tunnel in late summer. Groups of pointed leaves like small spears, some spattered with mud are also emerging through the hard soil along the side of the path. Breaking a piece of leaf releases a sharp oniony smell transporting me forwards to a time when these starry-flowered ramsons will capture the edges of the track.  Then further along, green mats of oval wavy-edged leaves cover the bank.   This is opposite-leaved golden saxifrage an evergreen, damp and shade-loving plant.  A few yellow flower stems are already showing, bringing hints of sunshine to the dark track.

The path continues to climb slowly, sometimes enclosed by trees, sometimes more open.  A stream running off a steeply sloping field crosses the lane to join the water in the valley and I pass an organic smallholding before the lane rises again to reach a junction where another path crosses at right angles.  The junction is set in a peaceful tree-lined glade where water cascades from fields across rocks and old tree stumps before entering a culvert to hurry downhill towards the valley stream.  I stand there for a while listening to the ebb and flow of the watery sounds and I try to imagine the people that have walked this way over the years.   I also reflect on how, if you walk a path regularly, it can insinuate itself into your life.

Fishchowter’s Lane leaves the tree-lined glade to head steeply upwards across the side of a rising hillside.  The path is enclosed by scrub and mature trees and feels rather bleak today.  As I climb, the noise of the wind threading through the trees begins to dominate and apart from wall pennywort growing on the soil banks there is little to see except for a few green spikes that may be bluebells. In compensation, the views to the north become increasingly spectacular, across the valley below, to the town of Totnes and further on to the Dartmoor hills.  

The lane climbs about 75metres from the watery glade in a short distance so I am relieved when the track levels out.  This part of Fishchowter’s Lane is open and airy in spring and summer, its high hedges richly embroidered with wildflowers.  Today, though, the plants growing along the banks look damaged.  Foxgloves and wall pennywort show this most with their leaves drooping uncharacteristically.  I am puzzled by this at first but decide that the recent high winds from the east combined with persistent low temperatures have damaged the lush leaves of plants that grew well in the earlier mild weather. It looks alarming and although it may set back these plants, they will recover and regrow so I press on to the next junction where I turn left along Bowden Lane. 

This is a well-used farm track, scarred with deep muddy ruts glinting with shards of ice.  It’s another mass of growth in the warmer seasons, abounding with flowers and insects but today it looks apocalyptic.  The farmer appears to have decided to rein in the vegetation, flailing the hedge and plants growing there, spreading the cuttings across the high banks that line the lane.  A thick brown layer of coarse fragments of wood and leaves covers both sides smothering any new growth, so that the lane looks dead.    I don’t hang around here, there is nothing to see, the wind is bitter and a little snow is now falling.   The lane ends at a four-way junction and I walk on to the minor road which allows me to descend along Totnes Down Hill.  Primroses with their yellow flowers are showing well in the high banks but it is very exposed with more evidence of wind damage.

So, what about my earlier hopes for the arrival of spring? With all this natural and unnatural destruction, all this loss, I can’t help but feel downcast but then I come across a splash of snowdrops growing by the side of the road.  As I look at the delicate green markings on these flowers, a great tit sings a joyful “teacher, teacher” from a nearby tree and then a robin appears.  Not wishing to be left out, the bird begins to speak to me.

……………………………………………………………….

A Backward Spring by Thomas Hardy

The trees are afraid to put forth buds,
 And there is timidity in the grass;
 The plots lie gray where gouged by spuds,
  And whether next week will pass
 Free of sly sour winds is the fret of each bush
  Of barberry waiting to bloom.

 Yet the snowdrop’s face betrays no gloom,
 And the primrose pants in its heedless push,
 Though the myrtle asks if it’s worth the fight
  This year with frost and rime
  To venture one more time
 On delicate leaves and buttons of white
 From the selfsame bough as at last year’s prime,
 And never to ruminate on or remember
 What happened to it in mid-December.

……………………………………………..

Leaves of Lords and Ladies

Green spears of ramsons coming through the hard soil at the path edge

Opposite leaved golden saxifrage showing the leaves and some flower stems with the bright yellow stamens in groups of eight

The view from the high point across the valley to Totnes and Dartmoor

Wall pennywort showing frost and wind damage, also some remnants of snow

Foxglove showing frost and wind damage

View along Bowden Lane with icy, muddy ruts and the banks, flailed and cut

Snowdrops growing along Totnes Down Hill

A visitor from Eastern Europe and a winter hoverfly – Lockdown Nature Walks 12

For my next Lockdown Nature Walk I took advantage of a rain-free day to cross Totnes to look at some unusual flowers growing on the northern edge of the town.  Here is my account of the walk (taken on January 25th 2021) together with a poem by the American poet Ruby Archer entitled Fire in the Sky.  For my previous Lockdown Nature Walks, please click here.

The day dawned to a washed out, almost translucent, pale blue sky.  To the east, though, there was a hint of what was to come as an apricot halo crept above the low hills as if a fire were burning behind them. Then, as the sun rose, a raft of thin cloud towards the south east caught its light, first a rose-pink, then orange before relaxing to cream.  It was a good way to start the day.

No rain was forecast so I decided to walk across the town, past the castle to the northern edge, where semi-urban and residential gradually give way to rural.  It was a day of light and dark, a day of bright sunshine and long shadows, and a cold day where frost lingered in areas inaccessible to the sun.  

A minor road, Barracks Hill lies in this transitional zone, striking north away from the bypass past a modern housing development.  The road rises gradually between rough grassy banks and then more steeply to cross a low ridge.  This section of the road is enclosed and dark.   It rises, like a sunken green lane, between steep sides, some rocky, some covered in rough vegetation, emerging eventually into sunshine and open countryside with farmland and trees.  There was once a Barracks along this lane, built in the late 18th century.  Some of the buildings remain but most were demolished when a fine Georgian house was built in the 1820s.

But I want to go back down the hill to the lower part of the lane to look at the scruffy areas of vegetation that line the road.  Where it can, the sun casts pools of brightness on to these roadside banks, its spotlight picking out pennywort, hart’s tongue fern, brambles and what looks suspiciously like garden rubbish.  Whatever can get a foothold here seems to flourish and there is a long section of the bank where lime green, heart-shaped leaves push through a mass of dark brown, dry, decaying vegetation.  Unusually for the time of year, many sturdy flower spikes also rise above the leaves, some sporting striking blue flowers that sparkle in the sunshine like sapphire jewels. This is oriental borage (Trachystemon orientalis) commonly known as Abraham-Isaac-Jacob.  A relative of wild borage (Borago officinalis), this plant was introduced into gardens in the UK in 1868 from its native Bulgaria, Georgia and Turkey where all parts of the plant are consumed as a popular spring vegetable.

This patch of the plant is probably a garden throw-out and it seems very happy here, covered in flowers and having elbowed out all the competition.  At a first glance, the flowers look rather chaotic but this is because several different forms and colours exist together at the same time. 

First there are the pink tapering flower buds about 1cm long, decorated with a fuzz of white hairs resembling the stubble on an old man’s chin.   The buds open to reveal the strikingly beautiful complex flowers.  Each has five petals that curl and twist backwards creating an intensely blue frilly decoration around a crimped white collar reminiscent of a sapphire-coloured ruff around the neck of an Elizabethan lady.  Adding to the complexity, five stamens, each about 1 cm long, and a single slightly longer style protrude proudly from the collar as a tight cluster.  The stamens themselves are multicoloured starting white at the top, then pinkish-lilac, terminating as indigo anthers clasping lumps of pollen. 

As the flowers mature, they discard the petals and stamens leaving an odd-looking remnant where a spiky pinkish-lilac style emerges from hairy sepal cup.  This form in particular contributes to the overall messy look of the plant.    Unusually, all three flower forms, representing different stages of maturation, are present at the same time.  This may be the inspiration for the common name of the plant, Abraham-Isaac-Jacob, itself a reference to three generations of a biblical family.   [Photographs at the end of this post illustrate the three different flower forms.]

A plant that produces flowers at this low time of year is a rare discovery and these out of season sources of pollen and nectar often attract winter-active insects.  Nothing was about when I looked, though, and the day was probably too cold.  I came back a few days later on a warmer afternoon and was pleased to find a fine hoverfly on the flowers (see picture at the top of this post).  With its bulging brown eyes and distinctive barcoded abdominal pattern of yellow, silver and black bands this was a marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) a species that overwinters as an adult and emerges on mild winter days.  It was collecting pollen from the indigo-coloured anthers and nectar from the nectaries in the white collar.

…………………………………….

Fire in the Sky by Ruby Archer

I thought the darkness would not yield,
Glooming the sun-forgotten sky,
‘Till pulsing, surging glows revealed
A far-off burning,—home or field,
Up flung the light. Oh whence? O why?

I thought forgetfulness had spread
A Lethean gloom athwart one sky,
‘Till memory’s light crept warmly red
From flame I deemed in ashes dead.
Up leapt the light. Oh whence? Oh why?

…………………………………………………..

The roadside bank with the lime-green leaves and blue flowers of Abraham-Isaac-Jacob

Pink tapering flower buds with their decoration of white hairs

Three of the beautiful and complex flowers showing the frilly decoration of blue petals around the white collar and the tight cluster of stamens and style. Note also the indigo-coloured anthers with pollen.

Some of the spiky remnant flowers

Marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) feeding from the anthers of one of the flowers on Abraham-Isaac-Jacob

On the Ridgeway Road – Lockdown Nature Walks 11

Here we are again in another Lockdown. The rules prevent us travelling away from the local area and while I support this, it feels much more constraining this time with winter weather and pandemic fatigue.  The only answer is to make the best of it so we are taking daily exercise walks around the town and the nearby countryside looking at the non-human world as winter gives way to spring. 

During the first Lockdown, I wrote a series of posts entitled Lockdown Nature Walks and I intend to do the same during the current hiatus.  In the first of these new Lockdown Nature Walks (taken on January 13th 2021) I go up to one of the high points above the town of Totnes in south Devon.  As well as the description of my walk, I have included a poem that feels relevant, The Rainbow by the 18th century Scottish poet James Thomson, and some photos of what I saw. 

Harper’s Hill

I started on the western edge of the town and walked up Harper’s Hill with its unpredictable surface and its 1 in 3 gradients (see Lockdown Nature Walk 7).  The sides of this ancient sunken track showed plenty of growth, mainly ferns and pennywort but I did find a few clumps of dark green spears piercing the leaf mould cover.  The white swellings at the top of these spears told me that these were snowdrops, getting ready to flower, a welcome indication that the year was moving on.  

The lane levelled out and at Tristford Cross, I turned right on to the old ridgeway road.  The trees that had been providing some shelter petered out and I began to feel the full force of the bitterly cold wind that blew from the west.   To the north, the land fell away to a deep valley, a patchwork of fields, farms and woodland. The edge of Totnes lay to the east some 100 metres below.  It felt very exposed on the ridgeway road and curious things were happening in the air above the valley as fragments of rainbow formed and faded repeatedly as if memories of past events were attempting to replay.  These transient hints of colour really did feel spectral but, in reality, they were the result of a significant meteorological battle.  Thick grey cloud was trying to dominate, even partly obscuring the hills of Dartmoor in the distance. Occasionally, though, the sun got the upper hand, breaking through the cloud and transiently painting fields in the valley a luminous yellow-green.  Barely visible, mobile swirls of mizzle were also about, waiting to separate the sunlight into its constituent colours. 

Until the Turnpike was built in the valley below, this ridgeway road was the main route from Totnes to Plymouth and the west. Nowadays, it is very quiet and, in spring, colourful wild flowers decorate its roadside banks.   Even in mid-winter, though, I found a drift of fleshy heart-shaped green leaves on the roadside bank with the occasional spike of shaggy white and mauve flowers pushing through.  This was winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), introduced into gardens in the early 19th century, loved by some for its almond-scented flowers, hated by others for its invasive nature.  Further along, a single chunky flowerhead, rather like a large bottle brush showed above the rough grass along with one round leaf. This was butterbur (Petasites hybridus), having emerged very early, and I noticed multiple pink and white florets covering the flowerhead.  

Winter heliotrope and butterbur are members of the same botanical family, Petasites, named after the Greek word petasos for a wide brimmed felt hat, a tribute to their large leaves.  Later in the year, butterbur leaves can grow up to a metre across and, in the days before refrigeration, were used to wrap butter, hence the name. 

Rain arrived from the west driving me back down Harper’s Hill towards home but also reminding me of the other use of mature butterbur leaves as impromptu umbrellas.

………………………………

The Rainbow by James Thomson

Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around.
Full swell the woods; their every music wakes,
Mix’d in wild concert, with the warbling brooks
Increased, the distant bleatings of the hills,
And hollow lows responsive from the vales,
Whence, blending all, the sweeten’d zephyr springs.
Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense; and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion running from the red
To where the violet fades into the sky.
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And to the sage-instructed eye unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling maze. Not so the boy;
He wondering views the bright enchantment bend,
Delightful, o’er the radiant fields, and runs
To catch the falling glory; but amazed
Beholds th’ amusive arch before him fly,
Then vanish quite away.

Snowdrops piercing the leaf mould on Harper’s Hill

Fragments of rainbow form and fade above the valley

The ridgeway road with a bank of winter heliotrope and a rainbow fragment
Winter heliotrope

Butterbur growing by the ridgeway road

Butterbur, showing the pink and white florets

Back to the town centre, at last – Lockdown Nature Walks 10

Many of the lockdown restrictions imposed across the UK to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have now been removed or relaxed but life still feels very different from what we were once used to.  It does, though, seem inappropriate to continue referring to Lockdown Nature Walks and this will be my last one with that name.  So, for my tenth walk I want to come back to where I started back in March by walking round some of the town centre gardens and car parks looking at what is out and about in late August/early September.  

Let’s start at the Leechwell Garden, a peaceful, green oasis in the centre of Totnes open to all.  There is always plenty to see here and it changes week by week.  Many flowers grow and I pop in regularly to look at the insects that have been attracted.   During my lockdown visits to the Garden, I have talked to many people and I came to realise what an important lifeline the Garden has been for those without green spaces of their own or for people wanting a physically distanced conversation.  The Garden has also echoed with children’s laughter and the sandpit and play area have been a much-needed diversion for families.

Here are a few highlights from my recent visits:

This drone fly (Eristalis) is feeding from the fragrant white flowers of myrtle with their yellow-tipped stamens

Three honeybees (Apis mellifera) feeding from globe thistle (Echinops)

Late summer is the time that these male common furrow bees (Lasioglossum calceatum) appear and they are often to be seen on the marjoram

A green shieldbug (Palomena prasina) on rudbeckia

It’s a short walk from the Leechwell Garden to the Nursery Car Park, one of the town centre car parks, surrounded by tall stone walls, grassy banks and soil borders.   In April and May, one of the soil borders was unexpectedly enlivened by colourful wildflowers that commandeered its scruffy surface.  Insects were attracted and in Lockdown Nature Walk 5, I described how I found beautiful orange-tip butterflies here.  As spring gave way to summer, the first flush of flowers was replaced by large clumps of spear thistle occupying the border with their architectural presence as if the triffids had taken over.  These thistles proved very popular with bees:

A leafcutter bee (probably a patchwork leafcutter bee (Megachile centuncularis)) feeding on the spear thistle and gathering pollen beneath her abdomen

Orange-vented mining bee (Osmia leaiana) feeding from spear thistle, her orange/red pollen brush is visible beneath her abdomen

In mid-August, the local council decided to mend the fence along the back of this border and in the process cut all the flowers and trees down to ground level.  This did seem rather drastic but most of the plants had finished flowering for the year so perhaps the damage was mostly cosmetic.  I do, though, wonder what happened to the chrysalises of the orange-tip butterflies?

The other borders were unaffected by this scorched earth policy and a large buddleia in one corner is currently covered in its purple plume-shaped flowers that perfume the air with their distinctive but slightly sickly fragrance.   In another corner, brambles still retain a few late flowers. Both are currently attracting butterflies.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) on buddleia, one of three on the bush together.

Holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus) on bramble

Finally, I want to go to the Heathway Car Park, also close to the Leechwell Garden.  Along one side of the parking area there is an old stone wall covered in dark green-leaved ivy and now is the time of year that I begin to peer at stands of this climber.  It’s the developing flower heads that interest me and they currently show considerable variation: some still resemble tiny, pale green golf balls composed of a tight cluster of small spheres.  In others, slightly more mature, the individual spheres are held on extended stalks like a clutch of ice cream cones. Then on August 23rd, in the Heathway Car Park I found that some of these ice cream cones were showing yellow-tipped stamens, the ivy had flowered.  Insects come immediately to take advantage of this new canteen of nectar and pollen and a stand of ivy in full bloom and covered with insects can be an awe-inspiring sight.   So far, I have only seen wasps and hoverflies on the flowers but I hope to see some ivy bees, the last of the solitary bees to emerge each year and a sure sign of the changing season.

Wasp (Common or German) and hornet hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) on flowering ivy

The picture at the head of this post shows a small white butterfly (Pieris rapae) on globe thistle (Echinops) in the Leechwell Garden

Rewilding a flower-rich meadow – Lockdown Nature WalkS 9

Flower-rich hay meadows were once a major feature of our countryside but from the mid-20th century onwards a tidal wave of agricultural intensification swept across farmland taking away 97% of the hay meadows along with the colourful flowers that once grew there.  Together with increased use of chemicals and pesticides, the effect on wildlife has been devastating with farmland birds such as the linnet and the yellowhammer declining by more than 50% since the 1970s.  It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, when Hazel recently returned from one of her solo walks to tell me she had discovered a flowery meadow on the outskirts of the town with many interesting insects.  So, for my ninth Lockdown Nature Walk I want to take you to this hidden, rather magical place. (For my previous Lockdown Nature Walks, click here).

Our starting point is Harper’s Hill, the old road to Plymouth and the West (see Lockdown Nature Walk 7), that heads steeply upwards away from the town and the main Kingsbridge road.  The walk I shall describe was done on an overcast morning in mid-July. 

After crossing the busy Kingsbridge road, we trudged slowly up the steep hill, soon entering the tree-enclosed part of the track that felt dark, damp and cool that morning.  As we passed a small open area on the right of the track, though, the sun broke through the cloud for a short time, illuminating a large patch of brambles.  Many small brown butterflies flitted about the flowers in the warm sunshine together with bumblebees and one beautiful demoiselle. 

In time, the lane levelled out and along the damp, shaded banks on the left were several patches of an unusual plant with large elongated heart-shaped leaves and bright red candle-shaped flowers.  This is red bistort, probably a garden escapee as my wildflower books don’t consider it suitable to include.  Several black and yellow wasps were nectaring from the flowers that morning.

Red bistort with nectaring wasp

At Tristford Cross, we turned right along the old road above Broomborough Down.  As befits a ridgeway road, there were fine views across countryside towards Dartmoor, and this part of the walk felt bright, breezy and fresh, a perfect antidote to the gloomy national news.  Although the verges were dominated by thuggish swathes of nettles, there were plenty of other flowers.  Common red soldier beetles, popularly referred to as hogweed bonking beetles, were performing on the white, tea plate-sized flowers of their favoured plant whilst honeybees wallowed in frothy, creamy clumps of meadowsweet.

Hogweed with mating pair of common red soldier beetles (Rhagonycha fulva)

We soon reached a clutch of caravans and outbuildings by the roadside, marking the start of a stony track descending downhill, away from the ridgeway road.  The man who lives here keeps chickens and cultivates vegetables and below his neat and tidy settlement there was a large stand of brambles with several white butterflies feeding. 

This stony track is a continuation of Jackman’s Lane (another section was featured in Lockdown Nature Walk 7), a typical green lane with woodland on the left and high Devon hedges on the right.  When I walked here about two weeks previously, the hogweed had just come into flower attracting many black and yellow long-horned beetles.  Since then the vegetation had increased making the lane feel more enclosed.  The hogweed was also past its best but wasps, hoverflies and more soldier beetles were enjoying what remained of the flowers. 

Despite the increased vegetation and the variable cloud cover, plenty of light reached the lane but this changed when tall trees began to enclose the track.  Some way into this darker section we passed an enclosed compound on the right-hand side of the lane, surrounded by sturdy metal fences; this is the Permaculture Centre based around an old concrete water reservoir. 

Hazel carried on down Jackman’s Lane for a longer walk while I located a makeshift path through the line of trees away from the lane, just beyond the Permaculture Centre.  This path is like a portal between two worlds and it transported me from a mostly monochrome green lane into an open grassy meadow set on a steeply sloping hillside and full of colourful flowers and insects.   A bench has been installed at the top of the hill so that people can sit and enjoy the meadow and the views across the town of Totnes and to the hills of Dartmoor.  Follaton Oak, a recent housing development,  lies at the bottom of the meadow.

View from the meadow to the recent housing development and beyond to the Follaton Arboretum and the town of Totnes

I walked slowly downhill, passing a copious clump of brambles where a few bumblebees were feeding from the pinkish flowers.  At first, yellow was the dominant flower colour in the meadow with large amounts of bird’s foot trefoil growing across most of the area.  Although bird’s foot trefoil grows widely in the UK, I don’t remember having seen so much of the plant growing in one place. There were also some yellow heads of a dandelion-family flower bobbing in the breeze (cat’s ear or hawkbit perhaps); a few clumps of thick rushy grass suggested underlying dampness.  Purple began to compete with yellow further down the slope where large stands of thistle and knapweed flourished.  White clover dominated some areas. 

A section of the meadow with bird’s foot trefoil and knapweed

Now and then, the sun broke through the cloud and the mosaic of meadow flowers sparkled in the bright sunlight as though many small, coloured lights had suddenly been switched on. With all these flowers, I expected to find many insects and I wasn’t disappointed.  Red-tailed bumblebees fed from the knapweed and thistles, and crickets and grasshoppers scattered in sudden leaps to avoid me as I walked. The stars of the insect show were, however, the distinctive black and red burnet moths (Zygaena).   These medium-sized, day-flying moths have a wingspan of about 3cm and are unmistakeable.  With their shiny black forewings decorated with red spots, they look as though they have put on smart black jackets with bright red buttons.   Their black, club-shaped antennae are another notable feature. (See pictures at the end of this post)

I came across the burnet moths all over the site, often when they were feeding on knapweed or thistles and occasionally on bird’s foot trefoil.  From my photos and counting the spots on their forewings, they seem to be a mixture of five-spot and six-spot burnets.  When they find a good flower to feed from, they stay there for some time but I did see a few flying about the site.  They fly slowly, almost hovering, exposing their black abdomen and bright red hind wings.  The selection of flowers here is ideal for these moths: bird’s foot trefoil is the preferred food plant of the caterpillar and knapweed and thistles are liked by the adults for nectaring.

The burnet moths were not having it all to themselves, though, as there were butterflies enjoying the meadow as well. A tortoiseshell and a ringlet were flying and on two occasions an orange-brown small skipper butterfly and a burnet moth quietly coexisted on the same knapweed flower head (see picture at the top of this post). 

This is an extensive area of meadow grassland on this hillside above the recent Follaton Oak housing development and I was intrigued to know how it came to be here. The original proposal for the development shows pictures of the area as rough pasture before it was developed but indicates that it should become “ecological grassland”, as it clearly has. The proposal also suggests the planting of fruit trees on the site and there are several apple trees now bearing fruit. 

I wanted to know how the site was maintained so I spoke to Carol Owen of the Follaton Oak Residents Group.  She told me that the meadow is being left to be as wild as possible, mowed and cleared just twice each year.  Docks are becoming rather too prevalent so the residents try to cut these where possible. For the most part, though, no additional seeding had taken place so the many flowers we see now are those that have grown naturally.  Insects have colonised the area showing how easy it can be to achieve a form of rewilding.  The result is this wonderful natural area on the edge of the town.  

From the meadow, there is a precipitous stony path descending between the houses with some good stands of ragwort growing nearby.  Go straight ahead from here to access a path leading to the Follaton Arboretum or walk along the roads between the houses to reach the Plymouth Road for a return to the town centre.

Six-spot burnet moth ( Zygaena filipendulae) feeding on bird’s foot trefoil, note the proboscis probing the flower

Five-spot burnet moth (Zygaena trifoli or lonicerae) feeding on knapweed
Six-spot burnet moth in flight
Meadow grasshopper (Chorthippus parallelus)
Based on its long antennae this is a bush cricket but from the photo, I cant tie this down to a species.
Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)

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 5

We’ve now been in Lockdown for eight weeks, although recently there has been a slight and rather confusing easing of the regulations.   I have been continuing my exercise walks and sometimes I venture into the nearby countryside but more often I keep to the town centre gardens and car parks  looking at the flowers and the wildlife.  I thought I knew the town centre area well but, even here, so close to home, I’ve made some new and surprising discoveries.  So, here is my fifth Lockdown Nature Walk.

One place I walk through regularly is the Nursery Car Park, notable for the wide grassy banks and tall, ivy-clad, stone walls that surround several sides of the parking area providing unplanned but welcome space for wildlife.  There are many flowers early in the year and with the lockdown there are very few cars and even fewer people so it’s a surprisingly peaceful place.  In my earlier Lockdown Nature Walks I saw bumblebees, butterflies and hairy-footed flower bees enjoying the flowers here.

 

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Male orange-tip butterfly, showing the antennae, the grey-blue velevety body and the vivid orange patches on the forewings. One hindwing is slightly folded over

One morning in late April, I was walking through the Nursery Car Park and noticed a white butterfly making its way above one of the grassy banks. I don’t normally pay much attention to the white butterflies.  I think it must be engrained prejudice from childhood when “cabbage whites” used to spoil some of my father’s attempts at growing vegetables.   Something, however, made me look again and this time I saw flashes of orange as the butterfly danced briskly along.  It turned to follow another car park margin and paused, settling on one of the plants growing in the soil border below.  With its wings spread wide, I could see its blue-grey velvety body, prominent antennae and the vivid orange patches that occupy the outer halves of each forewing showing that this was an orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines), a male as the females lack the orange colour.  I approached carefully to get a better look but the insect flew off across the wall in the direction of the Leechwell Garden and was gone.  An orange-tip butterfly seemed rather exotic for this semi-urban space and I couldn’t remember having seen one here before.

When the butterfly paused, I felt as though it was urging me to take a better look at this soil border.  This was a part of the car park I had ignored until now, probably because before lockdown, parked cars made the border virtually inaccessible.  When I had a closer look, I was surprised to find that a range of native wild flowers had colonised the border and were growing prolifically, creating a mosaic of pinks, blues, whites and yellows: three species of cranesbill, pink purslane, red campion, green alkanet, cow parsley, garlic mustard, hedge mustard and buttercups. It had become a rather beautiful place, that is if you like unruly wild flowers!

I came back to the same car park border over the next few days and usually saw one or two orange-tips but other insects were also attracted to the profusion of flowers.  Here are some of the species I saw:

 

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large red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

 

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Grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitida). The chestnut haired thorax, dark abdomen and black hairs on the hind legs are key features

This is probably an ichneumon wasp but very difficult to pin down to species from one photograph.

 

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Holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus) on bluebells

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Bee fly (Bombylius major) nectaring on herb robert

 

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Male early mining bee (Bombus pratorum) on green alkanet. This was the first male of the season for me and looks very fresh with bright colours. Note the generally furry look, the yellow head and the orange-pink tail.

But there is more to say about the orange-tip butterflies as on one of my visits, I noticed a male repeatedly flying upwards and then dropping down on to some garlic mustard flowers.  When I looked more closely, I saw another butterfly on the cluster of small green and white flowers and realised that this was a female orange-tip butterfly.  The male’s behaviour probably had something to do with mating but the female was showing no interest.  The male eventually gave up and flew off but the female moved to another flower and basked in the morning sun allowing me to look.  Unlike the male with his brash colouration, she is understated but just as beautiful with a grey patch and spot on each forewing in place of the male’s orange patches.   As she flexed her wings, I was also able to see the pattern on her underwings.  This is a complex design of green and yellow veining and mottling reminiscent of the marbled end papers of an antique book or a tie-dyed fabric from the hippie era.  The male has the same underwing pattern providing both male and female orange-tips with excellent camouflage when they rest with their wings closed on a leaf or on flowers such as garlic mustard or cow parsley.

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Female orange-tip butterfly showing her grey patch and spot on the forewing, also the veined and mottled underwing pattern

Male orange-tip butterfly showing veined, mottled pattern on underwing (click picture to enlarge and see the complexity of the pattern)

 

Garlic mustard is one of the principal larval foods of the orange-tip butterfly, along with cuckooflower, so I wondered if the female had been laying eggs before the male had disturbed her.  There are two moderate clumps of garlic mustard growing along this border so I looked at the plants and found the tiny orange eggs on both clumps.  They look like ridged rugby balls about a millimetre long and the female attaches each egg, usually one per plant, to a stem just below the flower head.  They start off a pale greenish-white and as they mature, they turn bright orange.   One or two weeks later, the larva emerges from the egg, eats the egg casing and starts its journey through different instar stages, gradually consuming the plant, preferring the seed pods, as the larva develops.  After some searching, I was able to find one larva, a well camouflaged, yellowish caterpillar (about 5mm long) on one clump of garlic mustard about two weeks after I first saw the eggs.   The larva will eventually form a pupa (chrysalis), from which the adult butterfly will emerge next spring.

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Orange-tip butterfly egg attached to garlic mustard

 

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Orange-tip butterfly larva on garlic mustard

I need to keep reminding myself that all this is happening on a scruffy border along one edge of a town centre car park and that my observations are underpinned by a series of coincidences.  First, the insects I have described would not have come to the border had the flowers not grown here.  In particular, the orange-tip butterflies would not have fed here and deposited eggs had there not been the two clumps of garlic mustard.   Then there is the lockdown which emptied the car park of cars making more space for wildlife and gave me the time to wander about looking at the soil border.  I believe there are lessons to be learnt from all of this if we choose to learn them:  growing flowers, especially wildflowers, is good for insects and will support them and bring them into your garden;  also it can be very rewarding, and good for our well-being, if we take time to look at the wildlife around us.

My previous Lockdown Nature Walks can be accessed here