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An Autumnal Glut

If any of you own fruit trees, especially apple or pear, you are probably feeling a little overwhelmed by now.

I know I am, the trees in my little garden are groaning under the burden of ever-ripening fruit and, a bit like the magic porridge pot, there seems no end to the harvest!

It started off with the first couple of pears being picked rock-hard and totally under ripe, such was the family’s impatience to start unloading the weighed down boughs. In seemingly no time at all this transformed into piles of over-ripe fruit in bowls on every surface in the houses; apple sauce being eaten with everything, including cereal; and a daily task to clear the grass of rotting windfalls in case the boozy fruit attract hundreds of wasps to a garden with a toddler.

So I am a little jaded with apples and pears, to say the least. And yet, fast forward 10 months to August 2012 and things will be totally different. We’ll be cheering and waving tiny flags under strings of patriotic bunting, everything will have an Olympic theme and I will be craving my own, home-grown pear!

Its so easy to become complacent, so hard not to resist taking for granted riches you see every day. I have found a similar tendency creeping into wildlife watching too.

There was a time I would have dropped everything to photograph a Sabine’s gull on Exmouth seafront, or a grey phalarope: wow! For the past couple of weeks both these beautiful species have been loitering just off the beach near the lifeboat station, and I’ve still not managed to get down to see them!

The Sabine’s gull is named after 19th Century scientist Sir Edward Sabine, originally from Ireland, Sir Ed was something of a polymath and while on Arctic exploration with the Navy he sent back dead specimens of a gull which he had not seen before. It was identified by his brother as a new species, originally put in its own genus and named after its discoverer, and so the world got Xena sabini, later changed to fit within the wider gull genus it is now known as Larus sabini. It is a truly beautiful gull, the only genuine tri-coloured seagull.

The juvenile birds which have been seen locally have a dark eye and bill, making them look a bit like winter plumage black-headed gulls. However the back of the bird is a dusty grey, extending up the back of the neck to give a hood. A white body and black wingtips can be seen when resting, but when the gull takes to the wing it shows off this colour with a fabulous triangular pattern across its back. They breed in the high Arctic, and winter off the coast of West Africa, so Autumn and Spring migration is the best time to look out for the odd one passing by, seems we struck lucky to have these few spend such a time on our beach?

The grey phalarope is another interesting bird, which should have sent me dashing off for a closer look. Known to UK birders as grey phalarope, in its breeding plumage in the high arctic you would not recognise it from this name as it is a vivid burnished orange in colour. However, unlike most birds it is the female which is the more brightly coloured as she does the displaying and leaves the male to tend the eggs.

They look like slender grey and white waders, however they are far happier at sea than their coastal counterparts. They have a wonderful habit of pitching up on the surface of the water, and whizzing round in tight little circles, nipping tiny organisms from the water’s surface with their thin bill.

To see either of these birds is a notable occurrence, but to have both in the same place at the same time is really remarkable. To be able to get an awesome photograph of both birds, together in the same photo is truly astounding! So, throw off your autumnal, jaded glasses and look afresh with the rosy-tinted ones you once wore. We are so lucky to call this place home.

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Posted by on October 6, 2011 in Uncategorized


Quins take over

A few weeks ago I wrote about a new insect species for Britain, which conservation charities are appealing for sightings of; the tree bumblebee. Many thanks to all of you who have contacted me with reports, these have been passed on to the Bee Wasp & Ant Recording Society for their survey. It would seem this little ginger bee, with its bright white tail, is definitely here in East Devon!

It is thought that the tree bumblebee does not pose a significant threat to any native bees or insects, however at this stage that is only a supposition as no research has been undertaken in the field. At present, hymenopterists are restricted to watching the insect’s spread and piecing together a picture of its ecology as it colonises.

There is however another new insect in Britain. It has been here since 2004; has spread far more rapidly than the bee and is known to be a far more sinister presence in our ecology. The harlequin ladybird is here and its appetite for other ladybirds is awesome.

Harlequin ladybirds are big, hungry beetles which feed mainly on aphids. It was this appetite for plant pests which saw them introduced as a biological control to North America in 1988, since when it has spread so quickly that it is the most widespread ladybird species on the North American continent! Since then, this Asian native has marched on, throughout Europe and was first recorded in the UK in 2004.

Harlequin ladybirds are outcompeting native species

It is rapidly on the way to being the most numerous ladybird species in this country now, too.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, this large orange ladybird is as pretty and colourful as any of our native species, and so its presence here on this level could be seen as a pleasant addition. But the story of the harlequin ladybird is a cautionary lesson in how human interference with a seemingly trivial little bug can have global consequences.

The problem with the harlequin ladybird is that their gluttonous appetite extends far beyond just gobbling up aphids, as they will chow down pretty much any small invertebrate, including ladybird larvae and even their own larvae too!

The harlequin ladybird survey, is asking for records of harlequin ladybirds from across the country. So what should we be looking out for?

The beetle is large for a ladybird, about 7-8 millimetres and round in shape. Colour-wise it is incredibly variable, appearing from orange and black through to jet black, so that is not something to go on. The armour plate behind the head, which is often mistaken for the face of a ladybird, is an important feature to notice. It is broad and wide and adds to the circular outline of the beetle. If you suspect that Harlequin ladybirds are present in your garden or local park, grab a photo and send it to me and I will chase up identification.

One very rare ladybird which might be in peril from the new presence of the harlequin ladybird is the 13-spot. Our common ladybird is the 7-spot, with the 2-spot being a species which was once common but is now increasingly scarce. The 13-spot however has always been rare and is a notable species if found.

A recent discovery of the 13-spot was made on the Axe Estuary Wetlands by local nature enthusiast, Catherine Willerton. In entomology circles, she is now something of a celebrity! She was visiting Black Hole Marsh last summer when she spotted (pardon the pun) the large ladybird near the water’s edge.

She took some great photos of the beetle, including the one here, and sent the sighting to the UK ladybird survey for identification,,  suspecting that it might be the rare 13-spot ladybird.

A few day later she had a reply that indeed she had found this rare UK immigrant. These water-seeking ladybirds die off completely during our winter and all UK specimens come from insects flying over the channel from the continent. They feed on small insects on reed plants, and so are a species with a close association with wetlands.

Superficially the 13-spot ladybird looks a lot like an orange and black spotted harlequin ladybird, however rather than being circular it has a distinctive teardrop body shape.

Cathy’s record was mentioned in a volume of the esteemed publication British Wildlife as well as in copies of other wildlife magazines and newspapers, the sighting of this rare little beetle caused quite a stir!

We’ve not had a record of the 13-spot on the wetlands this year, however it will be high on the wish list of entomologists visiting the site for the BioBlitz planned for the 31st of July this year. Experts in field identification from across the country will be descending on the wetlands for this day of natural history, and its an open invitation to everyone to come along and join the blitzing fun!

The event will start with a bat walk on saturday night, with moth traps being run overnight for a moth breakfast the following morning at 8am. There will then be wildlife walks, talks and tours running throughout the day, looking at every facet of life on the reserves from lichens to ladybirds, brookweed to badgers.

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Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Uncategorized


Micro garden

My favourite British spider, the zebra jumping spider, a fearless miniature mounaineer

This little black ant was feeding on the rotting flower spike, I'm aiming to get a lot more ant shots in the coming months

Wasps are part of am fantastic group of insects, this common wasp was sheltering from the wind deep in a pear tree

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Posted by on June 24, 2011 in Uncategorized


Putting a price on life

Putting a price on life

Two years ago, I reported in this column about the Government’s plans to calculate an economic value for the natural world. At the time, the news had a mixed response. But now the project findings have been launched, we can see what the combined brainpower of over 500 of the UK’s top scientists and economists have come up with.

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA)  is the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and our continuing economic prosperity. Funded by the governments of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Economic and Social Science Research council the project itself cost £1.3m.

The full report can be read here – – but the six key findings of the assessment are:

  • The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analyses and decision making.
  • Ecosystems and ecosystem services, and the ways people benefit from them, have changed markedly in the past 60 years, driven by changes in society.
  • The UK’s ecosystems are currently delivering some services well, but others are still in long-term decline.
  • The UK population will continue to grow, and its demands and expectations continue to evolve. This is likely to increase pressures on ecosystem services in a future where climate change will have an accelerating impact both here and in the world at large.
  • Actions taken and decisions made now will have consequences far into the future for ecosystems, ecosystem services and human well-being. It is important that these are understood, so that we can make the best possible choices, not just for society now but also for future generations.
  • A move to sustainable development will require an appropriate mixture of regulations, technology, financial investment and education, as well as changes in individual and societal behaviour and adoption of a more integrated, rather than conventional sectoral, approach to ecosystem management.


These findings are the nub of the scientific report, but of course the headlines will be grabbed by the financial figures ascribed to various parts of the countryside we take for granted.

Wetlands have been valued at £1.3 billion just for the water quality effect they have*; The health of pollinating insects is valued at £430 million every year for UK agriculture; and the health benefits of living with a view of greenspace is worth £300 for every person, every year.

James Chubb, Wildlife Presenter

Its long been known that access to greenspace and wildlife is good for you, now a price has been put on it. But how can a monetary value be assessed for life itself?

The economic valuation of the natural world seems a cold, unemotional response to the wonders of nature, but that is exactly why this report was needed. For too long, conservation projects have been cursed with the question “why are we spending all this money protecting a <<blank>>”, and you can fill in any number of plant or animal species in the blank.

The Countryside Service’s very own water vole project came in for criticism when it was first launched three years ago, with people questioning why we were putting efforts into re-establishing this mammal in the District. The answer was simple, and is broadly what this report echoes in far greater depth; the wider benefits to rivers, water quality and quality of life were the unspoken benefits of a conservation project to reverse a local human-induced extinction.

If you find yourself asking why is it necessary to put something so vulgar as a monetary value on something so special as the natural world, I would suggest this report isn’t written with you in mind. You are one of the converted, and this report looks to address the congregation rather than sing to the choir. The exciting this about this gargantuan piece of work is the prospect that it might be the document to cause a penny-dropping moment for all sorts of high-powered ‘decision makers’, which I think means politicians. When tackling the inevitable environmental issues that will arise over the next 50 years, it’s going to be cold hard calculations like these which set the tone of the resulting policies.

This is a significant step in the protection of our environment, however I am still left feeling as if a fundamental point is being missed. The report summarises that our natural ecosystem is worth Billions of pounds to the UK economy, but I would argue that as the planet’s only life support system, the ecosystem should be seen as priceless.


* Hooray for the Axe Estuary Wetlands Project!

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Posted by on June 10, 2011 in Uncategorized


Dry as a bone

I would be wrong of me to open this weeks article with anything not linked to the incredibly dry weather we have been experiencing recently. And, while it may have come as a nice surprise for early season cricketers (although Newton’s square already looks like mid August) and has brought a potentially bumper crop of pears to my trees, it is having a massive impact in the countryside.

Last week fire tenders, and staff support from Clinton Devon Estates and RSPB fought a fire which had broke out on Aylesbeare Common and the neighbouring Hawkerland Common. 60 firefighters battled the flames which at times towered over their heads, as this precious heathland was saved. Late summer fires are a serious problem for the heaths, but in many respects the species have evolved to cope with this natural phenomenon, what makes May’s fires particularly disasterous is that is occurred during the nesting season and any birds caught in the blaze will have perished.

The notable bird species for East Devon’s heathlands, the rare Dartford Warbler, was already having a torrid time of it in 2011, after two successive cold winters were seen to be taking their toll on the population. This outbreak could well have added another obstacle in their recovery. After periods of prolonged dry weather, much of the countryside becomes tinder dry, but particularly heathland. Fires can start through natural processes, however most are caased by people’s negligence or malign intent.

If you are out walking or picnicing on the commons this Spring, please be aware of the increased fire risks and do all you can to minimise the chances of accidentally starting a fire. I don’t want to discourage anyone from visiting, as the more people who are there to enjoy the heath, the more pairs of protectie eyes are on site to look out for any lowlife who may intend to start a fire deliberately. Fire Officers commented that the blaze on Aylesbeare seemed suspicious as there were two centres to the fire, one hundred metres apart.

Wildlife is feeling the pinch at sites across the region due to the dry weather, and many wildlife charities are asking people to leave shallow dishes of water in their gardens for the likes of hedgehogs and garden birds. A report of a ring ouzel visiting a garden in Sheffield to drink from a bird bath, should be encouragement enough for all of us to pop a few dishes in the garden!

Species reliant on standing water may also be in jeopardy if the dry weather continues, as pond levels fall. Most of the species which have adapted to live in ponds are fully amphibious in one way or another, meaning that they are able to easily move from one pond to the next as water levels naturally fluctuate. In the summer, for example, it is common to have water boatmen fall into dry metal dishes left out in the sun, as they are mistaken for open water by the insects as they fly overhead.

Indeed, due to the very wet nature of Devon, one species of newt is particularly rare. Our wet climate means that most of our ponds remain full of water throughout the year. The Great Crested Newt, which is the rarest species to be found in the UK, specialises in inhabiting ponds which seasonally dry up in the summer, making them less inviting for competitors in the newt’s niche.

Devon’s ponds seldom dry out, and so there are only a very few places in the county where you can find these warty giants.

Dragonflies are bound to water for most of their lives, as they spend the vast proportion of their time underneath it as nymphs. While an adult dragonfly may be on the wing for a month or six weeks, it could have spent up to three or even four years underwater in it development. Really, we should call them Dragonswims.

A teneral broad-bodied chaser

This broad bodied chaser was found by a group of us on Stafford Marsh last week, during an wetlands visit by Exeter University. We were meant to be carrying out a small mammal survey but, as is often the case, any impressive animal stumbled upon sparked conversation!

The bright golden hue of this individual means it is a young adult, known as a teneral. As soon as the adults have crawled out of the water and emerged from their nymphal skin, they fly away from the competitive water’s edge to spend few days building the strength to defend a section of the reproductive pond. If you look closely at this individual, you can see evidence of how dangerous life by the pool is, as the lower wing on the left hand side shows signs of damage already incurred.

This individual could still potentially build up the strength to return to the pond, however if the wing damage affects his flight ability too much, he will not be able to match the other ariel acrobats above the water and will probably not breed successfully.

The weather has such a profound impact on our lives, us Brits talk of little else when making small talk. However, for those animals and plants which are not tended by a human overseer, the weather is an all-together more mortal concern.

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Posted by on May 27, 2011 in Uncategorized


Wildlife Training Days

Make the most of a bargain offer – book a wildlife training day before the 31st May for only £20 – a saving of £15!

Download the Wildlife training leaflet as a PDF.

For more information call the East Devon District Council Countryside Service on 01395 517557.

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Posted by on May 16, 2011 in Uncategorized


Great White Hope

There’s nothing more frustrating than spending almost an entire day on a nature reserve, only to find the exciting rarity turns up just as you settle down for a meeting a few miles away. That’s what happened to me yesterday, and I’m not sure how I managed to stop the steam coming out of my ears!

For the most part, Tuesday was spent meeting-and-greeting at a day of mammal activities held on Stafford Marsh, part of the Axe Estuary Wetlands. I was stationed at the newly created Field Studies Base and helped welcome people to the event and direct them on the mammal-trapping action or get them started on treasure hunts or print making in clay. A simple, but simply divine reason to be out of the office on what was possibly the most fabulous day of spring so far.

Tadpoles were massing on the fringes of the pond in Stafford Marsh, one of the few places on the wetlands where these thin-skinned amphibians can thrive. Frogs are not tolerant of salty water and most of the ditches and the borrow pit on Seaton Marshes are too brackish for them to survive. But they more than make up for it in this small pool. The mid afternoon sun shone through water the colour of weak tea, illuminating the little tadpoles as they propelled themselves along furiously with their tail.

On the large, soon-to-be, reedbeds which hug the Field Studies Base, a family group of mallards were engaged in the complicated process of raising their ducklings. The parent ducks were being continually disturbed by an interloping male who seemed very interested in the female, and while the male duck was valiantly chasing off the intruder, the twelve ducklings dashed about over the surface of the pond. Floating high in the water, the little ducklings normal bobbing speed was interspersed with short bursts of over-drive as they spotted a small fly buzzing over the water’s surface and set off in pursuit.

With twelve inquisitive babies buzzing about, and the adult’s attention distracted elsewhere, it won’t be too long before the number of little fuzzy ducks appearing from the reeds each morning will surely decline!

The unseasonal weather was more like a late May afternoon than mid April and this illusion was maintained with the sighting of a newly emerged broad-bodied chaser. These dragonflies are often the first of the local large dragonflies to appear, but this pale yellow individual was more than two weeks early and will be doing well to survive until the rest crawl out of ponds and begin to breed.

When dragonflies first emerge from the water, crawl up plant stems and break out of their nymphal skins, they fly off as drab yellow or brown versions of the adult, known as a teneral. These can almost be thought of as an adolescent version of the full adult, in need to feeding up and building their strength before attempting to secure a mate. This development takes place away from the fiercely competitive water’s edge, where they could be attacked by stronger dragonflies that have already begun to claim territories over the pond. It is only when the full adult colour has filled the abdomen, and the all-important flight muscles are operating with maximum strength, that a dragonfly will return to the pond and look for a female.

So the afternoon was one of those sun-kissed golden moments in the diary when the stars align and everything seems perfect. Don’t get me wrong, these moments are few and far between and more than outweighed by the times I am found rockpooling in a Barbour jacket  shrouded in persistent drizzle on an August afternoon!

Reluctantly I left the Wetlands and pottered to my afternoon meeting. No sooner had I sat down, than my pocket buzzed silently and a message popped into my phone: “Great White Egret on Seaton Marshes!”

Ahhh! I was looking down the barrel of 90 minutes shut in the Town Hall, knowing that a bird of mesmeric beauty, which I have only ever seen in the Mediterranean, was five-minutes jog away. Ever the professional, I kept a poker face and maintained my composure throughout the meeting.

As soon as I could, I jumped back in the  car and dashed to the bird hide. There were four others in there enjoying the view, and their smiling faces let me know that I had not arrived too late! I spent the rest of the evening enjoying the spectacle of a pure-white egret, the size of a heron, fishing in the Local Nature Reserve lagoon. A grey heron flew down to pester it; “you’re not from around here, are you?” seemed to be the inquiry, but the Great White Egret ignored its protestations and continued its feeding.

These mighty birds are summer breeders along the western coast of France,  but the site I remember seeing them most vividly is in the iconic Camargue. Set against a backdrop of massive salt marsh, speckled with black bulls and pink flamingos, these birds are a sight to behold. Alas, as much as it might have felt like it, I was in Seaton not Sete, and after briefly checking the reptile traps, I ventured home to recount my success.

More Mediterranean rarity news, with the sighting of a Sardinian Warbler near the Geoneedle at Orcombe Point last week. At the time of writing it is not know if this black a white warbler with a bright red eye is still about, but it is a timely reminder that this is a cracking location for wildlife watching at this time of year.

Set up on the red cliffs above the seafront, the hedges are alive with warblers, and the sea views offer tantalising glimpses of gannets, skuas and shearwaters. Perhaps you wouldn’t count yourself as a twitcher, prepared to travel many hundreds of miles to encounter a particular rarity, but everyone can find something of interest in this cliff-top perch, even if it’s just the beautiful maritime view.

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Posted by on May 16, 2011 in Uncategorized