The English River-Area

This year I toddled off for my holidays in early July. I rather innocently termed this break my ‘summer’ holiday, as it happened to fall at a time of year when the earth’s axial tilt during its annual orbit of the sun produced longer daylight hours and historically higher average temperatures.

Sadly, I decided to go to West Wales and the number of sun-kissed days was minimal to say the very least. My overriding memory was sitting on the open deck of the Skomer ferry, in shorts and a gortex jacket, head pulled down inside the collar, breathing into my chest in a fruitless attempt to keep warm in the heaviest rain I have ever experienced.

Looks like I chose the wrong summer month to take a beach holiday, I should have booked October!

For the past three days I have spent each lunchtime and afternoon with picnic, daughter and snorkel on Exmouth beach, making the most of the splendid sunshine; temperatures into the high twenties and more time spent splashing about in the waves chasing sandeels than the rest of the year put together!

Indeed, much of East Devon had the same idea as me and the beach at Exmouth more closely resembled the Monaco Riviera, than good old England! People lay strewn across the beach, the sun beat down and baked the golden sand and the air was filled with a din of engines that sounded like a Grand Prix was being held around the Pole Sand; The only grit in my Indian Summer sandwich.

With heatwaves an all-too transient phenomenon in high summer, let alone October, everything was put on hold at home as the beach shelter was dragged out from under the stairs, picnic box dusted down and filled with portable offerings, and the swimmers dug out from the back of the drawer. This was too good to miss.

Unlike the summer, where water temperatures are several degrees cooler and a normally warm air temperate exasperates this difference, my two-year old daughter was comfortable in the water for far longer than her dad and we spent most of the afternoon wading about in the rockpools on Maer Rocks looking for creatures. Bit of a busman’s holiday for me as I do exactly this activity as a core part of my ranger work 9-5, but I do it because I love it and to see my own child enthralled by a beadlet anemone and giggling hysterically at a hermit crab made for a perfect day.

The heatwave was also good enough to coincide with some of the lowest tides of the Autumn too. This meant lower parts of the shore were accessible for a few hours and new pools and kelp beds were within reach. In Ellie’s eyes we hit the jackpot when I turned a rock and beneath it lay three small common starfish. Each was about 5 centimeters across and we studied them for so long, the tide began to rise before I could persuade my daughter to return hers under a crevice and go back to the rug to warm up!

While she huddled under a towel with Mum, I put on my snorkel and short wetsuit (typical boy, I feel the chill) and dashed back in to watch the incoming tide from underwater. This is something I have been meaning to do all year, and the Autumn is definitely the time of year to experience this thrill.

I first went for a bit of a drift, riding the strong current down the beach over kelp beds dotted with golden sandy banks. Even on an incoming tide, the current of the exiting Exe is hard to subdue. Pale sand gobies sat prominently on the sun-dappled sand in small groups, heads raised as they pushed themselves up on their pectoral fins. As long as I didn’t make a swimming stroke I could drift overhead without them shooting off. A flounder spotted my approach and flapped-up a cloud to disguise its escape, however by moving very gently, I was able to find it again lurking under a stout kelp frond. Its two bulging eyes circled about wildly, to get a fix on me, before I let go of the kelp and I carried on along my leisurely drift.

Looking directly ahead, shoals of sandeels and smaller silver fish, possibly young whiting, darted on the edge of visibility in the clear water. To get anywhere near these fast moving fish I needed to paddle strongly and I was enjoying being carried along too much to bother with all that effort! All this took place in water no deeper than 4 or five feet, often considerably shallower. There’s no point going deeper than this, as the interesting stuff to see, within range of water clarity this close to the estuary mouth is in the shallows.

I turned and front-crawled my way back up the beach against the current to my start point just off Maer Rocks and held on to a large Lamanaria kelp to fix myself in position. While doing this, I likened myself to a big grey seal, settling myself in position for an afternoon snooze. However, compared to the seal, I was a wallowing lummox.

As the tide rose, so sand gobies flitted about on the seabed below me, nodding and posturing to each other as they dashed over the sediments in search of food. Hermit crabs trundled along the edge of the rock next to me, not venturing too far out into the open, lest they were spotted by a passing cuttlefish. I stayed there as long as I could, the sandeels remaining stubbornly on the periphery of view, before running back up the beach to share my experience with the family.

If the last 7 years as a ranger has taught me anything, its that you have to seize the moment when wildlife watching, and this weekend was certainly a case in point. Now, where did I put those dust sheets and paint roller… back on with the DIY!

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Posted by on October 14, 2011 in Marine


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


Once in a lifetime!

It’s not often an extinct species turns up breeding on your nature reserve. All too infrequently if you ask me. But that’s what’s happened this week (this minute to be perfectly honest) and I am very proud to be able to bring you the news here in this column.

Now, from the outset I must point out that I am merely bathing in the reflected glory of others with this story, I had only the tiniest of roles to play in this discovery, but a role I had nonetheless and I am chuffed to pieces to be within the gravitational pull of this little piece of biodiversity history.

The real honor falls at the feet of the chap who provided me with my first photograph this week, entomologist and ladybird expert Richard Comont. He very kindly came along to the recent BioBlitz held on the Axe Estuary Wetlands and boy, is he ever glad he did?

The species in question has been officially extinct in the UK for the last 60 years and this will be the first confirmed breeding of this beetle ever in mainland Britain. I remember as a boy being told that the number of spots on a ladybird’s wing cases told you how old it was, not so, there are many different species and the thirteen-spot, is officially now my favourite!

You may remember last year I wrote about the discovery of a thirteen-spot ladybird at Seaton Marshes, discovered by local naturalist Catherine Willerton, well she has been something of a tub-thumper for these beetles ever since and it was her insistence which got Richard to come and take a look.

13-spot ladybird photo: R Comont

It’s one thing to identify this beetle, it’s long and almond-shaped rather than round like most of our common ladybirds; however to recognise a larva as something potentially significant is another thing alltogether. During his minute scrutiny of the wetlands in July, Richard discovered a larva which he thought might be from this long gone beetle. He took it back to the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology to raise it on to adulthood for confirmation, and seven minutes ago I got the tweet I had been waiting for: the emerging adult was indeed a thirteen-spot ladybird!

This particular ladybird is a wetland specialist, so it’s fitting that the new discovery was made on the newest wetland in the Country. Until now all post-1952 recordshave been continental immigrants which occasionally arrived  – Cathie’s was one of just 11 sightings since 1980 . Now we have found this individual I am sure there will be much work to determine the size and distribution of the first breeding thirteen-spot ladybird colony in the UK in 60 years!

One thing is for certain, I’ll let you know as soon as I do!

Autumn movements

Compared to the previous news the following is a little bit banal, but after that significance everything was going to pale in comparison.

Autumn is well underway in the bird world, and its time to get out and see a wonderful host of wagtails, wheatear, whimbrel and winchats as they pass through our local patch.

You don’t have to go far from home to witness this spectacle (although it helps) any bit of coastal scrub or rough hedgerow is bound to turn up whitethroats and migrating chiffchaffs at this time.

However, if you want to see the full glory, a visit to an estuary is imperative. Waders are the birds which, to me, typify autumn migrations. Birds like this graceful greenshank which breed in the Arctic and spend the winter in tropical West Africa, pass through our region in autumn and spring, but it is in the Autumn that they can be enjoyed for a little longer.

A greenshank admires its reflection, and well it might!

At Black Hole Marsh last week there were three wood sandpipers, two ruff, a gaggle of dunlin which contained a curlew sandpiper, three little ringed-plover and umpteen green and common sandpipers. I’m sorry I didn’t get exact number of all of these waders, but I only popped my head into the hide for a few minutes and the water was covered in fabulous birds. I left with my head positively spinning!

The great thing about the Island Hide is that it is only a few meters dashing distance from the reserve car park, so even if its lashing down with rain you can make a run for it! the car park can be found by driving carefully through Seaton Cemetery, through the gap in the hedge and out into the grasscrete parking area beyond.

If you visit early in the morning and you intend to take photos, make sure you go to the Tower hide at the far end of the lagoon, overlooking the estuary, as the sun will be behind you and you will be able to get good shots. The Island Hide comes into its own for evening photography when the sun is behind you and the birds are within a few feet of the hide itself – simply stunning!


Posted by on September 2, 2011 in Birds, Insects


Summer Wildlife Encounters

A host of unusual loveliness

Where to begin? Firstly, a quick apology for the hiatus of last week, a sheer volume of events through the week and the previous three weekends meant that I was unable to meet the copy deadline and sadly missed our weekly wildlife rendez-vous.

However, the upshot of all these events is an amazing collection of unusual wildlife sightings, all shared with families and friends throughout the district. And the good news for me is that many of the participants had smart phones or cameras (how charmingly retro) with them and happily shared the picture prizes.

Most recently a grey and mizzly morning rockpooling at Sidmouth’s Jacobs Ladder beach turned up not one, not two, or indeed three, but four amazing arthropods. Sea spiders. I remember first encountering these gangly little creatures in a marine zoology unit of my degree course, they are so strange that once met they will never been forgotten.

Easily overlooked as a piece of algae, sea spiders are weird creatures!

Despite being called spiders, and belonging to the arthropod group, these animals are not arachnids and their eight-legged resemblance to the terrestrial and aquatic true spiders is purely chance. The odd thing about sea spiders is that they have no respiratory system, instead they make use of their high surface area to volume ratio to allow passive gaseous exchange to provide oxygen. This means that they must have extremely clean skin, and indeed their exoskeleton is unusual in being sterile, something which many scientists are interested in studying; being able to find out how they maintain bacteria-free skin in the sea could have huge benefits for shipping.

Sea spiders in our waters tend to be found in rockpools, hanging on to tiny tree-like algae, on which they hunt for tiny anemone prey. However, they are not found often, in seven years rockpooling the East Devon coast with schools and families, I have only found one before now. On thursday morning we found four!

Last weekend was Escot’s annual “Messing about on the River” event, a feast of old-fashioned netting for sticklebacks and eels, while Alan Bruford indulges in a spot of gold panning with families. We smile and nod enthusiastically, but know this is merely a ruse to satisfy Mr B’s appetite for getting muddy!

A good haul of fish were caught by Jim and myself, including young brown trout, which the river Tale has been praised for this year. Amongst the bullheads, stone loaches, sticklebacks and eels were two fish which looked like eels. On closer inspection they had no eyes, pores rather than gills and no complex fins. These weren’t fish, but the larvae of a fishy-type animal called a Lamprey; these were ammocoete larvae!

The blind worm-like creature is the larva of a lamprey, an Amocoete

Lamprey were once common and prized for the table, indeed King Henry I was so fond of the meal he contracted food poisoning ascribed to consuming “a surfeit of lampreys”. They have become far less common since 1069, though and this was the first time I had seen one of these animals! Lamprey are put in a group alongside fish, rather than being a true fish, and apart from having a free-living large larva they are very different to fish in a number of ways.

Firstly they have no jaw, just a round mouth covered in amazing rows of sharp teeth. They live for many years as larvae, before heading off to sea to grow into adulthood. They are the most primitive vertebrate and all animals with backbones are thought to have evolved from a lamprey common ancestor, which means us!

Finally the previous weekend saw a mammoth natural history survey of the Axe Estuary Wetlands, with a variety of experts assisting us with a BioBlitz! The Field Studies Base provided our HQ for the day, while experts spent the day rootling and tootling about the wetlands identifying their particular groups.

We have reams of records now to show for the efforts, all of which will be added to what we know about the site and help in our efforts to improve them for biodiversity into the future. A first for Devon in 60 years was discovered with the discovery of a larval 13-spot ladybird by ladybird expert Richard Comont. This rare ladybird dies out in Britain each year and is thought to recolonise from the continent. A breeding colony in Stafford Marsh would indeed be a turn up for the books!

The amazingly exotic puss moth caterpillar (photo: Stu Derrick)

Richard also found the poster child for the day, by discovering a fabulous puss moth caterpillar in the accompanying photo. This larva of the white fluffy puss moth (puss as in kitten rather than putrified mucus!) looks like it should live in the tropics, and it is seldom seen here despite being quite common.

The thing is, even though they are lime green with a pink face, purple back and two red tendril tails, they spend their time feeding in willow, sallow or poplar trees and are normally well out of sight. These caterpillars were feeding on a willow sculpted maze constructed on the wetlands and played amongst by hundreds of children this year. All the while we were unaware of the presence of this wonderful caterpillar. After we spotted these two the maze was given further scrutiny whereupon poplar hawkmoth and eyed hawkmoth caterpillars were found too!

Its amazing what is there, living under your nose, if you just stop a while to look!


Posted by on August 25, 2011 in Insects, Marine


Thanks to Mr Fry…

..whose tweet drew my attention to this interesting story.

Anyone who has spent any time scruitinising a bramble bush at this time of year will be familiar with the snake-like trace on the leaf surface. These labyrinth squiggles are the tunnels of the serpentine leaf miner caterpillar, which eats the leaf from within the leaf, before pupating and emerging as a tiny moth.

The serpentine leaf miner is a native moth, which has successfully co-existed with bramble for millennia, anyone clearing an overgrown garden will testify to how pioneering the plant is! However, a new leaf miner has arrived on our shores and scientists at the University of Bristol are appealing for help in tracking its spread.

The Horse Chestnut leaf miner is a rather gorgeous moth which was first recorded in London as recently as 2002. It may be attractive, but it is capable of causing considerable damage to conker trees as its mines within the leaf are large and are so profuse that they severely restrict the tree’s ability to photosynthesize.

The Horse Chestnut leaf miner - A beautiful, but worrying new moth

As the photo shows, the caterpillars hatch from the eggs and eat the spongy layer of the leaf, known as the mesophyl, safely tucked away from harm protected by the upper and lower leaf membranes. This larval safety means that the moth has been able to spread at an incredible rate, from the first records from the Capital in 2002 the moth is now know from Cornwall to Kent; Hampshire to the Midlands.

The Universities of Bristol and Hull have teamed up to investigate the movement of this new species and the scientists have set us a challenge. Citizen science is all the rage at the moment, but this time its gone digital!

The recognisable damage to a horse chestnut leaf caused by the miner moth

If you have a smart phone, be it iPhone or Android, you can download a free ap (as I have) which will help you to submit recordings of horse chestnut miners as and when you find them. The ap will allow you to snap a photo of the leaf and send it to the project complete with all the details the boffins need. What a fabulous use of technology!

This initiative is causing quite a stir. My attention to the project came via Stephen Fry, albeit on Twitter! Twitter is fast becoming the preferred means of sharing information between interested individuals, as you can tailor your feed to only show you people or organisations you are interested in. I was logged in to my account when a link popped up from Mr Fry to the University of Brisol website, I duly opened the page, read the report and downloaded the ap. Hey-presto, another leaf watcher enrolled with hopefully a few more on the way!

I’ll retweet the link on the East Devon District Council twitter account @WildEastDevon so if you follow us, you’ll see what I am talking about in due course.

The ap can be downloaded from here and Stephen Fry can be found on Twitter at @stephenfry – give him a follow and tell him @TheTiercel says “Hi!”

Stoatally different

A lot of conservation focus is put upon control; be it habitat or species. The East Devon Water Vole Project successfully reduced mink populations on the Axe and Otter catchments to such a level that we were able to successfully reintroduce Water Voles on to the lower Axe.

These endeering little mammals have proved incredibly popular, as they are seen to within a few metres, feeding in the ditches around Black Hole Marsh.  I recently received a number of concerned reports that a stoat had been seen mooching about (if it is possible for something so agile to ‘mooch’) the ditches in which the voles have taken up residence. Subsequently the voles are a lot harder to spot!

People are worried that the stoat has eaten the voles and, as we got rid of mink for doing exactly the same, we ought to turn our attentions on the stoat. However, this ginger predator is an entirely different kettle of fish and its all to do with evolution.

Stoats and water voles have co-existed successfully in Britain because the stoat is unable to swim and therefor the only kills it can make are when it sneaks up on a Water Vole while it is feeding on the bank. Mink on the other hand only appeared here in the 1950s escaping from fur farms, and are able to follow a water vole into the sanctuary of its burrow as well as being excellent swimmers. A single mink can therefor consume an entire population of water voles; they have nowhere to hide.

So, while it might be a bit upsetting that the voles have put their heads down for a while, it would not be right to intervene in this native predator-prey relationship. Its not death that us conservationists attempt to address, its species loss; a subtle but very important distinction.

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Posted by on August 5, 2011 in Insects


A Blitz on Biology

Some weeks a photograph just leaps out at me that, no matter how tenuous the link, I simply have to use it for the article. This is one of those weeks.

This stunning shot of a hummingbird hawkmoth was actually snapped across the boarder in Dorset, but its an insect which is becoming increasingly familiar across the South of Britain, especially in East Devon. Local press photographer Alex took this shot of a hummingbird hawkmoth as it fed from valarian flowers, in its characteristic manner which gives it its name.

A hummingbird hawkmoth drinks nectar from the flowers of red valarian. Photo c. Alex Walton

As soon as I hear a report of a hummingbird being seen in the vicinity, I know a hawkmoth has made it across the channel and has been seen feeding. 
This day-flying moth attempts to satisfy its insatiable hunger by feeding on the sweet nectar of flowers, using an enormous proboscis tongue to suck the sugary fluid deep from within the bloom. Just like a hummingbird, it hovers a few centimetres from the flower and dips its tongue from a distance, wings a blur and its bright orange tail flashing, its easy to see how this little insect is sometimes confused with a tiny bird.

It is glimpses of exactly this wierd and wonderful biodiversity, that an upcoming event on the Axe Estuary Wetlands intends to bring to life. An ever popular event elsewhere, this will be the first BioBlitz hosted by the East Devon District Council Countryside Service. A BioBlitz is a period of 24hours when everything that grows, walks, crawls, slides, swims or flies on a particular site is surveyed and recorded.

For the visitor it is an amazing chance to visit a nature reserve with a host of experts, and for those of us who manage nature reserves, it gives us an invaluable record of all those strange, esoteric and complicated groups of plants and animals we had no idea about!

By working with my good chums at Natural England, I have managed to secure the services of some of the country’s leading experts in their field. These are the people who don’t just know about the big, the brash and the obvious; these people know about the odd squidgy bits and pieces other people overlook. We’re in for a fabulous time.

The event kicks off on Saturday 30th July at 9pm for a guided walk around Stafford Marsh in search of bats. Local ecologist, mammologist and licensed bat surveyor Ian Crowe will take us on an illuminating walk in the gloom to find the various species of bat which call the reserves their home.

Considering that we have the rarest bat (and therefor the rarest mammal) in the country living just a few miles up the valley in Holyford Woods Local Nature Reserve, it is something of an ambition to record Bechstein’s Bat on the Axe Estuary Wetlands, perhaps we’ll encounter one tonight?

Overnight, Fraser and I will be running a moth trap, sampling the diversity of moths which fly over the marshes at night. The following day we will be starting early for a moth breakfast, where local moth experts will come along and help us identify everything which ends up in the traps.

When I run a moth trap, either for work or pleasure (yes, my job does have massive cross-overs with my hobby) I end up overlooking at least 60% of the contents, deciding to leave the small micro moths and flies to another day. On Sunday morning it will be crunch time as we attempt to work out what everything is, however quirky. After the moth breakfast, the rest of the day will see scientists, and naturalists scouring the reserve, accompanied hopefully by large crowds of people interested in learning more about our local wildlife. I certainly will be hanging on their every word.

Birds, mammals and reptiles are pretty well studied on the site, so a few walks to look at these groups will be included, but it will be the less eye-catching groups which will no doubt prove the most interesting. I have something of a mental block when it comes to scientific names, and much of what will be found will only be known by its scientific or Latin name.

Please don’t let this put you off, as I intend to make it my day’s task to assign a ‘common’ name to everything we find. Episyrphus baletatus is a mesmeric little hoverfly, known more widely as the marmalade fly, so why aren’t more little flies given such memorable local names? Come along and help me come up with the couple of hundred new names which might be needed if we really strike lucky on the 31st July and hit a rich seam of form in finding creatures.

The new facilities on the Axe Estuary Wetlands will be put through their paces too, as it will be the first time we really use the Field Studies Base for its intended purpose. The solar array will be working overtime to power microscopes, as people identify those odd spiders which can only be clinched by looking at the shape of their genitalia, while the stove will be cranking out a few hundred gallons of tea to keep all those involved fully refreshed throughout their hard work.

I am looking forward to this event possibly more than any other this year, its everything I enjoy about natural history: there’s always something new to get your teeth into!

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Posted by on July 29, 2011 in Birds, Insects, Reptiles


Deerpark 2011

Large family flocks of choughs were easily found on Deerpark, the young are very vociferous when demanding food!

Dark green fritillaries were in abundance on sunny warm days in July on the Deerpark

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Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Birds, Insects