I am currently on holiday in Devon for the week, the weather has been surprisingly lovely and I have already seen plenty of wonderful wildlife from moths to mammals, some of which have been new to me. For those not familiar with the county I am staying in the south hams district, south of Dartmoor, which is mostly rolling green fields, plenty of hedgerows and absolutely fantastic coastline with jagged cliffs and golden beaches.
On the first day, when we arrived in the small village we are staying in, the air over the fields and houses was swarming with Swallows, House Martins, Sand Martins and a few Swifts performing their aerobatics with ease as they gorged on insects. Most of these were juveniles and it is striking how many more hirundines there are in Devon compared to my native county of Sussex.
We went to Bantham beach for the second day, it was heaving with people but I escaped onto the extensive rock pools for some peace among the seaweed and crabs. I spent a few hours hopping and scrabbling over the honeycombed rock platform, lifting up rocks and bunches of seaweed, poking my net into pools. I found a Chiton, a kind of flat mollusc with overlapping shell plates, lots of tiny gobies, small crabs and best of all a large red Shore Rockling, a member of the cod family that I found hiding under a big rock.
The other night I set out my moth trap, the next morning I counted 33 species including some really fab moths, four of which were new to me. The trap was full of Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwings (try saying that at 6 in the morning) at least 15, two Drinker moths are very cute fluffy things with big noses, a Ruby Tiger too, a common but gorgeous species. The prettily-marked Clouded Border was new as was the Rivulet and the dull-named Cabbage moth. Best of all though was the 2nd largest British moth, it flew out from behind a post next to the trap then settled long enough for me to scoop it into a pot, it was huge and just fantastic, with great big eyes and a fat abdomen striped black and pink – it was a Convolvulus Hawk-moth. These are immigrants from southern Europe and Africa so do not breed here and are rather unpredictable.
I also went for a pleasant walk around Start Point, this is a headland that sticks out eastwards into the channel, it has a white lighthouse on the tip and great views along the Devonshire coastline. One of the first things I saw was a bit of a surprise, on the sea, close to shore and just below the cliffs was a single adult Common Scoter. This is a black sea duck with a patch of yellow on the bill, they are usually found in large flocks further out to sea (usually later in the year too) it was also the best view I’ve had of this species.
A very brief and very fast stooping Peregrine disappeared below the cliff, later on I saw two Kestrels that had probably bred on the cliff face as one was a juvenile. The point had a lot of wildflowers growing on the short turf, including Autumn Squill, Sheep’s-bit, Thyme, Bladder Campion, Wild Carrot and Toadflax. Feeding on the nectar of some of these flowers were many 6-spot Burnet moths, a day flying species whose pupae were attached to many grass blades around the point. On the southern side of the point the coast path came down close to the sea and it was here that another walker pointed out the dog-like head of a Grey Seal poking out of the waves a few metres offshore.
That evening I had another great wildlife encounter when my brother spotted the silhouetted form of a Tawny Owl perched on a telegraph wire just across the road from the cottage we are staying in. The sky behind it was a deep, dark blue with the quarter moon hanging above the horizon, the bird and the hedgerow below it were in total blackness but its outline was unmistakable with a squat round body supporting a huge round head that turned smoothly side to side. It flew off onto the top of the telegraph pole, as it flew I could see its broad rounded wings that enable the owl to fly through the tree canopy with ease. This was (can you believe it) my first sighting of this species, though I have heard its calls many times before.
Then yesterday I went for a walk on my own along a tidal creek that leads out into the Kingsbridge estuary, it was a little cooler than the beginning of the week but the sun still poked through the clouds a couple of times – though the clouds did drench me with drizzle. It was a lovely walk and I saw a few good wader species on the exposed mudflats; including some delicate Greenshanks, excitable Redshanks, at least 70 distant Curlew, a closer Whimbrel and two tiny Dunlin. I also counted five singing male Cirl Buntings, two of which I saw well; these are rare little birds, rather like a Yellowhammer in appearance but restricted in Britain to southern Devon and a few sites in Cornwall (they are on the northern edge of their range here).
So hopefully the rest of the week will have good weather and more exciting wildlife sightings!