There are worse places to be at the end of July than the South Hams in Devon, especially if you’re into nature like I am (in case you hadn’t noticed). Perhaps the greatest attraction to this area of the world is its amazing coastline, consisting of high jagged cliffs, long sandy beaches, extensive rock pools, rivers, estuaries, caves, islands and secret coves – all of which can be viewed from the coast path. So, I was quite blessed to find myself in this attractive corner of England for a two-week holiday and, although I did other things than pootle about looking at wildlife, I certainly had plenty of opportunity to do so. Here’s some of the best things I discovered.
A (long) walk around Yarner Wood on the edge of Dartmoor was quite interesting, it was mostly sunny so there were some very nice insects about, including my first ever Golden-ringed Dragonfly. These marvelous beasts are regaled in striking black and yellow bands, so they look a little like greatly stretched-out wasps, but with massive green eyes. They breed in slow-flowing acidic pools and brooks, such as are commonly found on Dartmoor, and (fun fact) happen to be our longest dragonfly species.
I also came across two individuals of a somewhat scarce Longhorn beetle species, Leptura aurulenta, which is distributed patchily across the south of England. It is really rather an impressive and pretty species with bands of cinder-orange across its glossy black elytra and is a good size (for a British beetle).
I managed to put out my moth trap twice when the weather was good enough for it, although I didn’t get any new species in the box there were some fab species such as Blood-vein, Lackey, Drinker, Brussels Lace, Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing, Elephant Hawk, Spectacle, Chinese Character and Ruby Tiger amongst many others. Strangely I did manage to get some new moth species on the trip, but I spotted them out and about, such as the incredible tropical-looking Jersey Tiger that was flying around a beach car-park, and the delicately beautiful Marbled Green roosting in a shed.
I got to go rock-pooling a couple of times, including at the famous Mill bay. I found that the most successful technique for finding interesting creatures was to peek under rocks sitting in the pools, especially ones encrusted with algae. Amongst the usual prawns and shore crabs I found Common Bristle Stars, ridiculously fragile cousins of starfish which ranged in size from the width of my little finger-nail to the size of my palm. There were also Cushion Stars, which moved at a glacial speed over the rocks when lifted up and look very much like Milky Way magic stars, but probably not as tasty. There were also Chitons, strange armour-plated molluscs, Broad-clawed Porcelain crabs covered in silty hairs and I even spotted a huge Velvet Swimming Crab in one large pool.
One particular highlight was coming across several Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries basking in the sun on bracken fronds along the coast path near Prawle Point. These are very pretty fawn-coloured butterflies patterned with black lines and chevrons, the ones I saw will be from the second-brood, which only occurs in the south-west. Considering this species is having a hard time of it, even going extinct in my county of Sussex, it was fab to see them still here in Devon.
Of course, being a birder, I spent a fair bit of time looking for our avian friends and was particularly successful on a visit to South Efford Marsh, an area that was reclaimed from the estuary as grazing land but has since been returned to nature by flooding at every high tide – making attractive to waders and wildfowl. My friend John and I had spent some time in the hide there looking at Curlews, Whimbrel, Greenshank, a Common Sandpiper, various gulls and duck and a few Little Egret when he suddenly called out that there were two Cattle Egret flying past. He was right, there were, an adult and a juvenile which flapped past us and went to roost in a distant tree (it being the evening), although I’m no stranger to this species having seen hundreds of them abroad, this was my first UK sighting so I was understandably chuffed.
Remarkably I managed to see another bird species new to my British list when we visited the rspb reserve at Bowling Green Marsh on the river Exe. Major work had recently been undertaken there re-profiling the lagoons and creating scrapes and islands, this seems to have been an instant attraction to waders as we not only had very close views of a Common Sandpiper but also saw two fresh juvenile Wood Sandpipers. These are very prettily-marked birds with golden-spangles across their wings and backs and they have a delicate, graceful form. They are mainly passage birds in the UK, moving through in spring and autumn from their northern breeding grounds to wintering areas far south of here (although there is a small breeding population in Scotland) – these were the first I had seen in this country.
So, although the weather while I was there was rather mixed, with some really rainy, windy days, I nonetheless managed to see a great selection of wildlife and enjoy the beautiful rolling landscape and varied coastline that characterises south Devon. I even managed a successful seawatch from Prawle Point, which was a novel experience that you can read about in last weeks post here.