Post 300- Devon Delights

This is the 300th post on NTX it’s been great and keeps getting better , we have been exploring more and discovering more .

In the photo above we are an exploring party out on Blackpool Sands near Dartmouth in Devon. The name is deceptive, there is no sand but there is a beach full of tiny , perfectly smooth pebbles/shingle . Each one telling a geological tale .

There are some great rock outcrops along the shore and some cliffs to explore.

Nature Table Explorer Rowan enjoyed the rocks discovering rock pools with limpets, sea anemones and seaweeds.

The limpets were particularly good on these sheets of rock, I think that are Devonian schist and slates.

The layers in the rock weather to give large flat smooth edges and rock pages at the edges. There were a lot of flat pebbles perfect for skimming on the beach or for building ancient ruins !!

I do like to look at geology maps , here is one of Devon , I’ve marked where we were.

The Cliffs were covered in white coloured Sea Campion .

This plant (Silene uniflora) has some interesting common names, ‘dead mans bells ‘ ‘ witches thimbles’ and ‘devil’s hat ties’ all of them seem like dark names and it is such a pretty and light plant .

Another coastal plant that I really like is sea thrift and this was also growing on these tumbled down rock slabs.

I was fascinated by the tiny pebbles if you rubbed them with your thumb they took on a shine. I’ve put a penny in this picture to show the scale of these tiny varied beauties.This is a super beach to visit and explore . It is £5 to park there are toilets and shower facilities. There is also a nice place to sit and have a coffee and enjoy the fantastic views.

On the Otter Trail

We really want to see Otters and we have been told that they are active along the river near to the house. Tonight we set out on an Otter spotting adventure.

The sun was going down and we very quiet, no talking allowed when we started our river walk.

A heron flew over, in fact four flew over through the walk.

A Cormorant flew by.

Great Crested Grebes swam by. There was no sign of any otters.

The evening light was beautiful as we came to the lakes.

Our of the corner of my eye a flash of creamy yellow which on closer inspection turned out to be a whole clearing covered in Primroses.

Periwinkles were almost glowing in the dusk light.

As we left the river a pack or herd ( not sure of the correct term) of Alpacas watched us with great interest as we wandered along the opposite bank.

Back along the lake side coots were flapping across the water, Moorhens were walking over rafts of reeds off to roost.

On the final part of the walk we met the cattle in their favourite spot.

Nature Table Explorer Tim had one last look , still no Otters . We will be back !

Peak District Adventure

A two hour drive North yesterday to the lower end of the Peak District was full of Adventure and discovery.

Nature Table Explorer Tim in a classic position on Stanton Moor near Birchover .

We started our walk above Birchover on the edge of this moor. Interestingly the area is made of Ashgrove Grit which is a geological Outlier in a large area of Limestone. An Outlier is an area of younger rocks surrounded by older ones. This stone was used to build Chatsworth House.

The moor was covered in typical acid loving plants , heathers and lots of bilberry.The only photo I have of the bilberry is out of focus but I’m adding it so you can see the plant.

The hard narrow paths through the heather sparkle as you walk and are sites of mining bee excavations . They were dotted with volcano like mounds and perfect entry holes for the bees.

I did spot a bee , they are quite small and long in the body , very unlike the chubby fluffy bumble bee.

There are 60 species of miner bees in the UK. The tawny miner bee is a common species and makes the volcano shaped mounds that we saw. There were lots of these along the sandy paths. The nests have a 20-30 cm shaft going down into brood cells with larvae in them. In March the adults emerge , they are important pollinators.

After walking to the Nine Ladies Stone circle we headed into birch woodland. The bracket fungus was particularly noticeable.

These are birch polyphore (Fomitopsis betulina) they grow almost always on birch. These fruiting bodies can last a year.It is also known as the Razor strop fungus , this is because barbers used to use dried strips of it to sharpen their razors. Interesting the fungus was also used by early man as a dust to ignite when making fire. This area is littered with ancient monuments so maybe their fires were started with this method .

The find of this walk for me was this lichen with the bright red fruiting bodies, carpeting a trunk.

This lichen is known as British soldiers (Cladonia cristatella).

The fruiting bodies on this lichen are very striking and attractive.

Further through the woods on the woodland floor was a favourite flower of mine, wood sorrel ( Oxalis acetosella)

This little flower folds its leaves up before and during rain. It also folds them up in the dark. Looking at the leaves in the photo below they were closing ready for rain.

Because it flowers around the time of Easter in Europe it is sometimes known as Alleluia.

Wood Sorrel is one of the plants that is an ancient woodland indicator.

As we continued, the woodland changed to pines and then back to Birch and Beech. The topography was unusual with tall steep banks with loose rocks from earlier quarrying. The effect was to create a fairy tale , brothers Grimm scene.

The steep sided tumbles of rocks have over time become transformed by moss into a textured cushion looking hill.

From here we continued on down into the village of Birchover and explored Rowtor Rocks.

These rocks made from gritstone have been carved into rooms, alcoves ,tunnels, stairs and seats. This was all done by a local person Thomas Eyre 300 years ago. These rocks were popular with Victorian sightseers, I can see why they are brilliant.

Here is Nature Table Explorer John testing out a stone armchair , I sat up there and it was surprisingly comfortable.

The rock below shows some erosion, the whole area was full of interest.

On the way back up to the car through the woods,bluebells are starting. There were also large blocks of yellow Archangel another wild flower I really like.

Just back from buying a new book to go back and explore more of the Peak District.

Burial Mound Beginnings

When I’m driving to Cheltenham over the Cotswolds I am always drawn to this burial mound up on a ridge at Notgrove.

It is close to a large lay-by and the cars scream by at 60 mph .Surprisingly a short walk and through a wooden gate and you are totally transported to an area of peace and charm.

The mound is a chambered burial mound but has been back filled. It is a strangely haunting place . Sitting on the mound with the scents of the grass and plants and the racing clouds above you is re-charging . I like the feeling of this ancient place. As the Spring continues the grassy mounds will become covered in flowers. Today tiny cowslips are starting to decorate the slopes. Some of them really tiny and others seeming to stretch up high.

Cowslips (Primula Veris) are meadow plants cowslip means cow slop as in cow pats with reference to their meadow habitat.

Cowslips are the county flower of Northamptonshire, Worcestershire and Surrey.

The scent of cowslips is similar to apricots.

The view from the mound is wonderful across the Cotswolds. Around the trunks of the trees and the base of the mound there are carpets of wild strawberries. Definitely worth a visit in a few weeks time for a snack.

What’s in a name-Ground Ivy ?

It’s called Runaway-robin, Catsfoot,Tunhoof,Alehoof,Creeping Charlie,Gill over the ground,Haymaid – these are all common names for Glechoma hederacea-Ground Ivy.

Even though the name Ground IVY gives the impression it is part of the Ivy family it isn’t. It is part of the mint family , it looks more like a Dead Nettle. This family is called the LAMIACEAE ,an easy feature to identify this family of plants is their square stem.

Ground Ivy has kidney shaped leaves with a pretty scalloped edge. The leaves are often a reddish /purple at the top of stems. The plant is covered in short hairs which can be seen clearly in the photo above.

These small creeping plants are easily overlooked but they form colourful carpets across woodland edges and verges and are not fussy,flowering and brightening up waste ground areas.

Some interesting facts about this common plant:-

  • It smells of black currants or some say Tom cats …..CATSFOOT
  • The leaves were once used as a bitter flavour in beer until hops were used……ALEHOOF
  • A tiny plant with lots of names and uses .
  • Another intriguing name for the next find on the walk.. Robin’s Pincushion.
  • This is a picture of one which has been through the winter and is ready to release its inmates !
  • It is a gall called a Rose Bedeuar Gall , a Moss Gall or my favourite A Robin,’s Pincushion. I like the image of the Robin doing a little dress making with its pins sticking out of this !
  • This is one looking pink and pincushion like in the summer in deepest and beautiful Northamptonshire.The gall is caused by a gall wasp called Diploleptis rosae. Inside the pincushion there is more than one wasp larvae , each of the larvae has its own chamber. They overwinter in the gall and hatch out as adults in the Spring.These wasps reproduce without males in a process called PARTHENOGENESIS.
  • As the walk was at an end I was once again drawn to the beautiful lichen on the blackthorn twigs.
  • Today the weather has been T shirt one minute followed by Thunderstorms but the Spring is marching on.
  • Blossom Tunnel

    This tunnel of blackthorn blossom was alive with birds and beautiful in the sun.

    Blackthorn is commonly called Sloe , the hard bitter fruits which are often used to make sloe gin. Blackthorn (Prunus Spinoza) is a densely branched and spiny tree which can grow to 7M. They can live for 100 years.

    Because they flower early , March-April the flowers provide a good supply of nectar and pollen for bees.It’s leaves provide food for a large number of moth caterpillars and they are also where the rare black Hairstreak butterfly lays its eggs.

    The other flower that caught my eye was the milkmaid ,also called Lady’s Smock. It was growing in the wet meadows in groups.

    Birds were busy , Great Crested Grebes were in pairs and showing off with weed trying to impress a mate.

    Cormorants were drying their wings on posts and trunks in the lakes.

    Great Tits were singing their hearts out.

    Mallards were cruising.

    And Herons were keeping watch for fish.

    This was a great walk full of birds, their songs and blossom.

    Batsford Encounters

    On Saturday in sunshine and with a blue sky we visited Batsford Arboretum near Moreton-in-Marsh.

    We were drawn there to see the amazing Magnolias, they did not disappoint, they were stunning. Some of the trees are huge and the variety of flowers both in size and shape and colour was fantastic.

    Magnolias have been found in the fossil record between 36-58 million years ago. They are an ancient, primitive flowering plant. Unlike modern flowers they don’t have a separate petal and sepal , they are combined and it is called a tepal.

    Magnolias existed before bees and they rely on beetles to pollinate them. The beetles are attracted by a pungent smell and eat the protein rich pollen while pollinating.After pollination seeds develop in a cone like structure.

    There are 210 species in the magnolia genus. Magnolias are named after the French botanist Pierre Magnol.

    They may be primitive but they are very beautiful and the displays at Batsford are amazing.

    Another plant that catches the eye on this walk is the Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) This is native in the Pacific North west in America. It is found in Wet woodlands and swamps. At Batsford it is planted along stream banks. They are also a feature at Cambridge Botanic Gardens.

    They have an unpleasant pungent smell to attract flies, midges and beetles to pollinate them.In the flower there is a chemical reaction that makes heat that also attracts these pollinators. They grow slowly and can live for 80 years.

    A much smaller flower, a feature of damp meadows which was nodding in the breeze is the beautiful Snakes Head Fritillary. These chequerboard petals look unreal as they nod amongst the grass. They were once so common they were picked in bunches by children and sold in London ( like the wild daffodils) The draining of wet meadows and ploughing caused their decline.

    It is the county flower if Oxford and can be seen at Iffley Meadows here. With management they can recover . In 1983 there were 500 plants now there are 42,000 flowers in April. Sounds worth a visit soon !

    Flying and hovering about were several bees , which turned out not to be bees but bee flies . They were dark edged Bee Flies ( Bombylius major)

    These look like and buzz like a bumble bee but they are flies. They have a long proboscis which is used to find nectar in flowers like primroses and violets. There were banks of both these flowers at Batsford.

    They are a little gruesome in their reproductive strategy. The female coats her eggs in sand and flicks them into the burrows if solitary mining bees. The larvae feed on the stored pollen but when the solitary bees larvae are almost full grown they attack them and feed off the body fluids , killing them !

    A true bumble bee that was also busy amongst the pollen was the Tree Bumble Bee ( Bombus hypnorum)

    Batsford is a place to return to through the year as it constantly has new wonders appearing . I’m heading back to see the amazing handkerchief tree in May. Even the pheasants were extra beautiful .

    Tree creepers,Lake Sleepers

    It’s funny how a normal stroll can suddenly become really exciting and interesting because you catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye. Standing still and really watching is full of surprises.!

    This was one of those days. It started off with the geese flying straight towards me.

    These Canada geese announce their flight with a loud series of honks, and they are off.

    Walking past an area where we often see great spotted woodpeckers a tiny movement caught my eye. It was a flicker on a dead tree trunk. Staring at the trunk I realised that there was a treecreeper moving up the trunk.Treecreepers never move down a tree they move up fly and move upwards again.

    The spindly nature if these legs struck me , they are so delicate with spindly feet but they grip and move about with ease.

    This crack is the nest site and the bird was constantly in and out .

    The delicate spindly toes have a real grip here reminding me of the grab machine at the arcade! Treecreepers roost in crevices on tree trunks. The Male bird finds a nesting site , the female builds a nest. The nest is filled with materials,twigs etc but there is a soft cup made from moss, spider webs and feathers.I’d love to see them collecting the spiders webs! They lay 5-6 eggs after hatching the young can fly after 15 days, they are independent in only a week, amazing !

    I have become more and more interested in birds over the last year and I’m actively trying to learn more. My Mum bought a great bird identification book in a charity shop for me for a brilliant 50p it’s fantastic. I picked up a couple more good books at a garden centre , a good deal but not as good as Mum’s find . I am really enjoying going out of my way to learn more and discover things I hadn’t even thought of.

    Below is the 50p star buy – brilliant ( thanks Mum )

    This walk of surprises continued onto the boardwalk alongside the lake . I was peering in to see if the fish had returned with the warm weather from their sleepy state deeper down.

    I did see some small shoals of small fish and thought ‘ great’. I then had a ‘something odd caught my eye ‘moment.

    Was it a fish ? I watched for ages , it didn’t move , it was big , had definite markings it looked like a fish but was it a bicycle tyre?

    Here is the video look in the middle and then watch the small fish go by.I tried to photograph the statue like fish which is a Pike with amazing markings.

    I used the big lens to try and focus on the Pike.

    After about ten minutes it very slowly moved forward and slowly glided out of sight. I need to learn more about fish , I am on the look out for a trusty identification guide!


    Flights of Spring

    Amazing skies and warm sun has brought out some fliers .

    Two days of walks along the river and then at Harlestone Firs in Northampton have been full of flight.

    Bumble bees were attracted to the blossom at the garden centre along with honey bees and a range of hover flies.

    These Great Tits were busy along the River bank.

    Great Tits are the largest of our tits and are easily identified they have a black head and white cheeks, they also have a black stripe down their chest which is wider in males. The Male and female are quite similar the males head can be more glossy.

    It has a characteristic two syllable song described as ‘ teacher, teacher’. They nest early and start looking for sites in February . They lay 7-9 eggs they eat mainly insects and feed their young caterpillars. The lifespan is approximately 3 years.

    While walking in Harlestone firs I saw something hopping , flying and investigating the undergrowth and the Beech trees, it was a Carrion Crow which had caught my eye.

    This was a very attractive bird and really interesting to watch as it searched for food.

    Carrion Crows(Corvus Corone) are often seen alone. They are very adaptable and intelligent. They eat carrion, seeds, nut, worms and fruits in fact they have been found to eat 1000 different foods.

    They have the largest brains of all birds except for parrots.

    • They have excellent memories they move food often and remember where it is.
    • They can use basic tools.
    • They sometimes run ants across their feathers , it’s thought the ants release formic acid that acts as a pest control for the crow.
    • They steal other birds eggs for food..
    • A crow has feathers around its beak and thighs unlike a rook.
  • The woods at Harlestone are a mixture of coniferous , pines and stands if larch and desciduous, mixed ,Beech ,silver birch . This area of woodland had a stunning green carpet of Dog’s Mercury. The colour was almost unreal.
  • The coniferous stands look fantastic against the blue sky.
  • Along the edge of these pines is a sunny ride and this is where the final two fliers appeared. A shadow flitted over me , I looked up to see a pair of dancing butterflies. I saw three of these paired off dancers. They were Commas (Polygonia c-album). Later on I found one sunning itself.
  • These butterflies are widespread , their name comes from the comma shaped white mark in their underside. When their wings are closed they are well camouflaged.
  • There was a severe decline in commas in the middle of the 1800s, this was thought to be because if the decline in hop production. Hop was a larval food plant for the comma. In the 1960s it made a big comeback and the larval food plant being used was nettles
  • The caterpillars are found in nettles, hop, Elm, Currants and Willow.
  • In March the Comma comes out of hibernation. It mates and produces a new generation that appears June/July.
  • Interestingly the majority of this generation have dark undersides and go on later in the year to hibernate.Some of the offspring however have lighter undersides and brighter upsides. These are called Hutchinsoni a different form. These breed and produce another generation that will overwinter. The percentage of this Hutchinsoni form is triggered by the changing day length.
  • A great website for more interesting information is
  • My last flight specialist of the walk was another butterfly, but named after a bird- The Peacock(Inachis iois).This one looked rather pale and worn but still lovely, it was sun bathing at the edge of a open ride.
  • Peacocks hibernate through the winter, in the weeks before they go into hibernation some of their blood sugar is converted to glycerol to act as an antifreeze. The hibernate in areas where the temperature hopefully remains constant.
  • They wake up and look to feed and then will mate and lay eggs. They lay groups of 500 eggs that are in layers on the underside of nettle leaves. These layers help to protect the eggs from drying out and predation. As the caterpillars hatch the year old adults die. This new generation pupate in July and hatch out in August the life cycle continues as they will then hibernate in the winter.
  • Having a patch of nettles somewhere in the garden is a fantastic larval food plant for the Comma , the Peacock and the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly. Small additions to a garden can really increase its diversity.
  • This was two days of fantastic fliers , all in the sunshine , coat free. Roll on Spring !
  • If you go down to the woods today…..

    This brilliant wood is definitely not the place to sit down and have a picnic, even with a teddy bear !

    It is home to amazing colonies of the Wood Ant and they were very active in yesterday’s sun.

    The videos below show the number of ants and the constant work they are doing. You can hear them moving about. Watch an individual and what it does. They are fascinating.

    The ants are everywhere in the wood, they have large mounds for the colony , they are foraging across the floor and scaling high up the trees.

    Some of these mounds are very tall and spread a long way. Here is a diagram of the organisation below.

    These ants are Southern Red Wood Ants ( Formica rufa) Green woodpeckers are fond of eating these and meadow ants that can also be found in the area.

    Southern Red Wood Ants are also known as the Red Wood Ant. They are aggressive predators that feed on invertebrates collected from the area around the colony.A colony can be huge, containing up to half a million ants.After watching them yesterday this is very easy to believe!

    These animals are fascinating ,here are a few facts but there is so much to find out about them , their social structure and life cycle. A great website to find out more is:

    Wood Ant Facts

    Ants are insects they have three parts to their body a head a thorax and an abdomen and they have six jointed legs.

    • There are more ants in the world than any other creature.
    • Colonies act as one organism with roles that can change.
    • The life expectancy of a worker Wood Ant is 60 days.
    • The life expectancy of a Queen is 15 years or even more.
    • They can spray formic acid for defence up to 12 times their body length.
    • They navigate through sight and small, they have memories of routes even after hibernation.
    • They can lift 100 times their body weight.
    • The method of nest construction is important for thermoregulation.
    • They sunbathe on the top of the nest on a sunny day , this absorbed heat is released when they are in the brood chamber.
    • The thatch layer on the outside of the nest is also waterproof.

    A brilliant walk , with literally millions on animals .