Annual indoor meeting, Friday 15th February 2019
Now that we no longer have the top predators like wolves, bears or lynx roaming the countryside you would think that it was safe to venture outdoors. However, our speaker, illustrator and naturalist John Walters, showed us that lower down the pecking order, nature was still raw in tooth and claw. Everything is either hunter or hunted.

You would think solitary bees would be difficult to find  and track down their holes containing their eggs but even they are not safe from marauding interlopers. He showed us a video of an adder eating a whole clutch of meadow pipits just before they were due to fledge.  The last one still alive and kicking as it was being swallowed. Interestingly there were no signs of any bulges along the adders body.

Apparently some moths such as the mottled umber and the winter moth come out in the late Autumn/early Winter to mate and lay their eggs. The females look more like beetles than moths and don’t fly but are sought out by the flying males. These eggs hatch out in the Spring and he showed us pictures of oak trees completely stripped bare by thousands and thousands of these voracious caterpillars. All is not lost however as the trees produce another crop of leaves and the caterpillars are taken by birds to feed their young. The moths too get their comeuppance as he showed us his video that had been shown recently on the BBC’s Winterwatch programme of a woodlouse eating one of these moths whilst it was mating. So strong was the urge to mate that it didn’t seem to realise that it was being eaten alive at the same time.

There is still a cuddly side to nature as he explained how he managed to get some superb shots of roosting long tailed tits, who it seems not only use the same tree but nearly always the same twig on which to roost. He had seen up to eighteen all huddled together.

He also showed us some excellent examples of camouflage in nature with shots of snipe in long grass, nightjars nesting on the ground surrounded by matching leaves and young skylarks that are covered in green hairs to blend in with their nesting area. Butterflies and moths too can blend in with their surroundings, witness the comma butterfly that even when it’s picture was two feet wide on the screen it was difficult to pick out.

He too comes under attack as he often has to lie on the ground to get some of his fantastic photographs and then when he gets home he has to remove all the ticks he has acquired.What did please us was that he often went to places that we have visited on more than one occasion with our monthly outings such as Vennford reservoir, Bovey Heath, Torrington Common and the only place in England to see the narrow headed ant.

A most enthralling and entertaining evening and my thanks to all those in whatever way contributed to the success it was.

Velator Quay, Sunday, March 10th 2019
The wind, it blew and blew and blew. Even so this did not deter a good number of hardy BNA members from turning up to view the bird life of the rivers Taw and Caen.

To make us grit our teeth even more, a heavy shower descended on us almost horizontally from the sky just as we were about to move off. Amazingly this was the last rain of the day as we made our way along the bank of the River Caen towards the pond by the Tarka Trail.

Just before arriving at the pond the sweet musical notes of a dunnock were heard and after much searching with binoculars and several pairs of eyes it was spotted in a bush by the side of the Tarka Trail not eight feet away which gave some good photographic opportunities.

The first of our group to arrive at the pond spotted a brown rat scurrying along the hand rail of the viewing platform This did not deter our party and as we sheltered from the relentless wind we seemed to spend an unusually long time at this location. It was just as, well as we had some good sightings here which include a sand martin, Siberian chiffchaff and a little grebe which posed for the cameras for quite some time not ten yards away on the edge of a reed bed. A Cetti’s warbler was also heard.

The snipe is a bird usually nearly trodden on in wet, marshy ground before suddenly rising up unexpectedly and flying away from you in a zig-zag fashion. So it was wonderful surprise to see a wisp circling above us over the pond.

A short walk along the Trail to Chivenor Aerodrome and then back to the cars for a drink and refreshments. It was disappointing not to see a kingfisher although one was heard.

After refreshments, we drove out along the toll road towards the White House for views over Horsey Island. The main challenge, when standing on the top of the bank was not to get blown over. A cormorant spotted flying into the wind seemed to be making very slow eadway.

Surprisingly the most interesting sighting at this venue was below our feet as an eagle eyed member identified the young leaves of an early purple orchid and Autumn Lady’s tresses virtually at the same spot, reminding us that this was not just a bird outing even in early March.

Surviving a short hail storm we had a brisk walk along the beach and back through the sand dunes and scrub to head home with all the cobwebs blown away.

Dawn chorus walk – Sunday 7th April 2019

Our dawn chorus walk this year was in the National Nature Reserve of Horner Woods. It is an ancient oak woodland which is owned and managed by the National Trust. The extensive area of woodland has within it a tree which is over 500 years old. 15 of the 17 bat species found in the UK including the lesser horseshoe and barbastelle can be found here.

We set off from the Horner car park in the chilly atmosphere of a sunless sky preparing for a walk in the bracing Exmoor air. A dipper flew out from beneath the old stone bridge at the entrance to the woods, beating a hasty passage up stream. Entering the woods the light faded somewhat and even though there were not, as yet, many leaves on the trees it was difficult to spot the birds which were often silhouetted amongst the branches. Some of our branch members identified the birds from their songs. We hoped the sun would come out later.

Walking up through the woods we followed the bubbling stream of Horner Water which was seemingly trying to drown out the birdsong. Several large clusters of wood sorrel were encountered, some growing out of the soil and some in amongst the mosses and lichens. Throughout the reserve of almost entirely deciduous trees, the woodland was covered in mosses and lichens, an indication of a relatively clean atmosphere. There are at least 330 species of lichen found here, including a rather striking dog lichen.

The woods are home to a good population of red deer although none were spotted. A little further on we had more sightings of dippers and a good view of a marsh tit. The drumming and yaffling of greater spotted and green woodpeckers were heard along with the call of nuthatch. On arrival at the water splash clearing we sat down for some elevenses before the steep ascent up over the hill through open moorland. The day remained cold. Views at the top were spectacular as we looked down to the wooded valley through which we had walked. It was in this open moorland where we had our best sightings of the native Exmoor ponies.

Onwards and into the ancient woodland again in the hope of spotting the early arrivals of redstarts and pied flycatchers. Disappointingly none were seen – we were clearly a week or so too early. So back to the cars and onwards for some refreshment at The Ship Inn at Porlock Weir where we enjoyed a roast lunch in front of an open log fire.

The afternoon consisted of a planned walk to Chetsford Water, a well known rugged coombe on Exmoor. The day remained overcast and we remained hopeful that perhaps the sun would come out now. We followed the stream down to the junction where it met Embercombe Water. A picturesque walk which gave us a stonechat, skylark and sand martin. Finally, back to the cars where we proceeded to disperse after an energy sapping day in the Exmoor National park. On arrival home the sun came out!

Dog Lichen at Horner Woods, Exmoor

Steps Bridge, Dunsford. Sunday May 19th

It promised to be a fine day as we all gathered in the car park at Steps Bridge on the eastern edge of Dartmoor. Our walk took us through the wooded banks of the picturesque river Teign through the Dunsford Nature Reserve, owned by the National Trust. The reserve is well known for it’s magnificent display of wild daffodils in early Spring. We were too late to witness this display, but instead, we were treated to swathes of bluebells offset by the red of the red campion and the whites of stitchwort and wild garlic.

Before entering the woods we ambled down to the old stone bridge to peer out over at the sparkling clear waters of the river Teign. As we gazed at the water bursting over the rocks and boulders, deposited there over many centuries, the odd mayfly was seen wafting about in the air currents. Leaving the roadway into the woods our first surprise was the sight of a large beetle on the path ahead of us some three cms in length. It had a shiny bluish/black body and was identified as an oil beetle.

Moving further into the woodland of predominantly oak, ash and birch the quietness was only disturbed by the moving waters of the Teign amid a mixture of bird song. Most of the trees were now in full leaf. Therefore, many of the birds were heard rather than seen. The notable exceptions were the song and mistle thrushes both of which were seen in full voice.
Further along the river a dipper was spotted bobbing up and down on a boulder. Otters frequent this river and although it was not the best time of the day to spot one, it was agreed that their spraint was evident when viewed through binocular on a mid stream boulder. Ideally it would have been better if we could have accessed in order to make a clearer identification and to perhaps evidence fish bones or beetle elytra. (Elytra being the front wing cases of beetles which are hardened and indigestible)

Occasionally we came across open glades where the trees had been cleared to witness butterflies and damselflies dancing over the wild flower displays. Eventually we came across a suitable spot on the river bank where we sat for a while to contemplate our beautiful surroundings, whilst eating our packed lunches. Here we were treated to a busy brimstone on the opposite bank and a fly past of a red breasted merganser.

Suitably refreshed we carried on up through the mixed deciduous woodland before making a loop and heading back towards Steps Bridge. Adjacent to the path we came across the interesting sight of broomrape, a plant which is parasitic on the roots of the broom which was growing alongside it. Throughout the wood we encountered large colonies of wood ants. They all seemed to be rushing about aimlessly carrying bits of leaves and twigs often larger than themselves. No doubt they were all working together for a common cause.
Changing our footwear, the only task left for us was to head for the nearby popular Fingle Bridge, where many of our members polished off a cream tea whilst looking at the old stone bridge and the ever flowing river Teign.

Fingle Bridge. Taken by John Short at Dunsford Field Trip
Oil Beetle. Taken by John Short at Dunsford Field Trip

Dunsdon National Nature Reserve, Sunday 23rd June 2019

With the forecast of heavy rain and possible thunderstorms looming over us, our outing this month was around one of the rare culm grassland reserves of North Devon, managed by the Devon Wildlife Trust. The reserve has recently been expanded to 90 hectares and is a mixture of wet heath, meadow and boggy grassland dominated by purple moor grass and rushes. It is poor land – not suited for cultivation and has hardly ever been fertilized. For this reason it is home to some unusual plant life suited to these conditions.

We were delighted to have Steve Threkeld, an experienced hands on DWT manager to guide us around. Our grassy car park had a bright patch of yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) in one corner which gave us a sense of anticipation as to what else we might find.  Adjacent to the car park were several ash trees and before we set off Steve pointed out several cases of ash dieback, a fungal disease which can eventually kill the trees. It can be seen at the tips of branches leading to the yellowing and dying of the leaves. The younger saplings seem to be particularly susceptible. It is estimated that over 90% of our ash trees could be lost!

Moving out of the car park we walked down a board walk surrounded by tree growth which had developed from original culm grassland over the last 40 odd years. It had thick undergrowth but nevertheless, adjacent to the board walk, we were treated to a magnificent and varied display of ferns and a good stand of remote sedge. Entering the meadow at the end of the board walk  we soon came across our first orchids. These were the heath spotted (Dactylorhiza maculata) and lesser butterfly orchids (Platanthera bifolia) both of which have a symbiotic relationship with a specific mycorrhiza fungus present in the soil beneath them. The lesser butterfly orchid has relatively few flowers in the reserve at present but there are plans to increase their numbers. To achieve this, the sticky pollen will be transferred between the plants using a cocktail stick. The orchids then have to be protected from the fifteen cattle which will eventually lightly graze the area and the Winter swaling which takes place every three years.

Our hopes of seeing the rare marsh fritillary butterfly (Euphydryas aurinia) were quashed by the damp overcast conditions although there was plenty of evidence of it’s host plant devil’s bit scabious. We walked towards the old Bude canal aqueduct identifying some interesting plants along the way including whorled caraway (Carum verticillatum), three lobed crowfoot (Ranunculus tripartitus) and marsh valerian (Valeriana dioica). By the time we reached the canal the rain was beginning to fall steadily and it was decided to head back to the cars for a packed lunch.

Suitably replenished and with the rain easing off, we decided to take a walk around an adjacent field which only a few years ago had a high phosphate content because it was farmed for it’s silage. However, the DWT have turned it into a wild flower meadow which already has southern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa), eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) and common cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata) amongst it’s numerous species. Several burnet moths were seen flying over this meadow. This was not a good day for the bird watchers, although we learnt that in the twilight it is known that barn owls glide silently over the reserve, hunting for short tailed voles. As our group had braved dampish weather and spent a large part of the day trudging around damp, uneven ground we decided to reward ourselves with a cream tea at a nearby log cabin café.