I can’t quite remember how I came across it, but from somewhere, at some point, I picked up a book that itinerizes a whole year’s worth of nature-based things to do at weekends.
As someone who is notoriously bad at deciding what to do with himself (unless moaning about not being able to decide what to do with himself counts as doing something, of course), it seemed like a great purchase. The price sticker suggested I paid a fiver for the book – which is less than ten pence an itinerary – so, wherever I was at the time, I got myself a bargain.
52 Wildlife Weekends by James Lowen revolutionarily divides the calendar year up into weeks, removes the Monday to Friday dross and focuses in on the glorious Saturday and Sunday bit. It then provides a list of seasonal naturey things to go and find on each of the weekends. What a great idea.
52 Wildlife Weekends – 234 pages of sorting my holiday choices out!
I had initially thought I could try to do everything in the book in one year as my annual blog challenge for 2016, but fairly quickly thought better of it when I started to work out how much it would cost to travel the length and breadth of the British Isles to weekend my way through the fifty-plus schedules – both from a financial and a time point of view. If I’m honest I probably should have known that before I sat down and started to calculate things. I really do wonder about my intelligence sometimes.
As, a compromise, I decided I could use the book to guide me with my nature-based holiday choices whenever I found the opportunity to get away.
It was the first week of April and I had some time off work, so I delved into the book.
Where would it take me?
“April Weekend 1 – Sand and Deliver” – The entry kicked off with a pun, and, as you may have previously noted, I love puns. This was already excellent! “Devon for sand crocus, sand lizard, wild daffodil, rockpool species, cirl bunting” – Even more excellently, the hit-list included a bird I had never seen, so it meant I could legitimately crow-bar it into my now occasional bird-spotting blog. It was as if it was meant to be… and I was surely about to find myself in seventh Devon!
Oh, and before I continue, please please please don’t Google ‘seventh Devon’ – as I just did – to see if I had just invented an amazing play on words… because I hadn’t. It would appear that it’s the title of a porn film from the year 2000. According to the blurb, Devon is a ‘very naughty girl with the face of an angel and a hell of a body. You’ll feel like you’ve died and gone to Devon’ – I imagine that this is probably an issue the Devon tourist board has had to hire an expensive legal team to sort out at some point.
I imagine the follow-up would have be called ‘Stairway to Devon’, where our scantily-clad protagonist moves to Torquay and lives in an attic… Or something like that.
Anyway, I digress…
The book had directed me to the south coast, so I got in the car and headed for a little cottage just outside the village of Broadclyst to commence my wildlife weekend.
My initial challenge was to go to Dawlish Warren – part National Nature Reserve (hooray!), part beach resort (boo!) – and find a Sand Crocus and a Sand Lizard.
Dawlish Warren NNR
The book suggested I spend the ‘morning on hands and knees [and] search for rare plants’… With X-rated straight-to-DVD movies on my mind, I wondered if this was a euphemism I just didn’t quite understand.
Now, this was the first time I had ever gone anywhere with the intention of finding a plant and, if I’m honest, I thought it was a bit of a strange thing to do.
The Sand Crocus is a nationally rare plant and is only found in two locations on mainland Britain – at Dawlish Warren and a coastal site somewhere in Cornwall. It grows on sandy turf and it has very small pale purple flowers that are only supposed to open when the sun is out.
Given that the flower was so small, the potential searchable area was massive and the sun was only intermittently peeking out from behind the clouds, I didn’t fancy my chances much.
Would I fail my wildlife weekend challenge at the first hurdle?
In order to avoid any hint of drama, I’ll tell you straight away that answer was a resounding no. It turned out to be quite straightforward… Just behind the visitor centre was a fenced-off area and in that fenced-off area was a man on his hands and knees looking at rare plants. As the sun poked enough of itself around the edge of a cumulonimbus, I put these clues together and found my very first Sand Croci. There were hundreds of them nestled amongst the tightly cropped grass.
Sand Crocus observation area
I assumed the rare flower watching position and wondered how long I should stare at the tiny purple blooms before moving on.
Twelve seconds later, I was off in search of a Sand Lizard.
Sand Lizards are rare in the UK and are only found on sandy heaths and coastal dunes. They are Britain’s only native egg-laying lizards. The population at Dawlish Warren is a re-introduced one. Like the Sand Crocuses, they are fond of sunny spells and when the sun is out, they like to bask out in the open.
I walked along the sandy track and although occasionally distracted by the sporadic appearance of some scuttling Common Lizards, I found my first ever Sand Lizard. I assumed the rare lizard watching position (which, coincidentally, was exactly the same as the rare flower watching position) and stared at it for a few minutes, before getting my book out to see where I was heading off to next.
My Lizard Patrol assistant in action
I decided against going to look for Wild Daffodils (12-seconds of looking at crocuses had been quite enough flower watching for one weekend). I also opted to skip the search rockpools for Beadlet, Strawberry and Snakelocks Anemones… Why I did this was anemonebody’s guess, although, it could have been something to do with the fact that I used to have nightmares about what might happen if Day of the Tentacle came true. This, of course, is a lie and, if you’ve never played the computerized adventure game, I wholeheartedly recommend that you do so (after you finish reading this!) – Then give The Secret of Monkey Island a go!
After a brief dalliance with my computer game playing of years gone by, I whizzed off in search of the final creature in the chapter: the Cirl Bunting.
I had successfully found two things on my wildlife weekend checklist, tactically ignored a few and now was on the hunt for a bird I had never seen before…
Cirl Buntings are predominantly found in Devon in the UK and have been the subject of an RSPB reintroduction programme that is trying to counter their rapid decline. As is the case with most nature declines in recent times, dwindling Cirl Bunting numbers have been caused by loss of suitable habitat and changes in farming methods. By carefully managing farmland (for winter feeding) and unimproved grassland with hedges and scrub, (for summer nesting and feeding) the programme has successfully seen an increase in numbers from a low of 118 pairs in 1988 to almost 1000 pairs now. The Buntings have even started spreading further along the coast into Cornwall.
The book suggested that I visit Wembury, but the sentence ended with ‘where seeing Cirl Buntings will take patience’, so I decided to go rogue and find somewhere where I could see them without patience.
“Que Sera, Sera, whatever would be, would be, I wasn’t going to Wembury, Que Sera, Sera” – Or something like that…
A quick Google search directed me to RSPB Labrador Bay, which, as it turned out was an absolutely stunning piece of coastline. There was even an ice cream van in the car park, so all was falling into place. All I needed was a Cirl Bunting to appear before me.
RSPB Labrador Bay
Labrador Bay – Fields managed for Cirl Buntings
As I wandered around – marvelling at the beauty of the landscape (and thinking about my end of walk Mr. Man ice lolly) – I could hear Cirl Buntings calling from the relative safety of the footpath-side hedgerows, but they were keeping out of sight.
Eventually, they started to appear and I had ticked-off the last species in my wildlife weekend adventure. I had never seen a Cirl Bunting before, so it was a special moment.
I wholeheartedly recommend you grab a copy of 52 Wildlife Weekends if you like looking for nature and discovering new places to visit. It is a great book – especially, if, like me, you need a bit of direction when it comes to deciding what to do with your free time. I also recommend you buy your ice lolly before going off in search of Buntings, as the ice cream van had gone by the time I got back to the car park.
You can’t win them all…
Next week I’ll be in the Highlands!
Wheatear at Dawlish Warren… The book had omitted to tell me that I would be spotting this!