History Group Talk February 2015


                    The Wildlife of Dartmoor was the title of a talk given to our group this month
                                                                    by John Walters
.

In 1990 John was working for the Dartmoor National Park Authority as a wildlife consultant and during that time met many well known naturalists. His work has taken him to many places but for this evening's talk he decided to feature some of the lesser known creatures that we could often overlook or even not notice at all.
Living near the river Dart has given him an excellent opportunity to record and observe the activities of nature from ‘river to tor‘, an overview of Dartmoor.
His illustrated talk began beneath the A38 dual carriageway at Buckfastleigh where a flock of beautiful Mandarin ducks have taken up residence. Their plumage was quite outstanding and reference was made to the fact that some with a peculiar colour range were in fact ducks that have made a ‘sex change’ during their lifetime. Mention was also made of the Muscovy ducks of the town which in recent years have been a cause of controversy.
Sticking to the waterways we were then shown pictures of frogs and toads and the ‘turmoil’ that takes place in the annual mating ceremonies. Some times as many as 10-12 males trying to mate with one female. This is sometimes called a ‘toad ball’, a melee of activity!
We were then given sight of a few of the less common birds, or should that be less noticed, that are part of this area. Starting with the Crossbill. This is one of the first to start nesting each year, often in February. They prefer the evergreens with their lovely cones. The shape of the bill of these birds enable them to open up the cones and extract the seeds, so important to their diet, and for their young.
The Wood Warbler comes in early spring, the Redstart, Whinchat, Stonechat, all having completed a 5.000 mile round trip to Central Africa and back. The way they construct their nest and how nature has helped with their camouflage and the camouflage of their young was shown on some interesting pictures,. The Skylark and the Meadow Pipit and the infamous Cuckoo who raids other's nests and leaves a 'surrogate' mother and father to rear the young.
The aerial manoeuvres of flocks of starlings were displayed, and the sight of male Adders, wrestling to decide which one should claim the favours of the female all made for interesting viewing.
We were told also that we can help with the conservation of the all important pollinators of the wild by making simple solitary bee boxes. A simple bunch of bamboo canes 6-8 inches long is just what they need to make a home and nest, to help them through the winter. The Red Mason Bee is such an example. They carry a great deal of pollen on their bodies, make a nest seal off the end and ’hey presto’ you have done your bit towards conservation.
The lovely Emperor Moth and its large green and spotty caterpillar, does not feed as an adult moth but has a busy few days of adult life as it mates, lays its eggs, and dies. The only British Moth that makes a ‘silk cocoon’.
The life of the Oil Beetle, it can lay as many as 40,000 eggs, so many get eaten along the way, safety in numbers to protect the species!
The Ground Beetle which attacks slugs, injecting its body fluid into the slug which becomes liquefied, the beetle ingests this and scampers off with a belly full of ‘mucus‘.
Then the sex life of the Leopard Slug. Being both male and female, (hermaphrodites), they hang upside-down in pairs from a thread, go through an intricate manoeuvre to mate, then go their separate ways. Unusual but in its way quite beautiful!
The final few minutes were taken up by a wonderful insight into a family of Long Tailed Tits. During the winter months they create a Group Roost. This is generally a complete family group and they tend to gather on a sheltered branch, in this case it was under a rhododendron bush, and they all row up along the branch, huddled close to each other, to keep warm. John's filming has to be admired. He showed how when two or three were settled, along came another, it would land on top of the huddle and squeeze itself into the middle of the group, this went on until up to a dozen were all huddled together to keep themselves all warm.
What a delight it was to have seen this on film, and for him to have filmed it !

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