Saturday, 1 August 2015

Tigers on the cliffs!


Between Lyme Regis and West Bay, the Dorset coastline is very unstable. The coastal footpath that meanders along the cliff tops has been closed in several places because of erosion, and if you walk along the base of these same cliffs you need to be aware of not only being assaulted by loose debris from above, but also from being cut off by rising tides that will give you no option but to take refuge on the unstable bases. As hostile as this sounds, it is a place of strange beauty. The image above was taken from the beach between Charmouth and St. Gabriel's, looking up at one of the more dramatic cliff slumps. It is here where I encountered a very rare beetle indeed...

Cylindera germanica (or the Cliff Tiger Beetle if you prefer), is found only on the soft, south-facing cliffs of Dorset, Devon and the Isle of Wight. It is thermophilic (that's warmth-loving to you and me) and uses the heat of the day to store up energy so that it can hunt on cool days. And boy can this beetle move! My attempts to photograph one was doomed to failure as they raced over the parched mud/clay of the cliff slump. I found them without much trouble, particularly close to any wet flushes.

Even rarer is Slender Centaury (left), known only in the UK from another cliff slump at Eype Mouth (just west of West Bay). There were hundreds of plants in flower, all tight budded when I visited early one morning. Although considered to be a full species, there has been some suggestion that this is just a white-flowered variant of the commoner Lesser Centaury. Currently, the botanist's bible, Stace, considers it a full species.

The whole area seems to be under-birded. The Birds of Dorset (Green) barely mentions it - I wonder if this is due to the close proximity of Portland Bill and the difficulty of accessing a lot of the clifftop? There is plenty of decent habitat for migrants and during my week in the area saw plenty of warblers making their way along hedgerows and disappearing down into the inaccessible cliff vegetation. However, with a bit of patience viewpoints can be found, which enable the observer to watch the birds feeding below. One morning, without moving from my perch, I was able to observe c25 warblers within a ten minute spell, mostly Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers, but also including Whitethroats, Blackcaps and an out-of-place Sedge Warbler. A handful of Wheatears escorted me across the open fields and hirundines and Swifts swept by, heading eastwards. Effort here would undoubtably be rewarded.

If in the area, one botanical sight that is worth the effort to see are the great mats of Sea-heath that can be found at the base of the footpath as you leave West Bay heading towards Eype. My previous encounters with this species are of modest patches with sporadic flower - not these Dorset plants. The image below doesn't do it justice.


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