February 7th

The richest of wildlife experiences are often to be had where two distinct habitats or landscapes rub up against each other. There’s even a technical word, and I think it’s rather a beautiful one: ecotone. Tone is a good word, for diverse tones is what you find in the edge spaces and in-between places. Our on-the-edge experience this past weekend was on a grand scale, at the very edge of Britain, sandwiched between the red rocks of Devon and the turquoise waters of Torbay.

Broadsands Beach sits right on the boundary, a marbled red and black slab of sand sloping damply into the waves. On a temporarily sunny Sunday it may as well have been called a dog park, given the number of canines out enjoying a run or swim. To the dogs’ owners this place must be a fairly ordinary diversion. To the sand mason worms squashed under the dogs’ paws, waiting patiently for the tide in their intricate tubes, this is home, the only world the scraps of neural tissue that pass for their brains will ever know.

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Where the sand runs into rock the retreating tide leaves pools, the same in which we watched a heron go fishing last spring. No such high excitement this time, but they were filled with strange and wonderful things. Most delightful were five kinds of anemone, including one – Calliactis parasitica – more usually found squatting on the shells of hermit crabs.

We moved further round the coast, to Brixham. Under the looming presence of clouds that were about to spit horizontal hail at us, the sea turned the most remarkable lucent green. Gannets, flying in procession, began to glow bright enamel white, their wingtips dipped in ink. In the waters off the harbour, three more black-and-white birds shone: razorbill, guillemot and black-throated diver. Purple sandpipers, turnstones and rock pipits foraged on the rocks that line the breakwater. Finally a rainbow emerged over the bay, splitting the scene, all tones at once, setting off the diverse drama of the ultimate ecotone.

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