15 amazing wildlife species found in Torbay

A Painted Lady Butterfly on Echinacea.

The Painted Lady Butterfly annually journeys from Africa to the Arctic Circle. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Torbay is harbouring fugitives. Many have been here for years, others come just for their holidays. Who are they, where do they come from? PHILIP FAIRCLOUGH reveals all 

Some are deliberate imports, others stowaways. Still others simply lost their way but all have one thing in common...they are wildlife which found Torbay to their liking. Here’s my round-up of the 15 strangest non-native examples you might find in the Bay:  

A New Zealand landhopper insect on a stone.

Land hoppers are leaping, dark coloured, flea-like creatures. - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Those which crawl  

Moving a planter, pot or dead vegetation may reveal hordes of leaping, dark coloured, flea-like creatures. Land hoppers arrived in Victorian times, possibly in soil or plants from Eastern Australia. These crustaceans are as harmless as their pale coloured cousins found beneath seaweed on most beaches.  

To those allergic to insect bites, harmless may not be true of steodata nobilis. With the skull-shaped markings on its abdomen and found indoors and out, the first UK record of the false widow spider was in Torquay in 1879, likely a stowaway in plant material from Madeira or the Canary Isles.  

A stick insect on a leaf at night.

Stick insects are quite common around Torbay. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Steodata is venomous but only if attacked or trapped but, even then, for most of us the pain is rarely worse than a bee sting. No, you’re not seeing things. Stick insects are quite common around Torbay. Yet another stowaway, probably among tree ferns, their proper home is New Zealand. Paignton recorded the first UK specimen in 1909. 

Two visitors hail from the Mediterranean, here for the summer only. You may see AND hear the hummingbird hawk moth. Like its namesake, this small, daytime flying moth hovers in front of flowers, inserting its proboscis. The swallowtail butterfly is easily identifiable by its forked tail, pale yellow body and black and white wing markings. 

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In 2019 Torbay experienced an influx of painted ladies from North Africa. Not beautiful, sultry women but butterflies. What it may lack in looks, it makes up for by skill, flying up to one kilometre high as it annually journeys from Africa to the Arctic Circle. Other ‘native’ butterflies, like the red admiral, are in fact, likewise migrants, here for the season only. 

Those which fly 

Surprisingly, many ‘native’ garden birds are not residents. Robins, blackbirds, wrens and tits we see and feed, fly to the Continent, to be replaced by visitors. Winter visitors, here for the ‘warmer’ weather, travel from Scandinavia, Russia and the Arctic Circle.  

A fieldfare picking and eating a rowanberry in winter.

That larger thrush, with a grey head, is a fieldfare. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

That thrush with a white eye stripe and red flash on its flank and stripping berries from your trees and shrubs is, in fact, a redwing and that larger thrush, with a grey head, is a fieldfare. Also from northern climes, during the winter months the bay becomes home to assorted varieties of grebes and divers The list of avian visitors through the seasons is extensive but some, including chiff chaffs, blackcaps and Cetti’s Warbler have, in recent years, found it to their liking and taken up permanent residence.  

A shoal of grey mullet swimming underwater.

Around any harbour ‘grey ghosts’ can be seen as thousands of grey mullet travel from the Gulf of St Lawrence. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Those which swim 

Many fish species in Torbay are lost, like the sunfish netted in the 1960s before spending the rest of its life in Torquay aquarium. Others have likewise travelled thousands of miles but deliberately.  

From May until autumn, around any harbour or river boat mooring, ‘grey ghosts’ can be seen as thousands of grey mullet travel from the Gulf of St Lawrence where they spawn.  

Many other species arrive which we may never see, except in a fishmonger’s. We may be unaware of anchovies from the Atlantic or Mediterranean unless we spot the activities of gannets, wheeling, screaming and diving on the shoals. In contrast, on a calm summer’s evening the bay may be disturbed by small fish pursued by mackerel, yet another summer visitor from the Gulf of St Lawrence where it too spawns, ending its life, either in the nets of a trawler or dangling, iridescent, from the hooks of anglers.  

Basking shark underwater off the West Coast of Scotland.

The basking shark is completely harmless, preferring plankton to humans. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Should you see a triangular fin slicing through the water, don’t panic. It’s not a shark but the second biggest fish in the world. Thirty feet in length, the basking shark is completely harmless, preferring plankton to humans. Though appearing from time to time, this fish seems to have no set place it calls home.  

Other visitors are not fish but mammals: dolphin, porpoise, seal and briefly, in 2019, a hump backed whale which beached off Berry Head. Not sure it that’s a dolphin or porpoise? Is the dorsal fin triangular? Then you’re looking at a porpoise. Hooked or curved? It belongs to a dolphin. Like the basking shark, many spend their lives in perpetual travel, never putting down roots.  

A redwing bird in flight.

That thrush with a white eye stripe and red flash on its flank and stripping berries from your trees and shrubs is, in fact, a redwing. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Things which never move 

Experts tell us there are between 3,000 and 14,000 non-native plants in the UK. Many of us may have even given a home to some. Lavender arrived here in the 1300s, red valerian in the 1600s. 

We live in a beautiful place, never seeming to have time to just stand and stare. Hopefully, now better informed we will keep a lookout in the garden, waters and countryside around us.  

These ‘illegal aliens’ are neither illegal nor aliens. From a different place originally, we now share a common home, and they have as much right to be here as we. Circumstances have just caused them to vacate their old dwellings, take up new lodgings and adapt to changed conditions and circumstances, surviving despite what man, sometimes inadvertently, throws at them.  

Let’s make them as welcome as we would, new human neighbours, giving them what they need, helping make their stay, short term or long, as pleasant as possible.   

A jasmine flower blooming with green leaves in the background.

Grow jasmine to help insects. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

How can we encourage them to visit? 

For insects: Grow jasmine, honeysuckle, buddleia, lilac, red valerian, phlox and lavender. If you can bear a wild patch, grow wild flowers, especially nettles, milk parsley or wild carrot.   

For birds: Grow berry-bearing shrubs and trees e.g. cotoneaster, rowan, pyracantha, ivy and seed-bearing flowers, teasel and sunflowers. 

For sea creatures: Be careful what we leave on the beaches and in the sea. 

A red valerian plant.

Red valerian plants are helpful to support insects. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto