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#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug walks awayday to Cambridge Botanic Garden

Things all got off to a rather inauspicious start – a poor cow got hit on the railway line and so our connection to Colchester (and onward to Cambridge) was in considerable doubt.  We debated whether to get a taxi (unavailable), bus (would take too long), or to rouse Helen’s husband from his slumber (it seemed a bit rotten), whilst Anita, already at Colchester, had been befriended by a helpful knight in shining railway-uniform and was relaying messages by text.  We decided that the most painless thing to would be to just abandon all hope of going and have a nice walk on Lower Lodge instead, until a shout of ‘All Aboard for Colchester’ rang out from the station master and we all broke into a sturry  (see The Meaning of Liff !) and managed to get all aboard just in time.  Our select group of local nature watchers (Pippa, Helen and Jenny), as well as us of course , eventually arrived at Colchester where Anita was calmly waiting.  We piled on to the train to Ipswich and set off, shaken but not stirred.

Cambridge was rather overcast and decidedly muggy, but all the same pretty good conditions for a Grand Day Out in the superb Botanical Gardens. First impressions from the group (most of whom had not visited before) was ‘WOW’.  Not only are these famous gardens an important centre for plant science and research, but are also beautifully laid-out and well-managed, showcasing plants typical of specific habitats e.g. chalk, dry, fenland, tropical and alpine, to name but a few.  Evidence of ‘managing with wildlife in mind’ was apparent- large swathes of grass left unmown for wildflowers to grow.  To use their blurb – “the Garden (is) a green oasis in the City that’s great for spotting wildlife’ and “ our wildlife friendly approach ensures that the Garden has an army of birds, insects and amphibians to help control pests and diseases.”

First stop was for a much needed coffee in the café where we also eyed up the lunch options.  We were then treated to an hour and a half’s walk lead by Chris, looking at some of the many interesting plants and insects.

Nearly everything seems to have a story  – the Birthwort, which due to the decidedly ‘gynaecological’ appearance of its flowers was thought to aid abortions; the Common Reed which the Devil took a dislike to, due to it being so perfect, and so bit into each leaf out of jealousy (each leaf has visible ‘tooth marks’);  the Broomrapes which need no chlorophyll to live as they parasitise other plants and get all their nutrients from them, hence they always look dead and brown even when fully alive.

So many of the plants we seemed to catch just at their right time: the beautiful Hoary Plantain in magnificent flower; fruits of the Hound’s-tongue; the fabulous spiky leaves of Henry’s Lime; and, once you look closely, the multi-coloured Wild Candytuft.

Insects were looking marvellous – just a few of our favourites – a male Thick-thighed Beetle; a new-to-us, tiny Bordered Shieldbug;  a Painted Lady butterfly (an immigrant butterfly at the moment very plentiful in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire); the Garden Chafer beetle; and the ubiquitous Harlequin Ladybird, a useful friend to gardeners as it ravenously devours aphids, though has also had bad press as it may have lead to the decline of a once-common species, the 2 spot ladybird.

The afternoon session, where we were joined by Annette,  a very keen naturalist and ‘moth-er’,  looked at some of the more specialised areas of planting and as the group went their separate ways, some of us had time for a quick tour of the glass houses before leaving.

We hope that everyone who came along enjoyed the Day Out – we certainly had fun and would like to thank the group for their enthusiasm, calmness in the face of traffic adversity, and wonderful company.


The Beth Chatto Garden throughout the seasons: June

Midsummer’s Day, and the garden is in full flow. At last the season has caught up with the calendar after a couple of relatively cool months, and spring is but a distant memory.

Now is the time for sweeping vistas of colour, but also more detailed plantscapes, celebrating the skill with which the garden display has been orchestrated.

And not forgetting the innerscapes of the plants themselves, the often surprising details of which are revealed by close up images.

The summer garden show-offs, Alstroemerias and Lilies for example, try to steal the show, but for at least for their evident value to nectar- and pollen-feeding insects, it is hard to beat (and even harder to walk quickly past) the Astrantias and Thalictrum.

So many insects, which way to turn? But speed was of the essence, as life was rushing by in the heat.

And where there are insects there are things that feed on them, valuable additions to the gardeners’ army of helpers in the control of what some may call pests.

As the water warms, so the lakes come into their own, with five species of dragonfly and damselfly seen in just an hour and a half.

And for the first time this year, butterflies in some abundance, with a total of ten species.

Lest we start to get maudlin, with the nights starting to draw in, at least the garden left me with a strong sense of the invertebrate riches to come, in the diverse forms of the nymphs of all sorts of late summer attractions. Nature has its way of healing both body and mind!


Standing up for the Phyllis Currie Reserve: early June

A month after our first visit, and all has changed at Phyllis Currie. Cowslips and Green-winged Orchids, now no more than shrivelled remnants, have been replaced by Yellow-rattle and Southern Marsh-orchids in colourful swathes across the meadows.

And a whole lot more. Grass-vetchling has broken out of its grassy anonymity, its beautiful magenta flowers putting on their brief but welcome show, and Corky-fruited Water-dropwort has sent up white umbels. Both are scarce in Essex now with the loss of so much of this species-rich hay meadow habitat.

Down at the ponds, the Yellow Water-lilies are in full bloom.

Unfortunately the weather turned rather cool, breezy and damp on the day, so our insect-hunting was a little thwarted. It should have been just the right time of year for dragonflies and damselflies, but all we could muster were four species of damsel nestling in the vegetation.

Likewise, butterflies were sparse but moths included refugees from the night, like this Silver Ground Carpet, reliant for safety on its passing resemblance to a bird dropping…

…and several habitual day-fliers, including Cinnabar, Gold-banded Longhorn and one of the smallest moths in the world (and one of very few species that feeds on pollen as an adult), Micropterix calthella.

Most stunning though were several Alabonia geoffrella, an exquisitely -patterned micromoth of woodland edges.

Add to those a range of spiders, flies, bees, bugs and beetles:

And even when the weather was not suitable for a huge range of invertebrates, we could still add to the reserve list by recording galls, caused by rust fungi, gall-midges and mites on Sallow, Meadowsweet, Nettle and Field Maple, and a few caterpillars.

So far as we know yet, nothing seriously out of the ordinary in a county context, except for the fact that enclaves of this nature, rich in all kinds of everything, have largely been erased from our landscape, if not from our memories.



The Beth Chatto Garden through the seasons: May

Late May, and the gardens are burgeoning – flowers are flowering in abundance, insects and other visitors are active everywhere. And this year, the green bits are still green, such a contrast to last year when we were already in the grip of a severe drought. In fact this year overall the rainfall totals have been low, but there have been just enough downpours to keep the garden going. And with temperatures through May being on the low side, the flower colours set against the canvas of greens is simply vibrant. Feast your eyes on these, from plant panoramas ….

…to the finer details, the inner plantscapes:

It’s always a pleasure to see in the Beth Chatto gardens that the ‘gardeners’ curse’ of overtidiness doesn’t feature too much. While some may find long grass and dead flower heads unsightly, others – especially the insects and birds to which the garden is a home – don’t. Nature’s bounteous growth harbours food and provides shelter, all part of the natural ecology of the garden:

All of the insects and other invertebrates we found were exciting, but two bits of behaviour we had never seen before were thrilling to observe.  A pair of Malachius bipustulatus (Two-spotted Malachite Beetles) indulging in courtship behaviour, ‘kissing’ to transmit pair bonding pheromones….

… and it was especially good to see the first emergence of Scorpion-flies of the summer. The males have the eponymous ‘scorpion tail’ although it contains no sting, just a genital capsule, but both sexes have a protruding snout with jaws located at its tip. Widely supposed to be an adaptation to extracting insects from spiders’ webs without alerting the owner, this is certainly not the whole story. For the first time ever, we found one feeding, its beak deep in the body of its hapless prey – a spider!

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: June – the leaves are alive on Lower Lodge

Thank you to all the nature-addicts who joined us on Saturday.  The warm sunshine and gentle breeze made for very pleasant walks (if 400 metres in two hours qualifies as a walk!), and we certainly found lots to look at.  So much so we aren’t going to put many words into this month’s report – but let the pictures speak for themselves. We haven’t even labelled the pictures: please ask if you would like to know what they are…

As we know, as well as being vitally important for our ecosystems, insects vary hugely and are in fact classified into 22 different major groups or ‘orders’, reflecting their respective structures.

Beetles belong to the order  Coleoptera.  Coleos – a shield,  pteron – wing, and have hard wing cases which protect them.  They probably outnumber in species every other order of animal.

Moths belong to the order Lepidoptera   Lepidos – a scale,  pteron – wing.  We discovered several types of moth,  plus a couple of ‘cases’, ie  pupae where a moth has chewed out a section of leaf, to a very precise pattern, (how DO they know this?) as well as a couple of magnificent moth caterpillars. Sadly we were a week or two early for the spotted Burnet moths which will soon be abundant on Lower Lodge.  Butterflies are also Lepidopteran, but relatively few were out and about on Saturday, apart from Common Blues and Speckled Woods.

True bugs’ (as opposed to ‘bugs’ being the general term used for many insects) belong to the order Hemiptera   Hemi – half, pteron – wing.  This is an extremely varied order, and are further classified into suborders.

The three orders listed so far are three of the ‘big five’ insect groups, the others being Diptera (‘two-winged’) – Flies; and Hymenoptera (‘veil-winged’ – bees, wasps and ants). There are however many other smaller orders. Grasshoppers and crickets belong to the order Orthoptera   Orthos – straight,  pteron – wing.  Being early in the season, the bush crickets we found were nymphs, i.e. in their early stages of development.  They pass through a number of ‘instars’,  shedding their skins as they go,  before becoming adult.

Spiders – of course, these aren’t insects (ie they don’t have the requisite 6 legs) but are such interesting critters we could not possibly ignore them!

And of course Chris was also looking out for what was flowering, photographing a few flower heads (including the first Field Scabious, awaiting its complement of Burnet moths) and seed-head structures as he went, together with the remarkable fruiting structures of the Goat’s-beard Rust-fungus.

Happy nature watching.

Spring in the Camargue

My second Honeyguide trip of the year, and for the second time I was treated to a new destination: the Camargue, between Montpellier and Marseilles in southern France. Formed in the delta of the Rhône, it is a huge wetland, renowned throughout Europe for its wildlife, cultural landscapes and rural industries, especially salt-making and rice-growing.

Although far from complete, as a result of drainage, the wetlands comprise a complex of rice fields, lagoons, reedbeds, Tamarisk hedges, salt pans and marshes, each with is own distinct wildlife, reflecting both land-use and salinity. Many waters were bird-free; others had gulls, Black-headed or Mediterranean, but not often together; especially towards the sea, terns came to prominence, with a few northbound waders; and just a few ducks – Mallards, Shelducks and Red-crested Pochards. But it was outstanding for the most upstanding birds, the long-legged waders, herons, egrets, ibises, storks and of course Greater Flamingos, which along with white horses are the iconic sights of the Camargue.

This meant some searching by minibus to get among the birds, but that was welcome during the first half of the week, when it was unseasonably cold, windy and wet. At such times. visitor centres came in useful as well, often associated with excellent reserves. La Capelière  was a wonderful mosaic of most Camarguais habitats, all accessible by boardwalk: centrepiece of the reserve was a hide overlooking a breeding colony of Black-winged Stilts, watching and being watched by a Coypu, with European Pond Terrapins in the ditches and a Stripeless Tree-frog on a viewing platform, highly appropriate as it lends its name to the trail: ‘Le Sentier des Rainettes’.

Scamandre reserve was similarly well-provisioned, all the better to enjoy the airport-style procession of Glossy Ibises, Great, Little and Cattle Egrets, Grey, Purple and Night Herons overhead, and watch the fearless Squacco Herons feeding in the shallows. This site should have been superb for Odonata, especially as we visited in warm, calm weather, but only three species was a strong indication of what seemed to be a late spring.

Some other highlights included a couple of beds of Iris spuria among the ubiquitous Yellow Flags; Aristolochia rotunda in almost malevolent flower,  being demolished by Southern Festoon caterpillars;  a small lagoon with all three species of marsh tern – many Whiskered, several White-winged Black and a few Black Terns; and legions of Common Swifts in the skies overhead. Presumably (hopefully, given their sparse arrival back home) they were still on their way north, and indeed numbers were much lower by the end of the week.

One final sight of note came without much wildlife at all. The industrial salt-pans around Salin-de-Giraud presented a dramatic abiotic landscape, white mountains of salt standing proud from the pink lagoons, hypersaline waters shot through with the essence of flamingo.

Just to the east of the Rhone lay another different world. La Crau is a cobbly steppe area, the Alpine outwash plain of the River Durance before its course was diverted during the Ice Age. Flat, stony and grassy, ideal for a range of steppe birds – Roller, Lesser Kestrel, Stone-curlew, Calandra Lark and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse – although the intense heat-haze made viewing difficult.

Turning our sights inland, we visited the magnificent Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct across the River Gardon. A ‘must see’ despite its popularity, tourism being catered for relatively tastefully, and it is surrounded by wildlife, from Common Redstarts singing in the trees, to Rock Sparrow and Common Wall-lizard on the bridge itself.

No so for our other inland destination, Les Baux: historic maybe, but crowded, noisy and dusty, crammed with every sort of shop one could never want, a tourist tat-trap. Not surprisingly, Alpine Swifts from the viewpoint were just about all there was to see…

Fortunately, the village is set within Les Alpilles, so we had preceded the tourism terrors with a lovely ramble through the limestone hills, ablaze with colour – vivid blue Beautiful Flax and Blue Aphyllanthes; yellow and white Rock-roses; crinkled pink Cistus albidus….

… and where there are flowers, so there were insects, including a range of stunning jewel-beetles ….

.. and where there were insects, so there were predators, spiders lurking at every turn. Watchful jumping spiders waiting to pounce…

Crab spiders ambushing the unsuspecting pollinators of ‘their’ flowers. Time and again, the sight of an uncommonly still bee or fly dangling from a flower on closer inspection proved to be in the jaws of its nemesis.

And in a Gothic flourish of sex and death, the sight of a tiny male Thomisus onustus precariously mounting a much larger female while she was otherwise occupied in dealing with a paralysed bumblebee was for me one of the sights of the week!

A fully detailed illustrated report with lists will be found on the Honeyguide website in a few weeks. In the meantime, just a random selection of additional photos of some of the bugs and beasties and more of a wildlife-filled week.

And here is the link to the report!