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The Beth Chatto Garden throughout the seasons: March

Anyone who loves photographing flowers will know the feeling: when a burgeoning Spring releases a cornucopia of blooms in every colour that the past winter of relative inactivity is brought greedily to an end with an irrepressible flurry of snapping…

The urgency of this need, for me at least, is so strong that it goes well beyond the ‘normal’ approach to flower photography. Of course, the standard portraits are not ignored….

 

… but the visceral impact of the massed ranks simply cannot be ignored…

Equally, to revert from the big picture to the minutiae of Nature reveals the ‘Art in the Detail’, all too easily overlooked and unheralded….

 

… while interesting lighting and a focus on parts other than the flowers can bring other artistic rewards:

 

Given the cold northerly wind on the day of our visit, insect life was not as abundant, or obvious, as we had hoped. But in the woodland garden, the tree trunks served as something of the wind-screen and the absence of expanded leaves allowed sunlight through, enough to encourage the basking and feeding of some bugs and beasties:

And we were very pleased to see our first Dark-edged Bee-fly and Box Bug of the year:

Last of all, a question: coincidence or design? Is this Cicadellid really actively seeking to pretend it is a leaf serration?

 

In the foothills of the Atlas: Southern Morocco

My first experience of southern Morocco, indeed of North Africa, last week was a hot one: several days peaked at 30°C, some 10 degrees hotter than expected for mid-March, and just one cloud in the sky, on one day only!

Our Honeyguide/N&S Wildlife & Walking tour there came after some 18 months without meaningful rain, and the drought is beginning to take its toll on the landscape. At a time when the rolling foothills of the Atlas Mountains should be ablaze with a colourful array of wild flowers, from spring bulbs to poppies and other annuals,  it was a scene of parched aridity, the bones of the land clearly visible through its hide. Almost the only green came from deep-rooted Argan trees, so important to the local economy, naturally studded evenly across the stony plateaus and slopes in an attempt to make best use of what rainfall or condensation comes their way.

In contrast, the grounds of our hotel, the wonderful Atlas Kasbah Eco-lodge, were remarkably lush and productive, the source of most our food for the week, watered by our own efforts, as translated through the biofiltration water purification plant, complete with its thriving population of Saharan Marsh Frogs!

Although quiet in the midday heat, the gardens came alive at night, trilling Tree Crickets at every turn, mingling with wailing Stone Curlews, occasional Red-necked Nightjars and the wild yelperings of a family of (presumed) Ruppell’s Foxes from further afield. At dawn and dusk, Common Bulbuls gave liquid body to the soundscape, the repetitive song more structured but of a similar fluty tone to their conversational burbles throughout the day.

Other unfamiliar birds in the garden included a couple of pairs of Moussier’s Redstart, House Buntings all over the buildings, and the occasional pair of Laughing Doves, which all underline the significance of the Mediterranean as a barrier, at least to non-migratory species.

  

In and around the garden were a number of attractive native flowers, like Catananche arenaria (a Cupid’s-dart), the endemic knapweed-like Volutaria maroccana, and the sticky Large Yellow Rest-harrow.

  

Garden invertebrates included Long-tailed and Lang’s Short-tailed Blues, Brimstone and Cleopatra, Cage-web Spiders in their 3D webs, and most dramatically, Orange-headed Mammoth-wasps Megascolia bidens, always creating a stir when one appeared, and a mating pair of African Nine-spotted Moths Amata alicia.

 

Over the week, we visited a number of sites, all within an hour of so of home, and many much closer, such as the gorge at the head of our valley, home to Black Wheatears and Barbary Ground-squirrels.

 

Oleander was flowering profusely in the dry riverbeds, always with thriving populations of the Oleander Seedbug Caenocoris nerii, at all stages of development from egg to adult. Few creatures can withstand the toxic chemical armoury of Oleander, but these bugs can, and presumably (from their warning coloration) sequester the poisons for their own defences.

     

Just outside the gorge were our best reptiles of the week, Bibron’s Agama and Algerian Skink, the first a mini-dragon and the second a cylindrical ‘snake with legs’ that seemed to have been eating tomato ketchup. Messily!

The coast north of Agadir gave us one of the rarest of birds, Northern Bald Ibis. Although access to the famous breeding site at Tamri was not permitted for fear of disturbance, the warden (whose role is part-funded by Honeyguide conservation contributions from this holiday) was happy to show us to a vantage point away from the breeding cliffs which gave us excellent flight views. And that has to be when these admittedly rather ugly birds look their best! In fact we witnessed a single flight of some 75 birds, about one third of the local population, more than a tenth of the entire Moroccan population (which forms the vast bulk of the world population) in just one flock, wheeling across the desert-like perched sand dunes.

Also skittering around the sandy and stony ground, no doubt trying to avoid the attention of hungry Ibises were several examples of the Moroccan Fringe-toed Lizard Acanthodactylus margaritae, a species described as recently as 2017, and found only in the stretch of Atlas coast from here to a few kilometres south of Agadir.

A little to the south, around Cap Rhir, our attention turned to a habitat that is as rare, if not rarer, than the Ibis on a world scale: Macaronesian Euphorbia scrub, known only from the southern coast of Morocco, and some of the mid-Atlantic islands, and everywhere threatened by tourism infrastructure and over-development. It is dominated by a series of succulent plants, particularly the cactus-like Euphorbia officinarum, the tree-spurge-like Euphorbia regis-jubae, a succulent groundsel Kleinia anteuphorbia, its ‘dandelion-clock’ seed heads revealing its family affiliations.

Succulence is a growth form that provides some resilience against drought conditions, the fleshy stems acting as a reservoir to store water when it is available, and the spines, latex and other poisons prevent the stored water being available as a convenient source for any passing browser. Other ways of tackling the same problem were shown by Sea-heaths (here Frankenia thymifolia), with very hairy leaves in a cushion-like growth, to simply having no leaves, just living as a photosynthetic roll of barbed wire, like Launaea arborescens.

Inland from here, penetrating the westernmost outpost of the High Atlas, we visited Paradise Valley….which didn’t really live up to its name: great scenery, yes, but with added, major, noisy, dusty road improvement works, the ever-present scourge of plastic litter, and precious little water in the river, even by the oasis and its Date Palm grove.

But we persevered, and watched Grey Wagtails by the river with basking Sahara Pond Terrapins, along with a pair of Bonelli’s Eagles overhead, Two-tailed Pasha and Moroccan Orange-tip butterflies (the latter of the southern Moroccan form androgyne, with reduced underwing markings), and several interesting plants, including Hypericum aegyptiacum, Trachelium caeruleum (Throatwort), and the subtly beautiful borage relative Trichodesma calcaratum.

 

South of Agadir, we spent time at both ends of the Souss-Massa National Park. The south end, relatively quiet, along the Massa River produced Bee-eaters in abundance, their jewel-like properties if anything enhanced by the shimmering heat-haze, Plain Tiger butterfly and Nosed Grasshopper, lots of the pink-flowered Fagonia cretica, and two species of Mesembryanthemum.

  

And two very exciting parasitic plants: Striga gesnerioides on Euphorbia, and the remarkable, phallic Red Dog-turd Cynomorium coccineum, sprouting fungus-like from the ground amongst the Shrubby Sea-blite, its presumed host.

At the northern end, near the mouth of the Souss, despite Sunday afternoon disturbance, we found our largest concentration of water birds, including an array of waders, bound for northern shores, Sandwich Terns, maroccanus form Cormorants, a feeding Spoonbill, and then at the last gasp as we headed away, some 80 Greater Flamingos.

So despite the sometimes challenging conditions, we managed to find plenty of interesting and unfamiliar wildlife, helped along by the wonderful hospitality and food at the Atlas Kasbah and the unfailingly friendly Berber locals. Indeed one of the high points of the trip was a walk through the nearby village of Elmaasa. We soon attracted a gaggle of village children who then walked with us, scurrying off every so often to find a new flower for us to show the group. And we reciprocated with beetles, specifically the large, lumbering darkling beetle Pimelia chrysomeloides. The smaller girls initially shrank away from handling it, but when first one of the braver boys and then one of the older girls took their cue from us and the young ones started to follow suit, we felt we might just have left a little bit of Honeyguide stardust behind us….

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: March – searching for signs of Spring along the Wivenhoe Trail

Q: What do horses’ hooves, turkey tails, yellow brains and a vinegar cup all have in common? A: All types of fungi found on our Botany & Bug walks yesterday. What evocative English names for these varied and interesting organisms and all to be found on just a short walk along Wivenhoe Trail!

 

Thank you to all who braved the cold, strong winds and showers. The patches of sunshine were very welcome, not only to us, but to the few brave insects that were out on their normal Saturday business… …Hairy-footed Flower-bees nectaring at the White Dead-nettles and Seven-spotted Ladybirds basking and warming after their winter sleep.

The life-cycle of some critters is pretty amazing. .. scale insects start life as little aphid-like creatures, (known as ‘crawlers ‘) who live on the undersides of leaves. Once they are fully grown they snuggle down on their favourite leaf, lose their legs, grow a shell, attach their sucking mouthparts (a feature of all ‘true bugs ‘) and stay there. Never to move again.

Pretty safe you may think, but one had been found by some parasite or another and wasn’t a pretty sight. When alive, these bugs secrete a honey-dew like substance which drips down to the leaves below, providing a food-base for yet more wildlife, sooty moulds.  Nothing in nature is wasted!

 

Another of nature’s oddities are bagworms. These are nothing to do with worms, but the early stages of some types of micromoth, which variously make their protective coverings out of bits and pieces they can find. A couple of species had attached themselves to fence posts etc, waiting until the time comes for them to fly away … if indeed they can – many females remain wingless all their lives and stay put in their bags.

  

Plants are of course great indicators of the season and we were able to see a number of ‘first footers’ emerging. Whitlow-grass (not a grass), Red and White Dead-nettles (not nettles), Ivy-leaved Speedwell (not ivy), Dog’s Mercury (neither nor) but what’s in a name? These are all important sources of nectar and/or pollen for emerging bees and other important insects. Talking of names, one of the springing-green plants has more common names than any other: Arum maculatum. A well-known plant, and indicator of ancient woodland, its many monikers are connected to ‘adult themes ‘, given the phallic shape of its flower spike and the enclosing soft leaves ( you get the drift!)….Lords-and-Ladies, Soldiers-diddies and Cuckoo-pint (modesty prevents me from explaining what ‘pint’ refers to!).

  

At this time of year it is easy to see the many Blackthorn bushes still in tight bud, and indeed we encountered some on our walk.  In contrast, when walking over the rail bridge in the High Street you may have seen pretty blossom which is in fact non-native Cherry-plum. Often taken incorrectly for Blackthorn, it can be distinguished by subtle differences in flower structure, earlier flowering,  and its leaves emerging at the same time, not after, the flowers. Fruits of these will be similar to the Blackthorn’s sloes, but less bitter, needing less sugar to make that all-important gin in the autumn!

Holm Oak (like the huge specimens on KGV) are proving to be a mixed blessing it seems. Magnificent and evergreen, they are a feature of many a parkland and with the help of Jays and other birds, are dispersed and germinate readily. Again non-native, they could potentially squeeze out our own beloved species. When originally brought here, the climate was considered too cold for them to spread but of course we all know what is happening to our temperatures. Luckily, natural controls may be starting to have an effect and Holm Oaks along the trail feature the tell-tale signs of leaf-miner damage. These mines show the passages created by tiny larvae of small moths, which chomp away at the leaves, remaining between the upper and lower surfaces, until they pupate, break free and fly off.

An interesting feature of some Elm trees along the trail and elsewhere is ‘corking’, i.e. corky-looking growths along branches. This phenomenon seems to affect only certain species and the causes not fully understood, but it may be the tree’s natural defence to particular stresses, e.g. salt for the trail-dwellers.  Whilst looking closely at some bark, an eagle-eyed member of our afternoon group spotted a moving red blob, a fine specimen of a Red Velvet Mite, and once our eyes were in, the sunny trunks were seen to be teeming with them.

Walking so close to the town, garden ‘escapees ‘ were very much a feature. ..these are an increasing cause for concern, as some (like variegated Yellow Archangel) are more robust than their native cousins and could be pose a threat to the natural population through genetic pollution. Of course most gardeners wouldn’t dream of chucking their garden waste over the hedge into a wild area, but some do….

Botanical Awakenings: Turkish Hazel

Botanical awakenings: a line of street trees in the suburbs of Colchester. Long catkins, must be Hazel. But planted as a street tree?

Lady parts like sea-anemones? Check! So Hazel it is.

But a single trunk, and shaggy, gall-like remnants of last year? Pristine copy of Stace edition 4 to the rescue – Turkish Hazel Corylus colurna ‘now being planted as a street tree in Britain’

Even a trip to the garage can be a learning experience!

Apricity in #wildwivenhoe

I learned a new word today, thanks to Weatherwatch in the Guardian. And what a useful word it is: Apricity – old English for the warmth of the sun on a winter’s day, something we all recognise and value, rousing us from winter slumber, even if as with the past two weeks it rings all sorts of alarm bells about climate change.

For some things, aprication is simply passive heating, for others it embraces disinfection by exposure to UV light. Whatever the role, the invertebrate life in Wivenhoe’s wildlife garden today was apricating abundantly. Among the hoverflies, ladybirds and Nursery-web Spiders was my first Red Admiral of the year, not unexpectedly perhaps, but also the first Hairy-footed Flower-bees emerging from hibernation, a good two or three weeks in advance of their usual date.

At least there are early nectar or pollen sources for the insects, as the prolonged warmth has coaxed Red Dead-nettles and Annual Mercury into flower, while in the hedges the first Cherry-plums have opened, catching the last dew-drops of a misty morn.

Guest Blog: Jude’s Rubbish Diary – Episode 1

21 February 2019

It all started with a chance meeting with a friend along West Quay…there was I, armed with my litter-picker and helpful bag-carrying husband…when she suggested I keep a ’ Rubbish Diary’, recording anything of interest that we discovered on our regular rubbish-clearing expeditions onto the marshes of Wivenhoe.

So here goes….

Episode 1.  21 Feb 2019; Seawall from West Quay until it joins the Trail

So, what did we find? A few items along the path itself, a helpful dog-walker kindly retrieving some things for us to dispose of.

And on the salt-marsh of course plastic in its many forms – bottles, lids, straws, syringe (but thankfully no needle); together with glass bottles, cans, crisp packets etc.  Many of the marshland plants had a covering of small white objects. In the same vicinity were chunks of polystyrene in various sizes, so we were concerned that the white deposit was this disintegrating, both unpleasant and potentially dangerous to wildlife.

We took some samples home and following examination with a  hand lens think that much of it is dead, bleached duckweed leaves from further up-river, together with other germinating salt-marsh seeds.  No reason to be complacent, but hopefully not such a bleak outlook as we had first thought. And at least it made us look closely at the tideline deposits, which revealed their value as a food source for seed-eating birds.

An interesting (though out of reach) discovery was a yellow rubber duck. Possibly a bath-escapee, but did you know that in 1992 28,800 bath toys were lost at sea on their way from Hong Kong to USA.  Since then they have been washed up on shores around the world, assisting the science of oceanography as they went.  Could this be one of them?