Blog Archives: Britain’s Wildlife

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 Cowslips and Green-winged Orchids, now no more than shrivelled remnants, have been replaced by Yellow-rattle and Southern Marsh-orchids in colourful swathes across the meadows.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.

Why Eyes?

      WHY EYES?                                       

SURPRISE!

Peacock butterfly flashes his wing –

Enough to startle a predator

Who may think again

 

 

DISGUISE!

Looking like a fearsome beast

This caterpillar may deter a bird

From making of him a feast

 

 

 

FOUR EYES!

Could two extra eyes upon the shoulder

Make this bug

Feel even bolder?

 

 

 

HORSEFLIES!

Bold headlights of bright green and blue

Ommatidia by the thousand

Such a joy for me and you

 

 

A short break in Manchester and Chester

The latest in our series of explorations by rail of hitherto unknown (to us) parts of Britain took us last week to Manchester and Chester. Despite the weather, as always we had a superb time, taking in the architecture, art, culture, food, and even a little wildlife…

Manchester was a city of surprising delights, as surprising as discovering that Lowry was not a one-trick pony, but accomplished in a variety of styles. The modern architecture of Salford Quays, complemented by watery reflections, contrasted with the Victorian industrial heritage in the city, and we were especially impressed by the Metro linking the two. Clean, quiet, efficient – surely the way forward on urban transport.

As befits ‘the city built by the workers’, its bee symbol is celebrated proudly everywhere:

And it was gratifying to see real, useful, living bees and other wildlife being actively catered for, with flowery verges in places even in some of the most heavily developed areas.

We hadn’t expected to see much in the way of insects, especially given the weather forecast, but as always there were things to be found. By Salford Quays, ornamental Eleagnus bushes with seemingly every leaf supporting one, or a small flock, of Cacopsylla fulguralis, a recently-established, and spreading, native psyllid of Japan. A novel food source perhaps, but one which seems to be being exploited by the (similarly non-native) Harlequin Ladybirds and by the ant-like nymphs of the mirid bug Miris striatus.

In the same area, the waterside Alders were covered in hundreds of Alder Leaf-beetles Agelastica alni, recently re-established in Britain after an absence of 60 years, and now spreading out from the north-west. Including to our next destination, the banks of the River Dee in Chester…

Chester: a very different city which wears its antiquity on its sleeve, back to Roman times.

This is the city which seems to have grown out of the local rocks, the Red Sandstone, in places patterned like the hide of a giraffe, something we have seen previously in the north-east corner of Menorca.

Aside from Alder Leaf-beetles, Chester also came up, in one of the few dry moments, with this splendid, fresh Hawthorn Shield-bug, in fact the first we have seen this year.

 

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: May – Cockaynes Reserve

So, which of these is a weed? Dandelion or Silver Birch?  The answer seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it, but in reality they both may OR may not be thought of as weeds.  It all depends on where you are and what you want from the land on which they are growing.  A weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place.

This was a topic of discussion on our Botany and Bug Walks this month.  Two groups of hardy souls (given the weather which was thrown at us) enjoyed a visit to one of our least-known beauty spots, namely the Cockaynes Reserve.  This reserve comprises two woods, with a patch of bare sandy soil near lakes which are the happy result of intensive sand and gravel extraction some years ago.  The whole site is a wildlife haven.

The sandy open ground is well managed by the Cockaynes Wood Trust specifically for our ultra-important (considering the state that we have all got ourselves into) invertebrates.  Without insect life, humans would disappear within a short time.  So….the Birch which naturally wants to grow in the sandy soil area is removed to allow room for insects to move in, nest and generally do what comes naturally to them.  A prize example of the insects is officially called the Early Colletes bee, though we would like to make a case for it to be known as the Bunny Bee.  The second half of its Latin name ‘cunicularis’  shares the root with that for Rabbits.  And it does share some rabbit-like characteristics, in that it is furry and burrows in sandy soil ( not sure about the fluffy tail though).   And (at least when the weather is warm) many hundreds of these bees can be seen nesting and buzzing along the sand banks.  This is nationally a very important colony for these useful pollinators.

So what about the Dandelion? Well, this old favourite is ‘Welcome at Cockaynes’ as one of the most important late-spring sources of nectar and pollen for insects.  A curious fact…what we think of as the dandelion flower, is in fact many closely packed in together.  Each little orange blade is an individual flower, which is easier to comprehend when it has turned itself into a beautiful clock seed-head… each seed comes from an individual flower.

Many other woodland plants were to be seen and enjoyed.  Of course, the favourite, the Bluebell, as well as Wavy Bittercress, Opposite leaved Golden-saxifrage which just loves living near the brook, and Red Campion (which grows as either an all-male or all-female plant) plus a myriad of others.

Three types of fern are found in  Villa Wood – Broad-Buckler and Male Ferns thriving in the lush conditions beside Sixpenny Brook, plus Bracken on the higher, drier soils. ‘The degree of pinnation’ Chris used to help identify them sound complex, but all it really means is ‘ferniness’….

Given the cold wind and sharp hail showers insects generally were pretty thin on the ground.  But our eagle-eyed groups did discover some nice examples – a Squash Bug sunning itself, bumblebees, flies plus a few moths.

In fact we found the smallest moth in Britain!  Micropterix calthella enjoys spending time in the cups of buttercups. They may only live for a few hours and so have to do what they have to do as a priority.  We caught a couple doing just this…..   Aren’t they handsome, and only 4mm or so long!

Another rather lovely moth enjoying a brief spell of sunshine was the Clouded Border.  It boldly lies out full view of any passing predator, knowing that it is partially protected by its disguise…it does look rather like a bird poo.  It belongs to the Geometrid group of moths, this term meaning ‘earth measurer’ and their caterpillars are the ‘inchworms’.

Having walked up past the lakes now full of water plants and a few birds, we finished our walk at the top, at Cockaynes Wood.  This is a much drier habitat than the lower, Villa Wood. And near it are a few patches of Heather, a very rare plant to grow in Essex.  Near here is a lovely field, which has been just left and apparently un-herbicided for a while, to allow many pretty annual plants to take root.  Many of these may be considered ‘weeds’ in a garden…they grow readily in disturbed soil.  But here, they were just delightful to see, and much better thought of as less-prejudicially as ‘Arable Plants’: Field Pansy, Groundsel, Fumitory, Poppy and Wild Radish.