Blog Archives: WildWivenhoe

A New Year springs in the Beth Chatto Garden

Just two months since our last visit to The Beth Chatto Garden (see blog here), and it is as though the winter shutdown never happened…indeed, thus far it really hasn’t, with barely a handful of frosts interspersed with unseasonable warmth. So it was no surprise to see those traditional harbingers of Spring, Snowdrops and Winter Aconites, in profuse bloom.

Being an insect-pollinated plant at this time of year is a rather dodgy strategy, given that insect flight is severely impaired by cold temperatures, but the flowers are still appearing, in the hope of attracting a passing early bumblebee into the illuminated lanterns of Spring Snowflake or the rich nectar-pits of Hellebores.

Some flowers advertise their wares visually, others by scent. And on a still winter’s day, the pool of fragrance surrounding the most extravagantly scented can and does stop us in our tracks. I challenge anyone to walk past a flowering Sweet Box without being uplifted by the olfactory promise of warmer days.

One of my favourite early spring flowers though is notable not for showing off, but for its demure flowering, requiring a search through severe spines, such that every one you find feels like a prize. Butcher’s-broom is showy enough in fruit, large red globes from a year previously, but its subtle flowers are each a gem. Three-parted, signifying its liliaceous ancestry, they are placed in the centre of the ‘leaves’; we may call them leaves but a developmental botanist would call them cladodes, in essence flattened stems, hence the oddly-positioned flowers.

While the new season flowers stole the crystal January limelight, and the previous two frosty nights no doubt kept insect life at bay, a few winter gnats danced in the still air, and a single, nymphal bark-louse demonstrated that Jude’s close-up vision has not suffered from lack of use since the autumn! Add to that a sprinkling of perennial fungi such as Diatrypella quercina, and it is reassuring that, irrespective of the turbulence of political life at the moment, the wonders of nature will keep on giving.


Autumn at its best in The Beth Chatto Garden

The burnished fires of Autumn were rampant under crystalline skies as we strolled round Beth Chatto’s today:


Foliage and fruit – a colourful feast for the eyes as well as the hordes of berry-eating thrushes:


Usually a feature of the autumn, in common with most of the droughted south-east it seems, fungi were few and far-between:

And the remaining flowers: some expected, others more surprising hangers-on from the summer, but all valuable sources of nectar or pollen for late-season insects:


But amazing to see the number of insects on the wing, a nod to the wonderful summer past and a promise that the days will again be getting longer in just six weeks’ time. Hornets, Red Admirals and Common Darters are perhaps to be expected, at least until the first hard frosts, but Caddis Flies and Willow Emerald Damselflies? Strange times are afoot as the seasons disintegrate…:


#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: October – King George V Field, Wivenhoe Wood & Ferry Marsh

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, yes, Autumn has crept up on us, and today we looked at some of the ways nature has been able to ‘fill all fruit with ripeness to the core’.


A visit to Wivenhoe car park may not be your first choice for a nature walk venue,  but a quick look at the shrubs and bushes soon revealed that even there nature has been hard at work producing berries and seeds.  Colourful, in an array of shapes and sizes , these are all intended to be noticed and eaten by birds and other wildlife, therefore enabling the plant to be multiplied and spread further than could be managed by just letting its seeds fall to the ground. Of particular interest were Berberis, Snowberry, Pyracantha and Viburnum, with Rose hips and festoons of White Bryony.  Hollies were there too, some with and some without berries – the reason? Well, it is the female that bears the famous berries, whilst the male flowers (on separate trees) earlier in the season provided the necessary pollen to fertilise the female flowers, leading to the formation of the berries. Lots of ideas here for those wishing to improve their gardens as a resource for wildlife.


It was interesting to walk over KGV and see how the now-cut ‘Meadow’ is faring.  This year’s ‘experiment ‘ in leaving a small portion of the field unmown for a few months proved very successful,  the sheer variety of plants that sprung forth, and the benefit to butterflies, bees and other insects has been enormous. We trust the Council will allow, indeed encourage, this to be repeated next year and beyond.


We had hoped to find a variety of fungi today, but a reccie yesterday was disappointing (due to lack of rain over the past few weeks) so we spent only a short time in the woods. A Parasol mushroom was seen on the edge of the wood, and a patch of Honey Fungus on a dead tree stump further in.

We concluded our morning with a walk through Ferry Marsh, following an incongruous peanut trail! It was interesting to see how the marsh has fared through its unprecedented period of inundation this summer.  It was good to see (and hear) the Reeds thriving on the re-wetted marsh, and just bursting into flower, as well as discover a few other marshland plants, including Sea Club-rush and Redshank.


The small oak on the edge of the seawall was rich in galls – Spangles, Silk-buttons and Smooth Spangles, as well as Oak Apple and Marble Gall. Each of these home to minuscule creatures, which we can only identify by the shape of their gall home and the plant on which it is found. At the foot of the tree was a tennis ball shaped  Earthball fungus. When prodded this puffed out smoky spores: we had pre-empted the rain drops which were soon to fall and which would do the ‘prodding’ naturally.

What of the bugs promised on our walks? Well, given the cold and damp conditions, most creatures were tucked up in the warm somewhere, but we did find a few things of interest:  Dolycoris  baccarum (Hairy Shield-bug), a crane fly complete with gyroscopic halteres (modified hind wings), several newly-emerged caddis-flies and large Garden Spiders, everywhere, waiting…..


All the photos in this report are our own, but due to the poor light today, most were actually taken in more favourable conditions!

Thank you to all who turned out on this less-than-nice day, and to everyone who has supported our Botany and Bug walks this year.  We hope to offer a new season of outings next year and hope that at least some of you will be able to come along.  We may arrange a walk for November if conditions are right, and will advertise it accordingly.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: September – Grange Wood & Whitehouse Beach


The sun shone and breeze was pleasant for our walk this morning: thank you to everyone who came along. The main focus this month was the various salt marsh plants, found both along the slopes of the sea wall and on the marsh at Whitehouse Beach. Each is specially adapted to live in the salty conditions, some by virtue of their fleshy, succulent, leaves which preserve moisture (e.g Marsh Samphire and the Seablites), and others by processing salt water and excreting the excess salt (e.g. Sea-purslane). Many of the plants we saw are members of the Spinach family, the most halophytic (salt-tolerant) of families worldwide, mostly edible, and all with unfortunately ‘subtle’ flowers…..

…but there were some species with more showy flowers, including three oft-confused members of the Daisy family: Golden Samphire with yellow rays, and occupying the upper tidal limit, and Sea Aster, in both its forms, one with with purple rays, the other lacking rays completely.


Other plants included Cord-grass, in full flower with its feathery pollen receptors poking out, leading to a discussion about its unique and really quite recent formation as a species (come along next year if you’d like to know more!). Likewise provoking a chat about the sex-life of (some) flowers, a Hawkweed was flowering in the wood, and along the highest level of the marsh, Common Toadflax was in lovely flower, a special plant for us as a main foodplant for the Toadflax Brocade moth, one of the highlights of last month’s walk (see here).


Due to the exceptional conditions of the summer, and delay in the start of autumn there was very little in the way of fungi in the wood. In fact we only found rather dull example of Wood Mushroom and Parasol, and not the spotty red and white Fly Agaric which we had hoped for,  but which can often be readily seen along the woodland trail, near Birch trees.

As always we were on the watch for bugs and beasties … a few nice examples included the smart red and black sawfly, an Arge species, although difficult to narrow down to an exact ‘Make and model’, there being many similar  versions of this little wasp.  Another sawfly, in the form of a gall caused by it, was found on the leaves of Willow: the gall even had the exit hole showing it had been vacated. Galls, along with fungi and fruits are likely to be the main focus of next month’s walk. A rather splendid Forest (also known as Red legged) Shield bug was discovered,  basking in the sun and enjoying his lunch, by means of his specially adapted piercing beak-like sucking mouthparts. This species is omnivorous,  also preying on caterpillars and other insects.

 On the marsh it was good to see a good number of the rare stripey-bottomed Sea Aster Mining-bee, which feeds almost exclusively on Sea Aster. It therefore emerges only in August-September when is food source is flowering. Its nesting colonies, on sandy ground above the reach of spring tides, cannot be too far away.


So what else did we see?  Um, let me think…..oh yes!, thanks to a tip off from our friend Glyn, we were very privileged to witness the majestic flight of a magnificent Osprey, circling at length above us. It was mobbed  by a couple of Buzzards, as one of our group exclaimed ‘3 birds of prey in my binoculars at once!’.   Although our walks being ‘non-birdy’ ( Richard Allen’s successful monthly bird walks are the place for a birding experience in Wivenhoe on a Saturday morning), we had to make an exception!  This bird was probably a migrant, on its way back to Africa. We can’t help thinking that this will be the lasting impression of our September outing. We managed just the odd snatched photo but no doubt Glyn’s magnificent efforts will be posted on the Wivenhoe Forum before too long!

And true to form, check out Glyn’s excellent photos of the bird here, on Page 31…

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: August – Whitehouse Beach

Those who read our reports regularly will know that they are usually upbeat affairs, rejoicing in the wonders of the natural world….well bear with me and there is a fair amount of that to come… but first I have something negative to comment on, namely LITTER ON WHITEHOUSE BEACH!  Why is it considered OK to leave several picnics’  worth of rubbish in a decomposing-in-the-sun black sack on the grassy sward of the beach?  Don’t worry, someone else will deal with it…..and in fact we did as we didn’t want all the contents to spill and allow yet more rubbish into the surrounding countryside… but couldn’t the revellers have taken it home with them?

Anyway, back to the lovely walk this morning.  The sun was slightly less overpowering than of late and we had a bit of a breeze and cloud cover.  The main focus was the many and varied salt marsh plants, and a walk along the seawall shows the different sections of saltmarsh according to how often the plants are covered each tide, ie on every tide, or only when there is a high spring tide, and every stage in between.  The different vegetation reflects how much the plants can stand being inundated by salt.

Two of the three UK species of samphire grow here in Wivenhoe, ‘Golden’ ( a member of the daisy family), and ‘Marsh’ (a spinach), whilst the third type ‘Rock’ is a carrot.  All show similar characteristics – succulent in that they store moisture in their leaves and stems, and good to eat with a wonderful salty taste (if you can be sure of the water quality where it grows of course).  The question comes to mind, If they do not share taxonomical links, then why are they all known as ‘Samphires’?  Well, an interesting theory is that this is a corruption of ‘Saint ‘ or ‘San Pierre’, ie St Peter, the fisherman.  And as we know samphires go remarkably well with fish.

Sea Purslane is an interesting plant, its cells are mini-desalination processors.  They take in salt water, convert it into fresh and eject the excess salt in little crystals, which coat the leaves causing them to look grey and shiny. Sea Lavender was in flower, the patches of purple clearly in contrast to the generally green saltmarsh flora.

Washed up along the shore line was a veritable blanket of dead vegetation, looking rather like grass cuttings.  This was the Gutweed, a rather (it must be said) unattractive little plant, looking rather like intestines, hence its name , but one which is considered a delicacy by our feathered friends who are soon to return to these parts from their summer vacations.

Other plants worth a mention, some illustrated below, were the pretty Lesser Sea Spurrey , Sea Wormwood,  and Shrubby and Annual Seablites.

A few butterflies and dragonflies fleetingly captured our interest, but we did stay and linger looking at a well-disguised moth on a seed head.  A Toadflax Brocade.  In  fact it was only when we looked at the photographs at home that we realised that there were actually two moths  – such was the remarkable camouflage.

Other interesting beasties included a mating pair of picture winged flies.  There are many types of such flies, each with distinctively and attractively patterned wings, and these guys go by the name of Campiglossa plantaginis, which breeds on Sea Aster, a common salt-marsh plant hereabouts.  Several male Ruddy Darter dragonflies sparkled along the sea wall, but although we searched we did not find any Wasp Spiders.

We hope this has whetted your appetite, as we are planning on re-running the walk next month, by which time more of the salt marsh plants will be in flower, and who knows we may be able to spot that elusive, but magnificent spider.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: July – Lower Lodge

Phew!  What a scorcher!  Thank you to the participants of today’s Botany and Bug walk at Lower Lodge, and hope that you enjoyed seeing what is surviving this almost unprecedented dry spell: our last walk six weeks ago followed the last rain recorded in these parts, with no more than a hint of it in the next two weeks’ forecast….

Amazingly a lot is hanging on, and in fact doing rather well considering.  The uncut swathes are full of plants and alive with insects.  A vast contrast to the desert-like parched areas of mown grass.  A lesson to us all in what we can do to help the continued survival of our natural world: natural habitats have natural resistance against environmental stresses.

Insects were out in number and love was certainly in the air!  We rather voyeuristically watched the ‘goings on’ of  various pairs – the stunning Black-and- Yellow Longhorn-beetle; Common Red Soldier (aka Hogweed Bonking) Beetle; and the totally differently positioned Forest ( or Red-legged) Shield-bug.  Following on from this theme, a rather beautiful cache of ladybird eggs was seen glinting in the sun.

Other creatures of interest included several species of butterfly; two sorts of skipper; a long-horned moth;  plus both 5- and 6-spotted Burnet Moths. The egg cases of these beautiful day-fliers are curious affairs, and we were lucky enough to see one clinging to a grass stem.    Caterpillar fans were delighted to see the yellow-and-black Cinnabar Moth larvae out in force, chomping their way through poisonous Ragwort.  In addition a selection of ladybirds, spiders, bees and grasshoppers  made for a varied couple of hours.

We were aware of the presence of microscopically small creatures too – in the form of galls (abnormal growths caused by something living in or on the host plant and causing its cells to enlarge and provide shelter and food for the gall-causer). Oaks are particularly interesting where galls are concerned – in fact in the UK various kinds of Oak support over 50 different kinds of them, on leaves, buds, stems, acorns and sometimes on the trunk. We saw a few of these today – the artichoke;  ram’s-horn; marble; knopper and spangle-galls.  Others were no doubt there had we had longer to search.  And it wasn’t just the Oak, Willows too supported a variety of gall-causing insects and mites.

On the plant front, a favourite was Wild Carrot – an umbellifer loved by many kinds of insect.  The variety we encountered has a tiny red flower in the middle of each umbel which acts as an attractant to other insects to ‘Come on Down and check out my pollen’.  The Jack-Go-to-Bed-At-Noon flower had indeed gone to bed very early, and most were now in rather beautiful seed-head form. Bird’s Foot Trefoil and Scabious provided some colour and we were all interested to listen  to the popping seed heads of the Tufted Vetch.  These were exploding in the heat and dryness, popping their seeds into the air to propagate for next year. Who said plants are silent?