An October week in #WildEssex with Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays

Honeyguide’s second #WildEssex week (the first being back in May – see here) saw north-east Essex largely cloaked in grey, with occasional heavy rain especially in the first two days. Despite the near absence of sunshine, a good time was had by all, the weather and wildlife both reflecting the turning of the seasons. Thanks as always to Wivenhoe House Hotel for accommodation and food in such glorious parkland surroundings, Beth Chatto Gardens and Essex Wildlife Trust for sites to visit and their visitor centres. And of course the wildlife of the area sends its thanks to participants: the conservation contribution will find its way to them via the good works of the EWT.

Monday afternoon 4 October

After checking-in at Wivenhoe House Hotel, a gentle potter around Wivenhoe Park introduced us to wonderful trees, young and old, some Pedunculate Oaks pre-dating the landscaping of the park in the mid-18th century, and a selection of specimens from almost all corners of the world. All three species of redwood, Turkey and Red Oaks (the latter sadly not yet really starting to light up with the fires of autumn), Deodar, Atlas Cedar and Cedar-of-Lebanon, fruiting Sweet-chestnuts, Strawberry-tree (in flower and last-year’s-fruit simultaneously) and in direct lineage from the Peninsular Wars, the two most venerable, gnarled Cork Oaks you are ever likely to see. As for the Magnolia grandiflora, it kicked off a week of botany using all the senses, its dinnerplate-sized flowers regaling their surroundings with the glorious scent of lemon cheesecake.

A few fungi were starting to appear on the older trees, including several emerging Beefsteaks and Chicken-of-the Woods …

… but insect life in the cool breeze was restricted to a few robber-flies and Rhododendron Leafhoppers.

Of course, the signs of insects were apparent, in the form of galls. The underside of many an oak leaf bore the galls of Common Spangle and Smooth Spangle galls, the larval homes of Neuroterus quercus-baccarum and N. albipes respectively.

Tuesday 5 October

For the only time in the week, it dawned clear and bright after very heavy overnight rain. As we splodged down through Wivenhoe Park, the sunlight shone its magic on the architecture (where Modernist meets Brutalism), several whinnying Dabchicks, and the trees alike.

Two species in particular seem to be fruiting well this year, Dog Rose and Hornbeam, in stark contrast to, for example, the oaks: irruptive Jays, which had just started arriving on our shores, are likely to find lean pickings this winter.

By the upper Colne, it was high tide and the only birds were Black-headed Gulls, Mallards and Teals, with Skylarks in semi-song over the fields. But the intense blue sky made up for avian deficiency, especially when counterpointing Silver Birches (with Birch Bracket fungi), the trunks in the photo having only just been vacated by a Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Between the spiky showers that developed in the afternoon, the woods were full of roving bands of tits and Treecreepers; Wivenhoe Quay had a bumper crop of Jersey Cudweed; a Hawthorn Shield-bug sunned itself on a fence post; and perhaps the most beautiful Hogweed umbel ever offered its resources to the diminishing hordes of pollinators.

The Walnut tree in Wivenhoe Churchyard had, as is usual, the large blister galls of the mite Aceria erinea, but more excitingly the small pimple galls of A. tristriata – when we first found this a few weeks ago and looked at the National Biodiversity Network maps, we found it has been identified and mapped only 11 times previously in the whole of the country.

But most exciting of all was something that was over in second, so fast there was no opportunity to photograph or intervene. A caterpillar was dangling in a silken thread from the tree canopy. As we looked close, we noticed a small parasitic wasp actually walking down the thread, and when it found the caterpillar, quick as a flash it stung it, presumably laying an egg or eggs, leaving the hapless larva to intense wriggling, its ‘not quite dead, yet!’ throes….

Wednesday 6 October

A day at the Naze, the most easterly point of Essex, a windswept headland, but still we persisted in cool, hefty, blustery north westerlies! Not surprisingly. any small birds in the scrub were keeping well out of reach of the blow, but surprisingly perhaps birds were arriving in off the sea, even against adverse winds. Meadow Pipits and Starlings were most numerous; the stars of the show were single Great Spotted Woodpecker and Short-eared Owl. Flocks of Swallows and House Martins, with a few Sand Martins, were drifting southwards all day.

Hog’s-fennel was just coming to the end of its flowering on the clifftop, Annual Sea-blite and samphires smearing the salt marshes with their autumnal tints, and Sea Rocket and Prickly Saltwort bringing life to the embryo dunes.

A Sea Aster Mining-bee stranded away from its food wasn’t going anywhere in the by now fearsome and cold wind, and another taste/smell opportunity arose with Golden-samphire and its ‘essence of shoe polish’.

On the shoreline, Turnstones, Ringed Plovers and Grey Plovers fed, although keeping low and out of the breeze, while offshore, a steady trickle of small flocks of Brent Geese, Teals and Wigeons flew by, with a few more highlights in the form of noisy Sandwich Terns, a close-in Red-throated Diver and an immature Gannet.

Walking back along the shore, of course the internationally significant geology took centre stage, London Clay and Red Crag cliffs, full of fossils and other clues to the environments of the times they were laid down, with the skeletons of last winter’s erosion a stark reminder of constant change in the natural world.

As we emerged back on to the clifftop, right at the end of the day, we found the wind had indeed dropped as forecast, and the only hint of sunshine for the day brought out a basking Red Admiral.

Thursday 7 October

Our final full day, calm and mild but unremittingly grey, took us further down the Colne Estuary, from Wivenhoe to Alresford Creek, then back along the high route on the ridge of the Essex Alps, taking in the very well-restored (for wildlife) gravel pits at Cockaynes Reserve.

Wivenhoe waterfront, attractive, arty and historic, also harbours plenty of botanical interest, from White Ramping-fumitory to the nationally rare Four-leaved Allseed (like the Jersey Cudweed a couple of days earlier, eking out a living in the cracks of block-paving, in those few spots where it is able to evade the incessant rain of Roundup). Heading out on the sea wall, upper salt marsh specialists included Strawberry Clover and the pungently scented Sea Wormwood.

Bird numbers increased as we headed downstream against a rising tide which concentrated the Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits and especially Avocets into flocks, the latter reaching an impressive 150 or so birds. A Kestrel hunted along the sea wall, while a Buzzard ran the gauntlet of the local corvids, and Meadow Pipits and a Song Thrush migrated overhead.

The saltmarshes, bedecked in autumn tints, included patches of salmon-pink, rather uncommon, Perennial Glasswort, with Common Cord-grass still in full bloom.

Poking from many a Cord-grass flower spike were the fruiting bodies of the parasitic Cord-grass Ergot, itself being hyperparasitized by the orange fungus Gibberella (‘Big Fleas have Little Fleas etc ….’!). The Cord-grass strain of Ergot is much larger and protuberant than the more normal form which infects grain crops and other  grasses, as we had seen earlier in ornamental Lyme-grass around the car park.

Other fungi included the always dramatic Fly Agarics underneath (and intimately associated with) the Silver Birches of Grange Wood.

Returning homeward along the crest of the Essex Alps, one characteristic plant of the gravelly soils was the local speciality Lesser Calamint, its crushed leaves a delightful mix of mint and citrus, with a fleeting medicinal top note. Along the ancient trackway of Cut-throat Lane, Butcher’s-broom was remarkably already in flower. Or should that be ‘still’ ? – the books say it flowers from February to May…

Close scrutiny of the undersides of Oak leaves al last revealed examples of the beautiful Silk-button gall, the third of the common three Oak spangle-galls of the week. Sycamore leaves had the microfungal splotches of Tar-spot, and dead Elms, the tell-tale signs of the bark-beetle that proved their nemesis by introducing Dutch Elm Disease fungus, while larger fungi included some impressive Parasols.

Cockaynes Reserve produced its usual crop of diverse wildlife, a very wide range reflecting the mosaic of post-gravel extraction habitats, including ancient woods, scrub, heathland and wetland: Maze-gill, Reindeer Moss, Blue Fleabane, Chicory, Angle Shades moth, Green Shield-bug, Birch-catkin Bug and several impressive Robin’s Pincushion galls on Dog-roses.

Friday morning 8 October

After checking out, we reassembled on the final morning at the renowned Beth Chatto Gardens, just a couple of miles down the road. Beth was an early advocate of sustainable and ecological planting, the right plant in the right place, and the garden reflects that. Full of interest for the gardener with an eye to the future, it is also full of wildlife, albeit a little suppressed today by the misty, moisty veil of autumn.

Insect life was really focused upon the late nectar/pollen sources, with Red Admirals on the Michaelmas-daisies and Hornets, hoverflies and Honeybees on the Ivy flowers; otherwise it was a few Dock Bugs along with a closely related Box Bug, the latter a relatively new arrival in these parts. A final example of one of the pervasive themes of the holiday, the flux and flows of Nature, both natural and in response to our mismanagement of the planet, that both raise concerns about ‘the now’ while offering hope for the future.

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So, all in all a very good week, and let’s hope that it will not be the last. One week, with 25 kilometres of walking and only 50 driving – a feast of wildlife on my doorstep and it was a pleasure to share it with Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays. A listing of most the interesting wildlife we saw or heard during the week is available as a pdf, OCTOBER REPORT LIST.