All posts by Chris Gibson

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the abundance of May…

A prefect day in May, and the Beth Chatto Garden was teeming with life…

Let the Feeding and Breeding commence! First the feeding: the plants may largely be non-natives, but they still supply nectar and pollen to the needy:

It was particularly exciting to see my first Painted Lady of the year. Vast numbers were reported moving through France a week ago, and this was (hopefully) in the vanguard of a substantial invasion this summer.

And this plump caterpillar munching a rose  was that of a Copper Underwing moth:

On the breeding front, Red Mason Bees were provisioning their nest holes, and love was in the air for damselflies and Speckled Wood butterflies (look carefully and you can see a second pair of antennae).

And all around the garden, insects of every description basking in the knowledge (or so I like to think) that they are as safe here from the insidious barrage of deadly pesticides as anywhere in our landscape.

And of course there was also a flower or two(!) and fantastic foliage, all helping to support this abundance of life. Come and visit the garden and find it for yourselves….

The Bounty of May in Cockaynes Reserve

It was a wonderful morning for a walk. The Cuckoos were calling and more Speckled Yellows were on the wing than I have ever seen before. The newly-minted wildlife was performing superbly, and the following is a selection of the pictures. Few words: just enjoy the bounty!

Best find of the day, however, deserves a mention: a Slender-horned Leatherbug, a species we have never seen before and a rather local insect of dry habitats in south-eastern England.

A selection of other bugs included the eggs of a Gorse Shield-bug and dancing Birch Aphids at the end of many twigs:

In addition to the flighty Speckled Yellows,  Latticed Heaths were on the wing, and the mass of munchers included Drinker, Lackey and Dunbar moths:

Fresh dragons and damsels were on the wing, at least six species in total:

And on top of all that, a kaleidoscope of beetles, flies and spiders…

Not forgetting the mini delights of the flowers on the bare gravels, including Smooth Catsear (‘the smallest “dandelion” in the world’) at one of its very few Essex sites.

All in all, a May morning to remember.

Hawthorn and Cow Parsley Time

Everyone has their trigger, that sensory experience which strips away the years. For me it is the musky, musty, mingled scent of Hawthorn and Cow Parsley after a May shower, my personal madeleines. Back to the 1960s, a schoolchild in shorts (some things never change!), cycling around the lanes on the Yorkshire Wolds, finding my feet and laying down my roots in Nature.

And as so often, this year it coincided with the most bounteous explosion of diversity. This week in #WildWivenhoe has seen a tentative Spring transformed, the trees enveloped in every shade of green…

…fresh foliage catching the light, and bringing beauty even to a Nettle…

… new flowers appearing daily…

…and old friends, including non-native beauties like (Ever)Green Alkanet and Lilac doing the heavy lifting of feeding the insect masses. To denigrate these because of their provenance is pure ecoFascism.

And the appearance of new insects has been simply stupendous. That most stunning of beetles, Neon-striped Tortoise Beetle, emerged en masse on our Sea Beet (some three weeks earlier than last year) while Two-spotted Malachite Beetles have started on their long summer of gracing our umbellifers, the new ones having that special bit extra iridescence.

And of course a host of other beetles too….

Another mass emergence in the shape of Phoenix Flies, a nationally scarce species with its stronghold along the Essex coast…

Hoverfly diversity has shot up over the week….

…with lots of other flies also in the mix.

Basking bugs adding to the bounty….

And then the rest…a wonderful mix of spring stragglers and summer emergers, from the first damselflies and bush-cricket nymphs to scorpion-flies and Elm Zigzag Sawflies.

The delights of the natural world, solace in our troubled times. And thank goodness for #NoMowMay, helping to provide the nectar and pollen resources which underpin these riches. Well done Wivenhoe Town Council, where the Daisies and Dandelions of the King George V field are now supplemented with Buttercups and Red Clover, Germander Speedwell, Sand Spurrey and Subterranean Clover — something for everyone!

#WildEssex Walks: Wrabness and the Stour Estuary

Rain, rain and more rain…a feature of our half day walk around beautiful spots of Wrabness, but hopefully not the only memory to be taken away😊 . Our thanks to everyone for their perseverance….’it may brighten up later’….but despite the less-than-perfect conditions we still got a flavour of this relatively unspoilt area, and we hope that it was worth getting a bit damp for!

The morning got off to a mixed start – slight issues with the car-parking payment facilities but the prospect of a coffee and use of a loo in the little community shop more than made up for any initial annoyances. We covered quite a distance over the four hours, our first port of call being the House for Essex, the whacky but very interesting Grayson Perry creation.  If you get the chance, do try to visit this on a sunny day, when the whole exterior seems to shine and glow. And to our eyes at least a very fitting addition to the newly-designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Next, East Grove was a pleasant little diversion from the main route – a perfect little woodland boasting many plants, including Butcher’s Broom, Bugle, Greater Stitchwort and of course Bluebells aplenty.

The juxtaposition of tidal mud and ancient woodland is exceptionally rare in Essex, and the smell of the estuary was a feast for the nose!

 

Peering out from the trees, we could see a couple of hundred Dark-bellied Brent Geese on the shoreline. The icon of the Essex coast in winter (we are home to a fifth of the world’s population), the Stour is one of its renowned departure points for its return migration…

…and sure enough, a chorus of burbling, and off they went. Next stop the Taimyr Peninsula? Or at least a staging post in the Baltic.

Walking along the seawall we were able to admire many other shore birds: Shelducks, Oystercatchers, Little Egrets and  more. The quiet conditions (hardly any people on foot and a welcome lack of light aircraft overhead which seem to enjoy being noisy), and the damp, still air made Bird Listening (as opposed to Watching) an important part of the day. Farmland birds were in full voice, including Skylarks, Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats, with more distant Cuckoo, Nightingale and Yellowhammer.

Along this stretch we found virtually the only insects of any note – St Mark’s Flies.  These dangly-legged beasties emerge at roughly the same time as our hirundine visitors, providing food for them after their long flights from Africa. Among the big boys was a smaller, more colourful species, Downland Bibio.

An innocuous field of peas turned out to have a fascinating story – these have been bred to be leafless, the leaflets now being just tendrils which twirl around each other allowing the plants to huddle together, as protection from wind and heavy rains etc. Something we were having to come to terms with ourselves! And some of the Oak trees along the cliff-edge were already laden with galls, even on the leaves which must have burst only a week ago. One or two had huge numbers of large Oak-apples, on one of which we found a micro-hyperparasite, a tiny, long-tailed wasp, presumably a parasite of the gall-causer, itself a tiny wasp!

Next part of the route was along the beach.  Of interest was the geology – the cliffs (SSSI) showing ‘ash layers’ in among the London clay… visible evidence of when these parts were covered in ash from volcanic activity in Caledonia many millions of years ago.  The rocks – part of the Harwich Stone Band (forerunner of the Rolling Stones??) – from which local VIP buildings such as Colchester Castle have been partially constructed – were all around, to be admired, and some adorned with festoons of seaweed. This beach and a similar one at Harwich are the only natural rocky shores between north Norfolk and north Kent.

Rocks and fallen trees  provided a kind of make-your-bum-wet perch on which to eat lunch, though some sensible people in our group found a nice dry boat under tree canopy to eat theirs!  The conditions weren’t really conducive to leisurely beach-combing, but a few shells of interest were found, including Portuguese Oysters (a rampant non-native, potentially squeezing out our local native variety), Slipper Limpets, Cockles in a variety of attractive colours and a Shore Crab’s carapace. Another highlight of the shore walk was seeing the Sand Martins’ nests in the sandy banks – one of only three natural martin nesting sites in Essex.

Onward and up the bank onto the footpath we wended our way into the Essex Wildlife Nature reserve.  By now the wet weather was starting to really take its toll. The rain soaking up from my feet was meeting that dripping down from my coat, and we began to think we should call it a day a bit earlier than originally planned.  This meant missing out the Woodland Burial Site, but perhaps next time! The Nature Reserve – an important site, luckily rescued from development proposals – really does need visiting in the warm (see our evening visit last year, when conditions were perfect…  Wrabness Nature Reserve on a summer’s evening | Chris Gibson Wildlife ). Today there was no insect life whatsoever, but a few plants were worth a mention – Field Horsetail (diminutive relative of the giants from which our coal was laid down, eons ago), White Ramping Fumitory, Spotted Medick and Cowslip – and the many funnel-web spider webs, liberally laced with mercurial droplets…

The birds were not performing as we had hoped. Not a peep from the local Nightingales nor the Corn Buntings. But one important memory that we must take back from the nature reserve was the purring sound of the Turtle Doves…sadly such a rare thing to hear these days, due to merciless hunting in certain Mediterranean countries and the lack of suitable habitat (all they can find are agricultural wastelands ravaged by pesticides and totally lacking the seeds of ‘weeds’) for those that do manage to make it.  But here at least they can find sanctuary.

At this point our group began to separate – some heading for an earlier train, whilst others of us wandered at a more leisurely pace back to the station.  A little stop at the church (unfortunately not open to allow a sit down!), was worth a few minutes of our time, if only to see Annie inside the bell-cage.  Apparently the church tower collapsed in the 17th century, when the bell was ‘caged’, and seemingly that is where it will stay for evermore. And further along the road, we encountered the second of The Twelve Days of Christmas birds – Partridges (Red-legged varieties) which were enjoying the pea-fields.

Again thanks to everyone who stuck with us, and hope that we can repeat this, in more favourable conditions another year.  Writing this, having been home an hour or so, the sun is shining and we can’t help thinking ‘if only….’…

Wivenhoe Wood – a Symphony in Blue

The very end of April; a sunny morning; no wind; a wander in Wivenhoe Wood – a  recipe for one of the most sublime natural experiences: peak Bluebell! Not just the swathes of blue fading into the far distance, but also (arguably even better) the sweet, intoxicating aroma hanging heavy in the air. Heaven Scent indeed!

Right on the edge of town, the Bluebells are there for everyone to see and smell, the best vistas moving around the wood in the wake of the coppicing regime undertaken by Colchester Borough Council. And there are thankfully few signs of a dilution of  colour and scent from hybridization between the native Bluebells and the gardener’s approximation, Spanish Bluebells.

As always, there was much more on our walk yesterday. Oak trees were profligately shedding pollen into the air and insects basking in the dappled shade…

Blue has erupted in the woodscape after the almost equally impressive showing this year of white Wood Anemones. And from here on into the summer, the blue will fragment, first with white Greater Stitchwort and Garlic Mustard, then deep Yellow Archangel, and finally drawn pleasingly together studded with the pink of Herb-Robert and Red Campion.

But pure blue leaves the lasting memory. Do get out and enjoy it soon as it will have faded within a couple of weeks….

And remember not to take it for granted. Our visions of blue are bluer than many have seen before us, benefiting both from the eradication of Wild Boars several centuries ago and from the light which boosted our woodland flowering after the Great Storm in 1987. We cannot rely on storms (hopefully coppicing is more assured), and with the likely return of rampantly foraging Boars before too long, the replacement of monoculture blue with a more diverse kaleidoscope of colour is perhaps only a matter of time.

#WildEssex Walks: Cockaynes Reserve in spring

As often when we offer two dates for a walk, the weather is vastly different each day.  This was definitely the case with our little forays to Cockaynes for this month’s Wild Essex events. Monday was blowy and cold, whilst on Tuesday the sun shone, and the wind had dropped.  (Sorry Keith!).

This report covers some of the highlights that we saw, heard and smelled over both days. As to be expected, the warmer conditions on Tuesday brought out more of our insect friends. In line with the calendar (how do they know?) a St Mark’s Fly was seen, slightly askew with one wing out and the other not.  Possibly it had just emerged and not fully ‘filled out’. St Mark’s Day is 25th April! The following day we witnessed two ‘in cop’ doing what they need to do in the few days that they are alive as adults.

A little Pine Ladybird was busying itself keeping warm on a woodland leaf, and we found some Brown Tail moth caterpillars, new escapees from their conspicuous nest-webs. Their body hairs contain an unpleasant irritant and so contact should be avoided.  The only birds that can eat them are Cuckoos which have specially designed digestive processes to cope.

Famous and important residents to this site are the ‘Bunny Bees’ (Colletes cunicularis) which make holes in the sandy banks on the reserve. These are rare and it is always a pleasure to see that they are still enjoying living near us in Wivenhoe. And a host of other solitary bees were out and about in the sun including this ‘mini-miner’:

Evidence of other insect life was found, without seeing the critters themselves – leaf miner moths which lay their eggs between the surfaces of leaves and the larvae eat and grow, making patterns in leaves as they go, before emerging when fully fed, and also little cases of micro moths which were easy to spot on the rushes.

An Acorn Weevil showed its snout within the unfurling wings of an aquiline Bracken, and a tiny Dyseriocrania subpurpurella micromoth nestled into a Cow Parsley umbel. The warmer sunshine brought out butterflies on Tuesday, including Speckled Woods, Orange Tips, Large Whites and a Peacock.

We were privileged to hear lots of bird song in the couple of hours, and this varied day-to-day too.  We caught the dulcet tones of numerous Mediterranean Gulls (did I say dulcet?  – more like a posh squawk!)  – numbers in this area at the moment are at an all-time-high.  Add to that Chiffchaffs, Song Thrushes with their three-song call,  angry Cetti’s Warblers, rhythmic Reed Warblers, liquid Blackcaps, the increasingly rare Willow Warbler, Robins, Great Tits, Wrens, a bit-of-bread-and-no- cheese Yellowhammer, Linnet (below), Goldfinches and the odd snatch of Nightingale song, but sadly we did not witness its full and beautiful melodious warble.

Happily there was plenty of plant life to enjoy on both days.  This whole area was once woodland, and fortunately after the gravel extraction programme in the 80s, it was not merely filled in, capped with clay and turned over to agriculture, but was allowed to remain and rewild, giving us the reserve we know and love today. Working parties do great stuff in keeping some of the scrub under control to allow the important (and unusual in Essex) stands of Heather to thrive. These would soon be crowded out if Silver Birch and other trees were allowed to take hold.  Other interesting flora included Gorse at its peak, Town Hall Clock,  Opposite Leaved Golden Saxifrage, Thyme-leaved Speedwell, Wavy Bittercress, Greater Stitchwort, Ground Ivy and Heath Woodrush…

…and of course Bluebells, albeit a little worryingly with quite a few hybrids with Spanish Bluebell, paler, less delicate and of lower value to native pollinators.

Fungi are always fascinating, and we were delighted to find examples of King Alfred’s Cakes and a Mazegill bracket fungus.

As always we enjoyed the company of our groups – always willing to listen to Chris’ stories and ask questions and generally join in.  Thank you all!  Look forward to another walk with you before too long. Some of you asked about our fantastic close-up binoculars: they are Pentax Papilio II 8.5 x 21. We would recommend them thoroughly, and it is just a pity we are not on commission, given the number of pairs that have been bought by our ‘bug and botters’ over the past four years!

The Wild Side of Essex: a stormy day walk at the Naze in April

Don’t be fooled by the serene image in support of Ukraine,  the #WildSideofEssex walk at the Naze  lived up to its billing. Fearsome winds and sandblasting on the beach, although we missed by a whisker the torrential downpours that passed either side.

Even the Sanderlings and Turnstones were taking shelter behind piles of flotsam, while Oystercatchers roosted down to minimise the wind-chill. Small birds stayed deep in the scrub, though there was still plenty of song from Chiffchaffs, Cetti’s Warblers, Dunnocks and Wrens, making up for their unassuming plumage with the power of their voices, and  demonstrating that the advance of Spring is immune to the vagaries of the weather. And it was great to see the first returning Sandwich Terns, a small fluffy of incomers, totalling seven birds in 15 minutes, while a Harbour Seal teased with sporadic surfacings.

Searching out shelter, we explored the clifftop scrublands, now at their blooming best with Gorse and Blackthorn.

Somewhat protected from the wind, we found plenty of interest, from lichens and Cucumber Spider to sprouting Hog’s Fennel and the larval webs of Brown-tail Moths. Alexanders is now coming into its own, attracting a few visitors even when windblown. And there were always the trees, many now sprouting leaves and Field Maple, Alder, Wild Cherry and Silver Birch in flower. Queen Buff-tailed Bumblebees were scouting for next cavities and a Muntjac showed briefly.

Of course the outstanding, active geology, another aspect of the untamed nature of this coast, were unaffected by the wind. Fossils, septaria nodules, volcanic ash bands and erosion in action were all the more appealing as the cliff provided us with a degree of shelter!

But it was the ferocious weather that will linger long in the memory, along with the hardiness of nature trying to carry on with their lives despite the best efforts of an unruly planet.

#WildEssex Walks: Alresford Old Church to the creek

Thank you all for coming along to our walk today.  The weather was absolutely perfect – bright sun, blue sky with a gentle breeze to keep us all cool.

Gorse, that most important of plants for early pollinators, was out in profusion, and we make no apologies for starting this little blog with blue (sky) and yellow (gorse)– nature’s reflection of the Ukraine flag – a tiny, though heartfelt, show of solidarity with those suffering untold pain and misery in ‘civilized’ Europe.

This month’s event was the first time we have taken our group on this particular route, and was more of a lengthy walk than we sometimes do. Starting at the old, ruined church of St Peter we wended our way through lanes, down steps and across stepping stones until we reached the trail from Wivenhoe.  This path was once the railway line (Crab and Winkle line) which ran to Brightlingsea pre-Beeching. It is now a popular walkway, with good visual and actual access to the estuary.

The church is an interesting structure; destroyed by fire in 1971, it has acquired a beauty which only old ruins can and the churchyard itself has (at least in other years and we are hopeful for this) been managed for wildlife with areas unmown and allowed to do their own thing, although at the moment with little else showing other than (planted) Wild Daffodils. Among the grassland there are of course lots of those fascinating structures, lichens, on gravestones (see Chris’ gallery of ‘Lichenscapes’ Lichenscapes | Chris Gibson Wildlife).

So what did we see?  We had billed this event as seeing ‘first signs of Spring’ and we were certainly rewarded with lots of early Spring flowers, each an important source of energy for early emerging insects. Lesser Celandines, Greater Stitchworts, Red Dead-nettles and Common Stork’s-bills, not to mention a few (surprisingly early) Bluebells, were decorating the hedgebanks and field margins.

 

Blackthorn and Cherry-plum were in flower (the latter by now almost over), many of these shrubs buzzing with flies and bees making good use of their stores of food, and those biological pest-controllers par excellence, the ladybirds, were spotted here and there.  Who needs nasty poison sprays to keep aphids at bay when these beautiful little jewels will do the job for you?

Although not a Spring species, King Alfred’s Cakes, a hard, globular fungus was found on a dead Ash tree overhanging the path.

Those flying wonders-of-nature, butterflies, were out and about. How on earth caterpillars get transformed into these works of flying art is a mystery to science. We saw Peacocks, Commas and Small Tortoiseshells, but no sign of any Brimstones, although they are on the wing at the moment. And always a delight (to us if not to the bees their larvae parasitize), Bee-flies were just starting to emerge…

Birdsong filled the air; we heard numerous Skylarks, Blue and Great Tits, Robins, Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and many others whilst strolling down to the estuary. The shore birds are beginning to leave our coastline now, the few still remaining included Black-tailed Godwits, Curlews, Shelducks, Teals and Brent Geese we enjoyed watching going about their daily lives of probing mud for scrummy little worms or nibbling on vegetation, all the while keeping their collective eyes open for real or perceived threats.  Lots were disturbed by a Little Egret which landed among them (perhaps looking too much like a Marsh Harrier),although in reality the female Sparrowhawk which flew over at the same time was more of the threat at least to the smaller birds.

The last leg of the ramble was up Ford Lane, ascending from sea-level to the peak of the Essex Alps, where Cow Parsley in very early flower gave a final taste of spring, a last boost to carry us through the cooler conditions forecast for the week to come.

Our sunny spring break on the East Sussex coast: a photoblog

The first three days of the early spring sun-wave (not really a heatwave, due to the chill winds from the east) fortunately coincided with our short break on the East Sussex coast. Bright sunshine, dawn ’til dusk, and almost unbroken azure skies: a recipe for exploration, photography and wildlife.

We have visited Rye on several occasions before but this time seemed different. The cobbled streets we remember, but not the cobbles being set in a dwarf grassy meadow: hopefully this is the result of a deliberate backlash against the ravages of Roundup.

Eastbourne too kept us busy for a day, with traditional seaside activities (our first free-range ice-cream of the year) and an excellent exhibition at the Towner Gallery, very moving and thought-provoking at these times of appalling conflict in our very own continent…

… while Hastings completed our stay with its diverse mix of landscapes, seascapes and details.

Alexanders: the interloper our countryside needs…

Almost exactly two years ago, just as we entered the first Covid lockdown, our local wanderings focused our minds on the benefits of Alexanders. We blogged about it at the time (see here), but make no apologies about continuing that theme. Last week on the warm, south-facing slopes of the coast of East Sussex, Alexanders was already coming up to peak flowering, a good week or two ahead of its state here on the Essex coast.

The sun shone and, out of the chill easterlies, temperatures rose. But where were the insects? Well, there was little for them to be feeding on – the windswept coastlands had a little Blackthorn flowering and the first few Dandelions showing in the grass. Nothing else native. Alexanders was filling that gap…

Solitary bees, hoverflies, social wasps and ladybirds among many others were homing in to the musky-scented flowers, almost visibly dripping in nectar. It may not be a native species, but it certainly pays for its keep in the nectar- and pollen-starved British early spring landscape.

And not just on the flowers: picture-winged flies and ensign-flies were using the broad leaves as display arenas, alongside apricating sun-ray catchers like Nursery-web Spiders and more solitary bees and vantage points for predators like Yellow Dung-flies, among the erupting orange pustules of Alexanders Rust-fungus.

At times of climate catastrophe, with many insects emerging early into a barren landscape, it is plants from more southerly climes that will help tide our insects through the bottleneck until such time as native plants can catch up. Millennia on, the imports of our ancestors are still producing the goods for their adopted home.

 

 

#WildEssex walks: the rising tide at Mistley…

Thank to all who joined us this week for our inaugural Wild Essex walks in Mistley. Two walks in two days, both timed to see the last two hours before high water, the estuary birds being forced up the Stour before our eyes in the face of that advancing waters. It was a new destination, enjoyed by all, and somewhere we will no doubt visit again. Doing the two walks also showed how different the tide can be between days: presumably a function of air pressure, the exposed mud at Mistley Quay at the same time relative to High Water was only a fraction on the second day of that on the first. The  numbers and variety of birds were perhaps less than had been anticipated, but the recent gales had no doubt forced some to take refuge in more sheltered areas..

We met at Mistley station and it was good that some chose to travel by train (and we shall aim to promote public transport on some of our future events, where practicable). The changeable weather saw high wind gusts, showers of rain, sunny spells and rainbows over Suffolk, all of which added to the experience.

In total 46 species of bird were totted up over the two days (see attached list). No real surprises, but was good to see some of the less well-known ducks on the estuary including Pintails and Goldeneyes.  Swans were everywhere – on the water by the quay and sleeping all over the verges and on the sandy shore. They and indeed all the other birds seem pretty oblivious to human beings and passing traffic – shows how things can become habituated, and why this site is arguably the very best place to see with ease a good selection of the three quarters of a million northerly-breeding water birds that visit the Essex coast every winter.

Two of the most important wading bird populations on this stretch are the Black-tailed Godwits and Avocets. First day, the godwits numbered barely a hundred, but the second there were at 800; conversely some 200 Avocets were feeding along the channel only a couple of hundred meters away on Tuesday, but Wednesday, they (and more) were right across the other side hugging the Suffolk shoreline.

Among the six species of gull that were frequenting the Port was one splendid Mediterranean Gull, a long-stayer in these parts and just coming into breeding plumage. Day 1 it remained stubbornly on the sand-bar, but next day it was on the quayside fence and even taking bread from from the hands of the bird feeders…and fending off the hordes of Black-headed Gulls single-handedly.

Spending a few moments looking over Hopping Bridge to the lake which is part of Mistley Place Park, an animal rescue centre, we listened for woodland birds and heard a selection, all added to our list, along with Moorhens, an Egyptian Goose and one one day only a single Little Egret. Rather surprising the almost lack of egrets, but they could have been displaced by the storms.

Local folklore has it that Matthew Hopkins (infamous Witchfinder General) is buried in the park, but no proof has ever been found. And still on the historical theme, we took a short detour into the graveyard surrounding the two famous Mistley towers Mistley Towers | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk) part of the planned re-development of Mistley Thorn as a spa town 350 years ago.

In addition to birds, we noted some spring flowers – crocus, snowdrops (very appropriate in a week that Galanthomania came to the fore Snowdrop bulb sells for a record-busting £1,850 – Gardens Illustrated – pretty things …but…..! ) In addition, Sweet Violets, Stinking Iris fruits, Winter Heliotrope leaves and London Plane tree bark added to the visual feast.

The Wild Side of Essex: day walks on the Essex coast February 2022

The wind may have been in the south for yesterday’s #WildSideOfEssex walk at the Naze, but it was needle-sharp and very cold. Still, the welcome respite of the copse provided opportunities to examine lichens and identify trees by bud, here the lovely purple-fringed bud-scales of Sycamore..

Landbirds, very sensibly, were keeping a low profile, though there were some good flocks of Pied Wagtails (with Skylarks and Meadow Pipits) on sheltered fields, Cetti’s Warblers in Song, and an uncommonly static Green Woodpecker on a distant willow, clinging to leeward.

But lots of the hardier shorebirds – hundreds of Brent, dozens of Bar-tailed Godwits and Sanderlings, and many others, including a Purple Sandpiper, always pretty scarce in Essex and nowadays especially so. Offshore, a single Red-throated Diver flypast was just about all the choppy sea could muster.

Gorse, of course, was the main winter flower (but devoid of insects)…though a few Hemlock and Sea Mayweed flowers were showing, and Alexanders is already sprouting its spring greens. Hog’s Fennel, Golden-samphire and even Colt’s-foot (whose flowers should soon be sprouting) were still deep in their winter slumber, recognisable only from dead seed-heads, the scent of crushed foliage or banks of shirivelled leaves.

And of course, immune to the cold, there was the magnificent geology, new Crag fossils on the beach mingling with wrecks of modern Whelks, and London Clay volcanic ash bands revealed as the fruits of this winter’s erosion. An ever changing scene, both over the geological perspective and in real time, from tide-to-tide.