All posts by Chris Gibson

The Beth Chatto Garden throughout the seasons: April

Three weeks since our last visit. Three weeks which would normally see one of the greatest transformations in a garden, from winter to high spring: not this year though, when unseasonably warm spells in both mid-February and early March lit the flames of spring very early, and the cool northerlies of early April then held its advance at bay.

But the daffodils were largely over, their place being taken by fritillaries and Erythroniums…

…  Epimediums, Archangel and Uvularia.

Time for interesting angles and close-ups…

… and celebration of the spring greens, punctuated and highlighted by splashes of  colour.

From beds and borders, unfurling ferns rearing up like cobras…

… and Alchemilla leaves bedecked with dewdrop pearls, some magnifying the russet tooth tips, others reflecting the sky, before coalescing into the mercurial pools which give rise to the name of the ‘little alchemist’:

As always keeping our eyes open for the animal inhabitants, the more sheltered areas produced an array of basking bugs – Squash Bug and Green, Hairy and Gorse Shieldbugs:


… and beetles, including an almost spotless Harlequin Ladybird, and Rosemary Beetles, here transferring their allegiance to sages:

As befits the season, love was in the air for pairs of Green Shieldbugs and the large, wing-marked crane-fly Tipula vittata:

A few butterflies were on the wing, including our first Green-veined White of the year:

And of course, with insects showing, their predators were out and about, with Zebra Spiders well camouflaged on lichen-covered walls, and a Heliophanus jumping-spider waiting with hi-viz palps raised, ready to leap upon a suitable morsel.

Fifty shades of green…

A Paean to Green, inspired by Cockaynes Wood

Sea green, pea green, spring green, olive green

mint green, lime green, jade green, forest green

Green is the colour of nature, of life itself.

Or rather greens are the colours of nature and life, a whole spectrum of hues revealed in breathtaking splendour when fresh foliage is drenched in the new light of spring:

And not just the leaves. While many spring woodland  flowers scream for attention, others show  the art of the subtle.  Acid green April Acers bursting forth in the canopy, copper-tinged catkins of Oak and Birch draping down:

At the ground, cushions of Golden-Saxifrage, and dangles of Redcurrants:

And Moschatel. Stories of green giving glory to green. How to describe Moschatel?   A musky smell? Not really, at least to my nose. Unique? Certainly, at least until recently treated as the sole species in its family, in the world.

In part that uniqueness is down to the disportment if its five flowers, four (five-petalled) like the faces of a clock tower, one (four-petalled) on the top pointing upwards, as I was told recently ‘so the Spitfire pilots could tell the time’. Hence its alter ego Town-Hall Clock: now that’s a name which does as it says on the tin. But its scientific name Adoxa (Greek for ‘without glory’): a travesty for one of the most delightful, unassuming spring woodland blooms.

Sea green, pea green, spring green, olive green

mint green, lime green, jade green, forest green

      the colours of life … of spring … of now

Vote Green : the colour with a future…


Basking bugs and beasties – Wivenhoe Wildlife Garden

So lovely today: a misty start, but very still. As the mist dispersed towards lunchtime, so the sun came out and it turned into a perfect, warm spring day. The new season’s crop of insects were taking advantage of it in a big way, basking to warm up and get on with the important business of feeding, growing and reproducing.

True bugs come in various shapes and sizes, but all have sucking mouthparts, to feed on plant sap in the case of those shown here. Green Shield-bugs have overwintered as adults, and the baskers included some still in ‘winter plumage’, dull brownish, as well as crisp green (but well-camouflaged) ones in their summer apparel.

The grass-bug Stenodema laevigata  and the violin-shaped Squash Bug Coreus marginatus also winter in the adult stage of their life-cycles: good reason not to be too tidy in a garden and removing their chosen sheltered hibernation sites. The former also undergoes seasonal colour changes, brown to green, albeit less marked than in the Green Shield, while Coreus remains brown throughout, perhaps finding some camouflage among the necrotic brown leaf patches left by its feeding activities.

Aphids too are plant-sucking bugs: after such a mild winter we should expect large populations to build up rapidly, although if we don’t interfere with (ie poison) nature, using pesticides, hopefully their natural predators such as ladybirds (below left, a 10-spotted Ladybird checking out an ensheathing throng of Elder Aphids) will exert their natural controls.

In fact, ladybirds were everywhere. There were a few of the familiar Seven-spots and Harlequins, and an occasional Pine Ladybird (seemingly no longer restricted to the leaves of the plant after which it is named), a smaller species with a spot and a comma on each wing-case (above, right). But the vast majority, presumably recently-emerged, were Ten-spotted Ladybirds – at least, probably this species, given the extreme variation in pattern and colour, as shown here – none of these actually have ten spots!

Ladybirds, while variable, usually have the combination of red and black, or yellow and black, indicating that they are unpalatable to birds. Other, presumably more palatable beetles, rely for their defence on camouflage, although this tortoise beetle Cassida rubiginosa also has an all-encompassing carapace which must help.

Other predators were of course also out in force, in places seemingly almost every other leaf harbouring spiders. Most were Nursery-web Spiders Pisaura mirabilis, but a smaller one was a Xysticus crab-spider (probably X. cristatus, at the boldly-marked end of this species’  spectrum). And the spiders were mainly after flies – today witnessed a large emergence of adult Lesser St Marks Flies, which typically appear a little in advance of the larger, ‘true’ St Mark’s Fly, which usually puts in its first appearance around St Mark’s Day, 25 April.

Finally, back to the beetles. Acorn Weevils are one of the most charismatic of critters, whose larvae develop inside acorns. Last year, we remarked with concern how few we had seen, so it was something of a relief to see several out and about today, both long-snouted females and (relatively) short-snouted males.

Update from 10 April…

A couple of days on, and another exciting insect from the same area. This is a Parasitic fly called Tachina lurida, whose larvae live as internal parasites of the caterpillars of some larger moths. May well be widespread in Essex, but the records show only three previous from the county, including one at Brightlingsea.


#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: April – the woods in Spring

What a lot of things there were to look at on our Botany and Bug walks yesterday! The woods were bursting with botanical life and, even though it was drizzly and far from warm, some bug life was tenaciously hanging on in readiness for the better weather, sure to come.

Wivenhoe Wood is an ancient woodland,  one which is assumed to have existed since the last Ice Age. This rather wonderful fact is indicated in part by the presence of two rather wonderful plants, namely the Bluebell and Wood Anemone . Although often located in the same woodlands, these actually thrive on different substrates, Bluebells preferring more gravelly and drained areas typically nearer top of hills and Anemones in damper, more clayey soils. We are lucky to have both of these beauties, doing what they oughta, on our doorstep. (Click here for Chris’ blog about how to tell native Bluebells from the Spanish variety).

Other flowers of particular splendour included the Yellow Archangel, Primrose, Common Dog-violet, Greater Stitchwort and the beautifully named Celandine, sharing its name with the Greek for Swallow, as their arrival is often coincidental.

Of course we could not ignore the trees, nor the importance of their management within the woodland ecosystem. In days of yore when woods did their own thing, trees grew until they naturally died and fell crashing down, creating clearings, which allowed light to enter to give life to the flowers of the forest. Along with the trampling of Wild Boar, Aurochs and other large fauna, the disturbance would have kept things constantly changing.

However, nowadays, in the absence of large beasties, and trees often being surgically removed before they grow too large and unsafe, it is important that man steps in to create patches of light to keep the woodland floor alive. Although rather dramatic and destructive to the uninitiated, the practice of coppicing is vital for a woodland’s health. We could see the evidence of this for ourselves. Some of the coppiced ‘stools’ are probably hundreds of years old with their original trunk stumps often rotting away (vital for invertebrates), yet still ‘alive’ and allowing any number of small trees to grow up out of them. These poles are often harvested for useful economic crop too. Colchester Borough Council are to be congratulated on their management practices.

So what can trees themselves tell us? Well, for one thing ‘What Lies Beneath’. An Alder is a sure sign that a spring flows nearby, as these trees like their feet wet all the time. And sure enough, near one such individual, was a very damp area where we saw our first, and most spectacular invertebrate offering of the day…a large female cranefly Tipula vittata, industrially poking her abdomen into the mud over and over again, laying her eggs. The beautifully blossomy Wild Cherry likes free-flowing water draining over its roots, and so shows it is living on a gravelly layer.

Surprising splashes of colour helped to brighten a dull day, none more so than the occasional trunk plastered with the vivid orange terrestrial alga Trentepohlia; likewise the fleeting flowers of Field Maple and Norway Maple (originally posted wrongly as Sycamore), in various hues of green.

The afternoon walkers were luckier on the insect-front than their morning compatriots, and chalked up both the Kidney-spot Ladybird and the Orange Ladybird (itself an indicator of ancient woodland ). The Kidney-spot was photobombed by a Birch Catkin-bug, but we will forgive it…

We can’t leave our Day At The Woods report without mentioning the wonderful sculpture-from-nature that has appeared (through much hard work) near Lower Lodge. It is if course much more than a work of art…it is a stag beetle stumpery! Over time the wood beneath the ground will rot away and hopefully provide conditions to support the larvae of these amazing creatures. They will chomp away on the dead wood for a few years (the nutritional value of wood is low, and these creatures need to grow big, so it takes ages!), then on a warm day in June the adults will emerge. They will fly around in an undignified manner hoping to bump into (literally) someone of the opposite sex to do business with. Eggs will be laid and after a few short weeks the adults will die. You could say that their life seems very short, and that it’s hardly worth the effort, but as one of our group pointed out ‘A life-cycle never ends….’, which I think would be a very appropriate place to leave things this time……..

…….apart from to thank everyone who participated in our event this month. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.


What a pa-larva…!

…if you’ll pardon the pun! Sorry for the title, but Jude insisted on it, and as she found all these critters, I could hardly refuse…

The bright spring sunshine today drew us out onto the Wivenhoe Trail, to Whitehouse Beach. And the insects too were taking full advantage. One typical feature of Spring is that the larval stages of insects come to the fore, doing what they do best – feeding – so that they can emerge as adults during the peak summer months.

Two moth larvae first, of a very different size despite the fact that they will be adults only a month apart. Brown-tail Moth caterpillars are well known for their communual feeding, based around a silken retreat, leading to defoliation of their food-plants. Those found today were only some 4mm long, having overwintered in their webs as even tinier larvae. But even at this diminutive size, their irritant hairs are well formed, giving them some protection against hungry birds.

Much larger in size was the ‘woolly-bear’ of a Cream-spot Tiger moth, which will have hatched and started to feed properly last summer, such that this year, all it needed was a top up and it was ready to pupate. Which is why we found it wandering along the path looking for an appropriately safe pupation site.

Finally, beetle larvae. Many will be familiar with those we would call ‘grubs’, blobby, slow-moving and often living inside that which they feed upon, such as dead wood. But beetle larvae are as varied as beetle adults, and the one we spotted was progressing rapidly, probably one of the ground beetles, on the hunt for slugs or caterpillars.

Jude’s Rubbish Diary – Episode 2

29 MARCH 2019

What no litter?……

…..well hardly any!

This beautiful morning was too good to ignore, so we set out for a walk in the sunshine armed with a trusty litter picker and bags. What a pleasant surprise to encounter not a scrap of rubbish along the river path, all through Grange Wood and out onto Whitehouse Beach.

Our euphoria didn’t last however, as we found the remnants of a barbeque on the shoreline. Complete with large disposable bbq, tin cans and other rubbish. Sigh. So early in the year too.  Come on folks, its a great place to enjoy a meal, but what happened to ‘leave only footprints’?

However, all things considered it was all a very uplifting experience. Thanks to the unsung litter fairies who dedicatedly keep our beautiful places litter free, and of course Wivenhoe Society who organise the River Bank Rubbish Clearances.