All posts by Chris Gibson

The Beth Chatto Gardens: standing in for the Spanish Pyrenees!

This week, it was planned that I should be leading my regular midsummer trip to the Spanish Pyrenees for Naturetrek, but understandably, COVID has seen the cancellation of all summer plans. So by way of compensation, we headed out to the Beth Chatto Gardens. Could we tell the difference? Well, apart from the absence of mountains, it was sometimes difficult: the gardens contain a wide range of the exciting plants I seek out in the wild for clients. Here is a selection of my old friends from there to here, perhaps not the showiest plants in the garden, but all redolent of the herb-infused air of the mountains and maquis:

 

And not just the flowers with exotic overtones….while the insects were neither as showy nor as numerous as in the wilds of Aragon, they did include our only Hummingbird Hawk-moth of the year so far, gently sipping at Buddleia crispa. Usually a feature of our Pyrenean garden surrounds, numbers fluctuate from year to year there as here in Essex, and it is remarkable to think that the one we were watching may well have originated from so distant a clime.

Of course it was actually the insects which attracted us to Beth Chatto’s, rather than the evocative hints of half-remembered shores, given that we were supposed to have been running a Garden Invertebrates course there recently. A bit of advance preparation for (hopefully) next year – no names below, so if you want to know, you might like to keep an eye open for future events!

     

But of course we could not overlook the flowers, a sumptuous display in spite of the past drought, and with enticing sunlight and shadows, a chance as always to delve into the hidden heart of the flowers, as well as more standard portraits.

  

A different viewpoint always produces surprises, but the most remarkable shouldn’t really have been so surprising. Why is the plant Linaria triornithophora so named…where are the ‘three birds’?. Well, peering through a camera revealed all when the unopened buds magically and mischievously mutated into budgies!

A breath of fresh air, as rejuvenating as a mountain.

 

Lockdown diary: Gallery updates

One of the opportunities of Lockdown has been the time to add to our website. Several new photo Galleries have been created, and most of the existing ones substantially added to. The announcements below give a flavour of them, but for many, many more please click on the Galleries tab at the top of the page…

 

Lockdown diary: #ReasonsToBeCheerful in #WildWivenhoe and elsewhere – June

Although the lockdown, for right or wrong, whether guided by scientific advice or economic considerations, is gradually being lifted, there are still ample reasons to celebrate the #ReasonsToBeCheerful….

Welcome to our fifth compilation of tweets and reflections, now Summer is here, in #WildWivenhoe (and increasingly a little further afield), highlighting our #NaturalHealthService.

June 1

June 2

June 3

June 4

June 5

June 7

June 8

June 9

June 11

June 12

June 14

June 15

June 16

June 17

June 18

June 19

June 20

June 21

June 22

June 23

June 24

June 25

June 26

June 27

June 28

June 29

June 30

When I kicked off this thread in mid-March, the intention was to use and celebrate the natural world, our local natural world, as a beacon of hope in hard times. I hope that in some small way it has been successful: it certainly has for us, giving a focus to long days over a longer period than some may have anticipated at the outset.

Now that, for better or worse, the lockdown is being eased, I do not propose to continue this thread any further, unless and until any viral resurgence sends us into our wormholes of introspection once again. But of course anyone can hear about our wildlife adventures here and further afield by following me on Twitter, and by reading our blogs .

Thanks to all who have contributed to and commented upon this thread over the months. And let’s hope that as we enter a New Normal, the natural environment and the protection and enhancement thereof is elevated in importance in our hearts and minds.

Lockdown diary: Botany & Bugs (and more!) on your Doorstep – late June

Welcome to another edition of our Lockdown diaries. As always a huge thank you to everyone who has been in touch – it is a true pleasure to compile these nature notes and we are delighted that so many people are keen to join in.

We thought this time we would celebrate Love  – in the natural world that is!

Firstly a set of brilliant pictures from our friend in Brighton – these creatures (a species of shield-bug) are known as Parent Bugs and have got their English name from their rather endearing habit of protecting their eggs and young offspring. The first picture shows a Mummy and Daddy bug kind of ‘love’, followed by the love/care of a parent. In actual fact it is the females that guard their eggs and youngsters, whilst the male goes off having fun elsewhere. Most insects lay their eggs somewhere and just leave them to get on with it, so this is quite unusual behaviour.

Although ‘bug’ is often used as a general word for any kind of insect, ‘true bugs’ are one of the main Orders of insects, a defining character being that they have sucking mouthparts rather than jaws. Others of this type include Sloe Shield-bugs, spotted in Suffolk, whilst this rather handsome young Pied Shield-bug was snapped on a gardening glove just outside Wivenhoe.

Love has been apparent on many grasses and plants locally, in the form of mating hoverflies – this pair of Eupeodes luniger were seen enjoying the sun in our neighbour’s garden. And we couldn’t help but be charmed by these two splendid Rose Chafer beetles being close and intimate. Amazingly these are the first that Chris has ever seen in the mainland UK, though I am rather smug, having seen them on several occasions in Colchester.

Talking of beetles, we are pleased to report that Stag Beetles are still out and about, at least in our neck of the woods. This lovely lady Stag posed for a photo, grateful, having been recently rescued, whilst those other rather whacky beetles, Cockchafers, have been seen whizzing about in the churchyard. (Unfortunately we have room for only one SB photo this time, but thanks for all that have been sent in).

What else do insects love beside each other? Well sunshine is a must – it warms them to give energy, and it is a fact that the hotter the sun the faster creatures like butterflies and dragonflies can zoom about. This Common Blue Damselfly was snapped taking a break from zooming, just soaking up the rays, whilst this pair of Red Damsels  were having a romantic time of it.

A very rare Norfolk Hawker dragonfly was seen in north Wivenhoe – look at those eyes! Thank you to the nature-spotter-extraordinaire that sent this in!

And many thanks to the friend we met in some woods who had just found this Purple Emperor and kindly said we could use her photo.  What a stunning picture of an amazing creature.

Insects also love food and (sorry if you are eating your breakfast whilst reading this), but we couldn’t resist photoing this rather scarce fly Dryomyza anilis tucking into a tasty….well….you can see what it is! I’m certainly not offended by seeing an unfettered dog poo whilst out in the countryside (as long as not directly on a footpath). What does offend is poo in plastic bags left in bushes/hanging in trees/left by the wayside waiting for a Poo Fairy to pick up and take away presumably? A bagged ‘one’ is gonna take months to decompose, whilst those left to their own devices in the open air will biodegrade and disappear in quite a short time – thanks to nature’s waste disposal team (see above).

Sorry, I seem to have gone off the ‘love’ theme there!

Another popular source of food is aphids: ladybirds are mightily keen on them, thus they are every gardener’s friend. We are all familiar with the adult versions, but their other stages are equally interesting though perhaps not so well known.  A photo of a rather strange beetley thing was sent to us last week – this is a larval form of a ladybird (in this case a Harlequin). There are 55 species of ladybirds in UK, the larva of each having different patterning, allowing identification.

When they have eaten their fill as larvae they attach themselves to a handy stem (no need to hide away – the red-and-black warning coloration of this Harlequin is enough deterrent to keep most predators away) where they stay until metamorphosis has taken place and can emerge as fully fledged adults (in this case, a Seven-Spot Ladybird). Truly amazing, we think.

 

In the plant kingdom there is so much going on right now.  One particularly fascinating group of plants is the grasses – easy to ignore or think of as annoying weeds if they turn up in your flower bed, but so many are very beautiful, especially at this time of year when their ‘naughty bits’ are apparent – find a spike in full fertile flower, its scales parted revealing the pollen-filled anthers and the feathery stigmas (the female receptive structures) hoping to receive a wind-blown dose of pollen, and thus produce a new generation.

 

What else is happening?  Frogs are enjoying their wildlife ponds in some caring people’s gardens, and birds are often mentioned by our correspondents.  We had this inspiring summary from Yorkshire ‘Mating Kestrels, Greater Spotted Woodpecker feeding fledgling at back of house, also a Spotted Flycatcher feeding, a Wren nesting and feeding in the little ginnel next to the house, a Little Owl, 3 Stoat sightings, plenty of Curlews, Swifts screeching….’, with a pic of the woodpecker tucking into the fat balls. A friend in Wivenhoe said she had found Lockdown ‘a great learning time’ and was now beginning to recognise many more bird-calls.

 

Near Elmstead, a keen nature lover told us  that ‘I continue to hear several Common Whitethroats, one Lesser, a Willow Warbler, a couple of cock Yellowhammers, a couple of Blackcaps. I also saw a pair of Muntjac’.  We occasionally hear Muntjac from our flat, and have seen droppings not far from home (oh dear…sorry…..).

Other birds giving pleasure are the geese which fly over of an evening, and we are pleased to have seen a pair of swans in the shipyard dock recently, the previous pair with their friend the goose sorely missed in recent years.  The goose has continued to hang around and sometimes can be seen with a Greylag girlfriend (or two) in tow, and or over the other side of the river with his Canada geese pals.  Quite a social being.

To bring this edition to an end, we were sent this amazing photo of a tame Robin, showing his ‘love’ for this kind person.  😊

As always, hope you have enjoyed the read, and if you have only just joined us and would like to see some of the other Lockdown Diaries, here is the link https://www.chrisgibsonwildlife.co.uk/category/judes-nature-diaries/

We have been thinking about how/when to resume our walks and will be sending out an email with details shortly…all depending on the current government guidelines etc.

It goes without saying if you no longer wish to receive our ramblings, or know anyone who might like them, just let us know as adjustments to the mailing list can easily be made. Even though life is returning to normal, we would be  happy to continue these diaries if anyone cares to send in contributions from anywhere that you happen to find yourself –   photos, comments, observations or questions which Chris would be happy to try to answer.  Please let us know if you would be interested in continuing, or if you feel they have been now run their course.  Thank you.

Happy Nature watching.

ADDITIONAL IMAGES by Val Appleyard, Sarah Smith, Cathy Burns, Rob Johns, Leonie Henderson, Glyn Evans, Lorna Whitworth, Nel Mooy, Sue Minta, Patrick Eady, Angie Reid.

Return to the Beth Chatto Gardens….

After nearly three months of (understandable) closure, we have finally been able to return to the haven that is the Beth Chatto Gardens. And never have the sights, scents and sounds been so welcome, albeit the soundscape of buzzing bees and singing birds being intruded upon by agriculture – gas guns and reservoir pumping.

Despite challenging weather conditions, with virtually no rain for the first two months, the gardens still have a verdancy unparallelled in the semi-aridity of coastal Essex:

Flowers, mostly old friends were there to greet us, but there are always surprises, especially with different camera angles and perspectives:

And so many of the flowers come with evocative scents, so arresting in the warm, still air, our lungs as yet unclogged by post-lockdown pollution; the combination of Philadelphus and Rosa in the Gravel Garden was like a tentacle of scent drawing us back again and again, unwilling to release us:

Of course, a plant is not just a flower. Its leaves and seeds can provide visual delights in their own right:

Even our bête noire Thalia dealbata (see why here) was looking stately (albeit somewhat  stunted) in the pond margins, a whole palette of greens. Let’s hope the plans to reduce or remove any flowering stems and save pollinators will not have been forgotten as we embrace our new normal:

This last weekend should have been our planned ‘Get to Know Your Garden Invertebrates’ course. But inevitably, that fell foul of Covid. Maybe next year, and we now know some of the useful places to search for them. In particular the flowers of composites and umbellifers, with respectively Galactites and Astrantia  currently in pole position.

Aside from the usual suite of pollinators, some of the other exciting insects included the large golden lacewing Nothochrysa capitata, a large rove-beetle with golden bridle and paws Tasgius morsitans, the Black-and-yellow Longhorn Rutpela maculata, and the hairy beetle Lagria hirta.

A smart black and red plant bug was one form of the variable Clostertomus trivialis. First recorded in Britain in London in 2008, this has spread elswehere in the south, although the Essex Field Club map shows only one previous record for the county, from Harlow. However, on reference to our pictures from last year we realised we had see it (in its alternative, yellow marked morph) here in the garden in June 2019.

And finally, the Martagon Lilies in the Woodland Garden. We have never really thought of them as being especially valuable insect food resources, but one hoverfly had different ideas. We watched this Eupeodes luniger visit several flowers and industriously feast upon the pollen. But only the pollen which had been transferred from the anthers to the stigma: maybe the hoverfly isn’t strong enough to dislodge pollen grains from the anther, and so has to rely on other species to do its heavy work?

And as I wrote those words, I was suddenly struck by a thought – ‘don’t adult hoverflies just eat/drink nectar and honeydew?’. A quick search soon reassured me our observation was correct: hoverflies are one of the few kinds of insects that can digest pollen, the surface coating of pollen grains beings resistant to most insect digestive juices. and it forms a protein-rich food source for the developing eggs. Every day is a day for learning!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lockdown diary: Botany & Bugs (and more!) on your Doorstep – mid June

Welcome to the latest instalment of our Lockdown Diaries. As always a big thank you to everybody who has been kind enough to get in touch  – we really couldn’t do it without you, as they say!

I must begin, however, with an apology. Chris had an unfortunate malfunction last time and misidentified a plant ☹. In case you didn’t notice, the ‘Bur Chervil’ flower seen on a local ‘green’ area ( currently a sickly shade of brown) was in fact ‘Knotted Hedge Parsley’.  But the good news is that this is actually less common than the Chervil, so a reason to celebrate! (As long as he doesn’t make a habit of it).

We had an uplifting email from our correspondent in Hadleigh, Suffolk, telling us about the Heath Spotted and Southern Marsh Orchids growing in his local wood, ‘a glorious exotic marvel’ as he poetically put it. In his garden he had ‘ Bees going nuts …. bumbles fighting over access to our flame red poppies, while honeys browsing over thyme & oxalis’. Love it.

We mentioned Stag Beetles last time, and thank you for your reports and sightings. We have had this fabulous picture of a very handsome male taken in a Wivenhoe garden, and had an interesting report from Suffolk  of ‘not one but 2 staggies emerging from the garden (one still had a thin layer of mud on her ‘head & shoulders’, having just tunnelled out of the earth). The other was clattering around in the air beside me, and the real novelty was that they were both female!’ A female Lesser Stag Beetle has been seen locally too. Let us know if any turn up where you are…

Following on from the Red-and-black bug theme in the last ‘Diary’ we had a smashing picture sent to us of a different insect which employs this colour-way –  the Red and Black Froghopper, friendly and totally harmless to us, although perhaps not to something that may try to eat it …

Other insects that you have seen include a Hornet (much maligned, but generally non-aggressive and harmless if left alone. Poking sticks into their nests not recommended however!). This photo was taken before it escaped from a greenhouse.

A couple of friends borrowed our little portable moth trap one evening and included in the catch the following morning was this stunning Eyed Hawkmoth. This creature tries to bamboozle any would-be predator by flashing it’s ‘eyes’, pretending it is a big beastie.

Another rather attractive, but it turns out not particularly welcome due to its predilection for Box bushes, moth was seen sunning itself, rather artistically-posed, in a local garden last weekend.

Demoiselles were seen flying in a Suffolk garden – these are stunning creatures – large damselflies in effect,  and in Frating these beautifully crafted little ‘pots’ were discovered, part of a Potter Wasp’s nest.

One of my favourite plants is White Bryony, with its beautifully  understated colours, and it is also much loved by a couple of not-so-common insects – this picture-winged fly and bee were seen on a plant on the edge of KGV last week.

Spiders are not everyone’s thing, we appreciate (we love them as you would expect due to their clever design, ingenuity and general usefulness), so look away now if you aren’t a fan. But  I  wanted to include this picture of a real beauty – a Crab Spider sitting hopefully on a Hydrangea waiting for a careless fly to land so she can have her dinner in a wildlife-friendly garden in Wivenhoe. Her colours perfectly blend with the petal.

Flies, as we know, are important pollinators, and although we appreciate they are all an important part of the ecosystem, some are definitely  more attractive than others. A particularly handsome family of flies are the ‘Hovers’, with which we are all familiar. All harmless, they generally use the natural ‘warning’ colours of yellow and black, thus mimicking the more ‘dangerous’ wasps and bees – giving them a certain amount of protection from predators. This particular one (a Helophilus species) was photographed in an Elmstead garden,  where the sender of the picture spends lots of time watching the goings on in and around his pond. It is a hotspot for dragonflies and damselflies, and he tells us a very entertaining story of how he rescued a dragonfly nymph from the jaws of a Sparrow, only for it then to scuttle off and hide in the undergrowth before emerging as a beautiful Broad-bodied Chaser some five hours later.

Slow Worms are out and about – this one was photographed in Dovercourt, and we have had sighting of one in Brighton, together with Common Lizards, Grass snakes and Common Newts in various parts of Essex.

As usual we keep an eye on birds from our window, their sights and sounds are a great joy.  We are still hearing Cuckoos, and we know that some of you have been delighted with seeing Buzzards so near us, over town. A local nature lover told us of his sightings of Little Owls, Common Whitethroats, Blackcaps and a Willow Warbler.  He was chatting with someone who has Barn Owls on his land who reported that the female hunts during the evening and the male overnight and early morning. Interesting division of labour. Before signing off, I must attach this amazing photo of a male Sparrowhawk having a bath on the South Coast.  What a stunning creature!

Here is a link to the latest email from Buglife which you may find of interest.  This important charity is one we like to support through sales of our cards etc.

Wishing you all a safe and measured emergence out of lockdown. And as always please keep in touch with any observations and pictures of nature in your world. Thank you.

ADDITIONAL IMAGES by Val Appleyard, Sue Minta, Jen Poyser, Martin Forth, Eric Strudwick, Andrea Williams, Sally Chandler, Roger Peak and John Goody.

Red and Black

Red and black when worn together are such a startling combination – adorned in these colours you will get noticed! We know this, and so do many other members of the natural world.

Insects have many challenges to face, the most important of which is to avoid getting eaten prematurely. They have various tricks up their sleeves to help prevent turning themselves into delicious morsels for a passing bird – one is trying not to get noticed and blending into the background as much as possible (more about this in another blog soon). But some have evolved to ‘wear’ red and black, which says ‘Hey you, Bird….I’m here, but don’t bother trying to eat me – I am probably poisonous or dangerous in some way’.  The scientific term for this advertising yourself as unappetising and unpleasant is  ‘Aposematism’.

One family of creatures which springs to mind is ladybirds.  These come in a variety of forms, not all of which are red and black, but generally the larger types do display these colours to some degree. They are reputedly unpleasant tasting, possibly toxic, and although some predators may attack them, their coloration acts as a deterrent. The reasoning for this relies on the memory of a would-be predator – a bird that had tried a ladybird and realised how terrible it tasted wouldn’t be keen to try it again. Therefore there is no need to hide away, but to feel free to pick and choose where and when to eat or lay eggs  and not to have to be constantly looking over your shoulder.

Ladybirds’ pupae  are quite conspicuous, boldly marked and not camouflaged. Although during this phase of their lives they are totally unable to defend themselves (apart from a bit of wiggling), they are still relatively safe due to their reputation.

Some red and black creatures may not themselves be particularly offensively tasting, or poisonous, but are similarly coloured to those that are, giving them a degree of protection.  This is known as Batesian mimicry ie they look similar enough to known evil-tasting insects to pass themselves off as such.

Below is a selection of some British red and black beasties:

Ornate Shield-bug – a rare visitor to these shores.  This individual was photographed by us recently and was the first for Essex.

 

Red-and-Black Froghopper –  commonly found in spring and summer, a handsome wee thing, albeit the largest froghopper we have.

 

Oak Leaf-roller – a bright and shiny beetle whose grubs live in a rolled-up Oak leaf.

 

Ladybird Spider – very rare in UK, only the male is warningly coloured: the female is all velvety black.

 

Fire-bug – again a rarity in UK, although a population has recently been discovered for the first time in Essex.  Previously their colonies have tended not to live many years on our shores, as they are a southern species, probably unable to withstand frosts.

 

Cinnamon Bug – increasingly seen in gardens, this one is definitely toxic as it feeds happily on the most poisonous plants, such as Deadly Nightshade and Henbane.

 

Cinnabar Moth – a handsome creature, particularly stunning when seen in flight. The caterpillars are striped yellow and black which is also a warning coloration in nature. These can often be spotted munching away on Ragwort, a plant is known to be poisonous to livestock. The caterpillars  themselves absorb the toxicity of the plant and so are themselves toxic to birds, and this is passed on through to the adults.

For more red-and-black beasts, at home and abroad, please visit the Red And Black photo gallery.

 

All Saints’ Churchyard, Dovercourt: Bugs and more in #GodsAcre

It was our great pleasure recently to visit All Saints Church, Dovercourt, and witness the abundant evidence of beneficial management of the churchyard, with very limited grass cutting and a lack of signs of herbicide use. Such a contrast to most municipal grasslands, such as the nearby cemetery, where it seems mowing was an essential mid-lockdown, mid-drought activity, and is now brown and scalped, shorn of any flowers to feed the insects and sooth our senses.

In the churchyard, the grassland was thriving , longer grass being more tolerant of drought, and blooming: Ox-eye Daisies are the particular highlight of early June, but with a whole host of further courses to come in the insect restaurant as the summer progresses.

And as expected it was simply teeming with insects of all kinds: showy butterflies (Holly Blue and Small Tortoiseshell); the Narcissus Fly (a large bumblebee-lookalike hoverfly);  beetles galore, including the metallic green Thick-thighed Beetle and the tiny 16-spot Ladybird; and (appropriately, given the location) the Bishop’s Mitre Bug.

 

 

Lines of splendid Lime trees around the churchyard brought their own specific wildlife, including the smartly patterned Lime Aphid, and reddish leaf growths (galls) caused by a microscopic mite…

…but the best prize of all, and the reason for our visit, was a thriving population of Firebugs, a red-and-black bug which is also associated with Limes. A week ago when we showed our daughter, who lives close to the church, the photo of an Ornate Shield-bug we discovered in Wivenhoe, also red-and-black, never previously seen in Essex , she thought she had seen it in the churchyard. But when we saw a picture of hers we recognised it immediately as Firebug, a familiar species to us from our travels on the Continent, also never seen before in Essex, and rare in the country as a whole.

In the UK, Firebugs have been known since at least 1865 from one islet off Devon. But apart from an occasional transient population, especially on the far south coast,  that’s it, until the past couple of years when vagrant individuals have been noted more widely, including in 2019 in Orford and Ipswich in Suffolk. How it gets around is unknown as it is flightless, but it is perhaps no coincidence that many locations are close to ports. Are Firebugs found all the way between Harwich International Port and the church, or perhaps a newly-disembarked vehicle with an insect stowaway parked outside the churchyard to visit the shops?

The red-and-black colour scheme is what is termed ‘warning coloration’, not that it is in any way dangerous to us – it is simply advertising to potential predators that it is distasteful. Neither is it harmful to garden plants or crops: it eats the seeds of Lime trees, one reason why the churchyard suits it. And interestingly, also the seeds of Mallows: botanists have only just realised through DNA sequencing that the very different-looking limes and mallows are closely related , but its seems the bug has known all along!

And suit it it certainly seems to. We searched most of the churchyard, ably assisted by granddaughter Eleanor (2 and a half, and very sharp eyed) – “Look, Papa, ladybird…”! Firebugs were found almost throughout, but most numerously closer to the church and its Lime trees, both adults and aggregations of immature stages (nymphs), including many paired individuals (an activity which can extend continuously for a week) making the next generation.

As an insect of warmer climes, this colonisation may of course prove to be only temporary. A hard winter could easily spell the end for them. But until then, let’s welcome them and enjoy them, a bright spot of colour in the often depressing litany of declines and extinctions in our environment. As a working, living churchyard, its wildlife riches celebrating the lives of the deceased, this visit to All Saints’ churchyard could hardly have been more inspiring.

 

 

Lockdown diary: #ReasonsToBeCheerful in #WildWivenhoe – late May

Still the COVID-19 lockdown continues. And so it should for some time yet with infection and death rates still so high. It may be inconvenient. It may be frustrating, but it is necessary. And it gives time to explore one’s local patch….

A further compilation of tweets and reflections, as Springs turns to Summer, in #WildWivenhoe, highlighting our #NaturalHealthService.

May 18

May 19

May 20

May 20

May 22

May 23

May 24

May 25

May 26

May 27

Of course, with hindsight and after clearing ‘Lockdown brain’ I realised this is actually Knotted Hedge-parsley, not dissimilar to Bur Chervil, but with even wackier fruit, lower-growing, similarly a plant of sandy grassland, and even scarcer locally …

May 28

May 29

May 30

May 31

And so another months of lockdown draws to a close. Spring has been and gone. Yesterday late evening, the Swift numbers finally rose to something like their normal early season maximum of 30 outside the flat, from 10-12 the day before. 

Another reflection must be regarding our House Sparrows. Here in the Shipyard, the number of House Sparrows has shot up since lockdown started, from almost absent mid-March (as has been the case for the past ten years) to ever present, noisy and breeding furiously. Perhaps the estate has only just matured as breeding habitat? Or just possibly the (sadly) late Dennis Summers-Smith’s theory about toxicity of anti-knock additives in unleaded petrol is right.  Fewer car movements > less release of those agents > more invertebrates > more sparrows, although it does feel like an unexpectedly/unfeasibly rapid response… His theory arose from the spatial and temporal coincidence between the  the 20th Century declines of House Sparrow and the introduction of unleaded fuel. Perhaps lockdown gives some unintentional experimental evidence?

Lockdown diary: Botany & Bugs (and more!) on your Doorstep – late May

Hello once again – hope you enjoy this, our fifth Lockdown Diary. Thanks to everyone who has been in touch with anecdotes, observations and photos.

Where to start?  Plants are all around, although of course many are suffering from the continued drought.  The Haymeadow on KGV is looking quite sparse in places.  Interestingly since it has been left to its own devices, bare patches are appearing where the grasses are not doing well due to the drought, but this is allowing space for annuals, e.g.  rare annual clovers,  and Sand Spurrey (see above) which normally would not have the opportunity to germinate.  All contributing to biodiversity –  the loss of which is a major concern of our time.

Some dear friends in Wivenhoe (who have an amazing garden), sent us a lovely olfactory picture: ‘Wisteria smells strongest with the sun on it, the honeysuckle only scented in the morning after the cold night air. An excuse to have our noses in flowers at all times of the day’. Delicious! A locally scarce plant, Knotted Hedge-parsley, was discovered on one of the grassy areas in Wivenhoe. Some interested folk are doing a survey of the (as it turns out quite a few) grassy areas in Wivenhoe. Until now all of them have just been mown regularly through the summer and left as short grassland, but it could be that with some thoughtful management at least some of these could have a new life – with some areas left unmown for certain periods of time new plants will emerge, creating a more interesting place for both human , and of course wildlife visitors. Watch this space for more information about this as the data are collected.

Birds are also very abundant.  We are rejoicing in so many House Martins this year, and Sparrows are more numerous around the Shipyard too. The drought must be making things hard for the House Martins to find mud for their nests (although there is abundant salty mud here on the estuary, they much prefer the salt-less variety). Anything we can do to provide water for birds right now is to be encouraged.

We were sent this amusing shot of a Sparrowhawk investigating a remote camera (you might need to look carefully!):

Great Spotted Woodpeckers have been seen in gardens, and a marauding bunch of Jackdaws were heard making a nuisance of themselves in lower Wivenhoe, before taking themselves off elsewhere. A fan of this newsletter sent in an entertaining story of birds in his garden, all of them interested in the mealworms he had put out….Robin followed by Blackbird followed by Magpie followed by Pigeon….

… and whilst not everyone’s favourite, pigeons have a certain charm, and friends in South Woodham Ferrers have sent in pictures of a mum and her (rather ugly) babies. She obviously loves them, however they look, as any good mother should!

Hedgehogs have been noisy in a local garden – our correspondent tells us that two large ones were in her feeding station ‘Lots of huffing as one had blocked the other in.  I had to take the lid off so that one of them could climb out.  Very noisy’

This tiny Grass snake was found in a local garden, and having been offered food (which it ignored) was released back to join the rest of its family.  This sized individual at this time of year is probably last year’s baby.

The section of the natural world that has been the most exciting (at least for us) this time is the insects. So many of you have sent in interesting information and pictures, thank you.   Very excitingly we have had our first reports of Stag Beetles in a Wivenhoe garden. Let us know if you find any – alive or dead! Wivenhoe is a nationally important area for these most odd creatures – their flight pattern is so awkward it is incredible that they ever actually get to where they want to go. And that after spending literally years underground chewing their way through dead wood before they emerge for only a few weeks at most this time of year. You couldn’t make it up really!

This smart 22-spot Ladybird was seen checking out a nature-watcher’s Kindle, whilst a mayfly was found on a garden wall, near a pond. These small creatures live as adults only for about a day. Their scientific Order name ‘Ephemeroptera’  has the same Greek root as  ‘ephemera’ meaning ‘short-lived or not to be preserved’. There are 51 species in UK and arequite difficult to identify to species level.

Say ‘Red and Black Bugs’ to Chris these days and he burst into a grin. The reason(s)?  Well a couple of weeks ago he came home with a photograph (below, left) of a very splendid bug indeed, seen near Ferry Marsh. We immediately recognised it from wildlife holidays abroad as an Ornate Shield Bug.  Our books said it was only a rare and recent arrival in the UK, and none of the online maps showed it had been found around here. We were pleased when it was confirmed by a national bug expert that this was the first sighting in Essex!

We sent photos to our nearest and dearest (not to boast you understand….) and daughter #2 responded by saying she too had seen unusual red-and-black bugs in her local churchyard in Dovercourt. Her photos (above, right) showed this to be a totally different insect,  but once more a first for Essex! This is the Fire-bug – again a common species in Europe, but only a rare visitor to UK. Chris discovered an interesting paper about it https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/55610-Pyrrhocoris-apterus.  I’m feeling a little left out as haven’t yet discovered a rarity!

Our friends on the south coast sent us a picture of a rather fine beetle which goes under the catchy name of Drilus flavescens. It is not yet found in Essex, but keep looking!  The male has these wonderful comb-like antennae.

Not so many butterflies around at the moment (known as the ‘June gap – the hiatus between the disappearance of spring broods and the emergence of the summer generations’  **), but some lovely moths have been found and photos sent to us – Small Yellow Underwing in Brighton, and Mother Shipton in Wrabness. This is a particularly interestingly patterned moth – on close inspection you can see that it looks rather like a witch with a big nose  ie Mother Shipton.

Following on from last time’s comments about the (in our opinion) over-zealous mowing of grassy areas and spraying of herbicides, we have some news.  Colchester Borough Council have said that ‘we  are starting to look at mowing regimes across the Borough and we will take the opportunity to look at how we could manage them differently’ ( we hope that means there may be less mowing in future rather than more!), but as yet Essex County Council have/will not confirm whether they use Glyphosates to spray the pavements, although they were quick to joyously say that they sprayed at least three times a year.  We will let you know of any developments.

Just to leave you with some lovely musings from a local nature fan   ‘I’ve been enchanted by the songs of Nightingales.  Everything in nature is so beautiful’.  Exactly.  If only everyone could see …we are the lucky ones.

Until next time – please keep in touch with us and let us know what you discover.

Jude and Chris 07503240387

**  This passage was quoted from a brilliant book ‘Wonderland – A Year of Britain’s Wildlife Day by Day’ by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss. A lovely present from daughter #1, it has an entry for each day of the year – highlighting a specific plant/animal/bird that would typically be found on that day.  Thoroughly recommended.

ADDITIONAL IMAGES BY Val Appleyard, Clive Dykes, Margie Finn, Mark Halladay, Leonie Henderson, Bradley Marnes, Sue Minta and Jen Poyser.

 

Lockdown diary: Heading towards summer in Cockaynes Reserve

Our last report on the reserve was nearly a month ago, when it was looking greener and flowery after some long-awaited rain. But that is the last time it rained in these parts – the semi-arid Essex coast living up to its meteorological reputation – so throughout May, a month of almost unbroken sun and 7% of average rainfall, the reserve has dried to a crisp, situated as it is on free-draining gravels and sands.

Consequently the flowering is now much less profuse, mostly comprising deep-rooted shrubs and plants protected by a degree of shade. Honeysuckle is in full flower, drenching the early morning air in  its heavy fragrance, and Cow-wheat has shown a surprising dash out of its usual woodland habitat onto the heathy slopes, where it may be extending its root-parasitic behaviour to include Heather as a host.

Even the ubiquitous Stinging Nettle , much maligned, is coming into its own, as the tiny green flowers on dangling whorls burst forth, a fluffy aura which catches backlight very fetchingly.

And perhaps the main beneficiary of the drought, renowned for favouring hot dry sandy areas, is Smooth Cat’s-ear. Although a great rarity in Essex, in the same general sandy area where we found a couple in April, about twenty plants were flowering, although the scattering of hairs on the leaves of some plants suggested they may be hybridising with the much more frequent Common Cat’s-ear.

Now is the time for munching, when newly-emerging leaves are at their most nutritious, and herbivorous insect larvae take advantage:

The identificaton of moth larvae has taken a great leap forward recently with the publication of a new field guide. Many of those we found on Birch proved to be Mottled Umbers, very variable, but a Blossom Underwing was distinctive and a good  find.

But one we could not track down, and it also baffled Richard Lewington, illustrator of the new guide. It took Phil Sterling, one author of the book, to point out it was actually the large caterpillar of a micromoth Phycita roborella (and so not covered in the book). The distinctive eye-pattern of this larva makes me wonder if more could be made of such details in the always tricky field of larval identification.

May is also the month for emergence of dragonflies and damselflies, and Cockaynes did not disappoint: its mosaic of wetland habitats and scrubby, flowery, sheltered edges area ideal. In fact, by the end of the month, these had become the most obvious insect group, the butterflies having already fallen into the traditional ‘June gap’ a week or two early.

As always though there were plenty of other invertebrates to be found:

But one or two merit special mention: the White Crab Spider, devouring a Green-veined White…

…the newly-emerged Bird’s-wing moth, still drying its wings out…

…the distinctive planthopper Ditropis pteridis, which is restricted to feeding on Bracken, but (perhaps surprisingly) known from only eight sites in Essex previously, and never before from Cockaynes….

…and best of all (just look at those rapacious front legs!), a male Ballus chalybeius, a small jumping spider, nationally scarce but with a strongly south-easterly distribution.

Even in challenging weather conditions, Cockaynes maintains its role in supporting the physical and mental well-being of Alresford and Wivenhoe #NaturaHealthService!