All posts by Chris Gibson

Cockaynes Reserve – landscapes, wildscapes and groundscapes dressed in the fires of autumn

The first frosts of winter arrived a couple of days ago, but winds have been light and so the fiery hues of autumn remain around Cockaynes Reserve for now. From trees to reedbeds, leaves are bronzing as if to intensify the feeble sunlight, although today it wasn’t making much impression on the cool easterly air-flow…

Wildlife was of course hiding away, as often as not in plain sight: almost everything we saw seemed to be painted in the palette of decaying chlorophyll, from all manner of fungi to seeding Reed heads to Feathered Thorn:

And then there were the Groundscapes, the pattern of leaf-shapes and colour beneath each species of tree, as distinctive now as at any time of the year. For me, these unique combinations are the shroud of the passing year: here lies Field Maple, Silver Birch, Ash, Sweet Chestnut, Hornbeam, Oak and Hazel.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: November – autumn trees and fungi in Wivenhoe Park

The weather forecast was not wonderful, but leading the charmed life that we often seem to do, all remained calm and dry for our foray into fungi and trees this month. We spent two very enjoyable sessions at the University of Essex campus, which despite being on our doorstep is somewhere, incredibly, we have rarely visited.

The park is impressive, comprising a landscape of native and some rather special non-native trees, most planted as features for the grounds of Wivenhoe House, a splendid structure built in the mid-18th century and now a successful hotel. The fungi did rather steal the show, though,  as we discovered a spectacular array of them at every turn (although no longer at their best following the hard frost earlier in the week).

Some particular specimens which caught our eye :

Fly Agaric, everyone’s favourite red and white spotty one

                                   

Puff Balls, puffing away

                 

Beefsteak, so well-named, it made a few of us vegetarians feel quite queasy!

Redlead Roundheads, fairly new to UK and only found on bark chippings

Ink-cap, the gills of which drip a black inky substance, the phenomenon known as ‘deliquescence’

The Seamed Monkey-tail   – we thought this was a new-to-science fungus until we realised it was only the tail of a long-lost, half-buried child’s toy!

Yellow Waxcaps – attractive little fungi

Yellow and Grey Clubs – tiny finger like structures, the Grey species being quite a rarity.

Of course, these walks are advertised as ‘Botany and Bug’ so we did try a bit of bug-hunting too and a few things did present themselves, including, perhaps surprisingly, two species of butterfly, Red Admiral and Speckled Wood, plus a Squash Bug and a few hibernating ladybirds in the odd-looking, but insect-friendly Monkey Puzzle tree. A couple of species of harvestmen and short-palped crane-fly were found basking in the weak sunshine.

But the main attraction of the day was the wonderful trees. Today’s walks were part of our series of arboreally-related winter events.  Next month is our Leaf Identification Workshop, and in January our short walk around KGV looking at winter twigs and bark, both intended to increase our knowledge of trees.  Comparison of some different barks showed that this can be a useful identifying tool for when the trees are leafless.

The English (or Pedunculate) Oak, is a stately and magnificent tree familiar to us all, and several superb examples were seen.  A bit of botanical nomenclature for you – ‘pedunculate’ means their flowers/acorns grow on peduncles or stalks, whilst the leaves have none and grow directly out of their twig.  (Another Oak form the ‘ Sessile’ which actually means ‘non-pedunculate’, has, yes you’ve’ got it, stalkless flowers and acorns, whilst the leaves have a stalk).

Other forms of Oak were also looking good – fantastic Red  and Scarlet species, simply stunning at this time of year before their leaves drop; the giant-leaved Daimyo Oak a non-native found only in a few places; and of course the famous Cork Oaks living near the House itself. Rumour has it that General Rebow brought these two back from the Peninsular Wars, planted up in his spare pair of wellies.  They have enjoyed their time at Wivenhoe since then and are cherished specimens in the grounds.

A trio of Redwoods also are worthy of note. The Giant and Coastal Redwoods in their native North America grow to huge heights, indeed are thought to be the world’s largest trees. The Giant (aka Wellingtonia)’s bark is soft and spongy and makes a cosy home for Treecreepers.  A third species, Dawn Redwood, is a very interesting species.  This deciduous conifer was known only as fossils, until living specimens were discovered in China and introduced to Britain and elsewhere in the 1940s.  A hopeful example of extinction rebellion!

The Cedar of Lebanon could not be missed, being huge and was a popular choice for parks and formal gardens when the House was built, as was the Himalayan Pine.

And so to native species, like Silver Birch,  Beech, Ash, and Wild Cherry, all of which are understated and beautiful in their own right and have the space and location to look their best in somewhere like Wivenhoe Park.

The Horse-chestnut, which we may think of as native is in fact an introduction from the Caucasus,  where rather shockingly it is now on the Red Data list, meaning its scarcity is of extreme concern.  It is planted throughout Europe, but is now subject to attack from the Horse-chestnut Leaf-miner moth Cameraria ohridella which causes the leaves to turn brown prematurely and whilst not actually damaging the tree must compromise the efficiency of the leaves .

We thank those of you who participated and hope that you enjoyed it as much as we did. And very grateful also to Dr James Canton who first introduced us to the University Tree Trail, and shared his unique insights as a ‘wild writer’ with us.

All the above photos are ours but not all were taken on the day. Some were from our recce, so the fungi might be looking a bit fresher than you remember!

For a different, delightful perspective on the walks, the perspective of the participant, you might like to look at Helen Chambers’ own blog ‘Fascinating Fungi‘.

The Swiss Alps by train: joining the 6% club

At the very end of August, we made our first trip to Switzerland, and had our first taste of long-haul rail travel. The rail experience was superb, each train on the journey there and back on time, to the minute, clean and comfortable, as we watched the landscapes of France slip by. And in the Alps, the local trains and cable cars getting us to high altitude with ease, again on time, regular and with exemplary integrated public transport information, on train and station. We are now proud to be part of the 6% club, as compared with the carbon cost of flying.

The journey down was broken in Strasbourg, two half-days to explore the abundant historic delights of La Petite France, the Gothic Cathedral (the fourth-tallest church in the world) and the Rhine-side wildlife. One abundant feature of the attractive floral displays was the Brown Marmorated Stink-bug Halyomorpha halys, new to us, and new to Europe as recently as 1998 when it arrived from the Far East on roof tiles imported for repairs to the Chinese Garden in Zürich. One to watch this, as it is starting to be found in pest proportions on fruit and vegetable crops, both in Europe and North America.

Another non-native insect was Isodontia mexicana, a North American wasp which is now established in Southern Europe, and seemingly at home – last year I even saw it apparently migrating south through the French Pyrenean valleys in September.

And so to Switzerland and the Bernese Oberland, a place of stunning mountain scenery. We were staying in the delightfully traffic-free village of Wengen, overlooked by the Jungfrau massif, from where we had easy access to the higher ground by train and cable car. The alpine meadows around 1200m were blooming again after the first hay cut, with Knapweeds and Willow Gentian, Masterwort and Yellow-rattle, Eyebright and Purple Lettuce, among many others.

 

In perfect weather and a landscape relatively unscathed by agricultural poisons, insects abounded. Butterflies included several Fritillaries, Marbled White and Sooty Copper, among a whole host of other moths, bees, flies, beetles and bugs.

The timing of our trip was deliberate, to visit when the snow cover was the least and hopefully find some of the botanical specialities at high altitude. Highest of all, Jungfraujoch – ‘the Top of Europe’ – at 3454m was almost above vegetation, though the few areas clear of snow had tussocks of hardy flowering grasses. And very little else, aside from begging Alpine Choughs and magnificent views, at least when the clouds parted. Magnificent, albeit worrying to learn that the glaciers are only a shadow of their former selves, melting as a result of climate breakdown.

500m lower down, the summit of the Schilthorn was substantially snow-free, and high alpine flowers were on show, their relatively large flowers (to attract the limited number of pollinators at those altitudes) springing from cushions and mats of rock-hugging foliage.

Again the food-beggars were out, here a Snow Finch, but sadly no Ibex to be seen, although a group of Chamois as we headed back down was some compensation.

The Männlichen cable car from Wengen took us to 2300m, a ridge-top with Snow and Field Gentians, Monkshoods and Grass-of-Parnassus. A Stoat flushed a fledgling Alpine Accentor, and it was here we saw our only Golden Eagle: this part of the Alps is sadly lacking in large predators and vultures.

 

Of course, plants on extensive mountains can be difficult (or dangerous) to search out, so the Alpine botanic garden of Schynige Platte was a final day treat, at the top of an incredibly scenic cog railway, slow and expensive but absolutely worth it. Surely this is the most picturesque botanic garden in the world, with an unsurpassed collection of Swiss native alpine flowers.

As always, the flowers were only a part of the natural festival: Slender Scotch Burnet, Damon Blue, Dusky Grizzled Skipper and Painted Ladies were visiting the blooms, and Common and Green Mountain Grasshoppers and Wartbiters abounded in the flower beds. Presumed migrant Tree Pipits passed overhead, the wader-like piping of Alpine Marmots drifted from the more distant rocky slopes.

  

All the above, and much, much more. As always, a blog like this can only touch upon the absolute highlights of a week, and then only those that fit easily into the overall narrative. But there was so much more: take the the weeping brackets of Fomitopsis pinicola (a phenomenon known as guttation)

…on a similar theme, a Noon-fly blowing bubbles…

…and on one memorable morning, swarms of unidentified insects in scintillating masses appended to seemingly every tree top…

…the awesome power of the Trummelbach Falls, both over and underground, but impossible to fully capture visually…

…and simply stunning scenery in every direction. And while expensive, as expected, it didn’t cost the Earth too much.

Return to Gunnersbury Triangle: wasp galls on an oak tree

A couple of years after our first, delightful visit to Gunnersbury Triangle (see here), we were again in the vicinity last week, and took the opportunity of a perfect, mellow, sunny autumn day to sample its delights once more. In practice, we spent most of our hour there staring at just one tree, a three-metre Pedunculate Oak on the edge of a clearing, simply laden with galls…

Oak is of course renowned for the number of insects it supports. Many of those cause the formation of galls, abnormal growths in the host plant triggered by its interaction with a gall-causer. While many gall-causers are tiny (and essentially identical without microscopic examination), different species can be told apart by the shape, colour and texture of the galls in which their larvae develop. Those caused by Gall-wasps (Cynipdae) are some of the most distinctive, and all those shown below fall within that group.

Galls can form on any part of the tree, but most obvious are those formed on buds and acorns, and those on leaves, often on the undersides. Perhaps surprisingly given its abundance in recent years, ‘our’ tree had no signs of the large, sticky, woody acorn distortions (Knopper Galls) of Andricus quercuscalicis, but other bud/acorn galls were obvious. By now we are reasonably familiar in Essex with both Ram’s-horn (Andricus aries) and Cola-nut (Andricus lignicolus) Galls, the latter like small, rough, scaly versions of the Marble Gall (Andricus kollari), one of the commonest species everywhere but again apparently missing on this tree. All four of these are relative newcomers to this country (Marble 1830s, Knopper 1960s, Cola-nut 1970s, Ram’s-horn 1997) and have now spread more-or-less widely.

But especially exciting for us was one we hadn’t seen before, the Hedgehog Gall of Andricus lucidus, dramatic pompoms of blobby-ended spokes. Another newcomer, this was first found in Britain in London in the 1990s, but has hitherto shown few signs of spreading far.

London is seemingly the initial focus for many of these new arrivals, presumably in part due to the heat-island effect of the city, keeping winter temperatures 5°C or more higher than in the countryside, and favouring these species originating from more southerly climes. Another contributing factor could be the relative abundance of Turkey Oak alongside native Pedunculate Oak in London’s woodlands. This tree also originates from southern Europe (although the fossil record shows it to have been native here before the last Ice Age), and interestingly all the galls mentioned above (except possibly Ram’s-horn) rely on both oak species for specific stages of their life-cycle. With two generations a year, the sexual generation requires (and forms galls upon) Turkey Oak, while the asexual, late-summer generation is the one we were looking at…

Ands so to leaf galls. There are three widespread and familiar Spangle-galls, the Common Spangle Neuroterus quercusbaccarum, the Silk-button Neuroterus numismalis, and the Smooth Spangle Neuroterus albipes.

All were present on our tree, with Smooth Spangle typically the most scarce. But most certainly not present and correct, because most of the Smooth Spangles, instead of being flattened, smooth, whitish or pink discs, were puckered into the most beautiful flower-like forms.

Another new one for us! But what was it? Eventually, we came up with a name from the internet. Neuroterus albipes variety reflexus. Or perhaps Neuroterus albipes subspecies reflexus. Or just perhaps even a separate, as yet undescribed species, ‘Neuroterus reflexus’. It seems nobody really knows what it is, or even where it is: the normally reliable Fauna Europaea database shows it (as ssp. reflexus) scattered across Europe, but perhaps significantly NOT in Britain or Ireland, nor indeed France, Germany and the Low Countries.

From our observations, we could well believe it is something different to albipes altogether, both from its distinctive, consistently variable shape, but also giving the strong impression of being more strongly associated with the main leaf veins than true albipes.

But there are perhaps other possibilities too. A reflexus gall on one leaf was being closely attended by a tiny 3mm wasp. Completely the wrong time of year and indeed the wrong shape for one of the gall wasps, this looked more like a parasitic species with a long ovipositor. Could the ‘reflexus‘ galls simply be parasitized Smooth Spangles? After all, big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum….

Whatever the truth, a delightful hour of Gunnersbury Triangle magic provided us with new and interesting sightings, and more questions than answers!

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: October – Cockaynes Wood

It has been said that ‘Words are easy, like the wind’, but some words we learned on our walk today were not particularly easy, in fact decidedly complex!  Pangaea and Gondwanaland two for starters, not to mention Samara and Parthenogenesis….

The first two cropped up in relation to two beech trees, the European Beech and Southern Beech which stand at the edge of the track down to Cockaynes Wood, the destination of our Botany and Bug walks this month.

These two distantly related species, albeit in different families, share a common ancestor which occurred many millions of years ago on Pangaea, a supercontinent that included all the landmasses of the Earth. That subsequently broke up into Gondwanaland (present day South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, India, Australia, and Antarctica) and Laurasia (everywhere else).  When the separation occurred, the common ancestor went with each landmass, but different climates and natural selection pressures drove the evolution of two now-separate families. It was recognition of such relationships which gave some of the most convincing evidence for the new theory of continental drift, as recently as the early part of the 20th Century.

Our main focus this month was the trees and fungi of the wood, and some of the creatures therein.  Whilst fungi were not particularly plentiful, we found some of interest including a ‘troop’ (yes, it is the collective noun) of Puffballs forming a fairy ring, a Deceiver, Birch Bracket, plus our old favourite the Fly Agaric.  This familiar red and white toadstool grows associated with Birch, and although there are many of these trees in the wood ( so plentiful in fact that they need to be managed to keep them under control, particularly in the open heathland areas), we only found one small patch to admire.  Fly Agaric is renowned for its hallucinogenic properties, and being plentiful in Lapland has been associated with flying reindeer, and the whole red-and-white Santa Claus phenomenon.

A Witch’s broom, often mistaken for a bird’s nest, is often also caused by a fungus, in this case the fungus Taphrina betulina on Silver Birch, one of several microfungi we encountered. Others included the powdery mildew Microsphaera alphitoides on Oak leaves and the rust fungus Phragmidium violaceum, red splodges on the upperside of Bramble leaves, and erupting volcanoes of black spores below.

A few invertebrates were also on show.  A suite of our favourite bugs – Squash, Green Shield and Forest;  a splendid Devil’s Coach Horse beetle which adopted its fiercest pose; Pine Ladybirds; plus a pristine Painted Lady basking in the weak morning sun.  It is hard to believe that these fragile-looking creatures are migratory and able to fly thousands of miles.  Those on the afternoon walk missed the adult, but an eagle-eyed member of the group spotted the caterpillar, itself an amazing beastie.

Spiders and harvestmen (arachnids, not insects, due to not having the requisite six legs) were out in force ready to catch careless flies for lunch.  Some, like the familiar Garden Spider, produce sticky webs to effect this whilst others rely on stealth.  It was also a privilege to see the very active Hornet’s nest in a hollow tree.  These huge, beautiful creatures are much maligned, but if left alone are not aggressive or harmful, and they do much good in gardens and woodlands, helping to control the legions of aphids and other ‘pests’.

And so to another of our words of the day, ‘parthenogenesis’, meaning asexual reproduction.  The wonderfully named Virgin Bagworm, living on assorted fence posts, indeed lives a pure lifestyle.  These weeny wingless moths produce tiny bags which they decorate with lichen, and in which they (all females, no boys allowed, in fact they don’t exist) live for their whole life.  They can produce babies all by themselves with no help from anyone.  Hope it doesn’t catch on!

As for the trees in the wood itself, Sweet Chestnuts were plentiful, in places their leaves sculpted by the excisions of leaf-cutter bees, along with Holly, English Oak and Silver Birch. Hornbeams were at the fruiting stage, producing masses of dangling papery bunches, bunches of winged seeds or ‘samaras’, the last in our lexicon of odd words.

We finished the day with a flourish, seeing a Common Lizard basking in the glorious afternoon sunshine, an amazing aggregation of Scatopsid flies (aka Black Scavenger Flies), plus a veritable collection of Odonata  (dragonflies to you and me) hanging around, catching the last rays of the day: a Migrant Hawker, a few Common Darters, and  several Willow Emerald damselflies, a recent colonist of the British Isles, assumed to be one of the (rather few) upsides of Man-induced climate change, better thought of as climate breakdown, catastrophe even.

As always, many thanks to you all, old friends and new, that joined us .

The Beth Chatto Gardens throughout the Seasons: September

Summer returning with a flourish, sun streaming from a cobalt sky, but the signs are there… autumn is upon us, the leaves are turning. And also falling, seemingly on the early side, perhaps one result of a droughty August.

Before the fiery flames of high autumn sweep through Nature’s realm, delicate pastel shades  are more to the fore…

…with colour-bursts and blasts to remind us of the summer now departed.

A lower sun extracts hues, textures and patterns from the garden that may otherwise be missed.

Still plenty of nectar and pollen sources around…

…and insects to take advantage.

Others basking wherever they can, to warm up enough for the the final act, their legacy, producing the next generation. It was especially good to see several shrubs festooned with the metallic green matchsticks that are Willow Emerald damselflies, only recently established in Britain, but now a reliable feature of early autumn here.

 

In the wider countryside, Ivy is the final main course of the season, its flowers vats of nectar and pollen, enveloped in a heady, sensual, musky poll of scent, and the persistent hum of a myriad of visiting wings. Even with blowsy blossoms as a distraction, the allure of Ivy which has decided to make the garden its home still pulls them in.

Down at the ponds, Thalia, that (not very ) beautiful assassin (see last month’s blog), is still exerting its fatal attraction.

Spiders too are taking their toll on the insects, but at least they – unlike Thalia – eat their victims.

And it was particularly exciting to be shown a Wasp Spider which has taken up residence in the Dry Garden, feasting on the local grasshoppers. While not uncommon in rough grassland right by the estuary, this is the first time we have seen it in the Beth Chatto Garden, a space for plants and all that they encourage.