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Summer by the Stour Estuary

The Wild Side of Essex with Naturetrek moved to the Stour for the summer. There were two day-walks just a couple of weeks apart but they could not have been more different: that at the end of June was on an unaccustomedly dull and cool day while the second was at the start of July’s record-smashing (not in a good way) heatwave, so hot that I took the decision to cut the walking (especially out in the open) by a half…

So those on the hot walk largely missed out on the long stretch of foreshore between Jacques Bay and Stour Wood. A fascinating frontage, this is one of very few points on the Essex coast where ancient wood abuts estuary, and also has an almost unique rocky shore on the exposures of the Harwich Stone Band which lies in the layered London Clay. In fact, here and nearby at Harwich are the only natural rocky shore habitats between north Norfolk and north Kent.

The shore walk produced lots of interest, from breeding Green Woodpeckers among the collapsing trees to stranded Moon Jellyfish, patches of Gutweed and dense casts of Lugworms, the latter two features being signs of nature replenishing itself in anticipation of the feeding frenzy of northern waders and wildfowl to come.

At the end of June, there were virtually no water birds apart from Black-headed Gulls, a single Curlew and a pair of probably locally breeding Oystercatchers; two weeks on, the floodgates had started to open, and there were dozens of Curlews, several Black-tailed Godwits and a Redshank in just the mudflats fronting East Grove. The saltmarshes were springing purple with Sea-lavender; other plants included Sea Beet, and Marsh-mallow at almost its last Essex location, though sadly not yet in flower. A couple of Cuckoos were prospecting the upper marshes, presumably for unfortunate Meadow Pipits.

But for both walks an early highlight was the Sand Martin colony, one of only three natural cliff sites in Essex. Wonderful, noisy aggregations of 400 or so grew to more than 500 by the second walk as more first brood fledglings were on the wing.

Wrabness Nature Reserve as ever gave a lovely mix of flowers, including Agrimony, Viper’s Bugloss, Corky-fruited Water-dropwort and Yellow Rattle…

… all being used by a range of insects, from Robin’s Pincushion gall wasps to Hogweed Bonking Beetles and Thick-thighed Beetles.

The scrub harboured excellent populations of declining farmland birds, including Yellowhammers, Linnets and Whitethroats, with Swallows hawking along the rides and Turtle Doves purring everywhere, at least six birds on our first visit. Single Marsh Harrier and Hobby gave brief flyovers.

Around Wrabness village, aside from the delights of the community shop/cafe and Grayson Perry’s ‘House for Essex’ several areas of arable reversion proved to be very rich in insects. Dominated by Common Knapweed, interspersed with Sainfoin and Musk Mallow, there were 6-spot Burnets buzzing around, with Cinnabar and Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars chomping the Ragwort and Stinging Nettle respectively.

Sadly, on the days we visited, Stour Wood proved disappointing for the hoped-for woodland specialities. Yes, there were plenty of Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns, Ringlets and Commas,  but no White Admirals or Purple Emperors and just a very few Silver-washed Fritillaries. Perhaps the weather was against us, too dull on the first walk, too hot on the second?

Or perhaps it was not a good season. Certainly, Bracken appears to have dominated more heavily this year than usually and the banks of Bramble flowers we expect simply were not there, especially on the second walk when the effects of the ongoing and intensifying drought were all too apparent. At least the Bracken was being used by good numbers of the tachinid fly Dexiosoma caninum, a rather localized species in Essex, along with a few other insects.

Nevertheless, Sweet Chestnut in full flower bathed us in its mushroomy fragrance, Enchanter’s Nightshade and Yellow Pimpernel sparkled along the rides, Hard Fern was sending up its fertile fronds, and a few Wild Service Trees capped off the walks, all kinds of everything in a much overlooked corner of Essex.

 

Somerset’s Summer Wildlife

Four days exploring Somerset’s Summer Wildlife with Naturetrek produced iconic landscapes and what are by now now-iconic birds such as Great White Egret.

But the reborn marshes of Avalon produced a whole lot more, for every interest – birds, plants and invertebrates:

The fenny, ferny kingdom of Shapwick Heath was especially alluring, following the prehistoric Sweet Track, with Royal Fern and Marsh Fragrant-orchid, Raft Spider and White Admirals, together with flypast Hobbies and Bittern, and a good selection of galls.

Here too, on an unprepossessing road-verge, a patch of one of the more surprising finds of the week, the Reversed (or as I like to call it ‘Trodden-on’) Clover’

Elsewhere we visited other newly developed sites such as the Steart Marshes, hosting Cattle Egrets, breeding Avocets and Flowering-rush, Skullcap and Grass Vetchling among the many other plants, where only ten years ago there were simply agricultural fields.

On to more established sites, Berrow Dunes proved a gentle start to the trip:

Brean Down came up with the goods, especially White Rock-rose at one of only two sites nationally, along with Ivy Broomrape, and Sulphur Beetles bedecking the Wild Carrot umbels.

Collard Hill was lovely limestone grassland, with spectacular Woolly Thistle (and its picture-winged flies), especially dramatic even in bud with its hypnotic Fibonacci whorls. Sadly though no Large Blues, perhaps because we were too late in the season or maybe the result of dull weather:

And Cheddar Gorge was as always spectacular, and the Black Rock reserve home to several Silver-washed Fritillaries engaged in their timeless, pointless battles with Commas:

On top of all of that, our base, the Batch Country House, provided a wide range of interesting moths into our trap (as well as good food and comfortable nights!).

A great few days in landscapes ancient and modern, with wildlife to suit all tastes!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: midsummer moths aplenty!

Conditions were pretty much perfect for mothing in Beth Chatto’s Garden: a very warm day became humid by night, at least until a cooling breeze sprang up. And it showed in the numbers – some 65 species of moth in and around the trap, as compared with last year a couple of weeks earlier when we found 44 species. But abundance-wise there was little obvious difference, except that the stars of the show, the hawk moths, were fewer.

Indeed three Elephant Hark-moths were the only representative of their family; other perennial favourites included Buff-tip and Black Arches.

The two most localized species nationally were Festoon and Beautiful Hook-tip, both reflecting the abundance of large old Oak trees in and around our garden.

Otherwise it was a mix of the colourful – Brimstone, Yellow-tail, Burnished Brass and Rosy Footman …

… and the more subdued – Peppered Moth, Nut-tree Tussock, Dwarf Cream Wave, Common Footman,…what wonderful names they have!

But even the subdued, like this Dagger, can be fascinating as they meld into their backgrounds…

Micromoths too. While generally smaller and posing greater identification challenges, some are very distinctive, including Twenty-plume Moth and Bee Moth.

See here for a full list of what we found : moths BC July 2022

And then there is the bycatch, in many ways just as interesting. Other insects are attracted to light , such as this nymphal Oak Bush-cricket, Summer Chafer and the bug Oncopsis flavicollis.

Credence to the idea that some nocturnal insects are attracted to light thinking it is water was given by the fine Great Diving Beetle which was nestled beneath the trap.

And of course when there are insects gathered, there are also predators attracted too…

All in all, a very pleasant couple of hours before the heat started to build.

 

 

#WildEssex Walks: Brightlingsea East End

Thanks to our lovely group of nature fans for joining us on our walk at the East End of Brightlingsea. The weather was pretty perfect – fairly warm with just a bit of breeze to stop us overheating, and things just got better and better as we discovered wildlife along the way, including a surprise find at the end of the walk, and finishing off with a welcome pub lunch.

Having met at Hurst Green (we are reliably informed by a local friend that Hurst is an ancient word meaning ‘triangle’), we followed the quiet road down towards the estuary, taking in the views of the saltmarshes After a short walk along a section of seawall, we spent the last hour in the ‘plantation’ area searching out insects. A chance encounter with a dog walker alerted us to a large patch of orchids in the next field, which we duly checked out (having successfully negotiated the rather steep steps and board-walk) and weren’t disappointed!

So what did we find?  Too many things to mention for a complete list, but in summary:

Insects

Several species of Lepidoptera – Red Admirals, Green Veined Whites, Ringlets, Essex Skippers, Meadow Browns, Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks (the latter in their larval stage – big fat caterpillars 😊).  Other larvae included Cinnabars on Ragwort, along with one flying adult.

Beetles – ‘thick thighs’, Two-spotted Malachites, 14-spot and Harlequin Ladybirds, evidence of Bark-beetle in the form of wonderful ‘aboriginal art’ on a dead Elm trunk…

… plus a large weevil Liparus coronatus with gold ring and blotches (rescued from certain crushing in the road in my hankie then released nearby): this is Nationally Scarce and something we have only seen twice before, and only within a kilometre of this very spot.

Bugs – Woundwort Shieldbug, Dock Bugs plus a few tiny weeny Green Shield-bugs in an early nymphal stage.

Flies – a few attractive hoverflies, including this Helophilus pendulus, plus a very small fly which liked one of our group and stayed with her for a while – it would seem to be, we think, a tiny example of a Slender-striped Robberfly.

Not many bees were encountered, but in the same insect group we found evidence of the ZigZag Sawfly on Elm, with larva munching.  These are so fascinating and new to the area only a couple of years ago!

Birds

Lots of second-brood singing including Whitethroats, Reed Warblers, Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, Greenfinches and Blackbirds, while a Little Egret flew over at one stage.

Plants

Some of the many we admired included Teasel, Chicory, Woody Nightshade, Salsify and two Bindweed Species (Large and Hedge) on opposite sides of the track for comparison….

The trees in the plantation were predominantly native and included Aspen, rustling tremulously in the light breeze…

The sea wall produced Sea Beet and Crow Garlic with patches of Sea Wormwood, and Common Sea-lavender coming into flower on the marshes…

And of course, not forgetting the Pyramidal Orchids, dozens of spikes just about at their peak of flowering.

Something new for ‘Wild Essex’ walks, was a pub lunch to finish off proceedings. This was a very sociable end to an enjoyable morning – at least we found it so – and we hope everyone else did too! 😊 Thanks to the Rosebud for their friendly service and good food and beer.

Hope that you will all be able to join us on another event in the not-too-distant future.

#WildEssex bug-hunt in St Mary’s Churchyard, Wivenhoe

A wonderful morning with a group of enthusiastic children discovering the bugs and beasties in St Mary’s churchyard, Wivenhoe. Such a joy to see their faces light up with each find! Thank you to the church for organising, parents and grandparents for accompanying them and most of all the children themselves.

Here is just a selection of what we found…

And on top of that, there were the galls. On the Walnut tree, famously planted from part of the tree in the garden of The Greyhound that was felled by the 1987 ‘hurricane’ two types of mite gall were very obvious: the common blister gall of Aceria erineus

… and the much smaller, redder pustule gall of Aceria tristriata. This is rather special – the map on the National Biodiversity Network website shows just 12 locations in the whole country where it has been recorded. That is certainly an underestimate, as we have subsequently found at least two further ‘new’ locations in the past year, but clearly it is uncommon, and therefore part of the biodiversity of the churchyard to be treasured.

The value of churchyards cannot be overstated. Enclaves of the near-forgotten countryside of our past, a refuge for wildlife as well as for the soul, especially when the wildlife is actively encouraged in by the retention of long grass and flowers to feed the insects all summer long. And inspiration for those who will come after us, those for whom we must do our level best, to ensure their world is still a world worth living in.

#WildEssex charity walk to Alresford and Cockaynes Reserve

Thank you to you all for joining us today on our inaugural Charity Picnic in aid of our chosen charity Buglife.  The weather played ball – not too hot/cold/wet/windy – but a nice combination of all.  Perfect walking and chatting weather in fact.

From the beautiful Wivenhoe estuary we walked up to Alresford Old Church, where we sat and ate our picnic lunches.   A pit stop at The Pointer followed, then stroll back to Wivenhoe via Cockaynes Reserve.

Not too many words about what we saw: suffice to say plenty of birds…

… lots of flowers…

… and of course an array of insects and other invertebrates, as befits our charitable donation. The little things that help the world go round!

We are grateful to you all for the donations – £110 raised – and to Emily especially for manning the ‘rubbish bag’ for collecting unsavoury objects en route.

Swanscombe Marshes: a place of hope!

A little over a year ago I was helping Buglife prepare its case for the notification of Swanscombe Marshes as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, following my work twenty years ago to achieve exactly that for a much smaller but similarly anthropogenic site, Canvey Wick. Earlier this week, I finally had the opportunity to get to see the site, and I was not disappointed. Swanscombe lived up to the impression from the bucketloads of invertebrate, plant and bird records – it was Canvey Wick on steroids!

It is not your classic wildlife vista of dense forests or soaring mountains or tumbling waterfalls – it is a typical south eastern, coastal, post-industrial landscape, riven by the electricity lines we all depend upon…

… including what is reputedly the largest pylon in the country…

And I loved it: brownfield habitats growing on a diverse array of artificial substrates, from boulders to fuel ash to concrete (modern day mountain screes, soda lakes and karstic limestone), interlaced with coastal wetlands, grazing marshes, reedbeds, saltmarsh and developing scrublands.

On a very hot day, the birdlife was still abundant and vocal with Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Reed Buntings, Skylarks, Linnets and Goldfinches, Reed and (numerous) Cetti’s Warblers all in song, along with a couple of Cuckoos. All pretty standard fare perhaps for such sites, but with even common birds now popping up on the Red List, an impressive chorus indeed.

Botanically, the diverse flora was an alluring mix of natives and aliens, of weedy species, scrub and meadow plants, chalk-lovers and coastal specialities:

Four types of orchid, including the Wasp Orchid variety of Bee Orchid spoke of the propensity of orchids to spread around the landscape as dust-like seeds, able to exploit chalk-rich soils wherever they occur…

Peas of all sorts, from Yellow Vetchling to Lucerne in all its colour forms, abundant Narrow-leaved Birdsfoot-trefoil to Kidney-vetch and many more…

 

Attractive grasses like Annual Beard-grass, a scarce native of arid upper salt marshes, and something I haven’t seen for quite some years…

Reliable nectar and pollen in the shape of Oxeye Daisy and Salsify…

And so much more:

The floral riches and bare ground basking opportunities meant that insects and other invertebrates were also everywhere: the air was buzzing!

Something of interest at every turn, reflecting the diverse range of human uses made of this area throughout its history. Built on the detritus of the 20th century, Swanscombe is a vision of a world after Man  – and it is doing very well, thankyou! Therein lies the hope. That is why we cannot allow this world that has forged itself so richly to fall victim to the greed of the 21st century. A glorified funfair for the unthinking masses can literally go anywhere: the unique wildlife cannot. And everyone I spoke to on that day agreed with me…

 

 

The Wild Side of Essex: Heath Fritillaries in Hockley Woods

The largest contiguous ancient woodlands in the county, Hockley Woods sit astride the ‘southern Essex Alps’, a ridge of London Clay capped with sands and gravels. They were the focus for the latest Naturetrek day trip, searching for Heath Fritillaries.

And what a treat the steaming hot day provided! Fritillaries flitting en masse throughout the main coppice in numbers greater than I have ever seen before, an estimated 500 on the wing, possibly more than anyone else has seen on one day in Essex since well before their extinction in the mid-20th century. What a pity that this spectacle was witnessed by just our select group of three of us…

Some had clearly been on the wing for a while, maybe a week or so, to judge by  the fading and wear, but there were many  fresh, pristine ones, rapidly getting on with the business of making next year’s generation.

It has been a long, complex story of neglect, extinction, research and reintroduction but we do now have a thriving population of the fritillaries. But we should not rest on our laurels – the main arena will start to lose its allure as coppice regrows and the food plant is shaded, and some of the rides are showing the signs of missed management. So more ride work and more new coppices is the answer.

Other butterflies were few and far between – we are firmly in the ‘June Gap’ – but included Holly Blues and Speckled Woods, and single Meadow Brown and White Admiral.

Micromoths included a few Green Oak-rollers and lots of Gold-barred Longhorns, albeit too warm for dancing displays.

The frit fest may have been the main course, but there were plenty of other rich pickings as well. Although late in the season for woodland flowers, there was plenty of interest in the open ride sides, with Bush Vetch, Foxglove, Heath Speedwell and Yellow Pimpernel, along with flowering Honeysuckle, and of course Common Cow-wheat, foodplant for the fritillary.

Some old Silver Birch trees were heavily infested with Birch Bracket fungus…

… while Birds, mostly heard, included Chiffchaff and Blackcap, singing Stock Dove and displaying Common Buzzard, and family parties of Long-tailed, Great and Blue Tits.

And then the remainder of the insects and invertebrates. Emanating from the numerous Wood Ants’ nests was a Four-spotted Leaf-beetle…

…. and other sightings included Black-striped Longhorn beetle, Figwort Weevil and Spear-thistle Lacebug along with hoverflies, bush cricket nymphs, spiders and much more.

All kinds of everything: rich biodiversity in the heart of suburban south Essex. More than 30 years since I notified the woods as an SSSI, I am very happy to report they are now in an even better state than when I moved on (even after years of pandemic pressure), thanks to the management work of Rochford District Council.

 

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#WildEssex – Furze Hill, Mistley

A gorgeous day blessed our walk at Mistley today.  What contrast to our Wrabness trip a month before!

Several of us ( including the special co-leader, Eleanor) arrived by train and immediately tucked into a good coffee and cake from the Zero Waste van-man at Mistley Station. When all were assembled we set off through Edme works (with that distinctive malty smell permeating the air), under the railway line and into the first of our varied habitats – a field used sometimes to graze cattle, but today was just full of Meadow Buttercups  and other wild flowers, such as new-sprung Hogweed flowers round the margins and fungi sprouting on the sites of now long-gone cowpats.

And of course there was also the grasses, many species in fresh flower, and both diverse and beautiful as shown by this Cock’s-foot and Yorkshire-fog.

A Small Tortoiseshell skipped between buttercups, and the big old parkland trees held both Jackdaws and Rooks, whose cawing rose to a crescendo as a Raven swept in (no doubt on the lookout for an easy chick meal) – a dramatic addition to the Essex skyscape over the past five years.

At the foot of Furze Hill, the local springs that led to the 18th century marketing of Mistley Thorn as a spa town coagulate into a streamline fringed with massive Alder trees, harbouring singing Wrens, Blackcaps and a Song Thrush. The leaves were covered in the small galls of the microscopic mite Eriophyes laevis.

A pleasant walk along a leafy lane ensued (welcome shade!) – many wayside and woodland flowers to be admired, from blue Alkanet and Germander Speedwell, to yellow Wood Avens and white Cow Parsley (going over) and Ground Elder (freshly out), along with many Nettles supporting a myriad of insect life.

After a short walk through a woodland clearing we arrived on to the rec ground where we divided into two groups. Eleanor and Granny went to spend a happy hour on the swings whilst the more ‘grown-up? 😊’ ones enjoyed a walk through the woodland, admiring the natural beauty, in particular the ancient trees.

Of these Old Knobbley was, of course, the star attraction.  According to a rather lovely book by Morag Embleton ‘Old Knobbley the Oak Tree’, it is some 1000 years old and has seen a lot of changes!  Chris’  blogs have more information too Furze Hill, Mistley: home to the Ancients | Chris Gibson Wildlife and #BringingNatureToYou : branching out to Furze Hill, Mistley | Chris Gibson Wildlife.

Then where Brambles were bursting into flower, another natural resource was being exploited to the full by Honeybees, bumblebees, Red Admirals and many others, including late-instar nymphs of Red-legged Shield bug Speckled Woods and numerous Gold-barred Longhorn Moths sunning themselves on the leaves.

We completed our session with a stroll over the recreation field itself, which in places has avoided too-regular mowings and been allowed to grow.  Lots of Birds-foot-trefoil (a favourite of bees and Common Blue butterflies) was blooming, together with Lesser Stitchwort, Common Cat’s-ear, Mouse-eared Hawkweed and Sheep’s Sorrel, indicating the sandy nature of the soil. A briskish walk up School Lane back to the station brought the morning to a close.

As always the pleasure was ours, and we hope that everyone enjoyed the experience.  Some of the group continued into Manningtree for a lunch, and we carried on to Harwich to spend the afternoon on the beach.

Looking forward to seeing you all before long, and just to finish with a final mention to be sure to check yourselves for ticks after a countryside walk these days.  Ticks – advice on protection, prevention and removal | Scouts

 

One Tree Hill Country Park

Last year I wrote here about returning to some of the places in South Essex where I started my conservation career. Yesterday I had the opportunity for a couple of hours to visit the Langdon Ridge again, at One Tree Hill Country Park, and as I reported before, I was again very pleasantly surprised, seeing the site not just as an ecologist and botanist, but someone for whom invertebrates have become a much more important part of my natural consciousness.

Yes, of course the plants are still impressive, with Yellow Rattle in abundance, alongside Common Spotted Orchids, Corky-fruited Water-dropwort and Salsify, among many others.

But even with a chill north-easterly breeze and patchy cloud keeping temperatures down and suppressing insect activity, all it took was to find the lee side of a hedge or scrub patch, and there was plenty to see, from Burnet Companion and Speckled Yellow moths  and other Lepidoptera …

… bugs, beetles and sawflies …

… scorpion-flies everywhere …

… spiders …

… to a plethora of flies of all description. Just check out those wonderfully plumed middle legs on the male Dolichopus popularis long-legged flies!

Essex as a county is much maligned, especially the south, but in wildlife terms, the enclaves of diversity are still with us, for all to appreciate.

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.