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The Wild Side of Essex: Day tours of the Colne with Naturetrek in October

Five day-walks in October saw the change of the seasons, on the estuary itself, and the ancient woods, grazing marshes and parkland of the Wivenhoe area.

But, despite the Essex coast being one of the driest parts of the country, our walks were plagued by weather, often wet, sometimes windy, but usually (thankfully) mild. My descriptions on the days ranged from ‘gun-metal gloom‘ to ‘fifty shades of grey, and sixty grades of wet‘ to ‘rain, rain and .. er .. slightly lighter rain‘…

One one walk, the thunderstorm which enveloped us on an exposed sea wall, after what had been a lovely warm sunny autumnal day, was simply spectacular. Truly, the Wild Side of Essex!

Especially when the sun came out, though, the radiance of autumn was palpable, whether in the wonderful specimen trees of Wivenhoe Park or the ancient Grange Wood running to the estuary shore:

And of course not just trees – autumn also seeps into the leaves of Common Reed, and tints the array of Glassworts on the marshes, making it the best time of year to separate this very difficult group, each with a distinctive autumn hue.

Flowering was drawing to a close, but Cord-grass and Strawberry Clover were still going strong, and Blue Fleabane was a good find in the Cockaynes Reserve:

So too Lesser Calamint, Common Fleabane and Sea Wormwood, though these were notable as much for their scented leaves as for the flowers.

And especially on the greyest days, the rain-washed air was a pristine palette to savour the flavours, the fragrant foliage of Pineappleweed, Walnut and Lawson’s Cypress shining bright in the olfactory gloom, the perfect antidote to the lusty musk of Stinkhorn pervading Wivenhoe Park…!

Turning to the Wivenhoe waterfront and the Natural Art of Block Paving. Certainly not ‘weeds’ – think instead of filigree adornment, that which helps soften the mind-numbing, spirit-crushing straight lines we attempt to force upon the world. 

Leaving the most important pollen and nectar source to last: Ivy, flowering right to the end of the month, and still attracting diverse insect visitors, from social wasps to hoverflies, ladybirds to Ivy Bees, the latter especially numerous on the Ivy hedge of St Mary’s Churchyard.

Other insects were fewer, as would be expected: lingering Common Darters, with a few Migrant Hawkers; sluggish Hornets around their nests; and Speckled Woods occupying their favoured sun-flecks (when available!). Red Admirals included one making the most of the nectar from Strawberry-trees in the grounds of Wivenhoe House: such spectacular garden plants, bearing this year’s flowers alongside last year’s fruits, and memorably awash with the heady lemon scent of nearby Magnolia grandiflora flowers.

Otherwise, insect-wise, it was down to the ones one never actually sees  – the galls, leaf-mines and other feeding signs, which are so apparent at this time of year:

October is fungus season. Usually. But this year, perhaps a legacy of previous spring and summer droughts, it was slow to get going. By month’s end, they were starting to pop up – Beefsteaks to Birch Brackets, Sulphur Tufts to Honey Fungus – and the birchwood-gloom-piercing Fly Agarics lending the essence of autumn to even grey days.  For me though, best of all was the super-sized Cordgrass variety of Ergot, a fungus I have seen only once before.

And finally the birds. Migration time, so the occasional Wheatear and Stonechat were right on cue, and at times the visible migration along the ridge of the Essex Alps was quite impressive, with hirundines, Meadow Pipits, Goldfinches, thrushes, Reed Buntings and good numbers of both Siskins and Redpolls. Roving tit flocks, in Wivenhoe Park especially, often held Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs, and on one occasion a very obliging Treecreeper, while around the University lakes and the upper river, Kingfishers usually showed themselves, electric streaks of blue piercing the gloom.

Down on the estuary, wader numbers built through the month, with up to a thousand Black-tailed Black-tailed Godwits and hundreds of Redshanks. Shelducks arrived back from moult migration mid-month, and the feeding and flying flurries, snowstorms of up to 400 Avocets, never failed to impress.

And the best bird of the month, this Osprey which flew low over us for 20 minutes, evidently looking for food, while seeing off the unwanted attentions of Carrion Crows and Jackdaws. The most obliging I have ever seen around Wivenhoe!

All of the above, plus autumn’s bounty, both fecund and full. Hips and haws, chestnuts, conkers and acorns galore, and a supporting eclectic mix of other wildlife, from Muntjac to Eel, bagworms to Lesser Water-crickets. Each walk a cornucopia of biodiversity!

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So that’s it for Naturetrek on the Colne in Autumn. Despite unexpectedly wet weather for most of our five walks, it was fun. After a spell on the Naze, we will return for ‘Winter on the Colne Estuary’ towards the end of November – see here for details and booking. All vestiges of summer will have been swept away by then, but waders and wildfowl will be at their midwinter peak, including our iconic Dark-bellied Brent Geese. And if (as is so often the case) we have had no hard frosts, the fires of autumn may still be burning in the leaves and the fungi season still going strong….

The Wild Side of Essex: Day tours of the Colne with Naturetrek in September

Three tours this month, spanning the transition from summer to autumn, and the weather reflected that. The first was unremittingly grey, but warm and humid, increasingly breezy and ultimately very wet. The second was blessed with liquid autumnal sunlight, at times intensifying into summery fire, which bathed the landscape in welcome warmth. And the third, a misty, moisty, windless day, in stark contrast to two days’ previously when a gale swept through, leaves falling ahead of their time, and branches, whole trees and even power lines felled. The woodland birds seemed subdued by this, save for mournful Robin song, ululating Woodpigeons and the occasional half-hearted Chiffchaffing in the storm-tossed woods.

On the estuary, waterbird numbers were swelling towards their winter peak. Downstream, it was possible to see a thousand Black-tailed Godwits socially distanced on the water’s edge, with other waders for easy comparison, usually including a sprinkling of Avocets, sometimes a twinkling flurry of two hundred or more. Upstream, numbers are always fewer, but the views can be better, and included the first returning Teals and Dabchicks, along with a few Kingfishers, one one memorable occasion being aggressively chased by a male Yellowhammer. A Kingfisher was also seen well on the Wivenhoe Park lake.

Autumn time is migration time, and visible migration was a feature of every walk, whether hirundines of three species, Meadow Pipits, Lapwings or Greenshank. Other migrants to or through Essex included White Wagtails and a Stonechat, but the biggest surprise was a lone Guillemot in the heart of town. Almost as surprising was a Harbour Seal, right up the river, in shallow water, presumably hunting Mullet.

This autumn has been mild so far, and only by the end of the month were the leaves beginning to colour, Norway Maples and the first few Red Oaks heralding cooler days in Wivenhoe Park. But the fruits of the landscape have been simply magnificent, hips, haws, sloes, acorns and so many other fruits seemingly larger and more numerous than for many a year.

Likewise galls, especially those on Oak leaves, buds and acorns. Such abundance, such diversity, without ever even seeing the causal creatures!

The couple of downpours in the month have done little so far to offset the spring and summer droughts: fungi, other than microfungi and brackets, groups which have a lower reliance on moist soils, were few and far between. Until the end of the month at least, when blue-staining Rooting Boletes and Parasols to Shaggy Ink-caps, Beefsteak and Giant Polypore to Chicken-of-the-woods, earthballs to puffballs and Sycamore Tar-spot to Oak Mildew started to appear. And of course, frosts permitting, the season is far from over…

Insects declined as the month progressed, apart from social wasps nesting everywhere on the sea wall, and thronging the flowering Ivies, along with hoverflies and Ivy Bees. Lots of Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers were still active, and even at the month end, there were Willow Emerald damselflies active round the Wivenhoe Park lakes.

Heather Bees (rare in Essex) around Cockaynes and Sea Aster Bees on their eponymous plants completed the triumvirate of late season bees, while butterflies have faded away almost entirely, save for a straggler Meadow Brown, and Speckled Woods in their favoured dappled shade. By the end of the month, Vapourer moths became obvious in all wooded areas, foxy males flying around to try and locate the flightless females.

All groups enjoyed the ‘pavement plants’ (NOT weeds) of Wivenhoe waterfront, including Four-leaved Allseed, Jersey Cudweed, Spotted Spurge, and both Canadian and Guernsey Fleabanes. The saltmarshes were still flowering, with Sea Aster, Cord-grass and Golden Samphire, while Shrubby Sea-blite and the glassworts were just assuming autumn tints.

On the downstream itinerary, we found some lovely patches of our local specialities Strawberry Clover and  Lesser Calamint, and other spectacular nectar and pollen resources included included Common Toadflax, Bugloss on the margins of sandy arable fields, and on the sea wall, Sea Beet in full ‘glorious’ bloom…

In Cockaynes reserve, wafts of Epilobium brachycarpum above Creeping St. John’s Wort covered the former weighbridge area. A new alien plant here, Stace calls it ‘Panicled Willowherb’. We begged to differ, and coined the much more descriptive and euphonious ‘Wispy Willowherb’.

And finally, garden plants do have their uses, even ones apparently designed by committee – the Passion-flowers of Wivenhoe were being assiduously searched for nectar and pollen. And in the gardens of Wivenhoe House Hotel, Strawberry Trees, simultaneously in full fruit and flower, attracted bumblebees, while the incredible citrussy scent of Magnolia grandiflora proved a complete ‘nose-opener’ to me at least. We live and learn every day in the natural world!

Greenwings in the southern Suffolk Sandlings

Torrential rain, the first for several weeks, thankfully started to ease as a select group gathered for the first Greenwings southern Sandlings walk, and gave way to a much better day than forecast.

 

The Sandlings, with appropriately sandy soils in one of the driest parts of the country, are well used to drought: indeed their special flora and fauna thrives on it. But this year is like no other I have known, with three substantial droughts since April, and the one which came to a tumultuous end on the day of our trip has seen a premature cessation to the flowering season for many plants, a rapid autumnal de-escalation of insect activity and a near-total absence of fungi.

Nevertheless there was plenty for all to enjoy, from birds to botany, galls to geomorphology on Sutton Heath and Upper Hollesley Common. First and foremost lowland heath, its eponymous plant, Heather, still blooming in places, and along with Bracken, Western Gorse, Silver Birch and Scots Pine an ever present backdrop to our day.

Other flowering plants included Common Stork’s-bill and Great Mullein on Sutton Heath, and Climbing Corydalis, Bell Heather, Harebell, Smooth Cat’s-ear, Wood Sage and Common Calamint on Hollesley Common. For some reason, presumably of geology or historical management, the latter site seems to be significantly the more floristically diverse of the two.

     

But plants don’t need to be flowering to be interesting: the straight lines of Sand Sedge, shoots appearing at regular intervals along an underground rhizome, were good to see, especially as this plant is almost exclusively found on coastal sand dunes rather than inland heaths.

Butterflies were few and far between but included Small Copper and Small Heath, a vibrant, recently-emerged Common Blue, and Speckled Woods hiding well in the dappled shade of Birch and Pine trees.

A good number of true bugs were found sunning themselves, including Gorse Shield- (starting to assume its sombre autumn plumage), Green Shield-, Parent and Dock Bugs and the scentless plant bug Rhopalus subrufus.

Galls provided the ideal excuse to shelter from the wind and the last of the rain in the lee of an Oak tree near the car park. Indeed, once we immersed ourselves in the canopy, we were lost for half an hour among Spangles, Silk-buttons, Smooth Spangles, Marbles, Knoppers, Cola-nuts and Artichokes…

And careful searching of the leaves also reveals other riches. Here it was Oak Slug Sawfly larvae turning the leaves into honeycomb, and an iridescent sprite of a (presumed) chalcid wasp, perhaps a hyperparasite of one of the gall wasps.

Leaf mines too – as with galls, the combination of symptom and host plant can often give an accurate identity without ever seeing the insect. In this case the sinuous mine on Bramble can reliably be identified as belonging to the micromoth Stigmella aurella.

Although a very common plant, especially on heathland, Bracken doesn’t seem to have many insects which eat it, in part perhaps due to the toxins in its sap. But in just one little patch of Hollesley Common we found two pteridivores on the same fronds: the larval sawfly is probably a Strongylogaster species (how I long for an accessible guide to sawflies and their often distinctive caterpillars!) and the blackened structures are Little Black-pudding Galls, hosting the larvae of the gall-midge Dasineura pteridis. Given the ubiquity of the host, records of the gall-midge are surprisingly thinly scattered across the country, and in the Sandlings known only from the far north. In fact this site, this few square metres of a very large site, are the only place I have ever seen it – and what is even more surprising is that I was able to find the infected fronds once again after two months…

Then of course there were adult insects and other invertebrates to be found with four pairs of keen eyes looking. From Common Darters, Sand Wasps and a Devil’s Coach-horse to Common Field Grasshoppers and Oak Bush-cricket, to Wasp Spider (which typically resolutely kept her back to an impenetrable bank of Brambles) and the Striped Millipede, a specialist of sandy ground.

We had been hoping that this time of year would prove fruitful for fungi. However the lack of rain in the past month ensured that we actually had more time to search for insects! Birch Polypores and a scattering of Sulphur-tufts newly emerging gave just the merest hint of likely future riches. Nevertheless, the few fungi around did provide opportunity for the word of the day…’infundibuliform’…

And we haven’t even mentioned the birds… A couple of Woodlarks flew low over just after we started, and snatches of their song cadences washed over both heaths. A noisy flock of 15 Crossbills played hide and seek with us, and a steady flow of Meadow Pipits headed west during the morning. Robins, probably mainly migrants, were ‘ticking’ everywhere in the woods, while roving mixed noisy bands of tits, Goldcrests, Siskins and Chaffinches rampaged through them.

Quite a contrast for our final walk, on the coast at Shingle Street: the wind had become really very strong, in advance of an advancing rain front. But, although in full sight, the rain was kind enough to hold off until our day in the field was finished.

A field full of Curlews, some 70 in total, and a couple of Wheatears provided the bird interest. The special flowers of the shingle ridges were almost past flowering, some like Sea Pea and Sea Kale in full seed, others with flowers remaining – Sea Mayweed, Viper’s-bugloss and Sea Campion, the latter often infected by Anther Smut.

Fox Moth caterpillars were on the march in their dozens, fully grown and on the look-out for a safe hibernation site, and it was clearly also an emergence day for crane-flies, a hazardous business in the wind, running the risk of North Sea oblivion. The only other insects, a shiny pair of leaf-beetles, were playing it safe by sticking close to the ground, and to each other…!

A place of uncompromising stark beauty: the sun-screened Sea Beet at Shingle Street amid the muted palette of lichen heath, at the end of a great day.

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: Awayday to the southern Suffolk Sandlings

An intrepid, necessarily small, group of Wivenhoe Bug’n’botters headed out to the southern Suffolk Sandlings on the equinox, and very likely the last day of summery weather for the year. The heaths were sweltering in temperatures of 26C, a very light breeze and dawn ’til late afternoon unbroken sunshine.

The Sandlings, with appropriately sandy soils in one of the driest parts of the country, are well used to drought: indeed their special flora and fauna thrives on it. But this year is like no other I have known, with three substantial droughts since April, and the latest one has seen a premature end to the flowering season for many plants, a rapid autumnal de-escalation of insect activity and a near-total absence of fungi as yet.

Nevertheless there was plenty to keep us occupied on Sutton Heath and Upper Hollesley Common for most of the day, including several things we in Essex see little of. First among those is the habitat: lowland heath, which because of geological history and the relative lack of wind-blown or glacial-meltwater sands in our county is a rare habitat. Even its eponymous plant, Heather, is exciting en masse to us, and was still blooming in places, and along with Bracken, Western Gorse, Silver Birch and Scots Pine, the latter derived from early 20C forestry plantations, an ever present backdrop to our day.

Other flowering plants included Common Stork’s-bill and Great Mullein on Sutton Heath, and Climbing Corydalis, Bell Heather, Harebell and Common Calamint on Hollesley Common. Rowan trees in fruit provided dramatic scarlet counterpoint to the already autumn-colouring Birch leaves and Bracken fronds, a combination showing the Sandlings channelling their inner Gustav Klimt…

Butterflies were few and far between but included Small Copper (some especially vibrant, evidently having emerged very recently) and Small Heath, with Speckled Woods hiding well in the dappled shade of Birch trees. Graylings too were well camouflaged, wings always closed, their undersides a fair approximation of the heathland sand and lichen carpets, and exciting to us as it is now seen only very rarely in Essex.

Numerous Common Darters twinkled in the sunny clearings, with Migrant Hawkers actively patrolling for food, rather than sitting and waiting for prey to come to them.

Other insects included Gorse and Hairy Shield-bugs, aggregations of Birch Catkin Bogs, Common Field Grasshoppers and numerous Sand Wasps, still actively excavating nest burrows.

Oak trees, as always, provided a good variety of galls, with many leaves especially heavily covered in Common Spangle Galls. And below the trees, Oak and Pine in particular, the groundscape of fallen acorns and cones was testament to autumn’s riches.

Birds demonstrated well the season of change, with groups of up to 40 Meadow Pipits, presumably recently arrived from Scandinavia, moving through all morning. Robins, again probably mainly migrants, were ‘ticking’ everywhere in the trees, while roving mixed bands of noisy tits, Goldcrests, Chiffchaffs and Chaffinches rampaged through them. Triggered perhaps by spring-like day length, a few of the Chiffchaffs were in song, while over the open heaths, the mellifluity of Woodlark cadences contrasted with the squeaky flight calls of Siskins. Bird of the day, however, must have been the Cuckoo, surprisingly late in the year, a young bird following in the wake of its parents who will have headed for Africa maybe a couple of months ago.

It was quite a contrast for our final walk, on the coast at Shingle Street: more breeze and many more people, and expansive seaward views up to Orfordness, now without its iconic lighthouse, having been demolished over the summer.

Although flowering had again been brought to an early end, despite their much-needed drought tolerance, shingle plants included Sea Kale, Sea Beet, Yellow Horned-poppy and Sea Pea. However, Sea Pink (surprisingly, as this normally flowers in May), Rock Samphire and Viper’s-bugloss, together with Sea Campion, some of the latter infected by Anther Smut.

As we headed back along the stabilized shingle ridge, we noticed the first large Fox Moth caterpillar, crossing our path. And then three. Then half-a-dozen, and yet more, probably fifty before we got to the car park. And on the road, absolute carnage, hundreds of them squashed into the asphalt, their final march in search of overwintering sites thwarted.

A couple of Curlew flocks, some 40 in total, heading purposefully south continued the bird migration story of the day, and  as we returned to the cars a Cetti’s Warbler exploded into song (and showed itself fleetingly) in the sparse hedge just five metres away. The final highlight of a very full day!

 

September in the Beth Chatto Gardens

Mid-September and coastal Essex is well into its third drought of a worryingly bizarre summer. At least at this time of year, some moisture is available, if only in the form of morning dew:

While summer blooms still cling on, autumn flowers are reaching their best, creating a rainbow of colour…

… including bulbs celebrating the ‘second Spring’, one of the special features of Mediterranean climate zones worldwide. Instant transport to places one might like to be after a lockdown summer…

Now is the time also to take in the immense variety of fruiting and seeding flowers, some sculptural, others attractive, and almost all one of the resources which make good gardens a haven for wildlife.

Often overlooked, ornamental grasses should form a key part of any garden, again for wildlife, shelter and food, and especially in late summer, as many of the flower spikes mature, a whispering soundtrack to the garden in even the lightest breeze.

And of course, always the foliage. Emerging from the limelight of summer flowers, noticing the shapes and colours again feels like a rediscovery, while new colour bleeding into leaves and fanning the seasonal flames is the epitome of autumn.

   

But it’s not just about colour. Light and shadow on a sunny day provide a transient lift, one given added potency at this time of year, as the canopy thins and the lower angle of the sun illuminates with sidelight.

Insects and other invertebrates are rapidly becoming fewer and further between…

… but any concentration of the right resources, nectar and pollen especially, can pull in large numbers. Witness the bushes of Ivy, the newly opened flowers teeming with Ivy Bees, a recent arrival in the UK which has been numerous in this part of Essex for only the past four or five years.

And most exciting of all, a small(ish), black(ish), hairy ladybird which flashed bright orange when it flew: Rhyzobius forestieri. Also new to the UK (in 2014), and now well known in parts of the far south-west of Essex, we have never come across it, nor even heard if it occurring round here. As a predator of scale insects, rather endearing (to some!) shelled bugs which can build up to damaging proportions on some plants, this is one new arrival the gardens should welcome.

#BringingNatureToYOU: for more information about our new campaign, please look through the website chrisgibsonwildlife.co.uk, or contact us via the Contacts page.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: September – Barrier Marsh, The Chase, ant-hills and more…

Another very pleasant set of walks was held at the beginning of September, to an area which we had not fully explored as a group before. The hour passed very quickly for each session, and we hope that everyone enjoyed learning a bit about the history of the place as well as the ecology. Thanks to all, and we would like to send a special Get Well wish to a dear friend, a regular ‘B&B-er’ who unfortunately is poorly in hospital at the moment.

First the history of ‘The Chase’ and the seawall. Four hundred or more years ago, to protect sheep flocks which grazed on the marsh, a seawall was built along our stretch of the estuary (as well as much of the Essex coastline). The clay/soil was burrowed out to build the wall, leaving ‘borrow dykes’ ie the ditches that we see today. The wide path, ‘The Chase’, leading from the wall towards the old railway line, historically belonged to the otherwise landlocked parish of Elmstead, provided a legitimate access to the water and its trading potential. Trade would have been food and agricultural produce shipped up as far as London, the barges often returning with horse dung for manure. Where extra ballast was required, this was readily available from the gravel pits in north Wivenhoe, and easily transported to the quays via Ballast Quay Lane.

Facing the water, the marsh to the right of The Chase is in Wivenhoe, whilst that on the left to Alresford.  A cursory glance at each will show their differing topography, the Alresford expanse being much bumpier than the Wivenhoe counterpart.  The reason?  Each ‘bump’ is in fact an ant-hill. The Wivenhoe stretch of marsh was given over to agriculture during the war, the area flattened out, thus fewer and smaller bumps remaining today.

The number of ant-hills on the Alresford stretch is truly staggering.  Each, probably housing thousands of ants, is a small ‘island’ with its own peculiar suite of vegetation, at this time of year some with Sow Thistles, others Common Toadflax or lichens eg Reindeer Moss.  Rushes (‘Sedges have edges and Rushes are round’) grow on the damper soil in between. See Chris’ blog from earlier in the year for illustrations of the wonderful flora of the marsh https://www.chrisgibsonwildlife.co.uk/lockdown-diary-the-ant-hills-of-barrier-marsh/.

Bugs weren’t particularly thick on the ground, though the Saturday groups were able to see a splendid Brassica Shield-bug, as well as observing some dragonflies in action looking for flying insects to catch for dinner.  A few butterflies were seen flickering over the marsh – a Small Copper, Small Heath and Large White amongst them.

Both of the Monday groups were treated to a close up of a huge Fox moth caterpillar….it was wandering to and fro across the path by the Sailing Club, possibly searching for somewhere to pupate for the winter. We helped move it to a safe spot, and hope it decided to stay put and not attempt to cross the busy path again later in the day.

Some estuary plants of interest included the Tamarisk trees now growing in abundance along the old railway line, as well as Sea Wormwood, Strawberry Clover, Cord-grass and Sea Aster.

NATURE ON YOUR DOORSTEP

And thanks to everyone who has been sending us interesting bugs and beasties that they have found in their gardens and living rooms.

An Orange Swift moth in Little Oakley and a Harlequin Ladybird in Lawford…

…and an Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar in Wivenhoe and a Large White butterfly just about to emerge from its pupa near Brighton, showing clearly the pattern on its wings through the translucent pupal skin. What a photo!

As ever, we are indebted to everyone who has been in touch with photos, anecdotes and has supported our walks.

Additional photos: Nicky Meckiff, Caroline Hall, Nel Mooy, Val Appleyard. Thanks all!

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours with Naturetrek in August

One side effect of Covid19 has been the near-elimination of most overseas travel. Looking positively though, this gives us all chance to reconnect with the wildlife and landscape around us. And so it was that Naturetrek started to offer socially-distanced day tours in Britain, and gave me the chance to continue what I spent much of my working life doing, putting Essex on the wildlife map.

Billed as ‘The Wild Side of Essex: Autumn in the Colne Estuary’ seemed a little pessimistic given they were starting in August, but as it transpired the weather on both occasions was less than summery. The first coincided with Atlantic Storm Ellen sweeping across the country, 50mph winds buffeting us all day, and the second was as the next named storm, Francis, was subsiding…but leaving turbulent weather in its wake, storms of almost tropical intensity interspersed with hot, humid sunshine, and an abrupt change of wind direction near the end of the day which saw temperatures plummet by several degrees in just a few minutes.

Nevertheless, we had fun in the unseasonal wind and rain, and found plenty of wildlife to keep us interested.

Estuary birds were starting to return from their northern breeding places, with many Black-tailed Godwits in particular still in smart summer plumage, hundreds on the downstream itinerary, but also some, giving much better views, on the upstream walk.

Also downstream, lots of Redshanks, about sixty Avocets, and a few Curlews, Turnstones and Little Egrets gave added spice, as migrating Swallows struggled into the wind, and a couple of White Wagtails completed the migrant roll call.

Smaller birds in general were kept very low by the inclement weather, although the woods and hedges were shrilling to calls of roving Long-tailed and Blue Tit flocks. In Wivenhoe Park, a Green Woodpecker put on a good show of hunting for ants.

Insects were also hard work, given the weather, but by heading for shelter and taking advantage of sunny spells, we came upon seven species of Odonata, mostly Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers. Upstream, the latter were almost swarming in places, and the aggregations included single Brown Hawker and most excitingly given its only recent arrival in these parts, a Southern Migrant Hawker…sadly without providing a photo opportunity.

 

Butterflies included both summer stragglers (Common Blue, Small Heath, Small Copper and Gatekeeper) and the autumnal fare of Red Admiral and Speckled Wood…

…while moths provided interest in their larval stages – Cinnabar (on Hoary Ragwort), Toadflax Brocade (a recent recolonist of the UK) and the impressive case of Coleophora kuehnella.

Other invertebrates included Green Shield-bug and Scorpion-fly, Batman Hoverfly and Pine Ladybird, while an Elm Zig-zag Sawfly larva was only the second time I have found this recent British arrival around Wivenhoe.

Of course, one doesn’t always need to see a creature to know it is there, for example when its activities trigger the formation of a gall in a host plant. Autumn is the best time to find these, and on our walks the most productive hosts were Pedunculate Oak (spangle, silk-button, marble and knopper galls, for example), Dog Rose (smooth pea and Robin’s pincushion galls) and willows (bean and camellia galls).

Much the same is true of fungi, microfungi in particular. Some of those do indeed also induce galls: others however, while not distorting the leaf growth, do give rise to distinctive symptoms – take for example the mildew Erysiphe alphitoides on the summer leaves of Oak, and tar-spot Rhytisma acerinum on Sycamore.

Large fungi though were few and far between, the main ones being long-lived bracket fungi like Chicken-of-the-Woods in Wivenhoe Park. No doubt this reflects the two intense drought periods of spring and summer this year: perhaps the late August rains bode well for the rest of the autumn?

The final flowerings of summer included all sorts of specialities, from block-paving rarities (Jersey Cudweed and Four-leaved Allseed)…

… to salt and grazing marsh specialities like Sea Wormwood, Strawberry Clover, Golden Samphire, Sea Aster and Perennial Glasswort …

… showy remnants of the summer meadows (Chicory and Field Scabious) mingling with autumnal nectar sources (Common Toadflax and Perforate St John’s-wort) and nationally scarce Lesser Calamint, feast for the nose as well as the eyes …

… to the colonisers of ‘life after gravel extraction’ at Cockaynes Reserve,  such as Common Fleabane, Trailing St John’s Wort, the non-native Epilobium brachycarpum, Smooth Hawkbit (at its only known Essex site), and Heather at its last locality in the area, this year more magnificent then ever before.

 

A feature of this year seems to be the early and heavy fruiting of trees and shrubs, Nature’s autumnal bounty writ large. No doubt these will feature heavily in the next few walks:

And last but not least, the one things pretty much immune to the vagaries of the wild weather (we hope!) there were magnificent trees everywhere, especially in Wivenhoe Park with its historic 200 year-old Cork Oaks.

 All part of the Wild Side of Essex, from birds to botany, galls to geology!

Late August in the Beth Chatto Gardens

Summer 2020 continues to confound. Deep droughts, with brief spells of heavy rain; some very hot sun but other spells of unseasonal gloom; and two named Atlantic storms before the end of August….while some plants are clearly struggling, as ever the garden was a late summer delight of flowers, foliage, fruit and followers – the insects.

Just a few photos here, no commentary needed…except to mention the Painted Lady, the only one we have seen so far this summer.

Back to the Sandlings…

Drawn to the South Suffolk Sandlings again, on one of the hottest days of the year. Too hot for many things – people, birds, reptiles and even many of the insects were lying low for respite.

In one of the driest parts of the country, these heaths are drought-prone, and their plants have to be drought-tolerant. Two heathers form the backbone of the floral landscape: Ling and Bell Heather, both in good flower (the latter just past its best and the former working up to its peak), along with Bracken and Western Gorse. Lower, spinier, deeper yellow and restricting its flowering to late summer, in contrast to Common Gorse,  if ‘kissing is in season when Western Gorse is in flower’,  life would be lonely….

In the grip of the second drought of the summer, just a handful of other flowers (Harebell, Viper’s-bugloss, Hare’s-foot Clover and Small-flowered Crane’s-bill) were showing, alongside dried-up fruits (Hound’s-tongue). What a selection of ‘animal plants’!

Small Coppers were everywhere, colour-clashing furiously with the heather, and also homing in on the nectar of last few Bramble flowers…

…which they were sharing with the last of the battered Gatekeepers.

Graylings were still abundant out on the open heaths, their camouflage well suited to lichen backgrounds. In the heat, many were also retreating into the shade of the trees, settling on trunks as they and related species are prone to do around the Mediterranean; wandering Fox Moth caterpillars were probably seeking shade likewise:

One insect group showing no signs of heat stress were the bees and wasps, from Bee-wolves to leaf-cutters and spider-hunters of many a kind.

Sand Wasps were particularly abundant, feeding themselves on Bramble, and provisioning their nests with paralysed caterpillars:

In the windless calm, a constant ‘pitter-patter’ among the birches was not as I had expected the rain of caterpillar frass, but the sound of Birch Catkin-bugs falling from the aggregations of both nymphs and adults.  A swarm on a leaf is easy to see, but on a catkin, the bugs are much more difficult to discern – it is as though the catkin was budding bug nymphs instead of shedding seeds:

A selection of the other invertebrates includes the south-eastern heathland spider Neoscona adianta…

… but best of all was the Red-breasted Carrion Beetle. Never seen this before, although it seems to be pretty widespread in Norfolk and Suffolk. An absolute cracker!

Great News from Beth Chatto’s!

Carnage averted! It is a delight to report that the the concerns for our pollinator populations that have been voiced (for example here) over the past year have been heeded – the flower spikes of Thalia dealbata, deadly assassins that kill slowly by trapping insects in their fatal embrace, have been removed. While a few remained when I visited yesterday, and mortality was taking place, I felt that every one gone meant lives saved; but then I was doubly happy to be told that the remaining spikes had been removed by the end of the day.

Beth Chatto Gardens, thank you, on behalf of the little things that make the world go round! It is reassuring to know you are keeping alive Beth’s ecological gardening principles.

In other news, it was a rare dull and humid day, with the second drought of the summer starting to take a grip. Predominant among the flowers were members of the Asteraceae, perhaps better known as composites, or members of the daisy family, as is typical in late summer. A kaleidoscope of colours, each flower-head a plate of food for passing insects:

Also coming to the fore are lace-cap hydrangeas: although unrelated to the daisies, they have an analogous flower structure, with a disc of small, fertile flowers surrounded by showy infertile flowers, to attract insects to the resources within, and in doing so, hopefully effecting pollination. They come in a pleasing array of forms from ‘frothy blue’ to ‘dolly mixture’….

And of course, there are many more plants worthy of a photographic mention, a pastel profusion brought to life with a scatter of vibrant highlights:

  

Last but not least, the insect visitors. Butterflies have faded away a bit over the past couple of weeks, but bees and wasps, from Bee-wolves to Figwort Saw-flies, have flourished:

Hoverflies too. Often mistaken for wasps, one in particular, the Hornet Hoverfly, one of the largest flies in Britain, is a very effective (harmless) mimic of its (sting-bearing) model, the Hornet.

And a final assortment of insects. It will be interesting to see what survives, what thrives and what wilts in the forecast intense heat over the next week…

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: August – a tentative return to Lower Lodge

How we enjoyed our foray into the natural world with our Botany and Bug friends this weekend. The past few months have seemed long and difficult at times, and I think we all felt it was good to get back to a shade of ‘normality’ (whatever that will come to mean). So thank you to everyone who came along and supported us. ‘Social distance’ was no problem and we all saw lots. The small groups for an hour worked well and we look forward to arranging some more events soon. Our outings took place on two separate days, so the following report is a compilation of the ‘best bits’.

Our place of discovery was Lower Lodge, somewhere that is bounding with insect life and botanical interest. Important nectar sources at this time of year include Knapweed, Wild Carrot and Scabious. Many insects could be found enjoying these in the sunshine – butterflies such as Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Whites and even a Purple Hairstreak, as well as the rather smart Burnet moths,  both 5- and 6-spotted varieties, which are not as numerous as in some years, a probable result of the drought in April/May. One of their major food plants is Bird’s Foot Trefoil, a pretty, low-growing plant which suffered during the dry weather, thus not being there when the moths needed it. Another insect not to have done well this summer seems to be the Common Blue Butterfly which also depends on this particular flower.

Bees were out and about in force – Buff tailed Bumblebees, Leaf-cutter Bees (‘bum in the air’ trademark), plus tiny but charismatic Green-eyed Flower-bees. These can often be heard before being seen – their loud (for their size) buzz heralds their arrival, and then when they come into view their green eyes are distinctive.

Other insects seen were three kinds of ‘true bugs’ in various stages of development – an empty clutch of eggs plus ‘teenage’ versions of Dock Bug, Box Bug and Green Shield-bug.  All quite endearing little critters.  A Candy-striped Spider was enjoying her lunch under a Wild Carrot umbel, and we espied a large funnel web of a spider who was no doubt waiting in her lair to catch anything silly enough to land nearby.  A family of Buff-tip moth caterpillars were seen on one walk, but had mysteriously disappeared the following hour.  We wondered if a bird had had a good feed!

 

Lower Lodge, part of the Colne Nature Reserve, is a large area divided into patches of grass which are mown on rotation every three to four years allowing closely cropped patches (places of recreation for humans and their canine companions which also provide good ant-digging territories for Green Woodpeckers), plus areas of different levels of growth, all important for biodiversity. Other feathered friends seen and heard included Yellowhammer,  Whitethroat, Blackcap and Buzzard.

Oaks are an important feature of the landscape here – not only the statuesque mature ones, but also the many self-seeded saplings. Although we tend to revere oaks, when in the wrong place in the wrong quantities they are in effect ‘weeds’ and should be removed before becoming  too large and start to shade out important nectar plants.  Having said that an oak tree can be home to many kinds of insects, including  small flies, aphids and wasps. Often too small to be seen or identified with the naked eye, these creatures can easily be named by looking at the little ‘homes’ (galls) they organise for their larvae. These ‘gall-causers’ introduce a specific chemical into a tree, which carries out a damage-limitation exercise, creating these often remarkably designed growths. Oaks support over 50 gall-causing insects, and we chalked up quite a few different ones – Silk Button and Spangle galls on leaves, Marble galls (a source of tannin for ink and dyeing in days gone by) and Artichoke galls attached to branches, and Knopper galls on acorns.

 

We observed others on Wild Rose, including the familiar Robin’s Pincushion and the slightly  more unusual but delightful Sputnik gall.

Many more of the photos we have taken of wildlife on Lower Lodge over the past month can now be found on a new Gallery on our website – Wivenhoe’s Lower Lodge.

Talking of Oaks we would like to plug a book by our friend Dr James Canton ‘The Oak Papers’ – just published, it is a personal account of his encounter with an ancient tree, the Honywood Oak at Mark’s Hall estate. Excitingly it is being serialised on Radio 4 Book of the Week, this week .We are delighted that we were able to help in a small way and we get a mention!.  Whether we are immortalised by Radio 4 remains to be seen (heard) of course!

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Before we finish the report with details of future events, we just wanted to let you see some of the photos sent to us by nature-watchers now dotted all over UK and Europe. Please keep on sending your images: Poplar Hawk-moth in Spain…

Jersey Tiger moth in Islington…

… and touching stories:  a special Red Admiral which brought comfort to a sad lady and landed on her wedding ring.

A rather unusual photo from Wivenhoe (something not witnessed by us before) a Leaf cutter bee with piece of cut-leaf attached…

and a most amazing aphid which appears to be sitting on a disc.  As our friend in Brighton told us ‘It’s an aphid that’s been parasitized by a tiny wasp Discritulus planiceps. It lays its egg inside an aphid then changes into an adult in the disc under the aphid’s body. The aphid is then just a husk’.  Cracking! We would love to see one here, so whoever shows us our first one round Wivenhoe gets a free Bug & Botany walk!

Additional Photos: Belinda Bamber, Ro Inzani, Sue Minta, Val Appleyard

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We feel that, unless things go horribly wrong COVID-wise we will go ahead with socially distanced hour-long walks for the remainder of 2020.

So dates for your diary –

Sat  5th/Mon 7th September  10-11 and 11.30-12.30     Barrier Marsh, including walk along The Chase checking out the curious ant hills plus other stuff (see one our Lockdown Diaries for more details).

Sat 3/Mon 5 October 10-11 and 11.30-12.30           The University, looking at some of the interesting trees and (if last year is anything to go by) an incredible variety of fungi.

At the moment each walk will be limited to a maximum of 6 participants, so do please let us know if you would like to book a place.  Cost £5 per person please.

We are also thinking we may offer a few day-long walks in Wivenhoe or Suffolk Coast or the Naze areas.  I will be sending out a separate email with our thoughts soon…

Before we go, we would like to give a mention to ‘Wildsmiths Wildlife Services’- our friends Greg and Sarah Smith who are off on adventures to Scotland soon.  They hope to be arranging guided walks and talks on a beautiful Scottish island and will be writing regular blogs and reports.  If you would like to find out about what they get up to, please visit their website www.wildsmiths.co.uk.

So, if you have read thus far many thanks, and hope to hear from or see you soon!

The southern Suffolk Sandlings

Heading across the border into Suffolk for the first time since early March, it was good to reacquaint myself with both similarities and differences between the Sutton Heath area and wild Wivenhoe.

Only some 40km apart as the crow flies, on stepping out of the car it was immediately apparent just how different these spots are, at least in great part due to the intensely droughty nature of the aptly-named Sandlings, much more extreme than anything we have around us.

While the butterflies were much as we are seeing at home, with numerous Peacocks, Commas, Ringlets, Gatekeepers and Small Coppers, the sandy patches of the heaths were thronged with Graylings. On the brink of extinction in Essex, Graylings are well camouflaged on lichen-covered heaths, reinforced by their habit of never landing with wings open, and tilting towards the sun on a sunny day to minimize a tell-tale shadow. And it seems, they just love nectar from Bell Heather!

Another exciting find was the parasitic Tachinis grossa,  a magnificent bumble-brute of a fly, of which half-a-dozen were working a line of flowering Brambles by Upper Hollesley Common. Although widely distributed across western Britain, it is always local, and more-or-less absent from East Anglia, apart from parts of the north Norfolk coast, Breckland and the Sandlings. In Essex, it has been found in only four sites since its initial discovery in 2003, so the chance to stand among this lumbering orgy of nectaring was a real privilege.

One other species previously unknown to me was a very distinctive gall on the fronds of Bracken, shaped like a cigar, caused by the gall-midge Dasineura pteridis, its larvae occupying the appropriately named Little Black Pudding Galls. 

Despite the near-ubiquity of its host plant, the midge appears to be rather scarce, scattered across Britain, but in East Anglia seemingly known mainly from the northern Sandlings. Another dot on the map, and some way from previously known sites.

These were the highlights, but of course there was much much more, as evidenced by the photo selection below. Robber-flies everywhere, doing the three things they do best – staring, killing and mating…

… hunch-backed Gargoyle-flies …

… a kaleidoscope of Hymenoptera …

… long-horn beetles …

… Forest Bugs and Parent Bugs alongside nymphal Birch Shield-bugs …

… and grasshoppers bounding and abounding with every footfall: the list goes on.

All-in-all, a very productive venture over the border!