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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!

 

 

London Rediscovered

Our first tentative trip to London for half a year. The absolute antithesis of #wildwivenhoe, our lockdown habitat, but thrilling nonetheless. As we have written before: ‘Canyons of glass and steel, capturing but not quite taming the sky‘…. but not set amid the customary hordes. The streets of the City were quiet, apart from construction men, security staff and cleaners, giving us space and time to contemplate the modernity:

.. but as always, it was both gratifying and humbling to see those spots where, by design or default, Nature has blurred the hard edges that we have tried to impose upon the world. By design, whether it is a tree canopy  creeping into the vista, or blooms to lift the spirits at ground level:

By default, take the sub-tropical garden that has developed and been encouraged on the bombed-out shell of St Dunstan-in-the-East…

…or the simple pleasures of an already-colouring fallen leaf on the pavement…

… and on the steps and Embankment in front of Old Billingsgate, the cracks between the block paviors colonised by a goodly range of mostly non-native plants, including Spotted Spurge, a rapidly increasing ‘weed’ of urban areas in the south. Either the absence of herbicide or the reduced footfall has allowed it to thrive this summer.

Plants like this give hope, and speak to me of the impermanence of our arrogant species, redolent of the Mayan cities now enveloped by apparently natural rainforest. Every thing has its time: perhaps the havoc wrought by Covid indicates that our time is past?

Wildlife on the Farm: an organic perspective

One of the many delights of life in Wivenhoe is the presence of a weekly vegetable bag scheme, produce that is both local (with lower carbon footprint than most supermarket veg) and healthy (being organic, and thus lacking in pesticide residues). The vegetables come from Bennison Farm bennisonfarm.co.uk in Thorrington, and we were recently given access to the farm with WildSmiths wildsmiths.co.uk to look at its natural features. Greg and Sarah Smith have been volunteers on the farm, and realised at first hand the wildlife riches it contains, testament to the nature of the horticultural system used.

First and foremost, the cultivated ground of Bennison’s, while evidently productive, is full of ‘arable plants’, the sort of things we used to know as ‘weeds’ but which we have now come to value for their scarcity, following their loss from conventional intensive cultivation systems. An organic system is without artificial inputs: in the absence of toxic herbicides, necessary weed control is done through a combination of tractor-mounted steerage hoe, flame weeders and lots of back-breaking manual labour! But the combination of these can never, thankfully, achieve their wholesale eradication.

And so we were able to enjoy long-forgotten scenes of all sorts of arable plant growing among the intended crops: Greg has already found more than 90 species (click here for list), including several local rarities, such as Sharp-leaved Fluellen, Henbit Dead-nettle, Corn Spurrey, Annual Knawel and Field Pennycress:

The scarcer ones were mixed with the more frequent, but still declining, Sun Spurge, Fumitory, Wall Speedwell and Black Nightshade:

 

Plants such as Fumitory encapsulate neatly why these species matter. They were once so familiar and numerous that a drift of the flowers looked like smoke arising from the earth, the eponymous fumus terrae. What’s more, their 20th Century near-eradication through the over-use of herbicides (poisons) within crops (destined to become our food) also removed its seeds from the landscape: the favoured food of Turtle Doves, the distillation in sound and beauty of our summer…and very likely a national extinction which will be recorded during the next decade.

Some arable plants are genuinely native species, ones which have transitioned from naturally dynamic habitats such as river shingles and mountain screes into the human-disturbed farmlands and gardens. Others have arrived here over the millennia of agriculture and horticulture, often arising in the Middle East or Mediterranean areas, followers in the footsteps of cultivation. And plants are still arriving with us: Hairy Finger-grass has only relatively recently become a feature of horticulture in the UK, probably as a contaminant in crop seed sources, or perhaps as a bird-seed alien:

A good number of the arable plants are in the spinach family, typically with green, unassuming flowers, and consequently often difficult to identify. Half-a-dozen species of these Oraches and Goosefoots were found as we walked, and undoubtedly others will be present. What they lack in floriferousness, make up for in their oil-rich seeds, much loved by seed-eating birds. Examples shown are Fat-hen, Many-seeded Goosefoot and Maple-leaved Goosefoot:

A final suite of interesting plants are (presumably) derived from seeds sown to create green manure crops to maintain soil fertility. Particularly notable among these are clovers – dramatic long-flowered Crimson Clover, pale yellow Sulphur Clover and pink Reversed Clover, the flowers rotated through 180 degrees, so the flowerhead looks as though it has been squashed underfoot:

All these so-called weeds are both interesting in their own right, but also valuable in that they help to support useful invertebrates – ‘useful’ as predators or herbivores of potential pest species, or as pollinators, upon whose activities so many crop plants rely. Ladybirds are a classic example of useful predators, of aphids, and the fields were teeming with them, mostly the common 7-Spots, but also the rather more unusual Adonis Ladybird:

Other at least partially predatory insects included the bugs Deraeocoris flavilinea (a relatively new arrival in Britain) and Heterotoma planicornis (with flattened antennal segments and apple-green legs); Dark Bush-cricket and Oak Bush-cricket. While these are more associated with the surrounding hedges, the presence and maintenance of such good margins undoubtedly helps cast a benign influence on the holding as a whole:

Useful herbivores too – caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth are renowned for feeding with impunity on toxic Ragwort. Here however, they are feeding upon the related Groundsel, a very common plant of disturbed areas which can limit crop productivity if it gets out of hand. What better than yellow-and-black ‘volunteers’ to help weed it out!

In the same category of natural herbicides could also come the Small Copper butterflies which have been seen egg-laying on the docks are appearing as weeds in the crops. As their sole larval food plant, herbivory in such cases must be having a postive impact.

And then of course pollinators – bees, such as the Tree Bumblebee below, are particularly renowned for this but many other insects play their part too, from hoverflies to beetles. Onesuch, the small malachite beetle Axinotarsus marginalis, a known pollinator, was interesting as it is another recent colonist of Britain, and previously unknown to us.

Of course there was also a vast range of other invertebrates, ones that cannot be argued as directly beneficial to the farm, but the sum total of which gives credence to the idea of organic cultivation as ecological farming, treating the land as an ecosystem to be nurtured and treasure:

Whether common or rare, all are important in the web of life. But it is always exciting to find the scarcities. Only a couple of weeks ago, Sarah found a Pied Shield-bug, for which the Essex Field Club distribution map shows only one other location in the Tendring Peninsula. Likewise, exactly the same comment can be made for the Bryony Bee we photographed on the boundary with Hockley Wood, except that as well as its local scarcity (see map here), it is considered to be nationally rare.

All of the above, and we have hardly even mentioned the showiest of them all, the butterflies, a kaleidoscope of biodiversity weaving their confetti magic throughout the farm: browns, whites, Peacocks and Red Admirals, together with neighbouring woodland specialities – Purple Hairstreak and Silver-washed Fritillary:

Just 3.5 hectares provides more than 150 weekly veg shares, and keeps wildlife and the environment happy. At a time when food standards are at huge risk from the pressures of predatory US producers, with considerably lower, barrel-bottom-scraping standards on pesticide residues and suchlike waiting in the wings following Brexit, we must treasure, support and safeguard those like Bennison Farm that maintain our and the planet’s health.

High Summer in the Beth Chatto Gardens: a butterfly bonanza

High summer, and butterflies were everywhere, especially fitting given the annual Big Butterfly Count being launched earlier that day. Peacocks, Red Admirals and Commas spread their confetti on every suitable nectar source, most notably Veronicastrum and Echinacea, while Purple Hairstreak, Holly Blue and a single Silver-washed Fritillary added their scarcer spice.

Other insects too – masses of Marmalade Hoverflies, and troupes of flying ants, emerging and initiating gull feeding frenzies overhead…

… but, in the only low point of the day, the annual, inadvertent pollinator cull by Thalia has commenced (see chrisgibsonwildlife.co.uk/murder-at-the- for more details).

Moving to the plants, of course the garden is not just about the flowers – foliage can be equally, stunningly picturesque…

… and as the season starts to turn, seeds and pods come into their own.

And then of course, last but not least, are the flowers, fiery summer reds and oranges trying hard to catch the eye, but never quite able to put the pastels in the shade:
 
And finally, I must mention the Fibonacci whorls of Echinacea, an inner maze of psychedelic confusion, to boggle the mind as well as the eyes.

 

Jude’s Nature Diary: Botany & Bugs (and more!) on your Doorstep – mid July

Here we are again!  Gradually returning to normal activities, with caution! As always we are indebted to all our Nature Watchers who have contributed musings and photos…it’s good to know that you are out there in this, at times, difficult world.

Thought we would start with plants for a change – and thanks to an eagle-eyed friend we have this wonderful picture of a Bee Orchid to show you. Growing in an area in north Wivenhoe, it has in recent years struggled to hang on in its former stronghold. We hope that management in this area can be improved to allow these rather amazing things to continue. Orchids are truly ‘odd’ in my view – their lifestyles, and looks make them unique in the plant world.  We have been helping to get a book about Orchids ready for production, so if anyone would like to know more about these wacky things, we can recommend the WILDGuides field guide which will be published soon. We can provide details of it if you are interested – just let us know.

We saw this other decidedly-odd plant when at Beth Chatto’s garden recently. Why is the plant Linaria triornithophora so named…where are the ‘three birds’? Well, peering through a camera revealed all when the unopened buds magically and mischievously mutated into budgies!

Whilst there we were entranced by this amazing critter, a Hummingbird Hawk-moth.  This little beastie had flown all the way from Europe to join us and she was mighty hungry – enjoying the nectar, sipping it with her long tongue.

Still in Beth Chattos – and why not, now that it is again open – we were also sent this lovely shot of a White Admiral, now fully re-established around us after local extinction in the 1950s. We even saw one flying around the unpromising surrounds of our Shipyard car park.

Birds are all around and we are pleased that it isn’t just us that likes Starlings – a nature lover in Wivenhoe told us about her lovely flock of baby Starlings visiting her garden and that she was kept busy refilling feeders and bird baths. She also had a Mr and Mrs Stag Beetle paying regular visits. Talking of stags, someone we know and love locally, although living near a known Stag Beetle hide-out had not actually ever seen any, but she told us about an exciting encounter recently whilst walking

‘…I saw something astonishing. Right in front of me was a stag beetle suspended in flight. I stood riveted while it flew around me coming within a foot of my face several times backwards and forwards, up and down, round and round for about 5 minutes. I was waiting for it to land but it didn’t and then, eventually, flew up higher and went over the top of the bushes. It was a beautiful specimen and I’m kicking myself for not having my phone with me to take a picture! Really amazing and thrilling.

Follow that…..

A couple of fellow nature addicts in Yorkshire have recently treated themselves to a new camera – with exciting results. Take a look at these close ups of Barn owl and a Spotted Flycatcher feeding her young. How we would love to still see flycatchers in Essex!

A rather unfortunate (headless!) Rose Chafer was discovered In Wivenhoe last week. Not sure what could have decapitated it, but Magpies are renowned for attacking our Stag Beetles.

And a beautiful Fox Moth caterpillar was seen in Dovercourt. These hairy beasties are beautiful, but hairy caterpillars in general aren’t good to handle as they can be irritating to sensitive skins.

Skippers are interesting little things – are they butterflies or moths? A bit of a mix of the two – though classed as butterflies. Here in Essex we have three, very similar looking species – the Essex ( which lives in all manner of counties!), Large and Small Skippers. How can you differentiate? Well, rule of thumb is that the ‘Large’ is bigger than the rest (no surprises there) and somewhat blotchy, but (to quote our Insect book), ‘the Essex Skipper (has a) rather grey underside and the antennal tip is black underneath and obviously clubbed, whereas in the Small Skipper it is more tapered and orange underneath’. Pictured is an Essex one (photoed in Sussex)!

A lovely picture-in-words was sent to us from our friend in Suffolk..

(today I have been) watching our marjoram trembling under an army of honey & bumble bees and hoverflies, plus some newly-minted red admirals and endless tortoiseshells. Before this, they had worked their way through our explosion of red poppies, elegant lavender, and then our purple carpet of thyme. On today’s river walk was a flat-bodied chaser, demoiselles & blue neon damselfly. On the hill, weld, knapweed, mallow & scabious created some colourful patches. Swifts screaming overhead added the final flourish.

Feels as if I was there!

Before we go we must draw your attention to a superb new book that has just been published. The Oak Papers by Dr James Canton (a good friend and fellow nature enthusiast) is a personal journey to discover the wonders of Oak. AND it is to be aired on Radio 4 as Book of the Week during the first week of August. Not to be missed!

As most of you will know we have decided to resume our Botany and Bug Walks (albeit in a minimal format), so it is likely that we will be concentrating from now on sending out an illustrated report from these. However, DO please keep sending us your contributions, and we will still do an occasional ‘Nature Newsletter’, continuing to ‘spread the word’.

As always, happy nature watching.

ADDITIONAL IMAGES by Val Appleyard, Patrick Eady, Andrea Williams, Sue Minta and Debbie Taylor.

High Summer in the Cockaynes Reserve

Back to Cockaynes Reserve after a few weeks, and it wasn’t the wholly shrivelled and droughted sight we feared. There has been some sporadic, occasionally hard, rain, and that has been enough to keep even the bare gravel areas with a semblance of green. Long gone are the early season Blinks and Smooth Cat’s-ear have gone, but these have been replaced by Sand Spurrey, Small Cudweed, Trailing St. John’s-wort and Hoary Cinquefoil.

Other flowers now blooming include Fleabane, soon to become one of the most important pollen and nectar resources on the reserve, Cow-wheat on the heathy slopes, and in the wet areas, Reedmace and (unfortunately) choking mats of New Zealand Pigmyweed.

Butterflies everywhere! (including the always elusive Purple Hairstreak). The June gap has passed….

As always there were lots of bees and wasps, including Bee-wolf and Green-eyed & Four-banded Flower-bees, endearing little bundles of high-pitched buzz:

And many other insects as well: the Broad-headed Bug is especially interesting locally, as this reserve is the only place we have found it. And just look at that bruiser of a Sicus ferrugineus – that’s why we call the Gargoyle Fly!

And also two sets of eggs: the semi-vacated barrels of Gorse Shield-bug, and a clutch of Drinker Moth eggs, all with small neat round holes, probably of an emerging parasite rather than the caterpillars.
Finally a few vignettes of nature from the always rewarding Cockaynes Reserve:
BirchLight
The understated beauty of Wood Sage in full bloom
Backlit Broom pods
And last but not least, is this a case of nymphal self-awareness? Does this tiny Squash Bug realise how its antennae and thighs meld into the necrotic margin of its chosen leaf?

Lockdown localism – finding rare and special invertebrates close to home

One of the advantages of COVID-19 lockdown has been having the time and opportunity to study our own local surroundings in detail, regularly throughout a three month period from spring into summer.

Birds are all well and good, but there are relatively few of them (our flat lockdown list amounted to just 83 species, although that did include White-tailed Eagle, Goshawk and Osprey…). Plants also – more of them, but the species don’t change much from week to week – the same species just become more, or less, obvious. So it was the invertebrates which occupied most of our time – myriads of species, lots to learn, and many are around for only a short period, the sort of creatures that could easily be missed in a ‘normal’ spring of weeks away in other parts of Europe.

So we have had an unprecedented opportunity to study the local insects and other invertebrates from mid-March right through to the end of June, all within a 5 km radius of Wivenhoe, widening only during the final two weeks to 30 km. We have seen many wonderful creatures, a good number new to us, and a surprising number new to this part of the world, even new to Essex, a useful contribution to the distribution mapping which is now undertaken for most groups.

Of course, for the less obvious groups, our knowledge of distribution is at best rudimentary, and the maps reflect more the distribution of observers who are capable of and can be bothered to report them. But, data are data, information is a resource, however imperfect. What follows is an account of some of our highlights, starting with those species which seem genuinely to be rare in north-east Essex at least, then those which are less scarce, (but still good to find, record and report), interspersed with galleries of some of the commoner ‘little things that helped make our world go round’ in lockdown. To demonstrate how localised some species are, or are recorded as being, I have incorporated some distribution maps from the Essex Field Club essexfieldclub.org.uk, a hugely important resource which is one of the many reasons why any active naturalist in the county should be a member. Maps are available for almost all groups of terrestrial invertebrates, the main omissions being beetles (sadly).

Rarest of the rare, new(ish) to Essex

Rarest of all are also two of the showiest, big black-and-red bugs, both new to Essex, and both familiar to us from trips to the continent. In mid May, next to Wivenhoe Ferry Marsh, we found an Ornate Shield-bug (below, left). This has become established in the British Isles only recently, first in the Channel Isles, and then in some extreme southerly coastal areas of Dorset, Hampshire, Isle of Wight and Sussex. Beyond these areas, it has turned up sporadically elsewhere in southern England and Wales, whether by natural spread or accidental introduction, although it has never previously been recorded from Essex. It now seems to be showing signs of wider colonisation, with recent records from as far north as Norfolk.

It is of course not possible to ascertain when or how it arrived in Wivenhoe, although the southerly airflow around the time of its discovery would have been conducive to natural dispersal. And with climate change, it may well be expected to extend its permanent range: suitable typical foodplants (Brassicaceae) are widespread. But flying here is not an option for the second discovery, Fire-bug (above, right) as it is wingless. We have reported its discovery in a previous blog, although as an update, we have subsequently learned of another Essex colonisation event, at Shoeburyness, over the past three years.

Nature’s barcodes – picture-winged flies 

A distinctive group of flies that can generally be differentiated by a combination of the plant they are inhabiting, and the details of ant pattern on the wings The first, Urophora stylata, encapsulates the ‘map problem’ well. Dependent upon very common plants (thistles), it is probably one of the commonest Essex picture-wings. But the map is full of holes, particularly in the north-west, where the concentration of active entomologists is lowest. Abundant in mid-June on ex-arable land north of Wivenhoe, in reality it may well be everywhere, notwithstanding the map showing only half a dozen locations east of Colchester.

In contrast, Orellia falcata does seem genuinely to be scarce in the county, indeed in the Essex Red Data Book and Nationally Scarce, restricted as it is to grasslands rich in its foodplant, Goat’s-beard. Our record from Lower Lodge is the only one from the north :

White Bryony is a subtly beautiful plant, the only native cucumber relative, and it too has has its specialist picture-wing, Goniglossum wiedemanni (ERDB, and NS again), seemingly a specialist of the Colne Valley. Interestingly, searching through our images showed we had recorded this (on Ballast Quay Lane, in 2015) but forgotten about it until this year’s sighting by the KGV playing field…

Not all ‘picture-winged flies’ have pictured wings. One such is the Phoenix Fly Dorycera graminum, a species on the UK Red Data List. Although widespread and coastal and riverine habitats in Essex, it is believed to have disappeared from some, maybe even many, of its Thameside sites due to development. Hence its inclusion in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, the aims of which are to maintain and enhance all known populations. We have previously found this a couple of times round Wivenhoe since 2015, and this year from both the KGV and 41 Acres.

Other Flies

One of the larger and more impenetrable groups of insects, the true, two-winged flies (Diptera) are an identification challenge. For some groups, like the picture-wings above, and the hoverflies, however, there are comprehensive identification guides available, even if identification sometimes relies on microscopic detail visible only in dead specimens. Our ethical entomologist principles don’t permit us to kill them for study, so if it cannot be done in any other way, it remains unidentified.

No such problems with a hoverfly which we found to be abundant, especially on the Alexanders flowers around Wivenhoe, early on in lockdown. Look at those eyes! Only two (related) UK species have those spotty eyes: this one is Eristalinus aeneus, the more strictly coastal of the two.

Similar to hoverflies, the thick-headed flies are often wasp-mimics, whose larvae live as internal parasites of bees and wasps. However the adults feed on nectar from Scabious among other species, hence our finding Conops quadrifasciatus around Lower Lodge, where, after a slow start (presumably due to drought), the Field Scabious has produced a field of scabious.

Some flies however do need specialist help, and we are grateful to Del Smith, Diptera Recorder for the Essex Field Club for confirming the next two. First is a dung-dweller Dryomyza anilis, which as the map shows is well scattered, but not previously recorded from Wrabness (and not yet on the map): fresh dog turds are an all-too-frequent substrate, but the smell presumably restricts biological recording activity.

No such unsavoury habits and habitats for the final one, Neurigona quadrifasciata, one of the long-legged flies (Dolichopodidae). An evanescent little wood-nymph we found in Wivenhoe’s Old Cemetery, ours is one of just two records in the north of the county.

Bees and wasps

Always fraught with identification difficulties, an awful lot of unusual Hymenoptera are probably hiding out there in plain sight. But the rarest, another new arrival in these parts, Andrena florea is easily recognised by its red markings, its specific food requirements – once again White Bryony – and its distinctive near-vertical posture as it delves deeply into the flowers. Strongly south-eastern, this is is on the national Red Data list, and its stronghold has long been the East Thames Corridor. North Essex and south Suffolk records have started to appear in the past couple of years, but we had never previously spotted it here despite much time spent starting at White Bryony by the KGV: it is one of Jude’s favourite flowers!

Another relatively recent arrival in these parts, which we saw first in 2019, is the Wool Carder-bee, sometimes very obvious as it defends woolly-leaved plants (such as Lamb’s-ears Stachys byzantina in gardens), from which it scrapes hairs to line its nests. By the Henrietta Close Recreation Ground, we came upon a thriving colony based around a patch of Black Horehound (below, left).

Green-eyed Flower-bee (above, centre) has been much more widespread than in previous years for us. Although not uncommon in Essex, the national map (from www.bwars.com) (below, left) shows how lucky we are to see it, being right at the northern extremity of its core distribution. Lucky to see such a lovely little furry bee, the males with striking green eyes, and to hear its distinctive, shrill buzz, often alerting us to its presence before it is spotted. This spring, we have located strong populations at Cockaynes Reserve, 41-Acres and the tiny Walter Radcliffe Road recreation area, at the latter site visiting Knapweeds in the thankfully unmown marginal strip. Those same flowers also supported several Moss Carder-bees (above, right), a declining, largely coastal bumblebee. seemingly almost, inexplicably. absent from the tidal Colne (below, right).

The rest of the Hymenoptera are equally, if not more, difficult to identify, but we were able to find and photograph the Red-banded Sand-wasp at Cockaynes, a species in Essex confined to the cost and remnant heathlands.

The final one is a sawfly, a group notoriously difficult to identify, not least because they lack any popular identification literature. Such a shame that, as they often have distinctive caterpillars, and the Elm Zig-zag Sawfly demonstrates this admirably: it does what it says on its name!

First recorded in the UK in 2017, this species does not (in common with sawflies generally) benefit from an Essex map. The national map (from species.nbnatlas.org) shows its current distribution extending from London in a swathe north-east to the north Norfolk coast, perhaps not in Essex at all. That is surely set to change, given its unmistakable nature: our record came from the delightful surrounds of the Alresford Old Church.

‘An inordinate fondness for beetles…’

God may have had that, hence creating so many, but he didn’t help us by making them easy to identify. And similarly, the Essex Field Club doesn’t help  – Coleoptera is the one major insect order not mapped on their website. And it would seem that such records as there are are not getting onto the National Biodiversity Network, as maps of even common species show alarming amounts of white space where Essex is…

So below is a selection of those identifiable species we feel are most important locally, in that we haven’t seen them here before:

(L to R) Water Ladybird, Adonis Ladybird, Watercress Leaf-beetle

(L to R) A large rove-beetle Tasgius morsitans, and three weevils Rhinophyllus conicus, Liophloeus tessulatus and Orchestes signifer, the latter a tiny leaf-miner with a death mask we found in Lower Lodge.

Lower Lodge was also the location for what may be our most significant record, the Welsh Chafer Hoplia philanthus. It seems to be missing from the national map from Essex, and a swathe westward, but in reality, who knows? Whatever, the photo shows clearly (albeit inadvertently) its clinching identification feature (thanks to Claudia Watts for pointing this out) – just a single tarsal claw.

True bugs

An increasing, spreading insect in southern Britain, first found in Essex in 2008, we have noticed the Box-bug around Wivenhoe for the past three years or so, as its food-plant range has extended, perhaps a result of climate change. This year, early May witnessed an unprecedented emergence here, seen in many a place around town, including numerous individuals on Yew in the churchyard.

The Blue Shield-bug is generally considered widespread in Britain, but the one we found around the Wivenhoe Gravel Pits was actually our first. And it is NOT easily missed, a shining blue-green jewel of a creature. And actually, as so often, the map shows only a small handful of sites in the north-east of Essex.

Another increasing bug is Closterotomus trivialis, an arrival from southern Europe to London first in 2008. We initially found it in the Beth Chatto Gardens last year, and it was present there in force when the gardens reopened in June. Embarrassingly, we neglected to submit the record in 2019, and so the only locality shown on the map is around Harlow. We suspect in truth it is much more widespread – part of its incognito nature may be that it isn’t currently featured on the otherwise excellent British Bugs website gallery www.britishbugs.org.uk.

Another new arrival (or recolonist) in Britain is Stictopleurus punctatonervosus. In Essex it is primarily an insect of thistles in the East Thames Corridor, and we have not yet found it around Wivenhoe. However, we did come across it in rough grassland in Little Maplestead, a part of the county in which records are few and far between.

Finally, to the hompteran bugs (aphids, planthoppers, froghoppers and the like). One of the more readily identifiable is the Bracken Planthopper, restricted to that foodplant and very distinctive in appearance. As Bracken is the most widely-distributed plant in the world, the bug should perhaps be found everywhere. However, the map suggests otherwise. Three of the four sites we recorded it in lockdown (Wivenhoe Wood, 41 Acres and Cockaynes) are close to one of the spots on the map, but the other (Wrabness Nature Reserve) is a significant range extension.

Grasshoppers and their relatives

The early summer period neatly avoids the time when grasshoppers and bush-crickets are adult in the UK, but fortunately for our lockdown surveys, the nymphs are generally present from April and readily identifiable.

Once almost entirely restricted to the immediate coastal fringes, especially sea walls,  of Essex and Kent, Roesel’s Bush-cricket (above, left) has expanded its range over the past 30 years to occupy almost the whole of England. However, Great-green Bush-cricket (above, centre) has not followed in its footsteps. Inexplicably missing from the middle and upper reaches of the Colne, apart from one small area of East Donyland, we found this nymph at its ‘traditional’ site of Wrabness Nature Reserve.

But there is a small group of little-known, rather secretive grasshopper-relatives, the groundhoppers, which can be found as adults throughout the season. And we found both of the Essex species, Common Groundhopper (below, left) from Cockaynes and Slender Groundhopper (below, right) from 41 Acres.

Both species are widespread across Essex, the Slender being especially associated with valleys and damp grassland.

Odds and Ends

Just a few of the more exciting creatures we found were invertebrates, but not insects, while others were insects, but we didn’t see the insects themselves, just their galls, the distinctive growths they cause when they attack specific plants.

Spiders are now much easier to identify than before, given the new WILDGuides book on Britain’s Spiders. However, a small jumping-spider with distinctive, enlarged front legs in Villa Wood, Cockaynes Reserve, did require national expert Peter Harvey to confirm its identity as Ballus chalybeius. Nationally Scarce, this is strongly south-eastern in core distribution, and we are pretty much at the northern end of its main range.

Slugs and snails are not one of our main areas of interest, but three hours after a major thunderstorm in Stour Wood, Wrabness, we became aware of lots of small slugs crawling over the tree trunks. We identified them as Tree Slugs Lehmannia marginata, and much to our surprise, the map shows a rather sparse distribution in Essex, the eastern outlier of which is actually Stour Wood.

As far as galls are concerned, the two which we found for the first time (for us) are both relatively recent invaders to the UK, and probably scarce in the county, although maps are not available to confirm that. On the edge of Ferry Marsh, a small twisted, gall-ridden tree (at least half a dozen species of gall-causer on it) in March revealed the Barnacle Galls of Andricus sieboldii (below, left) (thanks to Jerry Bowdrey, Essex Field Club Gall Recorder for identification), and Turkey Oaks on the University campus in June were covered in the (hard) currant-like galls of Andricus grossulariae (below, right), one that was first found in Britain as recently as 2000.

Both gall-causers are minute gall-wasps, almost impossible to tell apart if one sees the wasps, but their distinctive galls are proof positive, beyond doubt.

And finally …. Moths & Butterflies

Moth-trapping has been largely out of the question, but we have been enjoying the early-season day-flying macromoth species, four of which are rather sparsely distributed in Essex, but have accompanied many a walk of ours.

(L to R) Speckled Yellow (Cockaynes), Mother Shipton (Lower Lodge), Small Yellow Underwing (Lower Lodge and Barrier Marsh) and Burnet Companion (Cockaynes and Barrier Marsh)

Many micromoths, despite their usually small size, are as attractive as the larger species, and often also of considerable interest by virtue of their localised distributions. Three we have noted specifically are shown below.

We have known the Brassy Longhorn Nemophora metallica around Lower Lodge for some three years, although this location has not yet made it onto the map which shows just two other Essex sites. It is dependent upon Scabious, itself rather infrequent in our grassland-impoversished county, and once the Scabious bloomed after the early season drought, the moth was more abundant than ever.

Also around Lower Lodge, Hogweed umbels proved a good spot to look for the beautiful tortrix moth Pammene aurana. Although regarded as common, the map probably reflects its true status as it is easy to spot and identify: ours, not yet on the map, is only the second recorded site in north-east Essex.

Another beautiful and distinctive micro is Dasycera olivella, which ‘regales’ under the uninspiring English name of Scarce Forest Tubic. Nationally Scarce, this is found sporadically across (mainly) south-east England, and we have found it in previous years around Wivenhoe. But this year, we did come across it only further inland, around Little Maplestead, actually away from its previously known range in the coastal half of the county.

And so to the butterflies. When I started working in Essex 30 years ago, charismatic woodland butterflies were almost a distant memory, apart from White Admirals just clinging on in Stour Wood. For some unknown reason, possibly linked to climate change, that all changed about 15 years ago, and White Admirals are now to be found throughout the wooded parts of the county. Then around 10 years ago, Silver-washed Fritillaries followed suit, and within the past five years, the most impressive of all, Purple Emperor, has continued the trend. Towards the end of June we marked the end of tight lockdown by visiting Stour Wood, where the Admirals and Fritillaries were, as expected, in full force, and  we were thrilled to see a female Emperor as well, apparently (we learned later) the first re-colonist of this wood. Just a pity we didn’t see the male reported and photographed the same day by a friend of ours!

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

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

 

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

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

     

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

  

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

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

 

Lockdown diary: Gallery updates

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