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#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany walks: a crisp winter’s day at the Naze

Having Walton-on-the-Naze on our doorstep is surely one of the delights of living in our part of Essex. And delightful it surely was on our Fossils and Birds walk on the coldest day of the year – sub-zero temperatures but in sparkling sunshine, we could see for miles out to sea, the still air  punctuated by only the lapping of the waves and the burbling of the Brent Geese one to another.

Standing on the beach looking at the cliffs, you really are looking back many millions of years in time. The whole area, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, is one of the finest geological sites in Britain, comprising layers of London Clay, topped by Red Crag.

The stunning redness of the Crag is due to oxidisation of the sand and shell layer laid down over 3 million years ago when Walton was, as now, at the edge of the sea, just prior to it being engulfed in the turmoil of the last Ice Age. Fossils of many kinds and shell debris can be readily be found on the beach, most stained an attractive red colour, distinguishing them from otherwise-identical modern shells.

A combination of the seeping of rainwater downwards, lubricating the clay surface, and storm wave pressures makes the whole area prone to landslips and substantial coastal erosion, which although exciting for geologists and fossil-hunters, nevertheless is extremely worrying for those with buildings atop the cliffs! One vulnerable structure is of course the famous Naze Tower, a 300 year old leaning landmark, built by Trinity House for navigational purposes and today a popular art-gallery and tea room.

Some years ago a local dispute raged as to what to do – completely surround the whole Naze with a sea defence?  Extremely expensive and would prevent geological discovery and the ‘production’ of sand which feeds our local seaside resorts. Or let the whole area eventually fall into the sea? A compromise was sought and about ten years ago an additional 170 metres of defence was built. Now known as the Crag Walk, this allows a safe walkway, and provides a chance to study the cliffs at close quarters, whilst learning about the geology and wildlife from interpretation boards. It also protects the area immediately below the tower.

And so to our beachcombing….many delights awaited the patient explorer, including a shark’s tooth spotted by Chris – probably 50 million year old and looking in pretty good nick! (the tooth that is!), from an inhabitant of the subtropical London Clay lagoon which then covered most of what is now Essex.

‘Boring piddocks’ Chris was heard to exclaim at one point….to whom or what was he referring? Turns out Piddocks, also known as Angels’ Wings, are attractive shells which bore vertically in the soft London Clay, making perfectly round holes as they do so. Equally modern are the Slipper Limpets accidentally introduced to our waters a century ago.

Other delights included ancient pyritised wood (turned to ironstone), and copperas nodules (which some suggest are fossilised poo or ‘coprolites’). Fifty million years old!

The left-hand coiling whelks Neptunia contraria are interesting as most gastropods coil in a dextral way; these left-handers from the warmer Red Crag seas can be dated at over two million year old. It’s hard to get your head round numbers like this!

Although quite slippery on the London Clay platform, areas of sand became more accessible as the tide receded and we were particularly struck by the beautiful dendritic drainage tree-shapes in the sand. 

In addition to the wonderful beach treasures, we were able to see and hear many birds who make that area their home…the ubiquitous Brent Geese, as well as  Herring and Black-headed Gulls. In addition entertaining us running up and down the beach were several Turnstones, Grey Plovers, Curlews and Sanderlings. On the cliffs, Rock Pipit and Robin, their singing suggesting they were migrants defending their winter territories, and overhead several small flocks of Siskins, also migrants, flew northwards.

A very enjoyable end to our 2021 season – thank you all. Fingers crossed we can go ahead with our 2022 programme as planned, as #WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany walks are rebranded as simply #WildEssex: we try to do the lot!

The grassland fungi of Wivenhoe’s New Cemetery

We have always valued the grassland in Wivenhoe’s New Cemetery highly for its biodiversity. Created around the start of the 20th century, and on the gravelly soils that sit atop the Wivenhoe Ridge, the quality of the turf, undamaged by the pervasive modern scourges of pesticides or fertilizers, is apparent from the springy, diverse grasses, and abundance of interesting plants such as Mouse-eared Hawkweed and Field Scabious.

This autumn however, in common apparently with many other sites in southern England, other features have come to the fore: a remarkable range of interesting and often attractive grassland fungi.

From corals to clubs and puff-balls to waxcaps, the latter a kaleidoscope of colour from white to yellow, orange through to crimson, the show this year has been magnificent, indeed better than we have ever seen before. Which highlights one of the big conservation issues for grassland fungi, simply knowing where the best sites are, as the fungi produce fruiting bodies only very sporadically, sometimes not showing for several years at a time.

Now we know this site is of value for its fungi. And more important than we might at first appreciate: a national expert  commented to me when I posted the photos on Twitter ‘From the data I hold there are very few quality grassland fungi sites in Essex. So the cemetery & its grassland is very important as you obviously know’. Thanks to Wivenhoe Town Council for keeping it that way.

So where else in the area might be equally good? Well, any of our local grasslands, whether part of the ‘no mow, no sow’ enhancement project or not, have the potential. The only similar shows of grassland fungi I have ever seen round here were in Wivenhoe Park a couple of years ago, and the KGV back in 1987. Indeed it was memory of the latter showing that helped convince me the lower end of KGV would be good for our first foray into hay meadow management five years ago.

But, confounding my hopes and expectations a wander round KGV this year, while it did provide a few fungi, was certainly not exceptional. Just goes to show the unpredictable and evanescent nature of fungal fruiting, and why we should grasp all opportunities we can to record it, evidence for the protection that grassland fungi so desperately need.

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours of the Essex coast with Naturetrek in November

Two walks in November, as autumn gave way to winter.

Early in the month, our day on the Naze may have been in unremittingly dull conditions but the wildlife was excellent, starting with several hundred babbling Brents on the foreshore. Offshore, there were at least 40 plunge-diving Gannets (a good number for the Essex coast), with good views of a Mediterranean Gull and a passing Shag, while migrant Grey Wagtails, Starlings, Fieldfare, Brambling and Siskins flew in off the sea.

Along Stone Point, an array of feeding waders included Sanderlings, Ringed Plovers, Turnstones and Redshanks, and around 200 Bar-tailed Godwits. A Buzzard flapped along the beach, and a female Stonechat popped out of the coastal scrub.

Aside from birds, lingering summer delights included Hog’s Fennel and Sea Mayweed still in flower, and Cord-grass heavily infested with its own, large, rather scarce form of Ergot.

And always reliable, the internationally significant geology of London Clay and Red Crag, with attendant fossils indicative of the climate when each was laid down, and evidence of ancient volcanic ash clouds provided us with something interest right through to dusk.

At month’s end by the Colne Estuary, the weather could not have been more different: clear blue skies for much of the time, barely a breath of wind and really very mild.

A morning feast of waterbirds as the tide came in, with maybe 3kiloKnots, hundreds of godwits (both species), Avocets, Lapwings, Redshanks and Brent Geese…

And much more, from Teals and Wigeons, Little Egrets and Dabchicks, to bird of the day, a Red-throated Diver, rarely seen this far upriver.

Later on, Cutthroat Lane and Cockaynes Reserve had fewer birds, but some lovely autumn colours.

A few lingering flowers included Jersey Cudweed and Four-leaved Allseed on Wivenhoe Waterfront, and Lesser Calamint on the Essex Alps, while early rather than late was Butchers’-broom, normally coming into flower in the New Year.

And fungi included  Cordgrass Ergot (again), here with its even scarcer orange hyperparasite Gibberella), Birch Bracket and Fly Agaric, and a scattering of waxcaps right at the end of their season, given the forecast of first frosts to come….

The most sublime winter day of sunshine and still air, evocatively burnished with the gentle sound of falling leaves and burbling Brents!

The last fires of autumn in Kew Gardens

A few photos of our trip to Kew last week. No commentary, just pictures, from leafscapes to landscapes, groundscapes to glowing autumn colours, even a few beasties and of course fascinating flowers from around the world. The only downside: our own species heading around the world every two minutes as if the pandemic and climate catastrophe were yesterday’s news….

Exploring the innermost corners of the Essex coast – from Purfleet to the River Lee

South Essex is a fascinating region, especially close to the tide: the innate wildness of the estuaries is never wholly tamed by their juxtaposition with development and human beings. As part of our mission to complete exploration of the Essex coast in its widest sense for our book project, we have this summer been looking southwards in more detail, and indeed already produced several blogs, from the Crouch Estuary and the Roach Estuary to the chalklands and refuse tips of Thurrock,  and the Three Mills area of the River Lee at Stratford.

All those left just one big gap in our experience, from Purfleet to the mouth of the Lee, that bit which is now Greater London but was once firmly part of the kingdom of the East Saxons. So in midsummer we made our first foray to Barking, with abbey, mill and port at the point the River Roding grades into the tidal Barking Creek, once the haven for one of England’s largest fishing fleets.

And it proved both interesting and instructive, with wrecks in the semi-tidal waters covered in Hemlock Water-dropwort, overlooked by the delightful  (and welcome!) Boathouse Bar, to Cuckold’s Haven with a chalk flora including Wild Basil and Greater Knapweed (maybe sown, or perhaps naturally generated on calcareous spoil from a chemical works).

Add into the floral mix the non-natives like Greek Dock and Bladder Senna – it just beckoned us back for an overnight stay.

And so at the end of September it was back to  to the delights of Beckton, in the crook of the North Circular and A13, nestled next to the largest sewage treatment plant in Europe. Yes, the air was full of the scent of the effluent and hydrocarbons, but also the sound of a myriad of Cetti’s Warblers. At least ten singing birds from Barking to Creekmouth, in reedbeds and scrubland, plus several others in ornamental plantings around the Gallions Reach and other retail parks.

Barking Creek and Creekmouth may not be classically beautiful, nor sweetly fragrant, but they are certainly dramatic, with giant pylons and the drop-down flood barrage, a familiar site from both sides of the river, a vast array of sewage tanks and treated water gushing out to the Thames.

Dramatic and, so it proved, fascinating entomologically, with several bugs which are new colonists of the UK from the south taking advantage of the heat island of the capital (and the sewage farm). The most widespread nowadays is Southern Green Shield-bug, rather similar to the widespread Common Green Shield-bug as an adult, but with very different multicoloured nymphs, as below:

Next new bug was the Mottled Shield-bug, one we had seen first a few weeks previously in remarkable abundance on Wild Clematis on the edge of the Olympic Park, one river valley to the west of Beckton. Here there were fewer, but they were scattered on much more common shrubs such as Bramble.

And third, what seemed to be the  Privet Leafhopper, a very recent arrival in these parts. However, while we remain convinced of its identity looking at images online, it has been pointed out there is another, similar, equally new relative with us now, and the two can only be separated by destructive microscope work. So for us, as ethical entomologists not wishing to kill in the pursuit of our passion, this has to remain Fieberiella sp.

In addition to the specials, there were plenty of other more common bits and pieces too…

Finally while in the area, we took the opportunity to visit some of the other, really quite extensive, green corridors based on the Thames tributaries, albeit now sluiced and so no longer tidal, including the Mardyke, Rom, Beam and Ingrebourne. Green areas are good for wildlife, good for people and help give a separation between places such as Romford, Dagenham and Rainham.

One feature at this time of year was of course flowering Ivy. Everywhere it was blooming, everywhere it was buzzing, with Red Admirals, Ivy Bees, Hornet Hoverflies, and many more.

Especially around Purfleet, where the once famous low chalk cliffs have now been erased by the march of progress, the influence of our Essex outlier of the North Downs is still all around with Wild Clematis scrambling through the hedges, now in full Old Man’s Beard mode…

Purfleet itself is full of military history, although now perhaps more renowned for the Rainham Marshes RSPB reserve. The two are intertwined, the marshes once a firing range which saved them from destruction under mountains of refuse like the area to the west. My own involvement spans the eras – my last visit to Rainham Marshes was when the RSPB reserve opened nearly twenty years ago; prior to that my visits were all associated with building the case for the protection of the Inner Thames Marshes as we tried (successfully) to prevent the marshes’ transition to a film studios once it became surplus to military requirements. Shades of Swanscombe, across the river – and let’s hope the outcome there is as positive!

And Ingrebourne Marshes provided me with something I have never seen before, despite years of searching: three species of Neuroterus wasp galls under one oak leaf. Two of the three commonest spangle galls – Spangle, Smooth Spangle and Silk Button – I have often found together, but never before all three.

 

 

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks – autumn in Wivenhoe Park

For those of us living in Wivenhoe, the University grounds (Wivenhoe Park) are a wonderful resource the year round, but never more so than in autumn with beautiful trees turning to russet and gold, and usually lots of fungi to discover.  This year the autumn is rather late in arriving, so many of the arboreal specimens are still in their summer coloration – but there was some evidence of a change in the Narrow-leaved Ash and the Norway Maples which were looking splendid on our morning walks in October.

As a demonstration of how the fires of autumn are either late, or subdued, this year, the photo below left shows the groundscape below Red Oak today; on the right are the leaves of the same tree exactly two years earlier. Different year, different weather conditions of the preceding summer, different colours…

So our walk, billed as ‘Fruits, Foliage and Fungi’ was rather lacking in dramatic foliage, and also fruits. Acorns, for example, were almost non-existent, in complete contrast to last autumn, a mast year, when the trees were laden with the fattest acorns imaginable, in huge numbers. Fortunately, for those of a gastronomic bent, the Sweet Chestnuts, at least from some trees, have fattened well.

But as for fungi,  the damp summer and warm autumn have produced a bumper crop. On our walks we are not able to identify all the species we find with confidence – even expert mycologists have been known to mis-identify with alarming and potentially fatal results.  So we stick to pointing out what we can and offer tentative or group identifications where we are able, but never to say definitively ‘this is edible’…!

A summary of what we saw, in pictures…..

Everyone’s favourite, from elves to toads to Father Christmas, the Fly Agaric was in profusion around one of the Silver Birch Trees:

Several other species in the genus Amanita were also found, including one which may prove to be our most interesting find when it grows up. At this early button stage it has all the appearance of the Solitary Amanita, a rare , southern species in the UK.

Under Beech and Oak trees, there was a variety of puffballs, earthballs, cheese-caps, penny-buns and lovely Amethyst Deceivers, at first almost invisible among the leaves, but seeming to emerge in troops as we got our eyes into searching:

And out in the more open grassland, again a great range of species, from Shaggy Ink-caps to Liberty Caps and Parasols, Yellow Clubs to waxcaps, all indicating the ecological quality of the extensive grasslands in Wivenhoe Park.

And then fungi growing on the old trees themselves, Beefsteaks and Sulphur-tufts recycling and hollowing, but not killing…

High in a large Oak. Chicken-of-the-Woods was fruiting…and as we peered skyward, a sharp pair of eyes spotted an anomalous set of leaves sprouting from a bough. It was a 2m tall Silver Birch sapling growing epiphytically from the Oak, the sort of thing we associate with rain forests, both temperate and tropical, but a surprise in the arid lands of north-east Essex.

In keeping with the ‘Bug’ bit of our walks, we kept an eye open for invertebrates – and were hoping that the Rhododendron leafhopper Graphocephala fennahi  would make an appearance. Spectacular and relatively large for its family Cicadellidae, this is one of only a few creatures which makes its home on Rhododendron.  A quick peer at the host plant indicated that there were none to be found today, but here is ‘one that we took earlier’ on our recce a day previously, a somewhat warmer day. Certainly worth a search next time you are near a suitable plant.

While we didn’t look in too much detail at galls this time, one that attracted our attention was these hairy little structures on Beech. These are the galls of the gall midge Hartigiola annulipes, which it seems is rather rare in Essex, with only seven previous records from the county shown on the Essex Field Club map. Another sharp pair of eyes spotted these little insects apparently coming out of the galls – as a mini-wasp, these are not the gall-causers, but likely a parasite thereof.

All those and more – Jackdaws and Green Woodpeckers as usual here flew the flag for the birds, along with a few Redwings ‘seep‘ing overhead, and one, maybe two, noisy Little Owls that unfortunately remained hidden.

For anyone looking to go back, the university has recently produced a second edition of its ‘Tree Guide’, well worth a look, and a visit to these grounds, at any time of year. To download a pdf of the guide, visit Wivenhoe Park | University of Essex, and follow the link.

Thank you to everyone who joined us and apologies to those who we had to turn away.  We like to keep our groups fairly small in number so that everyone can see and feel involved.  Apologies too that we unfortunately, inadvertently chose the Uni ‘Open day’ to arrange this event, so Chris had to compete with loud music and a helicopter overhead, but hopefully none of this got in the way of enjoying the nature!

 

To Scotland by train …

In September, our first real holiday since the start of the pandemic saw us heading to Scotland by train, our preferred mode of transport, with ferries and bus to help join the dots.

First to Glasgow, our favourite city, although this time mainly for sleeping (and breakfasts at our traditional haunt of the G5 deli in the Gorbals). Days out north and south of the Clyde introduced us first to Helensburgh. There the main attraction was The Hill House, the Mackintosh masterpiece of design, albeit wrapped in its protective chainlink coat…

Its garden too was full of ‘no mow lawns’, and an array of interesting plants and insects:

… and the lower, riverside town, while less affluent, had lots of Eiders and another lovely eating place (Riva, on the promenade), kicking off the seafood extravaganza (for me) that our holiday became.

Next trip was via the ferry from Gourock to Dunoon, a short crossing but one which featured Harbour Porpoises in considerable numbers.

Dunoon churchyard and gardens gave us lots of lichens, along with a few insects…

…while the stony beach produced lots of Ray’s Knotgrass and a strandline flora of Tomatoes and Sunflowers!

And not forgetting the next gastronomic delight on the roof terrace of the newly-opened Tryst restaurant…

Moving on, the less said about Oban the better, apart from its Hooded Crows, Black Guillemots and the very best meal of our holiday in the Lorne Bar, just off the main drag, and so really good value. Seafood soup and mussels to beat all comers!

And then off to Coll, to meet up with our friends @Wildsmiths, looked after by them and Coll Hotel (great food at both venues once again) for four days. Four grey and damp days, with barely a sliver of sunshine). And midges….but this is Scotland!

Both ferry crossings were grey and calm, and the return very misty, our foghorn ricocheting off the mountains as we traversed the Sound of Mull simply adding to the atmosphere. Auks, Gannets, Bonxies and a few Manx and Sooty Shearwaters came close enough to see, as did Harbour and Grey Seals, Porpoises, dolphins and a brief (probably Minke) whale.

On the island, there was a myriad of natural delights, from misty views (very occasionally sprinkled with sunshine magic)…

… to dewdrop delights …

… to plants we don’t see at home….

… and those we could only feasibly see in a place like Coll, especially the last few flowers of Irish Lady’s-tresses, and the Pipewort, as Greg memorably said, like liquorice allsorts on knitting needles, set at jaunty angles…

… and so much more, from Buoy Barnacles to beach trees, porpoising seals to jellyfish,  the sheep rock to the largest sand dunes I have ever seen in the UK, hosting more Bloody Crane’s-bill than I have ever spotted before, and here with its seriously rare mite gall…

   

Rather more prosaically, the Vine Weevil on the quay  (according to the National Biodiversity Network map has not been found previously on the island…

Back to the mainland it was then across the country to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Naturally bridges feature heavily in our photo coverage.

But again so much more: buildings, boats and the harbour…

… and, the poor weather again notwithstanding, a selection of insects and birds.

So a great holiday, the memories of which have sadly lasted longer than our bottle of Coll Gin. Liquid Coll atmosphere, all Bog Myrtle and seaweed, a sip or two of that  brought the sights, sounds, scents and flavours flooding back for a few weeks!

An October week in #WildEssex with Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays

Honeyguide’s second #WildEssex week (the first being back in May – see here) saw north-east Essex largely cloaked in grey, with occasional heavy rain especially in the first two days. Despite the near absence of sunshine, a good time was had by all, the weather and wildlife both reflecting the turning of the seasons. Thanks as always to Wivenhoe House Hotel for accommodation and food in such glorious parkland surroundings, Beth Chatto Gardens and Essex Wildlife Trust for sites to visit and their visitor centres. And of course the wildlife of the area sends its thanks to participants: the conservation contribution will find its way to them via the good works of the EWT.

Monday afternoon 4 October

After checking-in at Wivenhoe House Hotel, a gentle potter around Wivenhoe Park introduced us to wonderful trees, young and old, some Pedunculate Oaks pre-dating the landscaping of the park in the mid-18th century, and a selection of specimens from almost all corners of the world. All three species of redwood, Turkey and Red Oaks (the latter sadly not yet really starting to light up with the fires of autumn), Deodar, Atlas Cedar and Cedar-of-Lebanon, fruiting Sweet-chestnuts, Strawberry-tree (in flower and last-year’s-fruit simultaneously) and in direct lineage from the Peninsular Wars, the two most venerable, gnarled Cork Oaks you are ever likely to see. As for the Magnolia grandiflora, it kicked off a week of botany using all the senses, its dinnerplate-sized flowers regaling their surroundings with the glorious scent of lemon cheesecake.

A few fungi were starting to appear on the older trees, including several emerging Beefsteaks and Chicken-of-the Woods …

… but insect life in the cool breeze was restricted to a few robber-flies and Rhododendron Leafhoppers.

Of course, the signs of insects were apparent, in the form of galls. The underside of many an oak leaf bore the galls of Common Spangle and Smooth Spangle galls, the larval homes of Neuroterus quercus-baccarum and N. albipes respectively.

Tuesday 5 October

For the only time in the week, it dawned clear and bright after very heavy overnight rain. As we splodged down through Wivenhoe Park, the sunlight shone its magic on the architecture (where Modernist meets Brutalism), several whinnying Dabchicks, and the trees alike.

Two species in particular seem to be fruiting well this year, Dog Rose and Hornbeam, in stark contrast to, for example, the oaks: irruptive Jays, which had just started arriving on our shores, are likely to find lean pickings this winter.

By the upper Colne, it was high tide and the only birds were Black-headed Gulls, Mallards and Teals, with Skylarks in semi-song over the fields. But the intense blue sky made up for avian deficiency, especially when counterpointing Silver Birches (with Birch Bracket fungi), the trunks in the photo having only just been vacated by a Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Between the spiky showers that developed in the afternoon, the woods were full of roving bands of tits and Treecreepers; Wivenhoe Quay had a bumper crop of Jersey Cudweed; a Hawthorn Shield-bug sunned itself on a fence post; and perhaps the most beautiful Hogweed umbel ever offered its resources to the diminishing hordes of pollinators.

The Walnut tree in Wivenhoe Churchyard had, as is usual, the large blister galls of the mite Aceria erinea, but more excitingly the small pimple galls of A. tristriata – when we first found this a few weeks ago and looked at the National Biodiversity Network maps, we found it has been identified and mapped only 11 times previously in the whole of the country.

But most exciting of all was something that was over in second, so fast there was no opportunity to photograph or intervene. A caterpillar was dangling in a silken thread from the tree canopy. As we looked close, we noticed a small parasitic wasp actually walking down the thread, and when it found the caterpillar, quick as a flash it stung it, presumably laying an egg or eggs, leaving the hapless larva to intense wriggling, its ‘not quite dead, yet!’ throes….

Wednesday 6 October

A day at the Naze, the most easterly point of Essex, a windswept headland, but still we persisted in cool, hefty, blustery north westerlies! Not surprisingly. any small birds in the scrub were keeping well out of reach of the blow, but surprisingly perhaps birds were arriving in off the sea, even against adverse winds. Meadow Pipits and Starlings were most numerous; the stars of the show were single Great Spotted Woodpecker and Short-eared Owl. Flocks of Swallows and House Martins, with a few Sand Martins, were drifting southwards all day.

Hog’s-fennel was just coming to the end of its flowering on the clifftop, Annual Sea-blite and samphires smearing the salt marshes with their autumnal tints, and Sea Rocket and Prickly Saltwort bringing life to the embryo dunes.

A Sea Aster Mining-bee stranded away from its food wasn’t going anywhere in the by now fearsome and cold wind, and another taste/smell opportunity arose with Golden-samphire and its ‘essence of shoe polish’.

On the shoreline, Turnstones, Ringed Plovers and Grey Plovers fed, although keeping low and out of the breeze, while offshore, a steady trickle of small flocks of Brent Geese, Teals and Wigeons flew by, with a few more highlights in the form of noisy Sandwich Terns, a close-in Red-throated Diver and an immature Gannet.

Walking back along the shore, of course the internationally significant geology took centre stage, London Clay and Red Crag cliffs, full of fossils and other clues to the environments of the times they were laid down, with the skeletons of last winter’s erosion a stark reminder of constant change in the natural world.

As we emerged back on to the clifftop, right at the end of the day, we found the wind had indeed dropped as forecast, and the only hint of sunshine for the day brought out a basking Red Admiral.

Thursday 7 October

Our final full day, calm and mild but unremittingly grey, took us further down the Colne Estuary, from Wivenhoe to Alresford Creek, then back along the high route on the ridge of the Essex Alps, taking in the very well-restored (for wildlife) gravel pits at Cockaynes Reserve.

Wivenhoe waterfront, attractive, arty and historic, also harbours plenty of botanical interest, from White Ramping-fumitory to the nationally rare Four-leaved Allseed (like the Jersey Cudweed a couple of days earlier, eking out a living in the cracks of block-paving, in those few spots where it is able to evade the incessant rain of Roundup). Heading out on the sea wall, upper salt marsh specialists included Strawberry Clover and the pungently scented Sea Wormwood.

Bird numbers increased as we headed downstream against a rising tide which concentrated the Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits and especially Avocets into flocks, the latter reaching an impressive 150 or so birds. A Kestrel hunted along the sea wall, while a Buzzard ran the gauntlet of the local corvids, and Meadow Pipits and a Song Thrush migrated overhead.

The saltmarshes, bedecked in autumn tints, included patches of salmon-pink, rather uncommon, Perennial Glasswort, with Common Cord-grass still in full bloom.

Poking from many a Cord-grass flower spike were the fruiting bodies of the parasitic Cord-grass Ergot, itself being hyperparasitized by the orange fungus Gibberella (‘Big Fleas have Little Fleas etc ….’!). The Cord-grass strain of Ergot is much larger and protuberant than the more normal form which infects grain crops and other  grasses, as we had seen earlier in ornamental Lyme-grass around the car park.

Other fungi included the always dramatic Fly Agarics underneath (and intimately associated with) the Silver Birches of Grange Wood.

Returning homeward along the crest of the Essex Alps, one characteristic plant of the gravelly soils was the local speciality Lesser Calamint, its crushed leaves a delightful mix of mint and citrus, with a fleeting medicinal top note. Along the ancient trackway of Cut-throat Lane, Butcher’s-broom was remarkably already in flower. Or should that be ‘still’ ? – the books say it flowers from February to May…

Close scrutiny of the undersides of Oak leaves al last revealed examples of the beautiful Silk-button gall, the third of the common three Oak spangle-galls of the week. Sycamore leaves had the microfungal splotches of Tar-spot, and dead Elms, the tell-tale signs of the bark-beetle that proved their nemesis by introducing Dutch Elm Disease fungus, while larger fungi included some impressive Parasols.

Cockaynes Reserve produced its usual crop of diverse wildlife, a very wide range reflecting the mosaic of post-gravel extraction habitats, including ancient woods, scrub, heathland and wetland: Maze-gill, Reindeer Moss, Blue Fleabane, Chicory, Angle Shades moth, Green Shield-bug, Birch-catkin Bug and several impressive Robin’s Pincushion galls on Dog-roses.

Friday morning 8 October

After checking out, we reassembled on the final morning at the renowned Beth Chatto Gardens, just a couple of miles down the road. Beth was an early advocate of sustainable and ecological planting, the right plant in the right place, and the garden reflects that. Full of interest for the gardener with an eye to the future, it is also full of wildlife, albeit a little suppressed today by the misty, moisty veil of autumn.

Insect life was really focused upon the late nectar/pollen sources, with Red Admirals on the Michaelmas-daisies and Hornets, hoverflies and Honeybees on the Ivy flowers; otherwise it was a few Dock Bugs along with a closely related Box Bug, the latter a relatively new arrival in these parts. A final example of one of the pervasive themes of the holiday, the flux and flows of Nature, both natural and in response to our mismanagement of the planet, that both raise concerns about ‘the now’ while offering hope for the future.

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So, all in all a very good week, and let’s hope that it will not be the last. One week, with 25 kilometres of walking and only 50 driving – a feast of wildlife on my doorstep and it was a pleasure to share it with Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays. A listing of most the interesting wildlife we saw or heard during the week is available as a pdf, OCTOBER REPORT LIST.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: September – autumn approaches

A mixed month, demonstrating the turmoil of seasonal change, September produced several days of  glorious summer sunlight, interspersed with cooler days and sometimes cold nights, and for the first three weeks at least, a near absence of rain. All very typical, and as one would expect, the garden is now burgeoning with seeds and fruits, as increasingly the foliage bronzes…

While fruits are of considerable value to visiting wildlife, the late-flowering nectar and pollen sources are of equal importance, especially to insects putting on a last breeding push or laying down resources for a winter of inactivity. In our ‘Twelve-month menu for wildlife’ some of the star players are shown here, from  Red-hot Pokers, Colchicums and Persicarias, to the pincushion heads of Succisella, the latter especially  heaving with bees and butterflies.

Commas and Red Admirals have been everywhere, with in mid-month at least several Painted Ladies and a Brown Argus, the latter seemingly not too common in north-east Essex this summer:

Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers have been very numerous around the ponds on warmer days,  and at last (they are late emerging this year), lots of Willow Emeralds, a newish species to these shores, but now one which has become a fixture of the warm autumnal scene.

This month has seen a huge emergence of crane-flies (much to the delight of family parties of Starlings), with hoverflies and robber-flies showing well too.

And our very best insect of the month, a Juniper Shield-bug: once rare in Britain on native Junipers, this is now spreading on garden relatives. But this individual may be only the second ever record from north east Essex, following one we found in May in the nearby Wivenhoe Park. There are always surprises to be found!

#WildBrightlingsea Bug & Botany Walks – All Saints’ Churchyard and Moverons Lane

It almost felt like normal – a dozen wildlife fans and us being able to spend time together enjoying the natural world. Our venue this time was the large churchyard of All Saints’, Brightlingsea, followed by a potter along the adjacent lane.

All Saints’ Church itself is impressive – the decorative flint indicating its historic wealth and importance. The churchyard covers a vast area with quite a few trees and features such as log piles and an Insect Hotel, all of which are valuable homes for invertebrates. However, with the exception of some patches of Lesser Calamint (a sweet-smelling and Nationally Scarce plant), most areas seem to be mown (too) regularly to provide much assistance to wildlife. It is commendable to provide homes for things to live in, but these creatures also need places to feed and breed. But on the plus side, the church does welcome the large colony of Soprano Pipistrelles it hosts!

The morning got off to a dull start (and we were grumpy that the No 62 Bus had failed to turn up!), but things were soon brightened by a lovely Speckled Bush-cricket who was sitting on the fence hoping for some sun. Other invertebrates in the churchyard included a large spider (brought to our attention by its long legs poking out of a grave), plus a  Harvestman sheltering away from the wind. We spotted a brilliant green sawfly larvae on a gravestone – and it demonstrated very nicely the arrangement of legs on sawfly (which are types of wasp) larvae as opposed to lepidopteran (butterfly and moth) larvae, which in technical terms have fewer pro-legs.

Lichens are doing well in this holy space. These fascinating organisms are in fact each a composite of an algae living with a fungus, so not really species in their own right, though each are scientifically named, e.g. the Sunburst Lichen is known as Xanthoria parietina. Their ubiquitous presence is an indicator of the general comparatively good air quality as opposed to that of the pre-Clean Air Acts era, when acid rain had a negative effect on them.

It was lovely to see a few areas of pink Ivy-leaved Cyclamens – the phrase ‘small is beautiful’ is so apt, compared to the blowsy horticulturally enhanced varieties that are available. This is the only cyclamen that stakes any claim to native status in the British Isles, but not around here where it is derived from cultivation or deliberately planted. Irrespective, it is a welcome splash of autumn colour.

The weather brightened just as the walk was drawing to an end. The Ivy bushes along Moverons Lane were teeming with all kinds of life in the sunshine – Willow Emerald damselflies (a species which has colonised Britain over the past 20 years), Red Admiral butterflies and many types of bees and hoverflies.  Such a joy to stand and watch, listen and smell the flowers! Ivy gets a bad press, but it is such an important source of food and shelter to all kinds of insects and birds; it does not kill trees and it can provide protection to buildings that it grows up.

Elms are present along the lane – not large Elm trees that had once graced our countryside – but now thanks to Dutch Elm disease only the smaller shrub-like trees, which only grow for a few years before becoming overcome with infection by the fungus-carrying bark beetle  Scolytus scolytus. However, the galleries these creature make under the bark are truly beautiful and artistic. Other recent artistic additions to the nation’s fauna include the Zig-Zag Elm Sawfly which makes rather charming zigzags as it chomps its way along the leaves.  A sharp-eyed member of our group found a well-camouflaged Dark Bush-cricket nestling on a post, whilst Chris noticed this crazy moth caterpillar (a Grey Dagger moth).

Just as we were wandering back to the cars a Devil’s Coach Horse beetle scuttled across the road – rearing its back end up as a warning to us. These are a type of rove beetle, and totally harmless. We managed to shepherd it out of harm’s way before saying our goodbyes to the group.

Many thanks to you all for attending, hope that you enjoyed the morning and that you will be able to join us on another exploration of  nature before too long.

Autumn approaches on the River Crouch

A great couple of days exploring the less known (to us) parts of the Crouch for our book. The weather may not have been too great but it certainly made for moody, moisty landscapes…

Some landscapes bore the hallmarks of autumn, dead Hemlock weaving filigree patterns in the sky, while the year-round winter of Dutch elm disease is still rife in the Dengie.

Saltmarshes in contrast are still blooming away, with Sea Wormwood and Sea Aster only just past their best…

… while Sea-blite dons its autumn coat, fifty shades of green.

Invertebrates included Long-winged Conehead, the egg sac of a Wasp Spider and larvae of the Plum Slug-sawfly.

Among the many other highlights: the wonderful agri-environment work at Burnham Wick Farm (apparently successful as Corn Buntings and Linnets were everywhere), outstanding food at the Oyster Smack Inn, and the helpful, friendly service of the Burnham Ferryman Mark Phillips, giving us an easy window into the wildlands of Wallasea Island. We will be back!

 

 

To the fringes of the tide in old Essex – Three Mills and the Olympic Park

Out to the fringes of ‘old Essex’, in Stratford, the Olympic Park and Three Mills Island: landscapes old and new…

In the Olympic Park, nearly 10 years on the ecological planting still thrives…

Our last visit to the area was the subject of one of our earliest blogs in July 2017. There have of course been changes over four years, especially in the additions to the high rise landscape.

But from a wildlife perspective, it seems the main change has been the colonisation by Mottled Shield-bugs. New to the area (and Britain) as recently as 2010,  there were dozens of them along the Greenway edges and hedges of Traveller’s-joy and Bramble (and bizarrely Summer Jasmine) in all nymphal stages, along with a few adults.

This bug is still unknown to us in the north of the county. The same is not true of this splendid Rose Chafer, a fairly common sight around Colchester, but with very few records in the south-west, according to the Essex Field Club map

To these can be added much more of interest, from Rose Sawflies, picturewings and hoverflies, and dense patches of Dwarf Elder.

And so to the main reason for our visit, to explore the complex of waterways in the kilometre downstream of Stratford, a fascinating complex of channels, fresh and salt, tidal, flowing and still, embracing an inland archipelago.

Three Mills island is in effect the end point of our mental walk around the Essex coast, right to the far flung corner of the tidal lands of the East Saxons, the ‘walk’ which has been turned during three months’ lockdown into eighty thousand words, and a planned six volumes of Not Just a Field Guide to the Essex Coast. Two tidal limits here, one just upstream from the House Mill, the other at the head of the Channelsea River:

As with the Olympic Park, architecture and artitechture featured, both old and new, with cathedrals to both power and poo….’poo’ being the ornate Byzantine dome of Abbey Mills pumping station, and ‘power’ being the largest tidemills of their era, and the interlocking tracery of now abandoned gasworks, their form seemingly mimicking the The Orbit, just upstream.

Low tide rendered the tidal channels almost empty, but still a Kingfisher flashed through, as Red-eared Terrapins basked in the sunlight. And as everywhere, there were plenty of other delights to find, from leaf mines to jewel beetles…

On the banks, again it was a mixture of natives and recent arrivals, mostly increasing invasive species, apart from the Honeybee using the Himalayan Balsam flowers for food. The delights of Multicultural London, where even plants from half way round the world are doing their bit to support our pollinator army!