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Return to my conservation roots: the delights of south Essex

They say never go back – to do so can only lead to disappointment. Well, that may be true for certain experiences and places, but sometimes, the converse is true. And that can be a heart-warming occasion…

In the mid 1980s, at the start of my conservation career with the Nature Conservancy Council, I was responsible for south Essex, including the designation of the SSSIs therein. But times move on, and there are many places I have never seen since that time. But last week, I had cause to revisit two of my former haunts after 30 years, Hockley Woods and Martinhole Meadow, and I most certainly was not disappointed.

Hockley Woods had shrunk in stature in my mind over the years, but when I returned, it grew once again to match its official description as the largest contiguous block of ancient woodland in the county.

And its quality has not suffered, despite the undoubted increase in public pressure during the pandemic: it is still well and actively managed. Indeed, since I notified it, Hockley Woods has seen the return (through reintroduction) of one of Britain’s rarest butterflies – Heath Fritillary, so arguably it is now in a better state than I left it.

And it was not not just the butterflies.  It was their larval foodplant Common Cow-wheat among swathes of Wood Melick…

…the frequent, active anthills…

…some of the insect specialities associated with Wood Ants’ nests, such as Four-spotted Leaf-beetle and Scarce Seven-spot Ladybird…

…and a whole array of other wildlife.

I then moved on to the Langdon Ridge, around Basildon, and specifically Martinhole Meadow in the One Tree Hill Country Park. Once a part of the Basildon Meadows SSSI, this has recently been subsumed into a much larger site, covering a range of sites across the ridge, something I had always hoped to do, but never had the criteria to deal with mosaics.

First impression again was ‘nothing has changed’ – and that remained so throughout my visit. A hillside site, on the southern Essex Alps, a ridge of London Clay thrown up by the continental collisions that created the mountains of the Mediterranean basin, it gives the lie to the fallacy that Essex is ‘flat and boring’.

Flat it evidently is not, and the quality of the hay meadow is far from uninteresting, one of the very best of the few similar grasslands now left in Essex, with plants from orchids to Quaking-grass, Yellow Rattle to Sulphur Clover.

And with the flowers come the insects, including a very fine colour form of Tortoise Shield-bug and the Essex Red Data Book picture-winged fly Orellia falcata.

Roesel’s Bush-cricket nymphs were emerging, Burnet Companion moths flittering around, my first Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers of the year, and a sawfly so encrusted in Corky-fruited Water-dropwort pollen in defiance of our obsession with bumblebees being the only pollinators needing conservation action.

So a journey back in time, and my fears were not well-founded. Congratulations must go to the two local authorities (Rochford District Council and Thurrock Council, respectively) whose management has been so important over the years in which countryside budgets have been very heavily cut. And also Natural England and its predecessors for establishing the regulatory regime to make this happen.

A hot day on the Deben Peninsula

Early June and thoughts turn to the night-life of the Suffolk coastal heaths. But dusk comes late, and that gave plenty of time for a hot potter around some of the sites  on the peninsula ‘around the corner’ from Woodbridge…

Starting at Shingle Street, the clarity of the light was perfect for seeing many of the special native plants, from Sea Kale to Sea Campion, and Yellow Vetch to Bur Medick.

Sea Pea was at its glorious best, and Thrift formed a pink mantle across the saltmarshes.

Shingle structures are always vulnerable to invasion by non-native plants, and here is no exception with Red Valerian in particular.

As elsewhere, the cool early spring has delayed flowering times (although nature is running hard to catch up with itself). Viper’s-bugloss and the stonecrops are only just coming into flower; Yellow Horned-poppies are still a long way off, but a good stand of the orange-red Long-headed Poppy was some compensation.

Crossing the peninsula to its western seaboard, the Deben Estuary, Ramsholt was, as ever, out on a limb and peaceful.

Seeing a signpost to the church, and following there on a whim, proved very rewarding: the churchyard, as well as having an enviably picturesque prospect, seems to have taken ‘No Mow May (and beyond)’ to its heart.

And so to the Sandlings, Sutton Heath and Upper Hollesley Common. By now it was so hot that insects were essentially unphotographable, and in actual fact there were rather few anyway. Butterflies seem to have hit the ‘June Gap’, and Painted Ladies outnumbered greatly the Small Coppers, Snall Heaths and whites put together.

But perhaps the most obvious insects are the sand wasps, actively seeking  (and creating) holes in which to nest.

While the earliest heathers are only just starting to flower, Sheep’s Sorrel, Heath Bedstraw, Heath Speedwell and Climbing Corydalis are starting to look good, with more locally Heart’s-ease, Sand Sedge, Spring Beauty, Mossy Stonecrop and Star-of-Bethlehem.

As the temperature dropped in the evening, so the insects started to appear, including Fan-bristled and other robber-flies.

And as the sun set the hues of the landscape intensified, with backlit Bracken and the last embers of the day playing on the pine plantation.

The light faded very slowly, but by a quarter to ten, and after the helicopter had buzzed off, the churring began: at least six churring Nightjars were round the heath in front of us, with an additional three as we walked back to the cars, their song interspersed with more distant wailing Stone Curlews. But even better, a Nightjar song post just happened to be on a bough in full view just ten metres from where we were standing – and the bird came in twice!

 

A week in #WildEssex with Honeyguide

Almost a return to normality – a group to lead for more than a day! Five days for the six to get to know each other and me, to gel into a group of friends, not merely fellow travellers and clients. And based at the by-all-accounts excellent Wivenhoe House Hotel – sadly because of the ‘rule of six indoors’, I was unable to join them for meals, but next time perhaps – and I think everyone had a comfortable and wildlife-filled week. And that is, to some extent, despite the weather: the first few days continued the May theme – cool, breezy and damp – but the sun came out properly for that last two days, and what felt like April was tumbled headlong into Summer.

Monday afternoon 24 May

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, Red Oak, Atlas Cedar, Horse-chestnuts, Monkey-puzzle, eucalypts, and in direct lineage from the Peninsular Wars, the two most venerable, gnarled Cork Oaks you are ever likely to see.

Green Woodpeckers mingled with the multitude of Jackdaws, and family party of Long-tailed Tits huddled together brought the significance of the cold weather into sharp focus.

The catkins of oaks were liberally adorned with currant galls, caused by the same wasp that produces spangle galls in its second, late-summer generation.

A few Red Admirals and Orange-tips introduced  flashes of colour to a dull day, but otherwise insect life was almost restricted to a few ant-like Miris striatus nymphs. And, the very first thing we found proved to be one of the rarest insects of the week, a Juniper Shield-bug on Lawson’s Cypress: the available records suggested that in Essex this has previously been recorded only in the south-west of the county.

Tuesday 25 May

The second day dawned dull, breezy and showery, although as it progressed a few spells of warm sunshine encouraged bird song and brought out the insects, especially where sheltered from the wind. Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps predominated, with a couple of Nightingales, one is very full song, only 10 metres from us – but sadly not in view. Swifts and Swallows seemed still to be arriving, some continuing to push north, and Sparrowhawk, Yellowhammer, Buzzards and Red-legged Partridges added to the bird interest as we walked down the tidal River Colne from the University to Wivenhoe.

Rounding Ferry Marsh Local Nature Reserve, the newly-expanded reedbeds held dozens of singing Reed Warblers, along with a few Cetti’s Warblers and Reed Buntings, and whinnying Dabchicks. Salsify and Dittander were two of the special plants of the sea wall…

 

…then as we walked along Wivenhoe waterfront, attention shifted to the block-paving of the former port and shipyard, and its surprising flora of Buck’s-horn Plantain, Chives, White Ramping Fumitory, Jersey Cudweed and (Two-leaved) Four-leaved Allseed.

Close to the tidal barrage,  the saltmarshes produced flowering Scurvy-grass, and Common Cord-grass with its attendant (and seemingly increasing) Ergot fungus, perhaps pointing to one reason why the invasion of Spartina is not such a problem in Essex.

Although the Bluebells in Wivenhoe Wood were almost finished, Red Campion, Greater Stitchwort, Bugle and Yellow Archangel coloured the woodland scene, and the shelter of a hedge on the walk back to the hotel provided the warmth needed for St Mark’s Flies, Noon-flies, dance-flies and soldier-beetles to be taking advantage of the feeding opportunities at Alexanders flowers.

Nearby, Bugloss in the field margin pointed to an insect-rich area, with Hairy and Forget-me-not Shield-bugs and a mating pair of Rhombic Leatherbugs.

And on similarly sandy soils atop the ‘Essex Alps’, we found both Subterranean and Knotted Clovers in their by now well-known location in the King George V playing field, and then again in much larger quantities across Wivenhoe Park, a previously unknown site to me.

Wednesday 26 May

An early morning, pre-breakfast but not quite first light, potter around the Park produced Rabbits and Jackdaws en masse, together with singing Goldcrest, Coal Tit and Mistle Thrush.

The wind had gained a touch of the northerly: it started cold, and remained at best cool, all day, especially on the windswept clifftop and beaches of the Naze. But, as ever, in the lee of scrub patches, when the sun came out so did the insects, from picture-winged flies to hoverflies, and Green Longhorn moths to a Wasp Beetle.

Our first Speckled Wood and a Slow-worm were also in the warmer enclaves of the John Weston Reserve, along with a near-pupation Oak Eggar caterpillar and a still-unfurling Angle Shades.

Botanical interest on the clifftop was mostly the red smudge of Sheep’s Sorrel (bespangled in places with Bird’s-foot Fenugreek), swathes of Alexanders, and dead Gorse, pruned by the ferocious cold of April. But the scrub still hosted singing birds, with maybe 20 Whitethroats and half-a-dozen Lesser Whitethroats, at one point showing side-by-side for comparison.

Out at sea it was generally quite (for example, no terns at all), although single Eider and Brent Goose lingered offshore, and several Harbour Seals showed their snouts between dives.

On the sandy beaches, Sea Rocket was in flower already, and it was good to see a couple of pairs of Ringed Plovers still gamely battling on with breeding in the face of unprecedented disturbance pressures. Very appropriately, the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Save our Shores project, aiming to combat the growing problem of ignorance and selfishness, is to be the beneficiary of the conservation contribution from this Honeyguide tour. We saw at first hand the problem of out-of-control dogs and vacant/arrogant owners when pairs of Lapwings and Oystercatchers were disturbed off their nests on an adjacent fallow field, although fortunately the birds returned to brood within a few minutes.

And then it was the cliffs and geology. Internationally significant, spanning the multitudinous stories of the past 50 million years, with fossils from Eocene palms to immediately pre-Ice Age Left-handed Whelks. All that, and contemplative beachcombing to round off another very full day…

Thursday 27 May

Our final full day, by now in lovely warm sunshine, 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.

Bird-wise, the estuary was quiet save for Shelducks, Redshanks and Oystercatchers, a small fly-past flock of Knots, and Turnstones roosting on an old pontoon.

The grazing marshes were dominated by Divided Sedge, with Brown-tail Moth caterpillars in many a bush, and although only singing sporadically, a Nightingale in Grange Wood did give us chance to watch it as it fed on the ground.

Moving inland, it was flowers and insects all the way, from Purple Gromwell, Star-of-Bethlehem and Butcher’s-broom to Flower Crab-spider and Red-and-black Froghopper….

 

…and for the lovers of the obscure, a couple of bagworms, including the Virgin Bagworm.

Cockayne’s Reserve really launched the sights of summer (six species of Odonata, including an unfurling Four-Spotted Chaser) interspersed with spring lingerers such as Brimstones, Speckled Yellows and Bunny Bees.

And then the sounds: those icons of summer – Cuckoo and Turtle Dove, both at a premium nowadays – and the surprise of the week, a singing male Golden Oriole, heard for half an hour before it flashed its way through the foliage. A poignant reminder of Honeyguide holidays from pre-Covid days.

But nothing of the hoped-for highlights of Green Hairstreaks, no doubt related to to the frost scorch of the Gorse.

And finally, although it was starting to cool down rapidly, a dusk wander around Wivenhoe Park with the bat-detector produced good numbers of Soprano Pipistrelles.

Friday morning 28 May

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, 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.

Joined by Jude as ‘super-spotter’, we found more than enough insects to keep us happy until lunchtime, including moths, small and large, from Nettle-tap to Lime Hawk…

… Cinnamon Bug to Crucifer Shield-bug …

… Two-spotted Malachite Beetle to Acorn Weevil…

… and Alder-fly, Scorpion-fly and Painted Lady.

Then in a fitting finale, as we had been searching for them fruitlessly all week, six Green Hairstreaks, lighting up the garden with metallic green fairy flashes, A perfect ending.

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So, all in all a very good week, and let’s hope that it is the first of many. One week, with 25 kilometres of walking and only 50 driving – a feast of wildlife on my doorstep. Thanks to everyone for helping me rediscover the delights of working with a group for a week. A full listing of all the interesting things we saw or heard during the week is available as a pdf, MAY CHECKLIST.

#WildBrightlingsea Botany & Bug Walks – the Lido to the Lozenge

It all started so well – warm and humid –  though the darkening skies were a portent of the heavy rain that was to follow and which eventually brought our morning to a rather abrupt end!

Anyway, back to our morning which began with a look at the ‘Splash-zone’ salt marsh plants which make their home along the promenade, and thrive there thanks to the frequent splashing of the waves and, fortunately, the lack of applications of the dreaded Roundup, of which so many councils are inordinately fond. These plants included Sea Beet, Lesser Sea Spurrey and Buck’s-horn Plantain.  A rather attractive soldier-beetle Cantharis rustica put in an appearance whilst we were walking along this section.

Various birds provided the backdrop sound-scape  – Lesser Black backed and Herring Gulls over the water, whilst Cetti’s and Reed Warblers, Skylarks, as well as Blackbirds and Robins, accompanied us throughout the rest of the morning. Along the sea wall we were pleased to see flowering of lots of typical plants, both natives and non-natives, including Cow Parsley, Alexanders, the beautiful pink/purple Salsify which goes to bed at lunchtime, plus the pink-flowering Tamarisk, a lover of coastal regions.

Either by accident or design, (the previous growth of Gorse bushes having been removed last year), the bank along the road opposite the Lido is a mass of flowers including the not-so-common White Ramping Fumitory and Field Scabious, both loved by insects. Although insects were not out and about as much we would have liked, several were apparent, including a three-some of Dock Bugs on the dock leaves along this bank.

Once up on the sea wall, other insects presented themselves – green tortoise beetles, stretch-spiders (shining almost like burnished gold in the gathering gloom), a Bramble Sawfly, plus numerous other flies, bees and spiders. A few beetles made an appearance including Seven-spot Ladybirds and the relatively large leaf-beetle ‘Banksy’ (officially Chrysolina banksii)…

Some insects are only apparent by the traces they leave, for example leaf mines ( here, on the Spear-leaved Orache) – where very small insect larvae live the first part of their lives within leaf-tissue, and galls.

Galls are fascinating and a result of a plant’s reaction to an ‘attack’ by another organism, be it fungus, insects or mites. The affected plant, as a kind of damage-limitation exercise, creates a specific area to keep the perceived infection separate from the rest of the plant, hence the wonderfully varied galls that can be seen on many plants. The Oak is the champion as far as galls are concerned, and over 50 different types have been recorded on these trees, and today we did spot two – cherry and currant galls (above right) – on trees in the Lozenge.

We were disappointed not to be able to linger (because of the now persisent rain) in the delights of the Lozenge Community Nature Reserve, but perhaps we can revisit at another time.  Perhaps a summer evening with the bat detector and moth trap?  Let us know if this would be of interest to you. And next time hopefully we will get to sample the fare in the new Lido café!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – tumbling towards summer…

For much of May, the poor spring weather continued, still on the cool side, but in a complete reversal from April, it was one of the wettest on record. Spring came late and, running fast to catch up with itself, the last few days of the month saw a headlong tumble into summer…

For a variety of reasons (one of which of course was the seemingly interminable rain), we were not in the garden until the very end of May, by which time the moisture had turned it into an oasis of lush green, in total contrast to last year when by now we were already in the grip of the first extended drought. The wonderful, unpredictable vagaries of British weather!

Pollen and nectar providers (otherwise known as flowers!) are now coming to the fore, from the large, open blooms and spikes with exposed stamens whose resources are available to all …

… to the more closed flowers of Lamium orvala which requires something of the bulk of a bumblebee to expose its riches.

As always, there are some botanical superstars attracting more than their fair share of passing insects: at the end of May, these included Ceanothus and Thymus.

Aside from the rather tattered Peacocks (they have been around since last autumn, and withstood the rigours of hibernation, a freezing April and May gales and rain), other butterflies and moths are now emerging. Fresh Speckled Woods for a new season, and a not-so-fresh Painted Lady, quite likely because as a migratory species, it hatched somewhere around the Mediterranean.

It was particularly exciting to see half a dozen flying jewels in the form of Green Hairstreaks. Normally emerging from late April, we have scoured likely habitats in north-east Essex all month, but to no avail. But at the end of May, here they were, performing on cue to my group from Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays, sparkling emerald highlights for our very last walk of the week. That’s timing!

Moths too are appearing, from tiny Green Longhorns and Nettle Taps to the relatively huge Lime Hawk-moth which had just emerged from its pupa, pumping up its wings in the Reservoir Garden:

As the pond water has gradually warmed up, aquatic insects are appearing, including Large Red and Azure Damselflies…

… along with Alderflies and their non-aquatic relatives Scorpion-flies.

Add to that a bewildering variety of true bugs and beetles…

… of course also with predators such as spiders, thus completing the ecosystem cycle.

With the headlong tumble into summer, now is the time to come and visit more frequently to avoid the season slipping away! To book a ticket, please visit the website Entrance – Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens: whether you interest is plants or wildlife, you will not be disappointed.

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours of the Colne Estuary with Naturetrek in May

Three day tours in May, from mid-month onwards would in any ‘normal’ spring have spanned the orderly transition of the seasons. Not so this year: the effects of the very cold but totally dry April were compounded with one of the wettest and coolest Mays on record. Spring came late and, running fast to catch up with itself, the last few days saw a headlong tumble into summer…

Throughout the month, water birds have been almost only the local breeders – Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Little Egrets and Shelducks, with just a sprinkling of winter lingerers in the form of Turnstones, a few Knots and single Black-tailed Godwit and Avocet.

The next stage in the flowering of salt marshes occurred, Scurvy-grass giving way to the pastel pinks of Thrift…

… and on the sea walls Tamarisk, Salsify, Hoary Cress and Spotted Medick all put on a good show.

The reedbeds were full of singing Reed Buntings, a few Cetti’s Warblers and, at least by the third week, lots of Reed Warblers. As with so many other sub-Saharan migrants, including House Martin and Swift, new arrivals which had been held back by adverse winds just kept on coming, their quorum reached only at the end of May.

In contrast, our Nightingales were on time, but the cool weather meant it wasn’t a classic year for song. By the end of May, it was just about over, although a Song Thrush in Grange Wood was doing a great job in keeping the song alive by including whole phrases in its repertoire, thrice-repeated mimicry, the whole gamut of warbling, seeping, chortling, gurgling Nightingale. And Cockaynes at least proved a reliable site for Cuckoos (up to three, sometimes seen well), Hobbies and a purring Turtle Dove.

The waft-in-the-wind, fleetingly fragrant haze of Bluebells became ever more studded with counterpoints of white (Greater Stitchwort), yellow (Archangel) and red (Campion) and by the last week, the blooming of summer was unleashed, everything from Purple Gromwell to Hoary Cinquefoil, Sainfoin to Star-of-Bethlehem, Chives to White Bryony….

… and not forgetting the rarest (and least obtrusive): Two-leaved Four-leaved Allseed!

Insects too were slow coming to the fore with overwintering butterflies like Brimstones and spring-emergers such as Orange Tips taking centre stage. Quite by contrast, Holly Blues and Green Hairstreaks were totally absent until the last days of the month (they should have been around for weeks), when we also saw the anticipated emergence of Small Heaths and Small Coppers.

A flurry of Painted Ladies raised hopes of another invasion year, though it did seem rather to have petered out by the end of May…although there is still time yet.

Speckled Yellows have done well at Cockaynes Reserve, and other day-fliers included the always delightful fairy sprites that are Green Longhorns.

Dragons and damsels again were late coming out, but as the month progressed first the Large Red Damselflies, then the blue ones, and eventually the demoiselles appeared. As usual Hairy Dragonfly was the first of the larger species on the wing, followed swiftly by Four-spotted and Scarce Chasers.

And finally a selection of the other insects and invertebrates which made up this ‘all kinds of everything’ month, the #WildSideofEssex at its very best!

The Wild side of Essex now moves to Hockley Woods and (hopefully) its Heath Fritillaries for June, but will be back at the Colne and the Naze in July, when the first signs of autumn in the form of returning (failed) Arctic breeding waders should be popping up…..

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours of the Naze with Naturetrek in May

The three day walks in May, all in the first half of the month, took place in a variety of weather conditions, everything except warm, calm Spring sunshine! The middle one was the worst, with torrential rain giving way to gale force winds, but all were breezy, and all suffered from a spring delayed by an April fare of cold north-easterlies and night frosts.

While visible bird migration has been a mere trickle, with really only a few hirundines, the odd Yellow Wagtail, small groups of Whimbrels and one splendid Hobby, the results of April’s arrivals have been rather spectacularly numerous. Whitethroats in particular, with 30 or more singing in the spells of better weather, seemed to be in every patch of Brambles, while the later-arriving and less numerous Lesser Whitethroats reached a respectable half-a-dozen.

Cetti’s Warblers usually made their presence known, the latter now typically with 5 or 6 singing males, levels unheard of a short few years ago, and on one walk we managed to get reasonable views. Which of course for a Cetti’s Warbler is any view, however fleeting….! Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps however generally played more fairly, especially in sheltered nooks.

Shorebird numbers dwindled during the two weeks, but as they did more were in summer plumage. Dunlins, Sanderlings, Turnstones and Ringed Plovers made up the bulk (the latter especially in mid month, presumably a high Arctic population).

Oystercatchers and Ringed Plovers were trying gamely to breed in small numbers on the beaches, in the face of unprecedented human and canine footfall while a pair of Lapwings displayed, and were eventually sitting on eggs, on a fallow field.

Offshore, although Little Terns had not yet made it, there was a (actually ‘the’) female Eider, a long-staying bird, perhaps not fully adult and not in condition to head to the Farnes to breed, and a single passing Fulmar, together with regular Grey and Harbour Seals.

A pair of Gadwalls frequented the lagoons, Mediterranean Gulls put in regular yowling flypasts, and, and as if to compete with the white-winged wonder of the gulls, a Barn Owl put on a surprising early afternoon sortie.

It was on the 8th of the month the Naze was at its wildest: atrocious weather, with heavy rain and strong winds all morning, and when rain stopped the wind just grew in strength. At least, being southerly, it was warm(ish). Remarkably on that day, #GlobalBigDay, we did manage to pull together 51 birds species, most in small numbers, of which the most unexpected was a small, unseasonal flock of Siskins which dropped in briefly.

Flowers were rather few and far between, with White Ramping Fumitory, Sheep’s Sorrel, Bur Chervil and Scurvy-grass providing the interest; Blackthorn, which came and went in a flash, and Gorse (much of it badly frost-scorched) giving the shrubby colour; leaving Alexanders the job of feeding the insects, at least when it was warm enough for them to be flying.

Most obvious insect, as ever at this time of year, albeit appearing about a week later than its eponymous date, was St Mark’s Fly, and as the month progressed, several related Bibio species joined it on the umbels.

Otherwise, invertebrate-wise, just two species of butterfly (Peacock and Speckled Wood), the attractive micromoth Esperia sulphurella, and Saltmarsh Wolf-spiders rampaging over the beach at low tide…

But even in the worst weather, there are some things that are reliable. Lichens for one….

…. and of course the geology: the story of the past 50 million years, tales of tropical lagoons, volcanoes, continental collisions and the dawn of the Ice Age. Always there, always impressive, always appreciated, from Red Crag to London Clay, septaria nodules,  faulted volcanic ash bands to pyritised wood and other fossils.

Here’s hoping for Spring soon…!

 

 

 

 

#WildBrightlingsea – branching out with our Bug & Botany walks

As a recce for our new series of #WildBrightlingsea walks coming up (sadly tomorrow’s is postponed because of potentially dangerous winds), we headed there today. Only a short distance from Wivenhoe, it is more maritime in nature, with Tamarisk already looking its best, before the flowers actually burst open and the coral tones are diluted, and Duke of Argyll’s Tea-tree is now well into flower.

With winds rising in anticipation of the spring storm, some sheltered areas were teeming with insects, many of them getting into the summer of love, to the fragrant accompaniment of Hawthorn and Cow Parsley, the very embodiment of May. Dock Bugs were abundant on Hemlock, presumably insensitive to the toxins that render it so poisonous to us.

A selection of the other insects and invertebrates we found included Parent, Woundwort and Green Shield-bugs…

… a selection of hoverflies and dance-flies…

… along with weevils, crane-flies and Nursery-web Spiders …

… and finally, the stars of the day, a Large Velvet Ant and the fly Argyra diaphana, both pretty uncommon in Essex and the former also Nationally Scarce.

One thing that struck us as we walked around the town is that the benefits of reducing mowing may be gaining traction: a grassy bank opposite the Lido has masses of Bur Chervil (a rather scarce, largely maritime plant), and also White Ramping Fumitory and surprisingly early flowering Field Scabious. Whoever manages it, well done!

And in another example of amenity grassland delivering for wildlife, if allowed, the lawns around the Community Centre are another prime example. Heaving with interesting plants including Common Stork’s-bill, Small-flowered Crane’s-bill, and masses of Subterranean Clover, another scarce coastal plant, let’s hope these examples represent a deliberate decision to encourage nature that will go well beyond #NoMowMay!

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: The Wivenhoe cemeteries

This month’s walks, in the cemeteries Old and New, were spread over two days. The warmth and short-lived dry spell on Monday morning brought out a myriad of insects; on Saturday there had been virtually none, but we were instead rewarded with the accentuated smells and colours of the wild flowers in the rain. The Cow Parsley was at its heady best, and the Bluebells, creating a swathe of blue, dotted with yellow buttercups, a feast for the eyes.

This special, sacred,  place has suffered from mismanagement at the hands of man over the years, but nature is fighting back to provide us with a refuge in these uncertain times.  The ancient gravestones, each of interest and worth a read – if only we had had the time! – themselves are mini-nature reserves, covered in lichens, and homes for mini-creatures, including four types of ‘bagworms’.  These are moths which live at least some of their lives in little ‘bags’ –  in the case of Psyche casta the bags are covered in little bits of grass; whilst the ‘Virgin bagworm’ is covered in lichen and grit, and remarkably spends its whole life in The Bag on its own (or rather ‘she’ spends her whole life there – no males needed in this species)!  Two other varieties seen on Monday were Narycia duplicella with the pupal exuvium sticking out of the end of the larval case, and the long Taleporia tubulosa.

Other insects found by the Monday group (sorry Saturday folk) included both Green and Hairy Shieldbugs, the Cinnamon Bug and Red-and-Black Froghopper (both in the ‘warning’ coloration combination of red and black, signifying that they are probably pretty nasty to eat), the Umbellifer Longhorn beetle, and a rather beautiful picture-winged fly Euleia heraclei.

A well-recognised plant occurring in our woody areas is Wild Arum/Lords and Ladies/Cuckoo Pint (to rhyme with Lint)/ Jack-in-the-Pulpit as well as being known by many other names – lots of them quite ‘naughty’ as the flowers are rather, erm, shall we say anatomical-looking!  A few other botanical delights caught our eye –  a delicate little flower, Hairy Tare growing alongside Common Vetch; Thale Cress, rather like the well-known Shepherd’s Purse, but with very different seed pods; whilst Shining Cranesbill with its varnished-looking leaves is certainly at home in the Old Cemetery, as is Garlic Mustard.

Of the larger vegetation a number of splendid trees create height, shelter and lend the place a certain grandeur – these include Himalayan Pine, Horse Chestnut and two species of oak, whereas shrubs like  Viburnum tinus provide valuable nectar early in the year when newly emerging insects need fuel.

We finished our hour in the newer Cemetery which is celebrating ‘No Mow May’ and the wild flowers are numerous and a joy to behold.  Many leaves on the Lime tree have unmistakable red ‘needles’ sticking out of them – these are fascinating little nail galls, created by gall mites (arachnids).  Each of these little structures contain many mites.

Walking on the lush grass certainly put a Spring in Our Steps – the mossy structure beneath your feet is unmistakable, and we hope that those who at first may have been unhappy that Grandpa’s grave had a few ‘weeds’ near it, will instead come to feel uplifted by the power and beauty of nature.

Thank you to all of you who came along ( and to those who had intended to be there but were unable to do so).  The weather left something to be desired, but we all made the best of things.  We have included some photos in this report, but some were taken on our recce a few days before the walk (when it was at least bright though not necessarily sunny). See you all soon.

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours of the Naze with Naturetrek in April

After three months’ enforced absence, it was all change at the Naze. Clearly, the winter wet and hefty storms had caused a lot of erosion, with cliff-slips and tree-falls evident during the first of four @Naturetrektours day walks in April.

And even in ‘the month with no rain’, the preceding winter’s deluges kept lubricating the landslips into activity right through the month: #The WildSideofEssex at its best!

The slumping cliffs, naturally disturbed, are the aboriginal home of plants that may be more familiar as followers in the wake of humanity. Colt’s-foot was already in flower, replaced at month’s end by its ‘dandelion-clocks’ and unfurling leaves:

And the erosion has other up-sides too. It provides sand for the beaches downdrift, it creates clean faces for Sand Martin nests and to reveal the geological strata, telling the story from Tertiary times…

… and providing new crops of fossils to be searched for on the beach.

Whether 50 million year-old fossils and septaria to modern flotsam, there’s always something to find. From sharks’ teeth to Angel’s-wings, Alpine upheavals to winter landslips, at the Naze ‘then’ meets ‘now’ and rubs shoulders with ‘the future’ in the month that the contribution of renewables to the UK energy supply exceeded 60%.

And while the sea was very quiet for birds on the days we were there, save for a few Cormorants and gulls, and a single female Eider…

…shorebird numbers actually increased during the month, as Dunlins (up to 500), Sanderlings and Turnstones especially gathered before heading to the Arctic for the summer, by the end of the month many of them moulting into summer plumage.

… while on the marshes the number of Shovelers grew to an impressive 50 early in the month.

Landbirds were rather more difficult to come by in the cold to very cold north-easterly winds which persisted all month. The cliff-top scrub proved a reliable site for wheezing Greenfinches and mating Kestrels, the fields around had displaying Lapwings, and ever-increasing it seems, angrily-singing Cetti’s Warblers, six or seven around the headland.

But summer migrants were mostly seriously held back by adverse winds. Sand Martins, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps had made it through in March, but the martins all but disappeared until the very last day of the month. Other hirundines did little more than trickle through, and Whitethroats arrived in mid-month, with 15 or more singing on territory when the first Lesser Whitethroats dropped in a week later. Otherwise, it was a merest sprinkling of Yellow Wagtails, Sedge Warblers, Wheatears and Sandwich Terns. There is still much to arrive…

Another increasing species seems to be Muntjac. It is now the norm to see several during a walk, and this is in spite of the huge number of dogs walked over the Naze. The last walk of the month also gave us other mammal records, including Stoat, Weasel and a magnificent bull Grey Seal offshore.

Flowering, by and large, has been held back by the arctic air and night frosts. Take Blackthorn, normally peaking here in late March, at the start of April much of it was still in tight bud. The peak occurred some three weeks later than is usual, and many bushes were still in fine bloom and feeding bumblebees and Peacocks at the end of the month.

Otherwise the main nectar and pollen resources were Gorse, a coconut-scented blaze of colour in the sun, albeit badly frost-scorched in exposed places, and Alexanders, a non-native perhaps but one that pays its way in terms of ecosystem services.

 

Other plants starting to show were White Ramping Fumitory and Sheep’s Sorrel on the clifftop, Sea Rocket germinating on the dunes, Hog’s Fennel sprouting and the first flush of salt marsh blooming with the emergence of Common Scurvy-grass.

And a final couple of botanical findings, fascinating fasciations, where the shoot tips of Shrubby Sea-blite and Sycamore have both become flattenened and proliferated.

It was a very difficult month for insect-watching. Late emergences and reduced activity meant that only at the hottest times of the day, when the sun was out, and in sheltered spots out of the wind was there much to see, with basking solitary bees, cuckoo-bees, hoverflies and ladybirds.

The Blackthorns were hosting some impressive larval webs of Brown-tail Moths, and the Gorse as always came up with the goods in the form of Gorse Shield-bugs and Gorse Weevils, most noticeable perhaps by the holes they excise in the petals.

And then at last on the final day, an emergence of St Mark’s Flies, behind schedule by some five days: black, hairy and dangly, fearsome-looking perhaps, but entirely harmless, indeed beneficial as food for Swallows and as pollinators.

So, all-in-all an interesting month. A bit of an endurance test at times in the teeth of the wind, but Spring has advanced a little. And as we head into May, the dam-burst of held-back birds and delayed flowerings is surely only days away….

 

 

 

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours of the Colne Estuary with Naturetrek in April

Three #WildSideOfEssex walks on the Colne Estuary with Naturetrek  in the month from the very end of March were expected to span the transition from winter to summer. And so they did, albeit rather in reverse order…

The first post-lockdown walk on the last day of March coincided with the last day of the mini-heatwave, with temperatures rocketing to 22°C – unseasonably, almost unreasonably, hot, even for the Essex Riviera! That very afternoon, skies clouded over, bathing the landscape, by now devoid of birdsong, in cloying yellowish light. Sahara dust was on its way, and when the rain came that evening, the dust blanketed everything as the temperatures plummeted. Thereafter April was a month of no rain, but icy winds from the north-east. Plenty of sunshine, but no real heat, and more night-time frosts than the whole of the preceding winter.

And naturally, this had impacts on the wildlife. Blackthorn was still in tight bud during the first walk, and only just past its best by the third, a good three weeks later than is typical round here.

But nothing if not contrary, Nature had its mixed messages – the first Bluebells were in flower by the end of March, well ahead of schedule, but then spent April in suspended animation, still leading up to a May peak.

Other interesting botanical finds during the month included Greater Stitchwort and Spring Beauty on woodbanks, Stork’s-bill and Early Forget-me-not on the heaths and White Ramping Fumitory closer to the tide:

But not all exciting flowers are showy. Some of the most subtly beautiful are green: Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage, Butcher’s-broom, Red Currant and the simply unique Town-hall-clock in the woods and Mousetail clinging to just one of the thousands of Yellow Meadow-ant-hills on the marsh.

A surprising number of fungi were found (perhaps as it has been a very wet winter) with Maze-gill, a fruiting Reticularia slime mould, and best of all that beacon of winter wet woodland, Scarlet Elf Cups, in profusion by Sixpenny Brook.

In the heatwave, spring insects were out in force with Bee-flies and Hairy-footed Flower-bees investigating the Red Dead-nettle and Ground-ivy…

… while butterfly numbers faded during the month, numerous overwinterers (Peacocks, Commas and Brimstones) giving way to the first emerging Green-veined Whites and Orange- tips.

And that just leaves the birds. All change! On the estuary, the waterbird numbers dropped away rapidly, although the summer-plumaged, glowing copper, tiger-striped Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits were simply stunning. Overhead several Mediterranean Gulls yowled imperiously and drifted over on implausibly white wings on each walk, while Red Kite and Marsh Harrier were both on the move. And by months’ end, the piping of the waders had largely been replaced by the screech of Common Terns.

Other summer birds were slow to arrive. A few hirundines were around at the outset, but numbers barely changed during the month. Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps had made it back before the adverse winds set in, as did an early Sedge Warbler, and then by the second walk, Whitethroats, and the last one, Reed Warblers. Resident Cetti’s Warblers seem more numerous than ever, and it was especially exciting to see a territorial pair of Nuthatches in Grange Wood, as this bird is generally absent on the Tendring Peninsula.

All of the above and more, including good views of both Fox and Muntjac. And what better than on the final walk, to take lunch sitting by Sixpenny Brook, a Treecreeper creeping overhead and singing Nightingales – new in just three days previously – either side?

 

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – the chills of April

Since the mini-heatwave in March that fired the starting gun for Spring, April has gone downhill, or at best been treading water. Persistent, piercing, chilly north-easterly winds have kept temperatures well down, despite some lovely sunny days, and the nights have brought more frosts than the whole of the rest of the winter put together. And to cap it all, barely a drop of rain.

The plants have told the story of those weather stresses. Out in the surrounding countryside, Blackthorn peaked three or four weeks after its normal time, although confusingly, Bluebells started to flower a month early, although the cold has put them into suspended animation ever since. In the garden, the results have been equally mixed, winter colliding with spring while edging towards summer…

And the same is true of the insects in the garden. Until mid-month all butterflies were hibernators, especially Peacocks and Brimstones. But at last the new season’s adults have started to emerge, with Green-veined Whites and Orange Tips mixing with the first of the Speckled Woods in the dappled shade:

In sheltered spots out of the wind, and when the sun is out, bees are starting to emerge along with hoverflies, and bugs and other creatures are there to be found basking.

But the real insect action has been around those plants which best provide what insects want: nectar and pollen. In March it was Scilla bifolia, while in mid-April Skimmia ‘Kew Green’ took over the baton. Among the bees and hoverflies, there were a couple of scarce flies, the Spring Bee-grabber (just a couple of previous north Essex records) and the bristly moth parasite Tachina lurida, with only four previous Essex records.

 

The Skimmia is starting to fade now, so what will take over? Certainly Euphorbia wulfenii is attracting flies, and both Cherry-laurel and Thermopsis are attracting the bumblebees.

By the end of the month, having been held back for so long, the dam-burst of Summer is hanging in the air. All it will take is the wind direction to reverse, night-time temperatures to rise and we will be cascaded through the riot of Spring, probably faster than any of us would like. If anyone is thinking of visiting for a welcome taste of the early season, best do it soon!

A couple of further highlights are perhaps more by accident than design. Where mowing is restricted by trees and obstructions, Daisies and Dandelions are showing through, a natural complement to the insects’ garden restaurant. Wouldn’t it be good if  ‘No Mow May’ could find a place in the garden regime? Not perhaps on the main lawns , but maybe in the car park or on the verges of the driveway: every little helps our beleaguered pollinator force.

And then there’s the borders that are becoming infiltrated with one of our most charismatic little ancient woodland plants, Town-hall-clock. Some might say ‘infested’, but I would say ‘skeined with a graceful filigree of unassuming, green-flowered delight’. Who cannot love a plant whose scientific name ‘Adoxa‘ translates from Greek as ‘without glory’; whose clock-face flowers have five petals each, whereas the one pointing skyward has (usually) just four; a plant whose relationships seem so obscure it was until recently considered unique, the only member of its family in the whole world? And which bizarrely, following genetic sequencing has been shown to share a family with Elders and Viburnums!

So spring may not yet have fully spring but the garden is already full of wild interest, And even on the coldest days, there are always the multi-species lichenscapes on the trees, ever-present whatever the weather!

As always, the Beth Chatto Gardens are brimming with life. While the weather, and over the longer term climate, are going awry, the importance of gardens like this in maintaining our countryside’s wildlife cannot be overstated.

To visit, unless you are a Friend of the garden, online prebooking is essential. Please visit https://www.bethchatto.co.uk/garden-nursery/planning-a-visit.htm