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Lockdown diary: Heading towards summer in Cockaynes Reserve

Our last report on the reserve was nearly a month ago, when it was looking greener and flowery after some long-awaited rain. But that is the last time it rained in these parts – the semi-arid Essex coast living up to its meteorological reputation – so throughout May, a month of almost unbroken sun and 7% of average rainfall, the reserve has dried to a crisp, situated as it is on free-draining gravels and sands.

Consequently the flowering is now much less profuse, mostly comprising deep-rooted shrubs and plants protected by a degree of shade. Honeysuckle is in full flower, drenching the early morning air in  its heavy fragrance, and Cow-wheat has shown a surprising dash out of its usual woodland habitat onto the heathy slopes, where it may be extending its root-parasitic behaviour to include Heather as a host.

Even the ubiquitous Stinging Nettle , much maligned, is coming into its own, as the tiny green flowers on dangling whorls burst forth, a fluffy aura which catches backlight very fetchingly.

And perhaps the main beneficiary of the drought, renowned for favouring hot dry sandy areas, is Smooth Cat’s-ear. Although a great rarity in Essex, in the same general sandy area where we found a couple in April, about twenty plants were flowering, although the scattering of hairs on the leaves of some plants suggested they may be hybridising with the much more frequent Common Cat’s-ear.

Now is the time for munching, when newly-emerging leaves are at their most nutritious, and herbivorous insect larvae take advantage:

The identificaton of moth larvae has taken a great leap forward recently with the publication of a new field guide. Many of those we found on Birch proved to be Mottled Umbers, very variable, but a Blossom Underwing was distinctive and a good  find.

But one we could not track down, and it also baffled Richard Lewington, illustrator of the new guide. It took Phil Sterling, one author of the book, to point out it was actually the large caterpillar of a micromoth Phycita roborella (and so not covered in the book). The distinctive eye-pattern of this larva makes me wonder if more could be made of such details in the always tricky field of larval identification.

May is also the month for emergence of dragonflies and damselflies, and Cockaynes did not disappoint: its mosaic of wetland habitats and scrubby, flowery, sheltered edges area ideal. In fact, by the end of the month, these had become the most obvious insect group, the butterflies having already fallen into the traditional ‘June gap’ a week or two early.

As always though there were plenty of other invertebrates to be found:

But one or two merit special mention: the White Crab Spider, devouring a Green-veined White…

…the newly-emerged Bird’s-wing moth, still drying its wings out…

…the distinctive planthopper Ditropis pteridis, which is restricted to feeding on Bracken, but (perhaps surprisingly) known from only eight sites in Essex previously, and never before from Cockaynes….

…and best of all (just look at those rapacious front legs!), a male Ballus chalybeius, a small jumping spider, nationally scarce but with a strongly south-easterly distribution.

Even in challenging weather conditions, Cockaynes maintains its role in supporting the physical and mental well-being of Alresford and Wivenhoe #NaturaHealthService!

Lockdown: time to remember the Pyrenees…

Aisa Valley, Spain

Wonderful wildlife of the Pyrenees

from Naturetrek e-news May 2020

Chris-Gibson
By Chris Gibson
Tour Leader
16th May 2020

The Pyrenees have been my wildlife tour-guiding destination of choice now for almost 30 years, with more than 25 tours under my belt to both the Spanish and French sides of the range. What explains its consistent pull on me, when there are so many other magnificent wildlife areas in Europe and the rest of the world? I think it is the intimate mix of the familiar, the unusual, the abundance and the unique that nails it for me, all set amidst outstanding scenery and dramatic geology, along with the unfailingly warm welcome my groups get from the places we stay in and visit.

Stretching for some 400km between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and up to 100km wide when the flanking pre-Pyrenean ranges are included, the Pyrenees are border, barrier and island all in one. They are a border between counties and climatic and biogeographic zones – cooler and wetter to the north, hotter and drier to the south, with an additional rainfall gradient running from higher in the west to lower in the east. They constitute a barrier to movement, such that pairs of closely related, and often very similar, species are essentially separated by the range – witness Scarce and Spanish Swallowtails, Pine and Spanish Pine Hawk-Moths, Green and Iberian Green Woodpeckers to name just three. The lower passes through the mountains are also a place to watch the twice-yearly ebb and flow of migratory birds and insects between France and Spain. Furthermore, the massif, rising in several places to more than 3300m, is a more-or-less isolated island of high ground that supports plants and animals unique to the Pyrenees; indeed, the deep valleys that cut between individual mountains are themselves sufficient to isolate populations, especially of invertebrates and plants, and have led to the radiative evolution of myriad local endemics. In short, the Pyrenees are a true centre of biodiversity, on a European and global scale.

My tours have been based in two centres, both in the central part of the chain. On the French side, we are in the hands of Odile and Philippe at Gèdre, staying in the wonderfully situated Hôtel Brèche de Roland, looking up the Cirque de Gavarnie to the eponymous ‘brèche’. My most recent visit there was my only venture into the area in autumn, and gave me a very different perspective. Gone were the snowscapes I am used to in spring and early summer, and access to some of the areas above 2000m was easy, without the risk of finding a snowdrift round the next corner. This was also when I started to appreciate migration across the mountains, through the Col de Boucharo above Gavarnie into the upper Ordesa valley in Aragón. Small birds – hirundines, pipits, wagtails and finches – were obvious flying through and calling. The insect migration – of hoverflies and dragonflies in particular –  was striking too; this phenomenon may be less apparent, and little known perhaps, but it was fascinating nonetheless.

Spanish-Swallowtail

Spanish Swallowtail (Chris Gibson)

Boucharo,-looking-into-Ordesa

Ordesa Valley from Boucharo (Chris Gibson)

At those heights, we were also seeing some of the specialities, including the Pyrenean endemic Merendera, Thistle and Eryngo, widespread across the chain, and super-specialities, like the Pyrenean Rock Lizard, known only from areas between 1700m and 3000m in a 40km stretch of the central parts of the range.

During that tour we also had several sightings of the avian icon of the Pyrenees, the Lammergeier, a species emblematic of these mountains, despite its broad distribution across Africa, Europe and Asia. Now there’s a success story of my time in the Pyrenees – the breeding population has increased from 40 to 130 pairs, despite the increase in recreational visitors and its notorious susceptibility to disturbance. This is a success for which we can take some credit, as ecotourism has encouraged a great deal of local conservation effort.

Most of my Pyrenean adventures, however, have been on the warmer side, in Aragón, based in the picturesque hilltop village of Berdún. Here I have seen children born and grow up to have their own families while village life goes on around them almost unchanged, save for the loss of breeding Tree Sparrows and Scops Owls, and the gain of Rock Sparrows. Originally, we were based in the village centre (all cobbled streets, echoing with chattering Swallows, and Griffon Vultures overhead) at the Painting School, run by Viv and John, and fed and watered at El Rincón de Emilio. But since the Painting School closed, we have moved down the hill, into the very capable hands of Peter and Mel at Casa Sarasa, for unfailingly outstanding food and facilities, great company and an excellent co-leader, and a garden managed for wildlife, the lawn studded with orchids in spring and thronged with butterflies in summer – as many as 25 species a day at the peak. They also have a moth trap and a licence to use it, as required in Spain; many a happy hour has been spent sitting by the trap, and sorting through the contents the following morning, especially during my early July moth and butterfly themed tours there, seeking out the goodies from among the sometimes thousands of Pine Processionaries. And what goodies they are – hawks, tigers, red-underwings and, especially a little earlier in the season, the really big game: the hand-sized Giant Peacocks (sometimes in multiple occurrences) and, just occasionally, a Spanish Moon Moth, another icon of the Pyrenees, the Lammergeier of the moth world, a veritable flying Art Nouveau brooch … or a monster caterpillar for the midsummer visits.

In fact, it would be possible to spend a full week walking out from the base at Casa Sarasa. As well as the garden, there is wildlife-rich scrub and grassland, riverine woodland and marsh, and rocky gorge habitat all within a few kilometres. Bee-eaters and Golden Orioles, kites and vultures, hordes of Common Swifts, and in April and May, more singing Nightingales than I have ever heard anywhere else – this is just a small selection of the breeding birds on offer. In July, the butterflies come into their own: Common and Spanish Swallowtails, Marbled Whites, Spanish Gatekeepers, Spanish Chalkhill Blues, Clouded Yellows and Great-banded Graylings are often especially numerous, together with a frantic band of pollinators working the Scabious, Knapweed and Chicory flowers from dawn ’til dusk. And finding a flowering patch of Dwarf Elder of Hogweed can mean that no walking is needed; just standing and looking at the dinner-plate-sized floral banquet, source of nectar and pollen for all-comers, can provide a continual stream of insect visitors, from hairstreaks to green-eyed monstrous horseflies, longhorn beetles to iridescent chafers, and often as not, a crab spider taking its pick of the goodies on offer.

Casa-Sarasa-and-Berdun

Casa Sarasa (Chris Gibson)

Lammergeier

Lammergeier (Chris Gibson)

Spanish-Moon-Moth

Spanish Moon Moth (Chris Gibson)

Having said that, to overlook the range of habitats and associated wildlife available within an hour’s drive would be unthinkable. From the hot, dry Ebro Valley, through the conglomerate pre-Pyrenees, to the montane heights at and above 1700m, there is excitement to be found year-round. Some of the most overwhelming sights are the drifts of mountain flowers – daffodils, gentians, Oxlips, hellebores and orchids, and many, many more – which are nowhere better than in the remote valley of Aísa. This has to be one of my favourite spots on the surface of the Earth – almost unimaginably scenic, the haunt of Golden Eagle, Alpine Marmot and Southern Chamois (or Izard). It’s the sort of place where nature and landscape merge so wholly, without any significant human intrusion, that you just want to sit and stare and sink into life in the mountains.

And if the weather is right (which it isn’t always!), the butterflies in high summer are outstanding – diverse (a typical week in July will produce 110-120 species) and abundant, with puddling multi-species throngs of male blues, skippers, fritillaries and whites. It’s the perfect situation in which to compare often difficult to separate species, excellent for photography, and difficult to lift one’s eyes from… except when the sky is darkened by a majestic, almost soaring, Apollo.

Of course, it isn’t just about the butterflies, and the trap is not the sole window into the world of moths. There is a range of day-flying moths too, many of which are ultra-charismatic and much sought after, including clearwings, foresters and especially red-and-black burnets, of which we have recorded nearly twenty different species over the years.

With all this going on, it is almost impossible to single out individual highlights of my Pyrenean adventures. When asked to name my favourite tour, I almost invariably pick the one I have most recently led, and actually, the process of continual discovery gives considerable truth to that. Highlights are created through a unique combination of wildlife, place, weather, people and happenstance, and one of those high spots was indeed on last year’s tour, towards the end of a very hot, dry week, when temperatures at Casa Sarasa peaked in the mid to high thirties. As I wrote at the time:

On the penultimate full day, the weather was breaking down. Torrential rain was forecast, so we remained close to home, in a meadow at the top of Biniés Gorge, just 5km away. In overwhelming humidity, the Brambles, Dwarf Elder, Scabious and Knapweed were almost literally dripping with butterflies, burnets, beetles, bugs and flies of every description; such diversity and abundance gives hope for the planet once the malign curses of pollution and pesticide drenching are consigned to history. It was a cornucopia at every turn, everything seemingly feeding voraciously in advance of the coming deluge. And what a deluge it was when it came that evening – 70mm or more of rain, so intense it caused a major cliff fall, blocking the road to our Garden of Eden.

The sights and sounds, smells and memories of that meadow will remain with me always, the beating heart of the wild Pyrenees at their best.

Knapweed-Fritillary

Knapweed Fritillary (Chris Gibson)

Chalk-Burnet

Chalk Burnet (Chris Gibson)

Mediterranean-Burnet

Mediterranean Burnet (Chris Gibson)

Of course, highlights can equally coalesce around something less all-encompassing. Returning in my mind to Aísa, and specifically to our usual picnic site a little way down from the top of the road, a fellow traveller came back excitedly from a lunchtime potter having found a flowering Pyrenean Lily, the only one I have ever seen. It is such a dramatic, and iconic, flower! Nearby, we know of a couple of small patches of Cross Gentian, and experience has shown that if we wait close by for a few minutes, in most years we will see Mountain Alcon Blues coming to lay eggs on them. It is always a highlight for the clients, and for me, that in the vastness of this landscape, the butterfly, which we never come across elsewhere, can be almost relied upon to put in an appearance.

Another butterfly that is always high on the wish list is Two-tailed Pasha. While not uncommon on the Spanish side where its food plant, Strawberry-tree, is found, the timing of our July tour misses its second-brood abundance peak of late summer, though we have found its dragon-masked larvae and seen the occasional early adult, including on one memorable (anti-highlight) occasion, supping from a ‘fragrant’ dog turd…

Returning again to last year, another highlight was waiting for us on our journey home. On the way back to the airport, we took lunch at Agüero, among the Strawberry-trees. Sadly, as I ruefully explained after lunch, this looked like being for no purpose, given that the object of our desires had not appeared. However, no sooner had I said ‘Two-tai….’ than Peter shouted ‘Two-tailed Pasha’ as one sailed around us, up into the treetops and away. There was no chance of photos but, our passion for pashas somewhat sated, we headed home blessed by serendipity that no amount of planning could have ensured.

That just leaves my own personal highlight of highlights. For forty years I have scoured the beechwoods of Europe for a plant so mysterious and unpredictable its presence is usually spoken about in hushed tones and generalities. I have always failed to find it. One lunch break a couple of years ago, while others visited the café, I strolled through a dense, dark beechwood, when a serendipitous shaft of sunlight lit up the woodland floor about five metres from me. Illuminated out of the darkness was the characteristic, colourless, enigmatic (it’s no looker, so it needs to be bigged up!) form of a Ghost Orchid – the botanist’s Holy Grail! Perhaps against all odds, I managed to relocate it to show the group, who willingly set aside the artificial constraints of a moth and butterfly tour for a few minutes.

Cross-Gentian

Cross Gentian (Chris Gibson)

Mountain-Alcon-Blue

Mountain Alcon Blue (Chris Gibson)

Ghost-Orchid

Ghost Orchid (Chris Gibson)

As always, the Pyrenees had come up with surprises from across the wildlife spectrum. Whatever we go to see, whatever we hope to see, there’s always more. And the advantage of multi-layered interest is that a Pyrenean adventure can be responsive to the weather: when hot and sunny, the insects, flowers and landscape take centre-stage; when cloudy, at least the birds keep on showing; and even in rain, the geology is always there.

Furthermore, as we move into a new era of environmental consciousness, increasingly there are calls to travel without flying. With the efficiency and comfort of the French high-speed rail system, the Pyrenees could well be firmly on that map once the world settles into its new normal.

 

Lockdown diary: #ReasonsToBeCheerful in #WildWivenhoe – early May

The COVID-19 lockdown continues. Meanwhile in Wivenhoe….

A further compilation of tweets and reflections on a Spring that few of us expected to see in such local detail, highlighting our #NaturalHealthService.

May 1

May 2

Dawn Chorus today….

A damp and chilly start after an unexpected heavy shower, the light was just creeping into the eastern skies as we left the flat at 4AM. Across the river from the jetty, a Fingringhoe Nightingale was the only sound, until the Oystercatchers struck up. Like noisy teenagers, piping and peeping, hurtling up and down, chasing their carrots…

As we approached Ferry Marsh, the background ululation of Woodpigeons was punctuated by a Cuckoo, its vocal activity perhaps potentiated by its echo from Rowhedge: was it really duetting with its own reflection? And very soon, the reason for it being there became very obvious as the massed chorus of Reed Warblers (a favoured host) and Sedge Warblers swelled. Likely due to the lack of human intrusion and the spread of reeds with the flooding, there are more this year than ever before, a positive sign of recovery in dark times, for birds that need all the help they can get after a month-long marathon from sub-Saharan Africa. Responding likewise to the involuntarily raised water levels, a whinnying Dabchick would not be on territory here otherwise; and maybe three male Reed Buntings and a couple of loud and proud, angry and staccato Cetti’s Warblers punctuated the soundscape.

And there was little to intrude on the natural world. Just one plane and a distant rumbling vehicle – how we have become unaccustomed to such dissonance – but in reality the main intrusions where wholly natural: a distant braying donkey, a pair of honking Grey-lag Geese, and irregular loud splashing from shoals of spawning fish in the river.

The first liquid Robin song had coincided with the Cuckoo; by the time we reached Wivenhoe Wood, many more were mixed with the mellifluity of Blackbirds, trilling Wrens and see-sawing Great Tits. Gradually summer visitors imposed themselves on the woodland chorus, first Blackcaps, then a Garden Warbler, and finally Chiffchaff which heralded us home before sunrise. A truly symphonic hour.

May 4

May 6

May 7

May 8

May 10

May 11

May 12

May 13

May 14

May 15

Particularly sad this: ‘civic pride’ kills. Kills the flowers. Kills the insects that depend on those flowers. Kills the beauty that anyone with a heart and soul values. Kills civilisation. Kills the civility that civic pride should worship, instead of the sterile meaninglessness of an existence devoid of nature…

There are those out there for whom godliness (secular and nonsecular) is next to lifelessness; whose world is all hard edges, unsullied by the softening embrace of vegetation; who believe the world is out there to be subdued, and any suggestion of a mind of its own is to be ruthlessly squashed. Sad, really…

May 16

May 17

Lockdown diary: Botany & Bugs (and more!) on your Doorstep – mid May

Hope you are all coping with/enjoying Lockdown. Must confess it is the latter for us – the lack of having to be anywhere or do anything is refreshing.  Once again we have been delighted that so many of you have been in touch with your nature sightings, photos and stories, so thank you for your interest.  We have also been made aware of some of your concerns – more of which later.

One story we particularly liked was a Swallow rescue in France.  It wandered into our correspondent’s house, became entangled and distressed but, she said, after employing ‘tea towel and careful hands it was as good as new’. We love a happy ending 😊

Birds are very prevalent just now, and their song more audiologically ‘visible’ than I can ever remember, thanks to the welcome reduction in cars and aircraft.  We are very privileged to live high enough to have eye-to-eye encounters with Swifts which are circling all around and screaming in their frenzied manner.  It is incredible to think that these creatures set foot on land only during the breeding process – the rest of their lives they spend on the wing, eating, sleeping, migrating, feeding and mating, in no particular order!   House Martins are prospecting for suitable nest sites on the Shipyard, and many of you have told us of birds that you have encountered –  Nuthatch (Suffolk), Hoopoe (France), Great Spotted Woodpecker (Islington) and Wryneck (Wivenhoe), as well as Cuckoos and Nightingales.

Flowers too are all around – as one of our friends eloquently put it ‘Lovely to see & smell lilac & honeysuckle, while our garden is awash with columbine, cowslips, bluebells, forget-me-nots and early yellow & orange poppies.  Rosemary has been in flower for a while, and our first glorious salsify are out, as are our peonies.’ Great!  Chris has had an exciting week, discovering a nationally scarce plant locally in Wivenhoe, the Mousetail (below), and we have also had a report of this quite unassuming, but interesting-in-its-way flower in a village not too far away.  Its always of interest when something appears to be spreading – or has it always been there but we have never had the time to investigate before now?  Areas of St Mary’s churchyard are looking lovely with Wild Garlic, native Bluebells and Lesser Celandines. Thanks must go to Wild About Wivenhoe and the Woodcraft Folk for their efforts in getting the bulbs set.

We were heartened to hear of the No Mow May campaign https://www.gardensillustrated.com/feature/lawn-mowing-when-flowers-may/ (‘to transform your lawns into havens of biodiversity’) and would love it if Councils and gardeners generally could take inspiration from this.  Until a few days ago a playing area not far away from us had been left and was full of wild flowers, brilliant for bees and looking glorious (see picture at the top of the page), until a man with a large mower came along that is….

Our favourite flying jewels, butterflies, are  delighting us, and this year I have seen my first ever Green Hairstreaks. A Wivenhoe garden has had visits from ‘Holly Blue, Comma, Peacock, Brimstone and Orange-tip’.  Our nature-spotter also saw ‘Muslin and Mint-moths’.  We have been trying a spot of moth-trapping from our borrowed balcony – not a huge success, but it’s fun and we may well get more of a catch as the summer progresses. This Nut-tree Tussock was definitely having a bad ‘Lockdown hair’ moment when we released him unharmed from the trap on Saturday morning. We have been listening out for bats with our gizmo, but nothing detected as yet.

Other insects have been on your minds too – a really whacky nymph of the bug Issus coleoptratus was seen in Brighton, a collection of jostling Hairy Shield bugs, and Buff-tailed Bumble Bee in Wivenhoe, plus a Violet Carpenter Bee in France (which are occasional visitors to Britain).  We discovered a new-to-us ladybird last week – a Water Ladybird.  This isn’t particularly rare – we obviously hadn’t been looking in the right places before!  This one is a buff colour, but as the season progresses it will become redder.  Ladybirds aren’t bothered about disguising themselves in the way that many insects do, as they are poisonous and birds know not to eat anything coloured red and black.  Interestingly other, non-poisonous, insects adopt this colour-way too – they are in a way protected by the ‘reputation’ of the ladybird.

The Brown-tail moth lays its eggs in nests which are quite often seen on Hawthorn or Blackthorn, but recently an observant nature fan contacted us to say there was a nest on a local Oak sapling.  This is very unusual, to our knowledge, and we wonder why the moth chose to lay her eggs on the Oak as there was plenty of the supposed preferred plants nearby.  The caterpillars didn’t seem to be complaining though…

It is now dragonfly time and we have had some smashing photos sent to us, this one is a Scarce Chaser.

Other creatures have caught your eye – we have had a record of a Grass snake in Elmstead, and a local gang of Hedgehogs have been causing much interest to our friends who have a night-time camera set up in their garden.  Two males were seen pushing and shoving, the larger one edging the smaller nearer and nearer to their pond until it bull-dozed it in!  Luckily there were no little floating bodies in the morning, so the injured party must have managed to get out OK to live to fight another day (or night).  Another pond has a charming family of frogs.

Our newsletters are meant to be fun, happy and inspirational and a celebration of the natural world, but sometimes there are serious issues which we feel are worth airing.  A couple of concerns have been brought to light this month…:

First is the mowing of grasslands during May, as mentioned above.  Unless this is private land, it would generally be the local council responsible for mowing regimes. As per the link, not mowing at this flowerful time of year is of extreme benefit to pollinators, insects on which we all depend.

Secondly, the spraying of herbicides on our paths, which are under the jurisdiction of Essex County Council Highways.  I have been in touch with them to ask about their current policy  (and was told, rather proudly I felt, that they spray everywhere at least three times per year ) and to ask what substances they actually use for this (no answer on this point as yet).  As many of you know Wivenhoe Town and Colchester Borough Councils have banned the use of glyphosate (which a research arm of WHO states is ‘probably’ cancer-causing – the particles of which we certainly don’t want to inhale), and we are concerned in case we are all still being subjected to this toxic stuff, even though our councils have seen the sense to ban it.

If you feel moved to follow up either of these issues please contact the relevant body – WTC re Town council-managed grasslands (enquiries@wivenhoe.gov.uk), Colchester Borough Council re the grasslands they manage (www.colchester.gov.uk/contact/) or ECC re footpath spraying via their ‘Comments’ form on their website. www.essex.gov.uk or on twitter to  @essexhighways.  Copies of correspondence may be usefully sent to  Mark Cory (leader of CBC and instrumental in getting them to ban glyphosates cllr.mark.cory@colchester.gov.uk), Mark Goacher (Colchester Green Councillor,  cllr.mark.goacher@colchester.gov.uk), Julie Young (Wivenhoe County Councillor cllr.julie.young@essex.gov.uk), and our local councillor Glyn Evans cllrglyn.evans@wivenhoe.gov.uk.

That’s enough moaning!   Just to finish by saying Keep Well Everyone and hope we can meet up for a nature walk some sunny day!  We will let you know if and when this may be possible.  Please keep sending us your nature-sightings as well as your super photos and we will happily incorporate as many as we can into the next newsletter.

Happy Nature watching.

PS We are delighted to now have some fab ‘Bringing Nature To You’ bookmarks, a set of six, each of which highlights a specific aspect of nature.  If you would like some/a set let us know.  There is no charge, but any donations to Buglife gratefully received.

Photo credits: Andrea Williams (bugs),  Val Appleyard (Issus nymph), Helen Chambers (bumblebee), Anne Simcox (frogs), Glyn Evans (Scarce Chaser), Chris (the rest).

 

Lockdown diary: Return to Barrier Marsh

Six weeks ago, we wrote about Wivenhoe’s Barrier Marsh, in particular the ant-hills (and their associated flora) which are such a striking feature of the marsh surface, especially east of The Chase. As lockdown has continued, we have found ourselves visiting much more frequently than ever before (it is only a couple of hundred metres from our flat) and we have now seen spring unfold there.

I have known Barrier Marsh for some 35 years, since before the building of the tidal surge barrier (and hence its name): indeed, in 1992, I was responsible for notifying the area as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The reasons for designation were the range of nationally scarce plants it supported, together with its diversity of ditch vegetation types, reflecting the gradient from salt, through brackish, to fresh water. Since moving here, we must have traversed the marsh dozens of times, but clearly we have never looked as closely at it as we have done during lockdown: the variety of unusual plants and invertebrates we have seen this month alone bears witness to that.

While the ditches that ramify through the marsh are home to much of its special interest, it is clear that the grassland matrix between watercourse is also valuable. Over the past few weeks, Divided Sedge, one of the nationally scarce plants responsible for its status, has revealed itself as abundant right across the marsh. And as we moved into May, so the grasses came into flower, most noticeably Meadow Foxtail (in two main colour forms, one ‘foxy’, the other less so) and Soft Brome, with braided rivulets of creeping Marsh Foxtail in the low ways and depressions, the remnants of former salt marsh creeks before the building of a sea wall took away the tidal influence.

Higher, drier patches of grassland, including The Chase itself and the tops of many of the ant-hills, are picked out in red with Sheep’s Sorrel, interspersed with twinkling highlights of Silvery Hair-grass.

The Tamarisk has just started to flower along the old railway line – its buds have a deep pink colour, and as the flowers open to reveal paler coral petals, so the bushes will take on a more muted hue.

Seemingly every bush, mostly Bramble and Dog Rose, across the marsh is covered with the silken retreats and massed ranks of Brown-tail Moth caterpillars. A favoured prey of Cuckoos, notwithstanding their cloak of irritant hairs, these are one reason no doubt for Cuckoo calls being a constant feature of the last week – the other being Reed Warblers breeding in the ditches.

Two day-flying moths are on the wing now, neither of which are common hereabouts, and both of which show orange on the hindwings: Burnet Companion (whose larvae feed on clover and trefoil, both likely to become obvious over the course of the summer) and Small Yellow Underwing. This feeds on Mouse-eared Chickweeds, one of the plants we have already featured on the ant-hills.

In warm sunshine, it has started to feel a lot like summer, and emerging butterflies have contributed to that impression. Our first Small Heath, Small Copper and Common Blue of the year all popped up in the past week, while Orange-tips continued on the wing: this surprisingly quiescent individual allowed especially close approach, to appreciate its lichen-mottled underwings and the wonderful eye-pattern.

Three or four species of flowering buttercup  hosted lots of visiting insects, including  the tiny, scribble-sided 16-spot Ladybird, while other insects included the wonderfully metallic long-legged fly Argyra, and an emergence of Two-spotted Malachite Beetles, the pair below, head to head, indulging in courtship ‘kissing’, transmitting bonding pheromones

And as always, where there are insects visiting flowers, there are predators cashing in, like this  Xysticus crab spider enjoying lunch.

Moving to the ditches, last year’s colour-drained Reeds are being speared by new emerald shoots…

… and Celery-leaved Crowfoot is springing up. Doubly nominative, its leaves look a bit celery-like (but poisonous!), and its scientific name is sceleratus. From the Latin for ‘ruffian’, its sap was once used to blister and darken the skin as an aid to successful begging.

It was especially exciting to find some lovely patches of Mousetail, a scarce buttercup relative we haven’t seen here before, in cattle-poached holes by the ditches. This is nationally scarce plant, classed as Vulnerable in the UK Red Data List, and would have contributed to the designation of the SSSI had it been known about all those years ago. We know of a couple of other localities towards Clacton, but it certainly isn’t a regular cornfield weed in the corners of fields where the sprayers cannot reach as it used to be.

Another good find was several patches of Marsh Horsetail. Again, we have never found that on the marshes before, and it is really quite scarce in north Essex – the Wild Flowers of North East Essex in 1990 showed it in just four spots  east of Colchester, and not on Barrier  Marsh. But neither does that atlas show it on what is now Cockaynes reserve, where it is now common in places round the lagoons…although that is not too surprising given that at that time, Cockaynes Wood covered the whole area, an extensive ancient woodland that preceded gravel extraction from its heart.

Watercress in the ditches is just starting to come into flower, and it was simply crawling with insects, albeit rather challenging to photograph, given the deep, muddy ditch margins. The shiny, metallic blue-black Watercress Leaf-beetle is a case in point: I shall be back to try and get a better image soon! Although widespread in England, it seems to be almost absent from Essex, but numerous here, along with, intimate weevils, and many Water Ladybirds, again new to us in these parts…

   

Who knows what the rest of lockdown will bring!

 

POSTSCRIPT from 12 May

All it takes is a couple of days, and at this most dynamic time of year, everything can change. And that was the case: Water Ladybirds were nowhere to be seen, although there were still plenty of Watercress Leaf-beetles, and they were more amenable to photography. Both may be explained by temperatures being 10 degrees cooler…

Nestled into a Spear Thistle, the scarce, bristly weevil Rhinocyllus conicus was good to see

…and in the hedge, there had clearly been an emergence of the Box Bug, a new arrival in these parts only around five years ago.

Lockdown diary: Cockaynes – after the rain

It was back to Cockaynes Reserve today, after a week of relatively poor weather, including some very long awaited rain. And the flowers have certainly perked up…

Insects and other invertebrates too were out in abundance (including many larvae and nymphs), especially where sheltered from the cool north-easterly.

The season is progressing inexorably on, despite the upheavals of the human world, and it was good to see several ‘firsts for the year’ for us, like Azure Damselfly, Red-and-Black Froghopper and Hairy Shield-bug, along with the Rhombic Leatherbug, a dry grassland specialist which we rarely find in these parts.

All the above, and more, in a an hour, and set to the soundscape of summers past (sadly) with a Yellowhammer singing, and the purring of two Turtle Doves!

As usual, not too many names here, but if anyone wants to know what anything is, please get in touch.

Lockdown diary: Dawn Chorus today in #wildWivenhoe

A damp and chilly start after an unexpected heavy shower, the light was just creeping into the eastern skies as we left the flat at 4AM. Across the river from the jetty, a Fingringhoe Nightingale was the only sound, until the Oystercatchers struck up. Like noisy teenagers, piping and peeping, hurtling up and down, chasing their carrots…

As we approached Ferry Marsh, the background ululation of Woodpigeons was punctuated by a Cuckoo, its vocal activity perhaps potentiated by its echo from Rowhedge: was it really duetting with its own reflection? And very soon, the reason for it being there became very obvious as the massed chorus of Reed Warblers (a favoured host) and Sedge Warblers swelled. Likely due to the lack of human intrusion and the spread of reeds with the flooding, there are more this year than ever before, a positive sign of recovery in dark times, for birds that need all the help they can get after a month-long marathon from sub-Saharan Africa. Responding likewise to the involuntarily raised water levels, a whinnying Dabchick would not be on territory here otherwise; and maybe three male Reed Buntings and a couple of loud and proud, angry and staccato Cetti’s Warblers punctuated the soundscape.

And there was little to intrude on the natural world. Just one plane and a distant rumbling vehicle – how we have become unaccustomed to such dissonance – but in reality the main intrusions where wholly natural: a distant braying donkey, a pair of honking Grey-lag Geese, and irregular loud splashing from shoals of spawning fish in the river.

The first liquid Robin song had coincided with the Cuckoo; by the time we reached Wivenhoe Wood, many more were mixed with the mellifluity of Blackbirds, trilling Wrens and see-sawing Great Tits. Gradually summer visitors imposed themselves on the woodland chorus, first Blackcaps, then a Garden Warbler, and finally Chiffchaff which heralded us home before sunrise. A truly symphonic hour.

Lockdown diary: the Beth Chatto Gardens on this day in 2007

Another time travelling blog, courtesy of  OneDrive, this time to the Beth Chatto Gardens in 2007. Fifteen years may not seem a long time in the lifetime of a garden, but it has changed – while still recognisable as the garden it is now, the plantings seem so much simpler. lacking the architecture which comes with time.

However most of the flowers I chose to photograph that sunny Spring afternoon are still there, many having become old friends. And I look forward to post-lockdown re-acquaintance. Hopefully today’s long -awaited rain will help them to look their best…

 

Lockdown diary: Botany & Bugs (and more!) on your Doorstep – late April

Here we still are, and hope you are all keeping well and coping with the restrictions on our day to day lives.  We are actually finding it quite liberating though we do miss physical contact with family and friends. Thanks to everyone who has sent in their observations and pictures of what nature is up to on their patch.  So much has captured your interest – one of our group was fascinated with the slugs he had in his compost bin (where they are welcome and doing what nature intended). He says  they were ‘little black things to four-inch monsters, and green mottled ones’. He also had six varieties of worm, plus bees, birds and shield bugs. That’s the wonder of nature, once you start looking there is so much to see.

Our friend in Brighton was intrigued to see ants dragging a large centipede into their lair, and a Wivenhoe correspondent found this rather odd-looking critter in her pond: a damselfly nymph. When you look at illustrations of these, they have three ‘tails’, but the surface tension would cause them to all appear to stick together when out of water (like wet hair sticks to your head). It is now safely back in the pond and they await an emergence of a lovely adult version.

Craneflies were snapped doing what comes naturally in France, where there were also lizards, frogs, butterflies and an owl. C’est la vie!

Lots of bees are going about their daily lives, doing their pollination job, and bringing us pleasure as they do so. A beautiful one with full ‘panniers’ was snapped in a sunny London garden, and this female Tawny Mining bee was seen in the Wivenhoe area. There are so many species of bee it isn’t easy to recognise them, but this one is quite distinctive with her red fluffy hair. A lovely description was sent in from a friend in Suffolk ‘…young bumblebees following their noisy passageways through the fields’. Brilliant!

Butterflies are a pure joy and we were lucky enough to spot several Green Hairstreaks in Cockaynes last week, and others of you have seen Orange-tips, Small Tortoiseshells and Green-veined Whites.

Birds are playing an important part in our lives at the moment (Chris is stacking up a list, not sure how many we are at….70 something I think), and we have been lucky enough to hear both Cuckoos and Nightingales from our flat, and to see (and hear) Swifts.  A sure sign that summer is on its way 😊. It seems there are a number of Nightingales in various places around Wivenhoe. I am sure the general quietness is making it much easier to pick the songs out at the moment – we have had reports of woodpeckers in Colchester and Skylarks in north Wivenhoe. A very observant friend in Brightlingsea saw two Ring Ouzels, and we have had reports of an interesting encounter between a Sparrowhawk and Starling in Elmstead. (The Sparrowhawk came off best that time, but they have hungry mouths to feed of course).

Flowers are a source of wonderment and enjoyment too, and thank you to a friend in Colchester who sent a picture of her Snake’s-head Fritillary. What a fabulous flower.  And our ‘identification service’ turned to garden trees when we were sent a photo from Sussex which turned out to be Box Elder (which is neither a ‘Box’, nor an ‘Elder’ but a Maple – that’s English names for you!).

Even mammals are putting in an appearance: we have seen one each of both Grey and Harbour Seals swimming along the river, and bats are out and about in the evenings. We hope to get out there with the detector at some time to see what we can pick up, and will let you know next time.

Just to leave you with an inspirational quote from a local nature-fan: ‘If nothing else in the world can keep you going, at least nature can’ ….

Photo credits: Sue Minta (damselfly nymph),  Val Appleyard (centipede), Ro Inzani (bumblebee), Caty Robey (craneflies), Glyn Evans (Tawny Mining-bee), Sandra Davies (Snake’s-head Fritillary), Chris (Green Hairstreak).

Lockdown diary: The Beth Chatto Gardens – rewind five years…

Any time of year, the Beth Chatto Garden is worth a visit, but never more so than in Spring when the damburst of the year floods the garden with blooms, colour, scents and wildlife. We miss that so much this year under Covid lockdown…

…but we can relive what it was like with OneDrive’s ‘On this day’, where we are transported back five years to 2015. Happy memories, and a hopeful reminder of the botanical, entomological and artistic joys to come when the nightmare is over.