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The Wild Side of Essex: Hockley Woods in June with Naturetrek

The Wild Side of Essex moved to Hockley Woods for June. The largest contiguous ancient woodlands in the county, they sit astride the ‘southern Essex Alps’, a ridge of London Clay capped with sands and gravels, and as a result riven by spring lines which form the headwaters of the River Crouch.

The Oaks in the wood are both Pedunculate and Sessile (and their hybrids); Hornbeam (in places replanted with Sweet Chestnut) forms the other main woodland type. While the woods are well past their floral best in June, there were still many ancient woodland indicators visible, including Wild Service-tree, Butcher’s-broom and THE most beautiful grass, Wood Melick.

Another botanical star was Slender St John’s Wort, always an orange-flushed beauty, but perhaps even more magical when bedecked in mercurial raindrops.

And in the interlinked rides and recent coppice plots, Common Cow-wheat – which of course was the reason for the main focus of our visits, the Heath Fritillary whose caterpillars feed on only that food-plant, at least in south-eastern England.

It has been a long, complex story of neglect, extinction, research and reintroduction but we do now have a thriving population of the fritillaries. This year they were late emerging, the first coming out on my recce visit, the peak emergence (200+) on our first day walk, and fewer on the two subsequent trips.

However, the lower numbers were not just due to the season, but also the weather: from 32 degrees and full sun on the first walk, to cool cloud on the second, and almost continual rain for the third. At least those we did see on the later trips we saw well, even if largely with wings closed….

Not many other butterflies though, as most of the summer species were not yet out (indeed Brimstones were still featuring in mid-month), save for a few Meadow Browns and Large Skippers. Certainly no White Admirals or Silver-washed Fritillaries, which this year will be a July feature.

Attractive micromoths included Gold-barred Longhorn and Dasycera olivella, plus the first adult Green Oak-rollers, the larvae of which seem to have ensured a productive breeding season (rather bucking the national trend) of Great and Blue Tits.

A good selection of other insects also entertained us, from Black-tailed Skimmer to Bracken Planthopper, and Closterotomus trivialis to Miris striatus.

The snail-killing fly Coremacera marginata was quite numerous by the end of the month, and another particular highlight was Horned Treehopper, something I have never seen before, but always wanted to. A further highlight was the Tree Snipe-fly Chrysopilus laetus, only the second Essex site for this species,

Another major feature of this wood is the density of Southern Wood Ants’ nests, very unusually for Essex. The ants were everywhere, carrying food back to the nest and ‘milking’ aphids for honeydew…

… and we did manage to come across a very few examples of two of the scarce insect inhabitants of the nests, Four-spotted Leaf-beetle and Scarce Seven-spot Ladybird, the larvae of which act as both predator and garbage cleaner in the nests.

Add to that whole host of other attractions, from  fungi to slime moulds. All kinds of everything: rich biodiversity in the heart of suburban south Essex. More than 30 years since I notified the woods as an SSSI, I am very happy to report they are now in an even better state than when I moved on (even after 18 months’ pandemic pressure), thanks to the ceaseless management work of Rochford District Council.

   

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – midsummer madness, and a few damp squibs…

June was a mixed month. At first hot, sunny and settled, perfect for insect life using the resources of the garden, with nectar and pollen sources galore…

… then as midsummer approached, so the weather closed in, with lots of cloud, occasional heavy rain, and on some days, unseasonable cold. Even in the gloom though, there is  good reason to visit: my last blog (see here) was an exploration of the beauty to be found after a deluge.

Star plants from the insects’ perspective this month included Salvias and their relatives (closed flowers that require a bee or something large and powerful to get to the nectar and pollen), and Knautia macedonica, Eurphorbias and umbellifers, whose resources in contrast are open to all, from bees to hoverflies, tachinid flies to beetles and a whole lot more.

Honey Garlic too seemed to be attracting more than its fair share of bees to its stately flower spikes with drooping heads:

Midsummer frolics also around the pond with dragonflies and especially damselflies emerging and then adorning the foliage with shards of neon.

June is traditionally not the best time for butterflies, the season between the spring emergers and those of high summer. But they did include a few Painted Ladies, although after a promising start, it seems we are not now in for a major invasion this summer.

Moths are less prone to the ‘June gap’, and flurries of flying faeries (longhorn moths, like the Gold-barred Longhorn) were easy to see, along with the mobile garden adornments provided by their caterpillars. What could be more stunning than a Mullein Moth larva, or more intriguing than the silken cascades protecting the nests of Spindle Ermines, or more important than the Green Oak-rollers, the main food of hungry Great and Blue Tit chicks?

The cornucopia of delights for summer continues with Thick-thighed Beetles, Two-spotted Malachite-beetles, soldier-beetles, Gargoyle Flies and Wolf Spiders.

Now is as good a time as any to visit the gardens whatever your interest – flowers, wildlife or simply tranquility, a refuge in troubled times… please visit the Beth Chatto website to book your tickets.

#WildBrightlingsea Bug & Botany Walks – Rope Walk and Brightlingsea Creek

It is amazing how much there is to be discovered on a short walk along the lanes and salt-marsh edge, even on a damp and dark morning.

There was no shortage of plants! Closest to the town, as always, there was the ‘Dog wee plant community’ – Common Mallow, Wall Barley and Hedge Mustard, all of which thrive on the high nutrient-levels.

Other plants we noticed in this area included the Hairy Bindweed, which is not at all common and it is good to know where it has a stronghold. It occurs here in two forms, including the ‘split-trumpet’ type.

Along the field margin we saw Hairy Buttercup and False Fox-sedge …

… and here we were also treated to a few insect delights: a Striped Slender Robberfly enjoying his (substantial) lunch, a Small Heath butterfly and the unmistakeable red-and-black Cinnabar moth. The combination of red-and-black (as well as yellow-and-black) in nature acts as a warning, and a deterrent to would-be predators – in the case of Cinnabars their larvae (yellow-and-black) feed on Ragwort which is known to contain toxins.

Along the sea wall more insects were waiting to be noticed (and not trodden on…some insisted on sitting in the middle of the path!).  These included the Nationally Scarce weevil Liparus coronatus (wonder if it is ‘coronatus’ due to the gold ring around its neck?) plus a rather splendid Ground Lackey caterpillar – again Nationally Scarce and a specialist of coastal and salt-marsh areas – and a magnificent Cream-spot Tiger moth, again largely a coastal species.

Two plants stood out as particularly interesting – Crow Garlic and the Duke of Argyll’s Tea-tree.

Important salt-marsh plants which we discovered at the furthest point of our expedition included Golden Samphire, Sea Wormwood, Shrubby Sea-blite, Sea Purslane and Sea-lavender. Each has different mechanisms for coping with living in salty conditions – some are more succulent-like and preserve fresh water in their stems, whilst others excrete salt onto their leaves – desalination plants in the true sense!

Birdsong accompanied us throughout the morning – amongst other avian life we heard Whitethroats and Skylarks, and saw Swallows, a Little Egret and an Oystercatcher chasing Crows away from its nest.

We so enjoyed the tranquility of the walk, thank you all, and hope that your efforts (and hopefully also our joint discoveries) will help to prevent the area being spoiled by yet more unsustainable and intrusive human activity.

Intensive farming doesn’t have to erase wildlife: Fairfields Farming Company

When a farming company got in touch earlier this year to ask if I could undertake a species survey on their farms, my immediate inclination was to say no…why on earth would I want to spend days of my life tramping over arable wastelands staring biodiversity deficit in the face….?

But then I looked again: ‘Fairfields Farming Company’, and had a vague recollection that our local Co-op seems to rate their locally-sourced crisps and spuds, and that maybe they were not the faceless agri-barons I had feared. A look at their website confirmed that memory, with a focus for example in using renewable energy throughout their operations.

So, I said yes, and was not disappointed, especially when it became clear the purpose of the survey was to help inform environmental and sustainability assurance schemes, which in the absence of conversion to organic production is as good as can reasonably be expected.

And so in mid-May I turned up at Fairfields Farm, Wormingford, two weeks later than originally intended following the bitter north-easterlies of April which held back the natural world. Even then the plants and insects were not really performing so most time was spent recording breeding birds. And almost the first thing heard was the ‘jangling keys’ song of a Corn Bunting, something which has largely been erased from the county (if not my memory) over the past couple of decades.

As the survey progressed, so the bird song chorus swelled. See here for a full listing, but especially notable was the total of 12 Corn Buntings and 56 Skylarks all singing away: it was like stepping back into an Essex from another era (or maybe the steppe-lands of Spain of Eastern Europe)…

This farm is on a plateau, the site of the former Wormingford Airfield, and at its core is the permanent grassland of the Glider club runway. The combination of permanent grass, farmed fields and scattered long grass and scrub must be what these birds need – certainly hedgerows – which are generally cited as important features for birds in an agricultural landscape – do not feature, except on the very periphery.

A couple of Brown Hares provided mammal interest, and insects were restricted largely to newly emerged swarms of St Mark’s Flies, legs dangling menacingly but harmlessly, and a few Painted Ladies, recent arrivals from the deep south of Europe.

Only a kilometre away, Kings & Lofthouses, the other farm owned by the company, has its northern sector on the edge of the same plateau; this has similar birds, although the comprising more grain crops than potatoes. But the rest of this second holding is very different, much more enclosed with hedges, and occupying a valley-side location sloping  right down to the River Colne.

Topographically more varied, it had fewer Corn Buntings, but many more Yellowhammers, and still lots of Skylarks. The hedges added many more breeding species, with 57 singing Whitethroats especially noteworthy. A full listing of breeding birds can be found here.

On this farm a few Grey and Red-legged Partridges and a Little Owl hinted at agricultural riches of the past, although sadly, and worryingly, there wasn’t a purr from a single Turtle Dove. One to work on perhaps…?

In the fields around Hillhouse Wood, Roe Deers were seen, including a group of five. In all probability they are not especially dependent on the wood, given the number of human and canine visitors, especially at Bluebell time. But the thicker, interlinked hedges, especially away from the public footpaths are likely to provide suitable safe feeding and breeding refuges.

The hedges are also the focus of botanical and insect interest on this farm. Some of them are rich in woody species, indicating considerable age; those which also incorporate watercourses also have a ghost of ancient woodland flora, with Wild Garlic in particular, plus Bluebell and Yellow Archangel.

Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells and Orange-tips brightened up the butterfly scene, along with Small Coppers, the first sparkling emergees of the year, and also my first Large Red Damselflies and Scorpion-flies of the summer.

And part of this holding also had the richest remnant arable plant (formerly called ‘weeds’) field margins, especially on the lighter soils which were growing onions. The more interesting species included Parsley-piert, Changing Forget-me-not, Field Madder and Common Cudweed.

All in all a very positive experience, finding wildlife where the agricultural revolution might have been expected to have eradicated it. And that also goes for the taste test: since working there we have actively sought to buy Fairfields potatoes and crisps, and found them delicious!

Layer Breton Heath: Nature Returns …

One of the good things about the pandemic has been the changes it has driven in our view of the world. From here in the Wivenhoe, the lands to the south of the river Colne have seemed like foreign territory:  every trip there has seen us on the alert for the new, the exciting and the interesting. And so it was last week at Layer Breton Heath, a visit to help inform our book project (see here).

The 20th century was not kind to Layer Breton Heath. After centuries of grazing, and varied management by the holders of common rights, it was ploughed for agriculture during WW2. This was swiftly abandoned as the dry, sandy soils were so unproductive. But with fewer commoners exercising rights, it soon recolonised, and when the grazing pressure by Rabbits was eliminated in the 1950s by myxomatosis, the regrowth continued unchecked. Until 1976, when a wildfire during that long, hot summer swept everything (including a recovering Rabbit population) away again. Then unchecked growth once more, fertilised by fire-ash, and much of the ‘heath’ rapidly turned into a dense Silver Birch wood (not surprisingly given that the neighbouring village is called Birch), with a Bracken understorey. The photo below, taken in 2004, shows the open heath gone (along with much of its biodiversity), the only fragments left being along the most heavily trampled routes.

More recently though, with woody vegetation clearance and ongoing management, the heathy nature has started to return. There is still, and will always be, woodland, both Birch and Oak, but there are now bits in-between where light floods in and open-ground wildlife thrives.

The grass-heath seems to vary according (probably) to the soil. Where the soil is most shallow and sandy, plants such as Heath Bedstraw and Slender St John’s-wort (neither of which is especially common in the county) help to brighten up the Brown Bent grassland, while on slightly more fertile patches, Common Cat’s-ear and Lesser Stitchwort were most apparent during our visit.

Grass-heath, Gorse scrub and woodland are a potent combination in summer for invertebrates, and many were there to be found, including Red-banded Sand-wasps, Bracken Planthoppers and Violet Black-legged Robberflies, together with the distinctive flask-shaped egg-sacs of an Agroeca spider.

This habitat is very localised in Essex, so these and many other species  are similarly uncommon. But perhaps the most impressive feature of the site was the volume of invertebrates generally, from common to rare, shade-loving to light-demanding, indicating the benefits of structural diversity, shelter and warm, sandy soils.

From agriculture to myxomatosis-woodland to conflagration, Layer Breton Heath has survived them all, and is looking better now than I have ever known it over the past 35 years. If given the chance to breathe, in a world of small-minded tidiness, control-freakery, lashings of glyphosate and the choking embrace of trees everywhere, Nature can and will recover.

After the storm – Beth Chatto Gardens

Recent days have seen rising temperatures, and harsh, uncompromising sunlight. But last night, a thundery breakdown, torrential rain, and by dawn a humid, overcast world brought out the colours, the scents and the textures of the garden in a way that sun can never do. A green world, a watery world, and a vibrant, living world, even if most of the garden’s insects were still hiding away…

Leaves and flowers were  sprinkled with quicksilver magic…

Lady’s-mantle always moulds water into mercurial droplets – indeed, this is recognised in its scientific name Alchemilla. The alchemists’ ultimate goal was to find riches by converting base metal into gold, and the drops on the leaves, ‘the purest form of water’, were a means to that end…

But back in the real world, the lack of shadows brings out colours strongly, whether adorned with raindrops…

… or not…

… and creates patterns in nature that are otherwise lost beneath a baking sun, at all levels from landscape to detail.

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: Cockaynes Reserve

Thank you for joining us on our June explorations. Quite long walks for our ‘B&Bs’ and two hours not really long enough to do the reserve justice, but we did see a lot of things which took our fancy.   STOP PRESS – we are hoping to arrange a half day trip there under Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays banner on Thurs 12 August.  10am – 2pm for £25.  A short stop for lunch will be factored in.  If this appeals let me know.

Anyway, back to our walks for June and what a change in the weather from our last B&B outings – the cold wet of May transformed into bright sunshine and considerable heat. The natural world was loving it  – the flowers were bright and beautiful,  and insects were everywhere doing their thing. We ran two separate events, on consecutive days, and here is a summary comprising the best bits from both:

The lane from Wivenhoe to the edge of the Cockaynes reserve was in itself interesting – a plant (rather rare in a national context) White Ramping Fumitory, is thriving in Wivenhoe and was seen growing at our assembly point.

En route we encountered Sand Martins (which now nest in the Cockaynes gravel-pits) resting on telegraph wires, the song of Skylarks,  butterflies including Small Heaths, and tiny creatures were represented by froghoppers, or rather signs of them in the form of cuckoo-spit. These tiny bugs use their ‘straws’ to suck up plant juices into which they blow air and squeeze the bubbles out the other end; they have to process a lot of sap to get enough nitrogen for growth, and the copious exudate also provides protection for the nymphs from environmental extremes. Plants included Greater Celandine, with its yellow sap, and lemon-yellow Mouse-eared Hawkweed.

Once into the Reserve, a walk through Villa Wood alongside Sixpenny Brook was, as always, a delight –  in fact it proved irresistible for one of our Monday group who just had to have a paddle. 😊  Invertebrates of note were Yellow-barred Longhorn moths plus the tiny nymphs of both Speckled Bush-crickets and Lesser Marsh Grasshoppers.

The area known as Cockaynes Wood, a cool refuge from the strong sun, has a charm of its own with old trees and amongst the plants the uncommon ‘ Common’ Cow-wheat.  On emerging into the light we were amazed by the number of Azure Damselflies – they too had emerged, in large numbers, to begin their lives and 30 or so individuals were flitting too and fro amongst the Bracken.  A fabulous Tiger Beetle was seen on a dusty path, but wouldn’t stay still for long to be admired.  Luckily Chris managed to get a snap of it…

Birdsong accompanied our mornings, from Chiffchaffs, tits of all denominations, Blackbirds, Yellowhammer and Whitethroats.  A quick foray into known Turtle Dove territory allowed one group to savour the purring sound of summer (sadly now very hard to find) but the song is fading now as (hopefully) the birds are now happily mated and so have no need to proclaim who and where they are.

Amongst many plant of note were Yellow Rattle,  Stinking Iris, Scarlet Pimpernel, Sand Spurrey, Climbing Corydalis and my favourite White Bryony, which is also loved by the new-on-the-scene Bryony Bee, one of which put on a fleeting show.

  

Other creatures encountered included brightly-coloured-and-proud-of-it Cinnabar moths and the Nationally Scarce Club-horned Wasp Monosapyga clavicornis. 

A stunning female crab spider Misumena vatia , an arachnid which catches its prey by stealth and not with the aid of a web, was brilliant to see, along with an 11 spot Ladybird which is not one we have seen on many occasions. Bio-control of pests was evident with many plants with aphids also having resident ladybirds (in all stages of development, eggs, larvae and adults).

A bumblebee-mimic hoverfly Merodon equestris posed for one of the groups, and the Red-and-Black Froghopper is always a crowd-pleaser.

Thanks again for your support – details of next month’s (and other) events will appear in our next nature newsletter.

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!