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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.

Lockdown diary: Return to Cockaynes

The speed of change in Spring never ceases to amaze, and a privilege of ‘lockdown’ is that is gives us the excuse, with little else crowding in on our existence, to see those changes in close up and on a  regular basis. So, a week since we last exercised our right to exercise there, back to Cockaynes, and a series of remarkable changes. Budburst is almost complete, Sweet Chestnut in particular providing a sculptural and subtly colourful backdrop in the again crystal clear light.

Likewise, spears of Bracken thrusting skyward and starting to unfurl eagle-winged fronds demonstrate the reasoning behind the second part of its scientific name Pteridium aquilinum.

 

In some respects, the pace of change may have been pushed hard this year by the ongoing lack of rain, and grass-shrivelling, lichen-crisping drought. Last week’s botanical highlights had gone in the ‘Blinks of an eye’, and the most sandy patches are now almost flowerless, apart from newly emerging, red-stemmed Early Hair-grass. The wildlife shouts mid-May rather than mid-April, as if lockdown has given Nature the time to start cranking the seasonal wheel a touch faster.

Gorse of course is pretty much immune to drought, and still flowering profusely. And attracting numerous newly emerged Green Hairstreaks, beautiful when seen at rest, but in flittery flight almost impossible to follow, despite the intense metallic green iridescence of their underwings.

And in similar places, Speckled Yellow moths, a rather sparsely distributed species in Essex, skipped numerously around the patches of Wood Sage, its larval food plant.

Lots of other new emergences apparent this week included dancing fairies, flocks of then around the birches – courtship swarms of Green Longhorn moths…

… and herds of St Mark’s flies everywhere, after their first tentative appearances yesterday. Great food for the Swallows overhead, they are two days early, coming out on St George’s Day rather than St Mark’s…though one cannot imagine St G would be too upset. Spreading his patronage over a diverse portfolio, from England to Ethiopia, Catalonia to Estonia and syphilitics to plague victims, he is clearly not too precious to allow St M’s flies to muscle into his action. And later in the day, above the flat, the wheeling, snapping groups of Black-headed Gulls were presumably cashing in on this bounty, they way they do when nests of flying ants emerge later in the season.

All this and much more as always. Until next week…

Lockdown diary: Cockaynes Reserve, our #NaturalHealthService

The Cockaynes Reserve was a vision in green, in fact in a myriad of greens, Spring springing, almost audibly, from every bud.

Of course we (and the pollinators) are attracted to the showy blooms, but there were also flowers contributing to the palette of greens, from bronzed catkins of Oak, to jade dangles of Redcurrant and acid carpets of Golden-saxifrage.

Another green, and truly insignificant, plant we found in the open sandy plains was a bit of a surprise: Blinks, in abundance. We have never noticed it here before, and it isn’t common in Essex. As its usual habitat is winter-wet depressions on sand, its abundance may reflect the wet weather we had for much of the winter (seems a world away!), until COVID-19 lockdown, after which virtually nothing.

On the pure sand, all the signs are of stress, plants curling up with drought, looking more as if it were mid-summer. Just a few were in flower, with scattered Stork’s-bill instead of carpets. and Lesser Dandelions, but very little else…

…apart from the find of the day, a couple of flowering rosettes (and a few non-flowering) of Smooth Cat’s-ear. With only four or so previous records this century from Essex, this a truly scarce plant, although its ‘tiny dandelion’ flowers are open only in full sunlight, so it may be overlooked. It is a plant we have searched Cockaynes for several times as there is a previous single record from the site a few years ago, albeit about 300m from our locality, but hitherto without success.

But in and around the shade of trees, the vernal rainbow (thus far lacking the red end of the spectrum – Red Campion is yet to come) was much more developed:

And especially deep in Villa Wood, down by the Brook, the visual drama was complemented by the rearing cobra-heads of unfurling Male-fern fronds.

Particular mention must go to the prominent Crab-apple on the ancient bank of Cockaynes Wood, in full, perfect flower, a dazzle of pink-shot ivory, and a magnet for foraging bumlebees:

Other insects out and about included Dark-edged Bee-flies everywhere, and each Gorse bush shone with the beacons of Gorse Shield-bugs, sunlight reflecting of the membranous part of their wings:

Quite apart from the bugs though, Gorse is a keystone species on sites like this, harbouring a vast array of other invertebrate life – herbivores, predators and pollinators alike:

On the spider front, we also discovered an egg-sac, like the inflated seed pod of Love-in-Mist, of a Wasp Spider, presumably (hopefully) with the eggs from last summer still inside it. One to look for later in the year!

With time to stand and stare, time being the one freedom we now have, it was wonderful to chance upon some of the more lowly denizens of the reserve, including caterpillars of Fox Moth and Dark Arches, and an incredibly camouflaged, tiny grasshopper, the Common Groundhopper, which while not rare in the county is so inconspicuous it is rarely noticed. Groundhoppers are the only members of the Orthoptera which can be found as adults at this time of year; unlike others in the group, grasshoppers and bush-crickets, which spend the winter months as eggs, groundhoppers overwinter in the adult or larger nymphal stages.

An hour of delights: a place to sooth, a place to wonder, a place to wander – at its best, under the watchful guardian eye of the ‘Angel of Cockaynes Wood’…

 

Lockdown diary: In praise of Alexanders…

‘Alexander’s what?’ you may well ask. Granted, it is a strange name for a plant, but it could be said to be ‘Alexander’s Parsley’, in the sense it used to be called the ‘Parsley of Alexandria’, the city in Egypt founded by and named after Alexander the Great. And it is there, around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East, where Alexanders has its ancestral, native home. The Romans knew and valued it as a pot-herb, with taste and consistency similar to the related celery, and took it with them in their colonisation of western Europe two thousand years ago.

When I became a botanist forty years ago, Alexanders was found in two main habitats. Firstly, it was well known in grassy areas and hedge banks in and around centres of Roman civilisation and subsequent monastic activity, a persistent relic of former times. Secondly, reflecting its southern origins and susceptibility to frost, it was known from a thin belt around the coasts of southern England, Wales and Ireland, thriving under the winter warming mantle of the sea.

At the time I was in Norfolk, and one could always tell when approaching within a kilometre or two of the coast in May, as the road verges switched from the white of Cow Parsley to the yellow-green of Alexanders flowers. The photo above shows just that transition, near Ringstead in north Norfolk, in 1983 (sorry for the poor quality). Of course all that has now changed with global warming/climate breakdown: Alexanders has spread out from these adopted homes and now occupies a near-continuous range across East Anglia, the Home Counties and the South-west Peninsula.

Perhaps surprisingly, here in Wivenhoe it is not all that frequent. The main population we have is on the verges of Anglesea Road, an unmade ‘back road’ out of town, and concentrated around the bridge across the railway line. Close to home, and thus within easy reach of a lockdown exercise walk, this year has seen us paying lots of attention to our Alexanders…

The flowers started to open early, before the end of March, a budburst which has advanced along with its geographic spread. The flowers are lovely in close up, a distinctive yellow-green, a colour that complements the pink streaking on the enlarged, ensheathing leaf-bases. And almost straight away the aromatic, musky aroma started to draw in insects. As with all umbellifers, the flowers are open to all manner of pollinators, especially flies and wasps, tiny flowers in large flowerheads providing an excellent early season nectar and pollen resource.

Hoverflies have been especially noticeable thus far, in particular one rather special one, the Spotty-eyed Hoverfly Eristalinus aeneus (just look at those eyes!): one of only two hoverflies with that eye-pattern in Britain, it is a specialist of the coastal fringes, especially in the south-east.

 

Later on, other hoverflies will include Rhingia campestris (just starting to appear as I write), with their distinctive elongated ‘snout’, and very soon the St Mark’s Flies Bibio marci  (and relatives) will be out and draping their flowers in long-legged embrace. The later-opening flowers in May will also likely be home to the picture-winged fly Euleia heraclei, lovely creatures to watch, flashing their bar-codes at each other in courtship dance. These spend their larval life mining the leaf-tissues, between the upper and lower surface, creating an obvious blotch-mine. And the crowns of flowers will become vantage points for Yellow Dung-flies Scathophaga stercoraria, a hunter of other flies attracted to the flowers to feed.

This last week, the most noticeable insects have been ladybirds, basking on leaves as well as flowers, where they may be supplementing their usual aphid diet with nectar and/or pollen. Not that all were feeding: making the next generation was the activity of the week! We found at least eight species on the 10 metre long Alexanders patch, some of them in a bewildering array of colour forms; it was particularly pleasing to see Two-spotted Ladybirds, as these seem to have become rather scarce in these parts since the arrival of the Harlequin Ladybird some 15 years ago.

And all that is just a small snapshhot of what our Alexanders, any Alexanders, is going to offer, entomologically – here are a few more:

One other noticeable feature of this plant is that it is very often infected with Alexanders Rust, a microfungus. Rusts are so-called because they cause lesions on the host plant, often liberally sprinkled with orange spore-producing bodies. Furthermore, this species also causes the host plant to twist and contort, forming a gall.

Notwithstanding its value to passing insects, given the potentially invasive nature of Alexanders and its non-native status, it is perhaps a pity that more folk don’t eat it. The whole plant is edible, from roots and stems to leaves and flower buds, and even the dried, black seeds which can be ground up into a mild, aromatic ‘pepper’.

That may well be because it is not actually very pleasant….the celery/angelica notes, with rather oily spiciness (hence it is believed the origin of its scientific name Smyrnium, alluding to its myrrh-like qualities) is largely lost with cooking and my recollection is of pretty tasteless mush. But, if a suitable recipe could be developed, perhaps using also the mild garlic of that other invasive verge plant Three-cornered Leek, ‘eating the landscape’ could actually do a lot of good for conservation by keeping the invaders at bay.

 

Lockdown diary: #ReasonsToBeCheerful in #wildWivenhoe – the first three weeks

From the point in the COVID-19 pandemic that it became clear than lockdown was going to be necessary, we started a thread on the Wivenhoe Forum on an almost daily basis detailing the progress of Spring, hopefully a ray of sunshine in dark times. Mostly this was a series of tweets, each with a few Natural Health Service highlights which are reproduced below.

March 13

In dark times like we are entering, when we may well find our living space severely curtailed, one thing is likely to be true – there is nowhere safer than being outside and on your own with nature. Please post and share images and thoughts here which can help to brighten up grim times. And maybe we will all get to know and love our local patch even more, and after this horror is over, we might just start to look after that which has sustained us a little better,

A few spring flowers from the past couple of days to start:

March 14

Also yesterday, quite by chance Jude and I were heading out on a litterpick along the riverbank, when we bumped into the litterpicker extraordinaire Wayne Dixon and his lovely dog Koda. They had just reached Wivenhoe after four years walking the coast of Britain, picking litter, raising awareness of Keep Britain Tidy and money for MIND. We had heard of his adventures but had no idea he was here. A privilege and pleasure to meet him.

So, how about another virus bonus: if confined to barracks (and there’s a lot worse barracks to be confined in than Wivenhoe), how’s about picking up litter as you go, and by the end of the nightmare our environment might be able to breathe once again, freed up from the plastic mantle we are choking it with as a result of the laziness and ignorance of our species.

March 16

March 20

March 21

March 22 – the day the formal lockdown started

Several of us took part in a Wivenhoe Birders’ Tweetathon this morning, live tweeting about the birds seen from our windows. From our lofty perch in the Shipyard, we recorded 27 species in two hours. Mny were water birds, with the expected Canada and Grey Lag Geese, Redshank, Mallard, Little Egret and Oystercatcher, plus Wigeon and Black-tailed Godwit flying over. Several Buzzards were in the air, including two displaying over Wivenhoe Wood, and they were joined in the thermals by a soaring Cormorant. With no Church bell activity, the tower was frequented all morning by a noisy gaggle of Jackdaws. And there were a surprising number of unexpected small birds moving past at above rooftop height, including Dunnock, Robin, a few Blue Tits and several flocks of Goldfinch.

March 23

March 25

March 26

March 27

March 28

March 29

March 30

March 31

April 1

April 2

April 3

No photos from me today, but just an observation: have you noticed the huge increase in Buzzards over town since lockdown. Now, looking out of our Shipyard flat windows, it is the exception to see a sky without buzzards, and not just single birds but groups of five or six not uncommonly. Case in point, just ten minutes ago, three circling directly over the church (with a Heron). To some extent these are likely to be migrant birds, but it really does seem that our praeternaturally silent streets with barely a whiff of hydrocarbons may be encouraging them in.

April 4

April 5

April 6

The best bird watchers are the bird listeners: hear that something potentially interesting is around and that gives you a few seconds head start in the race to see it before it flies away. You don’t even need to know what the sound is, maybe just a non-specific tic or seep, it serves your purpose in raising your alert levels. And now, with so little traffic noise and plane noise and human chatter, is the ideal time to be on the listen – there’s relatively little else to filter out in your brain.

So it was ten minutes ago on Anglesea Road. A flurry of mewling calls, which so often mean ‘birds of prey overhead’ especially when displaying. And there was a pair of buzzards in rising and falling, butterfly-flapping display flight, followed by a similarly noisy pair of sparrowhawks, soaring wingtip to wingtip in tight circles, followed again by ponderous deep wing flaps. Hopefully both pairs will establish breeding territories around that edge of town.

April 7

Early in the morning, Glyn Evans wrote: Another Red Kite seen just now drifting NE over the Cross.

And how right he was…Buzzards moving through all morning, in one case maybe 12 or more birds in a flock. And then at lunchtime, we heard the news that a White-tailed Eagle has been seen heading south over Ipswich. Then over Cattawade and Lawford. Then Ardleigh. On a direct track for Wivenhoe – Richard Allen picked it up over his house (his third record of the species in 5 years), and a couple of others in mid-Wivenhoe likewise, and Rowhedge, then finally I saw it heading away over Fingringhoe Mill. But something didn’t quite add up – in the morning there had been reports from the Walton area, and some of the sightings over town were out of kilter time wise. Could it have been that two birds actually came over us within a few minutes of each other? Not as far fetched as it seems – this/these are likely to be young birds from the recent release (prior to hopeful re-establishment) on the Isle of Wight. Some of those birds have been tracked over wide swathes of the south this winter.

And then today there were Swallows coming through, and also 3 Cranes, although so far as I know none of us Wivenhoe skywatchers got on to those (Rowhedge only…)

Quite a day in the clear blue Wivenhoe skies, and who knows what the next few days will bring ….Nightingale and Cuckoo should soon be with us, and both have been heard in the past couple of days around Maldon and Colchester respectively!

April 8

To be continued…