Blog Archives: Britain’s Wildlife

Essex Field Club and the Essex Naturalist

In the county of the Essex Wildlife Trust, with more than 37,000 members one of the very largest county wildlife trusts in the country, the importance (indeed the very presence) of the Essex Field Club (fewer than 300 members) is all too easily overlooked.

Essex Field Club has a venerable history, founded in 1880 when it was a learned Victorian gentleman’s (largely) society, for the study of the natural history, geology and in those days the older archaeology of the county, although it has to be said that, in common with the times, much of their interaction with nature was at the end of a shotgun…’what’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery‘ was the attitude of a time before high quality, portable optics and cameras, and when identification literature was scarce or absent.

To this day it remains misunderstood, the ‘F word’ being indelibly (and now wrongly) associated not with ‘field trips’ but ‘field “sports” ‘. (Note the use of ironic quotation marks – there is nothing sporting about chasing a Fox on horseback with slavering hounds, nor shooting unarmed birds.) In reality, it is the leading county organisation for the study of our wildlife and geology, by amateurs and professionals alike: knowing what we have and where, and how those have changed over time is of crucial significance to those seeking to conserve wild Essex.

As with all such clubs, it has a range of activities, both indoor and outdoor, throughout the year. But for me there are three things about EFC that stand out. Firstly it maintains a panel of county recorders for particular taxonomic groups and subject areas, experts who give their time freely to help curate the public record so that it can be relied upon as an evidence base.

Second, there is the website. In addition to the usual newsy functions, the site contains information and distribution maps for most species. Of almost everything! A few keystrokes and you can find details of previous records of a species from the county, an incredible free resource, as used for example in our blog from earlier in the year Lockdown Localism – finding rare and special invertebrates close to home.

Third and not least, there are the publications, especially the flagship transactions Essex Naturalist. And here again the website excels, with all publications going back to 1880 scanned, indexed and searchable. So this includes four volumes each of annual Journal and Transactions (1881-1884); these evolved into the Essex Naturalist, which comprises 31 volumes between 1887 and 1976, covering up to five years in each volume. From 1977 to 1992, the Essex Naturalist (New Series) vols. 1-11 were published irregularly, each being a ‘special publication’, essentially a standalone book. Essex Naturalist (New Series) reappeared in annual transactions format, edited by Colin Plant, from 1995-1998 (vols. 12to 15), before emerging into its current, larger, annual format in 1999 (vol 16), with an editorial panel, masterminded by Peter Harvey from the outset. Together, a digital treasure trove going back into the heart of the Victorian era (although the volumes since 2005 have not yet been archived), an window into the past to provide inspiration for the future – what was once, can be again, and better…

Now, the largest ever annual edition (Vol. 37, 316 pp) has just arrived with a thump on the doormat. We are very pleased to have five papers this year – this is a real lockdown bonus, giving us time to contribute to this important written record of natural world, the first time for several years. 

First one is the longest, with John Hall, a twenty page account of the ultimately successful campaign to save Lawford Tye field, home to Lunar Yellow Underwing and more, from the clutches of housing developers after Public Inquiry. Hopefully this will have useful lessons for others in a similar, sadly all-too-frequent situation.

Then an account of new botanical finds around #wildWivenhoe, including rarities hiding in plain sight as close as 20 metres from our door! As covered in a previous blog.

Next, the story (again blogged previously) of our successful campaign to encourage Beth Chatto Gardens to tackle the pollinator-murdering habits of the pond plant Thalia dealbata.

And the discovery of two new big red-and-black bugs (see past blogs here, here and here). The Firebug also features in two other papers by different authors – clearly it has arrived in a big way since 2019, especially around Harwich, but also elsewhere in Essex and adjacent counties. Coming soon  to Mallow and Lime near you!

Finally, the identification of a first for Essex, the rare sawfly Pamphilius sylvarum, after an identification gestation of 8 years, jointly with Yvonne Couch, who found the second, although first to be identified. Confused? Then read this blog.

All of this and much, much more (see Contents page above) could be yours for just £15, from the Essex Field Club. That’s 15 to buy…or why not spend the same sum, join the Club, and get Essex Naturalist along with all other member benefits for free?

 

The Wild Side of Essex: Day tours of The Naze and Walton Backwaters with Naturetrek – October

The best laid plans….! This was going to be a combined blog of the half-a-dozen planned Naze walks between late October and early December, the late autumn period. Until Covid19 had the last word, as it has throughout 2020, and Lockdown v2.0 descended upon us…

The only trip we managed before being overtaken by events was full, five customers all of whom had been with me on the Colne previously, remarkably on four different occasions.  And it was on a day of lovely autumnal sunshine. Thankfully the heavy showers missed us, but the clouds drifting out to sea left a legacy of wonderful cloudscapes, washed pink from the sun setting behind us.

Bird highlights included some 300 Dark-bellied Brent Geese burbling on the beach (with a goodly proportion of immature birds, in contrast to many recent years), confiding Grey Plovers, Teals flashing electric-green in the late sunlight, and a group of lovely Long-tailed Tits on the undercliff.

This late into the autumn and with south-westerly winds, the cliff-top bushes were unsurprisingly quiet for passerine migrants, although Robins tried their best to fill the silence, along with a few Redwings, Goldcrests and Chaffinches, while small parties of Redpolls trilled over, and five or six Stonechats  perked up the fence-lines on the marshes.

Lingering vestiges of summer included single Peacock and Red Admiral, buffeted in the strong breeze, a late group of three Swallows drifting southwards, Sea Spurge and Sea Rocket still flowering on the low dunes, the spreading alien Narrow-leaved Ragwort colonising the cliff slopes, and our local celebrity rarity Sea Hog’s-fennel, some still in flower.

Touched with the low sunlight, sea-walls were transformed into modern art works by radiant lichens, while the salt marshes glowed with Annual Sea-blite and maybe four species of Glasswort, each with distinctive autumn tints. A few sprigs of Common Sea-lavender still in flower were remarkably late, but the most exciting find was the large-fruited Cordgrass Ergot, a fungus I have noticed only a couple of times before, but abundant here.

And last but not least, the internationally important geology: Red Crag shells in profusion on the beach, their surface characteristically stained by iron oxides;  pyritised wood, septaria and copperas from London Clay, with just a few sharks’ teeth, the beach having been well picked over by half-term crowds.

 

Hopefully, walks will be able to restart in December, and dates are now being offered through to the end of February 2021. www.naturetrek.co.uk/tours/the-wild-side-of-essex-the-naze-and-the-walton-backwaters-day-trip

Cockaynes in late Autumn #WildWivenhoe

A late October walk to the Cockaynes Reserve, damp underfoot and dull (but warm). Not a classic year for autumn colour – still no frost, and the leaves are falling already – but a typical, muted yellow and ochre UK autumn.

Fungi are sprouting everywhere: the season has started at last (October brought at least a whole season’s rain), and in the absence of cold weather may well continue through November…

Perhaps surprisingly, quite a few insects were still on show and active, albeit sluggishly: lots of Parent Bugs (in a range of colour forms reflecting their transition into autumn plumage), and a few Birch Shield-bugs, lacewings and Acorn Weevils:

But alone with ourselves in the woods, there was more, so much more.

The pitter-patter of falling spangles…

… the thump of acorns …

… the earthy, humic smell of renewal …

… and the visible promises of rebirth of the Earth. #BringingNatureToYOU

 

Late October in the Beth Chatto Gardens: after the deluge…

After a summer of me commenting on the lack of rain, October has done its best to redress the deficit, never more so than the sustained downpour the day before our visit. So everything was looking fresh, and the flowers and foliage encrusted with pearls…

The freshness extended to the air. Newly-scrubbed of its accumulated dust and odours, the pristine palette brought forth the most wonderful scentscapes, sometimes surprising, like this Berberis, barely yet in flower, but already enveloped in a rich, heady pool of lily-of-the-valley laced with talcum powder.

Probably as a result of the warmth, with no hint still of frost, this autumn is not shaping up to be a classic of colour saturation, more a gentle British one, the foliar fireworks muted into russet and yellow.

The remaining flowers too, mostly pastel shades…

 

…with the occasional bright sparks of intensity, sometimes from flowers, but as often as not, from seeds and fruits.

And with the welcome warmth, insects were out and about, including Willow Emerald damselflies, now at the very end of their season, and Hairy Shield-bugs, now starting to adopt the browner tones of their autumn plumage.

 

The garden year is turning full circle, but freed from the competing attentions of blooms and butterflies, the approach of winter is when the natural sculptures and textured canvases come into their own. There’s still time to get there and see the gardens before they close for the winter in mid-November www.bethchatto.co.uk.

The Wild Side of Essex: Day tours of the Colne with Naturetrek in October

Five day-walks in October saw the change of the seasons, on the estuary itself, and the ancient woods, grazing marshes and parkland of the Wivenhoe area.

But, despite the Essex coast being one of the driest parts of the country, our walks were plagued by weather, often wet, sometimes windy, but usually (thankfully) mild. My descriptions on the days ranged from ‘gun-metal gloom‘ to ‘fifty shades of grey, and sixty grades of wet‘ to ‘rain, rain and .. er .. slightly lighter rain‘…

One one walk, the thunderstorm which enveloped us on an exposed sea wall, after what had been a lovely warm sunny autumnal day, was simply spectacular. Truly, the Wild Side of Essex!

Especially when the sun came out, though, the radiance of autumn was palpable, whether in the wonderful specimen trees of Wivenhoe Park or the ancient Grange Wood running to the estuary shore:

And of course not just trees – autumn also seeps into the leaves of Common Reed, and tints the array of Glassworts on the marshes, making it the best time of year to separate this very difficult group, each with a distinctive autumn hue.

Flowering was drawing to a close, but Cord-grass and Strawberry Clover were still going strong, and Blue Fleabane was a good find in the Cockaynes Reserve:

So too Lesser Calamint, Common Fleabane and Sea Wormwood, though these were notable as much for their scented leaves as for the flowers.

And especially on the greyest days, the rain-washed air was a pristine palette to savour the flavours, the fragrant foliage of Pineappleweed, Walnut and Lawson’s Cypress shining bright in the olfactory gloom, the perfect antidote to the lusty musk of Stinkhorn pervading Wivenhoe Park…!

Turning to the Wivenhoe waterfront and the Natural Art of Block Paving. Certainly not ‘weeds’ – think instead of filigree adornment, that which helps soften the mind-numbing, spirit-crushing straight lines we attempt to force upon the world. 

Leaving the most important pollen and nectar source to last: Ivy, flowering right to the end of the month, and still attracting diverse insect visitors, from social wasps to hoverflies, ladybirds to Ivy Bees, the latter especially numerous on the Ivy hedge of St Mary’s Churchyard.

Other insects were fewer, as would be expected: lingering Common Darters, with a few Migrant Hawkers; sluggish Hornets around their nests; and Speckled Woods occupying their favoured sun-flecks (when available!). Red Admirals included one making the most of the nectar from Strawberry-trees in the grounds of Wivenhoe House: such spectacular garden plants, bearing this year’s flowers alongside last year’s fruits, and memorably awash with the heady lemon scent of nearby Magnolia grandiflora flowers.

Otherwise, insect-wise, it was down to the ones one never actually sees  – the galls, leaf-mines and other feeding signs, which are so apparent at this time of year:

October is fungus season. Usually. But this year, perhaps a legacy of previous spring and summer droughts, it was slow to get going. By month’s end, they were starting to pop up – Beefsteaks to Birch Brackets, Sulphur Tufts to Honey Fungus – and the birchwood-gloom-piercing Fly Agarics lending the essence of autumn to even grey days.  For me though, best of all was the super-sized Cordgrass variety of Ergot, a fungus I have seen only once before.

And finally the birds. Migration time, so the occasional Wheatear and Stonechat were right on cue, and at times the visible migration along the ridge of the Essex Alps was quite impressive, with hirundines, Meadow Pipits, Goldfinches, thrushes, Reed Buntings and good numbers of both Siskins and Redpolls. Roving tit flocks, in Wivenhoe Park especially, often held Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs, and on one occasion a very obliging Treecreeper, while around the University lakes and the upper river, Kingfishers usually showed themselves, electric streaks of blue piercing the gloom.

Down on the estuary, wader numbers built through the month, with up to a thousand Black-tailed Black-tailed Godwits and hundreds of Redshanks. Shelducks arrived back from moult migration mid-month, and the feeding and flying flurries, snowstorms of up to 400 Avocets, never failed to impress.

And the best bird of the month, this Osprey which flew low over us for 20 minutes, evidently looking for food, while seeing off the unwanted attentions of Carrion Crows and Jackdaws. The most obliging I have ever seen around Wivenhoe!

All of the above, plus autumn’s bounty, both fecund and full. Hips and haws, chestnuts, conkers and acorns galore, and a supporting eclectic mix of other wildlife, from Muntjac to Eel, bagworms to Lesser Water-crickets. Each walk a cornucopia of biodiversity!

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So that’s it for Naturetrek on the Colne in Autumn. Despite unexpectedly wet weather for most of our five walks, it was fun. After a spell on the Naze, we will return for ‘Winter on the Colne Estuary’ towards the end of November – see here for details and booking. All vestiges of summer will have been swept away by then, but waders and wildfowl will be at their midwinter peak, including our iconic Dark-bellied Brent Geese. And if (as is so often the case) we have had no hard frosts, the fires of autumn may still be burning in the leaves and the fungi season still going strong….

The Wild Side of Essex: Day tours of the Colne with Naturetrek in September

Three tours this month, spanning the transition from summer to autumn, and the weather reflected that. The first was unremittingly grey, but warm and humid, increasingly breezy and ultimately very wet. The second was blessed with liquid autumnal sunlight, at times intensifying into summery fire, which bathed the landscape in welcome warmth. And the third, a misty, moisty, windless day, in stark contrast to two days’ previously when a gale swept through, leaves falling ahead of their time, and branches, whole trees and even power lines felled. The woodland birds seemed subdued by this, save for mournful Robin song, ululating Woodpigeons and the occasional half-hearted Chiffchaffing in the storm-tossed woods.

On the estuary, waterbird numbers were swelling towards their winter peak. Downstream, it was possible to see a thousand Black-tailed Godwits socially distanced on the water’s edge, with other waders for easy comparison, usually including a sprinkling of Avocets, sometimes a twinkling flurry of two hundred or more. Upstream, numbers are always fewer, but the views can be better, and included the first returning Teals and Dabchicks, along with a few Kingfishers, one one memorable occasion being aggressively chased by a male Yellowhammer. A Kingfisher was also seen well on the Wivenhoe Park lake.

Autumn time is migration time, and visible migration was a feature of every walk, whether hirundines of three species, Meadow Pipits, Lapwings or Greenshank. Other migrants to or through Essex included White Wagtails and a Stonechat, but the biggest surprise was a lone Guillemot in the heart of town. Almost as surprising was a Harbour Seal, right up the river, in shallow water, presumably hunting Mullet.

This autumn has been mild so far, and only by the end of the month were the leaves beginning to colour, Norway Maples and the first few Red Oaks heralding cooler days in Wivenhoe Park. But the fruits of the landscape have been simply magnificent, hips, haws, sloes, acorns and so many other fruits seemingly larger and more numerous than for many a year.

Likewise galls, especially those on Oak leaves, buds and acorns. Such abundance, such diversity, without ever even seeing the causal creatures!

The couple of downpours in the month have done little so far to offset the spring and summer droughts: fungi, other than microfungi and brackets, groups which have a lower reliance on moist soils, were few and far between. Until the end of the month at least, when blue-staining Rooting Boletes and Parasols to Shaggy Ink-caps, Beefsteak and Giant Polypore to Chicken-of-the-woods, earthballs to puffballs and Sycamore Tar-spot to Oak Mildew started to appear. And of course, frosts permitting, the season is far from over…

Insects declined as the month progressed, apart from social wasps nesting everywhere on the sea wall, and thronging the flowering Ivies, along with hoverflies and Ivy Bees. Lots of Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers were still active, and even at the month end, there were Willow Emerald damselflies active round the Wivenhoe Park lakes.

Heather Bees (rare in Essex) around Cockaynes and Sea Aster Bees on their eponymous plants completed the triumvirate of late season bees, while butterflies have faded away almost entirely, save for a straggler Meadow Brown, and Speckled Woods in their favoured dappled shade. By the end of the month, Vapourer moths became obvious in all wooded areas, foxy males flying around to try and locate the flightless females.

All groups enjoyed the ‘pavement plants’ (NOT weeds) of Wivenhoe waterfront, including Four-leaved Allseed, Jersey Cudweed, Spotted Spurge, and both Canadian and Guernsey Fleabanes. The saltmarshes were still flowering, with Sea Aster, Cord-grass and Golden Samphire, while Shrubby Sea-blite and the glassworts were just assuming autumn tints.

On the downstream itinerary, we found some lovely patches of our local specialities Strawberry Clover and  Lesser Calamint, and other spectacular nectar and pollen resources included included Common Toadflax, Bugloss on the margins of sandy arable fields, and on the sea wall, Sea Beet in full ‘glorious’ bloom…

In Cockaynes reserve, wafts of Epilobium brachycarpum above Creeping St. John’s Wort covered the former weighbridge area. A new alien plant here, Stace calls it ‘Panicled Willowherb’. We begged to differ, and coined the much more descriptive and euphonious ‘Wispy Willowherb’.

And finally, garden plants do have their uses, even ones apparently designed by committee – the Passion-flowers of Wivenhoe were being assiduously searched for nectar and pollen. And in the gardens of Wivenhoe House Hotel, Strawberry Trees, simultaneously in full fruit and flower, attracted bumblebees, while the incredible citrussy scent of Magnolia grandiflora proved a complete ‘nose-opener’ to me at least. We live and learn every day in the natural world!

Greenwings in the southern Suffolk Sandlings

Torrential rain, the first for several weeks, thankfully started to ease as a select group gathered for the first Greenwings southern Sandlings walk, and gave way to a much better day than forecast.

 

The Sandlings, with appropriately sandy soils in one of the driest parts of the country, are well used to drought: indeed their special flora and fauna thrives on it. But this year is like no other I have known, with three substantial droughts since April, and the one which came to a tumultuous end on the day of our trip has seen a premature cessation to the flowering season for many plants, a rapid autumnal de-escalation of insect activity and a near-total absence of fungi.

Nevertheless there was plenty for all to enjoy, from birds to botany, galls to geomorphology on Sutton Heath and Upper Hollesley Common. First and foremost lowland heath, its eponymous plant, Heather, still blooming in places, and along with Bracken, Western Gorse, Silver Birch and Scots Pine an ever present backdrop to our day.

Other flowering plants included Common Stork’s-bill and Great Mullein on Sutton Heath, and Climbing Corydalis, Bell Heather, Harebell, Smooth Cat’s-ear, Wood Sage and Common Calamint on Hollesley Common. For some reason, presumably of geology or historical management, the latter site seems to be significantly the more floristically diverse of the two.

     

But plants don’t need to be flowering to be interesting: the straight lines of Sand Sedge, shoots appearing at regular intervals along an underground rhizome, were good to see, especially as this plant is almost exclusively found on coastal sand dunes rather than inland heaths.

Butterflies were few and far between but included Small Copper and Small Heath, a vibrant, recently-emerged Common Blue, and Speckled Woods hiding well in the dappled shade of Birch and Pine trees.

A good number of true bugs were found sunning themselves, including Gorse Shield- (starting to assume its sombre autumn plumage), Green Shield-, Parent and Dock Bugs and the scentless plant bug Rhopalus subrufus.

Galls provided the ideal excuse to shelter from the wind and the last of the rain in the lee of an Oak tree near the car park. Indeed, once we immersed ourselves in the canopy, we were lost for half an hour among Spangles, Silk-buttons, Smooth Spangles, Marbles, Knoppers, Cola-nuts and Artichokes…

And careful searching of the leaves also reveals other riches. Here it was Oak Slug Sawfly larvae turning the leaves into honeycomb, and an iridescent sprite of a (presumed) chalcid wasp, perhaps a hyperparasite of one of the gall wasps.

Leaf mines too – as with galls, the combination of symptom and host plant can often give an accurate identity without ever seeing the insect. In this case the sinuous mine on Bramble can reliably be identified as belonging to the micromoth Stigmella aurella.

Although a very common plant, especially on heathland, Bracken doesn’t seem to have many insects which eat it, in part perhaps due to the toxins in its sap. But in just one little patch of Hollesley Common we found two pteridivores on the same fronds: the larval sawfly is probably a Strongylogaster species (how I long for an accessible guide to sawflies and their often distinctive caterpillars!) and the blackened structures are Little Black-pudding Galls, hosting the larvae of the gall-midge Dasineura pteridis. Given the ubiquity of the host, records of the gall-midge are surprisingly thinly scattered across the country, and in the Sandlings known only from the far north. In fact this site, this few square metres of a very large site, are the only place I have ever seen it – and what is even more surprising is that I was able to find the infected fronds once again after two months…

Then of course there were adult insects and other invertebrates to be found with four pairs of keen eyes looking. From Common Darters, Sand Wasps and a Devil’s Coach-horse to Common Field Grasshoppers and Oak Bush-cricket, to Wasp Spider (which typically resolutely kept her back to an impenetrable bank of Brambles) and the Striped Millipede, a specialist of sandy ground.

We had been hoping that this time of year would prove fruitful for fungi. However the lack of rain in the past month ensured that we actually had more time to search for insects! Birch Polypores and a scattering of Sulphur-tufts newly emerging gave just the merest hint of likely future riches. Nevertheless, the few fungi around did provide opportunity for the word of the day…’infundibuliform’…

And we haven’t even mentioned the birds… A couple of Woodlarks flew low over just after we started, and snatches of their song cadences washed over both heaths. A noisy flock of 15 Crossbills played hide and seek with us, and a steady flow of Meadow Pipits headed west during the morning. Robins, probably mainly migrants, were ‘ticking’ everywhere in the woods, while roving mixed noisy bands of tits, Goldcrests, Siskins and Chaffinches rampaged through them.

Quite a contrast for our final walk, on the coast at Shingle Street: the wind had become really very strong, in advance of an advancing rain front. But, although in full sight, the rain was kind enough to hold off until our day in the field was finished.

A field full of Curlews, some 70 in total, and a couple of Wheatears provided the bird interest. The special flowers of the shingle ridges were almost past flowering, some like Sea Pea and Sea Kale in full seed, others with flowers remaining – Sea Mayweed, Viper’s-bugloss and Sea Campion, the latter often infected by Anther Smut.

Fox Moth caterpillars were on the march in their dozens, fully grown and on the look-out for a safe hibernation site, and it was clearly also an emergence day for crane-flies, a hazardous business in the wind, running the risk of North Sea oblivion. The only other insects, a shiny pair of leaf-beetles, were playing it safe by sticking close to the ground, and to each other…!

A place of uncompromising stark beauty: the sun-screened Sea Beet at Shingle Street amid the muted palette of lichen heath, at the end of a great day.

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: Awayday to the southern Suffolk Sandlings

An intrepid, necessarily small, group of Wivenhoe Bug’n’botters headed out to the southern Suffolk Sandlings on the equinox, and very likely the last day of summery weather for the year. The heaths were sweltering in temperatures of 26C, a very light breeze and dawn ’til late afternoon unbroken sunshine.

The Sandlings, with appropriately sandy soils in one of the driest parts of the country, are well used to drought: indeed their special flora and fauna thrives on it. But this year is like no other I have known, with three substantial droughts since April, and the latest one has seen a premature end to the flowering season for many plants, a rapid autumnal de-escalation of insect activity and a near-total absence of fungi as yet.

Nevertheless there was plenty to keep us occupied on Sutton Heath and Upper Hollesley Common for most of the day, including several things we in Essex see little of. First among those is the habitat: lowland heath, which because of geological history and the relative lack of wind-blown or glacial-meltwater sands in our county is a rare habitat. Even its eponymous plant, Heather, is exciting en masse to us, and was still blooming in places, and along with Bracken, Western Gorse, Silver Birch and Scots Pine, the latter derived from early 20C forestry plantations, an ever present backdrop to our day.

Other flowering plants included Common Stork’s-bill and Great Mullein on Sutton Heath, and Climbing Corydalis, Bell Heather, Harebell and Common Calamint on Hollesley Common. Rowan trees in fruit provided dramatic scarlet counterpoint to the already autumn-colouring Birch leaves and Bracken fronds, a combination showing the Sandlings channelling their inner Gustav Klimt…

Butterflies were few and far between but included Small Copper (some especially vibrant, evidently having emerged very recently) and Small Heath, with Speckled Woods hiding well in the dappled shade of Birch trees. Graylings too were well camouflaged, wings always closed, their undersides a fair approximation of the heathland sand and lichen carpets, and exciting to us as it is now seen only very rarely in Essex.

Numerous Common Darters twinkled in the sunny clearings, with Migrant Hawkers actively patrolling for food, rather than sitting and waiting for prey to come to them.

Other insects included Gorse and Hairy Shield-bugs, aggregations of Birch Catkin Bogs, Common Field Grasshoppers and numerous Sand Wasps, still actively excavating nest burrows.

Oak trees, as always, provided a good variety of galls, with many leaves especially heavily covered in Common Spangle Galls. And below the trees, Oak and Pine in particular, the groundscape of fallen acorns and cones was testament to autumn’s riches.

Birds demonstrated well the season of change, with groups of up to 40 Meadow Pipits, presumably recently arrived from Scandinavia, moving through all morning. Robins, again probably mainly migrants, were ‘ticking’ everywhere in the trees, while roving mixed bands of noisy tits, Goldcrests, Chiffchaffs and Chaffinches rampaged through them. Triggered perhaps by spring-like day length, a few of the Chiffchaffs were in song, while over the open heaths, the mellifluity of Woodlark cadences contrasted with the squeaky flight calls of Siskins. Bird of the day, however, must have been the Cuckoo, surprisingly late in the year, a young bird following in the wake of its parents who will have headed for Africa maybe a couple of months ago.

It was quite a contrast for our final walk, on the coast at Shingle Street: more breeze and many more people, and expansive seaward views up to Orfordness, now without its iconic lighthouse, having been demolished over the summer.

Although flowering had again been brought to an early end, despite their much-needed drought tolerance, shingle plants included Sea Kale, Sea Beet, Yellow Horned-poppy and Sea Pea. However, Sea Pink (surprisingly, as this normally flowers in May), Rock Samphire and Viper’s-bugloss, together with Sea Campion, some of the latter infected by Anther Smut.

As we headed back along the stabilized shingle ridge, we noticed the first large Fox Moth caterpillar, crossing our path. And then three. Then half-a-dozen, and yet more, probably fifty before we got to the car park. And on the road, absolute carnage, hundreds of them squashed into the asphalt, their final march in search of overwintering sites thwarted.

A couple of Curlew flocks, some 40 in total, heading purposefully south continued the bird migration story of the day, and  as we returned to the cars a Cetti’s Warbler exploded into song (and showed itself fleetingly) in the sparse hedge just five metres away. The final highlight of a very full day!

 

September in the Beth Chatto Gardens

Mid-September and coastal Essex is well into its third drought of a worryingly bizarre summer. At least at this time of year, some moisture is available, if only in the form of morning dew:

While summer blooms still cling on, autumn flowers are reaching their best, creating a rainbow of colour…

… including bulbs celebrating the ‘second Spring’, one of the special features of Mediterranean climate zones worldwide. Instant transport to places one might like to be after a lockdown summer…

Now is the time also to take in the immense variety of fruiting and seeding flowers, some sculptural, others attractive, and almost all one of the resources which make good gardens a haven for wildlife.

Often overlooked, ornamental grasses should form a key part of any garden, again for wildlife, shelter and food, and especially in late summer, as many of the flower spikes mature, a whispering soundtrack to the garden in even the lightest breeze.

And of course, always the foliage. Emerging from the limelight of summer flowers, noticing the shapes and colours again feels like a rediscovery, while new colour bleeding into leaves and fanning the seasonal flames is the epitome of autumn.

   

But it’s not just about colour. Light and shadow on a sunny day provide a transient lift, one given added potency at this time of year, as the canopy thins and the lower angle of the sun illuminates with sidelight.

Insects and other invertebrates are rapidly becoming fewer and further between…

… but any concentration of the right resources, nectar and pollen especially, can pull in large numbers. Witness the bushes of Ivy, the newly opened flowers teeming with Ivy Bees, a recent arrival in the UK which has been numerous in this part of Essex for only the past four or five years.

And most exciting of all, a small(ish), black(ish), hairy ladybird which flashed bright orange when it flew: Rhyzobius forestieri. Also new to the UK (in 2014), and now well known in parts of the far south-west of Essex, we have never come across it, nor even heard if it occurring round here. As a predator of scale insects, rather endearing (to some!) shelled bugs which can build up to damaging proportions on some plants, this is one new arrival the gardens should welcome.

#BringingNatureToYOU: for more information about our new campaign, please look through the website chrisgibsonwildlife.co.uk, or contact us via the Contacts page.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: September – Barrier Marsh, The Chase, ant-hills and more…

Another very pleasant set of walks was held at the beginning of September, to an area which we had not fully explored as a group before. The hour passed very quickly for each session, and we hope that everyone enjoyed learning a bit about the history of the place as well as the ecology. Thanks to all, and we would like to send a special Get Well wish to a dear friend, a regular ‘B&B-er’ who unfortunately is poorly in hospital at the moment.

First the history of ‘The Chase’ and the seawall. Four hundred or more years ago, to protect sheep flocks which grazed on the marsh, a seawall was built along our stretch of the estuary (as well as much of the Essex coastline). The clay/soil was burrowed out to build the wall, leaving ‘borrow dykes’ ie the ditches that we see today. The wide path, ‘The Chase’, leading from the wall towards the old railway line, historically belonged to the otherwise landlocked parish of Elmstead, provided a legitimate access to the water and its trading potential. Trade would have been food and agricultural produce shipped up as far as London, the barges often returning with horse dung for manure. Where extra ballast was required, this was readily available from the gravel pits in north Wivenhoe, and easily transported to the quays via Ballast Quay Lane.

Facing the water, the marsh to the right of The Chase is in Wivenhoe, whilst that on the left to Alresford.  A cursory glance at each will show their differing topography, the Alresford expanse being much bumpier than the Wivenhoe counterpart.  The reason?  Each ‘bump’ is in fact an ant-hill. The Wivenhoe stretch of marsh was given over to agriculture during the war, the area flattened out, thus fewer and smaller bumps remaining today.

The number of ant-hills on the Alresford stretch is truly staggering.  Each, probably housing thousands of ants, is a small ‘island’ with its own peculiar suite of vegetation, at this time of year some with Sow Thistles, others Common Toadflax or lichens eg Reindeer Moss.  Rushes (‘Sedges have edges and Rushes are round’) grow on the damper soil in between. See Chris’ blog from earlier in the year for illustrations of the wonderful flora of the marsh https://www.chrisgibsonwildlife.co.uk/lockdown-diary-the-ant-hills-of-barrier-marsh/.

Bugs weren’t particularly thick on the ground, though the Saturday groups were able to see a splendid Brassica Shield-bug, as well as observing some dragonflies in action looking for flying insects to catch for dinner.  A few butterflies were seen flickering over the marsh – a Small Copper, Small Heath and Large White amongst them.

Both of the Monday groups were treated to a close up of a huge Fox moth caterpillar….it was wandering to and fro across the path by the Sailing Club, possibly searching for somewhere to pupate for the winter. We helped move it to a safe spot, and hope it decided to stay put and not attempt to cross the busy path again later in the day.

Some estuary plants of interest included the Tamarisk trees now growing in abundance along the old railway line, as well as Sea Wormwood, Strawberry Clover, Cord-grass and Sea Aster.

NATURE ON YOUR DOORSTEP

And thanks to everyone who has been sending us interesting bugs and beasties that they have found in their gardens and living rooms.

An Orange Swift moth in Little Oakley and a Harlequin Ladybird in Lawford…

…and an Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar in Wivenhoe and a Large White butterfly just about to emerge from its pupa near Brighton, showing clearly the pattern on its wings through the translucent pupal skin. What a photo!

As ever, we are indebted to everyone who has been in touch with photos, anecdotes and has supported our walks.

Additional photos: Nicky Meckiff, Caroline Hall, Nel Mooy, Val Appleyard. Thanks all!

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours with Naturetrek in August

One side effect of Covid19 has been the near-elimination of most overseas travel. Looking positively though, this gives us all chance to reconnect with the wildlife and landscape around us. And so it was that Naturetrek started to offer socially-distanced day tours in Britain, and gave me the chance to continue what I spent much of my working life doing, putting Essex on the wildlife map.

Billed as ‘The Wild Side of Essex: Autumn in the Colne Estuary’ seemed a little pessimistic given they were starting in August, but as it transpired the weather on both occasions was less than summery. The first coincided with Atlantic Storm Ellen sweeping across the country, 50mph winds buffeting us all day, and the second was as the next named storm, Francis, was subsiding…but leaving turbulent weather in its wake, storms of almost tropical intensity interspersed with hot, humid sunshine, and an abrupt change of wind direction near the end of the day which saw temperatures plummet by several degrees in just a few minutes.

Nevertheless, we had fun in the unseasonal wind and rain, and found plenty of wildlife to keep us interested.

Estuary birds were starting to return from their northern breeding places, with many Black-tailed Godwits in particular still in smart summer plumage, hundreds on the downstream itinerary, but also some, giving much better views, on the upstream walk.

Also downstream, lots of Redshanks, about sixty Avocets, and a few Curlews, Turnstones and Little Egrets gave added spice, as migrating Swallows struggled into the wind, and a couple of White Wagtails completed the migrant roll call.

Smaller birds in general were kept very low by the inclement weather, although the woods and hedges were shrilling to calls of roving Long-tailed and Blue Tit flocks. In Wivenhoe Park, a Green Woodpecker put on a good show of hunting for ants.

Insects were also hard work, given the weather, but by heading for shelter and taking advantage of sunny spells, we came upon seven species of Odonata, mostly Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers. Upstream, the latter were almost swarming in places, and the aggregations included single Brown Hawker and most excitingly given its only recent arrival in these parts, a Southern Migrant Hawker…sadly without providing a photo opportunity.

 

Butterflies included both summer stragglers (Common Blue, Small Heath, Small Copper and Gatekeeper) and the autumnal fare of Red Admiral and Speckled Wood…

…while moths provided interest in their larval stages – Cinnabar (on Hoary Ragwort), Toadflax Brocade (a recent recolonist of the UK) and the impressive case of Coleophora kuehnella.

Other invertebrates included Green Shield-bug and Scorpion-fly, Batman Hoverfly and Pine Ladybird, while an Elm Zig-zag Sawfly larva was only the second time I have found this recent British arrival around Wivenhoe.

Of course, one doesn’t always need to see a creature to know it is there, for example when its activities trigger the formation of a gall in a host plant. Autumn is the best time to find these, and on our walks the most productive hosts were Pedunculate Oak (spangle, silk-button, marble and knopper galls, for example), Dog Rose (smooth pea and Robin’s pincushion galls) and willows (bean and camellia galls).

Much the same is true of fungi, microfungi in particular. Some of those do indeed also induce galls: others however, while not distorting the leaf growth, do give rise to distinctive symptoms – take for example the mildew Erysiphe alphitoides on the summer leaves of Oak, and tar-spot Rhytisma acerinum on Sycamore.

Large fungi though were few and far between, the main ones being long-lived bracket fungi like Chicken-of-the-Woods in Wivenhoe Park. No doubt this reflects the two intense drought periods of spring and summer this year: perhaps the late August rains bode well for the rest of the autumn?

The final flowerings of summer included all sorts of specialities, from block-paving rarities (Jersey Cudweed and Four-leaved Allseed)…

… to salt and grazing marsh specialities like Sea Wormwood, Strawberry Clover, Golden Samphire, Sea Aster and Perennial Glasswort …

… showy remnants of the summer meadows (Chicory and Field Scabious) mingling with autumnal nectar sources (Common Toadflax and Perforate St John’s-wort) and nationally scarce Lesser Calamint, feast for the nose as well as the eyes …

… to the colonisers of ‘life after gravel extraction’ at Cockaynes Reserve,  such as Common Fleabane, Trailing St John’s Wort, the non-native Epilobium brachycarpum, Smooth Hawkbit (at its only known Essex site), and Heather at its last locality in the area, this year more magnificent then ever before.

 

A feature of this year seems to be the early and heavy fruiting of trees and shrubs, Nature’s autumnal bounty writ large. No doubt these will feature heavily in the next few walks:

And last but not least, the one things pretty much immune to the vagaries of the wild weather (we hope!) there were magnificent trees everywhere, especially in Wivenhoe Park with its historic 200 year-old Cork Oaks.

 All part of the Wild Side of Essex, from birds to botany, galls to geology!