Blog Archives: Bug & Botany Walks

#WildEssex Walks: Wrabness and the Stour Estuary

Rain, rain and more rain…a feature of our half day walk around beautiful spots of Wrabness, but hopefully not the only memory to be taken away😊 . Our thanks to everyone for their perseverance….’it may brighten up later’….but despite the less-than-perfect conditions we still got a flavour of this relatively unspoilt area, and we hope that it was worth getting a bit damp for!

The morning got off to a mixed start – slight issues with the car-parking payment facilities but the prospect of a coffee and use of a loo in the little community shop more than made up for any initial annoyances. We covered quite a distance over the four hours, our first port of call being the House for Essex, the whacky but very interesting Grayson Perry creation.  If you get the chance, do try to visit this on a sunny day, when the whole exterior seems to shine and glow. And to our eyes at least a very fitting addition to the newly-designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Next, East Grove was a pleasant little diversion from the main route – a perfect little woodland boasting many plants, including Butcher’s Broom, Bugle, Greater Stitchwort and of course Bluebells aplenty.

The juxtaposition of tidal mud and ancient woodland is exceptionally rare in Essex, and the smell of the estuary was a feast for the nose!


Peering out from the trees, we could see a couple of hundred Dark-bellied Brent Geese on the shoreline. The icon of the Essex coast in winter (we are home to a fifth of the world’s population), the Stour is one of its renowned departure points for its return migration…

…and sure enough, a chorus of burbling, and off they went. Next stop the Taimyr Peninsula? Or at least a staging post in the Baltic.

Walking along the seawall we were able to admire many other shore birds: Shelducks, Oystercatchers, Little Egrets and  more. The quiet conditions (hardly any people on foot and a welcome lack of light aircraft overhead which seem to enjoy being noisy), and the damp, still air made Bird Listening (as opposed to Watching) an important part of the day. Farmland birds were in full voice, including Skylarks, Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats, with more distant Cuckoo, Nightingale and Yellowhammer.

Along this stretch we found virtually the only insects of any note – St Mark’s Flies.  These dangly-legged beasties emerge at roughly the same time as our hirundine visitors, providing food for them after their long flights from Africa. Among the big boys was a smaller, more colourful species, Downland Bibio.

An innocuous field of peas turned out to have a fascinating story – these have been bred to be leafless, the leaflets now being just tendrils which twirl around each other allowing the plants to huddle together, as protection from wind and heavy rains etc. Something we were having to come to terms with ourselves! And some of the Oak trees along the cliff-edge were already laden with galls, even on the leaves which must have burst only a week ago. One or two had huge numbers of large Oak-apples, on one of which we found a micro-hyperparasite, a tiny, long-tailed wasp, presumably a parasite of the gall-causer, itself a tiny wasp!

Next part of the route was along the beach.  Of interest was the geology – the cliffs (SSSI) showing ‘ash layers’ in among the London clay… visible evidence of when these parts were covered in ash from volcanic activity in Caledonia many millions of years ago.  The rocks – part of the Harwich Stone Band (forerunner of the Rolling Stones??) – from which local VIP buildings such as Colchester Castle have been partially constructed – were all around, to be admired, and some adorned with festoons of seaweed. This beach and a similar one at Harwich are the only natural rocky shores between north Norfolk and north Kent.

Rocks and fallen trees  provided a kind of make-your-bum-wet perch on which to eat lunch, though some sensible people in our group found a nice dry boat under tree canopy to eat theirs!  The conditions weren’t really conducive to leisurely beach-combing, but a few shells of interest were found, including Portuguese Oysters (a rampant non-native, potentially squeezing out our local native variety), Slipper Limpets, Cockles in a variety of attractive colours and a Shore Crab’s carapace. Another highlight of the shore walk was seeing the Sand Martins’ nests in the sandy banks – one of only three natural martin nesting sites in Essex.

Onward and up the bank onto the footpath we wended our way into the Essex Wildlife Nature reserve.  By now the wet weather was starting to really take its toll. The rain soaking up from my feet was meeting that dripping down from my coat, and we began to think we should call it a day a bit earlier than originally planned.  This meant missing out the Woodland Burial Site, but perhaps next time! The Nature Reserve – an important site, luckily rescued from development proposals – really does need visiting in the warm (see our evening visit last year, when conditions were perfect…  Wrabness Nature Reserve on a summer’s evening | Chris Gibson Wildlife ). Today there was no insect life whatsoever, but a few plants were worth a mention – Field Horsetail (diminutive relative of the giants from which our coal was laid down, eons ago), White Ramping Fumitory, Spotted Medick and Cowslip – and the many funnel-web spider webs, liberally laced with mercurial droplets…

The birds were not performing as we had hoped. Not a peep from the local Nightingales nor the Corn Buntings. But one important memory that we must take back from the nature reserve was the purring sound of the Turtle Doves…sadly such a rare thing to hear these days, due to merciless hunting in certain Mediterranean countries and the lack of suitable habitat (all they can find are agricultural wastelands ravaged by pesticides and totally lacking the seeds of ‘weeds’) for those that do manage to make it.  But here at least they can find sanctuary.

At this point our group began to separate – some heading for an earlier train, whilst others of us wandered at a more leisurely pace back to the station.  A little stop at the church (unfortunately not open to allow a sit down!), was worth a few minutes of our time, if only to see Annie inside the bell-cage.  Apparently the church tower collapsed in the 17th century, when the bell was ‘caged’, and seemingly that is where it will stay for evermore. And further along the road, we encountered the second of The Twelve Days of Christmas birds – Partridges (Red-legged varieties) which were enjoying the pea-fields.

Again thanks to everyone who stuck with us, and hope that we can repeat this, in more favourable conditions another year.  Writing this, having been home an hour or so, the sun is shining and we can’t help thinking ‘if only….’…

#WildEssex Walks: Cockaynes Reserve in spring

As often when we offer two dates for a walk, the weather is vastly different each day.  This was definitely the case with our little forays to Cockaynes for this month’s Wild Essex events. Monday was blowy and cold, whilst on Tuesday the sun shone, and the wind had dropped.  (Sorry Keith!).

This report covers some of the highlights that we saw, heard and smelled over both days. As to be expected, the warmer conditions on Tuesday brought out more of our insect friends. In line with the calendar (how do they know?) a St Mark’s Fly was seen, slightly askew with one wing out and the other not.  Possibly it had just emerged and not fully ‘filled out’. St Mark’s Day is 25th April! The following day we witnessed two ‘in cop’ doing what they need to do in the few days that they are alive as adults.

A little Pine Ladybird was busying itself keeping warm on a woodland leaf, and we found some Brown Tail moth caterpillars, new escapees from their conspicuous nest-webs. Their body hairs contain an unpleasant irritant and so contact should be avoided.  The only birds that can eat them are Cuckoos which have specially designed digestive processes to cope.

Famous and important residents to this site are the ‘Bunny Bees’ (Colletes cunicularis) which make holes in the sandy banks on the reserve. These are rare and it is always a pleasure to see that they are still enjoying living near us in Wivenhoe. And a host of other solitary bees were out and about in the sun including this ‘mini-miner’:

Evidence of other insect life was found, without seeing the critters themselves – leaf miner moths which lay their eggs between the surfaces of leaves and the larvae eat and grow, making patterns in leaves as they go, before emerging when fully fed, and also little cases of micro moths which were easy to spot on the rushes.

An Acorn Weevil showed its snout within the unfurling wings of an aquiline Bracken, and a tiny Dyseriocrania subpurpurella micromoth nestled into a Cow Parsley umbel. The warmer sunshine brought out butterflies on Tuesday, including Speckled Woods, Orange Tips, Large Whites and a Peacock.

We were privileged to hear lots of bird song in the couple of hours, and this varied day-to-day too.  We caught the dulcet tones of numerous Mediterranean Gulls (did I say dulcet?  – more like a posh squawk!)  – numbers in this area at the moment are at an all-time-high.  Add to that Chiffchaffs, Song Thrushes with their three-song call,  angry Cetti’s Warblers, rhythmic Reed Warblers, liquid Blackcaps, the increasingly rare Willow Warbler, Robins, Great Tits, Wrens, a bit-of-bread-and-no- cheese Yellowhammer, Linnet (below), Goldfinches and the odd snatch of Nightingale song, but sadly we did not witness its full and beautiful melodious warble.

Happily there was plenty of plant life to enjoy on both days.  This whole area was once woodland, and fortunately after the gravel extraction programme in the 80s, it was not merely filled in, capped with clay and turned over to agriculture, but was allowed to remain and rewild, giving us the reserve we know and love today. Working parties do great stuff in keeping some of the scrub under control to allow the important (and unusual in Essex) stands of Heather to thrive. These would soon be crowded out if Silver Birch and other trees were allowed to take hold.  Other interesting flora included Gorse at its peak, Town Hall Clock,  Opposite Leaved Golden Saxifrage, Thyme-leaved Speedwell, Wavy Bittercress, Greater Stitchwort, Ground Ivy and Heath Woodrush…

…and of course Bluebells, albeit a little worryingly with quite a few hybrids with Spanish Bluebell, paler, less delicate and of lower value to native pollinators.

Fungi are always fascinating, and we were delighted to find examples of King Alfred’s Cakes and a Mazegill bracket fungus.

As always we enjoyed the company of our groups – always willing to listen to Chris’ stories and ask questions and generally join in.  Thank you all!  Look forward to another walk with you before too long. Some of you asked about our fantastic close-up binoculars: they are Pentax Papilio II 8.5 x 21. We would recommend them thoroughly, and it is just a pity we are not on commission, given the number of pairs that have been bought by our ‘bug and botters’ over the past four years!

#WildEssex Walks: Alresford Old Church to the creek

Thank you all for coming along to our walk today.  The weather was absolutely perfect – bright sun, blue sky with a gentle breeze to keep us all cool.

Gorse, that most important of plants for early pollinators, was out in profusion, and we make no apologies for starting this little blog with blue (sky) and yellow (gorse)– nature’s reflection of the Ukraine flag – a tiny, though heartfelt, show of solidarity with those suffering untold pain and misery in ‘civilized’ Europe.

This month’s event was the first time we have taken our group on this particular route, and was more of a lengthy walk than we sometimes do. Starting at the old, ruined church of St Peter we wended our way through lanes, down steps and across stepping stones until we reached the trail from Wivenhoe.  This path was once the railway line (Crab and Winkle line) which ran to Brightlingsea pre-Beeching. It is now a popular walkway, with good visual and actual access to the estuary.

The church is an interesting structure; destroyed by fire in 1971, it has acquired a beauty which only old ruins can and the churchyard itself has (at least in other years and we are hopeful for this) been managed for wildlife with areas unmown and allowed to do their own thing, although at the moment with little else showing other than (planted) Wild Daffodils. Among the grassland there are of course lots of those fascinating structures, lichens, on gravestones (see Chris’ gallery of ‘Lichenscapes’ Lichenscapes | Chris Gibson Wildlife).

So what did we see?  We had billed this event as seeing ‘first signs of Spring’ and we were certainly rewarded with lots of early Spring flowers, each an important source of energy for early emerging insects. Lesser Celandines, Greater Stitchworts, Red Dead-nettles and Common Stork’s-bills, not to mention a few (surprisingly early) Bluebells, were decorating the hedgebanks and field margins.


Blackthorn and Cherry-plum were in flower (the latter by now almost over), many of these shrubs buzzing with flies and bees making good use of their stores of food, and those biological pest-controllers par excellence, the ladybirds, were spotted here and there.  Who needs nasty poison sprays to keep aphids at bay when these beautiful little jewels will do the job for you?

Although not a Spring species, King Alfred’s Cakes, a hard, globular fungus was found on a dead Ash tree overhanging the path.

Those flying wonders-of-nature, butterflies, were out and about. How on earth caterpillars get transformed into these works of flying art is a mystery to science. We saw Peacocks, Commas and Small Tortoiseshells, but no sign of any Brimstones, although they are on the wing at the moment. And always a delight (to us if not to the bees their larvae parasitize), Bee-flies were just starting to emerge…

Birdsong filled the air; we heard numerous Skylarks, Blue and Great Tits, Robins, Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and many others whilst strolling down to the estuary. The shore birds are beginning to leave our coastline now, the few still remaining included Black-tailed Godwits, Curlews, Shelducks, Teals and Brent Geese we enjoyed watching going about their daily lives of probing mud for scrummy little worms or nibbling on vegetation, all the while keeping their collective eyes open for real or perceived threats.  Lots were disturbed by a Little Egret which landed among them (perhaps looking too much like a Marsh Harrier),although in reality the female Sparrowhawk which flew over at the same time was more of the threat at least to the smaller birds.

The last leg of the ramble was up Ford Lane, ascending from sea-level to the peak of the Essex Alps, where Cow Parsley in very early flower gave a final taste of spring, a last boost to carry us through the cooler conditions forecast for the week to come.

#WildEssex Walks: Trees in Winter – buds and bark

Two years ago, in a very different world, we ran our last midwinter tree walks around the KGV. The blog linked here focussed on the buds and twigs, and gives a good idea of the features to look for on a selection of the species to be found. Of course, the identification of trees in winter also uses a further series of characteristics, from fallen leaves, shrivelled fruits and the nature of the bark, elements we brought into our #WildEssex walks this month. Here is a selection (photographed during our recce in much more pleasant weather than the fog of the Saturday walk!).

ASH – in addition to its unmistakeable black buds, mostly in opposite pairs, with flattened twig tips, Ash also has smooth, pale bark, often covered in lichens, and usually has some of the bunches of keys from last summer perched in its boughs.

OAK – the plump, chestnut-coloured buds are clustered at the tips of the twigs that arise from the branches that come from the trunk, covered in deeply ridged bark, the fissures more or less continuous, running down the trunk. Sometimes, in older specimens, the trunk is divided, by coppicing or pollarding, especially on old ownership boundaries where distinctive trees were used to define those boundaries legally, by way of a ‘perambulation’.

BEECH (upper two) and HORNBEAM (lower two) – The elongate, pointed shape of the buds of these two species is similar, but those of Beech are set at an angle to the twig, while those of Hornbeam are curved into the twig.  Beech often has dead leaves still attached in midwinter, and smooth, silvery bark, with raised lines, rounded in profile, running down it. Hornbeam bark is similarly smooth, but the trunk is usually fluted, like a rippling muscle.

And then to three fast-growing, often small species, good at colonising suitable habitats:

WILD CHERRY has clusters of buds borne on short, woody pedestals, and peeling, copper-coloured bark formed into distinct hoops around the trunk…

… while SILVER BIRCH has lovely white bark, delicately drooping branch tips, and often has remnants of last year’s seeding catkins at the same time as the coming summer’s catkins are starting to emerge…

… and ELDER has deeply ridged grey bark, often covered with mosses. It is also the first of our trees to burst into leaf, a true harbinger of Spring.

ELM is often distinguished as much by its dead stems, the victims of Dutch Elm Disease, as by its living features. But on a living trunk, the herringbone branching pattern of the twigs is usually apparent, as often are the main branches clothed in corky wings of bark.

Another tree bedevilled by disease is HORSE CHESTNUT, especially worrying in view of its rarity in its native Caucasus. The big, swollen buds with sticky scales are well known, but the horseshoe-shaped leaf-scars and smooth bark breaking into a patchwork of plates are equally distinctive.

Similar in name, but very different (and completely unrelated), the SWEET CHESTNUT is often noticeable by its halo of dead leaves lying on the ground, as they take several months to decay away. Its plump buds sit on ‘shelves’ on the ridged twigs, and the bark of a small tree is smooth and silvery, in marked contrast to an older tree  where the bark is strongly fissured, twisting around the trunk.

Two of our most distinctive winter trees are WHITE POPLAR, with its graceful, upswept branches, whitish twigs and buds, and hoops of large, diamond-shaped lenticels on its bark….

… and the smooth, grey bark, large, turgid buds, almost fit to burst, and beautiful bud-scales,  edged in maroon and fringed in white, of SYCAMORE.

Finally, mention must be made of the evergreens, historic adornments to the grounds of the former Wivenhoe Hall. The red-boughed SCOTS’ PINE (top) is one of only three native conifers in Britain, CEDAR-OF-LEBANON (middle) is another species threatened in its native Middle Eastern home, and HOLM OAK (bottom), native to the Mediterranean basin. But the presence of leaves or needles doesn’t necessarily make identification easier: it is always worth getting to know their distinctive fruits, tree shapes and bark. No rest for the botanist, even in midwinter!


#WildEssex New Year Plant Hunt 2022

Each year, the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland organises a New Year plant hunt, encouraging botanists and other interested folk out of their midwinter slumber to see what plants are flowering in a walk lasting between one and three hours. This year, we (the newly branded #WildEssex) made our contribution around the Wivenhoe Waterfront…

It is a very simple survey, an example of citizen science. But based on the principle that enough monkeys with enough typewriters and enough time will produce the Complete Works of Shakespeare, then enough bleary-eyed plant hunters producing enough lists will eventually produce statistically valid results. And important results, linked to the serious issues for the natural world (and us!) around climate collapse, helping to shape local, national and international efforts to reducing the human footprint on our planet.

First up, and one of the most interesting, if diminutive flowering plants: Early Meadow-grass. Until a few years ago, this was known only from the extreme south coast of Britain, but presumably under the influence of climate change, it has spread right through the Essex coast, and now Suffolk and Norfolk.

Neatly bookending our walk, the final new species we found, Jersey Cudweed, has a very similar recent history, colonising the block paving of Wivenhoe within the last decade.

In total we found 35 species in flower, slightly more than last year’s total of 30. One cannot read too much into the difference: this winter has been exceptionally mild (indeed we were walking on the warmest New Year’s Day in recorded history, itself a worrying statistic) but there were a dozen pairs of keen eyes, whereas last year under Covid restrictions we were only two…

Most of the species were of course wholly to be expected, including annual plants of disturbed areas (aka, rather perjoratively, ‘weeds’) such as Common Field Speedwell, Petty Spurge, Annual Mercury, Groundsel and Red Dead-nettle.

Also expected were the flowers of Gorse: ‘when Gorse is in flower, kissing is in season‘ – it flowers all year round, fortunately for us but especially for the bees that were actively seeking sustenance in preparation for the next cold snap.

But there were also totally out-of-season flowers. Ragwort, on the sea wall, and Sea Aster with Common Cord-grass on the salt marsh were especially notable, together with Ox-eye Daisy, Yorkshire Fog and Wild Carrot in two of Wivenhoe’s new no-mow, no-sow greenspaces, alongside the more expected Daisy and Dandelion, the insect-sustaining plants that no-mow May is made for.

Another small group of flowering species was those which habitually use sheltered environments such as walls: Trailing Bellflower, Greater Periwinkle and Ivy-leaved Toadflax, three examples of plant refugees from more southern montane zones.

Finally, there was a notable concentration of plants with geographical names indicating their origins from other parts of the world: Jersey Cudweed and Mexican, Guernsey and Canadian Fleabanes. All very expected in an urban locality with plants from all over the world grown in gardens around us, but in the context of our survey, perhaps a clarion call that all the world must work together to tackle the problems on our planet.

Naturally, although a botanical trip, we didn’t overlook other wildlife. Our massed sharp eyes found the scarce fungus Cord-grass Ergot, a large caterpillar on Sea Beet that we think might be the larva of the Small Square Spot moth, and brightest of all, a huge number of Rosemary Beetles, the mobile jewels that adorn many a garden Rosemary or Lavender, mostly paired and in the process of making more beetles. All a very hopeful sign for a wildlife-filled 2022!

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany walks: a crisp winter’s day at the Naze

Having Walton-on-the-Naze on our doorstep is surely one of the delights of living in our part of Essex. And delightful it surely was on our Fossils and Birds walk on the coldest day of the year – sub-zero temperatures but in sparkling sunshine, we could see for miles out to sea, the still air  punctuated by only the lapping of the waves and the burbling of the Brent Geese one to another.

Standing on the beach looking at the cliffs, you really are looking back many millions of years in time. The whole area, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, is one of the finest geological sites in Britain, comprising layers of London Clay, topped by Red Crag.

The stunning redness of the Crag is due to oxidisation of the sand and shell layer laid down over 3 million years ago when Walton was, as now, at the edge of the sea, just prior to it being engulfed in the turmoil of the last Ice Age. Fossils of many kinds and shell debris can be readily be found on the beach, most stained an attractive red colour, distinguishing them from otherwise-identical modern shells.

A combination of the seeping of rainwater downwards, lubricating the clay surface, and storm wave pressures makes the whole area prone to landslips and substantial coastal erosion, which although exciting for geologists and fossil-hunters, nevertheless is extremely worrying for those with buildings atop the cliffs! One vulnerable structure is of course the famous Naze Tower, a 300 year old leaning landmark, built by Trinity House for navigational purposes and today a popular art-gallery and tea room.

Some years ago a local dispute raged as to what to do – completely surround the whole Naze with a sea defence?  Extremely expensive and would prevent geological discovery and the ‘production’ of sand which feeds our local seaside resorts. Or let the whole area eventually fall into the sea? A compromise was sought and about ten years ago an additional 170 metres of defence was built. Now known as the Crag Walk, this allows a safe walkway, and provides a chance to study the cliffs at close quarters, whilst learning about the geology and wildlife from interpretation boards. It also protects the area immediately below the tower.

And so to our beachcombing….many delights awaited the patient explorer, including a shark’s tooth spotted by Chris – probably 50 million year old and looking in pretty good nick! (the tooth that is!), from an inhabitant of the subtropical London Clay lagoon which then covered most of what is now Essex.

‘Boring piddocks’ Chris was heard to exclaim at one point….to whom or what was he referring? Turns out Piddocks, also known as Angels’ Wings, are attractive shells which bore vertically in the soft London Clay, making perfectly round holes as they do so. Equally modern are the Slipper Limpets accidentally introduced to our waters a century ago.

Other delights included ancient pyritised wood (turned to ironstone), and copperas nodules (which some suggest are fossilised poo or ‘coprolites’). Fifty million years old!

The left-hand coiling whelks Neptunia contraria are interesting as most gastropods coil in a dextral way; these left-handers from the warmer Red Crag seas can be dated at over two million year old. It’s hard to get your head round numbers like this!

Although quite slippery on the London Clay platform, areas of sand became more accessible as the tide receded and we were particularly struck by the beautiful dendritic drainage tree-shapes in the sand. 

In addition to the wonderful beach treasures, we were able to see and hear many birds who make that area their home…the ubiquitous Brent Geese, as well as  Herring and Black-headed Gulls. In addition entertaining us running up and down the beach were several Turnstones, Grey Plovers, Curlews and Sanderlings. On the cliffs, Rock Pipit and Robin, their singing suggesting they were migrants defending their winter territories, and overhead several small flocks of Siskins, also migrants, flew northwards.

A very enjoyable end to our 2021 season – thank you all. Fingers crossed we can go ahead with our 2022 programme as planned, as #WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany walks are rebranded as simply #WildEssex: we try to do the lot!

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks – autumn in Wivenhoe Park

For those of us living in Wivenhoe, the University grounds (Wivenhoe Park) are a wonderful resource the year round, but never more so than in autumn with beautiful trees turning to russet and gold, and usually lots of fungi to discover.  This year the autumn is rather late in arriving, so many of the arboreal specimens are still in their summer coloration – but there was some evidence of a change in the Narrow-leaved Ash and the Norway Maples which were looking splendid on our morning walks in October.

As a demonstration of how the fires of autumn are either late, or subdued, this year, the photo below left shows the groundscape below Red Oak today; on the right are the leaves of the same tree exactly two years earlier. Different year, different weather conditions of the preceding summer, different colours…

So our walk, billed as ‘Fruits, Foliage and Fungi’ was rather lacking in dramatic foliage, and also fruits. Acorns, for example, were almost non-existent, in complete contrast to last autumn, a mast year, when the trees were laden with the fattest acorns imaginable, in huge numbers. Fortunately, for those of a gastronomic bent, the Sweet Chestnuts, at least from some trees, have fattened well.

But as for fungi,  the damp summer and warm autumn have produced a bumper crop. On our walks we are not able to identify all the species we find with confidence – even expert mycologists have been known to mis-identify with alarming and potentially fatal results.  So we stick to pointing out what we can and offer tentative or group identifications where we are able, but never to say definitively ‘this is edible’…!

A summary of what we saw, in pictures…..

Everyone’s favourite, from elves to toads to Father Christmas, the Fly Agaric was in profusion around one of the Silver Birch Trees:

Several other species in the genus Amanita were also found, including one which may prove to be our most interesting find when it grows up. At this early button stage it has all the appearance of the Solitary Amanita, a rare , southern species in the UK.

Under Beech and Oak trees, there was a variety of puffballs, earthballs, cheese-caps, penny-buns and lovely Amethyst Deceivers, at first almost invisible among the leaves, but seeming to emerge in troops as we got our eyes into searching:

And out in the more open grassland, again a great range of species, from Shaggy Ink-caps to Liberty Caps and Parasols, Yellow Clubs to waxcaps, all indicating the ecological quality of the extensive grasslands in Wivenhoe Park.

And then fungi growing on the old trees themselves, Beefsteaks and Sulphur-tufts recycling and hollowing, but not killing…

High in a large Oak. Chicken-of-the-Woods was fruiting…and as we peered skyward, a sharp pair of eyes spotted an anomalous set of leaves sprouting from a bough. It was a 2m tall Silver Birch sapling growing epiphytically from the Oak, the sort of thing we associate with rain forests, both temperate and tropical, but a surprise in the arid lands of north-east Essex.

In keeping with the ‘Bug’ bit of our walks, we kept an eye open for invertebrates – and were hoping that the Rhododendron leafhopper Graphocephala fennahi  would make an appearance. Spectacular and relatively large for its family Cicadellidae, this is one of only a few creatures which makes its home on Rhododendron.  A quick peer at the host plant indicated that there were none to be found today, but here is ‘one that we took earlier’ on our recce a day previously, a somewhat warmer day. Certainly worth a search next time you are near a suitable plant.

While we didn’t look in too much detail at galls this time, one that attracted our attention was these hairy little structures on Beech. These are the galls of the gall midge Hartigiola annulipes, which it seems is rather rare in Essex, with only seven previous records from the county shown on the Essex Field Club map. Another sharp pair of eyes spotted these little insects apparently coming out of the galls – as a mini-wasp, these are not the gall-causers, but likely a parasite thereof.

All those and more – Jackdaws and Green Woodpeckers as usual here flew the flag for the birds, along with a few Redwings ‘seep‘ing overhead, and one, maybe two, noisy Little Owls that unfortunately remained hidden.

For anyone looking to go back, the university has recently produced a second edition of its ‘Tree Guide’, well worth a look, and a visit to these grounds, at any time of year. To download a pdf of the guide, visit Wivenhoe Park | University of Essex, and follow the link.

Thank you to everyone who joined us and apologies to those who we had to turn away.  We like to keep our groups fairly small in number so that everyone can see and feel involved.  Apologies too that we unfortunately, inadvertently chose the Uni ‘Open day’ to arrange this event, so Chris had to compete with loud music and a helicopter overhead, but hopefully none of this got in the way of enjoying the nature!


#WildBrightlingsea Bug & Botany Walks – All Saints’ Churchyard and Moverons Lane

It almost felt like normal – a dozen wildlife fans and us being able to spend time together enjoying the natural world. Our venue this time was the large churchyard of All Saints’, Brightlingsea, followed by a potter along the adjacent lane.

All Saints’ Church itself is impressive – the decorative flint indicating its historic wealth and importance. The churchyard covers a vast area with quite a few trees and features such as log piles and an Insect Hotel, all of which are valuable homes for invertebrates. However, with the exception of some patches of Lesser Calamint (a sweet-smelling and Nationally Scarce plant), most areas seem to be mown (too) regularly to provide much assistance to wildlife. It is commendable to provide homes for things to live in, but these creatures also need places to feed and breed. But on the plus side, the church does welcome the large colony of Soprano Pipistrelles it hosts!

The morning got off to a dull start (and we were grumpy that the No 62 Bus had failed to turn up!), but things were soon brightened by a lovely Speckled Bush-cricket who was sitting on the fence hoping for some sun. Other invertebrates in the churchyard included a large spider (brought to our attention by its long legs poking out of a grave), plus a  Harvestman sheltering away from the wind. We spotted a brilliant green sawfly larvae on a gravestone – and it demonstrated very nicely the arrangement of legs on sawfly (which are types of wasp) larvae as opposed to lepidopteran (butterfly and moth) larvae, which in technical terms have fewer pro-legs.

Lichens are doing well in this holy space. These fascinating organisms are in fact each a composite of an algae living with a fungus, so not really species in their own right, though each are scientifically named, e.g. the Sunburst Lichen is known as Xanthoria parietina. Their ubiquitous presence is an indicator of the general comparatively good air quality as opposed to that of the pre-Clean Air Acts era, when acid rain had a negative effect on them.

It was lovely to see a few areas of pink Ivy-leaved Cyclamens – the phrase ‘small is beautiful’ is so apt, compared to the blowsy horticulturally enhanced varieties that are available. This is the only cyclamen that stakes any claim to native status in the British Isles, but not around here where it is derived from cultivation or deliberately planted. Irrespective, it is a welcome splash of autumn colour.

The weather brightened just as the walk was drawing to an end. The Ivy bushes along Moverons Lane were teeming with all kinds of life in the sunshine – Willow Emerald damselflies (a species which has colonised Britain over the past 20 years), Red Admiral butterflies and many types of bees and hoverflies.  Such a joy to stand and watch, listen and smell the flowers! Ivy gets a bad press, but it is such an important source of food and shelter to all kinds of insects and birds; it does not kill trees and it can provide protection to buildings that it grows up.

Elms are present along the lane – not large Elm trees that had once graced our countryside – but now thanks to Dutch Elm disease only the smaller shrub-like trees, which only grow for a few years before becoming overcome with infection by the fungus-carrying bark beetle  Scolytus scolytus. However, the galleries these creature make under the bark are truly beautiful and artistic. Other recent artistic additions to the nation’s fauna include the Zig-Zag Elm Sawfly which makes rather charming zigzags as it chomps its way along the leaves.  A sharp-eyed member of our group found a well-camouflaged Dark Bush-cricket nestling on a post, whilst Chris noticed this crazy moth caterpillar (a Grey Dagger moth).

Just as we were wandering back to the cars a Devil’s Coach Horse beetle scuttled across the road – rearing its back end up as a warning to us. These are a type of rove beetle, and totally harmless. We managed to shepherd it out of harm’s way before saying our goodbyes to the group.

Many thanks to you all for attending, hope that you enjoyed the morning and that you will be able to join us on another exploration of  nature before too long.

#BringingNatureToYou : branching out to Furze Hill, Mistley

Renowned for its collection of veteran oak pollards, some dating back perhaps 800 years or more, Furze Hill was the venue for our first organised walks in that part of the county. Two, hour-long walks were our small gesture of thanks to the Street Keepers of Lawford, Manningtree and Mistley, who devote so much time to trying to rid their communities of the modern curse of herbicide applications.

We have blogged before about the veteran trees – see Furze Hill, Mistley: home to the Ancients from March 2018 – after a visit in spring when the wonderful naturally sculptural trees are so much easier to appreciate. We will say little more about them now, save to report that Old Knobbley, the most venerable of all, still marches on …

A summer visit of course gave us a window into the plant and especially insect life of the area. In the more open parts of the woods, Enchanter’s-nightshade (unique in having only two petals) and Rose-bay Willowherb were blooming.

Along the wood edge, several Caper Spurges have popped up from unknown, presumably garden, sources, while Common Mallow was flowering profusely . A feature of the ‘dog-wee’ plant community, Mallow is found particularly where exercising dogs have their first tiddles, but despite its less-than-salubrious habits, it is a vital source of nectar and pollen for insects.

Of the former heathy nature of Furze Hill very little botanical evidence remains, just a few remnant patches of Climbing Corydalis…

… although as we walked across the field, it was clear that great things could be achieved for wildlife, people AND carbon storage if larger parts of the fields were managed under an autumn cut haymaking regime. Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Sheep’s Sorrel and Common Cudweed were all visible in the turf, in spite of the mowing intensity, and no doubt others plants would rear their heads if allowed to do so. Every little would help!

As far as the insects were concerned, rough grass, Brambles and overhanging branches are a potent combination. Forest Bug and Green Shield-bug were on show, with a clutch of recently vacated eggs of one species or another on an Oak leaf; searching other leaves also produced developing Spangle Galls and the distinctively marked weevil Orchestes signifer.

The acorns of the same Oak were starting to show the disfiguring Knopper Galls.

A good range of grasshoppers and bush-crickets showed themselves, including Roesel’s and Speckled Bush-crickets and Meadow and Field Grasshoppers.

All that, and much more made for a very entertaining couple of hours and we will certainly look to bring the area into our programme of events next summer.


Wrabness Nature Reserve on a summer’s evening

Our first Botany and Bug foray into the wild spaces of Wrabness proved as enjoyable as we had hoped, with lots of wildlife waiting to be discovered, in perfect summer evening weather. The Essex Wildlife Trust’s Wrabness Nature Reserve was our venue, a mosaic of scrub and grassland, with views over the twinkling Stour Estuary, all easily accessible thanks to the road network from is former incarnation as a wartime mine depot.

Below is a list of some of the best bits, together with a few photos …


Some from the Pea family included Meadow Vetchling, Black Medick and Broad-leaved Everlasting Pea.

Also important resources to visiting insects, among the umbellifers were Wild Parsnip, Upright Hedge Parsley and Wild Carrot (with shaggy ruff, and purple middle to attract insects).

Other plants, radiant in the sinking sunlight, included Blackthorn with fruiting Sloes  (surprisingly heavy cropping after the cold weather we had in April when the flowers were out), Common Knapweed and Hoary Ragwort, complete with Cinnabar caterpillars…

… the semi-parasitic Red Bartsia, Dittander (tasting of Horseradish), and Woody Nightshade…

…and a final selection of Teasel, Rose-bay Willowherb and a patch of Wild Marjoram, an unusual site away from chalk soils.

Moving on to GALLS, those interesting structures caused by various wasps/flies/midges/fungi etc, three mini-wasp galls on Dog Rose were the Robin’s Pincushion, Smooth Pea Gall and the remarkable spiky Sputnik Gall.


No photos of these, but Blackcap, Whitethroats and Chiffchaffs were moving through the scrub patches, and a Yellowhammer flew over along with lots of southerly-heading Swallows.

Last but not least, some of the INVERTEBRATES that accompanied us on our journey. Butterflies included a confiding Comma, making the most of the last rays of sunlight, the cocoon of a burnet moth, several harvestmen (Arachnids (like spiders), all with 8 legs but they don’t make webs, just hang around on leaves) and the plant bug Phytocoris rufipes.

And of course the highlight of the day…

Great Green Bush Cricket – wasn’t she magnificent! And really rather scarce in Essex.

Thanks to those who joined our walk, and for the donation which we have sent to the Essex Wildlife Trust. We hope to include this site in our expanded programme of walks next summer.


#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: Lower Lodge

Having cancelled our Saturday outing, Monday dawned very wet and grey, and we wondered if we should have pulled the plug on that too, but in the end we were very glad that we didn’t – the humidity and warmth certainly brought out the insects in Lower Lodge.

This site is one of our favourites – managed very much for wildlife – areas being left for various lengths of time to grow, and then cut to avoid any turning back into woodland. We will let the photos speak for themselves –  though a couple of particularly interesting creatures (Roesel’s Bush-cricket and Emperor Dragonfly) spotted by members of the group didn’t hang around long enough to be snapped, so you will have to take our word for it!!

Skippers in their hundreds – mainly Essex (dark smudge at end of their antennae), but some Small (orange tips). Other butterflies included Meadow Browns, Ringlets, Gatekeepers, Large Whites, and just as we were leaving a pristine Red Admiral and Comma.

Moths including several types of grass moth and plume moth, a Common Carpet, Silver Y and Scabious Longhorns. Unfortunately the Burnet moths were not yet out but we did see a couple of egg cases, so we are confident that there will be some before long.

Beetles including several types of Ladybird  – 7 spot, 22 spot, 24 spot and a number of types of Harlequins, Thick-thighed Beetles, Hogweed Bonkers, a Yellow and Black Longhorn beetle plus a profusion of leaf beetles munching their way through a Hogweed leaf.

Plant bugs including  the reddish grass bugs Leptopterna ferrugata and Deraeocoris ruber, the beautiful planthopper Allygus mixtus  and the only shieldbug of the day, a Hairy Shieldbug.

Flies including ‘Dolly’ flies which wave their wings to signal to each other, a Saltmarsh Horsefly, which we rarely see and Nationally Scarce, plus lots of Marmalade Hoverflies and a few other hoverflies including the Large Pied, a smaller bee mimic Cheilosia illustrata, and Scaeva pyrastri.

And from other orders of insects, there were Speckled Bush-crickets and a particularly fine ichneumon (parasitic) wasp.

Plants were looking good – as high as an elephant’s eye almost, thanks to all the rain we have had. Particularly good-lookers include the Field Scabious, Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Hedge Bedstraw, Lady’s Bedstraw and Goat’s-beard. Also, never forget to look deep into the familiar: at close quarters, even Hogweed is a thing of beauty.

And always good to see, fungal Fairy Fingers erupting from the turf.

Thanks to you all who took a risk with the weather – hope that you enjoyed the experience as much as we did. Hope to see you in August.

#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.