Blog Archives: Bug & Botany Walks

#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 …

PLANTS

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.

BIRDS

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.

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: Cockaynes Reserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

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

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

#WildBrightlingsea Botany & Bug Walks – the Lido to the Lozenge

It all started so well – warm and humid –  though the darkening skies were a portent of the heavy rain that was to follow and which eventually brought our morning to a rather abrupt end!

Anyway, back to our morning which began with a look at the ‘Splash-zone’ salt marsh plants which make their home along the promenade, and thrive there thanks to the frequent splashing of the waves and, fortunately, the lack of applications of the dreaded Roundup, of which so many councils are inordinately fond. These plants included Sea Beet, Lesser Sea Spurrey and Buck’s-horn Plantain.  A rather attractive soldier-beetle Cantharis rustica put in an appearance whilst we were walking along this section.

Various birds provided the backdrop sound-scape  – Lesser Black backed and Herring Gulls over the water, whilst Cetti’s and Reed Warblers, Skylarks, as well as Blackbirds and Robins, accompanied us throughout the rest of the morning. Along the sea wall we were pleased to see flowering of lots of typical plants, both natives and non-natives, including Cow Parsley, Alexanders, the beautiful pink/purple Salsify which goes to bed at lunchtime, plus the pink-flowering Tamarisk, a lover of coastal regions.

Either by accident or design, (the previous growth of Gorse bushes having been removed last year), the bank along the road opposite the Lido is a mass of flowers including the not-so-common White Ramping Fumitory and Field Scabious, both loved by insects. Although insects were not out and about as much we would have liked, several were apparent, including a three-some of Dock Bugs on the dock leaves along this bank.

Once up on the sea wall, other insects presented themselves – green tortoise beetles, stretch-spiders (shining almost like burnished gold in the gathering gloom), a Bramble Sawfly, plus numerous other flies, bees and spiders. A few beetles made an appearance including Seven-spot Ladybirds and the relatively large leaf-beetle ‘Banksy’ (officially Chrysolina banksii)…

Some insects are only apparent by the traces they leave, for example leaf mines ( here, on the Spear-leaved Orache) – where very small insect larvae live the first part of their lives within leaf-tissue, and galls.

Galls are fascinating and a result of a plant’s reaction to an ‘attack’ by another organism, be it fungus, insects or mites. The affected plant, as a kind of damage-limitation exercise, creates a specific area to keep the perceived infection separate from the rest of the plant, hence the wonderfully varied galls that can be seen on many plants. The Oak is the champion as far as galls are concerned, and over 50 different types have been recorded on these trees, and today we did spot two – cherry and currant galls (above right) – on trees in the Lozenge.

We were disappointed not to be able to linger (because of the now persisent rain) in the delights of the Lozenge Community Nature Reserve, but perhaps we can revisit at another time.  Perhaps a summer evening with the bat detector and moth trap?  Let us know if this would be of interest to you. And next time hopefully we will get to sample the fare in the new Lido café!

#WildBrightlingsea – branching out with our Bug & Botany walks

As a recce for our new series of #WildBrightlingsea walks coming up (sadly tomorrow’s is postponed because of potentially dangerous winds), we headed there today. Only a short distance from Wivenhoe, it is more maritime in nature, with Tamarisk already looking its best, before the flowers actually burst open and the coral tones are diluted, and Duke of Argyll’s Tea-tree is now well into flower.

With winds rising in anticipation of the spring storm, some sheltered areas were teeming with insects, many of them getting into the summer of love, to the fragrant accompaniment of Hawthorn and Cow Parsley, the very embodiment of May. Dock Bugs were abundant on Hemlock, presumably insensitive to the toxins that render it so poisonous to us.

A selection of the other insects and invertebrates we found included Parent, Woundwort and Green Shield-bugs…

… a selection of hoverflies and dance-flies…

… along with weevils, crane-flies and Nursery-web Spiders …

… and finally, the stars of the day, a Large Velvet Ant and the fly Argyra diaphana, both pretty uncommon in Essex and the former also Nationally Scarce.

One thing that struck us as we walked around the town is that the benefits of reducing mowing may be gaining traction: a grassy bank opposite the Lido has masses of Bur Chervil (a rather scarce, largely maritime plant), and also White Ramping Fumitory and surprisingly early flowering Field Scabious. Whoever manages it, well done!

And in another example of amenity grassland delivering for wildlife, if allowed, the lawns around the Community Centre are another prime example. Heaving with interesting plants including Common Stork’s-bill, Small-flowered Crane’s-bill, and masses of Subterranean Clover, another scarce coastal plant, let’s hope these examples represent a deliberate decision to encourage nature that will go well beyond #NoMowMay!

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: The Wivenhoe cemeteries

This month’s walks, in the cemeteries Old and New, were spread over two days. The warmth and short-lived dry spell on Monday morning brought out a myriad of insects; on Saturday there had been virtually none, but we were instead rewarded with the accentuated smells and colours of the wild flowers in the rain. The Cow Parsley was at its heady best, and the Bluebells, creating a swathe of blue, dotted with yellow buttercups, a feast for the eyes.

This special, sacred,  place has suffered from mismanagement at the hands of man over the years, but nature is fighting back to provide us with a refuge in these uncertain times.  The ancient gravestones, each of interest and worth a read – if only we had had the time! – themselves are mini-nature reserves, covered in lichens, and homes for mini-creatures, including four types of ‘bagworms’.  These are moths which live at least some of their lives in little ‘bags’ –  in the case of Psyche casta the bags are covered in little bits of grass; whilst the ‘Virgin bagworm’ is covered in lichen and grit, and remarkably spends its whole life in The Bag on its own (or rather ‘she’ spends her whole life there – no males needed in this species)!  Two other varieties seen on Monday were Narycia duplicella with the pupal exuvium sticking out of the end of the larval case, and the long Taleporia tubulosa.

Other insects found by the Monday group (sorry Saturday folk) included both Green and Hairy Shieldbugs, the Cinnamon Bug and Red-and-Black Froghopper (both in the ‘warning’ coloration combination of red and black, signifying that they are probably pretty nasty to eat), the Umbellifer Longhorn beetle, and a rather beautiful picture-winged fly Euleia heraclei.

A well-recognised plant occurring in our woody areas is Wild Arum/Lords and Ladies/Cuckoo Pint (to rhyme with Lint)/ Jack-in-the-Pulpit as well as being known by many other names – lots of them quite ‘naughty’ as the flowers are rather, erm, shall we say anatomical-looking!  A few other botanical delights caught our eye –  a delicate little flower, Hairy Tare growing alongside Common Vetch; Thale Cress, rather like the well-known Shepherd’s Purse, but with very different seed pods; whilst Shining Cranesbill with its varnished-looking leaves is certainly at home in the Old Cemetery, as is Garlic Mustard.

Of the larger vegetation a number of splendid trees create height, shelter and lend the place a certain grandeur – these include Himalayan Pine, Horse Chestnut and two species of oak, whereas shrubs like  Viburnum tinus provide valuable nectar early in the year when newly emerging insects need fuel.

We finished our hour in the newer Cemetery which is celebrating ‘No Mow May’ and the wild flowers are numerous and a joy to behold.  Many leaves on the Lime tree have unmistakable red ‘needles’ sticking out of them – these are fascinating little nail galls, created by gall mites (arachnids).  Each of these little structures contain many mites.

Walking on the lush grass certainly put a Spring in Our Steps – the mossy structure beneath your feet is unmistakable, and we hope that those who at first may have been unhappy that Grandpa’s grave had a few ‘weeds’ near it, will instead come to feel uplifted by the power and beauty of nature.

Thank you to all of you who came along ( and to those who had intended to be there but were unable to do so).  The weather left something to be desired, but we all made the best of things.  We have included some photos in this report, but some were taken on our recce a few days before the walk (when it was at least bright though not necessarily sunny). See you all soon.

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: Back in Action! The KGV and wildlife garden

Thanks to all who joined in with us for the first B&B sessions for 2021.  We both felt rather rusty, having had so many months off, but hopefully we managed to find enough to show you to make an interesting hour!

Due to the cold weather, particularly on Saturday, insects were very thin on the ground.  The main delight was the bees  – a few prospecting queen bumblebees  looking for a suitable hole to make a nest, plus some entertaining Hairy-footed Flower Bees. These are ‘sexually dimorphic’, ie the males and females are very different to look at, and they were very interested in each other (the males hovering closely behind the females) and the very important nectar sources of Red Dead-nettle and Blue Alkanet. This latter species is not native to the UK, but along with many other garden plants and escapes is such a lifeline to insects on the occasions when there is not much ‘wild’ nectar to be had.

This year’s season of Spring seems very ‘odd’ (but when doesn’t it?) – some things seem to be out early and others weeks behind what you might expect. For example some areas of Elm scrub have done flowering already and are producing seeds, whilst others have barely started to flower. This could be due, in part at least, to the vestiges of Dutch Elm Disease which has never quite gone away. This malady is caused by a fungus introduced to Elms by the Elm Bark Beetle.

The beetles are only able to burrow into trunks when they reach a certain size, the ingression introducing the fungus that kills the above-ground parts, whilst the roots survive, and suckers continue to sprout afterwards. Hence you will still see lots of small Elms around, but few large trees. A notable exception is in Brighton where a ‘fire break’ from back in the 1960s meant Elms within a mile or two of the town were felled when the disease was first noted approaching, the potentially damage-causing beetles being unable to fly that far to spread it. Social distancing! As a result the place can boast many fully sized Elms, which nevertheless need constant monitoring (Test, Track and Trace) as the pandemic may reappear at any time.

Back to our walks, we were at times serenaded by avian life including Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Chiffchaffs, Blue Tits and Wrens whilst Golden Plovers, Green Woodpeckers and a Buzzard were seen overhead.

We popped into the Wildlife Garden to see what has been happening.  Lots of hard work has gone into improving the pond which had been suffering from a leaky liner and had become rather overgrown. The overall impression at the moment is that all is rather bare, but lots of plants have been put into the areas surrounding the pond, which will be able to get going once the weather warms up, and a few Kingcups are in the pond itself. Sadly no sign of frogspawn this year, but we are confident that by next spring all will be back to normal as far as the amphibians are concerned and it will once again be a good breeding ground for our croaky friends. It is brilliant that there is a band of concerned individuals locally who are prepared to work hard for this very important site.

Directly over the field from the garden our attention was caught by the beautiful flowering Blackthorn bushes.  In full snowy-flower they were a sight to behold.  However, their usual promise of sloes to make our much-enjoyed sloe gin may not be guaranteed this year due to the distinct lack of any pollinators at this crucial time (having said that, our Monday group were treated to the sight of lots of hoverflies buzzing from flower to flower).

 

Other plants don’t rely on these third-parties for pollination but employ the powers of the wind – letting their male catkins dangle free and hoping pollen will be blown onto female flowers.  Good examples of this are the Hornbeam and White Poplar both found on KGV.

We finished our tour on the ‘Hay Meadow’ a section of the KGV which has been allowed to escape the regular three-weekly mowing regime for the past three years and is now an interesting area comprising all kinds of grasses, chickweeds, knapweeds and dandelions.  Not much sign of flowering at the moment, due to the extended cold, but we are confident once we have some warmth and refreshing rain all will be well.  We found what we think to be a newly recorded species there too – Field Wood-rush.

Short and sweet, and at least with its slow start we still have much of Spring to enjoy now we have been allowed out…

#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!

 

#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!