Blog Archives: Bug & Botany Walks

Lockdown diary: Botany & Bugs (and more!) on your Doorstep

‘Nature can be such a balm for troubled souls’ – wise words indeed from one of our Wildlife Lovers.  There has been much to trouble us in recent days and weeks, and it is now more important than ever to find solace and comfort where we can.  Where better than on our doorsteps,  in the form of a free, alternative ‘NHS’  – Natural Health Service.   We have been delighted with the response to our email, suggesting we all keep in touch in these dark days by sharing sightings of nature from our windows/gardens/ or where we happen to be on our ‘daily exercise sessions’ and thank you everyone who has been in touch.

Now March has come to an end it seemed an appropriate time to do a little blog, sharing some of your highlights and observations.  Some of the recipients of our emails are either temporarily, or permanently not in Wivenhoe, so we are especially pleased to be able to compare sightings from Yorkshire, London, Brighton, France, Suffolk as well as villages nearer to home.

We are glad to report that one of favourite critters, the bee fly, seems to be doing well.  Our respondents from Wivenhoe reported a number of visitations to their gardens, and  Bombylius major has also been seen in London, St Osyth and Brighton.   We have today heard about ‘Bee fly Watch 2020), a national recording scheme for these little wonders.  If you would like to take part, please check out this link.

Another of our group commented that ‘Watching butterflies and listening to Radio 3’ was calming, and these colourful insects are indeed a joy to behold.  Wivenhoe has seen Brimstones, Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and a remarkably early Painted Lady.   A Red Admiral inspired admiration in France, and our Brighton contributor saw Commas and Small Tortoiseshells.

Other insects that you have told us about include Buff-tailed Bumblebees in Yorkshire, queen bees in Suffolk, and a Hummingbird Hawk-moth and Juniper Shield-bug  in Brighton.  We are unlikely to see that particular bug here in our part of Essex (although it does seem to be spreading our way – check out your Lawson’s Cypresses),  but the moth (a day-flyer) can be seen if you are lucky.  It is a fast-mover and imitates the action of a hummingbird, sipping nectar from flowers with its long ‘tongue’.

Spring flora is springing into action – Bluebells are beginning to bloom in our Old Cemetery: one of our many Reasons to Be Cheerful (see the thread on Wivenhoe Forum here for more of these!).

We, and several of you it seems, have noticed how wonderfully clear the skies are at the moment – the lack of vapour trails caused by aircraft enhances our outlook and sense of wellbeing.  ( As one of our group said, it is ‘strangely comforting’ without them). OUR planet has a chance to breathe again, albeit temporarily.

We know some of you have swift boxes/bug hotels and other special features in your gardens – let us know if you get any visitors. We are especially interested in your first sightings of Swallows and Swifts this year.  As yet we have no UK Swallow spots, but our couple in France have them there. And then there’s the first Nightingale and Cuckoo to arrive over the next month: the Cuckoo needs no introduction, but if you don’t know the beautiful  song of the Nightingale, here’s an example. Regularly heard around Grange Wood and near Boundary Road, Nightingales are also often heard closer to town when they first arrive, and maybe this year with fewer folk around and about, they will stay closer to us.

Please keep in touch and let us know what is going on, on your doorstep, by email or WhatsApp. And keep safe and well.

Photo credits: Sue Minta (Peacock, Bluebell), Val Appleyard (Juniper Shield-bug), Chris – the rest

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: February awayday to the Naze

What could be better – a walk on the beach on a sunny afternoon, time to scrabble about and get dirty hands in the search for fossils and other beach treasures, followed by tea, cake and chat in the warm?  Our intrepid Bug-and-Botanists all had a whale of a time on Saturday at The Naze, and despite there being a distinct lack of botany (except of course Gorse) or bugs to admire, there was plenty of ‘nature’ to enjoy!

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 fossil layer laid down over 3 million years ago when Walton was, as now, at the edge of the sea, just prior 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 a delight for geologists and fossil-hunters, nevertheless is extremely worrying for those with buildings atop the cliffs!  One example of course is the famous Naze Tower, a 300 year old landmark, built by Trinity House for navigational purposes and which today is 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, but sadly no 50 million year old shark’s teeth,  from inhabitants of the subtropical London Clay lagoon which then covered most of what is now Essex, were forthcoming this time.  Our photo shows one that ‘we found earlier’ on a previous visit….

‘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.  These examples (above left) are modern, as is their holey now-deserted home in the right hand image. Other delights in this photo include ancient pyritised wood (turned to ironstone), and fossilised poo known as ‘coprolite’. Fifty million years old!

The ubiquitous left-hand coiling whelks Neptunia contraria are interesting as most gastropods coil in a dextral way;  these left-handers from the 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.  So  much to see, but the time came to leave the beach and we finished our session with a cliff-top walk, admiring features on the skyline, and taking the opportunity for some wildlife-spotting:- a Common Seal bobbing along, Brent Geese feeding and a perfect chance to see a beautiful male Sparrowhawk at rest on the Crag.

We look forward to kicking off our season of Botany and Bug Walks proper in April, and hope that some of you will be able to join us.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: January – trees in winter

January’s walks were short and sweet, and concluded our three ‘Tree-mendous’ winter events. We walked around the edges of King George’s Field looking at winter twigs, bark and tree shapes.

Below is a series of close-ups of Chris’ photos of some of the twigs we looked at, with a brief description:

ASH  Twigs straight and slightly flattened below the buds, which are black and distinctive and usually in opposite pairs.

BEECH  Twigs thin and zigzagged.  The buds are long and slender, with a waxy white tip, and spread out from twig at a 60 degree angle.

HORNBEAM Twigs slender and zigzagged.  Buds long and pointed, like Beech, but appressed close to, even curved into, the twigs.

HORSE-CHESTNUT Twigs thick, with horseshoe-shaped leaf scars.  Buds with large red-brown scales, not yet quite at the stage of developing their characteristic stickiness.

SWEET CHESTNUT  Twigs shiny and markedly ridged, with heart-shaped leaf scars, showing numerous vascular bundle scars.  Buds plump, reddish and sit on ‘shelves’.

OAK  Twigs widely branched, showing numerous pale lenticels (‘breathing holes’)  and often decorated with woody galls.  Buds plump, orange-brown, and clustered and scaly.  The number of visible bud scales is diagnostic of type of oak: fewer than 20, as here, indicates Pedunculate Oak.

SYCAMORE  Twigs greyish, often with ‘wrinkled stockings’, the stacked leaf scars from previous years. Buds large and pale green, in opposite pairs, but with a lovely purple edging and a white fringe. See, even dormant buds can be beautiful and exciting! And you really do not need leaves and flowers for identification: botanists should never hibernate!

We are indebted to The Field Studies Council for their very informative booklet ‘Winter Trees, A photographic guide’ for inspiration and information. https://www.field-studies-council.org/shop/publications/winter-trees-a-photographic-guide-to-common-trees-and-shrubs/

 

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: November – autumn trees and fungi in Wivenhoe Park

The weather forecast was not wonderful, but leading the charmed life that we often seem to do, all remained calm and dry for our foray into fungi and trees this month. We spent two very enjoyable sessions at the University of Essex campus, which despite being on our doorstep is somewhere, incredibly, we have rarely visited.

The park is impressive, comprising a landscape of native and some rather special non-native trees, most planted as features for the grounds of Wivenhoe House, a splendid structure built in the mid-18th century and now a successful hotel. The fungi did rather steal the show, though,  as we discovered a spectacular array of them at every turn (although no longer at their best following the hard frost earlier in the week).

Some particular specimens which caught our eye :

Fly Agaric, everyone’s favourite red and white spotty one

                                   

Puff Balls, puffing away

                 

Beefsteak, so well-named, it made a few of us vegetarians feel quite queasy!

Redlead Roundheads, fairly new to UK and only found on bark chippings

Ink-cap, the gills of which drip a black inky substance, the phenomenon known as ‘deliquescence’

The Seamed Monkey-tail   – we thought this was a new-to-science fungus until we realised it was only the tail of a long-lost, half-buried child’s toy!

Yellow Waxcaps – attractive little fungi

Yellow and Grey Clubs – tiny finger like structures, the Grey species being quite a rarity.

Of course, these walks are advertised as ‘Botany and Bug’ so we did try a bit of bug-hunting too and a few things did present themselves, including, perhaps surprisingly, two species of butterfly, Red Admiral and Speckled Wood, plus a Squash Bug and a few hibernating ladybirds in the odd-looking, but insect-friendly Monkey Puzzle tree. A couple of species of harvestmen and short-palped crane-fly were found basking in the weak sunshine.

But the main attraction of the day was the wonderful trees. Today’s walks were part of our series of arboreally-related winter events.  Next month is our Leaf Identification Workshop, and in January our short walk around KGV looking at winter twigs and bark, both intended to increase our knowledge of trees.  Comparison of some different barks showed that this can be a useful identifying tool for when the trees are leafless.

The English (or Pedunculate) Oak, is a stately and magnificent tree familiar to us all, and several superb examples were seen.  A bit of botanical nomenclature for you – ‘pedunculate’ means their flowers/acorns grow on peduncles or stalks, whilst the leaves have none and grow directly out of their twig.  (Another Oak form the ‘ Sessile’ which actually means ‘non-pedunculate’, has, yes you’ve’ got it, stalkless flowers and acorns, whilst the leaves have a stalk).

Other forms of Oak were also looking good – fantastic Red  and Scarlet species, simply stunning at this time of year before their leaves drop; the giant-leaved Daimyo Oak a non-native found only in a few places; and of course the famous Cork Oaks living near the House itself. Rumour has it that General Rebow brought these two back from the Peninsular Wars, planted up in his spare pair of wellies.  They have enjoyed their time at Wivenhoe since then and are cherished specimens in the grounds.

A trio of Redwoods also are worthy of note. The Giant and Coastal Redwoods in their native North America grow to huge heights, indeed are thought to be the world’s largest trees. The Giant (aka Wellingtonia)’s bark is soft and spongy and makes a cosy home for Treecreepers.  A third species, Dawn Redwood, is a very interesting species.  This deciduous conifer was known only as fossils, until living specimens were discovered in China and introduced to Britain and elsewhere in the 1940s.  A hopeful example of extinction rebellion!

The Cedar of Lebanon could not be missed, being huge and was a popular choice for parks and formal gardens when the House was built, as was the Himalayan Pine.

And so to native species, like Silver Birch,  Beech, Ash, and Wild Cherry, all of which are understated and beautiful in their own right and have the space and location to look their best in somewhere like Wivenhoe Park.

The Horse-chestnut, which we may think of as native is in fact an introduction from the Caucasus,  where rather shockingly it is now on the Red Data list, meaning its scarcity is of extreme concern.  It is planted throughout Europe, but is now subject to attack from the Horse-chestnut Leaf-miner moth Cameraria ohridella which causes the leaves to turn brown prematurely and whilst not actually damaging the tree must compromise the efficiency of the leaves .

We thank those of you who participated and hope that you enjoyed it as much as we did. And very grateful also to Dr James Canton who first introduced us to the University Tree Trail, and shared his unique insights as a ‘wild writer’ with us.

All the above photos are ours but not all were taken on the day. Some were from our recce, so the fungi might be looking a bit fresher than you remember!

For a different, delightful perspective on the walks, the perspective of the participant, you might like to look at Helen Chambers’ own blog ‘Fascinating Fungi‘.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: October – Cockaynes Wood

It has been said that ‘Words are easy, like the wind’, but some words we learned on our walk today were not particularly easy, in fact decidedly complex!  Pangaea and Gondwanaland two for starters, not to mention Samara and Parthenogenesis….

The first two cropped up in relation to two beech trees, the European Beech and Southern Beech which stand at the edge of the track down to Cockaynes Wood, the destination of our Botany and Bug walks this month.

These two distantly related species, albeit in different families, share a common ancestor which occurred many millions of years ago on Pangaea, a supercontinent that included all the landmasses of the Earth. That subsequently broke up into Gondwanaland (present day South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, India, Australia, and Antarctica) and Laurasia (everywhere else).  When the separation occurred, the common ancestor went with each landmass, but different climates and natural selection pressures drove the evolution of two now-separate families. It was recognition of such relationships which gave some of the most convincing evidence for the new theory of continental drift, as recently as the early part of the 20th Century.

Our main focus this month was the trees and fungi of the wood, and some of the creatures therein.  Whilst fungi were not particularly plentiful, we found some of interest including a ‘troop’ (yes, it is the collective noun) of Puffballs forming a fairy ring, a Deceiver, Birch Bracket, plus our old favourite the Fly Agaric.  This familiar red and white toadstool grows associated with Birch, and although there are many of these trees in the wood ( so plentiful in fact that they need to be managed to keep them under control, particularly in the open heathland areas), we only found one small patch to admire.  Fly Agaric is renowned for its hallucinogenic properties, and being plentiful in Lapland has been associated with flying reindeer, and the whole red-and-white Santa Claus phenomenon.

A Witch’s broom, often mistaken for a bird’s nest, is often also caused by a fungus, in this case the fungus Taphrina betulina on Silver Birch, one of several microfungi we encountered. Others included the powdery mildew Microsphaera alphitoides on Oak leaves and the rust fungus Phragmidium violaceum, red splodges on the upperside of Bramble leaves, and erupting volcanoes of black spores below.

A few invertebrates were also on show.  A suite of our favourite bugs – Squash, Green Shield and Forest;  a splendid Devil’s Coach Horse beetle which adopted its fiercest pose; Pine Ladybirds; plus a pristine Painted Lady basking in the weak morning sun.  It is hard to believe that these fragile-looking creatures are migratory and able to fly thousands of miles.  Those on the afternoon walk missed the adult, but an eagle-eyed member of the group spotted the caterpillar, itself an amazing beastie.

Spiders and harvestmen (arachnids, not insects, due to not having the requisite six legs) were out in force ready to catch careless flies for lunch.  Some, like the familiar Garden Spider, produce sticky webs to effect this whilst others rely on stealth.  It was also a privilege to see the very active Hornet’s nest in a hollow tree.  These huge, beautiful creatures are much maligned, but if left alone are not aggressive or harmful, and they do much good in gardens and woodlands, helping to control the legions of aphids and other ‘pests’.

And so to another of our words of the day, ‘parthenogenesis’, meaning asexual reproduction.  The wonderfully named Virgin Bagworm, living on assorted fence posts, indeed lives a pure lifestyle.  These weeny wingless moths produce tiny bags which they decorate with lichen, and in which they (all females, no boys allowed, in fact they don’t exist) live for their whole life.  They can produce babies all by themselves with no help from anyone.  Hope it doesn’t catch on!

As for the trees in the wood itself, Sweet Chestnuts were plentiful, in places their leaves sculpted by the excisions of leaf-cutter bees, along with Holly, English Oak and Silver Birch. Hornbeams were at the fruiting stage, producing masses of dangling papery bunches, bunches of winged seeds or ‘samaras’, the last in our lexicon of odd words.

We finished the day with a flourish, seeing a Common Lizard basking in the glorious afternoon sunshine, an amazing aggregation of Scatopsid flies (aka Black Scavenger Flies), plus a veritable collection of Odonata  (dragonflies to you and me) hanging around, catching the last rays of the day: a Migrant Hawker, a few Common Darters, and  several Willow Emerald damselflies, a recent colonist of the British Isles, assumed to be one of the (rather few) upsides of Man-induced climate change, better thought of as climate breakdown, catastrophe even.

As always, many thanks to you all, old friends and new, that joined us .

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug walks: September – Ferry Marsh, after The Flood

 

Ferry Marsh is part of the Colne Local Nature Reserve, owned and managed by Colchester Borough Council, and this was our destination for September. In days of yore, part of this area was a grazing marsh, but more recently, since the housing development on West Quay, it has been set aside for nature conservation purposes. Rainwater falling on the roofs of the new properties is directed onto the marsh;  this, together with springs and tributary streams, keeps it damp and the channels full of water for their famous occupants, the Water Voles. The idea is that the sluice into the River Colne allows excess water to drain out at low tide, but as locals know this system has been prone to go awry and for the past couple of years the whole marsh has become more or less permanently flooded. How did this affect the wildlife? Well this is the question we were interested in.

Although the weather forecast had been good, hey ho, the wind and the rain plagued us in the morning session, with a resultant meagre selection of insects. The sunshine in the afternoon warmed up some additional species, including both Ruddy and Common Darter dragonflies, two colour-forms of the tiny Slender Groundhopper and a picture-winged fly Ceroxys urticae.

But the morning session was not without its entomological interest, and we were treated to four butterfly species, including a splendid fresh-out-of-the-pupa Red Admiral, as well as Green-veined White, Small White and Painted Lady, plus some wonderfully-named Long-winged Coneheads and a stunning Roesel’s Bush-cricket.

Having been totally inundated for some considerable time, most of what is currently supported by the marsh has only been present since the water-level subsided. This is obviously true for most of the plants, but also for creatures such as the Green Shield-bug, which we saw in various stages of development. An adult earlier this year would have flown in and laid eggs on a suitable food plant. The subsequent baby bugs ( known as instars), unable to fly, gradually munched their way through the relevant herbage, shedding their skins up to five times, until they reach adulthood and only then acquired wings, and, as Chris would say, ‘ naughty bits’.

Talking of sayings, you may know the phrase ‘Sedges have edges and Rushes are round ‘. This was demonstrated to be true whilst examining the plant life. Confusion is only just round the corner, though, as the Club-rush is actually a sedge, whilst what we think of as a Bulrush, is not a rush at all, nor a Reed, but a Reedmace. The joy of our inaccurate English names!

Whilst the beautiful Common Reed takes pride of place, both visually and aurally, at present, we also discussed some of the many other plants which have colonised, including  Gipsywort and several species of yellow ‘composites’ like Prickly Ox-tongue, Prickly Lettuce, Fleabane and Sow-thistle (some of which were covered in this glorious purple blister-gall, caused by a gall-midge Cystiphora sonchi).

A surprising find was a single plant of the rare Jersey Cudweed, in a very different habitat to the cracks in the paving slabs on West Quay which it colonised five or so years ago. As we saw at the end of the walks, it flourishes there and seems not to be met with a barrage of glyphosate – do go and admire it if you haven’t already.

Unfortunately, no one spotted a Water Vole, though we understand they are doing well, and were able to survive the flooding due to the foresight of Darren Tansley and those who constructed the water channels and built a high bank in between them, which provided a refuge. The Spotting Award this month must go to one of our afternoon group, who incredibly saw a Common Lizard basking in the sun, not on the ground as you might expect, but nestled a metre or so up in a hedge!

As always, thanks to you all who joined us.