Blog Archives: Bug & Botany Walks

The Wild Side of Felixstowe

A short break in Felixstowe was ostensibly a recce for our proposed #WildEssexOnTour extravaganza later in the summer, but in reality was jolly good fun as well! We didn’t venture to Landguard this time as we know it so well anyway, but we explored green spaces in the town and also up the coast to Bawdsey.

The first day, spent in glorious warm sunshine, we started along the sea-front, looking at the cliff gardens; they were a revelation, formal yet informal, filled with a wide variety of trees, shrubs and flowering perennials.

The plants are mostly non-native and tolerant of sea-spray and wind: fortunately most, like the sun-roses, are a magnet for bees and other pollinators.

Others included Rose Garlic, with mixed heads of flowers and bulbils, and Red Valerian, much more familiar but in full bloom, showing its almost unique character of possessing only one stamen per flower.

A number of springs emanate from the cliffs, reflecting the local gravel/clay geology, and these have mostly been corralled into formal water-features, fringed with Monkey-flower, and with Curled Pondweed and Water-hornwort in the water.

With such an array of plants and habitats not surprisingly there was plenty of insect life on display, from Holly Blues to tiny Dark Bush-cricket nymphs and Green-palped Sun-spider (with a planthopper for lunch) to numerous nymphal froghoppers drooling ‘cuckoo-spit’.

Even flat, mown lawns were not devoid of interest, some with both Sea and Small Mouse-ears (four and five petals respectively) among the Bulbous Meadow-grass, along with Bird’s-foot Clover (with at most two flowers in a head) and Spotted Medick, all typical components of dwarfed maritime turf.

Heading inland, the Snow Hill Garden had Elm leaves with the distinctive larval munchings and meanderings of the Zig-zag Elm Sawfly, a relatively new arrival in these parts…

… while in Langer Park, a more-traditional manicured recreational space around the remnants of the once-tidal Walton Channel, the trees and nettlebeds produced a huge late-afternoon array of sun-basking invertebrates.

There were ladybirds galore, including Adonis, Cream-spot and the distinctive sexpustulata form of Two-spotted …

… along with weevils, soldier-beetles and a large leaf-beetle with a distinctive ‘gutter’ around its thorax Chrysolina oricalcia, the latter something we have never seen before.

Other insects included Hawthorn Shield-bug, Nettle-tap moth and numerous flies …

… including one hoverfly who spent five minutes laying eggs on a nettle-leaf right in front of us, perhaps up to 20 in total!

Spiders too, including a nursing Nursery-web, a few crabbies and one Larinioides cornutus, with quiff and fancy garters. A truly splendid half an hour by the nettles.

Next morning, the weather could hardly have been more different: dull, grey, cooler and with light rain on-and-off all day. A real surprise then walking to hear a veritable chorus of Swifts flying over; yesterday there has been only a few. It went on – and on – and on – and it soon became apparent that it wasn’t ‘real’ Swifts, but tapes of screaming Swifts designed to drawn in occupants to the array of next-boxes on the Library. All credit to Suffolk County Council for this, even if elsewhere in the area they do appear to be a bit heavy-handed on the glyphosate front along paths and roads.

A bus-ride to the north-eastern end of town took us to within striking distance of Felixstowe Ferry. The shingle beach was covered in froth-topped flowering plants of Sea-kale, while along the edge of the land, there were all sorts of other interesting flowers, including White Ramping-fumitory, Seaside Daisy, Sea Radish and Snow-in-Summer.

Several Silver Y moths were out and about, presumably reflecting a recent immigration event, a nomad-bee (perhaps Nomada flava) nectared upon Sea-kale and several Gorse Shield-bugs gave the lie to their name, feeding (or at least resting and mating) on Sea Beet.

Rounding the corner to the Deben, we took the foot ferry across to Bawdsey …

… where we found flowering Barberry and Sand Cat’s-tail, with a Gorse Shield-bug in its ‘proper’ home bearing more than a passing resemblance to Gorse seed-pods.

And finally, one of our most exciting finds of all, the large, rounded, reddish galls of Plagiotrochus quercusilicis on the new-season leaves of Holm Oak. Caused by a gall-wasp, this again was new to us, and indeed is relatively new to the area, being first found in Colchester as recently as 2018. By now though it could be well established – certainly on our walk back to the station we saw it abundantly in one of the gardens.

A fascinating couple of days and a very enticing prospect for our three-day event later in the year!

#WildEssexWalks: The Bluebells of Wivenhoe Wood

Always a staple in our catalogue of walks, this year we embraced our Bluebells on three separate walks over a week and a half, and this blog is an amalgam of them all. Given the unstable weather this spring, not surprisingly we had a mixed bag, from lovely warm sunshine to cool, cloudy and wet…

In fact the season started early (a symptom of our largely frost-free winter) with the first sign of blue coming in mid-March: we were concerned that the main event would be over before our walks even started.

But then the gloom of April and cool northerlies slowed things up, and even by our final walk on May 4th, there was still plenty of blue, albeit looking distinctly worse for wear.

Peak Bluebell was around the date of our recce, April 26th, when lovely sunshine lit up the blue swathes and helped contribute to a scentscape like no other.

As always we noticed a few naughty Spanish Bluebells and their hybrids: hopefully Colchester City Council will take action in line with their biodiversity duty.

But one of the lasting impressions this year was of mud. Springs springing out in places where springs have never sprung before, at least in my almost 40 years of knowing this wood: the sign of an unprecedentedly wet start to the year.

The other thing we noticed was that the overall showing was a tad less impressive than we have become accustomed to in recent years. Of course this could be weather- or climate-related, but probably more likely is that the coppice plots are growing up, and starting to cast shade sufficient to suppress the Bluebell show. If we want our Bluebells en masse, we need active coppicing to continue, something that sadly is not always assured given local authority funding constraints. Failing that, we need another ‘destructive’ storm of the order of that of October 1987, a natural dynamic event that breathed light and life into our previously neglected woodlands.

While Bluebells of course were the main course, there were substantial side portions of other woodland plants from Greater Stitchwort to Yellow Archangel, Wild Strawberry, Wood Speedwell and Bugle …

… along with the sub-shrub Butchers’-broom and swathes of Garlic Mustard in clearings and along tracksides, while on the higher drier ground Bracken was unfurling its aquiline fronds.

Our first walk, the recce, was in sunshine, although we found the ground conditions very difficult in parts of the wood, hence our decision with the groups to return along the Wivenhoe Trail and its views of the tidal River Colne, although the winter birds have now largely departed.

Insects on this occasion included the Beaky Hoverfly Rhingia campestris, the bug Harpocera thoracica, our first Scorpion-fly of the summer, and good numbers of Small and Green-veined White butterflies.

The second walk was pretty much a washout, although a Blackcap serenaded us at the start and in the interior of the wood we did find the uncommon Tree Slug, seemingly not recorded previously from the area.

Of course the Bluebells were immune to the rain, even if their scent was suppressed, and galls in the oaks likewise: there were redcurrant galls of the spring generation Spangle Gall-wasp in the flowers and large, spongy oak-apples formed by another tiny wasp Biorhiza pallida.

The final walk was again in glorious, warm sunshine. So uplifting! For us and for the wildlife too. Bird song was swelling, with a Garden Warbler being noteworthy, while butterflies included Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Orange-tips. Other insects included Crucifer Shield-bug, our first Dark Bush-cricket nymph of the summer and a mating pair of caddis-flies a surprising distance from water.

In the Lower Lodge grassland, Common Stork’s-bill was in good flower and on the King George Field, the pros and cons of ‘No Mow Grassland’ were amply demonstrated, with lots of Bulbous Buttercups and other species in the longer grass, but masses of Daisies, each flowerhead a lifeline for insects, on the mown bits. Everything in moderation is the best approach.

And as always, some surprises. A fungus looked familiar as the Jelly Ear, but we are used to seeing it on its main host tree Elder; this was on Sycamore, but reference to the books indicated that this and other broad-leaved trees can be used by the fungus.

Even more interesting, and potentially worrying, was the gall that Jude spotted on Sweet Chestnut leaves and buds. We had never seen it before although it was then found on quite a number of trees. It turned out to be galls of the Asian Chestnut Gall-wasp Dryocosmus kuriphilus. Seems this gall was first found in Britain in Kent in 2015, and has spread especially around London since then, although the latest map shows only one Essex locality, close to the M25. It is of concern to those who grow Sweet Chestnut for timber or chestnuts as it can be rather destructive, although help is at hand – a specific parasite of the gall wasp has been discovered, evaluated and risk-assessed, and is already being released in some places to control the new incipient ‘pest’.

Always something special and interesting to find!

 

 

 

 

#WildEssexWalks: Cockaynes Reserve at the height of Spring

As is now traditional we headed off to Cockaynes Reserve for one of our main springtime walks, although the cool weather initially made it feel almost wintry. Fortunately as the morning progressed, and contrary to forecasts, the sun did come out, and sheltered from the breeze it even felt quite warm, a rather unusual occurrence in the unsettled early part of this year.

But whatever the temperature  there is no mistaking the fact that the hands of the seasonal clock are turning. Walking up Ballast Quay Lane, the hedges and verges were filled with flower and fragrance, with Cow Parsley and Hawthorn scent combining in Chris’ personal Maytime Proustian madeleine, taking him back to the days of innocence, cycling the byways of the Yorkshire Wolds as a lad…

Add to that the blue of Evergreen Alkanet, the white flowers and garlic aroma arising from both Garlic Mustard and Three-cornered Leek, yellow Greater Celandine, and the purple (occasionally white) flowers of Honesty, the latter attracting the attentions of a lovely male Brimstone for the back-markers at least.

And in a nod to the coming summer, White Bryony just coming into flower while stitching together the hedge with its telephone-cord tendrils:

At the top of the hill, splendid views over the Colne Estuary, Skylarks singing, and a meadow full of Bulbous Buttercups, interspersed with drier patches dominated by rusty-flowering Sheep’s Sorrel …

And then into Villa Wood along the newly refurbished path, to be enveloped by bird song – Chiffchaffs, Wrens, Blackbirds, Robins,  Blackcaps and a tantalisingly distant Nightingale – and the sound of a tinkling Sixpenny Brook, with a little Town-hall-clock and Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage still flowering.

The Redcurrants were in unripe fruit, Wood Anemones all-but-finished, Bluebells of course just reaching their peak on the drier slopes and  sprouting ferns in the damper spots.

Moving out into the open ground left behind after gravel extraction, a backward glance showed the beauty of the infinite spectrum of greens shown by newly emerged leaves, a sight equalled by the sound of a much nearer Nightingale in full rhapsody, and displaying Buzzards overhead:

The bare sandy areas hosted a basking Peacock, with flowering Blinks, Changing Forget-me-not and Thyme-leaved Speedwell, and just a few Bunny Bees moving around their active colony (it had been a very cold, almost frosty night preceding, so the lack of action was not surprising).

In the heathy areas, both Gorse and Broom in flower were attracting bumblebees, along with Small Gorse Mining-bees, and held numerous singing male Whitethroats, while the Crab Apple on the corner of Cockaynes Wood was already well past its best, a sign of the largely frost-free winter.

And finally a few invertebrates, expertly spotted by Jude: a bagworm moth Psyche casta,  redcurrant galls in Oak flowers (the spring generation galls of the same tiny wasp that produces the more familiar spangle galls in autumn), Brown-tail Moth caterpillars sunning themselves on their web with impunity (protected from most bird predation by their irritant hairs), a few hoverflies and tiger-craneflies, and a grass bug Stenodema calcarata.

As usual, all kinds of everything to suit all tastes, and wrapped up very well with a pint in the Greyhound garden, sitting in the sun, with a Red Kite low overhead. What could be better? Thanks to all who came along and helped make it such a good morning, particularly Peter Hill who was able to explain some of the management work of the Cockaynes Wood Trust (and perhaps encourage some more volunteers to the much needed management tasks).

#WildEssexWalks: Signs of Spring around Alresford

Spring was certainly in the air for our latest WildEssex walk… but so was quite a lot of rain and drizzle: April showers two weeks early…!  We began at Alresford Old Church, the ruins lit up with transient sunlight and as impressive as ever.

The churchyard is one of the best in this area for the richness of its flora, with Common Dog-violet and both Red and White Dead-nettle flowering, a swathe of Wild Daffodils (or a close approximation thereof) and the delightful citrussy-mint aroma from Lesser Calamint leaves.

While the rest of us were looking at flowers, Jude was finding insects , including a 10-spot Ladybird and (best of all) a bagworm nestling within a gravestone inscription. Bagworms are very unmothy moths, and always interesting (see here for a previous blog about them), but this one wasn’t one of the usual Virgin Bagworms. For a start its bag was much larger than that species, some 8mm long with a distinct ridge running lengthwise, and probably of one of the three Dahlica species, all of which are pretty uncommon. And what’s more this had a larviform flightless female just emerged from her pupa, and it seems about to start egg-laying back into the bag!

Heading down to the Sixpenny Brook, the first of several Chiffchaffs was singing, signs of a very recent arrival perhaps, rather than over-winterers coming into song. Gorse was in full bloom and, in the sun, starting to scent the air with coconut, and attracting bees and hoverflies. Blackthorn too looked stunning, some bushes in bud while others were fully open.

Onto Cutthroat Lane, we passed a magnificent bush of Butchers’-broom, still showing a few flowers, each a subtle gem, and acid-green patches of Early Meadow-grass, a recent arrival here from more southerly heartlands:

Then down the edge of Grange Wood, with magnificent oak pollards and coppice stools on the woodbank, standing amidst the Lesser Celandines and the first few Greater Stitchwort flowers…

… while the Bluebells that will be so glorious in four weeks were just bursting, along with (outside the bounds of the ancient wood) Three-cornered Leeks.

And so we found ourselves on the shoreline, with many of the estuarine winter birds still here, including hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits, a hundred or so burbling Brent Geese and about 40 Avocets – the three birds for which the Colne is justifiably renowned and specially protected.

Sadly no one was with us to see our final, bizarre sight of the walk as we headed back home. There in a puddle on the top of the sea wall was a Common Lizard, almost covered by water, and doing a passable impression of an overactive newt! Eventually we managed to persuade it from its bath and released it into the long grass safe from feet and dogs.

#WildEssexWalks – Wivenhoe Woods in Winter

The first WildEssex walk of the year, to our lovely Wivenhoe Woods, was in just the perfect weather – sunshine and little wind, but the legacy of the previous wet days and weeks was evident with the squelchy woodland floor (though we avoided the quagmire areas so as not to lose any of our boots!). Our revised route was not quite what we had envisaged, but we still managed to discover some stories about the ecology and history of the place.

First we criss-crossed the King George’s Field, to look at some of the specimen species, relics of when that area was the park of Wivenhoe Hall. The Cedar of Lebanon, such a statuesque tree, was providing shelter for some tinkling Goldcrests which we were able to admire as they flitted in and out. Other woodland birds heard throughout the two hours included vociferous Robins and Dunnocks, Great Tits (teacher, teacher!) as well as Carrion Crows and the ubiquitous Woodpigeons.

We looked at some of the more usual tree species including Elms: those found in this area always only small, as when they achieve a certain size the beetle which spreads the pathogen which causes Dutch Elm disease can move in. The trees die off, but new ones begin to grow from the roots in their place, thus full-size trees never get the chance to grow.  A shame, but something we have got used to in the English countryside now.

Other trees of note on the KGV include Holm Oaks, and we especially noticed their leaves, where evidence of leaf miners was very apparent. The minute caterpillar of a particular tiny moth lives in between the layers of the leaf, each creature creating a squiggle that represents almost the whole life of these tiny creatures  – the adults fly only for a few hours. The chambers so created fill up with ‘frass’ (poo to you and me) – guess it has to go somewhere!

Then on the leaves of Holly, a similar phenomenon, but in this case the blotch mines of a Holly Leaf-miner Fly:

Once in the wood itself we could see among the leaf litter plants beginning to sprout through, including the spring greens of  Cow Parsley; unfurling Wild Arum (a plant with many vernacular names, most referring to male/female ‘parts’,  for example Cuckoo Pint, Lords-and-ladies, Jack-in-the-Pulpit); dangly catkins of Alder; and the new shoots of Honeysuckle, always a harbinger of Spring.

Butchers’ Broom is quite a special plant – not only for how it looks  (the flowers grow out of middle of the leaves) but also for the mystery of how it manages to get pollinated and to spread: it seems to have lost its pollinators and dispersers in the mists of time since it first evolved…

In a damp woodland you would hope to find fungi and we were not disappointed with a couple of types of Jelly Fungus including a wonderful Yellow Brain Fungus.

In a similar way to leaf mines, ‘galls’  show evidence often of insect activity. These are ‘damage limitation’ structures, when a part of a tree (be it leaf, twig, fruit, bud etc) have a small creature (could be a small wasp, fly or mite) lay their eggs in it. The tree creates a unique-looking growth which is how the insects are identified (they are much too small to notice with the naked eye!). Oak trees are particularly good places to look for galls (over 50 types can be found), and we were impressed by these Marble Galls, clearly showing the exit hole of the wasp when fully mature.

As to actual insects, we found none of note, but on the recce yesterday Chris did find this 7-spot Ladybird and a Green Shieldbug in its winter coloration. Presumably this colour-way would be good camouflage against brown leaf-litter but it showed up rather well against a green leaf.  As the season progresses it will change colour to a much brighter green and become much harder to spot!

We wandered down towards the estuary for a bit of bird-watching and were rewarded with Black-tailed Godwits, Oystercatchers and Teals. Some of these birds will be resident and others visiting from much colder climes.

Plants on the salt-marsh included the Cord Grass and that too had a growth on it – the Ergot Fungus. Harmless growing here ( we don’t eat Cord Grass), it can be devastating when it grows unchecked on food crops, causing madness or death.

Another new word for the day was ‘marcescence’, the phenomenon whereby leaves are retained on a tree after they have died and are no longer functional. No known reason for it, but very distinct in a few of the Oaks and Sweet Chestnuts along this part of the Wivenhoe Trail.

Then a final flourish of colour in the Station car park ( thankfully unsprayed as yet, though guess it won’t be long….):  a beautiful Dandelion and a vital source of sustenance for a passing early bee.

#WildEssex New Year Plant Hunt 2024

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. As has become tradition, we contributed to the national picture by arranging a walk around Wivenhoe Waterfront on New Year’s Day. And we would like to thank the keen, sharp-eyed group who helped us spot things! All data collected in this citizen science project have been fed into the national record of what is flowering at this time: for more information see New Year Plant Hunt – Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (bsbi.org). It is good to be part of a bigger project to aid learning about how British and Irish wildflowers are responding to climate change. 

On our recce a few days ago it soon became apparent that there were more species flowering than last year when December frosts curtailed the show. The ‘usual suspects’ included Gorse, Hazel, White Dead-nettle, Groundsel, Annual Mercury, Shepherd’s-purse and Common Chickweed, with Daisy and Dandelion lighting up many a patch of grass.

Some of the older walls and brickwork had patches of Mexican Fleabane, Trailing Bellflower and Ivy-leaved Toadflax, while other showy plants included Green Alkanet and Herb-Robert, and more surprisingly both Cow Parsley and Wild Carrot.

Along the waterfront itself, in the cracks of the block paving, Four-leaved Allseed is more abundant than it has ever been since its arrival here some five years ago. Careful searching was needed to find evidence of actual flowers  – they are rather subtle even at the best of times! Similarly, Guernsey Fleabane and Pellitory-of-the-wall only got added to our flowering list after close scrutiny.

Finally on the salt-marshes, Common Cord-grass dangled its naughty bits wantonly to the wind, but the best botanical find of the day we couldn’t count: a single non-flowering sprig of Shrubby Sea-blite, a good couple of kilometres further up the estuary than we have ever found before.

All in all, 34 species in flower (for a full list, see here NYD plant hunt 2024) in the wild was a good haul, certainly well above the 23 in 2023 and almost up to our highest-ever count of 35 in 2022, although ‘good’ is a bit of a loaded term – many of these plants should not be flowering now, and are doing so only because of the harm we have inflicted upon our climate…

Naturally, although a botanical trip, we didn’t overlook other wildlife. The song of Robins was a feast for the ears, a party of Long-tailed Tits trilled around a garden, a Red Kite drifted low and slow overhead,  the fruiting bodies of Cord-grass Ergot were erupting from their host-plant, and we were pleased to find several 7-spot Ladybirds and Rosemary Beetles, those mobile jewels, on a Rosemary bush, mostly paired and in the process of making more beetles. All a very hopeful sign for a wildlife-filled 2024!

 

#WildEssexWalks – beside the seaside at the Naze

Our last WildEssex walk of 2023 was a most enjoyable event. Against a backdrop of variable cloudscapes, a few spots of rain and some warm sunshine, our group of enthusiastic ladies were treated to birds, trees, lichens and mosses, fungi, rare plants plus fossils, shells and dramatic cliffs along the beach, in fact all kinds of everything!

Autumn colours abounded – red fruits, lichens giving some of the established trees atop the cliffs an eerie green or yellow glow, and the fresh green patches of moss on concrete hardstandings, a reminder of the chequered 20th century history of the site.

As befits this damp season, fungi were to be found everywhere, including Mosaic Puffballs in the grass, Birch Bracket gently killing and rotting its host Silver Birch tree, plus several species of mini – and most charming – fungi on tree branches.

Gorse of course was in flower, as more surprisingly was Sea Hog’s-fennel, along with a beautiful pink form of Yarrow.

When the sun shone a few invertebrates presented themselves, including this harvestman and Marmalade Hoverfly.

Our afternoon session was down on the beach, enjoying that whatever-age-you-are-it’s-fun activity of beachcombing.  Pyritized wood and fossilised shells were everywhere, the rusty hue of the latter indicative of many their millions of years stuck in the sandy cliff.

Erosion is a continual event along the cliffs, and there had been several recent landslides leaving dramatic profiles against the by-now-blue sky.

Being a Beside the Sea day, we were also on the lookout for birdlife.  One of the magical moments was the discovery of a Kestrel having an early lunch of a smaller feathered friend, using one of the ex-wartime gun batteries as a dining table. He was completely unfazed as we stood by watching and taking photos.

Along the shore were the usual suspects of Brent Geese, Grey Plovers,  Bar-tailed Godwits and various gulls, all going about their daily business of eating and shooing each other out of the way.

We are very fortunate to have this wonderful area on our doorstep –  a veritable time-machine enabling us to witness life over the past fifty million years!

#WildEssexWalks – at the head of the Stour Estuary

Oh no!  Shock horror! That was our first reaction when we climbed the steps to the top of the sea wall at Manningtree today.  Instead of an expanse of mud with myriads of feeding waders we were greeted with an almost high tide!  Either tide tables aren’t what they used to be, or (more likely) it was an early and exceptionally high tide, as it so often is around the time of the Hunter’s Moon.

However, we need not have worried: we still managed a lot of ‘birding’ – watching them fly in on to the strips of salt-marsh on the estuary, to feed, preen, get frisky and all the things birds get up to, and as the tide came in further and covered everything, fly off again.

Cormorants hung their wings out to dry in their customary fashion, and Little Egrets struck their poses in elegant style, occasionally flying over showing their black legs and yellow feet to good effect.  Several species of gull put in an appearance – Great and Lesser Black-backed, plus Herring, Black-headed and  a single Common Gull.

Large flocks of Redshanks and Avocets entertained us with their fly-pasts, and hunkered down on the marsh and open water respectively. Lapwings flapped by and a few Brent Geese were seen too, along with larger numbers of Teals, Wigeons and a few Mallards.

Black-tailed Godwits put in a show just as the tide was at its highest, calling to each other in their inimitable ‘Wit Wit’ way, but the biggest surprise was a group of ten Greenshanks, usually much more solitary than this.

All this against a backdrop of Moorhens in the ditch to the rear of the seawall, singing Wrens and a shouting Cetti’s Warbler in the scrub, and a lovely Red Kite circling leisurely overhead.

Of course, us being us, we also looked at any other wildlife we could find – plants including the bright yellow Tansy, a favourite with visiting insects and the beautiful Teasels, some containing a ladybird or two, perhaps already thinking of hibernating for the winter.

Common Reeds were starting to assume their autumn colours and Dog-roses were absolutely laden with luscious hips, presumably testament to our damp midsummer.

A Red Admiral flew overhead, a Harlequin Ladybird basked in a brief flurry of sunlight and on our way back down the steps we narrowly avoided standing on the largest of the chrysomelid beetles, Chrysolina bankii.

Having rescued the beetle, some of us retired to the local pub for a pint and bag of crisps and chat. All in all a very pleasant WildEssex event, in spite of the often rather dull and overcast (though thankfully dry) conditions – thanks all!

#WildEssexWalks – an autumn stroll along the Colne Estuary

The sun was shining brightly, the skies were blue. But the season had noticeably changed. A spiky northerly wind dropped the temperature by maybe 8 degrees Centigrade in just a couple of days , and we were straight into the depths of autumn. It felt like autumn, and it smelt like autumn especially in Grange wood, the humusy moistness laced with a distinct fungal musk. While all we could see were Birch Bracket, Fly Agaric and Penny Bun, nature’s recycling army is now advancing steadily.

And galls are now more in evidence than at any other time of year:

Down at the estuary, at was the highest of tides, the water barely moving during our two hours, so waders were few and far between, save for a scattering of Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits, with a sixty-strong knot of Avocets hunkered down on the Fingringhoe mudflats. Looking inland, a few Meadow Pipits dashed around the grazing marsh as the ever-reliable Little Egrets stalked the borrowdyke and ditches.

There were still a few flowers, from Strawberry Clover on the sea wall to Cord-grass wantonly hanging its naughty bits to the wind…

… while the clocks of Sea Aster lit up with every ray of an ever-lowering sun.

But on the saltmarshes, the signals of the season are more in the form of colour changes, from greens to a kaleidoscope of yellows, russets and purples. The different species of Marsh Samphire each show their own characteristic autumn tint…

…while the sole species of Annual Sea-blite turns to every colour on the rainbow spectrum.

And even Shrubby Seablite, for so much of the year a stolid, matt-green presence on the sea walls, is touched with shining salmon highlights:

The fires of autumn are stealing across our landscape, and with early frosts in the forecast, those flames will surely be fanned. The next few weeks are full of promise, so enjoy them while you can! Thanks to all who joined us; our next couple of walks are detailed here.

 

 

#WildEssex on Tour: Harlow and the Stort Valley

 

After the success of last year’s three-day event to Burnham-on-Crouch, we decided a second one was in order – this time to the not-usually-associated-with-wildlife Essex town of Harlow.  Our band of enthusiastic ladies were game for anything, and we’d like to thank them all for their interest in all we arranged and their sense of fun!

Our base at the Harlow Mill Premier Inn was most comfortable, and sitting outside with a drink hearing the running water from the mill pond into the Stort Navigation Canal was just delightful.

We mixed some walking along canals with visits to gardens, a mill, a museum, churchyards and pubs, plus a train ride and a walk to the most odd, brutalist, (but exciting to Chris!) zig-zag bridge…

The main focus of course was the wildlife which we found at every turn – from our second-only sighting of a Southern Green Shieldbug to the exploding seed pods of Himalayan Balsam to Ivy Bees enjoying every Ivy bush we encountered.

Everywhere were bushes and trees absolutely laden with fruits and berries. And plenty of those fascinating structures, galls and leaf-mines, too.

Water played an important part of the trip, us spending a considerable part of the first two days enjoying walking along the banks of the River Stort and Canal.  Listening out for birds we heard the ‘peep’ and then the blue flash of a Kingfisher or two, the high pitched tinkling of Goldcrests, the screech of Parakeets (though no sightings, sorry Jean!), plus ubiquitous Robins and Chiffchaffs performing their autumn songs.  Ducks and Moorhens on the river were showing signs of Spring-friskiness – no doubt due to the day-length being similar to that of Spring when they would be getting up to such activities!

Insects along the way included dragonflies and damselflies, bees, hoverflies, grasshoppers, and an Alder Leaf-beetle (only the third record for Essex, but well established here judging from the number of holes in the leaves) and ladybirds of many types in various stages of their development.

The flowering season is coming to a close, but along with the beautiful but invasive Himalayan and Orange Balsams, there was plenty to see from festoons of Hops to strong-smelling Water Mint, and emerging fungi hinted at what looks like shaping up to be a bumper autumn.

A pleasant walk away from our hotel was the famous Gibberd Garden – a mixture of wild and more-tended areas, lots of sculpture and a castle with its own moat.  My heart went into my boots when, on arrival, the board outside stated it was ‘Closed for Private Function’ but that turned out to be an admin error  (phew) – so we got in OK and were virtually all alone to explore as we wished. Coffee and cake in the Barn were very welcome as the afternoon went on.

En route to the garden we had encountered several Juniper Shieldbugs (one trapped in a web, which we of course rescued) on an Ivy bush.  This is puzzling given that they are meant to spend their lives on Juniper and related species, and so we will be asking the experts about this unusual behaviour. There was a Cypress tree across the road, but why they should be branching out we don’t know.

On the final morning we went into the heart of Old Harlow, through the Greenway and on into Gibberd’s New Harlow  for a tour of some of the many green spaces, ‘The Lawn’ Uk’s first residential tower block The Lawn (Harlow) – Wikipedia,  and a churchyard full of gravestones covered in colourful lichens where many interesting stories were revealed by the two ladies working in the grounds.

We concluded our mini-break in the delightful Harlow Museum.  This has so much to enjoy – from a walled garden full of interesting plantings, (where Chris saw evidence of the Figleaf Skeletonizer moth for the first time, it only recently having arrived in the UK), to a gin still, to an unusual exhibition of Penny Farthings and other bicycles. It really is the epitome of a good local museum, and a credit to Harlow Council.

 

As organisers, we were thrilled with how the trip went, not only for the camaraderie and pleasure of being in each other’s company, but also for the excitement of discovering new things.  We will be sending records of the Southern Green Shieldbug, Alder Beetle and Figleaf Skeletonizer moth to county and national databases so evidence of our trip will be set down in the annals of history!

During our last evening’s meal we discussed the possibility of a 3rd Wild Essex on Tour trip next year – who knows we may even cross the border into another County!  Do get in touch if it is something you may be interested in.

 

#WildEssexWalks – evening in the Wrabness Nature Reserve

‘Hunting High and Low’ – those elusive bush-crickets kept us searching during our lovely stroll, in beautiful evening sunshine, this week.  We knew that the Wrabness Nature Reserve was a hot spot for the glorious Great Green Bush-cricket, but sadly none were seen in the flesh.  Younger members of the group  (and Tim Gardiner, Essex Recorder for Orthoptera – grasshoppers and bush-crickets – who we met very fortuitously) assured us they were there in number, singing away, but it came with rather a shock that most of us ‘oldies’ couldn’t hear them….a well-known phenomenon that as we age we lose the ability to hear certain high frequencies/pitches. Luckily Chris had his trusty bat detector with him which was able to pick up the songs, not only this species but also Dark and Roesel’s Bush-crickets and so we all managed to listen in, even if only by remote! And all is not quite lost – later in the evening, perhaps as it was cooling, the song of some individuals did pop into our consciousness…

We did manage to see a couple of members of this group of charismatic insects, the well-camouflaged Speckled Bush-cricket and the tiny, compact Common Groundhopper.

That aside, there was plenty to enjoy – Wrabness Nature Reserve, managed by Essex Wildlife Trust (who will receive a donation from us for this event), has had a chequered history. From its early days as a mine depot it has been subject to all manner of planning applications, including for a prison, but thankfully all were rejected and it is now in safe hands, for the enjoyment of all, and somewhere that is called home by millions of plants, invertebrates as well as birds and mammals.

Below is a selection of the delights we met on our travels. Birds were singing their evening songs, and we caught a fleeting glimpse of a Turtle Dove as it flew over a hedge, while down the estuary, the air was filled with the evocative liquid bubbing of Curlews, and Redshanks, Dunlins, Grey Plovers and Turnstones fed at the water’s edge.

Apart from Orthoptera, other insects we chanced upon included a Buff Footman moth and one of the largest leaf-beetles Chrysolina bankii:

Reflecting no doubt the rather damp midsummer period, berry-bearing bushes were laden with the bounties of autumn:

And not only fruits, but also galls (here, Knopper Galls on Oak,  Sputnik Gall and Robin’s Pincushion on Rose) and microfungi (Sycamore Tar-spot and Willow Rust)….

… while as a foretaste of what may prove to be an excellent fungus season, we also found a troop of earthballs:

Which just leaves the flowers, of which there were many important sources of late-season nectar and pollen for our insects. As a brownfield site that has been allowed to naturally re-wild, the plants are a wonderful diverse, multicultural mix of species from all round the world, important native species like Red Bartsia and Common Toadflax intermixed with Broad-leaved Everlasting-pea and  a host of others of garden origins.

Our guest Co-Leader Eleanor (when she wasn’t eating blackberries!) took on the role of Assistant Photographer, and here are some of her efforts…

As always many thanks to our interested group for taking part and hope to see you all again soon.

#WildEssexWalks – High Summer in Wivenhoe’s Lower Lodge

Good news! The worries of the past few months have been partially dispelled. Our traditional midsummer Lower Lodge walk performed pretty much up to hopes and expectation in terms of numbers and diversity of insects in this wonderful grassland, scrub and woodland mosaic. Perhaps the Rubicon on the way to ecological calamity has not yet been crossed. Eco-anxiety is such a debilitating condition…

It seems the slow start to the season this year is just that, a slow start. Insect numbers were at last approaching normality, and even if some have been impacted by the extreme weather of the past couple of years, at least they can bounce back just as quickly especially if habitat conditions are suitable. And here is the other bit of very good news: Colchester City Council, whose management of the site over the past few years has been rather erratic, seem to have got on top of the task of ensuring each and every bit of the grassland on Lower Lodge has an autumn cut once every three years, thus preventing life being choked out by the spread of trees. They have thankfully brought it back from the edge of the precipice of such a fate.

It was a  hot and sultry walk, and perhaps the most exciting find came right at the outset with a resplendently metallic Rose Chafer busily chomping on Hogweed flowers. This magnficent beetle is as much a natural icon of the Wivenhoe Area as is the Stag-beetle.

At this very moment, Hogweed is drawing much of the insect life in to its bounteous offerings of nectar and pollen, with for example numerous ladybirds (all Seven-spotted) and a good numbers of Hogweed Bonking Beetles, albeit rather few of them actually living up to the full extent of their name!

The other great nectar and pollen source at the moment is Field Scabious, in fact blooming more profusely and more widespread than I have ever seen it before.

Butterflies were visiting in hordes, Essex and Small Skippers in particular, along with a few of the rare speciality Scabious Longhorn moth, another metallic marvel.

  

But much more as well, from the equally metallic Thick-thighed Beetles, the Gargoyle Fly (our name for Sicus ferrugineus!), green lacewings and various bees, wasps and hoverflies to complete the picture.

Around the meadows generally, but especially along the scrub margins, brown butterflies were also in great abundance. Meadow Browns, now on the wing for the past three weeks, were looking rather worse for wear whereas Gatekeepers, freshly out were more pristine. And the Ringlets so fresh that many were still pumping up their wings after they vacated the pupa in the previous few hours.

Both browns and skippers share one feature – their larval food plants are grasses. And grasses are generally drought tolerant, as anyone who has seen a droughted lawn green up after rain will realise. Perhaps this is why these butterfly groups are doing so well this year, when many others are at a low ebb as a result of last summer’s heatwave?

Other plants in flower included Hedge and Lady’s Bedstraws (white and yellow respectively), Field Bindweed (particularly attractive in their candy-striped form) and the start of the season for Common Knapweed – over the next month this will gradually take over the role of provider of pollen and nectar to a hungry world.

Other plants though are at the end of their season, in particular Goat’s-beard, now forming robust ‘dandelion clocks’. In close up it can be seen how the umbrella-like struts attached above the seed are themselves branched and interlinked, together making a perfect parachute for wind dispersal of the seeds.

Life at every footfall, we saw a couple of grasshopper species and a few other butterflies (here, Small Copper) and moths (including the delightfully euphonious Timothy Tortrix), as well as regular fly-pasts by Brown Hawker dragonflies out a-hunting.

We even paused to examine a few of the galls, with marble and artichoke galls on Oak, caused by wasps, and the lumpy galls of Ribwort Plantain flowers, for which it seems the causal agent has yet to be identified. There is always something to learn in the natural world!

Being so hot, birdsong was only sporadic but included a couple of Yellowhammers, along with a warbling Blackcap and scolding Whitethroats. And it was a present from the avian world which provided a suitable full stop to the morning when one of the group picked up a real treasure, the wing-feather of a Jay.

Of course with all this good news, there is always a bit of bad. and for us that was the lack of any sightings of Common Blue butterflies or burnet moths. Usually regular here, they may yet emerge. Or perhaps, as larval feeders on Bird’s-foot-trefoil, a plant that is badly knocked back by drought, it would not be surprising if this year’s adults are fewer than normal. Neither did we see any sign of the magnificent Purple Emperor I saw holding court during my recce a week ago, nor the White Crab-spider or Hornet Hoverfly I photographed on that occasion.

That is the wonderful thing about the natural world: nothing can be taken for granted, and every foray into it an adventure. All of our previous visits here have had their highlights and lowlights, as you can see from the blogs we have published in the past: see 20212020, 2019, and going right back to the start of #WildEssex 2018.

And talking blogs, this walk was the first with us for one of the group, who told us of her wildlife blog Berie Tree – Nature Spotter! berie tree | Nature spotter! (wordpress.com). Do take a moment to discover it and the lovely observations therein, mixed with poetry and other artistic endeavours. The world cannot have too much of that sort of thing!