Blog Archives: Bug & Botany Walks

#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! ( 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!

Midsummer in the Suffolk Sandlings

A two-part #WildEssex trip across the border into the Deben Peninsula started after lunch at Sutton Heath in sweltering sunshine, albeit with a brisk, warm breeze.

After the Spring drought, the heath was looking a bit frazzled, although Sand Spurrey, Sand Sedge and Heath Groundsel were still flowering well in places.

Even as we gathered in the car park, a male Yellowhammer serenaded us atop a tree, and shortly thereafter its place was taken by the first of several singing Woodlarks. But other heathland birds save for a couple of Stonechats were keeping out of the heat, and most sound came from Chaffinches, Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests from within the shade of the woods.

In common with seemingly everywhere else in the south-east this Spring, insects were rather sparse, with just a few Small Heaths and a Red Admiral being the butterfly haul, along with Clouded Buff and Cinnabar moths, both typical day-flyers.

A splendid, shining jewel of a Green Tiger-beetle paused long enough on the path for most to see it …

… while the most impressive insect numbers came from the vast hordes of Sand Wasps, more than I have ever seen at one time before, many carrying paralysed caterpillars back to their nests.

Moving down to the coast at Shingle Street, the hat of the heath ameliorated by a breeze from the sea, the skeletal landscape, more moonscape than habitat, was (as ever) dramatic.

Newer, seaward shingle deposits were colonised by Sea Kale, Yellow Horned-poppy, Sea Beet, Great Lettuce and very heavily droughted, barely flowering Sea Campion …

… while the smorgasbord of botanical edibility was crowned by the best display of flowering Sea Pea I have seen for many a year.

Further inland, on the stabilised shingle, Viper’s Bugloss provided vivid splashes of blue, along with pink Red Valerian, Biting (yellow) and White Stonecrops and purple Nodding Thistle …

… and isolated, wind- and salt-sculpted Wild Privet bushes, now in full, fragrant bloom.

Meadow Pipits scurried around at our feet, and Herring Gulls and Common Terns were around the offshore shingle islands that form the distal tip of Orfordness.

Returning to the Sandling heaths, Upper Hollesley Common is somewhat more diverse botanically  than Sutton Heath, with Bell Heather already flowering among what will become the August glory of Common Heather.

Scrambling through the heathers were the filigree adornments of Climbing Corydalis, and the newly minted stems of Wavy Hair-grass were putting on an almost psychedelic show.

A pair of Mistle Thrushes hopped around one of the clearings, and a few invertebrates among the Elder (in full, late flower, a sign of the season), Holly and Silver Birch included Birch Catkin-bugs and a Cucumber Spider, typically hanging underneath its horizontal web.

Then a couple hours off, before the evening session began in thankfully cooling temperatures, enough to bring at least three Woodlarks into full song.

As dusk started to enfold us, the songs of Dartford Warblers, Chaffinches and a Yellowhammer continued almost until 10PM, this being two days short of the longest day.

Indeed the day songs overlapped with the first tentative churrings from the Nightjars, the main reason for being here, which started at 09.40. But after 10.00 the real display commenced: perhaps a dozen churring males, some very close, spectacular wing cracks, and several excellent flypasts  on moth-like wings. Aside from distant traffic, the only other sound a hooting Tawny Owl, we headed back across the tranquil midsummer heath with just enough light not to need torches.

And finally, just a few snippets from my morning before the walk, to revisit the areas, check the routes, and lose myself in Nature: Yellow-and-Black Longhorn-beetle and Cream-spot Tiger-moth…

… sandy arable fields with rich marginal floras, including Common Cudweed and both Common and Lesser Swinecress (note the different seed-pod shapes) …

… and Ramsholt churchyard, a rich tapestry of colour and life, a haven for the things that make the world go round, and a beacon of what all churches, without exception, should aspire to: ‘God’s Acre’, refuge for Nature as well as the Soul, for All Creatures Great and Small.

#WildEssex – Wivenhoe’s Barrier Marsh and its anthills

We have visited Barrier Marsh many times on our walks, and always marvelled at the number of ant-hills covering it in low, grassy hummocks. Indeed we have blogged about the ant-hills before, most notably here, right at the start of the pandemic.

Each hill is different, a microhabitat of heathland amidst the marshy matrix, and they also change markedly as Spring develops. This time last week, the hills were just starting to redden under the influence of Sheep’s Sorrel; today, its red glow was spreading widely…

Many of the hills were picked out in white with the last flowers of Common Whitlow-grass, really a March speciality though somewhat delayed by our tardy spring, and by the newly emerged Sticky Mouse-ears, and on just one hill we found, Small Mouse-ear.

Blue was added to the palette by copious amounts of Wall Speedwell and a little Thyme-leaved Speedwell…

…while Early Forget-me-not, in many years a real feature of the dry ant-hills was restricted to patches on the sea wall, perhaps a reflection of our wet Spring. But is was a delight to see its close relative Changing Forget-me-not on again just a few hills, a species we have not noticed previously here although it is abundant on the sandy peaks around Cockaynes reserve.

Much less obvious, but only on one hill each so far as we could find was Mousetail (the same hill on which we found it a couple of years ago), also known in one place from cattle-poached ditch-sides on the marsh itself…

…. and so insignificant we couldn’t re-find it today, one small plant of Blinks. Again, this was a new record from the marsh as far as we are concerned, although common on the open sand heaths of Cockaynes.

All of these were of course set amidst the wider damp grassland, with Daisy and Bulbous Buttercup, Meadow Foxtail grass just coming into flower, and whole swathes of the nationally-scarce Divided Sedge.

Away from the marsh, on the sea wall and the Wivenhoe Waterfront a whole new set of plants are now belatedly coming in to flower. Several are ‘little pink jobs’ , perhaps confusing initially, but each with distinct foliage or floral features: Common Stork’s-bill, and  Dove’s-foot, Cut-leaved, Round-leaved and Shining Crane’s-bills.

White Ramping Fumitory and Alexanders are starting to fade, whilst Spotted Medick and Cornsalad are just emerging, with English Scurvygrass out on the saltmarsh, the start of flowering in that habitat, something that will support a changing floral mix right through until autumn.

Our walks were accompanied by the sound of singing Cuckoos, Cetti’s Warblers and Whitethroats, but sadly insects were few and far-between. However, the first Small Copper and Orange Tip of our spring signalled that season is unfolding, and on the sea wall Sea Beet, our favourite Neon-striped Tortoise-beetles have emerged a good couple of weeks earlier than in previous years.

Otherwise, a small but motley selection of invertebrates kept us searching and interested…

…. perhaps the highlight being a zombie ladybird, hiding and indeed protecting its nemesis, the parasitic wasp Dinocampus, that has been eating out its body contents but is now pupating under the paralysed body.

#WildEssexWalks – Wivenhoe Wood: Bluebells and much more…

Two walks, same place, two days, very different weather conditions resulted in a diverse range of wildlife discovered on our WildEssex walks this month, and this little write-up contains some of  the ‘best bits’ of both.

Wivenhoe Wood is always a joy to spend time in – and Bluebell time is especially wonderful. That amazing blue, with an occasional heady whiff of intoxicating scent – a feast for the senses! And accompanied by a banquet for the ears with birdsong from a myriad of our feathered friends  – on the sunnier day these included Firecrest and Treecreeper, whilst on the following duller, rainy day a Song Thrush sang its heart out to us. On both days the woodland chorus of Blackbirds, Chiffchaffs, Great Tits, Robins, Wrens and Blue Tits followed us on our wanderings.

The weather conditions meant virtually no sightings of insects, apart from the occasional queen bumblebee, but as the weather warms we hope on future outings to focus more on these incredibly interesting and important creatures. Although whatever the weather, there are always the signs of insects to find in the form of leaf-mines, here the mines of the Holly Leaf-miner fly and the Bramble Leaf-miner moth.

So plants were the main focus, and Chris excitedly discovered two plants which he had not previously found in our woodland – Wild Redcurrant and Heath Woodrush. As expected we saw lots of our old favourites, including  Greater Stitchwort, Dog Violet,  Lords & Ladies, Ground Ivy and Butcher’s-broom.

In places the white swathes of Wood Anemones rivalled the Bluebell show, and one particular patch had especially beautiful pink-tinged undersides to its flowers.

In grassy clearings and the open meadows of Lower Lodge, pink flowers were especially noticeable; Red Dead-nettle, Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill, Common Stork’s-bill, with Cuckooflower in the damper spots, all  crucial sources of nectar and pollen for early insects.

At this time the trees are springing into life. Sycamore and Oak buds were bursting, while the showy flowers of Wild Cherry were at their peak….

… while other trees with more subtle flowers, each a vision of understated beauty, included Ash, Field Maple and Norway Maple.

Otherwise, an occasional Grey Squirrel could be seen scurrying through the branches, and on the second day we were treated to a pair of Muntjac deer trotting along only a few metres away, the female flirting shamelessly with the clearly very interested male. And on just a few tree trunks the orange terrestrial alga Trentepohlia provided a remarkable splash of colour.

Finishing as we began, just a mention about Bluebells. A real threat to our native species is its hybridization with the Spanish Bluebell, with both the Spanish (left) and hybrid (right) we found in a couple of places. Does this matter?  Well we think so: here is a link from the Wildlife Trusts which explains all …Spanish or native bluebell | The Wildlife Trusts.

#WildEssex – a walk along Mistley Walls

A sunny day sandwiched between rain, rain and more rain –  we were so lucky that our Mistley bird walk turned out to be then!  So lovely to be out in the sunshine, though we were all glad of our gloves and hats as the wind was keen (as Jude’s Mum would have said!).

We kicked off with lunch in The Crown pub which coped with our various dietary requirements admirably  – this place seems to be going up in the world with some refurbishments inside and out. It really is the perfect spot to eat and enjoy views of the estuary, right over to Brantham and Holbrook. Restaurant | The Crown Manningtree | Manningtree

Our walk followed the banks of the Stour from Manningtree to Mistley, looking at the bird life being pushed up to us on the rising tide. The numbers of birds were perhaps not as many as we had hoped for – why was this?  Well, possibly we were slightly late in the season, the cold weather definitely a factor, and worryingly perhaps bird flu has taken a toll. We sadly saw a dead gull on the shore. ‘Social distancing’ isn’t something birds would know about, and Mistley can be a ‘’go to’ gathering place for our feathered friends.

We saw the usual waders, all uniquely equipped with different bill- and leg-lengths enabling them to forage for different goodies in the mud: Black-tailed Godwits (many starting to moult into russet summer plumage), Redshanks, Turnstones, Dunlins and Avocets, with a lone Oystercatcher pecking about in the confines of the old outdoor swimming pool.

Various kinds of duck floated by, including Teals, Shelducks and Mallards, and a couple of Great Crested Grebes with their weird and wonderful head adornments dived for lunch in the deeper waters of the Port as we looked on. Our local celebrity species, Dark-bellied Brent Geese were visible both out on the water in number and nearer the shore in small groups. Each estuary of the Essex coast is internationally important for these charming little geese, together supporting a fifth of the entire world population, breeding in high Arctic Siberia.

Gulls provided entertainment with their squawks and antics. Lesser Black-backed Gulls (particularly handsome birds in our opinion) were demonstrating courtship behaviour; Black-headed Gulls acquiring their ‘black’ heads (actually brown) to make themselves look even more beautiful; Herring Gulls with their customary cries and scuffles for food.

In the Mistley Towers grounds Blackbirds were seen and Robins heard. A Chiffchaff sang its onomatopoeic song, reminding us that Spring really is here (despite the chill wind, and forecast overnight frost!). But as our regulars know, birds are only a small part of what we are about – and other aspects of nature were noticed and enjoyed: Holm Oak leaf-miners patterning the leaves; lichens in many different forms on tree trunks and on the ancient wall of Hopping Bridge; the corky bark growth of Elm; and a smattering of plants including Sweet Violet, Red Dead-nettle and White Comfrey being particularly interesting. Few actual insects were seen apart from a 7-spot Ladybird, though of course the leaf mines were showing evidence of mass insect activity, the adult moths to come later in the summer.



The whole area of the Mistley Walls is historic and interesting – well worth a visit.  The Towers, designed by Robert Adam, proudly demonstrate the wealth that was Mistley. The church constructed between the towers is now long dismantled, but the structures themselves were retained as seamarkers for vessels approaching the port. Nowadays the quay area is rather sad, all fenced off (despite ‘Free the Quay’ campaigning for many years), but the local logistics company is clearly busy judging from the number of large lorries in and out. These vehicles no doubt contribute to the rather overwhelming volume of traffic along the Walls, bringing noise and pollution; although these factors were disturbing to we human beings, the resident (and many) local swans and geese seemed totally oblivious.

Ironically, it is these human intrusions that help to habituate the birds meaning the Walls are the best place to watch these normally shy creatures well anywhere on the Essex coast.

As always we were delighted that such a wonderful group of nature enthusiasts could join us and we look forward to the next WildEssex adventure…




#WildEssex Walks: Trees in winter – buds, bark and more…

A beautiful January day saw an interested group of tree fans on King George V field in Wivenhoe, looking at How to ID Trees in Winter from Bark and Buds. This area is now a well-used and loved playing field/recreation area and wild flower meadow, but was originally the grounds of the former Wivenhoe Hall. This explains the rather formal planting and ‘exotic’ trees in amongst the natives. The clear blue sky was a perfect back drop to clearly see the silhouettes of trees, the shapes of branches and outlines of buds. Together with these pointers, bark patterns and fallen leaves and fruits are useful diagnostic tools when deciding identification of trees at a time of year when leaves and fruits are not visible on the tree itself.

This blog uses photos from last year’s walk, together with some taken today.

ASH – in addition to its unmistakeable black buds, mostly in opposite pairs, with flattened twig tips, Ash also has smooth, pale bark, often covered in lichens, and usually (though not in the specimen we examined) some of the bunches of keys from last summer perched in its boughs.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

One of most distinctive winter trees is SYCAMORE with its smooth, grey bark, large, turgid buds, almost fit to burst, and beautiful bud-scales,  edged in maroon and fringed in white

Finally, mention must be made of the evergreens, historic adornments to the grounds of the former Wivenhoe Hall. The red-boughed SCOTS’ PINE (below, left) is one of only three native conifers in Britain, CEDAR-OF-LEBANON (below, right) is another species threatened in its native Middle Eastern home, and HOLM OAK (bottom), native to the Mediterranean basin. The latter is especially noticeable this winter from the crunching underfoot of its acorns, the result of one of its periodic ‘mast years’, perhaps likely to become more frequent in the era of climate collapse.


But the presence of leaves or needles doesn’t necessarily make identification easier: it is always worth getting to know their distinctive fruits, tree shapes and bark. No rest for the botanist, even in midwinter, but help will soon be at hand with the forthcoming ‘British & Irish Wild Flowers and Plants Pocket Guide, hopefully to be published late Spring/Summer.

And what of wildlife other than the trees? Insects were not the focus today (precious few about in the cold wind!), but were couldn’t help notice rather impressive clutches of shiny black eggs on a twig…we think these are probably eggs of the Black Bean Aphid.

Otherwise, the Mistletoe on a Buckeye tree looked magnificent against its blue backdrop, and the now-ripened berries of Ivy were a reassuring sight for our birds, should this winter still have a sting in its tail…!

#WildEssex New Year Plant Hunt 2023

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 database by arranging a walk around Wivenhoe Waterfront on that 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 on 1st January: for more information see New Year Plant Hunt 2023 – Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland ( 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 numbers would not match the 35 species recorded last year. The main reason for this, we assume, is the severe frost we experienced for a number of nights in mid-December – this will no doubt have killed off many flowering specimens. However, in the hour on the day with 20 pairs of eyes searching the same route as last year we managed to find 23 species in flower – see here for the full list: NYPH2023

Most of the ‘missing’ species were stragglers from the sea walls and salt-marshes of summer (such as Sea Aster, Cord-grass, Bristly Ox-tongue and Ox-eye Daisy), a few flowers of which had persisted through the frost-free early winter of last year. But interestingly, to counter some of these omissions, a few different flowering plants were noted this year: these included the highlight of the day, White Ramping Fumitory (above), a local speciality and a so-called ‘weed’ spreading its charms in several pots and planters.

Another species not found last year, indeed one we have rarely seen in Wivenhoe before, is Water Bent: this grass is an increasing colonist of the UK, and joins a number of other new arrivals to the Wivenhoe waterfront. That lover of block-paving, Jersey Cudweed, was found in profusion, and indeed in parts of our area where it has not been seen before, though only one had a surviving flower, the rest shrivelled from frost-bite. And Early Meadow-grass was just starting to produce its diminutive flowers: all the above were unknown here up to a few years ago.

Other new flowers for this survey probably relate to their near-invisibility unless you search hard under the leaves. The tiny greenish flowers of both Pellitory-of-the-wall (above)and Annual Nettle fall into this category.

Aside from these, the ‘usual suspects’ included Gorse, Hazel, Red Dead-nettle, Groundsel, Annual Mercury, Shepherd’s-purse and Common Chickweed, but for all, the flowers were much less profuse than last year. This was especially the case with the Mexican Fleabane (below) that has colonized the riverside brickwork: last year like pink and white confetti, this year just a few daisy-like stars to brighten a dull day.

What can we read into the results of our survey? Well probably not much – the real value will come when all the results from all the walks around our islands are completed, collated and analysed. But last winter was exceptionally mild (indeed 1st Jan 2022 was the warmest New Year’s Day on record), whilst this year the pre-Christmas deep freeze cut short many plants’ productivity. It highlights the oft-forgotten (by the all-too-numerous denialists) difference between weather and climate. ‘Average weather’ is indeed warming/weirding but actual weather this winter for us bucked that trend. All interesting stuff though!

Naturally, although a botanical trip, we didn’t overlook other wildlife. Birdsong from the estuary (Curlews), and treetops (Robins) was a feast for the ears, and we were pleased to find a 7-spot Ladybird plus a number of 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 2023!