Blog Archives: Bug & Botany Walks

#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.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug walks: August – The Shipyard and Barrier Marsh at dusk

We decided to try something new this month – the long warm nights seemed too good an opportunity to miss –  so we spent two very enjoyable evenings with some of you local nature-fans enjoying the beauty that is Wivenhoe, with some wildlife thrown in!

The jetty is a wonderful spot for admiring the river, the salt marshes and the big Essex sky.  Looking heavenwards on Saturday we were privileged to witness a ‘Sun dog’.  This phenomenon only occurs when the time of day, year, and weather conditions are just so.  Sun dogs come about when the “22 degree halo round the sun intersects with the parhelic circle centred on a point directly the observer” (phew!) and are manifested as two fleeting bright spots like rainbows, either side of the sun.  And like rainbows we all see our ‘own’ version of them, directly in line with our visual gaze.

Monday evening was different,  a more traditional cloud- and water-scape sunset, but those who were waiting on the jetty a few moments before we started were lucky enough to hear and see a Kingfisher, quite unusual for this time of year, although a frequent visitor to the dock in the winter months.

We  discussed the history of the river, and the various benefits/ disadvantages of the barrier.  Of course, it keeps Wivenhoe and much of Colchester safe from flooding  (a distinct benefit!), but at the cost of altering river flows. Along with the cessation of dredging now the upstream ports have closed, this means silt is building up.  This in itself is not all bad news of course – the accretion of mud is allowing salt marsh plants to become established.

Some, like Sea Aster, are useful nectar sources; others such as Marsh Samphire are edible for us humans (though possibly being so near the sewage works at the Hythe makes that a  less-than-appetising prospect!). Sea-purslane is noteworthy, being its own desalination plant – it takes in salt water and excretes crystals of salt from its leaves.

Common Cord-grass has an interesting provenance, being a hybrid of two types of cord-grass, one native and one from America, but unlike most hybrids which are generally infertile has now become able to reproduce by seed and as a consequence is spreading.  At present it is not a problem here in Wivenhoe, but its aggressive growth, at the expense of native plants, is proving troublesome on some salt marshes.

The two-leaved form of the Four-leaved Allseed is a small and unprepossessing plant, but very rare and grows for unknown reasons along patches of Walter Radcliffe Road.  This is despite the best efforts of Trinity Estates to eradicate it  (along with anything else that has the audacity to try to grow along our roadsides) with highly toxic chemicals.  This plant used to be known only in the far south-west of England, but recently been spotted along the Thames Embankment and has now arrived at Wivenhoe.  On boots, boats or car tyres?  We shall never know.

The seawall beyond the Sailing Club is well stocked with plants particularly suited for the salty conditions – including Strawberry Clover and Dittander – which bring some welcome colour and of course food for insects.

On Barrier Marsh itself are myriads of anthills, some very ancient, a good indicator of unploughed and infrequently inundated marshland.  Though we well remember December 2013 when due to the ‘perfect storm’ conditions of low pressure and spring tide, the sea wall was overtopped – here’s a flashback, and perhaps a vision of the future:

A walk across the marsh did not unfortunately bring forth any Glow-worms on either evening but the presence of three species of bat was picked up thanks to our clever detector.  This ‘Batscanner’ automatically switches to whichever frequency is being emitted by any passing bat – each species uses a unique frequency to ‘echolocate’, so if you can find out one you can work out the other.  On Saturday two species of Pipistrelle were picked up, and on Monday the larger, more uncommon Serotine.

Talking of new toys, these evenings  were opportunities  for us to try out our new battery-operated portable LED moth trap.  Not having being road-tested before, we were delighted how far that little candle threw his beams, attracting several species of those most mysterious of nocturnal creatures.  On Saturday a huge number, hundreds in fact,  of tiny white Water Veneer moths, appeared.  These have a very short adult life-span, sometimes only hours, so we were glad to provide an opportunity for lots of them to ‘get together’ to do what moths do, and hopefully when we turned the light off at 10.30 they all had the opportunity to fly off and lay their resultant eggs (the females anyway!).

Other moths that paid us a visit included Ruby Tiger, Dingy Footman (dubbed by one of our group as the ‘Pumpkin seed moth’), Cloaked Minor, Yellow Shell, Maple Prominent and Garden Carpet. Don’t they have brilliant English names?  Of course they all have their Latinised scientific names too, but generally moth-ers only refer to the tiny micromoths, which do not have catchy common names, by these.

But there are exceptions: Water Veneers have already been mentioned, while the Diamond-back Moth, of which a couple dropped in, deserve a common name by virtue of their distinctive markings and habit of arriving on our shores after migrating from the Continent on wings only 8mm long.

Other creatures popped in to say hello too, attracted by the light – Harlequin Ladybird, caddisflies, a  mayfly and a cute Nut Weevil.   Once everyone had had the chance to have a look, all were released and allowed to carry on their nocturnal business unharmed and undetained.

It was surprising how the difference in conditions (more breeze, less cloud cover resulting in a lighter evening) made the mothing less productive on Monday.  Interestingly there was not one Water Veneer, supporting the theory that these, and many other creatures, all emerge at precisely the same time.  After all, it is no good hoping to mate if there is no one else around to mate with!  A few tiny micromoths fluttered in and out, but the main catch of that evening was a Rosy Rustic.

All photos in this report are our own, but other than the moths and sunsets, most were not actually taken on the nights in question, due to poor light conditions.  We hope that everyone who came along enjoyed this venture into the unknown!

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug walks: July – the wild side of Wivenhoe town

This month’s Walks on the Wild Side were explorations of some of our town’s amenities, which are there on the face of it for us humans to use and benefit from.  However, thanks to now-sympathetic management from Wivenhoe Town Council, each of these is enhanced by the proliferation of wildlife that has been allowed to move in, bringing enjoyment to anyone who takes the time to stand and look.

First up, the Old Cemetery in Belle Vue Road.  This ancient burial ground had for years benefitted from adherence to a Management Plan which prescribed mowing half of it in alternate years, which kept the vegetation under control whilst allowing refuges for over-wintering insects.  Until, however, a few years ago when incredibly the decision was taken to destroy the rhythm of the place and clear the lot in one fell swoop.  Bare and barren,  Mother Nature responded with vigour, and while still not properly back in rotation, in time, assuming the agreed plan is adhered to, this will return to the peaceful and beautifully untidy place that most of us love.

What did we see?  Well some insects are certainly more in your face than others!.  Butterflies were showing off, whizzing around in the warmth – several species of ‘Browns’ (Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Ringlet), plus Small White and various Skippers.

Damselflies darted about and grasshoppers and Speckled Bush-crickets hopped out of our way as we walked around.  Our old favourites the Hogweed Bonking-beetle and Thick-thighed beetle were hanging about in various poses on a multitude of flowers.  The Bramble, a plant which soon takes over if unchecked, is at this time of year a very valuable source of nectar and was veritably humming with bees and hoverflies.

Some insects, however, are more secretive and can only be noticed by careful searching.  The weeny Virgin Bagworm moth spends its whole life in a little lichen-covered silken bag wedged into minute places –  the carvings on gravestones are ideal for their purpose.

A close inspection of tree trunks revealed a number of delights – a robber-fly tucking into his crane-fly lunch, a splendid plant-hopper Allygus mixtus, a fabulous little moth Dasycera oliviella, plus rather weirdly a mayfly, normally associated with water

A Least Carpet moth was in full view on a nearby bush, but, by using its clever disguise as a birdpoo, was almost invisible.  We observed Mrs Nursery Web spider carefully carrying her egg sac to somewhere safe and a Great Pied Hoverfly was enjoying the sun.

Of the plants, the prettiest flower was without doubt the tiny Scarlet Pimpernel, whilst in contrast the spectacular  Himalayan Pine with its amazing cones and long, gracefully drooping needle, was a statuesque example of the splendour of nature.

Next, over the road to the New Cemetery, where it was pleasing to see a new native hedge beginning to take shape on the boundary wall, plus patches where the grass had been allowed to grow up a bit, bringing forth a multitude of flowers with their resident butterflies and other insects.

So onward to our next destination, King George’s Field and the Wildlife Garden.  The field had two interesting areas to look at.  The central ‘seam’ halfway down has this year brought forth a couple of nationally scarce clovers.  Possibly due to last year’s severe drought, the bare scorched ground allowed the seeds of these plants to take hold.  Were they already in the soil, just waiting for the conditions to be right to allow germination, or did they arrive on someone’s boot?  We will never know.

Anyone visiting the field this summer, or last year, will have noticed the patch of ‘hay-meadow’.  The many and varied plants here have all appeared by themselves,  having waited patiently to spring forth once the previously punishing mowing regime was relaxed.  Numerous grasses, Black Knapweed and Lady’s Bedstraw were all looking fine, and again we were treated to butterflies dancing in the sunshine and beetles and flies waiting to be discovered.  Who said flies are black and boring – this little grass-fly was very cute!

The meadow will be mown at the end of the season  and the resultant hay used to provide seeds for other wildlife areas, eg patches of St Mary’s Churchyard where a wild area is also now taking shape.

Many of you will remember ‘GardenGate’ a few years ago when the Wildlife garden, having been lovingly created by locals, was virtually ruined by overzealous mismanagement.  Fortunately the Council stepped in to try and repair their damage  – another native hedge was planted to replace the one which was ripped out, and a more relaxed regime has now been adopted.  And of course the wildlife loves it.  A Heterotoma planicornis plant bug was one of the most interesting finds there, and we were all thrilled to see a number of dragonfly exuvia on reeds in the pond.  These are the empty cases of dragonfly nymphs which they leave behind having spent their first stage of life in the water.  They then crawl out, split their skin, find somewhere to pump up their wings and turn into the aerial acrobats that we all know and love.  It all seems pretty miraculous.

A final mention must be to our old favourite, the Stag Beetle.  We saw just the one, on the ground adjacent to the Wildlife Garden as she went about her business of the day.  Wivenhoe is an important hotspot for these amazing insects and anything we can do to assist them, such as allowing a woodpile to go undisturbed in your garden, is to be commended.

Thank you all who joined us, your observations and enthusiasm, and we hope that you enjoyed it as much as we did. If anyone feels moved to congratulate Wivenhoe Town Council on is estates management, the Town Clerk can be emailed at enquiries@wivenhoe.gov.uk.

#WildWivenhoe: Burnets, butterflies, beetles and bountiful blooming at Lower Lodge

Lower Lodge keeps cropping up in these blogs – see here and here. No wonder: it is one of the most exciting places for summer wildlife in these parts, all the more exciting as much of that wildlife has moved in over the past ten years or so.

Farmed until the 1980s and now owned by Colchester Borough Council, until relatively recently it was all repeatedly mown throughout the summer. But now, as an integral part of the Colne Local Nature Reserve, the regime over substantial blocks of the site has been amended to mowing on a two or three year rotation. This is enough to control the incessant attempted colonisation by trees, and provide a rich floral mix which is a magnet for insects.

At this time of year, Hogweed stands proud from the grass heads, great horizontal plates of food – nectar and pollen – for vast numbers of flies, beetles and other insects.

Hogweed Bonking Beetles live up to their name, often multiple pairs per umbel, and with careful searching it is possible to find the deadliest of hoverfly predators, the crab spider Misumena vatia. Coming an a range of colour forms, they are likely to be most effective as hidden assassins on a background which matches their own colour closely.

Another of the valuable midsummer nectar sources is Field Scabious, attractive especially to butterflies and moths.

While the most frequent butterflies – Skippers, Meadow Browns, Ringlets and Gatekeepers – are variations on a theme of brown, some of the moths are a visual treat. Both Narrow-bordered Five-spot and Six-spot Burnets are warningly-coloured, indicating to potential predators their caterpillars may have been eating forms of Bird’s-foot-trefoil which contain the precursors for cyanide formation; those precursors can be carried through the process of metamorphosis making the moth toxic. Although I saw only Six-spots on my walk a couple of days ago, both species fly here together.

But the moth to beat them all for me is the Brassy Longhorn, which feeds as an adult on Scabious flowers, and as a caterpillar on the seeds and then the leaves of the same species. It may be tiny, but the brilliance of its metallic scales is such that it can be spotted at several metres’ range.

Very scarce in Essex (see the Essex Field Club distribution map), presumably largely due to the scarcity nowadays of grassland with Scabious in it, the presence of Brassy Longhorn here raises all sorts of questions. Particularly, how and when did it arrive? Under the former mowing regime, Scabious may have been present, but never allowed to flower, and there are very few, if any, other concentrations of Scabious locally which could have held a  relict population of the moth. As to when it arrived, having got all excited about the ‘first site record’ this year, I have just noticed that we had seen and photographed it for our 15 July blog last year, but not realised its significance!

Always more questions than answers in nature – that is one of the values of a place such as Lower Lodge, to inspire inquiry. It is a model of multifunctional green space, for recreation (both formal and informal), education, providing outdoor health benefits, and very importantly a home for wonderful wildlife. And a model which has inspired a similar relaxation of intensive mowing in other places, most notably a part of Wivenhoe’s King George V playing fields, which I will return to in future blogs.

In the meantime, just a few other images from late June at Lower Lodge:

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug walks awayday to Cambridge Botanic Garden

Things all got off to a rather inauspicious start – a poor cow got hit on the railway line and so our connection to Colchester (and onward to Cambridge) was in considerable doubt.  We debated whether to get a taxi (unavailable), bus (would take too long), or to rouse Helen’s husband from his slumber (it seemed a bit rotten), whilst Anita, already at Colchester, had been befriended by a helpful knight in shining railway-uniform and was relaying messages by text.  We decided that the most painless thing to would be to just abandon all hope of going and have a nice walk on Lower Lodge instead, until a shout of ‘All Aboard for Colchester’ rang out from the station master and we all broke into a sturry  (see The Meaning of Liff !) and managed to get all aboard just in time.  Our select group of local nature watchers (Pippa, Helen and Jenny), as well as us of course , eventually arrived at Colchester where Anita was calmly waiting.  We piled on to the train to Ipswich and set off, shaken but not stirred.

Cambridge was rather overcast and decidedly muggy, but all the same pretty good conditions for a Grand Day Out in the superb Botanical Gardens. First impressions from the group (most of whom had not visited before) was ‘WOW’.  Not only are these famous gardens an important centre for plant science and research, but are also beautifully laid-out and well-managed, showcasing plants typical of specific habitats e.g. chalk, dry, fenland, tropical and alpine, to name but a few.  Evidence of ‘managing with wildlife in mind’ was apparent- large swathes of grass left unmown for wildflowers to grow.  To use their blurb – “the Garden (is) a green oasis in the City that’s great for spotting wildlife’ and “ our wildlife friendly approach ensures that the Garden has an army of birds, insects and amphibians to help control pests and diseases.”

First stop was for a much needed coffee in the café where we also eyed up the lunch options.  We were then treated to an hour and a half’s walk lead by Chris, looking at some of the many interesting plants and insects.

Nearly everything seems to have a story  – the Birthwort, which due to the decidedly ‘gynaecological’ appearance of its flowers was thought to aid abortions; the Common Reed which the Devil took a dislike to, due to it being so perfect, and so bit into each leaf out of jealousy (each leaf has visible ‘tooth marks’);  the Broomrapes which need no chlorophyll to live as they parasitise other plants and get all their nutrients from them, hence they always look dead and brown even when fully alive.

So many of the plants we seemed to catch just at their right time: the beautiful Hoary Plantain in magnificent flower; fruits of the Hound’s-tongue; the fabulous spiky leaves of Henry’s Lime; and, once you look closely, the multi-coloured Wild Candytuft.

Insects were looking marvellous – just a few of our favourites – a male Thick-thighed Beetle; a new-to-us, tiny Bordered Shieldbug;  a Painted Lady butterfly (an immigrant butterfly at the moment very plentiful in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire); the Garden Chafer beetle; and the ubiquitous Harlequin Ladybird, a useful friend to gardeners as it ravenously devours aphids, though has also had bad press as it may have lead to the decline of a once-common species, the 2 spot ladybird.

The afternoon session, where we were joined by Annette,  a very keen naturalist and ‘moth-er’,  looked at some of the more specialised areas of planting and as the group went their separate ways, some of us had time for a quick tour of the glass houses before leaving.

We hope that everyone who came along enjoyed the Day Out – we certainly had fun and would like to thank the group for their enthusiasm, calmness in the face of traffic adversity, and wonderful company.

 

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: June – the leaves are alive on Lower Lodge

Thank you to all the nature-addicts who joined us on Saturday.  The warm sunshine and gentle breeze made for very pleasant walks (if 400 metres in two hours qualifies as a walk!), and we certainly found lots to look at.  So much so we aren’t going to put many words into this month’s report – but let the pictures speak for themselves. We haven’t even labelled the pictures: please ask if you would like to know what they are…

As we know, as well as being vitally important for our ecosystems, insects vary hugely and are in fact classified into 22 different major groups or ‘orders’, reflecting their respective structures.

Beetles belong to the order  Coleoptera.  Coleos – a shield,  pteron – wing, and have hard wing cases which protect them.  They probably outnumber in species every other order of animal.

Moths belong to the order Lepidoptera   Lepidos – a scale,  pteron – wing.  We discovered several types of moth,  plus a couple of ‘cases’, ie  pupae where a moth has chewed out a section of leaf, to a very precise pattern, (how DO they know this?) as well as a couple of magnificent moth caterpillars. Sadly we were a week or two early for the spotted Burnet moths which will soon be abundant on Lower Lodge.  Butterflies are also Lepidopteran, but relatively few were out and about on Saturday, apart from Common Blues and Speckled Woods.

True bugs’ (as opposed to ‘bugs’ being the general term used for many insects) belong to the order Hemiptera   Hemi – half, pteron – wing.  This is an extremely varied order, and are further classified into suborders.

The three orders listed so far are three of the ‘big five’ insect groups, the others being Diptera (‘two-winged’) – Flies; and Hymenoptera (‘veil-winged’ – bees, wasps and ants). There are however many other smaller orders. Grasshoppers and crickets belong to the order Orthoptera   Orthos – straight,  pteron – wing.  Being early in the season, the bush crickets we found were nymphs, i.e. in their early stages of development.  They pass through a number of ‘instars’,  shedding their skins as they go,  before becoming adult.

Spiders – of course, these aren’t insects (ie they don’t have the requisite 6 legs) but are such interesting critters we could not possibly ignore them!

And of course Chris was also looking out for what was flowering, photographing a few flower heads (including the first Field Scabious, awaiting its complement of Burnet moths) and seed-head structures as he went, together with the remarkable fruiting structures of the Goat’s-beard Rust-fungus.

Happy nature watching.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: May – Cockaynes Reserve

So, which of these is a weed? Dandelion or Silver Birch?  The answer seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it, but in reality they both may OR may not be thought of as weeds.  It all depends on where you are and what you want from the land on which they are growing.  A weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place.

This was a topic of discussion on our Botany and Bug Walks this month.  Two groups of hardy souls (given the weather which was thrown at us) enjoyed a visit to one of our least-known beauty spots, namely the Cockaynes Reserve.  This reserve comprises two woods, with a patch of bare sandy soil near lakes which are the happy result of intensive sand and gravel extraction some years ago.  The whole site is a wildlife haven.

The sandy open ground is well managed by the Cockaynes Wood Trust specifically for our ultra-important (considering the state that we have all got ourselves into) invertebrates.  Without insect life, humans would disappear within a short time.  So….the Birch which naturally wants to grow in the sandy soil area is removed to allow room for insects to move in, nest and generally do what comes naturally to them.  A prize example of the insects is officially called the Early Colletes bee, though we would like to make a case for it to be known as the Bunny Bee.  The second half of its Latin name ‘cunicularis’  shares the root with that for Rabbits.  And it does share some rabbit-like characteristics, in that it is furry and burrows in sandy soil ( not sure about the fluffy tail though).   And (at least when the weather is warm) many hundreds of these bees can be seen nesting and buzzing along the sand banks.  This is nationally a very important colony for these useful pollinators.

So what about the Dandelion? Well, this old favourite is ‘Welcome at Cockaynes’ as one of the most important late-spring sources of nectar and pollen for insects.  A curious fact…what we think of as the dandelion flower, is in fact many closely packed in together.  Each little orange blade is an individual flower, which is easier to comprehend when it has turned itself into a beautiful clock seed-head… each seed comes from an individual flower.

Many other woodland plants were to be seen and enjoyed.  Of course, the favourite, the Bluebell, as well as Wavy Bittercress, Opposite leaved Golden-saxifrage which just loves living near the brook, and Red Campion (which grows as either an all-male or all-female plant) plus a myriad of others.

Three types of fern are found in  Villa Wood – Broad-Buckler and Male Ferns thriving in the lush conditions beside Sixpenny Brook, plus Bracken on the higher, drier soils. ‘The degree of pinnation’ Chris used to help identify them sound complex, but all it really means is ‘ferniness’….

Given the cold wind and sharp hail showers insects generally were pretty thin on the ground.  But our eagle-eyed groups did discover some nice examples – a Squash Bug sunning itself, bumblebees, flies plus a few moths.

In fact we found the smallest moth in Britain!  Micropterix calthella enjoys spending time in the cups of buttercups. They may only live for a few hours and so have to do what they have to do as a priority.  We caught a couple doing just this…..   Aren’t they handsome, and only 4mm or so long!

Another rather lovely moth enjoying a brief spell of sunshine was the Clouded Border.  It boldly lies out full view of any passing predator, knowing that it is partially protected by its disguise…it does look rather like a bird poo.  It belongs to the Geometrid group of moths, this term meaning ‘earth measurer’ and their caterpillars are the ‘inchworms’.

Having walked up past the lakes now full of water plants and a few birds, we finished our walk at the top, at Cockaynes Wood.  This is a much drier habitat than the lower, Villa Wood. And near it are a few patches of Heather, a very rare plant to grow in Essex.  Near here is a lovely field, which has been just left and apparently un-herbicided for a while, to allow many pretty annual plants to take root.  Many of these may be considered ‘weeds’ in a garden…they grow readily in disturbed soil.  But here, they were just delightful to see, and much better thought of as less-prejudicially as ‘Arable Plants’: Field Pansy, Groundsel, Fumitory, Poppy and Wild Radish.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: April – the woods in Spring

What a lot of things there were to look at on our Botany and Bug walks yesterday! The woods were bursting with botanical life and, even though it was drizzly and far from warm, some bug life was tenaciously hanging on in readiness for the better weather, sure to come.

Wivenhoe Wood is an ancient woodland,  one which is assumed to have existed since the last Ice Age. This rather wonderful fact is indicated in part by the presence of two rather wonderful plants, namely the Bluebell and Wood Anemone . Although often located in the same woodlands, these actually thrive on different substrates, Bluebells preferring more gravelly and drained areas typically nearer top of hills and Anemones in damper, more clayey soils. We are lucky to have both of these beauties, doing what they oughta, on our doorstep. (Click here for Chris’ blog about how to tell native Bluebells from the Spanish variety).

Other flowers of particular splendour included the Yellow Archangel, Primrose, Common Dog-violet, Greater Stitchwort and the beautifully named Celandine, sharing its name with the Greek for Swallow, as their arrival is often coincidental.

Of course we could not ignore the trees, nor the importance of their management within the woodland ecosystem. In days of yore when woods did their own thing, trees grew until they naturally died and fell crashing down, creating clearings, which allowed light to enter to give life to the flowers of the forest. Along with the trampling of Wild Boar, Aurochs and other large fauna, the disturbance would have kept things constantly changing.

However, nowadays, in the absence of large beasties, and trees often being surgically removed before they grow too large and unsafe, it is important that man steps in to create patches of light to keep the woodland floor alive. Although rather dramatic and destructive to the uninitiated, the practice of coppicing is vital for a woodland’s health. We could see the evidence of this for ourselves. Some of the coppiced ‘stools’ are probably hundreds of years old with their original trunk stumps often rotting away (vital for invertebrates), yet still ‘alive’ and allowing any number of small trees to grow up out of them. These poles are often harvested for useful economic crop too. Colchester Borough Council are to be congratulated on their management practices.

So what can trees themselves tell us? Well, for one thing ‘What Lies Beneath’. An Alder is a sure sign that a spring flows nearby, as these trees like their feet wet all the time. And sure enough, near one such individual, was a very damp area where we saw our first, and most spectacular invertebrate offering of the day…a large female cranefly Tipula vittata, industrially poking her abdomen into the mud over and over again, laying her eggs. The beautifully blossomy Wild Cherry likes free-flowing water draining over its roots, and so shows it is living on a gravelly layer.

Surprising splashes of colour helped to brighten a dull day, none more so than the occasional trunk plastered with the vivid orange terrestrial alga Trentepohlia; likewise the fleeting flowers of Field Maple and Norway Maple (originally posted wrongly as Sycamore), in various hues of green.

The afternoon walkers were luckier on the insect-front than their morning compatriots, and chalked up both the Kidney-spot Ladybird and the Orange Ladybird (itself an indicator of ancient woodland ). The Kidney-spot was photobombed by a Birch Catkin-bug, but we will forgive it…

We can’t leave our Day At The Woods report without mentioning the wonderful sculpture-from-nature that has appeared (through much hard work) near Lower Lodge. It is if course much more than a work of art…it is a stag beetle stumpery! Over time the wood beneath the ground will rot away and hopefully provide conditions to support the larvae of these amazing creatures. They will chomp away on the dead wood for a few years (the nutritional value of wood is low, and these creatures need to grow big, so it takes ages!), then on a warm day in June the adults will emerge. They will fly around in an undignified manner hoping to bump into (literally) someone of the opposite sex to do business with. Eggs will be laid and after a few short weeks the adults will die. You could say that their life seems very short, and that it’s hardly worth the effort, but as one of our group pointed out ‘A life-cycle never ends….’, which I think would be a very appropriate place to leave things this time……..

…….apart from to thank everyone who participated in our event this month. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.

 

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: March – searching for signs of Spring along the Wivenhoe Trail

Q: What do horses’ hooves, turkey tails, yellow brains and a vinegar cup all have in common? A: All types of fungi found on our Botany & Bug walks yesterday. What evocative English names for these varied and interesting organisms and all to be found on just a short walk along Wivenhoe Trail!

 

Thank you to all who braved the cold, strong winds and showers. The patches of sunshine were very welcome, not only to us, but to the few brave insects that were out on their normal Saturday business… …Hairy-footed Flower-bees nectaring at the White Dead-nettles and Seven-spotted Ladybirds basking and warming after their winter sleep.

The life-cycle of some critters is pretty amazing. .. scale insects start life as little aphid-like creatures, (known as ‘crawlers ‘) who live on the undersides of leaves. Once they are fully grown they snuggle down on their favourite leaf, lose their legs, grow a shell, attach their sucking mouthparts (a feature of all ‘true bugs ‘) and stay there. Never to move again.

Pretty safe you may think, but one had been found by some parasite or another and wasn’t a pretty sight. When alive, these bugs secrete a honey-dew like substance which drips down to the leaves below, providing a food-base for yet more wildlife, sooty moulds.  Nothing in nature is wasted!

 

Another of nature’s oddities are bagworms. These are nothing to do with worms, but the early stages of some types of micromoth, which variously make their protective coverings out of bits and pieces they can find. A couple of species had attached themselves to fence posts etc, waiting until the time comes for them to fly away … if indeed they can – many females remain wingless all their lives and stay put in their bags.

  

Plants are of course great indicators of the season and we were able to see a number of ‘first footers’ emerging. Whitlow-grass (not a grass), Red and White Dead-nettles (not nettles), Ivy-leaved Speedwell (not ivy), Dog’s Mercury (neither nor) but what’s in a name? These are all important sources of nectar and/or pollen for emerging bees and other important insects. Talking of names, one of the springing-green plants has more common names than any other: Arum maculatum. A well-known plant, and indicator of ancient woodland, its many monikers are connected to ‘adult themes ‘, given the phallic shape of its flower spike and the enclosing soft leaves ( you get the drift!)….Lords-and-Ladies, Soldiers-diddies and Cuckoo-pint (modesty prevents me from explaining what ‘pint’ refers to!).

  

At this time of year it is easy to see the many Blackthorn bushes still in tight bud, and indeed we encountered some on our walk.  In contrast, when walking over the rail bridge in the High Street you may have seen pretty blossom which is in fact non-native Cherry-plum. Often taken incorrectly for Blackthorn, it can be distinguished by subtle differences in flower structure, earlier flowering,  and its leaves emerging at the same time, not after, the flowers. Fruits of these will be similar to the Blackthorn’s sloes, but less bitter, needing less sugar to make that all-important gin in the autumn!

Holm Oak (like the huge specimens on KGV) are proving to be a mixed blessing it seems. Magnificent and evergreen, they are a feature of many a parkland and with the help of Jays and other birds, are dispersed and germinate readily. Again non-native, they could potentially squeeze out our own beloved species. When originally brought here, the climate was considered too cold for them to spread but of course we all know what is happening to our temperatures. Luckily, natural controls may be starting to have an effect and Holm Oaks along the trail feature the tell-tale signs of leaf-miner damage. These mines show the passages created by tiny larvae of small moths, which chomp away at the leaves, remaining between the upper and lower surfaces, until they pupate, break free and fly off.

An interesting feature of some Elm trees along the trail and elsewhere is ‘corking’, i.e. corky-looking growths along branches. This phenomenon seems to affect only certain species and the causes not fully understood, but it may be the tree’s natural defence to particular stresses, e.g. salt for the trail-dwellers.  Whilst looking closely at some bark, an eagle-eyed member of our afternoon group spotted a moving red blob, a fine specimen of a Red Velvet Mite, and once our eyes were in, the sunny trunks were seen to be teeming with them.

Walking so close to the town, garden ‘escapees ‘ were very much a feature. ..these are an increasing cause for concern, as some (like variegated Yellow Archangel) are more robust than their native cousins and could be pose a threat to the natural population through genetic pollution. Of course most gardeners wouldn’t dream of chucking their garden waste over the hedge into a wild area, but some do….

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: October – King George V Field, Wivenhoe Wood & Ferry Marsh

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, yes, Autumn has crept up on us, and today we looked at some of the ways nature has been able to ‘fill all fruit with ripeness to the core’.

   

A visit to Wivenhoe car park may not be your first choice for a nature walk venue,  but a quick look at the shrubs and bushes soon revealed that even there nature has been hard at work producing berries and seeds.  Colourful, in an array of shapes and sizes , these are all intended to be noticed and eaten by birds and other wildlife, therefore enabling the plant to be multiplied and spread further than could be managed by just letting its seeds fall to the ground. Of particular interest were Berberis, Snowberry, Pyracantha and Viburnum, with Rose hips and festoons of White Bryony.  Hollies were there too, some with and some without berries – the reason? Well, it is the female that bears the famous berries, whilst the male flowers (on separate trees) earlier in the season provided the necessary pollen to fertilise the female flowers, leading to the formation of the berries. Lots of ideas here for those wishing to improve their gardens as a resource for wildlife.

  

It was interesting to walk over KGV and see how the now-cut ‘Meadow’ is faring.  This year’s ‘experiment ‘ in leaving a small portion of the field unmown for a few months proved very successful,  the sheer variety of plants that sprung forth, and the benefit to butterflies, bees and other insects has been enormous. We trust the Council will allow, indeed encourage, this to be repeated next year and beyond.

 

We had hoped to find a variety of fungi today, but a reccie yesterday was disappointing (due to lack of rain over the past few weeks) so we spent only a short time in the woods. A Parasol mushroom was seen on the edge of the wood, and a patch of Honey Fungus on a dead tree stump further in.

We concluded our morning with a walk through Ferry Marsh, following an incongruous peanut trail! It was interesting to see how the marsh has fared through its unprecedented period of inundation this summer.  It was good to see (and hear) the Reeds thriving on the re-wetted marsh, and just bursting into flower, as well as discover a few other marshland plants, including Sea Club-rush and Redshank.

 

The small oak on the edge of the seawall was rich in galls – Spangles, Silk-buttons and Smooth Spangles, as well as Oak Apple and Marble Gall. Each of these home to minuscule creatures, which we can only identify by the shape of their gall home and the plant on which it is found. At the foot of the tree was a tennis ball shaped  Earthball fungus. When prodded this puffed out smoky spores: we had pre-empted the rain drops which were soon to fall and which would do the ‘prodding’ naturally.

What of the bugs promised on our walks? Well, given the cold and damp conditions, most creatures were tucked up in the warm somewhere, but we did find a few things of interest:  Dolycoris  baccarum (Hairy Shield-bug), a crane fly complete with gyroscopic halteres (modified hind wings), several newly-emerged caddis-flies and large Garden Spiders, everywhere, waiting…..

 

All the photos in this report are our own, but due to the poor light today, most were actually taken in more favourable conditions!

Thank you to all who turned out on this less-than-nice day, and to everyone who has supported our Botany and Bug walks this year.  We hope to offer a new season of outings next year and hope that at least some of you will be able to come along.  We may arrange a walk for November if conditions are right, and will advertise it accordingly.