Blog Archives: Cockaynes Reserve

Lockdown diary: Heading towards summer in Cockaynes Reserve

Our last report on the reserve was nearly a month ago, when it was looking greener and flowery after some long-awaited rain. But that is the last time it rained in these parts – the semi-arid Essex coast living up to its meteorological reputation – so throughout May, a month of almost unbroken sun and 7% of average rainfall, the reserve has dried to a crisp, situated as it is on free-draining gravels and sands.

Consequently the flowering is now much less profuse, mostly comprising deep-rooted shrubs and plants protected by a degree of shade. Honeysuckle is in full flower, drenching the early morning air in  its heavy fragrance, and Cow-wheat has shown a surprising dash out of its usual woodland habitat onto the heathy slopes, where it may be extending its root-parasitic behaviour to include Heather as a host.

Even the ubiquitous Stinging Nettle , much maligned, is coming into its own, as the tiny green flowers on dangling whorls burst forth, a fluffy aura which catches backlight very fetchingly.

And perhaps the main beneficiary of the drought, renowned for favouring hot dry sandy areas, is Smooth Cat’s-ear. Although a great rarity in Essex, in the same general sandy area where we found a couple in April, about twenty plants were flowering, although the scattering of hairs on the leaves of some plants suggested they may be hybridising with the much more frequent Common Cat’s-ear.

Now is the time for munching, when newly-emerging leaves are at their most nutritious, and herbivorous insect larvae take advantage:

The identificaton of moth larvae has taken a great leap forward recently with the publication of a new field guide. Many of those we found on Birch proved to be Mottled Umbers, very variable, but a Blossom Underwing was distinctive and a good  find.

But one we could not track down, and it also baffled Richard Lewington, illustrator of the new guide. It took Phil Sterling, one author of the book, to point out it was actually the large caterpillar of a micromoth Phycita roborella (and so not covered in the book). The distinctive eye-pattern of this larva makes me wonder if more could be made of such details in the always tricky field of larval identification.

May is also the month for emergence of dragonflies and damselflies, and Cockaynes did not disappoint: its mosaic of wetland habitats and scrubby, flowery, sheltered edges area ideal. In fact, by the end of the month, these had become the most obvious insect group, the butterflies having already fallen into the traditional ‘June gap’ a week or two early.

As always though there were plenty of other invertebrates to be found:

But one or two merit special mention: the White Crab Spider, devouring a Green-veined White…

…the newly-emerged Bird’s-wing moth, still drying its wings out…

…the distinctive planthopper Ditropis pteridis, which is restricted to feeding on Bracken, but (perhaps surprisingly) known from only eight sites in Essex previously, and never before from Cockaynes….

…and best of all (just look at those rapacious front legs!), a male Ballus chalybeius, a small jumping spider, nationally scarce but with a strongly south-easterly distribution.

Even in challenging weather conditions, Cockaynes maintains its role in supporting the physical and mental well-being of Alresford and Wivenhoe #NaturaHealthService!

Lockdown diary: Cockaynes – after the rain

It was back to Cockaynes Reserve today, after a week of relatively poor weather, including some very long awaited rain. And the flowers have certainly perked up…

Insects and other invertebrates too were out in abundance (including many larvae and nymphs), especially where sheltered from the cool north-easterly.

The season is progressing inexorably on, despite the upheavals of the human world, and it was good to see several ‘firsts for the year’ for us, like Azure Damselfly, Red-and-Black Froghopper and Hairy Shield-bug, along with the Rhombic Leatherbug, a dry grassland specialist which we rarely find in these parts.

All the above, and more, in a an hour, and set to the soundscape of summers past (sadly) with a Yellowhammer singing, and the purring of two Turtle Doves!

As usual, not too many names here, but if anyone wants to know what anything is, please get in touch.

Lockdown diary: Return to Cockaynes

The speed of change in Spring never ceases to amaze, and a privilege of ‘lockdown’ is that is gives us the excuse, with little else crowding in on our existence, to see those changes in close up and on a  regular basis. So, a week since we last exercised our right to exercise there, back to Cockaynes, and a series of remarkable changes. Budburst is almost complete, Sweet Chestnut in particular providing a sculptural and subtly colourful backdrop in the again crystal clear light.

Likewise, spears of Bracken thrusting skyward and starting to unfurl eagle-winged fronds demonstrate the reasoning behind the second part of its scientific name Pteridium aquilinum.

 

In some respects, the pace of change may have been pushed hard this year by the ongoing lack of rain, and grass-shrivelling, lichen-crisping drought. Last week’s botanical highlights had gone in the ‘Blinks of an eye’, and the most sandy patches are now almost flowerless, apart from newly emerging, red-stemmed Early Hair-grass. The wildlife shouts mid-May rather than mid-April, as if lockdown has given Nature the time to start cranking the seasonal wheel a touch faster.

Gorse of course is pretty much immune to drought, and still flowering profusely. And attracting numerous newly emerged Green Hairstreaks, beautiful when seen at rest, but in flittery flight almost impossible to follow, despite the intense metallic green iridescence of their underwings.

And in similar places, Speckled Yellow moths, a rather sparsely distributed species in Essex, skipped numerously around the patches of Wood Sage, its larval food plant.

Lots of other new emergences apparent this week included dancing fairies, flocks of then around the birches – courtship swarms of Green Longhorn moths…

… and herds of St Mark’s flies everywhere, after their first tentative appearances yesterday. Great food for the Swallows overhead, they are two days early, coming out on St George’s Day rather than St Mark’s…though one cannot imagine St G would be too upset. Spreading his patronage over a diverse portfolio, from England to Ethiopia, Catalonia to Estonia and syphilitics to plague victims, he is clearly not too precious to allow St M’s flies to muscle into his action. And later in the day, above the flat, the wheeling, snapping groups of Black-headed Gulls were presumably cashing in on this bounty, they way they do when nests of flying ants emerge later in the season.

All this and much more as always. Until next week…

Lockdown diary: Cockaynes Reserve, our #NaturalHealthService

The Cockaynes Reserve was a vision in green, in fact in a myriad of greens, Spring springing, almost audibly, from every bud.

Of course we (and the pollinators) are attracted to the showy blooms, but there were also flowers contributing to the palette of greens, from bronzed catkins of Oak, to jade dangles of Redcurrant and acid carpets of Golden-saxifrage.

Another green, and truly insignificant, plant we found in the open sandy plains was a bit of a surprise: Blinks, in abundance. We have never noticed it here before, and it isn’t common in Essex. As its usual habitat is winter-wet depressions on sand, its abundance may reflect the wet weather we had for much of the winter (seems a world away!), until COVID-19 lockdown, after which virtually nothing.

On the pure sand, all the signs are of stress, plants curling up with drought, looking more as if it were mid-summer. Just a few were in flower, with scattered Stork’s-bill instead of carpets. and Lesser Dandelions, but very little else…

…apart from the find of the day, a couple of flowering rosettes (and a few non-flowering) of Smooth Cat’s-ear. With only four or so previous records this century from Essex, this a truly scarce plant, although its ‘tiny dandelion’ flowers are open only in full sunlight, so it may be overlooked. It is a plant we have searched Cockaynes for several times as there is a previous single record from the site a few years ago, albeit about 300m from our locality, but hitherto without success.

But in and around the shade of trees, the vernal rainbow (thus far lacking the red end of the spectrum – Red Campion is yet to come) was much more developed:

And especially deep in Villa Wood, down by the Brook, the visual drama was complemented by the rearing cobra-heads of unfurling Male-fern fronds.

Particular mention must go to the prominent Crab-apple on the ancient bank of Cockaynes Wood, in full, perfect flower, a dazzle of pink-shot ivory, and a magnet for foraging bumlebees:

Other insects out and about included Dark-edged Bee-flies everywhere, and each Gorse bush shone with the beacons of Gorse Shield-bugs, sunlight reflecting of the membranous part of their wings:

Quite apart from the bugs though, Gorse is a keystone species on sites like this, harbouring a vast array of other invertebrate life – herbivores, predators and pollinators alike:

On the spider front, we also discovered an egg-sac, like the inflated seed pod of Love-in-Mist, of a Wasp Spider, presumably (hopefully) with the eggs from last summer still inside it. One to look for later in the year!

With time to stand and stare, time being the one freedom we now have, it was wonderful to chance upon some of the more lowly denizens of the reserve, including caterpillars of Fox Moth and Dark Arches, and an incredibly camouflaged, tiny grasshopper, the Common Groundhopper, which while not rare in the county is so inconspicuous it is rarely noticed. Groundhoppers are the only members of the Orthoptera which can be found as adults at this time of year; unlike others in the group, grasshoppers and bush-crickets, which spend the winter months as eggs, groundhoppers overwinter in the adult or larger nymphal stages.

An hour of delights: a place to sooth, a place to wonder, a place to wander – at its best, under the watchful guardian eye of the ‘Angel of Cockaynes Wood’…

 

Cockaynes Reserve – landscapes, wildscapes and groundscapes dressed in the fires of autumn

The first frosts of winter arrived a couple of days ago, but winds have been light and so the fiery hues of autumn remain around Cockaynes Reserve for now. From trees to reedbeds, leaves are bronzing as if to intensify the feeble sunlight, although today it wasn’t making much impression on the cool easterly air-flow…

Wildlife was of course hiding away, as often as not in plain sight: almost everything we saw seemed to be painted in the palette of decaying chlorophyll, from all manner of fungi to seeding Reed heads to Feathered Thorn:

And then there were the Groundscapes, the pattern of leaf-shapes and colour beneath each species of tree, as distinctive now as at any time of the year. For me, these unique combinations are the shroud of the passing year: here lies Field Maple, Silver Birch, Ash, Sweet Chestnut, Hornbeam, Oak and Hazel.

#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: 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.

Wildlife Galore in Cockaynes Reserve

On a sunny, not too hot, day like today, it is a great time to go out and wander around Cockaynes Reserve with a camera. Even when there is quite a breeze, it is always possible to find sheltered nooks, where insects often congregate and can be snapped without wind-blur.

No time today to provide a full written commentary, so I will let the flowers and critters speak for themselves…


Mouse-eared Hawkweed

Ground-ivy – a magnet for bee-flies and other insects

Wild Strawberry

Changing Forget-me-not – its flowers start out yellow in bud, then fade to cream before ending up blue

Sweetly-scented Holly flowers – the males (left), with functional stamens, and females (right) with non-pollen-producing stamens, perhaps the Holly-equivalent of the male nipple?


Marsh Horsetail fertile, spore-bearing ‘cone’

Bonfire Moss, as its name suggests often found on recently-burnt ground

Anther Smut on Red Campion; the smut fungus infects and infests the plant, takes over the plant’s pollen-dispersal structures and appropriates them to disperse its own sooty spores.

On now to the insects, starting with a selection of True Bugs:

Gorse-Shield-bug

A plant-bug Harpocera thoracica: male (L) and the very different looking female (R)

The nymph of another plant-bug Miris striata, looking and acting for all purposes like an ant

and not actually a bug, but the shed skin of an early-stage nymph of the Forest Bug

Our first soldier-beetle of the season, Cantharis nigricans

A couple of hoverflies, both from difficult groups – (L) Pipiza  and (R) Syrphus

The Stripe-legged Robberfly Dioctria baumhaueri

A dance-fly Empis tessellate

The wasp-like Nomad Bee Nomada flava

Small Gorse Mining-bee Andrena ovatula



A buttercup-full of tiny moths Micropterix calthella – this family is the only group of moths and butterflies which have jaws, to feed on pollen

Azure Damselfly male

Mating pair of Large Red Damselflies

A pristine Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly

Last of all we reach the spiders (arachnophobe warning!)

A stretch-spider Tetragnatha species

Larinioides cornutus

and finally, a Metellina species.

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: April in Cockaynes Reserve

Thank you to all who came along to our inaugural ‘Botany and Bug’ walk this morning – we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.  Despite a rainy start, the weather improved and we were able to sample some of the wonderfully diverse wildlife on our doorstep, in Cockaynes Nature Reserve. 

We do not intend these short reports to be a list of all that we saw,  but some highlights include the Scarlet Elf Cap fungus, extremely noticeable amongst the understorey in Villa Wood; other fungi included the Maze-gill, King Alfred’s Cakes and Turkey-tail – such wonderful names! 

Woodland flowers included Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage; Town-hall-clock in all its unique glory; and Primrose and Wood Anemones bursting forth. 

The woodland edges had good examples of male and female Sallow flowers, attracting passing bees, and the Gorse looked particularly bright, giving off its characteristic coconut fragrance in the sunshine; even the ground-hugging mosses are starting to look their best, covered in flower-like reproductive rosettes.

 Amongst the bug life, we started off with a Green Shield-bug, but one that belies its name as it was in its drab winter colours, just having emerged from hibernation. Likewise, a Hornet was seen emerging from a decaying wood stump; the rare and local mining bee Colletes cunicularis was seen in large numbers (more it seems every year) in the sand banks; and a Zebra Jumping-spider with its fly lunch posed on a gatepost.

An ex-Minotaur beetle (in two halves) was nevertheless an interesting find as this fairly local beetle is able to make its home in this much needed invertebrate-friendly reserve. Sadly, Green Tiger-Beetles were not showing for us (the photo is from last year) – all the more reason to return in the next couple of months!

 

The next walk will take place on May 5th when we shall be looking to discover some of our local flora and fauna at Barrier Marsh/Grange Wood.  We hope that some of you will be able to join us.  If you are interested please email jmgibson1959@btinternet.com to book your place.  A fee of £8 will be payable on the day please.