Blog Archives: Cockaynes Reserve

High Summer in the Cockaynes Reserve

Back to Cockaynes Reserve after a few weeks, and it wasn’t the wholly shrivelled and droughted sight we feared. There has been some sporadic, occasionally hard, rain, and that has been enough to keep even the bare gravel areas with a semblance of green. Long gone are the early season Blinks and Smooth Cat’s-ear have gone, but these have been replaced by Sand Spurrey, Small Cudweed, Trailing St. John’s-wort and Hoary Cinquefoil.

Other flowers now blooming include Fleabane, soon to become one of the most important pollen and nectar resources on the reserve, Cow-wheat on the heathy slopes, and in the wet areas, Reedmace and (unfortunately) choking mats of New Zealand Pigmyweed.

Butterflies everywhere! (including the always elusive Purple Hairstreak). The June gap has passed….

As always there were lots of bees and wasps, including Bee-wolf and Green-eyed & Four-banded Flower-bees, endearing little bundles of high-pitched buzz:

And many other insects as well: the Broad-headed Bug is especially interesting locally, as this reserve is the only place we have found it. And just look at that bruiser of a Sicus ferrugineus – that’s why we call the Gargoyle Fly!

And also two sets of eggs: the semi-vacated barrels of Gorse Shield-bug, and a clutch of Drinker Moth eggs, all with small neat round holes, probably of an emerging parasite rather than the caterpillars.
Finally a few vignettes of nature from the always rewarding Cockaynes Reserve:
BirchLight
The understated beauty of Wood Sage in full bloom
Backlit Broom pods
And last but not least, is this a case of nymphal self-awareness? Does this tiny Squash Bug realise how its antennae and thighs meld into the necrotic margin of its chosen leaf?

Lockdown localism – finding rare and special invertebrates close to home

One of the advantages of COVID-19 lockdown has been having the time and opportunity to study our own local surroundings in detail, regularly throughout a three month period from spring into summer.

Birds are all well and good, but there are relatively few of them (our flat lockdown list amounted to just 83 species, although that did include White-tailed Eagle, Goshawk and Osprey…). Plants also – more of them, but the species don’t change much from week to week – the same species just become more, or less, obvious. So it was the invertebrates which occupied most of our time – myriads of species, lots to learn, and many are around for only a short period, the sort of creatures that could easily be missed in a ‘normal’ spring of weeks away in other parts of Europe.

So we have had an unprecedented opportunity to study the local insects and other invertebrates from mid-March right through to the end of June, all within a 5 km radius of Wivenhoe, widening only during the final two weeks to 30 km. We have seen many wonderful creatures, a good number new to us, and a surprising number new to this part of the world, even new to Essex, a useful contribution to the distribution mapping which is now undertaken for most groups.

Of course, for the less obvious groups, our knowledge of distribution is at best rudimentary, and the maps reflect more the distribution of observers who are capable of and can be bothered to report them. But, data are data, information is a resource, however imperfect. What follows is an account of some of our highlights, starting with those species which seem genuinely to be rare in north-east Essex at least, then those which are less scarce, (but still good to find, record and report), interspersed with galleries of some of the commoner ‘little things that helped make our world go round’ in lockdown. To demonstrate how localised some species are, or are recorded as being, I have incorporated some distribution maps from the Essex Field Club essexfieldclub.org.uk, a hugely important resource which is one of the many reasons why any active naturalist in the county should be a member. Maps are available for almost all groups of terrestrial invertebrates, the main omissions being beetles (sadly).

Rarest of the rare, new(ish) to Essex

Rarest of all are also two of the showiest, big black-and-red bugs, both new to Essex, and both familiar to us from trips to the continent. In mid May, next to Wivenhoe Ferry Marsh, we found an Ornate Shield-bug (below, left). This has become established in the British Isles only recently, first in the Channel Isles, and then in some extreme southerly coastal areas of Dorset, Hampshire, Isle of Wight and Sussex. Beyond these areas, it has turned up sporadically elsewhere in southern England and Wales, whether by natural spread or accidental introduction, although it has never previously been recorded from Essex. It now seems to be showing signs of wider colonisation, with recent records from as far north as Norfolk.

It is of course not possible to ascertain when or how it arrived in Wivenhoe, although the southerly airflow around the time of its discovery would have been conducive to natural dispersal. And with climate change, it may well be expected to extend its permanent range: suitable typical foodplants (Brassicaceae) are widespread. But flying here is not an option for the second discovery, Fire-bug (above, right) as it is wingless. We have reported its discovery in a previous blog, although as an update, we have subsequently learned of another Essex colonisation event, at Shoeburyness, over the past three years.

Nature’s barcodes – picture-winged flies 

A distinctive group of flies that can generally be differentiated by a combination of the plant they are inhabiting, and the details of ant pattern on the wings The first, Urophora stylata, encapsulates the ‘map problem’ well. Dependent upon very common plants (thistles), it is probably one of the commonest Essex picture-wings. But the map is full of holes, particularly in the north-west, where the concentration of active entomologists is lowest. Abundant in mid-June on ex-arable land north of Wivenhoe, in reality it may well be everywhere, notwithstanding the map showing only half a dozen locations east of Colchester.

In contrast, Orellia falcata does seem genuinely to be scarce in the county, indeed in the Essex Red Data Book and Nationally Scarce, restricted as it is to grasslands rich in its foodplant, Goat’s-beard. Our record from Lower Lodge is the only one from the north :

White Bryony is a subtly beautiful plant, the only native cucumber relative, and it too has has its specialist picture-wing, Goniglossum wiedemanni (ERDB, and NS again), seemingly a specialist of the Colne Valley. Interestingly, searching through our images showed we had recorded this (on Ballast Quay Lane, in 2015) but forgotten about it until this year’s sighting by the KGV playing field…

Not all ‘picture-winged flies’ have pictured wings. One such is the Phoenix Fly Dorycera graminum, a species on the UK Red Data List. Although widespread and coastal and riverine habitats in Essex, it is believed to have disappeared from some, maybe even many, of its Thameside sites due to development. Hence its inclusion in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, the aims of which are to maintain and enhance all known populations. We have previously found this a couple of times round Wivenhoe since 2015, and this year from both the KGV and 41 Acres.

Other Flies

One of the larger and more impenetrable groups of insects, the true, two-winged flies (Diptera) are an identification challenge. For some groups, like the picture-wings above, and the hoverflies, however, there are comprehensive identification guides available, even if identification sometimes relies on microscopic detail visible only in dead specimens. Our ethical entomologist principles don’t permit us to kill them for study, so if it cannot be done in any other way, it remains unidentified.

No such problems with a hoverfly which we found to be abundant, especially on the Alexanders flowers around Wivenhoe, early on in lockdown. Look at those eyes! Only two (related) UK species have those spotty eyes: this one is Eristalinus aeneus, the more strictly coastal of the two.

Similar to hoverflies, the thick-headed flies are often wasp-mimics, whose larvae live as internal parasites of bees and wasps. However the adults feed on nectar from Scabious among other species, hence our finding Conops quadrifasciatus around Lower Lodge, where, after a slow start (presumably due to drought), the Field Scabious has produced a field of scabious.

Some flies however do need specialist help, and we are grateful to Del Smith, Diptera Recorder for the Essex Field Club for confirming the next two. First is a dung-dweller Dryomyza anilis, which as the map shows is well scattered, but not previously recorded from Wrabness (and not yet on the map): fresh dog turds are an all-too-frequent substrate, but the smell presumably restricts biological recording activity.

No such unsavoury habits and habitats for the final one, Neurigona quadrifasciata, one of the long-legged flies (Dolichopodidae). An evanescent little wood-nymph we found in Wivenhoe’s Old Cemetery, ours is one of just two records in the north of the county.

Bees and wasps

Always fraught with identification difficulties, an awful lot of unusual Hymenoptera are probably hiding out there in plain sight. But the rarest, another new arrival in these parts, Andrena florea is easily recognised by its red markings, its specific food requirements – once again White Bryony – and its distinctive near-vertical posture as it delves deeply into the flowers. Strongly south-eastern, this is is on the national Red Data list, and its stronghold has long been the East Thames Corridor. North Essex and south Suffolk records have started to appear in the past couple of years, but we had never previously spotted it here despite much time spent starting at White Bryony by the KGV: it is one of Jude’s favourite flowers!

Another relatively recent arrival in these parts, which we saw first in 2019, is the Wool Carder-bee, sometimes very obvious as it defends woolly-leaved plants (such as Lamb’s-ears Stachys byzantina in gardens), from which it scrapes hairs to line its nests. By the Henrietta Close Recreation Ground, we came upon a thriving colony based around a patch of Black Horehound (below, left).

Green-eyed Flower-bee (above, centre) has been much more widespread than in previous years for us. Although not uncommon in Essex, the national map (from www.bwars.com) (below, left) shows how lucky we are to see it, being right at the northern extremity of its core distribution. Lucky to see such a lovely little furry bee, the males with striking green eyes, and to hear its distinctive, shrill buzz, often alerting us to its presence before it is spotted. This spring, we have located strong populations at Cockaynes Reserve, 41-Acres and the tiny Walter Radcliffe Road recreation area, at the latter site visiting Knapweeds in the thankfully unmown marginal strip. Those same flowers also supported several Moss Carder-bees (above, right), a declining, largely coastal bumblebee. seemingly almost, inexplicably. absent from the tidal Colne (below, right).

The rest of the Hymenoptera are equally, if not more, difficult to identify, but we were able to find and photograph the Red-banded Sand-wasp at Cockaynes, a species in Essex confined to the cost and remnant heathlands.

The final one is a sawfly, a group notoriously difficult to identify, not least because they lack any popular identification literature. Such a shame that, as they often have distinctive caterpillars, and the Elm Zig-zag Sawfly demonstrates this admirably: it does what it says on its name!

First recorded in the UK in 2017, this species does not (in common with sawflies generally) benefit from an Essex map. The national map (from species.nbnatlas.org) shows its current distribution extending from London in a swathe north-east to the north Norfolk coast, perhaps not in Essex at all. That is surely set to change, given its unmistakable nature: our record came from the delightful surrounds of the Alresford Old Church.

‘An inordinate fondness for beetles…’

God may have had that, hence creating so many, but he didn’t help us by making them easy to identify. And similarly, the Essex Field Club doesn’t help  – Coleoptera is the one major insect order not mapped on their website. And it would seem that such records as there are are not getting onto the National Biodiversity Network, as maps of even common species show alarming amounts of white space where Essex is…

So below is a selection of those identifiable species we feel are most important locally, in that we haven’t seen them here before:

(L to R) Water Ladybird, Adonis Ladybird, Watercress Leaf-beetle

(L to R) A large rove-beetle Tasgius morsitans, and three weevils Rhinophyllus conicus, Liophloeus tessulatus and Orchestes signifer, the latter a tiny leaf-miner with a death mask we found in Lower Lodge.

Lower Lodge was also the location for what may be our most significant record, the Welsh Chafer Hoplia philanthus. It seems to be missing from the national map from Essex, and a swathe westward, but in reality, who knows? Whatever, the photo shows clearly (albeit inadvertently) its clinching identification feature (thanks to Claudia Watts for pointing this out) – just a single tarsal claw.

True bugs

An increasing, spreading insect in southern Britain, first found in Essex in 2008, we have noticed the Box-bug around Wivenhoe for the past three years or so, as its food-plant range has extended, perhaps a result of climate change. This year, early May witnessed an unprecedented emergence here, seen in many a place around town, including numerous individuals on Yew in the churchyard.

The Blue Shield-bug is generally considered widespread in Britain, but the one we found around the Wivenhoe Gravel Pits was actually our first. And it is NOT easily missed, a shining blue-green jewel of a creature. And actually, as so often, the map shows only a small handful of sites in the north-east of Essex.

Another increasing bug is Closterotomus trivialis, an arrival from southern Europe to London first in 2008. We initially found it in the Beth Chatto Gardens last year, and it was present there in force when the gardens reopened in June. Embarrassingly, we neglected to submit the record in 2019, and so the only locality shown on the map is around Harlow. We suspect in truth it is much more widespread – part of its incognito nature may be that it isn’t currently featured on the otherwise excellent British Bugs website gallery www.britishbugs.org.uk.

Another new arrival (or recolonist) in Britain is Stictopleurus punctatonervosus. In Essex it is primarily an insect of thistles in the East Thames Corridor, and we have not yet found it around Wivenhoe. However, we did come across it in rough grassland in Little Maplestead, a part of the county in which records are few and far between.

Finally, to the hompteran bugs (aphids, planthoppers, froghoppers and the like). One of the more readily identifiable is the Bracken Planthopper, restricted to that foodplant and very distinctive in appearance. As Bracken is the most widely-distributed plant in the world, the bug should perhaps be found everywhere. However, the map suggests otherwise. Three of the four sites we recorded it in lockdown (Wivenhoe Wood, 41 Acres and Cockaynes) are close to one of the spots on the map, but the other (Wrabness Nature Reserve) is a significant range extension.

Grasshoppers and their relatives

The early summer period neatly avoids the time when grasshoppers and bush-crickets are adult in the UK, but fortunately for our lockdown surveys, the nymphs are generally present from April and readily identifiable.

Once almost entirely restricted to the immediate coastal fringes, especially sea walls,  of Essex and Kent, Roesel’s Bush-cricket (above, left) has expanded its range over the past 30 years to occupy almost the whole of England. However, Great-green Bush-cricket (above, centre) has not followed in its footsteps. Inexplicably missing from the middle and upper reaches of the Colne, apart from one small area of East Donyland, we found this nymph at its ‘traditional’ site of Wrabness Nature Reserve.

But there is a small group of little-known, rather secretive grasshopper-relatives, the groundhoppers, which can be found as adults throughout the season. And we found both of the Essex species, Common Groundhopper (below, left) from Cockaynes and Slender Groundhopper (below, right) from 41 Acres.

Both species are widespread across Essex, the Slender being especially associated with valleys and damp grassland.

Odds and Ends

Just a few of the more exciting creatures we found were invertebrates, but not insects, while others were insects, but we didn’t see the insects themselves, just their galls, the distinctive growths they cause when they attack specific plants.

Spiders are now much easier to identify than before, given the new WILDGuides book on Britain’s Spiders. However, a small jumping-spider with distinctive, enlarged front legs in Villa Wood, Cockaynes Reserve, did require national expert Peter Harvey to confirm its identity as Ballus chalybeius. Nationally Scarce, this is strongly south-eastern in core distribution, and we are pretty much at the northern end of its main range.

Slugs and snails are not one of our main areas of interest, but three hours after a major thunderstorm in Stour Wood, Wrabness, we became aware of lots of small slugs crawling over the tree trunks. We identified them as Tree Slugs Lehmannia marginata, and much to our surprise, the map shows a rather sparse distribution in Essex, the eastern outlier of which is actually Stour Wood.

As far as galls are concerned, the two which we found for the first time (for us) are both relatively recent invaders to the UK, and probably scarce in the county, although maps are not available to confirm that. On the edge of Ferry Marsh, a small twisted, gall-ridden tree (at least half a dozen species of gall-causer on it) in March revealed the Barnacle Galls of Andricus sieboldii (below, left) (thanks to Jerry Bowdrey, Essex Field Club Gall Recorder for identification), and Turkey Oaks on the University campus in June were covered in the (hard) currant-like galls of Andricus grossulariae (below, right), one that was first found in Britain as recently as 2000.

Both gall-causers are minute gall-wasps, almost impossible to tell apart if one sees the wasps, but their distinctive galls are proof positive, beyond doubt.

And finally …. Moths & Butterflies

Moth-trapping has been largely out of the question, but we have been enjoying the early-season day-flying macromoth species, four of which are rather sparsely distributed in Essex, but have accompanied many a walk of ours.

(L to R) Speckled Yellow (Cockaynes), Mother Shipton (Lower Lodge), Small Yellow Underwing (Lower Lodge and Barrier Marsh) and Burnet Companion (Cockaynes and Barrier Marsh)

Many micromoths, despite their usually small size, are as attractive as the larger species, and often also of considerable interest by virtue of their localised distributions. Three we have noted specifically are shown below.

We have known the Brassy Longhorn Nemophora metallica around Lower Lodge for some three years, although this location has not yet made it onto the map which shows just two other Essex sites. It is dependent upon Scabious, itself rather infrequent in our grassland-impoversished county, and once the Scabious bloomed after the early season drought, the moth was more abundant than ever.

Also around Lower Lodge, Hogweed umbels proved a good spot to look for the beautiful tortrix moth Pammene aurana. Although regarded as common, the map probably reflects its true status as it is easy to spot and identify: ours, not yet on the map, is only the second recorded site in north-east Essex.

Another beautiful and distinctive micro is Dasycera olivella, which ‘regales’ under the uninspiring English name of Scarce Forest Tubic. Nationally Scarce, this is found sporadically across (mainly) south-east England, and we have found it in previous years around Wivenhoe. But this year, we did come across it only further inland, around Little Maplestead, actually away from its previously known range in the coastal half of the county.

And so to the butterflies. When I started working in Essex 30 years ago, charismatic woodland butterflies were almost a distant memory, apart from White Admirals just clinging on in Stour Wood. For some unknown reason, possibly linked to climate change, that all changed about 15 years ago, and White Admirals are now to be found throughout the wooded parts of the county. Then around 10 years ago, Silver-washed Fritillaries followed suit, and within the past five years, the most impressive of all, Purple Emperor, has continued the trend. Towards the end of June we marked the end of tight lockdown by visiting Stour Wood, where the Admirals and Fritillaries were, as expected, in full force, and  we were thrilled to see a female Emperor as well, apparently (we learned later) the first re-colonist of this wood. Just a pity we didn’t see the male reported and photographed the same day by a friend of ours!

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.