Blog Archives: WildEssex

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the height of Spring

It is the start of that precious time of year when the natural delights come so thick and fast that there is barely time to catch up, so this blog of my latest Meet the Wandering Naturalist event is necessarily short, mostly photos and few words. It was a lovely sunny day and the two walks attracted an amazing 35 interested visitors, who I hope all went away with the sight and sound of our garden wildlife etched on their brains and buzzing in their ears.

There are always superstar plats, and this time for bumblebees and Honeybees it was the Cistus and Allium species that were playing that role…

… whereas for hoverflies, beetles and pretty much everything else it was the various umbellifers and the Euphorbias, especially in the Reservoir Garden.

There were damselflies everywhere, especially but certainly not exclusively, round the ponds.

But really there was wildlife in every corner of the garden, from the Buzzards overhead to the singing Goldcrests, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, and everywhere invertebrate life…

There were butterflies and moths, including for one of the groups Green Hairstreaks on the Thyme and several Silver Y moths, the latter newly arrived immigrants …

… spiders, including a lurid Stretch Spider and a feisty crab spider Xysticus lanio

… Common Scorpion-flies

… a myriad of true flies ….

… beetles, including several types of soldier-beetle and a Red-headed Cardinal-beetle…

… and an array of true bugs, with Dock Bugs and Hairy Shield-bugs everywhere ….

… plus the best insect of the day, a single Bronze Shield-bug, a rather scarce bug in Essex and the first time it has been found here. Always surprises to be found!

If anyone wants to join me on a nature walk around the gardens, I will be doing just that (weather permitting!) on June 21, July 19, August 2, August 16 and September 20. Once you have paid to come in, the walk is free! Walks commence at 11AM and 12 noon each day, meeting at the Visitor Information Centre.  For garden entrance tickets and more information, visit our website Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, and do come expecting to want to buy some of the wildlife-attracting plants I will show you, as well as delicious tea and cakes!

Blogs of the previous Meet the Wandering Naturalist event this summer can be found here:

April: The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: among the April showers… | Chris Gibson Wildlife

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: bountiful, and beautiful, insects…

May sweeps in, and the focus for wildlife turns to the ponds and water margins. The first damselflies are out, darting everywhere, mating and making more for next year. Large Red and Azure Damselflies, along with Blue-tailed Damselflies (not photographed) are on the wing now, and the first dragonflies will be very soon.

Sharing the aquatic early stages of damselflies but in a completely different order of insects, Alder-flies have emerged in large numbers in the past week.

Lots of beetles are now out and about, from Lily Beetles to soldier beetles, click beetles and weevils…

… and the variety of butterflies is changing: Orange-tips are fading out while Peacocks are still going strong, and the first Speckled Woods and Holly Blues are now flying.

Flies, including parasite-flies, dance-flies and snail-killers are all over the garden, but especially attracted to Euphorbia …

… while bees are often more specialist, seeking the closed tubular flowers that other insects cannot penetrate. Apart from the Honeybees that go for anything that has either nectar or pollen or both…

Plant bugs have also come out in force with the warm weather – here are Dock Bugs, a Cinnamon Bug and orgies of Hairy Shield-bugs, with the results of their endeavours.

The first, tiny Dark Bush-crickets have appeared: amazing to think that after five skin-sheds they will be serenading warm summer evenings in the hedgerows.

And everywhere there is insect abundance, there are always things ready to exploit nature’s largesse: here, a Xysticus crab-spider and a Nursery-web Spider.

Everything shown above is more-or-less widespread and relatively common. But there are the rarities as well: this week has produced the garden’s second record of the White-clouded Longhorn beetle (the first, two years ago, was only the fourth Essex location in that last hundred years) and the Purple-loosestrife was covered in a leaf- beetle Galerucella calmariensis. When we looked up the Essex distribution map for this creature, we find it at only five previous locations, all of which are along the southern or western boundaries of the county.

And while not as scarce as the above two, it was great to find the Bishop’s-mitre (a plant bug that we see rather infrequently) and I was inordinately excited (as the gardeners will testify!) to spot a couple of Green Hairstreaks nectaring on the Thyme, my first of the summer and also my absolute favourite butterfly.

All this, and there are a few flowers to see as well!!

If anyone wants to join me on a nature walk around the gardens, I will be doing just that (weather permitting!) on May 17, June 21, July 19, August 2, August 16 and September 20. Once you have paid to come in, the walk is free! Walks commence at 11AM and 12 noon each day, meeting at the Visitor Information Centre.  For garden entrance tickets and more information, visit our website Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, and do come expecting to want to buy some of the wildlife-attracting plants I will show you, as well as delicious tea and cakes!

Tales from the Riverbank

 

All it takes is half an hour in the sun in early May, just a hundred metres from home, and our early morning stroll delivers a feast of wildlife delights!

 

 

Ceanothus was looking amazing, forming billowing blue clouds studded with pale gold stars, like a thousand EU flags. It may not be a native species, but it is certainly providing for our bees…

Moving to native plants, ‘Pocket plums’ – Taphrina fungal galls on Blackthorn’s developing fruit – were more numerous than we have ever seen before…. No sloe gin for us this year!

A micromoth Elachista argentella ‘unhiding’ in the grass, perhaps looking more like poo than food to a passing bird?

Sea Beet was feeding everything, from snails to dozens of Dock Bugs to 24-spot Ladybirds (one of the few herbivorous ones – are those it’s nibbling to its right? )…

And finally, best of all, quite reliable on one or two select Beet plants in early May, the incredible Neon-striped Tortoise-beetle. Two plants regularly feature them but not it seems the many others, perhaps showing just how constrained an insect’s life can be.

All these and our first Common Terns of the year clamouring upriver, and finally screaming Swifts, the wild spirits returning to the Shipyard skies.

 

#WildEssexWalks: The Bluebells of Wivenhoe Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always something special and interesting to find!

 

 

 

 

#WildEssexWalks: Cockaynes Reserve at the height of Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: among the April showers…

The weather wasn’t looking good for my first ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist‘ event of the year at the Beth Chatto Gardens today: frequent heavy rain and gusty winds made it touch-and-go (they are always advertised as ‘weather permitting’!). But in the event we were lucky: the torrential rain stopped half an hour before the walks commenced, and largely stayed away for the full two hours (despite some ominous thundercracks), with the sun even coming out for a few precious minutes.

Following the rain, the gardens were relatively quiet, so the 18 wanderers I took out on one or other of the walks were treated to some lovely bird sightings, all enfolded in the spring songs of Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Robins, Wrens and Chaffinches. There was a Mistle Thrush feeding on the lawns with the Blackbirds and the baby Moorhens, and for easy comparison, at least two Song Thrushes, apparently taking food repeatedly into a nest with hungry youngsters. And there was one or two further Song Thrushes singing, a very welcome return to form for this species that has suffered across the country from the overuse and misuse of slug pellets.

The gardens were looking wonderfully green after all the rain of the past three months …

… but with a sky-blue filigree snaking its way through the beds as we enter the peak time for Forget-me-not flowering. Often dismissed as a ‘weed’, this is genuinely beautiful, helping the weave together the floral themes in the different beds, and good for wildlife too, today being visited by Orange-tip and Green-veined White butterflies.

One other butterfly, and my very welcome first one of the summer, was a Speckled Wood, and also new for the year were the first few Large Red Damselflies, perhaps a week in advance of their usual appearance here.

There were Green Shield-bugs in several places, always hard to see because of their colour against a leaf, but never more so than on this Ligularia in which the reddened leaf-margins match the red highlights on the insect’s feet, antennae and abdomen.

While the spring greens are still the dominant hue, flowers are coming through and attracting insects, some of the most wonderful, extravagant blooms being the yellow Paeonia ‘Molly the Witch’ and electric blue pyramids of Scilla peruviana.

And that just leaves the centrepiece of the day, Judas-tree in the Reservoir Garden. Not only were its flowers at their absolute pink peak, especially dramatic when seen against the looming thundercloud, but also surrounded by insects. There were bumblebees and hoverflies, and swarms  of fearsome-looking but friendly, hairy, black, dangly-legged St Mark’s Flies. Traditionally emerging on St Mark’s Day (April 25th) they are almost a week early this spring. But they will be a very welcome feast for Swallows and martins when they arrive in force after their stressful trans-equatorial migrations over the next couple of weeks.

If anyone wants to join me on a nature walk around the gardens, I will be doing this all again (weather permitting!) on May 17, June 21, July 19, August 2, August 16 and September 20. Once you have paid to come in, the walk is free! Walks commence at 11AM and 12 noon each day, meeting at the Visitor Information Centre.  For garden entrance tickets and more information, visit our website Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, and do come expecting to want to buy some of the wildlife-attracting plants I will show you, as well as delicious tea and cakes!

 

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: rushing headlong into Summer!

What a wonderful day to wander round Beth Chatto’s Garden! The sun was shining, I was in shorts for the first time this year, and I could almost forgive and forget the vagaries of our spring so far…

Swallows twittering overhead, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps in full song, and there were Orange-tips everywhere (my first of the year) and Green-veined Whites newly emerged, joining the overwintered Peacocks, along with my first Hornet of the summer.

Insects were everywhere, the sheer bioabundance testament to the spring weather and tribute to the fact that we welcome (or at least live with) all-comers – pollinators, predators, chompers and parasites: we don’t kill the planet with pesticides in creating a beautiful garden.

A myriad of insects of all sorts, from beetles  …

… to flies: lots of hoverflies,  a couple of St Mark’s Flies, a wetland snail-killer Tetanocera ferruginea and a host of others ...

… to bees and wasps, including abundant evidence of nesting Tawny Mining Bees …

… to true bugs.

It seemed that every plant in the garden was being used in some way or another, for feeding, basking or mating but the greatest attractor of all on this day was the Perennial Candytuft, in the Scree Garden, next to and sheltered by Beth’s house:

 

All of the above are pretty widespread creatures, but as always, time spent looking and searching revealed some specialities that I have not, or only rarely, recorded in the garden before. First is a micromoth, a metallic glistening morsel with wingspan barely a centimetre, called Dyseriocrania subpurpurella. Its larvae live in blotch mines on Oak leaves, and while it is widespread throughout Essex, it is only the second time I have seen it here, possibly because the adult emerges in spring when so often the weather conditions are not conducive to flight.

The Slender Groundhopper is a very small grasshopper relative; groundhoppers are the only members of the grasshopper and bush-cricket group of insects (Orthoptera) that overwinter as adults. Although again widespread across Essex, especially around the muddy edges of ponds, this is the first time I have seen it in our garden.

And then a trio of true bugs, all also new to me as inhabitants of our garden. The Rhombic Leatherbug is a scarce south-eastern species, in Essex more or less restricted to Thames-side and the valley of the River Colne. The ground bug Trapezonotus desertus is found also across Essex, but with only a thin scattering of records: the Essex Field Club map shows only some ten localities. And finally, best of all, the spurge-bug Dicranocephalus medius: a very strongly southern species, this has only one spot on the Essex map (in the deep south) and we have seen it before only in west London.

Of course you cannot overlook the flowers and other plants. The ferns are rearing their reptilian croziers skyward …

… while the flowers span the turn of the seasons, from tulips to paeonies.

The overwhelming impression I had was of joy in the garden. I have never seen so many smiling happy people wandering around, for the first time in many months not having to keep one eye on the weather as they walk. And although the weather forecast is not so good, if anyone wants to join me on a nature walk around the gardens, I will be doing just that (weather permitting) at 11AM and 12 noon this coming Friday, 19 April, meeting at the Visitor Information Centre. Once you have paid to come in, the walk is free! Further ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist‘ events are also planned for May 17, June 21, July 19, August 2, August 16 and September 20. 

For tickets and more information, visit our website Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens

The Wild Side of Essex with Naturetrek: a windy Naze

Very strong, and unreasonably (given the direction) cold, southerly winds greeted our arrival at the Naze, an exposed headland and breezy at the best of times but particularly wind-lashed today, with sea-foam tumbling up the cliff. At least the forecast rain largely held off, for most of the morning it was sun and blue skies, and even got quite warm in the shelter of the scrub.

First it was down to the beach to make the most of the spring-tidal window. The cliffs of London Clay, Red Crag and loess are magnificent, actively eroding after the recent (indeed winter-long) rains, telling the story of the past 50 million years.

Pyritized wood and early glacial Crag fossils were scattered across the beach, and ash bands spoke of long-past volcanic episodes further north, with added interest from the modern shells: Portuguese Oysters, White Piddocks, Limpets and Slipper Limpets.

On the landslips Colt’s-foot was in flower, helping to feed the few solitary bees foolish enough to be on the wing.

A couple of Brent Geese fed along the tideline, while a mixed group of waders – Oystercatcher, Grey Plovers, Turnstones, Dunlins, Sanderlings and Ringed Plovers were hunkered down around the corner onto Stone Point, where a few bushes of nationally scarce Shrubby Seablite are still managing to cling on despite the battering from the waves.

Turning landward, the Gorse and Blackthorn scrub was in full flower, the latter especially floriferous this year, as seemingly everywhere. In shelter and sun, a few bumblebees and lots of Dark-edged Beeflies were foraging, along with several frisky Peacocks and a Comma.

Although birds were keeping well out of sight, there were Chiffchaffs singing everywhere, with maybe ten Cetti’ s Warblers (one seen) – their numbers seem to increase every year. A Song Thrush serenaded us, numerous Greenfinches called, sang and bounded around, and a surprisingly early House Martin flew through, riding the wind.

Small clumps of trees, probably remnants of the history of the Naze as an early 20th century golf course, included Sycamores, their beautiful purple-edged bud scales just bursting, with a couple of Hornbeams, oaks (with marble galls) and Silver Birches with Taphrina fungus witches’-broom galls. An active Badger sett under the White Poplars was unearthing the Red Crag below, and at least four male Muntjacs showed themselves, both mammals seemingly indifferent to the modern use for intensive dog-walking.

A final stroll through the scrub, the Gorse scenting the air with coconut, revealed larval webs of Brown-tail moths, a few patches of Stinking Iris (duly sniffed), Sunburst Lichens on the Elder bark and the last few ripe Ivy Berries. Alexanders, earning its keep in our lands, was in full bloom feeding early insects, and the local speciality Sea Hog’s-fennel was sprouting into fresh, green leaf among last summer’s umbel skeletons.

Pity about the wind, but it proved to be another good Naturetrek day-trip, full of all kinds of everything.

#WildEssexWalks: Signs of Spring around Alresford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From pollinator paradise to thriving ecosystem: Gardening with Wildlife in Mind

We all know that one secret of successful wildlife gardening is to provide nectar and pollen for all the insects that choose to visit. For lovers of the glorious diversity of garden plants, the good news is that natives and non-natives alike can perform this function for our native bees and other pollinators.

And in the garden context, where the choice of plants is limited only by soil and climate, then the gardener can actually improve upon nature, ensuring that nectar and pollen supplies are maintained year-round. In midwinter for example, the British countryside is simply not tooled up to provide those floral resources (except in the form of Gorse), but that of course is the very time that with climate change/collapse many insects are now remaining active, when in the past they would be in hibernation. Growing plants like Mahonia, Viburnum tinus and Sarcococca makes all the difference, to the insects and to our noses!

With this in mind, I recently contributed a blog to the Beth Chatto website, entitled  a Year-round pollinator plant menu, showcasing the role of gardens and gardeners in keeping out insects alive: https://www.bethchatto.co.uk/discover/our-blog/guides/year-round-pollinator-plant-menu.htm

But no gardener should rest on their Laurus nobilis and think that flowers for pollinators is all that is needed. There are many insects and other invertebrates that are not pollinators: they and the larval or nymphal stages of almost all insects are dependent on eating other things, whether that be leaves and roots or other insects…

Whereas insect pollinators are not always too fussy whether their nectar or pollen food comes from natives or non-natives, the same is not true generally for the leaf-munchers: here it is clear that native plants are generally preferred.  Any good wildlife garden will have a range of native plants in or around it. While virtually all plants have their specialist herbivores, there are a few types that punch above their weight and will hopefully be within insect flight distance of your garden: 

TREES: Oak, Willow     

SHRUBS: Hawthorn, Bramble  

HERBACEOUS PLANTS: Nettle, Dock, Dandelion, Bird’s-foot-trefoil

and a range of native grasses, especially if they are allowed to flower and not scalped to within an inch of their lives every three weeks!

With all the above in mind we are also embarking on a major project of adding a paragraph to the A-Z listing of plants on the Beth Chatto website to highlight their wildlife value, so now you can choose plants that are most beneficial to wildlife.

Look after the day-to day needs of insects, with food for both adults and early stages; water to drink, and sometimes to live in; shelter from inclement weather; and freedom from the bane of pesticides. These insects will then underpin the whole food chain, providing food for birds, and in many cases help to break down dead organic matter, recycling nutrients for the next round of plant growth: the cycle of life. Embrace the facts of predation and parasitism, death and decay, and you can then be happy your garden is truly an ecosystem and helping to save the planet.

The Wild Side of Essex with Naturetrek: winter by the Colne Estuary

Well, the weather hadn’t read the forecast, and the drizzle that had been expected late afternoon set in well before lunchtime – but thankfully the proper rain held off until we had completed our 12km circuit. And it followed hard on the heels of a very wet late January, and almost everywhere it was muddy, deep welly-sucking mud which we could escape only in the afternoon when we headed up onto the gravels that cap the Essex Alps.

We  set out first along the Wivenhoe Trail and around Ferry Marsh, to be met with the first in-your -face splash of colour, so welcome on a dull February day, from a magnificent fruiting body of Orange Brain Fungus:

Almost as arresting were the Sunburst Lichens festooning the bare branches along with other lichens, together with leaf-mines on the leaves of Holm Oak, Bramble and Holly, each one a micro-drama of life before our eyes.

Down by the Colne, the tide being well out, there were Teals on the water, a flyover Goosander, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Oystercatchers getting frisky. Three Black-tailed Godwits were feeding close to the sea wall, giving much better views than the birds we would see more numerously in the open estuary later on, while in a definite sign of spring a probable hybrid Prunus (it seemed more robust than Cherry Plum, normally the earliest in the genus to flower) was in full bloom.

The Wivenhoe waterfront produced its two botanical rarities of cracks in the block-paving, Jersey Cudweed and Four-leaved Allseed: although now familiar they have been with us only for about eight and five years respectively – and how they got here from southern enclaves is still unknown.

Past the Shipyard ad tidal surge barrier, into the open estuary, the mudflats widen rapidly, and waterbird numbers increase markedly, albeit at greater distance tan those upstream. Black-tailed Godwits were joined by Lapwings, Dunlins, Redshanks and eventually a tight bunch of Knots:

Avocets too, mingling with Shelducks and Teals …

…  and before too long the burbling of Brent Geese, as a couple of hundred flew off a distant field (perhaps spooked by a noisy military Chinook), over our heads and plonked down on the river in front of us. Cue frantic washing and feather-care, no doubt starting to prepare for their epic 4000 kilometre migration that could be under way in as little as a month. And turning our back reluctantly on the water, there was a Little Egret, a smart male Stonechat and singing Linnets on the grazing marsh.

A Song Thrush was an addition to the springy soundscape along the edge of Grange Wood, where we decided to take refuge from the drizzle for lunch (and half of my cheese sandwich was snaffled by a poorly controlled Cocker Spaniel). With the incessant mud-sploshing, I decided to vary the route, to head up to higher, drier ground, past a wonderful array of old oak pollards and coppice stools marking the boundary of the ancient wood.

Bluebell and Wild Arum leaves were spearing into the light, and the first Lesser Celandine flowers, albeit part-closed in the absence of sun.

On to the ancient trackway of Cutthroat Lane, the banks featured Butcher’s-broom, including a few leaves still bearing open flowers, while closer to habitation Snowdrops have snuck out of the gardens.

Finally into Cockayne’s Reserve, where the Sixpenny Brook was in full spate. It is such a surprise in ‘flat Essex’ to actually hear rushing water!

Hazels were flowering, the male catkins just starting to go over, while Siskins twittered in the Alders and a Mistle Thrush delivered its measured fluty song from the very top of the tallest tree.

A final wander along the Brook through Villa Wood, almost an afterthought, then turned for me into the highlight of the day: more Scarlet Elf-cups than I have ever seen fruiting before, having visited the site over 35 years.

Still the only north-east Essex site for this unmistakeable midwinter joybringer, I first found it here in 1986. On that visit, I was with the boss of the local gravel extraction company who had just won planning permission to excavate from under the ancient wood. He wanted me to advise how it could be done in sympathy with the environment: ‘don’t do it’ was not an option on the table! But he was so impressed by the sight of this locally rare fungus that plans were amended, Sand And Gravel Association restoration awards were received. And the rest is history: it is now an Essex Wildlife Trust reserve, and its flagship fungus is evidently thriving.

POSTSCRIPT!

I now have received details of the colour-ringed Avocet I photographed in front of Grange Wood from Dr Simon Cox. He writes ‘the Avocet you photographed was ringed in The Netherlands and has a transmitter (though battery now flat). This shows its route to Essex—Ed Keeble has seen it on the Stour several times at Mistley‘ and here are maps map of its movements (kindly supplied by the ringer, Petra Manche):

#WildEssexWalks – Wivenhoe Woods in Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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