Blog Archives: WildEssex

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: September sunlight

The past two weeks of unprecedented September heatwave since my previous Wandering Naturalist event have continued to prove one thing: we have changed our climate and will continue to do so unless we turn things around very quickly. Climate change (or as we should be thinking, climate collapse) is made up of shorter-term weather effects and the recent heat has certainly brought the season to a close for many plants in the garden. Likewise, the diversity of insect types is declining, although the numbers of Honeybees, bumble-bees and carder-bees in particular is still rising, presumably as their nests continue to grow. Hornets too, but not generally visiting the flowers themselves: they are working their way around the flowers trying to catch insects which they kill with a sting and take back to their nests to feed to their developing grubs.

The daisy family is really taking over as the main provider of nectar and pollen resources to the bees and a whole host of other insects, and will remain so now until the first frosts:

And a major addition in the Reservoir Garden since the last walk has been the opening of Phacelia flowers, now literally buzzing with life! A great species this to improve the wildlife-friendliness of any garden, they will self-seed merrily into any gaps.

Of course bees and the like are not the only creatures we want to encourage. Lots of others make up the garden food-web, as pollinators, predators, parasites, decayers, food for others and generally providing the services needed to turn a garden into an ecosystem. Just a few examples  are ladybirds, flesh-flies, parasite-flies and harvestmen:

Some dragonflies and damselflies also go on well into the autumn, though most of the summer species have now expired. Those we are likely to see for some time yet are Ruddy Darters and Willow Emeralds (both of which we saw mating), with a few Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers that didn’t hang around to be photographed.

And so to the butterflies and moths: during the two hours, good numbers of at least seven butterfly species were seen, taking advantage especially of Buddleia and Verbena.

Notable was a brand-new generation of  Green-veined Whites, along with two species of renowned migrant to our shores, at this stage of the year as likely to be progeny of spring immigrants rather than new arrivals: Painted Lady butterfly and a couple of Hummingbird Hawk-moths, always a delight to watch working their favoured flowers (today, Buddleia):

And all of the above set to a constant twittering background of migrating Swallows overhead, no doubt catching some of our insects to fuel their trans-equatorial flights to come, plus the squeaks of Meadow Pipits and Siskins, birds just arriving here from the far north-east to take up their winter haunts.

So summer may be over but the garden goes on, and will continue to do so until the weather turns much cooler; there are still plenty of flowers still to come and feed our creatures!

If anyone would like to join me in the garden looking at its wildlife, I am planning on repeating this walk (weather permitting) for the last time this year on 29th September, between 1100 and 1300. No need to book, just come to the garden (normal entry price – see our website for details) and ask at the Visitor Information Centre where I will be and when, and come along and find me! Nearer the time, if the weather is looking at all dodgy, please feel to contact me using the Contact tab above to check it is likely to be running.

Blogs of previous events in this series can be found at:

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: a butterfly bonanza! | Chris Gibson Wildlife

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the steamy jungles of Essex!! | Chris Gibson Wildlife

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the slide into Autumn… | Chris Gibson Wildlife

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: after the rain…….. | Chris Gibson Wildlife

Each one is fully illustrated with photos taken on the day; if anyone wants to know the identity of anything depicted, please feel free to contact me through the Contact tab.

Visit the Beth Chatto Gardens and be inspired to Rewild your Mind!

#WildEssexWalks – evening in the Wrabness Nature Reserve

‘Hunting High and Low’ – those elusive bush-crickets kept us searching during our lovely stroll, in beautiful evening sunshine, this week.  We knew that the Wrabness Nature Reserve was a hot spot for the glorious Great Green Bush-cricket, but sadly none were seen in the flesh.  Younger members of the group  (and Tim Gardiner, Essex Recorder for Orthoptera – grasshoppers and bush-crickets – who we met very fortuitously) assured us they were there in number, singing away, but it came with rather a shock that most of us ‘oldies’ couldn’t hear them….a well-known phenomenon that as we age we lose the ability to hear certain high frequencies/pitches. Luckily Chris had his trusty bat detector with him which was able to pick up the songs, not only this species but also Dark and Roesel’s Bush-crickets and so we all managed to listen in, even if only by remote! And all is not quite lost – later in the evening, perhaps as it was cooling, the song of some individuals did pop into our consciousness…

We did manage to see a couple of members of this group of charismatic insects, the well-camouflaged Speckled Bush-cricket and the tiny, compact Common Groundhopper.

That aside, there was plenty to enjoy – Wrabness Nature Reserve, managed by Essex Wildlife Trust (who will receive a donation from us for this event), has had a chequered history. From its early days as a mine depot it has been subject to all manner of planning applications, including for a prison, but thankfully all were rejected and it is now in safe hands, for the enjoyment of all, and somewhere that is called home by millions of plants, invertebrates as well as birds and mammals.

Below is a selection of the delights we met on our travels. Birds were singing their evening songs, and we caught a fleeting glimpse of a Turtle Dove as it flew over a hedge, while down the estuary, the air was filled with the evocative liquid bubbing of Curlews, and Redshanks, Dunlins, Grey Plovers and Turnstones fed at the water’s edge.

Apart from Orthoptera, other insects we chanced upon included a Buff Footman moth and one of the largest leaf-beetles Chrysolina bankii:

Reflecting no doubt the rather damp midsummer period, berry-bearing bushes were laden with the bounties of autumn:

And not only fruits, but also galls (here, Knopper Galls on Oak,  Sputnik Gall and Robin’s Pincushion on Rose) and microfungi (Sycamore Tar-spot and Willow Rust)….

… while as a foretaste of what may prove to be an excellent fungus season, we also found a troop of earthballs:

Which just leaves the flowers, of which there were many important sources of late-season nectar and pollen for our insects. As a brownfield site that has been allowed to naturally re-wild, the plants are a wonderful diverse, multicultural mix of species from all round the world, important native species like Red Bartsia and Common Toadflax intermixed with Broad-leaved Everlasting-pea and  a host of others of garden origins.

Our guest Co-Leader Eleanor (when she wasn’t eating blackberries!) took on the role of Assistant Photographer, and here are some of her efforts…

As always many thanks to our interested group for taking part and hope to see you all again soon.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: after the rain……..

Heavy drizzle preceded the fourth in my series of  ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist’ sessions in the Gardens, and although it stopped ten minutes before the start, the first walk was still a pretty sodden affair. Not that it prevented several interested visitors joining me strolling around and looking at nature…

… and realising how lucky we were, given the ring of lowering clouds all round!

Flying insects were relatively few and far-between, most sitting around forlornly, only the bumble- and carder-bees, safely wrapped in their fur coats, creating a buzz in the borders, with Nepeta, Hylotelephium, Salvia yangii, Caryopteris and Vitex agnus-castus being especially sought out.

With a hungry nest to provision, Hornets were busy flying around and entering their nest in a hollow Cherry tree, although the nest entrance was tantalisingly out of sight; however the occupants of one of the above-ground-nesting wasp species (perhaps Median Wasp) remained quiescent.

And even if the insects were few, there were always the rampant scentscapes to enjoy, as always after rain, along with the twittering of House Martins and Swallows migrating overhead and the plaintive autumn song of Robins starting to swell, and of course the displays of rain-drops on many a plant, especially the mercurial spattering on Alchemilla:

During the second hour though the weather changed markedly. The sun came out and turned the garden into a sweltering, humid cauldron, with butterflies (seven species) and dragonflies (three species) responding immediately:

Echinacea, Rudbeckia, Eupatorium, Scabiosa and Foeniculum quickly became the focus for foragers, bees and hoverflies especially, but also a whole lot more …

… and of course for predators keen on making a meal of the pollinators …

… as well as other lookers-on:

Summer may be ending but the garden goes on; there are still plenty of flowers still to peak, to brighten up our lives and deliver their sustenance to the natural world:

If anyone would like to join me in the garden looking at its wildlife, I am planning on repeating this walk (weather permitting) on both 15th and 29th September, between 1100 and 1300. No need to book, just come to the garden (normal entry price – see our website for details) and ask at the Visitor Information Centre where I will be and when, and come along and find me! Nearer the time, if the weather is looking at all dodgy, please feel to contact me using the Contact tab above to check it is likely to be running.

While one can never predict what nature will deliver, I imagine it will be the copious nectar and pollen sources of members of the daisy family Asteraceae, together with Hylotelephium ice-plants in the gravel areas and flowering Ivy in the hedges that will be sustaining insect life. Birds could be heading south overhead and maybe the first fungi of autumn will be sprouting. So much to look forward to!

Blogs of previous events in this series can be found at:

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: a butterfly bonanza! | Chris Gibson Wildlife

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the steamy jungles of Essex!! | Chris Gibson Wildlife

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the slide into Autumn… | Chris Gibson Wildlife

Each one is fully illustrated with photos taken on the day; if anyone wants to know the identity of anything depicted, please feel free to contact me through the Contact tab.

Visit the Beth Chatto Gardens and be inspired to Rewild your Mind!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the slide into Autumn…

What a difference a couple of weeks makes! Compared with my previous walk The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the steamy jungles of Essex!! | Chris Gibson Wildlife, the third in my series of  ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist’ sessions in the Gardens coincided with a rather dull, blustery day; that and the advancing season combined to reduce the insect activity substantially. Nevertheless, there was more than enough for all who joined me strolling around and looking at nature.

Butterflies in particular were well down from their superabundance of the past month, with just a few Small Whites, Holly Blues, Gatekeepers and Red Admirals on show.

And the available insect food sources have moved on with the season.  Buddleia, Lavandula and Eryngium are all but over (though where any flowers remain they are still exerting strong attraction) ……

… Bistorta, Nepeta and Origanum are perhaps starting to fade but a major draw nonetheless ….

… and now the daisy family is really beginning to assert itself as a force in the garden. Echinacea in particular is a magnet for bees, hoverflies and many more.

Of course we are lucky to have the space and different ground conditions to grow plants that provide sequential nectar and pollen resources through the year, and at the moment there is a whole host of others sharing the  role:

Honeybees, bumblebees and hoverflies are among the most numerous of insect visitors …

… while parasitic tachinid flies also seem to be especially abundant at the moment. While often overlooked, their role in parasitising lepidopteran and other larvae cannot be overstated. The more the garden supports predators and parasites, the more its insect abundance (what some may call ‘pests’) are kept in check without recourse to poisons. Let’s hear it for our army of tachinids, ladybirds and wasps!

Dragonflies, damselflies and bush-crickets are also part of this predator realm, albeit relatively minor players numerically. This normally camouflaged Speckled Bush-cricket showed up remarkably well on the vivid Lythrum flowers …

… and damselflies included both the typical late-season Willow Emerald and this beautiful lilac-fronted form of Blue-tailed Damselfly, echoing the colours of its chosen perch.

But the bonus from their being fewer insects on show was that there was more time to talk about other wildlife, plants in particular. Coming into late summer, many are in fruit, and none is more distinctive than the unique churro-like seeds of Meadowsweet:

And although it may be a stretch too far to call planted plants ‘wildlife’, certainly anything that has embraced its wild side by spreading itself around the garden deserves that name. In the Gravel Garden, Fox-and-Cubs is doing that in such an artistic way that surely Beth would have approved…

… while in the same area, Sickle-leaved Hare’s-ear weaves its filigree fronds as a golden thread, linking the beds thematically and also through the years: once native to Essex, and only to Essex, when its habitat was threatened by roadworks half century ago it was rescued by a band of botanists – and it is likely that some of the seed came into Beth’s hands, and garden.

If anyone would like to join me in the garden looking at its wildlife, I am planning on repeating this walk (weather permitting) on 1st September, between 1100 and 1300. No need to book, just come to the garden (normal entry price – see our website for details) and ask at the Visitor Information Centre where I will be and when, and come along and find me! Nearer the time, if the weather is looking at all dodgy, please feel to contact me using the Contact tab above to check it is likely to be running.

While one can never predict what nature will deliver, my guess is that with the end of the season firmly in sight, it will be the copious nectar and pollen sources of members of the Asteraceae and also just-now-opening ice-plants of the genus Hylotelephium (perhaps better known as Sedum) that will be sustaining late breeding attempts and provisioning others for hibernation.

Blogs of previous events in this series can be found at:

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: a butterfly bonanza! | Chris Gibson Wildlife and

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the steamy jungles of Essex!! | Chris Gibson Wildlife

Visit the Beth Chatto Gardens and be inspired to Rewild your Mind!

#WildEssexWalks – an evening with trees and bats in Wivenhoe Park

Towards the end of a sunny summer day, #WildEssex headed for Wivenhoe Park, home of the University of Essex. Landscaped around Wivenhoe House in the mid-18th century, the park boasts lakes and grassland, some now commendably being allowed to bloom through the season, providing for both flowers (like Common Knapweed) and insects, here the galls in thistles formed by the picture-winged fly Urophora cardui ….

…. but most importantly, a collection of magnificent trees from all over the world. The oldest, native Pedunculate Oaks, certainly pre-date the hall, and provide habitat for all sorts of wildlife, including cracks and crevices for roosting bats, as we saw at the end of the walk.

This summer all the oaks are afflicted by Knopper Galls, taking the place of the acorns, in densities greater than we have ever seen before. The Jays may go hungry this autumn, although the also very abundant beechmast may help compensate.

Other exotics included Red Oaks, Mulberry and Walnut, the latter with the most wonderful sweet smell when its leaves are scrunched. So too with the many conifers, Coast Redwood with the most invigorating resinous aroma, mixing bitter oranges with parsley. Much more alluring than the other two of the redwoods of the world, Giant and Dawn Redwoods, also featuring in the park, or the north African Atlas Cedar and mid-USA Swamp Cypress: all have distinctive scent but none as memorable as Coast Redwood.

A  Cedar-of-Lebanon, de-rigueur for every aristocratic house in centuries past droops gracefully outside the main entrance, and in the same area there are groves of the more prosaic Horse-chestnut (aka Conker Tree). These two species do however share one feature: they are nowadays very rare, endangered even, in their aboriginal habitats, the mountains of the Middle East and Cyprus, and the Caucasus respectively. Thank goodness for parks, gardens and arboreta, Arks to help species from seriously troubled parts of the world survive into the future.

As the sun set around a quarter past eight,  twilight soon descended and we set up camp by the lower lake to await the emergence of bats. It started slowly but within an hour, just before it was fully dark, we were among them in abundance, between the trees, overhead and over the water. With the bat detectors we recorded mainly Soprano Pipistrelles, but also Common Pipistrelles and Daubenton’s Bats joining the feeding frenzy, a wonderful end to a lovely walk.

That’s it now for #WildEssex in August. Our next planned trips are to Wrabness Nature Reserve 4 September (also an evening trip) and Brightlingsea on 18 September, our annual charity event, this time supporting the wonderful work of Springmead Garden.

Late Summer at Landguard Point

It was a perfect summer day for a short foot-ferry trip from Harwich to Landguard Point…

The Harbour was millpond-still, overseen by huge blue skies and dramatic cloudscapes:

Waves lapped gently on the shingly shores as the port activities clanked softly in the background…

Out on the Common, most  flowering was over, apart from Sea Mayweed and Sticky Groundsel now at their peak …

…  with Rest-harrow erupting from the Rabbit-grazed turf and Yellow Horned-poppies still sending out blooms that flutter in the slightest breeze.

Otherwise it was the fading delights of a floral summer:

Duke-of-Argyll’s Tea-plant, as so often simultaneously flowering and fruiting, its goji berries having survived the depredations of superfood hunters and birds alike:

Some magnificent Robin’s Pincushions, galls caused by tiny wasps, adorned the Dog-roses, while several much larger Sand Wasps were provisioning their nests in the shingle:

A couple of mating Common Blues posed well, although the star insects – Dune Villa fly and Jersey Tiger moth –  were simply too fast in the mounting heat, and evaded the camera.

All this and more, including on the Essex side of the Haven, the mean streets of Harwich, nowadays lined with Shaggy Soldiers, a street-plant that wasn’t there a decade or so ago when we lived in the area…

… and the  biodiverse, bounteous, blooming beauty of brownfields: a magic multicultural mix of species from all over the world, today thronged in Small White butterflies!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: the steamy jungles of Essex!!

Yesterday it was the second of my ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist’ sessions in the Gardens – strolling around and looking at wildlife (insects in particular) for a couple of hours and showing it to any interested visitors.

Insect abundance was not quite as great as the first, two weeks ago, and many of the butterflies were distinctly worse for wear after the downpours of the past week, but there was more than enough to fill our time, helped by the sultry, warm, humid, still weather, more jungle than Essex summer. Much better weather in fact than the forecast for thundery showers – the sun was patchy, but very warm when out, a thunderclap mid-morning preceded a very light shower until five minutes after the session finished when the heavens opened with what was probably the spikiest rainstorm of an already wet summer.

The star performers plant-wise were Bistorta and Lavandula, especially for wasps/hoverflies and bees respectively, and Origanum for the whole spectrum of insects. And the favourites from last time, Eryngium and Buddleia, although fading fast still have serious pulling power…

But of course these plants were only a small selection of the resources on offer to our insects, as the photos below show:

Showiest of all the insects of course were the butterflies, with 14 species logged, including a major emergence of second-brood Holly Blues, although the very best, a stately Silver-washed Fritillary didn’t hang around for a photo!

Hoverflies too were everywhere, and included two of our largest species Volucella zonaria (Hornet Hoverfly) and Volucella inanis, among numerous other species…

… along with other flies from a whole range of families:

Honeybees, bumblebees and wasps, including the locally scarce Median Wasp on Ruta, as seems to be usual, added to the pollinating hordes…

… along with less celebrated but no less important pollinators such as beetles.

Of course not all insects are subsisting solely on nectar and pollen: in our garden jungle there are also predators. Below is Kite-tailed Robber-fly with a Marmalade Hoverfly dinner and a Bee-wolf wolfing a bee!

When flowers are on offer, it is always too easy to overlook other wildiife action around the garden, or perhaps more aptly ‘inaction’, sitting around on the foliage basking, looking for food, or nesting…

So, another wonderful two hours immersed in the Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens …

If anyone would like to join me in the garden looking at its wildlife, I am planning on repeating this (weather permitting) on 18th August and 1st September, between 1100 and 1300 each day. No need to book, just come to the garden (normal entry price – see our website for details) and ask at the Visitor Information Centre where I will be and when, and come along and find me!

While one can never predict what nature will deliver, my guess is that, as we slide gently towards autumn, it will be members of the daisy family such as Echinacea and Eupatorium that we will be celebrating next time!

Visit the Beth Chatto Gardens and be inspired to Rewild your Mind!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: a butterfly bonanza!

Last week, I held the first of my ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist’ sessions in the Gardens – strolling around in the sun, looking at wildlife for a couple of hours and showing it to any interested visitors. An awful job, but someone has to do it! And the discussions and questions covered a whole series of topics from choosing the right plants to attract butterflies and how to identify the insects in the garden, right down to the practicalities of managing Phormium.

And quite fortuitously, this session coincided with what was the best day for butterflies and other insects I have ever experienced in the garden in 30 or more years of visiting it. At least 15 species of butterfly, some in their hundreds, plus a whole raft of others, from moths to bees, flies and dragonflies made for a very entertaining and engaging morning.

Insects were everywhere, but as always there were a number of stand-out plant performers., one being the Butterfly-bush Buddleia davidii, especially the one in the Scree Garden, next to the fast-fading Buddleia crispa on the house wall, a star performer earlier in the month.

At one time I estimated a couple of hundred individual butterflies of eight species around this one bush: it was almost like a window back into my youth, that almost-forgotten time when in my mind’s eye every Buddleia was covered in butterflies all summer long.

Especially in the Gravel Garden, plants in the mint family Lamiaceae were those drawing in the pollinators. A carpet of Teucrium x lucidrys was literally humming with bumblebees, perhaps 20 in a couple of square metres, many deep within the foliage, giving themselves away by vibrating the shoots….

Together with Origanum, Thymus, Betonica and Lavandula, this family fills the garden with life, sound, movement and scent, with Brown Argus butterflies and Mint Moths in addition to the more numerous species.

In the damper areas of the Water Garden, it was the genus Bistorta doing the heavy lifting, with social wasps and Honeybees in vast numbers:

And so to the Reservoir Garden and the star performers to beat them all, Eryngium. At their very peak, the sea-hollies (especially Eryngium planum ‘Blaukappe’) were covered in an array of bees, wasps (including dramatic Bee-wolves), beetles, butterflies and lacewings, greenbottles, tachinid flies and hoverflies, including the very largest, the Hornet Hoverfly.

Particularly in the latter part of the summer, it is members of the daisy family Asteraceae that will take over lead responsibility for feeding the flocks, and all through the gardens this is starting to happen, including Hummingbird Hawk-moths on Cirsium.

Aside from all the plants mentioned above, so numerous were the insects that they were visiting the whole range of available flowers. A Brimstone enjoyed Dianthus, and Small Whites were frisking and frolicking wantonly on the Verbena

Deep in the day-lilies, hoverflies were browsing on pollen. Although we usually think of flies supping nectar, they do need a pollen meal to get the nutrients needed for sexual maturation, and of course this contact with pollen is what makes them as valuable as bees for pollination.

And then on the Ruta flowers, and only those specific flowers so far as we could see, several examples of a large, unfamiliar wasp. These were Median Wasps, first found in Britain in 1980 and spreading, albeit still uncommon in Essex.

Of course, flowers are not everything, and there were invertebrates everywhere, including several Willow Emerald damselflies and an impressive Labyrinth Spider.

Readers of these blogs may remember one from 2020 Murder at the Garden Pond: Thalia dealbata – the (not very) beautiful assassin | Chris Gibson Wildlife. This detailed the antisocial, pollinator-killing habits of Thalia dealbata, and led to my increasing involvement with the Beth Chatto Gardens. One of the talking points during my garden session was this, as the ‘killing fields’ had just been initiated as the flowers opened. However, very much to their credit, the staff were straight in there removing the flower-stalks, to save the insects from a lingering death while allowing the stately beauty

If anyone would like to join me in the garden looking at its wildlife, I am planning on repeating this (weather permitting) on 4th August, 18th August and 1st September, between 1100 and 1300 each day. No need to book, just come to the garden (normal entry price – see our website for details) and ask at the Visitor Information Centre where I will be and when, and come along and find me!

Marvellous moths morning at Beth Chatto Gardens – late July

Our second ‘Moth Morning’ of the year at Beth Chatto’s was a great success! The first one (see here) a few weeks ago had turned out to be rather disappointing moth-number-wise, so we were doubly delighted by the number of winged beauties that graced our trap this time.

We set the trap on a reasonably warm night, and luckily Chris’ Heath Robinson waterproof cover was assembled ‘just in case’. Although the BBC forecast 0% chance of rain, we had a huge shower late evening, which would have proved fatal for an unprotected hot bulb! The following morning we arrived to find the trap cover and surrounding sheets dotted with moths of all shapes and sizes and a quick peek in the trap itself was very encouraging.

Our group who had signed up for the morning event were pleased and interested to see the moths as they were unveiled from the trap one by one. See here Beth Chattos moth morning 22 July 2023 for the full list of species; clear highlights were Elephant Hawk-moth, several Rosy Footmen and a Ruby Tiger, all in their red and pink shades:

Naturally there were plenty of ‘standard’ brown moths like this Dun-bar, but even some of those were remarkably colourful. We have never seen such a richly marked Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing before…

Yellow-brown shades came from Scalloped Oak and Buff Ermine…

… while largely white ones included Least Carpet, Clouded Border and Brown-tail.

We didn’t concentrate too much on micros, although there were several Ringed and Small China-marks (reflecting the proximity of the ponds) and three species of small ermine (Willow, Spindle and Apple Ermine).

And finally from the trap, two views of a pristine Pebble Prominent, one to show its namesake prominent scales in profile and the second to show its remarkable camouflage against a woody backdrop.

In the event a total of some 40 species of macromoths plus a dozen or so micros were logged, and released unharmed. To these we must add the ‘bycatch’ of  green lacewings, caddisflies and a tiny, rather attractive non-biting midge Microtendipes pedellus. Why remark on this? Well, it seems to be very scarce in Essex indeed, the Essex Field Club distirbution map showing only two previous locations, neither of which is anywhere near us!

One bonus of these Moth Mornings is that our group has exclusive access to the garden between 9 and 10am. We had hoped for a sun-dappled, warm morning – the reality was dull, overcast and unseasonably chilly – but at least no rain (unlike later in the day!)…

We spent a very enjoyable hour walking around the garden, looking at plants that were attracting insects even at that early hour and in somewhat adverse conditions.

There were bumblebees, Honeybees and social wasps  galore, especially among the Bistortas, and a range of hoverflies, including the largest of all (if rather fleetingly) the Hornet Hoverfly. Pond-life was represented by Willow Emerald and Blue-tailed Damselflies:

Our personal favourites the true bugs were represented by some ‘teenage’ Green Shield-bugs and a Tarnished Plant-bug, and the galls by some emerging knoppers on developing acorns:

… while the few early butterflies included Red Admirals and Gatekeepers, and a confiding Brown Argus.

And to complement the moth trap, we found some ‘free-range’ moths, including Latticed Heath on the Eryngium,  the case of a tiny base-bearer Coleophora sp., one of the ‘bird-poo micros’  White-backed Marble, and best of all the Scarce Forest Tubic, an uncommon moth in Essex and the country as a whole, typically an inhabitant of ancient woodlands.

If you are interested in such events, please keep an eye on the Beth Chatto website for similar events next spring and summer. Provisional dates are 22nd June 2024 and 20th July 2024. These are run by and in support of the Beth Chatto Education Trust, established by Beth to carry forward her passion for plants and the ecological approach to all.

#WildEssexWalks – Wrabness and Stour Wood

A pleasant afternoon in July saw a group from WildEssex enjoy a round walk for a couple of hours, from and back to Wrabness railway station.  En route we took in that most whacky of buildings, Grayson Perry’s ‘A House For Essex’, East Grove Wood with its unrivalled position on the banks of the River Stour, arable fields with impressive wildflower margins, and Stour Wood reserve itself, an ancient woodland planted predominately with Sweet Chestnut trees, which were in full flower and filling the air with their mushroomy fragrance.

There was plenty of insect life to be spotted – a stunning Yellow-and-Black Beetle stole the show, together with Hogweed Bonking Beetles, and everyone’s favourite, the Cinnabar caterpillar (also in that pleasing colourway yellow-and-black).

We were delighted to see how many butterflies there were (after a very slow start to the season): Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers galore, together with Ringlets, Red Admirals, Peacocks, Whites and a couple of Holly Blues, and not forgetting a 6-spot Burnet moth. In the woodland itself a few Silver-washed Fritillaries and White Admirals soared overhead, but none stayed for a photo opportunity.

The very familiar 7-spot Ladybirds were putting on a very good show – both decorative and aphid-munchers par excellence – what’s not to like??

For the botanists amongst us, there were also lots of plants to note – my favourite White Bryony along hedgerows, Enchanter’s Nightshade in deep shade, Rosebay Willowherb, Wood Sage and Honeysuckle in the coppice clearings, and Bugloss around the sandy field edges.

And of course there was the interface between botany and other disciplines, in the form of galls and mildews…all of nature is fascinating!

As always we would like to extend our thanks to our group of nature-lovers for sharing these experiences with us 😊. And we look forward to our next meeting.

The Wild Side of Essex: Summer by the Stour Estuary

The forecast was for rain, more rain and a side order of thunder. Real life brought us a gloomy start, followed by several hours of hot sunshine, then building cloud and rising humidity, and eventually a shower, just as we arrived back at the carpark at the end of our walks. It is all in the timing!

This by-now-traditional midsummer Naturetrek day trip focused on two main sites, Wrabness Nature Reserve (Essex Wildlife Trust) and Stour Wood (RSPB). Although butterflies and birds are billed as the main attractions, as always we looked at everything from plants to birds, all manner of insects, landscape, geology and architecture, the full range of the natural and not-so natural worlds.

Wrabness Nature Reserve, as a former mine depot, is a brownfield site with all the diversity shown by the best of such sites. Farmland and scrubland birds were much in evidence, including Yellowhammers, Linnets, Goldfinches and Whitethroats in song, all to a constant backdrop of Skylarks.

At the heart of the reserve the real stars showed well, with half a dozen Turtle Doves seen and perhaps four of those in purring song, that glorious half-forgotten sound of summers sadly passed. This site is now just about the only reliable one for Turtle Doves in Essex.

Between the scrub patches, the plants provided a riot of colour and a feast for every insect. From Hogweed to Bird’s-foot-trefoil, scarce species such Dittander and Corky-fruited Water-dropwort, beautiful banks of Tufted Vetch and many more, it was a wonderful multicultural mix of plants from all over the world, the very best of brownfields.

The diversity of flowers in the shelter of the scrub (the stiff breeze was a constant feature of the day) meant that insects were everywhere. Gatekeepers, Essex Skippers and Small Skippers were the most abundant butterflies, and several Silver-Y moths put in an appearance, part of their very recent significant influx from the Continent.

Cinnabar caterpillars were chomping on Ragwort, Green-eyed Flower-bees nectared busily, buzzily on Viper’s Bugloss, and other sightings included Adonis Ladybird and Southern Hawker dragonfly, fig galls of the aphid Tetraneura ulmi on Elm leaves, and bountiful sloes developing on Blackthorn

Down on the Stour Estuary, sadly not a single Sand Martin to be seen: the usual colony of hundreds has for some unknown reason failed to materialise here this year. Out on the mud, the first returning Black-tailed Godwits, Curlews and Oystercatchers were feeding in the heat-haze along the distant shoreline, alongside Little Egrets and a surprising (for the site in summer) Great Black-backed Gull or two, while closer in, the saltmarsh fringe was just developing its summer-purple hue of Sea-lavender.

The field margins between Wrabness and the woods produced some lovely sights,  Common Knapweed set off against banks of Lady’s Bedstraw and bedecked with Six-spot Burnets.

The hedgerow oaks were sprouting artichoke galls and giving shade to Purple Hairstreaks, while that amazing brainchild of Grayson Perry, ‘A House for Essex’, as always provoked much interest and discussion.

And so into Stour Wood, the air heavy with the mushroomy-scent of Sweet Chestnuts in full flower.

Few other flowers were apparent (return in April for the swathes of Wood Anemones and Bluebells) other than Enchanter’s Nightshade, although Butcher’s-broom and Wild Service-tree added their ancient woodland allure to the scene.

Brown Hawkers and Common Darters were patrolling the rides alongside numerous browns and nymphalid butterflies…

…although the woodland specialities here were restricted to a few fly-past Silver-washed Fritillaries and at the very end of the walk a White Admiral that almost landed upon us. Lovely to see and good flight views, although the lack of nectar sources (even Brambles seem sparse this year) gave us no opportunity for photography.

A great day out, with something for everyone!

#WildEssexWalks – High Summer in Wivenhoe’s Lower Lodge

Good news! The worries of the past few months have been partially dispelled. Our traditional midsummer Lower Lodge walk performed pretty much up to hopes and expectation in terms of numbers and diversity of insects in this wonderful grassland, scrub and woodland mosaic. Perhaps the Rubicon on the way to ecological calamity has not yet been crossed. Eco-anxiety is such a debilitating condition…

It seems the slow start to the season this year is just that, a slow start. Insect numbers were at last approaching normality, and even if some have been impacted by the extreme weather of the past couple of years, at least they can bounce back just as quickly especially if habitat conditions are suitable. And here is the other bit of very good news: Colchester City Council, whose management of the site over the past few years has been rather erratic, seem to have got on top of the task of ensuring each and every bit of the grassland on Lower Lodge has an autumn cut once every three years, thus preventing life being choked out by the spread of trees. They have thankfully brought it back from the edge of the precipice of such a fate.

It was a  hot and sultry walk, and perhaps the most exciting find came right at the outset with a resplendently metallic Rose Chafer busily chomping on Hogweed flowers. This magnficent beetle is as much a natural icon of the Wivenhoe Area as is the Stag-beetle.

At this very moment, Hogweed is drawing much of the insect life in to its bounteous offerings of nectar and pollen, with for example numerous ladybirds (all Seven-spotted) and a good numbers of Hogweed Bonking Beetles, albeit rather few of them actually living up to the full extent of their name!

The other great nectar and pollen source at the moment is Field Scabious, in fact blooming more profusely and more widespread than I have ever seen it before.

Butterflies were visiting in hordes, Essex and Small Skippers in particular, along with a few of the rare speciality Scabious Longhorn moth, another metallic marvel.

  

But much more as well, from the equally metallic Thick-thighed Beetles, the Gargoyle Fly (our name for Sicus ferrugineus!), green lacewings and various bees, wasps and hoverflies to complete the picture.

Around the meadows generally, but especially along the scrub margins, brown butterflies were also in great abundance. Meadow Browns, now on the wing for the past three weeks, were looking rather worse for wear whereas Gatekeepers, freshly out were more pristine. And the Ringlets so fresh that many were still pumping up their wings after they vacated the pupa in the previous few hours.

Both browns and skippers share one feature – their larval food plants are grasses. And grasses are generally drought tolerant, as anyone who has seen a droughted lawn green up after rain will realise. Perhaps this is why these butterfly groups are doing so well this year, when many others are at a low ebb as a result of last summer’s heatwave?

Other plants in flower included Hedge and Lady’s Bedstraws (white and yellow respectively), Field Bindweed (particularly attractive in their candy-striped form) and the start of the season for Common Knapweed – over the next month this will gradually take over the role of provider of pollen and nectar to a hungry world.

Other plants though are at the end of their season, in particular Goat’s-beard, now forming robust ‘dandelion clocks’. In close up it can be seen how the umbrella-like struts attached above the seed are themselves branched and interlinked, together making a perfect parachute for wind dispersal of the seeds.

Life at every footfall, we saw a couple of grasshopper species and a few other butterflies (here, Small Copper) and moths (including the delightfully euphonious Timothy Tortrix), as well as regular fly-pasts by Brown Hawker dragonflies out a-hunting.

We even paused to examine a few of the galls, with marble and artichoke galls on Oak, caused by wasps, and the lumpy galls of Ribwort Plantain flowers, for which it seems the causal agent has yet to be identified. There is always something to learn in the natural world!

Being so hot, birdsong was only sporadic but included a couple of Yellowhammers, along with a warbling Blackcap and scolding Whitethroats. And it was a present from the avian world which provided a suitable full stop to the morning when one of the group picked up a real treasure, the wing-feather of a Jay.

Of course with all this good news, there is always a bit of bad. and for us that was the lack of any sightings of Common Blue butterflies or burnet moths. Usually regular here, they may yet emerge. Or perhaps, as larval feeders on Bird’s-foot-trefoil, a plant that is badly knocked back by drought, it would not be surprising if this year’s adults are fewer than normal. Neither did we see any sign of the magnificent Purple Emperor I saw holding court during my recce a week ago, nor the White Crab-spider or Hornet Hoverfly I photographed on that occasion.

That is the wonderful thing about the natural world: nothing can be taken for granted, and every foray into it an adventure. All of our previous visits here have had their highlights and lowlights, as you can see from the blogs we have published in the past: see 20212020, 2019, and going right back to the start of #WildEssex 2018.

And talking blogs, this walk was the first with us for one of the group, who told us of her wildlife blog Berie Tree – Nature Spotter! berie tree | Nature spotter! (wordpress.com). Do take a moment to discover it and the lovely observations therein, mixed with poetry and other artistic endeavours. The world cannot have too much of that sort of thing!