Blog Archives: WildEssex

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!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: after a summer soaking….

After a June with no rain, good soakings during the first few days of July have brought the garden back to life, made lush and green by that which falls from the sky rather than being reliant on unsustainable, artificial watering.

And the other wildlife too, insects in abundance  – more bees and butterflies than I have seen all summer: the warmth and the recent rain have brought the season back into some semblance of ‘normality’. The plants this week doing the heavy lifting of feeding the hordes of pollinators were Lavandula, Eryngium and Teucrium: good for wildlife, drought-tolerant, beautiful (and therefore good for us) – they tick all the boxes! No words, just let the pictures speak for themselves…

But absolute maestro of our floral show was Buddleia crispa on the side of Beth’s house. Six species of butterfly visiting included four or more lovely, pristine Painted Ladies, one of the welcome stars from the south of any summer garden.

#RewildYourMind and #LetNatureintoyourLife: nowhere better to do that than the Beth Chatto Gardens! Visit Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens for more information.

The Wild Side of Essex: Hockley Woods – Heath Fritillaries and more…

The largest contiguous ancient woodlands in the county, Hockley Woods sit astride the ‘southern Essex Alps’, a ridge of London Clay capped with sands and gravels. They were the focus for the latest Naturetrek day trip, searching especially for Heath Fritillaries. I must admit to being worried – this spring has been especially poor for butterflies and insects in general, a combination of persistent cool north-easterlies over the past two months delaying the season by at least two weeks, and the hangover from last year’s record, larval-frying summer temperatures. Would they be out yet? And more worryingly, would there be any to come out?

In the end all was well, albeit our total count of 80–100 being a fifth of last year’s bonanza. The distribution seems to have consolidated back to the core coppice, rather than the outlying rides, despite healthy populations of Common Cow-wheat, the larval food plant, in most of the rides.

Perhaps I should say ‘the normal larval foodplant’: in one new coppice area, with barely a sprig of Cow-wheat to be seen, it was a patch of Foxgloves (in a suspiciously seed-packet array of shades) that  was the focus of fritillary action. As we conjectured, Foxglove is a near-familial relative of Cow-wheat: could it provide an alternative food source, helping to give the butterfly a greater degree of resilience against environmental stress? And then I read on the Butterfly Conservation website ‘Foxglove can be a secondary foodplant, especially on Exmoor.

It has been a long, complex story of neglect, extinction, research and reintroduction but we do now have a thriving population of the fritillaries. And now perhaps evolution is playing a part in ensuring its survival into an uncertain future.

But it is a measure of the season that more than 95% of all the butterflies we saw were fritillaries. Otherwise, there was a handful of Speckled Woods, a small handful of Holly Blues and just a single Meadow Brown. So too with other insects – quality rather than quantity. Some of the highlights included a Red-headed Cardinal-beetle, Large Pied Hoverflies and mating Tiger-craneflies….

… Speckled and Dark Bush-cricket nymphs, click-beetles and dance-flies…

…a Hawthorn Shield-bug and several Dock Bugs, mostly mating, including this orgy…

…and best of all, after a few bits of identity and nomenclatural confusion from yours truly (I blame the increasingly intense heat and humidity, that culminated just before lunch in a big rumble of thunder and a sharp shower), no less than three Horned Treehoppers Centrotus cornutus, a scarce species for which this complex of woods is an Essex stronghold.

Wood Ants’ nests were numerous, and Wood Ants themselves everywhere, including milking the colonies of Black Bean Aphids for their honeydew.

Moths included the attractive, variable Aleimma loeflingiana, and the larval stages of Brown-tail, Common Bagworm and Spindle Ermine…

… while a selection of spiders included Nursery-web and Cucumber Spiders, and a female Neottiura bimaculata with her egg sac suspended under a leaf from a single strand of silk. We concluded this was probably a defence against the marauding swarms of Wood Ants on the leaves above, as when she saw us approaching with cameras, she rapidly hauled the sac up, presumably believing us to be the greater threat.

The woods were full of bird song, apart from in the hottest part of the day, with Robins and Chiffchaffs, Blackbirds and Blackcaps, one of the latter semi-duetting with a Garden Warbler, and family parties of Long-tailed, Great and Blue Tits. First bird we saw was a Treecreeper just as we left the car park (excuse the poor photo – it was very shady), followed by a Stock Dove visiting its nest hole, while another tree hole at the end of the day was the site of a free-range Honeybee nest.

Dead timber and trees provided for fungi, like Birch Bracket and Chicken-of-the-Woods…

… while a seemingly random selection of trees was washed with the orange terrestrial alga Trentepohlia, and a couple of reproducing slime-moulds sat atop cut stumps.

And so to the plants: Hornbeams in abundant fruit, Sweet Chestnut and Honeysuckle just coming into flower, and deep in the shade, the shiny leaves of Woodland Hawthorn:

But most remarkable of all were the carpets of Oak seedlings, covering the woodland floor in vast swathes, testament no doubt to last autumn’s mast and to the low number of Muntjac due to the high number of dogs.

In the rides, there were patches of Bush Vetch and Wood Avens…

… while on the wood edge, with Skylarks singing overhead, a good show of Oxeye Daisies and Hairy Buttercups …

… and in the main fritillary clearing, a trio of Heath plants (Speedwell, Woodrush and Groundsel) that along with Wavy Hair-grass and Wood Sage are as good an indication as any to the  reason for the Heath Fritillary’s English name.

 

All kinds of everything: rich biodiversity in the heart of suburban south Essex. More than 30 years since I notified the woods as an SSSI, I am very happy to see they are now in a better state than when I moved on (even after years of pandemic pressure), thanks to the management work of Rochford District Council.

Over the sea to … Landguard Point!

By way of an exploration for a possible #WildEssex trip next summer, we headed over the mouth of Harwich Harbour on the regular foot-ferry to Felixstowe.

Arriving near Landguard Fort, it was a short walk out onto the Point and Common, the southernmost section of the Suffolk shingle coastline, on the receiving end of gravel eroded from cliffs and offshore Ice Age deposits right up into north-east Norfolk.

While, after a month-long  period without rain, much of the Common was brown and droughted, grazed right down by Rabbits, the true shingle flora like Sea Kale and Yellow Horned-poppy so well adapted to the environmental stresses of drought, sun, wind and ground instability, remains green and is coming into flower.

As always, different plants in different places: where the shingle is more sandy, this is picked out by Marram and Sea Spurge being the dominant species.

Moving landwards, the vegetation diversifies, with annuals such as Scarlet Pimpernel, Slender Thistle and Common Stork’s-bill (both pink and white forms) …

… and grassland perennials such Rest-harrow, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Wild Clary and White Stonecrop – while none of these is obligately coastal, the whole community is indicative of proximity to the sea.

And then there are the plants that are more familiar to us perhaps as being characteristic of sandy agricultural field margins: Bugloss, Viper’s-bugloss and Weld.

In a few patches scrub has grown up, mainly of Wild Privet, Elder and Tamarisk, festooned in White Bryony (both male and female), which provides shelter for breeding Linnets and the few invertebrates we saw on our breezy day, including Endothenia gentianeana.

So close to the docks, there are many opportunities for interesting plants not native in Britain to arrive and get a foothold. The  Rough Dog’s-tail grass is one obvious example, a plant I have seen in this country only a handful of times, mostly down by the Thames Estuary.

The port also of course provides ample opportunities to watch the world come and go. The infrastructure is impressive in its own right, even given the fact that much of that which is imported is unnecessary plastic tat from the Far East. A cathedral to commerce, as impressive in its way as a religious cathedral can be to a non-believer…

Crossing the harbour on the ferry simply adds to the opportunity, to watch the ever-changing seascapes, shipping and wildlife (here a Harbour Seal), and to see familiar landmarks from a different perspective.

And both starting and finishing from Harwich Rail Station, time to explore the historic architecture, the gardens exploding with Giant Viper’s-bugloss and the railway sidings ablaze with Red Valerian and Oxeye Daisy.

A good day out (with an all-day breakfast in the View Point Cafe and  fine pint in The Alma) – we are very likely to be back!

 

 

Marvellous Moths morning at Beth Chatto Gardens – early June

It was the first of our new Marvellous Moth mornings in Beth Chatto Gardens. It was early June, the start of the peak season for moths, in terms of both number and variety. Usually! But this year, the seasons have other ideas. The perfect storm: a cold north-easterly airflow for the last six weeks has delayed Spring by several weeks, on top of last summer’s record high temperatures and drought which fried the larvae of many insects, all coming after eight post-war decades of pesticide profligacy … perhaps it is not surprising that the contents of the moth trap we ran the night previously were very meagre.

Of course there were some, but almost all were at the brown end of the normally diverse moth colour spectrum. Most common was the Treble Lines, followed by Common Swift; other species included Heart & Club, Rustic, Vine’s Rustic, Marbled Minor, Flame Shoulder, Small Fan-footed Wave and Light Emerald. In total, a paltry 13 species, totalling some 30 moths. We tried!

But star of the trap show was the single Cockchafer, a lovely large beetle…

Not wishing to dwell on doom and gloom, there are very good reasons why this event was not hugely productive. And the good news is that with luck and a successful breeding season, insect populations can bounce back very quickly, providing the environment is still there for them. And if the habitats are not there in a garden like Beth Chatto’s, essentially organic with a wide range of plants from all over the world providing nectar, pollen and leaf resources, then the planet is in very dire straits.

The other good news for our band of eight visitors is that a shorter time emptying the trap gave us more time to walk and enjoy free-range insects and other wildlife in the garden, first around the main garden in the solitude of that precious hour before the gates opened, and then later around the Beth Chatto Education Trust’s conservation area, away from the public gaze.

Before the influx of visitors, the birds are much more in evidence, and today included Song and Mistle Thrushes, singing Chiffchaffs and Chaffinches, and a fly-through Kingfisher. Several day-flying moths included the Mint Moth, Nettle Tap and disco-dancing parties of male Gold-barred Longhorn-moths…

… while the butterflies were Holly Blues, three displaying couples of Speckled Woods, and a single, resplendent Green Hairstreak, the very first one we have seen this year of a butterfly that often puts in its first showing as early as late April.

As far as other insects are concerned there were several leaf-beetles and hoverflies, Dock Bugs (and their beautiful golden eggs), Two-spotted Malachite-beetles, three species of damselfly, and a whole host of other bits and pieces, including galls (caused by a microscopic mite) on Lime tree leaves, and the interesting case of a case-bearing moth larva.

 

For other caterpillars we were looking at the Mullein leaves, holes in which are made by the beautiful larvae of the Mullein Moth. While much effort and many poisons are expended in lots of other show gardens to present a vision of leaf perfection to the public, in our garden those holes and the mobile adornments are a badge of honour, a sign that our garden is seeking to work with nature and not against it.

And once again, the highlight of this part of the event was a beetle, this time a confiding Wasp Beetle, a dramatically coloured yellow-and-black wasp-alike, its colours evolved to try and dissuade a hungry predator to try and turn it into a meal.

Otherwise we were looking at the plants that were delivering for bees and other pollinators, chance to plan purchases in the nursery to make our own gardens better places for wildlife: Sicilian Honey-garlic, Peruvian Squill, Rock Crane’s-bill, Giant Fennel, Tassel Hyacinths, foxtail-lilies, spurges and a whole lot more…

Do keep an eye on the Beth Chatto website Courses & Workshops – Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens if you might be interested in joining us for one of the Marvellous Moths events we have tentatively planned over the rest of the summer. We cannot promise more moths, but we would be surprised if there were not greater numbers and variety, and irrespective, an insect-themed educational wander round the gardens in the still of the morning before the gates open to the public is always a precious moment.

 

The Wild Side of Essex with Naturetrek: late Spring along the Colne Estuary

Although not as sunny as forecast, and still with that persistent northerly breeze that has been niggling away all Spring, today’s exploration of the Wild Side of Essex with a small (but perfectly formed!) group of two provided almost all of what we hoped for.

By late May, as expected, all of the wintering northerly wildfowl and waders had gone, leaving just a few Shelducks (one pair with brand new chicks), Redshanks and Oystercatchers, the latter including our celebrity leucistic friend who has graced us with its ethereal presence for several years now.

Overhead, a couple of Hobbies were high over Wivenhoe, probably terrorising the local House Martins, and as we sat by Alresford Creek for lunch, a Red Kite drifted slowly over, still not a breeder hereabouts but surely only a matter of time…

On the saltmarsh, the Scurvygrass was almost over, so the next suite of flowerers are taking over, including Thrift and Sea Plantain, with Hemlock Water-dropwort in the topmost fringes…

… while the summer crop of Marsh Samphire (Glasswort) is just germinating on the barer patches.

Moving out of from the tidal influence, Hawthorn and Cow Parsley are now at their best, their mingling scents having a special resonance in my brain as my personal madeleine, instant remembrance of my 1970s youth cycling the lanes of the Yorkshire Wolds.

And seemingly every bush adorned with a singing Whitethroat.

Other singers included numerous Cetti’s Warblers, with Reed and Garden Warblers, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, Reed Bunting and Yellowhammer, at least three Cuckoos and even one solitary Nightingale. Here in the Nightingale hotspot of north-east Essex, clearly there must be plenty of females as all the rest of our pairs, perhaps five along the route we took, were silent.

The sea walls were adorned with such specialities as Salsify and Spotted Medick, while the coastal grazing marsh, covered in thousands of ant-hills, had Hairy Buttercup and masses of the nationally scarce Divided Sedge.

An assortment of other plants included Red Valerian, Rose Garlic, Tamarisk and the recent arrival to our waterfront block-paving, Four-leaved Allseed, until recently confined to the far-flung reaches of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles.

Our afternoon took us from the coastal plain to the heights of the Essex Alps. This shift from clay to gravel introduced a whole lot more plants, including Hop Trefoil, Slender Thistle,  Heath Woodrush and Bird’s-foot Clover.

Dog Rose is just coming into glorious flower, while Beaked Hawk’s-beard was doing the heavy lifting of feeding the (few) insects flying around…

…while Purple Gromwell is now at its absolute peak along Cutthroat Lane.

Moving into the ancient woods of Cockaynes Reserve, a whole new suite of plants appeared, including Climbing Corydalis, Pignut and Common Cow-wheat, all very scarce in these parts.

So what of the insects? Well, as is sadly the new normal, rather few. A few soldier- and click-beetles, a Red-headed Cardinal-beetle, Brown-tailed Moth caterpillars and a Latticed Heath moth were just about all we could muster.

Apart from all that, several galls, including Oak-apples and Sloe Pocket-plums, and a patch of the Grass-choke fungus all added interest to a lovely, diverse day out.

But as an uneasy coda, just one butterfly (a Small Heath) and not a single dragonfly or damselfly. Yes, the cool breeze,  the late Spring and last year’s extreme drought and unprecedented temperatures must take some of the blame, but I cannot help fear that we are heading for the Silent Summer, the result of our unsustainable impact upon our world. Our only world.

East Grove, Wrabness – small but perfectly formed!

Essex as a county abounds in ancient woods, more by area than in the whole of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire put together. I have known East Grove on the southern bank of the Stour Estuary for forty years, and always felt that it is one of the very best, despite its small size.

Squeezed into its couple of hectares is an active Sweet Chestnut coppice, with Oak and Field Maple trees, and THE most diverse ground flora for its size I have seen. Bluebells of course abound, but after their first flush, the monochrome blue vista is punctured with white Greater Stitchwort and Wood Anemone. And this weekend, Red Campion has burst, alongside the Yellow of Archangel and acid-green Wood Spurge, all to complete the colour-wheel.

The delightfully named, but actually rather scrappy Goldilocks Buttercup, its flowers usually missing one or more petals and those that it has being pretty manky…

And to cap it all, Ramsons is now blooming, scenting the air with its wonderful garlic fragrance: there are few places locally where this can be found in abundance.

To walk in this wood is an assault on the senses – a complete colour palette, the scent of the garlic, the prickling of Butchers’-broom and especially in mid-May at high tide, the gentle burbling of Brents on the water. Gentle, but occasionally rising to a crescendo as they take flight – this estuary is a renowned staging post before they head off to northern Siberia, in the hope that winter has relinquished its grip. This wood is almost unique in Essex in having a tidal, estuarine frontage.

On the first really warm, humid afternoon of our year, the insects and other invertebrates were out. A good selection is shown below…

… as Swallows sang from the wires, probably four pairs in the neighbouring  stables. and a magnificent Dryad’s Saddle exploded from an old tree stool …

… but pride of place must go to the Greater Thorn-tipped Longhorn-beetle Jude spotted. A lovely beast, and not at all common. The National Biodiversity Network map shows only half a dozen previous Essex localities, including one from Stour Wood, the RSPB/Woodland Trust just 500m downstream. All in the course of a Sunday afternoon stroll!