Blog Archives: WildWivenhoe

Going Wilder in Wivenhoe

#WildWivenhoe just got a lot wilder. This spring saw the start of an exciting experiment in urban rewilding, to allow the grasslands of some of our recreation areas and estate road verges to grow and flower under an autumn-cut hay regime. Spearheaded by Wivenhoe Town Council, with Mark Halladay, Cllr Glyn Evans and a band of enthusiastic volunteers. this excellent initiative importantly encompasses grassland that is managed by other bodies, notably Colchester Borough Council.

Four months down the line since the first non-cut, we visited many of the areas in high summer to see how they are coming along. This is not a scientific survey by any means – the volunteers are doing that – but more of an ecological overview to see how they are developing as a resource for wildlife, and a visual feature hopefully enhancing the day-to-day life of the whole community.

Of course some are more successful than others. Take the smallest, the Co-op Triangle: this is heavily trampled, used as an outdoor sales area, and subject to frequent ‘inputs’ – the abundance of Wall Barley and Common Mallow is very typical of the ‘dog-wee grass community’.

But it is still important. Wildlife is there, a mini-wilderness ekeing out a living surrounded by concrete; green is coming up and flowering in peoples’ lives; and importantly, people are using it – the other aspects of the junction have show gardens, admittedly beautiful and wildlife-friendly, but most definitely ‘look, don’t touch’.

All the estate verges in this scheme similarly have wildlife bursting through the previously over-manicured grassland, nature improvement areas which challenge the British obsession with sterile green grass, scalped to within a sliver of its life, and unsullied by ‘weeds’ (aka beautiful wild flowers that support all sorts of insect life), for example:

Frances, Grasby and Cracknell Closes

Ernest Road

and De Vere Lane.

All have colour and wildlife; all could be seem by some to be ‘untidy: these spots will be the test of public acceptability. Or perhaps seen as Natures’s  advertisement for the rewards of letting life into our lives, and create the demand for more and more each year…

In the the larger, off-road areas, those rewards are even more apparent, teeming with butterflies, damselflies, hoverflies and all manner of insects. Off Bobbits Way, the steeply sloping grassy enclave has shown us why it escaped the houses when the estate was developed…it has sprung a spring, presumably where the gravel cap meets the London Clay, and formed a perfect rush-filled mini-marsh. Last year with so much less rain, this was not at all obvious.

Nearby, Millfield Common is large enough to be divided into two, one to be hay mown, the other periodically mown through the summer but not as tightly as in the past. And that diversity of management is paying off – the mown area with numerous flowering yellow composites, the hay area white with Yarrow, and all attracting insects.

On the very top of the Essex Alps, sandy grassland predominates, and nowhere better than at the Henrietta Close Recreation Ground. Last year, with Covid disruption to the mowing, we got a hint of its potential; this year it is simply stunning, a mosaic of grass and flowers, adorned with insects, and with access paths mown through it for those who don’t wish to explore the delights of the wild between their toes.

Finally we come to the King George V field. The fringes of the field have now largely been adopted into a hay regime, and they are all looking good…

… although not (yet) perhaps as good as our previous rewilding experiment further down the field.  That has had three more years to develop, and is now entrenched as a key part of Wivenhoe’s biodiversity, a place for plants, insects and people, where the key message is ‘Please do NOT keep off the grass’.

And in the fullness of time, surely each of these has the potential to match the insect haven the other side of Wivenhoe Wood: Lower Lodge. This has had a 15 year head start on the rest, but is a fantastic example of how, if management constraints are lifted, the wildlife will respond, and we all will benefit.

This is not about rarities. Note that I haven’t even mentioned most of the species in and around these grassy patches. Yes, some scarce plants have indeed responded to the new management regime, with some areas hosting for example Knotted Clover and Dittander.

No, it is not about rarity, it is about bioabundance. Each of the flowers in the photos above, indeed each of the flowers that has graced these areas over the summer has the power to bring joy into the heart. Every single one attracts insects, the tiny things that run the planet. Quite apart from what they do for pollination, all are also food for something else. Such bioabundance builds up food webs and resilient ecosystems: bit by bit, step by step, what we do in Wivenhoe and elsewhere will help change the world for the better.

Thanks to Mark and everyone else involved for pointing and persuading us in the right direction….

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: Lower Lodge

Having cancelled our Saturday outing, Monday dawned very wet and grey, and we wondered if we should have pulled the plug on that too, but in the end we were very glad that we didn’t – the humidity and warmth certainly brought out the insects in Lower Lodge.

This site is one of our favourites – managed very much for wildlife – areas being left for various lengths of time to grow, and then cut to avoid any turning back into woodland. We will let the photos speak for themselves –  though a couple of particularly interesting creatures (Roesel’s Bush-cricket and Emperor Dragonfly) spotted by members of the group didn’t hang around long enough to be snapped, so you will have to take our word for it!!

Skippers in their hundreds – mainly Essex (dark smudge at end of their antennae), but some Small (orange tips). Other butterflies included Meadow Browns, Ringlets, Gatekeepers, Large Whites, and just as we were leaving a pristine Red Admiral and Comma.

Moths including several types of grass moth and plume moth, a Common Carpet, Silver Y and Scabious Longhorns. Unfortunately the Burnet moths were not yet out but we did see a couple of egg cases, so we are confident that there will be some before long.

Beetles including several types of Ladybird  – 7 spot, 22 spot, 24 spot and a number of types of Harlequins, Thick-thighed Beetles, Hogweed Bonkers, a Yellow and Black Longhorn beetle plus a profusion of leaf beetles munching their way through a Hogweed leaf.

Plant bugs including  the reddish grass bugs Leptopterna ferrugata and Deraeocoris ruber, the beautiful planthopper Allygus mixtus  and the only shieldbug of the day, a Hairy Shieldbug.

Flies including ‘Dolly’ flies which wave their wings to signal to each other, a Saltmarsh Horsefly, which we rarely see and Nationally Scarce, plus lots of Marmalade Hoverflies and a few other hoverflies including the Large Pied, a smaller bee mimic Cheilosia illustrata, and Scaeva pyrastri.

And from other orders of insects, there were Speckled Bush-crickets and a particularly fine ichneumon (parasitic) wasp.

Plants were looking good – as high as an elephant’s eye almost, thanks to all the rain we have had. Particularly good-lookers include the Field Scabious, Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Hedge Bedstraw, Lady’s Bedstraw and Goat’s-beard. Also, never forget to look deep into the familiar: at close quarters, even Hogweed is a thing of beauty.

And always good to see, fungal Fairy Fingers erupting from the turf.

Thanks to you all who took a risk with the weather – hope that you enjoyed the experience as much as we did. Hope to see you in August.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – midsummer madness, and a few damp squibs…

June was a mixed month. At first hot, sunny and settled, perfect for insect life using the resources of the garden, with nectar and pollen sources galore…

… then as midsummer approached, so the weather closed in, with lots of cloud, occasional heavy rain, and on some days, unseasonable cold. Even in the gloom though, there is  good reason to visit: my last blog (see here) was an exploration of the beauty to be found after a deluge.

Star plants from the insects’ perspective this month included Salvias and their relatives (closed flowers that require a bee or something large and powerful to get to the nectar and pollen), and Knautia macedonica, Eurphorbias and umbellifers, whose resources in contrast are open to all, from bees to hoverflies, tachinid flies to beetles and a whole lot more.

Honey Garlic too seemed to be attracting more than its fair share of bees to its stately flower spikes with drooping heads:

Midsummer frolics also around the pond with dragonflies and especially damselflies emerging and then adorning the foliage with shards of neon.

June is traditionally not the best time for butterflies, the season between the spring emergers and those of high summer. But they did include a few Painted Ladies, although after a promising start, it seems we are not now in for a major invasion this summer.

Moths are less prone to the ‘June gap’, and flurries of flying faeries (longhorn moths, like the Gold-barred Longhorn) were easy to see, along with the mobile garden adornments provided by their caterpillars. What could be more stunning than a Mullein Moth larva, or more intriguing than the silken cascades protecting the nests of Spindle Ermines, or more important than the Green Oak-rollers, the main food of hungry Great and Blue Tit chicks?

The cornucopia of delights for summer continues with Thick-thighed Beetles, Two-spotted Malachite-beetles, soldier-beetles, Gargoyle Flies and Wolf Spiders.

Now is as good a time as any to visit the gardens whatever your interest – flowers, wildlife or simply tranquility, a refuge in troubled times… please visit the Beth Chatto website to book your tickets.

After the storm – Beth Chatto Gardens

Recent days have seen rising temperatures, and harsh, uncompromising sunlight. But last night, a thundery breakdown, torrential rain, and by dawn a humid, overcast world brought out the colours, the scents and the textures of the garden in a way that sun can never do. A green world, a watery world, and a vibrant, living world, even if most of the garden’s insects were still hiding away…

Leaves and flowers were  sprinkled with quicksilver magic…

Lady’s-mantle always moulds water into mercurial droplets – indeed, this is recognised in its scientific name Alchemilla. The alchemists’ ultimate goal was to find riches by converting base metal into gold, and the drops on the leaves, ‘the purest form of water’, were a means to that end…

But back in the real world, the lack of shadows brings out colours strongly, whether adorned with raindrops…

… or not…

… and creates patterns in nature that are otherwise lost beneath a baking sun, at all levels from landscape to detail.

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: Cockaynes Reserve

Thank you for joining us on our June explorations. Quite long walks for our ‘B&Bs’ and two hours not really long enough to do the reserve justice, but we did see a lot of things which took our fancy.   STOP PRESS – we are hoping to arrange a half day trip there under Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays banner on Thurs 12 August.  10am – 2pm for £25.  A short stop for lunch will be factored in.  If this appeals let me know.

Anyway, back to our walks for June and what a change in the weather from our last B&B outings – the cold wet of May transformed into bright sunshine and considerable heat. The natural world was loving it  – the flowers were bright and beautiful,  and insects were everywhere doing their thing. We ran two separate events, on consecutive days, and here is a summary comprising the best bits from both:

The lane from Wivenhoe to the edge of the Cockaynes reserve was in itself interesting – a plant (rather rare in a national context) White Ramping Fumitory, is thriving in Wivenhoe and was seen growing at our assembly point.

En route we encountered Sand Martins (which now nest in the Cockaynes gravel-pits) resting on telegraph wires, the song of Skylarks,  butterflies including Small Heaths, and tiny creatures were represented by froghoppers, or rather signs of them in the form of cuckoo-spit. These tiny bugs use their ‘straws’ to suck up plant juices into which they blow air and squeeze the bubbles out the other end; they have to process a lot of sap to get enough nitrogen for growth, and the copious exudate also provides protection for the nymphs from environmental extremes. Plants included Greater Celandine, with its yellow sap, and lemon-yellow Mouse-eared Hawkweed.

Once into the Reserve, a walk through Villa Wood alongside Sixpenny Brook was, as always, a delight –  in fact it proved irresistible for one of our Monday group who just had to have a paddle. 😊  Invertebrates of note were Yellow-barred Longhorn moths plus the tiny nymphs of both Speckled Bush-crickets and Lesser Marsh Grasshoppers.

The area known as Cockaynes Wood, a cool refuge from the strong sun, has a charm of its own with old trees and amongst the plants the uncommon ‘ Common’ Cow-wheat.  On emerging into the light we were amazed by the number of Azure Damselflies – they too had emerged, in large numbers, to begin their lives and 30 or so individuals were flitting too and fro amongst the Bracken.  A fabulous Tiger Beetle was seen on a dusty path, but wouldn’t stay still for long to be admired.  Luckily Chris managed to get a snap of it…

Birdsong accompanied our mornings, from Chiffchaffs, tits of all denominations, Blackbirds, Yellowhammer and Whitethroats.  A quick foray into known Turtle Dove territory allowed one group to savour the purring sound of summer (sadly now very hard to find) but the song is fading now as (hopefully) the birds are now happily mated and so have no need to proclaim who and where they are.

Amongst many plant of note were Yellow Rattle,  Stinking Iris, Scarlet Pimpernel, Sand Spurrey, Climbing Corydalis and my favourite White Bryony, which is also loved by the new-on-the-scene Bryony Bee, one of which put on a fleeting show.

  

Other creatures encountered included brightly-coloured-and-proud-of-it Cinnabar moths and the Nationally Scarce Club-horned Wasp Monosapyga clavicornis. 

A stunning female crab spider Misumena vatia , an arachnid which catches its prey by stealth and not with the aid of a web, was brilliant to see, along with an 11 spot Ladybird which is not one we have seen on many occasions. Bio-control of pests was evident with many plants with aphids also having resident ladybirds (in all stages of development, eggs, larvae and adults).

A bumblebee-mimic hoverfly Merodon equestris posed for one of the groups, and the Red-and-Black Froghopper is always a crowd-pleaser.

Thanks again for your support – details of next month’s (and other) events will appear in our next nature newsletter.

A week in #WildEssex with Honeyguide

Almost a return to normality – a group to lead for more than a day! Five days for the six to get to know each other and me, to gel into a group of friends, not merely fellow travellers and clients. And based at the by-all-accounts excellent Wivenhoe House Hotel – sadly because of the ‘rule of six indoors’, I was unable to join them for meals, but next time perhaps – and I think everyone had a comfortable and wildlife-filled week. And that is, to some extent, despite the weather: the first few days continued the May theme – cool, breezy and damp – but the sun came out properly for that last two days, and what felt like April was tumbled headlong into Summer.

Monday afternoon 24 May

A gentle potter around Wivenhoe Park introduced us to wonderful trees, young and old, some Pedunculate Oaks pre-dating the landscaping of the park in the mid 18th century, and a selection of specimens from almost all corners of the world. All three species of redwood, Red Oak, Atlas Cedar, Horse-chestnuts, Monkey-puzzle, eucalypts, and in direct lineage from the Peninsular Wars, the two most venerable, gnarled Cork Oaks you are ever likely to see.

Green Woodpeckers mingled with the multitude of Jackdaws, and family party of Long-tailed Tits huddled together brought the significance of the cold weather into sharp focus.

The catkins of oaks were liberally adorned with currant galls, caused by the same wasp that produces spangle galls in its second, late-summer generation.

A few Red Admirals and Orange-tips introduced  flashes of colour to a dull day, but otherwise insect life was almost restricted to a few ant-like Miris striatus nymphs. And, the very first thing we found proved to be one of the rarest insects of the week, a Juniper Shield-bug on Lawson’s Cypress: the available records suggested that in Essex this has previously been recorded only in the south-west of the county.

Tuesday 25 May

The second day dawned dull, breezy and showery, although as it progressed a few spells of warm sunshine encouraged bird song and brought out the insects, especially where sheltered from the wind. Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps predominated, with a couple of Nightingales, one is very full song, only 10 metres from us – but sadly not in view. Swifts and Swallows seemed still to be arriving, some continuing to push north, and Sparrowhawk, Yellowhammer, Buzzards and Red-legged Partridges added to the bird interest as we walked down the tidal River Colne from the University to Wivenhoe.

Rounding Ferry Marsh Local Nature Reserve, the newly-expanded reedbeds held dozens of singing Reed Warblers, along with a few Cetti’s Warblers and Reed Buntings, and whinnying Dabchicks. Salsify and Dittander were two of the special plants of the sea wall…

 

…then as we walked along Wivenhoe waterfront, attention shifted to the block-paving of the former port and shipyard, and its surprising flora of Buck’s-horn Plantain, Chives, White Ramping Fumitory, Jersey Cudweed and (Two-leaved) Four-leaved Allseed.

Close to the tidal barrage,  the saltmarshes produced flowering Scurvy-grass, and Common Cord-grass with its attendant (and seemingly increasing) Ergot fungus, perhaps pointing to one reason why the invasion of Spartina is not such a problem in Essex.

Although the Bluebells in Wivenhoe Wood were almost finished, Red Campion, Greater Stitchwort, Bugle and Yellow Archangel coloured the woodland scene, and the shelter of a hedge on the walk back to the hotel provided the warmth needed for St Mark’s Flies, Noon-flies, dance-flies and soldier-beetles to be taking advantage of the feeding opportunities at Alexanders flowers.

Nearby, Bugloss in the field margin pointed to an insect-rich area, with Hairy and Forget-me-not Shield-bugs and a mating pair of Rhombic Leatherbugs.

And on similarly sandy soils atop the ‘Essex Alps’, we found both Subterranean and Knotted Clovers in their by now well-known location in the King George V playing field, and then again in much larger quantities across Wivenhoe Park, a previously unknown site to me.

Wednesday 26 May

An early morning, pre-breakfast but not quite first light, potter around the Park produced Rabbits and Jackdaws en masse, together with singing Goldcrest, Coal Tit and Mistle Thrush.

The wind had gained a touch of the northerly: it started cold, and remained at best cool, all day, especially on the windswept clifftop and beaches of the Naze. But, as ever, in the lee of scrub patches, when the sun came out so did the insects, from picture-winged flies to hoverflies, and Green Longhorn moths to a Wasp Beetle.

Our first Speckled Wood and a Slow-worm were also in the warmer enclaves of the John Weston Reserve, along with a near-pupation Oak Eggar caterpillar and a still-unfurling Angle Shades.

Botanical interest on the clifftop was mostly the red smudge of Sheep’s Sorrel (bespangled in places with Bird’s-foot Fenugreek), swathes of Alexanders, and dead Gorse, pruned by the ferocious cold of April. But the scrub still hosted singing birds, with maybe 20 Whitethroats and half-a-dozen Lesser Whitethroats, at one point showing side-by-side for comparison.

Out at sea it was generally quite (for example, no terns at all), although single Eider and Brent Goose lingered offshore, and several Harbour Seals showed their snouts between dives.

On the sandy beaches, Sea Rocket was in flower already, and it was good to see a couple of pairs of Ringed Plovers still gamely battling on with breeding in the face of unprecedented disturbance pressures. Very appropriately, the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Save our Shores project, aiming to combat the growing problem of ignorance and selfishness, is to be the beneficiary of the conservation contribution from this Honeyguide tour. We saw at first hand the problem of out-of-control dogs and vacant/arrogant owners when pairs of Lapwings and Oystercatchers were disturbed off their nests on an adjacent fallow field, although fortunately the birds returned to brood within a few minutes.

And then it was the cliffs and geology. Internationally significant, spanning the multitudinous stories of the past 50 million years, with fossils from Eocene palms to immediately pre-Ice Age Left-handed Whelks. All that, and contemplative beachcombing to round off another very full day…

Thursday 27 May

Our final full day, by now in lovely warm sunshine, took us further down the Colne Estuary, from Wivenhoe to Alresford Creek, then back along the high route on the ridge of the Essex Alps, taking in the very well-restored (for wildlife) gravel pits at Cockaynes Reserve.

Bird-wise, the estuary was quiet save for Shelducks, Redshanks and Oystercatchers, a small fly-past flock of Knots, and Turnstones roosting on an old pontoon.

The grazing marshes were dominated by Divided Sedge, with Brown-tail Moth caterpillars in many a bush, and although only singing sporadically, a Nightingale in Grange Wood did give us chance to watch it as it fed on the ground.

Moving inland, it was flowers and insects all the way, from Purple Gromwell, Star-of-Bethlehem and Butcher’s-broom to Flower Crab-spider and Red-and-black Froghopper….

 

…and for the lovers of the obscure, a couple of bagworms, including the Virgin Bagworm.

Cockayne’s Reserve really launched the sights of summer (six species of Odonata, including an unfurling Four-Spotted Chaser) interspersed with spring lingerers such as Brimstones, Speckled Yellows and Bunny Bees.

And then the sounds: those icons of summer – Cuckoo and Turtle Dove, both at a premium nowadays – and the surprise of the week, a singing male Golden Oriole, heard for half an hour before it flashed its way through the foliage. A poignant reminder of Honeyguide holidays from pre-Covid days.

But nothing of the hoped-for highlights of Green Hairstreaks, no doubt related to to the frost scorch of the Gorse.

And finally, although it was starting to cool down rapidly, a dusk wander around Wivenhoe Park with the bat-detector produced good numbers of Soprano Pipistrelles.

Friday morning 28 May

After checking out, we reassembled on the final morning at the renowned Beth Chatto Gardens, just a couple of miles down the road. Beth was an early advocate of sustainable and ecological planting, right plant in the right place, and the garden reflects that. Full of interest for the gardener with an eye to the future, it is also full of wildlife.

Joined by Jude as ‘super-spotter’, we found more than enough insects to keep us happy until lunchtime, including moths, small and large, from Nettle-tap to Lime Hawk…

… Cinnamon Bug to Crucifer Shield-bug …

… Two-spotted Malachite Beetle to Acorn Weevil…

… and Alder-fly, Scorpion-fly and Painted Lady.

Then in a fitting finale, as we had been searching for them fruitlessly all week, six Green Hairstreaks, lighting up the garden with metallic green fairy flashes, A perfect ending.

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So, all in all a very good week, and let’s hope that it is the first of many. One week, with 25 kilometres of walking and only 50 driving – a feast of wildlife on my doorstep. Thanks to everyone for helping me rediscover the delights of working with a group for a week. A full listing of all the interesting things we saw or heard during the week is available as a pdf, MAY CHECKLIST.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – tumbling towards summer…

For much of May, the poor spring weather continued, still on the cool side, but in a complete reversal from April, it was one of the wettest on record. Spring came late and, running fast to catch up with itself, the last few days of the month saw a headlong tumble into summer…

For a variety of reasons (one of which of course was the seemingly interminable rain), we were not in the garden until the very end of May, by which time the moisture had turned it into an oasis of lush green, in total contrast to last year when by now we were already in the grip of the first extended drought. The wonderful, unpredictable vagaries of British weather!

Pollen and nectar providers (otherwise known as flowers!) are now coming to the fore, from the large, open blooms and spikes with exposed stamens whose resources are available to all …

… to the more closed flowers of Lamium orvala which requires something of the bulk of a bumblebee to expose its riches.

As always, there are some botanical superstars attracting more than their fair share of passing insects: at the end of May, these included Ceanothus and Thymus.

Aside from the rather tattered Peacocks (they have been around since last autumn, and withstood the rigours of hibernation, a freezing April and May gales and rain), other butterflies and moths are now emerging. Fresh Speckled Woods for a new season, and a not-so-fresh Painted Lady, quite likely because as a migratory species, it hatched somewhere around the Mediterranean.

It was particularly exciting to see half a dozen flying jewels in the form of Green Hairstreaks. Normally emerging from late April, we have scoured likely habitats in north-east Essex all month, but to no avail. But at the end of May, here they were, performing on cue to my group from Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays, sparkling emerald highlights for our very last walk of the week. That’s timing!

Moths too are appearing, from tiny Green Longhorns and Nettle Taps to the relatively huge Lime Hawk-moth which had just emerged from its pupa, pumping up its wings in the Reservoir Garden:

As the pond water has gradually warmed up, aquatic insects are appearing, including Large Red and Azure Damselflies…

… along with Alderflies and their non-aquatic relatives Scorpion-flies.

Add to that a bewildering variety of true bugs and beetles…

… of course also with predators such as spiders, thus completing the ecosystem cycle.

With the headlong tumble into summer, now is the time to come and visit more frequently to avoid the season slipping away! To book a ticket, please visit the website Entrance – Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens: whether you interest is plants or wildlife, you will not be disappointed.

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours of the Colne Estuary with Naturetrek in May

Three day tours in May, from mid-month onwards would in any ‘normal’ spring have spanned the orderly transition of the seasons. Not so this year: the effects of the very cold but totally dry April were compounded with one of the wettest and coolest Mays on record. Spring came late and, running fast to catch up with itself, the last few days saw a headlong tumble into summer…

Throughout the month, water birds have been almost only the local breeders – Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Little Egrets and Shelducks, with just a sprinkling of winter lingerers in the form of Turnstones, a few Knots and single Black-tailed Godwit and Avocet.

The next stage in the flowering of salt marshes occurred, Scurvy-grass giving way to the pastel pinks of Thrift…

… and on the sea walls Tamarisk, Salsify, Hoary Cress and Spotted Medick all put on a good show.

The reedbeds were full of singing Reed Buntings, a few Cetti’s Warblers and, at least by the third week, lots of Reed Warblers. As with so many other sub-Saharan migrants, including House Martin and Swift, new arrivals which had been held back by adverse winds just kept on coming, their quorum reached only at the end of May.

In contrast, our Nightingales were on time, but the cool weather meant it wasn’t a classic year for song. By the end of May, it was just about over, although a Song Thrush in Grange Wood was doing a great job in keeping the song alive by including whole phrases in its repertoire, thrice-repeated mimicry, the whole gamut of warbling, seeping, chortling, gurgling Nightingale. And Cockaynes at least proved a reliable site for Cuckoos (up to three, sometimes seen well), Hobbies and a purring Turtle Dove.

The waft-in-the-wind, fleetingly fragrant haze of Bluebells became ever more studded with counterpoints of white (Greater Stitchwort), yellow (Archangel) and red (Campion) and by the last week, the blooming of summer was unleashed, everything from Purple Gromwell to Hoary Cinquefoil, Sainfoin to Star-of-Bethlehem, Chives to White Bryony….

… and not forgetting the rarest (and least obtrusive): Two-leaved Four-leaved Allseed!

Insects too were slow coming to the fore with overwintering butterflies like Brimstones and spring-emergers such as Orange Tips taking centre stage. Quite by contrast, Holly Blues and Green Hairstreaks were totally absent until the last days of the month (they should have been around for weeks), when we also saw the anticipated emergence of Small Heaths and Small Coppers.

A flurry of Painted Ladies raised hopes of another invasion year, though it did seem rather to have petered out by the end of May…although there is still time yet.

Speckled Yellows have done well at Cockaynes Reserve, and other day-fliers included the always delightful fairy sprites that are Green Longhorns.

Dragons and damsels again were late coming out, but as the month progressed first the Large Red Damselflies, then the blue ones, and eventually the demoiselles appeared. As usual Hairy Dragonfly was the first of the larger species on the wing, followed swiftly by Four-spotted and Scarce Chasers.

And finally a selection of the other insects and invertebrates which made up this ‘all kinds of everything’ month, the #WildSideofEssex at its very best!

The Wild side of Essex now moves to Hockley Woods and (hopefully) its Heath Fritillaries for June, but will be back at the Colne and the Naze in July, when the first signs of autumn in the form of returning (failed) Arctic breeding waders should be popping up…..

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: The Wivenhoe cemeteries

This month’s walks, in the cemeteries Old and New, were spread over two days. The warmth and short-lived dry spell on Monday morning brought out a myriad of insects; on Saturday there had been virtually none, but we were instead rewarded with the accentuated smells and colours of the wild flowers in the rain. The Cow Parsley was at its heady best, and the Bluebells, creating a swathe of blue, dotted with yellow buttercups, a feast for the eyes.

This special, sacred,  place has suffered from mismanagement at the hands of man over the years, but nature is fighting back to provide us with a refuge in these uncertain times.  The ancient gravestones, each of interest and worth a read – if only we had had the time! – themselves are mini-nature reserves, covered in lichens, and homes for mini-creatures, including four types of ‘bagworms’.  These are moths which live at least some of their lives in little ‘bags’ –  in the case of Psyche casta the bags are covered in little bits of grass; whilst the ‘Virgin bagworm’ is covered in lichen and grit, and remarkably spends its whole life in The Bag on its own (or rather ‘she’ spends her whole life there – no males needed in this species)!  Two other varieties seen on Monday were Narycia duplicella with the pupal exuvium sticking out of the end of the larval case, and the long Taleporia tubulosa.

Other insects found by the Monday group (sorry Saturday folk) included both Green and Hairy Shieldbugs, the Cinnamon Bug and Red-and-Black Froghopper (both in the ‘warning’ coloration combination of red and black, signifying that they are probably pretty nasty to eat), the Umbellifer Longhorn beetle, and a rather beautiful picture-winged fly Euleia heraclei.

A well-recognised plant occurring in our woody areas is Wild Arum/Lords and Ladies/Cuckoo Pint (to rhyme with Lint)/ Jack-in-the-Pulpit as well as being known by many other names – lots of them quite ‘naughty’ as the flowers are rather, erm, shall we say anatomical-looking!  A few other botanical delights caught our eye –  a delicate little flower, Hairy Tare growing alongside Common Vetch; Thale Cress, rather like the well-known Shepherd’s Purse, but with very different seed pods; whilst Shining Cranesbill with its varnished-looking leaves is certainly at home in the Old Cemetery, as is Garlic Mustard.

Of the larger vegetation a number of splendid trees create height, shelter and lend the place a certain grandeur – these include Himalayan Pine, Horse Chestnut and two species of oak, whereas shrubs like  Viburnum tinus provide valuable nectar early in the year when newly emerging insects need fuel.

We finished our hour in the newer Cemetery which is celebrating ‘No Mow May’ and the wild flowers are numerous and a joy to behold.  Many leaves on the Lime tree have unmistakable red ‘needles’ sticking out of them – these are fascinating little nail galls, created by gall mites (arachnids).  Each of these little structures contain many mites.

Walking on the lush grass certainly put a Spring in Our Steps – the mossy structure beneath your feet is unmistakable, and we hope that those who at first may have been unhappy that Grandpa’s grave had a few ‘weeds’ near it, will instead come to feel uplifted by the power and beauty of nature.

Thank you to all of you who came along ( and to those who had intended to be there but were unable to do so).  The weather left something to be desired, but we all made the best of things.  We have included some photos in this report, but some were taken on our recce a few days before the walk (when it was at least bright though not necessarily sunny). See you all soon.

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours of the Colne Estuary with Naturetrek in April

Three #WildSideOfEssex walks on the Colne Estuary with Naturetrek  in the month from the very end of March were expected to span the transition from winter to summer. And so they did, albeit rather in reverse order…

The first post-lockdown walk on the last day of March coincided with the last day of the mini-heatwave, with temperatures rocketing to 22°C – unseasonably, almost unreasonably, hot, even for the Essex Riviera! That very afternoon, skies clouded over, bathing the landscape, by now devoid of birdsong, in cloying yellowish light. Sahara dust was on its way, and when the rain came that evening, the dust blanketed everything as the temperatures plummeted. Thereafter April was a month of no rain, but icy winds from the north-east. Plenty of sunshine, but no real heat, and more night-time frosts than the whole of the preceding winter.

And naturally, this had impacts on the wildlife. Blackthorn was still in tight bud during the first walk, and only just past its best by the third, a good three weeks later than is typical round here.

But nothing if not contrary, Nature had its mixed messages – the first Bluebells were in flower by the end of March, well ahead of schedule, but then spent April in suspended animation, still leading up to a May peak.

Other interesting botanical finds during the month included Greater Stitchwort and Spring Beauty on woodbanks, Stork’s-bill and Early Forget-me-not on the heaths and White Ramping Fumitory closer to the tide:

But not all exciting flowers are showy. Some of the most subtly beautiful are green: Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage, Butcher’s-broom, Red Currant and the simply unique Town-hall-clock in the woods and Mousetail clinging to just one of the thousands of Yellow Meadow-ant-hills on the marsh.

A surprising number of fungi were found (perhaps as it has been a very wet winter) with Maze-gill, a fruiting Reticularia slime mould, and best of all that beacon of winter wet woodland, Scarlet Elf Cups, in profusion by Sixpenny Brook.

In the heatwave, spring insects were out in force with Bee-flies and Hairy-footed Flower-bees investigating the Red Dead-nettle and Ground-ivy…

… while butterfly numbers faded during the month, numerous overwinterers (Peacocks, Commas and Brimstones) giving way to the first emerging Green-veined Whites and Orange- tips.

And that just leaves the birds. All change! On the estuary, the waterbird numbers dropped away rapidly, although the summer-plumaged, glowing copper, tiger-striped Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits were simply stunning. Overhead several Mediterranean Gulls yowled imperiously and drifted over on implausibly white wings on each walk, while Red Kite and Marsh Harrier were both on the move. And by months’ end, the piping of the waders had largely been replaced by the screech of Common Terns.

Other summer birds were slow to arrive. A few hirundines were around at the outset, but numbers barely changed during the month. Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps had made it back before the adverse winds set in, as did an early Sedge Warbler, and then by the second walk, Whitethroats, and the last one, Reed Warblers. Resident Cetti’s Warblers seem more numerous than ever, and it was especially exciting to see a territorial pair of Nuthatches in Grange Wood, as this bird is generally absent on the Tendring Peninsula.

All of the above and more, including good views of both Fox and Muntjac. And what better than on the final walk, to take lunch sitting by Sixpenny Brook, a Treecreeper creeping overhead and singing Nightingales – new in just three days previously – either side?

 

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens – the chills of April

Since the mini-heatwave in March that fired the starting gun for Spring, April has gone downhill, or at best been treading water. Persistent, piercing, chilly north-easterly winds have kept temperatures well down, despite some lovely sunny days, and the nights have brought more frosts than the whole of the rest of the winter put together. And to cap it all, barely a drop of rain.

The plants have told the story of those weather stresses. Out in the surrounding countryside, Blackthorn peaked three or four weeks after its normal time, although confusingly, Bluebells started to flower a month early, although the cold has put them into suspended animation ever since. In the garden, the results have been equally mixed, winter colliding with spring while edging towards summer…

And the same is true of the insects in the garden. Until mid-month all butterflies were hibernators, especially Peacocks and Brimstones. But at last the new season’s adults have started to emerge, with Green-veined Whites and Orange Tips mixing with the first of the Speckled Woods in the dappled shade:

In sheltered spots out of the wind, and when the sun is out, bees are starting to emerge along with hoverflies, and bugs and other creatures are there to be found basking.

But the real insect action has been around those plants which best provide what insects want: nectar and pollen. In March it was Scilla bifolia, while in mid-April Skimmia ‘Kew Green’ took over the baton. Among the bees and hoverflies, there were a couple of scarce flies, the Spring Bee-grabber (just a couple of previous north Essex records) and the bristly moth parasite Tachina lurida, with only four previous Essex records.

 

The Skimmia is starting to fade now, so what will take over? Certainly Euphorbia wulfenii is attracting flies, and both Cherry-laurel and Thermopsis are attracting the bumblebees.

By the end of the month, having been held back for so long, the dam-burst of Summer is hanging in the air. All it will take is the wind direction to reverse, night-time temperatures to rise and we will be cascaded through the riot of Spring, probably faster than any of us would like. If anyone is thinking of visiting for a welcome taste of the early season, best do it soon!

A couple of further highlights are perhaps more by accident than design. Where mowing is restricted by trees and obstructions, Daisies and Dandelions are showing through, a natural complement to the insects’ garden restaurant. Wouldn’t it be good if  ‘No Mow May’ could find a place in the garden regime? Not perhaps on the main lawns , but maybe in the car park or on the verges of the driveway: every little helps our beleaguered pollinator force.

And then there’s the borders that are becoming infiltrated with one of our most charismatic little ancient woodland plants, Town-hall-clock. Some might say ‘infested’, but I would say ‘skeined with a graceful filigree of unassuming, green-flowered delight’. Who cannot love a plant whose scientific name ‘Adoxa‘ translates from Greek as ‘without glory’; whose clock-face flowers have five petals each, whereas the one pointing skyward has (usually) just four; a plant whose relationships seem so obscure it was until recently considered unique, the only member of its family in the whole world? And which bizarrely, following genetic sequencing has been shown to share a family with Elders and Viburnums!

So spring may not yet have fully spring but the garden is already full of wild interest, And even on the coldest days, there are always the multi-species lichenscapes on the trees, ever-present whatever the weather!

As always, the Beth Chatto Gardens are brimming with life. While the weather, and over the longer term climate, are going awry, the importance of gardens like this in maintaining our countryside’s wildlife cannot be overstated.

To visit, unless you are a Friend of the garden, online prebooking is essential. Please visit https://www.bethchatto.co.uk/garden-nursery/planning-a-visit.htm

 

 

#WildWivenhoe Bug & Botany Walks: Back in Action! The KGV and wildlife garden

Thanks to all who joined in with us for the first B&B sessions for 2021.  We both felt rather rusty, having had so many months off, but hopefully we managed to find enough to show you to make an interesting hour!

Due to the cold weather, particularly on Saturday, insects were very thin on the ground.  The main delight was the bees  – a few prospecting queen bumblebees  looking for a suitable hole to make a nest, plus some entertaining Hairy-footed Flower Bees. These are ‘sexually dimorphic’, ie the males and females are very different to look at, and they were very interested in each other (the males hovering closely behind the females) and the very important nectar sources of Red Dead-nettle and Blue Alkanet. This latter species is not native to the UK, but along with many other garden plants and escapes is such a lifeline to insects on the occasions when there is not much ‘wild’ nectar to be had.

This year’s season of Spring seems very ‘odd’ (but when doesn’t it?) – some things seem to be out early and others weeks behind what you might expect. For example some areas of Elm scrub have done flowering already and are producing seeds, whilst others have barely started to flower. This could be due, in part at least, to the vestiges of Dutch Elm Disease which has never quite gone away. This malady is caused by a fungus introduced to Elms by the Elm Bark Beetle.

The beetles are only able to burrow into trunks when they reach a certain size, the ingression introducing the fungus that kills the above-ground parts, whilst the roots survive, and suckers continue to sprout afterwards. Hence you will still see lots of small Elms around, but few large trees. A notable exception is in Brighton where a ‘fire break’ from back in the 1960s meant Elms within a mile or two of the town were felled when the disease was first noted approaching, the potentially damage-causing beetles being unable to fly that far to spread it. Social distancing! As a result the place can boast many fully sized Elms, which nevertheless need constant monitoring (Test, Track and Trace) as the pandemic may reappear at any time.

Back to our walks, we were at times serenaded by avian life including Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Chiffchaffs, Blue Tits and Wrens whilst Golden Plovers, Green Woodpeckers and a Buzzard were seen overhead.

We popped into the Wildlife Garden to see what has been happening.  Lots of hard work has gone into improving the pond which had been suffering from a leaky liner and had become rather overgrown. The overall impression at the moment is that all is rather bare, but lots of plants have been put into the areas surrounding the pond, which will be able to get going once the weather warms up, and a few Kingcups are in the pond itself. Sadly no sign of frogspawn this year, but we are confident that by next spring all will be back to normal as far as the amphibians are concerned and it will once again be a good breeding ground for our croaky friends. It is brilliant that there is a band of concerned individuals locally who are prepared to work hard for this very important site.

Directly over the field from the garden our attention was caught by the beautiful flowering Blackthorn bushes.  In full snowy-flower they were a sight to behold.  However, their usual promise of sloes to make our much-enjoyed sloe gin may not be guaranteed this year due to the distinct lack of any pollinators at this crucial time (having said that, our Monday group were treated to the sight of lots of hoverflies buzzing from flower to flower).

 

Other plants don’t rely on these third-parties for pollination but employ the powers of the wind – letting their male catkins dangle free and hoping pollen will be blown onto female flowers.  Good examples of this are the Hornbeam and White Poplar both found on KGV.

We finished our tour on the ‘Hay Meadow’ a section of the KGV which has been allowed to escape the regular three-weekly mowing regime for the past three years and is now an interesting area comprising all kinds of grasses, chickweeds, knapweeds and dandelions.  Not much sign of flowering at the moment, due to the extended cold, but we are confident once we have some warmth and refreshing rain all will be well.  We found what we think to be a newly recorded species there too – Field Wood-rush.

Short and sweet, and at least with its slow start we still have much of Spring to enjoy now we have been allowed out…