Blog Archives: WildWivenhoe

An October week in #WildEssex with Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays

Honeyguide’s second #WildEssex week (the first being back in May – see here) saw north-east Essex largely cloaked in grey, with occasional heavy rain especially in the first two days. Despite the near absence of sunshine, a good time was had by all, the weather and wildlife both reflecting the turning of the seasons. Thanks as always to Wivenhoe House Hotel for accommodation and food in such glorious parkland surroundings, Beth Chatto Gardens and Essex Wildlife Trust for sites to visit and their visitor centres. And of course the wildlife of the area sends its thanks to participants: the conservation contribution will find its way to them via the good works of the EWT.

Monday afternoon 4 October

After checking-in at Wivenhoe House Hotel, 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, Turkey and Red Oaks (the latter sadly not yet really starting to light up with the fires of autumn), Deodar, Atlas Cedar and Cedar-of-Lebanon, fruiting Sweet-chestnuts, Strawberry-tree (in flower and last-year’s-fruit simultaneously) and in direct lineage from the Peninsular Wars, the two most venerable, gnarled Cork Oaks you are ever likely to see. As for the Magnolia grandiflora, it kicked off a week of botany using all the senses, its dinnerplate-sized flowers regaling their surroundings with the glorious scent of lemon cheesecake.

A few fungi were starting to appear on the older trees, including several emerging Beefsteaks and Chicken-of-the Woods …

… but insect life in the cool breeze was restricted to a few robber-flies and Rhododendron Leafhoppers.

Of course, the signs of insects were apparent, in the form of galls. The underside of many an oak leaf bore the galls of Common Spangle and Smooth Spangle galls, the larval homes of Neuroterus quercus-baccarum and N. albipes respectively.

Tuesday 5 October

For the only time in the week, it dawned clear and bright after very heavy overnight rain. As we splodged down through Wivenhoe Park, the sunlight shone its magic on the architecture (where Modernist meets Brutalism), several whinnying Dabchicks, and the trees alike.

Two species in particular seem to be fruiting well this year, Dog Rose and Hornbeam, in stark contrast to, for example, the oaks: irruptive Jays, which had just started arriving on our shores, are likely to find lean pickings this winter.

By the upper Colne, it was high tide and the only birds were Black-headed Gulls, Mallards and Teals, with Skylarks in semi-song over the fields. But the intense blue sky made up for avian deficiency, especially when counterpointing Silver Birches (with Birch Bracket fungi), the trunks in the photo having only just been vacated by a Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Between the spiky showers that developed in the afternoon, the woods were full of roving bands of tits and Treecreepers; Wivenhoe Quay had a bumper crop of Jersey Cudweed; a Hawthorn Shield-bug sunned itself on a fence post; and perhaps the most beautiful Hogweed umbel ever offered its resources to the diminishing hordes of pollinators.

The Walnut tree in Wivenhoe Churchyard had, as is usual, the large blister galls of the mite Aceria erinea, but more excitingly the small pimple galls of A. tristriata – when we first found this a few weeks ago and looked at the National Biodiversity Network maps, we found it has been identified and mapped only 11 times previously in the whole of the country.

But most exciting of all was something that was over in second, so fast there was no opportunity to photograph or intervene. A caterpillar was dangling in a silken thread from the tree canopy. As we looked close, we noticed a small parasitic wasp actually walking down the thread, and when it found the caterpillar, quick as a flash it stung it, presumably laying an egg or eggs, leaving the hapless larva to intense wriggling, its ‘not quite dead, yet!’ throes….

Wednesday 6 October

A day at the Naze, the most easterly point of Essex, a windswept headland, but still we persisted in cool, hefty, blustery north westerlies! Not surprisingly. any small birds in the scrub were keeping well out of reach of the blow, but surprisingly perhaps birds were arriving in off the sea, even against adverse winds. Meadow Pipits and Starlings were most numerous; the stars of the show were single Great Spotted Woodpecker and Short-eared Owl. Flocks of Swallows and House Martins, with a few Sand Martins, were drifting southwards all day.

Hog’s-fennel was just coming to the end of its flowering on the clifftop, Annual Sea-blite and samphires smearing the salt marshes with their autumnal tints, and Sea Rocket and Prickly Saltwort bringing life to the embryo dunes.

A Sea Aster Mining-bee stranded away from its food wasn’t going anywhere in the by now fearsome and cold wind, and another taste/smell opportunity arose with Golden-samphire and its ‘essence of shoe polish’.

On the shoreline, Turnstones, Ringed Plovers and Grey Plovers fed, although keeping low and out of the breeze, while offshore, a steady trickle of small flocks of Brent Geese, Teals and Wigeons flew by, with a few more highlights in the form of noisy Sandwich Terns, a close-in Red-throated Diver and an immature Gannet.

Walking back along the shore, of course the internationally significant geology took centre stage, London Clay and Red Crag cliffs, full of fossils and other clues to the environments of the times they were laid down, with the skeletons of last winter’s erosion a stark reminder of constant change in the natural world.

As we emerged back on to the clifftop, right at the end of the day, we found the wind had indeed dropped as forecast, and the only hint of sunshine for the day brought out a basking Red Admiral.

Thursday 7 October

Our final full day, calm and mild but unremittingly grey, 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.

Wivenhoe waterfront, attractive, arty and historic, also harbours plenty of botanical interest, from White Ramping-fumitory to the nationally rare Four-leaved Allseed (like the Jersey Cudweed a couple of days earlier, eking out a living in the cracks of block-paving, in those few spots where it is able to evade the incessant rain of Roundup). Heading out on the sea wall, upper salt marsh specialists included Strawberry Clover and the pungently scented Sea Wormwood.

Bird numbers increased as we headed downstream against a rising tide which concentrated the Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits and especially Avocets into flocks, the latter reaching an impressive 150 or so birds. A Kestrel hunted along the sea wall, while a Buzzard ran the gauntlet of the local corvids, and Meadow Pipits and a Song Thrush migrated overhead.

The saltmarshes, bedecked in autumn tints, included patches of salmon-pink, rather uncommon, Perennial Glasswort, with Common Cord-grass still in full bloom.

Poking from many a Cord-grass flower spike were the fruiting bodies of the parasitic Cord-grass Ergot, itself being hyperparasitized by the orange fungus Gibberella (‘Big Fleas have Little Fleas etc ….’!). The Cord-grass strain of Ergot is much larger and protuberant than the more normal form which infects grain crops and other  grasses, as we had seen earlier in ornamental Lyme-grass around the car park.

Other fungi included the always dramatic Fly Agarics underneath (and intimately associated with) the Silver Birches of Grange Wood.

Returning homeward along the crest of the Essex Alps, one characteristic plant of the gravelly soils was the local speciality Lesser Calamint, its crushed leaves a delightful mix of mint and citrus, with a fleeting medicinal top note. Along the ancient trackway of Cut-throat Lane, Butcher’s-broom was remarkably already in flower. Or should that be ‘still’ ? – the books say it flowers from February to May…

Close scrutiny of the undersides of Oak leaves al last revealed examples of the beautiful Silk-button gall, the third of the common three Oak spangle-galls of the week. Sycamore leaves had the microfungal splotches of Tar-spot, and dead Elms, the tell-tale signs of the bark-beetle that proved their nemesis by introducing Dutch Elm Disease fungus, while larger fungi included some impressive Parasols.

Cockaynes Reserve produced its usual crop of diverse wildlife, a very wide range reflecting the mosaic of post-gravel extraction habitats, including ancient woods, scrub, heathland and wetland: Maze-gill, Reindeer Moss, Blue Fleabane, Chicory, Angle Shades moth, Green Shield-bug, Birch-catkin Bug and several impressive Robin’s Pincushion galls on Dog-roses.

Friday morning 8 October

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, the 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, albeit a little suppressed today by the misty, moisty veil of autumn.

Insect life was really focused upon the late nectar/pollen sources, with Red Admirals on the Michaelmas-daisies and Hornets, hoverflies and Honeybees on the Ivy flowers; otherwise it was a few Dock Bugs along with a closely related Box Bug, the latter a relatively new arrival in these parts. A final example of one of the pervasive themes of the holiday, the flux and flows of Nature, both natural and in response to our mismanagement of the planet, that both raise concerns about ‘the now’ while offering hope for the future.

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So, all in all a very good week, and let’s hope that it will not be the last. One week, with 25 kilometres of walking and only 50 driving – a feast of wildlife on my doorstep and it was a pleasure to share it with Honeyguide Wildlife Holidays. A listing of most the interesting wildlife we saw or heard during the week is available as a pdf, OCTOBER REPORT LIST.

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: September – autumn approaches

A mixed month, demonstrating the turmoil of seasonal change, September produced several days of  glorious summer sunlight, interspersed with cooler days and sometimes cold nights, and for the first three weeks at least, a near absence of rain. All very typical, and as one would expect, the garden is now burgeoning with seeds and fruits, as increasingly the foliage bronzes…

While fruits are of considerable value to visiting wildlife, the late-flowering nectar and pollen sources are of equal importance, especially to insects putting on a last breeding push or laying down resources for a winter of inactivity. In our ‘Twelve-month menu for wildlife’ some of the star players are shown here, from  Red-hot Pokers, Colchicums and Persicarias, to the pincushion heads of Succisella, the latter especially  heaving with bees and butterflies.

Commas and Red Admirals have been everywhere, with in mid-month at least several Painted Ladies and a Brown Argus, the latter seemingly not too common in north-east Essex this summer:

Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers have been very numerous around the ponds on warmer days,  and at last (they are late emerging this year), lots of Willow Emeralds, a newish species to these shores, but now one which has become a fixture of the warm autumnal scene.

This month has seen a huge emergence of crane-flies (much to the delight of family parties of Starlings), with hoverflies and robber-flies showing well too.

And our very best insect of the month, a Juniper Shield-bug: once rare in Britain on native Junipers, this is now spreading on garden relatives. But this individual may be only the second ever record from north east Essex, following one we found in May in the nearby Wivenhoe Park. There are always surprises to be found!

The Beth Chatto Gardens as summer starts to fade…

It was a case, as much of the summer has been, of dodging the showers, but the bright but overcast weather at Beth Chatto Gardens presented wonderful opportunities for photography, unhindered by the sharp contrasts so often present when the sun shines, bleeding colour from the scene. This time no commentary, just images of one of our favourite places.

Colourscapes

Fruitscapes

Greenscapes

Wildscapes

Leafscapes 

Innerscapes

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

Two walks this month, one at either end of the period, marked the transition from midsummer to the approach of autumn. Both were in lovely warm, largely sunny, weather and there was plenty to keep the two groups interested. As always a mix of everything featured on the ambles, from birds to insects to geology to social history of this lovely part of north-east Essex.

Bird numbers on the estuary have built during the month, especially the returning waders from northern climes, many still in full breeding plumage at least at the start of the month. Black-tailed Godwits built from 20 to 400, Avocets from 40 to 80, along with growing numbers of Curlew and Redshank, and a few Turnstones, Lapwings and Greenshanks.

On the saltmarshes, Sea-lavender has peaked while Golden Samphire picked up the flowery baton, and will shortly be passing that on to Sea Aster. All are great places to look for nectaring butterflies and other insects.

Other saltmarsh and sea wall specialists flowering well included Greater Sea-spurrey, Crow Garlic, Common Toadflax and Strawberry Clover, the latter localised to those spots that the furthest tendrils of the tide just reach.

Along Wivenhoe Waterfront, the two botanical highlights of Jersey Cudweed and Four-leaved Allseed flowered throughout the month, albeit overshadowed by the ‘Second Spring’ of Tamarisk.

Some other botanical highlights included Duke-of-Argyll’s Tea-tree and Tansy, both a magnet for hoverflies and bees…

…together with the flowering glories of the dry, skeletal soils of the Essex Alps: Lesser Calamint, Blue Fleabane, Trailing St John’s Wort, and our precious patch of Heather.

As far as insects are concerned, Purple Hairstreaks were still on the wing at the start of August, while by the end of the month, new brood emergences of Speckled Wood and Red Admiral were apparent. The latter were especially a feature of the few Buddleias in the Cockaynes Reserve, with sometimes twenty to a bush, along with similarly pristine Small Tortoiseshells, Commas and Painted Ladies, and the last few tattered Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers.

The caterpillars of Cinnabar and Buff-tip, ripe for pupation, were in evidence, along with many other insects, from robber-flies to jewel-wasps.

And as always at this time of year, dragonflies have been abundant. Common and Ruddy Darters and Migrant Hawkers predominated, but they also included Brown, Southern and Southern Migrant Hawkers, especially around Cockaynes.

While Yellowhammers were still singing for our first walk, the second was within silent woods, save for the plaintive autumn cadence of Robins just starting up.

Highlighting the turn of the season, Sweet Chestnuts are fattening, Heather blooms are fading, fungi are sprouting and galls forming on oak leaves and rose bushes….

And it is to galls we turn for the highlight of the month. The large Walnut in St Mary’s Churchyard has long featured the lumpy, brain-like pouches of the common gall mite Aceria erinea, but this year it features alongside the smaller, redder and rarer galls of Aceria tristriata. On consulting WildGuides’ Britain’s Plant Galls, it ‘seems to be of very local occurrence’, and according to the NBN there are only 11 previous UK records, the nearest being in the vicinity of Norwich, Peterborough and Oxford. Always a surprise in store with @Naturetrektours in #WildWivenhoe!

 

The Wild Side of Essex: day tours with Naturetrek in July

The Wild Side of Essex returned to the north of the county in July, with one walk each on the Colne Estuary and at the Naze. As has been customary this ‘summer’, the weather was a mixed bag, but the wildlife still performed admirably…

Our day on the Colne early in the month, ostensibly midsummer, was unseasonably windy, sometimes cool, sometimes humid, and often rainy…all in all, quite challenging conditions for wildlife-watching. Even the birds seemed to think it was autumn, with a hundred or so Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits (most in good russet plumage, and presumably failed breeders), and smaller numbers of Curlews and Redshanks.

The first fledgling Black-headed Gulls were out and about, and we got great views of Reed Bunting, Stock Dove and Song Thrush in sheltered spots. Common Terns were actively commuting overhead, taking fish they had caught on the estuary inland to their gravel pit breeding sites, and there were lots of Swifts hawking over both Shipyard and Church, as the sound of a barking Muntjac drifted over from the far side of the estuary on the stiff southerly wind.

The saltmarshes bloomed with Sea-lavender, Sea-purslane and Sea Beet, along with Cord Grass, Sea Plantain, Dittander and Golden Samphire.

Other exciting plants included Jersey Cudweed and Four-leaved Allseed on Wivenhoe Quay alongside beautiful patches of Mexican Fleabane, and Nodding Thistle, Wood Sage and Hoary Cinquefoil on the top of the Essex Alps, where Sweet Chestnut flowers were just emerging, filling the air with their mushroomy scent.

And even though insect activity was suppressed (Essex Skipper, Painted Lady, Emperor Dragonfly, Silver Y and Black-tailed Skimmer being the best), there were plenty of other things to see such as galls, leaf mines and fungi, albeit speaking more of autumn than summer!

The late-month Naze walk was altogether more summery (albeit grey at first), becoming but hot and sunny and eventually very humid. Always predictable of course is the fascinating geology, whatever the season, whatever the weather…

Many of the birds were distinctly sandy – summer-plumaged Sanderlings by the water’s edge (with a few Dunlins, Turnstones and Ringed Plovers); Sand Martins breeding in the cliffs; and Sandwich Terns roosting on the beach.
A wide range of flowers attracted our attention, from the common (but beautiful in full bloom) Spear Thistle and Common Fleabane to the scarcer specialities Golden Samphire, Corky-fruited Water-dropwort and Hog’s Fennel.
Stone Point was beginning to look especially flowery, the low dunes with Sea Rocket, Sea Mayweed, Prickly Saltwort and Sea Spurge, while a small proportion of the flowering Marram clumps was infected with Ergot.
Common insects were in abundance …
…while insect stars included the beautiful pink form of Meadow Grasshopper, a large (and fortunately quiescent) Saltmarsh Horsefly, and a tenacious Bee-wolf humping around its unfortunate prey, trying to locate its nest.
Something for everyone with @naturetrektours!

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: High Summer

At times, July has given us a real summer, albeit with quite some fluctuation, a mix of cooler days and very hot spells averaging towards the norm. The rain of the previous months ensured that the garden remained verdantly lush at a time when in previous drought years parts would have been getting frazzled at the edges.

Star plants for insects in the garden were many and varied, but particular note must be made of Euphorbia, Pimpinella, Veronicastrum, Thymus and Eryngium, all of which were punching well above their weight at some times of the month.

It was especially reassuring to see the emergence (or maybe arrival, following immigration) of hoverflies from mid-month. Part of the army of gardeners’ helpers, feeding for example on aphids, they are a sign of good ecological health, even if Marmalade Hoverflies predominated.

Of the other showy insect groups, butterflies were relatively few and far between, especially early in July, although it was good to see some apparent recovery (from parasite attack) of Small Tortoiseshell numbers, and by the month’s end, a good emergence of Purple Hairstreaks.

In contrast, damselflies were everywhere and abundant, with dragonflies likewise on the warmer days.

But at this time of year, the showy creatures are only the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a selection from throughout the month, ranging from egg-sac-carrying Wolf Spiders to the tiny, beautiful and scarce micro-moth Esperia oliviella.

 

Among the insects it is always good to see those that might traditionally be considered garden foes, especially those that eat and disfigure the plants we value. Ok, some are more attractive than others (Mullein Moth being much more charismatic than Solomon’s Seal Sawfly for instance), but every one is somebody else’s food, and their presence in the garden is as good a sign as any of the ecologically-centred ethos by which it is managed. I’ll have holes in my Verbascums, just give me the birds and the bees (and moths and sawflies) please…as Joni Mitchell might have sung.

One aspect of garden biodiversity that is often overlooked is moths, the night-fliers in particular. In mid-month however, we were able to run a moth-trap before a course we were running on Get to know your Garden Invertebrates. The vibrant night-life was very apparent the next morning, with Buff-tips, Rosy Footman and Privet Hawk-moths among the favourites.

And finally a peek at our new acid-grassland hay-meadow on the former overflow car park. Again helped by the rainy spring, this has turned into a wonderful mosaic of grasses and herbs, all of which have been just waiting for the management to be relaxed. I will return to this in a blog later in the year, but do take the opportunity now to see its first flowering.

Do visit the website and book a visit: gardener or naturalist, you will not be disappointed. And keep an eye on the events calendar as we will aim to run the Garden Invertebrates course again as soon as there is the demand. Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens

 

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.