Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 4, 2019

When the Arctic comes to Town

The seafront at Southend-on-Sea is, while not necessarily in a geographical sense, about as far from the Arctic tundra as you can get.  Where one encompasses a treeless, boulder-strewn wilderness, the other has a funfair.  Where one spends a good part of the year clenched with ice and where the ground can freeze to nearly a metre deep, the other has amusement arcades open year round.   Yet here, despite all of this, is to be found the meeting worlds so very far removed from each other.

It is the birdlife of each that brings the two together.  What Southend also has at its disposal is many, many hectares of tidal mudflats, comprising part of the wide, muddy, low-tide expanse of the Thames Estuary.  For each square metre of this oozing subsrate (of course with some depth implied) there could, by all accounts, be a quarter of a million invertebrates, with many tiny snails and crustaceans and burrowing worms.  The tidal estuary really is an astonishingly productive habitat, a fact certainly not lost on the hosts of birds – the waders and wildfowl – that descend here and all around the UK coasts for the winter.  Many of these are high-Arctic breeders and to which the British winter is a piece of cake by comparison, making the huge wealth of food awaiting them well worth the journey.They are all special in their own right of course, but there is one sound and one sight that brings a certain warmth and sense of wonder at the ways and rhythms of the natural world.

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Brent Goose (Branta bernicla).

By early October the Brent Geese are coming in.  Come November and their numbers here are thousands strong as the UK population as a whole ascends to 120,000 birds.  Aside from invertebrates many of our estuaries also have eel-grass (Zostera), a uniquely exclusively marine flowering plant and a favourite food of the Brents.  And like many of the little sandpipers that scurry about the mud they have flown in from the far north of the Arctic Circle.

High-water and the spreading flotilla of these little black geese is a fine sight indeed.  When they take to the air in one great skein, circling briefly before setting down again is one of the most wonderful sights in our natural calendar.  And whether on the water or in the air, always that comfortable murmur of their soft, babbling, alomst conversational calls.

What they all make of the seafront on a Friday night is anyones guess.

Brent Geese on the wing (scaled)

The Brent Geese take to the air with Southend seafront and its famous pier as a backdrop.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 21, 2019

Timing is everything

Sometimes, in the world of nature, timing is everything.  Many a birdwatcher will tell you that there is that special week, usually around late August, when the autumn bird migration peaks and all sorts of travelling birds can turn up in all sorts of places.  There will be the best times to go looking for elusive butterflies, like the very splendid Purple Emperor, which is apparently best looked for in its woodland haunts during the fortnight around the middle of July.

So too might there be an optimum fungi time, although it can be something of a moveabe feast.  It is sometimes not too difficult to predict the autumn flushing of fungi, perhaps all the more so this year with the rather long and very dry summer we have experienced in the south-east of England.  Much needed rains have arrived and stayed over the weeks this blog has been silent.  The fungal flush was inevitable.

Yet, with that said, good timing can make a difference.  A visit to a local ancient wood (the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Pound Wood nature reserve) on the 13th of this month and the woodland floor was quite literally littered with mushrooms.  Some required a keener eye, like the curious looking White Helvella (Helvella crispa), while others rather forced themselves onto the gaze, like that archetypal ‘toadstool’, the boldy capped and white spotted Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), or the pied and equally striking Magpie Inkcap (Coprinopsis picacea).  This last in particular can require that the timing is right.  So many times have I seen these after the short-lived fruiting body has begun transforming into a black and gloopy mess, the inky substance that gives the various inkcaps their name.  Is was indeed a fine treat to find them in tip-top condition.

Less than a week later at another fine ancient wood and anticipated mycological bonanza and the fungi rather needed to be sought after.  The Fly Agaric had past their best and mushrooms in general were harder to find.  Such though, are the vagaries that makes the natural world so compelling.

Helvella crispa (scaled)

Helvella crispa – something of an oddity among mushrooms.

Fly Agaric - Pound Wood (scaled)

Fly Agaric – the archetypal ‘toadstool’.

Magpie Inkcap 2 (scaled)

The striking Magpie Inkcap.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 14, 2019

Ivy

The bane of many a gardener, ivy is, in its way, an extraordinary plant.  It is one that in the earlier stages of growth can be quite… well, not exactly fragile, but easy enough to rip from the ground, certainly when compared to the stubbornly-rooted bramble that quickly requires a spade for removal.  Yet its tenacity and perniciousness of growth are equals to its thorny counterpart.

As is often the case, the gardener’s bane may be the naturalist’s boon.  Even so, I would have to admit that for much of the year the humble Hedera helix goes mostly under the radar.  It is one of those plants that can seem to fill in the background without necessarliy drawing particular attention.  It is perhaps this very quality that when left to grow thick and dense can make it so attractive to small birds in search of an unobtrusive situation within which to build a nest.

For me however, late summer is when the ivy comes into its own.  Come September, when the days are still warm and filled with small life, but when those abundant provisions of nectar that we might associate with high summer are increasingly thin on the ground, a mass of flowering ivy bathed in sunlight can positively throng with activity.  Stand beside one and it will audibly buzz, so irresistable and sought after are its copious, if slightly inconspicuous blooms.  I have been finding myself lately lured to them, as much almost as their nectar thirsty patrons……

Syrphus ribesii 5 (scaled)

Syrphus ribesii is a common hoverfly whicg like many of the species is attracted to ivy flowers in late summer.

Chrysogaster sp. - Downs 2

Not all hoverflies are as boldly marked as the previous species, but this Chrysogaster sp. does have rather striking eyes.

Colletes hederae - Downs 2 (scaled)

The Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae) was described as new to science as recently as 1993 and hadn’t been observed on mainland Britain until 2001. Still known largely from southern England, it is however spreading northwards. It is the latest flying of the Colletes species of solitary bees.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 1, 2019

River

River Dart boulders 2 (plus poem)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 25, 2019

Hop in, hop out

Now, I’m all for getting out and about and into the thick of our wild places.  It is, after all, the only true way to begin unravelling the real depths of the lives being lived in a place, even in the most seemingly impinged upon of circumstances.  Sometimes however, those same little treasures of the natural world can reveal themselves to you, often at the least expected of times and apparently, at least in the following instances, often involving Orthoptera – the grasshoppers and crickets.

Cue a walk back home after a long hike among the open, wildlife-rich landscape that persists in a swathe of many hundreds of hectares along the northern back of the Thames Estuary, somewhere that has thankfully resisted the ever-looming threat of development.  I encountered much, yet it was heading homeward along a busy stretch of the A13 that I would find one of the giants among UK invertebrates.  I had heard them on my walk, but had not been able to home in on the source of the penetrating, so-called ‘sewing machine’ song of the Great Green Bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima), such is its vertriloquism to the human ear.  It seemed slightly incongruous then, that I should track it down on a field edge beside the rumble of rush-hour traffic.  They are our largest Orthopteran and never fail to impress.

Great Green Bush-cricket 4 (scaled)

A beast amongst bush-crickets – the Great Green Bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima).

Then a couple of days later and a stroll along a suburban street brought two more chance encounters.  Firstly a biege blur of wings speeding past me at waist height showed themselves to belong to a Field Grasshopper (Chorthippus brunneus).  This is a common enough insect of dry, sunny grasslands, but nevertheless a pleasant surprise for all its unexpectedness.  But a few hundred metres further on I was to meet another, altogether scarcer insect.

Usually when one finds an emerald green insect hopping about on the ground it proves to be an Oak Bush-cricket (Meconema thalassium) that has somehow been disturbed from its more usual and more preferred leafy habitat.  This time though, it turned out to be a Southern Oak Bush-cricket (Meconema meridionale).  These are recent UK colonisers recorded for the first time in 2001 and which appear to be continuing a recent European expansion by finding themselves scattered across the south-east of England.  How a wingless bush-cricket gets across the English Channel does pose certain pertinent questions.  One theory is that they managed to hitch lifts on vehicles.  However they have managed it they are here and seemed to be enjoying it.  Fortunately I had my camera with me.

Southern Oak Bush-cricket (scaled)

Southern Oak Bush-cricket (Meconema meridionale)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 22, 2019

Swallows

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My attention has been drawn a few times, just recently, to the twittering overhead of bands of Swallows.  They seem to be, or so one might fancy, a meeting of family groups, with a mixture of full adults resplendent with their long, forked tail feathers and juvenile birds yet to grow these most distinctive, ‘swallow-esque’ appendages.

Come late summer and these gatherings seem to be made with a certain air of migratory intent.  The mind wanders and I find myself thinking about these young birds and the feat they are soon to undertake.  One must of course be cautious when attemping to superimpose our own reasoning onto the behaviour of other animals, but it is diffucult not consider the ‘knowledge’ of a journey of such magnitude as the swallows take on twice each year and the bearing that this may have on the birds in question.  And with the young birds having no direct experience of it, do they have any inkling at all of the enormity of the task ahead of them?  It is a task, after all, that may require them to make a 9500km (6000mile) journey in not too much more than a month. Is it just as well for them if they are unaware of it?  ‘Ignorance is bliss’, and all that.

‘Direct experience’ may not be required for them to know that something big is about to take place.  Benjamin Kidd (1858-1916) wrote of a Cuckoo he had reared from the egg and how when the time for migration was upon it the bird (which had never known another of its own kind) would for periods of time begin to quiver and fan its wings, behaviour which would eventually escalate until the bird “became lost in a kind of trance” and “locked in the passion of that sense by which the movement of flight was being stimulated.

It is all some food for thought for sure and does much to remind us of the natural wonder that is migration, something that still puzzles and challenges us to know more about it.

Swallow at nest (scaled)

A Swallow (Hirundo rustica) making use of an artificial nest site in Norfolk.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 14, 2019

Rain or Shine

Looking through the notes for my talk at the British Birdfair this weekend I reminded myself of something that seemed particularly pertinent.  It concerned a part of the book thinking about how our ‘Shifting Perspectives’ can enrich our experiences of the natural world.  By way of introduction I suggest that we might experience this in seeking out the beauty in a rain-soaked summer’s day, when indoors can seem the last place you would want to spend all your time.  Looking out, as I do, through the back window into a drenched garden beneath a dreary, cloud-heavy sky, it seems a challenge to be freshly met.

Some days the philosophical effort required may be greater than others, but beauty and surprise there can indeed be.  This I discovered anew not more than two days previously.  Another drab and rainy day that was also and in the evening, having been indoors for far too long, I poured myself an ale and sat on the back step to drink it.  I had a few snails for company, relishing, as I’m sure they were, the choice conditions of a still dripping garden.  Then a fluttering among the trails of unkempt wysteria crowding the outdoor light made me aware something close by other than my ponderously questing companions.  It turned out to be a rather fine moth by the name of the Lesser Swallow Prominent, which no doubt had been tempted into the garden by our equally rampant Silver Birch on which the female moth lays her eggs.

Beautiful and surprising in equal measure.

Lesser Swallow Prominent 2 (scaled and cropped)

Lesser Swallow Prominent (Phoesia gnoma)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 12, 2019

British Birdfair

A wee mention that I have been selected as one of the featured authors at the 2019 British Birdfair this coming weekend to talk about my book ‘The Greater World of Little Things’.  The event held at Rutland Water runs from Friday 16th to Sunday 18th.  I’m speaking on the Friday.  Click on the Birdfair logo for more information about the event and  on the book for more information about that.

birdfair logo

Front cover WLT

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 10, 2019

The Wren

Wren (is an inspector)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 24, 2019

Suffolk in Summer

So the blog limps, neglectfully along, exactly a month month since my last post!  I have, as previously lamented on more than one occasion, been terribly slack and somewhat distracted.  Distractions though, have lessened (I now possess a qualification in ‘Supporting Children and Young People with Autism’) so hopefully time at the keyboard can be turned to other things.

It just happens that I spent last weekend enjoying the delights of the northern reaches of Suffolk in the campervan, specifically the open and afforested country of West Stow Country Park and its surrounds, a dreamy stretch of the River Lark and the fascinating environs of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Lackford Lakes reserve.  Below, therefore, are a few images of some of the delights therein……

Pseudospinolia neglecta (pos) (scaled)

A jewel indeed. Sometimes called jewel wasps, the ruby-tailed wasps are a difficult lot to ID, but this one looks like it might be the scarce Pseudospinolia neglecta.

Stictoleptura rubra 2 (scaled)

Stictoleptura rubra – an uncommon species belonging to the impressive longhorn beetles.

River Lark - West Stow (scaled)

The dreamy River Lark on a hot summer’s day……

Pike (scaled)

…… the haunt of Pike (Esox lucius); even this youngster makes for a fierce predator of the weedy shadows.

Kingfisher - Lackford Lakes 5 (scaled)

Sometimes that ‘blue flash’ stops still out in the open. The old flooded gravel pits of Lackford Lakes has developed something of a reputation for seeing kingfisher (Alcedo atthis).

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