Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 23, 2022

The same… but different

A few posts ago I extolled the not inconsiderable entomological virtues of ivy, that abundant and tenacious scrambler among the woods and hedgerows and a much sought after source of late-season nectar (not even mentioning the subsequent crop of berries gobbled up by many a winter thrush). It was to the garden that my attentions were yesterday drawn and for similar reasons, but to another but closely related plant.

Fatsia japonica

Fatsia is a genus of three species of plant native to East Asia, one of which – F. japonica – is widely planted as an ornaental shrub, certainly here in the UK and very possibly, for all I know, elsewhere also. The large, glossy leaves add texture and shape to a garden, something further enhanced when the stiff, sparse pom-poms of the flower-heads that bloom in the autumn. These heads bear a striking similarity to those very familiar ones of ivy (Hedera helix) and with good reason, as they both belong to the Araliaceae family of plants.

Such similarities are evidently not lost on those chill-hardy insects with a lasting thirst for nectar. Thus with the garden awash with crisp November sunshine, our long-established Fatsia revealed its powers of attraction. There was nothing buzzing among the foliage that would perhaps excite the purist, but then that would be missing the point (and indeed a couple of their number would be regarded by many as pests!). Rather it was an opportunity, perhaps a bonus opportunity to appreciate the weave of small things that continue to thread their way outside our more ordinary spheres of expectation and observation.

A late worker Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) with brushes laden with pollen. This species will regularly have two generations in the the south of the UK, even sometimes a third that takes advantage of winter-flowering shrubs.

The Bluebottle (Calliphora vicina); not something you want to find sitting on your dinner, but one of nature’s valuable ‘cleaner-uppers’.

The Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris); a picnic pain, but with its omnivorous habitats also a controller of many a garden pest.

The Marmalade Fly (Episyrphus balteatus) is one of Britain’s most common hoverflies and with its aphid-devouring grubs an unequivocable friend to the gardener. Note also the two ants in the picture (probably the abundant Black Garden Ant, Lasius niger).

Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 20, 2022

Look!!!

It is amazing what things can turn in the most incongruous of places. This is statement which I am often given to ponder, something which I have done more than once on the pages of this blog. The prompt on this occasion was a bird, silhouetted against a softly glowing dusk clouds. Some context. The place was Leigh Community Centre this evening, as I waited outside to collect my better half and her plethora of boxes from a craft fayre she was selling at (as Lola Swain Designs). The bird, in long-billed, distinctly heavy-chested, head up profile, was a woodcock, flying arrow straight over the roof, by chance as I happened to look up. Some further context. Leigh-on-Sea is town comprising part of the sprawling conurbation of Southend-on-Sea that smothers so much of the northern bank of the widening Thames Estuary. The woodcock is a wading bird, but one of the woods, rather than the marsh and one which is elusive in its crepuscular habits and cryptic plumage. Leigh town on a Sunday afternoon and this bird of the woods definitely do not normally go together.

It is about now that UK woodcock numbers increase from breeding pairs to potently more than a million individuals with migrant arriving for the winter from continental Europe. These birds have previous. A few years back during a late-winter cold-snap one pitched up in my parents, snow-laden back garden, not two-miles from the above and within the same urban sprawl. It stayed there all day, if not huddled among the shrubs by the fence, then happily venturing into the open, probing for worms beneath the white. My brother Chris was on hand to capture the occasion for prosperity.

A Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) in a snowy suburban garden. Picture – Chris Gardner.

This was in a place called Hadleigh, my childhood home. Thoughts of unexpected woodcock sightings put me in mind of other oddities, a stone’s throw, as it happens from that once snowy backyard. Walking across the car park of the local library the buzz of a passing insect caught my geeky eye on its way to dinking itself onto a parking bay beside me. It was a water-scorpion, a true bug whose raptorial forelimbs, adept for the grasping of aquatic prey, and needle-straight breathing tube on the tip of its abdomen are distinctly better suited to life as an ambush predator in some weedy pond than a piece of concrete in the middle of town. It was hasitly collected and taken back for the picture you now see below.

The most bizarre encounter however, took place once, as I drove along the busy A13, just a few hundred metres along the road from by library and home. The eye of a naturalist is always alert to the anomalous. Thus the bird flying parallel with the road as I pulled away from lights was soon identified as something other than the expected pigeon or starling. I was definitely not expecting it to be that super-secretive, squealer of reed-bed, a water rail!

A Water-scorpion (Nepa cinerea) collected in a library car park.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 6, 2022

Roost

Autumn dusk on an Essex hillside and the air is full of chatter, squawk and even the punctuation of gutteral grunt. It is roost time. The latter two of those audial adjectives relate to the 180 or so little egret that have flown up from the Thameside marshes below, pristine-white plumage very nearly gleaming in the dimming light, to gather for the night among the thorny scrub. But it is not they that provide the prompt for this post. It is the jackdaw that come together in greater numbers to occupy the same small expanse of scrubby woodland to spend the hours of darkness. And the word ‘chatter’ barely does justice to the vast repertoire of chuckles, croaks, buzzes and churrs possessed by this most loquacious and sociable of birds.

Jackdaws gathering to an Essex roost; a picture that in all honesty does scant justice to the moment.

Together both species provide me with a spectacle of contrast, of improbable whiteness and thickening black, but it is the sweep and swirl of the 500 or so diminutive crows that mesmerises, rooting me to the spot and unable to leave. This may not be spectacle that a winter visitor to Buckenham Marshes in Norfolk would be astounded by – the numbers that congregate there are mind-boggling – yet this murmuration of hundreds, instead of thousand is scarcely any less hypnotic, as the flock expands and folds in on itself, scatters and coalesces, soars upwards and descends with an ebb and flow of thrumming of wings. It is taking place here, where I live, in a place that I know better than any other; that’s what makes this unexpected (in terms of the numbers that I have never seen before of both egret and daw) as special as anywhere else.

We are not far from town. A galaxy of street-lights shimmers across the creeks to the south, while, if I listen for it, the dull drone of rush hour traffic brings a sense of the urban landscape to north that I cannot see. I am reminded that the wonder of the natural world may reside more closely than we think.

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 16, 2022

From summer into autumn…

The autumn is bringing itself to bear more prominently around the countryside. Of the deciduous trees, all but the stubborn oaks are colouring and relinquishing their foliage, for some, like the thorn bushes, having been replaced the berry-reds and purples. Among the birds, the change of shift is well underway. The brent geese gathering close by are doing so in their thousands, alongside the wading birds and wintering ducks speckling the mudflats and scattered along the coastal creeks in increasing number. The churr of whitethroat among the scrubby places is long-departed and the last swallows to twitter their way over the marshes and their accumulating hordes of winter-ready birds last did so more than a week ago.

Yet, with any seasonal change there is a sense of overlap; the transition, at least in more temperate regions, is never sharply defined. As alluded to above, the incoming flocks of winter meet briefly the outgoing migrants of summer. There are late-flying butterflies and dragonflies that carry the remnants of that warmer season on their wings. Yet it is another that takes a prominent place within this post.

In the early weeks of autumn one thing that I am drawn to on my walks, as much as any teeming pond in the summer, or vibrant late-spring meadow, are the sometimes substantial masses of ivy that may be seen smother old walls or tree trunks and the like. Where they bloom in profusion theirs is a plentiful and important source of late-season nectar for the many insects still on the wing and the eccentricities of any human passer-by with entomological leanings. And among the multitudes of butterflies, bees and hoverflies the hornet, as Europe’s largest species of social wasp, can assume an almost imperious presence. Formerly rather scarce, they seem to have enjoyed something of a renaissance over recent years, certain around where I live in Essex.

Hornet (Vespa crabro)

Often exceeding 30mm in length. They are (like those beetles of previous posts) impressive insects, possessing a kind of mechanical robustness, the stuff perhaps of sci-fi nightmares of huge robotic agents of dystopian enforcement. I have seen queens before that I have momentarily mistaken as a female broad-bodied chaser (Libellula fulva), a not insubstantial dragonfly with a yellow-edged brown abdomen, flying past me with a deep, thrumming buzz of its wings. I think they are rather stunning.

While they are not impartial to the nectar within, they are often seen as predators about the ivy blossoms, dipping and feinting at the other insects nectaring among them. Rarely has one succeeded while I have been watching, but the unfortunate honey bee photographed offered a reminder of the harsher fascinations of the natural world.

Hornet with Honey Bee prey.

For the workers, most of what is devoured is carried away to nourish the larvae of the colony housed in exquisitely crafted, papery nests, fashioned, perhaps, in a tree cavity, or maybe some nearby outbuilding (I have seen them more than once hung from the roofs of viewing hides on nature reserves!). These may contain as many as 1500 cells, although as these are reused the overall productivity of the nest can be much greater than that suggested by the physical confines of the nest.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 28, 2022

On the loquacity of starlings

With autumn gaining ground the starling flocks are gathering and I was reminded of a poem I penned a while ago.

Various Leavings
Outside my door I sometimes find
A curlew gargling in some
Marshy corner I can't quite see.
Or a woodpecker exchanging trees
For telegraph poles.
Or a time-machine and listening
For a World War bomb
Plummeting to earth.
Or just a starling splattering
Guano on the bonnet of my car.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 6, 2022

An Unlikely Special Place

Now, to be perfectly honest, the above picture, whilst pleasant enough, does not capture the best of Pembrokeshire coast. Certainly along the northern stretch of that coastline, it can be one of dizzying cliffs, wildly seething surf and lonely seascapes. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever captured the genuinely true essence of any landscape I have encountered. Not purely because of my own limitations as a photographer, but also, I think, that for me the experience of any place works across all the senses, even when not necessarily aware of each in its own isolation – the subtleties, for instance, of scent and sound. It is, at the end of the day, all about being there.

This is why the image above is significant. It was an unlikely special place along a stretch of coast mostly comprised of granduer and spectacle. We stopped only to take a drink after a short toil uphill. We chose that spot because there was a convenient grassy ledge to sit on. We sat for much longer than the couple of minutes we intended, unable to drag ourselves away.

It was a grey seal loafing in the water down in the little bay that first drew our attention, floating with his head above the surface, briefly clocking us looking down at him before letting his own gaze drift elsewhere along the cliff. The sea behind him glittered brightly in a great corruscating funnel of light, spreading towards the cliffs hazed in the distance and the stony rise of St David’s Head beyond them.

A Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus) sip from Water Mint (Mentha aquatica).

Then our focus was drawn closer, to the grass and bracken cladding the slope directly in front of us, and which the picture doesn’t amply show, was full of flowers. The trickle of a small stream seeped through the rocks to dampen the soil – water mint, purple loosestrife, hemp-agrimony and others all thrived and bloomed among this tiny wetland. And where they flourished, the butterflies thronged. That little scoop in the cliff, while we sat there, was a constant twitch and flutter of wings. Along with the gatekeeper the blue (male) and orange-edged brown (female) of common blue butterflies favoured the mauve heads of the mint; a small copper seemed more intent on the scattered yellow of hawk’s-beards; small tortoisehell and peacock all vied for space on the pale, tightly-packed umbels of the hemp-agrimony; a dark green fritillary dashed through, apparently not tempted by any.

This little spot, that we could so easily have walked passed, drawn onwards by the abundant visual delights all around us, had become the focal point; for butterflies and bees; for the glint of gleeming green that spiralled down to reveal itself as another ‘very impressive beetle‘, this time a rose chafer. A focal point also for two human onlookers so absorbed in equal measure by the small lives, the ever-expanding vista and everything in between.

The Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata) – a not unimpressive beetle.

A sunlit sea towards St David’s Head, Pembrokeshire.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 25, 2022

Where there’s a shell, there’s a home

Rhossili Bay

The Gower is a peninsula of some 180km2 (70 square miles) on the south coast of Wales. It is a place we have been drawn back to over the years, in no small part due to its coastline; one of rocky cliffs, sand dunes, sheltered bays and sandy beaches. It is to Rhossili Bay on the west tip of The Gower that this post draws the attention. Here is to be found a wonderful, flat expanse of sand that never seems to feel busy, despite its popularity, backed by the sandstone hulk of Rhossili Down rising up to close on 200 metres and sheltered to south by the rocky promontory of Worm’s Head.

From the naturalist’s perspective, there would be various topics around which to compose a post like this. A host of rare or scarce insects inhabit the sandy cliffs behind the beach. Nearby sand dunes harbour some similarly uncommon plant species among its colourful ranks. And for dolphin sightings, this has proved a relaible location for us, with a particularly memorable occasion a few years back being a mother and her calf swimming just offshore on a high-tide.

Bottle-nosed Dolpin (Tursiops truncatus) – mother and calf

Yet it is to the ebbing tide lapping onto to the firm wet sand that we go and it search of a creature that I have long held a fascination for – the hermit crab. These are creatures perhaps more familiar to the explorer of rockpools, I have often found them being washed, perhaps with some small amount of crabby frustration, onto the beach-ward extremities of the tide at Rhossili. They are crabs that lack the hardened carapace of other species, opting instead to curl the more elongated, soft body into a conveniently sized and shaped seashell. As the animals grows (the species below may reach 10cm in length), so successively larger shells must be sought out.

The common hermit crab (Pagurus bernhardus) looks a bit like a body-builder that has been working too much on one side, with its coarsely-textured righthand pincer dwarfing the left. The front two pairs of legs are used for walking and when danger looms and having withdrawn eveything else into the shell, it is that out-sized appendage that is kept at the opening to defend the vulnerable body inside. These pincers look fearsome enough for such a small creature, yet in terms of finding food they deployed, like many species of crab, in acquiring scavenged organic material, the variety of which the likes of the hermit crab is decidedly unfussy.

If you visit The Gower, go to Rhossili. It is a fine place to swim and a fine place enjoy some of those wild treasures of Welsh coast.

Common Hermit Crab (Pagurus bernhardus)

P. bernhardus (safely returned to the water) showing the disproportionate claw sizes

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 15, 2022

A Very Impressive Beetle

I have just had the very good fortune to spend a few weeks travelling around Wales. Before the trip I indulged myself in the obligatory research of what flora and fauna I ought to be on the look out for. Among the insects one creature stood out; a beetle of fair proportions (upwards of a couple of centimetres) and striking appearance and something of a rarity, confined as it is to parts of Scotland and Wales.

It was a creature I would endeavour to look out of for when walking in Wales’ fine woodlands (the larvae devlop in birch stumps infected with wood mould), feeding on bramble blossom and other plentiful sources of nectar. I would, as luck would have it and as you have no doubt by now guessed, not have to wait too long. It was however, not the result of avid searching during long hikes in the woods, but rather a chance encounter on the second day of our trip while ambling along the small river running through our campsite.

I had been rather casually inspecting the bank-side meadowsweet flowers for whatever might be drawn to these so very wonderfully-scented blooms. Bees and hoverflies there were aplenty and gatekeeper butterflies too, attracted to the ragwort also in flower. Another movement caught my eye, a largish, but unfamiliar looking bee-like insect circling down among the clouds of meadowsweet. On inspection though, it was no bee, but a beetle. No, not just a beetle, but the beetle; the rather fabulous bee chafer.

Sometimes your luck is just in. Even after the beastie flew off I rediscovered it a short while later on some hogweed. There will be more on Wales in later posts, but for now enjoy a shot of a rather impressive beetle.

Bee Chafer (Trichius fasciatus)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 17, 2022

Not just about the butterflies

Common cow-wheat

Common cow-wheat (Melampyrum pratense) is a reasonably common plant in the woods near where I live, with its small, creamy-yellow trumpets and delicate foliage, in places, carpeting patches of the woodland floor. It is, in its own right, an attractive and welcome part of any woodland scene, but as with any component of a habitat or ecosystem its significance extends further than the confines of its own life cycle.

In the case of common cow-wheat this significance lies within its role as the foodplant for the caterpillars of the rare heath fritillary. This is a butterfly that seems historically to have never been especially common in the UK and which persist with us on the brink. It has always hung on in parts of the South West and in Kent, and was reintroduced to a handfull of Essex woods in the 1990s to help it edge a little further from the precipice of extinction. I am fortunate to have a couple of these woods on, as it were, my doorstep.

A Pound Wood Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia)

I have spent a great deal of time in one of these, the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Pound Wood nature reserve (the subject, as it happens, of my modest, inaugural literary endeavour). The butterflies here have had their ups and downs over the years, but are doing fine; their June flight is one of the delights of early-summer. Yet, with some irony, it is their rarity and unobtrusive beauty that perhaps masks the presence of the wider-reaching ecology of their all important foodplant and even, at times, other rarity.

For instance, in Pound Wood another, decidedly more understated Lepidopteran patron of cow-wheat abounds. Anania fuscalis – sometimes afforded the English name of the cinerous pearl – is one of the larger so-called micro-moths. Compared to the more obvious ones of their butterfly cousins, the charms of these small, greyish moths require closer examination, but are nevertheless there to be found within the fine detail of their more sombre tones. They are fairly common and widespread in places where cow-wheat (and related yellow-rattle – Rhinanthus minor) are similarly numerous.

Anania fuscalis

I few days ago I discovered another cow-wheat devotee in the wood. The cow-wheat shieldbug (Adomerus biguttatus) is also something of a rarity in the UK, suffering a similar fate (although not quite as drastically) as the butterfly. Some shieldbugs are chunky, fairly easily observed creatures. Not so this species, a fact proved by my only recent discovery having spent many, many hours in the wood. Despite a modestly striking appearance, at around half a centimetre in length it is not easily found, something further exacerbated by a tendency of the adults to live on the ground around the foodplant and to burrow into the leaf litter at any disturbance.

I am happy to admit that eventually finding this little bug in the wood was on a par with the continued presence of that rare butterfly, something which I am sure would have drawn a few curious looks to some passers by as I squatted among the swathe of little yellow flowers, striving to get a shot of it.

Cow-wheat Shieldbug (Adomerus biguttatus)

Cow-wheat can be an abundant coppice plant in Pound Wood

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 10, 2022

A very impressive moth

After a long gap, away dabbling with another blog (https://rossgardnerwrites.wordpress.com/) I have decided to make a return to the old favourite, a site that has remained well visited despite my lack of posting on it. Maybe I had been doing something right all that time. A large part of my decision to return to such previously trodden pastures was the sighting of the stunner pictured below.

I was at one of my most faithful and traditional stomping grounds (Hadleigh Great Wood) seeking out a purple emperor for my mum who had never set eyes on these fabulous butterflies. They have not long been a feature of these woods having only begun to occur a few years ago. We saw one, gliding high up around the crowns of a stand of towering poplar trees. Even at height, such is the size and distinction of these so often elusive creatures, that this was a thrill not to be understated. For mum, she was made up with the view of her first ever purple emperor and even for myself it would take something a bit special on our walk to trump it. Then within a few metres and minutes of the butterflies, this robust yellow moth rounded a poplar trunk, momentarily tricking mum with its mimicking genius before settling obligingly on the riven bark. It was a hornet moth (Sesia apiformis). I had been wowed by the more common lunar hornet (S. bembeciformis) before, a few years ago now, at Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire, but never before had I seen, this much scarcer insect.

And what a moth it is. The larvae actually feed on the wood of poplar trees, just beneath the bark. Their life cycle from egg to adult can take several years, similar perhaps to grubs of many of the longhorn beetles that also consume this relatively low-energy foodstuff. The eventual adults emerge during June and July and can sometimes be found resting on poplar trunks in the early morning, but can be otherwise hard to observe. To encounter this one at 4:30 in the afternoon I was counting myself as pretty lucky.

A Hornet Moth, easily distinguished from the more common Lunar Hornet Moth (below) by the yellow markings on the thorax.

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