Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 18, 2020

A web of intrigue

Every morning when I wake up and go into the kitchen, grabbing the kettle and walking towards the sink to fill it with water, my eyes have for the last few weeks have been greeted with one of true and undisputed marvels of nature. A Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) has taken up residence on the kitchen window, adorning it each day with the wonder that is its web.

The Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus).

The more I think about spiders the more astounding they seem, purveyors of such ingenuity in such a variety of expression and yet everything contained within a tiny, tiny brain. We cannot, of course, jump to too hasty assumptions about the intellectual capabilities of any of our fellow creatures – we cannot, after all, talk to spiders, mice, haddock or anything else to ascertain what they may or may not know. But surely with something like a spider it is a question of the physical number neurons able to be fitted into such a small space. This is likely to be something rather less than a million, compared to the 90 million or so in a hamster’s brain and the 100 billion in that of a human.

Yet while a spider’s brain is very, very small it has apparently been imbued through near-countless generations of arachnid evolution (fossil evidence suggests a lineage extending back well over 300 million years) with this extraordinary ability to manipulate a substance (i.e. silk – something that is absurdly strong yet pliably stretchy) in such a way as to incorporate a not inconsiderable degree of engineering efficiency. Across spider-kind this is deployed to astonishing and varied effect.

I have watched a Garden Spider constructing its web in my garden. A tight-rope is first extended across an appropriate expanse from which to hang the circular web, abseiling down to run across the ground or vegetation below, before climbing up the other side to fix the line. Then other supporting strands are set onto which the circular threads can be attached. The whole thing can look a haphazard shambles, until towards the completion of the structure tensing lines are put in place to transform the whole into that wondrous and copious retainer of autumn-morning dew.

This all demonstates to me a remarkable distillation of instinct and behaviour into an extraordinary pinpoint of existence. I find it all compellingly perplexing, yet reassuring to consider that as much as we already know about the natural world that there is so much more to be discovered. If only we could ensure that it is all still around in the future for us to realise the opportunities.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 4, 2020

Last days and new dawns

Autumn sunshine;

Falling leaves growing wings,

Lifting them upwards.

The Brent Geese are in. I saw a skein of 200 hundred or so, sweeping in across the low-tide mudflats of the Thames Estuary the other day. Give it a few more weeks and there will be thousands; autumn merging into winter. But those last, summery days of autumn’s beginning have left their mark.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 16, 2020

September

It is September that arguably shows the flux of the seasons more so than any other time of year. It is a time of contrasts, more marked than of the cusp of autumn to winter and also perhaps that of the spring and summer when that wonderful surge of productivity simply continues apace from one into the other. It is a time when we still might see those potent images of the summer still very evident, but when we may receive clear messages of the autumn arriving and even of the winter in waiting. The risk here is that I begin to sound like some sort of premature harbinger of ever-shortening days and the countryside retreating into itself. But the turning of the seasons is, I think, a thing to be embraced, essential to the freshly-engaging and recurring wonders of the temperate natural world.

A Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) bathing.

Living close to the Essex side widening gape of the Thames Estuary, in a single walk I might have the good fortune to admire the rich, yellow wings of Clouded Yellow butterflies, skimming across the sward in search of the few remaining knapweed blooms, while almost in the same breath cast my eyes across the tidal mud to see the probing Greenshank and stooping Curlew scouring the water’s edge. The butterflies are southern migrants unable to survive our winters, the wading birds passage migrants from the north and a whisper of the thousands that will later gather for the winter.

Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus)

Dragonflies are on the wing. We are lucky enough to have the Southern Migrant Hawker hereabouts, a species still scarce, but perhaps in the process of colonising the UK. They have been on the wing here since the last days of June and there are still a couple of males maintaining their territories, but now they might carry out their patrols, low over their pond or length of weedy ditch, against a backdrop of scarlet Hawthorn berries or the mauve of Blackthorn weighing heavy on the branches. It is these fruits of course, that may later lure down the flocks of thrushes, the Fieldfare and Redwing fleeing the pains of a harsh northern winter.

The piercing blue eyes of a male Southern Migrant Hawker (Aeshna affinis).

Just a couple of examples of these seasonal pairings that I have had the pleasure of over recent weeks. Each of you, I am sure, wherever you find yourself looking, will have your own.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 30, 2020

Hmmmmm………

A rather fabulous insect has pitched up on the grassy slopes of Hadleigh Country Park, my much-loved local wildlife hotspot.

The season is a-changing, perhaps more keenly to the naturalist’s eye, who might notice the subtler changes in the countryside, taking place even as we continue to enjoy some summery weather.  The grasslands of The Downs (as I affectionately refer to them) have past their colourful peak.  The white of Wild Carrot is fading on the slopes, as is the yellow gleam of Bird’s-foot Trefoil.  The colour shifts now to the Hawthorn bushes loaded with scarlet berries and the fruit laden Bramble and Blackthorn with their respective shades of dark purple fruits.  Purple also is another flower, the brighter tones of Lesser Knapweed that blooms here so abundantly during late summer.  It’s own haze of colour, like the others, is receding, but still sufficiently present to lure an intriguing visitor.

The Hummingbird Hawk-moth is an immigrant to the UK, arriving in the spring from Southern Europe but unable to survive our winters.  As such they occur here in varying numbers.  Some years they can be seen almost anywhere, while in others their appearance can prove something of a rarity.  Today is the only time so far in 2020 that I have caught sight of the unmistakable orange blur of the hindwings, drifting and then darting in search of nectar.  Spring arrivals regularly breed in the UK, laying their eggs on bedstraw species, and it is perhaps likely that some of these offspring, like other migratory moths (e.g. Silver Y), make a return flight in the autumn.

This one was evidently very fond of knapweed, hovering to a standstill and extending its long proboscis, searchingly into the flower.  It is not diffucult to appreciate how they have earned their name.

Macroglossum stellatarum

Hummingbird Hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum).

Macroglossum stellatarum

Hummingbird Hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) advancing on a knapweed (Centaurea nigra) flower.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 22, 2020

A few words on a heatwave

A fly's eye

Drowsy green shadows –

Even the flies are struggling

To keep themselves cool.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 5, 2020

Is it a wasp, is it a moth….?

Lunar Hornet Moth 6 (scaled)

The superb Lunar Hornet Moth (Sesia bembeciformis).

It was Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892) who, while exploring the Amazon with Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), first began to realise the startling similarities between certain species of butterfly.  He discovered that a number of species of non-poisonous butterflies very closely resembled other completely unrelated, but poisonous (by dint of incorporating toxins from foodplants consumed as caterpillars) species.  He reasoned that over the course of evolution (which of course his travelling companion Wallace was destined to make great strides towards providing a provable theory for) the harmless species had come to incorporate the warning colours of their toxic lookalikes in order to benefit from the reduced predation that that conferred.  Many instances of this so called Batesian mimicry have since been identified, perhaps most easily observed through mimics of stinging insects.  There are many species of hoverfly, for instance, that resemble bumblebees, honeybees and wasp, and even a few beetles that do likewise.  Oh, and the odd moth too.

I’ve had a good year for clearwing moths, in as much as I have seen two.  Most years it would be zero.  There are perhaps fifteen species of clearwing at large in the UK, some of which a rare, none of which are common.  They are all wasp mimics.  A few years ago I was lucky enough to encounter a fabulous Lunar Hornet Moth, an impressive beast and and more than a half-decent Hornet lookalike.  It was my first clearwing.

This year it was two of the much smaller, but still beautiful species that I happened upon.  The Red-belted Clearwing was nectaring on bramble blossom in a friend’s suburban garden, that I noticed while idly scanning the blooms for bees.  Luckily I had a camera to hand.  The lovely Six-belted Clearwing was new to my eyes, an entirely unexpected discovery while browsing among Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus – the larval foodplant) on the off-chance of some of the scarcer bumblebees I knew to be in the area.

It’s amazing what you can find when you’re not really looking for it.

Red-belted Clearwing - Chalkwell 2

A Red-belted Clearwing (Synanthedon myopaeformis) in an Essex garden.

Six-belted Clearwing

Six-belted Clearwing (Bembecia ichneumoniformis), Hadleigh Country Park, Essex.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 4, 2020

A Welcome Return

Argynnis paphia

Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)

With so many losses and seemingly ever-steepening declines taking place in the natural world, it is with no small degree of pleasure to report a definite gain, at least in my local area, but hopefully elsewhere also.  It concerns no less than one of our most impressive of butterflies, the Silver-washed Fritillary, a large species that requires  little more than the simple combination of richly orange-brown wings, marked with black lines and spots in striking contrast, to turn the head.  On settling, the partly eponymous silver-green sheen on the underside serves only to enhance their beauty.

They have returned to several of my local, south-east Essex woods, something which appears to be taken place further afield around the county as a whole.  Their absence had stretched across several decades.  In one, well-recorded wood, (Belfairs Nature Reserve) very few observations were taken after the 1950s, extending only into the 1970s.  The insect I had the pleasure of encountering last summer in the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Pound Wood nature reserve was very probably also the first seen there, it could be guessed, since the early part of the 20th century.  So too the butterfly that prompted me to write this post, which I photographed yesterday in West Wood (Thundersley).

The larval food-plants of the Silver-washed Fritillary are dog-violets (Viola sp.).  Interestingly the butterflies don’t lay their eggs directly onto the plants, but are known instead to do so about a metre up the trunk of tree with violets growing about the base.  Certain Viola species are common enough, widely distributed plants.  May the butterfly’s resurgence continue.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 1, 2020

An Essex Wood

White Admiral - Pound Wood 2

A White Admiral (Limenitis camilla) at Pound Wood, Essex.

I have contributed an article to another site, extolling the virtues of a place particularly close to my heart, Pound Wood – a fine area of ancient woodland, brimming with wild things.  Click here to check it out.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 25, 2020

Some soldier beetles

Isn’t there a saying about someone with an inordinate fondness for beetles?  When it comes to the natural world I think I may have an inordinate fondness for more or less everything.  This post is nevertheless, the turn of some of those hard-cased, so very diverse band of insects.

Most in the UK are familiar with the Common Red Soldier Beetle (Rhagonycha fulva), whose black tipped, reddish colouration has been said to recall the military uniforms of old, hence (if this is true) the name.  They are an abundant summer insect, often smothering the white umbels of hogweed and the like in search of pollen.  They are however, just one of 40 or so British species of soldier beetles (the Cantharidae), a few of which I have met with recently……

Cantharis nigricans - Pound Wood

Cantharis nigricans (Pound Wood, Essex) is a hunter of small insects among the low vegetation and perhaps also on the rich pickings attracted to umbellifer flowers.  Note the greyish hue to the elytra (wing-cases) and the black on the hind legs (a bit difficult to see here) extending above the ‘knee’.

Cantharis rufa - Pound Wood

Cantharis rufa. Another species found in Pound Wood yesterday and one of several orange-brown species. Note the black band above the ‘knees’.

Cantharis fusca - Hadleigh Countyr Park

Cantharis fusca is quite a large species, usually well over a centimetre long. This one was photographed a few weeks back at Hadleigh Country Park. Note how the black mark on the thorax joins with the black of the head (the black mark on the similar and common C. rustica is in the centre of the thorax, surrounded by red).

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 12, 2020

A thin hold of a different kind

Gaucium flavum

The intense hue of Yellow Horned-poppy (Glaucium flavum).

Every once in a while nature might remind us of the tenacity that can see it maintain even the most slender of toeholds, sometimes firmly against the face of human doings.  Southend seafront has long been a place for the entertainment of people, since its Victorian heyday when hordes would visit for a taste of the medicinal sea air, right up to the present day with day-trippers from East London travelling across by train for the open space and presumably the same maritime atmosphere so sought after by those in the past.  The coastal habitats that would once have abutted the seashore are long, long gone.  But not quite.

East of the main seafront, with its eateries and amusement arcades, where the footfall may be more discerning and the ‘entertainments’ are few, is to be found a fragment, a surprising relic of a natural community long past.  For maybe a kilometre along the top of beach and up against the seawall is to be found a strip – in places maybe 6 or 7 metres wide, but mostly rather narrower – of vegetation to recall a glimpse of those bygone times.  It is that sparse community of plants, incorporating some of those so highly specialised as to tolerate the water and nutrient scarce beach habitat.  And there are others that one might imagine would begin to stabilise the wind-shifting sand to create the succession of habitats inland, perhaps taking in banks of low dunes and flower-studded grassland behind them.  This is all conjecture, of course, but it makes for a fine place for the mind to wander.

So here, with their own thin hold on life, are to be found Yellow Horned-poppy (Glaucium flavum) and Sea-holly (Eryngium maritmum), two of those specialists able to eke out a life amid the the shingle and sand.  The latter, given its spiny-leaved, globe-flowered appearance, is an attractive but rather unlikely member of the Apiacae, a family to which such umbel-bloomed plants as Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) and Hogweed (Hercleum sphonylium) belong.  Behind them a sparse stand of grasses spreads itself thinly around the Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), dandelion-flowered Cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata), rosettes of Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and others that have found their niches and scatter the stony sand with chlorophyl and colour.  And where there are flowers there are insects; I saw at least three species of bumblebee foraging among the sprinkle of blooms.

We can still find much better examples of such pioneering coastal habitat elsewhere, but for what it represents this little remnant is something far greater than its physical parts.

Eryngium maritimum

The prickly beauty of Sea-holly (Eryngium maritimum).

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