Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 24, 2019

Love is sweet

Heath Fritillary - Pound Wood 2 (scaled)

Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia)

Some things you notice by chance.  I was walking in one of my local woods the other week, ostensibly to count that rare little beauty, the Heath Fritillary, to help keep the warden informed of their doings.  The count took half an hour or so, but then followed another hour and half immersing myself in that half-hidden flood of life that can fill a June wood.  That buzz of life which at first seems to exisit just on the edge of your senses, but once you have tuned in reveals itself to fill every nook and cranny of the place; whether or not half-imagined, the effect is the same and no less a wonder.

As I was begining my reluctant and decidedly long-winded way through the wood to home, I noticed a large and very handsome Hornet fly in front of me.  She didn’t carry on her way through the trees and across the nearby clearing, but seemed especially preoccupied with an oak tree standing beside the path.  I look more closely and quickly realised what had drawn her attention.  It was a sap run, or more of a seepage, leaking from a would in the bark.

The sap of an oak tree is clearly irristiably sweet, for she was not the only visitor I would observe there, on that occasion and other visits later.  A Speckled Wood butterfly for one.  The adults usually sup on the aphid-produced honeydew coating the tops of trees, but are evidently not averse to a bit tree sap on the side.  Most other visitor were flies, like gleaming metalic greenbottles and another distinctly orange species.

Flies, I realise, are not everyone’s cup of tea, but one of their number was of particular interest, with perhaps enough of look about it to capture the gaze of any with eye for the wild things.  It was the robust-looking and attractive hoverfly, Volucella inflata.  The adults appear to have a marked liking for the sweet sap, but it also appears that the larvae actually develop there also.  Proof once again, if any were required, that wherever there is an opportunity there will be something willing to take it.

Volucella inflata (plus Lucilia) (Scaled)

The hoverfly Volucella inflata (plus greenbottle – Lucilia species)

Phaonia pallida 2 (scaled)

‘A distinctly orange fly’ – probably Phaonia pallida

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Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 6, 2019

Beauty in miniature

June arrives in the woods with concerted hum – not necessarily audibly so – of life.  It is a hum that can indeed be heard, but is also one that can persists on the very edge of your senses – not quite heard, but you know it’s there nevertheless.

Such is the burgeoning of woodland plantlife, seeing some of those creatures that contribute theirs to the throng can be more of a difficulty than one might expect.  The trickle of birdsong and the twitterings of fledgling birds all too often come from deep, verdurous cover.  The life of a June wood can sometimes seem little more than so many flitterings and scurries among the undergowth and amid the canopy overhead.

But there is, of course,  the flicker of smaller lives and smaller wings that glimmer in and out of the sunshine.  If we shift our focus then that hum comes more firmly and more fully into our senses.  And what things might we then discover……

Alabonia geoffrella

At barely a single centimetre in length the micromoth Alabonia geoffrella can easily go unnoticed, but what a little beauty it is.

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So too the closely related and rather scarce Dasycera oliviella.

Degeer's Longhorn 6

And what about the gleaming hues of the stunning longhorn moth Nemophora degeerella ?

Micropterix calthella on buttercup

Smaller yet – perhaps less than half a centimetre long – are the golden flakes of Micropterix calthella. Look for them crowded on to buttercup flowers in the damper woodland clearings. Micropterix species are unique in being the only moths to have biting mouthparts with which they chew pollen.

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The otherwordly charms of a Speckled Bush-cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima) nymph; the miniscule embodiment of a summer in the making.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 21, 2019

Swifts

Life is busy and I am forgetful.  The blog gets neglected.

But the Swifts are back!

Swift (adjusted) plus poetry

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 30, 2019

Author evening

Something that might be of interest if you’re in the area, hosted by yours truly……

The Greater World of Little Things - Rayleigh Library

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 25, 2019

Old Friends and Woodland Walks

Moving house and for the best part of three weeks waiting for connection and thus  internet free – the latter being a strangely liberating experience, but not conducive to regular blog posting.  During those few weeks the spring has maintained its surge forth.  Each year I am freshly enthralled by the unfolding of this wonderful part of the year.

It is to old favourite, nay, an old companion that I turn to as the inspiration for this post.  The Speckled Wood has returned to woodland fold and whose combination of creamy markings on chocolate-brown wings, along with the eye-spots typical of the ‘browns’, provides a simple, yet subtly striking beauty.

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Speckled Wood (Parage aegeria)

This is a butterfly with which I have long associated a sense of companionship.  When walking, even in some of the shadiest of woods, the sighting of a Speckled Wood is a ‘completer of pictures’, an essential part of the woodland scene.  Their appearence, fluttering along the sunny ride, or flitting through the slanting shards of canopy-piercing sunlight, is greeted like that of an old friend well met.  Partakers of aphid honeydew coating the leaves in the crowns of trees they are rarely seen taking nectar from flowers.  The larvae though, feed on grasses and the the adults of still drawn groundwards, the males holding their territories, often with considerable aggression and comendable vehemence.

Not that we have always been able to take their reappearance each spring as for granted as we might be inclined to now.  In the early part of the 20th century they had become extinct across great swathes of the UK to be found only in a very few scattered locations.  Their recovery during the decades since the Second World War has been extraodrinary, to the extent now that they are even spreading in the more northerly parts of their range.

Long may their good fortunes continues

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 31, 2019

White Wash

Having previously extolled the simple beauty of the flushing foliage of the humble Hornbeam, it is a theme I feel compelled to continue.  Beneath those unfurling leaves may spread another of the wonders of the springtime British wood.  The cerulean flood of the Bluebell that can smother a woodland floor come the later weeks of April rightly receives a great deal of attention, but less so, it would seem, its precursor.  Yet to find the ground dappled in spring sunshine and awash with the white faces of Wood Anemone is arguably no less a spectacle in its own right.

Wood Anemone - Thrift Wood (scaled)

A wonderful spread of Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa).

I am happy to say that there is a wood not too far from where I live (the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Thrift Wood) where to visit in late-March/early April is to be met with such a scene.  In common with many of the woodland plants that thrive beneath the tree canopy their time is the early spring before the emerging foliage above robs them of sufficient sunlight for them to carry out their life-cycle.  This is part of the reason that the spectacular appearance such plants is as stunning as it is, this glorious abundance of colour which proves the arrival of the season proper and an indelible antidote to austere tones of the winter in retreat.

Wood Anemone plus ladybird (scaled)

An image of spring – Anemone plus Seven-spot Ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata).

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 24, 2019

Hornbeam

Let’s get something straight.  A post a month is no way to run a blog.  I know this.  Yet things occupy time, pressing things – nothing onerous, just things that need to be prioritised –  and the blog slips to the back of the mind.  Perhaps then, my ramblings should be given higher priorities.  This blog is, after all, important enough to me so that I keep it limping along through barren times and to post apologetically for my lack of blogging productivity.

I shall try to revive things with a simple post about something simple in itself and sublimely wonderful.  The first unfurlings of hornbeam buds in spring is, for me, one of nature’s great beauties.  Not that we should necessary describe it as simple, as I have indeed just done.  I am quite sure the biomechanics that go into the flushing of leaves and the revival from winter’s dormancy of that great green machine of the woodland canopy are the result of quite remarkable processes.  Rather the result is simple and all the more stunning for it.  The product of it all is a shade of green so fresh that to look at it could almost quench a thirst.  Catching the sun the unsullied new leaves gleam on the branches, energising a phosphorescence that persists even through the gloom of a cloud swaddled sky.

Hornbeam leaf - fresh plus catkin (scaled)

Fresh Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) leaves, plus catkin, catch the March sun.

And behind all of these aesthetic virtues is a tree that occupies an important ecological niche, filling the understorey beneath the loftier canopy of the oaks with which they will so often be found.  It is one that underpins the lifecycles of more than 80 species of invertebrate.

It is a fine time the beginning of spring.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | February 25, 2019

Musings of a Sunday Afternoon

Nuthatch 2

The Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) – a denizen of the woods.

I am often, these days, when walking in the woods happy to have my route dictated by the proximity of other walkers – if there is an empty path to choose, I’ll follow that one.  This, I dare say, makes me sound something of an unsociable grouch with no kind word for anyone.  This I am fairly sure is not true, as hopefully my friends and colleagues would vouch.  It’s just that whilst out in the wild places it is often my own company that I seek, as well as, of course, the company of the creatures who call such places home.  Such evasive behaviour perhaps creates a stronger empathy  with such animals, which themselves are doing something similar so that they may go about their business in the quieter corners of the woods.  I would sometimes go as far to say that in some small way I myself begin to think like a denizen of woods

A warm spring-like Sunday brings many folk out into the woods.  Rightly so too.  The woods on such a day without visitors within them would seem quite wrong, as much as some might crave a greater sense of solitude.  How else are children supposed to experience the first hand pleasures of their natural environment, to feel an integral part of it and to sow the seeds of a respect and appreciation that they may carry with them throughout their lives.  There are too many reasons these days to stay indoors.

I think the more of us who can think like denizens of the woods the better.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 27, 2019

Estuarine Dramas

Yesterday was a cloudy but calm day over the estuary of the River Crouch.  It was though, a sense of benignity that obscured the many dramas of estuary life, enacted every day, but so often beyond the human gaze.  They are dramas however, that may on occasion be brought to the fore.  As I walked across the marsh along one side of the river I was afforded a fine view of the wading birds flocking in their hundreds across the low tide mud.  There were maybe 400 little Dunlin, scurrying and probing, half as many of each Golden Plover and Lapwing, a liberal scattering of Redshank and a few dozen Grey Plover.  All were foraging in the invertebrate rich mud with an air of purposeful contentment.

redshank (3) (scaled)

Redshank (Tringa totanus)

And then to a bird they were airborne.  A swarm of wings swept up-river, others scattered across the grazing marsh on the far bank.  Surely my arrival hadn’t put them to flight; I had walked this path many a time without so much as ruffling a feather.  I looked upwards for sight of a predators wings, a Peregrine perhaps, but saw nothing but the apparently panicked waders.  Then a pair of wings stood out from the rest, barely larger than the masses filling the air, but different.  It was a Merlin, that little marauder, Europe’s smallest falcon hardly bigger than the plovers it pursued, but enough of a menace to them to trigger that wave of panic across the mud.  Perhaps more familiar to some as that flash of grey hounding its quarry low across the ground, this one had singled out its target and had followed it higher into the sky.  I had seen this once before, when I watched one Merlin almost taunting a Skylark climbing desperately upwards in an effort to shake its attacker off.  This one had squandered its element of surprise – the plover survived and the frustrated predator sloped away.

I continued my walk and everything was calm again.  The birds had settled, just a few hundred metres upstream to resume their own predations.  Then another shape appeared over the marsh as the sleek form of a Kestrel sped by overhead.  It didn’t seem to be making a concerted play at the waders on the river, but its appearance was enough to the send the birds skyward once again.  Little rest it seems for feeding masses, but equally little joy for hungry falcons.

kestrel hovering 5 (scaled)

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

As I walked further up-river everything, once again, was calmness.  Oystercatcher were picking their way diligently through the more stony stretches of the estuarine mud, while Black-headed Gull loafed lazily on the wing or standing along the water’s edge.  The gulls though, we also ever-watchful.  I noticed the more purposeful movements of a pair of those clean, white wings.  A Redshank had evidently founded itself some desirable morsel and the gull aimed to have it.  The chase was on.  The smaller Redshank zig-zagged low over the river, reluctant to gain too much height.  The gull matched every twist and turn, showing no sign of being discouraged.  The wader banked sharply, gaining a few metres on its pursuer.  The gull gained them back, anticipating the next evading swerve of its bewildered target.  I watched as the two birds wrote their own, contorted lines into the drama of the estuary, as if tethered to each other, invisibly, elastically – exchanging their gains and losses, all for the small prize held within a Redshank’s beak.  Then the gull made a decisive lunge, perhaps even making contact with the wader and the prize was dropped and within an instant claimed.

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A winter plumage Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus).

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 21, 2019

Reed Life

A delightful winter’s day on the Essex marshes (the RSPB reserve of Bowers Marsh) – crisply cold and beautifully bright, the sun igniting the heads of the reeds into so many feathery flares and picking out the assorted birds scattered across the shallows and grazing fields in striking sharpness.

And birds there were a plenty, but it was not the plovers in their hundreds and the gatherings of winter waterfowl that stole the show, but birds of an altogether more surreptitious nature.  A keen ear may have heard quiet, but purposeful ‘ping-ping’ calls sprinkling among the reeds edging the open water.  The eye might then have caught a twitching among the stems and then perhaps a dart of a matching brown flash crossing a gap in the stand or over the tops of tall grasses.  They would be Bearded Tit, or as some may refer to them, Bearded Reedling.

bearded tit - male 2 (scaled)

Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus) – male.

The name comes not so much from a bearded appearance, but rather the males sporting an impressive, drooping moustache.  They are birds entirely restricted to large reed-beds and scarce they are too.  The RSPB reckons on 630 pairs scattered around the UK, large near the south and east coasts of England, but also in the Northwest of England and Eastern Scotland.  As a non-migratory resident, hard winters are a significant hazard to them and a check to their numbers.  With all this in mind, to watch at leisure ten of them clambering among the reeds not more than 10 metres away, gorging themselves of reed seeds, was indeed a real treat and a true delight.

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