Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 14, 2020

Johnny on the spot

I am a firm believer that when it comes to finding and seeing sought after things whilst out and about in the wild places that you can make your own luck.  I am also however,  a firm believer that there are also those times when you need to be, as the saying goes, in the right place at the right time.  All the better still if you’ve got a camera handy.

Yesterday was a decidedly cool one for May, with intermittent sunshine and a chilly north wind.  Not the best conditions for an encounter with an especially sun-loving species of an especially sun-loving group of animals.  But as luck would have it, whilst actually searching for some tiny moth wings that had disappeared into the vegetation, my eyes fell on this beauty……

Brachytrom pratense

Hairy Dragonfly (Brachytron pratense) – male.

The Hairy Dragonfly is often the first of the dragonflies to be seen in the year, on the wing from the end of April in favourable years.  It is always the first of the ‘hawkers’ to be seen, this being the collective name given to most of our largest and most impressive of dragonflies.  At around 6cm long these are one of the smallest.

They have expanded their UK range over recent years, but this is still nevertheless an uncommon dragonfly, found chiefly in the southern parts of England, scattered in Wales and very few locations in Scotland.  They are always a treat.  In my part of Southeast Essex I am blessed with a couple of good sites for this species and I have noticed a few times in the past that they are a quite dispersive species.  This one had pitched up some distance away from the low lying marshland, threaded with weedy ditches of which they are so fond, resting up in brambles on the edge of a meadow by an ancient wood.

Amongst a sunshine fickle band, Hairy Dragonfly are particularly quick to down tools and settle in the vegetation when the clouds come over.  Who knows how long this one had been hunkered down for on a day of way less than optimum conditions.  This was the first time I had ever had the opportunity to point a lens at a male of the species and with the temperatue at around 10 or ll degrees celsius, it had no intention of taking flight.  I was able – to coin another phrase – fill my boots and at close quarters.

Brachytrom pratense - close up

Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 3, 2020

Bird Song

Sylvia atricapilla

Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) – male.

The sound of bird song in a spring wood is like drinking a glass of cold water on a hot day, or watching stream-water dance around rocks in its path.

We have been been looking after a dog for the last few months.  This is not a normal state of affairs for us and this is the first time we have ever been anything remotely resembling dog-owners.  We will miss him a great deal when he goes home.  We are lucky enough to have a decent stretch of woodland very close to where we live.  A fair chunk of this I am often inclined to avoid in favour of quieter parts, as it tends to be busy with dog walkers (and, during normal circumstances, with golfers – the wood also encompasses a golf course), but having had a dog to walk I have been seeing a lot more of it, something which has been especially the case during these times of Covid lockdown.

It has revealed a great pleasure to me.  We tend to walk a similar ‘beat’ when exercising the pooch.  Because of this we have watched the spring unfold before our eyes.   We have watched the same place, often along the same paths, its trees and its inhabitants, alter with the building season.  Not quite a fixed-point camera, but more of a fixed-point mind’s eye.  First the faint tinges of green as the leaf buds of the hawthorn and the abundant hornbeam swell and begin to open.  Then the burgeoning flood of that freshest of fresh green spreading through the understorey and surging upwards into the crowns of the oaks, truly obliterating the austere tones of the winter past.  And the bird song.  Initially the rising volume of the woodland residents lifted by the change of season.  Later the growing variety of sound, as summer migrants arrive to add theirs to the chorus.

I love the soundscape of the woods (or anywhere for that matter).  I have grown familiar to its component parts over the years and become almost subconsciously attuned to it, even when not really listening to it.  Hearing it in the course of our now regular visits made me ponder the ownership of the wood.  Not human ownership, but that of the birds, a real ownership that will ultimately outlast ours.  Discerning between the facets of bird song enables one to conceptualise how a place may be divided up between those that make it their home.  Visit somewhere regularly enough and one might even begin to determine the birds as individuals.

This wood, for example, is full of Blackcap, one of the warblers and birds of dense woodland and scrub.  They are a most loquacious bird, with a rich, very varied and quite beautiful warbling song.  On our route I have come to know several.  Let’s start with the ‘Brook Blackcap’ and the ‘Fairway Blackcap’ who often welcome us on the start of our morning walk.  Then there’s the ‘Compound Blackcap’ that sings from the edge of the council yard, and bit further round the ‘Honeysuckle Blackcap’ that I first heard singing from the tresses of a particular luxuriant growth of said plant.  And there’s the ‘Tree Trunks Blackcap’ that sings from his thicket next to where a couple of felled oaks lay; he’s a bold one this one, often easily seen from a more exposed perched that the others.  Then what of the other birds in the wood?  There’s a Song Thrush that vies for the same bit of airspace as the Brook Blackcap.  We often hear a Blackbird on the way to the tree trunks and sometimes the percussive hammering of a Great Spotted Woodpecker just after.  All the while the wood ripples to the liquid notes of Robin, rattles with the manic trilling of Wren and chimes with the ringing calls of Great Tit.

I think the main moral of this particular story is how we are reminded of the limitations of our own particular sensory experiencing of the world.  The singing and territoriality of birds is just one way that we can be made aware that a wood is far more than a place we might like to walk around.  A reminder that ours is not the only agenda and certainly not the most important one.

Erithacus rubecula

A wood wouldn’t be a wood without a Robin in it.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 27, 2020

Cutie, or not cutie, that is the question.

It is probably safe to suggest that ‘cute’ (and sorry for the terrible punning in the title) is not an adjective easily afforded to insects.  One might however, get away with it in the case of this little thing……

Dark Bush-cricket (1st instar) (scaled)

It is a Dark Bush-cricket (Pholidoptera griseoaptera) nymph.  I photographed it yesterday and given that it measured half a centimetre or so, it was not too long – I would imagine – from the egg.  That egg would have been laid some time before the previous autumn.  The female brandishes a long, sabre-shaped ovipositor which she uses to insert her eggs into the crevices in bark or directly into suffiently receptive soft wood.

Much of any perceived cuteness perhaps stems from the ‘incomplete metamorphosis’ undertaken by the Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets).  In common with the likes of dragonflies, true bugs and others, they do not pupate as such insects as butterflies, bees or flies do.  They will therefore not undergo that profound change of form associated with the so-called ‘complete metamorphosis’, from larva, via pupa to adult.  Thus, the bush-cricket that hatches from the egg essentially emerges as a miniature version of the adult it will become.  This is less obvious with a dragonfly, given that it must develop from an aquatic nymph into a terrestrial adult, demanding certain fundamental life-style changes, but the process is nevertheless the same.  The incomplete metamorhosis takes place over a series of moults, or instars, as the insect matures.  The above little creature can expect to grow through half a dozen instars (the number perhaps being more or less depending on species), but not until July, if it manages to keep out of trouble, will it have grown into something like this, perhaps a couple of centimetres long and active predator of small invertabrates as well as a devourer of plants……

Pholidoptera griseoaptera

Dark Bush-cricket (Pholidoptera griseoaptera) – male.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 19, 2020

Is it a Fly? Is it a Bee?

SONY DSC

Bee-fly (Bombylius major)

Actually, it’s a Bee-fly, which makes it the former.  They are though, excellent bumblebee mimics and fine example of Batesian mimicry, whereby a relatively harmless animal (in this case the fly) has evolved to resemble a relatively harmful animal (in this case a bee with a sting).  Thus the unarmed fly is conferred the benefits of the caution usually afforded to the potentially stinging bee, without going to the trouble of evolving a sting for itself.  This is just one of a great many examples of such trickery in nature.

They seem to be particularly numerous this spring, as common a sight in the garden as in the woods or field edges, wherever, in fact, there are ample, nectar-filled flowers for them to insert that conspicuosly brandished proboscis into.   Another thing required to attract the presence of a bee-fly is a corresponding abundance of solitary bees and wasps.  This is because that potentially cuddly, bumblebee-esque persona conceals a darker, parasitic side, although I really should know better than to attach human sensibilities – good and bad, cuddly and dark – onto other species.  As unpalatable as it might seem, this is just the bee-fly way, just the same as we have ours.

Anyway, I digress somewhat.  Bee-flies parasitise these other insect by scattering their eggs nearby their nest holes, leaving the resulting grubs to find their way inside and to find and consume the host grub before pupating themselves.  I have watched the adults about the congregated nests of mining bees perforating the bare soil of a sunny bank, flicking their abdomens so as to scatter their eggs.  They will produce many eggs, but very few of the hatching grubs with find their way inside a bee burrow and successfully carry its life-cycle.  Thus the balance of life between host and parasite is always maintained.

SONY DSC

A Bee-fly nectaring on Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris) blossom.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 11, 2020

Marsh Frogs

When I first heard Marsh Frogs (Rana ridibunda) croaking from the water ditches and dykes near where I live, I at first wondered whether some enormously rare rail or similarly secretive, marsh-dwelling bird had taken up residence – there are not many birds I hear around my local haunts whose voices I don’t recognise.  That a frog was producing the loud, bird-like croak was, I recall, an amusing surprise.  I heard them today, communicating en masse, a noise audible some hundreds of metres distant.

They haven’t always been here.  A widespread species across much of continental Europe, they were first introduced to the UK in the 1930s, onto marshland in the south of Kent and it wasn’t until 1990 that they were introduced into my part of Essex.  They have since spread through pretty much every ditch, dyke and pond among the grazing marshes that comprise a portion of Hadleigh Country Park.

So often introduced species spell bad news for native wildlife.  It seems that the case for the Marsh Frog might be different.  The native Common Frog (Rana temporaria) has never occured at this site, something that also seems the case further afield, where other populations have similarly made use of habitat where Common Frogs have been historically absent.  It could be that the Marsh Frogs are simply occupying a vacant ecological niche within the landscapes that they find themselves in, thriving in habitat that is less that optimal for the Common Frogs.  Certainly, I wouldn’t imagine the local Grass Snake population will be complaining any time soon at such an abundant provision of prey.

Marsh Frog 7 (scaled)

Marsh Frog (Rana ridibunda)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 7, 2020

A Spring Return

Caltha palustre

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

It is with a small amount of shame that I blow away the long-drapped cobwebs and dust down the pages of this recently under-used blog.  An inexcusable 5 months since the last post!!  I’m not sure what happened really.  A distraction here, a diversion there and then autumn turns to winter and winter to spring.

What to write about?  I find myself returning to the fold during strange times indeed, what with Corvid-19 ascending to its UK peak.  The unfolding spring would be the obvious subject, its multitude of joys perhaps all the more poignant given the pervading mood of anxiety that rests rather sullenly amid everyone’s lives, one way or another.  Maybe the awakening of the garden, given the lockdown limitations necessarily imposed upon us and a deeper appreciation of those familiar spaces that we might sometimes take for granted.

I am hugely grateful for my garden, I luxury not everyone can enjoy.  For me, in spring, it means flowering Marsh Marigold in the pond, the perfect antidote for the winter drear, delivering the brightest of yellows from March through to April.  Or the flowering of the huge dome of the cherry tree, a territorial cornerstone and singing stage for many a songbird in our part of the neighbourhood – for robin and dunnock, woodpigeon and greenfinch; starling, blackbird and even the odd wren taking leave of its more typical, skulking habits.  A peacock butterfly fluttered across the garden the other day, before settling on the fence to absorb the sun’s warmth through eager, colourful eyes.  Or perhaps the newts in the pond, although they’ve been active since the end of February.

I’m sure anyone could delete some or all of the above and insert their own personal choices in the spaces that they leave.  The wheel turns regardless of what we might contrive for ourselves.

Peacock 4 (scaled)

Peacock (Aglais io)

 

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.

SONY DSC

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)

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