Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 11, 2021

Some late-summer shots

A common lizard (Zootoca vivipara) on its bed of dry grass tries to extract some extra warmth from a cloudy morning at the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Fingringhoe Wick nature reserve……

…… and nearby a speckled wood (Parage aegeria) does likewise.

Ivy is an understated, but prolific, not to mention important source of late-summer nectar for numerous kinds of insect. Aside from the abundance of wasps, bees and hoverflies, a stretch of ivy-smothered wall near Colchester, just a few metres long, was adorned with a dozen stunning red admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

An elephant hawk-moth (Deilephila elpenor) caterpillar wriggling hurriedly across a path in West Wood, Thundersley. It seemed undetered from its progress, even when handled, perhaps urged on by the its imminent pupation, which takes place on, or in the ground.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 2, 2021

To the Castle

Hadleigh Castle in Essex

Awake to early, especially for a bank holiday Monday. Tossing and turning; little chance of getting back to sleep. Sometimes you just have to grasp the nettle, haul yourself out of bed and make the most of the morning.

My walk took me, among other places, to Hadleigh Castle. Since being built, initially in the 13th century, subsequent decades of neglect, landslips and occasional pilfering of stone for other buildings have left it in ruins. Sat up on its hilltop looking across the Thames Estuary and the sea beyond, in its halcyon years it must have presented a pretty impressive prospect to anyone sailing up river. As maligned as I sometimes hear it to be by the locals (of which I am one), it even now, I think, still possesses something of a presence in the modern landscape.

A had seen the odd walker and runner on my way up, but I sensed I was the first to set foot within the castle ruins that morning. The place was busy with birdlife and I was greeted to something of a racket. Two kestrel were swooping around the remains of one of the corner towers, their own presence raising the ire of the resident jackdaw who harassed them relentlessly. This is always fascinating to watch. Sometimes the victimised raptor will slope off as best it might, until the corvids leave them be. Sometimes the former will have the stomach for a scrap. A couple of weeks ago I had watched a pair of young sparrowhawk that positively seemed to relish in the conflict, dipping and diving, racing around trees and baring their talons, returning time and again for more of the same. These two falcons seemed somewhat reluctant to be ousted from the castle walls, but the jackdaw eventually had their way.

Other birds though, were quite unmoved by all the noise and clamour. The ever-present feral pigeon, able to return to their wild, rock dove roots on these craggy, artificial cliff faces, looked on unperturbed. So to did the three green woodpecker that apparently found the close-cropped sward with the castle walls to be worthwhile ant-hunting ground.

I cherished the small privilege of finding this slightly unlikely, undisturbed corner, but did feel a twang of guilt for being the one to disturb it.

A Kestrel takes leave from the squabbling crows

A Feral Pigeon unperturbed

A young Green Woodpecker on the lookout for ants

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 25, 2021

Sunshine

It is the dragonflies and their kin – the Odonata (‘the toothed ones’, as taken from the Ancient Greek) – that wing their way forcibly onto these pages. A single pond (pictured above) within Hadleigh Country Park – a wonderfully rich repository of wildlife within the busy reaches of South-east Essex – plus a timely blaze of August sunshine; the result… a wondrous display of dragonfly and damselfly kind. A gleaming distillation of late summer within this stretch of diverse habitat that persists within the pressures of such a busy corner of our country, focussed into a few dozen square metres.

We approach with the cloud obscurring the sun and are a little underwhelmed to find the pond subdued. A moorhen chick called into cover by its mother and disappearing into the fringing vegetation is the only obvious sign of animal life. Then the sun returns and within moments small red-eyed damselfly (Erythromma viridulum) materialise across the water in tandem pairs, settling on floating blanket weed to resume their egg-laying. There are other damsels too, drifting in pairs around the pond plants and bushes at the pond edge. They are willow emerald damselfly (Lestes viridis), which before 2009 was a rare sight in the UK. They have been spreading across the South East of England since and this is the first sign I have seen of them breeding in the park. I manage a picture, hastily shot, hence the unfortunate result of chopping the top of male’s head head off…..

A tandem pair of willow emerald damselfly (Lestes viridis). Their eggs are laid into the bark of pond-side willow trees.

And then the dragons appear. First the darters, a mating pair of ruddy (Sympetrum sanguineum) and couple of common (S. striolatum), going quietly about their business at the pond edge. Then an emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator) enters the scene, resplendent in his gleaming blues and greens, imperious indeed with his claim over the airspace above the pond. These are rights that are soon challenged. A couple of male southern migrant hawker (Aeshna affinis), themselves a stunning blue, issue their challenges. With a brief clattering of wings these are firmly rebuffed by the larger emperor. The hawkers are another rarity. Prior to 2006 it was nothing more than a scarce migrant. They have become a feature of the Park over the last few years and having seen them in tandems pairs here before, may well be breeding. It is a brown hawker (Aeshna grandis) that next has a say, a rusty winged beauty and one of few UK species that might rival the emperor (our largest) for size. Yet while we watch it is he with the initial claim who seems to hold sway, seeing off all comers.

From barely a ripple, in moments to a flurry, this little arena filled with all the dramas of possession and birthright. For some time we watch, transfixed with the performance.

A mating pair of southern migrant hawker (Aeshna affinis), photographed last year in Hadleigh County Park.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 23, 2021

Force of Nature

I have been fortunate enough to have spent several weeks of the summer holidays travelling in the north of England and South West Scotland. There is plenty I have seen to draw me back to these pages, yet it is not the surging upland rivers, unspoilt Scottish coastlines or empty Galloway hills that initial bring me to the keyboard (although they may well do at some point), but a car park. Now the car park in question is not your average one, but in the context of the wild and wonderful country that extends around it, it definitely falls into the ‘nature’s full of surprises’ category, something which is a recurring theme on the this blog.

High Force, County Durham

We had stopped at High Force, a 21 metre high Pennine waterfall, not far from Barnard Castle. The fall itself is impressive and well worth the couple of quid entrance fee, but to one with an eye for the wilder side of things, such as myself, the visitor car park offered a wider distraction. As I have already mentioned, this large car park is not a typical one set as it is in the hills and edged with woodland, but all the same it harboured a remarkable variety of wildlife around its fringes. The flora was amazingly diverse. The last of the summer’s common spotted orchid stood among abundant lady’s bedstraw, meadowsweet and lesser knapweed. There was lady’s mantle, ragged-robin, meadow vetchling, melancholy thistle and sneezewort. Splashes of harebell blue were dotted about the place and white eyebright glinted among the rabbit-grazed turf. And the rabbits! I’m not sure I have ever seen so many around a car park that emerged in the early evening after the crowds had departed. We were only half surprised to see a stoat nosing about optimistically on the trail of strong scents.

Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum) – a plant grasslands

Yet it was a far more run-of-the-mill plant that completed this remarkable scene. A swathe of creeping thistle spread across an area of many tens of square metres, to the extent that its unobtrusive and not unpleasant scent could easily be detected. It was a fabulous nectar source, so much so that a purple hairstreak was drawn away from the honeydew-coated high oak canopy from where these butterflies more typically take their sustenance and down to the bounteous mauve blooms below. Hoverflies were everywhere including one northerly species (Eristalis rupium) hitherto unseen by a southerner such as myself. Bumblebees teemed amongst the others, although it was the little eyebright flowers that drew the rare moss carder bee (Bombus muscorum) for the first time before this observer’s gaze.

So my advice for any naturalists visiting this part of the the Pennines in the summer: visit waterfall and its woods and enjoy a pint or a bite to eat at the hotel, but leave plenty of time to explore the less expected wild fringe. Such advice, come to think of it, would be to some extent applicable wherever you happened to find yourself.

Eristalis rupium is a largely a hoverfly of Northern Britain; the various species of Eristalis can be difficult to tell apart, but the pronounced wing-cloud on this species is a good place to start.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 21, 2021

Walls

Nature finds a way in some very unlikely places. It has to. That’s sometimes the only way it can survive the doings of human kind.

When the renowned author and naturalist Ted Benton wrote the foreword for my book ‘The Greater World of Little Things‘, he drew attention to among other things, a “long stretch of Roman wall” where he lives, within the cracks of which grows “the scarce rue-leaved saxifrage“. It is not entirely surprising to hear such a thing given worthy mention among the “nature“, which Ted informs us “breaks out from the least cracks between paving stones, the lea of garden walls, [and] the edges of [a] car park. There are a couple of walls in particular that I have come to know.

The Yellow-tailed Scorpion (Euscorpius flavicaudis) living happily in North Kent.

One has featured on theses pages before ( and will, incidentally, help fill the pages of my next literary endeavour, due out it 2022). That long stretch of wall that runs around Sheerness dockyard, within whose crumbling mortar lives Euscorpius flavicaudis – the yellow tailed scorpion, present here since its accidental introduction from shipments of Italian masonry some 150 years or so ago. They share the top of a their unlikely invertebrate food-web (which seems to consist in the most part of a thriving community of woodlice, ants and the odd earwig) with the similarly opportunistic import of the impressive and wonderful tube-web spider Segestria florentina.

A Segestria florentina sets about a torch strap with shiny green fangs.

Another wall that I visited the other week and which I have known of for many years now, is the pair that edges an old railway bridge that carries a quiet lane over and past Stow Maries Halt, a small nature reserve in the heart of the Essex countryside. The railway line itself has long gone, leaving behind its wooded embankments and small areas of flowery grassland. The bridge is a good place to look out from into the tops of the scrubby elms for the uncommon white-letter hairstreak, saving the watcher some of the neck-ache normally associated with trying to find this decidedly arboreal butterfly.

The old railway bridge at Stow Maries Halt, now an Essex Wildlife Trust nature reserve.

But the walls themselves can bristle with life. Plants grow from the old mortar – yarrow and its umbels of white flowers and ferns like black spleenwort and wall rue. And on this occasion the bramble trailing across bricks was well in bloom, bringing other lives to the wall – the ringlet and meadow brown butterflies, hoverflies and bees of man kinds. What other little lives scurry among the crevices and otherwise making use of the shelter afforded by this former incongruity, steadily being assimilated back towards nature? It will be missed should it ever crumble away to nothing.

Black Spleenwort (Asplenium adiantum-nigrum) – very much at home on old railway bridge.
Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) – a butterfly with a fondness for Bramble.
Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 1, 2021

Garden flowers, caterpillars and bees

Purple Toadflax and an attendant bumblebee

Purple toadflax (Linaria purpuria) is a widespread plant in the UK. Familiar it may well be too. It is often a plant of the waysides – of the hedgebank or the wasteground. Just as much, it can be a plant of the garden, urban or rural and everything in between. Such habits smack of the opportunist, which is very much what this plant is. It is not a native to these shores, being a species indigenous to Italy, but which has long escaped as an exotic from the garden and become firmly naturalised across the greater part of the UK. Some may well regard it as weed. I (as I suspect many others do) rather like it, with its generous spikes of eponymously coloured flowers.

Among the many around my locality, it grows in my parents Essex garden. Much appreciated it is too, by the bumblebees that seem drawn to the flowers for as long as they are in bloom. Indeed, it was an eagerly foraging early-nesting bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) that led to the discovery of another creature that prompted the subject matter of this post. Stretched out along the stems were two strikingly marked caterpillars, which judging by the rather threadbare look of some of the leaves had evidently been enjoying a decent day’s munching.

Toadflax Brocade – caterpillar

They were larvae of the toadflax brocade (Calophasia lunula) that as an adult will have transformed into a smallish grey-brown moth, quite the opposite of the colourful caterpillar from which they develop. Also at odds, is the fact the moth is a good deal scarcer than its larval foodplant, known as a resident species (it also occurs as an immigrant) only in the south and south-east of England.

It was ample reminder that sometimes we need look no further than our own doorsteps for something out ordinary. Within a few minutes I had discovered a rare moth, three species of bumblebee and even the curious, brown, pear-shaped pupa of hoverfly attached firmly to one the leaves. What, I wonder, might I have overlooked?

Toadflax Brocade – adult (photographed 2010)

Hoverfly pupa (possibly Episyrphus balteatus)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 13, 2021

Down by the Sea

A steaming hot Saturday. The hordes, having disgorged themselves in a swarm onto the seafront beach earlier in the day, have mostly departed, save the few that have stayed into the evening, tingeing the air with the smell of drifting barbecue smoke. The sea has departed too, receding far out to its low-tide mark. Apart from the gulls scattered across the expanse of mud left by the falling tide, there is little for the naturalist to find on this emptying beach that just a few hours ago bustled with people. Or is there?

The twist at the end of the opening paragraph was, I am sure, not very much of a surprise, or else why would I be bothering to write about it. Of course there are things to be found. The upper shore is in places covered with edible periwinkle, a few of their still sliding slowly over the wet mud. There are oysters, their pair of shells locked firmly shut, in a joining reminiscent of ‘smiling’ humpback whale. And of course, everywhere there are to be seen the little, coiled heaps of mud left by burrowing lugworms.

But, these aside, there is still the unexpected. On a stone my eye catches the oval shape of a chiton. These are marine molluscs with a trick borrowed from the Crustacea (or should that be the other way round?). The ‘shell’ is in fact eight overlapping plates that allow the animal to curl up in a protective, woodlouse-like ball if ever dislodged and swept away by a wave. It is this that earns them the alternative name of coat-of-mail shells.

A chiton – probably Lepidochitona cinereus

This is a sheltered, muddy shore, with nothing by way of rocks and their pools, yet I still discover sea anemones, animals we may be far less inclined to associate with sand and mud. It is one Sagartia troglodytes, a species that, rather than adhering to solid stone, is content to feed partially buried in the mud or sand. I watch this little creature fascinated, as it slowly ripples its mass of tentacles, filtering out foodstuffs in barely a centimetre of water.

The evening edges into dusk and I leave the beach a little quieter than I found it.

Sagartia troglodytes

Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 29, 2021

On the loquacity of the starling

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.

© Ross Gardner

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 18, 2021

Birdwatching

I have just got in from some of the best birdwatching I have done in ages!

‘Where?’ you may well be asking. Well, given that I am self-isolating due to someone at work registering a positive Covid test and that this demands the mildly frustrating, but necessary requirement of not leaving home, the ‘where?’ in question is no less than my back garden. My garden is small, but I love it and feel privileged to have it at my disposal, something very much not to be taken for granted.

And what of the birds, that comprised this ornithological extravaganza of which I am presently to enthuse over? Well, there were quite a few starling and number of woodpigeon; a pair of robin; a great tit, blue tit and magpie; a little wren that stopped by for a minute or two and a couple of house sparrow up in the cherry tree where a blackbird sang. Oh, and a there was a lesser black-backed gull that slid soundlessly by overhead.

Now, perhaps to the disappointment of any self-confessed, serious birders that may have found their way here, this is not exactly a thrilling list of species. Even so, I have today whiled away a couple of hours in the spring sunshine watching them, without any thought of wanting to see anything else.

The Robin

I was out with a sketchbook, with hope of snatching some glimpses of the comings and goings of life in the garden. My endeavours as an ‘artist’ (very important inverted commas, those two) could best be described as nascent, the fruits of which are not of any great pertinence here. Rather it is the act of doing it. The alteration of perspective, subtle though it may be, necessary if one is to have any hope of capturing the subject on a page, that can give a refreshed view of the most familiar components of the world immediately around us, be they expressed by the plumply ruffled feather of preening pigeon, the ragged splendour of a sun-glossed starling or the simply wonder of a blackbird in song.

It is a good thing, I think, to every once in a while ground ourselves in such a way – by whatever means we choose – to help ensure that our sense of value of the natural world might be better aligned; to not take for granted the every day.

A Magpie of the roof.
Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 1, 2021

The endeavours of early spring

The warm days have encouraged something of a flush of insect life out into the open. The real surge of life is yet to come, but those more hardy, more adventurous early risers have brought a noticeable buzz of activity into the quieter corners of our green places.

A few species of mining-bee habitually emerge early in the spring. The conspicuously ginger-haired tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva) is one, a frequenter of gardens and the excavators of the little ‘volcanoes’ of soil that might appear in the lawn. These are the ‘mine’ entrances whose passages lead to a cell (or cells) into which these solitary bees deposit an egg.

It was not the tawny that I discovered in the woods yesterday, but another early species, Clarke’s mining bee (Andrena clarkella). I noticed the honey bee-sized insect buzzing deliberately about the face of a bank of bare soil. The pollen brushes on her hind legs were laden with a mixture of pollen and honey that she will place in one of the subterranean cells on top of which she will lay an egg. She had already dug out her burrow and I watched (and photographed) as she settled, having seemingly satisfied herself that it was safe to enter, before proceeding to dig her way into the finely worked soil of her previous labours and disappear from view.

It might have been that her neighbour, having stocked one of her own cells or perhaps just completed her excavations and now ready to go foraging, was waiting for me to move off before heading out…

With cold weather set to return, their promptness may be just as well.

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