Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 30, 2016

December Sunshine

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High-tide on the Crouch Estaury, North Fambridge. Ross Gardner 2016.

One of those calm and bright winter days on the coastal marshlands of Essex.  Well I say coastal, but to look on a map and North Fambridge will be seen to not exactly appear situated by the sea as many might regard it.  Yet the relatively long estuary of the River Crouch beside which the village stands brings the undeniable influence of the coast-proper far inland.  With the rise of the tide waves lap at the seawalls on either side and brings fishing cormorant, occasional red-breasted merganser and even, as we discovered in this instance the odd common seal venturing up-river.  With its fall it reduces the river’s flow to narrow channel, exposing flat muddy banks for the probing beaks of wading birds, the beady eyes of gulls and the dabbling bills of winter wildfowl.

Here is to be found the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Blue House Farm reserve, hundreds of acres of traditionally managed grazing-marsh, with its dykes, ditches, fleets and rough grasslands.  It is somewhere that has featured on these pages before and to which I am often drawn in the winter months.  It is at such times that sheep-nibbled, cattle-chewed fields are busy with others.  Today there must have been 1000 brent geese amassed in one field, canadas and greylags scattered by the dozen and 80-odd barnacles huddled behind the partially frozen water of the reed-fringed fleet.  Hundreds of duck dabbled at the edges of unfrozen water, or passed overhead in groups; a half a dozen pintail, 20 teal, a few wigeon or a handful of gadwall.  Who knows where they were heading, but they went there with purpose.  The teal at least seemed to be mostly gathering in their hundreds over a stretch of partially flooded, tussocky grassland; some snoozing, some preening, some avidly sieving the shallows with delicate, invertebrate-sifting bills.  A passing hen harrier instilled a temporary uneasiness among the birds and few moments excitement among the human onlookers.

I love the atmosphere of such places at such times.  Places that on the one hand can seem so serenely calm, yet on the other simultaneously convey a sense of quiet urgency in the flocks whose migratory cycles depend on such winter sanctuaries.

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Gadwall (Anas strepera) – duck (left) and drake. Ross Gardner 2014.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 18, 2016

Birds in the Mist

Yesterday was not the best of days for birdwatching from the Essex shore of the Thames Estuary.  A thick and persistent fog left little more than a few dozen metres of the mudflats visible, veiling the presumed thousands of birds feeding ahead of the oncoming tide.  In fact, having walked down to the seawall from home on my way to meet friends for lunch, my binoculars had remained in my bag.  But as I approached the traditional ‘Old Town’ of Leigh-on-Sea, with its cobbled street, selection of pubs and what remains of the fishing fleet that once thronged here, I became aware of the sounds of birds close to the wall and free of the swaddling drifts of fog.

On reaching the channel, dredged to allow the fishing vessels access through the shallows, a patch of what looked like cockle shells, debris perhaps from one of the boats, had attracted the attentions of a mixture of waders and gulls.  There was clearly food to be had.   A few common and herring gulls had been drawn to it, but surrounding them was the ceaseless scampering and squabbling of small waders – turnstone and sanderling avidly inspecting the unseen nooks and crannies for the equally anonymous pickings concealed within.

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Turnstone, sanderling and common gull find rich-pickings at Old Leigh. Ross Gardner 2016.

The turnstone are very much a feature here.  Present from autumn right though until the spring, they are a familar accompaniment to any who might enjoy a pint outside one of the estuary-side pubs or one of the delicacies purchased from one of the seafood vendors nearby.  They can become most abiding and to me have something of ‘the starlings of the sea’ about them.  The sanderling are a little more unusual along this particular stretch, the very pale plumage easily discerned among the darker-garbed turnstone with which they mixed.

These small waders are just two of the long-distance winter migrants that flock to British shores for the winter, both finding their breeding grounds well within the Arctic Circle.  The turnstone that stop with us for the season come from as far afield as Canada and Greenland, no small distance at all.  The sanderling however, can make one of the longest of all migrations.  They too will hark from similarly lofty breeding latitudes, but while many will spend the winter with us and other parts of the European coast, some press on further south, reaching Northwest Africa and, amazingly, the geographical extremes of the South African cape, a journey of many thousands of kilometres.

It is so very easy to take the annual appearance of such creatures for granted with so little thought for their efforts in doing so.

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Sanderling (Calidris alba). Ross Gardner 2014.

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 14, 2016

Unseasonally seasonal

At work this morning I noticed a smallish grey moth, at rest on a window pane on the outside face of a classroom door.  It was a northern winter moth (Operophtera fagata), measuring not much more than a couple of centimetres across and which are active throughout November and into December.  It was early in the morning and amid the condensation covered sheet the moth had encircled itself with a round patch of clear glass, the life processes of its appatently frail being evidently sufficient to generate heat enough to influence its immediate surroudings.  The small interactions of small things.

I showed the moth to some of the children in my class and enjoyed a short discussion with them on the life-cycles of moths and butterflies and how we might not expect such creatures to be active through the late-autumn and winter months.  We have been enjoying some very mild weather for December, but this little moth nevertheless turned my mind towards those other species that keep the lepidopteran wheel turning throughout the year.

Moths may arguably be more evocatively named than butterflies.  Many impart their seasonal behaviours without a need for a formal introduction to the actual insect, namely the july highflyer (Hydriomena furctata) or the spring usher (Agriopis leucophaeria) to name a pair.  More appropriate here though, are those such as the winter-flying species, the December moth (Poecilocampa populi) or the winter moth (Operophtera brumata): while uncharactistically mild winter days will doubtlessly be welcomed by them, I have seen these last to be active on decidely cold, even frosty evenings.  Some may even be active during any month of the year, like the cryptically beautiful angle shades (Phlogophora meticulosa).

Unseasonal as they may seem, there are still to be found the small lives for the small spaces, even in winter.

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Camouflaged as a crumpled leaf, angle shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) can potentially be seen all-year round. Ross Gardner 2012.

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The aptly named winter moth (Operoptera brumata) flies from October to January. Ross Gardner 2011.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 4, 2016

The Joys of Winter

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Waders gathered on the Thames Estaury shoreline at Leigh on Sea. Ross Gardner 2013.

One of the undeniable joys of the British wildlife year is the building of the winter flocks along those sheltered stretches of our coastline.  Where the calmer waters allow the mud to settle and for the invertebrate multitudes to ready the seascapes for their own part in the seasonal flux.  If we are given to feel a melancholy for the well-passed summer and the throng that goes with it and which filled the wilder places, then the ascending bustle of birdlife along our shores is an antidote indeed.

I am fortunate in my proximity to the coast.  Some malign the gaping mouth of the Thames Estuary as a ‘poor man’s excuse‘ for the sea.  Yet as it widens sharply as it passes Southend to the south and the Isle of Grain to the north, the sense of the sea is difficult to ignore.  Replace my part of the Essex with the land that abuts the shores of say, The Wash in East Anglia and The Severn to the West, The Forth in the north and Chichester Harbour to the South, and most of us in the UK live within striking distance of the gathering hordes of waders and wildfowl and the spectacles that they can bring with them from the now ice-clenched realms of their Arctic breeding grounds.

Such movements more than double the  50,000 strong resident population of the redshank to a huge 130,000 and adds around 100,000 more birds to the 200,000+ resident oystercatcher.  For the likes of the knot and wigeon the increase represents a jump from none or a mere handful up to several hundred thousand.  Many millions of waders, ducks and geese combine to bring about a change to the countryside that is as wonderous as it is profound.  Indeed all over the world its a transformation that is replicated, even if the names of the protagonists may change.

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UK redshank (Tringa totanus) numbers more than double in the winter. Ross Gardner 2016.

It was with such expectation that I recently walked the seawall between Leigh on Sea and Benfleet.  I was not to be disappointed, with the dunlin scattered along the ribbon of mud unclaimed by the rising tide, or the flocks of knot that sped across the water and billowed above the saltmarsh.  Neither the groups of little teal in their collective hundreds, dabbling the shoreline or foraging among the dykes and ditches of the grazing marshes landward, or hundred groups avocet, losing none of their grace among the grey mud.

Perhaps one of theses days I’ll get up to Scotland to see the barnacle goose flocks or the winter roosts of Berwick swan at Slimbridge.  And who knows, perhaps even one day I’ll find myself trying to pick out the canvasbacks and redheads among the gathered flocks of the Louisiana wetlands.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 27, 2016

Glimmers

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Spider silk in the November sun. Ross Gardner 2016.

Odd, perhaps, to be reminded of nature’s prolificacy during those late-November days when autumn’s senescence resting with increasing weight about the countryside.  Odd, but nevertheless the case, as I sat on the slopes of the Benleet Downs (more familiarly known as Hadleigh Country Park).

Sheltered from the fresh breeze, I was feeling warmed by the mid-afternoon sun, already low in the sky.  Scarcely a leaf hereabouts was without the yellowing tints of the season, even the stubborn oaks so reluctant to relinquish their foliage.  Those of the plentiful hawthorn had largely been replaced by the blush of red berries, to the evident gratitude of the blackbirds that clucked their frequent annoyance at my passing and interruption to their feasting.  Along with the attentions of the gorging woodpigeons, will there be much fruit left by the time the winter redwing and fieldfare flocks pass this way?  I had earlier walked past arable land with scatterings of lapwing and across grazing-marsh with an increasing number of teal drawn to the dykes and pools.  Everything was the very image of autumn.

But as the sun shone onto my face through the dried, brown heads of knapweed that had hazed the grasslands with purple a few months before, the air in places glimmered with slivers of silver light.  There are I think, somethings that are always there to be seen in all but the most frigid depths of winter, but from which we may be easily distracted by the throng of other life around them.  Perhaps it is so with the gleaming gossamer strands I saw snagged about the grasses and old flower-heads, revealed more abundantly by the chance alignment of myself, the descending sun and the unexpected evidence of life that,  even if more subtely than before, still teems in between.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 21, 2016

Keeping things simple

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Cromer Beach. Ross Gardner 2016

Some times the beauty is in the simplicity.  Cromer on the North Norfolk Coast.  In the summer this is a busy stretch, attractive as it is to seaside holdiay-makers.  But with the winter approaching it may find more of a scattering of human visitors dotted over its expanse.  A cold and clear November afternoon and the low sun has transformed the flat sand to a limpid, glassy sheet.  It reflects the shades of the sky every bit as much as becalmed North Sea that breaks gently on the shore, picking out the slowly emerging pinks and gradually darkening greys and purples of the early evening hues.

This coast can be an exciting one for the birdwatcher at this time of year, with the chance of sea ducks, divers and others offshore.  Today though, there is little more than the few cormorant skimming low over the water on their way elsewhere and a trickle of gulls, mostly herring and black-backed, heading on to wherever they might find their roost for the night.  But this is all that is needed to complete a scene that provides a somewhat lingering snapshot of one of the many reasons why this coast is the wonder that it is.

The next day we would find ourselves further west at Salthouse, watching foaming waves seething the banked shingle, beneath a heavy sky and amid a moderate but firm wind – a beauty in itself.  These moments however, were all about the easy tranquility and a huge space hardly filled.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 6, 2016

The Life Within

A dormant wood ant nest might seem something of an odd source of inspiration for a distinctly seasonal post, but then inspiration can have its roots in unlikely places.  Wood ants (collectively the 4 species regarded as ‘true’ wood ants) are widely distributed across the UK, but in a generally scattered sense of the phrase.  A number of the woods in my locality, for example, hold large populations of the southern wood ant (Formica rufa), yet those in a neighbouring district could have none at all.  For those who have never come across one, the nests are manifested in the shape of mounds made from small twigs and other litter from the woodland floor.  Mature nests can be huge, a couple of metres across, perhaps, and a metre high.  Within them are the tunnels and chambers of the nest interior, partially excavated below ground level.  In summer the nest surface seethes with ants by the thousands.  During the cold days of winter the colony shrinks and retreats deep inside until work can begin again in earnest the following spring.

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Left: the southern wood ant (Formica rufa), like many ants will ‘milk’ aphids for their sugar-rich honeydew. Right: a large nest mound. Ross Gardner 2016.

On a rather cold and grey November day the nest mound in question was devoid of any visible activity, so what of the chain of thought alluded to above?  Well, to see the laboriously constructed nest so empty of movement and to remember in the summer how it would have bristled with the legs and antennae of thousands of ants, was to become aware of how the life of a wood retreats with itself as the season draws on.  To feel a sense of things biding their time.  The pulse of life that throbs in high summer never truly ceases altogether.  There is dormancy for sure, but life, even the smallest or most delicate, will always be doing.

With this, my thoughts turn to the corners of the wood beneath the twittering flocks of long-tailed tits and the squawking jays.  A small spread of moss on the bark of a long-fallen oak thus expands exponentially.  It becomes a thicket of green fronds, from which issues a bizarre forest of lichen, or where strange craters are fashioned by the concave discs of glistening jelly fungi.  Beasts are also moving about; springtails; minuscule fungus gnats; a tiny translucent slug, immaculately miniature.

From such places emerges The Greater World of Little Things.

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The lichen Cladonia coniocraea. Ross Gardner 2016.

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A tiny slug browsing the moss. Ross Gardner 2016.

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The jelly discs of Ascocoryne fungi nestling amongst the fronds. Ross Gardner 2016.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 30, 2016

Hide and Seek

The bird-hide is a useful thing.  How’s that for a ‘thought for the day’?!  Not exactly ground-breaking, granted.  To expand further on this stating of the blindingly obvious, they are mighty handy at seeing birds at close quarters without them seeing you, something which even the non-birdwatcher will have appreciated at some point whilst out and about.  A recent trip to the RSPB’s Rainham Marshes reserve provided me with as good a case in point as any.  On this occasion, I should say, the bearded tit among the reedy fringes were incredibly obliging, while even the terminally surreptitious Cetti’s warbler managed a couple of brief exposures from its scrubby cover, both seen with scant need for our own secrecy.

But with such instances aside, the bird-hide is a boon to many a nature reserve.  The subject matter for this post however, does not concern the animals without, but rather the animals within.  I am sure there will be some reading this who would not thank me for reminding them that such constructions are also home to many a spider.  In particular there is one Larinioides sclopetarius.  I have heard these referred to by the common name of the bridge spider, such is their liking for wooden structures beside water.  It appears a hide will do just as well as a bridge, given that in my own experience I have encountered these creatures elsewhere in the same circumstances, such as at Wat Tyler Country Park and Hanningfield Reservoir, both, like Rainham, in the southern half of Essex.

They are, I think, a rather attractively marked spider, especially the larger (10mm long) females, but one which is not necessary that common.  While widely scattered across England and into Scotland and Wales, they are somewhat local in their occurrence.  Even so, many a bird-hide near water would I’m sure be worth a look and where they do occur they will often do so in number.

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Bridge Spider (Larinioides sclopetarius). Copyright 2016 Ross Gardner.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 22, 2016

Flying

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Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 10, 2016

Foxes by the dozen

A curious invasion on the shingle banks of the Suffolk coast.  Furry beasts creeping among the pebbles and the summer-weary grasses of the coastal marshes.  Okay, so the title to this post might be somewhat misleading, but the sight of dozens of fox moth (Macrothylacia rubi) caterpillars among the stones of the shingle ridge near Dunwich was a curious one indeed.  Not that they are unknown from coast habitats, in particular sand dunes, but I have only personally ever seen them on moorlands or rough grassy places.  That they number bramble among their various larval foodplants doubtless aids a widespread taste in habitat.

Neither had I seen them in such quantity, certainly in excess of 50 individuals, without the need to search for them.  These impressive caterpillars feed until September, become dormant until the following spring when they emerge to pupate.  Perhaps seeing them so plentifully during the early days of October signified a concerted effort for the local population to prepare the coming days of inactivity.

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Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi) caterpillar. Copyright 2016 Ross Gardner.

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