• Barbara Copperthwaite

A trip to Essex

As soon as I stepped from the car I could hear the difference between Essex and Birmingham and the Black Country: the air was full of the sound of Grasshoppers basking in the sunshine.

I had popped over to the south east for a couple of days, and was excited that already it felt as though my journey had been worth it. That distinctive sound was so loud, and if I stayed very still and looked very closely, I could sometimes actually see the Grasshoppers clambering clumsily amongst the grasses, subtly changing colour from bright green to straw yellow to brown depending on the colour of the vegetation surrounding them when they came to rest. Then with a flick of their powerful back legs, they would leap through the air and be lost from view.

Incidentally, one of the reasons why Grasshoppers are lost from view when they jump is down to a rather clever trick. We (and predators) tend to follow the natural curved trajectory with our eyes and judge where we expect them to have landed. But mid-flight, too fast for us to see, Grasshoppers suddenly use their tiny wings like a brake, stopping and dropping like a stone to the ground, in order to fool us or anything that might want to eat them!

As I gazed around though, I have to admit that I was also lost in thought about my old dog, Buster. He and I had lived in Colchester, Essex, for five years. And the pond I was now at was the place where I had brought him on his last day, carrying him round because he was no longer able to walk and stopping to pop him on the ground at his favourite sniffing places. That was last year, in April, and now here I was with Scamp, so I took a few moments to think of Buster and shed a tear, soothed by the hypnotic sound of the Grasshoppers, and the sight of so many Skippers and Ringlet butterflies…

Eventuality, it was into the car again to pop to my next old haunt: Gosbeck’s Archaeological Park (for more information, click here). Now around 65 hectares of varying grassland, it was once a bustling place that heralded the start of Colchester. It may look like any other field initially, but the park has been described as one of Britain's premier Iron Age and Roman monuments, and was designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 1988. Why? Because it was the heart of busy pre-Roman tribal capital Camulodunum, where local kings ruled. In addition, it was later the site of a Roman temple and the largest Roman theatre to be discovered in Britain – both of which can still be seen to this day, chalked out on mown grass sections.

Fascinating as that is (and I have to admit I did take a moment to stand on the site of the theatre’s stage and imagine what it must have been like all those years ago) I was there for the wildlife.

This fantastic, managed meadowland has lanes mown through it for people to walk, cutting swathes through the rough grasses, as well as the glorious wild flowers that thrive there: Field Scabious, Wild Carrot, Lady’s Bedstraw, Creeping Buttercups, and that favourite of bees, butterflies and insects galore, Knapweed. The site is really popular with dog walkers, so while I looked at the various lush plants, Scamp took the opportunity to make some new friends.

As the weather alternated between big black clouds that sometimes gently spit-spotted rain on me, and glorious hot sunshine and azure sky, so the wildlife became more and less active, like a weather clock. I was gazing across the field when suddenly a bird rose from within, hovered for about thirty seconds then sank back to its hiding place, only for another to do the same, and another, and another, all the time filling the air with a sweet call. Sky larks! I stood on one spot, turning round, and everywhere I looked, there they seemed to be, with the occasional one climbing ever higher, higher, higher until it seemed they must surely be intent on disappearing into space. I was surrounded; it was a visual and aural feast!

As well as Skylarks, Gosbeck’s also boasts Meadow Pipit, Corn Bunting, Stonechat, Yellow Hammer, Corvids and Passerines. Peering closer, I could see Ringlet butterflies fluttering restlessly in the lower parts of the grasses, while Skippers Large and Small shimmered like orange shards of sunlight as they danced up and down in the characteristic flight that gave them their names. Bright red Soldier Beetles (pictured) rested on top of Knapweed, standing out clearly against the pale purple flowers as they mated.

Having walked the length of the large meadowland field, I left Gosbeck’s and followed the footpath that edges a farmer’s field, travelling towards the Roman River Valley (for more info click here). Here, hedgerows of oak, ash, cherry, hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple, spindle hazel dogwood and so on provide shelter for birds, mammals and insects alike. The occasional Gatekeeper nestled there, its brilliant orange wings bordered with brown providing surprisingly good camouflage normally, but that day it was clear to see against the dark green leaves of the wild raspberry bushes.

At one corner of the field are some very special trees – special to me, at least, because that is where a flock of Swallows like to gather when they (very occasionally!) need to rest after swooping continually over the corn field to capture insects mid-flight. This particular place seems to be a sun trap, so no wonder insects and Swallows alike love it. A Common Blue butterfly also came to rest briefly in front of me to do a spot of sunbathing.

Climbing a stile, I entered the Roman River Valley, the best-preserved river valley in the whole of Essex, and which is owned by Essex Wildlife Trust. The valley forms a distinct landscape feature in the surrounding flat countryside and supports a variety of threatened habitats and regionally rare species (Beautiful Demoiselle and Rhychites Auratus Beetle, for example) or protected species (such as Otter, Dormouse, Water Vole, and Eel).

More Ringlets and Skippers were spotted, along with Large and Small Whites, and a couple of Commas. The sun had disappeared as I walked though, cloud gathering and dashing my hopes of seeing dragonflies. I pressed on anyway, ever hopeful, and as if to tease me a single dragonfly skimmed past me and disappeared (it was so fast I can’t even be certain what type it was, though I suspect it was a Common Darter). That was the one and only sighting for the entire trip, and I have to admit I was a little gutted.

I crossed the river (at this point little more than a stream) and entered the wood. The woodland itself is ancient. It has a variety of trees including standard Oaks, coppiced Hornbeam and several old Yews. Its flowering plants include Yellow Archangel and Moschatel. And if you are very, very lucky indeed you may just see a Nightingale. I was wandering along quietly for several minutes when…the tiniest rustling, a flash of movement… It was a dormouse! This oh so brief and exceptionally rare treat was enough to make up for my dragonfly disappointment!

Besides, I told myself to stay positive on the dragonfly front, as I was bound to see some the following day when I visited another Essex Wildlife Trust site, Fingringhoe Wick (for more info click here).

Set in a spectacular position overlooking the Colne Estuary, it offers wonderful views – and even better wildlife. Despite being a fairly small site, you can easily spend all day there as it offers a range of habitats, including grassland, gorse heathland, reed beds, estuary and ponds. Up to 350 species of flowering plants have been recorded there, including Orchids, Clovers, Medicks, Treefoils, and Sea Lavender. The Wildlife Trusts also report up to 13 different species of dragon and damselflies there. Another treat is that in spring you stand a good chance of seeing a Nightingale – well, more likely hear one!

Incidentally, although I visited in summer this time, I have also been in winter – and my tip for those of you who don’t like to be out and about in the cold is to check out the visitor centre’s viewing tower. The views are wonderful, you don’t need to wear a coat, and best of all you will get to see the thousands of waders and wildfowl that use the estuary at that time of year – including as many as 700 Avocet.

Winter was the last thing on my mind as the sun warmed my skin at that moment, though. Zipping and darting in front of me were so many dragonflies that it almost took my breath away! I’m still very much a beginner at identifying dragonflies, which is why I was so keen to try and get as many as possible on camera. That way I could studying them properly at home and work out what on earth I had seen.

So…despite seeing many more different species…the ones I got on camera were…

First was a male Common Hawker. It was resting up on a tree, so well camouflaged that I counted myself lucky for spotting it. After several happy minutes snapping away at it from a respectful distance, I moved on so as not to disturb it.

Then I spotted another dragonfly – well, spotted is an overstatement. It would have been hard to miss, given that it was dancing around right in front of my very nose. It never seemed to rest, leading me on down the path that was a little way from the pond that is so popular with the dragons. Then… Gotcha! The Norfolk Hawker landed, and I managed to get a couple of snaps before it once again zoomed into the air, twisting, turning and tumbling in a way that the Red Arrows can only dream of.

Well, it couldn’t get much better than this. Arriving back at the pond, I watched dragonflies skimming the water and doing all kinds of incredible acrobatics. Some came so close to me it felt certain they would land on my knee, but alas, no. I got really lucky though when a Common Darter decided to settle on the warm path beside me for a while. This one had a lot of green in with its red body, so I think it may have been a juvenile. After a few seconds it flitted away, but was rapidly replaced with another. So I truly was spoiled!

While I think of it, I must quickly mention the easiest ways to tell dragons and damsels apart. Dragons at rest always hold their wings at a right-angle to their bodies, while damsels always fold their wings back along their bodies. Sadly though, you won’t always be able to see them when they’ve landed, most often they are buzzing around at lightening speed – so another rough rule of thumb is that if it is small it will be a Damsel, if it is larger it is a Dragon – and if it is away from water it will be a Dragon too. But as I say, that is a very rough guide, while observing their wings at rest is accurate.

After a truly magical afternoon Dragon-hunting, I was heading back towards the exit when Fingringhoe Wick decided to give me one last gift. Something red caught my eye, resting on a bench. It was a Ruddy Darter, seemingly just enjoying the sunshine.

Hopefully by the time I return to Fingringhoe Wick I’ll know a lot more about dragonflies, and be able to capture even more on film. Until then, I’m off back to Brum; I’ve heard about a couple of places to check out that boast a fair few dragonflies themselves…

soldier beetles etc 015_edited.JPG

#grasshoper #soldierbeetle #skipper #ringlet #skylark #gatekeeper #commonblue #swallow #comma #commonhawker #norfolkhawker #commondarter #ruddydarter #dragonfly

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