A natural history of the Hedgerows and Gardens in Clewers Lane, Waltham Chase.
Words and pictures by Gordon Larcombe
October’s early frosts heralded the first signs of Autumn: fruits ripening, seeds dispersing , colourful leaves on the deciduous trees, and very large, scary House Spiders invading local bath and living rooms on the lookout for a mate! For most of the remaining wildlife, this was the signal to prepare for the coming winter by fattening up prior to hibernation or by spreading seeds to germinate in the Spring. One creature, however, ignored convention and chose to build a nest and rear its young this month. I am referring to the Collared Dove which can be seen in the snapshot below emerging from a Viburnum shrub in which it has nested and raised one chick just a couple of metres above the surface of the lane:
COLLARED DOVE, CLEWERS LANE
Smaller and more elegant than the Wood Pigeon, Collared Doves are unusual in that they will nest right up until October in Southern England. The species is so common now that it is hard to realise that it only arrived in this country in 1955, after making its way across Europe from the Middle East. The nest is a shockingly flimsy-looking platform of thin twigs and both parents share the duty of incubating the eggs. Each adult produces a substance called ‘milk’ which is rich in protein and fats and which is stored in their crop in order to feed the young. Unlike other birds, the young don’t gape when asking for a feed; they simply insert their beaks into a parent’s beak and drink from the crop milk.
Meantime, both adult birds are on sentry duty in the nearby Ash Tree and regularly attack and drive off the local predatory Crows and Magpies as they snoop around looking for an easy meal of fledgling.
The middle of the month brought several spells of dry, sunny weather and the last of the insects could be spotted preparing for winter. The Garden Spiders could be seen hanging in their webs, glistening with dew and fattening themselves up on inattentive flies, wasps and other insects that stumbled into their webs. Garden Spiders belong to a group of spiders that are known as ‘orb’ spiders because of their habit of building circular webs with which to trap their prey. They have several eyes in their heads, but these hardly function at all – they enable the Spider to distinguish light from dark, but not much else. Consequently, nearly everything which an orb spider does in the search for food relies on information fed back to it from its web through the sense of touch. You can see the eyes in this picture of a Garden Spider:
GARDEN SPIDER, CLEWERS LANE
As mentioned earlier, the Garden Spider is a trapper that uses a web to trap its prey; however there are other spiders that are hunters and which do not have the ability to spin webs but which do have eyes which function like proper eyes and enable them to see and catch their prey. One such spider is the Crab Spider:
CRAB SPIDER, CLEWERS LANE
The Crab Spider catches its prey by waiting in a flower until an unsuspecting insect arrives to gather nectar, wherepon it pounces on it, catches it with its crablike front legs, paralyses it with venom and devours it. It can do this because its eyes are good enough to recognise and focus on its prey. It is a hunter.
It is a matter of curiosity that the Garden Spider and Crab Spider species not only share a common distant ancestor but they also share the same habitat and prey (Flower/Shrub borders; Small Insects) and yet, over the millennia, Natural Selection has not selected for one species at the expense of another.
For those who do not like spiders, we come to butterflies. Many people ask what is the difference between Moths and Butterflies. The answer is: really nothing much. The distinction between them is mainly artificial. There is, however, one small detail that identifies a butterfly: if you check out the antennae, and there is a small knob on the end, it is always a butterfly. You can spot this in the next three pictures of butterflies:
COMMA, CLEWERS LANE
The Comma butterfly survives Winter by hibernating. It feeds into late Autumn on flower nectar and sugar in the juices from fallen fruit such as pears or blackberries. Then it finds a dark corner and passes the winter camouflaged as a dried up old leaf. Butterflies that emerge successfully from hibernation then mate in Spring and produce a first generation of new Commas in July. These will, in turn, mate and produce a second generation that flies in September/October and which hibernates to complete the cycle. The picture, above, is of a second generation Comma – which are usually darker than first generation in the interests of camouflage. A small bed of Stinging Nettles is an attractive site for egg-laying.
The Red Admiral, is also attracted to Nettle beds:
RED ADMIRAL, CLEWERS LANE
Most of the Red Admirals that we see in England are summer migrants from continental Europe. However, some do successfully over-winter on tree-trunks in this country, but many perish. After hibernation, adults tend to move northwards as visitors arrive from the continent. In May females lay eggs on nettles which give rise to the resident summer population of butterflies. By late summer, they all move southwards leading to a buildup in autumn in Southern England such that, in late autumn, they can sometimes flock to feed on the sugars in rotting windfall apples and pears. Unusually, the Red Admiral sometimes flies at night.
The third colourful butterfly is the Small Tortoiseshell:
SMALL TORTOISESHELL, CLEWERS LANE
Small Tortoiseshell butterflies are one of our commonest butterflies and will readily seek out Buddleia flowers. They hibernate in garden sheds and garages and sometimes the hibernation starts as early as August. Survivors become active in spring and eggs are laid in May to produce a first generation of butterflies that hatch in June/July. These in turn lay eggs to produce a second generation that hatches in August/September and live throughout the winter. Continental visitors augment the locals in August and the males become quite territorial, driving off intruders from their patch.
As in the previous two species, eggs are laid on stinging nettles, showing just how much these plants mean to butterflies.
SHIELD BUG, CLEWERS LANE
Green Shield bugs survive the winter by hibernating in leaf litter. At this time of the year it is not uncommon to find them preparing for this by resting inside a curled-up deciduous leaf prior to it dropping to the floor, taking the Shield Bug with it.
The seeds of many plants are now ripe and ready to be dispersed to create future generations. Ash keys fall to the floor and possess a small ‘wing’ that helps to carry the seed away from the parent plant, thus avoiding overcrowding. Oak trees rely on Jays to carry off their acorns and bury them as a winter store; those acorns that don’t subsequently get eaten may germinate and provide a new generation of Oaks. Others such as Hawthorns and Bullace use tempting fruit to attract other creatures such as birds and mammals to eat the fruit and subsequently void the seed away from the parent plant. Small plants such as the Dog Violet rely on wind or contact to disperse their seed. Here is a picture of a Violet with its seed pod filled with small round seeds, ready to roll away if something should knock into it:
DOG VIOLET SEED HEAD, CLEWERS LANE
Most seeds are packed with energy and are eagerly sought after by resident wildlife such as Mice, Sparrows, Finches, Pigeons and Dunnocks. To close, here is a picture of another seed-eater as it scours the garden looking for seeds; it is a beautiful male Blue Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), a close relative of the common pheasant, but somewhat rarer:
MALE BLUE PHEASANT (Phasianus colchicus), CLEWERS LANE