News of wildlife and other issues

The Helleborine Saga - a return to Wanstead...

...or perhaps it never went away? It certainly escaped, for I re-discovered a solitary specimen in the lane that continues down to Heronry Pond from Warren Road, Wanstead.

The first time I saw a helleborine in this location - Broad-leaved Helleborine Epipactis helleborine - was in August 1998, but I hadn't seen it after 2008. It was the only specimen that I know of in the Wanstead area, and I suspected that after the track was re-surfaced in May 2010 the work would destroy any remote possibility of it returning.

The Broad-leaved Helleborine in July 2006The Broad-leaved Helleborine in July 2006Broad-leaved Helleborine in Wanstead Park - July 2011Broad-leaved Helleborine in Wanstead Park - July 2011As I passed through the gate at the west end of the Plain on 20th July - to look at the grass strip just beyond, near to the golf-course (more about that later) - my mind jumped back to the lost helleborine and I decided to take another look at its previous location. The first thing I spotted in the approximate location was a patch of Enchanters Nightshade Circaea lutetiana. I'd not seen this here before, the nearest being in Reservoir Wood, so I was pleased about that - albeit it is not an uncommon plant. A few yards away I spotted a helleborine, but it didn't look like the broad-leaved one. It was only a foot or so away from the re-surfaced track, so in that respect was lucky to have survived, and it was less than a foot in height, with six or so flowers. But it was there, and a somewhat surprising survival considering the disturbance that it must have been subjected to. However, the fact that it didn't appear to be the Broad-leaved Helleborine that I'd recorded before worried me. This one - in flower - looked to me like a White Helleborine Cephalanthera damasonium. Had I been mistaken in my previous identification, or was this another species? I had to do a search of my old photographs to try to be certain. Search completed, I was both relieved to find that I hadn't made a mistake with my previous ID, but also amazed that in - apparently - almost the same location was another species of helleborine! This seemed a little too coincidental, so I accepted botanist Ken Adams' invitation to have a look, which we did. The flowers were more evident this time (28th July), and Ken pronounced it to be a Broad-leaved Helleborine, albeit looking distinctly unlike the one I'd photographed in 2006. Ken was kind, and said that they were a difficult group, and that variations such as this seem to be dependent on weather conditions. He supposed that it was probably the same plant that had been there in years past.

So - it seems it did survive the path re-surfacing, and still remains the only helleborine known in Wanstead Park.

I returned to my intended destination, just down the track and to the right, and found that the terrible stone-chip surface that had caused the majority of users to use the grass-strip instead, had been covered. The covering was a loose light-coloured sandy material; much more comfortable to walk on - or cycle on, I suppose. However, it was so soft that footprints, cycle tracks and scuffing was very evident, and I found later that the rolling machine that had smoothed it after laying was still working near Park Road. Perhaps it is a material that will harden somewhat after some time - otherwise it's going to be a bit like walking on a beach!

Grassland north of Heronry PondThe grass strip to the north of the Heronry Pond...what it should be : knapweeds, stitchworts and trefoils...Unnecessary mowing - unnecessary running...what it has become: a desire-line path, easier than the adjacent track

Prior to the original track resurfacing, the grass strip that runs alongside on the golf-course side was mowed. This was one of the nicest bits of grassland in the Park, being more like a meadow. Flowers that blossomed in the low grass included knapweeds, bird's-foot trefoil, yarrow and lesser stitchwort. These and the associated grasses provide a lovely habitat for insects: lots of bees, hoverflies and butterflies. Also, and especially, the area provides a breeding habitat for 6-spot burnet moths. One of the problems that arose once the grass was mowed was that - as was intended as a temporary measure - the ground became used as a foot and cycle path. After such a poor surface was used in the construction of the new path it proved much easier to use the grass than to suffer the sharp chippings. Now, even after the recent re-surfacing with the soft material, it is still being used by people as an alternative to the track. It has become a "desire-line" path. The plants and insects are still there, but the area has been considerably reduced in size by the mowing,  This really is a disaster, and it really shouldn't be mown any more, with a slight hope that it may recover to the meadow it was rather than just a muddy footpath.

6-spot Burnet moth Zygaena filipendulae...and the possibilities

Paul Ferris, 28th July

A fine day for insects

The intermittent rain of the last few days has restricted my wildlife outings. In fact, the planned outing for today was going to be a non-wildlife exploratory walk along the Lee Navigation - but the weather did not bode well.

Instead - as the sky looked clear for a way to the west - I made what was intended as a quick foray into Wanstead Park. It was relatively warm - about 20° - and slightly muggy; the waterproof jacket I'd put on in case didn't do me any favours as I walked into the Park in the sunshine.

Immediately, on the embankment above the Perch Pond, a clump of yellow crucifers - Black Mustard Brassica nigra - drew my attention as there was considerable bee and butterfly activity taking place. Other visitors were paying more attention to the other side of the embankment where the swan-family had decided to sunbathe by the path. On the crucifers - and adjacent thistles - many Honey-bees were busy, together with some bumble-bees, a few Small White butterflies, some Soldier-beetles, a few hoverflies including Eristalis pertinax and the Marmalade hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus, and a larva of a Harlequin Ladybird Harmonia axyridis. In passing, I noted one House-Martin over Heronry Pond and vaguely reflected on the continuing relative small numbers of these compared to years past. It's true I've been leaving the birding to the very keen and experienced birders and twitchers that are "popping out of the woodwork" these days - but it's also true that the numbers of Martins are way down on what I remember. There were one or two Swifts high overhead, too; the article relates to insects, but I suspect the Swifts were eating these, so they can reasonably be included.

Black-headed GullNot an insect thus not included in the textI don't know what the large Red-eared Terrorist (Trachemys scripta elegans) basking on one of the islets on Perch Pond was eating or had eaten, but lots of juvenile Long-tailed Tits were feeding through the trees above the remnants of the little "beach" that used to give such a pleasant view of the pond behind the kiosk until the brambles took over. I guess they were eating insects, too, but the insect that gained my attention was a Brown Hawker dragonfly Aeshna grandis, the only local dragon/damselfy species I hadn't yet managed to photograph. It obligingly landed on a log, where it appeared to to do some egg-laying, and I got my photograph. Out onto the edge of the Plain, and immediately there were Gatekeepers feeding on the brambles bordering Kiosk Wood. Crossing the Plain, Gatekeepers and Meadow Browns were flying up all over the place, and a Small Heath couple were busy mating. Grasshoppers were also jumping from everywhere, and some almost flying to somewhere else. I left those to later. There is a patch of disturbed grassland at the North-East corner of the Plain which is still regenerating after the water-pipe work in 2008, and it has some interesting plants, including a small patch of Cornflower. As the habitat is different from the rest of the Plain, activity around it is also different. On the flowers of Yarrow was a brown butterfly, possibly a female Common Blue, which are making a bit of a re-appearance after the first batch early-emergers. Some nice poses - top-side and underside - for the camera. Just across the main track that leads past the Temple to the Ornamental Waters is a large Rhododendron R. ponticum, which some years ago I complained was ill-treated by tree-pruners who allowed a large branch to fall from their work onto. It has never recovered its shape, and other vegetation now grows within it which spoils its appearance. There is a bit of a campaign, I feel, about this species in Wanstead Park; in many parts of the country, indeed, rhododendrons have become a serious pest, but here in Wanstead Park they seem easily controllable and - although they may grow larger - they are not invasive. What a shame, then, that a particularly nice specimen whose flowers by a main track must give a lot of visitors such pleasure, be so ill-treated? Anyway, I looked closely at the remnants of this particular plant - and didn't need too - for the little flying insects that are the one particular creature that makes use of it were flying all around. They are a species of leaf-hopper Graphocephala fennahi which I call the American Leaf-hopper, as they originate from North America. Looked at closely, they are colourful little things, and I was lucky enough to see a male flashing its bright red underside at a female, followed by a bit of copulation.

My intention was to make for the Grotto, where there is a sheltered patch of bramble-and-willow-herb scrub that is very attractive to insects, but was thwarted by workers removing scaffolding from the structure. Instead I made for the Ornamental Waters at the bottom of the Glade (or the Long Walk, as it is now being called). Photographing the Skullcap that grows only by the lake just here, the resident swan was seeing everything off, paying its usual particular attention to Canada Geese. The Fringed Water-lily Nymphoides peltata was just coming into flower, and the swan did turn its attention away from its territorial defence to have a nibble. I've strayed from insects, but the somewhat grim avenue that has developed alongside the lake walking north, together with the darkening skies, did not give much opportunity or enthusiasm for insect-spotting. I had the feeling of heading back to the car before the storm, and made my way somewhat hastily slanting up through Warren Wood to the Glade. Reaching that point, it was naturally a bit brighter out in the open and my interest was re-gained when I spotted a nice clump of Lady's Bedstraw just off the main track. This species used to be more plentiful up here, but like the rabbits, has decreased with the abominable oak-plantation that is making it less glade-like. The bit of rough grassland that is still left, together with bramble and thistle patches, does make a nice environment for insects, though - and certainly Gatekeepers and Meadow Browns were still around, though the sun wasn't.

A continuing hasty walk back past the Temple, where the rain had just begun, but at the kiosk were a few people whom I knew, sheltering. One was Kathy of the Wren Group who had come out for a wildlife walk, so after the rain had blown over we  walked onto the Plain where we soon disturbed a roosting Emperor dragonfly. Heading towards Aldersbrook Exchange Lands, Small Copper butterflies were much in evidence, plus of course the Gatekeepers and Meadow Browns that were so plentiful earlier. Down by the Roding, and heading south along the river, what occurred to me was just how much the Himalayan Balsam was spreading from further south towards the Park. We used the lower track, nearer the river, and spotted a number of the beautiful Banded Demoiselle damselflys Calpoteryx splendens, then started to disturb Peacock butterflies. There seemed to be quite a number of those near the old sewage works fence. Stripe-winged GrasshopperNot a Roesel's Bush-cricket!Beginning to head back, we paused in what has always been a good patch of grassland near to the pylon. When I'd been here a day or two earlier, I'd photographed my first Brown Argus of the area, so was hopeful we'd spot another. That wasn't to be, but a colourful insect which I immediately announced as Roesel's Bush Cricket allowed us numerous photographs. I'd been looking for these too, and this was my first of the year. The Buddleia bushes were devoid of almost all insects - a strange phenomena this, and recently mentioned as far as butterflies are concerned by David Attenborough. There wasn't really a shortage of butterflies - in fact there were good numbers of them - but not on the buddleia; is there something else going on? Closest to the buddleia was a nice Comma butterfly, which I haven't seen too many of recently, and further into the grassland and away from what were fast becoming the insects of the day - midges - we found some plump blackberries (and a few less-plump Dewberries) which had just a few Shield-bugs on them, including a tiny creature which I nearly ate, and what I think was a very early instar of a Shield-bug.

This article seems to be going  on a bit, so we cut the walk short at that point (didn't really - I say that in an attempt at brevity), made our way back to the car, then on to that famous eating-pub The Maple-leaf Forever in Leytonstone to eat and review our photographs. Immediately during the review I saw that my brown-butterfly-possibly-female Common Blue was in fact a Brown Argus, and that my instantly-recognised Roesel's Bush-cricket was a Stripe-winged Grasshopper Stenobothrus lineatus. I've never seen one of those before, so I ate my steak pleased with the insect-day.

Paul Ferris, 20th July 2011

The Aldersbrook Cuckoo


A repeated "peeping" noise greeted us as my wildlife photographer friend left my house this evening just before 7pm. Neither of us recognised the bird making it, and although I looked, I couldn't see it. The rain didn't help.

Fifteen minutes later, a neighbour who has a good knowledge of birds called to ask if I knew what was making the sound, and he spotted what he thought was a cuckoo sitting in the oak tree immediately in front of my house, by Wanstead Flats. I grabbed binoculars and a camera, confirmed it was a cuckoo, and started trying to get a record photograph. Just then, my next door neighbour asked if we were looking at the cuckoo! That surprised me somewhat, as I hadn't known he either had an interest in or a knowledge of birds. He has certainly got the knowledge, though - as he drives a taxi.

He explained that he knew what it was because he'd found it on the pavement in front of the shops at the corner of Aldersbrook Road and Wanstead Park Avenue. He could see it was a young and distressed cuckoo, he said, so he'd picked it up, put it in his cab, brought it home (the other side of the Flats) and released it by the oak tree. From there it had fluttered up onto the branches. He then called the RSPCA who advised him to put it back near to where he'd found it, but this was to prove impossible as by now it had ensconced itself on a branch, making these most-un-cuckoo-like sounds, and was impossible to catch.

I was able to see it quite clearly from my upstairs window, albeit by now the rain was beating down and it had tucked its head in, and had stopped peeping. The magpies had stopped harrying it, too.

Considering the scarcity of cuckoos in this (and other) areas - only one having been reported locally this year - finding a fledgling by Wanstead Flats is quite amazing. Unless it had been carried there by another taxi driver, one must suppose that it had bred locally - possibly to a local Dunnock - but of course Reed Warblers were heard on Alexandra Lake earlier in the year. Who knows.

My fear, though, is that it appears to be very young, and that it will not last long having been removed from the possibility of being rescued and cared for by its foster-parents - whatever they are.

Paul Ferris, 18th July

Hoverflies in the first half of 2011

To complement the article that I wrote on Dragonflies and Damselflies seen in the area up to July 2011 (see here), this one on hoverflies might be in order. I have to confess a lack of detailed knowledge of this group, and - to a greater degree perhaps than dragonflies - hoverflies warrant in many cases much more detailed examination to ascertain the correct species. Without making apologies, there must be a warning that the identifications presented here may not be accurate. However, it should act as an indication of the species that may be present in the area.

The first hoverfly sighted in 2011, Syrphus torvus, was on 28th March in the City of London Cemetery . This was feeding on the flowers of willow at the north edge of the Birches area. The next two species - both seen in my garden in Capel Road on 6th April - were both possibly Eupeodes species: Eupeodes luniger and Eupeodes niter. In the garden on 8th April was Epistrophe eligans, on 19th April Episyrphus balteatus, on 20th April a female Platycheirus ambiguus and, possibly, a Pipizella viduata, on 21st April possibly Melanostoma scalare. On 23rd April the distinctive Baccha elongata was in the garden, as well as Sphaerophoria scripta. Moving to Wanstead Park, on 25th April possibly Eristalis intricarius. Back to the garden, on 26th April the large Myathropa florea was photographed.

In May, Episyrphus balteatus was present in the garden on10th and Eristalis tenax on 11th. This species is very common, and - as is true of some of the other species mentioned - there were others present at other locations in the Wanstead area. There was also a Helophilus species in the garden on 11th, and more certainly Helophilus pendulus on 13th. Again pretty certainly - because it is so striking -  was Xanthogramma pedissequum, in the garden on 15th, and in Wanstead Park on 20th. Uncertain, though, was a Neoascia species, also in the Park on the 20th May The next species recognised was Volucella pellucens, in Wanstead Park on 24th. Another particularly uncertain identification was of Cheilosia albitarsis, in Wanstead Park on 30th May.

In June, Eupeodes luniger was more certainly identified in the garden, on 13th, and many hoverflies were in evidence throughout the area, but thus far no new species, but in July - again amongst many species - Volucella inflata was seen in Wanstead Park on 9th, Syrphus vitripennis was in the Exchange Lands on 10th, possibly Eristalis arbustorum in Wanstead Park on 11th and what appeared to be Eristalis pertinax on Wanstead Flats on 12th. This brings the number of species thus far to 22. A  list of species - in alphabetical order - with locations where seen is presented below. Note that details of locations is not fully presented.


Species  Garden 
 Wanstead Park   Wanstead Flats 
 City of London Cemetery  Exchange Lands
Baccha elongata

Cheilosia albitarsis

Epistrophe eligans

Episyrphus balteatus
Eristalis intricarius

Eristalis tenax
Eristalis pertinax

Eristalis arbustorum
Eupeodes luniger

Eupeodes niter

Helophilus pendulus

Melanostoma scalare

Myathropa florea

Neoascia sp.

Pipizella viduata

Platycheirus ambiguus

Sphaerophoria scripta

Syrphus vitripennis
Syrphus torvus

Volucella inflata

Volucella pellucens

Xanthogramma pedissequum


Paul Ferris, 13th July 2011

Damselflies and Dragonflies in 2011

The appearance of this year's first (for me) Black-tailed Skimmer on July 11th prompted me to write an article half-way through the year about the damselflies and dragonflies of the area 'til now.


My first record of the year (or at least, the first photograph) is of  the Blue-tailed Damselfly Ischnura elegans, in Wanstead Park on 23rd April. The next species was the Large Red Damselfly Phyrrosoma nymphula by Heronry Pond on 25th April. Of note is that this species is often the first to be observed of the year, and often in my garden.

Next came the Azure Damselfly Coenagrion puella, which appeared in my garden on 4th May and by this time there were many Large Reds in the Park, plus the Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly, Libellula depressa. On the 9th May, the Large Reds were busy mating and egg-laying in my garden pond - an annual occurrence. It was on this day that I was honoured to watch a larva of that species emerge from the pond, and watched it right through the process until it flew off. A video is available here.

The next damselfly species was the Small Red-eyed Damselfly Erythromma viridulum, on the Ornamental Waters in Wanstead Park on 10th May. These were conveniently perched - as they often are - on lily-leaves. The second dragonfly species appeared by Heronry Pond on the 16th May - the dramatic Black-tailed Skimmer Orthetrum cancellatum, in this case a female. Azure Damselflies were egg-laying on 16th May on the Heronry Pond, and by the 20th there were many Azure as well as Common Blue Damselflies, Enallagma cyathigerum.

A young Black-tailed Skimmer was hawking over the brambles at the base of "Bullet Hill, opposite Aldersbrook School, on 30th May, and there was a nice golden female in my garden on 2nd June. Also on 2nd June the lovely Banded Demoiselle damselfly Calopteryx splendens was seen by the Roding. In the garden on 21st June were Azure and Common Blue damselflies.

On 10th July a Banded Demoiselle was seen in Aldersbrook Exchange Lands, and on 11th July a male Black-tailed Skimmer was basking in the sunshine on the banks of Alexandra Lake on Wanstead Flats whilst two Emperor dragonflies Anax imperator were hawking over. There was also a male Emperor at the top of the Glade in Wanstead Park, and Red-eyed Damselflies Erythromma najus lily-bathing on the Ornamental Water. There were also some brown-bodied dragonflies which may have been Brown Hawkers, but I'm not sure.

So there it is with the dragonflies and damselflies up until now. That makes 10 certain. The list is as follows - in order of appearance!:

Blue-tailed Damselfly  Ishnura elegans

Large Red Damselfly  Pyrrhosoma nymphula

Azure Damselfly  Coenagrion puella

Broad-bodied Chaser  Libellula depressa

Small Red-eyed Damselfly  Erythromma viridulum

Black-tailed Skimmer  Orthetrum cancellatum

Banded Demoiselle  Calpoteryx splendens

Common Blue Damselfly  Enallagma cyathigerum

Emperor Dragonfly  Anax imperator

Red-eyed Damselfly  Erythromma najas

Paul Ferris, 12th July 2011


Update since 12th July

Brown Hawker Aeshna grandis: a few sailing around by 19th July, when I managed to photograph one for the first time.

Common Darter Sympetrum striolatum: a young individual by Heronry Pond on 20th July

Southern Hawker Aeshna cyanea: the first I had seen locally, in vegetation at the bottom of the hill opposite Aldersbrook School on 20th July.

Migrant Hawker Aeshna mixta: the first noted by Shoulder of mutton Pond on 23rd September


On 27th September i Wanstead Park there were Common Blues as well as Migrant Hawkers. On 20th October, a Common Darter in Wanstead Park

Paul Ferris, October 2011