Main image copyright: Charlie Oliver
The Essex Wildlife Trust highlights where you can catch the best wildlife across the year
January and February are superb for birdwatching, especially on the coast, where many winter specialities make their home. Watch and listen to an Essex icon on our band of estuaries: the Dark-bellied Brent Goose. Thousands of these gregarious geese spend the winter here, after migrating from Siberia. They form spectacular flying flocks – dark expanses against the wide skies – at several Essex Wildlife Trust reserves, such as Tollesbury Wick on the Blackwater and Blue House Farm on the Crouch.
March is home to stunning bulb displays. Essex Wildlife Trust’s Warley Place, near Brentwood, boasts an incredible array – snowdrops are followed by crocuses, before banks of daffodils carpet the floor. The reserve was formerly the home of one of the most famous women gardeners, Ellen Willmott (1858-1934); many rare plants she introduced can still be seen. An enthusiastic team of volunteers, who have lovingly restored the garden (not to its original form) run guided walks over early spring weekends, including Easter, amid the colourful garden and fallen splendour of the house.
May is the month to savour the dawn chorus. Essex’s ancient woodlands, such as EWT Pound Wood near Southend and EWT West Wood near Thaxted, are fabulous places to listen to the songs of thrushes, tits and warblers resounding through the trees. Essex’s most remarkable natural choral concert is, however, at Fingringhoe Wick, near Colchester, where as many as 40 Nightingales, fresh out of Africa, join the chorus. No bird can sing like the Nightingale: its astonishing song is a melodious mix of whistles, trills, drums and gurgles, toing and froing from high notes to low, delivered in an energetic burst, to a stunning, passionate crescendo. The song is all the more memorable – and mysterious – as it is often delivered in the dark. Essex Wildlife Trust runs guided evening walks to delight in these orchestral manoeuvres in the dark, from late-April until the middle of May.
Above image: Nightingale, copyright Amy Lewis
The long hours of daylight in June and July ensure that there is abundant
time to enjoy Essex’s wildlife. There are butterflies abound, such as at
Langdon, near Basildon, where as many as 30 species have been recorded, including Green Hairstreak, Marbled White and Grizzled Skipper. There are many species of orchids to admire in the grasslands. Elsewhere, look for ghostly Barn Owls at dusk, busy hunting for voles to bring back to hungry young. Talking of voles, summer is a good time to spot elusive Water Voles – famously personified as ‘Ratty’ in The Wind in the Willows – swimming on our waterways or feeding on river banks, before plopping into the water.
By August, many bird species have bred; for them, autumn has already begun. Cuckoos have fallen silent, while Nightingales slip back towards Africa with none of the fanfare of their arrival. Swallows gather on wires, waders stop off at Abberton Reservoir and warblers and flycatchers refuel at the Naze and Gunners Park in Shoeburyness. As early as mid- September, Brent Geese start to arrive back, from Russia with love, to gorge on the Thames Estuary eel-grass.
October and November is a time to cherish Essex’s woodland. Spectacular leaf displays adorn trees while, on the floor, remarkable fungi emerge – several Essex Wildlife Trust visitor centres and local groups organise ‘fungi forays’. Autumn’s mellow fruitfulness is a bounty for thrushes, which arrive in droves from Scandinavia. Listen out for the throaty cackle of flighty Fieldfares.
By December, the cycle is complete. The Brents are back in their thousands, flocks of tits forage through our gardens and many species are in hibernation. Or are they? A mild December in 2015 saw many unfamiliar species active, including Hedgehog and Grass Snake, and daffodils in bloom. Otters, which are present on every Essex river but fearfully difficult to see, were spotted in broad daylight on the River Colne. Keep your eyes peeled and your ears open – every day and everywhere, Essex has wonderful wildlife to cherish.