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Bishop's Stortford Independent Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham discovers lots of wildlife in Southern Country Park and Thorley Wash

Southern Country Park and Thorley Wash are the destinations for Jono Forgham on his latest Nature Notes ramble and, thanks to maintenance done by teams of volunteers, there is lots to see...

As with my last article, I was led by the weather forecast which predicted a week last Tuesday would be the best day, with good temperatures and plenty of sunshine. So it was. I planned to check for as many insects as possible by searching the flowerheads of many species and my mind turned to both Southern Country Park and Thorley Wash. I decided to combine these two premier local sites to see what I would encounter.

I set off later than usual to make sure the sun was up and the temperatures hovering around their daily maximum. Consequently, I parked in Moor Hall Lane East in St Michael's Mead around 11am and set off to check the lake and adjoining reed beds. Upon arrival I noted a common tern quartering the lake whilst also hearing reed bunting, reed warbler and a skulking water rail. The latter has a series of grunts, squeals and howls which can be heard from some distance. It is a bird of dense reed beds and, whilst often heard, seldom seen. A good start.

Mallards, coots and moorhens came and went before a reed warbler burst into its scratchy song and posed well enough for a photo. On the path leading to the lake I noted good numbers of common spotted orchid growing up against a wire fence before I wandered off to check blossom on trees for insects. Plenty to keep me busy, with small tortoiseshell butterflies in profusion, several meadow browns and a large white.

I arrived at the dog-free area where the grass is cut into rings with plenty of wild flowers. Here, oxeye daisy, pyramidal orchid, bee orchid, buttercups and greater knapweed all offered nectaring opportunities. So many bees and a few hoverfly species had me crawling around on hands and knees. Particularly pleasing to see was a Myathorpa florae hoverfly, a particularly bright specimen. Red-tailed, buff-tailed and tree bumblebees went about their daily harvesting as I also encountered many fly species such as one with huge red compound eyes; Chrysogaster solstitalis and Gymnocheta viridis, a fly similar but smaller than a greenbottle. As I crawled about, many grass moths were flushed, mainly the small golden species Chrysoteuchia culmella. In total, I must have spent over an hour here, slowly lowering myself onto my knees ready to get a photo just to watch the insect fly off a second before I could focus the camera. Frustrating, but with patience, I did manage to get a few species captured.

I continued along the path that runs parallel to St James Way. A bank of oxeye daisies looked inviting for butterflies and so it proved. A flash of black and white signalled my first marbled white butterfly of the year. Always good to see this species that has only really colonised East Herts in the last 12 years or so. Now found on many sites where there is suitable grassland and wild flowers. Often it will feed with wings closed, displaying the fine, intricate marbling on the underwing. Wonderful insect.

I crossed Church Lane and took a path through woodland which winds its way down to Thorley Wash via a footpath through a wheat field and then next to the archaeological digs that are going on at present. Blackcaps and chiffchaffs called, a male yellowhammer flew by and many small tortoiseshells were either resting on the bone dry, cracked path or sitting nectaring on the umbellifers such as cow parsley and common hogweed (not the unpleasant giant hogweed).

I crossed over by the roundabout at the bottom of St James Way and entered the field to the level crossing into Thorley Wash reserve. Sedge warblers, whitethroats and more blackcaps could be heard. One particular whitethroat was so engrossed in his territorial singing he permitted me the chance for some relatively close-up photos whilst he was still in full voice.

I ambled along towards the red bridge, noting yellow irises, yellow and purple loosestrife all in bloom. A Phasiinae species of fly fed on cow parsley before I took time to stand on the bridge and just watch and listen. Such a great place to relax and enjoy the peace and quiet as there were very few planes in or out of the airport. A sawfly species, possibly gooseberry sawfly, flitted by before alighting on an umbellifer where there was also a large and well marked yellow cranefly species (daddy long legs). This was Nephrotoma flavipalpis, a common cranefly at this time of year.

Unfortunately by now it had clouded over and, whilst still muggy, the lack of sun meant the hoped-for dragonflies had all taken to roosting. A single banded demoiselle damselfly was noted. The inevitable common buzzard and red kite soared overhead as I checked for water vole, but none were apparent. By the footbridge close to the railway line are huge stands of common comphrey. These were alive with bee species and on many of the leaves plenty of a strange black insect with several spikes and red dots. These are the nymphs of the seven-spot ladybird, soon to emerge as adult insects.

Having stopped to have a nature chat with Peter, a local RSPB member, I retraced my steps back to the main road where another whitethroat popped up onto the top of a large bramble. Obviously busy nest building as it had a large twig in its beak. Quite late for this activity so possibly a second brood or just that the first nest was predated so the parents will start again.

At this point I noticed how floral the roundabout is on St James Way. Poppies were all in full bloom and it was pleasing to note that the grass cutting had been done sympathetically and not the regular cut all in one go regardless of the flowers. With the lockdown meaning less grass cutting has been done this spring and early summer, it is really a pleasure to admire the grass verges full of flowers that are normally removed before re-seeding themselves.

Several meadow brown butterflies caught my eye as I headed up back past the digs. Along the footpath, many hemlock flowerheads with a wide variety of insects feeding up them but nothing to add to the day list apart from the numerous and tiny, shiny black pollen beetles. I crossed over Obrey Way to a well-placed bench where I took stock of my sightings and checked a few of the 350-plus photographs to see if I needed to replicate any.

As I wandered back along the paths of Southern Country Park I clocked three more marbled white butterflies feeding on recently opened scabious, but they were too flighty for more photos. I rechecked the lake area where there were now two common terns patrolling, searching for small fish, which they dive for from 10-15ft above the water. I also bumped into an old drinking friend from the days of the Fox in Rye Street. For those that recall this splendid, traditional pub they may remember Leggy! Good to see him in all his top-of-the-range cycling gear.

Just as I was about 20 yards from the car I got chatting to a couple out for their daily wander. Pleasure talking to Anthony and his wife and to hear how they had planted cowslips and primulas alongside the bypass when it was first constructed. A great spotted woodpecker flew over, a reed bunting called its repetitive call from a nearby willow and the two terns had an argument.

Both Thorley Wash and Southern Country Park are maintained by volunteers and both habitats reflect the care and dedication the teams who work here give to improve the biodiversity of each. The flowers found in SCP are wonderful and their presence enhances the invertebrate population. I could have easily spent all day at either site, as there was so much to see and photograph.

May I just pass on my thanks to all the volunteers who look after these places, particularly Andy White at SCP and Robert Phillips, warden of Thorley Wash. We are most fortunate to have two such great habitats within easy walking distance of the town centre.

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