Bishop's Stortford town centre has lots to offer when it comes to wildlife, says Nature Notes correspondent Jono Forgham
Starting at the cemetery, the Indie's Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham strolls into Bishop's Stortford town centre and finds plenty of reasons to get his camera out - even if the wildlife isn't always obliging when it comes to posing for photos...
For my last walk of 2019 I thought a wander through the town would be appropriate and so it was that I found myself at the town cemetery in grey and chilly conditions.
I had a thorough check around the graves, noting the amazing conifers that must be over 200 years old. Some of the cedars are magnificent. I took time to read many of the engravings upon headstones. Many old Stortfordian surnames are present here and with them, poignant inscriptions. One particular headstone featured a reference to a Corporal who died of wounds he received at Ypres in 1914.
As is often the case, finding birds in dense foliage of evergreens takes a little patience and, whilst I could hear them, I couldn't see anything and nothing leant itself for a worthwhile photo. Wood pigeons were constant fly-bys, great tits, blue tits and an occasional coal tit could be heard as magpies clacked from the spreading beech tree. Blackbirds dived into a specific yew tree to gorge upon the berries, as did a few fieldfare but the light was depressingly poor for photos. One particular female blackbird posed wonderfully with a red berry in her beak but changes were required to the settings of the Nikon and by then, the fleeting moment had gone.
Goldcrests peeped from another conifer, butterfly-like they moved from branch to branch and overhead, a solitary black-headed gull and a squadron of jackdaws surveyed the habitat, the latter opting to roost in a sycamore and just check the whole area. My breath swirled around my hat as I stood still, waiting patiently for a calling coal tit to emerge from foliage. This it did and I fired off a few shots, the click of the shutter informing me the speed was too slow, so, again, I fiddled with the settings and managed one shot that showed the white markings upon the nape, diagnostic of this conifer specialist.
I moved on, heading down Havers Lane where there is plenty of vegetation to keep birds busy. A flock of wood pigeons preened themselves in an oak that has had many boughs removed. A community of house sparrows chirped from deep inside a heavily overgrown hedge and several robins were in full song mode. I arrived at the bowls club but nothing was upon the green so I crossed the road and headed to the River Stort. As I did, a dunnock popped up on the hedge behind me, called and dived for cover; another missed photo.
I navigated the splendid bridge by the Chinese restaurant, noting mallard and moorhen upon the water. On the station side of this leviathan construction, a stand of yarrow was still in petal, showing their seed heads for flocks of finches. Mainly goldfinches but an occasional chaffinch joined the feeding. To my right, a party of black-headed gulls were observing the comings and goings of the new car park before realising their ticket had expired, at which point they all headed off towards Anchor Street.
A wren rattled his alarm call on the far bank, a blue tit called from a silver birch and a pair of collared doves purred to each other near Duckett's Wharf. Certainly plenty to see and views just got better as a pair of magnificent mute swans sailed downstream, galleon-like. A most peaceful and relaxing scene and just so close to the bustle of the town centre.
I arrived at Station Road bridge and thought a quick wander through Castle Gardens would be interesting. Just before entering Castle Gardens I clocked an old Routemaster London Transport bus parked outside the registry office. I am a little nostalgic for older vehicles and this bus had been restored beautifully in its full red livery, dating, I think, from 1965.
I had been birding in Castle Gardens the day before and certainly plenty of birds near the Causeway car park. Goldfinches, chaffinches and long-tailed tits flitted through alder trees, acrobatically feeding upon the seeds inside the small cones whilst a single redwing sat by the river as I took several shots from the footbridge. By now the sky was a superb blue and the light was pleasing. A kingfisher called its distinctive monosyllabic call and was gone before I could even move the camera. Absolutely superb to have such magnificent birds so close to the town.
I then noticed a strange sight: a tree fully laden with trainers near the skate park. Obviously a fashion as there must have been 30 pairs of decent trainers hanging from the branches. Perhaps we could fill these with bird food to attract finches or fill them with compost and plant seeds?
I crossed into the council car park, fully laden with my cameras and binoculars, and joined the throng of shoppers. A check around the trees here gave up another magpie whilst the leaf mines of Ectoedemia heringella, a micro moth, were evident in the splendid holm or evergreen oak that stands at the top of Waitrose car park. These tiny moths, wingspan 3mm, lay their eggs upon the leaf of this tree and the caterpillars mine their way into the layers of the leaf, munch their way around and, in doing so, leave a tunnel that turns brown. Worth having a look next time you are in the car park.
As I headed along Water Lane, I stopped to see what may be roosting upon the wonderful ginkgo tree in The Coach House back car park. A solitary carrion crow was present. This tree, a native of China, has many useful medicinal purposes and I would be pleased to hear from any readers as to the history of this particular specimen. It is a fully mature tree, so I believe it must have been here for over 200 years. This can be found by viewing through the entrance between the dental surgery and The Star pub.
I continued along Devoils Lane and towards South Street. By now the town was busy and I found myself getting in the way of shoppers as I took a break near Greggs bakery waiting for the resident pied wagtail to show up. He makes an easy living here, feasting upon puff pastry crumbs that fall from pasties and sausage rolls. However, today he was further along as I heard him call near WHSmith. I moved on to find him, noting a buddleia bush clinging to the roof of the Epiphany shop next door to WHSmith. By now, the wagtail had decided to check out M&S so I followed the call. The silver birch trees that grow along the pavement here are the wagtails' overnight roosts and if you are wandering through this area at dawn there can be up to 30 of them patrolling the pavement.
I reached the end of South Street and thought: "refreshment." I headed to the Port Jackson for a pint and hopefully some riverside birds, but all I came across was a pint of Nethergate's Stour Valley Gold and a packet of salt and vinegar. Before doing so, I stopped to chat with the ever-present Daniel selling his Big Issue. A wonderful lad, keen to do his best and always appreciative of folk stopping to chat and perhaps donate him the price of a hot drink.
Upon completion of my sumptuous lunch I wandered along past the post office and took the footpath that runs adjacent to Holy Trinity and emerges by the Castle pub. Goldfinches called from a silver birch and a grey squirrel barked from a garden. A stroll up Jervis Road brought me back to the cemetery where, now the light had improved, I thought time for some good shots. However, the birds had second-guessed me and all had departed - a carrion crow and the lazy, resident wood pigeons were all that was seen. With a little more diligence, I noted a few more goldcrest along with blackbirds and fieldfares.
This old cemetery really is a little nature reserve within a suburban environment and always worth a check. A good variety of native trees, both coniferous and deciduous, can be found here and, in summer, a good variety of insects. By now, the temperature had risen sufficiently to entice small fly species to dance in the shafts of sunlight. There were literally thousands of them bouncing up and down but I am yet to identify them to species.
In all, a lovely wander that just goes to show how much wildlife, mainly ornithological at this time of the year, can be found within such a built-up area. However, the Stort does offer the town a special habitat within the centre and one that we should be rightly proud of. Consequently, I thank the likes of Simon Baker and his band of volunteers who regularly give their time to tidy the litter that floats downstream.
Let's all make 2020 a year where we take even more time to care for our immediate environment, be proud of what we have and give an increasing amount of time and effort to improving it. Together, we can make a difference.