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Enjoy a nature walk from Elsenham to Stansted taking in Alsa Wood, Aubrey Buxton Nature Reserve and Cuckoo’s Parlour





Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop’s Stortford

For several reasons I decided that my Nature Notes ramble a week last Monday would utilise public transport. Basically, the road works in town and the closure of roads in Stansted made it look like I would be in perpetual traffic jams en route to my starting point of Elsenham. Secondly, as there are “good” public transport links from Little Hadham to Elsenham, I thought it would make a change and reduce my carbon footprint a tad.

I set off to catch the 09.33 bus from outside the Nags Head in Little Hadham. It arrived at 09.54 which meant I would miss the 10.14 train. At the station I bought my return ticket and headed back into town for a coffee as I had a 45-minute wait for the next train. I popped into a cafe for a coffee and what transpired to be the least appetising sausage sandwich I had ever encountered. However, as it was 2C outside, I was grateful that I was not sitting on the platform.

Common buzzard
Common buzzard

Back to the station and I duly alighted at Elsenham at 11.30am, more than two hours after I had left the house. Not the best start to the day.

I retrieved my camera gear from the bag, set it up and fired off a few test shots to get the settings somewhere near good. The light was perfect, a cloudless sky and hardly any breeze. Off towards Ugley Green and just next to the M11 bridge I picked up a footpath on the left towards Alsa Woods.

On my way to the path, a female blackbird was perched upon a hedge feeding on privet berries and, a little further along, a congregation of vociferous house sparrows posed nicely. Two reasonable photos in the bag, so things were looking up.

Wonderful old Oak
Wonderful old Oak

Onto the footpath and I waded through mud, recently frozen but now thawing. Blue tits and great tits abounded, a nuthatch called from afar and a party of redwings flitted from a hawthorn bush where they were feeding upon the berries. The light in the wood prohibited any decent shots.

A small, butterfly-sized bird moved constantly around an oak. A goldcrest. Always pleasing to watch. Too rapid for a photo so I wandered on, in no particular direction. A great spotted woodpecker called as I noted that the wood was predominantly oak and hazel. The latter species showed signs of coppicing many years ago and the wood could benefit from a new round of coppice to enhance the woodland floor.

Sadly, I fear for Alsa Wood as a haven for wildlife. To the west, the M11. To the south, a housing estate. And now, on the eastern flanks, a new development of housing. Soon this wood will become a green island, bereft of any green corridors along which rodents, birds and invertebrates can move without leaving themselves open to predation. Only the northern borders offer such a corridor.

I headed towards the roar of the motorway, crossed over on a footbridge and along a wide lane, passing a private wood on the right and open scrub ground on my left. A better habitat as a flock of birds called overhead. Fieldfares and redwings headed north whilst a charm of goldfinches searched out the seeds on dried umbellifer flowerheads. In trees adjacent to the footbridge, a party of long-tailed tits. I noted an unknown fungi species growing from a dead tree trunk in the private wood, but my long lens managed to capture this to be identified at home. The day was certainly improving.

Grey squirrel
Grey squirrel

Opposite the Christmas tree farm is the entrance to the Aubrey Buxton Essex Wildlife Reserve. Always worth a check. Impressive beech and hornbeams were checked for usual fare here, such as treecreeper and nuthatch, but little was to be seen. Many birds will have been staying in denser bushes, sheltered from the slight breeze that made the air temperature feel colder than it actually was. Best to check the sunny side of the trees and here, a skulking magpie refused to move from its warmer perch as I walked by.

In front of me, a bit of a fuss. A male blackbird and several blue tits were up in arms about something. I hoped for an owl sighting, but, as I approached, a male sparrowhawk darted from a hazel. A magnificent blur of slate grey and orange as it hurtled by. I followed it and eventually caught up with it, perched in reasonable light for a distant photo. I was to encounter this predator on several occasions whilst in the reserve.

Often the best way to bird watch in a deciduous woodland is to find a spot where you are partially hidden and just wait for the birds to come by. I made an effort to blend in with a large oak trunk and waited. Siskins called from nearby alders, more goldfinches overhead and a constant movement of tit species. Nothing set itself for a photo, so off for my picnic as I noted it was 1pm.

Watery sun descending
Watery sun descending

I headed for a bench in an open glade where a solitary oak looked good for attracting bird species. Glad I made this decision as, just as I was tucking into my second handful of McCoy’s salt and vinegar, I glimpsed movement on the trunk - a treecreeper. Down with the crisp packet and I slowly moved towards the bird. I fired off many shots as this superbly camouflaged bird spiralled up the trunk and on to boughs. I am sure the focus point of a treecreeper’s vision is just 1cm in front of them as they can be very approachable, although they clearly can register movement, even if not in sharp focus.

Stansted Brook
Stansted Brook

I returned to the bench, only to note a nuthatch had now flown into the oak. More stealth led to more snaps. I unwrapped my homemade roast beef and horseradish sandwiches just as a flock of long-tailed tits came by, joined by another goldcrest. Food put down and off crawling around the tree once again. Blue tits came in. What a tree to sit and watch.

Colours of the willows stood out in the bright light
Colours of the willows stood out in the bright light

Once I had the photos, I returned yet again to my lunch. Three dogs came along and one, Millie, a friendly black and white dog, was very keen on roast beef as well. Her owner called her away with treat bribes and I managed to conclude the picnic uninterrupted.

female Blackbird
female Blackbird

Once finished, I packed up and headed back along the lane towards the motorway before bearing right past May Tree Farm and then crossing the Stansted/Elsenham road to gain access to a path next to Park House. A jay eyed me from a leafless tree before the crossing.

Interesting unidentified fungi on dead tree trunk
Interesting unidentified fungi on dead tree trunk

A pheasant darted for cover before I went under the railway line and immediately right towards Stansted Brook Meadows, better known locally as Cuckoo’s Parlour. A flooded gravel pit along the path that runs parallel to the railway line held good numbers of mallard and a solitary moorhen whilst two cormorants circled over the water. This spot is in the triangle created by the motorway and the main line Cambridge link and the Stansted Airport spur. A very overgrown habitat where I always feel something good can be found. Yet another goldcrest hovered right in front of me, too close for a photo, before I went under the second railway line and over a large footbridge to bulrush-filled pools and the beginning of Stansted Brook.

Skulking Magpie
Skulking Magpie

A common buzzard mewed overhead in a superb blue sky and a reed bunting was flushed from the willows along the side of the brook. A good wetland habitat here. Moorhens called, a water rail gave away the fact it was hiding in the bulrushes with its characteristic call, rather like a squealing pig, and a few more mallards made their presence known.

Blue tit
Blue tit

The willows here were looking superb in the light. Shades of yellow and orange from the leafless branches. In a nearby field, old oaks in silhouette as the sun began descending behind them. A splendid place to conclude what had been a really enjoyable wander.

Jay
Jay

I arrived in Dairy Lane, a recent development, and was soon on the southbound platform at Stansted station. I only had to wait four minutes for the train and was soon back in town. Off to the bus stop outside Tesco Express where I noted I had 45 minutes before the 15.59 arrived. What better way to end the walk than with a pint, so off to ‘Spoons before the bus journey home. The bus duly rolled up at 16.10 and the ticket machine was broken so a free ride home. Most beneficial and only a few months before I get my bus pass, when all bus trips will be free.

busy Treecreeper
busy Treecreeper

I just hope that many of these bus safaris we are planning are a little more on time than the Little Hadham service. However, with the chaos of road closures in the town last Monday, it was not a surprise to find the buses were struggling to keep to their timetable.

Male House sparrow
Male House sparrow
Sparrowhawk
Sparrowhawk
Nuthatch
Nuthatch

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