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Bishop's Stortford Independent Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham sees starlings and a sparrowhawk on a circular walk around Farnham and Manuden

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Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...

A week last Monday dawned bright and dry for a change. I left the house promptly for my Nature Notes wander as I felt sure this break in the weather would not last. I parked near the school in Farnham and planned on a route up the lane towards Chatter End, accessing a bridleway adjacent to Saven End Farm that takes you over some hills and down into Manuden. From here I took the lane towards Uppend where there is a fork in the lane and, soon after, a footpath on the left that follows a hedgeline back to the lane in Farnham. All in all, just shy of five miles.

Gathering my optical gear together I noted a pair of superbly-plumaged starlings on a television aerial, accompanied by a lone female house sparrow. The iridescent plumage of the starlings shone in the sun like oil in a puddle. Shades of purples and greens mingled with their dark feathers and white spots. A collared dove posed upon a telegraph pole and the accompanying photo shows the sky cloudless and a great shade of blue. Wonderful light for photography, but sadly, it didn't last.

I passed the school and took the lane to the left. Upon the roof of the main building sat a sparrowhawk which explained why, a minute or so earlier, all the finches and starlings had flown off as one. The glaring eyes of the sparrowhawk don't miss a thing and he was soon gone as I crept a yard or so closer for more shots. The barring on the breast informed me this was a bird born this year and not yet into adult plumage. Always a wonderful bird to see.

I followed the lane, passing a good variety of hedge-based trees, including ash, oak, hazel and hawthorn with a few field maples. I paused to check for the leaf mines on the leaves of several species of micro moth. On the maple were the distinct tunnel mines of the tiny moth Stigmella aceris, showing well as a dark line on the leaf as the colours changed to an immaculate gold shade. On the hazel were similar mines of Stigmella microtheriella.

Other mines were noted but remained unidentified as I took the footpath up an incline into a copse. Just beforehand, a striking dead tree stood stark in the meadow, possibly an elm that had succumbed to Dutch elm disease way back in the mid to late 1970s. The wood had been pecked by woodpeckers and was riddled with holes from beetle and wasp larvae. Under the small amounts of remaining bark, woodlice and centipedes struggled to hide as I probed about. Plenty of life in a dead piece of wood, always worth investigating. This route was one I used when I did a fundraising walk from Hadham to Cromer pier in October 2019. This was day one where I went as far as Saffron Walden so it was good to be back, safe in the knowledge that this time I didn't have 150 miles to go!

Upon exiting the copse the path continued uphill through a very muddy patch where I slithered about and spent too much time watching my footfall to note anything overhead. A common buzzard mewed helpfully, announcing its presence and, a little later, a calling red kite flew off from its perch.

I was now on some of the highest ground around with views down to Manuden where just the tower and small spire of the village church could be seen, nestling in an abundance of trees. A field of what I presumed to be swedes held a good flock of chaffinches which rose into a large oak as I passed by. On the other side of the track was a field that was yet to be ploughed but still had seed-bearing plants that had attracted a flock of linnets.

Over near some barns a tractor ticked over, an old Massey Ferguson, made in 1967 and still working. This reminded me of summer holidays in Devon where we stayed in a farm cottage and I, as a seven- to 11-year-old, spent my time with the farmer hand, Edgar, helping with milking, egg collecting and sitting on the mudguard of his tractor (a similar model) whilst we took food to the fields and milk churns to the end of the lane for collection. Health and safety will have put a stop to that joy riding nowadays for sure!

Not far from where it stood, a few poppies were still in flower, one of several late-flowering plants that I encountered during the wander. Wet but mild conditions this autumn seem to have prolonged the flowering season, a fact born out later on in the walk. We have primulas flowering in our garden at present and even the rhododendron has tried to open its buds that have set for what should be next year!

I arrived in Manuden and headed towards the school. On the roof of a row of cottages a pair of pied wagtails checked the moss on the tiles for invertebrates before flying off to eat their finds, tails forever flicking. I took the lane on the left, signposted Mallows Green and Uppend. This was up a slight incline where I checked the hedgerows for more insects. Common wasps fed on the ivy flowers but the bees have now finished for the year. The queens will have found burrows to hibernate in whilst the rest of the workers and drones will have died off.

I pressed on uphill with the sky now grey and overcast, passing the last cottage and out into open fields and good views. To the right in the distance the sub station at the Pelhams and, over the fields to the left, my destination, Chatter End and Farnham. Here the grass verges were full of flowers. Mallow had just finished flowering but its large leaves were still evident. In flower were red and white campion, hedge cranesbill, yarrow, hogweed and even some bramble showed its white flowers. Clumps of germander speedwell spread from the original stem showing its tiny mauve and white flowers. All excellent to see.

I checked muddy gateways for footprints and came across both muntjac and fallow deer slots. These were fairly recent with a large herd of fallows having moved through, perhaps during the night.

I returned to the flowers where insects were feeding upon the last pollen and nectar of the year. Common wasps busied themselves on the hogweed as did a parasitic fly, probably Eurithia anthophila, again showing late in the year as they are normally finished by September. Dogwood was even in flower and, upon one stem, a late-in-the-year Episyrphus balteatus hoverfly fed, also known as the marmalade hoverfly. Don't expect to be seeing any more of that species until a warm day in spring.

On the other side of the lane the red spherical berries of bittersweet. Earlier in the year this plant will have threaded its way through branches, showing smart purple petals and yellow stamens, a relative of both tomato and potato. All along the verge here was white dead nettle, still flowering. For so late in October these finds were quite surprising.

I waded through a small ford at the fork to Uppend and, soon after, took a footpath on the left. More deer slots in the mud while a robin began singing as blue tits alarm called at my presence. The squeaky call of a bullfinch and, overhead, an exultation of skylarks along with a party of black-headed gulls. Further along a field of pheasant cover, plenty of canary grass, millet and sunflowers to keep the gamebirds local for shoots this winter. Red-legged partridge called from deep in the verdant vegetation and several cock pheasants ran along the very muddy path in front of me. In the hedgerows, blackthorn bushes were laden with sloes, awaiting the first frosts to make them better for adding to gin, that will be ready by Christmas.

I arrived back on the lane between Chatter End and Farnham just 100 yards up from where I had left it at Saven End Farm and headed back to the village school and the car. I was covered in mud all the way to my knees and mud splashes had flicked up on to the camera lens, so a quick swap just in case anything showed. Just a selection of crows and jackdaws along with another passing flock of gulls before I was back at the car.

I headed home along the lane from Farnham to Upwick Green. Here, the field maples and sycamores were in fantastic colour, as they are too along the A120 bypass from Stansted Road to Tesco. With the prolonged mild temperatures the leaves have really been given time to add spectacular colours to the countryside.

A wonderful short wander where things held my attention for the whole route. Always something to find and admire.

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