Home   What's On   Article

Take a four-mile circular wildlife walk from Birchanger to Stansted





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

There are several top butterfly spotting sites around the town, with Hatfield Forest, Wall Wood and fields towards Bury Green being very good as well as the meadows immediately to the east of the M11, accessed from Birchanger village. The footpath here runs parallel to the motorway all the way to the M11 road bridge in Stansted near the secondary school.

Consequently, I parked the car near Birchanger Social Club and accessed the footpath on the sharp bend near the Three Willows pub. This path is part of the Sustrans route from the airport and is a great insect route.

Rutpela maculata
Rutpela maculata

Bramble, thistles, willowherbs, greater bindweed and umbellifers border the path which attracts a selection of bee species, particularly Bombus lucorum (white-tailed bumblebee) as well as Syrphus species of hoverfly and pollen-feeding beetle species such as Oedemera nobilis (swollen-thighed beetle) and Rutpela maculata (black and yellow longhorn beetle). It took me some time to get to the bottom of the path just before an incline to the footbridge over the motorway due to the number of insects to see.

Just before this bridge is a field on the right that in early July is full of thistle species, more umbellifers, particularly hogweed, along with good stands of greater knapweed. All very attractive to nectar- and pollen-feeding insects. The sun was shining and the temperature was good so I thought it worth a good check on this habitat. Glad I did.

Within half an hour I had recorded and photographed seven species of butterfly, including the spectacularly marked marbled white. My minimal claim to fame was that I was the first person to record this species east of the A10. Indeed, a groundbreaking natural history record! That was in 2008 at Westland Green and this species is now widespread throughout East Herts and West Essex as it continues to expand its range northwards and eastwards. Today, plenty were on the wing.

Marbled white
Marbled white

Also present were comma, large white, holly blue, meadow brown, ringlet and a solitary red admiral, some of which posed well for photos.

I moved on over the footbridge and turned left along a winding path into open meadowland. The hay had been cut and baled so not as many wildflowers as I would have liked to have seen, but plenty of butterflies lazed their way over the grasslands and onto bramble flowers. Here, also, two species of dragonfly, the ruddy darter and common darter. Similar markings mean that the leg colouration needs to be checked to get a positive identification. The common has yellow stripes on the legs whilst the ruddy has all-black legs.

By now, I had covered less than a mile in over an hour. A common buzzard mewed overhead whilst swallows skimmed over the shimmering barley fields on the other side of the motorway.

After wandering through a small wood with the airport long-stay car park upon my right, I arrived at the first large field. Centaury flowers and bird’s-foot trefoil had been missed by the hay cutting as they are such low-growing plants. I searched for six-spot burnet moths but didn’t find any as more butterfly species became apparent.

Centaury
Centaury

A skipper species flicked by and I had to follow it to establish the correct species. After about half an hour I managed some reasonable photos showing all-black clubs on the antennae, meaning this was an Essex skipper. The almost identical small skipper shows orange colourings on the clubs. More marbled whites and meadow browns, with one alighting upon a pyramidal orchid. Pleasing to see this plant.

I moved on with the sky turning grey and the breeze picking up - many butterflies will land and hold onto grass stems to save them from being blown about. Once the wind speed is greater than their flight speed they are not in control of where they are heading. With them grounded, a chance for improving upon my previous photographic attempts.

Another new-for-the-walk species posed well, a gatekeeper. I decided to go with my close-up macro lens, put down my camera bag and just searched a small area. So much to discover. On the heads of umbellifers were more beetle species, including the brightly-coloured Rhagonycha fulva (common red soldier beetle). Several fly species put in an appearance too; a Lucilia species, one of the greenbottles, and a Rhinophora lepida, the splendidly-named pouting woodlouse fly.

Gatekeeper upper wing view
Gatekeeper upper wing view

From a distant tree came the familiar call of the yellowhammer. Goldfinches sang from trees overhanging the hard shoulder as I sat down to enjoy a picnic. Not the quietest spot with the motorway some 10 yards away and the regular roar of 737s taking off, but the entomological sightings made it a great place to be. My lunch was constantly interrupted as more butterflies alighted nearby. A common Blue zipped by, the first of the day.

Having completed my ham and mustard sandwiches I packed up and continued along the path. Two more mown fields offered more of the same species before I passed through a small oak spinney and into a field full of tall grasses and umbellifers, thistles, bramble and willowherbs.

Oak Eggar moth caterpillar
Oak Eggar moth caterpillar

Again I put down my bag and had another prolonged check. On the ground, a large three-inch furry caterpillar was heading northwards. An oak eggar moth cat which had attracted the attention of black ants. The caterpillar had unknowingly trundled over their nest and they were attacking it. I knelt to get a few photos and the ants then decided my leg was worth investigating. Fortunately, these, unlike the red ant, do not bite.

Photos taken, I flicked the caterpillar from the centre of the path into vegetation where it will pupate and emerge as a large moth in August 2024, having hatched from the egg in 2022. It overwintered as a caterpillar last winter and will spend the forthcoming winter in its pupal stage. A long process before becoming a full adult moth.

Male House Sparrow
Male House Sparrow

House sparrows called from the nearby hedge, a healthy population of 30-plus were present. A large, strangely-shaped insect darted by and landed on the path a few yards behind me. I went to check this and discovered the reason for the strange shape. Two black-tailed skimmer dragonflies were engaged in a territorial dispute, both holding onto each other and rolling around on the soil. Eventually one let go and flew off, leaving the victor to fly around the territory.

Bombus lucorum
Bombus lucorum

Upon one hogweed flower several beetles competed for the pollen, including the tiny black/green pollen beetles, Meligethes aeneus.

I moved on and emerged onto the road just 100 yards from the road bridge. I passed the secondary school where it was lunchtime and the pupils were on the field. Overhead, seven herring gulls, two common buzzards and a single red kite circled effortlessly. I suspect they were waiting for the bell to sound and then, once the field was clear, would pop down to see what food had been discarded. A male blackbird probed the hard, dry lawn of a house in Forest Hall Road. Must be a struggle digging up worms from such dry soil.

Comma
Comma

I turned into the road that leads to the M11 business park and the nearby footpath that would return me to Birchanger village. Carrion crows paraded along the verge under a row of veteran oak trees. By now the sky was very grey and, shortly after, the breeze picked up and it began to drizzle. Fortunately, there is a path through a wood which offered some shelter and by the time I arrived at the scout hut and social club the rain had eased. One last photo of the village sign by the cricket club and I was back at the car.

Essex Skipper
Essex Skipper

Once home I processed the photos having taken over 300 and narrowed this down to 20 for possible inclusion here. In total I had observed 11 butterfly species as well as several moths that I had disturbed from the grass. Most of these will have been the small micro grass moth, Chrysoteuchia culmella, a very common moth and one that is presenting itself in large numbers to my garden trap. This morning there were just 24 specimens, down from last week’s high of 112.

Lucilia species. A greenbottle variety
Lucilia species. A greenbottle variety

I had only covered four miles but had taken over four hours, such was the amount of wildlife to see and photograph. For spotting butterflies in July, this walk is well worth the wander.

Meadow Brown
Meadow Brown
Oedemera nobilis male (right) and Rhagonycha fulva (left)
Oedemera nobilis male (right) and Rhagonycha fulva (left)
Pair of male Black-tailed Skimmers fighting for territory
Pair of male Black-tailed Skimmers fighting for territory
Pyramidal Orchid
Pyramidal Orchid
Red Admiral
Red Admiral
Rhinophora lepida
Rhinophora lepida

Got a story for the Stortford Indie? Email us at newsdesk@bishopsstortfordindependent.co.uk.



This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More