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Enjoy a seven-mile stroll along the towpath to Sawbridgeworth and on to Essex Wildlife Trust's Sawbridgeworth Marsh reserve





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

Two weeks ago I parked along Spellbrook Lane East, near the lock gates, and walked north along the towpath as far as Rushy Mead Nature Reserve. In my last piece I mentioned I recorded 38 species of birds, but was a little disappointed not to encounter many recently-arrived migratory birds.

So last Tuesday I parked in the same spot, but this time with a plan to head south along the towpath to Sawbridgeworth and then on to the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Sawbridgeworth Marsh reserve.

Recently-arrived sedge warbler
Recently-arrived sedge warbler

Once again, clear blue skies as I got out of the car around 7.30am and onto the towpath. Here, a cacophony of bird song. I stood by the bridge and heard song thrush, blackbird, chiffchaff, robin, wren, willow warbler and a distant whitethroat. The latter was a first for the year for me and, already, an improvement on my last ramble.

I moved on. Mallards dabbled, a great spotted woodpecker drummed from afar and a Cetti’s warbler exploded into song. What a start. I managed a photo of the song thrush as this was the only bird visible. I suspect the same specimen I photographed a fortnight ago.

At the first meander a small bird flew into deep vegetation with a scratchy song. It popped up briefly - a sedge warbler. A second new-for-the-year species and this was soon followed by a third as a reed warbler also called from the sedge and rushes. Behind me came another distinctive call of three trills and then a complicated warble of notes - a male reed bunting which posed well for a photo.

Male reed bunting
Male reed bunting

Another summer-visitor species came into view as three swallows flew low over the water, far too fast for the camera but always a joy to see. I had only walked half a mile and already had enough material for my article, but decided to venture further south. Glad I did as the day just continued to get better.

The bright sunshine was illuminating the far bank, so great views of the birds moving through the trees. Blue tits checked the last of the blackthorn blossom for insects, great tits called their repetitive “tee cher” call and several Canada geese flew overhead. These were from a gaggle that were feeding in the field over the river at Tednambury Lock gates.

I stopped to chat with a boater as a red kite circled overhead and, in the next field, a kestrel hovered. Nearby, a pair of moorhens were busy feeding two of their recently-hatched youngsters whilst another two remained partially hidden in the bankside vegetation.

Male blackcap
Male blackcap

Over a footbridge and into a large open-field habitat. Carrion crows and jackdaws overhead as trains sped by and 737s dropped ever lower on their approach to the airport. More of the same along this stretch, with an additional willow warbler calling from alders on the far bank.

It was still too chilly for insects to be on the wing as, at 6.30am that morning, the frost was still upon the house roof as I opened the curtains. It was going to take a few more hours to warm up enough to encourage insects onto the wing. The air was relatively warm but the light breeze was northerly and the wind chill factor was making it a tad nippy.

I arrived at the railway bridge where the resident feral pigeons live on the metal girders. One pigeon was showing fine purple and green sheens to its plumage whilst the three feral greylag geese that have been present here for a few years checked reeds for insects and possibly nesting material.

Well-marked feral pigeon at Kecksey's Bridge
Well-marked feral pigeon at Kecksey's Bridge

I waited by lock gates No 4 on the Stort Navigation for the resident grey wagtail, but a no show so I headed off to The Maltings and The Shed for a coffee and a very large sausage bap. Perfect breakfast after a two-and-a-half-mile wander. I enjoyed the sit down before leaving to find the sun still bright and an increase in the air temperature as I crossed the level crossing and took the lane towards Gaston Green. Not a particularly safe walk along here, but after half a mile I was at the entrance to Sawbridgeworth Marsh.

Marsh marigold at Sawbridgeworth Marsh
Marsh marigold at Sawbridgeworth Marsh

Upon entry I immediately noted marsh marigold, cowslips and several florets of cuckooflower. The latter is so called as it flowers at the same time the cuckoo calls. Today, yet again, I failed to hear one.

Close-up of a cuckooflower
Close-up of a cuckooflower

I wandered along the boggy footpaths of the reserve. A male dunnock called from a willow and, in the mud on the path near the original River Stort, footprints of otter were evident along with slots of muntjac.

Dunnock
Dunnock

This reserve holds several rarities, including the rare amber snail along with plants such as southern marsh orchid, blunt-flowered rush and marsh willowherb. A bit early for these three plants, but the marsh valerian was just pushing though and in bud. Another willow warbler called, as did several chiffchaffs, before I was back at the gate.

Solitary Canada goose on the river near Tednambury Lock
Solitary Canada goose on the river near Tednambury Lock

Here I had a change of plan. My original thinking was to carry on along the lane to Gaston Green, head down to the water mill and rejoin the towpath at Tednambury, but the lane was rather busy with traffic meaning, even if I did encounter a good roadside plant or insect, getting photos would have been difficult. I therefore thought it would be better to go in search of insects along the towpath, so I retraced my steps to The Maltings and back onto the towpath.

Allaria petiolata or garlic mustard
Allaria petiolata or garlic mustard

And I was glad I did. I changed my long 600mm lens that I use for birds to my macro 70mm lens for insects and plants. Always a tricky decision because invariably a good bird pops up for a great photo and this short lens only focuses to one metre and the opportunity is missed. However, seeing as I was now walking along looking at flowerheads for flies etc, it was likely I would miss the birds anyway.

Good stand of cuckooflower near Tednambury Lock
Good stand of cuckooflower near Tednambury Lock

A stand of Alliaria petiolata - also known as garlic mustard or jack by the hedge - was growing near the towpath entrance. The leaves are one of the larval foodplants of the orange-tip butterfly and, shortly afterwards, a fresh male obligingly flew by.

Allaria petiolata or garlic mustard
Allaria petiolata or garlic mustard

Long-tailed tits called from the opposite bank as I went off into the large field to check lesser celandine, buttercups and a good stand of cuckooflower for more insects. Upon a dandelion head was a large hoverfly, Eristalis pertinax, that was in no mood for a snap.

Greenfinch
Greenfinch

A greenfinch wheezed its rather monotonous call before I encountered more hoverfly species upon dandelions. Both appeared to be Melangyna species judging by their long, thin abdomens and one showed a bright yellow scutellum. This is the shield-shaped area behind the head and in Melangyna cincta this is indeed bright yellow, hinting it could be this species.

Possible Melangyna cincta species
Possible Melangyna cincta species

Ahead in the distance, and atop a large, dead tree, three cormorants were drying their wings, but they flew off as I approached. I stopped to flick through a good-sized nettle patch and encountered a splendidly-marked spider, Larinioides cornutus, a species frequently found near freshwater.

Larinioides cornutus, a spider often found near freshwater
Larinioides cornutus, a spider often found near freshwater

I checked once again for the sedge and reed warblers, but they were hiding away and soon I was back at Spellbrook having seen so much and heard even more. In total, amazingly, I had recorded 38 species once again, including a stunning pair of sparrowhawks overhead as I rounded the last meander.

A superb seven-mile wander and what a great way to celebrate my 65th birthday. April 25 is St Mark’s Day, hence I am named Jonathan Mark, but I did not manage to encounter any of the St Mark’s flies that should be on the wing by now that I mentioned in my last piece. Still too cold for them.



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