Lots of wildlife to see on a walk around Aubrey Buxton Nature Reserve near Stansted in Essex
Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...
Frost and a definite nip in the air as I began my wander from the Aubrey Buxton Nature Reserve off Snakes Lane, north of Stansted, towards Elsenham and Alsa Wood. This was a walk to continue my plan to start the wander near to the place I completed the last one.
The beech leaves on the ground were crisp and glistened in the morning sunlight as I trundled along to the ponds in the reserve. From some distance I noted a grey heron perched in a tree, so approached quietly, hoping for a closer shot. The bird saw me and looked as if it was preparing for take off, but, fortunately, not before I managed a few photos in excellent light.
A check along the boardwalk that runs adjacent to the ponds gave up little apart from flocks of blue and great tits. A wren called from a conifer, jackdaws and magpies clacked their vociferous call in the distance and a green woodpecker "yaffled" its flight call. In Lincolnshire, the local name for this woodpecker is indeed yaffle. A little further on I encountered the bird, probing the grassy bank for its favourite food, ants. Another photo was added to the collection for the day.
A log, resplendent in lush green moss, had fallen over the last pond and upon the bark a fungi species was growing successfully. Plenty of dog walkers greeted me as I continued around the reserve - a nuthatch burbled from high in a beech whilst Skylarks rose in full song from the field beyond the reserve boundary.
Having completed the circuit I arrived back at the track and took a right turn towards the M11 where there is a footbridge that crosses into Alsa Wood. But I decided for a change of habitat, so retraced my steps and wandered along the track to the Stansted road and headed towards Elsenham. Just before the road I clocked stands of chamomile daisy still in flower. Over the road bridge, I began checking rooftops for birds and was pleased to note a pair of pied wagtails enjoying searching the lichen on the tiles of one property. They will have been hunting for invertebrates.
I sauntered into Oak Close, a new development, and gained access to Alsa Wood. On a garden fence was a grey squirrel, its body in shadow and its tail lit magnificently by the strong sunshine. A tricky photo to get the animal in some light whilst not spoiling the brightness that shone upon the tail.
A different geology here compared to Aubrey Buxton. At the latter, the main tree species is beech, indicating a sandy soil. In the former, hornbeam is prevalent, a tree that prefers a clay base, as do oak and ash trees. In such deciduous woods at this time of the year, birds can be difficult to spot and it is best to find an open space and wait for them to move through the canopy. A female chaffinch alighted close to me as I tried to blend in with the vegetation, but little else was of note so I continued along the leaf litter-strewn path and eventually emerged by another motorway bridge and picked up the footpath immediately after walking through this.
This winding path eventually takes the rambler back to the small car park at the reserve, but not before passing several fields – one containing a few sheep where carrion crows were feeding – and then runs alongside the fields of the Christmas tree farm. Here I stopped to check the birds flitting between the hazels of a private wood and the evergreen conifers. More blue tits, but also a particularly confiding robin and a solitary coal tit. A goldcrest wisped unseen from a large Christmas tree as several redwings called high overhead.
Back at the car I collected my picnic and set off for another tour of the reserve to see what may now be feeding as the temperature had risen considerably. More redwings before I noticed a clump of lichen growing on several branches of an oak: Evernia prunastri, the oak moss lichen.
It was clear there had been considerable environmental enhancement in certain areas of the reserve and, in one recently cleared area, a stand of verbascum was good to see. Also known as mullein, this plant is the larval food for the caterpillar of the moth also known as the mullein.
The colours on the trees, especially the silver birch, were amazing as the sky was cloudless and the light remained bright. It seemed like the dog-walking hour had finished so I had the whole wood to myself. More nuthatches and a great spotted woodpecker were heard before I picked up the thin call of a flock of siskins somewhere in the distance. After a brief search I spotted them, busy in the tops of several conifers.
These finches are winter migrants to our shores, crossing the North Sea from their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and arriving in huge numbers in late October. A good place to see and hear them is along the River Stort, particularly at Grange Paddocks, where they spend their time feeding in the numerous alder trees that frequent the banks of the river. Unfortunately, too high up and too mobile for a worthwhile photo here.
Rosebay willowherbs still held on to their seed heads that resembled spiders' webs. A strong breeze will scatter these, but today the weather was perfectly still.
I arrived at the far end of the reserve, noticing large stands of an Oriental bamboo where several great tits were probing around for food items. A common buzzard rose silently from a huge oak that I estimated to be over 300 years old, going by the girth of the large trunk. Into another recently cleared area where moles had been busy overnight, as had rabbits – their scratchings in the grass were plainly evident.
Several areas here were fenced off with chicken wire, which I presumed was to protect wildflower species from these rabbits. Be interesting to see what flourishes here in late spring and early summer, but, sadly, rabbits are very adept at bypassing such barriers and frequently find a way in to cause much damage to the emerging plants.
Aubrey Buxton Nature Reserve is worthy of a visit as it is a wonderful setting with magnificent veteran trees, several small ponds and winding paths through hazel coppices. I was surprised to see that the hazel leaves were still mainly green, although the catkins were beginning to emerge on several examples.
I have now completed the first part of my trip all around the town, having started around Little Hadham and taken in Wickham Hall, Upwick Green and Farnham as well as Stansted and Hazel End.
My next report will be a Christmas special as I unshackle the five-mile leash that I usually abide by for my column. I plan a trip to Lackford Lakes, between Mildenhall and Bury St Edmunds. A wonderful reserve run by Suffolk Wildlife Trust and one where I shall certainly encounter bird species I don't come across locally very often.