Nature Notes: Jono spots 35 bird species on a walk from Grange Paddocks in Bishop's Stortford to Birchanger Wood
Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...
Way back in the height of summer, when I ventured out in T-shirt and shorts (remember those days?), I set off from Grange Paddocks to check the River Stort before heading into what I know as the Red, White and Blue Field (named after the former pub which is now the Mountbatten Indian restaurant) – now known as Grange Paddocks Meadow – over into the new Bat Willow Hurst country park and then on to Birchanger Wood.
On that occasion I had more than enough to report upon by the time I had seen dragonflies in the country park, consequently leaving the woods for another day. That day came on Monday November 23.
I parked in the car park in Cannons Mill Lane, off Rye Street, and set off in marvellously frosty conditions to the river. Here, in the sharp early-morning light, the trees were dripping with birds.
Black-headed gulls (100-plus) wandered haphazardly over the frosty football pitches, goldfinches and siskins called from the numerous alders, a pair of kingfishers eluded photographic capture on numerous occasions and three great spotted woodpeckers were evident, all females being identified by having no red upon the back of the neck.
I scoured every tree. Goldcrests hovered momentarily in search of insects and moorhens busied themselves in the river as mallards expected a free feed from me. Magpies and jays disagreed perpetually and great tits and blue tits flicked through the lower branches of leafless trees. Superb time to be present.
I wandered south towards the leisure centre hoping to get a really good photo of the kingfisher, but, despite their bright colours, they can be tricky to see. Inevitably they see you first and are off. I retraced my steps slowly, becoming familiar with their favoured perches, and would creep up towards these sites just at the same time as a dog would launch itself into the river, the peace broken by the owner requesting, in no uncertain manner, that the hound really should come out of the water. Invariably, they didn't.
I moved on. I pointed out a resting kingfisher to a fellow walker, who promptly walked forwards rapidly and disturbed it, so I thought I would wait a while until the morning walkers, joggers and dog walkers had finished their exercise. It was great to see so many people out and about, many of them eager to tell me about the kingfishers, others totally surprised by the fact that they were present.
I headed back towards Cannons Mill Lane. Blackbirds fed on hawthorn and a confiding treecreeper climbed a willow no more than two metres in front of me. Too close for the camera.
Back at the car park a jay posed nicely in dappled orange light before I entered the meadow. I checked the river as there is a little egret present here, but not today. Instead, a loud squawk announced the presence of a grey heron dipping down into the bullrushes. Overhead, a common buzzard and plenty of corvid species and wood pigeons.
I arrived in the country park and did a brief circuit, but little to hold my attention. The resident grey wagtails were absent, but there was some beautiful melting frost on very fine grass with the water droplets glinting in the bright yet cold sunshine. Back to the road and into the car park of Wickes and Pets at Home. Here, at the side of the buildings, I picked up the footpath into Birchanger Wood, a superb ancient woodland.
I was greeted by barking grey squirrels, bubbling nuthatches and James and Emma, with whom I had a long catch-up chat as it had been a while since I last saw them. Magpies clacked as I photographed a shaggy parasol mushroom and a set of sulphur tuft fungi growing from a dead willow.
I sat a while on a fallen trunk that had been worn smooth over many years by others using it for the same purpose as myself. Another treecreeper spiralled up a trunk and jackdaws moved around in the canopy. This trunk will offer shelter to numerous bugs and beetles, whilst underneath there will be a myriad of invertebrate life. Important that all fallen wood remains upon the forest floor and does not get tidied up. Many of the spectacular fungi species had been damaged by the frost whilst others were over and in a state of decay.
The light filtering through the leafless trees was superb. I arrived back at the car park, crossed Stansted Road and headed towards the Shell petrol station. In the hedge near Magnet a whole flock of house sparrows chatted continuously and a female popped out for a wonderfully sunny photo.
Behind the petrol station is a very narrow footpath that leads to Johns Road and Cannons Mill Lane. Here, a bridge crosses the river where plenty more mallards were to be found. Over the railway track and back towards the river in the search for the elusive kingfisher again.
There is a knack to getting close to kingfishers. Basically, look along the river for overhanging branches about 50cm above water level. Scan these for the tell-tale blue and orange and then approach as stealthily and quietly as possible, using vegetation to hide behind.
Using this tried and tested method, I carefully approached a blue and orange drinks bottle, a newly-cut branch – the fresh cut being an orange shade – and, best of all, a floating orange! I skilfully identified an orange baseball cap from 20 yards but still stalked what turned out to be a blue plastic bag. The joys of kingfisher hunting.
By now I had bumped into Richard Stead and we wandered up to the weir by the leisure centre. A kingfisher dived, caught a fish and was gone. I had now been out for over five hours so cut my losses and headed home to organise the photos.
The following morning I returned with a view to stake out a site for the kingfisher. Three mistle thrushes rattled from a tree and it was amazing to see the change in bird life. Gone was the hectic feeding of yesterday as there was calm and serenity to the way the birds went about in much milder conditions. A male kingfisher posed somewhat distantly, but afforded me a few shots before he was gone.
I was surprised to see hogweed still in flower near the car park, seemingly undamaged by the previous day's frost. This again shows the mild times we are having at present, apart from an occasional drop to minus temperatures.
I would be really pleased to hear from readers who witness any out-of-season wildlife. This could be plants in the garden, bird courtship or blossom on trees. Drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, letting me know what has been discovered. For example, we have a few primroses already flowering in our garden and I have trapped a few totally-out-of-season moths recently.
I finished my walk with a quick trip into the meadow again, where goldfinches mixed with siskins and flocks of mixed blue, great and long-tailed tits bounced from one tree to another.
In total, well over 35 species of birds had been recorded from the leisure centre to the Cannons Mill Lane car park, with extras added from Birchanger Wood. Many were the same species as my previous article, so my next one will be from a wholly different habitat.