Bishop's Stortford Independent nature correspondent Jono Forgham goes on a stroll from Spellbrook Locks to Sawbridgeworth
Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...
My last article featured a wide array of our local butterfly species so I planned a walk that would offer a different variety of wildlife and chose to take a wander from Spellbrook Locks to Sawbridgeworth.
Last Monday looked like good weather for such a ramble so I parked in Spellbrook Lane East and picked up the footpath heading south at the lock gates. My thinking was that on the outward walk I would have the rising sun so added the large zoom lens to my camera, mainly for bird shots, and then as I returned the temperatures would be more favourable for insects in flight and the sun would be behind me so I would then change to a macro lens. This plan worked reasonably well, apart from I forgot to inform the birds who showed well on both legs, necessitating frequent lens changes.
Swallows flew low over the River Stort Navigation near the locks, dropping to water level to drink whilst still in flight. The banksides for the whole trip were a mass of colour, with willowherbs and balsams proliferating. The former are native species whilst the balsams – both Indian balsam, introduced from the Himalaya in 1839 and orange balsam, which was introduced from North America – have proven to be aggressive invaders of riverbanks and frequently shade out the native species.
The default bird for the whole of this stretch is moorhen. Many were now involved in raising their second brood of the year whilst the juveniles from the first brood were still with the parent birds. They busied themselves along the banks, feeding on a variety of weeds as well as any insects roosting on low vegetation.
Overhead, a red kite and five lesser black-backed gulls rose on the thermals. By Tednambury lock gates a whitethroat briefly emerged from dense bramble, affording a quick snap before sounding his alarm call and retreating. A blackcap also clicked its warning signal but was too fast for the camera. A solitary coot searched out duckweed and the first emperor dragonfly of the walk patrolled his aquatic territory. The breeze was blowing thistle seeds about and their feathery 'wings' attracted the attention of this large and colourful insect. He would dart up to check out what was flying by, sometimes checking several times to make sure it was not edible.
This stretch of the towpath offers much in the way of recreational activities. Walkers and joggers were frequent, occasional cyclists and, upon the water, families in canoes. All good to see as I pressed on towards Kecksey's bridge. Just past the houseboats here I stopped for refreshment and to watch a patch of reeds on the far bank. Much activity as parent reed warblers were feeding their young, again a probable second brood brought on by the fine weather we are experiencing. I fired off shots of the fast-moving action and managed a few acceptable captures. A party of house sparrows headed by.
The temperature continued to increase as I neared the canoe club where the first butterfly of the day was seen; a red admiral. Here, also, a female mallard with two ducklings, probably five to eight days old. They appeared to be scrounging around the houseboats for offerings, before heading off to source their own food when it became apparent that they were not receiving anything. These houseboats along here are most colourful, with planters full of herbs and tomatoes placed on the roof adding to the array of colour.
I arrived at the lock gates near Sawbridgeworth and thought I would wait awhile for the possibility of a kingfisher as they can often be found here, as can grey wagtails. All I had as I munched my crisps were a few fly-over gulls and some wood pigeons. I chatted to an angler who was doing well, pulling in small roach and bleak from his long roach pole. He told me of several other good sites along the river for kingfishers which was helpful.
Having caught up with my notes I started back, having changed lenses. The first thing to appear following this was a low-down juvenile common buzzard, so no worthwhile photo. Common blue damselflies skimmed the water whilst also resting upon floating vegetation. The reed warblers were still active so I changed lenses once again just in time for them to dive for cover. However, at that moment, a Cetti's warbler called from bramble. A most elusive bird, frequently heard, seldom seen. I sat down to wait but after 15 minutes he still had not shown. A few banded demoiselle damselflies flitted over the water, their metallic green or blue bodies reflecting in the sunlight. None came close enough for a good photo.
The sky was becoming more overcast and with this, the disappearance of insects. When the sun did emerge, so did they, with two brown hawker dragonflies patrolling the far bank, more common blue damsels, before I latched on to a mating pair of common darter dragonflies flying in tandem in the 'wheel position'. I stopped once again and edged my way closer for some shots and they obliged, before moving off. There are two types of darter dragonflies along this stretch, the common and ruddy. Best way to separate them to species is to check the legs. All black on ruddy, black with yellow stripes on common. The photographs confirmed these to be common.
By now I was back at Gaston Green marina near Tednambury locks and a family party of long-tailed tits tripped through the trees. The young looked like they had only just recently fledged, their wispy call and array of clicks alerting me to their presence. A tree creeper joined in with a similar call but ascended a tree trunk too rapidly for the camera.
Before arriving back at Spellbrook Lane two more birds made the list. Firstly, a male reed bunting dived into the undergrowth with a beak loaded with insects before a sedge warbler was clocked working its way through the vegetation. More butterflies were now on the wing with small white, comma and several more red admirals seen.
This stretch of the river is a real pleasure to wander along, plenty of space, big sky views and colourful reflections in the slow-moving, calm water. The fields around are spacious and open so plenty of room to pass safely when fellow wanderers are on the towpath.
I arrived back at Spellbrook Locks just in time to sit down and enjoy my international picnic of roast beef and cheese panini with an Indian samosa, all washed down with a Thai lager. A veritable fusion lunch.
A small craft approached the locks captained by an employee of the Canals and River Trust. A lawn mower attachment on the front and another on the side. This was used for maintaining the banks and clearing masses of floating vegetation from the surface that can clog the propellers of the narrowboats. He asked if I had clocked any kingfishers, which, sadly, on this walk I hadn't. I passed on the knowledge I had received from the fisherman earlier and he agreed that around Sheering was indeed a good place for them. Worth a check on another day.
Having returned home, processed the photos and enjoyed an evening meal, I returned in the hope the local barn owls may show up. They didn't, but plenty of midges did and standing on the towpath at 8.30pm in shorts meant I was easy pickings for the bloodthirsty females. I departed!
Back on March 23 I set out to record all the natural history of our small, rural garden. I am now, as of August 4, up to 637 species of mammals, insects, reptiles, flora etc.
The majority of this total is from the moths – I have now trapped and recorded 324 species of macro and micro moth. Wonder if I'll pass 400 species? Watch this space. A photo here of a spectacular lime hawk-moth.