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Walks along the Flitch Way and around the Stansted Airport lagoons are good for a bug hunt

Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham heads to the Flitch Way and the Stansted Airport lagoons to see what he can record as part of his studies for the Royal Entomological Society's National Insect Week...

A week last Monday was the first day of National Insect Week, an event run every other year by the Royal Entomological Society. I usually organise a series of local bug hunts, butterfly surveys etc but obviously not feasible this year. Consequently, I continued to record all wildlife in my garden (now 469 species in total) and also made a request for members of the Stortford Nature group on Facebook to forward insect photos from their garden or on their walks. I now have plenty of photos to forward to the RES recording survey. Therefore, I planned to visit two sites that I knew were good for insects, namely the Flitch Way and then the Stansted Airport lagoons near Takeley Street.

I arrived at the Flitch Way as the temperature began to rise which was great for insects. Within a mile of rambling along this old railway line I had seen plenty to note and some to photograph. I stopped to check the flower heads of bramble, briar rose and umbellifers whilst also listening to the bird song. A chiffchaff called repetitively from a dead branch whilst a dunnock blasted out its territorial call. On the flowers were plenty of hoverfly species, with Syrphus ribesii and Episyrphus balteatus being the most common. A variety of bee species were also present and meadow brown butterflies were ubiquitous.

Some red campion caught my eye where a metallic green swollen-thighed beetle probed for pollen before I noted a smaller butterfly roosting on a nearby leaf. A large skipper, my first of the year. Other butterflies along this patch where there was plenty of flowering bramble were small white, large white, small tortoiseshell and the chocolate-brown ringlet. Within 400 yards I had already clocked six species of butterfly. A great start.

A party of long-tailed tits flitted through the branches, one juvenile posing for a reasonable photo, and deep from the dense vegetation both blackcap and whitethroat uttered their warbling, scratchy calls. I stopped to sit on a bench and just watch things go by. A four-spotted chaser dragonfly patrolled his territory, not stopping for a photograph but I was hoping to get better views of these marvellous insects at the lagoons. All around the bench were the bright yellow flowers of creeping cinquefoil which were peppered with the tiny pollen beetles and an occasional meadow brown.

I hadn't covered much distance but had a great list of insects as I noted the time. I wanted to be at the lagoons when the temperatures were at their highest, so I retraced my steps back to the car, parked by the railway bridge on the lane to Bedlars Green. It is possible to walk the whole distance to the lagoons on the Flitch Way, but time was against me.

Having parked near the Green Man pub I picked up the footpath next to the Primo business in Takeley Street and headed off to check the mud and water as well as the uncut grasses that surround the three lagoons. Another chiffchaff greeted my arrival and a pair of magnificently plumaged grey wagtails paraded by the water treatment installation. The adult male was feeding insects to a fully-grown fledgling before they both headed off to feed individually upon the expanse of mud on the largest of the lagoons.

Butterflies everywhere! Huge numbers of meadow brown complemented by small heath and the occasional ringlet and marbled white. The botany of this habitat is wonderful and with the ox-eye daisies now fading their place has been taken with several vetch species, greater knapweed and a few really impressive pyramidal orchids.

On the water, coots argued, tufted duck dived for their favourite food - pond snails - whilst mallards, greylag geese and Canada geese were hauled up on the bank enjoying the high temperatures. Two mute swans were busily feeding, using what appeared to be a most successful method. Basically they had found a shallow area where they could both stamp around to disturb the mud before submerging their head and neck to feed on any invertebrates that may have been unearthed as well as any pond-type weeds that had been uprooted. A good system. Further into the middle of the water a pair of little grebe had a disagreement, their loud rattling call can carry quite a distance and always alerts you to their presence.

Time to do a little more close investigation of the flora so off to a good site at the top of the habitat, not far from the A120 roundabout for the airport terminal. In past years here knapweed has grown in profusion and consequently attracted huge numbers of butterflies, but this year there was not too much yet in flower. Still, a good number of marbled whites, skippers and other previously-recorded species. I had a good check for the day-flying burnet moths with their red dots on metallic green wings but none were apparent, maybe a few days early for them to emerge.

Following my picnic I moved to the water's edge to find what odonata species (dragon and damselflies) were territorially flying. As I moved through the long grasses I flushed damselflies: common blue, azure and blue-tailed. All three species are expected to be seen in mid-June. The first large dragonfly I noticed was the blue-bodied, green-headed emperor. A stunningly colourful insect, as are most of the resident dragonflies in the UK. The males patrol up and down their territory, chasing off any intruders whilst occasionally darting for a fly or damselfly. A four-spotted chaser was seen off pretty smartish, before alighting on vegetation making for a reasonable photo as its gossamer wings reflected the sunlight. Excellent!

Dragonflies are creatures of habit and so it is not too difficult to watch them as some just patrol a well-defined territory whilst others, such as four-spotted chasers, have preferred roost sites to which they return frequently. Black-tailed skimmers, the third species to be seen, often return to a chosen stone but today they seemed to be enjoying the warmth emanating from the tarmac on the track that runs adjacent to the lagoons. I sat for a while, watching the dragonflies whilst also clocking the several swifts, swallows and house martins that were either feeding on insects overhead or dipping down to the water surface to take a drink. A few swallows landed to gather mud for nest building too.

After a while I moved around, noting the signs informing where I could and could not go. Back to the largest lagoon where there was the mud. In April/early May this would have been a fantastic habitat for migrating wading birds, and again for their return from late August. However, much though I searched the mud, nothing was apparent apart from more mallards and a few raucous black-headed gulls. The grey wagtails returned to the same area on several occasions and they were soon joined by a pied wagtail. Large white butterflies rested upon the mud to feed on salt and other minerals before a mewing common buzzard attracted my attention skywards. Magpies and a solitary jay flew along the tall hedgerow and crows and jackdaws wandered through the grasses in search of food.

This habitat, now perhaps 25 years old, has developed into a really good site for wildlife. I hope that some of the water levels could be managed to attract the waders at the correct time of the year but I suspect the needs of the airport come first. The water here is the drainage from the runways where there are several square miles of tarmac and concrete. After a heavy downpour that is a lot of water to move. It is, however, one of the best local sites for dragonflies, with most, if not all, the species found locally elsewhere all found at this one site.

All records were noted and will be forwarded to the National Insect Week recording scheme. In total, I had records of 84 insect species for the four hours I was out and about.

Moth news

As well as all the other insects of interest, I continue to monitor moths in my garden with now in excess of 200 species being seen.

One spectacular visitor to the light trap this week was the stunningly-coloured swallowtail. This was a pristine specimen, still showing the small, swallowtail extensions to the wings. These are often lost quite quickly either by knocking them on leaves or branches as well as being damaged in courtship and mating.

Other moths that have caught the eye are the hawk-moth species. So far I have seen the privet, lime, pine, small elephant, elephant and poplar hawk-moths. Hoping soon to see the hummingbird species feeding on the flowers and buddleia in the garden.

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