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Nature Notes: Jono Forgham describes a four-mile circular walk from St James' Church at Thorley taking in Spellbrook, Thorley Wash and Southern Country Park

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Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...

As my fortnightly walk comes around, I begin to check the weather forecast to make sure I get as good a day as possible and, hopefully, as close to my deadline of the Wednesday prior to publication. A check a couple of weeks ago gave one day of really good light and the rest appeared to be grey and gloomy. Consequently, this is a walk that I completed in one wander but spent time on two occasions taking the photos, hence the rather sunny, bright ones alongside the greyer ones.

I parked at St James the Great Church at Thorley and set off across the fields towards Spellbrook Lane West. The whole route was basically a quagmire, but it didn't stop me seeing plenty.

Fieldfare (43698482)
Fieldfare (43698482)

Over 20 skylarks rose from the winter brassicas on the field where great views were afforded in all directions. Four mute swans came overhead and landed on one of the fishing lakes whilst a winter party of 70-plus linnets flew in their characteristic bobbing manner towards a hedgerow.

However, the soundtrack to almost the whole walk was the "chack chack" call of numerous fieldfares. These winter-visiting thrushes seem to have increased in number recently. Don't know if a colder snap in Scandinavia has pushed them over the North Sea? I managed a few rather distant shots of these colourful birds as they roosted on the top branches of a fair few trees in and around Spellbrook Lane.

I entered a long, thin field that had recently been occupied by horses so was rather churned up. A long-dead tree trunk showed two types of fungus growing from it: first was a beefsteak fungus, one of the bracket fungi, whilst the second, a much more colourful, pale orange affair with large gills on the underside, was one of the oyster mushrooms, possibly the pink oyster. The former is impervious to frost so in good condition whilst the delicious oyster had gone over and would have been leathery and probably full of fly maggots.

Once over a fence and then a stile I headed down the lane towards the Stortford/Sawbridgeworth road. It's been over two years since I last followed this route so good to note changes. Carrion crows, jackdaws and wood pigeons all strutted around a field of what had been sunflowers, the seedheads now removed, so just leaf and upright stalk rising from the muddy soil.

Great tits and blue tits joined several robins, a wren and a pair of chaffinches in calling from the hedges as I passed Hayter's lawnmower works. Here, plenty of alder trees where I had hoped to encounter winter finches such as siskin, but nothing present.

A builder popped out from a housing project to tell me there had been peregrine falcons over recently, but not today. The hedges along the lane were still full of berries: sloes, hawthorn and rose hips abounded whilst the seeds and dark berries on the ivy attracted the pigeons. The winter thrushes and blackbirds preferred the red hawthorn fruit.

I crossed the main road into Spellbrook Lane West. Here, so much water in the ditches and, just over the level crossing, the actual River Stort was exceptionally full and flowing strongly. The Stort Navigation was up to its limit as well, also in spate. The weir roared as water poured over it into the overflow channel.

Stort Navigation looking upstream from Spellbrook Locks (43698480)
Stort Navigation looking upstream from Spellbrook Locks (43698480)

At the lock gates, I got onto the towpath and headed upstream. The marshy, swamp area of Wallbury was checked for lesser spotted woodpeckers that used to overwinter here but have not been recorded for over 10 years now. Just usual inhabitants: moorhens, tit species and the vociferous Cetti's warbler, which is always heard and rarely observed.

On the river were a few mallards and a party of very skittish little grebes. They were behaving very oddly – when humans approach they usually dive instantly and re-emerge under bankside vegetation. The five here ran across the water for 10-15 yards before settling again, only to repeat the exercise if disturbed again. I tried for photos of this activity but the light was poor and I just couldn't get enough speed into the camera to catch the action sharply enough.

At first I was puzzled by this behaviour, but suspect the current was just too strong for them to dive, tied in with the fact that the water was opaque, a muddy brown colour. Perhaps the combination of these two factors meant they were safer running on the water rather than diving. Several moorhen watched these antics whilst trying to cross to the other bank in a straight line. The current took them a good 15 yards downstream every time.

Little grebe and moorhen (43698471)
Little grebe and moorhen (43698471)

Over the bridge and on to Thorley Wash Nature Reserve. Very little to report from here. The kingfisher that has (or had) taken up residence in the corner near the footbridge leading to the level crossing was not present. Another Cetti's called from deep in bramble and a wren fired off its alarm call before I moved on and headed back up to Thorley church.

By Thorley Wash Manor a wayfaring tree was still loaded with its bright red berries. The footpath here is usually good for buntings and finches, and I wasn't disappointed. A small flock of linnets mixed with three yellowhammers before I was on the Tarmac lane to the industrial estate behind the church.

Primula (43698488)
Primula (43698488)

Here, the resident pied wagtail called from the roof before I checked the graveyard. A jay sat in a tree arguing with itself as I noticed many of the primulas (primroses) were already in flower, as they are in our garden. A long-tailed tit dangled from a thin branch as I arrived back at the car. I had to head home before I could return.

Later in the afternoon, I reparked and took the short wander from the church to Southern Country Park. By now the light was poor so I was pleased that I had paid this venue a visit on a bright, sunny morning earlier to get some sharp photos. Particularly pleasing on that morning was the sun creating a golden and blue mosaic pattern on the water in which numerous black-headed gulls swam and demanded food from anyone who passed by.

Mute swans and mallards were also on the water whilst a brown rat skulked under a bush, the shadows of the branches giving it a tabby-like effect. I checked the boardwalk at the far end of the lake where rows of gulls congregated; some very noisy individuals indeed.

Having got a selection of shots I headed home once again. On my second walk around I didn't take any photos as it was dismally grey. A small party of goldfinches flicked over the lake as a large congregation of jackdaws came in to roost at their overnight quarters.

A peaceful wander, and good to see a few people I know and stop for a chat. An erstwhile drinking and cricketing friend from the days of The Fox pub in Rye Street cycled by before turning and asking if I would take a few photos of him on the bike. These he wanted to send to family in Ireland. Happy to oblige, Leggy. If anyone fancies following in my footsteps and embarking upon this four-mile wander, I highly recommend wellingtons! I have never known the ground so wet and the ditches so full.

So, my final walk of the year and what a year. Due to the first lockdown I was forced to report from my garden for a couple of issues as well as partaking in local walks just around Little Hadham before I could get out to other footpaths.

In summer I managed to visit some wonderful places to write on their nature, such as the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green, the Gardens of Easton Lodge near Dunmow and the Gibberd Garden on the outskirts of Harlow. Sadly, at present we seem to be back where we were in April and it may be that I will be back to pounding the paths of the Hadhams again.

At the beginning of lockdown in March, I began to record all the natural history I could find in our garden, measuring five yards by 30 yards. The total at present of everything I have encountered stands at 808 species.

In particular, I have recorded: 60 bird species, 418 moth species and 17 butterfly species as well as numerous beetles, flies, spiders and wild flowers. It's been a really worthwhile exercise. Details and loads of photos can be seen at https://littlehadhambirding.blogspot.co.uk by entering "Garden list in self isolation" in the search box.

Finally, I wish all readers a most happy and peaceful new year and, as we all do, I trust we turn a corner from all the worries and concerns that 2020 brought us. Keep safe.

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