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Lots of wildlife to spot on a walk around the RSPB reserve at Rye Meads between Stanstead Abbotts and Broxbourne

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

It's Christmas time and consequently I cut the leash that ties me to a nature walk within a five-mile radius of the Indie's North Street office. Freedom took me to the splendid RSPB reserve at Rye Meads, found between Stanstead Abbotts and Broxbourne. I had originally planned this for a week last Monday, but that day dawned grey and foggy so I postponed it until the following day, which dawned grey and foggy!

With a deadline to meet for a demanding editor, I set off with car lights on and arrived to note a kestrel upon a lamp post at the entrance to the reserve car park. A photograph was impossible in the grey, translucent light as the male kestrel remained upon its perch, unable to hunt due to it being unable to note the ground, never mind the rodents moving about within the vegetation.

I was hugely impressed with the Covid security in place once I left the car. Masks to be worn upon entry to the visitors' centre, hand sanitiser dispensers well placed before you go through the door and volunteer staff, safely behind perspex sheets, who were only too eager to tell you about what was on the reserve. Very impressive.

I left the centre and headed to the first of many hides upon the reserve, the Draper Hide. Outside, another hand sanitiser bottle and masks to be worn inside the hide. I was the only occupant as I watched mallards, gadwall, mute swans and moorhens on what can be a very busy scrape. A mute swan stretched its wings for a vaguely foggy snap. I had hoped for a green sandpiper, but this was not to be throughout the four-hour visit.

After 15 minutes I moved on as there was a lot to cover. I wandered along noting that when the path became narrow, the staff had marked areas as passing places so social distancing could be achieved. Brilliant. A chiffchaff called his winter plaintive call, a Cetti's warbler burst into its explosive ramble and, overhead, I heard unseen rose-ringed parakeets. A robin popped up, offering me a Christmas-themed photo.

Down some steps, where there is also a ramp for those who require motorised scooters or wheelchairs, towards the Ashby Hide. By now it was very apparent that this is a reserve set out offering much access to the disabled and those with mobility issues. I was impressed. The Ashby Hide offered little so I moved on, making my way towards the Kingfisher Hub through misty air where spindle berries painted colour with their stunning pink husks containing the orange nut.

The two hides along this track were closed due to Covid safety, but I arrived at the new Kingfisher Hub shortly afterwards. What an impressive setup. A superb carving of a kingfisher with fish in beak greets the visitor whilst, inside, one room offers floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the large pond and, next door, a dedicated bird hide gives visitors the opportunity to sit and wait for the stunningly colourful kingfisher to come along. Sticks have been placed within the pond to attract kingfishers to perch near the hide whilst fishing. This hub was opened in March, but lockdown meant it wasn't open to the public until only a few weeks ago. Money raised by RSPB local groups helped finance it, including our own Stort Valley branch. An excellent photo of a cuckoo is framed in the building, photographed by the Stort Valley leader Simon Hurwitz.

This reserve was first established in 1973 and I recall Graham, one of the early wardens, being a most inventive manager of the site. He constructed a man-made kingfisher bank and, along with volunteers, became instrumental in establishing rafts on the water upon which common terns could nest. I used to bring primary school children here for nature trips and remember the pond dipping being excellently and professionally run by knowledgeable volunteers. The pupils were invariably enthralled by catching numerous invertebrates.

A dunnock posed nicely for a photo as I moved around to the Warbler Hide. The previous hide had not offered a kingfisher, just mallards, coots, a fly-over kestrel and numerous wood pigeons. A treecreeper caught my eye scaling a willow trunk. I noted it had a metal ring upon its right leg so I fired off plenty of shots in the hope that I would be able to read the ring and submit it to the Rye Meads Ringing Group. Magpies were ubiquitous along with numerous blackbirds feeding upon the hawthorn. Several fieldfare "check-chacked" overhead and a solitary redwing wisped from an alder tree.

I arrived at the bridge entrance to the Warbler Hide to find it locked, so retraced my steps. A moorhen launched itself from the bridge into the reeds as a cormorant took to the air.

I came to the football-style turnstile that offers visitors the opportunity to extend their walk by heading off to the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust reserve adjacent to the RSPB reserve. The gate only lets you in which puzzled me at the time, but all became apparent later.

I arrived at the Otter Hide to discover it full of the detritus of youth. There is a public footpath from Stanstead Abbotts and the reason the turnstile is one way only is to stop vandalism upon the reserve. From this splendid hide, tufted duck dived for their water snails, coot munched upon their winter greens and mute swans dozed with heads tucked under their wings. A call from a carrion crow alerted me to mobbing as a male sparrowhawk shot past the hide, pursued by angry crows.

I moved on again and, by now, the sun had burnt off the fog and my gloves were not required. Long-tailed tits breezed through the trees outside the hide, another chiffchaff "wheeted" on my left and a narrowboat waved its way up the River Lea.

I picked up the public footpath that would eventually bring me out by the Thames Water complex and back to the centre. Here, Australis phragmites reed beds and bullrushes with plenty of open water along with shoveler and Gadwall aplenty, coots and moorhens. The shoveler attracted my attention, the drake with a wide and broad bill that gives the bird its name. Brilliant green head and ruddy brown flanks. A mistle thrush called its aggressive rattle as I tried to photograph blue tits upon a well-placed feeder near the road. At this point a woodcock gave up its cover and headed off, darting rapidly over the sewage complex. Far too fast for my camera. In the final pool, more tufted duck, the black and white male dozing upon the water with a bright yellow eye keeping watch.

I arrived back at the visitors' centre and enjoyed a coffee and a chat with site warden Vicky. Most helpful before I headed back to the Draper Hide to see if I could find a green sandpiper, but not to be. I checked the dipping pond for water voles which are present. Nope, but, in a tree, visible though brambles and lower vegetation, a rose-ringed parakeet. This soon-to-be-ubiquitous bird for East Hertfordshire was well hidden, so I had great difficulty focusing through the twigs and branches to get a reasonable photo.

I then said my farewells and checked the Lapwing Hide next to the spacious car park. This looks over acres of sedge which have been alternatively cropped short and long to encourage wetland-favouring birds. Without a doubt there will have been common and jack snipe out there, but they are so great at camouflaging themselves I couldn't see any.

In conclusion, a wonderful reserve. Not offering a plethora of bird species, but, for the general naturalist, this site of special scientific interest (SSSI) is well worth a visit. A wander of four-and-a-half miles covers the whole site and there will always be birds to admire. I recommend a walk here at any time, but particularly from late March to early May when the summer warbler migrants arrive, but don't dismiss winter when green sandpiper and bittern may make an appearance.

Also, as you take the paths around the reserve you'll notice excellent conservation features such as the Minibeast Metropolis and Bugingham Palace. These have been constructed to enhance the invertebrate wildlife upon the reserve whilst I also noted and was pleased to see, as a keen lepidopterist, signs about pheromone traps for raspberry clearwing moths. These will only be found in high summer, but the signage is indicative of a proactive nature reserve that encourages visitors, is well established for natural history education and is presently as Covid-secure as could possibly be. I had a wonderful visit and highly recommend readers to pop in.

I finish with wishing all readers a most happy Christmas. I trust you have a wonderful festive season and I look forward to reporting on more local nature in the new year.

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