Flock of 40 siskins, my first woodcock of the season and a male kingfisher highlights of stroll along the River Stort to Great Hallingbury – and a kestrel rescue in Little Hadham
Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...
A week last Monday (Nov 9) found me parking in the car park next to Twyford Locks in Pig Lane. Here I met up with super photographer Sophia Spurgin, a member of Bishop's Stortford Camera Club. Great to have her along.
We set off north along the Stort Navigation in light fog, but with a promise of good weather later in the day.
Moorhens, coots and mallards were on the water, but, disappointingly, no siskins in the alders. Siskins are winter visitors to our shores, mainly from Scandinavia and eastern Europe, and their main food is the seeds inside the small cones on alder. This tree proliferates along the Stort and is also found throughout Rushy Mead Reserve, which we entered from the towpath.
A great spotted woodpecker greeted us upon arrival and a large flock of long-tailed tits wisped their way through the foliage that remained upon the trees. More alders were checked, but nothing of interest.
We crossed the road into Jenkins Lane and took the route towards the M11. In one tree a party of goldcrests busied themselves, the light still not good for photos of birds darting around branches. A dunnock alighted upon an elder bush before we crossed a stile and headed towards Hanging Hill stream, crossing it on an awkwardly-angled concrete bridge. The track here was really muddy as we picked out muntjac slots in the mud.
Once through the tunnel that goes under the motorway we were in a more agricultural landscape and, with it, a change in birds. Skylarks overhead and a yellowhammer singing from the hedgerow near Great Hallingbury churchyard.
A few field beans, presumably dropped during harvest back in August, had not only germinated but were in flower. A real surprise, but testament to the warm November we have been experiencing.
We checked the spreading yew trees in the cemetery, but nothing was apparent, so on to the lane heading towards Hall Farm and Little Hallingbury.
Along here are several disused farm buildings, hinting that the farm was once a large dairy concern. We peered over a fence to check the beams for barn owls, but none was noted.
A fallow deer was seen in a field of brassicas and, further ahead, a common buzzard perched on the very top of a dead branch. We fired off a few shots but were too far off so we moved closer. We found a footpath that led to the tree where it was sitting, but, as we approached, he got sight of us and was gone, scattering several wood pigeons in his wake.
This site was an interesting habitat of short grass cropped, presumably, by rabbits with areas of low-growing bushes. Ideal for summer warbler species. At the far end was a pile of sand, long since dumped there and covered with grass. Plenty of rabbit holes here.
Groundsel and hawksbeard were both in flower. A ridiculously-late-in-the-year small copper butterfly floated by, a pheasant crackled in the adjacent field and, most pleasingly, a woodcock was flushed from a nettle bed. First of the season for me and far too quick for the cameras. Wonderful to see.
Back on the lane, blue tits and great tits called from the hedgerow, over the Hatfield Heath road and on to Port Lane. We strolled down here before picking up a footpath on the left that takes you into a small wood, around a field and deposits you at the red brick bridge over the Stort that leads into Thorley Wash reserve.
We checked, unsuccessfully, for water voles as a Cetti's warbler burst into its explosive song. Often heard, rarely seen. Several black-headed gulls loafed around overhead as we waded through the thick mud that was the towpath footpath. A green woodpecker called and several fieldfare 'chack-chacked' in the distance, but all was rather still and quiet.
We chatted to a few anglers – one had taken a good-sized perch on worms – before we stopped to chat to Jackie and her friend, who were walking their dogs.
Before long we were back at Twyford Locks, where we said our goodbyes. I planned on looking around a little longer whilst Sophia set off for home. Really a pleasure to have her along. She'd come with ready-prepared questions regarding hares and little owls and where they can be found locally. I hope my directions are successful.
I checked the river for a while, but much as before. The reflections of the remaining autumnal leaves were stunning before I headed off into a large field behind the car park.
A kestrel sat right at the top of a tree. As I watched, I became aware of a group of birds flitting around, very unsettled by its presence. A check through the binoculars confirmed my suspicions: siskins, about 40 of them, with a few goldfinches and chaffinches. They were right at the top of the tree and a bit of a stretch to get a reasonable photo.
Four green woodpeckers were probing the ground before I headed back to the car, thinking I would return the next morning for more shots and hopefully find the siskins in a better place to get photos of these small, yellow-streaked finches. I headed back to the car just in time firstly to hear and then get a glimpse of a rose-ringed parakeet heading north. A bird that appears to be increasing in number in our area.
On Tuesday morning I met up with another ace snapper, Rick Stead, at 8am. We headed back towards Rushy Mead and soon encountered the 40-plus siskin flock feeding in a bankside alder. Plenty of snaps taken, but the light was still poor and most were little more than silhouettes.
We checked the reserve, where a chiffchaff called and a pheasant was flushed, before heading back to the lock gates trying to find a kingfisher. None was seen so we headed south.
More mallards, robins, wrens and a flighty flock of siskins overhead. We turned around and checked the field that I wandered the previous day. Green woodpeckers were still about, a mistle thrush atop a tree. We had earlier recorded a song thrush on top of a conifer; good to make comparisons of plumage.
Back for the kingfisher again and a wander all the way to the weir beyond the canoe club. By now there was much activity along the bank and in the water. Kayaks, Canadian canoe and a chap with a paddle board. More anglers on the bank and Stortford RSPB member Peter, who had been set a photography challenge. Good to chat with him and then, a little later, local birder Stephen Field.
Still no kingfisher as we arrived back towards Twyford Locks. We had earlier chatted about how, if you put in the time, you seem to gain rewards. We crossed the road and there, on a railing, was a male kingfisher, posing perfectly.
Rick skirted around a hedgerow for better shots whilst I slowly got closer. We were doing well until a jogger came by and the bird was off in a flash of electric blue, heading downstream. We set off in pursuit, but it was not to be seen again.
In several hawthorn bushes laden with fruit were male and female blackbirds gorging upon the red berries. A redwing was noted deep in the vegetation. Jays flew overhead and magpies squawked from the trees near Rolly Croake footbridge.
My phone rang. Little Hadham resident Clare had been out on a walk with her husband and dog on footpaths over Ash Valley golf course and had come across a poorly bird of prey. I said I would go and check it, so, after thanking Rick for his company, I headed home to collect a basket in which I could put the bird and some thick gloves to pick it up safely without it devouring my fingers.
I arrived and Clare's husband was still there with a kestrel that didn't appear to be damaged, but clearly was unable to fly and in some distress. I eventually caught it and took it to the really helpful vets on the A120. No damage was the report, so maybe it had been clipped by a car and just in shock.
The vet put it in a box and I drove it to the Animal Rescue Charity in Farnham Road. I await to hear how it does and, if it makes it, I shall collect it and release it back at the golf course. I shall post an update in the next epistle. Fingers crossed.
All in all, two super sessions, with the siskins, woodcock and glorious kingfisher highlights, and both wanders with great company.
* This column first appeared in the Bishop's Stortford Independent on Wednesday November 18.
** UPDATE: Jono collected the stunned kestrel from ARC on Tuesday (Nov 17) and released it back at Ash Valley golf course. He said: "After a quick nip of my hand she flew off strongly to a tree, rested a minute, got her bearings and was off, flying high and powerfully."