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Wildlife walk taking in the River Stort, Gaston Green and Little Hallingbury on the Hertfordshire/Essex border





Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop’s Stortford

Blue sky, no breeze or rain and it being mild made for a good wander a week last Monday. As the temperature was into double figures, I thought there may be a chance of encountering some early-emerging insects and that the most likely place to find these would be next to water. Consequently, I planned a walk from the Thorley Wash reserve, south along the Stort and then up to Gaston Green and Little Hallingbury, returning via Port Lane to Thorley Wash. Things didn’t quite go to plan.

I parked the car near Challenge Gym along the Spellbrook and Sawbridgeworth road and walked back to pick up the footpath near the roundabout at the bottom of St James Way. This path goes through a hawthorn and scrub field, crosses the railway line and then onto the reserve. The path was awash and had ankle-deep mud. A wren popped up to see my struggles as I attempted to keep my feet dry so early on in the walk.

Snowdrops
Snowdrops

Eventually I arrived at the stile at the railway crossing point, only to discover it was fenced off and most definitely closed. An information sheet told me the crossing had been deemed unsafe and would remain closed until repairs had been carried out. I returned to the car with mud halfway up to my knees. An inauspicious beginning.

I moved the car to Spellbrook Lane West, by the lock gates, and decided to head along the river and conclude the walk at Thorley Wash. The towpath appeared navigable as I listened to a melodious song thrush. Mute swans, mallards and a single moorhen patrolled the water as I followed the meandering river to a footbridge near the marina.

I checked the flooded field to my left. A little egret was perched on a log, but behind too much vegetation for a sharp photo. Coots and more mallards were enjoying this flood as a red kite soared silently overhead. A short distance away, another little egret and this one decided to take off just as I pressed the shutter.

Cormorant taking off
Cormorant taking off

I wandered along to Tednambury Locks where there is often a grey wagtail to be seen. Canada geese were in the field on the far bank. Seven of them kicked up a fuss as two more came to join them and the pair aborted their landing and headed off elsewhere. No wagtail as I enjoyed a break upon the bench before heading to Hallingbury Mill.

Another underwater footpath. Long-tailed tits flicked overhead into willows, a dunnock burst into song and a common buzzard mewed. All in good light, but either too fast or too high for a photo.

Up the tarmac (and dry) lane from the mill to check the pond on the green. This was very full and held a single moorhen. Good to see large stands of snowdrops bordering the water as great tits and blue tits busied themselves in the adjacent trees.

An interesting design upon a thatched cottage caught my eye, a well-designed witch upon a broomstick. Very clever. Beyond this, the lane becomes quite narrow and a tad dangerous for the pedestrian. On a few occasions I was forced to get into the side rather rapidly. A grey squirrel posed nicely in a holly tree before I joined the Hallingbury Road and turned left.

Little egret
Little egret

At the junction here I noted my first lesser celandine flowers of the year. Not in an ideal place for a photo, but I managed to fire off a few whilst there was no traffic.

Blackbirds, house sparrows and another wren watched me as I enjoyed a dry surface underfoot before I came to a recently-completed small housing development where a guelder rose still held berries. At this point I changed my plans again as I recalled the footpath from Port Lane to Thorley Wash is very muddy at the best of times and so I reasoned that, at present, it would be underwater. I later discovered this to be the case and was glad I had a change of route.

I walked through the new development. Red dead-nettle grew in the grass verge near Spellbrook Lane West as I once again took a left turn and headed back towards Spellbrook Locks. Raucous rooks called from their rookery as I continued to keep an eye on the traffic more than the wildlife. In the verge along the lane, daffodils, crocuses, lords-and-ladies and more snowdrops were all pushing through, showing that spring is not far away.

Great spotted woodpecker
Great spotted woodpecker

Arriving back at the car, I stopped for a mug of home-made soup before heading off to the towpath and this time headed north with the swamp of Wallbury Camp on my right. Here, a marsh tit called unseen, as did a nuthatch. The path was partly underwater so I walked carefully, keeping my eye on my footfall.

Red Dead-nettle
Red Dead-nettle

A great spotted woodpecker, a female, was probing a dead tree trunk as I approached the red brick bridge. Here I checked further up the river, but just more mallards so I continued to the reserve where a Cetti’s warbler burst into its explosive and short call. A very secretive bird that is often heard and rarely seen, as was the case today.

Lesser celandine
Lesser celandine

I was hoping the insects I had thought may be on the wing would be found along the path between the bridge and the railway line so I checked all the wooden fence posts, but just clouds of non-biting midges bounced about in flight at face height. All the vegetation here has come back really strongly after the visit from the water buffalo last year and I look forward to the emergence of plants such as the cuckoo flower in May. Hopefully some ragged robin too.

Fancy thatch
Fancy thatch

Upon reaching the wooden footbridge, which was now fenced off on the far side by the railway track, I stopped to see what birds were residing in the thick bramble bush found here. Another Cetti’s announced its presence so I waited on the off chance that it may emerge, but, true to form, no sign.

Mute swan
Mute swan

In the distance a grey heron stood in some tall vegetation. I got as close as possible for a photo, not wanting to disturb it as it was posing in good light.

Grey wagtail
Grey wagtail

I checked the River Stort backwater for any signs of water voles, but all I came across was a wren at the water’s edge, making for a pleasing, if dark, photo with its reflection, so I headed back towards the Stort Navigation. A carrion crow was watching the world go by as I photographed a cormorant just as it was taking off from the river.

Grey squirrel
Grey squirrel

It was here, as I crossed the bridge, that I noted the footpath I had originally planned to use was so flooded, waders or a small dinghy would have been required to get through it. However, a grey wagtail was scurrying around on a pile of mud which was pleasing to see.

Moorhen
Moorhen

Back on the towpath, a green woodpecker commuted over the river towards the reserve as a pair of common buzzards circled on the thermals and, as is often the case, were mobbed by several carrion crows.

Grey heron
Grey heron

I stopped to chat to a boater who was just setting off to move his narrowboat further down the river to Sawbridgeworth. I asked if he had seen any barn owls about recently, but he said the last time he saw one, south of the lock gates, was before Christmas. I shall pop back one evening soon to see if there are any about.

Mallard
Mallard

I searched for hop plants that used to grow alongside the towpath here as they may show signs of a rare-for-Herts moth, the tiny Cosmopterix zieglerella. These colourful moths, with a wingspan of just 1cm, lay eggs on the hop leaf and the caterpillar lives between the two layers of the leaf, munching its way around, leaving easy-to-identify white trails upon the leaf. However, I couldn’t find the plant, never mind the caterpillar.

Wren
Wren

I was soon back at the car and, fingers crossed, had some usable photos from a pleasant but very muddy walk. I noted that the mud had managed to rise up my trousers to the knees and that my boots were completely covered in mud, but, miraculously, my feet remained dry. The song thrush seen earlier was still singing.

Canada geese
Canada geese

Highly advisable at the present time that any walks near water, such as the towpaths along the river, are done with good, waterproof footwear. Hopefully my next walk will be drier with easier conditions underfoot.

Carrion crow
Carrion crow

As we are now coming into spring and everything begins to emerge, if any readers would like me to report from their garden or have a favourite walk then do please let me know via the Indie office. It would be great to spend a day checking out all the wildlife of a garden, be it in an urban or rural location. On a good day there will be plenty to find and I could even run my moth trap for the night.



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