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Nature Notes: Patmore Heath is a springtime gem on our doorstep

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One of my favourite spring sites is Patmore Heath, near Albury, turning right immediately after the Catherine Wheel pub (if coming from Little Hadham traffic lights). It's a Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust nature reserve with plenty to offer, especially at this time of the year.

Consequently, on the last Monday in April, I parked in the small car park and, as I got my optical gear from the car, I could hear much birdsong.

A willow warbler gave off his descending scale notes whilst a chiffchaff 'zip-zapped'. A blackcap burst into his complicated warble and, over towards the dry pond, several whitethroat were announcing their presence with their individual scratchy ramble. A perfect start.

I tracked down the willow warbler high in an oak; virtually identical plumage to a chiffchaff but such a different song. I headed off to try to locate the chiffchaff. He was calling in an adjacent oak but was too far off for a worthwhile photo. An overhead red kite attracted my attention, backed by perfect blue sky.

I spent an hour-and-a-half wandering around the heath and amassed a list of 32 bird species. A vociferous song thrush sang from hawthorn, mistle thrushes probed the ground for insects and worms, a green woodpecker flew from one oak to another and, in the distance, pheasant and great spotted woodpecker could be heard.

I checked the pond in the far corner where house sparrows, blue tits, great tits and a blackcap were noted along with a moorhen.

Cuckoo flower (46749136)
Cuckoo flower (46749136)

On the periphery of the pond were several stems of cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis), so called as it flowers when the cuckoo is calling. Or it used to. Nowadays, a calling cuckoo is a rarity and I have yet to hear one this year. There was always one or two to be heard on the heath, but not by April 26 this year.

The demise of the cuckoo in the UK appears to be a complex affair and not yet fully understood, but the drainage of wetlands in Africa where it overwinters is thought to be playing a big part in the population crash. Cuckoo flower is also known as lady’s smock and the leaves taste of hot mustard or wasabi.

After a good search of the heath I took the lane up towards Hixham Hall. Here, the grass verges were full of burgeoning wild flowers. Wild garlic (Allaria pettiolata) stood upright with its triangular leaves and white petals just emerging; also known by its country name, jack in the hedge.

Several bluebells were in flower in the wood next to the lane and, a little further along, cowslips, which were then seen aplenty over the following six miles. Bright yellow dandelions littered the verge, too, attracting several species of mining bee.

The first I encountered, covered in pollen and burrowing around in the petals, was an Andrena species but it flew before I could identify it. Further along, as I picked up a footpath over a barren field, an Andrena scotica (the chocolate mining bee) rested on the bare earth, posing for a reasonable photo.

I wandered along, a common buzzard overhead, but the birdsong was now much diminished from the cacophony of the heath.

Wood pigeons and blackbirds flew over the field from one wood to another, but it wasn’t until the path became more winding through woodland that I came across more birds. A superbly plumaged pheasant ran in front of me towards the hall as a greenfinch wheezed from a birch.

Hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes)
Hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes)

Just after the hall the footpath follows around field edges; more cowslips and, on one, an Anthophora plumipes (hairy-footed flower bee) was busy nectaring. The yellow hairs on its legs and all black body make it fairly easy to identify. Skylarks ascended in full voice as I checked distant fields for fallow deer, but none was apparent.

The footpath I had been following had meandered through unkempt scrub woodland where more blackcaps were heard, before I came across the lane that runs from Manuden to the Pelhams at East End. I took a right and wandered along the lane for a mile or so.

Grey patched mining bee (Andrena nitada)
Grey patched mining bee (Andrena nitada)

Cherry blossom was in full flower in a cottage garden before I noted another bee species on dandelion. An Andrena nitada (grey patched mining bee) and a first for the year. There are 57 species of Andrena mining bees and all fairly similar; fortunately, the two I came across are some of the easier ones to identify.

I picked up a footpath that became a track towards Uppend before arriving at another path that would lead me back to Patmore Hall Wood and the lane I started on.

Common dog violet and cowslip (46749132)
Common dog violet and cowslip (46749132)

Common dog violets bloomed under a hedge and it was most pleasing to note that a local landowner had reinstated a hedge; mainly hawthorn with the occasional field maple and silver birch. Really good to see and all fenced off from munching muntjacs.

The walk on the high ground towards Patmore Hall Wood was wildlife free, just a few red deadnettles (Lamium purperea) and white deadnettle (Lamium alba). A pile of pheasant feathers indicated that a fox had fed well recently.

I took the narrow path along the edge of the wood. Here, the whole floor was full of bluebells just coming into full bloom. In a week or so this will be a stunning sight. The whole wood will have a bluebell carpet.

A muntjac barked angrily at me as it wandered off as I arrived at a small footbridge and gained access to the field I had wandered along a few hours previously. Back on the lane, a pair of yellowhammers 'chipped' their communication call and a flock of house sparrows argued in the hedge of the cottage right on the corner of Patmore Heath.

Carrion crow (46749126)
Carrion crow (46749126)

I dropped off my camera bag in the car before completing another circuit to see if I could find anything new. A carrion crow was busy admiring himself in my wing mirror as I approached the car whilst the same willow warbler was still singing from the oak.

I sat on a well-placed bench for refreshments and watched a flock of linnets dart from the ground to a tree every time a dog and owner wandered by. I sat quietly and managed some great views and a couple of distant shots of male whitethroats. These will have recently arrived from sub-Saharan Africa and have already established a territory.

Galls on oak (46749138)
Galls on oak (46749138)

I noted a small oak on which were many galls. These are better known as oak apples and are created by a parasitic wasp that lays eggs on the oak and secretes a chemical which the oak fights against by creating the globular gall. The egg of the wasp feeds inside, eating the gall until it emerges as an adult wasp and munches its way out.

In Tudor times, monks used to gather these oak apples, crush them, soak them in water for a day or two, adding green vitriol (cupric sulphate) – but iron of sulphate works just as well – to make ink for their manuscripts. Iron of sulphate is readily available at any garden centre, so next autumn, try making your own ink. The sulphate turns the mixture, once strained, black.

Patmore Heath is a superb site for the small copper butterfly, which will be on the wing shortly. The larval food plant for this insect is sheep’s sorrell, which grows well on the heath. This butterfly emerges in May and can be seen on the wing until late September.

Many other butterfly species will also be found here: meadow brown, small tortoiseshell, common blue, all the whites and, I suspect, gatekeeper and marbled white. Well worth a trip now, and then a return in high summer. Another gem right on our doorstep.

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