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Seven-mile circular nature walk in Bishop's Stortford taking in Southern Country Park, town cemetery, St Michael's churchyard, The Firs and Northern Parkland





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

A fortnight ago the weather had turned very wintery and I was somewhat confined to the indoors, so a week last Monday I planned to get out for a long wander for my Nature Notes piece. The morning dawned clear but a tad breezy, so I needed a walk where I could encounter sheltering birds as not many would be on the wing. I was also planning on searching for signs of spring, particularly insects and recently-emerged flowers.

Consequently, I planned on a town wander, starting at Southern Country Park and taking in a variety of habitats including the town cemetery, St Michael's churchyard, The Firs and Northern Parkland before returning to Southern Country Park. Seven miles in total and plenty was discovered.

Summer-plumaged black-headed gulls (63020091)
Summer-plumaged black-headed gulls (63020091)

Having parked near Southern Country Park lake I checked the black-headed gulls. They are always, at this time of year, to be found in the process of moulting into summer breeding plumage. Many are now sporting the chocolate brown heads and maybe a white eye ring, whilst others remain with white heads and just a dark mark behind the eye. By mid-March these are invariably birds that fledged last year and are later getting into summer plumage. Also upon the lake were Canada geese, mallards, coots and a moorhen before I trooped off around the many paths.

A willow tree was in full flower and, high upon these yellow flowers, a Bombus terrestris queen was feeding. This bumblebee, also known as the buff-tailed bumblebee, will have recently emerged from hibernation and will soon be seen looking for a suitable nest site. Invariably one of the first bees to emerge. Too high up for a photo, but good to see nevertheless.

Nearby came a familiar call, similar to a rusty gate hinge swinging in the breeze. A small party of bullfinches were present, deep in the vegetation and only permitting a very poor shot of a colourful male. These secretive birds are rarely seen out in the open, but are known to come to garden feeders when the weather is hard. Always a delight to watch.

Bullfinch, a secretive bird (63020113)
Bullfinch, a secretive bird (63020113)

I wandered over towards the car park on Thorley Lane. More black-headed gulls loafed around the play park whilst carrion crows probed the soft earth for invertebrates. A sign here explains the Green Award that was awarded to Southern Country Park some years ago, highlighting the splendid endeavours of volunteer group Friends of Southern Country Park.

I cut across Thorley cricket ground and made my way around to Thorley shops. A male house sparrow posed nicely near Sainsbury's and a pied wagtail called unseen from near the chippie. I popped into Albert's café for a well-presented and tasty cappuccino. Always good in here with friendly staff and a good selection of lunches.

Once I had my caffeine shot I set off along Thorley Wedge towards Lower Park Crescent and Thorley Hill. An alder tree right next to the Rocket Park held a flock of siskins. I caught glimpses of these small winter-visiting finches as they clung on to inner branches as they swung in the strong breeze. These birds will soon be on the way to their Scandinavian breeding grounds.

I came across a small channel of open water that must have flooded recently - much soggy mud - so I waited to see what may be attracted here as the trees were alive with calling and singing birds. I stayed half an hour and saw or heard grey wagtail, goldfinch, blackbird, song thrush, robin, wren, wood pigeon, magpie, carrion crow and collared dove. Great spot for beginners to bird watching as they can view the birds whilst also familiarising their calls.

Collared dove (63020122)
Collared dove (63020122)

A slight drizzle began as I moved off, but fortunately this only lasted a matter of minutes. I accessed Thorley Hill and into the cemetery. Much work here, with tarmac improvements to the paths. A sign explained that Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust was involved in wild flower initiatives here. All good to see.

A coal tit called from deep in a conifer and several long-tailed tits bounced off as I approached. Daffodils were in full flower adjacent to gravestones whilst, at a small roundabout, it was apparent that wild flowers had been planted. Red deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) was the only one in flower. Several whip trees had also been added and they were just beginning to show their vibrant pink blossom. So much natural history here as well as history going back to the 19th century. I could have stayed longer, but still a fair way to go.

Next stop, via Apton Road, was the churchyard by St Michael's. Here, a bench offered me a chance to sit and enjoy my picnic. A grey squirrel dashed for cover, a magpie popped down to eat a crust I shared and robins sang from the trees. The inevitable wood pigeons waddled chaotically around the gravestones, a bird that was an ever-present on this walk.

Grey squirrel (63020067)
Grey squirrel (63020067)

I moved off, heading up Windhill admiring the architecture of the buildings, and soon found myself at The Firs. Three adult herring gulls circled overhead, as did a red kite. All along the green space here purple crocuses were in full flower. Some had clearly been enjoyed by blackbirds as they were all rather smashed up, whilst others stood tall. I noted a tree-planting scheme here, mainly small conifers in keeping with the name for this site.

I took a path through to Waytemore Road, onto Link Way, cut through the bus lane and back to Thorley Wedge at the shops and headed west towards the Harvest Moon. A confiding redwing dropped down in front of me, probing for worms and flicking leaf litter in a search for invertebrates. Another winter visitor, soon to be moving east to Scandinavia and Russia where its breeding grounds are to be found.

Redwing near the Harvest Moon (63020081)
Redwing near the Harvest Moon (63020081)

I crossed the road and wandered by the community centre. Here, I failed to note a step, tripped and came very close to falling head first onto the tarmac. I was more concerned with looking after my camera, but managed to just about keep upright.

Onto the muddy football pitch where a single common gull consorted with three black-headed gulls and into Northern Parkland. More familiar birds here and, not far from the path, a new orchard has been planted. Over the following years, plenty of blossom to sustain nectar-feeding insects in late spring. Another pleasing project.

Young tree coming into blossom (63020105)
Young tree coming into blossom (63020105)

I walked through St Michael's Mead where plenty more plum blossom was emerging, both pink and white. A wide variety of non-native plants in gardens here. All very striking, but not much use to resident, native insects. I was surprised to see how much had survived the colder temperatures we endured in winter as several plants in our garden didn't make it, particularly a honeysuckle, bay hedge and cordyline, or New Zealand cabbage palm. The overnight temperatures of -10C along with the snow that sat for five days have done for these. Perhaps a little warmer on the estate than out in the sticks of Little Hadham?

I arrived back at the car and thought I would just recheck the lake, but much remained the same as earlier. A greenfinch made the day list, wheezing away from a willow as I checked the reed bed for birds such as Cetti's warbler, reed bunting and water rail, but these were not to be seen.

Willow in flower (63020098)
Willow in flower (63020098)

I headed back to the car and checked the 170-plus photos I had taken and was pleased to note it looked as if I had enough reasonable ones for this article. Shame the bullfinch didn't show better than just skulking within the shrubs and trees.

A most enjoyable wander which, including breaks, took nearly four hours. I also stopped to chat with locals who often comment upon me walking through suburban areas with binoculars and a long lens upon my camera.

Thorley Wedge wood pigeon (63020093)
Thorley Wedge wood pigeon (63020093)

This walk shows you don't need to go to specific reserves to watch a good selection of bird species. And in the next six weeks or so, as the spring migration picks up speed and insects begin to emerge in numbers, there is always a chance of encountering something a little rarer.

First-year black-headed gull, so later to moult into summer plumage (63020109)
First-year black-headed gull, so later to moult into summer plumage (63020109)
Clump of crocus along The Firs (63020117)
Clump of crocus along The Firs (63020117)
Daffodils by a gravestone (63020065)
Daffodils by a gravestone (63020065)
Magpie (63020069)
Magpie (63020069)
Male house sparrow at Sainsbury's (63020071)
Male house sparrow at Sainsbury's (63020071)
Moorhen (63020073)
Moorhen (63020073)
Red deadnettle (63020076)
Red deadnettle (63020076)
Robin (63020083)
Robin (63020083)
Sign in the cemetery (63020085)
Sign in the cemetery (63020085)
Jono's route (63020124)
Jono's route (63020124)

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