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Jono's Nature Notes: Enjoy a 5.5-mile circular walk from Birchanger across the M11 taking in part of the Flitch Way

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

The first Tuesday of 2021 showed a forecast for possible snow, so I thought this would make for a good walk and add a little extra to the photos. It was not to be as, on the day, as I parked in Birchanger, the forecast had changed to drizzle by 1pm.

I set off along the Sustrans path not far from the village pub, the Three Willows, in poor, grey light. Fortunately, nothing along here worth taking photos of, just the regular robins, wrens and tit species.

Male great spotted woodpecker (43867890)
Male great spotted woodpecker (43867890)

Green alkanet leaves were pushing through the leaf litter as I crossed the footbridge over the M11. Once over, the path branches left for Stansted Airport and right for Hatfield Forest. The last time I was here I took the path north; this was high summer when butterflies were prolific.

This time, upon turning right, I headed through unmanaged fields and tunnels that go under the M11 spur roads. Here, stands of gorse bushes were just breaking into flower, a vibrant yellow that brightened the rather sombre midwinter scene. Stonechats are birds that associate with gorse, so a quick but unsuccessful search before going onwards, over the bridge that crosses the A120 and into an area that is again basically unmanaged.

A great spotted woodpecker called from a tree in one of the gardens of a house in Start Hill, near the Esso petrol station. Here the path was dry, which was a refreshing change from the last few walks I have done.

Wonderful old willow (43867888)
Wonderful old willow (43867888)

Hazel catkins hung from branches as jays and magpies called. I headed left to check two large ponds – overflow from the airport – but just a pair of mallards and a friendly greyhound. In the trees, the wispy call of redwings feeding on hawthorn and a common buzzard overhead as I returned to the path.

The woods here are damp, mysterious and have not received any management for decades. On the right, a magnificent old moss-covered crack willow sprawled out from a thick trunk. Well worth a check for insects and fungi, and I wasn't disappointed as I discovered three fungi species.

Common inkcap, now finished by the recent frosts, clung to the moss and there was jelly ear, also burnt by the cold, but the best was discovering what I presume to be scarlet elf cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea). This is not a common fungus for the East of England, so I recorded the map reference and, upon returning home, sent photos and details to the Essex county fungi recorder. I hope to hear of its status in West Essex. It could be another, similar elf cup species, the more common Sarcoscypha austriaca.

To identify the species, I need to return and check for the hairs growing on the outside. A hand lens will be needed. Also, the spores are different sizes, for which I shall need my microscope. One set of spores are 11-14 micrometers in length whilst in scarlet elf cup they are 9-12 micrometers long. Phew! This is a splendid fungus, shaped rather like a cup for an acorn, and grows on decaying wood, as it was here. A light shade of orange on the outside and a much brighter red on the inside of the cup. A pleasing find indeed, whichever species it turns out to be.

Scarlet elf cap (43867885)
Scarlet elf cap (43867885)

I continued and, as I turned a corner, I saw a whole host of birds. A treecreeper spiralled up a birch, redwings flitted through the tops of the hawthorns, as did several blackbirds. Great tits and blue tits called upon noticing my presence whilst somewhere unseen, a party of long-tailed tits called constantly so that the flock could all keep together.

By now the light had improved markedly so I reset the camera settings and continued. Clematis vitalba, or old man's beard or traveller's joy, had spent the summer winding its way all along a wire fence. The feathery seed heads were still attached, awaiting a gusty day to disperse. Sadly, someone had decided to dump their worn tyre collection as I checked another overgrown spinney before the path skirts around the back of a house and joins the main B1256 road to Takeley. Directly opposite is the path that leads on to the Flitch Way, the old railway line to Dunmow.

Blackbirds busied themselves in a fully-laden hawthorn as I scanned the fields for herds of fallow deer. In the bankside mud there were eroded tracks containing their slots (footprints) so plenty about, just not today.

Female bullfinch (43867870)
Female bullfinch (43867870)

Another blackbird flicked leaves in the air whilst searching for invertebrates before a bird flew across the track, showing a distinct white rump. A bullfinch, followed by three more; two pairs no less. I pointed the camera at a particularly vibrant male only for him to dart for cover, so managed a few shots of the less colourful female. A most secretive bird, often heard or seen deep in heavy vegetation but not too often noted sitting in full view. A good bird to see, however.

On the left of the track was standing water, something I hadn't noted on this stretch before, and on the bank of what was basically a pond was another good find: hart's tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium). This would have gone unnoticed had I not been checking the water for pond creatures. Just behind the fern, a pair of dunnocks foraged in leaf litter. Stands of buddleia on the opposite side of the track stood dormant and could do with a bit of a trim to encourage further growth and flowers next summer for the butterflies that frequent this track.

Soon I was at the end of the track and dropped down onto the lane that leads from the petrol station to Hallingbury. Back on the main road, I headed away from the M11 roundabout. Opposite a row of houses is a path that brings the wanderer back to the path where I encountered the fantastic willow.

With the brighter light I was hoping more birds would be on the move. So they were, but no new species. I rechecked the overflow lagoons before noting several rather green seed heads of teasel. Upon closer inspection it appears that the damp and warmer weather last month has actually encouraged the seeds to germinate within the head. Another plant that requires gusty conditions to aid its seed dispersal.

Goldfinch (43867864)
Goldfinch (43867864)

Through the tunnels and over the bridges, the roads now much busier than when I set off. As I headed back into Birchanger, a large flock of goldfinches caught my attention. It was a party of at least 75, and mingled in with these were several chaffinches and about 10 linnets. I checked through for anything else as they worked themselves along the hedgerow, always keeping about five metres in front of me. House sparrows chirped from a garden bush as I arrived back at the car just as the temperature dropped and the forecast drizzle began.

All in all, a fascinating 5.5-mile wander. I always like searching through unkempt and unmanaged habitats. Here, things can manage to remain undisturbed and get a good foothold. Certainly the case with some of the trees and the accompanying nature that will use that specific species.

Woodpeckers, ravens, tawny owls – and those kingfishers at Grange Paddocks...

Now is the time that great and lesser spotted woodpeckers begin their territorial drumming. Listen out for them on woodland walks. The noise can carry half a mile or so in quiet conditions.

To distinguish between the two species, if the drumming lasts just a second or two it will be the great spotted, which is the common one. If the drumming lasts up to four seconds it will be the rarer lesser spotted.

This small black and white woodpecker is hard to see, usually being high up in old oaks etc and is the same size as a sparrow. If anyone thinks they have heard this, do please let me know as there are very few records of them in our woodlands, including Hatfield Forest.

Other early-breeding birds are the raven and the tawny owl. The former is making a good comeback here, with one regularly seen around Little Hadham. Its size (same as a buzzard) and deep cronk call gives it away whilst the tawny owls will also be calling their nocturnal call, the familiar twit-twoo. Plenty of these about both in towns and woodlands.

As always, if anything catches your eye in any aspect of nature and you would like to know more about the insect, bird or plant, do please email a photo to photos@stortfordindie.co.uk and I shall get back to you. With the new lockdown in place, it will be a great time to get out for rural walks to see what you can find.

Finally, the kingfishers along the River Stort from the Grange Paddocks Leisure Centre to the Cannons Mill Lane level crossing are becoming more used to people wandering by and therefore affording great photo opportunities.

Well worth going to see these magnificent birds, with plenty of excellent photos of them being posted on the Stortford Nature Facebook page.

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