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Enjoy a four-mile circular nature walk from Great Hallingbury to Rushy Mead Nature Reserve





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

Having spent time on my last article at just one dedicated site, I thought I would stretch my legs a little more and complete a circular walk.

A look at the weather forecast last Monday (May 22) informed me there would be little advantage waiting for a later-in-the-day start, so I parked in the layby opposite St Giles’ Church in Great Hallingbury at 8.30am.

Ox-eye daisy
Ox-eye daisy

My first port of call was the churchyard. Over the last few years, I have been vaguely involved in recording species in this habitat and it was good to see unmown grass where orchids and many other flower species were coming through.

The ox-eye daisies were already in full flower - always a good flowerhead for insects. The orchids had been marked with sticks to protect them from footfall. I have also organised moth nights in the churchyard and given a presentation on the local moth species. I shall be running another moth night this summer.

Grey skies and a gentle northerly breeze were not going to encourage insects out, so I pressed on, picking up the footpath along a hedge line towards a tunnel under the M11.

Dog rose
Dog rose

This hedge held a singing yellowhammer, a whitethroat that didn’t show itself (as usual) and, best of all, a lesser whitethroat in fine voice. This is a bird that rarely puts in an appearance for a photo and the breeze meant it most certainly was not going to show.

At the end of the hedge a dog rose had just broken into flower. Wonderful to see in hedgerows.

I sauntered through the tunnel and into a small habitat that was coppiced a few years ago. There is vigorous growth of plants such as red campion and cow parsley here now, but still not good for insects as the breeze was running down the valley.

I needed to find the leeward side of a hedge where there is a little sunshine for such creatures, so I crossed the stream and up a footpath onto Jenkins Lane. Here, a field full of buttercups was a pleasure to see.

Buttercup meadow
Buttercup meadow

There was very little to note before I crossed the Hallingbury Road and into Rushy Mead Nature Reserve. This is a habitat that I pass through several times a year, normally in winter for finch species, but I rarely stop for a closer inspection.

The path was almost completely blocked with common comfrey and nettles, so I pushed my way through before arriving at a more open site. A green woodpecker yaffled, a chiffchaff “zip zapped” and blackcaps warbled unseen. A wren fired off his tell-tale alarm call as I began to examine the nettles and comfrey more closely.

As I mentioned in my last piece, a nettle patch can keep me occupied for hours; there is always something to find and today was certainly a good day to take a closer look.

Red-headed cardinal beetle
Red-headed cardinal beetle

On the upper side of nettles were a few Pisaura mirabilis (nursery web spiders), which dropped to the ground as I approached, as they invariably do. Other invertebrates were not so observant.

I was kept busy for close to two hours getting photos of several species. A smart Pyrochroa serraticornis (red-headed cardinal beetle) posed well as I tried for photos of Bombus lucorum, the white-tailed bumblebee, of which there were plenty.

Phyllobius pomaceus
Phyllobius pomaceus

Another ubiquitous insect was a weevil species showing green scales. Weevils are notoriously tricky to identify, but I guessed this was Phyllobius pomaceus, the green nettle weevil.

There was so much vegetation to check as I encountered a new beetle for the year, a Cantharis figurata, and its close relative Cantharis decipiens, the latter species showing a black dot behind the head.

Eristalinus sepulchralis
Eristalinus sepulchralis

Plenty of craneflies eluded the camera before I came across a mating pair of hoverflies nestled in a buttercup, Eristalinus sepulchralis showing their colourful compound eye patterns.

A long, thin spider clung to its silken thread between two leaves, its front two sets of legs considerably longer than the back two sets. It was a Tetragnatha species, and when I checked more closely at the photos, I noted a triangle shape on the underside, informing me this was Tetragnatha extensa, a common spider of wetland habitats, as indeed Rushy Mead is.

Heliophilus pendulus
Heliophilus pendulus

Another hoverfly landed in front of me, a typical yellow and black species with stripes on the thorax and very curved back legs; Heliophilus pendulus.

I then noted a group heading towards me and recognised Graham and Carole, who used to live down the lane from us in Little Hadham. They were part of a U3A camera club outing.

Ephemera vulgata
Ephemera vulgata

We wandered back to the comfrey site with me saying I was trying to get a photo of the nursery web spider. We found one that did exactly what I said it would do, immediately disappearing onto the underside of a nettle leaf. However, nearby, also on the underside of nettles, was a newly-emerged mayfly, Ephemera vulgata (drake mackerel mayfly).

The group continued along the path as far as they could go as I continued searching. A splendid woodlouse, species Armadillidium vulgare, strolled across a leaf and a dancefly species, Empis tessellata, landed right in front of me. This one may struggle to impress a mate with its “dancing” as it was missing a leg!

Dark bush-cricket
Dark bush-cricket

One last search realised several Pholidoptera griseoaptera (dark bush-cricket) whilst my final challenge was to try to secure a reasonable shot of a non-biting midge species. This showed extremely feathery antennae and was probably a member of the Chironomidae group. Tiny insect.

It was time to move on, so I got onto the towpath and headed towards Pig Lane. There were moorhens and Canada geese on the river with several tit species flitting around in the willows.

Canada goose
Canada goose

Birds are now hard to see and even harder to photo as they are busy feeding juveniles whilst also keeping out of view so as not to attract the attention of predators.

I enjoyed a picnic on the bench at the lock gates before picking up a footpath that bisects the horse fields on the opposite side of the lane.

Alliums
Alliums

After a few hundred yards I entered a marvellous cottage flower garden. There was a really impressive stand of alliums here, far more advanced than the ones still in bud in our garden. As it was a private garden it would not have been appropriate for me to stop to photograph the bees and other insects visiting these superb flowerheads, so I continued along the path through a barley field where swallows skimmed for insects.

I arrived at Port Lane, crossed the Hallingbury Road again and headed back along the lane towards the churchyard.

Honesty
Honesty

I checked the verge for emerging plants and came across honesty and cornflowers in full bloom; both, I suspect, escapees from a cottage garden but good to see nevertheless.

Carrion crows marched through the donkey field, a robin sang from an ash tree and, once back at the car with the camera packed away, a pair of blackcaps proceeded to show really well from the top of an elder. Always the way. Want to get great views of birds? Leave the camera at home!

Carrion crow
Carrion crow

In total a round walk of just four miles, but I had certainly recorded plenty and had to remember that I was in Essex, so all records need to be forwarded to the relevant county recorders. One or two possibly good or early records for Rushy Mead and ones I certainly have not encountered there before, in particular the Eristalinus sepulchralis hoverflies.

Rushy Mead is very overgrown at present and will require some path clearances soon, so if you intend on visiting I suggest thick, nettle-proof trousers. Shorts just will not cut it here at present.

Only one butterfly was seen during the whole walk, a flyby speckled wood. This is indicative of the colder weather we are experiencing at present, also reflected in the small number of moths attending to my garden trap. Only seven of five species this morning – way down on the usual numbers.

Tetragnatha extensa
Tetragnatha extensa
Cornflower
Cornflower
Empis tesselata
Empis tesselata
Cantharis figurata Pictures: Jono Forgham
Cantharis figurata Pictures: Jono Forgham
Chironomidae species of midge
Chironomidae species of midge
Armadillidium vulgare
Armadillidium vulgare


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