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Enjoy nature on a Christmas and new year walk from Stanstead Abbotts to Amwell Nature Reserve





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

It has become a tradition over the last five years that the issue before Christmas has a Nature Notes article that comes from further afield and this year is no different. Upon opening the curtains a week last Monday I was greeted by a good fall of snow, perfect for a Christmas special.

Two of Hertfordshire's premier bird spots are the RSPB Rye Meads Reserve near Hoddesdon and the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust Reserve at Amwell. My plans were to drive to the former, wander around the reserve, continue via Stanstead Abbotts to Amwell and then back.

Amwell footpath from the viewing point (61353449)
Amwell footpath from the viewing point (61353449)

I set off in the trusty 4x4, but my original plans were thwarted as Rye Meads was closed due to the weather. Consequently, I parked in the car park at Stanstead Abbotts and walked along the River Lea towpath to Amwell Nature Reserve.

The trees and river looked superb in the early-morning light. Mute swans, coots, moorhens and mallards paddled on the partially-frozen river whilst black-headed gulls winged overhead. One of these was already displaying its breeding plumage with a chocolate-brown head. Very early in the season for this moult to have taken place.

Redwings dived into hawthorn bushes to feast upon the red berries. Indeed, in our garden we have a bird cherry tree laden with fruit that a flock of 11 redwings feed upon from very early in the morning until last light. Also, a flock of fieldfares headed north, their familiar "chack chack" call muffled by the heavy snow.

Redwing in the garden at first light (61353439)
Redwing in the garden at first light (61353439)

I arrived at the viewing point on the reserve. All was very still and frozen as snow slipped from the sloping information sign. It was incredibly peaceful and it was then that I realised there were no jets heading into Stansted – the airport must have been closed.

I scanned across the water. Lapwings stood somewhat forlornly upon the ice, shoveler ducks swam vigorously to keep the water from freezing around them, Canada geese flew in from nearby fields, shattering the silence, whilst cormorants stood on posts with their wings open to dry them after a fishing trip.

I used my binoculars to check right down to the far end of the former gravel pit. More wildfowl. An armada of tufted duck, numerous mallards and then a goldeneye, a drake displaying its immaculate black-and-white plumage. The first I have seen at this site this winter and a good local bird to see.

I continued along the path to a gate which takes visitors to two of the three hides that are on the reserve. Firstly, the James Hide that looks over a reed bed. Just a moorhen viewed from this vantage point and no hoped-for bittern wandered out of the reeds and onto the ice. I waited for 10 minutes, but this was a no-show and it was a day to keep on the move so I wandered along the boardwalk to the large White Hide that offers views over the lake and nearby island.

Female tufted duck (61353366)
Female tufted duck (61353366)

A great crested grebe was diving for fish and a female tufted duck followed suit. In the snow-covered trees, more cormorants drying their wings before I heard a clear and bright whistling call; a drake wigeon. This smart orange-headed duck, like the goldeneye, is a winter visitor to our shores, spending the summer months breeding in Siberia on the tundra and Taiga Plains as well as visiting Iceland and the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia.

From the hide I was able to watch as flocks of wildfowl and gulls mixed together on the open water. Amwell Reserve is a well-known gull roost in the winter months with up to several thousand gulls coming in around dusk. Most disperse during the day, but some do remain. Herring gulls, black-headed gulls, common gulls and lesser black-backed gulls were all present in small numbers before I took one final scan across the water and headed off back to the path and onto the old Stanstead Abbotts-to-Buntingford railway line, heading towards Hollycross Lake.

Here, more of the same wildfowl upon the water, with the addition of a drake pochard in the distance. A little egret screeched from a reed bed as I headed back to the River Lea and onto a footbridge that leads to some woodland. Here, alder trees are prevalent and the call of siskins was in the air. Another winter visitor from the east, these small, yellow-coloured finches feed upon the alder seeds and can be found in large flocks. Grange Paddocks is a good local place to see these busy birds. A great tit popped up in front of me whilst a festive robin posed for a photo in pleasing light.

Wren in the snow (61353447)
Wren in the snow (61353447)

By now I was back at the viewing point and headed south to the third hide, the Gladwin Hide. The goldeneye that had previously been near the hide had now disappeared, so no hoped-for photo, but a wren popped up nearby from the snow. Amazing how such tiny birds survive in sub-zero temperatures.

A brief check over to the island opposite the hide and I began the mile-long walk back to the car. The sun was now higher, but adding very little in the way of warmth, the spectacular snow clung to the trees and towpath and the river had a thin sheen of reflective ice. All wonderful to see.

River Lea narrowboats (61353443)
River Lea narrowboats (61353443)

The rows of narrow boats near the lock gates looked impressive as I tried to get a photo that did the colourful reflections justice. I then noted a coot paddling directly at me in great light and with a wonderful, almost symmetrical reflection. Fortunately, the settings on the camera were reasonably close to being OK and I was pleased with the photo. Another skein of Canada geese headed north, calling raucously, and were soon followed by a smaller flock of equally noisy greylag geese.

Soon I was back in Stanstead Abbotts and planned on popping into The Village Café for a warming beverage and some lunch, but unfortunately my three hours of free parking were close to expiring so I headed home with more than 200 photos to process.

Canada goose (61353358)
Canada goose (61353358)

The following morning the snow still held to the tiles of Little Hadham houses, but the lanes and roads were much clearer so I thought I would add Rye Meads Reserve to this article. To save an unnecessary journey I rang Vicky at the visitors' centre who informed me that the reserve was still closed as several trees had come down under the weight of the snow and some of the boardwalk around the reserve was icy and treacherous. I went for a local walk around the village instead, noting the redwings were still plundering the mass of cherries upon the garden tree as I set off down the garden.

Amwell Nature Reserve can be accessed from Amwell Lane, which can be found just after the level crossing at Stanstead St Margarets, and parking is on the side of the road. Another information sign highlights the track that leads to the river and viewing point. Alternatively, as I did, park in the car park just off High Street and walk north along the River Lea. All the tracks and paths to and around the reserve are accessible for wheelchairs and mobility scooters. All three of the hides are also accessible to all.

Black-headed gull (61353356)
Black-headed gull (61353356)

It is a wonderful reserve, with always something to see. In summer, a fabulous dragonfly trail is opened, offering superb views of many species of these colourful and fascinating insects. The three hides offer great views over the water where there are invariably 30-40 species of birds to be observed. Just a great place for a pleasant stroll and well worth a visit over the festive season.

Finally, I would like to wish all readers a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Coot (61353360)
Coot (61353360)
Cormorant drying its wings (61353362)
Cormorant drying its wings (61353362)
Drake wigeon (61353364)
Drake wigeon (61353364)
Great crested grebe (61353368)
Great crested grebe (61353368)
Great tit (61353370)
Great tit (61353370)
Lapwings, two black-headed gulls and a lesser black-backed gull (61353372)
Lapwings, two black-headed gulls and a lesser black-backed gull (61353372)
Merry Christmas to all readers (61353374)
Merry Christmas to all readers (61353374)
Mute swan (61353378)
Mute swan (61353378)
Partially frozen River Lea (61353437)
Partially frozen River Lea (61353437)
Shovelers (61353445)
Shovelers (61353445)


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