Lots of birds to spot on circular five-mile walk from Wickham Hall to Farnham in Hertfordshire
Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...
Having featured a single habitat in my last piece, I thought a mixed habitat walk would be good and if I headed to high ground I may encounter a summer migrant resting as it moved further north.
Birds such as wheatear and ring ouzel are moving through the county at present on their way to their breeding grounds on the northern moors and mountains. Always a chance of finding these birds in April. Ash Valley Golf Club has wheatear on an annual basis and an occasional ring ouzel has turned up too.
Consequently, I chose a walk around the open fields and hedgerows from Wickham Hall to Farnham and back, some of the highest ground locally. Setting off in bright light but the temperature being only 5C was such a change from my walk a fortnight ago when it reached 24C. Wrapped up against the elements I took the track from the car park at Wickham Hall that emerges on the Farnham road near the Animal Rescue Charity.
As expected, many common hedgerow birds were noted. Goldfinches aplenty, now more likely to be seen in pairs and not their larger winter flocks. Always a good bird to see, showing its bright red face and bold yellow wingbar. I checked a field containing horses for yellow wagtails, another summer migrant, but none were apparent so I continued. Yellowhammers called from deep in the hedges and plenty of chiffchaffs "zip zapped" their territorial and courtship song.
Many more species of wildflower were evident with red dead nettle, white dead nettle and ground ivy all pushing through along with emerging umbellifers such as wild carrot and hedge parsley. A flock of linnets, six strong, darted overhead and into the blossom of a blackthorn as I checked what looked to be a redundant badger sett. The leaves were appearing on the hawthorns, so it won't be too long before the air is full of the sweet scent of mayflower.
Photography was a tad tricky as the cumulus clouds that were billowing overhead meant that the light changed rapidly. As a result of these changes, I was forever tinkering with the camera settings ready for a good bird to suddenly show. Skylarks called from above, as did a pair of common buzzards that greeted me as I approached Farnham Lane where I turned left and walked alongside the now-bone dry Bourne Brook. Several months ago this was a raging torrent, but not now. Seems like a long time ago that we had rain and the rock-hard ground underfoot was testament to this dry spell.
Great tits and blue tits called from oaks as I headed uphill towards Farnham, passing The Globe, the old village pub. A yellowhammer was wheezing away in a horse chestnut near the village school and took a little finding. House sparrows argued in the school hedgerow and two posed on the top of the school sign. Always good numbers of starlings along the road here, with one particularly bright specimen roosting on a television aerial and another on top of a roof. Nearby, a collared dove wasn't disturbed by my passing, posing well for a photo.
Bombus terrestris, the buff-tailed bumblebee, were now out and about. The queens were either nectaring on garden flowers or otherwise searching out nest sites in the leaf litter as I arrived at the village hall and continued along Thrimley Lane. This public bridleway was a delight of blossom on several species of prunus in which many birds were hunting insects. A particularly confiding male chaffinch lent itself to a pleasing photo, with the red tiled roof of a house giving an excellent backdrop.
This bridleway continues for half a mile through wooded habitat before emerging as a path that skirts around field beans and cereal fields. I scanned these for migrants, but none were to be found. Apart, that is, for a lone swallow that darted by northwards. My first local sighting of this species. Previously, I had checked the Stansted Airport lagoons where there were plenty hawking over the water, along with a few recently-arrived sand martins. Always good to see these summer visitors.
Blackbirds patrolled the hedgerow and plenty of crows wandered around a recently-cultivated field. A small white flower attracted my attention in the grass verge; a solitary wild strawberry plant. Good to see. Towards the end of this path, before it crosses the Farnham to Upwick Green lane, is some of the highest ground with views to Stansted Airport and Church Langley water tower, but no rarer migrants about. Several meadow pipits wisped overhead as another yellowhammer and three dunnocks popped up to the top of the hedge and then down again as they saw me coming.
Once over the lane I could see the large metal barn next to Bloodhound's Wood, east of Wickham Hall. This area frequently hosts passing wheatear so I spent time scanning the fields and looking ahead along the wide path, but still no luck.
I now decided it was picnic time so sat down to enjoy my chicken sandwiches which I embellished with a few leaves of Jack-by-the-hedge or wild garlic. Alliaria petiolata is the larval foodplant for the orange-tip butterfly which will soon be emerging. Once they do I check the leaves for eggs before picking, but today they were fine, adding a hint of garlic flavour to the sandwich.
As I sat there I noted several wild flowers. More ground ivy, the end of the lesser celandine and, in the small wood next to me, the first flush of bluebells. A pair of long-tailed tits popped out to check on me as more skylarks ascended in full song. Wonderful – and then it began to snow! Just a few flakes gently falling, but it did mean there was a marked drop in the temperature before the single grey cloud moved on and it became increasingly warmer.
Right next to where I was sat were 15 or so strange-looking plants. A horsetail species, probably greater-of-field horsetail. These, at present, appeared to lack any chlorophyll as they weren't yet green. Another plant in flower here was greater stitchwort with its bright white petals.
I packed my rucksack and set off for the last half mile, arriving back at Wickham Hall where I checked around the barn and silos as well as the hedgerow that runs down to Bloodhound's Wood. Another flock of linnets, some dunnocks and, on the roof of the barn, a brilliantly-plumaged pied wagtail. I checked the fields thoroughly here, but eventually had to admit defeat in my quest to find a wheatear. They will appear here one day before the end of the month.
Just as I was about to return to the car, a dark-edged bee-fly flew by, looking for the nests of solitary bees. The female bee-fly flicks her eggs into the entrance of the nest and her larvae feed on the grubs of the bees. At the same time, a large red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) trundled by searching for flowers. My first one of spring, so a good note to conclude what had been a wonderful five-mile wander.
I will end with a plug for a forthcoming event as I have been asked to give a presentation on Friday October 8 at South Mill Arts. This will be a mixture of photos and talk on the 850-plus species of wildlife that I discovered on my daily safaris around our small garden in Little Hadham as well as a few tales gathered from over 55 years of recording natural history. There will be a drinks reception beforehand with a start time of 7.15pm. Families most welcome.
The event is one of the Bishop's Stortford mayor's charitable events and all proceeds from this, along with a raffle, will be split 50/50 between Isabel Hospice and MindGarden, a learning centre I have helped establish in Sri Lanka for disadvantaged children.
Tickets are available at https://southmillarts.ticketsolve.com/shows/873623878.