Birds, Highland cows and foxes spotted on five-and-a-half mile walk along the Stort Navigation in Hertfordshire
Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...
A week last Tuesday there appeared to be an opportunity to fit in a Nature Notes walk with only a vague possibility of getting soaked. Monday had been a write-off and Wednesday didn't look too good either, so at 9.30am I parked near the Challenge Gym on the road to Spellbrook and set off for a river walk to Sawbridgeworth.
I wandered along the footpath opposite Thorley Wash Grange, watching and hearing the many whitethroats that have taken up territories in the vast stands of bramble, crossed the railway line and entered Thorley Wash Reserve.
Sedge warblers and reed buntings called in the distance as I crossed the river on the red brick bridge and took a right towards Spellbrook locks. A reed warbler called its very scratchy call from a small stand of Australis phragmites reeds, but remained unseen.
A green woodpecker called from the opposite bank before I encountered two cormorants roosting on the top of a dead tree. A few photos and I moved on, crossing Spellbrook Lane East and continuing along the well-worn towpath towards the Tednambury lock gates.
The sky was ominously grey and a breeze, along with low temperatures, meant my search for insects on common comfrey and umbellifers proved fruitless. There has been a total failure of insects to emerge this spring due to the low temperatures. At home on May 26 I had no moths in my garden trap. On the corresponding day in 2020 I counted more than 100 of 42 species.
No bees were apparent along the towpath as well as a big zero for mayflies, damsel and dragonflies. This is quite a concern as these insect emergences coincide with maximum hatching and consequent feeding of nestlings of the many warblers and buntings that nest along the river. Possibly they are putting their nesting on hold, but a pair of grey wagtails were searching for insects at Tednambury locks, catching mainly the last of the St Mark's fly, itself two weeks late this year. Be worth keeping an eye on whether these insects emerge late or just remain in the nymph or pupae state for another year.
On the opposite side of the river, Highland cattle grazed as magpies followed their hooves to catch anything disturbed from the long grass. Whitethroats called and sat on the barbed wire fence here, as did reed buntings. A chiffchaff popped up into a willow as I approached the marina and crossed yet another footbridge. On the meander just before this point was another reed warbler, this one more showy so leant itself to a few shots.
The meadowland around the Old Mill here was a sea of cow parsley, over which a male orange-tip butterfly winged its way. From here I heard the call of two common terns but failed to actually see them during the whole walk. In an adjacent field, carrion crows and jackdaws probed the soft earth as I continued to slither my way along the path, now made more slippery by gentle drizzle.
Camera away, waterproofs on and the inevitable happened – a kingfisher flashed by me and sat on a nearby twig for a few seconds before heading off in the direction of Sawbridgeworth Marsh Reserve. So often the case when you put a camera into a bag.
The drizzle ceased so back out with the camera. A Cetti's warbler burst into its explosive, short song and another sedge warbler appeared at the base of a tree for a photo. I heard the mewing call of a pair of buzzards and, after a brief binocular search, came across one in an alder tree. Good to get a roosting photo and not an aerial one.
The rain started again, displaying what appeared to be an air of permanence this time, so I paused under the railway bridge and hoped for it to just blow over. Here, on the iron girders, are plenty of feral pigeons, some in spectacular plumage, and a house sparrow popped up onto a nearby bush.
I was so busy getting photos I failed to see that the rain had moved on and, whilst still grey, it was dry, so on I strolled past the narrowboat community until I came to the lock gates just before The Maltings. Here I sat on the wall for my picnic and watched a family of moorhens, two adults and five juveniles that couldn't have been more than 48 hours old, feed upon a dead fish. Splendid to observe.
The sky began to brighten, but to the west the darkening clouds made my mind up for me. I would abandon the plan to head all the way to Pishiobury Park along the towpath and instead would retrace my steps back to Thorley Wash. Still in waterproofs I set off back and was really glad I did as I encountered much that I hadn't seen on the outward route.
After 15 minutes the clouds cleared and I got a glimpse of blue sky which resulted in a rapid rise in temperature. I was back to checking flowerheads for insects. I disturbed a couple of mayflies from some sedge which flew high with their tell-tale fluttering flight. Another Cetti's warbler had me searching the far bank when, through my binoculars, I noted a strange teardrop shape in a tree. I focused in to see I was looking at thousands of western honeybees (Apis melifera) that had swarmed around their queen. She will have been in the middle of the swarm. I fired off several photos in decent light, the first of its kind for the whole walk.
A few yards further and a couple of rabbits caught my eye before I also saw a fox, walking brazenly towards them. The rabbits appeared unperturbed and, almost immediately after spotting this, the fox turned left, ignored the rabbits and disappeared into a bramble thicket.
Canada geese – a family party of nine – were to be seen as I approached Tednambury locks whilst the grey wagtails were still fly catching. Their nest seemed to be actually in the lockgate. A solitary black-headed gull patrolled up and down the river before, once again, I crossed the red brick bridge and, now in good sunshine, changed my long-zoom lens for my close-up one as I began searching the comfrey. Now, a slightly different story. Several orange-tip butterflies, a flesh fly (probably Sarcophaga carnaria but not identifiable to species just on observation) and plenty of Bombus terrestris (buff-tailed bumblebee workers) were very active gathering food from the blue and purple flowers.
I stood on the footbridge by the railway and just managed to catch a glimpse of a splendid water vole heading downstream. Always good to see this mammal following a large release of them back in 2014. A flash of black and gold rested on a nearby plant, a hoverfly species and a new one for the year: Epistrophe nitidicollis. It posed well for photos before I headed back to the car at the end of a five-and-a-half mile wander.
The whole of this walk takes walkers through good habitats, with the stretch from Spellbrook locks to Tednambury locks being particularly scenic as the Stort Navigation meanders through cattle meadows rich in hedge parsley and buttercups. Well worth a wander.
Let's hope that June brings higher temperatures and that nature can rediscover its equilibrium as, at present, it has been knocked way out of kilter. A week of hot and dry weather will go a long way to restoring the balance. Another fortnight of the weather we have experienced for most of May will mean we shall miss out on many butterfly species in good numbers along with less-observed insects and this will clearly have a knock-on effect into the following few years. Fingers crossed for a change.