Suddenly, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. The days are drawing out and the birds are singing. Spring is on the horizon! However, there is still some winter wildlife to be enjoyed here at Lakenheath Fen. Starting around the Brandon Fen family trail, a female marsh harrier was hunting along the riverbank and worrying the local lapwings as she went. A pair of stonechats were also present, perched right on the top of a bush further along the bank.
There was also good numbers of thrushes and finches present. These were mostly redwings, but there were also a few song thrushes mixed in. A charm of goldfinches was nearby along with a single lesser redpoll. On the washland pool, there was at least one adult yellow legged gull loafing around and the drake pintail was also still present, showing off his impressively long tail.
Plenty was happening around the visitor centre feeders, along with the "usual suspects"; up to three reed buntings were using the hanging seed feeder. It was so nice to study these beautifully marked birds at close quarters. Three bramblings were nearby, including at least one male. A female was even bold enough to drive off the reed buntings from the seed feeder. I don't think i've ever seen one so close!
I set off to Joist Fen viewpoint in the afternoon, with the intention of trying to see some cranes through my telescope. I succeeded, as there were three feeding in a field close to the viewpoint. Seven whooper swans flew south along the river, "whooping" as they went. At the viewpoint, we had views of at least two bitterns. One was flying around right in front of the viewpoint and the offer appeared briefly in the reeds just behind the viewpoint.
The cranes also made a few more appearances. The three flew right across the reedbed and landed just south of the railway line. They returned about half an hour later, and landed in the grazing marsh just west of the viewpoint. It is so great to see these majestic birds at such close quarters, long may it continue!
There had been a report of a Caspian gull on the washland when I returned to the visitor centre. These birds are not only very scarce but they are also very difficult to identify. There was a bird that could well have been, with a very white head and fairly long legs. However, I’ll leave it to the experts to identify that one!
I have to admit, that usually on my days off I spend my time far away from the reserve. However, as I fancied a day without the car and since the cranes have returned, I thought I would walk down to the reserve from Lakenheath village. It is around 3.5 miles from the village to the west end of the reserve on public footpaths that can be wet and muddy at times.
Moreorless as soon as I arrived on the riverbank by the white cottage that can be seen distantly from Joist Fen viewpoint, a peregrine flew out of the trees and I had an excellent view of it as it flew east towards the viewpoint. I stopped near the apple tree on the riverbank and could see marsh harriers floating across the reedbed. I had intended just to stay there. However, I heard some cranes bugling, and as this was my target species for the day, I walked along the riverbank a bit further.
Soon, three cranes appeared from the south and flew high across the entire width of the reserve before landing somewhere north of the river. This was "Little", "Large" and "Ginger Nut". These birds are otherwise known as the pair of cranes that have successfully produced young on the reserve for the last two years along with their youngster from last year. This meant that the bugling that I heard earlier must have come from the other pair, and sure enough, shortly after the three landed, a bugling match ensued between the two groups!
There was time for one more surprise though. As I started to make my way back, a small bird appeared at very close range and flew right passed me. Thinking that it was a pipit, I had a look at it through my binoculars. This bird was very small, but had a little bit of white on its back. As it flew away from me, its deep undulating flight announced that it was a lesser spotted woodpecker! The small amount of white that I saw were the stripes on its back, which would have looked like a small blob from a distance. It landed in the trees at the west end of the reserve, so it was a tantalising glimpse of one of Britain's most elusive birds!
I am very glad to report that after an absence of almost two months, the cranes have returned to the reserve. A group of seven appeared yesterday morning (January 24th) in flight along the railway line. This included "our" five (two pairs and last year's youngster) along with another pair. The other pair didn't stay around for long however and soon disappeared once again.
Later on that day, there was plenty going on at Joist Fen viewpoint. The five cranes put in an appearance, and there was also plenty of bird of prey activity. Two male hen harriers were seen along with a female merlin and a peregrine. The local barn owls were also out and about as the day drew to a close. It has been such a good winter for birds of prey here. Long may it continue!
This morning there was the usual selection of wildfowl on the washland. Small numbers of wigeons and teals were joined by five shovelers and one male pintail, looking very smart in its winter plumage. At least two little egrets were also present. A peregrine flew over the washland and circled around the East Wood for a while, before disappearing west.
A good variety of wildlife has been seen on the reserve in the last couple of days. A male goosander flew east along the river early in the morning. There is a small wintering population at various places nearby such as Denver Sluice and Lackford Lakes. However, they are fairly unusual here, and when we get them, they are usually females or "redheads". Therefore, to see a male was an extra treat with its salmon-pink tinged body and bottle green head.
There were also three little egrets on the washland, their striking plumage standing out like pure white beacons. A solitary great crested grebe was also present. These birds are more familiar as summer visitors when they nest in front of New Fen viewpoint and ferry their adorable youngsters around on their backs.
Yesterday (Saturday 22nd) was a bit patchy, but the sun came out in the afternoon. I decided to do the long walk along the riverbank to Botany Bay at the west end of the reserve to see what was about. A chiffchaff was calling in the trees by the river. This is probably the same bird that was seen in the west wood in December. A bittern flew out of a pool near the riverbank, croaking away as it went. The female merlin shot low across the reedbed and disappeared north at a fair rate of knots.
On the way back towards Joist Fen viewpoint, two female goldeneyes flew out of the reedbed and onto the river. These are also rather scarce here, and are probably making the most of the high water levels to dive for fish. There were at least five marsh harriers floating over the reeds, sending the local wigeons into panic mode.
When I got to Joist Fen viewpoint, a peregrine had just been seen, and a male hen harrier was reported hunting north of the river. The biggest surprise of the day however was supplied when I got back to the visitor centre. I was told that two lucky visitors had had an extraordinary encounter with an otter between the West Wood and Joist Fen viewpoint. Apparently, it wanted to try to cross the path, but was put off by the presence of two humans watching it! It kept peaking through the reeds, but didn't make a dash for it until the people were long gone! This just goes to show that you never know what you are going to see at Lakenheath Fen!
The cold and clear weather yesterday provided ideal hunting conditions for birds of prey. As I traipsed all the way up to North Norfolk to look for rough legged buzzards (which I did see), I could have done just as well to wander down to Joist Fen viewpoint right here at Lakenheath Fen! Three species of raptor really put on a show: peregrine, merlin and hen harrier.
As staff and volunteers were out in the reedbed cutting willows, a perergrine flew over. Presumably the same bird, most likely to be a male judging by its size, was seen the day before crashing in a flock of lapwings. Later on, a merlin was putting on a spectacular display close to Joist Fen viewpoint as it twisted and turned in pursuit of an unfortunate pipit or lark. Fortunately for the lark or pipit, it got away. The merlin then seemingly took out its frustration by stooping on a male hen harrier. Amazing!
Speaking about hen harriers, there are still three present on the reserve, two males and a ringtail. It truly is an amazing sight watching these three stunning birds hunting amongst the "local" marsh harriers, of which we may have up to six on the reserve at the moment. Barn owls are also being seen regularly in the afternoons, both from Joist Fen viewpoint and around the visitor centre.