Today marks a very special day. After 40 years of service with the RSPB, Norman Sills, our Site Manager is retiring. If you have met him, you will never forget him. If you haven’t met him before, his story really is quite fascinating.
After starting his career as a quantity surveyor, he started with the RSPB in the early 1970’s. His first major project was a little known reserve known as Titchwell Marsh in North Norfolk, around halfway between Hunstanton and Wells-next the sea.
Most of you would have heard of this fantastic reserve, and Norman spent 24 years transforming it from a wild coastal marsh into a fantastic nature reserve stacked full of rare wildlife. It has since become the RSPB’s most visited reserve, with over 100,000 visitors a year.
He moved to Lakenheath Fen in 1995, when the area that is now the reserve was a square mile or mostly arable farmland with around 40 acres of an originally large poplar plantation owned by Bryant and May for producing matches and pallets.
Between 1995 and 2003, Norman spearheaded the creation of a reedbed nature reserve to provide nesting habitat for bitterns. In order to do this, 300,000 reads were planted by hand between 1997-2003, which must have been a massive undertaking.
As some of you may know, two pairs of cranes arrived and nested in 2007, which was a massive surprise. However, perhaps the most landmark years was 2009. Not only did bitterns nest for the first time, with four successful nests, but also one pair of cranes fledged one young. This proved to be first successfully fledged crane chick in the Fens for over 400 years. This was a real feather in Norman’s cap, and was testament to all of the hard work that his team had put in over the previous 14 years.
Norman will leave such a legacy behind and I am sure that you will join me in wishing him a happy retirement.
Sometimes, you can't help but get caught in the moment. I have spent a fair bit of time listening for golden orioles over the last two mornings. Although they have been typically elusive, most of the activity has been in Trial Wood. Although I didn’t manage to see one myself, several other people did which caused much excitement...... and it’s infectious!
Our oriole walk at 7am yesterday was somewhat hampered by the wind and the rain. However, after a walk up to Joist Fen viewpoint, we were walking back past Trial Wood and a male was singing his heart out. All of a sudden, there was a flurry of excitement as it was found perched in the dense foliage. Several people got fantastic views of the bird, and it was just great to see the buzz that this incredibly rare nesting bird creates. Around 10 out of 15 of my group saw the bird, so it was worth the wait!
This morning my dad and I came down early to see what was going on. The birds were being very difficult, and at least one male seemed to be doing loops in the wood from the middle to the West end. At one point, a male perched out in the open on the dead trees in Trial Wood. Despite the fact that about 20 people were looking at it and it was showing well, I couldn’t see it. Oh well! Several people got photographs of it, so I look forward to seeing them.
While we were looking for orioles this morning, we were treated to the wonderful sight of three bitterns display flying high over West Wood and New Fen North. Many people had not seen this behaviour before, so it was great to share that experience with them. Also, an unusual sight was provided by a chaffinch feeding a cuckoo. I’ve certainly never heard of this before, so if anyone else has, I would be very interested in hearing about it!
A garden water was singing out in the open in the same area, and at one point, you could hear blackcap and garden warbler singing at the same time which was great, as you could appreciate the subtle differences between these two extremely similar songs. Marsh harriers were also up to their usual antics and were seen passing food on several occasions. Why not come down to Lakenheath Fen and see if you can have a “moment” like this yourself?!
Now that the weather has improved and the sun has come out again, it is well worth coming down to listen to and hopefully see our golden orioles. As you may know, they are usually very difficult to see. This year, we are asking members of the public like yourselves to help us survey where our birds are spending their time and what they are doing. If you would like to help us out, then just pop into the visitor centre to pick up a survey sheet. If you arrive before we are open, then just pop in on your way back or e-mail us on email@example.com.
We grabbed another opportunity to do some nocturnal nature watching on Wednesday evening. Before that though, a walk through the reserve produced a golden oriole “cat calling” in Trial Wood and a spotted flycatcher hawking for insects in the same wood. There was plenty of cuckoo activity and some bearded tits were showing themselves just behind Joist Fen viewpoint.
As the light began to fade, a barn owl was out and about and several hobbys were feeding acrobatically nearby. A grasshopper warbler was reeling constantly and a garden warbler was singing his beautiful fluty song.
We turned on the moth trap, a while we were waiting for them to emerge, a few sweeps with the bat detector produced a Daubenton’s feeding over the pool in front of the viewpoint. There were also some soprano pipistrelles out and about, but they were quite distant. A roe deer was barking north of the river and there was still plenty of noise from a wide range of wildlife, even when it was pitch black!
Although it was fairly chilly, we did catch some interesting moths. This included some exciting species like clouded bordered brindle and angle shades. There were also some colourful species such as ghost moth and several buff ermines. This shows what you can do on a lovely evening in May at a lovely place like this. It was certainly better than sitting at home and watching TV!
As the wonderful month of May moves rapidly on, I am glad to say that there is still plenty going on. A mixed group of terns flew west along the river on Saturday afternoon. This included four commons, two arctics and one little. As their name suggests, common terns are indeed quite common here at this time of year. Arctic and little terns on the other hand are very unusual here. These are mainly coastal birds, so this was a very good record.
Although I am still tired, it was well worth getting up at 3.15am on Sunday to lead our annual dawn chorus walk at 4.30am. The reserve was a cacophony of sound, and we could hear a bittern booming from the car park! The excitement really began when we got to the southern edge of Trial Wood. There was a peregrine perched on a post just south of the railway line and while we were admiring that, two cranes flew in!
As we walked back along the riverbank, two garganeys were showing very well on the second washland pool. It was great to admire their striking plumage at such close quarters. When we returned to the visitor centre for a well earned bite to eat, a red kite flew over the visitor centre. Although we didn’t see it, some lucky visitors had incredible views of it feeding on a rabbit carcass on the entrance track!
I am pleased to say that there is more good news on the golden oriole front. A colleague saw a male and female together in Trial Wood earlier on today. Another male was also present, and was distinguished by the subtly different notes of its song! The weather looks like it is improving over the next couple of days, so hopefully this should provide improved chances of hearing and seeing these beautiful birds.
The problem with golden orioles is that they are so elusive, that it is very difficult to know for certain how many there are, even in a relatively small area. In order to find out, myself and a couple of colleagues came down early yesterday morning to do some triangulation. This is a posh word for standing at various points on the reserve and keeping a log of what happens.
By the end of hour two hour watch, we were able to conclusively prove that we had at least two males, as there was one singing in Trial Wood and one in West Wood. We were not quite so lucky with females. However, there were several possible sightings from West Wood and two cuckoos were being pursued by a small bird that could well have been an oriole, as the two species occasionally compete for food.
Our latest bittern survey on Wednesday confirmed that we still have seven booming males and possibly eight. It is well worth for their display flights at this time of year, which involves several birds circling slowly above the reedbed. This is certainly not the behaviour that most people associate with these shy birds, but it is a relatively regular sight here.
With all of our expected summer migrants here now, there is plenty of activity. The sound of the cuckoo echoes around the reserve and they are seen chasing eachother frequently. One of the resident pairs of garganeys had a slight change of scenery yesterday, as they spent some time in a pool just behind Joist Fen Viewpoint.
After the excitement (and frustration) of our two rarities this week (a white stork and two bee eaters), things have gradually returned to normal. However, single red kites were seen flying over on Thursday and this morning. A ringed plover also flew over the washland this morning, which is a very unusual record for here.
Please note that the RSPB community pages will be unavailable from Monday 16th May until Wednesday 18th. Unfortunately this will mean that I will not be able to blog until Friday 20th at the earliest. If you would like to be kept up to date with recent sightings, please feel free to give the office a ring on 01842 863400. Alternatively, I will be putting sightings on Twitter so if you don’t already follow us, you can find us by searching for RSPBLakenheath.