Yesterday a beautiful cattle egret graced us with his/her presence on the Washland- spotted by one of our regular visitors and enjoyed by several more once word got out. These birds have an amazing history- in the 20th Century they expanded their range so rapidly- from being found just in southern Spain, Portugal and tropical areas of Africa and Asia, to colonising the Americas (where is it believed they flew of their own accord across the Atlantic Ocean), southern Africa and Australia. Birds have even been recorded in Fiji (eight in 2008) which was the same year visiting birds decided to settle down and breed for the first time in the UK. Their long toes have also reached Ireland, Orkney, and the South Sandwich Islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. All in about one hundred years!

  Photo credit: Debapriya Chakra (from Pexels website) 

Their global takeover seems to be at least partly to do with the popularity of livestock farming- cattle egrets are birds which follow almost any animal with hooves, picking up worms, grubs and beetles exposed from the soil which is disturbed by lumbering animals. It means they can find a reliable source of food in almost any country, including in England at IP27 9AD when our grazier puts old-fashioned cattle out to graze on the Washland! In terms of appearance, cattle egrets are most similar to little egrets, except the bill is yellow (not black) and in the summer adults will have gorgeous apricot-coloured plumes and yellow legs. They’re a little smaller too, and much rarer- we get around 100 visit the UK annually with occasional breeding attempts.

While yesterday’s bird was only our second record for Lakenheath, so it was also for a bird which is usually much easier to see- the house sparrow! While they might be a back garden staple for most people, we don’t get them often here but we did have one near the Visitor Centre feeders yesterday (28 September). House sparrows have several regional names such as spadger or sparrer (southern England), spuggy (in northern England) or spur, or sprig (in Scotland). The heavyweight cousins of the cattle egret, the great white egrets, are still showing reliably down at Joist Fen where we now have four birds- we are hopeful (again!) that next year they may breed with us.

  Photo credit: House sparrow from RSPB Images

Other notable birds that have featured on this weeks’ list include a couple of birds of prey- a peregrine (suspected to be a juvenile) on the Washland yesterday and hobbies most days, anywhere where there is a concentration of dragonflies. One hobby has even been putting on an acrobatic show over the raised pond beds in front of the Visitor Centre lately. Stonechats have now begun to settle on the reserve where they’ll overwinter, and are being seen from the riverbank footpath at different points along its length.

  Photo credit: Male stonechat by Mark Lynham

Bitterns have been seen by the odd visitor too- yesterday one was seen in flight from the river into New Fen North and anywhere there is reedbeds it should be possible to hear bearded tits with a bit of patience- last Saturday I heard a few whilst sitting at the Joist Fen viewpoint. Smaller bird highlights include regular visits by a kingfisher to the pool in front of the Visitor Centre, and a pretty goldcrest and female blackcap tagging along with the tit flock that does daily rounds of the birches in the car park. One volunteer has just got back having found a dunlin on the Washland, so there’s still a chance that anything could turn up there as we are still in the window for passage migrants.

In between the rain this week, the sunny spells have tempted out good numbers of red admirals, which love the fruit table and the buddleia. Other butterflies include the odd speckled wood, comma, peacock and large white too. Willow emerald damselflies are showing well around the visitor centre, and there’s plenty of migrant hawker, common darter and ruddy darter still on the wing- there are so many that despite being the main food source sustaining our hobbies, the air is still full of them on a warm day.

  Photo credit: Ruddy darter (male) by Heidi Jones

The next time you’re visiting us, pop in to the Centre to find out about our latest sightings and the best spots to go!

by Heidi Jones

Visitor Experience Officer (Lakenheath Fen)