This week has been a brilliant one for butterflies and dragonflies, who love the hot weather, even if we don't always! Our commonest butterflies this week have included red admiral and peacock, gliding across paths and visiting hemp agrimony and buddleia- their favourite flowers here. Closer to the ground on the viper's bugloss, which is coming to the end of it's flowering period, small skipper, Essex skipper, large skipper and small copper can be seen buzzing around the flowers and chasing one another. While it isn’t a very good year so far for painted ladies, we did have one seen on 29 July so do keep an eye out. Purple hairstreak sightings continue to trickle in, with the most reliable spot seeming to be on umbellifer flowers on the first section of hard track that leads off from the Visitor Centre to New Fen, though they are never easy to see here. If you want to see these, the canopies of the oaks in Brandon Fen are worth looking at too- binoculars are useful and sunny, calm afternoons the best time to try.

  Photo: A small copper butterfly resting on Viper's bugloss on Brandon Fen (taken by Heidi Jones)

On 30 July I found a big, beautiful hornet-mimic hoverfly Volucella zonaria feeding on hogweed on Brandon Fen. This is the largest species of hoverfly in the UK and about an inch long, but usually very approachable if you don’t make any sudden movements! 

Dragonflies that are easiest to see at the moment include brown hawker, ruddy darter and emperor, and we have an unconfirmed report of a lesser emperor near the Washland Viewpoint this morning (1st July) so if you are in this area of the reserve do keep an eye out, and if you manage a photograph that we could see we would be very grateful! Lesser emperors are summer migrants to our shores, just like the southern hawkers you may see patrolling paths and wooded rides often well away from water. Talking of migrants, we had a beautiful male clouded yellow butterfly spotted on the reserve on 23 July, by two of our regular visitors. Sightings of these butterflies are mainly coastal, but it helps if you have waterways like we do as they seem to follow them inland- it is our first record of 2020. It shouldn’t be long before we start to see willow emerald damselflies near the Welcome Point as we do annually- they like perching on the nettles and dead hemlock twigs to the right of the bird feeders, just as the path leads off.

   Photo: A male clouded yellow butterfly on the hard track between New Fen and Joist Fen. Photo taken by David and Liz Knowles.

In terms of bird life on the reserve, here’s our main highlights:

Black-tailed godwits- up to 263 in the past week but this mornings’ count was 61 (1st August), always on the Washland.

Ruff- Two on the Washland most days, including 1st August.

Dunlin- One most days, but last recorded on 31st July.

Avocet- Several families with chicks of different ages, as well as lone adults, mixed in a group with four smaller chicks and their parents seen today (1st August).

Oystercatcher (a pair) redshank (a single bird) and lapwing (hundreds!)- Mainly on the Washland but the wet open pools on the hard track through the reserve, just beyond New Fen and on the left hand side as you walk towards Joist Fen, is worth a look for these beautiful waders!

Bittern- Always high on visitors’ tick lists, this week they have not disappointed with visitors seeing them most days. One of our regular visitors got this beautiful photograph of one flying along the river on 20 July:

   Photo credit: A bittern in flight, photographed by Alan Reynolds.

Cranes- Up to six birds seen at once, but usually two or three. This six is made up of two pairs, one of which has a fledged chick, and another bird, which seems to have spent the spring and summer alone in Botany Bay and as we move towards autumn these individuals are more and more likely to spend time together feeding and socialising. It has been interesting that our breeding pair with a fledged chick (pair A2) never became especially territorial with the second, new pair (B2) which may mean one of the birds in pair A2 is the offspring of pair A2 from a previous year as cranes are social creatures who do form long-term bonds with one another. We will probably never know if they are related or not!

Kingfisher- These are regularly seen on the Visitor Centre pond, from New Fen viewpoint or flying along the river which you can view from the Washland footpath.

Hobby- Small numbers can be seen throughout the reserve performing spectacular acrobatics as they hunt for dragonflies, almost anywhere on site, and one bird was seen doing so over the Washland yesterday (31st July). Sunny, warm days that are good for flying insects are also best for hobby sightings too, as the birds will be more active.

Cuckoo- Keep an eye out for fledgling chicks being fed by their surrogate parents, such as reed warblers, sedge warblers and dunnocks. Adult cuckoos will soon be heading back to Africa, where they actually spend more of their year than they do here.

Bearded tit- Joist Fen is best for these, keep an eye open for them flitting across the tops of reedbeds in loose groups, and listen out for their ‘pinging’ calls as you walk through the reserve. Jois Fen has had the most sightings of these recently.

Osprey- One bird, presumably on early passage migration, spent two days with us this week (28-29 July) and thoroughly explored the reserve, catching a big fish in the river and delighting visitors. It’s quite possible we will see one or more further birds passing through Lakenheath Fen in the coming weeks- we are at the beginning of the autumn migration for these and ospreys frequently use the reserve as a stopover point to fuel up and rest before continuing south.

Common tern- Two birds fishing and flying over the Washland today (1st August) but one or two birds are here daily.

Grasshopper warbler- Singing birds audible (and visible if you are lucky!) in field 5026 (the meadow opposite the Photography Station) and also near the Kissing Gate on the Washland footpath that leads into New Fen.

Turtle dove- One report of a bird in Brandon Fen on 28 July- please let us know if you hear or see any of these during your visit!

So there’s our avian highlights- though our visitors have also enjoyed glimpses of otters on site, most recently on 15 July from New Fen viewpoint. If you ever make a winter visit here, the Visitor Centre pond can be good for them too but in summer they tend to prefer the wilder parts of the reserve!

We are beginning to see fungi popping up on site, including our almost-famous puffballs- the entrance track (look either side of your car as you drive down!) and the grassy path that passes the Photography Station is always a good spot for them. This young one has already been nibbled by something- last night when I drove home it was pristine, but this morning it has bits missing!

  Photo: A puffball this morning, on the entrance track!

And last but certainly not least, our star plant at the moment is large-flowered hemp nettle which is looking beautiful, gracing the tracksides between New Fen and Joist Fen. It is a scarce plant which does well here at the reserve and which we very much enjoy having!

  Photo credit: David White.

While I am here- a quick update too on our progress with facilities on site- on 31st July, Cat, one of our lovely volunteers toiled away in the heat with a brushcutter to get the Photography Station back in a respectable condition- now the breeding season for small birds has mostly passed, she could safely cut the vegetation back to give visitors a view of the feeders again! There are two feeders filled now, so in the coming days the birds should start to use them again. Our other volunteers, the ‘Two Tonies’ and Phil have been busy cutting the grass around picnic benches and footpaths to ensure easy access and enough space for social distancing.

As with previous weeks, we have our Welcome Point stationed outside the Visitor Centre to meet and greet you as you arrive. We also now sell a selection of refreshments from this Point and our accessible toilet is open from 9am to 5pm every day, with the trails and Car Park open from dawn to dusk.

With best wishes for the week ahead,

Heidi (Visitor Experience Officer, RSPB Lakenheath Fen).