Wildlife sightings from the past week

Hello and welcome to the latest blog- last time I was writing one of these, we were somewhere between the seasons- we still had hobbies here and plenty of dragonflies, but the days were shortening and the temperatures dropping. In the middle of October, we well and truly have lost our summer migrants now, with the last hobbies seen at the start of the month. Hobbies tend to hang around until dragonfly numbers drop off significantly, and whilst we still have a few hardy migrant hawker, common darter and some dainty willow emerald damselflies left, there are much fewer than there were. 

What we do have more of is autumn and winter migrants- the redwings led the way with the first sighting on 8 October of three flying fast and direct over the Visitor Centre at 5pm. Then, over the following weekend, many more flowed through with regular groups overhead, often calling as they went. Their distinctive 'seep' call is a real sign of autumn, very different from the harsher chattering of their close relatives, fieldfares. Fieldfares aren't here yet and usually arrive later than the redwings- they are larger, a bit hardier and it takes bleaker conditions to stimulate them to migrate, so they turn up later. We aren't seeing as many redwings as we were so it is likely that this temporary surge of birds arriving into the UK is coming to an end.

  Photo credit: A lovely redwing being ringed by Simon from a previous year. Photo by Emma Cuthbertson.

What we can still hear daily is siskins- the first of these were seen (and heard) again over the Visitor Centre a day later, on 9 October. They sound quite similar to zebra finches, if you've ever heard them- a popular species kept as pets in captivity. It's a sort of squeaky call that sounds quite flat, but it's very distinctive. Last week saw our first whooper swans- with two on the Washland during the daytime on 14 October, and a little later around 8 were seen in flight over the Washland. We now know they are roosting here at night once again- our bird ringer Simon Evans counted 141 on the Washland on the evening of 14 October. This number will likely rise almost daily for a few weeks (although numbers on individual nights do fluctuate, some nights don't ever see any, as their choice of roosting spot does vary). At around 8:30am our administrator Suzanne counted 104 whoopers on 19 October (yesterday). This morning (20 October) there were four on the Washland at 9:15am- some days, some birds will stick around for a bit into the morning or even midday, especially in poor weather or foggy conditions. We may also be joined by a few Bewick's swans closer to Christmas or in January if we are lucky, and we also await the first lesser redpolls and possibly bramblings too. One brambling was seen in flight by one of our hawk-eyed volunteers, going over the Washland on the morning of 13 October.

Birds of prey like marsh harrier, kestrel and sparrowhawk have been particularly prominent this week, all across the reserve although Brandon Fen is a likely location. There are plenty of great white egrets and little egrets dotted about the reserve on smaller pools as well as larger bodies of water like the river and the Washland- seeing one of each at the same time is now a common occurrence. On 20 October one great white egret was on the Washland along with a black-tailed godwit. If you are here later into the evening, listen out for our tawny owls who should become more vocal again, and look out for barn owls- one was seen in Brandon Fen again on 19 October in the early morning.

In recent weeks, bearded tits have become easier to see- autumn is the time of year when their diet switches from insects (during the breeding months) to reed seeds. This change in habits makes 'beardies' easier to see as they congregate and feed more conspicuously at the top of a reedbed. Suzanne saw four on her morning walk on 19 October and they could be seen almost anywhere at this time of the year as young birds may leave their natal reedbeds and look for new areas to live- so they can pass through the countryside in more unusual habitats as they make this journey. If you want the best chance of seeing bearded tits, try to visit us in the morning, on a fair day- sunny, calm days are best- low temperatures don't faze the birds, in fact colder weather can make them easier to see as they need to eat more to sustain themselves, so feed more urgently and more regularly than usual. Here is a lovely pair of photos taken a little while ago, by a visitor:

  Photo credit: Female (top) and male (bottom) bearded tits by Roger Collorick. Photos taken here at the reserve!

In terms of smaller birds, visitors have been enjoying seeing one or both pairs of stonechat that like to sit perched up along the riverbank footpath at the moment, and marsh tits have returned to our feeders for the winter. If you find yourself at the Photo Station watching the feeders, keep an eye out for the water rail there who often comes out to feed on fallen seed during quiet moments. One was also seen quite capably swimming across the pool at New Fen recently. We have a new camouflage net to replace the old, sun-bleached, tired one currently on the Photo Station- soon the work party will put it up for us- it is on their list of jobs to do! Kingfishers have been delighting visitors often too, most often seen on the perches at the back of the Visitor Centre pond, or on those at New Fen and Joist Fen.

For those of our visitors who enjoy seeing insects, we still have a few hardy peacock, red admiral, comma and brimstone butterflies on warmer days- a brimstone was enjoyed by many as it passed by the Visitor Centre on 19 October. We may continue to see these tough species in warm spells in the coming weeks as they can all hibernate, so they will just be waiting out the colder times nearby, hidden in tree crevices, unheated outbuildings and bird boxes, waiting for warmer days. As mentioned, we still have three dragonfly species on the wing- migrant hawker, common darter and willow emerald damselfly for visitors to enjoy when the weather is right. Rather unseasonally, there is an impressive patch of large-flowered hemp nettle in bloom at the junction between the grass track and the hardcore track south of West Wood. This lovely plant usually flowers in June and July, so if you are passing by here, stop to enjoy its lovely purple-and-yellow flowers which will be out for the next week or so (see photo below). It is a close relative of the commoner red and white dead-nettle which can be seen in our gardens and on roadside verges. Both species of dead-nettle are very early flowering, loved by bumblebees and if you have a bit in your garden, leave it to grow if you can and you may be surprised by a buzzing bee if you take a trip down the garden in March...

  Photo credit: Large-flowered hemp nettle by David White.

As I write this, our warden Luke is having his brushcutter training- he is the latest after a string of volunteers having theirs done this morning, including some newer volunteers. Luckily the weather improved as the morning went on, so not every volunteer got soaking wet... the more of our volunteers that have this certification, the more pairs of hands there will be that can help us trim reeds and scrub come autumn and winter each year, to get the reserve ready for the next breeding season. We only use the brushcutters outside of the bird breeding season so ther is plenty that can be done from October to February. I can hear a faint buzzing coming from outside which indicates he has had his theory component in the workshop and is now out practising his new skills...!

Many visitors ask after our cranes- our two families left us over a month ago to join the communal wintering flock near the Ouse Washes, which now numbers some 70-odd birds. Last years high count in December reached 78 so we are hopefully that with another 7 (known) chicks produced by pairs in the Fens this year, this number should rise again. Two of those chicks came from RSPB Lakenheath Fen.

Upcoming events

For those of our visitors interested in what's happening here at the reserve in coming weeks, here's a list of what's to come:

Friday Foray- next on 5 November and 3 December, 11am to 1pm

Join us on a monthly guided walk to take in seasonal wildlife highlights and to ask as many questions about the reserve and it's wildlife as you like. Adult RSPB members £5, Adult non-RSPB members £7, Child RSPB members £2, Child non-RSPB members £3. Booking essential, more info and to book here: https://events.rspb.org.uk/browse?filter[schedule]=619

Treasures of the Moth Trap- next on 30 October, 10am to 11am

Come along to see the moth trap emptied, and find out what's inside! Ask questions, take photos or just admire these wonders of the night. £3 for adult RSPB members, £2 for adult non-RSPB members (Children (Under 16's) go free. Booking essential, more info and to book here: https://events.rspb.org.uk/browse?filter[schedule]=621

Ghosts of the Fens guided walks- next on 23 November, 12 December, 1:30pm to 4pm

These extremely popular walks should give you good views of barn owls and other winter birds of prey such as marsh harriers. If we are lucky, we may catch a glimpse of a short-eared owl, peregrine, hen harrier or merlin. We may also hear water rail, tawny owl and the atmospheric corvid roost as they go to bed. Adult RSPB members £8, Adult non-RSPB members £10, Child RSPB members £4, Child non-RSPB members £5. Booking essential, more info and to book here: https://events.rspb.org.uk/browse?filter[schedule]=620

All of our events require booking in advance, and our whole selection through winter can be viewed here: https://events.rspb.org.uk/lakenheathfen

Children's activities

We also have a new activity sheet for families to do over half-term- pick one up from the Visitor Centre for £1 (this helps cover our printing and production costs) to take around Brandon Fen. Can you match the animals with what they like to eat? Follow the signs and find out what eats what in autumn, as wildlife tries to put on lots of weight to get through the winter ahead. Ask someone in a blue shirt for a sheet next time you are here.

Our facilities:

I hope this blog has been useful and that it has given you a good idea of the wildlife on offer if you plan to visit us soon. As always, give us a call on 01842 863400 or e-mail us at lakenheath@rspb.org.uk if you have any queries. We can also be reached through Facebook (RSPB Lakenheath Fen) or via Twitter (@RSPBLakenheath). As a quick reminder of our facilities, here is what we can offer and at what times at the moment:

Visitor Centre (outside), takeaway refreshments and toilets (including an accessible one) open from 9am-5pm during the week, 9am to 4:30pm at the weekend.
Visitor Car Park, all trails, all viewpoints and Mere Hide open daily, dawn - dusk.
Accessible Car Park at New Fen open during Visitor Centre opening hours, from where you must obtain a parking permit.
Binoculars available to hire for £2 per day from the Visitor Centre during opening hours.

From 1 November onwards, we will close the Visitor Centre, takeaway refreshments and toilet facilities at 4pm every day, to avoid having to clean and close these facilities after dark. It will also enable our volunteers to get home earlier on these darker evenings when we are very quiet anyway. The reserve car park and trails will continue to remain open until late in the evening.

With best wishes,

Heidi Jones (Visitor Experience Officer, RSPB Lakenheath Fen).