Wildlife news

Hello and welcome to the latest blog. We have noticed a proliferation in flying insects of all kinds across the reserve recently. Butterflies, dragonflies, mayflies, beetles and hoverflies are everywhere you look especially on warm days. It is getting tricky now to find a St. Mark's fly, which is a very stark contrast to the abundance of them around St. Mark's Day (25 April annually) when they were everywhere, hanging in clouds particularly concentrated around sheltered sunny spots on shrubs and trees. They amused visitors (and annoyed a few!) but they are such a crucial part of the food chain and relied upon heavily by the hobbies, swallows, martins and swifts when they first get back to the UK. They bridge the gap between arrival and the emergency of the chunkier insects like the dragonflies. Speaking of those, we now have scarce chaser and four-spot chaser throughout the reserve, and we have also recorded broad-bodied chaser and hairy dragonfly too. Banded demoiselle, azure damselfly and common blue damselfly are widespread, and yesterday I spotted singles of blue-tailed and large red damselfly (19 May) by the plant pools (these are between the railway line and the hard track just as you leave the Visitor Centre and head west through the reserve. Red-eyed damselflies are a smaller, more discreet species that is found in localised spots across the reserve- anywhere with floating vegetation in sheltered spots, such as on the Visitor Centre pool. They have conspicuous red eyes and a dusty-black body with a blue segment near the tip of the abdomen.

Photo credit: Four-spot chaser dragonfly by Heidi Jones

Our butterfly list now stands at 13 species, and we have recorded 11 dragonflies and damselflies too. This morning we have been treated to being able to watch a four-spot chaser emerging from an exuvia in the raised plant bed outside the Visitor Centre- photos to follow soon! The exuvia was beginning to split open at 09:20 this morning (20 May) and as I write this (12:15) it is fully emerged and drying out now. It has been a privilege to observe and it hasn't gone through the process alone- several smaller damselflies have been transforming themselves too. They all face roughly south-east, and it is quite clear they are keen to catch the sunshine late into the afternoon, to help them dry out. Especially important if the weather is like it is now- overcast and drizzly with brighter spells promised later.

The reserve's birdlife has been enhanced by a visiting white stork this week (see the photos below) which we have had here on 16, 17 and 19 May. It is a very smart, unringed adult which has given several lucky visitors good views. As the bird is unringed, it is likely we will never know of it's provenance, but we have had several queries over whether it could be a bird from the Knepp Estate reintroduction project (the White Stork Project) but nearly all of their birds are ringed, and those adults that aren't are all currently accounted for.

Photo credits: White stork by Roger Collorick, seen on 14 May 2022 on the reserve.

Other highlights include bearded tits showing well for visitors to Mere Hide this morning (20 May) and a family of two young water rails with an adult there yesterday (19 May). Great crested grebe have gone a little quiet from there after their extravagant courtship a few weeks back. It could be that they are incubating eggs and are keeping a deliberately low profile; we hope to see a stripey family soon! Across the reserve, cuckoo, whitethroat, blackcap, chiffchaff, reed warblers and sedge warblers are singing well and defending their little kingdoms of reedbed or scrub, and trying to attract and retain mates. Some species like willow warbler are quiet at the moment and they could well be busy with their first broods of chicks and aren't so interested in singing.

We are in the transition period regarding the surveying of bitterns and marsh harriers- now in early mornings the reserve team and volunteers are no longer focussing on booming bitterns but on the location and frequency of flights across the reedbeds. These flights can indicate the presence of a bittern nest, and it's success, and the team will begin looking in locations where our booming bitterns (we had twelve this year- a reserve record!) were calling from. This is where the males' territories were, and so naturally this is where any females he managed to attract will be bringing food in if the courtship has resulted in a nest with chicks. Whilst having one eye on the bitterns, the surveyors will also be looking for marsh harriers (mainly male) bringing food into potential nesting sites, either as a gift for a sitting female who is keen to stay close to their nest, or for hungry chicks. The female bird will often leave the nest for a short time to fly up and meet the male, talons-connecting, to receive the food gift in mid-air. Or, he may have a spot close to the nest where he tends to leave it for her to immediately come out and collect. With any luck, by the end of June, we should have a good idea of where our bittern and harrier nests are, and therefore how many we have on the reserve.

On the Washland, new life is all around- there are several broods of ducklings up there- mainly mallards with a few gadwall I suspect. Avocets, redshank and lapwing can all be seen, sometimes with a curlew or two as well. Sadly the avocets have failed at several breeding attempts on the muddy shoreline, which we believe to be as a result of natural predation. Whilst the Washland is not RSPB-owned, we do get attached to the wildlife that lives out their lives up there; their highs and lows matter just as much to us as those of wildlife actually on RSPB soil. Keep an eye out on the river between the Washland and the riverbank footpath for great crested grebe, little grebe and kingfisher.

It is hard not to notice the beautiful yellow spires of flag iris as you walk around, rising up out of ditches and pools. Smaller delights in flower at the moment include common stork's-bill, dove's-foot cranesbill, germander speedwell and wall speedwell. The purple loosestrife and hemp agrimony isn't in flower yet, but it is getting tall and leafy and it won't be long before we can enjoy these too!

Facilities Update

Aside from the wildlife, we have seen good progress in the last week regarding a return to normality following our fire and burglaries earlier in the year. A week ago today we had our gas pipe and control panel for our toilets repaired, so we now have hot running water as well as our usual toilet facilities back open. These are things we have really missed and we know that having to use port-a-loos for a few weeks has impacted our visitors, especially those that relied on the availability of an accessible toilet cubicle for their visit. We are sorry for the time they have been out of use, but it sadly was beyond our control. As I write this, contractors are now plastering the new ceiling in the workshop, so it is almost ready to have things put back in it. We have already had our security features greatly improved since the second burglary so we feel safer for that.

Out on the reserve, some maintenance tasks have suffered due to our lack of equipment following the burglaries, and this includes the strimming of vegetation at the Photography Station. It is looking pretty rough there at the moment, with tall plants and empty feeders, but this should all change next week as the volunteers will have a go on Tuesday at clearing the area with hand tools whilst we wait for our replacement brush-cutters. Then we'll clean and fill the feeders. Back at the Visitor Centre there should always be plenty of food to watch the small birds feeding on.

The work parties have also continued with the laborious job of pothole-filling down the reserve, near Joist Fen, and also fence repairs in Brandon Fen and on Cowles' Drove, to help keep livestock in the right places. We are always grateful for the endless hours they give us as so many tasks wouldn't get done without them, and the reserve is no doubt a much better place thanks to them.

As usual, please give us a ring on 01842 863400 if you have any queries, or e-mail us at lakenheath@rspb.org.uk. Our upcoming events can be seen here. Our next guided walk will be on 3 June, from 11am to 1pm. It is the next in our series of Friday Forays, casual wanders around the reserve to admire the wildlife and learn a little more about the reserve. If you would like to book a place, please use the link above. 

With best wishes,

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