Hello and welcome to the latest blog- I am sorry I haven't written one for a few weeks but in the lead-up to our Big Wild Sleepout, things were a bit manic and I didn't have the time to sit down and write one. The Sleepout was a big success with our families enjoying a chance to get out on the reserve in a family-friendly setting, to spend a night camping here and listening to the sounds of the night. There was a lovely atmosphere and we fully intend to do it again next year!

Turning to the wildlife, it is difficult to know where to start... we have had so much seen in the last few weeks and the reserve has a lot to offer a visitor at the moment!

One of the main highlights at the moment are the waders on the Washland- on Monday (16 August) we had one wood sandpiper, one greenshank, three green sandpiper, two ruff, nineteen black-tailed godwit, eleven avocet and six dunlin joining the more permanent cast of hundreds of lapwing, a curlew or two, a few oystercatcher (4 on 28 July) and one or two redshank. Late summer is an exciting time of year to have a scan of the Washland because you never know what may turn up- waders across the northern hemisphere have now finished breeding and are on passage' to their wintering grounds- if that isn't here, with us at RSPB Lakenheath Fen, then they often use the Washes as a stop-off point for refuelling on their long migration. For our gull enthusiasts, we had six yellow-legged gulls on the Washland on 4 August and one juvenile Caspian gull up there too on 5 August. A telescope, if you have it, does help in finding these cryptic gulls and in separating them from the herring gulls, lesser black-backed gulls and black-headed gulls up there, and a 'scope will also help you enjoy the waders too, especially their delicate plumage and markings.

  Photo credit: An avocet by David Gowing, from a previous year.

There are growing numbers of ducks on the Washes too- 50+ teal and dozens of shoveler, mallard and gadwall too. There's a small chance of seeing an errant white stork up there too- we had a return visit from the local bird in the afternoon of 16 August- spotted in flight near the Visitor Centre by our warden Katherine. We believe it is an escapee from a private collection in nearby Feltwell, and last winter/early Spring we had a flurry of sightings of it in arable fields surrounding the reserve. Much easier to see will be little egrets, great white egrets and grey herons up there, who often fish around the fringes of the Wash or in the bends of the river. If you walk through Brandon Fen and join the riverbank from the poplar woods near the eastern edge of the reserve, you can see a small pool north of the river behind a row of old willows along the northern riverbank- this pool attracts bitterns every now and again and had a great white egret using it on the morning of 15 August.

A night spent camping during the Sleepout revealed calling tawny owls and barn owls using Brandon Fen, so if you visit late in the day to listen for these. Green woodpecker, kestrel, common buzzard and sparrowhawks have all been seen recently in Brandon Fen too, along with smaller delights such as goldcrests and marsh tits moving through the foliage. On a sunny, warm day the sandy soil (studded with dove's-foot cranesbill and common stork's-bill flowers) attracts a few brown argus, common blue and the odd small copper butterfly. Midday on 14 August was an especially warm and sunny time and there were clouds of migrant hawker and southern hawker chasing smaller insects in the air above the hopscotch slabs on Brandon Fen. It was right above the camping area and provided a lovely welcome performance to campers!

A dragonfly walk on Saturday morning produced good numbers of common darter, ruddy darter and brown hawker, with a few blue-tailed damselflies and red-eyed damselflies near the Dragonfly Platform. The lush, sunny rides between the Photo Station and New Fen had a few migrant hawker in occupation, and one large and impressive southern hawker was spotted at rest next to the hard track south of New Fen viewpoint. We were seeking out the elusive willow emerald damselflies, but these don't seem to be out yet... it won't be long before we spot this late-summer (and autumn) emerald beauty. They love to perch in sunny, sheltered nettle patches between the Visitor Centre and the Washland Viewpoint.

  Photo credit: A willow emerald damselfly- a highlight of early autumn. Taken by one of our volunteers, Mark Brown.

We have plenty of butterflies on the wing at the moment too- including a few painted ladies- more than last year! A good place to look for these is on the buddleia at the Visitor Centre entrance. Here and on hemp-agrimony which grows throughout the reserve is reliable for peacock, red admiral, small tortoiseshell and perhaps a comma too. Meadow brown, gatekeeper and ringlet love the flowering ragwort you can find along pathsides and in Brandon Fen. You may also spot small white, large white, Essex skipper and large skipper at the moment too. We have been seeing bright yellow males and lime-green females of the second generation of brimstones too- these will be adults who have recently hatched from caterpillars from eggs laid in the early Spring generation. All being well, these adults will try to hibernate (along with peacock, comma and small tortoiseshell) in crevices and holes in tree trunks and in ivy thickets across the reserve. So we may spot the same individuals next Spring!

Another highlight at the moment are our reptiles- the raised Brecks plant bed in front of the Visitor Centre is often studded with common lizards (large and small) on a sunny day as they are tempted out from their burrows to soak up some sun. The Dragonfly Platform also often has them on the wooden beams.

Occasionally, members of our (probably rather large) population of grass snakes are seen by visitors on their travels- and this beautiful individual was spotted swimming across the water at the weekend too. They are competent swimmers and whilst tricky to see, it is worth keeping your eye out for a smooth, silky S-shape making it's way across any open water you see on the reserve. This gorgeous photo was sent to us by one of our regular visitors, David Gowing:

  Photo credit: Grass snake by David Gowing.

Mammals have featured on visitors' sightings lists too, with a family of stoats seen during the last weekend of July, exploring the reserve with their Mum. The young are called 'kits' and a group is called a 'caravan'! There are some lovely pictures on our Twitter account if you'd like to see them- shared by a visitor of ours.

It wouldn't be a proper blog without mention of our cranes- and now the breeding season has come to a close, we can openly discuss their progress this year. We started the Spring with three pairs on the reserve- two of which we had last year and one new pair. Each of last years' pairs managed to raise a chick each this summer, whereas the new pair seemed to have lost theirs quite early on at the egg stage. Common cranes are very site faithful, so if a new pair turns up it is likely they are new, first-time breeders and the first year is a bit of a 'dry-run' or practice year, so we weren't too surprised when 'Pair C' seemed eggless and chickless pretty soon after settling down. Constant incubation and supervision of eggs and chicks is key in cranes, as is efficient changeovers so any eggs or chicks are never left unattended, but it often takes a year or two for pairs to realise the importance of this through experience. Our 'Pair B' behaved exactly like this last year, but returned in 2021 and now have a chick of their own to show for their success. Pair A are very experienced and thankfully one chick has become 'normal' for them. Pair C are still here and this is encouraging news for next year- it shows they are happy and comfortable in their territory and consider this their summer home- so we hope and wait for another attempt from them in 2022. Both chicks fledged in July so visitors are often seeing three, six or two cranes flying around together- which is likely to be one family, two families together or Pair C. It wouldn't be unexpected to see eight (all three pairs plus chicks) or any other number in fact- this is the time of year when we may also welcome roaming birds from elsewhere onto our grazing marshes.

Bitterns and marsh harriers continue to be seen daily, especially young marsh harriers as they find their feet and learn to hunt in the skies above viewpoints and reedbeds. Their darker ginger-coloured heads help to tell them apart from the coffee-cream heads of adult female birds. Young bittern chicks are more cryptic and look very much like adults as soon as they fledge. Bearded tit sightings continue to trickle in as family parties are sometimes spotted in reedbeds, but autumn should see quite an increase in the frequency of sightings as they switch to a reed-seed diet. This lovely photo shows one being ringed by our local ringer Simon Evans last week- it is a young male:

  Photo credit: Bearded tit (young male) being ringed by Simon Evans.

In other news, we continue to tidy up and strim relevant areas each week- paths, around benches, viewpoints and picnic benches to keep them clear and tidy for visitors. We also have plans afoot to replace the knackered reed screens at the entrance to Mere Hide with new ones, which have blown down during the past year's winds. Tomorrow (19 August) the Visitor Centre pond will get it's annual haircut to open up the edges of the pond and keep clear views for visitors. The stubble tends to attract water rails, moorhens and members of the heron family (little egret, grey heron and possibly great white egret) so take a look here if you walk along the balcony in the coming days. We are always thankful to our very own 'mower man' volunteer Phil for keeping all the paths and verges clear- he is the chap responsible for keeping the edges of our path and road network so clear and tidy.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog- as always please get in touch if you have any questions, suggestions or photos you'd be happy to share with us!

Best wishes,

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