Firstly, please accept an apology from me for not writing a blog last week- things have been a bit frantic at the reserve as we try to finish up several jobs to make things a bit more enjoyable for visitors when they return to us in the Spring (hopefully!). This week, with a lot of help from our Site Manager Dave, we built and installed the second of two new bird feeder trays in front of the balcony at the Visitor Centre. Several years of often harsh weather in a very exposed spot, plus the combined weight of some hefty common pheasants and mallards sitting on the tray each day, had meant the old ones were looking a bit sad and frankly, falling to bits. We were able to reuse the same supports that are embedded firmly into the pond, so we essentially just changed the top half, although in summer when the banks of the Visitor Centre pond dry out, we will have a look and see if either needs replacing. Great spotted woodpecker, long-tailed tit, marsh tit and reed buntings visit regularly and really brighten up our days when we see them using the feeders. Out on the pond, Emma spotted the regular otter visiting early on the morning of 18 February- likely after a fish for breakfast and it was lovely to see him or her in the beautiful morning light.

I've also been chopping up, sanding down and painting a set of blackboards, some A4 and some A3, to replace (eventually) the laminated paper signage around the reserve, with the help of a volunteer when it came to painting! These should smarten up the trails too and should be in place within two or three weeks. Additionally, we came up with a plan yesterday to put in a total of 19 wooden marker posts with coloured bands around the top, to signal to new and unfamiliar visitors which of our four trails they are on- orange (East Wood trail), yellow (Brandon Fen family trail), purple (Main Circular trail) and green (Trial Wood trail). We should be able to paint these up next week, and install them with one or two socially-distanced work parties over the following couple of weeks. Initially we had planned a new network of coloured marker posts and waymarkers with text, distances and arrows on but this would be made centrally at our HQ at The Lodge and sent out to us- due to COVID-related delays we will be waiting a while for this so we thought we'd knock up a temporary fix so that we're sorted for what will likely be our busy period- April to July, this year.

Further out on the reserve, warden Emma and site manager Dave have been busy adjusting the water levels across the reserve with the aid of sluice boards, so the levels on each pool or ditch are ideal for breeding waterbirds in March and April. Our cranes are very particular with how wet they like it, especially around their immediate nesting and feeding grounds, so if we want them to sit down and lay eggs we have to get it just right! We have also been greatly helped by two members of the reserve team at the nearby Nene Washes- the 'Nene boys' as they have become known are out of work there for a short time while the flooding recedes, so they have been helping us out with reedbed clearance, fence repairs and other vital tasks. We are very grateful for two extra pairs of- very strong and hardworking- hands in recent weeks!

Now, onto the wildlife! Yesterday I was ambling along the riverbank up to New Fen, admiring the hundreds of ducks using the Washland as feeding grounds- all week this area has been excellent for waterbirds, with numbers building through February. We now have around 150 wigeon, 80 or so shoveler and dozens of teal, mallard and coot. The quieter pool just north of the kissing gate at New Fen has supported lots of gadwall, teal and coot too, and the bends in the river often have great white egret, grey heron or little egret scattered in them. There's also a rabble of the usual black-headed gulls and great black-backed gulls floating in the centre of the Washland, but it is lovely to see the duck numbers building around them too. The Washland has been a regular hunting and displaying ground for a couple of common buzzard and marsh harrier in recent days too. Further along my walk I suddenly heard a very loud (so fairly close) bugling sound- the calls of our cranes- and it became apparent that yesterday was one of the days when they most certainly made their presence felt on the reserve- during February, our established pairs spend more and more time here and it is March that they will really settle down and lay eggs. They are quite early breeders but given their incubation period takes roughly 30 days and fledging another 60-75, so raising crane chicks is a lengthy process that needs to begin sooner rather than later!

We are still waiting to hear our first booming bitterns, but it shouldn't be long to wait now and as soon as they begin we will be out there with pen and paper to try and work out how many 'boomers' and therefore males holding territory, that we have. Later on in the Spring we will switch to surveying 'feeding flights' instead, where females are spotted regularly flying from a fixed location in the reedbed out to particular spots to fill up on food for her young, usually when the supplies closest to the nest are running low. We are also awaiting our first bees and butterflies of the year, following one peacock butterfly seen in January during a very mild work party day. A dotted chestnut moth in the overnight trap from 17 February was a tentative sign of spring as this species hibernates as an adult and emerges when it is warm enough to resume flying around, feeding and breeding- a good sign!

Our Brandon Fen family trail has been heaving with redwing and fieldfare lately, and the frozen weather encouraged them into the flooded sheep paddock looking for worms, where they could be appreciated along with lots of meadow pipits, pied wagtails and the odd song thrush. Up to eight little egret have also been seen in with the sheep and a small group of 4-8 roe deer, a sparrowhawk, buzzard, goldcrests and marsh tits have been seen in the woods here on our recent visits. Here's a couple of photos I took from the recent snowy weather at the reserve:

  Photo: A frozen but beautiful Visitor Centre pond by Heidi Jones

  Photo: A rabbit's footprints in the snow! On a bench near the car park, believe it or not- shows you what they get up to in the early morning! Photo by Heidi Jones

Lastly, i'd like to say thank you to all of our visitors who have been obeying the lockdown guidance issued by the government so diligently recently- we have been very quiet each day and at the moment, this is what we want- to keep RSPB Lakenheath Fen a safe and quiet space for our local visitors to enjoy their daily exercise. Our new donation cairn has had a little money in it most days and we are thankful for those who have contributed to this also- with the Visitor Centre closed it has been a really helpful source of income for us.

As a quick reminder- most of our trails are open, as is our car park, from dawn until dusk daily. We have now temporarily closed the seasonal trail around New Fen, and one of the two tracks between West Wood and Joist Fen Viewpoint (the grass track remains open) to protect wildlife that is likely to breed nearby and is very sensitive to human disturbance. We hope you will support us in putting wildlife first during the breeding season, and in making the footpaths fit around the wildlife so we can offer threatened species a suitable home here. The circular 'long' route is still accessible and Mere Hide will be reachable when we are advised by the government that it can reopen.

With best wishes for the week ahead- enjoy your daily walks!

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