As I write this I can see a great spotted woodpecker using the bird feeders at the Visitor Centre- he is enjoying the suet-filled coconut shells and the peanuts there. He represents a bit of a change in the variety of birds that have been using the feeders recently- now we are at the beginning of winter, reed buntings and marsh tits are making use of the feeders and there is a small flock of around thirty siskin that can often be seen in the tops of the alder trees, feeding on the seeds in the cones. Alder cones are much smaller than the more familiar 'pine cones', being about grape-sized, and alder is unusual in that it is a deciduous tree- most cone-producing species are evergreen, like Scots pine. Lesser redpolls have been seen around the Visitor Centre and Brandon Fen, and this beautiful male was photographed at the Photo Station on the feeders there on 14 November. A water rail can sometimes be observed clearing up spilt seed under the feeders at the Photo Station too.

  Photo credit: A male lesser redpoll from the Photography Station. Seen on 14 November and photographed by Emma Nunn.

Although it is now winter and we are well past the autumn migration window for wading birds, we have had a few pleasant surprises on this front this week- the small flooded pool north of East Wood, next to the river, hosted four common sandpipers on 24 November and a visitor spotted a green sandpiper on the Washland on 23 November, along with a single curlew. Two redshank and eleven shoveler were seen on 22 November too. The riverbank footpath and in particular the wet marshy area surrounding the small pool at East Wood has produced some close-up views of the delicately marked water pipit- two were seen here on 21 November and the gorgeous individual below was caught and ringed in Brandon Fen on 23 November. Simon also caught and ringed a beautiful male bearded tit.

  Photo credit: A water pipit by Simon Evans

Stonechat have also been showing well along the riverbank footpath, and Cetti's warbler call frequently from almost any scrubby spot, as do wrens with their harsh chatter. 

Our common cranes don't normally put in much of an appearance during winter but at about 1pm today a group of 20+ were spotted flying together over Joist Fen, heading over the river to the arable fields north of the reserve. This follows a sighting of five birds (a pair and a three) seen on 18 November on a work party. It is not unusual to have small groups visit us during the winter, especially our own breeding pairs, but to have a large group is something special. So if you visit us in the coming days, keep an eye out for these giants drifting across the sky! Talking of giants, we continue to receive daily sightings of great white egrets and their smaller cousins, little egrets, daily. Most days a 'GWE' as they often are abbreviated too, can be spotted patiently fishing on the Washland. Like other members of the heron family- grey heron, little egret and bittern- that we have here, they are versatile eaters and will prey on almost anything- amphibians, reptiles, small rodents and insects as well as the traditional fishy fare.

Moving on to our ever-popular birds of prey, our marsh harriers continue to delight with over twenty flying in from all directions to roost in the reedbeds across the reserve at dusk. They are sometimes joined by scarcer species like merlin and hen harrier (both spotted during a roost-watch on 19 November, but both species are likely to visit daily). The hen harrier is a female and roosts in a spot visible from Joist Fen viewpoint. If you'd like to watch the roosting drama, then arrive at your position for around 3:30pm to be sure of not missing any action. Hen harriers can be notoriously 'late to bed' and often arrive close to twilight (just when you are about to give up!), flying fast and settling quickly into their chosen spot. Ten seconds of looking the wrong way can be enough to miss their arrival! If you are here late in the day for the harrier roost, look out for barn owls too hunting over the reedbeds and for the very vocal pair of tawny owls along the entrance track. Winter is a noisy month for tawnies as the females return to their breeding grounds following a vacation after their chicks fledge in the previous Spring. Winter is their courtship season and they may have their new eggs as early as February or March. Hence the racket now! 

We continue to receive daily movements of redwing and fieldfare across the reserve, particularly in and out of scrubby vegetation in Brandon Fen. Tit parties have been a frequent feature with mixed flocks of blue tit, great tit, coal tit, marsh tit and long-tailed tit moving through the trees searching for food. Look out too for goldcrest and treecreeper which should be active as they search for extra sustenance on these cold days- bugs hiding under bark and in the forks of twigs make the perfect snack!

It would seem we have seen the last of the butterflies and dragonflies of 2021, although red admirals were seen on milder days last week. Our common lizards on the raised beds and common newts in the pond have all gone to sleep now, and we look forward to seeing them in the Spring.

Our work parties this past week have been busy cutting reed and pruning willows down the far western end of the reserve. Cut areas of reed provide rich feeding habitat for species such as bittern, great white egret and common crane, whilst the willows must be pruned to slow the encroachment of scrub into open areas, keeping the habitat suitable for our breeding cranes and other reedbed and wet grassland species. We often use the willow prunings to create 'refugia' (sheltered habitat) for small fish (including fry) by bundling it up and sinking it at the edges of the pools at Joist Fen and New Fen viewpoints. If we can help young fish to thrive by giving them somewhere safe and sheltered to lurk, we not only help the fish to prosper but also build up the availability of fish prey for the next breeding seasons' bitterns, otters and other species.

We are still in need of a couple more new volunteers to help in the Visitor Centre. We offer a friendly welcome to all visitors, provide maps, advice on where to go to see our current wildlife highlights, and provide information on our facilities too. Our Centre volunteers also prepare refreshments, take payments for our gift range (e.g. pin badges and greetings cards) and generally try to ensure our visitors enjoy their time here. Some of our current volunteers spend a day a week with us, and some half a day per week or per fortnight. We try to have two volunteers on duty at the same time during our busier months (March to October) but during the winter you may just be working with the staff team. If you'd like to join us here at RSPB Lakenheath Fen and be part of our community, then please visit us, telephone 01842 863400 (9am to 4pm daily) or e-mail us at lakenheath@rspb.org.uk. An interest in wildlife is needed, but extensive knowledge isn't necessary, so please don't hold back if you feel you don't know your birds or other wildlife extremely well-  we have a diversity of volunteers here and we are all different.

And lastly, our events programme is back up and running and full details of our upcoming events can be found here.

With best wishes for the week ahead!

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

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