Back on The Great Fen

I’ve been home in Cambridgeshire for almost a fortnight now, I don’t know where the time is going! It seems like I’ll be back in Penryn all too soon for a week of exams… ah well. Returning home gives me the chance to get out volunteering again for The Great Fen Project, where I work as a volunteer ranger, watching over the various sites and recording wildlife as I go. The Saturday just gone was my first shift since August, and what a great day it was!

We (Dad and I) started the day at the countryside centre in Ramsey Heights, a lovely albeit rather small site. It was a chilly morning, but the birds were out in force. The ‘chack-chack’ call of Fieldfares was the dominant noise, with the softer calls of Redwings, Bullfinches and a flyover Yellowhammer for support (the latter being a good day-tick for the area).

The Great Fen Project area is built around two national nature reserves (NNRs): Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen. The next site to visit was Holme Fen, a large silver birch woodland surrounded by farmland, containing areas of heathland and a few lakes. Quite a diverse range of habitats!


Holme Fen


As we wandered the footpaths, I kept my eyes peeled for birds, bagged some bryophytes for identification later, and turned a few logs to look for invertebrates. One find was a Flat-backed Millipede (Polydesmus sp.), which after close inspection, turned out to be Polydesmus angustus, our commonest species.


The millipede Polydesmus angustus


As we walked along the edge of the woodland, I spotted a dark raptor flying low over the fields. A male Merlin! A winter visitor to Cambridgeshire, and always a lovely bird to see. Shortly after that, we found a particularly vocal flock of c.30 Siskins, one of the highest counts in the county this year.

We moved on to check some of the farmland areas of The Great Fen, where we had lovely views of a Barn Owl. Even I nearly managed to get a nice shot!


Barn Owl


A few minutes later, we stumbled across a local specialty, the Chinese Water Deer. Native to China and Korea, this introduced species is thriving in the fens of East Anglia. It is easily recognised by its stocky build, and intermediate size between Muntjac and Roe Deer. They also have large, rounded ears and small tusks.


Chinese Water Deer


Our final site of the day was my personal favourite: Woodwalton Fen. Woodwalton is a beautiful pocket of ancient fenland, combining wet woodland, alder carr, marshy grassland, lakes and reedbeds.


Woodwalton Fen at dusk


It wasn’t long before the first good wildlife sighting: a flock of around 25 Lesser Redpolls, again, one of the highest counts in the county this year. I scanned the flock, hoping for a Mealy Redpoll. One pale-looking bird caught my eye, but flew before I got a good view. The one that got away?

As we walked to check on the two waterbird hides, I spotted an old railway sleeper in an area of damp grassland. It needed to be turned over! We turned the sleeper, and I soon saw that my instincts were spot on. Large numbers of the ancient fenland woodlouse Ligidium hypnorum scattered. A nice species to see, but one that can run so fast, I didn’t manage to get a good photo. At the other end of the sleeper, Dad had found a centipede that he said looked interesting. It certainly was! It was a species that I’d never seen before: Strigamia acuminata. The reddish colouration is characteristic of the genus, with the stubby build (compared to similar species) and number of legs (41 pairs to be precise) confirming the species.


The Centipede Strigamia acuminata


Myriapods (centipedes and millipedes) are one of my favourite and most studied groups, so a new species for me is very exciting! It also helps me keep my place in the pan-species listing rankings for the group, my highest ranking for any group!

We finished off the day with a visit to the North Hide, to count the Marsh Harriers that roost in the reedbed. 2 females, 1 male, and an immature male. We were then given a real treat, as the wintering male Hen Harrier came in, giving us stunning views. After a while, it gracefully dropped from the sky and settled down into the reeds. What a brilliant end to the day!










Norfolk Birding at its best

This is my first pure birding blog, which maybe reflects the huge increase in the amount of birding I’ve been doing recently. I justify this birding from an all-round naturalists perspective by making sure to find a few new bryophytes or invertebrates along the way!

So today myself, Toby and my Dad decided to bird the North Norfolk coast in order to cash in on the recent quantity of good birds there. First stop was RSPB Titchwell, which has seen amazing counts of sea ducks recently. The first good bird was a female Brambling on the feeders by the visitor centre, a very good bird for Pembrokeshire-based Toby, and my first of the winter so far. On the way out to sea, I saw a lone gull on the marsh. It was close, and looked by eye to be a Yellow-legged Gull. It was, and a textbook adult bird at that! Long wings, dark mantle, heavy bill, clean white head and red orbital ring! (It had bright yellow legs too, when it briefly stood up). Phone-scope:


On the next marsh closest to the sea we had 3 Spotted Redshank, and a Water Rail swimming across right next to the bank.

As we approached the beach, I could see a small crowd of bescoped birders looking out to sea. This was promising! We got to the beach, and it did not disappoint. 40 Long-tailed Duck (including a stonking male), 10 Velvet Scoter, 10 Red-breasted Mergansers, 3 Scaup, hundreds of Common Scoter, tens of Goldeneye and a smattering of Great Crested Grebes and Red-throated Divers! Long-tailed Duck was a long overdue lifer for me! There were also Sanderling and Knot amongst a hoard of waders on the beach. Long-tailed Duck, record shot:


The next site to visit was Holkham Gap, hoping for Shore Larks (a lifer for all of us!). After a little while walking the saltmarsh, the only birds we’d managed to flush were Meadow Pipits and Linnets, by the hundred. Luckily, I spoke to a few local birders who pointed us in the right direction. Five minutes later, Dad called out that he’d seen some Shore Lark-like birds skulking in the dead sea lavender. We walked a little closer, and up flew 13 Shore Larks! Photo courtesy of Toby Phelps, hence it isn’t a phone-scope for once.


As we followed the flock, they flew up again, and were joined by a further 12 birds. 25 Shore Larks! After a little while appreciating the Shore Larks on the floor, we headed back across the marsh. A small flock of 8 Brent Geese flew onto the marsh next to us. “Could be a Black Brant in there” said Toby (there was one reported at Holkham Gap a few days before) shortly followed by “There, I’ve got it!”. The Dark overall colour, large white flash on the flank and very distinct white neck ring were definitive. It was an Asian/Siberian bird, so the back wasn’t as dark as an American bird would be. Photos are Toby’s again, bird is second from the right in the top photo, and central with its head up in the bottom.


As we walked further back through the marsh, we flushed yet another flock of Shore Larks, this time numbering 20 birds. That brought the total to 45 Shore Larks!

The final place to visit was Cley Marshes, where we hoped for Caspian Gulls or White-wingers (Iceland or Glaucous Gulls) in the roost. From the hide, we had excellent views of Marsh Harriers, causing every bird on the marsh to fly up. The Golden Plovers eventually spiralled back down from above, bringing with them 21 Ruff. The few Gulls which had settled in the usual roost spot had been scared onto an adjacent pool, behind a reedbed! It was too far to walk round and view the pool before darkness fell, so we had to watch as the Gulls filtered out of the sky, and out of sight for good. No Gulls for us!

The day ended with another Water Rail swimming across in front of the hide, and hundreds of Brent Geese flying in V-formations across the grey, wintery skies. Stunning!