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Post Info TOPIC: Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire

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RE: Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire

Finally...some birding in Cambridge!!!

Trip with the Cambridge University Wildlife Conservation Society to watch ringing...fascinating and learnt loads. (thanks to the society for organising)

Overall quiet but heard Cetti's warbler and saw muntjac as soon as we arrived (mammal lifer!)
Ringing was great with them allowing us to release birds and asking us questions and teaching us etc.
GS woodpecker first ringed bird. Lots of common birds - various tit and finch spp, reed bunting, blackbird etc. (other groups had redpoll and goldcrest). Blue tits are feisty, we got several scratches!
Highlight was a male kingfisher caught in mist nets, allowing fantastic views and a chance to really admire the iridescence and other features. When released, it promptly flew into another mist net, and had to be re-released!

A final highlight was a male sparrowhawk which, when released, sat there for a few moments, then flew the wrong way, prompting me to jump out of its way.

Thanks especially to all the ringers, great people, very helpful, dedicated both to welfare and science, yet still finding time to educate, quiz us, answer questions and listen to our opinions. Top folk :)


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I had a lovely day at Wicken Fen on Sunday 30th November as part of a long weekend in Cambridge. Wicken Fen for those who don't know is a special place, a rare example of original fenland that has never been drained and has apparently been maintained by seasonal sedge cutting since the 1400s! It was donated to the National Trust over 100 years ago and they have added to their landholding since then by buying up a number of surrounding fens so they now manage a large Nature Reserve containing a brilliant mix of reedbeds, light woodland and open grassland and some stretches of open water, intersected by navigation canals known as lodes and paths known as droves. The reserve is well known for several quality bird species, Bittern, Cetti's Warbler and Bearded Tit are all winter residents in the reeds, as well as a roost for Hen Harrier. Marsh Harrier, Barn and Short-eared Owls and Whooper Swans are all seen over the fens and farm fields as well as lots of common wildfowl and winter waders like Lapwing and Snipe.

Arriving at about 1030 in pleasant sunny weather and passing through the Visitor Centre to the old reedbed, a smart male Green Woodpecker dropped onto the wooden boardwalk about 50 yards in front of me. What a great bird to start with. The area was pretty quiet though, save for a Cetti's Warbler singing once briefly, so I headed over to the main grassy fens, Adventurer's, Baker's and Burwell. Burwell Fen has been hosting a few Short-eared Owl for the last fortnight, and these were what I really wanted to see. Walking over I didn't see much, a flock of 12 Snipe went up at one point and I did see a smashing juvenile Marsh Harrier, which was a big unit and really dark brown with a nice creamy beige cap. Also heard and just saw a Goldcrest, my recent fun with Firecrests and Yellow-browed Warblers has got me paying more attention to the small birds again. On another day I might have put in a shift to try and see a Bittern, but not this time.

Over on the bank of Burwell Lode, which gives great views over the fen, the Shorties were nowhere to be seen. What is the opposite of a 'Whisperer'? That's what I am for Short-eared Owls, they clearly hate me. 5 had been reported there the previous day for god's sake. I did pick up 10 Whoopers flying over. I had seen a flock of around 100 on the fields near the Ouse Washes on the way down by train. There were around 6-7 Kestrels about too and the Marsh Harrier showed well again. Also a few Skylarks over and a nice flock of around 100 Goldfinch provided the soundtrack as they burbled between trees and a patch of thistles. Also between 5 and 10 Roe Deer showed well in groups of 2 and 3, a pleasant surprise.

As birders gathered to try for the owls I saw a large brown bird on the ground spread its wings and move so I headed for it, away from the majority of the guys. As I homed in another Green Woodpecker popped up and within 2 minutes 3 were showing well together on a line of fenceposts. As I got closer to the field with my original 'thing' in it the woodpeckers flew off but then a bird came up, and it was a ringtail Hen Harrier. One has been reported on Burwell Fen repeatedly in recent weeks, which I'd forgotten completely in my preoccupation with owls. It had a noticeable rufous tinge to the feathers under the eye and a buffy colour on its chest amongst the streaks. This was all with bins while it hunted, I was only 100 yards or so away. The best views I've had by miles and coupled with a study of various photos people have posted I would say it was a juvenile rather than adult female.

Having been advised that the roosting Hen Harriers would be gravitating to the reeds back on Wicken Fen itself, I left the area and headed back as it moved towards dusk. The reedbed seemed dead, although the atmosphere was superb, there is something rather wonderful about the thought that you could have stood in the same spot 200 years ago and it wouldn't have been vastly different. I heard a Cetti's again but after a few minutes I was literally thinking it was a washout when I saw a Harrier over the reeds. It was a Marshie, but it was something; it looked like the juvenile from earlier. But suddenly there was a male Hen Harrier with it. Wow. I was a bit stunned. Within a minute there were 2 Ringtail birds up too, so the 4 Harriers were up together, then as quick as they appeared they dropped down. The light wasn't good enough to pick out details on the Ringtails but you don't need Collins to ID an adult male! What a stunner, I did notice a size difference in that one of the Ringtails was bigger than the grey male. A female adult maybe? Had to laugh at my impatience too...

I decided to hang about to see if anything else materialized and heard up to 3 Cetti's Warblers in the end. Then a Barn Owl glided out over the reeds! The finale, as it hunted for a mere minute or so before dropping into the reeds presumably onto a vole or mouse. It was nearly dark by then and I had to call it a day but I will remember the experience of that reedbed for a very long time, those birds were magnificent and inspiring. Add this to some beautiful landscape views on a crisp day, shimmering flocks of hundreds of Lapwings up in the air, Fieldfares and Redwings commuting around the berry trees and finally a massive flock of Crows and Jackdaws passed overhead to roost, up to 1000 birds surely. What a great advert for the English countryside in early winter. Awesome day.

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