The frozen Fen

The winter frost finally arrived in my corner of Cambridgeshire in the last week and it left the landscape with a thick coating of pure crystalline whiteness. So I was able to indulge my recently discovered fascination with more abstract nature photography:

Ice needles formed on horse hair snagged on barbed wire scattering the sunshine

My trip out to Burwell Fen, east of Cambridge, early last Saturday morning was spectacular as a result of the frosty weather. I set off with my friend, David, around 8am with a view to catching some more sightings of short eared owls, and at that time the temperature was well below freezing. But it was one of those beautiful misty mornings where the mist is thin and lets through lots of light but the density waxed and waned, creating constantly changing, ghostly conditions. Which is lovely to look at but not so good for finding wildlife.

As we approached the Fen, driving out the back of Reach through Tubney Fen (which, incidentally, has had nesting avocet in previous years), roe deer and red-legged partridge were in abundance (no exaggeration!) . I like partridge and I see them quite often around Histon, but I usually flush them before I can get close enough to photograph them, but on this instance the car made a great hide.

Three of a small flock of red-legged partridge absorbing the heat from a huge pile of dung. Splendid birds,  bizarre that people want to shoot them rather than just look at them.

Red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa, Dansk: rødhøne) were introduced to England from Europe and alas for them they are a game bird.

Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) were also much in evidence, we counted 43, and at one point on the Fen they were flushed and moved en masse and we counted 31. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many in one go and it was a terrific sight. We think the four below were part of a family of five, the fifth just out of shot. The big one on the right is the female, the horned one in the middle is the male and the other two are youngsters, the third youngster is the one out of shot.

Four of a family of five roe deerRoe deer tracks with a 2p coin to show the size. They were mixed with muntjac tracks, but could be distinguished by the larger size:

Muntjac deer tracks

Roe deer are native to the UK but muntjac, also known as the barking deer, were introduced from China to Woburn in Befordshire where escapes and releases, and their obvious liking for the Home Counties led to a rapid expansion of their population. I regularly see and hear them in Histon, and the barking sound they make is quite unlike anything likely to be heard in the English countryside.

Whilst scanning for owl, I spotted a stonechat in the grass (Saxicola torquatus, Dansk: Sortstrubet bynkefugl):

Male stonechat

The stonechat is a resident breeder and a migrant to the UK and frequents the kind of scrubby countryside found on Burwell Fen.

Then when the mist lifted and the morning developed into a very cold but very sunny one, the owls appeared, and we had lots of sightings. We chatted to a BBC camera man in the car park who had come to film the short eared owls and he must have captured some good footage by the time he went home.

They are great to watch, they hunt low over the scrub for rodents and regularly get chased up in the air by crows and on one occasion, a kestrel.

Short eared owl

Short eard owls (Asio flammeus, Dansk: mosehornugle) have a small breeding population in the UK, but also migrate here in the winter from northern Europe. I’ve heard that they are here in larger numbers than normal this year due to last year being a good lemming year in Scandinavia. Whatever the reason I’ve heard a number of reports of sizeable groups in Essex, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. They are diurnal and therefore easier to see than most owls and they are very distinctive. The underside is largely white, the winspan is around a metre and the pale brown spot toward the end of the top of the wing is also easy to see and differentiate them. They also have bright yellow eyes which I’ve heard is characteristic of owls which hunt in daylight – but I’ve not found any hard evidence for that.

Lastly, we had several encounters with this group of nine grey partridge, also known as the English partridge (Perdix perdix, Dansk: agerhøne). The numbers of our own partridge have plummeted catastrophically in recent decades, by up to 90%. I see the occasional one around Histon, but it was good to see this group on the Fen.

Six of a group of nine grey partridge

The red/brown head and lack of white face, black eye stripe and white wing markings clearly distinguish the grey from the red-legged partridge. The difference in demeanour was remarkable, the red-legs seemed relatively unfazed by our presence and were easy to see and photograph, but the greys sat tight, very low to the ground, and flew away at the slightest disturbance.

In one trip we saw all the UK partridge species, and lots of short eared owls, and more roe deer than I’ve ever seen before in one go. Well worth the early start on a freezing morning!

27 responses to “The frozen Fen

  1. I like your shots of the short eared owl. There does seem to be a few more sightings of them lately. I saw a short eared owl over the bird hides at Manea. It was being flustered by crows. I stopped my car and hurredly started clicking away with the camera. I like your blog. 😀

    • Thanks Colin, I guess it’s that time of year when numbers of SEO’s are increasing and they’re becoming more visible, I’ll be heading over to Burwell Fen again in the near future to look for them. Did you get some good shots of the one near Manea?

      BTW, thanks for the link.

      • I did get some good shots. I also went to the hides a few days later and was talking to a bird watcher. He spotted the short-eared owl again in the long grass of the scarp that looks out across the River Delph over the Fen towards Ely. I managed to get some more shots, but it was just looking out over the flood plain and huddled in the grass. They tend to come out in the daylight and this was in the afternoon.

  2. hi ive been to Burwell fen 2 or 3 times now and have videos of what i saw in a playlist called burwell fen you can find it via if you fancy a trip there soon let me know

    • Thanks for the link David, nice to see cranes on the Fen. What did you use to capture your video?

      I don’t know when I’ll be out there next but I want to see the short eared owls before they head back. Are there any other sites you visit around Cambridge?

  3. where is burwell fen ? gps coordinates please or road to park at and directions..i know where burwell is but wheres the fen ?

    • Burwell Fen stretches north west from Burwell and Reach to Wicken Fen. Head to Reach from Swaffham Prior and snake through the village until you come to Little Fen Drove (search for Burwell Fen or Reach in Google Maps). Go along the drove past Tubney Fen on the right and when you reach the crossroads at the end turn right. Follow the track for a mile or so to the car park at the end just before the bridge over the Lode.

      Apologies for the delay in replying, but if you go there and see anything interesting please post a comment and let me know. All the best. Finn

      • thanks for the reply, ive found little fen drove on and on google earth, but tubney fen isnt mentioned on either ! , if you use google earth can you tell me which road to then take please ? is it up headlake drove ? sorry if im making this harder than it is ! but i do what to be sure where to go before i go some time, thanks a lot and of course ill tell you what i see once ive been there : )

      • Hello Dave, Tubney Fen is on Little Fen Drove. If you drive out the back of Reach and past the last of the houses on the right, the entrance to Tubney Fen is about half way between Reach and the crossroads at the end, on the right hand side. There’s a National Trust information board and room to park a couple of cars at the entrance. If you park by the entrance and go through the gate you can follow the path a hundred meteres or so to a hide overlooking the water. Good luck!

      • using google earth then dragging the orange statue to enter street view I went along little fen drove in google earth , there seems to be a sign about something at 52degrees 16’23.28north and 0degrees 16’23.38 east could this be it !! ps google earth software is free and easy to use, if you dont have it yet simply download it and use it to check my coordinates thanks

      • Hello Dave, that’s the spot. The hide is a short walk from the sign and there have been avocet breeding there in recent years. Burwell Fen itself is a good place for short eared owl too.

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  5. I was rather taken with the photo of the partridges on the dung heap…they’re beautiful birds.

    It appears that you had quite an outing…very satisfying.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and photos.

  6. I like the abstraction of the ice needles on the horse hairs. The longer one is especially interesting, with its tip seemingly separated from the rest of it.

    Steve Schwartzman

    • Thanks for your comment Steve. The ice needles were gorgeous in the sunlight, they were 4-5mm long and appeared to have formed on themselves. The gap in the long one enabled me to see what was really underneath. I was lucky with my timing, as you can see they were partially in the sun and after another few minutes they would have been completely bathed in sunlight and melted away.

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  8. Who would have thought you could make a nice picture from some frozen horse hair? I have to agree with aliceleifalice and btweenblinks too, love the picture of the Red-legged Partridges on the dung pile. Enjoyed reading the post – It’s actually inspired to leave the house right now and head to up my local RSPB reserve where there have been sightings of Short-eared Owls recently…

    • I was amazed to find a single horse hair as the scaffold for all those ice crystals. Did you see your local owls? They’re spectacular birds!

      • I didn’t unfortunately, it was very windy and there wasn’t much about. Still, it was nice to get out 🙂 I did spot a Black Redstart on my way home which was a bit of a bonus. Never seen one up my neck of the woods before…

      • I just saw you’re redstart pictures – very nice shots (and the redshank too, a particular favourite of mine). I’ve never seen a redstart, but I’d like to. Good luck with the owls next time.

  9. What a wonderful picture of the Partridges, I haven`t seen them in Denmark in many years

  10. We went up to Wicken Fen last on Sunday afternoon and saw a Barn Owl on the northern reaches of the National Trust land. It flew around, just keeping an eye out and perching on a series of posts.

    Wonderful photos

    • Thanks for the comment Rich. Good skills to see the barn owl in the afternoon. I haven’t posted on Wicken yet, which is a dreadful omission, but I’ll try to get a trip over there in late spring to see the harriers.

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