Tag Archives: Cettia cetti

Serendipity I – The Short Eared Owl

Serendipity struck on Sunday a couple of weeks ago. I’d fixed up to go for a stroll with an old friend who I hadn’t seen for a few years to Wicken Fen. That was on the 20th May, but he got his Sundays confused and we ended up going on the 13th.

It was serendipitous because the weather had been grim leading up to that weekend but on the evening of the 13th it was perfect: sunny, warm, calm and we couldn’t have wished for better conditions. And on top of that there was wildlife in abundance. As we got out the car the air was full of swifts screeching overhead – lots and lots of them – along with swallows and house martins. Various species of geese and ducks and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) were on the lakes, and we were serenaded by cettis warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger), grasshopper warbler (Locustella naevia, Dansk: græshoppesanger) and other songbirds in the undergrowth, and a snipe drummed in the reed bed. Snipe (Gallinago gallinago, Dansk: dobbeltbekkasin) make this sound by spreading their tail feathers and the wind generates the piping sound by making them vibrate.

Wicken fen is a really good place to see birds of prey too: marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg), hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk), kestrel (Falco tinunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk), sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) and assorted owls can all be seen there. We had been commenting how the birds of prey were conspicuous by their absence and a few minutes later we spotted a hobby perched on a fence post. As we wallowed in our good fortune I spotted an owl behind a tree which emerged right in front of us and it turned out to be a short eared owl:


Short eared owl, Asio flammeus (Dansk: mosehornugle)

I thought our short eared owls were winter visitors, migrating to the relative warmth of the UK from the frozen icefields of Scandinavia and returning in the Spring. But it transpires they are also resident breeders in the east and north of England and the east of Scotland so can be seen here all year round.

This one treated us to several minutes worth of hunting, flying to and fro and diving down into the reeds in search of rodents.

I last saw short eared owls at Burwell Fen, east of Cambridge, several months ago when there was a large number of Scandinavian visitors in residence. While we were there we chatted to a BBC camerman who was there to film them for a TV nature series. I think he would have got some good footage on that day but I’m sure he would have been pleased to get this close to one!

Like all owls, it’s a hunter which is supremely evolved for its particular function.

And then on the journey home, continuing the owl theme, there was a barn owl taking the lazy approach to rodent hunting:

Barn owl numbers have been on the decline for a long time and the exceptionally cold winters of 2009 and 2010 badly affected them. We didn’t see one at Wicken which surprised me because I usually see at least one when I’m there at that time of the evening, so it was good to find this one perched on an advertising hoarding alongside the road home.

I’m a firm believer in serendipity playing her part in human endeavour and she adequately rewarded us on this excursion!

Wonderful Wildlife of Wicken Fen

Around 10 years ago I used to do voluntary work at Wicken Fen which lies in the flat emptiness between Cambridge and Ely. Wicken Fen is one of the last and the largest piece of remaining fenland in East Anglia and is home to a plethora of wildlife. It’s owned and managed by the National Trust in such a way that diverse habitats favouring different species are established and maintained. When I worked there we were engaged in various activities such as repairing boardwalks, fences and hides, scrub clearance, which was a good activity for freezing winter days because it involved a huge fire to burn the felled scrub, but my favourite job was building raised ponds with wheelchair access so disabled children could safely do some pond dipping. Which is an activity that everyone should be able to do, child or not. All you need is a net, a jar, a magnifying glass and a pond and a sunny day is turned into a fantastic voyage of biological discovery.

My re-exploration last weekend started from Upware at the back end of the Fen where we parked and joined Wicken Lode. We had counted over 30 species of birds within the first half hour of our walk. If it had been solely down to my good self the number would have been rather less because my skills when it comes to recognising birdsong are a tad limited. Fortunately I was with my friend, David, who’s aural acuity is considerably better honed than mine, and I’m highly envious of his ability to detect the song of distant bird species and identify them. One of the first birds to greet us in the car park was this mistle thrush perched on top of a telegraph pole:

Mistle thrush – Turdus viscivorus (Dansk: misteldrossel)

… and a great spotted woodpecker, also finding a handy perch at the top of a telegraph pole:


Great spotted woodpecker – Dendrocops major (Dansk: Stor flagspætte)

Great spotted woodpeckers make a characteristic drumming sound by doing what their name suggests and it is the frequency of the drumming, of around 40 beats per second, which generates the resonant sound. Anatomical examination of their skulls has revealed the presence of built in shock absorbers which prevent them damaging their brains when they drum. They feed on tree seeds such as acorns and insects which they dig out from under the bark of trees and they can also take birds eggs and chicks which they have been known to steal from birdboxes by drilling holes through the walls and plucking them out.

We eventually managed to tear ourselves away from Upware and head out along Wicken Lode on to the Fen where a Cetti’s warbler (Cettia cetti, Dansk: cettisanger) gave away his location by singing in a way that only Cetti’s can. It’s an amazing sound and I can highly recommend having a listen here. These recordings don’t quite do it justice, but you get a feel for it. Also on the Lode were a family of three mute swans; male, female and one cygnet. Mute swans are always photogenic but I felt particularly blessed when the male spread hs wings and shook himself down:


Mute swans (Cygnus olor,  Dansk: knopsvane)

We turned off the Lode and headed along Harrisons Drove where we came across a field of very impressive bovines. In  order to manage the fen (and at the same time draw in more visitors, no doubt) cattle and horses are used to trim the vegetation back naturally. I’d never seen the cattle before and they are magnificent animals – looking more like a cross between a highlander and a bison than traditional farm cattle:


They must be hardy beasts indeed to survive on the meagre nourishment offered by the fen

Also along the drove I spotted a hen harrier (Circus cyaneus, Dansk: Blå kærhøg) quartering the field, either a female or a juvenile, identifiable by the pale band around the rump just infront of the tail feathers. In my opinion, spotting a harrier, even a fleeting glimpse, justifies an expedition into the fens early on a freezing morning. Alas it was too far away to photograph, but when after another couple of hundred metres we entered a hide overlooking a lake, there were plenty of subjects for photography…

This lake was home to hundreds of ducks – we estimated around 800 from 5 species that we could see… as well as coot and mute swan. Watched over by the longhorns.

I don’t think this lake is there in the summer because looking at the area on Google Maps there is no water, and David pointed out that their were no diving ducks such as pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland – which tranlates as ‘table duck’ which shows what the Danes think of them!) tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) or goldeneye (Bucephala clangula, Dansk: hvinand), suggesting the water was too shallow. But there were large numbers of shallow feeders such as gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), shoveller (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand), pintail (Anas acuta, Dansk: spidsand), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos, Dansk: gråand) and wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand). We had seen three flocks of wigeon (and heard them too, they make a great sound) fly over and land on the water just before we got to the hide.  Some of them were on the lake above and lots more were on an adjacent one:


Wigeon. Lots of them! I counted around 60 in this group.

And in between the two lakes were numerous reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv) flitting between the hedgerow and the path and pausing to pluck seeds from the seedheads of the reeds, hence their name…

Male reed bunting – one of my better reed bunting shots

And the female:
We saw 44 species of birds that we could identify on our way around Upware and the Fen. And as well as all the birds Wicken is home to a phenomenal diversity of insects, large mammals including roe deer and otter, small mammals including shrews, voles, mice and the predators that hunt them, and reptiles including lizards which can be seen basking in the sun on the boardwalks and fenceposts early on summer mornings. Now I’ve been back and rediscovered the Fen I’ll make sure I get back later in the year and post about the changing wildlife in what is a unique collection of ecosystems.

Fen Drayton nature reserve

Before I tell you about my outing to Fen Drayton here’s a short update on the forest sell off. After denying they are backtracking, the Government has said they may reduce the amount of forest they are getting rid of. Plans to lose 15% of the 258,000 hectares of publicly owned forest are on hold whilst the government ‘re-examine the criteria‘ for the sale. I’m hoping this is government style smoke-and-mirror speak for ‘we’re deciding whether we should proceed at all‘. Time will tell. I think any reexamination is good news and maybe a sufficiently loud public outcry will force the powers that be to sit up and take notice of the vox populi on this issue, and maybe a few others too.

I didn’t manage a wildlife post last week, other events overtook me including the weather, which was blowing a gale at the weekend so I was struggling to see anything through binoculars and photography was completely out the question! So apologies for the omission. There were a few highlights from last weekend though: in a tree in the middle of a field behind Abbey Farm north of Histon I saw a pair of kestrels copulating – which is a fairly unusual sight but it’s good to know the local kestrel population should be increasing this year. Further round towards the Girton road was a big mixed flock of around 50 starling, a similar number of redwing and around 200 fieldfare feeding on the ground and as I was counting these a little egret passed over. I’d been told by a dog walker a couple of weeks ago there was one in that area but this was the first time I’d seen it for myself. Egrets are a comparatively recent addition to the fauna in the UK and they are slowly finding their way northwards in England. The first time I saw them was in the fish market in the middle of Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, so they have very exotic associations for me and it’s great to see them so close to home.

I set off fairly early in the morning yesterday with my friend to head for Fen Drayton nature reserve which lies between Cambridge and St Ives. It’s a former gravel pit consisting of twelve lakes and ponds which is currently managed by the RSPB. There is a big area of water here interspersed with grassland, scrub woodland, some older more established trees and plenty of reedbeds. So it has a diverse range of habitats that are managed for wildlife and is therefore a good place to see birds.


Far Fen lake showing the varies habitat at Fen Drayton

Despite raining on the way up the A14, by the time we got to the reserve the rain had stopped, leaving complete cloud cover, so the light was very grey as you can see from the landscape shot above. Otherwise the conditions were good: mild, gentle breeze and the occasional, albeit brief, moment of sunshine.

The omens were good too when on the way to Fen Drayton we saw a hare running across a field, and on the approach to the reserve three bullfinch including at least two males were flitting along the hedge just in front of the car. When we were getting out of the car in the car park we could here a cetti’s warbler singing and three green woodpeckers rose up off the ground in quick succession just in front of us.

As we stopped to look at a group of tufted duck on the small pond north of Holywell Lake a jay which we had watched fly across the field appeared in some dead trees on an island in the pond and started stripping big chunks of bark from the tree, possibly looking for food it had stashed there previously. Jays are amazingly good at stashing and are aware that their fellow jays do the same and so will keep a look out to see if they are being watched. If they see another jay paying attention to their activities they will pretend to stashe and then fly off and hide the swag somewhere else.


Four tufted duck – one female and three males on the pond north of Holywell Lake. Note the piercing yellow eyes and the crest

Tufted duck are resident on lakes and we also get migrants visiting in the winter when they stop over on rivers and estuaries too. They’re omnivores and feed by diving to the bottom to sift food from the mud. I think they’re handsome birds especially when they turn their yellow eye to look at you.

Constant companions throughout our walk were chaffinch and great tit. They were present in numbers in almost every tree or bush I looked in.


Chaffinch male in a tree singing for a mate

There were a plethora of other small birds including blue tit, wren, dunnock, robin, goldfinch and long tailed tit. On a bright day it’s now a good time of year to look for and photograph birds because they are actively seeking mates and there are no leaves on the trees to conceal them.


One of a flock of around 7 long tailed tits whizzing through the trees – they’re fiendishly difficult to photograph like that so this is as good as it got!

There was almost a full house of the five common crows – jay, carrion crow, rook – but no jackdaw. There were quite a few magpies though:


This chap was bouncing around the car park

Coot abounded on all the lakes but the stars of the day were the ducks of which there were many species including our common or garden mallard, shoveller, tufted duck, gadwall and wigeon…


A single male wigeon on Oxholme Lake

… but the real star of the show was the goldeneye. There were displaying male goldeneye on Far Fen Lake but alas they were much too far away to get a photograph. They are also resident breeders with migrants arriving in the winter months too.

Mute swan were present on several of the lakes and a couple came over in flight too:


The A380 of the avian world…

And as with all good nature reserves the wildlife wasn’t solely ornithological. This beautiful little fungus was on a stem next to the path.


Dacrymyces chrysospermum – unfortunately I couldn’t find a common name for this resupinate fungus but its sumptuous colour against the green lichen on the tree stem is striking.

All in all Fen Drayton was a great venue for a Saturday morning wildlife adventure and I’ll be posting from here again before too long.