Tag Archives: Circus aeruginosus

Wicken wheatears.. and some other creatures

The blogging Muse left me in the Spring and I switched to acquisition mode, since when I’ve been out and about taking a lot of photographs. I’ve now got enough images to keep me posting until the end of the year  so I’ve reverted to posting mode and at the same time I’ll be catching up with all my fellow bloggers who I’ve been neglecting for too long!

At the end of April the sunny weather prompted me to take an early morning walk around Wicken Fen. At that time of year fairly large areas of flat pasture immediately adjacent to the fen are flooded and provide habitat for overwintering waterfowl, along with all the other winter visitors and early spring migrants to be found on the Fen. So in good weather at that time of year there’s usually plenty of wildlife. The pasture which isn’t flooded is managed by grazing it with Highland cattle:

The Wicken Highland bull

I’m no expert on cattle so I don’t know for sure, but because this old guy was on his own and also because of the sheer size of him, I think that he’s a bull (and he didn’t stand up to allow unambiguous gender assignment by an amateur observer). He was absolutely enormous, even laying down I estimate the top of his head was around 5 feet off the ground, he was the size of a car!

Back to the birds though, one which I’ve only seen at reserves on the coast before is the bearded tit (Panurus biarmicus, Dansk: skægmejse), but on this particular morning there was at least two of them flitting around the reed beds between The Mere and Adventurers Fen.

Female bearded tit

I’m yet to get a really good photograph of a bearded tit and this one continues the tradition. It would have been OK but it is too blue because I didn’t have my glasses on when I set the white balance, so I mistook the ‘sun’ setting for the ‘incandescent light’ setting. Alas, an unavoidable consequence of hurtling into middle age! I tried to post process the image but alas I couldn’t get it to look quite right so I decided to leave it as it is and own up to my incompetence!

The bearded tit is a resident breeder and passage/winter visitor and there are only around 600 breeding pairs in the UK, so it’s good to know they are just up the road from where I live. Their conservation status is amber in the UK due to a recent decline in their breeding range but they are not a species of concern in Europe as a whole. They live and breed in reedbeds and feed on invertebrates in the summer and seed in winter.

Another iconic inhabitant of the Wicken reedbeds is the marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg). The colour of the sky reveals the weather on this glorious April morning as a male marsh harrier thermalled overhead. He was in the company of eight others, and that’s an amazing sight.

A marsh harrier gaining height as the earth warmed up in the early morning sunshine

The marsh harrier frequents reedbeds and marshland and feeds on frogs, insects, reptiles and small vertebrates. Its conservation status is amber in the UK due to its small non-breeding population and a localised breeding population, but as with the bearded tit its not a species of concern in Europe. It almost died out in the UK in the 1960’s but has recovered since then and has changed its behaviour by starting to also nest on farmland, and many individuals now overwinter here too. Those that migrate head down to central and southern Africa for the winter. Another recent raptor success story along with sparrowhawks and red kites, but still a work in porogress to secure the UK population.

Male reed bunting

Small songbirds such as the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv) were busy proclaiming their availability from the tops of the hedgerows, but the highlight of the trip was a small group of around half a dozen wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe, Dansk: stenpikker) feeding in a field adjacent to the Fen as I arrived:

Male wheatear – rear view

The name ‘wheatear’ may derive from the archaic ‘white arse’ which is a local name for it in some parts of England. It’s a migrant breeder in the UK and overwinters in Africa. After the last ice age its range extended northwards with the retreating ice, but they still all migrate back to Africa in the winter, even those individuals that breed in Alaska!

… and from the front

The female is also a striking bird even though she doesn’t have the same slate grey back and black eye stripe that the male does.

The female wheatear

I watched the wheatears for 20 minutes or so before heading on to the Fen and when I returned around 3 hours later they had all gone. So it appears it was an overnight rest and refuelling stop for them before heading further north and west to their summer breeding grounds.

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Titchwell ducks

I like ducks. A couple of hours spent by the side of a lake gazing at and identifying numerous duck species is time well spent in my opinion. (N.b. as I write this I’m sipping a glass of a very tasty Chilean Cabernet and listening to The Lyre of Orpheus by Nick Cave. How much better can life get?)

Anyway, back to the ducks. Inbetween chasing swifts with my camera and snapping marsh harriers and avocets there were several species of duck availing themselves of the bounty supplied by the fresh and salt water mudflats at Titchwell.


Shoveler male

Shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk – skeand) can be seen on the lakes close to Cambridge but it’s rare to see them close up. At Titchwell there are so many birds there that if I wait long enough it’s very likely I’ll get close up, and so it proved with several species of duck. The shoveler is immediately recognisable by his enormous beak which he uses to filter crustaceans, molluscs and other small creatures from the water. The pale blue patch just visible on the upper forewing is just visible on this one and is diagnostic for the shoveler. The blue-winged teal also has a blue patch here but the teal is smaller and doesn’t have the distinctive beak of the shoveler.


Teal female (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand)

The teal is the smallest duck and the male plumage is handsome. Like the mallard, the female is predominantly brown but she has the lovely green patch on the lower forewing, visible on the lady above as she stretches her wings. Teal can form big flocks on coastal wetlands out of the breeding season. They are named after their call.


Pochard female (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland)

Another species which kept flitting into view was the pochard. Pochard are not regular breeders in the UK, but in the winter there can be around 40,000 here which have migrated in from Eastern Europe and Russia and they can be seen on lakes, gravel pits and estuaries.


A pair of shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand) on final approach

I think one of the  most majestic ducks is the shelduck. The red beak, black head, and brown, white and black body make it very distinctive. Shelduck are big too, almost, but not quite, the size of a small goose. They were persecuted in some sandy areas of the UK in the 19th century apparently because they competed with rabbits for burrows. Which sounds to me like any excuse, because why would anyone worry about a few homeless rabbits! Despite that there are now around 60,000 individuals overwintering in the UK and around 11,000 breeding pairs. The conservation status is amber in the UK but it is a species of least concern in Europe as a whole.

The magnificent marsh harrier

During a day spent at RSPB Titchwell on the north Norfolk coast in June the bird sightings were many and varied but one of the undoubted highlights for me was a marsh harrier which made regular appearances throughout the day.


Here’s looking at you…
A marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk – rørhøg) doing as the name suggest – harrying the marshes

The marsh harrier is one of our least numerous birds with around 400 females in the UK. According to the British trust for Ornithology it almost became extinct in the UK but has made a small recovery. It lives and breeds in reedbeds but during it’s recovery it has learnt to frequent farmland too. With the destruction of its normal habitat that adaptation may prove to be its saviour.

Marsh harriers hunt small mammals and birds and can be seen gliding over marshland and reedbeds with their wings in a characteristic shallow ‘V’ shape. It is restricted to East Anglia in the UK and its conservation status is Amber due to the declines seen in the past.

Despite its amber staus in the UK it is a species of least concern in the rest of Europe, which is good news. Hopefully a few more will find their way here to swell the UK population. They can mostly be seen here in nature reserves and the small number of locations where reedbeds and wetlands have not been drained.

One of the best reserves for harriers is Wicken Fen lying between Cambridge and Ely, and this is the only place where I’ve seen marsh harriers and hen harriers in the air at the same time. Wicken is owned by the National Trust and has a hundred year expansion plan which involves buying up the surrounding farmland as the soils becomes progressively downgraded and ultimately exhausted. So in around 100 years time it should be an enormous area of fen and home to large numbers of rare birds such as the harriers. So they may not be so rare then. Fingers crossed!

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!

Minsmere in wintertime

My meanderings around Suffolk in February inevitably led me to RSPB Minsmere. I’d heard there were bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: rørdrum), which I’ve never seen before, and smew (Mergellus albellus, Dansk: lille skallesluger) which I’ve also never seen, in residence there. Indeed, theere had been an influx of bittern from Holland due to the fierce winter weather there and numbers were up, so I felt a little twitching was in order.

For those of you unfamiliar with the geography, Minsmere is characterised by woodland on the inland side to the north and east with a network of reedbeds and lakes behind a sand and shingle bank running along the coast. It lies between Dunwich Heath and the Coastguard Cottages to the north, and Sizewell to the south. It is a haven for numerous species of bird and my friend told me that on a morning trip there with a dawn start he spotted over 100 species of birds by lunchtime. And I reckon that’s an impressive tally. Many mammals also live and visit here including red deer, fox and otter.

As it is an RSPB reserve there are hides for observing the wildlife and as I set off along the bank which forms the sea defences to find one various gulls and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker) were on the sea. I paused to watch a marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus, Dansk: rørhøg) quartering the reedbeds, and then headed on to an open hide where I installed myself to see what was in residence.


The view from the south end of the hide

From the lower right hand window of the hide are the reedbeds of the reserve and from the upper left window is the reactor dome of Sizewell nuclear power station. The power station reminds me that I’m very grateful for havens such as Minsmere but I also wonder why on earth does it have to be just there, the juxtaposition offends me somewhat. But there it is, so I contented myself with looking out the front of the hide and here are some of the birds I could see:


A lone lapwing foraging for sustenance

Immediately in front of my hide, in which I was the only occupant, was a water filled channel separated from the lakes just beyond by a thin strip of reeds, and immediately to the fore was a single lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk vibe). Low grassy islands in the lakes were home to various species of duck, the most numerous being…


Teal, two males and a female (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand)


Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna, Dansk: gravand), and lurking in the background is a shoveler (Anas clypeata, Dansk: skeand)

All of these ducks are resident or nigrant breeders and winter visitors and where I am I only see them in winter. According to the BTO the teal is unusual in that it has no other names in the UK, which is an interesting little factlet which obviously needs to be challenged. If anyone knows of a local name for the teal please let me know. Another amusing piece of nomenclature is the shoveler, so named presumably for its shovel like beak and in Danish is known as the ‘skeand‘, which translates into English as the ‘spoon duck’. It uses it’s magnificent beak to filter small molluscs and crustaceans from the beds of shallow water by sweeping it across the surface and sifting the food from the disturbed sediment.

Alas, most of the birds were just too far away for my 300mm lens, but I plan to upgrade my optics this year so next time I post from Minsmere I’ll hopefully have lots of high quality close ups too.