Wicken Fen is the largest remaining area of true fen in England and has survived because it has been conserved by encasing it in what is effectively a gigantic plastic bag. The earth on the Fen is waterlogged and if the bag weren’t there the water would simply drain away leaving very rich agricultural soils but none of the wildlife associated with fenland habitats. Another result of the water retention is that the Fen is 6-8 feet above the surrounding farmland and the earth literally shakes if you jump hard on the ground as it’s like a saturated sponge.
Because of the water the predominant habitats are reedbeds and waterways which is reflected in the wildlife. The Fen is so rich in wildlife that a hike around there is like a mini safari! I was there on a hot and sunny Sunday morning in June and wildlife of all sorts abounded. In particular the insects were very busy. This dragonfly had recently emerged from the larval stage as an adult and was sitting in the grass drying out before taking to the air.
Black tailed skimmer youngster preparing for it’s first flights
The young skimmer was on the edge of a path which ran alongside one of the lodes (man made water courses) and on the water opposite the skimmer were lily pads and sitting on one of them was a damselfly, warming itself up in the morning sunshine.
Red eyed damselfly (Erythromma najas) in beautiful repose on a lily pad, surrounded by reflections of the clouds
And of course, that time of year is the season for lurv for many creatures, including this pair of variable damseflies (Coenagrion pulchellum) which are in the process of mating. The male is the blue one and he is clasping the female by gripping the back of her head – the pronotum – whilst she has pressed her genitalia against his abdomen to receive the sperm.
As well the inscect diversity the unique habitat of the Fen is home to lots of beautiful plants and flowers, including this common spotted orchid. This orchid is indeed common and can be found in fens, marshes and other wetlands all over England, but is rare in Scotland. Common, or not, I think all orchids are spectacular flowers and it was really good to see them in such numbers on the Fen.
Common spotted orchid – Dactylorhiza fuchsi
Whilst I was busying myself trying to get photogrpahs of the dragons and orchids a kestrel (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) was busy overhead. But even better than that a hobby (Falco subbuteo, Dansk: lærkefalk) was on the hunt for dragonflies and small birds.
The hobby is a small falcon which can be seen in these parts in the summer and hunts low over farmland and reedbeds at phenomenal speed. It’s one of very few predators that can hunt swallows and swifts in flight. This one was doing exactly that and in the distance, a few hundred metres away were at least another two. So I guess it was a family and the chicks had recently fledged and the adults were showing them the ropes. So I whiled away a good half an hour watching their breathtaking aerobatic exploits!
Brimstone butterfly sipping nectar from a thistle flower
I did volutary work at Wicken for 3 years or so back around the turn of the Millenium. It was incredibly rewarding and a good opportunity for a lab-based sedentary person such as myself to get outside and do some donkey work under the sky. One of the projects I worked on back then was scrub clearance to create an area suitable for butterflies to breed. I went and had a look at it on this walk for the first time since I helped to create it and it was very different. The scrub we cleared had been replaced by less scrubby, more proper woodland, trees, and there was small open glades with grasses and wild flowers. Whilst I was in there I flushed a leveret, which is about the closest I’ve ever been to a wild hare, it had been sitting tight but made a run for it when I got just a tad too close – about 5m!
So I didn’t manage a picture of the hare but I did manage a shot of the brimstone butterfly above (Gonepteryx rhamni), which I thought was absolutely lovely, sitting on the purple flower and framed by the two grass stems. It was terribly obliging and let me move all round it to get the best angle for a portrait. So this is about the best shot and one I’m very pleased with. I hope you like it too!
Posted in Anisoptera, Birds, Birds of prey, Countryside walks, Falcons, Flora and fungi, Insects, Ornithology, Skimmers, UK wildlife, Wicken Fen, Wild flowers
Tagged black tailed skimmer, brimstone, butterfly, Coenagrion pulchellum, common spotted orchid, Dactylorhiza fuchsi, damselflies, dragonflies, Erythromma najas, Falco subbuteo, falco tinnunculus, fen, flora and fauna, Gonepteryx rhamni, hobby, kestrel, lærkefalk, lily pads, marsh, Nature, Odanata, Odanates, red-eyed damselfly, reedbeds, tårnfalk, variable damselfly, Wicken Fen, wildlife, wildlife safari
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!
Posted in Birds, Birds of prey, Ornithology, Owls, UK wildlife, Wicken Fen
Tagged 13, Accipiter nisus, Apus apus, Asio flammeus, birds of prey, Burwell Fen, bysvale, Cambridgeshire, cetti's warbler, Cettia cetti, cettisanger, Circus aeruginosus, Delichon urbicum, dobbeltbekkasin, Falco subbuteo, falco tinnunculus, Gallinago gallinago, grasshopper warbler, græshoppesanger, great crested grebe, Hirundo rustica, hobby, house martin, kestrel, Landsvale, lærkefalk, Locustella naevia, marsh harrier, mosehornugle, mursejler, Nature, ornithology, owls, Podiceps cristatus, rørhøg, resident breeder, short eared owl, snipe, sparrowhawk, spurvehøg, superstition, swallow, swift, tårnfalk, toppet lappedykker, Wicken Fen, wildlife, winter migrant
Falco subbuteo, (lærkefalk in Danish), after which the table football game is named (it was the games creators favourite bird apparently), is a summer visitor to our shores. It is a migrant breeder and passage visitor, spending the winter in Africa and despite being widespread throughout Europe, there are only around 2000 pairs in the UK which are predominantly confined to the south and east below a line from the Severn to the Humber estuaries.
They breed in nests abandoned by other birds, often those of crows, and they feed on insects and birds which they take out the air in flight. To do that they need to be fast, and they are extremely fast, taking dragonflies and small birds by utilising their amazing speed either in level flight or in a stoop. They have a slate grey back and are white with black speckles underneath with dark, grey/black head, eye patches and moustaches similar to a small peregrine falcon (vandrefalk), and I find the easiest visual differentiator is the red thighs and underside of the tail.
Whilst I was at Fen Drayton nature reserve last weekend I watched one hunting and I managed to get some pictures, which aren’t the best quality, but I hope convey some of the drama of their high velocity hunting technique:
Beginning the approach:
…homing on the target:
…and pulling up with empty talons:
The red thighs are visible in the second and third photographs above, and are diagnostic for the hobby.
It’s exhilarating watching a wild predator hunting, especially at the speed these guys do it. And it presents an interesting photographic challenge too, one which I’m yet to perfect as the high speed flight of the hobby requires high speed panning. I’m looking forward to the next chance I get to practice.