Tag Archives: Turdus viscivorus

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.

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New Year Nature

The most spectacular natural phenomenon to occur over the New Year period was, in my opinion, the partial eclipse on the morning of Tuesday 4th January. It commenced before daybreak in the orient and by the time the sun rose in the UK it was well underway. A very early-morning glance through the curtains in Histon suggested the cloud cover would scupper any attempts to view it from here. The eclipse was due to complete around 9.30am and with an immense stroke of good fortune the clouds parted to reveal a blazing sun low in the eastern sky at 9.05 so I ran around the house trying to find a suitable eye shield to view it through. Grabbing the chance of a breakfast time chocolate feast my daughter suggested cellophane wrappers peeled from some leftover Christmas confectionery, a stroke of genius on two levels. Alas, by the time there were sufficient to enable safe viewing, the image was so blurred as to be useless. So I rapidly retrieved some old photographic negatives from the attic and several  layers of these provided an excellent filter for the purpose. We saw the partially occluded sun and I even managed to fire off a couple of photographs, so here’s the best one:


Partial solar eclipse at 9.15am on Tuesday 4th
January 2011
from Cambridge UK.

In terms of wildlife there have been a few highlights in the last week. I spent most of my walking time around Guns Lane and Abbey Farm north of Histon and the field to the west of the Lane, lying between it and Abbey Farm, known locally as ‘Rowleys Meadow’, is turning out to be a real treasure trove. A pair of kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) are in residence, usually found in the top of a tree which appeared in my ‘Guns Lane‘ post from the end of November last year.

Kestrel pair are regularly seen at the top of this particular
tree. The top one is a male and the lower individual a female.

A buzzard (Buteo buteo) has also been in the vicinity at least since New Years Day when it flew low over the meadow heading east and was spotted again on the 3rd perched in a tree further north along the Lane. I spent several minutes slowly working my way along the hedge to get into position for a photograph when a pair of  mountain bikes coming the other way flushed it out. I’ll have to wait for my shot of a perching buzzard.

…so here it is making its exit with a fieldfare lurking in the bush bottom right

The most exciting encounter with a bird prey occurred on New Years Day whilst heading back from walking the dog in the Histon Fields. An orchard opposite my house has been home to flocks of redwing (Turdus iliacus) and fieldfare (Turdus  pilaris) for most of the Christmas holiday. Approaching home at the end of our walk  a female sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) approached at very high speed around 8 feet from the ground entering the orchard like a feathery Exocet! To be followed a split second later by a chorus of alarm calls as what seemed like hundreds of redwing scattered in all directions. I couldn’t see if she was rewarded with a meal.

Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) continue to maintain a presence on the lane, three individuals consisting of two males and a female provided a splash of colour in the tree tops on a grey day last week, and I flushed out a pair low down from a hedge further along the Lane. Flocks of long tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) are often chasing each other along the hedge and several days ago were accompanied by either a goldcrest (Regulus regulus) or firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla).  It was most likely a goldcrest as firecrest are considerably more scarce and goldcrest are often found amongst flocks of tits. It was too close to focus binoculars on and the light was too murky to see the colours properly, so I couldn’t confirm the identity, but I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled in the hope of seeing it again.

Other species I see on most of my trips along the lane include a pair of green woodpecker (Picus viridis) , song thrush (Turdus philomelus), mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus), redwing, fielfare and blackbird (Turdus merula)- five Turdus species which on several occasions have all been in the meadow at the same time.

Fieldfare in the top of a tree on Guns Lane

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) continue to grace us with there presence. I’ve had a report from a colleague of a flock feeding on rowan berries on Kings Hedges Road, Cambridge, and my sister told me of a ‘treefull’ she’d spotted in a supermarket carpark in Kettering. Although a quick look in Garden Walk in Histon, where I saw them last week, suggested they may have moved on as there were none around and the trees and bushes had been virtually stripped clean of berries.

The heron (Ardea cinerea) is spotted around the north of Histon on a frequent basis, flying over and perched on numerous rooves including one behind my house which just happens to have a fishpond in the garden:

Grey heron sizing up a fishpond for an early morning raid in Normanton Way, Histon

It has some primary flight feathers missing on its left wing identifying it as the same one I posted about previously, feeding on pollock in my friends garden, then tapping on his window to ask for more.

Another friend of mine has reported sightings of blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) and redpoll (Carduelis cabaret) in his garden in the last couple of weeks too. So there is a splendid variety of birdlife of all shapes and sizes to be seen now in a garden near you.