Good Friday in the Fens

A bitter Good Friday wind blew across the washes from the north. I was shivering on the path along the river wall at Lakenheath fen RSPB reserve with Stephen Menzie; huddling over telescopes and searching for spring migrants on the choppy flood waters of the Little Ouse. But instead of Garganey and terns, we found Gadwall and Great Crested grebes instead, and a kingfisher so distant it was in a different county. The feeling was an odd one, of seasonal disorientation. We'd left London that morning feeling like it was mid summer and arrived into an East Anglia still in the grip of winter.

The wind made our next decision for us: we took the sheltered path past the poplars and through the reed bed instead of being the soft southern playthings of the wind.

Twelve years ago this was all carrot fields of the sort that still cover the black peat of the fens. The sky here is vast like the sea and trees stand tall as skyscrapers surrounded as they are by empty space. The map says the Suffolk of my home, the reedbed and fauna says so too but this is pure fenland. The independent republic of the fens. Not quite Cambridgeshire, Norfolk or Suffolk but something quite different. It is my favourite nature reserve. The walk is long, the weather often bleak and the birds often difficult to see, but it seems so much more dramatic here. The gravel and grass track through the reedbed is barely above the water level and the heads of the reeds wave around at head height. It feels more intimate, less massive than other reserves. It feels like you're closer to the goings on of nature, without needing to sit in a hide.

Reed Bunting  ©  Stephen Rutt

Reed Bunting © Stephen Rutt

Despite the winter wind and sky, a Bittern boomed louder and closer than I usually hear them. It is an extraordinary sound, more mechanical than birdsong. Like an avian foghorn, but shier than that suggests. A Water Vole swum past the path. Three Marsh Harriers danced through the sky. A male, a female and an immature male. Stephen Menzie is much the better ornithologist than me and talks me through it. The immature male is in its third calendar year, being female-like but given away by clearer black tips to its milk chocolate wings, and a grey tail approaching that of an adult male. The adult male is possibly one of the most attractive raptors: sky grey wings, black tips and rich rufous brown. It flies away and surprisingly the immature male — which whilst out of view has obtained a talon's worth of food — flies to the female. The female swings around, they present talons and pass the food, the female dropping down into the reeds and the immature male disappearing over the reedbed.

It's the sort of encounter that reminds me why I've been birding for so long. A beautiful location and spectacular wildlife behaving in mysterious ways. A check of BWPi later reveals that Marsh Harriers start to breed in their second or third year, whilst still in subadult plumage, and can lose their mate to a fully-plumaged male. I should return later in prime Lakenheath Fen season to check on how they’re doing, if the young male lost out to the older one, while the marsh reverberates with warbler song and orioles in the poplars.

Another Water Vole scurried past the path. A Common Whitethroat sung and swallows swooped low over the marsh in the gathering gloom. Spring is coming, at its own pace. I wait impatiently.