31st May 2021 – A Day at the Fen

A Private Tour to go looking for Hobbys, and anything else we could find, at Lakenheath Fen today. It was a lovely warm sunny day – the first really warm day we have had for some time – with a light easterly breeze.

We met mid-morning in the car park. As we walked up towards the Visitor Centre, a Willow Warbler was singing in the trees and helpfully flew in to a oak right next to the path, where we were standing. While we queued to get in, we could hear two Cuckoos calling, one either side. Then we headed straight out onto the reserve – we had to be back to meet someone for lunch, so we planned to make a quick dash out to Joist Fen and back.

Willow Warbler – singing above our heads

Walking up the track, we kept stopping to listen to various warblers singing. A Reed Warbler was singing half-heartedly from a sallow by the path, where we could see it flitting around, before it dropped down into the reeds and started to sing more strongly. A couple of Common Whitethroats flitted around a little further along. A Cetti’s Warbler shouted at us from the reeds. A Blackcap was singing in the poplars.

We stopped at the viewpoint at New Fen. A pair of Great Crested Grebes looked like they might be displaying – facing each other, one and then the other preened a feather on their backs, then one picked up a piece of weed from the water, but changed its mind and threw it away. Both then swam forward, snorkelling, but it came to nothing.

A pair of Bearded Tits flew low across the water and disappeared into the reeds. Another Cuckoo had been calling in the poplars behind us, but now came out onto the edge, high in the tops. We just had a quick look at it, before it flew deeper in again, chasing after another Cuckoo. A couple of Marsh Harriers circled over the reeds, and a very distant Hobby was high over the trees on the other side of the river but it was impossible to get onto it. A promising start though.

A Bittern boomed. It sounded like it was quite close, so we walked up to the dragonfly platform to see if we could find it, but two people were already there and said it was still hidden in the reeds. We stopped and scanned, but couldn’t see anything either. We decided to head on to Joist Fen. We paused to watch two female Marsh Harriers as they circled up calling, and then noticed a male coming in high carrying something in its talons. It circled with one of the females and then passed the food to her. There were lots of dragonflies in the reeds by the path and flying back and forth in front of us – several Scarce Chasers and a couple of Hairy Dragonflies.

Scarce Chaser – basking on a reed stem

It is always a nice place to sit out at the Joist Fen Viewpoint, and as we rested out legs we spotted a Hobby out over the reeds. It was already quite distant, but as we watched it, we realised there were lots more Hobbys much further back still, very high up, and hawking for insects. We counted at least 17, but some were little more specks and they were very dispersed, so there were probably more. Mission accomplished in finding some Hobbys, but we would have liked better views.

There were more Marsh Harriers, distant too, and a Cormorant on its usual post out in the reeds. Then we got a message to stay the person we were meeting had arrived. It was a quick walk back and then a break for lunch on one of the picnic tables in the shade of the trees.

After lunch, we headed out again, this time up to the Washland Viewpoint. There was a good selection of ducks out on the water, including two drake Garganey. One was still in full breeding plumage, but the other was already moulting, well on its way to drab eclipse plumage, with a patch of grey feathers on the flank and a hint of the white stripe over the eye. There were a few waders here too – a few Avocets, some Lapwings and a Redshank. A male Stonechat was perched on the vegetation just across the river.

Marsh Harrier – circled over the river bank

Walking on up the river bank, a Grey Heron flew past the other side. We could hear Cuckoos calling and Reed Warblers and one or two Sedge Warblers still singing. As we passed New Fen, a Marsh Harrier flew in from the other side of the river and circled right beside us, before flying round us to get to the Fen.

As we got to the far side of West Wood, a Bittern appeared from behind the bushes and flew round over the reeds, across in front of the trees, and dropped back in again further back.

Bittern – good flight views

We dropped down off the river bank to Joist Fen Viewpoint again for a rest. The Hobbys were still there, still very distant. So we decided to try our luck walking further down the river bank, so see if we could get some closer views. As we walked on along the bank, a Lesser Whitethroat was rattling in the bushes. A closer Hobby appeared briefly from behind the poplars, but by the time we got out of the trees, it had disappeared. Still it was encouraging.

We could still see several Hobbys further up, so we walked on a bit further. A Cuckoo was calling in the bushes by the path and we stopped to look at it in the scope. Suddenly four or five Hobbys drifted back our way and started hunting for dragonflies over the reeds. The wind picked up a little, and one or two of them came in low over the river, really close now. We stood and watched as they caught and ate their prey right in front of us and even right overhead at one point. Stunning views!

Hobby – stunning views
Hobby – almost over our heads
Hobby – we were being watched too!
Hobby – supremely fast & aerodynamic
Hobby vs dragonfly – homing in
Hobby vs dragonfly – brace for impact
Hobby vs dragonfly – there could only be one winner!

We spent about an hour marvelling at the Hobbys catching dragonflies in front of us. Then we had to tear ourselves away – it was time to head back. A Common Tern was feeding along the river too. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was calling in West Wood as we passed. A Cuckoo flew right over our heads by Trial Wood and the Common Swifts were lower now over New Fen in the breeze.

Cuckoo – flew right over our heads

A very memorable few hours at Lakenheath Fen!

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