Friday, 20 May 2016

That ol' Wicken May Magic

It's debatable whether there's such a thing as a truly bad day's birding, but undoubtedly some days are better than others. This one was nigh-on perfect.

For a decade myself and two friends have paid twice-yearly visits to Wicken Fen, once just before Christmas and then again in May. Both days are, loosely, an attempt to find as many species as possible, but understandably they vary greatly in character. December's trip is defined by limited daylight, a faint air of clock-watching and a rush to visit all areas of the Fen, though we always end the day sitting quietly amid the gloaming, waiting for Hen Harriers to ghost in and toasting their arrival with Sloe gin and mince pies. Despite the potential for many more species, May's trips are more relaxed affairs, the longer days allowing time to soak in the seasonal highlights. Nothing much beats sitting back on a grassy, sun-drenched bank, Hobbies hawking all around, Skylarks singing up above and the call of Cuckoo drifting over on the breeze (and a pork pie inevitably on the go - food seems to feature heavily on our trips, whatever the time of year). The last few years have suffered slightly from below-par weather, but no such concerns this past Monday. Having already postponed the trip once it was with relief that we awoke to sunshine and indeed the day completely out performed the forecast.

Carrying our own body-weights in food, but already full with optimism, we kicked off proceedings just after 7am. The overnight chill was already being tempered by the morning sun, which soon justified the decision to jettison any coats. One of the first birds we encountered was a Cuckoo, a suitable harbinger for the day ahead. One of our many rituals is to start off from the Brick Pit hide - a chance to nab some woodland species that may elude us further out in the Fen, but also an opportunity to start the more aquatic theme. Birds such as Blue Tit, Great Tit and Robin shared the stage with my first Reed Warblers of the year and a stunning Little Grebe swam around almost within touching distance. Further on a Bittern boomed and a Grasshopper Warbler reeled. A Garden Warbler allowed us superb views as it sat singing atop a blossom-laden Hawthorn and we tracked down a Yellowhammer calling out by the fields, a song so redolent of sunny Summer days.

Crossing the reed beds we strolled along beside Wicken Lode. An intriguing but somewhat gruesome sight arrested our progress. A decently-sized Pike lay dead within the water, but closer inspection revealed it had another sizeable fish, a Chub perhaps, dead head-first within its jaws. Had the Pike literally bitten off more than it could chew, it's backward-facing teeth for once not the evolutionary masterpiece but instead a trap from which neither fish could escape, locking them into a shared doom? The diagnosis became more complicated with the realisation that a reed stem also entered the Pike's mouth and emerged through its gills. Had it impaled itself at the moment of ambush? The Pike's postmortem was cut short as a cry of "Cranes!" went up and there above us were 2 of these superb birds. Moments later a Buzzard glided rapidly into view and beyond this another raptor turned, revealing itself to be a Red Kite (my first at Wicken). After this burst of activity we calmed down in the tower hide, looking out over Hobbies and Cuckoos and nesting Herons (and getting stuck into a pork pie, naturally).

The afternoon found us heading onto Baker's Fen, which was in perfect condition. It immediately fulfilled this potential, with a gorgeous pair of Garganey amid the tussocks. Ringed Plover picked about on the mud. On to Burwell Fen, 7 or 8 Hobbies up in the air above the Lode and a Cuckoo seemingly causing great distress to the local Dunnocks. Pleasingly, the familiar Whooper Swan (an escapee or injured wild bird?) had apparently found acceptance from some Mute Swans, forming a contented-looking trio. Plenty of activity on the pools.The usual suspects joined by more Ringed Plover and some Dunlin. Pintail, Pochard and Wigeon may have been somewhat unseasonal, but added valuable 'ticks' to the day list. A pair of Grey Partridge ran ahead of us along the bank and my first Painted Lady of the year fluttered around us.

Crossing back over Burwell Fen we experienced another frantic burst of activity. A Greenshank was in one of the path-side pools. Ahead, a Barn Owl quartered a ditch and moments later a Short-Eared Owl came into view. A Meadow Pipit landed on a post, then a Pied Wagtail, then a stunning Yellow Wagtail. Watching the owls, we observed the Barn Owl flying ever closer to the SEO, now also sat a-top a post. As the Barn Owl passed over the perching SEO it chose that moment to empty its bowels! Most, if not all, missed, but it seemed a close call. A deliberate act or just very bad timing? More owl action at Priory Farm. Another Barn Owl, this one looking rather more serene as it sat in the evening sun. We then realised that a Little Owl was sat tucked into a pile of concrete posts. At one stage it scuttled under overhanging corrugated iron (perhaps it knew what that Barn Owl might be capable of), but then hopped down onto the grass, taking up its position in the sun and, naturally, glaring at us and everything else.

Our day was finished on Baker's Fen. The Ringed Plover had built up to 7 or more, accompanied now by some Dunlin. A Greenshank strode about and the Garganey were still feeding. To round the day off a Snipe began to drum, shooting about above us in a cloudless blue sky, producing that astonishing and wonderful sound.

In terms of our listing activities, the day had yielded 85 species (78 seen and a further 7 'only' heard). This is, for us, a record for this site - and by some margin. These figures and species lists will be entered into notebooks, offering future interest and setting us a future challenge but, as ever with birding, it's the accompanying memories which are surely of greater value, the notebooks' greater purpose being to help unlock them. Hopefully we'll be pounding the Fen, summer and winter, for many years to come and, each time, adding more to our already rich store. 

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