Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Wicken Winter Highlights

Since the start of the year, the Rangers have been cracking on with lots of odd jobs around the Fen. We've carried on pollarding in North Field, which we started before Christmas, and we've started lots of fence repairs that need to happen before the Livestock come back to Tubney, Hurdle Hall and Oily Hall in the Spring.

While we've been out all over the reserve, we have been enjoying all the wildlife that can only be seen in the winter. Of particular note are the Short Eared Owls (Asio flammeus) on Burwell Fen. The rangers who check the livestock are usually lucky enough to see these lovely birds every time they go to Burwell at this time of year. These owls can be found in the UK all year round, but only come to the Fen in the winter. Though some Short Eared Owls breed in Northern England and Scotland, the birds in East Anglia have probably migrated here from Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland.  They are most often seen hunting during the day at Burwell Fen, looking for small mammals to have for supper, most probably field voles. If you pop over to Burwell for a look, also keep an eye out for Brown Hares (Lepus europaeus. Hares are on Burwell all year round, it's just slightly easier to see them at this time of the year when the grass sward is slightly lower. They don't burrow like rabbits, instead they hunker down in the longer grass tussocks, relying on their speed to escape from predators if they're flushed up. Its also coming up to Hare boxing season. It's the time of year when males get particularly frisky and the females literally have to bat them away, stand up on their hinds legs batting at their amorous opponent with their front legs. This behaviour is normally seen around March time, hence the expression "mad as a march hare".

If your headed for a day out from the Visitor's Centre don't worry, not all the wildlife action is on Burwell Fen. Field fares (Turdus pilaris) can often be seen in the hedges and scrub around the boardwalk, and look out for Redwings (Turdus iliacus) also hiding away in those flocks. If you hang around the Visitor Centre at sunset you may also see Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus) coming into roost for the night. Hen Harriers only spend the winter at Wicken Fen, preferring to go to the Northern parts of the UK to breed on upland heather moorland. These harriers are very rare in the UK, and in 2014 there were only 4 breeding pairs. We are very lucky to see at least three at the Fen every evening. The grey males are a beautiful sight to see soaring over the sedge fen scoping out a good place to bed down for the night.

Our two long term Ranger Volunteers have been taking advantage on their on site accommodation to go out wildlife watching during the dusky hours. Below is Alex's account of the Burwell Fen Starling murmuration they witnessed a week or so ago:

That season has arrived again. It is time for the starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) to start collecting together and roosting on the fen. Over the past few weeks an estimated 20,000 to 35,000 starlings have been providing a stunning murmuration spectacle over Burwell fen. A few days ago two of our long term volunteer rangers headed down to the reed bed by the concrete bridge in an attempt to experience the fantastic display. Widespread and resident in the UK throughout the year, starlings are still considered one of the commonest garden birds feeding on insects and fruit. The reason for the mass aerial stunt is widely speculated. Many believe starlings group together as it offers safety in numbers against predators such as peregrine falcons Falco peregrines. Starlings gather at their roosting site to keep warm at night and to swap knowledge, such as good feeding sites. 

Other wildlife sightings that night included Mute Swan Cygnus olor, Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus, Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, c200 Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus, c50 Jackdaw Corvus monedula, Barn owl Tyto alba, Short eared Owl Asio flammeus.