Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Fenland in all its glory

It is a glorious morning to be out for a walk, the sky a bright expanse of blue tinged with the softest wisps of fine cloud. Such a dramatic sky is enhanced by the dark, peaty flatness of the fenland landscape, the land reduced to a narrow band, linear beneath a great and vibrant canvas. The ultimately circular walk will take me along Burwell Lode, north towards Adventurer’s Fen (with Wicken beyond) before looping back around to follow smaller ditches and fenland drains.

The going is easy, the land flat and the tracks relatively free from mud. My progress, however, is slow, such are the distractions of this vast expanse over which I can scan with my binoculars. The fields that sit neighbourly with the village are farmed but, while they hold partridge, Brown Hare and (surprisingly) a good number of Roe Deer, it is the distant wet fens that draw my gaze. It is these that will hold the hunting Short-eared Owls, wildfowl and waders.

Small parties of winter thrushes, Starlings and finches pass overhead, as do larger groups of Black-headed Gulls and the occasional swan. Even with the unseasonal warmth you can tell it is winter by the light and the calls of the birds that pass overhead. Spaced along the lode are groups of fishermen in their twos and threes, their large ‘Day-Glo’ floats sitting high in the dark water, unmoving. Despite the unseasonal warmth, the water must be cold and I wonder just how active the fish will be. From the reeds that line the far bank comes the harsh scolding chatter of a Wren. Holding a larder of insects, these waterside habitats can prove a lifeline for Wrens and other small birds in winter. Such is their importance that many Wrens will establish and defend feeding territories here for the duration of the winter.

A couple of miles in to the walk and I leave the arable behind, the ground becoming rougher and I sense that this is the place for hunting owls and harriers. Almost immediately, a Short-eared Owl catches my eye. It is quartering the ground, dropping down periodically onto unseen prey, though often unsuccessful in its strike. This is the first of several owls that I see over the course of the morning, the best of which comes within 40 m of me, perching on a post and staring with its intense yellow eyes. I never tire of these birds, such is their charm and character.

This winter, the fen is proving a reliable site for the owls, with up to six birds in the air at a time. Their presence draws birdwatchers, most of whom drive to fen but for me the walk is more rewarding.

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