It will not be long until dusk. The muddy footpath makes progress difficult and lodges in my mind the unsettling suspicion that we will arrive too late and so miss the promised spectacle. We’ve come to Lakenheath Fen, one of our regular haunts, in order to see the growing roost of marsh and hen harriers that has been something of a feature this winter. Although the marsh harriers can be seen here throughout the day, and indeed throughout the year, the hen harriers are a seasonal visitor, arriving on the short winter afternoons shortly before dusk.
The walk out yields up two barn owls and a salvonian grebe, the latter rare inland and the first I have seen in the Brecks. A herd of mute swans, 32 in number and feeding in a pasture, hints at the visiting whooper and bewick’s wintering further out into the fens but our journey today ends here, a small group of us stood on the banked footpath and looking back across the reserve. Off to our left is a larger group of birdwatchers, dutifully gathered at the crane watchpoint, but ours is the better position, shaped by local knowledge and the position of the low winter sun.
Within moments we have our first harriers, two marsh and a single male hen harrier. He is a stunning male, the grey wings readily picked out against the dark of the marsh and the line of trees and shrubs beyond. Soon we pick out others, our counts reaching at least five different individuals. As well as the harriers, there are a perched peregrine, the resident pair of cranes and a passing kestrel. As the light begins to go, so two of the hen harriers continue to hunt, coming closer and closer to where we are standing. The views are breathtaking as the harriers float by on owl-like wings, occasionally checking their buoyant flight to hover over possible prey.
The roost this year is almost certainly the best it has ever been, surpassing the numbers being seen elsewhere within the region and providing a good number of visiting birdwatchers with a fantastic late winter spectacle. This spectacle includes not just the birds but also the fenland landscape and the dramatic late winter sky.