Wednesday 31 March 2021

Guardians Of Bakers Fen

Baker's Fen, near the Cambridgeshire village of Burwell, is part of the National Trust's Wicken Fen Nature Reserve, but part of the wider scheme which is accessible by public paths, rather than the Sedge Fen itself for which there's a visitor centre and an admission charge. 

There's a grand plan to eventually convert a much wider area to a more natural state. To maintain a diversity of habitats there needs to be some, but not too many, grazing animals. And here on the fen that role is played by Highland Cattle and Konik Ponies.

Neither of these are native breeds and were, I think, chosen because they'd been used elsewhere with good results. Koniks come originally from Poland and have been used in the Netherlands on nature reserves. For many years they were thought to be descended from the extinct Tarpan, or European wild horse, though recent genetic analysis suggests that they are much closer to modern horses - even though they look a bit like Tarpans.

If they are no more wild than the many kinds of wild pony that exists in Britain, then perhaps Exmoor or Dartmoor ponies might be more appropriate. Indeed there are plans to use them on the newly restored heathland at Sandy - maybe they are there already; I haven't been there to check.

The Koniks already have a large area to graze, including their own dedicated bridge to take them from one part of the fen to another. Mostly you see them way off in the distance, but a few seem to like hanging about this particular gateway.

Their mild and friendly nature is perhaps part of the reason why they were chosen, for this area is popular with families taking exercise. Les decided to show you just how friendly they can be....

In these times of social distancing you have to get a cuddle wherever you can! (I wouldn't recommend trying this, most of the ponies are less approachable than this one).

We don't often get weather like this in March (23° C or 73° F) with scarcely a cloud in the sky and I'd forgotten just how glorious it can look out here.

The ponies seemed to appreciate the sunshine too. Incidentally, on the above picture you can see the dark dorsal-line which makes them so resemble wild horses.

There are true wild animals living here too - equally photogenic though less willing to pose. On our way here we saw three Roe Deer trotting across the fields. There are a surprising number of deer living wild in our intensively farmed landscape; Muntjac, Roe Deer and Fallow Deer are all seen from time to time.

We'd hoped to spot a few migrating birds, but were out of luck. However the two Little Owls that live on a pile of logs near Priory Farm posed nicely in the sunshine, and we caught a brief glimpse of the oft heard but seldom seen Cetti's Warbler.

And Chiffchaffs, recently arrived from Africa, were singing their distinctive two-note song from almost every bush and treetop. Exactly what it's saying is a matter of debate however; in Germany it's called a Zilp-Zalp, in Dutch it's a Tjiftjaf, while in Wales it's a Siff-Saff. In Albania they hear it as Byrynxhyk!

Just horsing around!

Take care.

Friday 26 March 2021

Some Like It Wet

I consider myself very fortunate that I live reasonably close to some areas of wetland scenery. There was a time when a huge area to the north of Cambridge was fenland, which can be roughly defined as marshy land with rivers winding very slowly through it. Most of it was drained for agriculture, but small areas were left undrained to absorb flood water during times of heavy rainfall. Additionally wetlands have been created where gravel has been extracted and increasingly more have been set aside specifically for wildlife.

Fen Drayton Lakes RSPB reserve is just a short drive from my brother's house and we've been going there a lot recently. It's provided a welcome respite from all the news of Jolly Jack Covid.

And here's some more good news. Yes, spring is slowly making its way here, but I want to talk briefly about three other happy arrivals in this strange, watery landscape.

At one time, not so long ago, if you'd seen a tall, elegant bird at the water's edge it would have been a Grey Heron. It was such a unique bird that nobody bothered about the "Grey" element of the name; you just didn't see any other herons or other birds like it. Other herons now appear sporadically, especially on the Somerset Levels, but here it's Egrets and others that are doing well.

But then in the mid-1990s I was down near Southampton and someone pointed out a small, dazzlingly white bird, a very rare visitor to these shores in those days, a Little Egret. Now they seem to be everywhere - beside rivers, along our coasts, around reservoirs, in every wetland; even in the little ditch that runs a few yards from my front door.

And of course at Fen Drayton Lakes. No one is really sure why they've done so well here, though it's easy to suspect that global warming might have something to do with it.

And then just a few years back there began to be regular sightings of the Little Egret's big cousin, the Great White Egret.

They've not yet become as common as the Little Egret, though in this locality at least, they are seen on most bird-watching trips to the fen edge. You can sometimes see as many as a dozen of them during a day's bird-watching, though being large and white makes them difficult to miss!

And now this winter there's another weird bird on the scene - three weird birds to be more precise. Three Glossy Ibis have turned up and have chosen to spend their winter at Earith in the Fens, of all places.

(By JJ Harrison ( - Own work, 
CC BY-SA 4.0,

These are birds that are native to Africa, though they are highly nomadic, adventurous birds and have made their own way to The Caribbean, the Eastern seaboard of the USA, Australia and other lands, where they have been successful colonists. Some also established themselves in Spain. Now if you're an African bird and you find the Spanish winters a bit chilly for your liking where might you go? Back to Africa till it warms up? No, Earith!

And they are not the only birds on the increase in these strange times. Another egret, the Cattle Egret, is getting more and more common here, even though this is hardly cattle country. And, despite an overall decline in bird numbers, there are also several other species doing well, so life is not all doom and gloom, particularly if you're a birdwatcher.

And I'll finish up with a picture you won't be expecting; just the weathered wall of a pre-fabricated metal hut used as a base for young naturalists on the reserve.

Which leaves just one question unanswered, "What would Claudio Monteverdi have written if he had access to an electric guitar back in 1643?"

"Oblivion Souave" (Monteverdi) by Nora Fischer and Marnix Dorrestein.

Take care.

Tuesday 23 March 2021

Old Tracks And New Growth

Wandlebury Country Park is equidistant from the homes of my brother and I, so makes an ideal venue for an early spring walk.

There are still no leaves on the trees in March, though there is a slight suggestion of leaf-buds on the upper branches. It was also warm enough to sit on one of the many benches - but not this one, we've only just started!

Violets are already flowering in the meadow.

This track runs alongside the Country Park and is popular with dog-walkers as they can let their dogs off-lead, something which is not allowed on the park's paths. In fact, you're even free to drive a car up here as, according to the maps of the Ordnance Survey, this is a "by-way open to all traffic" and the posts are inscribed "Highway Boundary". Apart from farm vehicles, nothing else much passes this way.

This is the Roman Road, which runs as a semi-forgotten track from the south-eastern outskirts of Cambridge. Like most of their roads it's straight as an arrow, completely ignoring the lie of the land. I think this indifference to the countryside they sought to conquer is part of the reason I've never much liked the Romans - the other part is the two years of my youth I spent wrestling with their infernal language!

There are a few patches of daffs among the Wandlebury woodlands, adding a splash of colour.

An unusual tree: the tangle on the left is the root system of the original tree which was blown over in a storm. Most of the tree was removed, as they did in those days. Some of the roots were still embedded in the soil and what was left of the old trunk began to sprout shoots. Now there are seven or eight new "trees" soaring skywards. And another tree or two have fallen between them. A regular tree soap-opera!

I wish I could say that this Grey Squirrel was living a free and blameless life in the wood, but alas it's hanging around the bird-feeders, eating up any spillage and making occasional sorties to try to knock the feeders down.

Don't be worried about this smart little fellow though, there's plenty left for him. I say "him", but to our human eyes the male and female Blue Tits are virtually identical, though I read once that to the birds themselves the difference is obvious, which is just as well I suppose. The reason is that they can see the ultra-violet part of the spectrum which makes them look very unalike.

This is Sammy and a sign tells us that Sammy is a "she". Unfortunately Sammy's got a sore foot at the moment, which is why she's been separated from the rest of the herd.

Layers of history: the dip is part of the ditch which runs around the Iron Age hill-fort. More recently a house was built on the site and I think the section of stone wall may once have been part of a bridge which was a feature of the garden. And the exposed root system bears witness to the passage of time.

I didn't even know there was an old orchard here, but we could see white blossoms frothing over the garden wall and Les spotted a door leading us to this beautiful, secluded place.

I'm pretty certain these must be old plum trees to be flowering so early in the year.

If that little Blue Tit's dapper plumage was not enough to attract a partner then this "honeymoon suite" should seal the deal! 

Despite the summery-looking blossom, the skies had clouded over and a chilly wind had got up. It was surprising how sheltered it was behind the orchard walls, which is why they were built here, to protect the trees from any spring frosts.

Take care. 

Sunday 21 March 2021

Fungus And Mirrors

A month has ticked by since I last posted anything. This part of England has been mostly overcast and grey, with just a little light relief in the form of drizzle and rain; I've been out and about but haven't even bothered to take the camera a lot of the time. To spare you my moans and groans I've been leaving the blog well alone!

But I did find this astonishing fungi-clad log lying in the local woodland and luckily I had my camera in my coat pocket on that morning.

The log was around six feet (2m) long and pretty much covered with fungi throughout its length. Coincidentally I'd been reading Peter Wohlleben's excellent The Hidden Life Of Trees, in which he pointed out that a tree's useful work goes on, even after it is dead.

That's probably enough fungi for now, but I've had another idea in mind for years, which centres on using a cheap A4 size acrylic mirror in my photos....

I've no idea where the idea came from (I hope I haven't stolen it from anyone else, though there's very little that's truly new in photography). I hope that it combines looking up at flowers and the trees above, with a view of the woodland floor. Or maybe I'm just crazy!

These are not wild daffodils, though they are growing wild in the village's little wood. They were probably planted, or maybe thrown out, by some past gardener.

The blackthorn is in blossom just now, beneath a rare glimpse of blue sky.

I rather like my "mirror idea", though it's not without its challenges, photographically speaking. Getting the correct exposure and focus for the reflection and the reality is not easy.

Unless you wedge the mirror in the branches, of course!

I didn't mind a few petals falling on the mirror - I think autumn leaves might also work pictured in this way. In fact I rather wish that I'd started on this project in January, then maybe I could've made a calendar based around mirror reflections.

We live with a dream that this latest lockdown will end soon, as the vaccination programme continues apace. Then I hope to travel further afield, rather than wearing out the few miles of paths around my home.

Take care.