David Falk goes for a walk at Lak­en­heath Fen

David Falk, man­ager of Suf­folk County Coun­cil’s Bran­don Coun­try Park, heads to the ex­treme north west of Suf­folk to the very edge of the vast flat­lands known as The Fens

EADT Suffolk - - Contents -

THERE’S a loud hum­ming sound in the air. I look up and see a hawk. It drones across the sky, a large pro­boscis ex­tend­ing from its nose. Pro­pel­lers spin in a blur. It’s a Pave Hawk from RAF Lak­en­heath air base, and I’m look­ing at it from un­der the shade of a tree in the car park of RSPB Lak­en­heath Fen.

This is a world away from the Suf­folk most of us know. There’s no shin­gle beach here, no his­toric wool towns, no rolling land­scape of an­cient wood­lands, no breck­land forests. This is the edge of Fenland, a flat land­scape that un­furls north to­wards The Wash in Nor­folk.

I’m here in late Au­gust on one of the hottest days of the year. The tem­per­a­ture is creep­ing over 30°C, the air is hu­mid, the sun is burn­ing. Scrub crack­les in the heat, and matt white but­ter­flies skip over bushes. It feels Mediter­ranean, and re­minds me of a trip I once made to the Ca­mar­gue in south­ern France. The land is dead flat and, like the Ca­mar­gue, it’s a bird­ing hotspot – not for flamin­gos and storks, but for bit­terns and cranes.

There’s the warm­est of greet­ings in the vis­i­tor cen­tre, a beau­ti­fully de­signed wooden build­ing with pic­ture win­dows and large dis­plays. Staff en­thuse about wildlife, shar­ing knowl­edge among them­selves and visi­tors. The Fen is fa­mous for its cranes, and this year two breed­ing pairs pro­duced three young. I’m hop­ing to see them al­though staff tell me they tend to be elu­sive, hid­ing out in the reeds. They sug­gest in­stead head­ing to Wash­land view­point, where dozens of herons and egrets have set­tled. The view­point pro­vides an el­e­vated view of the Lit­tle Ouse River. An RSPB vol­un­teer stands along­side a tele­scope and points to­wards a wet­land just be­yond the river.

“The wa­ter lev­els are un­usu­ally low,” he in­forms me. “The light grey herons are the young ones.” He goes on to iden­tify swans, lap­wings and egrets. He pro­nounces egrets like ‘re­grets’ – I like that.

From the view­point, a riverbank path winds its way west­wards, skirt­ing the bound­ary of the re­serve. A wind blows, cooling the in­tense heat. Four pearly white mute swans pad­dle past. The grass fiz­zles with the sound of grasshop­pers. A poplar plan­ta­tion shiv­ers like a band of snare drums. Here I drop off the riverbank and pass over a stile, fol­low­ing a straight grassy path past white trum­pet flow­er­ing bindweed and pur­ple-headed rose­bay wil­lowherb.

I reach a hide, an open-sided wooden struc­ture with long benches. Other visi­tors are keenly peer­ing through binoc­u­lars at reeds. Could it be a crane? They point out a bit­tern, just as ex­cit­ing, and I peer with them. The bit­tern is at the very edge of the reeds. It emerges, re­veal­ing its full shape, and then steps in slow mo­tion along the wa­ter’s edge. It bends its head low, adopt­ing a tor­pedo shape as it stealth hunts, then stops. It pauses, stand­ing dead still, its brown stripes merg­ing per­fectly into its sur­round­ings. Then it takes a steady step for­ward, moves its head, and adopts a clas­sic pose of neck point­ing sky­wards. Step­ping slowly back­wards it be­gins to blend in with the sur­round­ing veg­e­ta­tion. I keep look­ing, staring at the reeds, but soon be­come un­sure if I’m spot­ting a bit­tern’s striped neck or just

see­ing strands of reeds. It’s dis­ap­peared.

I’m melt­ing in the day’s heat and hu­mid­ity as I move on along a dead straight track that seems to dis­ap­pear into the far hori­zon. Par­al­lel lines of dusty lime­stone tracks lead to the far end of the re­serve where an­other view­point over­looks marsh­land. Joist Fen is the crane’s home and I scan the view, search­ing for any move­ment. I was warned they’d be elu­sive and they are. Apart from a lone cor­morant perched with wings out­stretched atop a post, there is noth­ing. No move­ment, ex­cept the feath­ered flut­ter­ing of the reeds.

The heat gets the bet­ter of me and I start to head back. It’s of­ten when you least ex­pect things to hap­pen that they do. As I walk back along the track I see a mute swan ahead. It oc­cu­pies the path, its back to­wards me, but head turned. It’s watch­ing me from the cor­ner of its eye and wad­dles states­man­like at its own pace. I keep my dis­tance, re­spect­ing its own­er­ship of the land.

Fur­ther on, a black ball of fur flashes across the path. I think it’s a shrew, but can­not be sure. A short while later I see a blur of white and caramel as a stoat bounces just ahead of me be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing into reeds. A lizard wig­gles its way over the stony track. In a sunspot I watch dozens of drag­on­flies skim­ming the grass. They re­mind me of cy­clists in a velo­drome, cir­cling in long loops. Like cy­clists, they rise at the turn, build­ing mo­men­tum as they fall hastily back into line. I ap­proach them ex­pect­ing to hear the sound of wings, but they are silent.

I ar­rive back at the vis­i­tor cen­tre. It’s now closed, and my car is one of just two left in the car park. I look up at the sound of hum­ming and see the Pave Hawk again, still on its ma­noeu­vres. I’ve seen much, in­clud­ing my best sight­ing of a bit­tern ever, al­though I failed to see the fa­mous cranes. It’s a good ex­cuse to come back to RSPB Lak­en­heath Fen later in the year and re­turn to the flat­lands of The Fens.

Lak­en­heath Fen is fa­mous for its cranes

The hide over­look­ing the Fen

The land­scape re­minds me of a visit to the Ca­mar­gue in France

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