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
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