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There are the show-offs and the shy sort in the birds of prey world. . . and you can see both at Lakenheath Fen nature reserve

Birds of prey of any shape or form are always popular with our visitors here at Lakenheath, and we get frequent records of sparrowhawk, kestrel, buzzard and, in the summer months, hobbies, too.

Although our hobbies have now left for warmer climes they will be replaced during the autumn and winter by increasing numbers of marsh harriers. These breed on the reserve in summer (this year we had ten nests), but we get even more that turn up in the hours before dusk to socialise a little with each other, then settle into the reedbeds for an unseen sleep – you wouldn’t know they were there if they didn’t put on an elaborate performance going to bed.

Joining the marsh harriers (we can have up to 30 or so) in good years is sometimes a hen harrier or two – smaller cousins of the marsh harrier. The spectacle begins perhaps an hour before sunset, from November onwards, when marsh harriers will start to come in from all directions. Flying low and slow over the reedbeds, twisting, wheeling, soaring and tumbling through the air until the light fades so much that they are forced from their playtime to go to bed!

Marsh Harrier (21113552)
Marsh Harrier (21113552)

Hen harriers, if we get them, are much more business-like and will turn up at the eleventh hour, fly in quickly, very low, without ‘talking’ to any other birds, and drop like a stone into the same spot every night – you have to be quick to see these.

If you want to experience this, you can turn up on any day, though dry and clear evenings are better. Arriving about an hour before sunset is a good idea, and if you pop into the Visitor Centre first we can always advise you on good spots to wait and watch.

If you’d like a more informative and guided experience, we do have two events led by our reserve team on November 17, which you could attend:

Raptor Spectacular (1.45-4.45pm)

This will involve a three-mile walk down to Joist Fen and back with the reserve team as they count harriers. The team will show you the best vantage points, point out other wildlife and can answer any questions you might have. It’s likely we’ll see other birds of prey such as peregrine or merlin on the way.

Tickets are £8 adult and £4 child (RSPB member) or £10 adult and £5 child (non-RSPB members).

Raptor Spectacular Extra (1.45-4.45pm)

As part of the same event, above, initially, guests will be collected by a member of the reserve team at Joist Fen and taken onto parts of the reserve not normally open to visitors, to get up close to the action and assist one of the team with the count itself. For visitors who want a more one-to-one experience, to see how the surveying works and get closer to the birds, this would be ideal. Hot drinks, pastries and a lift back to the Centre in our off-road vehicle are included.

Tickets are £35 for an adult and £28 for a child.

If you are thinking of attending this event, please wear walking boots or wellies and plenty of warm clothing. There is no need to pay in advance, but to book your place please email lakenheath@rspb.org.uk or call us on 01842 863400.

I hope this has been interesting and has given you a feel for what is a very special time of year for us when our harriers join us for the winter. As usual, if you have any questions, please get in touch.

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