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Letter to the Welsh Government

If you’ve met me in person, you will know already that I can be rather opinionated. Particularly if the topic is concerning nature, feminism or cakes vs biscuits. Since my blog is about nature, I tend to only comment on the former here. Although I am willing to respond to queries about my thoughts on the latter two topics as well.

I am all for calling on the government and organisations to sort themselves out when it comes to wildlife and environmental protection, so when I head about the proposal to build a 6-lane motorway through the Gwent Levels, I was horrified – and relieved that there is an opportunity to let the government know my opinions on the plan.

I have personalised my response (see below), as I lived in south Wales for a year and I know how wonderful this wildlife is. Send your response too!

Re: M4 Corridor around Newport. Formal objection to draft orders – please forward to the Welsh Government.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing to strongly oppose the Welsh Government’s proposal to divert the M4 motorway through the beautiful Gwent Levels.

A few years ago, I lived in south Wales and it was one of the best years of my life. I discovered the beauty of British wildlife there, from the humble cuckooflower to the majesty of red deer. I wouldn’t be the naturalist and conservationist that I am today if it hadn’t been for that year.

During this year, I worked as in environmental education, helping local children to discover the beautiful and special wildlife on their doorstep. The beautiful and special wildlife that you are proposing to destroy with this motorway. It breaks my heart to think of all the animals and plants that will be affected by this plan. I understand that something needs to be done about the M4, but this motorway through the Gwent Levels cannot be the answer.

I urge you to respect the protected environment and wildlife of the Gwent Levels and stop this new road from being built.

We need investment in a Wales that is fit for future generations, not one where our health, well-being and environment are put at risk.

Please ensure the Welsh Government receives this email so my objection will be considered and counted.

Yours sincerely,

Ms M Shersby

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Fire In My Heart

I had a rather cool evening earlier this week. Now that the evenings are both lighter and warmer, and it feels like summer is not far around the corner (with the exception of this weekend which has decided to be cold, brr!), I can start going on interesting evening adventure trips again. You may remember that I did these quite a lot when I was working in Dorset, because there was so much to explore and so much wildlife to see! And now I get to do it all over again, but this time in Cambridgeshire where there are new places to explore!

Albeit that Tuesday evening’s adventure wasn’t in Cambs. I decided to take inspiration from Bilbo Baggins by going on an adventure outside the Shire! At least, to the next one, Hertfordshire, which I can see from Wimpole Hall.

Anyway, sparked by inspiration with one of the Hall volunteers during the day, I went down to Therfield Heath near Royston (literally just over the border into Hertfordshire!) to try and find a rare flower that is currently in bloom. More on that later. After initially heading the wrong way, where I saw Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus), a Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) and about six Skylarks (Alauda arvensis), I found myself walking through a sun-dappled woodland.

Male Blackbirds (Turdus merula) were singing beautifully, and a Robin (Erithacus rubecula) was trilling away. And there was a high pitched noise I couldn’t identify. Up in the branches above, a tiny shape flitted back and forth. Never long enough to get a really good look, but enough to see that it was either a Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) or Firecrest (R.ignicapilla). I just needed to get a view of the face to see if there was a black eyestripe over the eye (Firecrest) or not (Goldcrest). Annoyingly, it did what small birds tend to do, and it flitted away. I dug out my phone from my pocket and looked up the Firecrest song, since my hunch was that it was a Firecrest, as I wanted to check my hunch against what I had heard.

So there was I, thinking the Firecrest had disappeared off into the trees, never to be seen again. Note to self – Firecrests have good hearing. A few moments after playing the song, and confirming my hunch, it was back. And oh my, it was in territorial mode. If it had been a human, I would say that it was in my face saying “you what, mate?”. I feel really bad for having played the song now, and affected its behaviour, particularly as this was during breeding season. I have learnt my lesson! I did manage to get a few photos before it flew off again to search for another (real) Firecrest. I also got a number of blurred or empty photos!

Continuing through the woodland, with a melodious background noise of Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) and Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), I emerged out on the top of a hill in full sunlight. A small note that I was thrilled, as Cambridgeshire is ever so flat and I have been missing the hills of Dorset and Radnorshire! The hillside was dotted with butter-coloured Cowslips (Primula veris) and flowers of a deeper purple, the aforementioned endangered species. The rare and beautiful Pasqueflowers (Pulsatilla vulgaris), although they aren’t so rare on this particular hillside! There were loads of them! It was almost a carpet of flowers.

Aren’t they just stunning?!

I especially love the hairs on the stalk and sepals, and I did some reading up on them – the Wildlife Trusts species explorer page on the Pasqueflower has some interesting, and succinct, information on them.

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How A Nomad Helped My Confidence

This week saw my first office day at the Wildlife Trust BCN as a Volunteer Communications Officer. Alongside writing a piece for their blog, assisting with a competition and learning more about how the communications team functions, there was a particular aspect to the day that has since become very memorable. The lunch break.

Now I didn’t have a very exciting selection of food for my lunch, but it was eaten outside in the beautifully warm spring sunshine. Brimstone butterflies (Gonepteryx rhamni) flitted through the garden, bees worked hard to collect pollen and a Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) called from a nearby tree. Being the keen naturalist that I am, I was mentally noting down the different species about – Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), Red-tailed and Early Bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius and B.pratorum), Rosemary Beetle (Chrysolina americana), 7-spot Ladybird (Coccinella 7-punctata) and so on, all of which would be put into my wildlife records notebook. Further to being a naturalist, I am a pan-species lister which means that I am extra excited if I see something new to me. And during this lunch break, I did just that.

I was watching and photographing some bees on the rosemary (NB: I need some for my garden, it is brilliant for pollinators!) when I noticed another insect nearby. With its wicked looking markings, I thought that it was probably an ichneumon wasp species (Ichneumonidae). I snapped a few photos, taking care to get it from different angles, before it wandered off into the undergrowth. I decided against potting it, I didn’t think I would be able to identify myself and figured it would be better off in the wild.

So that was my lunch break, all in all, the type of lunch break I love. Warmth, sunshine and wildlife. I didn’t think much more of it until later. I got home and downloaded the camera photos onto my laptop, whilst flicking through my insect book to find Red Mason Bee (Osmia rufa), a species that I had seen for the first time recently and needed to put a tick next to in the book. I was in the Hymenoptera section (bees, wasps, ants) and as I flicked through, I saw something vaguely familiar – a group that looked like that insect from earlier. But it wasn’t the ichneumon wasp section, it was the Nomada bees group.

After a bit of thinking, and a sip of tea, I decided I would give the identification a go. If nothing else, it would show me whether this group is ever ‘doable’ from photos alone. Immediately I felt a little overwhelmed … the Nomada bees do look pretty similar to each other! Rather than trying to focus on each species at a time, I drew up a shortlist of potential species, casting aside species that I decided against – too much yellow on the abdomen, stripes on the thorax and other such characteristics.

I ended up with a shortlist of 6 potential species, and I turned to a more detailed, and wonderful, book (Falk – Field Guide to Bees of Great Britain and Ireland) to examine each of these species in turn. I slowly read through each description, flicking back to the anatomy page when confronted with technical terms (tergites, labrum, pronatal tubercules), crossing the species off if the description didn’t match the photograph in front of me.

In the end, I was left with one, Nomada ferruginata also known as the Yellow-shouldered Nomad Bee. The technical bits in the description matched up:  the pronatal tubercules were yellow (i.e. small yellow circular lump on the thorax), there were yellow spots on the tergites 2 and 5 (i.e. the yellow spots on different sections of the abdomen) and the antennal scapes were black (i.e. the first section of the antennae, closest to the head).

Nomada ferruginata ID features

I posted my thoughts on the UK Bees, Wasps and Ants Facebook group and on Twitter, and received confirmation that my ID is correct! Having looked on the NBN gateway, I can see that it is not a new species to Cambridgeshire, but it may be a new species for Cambourne. I shall dig further and find out.

Having identified the bee as N.ferruginata, I did some reading about it. Bees in the Nomada genus are commonly referred to as Nomads or ‘homeless bees’. This particular species seems to be quite a rare bee, listed as endangered in the Red Data Book but this probably needs to be revised. It is either being identified correctly more often, or actually experiencing a population increase with more records the last couple of decades (a new species for Worcestershire in 2008). It is a cleptoparasite on another solitary bee species, Andrena praecox, although one website refers a source that suggests that A.varians might also be a host species. A.praecox also seems to be quite a rare species as apparently the females are very dependent on willow catkins.

In conclusion – what I have learnt from the Nomad ID?

  • That not all wicked-looking Hymenoptera are ichneumon wasps.
  • That it is worth taking notice of the small, quiet insects that aren’t buzzing or fluttering about.
  • That some Nomada species can be identified from photos only, but only if photos are taken from lots of angles (I could have done with more angles). However, not all of them are as there can be some slight differences that require closer examination.
  • That a good field guide can make all the difference. Whilst my general insects book (Brock) led me to the correct group, the bee book (Falk) provided the technical expertise to narrow it down to the exact species.
  • That it is worth pursuing identification and I shouldn’t give up on species identification just because it looks difficult! I.e. I should be more confident in myself and my ability to work through the process of identification.

The 3Bs – Birds, Bugs And Bluebells


I journeyed south recently on a voyage of familial connection. Also known as visiting Hertfordshire to see my parents and my grandmother. Whilst there, I embarked on a task that I hadn’t attempted for a long time – making a bird box. Fortunately my dad makes bird boxes quite often, so I was under his instruction. We used an old wooden pallet that my dad had rescued from being chucked away, cutting it down to size and joining it together with small nails, finally attaching a strip of material at the top so that the lid can opened in order to allow access for cleaning. And ta-da, a bird box was made! Whilst it is probably a tad too late to go up this year, I shall still keep it outdoors in order to let it weather and smell like the outdoors, so that hopefully it can be used next year.

A short walk around the local fields with dad and Toby resulted in hearing my first Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) of the year! Though I didn’t see it annoyingly, but I guess I can’t have everything. My dad was eagle-eyed, spotting a Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) swooping into a tree.


Continuing with Hertfordshire wildlife, there were a good number of insects around, though sadly no true bugs (Hemiptera) so I’m being cheeky and using the word ‘Bugs’ to describe invertebrates in general – because I wanted the 3Bs!

I counted over 100 7-spot Ladybirds (Coccinella 7-punctata) in my grandmother’s garden, so I wonder if this year will be an Invasion Of The Ladybirds year? I was talking to my mum about ladybirds and she was recalling a holiday when I was young. We were on a beach somewhere (likely Cornwall or Wales), and apparently the beach was absolutely covered in ladybirds! Sadly I don’t remember this so hopefully it will happen again soon, I would love to see it.

My first Dark-edged Bee-fly (Bombylius major) of the year was seen in the front garden, resting on the paving between visits to flowers. I find these creatures fascinating to watch. They can often be mistaken for bees (and you can see why), hence why the genus name is Bombylius – similar to the genus name of bumblebees which is Bombus. By mimicking bees, they are able to get close in to the nests of solitary bees. The female coats her eggs in sand (presumably as camouflage) and flicks them into the nests. The bee-fly larvae hatch and feed on a larva of its host, eventually killing it! So despite their cute (ish) and fluffy appearance, they have a rather gruesome lifecycle! There’s some good information and identification tips on the BWARS website.

This day in Hertfordshire also proved to be good for butterflies. On the drive down from Cambridgeshire, I saw 7 Brimstone butterflies (Gonepteryx rhamni), the first of which was actually on Wimpole Estate land as I drove past, which was rather pleasing. Walking the dog around the fields provided my first two Commas (Polygonia c-album) on the year, one looking even more ragged than usual, as well as Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae), Peacocks (Aglais io) and another Brimstone which very kindly rested long enough for me to take a photo! I only managed a couple of photos of the Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks as they spent most of the time flitting about in the battles for their territories. It was remarkable because I could actually hear the sound of them violently bashing into each other!


And so to the third B. I was fortunate enough to be invited, due to my voluntary work with the local Wildlife Trust, to a day learning about the bluebell survey and DNA barcoding of bluebells. This took place at the Sanger Institute on the Wellcome Trust’s Genome Campus, just south of Cambridge. There are more details about the survey and DNA barcoding on their website, so I will take you through my experience of the day. The photos below have their own captions describing the basics of the steps photographed.

Whilst my sample didn’t work, I have done successful PCR and DNA analysis when I was at university, so I wasn’t feeling too sad or left out! I haven’t got into too much detail regarding the exact process of breaking down the DNA, running the PCR or the DNA analysis, but if you would like me to, I can do so in a separate blog post – just let me know! I could also discuss the differences between British, Spanish and hybrid bluebells if you would like (Hyacinthoides non-scripta, H. hispanica and H. hispanica x non-scripta respectively).

A half hour walk in the grounds after the day’s work resulted in yet more 7-spot Ladybirds, as well as my first Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) of the year (no photo though sorry) and my first Snake’s Head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris). I don’t know if it is a wild Snake’s Head Fritillary or a planted one, as they are quite rare in the wild. I’m hoping to hear back from Fran as to which it is – it would be thrilling if it were a wild one!

Non-B wildlife

A last note, we had a bit of a surprise at work when a very dusty Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) appeared in the Ticket Office! It must have hibernated in there over winter, though how it got there in the first place is a mystery. After a bit of clean to removed the worst of the debris from it and a couple of photos, I released it next to one of the ponds.

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Bugs For My Birthday

It was my birthday at the beginning of this week – not a big birthday, but a high enough number to make me realise that 30 is creeping closer. Although to be honest, I’m quite excited. They (the mysterious ‘They’!) say that your thirties are better than your twenties!

No matter my age, I was determined to have a nice nature-filled day. Originally I had planned to spend the day at RSPB Minsmere, but then Storm Katie arrived with howling winds and plenty of rain. Instead I had a relaxed morning at home, eating homemade cake (made my Matt) and drinking many cups of tea!

Once the weather had calmed itself down in the afternoon, a few friends and I visited a local nature reserve, Overhall Grove. It was a really sweet reserve, apparently both an Ancient Woodland and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and I look forward to returning there again over the coming seasons. Some of the friends accompanying me are also into nature, so we got stuck in with trying to find some good species. I’ve added a few more species to my pan-species list – including Cauliflower Fungus (Sparassis crispa), a new beetle species (Abax parallelepipedus) and Median Wasp (Dolichovespula media). Although I haven’t identified everything just yet, I am getting there gradually.

In addition to the new species, there were a number of 7-spot Ladybirds (Coccinella 7-punctata) about. I am always thrilled to see them as they are a sign that winter is over! Spring has started and summer is not too far away! There was even a butterfly – but it flew away from us and we couldn’t identify it. It was quite a funny sight, particularly for my friends that aren’t into nature – 4 adults running across the field after a butterfly! Bring on much more butterfly (and moth!) chasing this year.

There’s not so much else to add. I had hoped to hear a Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), which would’ve been my first of the year. But no luck, and I still haven’t heard one since. As I have said above, I look forward to returning there across the current seasons so I am sure I shall hear one there at some point!

We’re All Going To The Zoo, Zoo, Zoo

A hen do in London meant that I visited an old workplace of mine, ZSL London Zoo, for an afternoon. I should specify, it wasn’t my own hen do!

It was a superb afternoon (and hen do in general), and it was very nostalgic for me. Particularly when we went to the section where I had worked as a keeper.

As we only had the afternoon there, we didn’t manage to get around and see all the animals, but I would say that we did quite well and across quite a variety of taxon groups!

As you can imagine, one of my favourite enclosures was the Butterfly Tunnel. Though I do feel there should have been more moths of course. They did have the caterpillars, though no adults, of the Atlas Moth so that made up for it. I also really enjoyed seeing all the pupae, especially as there were some butterflies recently emerged.

I apologise if this blog post is quite short – I am still recovering the hen do! Great fun but utterly exhausting!

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Hare Again, And Again

After last week’s literal ‘Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow’, I was keeping a keen eye on the fields of Wimpole Estate for some live and happy Brown Hares (Lepus europaeus). Before that though, Matt and I found another hare on the road. Unlike last week, this one had already dead, rather than suffering a prolonged and painful decline. Being me, said hare is now in my freezer. It may be a bit unusual, and a tad gross, but I hope to dissect it in order to study its anatomy.

Anyway, back to the world of the living. Fortunately I have seen some hares that are very much alive. I usually see them at quite a distance, and usually in bad light, so my photos aren’t too good. But I have managed to catch a couple of half-decent photos of them, and they even appeared in my short article in Wimpole’s internal newsletter ‘The Herald’.

Something that has amazed me has been how much they can hunker down into the grass when they want to disappear! The photos below show this very well. The first photo is taken from my car, whilst the second one was taken just after I had gotten out of my car. It took me a while to refind them amongst the grass!

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Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow

Sadly the title of this blog post is very literal. Late on an evening this week Matt and I were driving back home when we spotted a Brown Hare by the side of the road. We knew immediately that something must be wrong as it wasn’t moving, but we when circled back, we saw that it wasn’t dead as initially supposed.

Chucking the hazard lights on, we went over for a closer inspection which confirmed our thoughts that something had to be seriously wrong as the hare did not even attempt to move away. If it had been a rabbit, our guess would have been myxomatosis. I’ve since learnt that although hares don’t get myxomatosis, they can be vectors for it.

With no plastic gloves with which to handle it, I resorted to using my jumper to pick it up. Again no attempt to move or escape, but it was definitely alive. We jumped back into the car and sped (although not over the speed limit of course) home, during which time it urinated on me – lovely!

We weren’t entirely sure what to do with it next, neither of us having had much experience with injured wild animals. We popped into a cardboard box with some water, and closed the door so that Mowgli (the cat) wouldn’t get to it and scare it even more. I phoned the RSPCA, and with all the local vets being closed, an officer was despatched out to us.

Sometime later, the RSPCA officer turned up, having somehow managed to actually find our little cottage in the middle of nowhere. Upon inspection, it was revealed that there was a large swelling and the pelvis was shattered beyond possibility of healing, probably due to being hit by a car.With such an awful injury, the hare was put down humanely by the RSPCA officer.

I won’t lie, I did find it very upsetting. Some of you may question why, since I deal with skulls and have dead birds awaiting taxidermy in my freezer. I suppose it is because I had seen the hare alive and worried over it. I knew that putting it down was the right thing to do, and although it was upsetting, I knew that I had down the right thing (in terms of animal welfare) by picking it up. It would have had a very slow (and cold because it was a very very cold night) death.

Despite the sad outcome, the experience was a little bit exciting at the same time. I had never been so close to a hare before, let alone having picked one up! They are absolutely huge! Of course, I knew they were big animals – rabbits have nothing on them, but it was still very much larger than I thought. And so utterly beautiful.

To end, I shall put up a nice photo of a hare that I saw last summer at Chesil Beach from the Fleet Observer boat. Albeit that this photo makes me a little sad because look at how much litter there is on the beach!!

Brown / European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

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Insects In Unexpected Places

My wildlife adventures this week turned away from the typical ventures at nature reserves, towards indoor exploration. Matt and I spent a day with my family at the Science Museum and then the V&A Museum, to celebrate a birthday. I am always a big fan of museums as they are such excellent places for learning – whether it be about the natural world, the lives of humans long ago or otherwise. I wasn’t expecting much, if any, nature in this trip, after all we weren’t at the Natural History Museum. But as the title suggests, I was pleasantly surprised.

Before any insects, we found the DNA model made by Crick and Watson (NB: I feel more should have been said about Franklin in the description). After lots of button-pushing and pointing at shiny things by my nephew (a sign of how the rest of the day would turn out – he loves buttons!), we then stumbled across some bees! From what I remember, the one in the middle is robotic bee whose flight is based on the study of honeybees.

Skip ahead through galleries about atmosphere, household goods and wooden doors, plus some delicious lunch (surrounded by very loud children!), and we get to the Glass Gallery in the V&A Museum. My nephew amused himself, and the family, by running around laughing and looking for buttons to push or stairs to climb. In between being amused by his antics, I took the opportunity to look at the various objects on display. There was plenty of wildlife to be found – as ever, artists being inspired by nature. I think my favourites are the first three – jellyfish, vases and the branch, though I was awed to see work from mosaic tiles from 1-2C AD!

I was intrigued by whether I could find any insects among the collection. There were flowers, trees and birds a-plenty, but I felt certain there must be some insects in there, even if only the usual butterflies found in artwork. I asked the gallery attendant / volunteer, but they didn’t know. So what next? Well, obviously attempt to examine every object in there for insects – a challenge and a half, but I was going to go around and browse anyway, so why not make said browsing a bit more detailed? I was rewarded for my efforts, and many times over. Whilst the insects weren’t normally the main feature on a glassware (or pottery), nonetheless, they were there. Also, a cute snail too.

All in all, a lovely day out with the surprising, but pleasant, appearance of insects and nature within the galleries.

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Owl have some of that!

I was going to write a post introducing you to the garden at the new house – the little beasties that I have found whilst digging up the vegetable patch, the birds on my new garden bird list and the Lepidoptera that I’ve found hibernating in the shed. However, that shall have to wait and something so wonderful has happened that I am bumping off that topic and devoting a whole blog post to it.

My current work rota at Wimpole is little bit skew-iffy, as I work one day every weekend – and that day varies, and as a result, I get a day off during the week – again, variable. This week, my day off during the week was Thursday, which dawned chilly but bright. Like everyone, I had some urgent tasks that needed doing, but once those were out of the way, I was free as a bird. That is, I was free if I ignored the rest of my To Do list. I had a choice before me, spend the afternoon working through my To Do list or make the most of the sunshine and visit a nature reserve. As a naturalist, there really was no choice. So off to a nature reserve I went, which in this case, was RSPB’s Fen Drayton Lakes.

You may remember that I’ve been there a few times, spotting Bittern (Botaurus stellaris) from the car park, protecting Ruby Tiger Moth caterpillars (Phragmatobia fuliginosa) from cyclists and generally having an all-round lovely time. Which I expected again, although I would have to be lucky to spot a Bittern again and it would be very worrying to spot a Ruby Tiger Moth caterpillar at this time of year, but you know what I mean. I expected to have a charming wander around a couple of the lakes, watching Coots (Fulica atra), Widgeon (Anas penelope) and the other inhabitants. I hoped for a stroke of luck, perhaps seeing a butterfly or one of the Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) that I had failed to spot when I visited in January, maybe even the Slavonian Grebe (Podiceps auritus) which had been reported and would be a life tick for me.

So, how did my afternoon go, I hear you asking. It started well with a Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) on the Ferry Lagoon (nb: the biggest lake at Fen Drayton), which was in non-breeding plumage but was beautiful nonetheless. Upon deciding to make a real go of it, I headed off on the long trail around Ferry Lagoon. Walking up the road past the car park, I was forced to stop a little while as Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus) shouted their presence in a nearby tree. I always love to see these birds, bouncing here and there, making the most adorable racket. It was by pure chance that during my regard of them, I spotted a much quieter bird, weaving its way vertically up a tree in its silent way. A Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris), and the best (and closest) view of one I had ever had. As I watched it through my binoculars, and occasionally camera lens, another little bird darted briefly through my field of view. Even smaller than the Treecreeper, but not as a quiet, it was a Goldcrest (Regulus regulus). Now I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen a Goldcrest or Treecreeper, so by this point in my visit, I was already a very happy naturalist!

Leaving them to their foraging, I set my boots back onto the path and struck on. Struggling to wade through mud around the top end of the trail, I succeeded in startling a flock of Widgeon who took to the skies in loud whistles and flapping wings. The bird list continued to grow as I added Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), Canada and Greylag Geese (Branta canadensis and Anser anser), Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea). A bright colour caught my eye, albeit partially hidden by a tree trunk. Vivid blue amongst the brown and green, and a scan with my binoculars confirmed my excited hunch, it wasn’t a piece of litter but an actual Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). Quickly whipping out my camera, I managed to take my first ever (and very blurred) photo of a Kingfisher before it flew off down the river!


What a day this was turning out to be. If I saw nothing else that afternoon, I would still return home absolutely thrilled. But more was to come.

Reaching the northeast corner of the Lagoon, where the path turns at a right-angle to follow the edge of the Lagoon, I was diverted from this route by a glimpse of something just over the ridge, flying low along the edge of the River Ouse. A large and brown bird, gliding smoothly and I must say, rather majestically. I almost stopped breathing when I realised what it could be. I practically ran across the little bridge, and skidded to a sitting position on the other side of the ridge, frantically grabbing my binoculars to get a better look. Yup, no mistaking it, there, flying not 50m away from me in the late afternoon sun, a Short-eared Owl hunting above in the long grasses. Seriously, it was one of the best birding moments of my life to date. Sure, I’ve seen Short-eared Owls before. But it’s always been at such a distance and / or in really bad light. This was remarkable in comparison. It must have known I was there, but it seemed to totally disregard me as it swooped around the field.

Minutes later, whilst I was still not breathing properly, it headed through a gap in the trees to the next field over. I went to get my notebook out and write it down, when a lighter flash amongst the trees caught my eyes. Up went the binoculars again, pressed against my eyes, in a moment of confusion, for I knew it couldn’t be the Short-eared Owl, it was much too light in colour, and smaller too. Wait a minute, could this actually be happening? For before me, now in the same field as the Short-eared Owl had been moments before, there was a Barn Owl (Tyto alba) hunting! Flying slightly higher than the Short-eared, it glided silently, occasionally with a light flutter to the ground – although I didn’t see it catch anything. Again I almost stopped breathing, as it flew closer and closer, until it flew by my position at a distance of what must have only been 10m!

My mind was in a state of bewilderment. Such brilliant birding was unheard of for me – best ever views of so many birds and my first photos of Kingfisher, Short-eared Owl and Barn Owl in the space of less than 2 hours?! What was happening?!?! And then, you’ll never guess what happened next. Well, unless you saw my tweet on the day. Both owls were hunting in the same field, seeming to ignore each other (do either species care about other owl species hunting in the same place? Do they eat the same prey?). At one point, across a distance of around 300-350m, I managed to get a couple of (blurry) photos where they were both in the same frame!

They headed their separate ways, disappearing behind different stretches of trees and I think I managed to start breathing normally again at that point. I attempted to phone Matt to excitedly tell him about what had happened, but of course, he was at work and couldn’t answer. So my mother got the call instead, where I babbled down the phone something about owls and 10m and best views ever and first photos and omg I love this reserve and so on. Thankfully my mother is used to such outbursts from me, and coincidentally she had heard something about Short-eared Owls in the Fens that afternoon on the radio. Now whilst we were on the phone, I was still looking about and actually spotted the Short-eared Owl again, in a scene that will forever be imprinted in my mind. It flew over the ridge running alongside the river, about 200m or so from where I was and what looked like about 20m behind someone walking along the ridge! Moreover, due to its quiet flight, that person didn’t even notice! As soon as the person got close enough, I went over and told them all about it. She was equally amazed and baffled, and promised that she would keep an eye out for it in future, thanking me for telling her about it.

Now I would have happily stayed there for much longer, but I needed to head off to pick up Matt and besides, as the sun dropped lower in the sky, I was absolutely freezing! A brisk walk back to the car, obviously with occasional pauses to look at birds and take photos of the lagoon, and before long, I was driving down the track to leave the reserve.

I pulled over by the field where many of the birdwatchers are to be found recently, it’s a field with excellent views of a Short-eared Owl. At the time of leaving, I learnt that the owl there had been showing itself quite well and was currently resting in a tree on the far side of the field. I could just about make it out in my binoculars. Beautiful, but nothing on the one I had seen earlier.

And so I headed home – content, thrilled, still a tad bewildered. Looking back on it, I know that the afternoon will become one of my favourite birding memories. Something has struck me since. I love going bird / wildlife watching with Matt, other naturalist friends and even those that aren’t that into wildlife, but I am glad I saw those owls alone. There is something about connecting to nature when you’re alone. More than usual, you become part of the landscape and can connect even more closely than when accompanied. That’s not to say I won’t return to Fen Drayton Lakes with company. Of course not, I love being with other people and seeing wildlife with them. However, I will always savour solo adventures into nature and the special feeling I get in my heart when I’m sitting alone watching something wonderful.