As the lockdown continues across the country in the fight against the coronavirus, people are doing a tremendous job at resisting the urge to break the rules and rush out to get their wildlife fix.
It is sad to see the winding paths of Wheatfen devoid of visitors, especially with the Spring now in full flow, but it is the way it must be if we are to beat this pandemic. And so, this lone warden will do his best to cobble together a few words to inadequately describe the beauty that is unfolding here as you read this.
When the sun shines down on the reserve to a background of clear blue skies, the fen glows to a dazzling spectrum of fresh, vibrant greens that would put an artist’s palette to shame. In the past few weeks, the landscape has been transformed from its winter-ravaged bleakness to spring’s lush radiance with the stroke of a paint brush. The willows sprout forth natures jewels; small clusters of golden catkins brimming with an abundance of pollen and nectar vital for many early invertebrates. They hum to the buzzing of the bumblebee species, many of which are named due to the colour of their rounded behinds; buff-tailed, white-tailed and red-tailed. Amongst them are small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies. If you are using any spare time during the lockdown to give the garden a good seeing to, remember to leave a patch or two of the old stinging-nettle, the larval food plant for these two butterflies.
Amongst the sea of greens sparkles more gold, as the primroses adorn the woodland paths, lesser celandines carpet the short swards and marsh marigolds (or the kingcup, as some prefer) add reflective beauty along the dyke edges. Even the daffodils on Old Mill Marsh, planted near 100 years ago by the then owner, Captain Cockle, have exploded into full bloom. This is a small miracle really, after one volunteer gave them a bit of a hard time with some dodgy brushcutting in the vicinity back in early March, just when their green shoots were looking promising.
Acoustically, Wheatfen’s very own orchestra is nearing its full crescendo; the morning’s dawn chorus is raucous and the territorial singing through the daylight hours unabating. The rhythm is set by the repetitive “teacher teacher” of the great tit and the “chiff-chaff chiff-chaff” of our first returning migrant, the chiffchaff of course. The woodlanders and edge specialists set the symphony, tuneful robin notes, melodious blackbirds, mini eruptions of frantic chorus from the wren, to name a few. But even the wren loses out in volume to the show-stealing bursts of explosive song from the Cetti’s warbler out on the fen where reed meets scrub. The bittern sets the bass with slow, deep booms that echo from every corner, but he soon tires after 5 or 6 beats, perhaps losing interest in this track. And finally, amongst this concoction of musical delight are those who have yet to learn the meaning of singing in key, not that that stops them trying (a bit like me in the car on the way to and from work). The sedge and reed warblers, scratchy, rasping notes that rattle out from the reedbeds, sub-Saharan migrants back again from Africa to breed. As for the grasshopper warblers: more effort required (reminds me of old school reports).
A few days ago, across the recently restored Broad, three greyish statues decorated the reed margins. They were all sculpted in a similar fashion, tall and thin with two spindly legs and an orange coloured dagger-beak poised at the ready. They are our grey herons, or harnsers as some locals still refer to them; the patient stalkers of the shallows, the watchful ambushers of the water margins. A fourth heron sat hunched and scowling, like some grumpy old man, its long breast feathers resembling an old grey beard and its black crest feathers a failed comb over. As if it read my thoughts it stirred into action, throwing a disdainful look my way before walking off like a gull on stilts, its head bobbing backwards and forwards with the motion. And suddenly all four took flight, startled by some unknown disturbance. Their initial take-off and heavy flapping was ungainly and laboured as they tried to clear the willow canopies. But then they arced back around and a scene from the time dinosaurs walked the earth was before me. The herons morphed into pterodactyls, as they soared reptilian-like over the fen as if circling over a kill. They are prehistoric looking, their annoyed squawks on take-off adding to this illusion. I had come looking for a quiet hour or two by a tranquil waterbody in hope of kingfishers, great crested grebes or maybe an otter. Instead I found Jurassic Park.
Elsewhere, the cuckoo flowers now add a splash of subtle pink along the path and dyke edges. The meaning and origin behind the alternative common name, lady’s smock, is still undecided. One of the more interesting explanations is that “smock” was a derogatory term for a woman of loose moral, with springtime frolics and questionable conduct in the meadows coinciding with the flowering of the species. There is no evidence of this at Wheatfen. But I prefer cuckoo flower, as the unveiling of its flowers is like a flag to the skies in celebration of another long-distance migrant. I eagerly await the return of the cuckoo any day now. And when the government announce the curfew is lifted, and social distancing is relaxed, I also eagerly await the return of our visitors and friends.