The short, dark days of January have finally been left behind as we march into the month of hope – February. That hope is for the longer, milder days, the hope of spring and all that it brings with it; flowers, butterflies and the rewards of all the hard winter work undertaken on the fen.
The Great Spotted Woodpecker sensed change back when the year was renewed, its vigorous, resonating drumming on a particular dead oak sent echoes throughout the tree canopies. This dramatic drumming is their song for declaring territorial boundaries, already their minds are switched on for the upcoming breeding season.
Mixed species flocks have started to disband as the Great Tits make a break for it, their repetitive “teacher teacher” calls ringing out high above in the birch trees. The Robin red-breast’s weak, flat winter melody has suddenly switched to its summer chorus, seemingly at the flick of a thermostat as a mild day brought forth its full voice; sweet, tuneful notes that float and linger in the air like a breath on a frosty morning. The busy “Jenny” Wren, many grams lighter than the Robin, has been blurting out a song far louder than its size would ever suggest, mini eruptions of frantic noise bursting out from all corners of the reserve. Mistle Thrush and Nuthatch are two more to add their voice to this growing stirring around Wheatfen, merely a gentle introduction before the orchestra really begins in a few weeks’ time and the birds’ full crescendo is reached.
And Pigeons, one of my favourites (for they are so characterful and have a beauty of their own, except for the silly startled expression that is constantly slapped across their face), are working hard to build their nests. I would say it is early, but these brave (or perhaps foolish) birds will have a go at rearing some young almost any time of the year, laying their eggs on a rough pile of sticks in any old tree or shrub that they declare suitable. I do find their soothing, early morning cooing to be very calming; though far from a skilfully sung tune like that of a Robin. It is repetitive and unimaginative, but it carries a spell that can send you into waves of slumber should you hear it on a warm summer’s day. Not that I can indulge in slumber whilst working on the fen…
Deep in the woodland, the golden male Hazel catkins hang; winters jewels, the lamb tails of the trees, bringing colour to the bare branches where vibrant green buds are beginning to swell. The small female flowers go ignored except by the most observant, striking red wisps that feel their way out of a bud like searching tendrils.
The paper-white flowers of the Snowdrops have brightened up small pockets of the reserve, a welcoming contrast to the beiges and browns of the bare trees, and last years reed growth. Daffodil shoots are pushing skywards near the garden, remnants of previous inhabitants of Wheatfen Cottage, their flower heads still enclosed in their green sheaths, soon to burst into glory. On Old Mill Marsh two lines of Daffodils greet the spring each year, as they have done for the past 100 years. These pre-date Ted Ellis’s story at Wheatfen, being planted by his predecessor as custodian: Captain Maurice Cockle. Perhaps this was an experiment to see if the flowers took off on the damp fen, and could be turned into a profitable commercial venture?
It is now a race against time to complete all of the reed cutting around the reserve. For a few hectic weeks the mower blades will be frantically chattering, the brushcutters whirring and the scythes singing as they are skilfully wielded. Many areas are cleared to encourage a plethora of rare and wonderful plant species to thrive and spread, but just as many areas are left uncut, waiting as the perfect habitat for the returning Reed, Sedge and Grasshopper Warblers from their long migration from sub-Saharan Africa. Alas, I’m getting ahead of myself. These will not be back for many weeks yet.
But the wildlife must be patient. The year is still new and fresh, and winter’s cold bite may yet come back to haunt us. The hysterical sounding call of the Yaffle, or Green Woodpecker (as it is more commonly known), pierces through the woodland. Perhaps it is laughing at those who declare spring is here.
(All photographs by Ann Kerridge)