The last day of April. A bright, breezy day with a sky filled with high cloud that occasionally breaks to reveal patches of blue and rays of sunshine that warmed the wetland of the RSPB’s Lakenheath Nature Reserve.
The footpath followed the top of the raised river bank that was lush with verdant green grasses. The worn path was rutted and cracked from the cattle that graze its marshy banks, but the limited rain of late meant the mud had hardened and was not sloppy. Low brambles, hawthorn bushes and other shrubs, filling out with green leaves, dotted its route. On either side the bank sloped away. To one side it flattened into river bank with tall grasses and reeds, scattered with delicate pale flowers clustered at the top of long stems, before meeting the meandering blue ribbon of the river. On the far bank there are more marshy fields and in one bend a large shallow pool had been created. Edged with tall reeds and grasses, a little haven for waders and wildfowl. The whole area is known as the Washland. On the other side of the footpath, a broad expanse of reeds stretches to trees where the reserve meets the railway and fields beyond. The reed bed is bordered and broken into sections by large blocks of tall Poplar woodland. The wispy heads of the reeds bow in the strong breeze that ripples through the sandy coloured stems that tower over the new green growth coming through.
From the viewpoint overlooking the Washland, Black-tailed Godwit and Greenshank feed in the pool, accompanied by Mallard, Coot, Shelduck and Mute Swan to name but a few of the wildfowl present. Over the water the distinctive bouncing flight leads us to Common Terns, returned from epic migration to southern Africa. All around the scratchy song of Sedge Warblers comes from the grasses, sedges and small scrub of the river bank and in the reed bed. The loud blast of song from Cetti’s Warbler meets the reel of a Grasshopper Warbler, and the chirrup of Reed Buntings. The distant call of a Cuckoo drifts over the woodland and reeds.
Heading along the path and another bird catches the eye. Its graceful yet bouncy flight states it is a tern. But it is not white with a jet black cap and orangey red bill as the Common Tern. It is dark, black with an almost sooty look. Closer inspection reveals a black head and body and grey wings, back and tail. The pale grey under the tail in particular stands out against the dark of the belly. It is a Black Tern and is on passage, following the freshwater, heading for breeding grounds in Europe and western Asia. Until the early nineteenth century it was also abundant in eastern England, where flocks so vast the calls were deafening caught the attention of Naturalists of the time. Extensive drainage of breeding areas had wiped out the population by 1840. Now it is no more than a delightful passerby with only a couple of failed breeding attempts in recent years.
Now the large reed beds take our attention, from the edge of a clearing a huge white, elegant bird lifts off from where it was wading in the shallow water. Its long legs dangle briefly before being tucked up under its large white body, its long neck creating an S-shape before meeting a head with a large yellow bill. It is a Great White Egret. Although not as common as the similar Little Egret, its population is expanding throughout Europe and we are now seeing it much more frequently in the UK.
The reed bed is busy, and not only with those small passerines singing from every nook and cranny. Numerous Marsh Harriers float over the tips of the reeds, a Buzzard soars high overhead and our first Hobby’s of the year effortlessly slices through the air.
Our final stop of the day is one last look out at the Washland viewpoint, and it was definitely worthwhile. Tucked away in a corner of the pool another large bird wades with head down searching for food in the shallows. From this distance it appears completely dark with a paler, long sickle shaped bill. From previous experience I know that up close those dark feathers are varying shades of iridescent purple, gold and green; some might say it has a glossy look. Hence, its name. The Glossy Ibis. A beautiful bird and another scarce visitor to the UK.
And so we finished our walk around just a small part of the reserve, jabbering excitedly about the species we had seen and drawn by the temptation of ice cream in the reserves visitor centre.