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Wildlife at Wicken Fen

Male reed bunting singing from a perch at Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire
Male reed bunting at Wicken Fen | © National Trust Images/Rob Coleman

Wicken Fen was the first nature reserve to be managed by the National Trust. One of Europe's most important wetlands, it is home to more than 9,000 species, including Konik ponies, cattle, birds and rare plants.

Wildlife at Wicken Fen

Throughout the year, there's an amazing array of wildlife to see and hear at Wicken Fen, from booming bitterns and cuckoos in spring, through to rare orchids and dragonflies in summer, to hen harriers and short-eared owls in winter.

In total, there are over 9,000 recorded species at Wicken Fen, the highest count of any site in the UK. Why not head to one of the eight wildlife viewing hides around the nature reserve to see how many you can spot, or just enjoy the wildlife you encounter as you explore?

Don't forget to share what you see with our team and other visitors. We have a sightings book in the Visitor Centre.

Reed warbler at Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire
Reed warbler at Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire | © National Trust Images / Rob Coleman

Spring - Summer highlights

Wicken Fen attracts large numbers of swallow, martins and swifts, as well as other summer visitors. While cuckoos are declining across much of England, the Fen is still a place to come and hear them calling.


A small olive brown warbler, weighing around eight grams. The chiff chaff gets its name from its distinctive 'chiff chaff' call. The birds can be seen all year round, but most arrive in the spring.

Warblers – the sound of summer

  • Cetti's warbler

A dark, stocky bird with a rounded tail. They are often difficult to see as they like to find cover in damp areas, so Wicken Fen’s wetland habitats are ideal. Their song is easily identifiable by its short bursts of 6 or more loud notes. Cetti’s warblers are resident on the fen all year round.

  • Sedge warbler

A small plump warbler, with a distinctive creamy strip above its eye. It can be found amongst the tall grasses and reedbeds at Wicken Fen and can also be seen performing a parachute-like display in flight. The sedge warbler’s song is varied and rambling with less repetition than the reed warbler.

  • Grasshopper warbler

You’re more likely to hear rather than see this warbler, as it has a very distinctive and unusual song. The sound is just like a grasshopper, or the reel of a fishing rod and is quite high pitched and difficult to hear. The species has suffered a serious decline in recent years and is now classified as a Red List species.

  • Reed warbler

This tiny warbler with its brown back and lighter buff underside arrives in mid-April. It builds tiny nests between four or five reed stems along the banks of the lodes, ditches or in the reedbeds.

At Wicken Fen, reed warblers’ nests can be parasitised by female cuckoos, who remove a warbler’s egg and lay one of their own, leaving the warblers to rear the chick when it hatches. Why the warblers rear a chick that is so much bigger than themselves is one of the mysteries of nature.


The hobby is a small falcon, often seen hunting over our wetlands in the summer. Hobbies come to the UK in the summer to breed before migrating to Africa for the winter months. Their long wings span 87cm and they are adept at chasing and catching dragonflies and small birds while in flight. Sedge and Baker’s Fen are good places to look out for them.

Booming bitterns

Often heard but not seen, Wicken Fen is home to some ‘booming bitterns’. These birds are an endangered species; they like to hide within the reeds and are very well camouflaged. The male bittern ‘booms’ during the breeding season, making a loud, low foghorn sound that carries for up to two miles.

Southern marsh orchids

These pale pink and purple flowers love damp soil and wet fens and bloom between May and August. They typically grow between 30-50cm in height, but some specimens can reach 70cm. These beautiful orchids bring some gentle colour to Sedge Fen in the summer.


The fens are alive with dragonflies and butterflies in the warmer spring and summer months. Look out for brimstone butterflies early in the year, and 21 species of damesleflies and dragonflies through the spring and summer, from 4-spot chasers, hairy dragonflies and banded demoiselles through to ruddy darters and brown hawkers into autumn!

Birds in flight at Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve in winter
Sunset at Wicken Fen | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

Autumn - Winter highlights

There's some amazing wildlife to see at Wicken Fen over the cold winter months. Here's our guide to some species to look out for and the best places to see them.


Wigeon are medium sized ducks with round heads and small bills. The male's head and neck are chestnut in colour with a yellow forehead, pink breast and green body. They can be seen all year round, but in autumn large numbers arrive at Wicken Fen from Northern Europe and Siberia to escape the harsh winters in that part of the world. Look out for them on the wet grasslands of Baker's and Burwell Fens.

Winter thrushes

Redwings and fieldfares start to arrive in large flocks in October. Redwings have a creamy strip above the eye and orange-red flank patches. Fieldfares are larger and have a very distinctive grey rump. They tend to flock together and can be seen along the hedgerows, feasting on the juicy berries.

Short-eared owls

Short-eared owls are medium sized owls with mottled brown bodies, pale underwings and bright yellow eyes. They can be seen year-round but there is an influx of continental birds, especially in the winter months in the East of England. They commonly hunt during the day. Good places to see them are Baker's and Burwell Fens.

Hen harriers

Britain's rarest bird of prey spends the summer months breeding in the upland areas of Britain before heading south in autumn. It's likely that our native birds are also joined by harriers from continental Europe during the winter. Males are a pale grey in colour, whilst females and young birds are brown with a white rump and barred tail, hence the name 'ringtail'. The harriers roost overnight in the reedbeds on Sedge Fen. They can generally be seen towards dusk gliding over the fen looking for a safe place to roost. A good place to see them is from the Boardwalk near the windpump.

Marsh harriers

The marsh harrier is the largest of the harriers in the UK. East Anglia is a hot spot for marsh harriers, that love reedbed habitat and actually nest among the reeds. The marsh harrier is most recognisable by its flight, raising its wings into a ‘V’ shape. The male marsh harriers put on an amazing courtship display for the females during the breeding season, often locking talons with them in flight. Throughout the winter months, our rangers conduct a monthly marsh and hen harrier survey at Wicken Fen.

Wading birds

Two of our most common ‘waders’ at Wicken Fen are the lapwings and golden plovers – both of these long-legged birds love wetland habitats and can be seen on Baker’s Fen in the autumn and winter. Lapwings, with their striking crested head, can be seen on the ground or in big flocks wheeling through the winter skies. The golden plover moves from upland moorland breeding grounds to lowland fields and fen in the winter. Similar to lapwings, they can be distinguished by their sharp, pointy wing shape and browner colour compared to the lapwing’s rounded black wings.

Whooper swans

Larger than the Bewick’s swan, whooper swans arrive at Wicken Fen in late autumn to spend the winter here after a long journey from Iceland. They are a very rare breeding bird and an Amber List species, but we are very fortunate to see good numbers of them at Wicken Fen from November to April.

Common reed and dog rose

The common reed covering our fens can grow up to 4 metres in height and is an important home to many birds all year round. Hen harriers and marsh harriers like to roost in the reedbeds, and the golden reeds look spectacular at sunset in the autumn and winter months. Dog rose berries can also be found on Sedge Fen and in the hedgerows on the wider reserve. The bright red clusters of oval-shaped berries ripen in the autumn.

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