Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl Return

Bird watchers enjoy amazing sunset over Sedge Fen

As more over-wintering birds arrive at Wicken Fen, there are great opportunities to see a variety of wildlife throughout the reserve. From short-eared owls and hen harriers, to deer, voles and otters, there’s plenty to enjoy on a walk through the fen.

Background

Short-eared owls breed across northern Europe, and we normally only see them as over-wintering birds in East Anglia.  Along with birds that may breed in northern Britain, there is an influx of continental birds from Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland in winter, so it’s likely that some birds seen at Wicken Fen may be visiting from much further afield.  They are commonly seen hunting during the day, which can make them easy to spot, as they hover and drift across the fen looking for the small mammals that make up their diet.

Short-eared owl at Burwell Fen
Short-eared owl flying across Burwell Fen
Short-eared owl at Burwell Fen

Hen harriers are Britain’s rarest bird of prey, so it’s a real treat to be able to see these magnificent birds overwintering at Wicken Fen.  While the focus is on the short-eared owls and hen harriers, it’s important not to forget that the reserve is a haven for all sorts of wildlife at this time of year.  Our Countryside Manager, Martin Lester says: ‘Visitors to Wicken Fen can enjoy discovering the species already mentioned, but there’s so much more. Bearded tits, several species of deer, and large flocks of winter thrushes such as redwing and fieldfare are amongst the things that can be seen, as well as our resident herds of Konik ponies and Highland Cattle. There could also be the chance sighting of something really exciting such as water vole, otter or bittern. Like many others, these species rely on the nature reserve’s undisturbed habitats for winter survival. Using the recommended routes around Wicken Fen helps us protect this special place for future generations.’
 

Hen Harrier
A hen harrier in flight
Hen Harrier

Top tips on the best way to enjoy winter wildlife

Our Countryside Manager, Martin Lester recommends following the Adventurer’s Trail along the Wicken Lode and down Harrison’s Drove to make the most of the birds found on the Mere and Baker’s Fen on the way.  Keen birdwatcher and photographer Wendy Cooper agrees: ‘I park up at the Visitor Centre and walk across to Burwell - there's a few hides to pause at on the way over, together with fieldfares to look out for. From Harrison’s Drove it’s a short walk over the bridge across Burwell Lode to Burwell Fen.  Once at Burwell Fen, short-eared owls can be seen hunting from mid-afternoon onwards’.

As the light begins to fade, allow enough time to walk back to the Visitor Centre before dusk to see the hen harriers come in to roost on the Sedge Fen.  Martin says: ‘there’s lots to see as you walk back past Baker's Fen.  There are large flocks of corvids mingling overhead, chattering as they prepare to roost, and widgeon and teal add to the atmospheric wetland sights and sounds as they too find a place to settle for the night’.  Wendy also enjoys the sights and sounds of the fen at this time of year: ‘I’ve heard tawny owls and stood underneath a cloud of whispering feathers as the corvids pass overhead…simply magic!’

Once back at the Visitor Centre, hen harriers can be seen quartering the Sedge Fen, looking for a late meal and then a safe place to roost for the night.  You can either view the Sedge Fen from the Visitor Centre, or take a short walk to the Boardwalk Hide.  Male hen harriers are pale grey in colour, whilst females and young birds are brown with a white rump and barred tail, hence the name ‘ringtail’.  There are also a number of marsh harriers in the roost and staff in the Visitor Centre can help with identifying the difference between the two harriers.

Latest information

Pop into the Visitor Centre to find out about the most recent sightings and to get a map of the trails.  The Visitor Centre is open from 10am to dusk every day except Christmas Day.  Don't forget stout footwear or wellies, as parts of the reserve can be muddy.