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Hen Harriers at Wicken Fen

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Old Sunday 12th February 2006, 17:47   #1
wolfbirder
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Hen Harriers at Wicken Fen

I have already mentioned this briefly on another thread, but as 'Birds of prey' section seems a bit quiet, I thought I would tell you about my trip on Wednesday just gone to this wonderful atmospheric location - Wicken Fen, near Soham, Cambridgeshire.

I would highly recommend a trip to this English nature reserve (think its about 4.50 entrance mind!) and you best check as its closed Tuesdays I think, altho there is general access to the path by the canal but not to the hides at all times.

At least 4 hen harriers have been roosting here recently, they historically have often overwintered, but my trip provided me with my best views of these stunning raptors to date. Tower Hide on the right hand side of the canal from the centre is the place to be from about 4pm onwards until dark, as Barn owls are the first attraction to hunt around (I saw 3 plus), a Short-Eared owl has been seen frequently altho I did not see it, a Marsh harrier was present, Kestrels, a peregrine, and on top of that there are pools with wildfowl, and Bittern and Cetti's warbler are on the reserve tho elusive, as well as a Great Grey Shrike at present. You will not see thousands of birds for this is a speciality reserve. Tower Hide only holds 3-4 people, so this is the problem with going at the weekend. You can try to watch the harriers arrive from the path adjacent to the hide, but I have found the long grass stems make observing them annoying at times, especially when using a scope, and from ground level they quickly disappear from view behind clusters of trees. Also, I have found that they quickly become aware of you if you are not in the hide and this spooks them a lot and they can head off. Male hen harriers seem particularly sensitive to disturbance in my experience - perhaps because they are smaller.
It is the males that tend to predominate here for one reason or another. The roost site on this evening was just 50 - 100 yards from Tower Hide, and it produces a wonderful downward looking perspective of the birds flying beneath you but just above the level of the long grass. You may be aware of their piercing call to start with, indeed I hardly noticed the first male arrive low over the long grass, in relatively bright late afternoon light. It landed on short grass in full view about 100 yards away, where it sat for over ten minutes waiting for others to arrive. I have rarely seen this bird perched, so I was thrilled to enjoy this view. With its silvery-grey back to me, it still turned its head to me revealing its owl like facial disk and yellow eyes. Superb! Eventually an adult ringtail arrived and he took to flight to join her in close inter-active flight. 2 other cracking adult males then arrived, and all 4 flew around in light still good enough to enjoy very good views. I had two males criss-crossing the nearby roost spot in my scope simultaneously for a minute or two, infact i was surprised how well my midrange Opticron ES80ED performed in deteriorating light.
Take note it is not always easy to use a scope in Tower Hide due to lack of room and the stairs emerging through the floor on the side of the hide where the harriers tend to favour. Today I was by myself so it was easy! But at weekends if there are half a dozen it is crammed (most weekends in February). The steps are steep so take care.
There was no wind at all (not usually a factor that aids or prolonges harrier pre-roost flight), and a gorgeous pink-orange sky acted as a back drop as the sun set behind over the horizon. One by one they dived into the long grass and that was it. But I felt exhilarated and bewildered, I think the male Hen Harrier is my favourate bird, it is so hard to see really well unless you chance briefly upon a hunting bird as it passes, sometimes arriving at roosts a bit too late to enjoy views like I did (so again be warned- they can be unpredictable). Its ghostly but beautiful plummage colouration, and fascinating buoyant and graceful flight make them so exciting to watch. The pre-roost viewing, in context of the whole day of largely unexciting but relaxing birding, was over so quickly, so it always leaves me yearning to return to watch them again.
They will disperse shortly to their breeding grounds, perhaps there is as little as 2 weeks left this winter to enjoy views of these birds (can anyone confirm the estimated dispersal date?).
Birding at its best! Despite the no-guarantee, I would say that you have agood chance currently of seeing upto 5 birds quite or very well here. Sorry to bore you but just wanted to share the best birding moment of 2006 so far for me, with you.
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Old Monday 13th February 2006, 14:53   #2
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Thanks for report. Its a site i first visited this winter too mainly to see the Shrike thats been there. Not been round to Tower Hide yet but ive heard it worth doing. If you dont pay to go in then the paths and Fen freely open to the public has been excellent both times I have been with the GGS, Merlin, Ringtail Hen, and up to 4 SEO's on both Visits. Likely to see Barn Owl out there too.
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Old Monday 20th February 2006, 17:31   #3
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Glad you enjoyed the Hen Harriers

The Hen Harriers are great. We've been a couple of times lately (we live in Cambridge), though never at the weekend so I cannot comment on the crowdedness of the tower hide. Last time I was there I spoke with two people working on the harriers and who had done so last winter as well. I asked when they thought the harriers would disperse and they were of the opinion that the Harriers would be around until end of March. The two researchers were definitely credible.

Last visit we watched a barn owl hunting and a great grey shrike was sitting obligingly in a small tree/large bush opposite - what a surprise. We were the only people in the hide until the researchers turned up. Excellent for a little bit of after work birdwatching.

As harrier watching goes only bettered by watching a pair of Montagu's hunting last year in Norfolk. It started with them literally right above my head as I got out of the car on a rough track at the top of a rise with no-one else around - it was a lunch stop. Superb quiet viewing, me the wind and a cheese sandwich. I cannot abide the hordes watching for hours to get a glimpse of a rarety at a well known "secret" site. I do most of my birdwatching the haphazard way. The best place to see vagrants is in their natural home I think.

I texted Radio 1 with this as my "Sunday boast" more out of incongruity than anything else but it was not broadcast! Hope this amuses you.
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Old Monday 20th February 2006, 18:41   #4
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Thanks for your response guys....you are lucky living so close. It is two hours at best each way from the mids. But worth it.

Those two guys were present when i was there, altho they left the hide to me alone for long spells - they spend night after night hoping to be able to radio tag them. They didnt seem as enthusiastic as me but i guess i had been doing this every night for two winters i would feel the same.

Hen Harriers especially males, seem so secretive. And yes i too have has wonderful views of Montagu's Harriers two summers ago on the Wash. Far less sensitive birds than Hen Harriers in my opinion. There were 6 in all, one male hunted the along the bank and came within twenty feet of me.

Hoping to return to wicken next week. Thanks for the info about them staying usually to end of march. Should be able to squeeze a third visit in in that time!
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Old Friday 18th August 2006, 18:57   #5
Helenelizabeth2
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Hen Harriers at Wicken Fen

Quote:
Originally Posted by wolfbirder
Thanks for your response guys....you are lucky living so close. It is two hours at best each way from the mids. But worth it.

Those two guys were present when i was there, altho they left the hide to me alone for long spells - they spend night after night hoping to be able to radio tag them. They didnt seem as enthusiastic as me but i guess i had been doing this every night for two winters i would feel the same.

Hen Harriers especially males, seem so secretive. And yes i too have has wonderful views of Montagu's Harriers two summers ago on the Wash. Far less sensitive birds than Hen Harriers in my opinion. There were 6 in all, one male hunted the along the bank and came within twenty feet of me.

Hoping to return to wicken next week. Thanks for the info about them staying usually to end of march. Should be able to squeeze a third visit in in that time!
I just dipped on the Northumbrian Hen Harriers while visiting the Borders. Any idea when the Wicken Fen ones are likely to be back for the winter?

Helen
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Old Sunday 20th August 2006, 14:38   #6
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I wouldnt have thought until nov/dec.

Eldernall, near Whittlesey, is another good late afternoon winter raptor roost site but male Hen Harriers are not as certain. But that is near you I think. At least you can sit in your car at Eldernall protected from the cold. It can be freezing in Tower Hide at Wicken, so if you do go later this year I would wrap up to the eyeballs. There are also Muntjac Deer at Wicken that showed really well last winter. If you do want to go to Wicken you must follow the path from the centre to the RIGHT of the canal, its about a ten minute walk & is right next to the canal.

Sorry if you already know about Eldernall (I am sure you do)
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Old Thursday 27th September 2018, 20:56   #7
Gleb Berloff
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Do the hen harriers still roost at Wicken Fen nowadays?
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Old Friday 28th September 2018, 22:28   #8
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Yes, believe so, although haven't been myself for a couple of years, and they don't usually arrive until into October. Understand just a very few present last couple of seasons, sometimes only one or two, but I recall at least four adult males and similar number ringtails two-three winters ago. Ideal if birds are present is to try on a clear evening with a bit of wind that tends to inhibit them from dropping straight in to roost. I've found that October-November tends to give a better chance of seeing them in a bit of daylight but be warned the Hens often arrive fast and low and very late when there is not quite enough light to see clearly! The exact roost site often changes over the winter, and views can be better at times from the visitor centre or boardwalk nearby rather then the traditional Tower Hide. If you are in the area, staff at the visitor centre should have info and advice. Good Luck!
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Old Saturday 29th September 2018, 06:35   #9
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If you ring Wicken Fen (google the number) they will readily advise you.
They are probably this reserves main attraction.
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