Discover Suffolk: Crane spotting on The Fens

PUBLISHED: 14:08 17 October 2016 | UPDATED: 14:08 17 October 2016

Discover Suffolk - Lakenheath Fen

Discover Suffolk - Lakenheath Fen


David Falk, manager of Suffolk County Council’s Brandon Country Park, heads to the extreme north west of Suffolk to the very edge of the vast flatlands known as The Fens

Discover Suffolk - Lakenheath FenDiscover Suffolk - Lakenheath Fen

There’s a loud humming sound in the air. I look up and see a hawk. It drones across the sky, a large proboscis extending from its nose. Propellers spin in a blur. It’s a Pave Hawk from RAF Lakenheath air base, and I’m looking at it from under the shade of a tree in the car park of RSPB Lakenheath Fen.

This is a world away from the Suffolk most of us know. There’s no shingle beach here, no historic wool towns, no rolling landscape of ancient woodlands, no breckland forests. This is the edge of Fenland, a flat landscape that unfurls north towards The Wash in Norfolk.

Discover Suffolk - Lakenheath FenDiscover Suffolk - Lakenheath Fen

I’m here in late August on one of the hottest days of the year. The temperature is creeping over 30°C, the air is humid, the sun is burning. Scrub crackles in the heat, and matt white butterflies skip over bushes. It feels Mediterranean, and reminds me of a trip I once made to the Camargue in southern France. The land is dead flat and, like the Camargue, it’s a birding hotspot – not for flamingos and storks, but for bitterns and cranes.

There’s the warmest of greetings in the visitor centre, a beautifully designed wooden building with picture windows and large displays. Staff enthuse about wildlife, sharing knowledge among themselves and visitors. The Fen is famous for its cranes, and this year two breeding pairs produced three young.

Discover Suffolk - Lakenheath FenDiscover Suffolk - Lakenheath Fen

I’m hoping to see them although staff tell me they tend to be elusive, hiding out in the reeds. They suggest instead heading to Washland viewpoint, where dozens of herons and egrets have settled. The viewpoint provides an elevated view of the Little Ouse River. An RSPB volunteer stands alongside a telescope and points towards a wetland just beyond the river.

“The water levels are unusually low,” he informs me. “The light grey herons are the young ones.” He goes on to identify swans, lapwings and egrets. He pronounces egrets like ‘regrets’ – I like that.

Discover Suffolk - Lakenheath FenDiscover Suffolk - Lakenheath Fen

From the viewpoint, a riverbank path winds its way westwards, skirting the boundary of the reserve. A wind blows, cooling the intense heat. Four pearly white mute swans paddle past. The grass fizzles with the sound of grasshoppers. A poplar plantation shivers like a band of snare drums. Here I drop off the riverbank and pass over a stile, following a straight grassy path past white trumpet flowering bindweed and purple-headed rosebay willowherb.

I reach a hide, an open-sided wooden structure with long benches. Other visitors are keenly peering through binoculars at reeds. Could it be a crane? They point out a bittern, just as exciting, and I peer with them. The bittern is at the very edge of the reeds. It emerges, revealing its full shape, and then steps in slow motion along the water’s edge. It bends its head low, adopting a torpedo shape as it stealth hunts, then stops. It pauses, standing dead still, its brown stripes merging perfectly into its surroundings. Then it takes a steady step forward, moves its head, and adopts a classic pose of neck pointing skywards. Stepping slowly backwards it begins to blend in with the surrounding vegetation. I keep looking, staring at the reeds, but soon become unsure if I’m spotting a bittern’s striped neck or just seeing strands of reeds. It’s disappeared.

Discover Suffolk - Lakenheath FenDiscover Suffolk - Lakenheath Fen

I’m melting in the day’s heat and humidity as I move on along a dead straight track that seems to disappear into the far horizon. Parallel lines of dusty limestone tracks lead to the far end of the reserve where another viewpoint overlooks marshland. Joist Fen is the crane’s home and I scan the view, searching for any movement. I was warned they’d be elusive and they are. Apart from a lone cormorant perched with wings outstretched atop a post, there is nothing. No movement, except the feathered fluttering of the reeds.

The heat gets the better of me and I start to head back. It’s often when you least expect things to happen that they do. As I walk back along the track I see a mute swan ahead. It occupies the path, its back towards me, but head turned. It’s watching me from the corner of its eye and waddles statesmanlike at its own pace. I keep my distance, respecting its ownership of the land.

Discover Suffolk - Lakenheath FenDiscover Suffolk - Lakenheath Fen

Further on, a black ball of fur flashes across the path. I think it’s a shrew, but cannot be sure. A short while later I see a blur of white and caramel as a stoat bounces just ahead of me before disappearing into reeds. A lizard wiggles its way over the stony track. In a sunspot I watch dozens of dragonflies skimming the grass. They remind me of cyclists in a velodrome, circling in long loops. Like cyclists, they rise at the turn, building momentum as they fall hastily back into line. I approach them expecting to hear the sound of wings, but they are silent.

I arrive back at the visitor centre. It’s now closed, and my car is one of just two left in the car park. I look up at the sound of humming and see the Pave Hawk again, still on its manoeuvres. I’ve seen much, including my best sighting of a bittern ever, although I failed to see the famous cranes. It’s a good excuse to come back to RSPB Lakenheath Fen later in the year and return to the flatlands of The Fens.

Walk of the Month: Lakenheath Fen

RSPB Lakenheath Fen sits at the southern point of The Fens, a vast flatland that extends northwards to The Wash near Kings Lynn. This was once all salt marsh, drained centuries ago, intersected by long man-made watercourses and today prime agricultural land.

The Little Ouse River bounds the northern edge of the reserve and you’ll follow a raised riverbank past wetlands that not long ago were fields of carrots. Keep your eyes peeled, as you’ll have a very good chance of seeing some of Britain’s rarest birds, including golden orioles, bitterns and cranes.


Ask at the visitor centre for the path to Washland viewpoint. The viewpoint looks over the Little Ouse River and a small wetland. Here there are often dozens of herons, egrets and swans.

The viewpoint is on a public footpath. Turn left and follow the footpath along the riverbank, keeping the river on your right. After about 1.5 miles you reach a metal kissing gate.

Immediately after the gate, turn left to drop down onto a mown path into the RSPB reserve. Take the first turning right, signposted viewpoint, to a wooden shelter. This is Joist Fen viewpoint. It’s usually a very good spot to watch marsh harriers.

Continue just past the viewpoint to pick up the long straight track. This track leads all the way back to the visitor centre. On the way, divert to New Fen viewpoint, another good place to see marsh harries, plus the elusive bittern.

Best Foot Forward

How Far? 3.5 miles (5.5km)

Terrain: Natural surface paths and well-walked tracks.

Accessible? Some of the reserve trails are promoted as accessible. Check with staff at the visitor centre for more advice.

Getting There: RSPB Lakenheath Fen is in the very north west of the county. The reserve is 2.5 miles north of Lakenheath signposted off the B1112. Lakenheath Railway Station is just 0.5 miles from the visitor centre. Car parking is free for RSPB members, £4 for non-members.

A tea and a pee! There are toilets at the visitor centre (open 9am-5pm), a hot drink machine, and cold drinks and ice cream sales.

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