Thursday, 15 December 2016

Strumpshaw Fen and Me

Strumpshaw Fen is one of those places that takes pride of place in my heart. I have been volunteering there for five years now. It has rarely been dull at this nature reserve within these past five years. There is always something interesting to see and discover each time I come here. I have seen so many new and exciting things and met so many friendly people who work or visit Strumpshaw on a regular basis that it all becomes part of the whole experience. As today is the second anniversary of this blog, I have decided to share with you some of my highlights that made these past five years so enjoyable and memorable. The drawings you see here are from my wildlife diaries dating back to the time I started volunteering and it is clear how much they have developed since then.

I first became a volunteer for Strumpshaw in 2011. At the time, I was asked to help out with marsh harrier surveys for a few weeks during April and May. Each week, I joined a small team of volunteers to sit inside Tower Hide for a few hours. As a team we watched the marsh harriers every movement, jotting down any activity of note such as food passes and carrying nesting material and where they took them to, all signs that indicated where each nest was. What I was doing helped towards the study of the reserve's marsh harriers and it felt rewarding. I learnt so much about these birds during these surveys and it was like watching a soap opera (but much better) as I became hooked on every bit of drama that they created, from a female stealing prey off someone else's mate to mating. It was addictive. I also helped out with a bittern survey which was very successful, recording the movements of three individuals.
At Strumpshaw, there are about 4-5 species that most people come most to see; kingfisher, bittern, otter, swallowtail butterflies and Norfolk hawker dragonflies. When I started volunteering, I had seen all but one of these before. The only one I had yet to see at the time was an otter. When I finally saw one, it was one of the funniest and yet exciting encounters I have ever experienced. Walking back from the Tower Hide after completing a survey, I came across two men standing on a bench with a woman standing nearby watching out on the reserve. "What can you see?" I asked. "Otters" came the reply. And with that I got up on the bench to join them. "Watch the bubbles" said the woman pointing to the direction for me. Two otters popped up by the edge of the reed bed in front, a mother and cub! The cub followed its mum, nose almost touching her tail in a playful tormented way. It was wonderful to see, but I almost knocked the men off as I jumped back down to the ground.


By August 2011, I started helping out at the Reception Hide as a bird spotter and ID person every Wednesday morning and I have been doing it ever since. It has become the highlight of my week. In the summer, the reserve gets busy as swallowtail season begins. Each year, between late May and July, these large beautiful butterflies draw in crowds of people who come here from every corner of the country. I have lost count how many times I have been asked about if they about and where to find one.

Winter is a tough time to be Reception Hide volunteer. It gets colder inside this hide than it is outside sometimes and so you have to wrap up in layers. The scenes outside can be ever changing with the broad being full of birds one day to being frozen or flooded the next. During my first winter here as a volunteer in 2011, I experienced an amazing starling murmuration a couple of times, which was incredible and just before Christmas, I had one of the greatest surprises ever. An unusual looking 'marsh' harrier was flying towards the hide. A clear white patch by the tail was really visible amongst the fog and it was then I knew what it was. It was a female hen harrier, one of the UK's rarest birds! It was flying low close to the hide and then it landed on a pile of cut reed in front of us. She almost blended completely with the reed bed behind her. I swear at one point she was staring right at me with her yellow eyes attached to her owl-like head. She was there for a few minutes before taking off towards Fen Hide.

Starling Murmuration 2011

Another great memorable experience happened in March 2012. I was walking back through the woods after one of my walks around the reserve, when I came across a man with a camera wandering around the undergrowth away from the path. I was going to tell him off, but instead I was curious to what he was looking at. It turned out to be a mating mass of grass snakes. I ended up joining him in the undergrowth. There were loads of them wrapping around one another in a ball of snakes within the brambles. "There must be about 6-7 of them!" said the man snapping away with his camera. In fact, there were a lot more than that as they surrounded us and one even slithered over my boot! The man tried to sneak around them for better photographs, but he ended up spooking them and they slithered at quite a pace between my feet. I daren't move a muscle! It was an unforgettable encounter!

Of course, as a birdwatcher, there has been many rare or scarce birds visiting Strumpshaw during my five years. To name a few, there was the ferruginous duck in April 2011, two female red-crested pochards in February 2012, a Caspian tern in July 2012, a wryneck in August 2013, little gull in April 2014 and the glossy ibis that was here this August and September. I've also got incredibly close to a short-eared owl, had a pair of cranes fly past me along the river, seen ospreys stop by on a few occasions and watched a few Jack snipe bob up and down. On top of that, I've seen water shrews, weasels (yes, you heard correctly) and a mother otter and two cubs with a dog otter playing together as a family. You just never know what you might see at this fantastic reserve. This year, we celebrated Strumpshaw's 40th anniversary with a year long search for 40 species, which has taught me so much about the importance of each one and Strumpshaw as a whole. It makes me proud of volunteering here and I can not wait to see what surprises Strumpshaw has in store for me.

Glossy Ibis
Short-eared Owl
Water Shrew


  1. A lovely account of your long love of wildlife. I must visit Strumpshaw Fen sometime soon. It looks fabulous

    1. Thank you very much. If you do visit, make sure its on a Wednesday morning as that is when I am on duty.