Meads and fens

Today, on our way back from a family visit in London, we first stopped off at the RSPB reserve of Rye Meads in Hertfordshire. We used to visit this reserve in the 1990s when it was known as Rye House Marsh, and had a completely different entrance point! This explains why we didn’t recognise it at all when we arrived at the entrance and a visitor centre that hadn’t existed when we were last there.

It’s a rich wetland habitat nestled between the A414, housing estates and a water treatment works, and is at the north end of the extensive Lea Valley complex of wetlands and reservoirs. Nothing new on the bird front here, but we had good views of an array of wetland species with the highlight perhaps being a Cetti’s warbler – a bird that is often heard but rarely seen! (see blog for January 23rd)

This blue tit was feasting on greater reed-mace (bullrush) seeds

We then headed to Lakenheath Fen near Thetford, a reserve that we know well: It’s another place that has changed considerably in the 20 years or so since we first visited, but here we’ve been back often and so have seen the changes gradually happen. We didn’t get there until about 5pm, but spent an enjoyable hour walking around a small part of the reserve and watching the amazing sunset and the gradual transition to night, accompanied by the calls of rooks, jackdaws, crows, yellowhammers, long-tailed tits, great tits and more, and the silent hunting of a barn owl.

Sunset at Lakenheath Fen

Brenda writes: “I have lots of memories associated with the two reserves we visited today. When our children were very young the RSPB Rye House Marsh reserve was a regular port of call. It was relatively easy to get to from Walthamstow and the kids loved the ruins of Rye House next to the car park. However, we never succeeded in passing on the bird watching bug to them!

Dusk has always been my favourite time of day and it was a treat this evening to watch a barn owl hunting over the reeds and among the poplar trees. Fun fact: the poplars, many of which have keeled over, were originally destined to be made into match sticks; but the trees were never harvested. We were living in Feltwell, just up the road, when the RSPB acquired this reserve and at that time the trees were still being visited by golden orioles – sadly no longer there. The transformation of the landscape has been truly amazing.

There were three new flowers today. I’ve always noticed that in urban environments, where it is warmer, flowers will be ahead of rural areas. So as we headed out of London I wasn’t surprised to see my first cow parsley in flower. It will be interesting to see when it comes out in north Norfolk. Cow parsley is an umbellifer with clusters of small white flowers on long stalks to form an ‘umbel’ or ray of flower heads. To quote the field guide ‘the whole flowerhead thus looks like a flat-topped umbrella.’ When it really gets going the cow parsley will grow in profusion along grass verges.

On the whole I use my binoculars for bird watching, as you would expect, but they’re also useful for identifying a flower that is inaccessible, and so today I spied my first lesser celandine of the year on the far bank of the river Lea whilst sitting on an excellent seat. Lesser celandine is low growing with heart-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers which open to soak up the sun’s rays and close up again at night.

Imaginative seating at Rye Meads

Finally, blackthorn – common in hedges – can be confused with hawthorn, as they both have white flowers (and thorns). However blackthorn flowers much earlier and, importantly, before it produces leaves. In a month or so hawthorn will produce leaves and then the flowers will come afterwards. This blackthorn was photographed in the car park at Rye Mead where they are establishing a new hedge.


The method is to use blackthorn branches to put in vertical stakes and then weave thinner branches through them diagonally. Some of them sprout and grow within the framework and so a new hedge will be born.

The beginnings of a blackthorn hedge at Rye Meads

Finally just a word about the greater reed-mace the blue tit was enjoying. Reed-mace flowers, which look a bit like a giant cigar, maintain their shape during the winter and then in early spring they finally disintegrate and their seeds are distributed by the wind with a helping hand from birds enjoying a tasty meal.

New species for February 27th:
Flowers: cow parsley, lesser celandine, blackthorn

Birds = 131
Moths = 5
Wildflowers = 22