Wildlife column: Christmas on the Fen

After a morning spent sitting in front of a computer, I eagerly look forward to escaping the office for a walk to see what’s about and to enjoy the changing colours of autumn, when nature treats us to a last burst of colour before winter.

One of my favourite trails around Lakenheath Fen can sometimes be fairly quiet, but recently autumn migration has brought in some exciting visitors. We have had flocks of redwings and fieldfares passing through, ransacking hawthorn hedges of their red berries.

On my travels, one of my favourite birds, a marsh tit with its glossy black cap and small black chin, cries with a distinctive pit-chew call as it flies into the thick undergrowth. I admire the small flocks of birds; great and blue tits, chaffinches, greenfinches, goldfinches and among them lesser redpoll, siskin, brambling, and the odd treecreeper. Then I see something else, two tiny birds flitting low around a nearby hedge, and I hear a succession of high-pitched, needle-thin trilling, similar to the ringing of a tiny bell. These are goldcrests and something of a rarity for us here at Lakenheath Fen.

I stand and watch them for a moment admiring their soft olive green plumage and a black and bright crest on their heads, the females being yellow and the male orange, which they raise if they become excited. Their thin beak is suited for picking insects out from between pine needles and getting into crevices for spiders and moth’s eggs.

The goldcrest (Regulus regulus) is a member of the Kinglet family and is actually Europe’s smallest bird. It is an exquisite creature with its colourful golden crest feathers. European folklore calls them “King of the birds”, describing them as glittering like “burnished gold”.

Though goldcrests are resident in the UK, during autumn, large flocks of goldcrests arrive from Scandinavia as they pass through looking for food and suitable habitat. Their preferred habitat is pine forests, though they can often be seen in birch woodland and in gardens. It’s hard being such a tiny bird, and up to 80 per cent of goldcrests are thought to die each winter, especially in severe conditions which can cause a crash in numbers.

I’ve always seen Christmas as the reckoning point of winter, where the world takes on nature’s challenge, readying itself for the attrition of the season’s worst elements of cold and darkness. It is, however, also the turning point of the struggle, starting with the lengthening of days and the unstoppable approach of warmth and new life promised by spring time.

Our tiny king, although only a fleeting visitor to our reserve, is a reminder that Christmas is near and we should prepare ourselves for the worst of winter, but at the same time look forward to the better times ahead here at Lakenheath Fen.