In the Countryside: Mike Toms witnesses a busy day on the fen

Stonechat feeding on Blakeney Fresh Marsh. Photo by Paul Laurie via

Stonechat feeding on Blakeney Fresh Marsh. Photo by Paul Laurie via - Credit:

The walk out onto the fen, along the straight and rather muddy track, feels like a chore this morning. Maybe it is the weather, the overcast skies and sense of approaching rain, or maybe it is the increasing amount of fly-tipping now finding its way here from who knows where. Either way, it is good to cross onto the fen proper, where the soft calls of wintering duck jostle with those of fieldfare and blackbird.

Cattle have been grazing the site, but there is still plenty of rough sward left for the voles; in turn these attract kestrels, marsh harriers and short-eared owls, all of which we hope to see today. In fact, the kestrels are already much in evidence and we quickly see three different individuals in the air together. It is a smaller bird, however, that catches our attention. Close in, and flicking up from the ground to a fence line, is a female stonechat, a busy little bird searching for insects and other invertebrates kicked up by the cattle. At this time of the year, I tend to see these birds on the coast, rather than here inland and within the fens.

Because we are focused on the female, it is a few moments before we pick up her mate, a boldly marked individual doing battle with an earthworm on the concrete strip that runs alongside the field. I don't think I have ever seen a stonechat with a worm before, and the way he is struggling with it suggests he hasn't either! Both birds are close enough in for us to shoot some photographs – the reason for our visit today.

The two stonechats are remarkably confiding and allow us to secure some nice shots. Rather bizarrely, the birds are then joined by a green woodpecker, which appears out of nowhere and perches on the side of one of the narrow fence posts. It couldn't have placed itself better, providing us with a grandstand view. Green woodpeckers are less abundant in the fens than they are in the brecks, so this feels like a bonus for us. At some point we must drag ourselves away from these delights so we can see what else the fen has to offer.