Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex

Into the Reeds

A Guest Blog by Ajay Tegala

After half a mile of cycling along a slippery track, I cross a rickety little bridge over a ditch, full to the brim with recent rainwater. The boards wiggle disconcertingly as I pass over them. I lean my bicycle against the old ‘shed in the middle of nowhere’, where the Wicken Fen Bird Ringing Group operate during the summer months. I had joined the group on a muggy evening in late August, watching them skilfully handling swallows that came to roost in the reeds under a blue moon.

The reed bed provides cover for a range of birds throughout the seasons. From post-breeding hirundines (swallows and sand martins) heading south in late summer, to murmurations of starlings in the winter and a selection of rare nesting species in spring. The haunt of harrier and bittern, these 70 acres of reeds have a wild feel, despite being created just three decades ago.

On this mild morning in late winter, I wade into the standing water towards the homogeneous forest of tall stems. On its edge, green shoots are already visible above the water; early spring growth.

My wellies squelch through the black peat, splashing water up my waterproof trousers. The oxygen-starved soil releases a distinctive smell as its disturbed. It is almost identical to the scent of saltmarsh …and has similar carbon-capturing capabilities.

In contrast to the uniformity of the reedbed, saltmarshes have a diversity of plants growing in different zones, depending on the amount of saltwater inundation they can withstand. The grey-green leaves of sea purslane indicate the edges of winding creeks, a useful tip I was taught early on in my time on the north Norfolk coast. Here in the Cambridgeshire Fens, waterways – usually straight – tend to be indicated by a fringe of reeds, except in the reedbed, of course, where they are just everywhere!

Video Credit: Ajay Tegala

But I am not worried about disappearing into a ditch, because – moving slowly – I can spot any open water ahead by the absence of reeds and the presence of occasional willows sprouting up on ditch edges. Being man-made, the floor of the reedbed itself is level with no hidden pools.

My mission is to somehow retrace my footsteps from exactly a year earlier, when local photographer Richard Nicoll and I set up one of his trail-cameras in a clearing I had created with the aim of attracting nesting cranes (inspired by the success of RSPB wardens at Lakenheath Fen, Suffolk). What had been a clearing last year is now full of reeds. Not having marked the camera’s location with GPS, my plan is simply to zigzag through the general area in the hope of stumbling upon it, relying principally on luck -with just the occasional squeals of water rails for company.

Ten minutes of traversing extend to twenty. There are seemingly no clues to help me. Eventually, I see what looks like a little clearing ahead. Parting the reeds carefully with my hands, I notice some of the stems have been snapped off. I remember a colleague telling me that young bitterns sometimes climb up reed stems in anticipation of their mother returning with food. However, this is not a nest site. I spot a couple of pellets. Poking them, I see they contain fur; the coughed-up remains of small mammals swallowed by a marsh harrier.

My almost aimless wandering has at least led to the discovery of my first marsh harrier pellets. Beaming from the experience, I continue to bumble through the reedbed, constantly squinting, avoiding sharp reed stems that could spike my eyes. I remember an old warden in Norfolk recounting how, as a young reed-cutter, he had once had the displeasure of a reed stem going up his nose, tickling his brain. Ouch!

Almost lost in my thoughts and reedy memories, I find myself back in a track I had made a few minutes earlier. The angle at which the reeds had been pushed – some snapped – revealed that I had been walking in the opposite direction. So, following this track would lead me back to dry land.

Pausing a moment, to decide whether to retreat or to tread a new route in search of the trail-camera, I suddenly realised there were two different colours to the reed-stems. How had I not noticed this before? Most were washed-out and pale; the brittle older stems. Others had a more golden colour; last spring’s growth.

Ahead, there was a line of golden stems standing upright, fringed by a few broken off paler stems either side. This must have been the route Richard and I took a year ago, overgrown with ‘new’ straight stems, but the signs of our route still indicated by the older, paler reeds that we had broken as we brushed by.

Within a few seconds, I found the pile of cut reeds I had cleared last year. Beside it stood the trail-camera, still attached to the bamboo cane we had pushed into the peat to mount it on.

It now faced, not a clearing, but an patch of golden stems – perfectly proving my theory.

It later turned out that no cranes, bitterns or harriers had nested within sight of our ‘reedbed cam’. I was, disappointingly, not learn more about the breeding behaviour of these illusive, reed-dwelling birds. But I had managed to retrace year-old steps without the aid of a GPS …and that was satisfying in itself.

Ajay Tegala is is a wildlife presenter, conservationist, countryside ranger, naturalist, voice-over artist and author of Wetland Diaries: Ranger Life and Rewilding on Wicken Fen, published May 2024.

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