For those not familiar with the local geography, East Anglia is flat. Really, really flat. Most of the area used to be covered in the kind of wetland that's now protected by Wicken Fen, but it was drained for human use. A fen is rather like a bog, except it's neutral or alkaline rather than acidic. It's just as squidgy to tromp through, however, and when you're up to your knees in mud, you don't really care about its pH.
A constant sideways drizzle would have dampened our spirits more if we hadn't been so fortunate with our observations. At the first hide we entered along the trail, we saw a muntjac deer, chaffinches, blue tits, great tits (hee.), a moorhen and a rat in the space of five minutes. All were looking glossy and bright for mating season.
Male blue tit
Male great tit
We continued walking past the groves of silver birches to the Godwin plots. These were established to track the variation in growth of fen flora. One plot is never cut, the next is cut yearly, the next biennially, the next triennially and the last quadrennially. Last year was the year when all of the ones that get cut were razed simultaneously. It should have been disappointing, since not much new growth was yet visible, but we were intrigued by the discovery that the biennial plot contained fatter, denser scrub stumps than the triennial plot despite having more discontinuous growing time.
Map consultation by the Godwin plots
Further along, we climbed into a hide to watch the long-beaked pipers wheeling above the bleak landscape. As we rounded a corner, we startled a bittern. This beautiful brown bird looks a little like an oversized heron with elaborately patterned feathers and is a rare visitor to Britain. The NT workers were excited when we'd seen it and wanted to know exactly where and when we'd sighted it. I was so shocked when it shot out of the reeds in front of us that I could barely get my camera up in time to grab a few shots of its departure. Its powerful legs propelled it high in the air and a few strong flaps sent it soaring to the level of the treetops with a speed that probably leaves ducks apopletic with envy.
An event of such magnitude left us much in need of calming sustenance. Tea and cake had to be applied immediately. And so they were.