Suffolk has had more than it's fair share of Alpine Swifts this year. These birds can be hit and miss, with some staying around for days and others simply zooming over, never to be seen again. After todays sighting from West Hide I decided to have a quick scan. No joy from here, but large numbers of Swift were visible in the distance towards Island Mere. So a decision had to be made: should I head home having already spent 11 hours on the reserve, or should I have a scan from Whin Hill. The latter won this time, and after a while I picked up a large swift with a pale belly bombing around over the mere - the Alpine. Nine times out of ten a hunch does not pay off, but this time it had! I watched the bird race past within a few metres of the hide: those inside must have had a great view. It then headed down to the west end of the reedbed where it remained for another ten minutes or so before I lost it amongst the hundreds of Common Swifts, Swallows, Sand and House Martins also feeding in the area.
Fortunately I was able to alert Adam, our Senior Site Manager before the bird disappeared, and we ended the day as we had begun it, watching a rarity. Adam had found a singing Savi's Warbler in the reedbed between West and South hides, a species last seen at Minsmere in 2004. This species has bred on the reserve in the past, but is a scarce visitor to Britain these days. The song is similar to that of Grasshopper Warbler, a reeling call more like a machine than a bird. Both species can be elusive and are more often seen than heard, but apparently this individual has been showing occasionally again this evening. Lets hope it sticks around for the weekend!
Whilst we were in the hide at Island Mere, a visitor pointed out a raptor trying to drown a bird in the water. A look though the scope revealed that it was a male Sparrowhawk, and as it took off it's prey was identifiable as a Swift! Swifts are quite ofen a meal for a Hobby, but I'd have expected a Sparrowhawk to struggle to catch one. Maybe this one was just lucky. The Swift was lucky too, beacause as it's captor flew off over the reedbed it dropped it's prospective dinner. I didn't see if the Swift managed to fly away, but I assume that it did: a narrow escape!
Other highlights today have included the Little Gull still on the Scrape, along with at least 34 Mediterranean Gull, four Ruff, three Spotted Redshank, a Bar-tailed Godwit and three Common Sandpiper. What will tomorrow bring? It's the time of year when we're all scared to have a day off: we might miss the next big rarity.......
Our recent purple patch continued this afternoon, with news of an alpine swift behind West Hide at 3.45 pm. Earlier, yet another red kite flew over Whin Hill at 1.20 pm. There's been no news on the Savi's warbler since early morning though.
I'll be in bright and early tomorrow - well, in the dark actually - for a dawn chorus walk, so perhaps I'll spot one of these goodies myself.
Wow, there's just so much happening at Minsmere - and we haven't even got to May yet!
After yesterday's stone-curlew was spotted from the approach road, another was located on the Konik Field, where it showed well all afternoon. Although they are waders, stone-curlews are rarely seen near water, so this was particularly notable location.
Other notable waders yesterday included six wood sandpipers flying north (an excellent count), two greenshanks and two spotted redshanks. A drake garganey was on the Levels, and five late brent geese dropped in.
It was good day for passage migrants. No fewer than three red kites flew through during the day, and a buzzard was spotted. Wheatears were widespread - at least nine on the reserve. Two black terns, single white and yellow wagtails and a female redstart in the dunes near East Hide were also noteworthy.
Garden warbler numbers have increased in recent days, with at least nine around the reserve. A cuckoo was heard again on the Levels, and a lesser whitethroat in North Bushes. A grasshopper warbler continues to sing along the North Wall.
Another bird with a reeling song similar to a grasshopper warbler is the much rarer Savi's warbler. One was heard between West and South Hides at 7 am this morning, and for a little while afterwards, and may still be in the area, but they are easiest to hear early and late in the day.
Among our popular regular species, bitterns continue to show from Bittern and Island Mere Hides, hobbies dart above the reedbeds, marsh harriers are doing regular food passes, sand martins are busy around the colony, and the nightingale near the car park entrance was feeding in the open this morning. Finally, a nuthatch was on the feeders outside the tearoom yesterday.
On the insect front, the first small coppers were noted around the stone-curlew viewpoint yesterday.
With the Bank Holiday weather forecast for cooler, wetter weather, i hope spring migrants will continue to arrive to be enjoyed by our many visitors.
One of Minsmere's most elusive birds has been on show today, allowing visitors the rare chance to see a google-eyed plover. Never heard of one? How about wailing heath chicken? Or Eurasian thick-knee? Perhaps the name stone-curlew will be more familiar.
Stone-curlews are scarce birds, easily disturbed, and requiring an unusual combination of habitats that means that they are one of the trickiest birds to find in the UK. Most of our birds breed in either Breckland or the Wessex Downs, with just a handful fo pairs on the Suffolk coast - but that wasn't always the case!
In the 19th century, they were widespread on the Suffolk Sandlings heaths, probably breeding in every parish between Kessingland and Felixstowe. However, a combination of habitat loss and increasing human populations saw a gradual decline to just a single pair on the coast by the 1990s. Something had to be done, so the RSPB and Natural England began a programme of habitat creation and working with landowners to create optimal conditions, resulting in the current coastal population of about seven pairs.
At Minsmere, we slowly reverted former arable fields back to Sandlings heath, creating ideal habitat for stone-curlews: short, rabbit-grazed, sandy acid grassland. In 2003 a pair returned to breed at Minsmere for the first time since the 1960s. Last year we had five pairs, but we couldn't show them to visitors as they are so easily disturbed.
This morning, one of our volunteers spotted two stone-curlews close to Minsmere's entrance road, so we opened an impromptu viewing point. The birds have obliged, with one of them showing well at times, but at other times it disappears into a hollow where its camouflage made it impossible to see. As they are mainly crepescular (active at dawn and dusk), they spend most of the day sitting around, doing very little, before uttering their strange curlew-like calls at dusk. Will they still be there tomorrow?
They've not been the only scarce birds on view today, as at least two red kites have been seen over the reedbed, while spoonbills were on the Scrape yesterday. A wheatear was in same field as the stone-curlews and a whitethroat serenaded us all morning.
There's something special about spring. The colours for a start. You don't even have to be at Minsmere to appreciate them,as the hedgerows around the Suffolk coast are a glorious mix of white, yellow and green. White from the blackthorn blossom (soon to be replaced by hawthorn or May blossom), with garlic mustard (or jack by the hedge) in the verges below and cherry blossom in village gardens. Yellow from vibrant golden gorse to the greener flowers of Alexanders, or dandelions in the shorter grass. Green from the rapidly emerging leaves. Hawthorn is bursting into leaf. The lime trees on Minsmere's approach road will soon be castng deep shadows, but the oaks are a little while off leafing yet.
Colour abounds on the reserve too. Lady's smock, or cuckoo flower, is beginning to flower at Island Mere and other reedbed pools, its delicate pink flowers attracting gorgeous orange tip butterflies (already numerous in Meadow Marsh). Holly blues are almost electric blue little butterflies now emerging to join the peacocks, commas and green-veined whites. The first large red damselflies are beginning to emerge too.
Ducks are sporting their brightest plumage. Numbers continue to decline as northern breeders depart for the Arctic, but there are still good numbers of wigeons, teals and shovelers ont he Levels, and fewer on the Scrape. Black-tailed godwits are rapidly acquiring their orange-red breeding plumage, while the ruffs are a mix of brown, black and white. Many of the other birds on the Scrape - avocets, black-headed and Mediterranean gulls, common, Sandwich and little terns and mainly black and white.
Another sign of spring is the increased birdsong. Nightingales are always popular and can be heard near the warden's office, in North Bushes and beside the pond. Garden warblers and blackcaps (always difficult to distinguish) proclaim their territories around the reserve's woods. In more scrubby areas, whitethroats show off with their jaunty little song flights. Reed, sedge and Cetti's warblers are singing within the reedbeds, while a grasshopper warbler was heard again along the North Wall on Monday. A gorgeous firecrest was singing near Bittern hide on Sunday.
Monday's main highlight was a group of four common cranes reported near Bittern Hide. Quite how many cranes have passed through Minsmere in recent days remains a mystery. If only some had comeover the weekend when the staff were all on the reserve showing visitors Minsmere's delights. Hopefully I'll be around when the next oen comes through.