First, apologies for the lack of updates for a few days. No excuses really, but I ran out of time on Friday and had the day off on Saturday to spend with my parents who were visiting - and of course with my wife and son.
Second, I'm writing this update having not even seen Minsmere since Friday. I'm sat in the RSPB Information Centre at Snape Maltings, listening to oystercatchers calling outside. If you've not been yet, why not come over and see Matt or myself at Snape (not on a Wednesday though as we'll be closed) and find out more about our exciting new RSPB Snape nature reserve.
So, in my absence, what's been happening at Minsmere? The summer heat means that birds are often less active, and birdwatchers certainly are - though the light easterly breeze off the sea was pleasan tover the weekend.
With the breeding season still in full swing, many sightings can be predicted quite easily in late June/early July. Avocets, black-headed gulls and common terns are still busy looking after chicks on the Scrape - indeed, the first gulls are fledging now. Bittern feeding flights make the females easier to see - longer, higher and more regular flights mean that a sighting is almost guaranteed if you have enough patience - an hour in Bittern or Island Mere Hides should be enough. Marsh harrier chicks are beginning to fledge - the more flappy flight makes the darker youngsters quite distinctive. Warblers continue to sing, but far less frequently as they have lots of hungry mouths to feed.
Of course, not everything is so predictable. The ferruginous duck, for example, remained on Island Mere until yesterday at least - though it is actually a female, not the drake that was first identified. Ferruginous ducks breed widely in eastern Europe and central Asia, but are scarce visitors to the UK - usually in autumn and winter. Midsummer records are not unusual - it may be a bird relocating from elsewhere in the UK after spending the winter here, or a non-breeding bird that has headed west early. As usual, it is associating loosely with pochards and tufted ducks - they often join pochard flocks migrating from central Asia. Also, as usual, it spends long periods asleep.
Another bird renowned for sleeping is the spoonbill. Quite when some of them feed is a mystery, as you can often watch spoonbills sleeping for hours, flatly refusing to show you their impressive bill. Eight birds remain at Minsmere, roaming between the Levels, Scrape and reedbed. They are often out of site, or viewable only at a distance on the Levels.
One group of birds that are certainly not sleeping are the migrant wading birds that have started to trickle back from Arctic breeding grounds. There have been double figure counts of spotted redshanks most days - looking very dapper in the breeding finery - as well as the first returning ruffs and grey plovers. Two little ringed plovers over the weekend are probably failed breeders from elsewhere in the UK. July usually sees a build up of terns and little gulls at Minsmere too, so perhaps it's time for a visit, rather than a summer slumber. There's loads of insects and flowers to admire too - like the Norfolk hawker and emperor dragonflies at the pond or meadow brown and common blue butterflies.
Within seconds of my last post, a drake ferruginous duck was reported on Island Mere. An excellent record for this time of year.
I was asked a question today that was perhaps only part in jest: "Where's the big screen on the Scrape?" The reply from one of our volunteers was "how many birds watch football?" My reply to that, looking at huge picture of a robin in the reception area was "Robinho for one!"
OK, so perhaps that was a poor attempt at humour, but there is a serious point here. Some of us are having to miss the football today, being stuck in the office instead. It may be better for the nerves. However, given the choice, I'd probably be missing it today anyway and taking advantage of this superb weather by pottering around Minsmere, where there's more guarantee of some serious action, lots of winners and losers, and none of the stress of watching Messrs Rooney, Gerrard and Co kicking sperhical objects around a park in South Africa.
I did manage a quick stroll to South Hide at lunchtime to watch terns. There were good numbers of Sandwich and common terns, and about eight litlte terns, giving an excellent opportunity to compare the contrasting sizes of these three species. Although I couldn't find one myself, an arctic tern was reported at East hide this morning, but there's been no sightngs of the roseate tern today.
Also at South Hide were two ringed plovers, four oystercatchers, two black-tailed godwits and several lapwings. Encouragingly, several avocet chicks are very close to fledging on the Scrape. The ducks on the Scrape (mallard, gadwall, shoveler) are looking increasingly scruffy as they moult into their summer eclipse plumage, losing all their glorious colours in the process.
Strolling back to the office, a bittern gave a superb fly past, straight over the Scrape and heading towards North Marsh. Clearly a nest of hungry chicks to feed there. Althoguh I ddin't see any, nine spoonbills were reported this morning. They seem to be favouring the Levels. It's interesting that numbers are increasing here this year, rather than on Havergate Island, which is usually the best place to see them.
Two red kites were reported flying north over Island Mere at lunch time. They appeared to have a little battle with three resident marsh harriers. Kestrels and hobbies remain on show over the reedbed too.
The warm weather is tempting more insects onto the wing. I swa my first black-tailed skimmers today, along with four-spotted chasers and several common blue damselflies. There was a cinnabar moth near the visitor centre. As well as the impressive display of southern marsh orchids, yellow rattle, yellow flag and ragged-robin at North Hide, a large spike of common spotted orchid is flowering near West Hide and the car park verges have turned yellow with biting stonecrop in flower.
The saga of the nightingale nest had a happy ending over the weekend, as the brood successfully fledged on Sunday. At least one chick was subsequently found - a great reward for the efforts of the parents, and our volunteers who spared several hours helping to reduce disturbance and allowing the adults to feed the chicks. This news is especially heartening as the nightngale population in the Uk continues to decline worryingly.
The early return of post breeding birds, or failed breeders, continued, with the first roseate tern of the summer arriving on the Scrape over the weekend. An arctic tern was also present, along with 35 Sandwich terns. The first "autumn" ruffs returned too, looking dapper alongside the breeding avocets, redshanks and oystercatchers. One or two spotted redshanks remain too.
Spoonbills peaked at an impressive eight over the weekend, and four were seen over the reedbed near Island mere this morning. Bitterns continue to show well, with regular feeding flights over the reedbed. These flights - where the females are heading off to find food to bring back to hungry chicks - tend to be longer and higher than most bittern flights at other times of year. Marsh harriers are busy over the reedbed too.
A badger was spotted by a couple of lucky visitors after the nightjar guided walk on Friday night. The nightjars had showed really well too.
Elsewhere, it remains much as you were. All the common warblers continue to sing, if less fervently than in the past. Sand martins remain active around the pond, swallows are nesting at the sluice, a good variety of butterflies, damselflies and dragonflies are active.
There's been a world cup feel to Minsmere over the last few days, as three species from three different continents have attracted most attention. The continents: Africa, Arctic Europe and South America. The species: nightingale, spotted redshank and Chilean flamingo. The reasons for a visit: to breed, to refuel after breeding, and because they are lost!
Nightingales, of course, are one of Minsmere's star species in April/May as their songs fill the air with a glorious melody, after returning from a winter spent soaking the rays of Africa sunshine. Although the odd burst of song is still heard, probably from males that have been unsuccessful in their search for a mate, by mid June it is usually very difficutl to find nightingales. Indeed, it is always difficult to see one, especially to get a good view, as they are notorious skulkers.
Not this year though. One pair has very obligingly decided to nest within a few metres of the path to North Hide. They have chicks now, and spend much of their time feeding on the path or in the open nearby. This is providing some superb views - providing you give them a bit of space to go about their business. If you're coming to see them, please watch from a safe distance, and do not stop in the area they are feeding in. If you hear an alarm call, it's time to move on!
Spotted redshanks, too, are regulars at Minsmere during migration time. They are the first indication of a change in the seasons. Why? Becasue sometime in mid June we start to get the first birds returning in their stunning black full summer plumage. When I say returning, I mean heading south, having already been to the high Arctic. These early birds are most likely to be females. They've either failed to breed, or laid their eggs and left the more industirous males to incubate them and look after the females. Yes, girls, role reversal is alive and kicking in the wader world (indeed, some species take this to an extreme and the females are the more colourful sex, doing most of the courtship - take dotterel or red-necked phalarope for example.
Anyway, our first spotted redshansk arrived this week, overlapping with what are probably northbound dunlins and knots. They'll soon be joined by the first returning ruffs and green sandpipers as "autumn" migration really kicks off in July!
And so the flamingoes! Where did they come from how did they get here? We don't know for certain, excpet to say that they are definitely escapees. Althoguh first identified as greater flamingoes - the species that breeds in the Camargue or southern Spain,s o could conceivably turn up here - they were in fact Chilean flamingoes. The clue was in their red knees on grey legs! As the name suggests, Chilean flamingoes originate in South America, where they are quite common. They are also widely kept in captivity in Europe, and frequently escape - but from where? we may never know.
Bizarrely, two Chilean flamingoes arrived on the Scrape yesterday, but they haven't been spotted today. Even more bizarrely, there was lesser flamingo (an Africa species) on RSPB Havergate Island last week - perhaps it will still be there for visitors to Havergate's Signs of New Life event this weekend.
And what of the travellers from Norfolk? One was Robert Coleman, site manager at RSPB Titchwell Marsh who spent the week at Minsmere learning more about how visitors enjoy Minsmere to help us with future development plans. You may have met Rob last week - he's now heading back across the border to Norfolk. The other was not strictly a traveller from Norfolk but a recent colonist: the Norfolk hawker dragonfly. Several are now flying near the pond and up the entrance road.
Other sightings this week include: buzzard over Westleton Heath yesterday, regular bitterns and marsh harriers, breeding Mediterranean gulls, common terns and avocets, singing lesser whitehtroats and garden warblers, and a good selection of butterflies and damselflies. The flowers from North Hide are impressive too: yellow rattle, yellow flag, southern marsh orchid and ragged robin. Why not come and have a look.