I'm reminded this morning of one of Thomas's favourite books - The Gruffalo. You may be familiar with it. The mouse escapes being eaten by describing making up a monstor that likes to eat mouse's main predators - fox, owl and snake, only to bump into the creature with "knobbly knees and turned out toes ... terrible teeth in his terrible jaws ... and purple prickles all over his back."
Well, today's two star birds would fit nicely into the story, especially as both will have been looking for a tasty mouse or vole to eat! For one has rough-legs and the other short ears, and both have bright stary eyes, hooked beaks and razor sharp talons that are ideal for catching and eating small rodents.
The birds in question? A rough-legged buzzard and short-eared owl. The former was seen drifting south across the Levels at 9.40 am, having presumably just arrived from Scandinavia. It may stay locally for the winter, but is probably heading on elsewhere as only a handful of these huge raptors spend the winter in the UK. They breed in the Arctic tundra and steppes, feeding primarily on lemmings and young birds, but will probably be looking for a tasy rabbit while over here.
Short-eared owls are far less nocturnal than many of their cousins and can frequently be seen hunting over rough grassland, saltmarsh and dunes during the winter. Like the ring ouzels mentioned yesterday (of which at least one is still around), they breed on Britain's moors, but unlike the ring ouzels many do stay here for the winter. Whether our bird came from the Pennines or Scotland, or perhaps more likely from Scandinavia, we don't know, but we hope it will stay for some time. It was hunting over the duens and Scrape this morning.
Apart from the buzzard, owl and ouzel, there was a redstart in the North Bushes this morning, while several migrants were still present yesterday. Swallows and house martins continue to be seen most day, and duck numbers are increasing. The king eider was still present yesterday too.
What's a rouzel I hear you ask. Sorry, it's a bit of shorthand to make a play on words. It's short for ring ouzel, or mountain blackbird as it's often known on its moorland breeding grounds.
Ring ouzels are sadly in decline as breeding birds on the moors of northern England, Wales and Scotland, probably due to a combination of deteriorating habitat (over-grazing, conversion to forestry, drainage, etc), disturbance by people and effects of climate change, which make upland areas more attractive to the more aggressive blackbird. Help us to protect them by signing the Letter to the Future.
Ring ouzels can be tricky to see well in these upland areas as they famously fly ahead of you to hide behind the next rock. They look like a blackbird, but with a white throat crescent (often dull off-white in autumn) an dsilvery edges to the wings.
Ring ouzel in the Cairngorms by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
But what has an upland bird got to do with Minsmere? Well, ring ouzels are migrants. They breed here, but spend our winter in North Africa as it is too exposed in the uplands. As with any migrant, they may be spotted on the east coast in spring and autumn, especially in suitable weather conditions.
Normally when this happens we might see one or two ring ouzels at Minsmere, but yesterday the conditions were right for a huge arrival of migrants - known by birdwatchers as a fall, which is quite apt as birds almost fall out fo the sky with exhaustion. At least 15 were present yesterday, and at least four are still there today. These are probably birds from Scandinavia, passing through on route to Africa, since they arrived with hundreds of redwings and song thrushes, a few bramblings, and 100+ siskins. A sure sign that winter is on its way.
There were other interesting migrants too. A great grey shrike was in the North Bushes this morning. A spotted flycatcher was there yesterday. A few redstarts are still passing through. A merlin flew over North Marsh yesterday and a hen harrier on Monday. And small flocks of brent geese are flying south most days.
Finally, as I wrote that last paragraph a bedraggled blue tit perched on the window sill, just 50 cms (two feet) from where I'm sitting. A common bird, yes, but one that has just enlivened my lunch hour a bit.
There's something special about autumn gales, and I don't just mean the prospect of rare birds!
Walking down North Wall at lunchtime, listening to the reeds whispering in the wind as swallows battled into the teeth of a north-westerly blow or gulls soared effortlessly south , pushed along by the gale, I knew something special in store. I could hear it. A distant rumble, almost like thunder.
Approaching the beach, the rumble grew louder and I began to see spray splashing up above the dunes. Then they came into view. The white horses rolling up the shore and crashing into the shingle before retreating with a whoosh back from whence they'd come. As each wave peaked and began to break, the wind whipped the spray off the crest , blowing it back out to sea.
Two photos I took a few years ago of waves breaking on the shingle, because I haven't got my camera today
There is something magical about watching a stormy sea from a safe distance. It's strangely relaxing. Certainly awe-inspiring. Maybe even reflective. I took full advantage and strolled to the sluice just above the tideline, watching various gulls and young gannets sailing past on outstrecthed wings.
These are some of the reasons why Saving our Sealife is a key strand of the Letter to the Future.
I didn't see it, but the king eider was still around, spending much of the day around the rigs at Sizewell. I missed the great skuas and black terns offshore too. And the two pectoral sandpipers that returned to the Scrape at 4.30 pm having not been seen since a two hour stay yesterday. I missed the little stints and sanderlings as well, but did enjoy watching a snipe and dunlin on South Scrape, two pintails on West Scrape, little egrets and grey herons, and the usual mix of lapwings and ducks on the Scrape. And the great spotted woodpecker on the feeders outside the tearoom. I had three great crested grebes on Island Mere last night too.
Oh, and the red deer rut viewpoint opened on Westleton Heath about an hour ago. It's open Saturdays and Sundays until 17 October, from 3.30 pm to dusk and is free.
Winter must be on it's way - the weather has suddenly turned from bright sun to heavy rain this afternoon - because geese featured high on my sightings this afternoon. It's not often we can see six different species of goose in a day at Minsmere, but that was the case today.
For the purists among you, only one of these six species was truly wild - the first small flocks of brent geese seen flying south offshore. Newly arrived from the Arctic, they'll be spending the winter on estuaries in Essex or along the south coast.
The other five species are all feral, meaning that they have originally descended from captive stock. Three of these occur throughout the year at Minsmere in large numbers, with several pairs breeding. These are greylag, Canada and barnacle geese. Among the barnacles are five red-breasted geese, which are presumably escapees from a collection in the UK or NW Europe. One of the smallest geese in the world, and also one fo the rarest, red-breasted geese breed in Siberia and spend the winter around the Black and Caspian Seas. Only very rarely does one visit us in the UK, usually joining brent geese. A flock of five wild birds would be highly unusual, and the fact they are associating with known feral birds makes their origins even more suspect.
Finally, two Egyptian geese have also joined the barnacles. As their name suggests, they originate in Africa, but there is an established feral population in Norfolk. Surprisingly, they remain rare visitors at Minsmere.
Apart from geese, the sea proved the place to watch for four of our volunteers. Lots of birds were on the move today, mainly heading south. The highlights were the first red-throated divers of the winter, two arctic skuas (see Jon Evans' stunning photo of one on the beach earlier in the week), two great skuas (affectionately known as bonxies by most birdwatchers), an arctic tern, five common terns and a good selection of wading birds and ducks. There were also two slightly oiled guillemots (unless we can catch them for the RSPCA to look after there's not we can do to help them), and the king eider remains offshore.
Best of the rest were three juvenile curlew sandpipers on the Levels (on the first pool south of the sluice), along with several dunlins, three grey plovers and a greenshank. Two bar-tailed godwits and an avocet remain on South Scrape. A black tern was reported at Island Mere yesterday.
The main talking point for many visitors this week has been this unusual piece of machinery.
It's being used by the Environment Agency to collect core samples so that they can finalise plans for work to upgrade the sea defences at Minsmere. The machine was on the beach earlier int he week, but as you can see from the photo it's been in the reedbed near North Wall for the last two days. We'll keep you posted with news on the Minsmere Flood Risk Management project.
Trevor, our regular contractor, has been working on the Scrape for a couple of weeks - it's looking great out there now - and has been in the reedbed this week, so you may also have noticed his familiar orange digger. For those who haven't seen, and who like machinery (yes, I know, there are some people who prefer machines to birds), here's a picture of trevor hard at work.
The king eider was still around yesterday, but I've not heard any news today (I'm not at Minsmere today to check for myself as I'm working at RSPB Snape.)
The lapland bunting and a wheatear were still in the dunes yesterday, when a bar-tailed godwit and grey plover were on the Scrape and five (presumed escaped) red-breasted geese were on the Levels.
A glaucous gull flew south past the sluice on Sunday - quite an early record for this Arctic breeding gull.