It's the RSPB's Feed the Birds Day this weekend. A chance to prepare for the winter by stocking up on bird food, cleaning feeders and waiting for the hordes of tits, finches, thrushes (and if you're lucky sparrows) to descend.
Lots of families have been enjoying the mild weather at Minsmere this week and getting themselves ready for Feed the Birds Day by making bird feeders from pine cones and apples. They've also been busy making pompoms and other craft activities during the half term holiday.
The reserve itself is busy this week too. There's obviously been lots of people out, making the most of the late Indian summer, as the overflow car park has been open on several dates.
Birdwise, it's been more of the same, which is far from saying that not much is happening. Given the SW winds, it's not surprising that few new birds have been reported, but several good birds remain. The king eider remains offshore, and the great white egret on Island Mere - though it has taken to roaming around the reedbed too. The ringtail hen harrier roosts every evening, and up to ten Bewick's swans are moving between the Scrape, Levels and Island Mere. The odd brambling is in the large finch flocks, with lots of siskins around now, while redwings and fieldfares continue to be seen and goldcrests remain widespread (see Jon Evans' photo below). Bitterns and marsh harriers are seen daily, and duck numbers are slowly increasing.
Meanwhile, just up the coast, there are shore larks, snow buntings and twites at RSPB Dingle Marshes, where a glossy ibis was a brief visitor earlier in the week.
Just time for a quick update today, based on recent sightings by colleagues and visitors, as I've not been on the reserve for a few days.
Certainly some clear evidence that winter is on it's way, with up to ten Bewick's swans using the reserve for the last few days. They seem to be mobile between Island Mere and the Scrape, but hopefully we'll have birds around for several weeks now. I always feel winter ahs arrived when I see my first Bewick's or whooper swans, fresh in from Siberia and Iceland respectively.
There was a brief waxwing by the picnic area today, while the ringtail hen harrier is roosting in the reedbed most evenings. No starling roost yet though - try RSPB Snape where there is a small but growing roost.
Despite the wintry feel to birding today, there was a late whincaht on Monday, when 14 swallows flew south.
The king eider remains offshore, and was joined briefly this week by a drake eider, while a little auk flew past today. On Island Mere, the great white egret remains (moving to the pool behind West hide for a while today), and the first scaup of the year - a female - paid a visit yesterday.
Otherwise, look out for water pipits on the Scrape or in the reedbed, listen out for Cetti's warblers or water rails in the reedbed, and check the ducks on the Scrape for the odd pintail.
It's always great to try something different, and today that something different was certainly a success.
The something different in question was a guided walk as part of the Woodwose Festival. What is Woodwose, I hear you ask. It's a brand new festival - more a celebration of the great outdoors - organised by Suffolk Coastal District Council and the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Minsmere lies within this AONB, which celebrates it's 40th birthday this year. Woodwose is the official anniversary event. The Festival was launched alst weekend with a fantastic fun-filled event on Westleton village green, followed by an evening ceilidh - I had to miss it due to a prior commitment, but Lou and some of our volunteers hada great time, meeting many local people and visiting families. (Woodwose, incidentally, was some mediaeval character locally).
Anyway, the Woodwose Festival was sponsored by local brewer Adnams, which also funded some exciting new leaflets of pub walks in Suffolk. A core part of the festival is the busy programme of walks, tours and events around the AONB over the subsequent two weeks - this week and next. We decided to use the pub walks theme and offer a choice fo three exciting walks starting from local pubs. I led one today at Minsmere, while Matt has two walks planned at RSPB Snape - one this Saturday, the other the following week.
And so to today's walk, which was billed as seeing Minsmere's wetlands from a different perspective. I met five eager guests at the Eel's Foot pub in Eastbridge, just outside the reserve boundary - a very popular location for wardens, volunteers and visitors alike. On this occasion, we weren't there to use the facilities, but to start a walk around the southern part of Minsmere, returning via the tearoom for lunch.
Now, any guided walk needs several things to be successful. A keen and knowledgeable leader helps (I hope I met that criteria OK). Good weather is a bonus (we definitely ticked that box as despite the slight frost this morning and chill northerly wind, the almost unbroken sunshine made the walk much more enjoyable). Enthusiastic participants certainly helps, and today's group certainly met that criteria. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need some good wildlife - probably the most unpredictable element.
Luckily, the gods were smiling on us today, and we had a fantastic walk. Leaving Eastbridge on the path to the Minsmere sluice, we strolled across soon to be harvested sugar beet fields past elm hedges before reaching the Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Lower Abbey Farm Marshes reserve. Looking back towards Island Mere, I glimpsed a shimmering white bird in a small pool. Raising my binoculars, the bright yellow bill gave the game away - great white egret. What a start. Even better, it was standing next to a little egret (one of several we saw) and within 10 metres of a grey heron! Three herons in the same pool. Wow!
Soon we entered the RSPB reserve, enjoying glorious views north across the reedbed towards Bittern Hide and Dunwich Coastguards cottages beyond. A marsh harrier quartered, on the lookout for small mammals. To the south, a large flock of greylags grazed the marshes beneath the towering white dome of Sizewell B power station. It's surprising how such a huge industrial site can appear strangely attractive at times!
Sizewell B beyond the reedbed by David Tipling (rspb-images.com)
For me, perhaps the bird of the day was a stunning male kestrel that powered its way low over the marshes in a most un-kestrel-like way. Had it not been for such great views of its black-spotted chestnut back and steal-blue rump and tail, I could easily have mistaken it for a merlin given such a flight profile.
One of the joys of this walk is the excellent views of the ruins of the original 12th Century Leiston Abbey chapel - a stone ruin familiar to so many Minsmere visitors yet never really seen in its best light from the reserve trails. Beyond that, we were thrilled to see a common seal just a couple of metres offshore from the sluice (partly making up for not seeing the king eider which was certainly still present earlier). Looking inland from here, the Scrape shone a glorious blue in the sun.
South Hide offered great views of shovelers, with more distant wigoens and teals, while the nearby bullace and slowly withering marsh mallow added interesting talking points, as did the vocal Cetti's warbler near South Hide.
Next stop the tearoom. Joy of joys, there were cheese scones on the menu today. And, yes, i did have to test one of the fantastic cakes too.
Onwards we strolled to our next destination - Island Mere Hide. The egret had been in view earlier, but was now hiding following a tussle with a grey heron. The marsh harriers obliged though, and a water rail scuttled in front of the hide. Better was to follow though as I spooted our now resident ringtail hen harrier low over the reeds beyond the mere. Soon after she disappeared from view, a bittern flew across the mere and landed in full view, about one metre up the reeds on the far side of the water. Our fourth heron of the day.
Even the return route along the entrance road back to Eastbridge was not without it's excitement. A roadside grey heron was unexpected, for instance, and their were two lovely parasol toadstools standing proud among fallen leaves on the bank above the road. I love this approach to Minsmere for its cathedral-like towering avenue of limes, many regenerating from stumps felled by the October 1987 gales. We failed to spot a barn owl on the meadows at Eastbridge, but did finish with siskin and great spotted woodpecker flying over.
All in all, a very enjoyable walk.
Elsewhere on the reserve, bramblings, siskins, lesser redpolls and redwings were in evidence, and five whooper swans were on the Levels. Yesterday I spotted two late swallows and a male blackcap, plus a gorgeous male bullfinch in North Bushes.
Firstly, apologies for the lack of an update for the last week - not enough time in the office between meetings and a weekend off are to blame. It's been an excellent few days on the reserve - typically as I've not been out looking for anything. Two groups of birds have stolen the show - raptors and wildfowl - but there have been lots of other goodies too, and several signs of winter.
Raptors first - and what a week it's been. The highlight was probably the second rough-legged buzzard of the autumn which flew north on Monday morning. Interestingly, one was seen on RSPB Havergate Island recently, I saw one in North Suffolk yesterday, and at least one other is in the county, so it could be a good year for this normally scarce visitor from Scandinavia. Rough-legged buzzards are known as irruptive migrants - large numbers may visit in some years due to a food shortage. This is a good indication of a crash in the lemming population - their favourite food - as suggested by the relative lack of little stints and curlew sandpipers passing through earlier in the autumn (in the absence of lemmings, predators switch to feeding on breeding wading birds.)
The ringtail hen harrier and short-eared owl remained around the reedbed and sluice respectively yesterday, when a red kite flew over the car park. Add these to the daily sightings of marsh harriers, sparrowhawks, kestrels and barn owls, plus the occasional peregrine, and it's been a very good week for raptors. And for another predator, as an otter was seen in front of Bittern Hide on Friday.
Wildfowl next, and the first winter king eider remains offshore, driftng between Dunwich, Minsmere and Sizewell, with the odd visit to Thorpeness (thus having been added to both the Dingle Marshes and North Warren lists as well as Minsmere's during its five week stay). Also offshore, three velvet scoters joined the common scoter flock again on Monday.
More predictable winter wildfowl made an appearance this week with the first Bewick's swans arriving very early on Sunday. Six were on Island Mere before continuing their journey westward (perhaps these were among the early arrivals at Slimbridge reported wildly in this week's media?) Two female goosanders flew over the Scrape on Sunday - a scarce sighting at Minsmere, while numbers of teals, wigeons, gadwalls and shovelers continue to increase, with many finally beginning to show their finest plumage after the summer moult.
Winter is clearly beginning to show its teeth - and I don't just mean the arrival of much colder weather form the north this week. Two shore larks (a scrace bird in Suffolk these days) were on the dunes on Saturday, followed by a snow bunting near the sluice on Monday. A purple sandpiper spent a couple of days on the sluice outfall last week, and one or two great grey shrikes took up temporary residence around the red deer viewpoint on Westleton Heath until Sunday. More exciting was a waxwing in the North Bushes yesterday. A little auk on the beach on Sunday was a bonus before it headed back out to sea - hopefully there will be more next month. Elsewhere, redwings continue to pass through each day, fieldfares are starting to arrive, a couple of bramblings remain around the visitor centre and water pipits have returned to the Scrape and reedbed.
Finally, one of the great white egrets remains at Island Mere, little egrets and bitterns are seen daily, a Caspian gull is often seen roosting on the Scrape, and kingfishers continue to be seen regularly.
Oh, and I can't let the week pass without mention of red deer. The viewpoint closed at the weekend, but the deer are still rutting so it's still worth a stroll along the footpath on the southern edge of Westleton heath to look for them. I led one of the last Deer Safaris on Firday and had incredible views - here's one of Jon Evans' amazing photos to give you a taste. Look out for these events next year.
Anyone visiting the Suffolk coast these days can hardly fail to spot a small white heron paddling around in the shallows of an estuary or coastal pool. Little egrets were still rarities as recently as 20 years ago, before starting to breed in the UK in 1995. Colonisation was swift, and they are now widespread on the south, east and northwest coasts of England and the Welsh coast. At Minsmere, it's often easier to see little egrets than grey herons - and certainly easier than spotting a bittern.
Minsmere is a great place to spot rarer herons too, with regular sightings of purple herons and spoonbills in the spring, while squacco heron and glossy ibis have been seen in recent years. Surely it's only a matter of time before a cattle egret pays us a visit.
The big daddy of all the rare herons in the UK though is the great white egret. Standing almost a metre high, they are the same size as grey herons but clean white. Apart from their size, non-breeding birds stand out due to their huge yellow bills.
Great white egret (with greylag geese) by Jon Evans (this was taken last year)
Great white egrets are increasingly common visitors in the UK. At Minsmere, in recent years we've had several sightings of birds that have stayed for a few weeks, or even months. Two of these had been ringed as chicks in northern France. Well, on Saturday yet another great white egret arrived, and has taken up its customary home on Island Mere - they always seem to favour the right hand corner of this pool.
It wasn't the only unusual visitor over the last few days. The king eider remains offshore while four common eiders (rare birds at Minsmere) flew north on Saturday. Three velvet scoters joined the small common scoter flock too. Not a bad set of ducks in Suffolk. Saturday also saw the discovery of another yellow-browed warbler, this time near Island Mere. Willow warblers and blackcaps are still passing through, and a few lesser redpolls were in the car park area again over the weekend. Two swallows were over Island Mere this morning.
Two white-fronted geese on the Levels on Sunday were early arrivals. Redwings continue to arrive each day, and the two bramblings remain around the visitor centre.
Best of all, for those lucky enough to see them, were two otters in the middle of the temporary reedbed trail at 2 pm yesterday!