Birds of prey never cease to delight me, and they are clearly popular with many of visitors too if the amount of enquiries about where to see marsh harriers are anything to go by. Luckily, Minsmere remains one of the best places to see marsh harriers - so much so that we sometimes forget how rare these impressive birds of prey are. Only 40 years ago there was just a single pair in the UK - here at Minsmere. Even now, with 400 breeding pairs, they are rarer than golden eagles in the UK.
A close relative of the marsh harrier is the hen harrier, but it's fortunes are very different. Illegal persecution means that there are now only a handful of pairs left in England, mostly on the fells of Bowland in Lancashire. There are more in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but here too they are in decline. The reason? Hen harriers share their moorland breeding ground with red grouse, and have the cheek to eat grouse chicks. A few uncaring gamekeepers continue to illegally kill these handsome raptors. We must stop it. Help us by signing the Letter to the Future.
Hen harriers used to be common winter visitors to the coast of eastern England, but this persecution no doubt partly explains their recent rarity. Two already seem to have up residence at Minsmere this winter. We hope they'll hang around, joinng the marsh harriers at their reedbed roost. Both our birds are ringtails - females or young birds that are brown with barred tails and a white rump. Hopefully we'll see a stunning pale grey male later in the year - the ghost hunter.
Ringtail hen harrier taken on Islay, Scotland by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
It was a bit of a raptor fest at Minsmere today, as no fewer than five common buzzards were seen over the reedbed, and kestrel and sparrowhawk were reported as usual. Best of all though was the honey buzzard watcher soaring over the car park for five minutes by one of our regular visitors, Richard Drew. Lucky boy.
Elsewhere on the reserve, there are still two ring ouzels in North Bushes, along with lesser whitethroat and blackcap. Two wheatears were on the beach near the sluice, and the king eider continues to show well at times on the sea. There were also 40 common scoters on the sea. An avocet, two dunlins and two pintails were on the Scrape with hundreds of teals, wigeons, gadwalls and shovelers. Bearded tits were showing extremely well in North Marsh today and two water rails were calling there. Perhaps my best sighting though was a flock of no fewer than six coal tits on the feeders outside the volunteers' chalet this afternoon.
A glossy ibis was reported briefly on Thursday.
We have opened the viewpoint for two weekends now starting on the 25th September, the first weekend threw up huge amounts of problems, due to broken exhibition trailer and torrential rain. However it was a relative success with up close views of a 12 point stag and many hinds. The weather on Sunday 26th however was too severe and unfortunately we had to admit defeat and close the viewpoint. This weekend though was a completely different story; the weather was ideal on Saturday and we had our fantastic Exhibition trailer up and running full of useful information about the deer. The wildlife explorers from Minsmere also came and natural England were running activities for children till about 5.30pm. The deer were slightly further away than the first weekend but with binoculars and telescopes it was possible to see the stags in great detail. There was the 12 pointer (named Scott by Lou and Will) from the first week and a slightly bigger 14 pointer. The wind was in the perfect direction so it was possible to hear the stags bellowing, I didn’t know what to expect of this; it did remind me of cows mooing but when you listen more carefully it is a very intimidating and daunting noise. Overall the Saturday was a big success with nearly 200 visitors to the site. Sunday was not quite as successful, this is most likely due to the bad weather forecast but those people that did come down were not disappointed. The high winds unfortunately forced the deer back further sheltering near to the trees but the 14 point stag from Saturday was in full swing bellowing, chasing hinds and challenges from younger smaller stags. I’ve attached a couple of photos I took on Saturday to give you all an idea of the size of the stags up there at the moment.
For those who are not just interested in the deer there were many birds spotted by our visitors including sparrowhawks, woodpeckers, cormorants and stone curlews.
On returning to Minsmere its amazing how many animals you see once the light begins to fade; owls, foxes, bats and Muntjac deer. My favourite has to be the red deer hind that stood in the middle of the road just staring at me; it reminded me of the well known saying ‘deer caught in the headlights’. We are open again this coming weekend and the following with the last day being open on the 17th October. I am already looking forward to next weekend as with each week there seems to be more deer gathering and increasing tension between the older and bigger stags.
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It's another damp, dreary day here in Suffolk. What the Irish would call a "soft" day. Or the Scots might call "dreach." I hate having to sit in the office with the lights on during the day, but without them I'd struggle to see my desk. It's that gloomy. At least the rain has stopped, so we might be in for a better afternoon. (Oops, spoke too soon - it's chucking it down again!) Coming on top of rain all morning on Monday and most of yesterday afternoon, the ground is getting a little soggy in my garden, though here at Minsmere the sandy soil drains really quickly. Look out for a few puddles if oyu're coming in the next few days.
Luckily, a little rain doesn't mean no birding. There's been plenty to see over the last few days. Here's a few highlights:
Add to that the superb colours as the trees start to turn yellow, brown and red while berries drip red or black from the hedgerows and there's plenty of good reasons to don the waterproofs and wellies and head to Minsmere. (or of course to buy some new wet weather clothing in the Minsmere shop, then warm up and dry out after a walk in the lovely tearoom!)
Eels are amazing creatures. They're fish, but look more like snakes with their long, sinuous bodies. They can even cross dry (or at least marshy) land to reach new rivers. They have an incredible life cycle too.
Adult eels migrate all the way to the Sargasso Sea to lay their eggs. That's an area of the North Atlantic SW of Florida and closs to the Bahamas which gets its name fromt he mats of seaweed that usually float in its warm waters. When the eggs hatch, the tiny glass eels use the Gulf Stream to carry them to NW Europe where they enter our rivers and gradually mature. These young eels, known as elvers, are a delicacy, especailly in France. Adult eels can be several feet long and live for many years.
Eels are an important food item for several of top wetland predators, especially bitterns and otters. Bud they are sadly in big decline throughout Europe, partly due to pollution but mainly because the rivers on which they rely for their migration have been altered and now include many barriers such as sluices, dams and weirs.
Here at Minsmere we've been working with the Environment Agency to boost our eel population by reintroducing young eels into our reedbed. This morning, some of the wardens carried out their annual monitoring of eels and successfully caught several large eels. Here's a photo of one being measured before release last year.
I'm not an expert, but I know from chatting to Robin and Katy that there have been a few interesting moths caught recently. Pride of place, I gather, have been three vestals (great name), though a silver-stripped hawkmoth caught at Dunwich Heath would have been a real bonus if it was found here instead. One of the most interesting species found here today was the Merveille du Jour, which translates literally from the French as "wonder of the day". A very apt name for such a gorgeous moth. Three were caught this morning. Here's a photo by Robin Harvey.
As for birds, the highlight for the lucky few who saw it was a brief red-necked phalarope on East Scrape this morning. More reliable were the ringtail hen harrier over the reedbed and several snipe in all wetland areas. There were four firecrests in the Sluice bushes this morning. The king eider was still present yesterday when a peregrine was seen and good numbers of finches flew south, including redpolls and siskins.
Despite the current spell of relatively mild weather, there's plenty of signs of the coming winter. For a start, the rapidly changing colours of our deciduous trees, which always make an autumn visit to the countryside such a special one.
Then there's typical autumnal highlights such as jays gathering acorns or red deer roaring as the rut enters full swing on the heath and in the woods. If you haven't been yet this year, why not head out to Westleton Heath to meet Sarah and her enthusiastic band of volunteer helpers at our red deer rut viewpoint. The viewpoint is staffed from 3.30 pm to dusk tonight and tomorrow, and again next Saturday and Sunday, then that's it for another year.
Today there were real signs that winter itself is not too far away, with large flocks of redwings arriving from Scandinavia. I saw flocks over the car park this morning, and again at Snape Maltings where I'm staffing our RSPB Snape information Centre today. There's also a couple of bramblings around the visitor centre area, often joining the large goldfinch flocks. Again, these have arrived from Scandinavia.
Redwing by Chris Gomersall (RSPB Images)
Of course, there have been several winter visitors around for a while now - hen harrier, short-eared owl, peregrine, various ducks, but somehow birds such as redwing and brambling always feel like proper winter migrants since they don't breed in the UK. I can't wait for the first fieldfares in the next few weeks, but it won't really like winter until I hear my first bugling Bewick's or whooper swans - probably not until the very end of the month.
With all the redwings arriving, it was probably not surprising to hear of three more ring ouzels at Minsmere today too. There's also four firecrests still in the Sluice Bushes, while a whinchat was present yesterday.
Ducks are not only becoming more numerous by the day, but gradually starting to acquire their full plumage again after the autumn moult. It's great to see the drake teal with chestnut and green heads again, and the creamy forehead stripe reappearing on the drake wigeons.
Of interest, the king eider remains offshore, having now completed four weeks in residence on the Suffolk coast.