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.