Some places are just so good that you keep going back - time and time again. Minsmere is one of those places (though I probably don't need to tell most of you that!) So much so, that I came on Monday for a visit with my wife, son and parents.
Even with much of the freshwater on the Scrape and reedbed still frozen there were some good birds around: five redhead smews on South Scrape, a female goosander flying over, impressive views of a male sparrowhawk from Bittern Hide, water rails feeding on sprats put out in front of Bittern Hide to help the bitterns survive the cold, and a lonely avocet on South Scrape.
Sparrowhawk by Jon Evans (this is a female)
My family love visiting Minsmere, and this one of the few occasions where neither my wife or my mum managed to see a bittern, but there were many reasons why that was soon forgotton. The water rails for a start. Cracking views of another often elusive bird.
The tearoom once again proved a welcome distraction. Broccoli and stilton soup with a cheese scone for lunch, then later a gorgeous cake with a pot of tea. All a very tasty and welcome change from the (admittidly equally lovely) Christmas leftovers.
And as for Thomas. Well, he was in his element. If you've ever walked through woods with a two year old, you'll know what I mean. He was kicking leaves, hiding behind trees, borrowing granma's stick to point out the snowmen on our quiz trail signs, and, of course, jumping up and down in ice-filled pudldes. He also looked through his new Wildlife Explorers binoculars (not sure whether he actually sees anything through them yet as the eyes seem to be closed most of the time, but it's great fun copying mummy and daddy. And my mum treated herself to an expensive new pair of binoculars, ready for her dream trip to Botswana next autumn.
Not content with coming to Minsmere on my day off, yesterday I braved the tiring walk up the shingle ridge at Dingle Marshes, in thich fog, in search of two species that now very rare anywhere else in Suffolk. Despite the fog, I had good views of my target speices - nine twite and ten shore larks, as well as seeing a ringtail hen harrier, spotted redshank and rock pipit.
Shore lark at Dingle Marshes by Jon Evans
Tuesday's highlights at Minsmere were a bean goose flying north (the first on the reserve this year) and a green-winged teal at Island Mere - probably last winter's bird returning (green-winged teals are the North American version of our common teal. Females are indistinguishable, males have a vertical white stripe on their side, rather than the horizontal one).
Highlights so far today are: Caspian and yellow-legged gulls on the Scrape, four red head smews (two each on East and South Scrapes), two velvet scoters offshore, water pipit on the Scrape, and a male hen harrier at Eastbridge.
I'm not back in till Tuesday, so would like to wish everyone a safe, happy and bird-filled New Year.
Working at Minsmere, you come to expect the unexpected. Even so, it's not everyday that I look out of the office window to see a flock of sheep staring back at me! That's exactly what happened this morning though. The wardens were moving the sheep from the Chapel Field to new grazing areas on the northern arable reversion fields. It certainly brought a new meaning to the yuletide season. There's no baaa-humbugs around here.
Sheep at Minsmere - though it wasn't these staring back at me this morning
The strong north-east wind (ideal for blowing Father Christmas's sled our way) made things feel bitterly cold, despite the slow thaw setting in - temperatures above zero for the third morning running.
Wildfowl again provided most of today's highlights: a juvenile whooper swan on Island Mere (there were two adults yesterday), the redhead smew on East Scrape (there were three on Island Mere last night), three pochards on East Scrape, two pale-bellied brent geese over the Scrape. A lonely, and lost avocet on South Scrape was the first for a few weeks - they are usually on the estuaries in winter (try RSPB Snape). Two adult Caspian gulls were on the Scrape too.
As we reflect on another brilliant year at Minsmere, I'd like to wish you all a very merry and peaceful Christmas and a bird-filled New Year from the team at Minsmere. I'm off now till 30th, and will update you then. Minsmere is, of course, open daily, except Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
Don't forget to keep those bird feeders filled and birdbaths topped up with fresh clean water. And please, don't put turkey fat out for the birds. It doesn't set, so is not good for them to eat and can become stuck to their feathers.
Smews are definitely one of my favourite birds. They are scarce but annual visitors to Minsmere, with up to five usually seen between mid December and late February, maybe for slightly longer. They are diving ducks that feed on fish (they're actually the smallest member of the sawbill family, closely related to goosander and red-breasted merganser), so at Minsmere they usually favour Island Mere or South Scrape - the deeper areas that retain some ice-free areas in severe weather.
It's not just their rarity that amkes smew sought after by birdwatchers. The drakes are one of our most attractive birds. Their snow-white plumage is perfectly offset by black pencil-lines and narrow grey vermiculations, in such intricate patterns that they cannot be mistaken for anythng else.
Smew by Neil Cole
The females and young birds, known as redheads, are equally attractive, with chestnut caps, pure white cheeks and a pale grey body, making them almost unmistakable (only the even rarer slavonian grebe and the introduced ruddy duck should pose confusion when looking for a redhead smew).
We've had one redhead around at Minsmere throughout the freeze, with an occasional second bird and a male, but this morning their were an incredible nine redheads with a single drake on South Scrape. This is the largest count at Minsmere for several years, no doubt having been forced west by the deep freeze in Holland and Denmark. Sadly, before I was able to see them, they had flown out to sea, so it's likely they were only brief visitors, but I'm sure more smews will arrive int he next few weeks.
Although temperatures at Minsmere have risen slightly above freezing, most of the open water remains frozen. Part of South Scrape is clear (this is salty, which helps) and was crammed with teals, wigeons and shovelers, while very small open patches remain on East Scrape and Island Mere.
With all the ice around, it's perhaps no surprise that duck numbers are low, or that the Bewick's swans seem to have deserted (hopefully only temporarily). They're still feeding close to the A12 at Blythburgh, and were seen on Dingle Marshes over the weekend, so they may return to roost here when the ice melts. I'm not sure I'd be keen on roosting on Island Mere with two foxes patrolling the ice for a meal!
Saturday's pair of mandarins moved to East Scrape on Sunday, but have now departed. Offshore, a female velvet scoter lingered on Monday, when 200+ red-throated divers were seen. Also on Monday, 42 white-fronted geese flew north. Other interesting records over the last couple of days have been more predictable: Caspian and yellow-legged gulls roosting on the Scrape, two firecrests near the wardens' office, two pintails on East Scrape, grey plovers on the beach, three woodcocks near Bittern Hide, and the water rails feeding on sprats at Bittern Hide. Also, up to 20 water pipits have been feeding around Trevor's digger in the reedbed.
Sadly, though we seem to have lost our starlings. Like the Bewick's, they may simply have moved to Dingle, possibly as a result of the freezing weather. The peregrine has moved with them too! Hopefully, they will return when temperatures rise, though there is no guarantee. There's been no waxwing sightings for a few days, either.