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.
Despite the deep freeze conditions, there was a touch of exotica at Island Mere today. A Chinese feel to the birding. The reason? The unexpected appearance of a pair of mandarins, sharing the tiny ice-free pool with a few gadwalls, shovelers, mallards and teals, five female tufted ducks, a drake pintail and three coots.
Mandarins are widely established as an introduced species in the UK, although the most reliable site to find them in Suffolk is Christchurch Park in the middle of Ipswich. One or two appear briefly at Minsmere most years. What was perhaps most surprising with this record was that they were displaying, even in the freezing conditions. (Equally surprising was the great spotted woodpecker drumming in my garden this morning.
The roosting starlings have changed their behaviour tonight, perhaps as a result of the freezing conditions, or maybe because of the continued attacts by both a peregrine and our now resident ringtail hen harrier. Whatever the reason, they were settling in gorse bushes on the dunes, rather the North Marsh reedbed.
Also in the dunes today was a Dartford warbler, while a woodcock was flushed this morning. On the beach, were five grey plovers, two sanderlings, two dunlins and five turnstones. A great northern diver flew past yesterday, and an incredible flock of 50+ pale-bellied brent geese flew south on Sunday (this race is very rare in Suffolk).
The Scrape was almost completely frozen, but the evening gull roost attracted an adult Caspian gull, while a yellow-legged gull was present yesterday.
Elsewhere in the reedbed, the red-head smew was feeding in the ditch near south hide at dusk, a water pipit was nearby this morning, and water rails have been feeding on the sprats put out in front of Bittern Hide to try to help them and bitterns to survive the freeze.
Among the small birds, 20 waxwings were again outside the wardens' office, three goldcrests and a treecreeper were spotted between Bittern and Island Mere hides and at least 20 goldfinches were on the tearoom feeders.
All in all, a great day to be out birding, regardless of the cold weather. You can, of course, warm up in the tearoom, or pick up a bargin in our Christmas sale in the shop.
Sometimes it's the common species that spring the biggest surprises. So it was at lunchtime today when I strolled down to Island Mere.
The scene was, as usual, one of calm serenity. The water was mirror-calm, reflecting the low midday sun such that it was impossible to see the island itself. The golden reeds barely even swayed in the non-existent breeze. Small groups of shovelers and mallards dabbled or snoozed along the ice edge, while tufted ducks and a couple of drake pochards dived in search of deeper food.
Across the back of the mere, an unusually large aggregation of 25 carrion crows were picking their way along the ice edge. As any birdwatcher knows, the country saying that "one rook is a crow and lots of crows are rooks" (or words to that effect) is far from true. Rooks may be found alone, thoguh they certainly prefer to be in flocks. Carrion crows are usually in much smaller groups, but will flock in bigger gatherings around a productive food source.
I presume they were searching for fish or invertebrates that had been frozen into the ice, or perhaps picking up fallen reed seeds. Whatever it was that was attracting so many crows, they weren't alone, as two foxes sauntered out of the reeds and onto the ice. One looked particularly strange as it was completely lacking a tail! The crows clearly didn't want to share their sparse pickings and quickly mobbed these fellow scavengers, but the sight was impressive while it lasted.
Carrion crow by Andy Hay (RSPB Images)
To cap off an enjoyable few minutes, a bittern flapped lazily above the reeds, giving excellent, prolonged views before it flopped down into a pool or ditch close to the North Levels. Sadly, there was no sign of either the redhead or stunning drake smew that were present on Sunday.
Earlier, 12 waxwings fed on hawthorns close to the car park entrance before quickly departing north. There have sightings of different sized flocks of these punk-crested beauties almost daily recently, so I'm sure a flock must be roaming around the reserve.
The weekend produced a couple of firecrests around the car park and North Bushes, water pipits at Island Mere, two red-breasted mergansers offshore, and good numbers of red-throated divers and great crested grebes offshore. the Bewick's swan flock numbers about 47, but they are tending to spend the days feeding off the reserve, returning to Island Mere at dusk - just when the starlings are gathering at the far end of the reserve above North Marsh!