This week sees several changes to access arrangements at Minsmere, some permanent, others temporary.
First the good news. North Wall finally reopens fully on Friday 3 February following the completion of the Environment Agency flood defence project. Apart from a couple of weeks over Christmas, this path has been closed since August while the EA have upgraded our coastal defences to protect Minsmere's important freshwater habitats. The EA have been completing a few final bits of work this week, and have some more checks to do early next week. We have an officail opening ceremony on Friday morning, and then it's all systems go. Once open, this path will give us full access around the Scrape again.
The second bit of good news is that from Wednesday 1 February we switch back to summer opening - i.e. the visitor centre is open until 5 pm. Of course, this is the temporary building until the redevelopment work is completed in late March, but it does give you an extra hour for shopping after you visit. Talking of the redevelopment, the scaffoldign has come down from the new reception building, and the roof is on the new Discovery Centre, so things are going well.
Now for news of a closure. Our popular reedbed trail will close on Monday. This route has given visitors some excellent views of bearded tits over the winter, but with the breeding season fast approaching it's time we left them and the bitterns in peace. I'm sure we'll open a similar route again next autumn.
The North Bushes trail remains open for now, but that too will have to close before the breeding season starts. The temporary woodland trail also remains open.
The wardens will be carrying out some essential managment work at Island Mere on Monday morning that may create a bit of disturbance for a few hours. This work is necessary to further improve viewing opportunities from the hide, and create ideal condtions for feeding bitterns, snipe and lapwings.
Please be aware, too, that there will be some temporary paths from the car park onto the reserve for a time during February while we install some new displays and signs along the current ramp. The temporary arrangements will be well signposted and should not affect your visit.
Thanks for your patience during this time of change.
More than one year after she escaped from Marwell Zoo, and almost ten months after her visit to Minsmere, Fiona the wandering greater flamingo returned to the Scrape for at least her fifth visit on Tuesday. After so long in the wild, without access to food supplements to enhance her colour, she's still looking remarkably pink. We know she she has spent most of the last three months dividing her time between Orford Ness NT and RSPB Havergate Island, so presumably there are plenty of pigment-rich invertebrates in the saline lagoons on these two sites.
Fiona was still present today. How long will she stay this time? Where will she go next?
The drake and redhead smew have been joined today by a second redhead (female-type bird) on Island Mere - though they often commute to pools behind West Hide or to South Scrape. Otters have been more elusive today - but three were seen for more than an hour yesterday.
There were six Bewick's swans on West Scrape today, with 11 in fields alongside the Westleton-Dunwich Road this morning. Four tundra bean geese were again on the Levels, alongside 18 white-fronts. An avocet on East Scrape and a guillemot on the sea were other highlights today.
Among the resident birds, it's great to hear robins, song thrushes and wrens in song, as well as blue and great tits and Cetti's warblers. Spring must be on it's way.
Talking of garden birds, please don't forget to take part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend.
Mid winter at Minsmere means wildfowl taking centre stage. And this year is no exception - although the otters are doing a great job of upstaging them at Island Mere.
On Tuesday I led the first of the winter wildfowl guided walks at Minsmere, and enjoyed some great sightings. If you missed it, you can join John Grant on 2 Feb or me on 15 Feb for the remaining walks. I'm also leading wildfowl walks at North Warren on Saturday, and again on 4 and 18 Feb. All walsk start at 9.30 am and last about three hours. Places are limited, so please call 01728 648281 to book your place.
So, what were the highlights? For most of the group it would have to be the drake and redhead smew on South Scrape. These gorgeous ducks were late arriving this year, and remain in lower than usual numbers, probably due to the mild winter so far. They can be tricky to locate thoguh as they move between Island Mere and the Scrape.
A drake and redhead smew in flight by Jon Evans
Another sawbill has been present early in the year, with a female goosander on Island Mere, although this bird may now have moved on. There are also two female goldeneyes on Island Mere.
Another highlight is the wild swans. A flock up to 32 Bewick's swans is frequenting the Minsmere area, feeding by day in fields near the Westleton to Dunwich road and returning to Island Mere at dusk. They are often joined by a lone whooper swan, with another two whoopers favouring the Scrape or reedbed pools.
Out on the Levels, geese are the star attractions. Up to 16 tundra bean geese have been present for several weeks, though they can be difficult to spot at times. Our white-fronted goose flock peaked at an impressive 335 before moving to North Warren, but some white-fronts appear to be roosting on the levels as we can hear them calling after dark.
The Scrape is literally teeming with ducks, and in Tuesday's sunshine they looked absolutely stunning. It was a great chance to compare the plumage differences between the females alongside the more attractive male wigeons, teals, gadwalls, shovelers and mallards. Waders were more elusive on Tuesday due to the frost, being limited to a few lapwings and four turnstones, plus a redshank on the Levels, but there are several black-tailed godwits present most days.
Winter is also a good time for raptors. Star attraction this week was a red kite over Island Mere today, but marsh harriers are much more reliable and both sparrowhawk and peregrine may be spotted.
Among the small birds, the great spotted woodpeckers are now drumming, marsh tits and coal tits have discovered the feeders outside the temporary visitor centre, nuthatches are often seen or heard near the wardens' office, bearded tits are showing well on the reedbed trail, and flocks of siskins remain in South Belt.
Then, of course, there are the otters. This is possibly the best chance you'll ever have of seeing one at Minsmere, with regular sightings at Island Mere (see yesterday's blog for more details).
I last wrote in anticipation of the exciting work about to start; three months on since my last blog post and lots and lots has happened! Discover Nature is taking shape.
The most visible progress has been on the bricks and mortar; the new reception building is externally complete, with the windows in and the roof on. This is a view from inside:
Our shop and tearoom have been moved to their new temporary homes in the carpark:
Meanwhile, work begins on refitting and expanding the visitor centre and the old toilets have been removed ready for their upgrade. The enormous rainwater harvesting tanks have been sunk into the ground behind the visitor centre, ready to be connected to the new facilities. Here they are waiting to go in:
The office extension is virtually complete, colleagues will be moving to their new desks in the next few weeks, which will be a great relief for the Minsmere team who have been working in the middle of a building site!
The Discovery Centre is also taking shape; the walls are up and the steel supports are in:
The next stage will see the Wild Zone for children and families taking shape in front of the Discovery Centre; a ‘play tree’ and the trunks to create a log forest have arrived and off-site our sky watching seats are being carved by our wood-worker.
The sheer speed of progress has been impressive; each time I visit I admire the new buildings taking shape. Last week I even had the chance to don an orange hard-hat and bright yellow vest and see the new reception roof up close; probably the only chance I’ll ever have to get that view of Minsmere!
And we’ve already completed and opened the new Island Mere Hide, which provides stunning panoramas which I love!
Next week our new Learning Manager starts. She will be leading our exciting new activity programme, managing our brand new purpose-built Discovery Centre and working with school groups and families.
I hope, like me, you are excited about the speed of progress and look forward to the rest of the project taking shape. I can’t wait to sit back with a cuppa and see Discover Nature less like a project that needs managing and more like a great addition to Minsmere!
Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the Interreg IVA 2 Seas programme, through the Natura People project, for co-financing the Learning Manager post.
One of Minsmere's most enigmatic mammals has been stealing the show from our birds for the last few weeks.
Otters are usually thought to be shy, elusive creatures, but not at present. Mid winter is always the best time to see otters as water levels are lowered to allow reedbed management work to be done, but this year has seen an unprecidented number of sightings.
A family of three otters has been seen regularly at Island Mere, with the larger dog (male) otter also showing well at times. Sightings have been most reliable in the early morning, but you can see one at any time. I popped into Island Mere Hide briefly at lunch time one day last week and saw an otter swimming across the mere as I entered the hide. On some days, there have been multiple sightings, and the otters have even come out onto the bank right in front of the hide.
It's not just at Island Mere either. Otters have also been seen regularly at Bittern Hide and occasionally elsewhere in the reedbed.
One of our regular visitors, Ian Clarke, was lucky enough to take some pictures recently. Here's a selection of them. I'm sure you'll agree, these are otterly fabulous.