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).