The last few weeks have seen almost unprecidented levels of rainfall in Suffolk. In a month known for its showers, April has been one of the wettest on record. Here at Minsmere, we recorded an incredible 121 mm (about 8 inches) of rain during the month. Compare that to about 12 mm from early March to mid July two years ago, and it puts the figures into context. Add to that another wet day on Tuesday and it's perhaps not a surprise that we've had severe flooding at Minsmere this week.
For you as visitors, this means that there are restrictions on access to some areas. The path from the Sluice to South Hide is completely impassable, even in wellies. From South Hide to South Belt Crossroads, past the renamed Wildlife Lookout (formerly West Hide), you'll need at least walking boots, as I found to my cost on Wednesday - the trainers are just about dry two days later! Access into East Hide is with wellies only, and you'll need walking boots to reach Island Mere.
Of course, if the paths are flooded, so are many other parts of the reserve, and the floods have wreaked havoc for many of our ground-nesting birds. Although we generally have good control of water levels, with so much rain it's impossible to avoid flooding since the New Cut has burst its banks, and the main sluice outfall is at capacity.
Many of the islands of the Scrape have already disappeared under water, washing away nests of black-headed gulls, avocets, lapwings and redshanks. The common terns hadn't yet nested, so are less seriously affected. If water levels fall quickly enough, most of these gulls and waders should be able to re-lay and hopefully rear a few chicks.
Despite the high water levels, there has been a good passage of waders on the Scrape, and especially on the Levels. Highlights have included bar-tailed godwits (32 this morning), knots (up to 12), a curlew sandpiper, several whimbrels, grey plovers and turnstones, plus the first common sandpiper of the year on Wednesday. There was also a cracking pair of garganeys yesterday, and a pintail on Wednesday.
In the reedbed, the signs are more promising. Marsh harrier nests appear to be unaffected, with most pairs still gathering nesting material. Bitterns are still booming, but it's hard to know whether any nests have been lost. Bearded tits were more active than usual at Bittern Hide and Island Mere last weekend, suggesting that they too are nesting successfully. Water rails have been seen regularly at Bittern Hide, often with a chick, and water voles and otters continue to be seen most days.
In the scrubby areas, we now have several nightingales singing, as well as garden warblers, whitethroats and lesser whitethroats. A superb male black redstart and male common redstart have been feeding on the open area north of North Wall since Tuesday. More excitingly, a wryneck was seen fling over the cafe on Tuesday and has showed intermittently in North Bushes ever since. Other passage migrants this week have included several wheatears, a whinchat, a few yellow wagtails, and good numbers of swifts. so despite the floods there's still plenty to see at Minsmere.
There's been a decidedly southern European feel to Minsmere this week - and I don't just mean the lovely warm weather.
The breeding stone-curlews continue to prove very obliging and popular, with good if distant views from the western end of the North Wall. We often have volunteer guides on duty to help you to see these shy birds without disturbing them. If there are no guides present, please only watch from the designated area and look across towards the fenced area.
We also still have a singing golden oriole in the Woodland Trail/Canopy Hide area, although it is only heard occasionally and seen very infrequently.
Adding to the Mediterranean feel, two glossy ibises arrived on South Scrape on Tuesday evening before relocating to the South Levels, where they remain this morning. What may have been the same two birds were also seen at RSPB North Warren earlier this week. See David Fairhurst's video of these birds on the Scrape.
At least one lucky visitor reported five bee-eaters calling as they flew north in the early hours of Monday.
Although more eastern than southern European, a female red-footed falcon has been hunting over the reedbed this morning, alongside several hobbies. In fact, it's been a good week for raptors, with at least two red kites seen daily for the last few days and an osprey over on Sunday. Both species were subsequently seen at RSPB Snape on Tuesday and Monday respectively. With the usual marsh harriers, kestrels and sparrowhawks, plus barn and tawny owls, Minsmere has been the place to come for raptor-lovers this week.
There's still a few passage waders on the move too, including knot, sanderling, greenshank, grey plover, common sandpiper and little stint over the last few days. A few black-tailed godwits are still present, and avocets and lapwings are making new nesting attempts after last month’s flooding.
Among the gulls on the Scrape, highlights include a few little gulls, a Polish-ringed Caspian gull and a yellow-legged gull. Sandwich, common and little terns are all still present too.
Elsewhere, nightingales continue to sing occasionally at the Work Centre and on Westleton Heath, a spotted flycatcher was in North Bushes yesterday, cuckoos remain vocal around Canopy Hide, crossbills are starting to move through on passage, bitterns are booming and the females are beginning to feed young, and the usual selection of warblers, finches and tits can be found in suitable habitats.
Stone-curlew by Jon Evans
At long last, we're pleased to announce that the new family facilities at Minsmere are open from tomorrow morning.
Children can learn about some of Minsmere's wildlife whilst playing in the new Wild Zone. There are tunnels to explore and become sand martin chicks. There's a forest of logs carved to look like reeds, with a huge willow-woven bittern nest and eggs in the middle. There's a paly tree, where they can become squirrles, and a migration maze where they can how avocets, sand martins and wigeons migrate to Minsmere. Four listening posts introduce some of the sounds of Minsmere.
From the Wild Zone, you can explore the Wild Wood Adventure, with its seek and find activities, den building and riverwatch hide for younger children, before seeing some of Minsmere's wildlife for real from the Wildlife Lookout (you'll need wellies to reach this lookout at the moment due to flooding.
The Wild Zone and Wild Wood Adventure offer something exciting for families on any visit to Minsmere. Look out too for activities in the Discovery Centre, which is used by visiting schools as a great focal point for their visit.
Entry to the Wild Zone and Wild Wood Adventure is included in the usual reserve entry fees, so why not bring the family along to Minsmere this weekend to explore for yourself.
(please note, that while the new facilities are open, two further exhibits will be completed over the next couple of weeks - a spotter station where you can learn how to use binoculars and a story totem telling some of Minsmere's conservation success stories.)
Water levels are at last returning to normal, and while some parts of the visitor trails still have a few puddles, they are almost all completely accessible now. I say almost all, because a short section between South Belt crossroads and the Wildlife Lookout (West Hide) remains flooded and is accessible with wellies only. With the forecast for a few days of mild dry weather, I'm sure even this section will be passable again within a couple of days.
The flooding has had a big impact on the Scrape. With so many black-headed gulls having lost their nests, the familiar sound of their raucous calls is much quieter than usual for mid May. Many of those that remain are now sitting on tower nests, having frantically built them higher as the water levels rose.
Having lost their nests, many of the avocets have deserted Minsmere for now, but they should return as the islands reappear. There were 12 on the Scrape today. The lack of islands has reduced feeding opportunities for passage waders on the Scrape, with just a few knots, bar-tailed godwits, dunlins and whimbrels stopping off, plus a couple of common sandpipers.
In contrast, the flooding has made the Levels very appealing to passage waders, including whimbrels, greenshanks and ruffs. The undoubted stars of the show, though, were the pair of black-winged stilts that were found on Monday. Initially showing well on the Konik Field, they spent most of the day on the Levels, but had sadly gone by Tuesday morning. This was a long overdue species at Minsmere, as the last record was way back in 1993.
Another wader has been stealing the show today. A pair of stone-curlews have been showing well from the Whin Hill Watchpoint. While several pairs of stone-curlews nest at Minsmere, they are such shy birds that we can't usually show them to visitors until the autumn, so this pair has proven very popular. It's unlikely they'll choose to nest in such a busy area.
Stone-curlews are shy and rarely seen from the visitor trails. Photo by Jon Evans
There's been a steady passage of some of our later migrants too. Wheatears have been seen most days, yellow wagtails and black redstarts on several days, and the odd whinchat has passed through this week. The wryneck finally departed on Monday, as did the male redstart in North Bushes. Warbler numbers have finally increased with several garden warblers now present, but nightingales remain scarcer than usual. At least a couple of cuckoos can be heard around the trails too.
In the reedbed, bitterns are still seen every day, but there's no sign of any feeding flights yet. Bearded tits are showing well at Bittern Hide and Island Mere. Marsh harriers are very busy and hobbies are regularly seen from Whin Hill, Island Mere and Bittern Hide. Two scarce raptors were reported today. A red kite flew over Whin Hill, but more surprising was a honey-buzzard reported over the visitor centre.
After the cold wet April, the first large red damselflies are finally on the wing. A brimstone butterfly was outside the visitor centre this morning and an early silver Y moth was spotted. The acid grassland fields are now awash with colour: red sheep's sorrel, sky-blue cornsalad, pale pink storksbill and darker pink cranesbills.
I'm away next week, but have asked some of my colleagues to keep you updated in my absence.