You know spring is just around the corner when a visit to Minsmere requires you to use your ears as well as your eyes. Not forgetting your nose too as the scent of coconut from the gorse blossom will soon be wafting around the car park and beach - and of course the delicious smell of bacon or fresh-cooked scones greets early visitors to the cafe.
One of the most familiar and characteristic sounds of spring at Minsmere is the deep, resonant booming call of a male bittern. Before they start booming properly though, the first sounds heard are best described as grunts, while the birds "tune" up for their proper display in a few weeks time. Despite the mild spring, our bitterns have only just started grunting, with the first two heard on Sunday evening. I'm looking forward to hearing this impressive call in the coming days. Although they are only just becoming vocal, bitterns are showing exceptionally well at present, with one on view at Bittern Hide for an incredible 2.5 hours yesterday!
Bittern by Ian Clarke
Other sounds can be heard emanating from deep within the reedbed too. Pig-like squeals signal the presence of another skulker, the water rail. They can be heard throughout the year, but are particularly vocal in spring, though like the bitterns they are reluctant to show themselves very often. Likewise the Cetti's warbler, with an impressively loud song. March is a good time to look for them before leaves on the willows begin to obscure them. Listen too for the high-pitched pinging of bearded tits - easier to hear before the reed and sedge warblers arrive next month - and the whinnying call of courting little grebes. Incredibly, a little grebe was photographed on Monday carrying a young chick on it's back - this is an exceptionally early breeding record for one of our smallest water birds.
It's not just birds that be heard in the reedbed either. At lunchtime today we could hear a chorus of croaks from the North Wall as the toads began their annual courtship. This is a sound that has become sadly less common in recent years as both frogs and toads decline in numbers, so to hear it was a welcome surprise. They're not the only reptiles and amphibians to have emerged from hibernation either as there have been several sightings of adders in the last ten days.
A pair of mating common toads by Ian Barthorpe
Perhaps the most characteristic sound of spring at Minsmere is the cacophony of the black-headed gull colony on the Scrape. We expect them to return and start prospecting for nests soon, though water levels are still quite high following the wet winter. We have, however, welcomed some of our breeding birds back with up to 20 avocets, four pairs of oystercatchers, the odd ringed plover and a Mediterranean gull on the Scrape this week, while lapwings have begun displaying and shelducks are definitely pairing off.
Elsewhere, great spotted woodpeckers are busy drumming in the woods, nuthatches are calling near Canopy Hide, woodlarks and Dartford warblers are singing on Westleton Heath, and all our common tits, finches and thrushes are in full song. Some early nesters, such as robins and long-tailed tits, will soon be laying eggs and a pair of great tits is already prospecting the new nextbox with camera that is beaming images into the shop. Another sign of spring has been the regular passage of common buzzards over the reserve this week, including at least 20 yesterday, while small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies are already on the wing.
It's not all about spring wildlife though. Three redhead smews remain on the Scrape and two whooper swans have returned to the reedbed pools (have they been hiding for a few weeks or are they different birds?) Offshore we've had a winter peak count of 1000+ red-throated divers this week, but a harbour porpoise yesterday was a real bonus. Otters continue to be seen most days, and the biggest draw of all is the starling roost at Island Mere - you need to be in the hide from 5 pm and be prepared to stay til dusk (about 6 pm), but get there early if you want a seat.
With mild weather set to continue, no doubt our first chiffchaffs, sand martins and wheatears will begin to arrive soon. Why don't you come along to look for them yourself?
Sorry - forgot to mention the starlings in that blog - but as Clare says, they are still around. Clare posted a great series of photos in a Forum post, and a great video clip has been shared on the RSPB Suffolk Facebook page today. Best time is now from about 5.30 to 6.15, from Island Mere or Whin Hill. Numbers are lower, and they seem to gather over the former arable fields first before heading to the reedbed for an impressive display.
As of the 11th the murmurations were still going on - the best views are from the Island Mere hide.
Apologies Ian for commenting here, I don't know any other way to do this. Why is there no information on the reserve pages about the murmuration? Is it still happening? If so when and where?
I'd be at a loss to imagine the person who could look at those toads without smiling.
It certainly does. And this is one of my favourite photos - though sadly not taken at Minsmere. I found this pair on the path at Blacktoft Sands several years ago. The photo always makes me smile
It really feels as though Spring is already well underway, doesn't it? Love the toads!