There is nothing I like more than being by the sea and over the summer I have been very fortunate to spend a lot of time down on the beach at Minsmere. I love the sound of the waves, the breeze in my face, the smell of salt in the air and of course the stunning wildlife that can be found there. Today I took a walk down to the beach to look at a very interesting creature that had been reported over the past few weeks and again this morning, the wasp spider.
I liked this arachnid at first sight. It is very simply named wasp spider and there is no mistaking it for anything else with its wasp like bright yellow and black stripes. Despite its uncomplicated name this is no ordinary British spider, firstly because of it’s rather large size and secondly because of it’s barbaric behaviour towards its mate! Females can be quite large with a body length of up to 2 cm, whereas the males are only 0.5 cm long and their mating story is like many other spider species no fairytale.
A female wasp spider
The male wasp spider locates a female and plays the waiting game before entering into the female’s web. He is waiting for her to reach maturity (usually in August or September) and make her impressive web which can be up to 30 cm in diameter. The male also has to try to time it correctly before her fangs harden because the female will encase him in silk thread and then eat him whilst he mates. He needs to get this timing right in order for him to ensure his offspring’s future as he needs to have completed the mating process before she eats him! Once mated the female then lays her eggs in a large flask shaped brown egg sac. The story does not end happily for the female either because she will likely die in the autumn or winter but her eggs will over-winter and hatch in the spring ready to grow and mature and begin the whole process again. With the wasp spiders having such a tough fight for survival please make sure if you come to see them at Minsmere that you view them only from behind the fence to avoid disturbance of themselves or their webs and eggs.
A female wasp spider enjoying a tasty snack! Grasshoppers/crickets are their favourite.
The wasp spiders have not been the only incredible wildlife I have seen from the beaches at Minsmere this summer. I have really enjoyed seeing the numerous butterflies in the dunes and watching the birdlife from the beach. The highlights of my sightings from the beach have to be the red kite that flew above where we were doing the beach scavenger hunt and this common seal who swam along the coastline in the shallows of the water towards Sizewell.
I am exceptionally happy that I get to spend another whole day on the beach this summer doing something great for nature. On Saturday 17 September RSPB Minsmere are taking part in the Great British Beach Clean. This is a tremendous national event that has a huge impact on the cleanliness of Britain’s beaches and ultimately the wildlife that lives there. In 2015, 6035 people helped nationally to clean Britain’s beaches and it was a very good job they did because on average more litter was found per kilometre of beach surveyed than in previous years.
You and your friends and family could do something great for nature by helping us on Saturday 17 September between 10 am – 4 pm by taking a stroll along the beach at Minsmere and collecting up any rubbish you come across. There will be collection points for the rubbish at staggered locations along the beach and some more beach art to help get involved with.
Pictures by Amy Lever (with a little help from a borrowed lens for the wasp spider ones!)
Guest blog by Matt Parrott
Shortly after opening the Visitor Centre on Thursday morning, John Grant phoned in to say that he could see a bee-eater circling over the edge of the scrape. Nothing causes a mass exodus of staff, volunteers and visitors from the Visitor Centre like a rare bird report – it helps keep us fit too!
In my little bird book I’ve had since I was four years old the bee-eater shares a worn and, I confess, a slightly coloured-in page, with the equally exotic roller and hoopoe – birds I have yet to see.
A stunning bird, if you can see it, and I failed miserably at the first try, as it drifted past the scrape towards the woodland. Then it was seen again, perched on wires by Whin Hill, and I was too late. Then back over the car park (so Senior Site Manager Adam Rowlands can claim it as a garden tick) and all I saw was blue sky, empty but for a soaring hobby. I’d almost given it up, until I heard from the Waveney Bird Club’s ringers that the bee-eater was perching near one of their nets.
The Waveney Bird Club provide a fantastic bird ringing demonstration on Thursdays during the summer holidays and Easter, not only carrying out vital science work but showing visitors some wonderful species at close range. They use mist nets strung in sections of the reedbed and woodland that birds get caught in as they fly through, and the ringers quickly but carefully remove them, note down information from their leg rings or attach rings if the bird doesn’t have any, before releasing it.
From the data we then know where the bird has come from, it’s age, health and vital statistics, and then can be used to influence conservation work to protect the species.
Having caught a pretty little pied flycatcher earlier the ringers were already having a good day, so I wandered down with Steve Piotrowski and the ringers as they went to check a net on the edge of the woodland. Great green bush crickets watched our progress through the humid bracken, until with a hushed yelp of excitement the bee-eater was spotted, perched in a silver birch.
For those unaware of what exactly a bee-eater is, imagine a slim blackbird-sized bird that couldn’t look more vibrant or exotic if it tried – turquoise belly, yellow nape, shimmering bronze head that flows into a yellow back, emerald green highlights on the wings, long tail and around the brown eyes, and the ‘lone ranger’ black stripe that curves from the beak over the eyes.
Funnily enough it eats bees – I love an obvious name! Not only bees, but wasps, hornets and ants too, but only if they’re flying. Once caught the bee-eater bashes the insect against a hard surface like a tree branch to remove the venom from the insect’s sting. They have very little effect on bee populations and in studies in Spain were found to eat less than 1% of worker bees.
Bee-eaters are scarce migrants to the UK, but in recent years they have bred in both the Isle of Wight and Carlisle and it is possible they could become a more common sight as the climate changes. Last year 10 bee-eaters were seen in a flock moving between nearby Leiston and Theberton.
By the late afternoon the bee-eater was still soaring distantly over the woods to the enjoyment of visitors on the North Wall.
Bird ringing with the Waveney Bird Club will be taking place again next Thursday 25th August 10am-4pm, Free event but entry fees apply to non-members.
We have some exciting news about some of the wildlife stars of the recent BBC Springwatch series. As mentioned in previous blogs, the stone-curlew pair that sadly failed to hatch a chick during the series were successful at the second attempt. Although one chick was soon predated, the second chick continues to thrive, and on Monday, our wardens fitted it with colour rings that will help us to track its progress - and hopefully to identify it if it returns successfully to Minsmere next spring. The stone-curlews can still be seen from the North Wall watchpoint, but they are quite mobile and often hide among the bracken at the edge of the field, making them quite tricky to spot.
Stone-curlew chick by Adam Rowlands
Talking of ringing birds, the Waveney Bird Club will hold their next ringing demonstration tomorrow (Thursday), with further demos planned for Thursday 25 August and 1 September. These events are a great opportunity for children, families and keen birdwatchers alike to enjoy amazing close views of some of Minsmere's birds as you learn about how and why birds are ringed. Highlights of the demos so far this month have included bearded tits, sparrowhawks, green woodpeckers and various tits, finches and warblers. What will they catch tomorrow?
This reed warbler warbler took a liking to one young visitor at a recent ringing demo
Of course, you don't have to come to a ringing demo to see some amazing wildlife at Minsmere, and this week I've been lucky enough to have some great close encounters. In the (rare) absence of any volunteer guides, I took a stroll around the Scrape on Monday morning to chat to a few visitors and update our daily sightings board. The bee-wolfs were active in the North Bushes, and several common blue and grayling butterflies flitted among the dunes as the sun reflected off an inviting looking blue sea (though it would take a lot for me to take a dip in the North Sea, even in August!).
East Scrape was buzzing with birds, including about 150 black-tailed godwits, several ruffs, spotted redshanks and dunlins and a couple of common sandpipers. A lovely flock of 14 little gulls loafed at the back, but all of the avocets appear to have moved elsewhere for the winter now (if you want to see avocets in Suffolk for the next six months try the Blyth and Alde-Ore estuaries). A few young shelducks were easier to pick out than the moulting (and therefore mostly brown) mallards, gadwalls, teals and shovelers.
Habitat management work, in preparation for next spring's breeding season, meant that the highlight on South Scrape was a couple of knots, while a gorgeous moulting golden plover was the pick of the waders on West Scrape. Over the next few weeks, our wardens and volunteers will be cutting vegetation on the Scrape on various dates, but don't worry as they try to only work on one section of the Scrape and there's loads of other great places to spot wildlife - more on that later.
One of the highlights of Monday's walk was a very close encounter with two wheatears around the sluice. They seemed almost oblivious to visitors and even posed for photos on the sluice itself.
Wheatear at the sluice by Ian Barthorpe
As if that was exciting enough, I later saw photos from a visitor who had watched these two wheatears interacting a with an adder which they clearly didn't like within their feeding territory. And yesterday afternoon one of our volunteers watched as two hobbies worked collaboratively to catch another wheatear, this time from the stone-curlew watchpoint.
My second really close encounter with birds came yesterday afternoon as I took a lovely family from Hertfordshire out on one of our popular 4x4 safaris. As we entered a woodland clearing I spotted to point out a buzzard, circling ahead of us. Only it wasn't a common buzzard. It turned out to be a honey-buzzard, which gave superb views as it glided overhead. This rare bird of prey has been several times in the local area over the past month, though it's movements are far from predictable.
The safari took us us through parts of the reserve that are usually closed to visitors, with lovely views of carpets of purple heather, a sighting of some of our konik Polski (Polish ponies) and views across Island Mere, before we headed out to the Chapel Field for a closer view of the ruins of the 12th Century Leiston Abbey. The abbey will be scene of an archaeological dig next month, exploring the legend of piracy among the monks.
The Chapel Field is a great place from which to look south across the Minsmere Levels, and the nearest pool to the ruin is currently attracting a lot of interest. Sightings have included wood sandpiper, several green sandpipers and greenshanks, two little stints and good numbers of dunlins, redshanks, black-tailed godiwts and teals. Not only that, but a lovely pied flycatcher was seen feeding in an adjacent apple tree yesterday, and redstart and whinchat have been in the same area today, with clouded yellow butterfly also seen in the Chapel Field. The family and I also enjoyed close views of several hunting kestrels - a bird that is always guaranteed to raise excitement levels.
So, if we are doing management work on the Scrape, then it is certainly worth a walk along to the Chapel Field. Alternatively, within the next few days we'll also be opening our seasonal path to the North Levels pools. This is a great walk past seeding thistles adorning by hungry flocks of goldfinches to a usually innaccessible series of pools that attract large flocks of little egrets and grey herons, and can be very good for waders. Who knows, the purple swamphen could even be hiding somewhere along there!