The North Wall has been the place to be at Minsmere recently. Following on from the red-spotted bluethroat, then some incredibly showy bearded tits, we've had regular bittern sightings from there and then last week's bee-eater. Today, in a case of deja vu, a small crowd of staff, volunteers and visitors gathered again at the west end of the North Wall to look for the latest rare visitor at Minsmere. OK, so red-backed shrikes are not as rare as bee-eaters or bluethroats, but it's unusual to find one in late June, and this was a fine male too.
Found by one of our volunteers at lunchtime, this shrike could be difficult to locate as it seemed to favour the inland edge of a line of bramble and elder scrub - that's the far side of the bushes from where were watching from. At least it seemed to favour a dead bush, giving most of us a chance to see it if we were patient enough.
A male red-backed shrike feeding chicks by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Red-backed shrikes used to be common breeding birds in the UK, but ceased breeding in the late 1980s as a result of habitat loss, landuse change and egg collecting. They are now only passage migrants, but occur annually at Minsmere - usually in the autumn.
While the shrike was the star bird today, there's plenty of other interesting species to watch. While I was looking for the shrike I saw, among others, bittern, grey heron, kestrel, whitethroat and linnet, with bearded tit and reed warbler further along the North Wall. Add in the variety of waders, gulls and terns that can be seen on the Scrape, marsh harriers and hobbies from the reedbed hides, and woodpeckers, tits and finches in the woods and there's lots of birds to see.
Mammal fans will benefit from spending time at the pond, where both water vole and water shrew were seen today. Insect enthusiasts will be kept entertained too. I saw Norfolk hawker along the North Wall, and there's a good mix of dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies to see, as well as beetles and crickets in suitable habitat. And, of course, there's a superb variety of flowers.
As regular readers of these blogs will know, Minsmere has an amazing variety of wildlife, from majestic red deer to minute fungi, but some species remain hidden from view, below ground of beneath the water. Just occasionally they may leave the safety of their burrows or pond, affording visitors a rare glimpse.
During a Father's Day visit with my family on Sunday we were lucky enough to find one of these soil dwellers on the surface. Just outside the visitor centre, we paused to look at the antlion larval pits when my wife spotted something moving across the surface. Scooping it up for a closer look I quickly realised it was an antlion larva.
An antlion larva by Ian Barthorpe
It was a rare opportunity to look carefully at a creature that we talk a lot about but rarely see. These larva usually remain below ground, digging themselves a shallow conical pit in loose sand. They remain buried at the base of this pit, waiting for a hapless ant to fall in, then flick grains at sand at it until it falls to the bottom. They then use those impressive pincers to grab the ant and eat it - hence the name. Many of the larva were flicking grains of sand on Sunday as they enlarged their pits. The adult antlions, when they emerge, are nocturnal so also rarely seen, except in a moth trap.
Another species whose presence at Minsmere is obvious but it is rarely seen itself is the mole. Although mole hills are found in most of Minsmere's habitats, it's a species that few people get to see. This morning one of our wardens was lucky enough to spot a mole crawling along the ground close to the Wildlife Lookout. It stayed out long enough for her to get a quick photo before disappearing ointo the more familiar habitat of a dark underground burrow.
Mole by Christine Hall
Some of our hole-dwelling species are easier to see, of course. As well as the numerous rabbits, there's the sand martins nesting close to the visitor centre. Watch carefully and you may spot the chicks waiting at the entrance hole of their burrow for their parents to bring them a meal. Close to here, the water vole is continuing to show well at times in the pond, even when school groups are pond dipping.
Another rare observation on Sunday was a damselfly larva swimming close to the nesting sticklebacks in the ditch near Wildlife Lookout. Although we often catch these while pond dipping, we don't often see them at other times. The sticklebacks themselves are still attracting a lot of attention - and there is a sign at Island Mere pointing out where Spineless Si is fanning is fry.
There's a good variety of adult dragonflies and damselflies to spot now. I saw my first emperor dragonfly of the year - our biggest species - on Sunday, as well as hairy dragonflies, norfolk hawkers, broad-bodied and four-spotted chasers, black-tailed skimmers and several damselfly species.
Large red damselfly by Ian Barthorpe
Then, of course, there's the birds. With wader migration getting underway, recent sightings on the Scrape have included common sandpiper, knot, dunlins, juvenile little ringed plovers and some very dapper summer plumage spotted redshanks, as well as redshank, avocets and oystercatchers all with chicks and up to 300 black-tailed godwits. There are several little gulls and the first Sandwich terns and little terns are beginning to return from colonies elsewhere. If you stay until dusk there's a good gull roost on the Scrape too, with highlights including at least 50 Mediterranean and five yellow-legged gulls - some of which may be spotted by day.
Cuckoos are still calling around the reedbed, and a turtle dove was heard in the North Bushes yesterday. Families of tits, finches and warblers can be spotted flitting around the woods or among the reeds, and bitterns continue to show very well at Island Mere and the North Wall.
With so much variety, why don't you plan another visit to see us soon.
The early indications are that we're set for one of the best breeding seasons at Minsmere for a long time. Indeed several records look like being broken.
One record that has been broken this morning is for the biggest ever flock of bee-eaters to be seen in Suffolk. Adam Rowlands, our Senior Sites manager, was lucky enough to see an incredible flock of ten of these stunningly beautiful birds flying low over the Levels at 8 am this morning. Sadly, unlikely Monday's bird, they didn't hang around and flew quickly north, being seen by only one or two other people. Will they return? Where will they turn up next?
It seems like a good excuse to use this lovely bee-eater photo again. Photo by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Our survey work so far this year has revealed some impressive figures for some breeding birds too. For example, we've found a staggering 125 singing male Cetti's warblers - one of the species featured in the recent BBC Springwatch series. It was only in the 1960s that this essentially Mediterranean species first colonised the UK, and as recently as the mid 1990s it was still a scarce breeding bird in Suffolk.
It's been a record year for bitterns nesting in the UK, with more than 150 booming males counted for the first time. This includes about 40 males in Somerset, and 80 throughout East Anglia. We had 12 males here at Minsmere - the best total since 1976 and more than the entire UK population in 1997! We've already found ten nests too, so there are good signs that the bittern population will continue to rise.
Marsh harriers have had a good, if not spectacular, season, with nine nests found, and the 33 pairs of bearded tits found is the bests for several years - though the latter is only likely to represent part of the entire population as it's hard to count this species accurately.
It's been a great year on the Scrape too. The 60 pairs of avocets have already produced 56 chicks, many of which are close to fledging. This is already the highest count since 1987, and many pairs are currently have second attempt after failing with their first brood. There are 133 pairs of common terns, with many chicks now hatching. Black-headed gulls have many chicks too, though the number of pairs is significantly down on recent years. There were 20 pairs of redshanks, and several adults are still displaying which suggests that chicks may still be lurking in the long vegetation. Even better news, is that the 41 pairs of lapwings was also a reserve record.
A lapwing on the Scrape yesterday by Ian Barthorpe
Also on the Scrape this week are the first signs that autumn is approaching (even before the longest day on Sunday!) There were three juvenile little ringed plovers yesterday, which have not been born here, as well as three spotted redshanks and a wood sandpiper returning south from the Arctic. One or two Sandwich terns and an Arctic tern are probably failed breeders from elsewhere around the North Sea too.
For many visitors, the first birds they see at Minsmere are the sand martins that nest close to the cafe. While not quite a record year, the 220+ occupied burrows is slightly up on last year and the highest total since 1987. It's great to see so many feeding over the Scrape and reedbeds. While the hobbies are still feeding on dragonflies at the moment, they may be on the lookout for fledgling sand martins soon.
A juvenile sand martin by Jon Evans
Talking of fledglings, there are large flocks of tits and finches around the reserve. I'm pleased to say that the great tits fledged successfully from the cone this morning, and I've seen family parties of long-tailed tits roaming through the woods.
We haven't been able to check on the barn owl chicks since the cameras were removed, but Spineless Si is still busy fanning his eggs.