This morning we welcomed the local media to the Discovery Centre to meet the BBC Springwatch presenters - Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Martin Hughes-Games - in advance of the show going on air from Monday.
It was lovely to see a couple of families playing in the wild zone when the presenters went outside to chat to individual reporters. A couple of very lucky children took the opportunity to say hello to all three presenters - a moment they won't forget. We were given a sneak insight into some of the stories that will covered on the programme. Without spoiling it too much, you can expect to see our badgers, adders and a variety of nesting birds, as well as wildlife stories from around the UK.
The show goes on air on Monday, 25 May, at 8 pm on BBC Two, followed by Unsprung on the red button at 9 pm. You can also watch on the red button from early on Monday morning, for the next three weeks.
The Springwatch studio
As last year, Minsmere is open as usual throughout the broadcast period. We'll have an overflow car park open, when needed, with a secondary reception, and extra toilets both there and at the visitor centre. The pop-up cafe returns to the woods near South Belt Crossroads, and will remain open until 6 pm - an hour and a half after our cafe closes - so you can enjoy an evening cuppa.
We also have extra volunteer guides around the reserve, at key hotspots, to help you to spot some of the wildlife stars of the series, and Minsmere's other amazing wildlife. The guides are there to help, so stop and have a chat if you see them.
The only restrictions on access will be temporary closures whilst the programme is on air - especially the temporary path up Whin Hill. All other areas should remain open at all times.
As we anticipate it being busy at times, we recommend arriving as early as possible - we are open from dawn every day.
There is, of course, lots to see. Highlights today included the now long-staying red-necked phalarope on East Scrape, two spoonbills on the Levels, lots of bittern, bearded tit and hobby sightings, avocet chicks on West Scrape and the little ringed plovers nesting on West Scrape. Other birds on the Scrape included little and Mediterranean gulls, little and common terns, black-tailed godwits and kittiwakes, while a peregrine was over the Levels. A holly blue was an unusual butterfly sighting this afternoon and the first variable damselflies are now on the wing.
After the excitement of Friday's red-spotted bluethroat, another rare visitor was found at Minsmere last night. Unlike the bluethroat, this time the bird stayed into a second day, allowing many visitors to see it - especially as it was first located after most of the staff had gone home yesterday. Also unlike the, at times, very showy bluethroat, this visitor refused to come close - though it was at least easy enough to spot.
Today's rare visitor was a red-necked phalarope - a tiny wading bird that breeds in the Arctic. Barely larger than a sparrow, these are some of the longest distance migrants of all birds, and one of very species to have been tracked halfway around the world. They spend much of their life on water, spinning to stir up tiny invertebrates on their breeding pools and migratory stopovers, then spending the winter far out at sea. But therein lies a mystery.
Red-necked phalaropes nest across Arctic Europe, from Iceland through northern Scandinavia into Siberia. A handful of pairs nest on boggy pools in Shetland, the Western Isles and NW Ireland. It has long been assumed that European birds all migrate SE in the autumn, spending the winter in the Arabian Sea. However, recent studies of the Shetland population have cast new light on these remarkable birds.
A few Shetland birds were fitted with tiny satellite tags, and incredibly one of these was tracked all the way to the Pacific Ocean, off the west coast of South America. These was probably the first confirmed record of a British breeding landbird in the south Pacific, and suggested that our tiny population may actually be at the eastern limit of the North American population's breeding range, rather than part of the European population.
But that's not the only unusual fact about these beautiful birds. The three species of phalarope (red-necked, grey (or red as they known in North America) and Wilson's) are among a handful of species where the females are more colourful than the males. Having attracted a mate and laid their eggs, the females leave the males in charge of rearing the brood, and begin their southbound migration as early as the end of June.
A red-necked phalarope by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Our red-necked phalarope has spent the day on the Scrape, where it has been quite mobile at times, but has been seen by most visitors. It's not the only interesting wader on the Scrape though, as a wood sandpiper was present early morning, the little ringed plovers remain on West Scrape, and several broods of avocet chicks remain.
Another interesting visitor today was a red kite seen over the Discovery Centre mid afternoon, while hobbies and marsh harriers also put on a good show.
It looks like we have 12 booming males bitterns at Minsmere this year - the best total since 1976 - and females have already started feeding flights, so they are being seen more frequently now. Bearded tits continue to show well, with a few fledged families along North Wall. There's still lots of warblers around too.
There was great excitement at Minsmere yesterday with the discovery of a beautiful male bluethroat feeding along the edge of a reedbed pool close to the North Wall.
Despite breeding in good numbers just across the North Sea in The Netherlands, bluethroats remain rare visitors in the UK. The last record at Minsmere was a long-staying bird in 2008, but that that was of the central European white-spotted race. This bird was a red-spotted male, of the race that breeds mainly in Scandinavia, and was the first of this race for about 20 years.
Male red-spotted bluethroat by Christine Hall
Bluethroats are members of the nightingale family, but unlike their relatives they prefer damp, marshy areas, especially with luxuriant vegetation such as nettles and meadowsweet. This male had chosen a perfect location - the corner of a pool, close to the path, where nettles grew up among the cut reeds. Although it could disappear from view for long periods, it showed very well at times, paying no attention to the crowds of birdwatchers gathered on the North Wall to admire it.
As is often the case, this rare visitors chose to arrive at Minsmere on my day off, so the first I heard of it was via our Twitter feed, where some superb photos began to appear. My wife suggested that we try to see it after dinner, so we headed down to the reserve and strolled quickly onto the North Wall. Luck was on our side as the bird soon hopped into view in his favoured spot: my first Minsmere bluethroat. Initially keeping his back to us, we were soon rewarded with superb full frontal views. His bright blue breast and throat stood out vividly at the base of the reeds. The chestnut-red throat spot wasn't so easy to see, nor was the chestnut band below the blue, but his broad white eyebrow (supercilium) was clearly visible. With good views, bluethroats also have a distinctive rusty-red base to the tail feathers, which is easily seen if they fly.
Despite showing well into the late evening last night, he had obviously refuelled sufficiently to continue his migration overnight, and sadly, despite several birdwatchers making an early start, he hasn't been seen this morning. There are, however, many other good birds to see, not least by standing on the North Wall. Bearded tits and reed warblers are very active there, and bitterns are frequently seen flying over the North Wall as the females begin their feeding flights. Sand martins and swifts dash through the sky overhead too.
Elsewhere in the reedbed, bitterns are also showing very well at Island Mere, where several hobbies have been seen again. Three otters and a buzzard were seen there early morning, but the great white egret hasn't been reported today.
There is some exciting news from the Scrape today, with the first avocet chicks seen on West Scrape, where three broods of chicks were spotted this morning.
Avocet chick by David Tipling (rspb-images.com)
Also on the Scrape today was the first curlew sandpiper of the spring, along with about 20 dunlins, two common sandpipers and the usual black-tailed godwits, redshanks, oystercatchers and breeding pair of little ringed plovers. A ruff has been reported too. Common terns and black-headed gulls are now nesting, and several little terns have been seen today. More unusual gulls included a second year yellow-legged gull, two little gulls and a few kittiwakes that are continuing to gather nest material on the Scrape.
A spoonbil remains in the area, but was seen to fly north at 8.45 am and hasn't been reported since. Several sparrowhawks have been reported today, but the best raptor was a very late merlin that flew in from the sea. Another late visitor was a wheatear near the sluice.
Another highlight today was a harbour porpoise close to shore, giving good views for the Minsmere Young Wardens Group. Other mammals this week included weasels, stoats and muntjac. Butterflies and dragonflies can also be seen in suitable weather. and a adders have been seen most days, although they are becoming less reliable.
Finally, for those who have been watching the nesting moorhens on the pond over the last few weeks, the chicks hatched today.
And, of course, you may spot the BBC cameramen around the reserve this week as they prepare for the start of Springwatch on Monday 25 May.