The wait is over and Big Wild Sleepout is finally here! At Minsmere the Wildlife Explorers group could not wait any longer and had their camp night last weekend. We were very lucky with the weather and wildlife and a lot of fun was had by all.
The Camp Night event began in the afternoon with the Wildlife Explorers arriving at the reserve and setting up their tents and camping areas. The first structured activity was a den building challenge. The Wildlife Explorers and their families were divided into two groups and they had to work together as a team to build the best den they could. Both dens were very impressive; one with several rooms and the other looked almost water tight it had been constructed so well.
The next challenge was a family art challenge. Each family had to use nature as their inspiration to produce a piece of art work (much like the celebrity guests had to on Springwatch Unsprung). They only had half an hour to produce their masterpiece and boy did they rise to the challenge! Here are some of the incredible pieces of art work they created.
The families then went off to enjoy an alfresco picnic in the evening sun before returning to the Discovery Centre for a family quiz. Afterwards with the sun beginning to set over picturesque Minsmere and the smell of deet in the air we started out on a nocturnal walk through the woodland towards Island Mere hide. We took out with us the bat detectors and it wasn’t long before we spotted some bats above and stopped to see whether we could identify them using the bat detectors. The Wildlife Explorers were amazingly quiet and the detectors soon picked up the sounds of the bats echolocating.
Bats give out a series of ultrasonic sounds in front of them as they are flying. As they come into contact with objects they bounce echoes back to the bat. This helps the bat avoid obstacles when flying and helps them home in on insect prey. The bat detectors can help identify the bats by the frequency with which they are echolocating. The bats that we encountered were soprano pipistrelle bats; one of the more common bats in the UK but only classified as a separate species since 1999.
We continued our walk to Island Mere hide in the hope of seeing some otters but were not lucky enough to see them this time. As we walked up Whin Hill towards Canopy Hide we spotted a glow worm on the ground. Ian Barthorpe picked it up to show the group and just before we got back to the Discovery Centre another glow worm was spotted close to the doors. After drinks and biscuits the Wildlife Explorers went to sleep in their tents.
Everyone had a restful night and was ready for the fun activities the following morning. We had breakfast in the Discovery Centre and then looked at what had been caught in the moth trap which had been set by one of our volunteers the previous night. It was so fascinating seeing the variety of species of moths caught in the trap and great for the Wildlife Explorers to get so close to nature. The large moths attracted the most attention with this private hawk moth stealing the limelight
The event finished with an early(ish) walk around the reserve with a few of our expert guides. One group of walkers took the path towards North Wall and encountered beewolves (always a crowd pleaser), the other group took a lovely sunny stroll towards Wildlife Lookout. The sunny morning made the conditions perfect for viewing sticklebacks, roach and perch in the water beside the path with many different dragonflies whizzing overhead.
One comment we hear regularly from visitors in mid July is "it's quiet". Indeed it is, in the sense that most birds have stopped singing and the reserve can be eerily silent at times. But in terms of things to see, it's from from quiet, though you may have to change your focus a little.
Mid summer is always a trickier time for watching woodland and reedbed birds as they hide away to moult following a hectic breeding season, though the usual suspects will still be present if you're patient enough. Family parties of tits and finches move through the woods in foraging parties, while reed and sedge warblers and bearded tits flit from reed to reed in search of insects. Bitterns can be harder to spot among tall thick reeds, but may still be seen flying from one feeding pool to another. Marsh harriers are a bit easier, with many youngsters learning how to hunt for themselves, and kingfisher sightings become more frequent as fledged young are pushed off their parents' territories farther upstream.
But, of course, Minsmere is about much more than birds, and those same woods and reedbeds that may be referred to as quiet are, in fact, teeming with insect life, so now is the time to look down and focus up close and discover a whole new world of wildlife. Some insects are easier to spot and identify than others - butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies are much easier than bees, hoverflies or parasitic flies for example. But it's worth the effort.
Yesterday I set myself the challenge of finding three of Minsmere's special summer butterflies. The first was the tiny silver-studded blue, a heathland species that only occurs in a handful of parts of the UK where suitable habitat exists. At Minsmere they can be found around the northern part of the reserve on Westleton Heath, so I stopped for a quick walk on my way in. The flowering bell heather and wood sage looked gorgeous and was clearly popular with honeybees, hoverflies and commoner butterflies such as gatekeeper and ringlet, and after a few minutes I spotted a tiny brown butterfly - a female silver-studded blue. Two delicate males quickly followed. Target one achieved.
Over lunch I headed to Canopy Hide in search of target number two - purple hairstreak. This can be a difficult butterfly to find as they tend to remain high in the oak canopy, necessitating neck strain from peering upwards. A visit to Canopy Hide makes seeing them easier as you are actually up in the canopy. Even then, they are well camouflaged against the leaves, but with some patience I managed to locate two of these lovely butterflies, along with a couple of commas, several brown hawker dragonflies and common darters.
Purple hairstreak by Jon Evans
Target number three can sometimes be seen from Canopy Hide too, but I didn't see one there, so instead I walked along the Woodland Trail through clouds of common darters, brown hawkers and a beautiful hoverfly called Voluncella zonaria and soon enough I spotted a stunning white admiral sunning itself on the path. This was my twelfth species of butterfly for the day, with little effort.
White admiral by Jon Evans
A short walk on Sunday morning had revealed a similar number of dragonfly and damselfly species as well as our fascinating array of mining bees and digger wasps along the North Wall, confirming how varied the insect life is at present.
Of course, there are also birds to be seen, and for this the best place is the Scrape, especially East Hide. With migration well underway it's difficult to predict exactly which species might be present, but they could include up to nine species of gull, four terns and up to 20 types of wader. As an indication of this variety, the counts on East Scrape this morning included: 208 avocets, three little ringed plovers, one ringed plover, three golden plovers, 24 lapwings, seven knot, two little stints, one sanderling, 75+ dunlins, eight ruffs, 325 black-tailed godwits, two curlews, 23 spotted redshanks, two redshanks, one greenshank. one green sandpiper, two common sandpipers and a turnstone, plus a few oystercatchers, while curlew sandpiper and whimbrel have also been reported in recent days. Add in one or two little, Arctic and Sandwich terns, several little gulls, Mediterranean gulls and kittiwakes and there's plenty to challenge your ID. Also of interest on the Scrape are large numbers of little egrets and grey herons.
Little egret by Jon Evans
I timed my walk around the Coast Trail perfectly this afternoon, dodging the showers and spotting some fantastic wildlife. Towards the end of my walk it all got a too much for me and I had to lie down. Well, actually there was a really good reason for lying down in the dunes - and it wasn't for a snooze or some sunbathing!
A flock of up to 200 sand martins were dropping down onto the dunes for a rest, to escape the wind, and I too dropped to the ground to enjoy a closer view. By lying behind a clump of marram grass and crawling slowly forwards I was able to get close enough to run off a few photos.
By zooming a bit further I was able to get my best photo yet of these lovely little birds.
This wasn't actually the first time I'd found myself lying in the shingle today as I'd early been trying, with little success, to photograph skippers feeding on the shingle flowers. Skippers are small, orange-brown, moth-like butterflies that can be found in grassy areas during mid summer. There are three very similar species found at Minsmere, and I managed to find all three today. Large skippers are slightly bigger than the other two, making them easier to identify. The best way to distinguish between small and Essex skippers is by looking at the colour of the underside of the antennae - black in Essex, orange in small skippers.
Small skipper feeding on sheep's bit
In fact it turned out to a brilliant day for butterflies. I saw 12 different species around the reserve, including small heath in the dunes (it's looking like a good year for this scarce species), small copper in North Bushes, and good counts of gatekeepers, ringlets and meadow browns feeding on bramble flowers, with comma, red admiral and both small and large white in attendance. There were also several six-spot burnet moths along the dunes, and I've just been looking at some fabulous moths that were caught in our moth trap last night, including poplar hawkmoth, several buff tips, several rosy footmans, small magpies, peppered moths and a snout moth. I'll post some photos of these moths on our Facebook page later.
These weren't the only insects around either. I saw at least six species of damselfly or dragonfly and many types of wasps, bees and hoverflies, including, of course, the bee wolfs and pantaloon bees. I also finally saw my first ever scorpion fly, but sadly couldn't get a photo. If you've never seen one of these flies, then look them up - they're pretty impressive.
Birds were very much in evidence too, especially on the Scrape. My wader list for the day included little ringed and ringed plovers, green and common sandpipers, common and spotted redshanks, ruffs, black-tailed godwits, dunlins, oystercatchers, lapwings and avocets, plus the stone-curlew that continues to sit vigilantly on her nest close tot he North Wall watchpoint. Two little terns had joined the common and Sandwich terns on the Scrape, while up to nine little and at least 16 Mediterranean gulls can be seen around the Scrape, along with black-headed, herring, lesser and great black-backed gulls and several kittiwakes.
Away from the Scrape, both common and lesser whitethroats can be seen in the Sluice Bushes, linnets and reed buntings were along the dunes, bearded tits, marsh harriers, little egrets and bitterns are in the reedbed, and various tits and finches are in the woods.
All in all, that adds up to many good reasons to enjoy a walk around Minsmere - and celebrate with a cake or cheese scone in the cafe.
The view from East Scrape with lots of lovely mud for feeding waders