On Saturday morning, Minsmere Field Teacher and Visitor Centre Assistant, Stephen Massey, was walking through the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul church in Aldeburgh when he spotted what looked like a dead blackbird. Approaching closer he realised that the corpse in question was actually a bird of prey. Assuming it was a sparrowhawk, Stephen turned the bird over and discovered that it was, in fact, a hobby, and what's more it had a swift clutched in its talons and held close to its belly. The swift was likely to have been killed when caught by the hobby. As they were found beneath a large tree, Stephen assumed that the hobby had probably flown into the tree trunk or branches, or possibly the church building, in the act of catching the swift.
It's always sad to see any dead bird, but to find two like this is incredibly unusual. Hobbies are incredibly agile hunters and regularly catch swallows, martins and swifts in the air. However, their regular prey is dragonflies and other large insects that they catch, pluck the wings from and eat with barely a break from their rapid flight.
Sadly, this year's cold spring has had a big impact on insect populations, with very few dragonflies seen yet. this inevitably has a knock-on effect for those birds that feed on them. Yesterday, we received news of another dead hobby, found near Island Mere, which was extremely thin and emaciated, suggesting a complete lack of feeding opportunities. We can only hope that this doesn't have a long term impact on the populations of these magnificent migrants.
This week at Minsmere we’ve been bittern and marsh harrier watching, as well as carrying out our first bearded tit survey of the year (as well as my first ever!).
The bittern watch revealed slightly more activity than in previous weeks with a few chases of females by males being seen but no actual nesting activity observed. Meanwhile during the marsh harrier watch we have observed eight harriers that are currently nesting.
The first bearded tit surveys were also carried out this week, and with it being my first ever bearded tit survey I was keen to get started! The survey involves waiting at certain predetermined points for an hour at a time in the hope of seeing bearded tits either carrying food to the same specific location (within about a 10x10m area) on 3 or more separate occasions or if they are seen carrying faecal sacs, this would then mean that a nest could be confirmed. A probable nest could be present if the adults are seen returning to the same location on 3 or more separate occasions or if there is an accumulation of adult sightings or calls. We drove our tractors in convoy out onto the reedbed, parked up in different locations and waited; 10 minutes in and I was concerned that I was missing them but suddenly I heard the distinctive ‘pinging’ call and then a subsequent flight! There is definitely some skill involved as the birds fly so fast that it is difficult to determine what (or if!) they are carrying but with a bit of practise you start to get the hang of it!
Male bearded tit by Jon Evans
We have a pair of stone-curlew in the field behind the visitor centre that are currently sitting on eggs, as well as other birds nesting on other areas of the reserve. This week has also seen large numbers of swallow, swift, sand martin and house martin present. There have been 4 spoonbill present on lucky pool and 1 on west scrape. Interesting species seen this week include a Savi’s warbler heard singing at the south belt crossroads, a cattle egret briefly seen on the south levels, a spotted flycatcher near bittern hide and a Temminck’s stint on the scrape. There have been 70+ common tern, up to nine little tern, thirteen dunlin, two knot, a curlew sandpiper, sanderling, and two sandwich tern seen on the scrape. We currently have roughly 125 avocets on the scrape. Non-avian species include a black adder seen near bittern hide, whilst the otter is still making an appearance at island mere.
Guest blog by Sue Rendell-Read, Minsmere Warden
This week we were pleased to welcome Otley College students back to the reserve to help erect a scrub exclosure. The students - Jordan, Brian, David and Tom - are second year agricultural students, currently working locally on a variety of different farms. The fencing work they carry out on our reserves helps them gain experience in practical estate management skills. John, their tutor, has brought his students along on several occasions and we are really grateful for the extra hands to help in our work, while providing this training opportunity for the college. In addition, it is of course a great way to exchange information; enabling us to chat about conservation work and to hear all about farming issues from the farmers of the future.
The scrub exclosures are being erected in a former arable field, where they will keep rabbits out of areas, thus allowing the vegetation to generate naturally without grazing. Eventually scrub, such as dense blackthorn, will develop and this will provide habitat for insects and new areas for birds such as nightingale. Nightingales require areas of dense scrub and undergrowth, and are declining as these habitats are often overgrazed or cleared as waste land.
We look forward to working with more students from Otley and Easton Colleges in the future, and to continuing our links with other local education groups.
Minsmere has had a bit of purple patch in the last week or so, although you had to be quick to catcha glimpse of all our unusual visitors. Typically, I missed them all.
The first week of May saw sightings of two rare herons in the reedbed: purple heron and two great white egrets. Typically, they were seen by only a few people, usually when flying over the reedbed from one pool to another. With up to six spoonbills, and the usual bitterns (now eight booming males), little egrets and grey herons, it was possible, with a bit of luck, to see six different species of heron in a week.
The real excitement started on Saturday morning when, shortly after I'd completed a tour of all the hides, reports came in of a cattle egret on the Levels - a seventh heron and, in Minsmere's terms, the rarest. Sadly, barely had the news broken of this rare visitor from the Mediterranean it was reported flying south over Sizewell. It was spotted later that day at RSPB North Warren, just a few miles to the south, but had gone by the following morning.
Hot on the heels of the cattle egret, came news of a singing Savi's warbler in the reedbed near South Belt Crossroads. This is an increasingly rare visitor to the UK, and proved very popular as it sang on and off all day. Frustratingly for me, it had not been present the previous morning when I had led our third dawn chorus walk of the year, and, liek the egret, it was gone the next day. Savi's warblers are common in wetlands in central and Eastern Europe, and sound very similar to the grasshopper warbler, which has, sadly, disappeared as a breeding bird at Minsmere in recent years.
Then on Tuesday another difficult to see species was found on the Scrape: a Temminck's stint. One of our smallest wading birds, this species likes to hide in vegetation around the edge of wetlands, so can be hard to spot, but once again, it seems to have been a one day visitor, with no reports so far today. Another passing visitor yesterday was a common crane seen flying over the car park at 9 am.
There have, of course, been a few more obliging migrants for visitors to see, including knot, sanderling, grey plover and bar-tailed godwits on the Scrape, hobbies over the reedbed, little terns, cuckoos and the usual mix of commoner warblers, plus a whinchat in the North Bushes on Saturday. We had reportts of our first spotted flycatcher of the year this week too.
Among the resident species, lapwings, oystercatchers, redshanks and avocets are now nesting on the Scrape, as can be seen from Jeffrey Eagle's photo of an avocet below, a tawny owl is regularly seen near South Belt Crossroads and the great spotted woodpeckers are often on the visitor centre feeders.
We also had an unusual sighting of a water shrew near the Wildlife Lookout this week (photo below by Ian Clarke), where it was seen feeding on common frogs, while water voles are often seen in the pond near the visitor centre. We've also finally begun tosee the first large red damselflies of the year, and a selection of butterflies including orange tip and small copper.
by Lana Blakely, conservation intern
Another busy week here at Minsmere (I think there’s a bit of a theme here?!) including moving Koniks, bittern watching, territory mapping and stone-curlew nesting.
At the beginning of the week another pair of stone-curlew arrived so we quickly erected an electric fence in order to protect their nesting attempts from potential predators. Elsewhere on the reserve stone-curlews also continue to arrive, with some beginning to nest. We carried out another bittern listening survey and heard good numbers , and we did the first bittern watch of the season. As it is still early days we didn’t see much action in terms of nesting activity but there were a few flyovers on the reedbed and North marshes so watch this space!
Some of the Konik ponies that have been grazing North Warren over the winter have been moved to Minsmere last week, so you can look forward to seeing them out on the reserve. We rounded up one herd of six, which includes five mares and a foal, and moved them to Meadow Marsh. The 12-strong breeding herd moved to Abbey farm, near Snape. The whole process went smoothly and fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your sense of humour) there were no incidences to report.
We also completed another territory map, and heard some nice species including three nightingales, two lesser whitethroat (the first I’ve managed to identify unassisted!), and sedge, willow and Cetti’s warbler. Here’s to hoping I pick up a golden oriole before my last survey is completed... too much to hope for?
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Last but not least, an excellent shot of two bitterns! Thanks for sharing it, Pete!
©Pixellence (pete) from the RSPB community