Today, 2 February, is World Wetlands Day. This is an important event, at it marks the signing of an international treaty on wetland conservation, the RAMSAR Treaty, signed in the Iranian town of Ramsar on 2 February 1971.
Many of the world's most important wetlands, including RSPB Minsmere, are listed as RAMSAR sites, ensuring that their importance is recognised by governments and nature conservation organisations as sites of international importance for wetlands and wetland. Most RAMSAR sites are equally important for people, whether as places for recreation (as at Minsmere), food, flood protection or water quality.
As it was World Wetlands Day, I took the opportunity to stroll down to South Hide at lunch time and appreciate the wonder of Minsmere's wetlands. The sun was shining, the sky was mostly blue, and the colours were at their finest.
I was treated to some amazingly close views of shovelers at Wildlife Lookout, as you can see from these photos.
There were lots of ducks on West Scrape, despite the presence of a digger that is helping to further improve our wetland habitat by reprofiling some of the islands.
There were some equally close views of ducks at South Hide, including wigeons and teals. South Scrape also proved attractive to a variety of wading birds, including one avocet, one oystercatcher, three ringed plovers, 18 dunlins, 11 curlews, about 20 black-tailed godwits and several hundred lapwings. Although I didn't head round to East Hide, I could clearly see several pintails and tufted ducks on East Scrape too.
The red-throated diver had been reported behind South Hide again this morning, but it was clearly hiding from the wind while I was in the hide. Likewise, the slavonian grebe had relocated onto Island Mere this morning before it too went missing. There were, however, sightings of bitterns, otters, grey herons and marsh harriers at Island Mere.
If you would like to help celebrate World Wetlands Day by spotting some amazing wetland wildlife, why not join one of our wardens, Dave, at RSPB North Warren on Saturday morning when he'll be leading another Winter Wildfowl at North Warren walk. The walk starts at 10 am from the pay and display car park in Aldeburgh. Advance booking is recommended, so please call 01728 648281 to book. You might even be lucky enough to see one of the spoonbills that are currently at North Warren.
How did you get on with your Big Garden Birdwatch counts over the weekend? I had a very respectable (for my garden) eleven species yesterday. The biggest surprise was a brief visit from a wren - a species that I haven't seen int he garden for months despite hearing them locally most mornings. Although our starlings, goldfinches and blackbirds all put in an appearance, numbers were down on the norm. Frustratingly, I saw a record count of 11 goldfinches from the window, but they remained resolutely in next door's garden, with only three deigning to cross the fence!
Although we didn't actually count the birds on our feeders at Minsmere, we did see a good variety, including great spotted woodpeckers, marsh tits, coal tits and magpies. The sparrowhawk made an unsuccessful hunt. One of our volunteers, however, was lucky enough to spot a ringtail (female-type) hen harrier over the car park on Saturday morning too. While I missed this increasingly scarce bird, I was treated to flypast by another ringtail this morning as it hunted over farmland on my way into work.
That, however, was not the biggest surprise of the day. That honour goes to a winter plumage slavonian grebe that was feeding in the channel north of the North Wall sluice this afternoon. First reported as a red-necked grebe, our site manager went to check it out and confirmed the identification as a slavonian grebe. This is a very rare bird at Minsmere, with almost all records on the sea, so most of the staff quickly headed out to see it.
Slavonian grebes are rare breeding birds in the UK, confirmed to the Strathspey area of northern Scotland, and winter in small numbers around our coasts. In spring and summer they are gorgeous black and white birds with golden plumes on the side of their head. In winter they are mainly black above and white below, with bright white check patches. They also retain a lovely red eye - though that's not visible in the record shots that I managed to take.
Today's slavonian grebe by Ian Barthorpe
The grebe probably arrived on the strong winds of the latest storm to hit the UK this winter. These winds brought good numbers of seabirds close to shore too, including red-throated divers, gannets, great crested grebes, guillemots and a fulmar. A great northern diver was spotted on Saturday too.
On the reserve itself, there were a few signs of spring over the weekend, including the first oystercatcher on the Scrape, an avocet also on the Scrape, drumming great spotted woodpeckers. and increasing volume of birdsong. An adult Mediterranean gull on the Scrape today was another hint at the coming of spring.
Our wardens have been busy preparing for spring, and today the sand martin bank was steepened in preparation for their return in mid March. If I was a sand martin, I'd certainly welcome this clean fresh sandy cliff, free from encroaching bushes.
The newly steepened sand martin cliff
Elsewhere on the reserve, at least one firecrest remains in the Rhododendron Tunnel/Scotts Hall area, and a chiffchaff remains near Bittern Hide. The six whooper swans commute between Island Mere and the Konik Field, and a flock of Bewick's swans sometimes visits if disturbed from their feeding area near Leiston. A peregrine is regular on the Levels, and both yellow-legged and Caspian gulls were again seen on the Scrape today.
I often write in these blogs about counting Minsmere's wildlife, whether for breeding bird surveys, roost counts or simply counts based on observations from our volunteer guides. For example, our guides have been diligently counting lapwings this week, with more than 500 present on the Scrape. Now it's your turn.
This weekend sees the return of the annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, where we ask you to spend an hour counting your garden birds. It really is that simple. Sit back with a cup of tea and watch the birds visiting your feeders during any single hour over the weekend. For each individual species, all you need to record is the biggest count during that hour. This avoids the possibility of double counting the same bird.
Big Garden Birdwatch began as a count for our junior members in 1979, when thanks to being featured on BBC Blue Peter our postbag was bursting with entries. As a junior member myself back then I was one of the enthusiastic children who took part.
As the popularity of the survey grew, and the value of the data gathered became more obvious, we expanded the Big Garden Birdwatch and opened it to everyone. Last year more than half a million people took part, recording millions of individual birds. Please help us to gather as much information about our garden wildlife as possible by taking part this weekend. And it is garden wildlife, as we now ask you how often certain mammals, reptiles and amphibians visit your garden.
You can register to part, and submit your results by following the links from www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch. So get counting.
Blue tit by Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)
I'm glad I'm not trying to count the birds visiting our feeders, which include at least 50 chaffinches, 20 blue tits and 20 great tits at any one time, plus various other species. I will be counting at home though, and hope that our goldfinches and long-tailed tits pay their usual visit, along with up to 40 starlings. Will anything unusual appear, as a goldcrest did last year.
Meanwhile, here at Minsmere this week's counts have included 24 golden plovers on the Scrape today, up to 35 tufted ducks and 14 pintails on the Scrape, as well as several black-tailed godwits, curlews, redshanks and dunlins alongside the lapwings and commoner ducks. Six whooper swans commute between Island Mere and the reedbed pools, and up to 28 Bewick's swans occasionally visit the reserve having been feeding near Leiston. Two tundra bean geese and upto 180 white-fronts have been on the Levels, though they appear to have moved to North Warren this week.
Offshore we've had sightings of common and grey seals, guillemots, common socter and red-throated divers, but thankfully no stranded sperm whales. Another red-throated diver has settled on the pool behind South Hide today.
In the reedbed, bitterns, marsh harriers, otters and kingfishers continue to be seen, with a water vole regular on the pond.
Water vole by Jon Evans