The saying couldn't be more true this week as a couple of surprise sightings have kept staff and visitors on their toes, and our regular species have competed for their share of the action.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was a stunning drake eider that spent a few minutes among the hordes of commoner ducks on East Scrape on Thursday morning. It's very rare to see an eider away from the sea (even if East Scrape is barely 100 metres from the sea), and I certainly can't remember one being reported actually on the reserve before. Unfortunately I missed this beautiful bird as it flew back to out by the time I'd finished my freshly made cup of tea (note to self, leave the tea next time and make another one later!)
I did, however, find my own surprise bird this morning in the shape of a lovely male ring ouzel. These mountain blackbirds are usually spring and autumn migrants at Minsmere, with only occasional winter records in the UK. I had popped out to the weather station (above the sand martin bank) to take the readings that we submit to the Met Office, when a mistle thrush flew over towards the North Marsh. As it dropped down into the bramble at the northern corner of the North Bushes, a small flock of redwings, fieldfares and blackbirds took off. As I scanned, I was most surprised to come across the ring ouzel, and with a couple of song thrushes also present I managed to see all six species of British thrush (excluding the various very rare visitors from Siberia or North America).
A mistle thrush by Sue Tranter (rspb-images.com)
In fact, it was a very productive five minutes taking the weather readings as I also heard Cetti's warbler, water rail, great spotted woodpecker, redpoll and wigeon, proving once again just how many species can be found close to the visitor centre. Our guides also found a mixed finch flock in the North Bushes that included several siskins and redpolls, while marsh tits and coal tits were around the visitor centre feeders - where a brambling was seen yesterday.
Coal tit by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
Not wanting to be outdone, the bitterns have been putting on a good show at Island Mere today. One spent many minutes so close to the hide that at least one of our regular photographers was struggling to fit the whole bird into a photo! Several other bittern sightings have been made at Island Mere too, where the great white egret is still present (after nearly two months) and an otter was seen again. Nine Bewick's swans were present early morning, before spending the day feeding in flooded fields south of the Mere. you can see them there by watching from the Whin Hill Watchpoint.
Despite incredibly dull weather and regular showers, the starlings put on a good show tonight too - if you arrived early enough. The first birds gathered over the Scrape from about 2.30 pm, before displaying over the southern end of the reedbed and eventually settling to roost behind South Hide at about 3.45 pm. There still seem to be about 30k birds, though it wasn't easy to count them in the poor light.
Don't let the short days, with the nights rapidly closing in and the continuing dull weather, put you off visiting Minsmere this winter. There's lots to see without the need for a long walk around the full circular walks.
You may simply want to visit the shop or cafe for some pre-Christmas shopping or a warming meal. From the reception or cafe you can check the feeders for finches and tits - including regular visits by marsh and coal tits and goldfinches. A great spotted woodpecker pops in from time to time too.
A short walk to the North Bushes could be productive too. The temporary path around the back is a bit muddy, but does get you even closer to the action. Among the tit flocks look out for long-tailed tits and goldcrests, and a firecrest has been seen a couple of times this week. It's a good area to look for bullfinches and siskins, and a brambling was heard there today. Even more excitingly, a waxwing was heard today (I thought I heard one yesterday too), raising hopes that more may follow. A weasel was seen in the North Bushes today too. Of course, there are many commoner species too, including this beautiful cock pheasant that I found feeding on the hawthorn berries yesterday. I hope he leaves some for the waxwings and fieldfares!
You can also pop into North Hide for a look across the Scrape to spot a variety of ducks, gulls, lapwings and snipe. If you walk a little further you can scan the sea for the chance of a red-throated diver, great crested grebe or gannet (though sadly the pilot whale pod seen recently in North Norfolk somehow relocated to Essex without being seen on the Suffolk coast).
An alternative is to walk up to the Whin Hill watchpoint and look out across Island Mere. From here you have a good chance of spotting much of the mere's wildlife, albeit a little distantly: bitterns or marsh harriers flying above the reeds, the brilliant white of the great white egret fishing, or even an otter. Beyond the mere you may spot the Bewick's swans feeding among a large herd of mute swans on flooded fields. Stroll down to the hide and there's a good chance of seeing kingfishers, bearded tits and snipe, or hearing water rails and Cetti's warblers. Stay till dusk and the starlings should arrive to roost. Maybe you'll hear a tawny owl too - one was seen near Island Mere today.
What better reason do you need to visit us this winter?
Works is due to start later this week on a major project to replace the aging fence around the Scrape.
The fence is intended to prevent ground-nesting predators, such as foxes or badgers, from gaining access to the Scrape, thus protecting breeding gulls, waders, ducks and terns. The existing fence, erected in 1988, is nearing the end of its life and it has become increasingly difficult to maintain in recent years as much of it runs close to a wet ditch. We had suspected that predators were finding their way through the fence, and this spring we had proof that a badger was forcing it's way through (or under) the existing fence, resulting in the loss or abandonment of most nests of gulls, avocets and terns - as witnessed on our TV screens during BBC Springwatch.
We have been investigating options for replacing the Scrape fence for a few years, and earlier this autumn we applied for planning permission for a new fence. This was granted, and contractors have now been employed, so work is due to start later this week.
It's not simply a case of removing one fence to replace it with another though. In order to make the new fence as predator-proof as possible, we're planning to erect it on dry ground around its entire length, allowing us to dig it deep into the ground and reduce the likelihood of any foxes or badgers digging under the fence. This means that the new fence will follow a different route in some places. We will also be building a low bank around much of the Scrape, onto which the fence will stand. While the fence will be slightly higher in places, we do not anticipate this having an impact on the fantastic views across the Scrape.
Work is due to start on this project on Wednesday, and should take about ten weeks to complete, with the new fence erected by the end of February - in time for the next breeding season. The project has been designed to minimise disturbance to wildlife as much as possible during construction. Our contractors will be working on only one part of the fenceline at any time, thus ensuring that most of the Scrape remains undisturbed. We'll let you know at reception each day which hides are most likely to be disturbed each day so that you can plan your visit.
As most of the work will be done with machinery, the ducks will generally continue to feed on other parts of the Scrape. Another part of the reserve that can be great for watching wildfowl is the Minsmere Levels - two tundra bean geese arrived late last week, and there are often several pintails there. The best place to watch the Levels from is usually the dunes south of the sluice, but this winter we have also opened a seasonal trail to the ruins of Leiston Abbey chapel, from where there are superb views south across the Levels. This new seasonal path is accessed via the footpath from the sluice to Eastbridge and is well worth a detour.
The view from Leiston Abbey chapel across the Levels
And, of course, Island Mere continues to offer excellent wildlife watching, with daily sightings of bitterns, marsh harriers, otters and the great white egret, as well as coots, cormorants and commoner ducks. At least three Bewick's swans have been feeding on flooded fields south of the mere too. these are best viewed with a telescope from the Whin Hill Watchpoint. The starlings have been roosting at the Island Mere end of the reedbed this week too.
Finally, with all the recent rain, please don't forget to bring a good pair of walking boots or wellies if you are planning a visit, as the path from South Hide to the sluice is prone to flooding, and there are puddles in many places.
Cormorants and mute swans on Island Mere today