Guest blog by Ally Hoadley, Minsmere volunteer
I have been lucky enough be able to help with out surveying for water voles, made famous as the character Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. These cute mammals have declined considerably in recent years, thoguh the Suffolk coast remains a stronghold, and the RSPB has been carrying out surveys at Dingle Marshes and North Warren, as well as Minsmere.
Last Thursday, I was part of a team of seven Minsmere staff and volunteers that set off to survey North Warren for water voles. These surveys are part of the National Key Sites for Water Voles, to monitor this vulnerable species. There are eight transects (survey lines) that are checked annually for signs of activity. We split into two groups: my group headed south, passing flocks of lapwing and a solitary sparrowhawk soaring round the new scrape.
We looked for evidence along the banks of ditches and rivulets, in amongst the reeds along the edge. It was my first time looking for signs of water vole activity, and I was told to recognise latrines by the tic-tac shape of the voles' droppings. We separately tallied those of trampled and un-trampled piles: water voles can tread their feet into their droppings to rub them with scent glands on their flanks, thereby marking their territories. We also counted feeding signs, as after eating they can leave small piles of chewed vegetation.
Encouragingly there were lots of signs of activity: latrines and feeding stations were commonest, but a few burrows and even a nest ball were found. The sunny weather allowed sightings of late flying dragonflies such as common darters and migrant hawkers above the ditches, and meeting back up with the other group we heard they had actually seen a water vole swimming up mid-stream a short way before disappearing into vegetation on the banks.
This was a great way to discover new parts of the RSPB's amazing Suffolk coast nature reserves, and do my bit for the conservation of a popular species.
Water vole, by Jon Evans
One of Minsmere’s most popular volunteers reached a significant milestone this week when he celebrated his 80th birthday.
Mick Muttitt will be familiar to many visitors as he has spent many hours volunteering both as a guide and doing bird surveys for more than 20 years.
Mick’s love of birds and natural history came from the fact that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all gamekeepers on the local estate. Also, as young boys of his era did, he collected anything, including train numbers, cigarette cards, stamps, coins, and eggs – thankfully collection of the latter has long since become illegal.
Mick also became interested in aircraft and aviation, and in July 1952 he joined the RAF. Travelling worldwide as a crewmember on Shackleton and Nimrod aircraft, Mick undertook maritime surveillance, search and rescue. Throughout his RAF career he spent much time in Scotland and was a member of the Scottish Ornithological Society, RAF Ornithological Society and the RAF Kinloss Bird Club.
Mick was awarded the MBE for his services to his country and also to birdwatching/services to the community; for he gave much of his time to clubs and lectured to the local scouts and other organisations on birds and aviation/aviation archaeology.
During his time with the RAF Mick was part of the crew that flew the fledgling white-tailed eagles from Norway (c.1975-84) for their reintroduction to western Scotland. Later he helped fly in red kites from Sweden too. This involvement came about as Roy Dennis, who organised these reintroductions, was aware that Coastal Command aircraft regularly flew to Norway and Sweden so might be able to assist.
Mick retired from the RAF at the age of 58 in 1992 and very soon after offered his services as a volunteer at RSPB Minsmere. He recalls that he started the bittern/marsh harrier watches under Sally Mills in 1993. he is still a key member of the bittern and harrier monitoring team. Since this time Mick has attended Minsmere every Monday and Thursday, all year round almost without fail, except for such times as the Foot and Mouth scare.
In recent years Mick has developed an excellent reputation for spotting otters on Island Mere during the afternoon on most of his volunteering days. Photo by Ian Clarke
Mick is an exemplary model of what a volunteer should be. He makes time for each and every member of staff or visitor. He will actively offer his services as a guide and helper both to those who enquire about birds and natural history and to those who just look as if they wish to know more but are too afraid to ask. His vast knowledge of birds worldwide, gleaned from his years of travelling overseas with the RAF mean that he is rarely out of his depth when discussing these matters with anyone.
Kind and understated, humble by nature and a true gentleman go only some way to describe Mick, who never has a bad word to say about anyone.
On the rare occasion that he makes any kind of mistake regarding birds/identification or wildlife he merely looks down at his trusty, 50+ year old BECK KASSEL 20X60 binoculars and exclaims "learning all the time....". For, after all, this is what we all strive to do when we are besotted with the natural world and birds.
So, if you are visiting Minsmere on a Monday or Thursday, Mick will be more than happy to share his knowledge and enthusiasm with you – as indeed will all our guides whichever day you visit.
Happy birthday Mick – here’s to many more to come.
Mick cutting his birthday cake on Monday
(Many thanks to regular Minsmere visitor Phil Buckle for providing this resumé of Mick’s career)
The very popular, if rather elusive, little crake is still in residence in the reedbed pool in front of Bittern Hide. Having completed nearly two weeks here, it's stayed much longer than expected, giving most twitchers, and many casual birdwatchers, the chance to see it - though some have had to wait for several hours or return two or three times. How much longer will it stay? It's not been an easy bird to see, so getting good photos has been even more tricky - see here for one of the best examples, taken by Minsmere regular John Richardson, and shared on our community gallery.
The great white continues it's long stay too, having arrived a few days before the crake, with Island Mere its favoured spot. With so many eyes looking across the reedbed it's perhaps not surprising that sightings of bitterns, marsh harriers and kingfishers remain regular, while flocks of bearded tits are best seen in the mornings. Otters, too, are seen most days, with a large dog fishing on Island Mere today. My five year old was even lucky enough to see one there on Saturday afternoon!
After a beautiful weekend, the weather has deteriorated somewhat today. We had 25 mm (an inch) of rain in the 24 hours to 10 am today, most of that falling in the early hours, resulting in deep puddles in many places on the trails - so bring your wellies if visiting this week.
With the rain have come the migrants. It's been an excellent day for watching passage brent geese, with many flocks of upto 100 geese heading south, close tot he shoreline, and some resting briefly on the Scrape or Levels. Redwings, too, arrived in force this morning. Most passed straight over, but some landed briefly to rest, especially near Island Mere.
With so many birds on the move, it was perhaps inevitable that something notable would arrive. And it did. A brambling was reported near the visitor centre this morning, though perhaps not a new arrival as one was seen there over the weekend too.
Shortly after lunch our Senior Site Manager, Adam, located a yellow-browed warbler in the sluice bushes. Barely bigger than a goldcrest, these scarce autumn migrants breed in eastern Scandinavia and Russia and usually spend the winter in India and South-east Asia. Every year a proportion of the population migrates in the opposite direction, arriving along the east coast of the UK from mid September to late October, with a few even deciding to spent the winter here. What happens to the rest is unclear, but it seems that some of the tiny warblers are possibly pioneers, exploring alternative areas to spend the winter. I strolled down to the sluice, hoping for a glimpse of the lovely little bird, and my luck was in. There it was, perched momentarily right next to another gorgeous tiny migrant, a male firecrest. Better still, just behind them in the same bush was one of my favourite birds, a goldcrest. I still find it incredible that a bird so small (weighing the same as a 20 pence coin they are the smallest bird in the UK), can fly across the North Sea to spend the winter searching for insects and spiders in a wood or garden in the UK - perhaps even in my garden as i saw during last year's Big Garden Birdwatch.
Three of our smallest birds for comparison - a yellow-browed warbler (above, by Jon Evans), firecrest (below by Angie Knight) and goldcrest (bottom, by Jon Evans)
Also on my walk I followed a huge flock of long-tailed tits along the path towards the Wildlife Lookout, heard the distinctive song of Cetti's warblers and squealing call of water rails, spotted a kestrel hunting over the Konik Field, watched two wheatears and several meadow pipits in the dunes, and glimpsed six avocets and four dunlins with about 50 black-tailed godwits on South Scrape. If I'd entered the hide I'm sure I'd have seen even more. Perhaps most surprisingly, given the dull, damp and windy weather today, I also watched several migrant hawker dragonflies chasing tiny insects near the visitor centre.
The other highlight of my walk was a large red deer stag dashing through South Belt woods with four hinds. His antlers clattered loudly among the branches as he went. I'm not sure I've seen a stag that close to the visitor centre before. He was too fast for a photo, but I did get some brillaint views whilst leading deer safaris for the Minsmere Wildlife Explorers group on Saturday.
Two of the stags seen on Saturday, by Ian Barthorpe