As March progresses we begin to anticipate the arrival of the first spring migrants. Which will arrive first? A wheatear, sand martin or garganey perhaps? In reality, the first migrants, while not exactly slipping in un-noticed, are often forgotten when thinking about spring migrants.
At Minsmere, the first real signs that migration is underway are the return of the waders and gulls to the Scrape, ready for the coming breeding season. The oystercatchers were the first to return this year, quickly followed by avocets and ringed plovers. Numbers of avocets have increased rapidly, with 80 birds present on the Scrape today. They looked absolutely gorgeous in the beautiful spring sunshine over the weekend. Other waders reported today include a spotted redshank, ruff, a couple of black-tailed godwits and redshanks, and four turnstones. Only the redshanks will breed at Minsmere, but all are a sure sign that the seasons are changing.
The black-headed gulls are beginning to stake a claim to islands on South Scrape, where there the faint but familiar chorus of calling gulls on Saturday afternoon when I strolled around. Among them are a couple of Mediterranean gulls - another sure sign that spring is nearing. In fact, the gulls at Minsmere this week have given some lucky visitors a whistle-stop European tour as we've also seen both Iceland and Caspian gulls on the Scrape among the more familiar common, herring, lesser and great black-backed gulls.
A more surprising early migrant this week has been spoonbill, with two birds commuting between the Scrape and Levels - early March is quite early to see these elegant birds at Minsmere. The bitterns are now beginning to "grunt" though I've not heard reports of full booming yet. They are also showing regularly from both Bittern and Island Mere hides. A pair of great crested grebes has also returned to Island Mere where they are displaying - as are the marsh harriers.
Two of our smallest birds are also typical early spring "migrants" - though it's hard to be certain whether they are truly new arrivals or lingering winter visitors: chiffchaffs are now singing and a firecrest has been seen for the last two days between Bittern and Island Mere Hides. At the other end of the size spectrum there has been an excellent passage of common buzzards over the last week or so.
A firecrest by Pixellence
Of course, there are also many winter birds still lingering. Among the large flocks of ducks on the Scrape are two smew, several pintails and a few pochards. Two whooper swans have been present over the weekend, and a water pipit was seen at Island Mere yesterday, while good numbers of red-throated divers remain offshore.
Otters have been popping up all over the place this week, including at Island Mere, Bittern Hide and on the Scrape from North Hide. Stoats are seen regularly too. The warmer spring weather over the weekend lead to several sightings of adders, and at least four species of butterflies were seen yesterday: comma, peacock, small tortoiseshell and brimstone.
Small tortoiseshell - the most numerous of our butterflies so far this year
You know spring is just around the corner when a visit to Minsmere requires you to use your ears as well as your eyes. Not forgetting your nose too as the scent of coconut from the gorse blossom will soon be wafting around the car park and beach - and of course the delicious smell of bacon or fresh-cooked scones greets early visitors to the cafe.
One of the most familiar and characteristic sounds of spring at Minsmere is the deep, resonant booming call of a male bittern. Before they start booming properly though, the first sounds heard are best described as grunts, while the birds "tune" up for their proper display in a few weeks time. Despite the mild spring, our bitterns have only just started grunting, with the first two heard on Sunday evening. I'm looking forward to hearing this impressive call in the coming days. Although they are only just becoming vocal, bitterns are showing exceptionally well at present, with one on view at Bittern Hide for an incredible 2.5 hours yesterday!
Bittern by Ian Clarke
Other sounds can be heard emanating from deep within the reedbed too. Pig-like squeals signal the presence of another skulker, the water rail. They can be heard throughout the year, but are particularly vocal in spring, though like the bitterns they are reluctant to show themselves very often. Likewise the Cetti's warbler, with an impressively loud song. March is a good time to look for them before leaves on the willows begin to obscure them. Listen too for the high-pitched pinging of bearded tits - easier to hear before the reed and sedge warblers arrive next month - and the whinnying call of courting little grebes. Incredibly, a little grebe was photographed on Monday carrying a young chick on it's back - this is an exceptionally early breeding record for one of our smallest water birds.
It's not just birds that be heard in the reedbed either. At lunchtime today we could hear a chorus of croaks from the North Wall as the toads began their annual courtship. This is a sound that has become sadly less common in recent years as both frogs and toads decline in numbers, so to hear it was a welcome surprise. They're not the only reptiles and amphibians to have emerged from hibernation either as there have been several sightings of adders in the last ten days.
A pair of mating common toads by Ian Barthorpe
Perhaps the most characteristic sound of spring at Minsmere is the cacophony of the black-headed gull colony on the Scrape. We expect them to return and start prospecting for nests soon, though water levels are still quite high following the wet winter. We have, however, welcomed some of our breeding birds back with up to 20 avocets, four pairs of oystercatchers, the odd ringed plover and a Mediterranean gull on the Scrape this week, while lapwings have begun displaying and shelducks are definitely pairing off.
Elsewhere, great spotted woodpeckers are busy drumming in the woods, nuthatches are calling near Canopy Hide, woodlarks and Dartford warblers are singing on Westleton Heath, and all our common tits, finches and thrushes are in full song. Some early nesters, such as robins and long-tailed tits, will soon be laying eggs and a pair of great tits is already prospecting the new nextbox with camera that is beaming images into the shop. Another sign of spring has been the regular passage of common buzzards over the reserve this week, including at least 20 yesterday, while small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies are already on the wing.
It's not all about spring wildlife though. Three redhead smews remain on the Scrape and two whooper swans have returned to the reedbed pools (have they been hiding for a few weeks or are they different birds?) Offshore we've had a winter peak count of 1000+ red-throated divers this week, but a harbour porpoise yesterday was a real bonus. Otters continue to be seen most days, and the biggest draw of all is the starling roost at Island Mere - you need to be in the hide from 5 pm and be prepared to stay til dusk (about 6 pm), but get there early if you want a seat.
With mild weather set to continue, no doubt our first chiffchaffs, sand martins and wheatears will begin to arrive soon. Why don't you come along to look for them yourself?
Minsmere's a great place to watch all sorts of wildlife, and our mammals are no exception. Some, of course, are easier to spot than others: rabbits are almost guaranteed along the entrance road, grey squirrels patrol the feeders at the visitor centre or play chase among the oaks in the woods, and red deer are regularly seen around Bittern Hide or in the field north of the visitor centre.
Some of our less easily seen mammals have been putting on a good showing for those visitors lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time this week. Otters continue to show regularly from both Bittern Hide and Island Mere, but not quite so close as the one that a volunteer watched just three feet in front of him on the East Hide entrance path on Friday! Stoats are beginning to be seen regularly, in various parts of the reserve, with one seen carrying an unfortunate water vole earlier in the week. Their smaller cousin, the weasel (told by the lack of a black tip to the tail) was seen near the Whin Hill Watchpoint yesterday.
Stoats by Ian Barthorpe
Badgers are rarely seen, due to their nocturnal behaviour, but one of the wardens watched one on the path near Island Mere just before dusk a few days ago. Chinese water deer have been seen in the reedbed recently too - until last year this species was very rarely seen at Minsmere. And grey seals have been seen most days close to the shore by visotrs scanning the sea for red-throated divers or passing gannets.
The mild sunny weather on Wednesday tempted an early adder out of hibernation close to the path from Bittern Hide to Island Mere, while a small tortoiseshell butterfly was seen on the same day. There's several other signs of how early spring has arrived this year too: blackthorn bushes coming into flower, daffodils already in full bloom (just in time for St David's Day today), great spotted woodpeckers drumming, woodlarks singing on Westleton Heath, greylag geese prospecting nest sites, and two pairs of oystercatchers already on the Scrape.
Despite the early spring, bitterns have not yet been heard grunting, although they are seen regularly at Bittern Hide and Island Mere, or flying over the reedbed. Marsh harriers have begun displaying on sunny days, and Cetti's warblers are in full song.
It's not all spring-like though - especially on a dull wet day like today. The three smew remain on the Scrape (photo below by Adam Rowlands), several pochards remain on the Scrape, a stunning drake red-crested pochard has been found on the Konik Field today, a water pipit was at North Hide yesterday and two snipe remain at Island Mere.
And last, but not least, our starling roost continues to attract the crowds at Island Mere. You need to be in the hide by 5.15 pm - but it may be standing room only earlier than that - and stay till it gets dark. It's well worth it though, as these murmurations are among the most impressive wildlife spectacles in the UK.
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