This Saturday the Minsmere Wildlife Explorers set off for Suffolk’s only island. Two boats of eager explorers departed Orford quay and crossed the choppy waters to the stunning Havergate Island. We were lucky that the sun was out and the warm September weather had remained even if it was a little blustery!
Before even arriving on the island we had been lucky enough to see curlew, dunlin, ringed plover and black headed gulls on the shingle beaches either side of the river Ore. Our skipper Aaron landed us safely onto the landing jetty and we headed for the main hide on the island.
From the hide we played a game of bird i-spy. The explorers had many to tick off from their list but they got off to a great start sighting black-tailed godwit, dunlin, oystercatcher, redshank, lesser black backed gulls, ringed plover and avocets; the reason why Havergate Island is such a precious and iconic place today. The ultimate highlight from the hide had to be about a dozen spoonbill on the far side of the lagoon standing out clearly from amongst a group of avocets and gulls.
We were all engrossed in the magnificent birdlife in front of the hide when one of the explorers spotted a hare out of the side window of the hide. He had spotted us too but was not disturbed by us and carried on grazing and sunning himself on the side of the lagoon. After a while he disappeared back into the gorse and we decided to go and meet the other boat from the jetty.
The whole group then headed towards the huts on the island which is the best place to view the hares from. We stopped in at Belper’s Lagoon hide and ticked off a few more species from our i-spy challenge. On top of the Cottage Flood hide we spotted a lovely female wheatear watching us as we all trooped past.
After a snack at the huts we had a tour of the accommodation on the island and some information about the island from our skipper Aaron. We then played a game where the Wildlife Explorers had to guess the number of breeding pairs of a species in 2016 and then race to win points for their team.
On the way back to the landing point we had a good look for hares in the gorse from the designated path. We saw a fairly young hare quite close to the path and he gave us all a good show by moving around the gorse slowly whilst in front of the group a vole scuttled around in the grass. We had learnt that hares had been introduced to the island by the family which farmed on the island in the early 20th century. They had been introduced back then as a food source for the family and since then their numbers had increased until the tidal surge in 2015. There is now thought to be only nine hares on the island so we all felt very lucky that we had managed to see two of them.
As the first boat departed the muddy shores of the island (because the tide was very low) the second boat went exploring North Hide and Main Hide and were fortunate enough to see spoonbills as well.
The autumn equinox signals the official end of summer today, although the weather bore more resemblance to a summer day than early autumn with bright sunshine, blue skies, barely a breath of wind, and robins singing constantly. All in all the perfect day for a stroll along the beach.
The beach looked wonderfully clean thanks to the efforts of the 24 volunteers who joined Amy to collect and record litter there on Saturday as part of the Marine Conservation Society's annual Great British Beach Clean event.
Several brent geese had been reported flying south this morning, but with no wind in early afternoon the sea was predictably quiet. However, there's something magical about watching the waves lapping against wet shingle, even on a calm day, and I could easily have sat and watched the sea for some time, but I could hear the whistling call of wigeons on the Scrape so headed on to East Hide. Not, however, until I had paused to photograph the gorgeous blue sky and cotton wool clouds behind some autumn seed-heads.
East Hide was busy when I arrived, and it was easy to see why. Teals were everywhere, feeding on fallen seeds in the shallows along the edge of every island and bank. Wigeons grazed on the more vegetated islands, and careful scanning revealed several shovelers and gadwalls amongst the throng, as well as five elegant pintails and a couple of young shelducks, though there was no sign of the garganey that had been seen earlier. A juvenile little ringed plover fed to the right of the hide, with a couple of snipe nearby, pied wagtails flitted across most islands, a few dunlins trotted along the edge of one island, and several spotted redshanks and black-tailed godwits probed in the shallow water.
As I searched for a little stint that our volunteer guides had seen, suddenly there was mayhem as a female marsh harrier quartered low over the Scrape and ducks and waders fled in all directions, swirling around for several minutes before settling back down to feed or sleep. Now I could clearly see that the morning estimate of 600+ teals and 200+ wigeons was pretty accurate as ducks spread out across the water. At least 20 dunlins and 30 black-tailed godwits twisted in tight flocks to deter the potential predator, and as they settled back down I spotted single knot, grey plover, curlew and little stint.
Elsewhere on the Scrape there were sightings of ringed and golden plovers, greenshanks and little egrets, while the great white egret made a couple of brief appearances over the Island Mere end of the reedbed. Other sightings at Island Mere included hobby, kestrel, marsh harrier, several buzzards, snipe, swallows and bearded tits, with hobbies also seen over the Scrape and North Wall.
Hobby by John Chapman
Migrants included a whinchat from North Wall, lesser whitethroat and blackcap in North Bushes, whitethroats and chiffchaffs. The North Bushes continue to be a good place to see butterflies and dragonflies too, and I was treated superb views of a treecreeper.
Finally, the archaeologists from Dig Ventures have been busy excavating trenches on the Chapel Field this week as they investigate the theory of a pirate priests and ground-truth previous archaeological studies. You can pop along and see what they've found every day until Sunday
It seems that after an extremely hot start to the month, autumn has arrived with a flourish this week, with heavy rain on Friday followed by a showery weekend, in complete contrast to temperatures of 30 degrees last week. A walk around the reserve certainly has a more autumnal feel too, with much of the bracken already turning yellow, few plants remaining in flower but instead sporting nodding seedheads, and berries ripening rapidly on bushes.
The blackberry bushes are more heavily laden than I can remember for many years, and are proving very attractive to flocks of tits and finches in the North Bushes, as well as providing a vital food resource for various warblers as they prepare for the next leg of their migration. Whitethroats, lesser whitethroats, blackcaps and chiffchaffs are all still present, and we're awaiting the return of the first redwings very soon.
It's not just birds finding the blackberries irresistible with good numbers of butterflies and dragonflies attracted to the ripening fruit. Red admirals (pictured, above), commas, speckled woods and small coppers are particularly noticeable.
Of course, there are many other fruits to keep birds, butterflies and mammals happy, including juicy sloes (pictured, above) and rapidly ripening hawthorn berries (below)
When it comes to the bird world, autumn actually started several months ago, with the first returning waders arriving in mid June. Wader migration peaked in late August, but there's still a good variety of species passing through. The most numerous are black-tailed godwits, spotted redshanks, dunlins and lapwings, with smaller numbers of grey, golden and ringed plovers, ruffs, greenshanks, little stints and curlew sandpipers all seen this week. A brief pectoral sandpiper on Saturday morning sadly didn't linger long. Snipe numbers are increasing too.
One of the most noticeable differences since my last walk around the Scrape has been the significant increase in numbers of both wigeon and teal, while gadwalls are beginning to regain their finest colours. It's easy to overlook some of more familiar species, but these Canada geese, and their greylag cousins, certainly make sure that you know they're present when they start calling to each other.
Bearded tits have been putting on a great show, especially in the mornings near South Hide, though they can, typically, become more elusive int he afternoon. Bitterns, marsh harriers, hobbies and kingfishers are still being reported daily, though you do need a bit of luck of patience to spot them. Even more elusive is the great white egret that has been seen on several occasions over the last week.
While some species can be difficult to spot, others sometimes can and find us, allowing us to enjoy unrivaled views. Great green bush-crickets have been seen on the visitor centre on several days over the past week, and this one was joined by a much smaller speckled bush-cricket this morning.