It's an exciting time in our household, as in many around the country, as we count down the days until Christmas. Advent calendars are opened to reveal festive pictures, chocolates, or in our case little Lego toys that will make a lovely Christmas scene when finished. With only seven more sleeps till Christmas, the excitement is really building. Will Father Christmas bring us what we want?
Midwinter is an exciting time for watching wildlife too. OK, so migration is less obvious, and the species variety may not change much from day to day, but choose a sunny day and the colours are just superb, with golden reedbeds brought to life by the setting sun, clear blue skies reflected in the water, and vast flocks of ducks parading their finest colours.
For me, one of the most beautiful and colourful of British birds is the fieldfare - a thrush that visits us from Scandinavia every winter. There are still good numbers feeding on berries in the North Bushes, alongside their smaller cousins the redwings. Look out for these thrushes in your gardens if the temperatures ever decide to drop below zero for any length of time. Another winter visitor that may appear in gardens in cold weather is the brambling, and one of these pretty little finches continues to feed among the chaffinches behind the visitor centre reception building.
Many of the ducks have moved from their usual winter home on the Scrape as work continues to replace the aging fence. The diggers will remain on site until Tuesday, then break for Christmas, so the Scrape should be much busier over the holiday period (don't forget that Minsmere is closed on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, though you can still watch the Scrape from the Public Viewpoint on the beach). If the ducks aren't on the Scrape, then look for them on the Minsmere Levels, which can be watched from the dunes south of the sluice. Alternatively, try out the temporary path across the Chapel Field and watch from beside the 12th Century ruin of Leiston Abbey.
The view across the Levels from the Chapel Field
There's lots to see within the reedbed too, with otters and bitterns continuing to be seen almost every day at Island Mere. The Suffolk Mammal Group are monitoring our otters and would like to know details of any sightings, so please record locations, numbers and activity either in the visitor sightings book in reception or in the specially provided book at Island Mere.
Other reedbed wildlife this week has included up to 12 marsh harrier, especially in late afternoon, a ghostly male hen harrier yesterday, the two whooper swans and singing Cetti's warblers that refuse to reveal themselves.
An oystercatcher was an unseasonal visitor yesterday, while lapwings snipe and a few curlews can be spotted around the reserve, but winter is not a good time of year to spot waders at Minsmere due to high water levels.
It's also worth keeping an eye on the sea. As well as the regular red-throated divers, great crested grebes and common scoters, several gannets were seen flying past today. Monday was a bit of a red-letter day for sea mammals too, with sightings of grey seal harbour porpoise, and (most surprisingly) a dolphin. The latter are rarely seen from the Suffolk coast, and species ID was not confirmed, but bottle-nosed dolphin is thought most likely.
Other mammals to look out for at Minsmere in winter include red deer, muntjac, rabbit and grey squirrel. Foxes or stoats may be seen chasing the rabbits too.
This stoat posed at Bittern Hide for Steve Everitt earlier this year
Last night I took advantage of a beautiful evening and cancelled meeting to head out onto the path between Wildlife Lookout and South Hide to watch the starling murmuration. It was such a beautiful evening that I've been inspired to write a rare poem.
An icy wind blows from the north
As winter’s teeth begin to bite.
Wrapped up warm against the chill
I stand, and wait, in fading light.
Spooked by some unseen predator
Lapwings flicker black and white
While golden glows the setting sun
As another day turns into night.
Reeds sway in the quickening breeze
So dance the season’s heads of seeds
While hidden deep a rail squeals
And reedlings ping from distant reeds.
Flights of ducks wheel overhead
And lazily a heron flaps
How do they all know where to go
With no SatNav or even maps?
A distant wave raises hopes
That the stars may soon murmur
But sadly, no they fail to come
Tonight I’ll miss the sight I came for.
Tonight the starlings continued southward
To roost elsewhere, where have they gone?
Two bugling whooper swans arrive
In time to bid safe journey home.
(OK, so this is a mute swan, but it was too dark to photograph the whooper's when they landed)
We'd love to hear your poems too. You can post them on our Forum or share them on the RSPB Suffolk Facebook page
PS: In the absence of starlings there's still lots to see - peregrines, marsh harriers, fieldfares, redwings and even a brief waxwing were all seen today.
PPS: for the sake of poetry I've used the term reedling, which is the old Norfolk name for bearded tits, while by rail I mean water rail.
Over the last few months we've been treated to some highly enjoyable guest blogs by a few of Minsmere's amazing volunteers. Today I'd like to share another blog by Ally Hoadley, who has recently posted her contribution to an advent calender on the A Focus on Nature website.
AFON is a a brilliant forum for young conservationists, writers, photographers and artists, offering them a chance to share ideas, meet other young people, and develop their interest and skills further. I've been involved with AFON for a year or so as a mentor, and am happy to share my knowledge and experience with the next generation of nature lovers. Ally has only recently joined the group, but jumped at the chance to represent Minsmere in their advent calender of nature reserves. As you'll know from her contributions to our blogs, Ally is passionate about Minsmere, well and truly bitten by the bug that this place infects regular visitors with. As you'll see from her AFON blog this enthusiasm comes through in spades. Ally's blog can read here.
Of course, it's easy to be bitten by the bug when so called elusive wildlife puts on a good show, and that's exactly what some of our reedbed species have been doing this week. Our reception volunteer, Malcolm, was rewarded for his regular early starts on Saturday with three kingfishers sitting together at Bittern Hide. He had been deserted by the rest of the Saturday morning regulars this week too.
Bitterns are always popular, and high on many people's wish lists when visiting Minsmere. The best months for seeing them are usually February to April, when they fish for long periods close to Bittern and Island Mere Hides, or late May-late July when the females are feeding young. This year, though, at least one very obliging bittern has spent long periods close to Island Mere for the last few weeks - sometimes too close for the big lens brigade to photograph - like this one taken a couple of springs back by Jon Evans.
Another species high on many wish lists is the otter. While even less predictable than bitterns, there have been several sightings per day of otters for the last few weeks. Midwinter is always the best time to see these sleek mammals, and this year is no exception. A female and three full grown cubs are regularly seen fishing at Island Mere, and the big dog otter may put in appearance too. They are often seen at Bittern Hide, and sometimes even near North Wall.
The other big attraction in the reedbed is the starling roost. Numbers seem to be lower than they were, but they put on a great show for visitors on Saturday night. Tonight was not so good though, so perhaps they are beginning to relocate to other reedbeds.
Of course, the commoner species can spark an interest in wildlife too. I enjoy watching the tits and finches on the feeders at the visitor centre, and was surprised to spot a red-legged partridge under one feeder this afternoon. Glimpses of tiny goldcrests and long-tailed tits are always magical, and the colours of the lapwings and ducks on the Scrape are simply stunning in the winter sun.
Lapwing by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Elsewhere, some of our winter visiting songbirds are proving popular, especially a female brambling that feeds in the leaf litter behind reception. Large flocks of redwings and fieldfares were in North Bushes today, and flocks of siskins can be seen in alder trees around the reserve. Three snow buntings were on the beach late last week, but flew north on Saturday morning.
On the Scrape, the ducks are paying little attention to the digger working on the Scrape fence replacement. Few other waders are present, but a grey phalarope paid a brief visit on Thursday and Friday. Avid gull watchers have picked out several Caspian and yellow-legged gulls too.
Please note that Blythburgh Road in Westleton is due to be closed for the next four days, with local diversions in place, so allow slightly longer to get here from the north this week.
You can, of course, keep up with news from Minsmere on Twitter @RSPBMinsmere, or hear about all our work in Suffolk on the RSPBSuffolk Facebook page.