Guest blog by Rhiannon Baker, Assistant Little Tern Warden
Nationally, this year hasn’t got off to a good start for our little terns. We have been hearing the same tune from other sites as far as Ireland, all saying that the terns are late and numbers are half what they should be. This could be due to combination of reasons, including strong northerly winds at the beginning of the season holding them up on migration, issues in their wintering grounds, and possibly food supplies. Little terns migrate all the way from West Africa to have their young here in the UK and specifically on our Suffolk coast, which, along with Norfolk is a stronghold for little terns. We are working hard to help those birds that have made it from having a further hard time whilst they try to breed.
If you happen to be passing Benacre beach and broad just up the coast from Minsmere, you may see some of those little terns as they have been there in fluctuating numbers of up to 125 adults (26/5/16). Benacre beach is owned and managed by the local Natural England team who work with us to protect the rare breeding birds including the little tern. The beach at Benacre has narrowed significantly this year due to coastal erosion, leaving a spit-like sand bar which the terns have been attempting to colonise. The terns fish both out at sea and in the broad itself which may be one of the reasons why they have chosen the site. Around 45 little terns began settling within the fenced area and displaying courtship behaviour which involves the males wheeling around with fish in their beaks calling all the way and being closely pursued by groups of females. Behavioural differences, including these courtship displays, are often the only way to distinguish males from females. These birds even got as far as making nest scrapes, successfully mating and laying eggs.
Benacre beach by Paul Lacey, Natural England
Unfortunately, just as we were getting excited about this, disaster struck. We had a bout of bad weather and strong winds. This, along with some pressure from aerial predators and disturbance, led the Benacre little terns to desert their prenuptial activities. As the adults lay their eggs a day or so at a time and will not start brooding until the last chick is laid, this means that they do not fully commit to a nest until they have a full clutch and will if necessary desert and start again if pressures are too high. It is still early days, however and we are very optimistic that the little terns will return here or elsewhere and begin again.
If you visit Benacre you may also see avocets, dunlin in their breeding finery, and an oystercatcher family with four fluffy chicks. All these birds, along with the little terns, make the most of the fenced off area as it is disturbance free. We ask people therefore that if they come across the fenced area at Benacre or anywhere else to please keep as far away as possible, admire from a distance and keep dogs on leads to give the birds their best chance in raising a family and surviving. There will usually be an RSPB or Natural England staff member on duty, who will be more than happy to talk to you about the birds and show them to you.
At Benacre you may also be treated to a flyby from Sandwich terns, whimbrel, fulmar and even guillemot, all of which we have seen in the past couple of weeks.
Little tern identification
Little terns have a very distinctive shape and long tail fork which has given them the lovely nickname of ‘sea swallow’. They have a yellow beak with a black tip, a black cap with black stripes proceeding down to their eyes, and a nice crisp white forehead. They have a white chest and their wings are grey with two black outer flight feathers. Little terns are the smallest of the terns weighing between 48 to 63 grams, compared to a common tern which weighs between 110 to 140 grams. This size in itself is a good identification tool as there is nothing of that size that looks quite like the little tern.
Little terns at Benacre by Emily Irving-Witt
Perhaps your part of the Springwatch ‘Do Something Great’ for nature campaign could be to look out for our terns when you are on the beach and give them the space they need, and even pass on this message to others!
If you see any little terns we ask again if you can send your sightings to email@example.com.
As the BBC Springwatch team were leaving on Sunday, Minsmere played host to another exciting event in partnership with Aldeburgh Music and BBC Radio Three. As part of the annual Aldeburgh Festival, Aldeburgh Music hosted a series of events around Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux. Starting with a dawn walk at Snape Maltings, the day included a four-part performance of this famous piano piece, with recitals at Snape at dawn, midday and night-time. Part three, dusk, was here at Minsmere, on the recently vacated Springwatch stage, with an audience of 500 people watching from Whin Hill.
For those who've not heard of the Catalogue d'Oiseaux, it's a classical music piece that takes inspiration for the birds of SW France, where Messiaen lived. While species such as alpine chough, rock thrush or golden oriole may be unlikely to be heard at Minsmere, it also includes many familiar species such as little owl, avocet, curlew and woodlark. As Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed, he was accompanied by some of Minsmere's birdlife, including jackdaws, Cetti's warbler and song thrush, much to the enjoyment of the gathered crowd. You read more about this exciting event at http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/20/catalogue-doiseaux-review-pierre-laurent-aimard-aldeburgh-festival.
Ready for the show - photo by Adam Rowlands
We were very lucky with the weather on Sunday, especially given how heavily it rained the next day, but with summer now officially here it's been another beautiful day today, and the wildlife is certainly making the most of it.
Out on the Scrape, a mobile spoonbill has proved popular today, while spotted redshanks, ruff and green sandpiper are all southbound already and teal numbers have already started to increase. Several common tern chicks can now be seen and a few pairs of Sandwich terns are incubating eggs on East Scrape.
In the reedbed, bitterns continue to be seen every day, with bearded tits and reed warblers particularly visible too. With luck you may also spot a water rail, kingfisher or otter too.
Whilst birdsong is reducing as the breeding season progresses, our tits' finches and warblers can all be seen in the woods, and the Springwatch nightingale family continues to feed near the car park entrance.
The sunny weather has also been good for insect watching, including sightings of Norfolk and southern hawker dragonflies, black-tailed skimmers, various damselflies, ringlet, small heath and brown argus butterflies and a cream spot tiger moth, like this one photographed recently by one of our volunteer guides.
Cream-spot tiger by Peter Phillips
As Springwatch draws to a close for another year, the wildlife can once again return to centre stage at Minsmere, and many species are already vying to steal the limelight.
Bitterns in particular have been very popular, with one male continuing to parade around in front of Bittern Hide, even booming out in the open at times. The female that is nesting near Bittern Hide is also easy to spot (with some patience) as she returns regularly with food for her young.
Competition at Island Mere is provided by the sticklebacks fanning their nests beneath the boardwalk, with regular sightings of reed warblers, reed buntings and bearded tits around the hide. Marsh harriers, hobbies and a red kite have almost been playing second fiddle, while the otters play a cameo role.
Another headline act is the water vole, which has been showing really well in the pond, with a supporting cast of water shrew, grass snake and Norfolk hawker dragonflies.
The stoat family that has featured so prominently on Springwatch have become ever tamer, and today they took up residence in a rabbit burrow within the car park.
Out on the Scrape the cast have almost become also rans, despite the presence of avocets, 150 black-headed gulls, Mediterranean gulls, a little gull, a Caspian gull, shelducks and a few returning ruffs and spotted redshanks.
For me, though, the stars today were the insects, with sightings of Norfolk hawkers, broad-bodied and four-spotted chasers, blue-tailed damselflies, brown argus and small heath butterflies, cinnabar moths and several species of butterflies. As it is National Insect Week, it therefore seems very apt to show you photos of some of these species.
Brown argus, underwing and upperwing (below)
A bumblebee on birds-foot trefoil