What a difference a few days makes. this time last week temperatures were still in double figures, but the strong northerly wind on Saturday saw a marked drop in temperatures, accompanied by a scattering of snow in Suffolk on Sunday morning and the first proper frost of the year yesterday. It's a little milder again today though rather wet underfoot in places.
Whenever a strong northerly wind blows in November, thoughts turn to windblown seabirds putting in an appearance along the East coast. A few dedicated seawatchers will wrap up warm, find a suitable vantage point, and spend several hours staring out to sea in search of storm-blown seabirds. And in November, one of the target species is the diminutive little auk.
Little auks are tiny relatives of the much more familiar puffins, guillemots and razorbills that nest on sea cliffs in northern and western Britain. Little auks are also colonial nesters, but they share their breeding cliffs with glaucous gulls and arctic foxes around the high Arctic - as seen in a recent episode of The Hunt on BBC One. They move south in winter, but only usually as far as the edge of the arctic sea ice.
When climatic conditions dictate a period of strong northerly winds, some of these tiny seabirds are blown hundreds of miles farther south than usual and can be seen flying south along the UK's coasts. A few may even turn up inland, having accompanied flocks of migrating starlings or simply become disorientated by the storm. Saturday was a classic little auk day, and several were duly seen along the Suffolk coast.
Once the wind subsided a little on Sunday, most of these little auks reorientated themselves, returning north towards the sea ice, allowing more birdwatchers the chance to spot one. At least eight little auks were spotted from Minsmere beach on Sunday - some flying north, others resting on the sea. By yesterday they had all gone.
Two little auks photographed at Minsmere a few years ago
Like many species of Arctic wildlife, little auks are threatened by the impacts of climate change. Rising sea temperatures affect the distribution of fish, while melting Arctic ice will make some breeding cliffs more accessible to ground predators. You can read more about how climate change is affecting our wildlife, and what the RSPB is doing to help by clicking here. With world governments meeting in Paris next month to for a global conference on climate change, this is a significant time for the future of wildlife and people.
It wasn't just little auks seen over the weekend either. Large numbers of gannets have been seen offshore over the last few days along with several brent geese and common scoters, odd eiders and red-breasted mergansers and flocks of commoner ducks and wading birds.
The northerly winds also brought with them a few small flocks of starlings, redwings and blackbirds, and a couple of snow buntings arrived on the beach (though they couldn't be found today. The first two white-fronted geese of the winter flew over the sluice on Sunday too.
Elsewhere, the Scrape continues to attract lots of ducks and gulls - the latter have included four Caspian, two yellow-legged, two common and a Mediterranean gull this morning. An Icelandic ringed black-tailed godwit on the Scrape is sporting a satellite transmitter, which is helping to reveal lots of information about the complicated movements of this species.
The great white egret put in another appearance at Island Mere on Sunday, and up to 15 Bewick's swans may be seen on the mere. Two female goldeneyes have been seen on several dates, while bitterns, otters, marsh harriers, water rails, snipe and bearded tits are regular. A water pipit has been seen there this morning too.
A water pipit by Jon Evans (taken a couple of years ago)
It's our Christmas shopping weekend, and the reception is filled with the wonderful aroma of hot spiced apple juice, sparkling Christmas tree lights, and staff wearing funny hats. There's a complimentary glass of the apple juice for all visitors. In the shop we have RSPB Love Nature chocolate, fudge and biscuits to taste, racing robins from the Christmas crackers, a tombola and our friends at Viking Optical with the full range of RSPB and Viking binoculars, telescopes and accessories to try. Why not join us tomorrow for some early festive fun.
There's a real Christmas feel to the visitor centre today, and the wildlife has been joining in. Although not the right species of partridge, and despite the lack of the pear tree, we were joined by two red-legged partridges feeding under the feeders this afternoon.
Photo: red-legged partridge by Ian Barthorpe
The feeders themselves saw a constant stream of blue, great, coal and marsh tits vying with chaffinches and greenfinches for a chance to steal a seed or two - we had to fill them three times today. The brmabling was seen beneath them again too.
Out of the reserve, the cold northerly wind brought the first real chill of winter to the air, and saw the arrival of five goosanders, (one male, four females) and two female goldeneyes on Island Mere. The former is a rare bird at Minsmere, so was a welcome surprise. Surprisingly there was no sign of any Bewick's swans today, and the great white egret wasn't reported either (has it gone, or was it keeping low in the wind?) but six marsh harriers were seen hunting around the reedbed. An otter put in several appearances at Bittern Hide this morning too.
A sparrowhawk was hunting too, and caught a robin close to Bittern Hide - clearly not entering the Christmas spirit, but more intent on a meal for survival.
The wild weather certainly made for a stormy sea, and many seabirds were on the move. Large numbers of gannets were seen flying south, and several brent geese flew north. Various species of ducks and wading birds were caught up in these movements too. Several small flocks of starlings were seen coming ashore. The scarce little auk often accompanies these starling flocks, and while none were reported at Minsmere, several were seen elsewhere along the Suffolk coast today. A grey phalarope flew south on Thursday too.
Photo: a stormy sea at Minsmere this afternoon
While it's not exactly easy to see a bittern at Minsmere, there are at least several sightings every day, and Minsmere is certainly one of the best places to look for these elusive herons. Most of these sightings will be from Bittern Hide or Island Mere, or other locations with a view across the reedbed. Occasionally you may spot one from the visitor centre, especially in the spring when females fly higher and further on their feeding flights.
But, as ever when it comes to wildlife watching, you should always be ready to expect the unexpected, and so it was for two of our volunteer guides, Mick and Graham, this morning. Having paused at the start of the pond boardwalk to admire the birds-nest fungus that is again putting on a good show, they wandered a couple of metres farther along the boardwalk and stopped to watch pond skaters and waterboatmen below them. Suddenly, and taking them totally by surprise, a bittern flew up from the edge of the pond just a few metres from them. Whether this was one of "our" bitterns, or a newly arrived migrant from northern Europe, we can't tell, but the choice of feeding location was unusual. With no fish in the pond, it may have been searching for freshwater invertebrates such as beetle or dragonfly larvae, or perhaps a tasty newt.
A bittern fishing by Jon Evans
It was the start of an interesting day for both Mick and Graham, as they spotted a good variety of wildlife to show to visitors and report back to the visitor centre. They did miss a few goodies though, as several visitors were lucky enough to see a short-eared owl (two ladies even showed us a photograph of one), while neither our our guides spotted the two late house martins that flew over the visitor centre just after lunch.
Perhaps the bird that attracted the most attention today was a lovely male brambling that was seen several times beneath the feeders around the visitor centre. There was a constant stream of marsh, coal, blue and great tits, goldfinches, chaffinches and greenfinches on the feeders too. Nearby, redwings, fieldfares, siskins and a bullfinch were seen in the North Bushes, while a mistle thrush has already started singing around the car park.
Mistle thrush by Sue Tranter (rspb-images.com)
The Scrape remains a hotspot for ducks and gulls, with daily sightings of at least one each of yellow-legged and Caspian gulls. It's a bit of a challenge to find them though, as yesterday's volunteer guides reported more than 700 large gulls on East Scrape alone. Our avocets have finally all departed, but waders on the Scrape today included 15 black-tailed godwits, 10 dunlins, two curlews and a knot. In addition, four snipe were at Island Mere, and about 120 lapwings were feeding north of the North Wall this afternoon - the latter alongside 30 red deer!
The flock of Bewick's swans now numbers 15, and while they usually spend the day feeding south of Island Mere (where they should be viewable from Whin Hill), they also visit both Island Mere and East Scrape. The great white egret continues to show only occasionally in flight, and a kingfisher whizzed past Island Mere Hide today too. No otters were reported today, but they have been regular recently. Finally, three goldeneyes (an adult male, female and young male) landed on Island Mere mid afternoon. Hopefully they will stay for the winter as these beautiful ducks were very scarce last year.