Guest blog by Matt Parrott
Shortly after opening the Visitor Centre on Thursday morning, John Grant phoned in to say that he could see a bee-eater circling over the edge of the scrape. Nothing causes a mass exodus of staff, volunteers and visitors from the Visitor Centre like a rare bird report – it helps keep us fit too!
In my little bird book I’ve had since I was four years old the bee-eater shares a worn and, I confess, a slightly coloured-in page, with the equally exotic roller and hoopoe – birds I have yet to see.
A stunning bird, if you can see it, and I failed miserably at the first try, as it drifted past the scrape towards the woodland. Then it was seen again, perched on wires by Whin Hill, and I was too late. Then back over the car park (so Senior Site Manager Adam Rowlands can claim it as a garden tick) and all I saw was blue sky, empty but for a soaring hobby. I’d almost given it up, until I heard from the Waveney Bird Club’s ringers that the bee-eater was perching near one of their nets.
The Waveney Bird Club provide a fantastic bird ringing demonstration on Thursdays during the summer holidays and Easter, not only carrying out vital science work but showing visitors some wonderful species at close range. They use mist nets strung in sections of the reedbed and woodland that birds get caught in as they fly through, and the ringers quickly but carefully remove them, note down information from their leg rings or attach rings if the bird doesn’t have any, before releasing it.
From the data we then know where the bird has come from, it’s age, health and vital statistics, and then can be used to influence conservation work to protect the species.
Having caught a pretty little pied flycatcher earlier the ringers were already having a good day, so I wandered down with Steve Piotrowski and the ringers as they went to check a net on the edge of the woodland. Great green bush crickets watched our progress through the humid bracken, until with a hushed yelp of excitement the bee-eater was spotted, perched in a silver birch.
For those unaware of what exactly a bee-eater is, imagine a slim blackbird-sized bird that couldn’t look more vibrant or exotic if it tried – turquoise belly, yellow nape, shimmering bronze head that flows into a yellow back, emerald green highlights on the wings, long tail and around the brown eyes, and the ‘lone ranger’ black stripe that curves from the beak over the eyes.
Funnily enough it eats bees – I love an obvious name! Not only bees, but wasps, hornets and ants too, but only if they’re flying. Once caught the bee-eater bashes the insect against a hard surface like a tree branch to remove the venom from the insect’s sting. They have very little effect on bee populations and in studies in Spain were found to eat less than 1% of worker bees.
Bee-eaters are scarce migrants to the UK, but in recent years they have bred in both the Isle of Wight and Carlisle and it is possible they could become a more common sight as the climate changes. Last year 10 bee-eaters were seen in a flock moving between nearby Leiston and Theberton.
By the late afternoon the bee-eater was still soaring distantly over the woods to the enjoyment of visitors on the North Wall.
Bird ringing with the Waveney Bird Club will be taking place again next Thursday 25th August 10am-4pm, Free event but entry fees apply to non-members.
We have some exciting news about some of the wildlife stars of the recent BBC Springwatch series. As mentioned in previous blogs, the stone-curlew pair that sadly failed to hatch a chick during the series were successful at the second attempt. Although one chick was soon predated, the second chick continues to thrive, and on Monday, our wardens fitted it with colour rings that will help us to track its progress - and hopefully to identify it if it returns successfully to Minsmere next spring. The stone-curlews can still be seen from the North Wall watchpoint, but they are quite mobile and often hide among the bracken at the edge of the field, making them quite tricky to spot.
Stone-curlew chick by Adam Rowlands
Talking of ringing birds, the Waveney Bird Club will hold their next ringing demonstration tomorrow (Thursday), with further demos planned for Thursday 25 August and 1 September. These events are a great opportunity for children, families and keen birdwatchers alike to enjoy amazing close views of some of Minsmere's birds as you learn about how and why birds are ringed. Highlights of the demos so far this month have included bearded tits, sparrowhawks, green woodpeckers and various tits, finches and warblers. What will they catch tomorrow?
This reed warbler warbler took a liking to one young visitor at a recent ringing demo
Of course, you don't have to come to a ringing demo to see some amazing wildlife at Minsmere, and this week I've been lucky enough to have some great close encounters. In the (rare) absence of any volunteer guides, I took a stroll around the Scrape on Monday morning to chat to a few visitors and update our daily sightings board. The bee-wolfs were active in the North Bushes, and several common blue and grayling butterflies flitted among the dunes as the sun reflected off an inviting looking blue sea (though it would take a lot for me to take a dip in the North Sea, even in August!).
East Scrape was buzzing with birds, including about 150 black-tailed godwits, several ruffs, spotted redshanks and dunlins and a couple of common sandpipers. A lovely flock of 14 little gulls loafed at the back, but all of the avocets appear to have moved elsewhere for the winter now (if you want to see avocets in Suffolk for the next six months try the Blyth and Alde-Ore estuaries). A few young shelducks were easier to pick out than the moulting (and therefore mostly brown) mallards, gadwalls, teals and shovelers.
Habitat management work, in preparation for next spring's breeding season, meant that the highlight on South Scrape was a couple of knots, while a gorgeous moulting golden plover was the pick of the waders on West Scrape. Over the next few weeks, our wardens and volunteers will be cutting vegetation on the Scrape on various dates, but don't worry as they try to only work on one section of the Scrape and there's loads of other great places to spot wildlife - more on that later.
One of the highlights of Monday's walk was a very close encounter with two wheatears around the sluice. They seemed almost oblivious to visitors and even posed for photos on the sluice itself.
Wheatear at the sluice by Ian Barthorpe
As if that was exciting enough, I later saw photos from a visitor who had watched these two wheatears interacting a with an adder which they clearly didn't like within their feeding territory. And yesterday afternoon one of our volunteers watched as two hobbies worked collaboratively to catch another wheatear, this time from the stone-curlew watchpoint.
My second really close encounter with birds came yesterday afternoon as I took a lovely family from Hertfordshire out on one of our popular 4x4 safaris. As we entered a woodland clearing I spotted to point out a buzzard, circling ahead of us. Only it wasn't a common buzzard. It turned out to be a honey-buzzard, which gave superb views as it glided overhead. This rare bird of prey has been several times in the local area over the past month, though it's movements are far from predictable.
The safari took us us through parts of the reserve that are usually closed to visitors, with lovely views of carpets of purple heather, a sighting of some of our konik Polski (Polish ponies) and views across Island Mere, before we headed out to the Chapel Field for a closer view of the ruins of the 12th Century Leiston Abbey. The abbey will be scene of an archaeological dig next month, exploring the legend of piracy among the monks.
The Chapel Field is a great place from which to look south across the Minsmere Levels, and the nearest pool to the ruin is currently attracting a lot of interest. Sightings have included wood sandpiper, several green sandpipers and greenshanks, two little stints and good numbers of dunlins, redshanks, black-tailed godiwts and teals. Not only that, but a lovely pied flycatcher was seen feeding in an adjacent apple tree yesterday, and redstart and whinchat have been in the same area today, with clouded yellow butterfly also seen in the Chapel Field. The family and I also enjoyed close views of several hunting kestrels - a bird that is always guaranteed to raise excitement levels.
So, if we are doing management work on the Scrape, then it is certainly worth a walk along to the Chapel Field. Alternatively, within the next few days we'll also be opening our seasonal path to the North Levels pools. This is a great walk past seeding thistles adorning by hungry flocks of goldfinches to a usually innaccessible series of pools that attract large flocks of little egrets and grey herons, and can be very good for waders. Who knows, the purple swamphen could even be hiding somewhere along there!
With the Western swamphen playing now you see me, now you don't and the last sighting of it being over a week ago (although with Minsmere's vast reedbed it is very likely to still be on site, just hidden) it was an unexpected surprise that today I experienced another first for me at Minsmere, and one I had greatly been looking forward to! I began my afternoon walk from the Visitor Centre and spent a few moments just enjoying the numerous butterflies around the buddleia bushes. There had been reports earlier of a white admiral butterfly and a hummingbird hawkmoth. I stayed there a while just enjoying being so close to them and looking at all their delicate structures and vibrant colours. I left the buddleia bushes when I was sufficiently frustrated with myself and my photography skills and headed to Wildlife Lookout.
The West Scrape was relatively quiet apart from a couple of black-tailed godwits right in front on the hide. I carried on to South Hide and had a hopeful look in the pool behind the hide for the Western Swamphen. I did not see it today and it has not been reported for over a week now, but with such a vast reedbed there is every chance that it is still here, so it was worth a hopeful look. There were ten little egrets on the pool instead and I took a moment to observe them and not take this beautiful bird which has had such a successful recovery for granted.
I went into South Hide and had only been sat down for a few moments before a kingfisher flew past. The first I have seen at Minsmere! There was no mistaking this characteristic bird as it speedily flew past the hide and then met up with another kingfisher before circling and then heading off together. I was a little disappointed that it did not rest for me at a close distance to take a photograph but think I am possibly getting a little spoilt having been at Minsmere for six months now and am actually just delighted that I have seen this handsome little bird.
Kingfisher by Jon Evans
I left the hide and got speaking to some visitors about a possible sighting of an American golden plover from East Hide so I continued my way around the Scrape to see if I could get a picture to show my more learned colleagues. As I walked towards the Sluice I spotted a gannet flying over the Scrape, a pair of whinchats and a stonechat. As I passed The Sluice and went over to the dunes I was greeted by another chat, a female wheatear.
When I got to East Hide I looked firstly for the potential American golden plover. The hide was busy with people all trying to get a good look at this bird. I was kindly offered a scope to look through and saw a very beautiful golden plover which was later confirmed as a European one by one of our wardens. East Scrape was as usual busy with waders such as ruff, 100+ black tailed godwits, eight spotted redshank, 23 dunlin, 20 little gulls and one little stint. I had really enjoyed my walk around the Scrape, especially seeing the kingfishers because it had been a while since I had been for a good walk around the reserve. The reason for my absence around the reserve has been all of the exciting family events I have been running during the summer holidays.
Mini beasts of Suffolk have had many lovely homes built for them this week by many families completing the activity on Monday – Minsmere’s Mini-beasts. Everyone really enjoyed searching for mini-beasts in the woodland area and then the challenge of identifying their finds with the help of RSPB volunteers. Most were surprised by the variety of species that you can find in a relatively small area and lots were impressed with how many they could already identify without having to look at a book. I always think you gain a great sense of satisfaction identifying something and then checking the book to find you were right. Since Monday I have been imagining many tiny little legs exploring and taking up residence in the many homes for mini beasts that were made for our visitors gardens. The homes were made by families out of recycled organ pipes from two churches in London and filled with a mixture of materials. One visitor said after finishing his home “if I was a mini-beast, I’d want to live there!”
Our resident volunteer Emily has made a 5* mini-beast hotel at the edge of the woodland area using some of the organ pipes. With the many different layers, materials and hidy holes I am certain it will be the chosen abode for many of Minsmere’s mini-beasts.
The pond on Tuesday was buzzing with activity. Many people visited Minsmere to enjoy the glorious weather and took a dip in the pond...with a net! Wednesday was Natures Survival skills putting camouflage to the test. I was so impressed with the engagement and effort that the children put into completing the camouflage challenge. The task was to be inspired by some of Minsmere’s masters of camouflage and compete against some of the best we have here like the woodcock to stay hidden in the woods. The children had to make their own camouflage and then use it to hide from their grown-ups in a section of the woodland. The parents were then timed to see how quickly they could find their offspring. The winner of Wednesday’s camouflage challenge was Breya Miller-Smith who actually had to be told to come out after ten minutes had passed! I think she is definitely a match for some of Minsmere’s moths!
Breya Miller-Smith hidden by camouflage!
I am looking forward to the week ahead with owl pellet dissections happening in the Discovery centre on Monday 10 am – 4 pm. I found it fascinating seeing all of the tiny bones come out of the relatively small pellets and ended up dissecting one myself. I am intrigued as to what I will find in mine this week, what will you find in yours?