It's been a while since I posted an update on the ongoing work to replace the predator-proof fence around the Scrape.
When I let you know about our plans before work started, in a blog back in November, we were expecting to finish the work this week. While work has progressed well, we're not quite complete, so with the permission of Natural England we will be continuing for a few more weeks.
Recognising that one of the difficulties in maintaining the old fence was its location alongside a wet ditch, we decided to erect the new bank entirely on dry ground. This has required building a low bank around much of the Scrape, onto which the new fence will sit. Around much of the Scrape the bank and fence are complete, apart from few finishing touches.
The banks look a bit bare and exposed in places, but the vegetation will soon grow over so that banks blend into the landscape better.
Where we've built the bank up around South Hide, the ground remains very soft in places, as ground conditions were wetter than anticipated. Therefore, we're giving it a couple more weeks to consolidate before completing this section of fence, with the aim of completing the project during March.
The remainder of the work will be carefully planned to minimise disturbance, especially as waders are beginning to return to the Scrape. We're confident that the extended project will not impact on breeding birds as the avocets, oystercatchers and black-headed gulls don't usually begin nesting until mid April. The first few avocets back don't seem too concerned about the ongoing work anyway - numbers have reached 18 today, with East Scrape remaining the best place to watch them. The first birds to nest on the Scrape are usually the lapwings, but even they don't lay until the end of March, and we have almost finished work around North Hide.
Other waders already returning to the Scrape include oystercatchers, redshanks and ringed plovers, while a few black-tailed godwits, dunlins and turnstones are beginning to pass through. The two redhead smew remain too.
One consequence of the movement of machinery along the path to the sluice is that it's a bit muddy in places, but that's only to be expected at the of the winter, and once the work is completed we'll look to repair the path to ensure it is accessible for most wheelchairs and pushchairs.
Once this project is completed, we hope the avocets and gulls will once again be able to nest safe from mammalian predators, ready for the arrival of the Springwatch cameras again later in the spring.
Elsewhere on the reserve there is increasing courtship activity. Marsh harriers are sky dancing on sunny days. One bittern is grunting at Island Mere. Tits are beginning to explore nestboxes. Birdsong is increasing, and great spotted woodpeckers are drumming. It won't be long before the first butterflies and adders emerge either.
Yes folks - after a couple of months away from Minsmere, our starlings have returned! Since the middle of last week we've had about 10000 starlings roosting in the North Marsh reedbed at dusk. The flock, which usually forms at about 5 pm, is best watched from the North Wall, or even from outside the visitor centre, as they carve patterns through the evening sky. I've been away for a few days so haven't had a chance to see them yet.
We've had some amazing sunsets this week, providing a stunning backdrop for the starling spectacular, including this sunset over Island Mere last night - I'm sure the sky looked just as impressive over the North Wall.
It's been quite exciting watching the night sky this week too, with both Venus and Mars visible, close to each other, in the western sky soon after dusk.
Talking of the night sky, we are joining together with two local astronomical societies to organise two nights of star gazing next month, to coincide with the BBC Star gazing Live broadcasts. Our events will be on the evenings of Friday 20 and Saturday 21 March. On Friday 20 March we are also running an event to watch the total solar eclipse, using special sun watching equipment. For full details of both events,and all other guided walks and family activities this spring, click here, and let's hope for some clear skies.
Of course, the starlings, sunsets, stars and planets are not the only recent sightings of note at Minsmere. Our single redhead smew has finally been joined by a second redhead - numbers of this beautiful duck are down at Minsmere this year, possibly reflecting the relatively mild weather on the near continent where most of them winter. The whooper swans look to have left, and Bewick's swan numbers are rapidly declining though, indicating that winter is beginning to relinquish its grip.
The three spoonbills continue to favour the South Levels, where they've now been resident for two weeks. Let's hope they stay into the spring and perhaps try to nest at RSPB Havergate Island, where we've constructed some special platforms for them (note: all trips to Havergate are full until our spoonbill weekend on 1/2 August.)
Further signs of spring are the increasing numbers of waders visiting the Scrape. Some, like the oystercatchers, redshanks and ringed plovers, may stay to nest. Others are simply passing through on their way further north. Black-tailed godwits have reached double figures this week, and other highlights have included grey plover, turnstone and dunlin. We still only have one avocet so far though.
With birdsong increasing by the day, we're almost counting down the days to the arrival of the first chiffchaff - probably within the next fortnight. Woodlarks are already singing well on Westleton Heath, and the first bittern has been grunting intermittently near Island Mere for a couple of weeks already. Over the next few weeks we expect more to start tuning up - and eventually begin booming properly.
Bittern by Jon Evans
Bitterns continue to be seen every day at Bittern Hide and Island Mere, as do otters, marsh harriers, snipe and kingfishers (most days), while bearded tits can be seen well on some days but remain elusive on others and Cetti's warblers are now in full song but rarely seen (as ever).
Although they are not truly wild, the snowdrops are flowering around the car park entrance, and the first daffodils are now out behind the visitor centre. I expect to see the first blackthorn blossom soon too.
The bird's-nest fungus continues to attract a lot of attention for something so tiny. Every time I walk past the pond there seems to be someone on their hands and knees or lying prostrate on the ground trying to get a photo of this fascinating little fungus.
The other regular sighting last week was nestboxes - more than 200 children made themselves a new box to give nature a home in their own gardens. Some were beautifully painted too, like the one below. We're now planning for our Easter family events.
Couples across the world may be celebrating Valentine's Day today, but did you know that 14 February is an important day in the natural world.
Today is traditionally the day that ducks pair up for the year, and certainly there's been a lot of amorous behaviour on the Scrape for the last few weeks. Many ducks do indeed pair up on their wintering grounds, returning to the breeding sites as a pair in the spring. But it's not the case for all species though, as most males pochards winter in the UK, but the females head further south to the warmer climes of Spain. Conversely, all species of swans and geese form lifelong pair bonds, though they will reaffirm these bonds with regular display.
A pair of gadwalls with displaying drake by Ian Barthorpe
It's not just the ducks that are thinking of pairing up. When the sun shines our marsh harriers are already displaying, and late February into March is the best time to look for sparrowhawks and goshawks displaying (though the latter are not found here at Minsmere). Great spotted woodpeckers are busy drumming and many of our woodland birds are now in full song. The woodlarks have begun singing on Westleton Heath too.
Another reason why 14 February is an important date for nature is that it's the start of National Nestbox Week. Started by the BTO several years ago, National Nestbox Week is a celebration of all things related to nestboxes. It's a reminder to clean out any boxes that you have in the garden, ready for the tits to find them in April, and a call to action to put out new boxes if you have space.
We're celebrating National Nestbox Week at Minsmere, as families can join us to make nestboxes this week. Every day, from Monday to Friday, there will be the sound of nails hammered into wood at the Discovery Centre, with excited children taking their boxes home in the hope of attracting blue tits or great tits to nest in them. There's also quizzes, crafts and fun facts about nests. Boxes cost £5 each to make, and there is no need to book.
Of course, there are many different types of nestboxes, suitable for starlings, house sparrows, robins, tawny owls, barn owls, bats, hedgehogs, insects and a variety of other species. And if, like me, you're not very handy with a hammer and saw, then come along to the Minsmere Shop to choose the best suited to your garden, farm or school grounds.
There's also a great range of other goodies in the shop, including birdfood, feeders, books and gifts. Our staff and volunteers all have a good knowledge of the range of binoculars and telescopes available in the shop, and are happy to spend as long as needed to help you to choose the model that suits you. We always have a good range, and next weekend we have our first binocular and telescope open day of the year, so if you're looking for new binoculars or a 'scope, why not come along for a chat and some advice.
While you are visiting you might decide to enjoy a relaxing walk, and perhaps you'll spot an otter, bittern, marsh harrier or snipe. All have been showing well at times today from the reedbed hides, with black-tailed godwits, redshanks, turnstones and pintails among the ducks on the Scrape.