There have been some impressive counts of birds at Minsmere over the last week or so, including a few unexpected species.
Perhaps the most unexpected counts were of one our most familiar birds and its close cousin. On Monday, Minsmere volunteer John Grant spent the morning recording visible migration over the reserve and counted an incredible 14500 woodpigeons. In among them were at least 1250 stock doves. They weren't in one large flock but many smaller groups, passing steadily southwards throughout the morning. Such large autumn passage flocks are not common, but smaller numbers migrate south along the coast every autumn. They are presumably Scandinavian breeding birds, heading to Spain for the winter.
Woodpigeon by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Another common bird present in impressive numbers this week is the starling. Yes folks, we have a starling roost! I haven't had a chance to see them myself yet, but estimates suggest the flock could be as big as 50000 birds. They are best seen by watching from the back of South Hide or the Wildlife Lookout, or from Bittern Hide, and they seem to be roosting in the reedbed between South Hide and the sluice. The flock is gathering from about 5.15 pm - though don't forget the clocks change this weekend, so from Sunday it will about 4.15 pm.
Part of the starling roost from last year by Ian Barthorpe
Brent geese often migrate along the coast in big numbers, and earlier this month we had "brent goose day", when many flocks of up to 200 birds headed south, totally at least 8000 during the day. There have only been a fewseen on most days since, but seawatching has been quite productive this week with sightings of gannets, common scoters, pomarine skuas, goldeneyes and commoner ducks and wading birds. Perhaps most excitingly though we've had a report of a humpback whale offshore today. Almost a year since Suffolk's first record (you can see David Fairhurst's video again here), one was reported several miles from shore this morning by a few lucky visitors. Sadly, none of the RSPB staff or volunteers managed to see it, so let's hope it follows the herring closer inshore.
Although not such big flocks, we had some good counts of ring ouzels last week (14 October), with at least one still present yesterday. Redwings, fieldfares, siskins, meadow pipits and the odd brambling have all arrived in the last few days too.
Not all birds are on the move though, and our great white egret seems quite at home at Island Mere, where bitterns, otters, marsh harriers, bearded tits and kingfishers continue to be seen every day. The otters have been at Bittern Hide this week too. We have now cleared the vegetation in front of Island Mere so there's more chance of some of these speices coming a little closer tot he hide.
Out on the Scrape duck numbers continue to increase, and a few waders are still passing through. Up to 100 black-tailed godwits are present daily, and unusually we still have ten avocets present (they usually move to the estuaries in winter). Other species seen this week include greenshank, spotted redshank, ruff, knot dunlin and little stint - not bad for late October.
Other species still present and enjoying the mild autumn weather (until yesterday at least) include a few swallows, good numbers of common darters and migrant hawkers, and a few butterflies.
The storms this week didn't cause any damage here at Minsmere, but there has been a small breach and more tidal flooding at Dingle Marshes, just to the north.
Guest blog by Ally Hoadley, Minsmere volunteer
I have been lucky enough be able to help with out surveying for water voles, made famous as the character Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. These cute mammals have declined considerably in recent years, thoguh the Suffolk coast remains a stronghold, and the RSPB has been carrying out surveys at Dingle Marshes and North Warren, as well as Minsmere.
Last Thursday, I was part of a team of seven Minsmere staff and volunteers that set off to survey North Warren for water voles. These surveys are part of the National Key Sites for Water Voles, to monitor this vulnerable species. There are eight transects (survey lines) that are checked annually for signs of activity. We split into two groups: my group headed south, passing flocks of lapwing and a solitary sparrowhawk soaring round the new scrape.
We looked for evidence along the banks of ditches and rivulets, in amongst the reeds along the edge. It was my first time looking for signs of water vole activity, and I was told to recognise latrines by the tic-tac shape of the voles' droppings. We separately tallied those of trampled and un-trampled piles: water voles can tread their feet into their droppings to rub them with scent glands on their flanks, thereby marking their territories. We also counted feeding signs, as after eating they can leave small piles of chewed vegetation.
Encouragingly there were lots of signs of activity: latrines and feeding stations were commonest, but a few burrows and even a nest ball were found. The sunny weather allowed sightings of late flying dragonflies such as common darters and migrant hawkers above the ditches, and meeting back up with the other group we heard they had actually seen a water vole swimming up mid-stream a short way before disappearing into vegetation on the banks.
This was a great way to discover new parts of the RSPB's amazing Suffolk coast nature reserves, and do my bit for the conservation of a popular species.
Water vole, by Jon Evans
One of Minsmere’s most popular volunteers reached a significant milestone this week when he celebrated his 80th birthday.
Mick Muttitt will be familiar to many visitors as he has spent many hours volunteering both as a guide and doing bird surveys for more than 20 years.
Mick’s love of birds and natural history came from the fact that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all gamekeepers on the local estate. Also, as young boys of his era did, he collected anything, including train numbers, cigarette cards, stamps, coins, and eggs – thankfully collection of the latter has long since become illegal.
Mick also became interested in aircraft and aviation, and in July 1952 he joined the RAF. Travelling worldwide as a crewmember on Shackleton and Nimrod aircraft, Mick undertook maritime surveillance, search and rescue. Throughout his RAF career he spent much time in Scotland and was a member of the Scottish Ornithological Society, RAF Ornithological Society and the RAF Kinloss Bird Club.
Mick was awarded the MBE for his services to his country and also to birdwatching/services to the community; for he gave much of his time to clubs and lectured to the local scouts and other organisations on birds and aviation/aviation archaeology.
During his time with the RAF Mick was part of the crew that flew the fledgling white-tailed eagles from Norway (c.1975-84) for their reintroduction to western Scotland. Later he helped fly in red kites from Sweden too. This involvement came about as Roy Dennis, who organised these reintroductions, was aware that Coastal Command aircraft regularly flew to Norway and Sweden so might be able to assist.
Mick retired from the RAF at the age of 58 in 1992 and very soon after offered his services as a volunteer at RSPB Minsmere. He recalls that he started the bittern/marsh harrier watches under Sally Mills in 1993. he is still a key member of the bittern and harrier monitoring team. Since this time Mick has attended Minsmere every Monday and Thursday, all year round almost without fail, except for such times as the Foot and Mouth scare.
In recent years Mick has developed an excellent reputation for spotting otters on Island Mere during the afternoon on most of his volunteering days. Photo by Ian Clarke
Mick is an exemplary model of what a volunteer should be. He makes time for each and every member of staff or visitor. He will actively offer his services as a guide and helper both to those who enquire about birds and natural history and to those who just look as if they wish to know more but are too afraid to ask. His vast knowledge of birds worldwide, gleaned from his years of travelling overseas with the RAF mean that he is rarely out of his depth when discussing these matters with anyone.
Kind and understated, humble by nature and a true gentleman go only some way to describe Mick, who never has a bad word to say about anyone.
On the rare occasion that he makes any kind of mistake regarding birds/identification or wildlife he merely looks down at his trusty, 50+ year old BECK KASSEL 20X60 binoculars and exclaims "learning all the time....". For, after all, this is what we all strive to do when we are besotted with the natural world and birds.
So, if you are visiting Minsmere on a Monday or Thursday, Mick will be more than happy to share his knowledge and enthusiasm with you – as indeed will all our guides whichever day you visit.
Happy birthday Mick – here’s to many more to come.
Mick cutting his birthday cake on Monday
(Many thanks to regular Minsmere visitor Phil Buckle for providing this resumé of Mick’s career)