There's a real feeling of autumn arriving at Minsmere now, despite weather forecasts for another warm spell arriving. It was cool and breezy for my lunchtime walk today, with a hint of drizzle in the air, but all around were signs that migration is in full swing.
As I strolled through the North Bushes it seemed strangely quiet. Where yesterday the bushes were full of migrant warblers, refueling on blackberries for the long journey ahead, today I saw just a few goldfinches and blue tits. Such a contrast is not unusual as birds spend the morning feeding then either rest or move on. Indeed, from the behaviour of some of the birds yesterday I think there had been a recent arrival of tired migrants - like this juvenile whitethroat that hopped around just a metre away from me.
There were double figure counts of whitethroats, lesser whitethroats, blackcaps and pied wagtails, a few chiffchaffs and a lovely spotted flycatcher present yesterday, and all these species had been reported again earlier today. Sadly the wryneck was last seen on Sunday though.
As i reached the beach today I was lucky enough to spot a couple of black terns passing by close inshore - part of a small passage of these beautiful birds. A long-tailed skua was seen offshore this morning too.
When I reached East Hide it was great to see the Scrape full of birds. Some, like our feral greylag geese and local mallards, moorhens and gadwalls, stay on or near the reserve throughout the year, but many were migrants, taking advantage of the shallow water and muddy margins to refuel. They are using Minsmere as the bird equivalent of a motorway service station, with some stopping only briefly while others stay for several days before continuing their journey southward. Others have arrived to spend the winter.
Teals were the most numerous ducks, back already from their nesting areas farther north or east. Among them a few wigeons rested on the banks, and I managed to pick out a female pintail. The ducks are an ID challenge still, though, as they remain in their moult, or eclipse, plumage. It will be a few weeks till they acquire their bright colours again.
If ducks are a challenge, waders are probably even harder. Many visitors don't get the opportunity to watch waders very often, and with a variety of species in all sorts of plumage - breeding, winter, juvenile and intermediate moults, it can get very confusing. I found myself fulfilling the role of our volunteer guides for the next 30 minutes, helping visitors to spot some of the species.
Three juvenile curlew sandpipers obligingly fed close to the hide, giving a good comparison with the more numerous but very similar dunlins. The three little stints were more tricky to spot, but we eventually found them as the flock wheeled around in flight after being disturbed by a grey heron. There were a few common sandpipers, ruffs, spotted redshanks and greenshanks, as well as little ringed and ringed plovers, all providing a good test of my ID skills. Much easier to see were the remaining dozen or so avocets and about 100 black-tailed godwits.
Among the gulls on the Scrape I spotted a little gull in adult winter plumage, while one of our volunteers had earlier seen a juvenile Caspian gull. There was also a juvenile Sandwich tern. Along the reedy margins a few water rails had been putting on a brief show, but I only heard their pig-like squeals.
Elsewhere on the reserve we still have regular sightings of bitterns and marsh harriers in the reedbed, though neither is easy to spot at this time of year. Bearded tits are becoming more showy and Cetti's warblers are starting to sing again. Otters have been seen most days, including a fight between a dog otter and a youngster at Bittern Hide on Saturday morning. The youngster had a quick sleep afterwards, as photographed by Roy Farrington.
There still lots of butterflies and dragonflies, the beewolfs can still be seen in the North Bushes, and our wasp spiders may be seen in the dunes. And, of ourse, the best signs of autumn are the ripening blackberries and hawthorns berries around the reserve.
Guest blog by Lana Austin, Little Tern Warden
8.30am every day at Kessingland little tern colony: Park. Collect telescope and binoculars. Walk the path along the cliff. Say hello to regular dog walkers. Hear the terns chattering away. Peer over the edge of the cliff with anxiety in your stomach. Is the fence still up? Is there a dog inside the fence? Walk down the steep steps. Yes. The fence is okay. The birds are okay.
8.30am Monday 11 August at Kessingland little tern colony: Park. Collect telescope and binoculars. Walk the path along the cliff. Notice the lack of regular dog walkers. Assume it’s due to the adverse weather. Don’t hear the terns. Peer over the cliff with anxiety in your stomach, and almost get blown over by the extreme gusts of wind. Walk down the steep steps. Yes. The fence is okay. No, the birds are no longer here.
Our little tern season here in Suffolk came to a sudden end with the arrival of Hurricane Bertha. In my last blog I rhetorically questioned how our season would finish, and pondered whether our late layers would stick it out to successfully raise their late hatched chicks. Unfortunately they did not. The urge to begin migration must have been strong as the rest of the colony had already left a week earlier. This combined with horrific weather surely made the decision easy for them. On Monday 11th there were no birds in sight, and the beach was eerily quiet.
We lost some chicks that weekend. The strength of the wind made it impossible for them fish and feed their dependant young. The rain was so severe at times surely nothing was left untouched.
While we had an abrupt end to our season our team is in high spirits. Our final fledgling count for Kessingland was 15, with an additional 3 at other sites along the Suffolk Coast. We are mighty proud.
This was our first year of wardening. We didn’t know quite what to expect. We didn’t know what would work. We didn’t know what challenges were ahead for us here in Suffolk. So we just put our heads down and did what we could. Imagine, if we had done all this hard work but extreme weather had hit a month or two earlier, and we didn’t fledge a single chick. It would have been almost impossible to tell if we were making a difference. Therefore, we are thankful for what we have achieved. Previous to Hurricane Bertha the success rate for our chicks was almost 100%. We couldn’t ask for much more than that.
Importantly, next year we do know what to expect. We know what works. We are aware of the challenges ahead. We can put our heads down and achieve even greater things. Our partners, our volunteers, and supportive members of the public have helped us lay an excellent foundation for coming years.
Thanks for reading and keeping up with our journey. We wish the terns a safe and trouble-free journey on their 3000 mile migration back to West Africa. We will be back in May 2015 with the subsequent arrival of our little terns, and all the dramas that go alongside protecting an endangered seabird colony.
You can also read about my colleague Olivia's experiences as a Touching the Tide graduate trainee helping to warden the little terns by clicking here.
Both photos copyright Kevin Simmonds
The exciting summer of family activities and superb wildlife watching has continued, despite occasional periods of heavy rain (most notably on Bank Holiday Monday!).
Pond dipping, owl pellet dissection and minibeast hunts continued to be popular with families, giving many children (and their parents/grandparents) the chance to discover nature in miniature. Steve's family nature walks on Wednesdays are always great fun, and this week he managed to find a beautiful female slow worm. Knowing that I had never managed to see one of these lovely reptiles at Minsmere, he brought it into the visitor centre to show me. What a beauty! Last week Steve had found a grass snake on his walks, and over the weekend an adder decided to crawl under the picnic tables outside the cafe, so it's been a good few days for reptiles.
The Waveney Bird Club's ringing demonstrations have been an amazing success too. Last week I brought my family along to watch and we were lucky enough to see two sparrowhawks, two long-tailed tits, a goldcrest, willow warbler and chiffchaff being ringing - among other species.
This week the club were ringing on Wednesday as part of the BTO's Constant Effort Sites scheme and caught a gorgeous wryneck in the North Bushes. These cryptically coloured woodpeckers are scarce migrants in the UK, and luckily it was seen again after being ringed and released. Incredibly, the following morning they caught a second wryneck in the same area, and both birds, plus a third unringed one, were seen intermittently all day. At least two remain today too. Probably the best bird of yesterday's ringing demonstration, though was this amazing kingfisher, photographed by one of our membership team, Martin Lippiatt. What an amazing bird.
Wrynecks aren't the only passage migrants pausing to refuel at Minsmere this week. Several wheatears, upto three whinchats, a few yellow wagtails and at least a couple of pied flycatchers have been seen in the dunes, with lesser and common whitethroats, blackcaps and willow warblers in the North Bushes.
Out on the Scrape, the excellent late summer wader passage continues with varying numbers and species present each day but highlights including little stints, curlew sandpipers, sanderlings, spotted redshanks, greenshanks and ruffs among good numbers of dunlins and black-tailed godwits. A few avocets are still lingering, and one or two young common and Sandwich terns and Mediterranean gulls are seen each day.
In the reedbed, the bitterns and marsh harriers are trickier to spot at the moment, but are still seen daily, as is the otter at Island Mere - it even sat under the hide for a while on Wednesday! A moulting female ferruginous duck is settled on Island Mere, though can be elusive among the moulting gadwalls, mallards, shovelers and coots. Bearded tits are regular there too.
Management work continues with a new reed cutting and harvesting machine on the Scrape last week, then in parts of the reedbed. The South Hide and Wildlife Lookout received a new coat of paint yesterday. And our equine management team gained an extra member with the birth of the latest konik foal which is thrilling visitors lucky enough to spot it.
What will the next week bring.
Wryneck by Jon Evans