Guest blog by Lizzie Guntrip, writer, naturalist, broadcaster and inclusive nature ambassador
Sitting on one of the benches at the North Wall, with my feet tucked up underneath me, I hear a nearby “ping-ping” coming from the reedbed in front of us. I am leaning against the bench back, with my knees resting on the bench’s arm, looking out over a wave of reeds to where an open pool reflects the blue of the sky. My legs are tired, but my heart feels as if it might just burst with happiness. Beside me a young boy admires the greylag goose family that sit on the path, his parents enjoying the scene too. Minsmere, I think, is a place for everyone.
Greylag goose family on North Wall by Ian Barthorpe
Minsmere is a spectacular place. I first visited the reserve earlier this year with BBC Springwatch and promptly fell in love it. For me it was like a different world: a place so vast, so diverse, so wildly beautiful that I could forget everything but the joys of the present moment. It is easy to see why Minsmere is the RSPB’s flagship site, visited by people of all ages who want to get out and enjoy the natural world.
One of the things that struck me as I spent time at Minsmere, between broadcasting, is that the reserve is equally welcoming to regular birders, families and photographers, as well as those who're visiting a nature reserve for the first time. I saw children, parents, grandparents; young people, busy people, relaxed people; people walking around, people using wheelchairs, people sitting and resting. By the end of the Springwatch series, the diversity of visitors was, perhaps, even greater.
While I was at Minsmere this summer I filmed several pieces for BBC TV. The main piece we were making during my first week was a search for Minsmere’s Big Five – England’s east coast equivalent of an African safari – at the same time as testing out Minsmere’s accessibility. I have an illness called myalgic encephalomyelitis, which means I tire easily; my friend Niall uses a wheelchair after breaking his back in an accident.
Minsmere, I have to say, holds up to the accessibility test pretty well. For visitors of the reserve, most days begin at the car park by the visitor centre, where there are disabled parking slots with extra space, and a ramp leading down to the site’s entrance. Beyond the level café, picnic benches face a sand bank, occupied (in the summer) by sand martins. I remember discussing this with the production crew before we were even on location: the fact that for people who can’t walk very far (as M.E. sufferers often experience) this particular spot is a brilliant spectacle that can easily be reached by all.
The sand martin bank and pond by John Chapman
Heading east across the reserve while searching for the first of our Big Five, we crossed one of the ponds where water voles can be seen frequently, as well as damselflies and dragonflies in summer. One of the issues faced by wheelchair users like Niall is that protective barriers below shoulder height for the general public can obstruct wheelchair-users’ views. At Minsmere, the problem is negated by a viewing platform where barriers have been removed – ideal for both wheelchair users and pond dipping escapades. This is also a good sheltered spot to soak up the sun.
Ramps and slopes from here lead out onto the North Wall. Niall found the path to the start of the North Wall a little harder (shaded, bumpy and muddier), similar to the wooded habitats. Here, though, the feel of the earth underfoot, the sounds of the wind in the shrubs and the smells of the earthy woodland floor took over and once out on the North Wall the path is smooth, flat and sturdy.
The North Wall is a trail built relatively recently: it transects the reedbed just before the sea and is one of the best spots in the country for seeing and hearing bearded tits. The walkway is raised above the top of the reed stems, meaning we were all offered great views of this vast and beautiful habitat. Frequent benches (with both arm and back rests) line the path, allowing for several resting spots. I enjoyed setting up camp there on several days, to close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the reedbed, or sit and admire the view. It was here the “ping-ping” of the beardies became audible, morphing into actual views of the bird – the first of our Big Five. We also heard the sound of a booming bittern, something that excited me more than views of the bird itself (portable hearing loops available).
The nearby North Hide overlooking the scrape was accessible, with level access, and acted as a quiet shelter from the wind. The hide has two storeys, but the ground floor includes wheelchair viewing slots. Here we spotted avocets, bittern and marsh harriers – all in our Big Five – as well hobbies and many wetland birds. The calls of the birds carry beautifully across the scrape.
Time restrictions and energy levels meant we headed back to the studio that day, but one of the great things about Minsmere is there is always more to explore and see. On my final day there this summer, with the help of the professional and friendly volunteers, I was able to reach the Island Mere hide. Situated about a kilometre from the visitor centre, Minsmere allows me and other visitors with limited mobility to drive to the top of the trail leading down to the hide. Car parking slots at the top of a wheelchair-friendly path lead to the accessible hide. Here the walk is shorter and less fatiguing, with a number of quiet spots to rest en route. The plants and reeds on either side can be touched and smelled. The Island Mere hide itself has a huge wide boardwalk slope that sweeps up to the entrance and is surely one of the most glorious spots on the whole reserve.
It is important to remember that while the most prevalent forms of impairments in the UK are associated with movement, lifting and carrying, the range of disabilities is vast and the majority of impairments are not visible. On Springwatch this year we were able to talk about this and about the value of our senses – the sights, sounds and smells, touch and taste of natural history. Minsmere works to cater for individuals with a wide variety of impairments: there is an access statement on their website, even the café caters for specific dietary requirements, and if you have any questions just ring ahead and ask – the staff will be happy to help.
Showcasing Minsmere over these past few months has led me to wonder why this place does accessibility, outreach and inclusivity so well. My one conclusion is it is the result of the people. From the volunteers to the wardens to reserve managers, everyone is friendly and passionate about sharing the joys of the natural world with everyone. Thank you to the people that care enough to make Minsmere great for all.
Elizabeth Guntrip is young naturalist, writer and voice for accessible wildlife watching, involved in print, TV and radio. Get in touch via her Twitter @lizzieguntrip
Guest blog by Steve Everett, regular Minsmere visitor
Along the path from the pond to the North Wall, there is a stretch of path with sandy sides that has become a magnet for visitors over the past few weeks. This is the realm of the bee wolf, a digger wasp that specializes in catching honey bees and stocking its larder with them as a food source for its young.
The bee wolf starts by digging a tunnel up to a metre in length into the sloping sides of the path. The soil is easy to dig here, being so sandy, and the sloping sides help rain to drain away and avoid flooding the burrows. Along that deep burrow, the bee wolf carves little chambers – up to 30 – and stocks each chamber with 4-5 bees with a single egg. The bees have only been paralyzed by the wasp’s sting, not killed, as they stay juicier for longer like that and make better food for the wasp’s larvae! The bees are also coated by the female with a secreted substance to reduce fungus and the like, to keep the paralyzed bees fresher for longer.
Catching so many bees means the wasps need to be very industrious and they have been a regular sight flying in with bees clutched to their belly before taking them underground. All this work is done by the females, the males have a lek, just like capercaillie, showing off to the ladies in a small area along the same path. The views of the bee wolves digging out their burrows (they’re like miniature Jack Russells) covering up or uncovering their hole to avoid someone stealing their home and taking the bees in (and occasionally throwing them out!) has captivated large numbers of visitors. Whilst the bee wolves are no longer deemed rare in the UK, they are not that common and have been spreading north and west from our part of the country at a steady rate since the 1980s.
However, that is not all you can find along this stretch of path. To start with, there are other digger wasps inhabiting this area. Wasps specializing in catching spiders, weevils and even shield bugs can be found here, along with sand wasps and even the odd, brave, solitary bee digging itself a home. However, all these wasps live in reasonable harmony, apart from the odd hopeful look down a spare hole.
Different species of wasp with shield bug (above), spider (below) and weevil (bottom)
The bullies on the path are the German wasps. These look very similar to the common wasp we are used to, but they attack the bee wolves, trying to get them to drop their precious cargo and steal it. If they can wrest the bee away, they will efficiently butcher it, chopping off legs, wings, heads – all they’re really interested in is the abdomen, which they will carry off, leaving the evidence of their dissection behind.
A wasp stealing a bee from a bee wolf (above) and the decapitated bee head (below) was all that remained
All of this takes place over a few short weeks. They first appear sometime in early July, by the first week or so in September they will all disappear again. As the nectar the adults feed on becomes scarce, they will die, leaving the developing larvae underground to pupate and emerge next year to start the cycle all over again……
All photos by Steve Everett
It seems that as far as the weather was concerned I picked the right week to leave the country, as while I was enjoying (some) sun in central France, the UK was experiencing somewhat variable, and at times very wet weather. And in typical Bank Holiday fashion, today has seen a return of cool, wet weather, which has put off all but a few hardy souls from visiting.
As for the birds, I perhaps chose the wrong two weeks to take my summer holiday, as I missed several good birds - though is there ever a good time to be away from Minsmere?
Highlights from the last two weeks on the Scrape included a pectoral sandpiper for a couple of days, a Temminck's stint for a day, upto ten wood sandpipers and several little stints and green sandpipers.
A pectoral sandpiper by Jon Evans
A wryneck spent three days around the pond - though sadly there has been no sign in today's rain. Hopefully this will be the forerunner of more as last summer/autumn saw at least six of these unusual woodpeckers visiting Minsmere. It's also been a good couple of weeks for passage migrants, with several sightings of both pied and spotted flycatchers, redstarts, whinchats and wheatears, as well as the usual lesser whitethroats, whitethroats and blackcaps. Perhaps the pick of the small migrants was a tree sparrow that was caught during the final Waveney Bird Club ringing demo of the year on Thursday. This is a rare migrant at Minsmere, usually in the autumn, and a difficult species to find in coastal Suffolk.
A tree sparrow by Jon Evans
Our avocets have mostly moved to the estuaries for the winter, but twelve remained this morning. There are good numbers of the commoner waders still on the Scrape, though, including 100+ black-tailed godwits, 50+ dunlins, 20+ ringed plovers and three common sandpipers. Duck numbers are starting to build too, with a little flock of 15 wigeons on East Scrape this morning, while the Suffolk coast population of feral barnacle geese are spending more time on the reserve - 250+ were present yesterday.
While bitterns, marsh harriers and bearded tits remain quite elusive (especially in the wet and windy weather), otters and kingfishers continue to be seen daily at Island Mere and/or Bittern Hide. More unusually, a kingfisher was seen at the pond this morning.
The rain has not been conducive to good insect watching, but both hummingbird hawkmoth and broad-bordered bee-hawkmoth were seen around the buddleias outside the toilet block over the last few days, and a clouded yellow butterfly in the dunes.
With September starting tomorrow, I'm sure there are many more migrants still to arrive and pass through at Minsmere in the coming weeks. We're also getting ready to start the red deer rut safaris on 12 September. This is a great way to watch the deer - see http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/seenature/events/details.aspx?id=tcm:9-405405 for further details, or call us on 01728 648281 to book your tour.