Soon nearly 8 million seabirds return to their breeding grounds on the UK’s coast and our seas will be alive with squabbling guillemots, groaning puffins and graceful fulmars.
Minsmere is a fantastic example of how faithful seabirds are to the sites they use every year. Thankfully many of our seabird colonies on land are protected from damaging human activities; however the important areas that these birds use at sea are not.
It’s a sad truth that this story is the same all around the UK - seabirds nest sites are currently protected, but as soon as they leave the shore to hunt for food for themselves and their chicks, they face threats such as entanglement in fishing nets and disturbance from offshore developments in unprotected waters.
Thank everyone who Stepped Up for Nature and signed our Marine Pledge. In November 2011, thanks to your support, we were able to hand-in over 50,000 signatures to Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon and show the UK Government that many people care about marine wildlife including the fate of our seabirds.
But we must ask you to take further action.
In September 2011, 127 Marine Conservation Zones in English waters were recommended by a wide range of stakeholders for consultation. But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) only intend to take less than a quarter of these forward for designation. What’s more, seabirds and other species such as basking sharks and dolphins will not be given any protection by these Marine Conservation Zones.
What you can do to help:
Go to our e-action now to let Defra know that that they need a network of Marine Conservation Zones, giving full and comprehensive protection to all our marine wildlife, including seabirds, without further delay.
It's been a real cornucopia of weather since my last blog, with few signs of the coming spring. The weekend saw some of the wettest weather we've had for may years, followed by a couple of days of snow, more rain, strong north-easterly winds and eventually a little bit of sunshine today. The consequence of all this rain and snow is yet more flooding - the Scrape is a lake once more; the path from the sluice to South Belt is closed; access to East Hide and Island Mere is with wellies only; and there are puddles on many of the paths.
Hopefully this rain won't impact too much on the breeding season as it will be a few weeks before most species settle down to nest, but with more rain forecast it may be a few days before floodwaters recede again.
Despite the rain, we're continuing to see bitterns and otters regularly at Bittern and Island Mere Hides, though there's not been much sound of grunting bitterns in the cold weather. I popped down to Bittern Hide for a few minutes at lunchtime and was lucky enough to see an ottter surfacing several times through the slushy ice at the edge of the reedbed dyke.
The high water levels on the Scrape mean that most of the gulls and avocets have moved elsewhere for now, but they will be back soon. One Mediterranean gull was seen today, but the best of the waders are a few ruffs and dunlins on the Konik Field or Levels, and the odd snipe at Island Mere.
With so much water, the ducks and geese are widely scattered across the reserve, and many have already have already begun to return to Siberia, so you'll have to check more carefully to see the wigeons, gadwalls, teals and shovelers. Smews peaked at an impressive ten, including two drakes, on Sunday. This is quite late for these scarce ducks to still be arriving as they usually leave in early March. There was still a drake and four redheads (females) today, but they were feeding on the Levels - an indication of how deep the water is there since these are diving ducks.
The cold weather has brought bigger numbers of tits and finches to the feeders, including several siskins outside the visitor centre, but it hasn't stopped the chaffinches, great tits, robins and dunnocks from singing to establish territories. Meanwhile, woodlarks are already singing on Westleton Heath, where several Dartford warblers can also be seen.
Sand martins, wheatears and chiffchaffs have been seen in many places a;ready, but we're yet to spot our first summer visitors. Maybe this weekend, or early next week.
A suitably wintry blue tit by Jon Evans
Last Wednesday when I had a look on the Scrape at lunchtime there was still a very wintry theme with ducks dominating include a cracking drake smew with two females. The only waders in sight were a few lapwings and a couple of redshanks.
Today the scene was very different. I could tell even before I reached North Hide that spring has definitely sprung. The sound of black-headed gulls calling dominated, althoguh the volume is still a long way short of it's heights later in the spring. A quick glance across the Scrape revealed at least 30 avocets, a black-tailed godwit and an oystercatcher - all newly returned. The godwit is just passing through - as are the three dunlins also seen out there today - but the others will soon be settling to breed. The lapwings have already begun displaying in front of North Hide. Although I didn't see them, the first Mediterranean gulls arrived on Friday too, and at least one has been seen today.
Spring has sprung in the reedbed too, where the first grunting bittern was heard on Saturday morning. Grunting is the prelude to full blown booming, with the males practicing and strengthening their vocal muscles. Marsh harriers have begun displaying too. their twisting display flights even more dramatic than those of the lapwings.
No doubt the first chiffchaffs will be heard in the next day or so, with the chcnace of an early sand martin, wheatear or garganey by the end of next week. Bullfinches are already setting up territories, so the North Bushes trail will closed for the spring on Friday. I've not heard any reports of butterflies here yet, but commas and brimstones were reported in many places yesterday. The daffodils outside the visitor centre are just bursting into flower too - just in time for Mothers Day.
Speaking of Mothers Day, why not bring your mum to Minsmere for the day. We're offering free entry to all mums for one day only - providing they have their children with them.
Of course, there are still signs of winter on the reserve too. At least six female smews were with the stunning drake yesterday (four females have been seen today). While numbers of ducks are declining, all the common species are still present. Four whooper swans remain, and flocks of redwings and siskins can be seen in the woods. At Island Mere, otters are still being seen most days, and bitterns are being seen in flight more often, so there are many great reasons to plan that next visit. We hope to see you soon.
Avocet by Jon Evans
Guest blog by Holly, Showing People Wildlife volunteer
Hi I’m Holly, a volunteer for the RSPB and I ' m leading a project: ‘Showing People Wildlife’. We will be focusing on different species throughout the year and volunteers will be out on the reserve to share these natural wonders.
Today, there are thousands of Cuttlefish bones along the Suffolk coast. These have been washed ashore by the spring tides and easterly winds. Despite the name, they are not fish but molluscs, therefore more closely related to garden snails. They are said to be one of the most intelligent invertebrates and are the chameleon of the sea, rapidly changing colour and pattern to camouflage themselves. This display can also deter predators as well as communicate with other cuttlefish. They are clever hunters and will hide, waiting patiently, before ambushing their prey using their tentacles. They eat crab, shrimp and octopi but are preyed upon by shark, dolphin and seal. They can squirt ink into a predator’s eyes giving them time to quickly swim away, propelling themselves via a jet of water squirted from behind their heads. Cuttlefish can regulate their buoyancy by feeding gas and liquid into the small chambers of the calcium carbonate cuttlebone.
Cuttlefish only live for 1 to 2 years and die immediately after spawning. Their body quickly degrades and the cuttlebone is all that remains. The large quantities of cuttlebones found on the shoreline at Minsmere today were probably from last year’s cuttlefish which died after spawning in late summer. However, some of the cuttlebones are very small which indicates that the cuttlefish may have been killed by an event such as food shortage or a cold spell. Cuttlebones are commonly sold in pet shops as a calcium substitute for caged birds. They are also traditionally used by silversmiths as moulds as they can be easily sculpted and survive the high temperatures of a kiln. Cuttlefish has also recently returned to British menus and is often used as a cheap alternative to squid and octopus.
If you are beachcombing, see if you can find a cuttlebone. Sometimes you can even see the teeth marks of a predator!
Why not come and see this and many other natural spectacles this weekend at Minsmere. There is a guided weekend wildlife walk on Sunday starting at 9.30am.
Photo caption: Cuttlebone showing beak marks probably from a crow or gull taking advantage of the calcium rich food. Photo by Holly Berwick
Half term has been really busy so far! This Saturday you can test your nest building skills, and make a hearing trumpet with our artist in residence Liz McGowan. Can you make a better nest than a long-tailed tit?!
Now to the sightings. The Bewick's swans have been rather mobile this week, and a weasel has taken up residence near the visitor centre! From close by to further afield:
Visitor centre feeders: Siskin (male)
Path behind reception: Weasel chasing after baby rats - have a look at the video!
Bittern hide: Water rail, 2+ bittern
Island Mere: Still regular otter action, male sparrowhawk, two Bewick’s swans, male goosander, one barn owl flying left of Island Mere hide, one peregrine flyover, three whooper swans
On the heath: Woodlark singing
North hide: One short eared owl
Scrape: Up to seven smew (all redheads), eight snipe, one spotted redshank, two turnstone on East Scrape, three knot , female goldeneye and two Bewick’s swans on South Scrape
Konik field: Three whooper swans
Levels: One Caspian gull and two yellow-legged gull on South Levels, two Bewick’s swan, up to 47 pintail, up to 35 pochard
Offshore: Harbour porpoise, 15+ common scoter, 15+ red-throated diver, 15 gannet flying north