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Recent sightings

  • 22 November 2014

    You never know what you'll see

    The saying couldn't be more true this week as a couple of surprise sightings have kept staff and visitors on their toes, and our regular species have competed for their share of the action.

    Perhaps the biggest surprise was a stunning drake eider that spent a few minutes among the hordes of commoner ducks on East Scrape on Thursday morning. It's very rare to see an eider away from the sea (even if East Scrape is barely 100 metres from the sea), and I certainly can't remember one being reported actually on the reserve before. Unfortunately I missed this beautiful bird as it flew back to out by the time I'd finished my freshly made cup of tea (note to self, leave the tea next time and make another one later!)

    I did, however, find my own surprise bird this morning in the shape of a lovely male ring ouzel. These mountain blackbirds are usually spring and autumn migrants at Minsmere, with only occasional winter records in the UK. I had popped out to the weather station (above the sand martin bank) to take the readings that we submit to the Met Office, when a mistle thrush flew over towards the North Marsh. As it dropped down into the bramble at the northern corner of the North Bushes, a small flock of redwings, fieldfares and blackbirds took off. As I scanned, I was most surprised to come across the ring ouzel, and with a couple of song thrushes also present I managed to see all six species of British thrush (excluding the various very rare visitors from Siberia or North America).

    A mistle thrush by Sue Tranter (

    In fact, it was a very productive five minutes taking the weather readings as I also heard Cetti's warbler, water rail, great spotted woodpecker, redpoll and wigeon, proving once again just how many species can be found close to the visitor centre. Our guides also found a mixed finch flock in the North Bushes that included several siskins and redpolls, while marsh tits and coal tits were around the visitor centre feeders - where a brambling was seen yesterday. 

    Coal tit by Ben Hall (

    Not wanting to be outdone, the bitterns have been putting on a good show at Island Mere today. One spent many minutes so close to the hide that at least one of our regular photographers was struggling to fit the whole bird into a photo! Several other bittern sightings have been made at Island Mere too, where the great white egret is still present (after nearly two months) and an otter was seen again. Nine Bewick's swans were present early morning, before spending the day feeding in flooded fields south of the Mere. you can see them there by watching from the Whin Hill Watchpoint.

    Despite incredibly dull weather and regular showers, the starlings put on a good show tonight too - if you arrived early enough. The first birds gathered over the Scrape from about 2.30 pm, before displaying over the southern end of the reedbed and eventually settling to roost behind South Hide at about 3.45 pm. There still seem to be about 30k birds, though it wasn't easy to count them in the poor light.

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 19 November 2014

    No need for a long walk

    Don't let the short days, with the nights rapidly closing in and the continuing dull weather, put you off visiting Minsmere this winter. There's lots to see without the need for a long walk around the full circular walks.

    You may simply want to visit the shop or cafe for some pre-Christmas shopping or a warming meal. From the reception or cafe you can check the feeders for finches and tits - including regular visits by marsh and coal tits and goldfinches. A great spotted woodpecker pops in from time to time too.

    A short walk to the North Bushes could be productive too. The temporary path around the back is  a bit muddy, but does get you even closer to the action. Among the tit flocks look out for long-tailed tits and goldcrests, and a firecrest has been seen a couple of times this week. It's a good area to look for bullfinches and siskins, and a brambling was heard there today. Even more excitingly, a waxwing was heard today (I thought I heard one yesterday too), raising hopes that more may follow. A weasel was seen in the North Bushes today too. Of course, there are many commoner species too, including this beautiful cock pheasant that I found feeding on the hawthorn berries yesterday. I hope he leaves some for the waxwings and fieldfares! 

    You can also pop into North Hide for a look across the Scrape to spot a variety of ducks, gulls, lapwings and snipe. If you walk a little further you can scan the sea for the chance of a red-throated diver, great crested grebe or gannet (though sadly the pilot whale pod seen recently in North Norfolk somehow relocated to Essex without being seen on the Suffolk coast).

    An alternative is to walk up to the Whin Hill watchpoint and look out across Island Mere. From here you have a good chance of spotting much of the mere's wildlife, albeit a little distantly: bitterns or marsh harriers flying above the reeds, the brilliant white of the great white egret fishing, or even an otter. Beyond the mere you may spot the Bewick's swans feeding among a large herd of mute swans on flooded fields. Stroll down to the hide and there's a good chance of seeing kingfishers, bearded tits and snipe, or hearing water rails and Cetti's warblers. Stay till dusk and the starlings should arrive to roost. Maybe you'll hear a tawny owl too - one was seen near Island Mere today.

    What better reason do you need to visit us this winter?

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 17 November 2014

    A big fencing project

    Works is due to start later this week on a major project to replace the aging fence around the Scrape.

    The fence is intended to prevent ground-nesting predators, such as foxes or badgers, from gaining access to the Scrape, thus protecting breeding gulls, waders, ducks and terns. The existing fence, erected in 1988, is nearing the end of its life and it has become increasingly difficult to maintain in recent years as much of it runs close to a wet ditch. We had suspected that predators were finding their way through the fence, and this spring we had proof that a badger was forcing it's way through (or under) the existing fence, resulting in the loss or abandonment of most nests of gulls, avocets and terns - as witnessed on our TV screens during BBC Springwatch.

    We have been investigating options for replacing the Scrape fence for a few years, and earlier this autumn we applied for planning permission for a new fence. This was granted, and contractors have now been employed, so work is due to start later this week.

    It's not simply a case of removing one fence to replace it with another though. In order to make the new fence as predator-proof as possible, we're planning to erect it on dry ground around its entire length, allowing us to dig it deep into the ground and reduce the likelihood of any foxes or badgers digging under the fence. This means that the new fence will follow a different route in some places. We will also be building a  low bank around much of the Scrape, onto which the fence will stand. While the fence will be slightly higher in places, we do not anticipate this having an impact on the fantastic views across the Scrape.

    Work is due to start on this project on Wednesday, and should take about ten weeks to complete, with the new fence erected by the end of February - in time for the next breeding season. The project has been designed to minimise disturbance to wildlife as much as possible during construction. Our contractors will be working on only one part of the fenceline at any time, thus ensuring that most of the Scrape remains undisturbed. We'll let you know at reception each day which hides are most  likely to be disturbed each day so that you can plan your visit. 

    As most of the work will be done with machinery, the ducks will generally continue to feed on other parts of the Scrape. Another part of the reserve that can be great for watching wildfowl is the Minsmere Levels - two tundra bean geese arrived late last week, and there are often several pintails there. The best place to watch the Levels from is usually the dunes south of the sluice, but this winter we have also opened a seasonal trail to the ruins of Leiston Abbey chapel, from where there are superb views south across the Levels. This new seasonal path is accessed via the footpath from the sluice to Eastbridge and is well worth a detour.

    The view from Leiston Abbey chapel across the Levels

    And, of course, Island Mere continues to offer excellent wildlife watching, with daily sightings of bitterns, marsh harriers, otters and the great white egret, as well as coots, cormorants and commoner ducks. At least three Bewick's swans have been feeding on flooded fields south of the mere too. these are best viewed with a telescope from the Whin Hill Watchpoint. The starlings have been roosting at the Island Mere end of the reedbed this week too.

    Finally, with all the recent rain, please don't forget to bring a good pair of walking boots or wellies if you are planning a visit, as the path from South Hide to the sluice is prone to flooding, and there are puddles in many places.

    Cormorants and mute swans on Island Mere today

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 13 November 2014

    Wot no acorns!

    Guest blog by Jamie Everett, Minsmere volunteer guide

    This autumn the one thing I have noticed more than any other is the lack of acorns. Trees that should be laden with ripe nuts are devoid of acorns this year.

    Why does this matter?

    Oak trees begin flowering in late spring, with the fruits (acorns) ripening in time for autumn. Acorns are an important source of food for many birds and mammals, particularly jays and squirrels who cache away the acorns for later consumption.
    Acorns fall off their parent trees when they mature, which typically occurs between September and early November. However the oak trees in my garden have not produced acorns, let alone dropped any. The same is true at Minsmere. In 2013 there was a record crop in the UK, where the branches of oak trees were so laden that they bowed down under the weight of nuts! Having a ‘mast year’ (the term used for the cyclical abundance of nuts in some years) may explain the lack of nuts this autumn, compared with the abundance of last year. Alternatively, it could possibly be due to inadequate weather during the pollination of oak trees during the warm spring.

    What does this mean for jays?

    Jay by Peter Simpson (

    Jays have been very active in search of a secondary source of food. When I’ve been guiding at Minsmere, jays have been more noticeable than usual, especially on Whin Hill - constantly flying past in search of food. I recorded 13 jays on Whin Hill, all competing for one of the very few oak trees producing acorns this year. Instead, they'll have to compete with the squirrels to stash chestnuts, beech mast and hazelnuts for the coming winter. Sightings of jays in gardens have increased dramatically this autumn, too, where peanuts and seed will provide another important food source.

    Jay by Nigel Blake (

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 8 November 2014

    Northern waifs

    One of the birdwatching highlights this week, for those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, has been the passage of several little auks offshore. These tiny seabirds breed on rocky scree slopes in the high Arctic and spend the winter close to the southern edge of the sea ice. Autumn gales push a few wanderers farther south into the North Sea ever autumn, occasionally in huge numbers, when they may be seen passing close to eastern beaches. A few days later these same birds may head back north, relocating to the ice edge. 

    Closely related to puffins and guillemots, little auks are only about the size of starlings, with rapid whirring wingbeats, and they can occasionally get mixed up with flocks of starlings heading inland, though they usually realise and head quickly back to shore. A few little auks have been seen heading along the Suffolk most days this week, with sightings of ones and twos past Minsmere for those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

    There have been other seabirds passing by too, including gannets, great skuas, common scoters and the odd velvet scoter, as well as various ducks and small flocks of brent geese. There has been no further sign of the humpback whale here, but presumably the same one has been seen off East Norfolk several times this week.

    Other winter migrants have begun to trickle in this week, including Bewick's swans (three yesterday, two this morning), white-fronted geese (two south this afternoon), smew (a redhead on the Scrape on Thursday), goldeneye (a female on Lucky Pool on Thursday), short-eared owl (one on Wednesday) and snow bunting (one near the sluice all week).

    It's not all winter wildlife yet though, as there were still two swallows on Tuesday, clouded yellow and peacock butterflies on Thursday, southern hawker dragonfly today, and lots of common darter dragonflies. The great white egret remains too.

    The reedbed areas are still providing much of the excitement, with regular sightings of bitterns, kingfishers and marsh harriers. Up to five otters have been regularly seen on Island Mere - at least one has been present on and off all day today, with other sightings at Bittern Hide. And the starlings are still gathering at dusk and attracting hungry peregrines, sparrowhawks and marsh harriers.

    Finally, with Christmas approaching, our Christmas tree and decorations have gone up ready for the Minsmere festive fun weekend next weekend. We'll have tastings, demos, expert advvice, a tombola and mulled spiced apple juice as well as the fun Christmas cracker racing penguins - which are sure to prove popular thanks to the John Lewis advert!

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 4 November 2014

    Starling spectacular, rarities and the Brigadier

    What a week it has been. The continuing superb autumn weather, combined with roosting starlings, Minsmere's red deer appearing on Autumnwatch, and our exciting family activity programme all helped to make October half term one of the busiest weeks on record.

    As well as making some lovely insect homes and pieces of natural art to take home, families helped to create this stunning sculpture of a red deer stag, the Brigadier, that now stands guard over the Wild Zone. Even if you don't have children with you, please come and have a look at this lovely bit of art, which we hope will remain through the winter.

    You may have seen the real things on Autumnwatch on BBC Two last week, although the red deer rut has now finished for this year. You may still spot a few deer around, but the stags will soon be moving off to pastures new until next September.

    Out on the reserve there have been some good wildlife sightings this week. Both clouded yellow butterfly and willow emerald damselfly were still seen on Sunday. November butterflies are unusual, which probably reflects the mild weather. Indeed, a couple of swallows were seen again today.

    After the brief excitement caused by the humpback whale, there have been several good seabirds seen over the last week or so, including velvet and common scoters, great, arctic and pomarine skuas, gannets and red-throated divers. A redhead (female-type) goosander flew south today too. An adult Iceland gull paid a brief visit to the Scrape on Sunday, and a wind-blown grey phalarope was on East Hide for a while last Tuesday. There was an excellent passage of brent geese again at the end of last week too.

    In the reedbed the great white egret remains, otters continue to be seen almost daily, and Cetti's warblers are returning to full song. Bearded tits and bitterns are seen daily, but the two penduline tits photographed by Limpy last week weren't relocated.

    It's over the reedbed that most of the excitement can be seen though, as up to 50k starlings arrive in the evenings. The action can start from as early as 3.30 pm, depending on weather conditions. The birds usually gather over the reedbed between Bittern Hide and the sluice, weaving amazing patterns in the evening sky as they attract the attentions of up to six marsh harriers and a couple of peregrines.  Exactly where they roost varies from one evening to the next - probably partly due to the harriers. Last night they settled in front of Bittern Hide, but after initially appearing to do the same tonight most of the flock relocated to the north side of the Scrape. The best places to watch are probably Wildlife Lookout, South Hide, the path between the two, or Bittern Hide.

    Here's a few photos from tonight.

    Don't forget, too, that the visitor centre has now switched to winter opening hours, so closes at 4 pm. The cafe will open at 10, rather than 9 am, with last orders at 3.30 pm.

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 23 October 2014

    It's a numbers game

    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 (

    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.

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 13 October 2014

    Small is beautiful

    The very popular, if rather elusive, little crake is still in residence in the reedbed pool in front of Bittern Hide. Having completed nearly two weeks here, it's stayed much longer than expected, giving most twitchers, and many casual birdwatchers, the chance to see it - though some have had to wait for several hours or return two or three times. How much longer will it stay? It's not been an easy bird to see, so getting good photos has been even more tricky - see here for one of the best examples, taken by Minsmere regular John Richardson, and shared on our community gallery.

    The great white continues it's long stay too, having arrived a few days before the crake, with Island Mere its favoured spot. With so many eyes looking across the reedbed it's perhaps not surprising that sightings of bitterns, marsh harriers and kingfishers remain regular, while flocks of bearded tits are best seen in the mornings. Otters, too, are seen most days, with a large dog fishing on Island Mere today. My five year old was even lucky enough to see one there on Saturday afternoon!

    After a beautiful weekend, the weather has deteriorated somewhat today. We had 25 mm (an inch) of rain in the 24 hours to 10 am today, most of that falling in the early hours, resulting in deep puddles in many places on the trails - so bring your wellies if visiting this week.

    With the rain have come the migrants. It's been an excellent day for watching passage brent geese, with many flocks of upto 100 geese heading south, close tot he shoreline, and some resting briefly on the Scrape or Levels. Redwings, too, arrived in force this morning. Most passed straight over, but some landed briefly to rest, especially near Island Mere.

    With so many birds on the move, it was perhaps inevitable that something notable would arrive. And it did. A brambling was reported near the visitor centre this morning, though perhaps not a new arrival as one was seen there over the weekend too.

    Shortly after lunch our Senior Site Manager, Adam, located a yellow-browed warbler in the sluice bushes. Barely bigger than a goldcrest, these scarce autumn migrants breed in eastern Scandinavia and Russia and usually spend the winter in India and South-east Asia. Every year a proportion of the population migrates in the opposite direction, arriving along the east coast of the UK from mid September to late October, with a few even deciding to spent the winter here. What happens to the rest is unclear, but it seems that some of the tiny warblers are possibly pioneers, exploring alternative areas to spend the winter. I strolled down to the sluice, hoping for a glimpse of the lovely little bird, and my luck was in. There it was, perched momentarily right next to another gorgeous tiny migrant, a male firecrest. Better still, just behind them in the same bush was one of my favourite birds, a goldcrest. I still find it incredible that a bird so small (weighing the same as a 20 pence coin they are the smallest bird in the UK), can fly across the North Sea to spend the winter searching for insects and spiders in a wood or garden in the UK -  perhaps even in my garden as i saw during last year's Big Garden Birdwatch.


    Three of our smallest birds for comparison - a yellow-browed warbler (above, by Jon Evans), firecrest (below by Angie Knight) and goldcrest (bottom, by Jon Evans)

    Also on my walk I followed a huge flock of long-tailed tits along the path towards the Wildlife Lookout, heard the distinctive song of Cetti's warblers and squealing call of water rails, spotted a kestrel hunting over the Konik Field, watched two wheatears and several meadow pipits in the dunes, and glimpsed six avocets and four dunlins with about 50 black-tailed godwits on South Scrape. If I'd entered the hide I'm sure I'd have seen even more. Perhaps most surprisingly, given the dull, damp and windy weather today, I also watched several migrant hawker dragonflies chasing tiny insects near the visitor centre.

    The other highlight of my walk was a large red deer stag dashing through South Belt woods with four hinds. His antlers clattered loudly among the branches as he went. I'm not sure I've seen a stag that close to the visitor centre before. He was too fast for a photo, but I did get some brillaint views whilst leading deer safaris for the Minsmere Wildlife Explorers group on Saturday.

    Two of the stags seen on Saturday, by Ian Barthorpe

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 10 October 2014

    Mooo-vable managers

    Habitat management is a complex balancing act. Our wardens work hard to create the optimum conditions for a wide variety of wildlife - and for the people who come to see it. 

    There are several different tools at wardens' disposal, including staff and volunteers, tractors, chainsaws, brushcutters and livestock. 

    Regular visitors to Minsmere (or readers of these blogs) will know that we use several types of livestock to assist with management, including konik and Exmoor ponies and Highland cattle. Using livestock allows us to create a complex mosaic of different habitats, especially around the edge of wetlands where hooves churn up the ground and create tussocky areas  favoured by feeding snipe. 

    Where we have recently cut large areas of fen vegetation using the Piston Bully and Soft-track machines as part of a trial project to create biofuel briquettes from our cut vegetation, the livestock can further trim the vegetation and add more structural variety. Our Highland cattle have been particularly good at doing this in the area known as South Girder - south of the path from South Hide to Wildlife Lookout. We've now moved them onto the Scrape to graze the fen area around North Hide. This is sure to prove popular visitors as Highland cattle always make photographic subjects.

    Elsewhere on the reserve we are planning to cut the vegetation in front of Island Mere to improve opportunities to see bitterns, water rails and snipe. However, the heavy rain on Wednesday delayed our plans this week, so we'll try again next week - if the weather is kind to us on days when we have a work party in. We won't be cutting at Bittern Hide just yet though as the little crake remains in residence- if proving a touch elusive.

    We also have several temporary paths open to add to the variety of wildlife that can be seen. The North Bushes trail is a good place to look for tits, finches and migrants, and was heaving with common darter dragonflies today. The North Levels trail is also good for dragonflies, and gives views over pools in the reedbed where you might spot waders, ducks and herons. This path is also great for seeing bearded tits. We haven't opened a reedbed trail this year as the beardies are showing so well from the main reserve trails. We have, however, opened a new seasonal path to view the Leiston Abbey chapel ruins - with great views across the South Levels.

    Finally for this week, if you want to learn more about our amazing fungi then why not join us tomorrow for a special event as part of National Fungus Week. They'll be displays and guided walks, and expert advice from the British Mycological Society. See you there.

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

How you can help

Coast on a stormy day with heavy rain falling on coastal headland

We're setting up an emergency fund that we can use to get our reserves back into shape and repair the damage caused. Please help us rebuild from the worst storm in 60 years.

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Your sightings

Grid reference: TM4767 (+2km)

Great White Egret ()
22 Nov 2014
Rough-legged Buzzard (1)
11 Nov 2014
Bewick's Swan (2)
22 Nov 2014
Red-breasted Merganser (1)
22 Nov 2014
Marsh Harrier ()
22 Nov 2014
Water Rail ()
22 Nov 2014
Tawny Owl ()
22 Nov 2014
Kingfisher ()
22 Nov 2014
Bearded Tit ()
22 Nov 2014
Cetti's Warbler ()
22 Nov 2014

Contact us

Where is it?

  • Lat/lng: 52.24746,1.61705
  • Postcode: IP17 3BY
  • Grid reference: TM473672
  • Nearest town: Saxmundham, Suffolk
  • County: Suffolk
  • Country: England

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