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They've been a long time in coming, but on Sunday we finally welcomed two smews to Minsmere for the winter.
Smews are scarce winter visitors to the UK, with only a few hundred present in most winters, but the mild weather this year has made them even rarer than usual, with very few present at event heir regular haunts. They are small diving ducks that breed in the high Arctic and spend the winter in wetlands throughout western and central Europe. It seems that most have decided to stay in countries such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands this year, rather than crossing the North Sea. We usually expect the first ones in mid December, with the last ones leaving in mid March, so there was a real possibility that none would arrive.
Drake smew are stunning black and white birds, known colloquially as white nuns. The equally attractive females and young birds are called redheads and have chestnut caps, white cheeks and grey bodies, and it's two redheads that have arrived this week. They are feeding on the Scrape, spending much of their time underwater, and can be quite mobile.
Redhead smew by Jon Evans
The Scrape itself is looking superb, with large flocks of ducks in their finest colours and courtship already well underway. A nice flock of about 50 dunlins is usually present on the Scrape, as well as a few ringed plovers, oystercatchers, redshanks and black-tailed godwits. West Scrape looks particularly good now that several of the islands and banks have been reprofiled, and the digger has now move to East Scrape to continue preparations for the coming breeding season.
The view from North Hide this week. Photo by Ian Barthorpe
In the reedbed there have been regular sightings of otters at Island Mere this week, as well as bitterns and an occasional kingfisher. At least nien marsh harriers are present, and already displaying, while two ringtail hen harriers were a surprise sighting for a few lucky visitors last night.
Four whooper swans continue to commute around the reedbed, and a few Bewick's swans are sometimes among the mute swan flock feeding on fields south of Island Mere - viewable from Whin Hill.
The other star attraction, for those lucky enough to spot it, is the firecrest that continues to reside around the Rhododendron Tunnel/Scotts Hall area - there are probably still two birds there. Flocks of long-tailed tits, goldcrests and siskins can also be seen in the woods.
Don't forget that you can also keep up to date with news on sightings and events on the RSPBSuffolk Facebook page, or @RSPBMinsmere on Twitter. You don't need your own accounts to view our postings - just click on the links.
Posted by Ian Barthorpe
The two firecrests that have taken up winter residence around Scotts Hall and the Rhododendron Tunnel continue to attract a lot of interest - for those lucky enough to actually see them. Frustratingly, they seem to avoid the attentions of most of our volunteers, despite many visitors having had good views.
The Rhododendron Tunnel area is proving a good place to spot several of our smaller birds, with regular sightings of goldcrests, treecreepers, marsh tits and up to 50 siskins. Elsewhere in the woodlands, at least 12 redwings are feeding among the leaf litter in South Belt woods, a chiffchaff (or possibly two) is regular near Bittern Hide, and green woodpeckers and bullfinches are regular. Great spotted woodpeckers and amrsh tits are regular on the visitor centre feeders.
Normally we'd be very skeptical of a report of an adder an early February, but after such a mild winter is was actually not a surprise when a male photographed on Sunday. The adder trail is now open, but we don't expect regular sightings until mid March.
In the wetlands, there's been a lot of interest in the red-throated diver that has been favouring the pool behind South Hide. On Thursday it relocated to the pool north of the North Wall sluice - exactly the same spot chosen by the slavonian grebe earlier in the week. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, this diver looks to be sick, with a large swelling in it's neck, which probably explains its tameness.
The red-throated diver in North Marsh by Ian Barthorpe
There have been good numbers of red-throated divers offshore all week, as well as great crested grebes and a few guillemots, kittiwakes and grey seals.
The Scrape is looking superb, with huge flocks of the commoner ducks - wigeon, gadwall, teal, mallard, shoveler and shelduck - joined by up to 19 pintial and 24 tufted ducks. Lapwings are most numerous wader, with several hundred usually present, but there are also about 50 dunlins, 36 black-tailed godwits and a handful of curlews, ringed plover, redshanks and turnstones present, as well as the occasional avocet and oystercatcher. Gull numbers are down a bit, but often still include one or more of yellow-legged, Caspian and Mediterranean gulls.
There are at least nine marsh harriers over the reedbed - at least they seem to enjoy the wind - as well as sparrowhawks, buzzards and two peregrines - the latter favour perches out on the Levels. Bitterns and otters are seen most days - though not necessary showing well at the moment - and a kingfisher was at South Hide today. Two or three whooper swans about four Bewick's swans are still present, though mobile, within the reedbed area too.
A female sparrowhawk by Jon Evans - Bittern Hide is a good place to see them at present
Finally, on Wednesday morning we had a momment of comedy in the visitor centre as a stoat ran towards the feeders while one of our volunteers was filling them up. He didn't look up in time, but the stoat did, and when about ten feet away it changed direction and hid under some wood. A few minutes later it (or possibly another stoat) was spotted chasing rabbits at the front of the reception building too.
Today, 2 February, is World Wetlands Day. This is an important event, at it marks the signing of an international treaty on wetland conservation, the RAMSAR Treaty, signed in the Iranian town of Ramsar on 2 February 1971.
Many of the world's most important wetlands, including RSPB Minsmere, are listed as RAMSAR sites, ensuring that their importance is recognised by governments and nature conservation organisations as sites of international importance for wetlands and wetland. Most RAMSAR sites are equally important for people, whether as places for recreation (as at Minsmere), food, flood protection or water quality.
As it was World Wetlands Day, I took the opportunity to stroll down to South Hide at lunch time and appreciate the wonder of Minsmere's wetlands. The sun was shining, the sky was mostly blue, and the colours were at their finest.
I was treated to some amazingly close views of shovelers at Wildlife Lookout, as you can see from these photos.
There were lots of ducks on West Scrape, despite the presence of a digger that is helping to further improve our wetland habitat by reprofiling some of the islands.
There were some equally close views of ducks at South Hide, including wigeons and teals. South Scrape also proved attractive to a variety of wading birds, including one avocet, one oystercatcher, three ringed plovers, 18 dunlins, 11 curlews, about 20 black-tailed godwits and several hundred lapwings. Although I didn't head round to East Hide, I could clearly see several pintails and tufted ducks on East Scrape too.
The red-throated diver had been reported behind South Hide again this morning, but it was clearly hiding from the wind while I was in the hide. Likewise, the slavonian grebe had relocated onto Island Mere this morning before it too went missing. There were, however, sightings of bitterns, otters, grey herons and marsh harriers at Island Mere.
If you would like to help celebrate World Wetlands Day by spotting some amazing wetland wildlife, why not join one of our wardens, Dave, at RSPB North Warren on Saturday morning when he'll be leading another Winter Wildfowl at North Warren walk. The walk starts at 10 am from the pay and display car park in Aldeburgh. Advance booking is recommended, so please call 01728 648281 to book. You might even be lucky enough to see one of the spoonbills that are currently at North Warren.
How did you get on with your Big Garden Birdwatch counts over the weekend? I had a very respectable (for my garden) eleven species yesterday. The biggest surprise was a brief visit from a wren - a species that I haven't seen int he garden for months despite hearing them locally most mornings. Although our starlings, goldfinches and blackbirds all put in an appearance, numbers were down on the norm. Frustratingly, I saw a record count of 11 goldfinches from the window, but they remained resolutely in next door's garden, with only three deigning to cross the fence!
Although we didn't actually count the birds on our feeders at Minsmere, we did see a good variety, including great spotted woodpeckers, marsh tits, coal tits and magpies. The sparrowhawk made an unsuccessful hunt. One of our volunteers, however, was lucky enough to spot a ringtail (female-type) hen harrier over the car park on Saturday morning too. While I missed this increasingly scarce bird, I was treated to flypast by another ringtail this morning as it hunted over farmland on my way into work.
That, however, was not the biggest surprise of the day. That honour goes to a winter plumage slavonian grebe that was feeding in the channel north of the North Wall sluice this afternoon. First reported as a red-necked grebe, our site manager went to check it out and confirmed the identification as a slavonian grebe. This is a very rare bird at Minsmere, with almost all records on the sea, so most of the staff quickly headed out to see it.
Slavonian grebes are rare breeding birds in the UK, confirmed to the Strathspey area of northern Scotland, and winter in small numbers around our coasts. In spring and summer they are gorgeous black and white birds with golden plumes on the side of their head. In winter they are mainly black above and white below, with bright white check patches. They also retain a lovely red eye - though that's not visible in the record shots that I managed to take.
Today's slavonian grebe by Ian Barthorpe
The grebe probably arrived on the strong winds of the latest storm to hit the UK this winter. These winds brought good numbers of seabirds close to shore too, including red-throated divers, gannets, great crested grebes, guillemots and a fulmar. A great northern diver was spotted on Saturday too.
On the reserve itself, there were a few signs of spring over the weekend, including the first oystercatcher on the Scrape, an avocet also on the Scrape, drumming great spotted woodpeckers. and increasing volume of birdsong. An adult Mediterranean gull on the Scrape today was another hint at the coming of spring.
Our wardens have been busy preparing for spring, and today the sand martin bank was steepened in preparation for their return in mid March. If I was a sand martin, I'd certainly welcome this clean fresh sandy cliff, free from encroaching bushes.
The newly steepened sand martin cliff
Elsewhere on the reserve, at least one firecrest remains in the Rhododendron Tunnel/Scotts Hall area, and a chiffchaff remains near Bittern Hide. The six whooper swans commute between Island Mere and the Konik Field, and a flock of Bewick's swans sometimes visits if disturbed from their feeding area near Leiston. A peregrine is regular on the Levels, and both yellow-legged and Caspian gulls were again seen on the Scrape today.
I often write in these blogs about counting Minsmere's wildlife, whether for breeding bird surveys, roost counts or simply counts based on observations from our volunteer guides. For example, our guides have been diligently counting lapwings this week, with more than 500 present on the Scrape. Now it's your turn.
This weekend sees the return of the annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, where we ask you to spend an hour counting your garden birds. It really is that simple. Sit back with a cup of tea and watch the birds visiting your feeders during any single hour over the weekend. For each individual species, all you need to record is the biggest count during that hour. This avoids the possibility of double counting the same bird.
Big Garden Birdwatch began as a count for our junior members in 1979, when thanks to being featured on BBC Blue Peter our postbag was bursting with entries. As a junior member myself back then I was one of the enthusiastic children who took part.
As the popularity of the survey grew, and the value of the data gathered became more obvious, we expanded the Big Garden Birdwatch and opened it to everyone. Last year more than half a million people took part, recording millions of individual birds. Please help us to gather as much information about our garden wildlife as possible by taking part this weekend. And it is garden wildlife, as we now ask you how often certain mammals, reptiles and amphibians visit your garden.
You can register to part, and submit your results by following the links from www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch. So get counting.
Blue tit by Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)
I'm glad I'm not trying to count the birds visiting our feeders, which include at least 50 chaffinches, 20 blue tits and 20 great tits at any one time, plus various other species. I will be counting at home though, and hope that our goldfinches and long-tailed tits pay their usual visit, along with up to 40 starlings. Will anything unusual appear, as a goldcrest did last year.
Meanwhile, here at Minsmere this week's counts have included 24 golden plovers on the Scrape today, up to 35 tufted ducks and 14 pintails on the Scrape, as well as several black-tailed godwits, curlews, redshanks and dunlins alongside the lapwings and commoner ducks. Six whooper swans commute between Island Mere and the reedbed pools, and up to 28 Bewick's swans occasionally visit the reserve having been feeding near Leiston. Two tundra bean geese and upto 180 white-fronts have been on the Levels, though they appear to have moved to North Warren this week.
Offshore we've had sightings of common and grey seals, guillemots, common socter and red-throated divers, but thankfully no stranded sperm whales. Another red-throated diver has settled on the pool behind South Hide today.
In the reedbed, bitterns, marsh harriers, otters and kingfishers continue to be seen, with a water vole regular on the pond.
Water vole by Jon Evans
After another beautiful sunny morning, I decided to wander down to Island Mere at lunchtime. I hoped that I may manage to find an otter, kingfisher, bearded tit or water rail to add to my year list, but sadly I was unlucky with all four species.
I was, however, able to watch a group of six whooper swans feeding quietly along the reed edge towards the far right hand side of the mere. These were the first ones I had seen at Minsmere this winter, and it's always a treat to watch either of our wild swans, so I was quite pleased to see them.
As I pointed the swans out to the visitors in the hide, a very obliging bittern appeared right on cue at the reed edge just behind them, allowing everyone the chance to spot this usually elusive bird. The bittern didn't stay in view for long though, and barely two minutes after disappearing she was replaced by a female marsh harrier on exactly the same patch of reeds.
Just then my radio crackled into life and Adam reported that a glossy ibis had just been watched from Bittern Hide being harried by a peregrine before landing somewhere in the South Hide area. After a quick debate with myself about whether I had time to walk to South Hide, I decided to get the oxygen pumping and stroll quickly in that direction. As I passed Bittern Hide, Christine called over the radio to say that the ibis was on West Scrape, among some black-backed gulls. This was good news, as it saved both time and distance to walk to Wildlife Lookout rather than South Hide. I even briefly broke into a jog.
Luckily, when I reached the Wildlife Lookout the ibis was still in view, albeit a little distantly. It showed well at first, then walked in front of a massive great black-backed gull and it's dark plumage "disappeared" against the gull's black back. The ibis later relocated onto the South Levels, where it fed in close company with an impressive flock of 75 white-fronted and two tundra bean geese.
A glossy ibis at Minsmere a few years ago by Jon Evans
Glossy ibises are small dark relatives of herons. They have a wide global distribution in southern Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and even parts of the Americas, but they are quite rare birds in the UK. They are, however, less rare than they were a few years ago, and sometimes even occur in small flocks. The increase in occurrence in the UK may be in part due to rising populations in southern Europe, but also due to the Spanish wetlands drying out more frequently. As a result, they are now seen in most years at Minsmere, and a couple of years ago a pair even attempted to nest on an RSPB nature reserve in Lincolnshire!
Barely 20 years ago, it was likely that most birdwatchers would only see one heron in the UK in a year - the grey heron. Bittern numbers have since recovered and little egrets have colonised, so that it's now relatively easy to see both species, at least here in Suffolk. Spoonbills and great white egrets are also becoming more frequent, but today some birdwatchers may have been lucky enough to see as many seven herons or close relatives on the Suffolk coast: grey heron, little egret, great white egret (at Dingle Marshes), cattle egret (at Iken), bittern, spoonbill (at Hazelwood Marshes), and Minsmere;s glossy ibis. That would have been unheard of even three or four years ago, especially in January!
Of course, there's more to birdwatching than spotting rarities, and the Scrape is absolutely packed with ducks, including a few beautiful pintails, and a yellow-legged gull was seen among the commoner species. Marsh harriers were very active above the reeds today, and I watched a gorgeous female kestrel perched on a telegraph post near the Whin Hill watchpoint.
What a difference over the last couple of days. It's finally starting to feel like winter. Like most of the country, we had a bit of snow yesterday - just enough to turn everything white for a few hours. And the sharp frost this morning left some of the smaller reedbed pools frozen for the first time this winter.
Luckily we had clear skies last night, as about 50 people came along to our first star gazing event of the year. Hopefully it will stay clear tonight too for part two of this event.
With the arrival of the colder weather, the feeders have been even busier than usual, while a few redwings have moved into South Belt to forage among the leaf litter. Goldcrests and bullfinches are being seen regularly too. We found a firecrest roosting near the Discovery Centre on Wednesday evening, and a chiffchaff hs again been seen in the Bittern Hide area this morning.
Firecrest by Angie Knight
In the reedbed, there are regular sightings of bitterns and several marsh harriers, while kingfishers were seen at both Bittern Hide and Island Mere today. A couple of bearded tits popped out into the open at Island Mere, and a Cetti's warbler gave a rare sighting int he open near Bittern Hide. On the mere itself, four whooper swans were present this morning, having moved from their favoured reedbed pools behind Wildlife Lookout.
Large flocks of ducks remain on the Scrape, including a notable count of 14 pintails this morning. Apart from lapwings and a small flock of dunlins, most of the waders appear to have moved on, but our first ruff of 2016 was spotted on Thursday. Gull numbers have declined a little too in recent days.
The Bewick's swans have become less regular, but a nice flock of white-fronted geese have taken up residence on the South Levels, peaking at 27 birds yesterday. Two tundra bean geese were present for a few days too.
Depending on the weather conditions, seawatching can be very productive, and sightings in the last week have included two black-necked grebes last Sunday, a little auk on Monday, occasional great and pomarine skuas and both eider and velvet scoter as well as the more expected common scoters, red-throated divers and great crested grebes.
Hopefully this cold weather will encourage more birds into your gardens over the next few weeks, helping you to make some good counts for the Big Garden Birdwatch. If you still need some advice on garden bird feeding then why not come to our garden bird festival next weekend.
A blue tit in snowier conditions than so far this year by Jon Evans
Hot on the heels on my two butterfly sightings on Monday, there have been further notable sightings this week. Perhaps the most surprising was the three spoonbills that dropped onto East Scrape on Wednesday. Although common visitors in spring, winter records of spoonbill are rare. We assume these were three of the four birds that have been seen recently on the Alde Estuary.
They're not the only scarce herons that have been seen locally this month either. A beautiful cattle egret has taken up residence close to the Alde Estuary in the village of Iken, where it has joined a flock of little egrets feeding among a herd of Suffolk redpoll cattle. And a great white egret that has been commuting between Dingle Marshes and Hen Reedbed was joined by a second bird at Dingle yesterday. With both species slowly colonising the UK, it is not impossible that either species will begin breeding in Suffolk soon, though cattle egrets remain very rare in Suffolk. Will either of these birds grace us with a visit to Minsmere in the next few weeks?
The Iken cattle egret in typical pose by Ian Barthorpe
On a personal level, I was very surprised that my sighting of a grey heron yesterday was my fifth species of heron this year (and fourth at Minsmere) - after bittern, spoonbill, little egret and cattle egret. What are the chances of seeing all four of those species before a grey heron?
A grey heron up close by Ian Barthorpe
Another highlight on Wednesday was watching one of two short-eared owls hunting around the chapel field and along the New Cut. Despite the dull, misty weather, and the distance from Bittern Hide, they put on a good display for much of the morning. I think everyone enjoys watching owls, so this was a real bonus for those visitors lucky enough to spot them. We haven't had any reports of barn or tawny owls yet this year though.
The two tundra bean geese remain on the South Levels, though they can be tricky to spot, while four whooper swans visited the Konik Field on Wednesday.
Out on the Scrape, six pintails remain among the commoner ducks. A small of dunlins has attracted a knot, and the occasional turnstone can be seen . A green sandpiper flew past on Wednesday, and two avocets were present again yesterday. If you are walking around the Scrape, please note that the path has begun to flood between the sluice and South Hide. While passable in walking boots this morning, it is likely to get worse before it get better, so wellies are recommended.
Offshore, there has been a good passage of little gulls and brent geese this week, but sadly none of the little auks that have been widely reported farther north. A fine drake velvet scoter was a bonus today.
In the reedbed there have been regular sightings of bitterns, marsh harriers, sparrowhawks, kingfishers and otters this week, and the Cetti's warblers are in full song. The Bewick's swans are often feeding alongside mute swans and curlews south of Island Mere (viewable form Whin Hill). Water rails and bearded tits have been a bit more elusive, though can often be heard.
Goldcrests, jays and bullfinches are all regularly spotted in the woods, and a great spotted woodpecker has been a regular visitor to the feeders at the visitor centre. I spotted a song thrush in the car this morning too.
With cold weather forecast for the weekend, will we see the arrival of more thrushes, starlings, geese and perhaps even a woodcock or two? And will it slow the early blooming of some of our flowers? I've already seen snowdrops and daffodils in flower, and some of Minsmere's daffodils are much more advanced than usual for early January.
Finally, we have a couple of events coming up that might be of interest.
On Friday 15 and Saturday 16 January we're hosting the Darsham Astronomical Society's stargazing live event from 7.30 pm. This is a free event, with no need to book.
On Saturday 23 and Sunday 24 January our Garden Bird Festival provides a great introduction to the following weekend's Big Garden Birdwatch. We'll have quizzes, activities and expert advice on garden bird feeding, as well as the chance to make a feeder of your own.
I made the most of the winter sun this morning to stroll down to East Hide in search of a few year ticks - the commoner ducks were very numerous with the bonus of six pintails and four tufted ducks, three avocets, a turnstone and a nice flock of 35 dunlins.
Even allowing for the spring like weather that we've been experiencing, and the beautiful winter sun, I was still totally stunned when a very worn looking painted lady butterfly fluttered past my face in the dunes behind East Hide. While winter sightings of butterflies are not unusual, painted lady is definitely not a species that you would expect to see in January. It seems, however, that there has been a spate of records across the country since New Year's Day.
Now, to see one butterfly in January is a surprise, but barely ten minutes later, as I walked through the North Bushes, this sparkling, freshly emerged peacock butterfly patrolled a sunny glade before settling to absorb some rays, allowing me to quickly take this most unseasonal photo.
A peacock butterfly photographed at Minsmere on 4 January 2016 by Ian Barthorpe
Elsewhere on the reserve, a number of other species have been added to the year list since Saturday, including stoat, red deer, goldeneye, ringed plover, bar-tailed godwit and two tundra bean geese that arrived on the South Levels this morning. taking the bird list up 95 and the mammal list to eight already. What will be the 100th bird species, I wonder?
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.
Grid reference: TM4767 (+2km)
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