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Guest blog by Matt Parrott
Shortly after opening the Visitor Centre on Thursday morning, John Grant phoned in to say that he could see a bee-eater circling over the edge of the scrape. Nothing causes a mass exodus of staff, volunteers and visitors from the Visitor Centre like a rare bird report – it helps keep us fit too!
In my little bird book I’ve had since I was four years old the bee-eater shares a worn and, I confess, a slightly coloured-in page, with the equally exotic roller and hoopoe – birds I have yet to see.
A stunning bird, if you can see it, and I failed miserably at the first try, as it drifted past the scrape towards the woodland. Then it was seen again, perched on wires by Whin Hill, and I was too late. Then back over the car park (so Senior Site Manager Adam Rowlands can claim it as a garden tick) and all I saw was blue sky, empty but for a soaring hobby. I’d almost given it up, until I heard from the Waveney Bird Club’s ringers that the bee-eater was perching near one of their nets.
The Waveney Bird Club provide a fantastic bird ringing demonstration on Thursdays during the summer holidays and Easter, not only carrying out vital science work but showing visitors some wonderful species at close range. They use mist nets strung in sections of the reedbed and woodland that birds get caught in as they fly through, and the ringers quickly but carefully remove them, note down information from their leg rings or attach rings if the bird doesn’t have any, before releasing it.
From the data we then know where the bird has come from, it’s age, health and vital statistics, and then can be used to influence conservation work to protect the species.
Having caught a pretty little pied flycatcher earlier the ringers were already having a good day, so I wandered down with Steve Piotrowski and the ringers as they went to check a net on the edge of the woodland. Great green bush crickets watched our progress through the humid bracken, until with a hushed yelp of excitement the bee-eater was spotted, perched in a silver birch.
For those unaware of what exactly a bee-eater is, imagine a slim blackbird-sized bird that couldn’t look more vibrant or exotic if it tried – turquoise belly, yellow nape, shimmering bronze head that flows into a yellow back, emerald green highlights on the wings, long tail and around the brown eyes, and the ‘lone ranger’ black stripe that curves from the beak over the eyes.
Funnily enough it eats bees – I love an obvious name! Not only bees, but wasps, hornets and ants too, but only if they’re flying. Once caught the bee-eater bashes the insect against a hard surface like a tree branch to remove the venom from the insect’s sting. They have very little effect on bee populations and in studies in Spain were found to eat less than 1% of worker bees.
Bee-eaters are scarce migrants to the UK, but in recent years they have bred in both the Isle of Wight and Carlisle and it is possible they could become a more common sight as the climate changes. Last year 10 bee-eaters were seen in a flock moving between nearby Leiston and Theberton.
By the late afternoon the bee-eater was still soaring distantly over the woods to the enjoyment of visitors on the North Wall.
Bird ringing with the Waveney Bird Club will be taking place again next Thursday 25th August 10am-4pm, Free event but entry fees apply to non-members.
Posted by Amy L
We have some exciting news about some of the wildlife stars of the recent BBC Springwatch series. As mentioned in previous blogs, the stone-curlew pair that sadly failed to hatch a chick during the series were successful at the second attempt. Although one chick was soon predated, the second chick continues to thrive, and on Monday, our wardens fitted it with colour rings that will help us to track its progress - and hopefully to identify it if it returns successfully to Minsmere next spring. The stone-curlews can still be seen from the North Wall watchpoint, but they are quite mobile and often hide among the bracken at the edge of the field, making them quite tricky to spot.
Stone-curlew chick by Adam Rowlands
Talking of ringing birds, the Waveney Bird Club will hold their next ringing demonstration tomorrow (Thursday), with further demos planned for Thursday 25 August and 1 September. These events are a great opportunity for children, families and keen birdwatchers alike to enjoy amazing close views of some of Minsmere's birds as you learn about how and why birds are ringed. Highlights of the demos so far this month have included bearded tits, sparrowhawks, green woodpeckers and various tits, finches and warblers. What will they catch tomorrow?
This reed warbler warbler took a liking to one young visitor at a recent ringing demo
Of course, you don't have to come to a ringing demo to see some amazing wildlife at Minsmere, and this week I've been lucky enough to have some great close encounters. In the (rare) absence of any volunteer guides, I took a stroll around the Scrape on Monday morning to chat to a few visitors and update our daily sightings board. The bee-wolfs were active in the North Bushes, and several common blue and grayling butterflies flitted among the dunes as the sun reflected off an inviting looking blue sea (though it would take a lot for me to take a dip in the North Sea, even in August!).
East Scrape was buzzing with birds, including about 150 black-tailed godwits, several ruffs, spotted redshanks and dunlins and a couple of common sandpipers. A lovely flock of 14 little gulls loafed at the back, but all of the avocets appear to have moved elsewhere for the winter now (if you want to see avocets in Suffolk for the next six months try the Blyth and Alde-Ore estuaries). A few young shelducks were easier to pick out than the moulting (and therefore mostly brown) mallards, gadwalls, teals and shovelers.
Habitat management work, in preparation for next spring's breeding season, meant that the highlight on South Scrape was a couple of knots, while a gorgeous moulting golden plover was the pick of the waders on West Scrape. Over the next few weeks, our wardens and volunteers will be cutting vegetation on the Scrape on various dates, but don't worry as they try to only work on one section of the Scrape and there's loads of other great places to spot wildlife - more on that later.
One of the highlights of Monday's walk was a very close encounter with two wheatears around the sluice. They seemed almost oblivious to visitors and even posed for photos on the sluice itself.
Wheatear at the sluice by Ian Barthorpe
As if that was exciting enough, I later saw photos from a visitor who had watched these two wheatears interacting a with an adder which they clearly didn't like within their feeding territory. And yesterday afternoon one of our volunteers watched as two hobbies worked collaboratively to catch another wheatear, this time from the stone-curlew watchpoint.
My second really close encounter with birds came yesterday afternoon as I took a lovely family from Hertfordshire out on one of our popular 4x4 safaris. As we entered a woodland clearing I spotted to point out a buzzard, circling ahead of us. Only it wasn't a common buzzard. It turned out to be a honey-buzzard, which gave superb views as it glided overhead. This rare bird of prey has been several times in the local area over the past month, though it's movements are far from predictable.
The safari took us us through parts of the reserve that are usually closed to visitors, with lovely views of carpets of purple heather, a sighting of some of our konik Polski (Polish ponies) and views across Island Mere, before we headed out to the Chapel Field for a closer view of the ruins of the 12th Century Leiston Abbey. The abbey will be scene of an archaeological dig next month, exploring the legend of piracy among the monks.
The Chapel Field is a great place from which to look south across the Minsmere Levels, and the nearest pool to the ruin is currently attracting a lot of interest. Sightings have included wood sandpiper, several green sandpipers and greenshanks, two little stints and good numbers of dunlins, redshanks, black-tailed godiwts and teals. Not only that, but a lovely pied flycatcher was seen feeding in an adjacent apple tree yesterday, and redstart and whinchat have been in the same area today, with clouded yellow butterfly also seen in the Chapel Field. The family and I also enjoyed close views of several hunting kestrels - a bird that is always guaranteed to raise excitement levels.
So, if we are doing management work on the Scrape, then it is certainly worth a walk along to the Chapel Field. Alternatively, within the next few days we'll also be opening our seasonal path to the North Levels pools. This is a great walk past seeding thistles adorning by hungry flocks of goldfinches to a usually innaccessible series of pools that attract large flocks of little egrets and grey herons, and can be very good for waders. Who knows, the purple swamphen could even be hiding somewhere along there!
Posted by Ian Barthorpe
With the Western swamphen playing now you see me, now you don't and the last sighting of it being over a week ago (although with Minsmere's vast reedbed it is very likely to still be on site, just hidden) it was an unexpected surprise that today I experienced another first for me at Minsmere, and one I had greatly been looking forward to! I began my afternoon walk from the Visitor Centre and spent a few moments just enjoying the numerous butterflies around the buddleia bushes. There had been reports earlier of a white admiral butterfly and a hummingbird hawkmoth. I stayed there a while just enjoying being so close to them and looking at all their delicate structures and vibrant colours. I left the buddleia bushes when I was sufficiently frustrated with myself and my photography skills and headed to Wildlife Lookout.
The West Scrape was relatively quiet apart from a couple of black-tailed godwits right in front on the hide. I carried on to South Hide and had a hopeful look in the pool behind the hide for the Western Swamphen. I did not see it today and it has not been reported for over a week now, but with such a vast reedbed there is every chance that it is still here, so it was worth a hopeful look. There were ten little egrets on the pool instead and I took a moment to observe them and not take this beautiful bird which has had such a successful recovery for granted.
I went into South Hide and had only been sat down for a few moments before a kingfisher flew past. The first I have seen at Minsmere! There was no mistaking this characteristic bird as it speedily flew past the hide and then met up with another kingfisher before circling and then heading off together. I was a little disappointed that it did not rest for me at a close distance to take a photograph but think I am possibly getting a little spoilt having been at Minsmere for six months now and am actually just delighted that I have seen this handsome little bird.
Kingfisher by Jon Evans
I left the hide and got speaking to some visitors about a possible sighting of an American golden plover from East Hide so I continued my way around the Scrape to see if I could get a picture to show my more learned colleagues. As I walked towards the Sluice I spotted a gannet flying over the Scrape, a pair of whinchats and a stonechat. As I passed The Sluice and went over to the dunes I was greeted by another chat, a female wheatear.
When I got to East Hide I looked firstly for the potential American golden plover. The hide was busy with people all trying to get a good look at this bird. I was kindly offered a scope to look through and saw a very beautiful golden plover which was later confirmed as a European one by one of our wardens. East Scrape was as usual busy with waders such as ruff, 100+ black tailed godwits, eight spotted redshank, 23 dunlin, 20 little gulls and one little stint. I had really enjoyed my walk around the Scrape, especially seeing the kingfishers because it had been a while since I had been for a good walk around the reserve. The reason for my absence around the reserve has been all of the exciting family events I have been running during the summer holidays.
Mini beasts of Suffolk have had many lovely homes built for them this week by many families completing the activity on Monday – Minsmere’s Mini-beasts. Everyone really enjoyed searching for mini-beasts in the woodland area and then the challenge of identifying their finds with the help of RSPB volunteers. Most were surprised by the variety of species that you can find in a relatively small area and lots were impressed with how many they could already identify without having to look at a book. I always think you gain a great sense of satisfaction identifying something and then checking the book to find you were right. Since Monday I have been imagining many tiny little legs exploring and taking up residence in the many homes for mini beasts that were made for our visitors gardens. The homes were made by families out of recycled organ pipes from two churches in London and filled with a mixture of materials. One visitor said after finishing his home “if I was a mini-beast, I’d want to live there!”
Our resident volunteer Emily has made a 5* mini-beast hotel at the edge of the woodland area using some of the organ pipes. With the many different layers, materials and hidy holes I am certain it will be the chosen abode for many of Minsmere’s mini-beasts.
The pond on Tuesday was buzzing with activity. Many people visited Minsmere to enjoy the glorious weather and took a dip in the pond...with a net! Wednesday was Natures Survival skills putting camouflage to the test. I was so impressed with the engagement and effort that the children put into completing the camouflage challenge. The task was to be inspired by some of Minsmere’s masters of camouflage and compete against some of the best we have here like the woodcock to stay hidden in the woods. The children had to make their own camouflage and then use it to hide from their grown-ups in a section of the woodland. The parents were then timed to see how quickly they could find their offspring. The winner of Wednesday’s camouflage challenge was Breya Miller-Smith who actually had to be told to come out after ten minutes had passed! I think she is definitely a match for some of Minsmere’s moths!
Breya Miller-Smith hidden by camouflage!
I am looking forward to the week ahead with owl pellet dissections happening in the Discovery centre on Monday 10 am – 4 pm. I found it fascinating seeing all of the tiny bones come out of the relatively small pellets and ended up dissecting one myself. I am intrigued as to what I will find in mine this week, what will you find in yours?
Wow, what a week!
Last week was rather busy here at Minsmere, with the combination of (mostly) good weather, lots of families enjoying our various holiday activities, and the bizarre sighting of a blue chicken (aka purple swamphen) that drew in the crowds.
The swamphen remained all week, and was still showing well went I left work on Friday evening. All was set for a visit from BBC's The One Show to film it on Sunday, but sadly the bird disappeared overnight - much to the frustration of the many twitchers who had been unable to get time off work during the week. And to my wife and son who also missed the chance to see this amazing bird. has it headed back towards Spain, or has it simply moved deeper into the reedbed to feed around a hidden pool?
So, with the blue chicken doing a disappearing act, normality returned to Minsmere, and we could once take a deep breathe and enjoy the amazing variety of wildlife on offer without the distraction of opening overflow car parks and media enquiries.
And what great wildlife there is to see, including several more unexpected sightings over the past week.
Let's start with some of those more unusual visitors. On my walk around the Scrape yesterday our wardens alerted me to the presence of jellyfish in the Old Minsmere River - the channel that winds its way through the reedbed south of the New Cut and exits the reserve via the sluice. The wardens had opened the sluice to allow seawater onto West Scrape in the hope that this will help to suppress the growth of marestail, and several jellyfish had come in with the tide. While not professing to be an expert in jellyfish identification, we think that at least species were present: moon jellyfish with their four distinctive circles within the jelly, and young Lion's mane jellyfish, a species with a nasty, painful sting. Sadly my photos were not conclusive though.
Whilst watching the jellyfish, one of our volunteer guides, Peter, spotted a lovely garden tiger moth perched precariously on the stem of a sea aster plant as the waters rose around it. A quick rescue mission by our warden, Ian, brought this lovely moth to the safety of dry land.
A little further along the path Peter spotted this gorgeous emperor moth caterpillar crawling across the path.
Although these were interesting sightings, I had less luck in finding three other notable insects that had been reported over the weekend. On Friday reports came in over a handful of wall brown butterflies in the dunes near the sluice. This species is declining rapidly across the UK, and has not been seen at Minsmere in ten years, so we can only hope that these sightings might be a sign of possible re-colonisation. I have also failed to spot the silver-washed fritillary butterflies that have been reported occasionally around the Buddleia bushes near the toilet block. The same is true of the day-flying six-belted clearwing moth. This is a difficult species to locate, but several have been seen in recent days feeding on bird'sfoot trefoil along the North Wall.
Among the "easier to spot" insects present at the moment, highlights include common blue and grayling butterflies in the dunes, white admiral in the woods, large numbers of peacock, red admiral, painted lady and comma butterflies on the Buddleia, brown, migrant and southern hawker dragonflies, common and ruddy darters, and even the first willow emerald damselflies at the pond. Of course, the bee-wolfs and pantaloon bees are attracting big crowds too, while a few wasps spiders have been seen in the dunes.
Wasp spider by Ian Clarke
Of course, there are also lots of birds to spot, especially on the Scrape. Highlights during the week have included occasional little stint and wood sandpiper, several ruffs, green and common sandpipers, ringed and little ringed plovers and greenshanks, double-figure counts of avocets, dunlins and spotted redshanks and 250+ black-tailed godwits. Add in up to 40 little gulls, odd common and Sandwich terns, various moulting ducks (gadwall, teal, mallard, shoveler, shelduck) and geese (greylag, Canada and barnacle), and there's certainly plenty to see. [Please note that the annual autumn habitat management programme has now started, so you may sometimes find a work party of wardens and volunteers on part of the Scrape, preparing the reserve for the next breeding season. This important work is easiest to complete now whilst water levels remain low, and we try to minimise any disturbance to only one section of the Scrape, so, for example, when we are working on West Scrape the birds will continue to feed happily on East or South Scrape.]
Away from the Scrape, a juvenile wheatear has taken up residence around the sluice, two whinchats have joined half a dozen or so stonechats along the nearby Scrape fence, whitethroats and lesser whitethroats have started to pass through on migration, and reed warblers are still feeding young in the reedbed. At least 200 sand martins are still feeding over the reserve too.
Whinchat by Jon Evans
While the reedbed wildlife can become more elusive in summer, there are still daily sightings of otters, bitterns, bearded tits, kingfishers, water rails with chicks and marsh harriers for those patient enough to sit in Island Mere or Bittern Hides.
Lightning, it appears, really can strike twice.
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about the incredible appearance of a black-browed albatross on the pool behind South Hide. That was potentially one of the most bizarre and unexpected sightings ever at Minsmere, but even that may have been trumped by the incredible events of the last three days.
It all began about 11 am on Sunday when news came in of a purple swamphen on exactly the same pool that the albatross had been seen on. This news was tempered by reports that the bird may be ringed, suggesting a captive origin, as with all previous UK records of this species. However, photos quickly proved that there were no rings, and what's more it was of the western race that breeds in Spain and Portugal.
This made things much more exciting. I'll try to explain why, but first, what, I hear you ask, is a purple swamphen?
Purple swamphens are relatives of coots and moorhens, but as their name suggests they are purple. In fact they are bright blue and purple, and they have huge bright red bills and thick red legs. They are also huge: like an overgrown chicken. This has earned them one of their nicknames: blue chickens. Think about an archetypal cartoon bird and you wouldn't be far wrong, as you can see in the photo below by one of our regular visitors.
Purple swamphen at Minsmere by Philip Tyler
Purple swamphens live in reedy wetlands throughout Spain and Portugal, with a tiny but expanding population in southern France. They also occur in central and southern Asia and much of Africa, those the races in those areas looks subtly different with greyer heads and/or greener plumage. They are not usually migratory, so were not on the list of rare birds that British birdwatchers were hoping might turn up.
This is not the first time that a purple swamphen has been seen in the UK. However, all previous sightings have been of birds that have been considered to be escapees from captivity. Most of these were ringed, and belonged to one of the Asian races. This bird, however, could prove to be the first wild swamphen to occur in the UK.
Here's a summary of some of the reasons why this might actually be a wild bird:
However, there is a chance that it could have escaped from captivity somewhere in the UK or northern Europe, and the British Ornithologists' Union Rarities Committee will have to consider all of these and many more issues before they decide whether to add purple swamphen to the official British list.
Once news broke of the swamphen on Sunday, crowds of twitchers began to arrive from around the county, and by Monday morning many had travelled several hundred miles across the UK in pursuit of this amazing birds. Luckily, it remains in its chosen pool today, and has attracted a long stream of admirers, although it can hide within the reeds for long periods.
With this rare bird arriving in the middle of the school holidays, many families have also been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it, and today we welcomed news crews from both BBC Look East and Anglia TV.
You can see many more pictures of the swamphen, and keep up to date with news from Minsmere @RSPBMinsmere on Twitter.
As I mentioned in my last blog, there's always something interesting to see at Minsmere, and the last week has been filled with one slightly unexpected find after another, incuding several found on our family activities.
The excitement began late morning on Sunday when Peter, one of our volunteer guides, spotted a small wader that looked different from the nearby dunlins and sanderling. He alerted one of our regular very experienced birdwatchers, John, who was also in East Hide, and the wader was quickly identified as a Baird's sandpiper. This is a North American species that migrates from the Canadian tundra to the coasts of South America every autumn, but every year one or two of these tiny waders are blown across the Atlantic, when they always attract a crowd of interested birdwatchers. This was only the ninth time that a Baird;s sandpiper had been found in Suffolk, and the third one at Minsmere, where we last saw one in September 2004. It was also the first time that an adult had been seen in Suffolk, rather the more typical "lost" juvenile. The Baird's sandpiper remained until Monday evening, allowing most of the staff to catch a glimpse of it, but it had moved on by Tuesday morning.
A Baird's sandpiper - this one was photographed in South America, not at Minsmere - by Almiyi (Google Images)
Elsewhere on the Scrape, we've had some great counts and variety of waders,, including 200+ avocets, 200+ black-tailed godwits, 75+ dunlins, 28 spotted redshanks as well as ruffs, little ringed and ringed plovers, green and common sandpipers, knots, bar-tailed godwit, turnstone and sanderling. A few little gulls and Sandwich terns have also been seen on the Scrape.
Another interesting bird seen on most days over the last week has been a honey-buzzard, with reports from Westleton Heath and Walberswick as well as this scarce bird of prey has wandered widely around the Suffolk coast. It gave great views as it flew low over the Discovery Centre this morning. At least a couple of red kites flew over on Monday too.
The theme of unusual sightings continued when some lucky children found a few lesser stag beetles during their minibeast searches on Monday, as well as the more expected but equally popular violet ground beetles, centipedes and woodlice.
The bee-wolfs and pantaloon bees were stars of Tuesday's family nature walks, especially when a pantaloon bee inadvertently landed in a huge cobweb. Despite the attentions of the owner, it eventually struggled to freedom, leaving a trail of yellow pollen lining the web. Other stars on these walks were Wesley the water vole, a male adder in North Bushes, the stone-curlews with chicks (both chicks are surviving and growing well) and cinnabar moth caterpillars. Another highlight on Tuesday was the water stick insect that was caught during the pond dipping sessions.
Our family theme on Wednesday was "Nature's survival skills: camouflage" and the camouflage was obviously effective as the more unusual species kept themselves hidden, but the wet weather in the morning may have been a factor too.
Completing the first week of family activities for the summer, we welcomed back the Waveney Bird Club for their regular Thursday ringing demonstrations. The session certainly started well when an absolutely stunning juvenile wood warbler was caught in North Bushes this morning. This species is not even an annual visitor at Minsmere, so to see one in the hand was a real bonus.
Juvenile wood warbler
The demonstration finished with a feisty male green woodpecker, while bearded tits, whitethroats, blackcaps, reed warblers and wrens were among the other highlights.
Completing a week of unusual finds, I managed to find several great green bush-crickets this afternoon. Although not a rare species, I had never seen one at Minsmere before. As their name suggests, they are large (about 5 cm long), bright green and very well camouflaged. So how did I manage to see at least four of them having failed to find any over my previous 13 1/2 years at Minsmere? Because this afternoon I joined a large work party helping to remove the seeds of the highly invasive pirri-pirri-burr, a weed from New Zealand that is spreading across some of our grasslands. Perhaps I should volunteer more often!
A great green bush-cricket
The wait is over and Big Wild Sleepout is finally here! At Minsmere the Wildlife Explorers group could not wait any longer and had their camp night last weekend. We were very lucky with the weather and wildlife and a lot of fun was had by all.
The Camp Night event began in the afternoon with the Wildlife Explorers arriving at the reserve and setting up their tents and camping areas. The first structured activity was a den building challenge. The Wildlife Explorers and their families were divided into two groups and they had to work together as a team to build the best den they could. Both dens were very impressive; one with several rooms and the other looked almost water tight it had been constructed so well.
The next challenge was a family art challenge. Each family had to use nature as their inspiration to produce a piece of art work (much like the celebrity guests had to on Springwatch Unsprung). They only had half an hour to produce their masterpiece and boy did they rise to the challenge! Here are some of the incredible pieces of art work they created.
The families then went off to enjoy an alfresco picnic in the evening sun before returning to the Discovery Centre for a family quiz. Afterwards with the sun beginning to set over picturesque Minsmere and the smell of deet in the air we started out on a nocturnal walk through the woodland towards Island Mere hide. We took out with us the bat detectors and it wasn’t long before we spotted some bats above and stopped to see whether we could identify them using the bat detectors. The Wildlife Explorers were amazingly quiet and the detectors soon picked up the sounds of the bats echolocating.
Bats give out a series of ultrasonic sounds in front of them as they are flying. As they come into contact with objects they bounce echoes back to the bat. This helps the bat avoid obstacles when flying and helps them home in on insect prey. The bat detectors can help identify the bats by the frequency with which they are echolocating. The bats that we encountered were soprano pipistrelle bats; one of the more common bats in the UK but only classified as a separate species since 1999.
We continued our walk to Island Mere hide in the hope of seeing some otters but were not lucky enough to see them this time. As we walked up Whin Hill towards Canopy Hide we spotted a glow worm on the ground. Ian Barthorpe picked it up to show the group and just before we got back to the Discovery Centre another glow worm was spotted close to the doors. After drinks and biscuits the Wildlife Explorers went to sleep in their tents.
Everyone had a restful night and was ready for the fun activities the following morning. We had breakfast in the Discovery Centre and then looked at what had been caught in the moth trap which had been set by one of our volunteers the previous night. It was so fascinating seeing the variety of species of moths caught in the trap and great for the Wildlife Explorers to get so close to nature. The large moths attracted the most attention with this private hawk moth stealing the limelight
The event finished with an early(ish) walk around the reserve with a few of our expert guides. One group of walkers took the path towards North Wall and encountered beewolves (always a crowd pleaser), the other group took a lovely sunny stroll towards Wildlife Lookout. The sunny morning made the conditions perfect for viewing sticklebacks, roach and perch in the water beside the path with many different dragonflies whizzing overhead.
One comment we hear regularly from visitors in mid July is "it's quiet". Indeed it is, in the sense that most birds have stopped singing and the reserve can be eerily silent at times. But in terms of things to see, it's from from quiet, though you may have to change your focus a little.
Mid summer is always a trickier time for watching woodland and reedbed birds as they hide away to moult following a hectic breeding season, though the usual suspects will still be present if you're patient enough. Family parties of tits and finches move through the woods in foraging parties, while reed and sedge warblers and bearded tits flit from reed to reed in search of insects. Bitterns can be harder to spot among tall thick reeds, but may still be seen flying from one feeding pool to another. Marsh harriers are a bit easier, with many youngsters learning how to hunt for themselves, and kingfisher sightings become more frequent as fledged young are pushed off their parents' territories farther upstream.
But, of course, Minsmere is about much more than birds, and those same woods and reedbeds that may be referred to as quiet are, in fact, teeming with insect life, so now is the time to look down and focus up close and discover a whole new world of wildlife. Some insects are easier to spot and identify than others - butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies are much easier than bees, hoverflies or parasitic flies for example. But it's worth the effort.
Yesterday I set myself the challenge of finding three of Minsmere's special summer butterflies. The first was the tiny silver-studded blue, a heathland species that only occurs in a handful of parts of the UK where suitable habitat exists. At Minsmere they can be found around the northern part of the reserve on Westleton Heath, so I stopped for a quick walk on my way in. The flowering bell heather and wood sage looked gorgeous and was clearly popular with honeybees, hoverflies and commoner butterflies such as gatekeeper and ringlet, and after a few minutes I spotted a tiny brown butterfly - a female silver-studded blue. Two delicate males quickly followed. Target one achieved.
Over lunch I headed to Canopy Hide in search of target number two - purple hairstreak. This can be a difficult butterfly to find as they tend to remain high in the oak canopy, necessitating neck strain from peering upwards. A visit to Canopy Hide makes seeing them easier as you are actually up in the canopy. Even then, they are well camouflaged against the leaves, but with some patience I managed to locate two of these lovely butterflies, along with a couple of commas, several brown hawker dragonflies and common darters.
Purple hairstreak by Jon Evans
Target number three can sometimes be seen from Canopy Hide too, but I didn't see one there, so instead I walked along the Woodland Trail through clouds of common darters, brown hawkers and a beautiful hoverfly called Voluncella zonaria and soon enough I spotted a stunning white admiral sunning itself on the path. This was my twelfth species of butterfly for the day, with little effort.
White admiral by Jon Evans
A short walk on Sunday morning had revealed a similar number of dragonfly and damselfly species as well as our fascinating array of mining bees and digger wasps along the North Wall, confirming how varied the insect life is at present.
Of course, there are also birds to be seen, and for this the best place is the Scrape, especially East Hide. With migration well underway it's difficult to predict exactly which species might be present, but they could include up to nine species of gull, four terns and up to 20 types of wader. As an indication of this variety, the counts on East Scrape this morning included: 208 avocets, three little ringed plovers, one ringed plover, three golden plovers, 24 lapwings, seven knot, two little stints, one sanderling, 75+ dunlins, eight ruffs, 325 black-tailed godwits, two curlews, 23 spotted redshanks, two redshanks, one greenshank. one green sandpiper, two common sandpipers and a turnstone, plus a few oystercatchers, while curlew sandpiper and whimbrel have also been reported in recent days. Add in one or two little, Arctic and Sandwich terns, several little gulls, Mediterranean gulls and kittiwakes and there's plenty to challenge your ID. Also of interest on the Scrape are large numbers of little egrets and grey herons.
Little egret by Jon Evans
I timed my walk around the Coast Trail perfectly this afternoon, dodging the showers and spotting some fantastic wildlife. Towards the end of my walk it all got a too much for me and I had to lie down. Well, actually there was a really good reason for lying down in the dunes - and it wasn't for a snooze or some sunbathing!
A flock of up to 200 sand martins were dropping down onto the dunes for a rest, to escape the wind, and I too dropped to the ground to enjoy a closer view. By lying behind a clump of marram grass and crawling slowly forwards I was able to get close enough to run off a few photos.
By zooming a bit further I was able to get my best photo yet of these lovely little birds.
This wasn't actually the first time I'd found myself lying in the shingle today as I'd early been trying, with little success, to photograph skippers feeding on the shingle flowers. Skippers are small, orange-brown, moth-like butterflies that can be found in grassy areas during mid summer. There are three very similar species found at Minsmere, and I managed to find all three today. Large skippers are slightly bigger than the other two, making them easier to identify. The best way to distinguish between small and Essex skippers is by looking at the colour of the underside of the antennae - black in Essex, orange in small skippers.
Small skipper feeding on sheep's bit
In fact it turned out to a brilliant day for butterflies. I saw 12 different species around the reserve, including small heath in the dunes (it's looking like a good year for this scarce species), small copper in North Bushes, and good counts of gatekeepers, ringlets and meadow browns feeding on bramble flowers, with comma, red admiral and both small and large white in attendance. There were also several six-spot burnet moths along the dunes, and I've just been looking at some fabulous moths that were caught in our moth trap last night, including poplar hawkmoth, several buff tips, several rosy footmans, small magpies, peppered moths and a snout moth. I'll post some photos of these moths on our Facebook page later.
These weren't the only insects around either. I saw at least six species of damselfly or dragonfly and many types of wasps, bees and hoverflies, including, of course, the bee wolfs and pantaloon bees. I also finally saw my first ever scorpion fly, but sadly couldn't get a photo. If you've never seen one of these flies, then look them up - they're pretty impressive.
Birds were very much in evidence too, especially on the Scrape. My wader list for the day included little ringed and ringed plovers, green and common sandpipers, common and spotted redshanks, ruffs, black-tailed godwits, dunlins, oystercatchers, lapwings and avocets, plus the stone-curlew that continues to sit vigilantly on her nest close tot he North Wall watchpoint. Two little terns had joined the common and Sandwich terns on the Scrape, while up to nine little and at least 16 Mediterranean gulls can be seen around the Scrape, along with black-headed, herring, lesser and great black-backed gulls and several kittiwakes.
Away from the Scrape, both common and lesser whitethroats can be seen in the Sluice Bushes, linnets and reed buntings were along the dunes, bearded tits, marsh harriers, little egrets and bitterns are in the reedbed, and various tits and finches are in the woods.
All in all, that adds up to many good reasons to enjoy a walk around Minsmere - and celebrate with a cake or cheese scone in the cafe.
The view from East Scrape with lots of lovely mud for feeding waders
Grid reference: TM4767 (+2km)
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