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  • 28 January 2015

    Minsmere is number one

    That's what you tell us anyway. 

    We're now rated as the number one visitor attraction in Suffolk according to Trip Advisor, with 97% of reviews rating Minsmere at least four out of five. We really enjoy reading reviews on Trip Advisor. Many reviews thank our amazing volunteer guides and reception volunteers for their great welcome and help. Others rave about the delicious food in the cafe - cakes and cheese scones come in for high praise.

    Of course, some have their gripes , and we're working hard to improve our customer care even further to reduce these gripes. A few are unhappy at the cost of entry to Minsmere, which is of course free for all our wonderful members. If you love Minsmere, and have had a great visit here, why not share your thoughts with a review of your own.

    There's still time to help Minsmere to win the BBC Countryfile award for Nature Reserve of the Year, as nominated by Chris Packham. The deadline for voting is Saturday 31 January, so if you haven't done so already please vote for us here.

    Winter can be a quiet time to visit Minsmere, though when the sun shines many of you still come along to enjoy some winter wildlife. It looks like we've finally got a small group of 14 Bewick's swans roosting at Island Mere, but it's not easy to see them. They seem to leave soon after first light, returning after dark from their chosen fields somewhere north of Westleton - I haven't seen them yet. Two whooper swans are a little more reliable on the mere. Over the weekend we also had a small roost of starlings - though at about 800 birds it's nothing to shout about yet. They seem to have moved from North Warren, so if anyone knows where there are any starlings roosting on the Suffolk coast, please let us know.

    Bewick's swans by Jon Evans

    Other wildlife at Island Mere this week has included up to nine snipe, regular bitterns, bearded tits, otters and kingfishers, and several marsh harriers. A ringtail hen harrier was seen earlier in the week. I was lucky enough to walk into Island Mere Hide on Monday lunchtime when a dog otter was porpoising across the mere, then to watch it eating a fish. The coots weren't happy though.

    On the Scrape we still have a single redhead smew, a few pintails and our first avocet of the spring, with one or two black-tailed godwits, dunlins and redshanks present most days, as well as four turnstones. There are, of course, large flocks of commoner ducks and lapwings too. A short-eared owl has been spotted on a few occasions too.

    In the woods there are flocks of redwings, siskins and long-tailed tits, red deer and drumming great spotted woodpeckers. A great spot is also regular around the feeders at the visitor centre, which we're having to fill up three times a day due to the numbers of tits and finches feeding there. This is a good time of year to spot marsh tits on the feeders. Bullfinches don't visit the feeders, but are often seen around the car park.

    With cold weather forecast this week, maybe we'll find more smew or swans dropping in over the next few days.

    Bullfinch by Sue Tranter (

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 24 January 2015

    Spring is round the corner

    Next Sunday, 1 February, we switch to summer opening at Minsmere. This means that the visitor centre remains open until 5 pm, and the cafe hours switch to 9.30 am to 4.45 pm. To help us to get ready for spring, the cafe will be closing early on Monday, at 2.30 pm, for a deep clean, so if you're planning to visit that day make sure you get your refreshments early.

    Our opening times aren't the only impending signs of spring, as the first avocet returned to the Scrape yesterday. It is still present today.

    Even more surprisingly, I saw a cow parsley plant in full flower on my way to work on Thursday - that's at least three months early! Of course, snowdrops are flowering in many gardens now, and our daffodils are already sprouting nicely.

    It has felt rather springlike today too, with almost unbroken blue skies, though the breeze has made it feel chilly at times. Apart from the avocet, there have been some good sightings too. The redhead smew remains on East Scrape, along with a pair of pintails, and was joined today by a dunlin and four turnstones. Bearded tits showed very close to the path between South Hide and the sluice. Bitterns were seen at Bittern Hide and Island Mere. Two whooper swans were on Island Mere, where the female otter and two cubs were seen, followed later by the lone dog otter. Redwings, goldcrests and bullfinches were all seen in the woods and a stonechat along the North Wall.

    And, of course, our feeders were extremely busy, with a constant stream of tits and finches feeding on them. I hope you feeders are well stocked for the Big Garden Birdwatch tomorrow - or that you did the count today. Don't forget you can enter your results at 

    A coal tit by Ben Hall ( - one of the birds on Minsmere's feeders

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 19 January 2015

    A busy week

    While I've been enjoying some extremely memorable birdwatching in Portugal (this isn't the place to relate the stories unfortunately), it's been a really busy week at Minsmere.

    Work has progressed well on building the new fence around the Scrape. The bank on which the fence will sit has been raised in places, though there is some earth-moving to do. The first stretches of the fence itself have now been constructed too, as can be seen from this photo taken at lunchtime today looking left from North Hide. Work will continue until at least the middle of February, so there will continue to be disturbance on the Scrape for several weeks yet.

    Meanwhile, in the reedbed we've had the amphibious reed-cutting machine called the Truxor back to carry out important clearance work. This machine can access much wetter areas than the wardens can on foot. It cuts the reed and scoops it into piles beside the cut areas. North Marsh has already been cut - see photo below - and today they were cutting in front of Bittern Hide.

    Last week the Truxor was also used to clear encroaching vegetation from the pond, ready for the arrival of school groups to go pond dipping in the spring.

    Other exciting bits of machinery were in use last week too as the Soft-track and Piston Bully were demonstrated. These big machines have been used to cut reed and fen vegetation, gathering the cut material and storing it a large plastic bag. Here it is dried and turned into briquettes for use as biofuel - a process that was also demonstrated for the first time last week. This is part of a DECC-funded project to create a renewable energy product from the annual habitat management programme on nature reserves.

    With so much work going on you could be forgiven for thinking that there would be no wildlife to see at Minsmere, but that's far from the case. Bitterns, otters, snipe and bearded tits continue to show at Island mere every day. The redhead smew is still favouring the South Scrape. Hundreds of commoner ducks are present - mostly on the Levels. Flocks of tits and finches in the woods include siskins, lesser redpolls, bullfinches and marsh tits. Birds of prey this week have included hen harrier, short-eared owl and peregrine as well as the regular marsh harriers, sparrowhawks and kestrels. While offshore highlights have included pomarine and great skuas, velvet scoter, grey seals and large flocks of red-throated divers and great crested grebes. Not forgetting, of course, many small birds on the birds feeders and groups of red deer in the woods.

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 9 January 2015

    Beautiful beards

    Or perhaps that should say "magnificent moustaches?" Either way, I'm talking about the same species. One of our most sought after birds. One of our most beautiful birds. And one that seems to be putting on a really good show this week. 

    I am, of course, talking about bearded tits. Tiny, orange-brown, long-tailed, reedbed-dwelling birds that often remain hidden from view for long periods, tantalisingly alerting you to their presence with high-pitched pinging calls. When they do finally reveal their presence it's all too often simply the merest of glimpses as they dash low over the reeds.

    But sometimes they let their guard down and finally show off their beauty to their adoring fans. Such moments of crazy abandon are rare, but winter can be a good time to spot them as they flit around the base of the reeds, gleaning tiny seeds from the surface of the mud or shallow water. Perhaps they'll even land on a path in front of you, pecking at tiny pieces of grit which they swallow to help grind the reed seeds into something more digestible. 

    And that's exactly what they've been doing. I spent an enjoyable ten minutes in Island mere yesterday watching a female bearded tit feeding on the ground, in the open, barely three metres from the hide. The male had been out a few minutes earlier too. Other visitors have watched them on the path near South Hide, while the reeds between Wildlife Lookout and the sluice have produced regular sightings of small flocks throughout the week.

    Bearded tits aren't actually tits, of course, but the only member of a family of birds more closely related to the parrotbills and babblers of Asia. Many people still use the old Broadland name of bearded reedling, or simply reedling, which somehow sounds so much more poetic. Most birdwatchers refer to them simply as beardies. But none of these names is really correct as the magnificent black feathering protruding from above the male beardie's bill is more of a moustache then a beard. In fact, it probably wouldn't look out of place on a Hollywood baddy.

    Bearded tits (female, top, and male) by Jon Evans

    Beardies aren't the only elusive species that if flouting the rules and showing off to visitors at Island Mere. Bitterns have regularly been feeding in the open close to the hide - though the one I spotted this morning was reluctant to poke his head far from the sanctuary of the reeds. Otters are still being seen daily, often for several minutes at a time, with a family of three (mum and two cubs) being the most frequently seen. They were in the pool to the right of the hide before I arrived this morning. The snipe at island Mere are, however, sticking to type and proving difficult to spot among the cut reed stems, while water rails and Cetti's warblers are, as usual, more likely to be heard than seen.

    A panoramic view from Island Mere Hide - spot the bittern or beardie

    Most of the ducks and lapwings remain concentrated at South Scrape or the Levels due to ongoing fence and bank work, with the redhead smew and a handful of pintails still associating with the commoner species. Two peregrines and up to nine marsh harriers  continue to hassle the ducks too.

    In the woods, good sized flocks of redwings, blackbirds and a few fieldfares are feeding among the leaflet, siskins and a few lesser redpolls flit around the tops of alder trees, and flocks of tits may include goldcrests, treecreepers or even a wintering chiffchaff. And don't forget to look for some of our mammals too, with regular red deer and muntjac sightings, plus the occasional stoat, fox or even badger - the latter mainly after dark, as we head home.

    I'm hoping to be watching bustards, cranes and more in Portugal next week, so the next blog will be in about ten days time. What else will be spotted in my absence?

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 6 January 2015

    No ducking the issue

    As ever at this time of year it's ducks that dominate the reserve's birdlife at the moment, at least numerically. Large flocks of wigeons, gadwalls, teals, mallards and shovelers are feeding or loafing on the Scrape, Konik Field and Levels, with a several shelducks and a few pintails and tufted ducks mixed among them.

    One thing is different this winter, though. With work continuing (until late February) to replace the fence around the Scrape, there is a varying amount of disturbance on the Scrape. The location of the work varies each day, so it's best to check at reception on arrival to find out where the best places to watch the Scrape are. Today, for example, South Hide was the place to be, with good numbers of ducks roosting on the islands. Among them, the highlight for many is the redhead smew - though she can be mobile and has been turning up on Island Mere this week too.

    Redhead smew by Jon Evans

    For the biggest flocks of ducks, it's worth strolling south from the sluice - or along the temporary path to the Chapel Field - to look across the Minsmere Levels, where large flocks of ducks, lapwings and gulls are feeding and resting. Alternatively, why not head to North Warren, which has gained a justified reputation as the best place on the Suffolk coast to watch ducks and geese in winter, and has also hosted record numbers of black-tailed godwits this winter. You can watch the birds in more comfort at North Warren this winter too, as we've recently installed some new viewing platforms. And this Saturday you can join Dave, the warden, for a guided walk to learn more about this amazing reserve and identify the various species of ducks, geese, gulls and wading birds on the marshes. Dave's walk starts at 10 am from the Thorpe Road car park in Aldeburgh - near the Scallop sculpture. Please call the Minsmere visitor centre on 01728 648281 to book. Costs are £5 for RSPB members or £8 for non members.

    Back at Minsmere, the reedbed wildlife has continued to show itself regularly, providing you have both luck and patience. The family of three otters (mum and two cubs) are seen daily at Island Mere, with the dog and another family also popping up regularly. All are sometimes seen at Bittern Hide too. Bitterns are regular at both hides, and an elusive snipe or two are usually at Island Mere. Water rails and kingfishers are regular, while the best place for bearded tits at the moment is between South Hide and the sluice. Up to eight marsh harriers can be seen hunting over the reedbed, or coming to roost at dusk, when up to three barn owls have been seen at Eastbridge.

    Male marsh harrier by Jon Evans

    With many birdwatching starting a new year list, some of our woodlands become more popular in early Janaury too, so we're getting more reports than usual of treecreepers, goldcrests and bullfinches. A female brambling the visitor centre reception building was popular again yesterday.

    Of course, otters aren't the only mammals on show either. Grey squirrels and rabbits are almost guaranteed, and many visitors bump into either  a red deer or muntjac - or both - but I was lucky enough to spot one of our badgers as I drove home last night, and a fox posed for the camera at Island Mere over the weekend - Rob Munro's picture on Twitter was very popular.

    As I look at a beautiful sunset, following a rather dull day, I wonder if any starlings will be seen tonight. There was a good roost again on Friday evening, with birds settling in front of Bittern Hide and at the west end of the reedbed  - near Eastbridge - but we've not heard any news from the last few evenings.

    Finally, a reminder to put a date in your diary for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch on 24/25 January. I'll post more about this closer to the time.

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 3 January 2015

    A New Year bonus

    News broke via our Twitter page of a potentially very rare visitor to Minsmere on New Year's Eve - though no-one had yet seen it!

    Scientists in Sweden, monitoring the movements of a lesser white-fronted goose fitted with a GPS tracker, had noted it's departure from the Norwegian coast the previous day, and the GPS signal revealed that it roosted on the Scrape at Minsmere. Lesser white-fronted geese are globally threatened, and with the rapidly declining Scandinavian breeding population, have become exceptionally rare visitors to the UK in recent years - they usually spend the winter around the Black Sea. In an attempt to arrest this decline, some of these dainty geese have been bred in captivity and released alongside the few remaining native birds in Sweden, where they quickly assimilate with the wild birds. This autumn, a group of four young lesser white-fronts became separated from the main flock, and spent some time on the Norwegian coast with other geese species. One wore a GPS transmitter. It seems they have now headed southwest, to the Suffolk coast.

    Despite roosting on the Scrape, these birds were not actually seen at Minsmere, but were finally relocated on Wednesday afternoon at nearby North Warren, feeding alongside almost 200 European white-fronts, 20 tundra bean geese, and the usual large flocks of barnacle, Canada and greylag geese. GPS reading suggest the four lesser white-fronts are roosting on the Alde Estuary, and were feeding at Sudbourne Marshes (south of Aldeburgh) this morning, but there is a good chance they will return to North Warren to feed too. Will they return to Minsmere though?

    Here's a brief video by RSPB South Suffolk Warden, David Fairhurst, showing the lesser white-fronts feeding with their European cousins at North Warren.

    It wasn't a bad start to the year here at Minsmere either. A lovely redhead smew has arrived and is commuting between the Scrape and Island Mere. The otters, bitterns and water rails have been showing well at both Bittern Hide and Island Mere, while bearded tits are best near South Hide. A kingfisher has been at Bittern Hide too.

    A redhead smew by Jon Evans

    Out on the Scrape, a few dunlins and pintails have joined the large flocks of lapwings and ducks. The unusual leucistic (largely white) lapwing is still present, favouring the Levels. 

    In the woods there are flocks of redwings, fieldfares and siskins, with the odd redpoll among them, but the brambling at the visitor centre hasn't been reported for a few days. A wintering chiffchaff was seen near the WIldlife Lookout today too.

    Don't forget, too, that Minsmere has been nominated in the nature reserve of the year category in the Countryfile Awards. Please vote for us at Voting closes on 31 January.

    Here's to a wildlife filled 2015 for you all.

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 24 December 2014

    Happy Christmas and farewell to a great year

    Wow, what an amazing year.

    Minsmere's fame spread in the spring when the Springwatch cameras arrived - and what superb footage they got of bitterns, reed warblers, goldfinches, adders, badger and, of course Grub the tawny owl. 

    With increased awareness of what a brilliant place Minsmere is, many new visitors arrived to discover it for themselves - and many have been rewarded with sightings of otters, bitterns or beewolfs for the first time - or even much commoner species like pintail, black-tailed godwit or marsh harrier. 

    Many of these visitors have joined the RSPB, perhaps for the first time, which is great news as more members means more support for wildlife, and more money to continue to manage the reserve for the wildlife that we all love watching.

    Of course, there have been some unusual visitors during the year too, including a very popular collared pratincole, a long staying great white egret, and the first UK record of yellow-legged tortoiseshell for 60 years.

    it was the most successful breeding season ever for bitterns, and a good year for bearded tits, woodlarks and stone-curlews, but it was a bit of a disaster for avocets, common terns and black-headed gulls thanks to the egg-eating badger.

    Bittern by Jon Evans

    As the year draws to a close - this will be my last blog of 2014 - it' gives us time to draw breath before we start planning for 2015. It's also time celebrate as Minsmere has been nominated as Britain's best nature reserve in both the LandLove Magazine and Countryfile awards. Please help us by clicking on the links to vote. the LandLove awards close on 4 January, but you have until 31 January to vote in the Countryfile awards. We were also nominated, but unsuccessful, in the Bordwatch magazine Birders Choice awards. It's great to be recognised by all three magazines.

    Following the BBC Radio Suffolk broadcast earlier this month (which should still on the I-Player for another week), we welcomed BBC Radio Four's Open Country programme to Minsmere last week. You can hear Christine, Ellie and myself chatting to the presenter, Helen, on New Year's Day at 3 pm - on longwave only. The programme will be repeated on Saturday 3 January at 6 am, or on the I-player afterwards.

    I'd like to remind you that Minsmere is closed on Christmas Day and Boxing Day ( we need a rest from time to time), but we'll be open daily from Saturday 27 December, as usual. 

    There will be plenty of good reasons to visit, with sightings of bitterns, otters, marsh harrier and winter thrushes every day recently. The two whooper swans were still present yesterday too, and a female goldeneye is on East Scrape again today. Probably the most unusual, and distinctive bird at the moment is a lapwing, but not any ordinary lapwing. We have a very pale (leucistic) lapwing that is mostly white with a pale brown head and breastband. It's a lovely looking bird, and was feeding in the field behind the visitor centre this morning, visible from the North Wall.

    All that's left for me to say is a very merry Christmas and happy New Year from all at Minsmere. Thanks for your continued support this year.

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 18 December 2014

    Counting down

    It's an exciting time in our household, as in many around the country, as we count down the days until Christmas. Advent calendars are opened to reveal festive pictures, chocolates, or in our case little Lego toys that will make a lovely Christmas scene when finished. With only seven more sleeps till Christmas, the excitement is really building. Will Father Christmas bring us what we want?

    Midwinter is an exciting time for watching wildlife too. OK, so migration is less obvious, and the species variety may not change much from day to day, but choose a sunny day and the colours are just superb, with golden reedbeds brought to life by the setting sun, clear blue skies reflected in the water, and vast flocks of ducks parading their finest colours.

    For me, one of the most beautiful and colourful of British birds is the fieldfare - a thrush that visits us from Scandinavia every winter. There are still good numbers feeding on berries in the North Bushes, alongside their smaller cousins the redwings. Look out for these thrushes in your gardens if the temperatures ever decide to drop below zero for any length of time. Another winter visitor that may appear in gardens in cold weather is the brambling, and one of these pretty little finches continues to feed among the chaffinches behind the visitor centre reception building.

    Many of the ducks have moved from their usual winter home on the Scrape as work continues to replace the aging fence. The diggers will remain on site until Tuesday, then break for Christmas, so the Scrape should be much busier over the holiday period (don't forget that Minsmere is closed on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, though you can still watch the Scrape from the Public Viewpoint on the beach). If the ducks aren't on the Scrape, then look for them on the Minsmere Levels, which can be watched from the dunes south of the sluice. Alternatively, try out the temporary path across the Chapel Field and watch from beside the 12th Century ruin of Leiston Abbey.

    The view across the Levels from the Chapel Field

    There's lots to see within the reedbed too, with otters and bitterns continuing to be seen almost every day at Island Mere. The Suffolk Mammal Group are monitoring our otters and would like to know details of any sightings, so please record locations, numbers and activity either in the visitor sightings book in reception or in the specially provided book at Island Mere. 

    Other reedbed wildlife this week has included up to 12 marsh harrier, especially in late afternoon, a ghostly male hen harrier yesterday, the two whooper swans and singing Cetti's warblers that refuse to reveal themselves.

    An oystercatcher was an unseasonal visitor yesterday, while lapwings snipe and a few curlews can be spotted around the reserve, but winter is not a good time of year to spot waders at Minsmere due to high water levels. 

    It's also worth keeping an eye on the sea. As well as the regular red-throated divers, great crested grebes and common scoters, several gannets were seen flying past today. Monday was a bit of a red-letter day for sea mammals too, with sightings of grey seal harbour porpoise, and (most surprisingly) a dolphin. The latter are rarely seen from the Suffolk coast, and species ID was not confirmed, but bottle-nosed dolphin is thought most likely. 

    Other mammals to look out for at Minsmere in winter include red deer, muntjac, rabbit and grey squirrel. Foxes or stoats may be seen chasing the rabbits too.

    This stoat posed at Bittern Hide for Steve Everitt earlier this year

    Posted by Ian Barthorpe

  • 11 December 2014

    A ode to starlings

    Last night I took advantage of a beautiful evening and cancelled meeting to head out onto the path between Wildlife Lookout and South Hide to watch the starling murmuration. It was such a beautiful evening that I've been inspired to write a rare poem. 

    An icy wind blows from the north

    As winter’s teeth begin to bite.

    Wrapped up warm against the chill

    I stand, and wait, in fading light.


    Spooked by some unseen predator

    Lapwings flicker black and white

    While golden glows the setting sun

    As another day turns into night.

    Reeds sway in the quickening breeze

    So dance the season’s heads of seeds

    While hidden deep a rail squeals

    And reedlings ping from distant reeds.


    Flights of ducks wheel overhead

    And lazily a heron flaps

    How do they all know where to go

    With no SatNav or even maps?


    A distant wave raises hopes

    That the stars may soon murmur

    But sadly, no they fail to come

    Tonight I’ll miss the sight I came for.


    Tonight the starlings continued southward

    To roost elsewhere, where have they gone?

    Two bugling whooper swans arrive

    In time to bid safe journey home.


    (OK, so this is a mute swan, but it was too dark to photograph the whooper's when they landed)

    We'd love to hear your poems too. You can post them on our Forum or share them on the RSPB Suffolk Facebook page

    PS: In the absence of starlings there's still lots to see - peregrines, marsh harriers, fieldfares, redwings and even a brief waxwing were all seen today.

    PPS: for the sake of poetry I've used the term reedling, which is the old Norfolk name for bearded tits, while by rail I mean water rail.

    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)

Smew ()
31 Jan 2015
Pomarine Skua (1)
30 Jan 2015
Marsh Harrier (4)
29 Jan 2015
Kingfisher (1)
29 Jan 2015
Whooper Swan (2)
27 Jan 2015
Bittern (1)
27 Jan 2015
Avocet (1)
27 Jan 2015
Black-tailed Godwit (2)
27 Jan 2015
Bewick's Swan (14)
26 Jan 2015
Water Rail (2)
26 Jan 2015

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

Get directions

Note: Some reserves are not served directly by public transport and, in these cases, a nearby destination (from which you may need to walk or take a taxi or ferry) may be offered.