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It's certainly been a wet few days at Minsmere, as elsewhere in the country, and it pays to keep an eye on any approaching black clouds before deciding to move on to the next hide as showers continue ot rattle through on a regular basis. Some of them are pretty heavy too.
Storm clouds over the North Wall recently
It paid to keep your eyes to the skies for another reason yesterday as three different large birds were spotted over the reedbed during the morning: an osprey was seen twice over Island Mere and Eastbridge; a red kite passed over Island Mere again; and a pomarine skua did a couple of circuit over both the Scrape and Island Mere. The latter is a particularly notable record, as skuas are generally only spotted passing by offshore, and rarely offer good views to visitors.
It's been a little quieter today, but we've had another sighting of the red kite, as well as the more typical marsh harriers, bitterns and hobby at Island Mere.
A red kite by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
Not to be outdone, there's been some good birds on the Scrape over the last few days too, although you may have check carefully and patiently to find some of them. The little gull flock on South Scrape has fluctuated between about 20 and 50 birds, with one or two Mediterranean and yellow-legged gulls seen on East Scrape. Both arctic and black terns have been among the common terns, as well as the odd Sandwich tern.
The rainfall has caused a notable rise in water levels on the Scrape, resulting in a slight redistribution of waders, with South Scrape often stealing the limelight. A little stint was seen there yesterday, alongside 13 dunlins, four knot and five ringed plovers, plus the odd spotted redshank. An oystercatcher chick is still being fed close to the hide, while several fledged redshanks can be seen on the Konik Field. For green and common sandpipers and greenshanks it's often best to try the Wildlife Lookout, while avocets and black-tailed godwits favour East Scrape. At least one little ringed plover is still present too.
Don't forget the ducks too. Althoguh harder to identify at this time of year as they lose their bright colours during the annual moult, you may be able to see mallards, gadwalls, teals and shovelers on the Scrape. the mallards and shelducks still have ducklings too - though they are now well grown. At Island Mere look out for the great crested and little grebes too.
Despite the rain there's still a good variety of insects to spot too. Dragonflies include common and ruddy darters, southern hawkers and black-tailed skimmers. Large whites and gatekeepers are the most numerous butterflies, but look out for painted ladies, red admirals and peacocks as well as the odd white admiral on the buddleias near the visitor centre. There's numerous species of hoverlflies and bees too, and the bee-wolfs are always popular in the North Bushes.
Don't forget to look at our flowers too. Delicate pink marsh mallows line the path to the sluice, purple tufted vetch climbs through the reed edge and impressively tall yellow marsh sow-thistles tower above the reeds, while on the beach look for pink restharrow and deep blue sheep's-bit.
Restharrow and sea holly in the dunes.
Posted by Ian Barthorpe
When the radio crackled into life with news of the first sightings of the day, they announcement was almost (!) as much of a surprise as the recent records of bee-eaters and an albatross. Bearing in mind the date (23 July), the report of seven brent geese flying south was unexpected. We wouldn't usually expect the first brent geese to appear until the first week of September. To arrive this early suggests that they may have had a poor breeding season in the Arctic.
Many of our other wildlife highlights at present are also heading south from the Arctic, or at least farther north in Europe, having either finished or failed breeding. Waders dominate on the Scrape, with counts today including 120 dunlins, two knots, three little ringed plovers, 36 black-tailed godwits, five ruffs, a common sandpiper, seven spotted redshanks and a greenshank. Add in more than 200 avocets and it's looking pretty good on the Scrape. There are also 42 little gulls and at least one of each of Caspian, Mediterranean and yellow-legged gulls (with bigger counts usually possible at dusk), as well as two Sandwich and lots of common terns.
Little gull by Jon Evans
At Island Mere highlights included a kingfisher, three otters, bitterns and marsh harriers, including several juveniles.
Elsewhere, the water vole was again seen at the pond, and a white admiral was in the cafe picnic area. There are good numbers of painted ladies on the buddleias, and an impressive variety of butterflies in general. A hummingbird hawkmoth was seen yesterday. Pick of the dragonflies today was a banded demoiselle near the South Hide - they've been scarce on the reserve this year.
Among the many flowers on the reserve at the moment, one of my favourites is the marsh mallow, with its pale pink flowers and soft, velvety leaves. It's a common plant along the path from Wildlife Lookout to the sluice - though nationally it has a relatively restricted distribution.
marsh mallow by Ian Barthorpe
Finally, a reminder that the consultation on the future of two important pieces of European nature conservation legislation closes tomorrow. If you haven't done so already, please join almost half a million people across Europe who have expressed their support for our campaign to ensure that the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive are not weakened during this review. It's really easy to do so, as we've already answered the questions for you. Please go to http://www.rspb.org.uk/joinandhelp/campaignwithus/defendnature/ today to add your voice.
Minsmere's wardens and volunteers carry out regular moth trapping throughout the year. The most commonly used technique for moth trapping is to set up a special trap with a powerful light. The light attracts moths which are then caught, alive, in the box beneath. Later at night, or early the following morning, the trap is opened and moths are identified, counted and released.
Over many years of trapping at Minsmere, our Site Manager, Robin Harvey, has recorded a superb variety of moths, including rare migrants and scarce local breeding species. He has twice recorded new species for the UK, one of which he even named after the reserve - the Minsmere crimson underwing.
Despite more than 1000 species of moths having been recorded on the reserve, there are still regularly new species added to the list. However, it's not often that two new species are added in the same week, but that was the case this week. What's more, another species was recorded for only the second time.
On Friday, Robin opened the traps to find the first reserve record of Metalampra italica. http://ukmoths.org.uk/show.php?id=6291. Like many moths, this species doesn't have an English name. The first Suffolk record was one in his garden in 2010 where another in 2014 would suggest it is resident. It also seems to have been resident at Dunwich since 2013, so may be a recent colonist. The only record away from these areas was one at Woolpit last year.
Metalampra italica - the first Minsmere record, by Robin Harvey
Over the weekend, another regular moth trapper, Marc Botham, was given permission to trap at Minsmere, and incredibly he found another new species for the reserve - a six-belted clearwing. This is a day-flying moth and, like most clearwings, can be tempted to pheromone lures (special scents that mimic the pheromones given off by females), but it has not been relocated at a lure today. Marc kindly took the moth to show to Robin, who later released it close to where it was found.
Six-belted clearwing by Robin Harvey - the 1117th species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) recorded at Minsmere
On Wednesday, Robin also caught only the second reserve record of the tree-lichen beauty. This beautiful moth was only recorded for the first time in the UK int he 1990s, but now seems to be resident in Suffolk, so we may begin to see it more frequently.
Tree-lichen beauty by Robin Harvey
Of course, most moths are nocturnal, so hard to spot, but sometimes you might find one resting by day. There are many day-flying species to look out for too. It looks to be a good year to find hummingbird hawkmoths, with many reported in gardens across the country, and it's always worth checking our buddleia bushes for this popular moth. The similar broad-bordered bee-hawkmoth is also a regular visitor to Minsmere's buddleias. In more open, grassy areas, such as the North Wall and dunes, look out for six-spotted burnet moths, or the black and yellow caterpillars of cinnabar moths too.
While on the subject of moths, it's worth a visit to the Canopy Hide to look for evidence of two of Minsmere's nocturnal residents. Brown long-eared bats are particularly partial to eating large yellow underwing moths, and you can see the discarded wings of the moth both in Canopy Hide and behind the visitor centre. It's unlikely that you'll see the moth though.
After the buzz of excitement on Monday and Tuesday surrounding "the Minsmere albatross", reality has returned to Minsmere. That's not to say that there's nothing exciting to see. Far from it, as there's still an amazing variety of wildlife to spot.
With the buddleias coming into full flower it's worth spending a while looking for butterflies at Minsmere. Among the commoner species, look out for graylings, white admirals and painted ladies, or perhaps a broad-bordered bee-hawkmoth or hummingbird hawkmoth. Keep your eyes peeled for rarer species too. A silver-washed fritillary was spotted along the Woodland Trail this morning, alongside tow white admirals. Silver-washed fritillaries are becoming more regular in Suffolk, with sightings at Minsmere over the last three or four years, and they may well establish a small breeding population soon. This is one of our largest butterflies.
silver-washed fritillary by Ian Barthorpe
The Woodland Trail is a good place to spot purple hairstreak butterflies too, but as they prefer to stay in the oak canopy the best place to watch them from is Canopy Hide.
In more open grassy parts of the reserve, such as Whin Hill, the North Wall or the dunes, look out for small copper, ringlet, meadow brown and grayling butterflies, large, small and Essex skippers, and the beautiful red and black six-spot burnet moths.
Not to be out done, there's a good selection of birds to spot too, especially around the Scrape. At least 170 avocets are still on the Scrape. Spotted redshanks and ruffs are still in their beautiful summer plumage, while other waders to look out for include green and common sandpipers, greenshanks, dunlins, bar- and black-tailed godwits, whimbrels, curlews, turnstones and knots - though they won't all be present every day.
Also on the Scrape, the common tern chicks are now fledging. Look out for a few Sandwich and little terns, while both adult and second year Arctic terns have been seen this week - the latter is an unusual plumage to see in the UK, with black beak, white forehead, and dark carpal patch in the wing. They are best told from similarly aged common terns (also rarely seen in the UK) by a shorter bill, shorter legs, and different wing pattern.
Lots of fledgling black-headed gulls are also on the Scrape, where careful checking among the gulls may reveal several little and Mediterranean gulls, adult and second year Caspian gulls, and possibly even a Caspian gull.
Within the reedbed, the reed, sedge and Cetti's warblers are less vocal, and hobbies are much less visible now that they are busy nesting, but bitterns, marsh harriers and bearded tits continue to be seen regularly. A family of water rails can sometimes be seen almost below the Island Mere hide. Careful scanning above the reedbed can usually reveal a common buzzard or two, but there have also been several sightings of a honey-buzzard this week. Sadly there have been no reports of the bee-eaters locally since last Thursday though.
Otters continue to be seen most days at Island Mere, with several sightings today, and water voles are regular at the pond. Look out around the pond for dragonflies too, while nearby the bee-wolfs can be seen carrying honeybees back to their nests in the bare sand alongside the path to the North Wall.
Bee wolf by Jon Evans
Even at Minsmere, with its superb variety of wildlife, every now and then something turns up that is so unexpected that it takes some believing.
Take, for instance, the amazing record of a humpback whale offshore in November 2013 - repeated again for one lucky group of observers last autumn.
Even this, though, was surpassed for unexpectedness by yesterday's totally bizarre sighting of an albatross.
Albatrosses are extremely rare in the North Atlantic (and even more so in the North Sea), but just occasionally birds are blown north by strong winds. Once north of the equator, they tend to stay on the wrong side of the globe, but as supreme ocean travellers they are very rarely seen from land. Just occasionally, albatrosses have been known to settle amongst large gannet colonies, as with a famous bird nick-named Albert that returned for many years to the gannet colony at Hermaness in Shetland. Others have spent a few years in colonies on the remote islands of St Kilda.
Last summer a black-browed albatross was located among gannets on the German island of Helgoland, where it was seen on several occasions by some lucky observers. This spring it returned to the same German colony, where it was last reported five days ago. The next day it was seen off the Danish coast, and British birdwatchers hoped that it might cross the North Sea and reward patient seawatchers with a distant flyby.
Yesterday it did, but not in quite the way that we expected. Rather than a distant, fleeting view offshore, this majestic bird was spotted by one of our wardens, Ian Salkeld, resting among mute swans on the pool behind South Hide! An adult black-browed albatross sitting on a freshwater pool on the East coast of England was bound to cause some incredulity, but luckily Ian was able to alert a photographer, Peter Hobbs, who grabbed a couple of quick photos.
Ian also alerted Adam Rowlands, Minsmere's senior site manager, who was on duty in the visitor centre, but before Adam had time to run the huge seabird took off, flew over the Scrape and out to sea, and was lost to view. Ian, Peter and just a couple of other lucky observers saw this amazing bird, which was seen for only about one minute. Where will it turn up next?
Peter's photographs of the Minsmere albatross can be seen by clicking here, but for those who don't know what a black-browed albatross looks like, here's one taken in its more natural home in the southern oceans by Ruedi Abbuehl (rspb-images.com).
Incredibly, there are actually two species of albatross in the North Atlantica t present as a yellow-nosed albatross photo-bombed on fin whale off the coast of Iceland recently. so perhaps there's a chance that yesterday's sighting could be repeated.
Albatrosses are among the most threatened group of birds in the world as a result of birds being caught on the hooks of longline fishing boats in the southern oceans. The RSPB has been working work our Birdlife International partners for many years to protect albatrosses and other seabirds by working alongside fishermen to reduce this unnecessary bycatch. You read more about our Save the Albatross campaign here.
Sadly I didn't see the Minsmere albatross, but I have been fortunate enough to see both this species and three other types of albatross in the South Atlantic from a boat out of Cape Town - one of the best birdwatching experiences of my life. I hope one day to have the chance to see more, but I doubt that chance will ever come again at Minsmere. Stranger things have happened though - we never expected to get a second humpback whale.
Of course, there were other species seen at Minsmere over the weekend, but I'll update on those tomorrow.
Minsmere is widely known as one of the best birdwatching sites in the UK, but it is, of course, much more than that. It is, quite simply, one of the best nature reserves in the UK - whatever type of wildlife you are interested in.
A quick look at some of the highlights from today's sightings board shows some of the variety here, with mammals, reptiles and moths all listed.
Our very popular water vole was seen again at the pond this morning. A baby has been spotted on the pond in the last few days too. Three otters were at Island Mere again this morning. Other mammals that are usually easy to see include rabbits, grey squirrels, red deer and muntjac, while stoats and weasels are regular too.
An adder was seen around the adder trail this afternoon. While it's becoming harder to spot these beautiful snakes in the warmer weather, one of my colleagues was delayed from going home on Saturday when this female adder curled up against the tyre of his car.
Ringlet and meadow brown butterflies are now numerous on the grassy areas, and are probably the commonest butterflies here at the moment. Cinnabar moth caterpillars are busily munching through ragwort too. We haven't yet had reports of white admiral, purple hairstreak or grayling at Minsmere, but all three have been reported locally so keep your eyes peeled. It has, however, been a good day for hawkmoths. A stunning pair of poplar hawkmoths were photographed close to the adder trail today, and a beautiful broad-bordered bee-hawkmoth was feeding on the buddleias close to the visitor centre at lunchtime. Here's one of the latter from a couple of years ago.
Of course, there are some good birds to look for too. A pair of little ringed plovers were spotted behaving very defensively on the dunes today, suggesting that they might even have chicks despite this not being a typical habitat for them. One adult was also seen on the Scrape. Other waders present include about 20 spotted redshanks, almost 300 avocets, a couple of ruffs, several dunlins and ringed plovers and at least 100 black-tailed godwits on the Scrape.
The little gull count has peaked at 23 so far, while a couple of juvenile Mediterranean gulls this morning suggests successful breeding somewhere locally - one pair appears to be nesting here.
Bitterns continue to show well at times, marsh harrier chicks are now fledging and can be easily spotted perched or flapping across the reeds, and bearded tits have been seen at both Island Mere and the North Wall. Best of all, over the west end of the reedbed today, a honey-buzzard was spotted soaring on thermals with a common buzzard and two marsh harriers this morning. Honey-buzzards are scarce breeding birds in the UK, but this must have been a wandering individual as they don't nest locally. It provided a useful comparison with the other two more familiar raptors.
Finally, just a couple of miles away from Minsmere, a flock of 11 bee-eaters spent a few hours in Leiston on Sunday, where they were often perched on wires. They flew off towards Minsmere, but haven't been relocated.
This brown hawker was a surprise guest in the visitor centre yesterday
Today has probably been the best day of the summer so far with unbroken clear blue skies and a gentle cooling breeze making a walk around Minsmere's nature trails very pleasant - and much less oppressive than further inland. It was less comfortable in some of the hides, as they quickly heat up like greenhouses, but with so much wildlife to look for there's no need to spend too long in the hides.
One popular species today, for those lucky enough to see or hear it, was a turtle dove in the North Bushes. You may have seen elsewhere on the RSPB community that our scientists have recently discovered valuable information about turtle dove migration thanks to GPS tags fitted to a bird called Titan, which was ringed just down the road near Sizewell. Turtle doves are one of most rapidly declining species, in serious risk of extinction within my lifetime, so it is always a joy to see one and hear their gentle purring call.
Turtle dove by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Shortly after seeing this lovely dove at lunchtime, a couple of visitors pointed out another elusive bird to me - a water rail preening in the open on one of the pools along the North Wall. While not rare birds at Minsmere, it's not often that you get such good views as this.
Despite rapidly falling water levels on the Scrape (the result of the almost total lack of recordable rain for several weeks), there was a superb variety of birds on show from East Hide. The avocet chicks are mostly full grown now, but common tern and black-headed gull chicks could be seen wandering around most of the islands, while a pair of oystercatchers fed their three chicks close to the hide. Oystercatchers are unusual among waders in that the parents provide food for the chicks - most wader chicks are independent from day one. At one point the oystercatchers fed alongside a lovely summer plumage dunlin and a winter plumage turnstone, as well as a pied wagtail.
Oystercatcher and chick with pied wagtail and turnstone by Ian Barthorpe
Wader migration is really in full swing. Among the 150+ black-tailed godwits and 20+ redshanks on East Scrape today were, at various times, up to 30 knots, four bar-tailed godwits, ten beautiful summer plumage spotted redshanks, two ruffs, two little ringed plovers and two ringed plovers. There's also been a small passage of curlews over the last few days. Adding to the variety are various species of gulls - black-headed, Mediterranean (often in double figures), little (one or two), lesser black-backed and herring - and a couple of Sandwich terns. There are broods of mallards and shelducks on the Scrape and a few teal alongside gadwalls and shovelers, but with most ducks now in their eclipse (moult) plumage they are harder to identify. Luckily, our volunteer guides are often on hand to help.
The view from East Hide - how many species can you identify? Photo by Ian Barthorpe
Elsewhere, the sand martins are extremely busy around their colony, bitterns and marsh harriers continue to feed chicks, hobbies are active over the reedbed, and two pairs of great crested grebes have chicks at Island Mere.
One benefit of the warm dry weather is that it brings the insects out. There are increasing numbers and variety of dragonflies, butterflies, hoverflies and day flying moths to look for, several crickets and grasshoppers are now chirruping - and a few biting insects! Highlights of my lunchtime walk today included egg-laying emperor dragonflies, meadow brown and small tortoiseshell butterflies and this gorgeous six-spot burnet moth.
The North Wall has been the place to be at Minsmere recently. Following on from the red-spotted bluethroat, then some incredibly showy bearded tits, we've had regular bittern sightings from there and then last week's bee-eater. Today, in a case of deja vu, a small crowd of staff, volunteers and visitors gathered again at the west end of the North Wall to look for the latest rare visitor at Minsmere. OK, so red-backed shrikes are not as rare as bee-eaters or bluethroats, but it's unusual to find one in late June, and this was a fine male too.
Found by one of our volunteers at lunchtime, this shrike could be difficult to locate as it seemed to favour the inland edge of a line of bramble and elder scrub - that's the far side of the bushes from where were watching from. At least it seemed to favour a dead bush, giving most of us a chance to see it if we were patient enough.
A male red-backed shrike feeding chicks by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Red-backed shrikes used to be common breeding birds in the UK, but ceased breeding in the late 1980s as a result of habitat loss, landuse change and egg collecting. They are now only passage migrants, but occur annually at Minsmere - usually in the autumn.
While the shrike was the star bird today, there's plenty of other interesting species to watch. While I was looking for the shrike I saw, among others, bittern, grey heron, kestrel, whitethroat and linnet, with bearded tit and reed warbler further along the North Wall. Add in the variety of waders, gulls and terns that can be seen on the Scrape, marsh harriers and hobbies from the reedbed hides, and woodpeckers, tits and finches in the woods and there's lots of birds to see.
Mammal fans will benefit from spending time at the pond, where both water vole and water shrew were seen today. Insect enthusiasts will be kept entertained too. I saw Norfolk hawker along the North Wall, and there's a good mix of dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies to see, as well as beetles and crickets in suitable habitat. And, of course, there's a superb variety of flowers.
As regular readers of these blogs will know, Minsmere has an amazing variety of wildlife, from majestic red deer to minute fungi, but some species remain hidden from view, below ground of beneath the water. Just occasionally they may leave the safety of their burrows or pond, affording visitors a rare glimpse.
During a Father's Day visit with my family on Sunday we were lucky enough to find one of these soil dwellers on the surface. Just outside the visitor centre, we paused to look at the antlion larval pits when my wife spotted something moving across the surface. Scooping it up for a closer look I quickly realised it was an antlion larva.
An antlion larva by Ian Barthorpe
It was a rare opportunity to look carefully at a creature that we talk a lot about but rarely see. These larva usually remain below ground, digging themselves a shallow conical pit in loose sand. They remain buried at the base of this pit, waiting for a hapless ant to fall in, then flick grains at sand at it until it falls to the bottom. They then use those impressive pincers to grab the ant and eat it - hence the name. Many of the larva were flicking grains of sand on Sunday as they enlarged their pits. The adult antlions, when they emerge, are nocturnal so also rarely seen, except in a moth trap.
Another species whose presence at Minsmere is obvious but it is rarely seen itself is the mole. Although mole hills are found in most of Minsmere's habitats, it's a species that few people get to see. This morning one of our wardens was lucky enough to spot a mole crawling along the ground close to the Wildlife Lookout. It stayed out long enough for her to get a quick photo before disappearing ointo the more familiar habitat of a dark underground burrow.
Mole by Christine Hall
Some of our hole-dwelling species are easier to see, of course. As well as the numerous rabbits, there's the sand martins nesting close to the visitor centre. Watch carefully and you may spot the chicks waiting at the entrance hole of their burrow for their parents to bring them a meal. Close to here, the water vole is continuing to show well at times in the pond, even when school groups are pond dipping.
Another rare observation on Sunday was a damselfly larva swimming close to the nesting sticklebacks in the ditch near Wildlife Lookout. Although we often catch these while pond dipping, we don't often see them at other times. The sticklebacks themselves are still attracting a lot of attention - and there is a sign at Island Mere pointing out where Spineless Si is fanning is fry.
There's a good variety of adult dragonflies and damselflies to spot now. I saw my first emperor dragonfly of the year - our biggest species - on Sunday, as well as hairy dragonflies, norfolk hawkers, broad-bodied and four-spotted chasers, black-tailed skimmers and several damselfly species.
Large red damselfly by Ian Barthorpe
Then, of course, there's the birds. With wader migration getting underway, recent sightings on the Scrape have included common sandpiper, knot, dunlins, juvenile little ringed plovers and some very dapper summer plumage spotted redshanks, as well as redshank, avocets and oystercatchers all with chicks and up to 300 black-tailed godwits. There are several little gulls and the first Sandwich terns and little terns are beginning to return from colonies elsewhere. If you stay until dusk there's a good gull roost on the Scrape too, with highlights including at least 50 Mediterranean and five yellow-legged gulls - some of which may be spotted by day.
Cuckoos are still calling around the reedbed, and a turtle dove was heard in the North Bushes yesterday. Families of tits, finches and warblers can be spotted flitting around the woods or among the reeds, and bitterns continue to show very well at Island Mere and the North Wall.
With so much variety, why don't you plan another visit to see us soon.
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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