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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.
Posted by Ian Barthorpe
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.
The early indications are that we're set for one of the best breeding seasons at Minsmere for a long time. Indeed several records look like being broken.
One record that has been broken this morning is for the biggest ever flock of bee-eaters to be seen in Suffolk. Adam Rowlands, our Senior Sites manager, was lucky enough to see an incredible flock of ten of these stunningly beautiful birds flying low over the Levels at 8 am this morning. Sadly, unlikely Monday's bird, they didn't hang around and flew quickly north, being seen by only one or two other people. Will they return? Where will they turn up next?
It seems like a good excuse to use this lovely bee-eater photo again. Photo by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Our survey work so far this year has revealed some impressive figures for some breeding birds too. For example, we've found a staggering 125 singing male Cetti's warblers - one of the species featured in the recent BBC Springwatch series. It was only in the 1960s that this essentially Mediterranean species first colonised the UK, and as recently as the mid 1990s it was still a scarce breeding bird in Suffolk.
It's been a record year for bitterns nesting in the UK, with more than 150 booming males counted for the first time. This includes about 40 males in Somerset, and 80 throughout East Anglia. We had 12 males here at Minsmere - the best total since 1976 and more than the entire UK population in 1997! We've already found ten nests too, so there are good signs that the bittern population will continue to rise.
Marsh harriers have had a good, if not spectacular, season, with nine nests found, and the 33 pairs of bearded tits found is the bests for several years - though the latter is only likely to represent part of the entire population as it's hard to count this species accurately.
It's been a great year on the Scrape too. The 60 pairs of avocets have already produced 56 chicks, many of which are close to fledging. This is already the highest count since 1987, and many pairs are currently have second attempt after failing with their first brood. There are 133 pairs of common terns, with many chicks now hatching. Black-headed gulls have many chicks too, though the number of pairs is significantly down on recent years. There were 20 pairs of redshanks, and several adults are still displaying which suggests that chicks may still be lurking in the long vegetation. Even better news, is that the 41 pairs of lapwings was also a reserve record.
A lapwing on the Scrape yesterday by Ian Barthorpe
Also on the Scrape this week are the first signs that autumn is approaching (even before the longest day on Sunday!) There were three juvenile little ringed plovers yesterday, which have not been born here, as well as three spotted redshanks and a wood sandpiper returning south from the Arctic. One or two Sandwich terns and an Arctic tern are probably failed breeders from elsewhere around the North Sea too.
For many visitors, the first birds they see at Minsmere are the sand martins that nest close to the cafe. While not quite a record year, the 220+ occupied burrows is slightly up on last year and the highest total since 1987. It's great to see so many feeding over the Scrape and reedbeds. While the hobbies are still feeding on dragonflies at the moment, they may be on the lookout for fledgling sand martins soon.
A juvenile sand martin by Jon Evans
Talking of fledglings, there are large flocks of tits and finches around the reserve. I'm pleased to say that the great tits fledged successfully from the cone this morning, and I've seen family parties of long-tailed tits roaming through the woods.
We haven't been able to check on the barn owl chicks since the cameras were removed, but Spineless Si is still busy fanning his eggs.
With the return of warmer sunny weather today, the reserve has been alive with buzzing, flitting, chasing and feeding insects. A quick walk this afternoon revealed a superb variety of butterflies, damselflies, dragonflies, hoverflies and bumblebees.
Possibly the best place to watch dragonflies and damselflies at the moment is in the ditch just before you reach Wildlife Lookout (when walking from South Belt Crossroads). Ten minutes stood here produced excellent views of my first emerald damselflies of the year, plus all of our blue damselfly species - common blue, azure, variable and blue-tailed. A couple of late hairy dragonflies were patrolling the ditch, while male black-tailed skimmers rested on the path. This ditch is also a great place to see sticklebacks and roach - two of our commonest fish species.
Probably the most numerous dragonfly on the wing at the moment is the four-spotted chaser, though these are best found around brambles in woodland clearings, where lots of smaller insects provide ample prey. Look out too for Norfolk dragonflies in these areas.
Four-spotted chaser by Ian Barthorpe
These bramble bushes are also good places to look for butterflies. Speckled woods were numerous today, and the first meadow brown was near Bittern Hide. Lots of pristine red admirals are on the wing - possibly newly emerged locally rather than recent arrivals from the continent. The painted ladies are likely to be migrants though. Other butterflies included peacock and large white, while some visitors have been able to see green hairstreaks and a hummingbird hawkmoth was found in the dunes - another new arrival.
Painted lady by Ian Barthorpe - a species to look out for in coming weeks
The bramble flowers are also attracting a good variety of bees and flies. Now, I'm not an expert on the many different species, but I was pleased to see and photograph this very distinctive hoverfly that goes by the name of Volucella pellucens.
Volucella pellucens on bramble
Of course, with all these insects around it's not a surprise that insect-eating birds featured high on today's sightings list. Hobbies continue to perform spectacularly well at Bittern Hide (and elsewhere over the reedbed), but the star for those lucky enough to see it was a BEE-EATER. This stunningly beautiful visitor was unusually obliging (they usually just pass quickly through). First spotted over the sluice it was relocated perched in dead trees north of the North Wall late morning. Although distant, a large crowd of staff, volunteers and visitors soon gathered to see what was, for many, their first bee-eater. It stayed in the area for about half an hour before flying low over the visitor centre and car park, then returning south over the visitor centre a little while later. Will it be seen again?
Bee-eater by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com). This bird was photographed in County Durham in 2002 when a pair nested - the only one I had previously seen in the UK.
Elsewhere, highlights from the last few days include an Arctic tern among the 130 pairs of common terns on the Scrape, up to four Mediterranean and six little gulls, two spotted redshanks, eight knot and a curlew sandpiper on the Scrape, at least one little ringed plover, and about avocet chicks. Bitterns, bearded and marsh harriers remain in the reedbeds, and flocks of tits and finches in the woods.
Oh, and Spineless Si is still fanning is nest at Island Mere, where you can now also see lots of stickleback fry from the various nests below the boardwalk!
After another wonderful three weeks of Springwatch, I thought I'd look back at some of the wildlife stories from this year's series.
Where else can I really start than with the biggest star of this year's series: Spineless Simon. At just 5 cm length he's certainly not the biggest species at Minsmere, but our sticklebacks first came to prominence with our volunteer guides last year, and the TV cameras have certainly helped raised the species' profile this year.
Although the live footage has now ended (indeed much of the equipment from the BBC Village has already left), the BBC cameras are still filming Si, and having just strolled down to Island Mere I can confirm that Si is still busy fanning his nest, even though the first fry were seen on Thursday evening. We'll try to keep you posted with Si's progress, but don't forget that you can also watch sticklebacks in the ditch close to the Wildlife Lookout.
We'll keep an eye on the great tits in the traffic cone too, as they are close to our office and easy to check. However, now that the cameras have gone it will be difficult to keep track of the greenfinch nest without disturbing them. We hope we can bring updates from the barn owls, but it's not easy to check the nest without the cameras.
Another species featured regularly on the live cameras was the water vole. Although the cameras were not visible from the public parts of the reserve, we are lucky enough to see a regular water vole at the pond below the sand martin bank. And today this water vole has been incredibly showy, feeding on sedges and a discarded apple right below the boardwalk.
Water vole by Ian Barthorpe
Among the other species featured this year, it's great to see that nine long-tailed tits fledged successfully, and I keep coming across vocal family parties on the reserve, so I think they are doing well. Likewise, we regularly hear Cetti's warblers, though they will start to quieten down for the summer moult soon.
Perhaps the best news is from the avocets, which look set for their best breeding season in more than 20 years. At least 60 pairs have already produced more than 40 chicks, with many now well on the way to fledging. A pair of oystercatchers have two chicks on West Scrape, but the redshank and shoveler chicks have remained in deep cover around North Hide. Also on the Scrape now have 133 common tern nests, while both black and Arctic terns have been reported passing through this week. At least six little gulls and a pair of Mediterranean gulls add some interest too.
The first southbound spotted redshanks are beginning to appear on the Scrape, while the knot, sanderling, dunlins and turnstones seen this week are probably still heading north. Up to 155 black-tailed godwits are presumably non breeding birds. The biggest surprise on the Scrape today was a black swan. This is an Australian species, but is widely kept in captivity and there are several free-flying birds in the UK, so they do sometimes appear at Minsmere. It arrived just too late for its moment of TV stardom though.
The return of cooler, damper weather today has kept the hobbies, dragonflies and butterflies out of sight after several good displays in recent days, but bearded tits have been quite prominent at Island Mere despite the wind. Sightings of adders are becoming less frequent, but the Suffolk Amphibian and Reptile Group are continuing to track them using the BBC radio transmitters, so we're finding out lots about the movements of these snakes and will keep you posted.
Finally, during the beautiful sunshine on Thursday I took a few reflection photos that seem to fit nicely with the theme of this post.
Reflections by Ian Barthorpe
Spineless Simon might be stealing the limelight for BBC Springwatch viewers, but although he continues to attract a crowd of admirers at Island Mere, the highlight for many visitors over the last couple of days has been the hobbies at Bittern Hide. These super-sleek highspeed falcons have been dashing low over the reeds just a few metres from the hide as they pursue hapless damselflies and dragonflies. If you watch them carefully you can even watch them dismember their insect prey, plucking off the wings with their bill before swallowing the insect - all with barely a missed wingbeat. There were regular "oohs" and "aahs" from the assembled masses in the hide throughout the day.
Hobby by Oscar Dewhurst
The other star birds are bitterns, bearded tits and avocets. Female bitterns are feeding young so can often be seen flying some distance above the reeds to favoured feeding pools, then returning to their hungry chicks. We've found eight nests so far, but there may still be more eggs waiting to hatch. Bearded tits continue to be seen feeding close to the North Wall, though with the wind over the last few days they haven't perched out in the open very often. Many of the 40 or so avocet chicks that have hatched so far are already approaching fullgrown, and acquiring the hint of adult plumage.
Despite the Springwatch cameras remaining on site until tomorrow, yesterday saw the first autumn migrant of the year: a gorgeous summer plumage spotted redshank, returning south already. One or two Sandwich terns are beginning to pass through too, suggesting that they have failed to nest successfully elsewhere, while we have more than 100 pairs of common terns on the Scrape.
Otters and adders continue to be reported every day, by a lucky few, though the latter are becoming much less predictable. Several Norfolk hawker dragonflies are now on the wing, and are often best seen along woodland rides in this windy weather. There is also a great variety of flowers to look for, including southern marsh orchids, yellow flag and ragged Robin int he wetlands, yellow-horned poppy and sea kale on the dunes and a variety of speedwells on the grasslands.
This superb variety of wildlife will, of course, continue to be visible long after the camera s leave, so if you've enjoyed watching Minsmere on TV again over the last three weeks, now's the time to plan your next (or first) visit to the reserve.
Another week of Springwatch is over, with more amazing wildlife stories and footage to remind us all what an amazing place Minsmere is, and how much wildlife is out around the country, often unseen by even most observant wildlife enthusiasts.
From the incredible journeys of tiny red-necked phalaropes from Shetland to the Pacific Coast of South America (possibly via Minsmere after our recent sightings), to the sci-fi like moult of crabs into bigger shells, nature has once again inspired with it's stories.
And Minsmere's wildlife has not disappointed either. Our sticklebacks continue to attract a crowd on the Island Mere boardwalk, with some visitors trying to get a selfie with Spineless Si and Frisky Phil. There are also some sticklebacks in the ditch between Wildlife Lookout and South Belt Crossroads.
Of course, sticklebacks are food for bitterns, and the stars of last year's serious are making sure they don't miss out on the action this year. We've already found six bittern nests, so with females busy finding food for their chicks they are regularly seen flying over the reserve - or even feeding close to some of the hides. One female likes to feed near North Hide, from where the shoveler chicks recently hatched and left the nest.
There are chicks galore on the reserve at the moment. It looks likely to be a good year for breeding avocets, with many of their chicks already well grown and acquiring the beginnings of their adult plumage. Broods of shelducks and mallards can be seen on the Scrape too, as well as our three resident feral goose species: greylag, Canada and barnacle. There are black-headed gull chicks in some nests, lots of common terns nesting, and also nesting oystercatchers, lapwings and redshanks on the Scrape.
Spring wader migration is tailing off now, but both curlew sandpiper and knot have been seen on the Scrape today along with a few dunlins, while odd greenshanks were seen earlier in the week. It seems hard to believe, but the first southbound spotted redshanks could begin to return in the next ten days!
Marsh harriers and hobbies are actively hunting over the reedbed, and the former have well grown chicks in their nests now. young bearded tits remain very visible from the North Wall - though they don't tend to sit in the open and pose and you may only get fleeting glimpses. Reed and sedge warblers are busily feeding chicks too. Mute swans and great crested grebes have young at Island Mere too.
Mute swan with cygnets by Oscar Dewhurst
In the woods, broods of blue, great and long-tailed tits are appearing and the first great spotted woodpeckers are beginning to fledge. Good numbers of butterflies and dragonflies can be seen in sunny, sheltered woodland edges and paths too, including Norfolk hawker, four-spotted chaser and azure damselflies, peacock and orange tip butterflies. A few painted ladies arrived along the dunes today.
There are mammals too, with regular sightings of stoat, rabbit, muntjac, red deer and grey squirrel, otters at Island Mere and water voles at the pond.
The reserve is awash with colour too, with southern marsh orchids blooming alongside yellow flag irises and ragged robin in the wetlands, sheep's sorrel and thyme-leaved speedwell on the grasslands, and biting stonecrop and hounds-tongue around the car park.
Southern marsh orchid by Ian Barthorpe
We've also seen a few more unusual visitors this week, including two red kites today, a ringtail hen harrier yesterday, and six spoonbills yesterday - plus the long-staying great white egret.
Why not come along and see the wildlife for yourself and let it inspire you further.
Just like waiting for a London bus, birdwatching often sees a cluster of exciting birds arriving in quick succession, after a long period of more routine species. So it has been at Minsmere this month. Following hot on the heals of the bluethroat and long-staying red-necked phalarope, we've had several more scarce visitors this week.
Our site manager heard a bee-eater flying over the Sluice early on Wednesday morning, but it wasn't seen or heard again. Bee-eaters are annual spring visitors, but rarely hang around, though one was seen while BBC Springwatch was here last year too. Thursday saw sightings of both red kite and osprey over Island Mere - the latter filmed by the live Island Mere camera. Then on Thursday evening one of our volunteers spotted a superb adult long-tailed skua flying north offshore. This is a very rare bird at Minsmere in the spring (though odd young birds are seen in late summer), leaving several of the staff rather envious.
Then this morning came news of another red-necked phalarope on East Scrape. Arriving just a couple of days after the last one left, this is definitely a different bird. It is much brighter than the last one, which was a male. This is a female, and she has been performing superbly to the massed crowds at East Hide all day. As these beautiful, yet tiny, wading birds are not annual visitors at Minsmere, to see two in quick succession is a real bonus.
A red-necked phalarope by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com) - not the Minsmere birds
The phalaropes are not the only wading birds pausing to refuel at Minsmere this week as we've had sightings of ruff, dunlins, turnstones and a greenshank - all in summer plumage - as well about 80 black-tailed godwits on the Scrape. Although these will all be northbound birds, we'll be seeing the first southbound wading birds within the three weeks. Isn't migration amazing?
Other birds on the Scrape include several kittiwakes, four little gulls, a couple of Mediterranean gulls and about 40 avocet chicks with their parents. There's also redshanks, lapwings and oystercatchers with nests or chicks, and good numbers of nesting common terns.
Bearded tits and bitterns continue to draw in the crowds, especially at Island Mere and along the North Wall, while marsh harriers and hobbies can be seen hunting over the reedbed. Flocks of swifts, swallows and sand martins chase insects over the reeds too.
Talking of insects, the first Norfolk hawker dragonfly was reported today, along with good numbers of broad-bodied and four-spotted chasers, a few hairy dragonflies and black-tailed skimmers, and a variety of damselfly species: large red, blue-tailed, common blue, azure and variable. One or common blue butterflies are on the wing too, as are green hairstreaks, orange tips, small coppers, brown arguses and peacocks. Several lovely black-and-red cinnabar moths are flying by day too.
And, of course, we can't forget the sticklebacks. Stars of the small screen, these tiny fish continue to attract the crowds as they fan their nests below the Island Mere boardwalk. While you're watching them, don't forget to look for the yellow flag irises and the newly flowering southern marsh orchids alongside the path.
Yellow flag by Ian Barthorpe
What else will we find this week, and what will the Springwatch cameras film.
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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