There has been a definite change in the seasons this week. Out has gone autumn, replaced by winter. At least as far as the wildlife sightings are concerned, anyway. Yesterday saw the first frost of the winter, accompanied by amazing crystal clear blue skies. Today has been rather duller, even if the forecast rain did hold off. The nights definitely feel like they are drawing in on such dull days.
Although there is still some autumn colour to the vegetation, with many leaves yet to fall, there is also a lovely deep carpet of leaves to kick your way through in South Belt. There are a few autumn fungi around, but most of our insects have finally headed into hibernation, migrated south or died until the next generation are born next spring or summer. You may be lucky enough to spot a lingering red admiral on a sunny day.
The birdlife, too, has a much more wintry feel to it, with the last of the swallows having finally departed (though this time last year we had a surprise visit from a North American cliff swallow), and birdsong reduced to the usual winter songsters: robins, wrens and Cetti's warblers.
Robin by Pete Etheridge
Instead, two groups of birds are likely to dominate these blogs over the next three or four months: wildfowl and woodland birds. The former are represented by large flocks of wigeons, gadwalls, teals, mallards, shovelers and shleducks on the Scrape, joined at dusk by several hundred barnacle geese. We're hoping to welcome the first Bewick's swans of the winter soon, too. The latter include roaming flocks of tits, goldcrests, finches and thrushes, plus the odd green and great spotted woodpecker, nuthatch or treecreeper. There was even a report of a lesser spotted woodpecker last week, which would be the first at Minsmere for several years!
There are a few species of wader to look for among the ducks too, with numbers of lapwings increasing, several snipe and curlews present, up to 50 black-tailed godwits, and a handful of lingering avocets. You may spot the odd dunlin, knot or turnstone, and a late little stint was seen again yesterday. A spotted redshank was a surprise sighting on East Scrape today, too. Gulls may be more for the "larophiles" (=gull-lovers), but if that's you then it's worth looking out for Caspian or yellow-legged gulls among the herring and great black-backed gulls on the Scrape.
An easier species for most visitors to identify is the featured bird this week from our ongoing 70 species to spot challenge: the little egret. This small white heron adds a touch of exotic glamour to a winter visit to Minsmere, and should be easy to find on West Scrape. This is often the most easily seen heron in many parts of eastern and southern England these days, but it's worth remembering that they have only been breeding in the UK for a little over 20 years. It's also a bird that has an important role to play in the RSPB's history, as our organisation was founded by ladies campaigning against the use of feathers in the hat trade. Little egret and great crested grebes had been particularly badly affected by this trade, so it's great to see them doing so well nowadays.
Little egret by Jon Evans
You may have check any white herons that you see carefully though as up to two great white egrets (or great egrets as they are often known these days) have been seen this week too, often commuting around the reedbed pools or moving a few miles north to Dingle Marshes. I remember seeing my first one in the UK soon after I started working at Minsmere in 2003, but they are now regular visitors at Minsmere and breeding in small numbers in Somerset.
Another bird that reminds of warmer climates is the Dartford warbler, and one has taken up residence in the dunes, alongside several stonechats. This is presumably one of the local breeding birds from Westleton and Dunwich Heaths, where it's possible to see these lovely little birds at any time of year. A more wintry sighting in the dunes has been a small flcok of four snow buntings, though only one could be found today.
Don't forget to visit Island Mere during any trip to Minsmere in winter too. As well as a good opportunity to see bitterns and otters, this is the best place to look for otters and bearded tits, and the flock of cormorants has peaked at an impressive 300 birds this week.