Regular visitors to Minsmere, or readers of these blogs, will know that our wardens are helped in their management of our important habitats by various four-legged creatures. The most popular of these are our konik Polski (AKA Polish ponies), which can currently be seen grazing on the Konik Field. Where the ponies are, you can often find several wagtails and pipits feeding around their hooves, searching for flies that have been disturbed by the ponies. Most of these will be pied wagtails and meadow pipits, but it's worth checking carefully as we've also seen yellow, grey and white wagtails this week - the latter are the continental race of our familiar pied.
As well as the ponies, we use a variety of cattle. You can often see three Highland cows feeding alongside the koniks, either on the Konik Field or the Scrape, although they have recently been moved to RSPB North Warren. Throughout the summer we have cows from a local farmer grazing out on the South Levels, helping to keep the grass shorter ready for the arrival of large flocks of winter wildfowl. It's among these cows that our latest unusual visitors have arrived: cattle egrets.
Three cattle egrets were spotted there yesterday, though they could only be viewed at a distance from the dunes around Lucky Pool. When on the ground they were often hidden in the grass, but luckily they do fly up regularly, and have even been spotted sitting on the cows, in typical cattle egret pose. At least one remains today.
A cattle egret in typical company - this one was taken nearby a few years ago as our birds were even more distant yesterday
Until recently, cattle egrets were very rare visitors to the UK, but as populations have increased in southern Europe and their range has expanded northwards, assisted by warmer winters, they have become more frequent visitors to our shores and have even bred in a few places. There are, however, still very few records from Minsmere, so it is worth waiting patiently for one to show itself.
The cattle egrets have certainly not been the only notable birds seen this week. There have been two or three sightings of ospreys, including one fishing successfully at Island Mere, but they have not hung around here as they have elsewhere in Suffolk. It's been a bit easier to see marsh harriers, buzzards, sparrowhawks, kestrels and hobbies, and there has also been the odd peregrine sighting.
Pied flycatchers have been popular, with up to four seen in North Bushes as well as sightings in the dunes and Sluice Bushes, although the most recent sighting was on Sunday. A spotted flycatcher was seen a couple of times last week too. The North Bushes and Sluice Bushes have also attracted various warblers that are refuelling on their migration. These include common and lesser whitethroats, blackcaps, chiffchaffs, willow, garden and reed warblers. We're also starting to hear Cetti's warblers singing again after their summer moult.
Several whinchats and wheatears have been found in the dunes this week, often feeding alongside the more regular stonechats, linnets and Dartford warblers. There are several wasp spiders in the dunes too - please ask at reception for tips on where to find them. Most of the sand martins have now left, but swallows remain around the sluice and a late swift flew over the dunes this morning.
Whinchat by Jon Evans
Late August and early September also sees the arrival of the first juvenile wading birds of the autumn, following on a few weeks after the adults. Although few of each species have been seen this week, there has been good variety on the Scrape, including green, common and curlew sandpipers, sanderlings, knots, dunlins, ruffs, greenshanks, spotted redshanks, ringed and little ringed plovers and turnstones. About 35 avocets remain and numbers of snipe are slowly increasing.
Sanderling by Jon Evans - a wader that is often easier to see on the beach than the Scrape
The first wigeons have begun to return to the Scrape, joining increasing numbers of gadwalls, teals, mallards and shovelers. Many of the ducks can also be seen on Island Mere, where a few little and great crested grebes, coots and tufted ducks are also present.
Bitterns are seen by at least a couple of people every day, and water rails are becoming more regular, feeding on the muddy margins of the reedbed, both on the Scrape and at Bittern Hide. Bearded tits are probably best seen around the Konik Field, Wildlife Lookout and Island Mere at the moment, with small groups of youngsters being most regular. There have also been several sightings of otters around the reserve, including individuals crossing the path near Wildlife Lookout and on the North Wall, as well as the more location of Island Mere.
Juvenile bearded tit by Jon Evans
Finally, as summer fades slowly into autumn, numbers of many of our insects begin to tail off, but there is still a good variety of bees and wasps on Digger Alley as well as butterflies, dragonflies and crickets around the reserve, while our wardens caught yet another new moth for the reserve list this morning: a Dewick's plusia.
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